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The Good War

Chapter Text

June 1987


Ellie took the sheet of paper from the teacher lady with a hint of unease, but broke out into a smile as soon as she saw the text on it. They hadn't a thing like this last year, as far as she could tell it was something Ms Derby had decided to do on her own, a summary of how they'd been doing in everything all in one place. She'd been more than a little worried when they'd been told about it a couple weeks ago, but she really needn't have been.

She'd gotten perfect marks in everything. All the comments Ms Derby had written were even nice. It was sort of hard, reading them — talking about how she caught everything in their reading, how clever she was at taking the stuff they were taught and using it in other places (which, that didn't seem special to her, but okay), that sort of thing — to remember that these were about her, that she was this super smart person being described.

Well, not all of them were perfect. Ms Derby said she had trouble getting on with the other kids, sometimes, that she was quiet, and awkward, and she wasn't certain if Ellie had any friends in the class. (She didn't, she didn't know how to do that.) But even that wasn't... She meant, Ms Derby didn't say it in a mean way, just they should probably work on that, but it wasn't bad, Ellie wasn't...wrong, for that, it was what it was.

Reading over the whole thing again, the warm, pleased look Ms Derby was giving her, Ellie's smile just got wider, and she almost thought she might laugh, feeling all too light and bubbly and...

She wasn't a worthless freak.

(They were wrong. She didn't let herself put it quite in those words, even in her own head, but even if she didn't think it directly, she still felt it — she wasn't worthless, she was good at things, they were wrong.)

She practically skipped the whole way home. Even Dudley and his friends being jerks couldn't distract her, the bright bubbling in her chest carried her too high, they couldn't touch her.

(They were wrong.)

Later that night, while Ellie was partway through washing the dishes, she glanced over toward the fridge, where Aunt Petunia had pinned Dudley's report. She strained over closer, so she could read — she nearly tipped right off the stool, had to lean awkwardly to stay balanced, her soapy hands dripping over the sink. Aunt Petunia had ranted with the usual praise she had for her precious Duddydums, but... Well, Ms Derby hadn't said anything mean, she was too nice to straight out call Dudley a fat stupid bully, but that was definitely what she meant. She was just being subtle and...well, nice-teacher-lady-like about it.

Ellie had that one part, talking about how she didn't have any friends, that was indirect and not flattering. Dudley's whole report read like that.

She was better than Dudley. It was a somewhat new thought — such a thing wouldn't have been possible to think before, with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon always saying the exact opposite, but it had been pretty obvious once they'd started school. She'd never let herself say so out loud, because...well, she was just a worthless freak, how could she know? She was probably wrong. And she'd just be punished for saying so, for making up lies. (Aunt Petunia didn't approve of telling lies.)

But now she had proof.

She didn't know exactly what she thought she would be accomplishing, doing it. It couldn't possibly change anything, but...what if it did? What if, if they saw proof that she wasn't a worthless freak, what if Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon stopped...

Once she was done with the dishes, Ellie retrieved her report. She was too short, so she moved her stool in front of the fridge, reached up and, carefully, pinned her report next to Dudley's. Proof.

She smiled.


Ellie sat up, turned the latch. But it wouldn't open, it was still locked. Scowling at the cupboard door for a second, Ellie flopped back onto her bed, glared moodily up at the zig-zagging underside of the stairs.

In retrospect, pinning her report onto the fridge next to Dudley's had been an awful, awful idea. When Uncle Vernon had noticed it, later that night, he'd stomped over to her, there'd been a lot of shouting, demanding...something or other — she honestly hadn't understood much of what he'd said, too weird and fast and angry — and then he'd been pulling her by her hair, hard, and she'd been in the cupboard, the door slammed behind her, told she'd be staying in here, so help him god, until they found out what to do with her.

The next day, Ellie was out of the house most of the afternoon, helping Aunt Petunia weed the garden. When she came back in, her cupboard was different. Uncle Vernon had fixed a bolt onto the outside, and he'd gone through her things — her books were gone, and her crayons. She'd been told, very sternly, Uncle Vernon's face and voice hard and heavy, that if she didn't do her chores, if she misbehaved, if she told lies, if she did anything bad, she would be put in her cupboard, and she wouldn't be let out.

When she'd said that wasn't fair, she hadn't done anything, she was immediately locked in the cupboard. She still wasn't certain what she'd done to deserve that.

(She hadn't done anything, she was. She was a worthless freak, and worthless freaks belonged in cupboards.)

That was a couple weeks ago now, and Uncle Vernon showed no sign of changing his mind about the lock. If she even slightly burned something on accident, if she dripped a little too much washing the dishes, if she was a little slow finishing something, if she said the wrong thing, sometimes for seemingly no reason at all, into the cupboard she went. A couple times Dudley had even trapped her in here, though Aunt Petunia let her out as soon as she noticed — she couldn't well do her chores if she was locked up, after all.

It wasn't that bad. Sometimes getting to the cupboard was unpleasant, pulling on her hair, or yanking her arm hard enough it felt like it would come off. When Dudley shoved her in here, he'd usually hit her on the way, or push so hard she slammed into the far wall. But once she was in here, it...

Honestly, it was just kind of boring. Usually, when she was in her cupboard, she'd read one of the books she'd picked up at some point (books Dudley had let her have, or thrown away, or lost, or forgotten about), or she'd colour. There wasn't a light in here, but with the door open there was more than enough to see by. With the door closed, she'd probably still be fine — enough light got through the slatted vent she'd probably still be able to read at least, just sit with her back to the door, letting strips of light reveal the text line by line.

But Uncle Vernon had taken all of those. He'd thrown the books away — which was silly, since they had been Dudley's, originally, he'd bought most of them for him in the first place. Her crayons and pencils had been thrown away too, the drawings had been burned, which just seemed sort of...unnecessary. He'd made her watch, too, parked her on the sofa as he fed them into the fireplace one by one, leering at her as each caught.

She was pretty sure that was supposed to hurt, but honestly she'd mostly just been confused. She hadn't known why this was happening, still didn't, she just...

She didn't understand what had happened. It'd been a couple weeks now, since everything had changed, and she was still confused.

Today was Dudley's birthday, and Ellie had been locked in the cupboard overnight. So she wouldn't go poking about Dudley's presents, she was told — which was just silly, it wasn't like she'd ever done that before, but fine. It'd been a little early when she'd been put in here, and there was nothing to do, the only thing in here now were her clothes, so she'd fallen asleep before too long. Which meant she'd woken up early, earlier than anyone else, must have been nearly an hour ago now, though it was impossible to tell. And there was nothing to do, and it was dark, and quiet, and she was bored...

She kept checking the door, which was silly, because she'd be able to hear the bolt sliding open. But she was so bored, she was getting impatient, she kept checking anyway.

Also, she had to pee.

Finally, after what felt like forever, footsteps came up to the door. The lock was shoved aside harder than it needed to be, slamming in its housing with a loud clack, the door swung open a second later. Ellie was dazzled by the sudden brightness for a moment, recognised the thin shadow in front of her as Aunt Petunia before her eyes had even adjusted. "Good, you're up. You'll be helping me with breakfast."

By helping she meant doing most of it — Ellie couldn't do all of the cooking by herself yet, but she figured it wouldn't be very long, Aunt Petunia had been putting more and more of it on her as the months went on. Which, she didn't actually mind that so much, making things was sort of fun.

Even if she was pretty sure she always had to do the bacon just so the grease would peck at her hands and not Aunt Petunia's. Still.

"Um, I kinda hafta..."

"For God's sake, girl," Aunt Petunia snapped, "don't mumble."

Ellie pouted up at her for a second. "I have to use the toilet first."

"Well, get going, then! I haven't all morning!"

Because Ellie was the one holding things up. It wasn't like she'd already been up for ages already or anything...

Making breakfast was little different than any other time she'd done it. Perched in front of the stove on her stool, she fried her way through a pack of bacon, carefully four strips at a time, Aunt Petunia occasionally telling her to hurry it up, or to pay attention before she ruined anything. Which was silly, she'd done this so many times by now, she knew what she was doing. She did nearly screw up one strip, twitching halfway through flipping it when a dab of grease dropping set off a splatter up at her hand, but she caught it before anything was permanently ruined. She was used to getting hit with little drops of hot grease, nothing new.

Aunt Petunia talked through the entire process of making pancakes, ordering her to pay attention, she'd be trying it next time. Which...seemed like a bad idea. Aunt Petunia was bigger and stronger than her, Ellie wasn't sure she could mix the batter well enough, or even flip the things, she'd probably mess them up. At least she wasn't being asked to do it this time, ruining breakfast on Dudley's birthday would be worse than just some random morning, but this was just asking for trouble.

Not for the first time, Ellie wondered if sometimes Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon set things up so she couldn't do them properly on purpose, just to have an excuse to punish her.

Eventually they were done. Breakfast was eaten first — Ellie was allowed one little pancake, and no bacon, as usual. She wasn't sure if she'd ever had bacon before. (She didn't even know what syrup tasted like, she never got to have any.) And then she had to sit through Dudley opening his...eighteen presents? No, nineteen, one of the smaller ones had tumbled under his chair and he'd missed it.

Some of them were books, Ellie had to hold in a laugh at that — they kept buying books for him, but he never read them, she was the only one who ever did. She couldn't bring them into her cupboard this time, though, Uncle Vernon would just take them again, she'd have to find long enough to linger in Dudley's second bedroom to get through them now...or just nick them and read them at school, she guessed, but it would probably end badly if she was caught taking Dudley's things out of the house.

(She could just ask him to borrow them, she guessed, that was how she'd ended up with the books she'd been keeping in her cupboard in the first place. But Dudley had been growing slowly more mean with time, she wasn't sure he'd agree anymore.)

Once that was done, she was washing dishes again — they always made her wait until after presents, their faces when they told her said they were making a point of some kind, but she had no idea what it was — and Aunt Petunia and Dudley were talking about going out to do something for his birthday. More specifically, which of his little friends had agreed to come along to some park somewhere (she didn't recognise the name), and what they wanted to bring with, blah blah.

By the time Ellie was done with the dishes, Aunt Petunia was just finishing packing up, they were all starting to gather by the front door. Ellie paused for a second by her cupboard, wondering if she wanted to change before going out. If they were going to a park or something, she'd probably end up climbing trees — they were a good place to keep away from Dudley and his mean friends, and it was fun, she liked being up high — and climbing trees in a dress was just sort of awkward, shorts would be better. But they looked almost ready, they'd be annoyed if they had to wait for her...

"Get in there, then."

Ellie jumped — she hadn't noticed Uncle Vernon walk over, which was sort of funny, with how big he was. She blinked up at him for a few seconds before she realised what the glaring and the pointing meant. "Are you going to lock me in?"

Back by the door, Aunt Petunia's pointy face pinched into a glare — she never did like it when Ellie asked questions, even innocent ones. Uncle Vernon almost seemed amused, let out a huff. "Of course I am, can't well let you have run of the house while we're away, can I?"

Ellie almost asked what Uncle Vernon was worried she would do, but stopped herself. That wasn't an innocent question, she'd probably be yelled at for that one. (Even though all she'd actually do is read one of Dudley's new books the whole time.) "But there's nothing to do in there. And what if I have to use the toilet?"

"We won't be gone that long. You'll just have to wait."

...Apparently, Dudley's stupidity ran in the family, because that was a terrible answer. "I don't—"

"Don't argue, girl, just do it."

"But—"

Uncle Vernon moved faster than Ellie could react, one big red hand coming up and whipping across—

The hit came across her right cheek, Ellie's head turning with it, she stumbled a bit, shoulder coming against the wall. He hadn't hit her that hard — Dudley hit her harder than that all the time — but she hadn't seen it coming, she'd lost balance for a second there more from surprise than anything. Though it did sting, heat suddenly springing up a couple seconds after the slap had landed, her own hand came up over her cheek, not really meaning to, just touching it, poking at it, as though some part of her needed to make sure that had really just happened. She looked up at Uncle Vernon, her mouth open, eyes wide, and just stared.

He'd yanked her around, of course, plenty of times, but...he'd never actually hit her before...

Her chest growing tight and hot, her eyes stinging, one hand still covering her cheek, Ellie slunk into her cupboard. The door slammed and locked once she was inside, and she sat on her bed, knees hugged to her chest, and she listened to her family leave.

Luckily, she held in the crying until after they were already gone. Uncle Vernon never did like it when she cried.

He'd never actually hit her before.

She didn't know what was happening. Things had never been exactly easy, but everything was getting worse, and she didn't know why, she didn't know what to do.

Her cupboard had never felt so small.


October 1987


"She cheated off me!"

"I did not!"

"She did too, she always cheats, that's why she does better!"

"That makes no sense! If I cheated off you, I'd get the same score as you, not a better one!"

Dudley's mouth opened to yell back, then he froze, his piggy little eyes narrowing with a frown. Apparently, he hadn't thought of that. Bloody idiot. "She switched our papers!"

"I did not!"

Aunt Petunia took that moment to butt in, glaring at her from over Dudley's shoulder. "What did I say about telling lies in this house?"

"He's the one lying! Look at the handwriting!" she said, pointing at their most recent maths test, sitting side-by-side on the table. Ellie couldn't say her handwriting was better than Dudley's — since Uncle Vernon had taken away her pencils months ago now, she hadn't gotten much time to practise — but it was undeniably different. And their names matched their answers, she couldn't have switched their papers, especially since Mr Castor had collected them straight off their desks, that made no sense.

Despite the obviousness of what was happening here, the argument kept going, Dudley whining and crying, Aunt Petunia screeching, Ellie really just kept saying the same thing over and over, because she didn't know what else to do, it was stupid, this whole thing was stupid...

The whole time, Uncle Vernon just sat there, quietly glaring, which was...unnerving. Dudley had waited until Uncle Vernon had gotten home to accuse her, probably on the assumption that his punishment would be worse than Aunt Petunia's (it usually was). But he hadn't done anything, had hardly said anything, just kept staring at their tests, just...

Ellie couldn't help feeling a little scared, her voice gradually turning shaky. Uncle Vernon going quiet was never a good sign.

After far too long having the stupidest argument, Vernon finally spoke. "Dudley, go to your room."

"But Dad—"

"Go!"

Even Dudley wasn't stupid enough to argue with an angry Uncle Vernon — he disappeared a moment later, his heavy foosteps thumping up the stairs and out of hearing.

"Come, girl."

"I didn't do any—"

"Now."

Ellie grimaced, but obeyed. She stood up, followed him into the living room, stood where he pointed, just to the side of the sofa. She tried not to glare up at him, but it wasn't easy. (This whole thing was stupid, she hadn't done anything...)

"Hike up your dress."

She blinked. "What?"

He didn't say anything, just glared at her, beady little eyes dark and sharp, round face hard and unyielding.

Her dinner churning in her stomach — she didn't like this, she didn't know what was happening, he wouldn't stop staring — she scrunched her hands in the fabric of her faded old dress. She pulled more and more up, forming a little ball over each hip, as the hem trailed up her thighs she got uncomfortably warm, shaky, not necessarily on the outside (though her fingers weren't quite obeying her properly), but on the inside too, something she couldn't quite put words to unsteady and afraid. (He was just staring, she had to look away, it was too...) He never said to stop, he hadn't said how high, she stopped only when she couldn't pull it up any more. Any higher and her pants would be showing.

Uncle Vernon grabbed her, his hand covering her whole shoulder, hard and sudden enough she twitched, almost let go of her dress before remembering she shouldn't. He forcefully turned her, then pushed her forward, and quicker than she could even think to resist — not that it would have made a difference, he was so much bigger and stronger than her — she was bent over the armrest, far enough and quick enough her feet left the floor, her face smushed into one of the cushions. She heard a clinking and a shuffling, managed to awkwardly turn her head to look up at him.

He'd taken off his belt, was holding it folded over once. Then he was yanking her dress up, far over her waist, she felt the air suddenly halfway up her back. That hot twitchiness inside got about five times worse — with how she'd fallen across the sofa her hips had ended up over the armrest, she just knew her bum was sticking up, she probably looked ridiculous, and both Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were right there — but she was distracted from her humiliation quickly enough. Because she knew what Uncle Vernon was about to do.

"Wait!" She pushed one arm against the sofa, started turning to sit up, "Stop, Uncle Vernon, I—"

But before she could get up all the way his hand was on her shoulder again, shoving her back down into the sofa cushions. "Shut up, girl. If you stay quiet and learn your lesson I might only have to do this once."

What lesson was she supposed to learn? She hadn't done anything!

There was nothing she could do. He wouldn't listen to her, he was too strong for her to get away. So she pressed her face back into the cushion, grit her teeth and tried to ignore the twisting in her stomach, the hot twitchiness that hadn't gone away, and tried not to cry.

She didn't manage that last one very well.


November 1987


The day of their next maths test came with dread, an intense nausea that just wouldn't go away. She didn't bother trying to eat that morning, or at lunch either, there was no point, she wouldn't be able to keep it down. So she was weaker and slower than usual the whole day, not that anyone really noticed. The minutes and hours seemed to tick by slower than they should, the school day painfully dragging, until they were finally spread out and given the usual warnings and encouragements, papers passed to each of them.

It was the first test they'd had, since that night.

(The reminder had it lingering around her, like a bad smell, inescapable, her face going hot and her fingers twitching, her skin crawling from her knees to her ribs, Uncle Vernon's and Aunt Petunia's eyes like invisible ants, and the whistle and crack of the belt, she could almost hear it, sitting here in this classroom, echoing in her ears, and her back stung, even though it'd healed by now, still sharp and piercing and burning.)

She hadn't done anything wrong. She'd just...

...done better than Dudley.

But she did better than him at everything, at school, he was a bloody idiot!

(She wasn't a worthless freak. She had proof.)

It didn't even matter, not anymore! She'd get worse marks than Dudley overall anyway — Uncle Vernon had taken away her pencils and wouldn't give them back even to do homework, she hadn't been able to do any of it so far this year. (And it was November already.) It shouldn't make a difference, she was already...

It shouldn't make a difference.

It didn't make a difference. It didn't matter, not really.

It didn't matter.

She was worthless anyway. There was no point, it didn't matter.

So she should just...

Ellie brought her pencil up to the first problem, set the point just under the line. She knew the answer already, didn't have to write out the work — maths were easy, always had been, and this was just multiplication, could do it in her head no problem. She knew the right answer.

But it didn't matter.

If it didn't matter what she did, she should just...

Dudley couldn't go crying to Uncle Vernon again if he did better than her.

But she couldn't, she couldn't be wrong on purpose — wasn't she not supposed to lie? That's what this would be, basically...

But she hadn't been lying before either, and that hadn't made a difference.

Her hand was shaking, just slightly, and she felt tears prick at her eyes, her breath hot and sharp in her throat (the belt snapped on the air, her back burned).

Shakily, the numbers uneven and misshapen, Ellie wrote the wrong answer.


March 1988


Once she was sure Dudley and his idiot friends had given up, Ellie carefully lowered herself down, sat on the branch. She leaned back against the trunk—

She winced, jerking forward. Gritting her teeth, she turned sideways, leaned her shoulder against the trunk instead. She pulled her book out from her waistband, flipped it open to the proper page, and settled in to read.

Some of the books Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia (and Aunt Marge, sometimes) bought for Dudley were actually interesting. Not stupid little kid books, but stuff meant for older kids, thick proper chapter books — she could only assume their family greatly overestimated Dudley's reading ability. And his interest in books, for that matter, he never read the things.

She'd realised by now that she could swipe Dudley's books whenever she wanted, he never noticed they were missing. As long as she took only a couple at a time — swapping old out for new whenever she was cleaning his second bedroom — and as long as she made sure to hide them somewhere they wouldn't be noticed — underneath her bed and the bottom of her underwear drawer had worked well so far — nobody would notice, and she wouldn't get in trouble. Even when he'd seen her with one of his books, just now, he didn't put together where she'd gotten it from. It probably didn't even occur to him to notice she even had the thing — it was just a book, after all.

Honestly, Dudley was such a bloody idiot. How were they even related?

(Well, they weren't, technically — Aunt Petunia made a point of mentioning that she and Ellie's mother had both been adopted whenever she had an excuse. Still.)

She hated being locked up in her cupboard for hours at a time, but at least she had something to stave off the boredom now. (Assuming it was daytime, or the hallway light was on.) And she had something to do while hanging out in trees, one of the few places her idiot cousin and his idiot friends couldn't bother her.

They tried, of course, but Dudley was too bloody fat to climb onto the high, thin branches she could reach, and his skinnier friends were too slow, she stomped on their hands until they went away.

(Which had gotten her in trouble, a couple times, but she'd never stomped on Dudley's hands, so it'd never gotten her the belt, so that was fine.)

It was a step up, but it could be hard to focus on her book, sometimes. When Dudley couldn't entertain himself with her, he found someone else. She couldn't see what was happening through the branches all around her, but she could hear it. They'd cornered a couple boys, were taunting them about something — she was too far away to pick out the words, she just got the feeling of it. The boys were yelling, and then there was jeering, and crying, and...

Ellie's fingers tightened around the book, her jaw clenched hard enough her teeth squeaked, her heart pounding in her ears.

There was nothing she could do about that. If she tried... Well, she'd be outnumbered anyway, and she was tiny and weak and useless. They'd just beat on her a bit until she got boring, before moving straight on to other people. She'd only be buying them a few minutes of peace, really. And even if she could stop them...

(The partially-healed welts on her back flared, she could feel Uncle Vernon's eyes on her, like invisible ants crawling across her skin.)

No, there was nothing she could do about that.

It wasn't her problem.

The tightness in her chest, the heat in her throat, they gradually faded away, her heart calming down again.

She was just a worthless freak after all.

It wasn't her problem, whatever Dudley did to those kids.

She didn't care.


October 1988


It was, quite possibly, the stupidest thing Ellie had ever done. Even if she hadn't meant to do any of it.

Dudley and his idiot friends had managed to cut her off from escape among the trees, and she'd done the only thing she could do. She was faster than them, that was true, but she was so weak and useless, she hadn't even gotten lunch today, she wouldn't be able to keep it up very long. She'd been panicking a little bit, maybe — which was silly, she should be used to this sort of thing by now — she'd been trying to think of some way out, and she'd turned the corner of the school and...

...suddenly she was on the bloody roof.

She had no idea how that'd happened, she had no explanation at all. She was...going to be written up for climbing school buildings, but that wasn't it, she'd just...popped, from one place to another, in an instant. She couldn't explain it.

Maybe she was finally losing her mind. She wouldn't be entirely surprised.

She was going to be written up, because, in the end, she hadn't been. One of the teachers — one she didn't know, the one who'd found her — had been yelling at her, saying she was going to be in big trouble, she'd be calling her parents (she hadn't known they were dead at the time), and...

It was just too much, Ellie was too confused and hungry and tired (and scared), and before she'd known what was happening she'd been crying.

(Uncle Vernon always hated it when she cried.)

She'd told the teacher to not tell anyone, please, Ellie didn't want to get locked up in the cupboard again, and it'd only been a couple days since last time she'd gotten the belt, they were terrible when they came too close together, please...

She hadn't meant to. It'd just...come out.

She should have known it would just make everything worse.

Ever since the teacher had let her go — suddenly soft and quiet and...Ellie didn't know, different — she'd just been...waiting. This was going to come back around on her, she knew, and it would be bad. It was one of the first rules, she'd been told it so long ago she didn't remember first learning it, that she didn't tell people what happened at the house when nobody was looking, nobodynothing. It was a big rule, and a scary one, Uncle Vernon had reiterated more recently that it was very important, bad, bad things would happen if she broke it.

Mostly, she hoped the teacher wouldn't tell anyone, but she hadn't quite been able to convince herself she wouldn't. So she waited, tense and scared, for the other shoe to drop.

In other circumstances, she might have been relieved she didn't have to wait very long. Given just how absolutely furious Uncle Vernon was, though, relief was rather far away from her mind at the moment. She didn't think she'd ever seen him this angry before, somehow looking even larger than normal, looming over her, so angry his face had gone almost completely purple, eyes bulging as he screamed at her about...

Honestly, she hadn't heard most of what he'd said. It would be the usual stuff about her being a worthless freak, ungrateful for all they do for her (that's a laugh), they didn't ask to have this freakishness brought into their house, he wouldn't have any of it (any of what?), so help him god, he'd beat it out of her if he had to.

(Beat what out of her?)

Ellie couldn't even look at him, not for more than a second or two at a time. Instead she stared down at her fists clenched in her lap, tried not to think, tried to keep her breaths slow and calm, tried to ignore the tingling across the back of her neck, pretended she couldn't feel her back burning, couldn't hear the snapping, tried not to look at the cushions around her.

Because, before starting in on his shouty lecture, Uncle Vernon had sat her down on the sofa. The sofa.

She wondered if this was supposed to be intimidating, sitting her here. Because it was, she couldn't even look at this sofa anymore without hurting.

She was trying to not think about it, but it was bloody impossible. Especially sitting here, especially with him standing over her all loud and angry, knowing it would happen again, any moment now, there was nothing she could do, she couldn't stop it, and...

She tried to stay calm, she tried not to cry, but she was pretty sure she was doing a shite job of it.

Finally, the yelling cut off, for a few, oppressive seconds he glared down at her, huge and looming and inescapable. "Not like I thought it'd make a difference, you're not even listening."

She couldn't quite hold in a wince — well, she hadn't been, honestly...

"Get up, girl," he snarled, hand already moving to his waist.

Her breath suddenly heavy and hot and thick in her throat, almost too thick to properly breathe, she pushed herself to her feet, knees almost too shaky to properly stand. Each movement clumsy and awkward — his eyes crawling on her like ants, harsh snaps ringing in her ears — she stumbled her way around to the familiar spot, standing just next to the armrest. Her hands above her hips, fingers numb and unsteady, she started pulling her dress up, each inch agonising.

(She'd think it would have gotten easier over these... How long had it been now? Had to be at least a year. But it didn't, it never got easier, never. Knowing exactly what was coming just made it worse.)

And then Uncle Vernon just had to break the routine. This was bad enough without him surprising her. "No. Take it off."

"W-what?" The command had hit her hard, a thump running through all of her all at once, her heart forced into her throat so hard she'd barely managed to get the word out. Her breaths already going thin and hard, her skin hot and crawling, no, he couldn't mean...

But he meant. He glared at her, eyes heavy, voice heavier. "Take off your dress."

For a few seconds, she could only stare back at him. He was completely serious.

She took in a long, thin, shaking breath, eyes dropping away from his, staring at the armrest in front of her, smooth and dark and innocent. (It hurt to look at.) That thing inside, that nameless thing, hot and twitching, had gone hotter and twitchier than it ever had before, enough she thought it might burn her up and shake her apart from the inside out, she was honestly surprised she was still on her feet, but she couldn't, she had to...

Slowly, each motion stiff and jerky, she pulled one arm in through her sleeve, then the other. She looked up at him, but his eyes were too heavy, she had to look away. Forcing down the quivering in her throat as hard as she could — Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried — she pulled her dress up over her head, inch by painful inch, limply let it fall to the floor.

She felt his eyes crawling on her skin like— No, not like ants, like wasps, pinching and stinging and burning, it took everything she had not to run away, that would just make it worse.

She jumped at his hand on her bare shoulder, hot and rough and hard, and he shoved her forward onto the familiar spot on the sofa, at once familiar and alien, the fabric rougher against her chest and face than she knew it to be, scratching at her, and despite the sickening heat in her face and her stomach she felt cold, so cold she was shivering, as much on the inside as the out, weak and shaking and worthless, there was nothing she could do, just wait for it to be over, her breaths high and thin even though he hadn't done anything to her yet—

Snap — loud and sharp, she always heard the hit the instant before she felt it, a thin line of fire cut just above her hip (startling a whimper through clenched teeth, but she held it in as well as she could, whining would only make it go longer), reminded her at first of accidentally touching the rim of a hot pan, but now only of this, quickly settling into a hard, pounding ache she couldn't ignore, it would linger for hours, fading slowly over days...

Snap — this one hit across one from earlier this week, and she couldn't hold in a gasp, so thick and hard she almost choked on it, the heat so much worse on that spot, stabbing into her, she couldn't—

She screwed her eyes shut and grit her teeth, just wait, wait, there would only be five or six, he'd never done more than eight, it'd be over quick enough and she'd be left blessedly alone in her cupboard, just don't think about it, soon enough, wait...

And then Uncle Vernon had to do something unexpected. This was hard enough without him surprising her.

She felt something low on her back, warmer and softer than the belt, though it still kind of hurt just from the hits she'd already gotten, and then there was a yank, and her pants were being pulled down her hips—

And that hot twitchy thing had somehow gotten hotter and twitchier than ever, and she jerked, arms snapping straight to push her up, which was impossible bent over the armrest like she was, and she was yelling some kind of protest, she wasn't sure what, she hardly understood the words herself, her heart so high and thick in her throat it was hard to talk at all—

And Uncle Vernon's hand was back, between her shoulders, shoving her down again, her nose squished against the sofa, and he was growling something, but she didn't understand it, she could hardly hear it, his eyes like wasps crawling over her skin, pinching and stinging and burning, buzzing so loud in her ears she could hardly hear anything, her pants sliding down to hook over her heels somehow louder than anything else, she tried to stop herself from shivering, didn't want them to fall all the way off, and she wasn't cold really but the twitchy thing was too much she could hardly hold it in, her chest filled with steam and crying she couldn't let out, her clenched throat letting out something wordless and odd, the twitchiness shaking it loose, but she grit her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut, tried not to move, not to make a sound, it would be over soon, it would be fine, it had to be over soon—

Snap — Ellie cringed at the line of fire drawn across her bum, another noise shaken out of her throat, but she clamped up, held her breath even, biting down on a finger, tried to stop shivering, Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried—

Snap — an odd, low, breathless sob was wrenched out of her, she bit down harder, try not to think about it, it'd be over soon, just wait...

Snap

Snap

Snap

Snap—

Snap—

There was a pause, longer than usual, but Ellie didn't move, she couldn't get up without permission, he'd just hit her again, so she lay there waiting, trying not to shiver, Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried, her back and her bum and high on her left thigh stinging and burning, the finger still stuck between her teeth nearly as bad but no, Uncle Vernon's eyes were on her skin like wasps, and her breath was high and thin and noisy but she wasn't actually crying, she'd managed that much, somehow, even though her chest and her stomach were tight and twisting and hot and shivering and it was all she could do to just wait, but it was over, he'd tell her to get up soon—

"Get up, girl."

She released her finger, her jaw feeling weird and tight and tense, it was almost hard to do. It took longer to get her hands under her than it should, she felt weak and clumsy and unsteady, propped herself up on her elbows, pushed with her hands and pulled with her knees, her hair falling over her face as she stood up, she went rather light-headed for a second, her knees shaking almost too badly to stand, but she managed it.

And she bent over immediately, it took two tries to grab her pants, her fingers were numb and shaking, like they'd fallen asleep, clumsy and useless. She awkwardly pulled them back up her legs, all too aware of it, the movement feeling strange and bright, which didn't make sense, she'd pulled on underwear more times than she could count, but she was shivering and numb and uncoordinated, the cloth cold and somehow sharp against her skin, and she could feel Uncle Vernon's eyes on her like wasps, and she was all too hot and shaky, she got her pants caught around one of her knees for a second before she got it right—

She bent over again to pick up her dress, but she didn't put it on — she was too shaky and hot and unsteady, she'd probably mess it up, get stuck somehow. Instead she just hugged it to herself, covering the network of jagged switchbacking scars stitched across her chest, waited for Uncle Vernon to send her off to her cupboard.

She couldn't look at him, staring fixedly at the carpet, not that she'd probably be able to see him very well anyway, she could feel the tears in her eyes, and she was barely breathing properly, thin and gasping, just enough to get by, she didn't trust herself to breathe and not cry right now (Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried.), but that was fine, looking at him too directly tended to just make him annoyed again, ungrateful, defiant little freak, he'd beat it out of her somehow, so help him god, but this time she couldn't look at him even if she wanted to, everything seemed too heavy, and she could feel his eyes on her skin like wasps, and she was hot and almost feverish, and too tight, like a spring pushed together, a too-full balloon about to tear itself apart—

She hardly even noticed when she was directed into the cupboard, each step awkward and automatic, the house dragging around her like a dream, and the door was locking behind her, and her cupboard had never seemed so small and so dark, but she was alone, it was over—

Her back and her bum and her thigh were burning, and normally after she'd take off her shirt or her dress or whatever, she was alone anyway, clothes just made it feel worse, but she couldn't, not this time, she would have to be naked, this time, and she could still feel his eyes on her skin like wasps, and the echo of it was still hanging over her, like a bad smell, unavoidable, the snap of the belt still ringing in her ears, her welts pounding like being hit over and over and over, her pants being pulled down her legs, she couldn't, she couldn't, he could feel his eyes like wasps, she couldn't...

So she just lay down on her side, hugging her blanket around her, not caring that it scraped raw against her back, not caring that she was already hot, a few minutes and she was sweating, but she didn't care, once it was tucked firm burying her face in her pillow, one arm around it holding it tight, because she was still shivering and shaking, and her chest and her stomach were hot and tight, but the door to her cupboard was thin, and Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried, and she could still feel his eyes like wasps, and the pillow against her face was wet and uncomfortable, and she wasn't holding it in, not really, her throat not quite obeying her.

(She couldn't remember the last time she'd lost control like this, Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried, but she couldn't stop it, she couldn't, the echo still hanging around her, she couldn't—)

And she shivered and she cried, the echo not leaving her, and she waited for it to be over, prayed for it to be over, just wait, it would be over soon...

It had to be over soon.


June 1989


Ellie was starting to get cold, but she didn't care. It was better than going inside.

Besides, Aunt Marge's bloody dog was still down there.

The thing hadn't shut up this whole time. Ellie had no idea how long ago it was it'd chased her up this bloody tree — the sun was setting, it must have been hours. It wasn't constantly yapping at her, it'd take a break every once in a while, sitting at the base of her tree, staring fixedly up at her, an occasional growl floating up. And then she would move a little, the bark scraping, or a breeze would pass, or maybe she'd just breathe too loud, and the thing would be being all noisy again, barking and barking and barking and barking...

Her head was starting to hurt a little, but that could just be from not getting enough water.

These occasional visits of Aunt Marge's were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon restrained themselves somewhat while she was around — didn't want to make a scene in front of her, Ellie guessed. Denying her a meal here and there, the usual insults and yelling, but they'd never hit her while Aunt Marge was in the house. They tended to let her get away with more too. Like staying up a tree and shirking on her chores for a few hours, that would normally get her in trouble, Aunt Petunia would have showed up screaming for her to get back inside by now. Or maybe they just thought this one was funny, she didn't know. But, if nothing else, a visit from Aunt Marge meant a week she was safe(-ish), even if she did do something bad Uncle Vernon usually forgot by the time she left anyway.

Of course, he had whipped her good the day before she got here, he usually did. It hurt sitting up this bloody tree, but there wasn't a whole lot she could do about that, it hurt sitting pretty much anywhere.

On the other hand, Aunt Marge was a total heinous bitch. For some reason, she seemed to feel the need to throw whatever insults she could at Ellie, about her intelligence — that was a laugh, had she met Dudley? — about her appearance — fair enough — about her parents — also fair enough (Ellie had no reason to believe they weren't useless trash as they'd always said) — and whatever else she could think of, on and on and on. Honestly, she'd heard it all so many times it hardly even bothered her anymore, she had no idea why Aunt Marge made a point of doing it.

And then there were the bloody dogs. Aunt Marge always brought at least one of her dogs with her. Ellie hated the things. The feeling was obviously mutual, she always ended up being growled at or bit or chased or whatever. This wasn't the first time one of them had chased her up a tree, the usual strategy for avoiding people she didn't like. Same thing, really — Aunt Marge's bulldogs and Dudley were equally ugly, equally stupid, and equally useless at climbing trees.

Though, this dog was certainly more persistent than Dudley. He would have gotten bored hours ago, wandered off to find someone else to entertain himself with. Ellie would almost be impressed, if it weren't so bloody annoying.

It was on one of its noisy phases again, barking up at her over and over and over and over, and the longer it went on Ellie just got more and more uncomfortable, the partially-faded welts on her back and arse flaring against the bark of the tree. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block it out, but the bloody thing wouldn't shut up.

"Leave me alone," she hissed down at it. Which didn't do any good, of course, it wasn't like dogs spoke English. The thing just kept barking and barking, it wouldn't bloody shut up, Elile's headache getting worse and worse, the sharp noise seeming to echo in her skull.

Snap.

Ellie cringed, the awkward shuffling dragging her skin against the tree, she winced at the half-dozen hot flares of pain. Squeezing her eyes shut, she bopped her head back against the trunk, tightly wrapping her arms around herself, wishing the bloody dog would shut up, that it would just leave her alone...

But it was already too late. The dog's barking didn't sound like the snap of the belt, not really, but she heard it anyway, over and over, and it was building around her, the ghost of it on the air, and she could feel Uncle Vernon's eyes on her skin like wasps, her stomach hot and churning with fear and humiliation, and the dog wouldn't shut up, it wouldn't—

"Go away." The words came out odd and croaking, thick and harsh and barely English, her throat too tight to quite speak properly. She hurt and she was tired, and she didn't want to think about it anymore, but the dog wouldn't bloody shut up, and she couldn't get away from it, like a bad smell she couldn't ignore, lingering thick around her, but she had to shove it down, she didn't want to dwell on it, she couldn't.

(Uncle Vernon always hated it when she cried.)

The longer the dog kept bloody barking, the thicker the smell got, the more the wasps stung her, she got more and more frustrated, the frothing heat crawling up her throat, more and more angry. It pushed its way up, thick and churning, almost like she was about to be sick, but not, not really, something...less solid than that, yet all the more intense. Not something physical crawling up her throat, but something else, something, something tingly, and bright, and heavy...

Lights sparked behind her shut eyes, random flashes in all colours of the rainbow, her head sizzling, like bacon on the pan, and something thickening in her throat, and everything had gone weirdly tingly. When she spoke again, it wasn't just words that left her mouth, she could feel it, it was something else, static on the air, pins and needles down her spine. And the words were heavy, as though weighed down with something more than sound, something powerful, something that couldn't be ignored.

"Go away."

The barking, miraculously, stopped.

For long moments, nothing happened, only the light breeze playing with her hair and turning the leaves, the low noise of passing cars and laughing children, the colours behind her eyes and the tingles trickling down her neck.

And she heard the dog shuffle away, fading away in the direction of the house.

Ellie had no idea what had just happened. Not really. She'd known she could do things, sometimes, but it was always without thinking, no real explanation. Just, boom, and it was done. But she still felt it — the sharp fire in her chest, the tingling down her spine, the flashing colours behind her eyes — could still taste it heavy on her tongue. She didn't know how she'd done it, but she'd known she'd told Aunt Marge's bloody stupid dog to go away, and it had obeyed. She'd made it go away.

And suddenly, like a prophet receiving a revelation from heaven, she knew exactly what to do.


July 1989


Ellie didn't know what she'd done to set him off. But then, she hardly ever did. She didn't think Uncle Vernon really needed a reason.

He'd set her down on the sofa again, which was probably supposed to be intimidating. (And it was, she could feel the echo of it on the air around her, like a smell she couldn't escape.) He was angry and shouting and purple, and she didn't really hear what he was saying. It hardly ever actually seemed to mean anything — it was in English, of course, but it was always so random, stuff about ungrateful freaks and what did they do to earn being saddled with her and beating it out of her, more or less the same thing every time, no matter what it was she'd supposedly done. It didn't seem connected to anything, and for that always seemed somewhat surreal, more significant for the meaning of the action than the words themselves — the yelling at her, and what would come after.

Because she knew what would come after. She always knew. It was a cloud crossing the sky, a shadow cast over her deep and cold, lines across her back and her bum burning with phantom fire, his eyes crawling across her skin like wasps. But it wasn't the same this time, not quite. The fire wasn't just on the outside, but on the inside, heat crawling up her throat, tight and angry, copper on her tongue and static in her ears. She probably wouldn't be able to understand him even if he were actually saying anything, her head was too full.

It was different, this time. It wouldn't go the same way it always did, not this time. She knew that, even if he didn't yet.

Eventually, she wasn't sure how long — it was always hard to keep track of time, sitting on this couch, one foot in the now and one in the then — he'd fallen into sullen, violent silence, beady eyes glaring down at her. Finally, "Get up."

Ellie took a long breath, in and out, slow. Her chest was almost too tight to get it through properly, thick and tense. But she obeyed. She stood, walked around next to the armrest. It was obvious to her, but she didn't think Uncle Vernon had noticed. Her steps weren't as wooden as they would be, normally — not calm, no, but firmer, resolved.

(It was different this time, she knew it was.)

"Take off your dress." His voice was always heavy with disdain when he said it, like she were nothing, like he were talking to a disgusting slug, certainly not something anything like a person, who might possibly have an opinion about this sort of thing.

Ellie stared down at the armrest. She felt the echo of it thick on the air around her, like a smell she couldn't escape — like oil, like sick, vile and nauseating.

She took a long breath, in and out, slow.

"No."

A beat of silence, heavy and cold. "What did you say?"

Ellie glanced up, meeting his eyes — tiny and dark, set in a face flabby and red, almost comically outsized. "No. I won't."

The fury only got thicker, his face redder, so heavy on his voice it hardly sounded like English at all. "Do it, girl." A growl more than speech, hard and mean and dangerous, and he was so much bigger than her, and he was so angry, and she...

She was scared, of course she was. She had to clench her fists and bite her tongue to keep herself from shaking, she could feel his eyes on her skin like wasps, she could feel it— (Snap— Snap— Snap—) But she didn't let it stop her, no, it was different, it was different this time, she knew she could do this, she could

"No."

Ellie jumped, he moved before she could barely blink, and he was grabbing her wrist, he yanked, she stumbled, and his hand was coming up—

"Stop."

It was her voice, but also something more. Pins and needles down her neck, coppery fizz sizzling on her tongue, the word was heavier than it should be, it hung longer in the air — like an echo, but not coming and going, solid and still and hard.

She'd been waiting for this moment, she'd gotten some practice in. Just on animals, at first — squirrels, cats, dogs, whatever she could find. Once, hiding up a tree from Dudley and his friends, she'd collected a bunch of squirrels and birds, gathering around her and chittering and twittering, she'd felt like she was in a bloody cartoon or something. She'd moved up to people, quickly, though she had to be more careful. Animals, if she messed up, if she lost hold of them, they'd just run away scared, but people might actually do something. And even if it did work...what about after? What about when they were gone, and she couldn't see them anymore, couldn't control them? She'd been too scared to do anything obvious, the first couple weeks, hadn't wanted to risk it.

Of course, now she knew she could simply make them forget. It wasn't difficult. If she tried to make someone do something they really didn't want to, it was harder, but all she had to do was push, and...

It was shockingly easy.

She'd made the neighbour kids leave her alone.

She'd made Mrs Figg forget she was supposed to be looking after her.

She'd made ladies on walks give her candies — she'd only tried the first couple she'd stolen, they were all far too sweet, always made her feel vaguely ill — or even money, and then made them forget.

She'd made Dudley and his idiot friends hit each other, instead of her.

It was easy. She didn't have to say what she wanted — though that made it easier, sometimes, for simple things, to focus. She just had to...reach out to them — rainbow sparks crackling behind her eyes, pins and needles running down her spine — and push...

She hadn't used it on Uncle Vernon yet. She'd even gotten the belt twice now, since she'd done it against that bloody dog, but she'd been too scared, she had to be certain it would work, if it didn't work he—

So she pushed the one word out into the air and into his head — stop stop stop — with everything she had, her neck itching, her head going light and tingly.

And he stopped.

Uncle Vernon had gone still as a statue, one hand still locked like a vise around her wrist, other raised to form a slap that would never come. His eyes had gone wide, the red rapidly paling out of his face, his head feeling tense and shaky against hers.

(He was scared of her.)

Ellie wanted him to let go of her.

He obeyed.

She took a brief moment, sparks flashing behind her eyes, blindly shifting her hold on him, making sure she had a good grip. (And maybe just taking a moment to breathe — it was different this time, it was.) Once she was confident he wasn't getting away, she said, "You'll never hurt me again. I won't let you." They were just words, not heavy words, but he had no choice but to listen, now.

But talking to him like this, commanding him, made him angry, even more angry than he'd been a second ago. His head surged, frothed, twisted, and her grip slipped, and he reached out to—

"Stop."

He obeyed, frozen in place, fingers claws in the air inches from her throat.

Ellie could feel him, still fighting her. He wouldn't be able to get away, not with the colour behind her eyes and the weight of her voice on the air crushing him down, but he was trying anyway. And she couldn't hold him forever — if nothing else, he would have to go to work, and she would have to sleep.

He was still fighting. He didn't understand, yet, that things had changed. Things couldn't stay as they'd been. It didn't matter what he wanted, she wouldn't let him.

He had no choice.

(This what they meant, when they'd called her a freak, said they'd beat it out of her, this is it, this is what they'd meant...)

Ellie thought she had an idea. A way to get the message across.

Things were different, now. He had to learn.

She didn't bother saying it aloud, she didn't have to — Uncle Vernon did what she wanted without it being put in words, the colours sparking behind her eyes pushing him on, her spine tingling with every step. Awkwardly, woodenly, he turned for the stairs, took them one thudding step at a time, slowly up, up, up...

Soon they were standing in Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia's bedroom. Ellie was never allowed in here, not that she really cared — it was as plain and boring as anywhere else in the house, nothing special. Except for one thing, she knew there was one thing. She pushed him on, toward what was waiting there.

A brief moment later, and she had him sit on the bed. Laying across his lap was a rifle, a box of bullets at his side.

Ellie wanted him to load the gun.

He obeyed. Only one, it was rather slow — fumbling with the thing, the metal clicking, his fingers gone slightly shaky. He was trying to fight, making him clumsy, but he couldn't, he couldn't stop her.

She could make him do whatever she wanted.

Once he was done, she had him turn the rifle around in his hands. It was long enough, he could just barely reach the trigger, the end of the barrel stuck in his mouth.

Ellie leaned forward, close to his face. His eyes were wide, wet and blood-shot, he was sweating, he smelled awful. Staring right into his eyes, low and calm, she whispered, "Bang." It was just a normal word, not a heavy word.

But she knew he got the message.

She wanted him to put it away, come back downstairs with her. He obeyed.

She didn't notice until after he'd put the rifle back, turning around to face her again, that he'd pissed himself. For some absurd reason, Ellie had to hold in the urge to laugh.

(The feeling didn't last very long. Her head was starting to hurt, the pins and needles down her neck starting to sting, her throat tight and painful, her eyes burning.)

She pushed him back downstairs, to her cupboard. He filled a box with all her clothes — not that she had a whole lot, it didn't take very long — the books she'd stolen from Dudley, the very little she had in the way of school supplies. Then they went back upstairs.

Uncle Vernon set the box of her things down on the floor in the guest bedroom.

Chewing at her lip, Ellie frowned at the desk, thinking. There was a chair there, a swivel, but...

Jerkily, Uncle Vernon grabbed the back of the chair, pulled it rolling across the carpet into the hall. Ellie followed him along, shooting the door to Dudley's room a wary look. He was in there playing computer, she knew, Aunt Petunia had gone outside — she didn't seem quite comfortable about Ellie's punishments, for some reason, she always left first. She should still have time. It was okay.

Ellie stopped at the door to Dudley's second bedroom. Uncle Vernon walked up to the desk in here, swapped the padded swivel chair for a firmer, wooden one. She had him drag this one back across the hall, bringing it all the way to the middle of the guest room.

"This is my room now."

She didn't want Uncle Vernon to say anything, so he didn't. He just stared down at her, still as a statue — a fat, flushed, sweaty, smelly, terrified statue.

He was scared of her. He'd always been scared of her, from the beginning, she understood that now. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she understood. This is what they'd wanted to beat out of her, they'd known she could do this whatever this was, they were scared...

"Don't try to put me in the cupboard. Don't try to hurt me. I'll stop you, if you try."

Uncle Vernon believed her. She didn't know how she knew, but she did, somehow, she could feel the realisation sinking into his head — things were different, they were different now. It would never happen again.

(She felt the echo of it around her, his eyes on her skin like wasps.)

Ellie wanted him to leave. He obeyed.

She closed the door behind him, turned the lock. Just in case — Uncle Vernon was very big, the door so very thin — Ellie took the chair, propped it against the door, the back braced against the handle.

And she let go.

She felt empty, when the burning and the tingling left, and tired, the room around her going fuzzy and swirly. She stumbled a few steps backward, flopped onto her back on the bed. Her head hurt, like her brain were too big for her skull, crammed in too tight, her mouth tasted like blood. She squeezed her eyes shut, rubbed at her forehead, waiting for the pain to go away. It did, slowly, more slowly than she liked — but that was fine, it was only pain, Ellie knew how to deal with a little bit of that by now.

And she listened, for Uncle Vernon to do something. Yell at her, pound on the door, she didn't know. But...

He didn't.

Because, it'd worked. She knew it'd worked. She'd done it, she'd escaped, he'd learned things were different now. It would never happen again.

Something started crawling up her throat, thick and hot and roiling. And for a short, horrible moment, she was certain she was going to cry. She tried to fight it, but she couldn't, it pushed up harder than she could push down, she...

(Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried.)

But she didn't cry. Instead, she laughed.

She laughed, long and hard, until her throat hurt, until her sides hurt, until she was light and dizzy and fuzzy and tired, she couldn't stop, she just laughed and laughed. Until she fell asleep, spread limp across a big, comfortable bed, warm and tired and sore and safe.

The last thing she thought, before she drifted off, it was over.

It was over.

Chapter Text

July 1991


"Ellie?"

She paused, a bit of toast held suspended halfway to her mouth. Petunia sounded slightly scared, but only slightly, the tone she got when she was trying to not give it away and was making a poor showing of it. The sound of Petunia being scared wasn't an unfamiliar one, by now, but at the moment it was just kind of weird.

Ellie hadn't even done anything, not for over a week.

She glanced up from her plate, finding Petunia across the table — Dudley flinched, cringing away from her attention passing even that close to him. Petunia was standing over the table, the tall, skeletally-thin woman looking slightly absurd in her usual needlessly nice dress — it was almost like she dressed up for breakfast, honestly — topped with an apron that had become a mainstay since Ellie had started refusing to do any of the cooking. (She'd always suspected Petunia made her do the messy things, now she knew for sure.) A moment ago, she'd left to get the mail, and now she was holding out toward Ellie a thick envelope of what looked like heavy parchment. There was a peculiar look on her long, narrow face, warily staring down at the letter, as though it might explode or bite off her hand or something, a steady pulse of low-simmering terror and hatred throwing sparks into the air around her.

Which was...odd. Seemed like a rather overblown reaction to a bloody letter. She hadn't even opened the thing! So, Ellie took it with more than a little curiosity — especially when she noticed there was no return address on the front, nor postage, and there was an extra line specifying which room she was sleeping in.

Ellie realised she had absolutely no right to say this about anything ever, but that was just sort of creepy, wasn't it?

Of course, when she opened the letter she was left with more questions than she'd started with.

"Did you know about this? This Hogwarts thing." She knew the Dursleys had always hated anything abnormal — a hatred that had smoothly transformed into horror once Ellie's mind-control superpowers started being a thing — but by how terrified she'd been just by the envelope...

Petunia bristled, struggling with that old indignation, that old insistance that Ellie not ask questions. For a few seconds, it looked like she would answer, but she bit her tongue in the end.

Not that it mattered, Ellie just read her mind for it anyway.

She'd figured out she could do this a few months after she'd made Vernon stop, though she rarely actually used it. Not because people could do anything about it, no, they hardly ever seemed to notice. Of course, that could just be because that creepy little girl is reading my mind is a hell of a conclusion to jump to, they probably just assumed they were having a nostalgic moment or something, just remembering things wasn't inherently suspicious.

The Dursleys were different, they were wary enough of her they almost always noticed. Not that they could do a bloody thing about it.

Despite how easy it was — like reaching out and plucking at strings, fishing out thoughts and memories, or just passively letting them wash over her, like notes in a song — she hardly ever did, because even the minimal effort just wasn't worth it. Sex, money, sex, gossip, work, sex, money, sex...

Turned out, people were just fucking boring. Given the choice between spending her time reading minds or reading books, she'd stick with books.

But this time, Ellie actually did find something interesting. She was seeing it now, a woman in a stiff, very old-fashioned grey checkered dress, showing up at their door, telling them Lily was special, she'd be going to a school for special people, to learn magic

Petunia had known Lily was magic, how could she not, the way she ran around healing injured animals, or making flowers bloom out of nothing, or jumping off of things from far too high — about gave Grandma a heart attack with that one — or turning that Snape boy's hair pink and refusing to fix it — Petunia had tried to chastise her for that, Mum and Dad had said to keep it secret, but it probably sounded too fake, it was just hilarious — she'd always known Lily was special, and it was honestly pretty cool sometimes, but she'd be going away, and—

Bloody freak, with her runes and her wand and her newt eyes, and Petunia was certain she'd overheard Lily and that Snape boy whispering about blood sacrifices, and there was no way that kind of talk would go anywhere good, but Dad hadn't believed her, no, his precious magic little girl couldn't be up to anything nefarious, oh no—

She'd feared she would be just like her mother, and she was, the letter proved it, but it was worse than that, it was so much worse than that, no matter how strange and disturbing she'd gotten Lily had never actually scared her, she'd never used her magic against her, this girl was a bloody terror, like having a demon squatting in their spare bedroom or something, and how much worse would she be after being properly taught the stuff, Lily's hellspawn would be the death of them all, she just—

Ellie pulled away from her aunt's mind, one of the strings catching a little, snapping back with a metallic twang. That probably felt odd, judging by how Petunia jerked away — shooting Ellie a narrow, fearful look. Realising what had just happened, she guessed, knew Ellie had just seen all that, worried she'd be angry, take it out on her.

Which was just silly, honestly. When had she ever done anything to the Dursleys just for the hell of it? She could, yes, but she only ever did anything to them to get them to leave her alone. Okay, being a bit afraid of her was just natural at this point — she had threatened to kill Vernon, and had reiterated repeatedly over the two years since that she could at any time she liked, he'd certainly told Petunia about that — but when had she ever, what, gotten angry at them and blown up at them over it? Never, that's when.

She had considered it, hurting them, because she could, and they couldn't stop her. She'd admit the thought was even...fascinating, a little, but in the end...

She just wanted them to leave her alone.

For a long moment, Ellie stared, the room around her tense and quiet, time marked with nothing but the clinking of cutlery and the sipping of coffee. Petunia, sitting partway around the table now, kept fidgeting more than normal — clearly aware of Ellie's attention on her, fear thick and slimy on the air. And Ellie kept staring, considering the information she'd just learned, from this letter and her brief glance into her aunt's head.

She'd put together, before, that her aunt and uncle must have known she was magic. There had been a few minor incidents that, in retrospect, must have been her magic doing weird things — suddenly appearing on the roof of the school was the most obvious one, but there had been several others — but she suspected they'd known even before that. Or, perhaps, some event from earlier than she could remember had originally cued them in...but she suspected not, that they'd known what she was from the beginning.

She couldn't explain exactly why. When she did come into her ridiculous mind-control superpowers, when they'd realised just how screwed they were, they'd seemed strangely...unsurprised. They'd been horrified, yes, a visceral, awful, animal thing that hadn't diminished even after a couple years, but it felt like... In the moment, as they came to understand how things had changed, they hadn't felt surprised, but vindicated. Like, this was something they'd always known would happen, that they'd feared it, and now it was staring them right in the face, they were right to fear her.

They'd always called her a freak. She'd admit she was pretty freakish, yeah, but they'd started long before her mind-control superpowers kicked in. They'd always known what she was, since before even she'd had any idea.

Ellie had even had occasion to wonder if it weren't the reason they'd always treated her so terribly. It had taken a long time for it to click that what they did to her wasn't in any way normal — in fact, she knew after a bit of reading a couple months ago now, it was illegal. She'd wondered, if they hadn't been trying to... She didn't know. They'd obviously been scared of her before she'd learned to mess with people's heads, before they'd had any real reason to be, maybe they'd meant to...

She didn't know. Hurt her before she could hurt them. That did make sense. Almost.

Now she knew.

Ellie knew virtually nothing about her mother. She knew she was Petunia's younger sister, her name was Lily, she had red hair, and she'd been a useless flighty slag who'd gotten herself killed in a car crash...which, that part probably wasn't true, now that she thought about it. (She suspected people who'd gone to schools for witchcraft and wizardry simply didn't die in car crashes.) Petunia didn't talk about her, ever. Just that Ellie was just as much a waste of space as her mother, it must be genetic — she'd made it clear ever since Ellie had been old enough to know the words to understand that both Petunia and Lily had been adopted, so they weren't actually related (which did make sense, Ellie and Petunia looked nothing alike) — that Ellie would be just as useless and stupid and awful as her, would carry on the tradition of dying young unloved and unmourned in a ditch somewhere, if she didn't stop being such a lazy freak and do what she was told, so help her.

That had all been lies, at least important parts of it. Because Lily hadn't been some drunken whore shacking up with some equally drunken layabout, no, she was magic. And apparently successful at the magic thing, if the jealousy on Petunia's thoughts meant anything.

And her idle suspicion had been right: Petunia had been scared of Ellie's ridiculous superpowers, had known about them far earlier than Ellie had. Because her mother had had them, so clearly she would too. And she'd been angry, with Lily, and scared of Ellie, and she'd...

She'd tried to make Ellie weak, and quiet, and obedient, so when she did come into her magic, she wouldn't use it against her. Petunia hadn't quite thought that, directly. But it was the undercurrent, in her fear, in her hatred, in her shame. She'd wanted to, to train Ellie, like one of Marge's bloody dogs.

Ellie almost had to laugh at that — if Vernon hadn't tried so hard to break her, she might not have figured out the mind-control thing, and she might have had no reason to use her magic against them. But fine, okay then.

Turning over all this stuff in her head took a couple minutes, the whole while the room silent around her, Petunia fearfully fidgeting, Dudley nervously stuffing his face. Finally, Ellie came to the conclusion that it didn't matter. Not really. What her aunt and uncle had known, why they'd done the things they'd done, it didn't matter, she didn't care. What was done was done.

(She only wanted to be left alone.)

But there was one thing she did have to ask. "So, you would know where to go? To get these things."

Petunia let out a shaky sigh, seemingly unable to decide whether she should be anxious or relieved. It was very clear she really didn't want to go to wherever this place was. That she would do it, to get rid of Ellie, but she would hate every second of it.

"I'll take the train by myself. Just think about where to go, very loudly."

Which didn't seem to make her any more comfortable. Peeking into memories of a dingy pub near Charing Cross in London, Ellie smirked.

Ellie was starting to wonder if she maybe hadn't thought this through very well.

In her defence, she hadn't really been thinking much at all. She'd gotten the impression from Petunia that this Hogwarts place was a boarding school — she'd be away from the Dursleys, for months at a time, to learn magic. It had seemed the obvious thing to do to go to a magic place and start in on this stuff, or at the very least find some way to contact the school, tell them she was definitely, definitely coming. (We await your owl, honestly.) She'd had the presence of mind to ask Petunia for some money, at least.

(She could just use her mind-control superpowers to take everything she needed, of course, but it was probably smarter not to. She didn't know if magic people would have greater defences against it, and getting caught out using magic to steal things from other magic people would have unpleasant consequences.)

That had been kind of funny — she hadn't even needed to make Petunia do it, she'd slapped a couple hundred pounds on the table and told Ellie to get out of the house and stay gone. (Well, she hadn't said it, but she'd thought it, very loudly, which was practically the same thing.) Which, fine, no argument there. Ellie had packed up her (very few) belongings into her school bag and walked out the door, without a word or a backward glance.

If she was very lucky, she thought, she'd never see the Dursleys again.

It was probably a bit...reckless of her, to just...walk out, like that. But she had considered it before. It shouldn't be particularly difficult to get by on her own. A place to sleep? Go to a hotel, and tell the people there to give her a room. Food and clothes and stuff? Just take whatever she wanted, and tell the people running the stores to let her have it. If people get suspicious of a kid living on her own, well, she could just tell them it was fine, obviously she was supposed to be here, or just tell them she didn't even exist, problem solved.

People's minds really were quite malleable, when it came down to it. Making people hurt themselves, that was difficult — she really could have made Vernon blow his own head off that day, but it was a strain, it'd be hard even after all the practice she'd gotten. Sometimes, when people were scared or angry enough, they could shake her, if they were lucky. But making them just ignore her, that was stupid easy. Pretty much all the mind-controlling she'd need to do to get whatever she needed boiled down to making people ignore her, so, shouldn't be hard at all.

Mostly, she just hadn't thought it was worth the effort, before. By this point, she had the Dursleys mostly trained to not bother her. She'd rather not be anywhere near them if—

(—echo of it lingered on the air like a bad smell—)

(—feel his eyes on her skin like wasps—)

—she could help it, but it just... It simply took less effort, to stay. Getting by on her own would take much more work, however easy it would probably be, and it was just easier to do nothing.

But when the excuse to leave had presented itself, she'd eagerly jumped, with hardly a thought.

And now, after a bus then a train then another bus, she was standing in, quite certainly, the single strangest place she'd ever been. The cobblestone street was lined with the oddest buildings, crooked and leaning and painted in garish colours and filled with the most absurd things — potions and spellbooks and wands and magic bloody broomsticks, on and on and on — crowds of people walking around in brightly-coloured...well, they looked kind of like bathrobes, honestly, but long and baggy, and less fuzzy, many of them wearing silly hats in all kinds of styles, from things that might have been pulled out of the 20s to absurd pointy, wide-brimmed, floppy...

Magical people, Ellie quickly decided, were very strange.

And she had a problem: she was alone, in a completely unfamiliar place, with a pocket full of hundred-pound notes...and magic people apparently used a different currency entirely.

Well.

After a bit of dithering back and forth, Ellie finally sucked it up, asked a random passerby if she could do anything about that. (Maybe someone would trade?) She picked a soft-looking older woman, her mind slow and warm and gentle, poking at it even as she spoke. She didn't poke hard, or anything, just a...nudge, a little one, hopefully making the old woman more inclined to be helpful. She did look like a nice sort, but you couldn't always tell by looking, so just in case...

Oh, there was a bank she could change her money at. That...seemed obvious, in retrospect. In her defence, she wasn't certain she'd ever actually been inside a bank before, she didn't really know what she was doing.

(She was ten years old, okay, honestly.)

The bank was almost impossible to miss — at the end of the main street, a big thing of shining white marble lined with gleaming gold and silver. The door guards, in full medieval armor holding big bloody axes, weren't even people at all, little things — they were about her height, despite presumably being adults — with craggly skin, sharp eyes, and big pointed ears. Which wasn't as much of a surprise as it probably should have been. This was the land of the freaks, it just sort of made sense that there'd be all kinds of things around.

Passing by, though, Ellie did give them a double-take, nearly freezing in the middle of the doorway. Their minds were...different. They weren't, like, animal different — they felt just as big and active as normal people, they must be intelligent. They were just... Ellie couldn't say, exactly. They felt all...sharp, and stiff, and just...

Different. Just different.

Ellie hoped she wouldn't have to make any of them do anything. She wasn't sure her mind-control stuff would work on these weird people the same way it did with normal people. They did feel a bit...solid. Like a knife, hard and firm and pointy. They might not bend as easily. Hmm.

One very confusing hour later, and Ellie walked out of the bank again, her pockets jangling with coins gold and silver and bronze, and her mind spinning with more questions than she'd started with.

But none of that was particularly important right now, she would wonder about trusts and titles and contracts and such later on. Once she could pick up a couple books, and figure out what a Wizengamot was, and maybe who Dumbledore was — wasn't that what the Headmaster at the magic school was called? — and why she'd been sent to the Dursleys if he was supposed to be her guardian. (The goblins had been less than helpful, they didn't seem to get she didn't know what any of these weird big words meant, it'd been frustrating.) She'd be buying books anyway, the ones on her school list, she could see if there was anything maybe helpful for all that stuff while she was at it.

Though, her school supplies could wait. She needed to figure out how the hell magical people sent letters to each other. (Something about owls, apparently?) And she should maybe find a place to sleep, where she could hopefully stay until September. And she was starting to get kind of hungry...

Dear Mme McGonagall,
I would be very happy to attend Hogwarts this year. Was there anything else I needed to do to confirm I'm going? The letter just said you were awaiting my owl, but I wasn't sure what for.
If you could, please send information about where the school is exactly. I know term starts the first of next month, but I don't know how to get there, which does seem kind of important.

Sincerely,
Elizabeth Potter


August 1991


When Minerva McGonagall found her, Ellie was sitting outside of Fortescue's, slowly picking away at yet another free ice cream.

Ellie thought, quite seriously, that Florean Fortescue very well might be her absolute favourite person she'd ever met ever. A couple days after she'd basically moved into a hotel down the block — called the Gryphon's Rest, the sort of place people said had character and that Petunia would absolutely hate — Ellie had spotted the ice cream parlour while wandering along back toward the bookstore. In a rather odd, tingly moment, Ellie had realised she could get some, if she wanted. Nobody was stopping her.

She'd never actually had ice cream before. Her aunt and uncle, of course, would say that freaks didn't deserve such nice things, but bought Dudley all the treats he wanted. Dudley, of course, made a point of eating things she couldn't have right in front of her — noisily, and if he could help it messily, forcing her to clean the drips and smears out of his clothes later. Since she'd started making the Dursleys be less awful, she...

Well, it had just never occurred to her, had it? Honestly, though she realised giving biscuits and candies and ice cream and stuff to Dudley, blatantly and frequently and right in front of her, had been intended as a taunt of some kind, it'd never particularly bothered her. After all, it wasn't as though she'd ever had biscuits or candies or ice cream before. She wasn't even certain she'd like them. In fact, in the years since her partial freedom, and the weeks since her full freedom, she'd quickly realised she didn't really have the stomach for sweet things. Some of the magic candy she'd bought just to try had made her a bit nauseous, actually. She could probably develop a taste for sweet things if she really wanted to, but...why should she bother? It wasn't like she was particularly missing them, putting effort into developing a taste for sweets just seemed...kind of silly.

But, she'd still decided to check out the ice cream, just to try it — if she didn't like it, she could just never have it again, it wasn't a big deal. The lady at the counter had, of course, recognised her instantly. It hadn't taken very long for Ellie to get used to magical people, just, knowing her name at a glance, and honestly getting a little bit silly over her. Turned out, Ellie was...apparently a celebrity over here? Which, okay, she guessed? Bloody weird, but fine. Anyway, picked an ice cream flavour at random, puttered over to one of the tables, and gave it a try.

And instantly hated it. It wasn't...awful, exactly. Just much, much too sweet, enough it was syrupy and sticky and blech on her tongue, only took a couple bites for her to start feeling a little sick. She had given it a try, but, no, not her thing.

She'd been sitting there, staring at her mostly-full bowl of ice cream and wondering if anyone would notice if she just threw the whole thing away, when an older man had walked up to her table, asked if everything was alright. Slightly frustrated with everyone else's taste in treats being terribly sugary all the time, Ellie hadn't thought before she spoke, saying this stuff was, just, disgustingly sweet, she couldn't stomach it, it was gross.

Turned out? Yeah, the old man was the owner of the place. Oops? If she'd known that, she might have tried to be a bit more polite. (Though, she didn't know how to do that very well — the Dursleys hadn't taught her proper manners, they'd just told her to be quiet and do as she was told. Not helpful.) Luckily, he didn't get annoyed with her or anything. Instead, he yanked away the bowl of sickening frozen sugar-milk, told her to hold on for a second, and disappeared behind the counter.

A minute later, Mister Fortescue had turned up with Ellie's first free ice cream. (And she hadn't even had to make him give it to her, it was very weird.) That one had been...better. So dark it was almost black — some kind of chocolate was involved, she was told. It was definitely less awful than the previous one, and she did like the coldness and the creaminess, that was pleasant, and the chocolate part was fine. Still a little bit too sweet for her, though. She'd probably even be able to finish it, if she hadn't already made herself a little queasy from the other one. She didn't know if she liked it enough to bother having it again, though.

Once she'd eaten as much of it as she was going to, Mister Fortescue had snatched the bowl away again, and said if she came back tomorrow he'd have something whipped up for her. She'd protested a little bit — it wasn't like she really wanted to find ice cream she liked that badly — but it wasn't worth arguing about, she'd just gone along with it.

It'd taken two more tries for the silly old man to find something she actually liked. The cream part itself tasted a bit buttery and cinnamon-y and vanilla-y, which Ellie thought was perfectly nice — Mister Fortescue claimed he'd cut the sweetener he used by nearly three-quarters, which was absurd, people liked sugar too much — and it had little pieces of almonds and chocolate mixed in. She rather liked it, it might be her favourite food(-ish) thing ever. It was very silly and maybe not very healthy, but she had some every day now, her lunch for the whole last week had been ice cream. (Because she was on her own now, and she wanted to, and she could.)

He'd even started making small batches of the stuff to sell to other people, advertising it as Ellie Potter's favourite ice cream flavour, because mages were very silly about her. It didn't sell very well, though, the few people who tried it had it once and never asked for it again. Apparently, it tasted really bitter to other people...which was weird — it was creamy and buttery and a little tangy, it certainly didn't taste bitter to her at all. But fine, more for her.

Despite coming over to have "lunch" here every day now, Mister Fortescue refused to take her money. Because of the whole celebrity thing, she assumed — people could be very, very strange about that, Ellie tried to not let it bother her. (She could feel their eyes on her skin like ants.) And, more often than not, he'd come to sit with her for a little bit at one of the tables outside, munching at ice cream under the summer sun, talking about lots of things. Magical Britain things, mostly — Ellie did have a lot of questions, and Mister Fortescue was more than willing to answer them. He didn't know everything, of course, but he was smart, and nice, and gave her free ice cream, and...

It was almost, she thought, what having a friend might be like. Was that weird? She meant, he was like six times her age, and she was a little girl on her own, and he was giving her sweets and stuff. Sounded like that should be in creepy old man territory. She didn't care, she was just saying, other people would probably think it was weird.

(Which was just appropriate — she was a freak, after all, it only made sense that the first thing she had even a little bit like a friendship would be weird.)

So, when the Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry decided to find her, she knew exactly where to look. People were very silly about this Girl Who Lived thing, a rumour that she had lunch at Fortescue's every day had probably started getting around by now.

Ellie spotted McGonagall before she introduced herself — she'd been far enough in Petunia's memory to recognise her, though she didn't look quite exactly the same. She was older, for one thing, more lines in her face, looking very severe, as though a thin-lipped, disapproving little frown was her default expression. (Petunia remembered her as being stern but mostly pleasant, brusque but still cheerful, which looking at her now Ellie couldn't quite imagine.) And she was in magical clothes now, instead of the normal (if old-fashioned) dress she'd met Petunia's family in, coloured in rather muted black and red. Her hat was nice though, big and wide and very shiny, almost sparkling in the sun.

Sometimes, Ellie wondered if she should start wearing one of those hats so many of the mages went around with. If she sat out here in the sun with her ice cream and Mister Fortescue and her books too long she started getting burns, the huge brims these things had would probably help with that. They just looked so silly and awkward, though...

(Not to mention, her hair was impossible, it probably wouldn't cooperate.)

McGonagall walked right up to her table in front of the little ice cream shop, fixing her with a thin, unpleasant smile — she was trying to be friendly, Ellie thought, she just wasn't very good at it. "Good afternoon, Miss Potter."

Ellie almost greeted her by name, before remembering at the last second she had no good reason to know it. (People got very uncomfortable if they knew about her mind-control superpowers, it was probably better to try to hide it.) "Ah, hi?"

The woman's smile flickered, a bit of warmth seeping into it, looking real for a second or two before it faded back into fakeness. "I'm Professor McGonagall, from Hogwarts. Do you mind if I sit?"

Ellie shrugged. She wasn't entirely sure how to answer that kind of question, a shrug was the best she had.

McGonagall gracefully sank into the seat across from her, took a brief moment to shuffle in place, settling into the (enchanted?) metal chair. She didn't say anything, staring over at Ellie for a long, uncomfortable moment, apparently considering how to go about saying something.

She could feel her eyes on her like ants, it was bloody uncomfortable. Ellie fixed her eyes on her ice cream, listlessly picked at it, waiting for the woman to stop bloody staring. (She hated how magic people kept doing that.)

Eventually, what felt like several minutes but was probably really only a few seconds, McGonagall spoke. "Excuse me, but... Are your aunt and uncle about? Should we be waiting for them?"

"Nope." Ellie reached out toward the woman's mind — she didn't do anything to her, kinda...hovered, just an inch away from touching it, so she could watch more closely. McGonagall seemed a bit...anxious? Uneasy somehow, shifty and distracted, Ellie couldn't tell exactly why without pushing in further. She weighed the risks and benefits of taking a peek, before deciding it probably wasn't important enough to bother, might not even have anything to do with her. People worried about all kinds of things all the time, after all. "Did you get my letter? Am I officially in, then? Is this about getting to the school?"

McGonagall stared at her for another moment, her gaze heavy enough Ellie turned back to her ice cream. "Yes, Miss Potter, you are registered for the coming term. I wondered..." The woman trailed off, the weird fidgetiness in her head sparking brighter for a moment, before moving on again. "The train leaves at eleven o'clock in the morning on Saturday the Thirty-First this month, from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King's Cross Station. Do you...know where that is?"

Ellie blinked at the hesitation on that last question, shrugged. "I can find King's Cross." She recognised the name, at least, and it wasn't really difficult to get to anywhere in London. The Underground could probably get her straight there. "But, I don't think there's such a thing as Platform Nine and Three-Quarters — that sounds very, like, magic, you know."

For the next couple minutes, McGonagall explained about how to get onto the hidden train platform which was...quite silly. These were magical people they were talking about, so Ellie had learned by now to expect silly, but just because she knew it was coming didn't mean she would ever get used to it. (Well, she probably would eventually, she just hadn't yet.) Once that bit was done, McGonagall fell into an uncomfortable silence again, staring at Ellie, again, really wished people would stop doing that. "Miss Potter... Is there anything you would like to talk to me about?"

"Erm...no?" She did still have questions about some of the things the goblins had told her when she'd first gotten here — she'd tried talking to them again but the second time hadn't gone any better than the first, they were singularly unhelpful — but that didn't really seem like the sort of thing she was meant to be talking about with some random school teacher.

There was another hesitation, but shorter this time, McGonagall's head hardly shifting, her decision already made in an earlier awkward staring moment. "Is there something wrong? I mean... It is not unheard of for the non-magical families of magical children to...not take it particularly well."

Ellie smiled — not particularly well, that sure was a way to put it — but the smile vanished almost immediately. This really wasn't something she wanted to talk about with some random school teacher. "No, ma'am. Everything's fine."

"Miss Potter..." McGonagall sighed, leaning forward onto her elbows, shaking her head a little bit. "People talk, Miss Potter. I've heard you're living here on your own, out of an inn on Errant."

"Well, yeah." She wasn't surprised by that, McGonagall had known exactly where to go to find her. "So?"

If anything, that response just seemed to make the woman more uncomfortable. There was an odd lurch in her mind under Ellie's, something warm and twisted and nauseous. Anger, definitely — not at Ellie, it felt too distant and cold — and...guilt, maybe? That was...odd. Ellie focused for a moment, poking a little further into McGonagall's head.

She broke off quickly, turning back down to her ice cream, frowning. That Dumbledore bloke, the one who was supposedly her guardian and also the Headmaster of the school, was the one who'd placed her with the Dursleys. McGonagall had been there, at the time. That odd guilty feeling she was having, she was remembering the day Ellie had been left on their doorstep. (She'd honestly thought Petunia was being hyperbolic, saying she'd literally been left on their doorstep overnight without a word, it was just so silly.) Apparently, McGonagall had spent the whole day stalking the Dursleys — as a cat, because she could turn into a cat, because magic was so cool — and had quickly decided they were awful, awful people, and really shouldn't be trusted to take care of Ellie.

Dumbledore had insisted, and McGonagall had given up, trusting him. That was why she was feeling guilty right now, because she suspected something had happened with the Dursleys, and she'd done nothing to stop it.

Staring blankly at her ice cream to avoid looking the woman in the eyes, she had absolutely no idea how to feel about everything she'd just learned in the space of three seconds.

"Ellie," McGonagall said, a bit of the emotion in her head slipping into her voice, "if you need to talk to—"

"I'm fine." Ellie could feel she didn't believe her, so she looked back up, trying not to glare (and probably failing). "I don't need to talk to anyone—" (She wasn't supposed to tell, it was one of the rules.) "—or anything, it's okay. I'm fine on my own. My parents left me all this money, you know."

McGonagall looked back at her, her face stiff and blank, her mind still shifty and uncertain. She didn't believe her, Ellie could tell, she wasn't convinced even a little bit.

"Look, it's fine, really. I've already been here a month or so, and it's only another couple weeks until term starts. Can't we just...leave it?"

"...If that's truly what you want, Miss Potter."

Ellie sniffed — McGonagall was lying, she wasn't going to leave it at all. She was going to leave, and talk to other people about this, and they would decide what to do without her. Which was frustrating, McGonagall thought she was helping, Ellie could tell that much, but she didn't need help, she was fine. But, well, adults weren't usually inclined to listen to disagreeable children, Ellie doubted talking to her about it more would do any good.

So instead she pushed further into the woman's mind again, but instead of just listening, she pushed, gripped, twisted her thoughts into the shape Ellie wanted. McGonagall didn't have to worry about Ellie Potter, everything was fine, there was nothing at all unusual going on.

But before she could twist them around all the way, McGonagall's mind twitched, shivered, and with a hard jerk was yanked out of Ellie's grip — it wasn't the first time that had happened, people had successfully resisted her before. (She hadn't even been trying that hard this time, hadn't thought she'd needed to, getting people to not think about her was easy.) What was weird was the way, immediately after shaking her off, that McGonagall's mind slammed closed, almost painfully, like Ellie had caught a finger in a door, hard enough she even yelped out loud, shaking her head. McGonagall had gone as hard and smooth as a rock. Ellie could still feel her, emotions flicking off like sparks from a fire, but she couldn't catch any more, the finer details of her thoughts hidden under a solid, iced-over surface.

Even at a glance, Ellie instinctively knew she could crack through the ice if she really wanted to. But she'd have to push harder than she had probably since that first time with Vernon, when he'd thought she was making him kill himself, and it would be very, very obvious.

As soon as Ellie was done being distracted by how bloody weird that had felt, she realised McGonagall had jumped to her feet, staring down at her, offended outrage and frustration and a tiny shiver of fear tainting the air around her, so thick Ellie could almost taste it.

She knew, without needing to look in her head, that McGonagall knew exactly what she'd just tried to do. (Probably better than Ellie did, honestly, she was a magic teacher.) And she was on her guard now. It was much harder to make people do things if they knew it was coming, she might not even be able to pull it off, especially with how angry and worried the woman was.

Turning back down to her ice cream, Ellie let out a long, defeated sigh. She'd known someone would catch her out on her freakish mind-control superpowers eventually. She should probably feel grateful the person who had caught her seemingly wanted to help her (no matter that it was unnecessary and unwanted, and Ellie had probably ruined it by being creepy and scary).

Instead, she felt McGonagall's eyes on her skin like wasps.


Ellie's month of freedom in Charing, the little magical village hidden in the heart of London, hadn't been wasted. She always had spent most of her time reading — it wasn't as though she ever had much else to do — and that hadn't changed at all now that she had access to books that talked about magic. She'd poked at her school books a little, but they were mostly boring, she'd been reading through other books she found that caught her eye instead.

It was in one of these other random books that she'd learned exactly what her mind-control superpowers were.

Though, when it came down to it, the book she'd found on mind magic hadn't offered very thorough explanations on how this stuff actually worked — the impression she'd gotten was that it was a branch of magic most people didn't bother learning, it was very rare. It was apparently very difficult to learn how to do well if you weren't born with a talent for it. Control of one's own mind, called occlumency, that some people studied. The idea was to improve people's control of their own feelings, to detect outside influence and, ideally, resist it. Basic occlumency — greater awareness of your own mind, detecting when someone was poking at it enough to turn yourself opaque like McGonagall had done — was somewhat common, some people in the government and paranoid nobles learned that much. More than that was unusual, though.

For active mind magic, doing things outside yourself, there were two main kinds. The most common was mind-altering charms — compulsions, certain illusions, some curses, and there was a legilimency charm — which, as Ellie understood it, were pretty much fake. They weren't really mind magic, the book had explained, but charms pretending to be mind magic. (There was a difference, apparently, but Ellie wasn't clear on what it was.) They were, like, the equivalent of picking a lock with a gun — very messy, very loud, and very obvious, even people who hadn't any training with occlumency at all could usually notice them happening. Not always, since people got better with them with practice (especially the legilimency charm), but they were generally easier to detect and much easier to stop.

The other kind could only be done by natural legilimens, who were born, not trained. Basically, they could do all the mind magic things — compulsions (that was what Ellie was doing making people do things), picking up feelings and thoughts, forcing people to have feelings or thoughts, viewing memories, editing or erasing or inventing fake ones, in extreme cases eating people's minds, taking everything and leaving them an empty husk (just, fucking hell). But they didn't have to be taught these things, they just...did them. More complicated or more extreme things, those were noticed more easily, and were more easily resisted, but even competent occlumens sometimes wouldn't notice minor tweaks, and it was almost impossible to entirely stop a true legilimens from picking up your feelings. And if a legilimens didn't care if they were noticed, it was often very hard for even master occlumens to stop them, and people who didn't know any were pretty much completely defenceless.

Which, Ellie had noticed that — she could have made Vernon kill himself if she really wanted to, after all. Because she was one of these legilimens people, apparently. At least, she was pretty sure that's what was going on with her but, even within the category of people with ridiculous mind-control superpowers, she was a bit of a freak. (Because of course she was.) See, though it was an ability people were born with, it didn't start working until later in life. Mid-to-late teens, apparently, sometimes later. Legilimens who started before puberty were very rare, it almost never happened. (In fact, the book claimed every single known case involved childhood trauma or abuse of some kind, the ability apparently activating in self-defence.) Child legilimens were almost always considered very strange, usually a kind of creepy devil-child situation, if she was getting what the book was suggesting right.

So, it turned out she was a freak even by freak standards. Ellie couldn't honestly say she was surprised.

As Ellie understood it, she'd basically been handed one of the best cards in the deck — she was naturally very good at something other people couldn't even learn properly. But, there was a charm that copied the effects and, while it was still inferior in most ways, natural talent sometimes simply hadn't the advantage over skill and practice.

This was made very clear to her the first time she met Albus Dumbledore.

He came later the same day she'd run into McGonagall, finding her up in her hotel room in the middle of eating supper. It was a perfectly nice place, a bed and a desk and a couple chairs, all made up in greens and browns, the wood a bit scuffed, the cloth on the furnishings a little ratty and faded. She just knew Petunia would hate the place, but she thought it was nice. Nicer than her room back at the Dursleys', anyway — even if it weren't quiet and muted and overall pleasant, the absence of her awful relatives did wonders for her mood.

She was sitting at her desk with a bacon and cheese sandwich (with extra bacon), slowly picking through a book as she ate, trying not to get grease on the pages. Her own tastes, she'd found, were heavily weighted toward fatty things — probably a consequence of being raised on cheese and bread and bits off beef and pork nobody else wanted (mostly gristle and fat, the parts Petunia would throw away otherwise) — and alongside the special ice cream Mister Fortescue had invented for her fried bacon and cheese sandwiches were pretty much her favourite thing ever. Almost every evening, when (if) she started getting hungry again, she went to the kitchen downstairs and asked for one, then went right back up to her room.

There was a dining room down there, and she could eat with other patrons if she wanted to — and she had, a couple times. But she preferred not to. People noticed her too much. It had taken a few days for the rumour to spread, for the other people staying at the Gryphon's Rest to realise that that tiny, twiggy little girl with the absolutely awful hair sitting in the corner was their vaunted Girl Who Lived, and once they had stomaching much of anything in the dining room had become pretty much impossible. (She could feel their eyes on her skin like ants.) She could just make them ignore her, of course — that was usually just as easy to do with magic people as it was normal ones, especially if they hadn't even noticed her yet — but that did take constant attention to keep up, to make sure the idea didn't slip, to catch new people walking in. So it was just easier to retreat up to her room.

Besides, it was bloody noisy down there. She'd rather be alone, where she could read in peace and not end up with an awful headache.

But anyway, the point was, she was alone, and she had every expectation she would be staying that way. (She suspected the staff were keeping people away from her room, she'd been slipping them extra coins now and again because she didn't know how else to thank them.) So the knock on the door came as something of a surprise. Slowly chewing at a bite of sandwich, Ellie hesitated for a moment, frowning at the door — she could feel the person on the other side, the now familiar intense ticklish energy of a magical mind, this one tight with focus, determined, and almost...concerned? afraid? Something in that neighborhood, anyway. While she was trying to make up her mind about whether it was a good idea to answer that or not, the person knocked again.

Shrugging to herself — if he did have bad intentions, she could probably stop him with her mind-control superpowers anyway — Ellie set down her sandwich, walked over to open the door. The person on the other side was, perhaps, the strangest person she had ever met, and a month in a bustling magical village had given her a lot of previous examples to compare to. He looked very old, all thin and frail with absurdly long hair and beard a faded greyish-white — seriously, absurdly long, his beard reached down below his waist — wearing the same loose, baggy robes a lot of people did, but in eye-searing oranges and blues, the colours clashing so terribly it was almost painful to look at. His hat was just as colourful, though in a burning red that didn't match anything else — Ellie noticed a half-dozen golden buckles on the thing, which didn't seem to actually do anything, bloody weird — and peeking out from under his robes were a pair of black leather high-heeled boots, which...

Okay, Ellie had noticed the women and the men both wore heels over here, it wasn't just a girly thing. Though it was mostly older people — going out of style, maybe? It was just sort of weird. And also made her seem shorter than she actually was, with half of everyone walking around with an extra three inches, but she was used to being tiny, so.

For a couple seconds, Ellie could just stare at the man, who beamed back at her from behind half-moon glasses with a faint blue-ish tint. (Ellie noticed he was wearing a twinkling smile that didn't at all match the uneasy, nervous feel of his head, he was faking.) Finally, she muttered, "Er, hi?"

"Hello, Ellie dear," he said, his voice low and warm and friendly. "Could we speak for a moment?"

He was asking to come inside, she knew, but she felt herself tense, wariness settling over her without any real thought. She didn't let anyone in her room as a rule, even back at the Dursleys' — she didn't even like letting in the maid, always made sure she was out while they were doing the cleaning so she didn't have to think about it — and she didn't even know who this old man was...but he was talking like they did know each other, all soft and warm and Ellie dear. The over-the-top familiarity and niceness right off the bat, it was setting off alarm bells in her head. "Who are you?"

Bafflingly, her question, asked less than politely, had a faint shade of relief slipping through his head. Weird. "I never did introduce myself, did I?" Of course he hadn't, that was only the second full sentence he'd ever said to her... "I'm Professor Dumbledore—" (Ellie had always thought it was silly, when adults used titles with their own names.) "—and I'm the Headmaster at Hogwarts. If you'd prefer, we could go down to the dining hall...?"

Oh. Dumbledore. She'd read a bit about Dumbledore by now, much of which was strange and confusing — he'd apparently fought in a war and defeated a Dark Lord, and was head of the government and a school? and he was one bloke? — but she was mostly concerned with the him supposedly being her guardian thing. Supposedly, which was odd, because this was the first time she'd ever seen him. She'd assumed, after meeting the goblins, that he'd been the one to leave her with the Dursleys, and McGonagall's memories had confirmed it.

(The whole thing was just bloody weird. It was common knowledge, apparently, that Dumbledore had taken custody of her after her parents had been killed, everybody knew about that. But they also assumed that Dumbledore had actually been involved in taking care of her. People had a lot of weird ideas mixed up in that, that she was being raised up to be some kind of magical superhero, being trained by Dumbledore himself, learning all kinds of awesome and secret magics. Which was very silly, none of the books that mentioned her, of which there were far too many of, said anything about all of that, Ellie had no idea where people had gotten it from.)

Point was, Ellie still had absolutely no idea how to feel about Albus Dumbledore. He had left her with the Dursleys...but she'd also never seen him before, so she wasn't sure if she could blame him for...things. A long time ago, she used to daydream about someone showing up to rescue her — she'd given up on the idea, what felt like forever ago — which was technically Dumbledore's job, since her family was all dead, but maybe he hadn't known what was going on, hadn't known there was anything to save her from. (Not that there was, not anymore, she'd taken care of it.) And, he was the leader of these Light people, she assume things called "Light" were probably good, and he had defeated that Dark Lord, people called "Dark Lord" were probably bad, so...he was probably fine? maybe?

At the very least, he didn't seem likely to try to hurt her or anything. (And even if he did, she could stop him, just like she had Vernon.) So she stepped out of the doorway with a shrug. "No, here is fine."

The old man walked in, Ellie closed the door behind him, watched him silently take in the state of her room. It was a little bit more of a mess than it'd been when she'd moved in — her school supplies, many of them still untouched, sat with her trunk in one corner, books scattered in a few separate piles, new magic clothes lying here and there. It wasn't a complete mess, of course, her school things in neat stacks, the books arranged according to subject and how interesting she found them and whether she'd read them or not, her clothes out of the way and properly folded. Or, when she knew how to properly fold them, she didn't know what to do with the bloody robes, those were just hung over the backs of chairs.

She did actually have new clothes of her own now, for the first time in her life, though she'd only gotten a couple sets on top of her school robes. She had the money for pretty much whatever she wanted, of course — her wizard father had been stupid wealthy, apparently — but she just...didn't care? Just, once the bare minimum things to wear line was crossed she was pretty much done with it already. She was wearing new magic clothes right now, technically, though just simple shorts and vest...which mages technically considered underclothes, so she didn't go out like this...

...and probably should have thrown a proper robe on before answering the door. Oops? Too late now...

"I see you've gotten your school shopping done already."

"Oh, yeah." Ellie walked back to her desk, not knowing what else to do with herself, plopped into her chair. "So, er, what did you want to talk about, exactly?" She plucked a loose piece of bacon off her plate, popped it into her mouth.

"Yes, about that. I understand you met Professor McGonagall earlier today, and..." Dumbledore trailed off, giving her a look Ellie couldn't quite read. It...seemed like it might be trying to be something soft and...concerned, maybe? But the softness and the warmth still didn't match his head, that was shifty and uneasy. "I had heard the rumours that you'd been seen on your own here in Charing, but I'd thought they were only rumours."

Right, okay, this was going to be one of those...adults being concerned about a little girl living on her own things. Ellie never quite knew how to deal with those conversations. People had tried to have them with her before, over the last month, and they tended to be very strange and confusing, she never knew what to say — she mostly just told people it was fine and made them go away. McGonagall was the first one she'd run into that that hadn't worked on. (Stupid occlumency, bleh.) She clumsily grasped for words for a moment, picking at her sandwich. "Yeah, well, I'm fine on my own." She picked up her sandwich, took a pointed bite out of it.

Dumbledore didn't at all seem pleased — his face still wanted to look all nice, but his head wasn't, if anything it'd only gotten sharper, more anxious, something almost frightened. "Ellie, dear, I'm sure your family is very worried about you."

She failed to hold in a laugh, coming out odd and muffled through cheesy bacon. Ellie wasn't sure of that, not at all — in fact, she was sure of the exact opposite. If she never saw the Dursleys again, that would be great, and she was confident the feeling was very mutual. But she didn't say anything, not really sure what to say (and she wasn't done chewing yet).

But Dumbledore had picked up on her disbelief, that sharpness in his head getting all the sharper. He started saying something about whatever disagreement they'd had couldn't be that bad, blah blah, family and love and togetherness, and she'd miss them eventually, she didn't know what she was doing, blah blah...

(Which, to be fair, she didn't really know what she was doing, as her initial problems with the money and finding a place to stay had proven, and her continuing issues getting the goblins to explain anything in a way that actually made sense. She was eleven, after all, and barely that. But she was doing just fine, she thought, certainly no worse than with the Dursleys.)

She only half-heard the things he was saying, because she got rather distracted by odd tingles trickling down her spine. She felt her thoughts turning toward the Dursleys, thinking about why she'd come here and why she didn't like them and what she'd done to them, and why and what and why and how...

Which was dumb, because those were questions, with answers she already knew and so had no real reason to be asking. And she wasn't asking, those weren't her thoughts — well, they were her thoughts, but they felt odd, grinding and almost painful, twisted into a shape they didn't belong in. It was the strangest feeling, one she'd never had before, it was distracting and nauseating and wrong...

It reminded her of making people do things, but from the other side.

Panic sending her heart jumping up hard into her throat, magic like copper fizzing on her tongue and sparks flickering rainbows behind her eyes, Ellie desperately reached back toward him, coming down on his mind hard. Like a knife slamming into a cutting board, telling him to stopgo awayleave me alone

Her command bounced off the surface of his mind, reflecting with a heavy clank more felt than heard.

Ellie shook her head, dazed — while she was distracted, the fingers poking at her pushed deeper, and images were flashing before her eyes, memories of compelling the Dursleys, over and over, dozens of moments passing in seconds, over and over and over and over and—

Gritting her teeth, she tore herself away from the magic forcing her to remember, instinctively slashing at the bits of her that were not her, burning them away until nothing was left. She saw, in her peripheral vision, Dumbledore stumble a little, as though suddenly yanked off balance, but Ellie wasn't really watching, glaring at her mostly-eaten sandwich. Her head was pounding, unpleasant stinging through her neck half down her back, and she felt peculiarly sick and feverish, as though she'd suddenly gotten quite ill out of nowhere.

Dumbledore had just been in her head.

He wasn't like her. The stuff twisting her thoughts hadn't felt like a person, no, instead the bouncing, tickling electricity of magic — he'd been using that legilimency charm thing, not "true" mind magic. (Apparently the book was right about there being a difference.) It had been easy to break out of, once she'd concentrated on breaking it, instead of reflexively trying to hit back at him like an idiot. She had strained herself a little, but he'd barely even fought back, he probably hadn't been able to, but...

He'd gotten in, she'd hardly even noticed it, and he'd seen things. She didn't know how much of what she'd been made to remember he'd actually gotten, but he'd seen something, he'd been in her head.

(She felt his eyes on her skin like wasps.)

Dumbledore started talking again, and — her stomach twisting and her neck aching and her eyes stinging — Ellie missed the first bit, in the middle of a sentence by the time she focused on him again. "...not tolerated at Hogwarts. The use of such magics, outside of a few particular circumstances, is against the law, in fact, and at my school we take such abuses most seriously. Our Potions Master in particular will have quite a lot to say if you are found to be compelling your classmates excessively.

"Also," he continued, his voice still smooth but now low and stern, "I feel I have to make very clear that, whatever disagreements you might have, your treatment of your family is illegal under current muggle protection laws. I'm not saying I intend to turn you in — I think it best we keep this whole incident between us — but it is something to keep in mind.

"Do you understand me, Ellie?"

Oh, yes. Yes, Ellie understood him quite well. Using mind magic was a Bad Thing to Do...

...for Ellie.

Dumbledore had just used it on her, but that was fine — that apparently counted as one of those particular circumstances it was fine in. He hadn't spelled out what those particular circumstances were, but she didn't need him to. He'd said her treatment of the Dursleys didn't count, and that was all she needed to know.

Anything Ellie had to use it for didn't count. Getting people to leave her alone, getting the things she needed, making Vernon stop hurting her, none of that was okay. It would never be okay when she did it. Obviously.

(He did know why she did it, right? He'd seen her doing it, he must have seen why. Right?)

(It didn't matter. She didn't want him to know, she didn't want to talk about it, it was over, it didn't matter.)

(She felt the echo of it on the air like a bad smell.)

He'd just been in her head, and that was fine, but her doing the same thing, no, no that wasn't okay. But she wasn't even surprised, she understood.

Dudley had been the one lying. The thing that'd gotten her the belt, the first time, she remembered (long-healed lines across her back flared), Dudley had been lying, about a maths test. He'd said she'd cheated, she'd said she hadn't. And she hadn't, Dudley was just a bloody idiot, she'd been telling the truth.

And she'd been punished. For lying.

So, yes, she understood. Ellie was a freak. And freaks did Bad Things. Even if they were things other people did, and if it was okay for other people to do them, when Ellie did them they were Bad Things.

Even if she didn't do them.

Because she wasn't going to stop. She couldn't stop, she needed it. She wasn't going to go back, to being helpless, to, to not being able to take care of herself at all, to being a weak stupid useless girl who couldn't do any—

(—to being bent over the sofa, her knickers dangling around her ankles, biting her finger and trying not to cry, Vernon hated it when she cried—)

She wasn't going to stop. She couldn't.

But she'd maybe be more careful about not getting caught.

Her mouth feeling numb, her voice coming out flat and hoarse, Ellie said, "Yes, sir. I understand."

And Dumbledore smiled. That same warm, friendly smile from earlier, but his mind hadn't changed, it was still sharp and cold and afraid. A familiar kind of afraid, it reminded her of Petunia and Vernon, when they'd realised they'd been right, that kind of horrified realisation, something you didn't want to be right about, but you were, and you were afraid, because it was bad and you couldn't stop it, and you didn't know what to do, and—

Ellie turned back to stare at her sandwich, but she didn't pick it up. She didn't feel like eating anything right now.

(Vernon hated it when she cried.)

It was a strangely disconnected feeling. Ellie hardly felt like all this was happening, that it was a dream, or something happening to someone else, someone very far away.

Dumbledore was setting her trunk, now stuffed with all her new things, down in the entryway of the Dursleys' house. He was talking to Petunia about something, by the sound of it trying to be reassuring — as though Petunia had actually been concerned about Ellie's extended absence, which she very much doubted. Vernon was standing a little bit away, looming in the doorway to the living room, all big and mean and purple (The echo of it lingered like a bad smell.), too powerfully horrified by someone quite so freakish-looking as Dumbledore being in his house to speak coherent English.

Ellie didn't see Dudley. She did hear the television going, behind Vernon. Dudley might not even have noticed anything out of the ordinary was happening.

There was an odd feeling on the air — not the tension of the conversation Ellie wasn't listening to, or the fear and anger from her aunt and uncle, but something else. A tingly energy, it almost tickled, focused tight around Vernon and Petunia, strings of lightning connecting them to Dumbledore.

(He was reading their minds. Obviously. It was wrong for Ellie to do, but it was okay for him. Because of course it was.)

And it didn't feel real, not really. Standing here in the hall, in a place she'd never wanted to be again, only a few steps away from the cupboard, with perhaps the most obviously magical-looking person she'd ever met talking to her thoroughly unmagical aunt and uncle, who she'd wanted to never see again, forced to be here, Dumbledore hadn't really given her a choice in the matter, hadn't taken no for an answer — ...for your own good, my dear — and Vernon looking as angry as she'd ever seen, and...

She wasn't here. Not really. Because she was never coming back, she couldn't be here. This wasn't real.

She felt...floaty.

Dumbledore was saying something to her — it took her a moment to notice, she hadn't been paying attention, this wasn't real. "Huh?"

"I'll be seeing you at Hogwarts in two weeks' time, Miss Potter." He was still doing the fake soft warmth, though there was a harder tone on his voice this time, stern with a shade of disapproval. Probably had something to do with the frustration and anxiety that had only built as he looked through the Dursleys' heads...or maybe just because she clearly hadn't been listening, could go either way on that one.

He clearly expected an answer, but she had absolutely no idea what she was supposed to say. She settled with, "Yes, sir."

With a last friendly (fake) smile, the old man said his farewells, and stepped out the door, closing it behind him—

—leaving Ellie with the Dursleys, again.

She bent over to grip the handle of the trunk, pulling it up to roll away — she'd bought one with weight-reducing enchantments and wheels on one end, because that'd just seemed the obvious thing to do. While her aunt and uncle fumed, apparently searching for the words for what they wanted to say (minds thick with uncertain fear — Dumbledore had told them she'd be good but they didn't believe him), Ellie stared at the door, through it toward Dumbledore's back. She could still feel him out there, the tingling, intense presence of his mind and magic, slowly receding as he walked away. Then, around where Ellie guessed the pavement must be — it was hard to get a feel for distances with this stuff — the electric envelope of magic around him flared, burning bright for an instant, twisted

And he was gone.

"I'm going. Tell no one I left, and I won't either. If everything goes well, we'll never have to see each other again."

Some of the tension in their minds eased away, feeling lighter and softer, Vernon's face fading from an enraged purple to an angry red. They liked that idea, Ellie could tell. They liked it very much. "And it'll stick this time? I thought we were well shot of you for good, and that mad codger comes dragging you back."

Ellie sighed. "It turns out I'm a bloody magic celebrity, or something." (The Dursleys flinched at the M-word; Ellie ignored them.) "He only found out where I was because people talked, he followed the rumours. I'll just stay in a normal hotel instead. They'll never find me."

"Did... Did you need more money? We could—"

Ellie glanced at Petunia, the silly woman breaking off and paling — she hadn't even done anything, was just looking at her. (She sometimes thought just how afraid they all were of her was, just, completely absurd...but then she remembered she was a creepy little devil-child, so, checked out.) Her own voice sounding less empty than it had a second ago, slightly amused, Ellie said, "You know I can just make people give me whatever I need. I'll be fine."

Honestly, the horror her aunt and uncle felt at the flatly-delivered statement was really quite funny. Ellie didn't know what that said about her, but it probably wasn't anything good.

Smiling almost despite herself, Ellie pushed open the door, pulling the trunk packed with all of her earthly possessions rolling behind her, and walked out of the house without a backward glance. She left her aunt and uncle's house for what would be, if her luck held out, the very last time — she planned to never see Privet Drive ever, ever again.

(She couldn't quite convince herself she wouldn't. She simply wasn't that lucky.)

Chapter Text

Ellie glared at herself in the mirror, chest tight with frustration.

Sometimes, she thought she very well might have the worst hair ever. Petunia and Vernon had complained about it more than almost anything else — when it came to her appearance, she meant, obviously — and while she knew now they'd lied or been wrong about any number of things, she thought they had the right of it on this one. She didn't even care what she looked like, and she still hated it. Not because it looked bad, exactly (though it did), but because it was completely unmanageable.

It didn't get tangled very easily — or, at all, actually, she never had trouble getting a brush through it. (Petunia had actually accused her of not brushing her hair before, because when she did the brush stayed clean, few hairs left behind even over weeks.) It just got everywhere. A dull, matte black, it was stupid thick, and stupid wavy, and stupid big — she didn't look quite as tiny as she actually was, just because her hair was bloody huge — and it never stayed where she put it, at least not for very long. Tying it back didn't do any good, the ponytail would still be bloody huge and get everywhere. Putting it in a plait was also useless, it fell apart stupid quickly...assuming she could even get it to cooperate long enough to properly plait it, which she usually couldn't. Anything she could try to do would fail, she had no choice but to let it stay a big, poofy, intrusive, inconvenient mess.

Even cutting it didn't help! Okay, it did help, but it grew back stupid quickly. She'd cut it herself, less than a month ago — hacked at it with one of her potions knives, which had perhaps been a bad idea, it'd come out an uneven ugly mess, but it was always an uneven ugly mess, what difference did it make — down to about the bottom of her ears or so, but it was nearly at her elbows again!

Ellie was convinced her hair must be magic, because that simply wasn't natural.

Firmly gripping the brim of her uniform hat, black cloth soft and fuzzy, Ellie brought it over her head again, pressing against her hair; she pulled it down, hard, until the rim gripped around her head like it was supposed to. Her bangs were pushed over her face, partially hiding her own reflection behind a curtain of kinked and curving strands, but she could pull that out of the way later. The way her huge, stupid, sprawling hair was pushing against the brim, though, that was a problem. It looked kind of ridiculous like this, pressed tight against her skull where the hat was trying to hold on before zooming right out again, a hard angle that shouldn't be there and looked completely stupid, but there wasn't anything she could do about that. She could almost see it straining, forced into an unnatural shape, wanting to spring back out, and pushing...

She let go of the brim, and the hat instantly popped up an inch (or two, who's counting). It didn't fall all the way off, no, just...balanced there, perched on top of her hair instead of sitting on her head properly. Which was a very precarious place for it to be — a gentle breeze could carry the stupid thing away. Hell, if she moved too quickly it'd probably fall right off!

Ellie pouted, the expression barely visible through her hair. This wasn't going to work.

Surrendering with a harsh, angry sigh, she whipped the hat off, pulled her hair out of her face with a few haphazard swipes of her fingers. Carrying the stupid hat in her hand, she left the bathroom, making back for her compartment.

When the day finally came, Ellie had set out for King's Cross much earlier than she actually needed to — not necessarily out of a sense of excitement, but more one of doubt that McGonagall's explanation of how to get to the train was in any way reliable. By eight, Ellie had all her things packed up into her magically expanded trunk, had been out of the muggle hotel by nine — the staff cheerfully waved her off, conveniently failing to realise she'd stayed in a room for two weeks for free and that she was an obviously underage girl living on her own — and had been to the station by half-after. Ellie had given the barrier between platforms nine and ten a dubious frown, then a cautious poke, before stepping through with a put-upon sigh.

Why Nine and Three-Quarters, though? Why not Nine and a Half? Or, just take over one of the whole-number platforms, muggle-aversion charms would stop anyone from thinking it strange they skipped a number. Or just don't number it at all! Didn't they just need it for the train to Hogsmeade? Ellie didn't understand...

The train, when Ellie had found it, was very red and very empty. She'd dragged her trunk up — probably couldn't have managed that on her own if it weren't so thoroughly enchanted, she'd call that a good investment — picked a compartment at random, pulled out her robes to change into the uniform while she was at it. Of course, by then a slow trickle of people had started appearing on the platform, so Ellie had slipped into the toilet to do it in privacy.

Glancing out a window on her way back to the compartment, Ellie saw the trickle had become a flood — the place was packed, mages in an assortment of strange and colourful clothing by the dozens and dozens, squeezed so tight in the available space there hardly seemed to be enough room to move around in. Looks like she had the right idea, getting here early. She shook her head, faintly horrified, and stepped back into her compartment

To find it wasn't as empty as she'd left it — a few older girls had appeared in her absence, colourfully dressed and brightly chattering, giggling over some joke even as she stepped inside. They turned to her all at once, and for a second she could only stare wide-eyed back at them, like a deer in headlights.

(One of the girls was wearing a hat — not the uniform one, something red and gauzy and pretty, sitting firm on her head, cocked at a jaunty angle, her hair sleek and restrained and obediently suffering the imposition. Ellie was struck with a quick, nauseating flash of hatred.)

After a brief moment of awkward silence, one of the girls asked, "Hello?"

"Ah, hi. My trunk was..." Ellie held up the shirt in her hand. She did need to put this away, yes, but that little box was holding literally everything she owned in the entire bloody world...

"Oh, was that yours? We weren't sure, we just stuck it up on the rack with ours."

Ellie frowned up at the luggage racks above the seats, spotted the familiar dark leather and gold stitching of her trunk. There was no way she was reaching that high. (She was annoyingly bloody short.) Before she could say anything, one of the girls, dark-skinned with long tightly-plaited hair, popped up to her feet with a smile. "Did you want me to get that for you?"

"Sure, thanks." The girl whipped the shirt out of Ellie's hand, stood on the bench with one foot, easily reaching all the way up to the rack. "Er, while you're in there, there's a book at the top..."

Her hand stuck in Ellie's trunk, the girl paused — her shoulders went slightly tense, an odd shiver running through her head, something somewhere between confusion and amusement. Turning to glance at Ellie over her shoulder, "Er, Practical Self-Defence?"

Feeling the eyes of all three girls on her like ants, Ellie nodded.

The black girl let out a little, doubtful huff, but pulled the heavy book out, clicking the trunk closed before hopping down to the floor. "That's some pretty advanced stuff to be reading," the girl said, even as she handed the book over. "I mean, you are a first-year, aren't you?"

With a self-conscious shrug, Ellie sank into a seat, hugging close to the door and as far away from the older girls as possible. "I read a lot, it's not too hard." Reading was the only leisure she'd been allowed, when she'd been little, if she wasn't doing chores or at church or something she was pretty much always reading. She'd always been a better reader than other kids, but her comprehension had abruptly jumped far above that of anyone even close to her age — she assumed she'd picked up language skills from the mind-reading somehow.

"I don't mean advanced like that, it's just—"

"Angie." That was one of the other girls — not the one with the hat, the blonde one, staring at Ellie with a flat expression, feeling rather...solemn, all of a sudden. It was weird, and slightly unnerving. "Leave the kid be."

Ellie couldn't shake the feeling that the girl, somehow, had noticed something about Ellie, something that suggested she would have interest in reading books titled Practical Self-Defence. She realised this made her a huge fucking hypocrite, but that was a little unsettling.

She did like this book, though. She'd bought multiple books on defensive magic and curses and hexes and such — in addition to the only one required for Defence, which looked mostly useless, all dealing with magical creatures she'd likely never even see — but this one was probably her favourite. The author had formulated the whole thing working on the assumption that the reader would probably be at a disadvantage when it came to both power and knowledge, so was mostly concerned with getting across counters for certain common hexes and potions, explained using as little theory as possible, and a bunch of tricks and tips when it came to tactics, to escape a dangerous situation even when horribly outmatched. Some of it seemed bloody obvious to Ellie — like not eating or drinking or even touching something not from a trusted source, only trying to block a hit if it couldn't be dodged instead, or simply walking away from conflicts before a fight broke out if it all possible — but some of the other things were clever. Like, practising the really important spells hundreds and thousands of times until they were automatic (apparently knowing it really well even made it possible to get it off without a wand), or enchanting something to grow warm in the presence of harmful poisons and curses, or bouncing spells to get around shields (which only worked with certain spells off of certain surfaces, there was a huge bloody table), all kinds of fun stuff.

After her first time flipping through it nearly a month ago now — it was interesting, of course, she wouldn't have bought it otherwise, but the magic was mostly beyond her abilities for the moment — she'd returned to this book specifically for the entire section on dealing with mind-altering charms and potions. There were a whole bunch of things, but the big one that had caught Ellie's attention was a short list of shields (and potions, but they weren't intended for long-term use) that blocked various charms that targeted the mind, including the legilimency charm. Ellie wasn't screwing around, had started working on the most promising one instantly — it was the first proper magic spell she'd ever cast, in fact, shut up in her muggle hotel room with this book and her wand. It did work...she thought. Maybe. It was kind of shaky, and she sort of doubted it'd hold up against Dumbledore, but she was working on it, dammit.

Over the last eleven days, she'd cast it over fifteen hundred times. She was not screwing around.

(She realised it was kind of rich, being so serious about stopping someone from messing with her head when she messed with other people's heads on a daily basis. But she didn't care, she understood now why the Dursleys found her so fucking terrifying. She would have that damn charm mastered before she allowed Dumbledore to ever be in a room alone with her again, so help her.)

Ellie focused on her reading — the chapter on shield charms, comparing and contrasting their strengths and disadvantages (the largest being she doubted she could cast most of them) — throughout the entire train ride. Which might have been easier if she'd been saddled with less annoying companions. The girls alone weren't...that bad. They had tried to pull her into conversation, at first, asking her questions about who she was, and something about houses, but it hadn't taken long to convince them she didn't want to talk. (She hadn't even needed to use her mind-control superpowers.) They kept chattering among themselves, but they weren't too distracting, it was fine.

The slow trickle of people stopping by to say hello, catch up quick, that was a problem. She jumped more than once as the door was slammed open again and again, cursing under her breath, holding back the urge to compel everyone to go away. But, no matter how little reading she was getting done at points, she stubbornly stayed put — she doubted anywhere else in the train would be much better, she'd seen how many people there'd been out on the platform. The worst were two identical red-headed boys, loud and prodding. Not only was there much yelling and laughing and crashing, but they refused to leave her alone, repeatedly trying to get her attention, questions and jokes and even physically poking at her.

Eventually, she got fed up, and reached out for their heads...and froze for a moment, blinking to herself. They had one mind. They had two bodies, there were two of them, but they were just one mind, a big one, just...spread across both brains. Huh. Neat.

Whatever the hell was going on with their weird shared mind, the compulsion took as easily as it would on anyone else. And, thankfully, when the twins skipped out again, a quick check around her showed the older girls just took their abrupt about-face as Fred and George continuing to be quirky and unpredictable, not even worthy of comment.

The train kept rattling along, Ellie staying in her corner quiet and (mostly) unmolested.

The unreasonably large man, with hair almost as impossible-looking as Ellie's, handed them off at the towering main doors of the castle — to, of all people, Minerva McGonagall.

Ellie couldn't quite help a scowl at the sight of the woman. It was her fault, she knew, that Dumbledore had decided to come find her at the Gryphon's Rest, that Ellie had had to drastically cut back on her trips into Charing to prevent rediscovery. If McGonagall just hadn't stuck her nose in, if she'd taken Ellie's insistence everything was fine at face value — and it was, she and the Dursleys were all happier far away from each other — if she'd just left her alone...

What business was it of hers, anyway? Ellie had never even met her before — where did she get off, prying into her business?

(She did know McGonagall had thought she was doing the right thing, but that didn't make it any less annoying.)

While Ellie tried to not look too suspiciously annoyed, the two professors had a brief, impatient exchange, and McGonagall lead her and the pack of other first-years into the entrance hall of the castle — which was absurd, polished granite floors and a huge vaulted ceiling, gold bloody filigree everywhere, and were those enormous gemstones packed into those cylindrical glass cases over there? — before quickly directing them into a smaller side chamber, this one much more plain, grey stone broken only with a couple faded tapestries in reds and greens. The room was smaller than Ellie would have liked, requiring them to pack in a bit, she edged herself toward a wall so she wouldn't get surrounded.

And McGonagall, stiff and tall and stern, gave a speech about Sortings and Houses and whatnot. This was mostly new to Ellie — it hadn't occurred to her to read up on Hogwarts (she was going to go there, could find out for herself), and in retrospect people had referenced this on the train but she hadn't known enough to recognise what they were talking about at the time. The whole thing seemed quite silly, really. Maybe there was more to it, because it just sounded like it was the dormitory they were staying in? People had been talking about it like it was a big deal, but...

By now, Ellie was used to the idea that the things normal people cared about were very silly and ultimately unimportant.

It was at the end, staring down her nose at them with dignified disapproval, that McGonagall finally broke out of what was clearly a pre-planned speech, twitching with surprise and giving Ellie a double-take. "Miss Potter, where is your hat?"

Ellie tried not to scowl. "It fell in the lake, ma'am," she said, raising the hand holding her hat by the point up so she could see the soggy thing. It had mostly stopped dripping by now, but it was still very, very wet. She'd been right, her hair was bloody impossible, wearing this thing just wasn't going to work — on the boats crossing the lake, a breeze had swept in and picked the thing right off her head, flopping limply into the water. Ellie had thought, for a few glorious minutes, that she was rid of the thing, but someone in one of the boats behind her had scooped it up, surprised Ellie with it once they were back on dry land.

McGonagall harshly hushed the giggles that swept through the room, before drawing her wand and firing off a spell of some kind — it was invisible, but Ellie could feel the tingling static of magic zipping toward her. Before she could do more than twitch, the magic hit...and her hat instantly dried, once again soft and fuzzy and a few pounds lighter. Oh, okay.

Wait, she'd be expected to wear the bloody thing again. Dammit.

The professor lingered another couple seconds — maybe expecting a thank you from Ellie, but she would not be offering one, she'd been happy with her excuse to not have to wear it — before she backed away, leaving the kids in the little room alone.

With Ellie. And they were all staring at her now, wide-eyed, because they'd just realised who she was, that the Girl Who Lived was in a (too-small) room with them.

Dammit.

"Er...hi?"

Apparently not picking up on how entirely not comfortable with this situation she was, half the kids burst into talking all at once. There were a lot of it's really her, and blimey, Ellie Potter, one girl with bushy brown hair nearly as bad as Ellie's rattling off about having read about her — before quickly breaking off and staring incredulously at everyone else going mad, Ellie liked that one — someone said something about being in her—

Fan club? She had a fan club? How did Ellie not know she had a fan club?

Also, why the ever-living fuck did she have a fan club? She was eleven years old, for Christ's sake! What the fuck was wrong with people?!

Before too long, the chaos was silenced, thanks to two over-large boys forcing their way through the crowd. (Big and broad and brutish, they did not look eleven, or even entirely human.) Or, not just them, actually, there was a very clean-looking boy with unnatural silvery-blond hair leading them — he was so much smaller than the other two boys, Ellie hadn't even noticed him at first. "Give the girl some breathing room, maybe?" the littler boy said, turning a look on the rest of the crowd Ellie couldn't see from this angle. "Crowding around her like madmen."

Ellie shot a suspicious glare at the back of his head. Boy was faking — the irritation on his voice didn't match the nervous excitement he was feeling. At least he was being nicer about it than the rest, she guessed, but he was definitely up to something.

She cleared her face again as he turned back. "Alright there, Potter?"

That was...odd. Had she been so uncomfortable it'd been obvious from the outside? Hmm. "Yeah, I'm fine."

The boy smiled, then started off on a speech, little of which Ellie actually heard — it sounded about as rehearsed as McGonagall's, she checked out the instant she realised how fake it was. But she didn't really need to listen, she knew what he was getting at without hardly hearing a word, it was obvious from the feel of his head and the way he'd interposed himself between her and her adoring fans (blech). So, instead of listening, Ellie thought about what her answer should be.

She looked at this Draco Malfoy kid — very clean as he was, his robes very shiny, obviously expensive — at the two massive bookends, the few other kids flanking them — most similarly richly-dressed, the rest of the room had taken a step back from them, some glaring, looking strangely uncomfortable. She dragged her fingers over the minds of everyone in the room, taking in the feel of the moment, the unspoken rift within the students obvious in a way it wasn't by eyes alone, and the particular character of it...

When he stuck his (very pale) hand out to her, Ellie took it without a second of hesitation, her decision already made before he got that far. "Sure, thanks." She let go as soon as she thought she'd met the bare minimum necessary to not come off like an arse, stepping back and trying not to look too uncomfortable. (She didn't like touching, okay, didn't sound like too much to ask.) "Not like I know anyone else here anyway, do I."

If Draco cared about or even noticed the less than polite implication, he didn't react. Well, he didn't react negatively, at least — he was smiling a bit, but the gleeful victory he was feeling was far more obvious in his head.

Not that there weren't negative feelings sparking off all around her, they just weren't coming from the pack of kids immediately around Draco. For an intense, uncomfortable moment, there was a storm of surprise and anger and confusion, and for a moment Ellie was convinced there was going to be a confrontation of some kind...for reasons she was ignorant of that were probably very stupid.

Thankfully, she was rescued by the couple dozen ghosts suddenly appearing over their heads. Good distraction, that.

Before anyone could work themselves up again, McGonagall was back, appearing to lead them into the entrance hall again. As they started streaming out — her retreat toward a wall had put her near the back of the pack, so she was still waiting — one of the kids near Draco said, "Hey, Potter." When Ellie glanced toward her, she tapped the brim of her hat.

Ellie scowled. "Dammit." She swept her hair back with her fingers, hopefully enough it'd be mostly out of the way, then pulled the damn thing down on her head. Once again, it instantly popped up when she let go, but at least it hadn't fallen right off. "I hate this thing, you know."

The girl's lips twitched with a badly-suppressed smirk, but at least she was polite enough to not say anything.

The dining hall was about as ridiculous, over-the-top fancy as the big entrance hall was, with the same shining stone and glittering gold accents, just with long tables in it — the tableware was glittering too, shiny and rich — but without a proper ceiling, instead open to... No, it wasn't open to the sky, it was just enchanted to look like it. Ellie didn't know why she was so confident about that, just looking at it... It just didn't quite look right, she didn't know. The point was, everything was gleaming and shiny and expensive-looking, Ellie felt uncomfortable just standing here, the familiar, tingling feeling — weaker from being ignored for a couple years now, but not faded entirely — that she was doing something she wasn't supposed to, that Vernon and Petunia wouldn't like.

And that was before people started staring and pointing and whispering, that just made it worse. (She could feel their eyes on her skin like wasps.) Ellie slipped between a few of the bigger rich kids, out of sight of most of the kids sitting along the tables.

Since she was surrounded by kids taller than her, she couldn't see what was going on. They were led through the room between a couple of the tables for a while, eventually coming to a stop near the opposite end from the door. There was another table up at the rear, set at an angle from the rest, must be where the teachers were sitting, judging by the one adult-looking person she managed to pick out from between shoulders and heads. There was an odd, tense silence, before someone started singing, badly.

Except, it wasn't a person exactly — even before it said it was a bloody hat (what the hell), Ellie could tell there was something wrong with it. It didn't sound off, it just...felt wrong. She couldn't even explain how, exactly, sparks on the air and tingles down her neck, she suspected this Sorting Hat was singing at them not through sound but through magic.

Which was weird, but it was a bloody hat (supposedly), Ellie tried not to think about it too hard.

And then McGonagall — Ellie couldn't see her, but she recognised her voice — started calling people up, one by one. The hat yelled out one of those silly house names, applause, the next one, the pool of first-years slowly dripping away. The bigger kids she was hiding behind were all toward the beginning of the alphabet, it didn't take long until her cover was gone. (She tried not to notice the kids at the tables all around her, she could feel their eyes on her like wasps, but don't think about it.) So she saw, yes, that was a bloody hat. Okay, then. While she waited for the Sorting to go on, she idly scanned the row of professors, the ones she could see now, all of them looking eccentric at best, pulled out of a bloody cartoon show or something, like that huge bloke right there, did that one have leaves in her hair, that bloke looked like a villain pulled out of a children's programme, that turban didn't match the rest of him at—

The mental attack came in a flash of stabbing fire.

Ellie twitched, eyes tipping down to glare at the floor on instinct, concentrated on pushing the assault away. Before it could really get anywhere, she slammed against it, keeping it out, forcing it back to—

It lifted away, as abruptly as it'd begun.

Feeling suddenly flushed and shaky, Ellie took a few long breaths, absently rubbing over her heart, her chest crawling with a cold, dull pain. Note to self: never look directly at turban-bloke, because he was a fucking arsehole.

"Potter, Elizabeth."

Ellie jerked at the call of her name — she'd missed a few kids, distracted by the attack. She picked through the maze of kids yet to be Sorted, went up to the stool, as she went avoided thinking about all the people watching her or looking anywhere near the turban-bloke. Whipping her stupid hat off — she wasn't putting it back on, she didn't care what anyone said — she sat down on the little stool, eyes tipping up at the ceiling rather than look out over the entire gathered student body, there had to be hundreds of them.

(She could feel their eyes on her skin like wasps.)

McGonagall set the magic hat on her head, the rim dropping over her eyes, Ellie bit down the urge to throw it off immediately — she didn't like being blinded, okay. Her fingers twitching, a shiver trying to work its way up her spine, what exactly was supposed to be happen—

Oh, my.

That thought, that voice in her head, that was not hers, but coming from outside...somehow. She hadn't felt a thing, still didn't, it'd just slipped right through and...

Never fear, Miss Potter, I am bound to the magics of the school. Even if I wanted to, I am simply incapable of hurting— Oh, my.

Er. What was going on?

I'm taking a peek inside your head to see where I should put you, and... Well, you have had a rough time of it, haven't you, Miss Potter?

Ellie had absolutely no idea what to do with that.

No, I imagine not. Oh dear, oh dear...

Right, well, could they get on with it then? She'd really like this silly business to be over with, she was just sitting up here being stared at...

Of course, Miss Potter. Good luck.

"SLYTHERIN!"


The Slytherin common room was rather nicer than Dorea Black had expected.

Not that she'd really known much of what to expect — the far wall all being glass, the lake on the other side a solid mass of greenish-black, that she'd been told about, and she knew they'd have their own rooms, but that was about it. Andi hadn't mentioned the soft, comfortable-looking chairs in greens and blacks, the warm light thrown from several hearths and dozens of little glistening silver lamps, but not so much light it got too bright, furniture and the occasional pillar here and there — raw, unpolished stone, dark and earthy — throwing dramatic but soft shadows over everything, the effect cutting down all that illumination to a moody half-light, bright enough to read comfortably but dark enough there wasn't any glaring anywhere. It was rather nice, she thought.

If only it weren't so cold — Dorea edged a little closer to the nearest hearth, arms wrapped tight around her. At least they were underground, it probably wouldn't be much colder in winter...

...if it weren't for the lake being right there. Damn it. Pretty, but damn it.

Still nice, though.

The other new kids finished trailing in behind her, the door out into the hall silently sliding closed again. There was a brief moment of silence, everybody waiting, Dorea and the rest of the first-years restlessly shifting under the attention of the gathered Slytherins — the room was full, most of the chairs and couches occupied and others standing around, the whole house it looked like — for long uncomfortable seconds before the only adult in the room finally spoke.

"I am Professor Snape, head of Slytherin House and Master of Potions here at Hogwarts." He was a tall, skeleton-thin man, a narrow pale face with dramatically-arched eyebrows, framed by long pitch-black hair. Dorea had been told a little bit about him — not a lot, basically just to be careful around him — and she already found herself doubting what little she had been told.

If nothing else, Andi had said Snape was an angry, troubled man, but he didn't sound angry, his voice low and soft and smooth.

They were bid to introduce themselves one at a time — with how she'd slipped closer to the hearth, Dorea could see most of the group from here, was able to put names to faces as they went. She didn't know any of them, obviously, but Andi had prepared her with the names of a few Death Eater families, again with the advice to be careful around them. Which was slightly silly, they were only eleven, what could they do, really...

Dorea jumped in somewhere around the middle. There was some more hissing and whispering at her name — not as badly as when it'd been said the first time, calling her up to be Sorted, but they still weren't over her existing yet, apparently. She'd been told to expect it, so she just gave the gathered Slytherins a shy smile until the next kid introduced themselves.

And the reaction to her name wasn't nearly as bad as what Elizabeth Potter got. (She didn't use Ellie, Dorea noticed, made a mental note of it.) The girl was absolutely tiny — she'd barely top Dorea's shoulder, thin enough the bones in her wrists were obvious from here, bright green eyes looking overlarge (because she was so thin and little?), pale enough Dorea doubted she saw much sun at all, hair an absolute mess of frizzy curls a dull black, the volume it took up almost obscenely huge compared to the rest of her. (She was carrying her hat, understandable, probably couldn't get it on over that chaos.) When she introduced herself, in a quiet but firm mutter, the room was taken over with such a thick wave of whispering and grumbling Snape had to get them to shut up so they could move on.

Dorea didn't know what to think of Potter yet. She just...wasn't what she'd expected. She was bloody tiny, for one thing, and so quiet — Dorea had pointedly made room for her next to her at the table, and Potter had taken the spot, but she'd barely said a word through dinner. Dorea hadn't pushed, she wasn't so great at small talk either — not to mention she hardly knew what to say to Potter in particular — but she seemed more quiet than awkward quiet, like, almost worryingly quiet.

It probably didn't make sense, but Dorea felt...oddly bad. Potter just seemed kind of sad, and...pathetic? Like, kicked puppy pathetic. And, she didn't know, she almost...

She almost felt guilty. Which was silly, she didn't have anything to feel guilty about. She hadn't done anything. Just because her father, who she hadn't even known existed until she'd been six, might (or might not?) have betrayed Potter's parents to this Dark Lord person didn't— Dorea wasn't responsible for that, she had nothing to feel bad about.

She hoped the feeling would go away, because if she had to talk to her about it, that would just be awkward.

Anyway, before too long everyone had introduced themselves, and Snape took over again. "Perfect." He muttered that to himself before raising his voice to go on, clearly not addressed to them, almost sounded sarcastic. "My office hours are, as ever, subject to change — an up-to-date schedule may always be found on the notice board. You might have noticed Charles Urquhart and Gemma Farley—" He nodded to the older boy and girl who'd led them down to the common room. "—are our new fifth-year prefects. We also have a new seventh-year prefect, Deirdre NicCormaic, stepping in for this year's Head Girl, Aemilia Scrimgeour."

There was a smattering of polite applause at that, and even a bit of hooting and whistling; a tall girl with fiery orange-red hair near the front of the crowd of Slytherins grinned and waved. This interruption Snape let go longer, long enough the new Head Girl started to get a little pink in the face, looking a mix of proud and embarrassed.

It could have been her imagination — his face was so blank and severe, he could be carved from stone — but Dorea almost thought Snape was smiling, just a little.

"You all," Snape said once the room had quieted, to the older students, "should be familiar with the rules by now. You know what I expect from you. You are dismissed — first-years, prefects, and Miss Scrimgeour, remain behind."

Once the older students had vanished into the shadowy passageways ringing the room, with the exception of the six prefects and the Head Girl, Snape started in on a short lecture on the virtues of Slytherin House (which mostly boiled down to adaptability and self-reliance), followed by a much longer one on the rules. Snape said the house had two unofficial, if important, rules that applied to almost everything, which Dorea thought were honestly kind of funny — the First Rule was what happens in Slytherin stays in Slytherin, and the Second Rule was don't get caught. Dorea wasn't the only one who had to choke back giggles when he said them, badly-hidden smiles on half their faces.

There might have been more, if Snape didn't sound so deathly serious about it. It was a little intimidating.

The official school rules could a lot of times be understood as an extension of the First Rule, or to have exceptions in the form of the Second Rule. Sometimes both — for not hexing people in the corridors, for example, disputes between Slytherins were to be dealt with inside Slytherin (First Rule), but if they really must do something so undignified as throwing prank spells at each other in public they should at the very least have the decency to not get caught (Second Rule). Dorea had to bite her lip to stop herself from giggling again, he just said it so flat and bluntly sarcastic, it was funny. The Second Rule was particularly important, because Snape wanted to win the House Cup for the seventh year in a row — he didn't expect them to actually behave themselves, but they could at least contain their wilder impulses enough to not ruin their streak for everyone else.

Scrimgeour jumped in at this point, telling them with a bloody grin that she had every intention of winning the Cup every year of her attendance, anyone of any year who lost too many points over something stupid would be answering to her. By the smirks and chuckles from the other prefects, it was pretty obvious answering to her wouldn't be pleasant.

Once that was done, Snape explained the rules about the common room and the dorm. They were not to give out the password to anyone not in Slytherin — there were privacy spells around the entrance, so they didn't have to worry about giving it away accidentally — but they could let friends into the common room if they wanted to, with the understanding that they might be kicked out at any time if enough Slytherins wanted them gone. Non-Slytherins were not to be let past the common room into the dorms without explicit permission from Snape himself. Anyone who purposefully broke this rule would be punished most severely.

They did all have their own rooms, Andi had been right about that part. They were all warded, and would keep out everyone except the seventh-year prefects, Scrimgeour, and Snape himself. There was a work-around where they could let friends into their rooms, if they held the person's hand while walking through the door, but it only worked if they were the same sex and in the same year, it would bounce anyone else. Starting in fourth year, they were given the choice to ward their rooms on their own — if they didn't want to do it themselves, they could ask Snape to put the old wards back on, but they should take the practice of doing it themselves anyway (especially if they ever wanted to let anyone into their rooms who wasn't one of the few exceptions).

By the way Snape said a few particular things, Dorea had the feeling he was talking about, like, older kids letting their boyfriends or girlfriends into their rooms, implying... They let kids do that here? Huh...

At this point, Snape talked about the Truce — Dorea had been told about this before, something dealing with the aftermath of the War a decade ago, but really not much more than the fact that it existed. Snape went into a lot more detail than Andi had. There were a number of basic rules that applied to them here at the school, which he apparently thought were important enough to explain once, summarise a second time, then quiz them on a third time, just to make sure they got it. The basic points were: don't talk about the Dark Lord; never speak of a specific event considered part of the War; children are not to be held responsible for the actions of their parents in any way; no one is to be assaulted, verbally, physically, or magically, over their family's allegiance in the War or their own perceived allegiance now, Light or Dark; no one is to do anything with the intent of getting revenge for anything that happened in the War; no one is to show open prejudice in any way toward muggleborns, students with mixed heritage, or "so-called" blood traitors. (Dorea wasn't sure what that last one even meant, but she did catch a hint of scorn on the "so-called" part.) Anyone who breaks any of these terms is no longer protected by the Truce and may be freely targeted — within the bounds of Slytherin and Hogwarts rules, of course.

Snape followed that up immediately with a bit on the house rules against hazing, and that any Slytherin student who felt they were being bullied should go to one of the prefects. (Dorea might have imagined Snape's eyes flicking to herself and Potter in particular here.) They could come straight to him if they preferred, if they weren't comfortable going to the prefects for any reason, though the first-years would also all have mandatory one-on-one meetings with him once a month. Anything they told him would be kept confidential — he wouldn't blab on them to other students, to their parents, even to Dumbledore himself, what was said in private would be kept private.

Minor disagreements between Slytherins were to be mediated by the prefects, but students could also make formal accusations against other students for more serious offences at any of the House Meetings — details on exactly how that process worked could be found in the student handbook, copies available in the library — but especially sensitive issues they didn't want to air out in public should be brought to Snape directly instead. If they did need a prefect, they were to go the sixth-years first, the others only if they were unavailable — the fifth- and seventh-years had exams to worry about, not burdening them if they didn't have to was only polite.

Then there was a rapid list of more minor rules — how to find their way around the castle, posting on the notice board, meal times, who to go to with questions about classes or professors, and so forth. He went on for a couple minutes, before his voice suddenly went a bit sharper. "Now then, we shall see whether you have been paying attention."

Most of the first-years looked startled, almost alarmed. It was late, and they had just eaten, she guessed they hadn't been focusing as closely as they probably should have been. Dorea noticed Potter just looked slightly irritated.

Dorea jumped when Snape's eyes abruptly turned to meet hers. "Miss Black, what is the Slytherin policy on hazing?"

She blinked. "No permanent damage, keep it in Slytherin, and bring it to the prefects or yourself if we feel it's crossing into bullying, sir."

Snape stared at her for another second, gaze cold and heavy, before moving on. (That was weird...) He continued to interrogate the class, shooting one question after another in quick succession, whether the student he asked got it correct or not. Dorea quickly noticed he was going down the list in alphabetical order, which was interesting — they were just Sorted this evening, so he wouldn't have had a class list, must have ordered them in his head.

Once the quiz was done, Snape reminded them they would get their schedules at breakfast in the morning — and that a prefect would be escorting them up at seven every morning for the first two weeks. And then, with very little fanfare, he left.

Into the disoriented silence he'd left behind him, Scrimgeour clapped her hands once, drawing attention to her. Dorea quickly noticed the longer sentences made her vaguely Scottish-sounding accent far more obvious. "Right then, now that Professor Killjoy—" The other prefects looked shocked or scandalised at the nickname, Scrimgeour still brightly grinning. "—is finished we can finally wrap up. Emily Scrimgeour, welcome to Slytherin, all that.

"Now, our dorms are something of a maze down here. You'll notice there are tunnels going off to the sides all about," she said, pointing around the rim of the room, the shadowed archways arrayed there. "Some of those, you'll find go down into the dorms, others let out all over the place up in the castle — they work as exits only, the one entrance is the one behind you. Experiment if you like, see if you can find yourself a good shortcut somewhere, but do try not to get lost. Many of the passages are unmarked, but you'll see this symbol..." Scrimgeour drew her wand, casting a glowing green and white shape into the air — it looked rather like a snake, curled into a circle to bite its own tail. It vanished after a couple seconds. "Any passage marked with an ouroboros will lead you back toward the common room, some quicker than others, but all make it eventually.

"The easy way to get down to the dorms are the shafts at the back," pointing toward the rear corners of the common room with her thumbs. "Girls to your right, boys to your left. You'll find seven doors in these shafts, each with a letter from the Greek alphabet inside a circle or a triangle — each letter corresponds to a year, in sequence from alpha to zeta; circle for girls and triangle for boys. It's not the only way to get there, but it is the most reliable. There will—"

"Er, Miss Scrimgeour?"

"Yes, Greengrass."

"Isn't zeta the sixth letter?"

"You're missing digamma — digamma is six, zeta is seven. As I was saying, a short distance down that passage you'll find a juncture, with a whole bunch of paths leading off, some of which have solid doors. The black doors are your rooms; the white is your bath. Your doors will be marked with the colours of your family as Hogwarts remembers them, or a name placard if you haven't any — you may remove it if you wish, but don't forget which room is yours. There are a number of enchantments, lights and air-freshening and so on, active in all the rooms down there. The most important key is igniat, which turns the lights on, but you'll find a full list on your desk. You'll also find the cleaning and laundry schedules there.

"There are two bathrooms for each year, one for each sex; they're warded nasty, Snape tweaked them himself, don't even think about going into baths meant for the opposite sex. In each one, you'll find two toilets, two sinks, two showers, two smaller baths, and one larger bath. The showers and the smaller baths are intended for use by one person at a time, though you probably could fit two or three if you really wanted to, and the stalls are closed with simple locks — please respect others' desire for privacy, you do not want prefects getting dragged into bathroom disputes. The larger bath dates from an older time, when communal bathing was the norm; you may use it if you want to, but it is certainly not required.

"It's not just dorm rooms and bathrooms in the maze, you'll find some more public spaces — a few smaller sitting rooms, a house library, a couple game rooms, a much larger open bath, a dueling arena. They're mostly near the common room, in the levels just under our feet, not difficult to find. The bath is open to both sexes — do observe basic decency if you plan on using it, if you're uncertain about proper conduct do ask someone — and the process for borrowing books from the library is posted somewhere easily visible, as are the house dueling rules, though the Second Rule always applies. I don't recommend trying to steal anything from the library — they're all enchanted with tracking charms, Snape will know and he will find you.

"Am I forgetting anything?" she said, turning to the prefects.

They all shook their heads, one of the girls — Deidre something, Dorea thought, the one who'd replaced Scrimgeour as the seventh-year prefect — saying, "I don't care if you did. It's late, I want to go to bed."

Scrimgeour's grin went a little crooked, and she said...something, it wasn't English. Irish, maybe? Whatever she'd said, one of the other prefects started chuckling, Deidre ignoring them both with a roll of her eyes. "Right, that's it then. Gemma and Charlie will show you lot down. Welcome to Slytherin, little snakelings."

There was a little bit of organised chaos, then, as the tangled-together group of new first-years split apart, the boys following the boy prefect, Dorea and the other girls trailing behind Gemma (Farley, was it?). They hadn't even left the common room yet, still slipping between the furniture scattered all about, when someone got Dorea's attention. A little shorter than Dorea, but more round-faced, black hair peeking out from under her hat, her eyes pale and sharp. "I didn't get to you at dinner. Pansy Parkinson."

She hadn't gotten to Dorea because Parkinson had sat herself next to Draco Malfoy, and spent most of the meal hissing insults at Tracey Davis and Daphne Greengrass. (She thought those names were right? She'd been paying attention during the introductions, but she might have mixed someone up.) But it probably wouldn't be polite to point that out. And she should be mindful of the mages' silly politeness rules, since she would be living with these people. So she carefully said, "Dorea Black. Nice to meet you, Miss Parkinson."

The girl smiled, just for a second. "Is that Black Black? I mean, the Noble and Most Ancient House, those Blacks."

Dorea tried not to roll her eyes — this was not the first time anyone had asked her that question. But a few of the other girls, even the prefect, were listening in, so she might as well get it out of the way. "Yes, those Blacks."

"I hadn't realised there were any left," said the very tall, very blonde, very pretty girl. "Daphne Greengrass, by the way."

Dorea wondered to herself why she'd bothered trying to be polite if nobody else was going to be. "It's just me and my great-aunt Cassiopeia, I think." Though she might not be around for very much longer — Cassiopeia had warned her that she'd been getting antsy for a while now, might disappear on short notice to go be someone new somewhere else, as metamorphs were like to do. "Oh, and Sirius, I guess."

"Is he your father?" By the intensity as she said it, Dorea knew that was the question Parkinson had really wanted to ask.

Too bad, Dorea wasn't answering it. Or, not directly answering it — Parkinson should realise what she was really saying, if she wasn't a bloody idiot. "I'm sorry, it's late, and I'm not in the mood to discuss such difficult things at the moment."

"Oh, of course, you're right." Parkinson just looked disappointed, so maybe she was a bloody idiot.

Greengrass, Davis, and Prefect Farley all shot her looks, so at least she wasn't surrounded by idiots.

At the back of the room was not a staircase, but a flat ramp descending in a spiral, a passage extending out here and there, in the centre of every arch a letter inside a circle. After descending past a few doors, they went under an arch marked with a lower-case alpha with a bar above it, the moodily-lit, roughly-hewn passage inside leading to a low-ceilinged circular room. It was bloody obvious this was the right place — inset into the black and silver tile floor was another barred alpha inside a circle in glittering green ceramic, hard to miss.

There were two other open passages leading away — one had a barred beta inside a circle, apparently leading to the second-year girls' rooms, the other was unmarked — one white door, and six black doors. Each of the black doors had a little plaque on it, most of them vaguely shield-shaped, a mix of colours and figures few of which Dorea could make out from here. After a bit of looking around, Dorea spotted one — silver black and red, three crows and a hand gripping a sword — that she knew belonged to the House of Black.

Their prefect guide was clearly tired, just told them to be back up in the common room by seven thirty before vanishing. The other girls had the same idea, Parkinson and Bulstrode immediately making for their rooms. Potter had already gone to her door, pulled off the plaque, flipping the red and white thing in her hand as she turned the handle.

Oh, crap! Dorea darted over before she could disappear. "Hey, Potter."

The shorter girl looked up, her vivid green eyes meeting Dorea's. And she just stared, flat and still and... Well, it was kind of unnerving, honestly. Which was a silly thing to think, really, but she couldn't help it, she felt inexplicably exposed, standing here in the dorms being stared at, which was silly, and she didn't know what was wrong with her...

"Er..." What had she wanted to say? She had wanted to say something, hadn't she? She'd thought she had, but she'd forgotten why she'd wanted to stop Potter while she still could... "Good night."

The girl's eyes narrowed slightly — in confusion, Dorea thought. "Good night." She pushed the door to her room open, quietly pulling it closed behind her again.

Right. That was weird. Shaking off the odd moment, Dorea went straight for her own room. The other girls had the right of it, it had been a long bloody day...

Chapter Text

September 1991


Ellie quickly decided Hogwarts, for all of its eccentricities and annoyances, was at least an improvement over normal school.

It had occurred to Ellie shortly after her mind-control superpowers had kicked in that she really didn't need to go to school if she didn't want to, it wasn't like the Dursleys could make her go anymore. After a moment of thought, she'd decided to just keep going anyway. When it came down to it, school had never been that much of an imposition. In some ways, it'd been something of a refuge — it was the one place Vernon and Petunia couldn't get to her, she was safe for at least a few hours. Sure, Dudley and his friends would make enormous arses of themselves, but Ellie was long accustomed to avoiding them by that point. She'd actually looked forward to each approaching holiday with dread, knowing she'd be stuck in the house with the Dursleys for days or weeks straight, unable to escape them for even a few hours.

After the mind-control superpowers had started being a thing, well, she still didn't like being around the Dursleys if she could help it. Going to school was at least a way to get away from them for a little while. And it wasn't like anyone else bothered her there either — Dudley was terrified of her now, so she didn't have to deal with his gang, and they'd already long ago scared away all the other kids. She wouldn't say she liked going to school anymore, not really, but she didn't mind.

At Hogwarts, she'd immediately realised one of the biggest downsides: the people here wouldn't just ignore her like they did back home. Ellie was famous for stupid irrational reasons, after all, and her being a Slytherin now made a lot of them be extra stupid and irrational — she didn't entirely understand why, something about the war, maybe — so people were inclined to notice her, even if they didn't actually talk to her. Which was irritating, they kept staring, she could feel their eyes on her skin like ants, she tried to not think about it.

And, normally, if people were being annoying and paying too much attention to her, she'd just make them leave her alone, but she wasn't certain that would be a good idea here. Dumbledore had explicitly warned her against compelling the other students, had implied Snape would be watching her, and Quirrell clearly had mind magic powers too, so all three might notice if she did anything, and she doubted she could make them ignore it. If nothing else, she suspected they'd feel it if she tried to do anything to their heads, which made getting them to ignore her difficult, obviously.

As uncomfortable and nerve-wracking as it was, the least terrible of all available options was to do nothing.

Though, as stupid as it made some people be, Ellie thought being put in Slytherin might have actually been the best possibility. They might have decided they didn't like her for no good reason, all glaring and whispering, but if she'd been put somewhere else they might have actually tried to talk to her — she didn't like it, but at least all the non-Slytherins were mostly leaving her alone.

That first day after arriving at Hogwarts was a Sunday, so they didn't have class. (Which was funny when she thought about it, since she'd thought having Sunday off was a Christian thing, and she was pretty sure mages weren't.) Instead, they were given their schedules, the prefects showing the first-years around the school, where the classrooms and the library were, and tricks to navigating the place and such. And it did require tricks to get around, since the castle was very magic — things had a tendency to move around, the people in portraits couldn't be used as landmarks, the rooms and the staircases and the hallways themselves slowly drifting. And there were odd things like doors needing to be asked politely before they would open, or walls pretending to be doors, which could also be confusing...

...or so she was told, but the fake door Prefect Gemma pointed out as an example was obviously fake to her. It looked real, of course, but it didn't feel real. There was a tingling of magic around it, more than just any other random spot on the wall, and while Ellie wasn't good enough to know what kind of magic something was just by feeling it, she could still tell. Like, the subtle sense something wasn't right, a little whisper at the back of her head hissing lie lie lie.

Most of that first day ended up being spent with the other Slytherins, so she knew all of them by the end, the girls somewhat better than the boys. All of them had already known each other before (with the exception of Dorea), since apparently all the fancy nobility grew up knowing each other, so a lot of their conversations ended up being focused on introducing themselves to her and getting to know her, which was irritating, but what could she do. By lunch, she'd already divided the Slytherins into a couple groups, and she hadn't even needed cheating mind powers to do it.

The biggest group was the one that seemed to be centred on Draco Malfoy, the same tall blond boy she'd pegged as one of the rich popular kids when he'd introduced himself the first night. He was a little bit of a pompous git, honestly, but probably the easiest to deal with — Ellie had quickly realised that he could rattle off on his own for long minutes, perfectly happy with only an occasional hum or nod from her, and he also worked as a good repellant for more tedious people, so that was just convenient. Greg Goyle and Vinnie Crabbe, those two boys who looked far too large to only be eleven, were always with Draco. They didn't talk much, which was also fine, Ellie didn't really feel like talking to them either.

She wondered to herself if they were doing the same thing she was — latching on to Draco because it was simply the easy thing to do, humouring him only as much as they needed to to keep him happy. Or maybe they were just idiots, it was hard to tell.

Pansy Parkinson and Theo Nott had also attached themselves to Draco, though not for the same reasons. Ellie got the feeling that Theo Nott, a quiet, squirrelly little boy, was friends of some kind with Draco. Not really great friends, just in the casual, known each other forever kind of way. Pansy, on the other hand, seemed to be trying very hard to get as much of Draco's attention as possible. It was sort of pathetic, watching her a part of Ellie just wanted to cringe, but the more Pansy made an idiot of herself the less effort Ellie had to put in actually holding up a conversation with Draco, so it didn't really bother her too much. And then there was slightly disheveled-looking Millie Bulstrode, who was very tall for a girl (though not quite as tall as Greg and Vinnie), and seemed to maybe be friends with Pansy — she hardly ever said a word, but they were always together, Millie looming behind Pansy like a silent, red-headed shadow, so it seemed a good assumption.

Ellie had noticed, when they'd been in that room before the Sorting, that the rest of the first-years didn't seem to like this first group very much. She'd assumed it was because they were, you know, the rich popular kids, the sort of person that always somehow ended up at the top of the pecking order despite not being very nice to everyone under them — Ellie had accepted Draco's little offer of friendship that night for that reason, she'd thought letting Draco claim her would be an easy way to just not have to deal with most of the rest of her classmates. It turned out, the real reason most of the other kids didn't really like Draco and his friends was because their parents were all Death Eaters, followers of that Dark Lord person. The same Dark Lord person who'd killed Ellie's parents, the one she was famous for supposedly somehow defeating ten years ago.

So, er. Whoops?

Not that Ellie cared, honestly — she didn't see why what someone's parents might or might not have done over ten years ago should matter to her. But, her adoring fans had clearly come to some sort of conclusion, when Ellie had shaken Draco's hand, one which had not at all been part of her calculation at the time, one which being put in Slytherin had only made worse. Ellie wasn't sure what the non-Slytherins (or the Slytherins, really) were thinking about this, it was still very early yet, but she couldn't suppress the feeling that it wasn't going to end well.

The second, smaller group of kids wasn't really a thing, not a social clique the way the other one was, mostly united in that they clearly weren't friends with the first group. The most talkative of them was Daphne Greengrass, who was unfairly tall (though not as tall as Millie) and unfairly pretty, all blonde-haired and round-cheeked and button-nosed. (Ellie was instantly jealous of her hair, but she was jealous of anyone who had hair that actually behaved, that wasn't special.) Daphne seemed perfectly nice, if overly polite, though it was very obvious she didn't get along with Draco, Pansy, and Theo, everything they said to each other was cold and sharp and almost-but-not-quite mean. Daphne had her own quiet shadow in the form of Tracey Davis, but sort of the inverse of the Pansy-Millie duo, Tracey shorter than Daphne and less dramatic-looking, with black hair and grey eyes, rather plain overall — though, exactly like Millie, she would hardly say a word to Ellie for months. And then there was Blaise Zabini, a tall black boy who always seemed to be smirking, the few times he did say anything always flat and sarcastic. Nobody really seemed to like him very much, but he did gravitate a little away from Draco and Pansy and toward Daphne and Tracey, so Ellie put him in the second group.

She did the same thing with Dorea Black — tall, very thin, her long face against her wavy black hair looking almost too pale — but she was a little harder to figure out. When their getting-to-know-each-other conversation wasn't focused on Ellie, it was focused on Dorea, since nobody had known her before Hogwarts either...which was bloody weird, because she was apparently related to half of them — for some reason, it seemed to be important for these silly people to establish that Draco's mother was a Black, Dorea's great-grandmother was a Crabbe, and her great-great-grandmother was a Bulstrode, and the Davises and Parkinsons got involved somehow too, Ellie had lost track a long time ago. Apparently even the Potters were related to the Blacks, she and Dorea (and Draco) were second cousins...which might mean something to Ellie if she had any idea what a second cousin was, exactly, or why she should care.

She would assume Dorea should get along with Draco's group, since her dad was also apparently a Death Eater — though he'd been in magic prison since '81 and she'd literally never met him — and they were all from these silly old magic families. Draco and Theo and Pansy seemed to be trying to make friends, even. It just didn't seem to be working very well. It was hard to tell for sure, since Dorea was also doing the perfectly nice, overly polite thing Daphne was, and doing it somewhat better, the sharp note Daphne had when talking to the more annoying Death Eater kids wasn't there. But, Ellie noticed, there were a lot of things Draco and his friends said or questions they asked that Dorea dodged stating an opinion on or directly answering. Like, who her mother was, she was asked that multiple times over that first Sunday, and Dorea avoided the question every time, before flatly telling Pansy to quit it because she wasn't going to talk about her family no matter how many times they asked — the Death Eater kids really didn't seem to like that, for some reason Ellie couldn't quite figure out.

And once, when Pansy had been mocking Tracey — over her mum being muggleborn, which was apparently something worth mocking people for (though Ellie's was too, and none of them had said anything about that) — Dorea had jumped in and conspicuously changed the subject. At least, it had seemed conspicuous to Ellie, she wasn't certain anyone else noticed...though Daphne stopped using her cold voice with her after that, she'd lumped Dorea in with the Death Eater kids at first, so maybe just her and Daphne. But Dorea kept trying to be nice, especially to Ellie, which since Draco was trying to claim her meant being nice to him and his friends too...but she also seemed to be drifting toward Daphne and Tracey as the week went on...

She didn't know, she stuck Dorea in the second group just to make it simpler.

So, she had to deal with the Slytherins, which was something she really hadn't had to put up with at normal school, but they were also comparatively easy to deal with, either because they were consciously trying to be nice or simply didn't make a point of talking to Ellie much. It was still early, but given a choice between living with the Dursleys or in the dorm with the Slytherins, she'd pick the latter. Which wasn't a high bar, but still.

As far as the other three-quarters of their class went, or the actual school part of going to school, Ellie was more uncertain.

Their very first class on Monday was Defence Against the Dark Arts, which was pretty much a disaster. Ellie had already decided Defence would be useless — the textbook dealt largely with magical creatures she doubted she would ever actually see, so learning how to handle herself with them seemed like a waste of time — but that was before she'd realised who was teaching it. Professor Quirrell was a completely useless teacher, his lecture that first day all meandering and stuttering, occasionally breaking off to whimper to himself over whatever he'd just said. He seemed to be terrified of his own subject matter, so he could hardly get through a full sentence. Ellie couldn't imagine how he wasn't embarrassed with himself, doing this.

Also, Quirrell just so happened to be the purple-turban-wearing bloke who'd tried to read her mind during the Sorting, and he kept bloody doing it. Which was also fucking weird, because he acted (and felt) meek and terrified and useless, but the mind clawing at the edges of her own was anything but — cold and sharp, like knives against her skin. It was a bit scary, actually, the constant pressure for the hour, dangerous and cruel and right there, it made her feel a bit twitchy, she almost thought she might be sick. He didn't push, not trying very hard to actually get into her head, but he was always there, it was all Ellie could do to act normal. When the hour was finally over, Ellie was one of the first out of the room, the pressure fell away and she could breathe again.

Ellie rubbed at her chest, the network of old scars twinging with a cold, dull ache.

The second morning hour was Potions, which was held halfway across the school from the Defence classroom — Ellie and the Slytherins and the Gryffindors, who they had both classes with, walked down toward the basement together. Which was when Ellie got to learn that the Gryffindors really didn't like her. She had sort of noticed that before, she guessed, the displeased glaring from the red and gold table had been particularly bad, but she'd never actually spoken to any of them before. The walk from Defence to Potions on Monday made it very obvious.

Particularly, Ronald Weasley and Lavender Brown seemed to have taken personally Ellie not being the entirely fictional Girl Who Lived they'd been raised to expect — they were angry with her for not being all cheerful and nice and friendly, they hated her for being put into Slytherin, they saw her deigning to allow people like Draco Malfoy and Dorea Black to sit next to her as some kind of personal insult. And, oh, did they let her know it, glaring and sniping at her, saying things that were supposed to be insults of some kind. (She must be missing cultural knowledge, they could almost be speaking a different language.) Draco and Pansy ended up getting drawn into a fight with them, which was just as well, it was easier for Ellie to ignore them if they were all focused on yelling at each other.

She didn't even think they'd noticed Ellie had shuffled away to quietly walk with Daphne, Tracey, and Dorea — and Gryffindors Hermione Granger, Lily Moon, and Neville Longbottom — too wrapped up in hating each other over stupid shite to pay her any mind anymore. Which worked just fine for her, not complaining.

Potions as a class was a huge step up from Defence. Snape was the same dark, cold, flatly sarcastic bastard he'd been Saturday night, which at least ensured being stuck in a room for an hour with him lecturing at them wouldn't be boring. (Though he really didn't seem to like the Gryffindors — his disdain when Weasley couldn't answer one of his questions on Monday was very obvious, and he tore Longbottom and Finnigan apart when they explosively ruined their first potion on Wednesday.) The subject Potions seemed interesting enough, at a glance. It was basically just magic cooking, wasn't it? Not complicated, and also kind of neat.

Their last class on Monday afternoon was Transfiguration, which they had with Hufflepuffs, who might be her favourite first-years so far. None of them came up and talked to her — well, one did, but Zacharias Smith was about as much of a pompous git as Draco — and there was a little bit of staring and whispering at first, but they'd quit it almost right away. Once they'd gotten used to the fact that they were in a room with the Girl Who Lived (be still my heart)? Yeah, they pretty much just ignored her. Not a cold-shoulder kind of ignoring, more a sort of...friendly distance, she guessed. They didn't hate her, like the Gryffindors did, but they also didn't want to impose, like the Slytherins felt they could. Which was how she liked it.

Transfiguration wasn't great though. It was taught by McGonagall, who Ellie already didn't like — not for entirely rational reasons, she knew, but she couldn't help how she felt. Monday's Transfiguration was actually her first practical magic class, but it was also an irritating practical magic class. They were turning a matchstick into a needle, super simple, but Ellie couldn't get the damn thing to work. She could feel the magic trying to take, it was doing something, but she must not be doing it right. And McGonagall's stern, deceptively simple lecturing wasn't helping, because she had no idea what she was doing wrong. By the end of the double period, half of the class had needles, and Ellie was one of only five kids who hadn't gotten their matchstick to change at all.

Ellie tried not to let the surprised looks bother her.

Charms next afternoon, though, Charms was a totally different story. That one they also had with the Hufflepuffs, the professor this time a hyperactive, tiny bloke by the name of Flitwick. (Pansy hissed something about him being a half-breed at one point — goblin, Ellie assumed, his mind had the same unyielding, knife-edge feel.) The first thing they were told to do was to just push their magic out, basically, which was supposed to make sparks happen. Ellie got it immediately, on the first try, a stream of brilliant red and silver sparks filing the air in front of her. It wasn't until she heard the gasps of the other kids, Flitwick cheerfully clapping, that she realised she was the only one who had.

While the rest practised getting their magic to move properly — most of them had it by the end of class — Flitwick had her control the colour, shape, and brightness of the sparks. For the first, she just had to think of a colour and push, and it'd be the colour she wanted (they only came out red and silver if she wasn't thinking about it), but the other parts were harder. She figured out how to control the shape they took after a bit, how tightly packed or how spread out and how they moved after leaving her wand, not quite perfectly but sort of what she wanted, but she couldn't get them to dim from the brilliant shine they defaulted to at all. Flitwick was still impressed, though, threw ten points to Slytherin for her work that day.

Ellie would learn, very quickly over the next weeks, that Charms was handily her best class.

Immediately after Charms was Herbology with the Ravenclaws, who were also fine. Like the Hufflepuffs, the Ravenclaws all left her alone — the silence was somewhat colder, but that was fine, Ellie didn't really care so long as they didn't bother her too much. Unfortunately, the class itself was bloody stupid, she hated it. Ellie had already done far too much mucking about with plants, okay — her memories of the gardening at the Dursleys' were not pleasant — and the things being magical now didn't really make it better. It also didn't help that Herbology went absolutely stupid, for silly reasons that only made Ellie even more annoyed.

It was nearing the end of the class, and they were being showed around the greenhouse, Sprout pointing out this or that bit of equipment, explaining which sorts of plants were where, blah blah. Ellie was startled out of her stupor when she heard a couple girls screaming, jumping away from a spot in front of her, while Dorea froze, going still as a statue — just next to her right foot was a rather large snake, an adder, black and a bright almost auburn brown, hissing up at the noisy children. Thing must have gotten into the greenhouse somehow. It was obviously scaring Dorea very badly, for some reason, and Dorea had been nice enough to her so far, so Ellie decided to help, darted in to scoop it up, telling her off for making a nuisance of herself, stalked off to the door to toss her back outside.

Ellie didn't realise anything out of the ordinary had happened until she came back to find the whole class, including Professor Sprout, staring at her in shock, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.

To be honest, Ellie had entirely forgotten she could talk to snakes. Back when she'd still been doing the gardening — so, from when she was five or so until her mind-control superpowers kicked in — she'd run into them every once in a while. Looking back on it, more often than she probably should have, since they'd been rather close to London to be finding snakes everywhere, but maybe it was a magic thing, she didn't know. Anyway, they'd come by, and they'd talk at her, and Ellie would try not to talk back at them, because talking to snakes was definitely a freakish thing she shouldn't be doing, she hadn't been entirely convinced she wasn't just imagining the things talking, but she'd slipped sometimes anyway.

Not that they were very interesting to talk to. Snakes talked about hunting, how nice and warm the sun was, and finding other snakes to make little snakes with, and that was about it. She might have some freakish ability to talk to them, but that didn't mean they weren't still dumb animals.

In fact, they were so boring to talk to that in the couple years since she'd run into one she'd managed to completely forget she could talk to them at all.

The last few minutes of Herbology class was rather more subdued than it'd been before, dark and distracted. On the way back to the castle, the Ravenclaws kept a conspicuous distance between Ellie and the other Slytherins, but she hardly had time to wonder about that. "You're a parselmouth?!"

Ellie turned to frown at Draco, the silly boy walking rather more closely than she was comfortable with, she slipped a little further away. "I don't know what that is."

"You can talk to snakes."

"Oh." She frowned for a second, blinking up at him. "Well, yes, I guess I can. I completely forgot about that, honestly."

"How do you forget that you're a parselmouth?!"

"I never use it, do I? Snakes are awful conversationalists."

Dorea, Daphne, and Millie looked amused, Daphne even tittered a little; half of the rest of the Slytherins looked almost scandalised. Draco sputtered for a moment, before squeaking out, "But, it's— It's parseltongue! It's really rare, you know!"

"It's not, actually." The Slytherins all turned to stare at Daphne, who gave them a careless-yet-graceful shrug. "It's not exactly commonplace, of course, and the trait has practically died out among the nobility, but there are still plenty in Britain. About a fifth of Greenwood are parselmouths."

"But it's Slytherin family magic!"

Ellie blinked — talking snakes was a Slytherin thing, like a Salazar Slytherin thing? That would explain the snakes everywhere, she guessed, but she hadn't realised there even was such a thing as family magic. But the Slytherin family died out ages ago, where had she gotten it from?

Conveniently, Daphne went on explaining that. "British parselmouths are mostly descended from Slytherin, yes. But then, half of all mages in Britain are, aren't they?"

"What are you talking about, Slytherin's line died out over three hundred years ago!"

"No, the Noble and Most Ancient House died out, that's not the same thing as all of his descendants. Salazar Slytherin had, what, thirty-odd grandchildren? most of whom married into other magical families and had more kids of their own? Nobody carries the name Slytherin anymore, but half the country is descended from him."

Draco fell into spluttering again, apparently unable to come up with a good response for that. Which was perfectly reasonable, Ellie wasn't certain there was one — they'd established just two days ago that most of the first-year Slytherins were related somehow, the idea that half of the tiny magical society might have a single ancestor back over a thousand years ago seemed perfectly plausible to Ellie.

"So," Ellie said, "you're saying it's just a thing I inherited from my father, then." That was an odd thought, really. Not a bad one, exactly, she just knew virtually nothing about her father. That she might have gotten her silly, useless ability to talk to snakes from him was...strange.

Daphne shrugged again. "Or your mother — she could be from a squib line, these things skip a few generations sometimes."

Draco went very red.

After dinner, they had Welsh class. Well, it wasn't called Welsh, they called it Cambrian, but Ellie was pretty sure it was Welsh — it looked like Welsh, anyway. The Slytherins took this one with the Gryffindors again, but the class was somewhat smaller than usual, missing Slytherins Daphne, Draco, Pansy, and Millie, and Gryffindors Neville Longbottom, Lavender Brown, and...Fay? Ellie thought her name was Fay Dunbar, she wasn't sure. The why, or at least a good guess at why, was obvious pretty quickly: a significant portion of British society still spoke pre-English languages, particularly Welsh ("Cambrian") and Irish ("Gaelic"). Those seven missing kids had probably been raised on Welsh, at least partially.

Apparently, her being a parselmouth had started getting around the school by now. If the Gryffindors had disliked her before, now they'd seemingly decided she was evil. It was very irritating, but at least the decision she was evil meant she was a lost cause, so they seemed less inclined to bother her, so...mixed blessing, she guessed.

The exception was Hermione Granger. Ellie had gotten to the classroom early, Hermione only a few seconds behind her, and the other girl waltzed right over to plop down in the open seat next to her, and immediately started interrogating her about parseltongue, exactly what that was and how it worked. Hermione seemed somewhat disappointed that snakes were really quite boring to talk to (though unlike Draco, not particularly surprised), and even more disappointed that Ellie knew nothing about it, it didn't feel any different from English to her — she did manage to use it on purpose, when Hermione asked what it sounded like, but she had to think snakey thoughts and it just felt like talking normal, if Hermione didn't say it'd worked she might not have been able to tell.

Hermione then followed her around for the rest of the evening, until Ellie escaped back into the Slytherin dorms. The other Slytherins really didn't seem to like her, probably more anti-muggleborn stuff — though Dorea didn't mind, looking faintly amused more than anything — but Ellie thought she was fine. Much like Draco, sort of, in that she could go on long rambles with practically no input form Ellie at all, but where the stuff Draco talked about was bragging about his parents or society nonsense, Hermione mostly babbled about book things, which were at least marginally interesting. More interesting than Draco's rambles, at least — Ellie might not have said very much, but she'd actually listened to all (well, most) of what Hermione had said to her, which she certainly couldn't claim about Draco. If she was going to have someone filling the air around her with pointless blather, she thought she preferred Hermione.

But she might not have humoured Hermione so much if she'd realised what the consequences would be beforehand. By the time they got to breakfast Wednesday morning, Ellie noticed there'd been an abrupt shift in how Draco, Pansy, and their friends were talking to her. They'd gone all cold, and snide, no longer trying to be nice and actually almost seeming angry, for no real reason that Ellie could see. Draco especially seemed to have taken something personally. Which made these Gryffindor–Slytherin classes pretty much insufferable, because the Gryffindors were all being stupid — with the exception of Hermione, who had decided to babble at her again the whole way between Defence and Potions, and Neville Longbottom and Lily Moon, who hardly even seemed to notice she existed — but now most of the Slytherins were annoyed with her and being jerks too.

Only the first group of kids, of course, the second group had gone the exact other way, Daphne in particular seeming ever so slightly friendlier than she had the first half of the week. (Though it was hard to tell, with how flat and polite she was all the time.) And after Draco very conspicuously picked up his shite and moved so he didn't have to brew their first potion with her Dorea had immediately swooped in to take his place, with a smile at Ellie and a pointed glare at Draco. So, it seemed very much like Ellie had done something to pick sides in the little rift inside the first-year Slytherins, breaking her little truce with Draco, but she had no idea what it was.

Daphne was nice enough to inform her at lunch. Apparently, just being nice to a muggleborn was enough to get Draco and his friends to not like her anymore. Which was fucking stupid, Ellie hadn't even been that particularly nice to Hermione, really, she'd just been not mean. That was bad enough, apparently, for them to decide Ellie was...

Well, Ellie wasn't certain what she was supposed to be. Not a crazy racist? Much of Daphne's explanation didn't make a whole lot of sense, but Ellie was pretty sure she'd understood that much.

She spent most of History thinking over this new development — because it wasn't like she'd be listening to the lecture, the professor was a ghost and he was horribly boring. After long minutes of thought, Ellie decided that, no, she might not have humoured Hermione if she'd known it would make things in Slytherin more difficult...but she also probably wouldn't have made that very temporary alliance with Draco if she'd known he and his friends were crazy racists (apparently).

If being less than cruel to one muggleborn for one evening was all it took for them to be finished with her, she was certain something like this would have been inevitable anyway. Maybe Pansy would be a bitch to Tracey, a fight breaking out with Daphne, and Ellie would get annoyed enough to yell at Pansy to stop being a fucking idiot and shut up about the halfblood thing. Maybe one of them would remember Ellie's own mother was muggleborn. Maybe Ellie would get drawn into a conversation with some other muggleborn, humour them to be polite and because it's just what you do, and this same exact thing happened.

Hell, Ellie hadn't even known Hermione was a muggleborn when she'd come up to her at the beginning of Welsh class, not until she'd said something about it during the parselmouth conversation. How were you supposed to tell? It wasn't like they wore signs or anything. She was certain she would have "slipped" eventually, and been polite to the "wrong" person — if only because she just didn't care about this shite enough to bother keeping track of who her classmates thought were the "right" people and who weren't.

But just because this had probably been inevitable didn't mean Ellie didn't find her Slytherin classmates' new attitude very annoying.

Three days into classes, and she'd already offended most of the Gryffindors and most of the Slytherins, over stupid shite that wasn't really important and she didn't even understand very well. If nothing else, Ellie was very good at offending people. She could only wonder what she would do to make the other two hate her.

(Mind magic, probably. She was betting the mind magic would do it.)

Late that night, when Ellie would really rather be in bed with a book already, they had Astronomy. This class was held at the top of one of the many towers stretching above the castle, the entirety of the first year poking at telescopes under the open sky. Professor Sinistra hadn't really set much of anything for them to do tonight, just familiarising themselves with the equipment. Thankfully, nobody took advantage of the lax supervision to bother her, Ellie and Dorea were left to tinker with their telescope unmolested.

It was very boring. She and Dorea referenced a chart Sinistra had set out to find a few planets and galaxies and such, and she guessed they were pretty, but... She didn't get what the big deal was. Pretty lights, yay, there were pretty lights all over the place in this castle. So what?

Ellie was biting back a yawn, counting down the minutes until she could go down to bed, when Dorea whispered, "I'm sorry."

She frowned, turned to stare at the taller girl. She looked normal...well, as normal as Dorea ever looked — she was rather frail-looking, all skinny and too pale, Ellie had the vague feeling there was something wrong with her. Anyway, she looked normal, staring up at the sky, her shadowed face mostly expressionless, but she felt... Ellie wasn't sure, actually. Something nervous and cautious, anyway. "What for?"

A weak smile twitched at her lips. "Everyone being such pricks." Ellie thought that was the crudest thing she'd heard Dorea say yet, she almost smiled. "You just can't do anything right this week, can you? I've been trying to help, but..."

"Trying to..." Now that she thought about it, there had been a few times so far that Ellie had stuck her foot in it and Dorea had said or done something to distract Draco or Pansy or Brown or whoever was annoyed with her at the moment. Ellie had mostly just been grateful she was being let off the hook, she hadn't been paying enough attention to pick up the pattern. "Oh. I didn't even notice." Ellie frowned. "Why?"

It apparently hadn't occurred to Dorea she might be asked that question — that weak smile dropped away, an odd jerk echoing from her Ellie couldn't quite read. After a long, conspicuous hesitation, "I want to."

That didn't answer the question. "Why?"

"I can't explain, really."

Ellie was not satisfied with that at all. That did seem a very...she didn't know, not-done thing to just come out and say — she really did try to be polite, if she didn't have a particular reason to not be, the Dursleys just hadn't given her much in the way of examples of how a person goes about being polite, it was hard. So she just gave Dorea a flat look, hoping she'd get the idea without Ellie having to come up with a nice way to say it.

It seemed like Dorea got the message, eyes tipping up to the sky with another sigh. "I just... You know my father's in Azkaban, right."

Ellie nearly asked what the hell Azkaban was before remembering that was what the magic prison was called. "Yes?" She didn't really see what Dorea's father could possibly have to do with anything, she thought she'd never even met him before...

"Do you know what he's there for?"

"Well, no." Ellie shrugged. "I assumed Death Eater things."

Dorea looked faintly amused at that, the corner of lips twitching. "Kind of. Though, I'm not actually certain what happened — he never got a trial, you see. Mum, and my cousins, they..." She trailed off for a moment, frowning to herself, before letting out a thin sigh. "Long story short, there are multiple things he's there for, and he might have done some of them. But my family is certain he's not actually a Death Eater. Everyone says he is, that he was a spy the whole time, but we think that's all made up. There's good reasons for thinking that, but there's nothing we can do about it, Uncle Ted has tried to get him a trial but nobody will listen to us."

"Okay?" Ellie really didn't see what this had to do with anything. Kind of sad, she guessed, but...

"There's one thing, that... My family doesn't think he did it, but..." Dorea shook her head. "I'm not really sure what to think about all this, you know? I've never met the bloke, my mum didn't really know him that well, honestly, and the Tonkses weren't even in the country for a couple years by then..."

"Is this getting to a point?"

Dorea shot her a flat look. "They think my father betrayed your parents to the Dark Lord."

"Oh." Ellie blinked. "And?" At Dorea's surprised, baffled sort of expression — well, more the echo of the feeling radiating out from her head, but the same thing — Ellie said, "I mean, it's not like— I don't see why that should matter. Neither of us even remember any of them, what does it have to do with anything now?" It was hard to be angry over something she didn't even remember, and was hardly Dorea's fault anyway. It was completely new information, sure, but she didn't see why she should care.

"I guess not. I just..." Dorea shrugged. "I just feel like I...owe you, I guess. I don't know, I didn't say it made sense. Besides," she muttered, shooting a hooded glance in the general direction of Draco and Pansy and friends, "I really don't like those idiots, and it's not going to take them very long to decide they don't like me either. They're assuming I'm a pureblood, and one of them, just because of my name, and they may be stupid, but they're not that stupid, they'll figure it out eventually. So, I kinda figure we're on the same side. I guess."

Ellie thought about that for a second. But there really wasn't that much to consider, when it came down to it. "Okay."

Her little alliance with Draco might have imploded instantly, but it looked like another one with Dorea was falling right into her lap. That would do, she guessed. She was fine with that.

If nothing else, Dorea was rather less annoying than Draco so far...

(On the way back to the common room that night, Ellie wondered to herself if this was how friends happened.)


It probably wasn't fair, but Dorea was somewhat surprised by how nice Professor Snape's office was.

She would say it was just because of what Andi and Dora said about him, none of which was at all flattering...but that wasn't it, really. By this point, Dorea had had a week of classes with him already, so she knew what Dora had said about his teaching style was sort of kind of true. If anything, Dora had undersold it — the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws usually had Potions together, and the worst of Snape's vitriol seemed to be saved for Gryffindors. But, since it was mostly for Gryffindors, Dorea hadn't had any of it pointed at herself. She couldn't say he liked her, she got the impression from a few glances here and there he had some kind of problem with her, but he'd hardly spoken to her at all. So, hit and miss on that part of his reputation, so far.

It wasn't about his personality, really, it was the aesthetics. He was a dark, dour sort of bloke, an impression his dreary, slimy classroom had fit with perfectly. It was that impression that didn't seem to match with his office. It was just...well, a normal office. Carpet and nice padded chairs, most of the walls covered in packed bookshelves — there were no monstrosities preserved in jars anywhere, instead a few trinkets, most of which Dorea couldn't even tell what they were. Little enchanted widgets, gifts from students? And it wasn't all cold and dank either, there was a fire in the hearth crackling behind her back, the room well-lit and warm.

If this was what Snape chose to do with his own space, she really had to wonder why his classroom was the way it was.

Snape was seated at his desk — rather more messy than the one in the classroom, papers and magazines and books and empty potions bottles strewn here and there — reclining in his chair enough Dorea could see there was a notebook of some kind in his lap, a fountain pen hanging ready. (Not a self-inking quill, which was interesting.) He was silent a long moment, apparently gathering his thoughts, or else letting her take in the room first. Probably not the latter...but Snape wasn't anything like what she'd been lead to believe, she guessed she couldn't say. Finally, "I'm afraid I know rather less about you than I do most pureblood children upon their arrival at Hogwarts, Miss Black."

She shrugged. Dorea wasn't pureblood at all, of course, but Snape was hardly the first person to assume she was. Pretty much everyone did, actually. "I'm not surprised, sir. My mother thought it best to not go out on the magical side much, things being as they are."

"Naturally." Snape wrote something in his notebook, she couldn't see what from here. "You live with your mother, then."

Dorea nearly asked why he wanted to know, bit down on the question before it could get out. Snape was the head of Slytherin, he was sort of responsible for her — at a guess, these meetings he had with all the kids at the beginning of the year were to make sure all the new Slytherins were okay, that there weren't any problems at home, or whatever. (Dora had said there were rumours about that, Snape had even gotten into fights with a few terrible parents over the years.) It sort of was his business, when she thought about it. "Yes, sir."

"What can you tell me about her? I understand her name is Abigail—" Snape nodded at something in his mess of papers, presumably a copy of Mum's marriage license with Sirius, or Dorea's birth certificate or something. "—but I'm afraid I know nothing else about her."

"I don't really know what you want me to say, sir." She was never certain what to do with questions quite that open.

"Where is she from, what does she do?"

Dorea shrugged. "Well, she's English — we live in Maidstone now, but she's from up near Leicester. Hinckley, I think it was called?"

Snape was giving her an odd look, she couldn't quite tell what, but he just said, "There is a town called Hinckley in Leicestershire, yes."

"That's probably it, then. I don't think I've ever even been there, my grandparents live around Coventry now. She doesn't work or anything, my brothers are still little, but she's started taking classes at the University of Kent lately."

Snape stared at her for a moment, wide-eyed, hardly even seemed to be blinking. "The...University of Kent."

It took some effort for Dorea to keep a smirk off her face. "Yes, sir."

"Miss Black...is your mother a muggle?"

"I can't see how that should possibly matter, sir."

"It doesn't in the way you imply, but..." Snape stared at her for another moment, fingers idly tapping at his desk. "I'm certain you're aware of the crimes your father is accused of."

Dorea felt a wry smirk pulling at her lips. "Nice word choice there, sir. Accused — he never did get a trial, did he?"

"No, Miss Black, he did not." It almost looked painful, admitting that. "I have always had my doubts, so far as the official narrative is concerned, though I have never believed Sirius Black to be perfectly innocent. Are you familiar with what happened, that week in Eighty-One?"

"The general idea, yes," Dorea said, nodding. "Someone betrayed the Potters to the Dark Lord, and everyone knows the story of what happened there. They say Sirius betrayed them, but my aunt Andi thinks—"

"Andi? You know Andromeda Tonks?" There was an odd, tense tone on his voice, almost sounding irritated.

"Yes, sir. She kept my mum informed on what was going on on this side, and helped out with accidental magic stuff sometimes. Why?"

"It is none of your concern, Miss Black." Snape shifted in his chair slightly — he still seemed slightly annoyed, but Dorea couldn't guess what it was about. He didn't really know Andi that well, did he? "You are suggesting your family believes Sirius Black did not betray the Potters, but did seek vengeance against the one who did."

"That's what I was told. Andi says she can't imagine Sirius actually doing anything to hurt the Potters, but blowing up half the street to get at the bloke who did, that's exactly the sort of thing he would do."

"And what do you think about it?" There was another odd tone on his voice, something...expectant? What exactly he was expecting though...

Dorea lifted one shoulder in a lazy shrug. "I'm sure I couldn't say, sir. I've never met the man, but Andi knew him pretty well, and if she says she believes he'd kill a dozen people to get at this Pettigrew, I just have to take her word for it. A lot of the other things they say about him are so much nonsense, though — I mean, he obviously wasn't a Death Eater or anything, just look at my mum."

"Yes." Snape stared at her for another long moment, pen slowly tapping against his notebook. "Is there any particular reason you haven't told your classmates about your mother being a muggle?"

"They never asked, sir."

It might be her imagination, but she thought she saw his lips twitch with a hidden smirk. "You said you have brothers. I take it your mother remarried?"

"Yes, sir. It wasn't like she was in love with him or anything in the first place, she was hardly going to wait for some miracle to get him out." Snape gave her another flat look so, a little awkwardly, she explained. "I'm told Mum and Sirius went to the same nightclub, back when Mum was at uni in London. They barely knew each other, and I was kind of an accident. Mum thinks Sirius was trying to do what he thought was the right thing, and... Well, Mum didn't have to worry about money when I was little, so, at least there's that, I guess."

Just recently now, when Dorea had been using Sirius's money to buy supplies for school, Mum had said that if Sirius hadn't offered to put them up — which was all their 'marriage' had been, really, when it got down to it — Dorea might not exist at all. Mum had admitted, in an unnerving moment of too much honesty, that she'd been considering getting an abortion when Sirius had shown up with his own idea.

It was kind of hard to feel bad about using Sirius's money when his offer to give it to them was literally the only reason she existed in the first place.

Some kind of expression passed Snape's face, but it was too mild for Dorea to guess what it was. "I perhaps should say I'm shocked by that sort of behaviour from Sirius Black, but I honestly can't. Marrying a muggle woman he met at a nightclub strikes me as precisely in line with his usual behaviour — to irritate his mother, if for no other reason."

That had been the impression Dorea had been given too, yes. Of course, saying he shouldn't say that, because it was somewhat insulting to Sirius, also meant he shouldn't imply it about Mum either, for the same reason. But Dorea was well aware getting knocked up by some bloke she barely knew, and then marrying him mostly because he was throwing money at her, was rather... Well. She knew exactly the sort of things people could say about her mother, and Mum had never tried to pretend to Dorea she was anything other than what she was.

So, she didn't say anything about it, and just moved on. No reason to make this silly little interview any more painful than it had to be, after all.


Ellie stared at the door for a long moment, her arms tingling with preemptive nerves.

She probably didn't have anything to worry about. Probably. Snape was a legilimens, yes, but Dumbledore had said he would tell Snape she was too, so he wouldn't use crazy mind powers on her. (At least, he had to know she would notice if he did.) Of course, that also meant Ellie couldn't use her crazy mind powers on him, if she had to...but she didn't expect to have to. Snape was kind of creepy, yes, and could be a bit of an arse, but he was generally... Well, he wasn't nice to the Slytherins, exactly, but he was less of an arse to them, at least. She didn't really expect Snape to do anything she would need her crazy mind powers to stop.

The idea of being stuck in a room with him alone, though, was...uncomfortable. She didn't have any good reason to feel this way, but she couldn't help it.

(The last adult she'd been in a room alone with had been Dumbledore. It hadn't gone well.)

Dorea, because she was annoyingly observant sometimes, had tried to reassure her. That it was fine, Snape was just doing all these one-on-one meetings to make sure none of the new kids had any problems that he would need to address. Like, health stuff, or issues with their families, that sort of thing. Ellie had known Dorea believed what she was saying — Dorea still didn't know Ellie could read her mind, and Ellie wasn't planning on telling her — but that didn't mean Ellie thought Dorea was right that there wasn't anything to worry about. Especially since, apparently, a significant part of Dorea's talk with him had been about her family, what things were like at home.

Ellie couldn't talk to Snape about that. Not only did she not want to, she... She couldn't. Besides, the last time anyone had found out anything about the Dursleys, he'd brought her right back to them. She'd left again right away, because Dumbledore trusted her to stay where he put her (which was bloody stupid, but she wasn't complaining), but she couldn't let Snape know about that, either. People generally didn't approve of children living on their own.

For some reason. Honestly, Ellie was much better off on her own. Cheating with her mind-control superpowers to make people let her stay in a hotel somewhere was far better than being stuck with the Dursleys. She was fine, she didn't need help, and she'd really rather Snape keep his big fat nose out of her business.

But she didn't really have a choice in the matter. It wasn't like she could make Snape forget they hadn't had their little meeting — he'd definitely notice if she tried something that invasive. So she was trapped.

(—hand heavy on her back holding her down, the cloth of the sofa scratching at her chest and her face, she bit down on her finger, and she waited, it would be over—)

Ellie hated feeling trapped.

Rather more shakily than she liked, Ellie raised her hand to knock on the door. Snape's low, cutting voice called for her instantly, so she opened it, stepped inside.

The room was nice enough, she supposed, but she hardly noticed her surroundings, distracted by something immediately — the instant the door closed behind her, there was a sharp snap of magic. Ellie jumped, glanced at the door. She couldn't tell what magic was doing most of the time, but that was definitely doing something. She wasn't locked in here now, was she?

"Did you feel that?" Snape, somewhere in the room behind her, felt slightly surprised. Ellie was keeping herself to herself, but even without reaching out she could feel the echo on the air, faint but undeniably present.

"Yes, sir." Reluctantly, she tore her gaze from the door, turning to face Snape. His desk was surprisingly messy, somehow she hadn't expected that — he always looked so orderly and composed, it was weird. "What was it?" She kept her suspicion off her voice, she thought, but he probably felt her the same way she could feel him anyway, so it didn't really make a difference.

The narrow, considering sort of look fell off his face, turning back to a blank statue. "Nothing to worry about, Miss Potter. I have wards around my office to prevent unwanted guests or eavesdroppers, and they only operate properly when the door is closed." His head tilted slightly, a tense feeling floating off him she couldn't quite read. "The door will still open from this side. You may try it, if you like."

For a moment, Ellie wondered if he'd gotten into her head without her noticing, or if she was just that obvious. "That's okay, sir." She walked over toward the desk — he watched her the whole way, her skin crawled and her fingers twitched — and sat across from him, settled into the chair, trying to look more confident than she actually was. "You wanted to talk to me?"

"I meet with all the new first-years, Miss Potter." He paused a moment, fingers tapping at his desk. (And staring at her, she tried not to be unnerved by that, self-consciously fiddling with the hem of her shirt.) "The transition to living at Hogwarts can be difficult for many of our students, especially those who were raised by muggles." There was a faint sense of a question about that, more felt than heard.

Ellie tried not to glare. All the mages she'd met so far assumed she'd been living with mages in secret somewhere (getting super-special training while she was at it, which was very silly), nobody had ever just assumed she'd lived with muggles yet. That Snape had was a little suspicious. "What would you know of that? Sir," she added, belatedly.

Snape hesitated, just for an instant, Ellie wasn't entirely certain she hadn't imagined it. "In the interest of full disclosure, Miss Potter, your mother and I lived in the same neighborhood when we were children. There are few potential mages associated with your parents who might have been trusted with your guardianship, all of whom I've eliminated for one reason or another in the years since. One of the few options remaining is Petunia and her husband — his name is Vernon, I believe? — though I've gotten no confirmation on the matter from the Headmaster." He felt very slightly annoyed by that.

"Did you know my mother?" She couldn't say exactly why she asked, there'd just been a weird feeling, couldn't quite put her finger on what it was. And, when she thought about it, maths. Petunia had met Vernon at university, with how old Snape had to be to have been a Death Eater (or more properly a spy within the Death Eaters, she'd learned all about that since school started, kids gossiped) he would have been at Hogwarts for some years, by that point — the only way he should have met Vernon after starting at Hogwarts was if he had some reason to be around the Evanses over the holidays, and that he'd been friends with Lily was the cleanest solution.

Once again, Snape hesitated, long enough this time Ellie was certain she wasn't imagining it. "Your mother and I were friends for some years, yes, though we were rather...estranged, by the end."

Ellie couldn't quite hold in a snort at that. Obviously they'd been estranged, Snape had joined the Death Eaters — even if he'd been a spy from the beginning (and the common assumption among the students was that he'd flipped at some point in the middle), he couldn't have told anyone that — and Lily had been a muggleborn. Ellie wasn't an expert in these things, but she assumed it could be hard to keep up a friendship when one of you had joined a pack of genocidal crazies out to kill people like the other one. Like, obviously.

Snape felt less than amused with her amusement, but he didn't say anything about it. "Was I correct in my assumption?" Oh, going back to the actual subject of discussion, fine, Ellie just nodded. "I must admit I haven't seen Petunia in a very long time, and I know very little about her husband."

Ellie did not want to talk about Vernon. "He makes drills."

Snape blinked. "I'm sorry?"

"Vernon. He makes drills. You know, tools that...drill things." Honestly, Ellie had no idea what Grunnings made, exactly, "drills" was actually a pretty big category of things, she just knew Vernon talked about drills a lot. "Well, he doesn't make drills, he has an office job of some kind, in London somewhere. I don't know what he does, really, just that it involves yelling at people over the phone a lot."

Talking about what little she knew of his mysterious job was way better than anything else about Vernon, but unfortunately that didn't seem to be what Snape wanted, still feeling faintly expectant.

Ellie tried not to grit her teeth. "He's an idiot. A big fat angry idiot. Honestly, I don't know how he hasn't been fired yet." Especially what with Ellie being creepy the last couple years, there were patches Vernon hadn't slept well at all, had probably been half-zombie at work. Which, just made his temper shorter, so.

An odd stillness came over Snape, and Ellie fidgeted — his attention on her felt sharper somehow, it was uncomfortable. "Angry?"

"Yeah, he yells a lot." Before Snape could ask after that, Ellie pressed on. "And Petunia is also an angry idiot, but a thin and wispy idiot instead of a big and fat idiot. And Dudley is also an angry idiot, so, I guess it runs in the family."

Snape hesitated, again, eyes on her slightly narrowed. She tried not to fidget (it wasn't working). "That would be your cousin, I assume." He waited for her to nod. "By the use of 'angry idiot', I take it you two don't get along."

She managed to hold in the snort of laughter this time. "No. We did when we were really little, sort of, but not for a long time now. Not that I mind, he turned out a stupid bully, so."

That was probably an inconvenient word choice — Snape obviously caught what she was implying, a questioning eyebrow ticking up his forehead.

"He tried, but he's too stupid and fat." Before, she could always just out-run him, or climb up a tree, or just not be where he expected her to be. It really wasn't difficult to avoid Dudley, most of the time. And, well, "He doesn't even try anymore, mind-control superpowers and all." At least, Ellie thought it was okay to tell Snape about that. Dumbledore had implied he would tell Snape about the mind-reading thing, so he...probably already knew? He hadn't said anything, but...

"Ah." For a long moment, Snape silently stared at her, fingers tapping idly at his desk. A thick, awkward silence fell over the room — Ellie didn't have anything to say, she didn't even want to be here, this whole thing was uncomfortable and annoying, and if Snape didn't have anything to say either, what were they even doing? She tried not to be too obviously uncomfortable, but she could feel his eyes on her skin like ants, she kept fidgeting in her seat, playing with the hem of her shirt.

Then, leaning back slightly in his chair, Snape let out a little sigh, one hand rising to rub a thin line over his eyebrow. Which...okay? At least he wasn't looking at her anymore, instead staring down at his desk, but still, odd. He was quiet another moment, looking strangely uncomfortable, something slick and unsettled on the air. Then he turned to reach into a drawer, fiddled around with papers in there for a moment.

And then he was sitting upright again, looking not quite directly at her but obviously focusing on her again. (Even if he wasn't looking at her physically, mind magic stuff meant she could feel his attention on her anyway, it was uncomfortable.) "I have some questions I want to ask you, Miss Potter, some of which might seem...strange. If you truly don't want to answer them, we may stop at any moment. Understood?"

Strange was better than uncomfortable, really. "Yes, sir."

"Do you feel close to your aunt?"

Ellie almost laughed again. "No."

"Do you ever speak with her about personal things, say, what you think and feel about things?"

"No." That was hard to even imagine, honestly...

"How about your uncle, do you feel close to him?"

This time, Ellie actually did laugh. "No."

Snape's eyes flicked up to her, that odd unsettled feeling on the air lurching slightly. "I don't suppose there's any point asking that second question."

Ellie shook her head.

Again, Snape was silent for a lingering moment, shuffling papers around some more. "Are there any adults in your life that you admire?"

"No." Though, maybe she'd end up liking some of the professors here at Hogwarts, she hadn't known any of them long enough, but she didn't have very high expectations about that. Most people were either terrible, or useless, or both.

"If you needed to know something, or wanted advice, is there someone you could go to?"

"No." Petunia and Vernon had literally been telling her to not ask questions her entire life, so, obviously.

"If you were having difficulties at home, is there someone you could talk to about it?"

Ellie almost shivered at the reminder of that time she'd accidentally told a teacher, what had happened afterward. "No."

"If you did something well — say, for example, you received excellent marks at school — is there someone you would tell about it?"

"No." That hadn't gone well either, the one time she'd done it...

"Of the teachers you've had before Hogwarts, how many of them have you liked?"

She shrugged. "Some of them were okay, I guess." Honestly, she hardly noticed — once she'd started intentionally doing badly, there was really no reason to pay much attention to them.

That odd feeling on the air was getting even worse, enough it was starting to show on Snape's face, something hard and severe and...wary, almost. Ellie still couldn't say what it was, but her answers to his questions clearly weren't making him feel better. "When someone makes you angry, do you imagine hurting them?"

Ellie's mouth opened — more from surprise than anything, she hadn't seen that kind of question coming. "Er, I've never done anything."

"But you've thought about it."

"Well, yeah." Was that a bad thing to admit to? It was hard to keep track of these things sometimes...

"Do you sometimes imagine hurting people you don't like?"

That one probably was a bad thing to admit to. "No."

Snape glanced up again to shoot her a look, a shade of exasperation slipping through the tension in the air. "I can tell when you're lying just as well as you can when I am, Miss Potter."

Ellie tried not to flinch as— (She choked back a cry as the belt cut another line of fire across her back, What have I said about telling lies—) "I haven't noticed you lie so far."

The tense feel about the room softened, somewhat, still feeling odd and sick, but not quite so harsh. "I haven't. Because I know you'll feel it if I do."

Oh. Er. "Yes, I think about it, sometimes. I never have, though."

Snape nodded, slightly. "Do you sometimes have daydreams or nightmares about trying to get away from someone who wants to hurt you?"

She felt her neck tingling (—the echo of it on the air like a bad smell—), her chest going slightly tight, just noticeable at the edge of her breath. "Yes."

"Do you sometimes imagine people being killed?"

That definitely wasn't good to admit to, but Snape could tell when she lied, she didn't have a lot of choice. (That was so unfair, and yes, she realised she was a hypocrite.) "Yes."

"Do you find other people's difficulties bother you?"

And more bad questions to answer, dammit. "Not really, no."

"If you were cruel to someone, would you feel bad about it later?"

Ellie hesitated for a second. "I guess it would depend on why I did it? I mean, if I had a good reason for it, I wouldn't care, but if I did it just because, I might..."

Snape nodded, this time whatever he wrote down after her answer taking slightly longer than usual. "If you were certain you wouldn't be caught, would you steal something you really wanted?"

"Yes." In fact, she had stolen plenty of things by now. It was really more about need, though — most of what she'd been stealing were things like food, or a room to sleep in — but there wasn't much of a difference, when she thought about it. It wasn't like the universe depended on her staying alive, after all, taking the things she needed was a choice she made because she wanted to not die. (Also, she could have just stayed with the Dursleys, but she didn't want to, so.)

"Do you think other people usually have a good reason for fighting with each other?"

"Pfft, no." People were bloody idiots, and obsess over the stupidest things...

"Does lying make you uncomfortable?"

Ellie shot him a look. "Not when I know I can get away with it."

Snape, the arse, almost felt a little amused. "I'm going to make a list of statements, that I would like you to answer based on whether you feel they accurately describe how you feel. A simple yes or no is adequate."

Okay...?

He apparently took her silence as agreement. "You want to grow up, because you think things will be better when you do."

"Er..." She honestly had no idea how to answer that. If nothing else, people would be less stupid about a kid being on her own, she would have to deal with that less, so... "...yes?"

"You might as well give up, because you can't make things better for yourself."

"No." Obviously, everything that'd gone right so far was because she'd made it go right. Because mind-control superpowers were like that.

"When things are going badly, you know they won't be bad all the time."

...He meant, what she thought while the bad was happening, right? That was the point of the question? "No...?"

"That sounded like a question."

Ellie shrugged. "I mean, I know things aren't awful all the time, but while awful things are actively happening, it can be hard to remember that sometimes."

Snape nodded in understanding, so apparently that was the point of the question. "You can imagine what your life while be like when you've grown up."

"No."

"You have the time to finish the things you really want to do."

Well, the only thing she really wanted to do was not be stuck at the Dursleys' and read, so, "Yes."

"Someday, you will be good at the things you really care about."

"Um, yes."

Snape glanced up at her again, clearly expecting her to elaborate on that one too — but there wasn't anything to say, really, it'd just taken her a second to think of things to be good at that she cared about. (Getting by without the Dursleys, really, only thing she could think of, and she was already good at that, so.) After a second, he moved on. "You will get more of the good things in life than most other children."

"No." Honestly, she wasn't certain what the good things in life even were.

"You don't think you'll get what you really want."

She almost rolled her eyes — come on, she had mind-control superpowers, she could just take things if she really wanted them. "No."

"When you grow up, you think you'll be happier than you are now."

"No."

"You don't think you'll have any real fun when you grow up."

"Er, not really." She didn't really have fun now...

"The future seems unclear and confusing to you."

"Yes."

Snape paused a moment, then sighed, just barely, only a slightly harsher hiss of breath through his nose. "I have some more yes or no questions. These ones are going to go on for a little while."

Ellie tried not to look too annoyed — she didn't know what was going on here, exactly, and Snape was being so weird and confusing, and she'd really rather just leave now. But, she didn't have a whole lot of choice, it wasn't like she could mind magic him way, so... "Okay."

"Okay. Do you talk in class a lot when you're not supposed to?"

"No."

"Do you feel afraid a lot of the time?"

"Sometimes, yes."

"Do you worry about what other children might be saying about you?"

"No."

"Is it difficult for you to express your feelings?"

"Yes."

And on and on and on it went, mostly quickly now that they were less complicated, confusing questions. Ellie wasn't counting, but there had to be dozens of them — was she in pain a lot, did she worry people might not like her, did she steal things, did she understand other people's feelings, did she feel sick a lot, did she break things on purpose, did she cry a lot, did she like helping people, did she have trouble listening to people, did she enjoy things, did she have trouble sleeping or eating, blah blah blah. There were enough of them they might have taken forever, if it wasn't so easy to answer most of them.

Once his questions were done, Snape paused for a moment, longer this time. That odd feeling on the air had gone all tense again, Ellie tried not to fidget under it. "I have two more things I want to talk to you about. They might be...uncomfortable. If you don't want to answer a question, simply say so."

Because this whole thing had been voluntary, of course. "Okay."

"Have you ever..." Snape hesitated again, and he actually shifted in his seat a little — he even looked uncomfortable, which was weird, Ellie hardly ever saw Snape look anything. "Have you ever experienced something that was unusual — by which I mean, not a normal life experience, something you suspect has not happened to other children — and that was...terrible, terrible enough it'd be upsetting to most anyone?"

Ellie tried not to flinch.

(—echo of it lingered like a bad smell, his eyes on her skin like wasps, lines of fire slicing across—)

"You don't have to tell me what it was. Just a yes or no."

Ellie swallowed, though it was harder than it should be, coming thick and slow, enough she was slightly out of breath. She worked her tongue for a moment before finding her voice again. "Yes."

Across that odd, slick, unsettled feeling in the air, there was a sudden flash of heat — Snape was feeling something, obviously, but whatever it was didn't show on his face, and she couldn't quite read it. "How old were you, when this happened?"

"I wa..." Ellie had to take a moment again, her mouth was uncomfortably dry, made it a little hard to talk. "I was seven the first time, I think. I stopped it when I... It was two summers ago, I think it was before my birthday, so I would have been eight."

Snape let out another little sigh. "I'm going to ask you a few questions. I'm not asking you to volunteer any details. I just want you to answer on a scale from one to five — one is never, five is frequently or always. Okay?"

"Okay." Her voice cracked slightly.

"Oh, I should— Some tea and ice water, please, Tansy."

Ellie blinked at Snape (or in his general direction, she couldn't look straight at him) — who the hell was Tansy? She never did get an answer, but a short moment after he'd spoken to the seemingly empty room a tea tray appeared at the end of his desk, laden with a pot of tea, a pitcher of water, and a neat pile of biscuits. Ellie immediately poured herself some of the water.

After letting Ellie sip at her water a bit, Snape spoke again, his voice still flat, but strangely soft, without the hard edge to it it usually did. "Have memories of this thing pushed themselves into your mind at times, unexpectedly?"

Ellie swallowed the last sip of her water, drawing it out a little longer than necessary. "Four."

"Do you have nightmares about it?"

She felt the urge to shiver sweep over her — this water was rather cold, maybe the tea would have been a better idea... "Five."

"Have you... Are there ever moments when you feel like this thing is happening even when it isn't, that it seems like you're back there again?"

Ellie took a long breath. (—echo lingering like a—) "Three."

"Does encountering things that remind you of it upset you?"

"Four."

Snape paused a few seconds, rubbing at his forehead again. "Do you ever try to avoid thinking about it, or feelings you associate with it?"

"Five." She'd forget it ever happened if she could, honestly...

"Have you sometimes avoided doing things or being in situations that remind you of it?"

"Five."

"Have you found you sometimes can't remember details about it?"

Ellie opened her mouth to say one — obviously she remembered everything about it, she couldn't forget — but then froze. She did forget things. How many times he hit her, exactly — she knew it was usually more than five, and...maybe less than ten? She wasn't sure. She couldn't really remember how often it'd happened either. Maybe about once a week, but...maybe that was too often, she didn't know. So, when she thought about it... "Three?"

"Have you lost—"

Ellie jumped, an almost painful shock running through her. And then she jumped again, as she sloshed cold water on herself, dammit...

A faint scowl crossed Snape's face — Ellie flinched away, then forced herself straight again, it was fine, he wasn't even looking at her — and he stiffly pushed himself to his feet. "One moment, Miss Potter." He stepped around his desk and over to his door, opened it a crack, spoke in a low voice to someone who must be on the other side.

Oh, there'd been a knock on the door, that must have been what had surprised her. She hadn't even noticed. After a few seconds Snape closed the door again, with another sharp snap of magic. "Are– Are we taking too long, sir?" They had been in here what felt like forever, he did have his meeting with Blaise right after her...

"Do not worry about that, Miss Potter," Snape said, his robes dramatically swishing around him as he returned to his desk. (She wondered if that was magic.) "I will reschedule my other business."

"Oh." She kind of wished he wouldn't...

Snape poured himself some tea — and some for her, when she reached toward the tray once he was done — turning back to his papers again. "Have you lost interest in things that used to be important to you since it happened?"

Going right back into it, then. Awesome. "Three?"

"Do you feel...more distant from other people, than you did before?"

That one was kind of hard to answer, really — it was so long ago, it was hard to remember what things had felt like, back then. But, she thought, maybe, "Five."

"Do you ever feel like you can't express yourself as clearly as you did before?"

That was also really hard to answer, because it wasn't like she'd really been able to express herself before either. But...she also didn't know how to do that, really... "Four?"

Snape paused another brief moment, shifting his papers a little. "Have you had more difficulty falling or staying asleep than you did before?"

"Five."

"Do you get annoyed or lose your temper more than you did before?"

"Three."

"Have you had times when you have more trouble concentrating than you did before?"

"Four."

"Have there been moments when you are more alert, hyper-aware of things happening around you, then you were before?"

"Five."

"Have there been times you're more startled by sudden noises, or unexpected touches?"

"Five." Really, she just did a minute ago...

"Do things that remind you of it make you sweat, or tense up, or have trouble breathing?"

"Five."

That unpleasant feeling on the air — the one wafting off of Snape, she meant — was thicker than it'd been before, by a lot, enough it was almost a physical presence, she felt she could almost taste it. (Not that she could say what it would taste like, exactly, but certainly unpleasant.) "Do you have these distressing feelings... I mean, have they been persistent, since it happened? Say, a few times a week?"

Ellie shrugged. "Sometimes it's worse and sometimes it's better, I guess. It never really goes away, though."

"Right." Snape let out another short sigh, folding something in his notebook over. He hesitated a moment, rubbing at his forehead some more, pausing to take a sip from his tea. "Have you... Miss Potter, do you know what post-traumatic stress is?"

"Er. No?" She could kind of maybe guess what it was sort of about from the words it was made up of, but that was just a guess, and probably not very good.

Snape opened his mouth to say something, then cut himself off, hand coming up to run a finger over his lips. He glanced at her for a second, then looked away again. After a long moment, where Snape was obviously very uncomfortable and uncertain what he wanted to do, he got to his feet again, and walked over to one of the cabinets to Ellie's right. He poked about for a bit, cloth rustling and glass clinking, and when he came back there were two little bottles in his hand.

Sitting down again, he set them on the table right in front of Ellie. They were potions, obviously, but Ellie didn't know near enough to recognise them by sight — they were a pale, pleasant-looking blue, perhaps enough in each bottle for two or three mouthfuls.

"These are calming potions, Miss Potter. If you find yourself stuck being drawn back into that moment, or you can't stop thinking about it, or if you're having particular trouble sleeping, these might help. One sip might by enough, but if you find it's not you can take the whole bottle at once — however, one whole bottle is the maximum, do not take more than that in a day. If you do take a whole bottle, and are still not feeling better, come and find me, and I'll figure out something else. You may come to me at any time to get more, or Madam Pomfrey if you prefer. If she's asking too many questions, tell her I've authorised it. Okay?"

Ellie had no idea what to think about all this. So she just nodded.

For a moment, she almost thought Snape was going to insist Ellie give him a proper answer — or say something about something else, she didn't know — his eyes a little too sharp, something unspoken hovering over him. But then it fell away, and Snape turned back to shuffling through his papers. "I have one last series of questions for you. If you feel you're not up to it right now, we can pick this up next time."

Oh, fuck, there was going to be a next time? Doing this shite once really felt like more than enough... "Might as well get it over with. Sir."

Snape looked like he was going to say something again, but he shook his head to himself, dropped whatever it was. He paused for another sip of tea before speaking. "This list of questions is going to be rather long. If you need me to clarify something, ask. Answer how often you've felt that way over the last couple weeks, on the same one to five scale from last time — one for rarely or never, five for frequently or always. Okay?" Ellie just nodded. "Have you been very sad?"

And of course the first question was a hard one. "I don't know what that is." Snape blinked, an odd shiver reverberating between them. "I don't know what sadness is supposed to feel like, I mean."

Snape stared at her for a couple awkward seconds. "Perhaps, inexplicably especially miserable, enough it was distracting."

"Okay..." She shrugged. "Two, I guess."

"Have you been in the sort of bad mood when even little things make you angry?"

"Er, four? I keep it to myself, but..."

"Were there times nothing was fun to you, even things you used to like?"

"Five."

Snape especially didn't seem to like that answer, the corner of his lips tilting downward, the unpleasant feeling on the air turning slightly sharper. "Were there times you felt nothing was interesting, when you were persistently bored, or sat around doing nothing at all?"

"Four."

"Have you felt like not eating?"

Ellie hesitated on that one slightly. Since she'd been at school lately, it was just a routine thing that she did, and had never really considered, just, not showing up at meals — especially since Dorea would notice she wasn't there. But, thinking about not what she did, but how she was feeling when she did it... "I dunno, four, I guess."

"Have you wanted to eat more than usual?"

"One."

Snape opened his mouth to ask another question, then immediately hesitated, for just a second — it was impossible to know for sure, but Ellie thought he'd skipped a question. "Have you talked or moved around a lot less than usual?"

"Er..." Well, she sort of had to talk to people and do things, because she was at school now, and her usual was pretty much doing nothing, so. "One."

"Have you been restless, when you feel the need to keep moving?"

"Three."

"Have you had trouble concentrating on your schoolwork?"

That...was probably the sort of thing she shouldn't admit to a teacher. Eh. "Four."

"Have you felt more tired than usual, so you don't really want to do anything?"

"Four."

"Have you felt you've had less energy, so it takes a lot of effort to do anything?"

...Weren't those basically the same question? "Four."

"Have you felt down on yourself, thinking you can't do anything right?"

"...Four." Talking to other kids was hard...

"Have you felt bad about the way you look?"

Her damn hair. "Five."

"Have you felt like you were about to cry?"

"Four."

"Have you had trouble concentrating, or thinking as clearly or quickly as usual?"

"Five."

"Have you felt things never seem to work out right for you?"

Ellie had to think about that one for a second. But the more she thought about it, the worse she felt, something thick and tingly crawling up her throat. "Five."

"Were there times it was more difficult for you to make up your mind?"

"Four."

Snape's voice, over the course of these questions, had sunk a bit, low and soft, like the rumble of distant thunder. "Have you felt life was hopeless, and there was nothing good coming in the future?"

"Four?"

"Have you thought more than usual about death and dying?"

...more than usual? "Two?"

"Did you wish you were dead?"

Ellie felt her own eyes widen with surprise. She glanced at the bottles on the desk, gentle blue in sparkling glass. "Four."

"Have you thought about killing yourself?"

"One."

Snape let a long breath out through his nose, hand once again rising to rub at his forehead. He was silent a long moment, but his mind clearly wasn't, sparking with thoughts Ellie was too far away to see, the air between them thick with something clearly unpleasant, though she wasn't quite certain what it was. Usually, if she really wanted to know, she'd just peek in the person's head, to see what they were thinking so she could figure out from context what that feeling was, but Snape would notice if she did that, so it probably wasn't safe. So she couldn't.

No matter how much she did really want to know. This whole thing had been...uncomfortable and confusing, and she didn't really get what was going on, and Snape was being all weird, and... Not knowing what was happening was making her kind of anxious, and increasingly irritated with how she'd been backed into cooperating with whatever this was in the first place — she hadn't chosen to come here and talk to him, after all, and he'd feel it if she tried to trick him — and Snape obviously reacting very badly to whatever was going on was just making her more anxious and...

If this wasn't going to make any sense, she'd really rather it just be over, please.

"Miss Potter."

She jumped — his head was still in his hands, she hadn't expected him to be talking. "Ah, yes?"

"If you..." Snape trailed off, again, the hand covering his face drifting down a bit, rubbing along his jaw. "I'm not going to tell you to do anything. But...if you're feeling especially poorly — in particular, if your answer to that final question changes — I ask that you talk to someone about it. It doesn't have to be me. If you'd rather go to Madam Pomfrey, or even if it's just Miss Black, that's fine. I don't care who it is, so long as you tell someone."

"Er...okay." The chances of her actually doing that were pretty much zero, of course. Not that she expected to have problems anyway? She meant, having to deal with her classmates all the time was rather...exhausting. She wasn't used to needing to, since she'd gotten into the habit of using mind-control superpowers to make everyone leave her alone, and she couldn't do that here. Well, she could still do it, if she really needed to, but it should be an emergency thing now, not an everyday thing.

And if she was feeling especially badly, talking to someone about it was pretty much the last thing she'd do. Why force herself to deal with people when she was already miserable from dealing with people? That would just make it worse, really.

That hadn't exactly been a lie, more just acknowledging she'd heard what Snape had said, but he still didn't quite seem to believe her, something tense and uncertain on the air. But, thankfully, he apparently decided to drop it. "If you ever need help with anything, Miss Potter, I do hope you'll come to me."

Like that would ever happen. Rather than give a response which would almost certainly be a lie, Ellie just nodded vaguely. "May I go, sir?"

"Yes, you may."

Pausing only briefly to snatch up the two little potions bottles, Ellie fled.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth tapped the centre of the fixture, and the water pouring over her immediately cut off — none of the half-hearted dripping like from muggle showers, just a blink and it was gone, leaving the air thick with steam. For a moment she stood dripping, gripped her hair tight at the base of her head and slid out to the end, wringing it out, again and again and again, until water ceased dribbling over her fingers. Took far too long, damn shite was impossible. She tapped one particular tile, and the pink shimmery barrier blocking off the rest of the room vanished.

The showers in the dorms were really pretty neat. The surfaces were tile in black and green, though not the too-smooth fake-looking ceramic she was used to, but definitely carved stone, still with a bit of natural roughness to it. And there wasn't a normal shower head or anything, water just sprayed down from the ceiling across the whole space all at once, like a thick rain. And the controls were pretty neat too. There were tiles that had labeled little marks on them, tap on to turn the water on and off, or increase or decrease the water flow, raise or lower the temperature — it was the end of October, and it hadn't once gone cold on her yet, the water stayed how she set it. And that barrier was neat too, stopped anything in the other half of the room from getting splashed on, steam off the mirror. The stall was rather bigger than it really needed to be, but she thought she rather preferred it this way.

The shower in the muggle hotel she'd stayed at had been too small, she didn't like it — she hated feeling trapped.

Liz stepped out of the shower half of the room, the tiles in the changing half dry and warm against her feet. She glanced at herself in the wide mirror all along one wall — her eyes jumped to her scars for a moment, the complicated network of angry red lines switchbacking across her chest, like she'd gotten struck with lightning or something (Petunia had said they were from the car crash that'd killed her parents, but it must actually have been that spell that Dark Lord person had failed to kill her with) — before reaching for one of the towels hanging on the wall.

Her hand touched empty air.

The towels were gone.

A wave of cold tingles ran over her, head to toe, her heart crawling up her throat.

She could see most of the wall in the mirror, but she turned to look anyway. The whole rack was empty. They were all gone. There had been several towels when she'd gone in the shower, but they were—

Liz jumped, hard enough it almost hurt, turned back to the counter. Her clothes were gone. Her fresh change of clothes had been sitting right there, neatly folded on the counter next to the sink, but they were gone. Her old ones, abandoned on the floor, had also disappeared.

Her breath came shaky and thin, her chest almost too tight.

Someone had snuck in, while she was in the shower. With the water going she hadn't heard them, and she hadn't— She should have felt them, but she hadn't, she hadn't been paying attention. It was Hallowe'en, she didn't like Hallowe'en, not since she'd learned it was the day her parents had died — before she hadn't cared for it anyway, since it seemed to mostly be about eating sweet things, which were mostly disgusting, but now? Especially since it was the ten year anniversary of the end of the war, people had been being entirely irritating the last few days, and she'd maybe been moping a little bit, dreading the coming day, and she hadn't been paying attention...

She shivered — she was still wet and dripping, and she felt far too cold, and—

his eyes on her skin like

Liz let her breath out in a hiss, bit the inside of her cheek, her fingers clenching into fists so tight it hurt. No, she couldn't think about that right now — her potions were in her room — but the echo of it lingered like a bad smell, she couldn't get away, she tasted a hint of lemon and bleach, that damn sanitiser Petunia used on bloody everything, the phantom cloth of the sofa scratching at her bare—

No! Stop, it was fine! She was alone, there was nobody else here, she was fine! It wasn't the end of the bloody world, she just had to get to her room, they wouldn't have been able to steal her shite out of there, it was—

Just outside the bathroom was the circular room with the doors to all their bedrooms, open halls stretching into shadow.

No. No, she couldn't go to her room.

They wouldn't have taken the towels everywhere in here, she just had to go to one of the other rooms, just across the hall, it was fine, it was fine, it was fine

(It would be over soon, it had to be over soon—)

Her vision swam with black spots, and Liz realised she couldn't breathe.

She leaned against the counter, she could barely make out her own fingers shaking, her chest was on fire, and she was shivering, she was so fucking cold, and her vision was just getting blurrier, and she was starting to get seriously light-headed, her ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton, too full and useless, what little she could see of the room was swirling around her—

"Control yourself, girl, I don't want to hear any of that bloody whining—"

—she cringed as a line of fire was carved down her back and over her bum, and he pushed down harder on her back, holding her still, her face was pressed into the cushion, she couldn't breathe, she grit her teeth, it would be over soon, it had to be—

The tile was warm against her back, but she was still shivering, the air freezing against her wet skin, she thought her ribs might crack, her head was so stuffed full of fuzz it felt too full, like it was going to burst, she'd make an awful mess—

"Clean that up before you—"

—clutched her thin blanket tight around her, and the walls of the cupboard seemed to press in, the darkness thicker than usual, she pressed her face in to the pillow, she struggled to keep it in, Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried, she couldn't breathe, but that was fine, if she couldn't breathe she couldn't cry, they would leave her—

—a pounding on the door, and she didn't quite choke back a sob, Aunt Petunia was yelling at her to get out and get started on dinner, but it was too early, her back was still pounding and her throat burned with tears she couldn't quite hold in, she squeezed her eyes closed and wished she would go away, wish it would all go away, that she could just—

There was another knock on the door, but it wasn't harsh rapping from Petunia, or heavy thuds from Vernon, instead something soft and hesitant. And not just that, the sound was all wrong, none of the rattling in the frame, the metal of the vent clacking, the door sounded much firmer, thicker. She wasn't in the cupboard.

Ellie hadn't been locked in the cupboard for years. She knew that, she knew that.

"Liz? Are you okay in there?"

Liz. She was calling herself Elizabeth, now. She hadn't realised she could do that, just, decide to go by something else. She'd never liked Ellie, it had never quite sounded like a real name — she'd never heard of another Ellie — and sometimes when she heard it there was an echo of Petunia's sneering, of Dudley's simpering. Snape had called her Elizabeth Potter, handing over her timetable, and that sounded much better than Ellie, she'd used it every time she needed her name for anything, talking to the other kids, on her schoolwork.

Dorea had switched to using Elizabeth the quickest — they'd all grown up with the story of the Girl Who Lived, they were used to Ellie — and it hadn't taken her long to start shortening it to Liz. Liz wasn't quite as nice as Elizabeth, but it was still a whole lot better than Ellie.

It was Dorea, Dorea was on the other side of the door. (Definitely not the cupboard, but then it obviously wasn't, she hadn't been in the cupboard in years, she knew that.)

"Liz, do you need a towel?"

A towel... Yes, a towel would be good, she was still very wet, and it was so cold...

And she could get to her room. Right, she needed to get to her room, she could cover herself with the towel and get to her fucking room. Right. Right.

Unfortunately, she still couldn't breathe — she could barely see, her vision more black than colour, her head more fuzzy than brain — when she tried to say something, her mouth feeling numb and clumsy, nothing came out. She focused, tried to pull away from the echo lingering over her, like singling out a single memory in someone's head, focus, focus. She managed to force out a harsh groan, that almost maybe sounded like a yeah. Maybe.

"Just a second, I'll be right back."

Liz tried to suck in a breath, but barely got anywhere, her chest spasming, but by the odd little noise in the back of her throat her lungs must be doing something. Feeling all too numb, she could barely tell what she was doing, her limbs floppy and clumsy and useless, like her whole bloody body had fallen asleep, she tipped herself over, forced herself up onto her knees. Her hands shook almost too much, she nearly fell over, but she got one foot under her, leaning against the wall managed to unsteadily push herself up, slowly, slowly...

She'd managed to pull something in her neck at some point, she shuddered at the pain — and that shuddering apparently shook something loose, air finally slipped down her throat, sharp and cold and almost painful, but she sucked it in anyway, letting it out in a gasp. She forced a few more too thin breaths, her chest clenching and her throat burning with each one, but she focused, she made herself do it anyway.

Slowly, too slowly, the fuzz in her head thinned out, the black blobs in her eyes shrinking. They didn't go away all the way, but it was better, a little.

The echo of Vernon's voice running in her ears faded, the throbbing lines of fire criss-crossing her back cooled. They didn't go away all the way, but it was better, a little.

She wasn't in the cupboard, she was at Hogwarts, Vernon wasn't hitting her, Parkinson had just pulled a fucking prank on her.

It was fine, she was fine, she was fineshe was fine

She twitched at the knock on the door, but the unexpected noise was helpful, drawing her way from the echoes, pulling her to the here and now. "I've got it, do you want me to just..."

Liz shuffled against the wall a little, moving to lean against the door. She fumbled with the handle for a moment — her fingers were still shaking, fucking useless — pulled it open, just a crack. She didn't have to say anything, Dorea stuck her hand through, a heavy bath towel held in too-pale, pink-tipped fingers. She snatched it away, slammed the door closed as soon as Dorea's wrist was out of the way.

Clumsily, her arms shaking, she wrapped the towel tight around herself, she knew the cloth should be soft, but she was oddly sensitive, it scratched at her shoulders and her back, under her chin and—

—the cloth of the sofa scratched at her bare chest, Uncle Vernon's hand heavy on—

Liz bit the inside of her cheek, hard, grimaced at the white flash of pain. She tasted blood.

With a last strained, thin breath, Liz pulled the door open. Dorea was standing there, in her uniform and ready to get to breakfast, her eyes wide, fingers tangling and untangling. She was worried, anxiety that tingled and sparked in her head, her heart seeming to flutter at the base of her throat and behind her eyes, she'd known Liz wasn't well, but she hadn't said anything, she hadn't wanted Liz to think she was, she didn't know, sticking her nose in or anything, didn't want to be rude or scare her off or whatever, but maybe she should have said something, if not to Liz than to someone, she'd obviously been crying, god, Dorea didn't think she'd ever seen Liz more than mildly irritated with anything, what did she—

Liz tore herself away from Dorea — it felt like ripping out her hair, she was too scattered, she could barely keep herself inside her own brain — teetered in the doorway for a second before tumbling down the hall, toward the sinks at the front, the door out into the rest of the dorm. Her hand was shaking too much, she was fumbling with the door handle again, her throat ached and her eyes stung, Dorea reached around her, and she stumbled into their year's circle. It was even colder out here, Liz gripped the towel tighter around herself, tried not to think about the fact that she was naked under this thing, her skin crawling, she stumbled toward—

Her door was open. Whoever had done this (Parkinson) wouldn't have been able to get in her room, but she must have thrown Liz's things through the door. That was...nice of her. She guessed. She could have just burned them...

(She should start locking her door all the time, even if she was only going to be in the shower for ten minutes.)

Liz slammed the door behind her. She loosened her grip on the towel a little, it slipped down—

—worked under the band, yanked them down—

Her desk drawer rattled, glass tinkling, she snatched out a familiar blue bottle. Her fingers were still clumsy and useless, it took a few tries to get the stopper off, she threw the whole thing back in one go. Calming potions tasted like lavender smelled, smooth and sweet, her tongue and throat tingling. She nearly choked, her chest almost didn't let it through, but she managed to get it down, and a second later...

A second later, Liz was far, far away.

Her chest and her throat still hurt, and she was still a bit dizzy, her vision blurry and her hearing fuzzy. But, for a blessed moment, a warm, drifting moment that seemed to go on forever, Liz was far away from here, far away from here. She felt nothing, nothing at all, a big soft blank, she couldn't even think, just drifted, floating away.

She came back to herself, slowly, bit by bit. Her throat ached, and she felt oddly tired, her muscles hot and jumpy, like she'd just gone running. But she felt fine, everything slow and soft and warm and, just...floaty. That really was the best word for it, floaty. Like nothing were quite real, like she were only half-here. Not nearly so far away as that first moment after taking it — it seemed to last...she didn't know how long, really, a while, but she knew it could only be a few seconds — but still a step removed, skimming along the surface of reality, a little bit of protective distance.

It was fine. She was fine.

For a few seconds, sitting naked on the floor of her room, back propped against her desk, Liz (calmly) contemplated the murder of Pansy Parkinson.

...

She'd almost certainly be caught. Bother.

But that didn't mean she couldn't get revenge. And she had the perfect idea.

Getting dressed took a little longer than it ordinarily should. For one thing, calming potions tended to make her a bit slower than usual, sometimes forgetting what she was doing halfway through doing it, but she had an added problem this time. See, Parkinson, and whoever she'd been working with, hadn't just thrown her things back across the wardline — she'd torn them up and doused them in...ink, that was probably ink. Two shirts, two pairs of pants and shorts. The ink would certainly wash out, but she didn't know if the elves who did the laundry (apparently?) would repair them, so, she might need to get new ones. Somehow.

She would be angry about this, if she weren't still floating from the calming potion. She wasn't angry, because she couldn't be, but she knew she would be if she could, which was sort of a surreal thought.

Thankfully, her school robes had been in her room, so they hadn't been ruined — she only had two of those, and they'd been much more expensive. With a bit of fumbling, she was dressed, had her bag packed up to go to the library after breakfast. She paused to stare blankly at the wall for a couple seconds, before collecting the two empty potion bottles too. She didn't have Potions today, but she'd have to track down Snape anyway, to get a refill. Hmm.

She spaced out for another moment, eventually shook herself. Right outside her door, she nearly bumped into Dorea — Liz hadn't realised she was still out there. Which, she probably should have, she could feel her through the door, she just hadn't been paying attention...

"Are you okay?" She really didn't look okay, her hair was a bloody mess and she still looked like she'd been crying, did she realise her robes were all crooked, what had happened before—

Liz squinted, shook her head, trying to ignore the little flashes of thought and memory dancing in front of her eyes. (It was hard to concentrate on not reading Dorea's mind when she was this floaty.) "Uh. I'm fine. I took a potion."

The twisty nauseating concern filling Dorea's head didn't really go away, but it did get...less sharp, she guessed. She didn't know, figuring out feelings was even harder when she could barely think straight. "You seem a bit... I mean, you just seem more out of it than usual."

Dorea had seen Liz take some before (she tried to ignore the shadow of those moments sizzling at the back of Dorea's thoughts), but only a little sip at a time. If Liz could feel one of her moments was coming on, it only took a little bit to stop it in its tracks, but that didn't work so well if she was already too far into it. She didn't think Dorea had ever seen her this soon after taking the whole thing. "Yeah, it was really bad, so I took more than usual. I'll be fine, I'm just kinda floaty right now."

For a second, Dorea stared at her, a hundred questions unspoken, some what had happened and if she was really okay or what she meant by floaty, or if Dorea should get a prefect or maybe Snape or just someone, because this was not okay and she didn't like it. But instead of saying anything, she dropped her bag, and started tugging at Liz's robes around the collar.

She knew that might annoy her, if she were capable of feeling annoyed right now. She mostly just felt absently confused. "Wha...?"

"You look a mess right now, Liz." Dorea yanked her tie loose, went about redoing it. "People already stare at you too much, we don't have to give them more reason to."

"Oh." Liz blinked. "Thanks."

"No worries." With one last jerk at her lapel, hard enough Liz nearly stumbled forward a step, she was done. Dorea smoothed the fabric of her robes down for a couple seconds before her hands retreated again, and she bent down to pick up her bag. "Let's get going, then."

Liz almost felt like she should say something, but she was too floaty to think of what.

Once the hallway was clear, Liz slunk over toward the door, peeked around the frame inside. "Professor?"

Snape was standing in front of his desk, holding one of the little sample bottles up to the light. It did look a little funny, even from here Liz could see little flakes of something floating in the greenish liquid — judging by the vague bemusement drifting across the room, Snape wasn't even certain how whoever had made that one had managed to fuck it up that badly. "Miss Potter," he muttered, without glancing in her direction. "Did you need something?"

"I could use a refill, sir."

He replaced the sample in the rack with the others, a light sigh escaping through his nose. "Close the door."

Liz hesitated, but only for a second. She still didn't like being in a room alone with...pretty much any adult, honestly, especially one who had the same kind of mind magic powers she did. In fact, she refused to be alone with Quirrell — he'd asked her to visit him during office hours several times now, she still hadn't gone. But Snape was fine. He was hardly nice, of course, Liz didn't think he really had it in him to be nice. (Liz couldn't judge him for that, she hardly knew how to be nice either, when she tried it was awkward.) But he hadn't actually used his mind magic powers on her yet, and the potions were sort of great to have around if she was having a bad day, so. He was fine.

(The potion was definitely wearing off, enough she did actually feel a little uncomfortable, alone with him in a closed room, but it was fine, she was fine.)

Snape was slipping off toward the storeroom, so Liz moved up to the desk, pulled out her empty potions bottles and set them on his desk. He was only gone a few seconds — she suspected he had small stashes of calming and healing potions squirrelled away all over the castle, just in case anyone needed them — came sweeping back, another matched pair of bottles filled with the familiar light blue potion in his hand. The heavy glass met the wood of his desk with a low thunk.

He didn't lift his hand. Snape stared blankly downward for a long moment, clearly thinking about something. Liz couldn't say what it was, not without looking, but he must be having very serious thoughts — the heavy sharpness on the air suggested that much. Finally, he said, "Is there anything I need to know about, Miss Potter?"

"What? No."

"It's only been five days since the last time you came for a refill. That's the quickest you've used them yet, by a significant margin."

"Oh." Well, of course it was. Normally she'd only take a sip of the things every day or two, when she was having an especially bad moment. Going through a bottle in four days or so was a bit faster than normal, yes. And then, having to down a whole bottle at once practically first thing in the morning... She'd only had to take the whole thing once before, and that time the other bottle had lasted her rather longer. So, yeah, she wasn't surprised. "I'm fine, sir. I just...haven't had a great week. And this morning was terrible. But I'm fine."

With a slight suspicious edge to his voice, he drawled, "And you would tell me if you weren't."

"I would, sir." If for no other reason, he was giving her the potions. If he found out she was lying to him somehow, she had no idea if he'd keep cooperating or not. "It's just... It's nothing, one of the other girls pulled a prank is all."

It would hardly be the first time, Snape had to know that, though it was usually just jinxes here and there. Avoidable, and largely harmless when they weren't, if annoying. (And she knew what happened in Slytherin was supposed to stay in Slytherin, but Snape was part of Slytherin, so it didn't count.) Snape could probably even guess who it was, he wasn't an idiot.

"I just..." Liz hesitated, resisting the urge to bite her lip. "I don't think she realised how bad it would be? I mean, she doesn't know me that well, I don't think she meant to freak me out as badly as she did." Liz was still going to get revenge, of course, but she could admit Pansy hadn't sent her into...possibly the worst episode she'd ever had since she'd made Vernon stop, actually, Pansy hadn't done that on purpose. "I took a whole bottle. I probably didn't have to, necessarily, but I wasn't thinking about it, I just did it."

There was a flash of hot irritation from Snape — for Pansy, she assumed. He didn't say anything, but after a second his head dipped in a nod. He lifted his hand, picked up one of the bottles and held it out to her; she took it, slipped it into her bag. "And the other?"

...Oh. Okay. "That was nothing. People just..." Liz was silent a long moment, staring up at a corner of the ceiling, struggling over just what the fuck she could say. "I don't like Hallowe'en."

"Oh?"

"No. Everyone is being just... They won't leave me alone. It'll be better, once it's over."

Liz hadn't quite anticipated how much she would hate it here, sometimes. She didn't like... She was used to, just, avoiding drawing attention to herself as much as possible. Which did make sense, that she'd gotten into that habit, it was the sole practical form of self-defence she'd had at the Dursleys — a necessity, really, on a day-to-day basis — and she'd sort of coasted on with the same habits after it wasn't a problem anymore. She had her mind-control superpowers, but that didn't change much, really. Yes, she could have gotten anyone to do pretty much whatever she wanted, but all she really wanted was to be left alone — she didn't just stop people from being mean to her, she stopped people from being anything to her. In fact, there were some people she'd erased her existence from their minds completely. It was just...easier, that way.

But she couldn't really do that here. For one thing, magic people did notice it happening more often than normal people, so it was more of a risk to compel the other kids willy-nilly than it had been in Little Whinging. And there were adults to consider. She wasn't the only person around with mind-control superpowers — Dumbledore used the fake charms, but she was pretty sure Snape and Quirrell were both like her — and she'd been explicitly warned there would be consequences if she used them on the other students. She still had, a handful of times, but far away from professors, and she tried to avoid it. It wouldn't do any good to get back in the habit, after all.

She didn't know what the consequences would be if she were caught. Her baseline Dumbledore punishment was being sent back to the Dursleys, so, she had the feeling she didn't want to find out.

Forced to actually interact with the people around her, it hadn't taken her very long to find out she really didn't know how to talk to other kids anymore. Well, she hadn't ever, really — Dudley had seemed to make it his own personal mission to ensure she never had any friends, so she'd never really gotten much practice talking to people. When people did try to talk to her, she just...

Things to do with classes, and magic they were learning and stuff, that was fine, she could deal with that. There were facts she could use to frame her response when people did that thing where they left an opening for her to talk, real answers. When Dorea or Daphne wanted to complain about Pansy or Draco, or Hermione wanted to complain about Weasley (or Pansy or Draco), that was fine too — partially because they could go on for a while with very little comment from her, just venting in her general direction, and because the usual suspects really were quite irritating, Liz could usually think of something to contribute.

But normal conversations, with like...small talk and junk? Liz was terrible at those.

She did listen, when people around her were talking, but she never had any idea what she was supposed to say. Because, people would do that thing, where they'd fall silent for a moment, looking at her expectantly, because it was her turn, and she would just...stare, flounder for a moment, trying to figure out what exactly she was supposed to do now. (It reminded her unpleasantly of Petunia asking her what she'd forgotten, she'd thought she'd gotten to all her chores, she couldn't think of anything...) Most of the normal things, people talking about something just to be talking about something, it seemed like, most of those topics she didn't have enough of an opinion on to say anything. She didn't care, she just...

As the weeks had gone on, she'd increasingly drifted toward Dorea, Daphne, and Hermione (when Gryffindors were around), because they were the least difficult to get through a conversation with...though not quite for the same reasons. Dorea and Daphne had obviously noticed she had no idea how to hold a conversation — though the warm, queasy pity she felt wafting off them sometimes was just irritating — and Hermione could go on forever by herself with very little input from anyone, and she had about as much disinterest in the weird confusing things normal people liked to talk about as Liz. With Hermione, it was pretty much always class or book stuff, and that was fine, those conversations had actual answers.

(And most of the other Slytherins were annoyed with her for letting Hermione ramble in her general vicinity, which meant they were less inclined to try to talk to her, so, win-win.)

It might have been...tolerable, she might have learned to deal with it, if she weren't bloody famous. After the initial reaction to her being put in Slytherin — and being able to talk to snakes, and being generally creepy — people went back to paying far too much attention to her. Well, they'd never stopped paying attention to her, they just hadn't wanted to talk to her for a while, instead just...glaring and whispering, and occasionally lecturing at her over something incomprehensible she could safely ignore. Honestly, she would prefer going back to that. It hadn't been nice having everyone in the school hate her for reasons nobody could adequately explain to her, but it had been...familiar (nobody in Little Whinging had liked her anyway), and relatively unintrusive.

But now everybody wanted to talk at her again. Not most of the Slytherins, who still irrationally hated her for not irrationally hating muggleborns, or most of the Gryffindors, who still irrationally hated her for being a Slytherin, but everyone else. The Ravenclaws were at least relatively easy to deal with, most of the time — they tended to be very Hermione-ish, more interested in talking about magic and books than anything else, which, fine, she could do that. But some of them, and pretty much all of the Hufflepuffs, were just... They would just walk up to her and...

The things people expected her to have opinions about! Everything from the gossip floating around about someone's personal shite, to what the magical government was up to, to bloody fashion. There were things she was expected to have opinions about, and people who seemed to feel they were entitled to know her opinions about these things, because she was the Girl Who Lived and that's just how it worked apparently, all these little confusing and frustrating conversations she had forced on her all the time, and she wished she could just make them leave her alone, but she couldn't, and...

It was, just, exhausting. Sometimes, when she was sitting in the library studying with Dorea and Hermione, and Padma or Ernie or Hannah flounced up, flanked with their usual hangers-on, Liz wanted to scream with frustration, or just lay her head down on the table and quietly cry until they went away.

(But she didn't — she would quit that racket, and Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried.)

And this last week was especially terrible. Hallowe'en was coming up. Hallowe'en was the day it had happened, that the Dark Lord had (apparently) come to their house and killed her parents and LIz had (supposedly) resisted an unstoppable curse and destroyed him (somehow). It was the ten year anniversary, in fact — there had been big, special issues of all the major newspapers, commemorating the people who'd died in the war and the miracle that'd ended it, and there were celebrations going on all over the country.

And people wanted to talk to her about it.

They seemed surprised she had nothing to say, and didn't really want to.

They expected her to, what, like all this, to like being their bloody Girl Who Lived, and to have opinions about this stuff.

But she just wanted them to leave her alone.

She didn't have to say anything more than that. Probably for mind magic reasons, Snape seemed to understand immediately — and he seemed annoyed, somehow cold and sharp and hateful. Not at her, though, she could instinctively tell, something about it feeling too unfocused, so she didn't mind exactly, he could go hating other people if he wanted, she didn't care. (Especially if they were very annoying people.) After a moment he moved, silently offering up the second bottle to her.

As Liz tucked it into her bag with the other one, Snape said, "You may not want to go to dinner tonight. I expect the Headmaster to make a statement of some kind. You might find the debacle especially unpleasant."

"Oh." Liz blinked, then shrugged, resolving to make sure she actually ate a full meal at lunch, and probably a little extra just in case. (It wasn't like she was ever all that hungry to begin with.) "Okay, I won't be there, then."

"There is a door behind the Grand Staircase to the right. Take it down one floor, and take a right. Before long you'll see a large painting of a bowl to your left. Tickle the pear to open the door."

Tickle the pear? This castle sometimes, honestly. "Er, what's in it?"

"The kitchens. If you would prefer to have a quiet dinner on your own, perhaps with Miss Black, instead of braving the attentions of a school full of ridiculous children, I'm certain the elves will accommodate you. If anyone gives you any trouble, tell them you're there with my permission."

"Oh." That was...nice? of him? She had no idea what to say right now.

Snape's lips twitched, a tickle of amusement in the air. "A thank you would be appropriate, perhaps."

"Are you in my head right now?" She didn't feel anything, but he was a lot older than her, presumably had more experience with this mind magic stuff.

"I don't need to be. You project your emotions loudly enough it's hardly difficult to guess."

...Oh. That wasn't something normal people could feel, was it? Nobody had said anything, or seemed to notice, so probably not... "Er, thank you, sir. I'm gonna go now."

There was another tickle of amusement, strong enough she almost wanted to smile (almost). "I'll see you here tomorrow, Miss Potter."

It almost felt like there was something else she should be saying to him, but she couldn't think of anything, so she turned on her heel and walked out.

Hopefully that was the most difficult conversation she'd have to tolerate today over with. But she wasn't holding her breath.

"Have you seen Hermione today?"

Evening was settling over valley, the grounds already in shadow as the sun dipped behind the hills — this day was finally almost over — and they'd just been let out of Herbology. Somewhat late, actually, the Feast would be starting in only ten minutes or so. Liz almost had to wonder if Sprout had held them late on purpose — the kids seemed more rowdy than usual today, they could hardly get into much trouble if they had to go straight to dinner from class. And most had immediately set off, laughing and chattering, back up to the castle and the waiting holiday celebration.

Liz and Dorea had lingered behind, just outside the greenhouses, the first step in her plan to get revenge on Pansy. (Millie had probably also be involved, and she'd get Draco and Theo while she was at it too, because fuck them, fuck all of them.) Dorea seemed slightly nervous — she hadn't told her what she planned to do, but she could probably guess from context, Liz could feel she didn't entirely approve. She was going to help anyway, because Dorea was like that, but her determination to stick it out didn't mean she was happy about it.

Most of the class had passed them already, the noisy crowd drifting toward the castle, when the Ravenclaw Patil, Padma, had reversed course to talk to them. About Hermione. For some reason.

"Er, no," Dorea said, "we only had class with the Hufflepuffs today, and I didn't see her at lunch."

Which was slightly odd, now that she thought about it. Most days, at mealtimes, Hermione would at least drop by to say hello, even if she didn't stick around very long — most of the Slytherins didn't exactly appreciate her presence, but sometimes Dorea would lead Liz off to sit at the Ravenclaw table with Padma or Terry, or at the Hufflepuffs' with Hannah or Sophie, if they were there Hermione would sit with them sometimes.

Liz suspected Dorea had started sitting at other tables more often specifically so Hermione could join them without their housemates freaking out over it like racist idiots. She even got Daphne and Tracey to come with them more often than not. (Which Daphne was fine with, she'd known most of the purebloods in Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff since they'd been tiny, and clearly didn't give a shite if someone was muggleborn, which, like, half of the Hufflepuffs were.) Dorea was, clearly, much better at this making friends and talking to other kids thing than Liz was. Which was fine, Liz didn't mind being dragged along so much. It was slightly irritating, when people made a point of trying to include her in the talking bit, and frustrating, when she couldn't figure out what the fuck she was supposed to say...but people would just walk up to her and be annoying and confusing no matter what she did, it didn't actually make much of a difference.

If nothing else, people who spent enough time around her gradually came to realise she was flat awful at small talk, so, there was that.

Point was, they'd been at the Hufflepuff table today — they had Charms with them straight after lunch, had walked up with them after eating, Liz assumed that was why — and Hermione hadn't shown her face at all. Which was odd.

A flash of something sharp and tingly shot across the air — concern, more clear in Padma's mind than on her face. (At least, more clear to Liz, she wasn't great at reading facial expressions, too used to cheating with mind magic.) "She missed History today."

Liz snorted. At the flare of irritation from Padma, she said, "Well, it's History. Most of our class doesn't even go to History, and half of them are Hufflepuffs."

"This is Hermione, though. I don't think she's missed a session of History yet. Or, any class, really."

That...was a good point. The Slytherins had Potions, Defence, and Cambrian with the Gryffindors, and she hadn't ever noticed Hermione being absent. (She was always eager to answer questions and such, and her mind was especially noisy, she was hard to miss.) As far as Liz could see, Hermione actually liked going to class. Which was, just, completely incomprehensible, but other people were weird, Liz didn't make a point of troubling herself over why anyone did anything.

Padma's concern had spread into Dorea now. "Was she in Charms? You and the Gryffindors had it this morning, right?"

"Yeah, there was..." Padma winced, guilt slashing across her anxiety for a moment. "Ah, there was an...incident. Hermione ended up partnered with Weasley, and it didn't go well."

"What? How did that happen? I thought Weasley thinks she's some kind of traitor for hanging out with slimy snakes like us."

Padma shrugged, but didn't say anything, the guilt on the air getting thicker and sharper. Out of curiosity, Liz peeked into her head — not very far, just a little bit, like leaning around a mostly closed door. Her thoughts were kind of fuzzy at this distance, but she was pretty sure Padma was feeling guilty for sitting with someone else, that she was partially responsible for whatever had happened to Hermione.

Which was, just, silly. Liz assumed Weasley had been his normal jerkface self, she didn't see how that was Padma's fault. But okay.

"Anyway, apparently he said something nasty to her, I didn't hear what. Parvati said she's holed up in the bathroom, the one near Transfiguration, but, that was hours ago."

"Hmm." Dorea didn't say anything for a moment, frowning. "Well, if we see her, we'll make sure she's okay."

The conversation quickly wrapped up after that. Padma lingered for a moment, giving them a weird look, confused that they weren't making their way up to the castle with everyone else. Before too long she shrugged it off, turned and walked away.

"So, how are we going to go about this?"

Liz shrugged. "I figured I'd just walk around the greenhouses, hissing around until we pick up a couple." The greenhouses were enchanted to keep warm, which would probably seem very attractive to snakes in the fall — apparently, one snuck inside now and again, but they were found pretty frequently outside too.

Still feeling somewhat anxious, less than pleased with Liz's revenge plan, Dorea nonetheless nodded, stepped off the path into the bushes.

It took a couple tries for Liz to speak the weird magical snake language on purpose, but once she had it it didn't take very long, wandering behind the greenhouses, to gather several snakes toward her. Dorea cringed, an unpleasant shiver echoing off of her, retreated from Liz a bit, which... Now that she thought about it, Dorea had completely frozen up the only other time Liz had seen her anywhere near a real snake. Was she afraid of snakes? She could have said something...

After a bit of thought, Liz picked out the four most intimidating-looking ones. Three of them, she knew, were venomous — she didn't know how she knew that, she didn't really know anything about snakes, she just did. (Magic was weird sometimes.) She considered not using venomous snakes, but it probably didn't matter. Even if they did bite someone, they were in a bloody magic castle, with bloody magic healers all over the place, they'd be fine. Especially since it was, like, annoying venomous, not quickly drop dead venomous. She had no idea how she knew that either, magic was weird.

Now they just had to get the snakes into the jerks' rooms.

...

Dorea was going to hate this.

"You know, I was thinking."

Liz turned to Dorea, walking at her side, trying to not frown at her. Dorea had just helped her with her revenge plan, even though she really hadn't liked it — her mind had gone all weird and spiky and gross, Liz had ended up cramming three snakes into her robes, since just one seemed like more than enough for Dorea. Her head had mostly gone back to normal now. The shower had helped, her hair was still wet, face looking somewhat less pale than usual, pink still in her cheeks from the heat.

Her head had gone back to normal, at least, but it was doing something funny now. Sparking with nervousness, she thought, but very mild, it was hard to tell for sure. Not that Liz could guess what she had to be nervous about, the snakes were gone now. Well, in Pansy, Millie, Draco, and Theo's beds — they'd cracked open the doors, Liz told the snakes to crawl into their beds and wait there — but not with them, anyway.

She waited a few seconds for Dorea to say something, but she didn't. "Okay, and what is that?"

"We're going down to the kitchens instead of going to the feast, right?"

"Yeah." Honestly, Liz was slightly surprised Dorea had volunteered to go with her. She hadn't even asked, just said what she was doing — she'd assumed Dorea would want to go to the super special holiday thing with everyone else. "And?"

"I think we should bring Hermione with us."

Liz paused in the middle of the hallway. They were most of the way out of the dungeons now, the staircase ahead had a orange-yellow glow to it, the lights from the Entrance Hall bouncing down. She could even hear the low noise of distant chattering and laughing, they were somewhat late — the meal supposedly didn't actually start for another ten, fifteen minutes, but they'd been told to come early, practically the whole school should already be in there.

Hermione was probably in there too. With all the normal kids, whose parents weren't dead or in prison.

"Why?"

An odd, awkward shiver shook the air, didn't know what to call that. "She just... I don't know. I think she would appreciate being invited. I get the impression people don't like her very much."

Well, if Liz was being honest, she didn't particularly like her much either. But then, she didn't really like anyone much, did she? Hermione had a better interesting-to-annoying ratio than most people, so Liz didn't really mind having her around, but... "If you want to ask her along, that's fine, I don't care. Wouldn't she want to stay for the special holiday feast thing?"

Dorea shrugged. "I'll ask, in a way that makes it clear that saying no is an option. If she stays, she stays." She was talking casual enough, her face mostly expressionless (so far as Liz could tell, anyway), but that weird awkward shiver, those tingles of nervousness, it'd all gone away.

Had Dorea been worried Liz would, what, get annoyed with her just for asking? That was kind of bloody weird, but okay...

While Dorea went into the Great Hall to get Hermione, Liz waited outside, lingering near the bannister at the base of the Stairs. People were stupid about the Girl Who Lived thing, and it was the ten-year anniversary, people have been being fucking irritating all day. If she went in there, people would stare at her, and she'd rather just not, okay. Even the few stragglers wandering by, pointing and whispering, were bad enough. She really wished people would stop bloody doing that.

(She could feel their eyes on her skin like ants.)

Liz was still waiting, what had to be a few minutes. (She didn't have a watch.) What the hell was taking so long? It wasn't like Hermione was hard to find — her big bushy hair was pretty distinctive. (It was nearly as bad as Liz's, though not as thick and just really, really frizzy.) Eventually, after far longer than she could possibly have needed, Dorea slipped back out the doors, alone. Hermione must have said...

Liz frowned — no, something was wrong. A wave of hot tension ahead of her, Dorea was walking all stiff and quick, her face back to its usual too-paleness. "What is it?"

"You know, I fucking hate Gryffindor." Dorea swept past her, storming up the stairs, Liz scrambled to follow her. "Apparently, after Weasley made her run off crying, like the total arse he is, and she locked herself in the bathroom, nobody thought to even go check on her! Nobody's seen her for hours, and they just left her there!"

Well, Liz couldn't say she was particularly surprised. Kids were cruel and terrible, Liz had been very familiar with that idea by her second year of primary, and from what she could tell Hermione didn't really get on with any of the other Gryffindors. Honestly, tracking down some crying kid and trying to...what, get them out and...whatever it was Dorea expected them to do, that sounded awkward and confusing and terrible. She certainly wouldn't want to do it herself, that sounded like far too much...effort, she guessed, for someone she didn't really care much about, for something that didn't really seem that important — what did it really matter if Hermione spent the whole day crying in a bathroom by herself, it wasn't like she was getting hurt or anything.

Liz had spent quite a lot of time crying (or trying not to) in her cupboard by herself, after all, and she was fine.

But she didn't feel like arguing about it, so she just followed along. Dorea would probably do all the awkward talking anyway, so.

They ascended through the castle in tense silence, Dorea's head all hot and sharp and worried and angry, Liz following along in her shadow, wondering how long this would take. (She didn't know how long the elves would have dinner sitting around down there, and she really should eat something — she'd barely had a couple bites at breakfast, too floaty from the calming potion to feel hungry, and she hadn't had much at lunch either.) Dorea must have been told where to go by whichever Gryffindor she'd been talking to — their Patil, probably, Padma had mentioned she'd said something about it — because she went straight to the girl's bathroom just near the Transfiguration classroom, on the second floor. She barged in without slowing, the door slamming against the opposite wall.

There was a thin, muffled squeak from somewhere inside the room.

Dorea paused for a moment, her fists clenched at her sides, taking slow, deep breaths. Trying to control her anger at Hermione's housemates being completely useless, she guessed. It didn't really go away, a smouldering fire at the back of Dorea's head, but her voice sounded soft and normal, at least. "Hermione? It's Dorea and Elizabeth. Are you in here?"

Hermione didn't answer. She was there, Liz could feel her, the familiar electric feel of her hyperactive mind shot through with fear and embarrassment. Which was sort of confusing, what did Hermione think they were going to do to her...

Calling for her again, Dorea walked further into the room. When there again wasn't an answer, she held her hair to the back of her neck, leaned over until her head was practically upside-down, peering under the door of the first stall. She straightened again, started moving for the next stall — and then, something odd and fuzzy shooting through her head, like static suddenly taking over the radio, she teetered, stepped back to lean against one of the sinks, one hand covering her eyes.

Liz watched her for a moment, frowning to herself. That was...weird. She'd thought before, that Dorea didn't seem...entirely well. She didn't know what was wrong with her, exactly, but she was almost as thin and tiny as Liz — a bit taller, but with much more well-behaved hair, Liz actually took up more space most of the time — and she always seemed just a little too pale. She didn't seem to have any trouble with all the stairs...or, no more than most of the other kids, anyway, but... She didn't know, Liz thought there was something. This was the most obvious off thing so far, though she couldn't say exactly what that'd been. Just...

It was just weird, that was all.

Holding in the urge to sigh, Liz walked up to one of the stalls, toward the far end of the row. She turned back to Dorea, and pointed at the door.

Dorea had recovered from whatever that little episode was — there was still a little bit of static in her head, but she was actually looking at her now, her gaze mostly steady. She stared back at Liz, brow tilted in an uncertain frown.

Liz rolled her eyes, nodded at the door. Then she stuck her hands in her pockets, and slunk away, leaning against the wall.

Hermione did still try to pretend she didn't exist, but it was rather hard to do when Dorea was standing there knocking on the door of her stall, being all nice and asking her if she was okay and everything. (Well, that wouldn't have made a difference to Liz, but it clearly did to Hermione.) Dorea did manage to talk her out of there eventually, though it took a bit of wheedling, and a couple times turning to Liz like, Isn't that right? to which Liz just stared back at her, not entirely certain what she was supposed to be saying. Just that, no, she didn't hate Hermione, Weasley and the rest of her housemates were just jerks, that didn't seem to be quite what Dorea was looking for, but she didn't really have much better than that.

Even after getting Hermione out of the stall, they apparently couldn't just leave quite yet. Dorea helped Hermione clean up first — which, she did kind of need it, her face was all blotchy and runny, her hair somehow even more of a mess than usual. And then there was more talking, which Liz mostly ignored. She didn't have anything to say, didn't know what she was supposed to say, and Dorea seemed to have it handled. She wasn't even certain why she was still here.

Hermione kept giving her odd looks, feeling something odd and cool and...shifty, that Liz couldn't quite put a name too. Probably wondering why Liz was here too.

(Well, if she was being perfectly honest, she did know why she was here. Just following Dorea up had seemed like the thing to do, even though it was the exact opposite direction from food. And she'd stayed because she did give at least a little bit of a damn about Hermione, would rather her not be miserable. She just had no idea what to say to help her not be miserable, so it was better if she just stood in the corner and kept her bloody mouth shut.)

Eventually, Hermione realised they were supposed to be at the feast right now, seemed right devastated that she was late for something. (It was actually sort of funny, but Liz managed not to laugh at her.) And Dorea finally got around to asking if she wanted to go down to the kitchens with them. So that was settled, then.

Liz led the way out into the hall, Dorea and Hermione following a few steps behind her, still muttering to each other. Setting toward the Grand Staircase on autopilot, she frowned. "Do you smell that?"

"Probably Dungbombs," Hermione said, with an exasperated sort of exhaustion. "The twins love those damn things..."

She was briefly confused — the only twins she was at all familiar with were the Patils, who didn't exactly strike her as the type to be into playing with that sort of thing — before she realised Hermione meant the Weasley twins. She had heard of the Weasleys by now, mostly from other Slytherins complaining about them, but that one (irritating) conversation on the train had been her only real interaction with them so far. "That doesn't smell like Dungbombs, really." Less shite, more kitchen trash left out too long...

"Well, maybe—" Whatever Dorea was about to say was cut off as they rounded the corner and stumbled into the ugliest fucking thing Liz had ever seen.

A huge bloody thing, three or four metres high, greenish-grey mottled skin, legs thicker than Liz's entire body, a flat, tiny little head, with long gorilla-ish arms, dragging a huge roughly-shapen club... Was that a mountain troll? What the fuck was a troll doing in Hogwarts?!

Liz didn't pause to think, or even take too long looking at the thing. (It was fucking gross, and it stank, she kind of didn't want to be anywhere near it.) Throwing everything she had into it, all her will narrowed into a single, piercing point, fizzy electricity on her tongue and rainbows behind her eyes, she commanded, "Sleep."

The troll grunted, its tiny eyes rolling back into its tiny skull. It teetered back and forth for a moment, before abruptly collapsing, with a heavy thud that shook the floor under Liz's feet.

Well. That was easy.

Liz waited a moment, staring at the huge, ugly, smelly thing, until she was certain it was staying down. She glanced over her shoulder — Dorea didn't look well, suddenly pale and sweaty, even leaning against Hermione, the taller girl supporting her with an arm around her waist. And they were both staring at her, wide-eyed and terrified and stunned. And increasingly confused, as the danger passed as soon as it'd arrived, silently wondering what the hell just happened.

For the blink of an eye, Liz considered making them both forget what they'd just seen. But she kind of didn't want to mess with Dorea's head like that — not to mention, she spent more time with Dorea than anyone else, it was probably inevitable that she'd find out about the mind control superpowers eventually — and if she just did Hermione, Dorea would know, and Liz really doubted she'd approve. She'd probably be insufferable.

Fuck, this was going to be a pain...

"How did you do that? With the troll."

Liz sighed, jabbed irritably at her ice cream. For a little bit there, she'd almost thought she'd avoided having to answer any questions.

The kitchens, Liz had quickly decided, were kind of neat, and preferable above the Great Hall as a place to eat dinner on this particular day by a significant margin. In was bare of any real decoration, plain stone, ceramic, and iron — well, probably not iron, but a rough metal of some kind — in greys and blacks and whites, with a bunch of familiar-but-unfamiliar things she assumed were the magical equivalent of stoves and fridges and somesuch. She'd never actually seen a magical kitchen, when she thought about it. Just by watching the elves go at it, it was pretty obvious what the various fixtures were for, even if they looked little like what she was used to, so the whole thing was an odd blend of alien and familiar.

And there were the elves themselves, of course. She'd been aware there were elves at the school, who took care of all the cooking and cleaning and stuff, though she knew very little else about them and hadn't seen one until today. They were odd little things, the tallest of them maybe topping her elbow — and Liz was short, it was ridiculous — making them even shorter than goblins, though they were smaller, long-limbed and slender. Also sort of like goblins, their minds had a sort of...metallic hardness to them, but where goblins had felt sharp and sturdy, the elves were smoother and...sparklier, a constant glimmery energy, like lightning running through their veins, it was kind of interesting.

Though they didn't look at all like goblins, really. The elves had smooth skin a sort of greenish-grey, long floppy ears, and eyes that seemed far too large for their skulls, irises twinkling in all colours of the rainbow. Their proportions seemed slightly off in general, heads too big and limbs too long, but it was probably most noticeable in their fingers — stick-thin and far too long, she thought they might even have an extra joint in them, it was actually vaguely creepy. They kind of reminded her of the aliens in some of those silly comics Dudley liked, really.

They had cheerfully greeted them when the there of them had walked in — which Liz hadn't expected, weren't students not supposed to be here? — their enthusiasm kicking up a notch when they realised it was the Girl Who Lived. Ugh. Thankfully, the elves were a lot less annoying about it than most people. There had been a lot of high-pitched chittering and babbling, the hyper little things practically dancing in place, but after squirrelling them away at one of the tables and setting out some dinner for them, the elves had retreated, darting off with too-fast, bird-like grace, leaving them pretty much alone. Which was nice of them.

(Though the elves were making her feel a little weird, she couldn't put her finger on why.)

Anyway, through dinner, Liz had just quietly ate, while Hermione interrogated Dorea about house elves. Dorea had mostly grown up in the muggle world, but she'd spent some time on the various old Black properties with her magical great aunt (apparently the last Black left), so she'd met a few elves before. Apparently, the ancestors of modern house elves were a sort of common forest elf — those weren't around anymore, they'd left Earth with the rest of the fae centuries ago — who had been captured by ancient goblins and, through a combination of blood magics and selective breeding, converted into a sort of servant class. Most house elves still lived with the goblins, in fact, though they also did a fair amount of metalwork and glasswork, the tiny fine delicate stuff, not just the cleaning and such. (Apparently, the goblins respected the elves for their talents quite a lot, they even held important positions in certain crafting guilds, the relationship between the two races within their society was actually far more complicated than just a master–slave sort of thing.) The elves in magical society had originally been captured by humans during the various wars with the goblins, and forced to serve them instead.

Though, apparently, the situation in the modern day with mages was also more complicated than just a master–slave sort of thing. There was a lot of babbling about needing to tie themselves to external magic so they didn't blow themselves up (for some reason?), stuff about fae being magically bound to any promises they made in a way humans were not (all fae were simply incapable of lying for that reason, which was kind of neat), it was all very complicated and Liz didn't really follow much of it.

Hermione clearly felt uncomfortable about the house elf thing, which was a little weird. They seemed perfectly happy to her — almost annoyingly cheerful, actually. Liz didn't entirely understand what the problem was.

After clearing away the dinner stuff, one of the elves — Nadsy, one of the more steady once, without so much of that bouncing energy, Liz suspected she was a little older — informed Liz they had her ice cream, if she wanted. Which, that was weird, that they had her ice cream, where had they even gotten that? Apparently, it wasn't at all unusual for them to go out and get special things, things they couldn't make themselves. They normally made the ice cream they served, but since it was Hallowe'en, an important but less than pleasant day for Liz and all, after lunch one of the professors had recommended they go to Fortescue and ask what she liked. They'd bought a tub of the stuff from him, and one of them had tasted it, so they could make more of the stuff now whenever. (Elves could figure out how to make anything just by tasting it, which was really neat.) They could add that to the ice creams they usually made from now on, special to sent up to the Slytherin table, if she liked.

Of course she would like, that sounded great. But she had to ask who had suggested they do all that, and Nadsy, with a tone of well obviously, who else would it be, had said it was Snape. Which wasn't at all unusual, he made dietary requests on behalf of his Slytherins all the time. Looking after them was his job, after all.

Liz was entirely blindsided, shocked into silence for a few long seconds. Dorea and Hermione looked just as surprised as she was, and why shouldn't they be, that was just bloody weird.

But anyway, she had her ice cream now — and it was great, she'd forgotten how good this stuff was. (The other girls had both tried a bite, and Hermione thought it was fine, not great but fine, and Dorea said it was awful, so, Liz continued to be weird.) Hermione had finally exhausted her questions about house elves, and traditional magical Hallowe'en-related stuff, so apparently now was the time to interrogate Liz about her mind-control superpowers.

Awesome.

Liz didn't answer right away, moodily glaring down at her ice cream, so after a couple seconds Hermione added, "I mean, it wasn't a normal spell — I've never heard of anyone casting spells in English, and you didn't even draw your wand. And, aren't trolls magic-resistant? I'm pretty sure sleeping charms don't even work on them, at least without seriously over-powering it, and we're far too young to do that sort of thing."

Taking another bite of ice cream, Liz drew it out for a moment, taking longer to chew an almond than was even close to necessary. She sighed. "It wasn't a normal spell. I can... Well, I call them mind-control superpowers. The first time it happened it was a dog, but I can do it with people to. And trolls, apparently." She was kind of rambling, and she didn't know what else to say, so she interrupted herself with another bite of ice cream.

Hermione's head was sparking like crazy, filled with far too many questions to decide which one she wanted to ask first. There was an odd, chilly sinking feeling from Dorea — sort of fear-adjacent, Liz thought, but not quite the same thing. Like, wary, or intimidated or something. "You're a legilimens."

Liz nodded. "Yep. Though, I didn't learn that's what it was called until a couple months ago."

"What's a legilimens?"

With some visible effort, Dorea pushed back her own discomfort enough to answer Hermione's question. "Ah, one of the primary branches of magic involves the mind, observing and altering it. Legilimens are people who have a natural talent for mind magic, sort of like metamorphs for transfiguration. Though, they're not quite so rare as metamorphs — Professor Snape is a legilimens."

"So's Quirrell."

Dorea frowned. "Really? I hadn't heard that."

Nodding, Liz said, "He keeps trying to read my mind, pretty much every time we're in a room together. I haven't noticed him using it on anyone else, just me."

Liz had absolutely no idea how to interpret that feeling — something hot and tingly and squirmy and... Offended, concerned, maybe? Dorea was annoyed that Liz hadn't told her about it, and worried over Quirrell, she thought. But of course she hadn't told Dorea, that would require explaining she had mind-control superpowers in the first place, and she hadn't wanted to have this conversation, if possible not ever. Whatever it was, Dorea brushed it off. "Right. Well, if you ask around, you'll learn the Dark Lord was infamous for it, but it's not, like, a Dark Arts thing. The Headmaster is a legilimens too."

"No, he's not."

With a mix of exasperation and confusion, Dorea asked, "Isn't he?"

Liz shook her head. "He's mastered the charm, but it's not the same thing. It feels different."

"It...feels different?" That was far easier to interpret: concern, touched with the building heat of anger. "Dumbledore legilimised you? When?"

"First time we met, back in August."

There was a bit of surprise and confusion from Hermione, and she opened her mouth to ask a question — probably hadn't known Liz hadn't known Dumbledore before Hogwarts, they'd never actually talked about that before — but Dorea got there first. "He legilimised you the first time you met? Why?"

Liz shifted in her seat, jabbed irritably at her ice cream some more. She really didn't want to talk about this. But, well, if Dorea was being angry over Dumbledore reading Liz's mind, she wasn't being weird about Liz being able to read Dorea's (though she didn't, most of the time, and really, the charm was a lot more invasive than true mind magic). So, she could either talk about running away to Charing and being caught by Dumbledore, or she could talk about her mind-control superpowers.

She bit her lip to stop herself from cursing out loud.

"I ran away from home, back in July." Hermione gasped, her hand coming up to cover her mouth, and Dorea felt equally shocked, though she wasn't showing it much at all, her eyes just slightly wider than they'd been a second ago. "I'd just gotten my Hogwarts letter, I hadn't known about the magical world before that, and I found out my parents left me some money, and I thought... Well, I could live on my own, I didn't have to..."

Liz sighed, sticking her spoon into her ice cream, and pushed the bowl a little away from her — her stomach had gone all...churny, she couldn't eat anymore. "I'd been staying in a hotel room in Charing for a few weeks when Dumbledore turned up, asked what I was doing there on my own. When I wouldn't tell him, he read my mind to find out for himself. Gave me a hell of a headache doing it, and then lectured me about using mind magic on people, hypocritical bastard..."

"Why did you run away?" Dorea asked the question slowly, hesitantly, as though she wasn't certain she wanted to know.

Hermione, on the other hand, practically spat out, "Oh my gosh! I had no idea, are you okay?!"

Liz sighed. "I'm fine, I just don't get on with my family very well. They don't, like, hurt me or anything—" Not anymore, at least. "—it's just... Well, I have the money my parents left me now, and I thought, you know. Dumbledore brought me back and... I'm fine, is what I'm saying, don't worry about it."

Neither of them seemed to particularly believe her, but they both seemed to decide to drop it. (Or, perhaps, they were as uncomfortable talking about this as she was.) After a moment, Dorea said, "And you still have your mind-control superpowers."

Dammit. "Yeah, there's that. Even if they tried to do anything to me, I'd just stop them, anyway."

"And you...can do that?" Hermione cleary didn't like the implications of what she was asking, but this was Hermione, she couldn't not ask a question — there was more than a little fascination threaded through that uncomfortable mess in her head, because of course. "Just, make people do things."

"I mean, I don't," Liz said, lifting her shoulders in an awkward shrug. "I can, it's not even particularly difficult, but... People can tell when I do it, if I'm not careful or if I do something too big, and...well, I didn't want to have this conversation, and... I don't want people to be weird about it, you know."

One of Dorea's eyebrows ticked up. "You never use legilimency at all." It was clear just from her tone of voice that she didn't believe her.

"Well, a little, but I can't really control that. I know what everyone around me is feeling all the time, but that's, just, automatic, I can't turn it off." She could, kind of — she pulled herself in during Defence, to protect herself from Quirrell — but it'd be exhausting to do that all the time. "But I have to, like, get closer to tell what someone's thinking, that's not really the same thing. Like, people's emotions kind of waft off of them, like steam or something, but the thoughts stay inside, if I want to see those I actually have to look. I might do it on accident, if I'm really tired, or just not paying attention to what I'm doing, but I'm not going around reading people's minds all the time.

"Though, er..." Liz hesitated, wondering if admitting this was really a good idea. If she said something that she clearly didn't want to admit to, they might be more likely to believe she was coming clean about everything, but she wasn't certain it was worth it. Well, might as well try. If they reacted too badly, she could always wipe their memory of this entire conversation. She didn't want to do that, but... "Honestly, I do read your minds sometimes. I'm not, like, going trawling through your memories or anything, just, if you're saying something, and I don't really know what you're talking about, I'll take a peek quick to figure it out. I don't go in very far, just check the stuff right on the surface, you know. Just, I don't really get people, a lot of the time, and I get confused really easily. It helps."

If she had to put a word to it, Hermione seemed envious — she'd noticed Hermione was terrible at getting along with other kids their age too, probably wishing she could do the same thing. Dorea seemed far more uncomfortable with even that minor invasion of her privacy, but there was a bit of reluctant amusement too, her lips twitching. "You mean, you've been using legilimency to cheat this whole time?"

"Er, sort of, I guess."

"Liz, you're terrible at talking to people."

She shrugged helplessly. "I can literally be watching every single thing someone's thinking and feeling, and not understand them at all. Being able to read people's minds helps, but I'm still a freak, so."

Inexplicably, Hermione seemed offended, puffing up in her chair a bit. What the hell had she said? "You're not a freak, Liz, you shouldn't call yourself that." Oh, offended on her behalf, right.

"I kind of am, though," she said, shrugging again. "People tend not to like child legilimens much, sort of a creepy devil-child thing. And well, admit it, Hermione, you do find me sort of creepy sometimes. You're polite about it, but I know what you're feeling even if you don't say anything."

Hermione flushed, embarrassed over some of the...less flattering things she'd thought of Liz in the past — Liz had seen some of that too, of course, since she did peek a little, but Hermione probably didn't realise that yet and Liz wouldn't be pointing it out.

"Is that why you don't get on with your family, they think you're creepy?"

Liz winced. Dammit, why did Dorea have to be so perceptive, that was just annoying. "Ah, something like that, yes. I was a bit weird even before it kicked in, so, yeah, kinda." Or, more accurately, they'd known she was magic and were trying to somehow keep her down and helpless. Which was fucking stupid — if she were dealing with someone who'd get ridiculous magic powers at some point in the future, she'd try to make certain they liked her, so wouldn't be motivated to use them against her — but, Dursleys, stupid was expected. "Anyway, are we still good? With the legilimens stuff, I mean."

"What do you mean?" Hermione said, frowning to herself a little.

"You're not, like, freaking out on me, or...I don't know, gonna run off and tell everyone about it, or something."

"Of course not!" Again, Hermione seemed a little offended, which was just fucking baffling — Liz really didn't get people most of the time. "I mean, it is kind of...not scary, exactly, just kind of a lot, you know what I mean? But it was something you were just born with, right? And, well, it's not like you're running around forcing everyone to do whatever you want, so, I don't see why it should matter that much."

"I imagine she can't use it too much," Dorea said. "Snape's probably keeping an eye on her."

"He hasn't made a point of telling me he's watching, but Dumbledore said he would be."

"Right, so." Hermione hesitated for a moment, something turning around in that hyperactive head of hers. "You, um... You don't have to hide it, you know? Not with us, I mean. Besides, it is rather fascinating, isn't it, you can talk about it if you want to."

"I'll think about it." Liz suspected she wouldn't much, but it was...reassuring, she guessed, that she wouldn't freak Hermione out if she did. No more than she had already, at least.

That was, apparently, the end of the conversation. Okay, then.

It was not long after that, Dorea and Hermione talking about inborn magical abilities, when the door into the kitchens slammed open, the heavy thud making Liz, Dorea, Hermione, and dozens of elves jump all at once. Professor Snape was standing in the doorway, and there was something...well, odd about him. His mind was cold and sharp and intense, more than usual, not exactly angry or anything, just...focused. He was missing his overrobe, leaving him in magic-style trousers and shirt — weirdly, one of the legs of his trousers was mangled and torn, streaked with what looked like bloodstains, a line of char from the centre of his chest crossing over his shoulder, burned all the way through in a couple places — his hair uncharacteristically disheveled, scattered all over the place, his cheeks pinked from exertion, sweat dotting his brow.

The room fallen into a tense silence, he stood there for a long moment, sounding a little out of breath, wordlessly staring at the three of them. After a few long seconds, he twitched, stepped back into the hall, closing the door behind him.

...

"What the fuck was that?"

While Hermione started lecturing at Dorea for her language — Hermione would continue to be Hermione, after all, no matter the circumstances — Liz pulled her half-melted ice cream closer, shaking her head to herself. She didn't say anything, just sat back, listening to Hermione and Dorea bicker, transition into wondering what had happened to Snape, throwing around theories about him getting into a fight with one of the professors about something.

It didn't really seem like Liz's business, but if her friends wanted to argue with each other about it, that was fine. She didn't mind listening.

Chapter Text

November 1991


A lot of this Slytherin house stuff was very silly, Liz thought, but at least the dueling room was pretty cool.

It was a large room — probably larger than the Great Hall, actually — made of the same greyish stone as the rest of the dungeons, but still far more colourful. All along the walls were banners, representing various noble houses and magical military groups and even national flags (some of them didn't exist anymore), a few that Daphne said were for modern dueling organisations. The floors were plenty colourful too. The plain stone was mostly covered with smooth ceramic tile, like the centre of the first years' circle or the bathrooms, but they weren't just a single colour all the way through, there was a lot of variety. Circles and rectangles were drawn here and there — dueling rings — surrounding them a layer of tiles arranged into tiny runes, the wards that isolated the duelers from the outside. Liz had seen it, you just had to tap the runes with a wand and they snapped up, would absorb any spell thrown at them, so the spectators didn't get hit with stray hexes. With all the gleaming tiles in all kinds of colours, the designs stretching all the way across the huge open floor, it was quite pretty.

And the ceiling helped with that too — or, the absence of a ceiling, that is. There were little balls of light floating here and there, but during the daytime most of the lighting came through the skylight. Looking up anywhere in the chamber, wall to wall, was the murky water of the lake outside. (Which, Liz thought that was actually impossible, given where the castle was in relation to the lake and how far of a walk it was...and shouldn't the common room be right over their heads right now? Hogwarts was weird.) During the day, sunlight poured through the water, filling the room with a soft greenish-tinged glow; during the night, the lake above dimmed to a deep blue-black, reflections dancing on the surface.

Liz thought the whole thing was pretty neat. It was certainly a good distraction from the long, boring Slytherin House Meeting.

So far as she could tell, most of what was going on wasn't particularly important. There were a few announcements here and there, but they mostly had to do with, like, the quidditch team, and things that had been added or removed to the list of banned items — the Slytherin list was apparently rather shorter than the official Hogwarts list, but Snape and the prefects actually searched their rooms occasionally — in a few cases developments going on outside the castle that had social consequences here. (To the people involved, they had nothing to do with Liz.) Apparently, even personal things were House Business — a couple fifth years announced they were engaged now, which...what? Okay, she guessed Slytherins cared about politics and social stuff and whatnot, so she could see how that might be the sort of thing they should tell the whole house, but why the hell were fifth years getting engaged in the first place?

Daphne, sitting next to her, hissed that this was actually perfectly normal. Most of the nobility (and the Slytherins were mostly noble) had arranged marriages, and they were usually arranged some years before the wedding actually happened. It was typical for people to be "betrothed" (nobody said engaged, but they meant the same thing, Liz thought) when they were fifteen, even if the wedding itself wouldn't happen until they graduated at the earliest, sometimes not even until their mid-twenties.

That was...odd. Sometimes it was easy to forget that Liz was essentially in a foreign country now, but then things like this slapped her in the face...

After they'd been sitting around for what felt like hours, Emily Scrimgeour — Snape was in the room, standing in a corner watching, but the Head Girl had run the whole meeting — started taking requests to have personal disputes arbitrated by the prefects before the house. There were a couple feuds that went on between older students, it had nothing to do with her, she hardly even paid attention.

These risers weren't particularly comfortable, her butt was starting to hurt a little. Were they about done yet?

She was paying so little attention she hadn't even realised Pansy and company were talking about her until Dorea elbowed her in the side.

Hallowe'en had been a couple days ago now, and Liz hadn't really seen any results from her little bit of retaliation. Well, no, she'd seen results, obviously — Pansy and Millicent and Draco had been wearing bandages, Pansy's still there and impossible to miss, off-white cloth covering much of her left forearm. Those were the three who had gotten the venomous snakes, Liz assumed Theo's had been easier to heal. There hadn't been any consequences, though, aside from a bit of glaring. She'd almost thought Snape might yell at her, but while he'd obviously been watching her, his eyes on her skin like ants all through Potions classes and meal times, he hadn't actually said anything so far.

Which was odd. Liz had put snakes in their beds, which was just... She was aware that had been an escalation, perhaps more than had been called for, especially for Draco and Theo, who hadn't been in any way involved in the bathroom thing (she assumed). They couldn't possibly have known their little prank would have affected her nearly as badly as it had — they didn't know about anything that had happened to her before Hogwarts, the only people who even knew she took calming potions were Dorea and Daphne. (Well, maybe Tracey and Hermione too, but they hadn't said anything.) On the other hand, Liz had intended the snakes to bite them, she'd been pretty sure that would happen going in. Liz had been the one to escalate to actual physical harm.

Yeah, the thing with stealing her clothes hadn't been the first thing they'd done to her — there had been little jinxes and such, shoves in the corridor, that sort of thing. Liz wasn't the first to do anything physical at all. She was the first to do actual harm, that required medical attention. By any standard, Liz had escalated things further than she'd thought anyone would think acceptable, honestly further than she might have if she hadn't still been a bit floaty from the calming potion when she'd come up with it. She'd expected there to be consequences. And yet there hadn't been.

Until now, apparently.

The four first-years who had been assaulted by snakes went through their sob story, how Liz and Dorea and Daphne had used dark magic to attack them without any provocation. (Oh, please...) Scrimgeour stonily listened through the whole thing, expressionlessly staring at them. When they were finally finished (took far too bloody long embellishing the thing, of course), she turned to the stands. "Elizabeth Potter, Dorea Black, Daphne Greengrass — do you wish to answer to this accusation?"

Daphne was hissing something at her again, but Liz wasn't listening. She jumped to her feet. "Dorea and Daphne had nothing to do with it, it was just me."

As a wave of whispers and dark chuckles ran through the assembled Slytherins, Scrimgeour hardly reacted, one of her eyebrows just tipping up a little. "Alright, Miss Potter. I suppose you have some defence for yourself, then?"

"I dunno, is that I only did it to retaliate for what they did to me first a defence?"

Scrimgeour's lips twitched. "It is. Get down here, Potter."

Dorea and Daphne were both whispering at her — telling her she shouldn't accept the prefects' arbitration, she assumed. But Liz wasn't certain they were right about that. She meant, the punishments the prefects were allowed to enforce were pretty mild. Just revoking rights to use common house resources and asking Snape to give the guilty party unpleasant detentions, mostly. (Snape wasn't obligated to respect the prefects' request to enforce their punishment, but according to Prefect Gemma he always did, out of respect for the house's little self-government.) So far, Liz hadn't even used any of those common house resources, and she couldn't imagine these unpleasant detentions were any worse than her chores back before she'd come into her mind-control superpowers — from what she'd heard, detentions were usually, like, writing the same thing over and over and over (for some reason?), or cleaning something gross, that sort of thing. That didn't seem particularly bad to her.

The other thing the prefects could do was censure the loser, basically saying they were a bad person who'd done bad things. She meant, social pressure, not being as nice to them, shunning them in the common room, the in-house tutors not helping them with classwork, whatever form it took. Like, treating them as though they weren't part of Slytherin at all, for however long their punishment lasted. Since the only Slytherins Liz really talked to were Dorea and Daphne (and she could get by without them for a few weeks no problem), and she really didn't give a single flying shite what the rest of the house thought of her, the prefects' censure meant absolutely nothing to her.

Submitting herself to the prefects' arbitration was, in a way, engaging in asymmetric warfare. Liz had done the worse thing — she'd done less things, but the one thing she'd done was objectively more harmful — so she was more likely to lose, probably. But the possible punishments didn't really bother her much. At the very least, they bothered her less than they did the other four — Pansy, Draco, Millicent, and Theo would actively dislike having their access to the house library revoked, or getting unpleasant detentions, and they would absolutely hate being censured for a couple weeks. As far as Liz could see, she had nothing to lose by participating.

So Liz brushed her friends off, and started picking down the stands, making her way for the Head Girl and the six prefects — Scrimgeour, Smethwyck, Wilkes, Monroe, NicCormaic, and Gemma and Charlie.

...Gemma Farley and Charlie Urquhart.

...

Wait a second...

Liz had learned pretty much right away that Slytherin was considered a mostly "Dark" house, and she'd assumed from that that most of the people in it had all supported that Dark Lord person, or at least had parents who had. But, well, even at the very beginning, there had been obvious problems with that. The Head Girl, obviously the most visible Slytherin in the school (excluding maybe Liz herself, she guessed, being famous and all), her uncle was apparently a bloke called Rufus Scrimgeour, who'd been an Auror in the war, and her great-grandmother was Erin Scrimgeour, who had retired from being the Director of Law Enforcement right around the beginning of the war, but who was definitely, definitely anti- Death Eater, no doubt about that. (Kind of famous for calling out the Ministry for being terrible at fighting them, apparently.) Scrimgeour herself obviously didn't give a shite about the stupid blood purity stuff, one of her best friends (boyfriend? maybe? not sure) was a Ravenclaw muggleborn in their year, and she wasn't shy about it. And she was the leader of the house — sure, the Headmaster picked the Head Boy and Girl, and he was less than well-liked in Slytherin, but the prefects and the rest of the house weren't required to treat her the way they did. Things like putting her in charge of meetings like this, that was an internal Slytherin thing, and they all obviously respected her (even if some of them didn't seem to like her much). She still thought that counted for something.

And there was the divide in her own year, that kind of made it obvious too. Draco and Pansy and their friends on one side, Daphne and Tracey and Dorea and Liz on the other — of all the magical families in that list (Malfoy, Parkinson, Nott, Crabbe Goyle, Bulstrode; Greengrass, Black, Davis, Potter), the only one that was considered a Light family was the Potters. The Greengrasses in particular, Daphne's family was definitely Dark, but they had also been one-hundred per cent opposed to the Dark Lord and the Death Eaters, and the Blacks and the Davises, also both Dark, had both been split, with people on both sides of the war. So, obviously, it was much more complicated than Light good, Dark bad. Even if it wasn't quite obvious to Liz what was going on, she'd been able to see that much pretty quickly.

Around the beginning of October, she'd been getting increasingly confused about how random the people who hated her were, so she'd asked about it. Dorea had known a little bit, but Daphne could go on rambles about this stuff for hours — she'd been being trained to take over her family's seat on the Wizengamot (magic parliament) since she'd been five years old, so. According to Daphne, when people said "Dark" or "Light", there were three different ways they could be talking about it: politically, culturally, or even just aesthetically.

Most of the time, Dark or Light was a cultural thing. They had different traditions and stories, different standards for personal behaviour, different ideas about morality, they dressed differently, that sort of thing. There was a bit of overlap, yeah, it wasn't a black-and-white thing, but the point was, it was about how people presented themselves, traditional stuff like holidays and things, how they talked to each other, little things, that felt a whole lot more important than they actually were. Culturally, Slytherin and Ravenclaw were Dark, and Hufflepuff and Gryffindor were Light. (For the most part, anyway.)

Their seven judges were Scrimgeour, Monroe, NicCormaic, Smethwyck, Wilkes, Farley, and Urquhart — assuming Liz was remembering these things correctly, those were five Dark families, and only two Light. One would think, just with that, that Liz, being from a Light family (not that she thought that bloody mattered at all, she'd never met another Potter before), would be at a disadvantage with this panel of judges. That they'd be biased against her, and in favor of Malfoy, Parkinson, Nott, and Bulstrode, who were all Dark.

Culturally, yes, five to two. But politically...

Before long, Liz was standing in her proper place — standing in front of the whole house at Scrimgeour's left-hand side, opposite her accusers. She tried not to notice the way everyone was looking at her...but not really her, exactly, but the show they were putting on. So actually mostly Scrimgeour, in a way. (And who wouldn't pay attention to Emily Scrimgeour, she was very tall and her hair was very red, and just had, this, Liz didn't know, presence about her, she had a way of being very noticeable.) That made it way easier, actually, her skin barely tingled at all.

And, well, Liz was getting a weird feeling this might actually go well for her, so, there was that. "I'm sorry, I'm not sure how this works. I can make a counter-claim, right? Separate from my defence, I mean."

Scimgeour's face stayed mostly blank, being all professional about her job, but there was a sharp sort of curiosity about her head. "You can, yes."

"Okay. Then I accuse Pansy Parkinson, Millicent Bulstrode, Draco Malfoy, and Theo Nott of breaking the Truce."

Whispers shot through the assembled Slytherins, echoing off the walls. Pansy, Millicent, and Draco glared at her, clearly annoyed — though Theo, she noticed, had gone a little pale, his eyes wide.

Scrimgeour just smirked.

See, for all the Gryffindors (and some of the Hufflepuffs) liked to say all the Slytherins were Dark, and all the Dark were Death Eaters, it was actually a lot more complicated than that. When it came to politics, what people meant by "Dark" was actually very fuzzy. A lot of things in the Wizengamot ended up coming down to whether they wanted to give the Ministry the power to do something, or let the various families take care of things themselves — to oversimplify things quite a bit, the pro-Ministry people were Light, and the anti-Ministry people were Dark.

Sort of. Kind of. It was complicated? See... The way Daphne put it, there used to be three major factions in the Wizengamot, called Ars Publica, Ars Brittania, and Via Communis; the first was Dark, the second was Light, and the third was...sort of both and neither? Via Communis used to be the Ministry people, and both of the Ars people were anti-Ministry, just, back then Dark and Light was mostly a cultural thing, and the Via people had people who were culturally Dark or Light, but... It was weird, whatever. Eventually, as time went on, both Ars people started developing actual real ideas behind their politics, and Dark and Light started to get a political meaning too.

Basically, the way Daphne put it, the Dark prioritised magic, and magical people, and the Light prioritised humans, and what was good for humans. Laws about what magic people were allowed to do or not? The Dark thought these laws were bad, but if the magic was dangerous and could hurt people, the Light might think it was a good idea. Laws about, like, what other magical beings, like goblins, were allowed to do, the rights they got to have? The Dark didn't care that they were different — this was the magical world, and they were magic, so they should be a part of it — but the Light did care they were different, so were often stupid about it. When it came to muggles and muggleborns, the Dark was perfectly cool with muggleborns — they were magic, after all — but didn't give a shite about muggles; the Light were also perfectly cool with muggleborns, but wanted to protect muggles, because they're still human. (Though, both sides did have their own flavours of crazy racism, because of course they did.) There are other things that are more complicated and fuzzier than that, but those are the basic ideas, according to Daphne.

But, the last century, things had gotten kind of weird — there weren't three factions in the Wizengamot now, but five. Basically, when Dumbledore came into the Wizengamot, a new faction formed, calling themselves just Light. They pulled people from Common Fate (the one that used to be Via Communis, they changed their name) and Ars Brittania, and their politics were basically halfway between the two, but also thought it was a great idea to adopt some more modern muggle ideas. Because of that bit, the more anti-muggleborn Light people stayed in Ars Brittania, basically making them the super racist version of the Light now, because that was a thing that needed to exist.

(Apparently Lavender Brown, one of the Gryffindors that made a point of annoying Liz, her family was in Ars Brittania. Which Liz guessed explained why she was such a bitch to Hermione all the time.)

When the Dark Lord became a thing, a new faction formed in the Dark too, pulling members from Ars Publica and some of the crazier racist people from Ars Brittania. Their politics were actually a mix of Light and Dark — for example, laws against magic bad, but non-human magical beings were also bad (and also kill all the muggleborns, which is really neither but also both, because crazy racists are bloody everywhere) — but taken to such extremes that they seem completely fucking insane to both Dark and Light. These people call themselves the Allied Dark now...which is funny, because they are very much not allies with Ars Publica, who consider themselves the real Dark.

In fact, Ars Publica hate the Death Eaters' guts. They think they're, like, traitors to their beliefs, or whatever, it's a whole thing.

The point was, just because Slytherin was Dark, didn't mean they were pro-Voldemort — these were separate things. Their year, Daphne had said, was sort of a bad example. There were Malfoy, Parkinson, Nott, Crabbe, Goyle, Bulstrode, all of their families were in the Allied Dark. The Grengrasses were part of Common Fate. Tracey, Zabini, Dorea, and Liz herself were somewhat more complicated. The Davises were with the Allied Dark, but Tracey's dad, who'd been the heir to their lordship at the time, he'd died fighting the Death Eaters, and her mum was muggleborn; it was assumed that when she took over the family, she'd probably join Ars Publica or Common Fate instead. (And no, the rest of her family were not happy about that, it was a whole thing.) Zabini, well, his mum had been friends with people in the Death Eaters' leadership, but these days she mostly worked with people in Ars Publica, so, that was complicated. The Blacks had been part of Ars Publica, but they'd had major players on both sides of the last war, so, exactly what they were was kind of complicated; Dorea herself publicly didn't get along with the junior Death Eaters, though, so at least anti-Voldemort (if more subtle than explicitly saying so). The Potters had been a Light family, but Liz was the only one left, and she hadn't made any commitments herself, so she was pretty much a free agent, politically speaking. Definitely anti-Voldemort, though, even if she said nothing on the matter people would assume she was anyway, just on principle.

So, their year, that made six for the Allied Dark, one for Common Fate, one for Ars Publica (kind of), and three unattached — six pro-Voldemort, four anti-Voldemort, and one whatever the hell Zabini was. (He said his mum was Switzerland, which made no sense to Liz, but okay.) So, pro-Voldemort majority in their year, yes, Death Eaters win.

But, across the whole house? Yeah, that wasn't necessarily the case.

Daphne had actually used the leadership of the house as an example of this. (And also wondering aloud if Snape wasn't nearly so closely tied to the Allied Dark as he claimed to be — he did pick the prefects, so.) Take the six prefects and the Head Girl, Daphne said they were actually far more representative of what the Dark is actually like. You have Scrimgeour, Monroe, and McCormac in Ars Publica; Smethwyck, Farley, and Urquhart in Common Fate; and Wilkes in the Allied Dark.

That came out to six-to-one, against the Death Eaters.

(Though, that was out of proportion too — according to Daphne, maybe about a quarter of the Dark were aligned with Voldemort's people. Well, the nobility, anyway, their support was actually much lower among the culturally Dark segment of the commons, apparently. So the prefects underrepresented the crazy racists, but not so much as they were overrepresented in her own year. Still.)

Liz hadn't realised until she'd been standing here that this little argument they were about to have was going to be four kids from Death Eater families against the Girl Who bloody Lived, basically calling each other arseholes...and the judges were mostly anti-Voldemort people. People who would probably be inclined, just on principle, to side with the Girl Who bloody Lived against racist idiots.

Ha ha, wow, Pansy and Draco were fucking idiots. She probably didn't need to do anything to get out of this scot-free.

She was still dropping a nuke on their heads, though. Once they saw she didn't fuck around, hopefully they'd learn their lesson, and she wouldn't have to deal with this again.

(She'd think putting snakes in their beds would have gotten that message across, but here they were.)

Once the whispering at her accusation that the idiots had broken the Truce died down, Scrimgeour ticked an eyebrow up at Liz. "These four claim you used restricted magics to slip venomous snakes into their beds. Before we move on to your defence, do you contest the facts of the matter?"

"Theo's wasn't venomous. Also, parseltongue isn't dark magic. Or...I don't think it is? I mean, I was just born with it, so if it were that'd be kind of stupid."

Her mind sparking with amusement, Scrimgeour's lips twitched. "No, parseltongue is not dark magic."

"Right. The restricted magics part is shite, then."

"How did you get the snakes?" Pansy asked, glaring at her. "You couldn't have owled them in, and we're too young for conjuration. The only way you could have gotten them is a ritual summoning."

Liz snorted. "Or, maybe I could just walk around the greenhouses hissing for any snakes around to come to me. Snakes aren't some kind of rare, exotic thing, Parkinson, they're easy to find if you know how to look."

Titters sweeping the room, Pansy flushed — apparently she hadn't thought of that.

"Strike the use of restricted magics, then." Scrimgeour's face was still impassive, but the tingling of amusement was so bright it was even slipping into her voice now. "Make your case."

"Er, my defence, or my counter-claim?"

"Just your defence for now."

"Right. For over a month now, they've been... I guess you'd call it a campaign of harassment?" Liz listed off the various incidents with being hit by (or narrowly avoiding) hexes and such, starting halfway through September and ever since — there was very little interruption, just asking which hexes, and Wilkes questioning whether she'd actually seen who'd cast them (arse). The ones she could remember, anyway, it kind of happened a lot, and they were usually minor enough irritants she didn't actually care that much. Eventually, "Though, the worst incident was on Hallowe'en, that same morning. It's why I finally decided to retaliate."

Monroe, the seventh-year boy prefect, who Liz hadn't ever even spoken to before, asked, "You never retaliated before?" He seemed a bit... Not doubtful, exactly, but certainly something. Probably nothing bad for her — of their seven judges, he seemed the most irritated, his mind sparking hotter and hotter as she listed off incidents, his attention not feeling quite properly focused on her. (She could usually tell if someone was feeling a thing at her or not, though she couldn't articulate the difference, mind magic was weird.)

Liz shook her head. "I didn't want to start a whole thing, you know? I thought, if I hit back, they'd hit harder, but if I didn't do anything they'd just get bored of it eventually."

"But they finally hit hard enough you decided you had to hit back." Gemma was watching her, narrow-eyed and thoughtful, her mind too still to really guess what she was thinking (without peeking, anyway). Her attention was actually on Liz, but whatever she was thinking it didn't seem bad, so, Liz just tried to ignore it. "What did they do?"

Liz took in a long, slow breath through her nose. "While I was in the shower, someone snuck in and stole my clothes, and all the towels. I reacted... I have problems, with feeling trapped. If Dorea hadn't found me and brought a towel, I don't know how long I would have been stuck in there freaking out like a crazy person." Thankfully, she wasn't freaking out like a crazy person now — she was trying not to think about it, and talking around what those problems actually were, and it seemed to be working. This time, it didn't always work, but.

Smethwyck frowned. "Freaking out like a crazy person?"

No, she wasn't being more specific than that. "Like I said, I have problems with feeling trapped. Snape gives me calming potions for it, it's a whole thing."

"Sir?"

"The particulars of Miss Potter's personal difficulties are not a matter of concern for this council." Pretty much the whole house's heads all swung to look at Snape, drawling from his place still standing in an out-of-the-way corner, arms loosely crossed over his chest, to all appearances bored of the proceedings. "However, Miss Scrimgeour, I will corroborate the facts of her story so far as I am aware of them. I do indeed provide her with calming potions, and I have some basic knowledge of this particular event. Miss Potter informed me later that same morning that there had been an incident of some kind, which caused her no small amount of distress, though she kept the...details of what was done to herself."

It was subtle, but Snape did sound less than pleased about that. Not with her...she didn't think. It was hard to tell, since Snape never emoted very much at all — he was one of the frequent exceptions to her ability to tell if people were feeling things at her — and most of Slytherin was between her and him, so she couldn't really pick up anything anyway, too much noise. But she thought he was annoyed for her, not at her. Probably. Maybe?

(Snape was bloody impossible to read on a good day, even with mind magic to help her cheat.)

"Anyway," Liz said, drawing attention back to herself. (She felt their eyes on— No, she was fine.) "When I got back to my room, I found my things — pants, shorts, vests, two of each — had been torn apart, probably with severing charms, and splashed with black and red ink. I threw them away earlier today, actually, the elves told me they can't get the ink out. I was very annoyed, and also a bit floaty from the calming potion, so I decided sneaking snakes into their rooms was the appropriate degree of disproportionate retaliation."

There was a bit more whispering and chuckling, probably at the idea of appropriate disproportionate retaliation. While they were still at it, Theo said, "But Draco and I had nothing to do with that! We can't even get into the girls' bathroom!"

"But you were part of the rest of it. The whole point of the snakes was to scare you off from doing anything else."

"But what about Greg and Vinnie?"

Liz blinked. Now that she thought about it, she hadn't included the bookends in her counter-claim either, and she probably should have. Oops. "Er...they're too bloody stupid to be considered players?" Another wave of amusement, including one outright cackle, that was probably Zabini. "Besides, they just do what Draco tells them, if I warn you all off they'll behave themselves too."

"Your response was a bit of an extreme escalation," Scrimgeour said — cutting over Draco, which was probably better for everyone within earshot. "Those were mostly nuisance jinxes, and they had just moved up to property damage, yes, but you sent four of them to the hospital wing in a single incident."

"I know. That was on purpose."

Scrimgeour took on another one of the Snapeish expressions of cold interest. "On purpose?"

Instead of talking to Scrimgeour, Liz turned to the four junior Death Eaters. "I've tried to play nice with you ever since I got here, as much I can, but I'm done. Leave me alone. If you want to keep playing your stupid game with me, take Hallowe'en as a lesson. Setting venomous snakes on you wasn't my last resort — it was my first. I don't play this game, I have no patience for it. This is the only warning you'll get: I do not fuck around." That last little bit was in parseltongue, but the tone was more important than the words anyway.

"Potter, you can't be— See!" Pansy shrieked, turning to the prefects, jabbing a finger at Liz. "She tried to kill us, and now she's openly threatening us, in public!"

Liz laughed. "I didn't try to kill you! It was just an adder, you baby!" If she'd tried to kill them, Pansy wouldn't be whinging about it right now, because she'd be too deadHonestly. Also, that'd been a warning, not a threat — the only time she'd ever threatened someone, she'd forced him to hold a gun to his head and made it very, very clear she could make him blow his own brains out whenever she wanted. (She wouldn't have, she hadn't realised yet how easy it would be to get everything she needed with her mind-control superpowers, so she'd still needed him alive for food and shelter and such, but he hadn't known that.) She was just informing them that messing with her would end badly for them, that wasn't at all the same thing as a proper threat.

But, well, if they wanted to take it as one, she was fine with that.

There was a little bit more arguing after that, but it was very quick. Before long, Scrimgeour stepped out of her spot at the front of the crowd, crouching down with the seated prefects, a privacy paling snapping up. While the prefects deliberated, the four idiots fixed her with a bunch of glares. And Liz was getting, just, so tired of them. Honestly, were they ever going to give up their idiotic...whatever their problem was with her, she still didn't entirely get it. (Something to do with totally-not-Death-Eater political shite and stupid racism? That's all she had so far.) This whole thing was stupid, it'd been barely two months, and she was, just, so done with these people.

So, flatly staring back at them, Liz reached into their minds, just a little bit. (She couldn't feel him past all the Slytherins in the way, so hopefully Snape would be just as blind to her.) She didn't reach in to pull anything out, no, instead she shoved something in: fear.

All four of them cringed away from her, Pansy even nearly fell on her arse. Tee hee.

And then Scrimgeour was coming back, swirling back up to her spot between them, her cloak whipping around her as she turned on her heel. "A judgement on your claim," she said, to the four idiots, "will be made at the same time as hers against you. If you would, Miss Potter?"

She blinked. "Er, I guess my counter-claim is the same as my defence."

"What are you talking about, Potter?" That was one of the girl prefects, Liz hadn't been watching, wasn't sure which.

"Why do you think they've been being complete bitches to me in the first place? They barely know me, and I haven't done anything to them — not until Hallowe'en, anyway. I can only think of one reason, and I don't have to say it, you all know what I'm talking about."

"You're full of it!" There was a slight quiver on Pansy's voice still, but she'd gotten the words out just fine.

"So what, are you saying you have a reason for hating me that isn't just because your daddy's Dark Lord blew himself up like a fucking idiot while I just so happened to be in the same room?" People said she blew him up, but she didn't believe that for a second, the idea was just so bloody stupid. Well, no, the few people she'd talked to about it (who weren't completely stupid) assumed her mother had done a ritual or something — sounded plausible enough, she guessed — but still, Liz was absurdly famous for just being in the room when it happened, basically. (She still wasn't over how very stupid the whole Girl Who Lived thing was.)

"Saying that's breaking the truce too, Potter."

"Yeah, but you broke it first, so you're fair game."

"I did not!"

"Why the hexes and the stealing my clothes, then?"

"You just, just— Walking around all full of yourself—" That was a laugh, Pansy Parkinson saying anyone else was full of herself. "—and hanging around with that Granger—"

Honestly, this was too easy... "What's wrong with Hermione?"

"Don't play dumb, Potter, she's a—" Pansy cut off, her mouth hanging open, her head giving an odd, sudden clang.

Liz smirked. "Mudblood. The word you're looking for is mudblood."

"No, I did— Gryffindor! I meant she's a swotty, annoying Gryffindor!"

"Uh-huh. Sure you did, Pansy, I believe you so very much right now."

"Pansy might have broken the Truce, but I didn't." That was Draco, still glaring at her — a little paler than he'd been before her little fear stab, but managing to hold her gaze...which was almost impressive, actually. She hadn't realised until right this second that Draco Malfoy had a spine. (Of course, Pansy was glaring at him now for throwing her under the bus, which wasn't exactly a spine-having thing to do, so.) "I started because you lied to me, the first night here."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." She meant it too, she'd hardly said a word to him that first night. There'd hardly been any need for it, Draco could hold a conversation by himself well enough.

Draco's head threw off sharp sparks of irritation. "When I offered you my friendship, to help you find your way around here."

"Er..." Liz frowned, turning that over in her head — was that a lie, exactly? Whatever. "You're the one who broke off our little alliance, not me."

"Don't play dumb, Potter, you had no intention of following through."

"Draco. Don't take this the wrong way, but when I got to Hogwarts, I had no bloody clue who you were. I had no bloody clue who your father is. I had never, in my life, heard the name Malfoy before."

Draco scowled. "Oh, who are you kidding, Potter, you—"

"I grew up with muggles, you idiot. I didn't even know Hogwarts existed until I got my letter in July. I'd never heard of the Wizengamot, or your precious, perfect father, or the Dark Lord, or Dumbledore, or even the House of bloody Potter, for that matter."

"Are you serious?"

Liz blinked, glanced over to Scrimgeour, then across the rest of the Slytherins, the dueling chamber gone suddenly quiet. Even Draco looked surprised, staring at her wide-eyed. Had...nobody figured that out? Huh. Weird. "Er, yes? My family are muggles, they didn't tell me anything." Shaking off that odd moment, Liz turned back to her tirade at an idiot. "When I met you, Draco, I didn't know much of anything about magical Britain, practically a blank slate. At the time, I had no idea what you would or would not have a problem with me doing. I had every intention of following through on our little agreement. You are the one who broke it off — because I had the audacity to allow Hermione Granger to sit right next to me in Cambrian class, and to not treat her like dirt for no good reason. Yes, how completely awful of me, I do apologise for offending you."

Draco had had what almost looked like a regretful expression on his face — apparently he hadn't known Liz had been entirely in the dark, that he'd fucked it up by being a complete arse. But it quickly vanished under her mocking sarcasm, his mind simmering with petulant anger. "And I had every intention of following through until you showed yourself to be a mud-mucking blood-traitor!"

The room went dead silent.

Liz let out a long, slow whistle, followed by an explosion noise. (It sounded terrible, she had no idea what she was doing.)

"Have you lost your sodding mind, Potter? What was that?"

Fair enough, couldn't expect anyone to tell what that was supposed to be, she guessed. "That was you, blowing yourself up."

"What are you talking about?"

"You just called me a mud-mucking blood-traitor in front of the entire house, you fucking idiot." Draco gaped at her — apparently he hadn't meant to say that. Which just made it worse, really, too much of a stupid racist to watch his stupid mouth. (She realised he was only eleven, and his parents had probably filled his head with shite his whole life, but still.) She turned to Scrimgeour. "I'm pretty sure the Truce has a thing about that, right?"

Scrimgeour's lips twitched. "Yes, Potter, the Truce has a thing about that."

"Right, good." Honestly, while she had recognised that it was supposed to be an insult, she wasn't certain what that had actually meant. The mud-mucking part was probably a crass way to refer to someone who was cool with muggleborns, fine, that sort of made sense, but she'd never gotten an explanation of what blood-traitor meant. She did remember it was one of the things people weren't supposed to say because Truce that Snape had listed at the beginning of the year, so. "I think I've made my point."

From there, the rest of the meeting — or the part of it that had anything to do with Liz, at least — went by very quickly. Scrimgeour went back to the prefects to confer with them again, but it didn't take them very long to drop the palings and get to it. For Draco, Pansy, and company's claim against her, they let her off by a vote of four to three — with an added warning that she really had escalated more than was called for, but she was being let off this time due to extenuating circumstances, if something like this happened again there'd be serious consequences.

Which was fine, Liz didn't expect to need to do this sort of thing again. If nothing else, she'd made herself very clear.

Her claim against them, the one about the Truce, that was unanimous, which was weird...until she thought about it, anyway. Obviously, the Truce was just as important to the Allied Dark as it was to everyone else — their faction did include most of the individuals the Light might want to get revenge on, after all — if for no other reason Wilkes would want to make it clear to Pansy and Draco that they couldn't go around casually calling people mudbloods and blood-traitors in public. Anyway, Pansy and Draco and Millicent didn't lose any house privileges, like use of the Slytherin library and such, but for the rest of the term (until they left for Christmas) they would be stripped of the protection of the Truce. As part of this verdict, Scrimgeour said they'd be suspending the First Rule. They would spread the word to the other houses that the three of them were being punished for violations of the Truce — they wouldn't just have to deal with anti-Voldemort people in Slytherin targeting them, but the whole school, until they came back for classes in January.

(Scrimgeour didn't explicitly say it, glaring down at them, her voice hard and heavy, but it was very clear what she was saying: learn this lesson, now, when you're young and stupid, or we'll cast you out and leave you to the wolves.)

Theo was excluded from this, though — he couldn't possibly have been involved in the worst offences against Liz, and unlike Pansy and Draco hadn't broken the Truce while defending himself from an accusation of breaking the Truce (idiots). Which was fair, Liz guessed. He didn't really need to be punished with the rest for Liz's point to be made. By how cold and quiet his head was — just standing there staring at her, still and pale — she was pretty sure he'd gotten the message.

And they were released to go back to their seats. Liz weaved her way back to Dorea and Daphne, trying not to notice how many older kids were watching her. (She realised something kind of crazy had just happened, but come on.) Thankfully, Scrimgeour started the meeting going again before Liz had even sat down, everyone's attention drawn back to...something to do with someone stealing something or whatever, she didn't care.

"How did you know that would work?" Daphne hissed. Leaning in a little too much as she did it, but she was sometimes weird about some things, including personal space. (Liz was pretty sure there was some reason, but she didn't know and didn't really care.)

Liz shrugged. "I didn't."

The blank confusion that took over Daphne was really kind of funny.

Dorea spent rather more time around Liz, so was used to her being weird, she recovered quicker. "Liz, that was dangerous."

"Why?"

"You could have lost."

"So?" And now that same blank confusion hit Dorea, and she was just as speechless. That was definitely funny — Liz bit her lip to keep herself from laughing aloud. "Ah, anything the prefects could have punished me with would be way worse for them than it would be for me. I thought it was worth it. Even before I realised I could accuse them of breaking the Truce."

"And...when did you realise that, exactly?"

"Oh, on my down."

Dorea sniffed. She was trying to look annoyed and disapproving, but there was a slight shade of amusement at the edge of her thoughts — reluctant amusement, maybe, but it was still there. "You know, you're kind of mad sometimes, Liz."

She didn't really know what to say to that, so she just shrugged. Besides, Pansy and Draco had gotten the worse of it, clearly it hadn't been that crazy of an idea.

Dammit, her butt was hurting again already. They had to be almost done by now...


December 1991


All five of them turned to stare at her, eyes wide with surprise, minds sparking with something warm and squishy she couldn't quite place. Liz stared up at the glimmering golden ceiling of the Entrance Hall, stuck her hands in her pockets, and tried not to look quite so uncomfortable as she felt.

(She could feel their eyes on her skin like wasps.)

The end of the term had come, and all the students were going home for Christmas break. Well, they didn't call it Christmas break — she didn't think mages celebrated Christmas, or at least not really — but that's basically what it was, though not quite arranged how she was used to, starting a little bit earlier (so they'd be home for the solstice). The Entrance and Great Halls were full of noisy chaos, people trundling about wearing winter coats and hats and dragging around their trunks, saying goodbyes to friends, picking up a last sandwich at the table, far too many laughing and running around like crazy people.

It was very irritating. Liz had lead them over toward the emptiest corner between the stairs toward Slytherin and the front doors, the quietest spot to send them off from. Though it wasn't as quiet as she'd like — a slow trickle of other people kept coming by to wish them a good holiday, mostly friends of Daphne or Dorea. Blaise swept through at one point, Padma, Terry Boot, and Lisa Turpin from Ravenclaw, Lily Moon from Gryffindor, Susan, Hannah, and Wayne Hopkins from Hufflepuff...and more people Liz didn't quite recognise, but they were all talking to Daphne, she assumed they were older kids she knew from before Hogwarts.

People even dropped by to say hi to Hermione. Neville was here, of course, they'd come down together and he was sticking around. He'd been a constant feature for the last month or so, which was...fine, Liz guessed. He was sort of...annoyingly shy and skittish — honestly, it'd taken him weeks to not jump whenever Liz spoke to him — but whatever, if Hermione liked him, fine. While they stood around, Hermione was visited by Sophie Roper and Sally-Anne, Megan, Mandy and Justin. Apparently, Hermione had gotten it in her head to put together a study group of all the muggleborns — Megan Jones wasn't muggleborn, but neither was Dorea (and Liz), Daphne and Tracey, Neville, Padma, Lily Moon, or Susan and Hannah, and they were all in it too — and the only one she was missing in their year was a bloke called Kevin Entwhistle. (Supposedly, Liz couldn't even remember who that was off the top of her head.)

And Seamus Finnigan and Dean Thomas in Gryffindor, but most of Gryffindor hated her for stupid reasons, so Hermione didn't expect to get them. Dorea was pretty sure they just didn't have any interest in joining a study group, but Hermione had decided she preferred her own explanation. Which was odd, since her explanation was that people didn't like her, and that...

Well, it wasn't true, was it? At least, more people liked Hermione than liked Liz. She wasn't certain if Hermione had consciously realised that she actually had more friends than Liz did now. She certainly didn't talk like it.

Liz didn't care, of course, she just thought it was kind of weird that Hermione still talked like everyone hated her and she hadn't any friends, even though they didn't and she did. Maybe it was just because she still didn't get on with the other Gryffindors much at all, and the stupid racists dotted here and there, but really...

Anyway, some of them had been talking about what they were going to be up to over the break. Hermione and her parents were going to France, to visit her family there. There would be all kinds of things going on at Greenwood over the entire season, practically a weeks-long festival...not that Liz was entirely certain what Greenwood was, and that honestly sounded kind of exhausting. Daphne seemed to be excited for it anyway, and Tracey. (She preferred not to go home, apparently, would be meeting her mum at the Greengrasses'.) Dorea expected she'd have to spend a day or two around solstice with her great-aunt Cassiopeia — the only other Black still around, had been teaching her the things people from these silly magic noble houses were supposed to know — the rest of the time would just be hanging around with her muggle family (who she had started to admit existed these last few weeks, because...Liz didn't know, whatever).

Eventually, the conversation had turned back to Liz. Put on the spot, she'd admitted she was just staying at Hogwarts, by herself. Perhaps she shouldn't have admitted that, because now everyone was staring at her, it was uncomfortable...

The nauseating, suffocating warmth of pity filling the air around her was starting to get irritating.

"I didn't— Liz, you could have said something earlier. I would have..." Dorea trailed off, frowning to herself a little. "Well, we don't have an extra bed, actually, but I would share..."

"There's always room at Greenwood," Daphne chirped, brightly smiling — a fake smile, behind it only pain and pity. She was good at faking these things with other people, but Liz was a cheater. (Nobody had told Daphne Liz could read minds, she didn't know faking it didn't work on her.) "You should come with us, how quickly can you pack? I think the train leaves in an hour or so..."

A chastising tone on her voice, Hermione said, "Shouldn't you ask your parents before inviting people over for the holiday?"

Daphne shot Hermione a flat, slightly confused look. "It's the Solstice." Apparently that was supposed to be an answer all by itself, because she didn't explain what she meant.

Hermione stared right back at her, with a practically identical expression. Though she just looked kind of ridiculous — she couldn't pull off Daphne things, her huge bushy hair ruined it. Which Liz had sympathy for, but she also knew better than to try to ape mannerisms off of Daphne bloody Greengrass.

"It's okay," Liz blurted out, before anyone else could say anything. "I'll be fine on my own."

Despite how very true this was, and how firmly she was saying it, nobody seemed to believe her — they were still giving her a variety of doubtful looks, nauseating pity still thick on the air. Which was, just, irritating. She understood they were...doing that friendship thing, so they all at least gave a shite (no matter how strange of a thought that was), but they could at least take her at her word. She was fine on her own, really.

Honestly, being alone for the holiday was a significant improvement from the usual, as far as she was concerned.

Thankfully, someone new burst into their little circle before anyone could continue being annoying, appearing out of nowhere flinging her arm over Dorea heavy enough she staggered. "Hey little kiddies, about ready to go?" Funny thing to say, because the new girl couldn't be any older than them. Though she couldn't be in first year, Liz was pretty sure she'd recognise all the first-year girls by now. The stranger was wearing muggle-style jeans and a jumper under her Hogwarts-standard cloak, round-cheeked face pulled into a grin, eyes sparkling...

...purple? Liz was pretty sure eyes weren't supposed to be purple. Also, her curly hair, stretching just past her ears in an asymmetrical mess, was an eye-searingly bright bubblegum pink. There was no way that was natural, the eyes were probably magic too.

"Dammit, Dora, you mad— You almost knocked me over!"

"Shut up, you know you love me." The unknown girl (Dora, apparently), clenched her arm tighter around Dorea, yanking her closer, the top of Dorea's head pressing into the girl's cheek.

Dorea huffed, rolling her eyes. "In case you're wondering, everyone, this," she growled, vaguely pointing in the general direction of the stranger's face, "is my insane cousin Nymphadora Tonks."

"Tonks." The girl grinned over Dorea's head, the expression sharp and vicious. (But fake, in her head was only bouncy amusement.) "Any of you firsties call me Nymphadora, I'll hex you. And I learned a bunch of good ones over the summer, believe me."

Okay, maybe the viciousness wasn't fake — maybe the idea of hexing them amused her, could go either way.

Hermione was the first to find her voice in the face of the weirdness that was Nymphadora Tonks. "Aren't... Isn't Tonks the seventh-year Hufflepuff prefect?"

"Hey, I'm a very responsible prefect!" Dorea snorted. "Oh, shush you, all the baby 'puffs love me."

"Er..."

"Tonks is a metamorph, Hermione," Daphne said, her lips curling with a faint smile. "She's a seventh-year, she can just look however she wants."

"Hugging people with a big height difference is just awkward, don't you think?"

Hermione stared at Tonks, her head stuttering for a second. "Sure...I guess."

The awkward conversation about whether Liz was really fine spending the holiday at school by herself interrupted by the arrival of strange, hyperactive, theoretically older cousins, and the departure of the train quickly approaching, their little group started splitting up. There were a lot of good-byes and happy holidays, and Neville wandered off, along with Hermione, then Daphne and Tracey, leaving only Dorea and Tonks behind with—

In a blink, quicker than she could react, Tonks sprung across the distance between them, throwing her arms around Liz's neck. Her heart jumping up her throat, her skin flaring with tingling heat, Liz struck out instinctively, blades of stoplet go of mego away slicing in toward Tonks's mind, and sinking in—

Except they didn't stick, glancing off a surprisingly solid surface, smooth and cool like steel. It was so unexpected Liz was left off-balance, suddenly a little dizzy, shook her head to clear the stars from her eyes.

Tonks jumped, abruptly let go of her and retreated a step, her hands raised open to her sides. She couldn't quite read the expression on the odd girl's face, something in her head hot and churning. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to freak you out, or anything, I just— Sorry."

It took a moment for Liz to focus on the outside world again, recovering from her sloppy mind magic flailing — she really had to learn to handle that better, leaving herself defenceless for a few seconds after hitting any real resistance was probably the worst possible thing that could happen if she actually needed to use it. Still rapidly blinking, she said, "Ah, it's okay. I didn't... You just surprised me, is all. Er, and the, well..."

The girl frowned for a second, realisation hitting with a bright ringing in her head, her mouth opening in an oh. "You mean the mind magic? Don't worry about that, I blocked it, no harm done." Her hands slowly dropping to her side, her head tilted, one eyebrow ticked up. "How many know? That you're a legilimens, I mean, I haven't heard a thing about that."

It was Dorea who answered, though she wasn't looking at Tonks, instead staring at Liz, eyes slightly narrowed, feeling something cool and slick Liz couldn't read. "It's just me and Hermione, I think. She told us back on Hallowe'en. I know I haven't told anyone, and I don't think Hermione has either."

Liz shrugged. "Snape and Dumbledore know too."

"Of course Snape does, bloody creep." What might have been an insult said by anyone else seemed incongruously good-natured coming from Tonks, amusement clear on the air around her. Slightly...sharp amusement, sure, but not a hateful kind of sharpness, hard to explain exactly. "I'm sorry, I just... It just occurred to me that we hadn't really been introduced yet, and you've been in the castle for months and everything, and I was just feeling kind of bad about that, and I wasn't thinking, sorry."

"Er, what?"

"We are cousins, you know?" The way Tonks said it, she wasn't certain Liz did know. "Did Dorea never explain the Black family stuff?"

Well, there had been a bit of that, but... "The Slytherins talked about how everyone was related to everyone way at the beginning of the year, but I wasn't really listening."

Tonks giggled, high and bright, the tension hanging over them finally breaking. "Well, um, Dorea and I, our great-grandfather was your grandmother's older brother. Which, that sounds more distant than it actually is, because mages tend to think like houses are all equally related, in a way, and your grandmother, my mother, and Dorea's father were all Blacks. So, like, it's more like one generation out, not three or four. If that makes sense?"

Liz shrugged. "Not really, but okay." Didn't really get what the point was. She meant, sure, they were cousins of come kind or other, she still didn't understand why that should matter to her at all.

Honestly, she'd kind of hated the only cousin she'd ever had...

"Anyway, I just thought— I'll give you warning next time."

"How about you don't do it at all." An odd look crossed Tonks's face, something odd and twisty echoing from her. "I'm not... It's nothing personal, okay. I just don't do...the hugging thing." In the moment she hadn't even realised that was what Tonks was trying to do, she'd felt like she was being attacked and reacted accordingly.

...

Actually, Liz thought, feeling her own brow dip into a frown, she honestly didn't think she'd ever been hugged before. Like, that, Tonks randomly grabbing her, might really be the first time someone had tried to hug her ever.

Huh. She didn't know how to feel about that.

Neither Dorea nor Tonks seemed particularly pleased — not that she could say how they weren't pleased, something cold and sharp and uncomfortable, but whatever it was they moved on without saying anything about it. There wasn't much left to say at all, really. A few more mutters about having nice holidays, see you in Januarys, and the two of them were making for the doors, Liz watching them leave.

Right on the threshold, Dorea turned to give Liz a long, lingering look. Then she was gone, and Liz was alone.

Once she was out of sight, Liz turned on her heel, and started up for the library.

Liz had never entirely understood Christmas.

It didn't help that there was a prominent church part of it, and she'd never really entirely understood church either. She meant, the Jesus thing was a nice story, she guessed...when they weren't focusing on the bits about sin and demons and hellfire anyway, that shite was just strange and slightly unnerving. The whole God sending his own son to be sacrificed and suffer so no one else would have to suffer thing, it was a nice story, sure. She just didn't entirely get it. Especially since, well, the world still kind of sucked, so it obviously hadn't worked.

When she'd been a little kid, she'd asked one of the church ladies why God didn't just, poof, make all the bad things go away. Or even better, why bad things existed at all — if God made everything, why did he make bad things in the first place? She had gotten an answer, it'd just been confusing, Liz remembered the uncertain looks she'd gotten more than the words.

(Dudley had told Vernon when they got home. Liz had been locked in the cupboard for a week.)

The church part of Christmas was sort of pretty, she guessed. They always went, and the place was always all decorated more than usual, and they put more effort into the music and stuff, and the story was...kind of silly, but nice, and it was pretty, yes. She just didn't get it.

Or...maybe being pretty was the point? She honestly wasn't sure.

And there was also the part at home, which she also didn't really get. The Christmas holiday was probably her least favourite time of the year, but not because it was...bad, exactly. Just more of the usual. There was always a lot of cooking, biscuits and fudge and sweets and shite on top of the usual meal schedule, and the house would be all decorated, which required cleaning everything first, and it was just a lot of work. It was slightly irritating, because it tended to involve cleaners with bleach in them, which made her chest hurt and her eyes sting after using them too long, and the cooking was, just, all the time constantly, and she never even got to have any of it. Which was perfectly normal, yes, she usually never got any of what she was cooking, there was just more of it, left her almost unbearably exhausted.

There had been days, a week into the holiday season, with another whole week and change to look forward to, Liz would collapse into her cupboard at the end of the day, weak and sore and hungry and tired, and she would go to sleep hoping she would never wake up.

Vernon and Petunia always made a point of sitting her down, and making her watch as Dudley opened his many, many gifts, just like they did on his birthdays. This had never really made sense to her either. In retrospect, they'd been trying to make her jealous — making the point that Dudley deserved nice things, and that she didn't, to rub her nose in it. It might have worked, if Liz had ever expected anything from the Dursleys. The idea of them giving her nice things was such a foreign concept that it had simply never occurred to her as something she'd been denied, so they never had gotten the reaction from her they'd probably wanted.

Really, long minutes she spent watching Dudley with his gifts were long minutes she wasn't cleaning or cooking or whatever else Petunia had her doing. She hadn't minded.

According to Daphne, the mages didn't celebrate Christmas, exactly, but there were a few traditional holidays right around the same day, and since Britain was a weird fusion of a whole bunch of cultures from all over the place in western and northern Europe it was a big confusing mess. The native Celts hadn't really had a midwinter festival, just one at the beginning of winter — Hallowe'en — and then another one at the end — Dorea called it Imbolc, Daphne said Gŵyl Oleuon, which were supposedly the same thing. A lot of the natives had been Romanised, though, and the Romans did have a holiday around this time, which involved a whole bunch of eating and drinking and silly games and gift-giving. The German tribes that invaded the Isles had their own holiday, which also involved a lot of eating and drinking and silly games.

The local mages had picked up the idea, because who doesn't like eating and drinking and silly games? (Honestly, that made way more sense to Liz than whatever Christmas was supposed to be.) The Roman holiday was supposed to happen a week before the solstice, but with the Empire falling, a lot of fiddly society things like keeping proper calendars started kind of falling apart. But the solstice was easy to calculate with magic, and the German holiday was supposed to be on the solstice, so the British mages decided that would be their day for eating and drinking and silly games and gift-giving.

On the old Roman calendar, the solstice was on December 25th, but the modern calender moved to the 21st. So the solstice holiday in magical Britain (whatever people wanted to call it, there were a few different names) was celebrated on the 21st or the 25th, it was really a matter of personal preference. So...magical Britain had two Christmases, kind of? Except, you were only supposed to do one of them, but people often did something on both, going to one eating-drinking-silly-games party on the 21st, and then another one on the 25th. Because all the eating and drinking and silly games and gift-giving was so much fun they needed to do it twice.

Which, silly, but sure, still made more sense to her than Christmas. The mages didn't even pretend there was some, like, special reason for doing what they did on this particular day, it was just tradition, and eating and drinking and silly games were fun. Fair enough, why not?

Liz hadn't expected anything much to happen here for the holiday. Hogwarts officially put the holiday on the 25th, and they had done some decorating and stuff, and apparently the evening meal would be extra special — extra special enough there would even be alcohol available to the students...which was apparently perfectly fine? Magical Britain didn't have a drinking age, turned out, though it wasn't something responsible adults thought kids should have all the time (especially when they were supposed to be learning). But it was fine on holidays, so. But anyway, there were barely even any kids still in the castle, just a few from each of the houses (and all the Weasleys, for some reason), so Liz hadn't expected they would really be doing anything.

In fact, waking up on the morning of the 25th, Liz didn't expect anything out of her ordinary routine at all. So she didn't even notice the parcels at the foot of her bed until she literally tripped over them.

Propped up with a hand against her bed post, for long seconds Liz just stood there, blankly staring at the packages. Were these...Christmas gifts? For her? She meant, they were in her room, they couldn't possibly be for anyone else. The elves must have brought them up, and elves didn't confuse people like that. So that must be it. Christmas gifts. For her.

...

She had no idea how to process this.

She almost might think she was hallucinating, but when she came back from the bathroom they were still there.

Okay, then. She'll just...give them a look?

The first one she picked up, it'd been on top but thrown to the floor when she'd kicked the pile, was wrapped in smooth, red and silver...well, she wanted to say paper, but it felt more like cloth, really. (Probably magic-made, they made weird things sometimes.) This one was poofy to the touch, maybe like the thing inside were made of cloth...though it was very light, far too light for its size. There was a note attached, a bit of paper just sticking to it, probably magicked to sit there, written in a loopy hand she didn't recognise.

Your father left this in my possession before he died.
It is time it was returned to you.
Use it well.

A Very Merry Christmas to you.

For long seconds, Liz just held the package, silently staring at the note. Then, slowly, she set it back down on the carpet, a bit to the side.

It didn't make any sense at all, but she almost felt scared to touch it.

The next thing she picked up was a box of plain wood, sanded smooth, a couple hand-widths on all sides. It looked like the panel on the top could be slid off, maybe. Carved into the top (probably with a spell of some kind) was an odd symbol, an eight-spoked wheel with...what looked like a bundle of wheat and a second bundle of flowers woven through the spokes? Staring at it in confusion, it took Liz a few seconds to recognise it as the symbol on Greengrass stuff. This would be from Daphne, then. Liz set it down next to the other one.

Another box, about the same size, was in familiar muggle wrapping paper, with stars and reindeer printed on it. It had a familiar muggle-style tag on it — To: Elizabeth ; From: Hermione. Didn't have to guess for that one then. She set this one aside too.

Two packages were, curiously, wrapped in the same paper, though rather more sedate than Hermione's, checkered green and red. The smaller one, a little bit bigger than Liz's hand and about twice as thick, looked like someone had scrawled on the paper with a marker rather than find a tag, three big sloppy capital letters. Okay. The other one Liz knew just holding it was a hardcover book, a pretty sizeable one. This one had another tag on it, said it was from Dorea. Those three letters scribbled on the littler one definitely wasn't Dorea's handwriting though. Hmm.

The last package was another box, maybe slightly larger than Daphne's, with a...hawk? with a fish in its talons? Liz had no idea what that was supposed to be. By process of elimination, she assumed this was probably from Tracey, so that must be a Davis thing. Tracey didn't have nearly as good a relationship with the rest of her family as Daphne, she didn't tend to advertise her Davis-ness the way some of the other kids did.

She'd gotten Christmas gifts. From Dorea (and someone who'd wrapped theirs with her), Daphne, Hermione, Tracey, and a mysterious stranger who'd apparently known her father. She...

She should...probably open them?

Yes. She would just...do that.

She reached for the one that'd come with Dorea's first — it was the smallest, and therefore the least intimidating. Her throat tight, her heart pounding in her ears (almost as though she was afraid of something, which was ridiculous), she wedged her thumb under a piece of tape, worked open a seam, pulled the thing open. Two somethings flopped into her lap, black leather lined with silver...

Gloves? They looked like gloves, anyway, though they were missing the fingers. (She'd always thought that was weird — wasn't the point of gloves to stop your fingers getting cold?) Liz spotted a piece of paper folded up inside of one of them, plucked it out and unfolded it.

Liz,
I took Doe Christmas shopping in Charing, and I figured since I was along, I might as well get you something while I was at it. I know, I am as generous as I am gorgeous and talented. I welcome your adoration.
Doe tells me you're ace on a broom, and are interested in getting into dueling next year — a good decision, if I do say so myself! You'll probably start playing around with quidditch in flying class come spring, so I grabbed some gloves. They're supposed to be just for quidditch, but they're handy for dueling too. (Get it? Handy?)
They're enchanted to keep your hands warm, and give you a bit of a cushion, so impacts won't hurt as much, stop little nicks. The palms are sort of sticky, give you a better grip on say, a broom, or a wand, or a quaffle. Don't worry if the size looks off, they'll adjust to you when you pull them on.
Hope Christmas at Hogwarts isn't totally boring. Dorea already said she told you you're welcome over next year if you want, so I don't have to say it. Try to have fun at least, and far too much sweets! That's what Christmas is for!

Your favourite cousin,
NT

Liz blinked. Oh, Dorea's cousin, the Hufflepuff seventh-year. They'd barely been introduced. If Liz had expected to get Christmas gifts at all (which she hadn't), she wouldn't have expected Tonks.

That was...weird. She had no idea how to feel about this.

Liz stuck the letter back inside one of the gloves, set them aside, and picked up the book from Dorea. It took rather more work to get the paper off this one — she suspected Dorea had been more careful about it than her silly, flighty older cousin. Eventually, she had to settle for squeezing the paper on the opposite side of the spine, where the pages dipping in from the cover gave her an angle to push against. Before long she had the paper torn off, revealing a thick, magic-made book, the cover leather in red and black, heavy and expensive-looking. The title, engraved in gold, read Illustrated Introduction to the Art of Battlemagic, in smaller text underneath, Augustin Olivier Cæciné, then under that, with Jaya Joshi and Cassie Lovegood.

Liz peeled back the cover — the leather creaked a little — revealing an inscription on the inside:

Elizabeth Potter —

If you're going to continue to make a habit of annoying people,
you should probably learn to defend yourself first.

— Dorea Black
Christmas 1991

Liz choked out a laugh.

The book did look very neat. It didn't focus primarily on spells — though there were a bunch of spells described in it too — but things like posture, how to shift from one stance to another, how to smoothly run from one spell to another, how to decide what spell to use in what situation, even stylistic things. Liz flipped open to a random page, finding a section that described a spell chain intended to break the shield of a retreating opponent with a quick cast speed. (Apparently, these things got that specific.) There was an introduction in red text, a couple paragraphs from this Cassie Lovegood person explaining the kind of situation this was useful in, an anecdote about winning the final in a tournament with a variation on this same thing. Then black text, presumably the primary author, explained the seven spells in the chain, what each one did, the advantages they presented and tips on how to stagger them and lead into the next, each with a little picture next to the description, a blonde woman wearing simple trousers and vest casting the spell, the motions exaggerated to make every movement clear. Then, at the end, a picture filling a whole page of the woman casting the whole chain in a row at a similarly-dressed dark-skinned man holding a glimmering orange shield, first slow — the woman darting forward and twisting as she smoothly cast one spell and then the next, flickers of colour striking the shield, exploding with bright flashes of light, some sending the man stumbling, the second to last shooting cracks through the shield, the last shattering it, the man flung back onto his arse as the shield exploded into orange and blue sparks — and then fast — a blinding blur of motion and colour Liz could just barely follow — then slow and fast again, on repeat over and over...

And the whole book was like this?

Another letter fell out of the pages as Liz flipped randomly through the awesome book, in the same plain muggle paper Tonks had used.

Elizabeth,
I hope you like the book. I wasn't sure what to get you — we've been friends for months now, but I'm honestly not sure if I can think of more than a couple things you actually like. A book on dueling was the best thing I could think of, but I wanted to get something useful, but I don't know a thing about dueling, I wouldn't know which to get.
So I asked Cassiopeia. She says a friend of hers on the Continent turned her on to this one, she looked over it herself before decided it was good. Augustin Cæciné is a former Beauxbatons professor — that's a magic school in France — and he doesn't have much dueling experience himself, but a lot of the content of the book is actually provided by two professional duelists. They're both ranked in the top ten in the whole world right now (though they hadn't been when it was written). I've even heard of Cassie Lovegood, she has something of a reputation for vigilantism, running around and tweaking dangerous people's noses and making a nuisance of herself. Cassiopeia said it explains things well enough for a beginner to follow, and Lovegood and Joshi are both extremely good. I figured I'd just take her word for it.
It's actually restricted in Britain, apparently. Not so bad you'll get in serious trouble if a professor spots you with it, probably just some awkward questions. Maybe keep that in mind.
I told Daphne what I was thinking of getting you, and she told her mother, and I think they might have come up with something to go with this. I don't know what it is, you'll have to show me when I get back.
I know what you're thinking, Liz — I don't need mind-control superpowers to figure you out. You might think you cover for these things well, but sometimes when I don't say anything, it's because I think it'd be rude to, not because I didn't notice. I know you don't expect people to care about you. I know you weren't expecting any Christmas gifts. I bet you're sitting on the floor of your room right now, with unforeseen gifts piled in your lap, just baffled.
I know I didn't have to, but I wanted to, so I did. You have friends now, you little idiot. You're just going to have to get used to this sort of thing. There's no choice in the matter. So there.
Happy Christmas,
Dorea

Liz stuck the letter under the cover, and set the book aside. She leaned forward, her elbows braced against her knees, rubbed both her cheeks. Waited for the ache in her throat to go away, the stinging in her eyes.

(Vernon hated it when she cried.)

When she thought she could function again, she reached for the next box. (Not Daphne's, she wanted to space that out if she could.) How about Tracey. She barely knew Tracey — she was always around, followed Daphne like a shadow, but hardly ever spoke — whatever she'd gotten her couldn't possibly be at all personal. The box sitting in her lap, she pushed at the top panel until she found how it slid out. Inside was another letter, this time parchment, on top of...what looked like a bunch of green and black fuzz.

Liz,
You look so bloody cold all the time. I don't know what colours you like, so we just went with a Slytherin theme. If you don't like it, too bad, I guess.
I did the scarf and the hat, though not the enchantments on them. Mum's pretty sure the hat will stay on over your impossible hair, but we couldn't test it. She did the jumper, because I'm not nearly good enough at this damn knitting thing to do that. She says her grandmother taught her, but I'm pretty sure that's a filthy lie, because my great-grandmother was a muggle, and there's no way that isn't magic.
Mum says she's sorry about Lily. I think they knew each other, but she won't tell me anything.
Now put all this on before you freeze to death, stupid.
Tracey

A shocked laugh was yanked out of her throat before Liz felt it coming. She shuffled through the box, sorting out a jumper, a hat, and a scarf, all woven from thick wool in green and black, traced here and there with lines in silver. She hesitated for a second before, fuck it, pulling the jumper over her head. It took her what had to be nearly a minute to get her arms through the holes and work her impossible hair back out of the collar. It was just a little too big, she thought — not surprised, she was really bloody tiny.

But apparently she had been bloody cold, because this was really nice. She hadn't even noticed...

Liz put the hat and the scarf back in the box — she'd have to try the hat later, just to see if it really would stay— Oh! It had been Tracey who'd rescued her stupid hat from the lake that first night here, wasn't it? She'd completely forgotten about that. Liz put the letter on top, slid the lid back on and...

Tracey and her mum had made these? Like, by hand? She didn't...

She should probably...do something, for her? She didn't know, she hadn't expected anyone to get her anything, and...

Well, it was just occurring to her now, that people had actually sent her Christmas gifts — which was still absurd to think about — and she hadn't gotten anyone anything. It honestly hadn't occurred to Liz that she maybe should. Just, she'd literally never given or received a gift once, not in her entire life, and...

She should maybe do something for them, all of them. She had no fucking clue what, but... She'd think about it later. Trying to ignore the way her stomach was twisting with guilt, Liz pulled the box from Hermione toward her. Like Dorea, Hermione had clearly put some effort into her wrapping, but it was so perfectly symmetrical and the lines so straight it was easy to work a finger into a seam, yank it open. Inside was a plain muggle cardboard box, and inside that was...

...a whole bunch of chocolates? There were a few bar-sized things, then a box that had a bunch of little squares in them, and another box that had rows of little unwrapped square thingies, little designs drawn on the tops in brown and black. Quite a lot of chocolate, actually, and it looked kind of...fancy.

Which, what the hell? Hermione knew Liz didn't like sweets, right? In fact, she was certain Hermione knew that, they'd talked about it before. Turning the littler boxes around, Liz found what was by Hermione standards a very brief letter.

Elizabeth,
I hope this gets to you alright. I've never sent anything to Hogwarts before. I know the mages set it up so they'll catch things sent through the normal post, but I'm sending this from Montargis, and I'm not sure how it works internationally. I would say tell me if it doesn't come, but that's very silly, isn't it?
Anyway, I was in Orléans, and I got dragged into a chocolaterie. I tend not to like sweets any more than you do — that's what happens when you're raised by dentists, I guess, never did get much sugar when I was little. I said as much to one of my aunts, and she told me I'm being very silly, that's what dark chocolate is for. It's pretty good! I was surprised, I don't normally care for chocolate.
I was reminded of how Fortescue's made you less heavily sweetened ice cream special, and I thought I'd get some for you while I was at it. This is some rather nice chocolate — I'm not certain you can even get it outside of a few certain places in France — but all kinds of people sell dark chocolate.
On all the packages for the bars and squares there's a two digit number there. That's the per cent of raw cacao — the higher the number, the less sweet it should be. If you find one you like, just remember it, and you can find similar things whenever. Personally, I thought the 72 was about perfect, but I got you all four kinds so you can try for yourself. The truffles are all 66 and 72, but the filling is a little sweeter. If they're too sweet for you and you end up giving them to someone else, that's fine, I don't mind.
Crap, I had more I was going to say, but I have to go. Aimée found me and won't leave me alone. My cousins are very annoying and very French sometimes. See you in January!
Happy Christmas,
Hermione

...Liz had no idea what to do with that.

Out of curiosity, she tried one of the squares labelled 72, and Hermione was right, that was actually pretty good. And the 79 was even better. Like, distractingly good, she was getting tingles, she hadn't even known it was possible for something to taste good enough to get tingles...

She shouldn't have any more right now though. It was probably a bad idea to just have a bunch of chocolate for breakfast, and it was fancy chocolate, literally imported from bloody France, so. Maybe don't eat it all at once?

She packed the box back up and shoved it toward her desk so she wouldn't be tempted.

So. She had left the box from Daphne, and the package that had once belonged to her father.

...

The box from Daphne it was.

The lid slid off of this one just as easy as Tracey's. Inside were a couple books, rather smaller and less fancy-looking than Dorea's. One was a collection of British folklore, old stories from all over the islands that the mages had been telling for generations — not surprising Daphne would get something like that for her, she had often ended up explaining about the weird religions and superstitions and stuff the mages had — and the second one was called Voices for the Dead, which was...ominous. Looking at the introduction quick, it said it was a brief history of something called the Mistwalker Clans, who were apparently modern magical families descended from a certain group of ancient Celts, the ones who'd lived on a certain island, Liz didn't recognise the name.

Liz was confused why the hell Daphne had send her what appeared to be a random magical history book, until she saw a list of the Mistalker Clans on one of the very first pages — there, near the top, was The Noble House of Greengrass and the Greenwood Commune. Okay, that sort of almost made sense, then. She guessed.

...Wasn't a "commune" like a pinko...hippie...thing? She was pretty sure that was one of the words that turned up in Vernon's rants now and again. Hmm.

(Not that Liz was entirely sure who "the reds" were or why Vernon hated them so much. And it didn't matter, she was hardly likely to take his opinion as gospel on...well, anything, really.)

Also in the box was a dark leather tube, accented with red and white here and there, about the length of her forearm. She had no idea what the hell that was supposed to be, presumably there was a letter somewhere that explained it. Wrapped in a bundle of off-white cloth were...picture frames? Magical photos, the ones that moved (which were kind of neat). Four total, with a variety of people in them, none of whom she recognised. They were all a few years older than Liz, probably in their mid-teens, for the most part.

One had four boys sitting on a couch, rather too small to hold all of them, shoving at each other and silently laughing. Another one was a somewhat wider shot, a round room with beds... Was that a dorm room? Presumably the Gryffindors', with the red and gold colour scheme — the picture was all the residents, she guessed, eight or so girls clumped together, throwing silly poses and giggling. The third was of two girls, one blonde and one red-head, a dark-haired boy and fiery autumn trees looming in the background. That red hair didn't look quite natural, too red, without the orange people usually had, so Liz noticed she was also in the picture in the dorm (though the blonde wasn't, she didn't think). The last picture was of the Gryffindor quidditch team, judging by the pads and the colour scheme, grinning and patting each other on the backs, one or another occasionally raising a big gold trophy above their head, the rest cheering.

Okay. What the hell?

There were two letters in the box this time. Liz recognised Daphne's handwriting, she read that one first.

Elizabeth,
I hope you're not too lonely there at Hogwarts by yourself. You really should have come to the Greenwood! Everyone is welcome here, the more the merrier and all that. Think about it for next time.
Tracey says I should say I had a little mead before writing this, so I might sound slightly silly. "Sound slightly silly" is fun to say!
I hope throwing these particular books at you isn't too...naggy? I don't know the word. You always have these questions about things, and a lot of them are things most people already know. You know, the only muggleborn I've ever known before Hogwarts is Sophie, that's Tracey's mum, and she's been around a while, I'm never certain what muggleborns know and what they don't know. So, I figured just covering everything would be a good idea. These won't cover everything, of course, but the one on the misters will at least help you be less confused when I say something weird — I try to act like a normal good noble girl, but I still mess it up sometimes — and the other one will have a lot of the stories other kids at Hogwarts grew up with, so if they reference a thing you'll know what they're talking about. That was the idea anyway?
So, yes, books. The rest of the package is from my mum, so I'll let her talk about that. Greenwood is starting up a bonfire, and fire is pretty!
Wishing you high times and good fortune,
Daphne

...Okay. That was...weird. Liz hadn't really any idea what to think about that, so she moved straight on to the other letter.

Elizabeth Potter,
I do hope I'm not being too presumptuous in adding to my daughter's package for you this season. You don't know me, but my daughter has written of you often, and I find myself moved to do some small thing for you, at least.
I don't know if this is what you want to hear, but I should explain myself a little first. I was a Ravenclaw prefect, some years ago now, and we had one persistent troublemaker, a few years younger than me. She had a habit of seeking out and hexing bullies into the Hospital Wing, lost more than her fair share of points for the house. The other prefects assigned me to attempt to manage her, an effort which would prove all but fruitless. The silly girl simply wouldn't listen to reason.
That rambunctious little underclassman was called Cassie Lovegood — yes, the international dueling champion and habitual huntress of dark wizards the world over. She never did settle down, did she?
In my NEWT years, Cassie made a new Gryffindor friend, who she roped into a number of her misadventures, so I ended up speaking to her quite often as well. She was Lily Evans, your mother.

Liz blinked, and her eyes darted away from the letter to the picture frames. Did that mean these were...

Lily and I were not particularly close, but we did keep up a casual correspondence after my graduation. I was seeking a Mastery in Enchanting at the time, and Lily had some talent with the subject. I wasn't in a position where I can now tell you much about her, personally, and I haven't anything of hers. There are much better people you can speak to, if you wish to know of your parents. But I still knew her well enough I wanted to give you these.
My Daphne heard from young Dorea Black that she intended to send you a dueling primer, and she also tells me you carry your wand in a pocket. Enclosed with this letter you'll find a wand holster, enchanted to withstand the stresses of magical combat. It's intended to be worn on your wand arm, a simple flick of your wrist will eject your wand right into your hand. It takes a little finesses, but I'm sure you'll figure it out with a little practice.
And, forgive me, dear, but Daphne says she's been in your room, and she didn't see any pictures of your parents. She suspects you don't have any. I took it upon myself to remedy that lack. I'm sorry to say I don't have any pictures of your parents together — I am some years older than them, and they didn't grow close until after I graduated. But I did manage to get my hands on a few of them with their friends, cobbled together from contacts of mine.
Of the four, I only took one of them myself. The autumn of my seventh year, I ended up being dragged into the forest to meet the wilderfolk who live out there. (They never did show up, wary of strangers I suspect.) I happened to have a camera with me, and I took a few pictures while we were waiting. In the foreground are Cassie and your mother — she's the one with red hair. You might also spot Severus Snape in the background, but he sometimes wanders out of frame.

Frowning to herself, Liz reached for the frames, picked up the one with all the orange and red leaves in the background. Lily and Lovegood were being somewhat distracting, shoving at each other, Lovegood flung an arm around Lily's neck, started ruffling her hair, but then they suddenly topped over, falling out of the bottom of the frame. So Liz could see the boy behind them more clearly. In muggle jeans and jumper, his hands stuck in his pockets, black hair blowing in the silent wind, he was glaring down (presumably at Lily and Lovegood), with an expression...an exhausted sort of irritation, she guessed, that they were making idiots of themselves, and they'd dragged him outdoors to do it — didn't strike Liz as an outdoorsy sort of person — but he was putting up with it, for now, but his patience wasn't infinite...

Fucking hell, that was Snape, wasn't it? It was kind of hard to tell, he was maybe only fourteen, so he barely looked Snape-ish at all, but... That was just bloody weird.

She'd already known Snape had known her mother, but still.

Lily and Lovegood stood up again, a complete mess made of both their hair, leaves stuck in here and there. Lovegood was giving Lily an over-dramatic sad pout, so Lily, laughing, went about fixing her hair, saying something — Liz could see her lips moving, but couldn't hear anything. Whatever it was, Lovegood broke into a smirk, grabbed Lily by the shoulders and...kissed her full on the lips.

Liz stared at the picture for several seconds, dumbfounded, as the two girls went on kissing, Snape in the background looking even more intensely exasperated than he had a moment ago (implying this happened a lot).

...

Okay, then? Hadn't seen that coming...

Liz watched her mother with...her girlfriend(?) for another few seconds, as they broke apart and went back to playing and giggling. Shaking her head to herself, she set the picture aside, picking up Mrs Greengrass's letter again.

The picture of the girls' dorm was sent to me by the family of one of your mother's yearmates. Marlene NicIonmhuinn was a friend of your mother's, though she died some years ago now. I don't know the names of her other dormmates — I'm not even certain which is Marlene — but I thought it was a nice picture.
I'm not certain I ever met your father, but I tracked down a couple pictures of him while I was at it. The one with the quidditch team I got from Minerva — that is, your Transfiguration professor. Lily and James were among her favourite students, you might consider leveraging that her with in future. The other I got from Remus Lupin, a friend of your father's. He's still around, living in Provence at the moment, I believe. Unfortunately, British law can make getting by quite difficult for werewolves, poor man.
In the sofa picture, your father is the one with the uncooperative hair and the glasses. The boy with the slightly less uncooperative hair, who looks like he could well be James's brother, is Sirius Black — you might have heard that name before. The blond is Peter Pettigrew, and Remus is the poor dear with the scars across his face.
You might consider writing Remus. He should have done it first, but he's being a stubborn fool.

Out of curiosity, Liz tracked down the photo she was talking about, the one with the boys on the sofa. Her eyes lingered on her father for a brief moment — she had him to blame for her hair, apparently, that asymmetrical, random, impossible mess was very familiar — before moving to the black-haired boy next to him. They did look very similar, actually, their faces close to the same shape, if she ignored the glasses on James's face, Sirius's nose just a little longer, jaw just a little rounder. And his hair seemed much less annoying, still a mess, thick, riotous curls flung all over the place... Actually, since he wore it longer, it almost looked more like hers, just not as...big. James's smile was a bit more restrained, toothy and cheerful, but Sirius's looked almost manic, grey eyes wide and glittering, mouth stretched so wide it almost looked painful, flopped sideways on the couch, his messy head leaned into James's chest and his legs in Remus's lap, giggling like a crazy person, as James started...

...plaiting his hair? He was even conjuring flowers to stick inside, little pink things. He was smirking to himself as he went, Sirius's grin dimming a bit, pouting up at James, rolling his eyes as James said what was probably a joke of some kind (assuming from how the other two boys broke into laughter). That was slightly odd, but okay.

So that was Dorea's father, huh? He and James really had been friends, apparently. And she could see why people who'd actually known him didn't believe he'd been the one to sell them out to the Dark Lord — she suspected the people blokes set up to be murdered and the people they let plait pretty pink flowers into their hair didn't tend to overlap.

Mrs Greengrass wrapped her letter up quickly from there, with a few more pleasantries, nothing particularly important. Honestly, the biggest shock of her part in all this was the photo of her mother snogging another girl, and that little detail hadn't even been mentioned in the letter. Or, did she not realise Liz hadn't known her mother had gone around kissing people? She didn't care, of course, she was just saying, she...thought it was a weird thing to do, just, casually send a kid a picture of their mother out and kissing someone. Maybe? She didn't actually know.

Liz had, she thought, gotten quite a lot to think about dropped in her lap, first thing in the morning. She was just a little bit overwhelmed. She hardly knew what to feel about any of this, and there was just so much of it...

Honestly, after all of that, when she found a cloak made of water and moonlight woven into the lightest and smoothest cloth she'd ever felt, that made the wearer invisible, which had apparently been her father's, Liz was too numb to even feel properly shocked anymore.

It turned out Liz had been wrong, they were doing something for the holiday.

As had become the familiar routine over the break, Liz had had very little contact with other people, honestly wasn't even certain she'd spoken at all the whole day. The students who'd stayed behind were in upper years, just a couple in each house — the only people left in Slytherin were Snape, a sixth-year boy whose name she couldn't remember, and herself — and all of the Weasleys, for some reason. She never talked to any of the older students, and all the Weasleys were in Gryffindor — the twins showed their faces now and again, perhaps the most irritating fifth-year prefect in the school was a Weasley, and Ron, the one in her year, was one of those people still determined to hate her for no good reason, so they obviously weren't likely to spend any time together.

Mostly, she'd just puttered around in the library. She'd spent a lot of time in the library the last week or so, even though she didn't really need to, strictly speaking. She'd finished the homework assigned over the break ages ago, but, well, there were always more things to read. Liz still wasn't doing particularly well in Transfiguration, she'd occasionally take a peek at books on the subject not on the recommended reading list to see if something would help get it to click for her (nothing had so far), but Charms were dead easy, for the most part. The library had copies of all the assigned books for all the years so, in addition to looking at whatever caught her eye in the Charms section she'd been reading ahead. She was halfway through the third Standard Book of Spells already.

She wasn't actually two full years ahead in Charms, she'd just been flipping through the books and teaching herself the spells that sounded interesting or useful to her, which was probably only maybe a quarter of them. But she hadn't tried a spell she couldn't figure out how to cast yet, which was...odd. Why was the class going so slow? She meant, first year was pretty much all plain physical effects — making light, moving things, changing the colours of things, making things warmer or colder, that sort of thing — and those were, just, super easy, they were moving through the spells painfully slow, she didn't know how anyone could not get them right away. Though...maybe it was like the opposite of how she didn't get Transfiguration, other people just weren't as good at it as she was. Hmm.

But anyway, she'd also been looking at Potions books, just out of curiosity, which made it very clear her initial impression that potions were pretty much magic cooking had been a massive oversimplification — it was more than just the properties of the things being put in, there was a lot of fuzzy symbolism and metaphor and stuff that made it work the way it did. Apparently, Potions was actually a specific form of ritual magic, which was kind of neat, even if it made it very confusing sometimes.

Though, because it was really ritual magic, potions were also very exploitable — when it came down to it, potions worked the way they worked because the person who brewed them expected them to. You couldn't completely subvert the actual physical and magical properties of the things going into the potion, but there were all kinds of neat shortcuts and tricks that could be done by someone who knew what they were doing. All of them were far above Liz's level at the time, of course, but it was an interesting fact to keep in mind for later.

She had the very clear feeling that Hermione, very literally-minded as she was, was going to hate Potions when they got to the higher years, when this more fuzzy kind of thinking started being necessary. But Liz was better at that sort of thing, it'd probably end up being her best class alongside Charms.

Also out of curiosity, she'd been poking at Runes books a little bit. Enchanting and warding was just kind of neat. It was a lot like Potions, in a way, where there were these symbols that should have precise, reliable meanings, and could be pieced together like blocks of magic, but the more advanced uses started being fuzzy and figurative — sometimes on purpose, so competing enchanters wouldn't be able to copy their designs, and cursebreakers would have more trouble cracking their wards. Unfortunately, she'd have to wait until third year to actually start the class, but that didn't mean she couldn't read about it on her own.

If she were to put a single word to it, her holiday so far had been quiet. She woke up in Slytherin, almost entirely alone in the dorms, spent most of her day in the library, completely empty save for the occasional older student, when she remembered to go to meals the Great Hall pared down to a tiny fraction of the usual population, the noise reduced enough she could hear the echoes of voices bouncing off the high ceiling. Most days so far, she'd gotten all the way through without speaking to another person, even once. She knew from her friends' letters that they thought this was bad, that she'd be sad or lonely or something, but...

She didn't mind it, honestly. It was...relaxing.

Looking back on it, she'd gone through some pretty extreme swings over the first term. She hadn't been used to being stuck with so many people at once — especially not since she'd started using her mind-control superpowers to make people keep their distance — which, she really hadn't expected how...constantly on-edge it'd made her feel, at first. The apparently being famous thing didn't help, people were always watching her, it was bloody unnerving. But, on the other hand, there were the calming potions Snape had been giving her. Those were very nice, when she did have moments (and she could take the potion quickly enough), so those usually weren't as bad as they'd been before coming to Hogwarts (except for when they were)...but, just, stuck with all these people, she'd been having those moments more often. Sort of a give and take, on that one.

And even just dealing with people on a day-to-day basis, she had not been used to doing that anymore, not at all, and her being stupid famous for stupid reasons, people had extreme reactions to even little things she did, that most of the time came completely out of nowhere. She still couldn't predict what might make everyone freak out, like, did the Girl Who Lived really— Whatever it was, it was always very silly. Some people in the school still weren't over the talking to snakes thing — that'd even been in the newspaper, which, really?! — and she still didn't understand why talking to snakes was such a big deal. She meant, sure, the Dark Lord could talk to snakes, but...so what? Snakes were not that interesting! It was such a silly thing to get worked up over, honestly...

The point was, dealing with all this shite all the time, it'd been, just, exhausting. In retrospect, she'd been on a serious down-swing by the end of October, she'd been feeling awfulall the time — come to think of it, that'd probably been what Snape had meant by if she was feeling especially miserable he wanted her to tell someone about it. (She hadn't, of course, and wouldn't when it happened again, but at least she knew what he was talking about now.) Taking an entire calming potion had, kind of, reset her brain back to normal, if that made sense. She'd been all right since then. Mostly. It helped that the more annoying Slytherins had been (temporarily) cowed, and the rest of the school was mostly used to the Girl Who Lived being around, so the more...directly irritating parts had been at a low point.

But it was still exhausting, dealing with people all the time. Other people might think it boring, or lonely, or whatever, but she honestly thought being by herself all the time for days on end was a very nice break. If she'd been trapped with noisy, intrusive kids she couldn't just mind magic away for ten months straight with no breaks at all, she probably would have actually gone insane.

(She hated feeling trapped.)

It was Christmas, but she hadn't done much outside of her usual library-focused routine. The only deviation was, an hour or two before dinner, going out for a walk. Partially testing out her new hat, and partially just because. The sun had already gone down when she'd stepped through the doors, the darkening sky streaked with orange and pink, the snowy valley seeming to faintly glow. The Weasleys and a few of their friends had been having a raucous snowball fight just outside the doors, Liz had quickly angled away before they spotted her, hugging the edge of the forest toward the lake.

The Valley was very pretty she guessed, the night still and heavy and quiet, but she could maybe have dressed better. She didn't have to worry about the snow soaking through her shoes — paying a little extra for boots enchanted to be water-proof had been a great idea — and the hat actually worked pretty well. It was one of those stretching knit caps, with a little poof of black and green at the top (because of course), and it stayed on. It was actually kind of useful at cutting off the wind — the hat itself was warm, yes, but in pulling it on her hair ended up pressed closer to her, tight against her neck, which cut out some of the wind there too. The scarf took out most of the rest of it...once she'd figured out how she was supposed to wear the bloody thing, she'd never actually worn a scarf before.

No, the worst of the cold was from about her knees to a bit under her hips, where she didn't have quite so many layers on. She was wearing two pairs of trousers, but apparently that wasn't good enough. And, the jumper and her school cloak probably weren't good enough either, by the time she decided to call it quits — her legs stiff and numb, throat burning from the dry air — she was starting to get a bit chilly above the waist too. Warming charms helped a little, but they kept wearing off...

She took a moment right outside the front doors to kick the snow and mud off her boots, shake out her cloak and her scarf. She realised the elves could probably clean with magic, but she hated it when Dudley tracked mud into the house, it just...seemed the thing to do.

She heard chatter and laughter from the Great Hall, so dinner had probably already started, but she decided to run down and change quick first anyway. This many layers might not be good enough for outside, but she'd get very warm wearing this through the whole meal. Her thighs broke into hot, sharp tingles as she walked to Slytherin, halfway through changing she paused to try to rub warmth back into them for a moment, her own skin feeling weirdly stiff. It'd been a while since she'd gotten that cold, she'd forgotten how annoying it could be.

She'd probably been out longer than she should have, but it'd been pretty, and she had nothing better to do...

Set up again in her boots, trousers, jumper, and scarf — the barrier of soft wool kept her hair from tickling her own neck, she rather liked it — she left Slytherin for the rest of the castle again. She did consider not going to dinner at all, but she was feeling a little light-headed. It belatedly occurred to her that she'd missed lunch today. Without the class schedule, and Dorea leading her around, she forgot to eat far too easily...

Barely a step into the Great Hall, Liz twitched as an unpleasantly familiar voice called out. "There you are, Miss Potter! I was beginning to wonder if you'd perhaps gotten lost. Come, find a seat."

Liz paused for a moment at the threshold, looking out over the Great Hall. The place was decorated, of course — there were pine trees here and there, holly and mistletoe gleaming red and white under the rainbow lights strung all over place, along the walls and the tables and crisscrossing through the empty air, the ceiling over her head not quite so transparent as usual, frosted over with ice, a light snow slowly drifting toward the floor. (Fake, probably, none of it stuck anywhere.) That last bit, with the ice and snow, that must be a spell someone had put up just before dinner, it hadn't been there this morning. The four house tables were gone, instead a single table at the centre, a dozen smaller ones dotted here and there.

It looked like everyone else was already here, or at least most of them. The centre table — nobody was sitting at any of the satellite tables, and only the middle one had food and stuff on it — was lined on both sides with professors and students. She noticed the professors weren't all in their usual teaching robes, all stiff and plain, instead dressed more casually and colourfully. She particularly noticed McGonagall, who was wearing colours (looking very Scottish, Liz couldn't remember what that was called), and one of the younger professors (Arithmancy, she thought?) was wearing a vaguely muggle-looking dress in green and white, showing more of her shoulders than Liz thought she'd ever seen on a magical woman before (though she had a knit shawl too, because cold). And next to her, Snape was—

Liz gave the infamously intimidating Head of Slytherin a double-take. He was wearing a muggle-style jumper (she meant, it looked machine-stitched), and his hair had been tied back out of his face, a few wisps escaped around his brow, one bit over his left ear. It was bloody strange, he hardly looked like himself, if it weren't for the Saturday morning cartoon villain goatee and the expression of distant, faintly exasperated amusement on his face she might not have recognised him at all. That was just...

For the second time today, Liz wondered if she were hallucinating.

After a few seconds staring at the table in dumb confusion, she unstuck herself. Both of the seats near Snape were occupied — not that she really wanted to sit next to Snape for an extended period of time, but she'd at least actually spoken to him before. In the end, she picked a spot as far from Dumbledore as possible, which did put her closer to the Weasleys than she'd ordinarily like, but she had shown up late, beggars and choosers.

The instant she sat down, the twins immediately asked her how the hell she'd gotten the Slytherins to turn on their own, it was the best "prank" they'd seen all year. So, could have been worse, she guessed. Honestly, she thought the twins were her favourite Weasley — they could be a bit much sometimes, she guessed, but the prefect was a pedantic little prick, and Ron was just aggravating. Given all the options available at the table right now, being stuck with the twins for a conversation partner really wasn't that bad.

The meal itself wasn't that different from dinner any day, really, so far as the food part went. There seemed to be more desserts out, but Liz ignored those by default, since they tended to be far too sweet for her. (Though, the elves sent up some of her ice cream a few minutes after she showed up, because the elves continued to be great.) There were a few unfamiliar dishes, but she didn't bother trying any of them — she was aware she had rather specific tastes, if something didn't immediately strike her as possibly good it probably wasn't worth it.

The most noticeable difference was probably the pitchers sitting here and there, which were apparently a few different kinds of wine and mead, plus a couple glass bottles deep into the professors' area of the table that were probably harder liquor. (Liz learned, watching and listening over the course of the meal, that apparently it was acceptable for the students to have the wine and mead, but not the harder stuff, which sort of made sense, she guessed.) She assumed the alcohol was at least partially responsible for most of the table seeming noisier and sillier and gigglier than usual. Which was kind of amusing to watch, she guessed, even if she couldn't imagine being quite that silly herself.

Not that she really could — she tried a sip of the wine and the mead just out of curiosity, but they were both too sweet for her. Which wasn't a surprise, normal people liked things far too sweet, even non-dessert food sometimes. Liz had to watch which platter she got bread from, even on normal non-holiday meals, how the fuck do you make bread too sweet, honestly...

The meal gradually broke up, but people didn't actually leave. Pairs and littler groups moved to other tables with their drinks to chat, the kids pulling out games from nowhere — one which appeared to be some kind of card game (the cards periodically exploded), and another that looked very much like jacks (though they threw out jinxes now and again). Board games had appeared at a few of the little tables, some of the attendees wandering off to play, carrying a couple snacks and their drinks.

Snape, Liz noticed, had ended up at a chess table with one of the older students. Fingers flicking at the card in her pocket, she frowned to herself, biting her lip. She'd intended to catch up with Snape on the way back to the dorms, but if he was staying...

Oh, well. Liz waited for the game to end — Snape won, obviously — and then through a second game — Snape won, again — then finally swept up the moment the older girl wandered off to rejoin her friends. "Hello, Professor," she said, flopping into the empty chair.

One of Snape's eyebrows ticked up, just slightly. "Severus."

"Er, what?"

"This is not a night for proprieties and titles, Elizabeth. It's tradition, I'm afraid."

"...Oh." She had noticed that, of course, that everyone had just been using first names the whole evening, people who ordinarily wouldn't be using first names with each other. It hadn't really occurred to her to wonder if there was a reason for that. "Er, okay then, Severus." She winced, hissed, "God, that feels weird..."

The corner of his lips twitched, just slightly, his amusement far more clear in the bright ringing from his head. "Good." He took a slow sip of his drink, a casual tap of the chessboard righting all the pieces in their proper places — wandless magic of some kind, she assumed, she'd felt a slight crackle of static right as he did it. "Your move."

Liz glanced down at the checkered board, the variety of carved ceramic pieces arrayed across it, and froze.

"Elizabeth?"

"I, er, don't know how to play chess."

Snape sighed.

Over the next few minutes, Snape went through explaining the rules — the different pieces and how they moved and the win conditions, a few basic strategy things — very quickly, before jumping straight into their first game. It wasn't completely sink-or-swim, though, he kept shoving feelings at her, a sort of sharp wariness spilling into the air when she was about to do something stupid, or cool approval when she managed to find something that was actually pretty good. (That second one didn't happen very often.) It didn't seem too complicated, but it'd probably take a few games to get the hang of it — Snape was racking up dead white pieces far more quickly than she was capturing black ones.

"I'm surprised."

It took her a second to realise he wasn't surprised by anything to do with the chess. "What?"

"I don't think I've ever seen any of the students staying back for the holiday forego the wine entirely."

"Oh, that." Liz shrugged. "It's too sweet, is all. It's fine, I don't mind."

Snape gave her a flat look for a couple seconds, one finger tapping at the table. With another little sigh, his wand appeared out of his sleeve, he silently cast a quick charm — whatever it was, it hung over the table, a faint tingle on the air. Probably a paling of some kind. "One moment." Carrying his own mug, he swept off toward the main table. Liz barely waited a minute before he was back, now with a second mug. Holding it out toward her, gripping awkwardly by the rim, he said, "This is the only one you're getting, don't waste both our time asking."

Oh. Er. Out of a lack of any other ideas of what she was supposed to do — she hadn't thought he'd go off and get something for her, what the hell — she accepted the mug. Apparently her fingers had been cold, because the thing was almost tingly warm, she hadn't noticed. Hugging the mug to herself, she muttered (awkwardly), "Thanks."

Snape waved it off — or maybe the wave was wandless magic, because the faint feeling of the charm over the table vanished at once. He sat down again, glanced at the table for barely a couple seconds before making his move.

As she scrambled to figure out what the hell she should do now, she took a sip from the mug — and was distracted from the game, blinking down at the stuff. It was pretty good, actually, all creamy and cinnamony, with an odd sharp bite to it that she didn't recognise, that was probably the alcohol. And...apparently she was colder than she'd thought, because swallowing something warm felt good just by itself.

(How the hell had Tracey realised she was cold all the time but Liz hadn't? That didn't make any bloody sense.)

Before too long, Liz lost the first game, because of course she did, obviously. Snape set the pieces back up with another simple tap — then raised an eyebrow at her, silently asking if she wanted to go again. She didn't, really, but she hadn't even gotten to the reason she was here in the first place yet. She didn't just come right out and ask though, went ahead and made her first move.

Finally, after a few moves had gone by and she thought it wouldn't be too intrusive and weird, Liz pulled the note out of her pocket, set it on the table. "I was wondering, do you recognise the handwriting on this?"

Snape glanced at the note, the one that'd come with the magical bit of cloth that had (apparently) been her father's. A lurching something cut through his mind, Snape bit out a sharp sigh. "He gave you that damn cloak, did he."

Okay, Liz hadn't expected Snape to guess what it was that easily. "It really was James's then?"

His lip curling with disdain that wasn't mirrored in his head, Snape nodded. "Yes, your father was quite fond of that detestable old rag. He and Black used it to make an impressive nuisance of themselves on the regular."

"I'd heard he was a bit of a bully, yeah." For a second, Snape felt like he couldn't decide whether he should be more surprised or amused, which was kind of weird — one of the very, very few things any of the professors had told her about James and his friends was that they perhaps liked their "pranks" a little too much. She wasn't so stupid she coudn't read between the lines. "I was asking about the handwriting, though."

"Albus." Probably noticing her confusion, he added, "The Headmaster. He never did explain why he had the thing to begin with, but I didn't think it a matter of any true importance. When he first told me he had it, years ago now, he expressed his intention to pass it on to you when he felt the time was right. It would seem that time is now."

She would wonder why he hadn't passed it on to her years ago — the ability to turn invisible whenever she wanted might have been quite convenient, before her mind-control superpowers had kicked in. But that was silly, he obviously would have just sent it to her vault at Gringotts, not handed it straight to her. (He did have complete access to her estate which supposedly existed, more than she even would until she turned thirteen, but he hadn't actually touched anything. That was one of the very few straight answers the goblins would give her, stubborn bastards.) "Right, okay. That's all I wanted to know."

"You shouldn't open anything if you don't know who sent it."

Liz opened her mouth to answer, then closed it again. She knew that, actually, it could be cursed or something. Too surprised by the surreal fact that she'd gotten Christmas gifts, it simply hadn't occurred to her at the time. "Oh. Oops?"

A shiver of irritation shifted through Snape, but his face didn't twitch. "You needn't worry over such things too much, so long as you are at Hogwarts. The chances of any sort of cursed object getting past the wards and the elves are so low the danger is negligible. Should you be sent anything anonymously outside the castle, however, do not open it before you have a competent adult check it over. If you haven't anyone else available, owls will find me at home."

"Er, I wouldn't want to bother you, or..."

Shooting her a flat look, Snape drawled, "Believe it or not, Elizabeth, given the choice between your possible death and losing an afternoon of leisure to myself, I do prefer the latter. However narrow that margin may be."

Liz laughed.

A few moves passed in silence, focusing on the game and sipping at their drinks. (Liz was starting to feel a little tingly, she assumed it was supposed to do that.) As he took one of her castles, Snape said, "You're being too reactive."

"Huh?"

He didn't say anything for a moment, staring across the table at her, the white castle turning in his fingers. "Unless I am much mistaken, you are focusing solely on your own potential path towards a win, reacting to my moves as they happen." He set the castle down with the other dead white pieces, the ceramic making a high click against the table. "You must not only develop your own strategy, but analyse the board in an effort to decipher your opponent's, so you may plan a proactive response. To do otherwise dooms you to a haphazard, reactive defence, which leaves you all too vulnerable."

Liz frowned at him — he had that weird quality to his voice, the kind where someone was saying one thing but also another thing, trying to be clever. "You're not just talking about chess, are you."

A hidden smile twitched at Snape's lips. It was so subtle Liz wasn't even certain it was actually there, she might just be inventing it based on the amusement she was picking up from his head. "No, I am not just talking about chess. You must realise your asinine little rivalry with Draco and Miss Parkinson is not in any way settled." Draco, but Miss Parkinson? What was that about? "It may be some time before they retaliate — I wouldn't be surprised if they're sufficiently intimidated by the censure of the older students that they hold off until next autumn — but it is inevitable. You might reconsider your strategy for dealing with them. I'll admit you handled that confrontation at November's house meeting quite well, but it never should have gotten to that point."

Well. That was irritating. She'd sort of assumed they'd be back eventually, yes, but she couldn't deny part of her had hoped they'd learn their lesson and leave her the fuck alone. "I didn't have a strategy."

"Choosing not to respond in anticipation of your opponent tiring of the game is a strategy, Elizabeth. Attempting to terrify your opponent into compliance is, also, basic strategy. The latter worked out well for you, this time, but children's memories are short. They will respond, given time. Their enmity will not simply go away if you ignore them long enough."

Liz barely managed to hold in a groan of frustration. "Well, why the hell not? It's not like I've ever done anything to them, why can't they just leave me alone?"

"It's not a matter of anything you've done, Elizabeth, but who you are."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

Snape let out a brief sigh. Moving a bishop deep toward her end of the board, he said, "Checkmate." Wait, what?! How did he... "When it comes to your relationships with your peers, there will always be matters outside of your control," Snape lectured, as Liz scanned the board, trying to figure out where the hell that had come from, see if there was any possible move she could do to slip her king out of danger. (There didn't seem to be one, what the fuck...) "You will always, for the rest of your life, have the legacy of the Dark Lord's fall hanging over your head. Much has been said on the matter by many people, in the decade since it happened, and everyone you will ever meet will have certain preconceptions about you, dictated by their own history and politics. You can learn to play with the hand you've been dealt, but you can't throw it away entirely — you said that day that you don't play this game, but you have no choice but to play, in one way or another. It is unfortunate, but it is as it is."

Liz flicked over her king, and collapsed back in her chair, hugging her (mostly empty but still pleasantly warm) mug to herself. "Why does that matter so much? I mean, it's not like that Dark Lord person is still around or anything."

After a brief hesitation, he muttered, "Perhaps. But whether he still lives or not is ultimately irrelevant. Draco is constrained to behave a certain way by his upbringing and his circumstances. His treatment of you is, at least in part, borne out of a desire to please his father. He is misinterpreting his parents' desires in this matter somewhat, but whether he is correct or not doesn't truly matter, he will continue to act in a manner that he believes will please them."

"How is being an infuriating little shite supposed to accomplish anything?"

A shade of amusement tinged the air, but Snape's face didn't twitch. "Honestly, I don't think Draco has thought it through that far."

Of course he hadn't. Liz grumbled to herself, sipping at the remains of her drink. She couldn't say she was surprised — she hadn't really thought Draco and Pansy were done messing with her. Why should they be, this whole thing had started over something completely bloody stupid, and her slapping them down hard once hadn't actually changed anything. It wasn't like Draco and Pansy were going to magically stop being idiots just because she'd gotten one over on them.

She'd sort of hoped they would, but they hadn't really expected them to. People didn't work that way. Unfortunately.

"What should I do, then?" Because, honestly, she had no bloody clue. Ignoring them until they went away had really been the only halfway reasonable idea she'd had. She'd had other ideas, of course, but she was going to go out on a limb and assume Snape wouldn't consider permanently altering her classmates' minds to make them more cooperative, or perhaps just straight-up murdering them, to be in any way reasonable.

"I cannot tell you how to manage your relationships with your peers, Elizabeth. I've given you my warning, and I have nothing more to say on the matter."

Well, that was unhelpful. Liz glared at him for long seconds, but he showed absolutely no sign of budging, expressionless as a bloody brick wall. She hadn't expected anything else, but it was still irritating. She drained the rest of her drink, set the mug back on the table with a put-upon sigh. "Fine, I'll figure it out on my own, I guess. I really hate people sometimes, you know?"

Snape's head rang with silent laughter again. "I am familiar with the feeling, believe it or not."

Oh, she knew, he wasn't exactly subtle about it. "Anyway, I think I've gotten my arse kicked enough, I'm going back to the dorms." That, and the longer she stayed up here, the more chances Snape would have to drag her into another uncomfortable conversation. No thanks, she'd had enough. She pushed herself to her feet, and nearly toppled right over, feeling oddly light-headed. After a second she was fine, though, she'd probably just moved too quickly, that happened sometimes. She might have forgotten too many meals with everyone gone...

"Good night, Elizabeth."

"Good night...Professor." She knew she was supposed to use his name, since that was apparently something mages did on Christmas, but it just felt too bloody weird.

Liz fled back toward the quiet sanctuary of the nearly-empty Slytherin dorm, Snape's fond amusement echoing in her wake.

Chapter Text

February 1992


Dorea was not looking forward to this.

Not that she was afraid, exactly, or at least not really. If nothing else, she knew Liz wouldn't hurt her. (Couldn't, with the spells they were limited to.) But she didn't take to these things the way she had — Dorea knew she was going to lose, and she, just, didn't care for it, wasn't motivated to push herself to improve the same way Liz was. She couldn't explain why she tried so hard, she just...

Liz had gotten used to being the most dangerous person around, she guessed. For those last couple years at Privet Drive, once she had the Dursleys properly frightened into compliance and could get everyone else to at least leave her alone, nobody had really been a threat to her anymore. Which had been a...novel experience, because for most of the years running up to that everyone had been a threat to her, in one way or another. It'd been disorienting, suddenly catapulted from being defenceless to being the one people were defenceless against — so disorienting she hadn't known what to do with her newfound power over everyone around her. She hadn't done anything with it, really. The horrible things she could have done to people, just because she wanted to and they couldn't stop her, were limited only by her imagination. Controlling too many people at once could be difficult, yes, but handfuls were manageable, Liz could well have turned the town into hell on earth for anyone who annoyed her.

But she hadn't. All Liz had wanted from them was to leave her alone. The residents of Little Whinging should feel thankful for that, she thought.

But then she suddenly wasn't the most dangerous person around. After discovering other people had magic, learning about some of the things they could do, Liz hadn't been too worried. Not at first, not until she'd started running into people who could defend against mind magic.

She couldn't help wondering, sometimes, what she would do if someone she couldn't just overwhelm — like McGonagall, or Dumbledore, or Snape, or Quirrell, or Tonks — what if someone who could defend themselves tried to hurt her? That encounter with Dumbledore had gotten her to look into defensive mind magic of her own (she hadn't had a chance to test it yet, but she was pretty sure she had that mind magic shield mastered by now), but later it'd occurred to her, Dumbledore hadn't actually been trying to hurt her. If someone could shrug off her mind magic assault, then threw a curse at her while she was off balance, she'd be pretty much fucked.

It wasn't a reasonable concern, maybe, it didn't seem likely anyone would be throwing curses at her any time soon. But she couldn't help the constant, low-simmering anxiety that she should be doing something about it anyway.

So, in any practice duel between the two of them — even in a classroom setting, where they were limited to a tiny handful of spells — Dorea was going to get her arse kicked. She simply hadn't gotten nearly as much practice in as Liz already had.

Quirrell shot off a bang from his wand, signaling they were all to start when ready. Liz didn't do anything, let Dorea get off the first shot — if Liz cast immediately, the little duel would end right away. In a near shout, Dorea cast, "Sileat!'

"Contege," Liz said with a swirl of her wand, retreating back a half step. The little yellow-white shield she'd cast, large enough to cover her head and chest, caught Dorea's invisible jinx — which would be why Dorea had used it, harder to block something you can't see — the shield flaring brighter for an instant before she dropped it. "Evertat, vellicet—" Liz darted forward a step, exaggerating the wand motion, the jab starting back and just above her shoulder, coming down hard just as her foot landed. "—cude!"

Somewhat to Liz's surprise, Dorea managed to dodge the knockback jinx (she wasn't exactly quick on her feet), had a shield up in time to catch the follow-up stinging jinx. Liz's bludgeoner, though, smashed right through Dorea's shield charm like it wasn't even there. The white spellglow nailed Dorea in the chest, she let out a hard cough, stumbled back a few steps before tripping and falling hard on her arse.

Reacting more to the sharp pain she caught from Dorea's head than anything, Liz was over there in a second...and then just stood there like an idiot, because she had absolutely no idea what she should be doing. "Er, are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Her voice sounded slightly strained, but Liz was pretty sure she meant it. She was slightly annoyed, yes, but at the least Dorea believed she wasn't actually hurt, and she wasn't especially angry at Liz or anything. Rubbing at her chest, wincing, Dorea said, "Did you really need to hit me that hard? This is going to bruise, you know."

"Sorry," Liz muttered, shrugging uncomfortably.

Dorea sighed, feeling rather exasperated — but, still, not particularly angry. Awkwardly, she clambered up to her feet, little flickers of pain flaring as she moved. "How did you do that, anyway?"

"Which part?"

"Your aim. All three went right for my heart, but your wand was all over the place."

"Oh, you don't have to aim." That was one of the very few things she'd gotten out of the book Dorea had sent her for Christmas, actually — she did like it, of course, most of it was just too advanced for her to really use yet. "I mean, you don't have to aim very well. Magic is directed by intent more than anything, the spell will go where you want it to go. As long as your wand is pointed in the right general direction, at least."

"Huh." For some reason, Dorea felt a little amused. She must be thinking something only somewhat related to what they were talking about, Liz couldn't guess what it was — at least, not without peeking, which she'd promised she wouldn't do just for curiosity's sake. (Both Dorea and Hermione had said it was fine if she looked when they were trying to tell her something and she wasn't quite getting it, but not just because. They probably wouldn't be able to tell if she broke that promise, at least not yet, they were both looking into occlumency...but she kept it anyway.) Whatever it was she was thinking, she didn't say anything about it, silently looked out over the rest of the class.

Today, they'd been brought to the old dueling arena — not the Slytherin one, but one open to the whole school, around a corner and down a hall from the Grand Staircase. It was mostly used by the dueling club, often monopolised by the teams the school sent to compete in this international student tournament thing for their training sessions. (Liz was definitely joining the club next year, first-years weren't allowed.) It wasn't nearly as nice and pretty as the one in Slytherin, made all in the plain stone of the castle, the risers and dueling platforms in dark, rosy woods, the walls for the first ten feet or so covered in panels of the stuff. Only the first ten feet, because the ceiling was very high, arching much like the Great and Entrance Halls.

Which was slightly weird, because she was certain there were some rooms one and even two floors above their heads which should occupy the same space. But Hogwarts did things like that sometimes.

There was still a bit of chaos going on around them, people throwing spells around or calling for Quirrell to come over and reverse some unfortunate prank jinx, some people around moving into second and third bouts. She didn't bother asking if Dorea wanted to go again, she already knew she didn't. Besides, throwing jinxes at Dorea was hardly good practice, and most of their other classmates wouldn't be much better. And this was a Slytherin–Gryffindor class, so half of them hated her for no good reason, they'd probably break the rules and use unpleasant or embarrassing spells that weren't on the approved list. Didn't want to risk it.

And Dorea was still rubbing at her chest. "We can go to the Hospital Wing when we're out of here if you want. Pomfrey should have some stuff for bruises."

Dorea felt even more amused, an odd, soft and warm kind of amusement. "Yeah, that might be a good idea."

Liz opened her mouth to ask her what she was (silently) laughing about, but she cut herself off. She felt him coming before he appeared, his presence on the air around him heavy and sharp, angry and cold, her stomach twisted with anxiety. Dorea's eyes narrowed, obviously noticing her discomfort.

"G-good work, Miss P-P-Potter."

With some effort, Liz forced her voice calm and steady — even as she felt Quirrell brush against her mind, sticky like syrup and poking like burrs hitching onto her clothes. She instinctively pulled into herself, the intangible line between her and not-her growing firmer. Though it was uncomfortably like blinding herself, she couldn't even feel Dorea anymore. "Thank you, sir."

The strange man looked toward her, but not quite at her, his twitchy eyes not meeting hers. Quirrell had been bloody weird from the beginning, the contrast between how he behaved on the outside — meek and stumbling and awkward — and the feel of his mind — hard and callous and cruel. Recently, it looked like he was growing ill, his face gone pallid, his eyes sunken and hands too bony thin. It was unsettling. "If I m-m-may ask, where did you l-learn that?"

"Learn what?"

"You stressed the blu-bludgeoner w-w-w-with an exaggerated som-matic form. That's N-N-NEWT-level D-Defence, Miss P-Potter."

"Oh, that." That was another thing she'd picked up from that dueling book: wand-motions were well and good, but exaggerating them into a full-body gesture tended to make it easier for most people to open up their higher registers — that is, channel more magic more easily, making spells more powerful. The margin was usually small, but it could make a difference. Like, Liz probably wouldn't have been able to get off a bludgeoner strong enough to break through Dorea's shield, and have enough power left over to still hit her hard enough to bruise, if she'd cast it textbook. But, well, apparently what you needed to do was different for each spell, and that basic bludgeoning jinx hadn't been among the examples in the book. Quite honestly, "I'm not sure how I knew to do that. I just did what felt right."

"I see." Quirrell said nothing for a long moment, face blank and eyes empty, his mind lingering around Liz's like a hot knife against her throat. "You should fffeel b-blessed, Miss P-Potter. Few are fortunate enough to have such...useful in-instincts."

"Is that common, Professor?" Dorea asked — blatantly attempting to draw Quirrell's attention off of Liz, because she was a thoughtful person and a good friend like that. (Sometimes Liz wondered why the hell someone like Dorea was friends with her, of all people.) "For people to have natural talent with particular branches of magic, I mean. I'm familiar with the idea of inborn abilities, like metamorphs and parselmouths and the like, but I hadn't heard anything about the kind of intuition you're talking about."

Quirrell turned away from her, his unpleasant presence retreating somewhat, and Liz let out a breath she hadn't been quite aware she'd been holding. "The, there is much deb-b-bate on this topic, M-Miss Black. There have always b-been stories of—"

In mid-sentence, with no warning, Quirrell attacked.

He came as a storm of blades, searing and freezing all at once, her guard let down he tore into her before she could hardly blink. Already lights and shapes were flashing before her eyes, memories half-surfaced murmuring in her ears, but she grit her teeth, focused on the here-and-now. Glaring up at him — she could barely see him, her vision swimming, times not now and places not here jumping in the way — she grit her teeth and dug in. Her nerves shivering and stinging, like lightning shooting through her head to foot, she took a breath, and pushed

Surprisingly easily, the knives went flying out of her (agony slicing through her in their sudden absence), and her push kept going, staggering Quirrell back. That...shouldn't have been that easy...she didn't think? He came back around quickly, mental blows raining down toward her in a flurry she could barely make sense of — like a tornado that had picked up a million knives (and was also on fire). But Liz had a weird feeling, she just waited, hunkered down for the assault.

It hit, hard, but Quirrell stumbled with his own momentum, like...

Like Liz had better leverage. For some reason.

She waited for Quirrell to pull back to gather himself for the next assault. Even as he started to stab out toward her, she lashed out at him — just like Liz when she'd unthinkingly flailed at Dumbledore, Quirrell was unprepared to defend himself, and since she was dug in better than him, for some inexplicable reason, it was she that pushed right past his sharp, vicious-feeling attack and straight into him.

She didn't see much of anything, Quirrell whipped his memories out of her reach before she could touch them, leaving her drifting in a featureless sea of rage and fire and hatred, screaming at her so high her ears were ringing. But Liz didn't care, she wasn't actually looking for anything. She shouted right back at him, forcing into his head a single thought, leave me alone leave me alone leave me alone leave me alone

Deadly green fire washed over her, a curse that made her skin melt and her teeth crack, but it wasn't real, they were just memories, and not even hers, she just ignored it all. He hit her and he cut at her, but she was dug in, he didn't have the leverage to do any damage, and—

Alien memories flooded her mind, too many all at once for her to make sense of, whipping by before she could get her bearings — walking along a wooded mountain trail, heads hidden with heavy black hoods bowing to her, laughing at a dinner table with wine sweet and sharp on her tongue, bent over a desk in a library scribbling runes across the page, bodies torn to bloody pieces by curses falling from her wand, her ears half-deafened and ringing as she watched a team of volunteers dig through the rubble, the wind playing with her hair as she flew through the night free and—

Liz staggered as, distracted, she was flung back, nearly falling over — she would have fallen if Dorea wasn't there, Liz clung to her against the room swinging and spinning around her. It righted itself quickly, leaving her gasping, light-headed and sweating from exertion. Her head hurt, hot and sharp and pounding, her spine stinging and sizzling, her chest aching like it'd been sliced open (—snap—), she squeezed her eyes shut and grit her teeth.

"What is it? Liz, what's wrong?"

Quirrell was still right there, she could still feel him, fingers hovering just over her skin, a knife an inch from her throat, she couldn't— "I'm fine, I—" Liz broke off, cleared her throat. "It's, headache. I'm going to see Pomfrey."

"A headache? This isn't a headache, Liz, you—"

I NEED TO GO NOW LET ME GO

Dorea jumped, cringing, but she didn't let go, her arm around Liz's waist and hand on her shoulder only gripping tighter. "What the hell, Liz, did you just—"

Liz pushed her — not with her mind this time, with her hands. One of Dorea's hands caught for a second, but she let go this time, Liz lurched for a couple steps before she remembered how to stand up on her own. The room was a blurry mess around her, she could barely make out anything, yet somehow she knew she was going the right way, a wave of whispers in her wake as she made for the door. She staggered into the hall, putting the class behind her, and kept moving, opening up distance between her and the knife against her throat, the fingers dragging over her.

Before long, the knife lifted away, and she could breathe again.

But the fingers didn't.

She only had a few seconds to wonder what the fuck was going on when they struck.

Another mind, shimmering like oil and stringy like sick, jabbed into her, sliding into her head like fingers into a glove, and it gripped—

—and it pulled

She stumbled, falling to lean against the hard stone banister of the Grand Staircase, fresh pain shooting through her head, her stomach churned as her vision split, the single image split into two mostly overlapping. She squeezed her eyes shut, tried to push the, the disgusting thing out, pull herself back together.

The thing retreated a little, not pulling away entirely but at least not so deep inside anymore — but it didn't go alone, Liz felt something tear, her head spun and her legs went weak, sliding down the banister to sit on the floor.

Her chest burned, she could feel each line of those zig-zagging scars, like someone had traced over them with a knife, her hand had ended up pressed against them at some point, she hadn't noticed. Her shirt clung to her, something hot and wet and...

Like she was bleeding.

She felt the piece of her that had been pulled away, fuzzily and distantly, as it was torn apart, ripped into tiny pieces that were then ripped into tinier pieces, and the thing swallowed them up, dissolved that piece of her until it wasn't really part of her at all. And the thing grew that much bigger.

Shivering with an overwhelming mix of confusion and terror and horror, Liz clung limply to the banister, gagging, sick pooling around her knees.

But Liz didn't hesitate. Desperate, panicky, she slammed down on the thing with everything she had, falling upon it angry and heavy and slashing. But it was quicker than her, slipping between the knives driving toward it, so Liz pulled back again, and pushed, not cutting at it, but just slapping it with a wide, flat hit, trying to—

A flare of agony ripped through her chest in a wave. And the thing slipped into her again, twisting, grasping...

...from inside of her. She couldn't push it out because there was no one nearby, whatever it was it had no body to go back to, it was already inside of her...

...inside of her scars.

Which meant it was smaller than her.

Liz didn't bother pausing to examine this thought, to wonder what the fuck this thing was, she didn't have time for that. The thing was trying to grab another piece of her, to pull it away and swallow it up, but Liz didn't let it, scrambled to keep every bit of her out of its grip. It was fast, and it was tricky, and it had less of itself to keep track of, but this was her mind, it was hers, this thing would play by her rules dammit, she kept herself back, opening an empty space around the thing, it couldn't reach.

And Liz — bigger than it, there was more of her, she was stronger and heavier — pushed in from all sides at once, squeezing it in place.

RELEASE ME! The voice was anger and pride and hatred, high and piercing — but there was fear, it had made a mistake, attacking her on her own turf, it was in danger and it knew it.

Liz paused a moment to gather herself, focusing. Fuck you.

YOU DON'T KNOW WHO YOU'RE DEALING WITH, YOU STUPID GIRL.

I don't care. Liz pushed in further, squeezing the thing until its edge broke, little bits of it breaking off, and Liz dragged them away, like taking a lick off of a spoonful of ice cream. The pieces of the thing were kind of gross, making her shiver, dry-heaving hard enough her head bumped into the banister. But they were hers now — Liz forced herself into them, like pushing her magic into tea casting a warming charm, made them less like the thing and more like her

STOP! ARROGANT CHILD, YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND THE MAGIC YOU'RE—

You're trying to kill me. I understand enough to kill you first. Liz pushed in further, lapped up more broken pieces, made them part of herself. Alien memories flashed behind her eyes, but she pushed them away, focused. And I know you're afraid. I must be doing something right.

The thing screamed at her, insults and threats, a million horrible fates flashing across the surface. It was furious, it was evil.

It was terrified.

Liz took another bite.


Dorea pushed back the rest of her uncertainty (as well as she could, anyway), and knocked on the door. There was a brief pause, no more than a handful of seconds, before it gave off a click, swinging open a couple inches. She tilted her head, peeking through the gap. "Sir?"

"Miss Black. Come in, then, and close the door behind you."

Everyone knew Snape had a private potions lab. Of course he did, he managed to squeeze in his own academic work between dealing with the students, apparently publishing in this or that potions or alchemy journal with some regularity, he had to be doing all that somewhere. All the Slytherins knew where it was — in the dungeons down the hall from the common room, a couple doors further than his apartments — though they were told where it was with the explicit instruction to not bother him here outside of an emergency. Who knows, he could be in the middle of something volatile, it could blow up with unpredictable consequences...or Snape could blow up, he didn't like being interrupted.

Today was different, but only slightly. Scrimgeour had said Snape would be in his lab all night and probably most of tomorrow (Potions classes had even been cancelled), working on Liz's treatment — everyone knew something had happened to her, she'd been found unconscious and covered with blood and vomit at the bottom of the stairs in the Entrance Hall (from just a headache, apparently) — if anyone needed to talk to him he would be there. All the normal rules about bringing things to prefects first still applied, but she couldn't talk to a prefect about this.

Snape's private lab was, all things considered, remarkably ordinary. In fact, Dorea suspect it'd once been another potions classroom, back when the student body was large enough to need more than one — some of the desks had been removed, the rest extended into three long tables, but otherwise it looked exactly the same. Except for the absence of all the creepy shite Snape had scattered about here and there in their classroom, of course, Dorea was certain he just did that to mess with people now. Because Snape liked to mess with people, everyone knew that.

He was standing over one of the tables, stripped down to trousers and what looked an awful lot like a non-magical tee shirt, his hair tied back out of his face, his brow and his face streaked with sweat. It was very warm in here, he must have had potions going for hours now. There were four separate potions bubbling away right now, one in a pewter cauldron, two in bronze, and another in... Was that a silver cauldron? That was some seriously expensive equipment and, according to Cassiopiea, was only really necessary for Healers or cursebreakers who dealt with very dark magic.

Dorea bit her lip — they'd been told Liz would be fine, but...

Right now, Snape was fiddling with the pewter cauldron, his lips twitching with unvoiced words, his wand swirling over the potion — stirring it, she guessed. Before Dorea could decide what she wanted to say first, Snape got out in head of her. "Potter will recover, Miss Black. As you can see, it will be no simple process, but the feat is well within our abilities."

Oh, well. That was...slightly reassuring. Dorea hadn't actually been worried before, they'd been told she'd been fine and she'd just taken them at their word, but seeing Snape scrambling to brew four potions at once, that was... Well, his reassurance was only slightly reassuring. "What happened to her?"

"It appears to have been a soul magic curse of some kind."

"A what?!" Soul magic was serious fucking business, it— You didn't play with that! Someone had hit Liz with a sou

"Don't shout at me, Black, I'm trying to listen."

Er... Listen to what?

Snape twitched, his head tilting to the side a little. He flicked his wand at the pewter cauldron, then moved, picked up a cutting board. There was something chopped up on it, Dorea couldn't tell what, he swiped half of it into each bronze cauldron, followed with splashes of some odd blue-yellow liquid out of a bottle. Each cauldron got a rap of the rim from his wand, then thick steel stirring spoons floated over and started slowly folding the contents over, seemingly on their own. Snape returned to the pewter cauldron, started swirling his wand and mouthing to himself again.

What the hell was he even doing...

"Whatever magic Potter was assaulted with, whoever cast it did not commit the power necessary to achieve their aims, whatever those might be. She fought it off on her own, though she strained herself in the process. She will recover. Was that all you wanted from me, Miss Black?"

Oh, well... "I actually wanted to talk to you about something else, but, er, if now is a bad time..."

Snape let out a brief sigh. "You're already here, you might as well get it over with." He reached for the bronze cauldrons, tapping each with his wand again, turned right back to the pewter. "Pull up a stool, if you like."

"Er, no thanks, I'm okay standing." Not that she could spot any stools from here...or anything to sit on, for that matter. She sort of doubted Snape would be happy with her if she sat on any of the tables."

"Suit yourself. Go ahead, Miss Black — I'm busy, but I am listening."

"It is about Liz. I've been thinking about bringing it to you for a while, actually, I just..." She wasn't sure Liz would be happy with her if she went blabbing to Snape, was the thing. In fact, she was positive Liz wouldn't be happy about it. But Dorea couldn't just...not do anything anymore. This thing with her getting hospitalised out of nowhere really had nothing to do with it.

"What about Miss Potter?" Snape flicked his wand at the pewter again, then another flick, one of the cabinets along the wall banged open, a few pieces of white linen floating over to rest on the table. A few more charms flung at the bronze cauldrons, and Snape levitated them up and tipped them over, a thick orange paste dribbling onto the cloth. "Black?"

"Oh, sorry." It was just distracting, was all. What was that stuff? He shot a quick stream of charms at the stuff — it hardened, a white sheen coming over the surface, lines scoring through it, cutting it into blocky slices. "Er, it's just...been bothering me, ever since I met her, really. I think something's seriously wrong, and I don't know what to do about it."

Snape folded the corners of the linen up, forming a little bundle. "Fennis." A house-elf popped into existence at his hip, practically bouncing with frantic energy, his(?) eyes gleaming. Snape handed him the bundle of whatever that was, and the elf vanished again. "This is Potter we're talking about, Miss Black. You're going to have to be more specific than that."

For a brief second, Dorea was annoyed with Snape for talking that way about Liz, before remembering he'd been in here for, what, had to be nearly ten hours now, working to save her life. Just maybe, he'd earned the right to joke around a little. "Er, you know she's, um...not good with people."

Snape's lips twitched. "I had noticed that, yes. Was there some particular incident that has you—" He was interrupted by a high whistling sound. "Hold that thought. Cover your eyes — in a minute or so it's going to get very bright in here." Snape moved to the silver cauldron, his wand dancing over the surface with... Well, it wasn't an incantation, really, it sounded like Snape was singing. Dorea didn't know what language that was, but she was pretty sure it wasn't Latin. What was he...

Fighting against her own curiosity, Dorea dutifully covered her eyes with her sleeve.

After some moments of Snape whisper-crooning over the potion (she tried not to listen, it sounded very private somehow), the air shivered with a high vibration Dorea could feel in her bones, then there was a sharp crack, the snapping of electricity — and then, as promised, an impossibly bright flash of white-silver light. It was somehow dazzling through Dorea's arm, what the hell. It dissipated quickly, and Snape said, "You can open your eyes now." She did, blinking away the spots in her vision. He'd gotten potion bottles out at some point, had the rim of the cauldron held in a clamp, carefully pouring out a thin stream of intensely white potion, an odd blue sheen shimmering across it now and again. "You were saying?"

"What was that?"

"To effectively counter soul magic, Miss Black, one must use soul magic oneself."

He meant... Was Snape saying he'd just performed a soul magic ritual, right in front of her? Jesus Christ... "Er... Well, I think... Understand, I don't know anything, she's never said, I just..." Dorea paused, her fingers restlessly tapping against her forearm. "You can't tell anyone. I mean, you can't let anyone know you got this from me. Especially Liz."

"Anything you tell me will be held in confidence." Snape conjured a little box, levitated the now filled potion bottles into it all at once. The house-elf appeared again when Snape called, took the box of weird soul magic potions, and popped away again. "May I know what exactly it is I am to hold in confidence?"

Dorea bit her lip for a moment. Might as well spit it out, there really was no delicate way to say it. Besides, if she tried for delicate, she might chicken out. "I think Liz is being abused by her family."

Snape scowled. "That should be in the past tense. When Potter came into her own as a legilimens she put a stop to whatever was being done to her. I'm certain it was absolutely abhorrent — I can think of several things that might have left those scars on her back, and none of them are pleasant — but there's nothing to be done about it now."

She'd already been considering how to word what she wanted to say next, but that quite effectively distracted her. "Wait, scars on her back? You mean her chest, right?" Liz had said there were a whole bunch of them, stretching all the way below her ribs, but Dorea had never really seen much of it. When she was wearing a vest, before dressing for the day, one line stretched out over her shoulder, a couple were visible around her collarbones, that was really it.

For a second, Snape said nothing, just blankly staring at her. "The scars on her chest are from her encounter with the Dark Lord, she's had them since she was an infant." Oh, so that was what those were from. Growing up, Liz had been told she'd gotten them in the car crash that had killed her parents, she'd only assumed it had something to do with the Dark Lord just last summer. "The scars on her back, however, are newer, and quite...suggestive."

That Liz's uncle had been whipping her hard enough to bleed he meant, God... "How did you even know they're there? I've never seen them." Of course, she'd never been in a position to see them, Liz was very shy...

Which, if she had scars from her uncle beating her, that made perfect sense, didn't it! Dorea didn't even know how to process this, just, Jesus...

(It was best to not process it at all right now. It would just be bloody embarrassing if she started crying, and Snape would probably be annoyed.)

"Miss Greengrass caught a glimpse during a flying class back in October, she provided me with the memory of the incident. She believes Potter is unaware she saw anything, but who can say what Potter picked up from her at the time." Snape's eyes narrowed slightly. "It should go without saying, Miss Black, that I expect what I have just told you to be held in confidence, and you are not to let anyone know you got it from me. Especially Potter."

He'd probably thought she'd already known, that these scars were what she was coming to him about in the first place. He must be really distracted if he'd slipped like that. "Of course, sir. If something happens, I'll just say I got it from Daphne, she was concerned, you know."

His brow dipping into a light frown, his voice heavy and cold, "You cannot lie to Potter, Miss Black."

"I know that." Well, she could lie to Liz, she just had to be careful about it. "I wouldn't be lying, sir. You see, I did get it from Daphne. Indirectly."

Snape's displeasure swiftly vanished, he sniffed, shaking his head to himself. "Clever brat." Dorea chose to take that as a compliment. "If that wasn't what was concerning you, what are you here about?"

"Liz didn't go home for Christmas."

"I am aware."

"Well, yes, but, back on Hallowe'en, we—"

Dorea was interrupted by Fennis the elf making a surprise reappearance. He handed Snape a little piece of parchment, the instant Snape read it he let out a long sigh, rubbing at his face with his free hand. "That's ready," he said after a moment, pointing at the pewter cauldron. "Tell me if Poppy is close to running out of anything."

The elf gave Snape a sharp, energetic nod, his long ears flopping about with the motion. He levitated the cauldron with a snap of his fingers, and vanished again.

For a moment, Dorea just watched Snape. He was leaning against one of the tables, rubbing at his face with both hands now. He looked...tired. Of course, he had apparently been working since this morning, and it had to be after eight in the evening now... "Sir? Is something wrong?"

"No, Miss Black, it was good news. Potter is stabilising, she'll be fine." Snape dropped his hands, let out another long sigh. "I believe you were saying something a moment ago, Miss Black."

"Er. Right." Dorea stared at him for another few seconds, her face pulled with what was probably a suspicious glare — Snape had tried to reassure her minutes ago that Liz would be fine, but he clearly hadn't been certain of that, with how relieved he seemed now. The filthy liar. If Liz had actually been in serious danger would he have told her? That, just, was not reassuring, what if she got hurt again, Dorea wouldn't be able to trust a word Snape said...

He met her gaze, staring flatly back, completely impassive. No, there was no point confronting him about that, obviously. Okay.

"Back on Hallowe'en, we... Well, it's a long story, but the short version is most of the Gryffindors are terrible, we went up to pick up Hermione before going down to the kitchens. On the way back, we ran into that troll everyone was talking about the next day."

"You ran into—" Snape cut himself off with another sigh. "I should have known better than to believe Potter truly had managed to keep herself well out of harm's way for the night. I suppose the three of you did at least escape without getting yourselves killed." It didn't quite sound like a Tell me exactly what happened or else.

"Yeah, Liz put the thing to sleep pretty much instantly."

It was very subtle, but Dorea almost thought Snape looked surprised. "Well. That would do it. I suppose you'll be explaining what this has to do with your concerns at some point."

Dorea somehow held back the urge to roll her eyes. "I'm getting there, sir. Hermione and I didn't know she was a legilimens before that, so we asked her about it over dinner. Which, besides telling us that Dumbledore legilimised her the first time they met — and about that, isn't that illegal?" She'd been under the impression the legilimency charm — and Dumbledore had used the charm, Liz was very certain he wasn't a legilimens — was much more invasive than proper mind magic, repeated or inexpert use could cause serious and even permanent damage. Dumbledore probably knew what he was doing, but still...

"Theoretically? Yes. But you'll find there are exceptions in these sorts of laws where a child's legal guardian is concerned. It is fully within our illustrious Headmaster's rights to do whatever he likes to Potter if he feels he has sufficient cause to do so."

For some seconds, Dorea just stared at him, trying to find her voice to make some kind of response to that. She really couldn't think of anything, though. She'd known magical law was sometimes ridiculous, literally medieval, but that was, just, ugh. "Fine, whatever. But, when that happened... Liz said she was living out of a hotel in London. On her own."

"...You're saying Miss Potter ran away from home." Snape's voice had gone completely flat, smooth and precise, empty of any hint of feeling at all. It was actually a little creepy.

Dorea nodded. "She said she left the day she got her acceptance letter. She said Dumbledore brought her back, but... You might have noticed, sir, Liz is kind of a shite liar. I don't think she stayed where Dumbledore put her. I think she stayed here over Christmas because she has nowhere to go."

Something crossed Snape's face Dorea couldn't quite read, something twisted, hateful. "I suspect anywhere is better than going back to her family."

"Yes, sir, I don't doubt that." Especially if they were leaving scars all over her back, just, Jesus, what the hell. "But, what about when summer comes around? They don't let students stay at the castle over the summer, I asked. I'd invite her to come stay with us, but..." They didn't have an extra bed, true, but they could figure something out. If nothing else, she could just put Liz up in one of the Black properties. But she had the feeling Liz wouldn't accept, and she'd probably be annoyed with her for even making the offer.

"You're worried about her."

"Yes, sir."

For long moments, neither of them said anything. Snape stared at her, dark eyes still and sharp, his fingers slowly tapping at the table behind him. It took all her focus (and all of Cassiopeia's lectures) to keep meeting his eyes, staring back unwavering. She probably wasn't doing as good a job at keeping her face blank as he was, though. Her best friend had just been nearly murdered (who?!), and apparently had scars all over her back from... Yeah, Dorea thought she was doing pretty well, but she didn't have Snape levels of self-possession, okay.

Was he reading her mind right now? Supposedly eye contact made it easier — from what Dorea had read (and observing Liz), it wasn't nearly as important for true legilimens as people who used the charm, it was just a matter of attention — and Dorea was pretty sure she wouldn't even notice if he was. She could only tell Liz had just been in her head sometimes from things she said or did.

Finally, after what must have been a minute or two, Snape spoke. "The options available to me when it comes to Miss Potter are somewhat limited. Intervening with her muggle relatives on her behalf would be worse than useless. If I inform the Headmaster, who is at least nominally responsible for her, I suspect he will only attempt to return her to them — I have no doubt she will simply leave again, there is nothing Dumbledore can do to coerce her to stay. Should he miraculously develop the insight to realise the futility of attempting to force her to stay with her relatives, he will make other arrangements; however, I severely doubt Potter will be amenable to any arrangements he might make. She will simply leave again.

"The problem with childhood legilimens, Miss Black, is that they will often refuse to do what they are told if they are not given sufficiently convincing reasons as to why they must. I suspect Dumbledore will find it quite impossible to convince her to stay in a home where she does not want to be."

Dorea tried not to glare at the absent Headmaster. "Can't we find somewhere she'll be willing to stay?"

"I'm certain we could. However, I fear Dumbledore is unlikely to approve of anything Potter would actually consent to, which complicates the matter greatly."

"So, what, there's nothing we can do? We just...leave Liz on her own, who knows where?"

"Not precisely." Letting out a brief sigh, Snape's eyes tipped to the ceiling, just for a second before dropping back to hers. "I will check up on her, over the summer. There is nothing I can do about her legal circumstances, but it is within my power to ensure that her physical circumstances are...tolerable. Would that ease your mind, Miss Black?"

...Well, a little bit, actually. It might not seem like a lot, but if nothing else Snape was probably willing to bend the rules to get what he wanted. And looking after the Slytherins was his job — one which, according to rumour, he took very seriously. There were whispers that he'd literally murdered abusive guardians in the past, Dorea wasn't certain whether she should believe that. (She could definitely imagine Snape murdering someone, but that was a bit...extreme, and what if he got caught?) If that meant compelling the Dursleys to not be terrible somehow or, hell, leasing a flat in his own name and sticking Liz in it, she didn't doubt he would do something like that. "What if she's not where she's supposed to be?"

"That is not a concern. I have ways of finding her, no matter where she might be."

Dark magic. He probably meant dark magic. It wasn't really a secret that he had some practical knowledge of the Dark Arts. So, okay, he probably could, then. Good. "Right. Well. I suppose that might be okay, then. If you're looking out for her."

Snape's lips twitched. "I would have done so if you said nothing. I was not considering what to do, a moment ago, but precisely how much Potter's personal affairs are your concern. On that topic, it should go without saying that I would prefer you not tell anyone of Potter's...particular circumstances."

Dorea couldn't quite hold in a derisive snort — don't let anyone know the Girl Who Lived was abused by her muggle relatives and is maybe also possibly technically homeless right now, he meant. Yeah, she could see how spreading that little bit of news around might be perhaps a little problematic. Not that she cared, Dorea thought she would — if nothing else, if everyone knew what was going on someone might actually do something about it — if she weren't certain Liz didn't want anyone to know, and would absolutely hate the attention the scandal would turn on her.

Of course, she was fully aware the larger part of her reluctance to, just, write into the Prophet about this stuff was that she knew Liz would be angry with her. So she couldn't help hating herself a little as she muttered, "Yes, sir."

"Was there anything else, Miss Black?"

It...kind of felt like there should be. This had been one hell of a conversation. (Dorea didn't even want to think about the scars Liz apparently had all over back, Jesus Christ...) But she couldn't really think of anything. Snape said he was on it, so, she'd just have to...accept that. Fine. Okay. "No, sir. See you tomorrow."

Dorea was already at the door, her hand an inch from touching the handle, when Snape stopped her with a flat, "Miss Black." She turned to see he was still staring at her, his head slightly tilted, clearly thinking about something but none of it showing on his face. After a long, somewhat awkward pause, he said, "Twenty points to Slytherin."

Oh. Er. "Thank you, sir," sounded like not quite the right thing to say, but she couldn't think of anything else. Before Snape could do or say anything else confusing or uncomfortable, Dorea opened the door, and fled toward the dorms.

She had far too many things to think about.


Liz woke up slowly, reluctantly, numb and tired.

She felt raw.

Like Dudley had shoved her and she'd fallen scraping skin against asphalt, or like that time she'd accidentally swiped her hand across a cheese grater. That was the best thing she could come up with, but it wasn't quite right — it wasn't a physical thing, but a mental one, her thoughts scattered and broken and painful. When she woke up, she wasn't even entirely conscious of being conscious at first, too unfocused, floating mindless in an odd mix of warmth and cold, numbness and pain.

Slowly, her...everything started working again. She realised she was lying on her back, her chin tipping up at an angle that told her she didn't have a pillow. The bed wasn't her own, the sheets feeling smoother, the mattress firmer. There was a scent of... Well, she wasn't sure what it was. Faintly green, she guessed, with a bittersweet tang to it that vaguely reminded her of the potions storeroom. As she woke up further, she noticed tingles of magic on the air, an almost tangible warmth pressing against her skin, as though she were sitting out under the sun.

Which was necessary, because she was lying out on the bed completely naked.

Well, no, not really, it just sort of felt like it. She felt a blanket over her legs, coming up to low over her hips, and she had shorts on. But that didn't really make her feel much better. Liz had tried the underthings mages wore, but she did not like them. They were usually made out of this soft, silky cloth, and rather looser than she was used to — somehow, she felt too aware that she was wearing them, the cloth shifting and rubbing against her skin, while simultaneously feeling strangely naked, as though she weren't wearing underwear at all. She much preferred the cotton knickers she was used to, she'd picked up a couple packs of cheap ones while staying in London.

These shorts were a bit longer than the magical pants she'd tried, and the cloth was different, she suspected they weren't actually meant to be worn as underwear. But she was all too aware they were the only layer she had on.

It was making her very uncomfortable.

As she tried to control the anxious tingles rising all over her, keep her breathing level, she noticed something pulling at her chest. It took her a moment to figure out what those probably were: bandages. She vaguely remembered she'd been bleeding, before she'd passed out. Probably quite a lot, judging by how her shirt had been clinging to her.

Which was weird. The only thing she could figure had happened was that the lines covering her chest had opened up, but...why? They did sort of hurt, a bit, whenever Quirrell was around, but they'd never bled before.

She started remembering Quirrell attacking her, then fighting that thing, but she shoved it away. She felt too unsteady to think about all that right now.

What she did want to do right now was get some bloody pants on. They had to have her clothes somewhere around here, right? Liz opened her eyes, wincing as the light stabbed into her skull, her vision swirled for a moment, splitting in two and coming back together, then a second time and a third, but it quickly settled. There was a white tiled ceiling above her, floor-to-ceiling curtains a couple metres away from the bed, but she couldn't see much at this angle. She shifted, moving to sit up.

A wave of cold agony shot over her chest the instant she tried to move. Liz clenched her teeth, failed to bite back a pained groan.

A few seconds later, there was a metallic rattle, a section of the curtains being whipped away and closed again. Liz felt the person's mind immediately, sharp and intense, undercut with a sort of low-bowling anxiety. "Good, you're awake. Don't sit up just yet, Miss Potter, I'll need to take a look under your bandages first."

Liz glanced to her right, finding the woman after a moment struggling to focus. Middle-aged, in the narrow-cuffed white and green robes Liz had learned in Charing were associated with Healers, reddish brown hair pulled into a tight bun, her face thin and severe-looking. She walked up to the side of her bed, set a few bottles on a nearby nightstand, something she couldn't see on the floor. And then she reached for her — Liz flinched, the motion pulling painfully at her chest.

The woman paused, staring down at her, her face slightly softening. The shift in her mind was more dramatic, warm pity blossoming just under the surface. "My name is Poppy Pomfrey. I'm a sworn Healer. I will not harm you, Miss Potter. Not ever."

Liz swallowed. She knew that. Healers took oaths and stuff, the magical kind that had actual consequences if they broke them. They could break them, and it didn't, like, kill them, or anything like that, but it was supposedly uncomfortable, like getting a bad flu that lasted until whatever suffering they'd caused ended. (Which was sort of neat magic, when she thought about it.) So, there was nothing to worry about. It was fine. She was fine.

Over the next minutes, Pomfrey carefully peeled off her bandages, starting at the thinner lines around the edges and working her way inward. They stuck to her skin a bit, but it didn't bother her so much — at least, not the actual pulling them off part, once they were gone the lines on her chest burned in the open air. Not overwhelmingly painful, but certainly distracting. But they started to sting a bit as Pomfrey got closer to the middle, worse and worse as she went along, and Liz grit her teeth, her spine starting to shiver with nerves, this had to be over soon, didn't it...

A gasp was yanked out of her as Pomfrey gently pulled at another bandage, hot pain shooting through her for an instant. "Oh dear, shh shh..." A charm of some kind broke over her, cool and tingly, and the lingering echo instantly vanished. Pomfrey cast the charm every time before she pulled at a bandage, pausing every centimetre or so to cast it again. It didn't stop it from hurting entirely, she still winced at twinges here and there, but it did seem to help a bit. Though the last, right in the middle, was the worst, Liz grit her teeth through it, her fists clenched. "There we go, Miss Potter, that's all of them. Let's get this cleaned up."

Liz heard a splash, a long trickle of water. It didn't take her long to figure out what Pomfrey intended to do — her chest did feel weird and sticky, there must have been some kind of potion or something under those bandages. She bit her lip, trying not to shiver. She wasn't cold, that charm was still hovering over her, like sitting out under the summer sun, but she was uncomfortably aware of the fact that she was naked from the waist up, not even the bandages were covering her anymore, and she didn't— She was trying to manage it, there wasn't anything she could do about what was going on right now really, but she couldn't help the uneasy sparks tingling along her limbs and her spine and—

"Would you like a calming potion, dear?"

She let out a sigh, thick and shuddering. "Yes, just a little bit." It wasn't so bad she needed to go completely floaty, but...

The process of actually taking the potion was uncomfortable — Pomfrey had to help her sit halfway up, her arm under her naked shoulders, the heat along her scars flaring — but it was entirely worth it. She wasn't exactly happy about Pomfrey mopping at her chest with a damp rag, but at least she wasn't on the edge of freaking out over it.

Though, it was sort of nice, actually. She thought there might be some kind of potion in the water — there was a faint tangy scent to it, and whenever she passed over a burning line the heat subsided. Closer to the edges, the pain went away entirely, and though it still lingered toward the middle it was certainly a lot better than it'd been at the beginning. She wouldn't have minded the whole thing, if Liz didn't feel so very exposed and if it weren't being done by a complete bloody stranger.

Pomfrey finished up with a couple gentle spells — drying charms, she thought. "All done, Miss Potter. Now, have these scars always bothered you? I mean, have they always been...red and puffy, never healed all the way?"

"I guess." Honestly, Liz hadn't thought that meant they'd never properly healed. She'd just assumed scars were like that...though, none of her other scars were, obviously, so that was sort of silly.

"I thought as much. I want to show you something, let's sit you up." That process wasn't particularly pleasant either, Liz all too weak and stiff, she tried not to cringe away from Pomfrey's arm. At least she didn't keep holding her, slid her back against the padded headboard so she could stay up on her own. Once she was settled, Pomfrey conjured a sizeable mirror with the twitch of her wand, propped it just under her knees.

The first thing Liz noticed was the dark, ragged mess at the centre of the network of scars she'd always had twisting across her chest, looking quite nasty — something had definitely happened with these things, yep, no doubt about that. The scars started from a central point, somewhat low and to the left (directly over her heart, she knew now), a few thick lines toward the middle branching out into over a dozen thinner lines toward the edges. Sort of like a grotesque snowflake, she'd always thought, or like... She didn't know what they were called, those balls with the lightning in them. The middle spot had never looked that different than the rest, just a little raised from the rest of her skin and kind of reddish, but now...

It kind of looked like something had burst out of it from the inside. The surface had been smooth before, but now it was all uneven and torn-looking, the disturbance spreading a little bit into the nearby thicker lines, and... Well, some of her veins were strangely visible, threads of a deep blue — nearly black, which she didn't think they should be — with little darkened bits here and there. Not like red dark, black dark, little flecks at the centre and stretching out in narrow bands into the nearest lines, which was just...

The whole thing looked pretty awful, and slightly scary — what the hell had happened to her?

She nearly didn't notice Pomfrey was talking to her, too distracted by the mess made of her chest. "There was quite a nasty curse suspended all throughout here, I'm afraid, but most of it is released now. Many of these around the edges," she said, fingers drifting over her skin but not quite touching, "we managed to cleanse entirely. You will probably notice them start to fade over the next weeks. They won't vanish all the way — and they'll still be considered curse damage, I'm afraid, so I can't remove them with the means available to me here — but they will certainly become much less noticeable with time.

"Toward the middle here, though," she said, indicating the stuff at the centre, "is a different story. These blackened bits you see here are stains from some very dark magic. You'll notice some of your veins were affected too, where it got into your blood. Further treatment will lighten this a bit, and some of these edges, where it looks like your skin was torn, these will smoothen out some. It won't fade entirely, but it's not going to look like this forever.

"When you're released, probably tomorrow morning, you'll be leaving with a special healing potion diluted into a skin cream. You are to rub it into the more unpleasant looking parts twice a day — once shortly after waking, and again before bed. Only enough to be fully absorbed, wipe off any extra that isn't. It's not dangerous to leave it there or anything, but it will stain your clothes, and the elves won't be able to get it out. You'll check in with me once a week, come in at any time over the weekend and I'll evaluate how you're healing up. I can't guess how long you'll need to do it, we'll have to see how you're coming along. I'll explain this all again when you're released.

"Do you have any questions for me, Miss Potter?"

Not any she expected an answer to. Pomfrey hadn't mentioned the thing she'd had that mental battle with, Liz had the feeling asking what the hell it was wouldn't get a straight answer — even if Pomfrey did give her an answer, Liz probably wouldn't understand it anyway. (She was well aware her knowledge in most topics was, well, she was eleven...) So she shook her head.

Pomfrey hesitated for a moment, something in her head churning. "Is there anything you would like to tell me? Anything you tell me, anything we do here, I cannot repeat any of it to anyone."

Liz blinked. "No?"

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm fine."

Her severe face folding a bit in a frown, Pomfrey muttered, "All right." She obviously doubted her, thought Liz was holding back something, though she couldn't imagine what. She bent down to pick up the thing she'd set down on the floor — a little bucket, Liz could see now, must have had that potioned water in it. "Professor Snape asked to be informed when you woke up. I believe he wishes to discuss what happened with you. He should be here shortly. I'll be outside if you need anything, Miss Potter." She turned to go.

"Oh, wait!" The Healer paused, glancing over her shoulder. "Could I, er, get a shirt or something?" Especially if Snape was going to be here soon...

Pomfrey's lips twitched. "Of course, I'll be back in a moment."

She only waited maybe thirty seconds before Pomfrey was back, with a sleeveless shirt made out of the same material as the shorts she was already wearing, in a sort of pale khaki green. Except, it wasn't a shirt, exactly, it was long enough it would probably nearly reach her knees. Liz blanched at the thought of getting it down over her hips — that would require moving, she was far too weak and achy to want to do that just now. Instead she just let the excess pool around her on the bed, bunched up on her thighs, pulled the blanket up to her waist. There, that was fine.

She still felt uncomfortably exposed, the cloth thin and not covering quite so much of her shoulders as she would like, and she'd probably be cold if that nice warming charm weren't still there. But there wasn't much she could do about that.

Belatedly, as Pomfrey vanished past the curtain into the rest of the Hospital Wing (she assumed, never been here before), Liz realised what Pomfrey had been hinting she could talk about. Someone had changed her out of her clothes, most likely Pomfrey herself. She'd probably seen... Well, she'd never seen them herself, obviously, but she assumed there would be marks.

Liz had absolutely no idea how to feel about that.

When Snape showed up, what might have been maybe an hour later, Liz was busy poking at her Transfiguration essay. It'd only taken thirty seconds after Pomfrey's disappearance to become very bored, but luckily her wand was on the nightstand (next to the partial bottle of calming potion and a pitcher of water), and her book bag was sitting on a nearby chair, it was easy enough to levitate the thing over. The only real homework she had at the moment was for Transfiguration (blech), and she'd wavered on whether she should try working on it — and whether she could get an excuse not to do this one, she had been hospitalised — before surrendering and just doing the damn thing.

Besides, McGonagall probably wouldn't let her off for anything less than an extended coma. She was very strict, it was annoying.

She jumped when a section of curtains was whipped aside — she winced as her chest flared, barely stopped herself from pressing a hand to the hot ache over her heart. (Touching it did not make it feel better.) Snape swirled his way into her little blocked-off nook, snapping the curtains closed behind him again. Before even glancing at her, his wand was in his hand, shivering pulses of magic flying off him one after the other. They didn't fade away, they might be palings, she thought.

Then he turned to face her, eyes dark and face stony, she cringed as mental fingers brushed over the surface of her mind. He didn't push inside at all, but it was still unnerving. The examination (she thought?) ended quickly, Snape's tension only slightly easing. "What is your name?"

She blinked. "Er, Elizabeth Potter?"

Snape conjured a sheet of paper, pulled a pen out of his pocket, held the both of them out to her. "What is the date? You've been out for a little bit, so the month and year will suffice."

"February Ninety-Two?" She took the paper and the pen — a muggle-made pen, she noticed — absently wondering what the hell these were for.

"Draw a clock, showing the time nine-fifteen." For a second, Liz stared up at him; Snape just stared back. She sighed, but obeyed, setting the sheet along the cover of her Transfiguration text, and started drawing a big circle. Carefully, circles were hard. "Repeat these words after me, and try to remember them: house, blue, daffodil, hand, cotton."

Once her circle was done, she wrote in the 12 first, then the 6 across from it, then the 3 and the 9 before filling in the rest. "Wait, what?" She hadn't been paying attention, circles were hard...

Snape's eyes narrowed. Slower, sharper, he said, "Repeat these words after me, and try to remember them: house, blue, daffodil, hand, cotton."

Liz grumbled, but obeyed. And then she counted backward from a hundred by sevens. Then she repeated a sequence of numbers, then a second sequence, but backward. (She messed up the second one a little bit, she thought she had two of the numbers in the middle switched around.) He asked if she knew where she was, then to list off as many cities in Britain as she could think of, who the Prime Minister was, as many names of her classmates as she could think of. (She was certain she got all the Slytherins, but she was a lot more spotty with the other houses.) After a couple minutes of silly questions, he asked her to repeat the list of words she'd been told to remember. She thought she had them all? He asked her if she was certain the colour was really "black", but she was pretty sure...

"All right," Snape said, crumpling up her clock drawing and vanishing it with a flick of his fingers. "That'll do, I suppose."

"Are you going to tell me what this is about now?"

One of his eyebrows ticked up. "You suffered a significant mental shock. A quick evaluation of the patient's basic cognitive function is called for in these cases."

"Oh." She frowned to herself for a moment. "Pomfrey didn't do any of that."

A wave of exasperation rose from Snape — she almost thought he should be rolling his eyes, but he didn't, the feeling didn't show on his face at all. "Poppy is a Healer of the body. She tends to pass on dealing with any potential neurological or psychological issues to me." Snape pulled over one of the spindly little arm chairs, gracefully swooshed down to a seat. (It really was silly, how his robes kept dramatically swishing all over the place, it was hard to take Snape seriously sometimes.) "I assume you have questions."

"What happened? What the hell was that thing?"

For a brief moment, Snape silently stared at her. Deciding what to tell her, she assumed — or perhaps simply how to word it, she decided she could give Snape enough of the benefit of the doubt to not assume he intended to hide anything important from her. "When the Dark Lord was defeated that Hallowe'en, he did not fully die. He endures yet in a diminished state, a shapeless spirit with little magical strength of his own. At some point over his life, he must have done some sort of magic to protect himself from true death."

As Snape spoke, Liz felt her eyes go wide. Not exactly at the revelation that this Dark Lord person was apparently still around somewhere — though, that was sort of a big deal when she thought about it, but if he was really so badly weakened it probably didn't matter. She was mostly wondering, "You can do that?"

Snape's head rang with dark amusement. "I tell you the Dark Lord yet lives, and that's how you respond?"

Liz shrugged, strangely uncomfortable all of a sudden. She was just curious, okay. Magic did all kinds of neat things, and... Well, death was sort of...bad, wasn't it? If people could, just, not die, that seemed...like a...good thing?

"There are multiple different methods through which one may extend one's life, some more effective than others, some rather more ethically dubious than others." One of his eyebrows ticked up. "The most effective tend to involve a ritual human sacrifice at some point."

"Oh, well, never mind, then." She was assuming doing ritual sacrifices was a bad idea, for reasons she wasn't aware of right now. (There had to be a downside, or people would do it all the time, right?) If for no other reason, if she went running around murdering people to fuel neat magic she'd probably be caught at some point.

Snape's lips twitched, as though he was trying not to smile. "Understand, I have no proof of this — and I cannot determine for certain, one way or the other, now that it has been destroyed. But I suspect that, when the Dark Lord was destroyed that Hallowe'en, he left something of himself behind. You've been carrying it with you all these years. But now it is gone, nothing of it remains."

"That thing was..." Now that she thought about it, Liz vaguely recalled the gross, slimy thing had been yelling something about Liz not knowing who she was dealing with. Which, at the time Liz had thought that was a bloody stupid thing to say, obviously she'd had no idea who she'd been dealing with. She also hadn't cared. And, honestly, she didn't care that much now, either. She'd won, it was dead, what did it really matter? "What the hell was it trying to do? It felt like it was trying to eat me."

Something dark crossed over Snape's face and mind, thick and cold. "It was, in a manner of speaking. Judging by the details of your injuries, I suspect this fragment of the Dark Lord was attempting to subsume your mind and soul for its own."

That sounded...ominous. "Subsume?"

Snape hesitated, mind flinching with uncertainty, but just for a moment. "What I am about to tell you you are not to speak of with anyone. Not. Anyone. Understood?"

Slightly unsettled by the quiet ice on his voice despite herself, Liz nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Subsumption is one of the more esoteric Dark Arts, though it is more a process than it is any particular class of spells. Broadly speaking, any work of magic that involves absorbing energy from an outside source and converting it to the user's ends may be considered a form of subsumption. Some applications are legal, or at the least harmless enough law enforcement turns a blind eye. The most widely acceptable form is entirely defensive: one can leech at the magic of a spell acting upon oneself, allowing one to break simple hexes or curses without the need of a formal spell. It is possible for a mage to draw on local ambient magic, or perhaps energy focused by a ward or enchantment, to increase the power of their spells — Professor Flitwick has some talent with that particular technique, he was known for it back in his professional dueling days.

"Some applications," Snape muttered, his voice low and slow, "are rather less generally permissible. It is possible for one to absorb outside magic and integrate it into oneself — doing so, one can gain a new affinity for a particular sort of magic, or simply augment one's channeling threshold. These effects can be temporary or permanent, though permanent ones are rather more difficult to achieve. Mind mages such as ourselves have available to us our own particular brand of subsumption. It is possible to reach into another person's mind, steal knowledge or a memory, and consume it, make it your own.

"In its most extreme form, a small number of individuals have been known to consume not the part, but the whole, integrating the entirety of a person's mind and soul into one's own. If done correctly these mind mages, now referred to as bodysnatchers, can leave their previous body behind to die, walking away in complete, permanent control of the new one, every trace of its previous resident destroyed."

Oh. Well. That was...unnerving. Even through the lingering effects of the calming potion she'd taken earlier, even though Snape was just talking about it, Liz still got a creeping sense of horror. She almost felt like shivering, in spite of the warming charm still over her bed. (She might have to learn this, she quite liked it.) It took a moment to find her voice, her mouth feeling annoyingly dry — she poured herself some more water while she dithered, probably needed it. "Um. That's what it was trying to do, then? Take over my body."

Snape nodded, looking mostly calm on the outside, but not quite managing to hide from her the simmering rage under the surface. "Yes, I believe so. It was very foolish. The fragment had likely been unaware you are a legilimens yourself, if it were it shouldn't have made the attempt. We do have some significant resistance to external mind magic, legilimens are far more difficult to subvert in such a way. Though I am impressed you managed to subsume the fragment yourself."

"Was that what I did? I didn't really know what was going on, I just sort of...killed it before it could kill me, you know." Come to think of it, it was sort of funny that she'd apparently used scary, evil Dark Arts for the first time, and hadn't even realised she was doing it.

...She should probably take the idea of the Dark Arts more seriously than she did. She couldn't help it, people (Gryffindors) kept referring to her useless ability to talk to snakes as a Dark Art, it had made the whole subject just seem kind of silly...

"I did anticipate as much." Reaching into his robe for something (Liz tried not to tense), he said, "Mind magic subsumption is a very obscure art, and it can be volatile if not performed correctly. All too easily, subjects of such an assault can be driven completely insane. A reckless legilimens can even destabilise their own mind, if they are not careful. Such acts are also illegal to begin with, of course."

Snape mentioning that part last was somehow funny, Liz couldn't help smiling back at him.

Not that he was smiling at her, though he was giving her a sardonically raised eyebrow, which was pretty much the Snape-ish equivalent. He held a notebook out toward her, a pen clipped onto the cover. "Your mind is seemingly stable, but it is very likely the process is not complete. I want you to write down any memories or feelings that don't seem quite right, or disturbing dreams you might have. If these become too frequent, too intrusive, or too disorienting, we may have to consider further treatment options. So far as things stand at the moment, however, I believe you will be fully recovered within the week."

Liz took the notebook. At this point, she wasn't at all surprised it was muggle-made — for supposedly having been a Death Eater, Snape sure used a lot of muggle stuff. "So, there won't be any effects from eating the thing?"

"I didn't say that. Without knowing what condition the fragment was in when you subsumed it, or how efficient your amateur attempt was, I simply cannot say what those effects will be. It is likely you will wander more easily into the thoughts of the people around you for a time, until you adapt. It is less likely, but possible, that you may have inadvertently increased your channeling threshold — your spellcasting may be more powerful, and more difficult to properly focus. As your mind's slightly altered form fully settles, you might find you remember scattered events from the Dark Lord's life. This would be normal, and not a cause for concern. But if your subsumption of the fragment was...incomplete, these memories may become distracting, or overwhelming. It is not unheard of for one in your position to become convinced they are the person the memories were subsumed from, for brief moments at least. However, you have no experience in such magics, so it's very likely the fragment's memories lost coherence in the process. You may not remember anything of his at all. I suspect that result is most likely, in fact."

"So, write down anything that does come up, just in case, but it probably won't be a problem."

"Probably not, no."

"Okay." Liz wasn't entirely certain what to think about that. On the one hand, getting memories from an older person who'd known a lot more about magic than she did was kind of neat, in theory — even if the person in question was this awful Dark Lord who'd killed her parents, and who knew how many other people. Really, there was no telling whether the memories she ended up with would be actually useful fancy magic things, or unpleasant Dark Lord things. And, well, the idea of getting so lost in them she forgot who she was was, just, terrifying.

It hadn't taken Liz long to realise that she did not like mind-influencing magics, of pretty much any kind. Inside her own head was pretty much the only place that had always been solely hers (or mostly, anyway), it was the one thing Vernon and Dudley and Petunia or anyone else hadn't been able to take away from her, and... Okay, some of the stuff mages had come up with that messed with people's heads was just fucking scary — making people think or feel things, force them into waking nightmares, erase their memories or replace them with whatever the caster wanted...

When Liz had learned love potions actually existed, she'd been confused to find they were perfectly legal — that was just fucking weird, she was pretty sure rape was illegal in magical Britain, and what the hell else could they possibly be for? They were banned in Hogwarts...well, unofficially banned. When Snape had been hired, he'd moved all the books in the library that described how to brew any love potion into the Restricted Section — which included the textbook the professor before Snape had been using for NEWT students, because of course it did — and while they weren't officially contraband most of the rest of the professors acted as though they were, especially Sinistra, Sprout, and Babbling (the Runes professor).

Snape, Sinistra, Flitwick, and Babbling apparently had a reputation for, when a student had done something especially bad, coming up with some kind of ironic punishment for them — because for some offences, writing lines just wasn't good enough. Just this year, a sixth-year Ravenclaw had been caught slipping a girl a love potion (the rumours didn't say who, just that she was in Hufflepuff), and shortly afterward someone had slipped him a potion that had apparently done something especially embarrassing to him that had ended with him spending a few days in the Hospital Wing. No one knew for certain who had poisoned him, they weren't stupid enough to get caught, but the students generally assumed it was Snape or Sinistra, or possibly both.

That was months ago now, and he was still in detentions with Flich. Love potions might not be technically illegal, but it was obvious certain staff members took them very seriously anyway.

Liz realised she was pretty much a huge fucking hypocrite, considering how much she'd messed with other people's heads (and that she didn't plan to stop), but the idea of someone else messing with her head was, just, it— She didn't like it, okay. She'd learned that mind magic shield for a reason, and she planned to find a bracelet or necklace or something that could detect potions the next time she could get to London. Getting lost enough in stolen memories that she forgot who she was, even temporarily, wasn't quite the same thing, but the idea was still seriously bloody unnerving.

"Thank you, sir."

One of Snape's eyebrows ticked up, a question hanging on the air.

"You said I got a big mental shock, and that Pomfrey doesn't do mind stuff — I assume I would have needed treatment after that, er, subsumption battle, and you would have been the one to do it. So, thank you for...not letting me accidentally drive myself insane. Is what I'm saying."

For some reason, Snape seemed faintly...uncomfortable. It was subtle, nothing showed on his face at all, just the slightest odd shiver on the air, but... "Think nothing of it, Miss Potter." A flick of his fingers dispelled the palings he'd cast and, with a swirl of his robes and some more rattling of the curtains being whipped around, he was gone.

...All right, then. She'd just been trying to be polite, she couldn't possibly have fucked it up that badly. She really didn't get that man sometimes.

Turning her thoughts away from confusing Potions professors and scary (but fascinating) Dark Arts and not-quite-dead Dark Lords, Liz turned back to her Transfiguration essay. Which was rather difficult — those topics were all far more interesting than McGonagall's class, she hated Transfiguration.

Maybe she should see if she could get Pomfrey to write her a note. She was in hospital, for fuck's sake, that had to count for something...

Chapter Text

May 1992


There was a rustle of cloth and a thump as someone sat down next to her. Focused on her textbook, Dorea was surprised enough that she jumped. "There you are, what were—" Dorea cut off, blinked at the girl next to her. "Hermione."

Halfway through pulling out books and scrolls of parchment, Hermione frowned at her. "Yes? I'm sorry, what were you saying?"

Hadn't been listening, apparently — exams were coming up soon, Hermione had been very distractible lately. Which more than a little silly. Everybody knew Hermione was one of the best students in their class, at least when it came to essays and exams, she probably didn't even need to revise to get top marks. "I thought you were Liz. She should have been here a few minutes ago. Have you seen her?"

"Oh, yes, actually." Hermione sounded a little surprised, possibly at the thought that Hermione knew where Liz was and Dorea didn't (which was fair, she guessed). "I caught a glimpse of her near Transfiguration, heading toward the east stairs with Quirrell."

Dorea froze, all thought of revising for Potions falling away.

There was absolutely no reason Liz should be anywhere near Quirrell, especially not alone. Liz had never liked Quirrell, from their very first Defence class she'd avoided him when at all possible — the last to arrive and the first to leave, ignoring calls to see him during office hours and a couple times even blowing off detentions he'd assigned at her retreating back. Since that time she'd been hospitalised after a dueling practice, she'd even skipped his classes entirely, she hadn't gone to Defence since February. (Which she was getting away with somehow, Dorea assumed Snape was covering for her with the rest of the staff.)

Liz had never explained why, but Dorea was pretty sure she'd put it together anyway. She remembered Liz had said Quirrell was a legilimens — Dorea had the uncomfortable feeling Quirrell had been mentally assaulting her every time they were in a room together. (The occasional winces when he was around, how Liz would seem inexplicably tired and irritable after talking to him, that was her best guess.) She suspected that soul magic curse she'd been hospitalised from had been Quirrell's fault somehow. Dorea had probably witnessed it being cast, she'd been standing right there, she didn't doubt that an adult wizard, one who specialised in Defence (and thus things someone might need to defend themselves from), could easily do something around her without her noticing. Quirrell had, she suspected, tried to murder Liz that day, right in front of her.

It was still a bloody strange thought, Dorea didn't know what to think about that. Or why the hell nobody had done anything about it. She'd noticed Snape was keeping a close eye on Quirrell, but that was it — he'd nearly murdered a student, and he was still just walking around! She might have told someone herself, but Snape said the Headmaster already knew, which...really?!

(She'd thought, when she'd overheard months ago some older Slytherins venting about that incident with the troll — they'd thought it was in the dungeons, and Dumbledore had told them to go to their dorm, in the dungeons — that they had to be exaggerating quite a bit, the Headmaster wouldn't actually risk their lives just because they were Slytherins, but since learning he knew Quirrell had tried to murder Liz, she had to wonder...)

Liz had done everything she could to stay as far away from Quirrell as possible. There was no reason they should be together.

Unless he was trying to kill her again.

She jumped to her feet, her chair clattering to the floor behind her. "I have to go."

"Dorea, what—" But she didn't hear any more than that, she was already moving, slipping through the tables toward the door out of the library. She had to get to Liz, but she didn't know where she was — the east wing wasn't exactly small, and it was mostly abandoned — and if she could find them Quirrell would probably just kill her too. She needed to find one of the professors, preferably one of the scarier ones, like Snape or Flitwick, someone who stood a shot at tracking Liz down and dealing with whatever Quirrell might try, and she had to find them fast, she didn't know how long—

"Dora!" Her silly older cousin was here, sitting at one of the tables near the doors...and flirting with some Gryffindor, it looked like, Dorea didn't recognise him at a glance. (At least, she thought it was Dora — her face changed too much, but who else would have bright neon-blue hair?) Her silly older cousin who, she knew, was on the school dueling team, and had done an internship with the Aurors last summer.

"Hey, Doe, what's—" Dorea grabbed her upper arm with both hands, dragged her out of her chair. (Or, Dora allowed herself to be dragged, more like.) "Woah, baby cousin, what's got your knickers in a—"

Her voice pitched low, she hissed, "Liz is alone with Quirrell."

The smirk instantly dropped from Dora's face, going hard and blank as stone, her previously bright blue hair turning to solid black in a blink. (Snape had 'suggested' she keep her suspicions to herself, but she'd made one exception.) Dora shook her grip around her arm, then took the lead, pulling Dorea out of the library at just under a run.

But then she stopped as soon as they were in the hall. "Come on, we have to—"

"Shush." Dora had her wand out, eyes squeezed shut in concentration. She tapped herself on the forehead, drew a circle in front of her chest, parallel to the floor. A blob of silver light separated from her head, swirled around the pair of them for a moment before coming to a rest, floating a bit above Dorea's shoulder to the right. "Oh, good." Dora didn't explain what this meant, what she was doing, she just started running.

Dorea, of course, followed her.

She didn't know how far they ran. There were hallways and staircases, she didn't know which, she wasn't paying attention. All she saw was her cousin in front of her, she didn't look at anything else, she only followed.

Eventually, after a blur of stone and colour she couldn't really remember, Dora came to a stop. "Son of a bitch."

"What is—" Dorea leaned forward with a gasp, bending nearly double, her hands shaking on her knees. At some point, her vision had gone a bit grey and fuzzy at the edges, she hadn't even noticed, she'd only been paying attention to her cousin. She was a bit out of breath, but it wasn't actually that bad — the lightheadedness, the numb tingles crawling over her limbs, that was worse. For a second there, she'd gone too fuzzy, black spots flicking over the stone around her, her hearing going soft and indistinct. She took a couple long, slow breaths, trying to push the grey back. (Passing out in the middle of the hallway just because she'd run a little bit would be embarrassing.) "What is it?"

"Doe? Will you be good staying here while I—"

"No, I'm coming with." Dorea straightened to glare at her cousin — she'd been wearing a very curvy, very feminine body flirting with the Gryffindor, but now she looked slimmer, very androgynous, her summer robes swapped out for a vest and shorts (downright scandalous by magical standards). Preparing for a fight, Dorea guessed. She managed to hold her cousin's eyes, despite still feeling a little dizzy.

Dora huffed, rolling her eyes, obviously less than impressed with her attitude. She finished casting some kind of spell, little green lights swirling around her for a moment before dancing away, bounding off down the halls. "Messenger charm," she said, probably to an unspoken question on Dorea's face. "Easily blocked by wards, though, the professors might not get them." Which was why she hadn't cast one earlier, Dorea assumed, though she wasn't certain what had changed in the last couple minutes. With a flick of her wand, the door swung open.

There was a huffing of breath, like giant noses sniffing, followed by a growl, so low and so loud her bones rattled. Gritting her teeth, Dorea stepped through the door behind her cousin, and immediately froze. That was a three-headed dog. And not a dog-sized one either, no, it was fucking huge, a shifting mass of black and brown fur, yellow fangs as long as her arm, she could probably crawl into one of its three mouths if she wanted to, how was this thing even real...

She jumped when the growling was interrupted with electric guitars and percussion, appearing out of nowhere. It was sort of loud, actually, Dorea winced, resisting the urge to cover her ears with her hands. The bloody cerberus, weirdly enough, let out a low relaxed hum. Before it'd even gotten all the way up to its feet, it was relaxing again, and in a matter of seconds it was snoring.

...Dorea had so many questions.

But the one she asked was, "Is that Guns N' Roses? Really?"

Levitating the dog's enormous paw off of a flimsy-looking wooden trapdoor set into the floor, Dora shrugged. "It was on the radio over break, first thing I thought of." Grinning at Dorea over her shoulder, she spoke in time with the vocals, "I'm a cold heart-breaker, fit to burn, and I'll rip your heart in two, and I'll leave you—" She vanished, dropping through the trapdoor in mid-sentence.

"Hey!" Was that supposed to be funny?! Dorea was so annoyed with her infuriating cousin, just, flouncing around like a crazy person, and so worried about Liz maybe being murdered right now, that she did something very stupid.

She jumped in after her.

For a few long seconds, her stomach lifting up into her throat, she fell through a large, plain stone chamber, the walls painted with dancing firelight and shadow. The light was from Dora, she was under her casting some kind of fire spell, contorting into a ring around her, vines retreating into shadow, leaving hard stone beneath. Just as Dorea finally started being properly afraid she was going to slam into the floor and break her legs or something, her cousin's wand flicked in her direction, and her descent abruptly slowed. She landed almost silently, the impact no harder than stepping down stairs.

Dora shot her a crooked, exasperated glare, the flames surrounding them casting her face in deep, sharp shadows. With her very serious face on, all pale and grim, it was actually sort of creepy. "You weren't supposed to follow me."

"Yes, well, it's too late now."

"I can levitate you up out of here very easily, you know."

Dorea pouted.

It only took a second before Dora let out a harsh groan, her eyes tipping up to the ceiling. (Adorableness was her cousin's greatest weakness, six-year-old Dorea had learned this very quickly.) "Ugh, fine! This is a terrible idea, but fine! Just stay behind me, and don't do anything stupid. Gail is gonna kill me..." she finished, voice dropping to a low mumble. (Not that she had to worry about that — Mum would certainly be annoyed with Dora for letting her get mixed up in something actually dangerous, but she was a muggle, she wasn't any actual threat to Dora. She should be more worried about Andi, really, she wouldn't be any happier, and was actually capable of doing something about it.) Shaking her head to herself, Dora whipped around on her heel, storming off for the only exit.

It was too late for Dorea to not do anything stupid, she thought, but pointing that out would be worse than useless. She followed Dora out into a low, narrow hallway, the stone rough-cut and unornamented. "Where are we?"

"The forbidden corridor on the third floor."

...Oh. She vaguely remembered Dumbledore saying something about...somewhere on the third floor of the east wing being out of bounds at the start of term feast, but she'd hardly given it a second thought since. "What the hell is this place?"

Dora shrugged. "Dunno. There are these rooms with simple little challenges in them, but the final room only has a mirror in it. Several of the upper-year Ravenclaws and Gryffindors have been to the end, and the mirror supposedly shows you things, but no one has any idea why all this is here. Observe: the room with all the flying keys."

The hall came to an end, opening up into a huge, vaguely cylindrical chamber, the ceiling stretching up high over their heads. The air was filled with dozens and dozens of creatures flying about on glittering wings in all colours of the rainbow, throwing chinks of shifting light all over the walls...except they weren't creatures, they were bloody keys, apparently animated to fly. Which, she was pretty sure you didn't need to actually give them wings to do, that was just silly. "Er..."

"Notice the brooms to the side," Dora said, casually flicking her open hand toward a row of them as she walked down the centre of the room. "You're supposed to fly up and catch the one key in all that mess that opens the door. Apparently the bloody things try to attack you too, it's much easier coordinating with a couple fliers."

"Should we be..." She didn't know how much help she'd be, Dorea wasn't a very good flier...

Dora snorted. Still moving, she raised her wand, the tip dancing with a few swishes and slashes — probably drawing some kind of shape, didn't know enough to recognise this sort of thing. Then, with an almost casual jab, a crackling blue-green spellglow twice as thick as Dora's arm shot out at the door. There was a snapping of electricity, followed by a flash of light that had her seeing spots, along with a deafening explosion, a second later a heavy thud.

When the spots and the dust cleared, Dora could see the door had been completely blown off its hinges, now lying on the floor of the hallway beyond. That was one way to deal with the problem, she guessed. "Jesus, Dora..."

"Come on, he'll have heard that, he knows we're coming."

Honestly, Dorea doubted that made any difference — Quirrell was going to do what he was going to do anyway. On the other hand, Liz knew there was someone coming after her now, that she wasn't alone, Dorea thought that was worth giving Quirrell a little warning. But she didn't say anything, rushed after her cousin at a jog through the door into another little hallway.

"Shite, move, move!" Dora grabbed her wrist, and broke into a run, half-dragging Dorea behind her.

They were in another chamber now, Dorea took quick glances around her between focusing on keeping up. (Dora hit her with a featherweight charm after a moment, so at least she wasn't stumbling over herself quite as much.) It looked like they were standing in the middle of a bloody enormous chess set — the floor checkered white and black, lines of glittering gold runes threaded along the seams, pieces in the form of solid granite statues two to four times her height, white and black with little sparks of quartz glimmering here and there. Half of the pieces were broken, smashed apart as though someone had hacked at them with some seriously destructive curses, though they were pulling themselves together as Dorea watched, bits of stone skittering across the room to rejoin with their source, patching together without a seam.

Dora was charging straight at the half-reassembled line of white pawns. As her foot stepped onto the square one space away, the pawns moved with a harsh grinding noise, drawing out swords as long as Dorea was tall, one in each hand. (Apparently, they hadn't been smashed by spells, but by each other.) Her heart jumping into her throat, Dorea planted in her heels, but with the featherweight charm on her it didn't do much good, she was wrenched forward, didn't even seem to slow Dora down.

Though, a couple steps later, Dora planted her feet, spun around, her arm wrapping around Dorea's waist. Magic rushed over Dorea in a tingling wave, and the world around her stretched, like a wet painting someone was smearing at with a hand. There was a thud, shaking her whole body all at once, the smearing twisted up and to the right a little, the blurry white shapes of the pawns slid behind them with another thud, and one of the pieces (queen, probably) was swiping down at them, but the world was still sliding, it had barely moved much at all before they were slipping under and past it, another jolt, this time jerking her to the left, and—

Everything crashed to a halt, a wave of dizziness hitting Dorea badly enough she nearly fell even with her cousin holding her up. While she was busy trying to steady her own breathing, her head still spinning, Dora said, "Sorry about that, had to get through before the board was done resetting. Slipping through the full set would have been a lot harder."

Dora's grip on her loosened, Dorea teetered for a moment but didn't fall, let herself be pulled forward by the hand. "What was that?"

"Ah, it's usually referred to as quick-step. It's nature magic, technically, originating from the Far East, though it's been practised in Europe for about as long as the Wizengamot's been around."

"I've never bloody heard of that."

Dora snorted. "I can guarantee you Liz has — it's impractical to use as transportation magic, but it's pretty common among professional duelists these days."

Oh, well, that sort of made sense that she wouldn't have heard of it, if it was that specialised. Most people didn't learn combat magic beyond what was required in school, and Dorea didn't really follow dueling at all.

It wasn't long before they were stepping into a new chamber. This one smelled awful, like garbage let sit out far too long, Dorea covered her nose with her free hand. She remembered the last time she'd smelled something like this just as she spotted the troll at the centre of the room — this one was even larger and more vicious-looking than the one Liz had put to sleep, sharp fangs long enough they protruded from its mouth, claws on its hands, its club augmented with bits of metal scrap fixed onto it seemingly at random.

"Stay back." Dora twisted, planted her feet, and then shot forward toward the troll impossibly fast — she didn't disappear from one place and reappear at another, but instead seemed to be moving in fast-forward somehow, reduced to a smeared blur from the outside. (Presumably, she was doing that quick-step thing again.) The troll roared at suddenly finding an intruder within arm's reach, the sound harsh and grating. Dora flicked her wand at it, a yellow spellglow lashing out to splash against its chest, with seemingly no effect, and the troll swiped at her with a clawed hand, Dora bouncing back out of reach, a swipe of her wand and a slash opened up across the troll's midsection, dark blood dribbling over mottled grey skin.

The troll roared again, higher this time, Dorea clapped her hands over her ears. It wound up, the club coming down in a heavy blow, but Dora dipped into a crouch and jabbed her wand upward — the club was flung away, hard enough it was ripped out of the troll's hand, crashing against the floor a dozen metres behind it. While the troll teetered back a couple steps, Dora flicked her wand, conjured stone appearing to encase one of the troll's legs up to the knee, then the other. The troll nearly lost balance, one overlong arm reaching back to prop itself up, turning back to scream at Dora. (Even with her hands over her ears, Dorea winced.) Dora hardly blinked, staring up at it, her wand levelled, hesitating a second or two.

A precisely-aimed red-purple spellglow slipped between the troll's teeth, and it instantly passed out, collapsing backward with a floor-shivering thump.

Dora vanished the stone around its legs with a casual swish, flicked her fingers at Dorea. "Come on, we can't be far behind now."

She followed Dora into the next little hallway, giving the snoring troll a wider berth than was probably necessary. After a short jog, they came into another chamber — Dorea jumped as, the instant they passed through the door, there was a roar of burning fire, the way out now blocked by thick purple-white flames four metres high. This room was smaller than most of the rest, holding only a single narrow table, a line of bottles set down the middle. On the opposite end of the room, blocking the door out, was another wall of fire, this one an absolute black, so thick and dark it almost looked like a solid thing, but somehow moving, flickering. It was a little creepy, honestly.

Dora walked up to the table, cast a couple detection charms, then let out a harsh scoff. "And he cursed the bottle, of course. Come on."

Standing closer to the unnatural black fire was somehow even creepier. Dorea couldn't say why, exactly, there was just something wrong about them, it was making her uncomfortable, nervous tingles working down her spine, her stomach turning. If it was bothering Dora she didn't show it, flicking charms one after another at the fire, with no visible effect. "What are you doing?"

"There's more than one way through flammae perdentes. Granted, only like four — the potion is sabotaged and the floor is warded against transfiguration, but that still leaves two." One last charm, and the fire shuddered, the flickering of the flames seeming to slow, just a little bit. The effect was so slight Dorea wasn't certain she hadn't imagined it. Dorea was hit with a featherweight charm again (the old one had worn off at some point), and Dora dipped down to one knee, beckoning her with a flick of her fingers. "Here, climb on."

Dorea nearly asked why, but there was no way she could get through this shite on her own, slowing Dora down would only make her second-guess bringing her along. Trying not to feel awkward about it, she lifted one foot over Dora's leg, propping her thigh over Dora's hip, wrapped her arms over her shoulders. She nearly fell when Dora stood up, but the featherweight charm made holding on a whole lot easier.

"The next room is the last one. I'm going in cursing, no point in talking. Don't bother trying to hex him with anything, and stay close to me. Okay?"

Dorea took a steadying breath, swallowing the nerves threatening to tighten her throat. She'd asked to come along, Dora would be taking up all of Quirrell's attention, she'd be fine. "Okay."

"Right, hold on." Dora muttered a lengthy incantation — that sounded like Cambrian, which was weird, Celtic languages weren't usually used in spells — when she was finished something wet and cold splashed against her, covering her head to toe. Dora was affected too, her neck away from Dorea's face was covered in this odd blue gell, thick and squishy. Dora's wand was still moving, and she let out a little gasp, arms clenching tighter around her cousin, as the world shifted a little around them, Dora's feet lifting off the ground, tilting as Dora leaned forward.

Dorea wanted to ask what the hell she was doing, bit her lip to stop herself from distracting her.

With a hard jerk, they were dragged forward, before Dorea could hardly gasp they were shooting through the unnervingly-impossible flames. For a brief second, everything was blackness pressing in against her, tinted slightly bluish by the gel covering them, she was blasted with intense heat, like opening the oven door but from every direction at once. A second later they were bursting out the other side, Dora coming to a halt on the floor with a couple skipping steps. The gel covering them was sizzling a bit, blue-green steam lifting from the surface, then it was gone in a blink, vanished with another casual flick of Dora's wand.

Before Dorea could ask if she should be getting off now, Dora dipped a bit, and the hallway smeared around her, and they were darting ahead with impossible speed.

They snapped to a halt in another chamber, made of the same plain greyish stone as the rest of the castle, the only contents a full-size mirror — nearly two metres tall, the reflective surface slightly tarnished with age, the frame glittering gold and silver. Standing in front of it were Quirrell, dressed in plain black trousers and shirt, and Liz, who looked unharmed, though she seemed slightly dazed, her eyes a bit glassy, not quite in focus.

As Quirrell took a step to the side, so the mirror wasn't directly behind him, dragging Liz along by a hand on her shoulder, Dora's hand under Dorea's knee lifted away, so she let go, stepping a little away. Quirrell started talking, saying something about not doing anything foolish, but Dora's wand was already moving.

A blue-white shield snapped into existence just in time to intercept a red stunning charm, quickly followed by a bevy of white stinging jinxes and a yellow spell Dorea didn't recognise. Quirrell shot off a reddish spell — not a stunning charm, Dorea didn't know what it was — which Dora blocked with a disc of conjured bronze, letting it clatter to the ground a second later, then countering with a twisting, green-black spell, the air whistling around it as it passed. Quirrell cursed, dispelling his own shield with a flick of his wrist, even as Dora gave a harsh swish, Dorea's robes rustling in the sudden breeze. The green-black spell nailed Quirrell in the chest, with seemingly no effect, but Quirrell didn't fire off a hex of his own, his wand instead turning to the floor, his shoulders hunching — a second later, he ducked his head as a heavy wind appeared to slam into him, pushed back a couple steps by the force.

Quirrell hardly moved, but the mirror toppled over with a crash, and Liz, her messy hair whipping around like crazy, was practically picked up off her feet, stumbling away to slam into the back wall. (Not too hard, it looked like, but that had probably hurt anyway.) A few more spells shot out at Quirrell, Dora made a swish to the side, and there was suddenly ice under Dorea's feet, she nearly toppled over, and then actually toppled over when she was shoved away from Dora. She hit the ice a lot softer than she thought she should — oh, wait, she still had a featherweight charm on her, never mind — and went slipping along, careening towards the nearest corner of the room.

She couldn't see what was going on, but she could hear the crashing and crackling of curses hitting shield charms, the air shuddering with the force. Her trail of ice came to an end, and she instantly caught on the solid stone, rolling across the floor a few times before she finally came to a halt. Slightly dizzy, it took her a second to get a knee under her, turn to face the rest of the room. Dora was over by Liz now — whatever spell Liz had been under was broken, her thin face now twisted with fury and her wand in hand — trading spells rapidfire back and forth with Quirrell. Liz wasn't actually casting anything, apparently realising she'd be useless in this fight, her wand shaking impotently at her hip.

Dorea jerked, an orange-ish spellglow was coming right at her! She pushed herself to her feet, but she knew she'd be too slow. Then Dora was zipping over to her (that quick-step thing did look handy), and she smacked the curse with her wand, deflecting it up and to the side. When it hit the wall, now well over Dorea's head, it exploded, bits of stone torn out and flung into the air, freezing in place after a second, then contorting, shifting colours, now a cloud of bronze blades and needles that— "You son of a bitch!" —sliced across the room toward Quirrell with a slash of Dora's wand.

For a second, Dora could hardly breathe, blankly staring at the crater carved into the wall. That spell Quirrell had flung at her, that'd been a blasting curse.

He'd tried to kill her.

Dorea was startled out of her shock by a crackling bang, the fight wasn't over, pay attention. Liz was nearby now, kneeling behind Dora. Forcing her shaking limbs to move, Dorea crawled over, her hand coming up to Liz's shoulder. (Liz twitched, stiffening for a second.) "Are you okay? I didn't know anything was wrong until you—"

"I'm fine," Liz interrupted, "thanks for coming after me. Here." Liz pointed her wand at Dora's back, "Aethere seiunge," Dora twitched as the spell hit — it didn't look like it did anything, but when she started casting again the spells came a little bit faster, seemingly lighter on her feet. Liz's wand turned to Dorea, cast it again.

Dorea tensed, but she didn't feel anything. "What was that?"

"Mind magic shield." Oh, right, Quirrell was a legilimens, that made sense. "I'm going to try to distract him with legilimency, hit me with a stinging jinx if I need to come back."

Dorea wanted to say something, Dora had said to not try to help, but Liz had abilities she didn't, it was probably fine, she bit her lip and kept her doubts to herself. She pulled out her own wand, hit Liz with a featherweight charm. Sliding closer, she wrapped her arm around Liz's waist, her other hand over Liz's, holding her fingers closed around her wand. Liz had tensed again, shooting Dorea a narrow-eyed look. "In case we need to move." And she figured Liz had to hold that mind magic shield, if she dropped her wand...

Liz let out a huff, but didn't object. She screwed her eyes shut, after a second or two went very still, slumping almost limp against Dorea.

Dorea bit her lip — that was slightly worrying, but she just had to trust Liz knew what she was doing.

She was startled out of her concern by an ear-splitting bang, shards of blackened and smoking bronze rained down on them, she glanced up to see Dora had a dozen blades and discs of bronze floating around them, spinning to intercept the curses she didn't just let splash against her shield, one occasionally winging off toward Quirrell, complementing the curses still flying from her wand one after the other after the other. The air was practically filled with multicolour spellglows zipping back and forth, Dorea could hardly make out what was happening, the show eye-dazzling.

It was hard to tell, she could barely see him through the flickering curses and shifting bronze, but it looked like Quirrell was staggering, struggling to keep up.

With a roaring and snapping of electricity, a wave of black lightning crawled across the ground, jumping out from where Quirrell stood and racing toward them. The bronze shields over them whirled, twisting around in a blink to surround them, stabbing into the ground. The lightning washed over them, the conjured barrier shuddering, flickers of blackness flashing at the seams, but it held. Dora had crouched down, turned to face them, her wand flicking and swishing as she muttered another long incantation in what sounded very much like more Cambrian.

Actually, Dorea felt very certain that wasn't an ordinary spell — with some of those flicks, little cuts opened up across her hand, a rune drawn into the centre of her palm, a couple more at the pads of her fingers, little beads of blood sprouting and dripping to the ground. There were a few flickers, so faint Dorea wasn't certain she'd seen them, but then increasingly bright, Dora's hand soon seeming to glow with a hard, shivering light.

Their bronze shield vanished in a blink, Dora stood as she turned, lashing out toward Quirrell with her open hand. Quirrell cast a shield, something glowing a soft orange, but Dorea had to close her eyes and look away as lightning sprang out of Dora's hand, a dozen bolts in white and blue and green, so bright she saw spots. The air shook with the crashing of thunder, again and again and again, she hardly heard Liz against her let out a pained hiss.

Liz was moving again, shivering and shaking her head — she was back. Whatever the hell that seriously impressive magic Dora had just done was, Quirrell must have gotten hit by it. It was over, Dora had won, and Liz was fine.

Dorea let out a breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding.

Her knees shaking a little, Dorea stood, pulling a still shivering Liz up with her. Dora was a short distance away, moving toward Quirrell — slowly, cautiously, her wand unwaveringly pointed at him. Which didn't really seem necessary to Dorea. He wasn't moving, skin reddened and robes steaming. He didn't even look alive, honestly.

She should probably feel something about witnessing her cousin maybe killing her Defence professor, but honestly she was just relieved Liz was okay.

Liz twitched, "Look out!" but Quirrell's wand was already up, a spell a bright, sick green lancing out, crackling like lightning and flickering like fire, and Dorea gasped — she recognised that curse instantly: the Killing Curse, the Unforgivable one. Liz's warning had come too late, but Dora hadn't needed it, she'd leaned out of the way even as the curse was cast, it splashed harmlessly against the ceiling over Dorea's head.

(Even from this far away, she was touched with a harsh, cold breeze, her stomach turning.)

"Distona!" A sharp yellow-orange curse sprung from Dora's wand, in a blink striking Quirrell in the chest. There was an odd poof sound, a little cloud of dust thrown up before scattering down to the ground again.

No, not dust, Dorea realised — she couldn't see from this angle, but she suspected that curse had just atomised a significant portion of Quirrell's body. Given where he'd been hit with it, yeah, Dorea was pretty sure Quirrell was very, very dead.

Dorea started moving toward Dora — she didn't exactly want to see what Quirrell looked like right now, but the door was that way, they should probably be leaving — but was stopped by a hand on her shoulder. Liz hissed, "Wait, something's wrong."

"What do you—"

"Expecto patronum!"

Soft, blue-silver light sprung out of Dora's wand, a wave of gentle warmth splashing over the room, like curling up under a quilt with a mug of wassail, or when she used to slip into her mother's bed during thunderstorms back at the old apartment (before they moved in with Richie, Dorea had been tiny). Liz's hands were making fists in her robes, and Quirrell's body was moving, she'd thought he was dead, but no, it wasn't his body, not really, there was this...stuff, like fog or like smoke, or like that unnerving fire back there, thick and black and swirling, lifting off of him and turning toward them, something about it was just wrong, Dorea couldn't say how, it made her skin crawl, bile thick in her throat.

The light coming out of Dora's wand coalesced into a boar — looking almost solid despite being made of nothing, like moonlight made liquid — it scuffed its hoof on the air and charged at the sick-looking blackness, tossing its head like it were goring the stuff. The cloud recoiled, swirling, and it screeched, Dorea's bones shivered, pins jabbed into her brain, she clapped her hands over her ears, but it didn't actually seem to do very much good. And the cloud was swirling around the boar, the boar was retreating, trying to stay between them and it.

"Get down!" Dora was suddenly right there, she hadn't noticed her coming closer, throwing her arms around both their shoulders and dragging them down to her knees. She winced as she kind of pulled something in her leg a bit, but oh well. Liz was shivering, still clutching at her robe, Dorea wrapped her arms around her instinctively.

The boar wasn't a boar anymore, a dragon made of semi-translucent, silver whatever that was silently winging over to them, curling around them tail to snout, throwing a wing over their heads. Like a little glowing tent. The light-dragon shuddered, shadows shifting behind it, the black thing throwing itself against it. There was more screeching, a trickle of sick cold slipping past the warmth spread by Dora's spell, Liz was yelling something, she wasn't certain what it was (or if it was really words at all), Dorea squeezed her eyes shut, hugged Liz tighter and pressed her face into Dora's shoulder, it would give up eventually, it had to...

Then, suddenly, the bone-shivering screeching ceased, the oppressive, stomach-churning weight of the black cloud lifted away. She felt Dora move — her arm was around her, fingers in her hair, she hadn't noticed that happening — pulling away a little. Dorea opened her eyes in time to see the dragon made of light blur, twist, swirling around to condense into a little bird, perched on Dora's shoulder.

The room — streaks of it were blackened now, craters blown into the stone surface here and there, shrapnel and bits of conjured bronze and ice flung randomly all over the place — was empty now, save for the gaudy mirror lying flat against the floor. Whatever that thing had been, it was gone.

Liz retreated a bit, her hands loosening from Dorea's robes but not entirely letting go. Which was odd, Liz wasn't normally a...an affectionate sort of person. Also, Dorea noticed, a little shocked, her eyes were red, tears pooling at the corners.

She'd been crying. Dorea had never seen Liz cry before.

Her voice hoarse and choked, Liz groaned, "What the fuck was that thing?!"

Dorea didn't usually approve of that kind of language, but she had to admit, that was a good fucking question.

Liz still felt cold. Pomfrey said she was fine, that she hadn't any curse damage to worry about. Liz had pulled the thin Hospital Wing blanket over her shoulders, had gotten Pomfrey to put up that neat warming charm for her again.

And yet, she was cold.

She and Dorea had both cleared their "curse-check" without anything to worry about coming up — apparently, sometimes a curse could have delayed effects that didn't turn up until hours or even days later, it was standard practice for someone who'd just been in a fight with a dark wizard to get looked over by a Healer or cursebreaker. They'd been cleared, but Dora hadn't, she was still being fussed over by Pomfrey and Snape, who she'd called up to assist after finding she'd been hit by something. They'd been told it was nothing to worry about, they'd be able to get rid of it before it could do anything to hurt her. The process would just take a little bit longer. Dora seemed more irritated than concerned, shrunk down to the body of maybe an eight-year-old, sitting on the edge of her bed pouting up at the adults working on her and impatiently kicking her feet.

(That whole metamorph thing was neat, and it turned out Dorea's silly cousin was a complete fucking badass, that fight had been amazing. Liz was a little jealous.)

Dorea was still kind of scared though, but not because she was worried about her cousin. She'd been terrified Liz was going to die. She'd managed to hold herself together well enough to get help, and make it through the fight, but now that they were safe again she'd barely said a word. Just sort of shivered — she felt cold too, apparently — and silently clung at Liz, staring at nothing, her eyes slightly unfocused from calming potion.

And she wouldn't let go of Liz, which was slightly annoying. Dorea was under the blanket with her, sitting up against the headboard next to her, both her arms wrapped tight around Liz's left, her cheek resting on her shoulder. (Her hair kept tickling at Liz's nose, but she was used to that from her own.) It was a little uncomfortable, yeah, Liz felt all weird and squirmy, but it was...fine. She guessed. She was cold, so, there was that, and Dorea really had been afraid she would die — and still was afraid, a little bit, even through the calming potion (she'd just taken a sip, but still) — so... This was fine. She guessed.

Liz wasn't really happy about it, but if this was what Dorea needed right now, fine, she could put up with it. It wasn't like it was that bad.

(Dorea was the second person Liz could remember hugging her, ever.)

They could have left already, Pomfrey said they were free to go, but Dorea was still fuzzy from the calming potion, and Liz was cold, so they'd decided to at least wait for Dora to be cleared. Well, Liz had decided to, Dorea was pretty much nonverbal — by the feel of her head, she probably would be for a little while yet. (If Liz couldn't see what was going on in there, she might almost wonder if she'd gotten hit with a curse Pomfrey had missed.) They'd been in the Hospital Wing for maybe a half an hour, probably less, when Dumbledore came sweeping into the ward.

Liz tensed, immediately. She couldn't help it. It wasn't entirely rational, she knew that, it wasn't like Dumbledore had actually hurt her, not really — and he certainly wasn't going to do anything now, there were witnesses. (Snape at least would notice if he tried anything, and Pomfrey seemed the type to dress him down for attacking little kids' minds, no matter who he was.) But she couldn't help it. She'd always been nervous around Dumbledore, since their first and only meeting back in the summer. It'd only gotten worse since she'd subsumed that bit of the Dark Lord stuck in her.

Snape's assumption that she was an amateur with this obscure Dark Arts stuff (obviously) so probably wouldn't end up getting any explicit memories had turned out to be correct, though that didn't mean there'd been no effects at all. They were just...subtler. He'd said it might be harder to keep herself from wandering into people's heads on accident, check — she'd actually gotten into the habit of, just, eavesdropping on people's thoughts all the time now, she could probably stop but she just didn't feel like putting in the effort. He'd said her spellcasting might be more powerful, but less focused, check — Charms was even easier now, but Transfiguration had suddenly become all the more difficult, enough McGonagall had even noticed she'd gotten worse for no apparent reason. (Transfiguration required greater focus, apparently, but she didn't entirely get what that meant, or why she was so bad at it, or how to stop being bad at it, it was frustrating.) He'd said she might get the occasional weird feeling she couldn't explain, check that one too.

None of them were bad, exactly. Confusing sometimes. She hadn't gotten any real memories from it, but things still felt familiar sometimes, when she didn't think they should. Like, her schoolwork, she hadn't picked up anything but sometimes she'd be reading or writing or doing something, and she got the distracting feeling that she'd done this before. It made it easier to understand things, sometimes — after all, a part of her had already learned it — but it also made it kind of frustrating, because that part of her that thought this was familiar also thought it was basic shite she'd learned forever ago, and it was boring, so it could be hard to concentrate on actually doing her bloody homework sometimes. Which was annoying, but not that big of a deal.

She had, almost without even noticing, become rather more aware of her own appearance. Several times, she'd spent longer poking at herself getting ready in front of the mirror before realising, what the hell am I doing, she'd had moments thinking she should get some not terrible clothes, and maybe do something about her hair — there were potions people could use for this stuff, right? But then, the logic of it always ended up catching. Because, when it came down to it, the whole point of looking nice was so people would have pleasant thoughts looking at her (and thus be more amenable to being manipulated), but she didn't want people paying that much attention to her, really, she'd rather just be left alone entirely (and there wasn't really anything she wanted to manipulate people to get out of them). So, she'd had a few confusing moments like that, and was sometimes more aware of how messy and awful she looked than she was entirely happy about, but it wasn't that bad.

(Liz had gotten the feeling that the Dark Lord was...kind of girly. Was that weird? She thought that was weird.)

There were also these weird, random feelings she got about people sometimes. When she saw Draco, sometimes she would have these oddly...soft feelings, that were honestly sort of distressing. Her friends had caught her staring at Draco a couple times, actually, Hermione had been half-convinced she had a crush on him or something for weeks. (Weren't they still a little young to start getting worked up over boys?) It was kind of bloody weird. She suspected the Dark Lord had been, like, teenage boyfriends with someone who'd looked like Draco — a grandfather or something, maybe — and Liz was getting a little bit of bleed-through from that. Which was, just, seriously uncomfortable.

And then there was Dumbledore.

People often said Dumbledore was the only person the Dark Lord had ever feared. And maybe that was true, Liz couldn't say for sure — she'd already been a little scared of Dumbledore herself, if she was being honest, if she was getting scared Dark Lord feelings about Dumbledore she might not even notice. (Also, being scared of Dumbledore was perfectly reasonable, he was one of the most powerful mages in the whole bloody country, really.) Maybe he had feared Dumbledore, but that wasn't the impression she got, from her little subsumption echoes.

Instead, she felt hatred. It was vague and distant, like all of her stolen Dark Lord feelings, not really connected to anything. Like, she couldn't say why exactly the Dark Lord had hated Dumbledore. But she knew he did, cold and icy and implacable, he wanted Dumbledore dead, and he wanted him to suffer along the way.

It wasn't overwhelming — her own unease with him was still more prominent, really — but it was just slightly distracting.

So, when she saw Dumbledore walking toward them, with his usual clashing robes and twinkling eyes, Liz couldn't help glaring up at him a little, feeling all too stiff and tense, her stomach turning with sudden nerves. She pulled away from the minds around her, holding herself close — not really closing herself off, exactly, just not leaving herself open to potential attack. Which was sort of disorienting, all the feelings and thoughts of everyone else in the room cutting off (except Dorea, she was close enough to still catch the feelings wafting off of her), like suddenly blinding herself, but her own mind was less vulnerable this way, denser, so she'd just have to put up with it for now.

After a few platitudes Liz honestly hardly even heard, Dumbledore asked them what exactly happened — a reasonable question, one of his professors had just been killed by a student. Dora was the one who answered, starting from the beginning, Dorea finding her in the library because Liz was missing — which was also reasonable, she was the one who'd killed the professor. Really, Liz and Dorea had hardly been involved.

Okay, to be fair, it had looked like casting that mind magic shield on Dora had helped her a bit, and attacking Quirrell had distracted him enough to tilt the scales firmly in Dora's favour. So Liz had been involved, just not until the end.

Interestingly, Dora actually left that part out, Liz helping with the mind magic side. She wasn't certain why she was doing that, but that was fine, Liz would rather not be questioned about it. Especially since it had seemed obvious that she should try to do the mind magic subsumption thing — not because she expected to succeed, but because it was a far greater threat than an ordinary legilimency attack, so Quirrell would have to dedicate more effort to making sure she didn't make any real progress. She'd rather not have to justify doing (or attempting to do, anyway) something she knew was very illegal to Dumbledore, of all people.

But maybe it wouldn't have been that big of a deal. Liz was rather surprised when they got to the part where Dora actually killed Quirrell, consciously, with a curse that was designed to kill people with. She would have expected Dumbledore to have a problem with that sort of thing, but he didn't seem to, really. Instead he took an odd... It was like he was trying to reassure Dora about something, sounding oddly sympathetic (almost pitying), which... Well, that was sort of confusing, honestly — what was he trying to reassure Dora about? Not that she wouldn't be in trouble or whatever, obviously she'd been acting in self-defence, Liz was pretty sure that was allowed. Whatever it was, Dora seemed a little exasperated, brushing off his platitudes with a roll of her eyes.

They were just getting to the part after Quirrell died when Dumbledore cut Dora off, turning to Liz. "If I may go back to the beginning, for a moment. I was wondering, Ellie, how did you come to be down there in the first place? I have it on good authority you have been avoiding Professor Quirrell's company quite effectively for some months."

Liz let out an irritated huff before she could stop herself. Once it was already out, she decided there was no reason to stop herself — she'd done nothing wrong, she had nothing to be defensive about. "Since he assaulted me and nobody did anything about it, you mean."

Dumbledore had the balls to pull a pained, regretful sort of expression, his head slightly shaking. "Unfortunately, there was little I could do. It can be very difficult to proceed with investigations involving the misuse of mind magics. Such things tend not to leave much in the way of detectable traces — without any admissible evidence, cases are reduced to one person speaking in accusation and another speaking in their defence, and the proceedings go no further. And the Board of Governors, I'm afraid, would refuse to permit the dismissal of a professor without what they feel to be due cause. Allowing you to avoid him, despite missing so many sessions of a core subject, seemed the only viable solution."

Oh. Well. She hadn't actually known that — about it being very difficult to do anything, legally, about people using mind magic. She probably didn't have to try so hard to avoid it, then. Liz had...kind of been under the impression that, like, if she got caught poking at people's heads she'd be in serious trouble, with magic police and everything. But if they wouldn't be able to prove anything, so wouldn't be able to do anything... She hadn't realised that. Okay, then.

She still wouldn't use it too much, though. There wasn't that much she really wanted to use it for in the first place, but also she probably shouldn't let too many people know about the mind magic thing. She remembered how insane people had gone over the talking to snakes thing, if they found out she could play with their heads whenever she wanted to, yeah, that one would probably be a lot worse.

But right, Dumbledore had asked her a question. An odd question, when she thought about it. "Well, it's not like I went with him on purpose."

"Natural legilimens tend to be unusually resistant to most forms of magical coercion."

For a second, Liz was annoyed with Dumbledore for just saying that, out in the open — then she remembered everybody in the room knew already, so it hardly mattered. "Ah, I don't know how he did it, exactly. It felt like a compulsion, but...not really? It didn't feel like a person, I mean. People are fuzzy, and they shift around, whatever this thing was it was too...solid. I don't know how to describe it."

"He must have been utilising a specialised focus." Everyone turned to Snape, even Dumbledore, one bushy eyebrow raised in question. "While mind mages are more naturally resistant to the setting of a compulsion than most, their greatest advantage comes in their capacity to easily break compulsions after they have been set. However, if someone were to craft an artefact with a compulsion of some kind, and designed it to enact its effect continuously, such a strategy would avoid presenting Miss Potter a weakness she can exploit."

"Is that possible?" Dumbledore sounded slightly horrified by the idea, the little bits of his face visible through the hair everywhere going a little pale. Which, Liz didn't disagree, being under that flat, heavy compulsion had not been pleasant.

Snape shrugged. "It is very difficult. There are reasons enchantments based in mind magic are not frequently used, but it is theoretically possible. Such a device cannot be automated, however — you need not worry about being sent an amulet in the post that will compel you to jump out a window, or anything of the like. This device would have acted as a focus, Quirrell would have needed to actively direct it. It simply would have required far less attention than if he were to attempt to continuously compel Miss Potter into obedience without an intermediary of some kind."

"Oh, so that's why it stopped." Liz shrugged with discomfort as eyes turned back toward her. "I mean, a couple spells in, the big heavy whatever was gone. Dora had distracted him enough he couldn't keep it going anymore, right?"

"Yes, I suspect that is exactly what happened. If Miss Tonks had hesitated for a single moment afterward, it is quite possible Quirrell could have used the same device to ensnare her just as he had you." Turning to Dora, he added, "Your ruthlessness served you well, Miss Tonks — in this particular instance."

Liz got the feeling Snape was referring to something else, a conversation they must have had before. Whatever he was talking about, Dora completely ignored the rebuke on his voice, just grinned up at him, kicking her feet.

With a thin sigh, Snape's eyes tipped up to the ceiling for a second. "You were not entirely incorrect, I suppose." It sounded like he was responding to something, but Dora hadn't actually said anything — had he been reading her mind just then? "Five points to Hufflepuff."

Dora looked very smug.

It didn't seem like Dumbledore had any better idea what was going on there than she did, but he brushed it off, turning back to Liz. He probably had more questions for her. Liz didn't really feel like answering them. It didn't help that they'd probably be stupid and annoying — had he been implying she might have been working with him a moment ago? why would she do that? what the hell was in that mirror anyway? — but she had her own question, something she was actually very curious about. Before he could do more than open his mouth, Liz asked, "Did you know Quirrell was being possessed by the Dark Lord?"

Dorea blurted out "WHAT?!" in a high, screechy yelp, dark horror suddenly pulsing off of her, and Dora and Pomfrey both went rather pale, Dora's hair abruptly flicking to a sickly grey, Pomfrey's hand coming up to cover her mouth. But she noticed neither Dumbledore nor Snape looked surprised.

She had been surprised. When she'd started her mind magic attack against Quirrell, during the fight, she'd had this odd, niggling feeling, coming into contact with Quirrell's mind — it'd felt...unnervingly familiar. It wasn't until she'd started making progress against him, and Quirrell had used the same technique he had that day in Defence class to push her out, just throwing shite at her in an overwhelming flood she could hardly make sense of — she assumed the idea was to confuse her so she could be more easily expelled, something of a desperation move, a last line of defence — Liz had noticed, abruptly, that his mind felt very similar to the bit of the Dark Lord she'd been carrying.

The original Professor Quirrell, she thought, had been subsumed by the not-quite-dead Dark Lord, all that he'd been consumed, the empty shell of his body taken over — like that bodysnatching thing Snape had described to her, months ago now. Except, not quite? The way Snape had talked about it, it sounded like bodysnatchers could, just, live on in the new body without any problems, but it looked like Quirrell hadn't been doing so well. He hadn't seemed quite well at the beginning of the year, pale and shaky, but it'd only gotten worse as the months had gone on. The last couple months, he'd gone oddly yellow-ish, his skin somehow looking too thin, a few gross sores visible here and there.

Liz didn't know about this crazy Dark Arts stuff, she was only eleven. She could only assume that whatever the hell the Dark Lord had done to make it so he couldn't properly die had, like, messed him up somehow. In a way that, trying to live in Quirrell's body, it'd just...slowly fallen apart. Or maybe he'd just fucked up the subsumption, but she found that hard to believe — Liz might be a total amateur with these things, but he was the Dark Lord, surely he knew what he was doing. She had no idea how such a thing would work, exactly, but that sort of sounded like it made sense, didn't it?

Everyone else in the room — Dorea, Dora, even Pomfrey — had all kinds of terrified, enraged questions for Dumbledore, quick and thick enough he could hardly answer one before the next was coming. Dumbledore didn't actually say as much, not directly, but it was pretty obvious reading between the lines that he had known Quirrell was being possessed by the Dark Lord, though it wasn't clear for how long. (Probably at least since the attack on her, it might have been obvious to him then, but there might have been signs even earlier that Liz hadn't been aware of.) Pomfrey in particular seemed very angry with him, for knowing the Dark Lord was in the school, and doing nothing about it.

Even if his reasons for not doing anything were actually pretty reasonable, Liz thought. For one thing, what the hell had the Dark Lord been up to anyway, showing up in a place he knew his worst enemy would be, especially when he was so weakened? (If the Dark Lord weren't in a diminished state due to not really having his own body or whatever, Dora would never have fared nearly so well in a fight with him, they would all be very dead right now.) And, well, Dumbledore had been leery of directly confronting him, precisely because they were in a school full of children. If the Dark Lord feared Dumbledore was going to make a move, there was no telling what he might do — he'd effectively been holding the entire school and everybody in it hostage. In fact, Dumbledore had been delayed because he'd been scouring the school for him, making sure that he'd actually left, and wasn't planning some kind of horrible retaliation.

As much as Liz would say she didn't like Dumbledore, and as much as that hateful part of her really didn't want to accept his excuses, she thought he had a pretty good point, actually. It wasn't like the Dark Lord had been hurting anyone — besides Quirrell, and Liz that one time (though that had mostly been the other bit of the Dark Lord stuck in her, he'd been barely involved) — there had been no pressing reason to do anything about his presence. Especially not when Dumbledore might learn something important just watching and waiting.

Nobody else seemed to agree with her, though. They all looked less than happy with him, even Snape — he wasn't saying anything about it, but he was wordlessly staring at a wall, his arms firmly crossed, she assumed his silence was meant to be tacit support for Dora and Pomfrey's yelling at Dumbledore. Of course, Liz wasn't jumping in to defend him either, but that was just because she didn't like Dumbledore, and didn't actually care about the point enough to back him up.

Besides, it was over. What the "right" thing to do had been was sort of irrelevant now, she thought.

They were a couple minutes into the weird, pointless argument when they were quite soundly interrupted by a woman, just, appearing in the middle of the Hospital Wing. Which, Liz wasn't certain she wasn't hallucinating or it wasn't an illusion at first — wasn't it supposed to be impossible to apparate into Hogwarts? And the woman had appeared completely silently too, without the usual crack most people made, or even the lighter pop Liz assumed indicated people who were better at it. She was middle-aged — like, older than grown-up but not quite old either — very blonde, her bright gold hair bound into a long plait that wrapped once around her neck before disappearing behind her back, wearing baggy trousers and a long-sleeved, wraparound sort of tunic thing, longer than a normal shirt, hanging around her hips, all in blue and white and gold, twinkles of silver in her ears and around her wrists.

Liz knew, instinctively, that this was someone important. She couldn't say how she knew — the woman didn't look that special, really. She just knew, her eyes drawn to her almost without even meaning to, wide and watchful, as though she might miss something amazing if she glanced away for a second.

The woman immediately fixed on Dumbledore, blue eyes narrowed in suspicion, her slightly-accented voice simmering with anger. "What the hell happened here, Percival?"

Dumbledore looked rather taken aback, for a second just stared back at the woman. "Perenelle? How did you get—"

"I'm not here to answer questions about forms of witchcraft you've never had the proper respect for, boy. Did I feel someone die in proximity to the Stone a bit ago?"

Dora gasped. "The Philosopher's Stone was in the castle?"

Oh, Liz had actually heard of that before. Created by Nicholas Flamel, it was one of the more famous magical artefacts in existence, that gave the holder the power to conjure pretty much anything — permanently, ignoring the Transfiguration Is Temporary rule, could create as much food or gold or anything the user wanted — and also live forever...somehow, Liz wasn't certain how that was supposed to work. The thing had been created back in the Middle Ages, but Flamel was still around, apparently...

Wait a second...

It could be her imagination, but Liz thought Dumbledore paled a little. "How do you even know about that?"

"I'm a Seer, Percy, it is well within my abilities to keep an eye on my things. Answer the question. What. Happened?"

"I killed the Dark Lord's possessed shell, that's probably the death you felt," Dora chirped. Her eyes wide with what looked oddly like wonder, "Who are you? Your magic is pretty."

The woman's lips twitched. "Why thank you, Miss Tonks. My name is Perenelle Flamel, pleasure to meet you." Yeah, there it was, Liz had suspected as much.

She had no idea how to feel about being in the presence of one of the wealthiest, most powerful people in the world, who also happened to be hundreds and hundreds of years old. Just not thinking about it seemed the best thing to do.

"Oh, er." Dora looked a bit blindsided, staring up at Flamel and rapidly blinking. "How do you know my name?"

"I look out for news of metamorph births. There aren't so many immortals, we all tend to meet each other sooner or later, and I like to be informed."

"...Oh."

The shadow of a smile on the seven-hundred-year-old woman's face flickered away as she turned back to Dumbledore. "Correct me if I am misunderstanding something, but I believe I just heard young Miss Tonks say that she killed some pour vessel overwhelmed by your Dark Lord near my Stone...in a school."

Dumbledore definitely looked pale now. "Perenelle, can we—"

"No, Percy, we can not!"

The protest choked off in Dumbledore's throat half-formed, and he nodded his head, almost meekly. "Yes, ma'am."

Liz bit her lip to keep herself from smiling, it was bloody hilarious watching Dumbledore be chastised like a disobedient child. If it was something that took a seven-hundred-year-old super-famous alchemist — who'd also been one of his teachers when he'd been younger, if Liz remembered correctly (or had that been mostly the other one, Nicholas?) — to pull it off, it probably wasn't something she'd ever see again either. She should enjoy it while it lasted.

"I never wanted to hand it over the first place — personally, I found the suggestion that you can secure my things better than I can to be somewhat hilarious. I have five centuries of experience over you and your washed-up Dark Lord combined, do you really think I'm incapable of protecting myself from a nearly powerless wraith?"

Somewhat reluctantly, as though he didn't want to contradict her but felt that he had to, Dumbledore said, "Many have underestimated Voldemort in the past, Perenelle, as you know well."

"Oh, honestly!" The woman let out a harsh sigh, her eyes tipping to the ceiling for a moment. When she looked back at Dumbledore, there was a tingle on the air, thick and electric, and Liz instinctively retreated, firming up the border between herself and the rest of the room. She couldn't even feel Dorea anymore. "I am not helpless, Percival. I have dealt with threats far more difficult to manage than what this Riddle of yours had been reduced to. Such a being would not even be able to cross the wardline around my home, and I am more than capable of exorcising whatever unfortunate vessel might be co-opted to make the attempt more directly. Do not mistake my unwillingness to involve myself in outside affairs for inability.

"I only gave you the Stone in the first place to humour you. I had no idea you would keep the bauble, which you believed your Dark Lord was pursuing, in a school. With children. Percival, my darling boy, have you lost your mind?!"

Liz bit her lip to keep herself from giggling.

Especially since Dumbledore couldn't seem to come up with anything in his own defence, staring up at the much older woman, eyes slightly out of focus, as though thinking very hard. Snape actually spoke first. "The Headmaster believed that the Dark Lord was unlikely to do anything too...provocative, while in such close proximity to his greatest foe."

Dora seemed slightly dumbfounded with that explanation. And also annoyed. "He tried to kill me! He tried to kill all three of us!"

"Yes. And he's been regularly legilimising the students — Miss Potter is hardly the only one to have drawn his attention. I did express my doubts to him, doubts I reiterated countless times over the course of this school year. The Headmaster was adamant, I'm afraid."

Liz couldn't say she was surprised Snape was apparently the only sane man in the school. He had been the one to ban love potions, after all, and he did seem to enjoy explaining to people how stupid they are — being the only sane man in the room was like his thing.

Pernelle sighed again. "What were you trying to accomplish, Percival? You're not a fool, you must have had a reason for taking such a risk."

It looked like Dumbledore wanted to refute that it was a risk, still glaring at Snape a little for stabbing him in the back (in front of someone he obviously actually respected), but he apparently decided not to say anything about that. "I was hoping... I thought, it might be possible to capture Riddle here, and find some way to permanently destroy him."

The irritation on Flamel's face softened, shifting toward a quiet, thoughtful sort of look. She closed her eyes, and went very still for a moment, obviously doing some kind of magic, though Liz could hardly guess what. When she came back, she gave Dumbledore a confused frown. "There are no isolation wards around the room the Stone is in. What form did this trap of yours take, exactly?"

"You'll recall I have in my possession a certain cursed mirror, which I augmented with my own enchantments to—"

"You mean the Mirror of Erised?" Dora gasped again, but that one Liz didn't know.

She did sort of know what the mirror did — showing the user their heart's truest desire, whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean — but only because Quirrell had told her what it was supposed to do. But, maybe keeping her under that awful compulsion had messed it up? They'd been standing in front of the thing trying to get it to work properly for a little while. First, Quirrell had told her to tell her what she saw in it...so she saw herself telling Quirrell what she saw in it. He'd fumbled with his compulsion for a bit, making it...narrower, more tightly focused on telling her what to do. (Which had been a mixed blessing, because she'd been able to think again, but she'd also been able to feel again, and that had not been pleasant.) Quirrell had not been amused when she'd told him that now she saw herself cursing him into bloody pieces — he'd been trying to figure out what to do next when Dora had shown up.

Liz suspected the heart's truest desire bit was kind of nonsense. It seemed like it worked by mind magic (standing in front of it had sort of tickled), and mind magic could be a very finicky thing. She thought what it actually did was show what the person most wanted in that moment. So, obviously, when she'd still been completely under the compulsion, it'd shown her doing what he told her to do (which was confusingly circular), and once she'd been partially out of it, it'd shown her getting the rest of the way out of it. She wouldn't have guessed her preferred method would be to messily kill him but, well, it had looked sort of satisfying, she guessed.

(Good thing she'd managed to very thoroughly change the subject earlier, before Flamel had shown up, she definitely shouldn't admit that sort of thing out loud — she would have had to come up with something, and Dumbledore would probably be able to tell she was lying.)

Flamel was rubbing at her face with both hands. "Percy, dear boy, you're sometimes far too clever for your own good. Did it not occur to you that your little Dark Lord is a mind mage, so might have some resistance against that method of ensnarement?"

"Riddle has always been a vain creature, I'd hoped that—"

"Stop. Just stop." Flamel let out another sigh, dropped her hands to fix Dumbledore with a cold stare of abject disappointment — Dumbledore cringed. (Liz didn't quite manage to hold in a laugh, coming out as a strained cough.) After a moment of silent glaring, Flamel hold out her hand, and snapped her fingers.

Suddenly, there was a sizeable gemstone in her palm. Asymmetrical and roughly-cut, it was a deep blood red, frosted here and there a silvery-white, a couple inches on either side. Flamel concentrated for a moment, her open hand hovering a short distance over the stone, and then, in a sharp, sudden movement, clapped her hand down against the gemstone. It shattered, instantly, but instead of falling into little fragments it exploded into these...red and purple and silver...sparks? They kind of looked like wand-sparks, hovering in a cloud around her hands, as though Flamel had somehow transformed the physical gemstone into magic of some kind.

A glance at everyone else, and Liz felt very certain no one had any bloody clue what she was doing either.

Flamel gathered the sparks together, cupping the glowing, twinkling cloud in her hands. After another moment of concentration, she lifted it toward her face and...inhaled it. In a short couple seconds, the dozens of little glowing sparks were all gone, vanishing into her. Flamel held her breath for a moment, then let out it out in a deep sigh, shook her head a little.

Dumbledore was staring at her, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. "What have you done?"

"Oh, don't give me that look, boy," Flamel said, a corner of her lips twitching in what looked almost like a smirk. "This Stone has served its purpose; I simply took back what was mine. If you really couldn't work that out for yourself, you must refresh your knowledge of spectral bioalchemy." For some reason, Dumbledore paled a little. Liz suspected Flamel must be suggesting something Dumbledore thought was horrifying, but she didn't know enough about the subject to guess. She didn't even know what spectral bioalchemy was. "Now, Percy, I was in the middle of something, I really must be getting back. But this conversation is not over — I'll be back...tomorrow evening, most like. Say, around five? You may beg my forgiveness over dinner."

Apparently still turning over whatever it was Flamel had said that had disturbed him so badly, Dumbledore hardly reacted. Before anyone else could say anything the famous, immortal alchemist, with a last nod at everyone else in the room, was gone, vanishing as suddenly and silently as she'd arrived.

Well. That was a thing that had happened.

For a moment, there was a thin, uncomfortable silence, everybody staring at the spot Flamel had stood. Snape moved first. "I believe we are done here, Miss Tonks. If at any time in the next three days you should come down with a seemingly inexplicable lethargy, come to Poppy or myself immediately. Do you have Ptolemy's Panacea on hand?"

"Ah." Pomfrey cleared her throat. "Yes, there's still some left from the batch we brewed over the winter holiday. If you're having any other difficulties over the next week, Miss Tonks, you should come see me, whether it seems important or not. The earliest symptoms of fatal curse damage often seem quite innocuous."

Dora gave both of them a slow, firm nod, somehow seeming more solemn than she had the entire time so far. "Yes, Professors, I understand. Sir Moody told me much the same thing."

Hissing under his breath, Snape groaned, "I still can't believe they let that lunatic anywhere near a Black metamorph — just a month of his influence has only made you even more difficult to manage. I believe I shall be very happy the moment you are forever out of my hair, Miss Tonks."

Dora just grinned at him.

"Were there any further matters we must address, Headmaster?"

Lost in his thoughts, Dumbledore twitched back into focus, frowning to himself. "Ah... Miss Potter, did Voldemort say anything to you? Even if it seems unimportant — the smallest detail could be what is needed for us to do away with him once and for all."

Liz shrugged. "Not...really? I mean, he didn't say much at all, other than telling me what to do — there wasn't really much room for conversation. The only thing that wasn't telling me what to do was explaining what the mirror does, and grumbling to himself that I'm more frustrating than both my parents put together." Which Liz had thought was odd at the time. She hadn't realised Quirrell was the Dark Lord yet, Quirrell hadn't been a professor here long enough to have taught her parents and he was too old to have been a classmate.

Letting out a short scoff, his voice low enough Liz probably wasn't supposed to hear it, Snape muttered, "He's not wrong..."

Was that supposed to be a compliment somehow? Hadn't Snape been friends with her mother? Hmm. "Yeah, so, I don't really think he said anything relevant. And, I can't imagine he would have? I mean, ranting about your evil plans or the secret of your power or whatever would just be a very stupid thing to do. I was under the impression the Dark Lord wasn't a complete idiot, what with the almost having taken over the country and all."

Dumbledore was talking, something about Voldemort — why did he keep using that name? nobody else did... — being a melodramatic son of a bitch (her words), he couldn't seem to resist taking any available opportunity to posture and brag like an absurd, over-the-top villain in a story for children (her words, again). But Snape spoke at the same time. "Miss Potter, I suspect you may be overestimating the competence of our country's esteemed leadership and their noble protectors."

Dora, Dumbledore, and Pomfrey all looked annoyed with him, but Liz failed to hold in a laugh. Which then had them all shooting her odd glances too, but that was fine — Dora had already known she was weird, Dumbledore apparently hated her for no good reason (why else would he send her back to the Dursleys, even after looking at her memories?), and she didn't really care about Pomfrey either way. Besides, it was funny.

The meeting fell apart from there, Snape sweeping out with the usual dramatic swirl of his robes, Dumbledore lingering for a moment with a last long, uncertain look at Liz before following him, more slowly and sedately. Dora got a final admonishment from Pomfrey to come see her if she was feeling unwell, and then the Healer was gone as well, leaving the three of them alone.

Silence lingered for a moment, while Dora frowned off into the distance, clearly thinking about something, Dorea still quiet, clinging to Liz's robes. She relaxed a bit, now that Flamel and Dumbledore were gone, so immediately felt that Dorea wasn't quiet inside like she'd been before — it was very busy in her head, actually, thinking about Flamels and Dark Lords and Dumbledore. Liz didn't know exactly what she was thinking, if she wanted more than the general topics she was focused on she'd have to push in further, but that was fine, if it was anything important Dorea would surely talk to her about it later.

After all, Dorea did know a lot more than her about the magical world, it was possible there were important implications she'd picked up that Liz had missed. If nothing else, she'd probably want to work out aloud something she didn't quite understand, Liz would hear about whatever it was eventually. Better just wait, rather than peek into her head to find out now and just have to sit through a conversation about it later anyway.

(Hermione probably wouldn't be happy if she knew one of the primary reasons Liz respected their privacy was because she didn't like having to repeat things.)

She was sort of curious what Dora was thinking about, though. She was hardly even recognisable as Dorea's silly cousin, sitting there staring into distance, her hair dark and face pale, something about her just seeming...quiet, and serious, in a way that was so outside of her usual character Liz was honestly a little surprised she was capable of it. But Dora was actually really good at occlumency, so she would definitely feel her there, chances were Liz wouldn't pick up much, if anything at all. Oh well.

Dora's serious face was abruptly replaced with a bright smile, her hair blinking into a soft yellow. "So! You girls hungry? Dinner's gotta be starting about now."

Letting out a thin sigh, Dorea straightened, her grip on Liz's arm finally loosening. "I could eat, I guess. We should definitely feed you, at least." Frowning over at Dora, she said, "If you make a joke about how you'd kill for some food, I swear..."

Oddly, Dora's smile flickered, just for an instant before it was back again. "That's just mean, Doe, who do you think I am? The elves are great, yeah, but Hogwarts food just isn't I'll kill you if you don't get out of my way good."

There was an odd note of guilt in Dorea's head. (What for? There was some subtext here Liz wasn't picking up on, apparently.) Whatever it was, she didn't say it, brushed it off with a roll of her eyes. "Let's go, then." The three of them got up, leaving the Hospital Wing behind.

And, apparently, everything else — they wouldn't speak of what had happened that day for over a year.

Chapter Text

June 1992


There was a hard knock at the door, sudden and unexpected enough Liz startled rather badly. For a second she frowned at her book, not really seeing it — who the hell would be knocking at her door now? It was too late in the day for it to be staff coming by to do the morning people-are-checking-out cleaning, and also too early for the touch-up-before-new-people-come one. Besides, Liz had the thingie hanging on the handle, they weren't supposed to bother her when it was there.

Without really thinking about it, Liz reached out toward the door, grasping for the mind of the person standing outside. She twitched, straightening in her chair. She didn't have to actually touch it to know who this was. This mind was very familiar.

Cautiously, Liz rose from her chair, slowly wandered over to the door. She tipped up to her toes, peeking out of the little spyhole thing. Which was kind of a silly thing to do, she already knew who it was, but it was just so odd that he was here. Never in a million years would she have thought he'd, just, show up, outside of the hotel room she'd commandeered in muggle London. Maybe whoever it was just felt kind of similar.

But no, the little hole distorted the image somewhat, but she'd recognise that long, dour face with the cartoon villain goatee anywhere — that was definitely Professor Snape. He did look slightly odd, with his hair tied back out of his face, wearing muggle-style slacks and a thin jumper in black and blue, but even made up like a muggle he was unmistakable.

What the hell was Professor Snape doing here? How had he even found her?

...He wasn't going to try to make her go back to the Dursleys, was he? That's what had happened the last time someone from Hogwarts had shown up at her door...but she kind of doubted Snape would do that...

Well... If she could feel him, he could definitely feel her, so...she probably shouldn't make him keep waiting. She glanced down to make sure she had shorts on — she didn't sleep in them, but she had gone down for breakfast this morning, still checked just in case — slid the lock, and pulled the door open. "Hello, Professor?" She didn't actually ask what the hell he was doing here, but her tone said it well enough. (He was a mind mage too, he probably knew she was thinking it anyway.)

He gave her one of those Snape-ish expressions, one mildly disapproving eyebrow ticking up. For an instant, his eyes flicked down, and then rolled toward the ceiling, his mind huffing with exasperation even though his shoulders didn't actually move.

Liz was confused for a moment, before remembering mages didn't consider the shorts and vest she was wearing enough to be properly dressed — and they were magically-made, the smooth, soft cloth just looked ordinary enough normal people wouldn't jump to the conclusion they were magic. They were supposed to be worn under robes, not on their own. By magical people standards, she'd essentially just answered the door in her underwear. It wasn't even the first time she'd done that, the same thing had happened that time Dumbledore had shown up. Oops? She meant, she didn't actually care, it didn't feel like she was standing around in her underwear to her, she just knew that's what it seemed like to them. So, oops, but oh well.

"Miss Potter. And how are you enjoying your solitude this lovely weekend?"

Rather less now that he'd shown up. "How did you even find me?"

He didn't bother answering the question, just fixed her with a flat, blank sort of look. "Might I have a word?"

He could have seven — go fuck yourself and leave me alone. She wasn't certain he was listening close enough to pick up on that, his lips might have twitched, a little, it was hard to tell. Seriously though, she thought about it for a second, but it was probably fine. Snape was one of the more dangerous people she knew — he also had mind-control superpowers, and was much more experienced with them than she was — but he'd also been...not nice, exactly, but she thought she could trust him not to do anything bad.

If nothing else, he'd apparently known she wasn't where she was supposed to be, but he hadn't told Dumbledore or anyone who would maybe try to do something about it, so she could probably trust him at least a little. Probably.

Trying not to look too uncomfortable, Liz took a step back, pulling the door open further. "Okay." With a slow little nod, reminding her of one of those polite pureblood gestures other kids at school did (especially Daphne), he swept past her into the room — though his usual dramatic swiftness left much to be desired without his robes to do their swishing — she pushed the door shut again (a little uneasily, she tried to ignore the feeling, she was fine). Feeling unaccountably nervous, what did she think she was going to find, she turned around.

This time around, Liz had picked herself a somewhat nicer hotel room to stay in for the summer, for two primary reasons. For one, she wanted one that had a desk that was actually big enough to do her schoolwork on, with a chair that wouldn't get weird and uncomfortable too quickly — the last one the desk had been too shallow, enough her books poked over the ledge, and the chair had been stiff, the back at an awkward angle. This desk wasn't huge, but at least her books and things actually fit, and this swivel chair was much nicer. The other reason was the food. The last hotel she'd stayed at had had the same thing for breakfast every day (which had been fine), and then a tiny little restaurant that had only been open for a few hours in the evening. This one had a restaurant attached to it that was open all day — the main doors actually opened onto the street, it wasn't just for people staying here — and she could ask for things whenever she wanted. She never got anything big or complicated or anything, partially to avoid drawing attention (it wasn't like she was actually paying them) and also partially because, well, she didn't actually like that much food anyway, when it came down to it. She was just a little picky, she guessed, so being able to pick exactly what she wanted was good, even though she wasn't actually picking anything most people would consider that nice.

So, it wasn't a bad-looking place, all in dark wood and fuzzy carpets, the lamp on at the desk and the bands of sun slipping through the thick blue curtains throwing the room into soft light and moody shadow. Not at all super fancy, but nice. (She actually really liked the bathroom, but she wasn't certain if that was because it was nice or because it was hers alone, and nobody could get in.) The room was bigger than she really needed, because she'd gotten one with two big beds in it, and she really only needed the one. Ironically, she'd picked one with two big beds to make it easier on the staff here (in hopes of attracting less attention) — according to the lady at the desk whose mind Liz had read, most of the people staying here were, like, businessman types, staying in London for a few days, these kinds of rooms were used less often, they had a few sitting open at all times. They didn't need all of them, it wasn't really hurting anyone if Liz camped out in one for a couple months (so they wouldn't think about it too hard).

Of course, it was also better for her cover story, but making the smallest nuisance of herself as possible (so they wouldn't pay enough attention to break her compulsions and realise she was staying here for free) had actually occurred to her first.

It was a mess already, a little bit. There were books and parchments all over the desk, her clothes were kind of spilling out of her trunk at the foot of the bed she wasn't sleeping in, the blankets pulled off and thrown carelessly into a corner, a whole bunch of potions shite spread all over the surface. She'd been brewing earlier, the bed charmed into stone-like hardness to keep anything from spilling, so some of her things were still set up, the cauldron stand set over a bowl with little char marks on it, having been used to hold a magical fire, cutting board and knives on the nightstand.

This morning she'd actually found a use for the bloody huge television. She'd poked about the thing a little bit, after moving in here, but she...didn't think she had the attention span for it? She meant, she just got kind of bored, sitting around watching it and not doing anything. It was too distracting to have going when she was trying to read or write, but it actually wasn't terrible to have going in the background while she was doing potions stuff.

The end of term was barely a week ago, she'd partially unpacked her things, but really hadn't put them anywhere, her clothes instead randomly sprawled across the floor, potions things across the bed. Snape was standing in front of the television, looking around the room with a completely blank expression, something dark and...quiet in his head, she wasn't quite certain what that was. If she knew he was coming, she might have cleaned up a little, if only so he wouldn't...she didn't know, really.

Finally, after several awkward seconds, he spoke. "Miss Potter, have you been brewing in here?"

"Just a little bit. Doing it on the bed seemed more comfortable, because I can kneel on the floor, right there. I charmed the bed so nothing will tip over or anything." As she spoke, Snape leaned forward, poking at the mattress with a finger — it didn't give at all, hard as stone. There was an echo of surprise from him, one of his eyebrows twitching. "I've been reading ahead in Charms, and I think I got a preservation charm working, so I thought I'd test it with a few potions. I thought, if I could keep a few useful ones on me at all times, that might be good."

"I see." Turning the bowl she'd used to hold her fire spell in his hand, Snape hesitated, for the briefest moment. "As impressive as the charmwork on the bed is for a student your age—" Liz blinked at the back of his head — Snape might be less harsh to the Slytherins than the rest of the students, but he hardly ever gave compliments. "—you must know that, at your level of experience, brewing on your own can be quite dangerous."

"I'm being careful. I haven't played with anything new, just potions we've done in class." She planned to move on to useful things that were similar to potions they'd done, but she wasn't reading ahead like she was for charms. She wasn't an idiot, potions could be very dangerous. If nothing else, the mishaps they had in class on the regular demonstrated that quite nicely.

"Show me."

Liz shot him a quick glare, but didn't argue. The drawer in the (mostly unused) dresser opened with a clinking of glass. Snape silently floated over, lifted out one of the bottles — that one was a burn paste (she'd labeled the bottles). A flick of his fingers had the curtains opening a little, a chink of light falling over him. He lifted the bottle into the light, turning it about a little before returning it to its place in the drawer. He repeated the process with every bottle in the drawer — two more burn pastes, four bruise balms, one basic healing potion (for like cuts and stuff), five broad antidotes, and a couple wakefulness draughts — though they didn't all go back, two antidotes and the wakefulness draughts ending up on the counter instead.

Once he'd gone through them all, Snape gently pushed the drawer closed again. "These are contaminated. Using water and drying charms to wash your potions equipment is perfectly acceptable, but any magic will leave traces — traces that could well interfere with the proper functioning of your potion. These traces can be removed by exposing them to direct sunlight, for no less than three hours."

"Direct sunlight? I don't think I can open these windows."

"Glass will not interfere with the process. Take care to properly expose your cauldron — if you cannot expose the entire interior surface for a full three hours, dry it with a plain cotton cloth instead. Stirring and cutting implements should also be dried with a cloth. After use, this cloth should be hung out in the sun as well."

Liz nodded.

His wand appearing out of nowhere, Snape tapped each of the bottles in sequence, the spoiled contents vanishing. (Which was slightly annoying, but if they really were bad...) "The rest of your work is adequate, and your preservation charms are holding. I would take care to reapply them at least once a week."

"Yes, sir."

"I hope you do not intend to brew your calming potions on your own."

"No, sir." She'd found what she was pretty sure was the same potion in one of the textbooks for, like, fifth- or sixth-years or something, back in January. She doubted she could manage it, and there was really no reason to try, since Snape seemed willing to continue to supply her. Speaking of which...

"I trust you are not in need of a refill so soon."

There it was. "No, sir." The last night before she'd left Hogwarts, Snape had called her to his office, and given her a little box with five of the things — along with a stern warning to not take any more than she needed, that this potion was poisonous in large doses. She'd barely listened, she'd gotten that warning countless times over the course of the year. "Those will probably keep the whole summer, I don't think I'll need it nearly as much without all the other people around."

"You will contact me if you find otherwise."

"Yes, sir."

Snape nodded, looked away for a moment to glance around the room. Letting out a thin sigh through his nose, Snape said, "What am I to do with you, Miss Potter?"

She didn't know how to answer that. Or if there even was an answer to that, really.

Letting out another sigh, Snape's eyes tipped up to the ceiling. "Go on, get dressed."

Liz frowned. "What?"

"We're going out. Get dressed."

"Um..." Liz watched him for a moment, but his face was completely unreadable. Mind magic wasn't really helping much either — she didn't want to get too close, because he would definitely feel it if she intruded and he could definitely kick her arse if he wanted to, and pulled as far away as she was she couldn't get much more than an odd...cold stillness. Not angry, but certainly unpleasant, she couldn't tell what that was exactly. "Where are we going?"

"I am going to buy you lunch, and you are going to attempt to explain to me why I should possibly allow an eleven-year-old child to be left to her own devices."

...Oh. Okay, then. That wasn't a conversation she wanted to have, really — she didn't doubt that Snape could make her life very difficult if he chose to, if he decided he didn't want to leave her on her own... — but it wasn't like she actually had any choice in the matter. "Um, I'll need to pack up the obviously magical stuff while we're gone. There's a little do not disturb thingie, but just in case someone comes in anyway."

Snape sniffed. "Don't bother. I'll put an aversion charm over the door as we leave."

Right, Liz knew about those things, she just didn't have the power to cast them. Fine, then. Snape drifted into the little nook by the door, putting his back to the room, presumably to give her privacy, but it wasn't really necessary. It wasn't like she was changing — she just plucked a dress off the armchair and threw it over her head. She didn't actually have much in the way of muggle-appropriate clothes, when it came down to it. It hadn't seemed particularly important, especially since she would be at Hogwarts most of the time anyway, and she didn't...really care about clothes the way a lot of people seemed to? Like, as long as she looked inconspicuous enough people weren't paying her any special attention, it didn't make much difference to her.

Since absorbing that piece of the Dark Lord, sometimes she'd be more aware of the fact that she looked like crap, but she didn't actually want to do anything about it. It was just a thing that was true.

(She still thought it was weird how kinda girly the Dark Lord felt to her sometimes.)

She slipped the hotel key and some cash into a pocket — she'd hopped over to Gringotts to get some muggle money, which she used for most things aside from the hotel. She might actually pay to stay here...if they didn't have an age requirement she couldn't get around easily, and if she was certain her little school kid money would be able to bear it. The goblins were still, just, frustratingly unhelpful, she really had very little idea how much money she had access to, and whether it would last through her time at Hogwarts or not, so she was trying to be careful.

It'd occurred to her over the school year that, being a big important noble family and all, the Potters should have properties somewhere, shouldn't they? Like, houses she could live in, instead of squatting in a muggle hotel. But no, the goblins wouldn't tell her bloody anything, not until she was thirteen — she knew from talking to Daphne that kids were considered old enough to sign contracts and stuff when they were thirteen, really the only thing mages had like an age of majority. (Which was sort of freaky, Hermione had gone on an impressive rant when she'd been told it wasn't unheard of for teenagers sometimes as young as thirteen to sign themselves into corporal indenture, basically a fancy term for slavery, which was perfectly legal. Also, screwing little kids as young as ten or eleven was also perfectly legal, apparently, so long as their guardian was okay with it. Magical Britain was fucked up sometimes.) The upshot was, Liz might actually be able to get herself a real place to stay halfway through next summer, but she was on her own until then.

A quick glance at the mirror hung next to the closet, and fine, she was presentable — or as presentable as she ever got. Maybe straighten her dress a little so she didn't look quite so rumpled, there, that would do.

Once they were out in the hallway, Snape glanced quick both ways before his wand appeared in his hand, cast some kind of charm with a quick silent flick at the door. Liz could feel the magic in the air, sharp and tingly, she could only assume he'd done it correctly. His wand vanished up his sleeve, and Snape indicated the way toward the elevator with a tilt of his head.

Liz followed along, trying to ignore the nervousness turning her stomach and itching at the back of her neck. (It was fine, it was just Snape, she was fine.)

They were waiting for the elevator to come (awkwardly, silently), when one of the ladies turned up, pushing one of those big carts with the cleaning supplies and the laundry bin and all. Jodie, Liz recognised her after a second, she was one of the ones who'd paid rather more attention to Liz. Not for bad reasons, or she might have told Jodie to ignore her. She was just concerned, which was slightly annoying, but not really a problem Liz had to make go away.

Liz had told the staff that she was in London with her parents, but they had vague business things to do, so she was left here on her own during the day. A little bit of poking at their heads made them not wonder why they'd never actually seen her parents, but that didn't stop them for having other thoughts. Jodie was of the opinion that it really wasn't okay for Liz's parents to leave her alone for so long, she kind of suspected they were terrible people, so she'd been friendly and slightly nosey so far, making sure she was okay, but it wasn't really a problem.

She could have done something more extreme to make the staff not think about her at all, but she would have to renew that sort of compulsion now and again, and she didn't know what the long term effects would be, or if they'd flip out or something if she didn't see them for too long and they broke out of it. Smaller was safer, she thought.

"Hello, Liz dear," the woman said, with her usual warm (slightly worried) smile, but her voice seemed slightly...off. Her mind felt rather sharper than it usually did too. Liz figured out she was suspicious of Snape and what exactly he was doing with her just as she said, "And you are?"

Snape, amazingly, smiled. It wasn't, like, an especially big or bright smile, more a thin, polite sort of thing, but it was there. It was bloody weird, Liz tried not to gape at him like an idiot. "My name's Steven—" Liz blinked. "—Lily's my sister. Neither of them will be getting lunch off, so I thought I'd take Elizabeth out." His voice had gone slightly higher and slightly rougher than usual, the normal cool ice gone. His accent had even changed. Liz tried not to react, because that would probably just make Jodie more suspicious, but it was bloody strange.

"Oh!" Jodie looked taken aback for a second, then slightly embarrassed — though her suspicion didn't entirely go away, still glancing between the two of them, as though looking for something out of place. "Is that Liz's mother, Lily? Only, I haven't seen her around, I don't think..."

"Yes, well." Snape's eyes tipped to the ceiling with a little exasperated sigh, rather lighter and good-natured-sounding than he would usually make. "I'm not surprised — Lily and James are focused on their careers a little bit too much, if you ask me. I don't have a spare bedroom myself, I'm afraid, but I reckon dropping by to check in on Elizabeth now and again is the least I can do."

Jodie gave Liz a long look, but whatever she was looking for she must have found, because the rest of her uncertainty vanished. She and Snape chatted for a few more seconds, before the elevator doors finally slid open, and then they were leaving, Jodie left behind them.

"Your work is acceptable."

Liz blinked. "What?"

A single eyebrow ticked up, something thick and itchy rung from Snape's head. "The mind magic you performed on Jodie back there. Did the rest of the staff get the same treatment?"

"Oh, yes." She hadn't even noticed him checking, Snape was damn sneaky. "Anyone who looked at me twice, anyway."

"I suppose that should be sufficient."

...Okay.

Somewhat to her surprise, Snape didn't lead her into the restaurant connected to the hotel. They left through the main doors onto the street — going through the lobby, Snape got another suspicious look from the bloke behind the counter, but he brushed it off much easier than Jodie — and then went down a block, turned the corner, walked for a bit, crossed the street a couple times. After some minutes, they came to a cafe. Or, it was called a cafe, but it really looked more like a pub to her — she was pretty sure those were even beer taps over there. But fine, whatever.

They didn't stay inside very long, though, they were sat at one of the tables out on the pavement. (The cafe was recessed back a little bit compared to the shops to either side, she suspected it'd been rebuilt to allow having tables outside.) Which, that was fine, it was a rather nice day out, and she guessed there wasn't too much foot traffic here, whatever. She'd think Snape would have preferred a table in a quiet corner somewhere they wouldn't be overheard...but Jodie had clearly looked at Snape like he was a paedophile or something, sitting out in the open like this was probably way less suspicious.

Besides, the instant the server turned her back Snape sketched a few runes on the table, magic crackling into existence on the air around them. He probably knew what he was doing.

They sat in awkward silence for a couple minutes, Liz avoiding his eyes by looking sightlessly at the buildings around them, before the server came skipping back. Which meant she had to order something now, shite, Liz hadn't been paying attention. She glanced over the menu for a second, just asked for the first thing on the breakfast list — she could be very picky, when it came to normal people food, but between eggs and bacon and sausage and beans there was nothing there she wouldn't eat. But apparently that came with tea or coffee, and...coffee was fine, she guessed? Tea tended to taste weird and...she didn't know...green?

Snape seemed slightly irritated for some reason, but he didn't say anything.

There were another awkward couple minutes, and the server reappeared with coffee and water, cheerfully chattering away for a little bit — Snape had that same spontaneous personality shift whenever she was around, it was bloody strange. And then they were alone again, Liz and Snape and the strangers passing by, cars rumbling and blaring.

She'd gotten so used to him not saying anything she nearly jumped when he did. "You have put me in a very difficult position, Miss Potter."

...She had no idea what she was supposed to say to that.

"In the interest of full disclosure, I have been aware you ran away from your relatives last summer for some time now."

Liz frowned. "Did you read my mind?" He'd never directly asked her, those meetings they'd had when they'd talked about stuff, but she had thought about it...

"No, I have never read your mind." Taking a sip of his coffee, he suffered her doubtful glare for a few seconds before letting out a sigh, his head huffing with exasperation again. "Miss Potter, were I to enter your mind, you would almost certainly be aware of it. Your friends, however, are not nearly so self-possessed — if you wish to share your secrets with Miss Black and Miss Granger, you should perhaps teach them some rudimentary occlumency."

She kept glaring at him — how the hell was she supposed to teach them mind magic, she barely knew how she did it herself. They'd said they were looking into picking it up themselves, but Liz had hardly noticed any progress so far... "You read their minds?"

"In my defence, Miss Black was quite concerned for you. If you are in legitimate danger, I do have an obligation to do something about it."

Well, that was maybe a point. Maybe. Liz let out a huff, but focused back on her coffee rather than argue.

"Potter, aren't you going to put any sugar in that?"

Liz blinked. "Er. No?" She thought just a little bit of cream was about perfect, really...

A mild shiver of revulsion echoing in the air, Snape stared at her for a second. "Further, I have already visited your relatives, yesterday evening."

Despite herself, Liz tensed — teachers talking to the Dursleys never ended well for her. The echo of it lingered around her, like a bad smell, but she stuck her face in her coffee, it would go away if she ignored it. (Hopefully. She didn't have a calming potion on her.)

"I of course did not expect to find you there, but there is...a certain process I have refined for this sort of problem. But, due to extraordinary circumstances, I cannot pursue the avenues I normally would. So I find myself in this very difficult situation of mine."

Liz took a breath, slowly in and out, trying to loosen her shoulders, to ignore her skin crawling like ants. (It was fine, if Snape were going to force her back to the Dursleys he wouldn't have dragged her out to lunch, he would have just done it.) "Nobody else knows?"

"Besides Black and Granger? Not so far as I am aware." Snape let out a slow breath through his nose. "Miss Potter, if I informed the proper authorities about your current living arrangements, what do you believe would happen?"

"Dumbledore would bring my back there." Or, it probably wouldn't actually be Dumbledore, it would be like an Auror or McGonagall or something, just, when she imagined someone forcing her back to Privet Drive, she imagined Dumbledore.

"That is the most likely result, yes. In all likelihood, there is nothing either of us would be able to do about it. His custody over you could be challenged, theoretically, but in the absence of anyone in a strong position to do so, any such attempt would be doomed to failure. I could remonstrate with him, but I doubt he could be readily convinced that your relatives are not suitable guardians."

Liz glared down at her coffee. Honestly, it shouldn't be hard to convince Dumbledore she did not want to go back there. He'd read their minds, hadn't he? There had to be reason he wanted her there, but she couldn't think of anything. (Besides that freaks belonged in places like that, but that didn't sound like the kind of thing Dumbledore would think.)

She didn't say anything, but Snape must have picked up a little bit of what she was thinking (or at least the tone of it) — he let out another long sigh, his head ringing with frustration, and something colder and darker she couldn't quite put a word to. "Many people, I'm sorry to say, simply will not understand these things. After all, if one has absolutely no experience with something, it can be difficult, even impossible, to grasp the full nature of it. Albus Dumbledore came from a happy family. They had their troubles, as many families do, but his parents loved him, his brother and his sister, they did the best they could with the difficult hand they were dealt.

"Over the years since, Dumbledore has certainly been confronted with the idea of...unhealthy home environments. But it is just that to him: an idea. It is a concept he has heard of, and heard of alone, not something that is quite real to him. If you were to explain to him how your relatives have treated you, he will not understand. He will assume you are, perhaps, fudging the details, making things sound worse than they truly are, in pursuit of some unfathomable end. Because Dumbledore is the sort of man who simply cannot imagine harming a child himself, so he has difficulty imagining how anyone else could mistreat a child given into their care. People who have never been exposed to these things, good people, they often cannot understand it. No matter what we say to sway them."

Liz would say that was, just, completely ridiculous...but it wasn't like she understood normal people either. She guessed it made sense that normal people wouldn't understand her. "But you do?" That maybe wasn't quite clear...

Snape's brow twitched, something slick and dark flickering in his head. "I do indeed. Your situation is perhaps not quite so unique as you believe. I will not betray the confidence of any of your classmates, but I have intervened in a number of...circumstances I felt were unacceptable, in the dozen or so years since I have taken over as head of Slytherin. At this point, I feel there is little I have not yet seen, at one point or another."

She guessed she had heard rumours about that — Snape intervening with Slytherins' families, she meant. Nobody really talked about details, but...

"Elizabeth." She started, looked up from her coffee to Snape across from him. He'd leaned forward a little at some point, his stare flat and cold and heavy. "I understand this may be difficult for you to believe — you needn't just now, I will not take it personally should you wait for my future actions to demonstrate my sincerity. I will never send you back to your relatives, not ever, and should anyone else attempt to do so I will exhaust every means available to me to prevent it. I am trying to help you. It is my job, and one I am dead serious about."

Liz couldn't say anything. She could barely think. She just stared back at him, hardly even blinking.

She nearly spilled her coffee all over herself when the server reappeared out of nowhere.

The server lady set down their stuff, chattering on for a little bit with Snape, who'd again done that creepy personality shift thing. Something must be showing on Liz's face, because she seemed a bit...tingly and shifty, throwing what Liz thought might be concerned glances at her now and again. Liz wasn't really listening to what they were saying, just staring down at her food, the server bounced away again before too long.

And she felt Snape's eyes on her skin like ants, but she didn't look up, picking at her plate, sprinkling pepper over her eggs and just...trying not to think too much.

(if she didn't think about what he'd just said she didn't have to decide if she actually believed him or not, and what she should do about that. It was easier to just drop it and move on.)

"It is possible, I suppose," Snape said, all casual, as though this were a perfectly ordinary conversation, as though he hadn't just said what he'd said, "that I may be able to convince Dumbledore to find some other guardian for you. There are difficulties with this proposition, however. If Dumbledore were to pick somewhere else to put you, it would likely be with one of his friends or allies. Perhaps with the Weasleys, or the Prewetts, the McKinnons, the Fawleys, the Joneses. Emma Vance, maybe. There are options. But, I anticipate there would be difficulties with any such arrangement.

"Miss Potter, if Dumbledore sent you to live with someone else, who promptly stared setting boundaries for you, telling you what to do and when, how likely do you think it is you will simply run away again?"

Liz didn't answer for a moment, glaring down at her plate. Mixing up her beans and eggs — another shiver of revulsion came from Snape, which was silly, scrambled eggs tended to be too dry without cheese, and the beans had all this gravy with them — she pondered over the question. It was...probably fine to answer honestly. Snape didn't really seem like he disapproved, exactly — perhaps slightly frustrated, but not in a truly angry way. Besides, that he'd asked the question at all sort of suggested he already knew what she was going to say anyway. "Um, it depends, I guess, but I probably would, yeah."

She knew, from picking at memories in other kids' heads, the sort of things normal not terrible adults made the kids they were looking after do. She didn't just mean, like, chores and stuff, but other things like when they were allowed to leave the house, and where they could go when they did, which people they could talk to, and stuff like enforcing bedtimes and the like. If some stranger started trying to control where she went and what she did and when, she was certain she'd just run away again before too long rather than deal with it.

She didn't need anyone telling her what to do, okay. She was just fine on her own.

"And unlike your relatives, anyone else the Headmaster is likely to set you up with will alert him the moment you go missing. If I do inform Dumbledore, I imagine the best-case scenario is that he will put you with someone well-meaning but hopelessly ill-equipped. Thus will come an endless circle, where they attempt to impose some modest modicum of control over your life, authority which you will flout, again and again. A circle that will fruitlessly frustrate everyone involved. It would only, I fear, make everything worse."

Liz nodded — from what she understood about how adults usually dealt with kids, that did seem very likely. Except, it wouldn't be a circle, but a spiral: they would eventually escalate, backing up their demands with ever-increasing force (she hadn't understood what was happening, she hadn't done anything), until she ultimately had to use mind magic to defend herself. But whoever else Dumbledore would stick her with would probably be magical, so they'd be able to retaliate in ways the Dursleys couldn't. Give it enough time, and Liz thought it was very possible things would actually end up worse than they'd been before she'd run away — worse than that, before she'd made him stop.

The lines on her back itched, she tasted the echo of it on the air like a bad smell, but Liz pushed it back, focusing on her breakfast, woodenly taking a bite of sausage she hardly tasted. She wouldn't go back. She didn't care what Snape or Dumbledore or anyone else said, she wouldn't.

(If they tried to force her to stay somewhere, she would escape, by any means necessary — even if she had to murder her jailers in their sleep. She couldn't go back, she couldn't.)

"You see the difficulty I am in." Snape paused for a moment, taking a bite of... Was Snape eating fish and chips? Liz hadn't noticed, she'd been too distracted trying not to feel (Vernon hated it when she cried.) but that was just... Surreal, Professor Snape eating fish and chips, she didn't... "I cannot send you to live with any of your relatives. I cannot force the man supposedly responsible for your well-being to put you somewhere suitable. There are no higher authorities I can co-opt to intervene on your behalf. Anything I attempt to do will only make things worse, I fear.

"So, Miss Potter," Snape said, leaning over the table again, his eyes flat and heavy (she had to look down at her eggs), "convince me. Prove to me that I can leave you here with a clear conscience, and I will do so."

...Oh. Um...

Somehow, it hadn't occurred to Liz that Snape would consider staying in the hotel by herself to even be on the table. She hadn't thought to...

Mechanically chewing at a bite of toast and egg and bean, Liz pondered the problem for a moment. How exactly was she supposed to convince a supposedly responsible adult that a little kid would be fine on her own? That wasn't the sort of thing adults were ever on board with. Hmm. "Well, I don't really need any help. I mean, I have a place to stay, and I'm eating and everything." In a lower mutter, she added, "I'm even doing my bloody homework..." Mostly because, well, what else was she supposed to do with her time, but she had the feeling that was one of those things parents made their kids do...

There was a faint ringing of amusement from across the table, but it didn't show on Snape's face at all. "I don't doubt that you're fully capable of managing yourself on a day to day basis — I suspect you've been doing so for some time. That is not my concern."

"Then why?" She was pretty sure that was why people thought kids need adults watching them, to make sure they did what they were supposed to...

Snape seemed faintly exasperated again. "Miss Potter, you have been brewing on your own, in an environment that is far from ideal for the purpose. You are using mind magic, compulsions spread across several different people, to defraud muggles out of what will be, by the end of summer, thousands of pounds of value. Do you truly imagine you are capable of managing every possible scenario that might develop should something go wrong?"

Glaring down at her plate again, Liz pointlessly stirred at her eggs and beans. She didn't know what he was so worried about. She was being careful with the potions, only doing things she was certain she could brew without any mishaps — they were all...well, mostly things they'd brewed in class already, it was fine. So far as the mind magic went...hadn't he said himself she'd done a good job with it? She'd basically just done what she'd needed to to keep anyone from thinking too hard about her presence, and she'd just have to...update it every once in a while, so people wouldn't consider how long she'd been there.

It could be difficult to make people do things against their interests, that was true. If she was directly forcing people to give her stuff she wanted, that could be hard — and they almost always noticed something was wrong, though people who didn't know about magic had no idea what was happening. But just getting people to not think too hard about her, or ignore her entirely, that wasn't hard at all. If she really had to, she could just prevent the hotel staff from even realising she was even there. She'd have to do something to make sure they didn't give her room to someone else, but...

And if they did realise something was going on, what were they going to do? Call the police on her? They weren't any more resistant to this stuff than anyone else. Depending on how suspicious they were, it could be difficult to get them to go away, but if worst came to worst she could just blank their memories and send them away, give herself an hour or two to pack up her things and get out before someone came back. There were other hotels she could go to if this one fell through, it was fine.

She guessed it was possible mages could get involved somehow — there had to be laws against people using magic on normal people, right? The magic police would have to have some way to deal with mind magic. Honestly, she'd kind of forgotten Aurors were a thing, she hadn't known they existed when she first started living on her own, so. She guessed that might be a problem, one she couldn't handle herself. Not that she was certain what Snape could possibly do if she was actually in trouble, he was just a bloody school teacher...

But, it was possible something might come up that she needed help with. She guessed. It hadn't happened last summer, but her luck wouldn't necessarily hold out forever.

Liz sighed. "What do you want?"

"Excuse me?"

"You're not here to decide whether I can stay on my own. You're here to dictate terms I have to meet for you to leave me alone." And, indirectly, to put himself into a position where she could ask him if she did need help with something — she might have been rather more annoyed than she was if he wasn't implying she would be getting something in exchange. Even if she didn't think she ever actually would need his help with anything, still. "So, what do you want?"

Snape's head rang with amusement, intensely enough she almost thought he might be smiling. (She wasn't looking, still picking at her food.) "Well, you are quite direct, aren't you."

"I don't like dancing around the point."

"Evidently." Snape paused a moment, presumably taking a bite of something. "You will write me every other day. It doesn't have to be anything substantive — it could be a slip of paper with I'm still fine written on it. I simply want regular reassurance that you haven't gotten yourself into trouble. If I don't hear from you for a few days, I will track you down again, and we'll have to have a far less pleasant conversation."

Stabbing at her sausage, Liz held in the urge to groan — like this was a pleasant conversation... "Fine, I can do that." It's not like that was that big of an imposition, really. Except, "How am I supposed to get things to you?"

A flash of irritation, so mild Liz wasn't certain it was there. "Is there a pressing reason you haven't bought an owl yet, Potter?"

...Oh. Well, no, not really. Her first trip to Charing, she hadn't known what owls were for, and after that it simply hadn't occurred to her. There were postal stations set up in magical settlements, she'd figured if she ever had to send a thing she could just walk in, pay a couple knuts, and there it was. Of course, then she'd had to leave Charing, and she wasn't staying there now... "No, I can do that. Was that it?"

That wasn't it. That wasn't it at all.


July 1992


Dorea had been around magic for half of her life now, but there were were still some things she hadn't quite gotten used to.

Inanimate objects randomly moving or even talking would always kind of freak her out — she simply couldn't imagine why people thought having a talking mirror was a good idea. (She never liked staying over at Cassiopeia's, because her room there had one of those damn creepy mirrors, she always felt uncomfortable changing in front of it.) There were a lot of weird cultural things out there, especially among the commons, and there were just too many little different groups it was simply impossible to keep track of them all. (She'd only barely heard of the Mistwalker Clans before meeting Daphne, and they were even one of the more important ones.) How cavalier mages could be about body modification was still very strange to her — less so among the nobility than the commons, at least when it comes to more mundane things like piercings and such, but permanent cosmetic alterations through the use of potions or ritual (or blood magic) were actually pretty common.

Apparently, a house elf just appearing in the middle of lunch was one of those things. Dorea started hard, her heart jumping up into her throat for a second. And she wasn't the only one — Mum jumped, nearly spilling tea all over her book, Ben drove his spoon into his bowl, launching bits of noodles and cheese into the air to splatter across the table.

Sam, perched on the seat next to Mum, just giggled, though. Sam thought elves were funny, he kept trying to play with their ears whenever one stood close to him for long enough.

The elf — this one was Cherri, she thought, one of the chief elf's adult nieces — hardly even acknowledged the upset her appearance caused. She just glanced across the table, a snap of her fingers and a tingling wave of magic vanishing the spilled macaroni cheese, before turning back to Dorea. "Cherri is carrying a letter for Mistress Dorea," she said, her voice oddly thin and shaky, holding up a folded piece of parchment.

Actually, it wasn't just her voice, she didn't look quite well either. It was hard to tell for sure, since elves didn't really look much like humans to begin with, and Dorea wasn't very familiar with this elf in particular, but she thought Cherri was on the edge of tears — big bright eyes looking somehow brighter than usual, big ears twitching, looking all too tense and strained. "Cherri, is something wrong?"

"It is Lady Cassie, she, she is..." Cherri cut herself off, glancing away from Dorea, and took a long, deep breath. "You should read the letter, Mistress. Menae is waiting for you to call, when you are ready. She is thinking it is maybe being better to wait until tomorrow."

"Oh. Okay." Cautiously, Dorea took the letter, the parchment cold and rough against her fingers. She opened her mouth to ask Cherri if Menae (the chief elf) wanted something in particular from her, but she popped away again before Dorea could form the first syllable.

Sam squealed. "Bye bye, elf!"

Ruffling Sam's thin toddler-hair, sending him into more giggles, Mum said, "Do you think Cassiopeia...moved on?"

"That's probably it, yeah." Feeling an odd sense of dread, Dorea pushed her mostly-empty bowl aside, flattened the parchment down on the table in front of her. Ignoring Mum and the boys going off on something to do with elves, she read.

Dorea—

Immediately after handing this letter off to the elves, I will be performing a ritual to sever myself from my name. It is some more of that esoteric ritual magic mumbo-jumbo you hate so much — in case you're wondering, it is illegal, naturally — but the result should not be difficult to wrap your head around. By the time you receive this letter, so far as all of the magics that monitor such things are concerned, it will be as though I were dead. From this day on, there is no Cassiopeia Black.

I know this may feel sudden. We have spoken of my inevitable exit from our family on multiple occasions, but I have never given you any explicit indication of when that would be. Honestly, it was difficult to talk about. It's not outside the ordinary for a metamorph to carry their birth name for as long as I have, but my situation is not ordinary.

My parents are dead. My brothers and my baby sister. My aunts and my uncles. My cousins are either all gone, or have turned their backs on our family so thoroughly they have long refused to acknowledge our name. Since Walburga passed last year, so too are all my nieces and nephews (at least those who carry the name) either dead or in Azkaban.

I haven't told you this, but I've almost abandoned this life before. Once, long ago, when my grandparents and my uncles and my aunts — the ones I'd liked, anyway — had started dying one after the other, I nearly left. But my baby sister, your namesake, had just been coming into her own then, and a new generation of Blacks were about to be born, and I had my work with the Aurors to distract me. It was enough, for a time.

And then, for a time, it was the war that kept me here. What remained of the family split, some declaring allegiance to that fool Dark Lord of theirs and the rest taking up arms to oppose them, we were already tearing ourselves apart, I couldn't simply  leave . I quit the Aurors out of frustration with how bloody useless they were. (That bridge is thoroughly burnt, I couldn't go back if I wanted to.) I considered calling a Circle myself, but I truly hadn't the influence or the contacts to do such a thing, nor a full understanding of what could be done. Trying to stop young Blacks from doing anything stupid, keeping an eye on the state of things in places outside the light of upstanding British society, helping Dumbledore's foolhardy Order smuggle muggleborns and their families out of the country, those were things Cassiopeia Black could do, so there was still reason enough for her to exist, for me to be invested in her.

Then the war was over, and our family all but dead.

I would already be gone, if not for you. It has been difficult, stagnating here, performing a character that truly hasn't felt authentic to me for decades now. I do not mean to say I regret or resent it, the years I have known you, and I don't mean all this as a personal slight. But I have been forcing myself through the motions for some time now. It is miserable. I hate it, confining myself as I must, and I'm sure I have not been pleasant to be around as of late. It isn't fair to you to subject you to my misery, and no longer can I force myself to endure. I simply can't.

I would ask for your forgiveness for skipping out on you on such short notice, but that would feel a lie. Honestly, I simply can't care anymore. Everything of Cassiopeia Black in me has been used up, and I have nothing more to give.

In my absence, you will now be Lady of the House. The practical aspects of your accession will be delayed until you turn thirteen — you will have some months to become accustomed to the idea. There are some decisions you will need to make about the household immediately, however. In particular, I believe Menae wishes to move on as well. The elves will choose her replacement from among themselves, but the law of our family requires confirmation from you, at the least. The new chief elf will be able to handle most issues that might come up during our interregnum.

You might be interested to know that I did finally manage to track down my nephew Alphard, who you'll recall was expelled from the family some decades ago. It turns out he'd married into a Gaelic clan at some point. He was killed in the war, but his daughter lives, and she has children of her own. In one of my final acts as Lady of the House, I sponsored them for admittance to Hogwarts, and last I checked they planned to accept. They will most likely be entering this September as first years. They do not carry the Black name — though I have added them to the mosaic at Ancient House, if you're curious — and you have no obligation to even speak to them if you do not wish to.

It feels like there should be more to say, but words escape me at this moment. Though I will be carrying a new name and wearing an unfamiliar face, we will meet again. I cannot say when, probably years from now.

Until that day, I wish you grace and good fortune.

Dorea folded the letter up again, staring blankly down at the table.

"Dove? Was it Cassiopeia?"

She nodded. "Yeah. She's gone."

A couple seconds later, and Mum was out of her chair, coming around the table to crouch over her. Dorea was about to roll her eyes — she was fine, honestly — but then Mum's fingers were running through her hair, so, she guessed she could tolerate the hovering. "Are you okay? If you wanted to call off today and—"

"No, no." Dorea ended her head shake leaning against Mum's shoulder. "It's too late to tell Liz anyway, she must be almost here by now." London wasn't that far away, and she said she'd be grabbing lunch on the way... "Don't worry, I'm fine. It's not like I didn't know this was coming." She nearly added that Cassiopeia also wasn't actually dead either, but she really was, for all intents and purposes. Metamorphs were just sort of odd sometimes.

As Dorea understood it, metamorphs were technically immortal. They could be killed like anyone else, of course, but as soon as they reached a certain point of psychological development where they could fully utilise their self-transfigurative abilities they completely ceased aging. Apparently, that point was usually somewhere between the ages of seven and eleven — Andi had had to help Dora get through puberty with a combination of medical charms and potions and a thorough education in anatomy, because it simply wouldn't have happened naturally.

Of course, just because metamorphs couldn't die from old age didn't mean they all lived forever — most metamorphs never even made it to the age of twenty. See, metamorphs could make of themselves anything they liked, but their body still had to function. It was all too easy for a young metamorph, experimenting with what they could do, to twist themselves into a shape where blood flow to somewhere important was cut off, or they couldn't breathe, or something, and they accidentally killed themselves. (Hence Dora acquiring nigh-Healer-appropriate knowledge of human anatomy by the age of nine.) Their natural self-transfigurative abilities interacted unpredictably with potions and spells with transfigurative effects, sometimes basic schoolyard jinxes could have devastating complications, even lethal ones.

Dora had actually been sent to Saint Mungo's in critical condition multiple times in her first couple years at Hogwarts...from prank jinxes. Her original interest in picking up dueling had entirely been out of self-defence.

If they managed to make it to adulthood, though, metamorphs generally only died from violence. And, since every mage grew slowly more powerful as they used magic, the longer a metamorph lived the harder they were to kill — some of the most dangerous people in the world were multi-centenarian metamorphs, more powerful than most any mortal mage could ever match and with the experience to back it up. (There were a small number who were millennia old, a tiny handful who literally pre-dated written history, but they tended to be rather withdrawn, so they weren't exactly dangerous, for the most part.) Though Cassiopeia was only eighty-six — comfortably middle-aged for a mage, not truly old by their standards yet — she had decades of experience as an Auror, and she spent no small portion of her free time studying the Dark Arts for fun. She'd already been kind of intimidating, honestly. Give her a couple centuries, and she'll probably be terrifying.

Though she wouldn't be Cassiopeia anymore. Presumably as a consequence of how they could change themselves physically, metamorphs tended to have...an unstable sense of their own identity. It was very common for a metamorph to stick around until their immediate family started dying off, then they'd just...disappear, to go be someone else somewhere else. A different name, with a different background (made up, of course), sometimes as the opposite sex, they would just drift around, performing the role of dozens of people over their lives, rarely staying in one place as one person for more than a century or so. It was so instinctive for them, the few metamorphs who didn't flit about and change like this were considered rather eccentric.

So, she'd known this was coming. She'd originally learned how metamorphs work years ago — with Cassiopeia and Dora both around, it hadn't taken long at all to come up — and Cassiopeia hadn't taken any efforts to hide that she didn't plan to be around for very much longer. She'd never said how long, no, but Dorea had known it would be soon. She'd known this was coming.

(It still kind of hurt.)

While Dorea's thoughts were wandering, Mum had been explaining to the boys what was going on. (She hadn't been listening, but she was pretty sure Mum was going with the simpler explanation of her having died.) Neither of them had known Cassiopeia particularly well, really, though they had met several times, and they at least knew who she was. Well, Ben did, at least — Sam was still a little too young for it to quite click that he and Dorea had different fathers, so the Blacks and the Tonkses weren't actually related to him, but that didn't matter so much.

Ben, who at least seemed appropriately sympathetic — or about as appropriately sympathetic as a four-year-old was capable of being — suddenly perked up. "We gonna have sad cake?"

Mum let out a surprised chuckle. While Dorea had been away at Hogwarts, Rick's father (who Dorea had barely ever met) had died. Apparently, there had been cake at the wake, and Ben had been very confused, because cake was meant for happy occasions, birthdays and the like. The only thing Ben had gotten out of the explanation was that this was sad cake — also, sad cake was tasty. "Well, we were going to have cake tomorrow anyway, but you can call it sad cake if you like."

Both boys squealed, "Yaaaayy!" Sam probably just because Ben started doing it first.

Dorea would tease them about being happy her aunt had died, but really, using Cassiopeia as an excuse for cake would probably be better than telling Liz it was supposed to be for her birthday. She wasn't certain how Liz would react, so.

Once lunch was done and the dishes cleaned and put away, Dorea slipped away into her room. She'd intended to get some of her summer homework done — she still hadn't finished Potions and Cambrian (she was going to horribly backslide in Cambrian over months not using it, she just knew it) — but instead she ended up just sitting at her desk, playing with her pencil. Thinking about Cassiopeia.

Dorea didn't know how to feel about her being gone, really. She couldn't say they were particularly close. She hadn't even known she existed until she'd been...seven, she thought — it would have been after her whole medical thing back then, Andi hadn't introduced them until after she was okay again. And Cassiopeia had always been...distant and cold and awkward.

Which did make sense, now that Dorea had thought about it, if she'd been feeling so disconnected with her birth identity. Dorea had always thought it was just because she was old (though she never looked old, because metamorph), and very pureblood. Most of magical Britain's pureblood nobility tended to be like that, so flat and distant it was hard to imagine they were really feeling anything at all. The other kids at school proved that the whole thing was just an act, because most of them really weren't very good at it yet — Daphne pulled it off better, but the mask slipped completely off sometimes, making it even more obvious the whole thing was a performance. (Dorea suspected she was overcompensating, because the nobility didn't have a great opinion of the Mistwalkers and she didn't want to embarrass herself, but she didn't know for sure and it didn't quite seem appropriate to ask.) But in retrospect, that she didn't feel like Cassiopeia Black anymore, so she had to try to force it and it wasn't working very well, made a lot more sense.

If nothing else, Cassiopeia's history, dating all the way back to her disciplinary record at Hogwarts, didn't really give much indication she gave a damn about the nobility's mind games. That Cassipeia was just a typical strict pureblood matron made less and less sense the more she thought about it.

Dorea had complained a bit about having to go to hers for lessons, but they weren't all bad. The etiquette stuff was awful, yes, but some of the history and politics were fascinating. The Black family was literally millennia old, and over that time they'd had a few...characters, let's put it, and Cassiopeia seemed to prefer to focus on the stories of their more dramatic, interesting forebears. And the politics and political history, well, a lot of that was boring, when it was just about names and dates and economics and the like, but Cassiopeia had been walking in their circles for a long while — she knew quite a lot about the people in the Wizengamot and the Ministry, as people, some of the stories she had were kinda funny and others, just, outrageously scandalous.

When Cassiopeia started talking, Dorea could never guess if it was going to be something boring, unsettling, or hilarious. Kept her on her toes, if nothing else.

And she'd never go to meet her at Ancient House ever again.

It was just kind of... She didn't know what she was feeling, exactly. But she certainly couldn't focus on doing homework at the moment.

She'd been struggling to get something accomplished for maybe a half an hour when the doorbell rang, startling her out of her thoughts badly enough she dropped her pencil. Popping to her feet immediately, she was still only halfway down the stairs or so when she heard the door open, Mum's chirped welcome far clearer than Liz's low mumble. The door was closing again by the time Dorea came into view — it could be her imagination, but she thought she caught a little bit of tension lift from Liz at her appearance.

"Your parents were Lily and Jamie Potter, right?" Mum was asking. "I think Dorea said something about that, but I can't remember for certain."

Dorea held in a wince — Mum didn't know Liz was a legilimens, and Dorea hadn't been able to come up with any good way to warn her she couldn't lie to Liz. Mum knew exactly who Liz was, she was just being silly. By the flat, unamused look Liz shot her, she knew Mum was lying, but had no idea why. "That's what I'm told."

"I thought so. Can't say I knew them very well myself, but we did meet, briefly — they were there when Sirius and I married, you know."

"Ah."

"Lily was nice enough, I thought — a little creepy, maybe, a lot of mages come off that way to me — but, sorry if this isn't a nice thing to say, lovie, but Jamie was a little bit of a prick."

Liz's lips twitched slightly, her amusement barely noticeable. "Yeah, I've gotten that impression, for both of them. Apparently Lily was into, like, Dark Arts and stuff, and James was a toff."

"At least Sirius had a sense of irony about it, but good God, the way those two played off each other..." Mum shook her head. "Anyway, if you girls wanted to get settled in, I'll get out of your hair. Richard isn't getting home until five or so, we don't have anything on until then."

"Okay. Thanks, Missus..." Liz trailed off — probably just occurring to her she didn't actually know what Mum's last name is.

Of course, in the muggle world Dorea's name hadn't been Black since she'd been a toddler, but it also wasn't Walker either. When Mum and Rick had married, Dorea had decided to keep Young, Mum's maiden name, but as far as magical law was concerned she was a Black and that was that...so Liz didn't even know what Dorea's last name was. Though, actually, magical convention allowed for someone having a surname that was different from their house, like how Olivie, a Ravenclaw in their year, her last name was Rivers but she was a Tugwood, so technically... Whatever, not important.

Smirking to herself a little, Mum said, "It's Walker, lovie, but call me Gail."

"Er, right."

Once Mum flounced off again, Dorea led Liz up the stairs. The thunk of Liz's trunk hitting each stair sounded rather louder than Dorea knew it actually was — she couldn't help wondering if Liz had packed up and brought everything she owned with her. "Sorry about my mum, she can be a bit..." Dorea trailed off as she stepped into her room, absently sat on the edge of her bed as she considered how to finish that sentence. "Well. My mum."

"It's fine." Liz glanced around the room for a moment, an odd, slightly crooked, inscrutable expression on her face. Dorea didn't think her room was really that unusual. There was less floorspace at the moment — Rick had found a spare mattress somewhere, it was fixed up in the middle of the floor (Dorea had assumed Liz wouldn't be comfortable sharing a bed) — but other than that. Liz pushed her trunk against the wall with a foot. "Is something wrong? You feel...weird."

Bloody cheat mind-reader. "Oh, I'm fine. Only, my great-aunt died, I just found out an hour ago."

Liz frowned at her slightly — if Dorea had to guess, that statement hadn't registered entirely truthful to her (which it wasn't, sort of). She dismissed it after a second. "Um. I'm sorry," she muttered, awkwardly. Even that much didn't sound quite natural, as though she knew she should be saying something, but had no idea what.

"I'm fine. We weren't that close, and I knew this was coming. Was just a bit sudden, I guess. I am kind of sorry you didn't get to meet her, now that I think about it."

Liz clearly had no idea how to react to that. Which wasn't that much of a surprise, she guessed, Dorea doubted Liz had any experience dealing with this sort of situation. After a moment of thought, she finally said, "Oh, was this someone I'm related to too?"

Dorea nodded. "She was your grandmother's sister. Older by like fifteen years, so more like an aunt, really. I was planning on introducing you two at some point, never got around to it..."

"Okay," Liz muttered, awkwardly.

Trying to hide her amusement as best she could — not that it mattered, Liz was probably reading her mind right now — Dorea said, "We can talk about something else."

Liz let out a relieved sigh, Dorea couldn't quite hold in a giggle.

They quickly ended up babbling away about their summer homework for Potions — Liz had finished it weeks ago already, because of course she did, she was one of the best Potions students in their year. Well, sort of? It was complicated. Dorea had noticed before the end of September that Liz's performance in class didn't necessarily match her actual marks. She regularly topped the class in practical lessons in Charms, and frequently did near the best in Potions, but she barely scraped Acceptables in her written work for both classes. She tended to get Ps in Transfiguration and Cambrian — despite her attempts at spoken Cambrian being better than Dorea's, and she'd finished with an O in that class — and Dorea had seen mostly Ds on her work for Astronomy and History.

It wasn't actually possible to fail a class at Hogwarts — whether someone advanced a year was entirely at the discretion of the head of their house, someone being held back was virtually unheard of. But if it were possible, Dorea was reasonably certain Liz would have failed Herbology, Astronomy, History, and possibly Transfiguration.

Which didn't make any bloody sense! Liz wasn't, like, a super genius or anything, but she was definitely clever, and she spent half her time out of class with her nose in one book or another. And it wasn't like she wasn't actually learning the things they were studying in class — she tended to do excellent in practical lessons (with the exception of Transfiguration, where she was merely average), and she could talk about it all with Dorea and Daphne and even Hermione and keep up just fine. Yet, her marks on her written work were all awful.

Dorea had found herself wondering, more than once, if Liz had a learning disability or something. Like, most of their written work came in the form of essays, more frequent and more complicated than anything Dorea had been expected to do in non-magical school, and by a significant margin. Maybe Liz had difficulty writing. That was a problem some people had, Dorea knew, that they couldn't get the letters to look right, so it ended up being too illegible for a teacher to mark properly — Liz's handwriting was quite bad...but Dorea didn't think it was that bad — or just had trouble organising their thoughts in such a way to get their knowledge on the subject across. Sort of like dyslexia, but for the physical act of writing, or for ideas, getting everything mixed up. That was something that existed, right?

Or maybe Liz just...didn't know how to write an essay. Dorea had actually learned what was expected from Cassiopeia, and Hermione was Hermione, but most of the other muggleborns had had significant trouble with it, at first — several sessions of Hermione's muggleborn study group had devolved into workshops on how to properly write an essay. But Liz never participated in those.

In fact, Liz seemed remarkably unconcerned about her own academic difficulties. Dorea had tried to ask her if she was doing okay, if she needed help with anything — carefully, Liz could be prickly sometimes — but Liz had just brushed it off. She'd wondered if she should talk to somebody about it, maybe Snape, but she didn't know what to say...

It was difficult to ask for help, especially on someone else's behalf, when she didn't even know what was wrong.

But anyway, Dorea took the distraction of the conversation to get a good look at Liz. She was dressed somewhat unusually for Liz — or at least it seemed unusual to Dorea, but she'd only ever seen Liz at school before — in a plain blue dress, knee length, the neck loose enough Dorea could make out the edge of one of those magic-made vests intended to be worn under robes. (Which was quite inappropriate by magical standards, to actually be able to see that, the same idea as someone's bra peeking out over the neckline of their blouse — if Dorea dressed like that Cassiopeia would definitely tell her to change, or at least adjust herself.) It might have been even more visible if half her chest wasn't hidden by a fuzzy green and black scarf, the same one Tracey had gotten her for Christmas. Liz had taken to wearing a scarf almost all the time since then — though she still only had two, so far as Dorea knew, the other a Slytherin-themed one she'd picked up at the quidditch final. Apparently, she hadn't noticed how distracting her own hair scratching at her neck could be until she had a way to avoid it easily available, she found not wearing a scarf irritating now.

Dorea would admit she'd been a little worried, since she suspected Liz was living on her own somewhere. She'd worried she might...she didn't know, not be eating properly, or get hurt or something. But she seemed...fine. Terribly pale, but then she always was — a consequence of spending half her time indoors with her nose in a book, Dorea suspected. (And also possibly genetic, Dorea herself was noticeably paler than the rest of her family and she never tanned properly.) Dorea thought she might look a little thinner than she'd last seen her, but that could be her imagination, or just the absence of the big baggy school robes. And she didn't seem...strained, like, nervous or tired. She seemed fine.

Which was almost obscene, in a way. Liz wasn't even quite twelve yet, and she was, unless Dorea was very much mistaken, technically homeless, getting by on her own through a combination of the money her parents had left her and probably lots of mind magic — on muggles, using it to steal from them, which happened to be very illegal. It just...

Dorea didn't like it, that was all. If she thought Liz was at all likely to accept, she would have asked (begged) her to stay here by now. Or hell, the Blacks owned she wasn't even certain how many different properties, some of which were rented out but some were completely unoccupied, she could just stay in one of those if she preferred to not be stuck with Dorea and her family. But she knew without asking that Liz would turn it down, would deny she was having any problems at all, would probably claim she was still staying with her (horrible) family if Dorea said anything about it...

"Is something wrong?" Liz was poking through her trunk — tracking down one of her Potions textbooks, to back up something she'd been saying about the assignment, Dorea had only been half paying attention — suspiciously frowning over her shoulder at Dorea.

Well, yes, there was something wrong, but Dorea wasn't just coming to come out and— "Did you take everything you own with you?" The words came tumbling out before Dorea had quite considered it, but she couldn't help it, Liz's trunk looked packed full of clothes and books and school things...

"Oh." Liz turned back to her trunk for a second. Her shoulders tensed slightly, just for a moment, as Liz obviously considered what to say. "Yeah. I pack everything magical away when I'm going to be leaving my room, just in case someone goes poking around, but I didn't think it was safe to leave it there for a couple days. Who knows what one of the muggles might stumble across, cleaning the place. So I packed up everything, and checked out — I'll find a different hotel when I go back, for the rest of the summer."

For a couple seconds, Dorea could only stare at Liz's back, dumbfounded. She... She'd actually admitted it. Dorea hadn't thought she ever would, Liz never talked about anything personal. Getting Liz to do anything as simple as express an opinion on what kind of food she liked, or what she wanted to talk about, or anything, that was hard enough, but getting her to say anything about her life outside of school was bloody impossible. It'd been like pulling teeth, that conversation on Hallowe'en, and that was with her backed into a corner.

There was no reason Liz had really needed to tell Dorea anything, right now. And yet she'd just done it anyway.

Dorea had absolutely no idea how to feel about this.

(She did notice her chest felt a little weird, but she ignored it the best she could. Any sort of outpouring of emotion would probably just make Liz uncomfortable.)

Eventually, she noticed Liz had turned to frown at her again, waiting tense and watchful, almost nervous. Dorea cleared her throat. "I, ah, I didn't think you would say anything. About, you know."

Liz shrugged, the gesture looking stiff and awkward. "I knew you already knew."

How? Dorea had never said anything, and she was a much better liar than Liz. She managed to slip little things past her all the time, mostly through omission, while Dorea could almost always tell when Liz was being less than honest with her — and Dorea didn't even have cheater mind-reading powers. Dorea couldn't think of any conversation where they'd gotten close enough to the topic for Liz to pick up on it...unless she'd been poking about her head without permission...

"Snape said you need to work on your occlumency."

...That devious son of a bitch. Snape hadn't gone poking about Dorea's head (she assumed), she'd come out and told him what she suspected of Liz's circumstances. But he'd avoided telling Liz that, probably aware that Liz would be unhappy with her. Instead he'd hidden behind a simple statement of fact that implied he had stolen it from her head himself — he'd simultaneously covered for Dorea (protecting her as a source of information), circumvented Liz's own lie-detecting abilities by saying something true (but unrelated to the matter at hand), and suggested Liz help her friends learn to defend themselves from exploitation through mind magic (which he must realise would be necessary, given Liz's fame), all at once. That was just bloody brilliant, was what that was.

Of course, there was a reason Snape was the head of Slytherin. Damn clever bastard.

"...Yes, I guess I do. It's hard, though."

"We can work on it more," Liz said, pulling out the book she'd been looking for. She hesitated a moment before stepping away from her trunk, leaving it sitting open. "I think it'll be easier to feel it out if you practise against me. I need the practice too, really, I've noticed running into someone who knows how to protect themselves can leave me overextended and vulnerable if I'm not careful. It's a problem."

"Oh."

"And, now that you know I know you know, I can say things like, don't tell anyone. I'm fine on my own, and it's really the best option I have. If people find out, Dumbledore will just force me back with my aunt and uncle or something."

And that was completely unacceptable. She hadn't forgotten what little she knew about how Liz's family had treated her. If Dumbledore, who Liz said was technically her legal guardian, couldn't be convinced to arrange something suitable, than Dorea guessed telling anyone about anything would just be bloody pointless.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. Dorea could make sure information about Liz's homelife, or lack thereof, gets out. Talk to a writer for the Herald, maybe — she would say the Prophet, but they were too closely tied to the Ministry, anything too...political might not get printed without the permission of the people involved (in this case, Dumbledore). If it became public knowledge, it would certainly be a massive scandal, the sort of thing Dumbledore couldn't just sweep under the rug. With how mad people were about the whole Girl Who Lived thing, it could even politically ruin him, if things snowball in just the right way. Dorea could only assume whoever custody of Liz ended up handed off to would do a better job than Dumbledore was. It'd be hard not to.

But no, she wasn't going to do that. Liz would certainly figure out it was Dorea who'd leaked it. And she'd be very angry with her. If Liz didn't seem to be doing fine, at least, Dorea was certain she would do something, no matter the consequences, but...

Honestly, it just didn't seem worth it. For now.

"I won't say anything," Dorea muttered, the words slimy and sick in her mouth. "Just, if you're having trouble, if you need help, you'll say something."

Liz shot her a flat look. "Dorea, do you honestly think there's anything you could actually help me with that I couldn't handle just fine on my own?"

She winced — no, she didn't think there was. Mind magic was just cheating.

"Snape already made me promise to contact him in case of emergencies. I'm supposed to owl him every other day, it's actually very annoying, and he gave me this weird beacon thing if I need to contact him immediately. Not that anything will ever come up, because I'm fine."

There was an odd tingle on the air, almost like magic. For a moment, Dorea wondered if Liz was trying to...do something to her, but...she didn't feel anything. Though, if Liz were trying to compel her to think she was fine, Dorea didn't think she would feel anything. Because she already did think Liz was fine, see, so there wouldn't be anything for the compulsion to do. She thought that's how these things worked, anyway, she wasn't an expert. Not that she really thought Liz was trying to do anything to her anyway. Perhaps she'd just put enough feeling on the word her mind magic stuff had slipped a little bit, or something, maybe it was completely unrelated, maybe Dorea was just imagining it. It was hardly noticeable anyway.

Besides, Liz had promised she wouldn't. Dorea chose to trust her, even if all available evidence suggested she shouldn't. Which, it didn't, really. If Liz were going around messing with her friends' heads, it would probably be more obvious — Liz wasn't exactly a very subtle person. She was just saying, benefit of the doubt.

"I'm not..." Dorea trailed off, turning over how to say what she wanted to say. It didn't help that Liz just didn't get these things more often than not, so she should be blunt, but Liz was also bloody skittish sometimes, so she should be careful. "I don't doubt you can take care of yourself, Liz." Well, not most of the time, at least, that was honest enough Liz shouldn't notice. "I just worry, because... We're friends, right?"

Liz had been watching her, standing a short distance away almost unnaturally still — her face narrowed in a faint frown, looking impatient verging on annoyed — but at that she twitched, her eyes widening. "Ah. Yeah?"

"Well. I give a damn what happens to you, so I worry. It's not rational, I can't help it. You're my friend, I care. Sometimes that means worrying."

And now Liz looked distinctly uncomfortable, not meeting Dorea's eyes, fiddling with the Potions text in her hands. For a few long seconds, she said nothing. It looked like she was working up to something though, so Dorea waited. She did eventually speak, after what felt like a minute, a low mumble Dorea almost couldn't make out. "You shouldn't have come after me."

She blinked. "What?"

"With Quirrell. Telling Dora to come find me, sure, but you shouldn't have come with."

"Oh." Well, Dorea knew that, of course. She didn't know what had gotten into her, she'd just... "It'd seemed the thing to do at the time."

Liz's eyes flicked back to hers, dark and cold. "You could have died, Dorea."

"I know that." If Dora hadn't smacked that blasting curse up into the wall, she would have. (Dorea still had nightmares about that fight with Quirrell, it'd been terrifying.)

"People are going to try to hurt me again. Because of this whole stupid Girl Who Lived," she said, her voice thick with disgust, "that shite, people are always going to be stupid over that. And I'm not very nice, I'm pretty good at making people hate me on accident. I'll probably have to deal with people trying to hurt me my whole life." Liz sounded, just, amazingly nonchalant about that. Like she didn't even care.

No, like she was accustomed to the idea that people might try to hurt her, like it wasn't unusual to her at all. Dorea felt her throat tighten with anger — which was weird, she didn't know what exactly she was angry at. (Pick a thing, really.) "I'm not going to ditch you because someone might—"

"That's not what I'm saying. Just, don't be stupid about it, is all. There's no reason to put yourself in more danger than you really need to be in for no good reason."

"I won't—"

"Dorea, honestly, I don't want you to get yourself killed because of me. Just don't run straight into danger like an idiot. That's all I'm saying."

She sighed — that was a good point, no matter how...slightly condescending it was. After all, Liz shouldn't be being put in danger in the first place, but the really important thing was that Dorea not let herself be caught up in it with her, sure, of course. But, in a weird, socially-stunted kind of way, Liz was saying she gave a damn too, so, Dorea guessed she could just take that for what it was and move on. "Right. I'll be careful."

"Good." Liz broke eye contact again, frowning a little and fiddling with her book some more. "Er. Can we go back to talking about Potions now?" she asked, her voice small and thin.

Dorea bit her lip to keep herself from giggling.

Chapter Text

September 1992


The first test to get onto the Slytherin quidditch team was actually making it to the try-outs.

Liz had noticed that, to these silly people from noble families and such, it was very important who you knew, and how you knew them — just look at everyone needing to specify just how they were all related to each other at the very first day of first year, that was an extension of the same thing. Most people on the quidditch team were invited to join by the current captain, or the one before him, or had somehow gotten him to let them try out at some point in the last couple years. She'd gotten the impression that Snape didn't really give a shite about quidditch, so as long as they didn't embarrass Slytherin too badly they were pretty much allowed to run the team however the hell they liked.

Now quidditch wasn't a particularly complicated game. Each team had seven players (not counting reserves): three chasers, who did all the goal-scoring, a seeker, who was basically a fourth chaser who was also responsible for going after the snitch, one keeper, who defended the goals, and two beaters, who dealt with the bludgers. (The informal games Liz had played in flying classes hadn't used bludgers at all, so that would be a new one on her.) One of last year's chasers and one beater had graduated, and the other beater and the seeker were in seventh year and had decided to leave the team to focus on their studies. So the team was looking for two beaters, a chaser, and the seeker.

Liz had absolutely no confidence she'd be at all good at playing beater — she just didn't have the strength to whack those big balls around very well, she didn't think. (She was annoyingly tiny.) Chaser or seeker, though, she could do those just fine. With a few exceptions, she flew circles around everyone in the games she'd played so far, it seemed reasonable.

But Marcus Flint had just laughed in her face.

Flint was one of the chasers, and also the captain of the team since last year. They'd announced they were going to do try-outs, talk to Flint about it, so Liz had, the Tuesday of the first week. She hadn't expected to have any problems, really. She was tiny, yes, but speed was a greater asset for chasers and seekers than size anyway. (The same was true in dueling, she'd noticed, it was a whole thing.) And, she'd checked with Daphne, the Flints had been sort of allied with the Dark Lord, but had switched their allegiance to Ars Publica since the end of the war — the traditional, live and let live, the Death Eaters are bloody idiots Dark — and this Flint in particular was rather aloof, and seemingly didn't care about politics or anything of the like, so he shouldn't be one of those people who hated Liz for no reason. She'd thought he'd let her try out, at the very least.

Instead, he'd pretty much told the tiny little girl to piss off. Liz would admit she'd been very irritated, she'd resolved the instant he'd brushed her off that she'd be showing up to the try-outs, whether he liked it or not. Thankfully, Draco had gone around bragging he'd been invited to try out for seeker, like the boasting little ponce he was — pulling the time and place the try-outs would be held out of his head had been dead easy.

When Liz showed up at the quidditch pitch at the inconvenient hour of seven twenty in the morning on a Sunday — early, but not too early — Flint, Pucey (chaser), and Bletchley (keeper) were already there, along with a handful of hopefuls. The other people trying out mostly ignored her, though Draco shot her a sneer. Snape's prediction that Draco would get over his humiliation and start trying to antagonise her again hadn't come to fruition by the end of the year, but the day they'd gotten back he'd been glaring at her and whispering and giggling with his idiot friends again. A couple months away from her, getting spoiled by his parents, must have boosted his confidence again.

Despite Snape's warning, Liz wasn't really worried. It wasn't like he posed any kind of threat to her, she didn't doubt she could publicly humiliate Draco again if she needed to. Surely the lesson would sink in eventually.

The team actually reacted to her appearance — of course, they would know she hadn't been expected. Bletchley shot her a glare, but it was Flint who spoke. Standing in front of the pack of hopefuls with his arms crossed over his chest all still and intimidating — Flint was a big bloke — he growled, "What are you doing here, Potter?"

Coming to a stop at the edge of the group, Liz stared back up at him, expressionlessly meeting his eyes. "Trying out for seeker and chaser."

Sitting on the chest holding the balls nearby, Bletchley — somewhat less huge than Flint, and rather nicer-looking, his face less harshly-angled — let out a harsh scoff, and there was some muttering and chuckling from the other people trying out. Flint scowled. "Potter, wasting my time isn't going to—"

"Give it a rest, Mark." Pucey was sitting on his broom sideways, hovering over and behind Flint's left shoulder. He hadn't seemed to be paying attention, floating around reading a book like a silly person, but he looked up (down?) to give Flint a crooked smile. "If the kid isn't good enough she won't take up any extra time, not enough to be arguing about it right now."

"Look at her, Adrian. She's just going to get herself hurt. Do you want to be the one responsible for getting Ellie Potter laid up in hospital regrowing half the bones in her body?"

Liz blinked — was that just an excuse, or was he actually worried about that? Somehow, it hadn't occurred to her as even a possibility that Flint had rejected her instantly out of concern it'd be unsafe for her to play. It certainly hadn't sounded like it...but if it had sounded like it, she probably would have been even more angry over being condescended to, and he'd probably realised that...

"And Malfoy won't? She's not that much smaller than him. Personally, I'd much rather not have to deal with Lord and Lady Malfoy after their only son takes a bad hit, but hey, I'm not the captain."

Flint huffed, rolling his eyes. "All right, fine. We'll be doing evasion trials, Potter, don't expect anybody to go easy on you. Getting hit with a bludger is fucking painful, you know."

Liz nodded. "I'd expect as much. Don't worry about it, I'll be fine."

It looked like Flint very much doubted that — that itchy annoyance and unease spiking in the air, piercing through the disdain and dark amusement from the rest of the hopefuls, was probably coming from him — but he just let out a long sigh.

Once everyone had arrived, the first thing Flint had them do was line up halfway down the side of the pitch, from where they would fly one loop around the whole thing and come in for a landing. Probably just to weed out anyone who was so terrible of a flier they shouldn't even be here — Liz wasn't sure what the point of limiting the people who could come even was if they weren't that selective, but fine. Draco ended up right next to her, which she was certain wasn't a coincidence.

Especially since, while waiting for Flint to give them the go, Draco sidled up to her and muttered, "Really, Potter? A Cleansweep Eight?"

Liz glanced down at Draco's own broom quick — she didn't recognise the model by sight, but she didn't need to, Nimbus Two-Thousand and One was etched into the handle. Of course Draco would have gotten that one, it was the most expensive quidditch broom on the market right now. It was the fastest in terms of raw speed, yes, but with how long it took to accelerate all the way up Liz thought that hardly mattered. She'd taken the floo from the Leaky Cauldron to Hogsmeade — which had not been fun, she'd ended up tumbling across the ground like a clumsy idiot going there and coming back — because there was a broom store there she could actually try the things out before buying them. She'd hardly noticed an acceleration difference between the Nimbuses (she'd tried the 1700, 2000, and 2001) and the Cleansweeps (5, 6, and 8), but the Cleansweeps had much snappier handling, which she felt was more important for something like quidditch.

The Nimbus 2001 was also, like, twice as expensive, Liz really hadn't thought it was worth the price difference. Hell, she would have taken the Cleansweep 5 above the Nimbus 2001, the raw speed wasn't worth the clunkier handling and the insanely higher price. But Draco was a snobby little brat, of course he'd just gotten the most expensive one.

Liz didn't bother actually responding. She just stared back at him, right in the eyes, not speaking a word. Draco sneered back at her for a few seconds but, unease building in his head, it slowly flickered away, until he broke eye contact, shuffling awkwardly.

It was honestly kind of funny how unnerving normal people found just expressionlessly staring at them. It took some effort to not giggle, that would ruin it.

The spells that powered and steered brooms were actually sort of interesting, and somewhat more complicated than some people realised. See, there were actually two entirely different maneuvering settings brooms could use, and most brooms were enchanted with both — Liz referred to them in her head as arrow mode and slip mode. (Presumably there were proper terms for them, but she didn't know what they were.) By what she'd observed in flying classes, most people defaulted to arrow mode, they hadn't even been told slip mode was there, she'd found it on accident.

Though, how she'd found it on accident was kind of weird. Brooms were designed to respond to the person riding it moving in certain ways, but Liz had quickly figured out that wasn't actually necessary. You could just poke at the enchantments on the thing directly. Explaining how to do that with words was hard, like explaining how exactly casting charms worked, but it wasn't difficult to do. (It felt sort of like poking at a mind with legilimency, actually, just with her magic instead, and she couldn't really explain that either.) She'd been able to feel an entire other set of enchantments on the thing, she'd asked Hooch how it worked only after playing with it for herself for a little bit.

Arrow mode was very simple: the broom flew the direction the handle was pointing. Though, the actual magic was more complicated than that sounded. As far as Liz could tell, there were three different spells going on all at once — one was basically a levitation charm, canceling the person's weight and controlling their elevation; another did the actual movement, pushing the broom straight forward; the third, in the words Hermione had used, cancelled momentum going in any other direction, funneling the energy into the second spell (though it ignored the effects of the levitation charm). This was why brooms accelerated fastest while going down, the energy of the fall was absorbed and put into the movement spell, energy it got to keep after pulling out of the dive, because the speed you would lose turning out of it got redirected too. It was the same reason you didn't need to accelerate into turns to keep going the same speed, and also why you didn't need to lean into it either. It was kind of a neat bit of magic, Liz thought.

It gave Hermione a headache. She really didn't like the way brooms worked, it'd taken her months of flying classes to get used to them not moving the way ordinary objects should. Which, Liz did sort of understand that, but she didn't see why it was so hard to just run with point it the way you want to go and fly. Hermione was weird sometimes.

Slip mode also had three spells working on it — the first was the same levitation charm, though it could be switched off if you wanted; the second was the same spell that pushed the broom forward; the third was one that could be used to easily spin the broom in any direction, which had been sort of awkward to get used to, but quite useful. See, this mode didn't use the momentum-cancelling spell that gave Hermione so many headaches: if the broom was moving in a direction, it would keep moving in that direction until it was stopped somehow, by flying in the opposite direction or just from wind pushing at you. This meant that, in slip mode, the handle of the broom would almost never be pointing in the direction you were travelling, instead slipping and sliding all over the place.

Liz thought it was really fun. Hermione had tried it once, and crashed into Dorea almost immediately — she'd decided to stick with arrow mode and just suffer the headaches.

Now, normally a person would pick which mode they preferred, and always use that one. According to Hooch, amateurs, people playing around for fun or just using them to get from place to place, and also broom racers tended to prefer arrow mode; stunt performers and such preferred slip mode (in fact, stunt brooms often didn't have the second set of enchantments for arrow mode at all). For quidditch players, it depends — chasers and seekers spend most of a game in arrow mode, while keeping and beating almost required slip mode. You'd get a chaser now and again who played with slip mode sometimes, but it wasn't very common.

It had taken Liz all of two pick-up games to realise putting together the broom-spinning from slip mode and the momentum-canceling from arrow mode was fucking cheating.

The instant they kicked off — all more or less at the same time, but a couple fell out of Liz's peripheral vision instantly — Liz slipped forward, pushing hard into the spells that flew forward and upward at the same time. Draco and the couple other people on faster brooms shot out ahead at first, but slowly slipped behind her in the next couple seconds — they'd all pointed their brooms at an angle, pushing ahead and somewhat up, but Liz had kept her broom flat and was using the levitation charm to lift up, which Hermione's nerdy math said was slightly faster (though not by all that much). Liz's hair was already being yanked back by the wind, she'd tried to tie it back but it was useless, she grit her teeth and ducked her head against it.

The others had levelled off, the first few started slowly pulling ahead of her, but Liz kept going up and up, still rising as she passed the hoops a little lower than her to her left. Giving the enchantments on the broom a good mental jab, she switched to slip mode, cut off the forward spell right away, flipping her foot under the right stirrup, she pulled it forward while pushing on the left, her broom spinning halfway around in a blink, she kicked on the movement spell again, she jolted forward, gripping hard with her hands to keep from sliding off, she kept the broom turning, her hair flipping over her head, until she'd turned all the way around, which had her moving still mostly backward and sideways as the spells on the broom pushed her forward, as she passed the middle of the hoops she finally cut off the levitation spell, she started pulling the back of the broom up, pushing down with her hands, the handle of her broom now pointed at an angle downward, still drifting less back but mostly sideways—

Her chest going light and bubbly, like she was about to laugh but not quite the same, her heart pounding hard enough she could almost hear it over the roar of the wind, Liz bit her lip to keep herself from grinning — getting wind blowing in her mouth was just really awkward. Also, she'd accidentally swallowed a bug once in flying class, blech.

Going weightless as she fell, her stomach rising into her throat, Liz kept spinning with subtle pushes and pulls on the stirrups, her broom kept pointing at the hoops, pulling the bristles higher, rolling to lean into the turn a bit, some of the pack had pulled ahead of her now, still a little bit below her, but the curve was coming to an end soon, flipping her right foot back on top of the stirrup she pushed back, turning her to face back forward (still sliding fast to her right), Liz took a second to carefully aim, still sliding toward the stands and dropping quick to the ground, one, two, she was nearly at the same height as the pack ahead of her now, three, and—

Liz switched into arrow mode, the momentum-cancelling spell suddenly jumping her forward, hard enough she was kicked back hard into the stirrups, her fingers stinging against the wood, she squinted against the gust of wind, pulling up from her dive to sweep in under the pack, she started rising (using the levitation spell again) as soon as she was level, glanced behind herself to make sure, but no, her cheater speed trick had pushed her in front, she wasn't going to run into anybody, she was fine.

Pushing her sideways and downward momentum into going forward had actually gotten her going faster than the "top" speed her broom could handle, so she was slowing down as she flew the long side of the pitch, but she was far enough ahead she should be fine. Pulling off her sliding turn pretty much exactly the same as she had the first time — though she started pulling up a bit earlier, she'd crossed the pitch in a much shorter period of time, she wasn't quite as high up as last time, so she didn't start pushing downward until a little later — she was turned around enough by the time she was about halfway around the curve to spot the rest of the hopefuls behind and below her. They'd spread out a bit over the course of the race, Draco and a couple upper-years neck and neck, the rest trailing out behind them. They were just about to come into the turn around behind the hoops, but Liz was far enough ahead there was simply no way she wasn't finishing first.

This time, with the jump forward into her ridiculously stupid-fast dive, Liz failed to hold in an ecstatic giggle.

Liz didn't bother pulling up this time, their starting point was coming up quick. Switching to slip mode and cutting off the pushing spell, she kicked her broom all the way around, so she was moving backward, and started pushing forward again. Shoved back hard into the stirrups, it took a few long, strained seconds to slow down all the way, toward the end she let herself start tipping over backward, cutting back her forward push as she went, until the broom handle was pointed almost straight upward, and she just hopped off the stirrups down to the ground, skipping a few steps before coming to a halt.

A glance around and, oh, she was a couple metres away from Flint. Oh well, close enough, she thought. Especially since she hadn't even been looking...

While she walked over, the three older boys staring at her — it didn't bother her, they weren't staring at her for bad reasons, she'd just done something crazy was all — the rest of the people trying out started to catch up. Draco floated right up to her, his hair tousled from the wind and his face going a little pink. "What was that, Potter?"

Liz tried to give him a Snape-ish unimpressed sort of look, but she was probably smiling too much to pull it off. "That was flying. Real fast."

"Come off it! There's no way that's a Cleansweep Eight."

"Don't be stupid, of course it is."

"I'd like to know how you pulled that off myself, Potter," Flint said with a flat, narrow-eyed stare. "That dive was too shallow for you to get that much speed out of it."

...Okay, how the hell was she supposed to explain this in a way that would actually make sense? "Ah, you know how if you turn really fast, you feel like you want to keep going forward? but you don't feel that on racing brooms? There's a spell on it that gets rid of that motion going in other directions and redirects it forward. But, if you don't use that spell, and accelerate to going at full speed going to the side, going forward, and going down, and then turn that redirecting spell back on, it takes all that speed and redirects it forward. You can get going far above your broom's normal top speed, if you're careful." There, she thought that almost made sense.

A mix of various tones of confusion lifted from Draco and the other hopefuls, so they had no idea what she was talking about, but Pucey's eyebrow had ticked up, with a flash of irritation and a hint of something softer and shiftier she couldn't quite read. "She's talking about kick turns." Oh, Liz hadn't even realised there was a name for it, that would have been easier...

Twitching in surprise, Flint glanced at Pucey quick before turning back to Liz. "Potter, are you mad? You know you can throw yourself from your broom doing that."

"I'm careful," Liz said, shrugging. She had nearly fallen a few times in flying lessons, once both of her feet had slipped and she'd barely caught her broom behind her knee, but she hadn't actually thrown herself yet.

Flint shook his head with clear exasperation...and also a shade of concern, which was a little confusing (and also slightly nauseating) — they'd never even met before, what did he care if she went hurting herself? Well, she guessed he might be worried he'd get in trouble if she did something stupid on his watch, but surely Snape would know it was her own damn fault and cover for him, really. Anyway, they moved on, Flint quickly dismissing a couple of the clumsier fliers. Which meant they only had two people left who were trying for beater — gritting his teeth hard enough the tendons in his jaw stood out, Flint told Bole and Derrick they were in, but if they fucked it up Flint wouldn't hesitate to hold new try-outs to replace them.

Which left the people trying out for chaser — Liz, Draco, and three upperclassmen she didn't know — and for seeker — Liz, Draco, and one of those upperclassmen. Since seekers were the same thing as chasers when they weren't going for the snitch, they got the chaser trials out of the way first. These started stupid easy, but they got more and more complicated as they went on.

First all of them floated up into the air — excluding Bole and Derrick, who waited on the ground — and tossed the quaffle around in a circle. Liz still thought quaffles was sort of weird. They were roughly football-sized, but made out of hard leather instead of rubber, and were filled with some kind of gell or something, she thought, so they were rather heavier. They were also squishier — her fingers would poke into it if she squeezed, and it sometimes wobbled in the air when it was thrown, if it had enough of a spin to it flattening a bit, almost like a disc. Which was sort of weird, but also kind of neat, because with a right flick of the wrist you could get a quaffle to curve in the air some.

The gloves Dora had gotten her really did help — her hands were too small to catch or throw the thing one-handed, but the extra grip the gloves gave her made it a whole lot easier.

After tossing it around just floating there, Flint had them start moving around constantly, still throwing the thing back and forth. He didn't tell them where to fly exactly, just that they could never stop moving. He'd call out a name, and whoever had the quaffle had to throw it to that person, he'd wait a few seconds, and he'd call out another name. (Luckily, with the order he'd called them in Liz picked up the upperclassmen's names before she had to throw to them.) One of the upperclassmen fumbled a catch and badly aimed a throw — Liz still managed to catch it, but it had required a "kick turn" and a bit of a scramble — so, voice tight and hissy as though holding back a curse, Flint sent him away.

That was when things started getting complicated. They were split into two teams — Liz, Flint, and Eirsley in one, Draco, Pucey, and Carrigan in the other. And then they basically played without a keeper (or beaters) for a bit, which was little different than the games in flying classes. They didn't not to use the whole field in class — a quidditch pitch really was quite big — and the rules for exactly what they were allowed to do were a bit looser. Quidditch could get a bit violent, without even bringing the damn bludgers into the equation. Eirsely nailed Draco badly once, he nearly toppled right off, and Liz actually lost her grip entirely once, when Carrigan tried to snatch the quaffle out from under her arm and accidentally hooked her elbow instead, yanking her back hard. She managed to hug the shaft of her broom behind her knee at the last second, leaving her dangling in the air upside-down, speeding along at, what, forty kilometres per hour, probably.

Of course, she managed to chuck the quaffle in Flint's general direction as she fell, and got herself back up onto her broom in a couple seconds without help, so she thought she handled that quite well, thank you. She should probably be thanking Carrigan for that, honestly.

And then, after going at it for some minutes, Bletchely, Bole, and Derrick floated on up, and then bludgers were added into the mix.

Somewhat to Liz's surprise, bludgers weren't actually very difficult to deal with at all. The things were bloody fast, she couldn't just out-fly them, but they had shite steering, and they let out a high whistling noise as they flew through the air — she never didn't notice one coming, and it was easy enough to just quick kick her broom to the side and slip out of the way. She had no idea how Eirsley managed to get hit bad in the shoulder, they weren't hard to dodge at all.

At least, not at first. Flint and Pucey had been less competing and more giving them pointers and pushing them into certain situations the whole time, and clearly Bletchley was doing the same thing with Bole and Derrick — their aim didn't really get better, but their timing did. It only took Liz a few minutes of observation, and a couple times barely avoiding a bludger flying at her as she was trying to catch a pass or shoot for one of the hoops, that Bole and Derrick were trying to time their attacks for a moment when one of their targets was distracted doing something else. Liz still managed to avoid getting hit at all — partially because the strategy was predictable once she noticed it, she started just assuming a bludger would be coming at her at the most inconvenient of moments and planning around it — though she was the only one: Eirsley got a nasty hit again, Carrigan got hit three times, and even Draco, nearly as small and quick and hard to hit of a target as Liz, got clipped across the shoulder once while lining up a shot, dropping the quaffle...

...straight into Pucey's hands, who passed it to Carrigan, who feinted at the hoops, drawing the other bludger, scrambled out of the way, started winding up to throw it...

Draco, just recovered from his hit, was floating right in front of the hoops.

By the time Carrigan threw the quaffle, Liz was already moving into position, easily plucked it out of the air before it could get to Draco. But still, that was damn clever — she'd almost think they'd planned that ahead of time, if she didn't know they hadn't the time to. Maybe Draco wasn't as much of an idiot as he usually seemed.

After going at it for a long while, enough Liz's arms were starting to ache and her legs and middle burn — the downside to her fun kick turn tricks was that it took rather more work than just flying normal — Flint finally called them to a halt. They all floated to the ground near the entrance, Bole, Derrick, Bletchely, and Pucey briefly delayed chasing down the bludgers. Once they were all down, Flint told them they'd be making their decisions over the next couple days, they'd be telling them whether they were in or not in person at some point over the next week. Until then, get out.

Except Malfoy and Potter, they had to stay for a quick word.

Carrigan and Pucey shot them suspicious looks, but they surrendered, wandering up to the castle with Bole and Derrick, leaving Liz and Draco behind at the edge of the pitch. And they were alone for a brief moment, Flint and Pucey and Bletchley squirreled a short distance away whispering to each other.

Liz could feel Draco's attention on her, her skin tingling. His head was too weird and fuzzy to guess what he was thinking, though. (Without peeking, anyway, and she honestly just didn't care enough to look.) She did glance at him, to find him giving her a narrow-eyed considering sort of look — which he immediately dropped, looking away, the second she turned to him.

No idea what that was about, but okay.

Before Liz could decide whether she cared enough to bother asking him what his deal was (it was probably stupid and confusing anyway), Flint was back. "I know you two have some little feud going on — honestly, I don't know much about it, and neither do I want to, I do not care. But if you're going to be on my team, it's over. I can't have you picking fights with each other at practice, or worse during matches. I'm not saying you have to like each other, but if you can't even pretend to get along, you're out. Do you understand me?"

"Fine with me," Liz said, shrugging. "As far as I'm concerned, our little feud was already over anyway. If he's cool, I'm cool."

Draco seemed a little annoyed with that, for some reason Liz couldn't imagine, but he agreed with a stiff nod of his head. "Does that mean we're on the team?"

With a long sigh, a pulse of something tight and strained she couldn't quite put a word to, Flint said, "I must have lost my bloody mind, but yes. We'll figure out which one of you gets to be seeker after we see how you do in practice. Adrian might take it if neither of you are quite up to it, but you're both staying on either way. Keep that to yourselves for a few days, yeah? I don't want to have to deal with Carrigan whining at me over being passed up for a couple second-years before I've got everything squared away with Snape and Hooch."

They both agreed, and then they all split up, the older boys carrying off the chest of quidditch stuff. Rather than walk the whole way, Liz hopped back onto her broom and flew up to the main doors of the castle. Dorea was probably in the library right now, but Liz thought she'd rather have a quick shower first — it was early enough it wasn't really warm or anything, but they had been at it for a while...

Draco caught up with her before she was even through the doors. "Hey, Ellie, did you mean that back there?"

Great, and she'd thought she was done dealing with Draco Malfoy for today. She could only hope this conversation wasn't going to be quite so tedious and annoying as talking to him usually was — he had just agreed to drop his baffling grudge against her, after all. "What part of it?"

"That you have nothing against me, I mean."

"I didn't say that." Liz halted, near the stairs down toward the Slytherin dorms, her eyes tipping up to the ceiling for a second. When she turned back to look at him, she tried to not be completely expressionless — she wasn't trying to make him uncomfortable at the moment — thought she couldn't be certain what kind she ended up with. (Facial expressions were hard.) "Look, Draco, I've already tried to explain this once before. You keep assuming we're enemies or something, that I'm out to get you for some reason, but I'm not. Quite honestly, I just don't care about you that much. I'm not saying I hate you or whatever, I don't care. Sometimes you're an arse to me or my friends for no good reason, sure, but if you're not actively annoying me at the moment, most of the time I don't think about you at all."

There was a twinge of something on the air, almost like... Well, she thought she might have hurt Draco, a little bit. Which, she kind of wanted to say that was stupid, but it did kind of make sense, she guessed — after all, she had just told Draco she didn't give a shite about him one way or the other, that was kind of offensive, when she thought about it. Though, in the context of explaining that she didn't hate him...wasn't not caring about him a step up? Whatever, not her problem. Also, she wasn't certain why Draco should care whether she cared about him or not...but that also wasn't her problem, she did not care. His face squished in what Liz was pretty sure was supposed to be an irritated frown of some kind, he said, "It doesn't work that way, Potter."

Oh, back to Potter now, was she? "What doesn't work what way? There's nothing going on, this whole whatever will go away if you just stop imagining it's there."

"The disagreements between the Dark and the Light don't go away just because you stop paying attention to them!"

"Who the hell ever said I'm Light?"

Draco blinked, his mouth hanging open, staring at her like an idiot for a few seconds. "Ah, aren't you, though? You're always hanging around with Granger and Greengrass, and, I mean the Potters have been Light for generations!"

Liz rolled her eyes. "The Greengrasses are a Dark family, Draco, they just don't give a damn if someone's pureblood or not. I hardly pay attention to this stuff, and I know that. And I don't see why the Potters having been Light should matter to me. It's not like I ever knew any of them. Also, you might have noticed, but none of my friends are from Light families — unless you count Neville or Susan or Hannah, I guess, but I don't, I barely talk to them. Most of the Light kids here hate me even more than the Dark kids do. Because I have the nerve to be a parselmouth, and also just generally creepy."

For most of that ramble, Draco's head was quivering with surprise and confusion, but toward the end a tingle of amusement washed over it, his lips twitching. "No offence, Ellie, but you are a little creepy."

And Draco didn't even know about the mind magic. "Yeah, I know, I'm just saying. The point, Draco, is that you keep thinking like we're enemies, but we're not. We're not friends either, obviously, but there's no reason for you to keep picking fights with me. If you leave me and my friends alone, I'll leave you alone. It really is that simple."

"I suppose. I didn't think that—" Draco cut himself off, shaking his head. A crooked sort of smile on his face, his mind ringing with rueful amusement, "I guess you're not very much like I thought you would be, Ellie. I don't know, I just..."

"You were expecting the Girl Who Lived, not me."

"Ha! Yeah, that might be it. The way everybody talks about you all the time, even my father, I never really thought..." That was Draco's problem when it came down to it, wasn't it — he'd never really thought. Smiling to himself, Draco shook his head again. And held out his hand. "Truce?"

Because it'd gone so well the first time. "Sure, why not?" Liz shook his hand, for as brief a time as she possibly could and not seem too rude. "Just try not to be such an arse to my friends all the time."

Somewhat to her surprise, Draco laughed again, head shivering with amusement, his eyes almost sparkling. "Yes, Ellie, I'll try my best."

"Liz."

"Excuse me?"

"I prefer Liz. Ellie is a stupid name."

And there Draco went laughing again, that was bloody weird. "Right, I'll try to remember that. People have been calling you Ellie Potter forever, you know, I'll probably slip."

"That's fine, I get it. I'm just saying." There was a short moment of awkward silence, Draco still shaking his head and smiling, as Liz tried to figure out if there was anything else that needed to be said. She didn't think so? This conversation was over then, she thought. "Right. Well, I'm having a shower now. Bye." Liz darted toward the stairs, putting Draco being especially strange firmly behind her.

She thought that had gone well, at least. Probably. Maybe.

(Who was she kidding, she didn't get that lucky. He'd be fucking with her again inside a month.)


Liz knocked twice on the door before pushing it open a crack, leaning her head around to peer inside. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

"Yes, Miss Potter, come in." As Liz stepped into his office, pulling the door closed behind her, Snape folded over the magazine he was reading, set it aside. "Have a seat."

Biting back the suspicion tingling at the back of her neck — she had no idea what this meeting was about, she didn't think she'd done anything... — she drifted over and sank down across from him. She was probably more nervous than was really justified, especially after Snape covering for her this summer (and all through first year, really), but she couldn't help it. He was still just vaguely intimidating, she couldn't even say how or why, exactly.

(Being a more powerful, more experienced legilimens probably had something to do with it.)

"Before we get to the matter I asked you here for, do you have any issues you wanted to bring up with me?"

Liz frowned. "Like what?"

"I'm sure I couldn't say," Snape said, one shoulder lifting in a lazy shrug. "I understand there has been some displeasure among your housemates concerning your acceptance onto the quidditch team. Also, I have heard rumours that Lockhart has been...making a nuisance of himself."

She let out a disdainful snort — that was certainly one way to put it. "He's a pain, but he's not that hard to deal with." She'd mastered the art of avoiding the Defence Professor last year, after all. "He did keep trying to grab at me and stuff, but drawing my wand on him and Susan telling him off for getting too handsy with little girls put an end to that pretty well. And, I think the older Slytherins are holding off on making a fuss about the quidditch thing until they see how the first game goes."

"A reasonable course of action. It is in Flint's interests to defend whatever decisions he makes concerning the team, so any ire directed at you will, at the very least, be moderated by Flint and your other teammates."

Liz nodded, having already figured out that much for herself. Mark was very particular about stressing they were a team now, so they bloody well better act like it — firstly with his demand Draco drop his feud with her, then at their first practice telling Perry and Miles to lay off Liz (and Draco), and also warning that they'd probably get shite from the other teams over the course of the season, and maybe even other Slytherins if a game went badly, and that they would be expected to back each other up. If they didn't, well, Mark might just have to find people more willing to play nice, wouldn't he.

Play nice with each other, he meant, they weren't expected to play nice in general. Roughing up the other team was just part of how quidditch was played, and they were even encouraged to bend the rules if they thought it was worth risking a penalty shot. After all, they could only be penalised if Hooch actually saw it, and penalty shots were relatively easy to block, Miles wasn't worried — unless it was Gryffindor, anyway, they had the best chaser team in the school, the only ones who might actually score one-on-one.

Also, sabotaging the other team running up to a game was acceptable. It wasn't unusual for the school to devolve into a prank war the days and hours before a match, the houses attempting to incapacitate opposing team members long enough they couldn't play, or else just wear down on them mentally. Slytherin had the added disadvantage of all three of the other houses often rooting for whoever they were playing against, so they didn't just have to defend themselves from the house whose team they were about to face, but the other two as well. Adrian had actually been in hospital for a Gryffindor game his first year on the team, hurt badly enough he'd missed a whole week of classes. (He hadn't quit, though, because sport nuts were mad.) They were expected to look out for each other, to prevent that sort of thing from happening again — especially Liz and Draco, who were (theoretically) less capable of defending themselves as the older kids.

Liz wasn't worried — she'd just pay more attention to the minds around her running up to a game, and compel people to leave her alone if she really had to — but it was still slightly reassuring that there were older students who were expected to look out for her, under penalty of being kicked off the team. If nothing else, the occasional pranks she'd had to deal with early on last year were less likely to become a problem again.

...Of course, most of those had been from Draco and his friends, and he'd already agreed to drop it anyway (under penalty of being kicked off the team). Whatever. Point was, even if quidditch ended up being terrible, it still might be worth sticking it out, just to have some of the more popular older students watching her back.

Liz didn't really know what she could possibly say about that, or if a response was even necessary, so she just moved on. "Right, so, what is this about?"

An echo of feeling radiated from Snape's mind — one of those emotions Liz was starting to associate with Snape in particular, tired exasperation mixed with reluctant amusement. Instead of actually answering, Snape reached into a folder to his right, pulled out a single piece of parchment, and set it down in front of Liz.

It only took a brief glance to figure out what this thing was: a Charms exam. Flitwick gave these out every once in a while, about once a week or so, to check how everyone was keeping up. There were usually somewhere between five and a dozen questions, sometimes things that required no more than a few words to answer — what is the incantation or wand movement for this or that spell — but sometimes took a couple sentences. This one had only six questions, unless... No, the back side was blank, six questions.

After handing it over, Snape went right back to his magazine (the title was in French, but she thought it was a healing journal or something), clearly expecting her to fill the exam out. That was...weird. But okay. Liz picked up a quill waiting nearby — the sparks of an enchantment against her fingers told her she didn't need any ink — and got down to it.

Huh. Some of these questions seemed weirdly familiar...

It didn't take her very long to finish — most of the questions required multiple sentences, but they weren't particularly complicated. Once she was done, Snape took it back, pulled a quill and a bottle of red ink out of a drawer and...started marking it. Without a word, just started in, Liz still sitting here.

The back of her neck and her arms tingling, Liz shifted awkwardly in her chair. She...probably wasn't supposed to just leave, was she? She could ask, she guessed, but she got the feeling he'd tell her to wait...

Which was too bad. She was getting the creeping feeling that she really didn't want to be here anymore.

Before long, Snape was finished, rounding off with a big, angular A at the top-right of the page. (Magical marking was weird, an 'A' was really a C, it'd taken Liz a little bit to get used to that.) There was an odd sense of... She wasn't quite certain what that feeling echoing from him was. Satisfaction? But, not a pleasant sort of satisfaction, something creeping and grim, she didn't know what to call that.

Snape set his quill aside. Still without speaking a word, he turned the page around so it was right-side up to Liz. He pulled out another exam, this one the marking done in Flitwick's handwriting, and set it down right next to the other. Then, staring straight at her, unblinking and expressionless, he pulled out his wand, and tapped the exam she'd just finished.

In a blink, the neatly-written questions, the messy scrawl of Liz's answers, the compact, jagged lines of Snape's hand, they swapped around, settling into a different sequence. Glancing between the two exams, a cold stone abruptly dropped into Liz's stomach.

They were the same exam. She'd gotten an A on both, but the red ink didn't match up — she'd answered different questions incorrectly.

...Fuck.

"I did think it curious, last year," Snape said, his voice smooth, cool, calm, "that there was such a noticeable gulf between your performance in class and the quality of your written work. Curious, but not necessarily suspicious. It is not particularly unusual for a student to have practical talent in a subject that they can't quite express in writing. There is nothing inherently wrong with that — myself, it took some years before my written work developed to match my instinctive talent with potions. I hadn't considered your particular case too closely, wrote it off as another example.

"It is only the last couple months when I began to reconsider. You may recall, when I dropped in on you over the summer, you admitted you had been reading ahead in Charms. However, Flitwick has observed the same seeming disconnect between your practical and theoretical work in his class. If you had an instinctive ability to cast charms put before you in class, you would not be able to so easily learn to so effectively cast fourth-year charms on your own simply by reading about them."

Oh, shite, it hadn't even occurred to Liz that that would be giving anything away. Picking up things they were taught in class quickly and easily was one thing, sure, but teaching herself more advanced stuff out of books, obviously that'd be a completely different thing, god, she was such an idiot...

"It didn't take very long, looking back over my own records of your work and conferring with Flitwick, to come to a very different conclusion." Snape's head tilted, one eyebrow ticking up. "It seems to me that, on essays and exams, you are performing badly, by design, for some purpose I cannot fathom."

Liz's fingers were practically shivering with nerves, Snape's eyes on her skin like wasps, her breath was thick and hot enough her throat she could barely—

"You are not in trouble, Miss Potter. I simply wish to make clear I know what you are doing, and explore whether there is anything I can do about it."

She heard the words, washing against her like waves against stone, they didn't quite penetrate properly. Other people weren't to know, worthless freaks weren't good at anything, she wasn't supposed to let anyone know what went on at home, the one time anyone had found out about anything—

Her face and chest itched, the cloth of the sofa pressed against her, the echo of it permeating the air like a bad smell, Liz bit her lip, reaching for the bottle in her pocket without really thinking. A single little sip, a brief wave of fuzziness, and the air had cleared, the worst of it gone — her neck was still tingling with nervousness, her throat too tight and hot, but she could think straight, at least.

She really didn't have to be afraid of breaking the rules anymore. It wasn't like Vernon could punish her for it — with her mind-control superpowers, he hadn't been able to for, what, three or four years, and now she hadn't even seen him for over a year. He had no power over her anymore, it was over.

And, it was probably fine to...let Snape know a little bit, at least. She could only assume that, since nobody had turned up to try to make her go back to the Dursleys (or at least put her with someone else, as Snape had said Dumbledore might do), that he'd kept his word about not telling anybody what was going on with her. And, none of the other kids had said anything, nothing about her had turned up in the Prophet, she could only assume he hadn't gone around blabbing about...other private things.

She thought she could trust Snape, at least a little bit. Especially since it wasn't like Vernon could hurt her anymore anyway. It was fine.

...

It was probably fine.

She took a long breath, trying to force down the hot tension in her throat. It didn't work very well. Looking up, she saw Snape had retreated a bit, leaning about as far back away from her as he could without standing up, something about him seeming...weirdly cautious, a strange note of concern in the air. "Yeah, I... I've been getting things wrong on purpose."

Snape didn't speak for a long moment, still blankly staring at her (his eyes on her skin like ants), Liz avoided his eyes, or getting too close to his mind, fingers playing with the half-emptied calming potion in her lap. Finally, some of the nervous tension on the air faded. "May I ask why?"

Liz swallowed. "Doing better than Dudley is...bad. At anything, it's bad." Well, technically, she'd been punished for lying, but she hadn't been lying, Dudley had been. It hadn't been difficult for Liz to figure out what the actual rules of the house were, and how they differed from the stated ones — what things set Vernon off and what didn't was a pretty good hint. (Sometimes, anyway, there wasn't always an obvious pattern.) "The first time... I'd done better than Dudley in maths."

Something dark and slimy and sharp was creeping over Snape's mind, Liz retreated from the feeling instinctively, it was unpleasant. "The first time. You're referring to...the events we've spoken of before."

"Yeah." That first conversation they'd had in Snape's office, he'd asked her about it without actually asking about it, sort of talking around it. She still hadn't told him exactly what it was — the only person she'd told had been that one teacher, that time Liz had somehow ended up on the roof (apparating, maybe?), and that hadn't gone well for her.

(The ghost of it on the air, her pants being yanked down, she shifted in her seat.)

She thought Dorea might have caught a glimpse of her back at some point — her shirt hitched up in her sleep sometimes, and it'd been too warm at Dorea's house, so she hadn't used the bed sheets and such — but she hadn't said anything. (Oh, and Pomfrey had too, but she didn't count.) And, of course, Dorea knew she was living on her own, Hermione knew she'd left last summer (but not that she hadn't gone back), and on top of them, Daphne, Tracey, Neville, Susan, Lily, Hannah, and Sophie knew she had issues with her family, though they didn't know as much as Dorea and Hermione about how bad it was (and they didn't even know that much). She'd managed to get away with not commenting on practically anything about...things at home and families and stuff, when those discussions came up, with everyone but Dorea and Snape.

(Nosey bastards...)

But, the point was, she was just thinking, she could tell him about it. It was over, Vernon couldn't hurt her anymore, it didn't really matter, and Snape had demonstrated she could trust him at least a little bit...

But, since it didn't really matter, what would be the point of telling him about it? It'd just be unpleasant, and nothing would be different afterward.

Right, not doing that, then.

"The next time a maths exam came— We had them every week, you know, like, practise doing multiplication or whatever. The next time, I just...put down the wrong answers on purpose." She shrugged.

Snape hesitated, for the briefest moment. "He can't hurt you anymore, Elizabeth."

With another shrug, awkward and helpless, she muttered, "I know that. I don't even think about it anymore. It just...happens."

In fact, she hadn't even realised she was still doing it until Hermione had asked if she needed help with essay-writing — that was one of the big things they did in her muggleborn study group, apparently a lot of muggle schools didn't teach that properly. Because, see, she did so well in class (except in Transfiguration), and she could talk about the things they were studying just fine, but her marks weren't great, it was fine if she needed help. Liz had scrambled to come up with some kind of excuse.

Thankfully Hermione could be a bit oblivious sometimes, because it'd probably fallen flat, and Liz would rather not mess with her friends' heads if she could help it. She had promised — not that she was that opposed to lying (it wasn't even against the real rules), but she'd actually meant it, so.

Snape was quiet a long moment, staring not directly at her but unfocused to her right, his fingers idly tapping against the surface of his desk. His head was rather noisy, shivering and sparking, but exactly what he was feeling wasn't very clear. Actually, come to think of it, Snape's emotions often weren't very clear, even when he wasn't trying to hide them — through occlumency, she meant, his face was almost always blank — at least relative to most people.

She didn't know why that was. Snape did feel things, obviously, she just wasn't sure what to call it sometimes. Which wasn't that strange, really. Everyone's experience of even the basic feelings was slightly different, varying shades that were similar enough to use the same word to describe them but still distinct — like how there were a lot of different colours that were all called green, anger or happiness or fear were like that. And Snape's mind did throw off feelings she could easily identify, there were just also ones she couldn't, rather more often than average. Which was an interesting thing to notice, she just wasn't sure it was relevant.

(She was still a bumbling amateur at this mind magic stuff, in some ways, she didn't always know what she was doing or what things really meant.)

Anyway, after a long, lingering silence, Snape finally spoke. "I'm sure you're intelligent enough to realise this is not something I can simply ignore. However, the usual reinforcement I might use to motivate someone in your position would do, I suspect, more harm than good."

Liz frowned. "I don't understand."

"In dealing with certain students, before anything else I try to avoid framing myself as a hostile authority, an opponent who must be confronted or subverted, whose influence must be escaped. It does neither of us any good, Miss Potter, if I maneuver myself into a position where you come to see me as an enemy."

...She still didn't get it. Or, not entirely, anyway — she got that he was saying he didn't want to do anything to make the idea of cooperating with him too...unappealing. To stay a person who would help with things, and not just another adult she had to be careful around. She just didn't get why he thought this was such a big risk he had to be careful about it. Like, not only why he cared — it was his job to look after the Slytherins, she guessed, he had even said as much — but also why he seemed so convinced it should be so easy for him to do the wrong thing and Liz would...what, treat him like he was Vernon, or something? It was weird.

"I wonder if we might be able to come to a different sort of arrangement." Leaning back in his chair, his arms hanging limply across the armrests, Snape nodded at the bookshelves to Liz's right. "It is clear you have some significant talent for charms. It may interest you to know this is likely something you inherited from your mother — Lily had similar instincts, and such things are often heritable, especially mother to child." Liz had no idea how to feel about that...or even whether she should be feeling anything about it at all. "I understand you also have a special interest in battlemagic, and curiosity for the graphic arts."

Liz couldn't help a suspicious frown — how the hell did he know about that? She didn't think she'd told anyone... He must have spotted her with a runes book at some point. "So?"

"I have among my personal collection a number of volumes in those subjects. Most you will not find in the school library outside of the Restricted Section, or even at all, and some it is unlawful for any but licensed professionals to possess."

...No. He couldn't be saying what Liz thought he was saying...

"I am willing to allow you to borrow from a selection I deem safe for your consumption, as a reward for a sustained improvement in your written work."

He was. Jesus, she... Liz glanced toward his bookshelves, biting the inside of her lip. She'd admit, she was tempted. He was a master potioneer and alchemist, yes, but he'd also been a Death Eater, he'd fought in the war — he had to have some neat books on dark magic and curses and stuff. And, the way he'd, this summer, drawn a couple of glowing symbols onto the table to cast a paling... Liz didn't know how to do it herself, but she'd read enough about this stuff to know that had been runic casting, which was, just, the coolest thing. (And far above her level at the moment, but there was nothing wrong with looking ahead.) He did admit he'd be limiting what he'd let her look at, so he probably wouldn't give her anything too advanced or dangerous, but...

She didn't care. She wanted it.

Her fingers wanted to twitch, she wrapped them around the bottle of calming potion, the glass smooth and cold against her fingers (with just the slightest tickle of magic leaking through). Her neck and her back were tingling with nerves, enough she thought her voice might sound slightly shaky. "How are we defining a sustained improvement, exactly?"

She thought she might have caught a surge of something in Snape's head, just a flash, it was gone before Liz could decipher it. "As your head of house, I have access to all your marks in all your classes. I know you are averaging Es in Defence, As in Potions, Charms, and Cambrian, Ps in Transfiguration, History, and Astronomy, and Ds in Herbology. I suspect you are sabotaging yourself in the written work for all of these subjects, possibly excluding Defence and Astronomy, and that you aren't putting any effort into Herbology at all." Snape ticked up a single eyebrow making the statement a question.

Liz felt the squirming urge to move, somehow managed to stop herself from shifting awkwardly in her chair. She wasn't quite certain what to say, so she just nodded.

"I do not expect you to suddenly become an O student overnight — though I am certain you have the ability to do so, I would not ask such a drastic change from you so quickly. Instead, I simply wish to see an improvement, even a small one. By the end of October, get at least one of your A classes — Potions, Charms, Cambrian — up to an E-average, and one of your P classes — Transfiguration, Astronomy, History — up to an A. If you feel you have put in an effort your professors' marking does not reflect, bring examples of your work to me, and I will review it myself — it is not truly improved marks I am looking for, but rather a more honest effort. Focus on whichever one you like in each set, I will not tell you which to prioritise."

She...thought she could do that. It'd be a struggle, for multiple reasons. It was just habit now, doing badly, she hadn't even realised she was still doing it. She'd have to really think about it, pay close attention to what she was doing, it would be difficult. Also, Hermione had kind of had a point — Liz never had been taught how to write essays properly, so...she'd have to learn. But it was doable, she thought. Especially with the temptation of Snape's library hanging over her head. She'd try to do it with...Cambrian and Transfiguration, she thought, Cambrian would probably be easiest and she could use thinking about Transfiguration harder anyway...

Unfortunately, Snape wasn't done yet. "The exception is Herbology — your open disdain for that class is unacceptable. If your professor were anybody else, they would be seeking some sort of formal disciplinary action. A modest improvement there, to the standard set by the rest of your work at present, is the only specific requirement I am setting."

Liz winced.

"No? I am willing to listen to a reasonable objection."

"I don't..." She trailed off, tried to swallow down her nerves. It was fine. This wasn't even a bad thing, really — she wasn't supposed to tell people about what went on at home, but the neighbours had seen her at it. "Back at... I had to do the gardening, all the time. It was...one of the hardest chores, easy. Herbology is just... I don't like it."

Snape was seething, rage cold and frothing, intense enough it was actually showing on his face, a barely-noticeable glare. It wasn't focused at her, though, this was fine. Baffling, but. "Fine. I will have a talk with Sprout — I will not be sharing any sensitive details you would not want bandied about, simply a request for leniency. I would prefer that you at least participate, even if you do not do so enthusiastically, but if you feel you cannot I suppose we shall have to live with that."

Liz tried to keep her relief from showing too much, but it was probably bloody obvious. "Right. Okay."

"By the end of October, I will have put together a selection of suitable books, and if I am satisfied with your effort you may choose any one of them. At the end of November, if you have continued to improve, you may choose a second, and a third at the end of December, and so on. If you wish to swap out one book for another, you may do so, though you will be limited to a maximum of whatever number you have by then earned. We will discuss your progress in the spring, and decide then if modifications to our arrangement should be made.

"Are these terms acceptable?"

She nodded — those terms were great, actually. It wouldn't be very easy, fighting against her instincts built up over years, but Snape wasn't really asking for all that much. He'd probably raise the bar as they went on, but...Liz had noticed he hadn't said she would lose the books she'd already "earned" if she failed to meet the mark for the next month, so. If she stopped trying, he'd probably make a fuss about it later down the line, but for a while, at least...

For a moment, it looked like Snape was about to say something, somewhat exasperated by the feel of it. But he blew off whatever it was with a sigh, nodded back. "Unless you had any concerns you would like to bring to my attention, Miss Potter."

As though she'd ever brought anything to him before. Taking that as a dismissal, Liz got to her feet, slipping the calming potion back into her pocket, and started for the door.

She was just reaching for the handle when Snape called, "Miss Potter." She glanced over her shoulder to see Snape had moved, standing in front of one of his bookshelves. Pulling out a book, he started back across the room toward her, stopped somewhere in the middle, holding the book out toward her. "A sample to get you started."

Frowning, Liz retraced her steps, he handed it over. It was relatively new, so far as the books in the school went — ordinary-looking enough it could have come out of a muggle press, really, the only signs of age a few nicks along the edges of the cover, thin creases in the spine. Printed in plain letters on the front cover was Fundamental Mechanics of Cursing, an analysis of theme and function in harmful magics.

...Neat.

"Thank you, Professor."

Snape seemed faintly amused, for some reason. Ticking up one eyebrow in that way he had, "Miss Potter. You're dismissed."

Right, okay. She should go track down Hermione, and talk about that essay-writing thing. She should probably put this away somewhere first, though...


October 1992


Liz didn't really know Tracey Davis very well.

Relatively speaking, Liz did spend a fair bit of time in Tracey's general vicinity, but they didn't talk much at all. Tracey was Daphne's friend, so since Liz did sort of get along with Daphne — she didn't have anything against Daphne, really, but they weren't really friends the way she was with Dorea and Hermione — Tracey was always hanging around, but she was always just...kind of there. The few times she did speak at all, it was usually sarcastic, but so dry Liz wouldn't notice if she couldn't read her mind, the kind of thing you could get away with saying and not be called out for being disrespectful.

(Liz herself had been quite proficient in that art, once upon a time.)

Other than that, really the only contact she and Tracey had had at all had been the Christmas gift Tracey had sent her — Tracey had apparently even made the scarf and the hat herself. Liz never had paid her back for that, because she really didn't know how to, she didn't really... When she was expected to do things for people, she'd always been explicitly told what she was supposed to be doing, she didn't know how to figure that kind of shite out for herself. And she wore the scarf pretty much all the time, so she should probably find some way to pay her back, but...

That was before she and Tracey had been assigned each other's partners in Herbology. They didn't used to have partners in Herbology, but they did now, especially when dealing with these mandrake things. (They were terrible, she hated them.) The timing was sort of suspicious: suddenly having Herbology partners had happened just a few days after she'd talked to Snape, giving him enough time to talk to Sprout, and her to think about it. She wondered if Sprout thought that, if Liz had to work with a partner, she'd...be less willing to skimp on the work, and screw the other person over?

That did kind of make sense, she guessed, but if Sprout had picked almost anyone else in the class she might not have cared. She did kind of owe Tracey, it made her uncomfortable, and making this class more difficult for her just because she really didn't like it was just kind of...

Of course, one of the few things she'd learned about Tracey since they'd been made partners was that she didn't like Herbology much either — as long as she kept her half-arsing at more or less the same level as Tracey's half-arsing, that seemed perfectly fair, didn't it?

Sprout wasn't a complete idiot, unfortunately. Since they had a set stock of mandrakes — and a few other exotic plants that would eventually be turned into potions to stock the Hospital Wing by Snape, but the mandrakes were the most annoying — that they were supposed to be taking care of, Sprout could evenly divide the necessary work between all the pairs of students. So it was very clearly obvious if any of the pairs weren't finishing their work.

For a week now, Sprout had been letting people who'd finished before class ended leave early. Today, she hadn't let Liz and Tracey leave until they were finished.

As clumsy as Tracey was with this stuff, and with how much Liz had to restrain herself from breaking something out of sheer frustration, they weren't done repotting the fucking mandrakes until nearly fifteen minutes after class had been dismissed.

Liz was really starting to hate Sprout. Like a lot.

So now they were walking back up to the castle alone, spattered with dirt and fertiliser — Tracey sunk into herself a bit, shoulders hunched and arms tightly wrapped around her middle, Liz gritting her teeth, focusing very hard on keeping herself inside her own head. She'd read accidental mind magic had a lower threshold than normal accidental magic (that is, it happened a hell of a lot easier) and could get very nasty — like, driving people permanently insane nasty — so probably best not to touch anyone else until she'd calmed down a bit. So she didn't know why Tracey was being so...stiff and shrinking or whatever. Liz's ability to read faces and body language and stuff, which she knew she must have been able to do before, had suffered pretty badly after years of cheating with mind-magic superpowers, so. Definitely unpleasant, but Liz couldn't guess how, exactly.

The dinner hour had already started, but she and Tracey both turned for the stairs down to Slytherin instead of toward the Great Hall. Neither of them had said anything, Liz guessing they'd both just decided they'd rather clean up before eating. Liz nearly took a glance at her head to make sure Tracey wasn't feeling anything shifty or suspicious or anything, before catching herself by the skin of her teeth — right, angry, she wasn't supposed to do that.

Of course, she wasn't really supposed to eavesdrop in people's heads at all, but she couldn't really help it most of the time. And she'd never promised Tracey she wouldn't, so most of the time she didn't even bother trying not to.

The Slytherin dorm was mostly empty when they got down there, unsurprisingly, just a few older kids sitting by one of the fires, one reading a book alone by the windows. On the way down the stairs, they passed by a few fourth-year girls — Liz got a cheerful wave from Camilla Flint, Mark's little sister. By the giggles she heard after they passed, Liz guessed her return wave was just as awkward as it felt.

Stepping into the bathroom, Liz yanked her robe over her head, tossed it into the used towel basket. Technically, they weren't supposed to put their clothes there, but the elves always got things back to the right person no matter how mixed up they got, so she doubted it made any difference. Tracey shot her a glance, then started off away from the sinks. She must feel filthy enough she thought she needed a shower right this second, which, okay then. Liz's hands were mostly clean, since she'd been wearing gloves, but she still gave them a good rinse before pulling at her scarf, moving it up like a headband to hold her hair back, she glanced up at the mirror to make sure—

Liz froze. "What is that?"

Tracey twitched, dropping her robe to the tile, jerked around to stare wide-eyed at Liz — yanking the hem of her vest down to where it belonged, sharp and firm. Liz caught something from her head (her anger at Sprout had vanished abruptly anyway), but she couldn't really say what it was, something dark and itchy and, just, unpleasant. "What?" Tracey's voice sounded a bit shaky, the odd whatever it was in her head flaring a bit, probably realising that herself.

"Your back. What is that?"

Her head cold and sticky and gross, Tracey was suddenly very pale. "I don't know what—"

"Shut up," Liz said, a faint tingle of magic on her tongue.

Tracey's voice cut out with a faint choking noise. That unpleasant whatever it was growing stronger, there was also a shiver of fear cutting under it now. Like many kids from noble families, Tracey must have some very minimal training in occlumency — enough to recognise what she'd just done for what it was, but not enough to actually do anything about it.

Which meant Tracey knew she was a mind mage now. Whoops? She'd been trying to keep that a secret, but... "You might be figuring it out just now, but I can tell when people lie to me. Maybe don't." Okay, that was much less...nice-sounding than she should probably be going for right now, but she had absolutely no idea how to do this sort of thing. Or even if she should do this sort of thing, bringing this to Snape would be better, but she wanted to confirm she'd seen what she thought she'd seen first.

Right, definitely not nice enough, Tracey was cringing away from her, shrinking even more than she had on the way down here, black dread rising with...something else, something tingly and shifty and kind of...

Tracey's breaths going thin and shallow even as Liz tried to figure out what the hell that was, it finally clicked. It didn't seem to be quite exactly the same as what happened to her, but it was sort of similar, Liz thought, in the same general family of badness. Plucking up her potion from the counter, Liz walked over to Tracey, twisted off the cap before holding it out to her. "Calming potion. Take a sip."

She didn't move, just staring confusedly at her. Well, in her generally direction, at least, her eyes weren't quite getting as high as Liz's.

Liz sighed. "I'm fucked up, remember? Snape gives them to me. Take it." She put the slightest tinge of compulsion on the words, but just a little bit, Tracey could probably shake it off easily if she wanted to.

In fact, the compulsion didn't take at all, splashing uselessly against the solid block of ice in her head. (She did need to push harder if someone was focusing on something, this kind of panic thing was probably a similar idea.) But Tracey reached for the bottle anyway, her fingers shaking, took a rather large gulp. Most of the unpleasantness was washed away in a cool, soothing wave, not so much pushing the bad out as just inundating it, overpowering it, Tracey going light-headed enough she teetered in place a little.

Huh, so that's what that looked like. Neat. Liz nearly took the bottle before second-guessing herself, let Tracey hang onto it — she probably wouldn't need more so quickly, but just in case. "Show me."

Even through the haze of the calming potion, Tracey flinched, her shoulders hitching with tension. Not as bad as before, but it was noticeable, a shade of tingly anxiety bubbling at the back of her head. "Liz, I—"

"Show me."

There was a very faint flare of lukewarm anger, as easily muted by the calming potion as everything else. Liz had actually put a bit of power into this one, it took easily enough, but Tracey could feel it happening, and was clearly less than happy about it. Her breath hitching a bit, the movement jerking and robotic, Tracey turned around, reached to lift her vest up about halfway.

Her back was covered in scars. There were dozens of them, most of them little, long narrow lines a faint white — they looked like cuts, old and long ago healed — a few little...slightly shiny-looking patches — burns, maybe? Most of them were little, but not all of them — there were a few here and there that had obviously been deeper gashes, raised lines darkened to a moody reddish-purple. The worst was wider than Liz's finger, angled top-left to bottom-right, long enough it vanished under Tracey's shorts at her hip and above where she was holding her shirt.

It was obvious what this was, she didn't need to be told — she couldn't imagine any other situation where someone would get this many scars on their back, and not have them anywhere else, it was the only thing that made sense. Liz knew she had something vaguely similar-looking herself. She couldn't see them, of course, but she could feel them, the slightly raised scars hard bumps under her fingers. But Tracey's looked rather worse than she assumed her own did. Not in the number of them, Liz thought she might actually have more, but in the size and the thickness of them. They looked... Well, they looked like someone had taken a knife to Tracey's back, in the cases of the burns like, she didn't know, a cigarette or something — not actually a cigarette, the burns were too long, not just a little circle, but something hot, anyway — most of the cuts shallow, but some of them far too deep, deep enough Liz was certain there must have been blood everywhere.

That worst one looked about as bad as the middle of the web on Liz's chest, it must have been deep enough that, if they didn't have magic and stuff, Tracey could well have died. Especially if she'd been rather smaller at the time...

But it hadn't actually been a knife, since Tracey was raised with magic, these were probably from curses. Though, when she thought about it, that made it kind of fucking weird she had scars at all. She meant, whoever did it must have known someone would notice eventually, but other people weren't to know what went on at home, wouldn't it make sense to heal them so there weren't any scars left? Or, at least, get rid of the scars later, that was a thing people could do, so Tracey had to suffer the unpleasantness of the healing process, but still leaving nothing behind.

Unless...

Unless whoever it was had used some seriously dark curses. Many of those interfered with the healing process. It was the same reason Snape and Pomfrey hadn't been able to get rid of all the scars on Liz's chest — it was possible, but they'd pretty much have to cut everything off and regrow it from scratch, which was a very involved procedure they couldn't just do in the Hospital Wing at Hogwarts (and also blood alchemy, which was only sort of legal in Britain). If even some of these were done with dark curses.

Liz reached out, pressed her fingers to the middle of that worst scar — Tracey jumped, her shoulders hunching, something twitchy and unpleasant flaring in her head, though much dimmer than it would have been without the calming potion — then pulled away again, rubbing her thumb against her fingertips. It was very faint, but there was some kind of magic there, something sticky and slimy, like partially-dried sick. Probably dark magic, then.

Hmm.

She stopped holding on to the compulsion, and Tracey shrugged it off a couple seconds later, yanking her vest back down and jerking a step away. "Your father? No, wait," she said before Tracey could protest, "it wouldn't be him, I forgot." Tracey's father had died in the war when she'd only been a few months old — he'd fought for the Light, which the rest of his family apparently hadn't liked much. "Who?"

Tracey hesitated for a moment, her feet shifting in place, glaring down at the floor. For a long moment, she didn't say anything, biting at her lip hard enough it actually looked painful. Liz wondered if she'd have to compel it out of her again but, her knuckles around the bottle turning white, she finally spoke, the words coming low, half-choked, barely above a whisper. "My grandfather would prefer a pureblood heir."

...That was stupid, but okay. Though, Liz wasn't certain what hurting Tracey was supposed to accomplish there, no matter what he did she would still be— "Did he actually try to kill you?" That biggest curse scar on her back was kind of...

Tracey clenched her jaw, going almost painfully tense, her head sick and shivery. She didn't answer.

But she didn't have to say it. Liz knew, while not entirely certain how she knew, that at the very least Tracey believed her grandfather fully intended to murder her.

In fact, Liz knew, somehow, that Tracey didn't expect to live to her fifteenth birthday. She'd only lived this long because her mother had kept her away from home as much as possible, but she (and the Greengrasses and the Monroes and the Glanwvyls) couldn't protect her forever. Why specifically her fifteenth birthday, Liz didn't know, but that was the date Tracey had in her head, that her grandfather would make sure she was dead before then, one way or another.

Well. Liz guessed she knew how she was paying Tracey back for the scarf.

Bursting into Snape's office just off the common room, Liz wasn't entirely surprised to find it was occupied. Snape was probably the professor who was absent at meals the most, it wasn't unusual to look up to the staff table and not see him there...which, that might have something to do with how skinny he was, come to think of it. Anyway, he was sitting in one of the armchairs in front of the fireplace, reading what Liz had learned to recognise from the quality of the paper to be a magical-made magazine. Given this was Snape, probably an academic journal of some kind — somehow, Liz just couldn't see Snape reading Witch Weekly.

He barely twitched at the intrusion, calmly turning to look their way. And then, once he saw them, his eyes tipped up to the ceiling with a sigh, a pulse of exasperation crawling across the air. There was a sense on it of a, kind of, of course this was going to happen, unsurprised while also annoyed, but also a hint of...embarrassment?

Liz blinked, glanced down at herself, and then at Tracey. Right, mages didn't consider these shorts and vests to be decent on their own, they were supposed to be worn under robes. She kept forgetting about that...

Which meant she'd essentially just dragged Tracey across Slytherin in her underwear. Whoops? Tracey had seemed a bit...shifty, she didn't know — whatever it had been going on in her head, the calming potion muted it enough Liz had hardly noticed — but she hadn't actually protested...and the common room had been practically empty, anyway...though not completely empty...

Yeah, whoops. Her bad.

Leaving his journal on a side table, Snape pushed up to his feet. "Miss Potter, Miss Davis. I'm certain you have a decent explanation for bursting in here in such a state."

Liz turned to Tracey. "Show him."

"Potter!" Snape seemed rather taken aback, that she was just openly compelling Tracey like this right in front of him, a cold kind of shock ringing out. A tingle stretched across the air, presumably Snape reaching toward Tracey's mind to break it. But he was so surprised his reaction was delayed a couple seconds.

So, before Snape could undo it, Tracey had already turned around, her shirt lifted up again. And the tingle of mind magic on the air dissolved into nothing.

Staring at the scars on Tracey's back, Snape had gone still, and quiet, and cold.

It was actually a little bit scary. Liz had seen anger in people's heads before, obviously, but it was usually... Well, anger tended to be a hot and noisy and messy thing, like fire, spreading and roaring across the person's mind. Which, that could be scary enough, Liz sometimes felt like it would burn her if she got to close, instinctively pulled away — it didn't help that the feel of it always reminded Liz of Vernon's rages. This, though, was different. Snape was, just, absolutely incandescent, yes, but it wasn't the fiery, wild kind of anger Liz was used to. Instead it was cold, so cold, as still and frigid as a deep winter night, and sharp, instead of flaring and raging around keenly focused, intense and, just...

...dangerous. That was the word Liz was thinking of, really, dangerous. She was abruptly reminded, feeling the coldly rational yet murderous fury in Snape's head, that he had been a Death Eater back in the war. It was weird how easy it was to forget that, most of the time.

Finally, Snape twitched into motion again, breaking Liz's compulsion with an easy flick of thought. While Tracey jumped, jerking her shirt down again — and took a very obvious step away from her — Liz said, "It looks bad, but it's even worse than it looks. She thinks her grandfather is going to make certain she'd dead before her fifteen birthday."

Snape grit his teeth, the frozen blade in his head growing even sharper. "I suppose Lord Davis doesn't want to suffer the humiliation of approaching his peers to arrange a suitable husband for his half-blood heir." Oh, right, fifteen was the age a lot of the mages in the noble families got their marriage stuff settled, she'd entirely forgotten about that. It did sort of make sense that that would be Tracey's grandfather's deadline, then. "Have a seat, Miss Davis," he said, nodding to the armchairs by the fire. "Miss Potter, five points from Slytherin. I will let it go this time, but if this sort of behaviour becomes a habit we will be having a conversation on what constitutes acceptable use of mind magic on one's peers."

He didn't say it out loud, but Liz got the message anyway — you did a Bad Thing, but we're basically saving Tracey's life right now, so I'm not going to do anything about it. She gave him a little compliant nod.

But Tracey hadn't moved, her shoulders hunching, nervous tension slipping through the haze of the calming potion. "Professor, this... I don't—"

"This ends now, Miss Davis," Snape said, his voice a low hiss, yet somehow hard and unyielding. "Sit down."

"But—"

"Miss Davis, after what Potter has just told me, I cannot simply do nothing. I will be intervening, no matter what happens in this room today. Your cooperation merely broadens the possible interventions I may take. Without it, I may be limited to the most...extreme options."

Liz blinked — had Snape just implied he would kill Tracey's grandfather if he thought he had to, to make it stop? Huh.

Apparently, Tracey thought the same thing. A shiver of surprise ran through her, but very mild, suffocated by the calming potion. So instead of the shocked outburst Liz might have expected, she just stared up at Snape, doubtfully frowning. "But...he's a Lord of the Wizengamot."

"I think you will find, Miss Davis, that I do not care. Sit down," he repeated, pointing toward the armchairs by the fire.

Her mind cool and smooth from the potion, but still muddled by confusion, Tracey meekly obeyed.

"Get out, Potter."

Liz glanced at Tracey, bit her lip. "Ah, sir, can I have another potion? I gave one of mine to Tracey, but I think she should keep it."

Weirdly, the sharp fury in Snape's head actually lessened a little. A flick of his fingers, a crackle of magic on the air, and one of the drawers near his desk rattled open, a familiar bottle of pale blue potion whipped across the air toward Liz. She caught it, the smooth glass hitting her palm with a hard smack. "Go."

Liz was just stepping through the door when she heard Snape add, "Thirty points to Slytherin, Miss Potter." So, that meant he'd actually given her twenty-five points over this. She got that message too, though he didn't say it out loud — I actually think you did a Good Thing, despite doing a Bad Thing to accomplish it, and I don't actually care about the Bad Thing that much, but I had to say something about it, just to make the point the Bad Thing wouldn't have been acceptable if you weren't doing it to do a Good Thing.

Shaking her head to herself, Liz closed the door behind her, a smirk twitching at her lips. Snape-speak wasn't that hard to interpret at all, once she got a feel for it.

Anyway, dinner had to be nearly over by now, but she should probably go get dressed first...

Four days later, Liz received an unlabeled package at breakfast. Her ring, enchanted to detect curses, didn't react, so she opened it to find chocolate — a few bars, the unfamiliar labels were in...German? She thought that was German. She didn't recognise the brand, but they did look kind of fancy.

Flipping through them, she noticed each bar had the same shape hand-drawn on a blank spot in the packaging on the back: an old-fashioned wheel, flowers and wheat woven between the spokes. Liz was pretty sure that was a symbol of House Greengrass.

Daphne, sitting a couple metres away with Tracey, pretended not to notice Liz was looking at her.

Liz frowned for a second, then shrugged, slipping the chocolate into her bookbag. Apparently, the reward for doing things Daphne approved of was fancy chocolate. Good to know.

Chapter Text

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.)