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A Priori

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Castiel Novak took his first step inside London King’s Cross with his heart beating hard and his eyes wide, trying to see absolutely everything.

When he’d imagined this moment – and oh, Merlin, he’d imagined it time and time and time again, sitting in the attic of their house on Cloudesley Street with his face pressed up against the cool glass of the window, eyes fixed south-west, trying to imagine that he could see a curl of train smoke rising up into the grey London sky – when he’d imagined it, he’d always thought of the station as somewhere neat, and muted, and clean. Like his mother’s kitchen, only bigger.

But it wasn’t at all like that. It was a mess.

It was sprawlingly huge and bright, and smelled headily strongly of food and cologne and bodies. And there were people walking, people running, people standing and staring at the departure boards, hundreds upon hundreds of people with their boisterous conversations and rustling shopping and rat-a-tat doorknocker laughs. Ding dong, and then another voice, loud and slightly crackly. The train now standing at Platform Two is the Ten-Thirty Great Northern Service to Kings Lynn. Would passengers please board the train now, as it is ready to depart… A small, chubby man checked his sparkling gold watch, looking harassed. A large woman walked by with a skinny little girl skipping along behind her, counting out numbers as she went. A pigeon flapped overhead, landing on top of a pink and red sign advertising cheap pizza. And under his feet, the grumble grumble grumble of the trains.

“Keep up, Castiel!”

A sharp, impatient, familiar voice, carrying over the top of the tumultuous racket. Castiel blinked, and ran a few steps forwards to catch up. His mother sent him an admonitory look over the heads of his brothers, who were walking neatly in line behind her.

Gabriel turned around and grinned at him.

“Don’t get lost, little bro,” he said. “That wouldn’t be very smart, would it?”

Castiel narrowed his eyes at his older brother and said nothing. The teasing that Gabriel had kept up over the course of the summer would be over soon; the Sorting couldn’t come quickly enough for Castiel. The moment he was placed in Ravenclaw, he was going to jump up on that stool and shout “I told you so!” to the whole of the Great Hall, but mostly to Gabriel. Maybe also to Michael, the King of quiet condescension.

And maybe also to his mother, who pursed her lips every time he got a question wrong at their daily lunch-table quiz. She had her doubts about today’s Sorting, and Castiel knew it. But he would prove her wrong. He’d get sorted into Ravenclaw, where he belonged, with the rest of his family.

He followed in their footsteps across the concourse of King’s Cross station, battling down the urge to stare at everyone he passed. He tried to focus instead on the back of Gabriel’s dark robes, swishing over the grey tiled ground. But it couldn’t last; the new sights and sounds were simply too alluring after long, long weeks spent shut up inside Cloudesley Street while his mother was at home over the summer. Besides, it wasn’t as though staring seemed to be an especially strange thing to do: half the people they passed seemed to be gawping right back at Castiel, stopping in their tracks to watch his progress. He tugged on Gabriel’s robes.

“C’mon, Cassie, you’ll make me drop Galilee.”

“Why’s everyone staring?”

Gabriel smirked.

“They’re not used to seeing people in robes like ours. It’s because we’re special.”

Castiel’s eyes widened, and he nodded. Of course, that would explain it. None of these people looked as though they were going to Hogwarts. Why shouldn’t they stare, and be jealous? Castiel himself had been in their position for four long years running, watching first Michael and then Gabriel leave the house with all their luggage, ready to board the Hogwarts Express. He knew how they felt. He tried his best not to look too pleased with himself as he followed his mother’s lead towards Platform Nine and Three-Quarters; the worst part had always been his brothers’ smug faces. And even before Michael and Gabriel had been old enough to go to Hogwarts, his mother had been taking the Express every September since before Castiel could remember.

“Remember to stay calm when Professor Tran puts the Sorting Hat on you,” she’d said this morning, over breakfast. “I will speak to you along with all the other new Ravenclaws tomorrow morning, when I hand out your timetables.” Castiel had nodded silently, his helping of porridge sticking in his throat. He wasn’t sure what it was going to be like, having his mother as both his Head of House and his Charms teacher; it was bad enough having her as his taskmaster in the holidays, but in front of all of his classmates, too…

“Where has Muriel got to with those suitcases?” Naomi now demanded waspishly of no one in particular, throwing a glance back over her shoulder as they neared the gateway to the platform. “Castiel, stay close to your brother. It’s the same every year,” she said to him, throwing a disparaging look towards the people staring at her heavy, starched grey robes. “Packed with Muggles.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Castiel saw someone’s head jerk up. He looked to his left, and saw a brown-haired boy in Muggle clothing tugging at a blonde woman’s sleeve. Probably some lost Muggle-born, looking for the platform. Castiel hoped the boy wouldn’t ask Naomi for help. She could be terse at the best of times.

The barrier between platforms nine and ten came into view, and Naomi came to a halt. She wrapped a hand around Castiel’s shoulder, and motioned curtly for Michael and Gabriel to go through. Castiel looked up at her. She looked tense, her teeth grinding a little as she waited. The hustle of the station was irking her; perhaps that was all. Castiel hadn’t been outside with her often enough to know how she usually acted in public. His own heart was still hammering, every loud noise making him jump a little. He tightened his fingers into fists. He wanted to reach up and hold his mother’s hand, but she didn’t usually encourage that.

Her grip on his shoulder tightened.

“You know I’m proud of you, don’t you, Castiel?” she said. Castiel, taken by surprise, blinked up at her owlishly. She opened her mouth to say something more, and then snapped it shut. Castiel watched her throat move as she swallowed.

“Don’t stare, Castiel, it’s rude. Through the barrier, now.” She sent him forwards with a little push. Castiel had missed watching his brothers go through, but they were nowhere to be seen, so he guessed it must have worked. He took a few hesitant steps forwards, and then looked back at his mother. He felt as though a thousand eyes were on him, but hers certainly weren’t. She was looking back in the direction they’d come, probably waiting to give Muriel a telling-off for being late with the suitcases.

Castiel turned back around. He squared his thin shoulders, staring at the barrier. Gabriel had told him a thousand times that it was easy.

On the other hand, Gabriel had also told him that they kept ten acromantulas between the barrier and the train, but he was fairly certain that wasn’t true. He’d asked Michael when he’d been sure Gabriel wasn’t around, and Michael had only looked down his nose at Castiel for a long second before turning back to his book with a sigh and a shake of his head. Still, it had been a second of attention longer than Castiel usually received from his oldest brother, so he’d counted it as something like a win.

In any case, if Michael had thought Castiel was just being stupid, then the acromantulas probably weren’t real.

A few suited men buffeted past Castiel on their way to catch the train from Platform 10, almost knocking him over in their hurry. He started to move towards the barrier. Time to get out of the way. At a brisk pace, he stepped right up… he was getting closer, and then…

And then he was through. No whoosh of air, no sparks... not even a ten-foot tall venomous arachnid monster to greet him.

“Rarrrrrrrrgh!” yelled a voice, and arms grabbed Castiel from behind, swinging him up and round.

“Gabriel!” Castiel yelped, squirming – surely everyone would be staring? But when he was released, he quickly realised that no one was paying him any attention. Students everywhere were shouting greetings and getting on the train, too busy to watch Castiel being teased. Michael was engaged in a serious-looking conversation several feet away with a tall boy wearing a green and silver tie, who had dirty-blond hair and a strange, icy twinkle in his eye. He looked over at Castiel, and winked. Castiel, still brushing down his robes, swallowed uncomfortably and looked up at Gabriel.

“OK, so I lied,” Gabriel said, holding up one hand in confession. “No acromantulas. Just lots of scaaaaaaary students.” He wiggled his fingers threateningly in Castiel’s face; Castiel batted them away, rolling his eyes. He was glad Gabriel was here, still being his usual irritating self. It was an island of annoying familiarity in this sea of shouting and steam and scarlet engines. Gabriel ruffled his hair, and Castiel dodged aside, out of habit. “Come on, little bro. Time to escape before the Mothertron arrives and finds you a seat on the train next to Michael and the Indoctrinating Ravens…”

“Castiel?” The pincer-grip was back on Castiel’s shoulder, tighter than ever. Gabriel offered him a quick, regretful glance, turning away and running off towards a group of other third-years, brandishing the little box he held in one hand at them with typical beaming panache. Castiel glanced upwards to catch his mother staring after Gabriel with a face as blank as a fresh sheet of parchment.

“He’s showing them Galilee,” Castiel explained, trying to be helpful. His mother looked down at him as though surprised to see him, and then pursed her lips.

“I know,” she said sharply. “I should never have bought it for him. They’re not strictly allowed.” Castiel said nothing; he’d been just as surprised as Gabriel when his mother had agreed to buy a pet tarantula for him at the start of the summer. Naomi sighed. “He’ll have traded it for a week’s worth of homework before the end of the month,” she said, turning away and guiding Castiel with her. “Come on, Castiel, we’ll sit you down with Michael.”

Castiel didn’t try to fight Naomi’s steering hand, though he did peer through the windows of the carriages they passed. He found an empty feeling growing in his chest when he saw students laughing together, hugging each other, shouting over each other to be heard. It all looked so loud and riotous and… fun.

“Michael always sits in the front carriage,” Naomi said, giving Castiel a little push. “Don’t be afraid of the other fifth years. I sit further down the train to give you boys your space.” She levered her hand away from Castiel’s shoulder, blue eyes boring down into him. “Come and find me if you need my help, Castiel. But I expect you to be able to deal with this on your own.”

Castiel swallowed and nodded. He took a step away from his mother, and then another, feeling her eyes on his back as he climbed up into the carriage. For a brief second, he considered trying to move on past Michael’s compartment, and find some other people to sit with – maybe other first years, like himself – but then Michael poked his head around the door of his open compartment and raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“Are you coming in, then?” he demanded. Castiel nodded, raising his shoulders to try to show the same ambivalence that Michael achieved so naturally. He took a deep breath, and then entered the compartment.

The only free seat was by the window, over a thicket of legs. Castiel scrambled over, earning himself several contemptuous glares before he’d even managed to sit down. Once he’d dropped into his seat, he looked down at his folded hands and tried not to feel the burn in his cheeks.

“Sorry that we’re babysitting today,” he heard Michael say, and his embarrassment only intensified. Michael was so ashamed to be his brother. “But I want to keep an eye on him.”

No mention of their mother’s instructions, then. Castiel glanced over at his brother, who was leaning back in his seat languidly, watching him through narrowed eyes. Castiel knew that look all too well; say anything and you’ll pay for it later. He swallowed and turned his face to the window. Michael’s friends started chatting amongst themselves. Isolated, watching the last few stragglers boarding the train, Castiel sat with a lump in his throat, wishing that he could chat so effortlessly, be a part of the group. He felt awkward and silent, a dull grey rock tipping the atmosphere of the compartment out of balance. He wished that he could say something. Make a joke, like Gabriel would.

“Muggles everywhere in the station again,” Michael said carelessly. “I don’t know why the Ministry won’t just clear the place for one morning while the students go through.”

“Couldn’t you ask your father?” said one of his friends, and Castiel’s head jerked round.

“No,” Michael said sharply, sounding just like Naomi. “He doesn’t work in that department.”

The silence pressed in awkwardly. Outside in the corridor people were moving past the open door of the compartment, some of them peering in briefly to look for spare seats.

One of Michael’s friends cleared her throat. The tense quiet continued. Was this normal for Michael’s friends? Or was it because their father had been brought up?

“The Muggles were everywhere,” Castiel said eventually – trying to get the conversation back on track. “They’re stupid.”

Michael snorted.

“Stupid like you, Castiel.”

A few of the Ravenclaws laughed, a little awkwardly.

The last person to get on the train shut the door behind them; Castiel heard it slam. It was almost eleven o’clock.

“Are Muggle-borns all stupid, too?” he said, frowning.

“Born with Muggles, born stupid,” Michael said. “And boring.”

Castiel nodded seriously. His brother would know. Castiel himself had never met a Muggle-born. Or, indeed, many Muggles. He became aware of someone standing stock still just outside the compartment, and looked up to see the boy from earlier – the one with the blonde woman, the one who’d looked so relieved to see some wizards who knew where they were going.

His mouth was slightly open and the tips of his ears were red. Castiel frowned at him, wondering why he didn’t move down the train and find himself a seat. He looked as though he wanted to speak.

Castiel blinked at him, and then realised he was staring, and turned back to face the window. Platform Nine and Three-Quarters was still full of parents, waving to their children, passing them last-minute gifts through the windows, squeezing their hands with tears in their eyes. Castiel felt a little ache inside at the sight of them, so overflowing with care and sadness and happiness all at once. Some of them were waving to children in the next compartment along from Castiel, and if he squinted his eyes, he could almost imagine that they were waving at him.

He sighed, and sat back. Michael’s friends were chattering, one long stream of sarcasm and dry remarks, most of which went a little over Castiel’s head, though he would never have admitted it. He sighed quietly.

It was going to be a long journey.

 

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There were three things that Dean knew for sure about this incredible world that he'd been recently thrust into. One: he was a wizard. Up until the day when the man in a nice suit had come to his home to explain all about wizards and witches and the school they go to, Dean hadn't even thought they'd existed. Then, there he was, being told that he was a boy that could go learn magic if he wanted.

So, Dean knew he was a wizard.

Two: people without magic were called 'Muggles'. It was kind of weird word, but it had been a part of the explanation, too. Dean's Mom and Dad were Muggles, which made Dean a "Muggle-born". Most everyone he knew were Muggles. When he'd asked if his little brother Sam was a Muggle, the man had said he didn't know yet, but probably. That was okay. Dean would be sure to tell him all about Magic when he got back.

And the third thing he knew for sure was something that he'd just learned: that compartment of kids were a bunch of assholes.

Yes, he knew that if his mom had known he'd even thought that word he'd be in all sorts of trouble, but they were.

Dean found himself staring at the one boy in the group that seemed to be about his own age, the one with the blue eyes. He gaped as his brain worked on just how offended he should be and what he should do next.

They'd called Muggles stupid. They'd called Muggle-borns stupid, too.

Blue-eyes cocked his head at him curiously and that was enough to set Dean in motion again. He gave the boy a scowl that he usually only reserved for people that liked to pick on Sammy, and walked down the aisle of the train, resolved to get as far away from those people as he could.

Dean had gotten on the train a little later than most kids so that he could kiss his mom goodbye, so most of the seats were already taken. There was a group of kids in one compartment that looked like they were all pouring over stacks of books. Another compartment that he peeked in had two older kids in it... kissing. Dean grimaced and continued down the aisle, but everywhere he looked, people already had friends.

Dean had no one.

He stumbled backwards into a mostly-full compartment when an older kid raced down the train and shoved him to the side.

Inside, a blonde girl giggled at him when he looked around, making all of that stupid insecurity come rushing back. Across from her was a scowly dark-haired girl that didn't look like she was having a very good day. To the right of the blonde was a boy with a ...mullet? Did people still wear those?

"Are you okay?" the boy at the very far end of the compartment asked, with a small smile. He was incredibly scrawny and had soft voice but at least he looked like he genuinely cared about Dean’s well-being.

Dean shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded, edging his way back towards the entrance of the compartment. "Sorry. I didn't mean to - I'll just -"

"Do you have somewhere to sit?" Dean looked over at the redheaded girl at the end of the cart. In total, there were five kids that all seemed to be about his own age sitting next to each other, and only around half of them seemed to be wearing those robes he'd had to buy at Diagon Alley.

"Yeah," the blonde piped up, patting the seat next to her. "If you need somewhere, we have room for one more."  

Dean hesitated for just a moment before gingerly sitting next to her, half-expecting the whole group to burst out laughing at the cruel joke of pretending to let him sit with them.

"So, what's your name?" the redhead asked. "We just got done talking about ourselves but we can start over for you."

Dean shifted in his seat under the sudden limelight. "Dean."

She smiled at him and stuck out her hand. "Hi Dean. I'm Charlie."

Dean let himself smile back and reached out to shake her hand, surprised at her firm grip.

"And I'm Jo," the blonde announced with a well-placed slug on the arm. "That's Ash," she pointed to the guy next to her with the mullet, "Garth," the guy across from him, "and...Ruby, right?"

The dark-haired girl nodded.

"So, Dean," Charlie propped up her chin with one hand. "What House are you gonna be in?"

House? Dean opened his mouth to say that he didn't know what she was talking about, but Jo interrupted.

"C'mon. You know that's not how it works."

"Well, you can at least have a good guess," Ash piped in. "Like, your mom and dad were both Gryffindors, right, Jo?"

Jo sighed. "Well, yeah, but--"

Ash shushed her. "I'll bet you five sickles you're a Gryffindor."

Dean watched the exchange in intrigue. It only took him a moment to remember that sickles were a type of wizard money that he and his mom had spent at Diagon Alley.

"Whatever. I don't care where I'm sorted."

Ruby snorted. "Everyone says that, until they get Hufflepuff."

"Hey!" Garth protested from the back. "My whole family was in Hufflepuff, and they liked it a lot."

"So, uh, " Dean said, trying to figure out what any of this conversation meant. "What are we talking about?"

Everyone turned to gape at him before Jo let out a noise of understanding.

"Oooooh. He's a Muggle-born!"

Dean felt his face turn red at the mention of that word again. The last time he'd heard it, it had been said with such contempt and dismissal that he was already embarrassed to be associated with it.

"Alright, so," Jo's face grew serious as she started to explain. "When we get there, all the first years are gonna be sorted into a House. There's four of them. Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin."

Both Ruby and Charlie let out some whoops at the mention of the last House.

"How do we get sorted?" he asked curiously.

"You have to fight a DRAGON." Charlie said, holding her arms in the air.

Dean paled. A dragon? He'd have to fight a dragon already? Wait, dragons were real? Of course he understood that this was a magic school, but all of the other kids had probably been practicing their dragon-fighting skills for years now, and Dean had only just learned about this recently.

"She's kidding," Ruby said with a sigh, obviously noting the panicked look on Dean's face. "You just get some dumb hat placed on your head and it'll tell you which House you're in."

Honestly, between the two options he'd heard, the dragon sounded far more likely.

"Okay. Which House is the best?"

Everyone in the compartment began to speak at once and Dean definitely heard every House mentioned and argued over.

"They're all good," Ash interjected through the noise. "They've all got good things and bad things about them, but you'll get put in the House that will help you out the most. The Sorting Hat knows what it's doing."

Dean nodded solemnly as he tried to process all of that new information he’d just received. Four Houses. All different. All good. Magic hat. Got it.

“So is there a...a special House for…” he lowered his voice. “Uh, Muggle-borns?”

Jo raised an eyebrow at him. “No? Why are you whispering?”

He blinked.

“Um. Are Muggle-borns not… bad?”

Charlie scoffed. “Of course not! You have as much magic as any of us, if you got your letter.”

Well -” Ruby murmured, looking at her nails.

“‘Well’ nothing,” Charlie shot back. “What era are you living in?”

Ruby grumbled something under her breath, but gazed out the window when no one else chimed in to agree with whatever she’d been about to say.

Jo rested a hand on Dean’s arm. “You’re fine, Dean. Where’d you hear anything about Muggle-borns being bad?”

He shrugged, not wanting to play the snitch on anyone. “Just some people at the front of the train. They were saying that Muggles and Muggle-borns were stupid.”

A majority of the compartment shook their heads.

“Well, they’re stupid.” Ash muttered. “And mean.”

“Yeah.” Dean agreed with a small smile, glad that he’d been shoved into this little group of friends. “They are mean.”

 

The rest of the train ride mainly consisted of Dean asking questions and the rest of the group being more than happy to oblige him with answers. Most of them had never met a Muggle-born before, or at least not knowingly.

Dean learned more about the differences in the Houses from Garth. He learned about different spells that Jo had seen her mom use and was excited to try. Ash told him about the ghosts that supposedly were haunting Hogwarts. Not in the scary way, apparently. But in a friendly way. Charlie and Ruby both enthusiastically filled him in on Quidditch, and from what he could tell, he had really been missing out.

A sport where people flew on brooms! Why worry about boring sports when one existed where a ball literally tries to maim you?

Dean quickly grew to like the people in that compartment; even Ruby - who had been a little less than friendly at the beginning - had her own special charm.

The only thing he was worried about now was the Sorting.

Jo had made a point of letting him know that even if none of them were in his house, they'd still all be friends. They'd have some classes together and they could even hang out during free time.

It meant a lot to him that they were willing to do that, but he still hoped that he ended up in her house. Hopefully in the same house as most of them.

"Hey, Dean," Garth said, "You've got some robes, right? You should probably change into them soon."

"Oh, right." Dean stood and patted the small carry-on he'd brought with him. It contained the strange robes and the wand he'd bought at Ollivanders. It was holly and dragon heartstring, 9 3/4 inches. "Yeah, I'll go find the toilets and change."

Jo waved as he left and made his way down the long train hallway. The bathroom was probably at the very end of this cart, right? He should have asked, but he didn't want to go back now and look like an idiot. Sure enough, he got to the end of the cart and spotted the bathrooms, only to find that the men's room was locked. Great. After about thirty seconds of tapping his shoe, the door finally opened to reveal the blue-eyed boy from earlier. He smiled as he stepped out, accidentally bumping into Dean as the train lurched.

"Oh! Sorry," the boy said.

Very maturely, Dean rolled his eyes and brushed him off, stepping inside the bathroom and closing the door behind him with a small click. He might as well not to have anything to do with someone who thought he was 'stupid'.

It took him about five minutes to figure out how to put on the weird set of robes. Four of those minutes were just him getting lost in the fabric and attempting to find the way out. Magic-people actually wore these? Voluntarily?

He'd just have to get used to it.

Dean quickly made his way back to the compartment with his new friends and very nearly tripped over the folds of fabric in his rush.

"Dean, look! You can see the castle!"

Dean pressed himself up against the window that everyone in his compartment was staring through.

The castle was enormous. Absolutely huge. Set just on the edge of an even bigger lake, it juxtaposed the mountainside beautifully.

And Dean quickly learned that the castle was even bigger up close.

They'd all piled off the train with the assurance that their bags would be brought into their common rooms once they'd been sorted, and Dean was content, laughing out loud as they sailed across the lake. He'd started a splash war with the boat across from him and hadn't even cared when the burly teacher up front reprimanded him.

The stone hallways were ridiculously tall, with old chandeliers covered in spider webs and old-fashioned knight's armor in every corner.

It was as if every fantasy he'd ever had was coming to life all at once.

The group of first years reached a giant wooden doorway where a small, asian woman about his own height was waiting for them. She was smiling, but she had an aura about her that made it seem like that smile could quickly become venomous if you got on her bad side.

"Welcome to Hogwarts," she said tersely. "My name is Professor Tran. We're about to start the banquet, but before you can sit down, you'll have to know which House to sit with. Once you're sorted, your House is going to be like your family here at Hogwarts. You're going to share classes and a dormitory. While you're here, you should know that the good things you do will earn you House points, and breaking rules will lose you points. At the end of the year, we add them up and the House with the most points wins the House Cup. Now. If you're all ready, we're going to start the ceremony. If you're not ready, good luck. Here we go anyway."

And with that, she turned and pushed the giant doors aside without even bothering to touch them. The other students were already sitting at four giant tables and talking loudly with their friends. Dean looked over at Jo as the talking in the giant room slowly began to die out. She had her fingers crossed and was mouthing "Gryffindor" over and over again, despite what she'd said earlier on the train about being happy wherever she was put.

Dean wasn't sure what to hope for. All of the Houses seemed like good choices to him, but most of the other witches and wizards seemed to have pretty strong opinions either for or against every other House. Maybe that was just because he didn't know as much about them yet.

As he walked down the hallway towards the front of the room, he admired the different colored banners. A red lion. A blue eagle. A yellow badger. A green snake.

There was a large, old-looking wizard’s hat that was set on a stool.

Just as Dean was about to dismiss it, the hat burst into song.

 

So here you stand before me,

Another year has started.

What will you see, what will you learn

Before you have departed?

Oh, the future is uncertain,

The winding path is long.

And yet one thing I can predict:

the House where you’ll belong!

For among you stand the Gryffindors,

the brave, the daring hearts.

If you’ve honour and you’ve chivalry,

Here’s where you’ll make your start.

And then there are the Slytherins,

the cunning, and the hungry.

You’ll prove yourself in green, young ones,

no need to do so humbly.

Here too we have the Hufflepuffs,

the righteous and the true.

Your loyalty to those you love

will always see you through.

And finally, the Ravenclaws,

the sharpest and the quick.

You thinkers, you creators,

this House you’ll surely pick.

Where shall you go? Who will you be?

It’s time now to find out.

Oh, for there can be no secrets kept –

that’s what it’s all about.

So now it’s me you’ll under go,

Lay out the welcome mat.

And once your head the answer shows,

I shan’t keep it under my hat!

 

"That hat can talk." Dean said to no one in particular.

"Of course it can." Garth murmured, bouncing on his toes to get a good look.

"When I call your name, please come up to the front for your sorting." Professor Tran announced once the applause died down, holding up what looked like a large scroll.

The first to be called up was a very bouncy girl who immediately sat down on the stool. Professor Tran held up a large wizard's hat and placed it on her head. "Ravenclaw!" Dean jumped when the hat practically yelled it out to the hall.

A few more students were called until,

"Bradbury, Charlie!"

Charlie exhaled quickly.

"Good luck!' Jo whispered as Charlie pushed her way to the front.

The redhead nearly slipped off the stool in her excitement but when she finally regained her balance, the hat was put on her head. Unlink the previous few students, it didn't immediately call out a House. After about ten seconds it yelled,

"Slytherin!"

There was a loud cheer from the far end of the room with the green banners and Charlie smiled as she bounded over to her new table. Dean clapped and whooped along with the rest of the school until she sat down.

"Cortese, Ruby!"

Ruby saluted the rest of them as she made her way up to the stool. The hat was placed on her head and her House was yelled almost immediately.

"Hufflepuff!"

Hollers were heard from the table draped in yellow while Ruby climbed down from the stool, looking confused and slightly put off.

"Oh, the irony." Jo whispered.

Garth was called. Hufflepuff.

Jo was called. Gryffindor. She'd squealed in delight at the announcement and waved at her friends.

Ash was called. Ravenclaw.

As crestfallen as he was that they weren't all going to be in the same House, Dean at least knew that no matter where he was sorted, he'd be with one of his new friends.

By now they were getting down to the last handful of students. It was Dean, two girls he'd never met, and the blue-eyed boy from the train whom he was carefully avoiding.

"Novak, Castiel!"

Weird name.

Blue-eyes carefully walked to the front as if every step he took was being judged. Dean watched as he gingerly climbed up onto the wooden stool and awaited the Hat. Professor Tran dropped it on his head and waited.

Ten seconds later and there was still no announcement.

Twenty seconds.

The boy - Castiel - pressed his lips together, and shook his head so slightly that Dean almost missed it.

Thirty seconds.

Castiel shut his eyes tightly.

"Gryffindor!"

Loud cheering came up from the red table, as well as some very confused murmuring from the blue.

Dean had no idea was the big deal was, but it was the longest that someone had sat on that stool all night. Castiel slid off the stool and stoically made his way over to the table in red, which welcomed him with open arms.

The last two were called (Ravenclaw, Slytherin) and then Dean heard his own name.

"Winchester, Dean."

At long last, he walked up to the front and sat himself down on the hard wooden stool, waiting for the hat to be dropped on his head.

And there it was.

"Oh, interesting." Dean jolted as the voice filled his mind. "No preconceived notions. A clean slate. I do enjoy those like you. I know just where you'll fit in the most."

"Hufflepuff!"

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Castiel sat down at the Gryffindor table with his heart in his throat. Walking numbly away from the Sorting Hat, he hadn’t had the presence of mind to head for the benches facing away from the other House tables. He regretted that now: he was staring fixedly at the whorls of the wooden table in front of him, but he could feel his brothers’ eyes on his face, could almost hear their whispers, their muffled laughter. His mother would probably be watching, so Castiel pressed his lips together and made his mind an absolute blank, the way he did when she snapped at him, to keep his eyes dry. Someone jostled his shoulder, presumably in a congratulatory gesture. He couldn’t summon the courage to look up at them. Instead, he hunched over as small as he could go, shoulders rounded, trembling just a little.

The last few people were being sorted. Castiel vaguely heard ‘Winchester, Dean’ being cheered into Hufflepuff, the sounds disjointed and strange in his ears. Castiel almost wished that he could join Dean. Naomi would probably have preferred for Castiel to be sorted into a House that represented hard work and honesty, rather than a House that stood for… what? Bravery? Chivalry? Stupid, outdated ideas, she would say. Stupid ideas that belonged in a time that was long past. Gryffindor? Of all the houses, why did it have to be Gryffindor? He’d argued with the Hat for so long; he’d even pleaded, but the wretched, patched old thing had been utterly adamant.

You would not do well in Ravenclaw, the Hat had said. Oh, you have talent, yes, but no temperament for it. You belong in Gryffindor.

Castiel barely heard Professor Shurley giving his welcoming speech; his entire world seemed to have shrunk down to the pattern of marks on the table in front of him. Someone, a past Gryffindor, had chiselled the words Slytherin suks into the wood in small black letters. Castiel looked bleakly down at the misspelling, and swallowed hard.

“Cheer up, cheesecake,” said a voice to Castiel’s left. Despite himself, he jerked his head up to see who had spoken.

A girl with wavy blonde hair, big brown eyes and a wide smile grinned at him. She looked down at the graffiti, and shook her head.

“Tragic,” she said. “Are you alright?”

She was still beaming at him, her eyes all bright as though she was sharing a secret or a private joke. Castiel managed a little smile in return.

“I’m alright,” he heard himself saying, as though from a great distance. “I just…” He gulped. “I… thought I’d be…”

He couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence, but the girl was nodding already as though she’d understood.

“Wrong House?” she said. Castiel nodded, grateful for her quickness. “It’s OK. You’ll be OK.” She patted his shoulder reassuringly, and it didn’t grate on Castiel’s nerves as much as he might have expected. “I’m Jo, by the way. Jo Harvelle. And this is Anna. She’s a first-year, too.” Jo indicated a tiny red-haired girl sitting on her other side, watching their conversation with wide, shy hazel eyes.

“We don’t always belong where we think we belong,” she said solemnly to Castiel, who frowned at her. He knew where he belonged. He’d known ever since Michael had come to Hogwarts and been sorted into their mother’s house. He belonged in Ravenclaw.

Anna bit her lip, and looked down at her hands, abashed in the face of Castiel’s silent glare. But then Jo spoke up.

“She’s right,” Jo said to Castiel, and both he and Anna blinked up at her in surprise. “You thought you’d be in Ravenclaw, but the Hat must’ve seen something Gryffindor in your head.” She reached up and rapped her knuckles against the side of Castiel’s head a couple of times, grinning. “Got any lions stored up there?”

“No,” was all that Castiel could say. He’d got nothing stored up there, apparently, if he was too stupid to get into Ravenclaw. Still, he forced another little smile for Jo’s benefit, knowing that she was doing her best to make him feel better. She squeezed his shoulder, and Castiel did his best not to shrink away from the touch.

“Come on,” she said bracingly. “Feast’ll start any second. You’ll feel better with some food inside you. That’s what my mom always says.”

Jo’s mom wasn’t wrong, apparently. Castiel ate his way steadily through two plates of steaming hot chicken pie, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and peas, and rounded it off with a generous slice of treacle tart. He barely spoke as he shovelled, only noticing Jo’s raised eyebrows and impressed laugh as he was spooning up the last crumbs of tart and swallowing them down.

“I was hungry,” he said defensively. Jo grinned at him, and on her other side, Anna’s hazel eyes sparkled with a hint of shy mischief.

“We guessed,” Jo said. “We were wondering who was going to stop eating first, you or that Hufflepuff boy over there. Dean.”

Castiel followed her gaze to where a short boy with dirty-blond hair was chewing on a large helping of what looked like fruit pie, his cheeks stuffed, smiling at something that his tall, thin neighbour had just said. It was the boy from the train, Castiel realised. The one who’d rolled his eyes and brushed off Castiel’s apology when they’d collided in the corridor.

“So… he won?” Castiel said, staring at the boy with dislike.

“Guess so, if he’s still eating,” Jo said, and then laughed and batted Castiel’s hand away as he reached for more treacle tart. “Hey, no making yourself hurl on the first night.”

Castiel subsided. Behind where the boy – Dean – was sitting, he could see the Ravenclaw first-years enjoying their food, laughing and chatting. He wondered what they were talking about. They all looked so happy, so excited. No wonder, he thought bitterly. They were going to be living with other people just like them, people who pushed each other, people who were smart and creative and thoughtful. Whereas he, Castiel… he rubbed his thumb along the dents that spelled out Slytherin suks. Well. He, on the other hand, wouldn’t exactly be stretched by his peers.

The feast ended abruptly, the food disappearing and the scraping of benches replacing the previous roar of rowdy chatter. Castiel stood up and followed the sound of a light, authoritative voice calling for the first-years to follow behind. Castiel fell into line behind Jo, with Anna behind him. He kept his eyes low as they moved off, not wanting to watch the Ravenclaw first years being led away to their common room, with the riddling eagle guarding its entrance. He’d been worrying for weeks about answering those riddles; he’d burrowed through every book of them that he could find over the summer, researching in the quiet corners of Cloudesley Street when he was sure that his brothers couldn’t watch him. And all for absolutely nothing. All he had to do now was offer a password to the stupid old Fat Lady. Castiel was so lost in resentment that he barely noticed the castle around him, the moving staircases, the portraits that whispered and pointed as he passed, the soaring hallways and the flickering, warm candlelight shining from the walls.

With a quick mutter of “Mayflower” from the prefect at the head of their little group,the Fat Lady ushered the first years through into the Gryffindor common room.

Once inside, Castiel couldn’t help his curiosity getting the better of him. He stared around just like the rest of the first years, taking in the squashy red sofas, the dark wood tables, the faded, soft rugs. He thought of his home, of clean lines and glass and sky-blue walls, and felt a pain in his chest. Beside him, Jo was beaming around at everything as though it had been placed there especially for her. On his other side, Anna looked pale and wide-eyed. Castiel hadn’t known her long enough to know if she was actually worried about something, or if her face naturally fell into lines of vague concern. He wondered what he must look like right now. A picture of misery, probably.

He was directed up the spiral steps to his dormitory along with three other boys he hadn’t spoken to yet. He felt full and angry and lost, lost, lost, and all he wanted to do was drop into bed. He heard the sounds of the other boys scuffling around at the centre of the room, laughing and muttering as they looked around. Castiel ignored them, and headed straight for the bed with his luggage beside it. He ran the red velvet hangings through his fingers, resisting a shudder as the material brushed backwards against his skin.

“Does he even speak?” he heard one of the other boys whisper to another, giggling. His face immediately turned hot, but he didn’t turn around.

“He must do,” said another voice, slightly higher. “Hey, what do they call you?”

Castiel threw the three boys a glare over his shoulder, and then moved over to his suitcase. He felt wound up tight as a mess of knotted rope inside, strained in all the wrong places, making bad decisions, not acting anywhere near normal.

“Silent but deadly,” suggested the first boy, when the question went unanswered. As one, the three boys snorted into laughter. Cheeks aflame, Castiel ducked his head and wrenched open his luggage and delved inside, sorting through the piles of neatly-folded clothing and finding his pyjamas.

There was a quiet tap-tap-tap of shoes on the stairs, getting louder. Castiel frowned and turned to face the door of the dormitory; the three other Gryffindor boys were standing frozen guiltily in the middle of the room. All of them were thinking the same thing: teacher. Castiel’s heart started to race. What if it was his mother? Was she allowed in Gryffindor Tower? What if she’d come to tell him how disappointed she was, how angry… or perhaps she’d come to tell him it was all a mistake, the Hat had been wrong, he was really a Ravenclaw –

Around the door, at a height far lower than anyone in the dormitory had expected, peeked a thin, blue-eyed face.

“Is my luggage in here?” said the face, a little timidly. Castiel blinked, and then looked around the dormitory. He could see suitcases… one, two, three, four… five. That was one for him, one each for the three boys in the middle, and one for this newcomer.

“Are you a Gryffindor first year?” said one of the boys in reply, with a touch of aggression. He was tall for his age, with a hard jaw and short, tightly-curled hair.

“Yes,” the face said. “Only, I looked in the girl’s dormitory and it wasn’t there, so…”

“Why would you look there if you’re a boy?” said the boy, wrinkling his nose. The face opened its mouth to speak, and then paused. In its eyes was an expression of nerves that tugged at Castiel’s heart; he stood up quickly, and said,

“There’s five suitcases in here. One of them must be yours.”

Three boys turned to look at him with expressions of surprise on their faces. The face at the door peered over at him for a long second, and then blinked and nodded. The door was pushed open a little wider, and a slim, dark-haired figure entered the room, slightly too-big black robes swishing over the floor.

“Hey,” said the tall boy. “You’re a girl!”

The newcomer seemed to shrink in on herself, pressing her lips together and swallowing hard.

“I – I just – my luggage…” she said, gesturing over to one of the suitcases, sounding lost.

“They must have just put it in the wrong dormitory,” said another one of the boys, short and squat, with blond hair and thick glasses. “We’ll help you move it back to the girls’, if you want.”

“No – well, I think – I think…” The girl hovered uncertainly. Castiel stared at her along with the rest of the Gryffindor boys, wondering what the problem could possibly be. She gulped and then said, “I think I belong in here.” Her blue eyes were narrowed, as though wincing in preparation for a blow.

Castiel heard an intake of breath from the three boys in the middle of the room, and started moving forwards before he could think twice.

“Castiel,” he said, extending his hand as he reached the girl, and offering her a smile. “My name’s Castiel. What’s yours?”

The girl looked down at his hand as though she thought it might bite her. When Castiel didn’t pull it back, and didn’t stop smiling, she eventually took it. Castiel could feel the sheen of clamminess over her palm, but gripped her hand anyway, tightly, and shook it.

“Hannah,” the girl whispered. “My name’s Hannah.”

“Uh, wait. She can’t stay,” interrupted one of the boys – the tall one – taking a step closer, looking back towards the other two boys for support. The girl’s grip on Castiel’s hand tightened for a second, and then she dropped her hold. “She’s a girl. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“She can stay if she wants to stay,” Castiel said sharply, when the girl didn’t speak.

“It’s not –”

“She should be wherever she thinks she belongs,” Castiel said, a little more fiercely than intended. He pushed away a mental image of the Ravenclaw common room, and ignored the little twist of sadness in his chest.

“She’s a she,” the boy insisted. “It’s against the rules. I’ll tell.”

The other two boys turned to him, their expressions mingling contempt and surprise.

“You’re going to tell on her?” said the short blond one. The other, a skinny, dark-haired boy, shook his head in silent disapprobation. “That’s not cool, man. Besides, everyone knows the luggage is left by your bed. Hannah’s luggage is here. So... Hogwarts thinks that this is her bed.”

The tall boy’s mouth was slightly open, his eyes flitting between them as he tried to figure out his next move. With his silence as a quiet fulcrum, the atmosphere in the room shifted. The short boy took a few steps over towards Hannah and held out a pudgy hand.

“Edward Zeddmore,” he said, with a touch of pompousness. Hannah took his hand and shook it, blinking away her surprise. “Friends call me Ed. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Spangler,” said the other boy, his expression solemn. “Harry Spangler. Nice to meet you. And you, too – was it – um –”

“Castiel,” said Castiel slowly, enunciating each syllable carefully. He shook both boys’ hands. They were both shorter than him, and they squinted up into his face now with serious expressions, as though trying to figure him out. Castiel nodded at them awkwardly, and then looked over the top of Ed’s head to where the tall boy was still standing still, his arms folded.

“That’s Gordon,” said Ed helpfully. “Gordon Walker.”

“Hello,” managed Hannah, giving him a small, half-aborted wave.

Gordon sighed angrily, and didn’t even look at Hannah. He kept his eyes fixed on Castiel, evidently angling for some kind of stare-off. Castiel blinked and turned away, offering Hannah a small smile before turning back towards his bed.  It was the one directly opposite the door, bracketed by Ed’s bed on one side and Hannah’s on the other. He began undressing swiftly, pulling on his pyjamas and hopping up onto the tall, plush mattress. He grabbed hold of the hangings, more ready than he’d ever been to shut the world out and fall into unconsciousness.

Just before he swung them fully closed, the wooden hooks clacking softly, Castiel caught Hannah’s eye. She blinked, and then smiled at him, more genuinely and warmly than before. It was a thank-you, of sorts. Castiel returned the smile, and then closed his hangings.

Shut up safely in his closed velvet world, Castiel felt the pit in his stomach open up wide, his emotions curling up and out like glooming shadows, filling the dark, musty space around him. The tears he’d been holding back finally began to leak out, and all he could do was bury his face in his pillow and sob as quietly as he could. Gryffindor. Of all the houses, Gryffindor. His brothers were going to laugh at him forever. Michael would never take him seriously. His mother… Castiel gave his loudest gulping sob yet when he thought of what she would say, how she would look at him… he remembered her face this morning, all tightness and nerves. You know I’m proud of you, don’t you, Castiel?

Castiel curled himself up as small as he could go. He hadn’t deserved her pride. He was nothing like the son she wanted him to be. Nothing like Michael, not even like Gabriel. All this time, she’d been trying to raise him to be good and clever and quick. And all this time, inside him, he’d been wrong. Twisted and different and… brave, apparently, Castiel thought with a little derisive hiccough. Poor consolation for his mother to find out that her idiot son would at least be able to take his humiliation with bravery.

He wanted to keep crying, but his tears were all spooled out and gone, like the thread on a used-up cotton reel. He sniffed and wiped his wet nose, and flipped over his pillow to sleep on the side that was dry. He stared up at the top of his bed, hearing that voice over and over again in his mind.

You would not do well in Ravenclaw. Oh, you have talent, yes, but no temperament for it.

No temperament for it. No temperament for it. No temperament for it. Castiel slammed his closed fist into the mattress beside him, his teeth gritted. No temperament for it.

He rolled over onto his side, and closed his eyes. Maybe when he woke up in the morning, he’d find himself back in Cloudesley Street. Maybe the whole thing, from start to end, would have been only a bad dream.

*

Castiel woke up to red hangings, and the sounds of a fiercely-fought pillow fight.

He gave a sigh, long and heavy. So, it had not all been a bad dream.

Bleary-eyed and messy-haired, he pulled on his robes and headed down to breakfast along with the rest of the Gryffindor first-years. Most of them seemed to have slept better than he had; Jo had all of her usual enthusiasm, Ed and Harry were pretending to shoot each other with lethal spells down the staircases, and even Anna seemed to be smiling and talking animatedly, a touch of colour in her pinched cheeks. Only Hannah, quiet and solemn as a church mouse at the back of the group, seemed as unwilling to face the day as Castiel. They didn’t speak, but there was a kind of silent camaraderie in the way that they both trudged in step – as though they were on their way to Azkaban, instead of toast and jam.

And possibly pancakes, too, Castiel thought, as his stomach rumbled.

The Great Hall was full of chattering students. Overhead, the enchanted sky was a cool blue with scattered clouds: a refreshing September day. Castiel averted his eyes from the Ravenclaw table, just as he had done the night before. At the Gryffindor table, he dropped into a seat between Jo and Hannah, surveying the spread with more determination than appreciation.

“If looks could kill, those pancakes would be toast,” Jo said, making Anna laugh. Castiel smiled at her, and she nudged him with her elbow as she reached for the scrambled egg. “Still haven’t stopped wishing you were somewhere else?”

“I’m sure I’ll get used to it,” Castiel said bleakly, in a voice that very clearly told anyone listening that he wasn’t sure about anything of the kind. On his other side, Hannah set down her cup of pumpkin juice with a little bang.

“You don’t think you belong in Gryffindor?” she said. Castiel lifted one shoulder diffidently, not wanting to explain his situation too much. He’d only get upset. Hannah’s expression was one of confusion. “But… you helped me last night,” she said. “When the others were going to throw me out. That was very chivalrous.”

Castiel resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose at the word; Hannah’s eyes were wide and earnest, and she was obviously speaking with sincerity. He tried to look grateful. Jo, meanwhile, was punching him lightly on the shoulder.

“There, you see? You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. You’ll learn to love us.” Castiel smiled wryly at her, and she beamed back at him before leaning around to look at Hannah.

“Hi, by the way!” she said. “I think I saw you at dinner last night. Are you a second year?”

“First year,” Hannah corrected her. Jo looked surprised.

“Oh, really? How come you weren’t with me and Anna in the girls’ dormitory last night?”

“I – I slept in the boys’ dormitory,” Hannah said, looking down at her porridge. Jo opened her mouth to speak, looking confused, but Castiel quickly forestalled her.

“It’s where she wanted to sleep,” he said. “She belongs there.”

Jo’s mouth closed, and she nodded, though she still looked uncertain. On her other side, Anna was listening attentively, a little crease between her brows.

“Are you a boy?” she asked, leaning forwards so that she could see Hannah, her hair almost falling into her bowl of cereal. Jo reached out and pulled it back, tucking the red strands neatly down Anna’s back.

“Not exactly,” Hannah said. “I don’t feel like a girl though. Not always. Well, sometimes. I.. don’t really know what I am.” Hannah was turning pink. “I know it’s strange,” she said a little breathlessly, shaking forward her curly dark hair and long fringe, covering her face as much as possible.

Anna, however, only nodded solemnly.

“Does that mean we should call you ‘he’?” Anna said. “Or ‘she’?”

Hannah looked up, and blinked at her.

“’She’ is fine,” she said quietly. A few moments after Anna had nodded and looked away, she added even more softly, “Thank you for asking.”

The talk turned to the day ahead. Professor Tran delivered their timetables to them, tapping blank ones neatly with her wand and greeting each first year by name as she handed them the completed schedules. Was Castiel imagining the way her eyes lingered on him for a moment longer than the others? Had his mother spoken to her about the fact that he was in Gryffindor? Had she tried to get him transferred, had that led to an argument? He tried to read her expression, but there was nothing to go on.

“Hey, Transfiguration first,” Jo said excitedly. “With the Hufflepuffs. I know a couple of ‘em, they seemed alright.”

Castiel looked over at the Hufflepuff table. The boy with dirty blond hair and freckles was listening to something his tall friend from the night before was saying, nodding thoughtfully with his cheeks stuffed full of food. Dean, Castiel remembered. His name was Dean. The boy who’d eaten more than him last night and won Jo’s bet.

Castiel narrowed his eyes at Dean.

“My mom is amazing at Transfiguration, it was her favourite,” Jo was saying beside him, with Anna nodding along and Hannah leaning forwards to listen to her. “Maybe I’ll have some natural talent.” She grinned at them confidently, her brown eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.

Half an hour later, Castiel was deciding that Jo’s confidence may have been misplaced.

Transfiguration was hard. And Professor Tran took no prisoners with her teaching style; the moment they’d walked into her classroom, she’d informed them in whipcrack tones that they would be seated according to a plan that she’d already drawn up. No one from the same house was sat together; Gryffindors sat next to Hufflepuffs at each pair of desks. Castiel was placed next to the tall, gangly Hufflepuff boy he’d seen at breakfast, who’d introduced himself with a wide, slightly vague grin as Garth Fitzgerald the Fourth. Castiel had blinked at the name, wondering if it was an old wizarding family that he’d not heard of before.

“Concentrate!” Professor Tran snapped now, jerking Castiel back to the present. “Matchsticks don’t make good needles! Focus on the outcome, not the change itself. Transfiguration, like all magic, relies largely on determination…”

Castiel looked down at his matchstick, which was still wooden and stubby-ended after twenty minutes of trying to turn it silver and pointy. He sighed, and raised his wand again. It felt good in his hand, he had to admit. The first time he’d picked it up, he’d been caught up in a sudden wave of excitement. And his mother had been so proud of him: aspen was a fairly rare wand wood, and with the phoenix-feather core, too… of course, she’d tried not to show it, but she’d beamed as she’d paid, and then bought Castiel a large ice cream sundae after they’d left the Wandmaker’s shop. Castiel could almost still taste the sweet strawberry tang of triumph. He frowned, and looked down at his matchstick with renewed purpose. He might be in Gryffindor, and not in Ravenclaw – and he might not even be that brave, since he’d deliberately and successfully dodged all of his family members on the way out of breakfast this morning – but he could still try to make his mother proud. He could still be the best.

Beside him, Garth was waving his wand at his matchstick in long, slow, swooping arcs. Castiel did his best to ignore him.

Focusing on the matchstick in front of him once more, and avoiding Garth’s elbows, Castiel waved his wand and said sharply,

Aculeolus.”

He frowned, picking up his matchstick. No difference, again…

Wait! There! Just the slightest sliver of silver. That had to be it. Castiel looked around the room; everyone else still seemed to be struggling. Jo met his eyes and sent him a look of pure frustration. Castiel winced sympathetically, and then put up his hand. Professor Tran might be so impressed with him being the first one to turn his matchstick a little silver that she’d mention it to his mother later on.

The boy sitting directly in front of him twisted in his seat, catching Castiel’s eye for a brief second before switching his attention to Garth. Dean Winchester grinned, watching his fellow Hufflepuff gently windmilling his arms, murmuring under his breath.

Castiel thought, with another spike of dislike, that there had been something deliberate about the way Dean hadn’t even offered Castiel so much as a polite half-smile. Castiel kept his hand raised aloft, looking around to see that Professor Tran was already talking to a sullen-looking dark-haired Hufflepuff girl, with her back to him.

“How’s yours look?” he heard Dean saying to Garth, sounding anxious. “I think I’m doing it wrong, mine’s still only half silver, look…”

Castiel snapped his head around faster than light. His stomach dropped. Sure enough, Dean’s matchstick was over half silver, and pointed at one end; he was holding it out to Garth with a rueful expression.

“Told you I’d be bad at this,” he said. Castiel looked down at the sliver of silver on one side of his own matchstick. It looked small, barely even noticeable.

“Dean, that’s awesome,” Garth said. “I got nothing. Oh, look, this guy’s got a little something, there.” Castiel realised that Garth was peering over at his matchstick, looking impressed. Dean looked over at Castiel and scowled, matchstick-needle still held out in front of him. Castiel kept his face blank. Who was this boy? Obviously from a wizarding family. Perhaps the Winchesters were another old family that Castiel hadn’t heard of, like the Fitzgeralds.

“What is it, Mr Novak?” said a sharp voice overhead. With a sudden drench of horror, Castiel realised that he hadn’t lowered his hand. He’d make a complete fool of himself if he tried to impress Professor Tran with the ‘needle’ he had on his desk –

“Um, n-nothing,” Castiel mumbled, but Professor Tran was already talking over him, moving forwards and plucking Dean’s matchstick out of his hand.

“Winchester, isn’t it?” she said, looking down at Dean, who swallowed hard and nodded. He was still twisted round in his chair, so Castiel could see the emotions running over his face. It looked like nervousness, mostly. Castiel frowned, frustrated. Obviously Professor Tran was going to be impressed. Why was Dean pretending to be nervous of a telling-off that wasn’t going to happen?

“This is excellent work,” Tran said, inspecting the matchstick. She spoke loudly enough to gain the class’s attention, and held Dean’s work aloft. “What Mr Winchester did was focus on what he wanted to happen. I want you all to try that.”

Dean was smiling, clearly trying not to look too pleased with himself.

If he focused hard enough on Dean falling off his chair, would that happen, Castiel wondered.

Professor Tran returned Dean’s matchstick to him, offering him a small smile and a few more encouraging words, before turning back to Castiel abruptly.

“What was it you wanted, Mr Novak?”

Castiel opened his mouth without knowing what he was going to say.

“I – I…”

Professor Tran looked down at his matchstick.

“Are you having trouble with the spell?” she said sharply. Castiel, bright pink, shook his head. “In that case, get on with your work.”

She moved away. Castiel stared furiously down at his matchstick for a few seconds, before lifting his gaze. He was just in time to see Dean turning away, a look on his face that was unmistakably… triumphant.

Castiel was angry enough to flip his desk over in frustration, but he took a deep breath and closed his eyes, letting it dissipate. Anger and magic didn’t mix well, he knew that. When he opened his eyes, he concentrated, making sure his wand was at the correct angle, rehearsing the incantation in his head so that he would pronounce it exactly right.

Twenty minutes later, he was mentally exhausted and utterly tired of the word “aculeolus”, but he wasn’t empty-handed. When Professor Tran came around the class to inspect their final results, his matchstick was longer, and thinner, and silver, and pointy. Only Dean’s could match it.

“You’ll have to watch your back, Mr. Winchester,” Professor Tran said, as she held up the two together. “Mr. Novak is coming up fast on your tail.”

Dean smiled and shrugged it off. When Professor Tran had turned away, however, he met Castiel’s eyes. His expression was a mixture of defiance and dislike, wrapped in a loose smirk.

Castiel smiled right back at him coldly. I’m going to get there first next time. Just you wait and see.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Dean honestly didn't know what sort of stick Castiel Novak had up his butt, but he sure hoped it hurt.

Besides the sour mood that the guy's smug grin had put him in, the whole class hadn't been terrible. In fact, it had been kinda fun. He didn't know if he'd ever be able to forgive himself for saying it, but he, Dean Winchester, had actually had fun at school. The original frustration he'd felt at the beginning of the class had long since passed when he'd realized no one else had even come close to turning their matchstick into a needle at that moment. It was so much easier than, like... math! He'd tried explaining it to Garth, but all he'd really done was concentrate real hard on wanting it to be a needle. Sure, it had taken about fifty bajillion tries with the spell, but by the end of the class his match was looking extremely needle-y and nothing could tear down his elation.

Except for what's-his-name, and his stupid arrogance.

Dean grimaced to himself as he headed off to his next class, nearly tripping over his long, black robes for the third time that day. They were definitely going to take some getting used to.

And now for the class he'd been looking forward to all day.

Flying.

Charlie and Jo had briefly gone over the rules of Quidditch, and how it was played, and the horrific injuries you could get... and Dean couldn't be more excited. Of course, he'd already resigned himself to the fact that they weren't actually going to play today, probably just go over the basics, and Dean was fine with that. Maybe the Hufflepuffs would be paired with the Slytherins for this class, and he’d be able to see Charlie!

He dug through his bag for his class schedule and pulled out a very crumpled piece of parchment, reading the class pairing and groaning. Really? Gryffindors again? At least Jo would be there to help even out the presence of Mr High-and-Mighty.

Garth led them both to the Quidditch Pitch that Dean had first seen from a distance, right before entering Hogwarts for the first time. Dean felt a thrill of excitement as he grinned and looked around at the stadium, three rings standing tall on both sides of the field.

The group of first years all chattered excitedly as they saw two rows of brooms on the ground laying side-by-side. They didn't look particularly magical if you asked Dean. They all had wooden handles with hundreds of twigs tied together at the bottom to give the broom its shape, but he highly doubted they would be very effective at sweeping a floor.

“Welcome to class, first years.”

The group gasped when they heard the voice behind them, and gazed up at the woman that was slowly descending to the ground on her (much nicer-looking) broomstick.

“My name is Professor Mills. I’ll be your flying instructor this year, as well as your referee in the coming years if any of you end up playing on your House team.”

She touched down and hopped off of her broomstick with a graceful flourish.

“Some of you have been flying since you first learned how to grasp a broom handle, and some of you didn’t even know this was possible a few days ago. So we’re all going to start with the basics, no matter what level you think you’re at. Alright? Good. Now, everyone go stand next to a broom.”

Dean quickly made his way over to the rows of broomsticks and took a spot across from Jo and next to Garth.

“Now, here comes your first challenge. I want you to hold your hand above the broom and say ‘Up’.”

Dean was pleased to note that he wasn’t the only one who looked confused.

He shrugged and stuck his hand out. “Up,” he commanded.

The broom gave a feeble twitch.

He looked over at Jo as she let out a pleased giggle. It looked like her broom had shot up into her hand almost immediately.

Up,” he said, a little bit more firmly than before, causing his broom to hover and drop to the ground again.

A few others had managed to coax the stubborn broomsticks into their outstretched palms, but most were in the same boat as Dean and were getting frustrated that the brooms were staying firmly on the ground.

Dean grimaced when he saw that Castiel was one of the chosen few to already have a broom in his hands.

“With feeling! You have to mean it,” Professor Mills said as she walked around the group.

“Up!” he nearly growled, determined to get this stupid piece of wood to do what he wanted.

Finally, the broom decided he was serious enough and flew up into his grasp. Dean grinned and looked around. At least he wasn’t one of the last few without a broom .

Finally, once everyone had a broomstick in their hands, Professor Mills blew her whistle to get their attention.

“Everyone mount their broom. One leg over, like so. Good. Now on the count of three, I want you all to gently--and I mean gently--push off the ground. Hover for a little, and come back down to earth.”

Dean gripped his broom in excitement.

“One. Two. Three.”

He pushed off of the ground, probably not as gently as he should have, but he grinned as he felt a rush of adrenaline course through him when his feet dangled a few feet off the ground. Gripping the handle tightly, he looked around at his fellow students. Jo looked like she was the most comfortable on a broom, closely followed by Castiel and Ruby. Garth was suddenly very pale and almost immediately touched back down.

Dean hovered in pure elation for a few moments before Professor Mills blew her whistle and gestured for them to come back down.

“Good. Very good. We’re going to head straight for part two, now that you seem to have got the balance right. Don’t worry, it won’t be scary.”

She marched to the front of the group and pointed to two Hufflepuffs and two Gryffindors. “Get on your brooms. I want you to do a low lap around the field. Just a few feet off the ground. Go slowly and try out different ways to turn the broom. Just nudge it gently, and it should do what you want.” She blew her whistle again. “Gently, remember. Brooms can be more temperamental than wands when they want to be.”

The gaggle of first years pushed off the ground a few feet, and slowly urged their brooms forward. There was a little bit of wobbling, but it looked like they found out fast that leaning forward slightly helped steady them. Dean stood on his tiptoes to see over Jo’s head and watch the proceedings.

“Alright, next four!” Professor Mills called when the group had returned.

Professor Mills pointed at Dean and Ruby to come to the front, as well as a blond Gryffindor boy, and Castiel.

Dean all but ignored him as he mounted his broom. This was going to be fun. He was going to fly.

And if he ended up being a better flyer than Castiel, who cared, right?

Professor Mills blew her whistle and their small group touched off the ground. Dean could hear Professor Mill's voice correct Garth’s grip as they flew off into the field.

The Gryffindors were in the lead, with Jo and Castiel enthusiastically getting slightly faster and higher.

It was a nice feeling, flying. The broom responded to his touch, turning when he nudged it and cutting through the wind when he leaned forward. With the wind blowing in his hair, and his feet dangling in the air far above the ground now, there was a pleasant adrenaline rush when he looked down, and -

Oh.

When had it gotten so high?

Dean's grip on the broom tightened drastically as his brain processed just how high off the ground he was. There was nothing but a stick of wood keeping him alive, and the moment he realized that, the broom started to panic.

He shot forward with a yelp, just grazing Castiel and Jo as he passed.

“Stop!” he cried, jerking at the handle.

And it did, only to shoot upwards into the air in and jerk around violently.

Dean could feel his grip start to loosen as he was tossed around. What was he supposed to do? Apologize to the broom for freaking out? Where was Professor Mills?

The broom spun around suddenly, causing Dean to swing up and over the side, with just a single hand holding onto the handle.

God. First day here and he was already going to die.

He closed his eyes as his fingers began to slip.

Sam would probably miss him. Mom, too.

The broom bucked one more time, getting rid of the last of Dean's death grip.

Dean was falling...

And then - quite suddenly - he wasn't.

He peeked an eye open when he felt a hand close around his wrist and slow his fall significantly.

Above him was Castiel Novak, slowly turning purple as he strained to prevent Dean from falling to his death, and Dean honestly would rather have died.

Dean could hear yelling in the distance as they descended into the field. Castiel had somehow managed to slow their fall enough to keep him from dying, but not enough to keep them from tumbling roughly onto the grass when they finally landed.

“Are you alright?”

Dean groaned a little as he stared up at the sky. Besides feeling a little winded and a lot bruised, he was fine, but he wasn't going to give Castiel the satisfaction. He stood and completely ignored the other boy as he walked towards the flying figure of Professor Mills.

“Hey!”

Dean felt a hand on his shoulder.

“You're welcome,” Castiel said, obviously in disbelief that Dean wasn't currently worshipping the ground he walked on.

Dean turned and gruffly shoved the hand off his shoulder.

“You might want to wash your hand, now,” he muttered in contempt, and turned back around to where Professor Mills was currently dismounting. If Castiel knew he’d just saved a muggle-born,he’d probably wish he hadn't bothered.

Are you alright?” she asked, reaching out to inspect him for any injuries.

“M’ fine.”

She let out a relieved breath. “Thank Merlin. Ten points to Gryffindor, Castiel. That was very brave of you.”

Dean scowled. So he had almost died, and Castiel was going to get rewarded for it? Wonderful.

Professor Mills continued the drills, but had seemingly decided to keep a much closer eye on those in the air.

If she decided to cut the class a little short, who were they to question her?

She’d taken him aside and asked if he was sure he didn't need to go to the hospital wing. He'd just brushed her off and thanked her for the lesson.

“Wow, how crazy was that?” Jo asked breathlessly, as she jogged to catch up with him on their way off the pitch. “I know that you already said you’re okay, but... are you okay?”

Dean sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m fine. Still alive and stuff.”

Jo whistled and bumped up against his shoulder. “Thank goodness Castiel was there, right? I’m not as good of a flyer as he is.”

“I guess.”

In all honesty, Dean knew that he really should be grateful. Castiel had probably just saved his life, but he was too proud and too bitter to even think about acknowledging it to his face. If he was going to keep thinking that what Dean was is less than he is, then Dean could oblige the other way around.

Jo groaned and patted her stomach. “Well, I’m starving. Are you heading to lunch?”

He nodded, only just noticing that he was hungry as well. Really hungry, actually. Who knew that near-death experiences could do that to a person?

“We can’t sit next to each other though,” he pointed out. “We’re at different tables.”

“It’s encouraged to sit at our own tables. I don’t think anyone’s going to care if you come sit with me for one lunch.”

Dean’s gaze followed Castiel as he hurried past the two of them. “Uh, how about you come sit with me at my table?” he asked, wanting to avoid the other boy for as long as possible.

Jo shrugged. “Sure. C’mon, I’ll race you to the Great Hall.”

It was a race that involved getting chastised by two teachers as they ran by, knocking over three students, and running directly through the Fat Friar - an experience Dean hoped to never have again - and ended with Jo beating him by the skin of her teeth.

They both leaned against the wall as they laughed and caught their breath. “You cheated,” Dean huffed out.

“Nuh-uh,” Jo countered. “You’re just jealous.”

“I’m just hungry,” Dean muttered and quickly took an open seat at the Hufflepuff table. “C’mon. Let’s eat before they run out of food.”

Jo snickered as she sat down next to him. “They’re not going to run out of food, Dean. Hogwarts has magic and House Elves that work in the kitchens.”

Dean paused in his grab for a drumstick. “House Elves? What are those?” Immediately a vision of tall and graceful Mirkwood elves from the Lord of the Rings books his mom liked to read to him popped into his mind, but he definitely couldn’t imagine them doing all of the cooking.

“You know, they’re just…” Jo shrugged her shoulders as she piled potatoes onto her plate. “Elves. Little elves that help out with cleaning and stuff. Generally all really old and rich families have them, but Hogwarts has a lot.”

Dean took a bite out of his chicken leg as he mulled that over. There were obviously many things that he still didn’t understand about this magical world, but he was excited to learn as much as he could.

Elves. Elves that helped cook and clean.

Wait until he wrote to Sammy.

*

History of Magic was taught by an older redheaded witch with a very thick Scottish accent that Dean sometimes had a hard time understanding. Most of the class period was alright, but Dean quickly realized that most of the class had a really big head start on him when it came to their history. Of course, no one was perfect, but he’d see Charlie nod her head every once in awhile when she recognized a name or a date. To someone who had no clue about any of this until a few months ago, this was like learning the entire history of a fantasy novel that he’d never even heard of before.

Luckily, he didn’t have any Gryffindors to compete with in this class since he and the other Hufflepuffs were paired with the Slytherins today. He thanked his lucky stars that at least some days he wouldn’t have to worry about being judged in just about every single class.

This class in particular was going to be a struggle.

Professor MacLeod talked on and on about some wizarding war that Dean had never known existed, before finally giving them a homework assignment as she let them leave.

Great. Now Dean was going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else to learn all this crap.

He trudged back to his common room, a slightly more stressed out than when he’d left it.

“That history stuff is going to be a little rough, isn’t it?”

Dean glanced over when he heard the voice of Nick Munroe next to him. Nick was one of his four roommates in his Hufflepuff dormitory and so far they seemed to get along pretty well. They had a lot in common and Nick’s dad was a muggle, so he’d sort of gotten the best of both worlds growing up.

“You’re telling me,” Dean muttered, rubbing a hand against his forehead. “I feel like my brain is going to explode. Did you know any of that?”

Nick shrugged. “Not really. Sort of. Like I’d heard of some stuff before but I didn’t know dates or anything specific. Mom would mention history stuff every once in awhile but not super often.”

“You’ve still got a one-up on me. I don’t even know muggle history that good and now I have to learn this.”

Nick nudged at him playfully as they reached the entrance to their common room. Leaning up against the wall was rows upon rows of barrels stacked on top of each other.

And suddenly Dean forgot which barrel to tap. He’d already been inside of the common room a few times, but usually one of the older students tapped the password and he just tagged along.

“Uh… I don’t -”

“I think I remember.” Nick murmured, reaching out and tapping the correct rhythm onto a barrel in front of him.

An immediate stream of foul smelling vinegar shot out of the barrel, drenching Nick from head to foot as Dean jumped out of the way to avoid getting any on him. He snickered as Nick groaned and tried to shake some of the liquid off him, but the damage had been done. They’d been warned by their prefect what would happen if they did either the wrong rhythm or tapped it onto the incorrect barrel.

“Gross,” Nick muttered, shaking his hands in disgust. “Your turn.”

Dean took a nervous step forward and located the barrel that was two from the bottom, in the middle of the second row, and tapped out the same rhythm. He breathed out a sigh of relief when the top of the barrel swung open, revealing a passageway that was meant to be crawled through.

“I’ll go first,” Dean said, noting the vinegar dripping off Nick’s robes.

Nick muttered something under his breath as Dean hoisted himself up into the opening. He’d seen most of the older kids able to crawl in with ease, but seeing as he wasn’t quite that tall yet, he’d have to do a little lifting. Luckily, the bottom of the passage was padded for a more comfortable journey into the next room.

The Hufflepuff common room was one of the coziest things Dean had ever seen in his life. It was built just below ground level, so that sunlight spilled through windows near the ceiling into a decently-sized circular room filled with overstuffed couches and plants that were hung all around in various places, creating an overall sunny ambiance.Yesterday the plants were singing when he entered, but today it looked like they’d decided they would rather glow instead.

Dean crawled out of the passage and stood, brushing himself off and glancing around at his surroundings. The prefect had assured them the first time he and the other first years had seen the common room that it was very unique compared to the other houses’. It was a warm, friendly, and cheerful place to be.

It already felt like home.

A few of the students already in the common room wrinkled their noses the moment Nick made it through, smelling the sour scent almost immediately. Nick grumbled and reached for one of the towels next to the entrance that had been placed there for this specific purpose.

“I’m gonna go shower,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll meet you in the common room later and we can all go get dinner together? I think Thaddeus might get lost if we don’t take him with us.”

“Alright,” Dean nodded, secretly agreeing with his roommate. “Use lots of soap.”

He walked in the opposite direction of Nick, turning the knob of the doorway just opposite the giant painting of Helga Hufflepuff. When the door refused to open after a few good tugs, Dean flushed, realizing that he’d just tried to open the girls’ dormitories.

Looking around quickly to make sure no one had seen, he took a big step to the left and yanked the door open, revealing his own warmly-lit dormitory. Dean let out a breath and flopped down onto the quilt that covered his now made bed. (He was sure it hadn’t been made before, so it must have been those house elves Jo had been talking about.)

Dean glanced over at the bed across from him to see Thaddeus was adding even more posters to his already poster-clad wall.

“Who’s that?” Dean whipped his head over to the bed next to him to see where the voice had come from.

Philippe LeChat, a French pureblood with an extremely laid-back attitude, was lounging across his bed with a bemused expression on his face. He’d been so quiet and still, Dean hadn’t even noticed him before.

“Yeah, who is that?” Dean asked, noting that the poster of the pink-haired man in ripped wizarding robes was, in fact, moving. Right. Moving pictures were normal here. Dean had learned that after he’d been startled by a knight that had demanded they duel.

Thaddeus grunted as he pressed it against the wall one last time and stepped back with a smile. “That, you musically uncultured excuses for wizards, is the lead singer for Xylomancy. They had the most popular song of last year.”

Philippe rolled over lazily and raised an eyebrow. “He looks like an idiot.”

Dean snickered as Thaddeus looked highly affronted by that particular comment. The boy threw an accusing finger at Philippe.

You’re just jealous.”

“Of what?”

“That he looks cooler than you.” Thaddeus rested his hands on his hips with a smug grin. “I’m going to be just like him one day.”

Philippe sat up slowly and glanced at the poster before huffing out a breath of amusement. Dean blinked and suddenly his roommate’s hair was turning as pink as the poster’s.

Dean gaped, trying to figure out how he’d done it without a spell when Thaddeus groaned loudly and threw his hands up in the air.

“Great! I’ve got a Metamorphmagus as a roommate! This is gonna be effing amazing.”

Philippe threw a wink at Dean’s obviously bewildered stare.

“How did you--”

“Easily,” Philippe shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “Pick a color and an animal.”

Dean blinked and stumbled for words for a moment before answering.

“Uh, green and...cat,” he said, picking the first two things he could think of.

Philippe smiled and leaned forward and in the course of a few seconds, his eyes changed to bright green cat eyes before going back to normal.

“Holy crap,” Dean whispered, feeling like this amazing feat was worthy of his reverence. “How do you do that?”

Philippe chuckled. “I was born this way. I can change how I look whenever I want. Not bad, no?”

Dean held back the urge to whistle in admiration. “Yeah. That’s really cool.”

“It’s a cop-out,” Thaddeus called from where he was adding a newspaper article to his wall.

“It’s a gift,” Philippe murmured, lifting his hands behind his head and laying back down.

The modge-podge of roommates in Dean’s dormitory was going to be some pretty weird personalities clashing together at all hours of the day. Dean and Garth seemed to be getting along pretty well already. Nick always knew exactly what to say to any of them to de-escalate a situation and befriend his bunkmates, while Philippe prefered to keep to himself for the most part. Thaddeus wouldn’t shut up about his favorite bands, but Garth always liked to listen to him talk about the days when he was apparently going to be a rockstar, too.

It was going to take some getting used to, but Dean was going to be just fine.

Hogwarts was going to be just fine.

 

*

 

Dean was homesick.

He’d been here a few days now and he’d been so overwhelmed by everything that he’d sort of forgotten to be homesick until just now, holding a quill, and signing his letter to Sam and his mom.

Dean missed them.

Sam had cried when Dean got on the train in the station, and it had nearly broken his heart not to be able to do anything but wave goodbye as the train began to move forward. Now he wasn’t going to see him until school was over.

Last night he’d hummed his mom’s favorite lullabye to himself because there was no one else there to do it for him, and he suddenly wished he could hug her, just for a few seconds.

 

P. S. I miss you.

 

He wrote the addition and wiped at his nose with his school robe, glad that his dorm mates had left for dinner before him, leaving him to write his letter in silence.

Dean swallowed and folded up the piece of parchment, trying to hold in any emotion that might be showing as he made his way out of the dormitory and through the common room. It hadn’t taken much research at all to figure out that letters needed to be sent by owls if Dean wanted it to get to his mom quickly. A lot of the other students had their own as a pet that they used, but seeing as Dean didn’t, he’d have to resort to the owlery.

Garth had given him half-formed instructions on how to get to the owlery before he left, and Dean decided that he could just ask for directions if he got lost.

Letter in hand, Dean climbed out of the passageway and took a right, heading up the stairs like Garth had said.

Dean chewed on his lip as he walked, hoping he’d remembered everything he’d needed to say in the letter. Sam would love this place, and Dean intended to tell him everything he could every time he learned something new.

Dean was making his way up his seventh flight of stairs when he felt a rumbling beneath his feet. He grabbed onto the railing as his heart rate shot through the roof. The entire staircase began to shift and turn in the opposite direction of where he wanted to go, connecting to an entirely foreign area to him. A prefect had mentioned that the staircases moved sometimes, but Dean hadn’t really believed him until that moment.

‘No, no, no!” Dean gasped, clutching onto the stone until the staircase finally stopped moving. “Go back!” he said, daring to shake the banister a little. “Please go back. I need to get this letter to the owlery.”

He waited, hoping to feel the rumble of stone again, but the staircase remained still.

Please?” he whispered, resting his head against the cold stone in a sign of the defeat he already knew had happened.

Dean groaned, and trudged up the stairs onto the next floor, wallowing in the misery that homesickness and frustration had created.

All he wanted to do was get this stupid letter up to the stupid tower so that he could tell his family about the stupid -

Dean paused when he saw a large colorful tapestry of trolls opposite a stone wall. He sighed after a few moments of staring, and looked back the way he came. Maybe if he just went back and stood on the stairwell long enough, it would go back to the way it had been before? Dean took a few steps forward before stopping. But what if there was a different way up? He took a few steps in the other direction.

Dean’s brain was in a whirl, too confused and overwhelmed by all that had happened recently. The tears finally started flowing as he thought about the letter that might never get sent because of how difficult this all was for him. Would he have been able to get the staircase to listen to him if he were a full-blooded wizard? Maybe if he wasn’t a muggle-born he would have known to bring his own owl and eliminate this whole situation.

Dean sniffled and wiped at his tears with his robes again, feeling ashamed for crying over something so stupid. He needed to calm down. Dean leaned against the tapestry and slowly sank to the floor as he took deep breaths in an attempt to get his head back on straight. It was going to be okay. He just needed to.. he needed… he needed something.

Whatever it was that compelled him to look up brought a strange door to his attention.

A door that had most definitely not been there a few seconds ago.

Distracted from his woes of before, Dean swallowed and picked himself up off of the ground, taking a few hesitant steps forward with a curious head tilt.

“Hello?” he called, not really expecting an answer, but figuring that he should probably cover all of his bases anyway.

When nothing answered, Dean took another bold step forward to grab the doorknob and watched with interest as it opened with ease.

Inside, the room was lit just like the Hufflepuff dormitories. It had warm copper lamps hung around the small space, giving just enough light to properly see the only other thing in the room.

Another door.

Dean sucked in a breath and vaguely noted the other door shutting behind him as he studied the next door. It was a shiny, chrome-painted masterpiece of gadgets, gears and mechanical devices, all interlocked together and covered in some places with metal plating. There was also pipes interwoven throughout the front in something that looked vaguely like...an engine?

It was the most Muggle-looking thing that Dean had seen in the entirety of his stay at Hogwarts.

Reaching out, he touched some of the gears, running his fingers along their familiar shape and wondering what something so mechanical could possibly be doing in a place of magic. The door was made of things that he’d seen his dad work on and mess with at his job, and the recognition piqued his curiosity, but he didn’t understand.

To the right of the door, where a door handle should have been, was just a clean sheet of metal: an empty space that made no sense.

Dean reached a hand behind the metal plating and tugged, hoping that the door would slide open on its own, but to no avail. So, switching tactics, Dean pushed against it, hoping for the same thing - but the strange door didn’t budge in the slightest either way.

Dean grimaced as he took a step back, remembering that he had somewhere to be, and would be needed at dinner right after, or his classmates would begin to worry.

“I need to go take a letter to the owlery,” he said aloud to no one in particular. “But I’ll be back.” He stuck his finger out at the door and gave it one last once-over before exiting the way he came.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Castiel let dry soil run through his fingers and back into the pot of dittany in front of him.

It was their second Herbology lesson of the year, and the Gryffindors and Slytherins were gathered around wooden tables in Greenhouse One. The air was sweet and slightly humid, smelling of rich dirt and pollen and dense foliage; Castiel took another deep breath of it, and then let it go. The class was quiet, focusing on repotting the dittany as they’d been told. Occasionally, there was a muted laugh or a flurry of movement as someone nearly dropped their pot. Jo was standing next to Castiel on one side, and Hannah on the other. He caught Jo’s eye as he reached over to pick up a big clay pot from the centre of the table, and she grinned at him. He smiled back.

He felt… happy.

Times like this, he could forget all about his troubles. He didn’t feel like a Gryffindor – he didn’t even feel like a not-Ravenclaw, which was the bigger problem – he was just… a student. One of many. Someone who belonged.

Underneath the layer of calm spread smooth over his mood like a bed of fresh soil, Castiel could feel the clang and clatter of his quiet worry still shaking his foundations. It had been days since the Sorting and he still hadn’t spoken to his mother, or Michael, or even Gabriel. He’d avoided their eyes, ducked out of the Great Hall, even skipped meals altogether to avoid speaking to any of them. Tomorrow, however, was Charms, with the Ravenclaws. Charms, with Professor Novak. With Naomi. His mother.

Castiel had considered feigning illness. In fact, he’d been hoping that they’d be working with a deeply poisonous plant today in Herbology, so that he could have snuck a little of it into his pocket, eaten it just before the class, and been transported to the Hospital Wing in a panic. It was just his luck that they were working with dittany, one of the most powerful healing plants in existence. Typical. Honestly, that just summed up the whole horrible situation Castiel was in.

“Concentrate, Mr Novak,” said a deep, thoughtful voice from behind Castiel’s shoulder. Professor Gadreel, his worn green robes swishing softly on the stone-flagged floor, was looking down at Castiel’s messy repotting work with an expression of faint disappointment. Castiel himself looked down at it too, surprised. He’d been totally wrapped in thought, his hands doing all the work without him paying the slightest bit of conscious attention.

“Don’t worry,” Jo muttered to him with a smile and a dig in the ribs, as Professor Gadreel moved on. “Look, just put a thin layer of soil in first. Then you put the plant in, and then –”

“I know,” Castiel interrupted, a little too sharply, feeling foolish. When Jo pulled back, he softened his voice. “I mean, I know. Sorry, Jo.”

“It’s OK,” she said with a little reassuring smile and a shrug. On her other side, Anna leaned forwards.

“You hate not knowing things,” she said.

Castiel blinked at her owlishly for a second. He could sense the gaze of the Slytherin girls across the table on him, making his face feel a little hot. Jo and Anna were both watching him too, waiting for him to say something.

“I don’t like being stupid,” he mumbled, trying to focus on his dittany, to sit it neatly in the soil this time.

“Too bad you’re a Gryffindor, then,” he heard one of the Slytherin girls say to the other. He looked up sharply, catching a redheaded short Slytherin giving a taller, brown-haired girl a look that was crossed between dislike and faint amusement.

“Shut up, Bela,” he heard the redhead say, not too harshly.

To his left, Castiel heard Hannah sigh.

“I don’t think not knowing something makes you stupid,” she said in her low little voice, just loudly enough for the girls over the table to hear. “I think it’s stupid to not want to seem stupid. Then you’re always pretending to be clever.” She scooped a handful of dirt into her pot. “And never actually learning anything.”

“Um, if you go around asking questions and looking stupid all the time, everyone will laugh at you,” scoffed the brown-haired Slytherin girl, Bela. “No thanks, right, Charlie?”

“That’s why it’s brave,” Hannah said, frowning at her. Castiel noticed her hands shaking ever so slightly behind her dittany pot; he hadn’t known her long, but he could guess what it was taking for her to argue with someone like this. “To want to learn instead of hiding what you don’t know.”

Bela rolled her eyes.

“And of course being brave is the most important thing,” she said, looking to Charlie to share a derisive laugh, but Charlie wasn’t looking at her. She met Castiel’s eyes across the table.

“Maybe sometimes the smartest thing is to admit you’re stupid,” she said with a little shrug. Castiel offered her a small smile, which she returned.

When Professor Gadreel let them go, Castiel walked with Jo, Anna and Hannah back up to the castle. He could hear the sounds of Ed and Harry arguing loudly behind them, and Bela chattering on to Charlie and another Slytherin boy that Castiel didn’t know. They wended their way up through the darkening grounds, across the bright candlelit Entrance Hall, and into the Great Hall for dinner.

Castiel pulled himself to a halt as soon as they entered the room, which was filled with chattering students and the smells of hot, delicious food. Above them, the sky was dark and cloudy, the stars shrouded from sight. Castiel cast his gaze swiftly over the Ravenclaw table, and then up to where the staff usually sat.

He couldn’t see any of his family, so if he ate quickly, he should be able to get away without seeing them again tonight. He knew it was pointless to keep hiding like this, but he couldn’t seem to help it. Somehow, going to the effort of running away seemed a lot more appealing than just facing the problem.

Jo hadn’t noticed that Castiel had stopped; she was still walking, waving towards someone on another table – the Hufflepuff table. Peering around her, Castiel caught sight of a familiar face, and his expression darkened. Dean Winchester.

Castiel couldn’t understand how Jo could still be friends with him, after he’d told her what Dean had said right after Castiel had literally saved his life, or at the very least saved him from breaking both his legs, during their flying lesson. She’d said that Dean just hadn’t wanted to lose face, that he’d been mad about looking stupid in front of all their classmates. Well, in Castiel’s opinion, Dean had made himself look even more stupid by acting so – so churlishly.

What had he even meant by that last dig – ‘you might want to wash your hand, now?’ Had Castiel acted like he thought Dean had fleas? He didn’t think so. He couldn’t remember being rude to Dean at all, in fact. He could only remember being snubbed by Dean on the train, and then – well, yes, he’d been a little competitive in Transfiguration – but other than that, what had he done to deserve that kind of brush-off? Whatever it was, Dean was obviously overreacting.

Well, Castiel had thought that he was from an old wizarding family – maybe there was a history he didn’t know about between their ancestors, or something.

“Little bro!”

A jubilant voice pulled Castiel from his reverie, and sent a thrill of panic through him. He clutched instinctively for his wand in his pocket, gripping it through his robes as he turned to face his grinning, triumphant brother.

“Gabriel,” he said, aware that he must look like a rabbit caught in a beam of wandlight. His brother stood and looked at him for a long second, shaking his head.

“Pretty smooth moves,” he said, hands on his hips. “Pretty smooth, little bro, I gotta admit. It’s not everyone who can outrun me for longer than a day. So, tell me…” he grinned, hazel eyes glinting. “How’s the Fat Lady?”

And in a rush, Castiel suddenly wanted to cry. He didn’t want to know how the Fat Lady was (generally irritable, since the first years kept forgetting the password); he didn’t want to be speaking to his brother by the door of the Great Hall instead of sitting together at their shared table; he didn’t want to be in stupid, horrible Gryffindor…

“Hey, easy,” Gabriel said, and then grabbed his little brother by the shoulders and pulled him into a hug. Castiel buried his head in the softness of Gabriel’s robes, which still smelled like the soap their house-elves used at home. Gabriel held him tightly, ignoring the people around them, for several seconds. Castiel gulped, and squeezed his eyes shut to force back any tears, and then pulled away.

“Come on, it’s not so bad,” Gabriel said, keeping one hand on his brother’s arm and squeezing. “You don’t have to answer riddles to get to your bed in the middle of the night. Or listen to first years squabble over who gets to use the common room telescope. I’m seriously considering turning them all into frogs for the Frog Choir.”

Castiel managed a smile.

“They have one of those?” he said in a small voice, and Gabriel grinned and nodded.

“Sure do,” he said. “You should join. Also, speaking of things you should do…” he gestured behind Castiel, who turned to see Naomi sweep into the room and head straight for the staff table. Castiel gulped at the sight of her forbidding expression.

“Maybe tomorrow,” he said quietly.

“It’ll only get worse, the longer you leave it,” Gabriel said nonchalantly, staring out over the Hall towards the Slytherin table.

“Fine. Early tomorrow,” Castiel said, and Gabriel turned back to him with a smile. He pinched his little brother’s cheek.

“Who’s a good boy, talking to Mommy,” he teased. “I’ll see you around. Come eat with me sometimes, alright? And for Merlin’s sake, stop running away every time you see me,” he called over his shoulder, as he started to walk away. “I’m starting to feel like a Basilisk.”

He made fangs with his index fingers and hissed loudly, before laughing and walking over to his Ravenclaw friends. Castiel watched him go, with a little of the weight in his chest lifting. He’d thought that Gabriel probably wouldn’t even want to be seen around Castiel, failure of the family, anymore - but it seemed that nothing much had changed for them. And if Castiel had his brother’s support, this nightmare was just a little easier to bear. Even still, it hurt to watch his brother laughing with his friends at the Ravenclaw table, so at home in a place where Castiel himself could never belong.

Wanting to distract himself, Castiel glanced back over to the Hufflepuff table and saw that Jo had sat down to eat dinner with Dean and his Hufflepuff friends again. A small, twisted-up part of him wanted to go over there and sit with them, and be angry and unsociable the whole time, and pick a fight with Dean Winchester, because – well, because he felt like it. Felt like messing something up, making someone else as cross and confused as he was.

Castiel took a deep breath, and began walking – making for the Gryffindor table. As much as he might dislike Dean Winchester, Castiel wasn’t going to deliberately argue with him. He wasn’t going to let the clench of frustration in his stomach walk him over there and pick him a fight. He was going to sit down, and eat his dinner.

The food, cooked perfectly, tasted dry in his mouth. He did his best to be good company for Anna and Hannah, but he couldn’t stop his mind flitting to tomorrow’s Charms lesson. Would his mother speak to him as soon as he arrived in her classroom, or would she wait until everyone was gone after the lesson to start telling him off? Or would she ignore him completely – pretend that she didn’t know him, act as though he wasn’t even her son anymore?

Castiel pushed away his half-full plate of food and stood up suddenly.

“You look awful,” Anna observed, as blunt as ever. Hannah’s bright-blue eyes were full of concern. Castiel brushed down his robes and tried to look casual.

“I’m just not feeling very well,” he said. “I think I’m going to go upstairs to bed.”

He began to walk away before they could reply. He could just imagine how they’d be whispering between themselves, and then telling Jo later on. He felt hot and sick with anger, ready to burst. He was messing everything up. His friends were going to think he was completely weird and stop talking to him. He was going to be miserable here at Hogwarts forever, ignored and laughed at and stuck up in the wrong, red common room. He was going to hate his life here completely, and it was going to be entirely his own fault - because of the way he was made, because of how he was acting, because he was stupid, stupid, stupid.

He pushed his way out of the doors to the Great Hall and began to cross the Entrance Hall, heading for the stairway that would begin his walk up to Gryffindor Tower. He’d just placed his foot on the first step when a sharp voice rang out, calling his name.

Castiel froze.

“Castiel, come here,” said the voice, in tones that did not expect to be disobeyed. For one mad moment, Castiel considered haring up the stairs, making a break for freedom, hiding in a – a closet, or something, somewhere she’d never find him –

“Don’t even think about it, Castiel. Come here, at once.” Naomi’s voice could not be denied. Castiel turned and met his mother’s gaze. She looked tall and imposing in her steel-grey robes, her eyes a little narrowed, her mouth set in a thin line. Castiel gulped, and looked down at the floor as he walked over to her. He felt terribly small.

“Don’t think I haven’t realised you’ve been avoiding me, Castiel,” Naomi said. She sounded even more clipped than usual; Castiel hadn’t heard her words cut so short since the time he’d picked up her wand off the counter when he was six and accidentally vanished one of the legs on the dining-room table with it. His heart was thudding hard against his ribs.

“I only…” Castiel began, but Naomi was already talking over him.

“I presume you’re intelligent enough to understand that you couldn’t have avoided me forever. You were only delaying the inevitable by not coming to talk to me first, though I gave you multiple opportunities. I’m disappointed, Castiel. It’s childish to run away from your problems. I’ve never raised you to be childish.”

Castiel said nothing, too ashamed, his eyes tracing patterns on the stone floor.

“Then again, I never raised you to be a Gryffindor,” she added, her tone barely disguising her distaste. Castiel’s hands were curled into little fists, so that they wouldn’t shake.

“But I am one,” he said, a little helplessly. He wished Gabriel were here. He wished his mother, too, would fold him into her arms and tell him she didn’t care, it didn’t matter, she was still proud of him. He wished…

“I am aware of that,” Naomi said, without even a hint of dryness, utterly serious. “Something must have gone wrong. Every single member of our family has been in Ravenclaw, going back tens of generations, Castiel.” She sounded accusatory. It was no more than Castiel deserved, he knew.

“I know,” Castiel said hollowly, looking up at her. The lines on her face were strained.

“So why didn’t you ask to be put in Ravenclaw?” she said, frowning down at him. Castiel’s mouth was twitching downwards, little spasms of movement as he tried not to cry.

“I did,” he said, in a small voice. “I swear, Mom, I did, but –”

“You will call me Professor Novak whilst we are at Hogwarts,” Naomi snapped. “We spoke about that at home. And you obviously didn’t ask properly.”

“I begged, Mom – P-Professor,” Castiel amended quickly, ducking his head. He took a shaky little breath. “I begged.” He sniffed loudly, and Naomi grimaced at the sound. He wiped his nose on his sleeve, and she looked completely repulsed.

“People are asking me if I’m disappointed,” she said through clenched teeth. Castiel could see up her flaring nostrils, from where he was standing. “They ask if I always knew that you were different. Everyone thinks you are defective, Castiel. And they all think that I did something wrong, that I failed to instil in you the Novak values, that I failed to pass on the Novak brains. You embarrass me, Castiel. Stop wiping your nose on your sleeve, it is disgusting!” With a snap of her wand through the air, fast enough that Castiel flinched, she conjured a handkerchief and thrust it at him. He took it, trying to summon up something to say to calm her down, to make her realise that this wasn’t her fault – she hadn’t failed, he had, this was all because of him, Castiel...

“Professor, I – I’m going to – maybe there’s some way I can…”

“I expect you,” Naomi said, cutting through his mumbling, “to be top of all of your classes. Despite whatever… impediment you have that has landed you in Gryffindor, you will prove yourself a worthy Novak. I have written to your father, and I anticipate that he would expect nothing less. Don’t let me down, Castiel.”

And with that, she swept away. A few moments after her departure, the handkerchief she’d conjured – the magic made weak by her anger – disintegrated into dust.

*

Castiel roamed the castle, tears streaked down his face. He had no idea where he was. He’d run from the Entrance Hall blindly as the first students began to emerge from dinner, desperate not to be seen – and then promptly got himself utterly lost, taking staircase after staircase, not even caring where he was going.

He was a failure, a useless, stupid failure, and that’s all there was to it. He’d let down the entirety of his family with all its history, defecting to a rival House simply because – well, because he didn’t have the temperament for Ravenclaw. Defecting. Defective. Everyone thinks you are defective, Castiel…

The shadows twitched and flickered, the candlelight low and eerily fluttery this high up in the castle. He must have gone up – what, six floors? Seven? He pressed on down a corridor, trying to stem his tears by pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes – and when he lowered them again, a flicker of movement to his left caught his gaze – he grabbed for his wand and held it out in front of him –

But it was only a tapestry, the characters on it moving silently. A man, and what seemed to be a large amount of trolls wearing tutus. Castiel blinked at it once, and then moved on. He kept his wand gripped in his hand. It was all just so – so horrible, so wrong. Coming to Hogwarts was supposed to be the best thing he’d ever done, and somehow he’d managed to wreck it so catastrophically that he couldn’t see there ever being a way back. It didn’t matter what he did, it didn’t matter who his friends were, how well he did in his classes – he would always be the Novak failure, the boy who couldn’t. Members of his own family had probably strolled down these very same corridors – and they’d probably be just as dismayed by him as his mother was. And rightly so. He was a stain, a tarnish. He was stupid and uncontrolled and stupid. He wanted to scream, he wanted to scream until the whole castle thought there was a banshee in here with them, the anger inside him was building up like a potion about to boil over and explode –

His wand, still clenched in his grip, spat out a great, hot, furious fireball, that slammed into the door in the wall to his right, and almost destroyed it.

Castiel froze, breathless.

The door sizzled slightly, hanging off one hinge.

Castiel looked down at his wand. It was long in his hand, his fingers too small to look right when they gripped it. Tiny eleven-year-old hand, not good enough to grip the perfect wand, aspen and phoenix feather. His mother had been so proud of him, for this wand.

You embarrass me, Castiel…

Castiel’s mouth set, his fingers tightening around his wand. Not the right temperament, was he? Not calm and ordered enough to be a Ravenclaw? Well, in that case, he was going to do exactly what he was good at. He was going to wreck everything.

He began to walk down the long corridor in front of him, holding his wand out. He focused hard as the next door came up. His rage was still coursing through his veins, his hands not shaking anymore, tears still wet on his cheeks.

Failure?

BANG. There went the next door.

Embarrassment?

BANG. Another.

Defective?

BANG. A third. They all burst open as the fireballs hit them, leaving the wood scarred and glowing red. Castiel began to run.

Disappointing. Childish. Stupid.

BANG. BANG. BANG.

The final door burst fully off its hinges as Castiel blasted it, the planks splitting as it groaned to the floor. Castiel stood stock still, breathing hard, his wand still held out in front of him. His eyes were wide with the shock of his own rebellion. He turned back, and looked at the mess of splinters and smoke that he’d left along the corridor behind him.

He swallowed.

He would be expelled for this, if he was caught.

He began to run back down the corridor, past the wreckage. He was trembling again, but for a different reason, now. He came to a halt by the tapestry of the trolls, trying to gather his thoughts. He should be fleeing the scene, but –

But what if it wasn’t such a bad idea if he got expelled? He could leave, stop being an eyesore and a disappointment to his mother… maybe he could live at home, still, as a Squib…

He took a few quick steps back towards the corridor of doors he’d blasted. If he waited there, someone was bound to come and find him, someone had to have heard the noise. They’d find him, they’d escort him to the Headmaster’s Office, and then he’d be sent home.

Oh, but the look on his mother’s face… she’d never get over him being expelled from Hogwarts. Castiel backed away from the corridor again. And then went back towards it, and then away again, panicking, heart thudding painfully in his chest, his mind a whirl of uncertainty. He just needed some peace and quiet, he needed a sign that would tell him what to do, he needed – help, he needed help

Castiel blinked, coming to an abrupt halt.

There, in the wall next to him, was a door.

The door had not been there before.

For a brief, strange moment, Castiel thought that the door had seen the treatment the others had received, and was lining up for its turn. He shook off the thought; it was illogical. But if not that, then… what was this about? Where had the door come from?

Tentatively, Castiel reached out a hand. The wood felt sturdy under his fingers: textured, grainy, not an illusion. He glanced left and right, but saw no one… it could all be a trick, but if so, it was a strange one. Castiel slid the tips of his fingers down towards the doorknob, hesitated a moment at the touch of cool brass… and then twisted.

The door opened without a creak, the hinges working as smoothly as silk. Castiel stood framed in the doorway as it opened, and the room was revealed.

It was tall, the stone a soft amber colour. At the far end, about twenty feet of open space away from the doorway where Castiel was standing, was the room’s only feature. It was – Castiel frowned, and took a step inside, and then another. The door fell closed behind him as he walked the length of the room, and finally pressed his hand against the cool surface of…

Another door.

Castiel’s immediate worry was that he’d got himself caught up in some kind of never-ending cursed loop of doors. He hurried back to the first door and peered out.

No, the corridor was still there, with its faint scent of wood smoke and its troll tapestry. He closed the door behind him again, and turned to face the one in front of him. His mind was spinning. Doors everywhere, burning doors, wrecked doors, doors behind him, doors in front of him. He swallowed, and tried to concentrate.

The door before him, inside the room, was tall, at least thrice as tall as Castiel. It was made – it was made bizarrely, that was the best description Castiel could think of.There was silver-coloured piping and wheels of metal twisting in a delicate, silent lattice across the bottom half – and above that were two great panels of light, whitish wood, with strange symbols carved across them, seemingly haphazardly. In the middle, between the silver metal tangle and the wood, was a band of black iron with a great ornate doorknob in the centre. If Castiel stood on tiptoe, he thought he would be able to reach it.

Around the edge of the door was a stone frame, with more symbols carved on it – regularly, this time, gathered together in groups with spaces in between, like words. At the top of the frame, at the crest of the pointed arch of the door, was a stone-carved letter: an H.

Castiel could only stand, and stare. On the walls around him, copper-coloured lamps flickered. They were warm, and strangely comforting.

He frowned at the symbols on the door. He thought he recognised – yes, wasn’t that one there – he knew that one from his reading; the one that looked like a shallow ‘M’ was ehwaz, the symbol for partnership. He scanned the others, but didn’t recognise any of them. Partnership? Why would a door have ‘partnership’ written on it? Did the door have a double somewhere else in the castle?

Castiel stepped closer, and stared at the mess of pipes and sharp-toothed wheels he saw right in front of him. He’d never seen anything like it before; the metal was shaped as though it had some kind of – of mechanism, some kind of purpose. But why would it? Magic fulfilled every mechanism and purpose. What kind of door was this?

He chewed his lip for a moment, and then pushed hesitantly on the door. It didn’t budge. He frowned and then reached up – the doorknob wasn’t quite as high up as he’d thought it would be, he could wrap his whole hand over it – and tried to turn it with his right hand. That didn’t work, either.

Castiel took a step back, his wand hanging loosely by his side. This was a puzzle, a riddle. The symbols seemed to float off the wood, twirling in the air, laughing at him. Can’t solve us, they seemed to say. You wouldn’t have the temperament.

Castiel reached forwards, and slammed his palm against the silver piping. The whole door rattled. He would go to the library tomorrow and he would find a book on Ancient Runes, and he would come back here and solve this door. He would prove that he was clever, and patient... good at puzzles, good at solving things. And maybe when the door was open, he’d bring his mother here, and he’d show her what he’d done, and he’d watch the surprise and pride unfurl on her face. This door was exactly what he needed to prove himself, to solve all his problems. He show her he wasn’t stupid. He’d show her. He just had to decipher the runes, first, and he couldn’t do that without studying first.

“I’ll be back,” Castiel promised, his eyes hard with determination. He gave the door one last look-over before turning his back, and walking out of the room.

When he was facing the troll tapestry again, he let out a sigh. He was tired, and worn out from crying, and his fellow Gryffindors were probably wondering where he’d got to. It was time to try to find his way back. He’d made it a few steps up the corridor, when a hand closed on his shoulder.

Castiel jumped, wand up - and the burly, bearded man behind him quickly released his hold, hands up. He looked old and grizzled, his expression grumpy.

“Did you do that?” the man demanded. His robes were simple, functional. Was he the caretaker? He was gesturing back down the corridor that Castiel had run down earlier – the one with the all the blasted doors.

Castiel gulped. The man’s face didn’t look forgiving. Castiel considered lying – it would be easy, all he had to do was deny it and keep denying it – but… he sighed. He had done it. And that meant he had to accept his punishment.

“Yes,” he said in a small voice. “You can take me to Professor Shurley.”

“The Headmaster?” The caretaker’s eyebrows raised. Castiel shrugged and nodded.

“I’m being expelled, aren’t I?”

The caretaker looked him over for a long, long moment.

“You’re the Novak kid, aren’t you?” he said gruffly. Castiel nodded. “Saw your Sorting. Congratulations. I used to be in Gryffindor m’self.” His eyes were suddenly not quite so hard, so unforgiving. There was a twinkle of kindness in them. He held out his hand for Castiel to shake.

“Bobby Singer,” he said. “Mr Singer, to you.”

“N-nice to meet you,” Castiel said, shaking his hand and blinking, wrong-footed, trying to understand what was happening. Was he still in trouble?

“Wish I could say the same,” Mr Singer said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder towards the corridor again. “Not bad aim, kid.”

Castiel looked down at his shoes, and said nothing.

“How about this,” Mr Singer said, after a moment. “You’re gonna come and do a detention on Saturday morning. Meet me in my office on the second floor. We’ll get you scrubbing silverware, or something else just as fun. Can't let you off without a punishment for this. But we’ll keep it between us, no need to dock points or tell your House Mistress. Just this once, you hear?”

Castiel could feel a different kind of tightness in his chest. He couldn’t help himself; he reached up his arms and wrapped them as far as he could reach around Bobby Singer’s waist. After a moment, Bobby put his big hands on Castiel’s shoulders, patting them awkwardly, but not unkindly.

“Now get back to your common room,” he said, prising Castiel away. “Where you belong.”

Castiel sniffed, wiped his nose on his sleeve, and then winced. Mr Singer pulled his own sleeve over his hand, and wiped away a bit that Castiel had missed.

“Go on,” he said gruffly, giving Castiel a little push. “Go.”

Castiel ran, finding his way more by intuition than good judgment. He felt as though his brain was going to overflow, it was so full. He wanted to fall into bed and sleep for a thousand years.

As he slipped into dreams that night, Castiel thought about Bobby Singer. How kind he’d been. Castiel wanted to be like that, wanted to be kind, wanted to be able to make a difference to someone like that. He wanted to be good like that.

He rolled over, and sank into darkness and silence. His body was wrung out, his brain more so.

His last conscious thought was, well... only seven more years of this to go.

Chapter Text

Dean had grown a lot lot more used to owl post now that he’d been spending the past few weeks living at Hogwarts. The very first day that all of the owls had swooped in during breakfast, Dean had thought that they were under some sort of bird attack and had ducked under the table. Of course, he knew better now and would spend all of breakfast waiting in anticipation for the owls to start dropping their letters and packages.

The night that Dean had meant to send his letter home, he’d gotten distracted by the mysterious door he’d discovered and by the time he’d left that strange room, he’d realized that he had to hurry back to the common room before lights out. The letter got sent the next day, after he’d dragged Garth along to show him exactly where the Owlery was.

It had been two weeks since then, and he still hadn’t had a response back from home.

But that was fine. He was sure that his parents were just... busy, or something.

Dean worried his lower lip and nudged Nick, who was sitting beside him at the Hufflepuff table for breakfast, piling eggs onto his plate.

“How often do owls fly to the wrong house?” he asked, suddenly a little concerned that maybe they hadn’t even gotten the letter at all.

“Never,” Nick said seriously, before shoveling another heaping scoop of eggs into his mouth. “At least, not that I know of. They just… always know right where to go.”

Dean supposed that it was an acceptable answer for now.

He tapped his feet against the ground, just barely able to reach the floor from the bench, and waited in anticipation for the parliament of owls to fly overhead and start dropping their cargo.

A screech was heard overhead and Dean’s heart jumped.

Please please pleeeease.

The owls circled, many dropping letters and small packages in front of delighted students. Dean was about to lose hope for another day until a small, tawny-colored owl latched onto Dean’s shoulder and stuck its leg out with a letter attached.

Dean quickly untied the letter, gave the owl a small pat on the head in thanks, and tore into it.

 

Dean,

I’m so glad that you’re having such a good time at school! I’m sorry it took so long to get back to you… there was a little mixup between your father and the owl. But it’s been worked out, so don’t worry about the letters being late again. Everything that you told us in your last letter sounds like so much fun! I’m glad that you’re working hard and learning as much as you can. I’m so proud of you, Dean. I want you to know that.

Be careful around those brooms! They sound dangerous....

-Mom

P.S. Sam says to tell you “hi” and that he’s going to draw you a picture on the back of the letter.

 

Dean grinned and flipped the paper over to find a rough picture of what he assumed was himself, holding a wand next to the stereotypical kind of elf that you might find next to a picture of Santa Claus on a Christmas card. He chuckled and glanced at the SAM that had been scrawled in the corner of the drawing, wishing that his brother was next to him so he could clap him on the back and tell him what a good job he’d done.

He didn’t know what he was going to do for the next seven years if Sam turned out to be a Muggle.

Not that it was a bad thing, being a Muggle, Dean just… wanted him at Hogwarts.

“Finally get a letter back?” Nick asked as he peered over Dean’s shoulder.

Dean nodded, and folded it back up delicately after staring at the picture for a few moments longer.  

“I got four letters in one package,” Nick said, with a hint of pride in his voice. “One from my mom, one from my dad, one from my grandma, and one from my sister. How many did you get?”

Dean shrugged and held up the single page of paper. “Just one. It’s from my mom. But my brother drew a picture on the back because he can’t write too good yet.”

“Oh,” Nick took a big bite of his toast before speaking again. “Do you not have a dad?”

Dean frowned. “I do. He’s probably just too busy to write.”

Dean knew that was a lie.

When the man from the Ministry had first arrived at the Winchester’s home to explain all about witches and wizards and magic, Dean’s father had been...  less than enthusiastic.

In fact, it hadn’t been until the wizard had been forced to use some sort of silencing charm - after more than half an hour of shouting - that his dad had finally been quiet enough for the poor man to begin properly telling Dean and his mom all about Hogwarts and the world of magic. Mary herself had been skeptical about the whole thing, until the wizard explained that usually magical children did things that the parents couldn’t understand - impossible, magical things. She had gone thoughtfully quiet, then began asking polite questions as her husband gestured furiously at the three of them.

In the few months after that meeting, Dean’s father had begrudgingly accepted the fact that his son would be attending some strange school with a terrible name instead of the school that he himself had gone to as a kid, and had more or less stopped talking to Dean.

That was alright. Dean was sure that it would just take some time. That’s what Mom said, anyway.

“My mom said that her parents forgot to write to her for the first two months,” Garth interjected. “She was their sixth kid to go to Hogwarts though…”

Dean smiled at Garth’s attempt to make the situation less awkward and began to shovel some eggs into his mouth before their first class with the Ravenclaws.

Professor Novak was a strict teacher, but ultimately fair. The moment Dean realized that his Charms professor was the mother of Castiel Novak, it was easily apparent that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. She expected nothing less than their best effort and had absolutely no tolerance for anything that didn’t benefit the collective knowledge of the class.

Unfortunately, Castiel probably got all kinds of special perks for being a teacher’s son. Especially since she seemed to favor the students of her house just a little.

Today, Dean and the other students would be practicing shrinking cushions using the Shrinking Charm that Professor Novak had told them about last class period. Last week, they’d finally gotten fairly good at the levitating spell and Dean had been one of few to be able to get an entire desk to float high into the air (under Professor Novak’s supervision, of course).

“I will ask for your full attention only once,” Professor Novak snapped, glaring at two Ravenclaw girls who immediately stopped giggling. “Like I said, today we’ll be moving on to a Shrinking Charm: Reducio. I want you to all repeat that with me. Redu- no, don’t pick up your wand to say it, Mr. Fitzgerald.”

Dean watched as Garth bashfully set his wand back down onto the desk.

“Now, I want you all to watch me carefully.” She turned and pointed her wand towards the feather-stuffed pillows set on a chair next to her desk. “Reducio,” she said clearly, and one of the pillows immediately became half its size.

“Make sure to clearly enunciate your incantation and point only at the cushions. I don’t want you accidentally shrinking something that isn’t meant to be shrunk. A classmate, for example.”

Dean reverently ran his fingers over his own holly wand. It was very pale, almost white, with a dragon’s heartstring for a core. Dean wasn’t completely sure what that meant, but the old shopkeeper his mom had bought it from had assured him that it was a piece of a real dragon inside that wand of his, and that was exciting enough to him.

“I’m going to pass out some cushions to each of you and have each of you individually try to shrink it when I call out your name.”

Dean let out a disappointed sigh and slumped in his seat. He hated it when Professor Novak singled them out, but it wasn’t often that she let them do things as a group. It was very unlike his Transfiguration class, which had more of a “fend for yourself” feel. Professor Tran would wander around as they tried the spells in their own time. It wasn’t that he did horribly on his own; in fact, he usually didn’t have a problem with most of the spells. But there was something about the way Professor Novak’s piercing eyes seemed to bore into your soul that made him uncomfortable.

“Miss Johnson, if you could please demonstrate for us?” Professor Novak flicked her wand, and the pile of pillows floated into the air and set themselves in front of the students, one each.

The young Ravenclaw held up her wand with a shaky hand.

“ R-r-reducio.”

The cushion remained exactly as it was.

“Remember to enunciate. If you hesitate, so will the spell. Next.”

One by one, each student took an attempt at shrinking the stubborn pillows in front of them with a minimal amount of success. So far, two students had succeeded in getting the cushion to shiver a little, and both of them had been so delighted that something had happened, their faces had shown how crushed they were that Professor Novak didn’t even recognize the attempt.

“Mr. Winchester, if you please.” Professor Novak raised an eyebrow expectantly and gestured at his own cushion. Dean was aware that his professor seemed to be keeping a close eye on him in class for some reason. From the very first day she had singled him out more than the other students, when he had effectively levitated his feather on the first try.

After taking a deep breath, Dean held his wand up with as much confidence he could pretend to have, and concentrated as much as he could on what he wanted done. “Reducio.”

He was almost startled as the cushion shuddered and shrank to the size of one of those golden wizard coins.  Dean glanced around him and shrugged at the confused faces of his fellow Hufflepuffs; meanwhile, there were more than a few Ravenclaws glaring at him with contempt.

“Good.” Professor Novak nodded curtly in his direction and with a flick of her wand, the smaller cushion was back in her grasp.

And that was as high of a praise as she ever gave.

Dean sat in quiet pride while Professor Novak helped the rest of the class perfect the Shrinking Charm. He might not know a lot about this strange new world he lived in now, but the magic part? Well, that didn’t seem too hard.

***

Dean hadn’t had much of a chance to check back on the door he’d found during his first week here, but whenever he’d had some alone time before lights out, he’d started wandering the halls again. He’d tried twice so far to find his way back to the hallway with the tapestry of the trolls, and both times he’d failed. Hogwarts was a very confusing place and the fact that the stairwells would change whenever they felt like it didn’t help in the slightest.

Dean persevered, however. One night, right after dinner, he mumbled an excuse to Garth about going to write another letter home, and was off to find the mysterious door once again. All he could really remember was that it was up so many flights of stairs that it had made his legs sore the next day. He had a few hours to spare before he had to be back in his common room for bedtime, and he planned on spending all of it studying the mysterious door, with its mechanical engines and cogs.

If he could only find it again.

Dean began climbing the flights of stairs, only pausing to smile politely to other students on their way down to dinner. If he could just remember how many flights up it had been before... but he’d been so upset over not being able to get to the Owlery that it had kind of clouded all of the specific details of the night.

As this was his third attempt at finding the door, Dean grew frustrated more quickly than he had before, after about only twenty minutes. Luckily, the wall next to the staircase ahead of him was lined with dozens of paintings that might be at least a little helpful. When he’d gotten lost on his way to class, a portrait of a kind old wizard had been very considerate of his anxious eleven-year-old self.

“Excuse me,” Dean murmured shyly, looking up at the paintings.

The people in the paintings paid him no mind as they continued to chatter amongst themselves.

Excuse me!”

The chattering ceased.

Dean shifted uncomfortably under the gaze of dozens of paintings, but cleared his throat. “Can any of you tell me where I can find the tapestry with the trolls?”

Dean’s hope crumbled when most of the witches and wizards rolled their eyes and carried on with their conversations. A few shook their heads sympathetically, but there was an overall unhelpfulness that hung in the air.

His shoulders slumped, until he heard a soft voice to his left.

“The dancing trolls? Barnabas the Barmy and the dancing trolls?”

He whipped around and nodded excitedly to a painting of a beautiful, red-haired creature lounging on a large rock in the sunlight that was just above his own eye-level. Sphinx, read the gold embossed plate at the bottom of the painting’s chipped, ornate frame.

“Yes! That’s the one!”

The sphinx's eyes glinted mischievously.

“Never heard of it.”

Dean huffed out an annoyed breath of air and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Yes, you have! You just said it!”

“Alright. Perhaps I have. Perhaps I know exactly where to find it.”

“Can you tell me?”

The sphinx's tail twitched as she stretched out her front legs. “What do I gain, if I tell you?”

Dean shrugged, eager to get this show on the road so he could go take a look at the door. “What do you want?”

She tilted her head thoughtfully and curled in on herself. “A favor.”

“What’s the favor?” he asked hesitantly, though he couldn’t imagine what kind of favor a painting would ask for.

“I don’t know,” she smiled blandly. “But you will be in debt to me. One favor at a later date, for directions to the tapestry.”

Dean frowned. “That doesn’t really seem worth it. What if I don’t wanna do it?”

“I know what it is you seek. Trust me when I say that the price is fair.”

Dean weighed his options.

On one hand, this half-lady seemed pretty ominous - but maybe that was just her personality in general. He really wanted to find the mysterious door again. Besides, she was just a painting. There couldn’t be any dangerous favor that she would ever ask, right?

“I’ll even give you a little tip for when you arrive.” she murmured softly.

“Fine.” Dean took a deep breath to puff himself up. “I’ll owe you a favor. Now can you tell me where it is?”

“It’s located on the seventh floor. The very left corridor of the castle.” She sat herself up and tossed her mane of auburn hair. “When you arrive, be sure to think of what you need, pacing in front of the wall three times.”

Dean scrunched his eyebrows together, memorizing the directions. “The wall where the door was?”

“The door will not be there until you do as I say.”

He nodded his understanding. “Okay. Thank you!”

Waving, he turned and bounded up the flight of stairs as a fading voice echoed behind him.

“Do not forget, little one... I won’t.”

***

The tapestry of the dancing trolls was exactly where the sphinx said it would be. Dean skidded to a halt in front of it and stopped to catch his breath. Just across the hall was a blank wall, just like the sphinx had told him it would be. What had she said to do?

Right.

Think about what you need, and pace three times.

Dean walked over to where he remembered the door had appeared before, and began to walk a few steps down the hall, concentrating hard on what he needed. What did he need, exactly?

I need to find the room I saw before. The one with the weird door.

He turned and began pacing the other way.

I need to find the room I saw before.

Another turn. Another few steps.

I need to find the room I saw before.

He looked up, and did a little dance when he saw the door that had led him into the room that he’d found in his first week at Hogwarts.

Yes!” he whispered under his breath, reaching out and opening the door to the familiar lamp-lit room.

Shutting the entrance behind him, he turned and stared in awe at the door that now stood before him.

It was not the same door as before.

Instead of the normal-sized mechanical-looking door from earlier, there was now an incredibly large metal door with weird looking scribbles all over some white wood that was integrated into the top of the doorway. If Dean had to pick, he’d say it was the same type of wood as his wand.

What was once a very plain archway now had an ornate H carved into the keystone at the very top the door... that had most definitely not been there before. Dean was just about to march back out of the room and re-pace to let the room know that it had shown him the wrong door - but then something about the new door caught his eye.

It still had the mechanical pipes and exhausts that seemed to make up an engine, and gears were still prevalent as well. It… it was still the same door. It had just changed.

The more he studied it, the more familiar it became. Sure, he hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at it before, but he could tell that it still had the same mechanisms as the previous door. It had simply become bigger, the doorknob had moved to the center, and pale wood with strange markings had been added to the design.

Dean walked up to the giant door and jumped high, grabbing onto the metal knob with a huff and dangling in the air for a few moments.

It didn’t budge.

He dropped to the ground when the strength in his arms gave out, landed on his behind, and glared up at the puzzle in front of him.

Why was this here? Why did this door even exist? Why had it changed from the first time he saw it?

Dean poked, prodded and persisted at the door for nearly an hour. It was easy to lose track of time in the room so he wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought it was very possible that his absence had been noticed by now.

There had to be some sort of spell that he hadn’t learned yet that would open the door. That had to be it. Dean sat cross legged in front of it and sighed deeply. That was it. If he wanted to learn the secret behind the door, he’d just have to keep coming back with more magical knowledge. Hopefully he’d learn something at school that would help him open the door eventually.

Dean finally sat up with a resigned sigh and stared the strange door down. “I’ll figure you out one day.” he stated matter-of-factly, just in case the door could somehow hear him. “No matter what.”

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Castiel woke up early, to the scent of dust and wood smoke and clean linen. He took a deep breath, the chill of the air nipping him fully awake. He sat upright, and rolled out of bed. The other four in the dormitory were still sleeping soundly; Ed was snoring slightly, as usual. The sound echoed up into the cold, dark, silent rafters of the pointed dormitory ceiling.

Castiel dressed quickly and quietly, pulling on the clean robes left out for him by the house elves. He hefted his schoolbag off the floor, with the textbooks, quills, and parchment he’d need for the day weighing heavily on his thin shoulders. Picking his wand up off his bedside table, he tucked it into a pocket and made to leave.

As he went past on his way out of the dormitory, Castiel held out his hands, seeking the warmth of the wood-burning stove in the middle of the room. It smelled like pine and fire, sharp and sweet. He wanted to linger, but he couldn’t. He had somewhere to be.

Wandering the castle this early wasn’t forbidden – Castiel had been sure to check with Mr Singer, not wanting to find himself in even more trouble after the night with the doors – but the halls were so empty, hushed over with blankets of silence, that Castiel couldn’t help but feel a little rebellious for walking them. His every footfall seemed too loud, tell-tale echoes running up and down the stone passages and beyond - perhaps seeking his mother’s ears. Castiel wasn’t sure what Naomi would do if she found him up and awake at such an unusual time, but he could make a pretty reasonable guess that she wouldn’t be very happy. Was it ‘defective’ to be up and about so strangely early? Her mouth would go downturned and thin, and her eyes would flash, and she’d have some choice words for him.

Maybe the purpose of his wandering would allay some of her anger, though. Castiel’s descent through the castle came to a halt on the first floor, where he pushed open a tall, silent, dark-wood door, slipped inside, closed the door gently behind him, and then turned to face the huge, noiseless room beyond.

The Hogwarts library.

It was still shadowed, the thin morning light slanting slyly through the shelves, as pale and weak as milky tea. Castiel stood still for a moment, breathing in the dry, welcoming scent of old books. The bookshelves were tall, towering over Castiel; they made him feel even more tiny than usual. He pressed his lips together, and frowned with determination. He’d decided when he’d first come here, several weeks ago, that he wouldn’t be dwarfed by the dark literary colossus of this library. He was going to tame the beast, learn how it worked, make it his own.

He headed to his usual desk, dropping his bag hastily and making for the nearest section. The books, as usual, seemed to whisper and shuffle; Castiel tried not to mind. He didn’t know how many Novaks the spines of these books had seen, but he was prepared to bet he wasn’t the first… he wondered whether the other Novaks had been hissed and muttered about by these pages as they went past, or if they’d been accepted immediately, recognised as scholars and intellectuals, friends of the library.

As usual, when he thought of his family, Castiel felt a crush in his chest. He turned his attention to the titles of the books nearest him, trying to distract himself. He’d been coming in here every morning, even weekends, for the past few weeks. If he’d had a problem completing his homework the night before, he’d start off researching that in more detail: he had to work hard if he wanted to keep coming top of his classes. Dean Winchester, in particular, was a problem, much though Castiel was loathe to admit that the rude Hufflepuff boy was good at anything. He seemed to have a flair and feel for magic – he always looked in control of his wandwork, and he picked up incantations quickly, even though he didn’t seem to spend any time at all studying hard. He was never in the library. Every time Castiel saw him, he seemed to be eating. Magic must just come easily to him.

Castiel shook his head as though flicking away a cobweb. Enough thinking about Dean Winchester. Castiel was more than keeping up with him, anyway, and natural talent would only get Dean so far. At some point, he’d have to work as hard as Castiel if he wanted to stay near the top of the class. And that was unlikely, Castiel thought, a little smugly. For Dean to be a Hufflepuff, he must be running high on loyalty – because the traditional Hufflepuff ‘hard-working’ quality was one that he almost certainly did not possess. Not like Castiel did. He’d been coming to the library every morning for five weeks. As he pulled out a couple of books, rubbing their dust-jackets under his thumbs, he felt a little burst of pride in himself. Didn’t have the temperament?  Well, how many Ravenclaw first years came to the library to study every morning before breakfast? None, exactly none. Castiel was more Ravenclaw than the Ravenclaws, and he wasn’t even in Ravenclaw. If he ever met the Sorting Hat again, it was going to be so embarrassed of how badly it had done when it had sorted him.

Going back to his desk, Castiel set the books down carefully and opened the first. Last night’s homework had been easy enough, just a diagram to draw for Herbology and a short essay on Shrinking Charms, so this morning Castiel was free to turn his studies to the real reason he’d started coming to the library in the first place: that door.

It was bothering him. The whole thing was bothering him. When he’d tried to go back to the door to study it further and make drawings of the runes, he hadn’t even been able to find the room where he’d discovered it. The tapestry of the trolls had been there, alright, but there had been no door opposite; Castiel remembered how it had seemed to appear there out of nowhere before, and had run his hands over the smooth wall, and then sat and waited, watching, hoping it was some kind of time-based concealment charm that would lift for a few moments at some point. He’d wished he knew enough magic to try a revealing spell on it himself, but his knowledge didn’t stretch nearly that far.

And so he’d turned to the library, not looking for answers about the ancient runes carved on the door inside the room as he’d planned, but instead looking for answers about the room itself – in fact, about any part of this mystery. He’d begun, of course, by scouring Hogwarts: A History for any mention of a disappearing room, but had no luck. After spending a while pulling out historical volumes at random, he’d finally stumbled across something: a profiling of the four founders of Hogwarts. Of course, he’d thought. The founders built the castle. If the room really did exist, the chances were that it had something to do with them.

And so he’d begun to look into the founders themselves. He’d started, obviously, with Ravenclaw. A room clever enough to hide itself, a room that was a riddle in itself, was surely most likely to be linked with Rowena Ravenclaw above all the others. Slytherin was his next guess. His researches into both of the founders famous for their wits, however, had been interesting in themselves, but ultimately fruitless. Today, he was moving onto one of the other two. His resentment against Godric Gryffindor for even creating the stupid House he was stuck in still burned far too bright for Castiel to even be able to consider him as the creator of the disappearing room, and so – against his better judgment, and thinking dubiously of the Hufflepuffs he knew – Castiel turned to studying Helga Hufflepuff.

Castiel sat at his desk, scanning the volume in front of him. He didn’t bother to read too deeply, searching the densely-inked pages swiftly for any mention of a room, a door, a riddle… the words started to blur when he’d been at it for forty minutes. His eyes were itching with tiredness after his early wake-up, and his stomach was grumbling.

Finite Incantatem, some other student had jotted down in the margin of the book he was reading. For stopping spells. Castiel frowned at the graffiti, and then sighed, and closed the volume.

As much as he wanted to keep looking, he was going to have to admit defeat once again, and go down to breakfast.

No, it wasn’t defeat, Castiel reminded himself, as he placed the books back onto the shelves where they belonged, standing on tiptoe to slide them home. This was a tactical retreat, not a surrender. Not a Finite Incantatem, but just a - a Shrinking Charm, to fit the problem in his pocket for a while, until he could take it back out and look at it again later. The answer lay somewhere in this library, and its labyrinthine intellectual smugness hadn’t bested him yet. He’d be back tomorrow morning.

Heading out of the library, Castiel caught a glimpse of the old librarian pacing the shelves with soft footsteps, a stack of books in his arms. Castiel had never spoken to him, didn’t even know the old wizard’s name – but there was something about him that was comforting, his silent presence a warm one. Turning and catching Castiel staring, the librarian offered him a gentle smile before going back to his work. Castiel blinked after him, before heading out into the corridor. Whilst Castiel seemed to be fighting a losing battle with the library itself, at least its custodian - Professor Joshua, Castiel thought he was called - didn’t seem to dislike him on sight.

Walking swiftly down the stairs to the Entrance Hall, Castiel joined the messy throng of students pouring in and out of the Great Hall. Class would begin in a few minutes and it was Herbology down in the greenhouses, so Castiel only had time to grab a couple of slices of toast from a rack at the end of the Gryffindor table, waving one of them in greeting at Jo, Anna and Hannah as he stuffed the other into his mouth.

“Hey, Castiel,” Jo said, beaming at him as they all began to head out of the Hall together. Castiel chewed, swallowed, and then smiled back.

“Good morning,” he said. “Sorry for missing breakfast, I was –”

“In the library,” said a loud voice from behind them. Turning, Castiel saw that Ed Zeddmore was grinning at him, Harry Spangler by his side.

“Like he has been for the last five weeks,” Harry said.

“Oh, did he mention it to you, too?” Ed said, feigning wide eyes as the pair of them drew up alongside Castiel, Jo, Anna and Hannah, and crossed the Entrance Hall with them.

“Once or twice,” Harry replied, nodding seriously. “Not more than seventeen times, anyway.”

Jo was doing her best to hide a smile, and Anna was outright giggling. Castiel rolled his eyes diffidently, but inside, he was cringing. Had he really gone on about his studies that much?

He dropped away from Jo, Anna, Hannah and the boys, wanting to walk on his own for a bit, but Hannah followed him. They left the Entrance Hall in silence, heading out into the chilled October air, their breath misting in front of them. Jo was laughing at something Harry was saying, and the sound of it rang awkwardly into the quiet between Castiel and Hannah.

“I think it’s OK to want recognition,” Hannah said eventually. “It’s hard to make a special effort and get no attention for it.”

“That wasn’t what I…” Castiel began snappishly, but trailed off. Of course he’d wanted recognition. He’d wanted all the Gryffindors to realise that he was different to them, he’d wanted them to see how hard he worked, how clever he was. A couple of times, he’d even fantasised that they’d been whispering to each other, saying the Sorting Hat had been wrong to place him in Gryffindor and they were going to speak to a teacher about how clever Castiel was, and how he would really be doing much better in Ravenclaw...

“I just – I belong in Ravenclaw,” he said to Hannah, scuffing his feet on the mulchy, rain-thickened dirt of the path down to the greenhouses. “I just want everyone to see that.”

Hannah nodded.

“I get it,” was all she said. She probably did, Castiel thought to himself. He didn’t completely understand what was going on with her, but it seemed as though she, too, had something to prove to the world around her. Hers probably wasn’t as bad, though, Castiel thought. At least Hannah got to sleep in the right dormitory every night.

Anna had fallen back to speak to them, too, her long red hair swirling in the cold wind as she waited for them to catch up.

“Are you still sad about being in our House?” she said to Castiel. He wasn’t sure if she’d caught the tail end of their conversation, or if she was just perceptive. Or, Castiel thought sullenly, perhaps it wasn’t necessary to be particularly perceptive about this. When Castiel was sulking, which was most of the time, it was usually because he’d remembered that he wasn’t in Ravenclaw.

“Yes,” Castiel said honestly, because he couldn’t see any point in lying.

“You’re going to have to stop being sad about it some day,” Anna pointed out. “Or you’ll just be miserable forever.”

Castiel shrugged awkwardly, feeling churlish. He was making a fool of himself - not just in this conversation, but in general, it seemed. He was going to have to do better. He was going to have to – to put a braver face on things… ha, a Gryffindor in the making. There was no way he was giving up the fight to prove himself a Ravenclaw, but he was going to have to stop trying so hard to draw attention to how clever and intellectual he was, or he’d soon find himself with no friends left – not even Gryffindor ones.

“It’s OK to be sad sometimes,” Hannah said to Anna, who shrugged her thin shoulders, and ran back to catch up with Jo. Castiel glanced over at Hannah with a grateful look in his eye; she returned him a smile. Ever since he’d defended her right to be in the boys’ dormitory, she’d stuck up for him whenever she could – even against Jo, who always wanted him to perk up, and Anna, who was starting to roll her eyes at his apparent melodrama. Hannah wasn’t especially good in class, but she was sharp in an argument.

Not a bad friend, Castiel thought. For a Gryffindor.

*

October rolled onwards, and an excited buzz began to build in the Great Hall as Halloween neared. Castiel, who had grown up hearing stories from Gabriel about the sumptuous decorations and delicious feasts, even took a break out of his regular studying schedule one lunchtime to watch as, on the twenty-ninth of October, Mr Singer and the groundskeeper, a burly-looking, wild-eyed man named Mr Turner, started carving and arranging huge pumpkins in the Great Hall. Sitting in a gaggle of his fellow Gryffindors, Castiel stared with them, agog, as the hugest of the giant jack-o’-lanterns was levitated into place.

“I bet my mom wishes she could get her hands on one of these,” Jo said to Castiel, her eyes bright. “She makes the best pumpkin soup you’ve ever tasted.”

Castiel opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, Jo gave an excited wave and leapt down from the table to greet a bunch of other students across the Hall. One of them, Castiel couldn’t help but notice, was Dean Winchester. He was staring around the Great Hall as though he’d never seen a decorative cobweb before. Castiel carefully chose to ignore the fact that he’d been gaping around at the shimmery, gauzy webs strewn in corners and round candles himself, when he’d first come in.

Entering the Great Hall immediately after Dean was a familiar and much more welcome figure. Gabriel sauntered in, hands in pockets, a twinkle in his eye. He looked over to the Gryffindor table, where Castiel was already sliding off his bench to come and greet him.

“Cassie!” he said when they were within earshot, loudly enough for everyone standing near to hear. Castiel noticed Dean Winchester turn around, smirk, and glance at Castiel derisively, apparently filing that one away for later.

“Gabriel,” Castiel replied with a stiff little nod. If Dean Winchester dared to ever call him Cassie, he’d get the same treatment as those doors he’d blown off their hinges. Castiel still wasn’t entirely sure how he’d done that – and in his detention in the Trophy Room, Mr Singer had made him swear not to go looking up any blasting incantations to figure it out, a promise that Castiel had honoured. However, he was fairly sure that if Dean ever used that nickname, Castiel’s anger and pure instinct would take over, and Dean would end up with a face full of sparks… and, if Castiel was lucky, no eyebrows.

“What, did I use Muffliato accidentally?” Gabriel said, waving his hand in front of his little brother’s face. “Anyone home?”

Castiel snapped out of his daydream with a blink and a small smile.

“Sorry,” he said. “What’re you doing here?”

“Came to see the decorations,” Gabriel said. “I wanted to be able to report them back accurately in my letter to my little bro at home, you see. But then I remembered that he’s here to see them for himself this year.” He ruffled Castiel’s hair affectionately. “How’s the bold Gryffindor feeling?”

Castiel screwed up his face, like he did every single time Gabriel called him that. All in all, Gabriel’s nicknames for him could use some work, Castiel thought. Nicknames and epithets, both. Still, even Cassie was better than the cold smirk Michael used as a name-replacement for Castiel; the eldest Novak didn’t address anyone else with quite that level of contempt, so it was like a special brotherly nickname all of its own.

“How are things with Mom?” Gabriel asked in a softer voice, sensing Castiel’s unease. Castiel managed a wry smile.

“She’s ignoring me completely,” he said.

“Well, at least it’s not yelling,” Gabriel said bracingly. “And we’ve been taught some great lessons in how to be ignored by Dad over the years. Put that homework into action.”

Castiel shrugged. He no longer felt the raw, fresh sting of being shouted at by his mother: his hurt was now a different shape, a dull ache in his stomach, a hunger.

“I’m going to show her,” he said fiercely. “I’ve been working hard. I’m going to show her I don’t belong in stupid Gryffindor.”

Gabriel blinked down at him, a complicated expression on his face that Castiel didn’t understand. Gabriel flicked a glance over at the Gryffindor table.

“Are they really so bad, the Gryffindors?” he said. Castiel would’ve shrugged the question off, but instead of sounding as though he wanted to prove a point, his elder brother seemed genuinely curious. Castiel threw a glance back over his shoulder at them. Jo had returned, and she was sitting with Anna, Hannah, Ed, Harry – his friends. Yes, they were his friends. Anna was giggling at something Jo had just said, pushing her hair behind her ear. Hannah was watching them thoughtfully, while Ed and Harry poked each other.

“Not – not so bad,” Castiel mumbled. “They’re… OK.”

“You know, I…” Gabriel began after a moment, his tone weighted to be unusually solemn, quiet and confidential. “I – I actually – when I was getting sorted, the Hat told me I should be in Hufflepuff.”

“Hufflepuff?!” Castiel said out loud. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dean Winchester turn in his direction again, alerted by the sound of his House being called out. Castiel ignored him. “You were going to be in Hufflepuff? What happened? Did Mom say you couldn’t be? Did –”

“No, no, no,” Gabriel said, waving a hand. “The Hat didn’t even get as far as calling out Hufflepuff. I begged, Cassie. I was on my knees – in my mind, obviously, because I was sitting on the stool like everyone does, but – I pleaded. I didn’t want to be in Hufflepuff, I knew what Mom would say.”

“But – but I begged, too,” Castiel said, his voice made small with the injustice of it, and the surprise. “I asked and asked to be in Ravenclaw…”

“I know,” Gabriel said seriously. “I believe you. I know it seems unfair. But, Cassie…” he thought for a moment, a strange look on his usually open features. “Being sorted into the House that you want, instead of the House that should really be yours… well, let’s just say, it hasn’t been perfect for me. I always wonder what it was about me that made the Hat think I could be a Hufflepuff. I think about it all the time, and I wish I’d had the guts to let myself get sorted there, you know? Guts like yours,” he finished, aiming a soft punch for Castiel’s stomach with a grin.

“I didn’t – I always thought…” Castiel said, not knowing what to say.

“That I was the perfect second son? Yeah… not so much, I guess. Mom doesn’t know, Michael doesn’t know. See, the thing is... it sucks to be obviously different, Cassie, but sometimes I think I’d give anything for the people around me to know that I’m not the same as them. That there’s more to me than they think.”

Castiel frowned down at his feet. He’d been thinking the same thing recently – that he wished the Gryffindors around him would recognise him as different from them, as a Ravenclaw – but now, for the first time, it occurred to him that he might have eventually felt exactly the same way... even if he had been in Ravenclaw.

The idea that he might not have been happy, in Ravenclaw, made Castiel’s head spin. He looked into his brother’s eyes, which were watching him with a mixture of astuteness and kindness.

“Thanks, Gabe,” he said quietly. Gabriel grinned at him.

“Always ready for a little deep’n’meaningful with the family’s resident black sheep,” he said with a wink. “Anyway, gotta scoot. There’s a girl in Slytherin who said she’d go on a date with me if I let her hold Galilee.”

“Your tarantula?” Castiel said, wrinkling his nose as the conversation steered its way back into safe, light-hearted waters. “She wants to hold it?”

“She’s amazing,” Gabriel said dreamily. “If you ever meet a girl named Kali, tell her Gabriel says hi. Actually, no, that’s lame. Tell her I say… yo. No, wait, that’s trying too hard. Um, what’s up? Yeah, that’s casual. Tell her Gabriel says what’s up. Or maybe…”

“I’m leaving,” Castiel said, turning to go with a roll of his eyes, only a slight upward twitch at the corner of his mouth belying his fondness.

“Fair. Fair,” Gabriel called after him, as he went. “Just remember, do not tell her I said hi. Tell her I said what’s up!”

As he returned to the Gryffindor table, Castiel became aware of someone beside him – Gordon Walker, striding up to the group of Gryffindors.

“Sorry I’ve been gone,” Gordon said as he and Castiel arrived together. “Just been working on my flying technique. I want to be Captain of the Quidditch Team one day, so I’ve got to work really hard.”

Castiel wrinkled his nose. Merlin, did he sound that pretentious when he talked about his studying? That settled it: he was never going to brag about how hard he’d been working, ever again.

Out of the corner of his eye, Castiel saw Hannah slipping quietly away. He sat down in her place, next to Anna.

“Did Hannah go to class already?” he asked her, watching Mr Singer putting the finishing touches to a grinning pumpkin. It was still another fifteen minutes before the lunch break ended, even though the plates on the House tables had long since been cleared away. Anna turned her head warily to check the positions of the group, and then turned back to Castiel.

“Didn’t you notice already?” she said quietly. “Hannah leaves every time Gordon arrives. It’s because he never stops saying stuff about how boys should be boys and girls should be girls around her. She hates it. And Jo said that she was talking to Charlie – you know, the Slytherin girl with the red hair? – and apparently Charlie said that Bela saw Gordon pushing Hannah around a bit one time in the corridors outside the dungeons after Potions. Said he shoved the books out her arms and stomped on them.”

Castiel’s mouth was hanging open. Anna nodded significantly, and then turned back round to pull playfully on one of Jo’s long curls and say something that was apparently funny, because Jo giggled.

How… how had Castiel not noticed this? Had he seriously been so caught up in studying and his own Ravenclaw problems that he hadn’t noticed Hannah – probably his closest friend in Gryffindor – being bullied? He felt a little sick. After a moment, he pushed himself up off the table, grabbed his schoolbag, muttered a quick goodbye and chased after Hannah, catching up with her as she began to walk down the steps towards the dungeons. Internally, Castiel groaned. He’d forgotten that the next class they had was Potions. Hannah had to be making her way down to the dungeons early.

“Hannah!” he called after her. “Hannah – wait!”

Hannah paused in her descent of the steps, blue eyes wide with surprise, her curly brown hair falling over her face messily.

“Castiel,” she said blankly, and then her face relaxed into a smile. “Shouldn’t you be working?”

“No,” Castiel said shortly. Somehow, by filling up his time with studies, he’d managed to miss the fact that Hannah was struggling. He wasn’t going to spend another second in the library whilst she was being pushed around by Gordon, all alone. Why weren’t Jo and Anna taking better care of her? “Hannah – I saw you leave after Gordon arrived. What’s going on?”

Hannah’s smile dropped like a balloon turning to lead; she turned away, and started walking down the stairs again.

“It’s nothing,” she said eventually, when Castiel followed her. “It’s nothing, really, I just don’t like him that much. And he doesn’t like me either, so I guess we just don’t get on. It’s fine.”

“Anna said that Jo said that Charlie… said…” Castiel tried, and then shook his head as he forgot the trail of the story. “I heard that someone saw you being pushed around by him. Hannah, if he is, we’ve got to do something about it. We could tell Professor Tran –”

“No!” Hannah said. “No, I… I don’t know if any of the teachers know that I’m… that I don’t sleep with the girls. I don’t know if they’ll make me be sent back. What if they think the same as Gordon? Castiel, you have to promise me that you won’t tell!” She looked so distressed that Castiel nodded at once.

“I won’t tell,” he promised solemnly, though his heart was twisting with concern. What was it that he’d been thinking earlier – that Hannah had it easy, because at least she got to sleep in the dormitory where she wanted to be? Merlin, he was so clueless, and self-centred. “But Hannah, I want to help.”

“It’s no one’s problem but mine. Anna and Jo already tried to… look, it doesn’t matter, anyway,” Hannah said, her jaw tight. They were outside the Potions classroom, now, the murk of the gloomy corridors settling strange, greenish shadows over her anxious, resolved expression. “You don’t owe me anything.”

“I – I know,” Castiel said. What kind of world did Hannah live in, where people only did good things for each other because they were owed? “I’m not asking because I owe you, or because I want you to owe me, I just… you’re my friend. Thinking of you getting hurt when I’m not there makes me want to – to spell Gordon right in his stupid face!”

Hannah laughed, ducking her head.

“Blast him. Like the doors,” she said. Hannah was one of the few people Castiel had told the story of the door-blasting to; she’d been quietly impressed, and asked to see the corridor for herself. Castiel hadn’t told her the second part of the story, with the disappearing room and the big, rune-covered door – it had seemed too strange, almost unbelievable, and too personal, somehow.

Oh… if Castiel helped Hannah, he wouldn’t be able to spend nearly so much time seeking answers in the library. It was a realisation that had Castiel chewing the inside of his cheek anxiously. Looking over at Hannah, though, and how she was grinning at him with a couple more ounces of trust in her balanced, distant eyes, he couldn’t regret it too much. This was the right thing to do. He wouldn’t be able to prove to his mother quite so quickly that he belonged in Ravenclaw, but at least he’d know in the meantime that Hannah was happier.

Above them, Castiel could hear the noises of footsteps and chattering voices, as their fellow Gryffindors and the Hufflepuff first-years descended the steps to the dungeons for their Potions lesson. Castiel and Hannah lounged against the corridor wall, waiting for their friends to join them; Jo and Anna came immediately to stand by Castiel and Hannah’s sides, Jo digging Hannah playfully in the ribs and grinning at her. Anna shared a significant look with Castiel, who blinked at her and nodded minutely.

The four of them chatted easily, Jo leading the conversation, and Castiel only barely paying attention to the undercurrents of the atmosphere around him – the way Hannah’s body was tense and angled towards Gordon’s, preparing to react; the way Dean Winchester was facing Castiel, but not quite, talking with the sullen Hufflepuff girl, Ruby…

“Hello, class,” said the familiarly dry, husky voice. Professor Crowley stepped out of his dungeon, neat, dark robes brushing the floor. He ushered them into the classroom with a raised eyebrow and a small inclination of the head; Castiel pushed his way inside, determined to find himself on the opposite side of the room from Dean Winchester – oh, but wait, Hannah needed to be away from Gordon, he had to think about that first – but all the spaces behind the cauldrons were going and they’d just have to settle for – oh, no…

Somehow, in his row of four cauldrons, Castiel had managed to find himself between Gordon on his left, and Dean on his right. Perfect. Standing directly behind Castiel, Hannah had her eyes fixed on her cauldron, while Gordon to his left smirked around at the class as though he shared some kind of cruel private joke with all of them. Watching him, Castiel had never wished so badly that his repertoire of hexes was more developed - not even when Gabriel had spellotaped his hands to the kitchen table back home. He turned to look at Dean instead, trying to calm down, let his anger on Hannah’s behalf dissipate.

Dean was frowning down at his cauldron, scuffing his feet nervously. Castiel knew exactly why, too – Dean was worried about the lesson ahead. And he was right to be so, and it was the same reason that Castiel, as well, found himself becoming nervous every time he was in the dungeons for this class:

They were terrible at Potions. Both of them. Completely, utterly, and hopelessly terrible.

Castiel had thought that Potions would come easily to him, after all the books he’d read at home – but it turned out that the reality of slicing ingredients, stirring the cauldron and bringing the brew to a boil wasn’t quite so simple as the diagrams had made it look. Dean, meanwhile, seemed to have been deserted by his customary natural talent as soon as he’d walked into the dungeons. He was all fingers and thumbs, with Crowley’s beetle-dark eyes glittering with sneering humour every time he passed either of their cauldrons.

Today, Castiel resolved, would be different. He’d make his potion perfectly, come top of the class - leave Dean eating his Floo Powder, as Gabriel would say. He’d spent over two hours this week studying up and writing notes on the potion they were going to be making: the Cure for Boils. It seemed simple enough.

At the front of the class, Professor Crowley sat down behind his desk, perfectly at ease.

“Alright, children,” he drawled, his hands folded neatly. “As I told you at the end of last week’s class, today we will be brewing the Cure for Boils. It’s a simple enough potion, so I trust that the hours of preparation you’ve done will suffice to see you through.” Castiel shifted nervously. He really had done hours of preparation, and this time, he really didn’t want to admit it. If he was going to fail, he wanted everyone to think it was because he was under-prepared, not because he was actually stupid.

Beside him, Dean was already taking out his ingredients. To his other side, Gordon was shifting from foot to foot, every inch of him radiating confidence. Castiel remembered that his own potion had been significantly worse than Gordon’s every single time they’d brewed anything in class so far, and it filled him with determination. This week would be better.

And it actually did go well, really quite well, to start off with. Grinding the snake fangs with mortar and pestle was surprisingly easy. Castiel was briefly distracted by reading over his own notes on the potion, and forgot to turn down the heat as it simmered, but the change in colour was minimal – yellow instead of orange couldn’t be that bad, could it? Last week, his supposedly purple potion had been violently green, so Castiel was chalking that one up as a win. He was sweating with the effort of concentration, poring over his notes as he prepared to add some horned slugs…

“Hey, Hannah,” said Gordon, and Castiel’s hackles were immediately raised. Gordon was waiting for his potion to finish simmering, taking advantage of the general chatter and loud glop glop of the bubbling potions to turn around and chat, a lazy, confident look on his face. “Since we’re dorm-mates now, how’s about we start pranking each other? Just a bit of fun. I warn you, I won’t go easy on you just because you’re a girl. Or, you know…” he waved a hand in Hannah’s general direction. “Whatever you are.”

Castiel wanted to speak, but bit his tongue. Maybe Hannah would see him off herself.

There was silence from behind him. Castiel threw a glance backwards over his shoulder, and saw that Hannah was silently stirring her potion, which was turning slowly black and tarry under her blank-eyed ministrations.

“Hey, also, I’ve been meaning to ask you. Can you even make it up to the girls’ dormitories as a, you know, you?” Gordon said. Castiel clenched his fists.

“Leave her alone,” he snapped to Gordon, who turned to look at him, frowning in surprise. “She’s done absolutely nothing to you. She’s just sleeping in the bed where she belongs, where Hogwarts says she belongs. Stop upsetting her and hurting her for no reason!”

Hannah’s eyes were wide, Castiel could see them out of the corner of his eye, but he kept his gaze fixed challengingly on Gordon. For a long second, they stared each other down. Castiel heard a cough behind him, and couldn’t help wondering how this looked to Dean, who presumably had no idea whatsoever what was happening. Or perhaps Dean did know, and it was just Castiel who had been out of the loop as far as the situation between Hannah and Gordon went. Eventually, Gordon blinked, shrugged, and turned back to his potion.

“Whatever, Castiel,” he said. “Why don’t you just go back to the library, already.”

It was a weak parting shot and Castiel was half-tempted to mock it, but he had more pressing concerns. Hannah was now looking down at the mess she’d made of her potion, her cheeks scarlet and her hands shaking.

“Hey, hey, it’s OK,” Castiel said, moving forwards to stand next to her cauldron. “Look, I’ve got – I’ve got notes here – OK. So you’re supposed to stir it just a few… but then I read about this time, it went darker than it should, and they added…” Castiel was tearing through his notes, rumpling the parchment in his hurry as Hannah looked on, her lips pressed shut and her eyes shiny with tears. “No – no, wait, they stirred it, and then they diced the Horned Slugs instead of just dropping them in – do you have your knife?”

Hannah shook her head dumbly. Castiel turned to find his, dropping his sheaf of parchment in his hurry and bending to pick it up – when suddenly there was another person standing above him, carrying roughly-diced Horned Slugs on a board that they tipped into the cauldron, before offering a hand to help Castiel back to his feet. Castiel looked up to see the face of his sudden saviour...

It was Dean Winchester.

Castiel gritted his teeth, and got to his feet by himself.

“Thanks,” he said shortly. He looked down into Hannah’s cauldron, where the Cure for Boils was now turning a clear, blueish purple as she quickly added in the porcupine quills. Her hands still trembling, Hannah murmured her thanks to both of them, looking them each in the eye.

“Excellent work, Miss Carroll,” said Professor Crowley, peering into Hannah’s cauldron as he passed and giving it an approving nod. “On the other hand, Misters Winchester and Novak…”

Dean and Castiel turned at the same time to look into their cauldrons. Dean’s potion was a flat, muddy brown; Castiel’s was emanating little puffs of cream-coloured smoke that smelled like burnt toast.

“That’ll be a zero for this class, too, boys. If you don’t pick up, it’ll be remedial potions for the both of you next term. Don’t think I won’t do it. I’m not having you two thinking this class is a doss all the way up to OWL, and getting me a pair of T’s.”

Castiel squeezed his eyes shut in frustration for a moment, and then glanced back at Hannah. She was still looking down at her cauldron, her small fingers gripping the edge of her desk. He swallowed his anger at the injustice. It was worth taking a zero for Hannah this week.

Would Dean feel the same way, though? Hannah wasn’t even his friend; he had no special reason to side with her or wish her well. Castiel turned to face Dean, who was still standing closer to Hannah’s cauldron than his own, fidgeting with his robes. When Castiel met his eyes… there was something in his expression, something – something like camaraderie, as though just for a moment, they didn’t dislike each other, didn’t each wish the other would fall into his own cauldron – for a moment, they were grinning at each other as though they were – friends.

And then Crowley called out, “Class, clean up!” – and the spell was broken. Castiel blinked, and the smiles slipped off their faces, and the boy standing in front of him was Dean Winchester once more – arrogant, rude, proud, lazy Dean Winchester. Definitely not Castiel’s friend.

“Make sure you don’t hit your fat head on the door when you leave, Winchester,” said Castiel, just to ram the point home. Gabriel had shouted that one at Castiel a hundred times. Maybe he went a little too far, though – Dean almost looked upset for a moment – so Castiel smiled, half-smirk and half-genuine.

“’Least my head’s w-wi-fat with facts, Novak,” Dean said with a would-be relaxed grin, stumbling over the delivery just a little in a way that made Castiel have to turn away to hide his smile. “Unlike yours.

“We’ll see about that,” Castiel said in reply, leaving his potion in the cauldron for Professor Crowley to vanish later. “I bet I’ll be top of Potions before you.”

“You’re on,” Dean said at once, slamming closed his textbook with a hard look and then turning to find Garth and his other Hufflepuff friends. Castiel smiled at Hannah, who offered him a wry grin in return.

“You’re friends with Dean Winchester?” she said, as they left the dungeon together. Castiel frowned, and shook his head.

“Enemies,” he said. “Can’t you tell?”

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Accepting Castiel Novak’s potions challenge had been one of the worst decisions Dean had made all school year. He couldn’t take it back, though, and he didn’t want to sit back and let Castiel think that he was even more superior than he already did.

So now... he had to crush him.

Studying was a bit of a foreign subject to Dean, seeing as most of this magic stuff seemed to come surprisingly naturally to him. Sure, he’d had to crack open a book or two to write essays for a few of his classes, but all of the practical “hands-on” things that they did in class had been a breeze.

As far as he could tell, the only reason that Cas was keeping up with him at all was because he spent nearly all of his free time studying in the library. Dean had definitely overheard him bragging about it one or two times.

Seventeen, to be exact.

Dean had been worried when Potions had turned out to be pretty difficult, but luckily it didn’t look like it was going to be a simple class for anyone. During the two months that they’d been attending, only two or three of his classmates had been able to create a perfect potion. Professor Crowley had seemed even grumpier than usual over those potions, which lead Dean to believe that he would really rather have them show him something less than adequate so that he’d have something to complain about and belittle.

“Are you... studying?”

Dean looked over from where he was reading his potions book on the bed, to find Thaddeus staring at him with a hand over his heart. “Dean Winchester is studying like a mortal?”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Dean said as he licked his thumb to turn the page of his book.

The trouble with potions was that if you didn’t get it exactly right with the stirring and the brewing and the amount of ingredients, then the entire concoction was going to be completely wrong. Dean could sit here and memorize different uses for boomslang skin until his brain leaked out his ears but it wasn’t going to make a bit of difference if he couldn’t actually figure out how to make it all come together during class.

“Figured you’d have to start sooner or later,” Nick murmured from his own bed. “Is it for the one class you’re doing badly in?”

Dean picked up his pillow from the other side of the bed and chucked it at his dormmate, smiling smugly when it smacked him directly in the face. “For the record, I’m doing badly in two classes. Potions and History of Magic.”

He thought after that disastrous first day of flying lessons that he’d end up hating the class and failing miserably, but he was slowly growing accustomed to the height and while he still wasn’t entirely comfortable with being so high in the sky, he could do the bare minimum. He even enjoyed it at times, if he didn’t think about what he was doing too much.

“Ah,” Philippe looked over at Dean from where he’d been staring lazily up at the ceiling. “But Castiel Novak is in Potions with us, so that’s the one you have to study for.”

“Yeah! Because he’s -”

“A jerk.” Thaddeus filled in.

“Well, yeah, and he’s -”

“Stupid.” Nick called out, throwing the pillow back.

“Okay, but he also thinks -”

“- he’s so much better than everyone else.” The three of them chorused at almost the same time.

Nick shrugged with a small smile. “We know.”

Dean gaped with his mouth open for a few moments before snapping it shut and turning back to his book with a huff. Had he really been talking about Novak that much? It seemed like he did most of his complaining inside of his own head... but apparently not.

“Whatever,” he muttered, trying to lose himself in the properties of the Draught of Death and ignore what had just happened.

When dinner rolled around, Dean was still buried in the potions book, though he was really starting to feel the toll of studying for hours. It wasn’t something he’d like to ever do again.

Garth yawned as he stepped into the rounded entryway into their dormitory. “Sorry, I took a nap in front of the fire. Is it time for dinner yet?”

Dean slammed the book shut and nodded. “Oh yeah. I’m hungry.”

“You’re always hungry,” Philippe pointed out.

“Yeah, that’s true.” Dean swung his legs over the side of the bed and bounded in Garth’s direction. “C’mon. It’s food time!”

The four other boys followed Dean’s near-sprint into the Great Hall, and Dean only ran faster once he could smell the scent of freshly-baked potatoes. Once he was inside, he caught sight of Jo, sitting down over to one side with her fellow Gryffindors at their table; next to her, Dean noticed a boy with a familiarly grumpy expression. Skidding to a halt, he ran a hand through his hair and held his head high as he headed left and sauntered up past the Gryffindor table, wanting to say hi to Jo. Dean and the other Hufflepuff boys were a little late, meaning that most of the other students were already seated. After a glance towards Castiel, rather than Jo, that Dean hadn’t been planning on taking, he saw Castiel sitting with his chin rested against his folded arms, his eyes closed in concentration. Jo was holding a book.

All Dean had to do was make a face before Castiel’s eyes opened, and that would make Jo laugh.

“Okay. I think this is dumb but if you really want to be quizzed…” He heard Jo say with a sigh. “Um… name one ingredient that goes in the antidote to common poisons.”

And Dean seized an opportunity.

“Mistletoe Berries!” He stopped right in front of Cas and folded his arms smugly. “Wow, Novak. That one was easy. Are you struggling a little?”

Castiel’s eyes flew open and he scowled up at the intrusion, causing Dean to feel even more smug.

“I was actually just about to say ‘Bezoar’ - which is a much more important ingredient, by the way - but you rudely interrupted me.”

“Aw, Cassie,” Dean said, throwing in the nickname he’d heard Cas’s brother say, “Even you should know that all ingredients are important in a potion.”

Cas’s lips thinned at the nickname, but he wisely didn’t comment on it as he turned back to Jo, who was looking a little exasperated.

“Hey Jo, do another one. I’ll bet I’ll beat him again.” Dean sat down opposite Cas.

“You won’t,” Cas said haughtily, moving his folded arms off the table, crossing them over his chest. “You just got lucky that time because I wasn’t expecting you.”

Jo held up her hands with an eyeroll. “Fine. I’ll think of another one. But if this ends badly, it’s on you guys.”

Dean cracked his knuckles dramatically and Castiel rolled his eyes.

“Name a potion that uses Fairy wings.”

Oh, easy.

“Beautification Potion!” Dean yelled at the exact same time that Cas said, “Girding Potion.”

Dean thumped his chest. “I said it first!”

“No, you didn’t!” Castiel scoffed. “You were just louder. It was a tie.”

Dean huffed, but figured he was probably right. He had yelled pretty loudly, and now a good chunk of the Gryffindor table was staring at them.

“Go again, Jo.” Castiel said, his fists clenching in front of them.

Dean checked behind him and saw that his dorm-mates had left him alone to go to the Hufflepuff table. Not that he blamed them, but he didn’t want them to think that he was sitting here to be… friendly towards Castiel. Jo flipped through the pages and squinted at the words until she apparently came up with another question.

“What potion can cure the common cold?”

Dean opened his mouth to give the right answer but yelped instead when he felt the sharp jab of a wand poking his elbow, which was resting on the table.

“Pepperup potion!” Castiel said confidently as Dean rubbed at his arm, making pitiful whining noises.

“Ow! That was cheating!”

“It was thinking outside of the box.”

Dean glared at Jo until she finally sighed and nodded in agreement. “Yeah, Castiel, that was cheating. It doesn’t count.”

Dean folded his arms in front of his chest and waited for the next question. He would normally have no problem lowering himself to that level, but today he was going to be the bigger man just to one-up Castiel again.

“Alright. What’s the first ingredient to a Shrinking Solution?”

“Shrivelfigs!” Castiel nearly jumped out of his seat to yell.

Jo raised an eyebrow. “Okay, but how many?”

“Two!” Dean slammed a hand down against the table. “You need two shrivelfigs to start it!”

The two of them turned and glared at each other when Jo declared another tie at the partial knowledge they’d shared.

Dean guessed the next one. (Sleeping draught.)

Castiel knew the answer after that. (Six stirs in a counterclockwise direction.)

The battle continued throughout the entire course of dinner. Dean was apparently eating at the Gryffindor table today, seeing as he was, in fact, starving, and a quiz-off against his enemy wasn’t going to keep him from stuffing his face.

They were pretty equally matched, much to Dean’s distaste, but it was a good thing he’d just spent a few hours poring over those textbooks.

After a good amount of time filled with shouting answers and (sometimes) playing dirty, Jo flipped to one last page and told them it was the last question she was going to ask because she was tired and still had to write an essay before bed, and this was a stupid contest anyway.

“Alright, last one.” She pressed her finger on the page and chewed on her lip. “How long do you brew a Swelling Solution?”

Oh no.

Dean froze and stared at the table, tapping his fingers along the wood as he tried to remember the fact that he knew he’d read earlier that day.

Swelling Solution.

Swelling Solution.

Luckily, Cas seemed to be in the same predicament, with his face turning slightly red.

Wait!

“Two to three hours based on the color!” Dean stood up in his seat as he grinned at Jo.

She nodded and yawned as she closed the book.

“Ha!” Dean turned to point at Castiel whose red face had turned a sort of pale color; he was staring off into the distance. Was he really that upset that he’d lost? “I beat you, Castiel Novak! You try to be all smart and stuff, and I still beat you in potions facts!”

He made a whooshing noise as he did a fist pump of sorts right in front of the other boy’s face.

“See you in Potions class, loser!” Dean stuck his tongue out before jumping out of his seat. He waved at Jo one last time before turning around to head over to his friends on the Hufflepuff table, only to see Professor Novak standing there behind him, with her arms crossed in front of her.

Dean was almost afraid he’d done something wrong, but he soon realized that it wasn’t him that she was sternly glaring at, but her son. And he was staring right back at her, wide-eyed and pale.

Huh. Weird.

***

Dean had been more or less able to ignore the ghosts that haunted the Hogwarts castle during his first few weeks of school. It wasn’t that they were particularly scary... just that they kind of creeped him out, especially when the Gryffindor ghost would float around with most of his head hanging off his body or when the Slytherin ghost would look all… bloody. (Which was all the time.) But Halloween was now in the air and the ghosts were becoming harder to avoid.

Peeves, the castle’s resident poltergeist, had noticed Dean’s aversion to the Fat Friar and the rest of the ghosts. Much to his misfortune, he now had to hide in between classes every once in awhile in order to avoid Peeves' attempts to chase him directly into the forms of other ghosts.

It was terrible.

There was a loud cackling behind him as Dean ran down the hallway, ducking behind a few older students that had probably grown accustomed to Peeves' antics by now, and were mainly just rolling their eyes.

Ickle first year scared of ghosties!”

Dean skidded as he turned a corner, nearly losing his balance and falling over as he attempted to lose the poltergeist as fast as possible. This same thing had happened last week and had ended with Peeves corralling him into running directly through the ghost of a screaming woman. It had been a terrifying and cold experience that he never wanted to have to go through again.

“I hear the Grey Lady is nearby! Should we go for a visit?”

Dean shook his head as he ran. No. No he did not want to visit the Grey Lady. He’d seen her before from a distance and she looked like a ghost that could make his life miserable if he annoyed her, and knowing Peeves, that was exactly what would happen if he couldn’t get away.

He took another corner and nearly tripped over himself in an attempt not to run head-on into Hannah Carroll.

“Dean?” Hannah looked at him curiously. “What are you -”

“Shhh! Dean waved his hands in front of her face and doubled over to catch his breath.

Hannah tilted her head curiously. “I don’t under -”

“SHHHH!” Dean covered her mouth with his hand and looked around frantically for anywhere to hide. There was a door not far off, but he had absolutely no idea what was inside. There could be a teacher in there teaching a class, or a couple could be using the privacy to kiss, but right now that was a risk he was willing to take.

A bewildered Hannah was dragged into what was thankfully an empty classroom. Dean shut the door and leaned against it, his heart pounding as he prayed that Peeves would pass by, thinking that he’d continued to run down the hallway.

“Ickle fiiiiiiiirst yeeeeeear!”

The sound of the poltergeist grew louder and louder, cackles interspersing his taunts until they quickly faded into the other direction.

Dean let out a long breath of air when he realized that he was a lot safer than he’d been a few minutes ago. Of course, this was just one time he’d gotten lucky. Peeves would probably be back with a vengeance another day.

“Hey, Hannah,” he said with a wry smile. The most that he’d ever interacted with her was during the Potions class where he’d sacrificed a decent potion for her, and maybe a few times he’d talked to her during flying lessons, but that was about it. She generally hung out with Castiel, and, well… Dean would rather avoid having to be near him. “Sorry about that. Peeves was just…” he grimaced. It was a little embarrassing that he was running scared from the poltergeist, and he really didn’t want her mentioning it to Castiel. Any ammo that could potentially be used against him was no good ammo.

Hannah smiled back and shook her head. “It’s alright. I was just surprised. Peeves tormenting you?”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” Dean shifted awkwardly and was about to expound before he noticed Hannah unconsciously rubbing at a small bruise on her lower arm. “What about you?”

She jumped a little and tugged the sleeve of her robe back down hurriedly. “Oh, that’s nothing. I just tripped down the stairs, is all.”

Dean frowned. “You tripped?”

There was a small nod from Hannah that was doing nothing to convince him that she hadn’t received that bruise during a more physical teasing from Gordon.

Dean didn’t know much about the obnoxious Gryffindor, but Gordon seemed to be turning into more and more of something Dean couldn’t stand. Gordon was a bully.

After a few weeks of watching Gordon’s attempts at teasing Hannah getting bolder over time, Dean was reaching a point where he didn’t think he could watch anymore. It was hard to admit it, but watching Castiel stand up to him during their Potions class had been oddly comforting. Dean hadn’t quite figured out why he’d been bullying Hannah so frequently, but Gordon always hinted at something that Dean was probably out of the loop on.

“Gordon is dumb,” he muttered, pushing himself up off the floor to be eye-level with Hannah. “You should have pushed him back. He deserves it.”

Hannah shook her head quickly. “No, I don’t want to make him angrier. Besides, he’s just upset about… things. I’m kind of weird. I’m hoping he’ll get over it.”

Dean huffed out a breath and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “If you fight back, it’ll just make him not want to tease you. Push him back if he pushes you. Yell at him if he yells at you.” He grinned at Hannah’s bewildered expression. “I think you should stand up to him. You don't deserve what he does to you.”

The Gryffindor chewed on her lip as she considered Dean’s suggestion. “I - I don’t know. I’ll think about it.” She shrugged her shoulders before letting a shy smile cross her face. “Thank you, by the way. For what you did in potions the other day. That was very nice of you. You’re nothing like Cas sai-”

Hannah clapped a hand in front of her mouth, her eyes comically wide.

Of course Castiel had been bad-mouthing him in front of the other Gryffindors. Why was Dean even surprised? Part of him wondered if the other people of his House felt the same way about Muggle-borns as Castiel did, but he knew that Jo was also in Gryffindor and had been the first person to tell him that kind of thinking was stupid.

“Right,” Dean yanked the door back open, trying not to show how angry hearing that had made him. “Well, not everything Castiel thinks is super great, okay?”

Dean left the room before he could even give Hannah a chance to respond.

Castiel was a conceited jerk, and Dean was going to bring his ego down a few steps if it was the last thing he ever did.       

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Castiel had already seen all the decorations for the Halloween feast, so he wasn’t expecting to be surprised when he walked into the Great Hall on the night of the thirty-first of October. And yet somehow, with the lights burning low in the jack-o’-lanterns and the Autumn sky looming dark and star-filled above them, there was an atmosphere of creeping excitement amongst the students as they filled the Hall. They whispered to each other and giggled nervously, as though afraid to attract the attention of any passing malevolent spirits who might have been listening in.

“Winchester looks frightened,” Harry Spangler pointed out to Castiel with a laugh, pointing as they sat down. Castiel frowned over towards the Hufflepuff table, where Dean was indeed looking around the hall with wide eyes. When he saw the Fat Friar, the Hufflepuff ghost, he jumped a little.

“Why should I care?” Castiel said nonchalantly. Spangler looked confused.

“Normally when Winchester shows any sign of weakness, we all end up talking about it for the next half an hour,” Zeddmore said, leaning over Spangler to join the conversation. Spangler nodded solemnly.

“I was just starting us off,” Spangler said. Castiel sniffed and shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t care,” he said. “Not interested.”

Spangler and Zeddmore looked at each other, baffled, and Castiel ignored them.

“He looks scared of the ghosts,” Spangler said to Zeddmore. “Who’s scared of the Fat Friar?”

“I said I don’t want to talk about him,” Castiel snapped, and Zeddmore and Spangler shrugged and started talking about standing up on the table and grabbing one of the floating pumpkins. Castiel chewed his lip. On his other side, Hannah, Jo, and Anna were chatting together, not paying attention to Castiel’s miniature outburst, for which he was glad. Castiel couldn’t help the fact that talking about Dean Winchester reminded him of their stupid Potions knowledge contest, and that it put a cold clench in his chest every time he remembered losing, his mother’s sharp eyes watching his failure… but he could help being rude to his friends.

“Sorry,” Castiel said, turning to Spangler and Zeddmore with some contrition. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“You are rude,” said Zeddmore comfortably. “Pretty often. If you don’t want to be, you’re doing something wrong.”

Spangler nodded seriously. Castiel rolled his eyes with a small smile and nodded.

“You’re right,” he said. “I probably am. Thanks, guys.”

“You’re welcome,” they said in unison, with complete solemnity. Castiel turned round to Hannah, who was sitting next to him, with a grin.

“That’s better,” she said. “You’ve been looking miserable all day.”

“You haven’t,” Castiel said, deflecting her attention. Hannah smiled, and then looked thoughtful.

“Castiel,” she said. “Do you think bullies should be stood up to?”

“Yes,” said Castiel instantly. “Of course. Why?”

“I don’t know…” Hannah said. “I just… I was talking to, um, someone, and he was saying… I don’t know, maybe I should… but I don’t know if I could…”

Suddenly, as the last stragglers took their places at their House tables in the Great Hall, the empty plates in front of the students filled up with food. Castiel and his friends relinquished conversation to get down to the serious business of eating. The main courses were delicious – Castiel chose to have pumpkin soup (good, as Jo pronounced it, but not comparable to her mother’s), and a generous serving of shepherd’s pie – but the desserts were where the Halloween feast really came into its own. Cakes, pies and tarts lined the tables, decorated orange and purple and green, with spun-sugar webs and enchanted chocolate spiders; there was a giant dark jelly that was shaped to look like a witch’s hat and tasted of blackberries, and soft, cakey biscotti in the shape of skeleton bones, and a multi-layered, gorgeously creamy cheesecake with a dark-chocolate topping and little green, mint-chocolate cat’s eyes as decorations, which actually blinked and moved…

It was delicious, and incredible. Castiel filled himself up to brimming, and when he finally sat back, satisfied, he wasn’t even the last one eating – the food was good enough to tempt even the lightest eaters into third and fourth helpings, just for this one night. As the Gryffindors headed back up to their dormitory, stuffed and sleepy and content, Castiel felt a sense of contentment spread through him, easing the tightness and nerves that had been with him ever since his mother had watched him lose that contest. Tonight, he thought, as he and Hannah and Zeddmore and Spangler and Walker got undressed in the boys’ dormitories and crawled into bed – tonight, he was happy to be among them. Just for tonight, like the picky eaters and dieters gulping down cake in the Great Hall, he could allow himself the indulgence of being happy to sleep in Gryffindor Tower.

**

It was late afternoon on the Saturday after Halloween, and Castiel was wandering alone down a hallway lit up in slots through the great arched windows. Outside, it was raining; Castiel could hear the water lashing the glass panes. Inside, however, all was calm and quiet, aside from Castiel’s echoing footsteps.

The air was light, and tasted of dust.

Castiel turned a corner and came to an abrupt halt. There, crouched in front of a closed classroom door, was a figure that Castiel recognised – short, slim, with vibrant red hair.

“Charlie?” Castiel said,  and Charlie jerked around to face him, her eyes wide. Castiel had never seen anyone looking quite so guilty. Whatever she’d been doing, he’d caught her red-handed.

“Novak,” she said, her voice falsely casual. She was still squatting down in front of the door, with her wand out. “Hi! I was just, um. Anyway, how are you?”

“Good,” Castiel said, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What are you –”

“Oh, you’re good?” Charlie said brightly. She straightened up, brushing down her robes. “Last I heard, you were in detention with Mr Singer for blowing up doors…”

Charlie broke off very suddenly, her expression shifting. Instead of looking guilty, she now seemed more… speculative. She was frowning at him, but her eyes were sparkling. Castiel shifted from one foot to the other uncomfortably.

“Where did you hear about that?” he asked. He hadn’t told many people – just Hannah, Jo, and Anna. One of them must have chatted about it to Charlie, or to someone else who then told Charlie. How many people knew? He’d been wanting to keep it a secret. If the story managed to work its way through the school to Michael’s ears, then it wouldn’t be much longer before Naomi found out, too.

“It’s on the Hogwarts grapevine, Novak,” Charlie said distractedly, brushing away the question. “Listen, that thing you did to the doors – could you do it again?”

Castiel scowled at her.

“I got in trouble last time,” he said. “Why would I want to do it again? Mr Singer made me polish in the Trophy Room for two hours.” The fact that Castiel had spent most of that two hours chatting nonstop to Mr Singer, who had listened patiently and done a lot of the cleaning for him, wasn’t something that Charlie needed to know.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s just – it’s just, I’ve got to get in here,” Charlie said, reaching back and tugging fruitlessly at the handle of the door that she’d been kneeling next to when Castiel had stumbled upon her. “There’s supposed to be a – well, I can’t really tell you why, but I swear it’s important, Novak, okay? Couldn’t you just…” She gave her wand a little flourish, and a couple of sparks flew out the end. “Boom?”

Castiel considered her carefully. Charlie was obviously a significant grape on this vine that she was talking about, and Castiel’s decision now would get around the other first-year students and beyond pretty quickly. If he turned her down, she’d probably call him stuck-up and boring. If he said yes, the story would almost certainly reach the ears of people who would not be best pleased – be they his mother, or Michael, or even Mr Singer. The caretaker had been so kind; it would be a poor way to repay him if Castiel were to blow up another one of the castle’s doors just weeks later.

Charlie was watching him with wide, hopeful eyes. Castiel blinked at her, and had an idea.

“I’m not going to blow it up,” he said, and Charlie’s face dropped. “But I can still help you. Let me just…” He pulled out his wand and moved towards the door, Charlie stepping aside to make way for him. “I was reading ahead in the Standard Book of Spells, and in Chapter Seven I found one that might…” He bit his lip and concentrated for a moment, focusing on the door in front of him. Charlie was standing by his side, watching him carefully; he could feel her bright eyes fixed on him, her short red hair catching the sunlight. He breathed out through his nose, and whispered, “Alohomora.

For a moment, there was silence.

And then –

Click. Creeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaak.

Charlie peered into the empty classroom beyond the door, and then turned back to Castiel, her expression caught between surprised and impressed.

“Not bad, Novak,” she said, grinning at him. Castiel dipped his head in acknowledgement, smiling. It had only taken him an hour or so of practice in the common room to pick up the spell, locking and unlocking the padlock from his suitcase. He’d thought it might be useful, if and when he did ever eventually find the Door again, the one he was saying with a capital ‘D’ in his mind – the one in the strange disappearing room. The spell turned out to have come in useful in quite a different way; Charlie was looking at him with a marked increase in respect in her eyes, and Castiel thought that the rumour mill might be grinding out some good things to say about him in the near future.

“You’re welcome,” was all he said, with a small smile. Charlie nodded and stepping forwards into the classroom. Castiel paused for a moment, and then – drawn by curiosity – made to follow her.

“Nuh-uh, Novak,” Charlie said, hearing his footsteps and turning, holding up a finger to halt his progress. “This is a one-girl mission. Also, I know you and Winchester have a thing going on, and I don’t want to make this awkward, but I’m kinda holding out to be his friend, and I’m guessing that’s never going to happen if he hears I’m friends with you, so… in the name of all the food Dean could steal from the kitchens for me one day, I’m gonna have to ask you to move along.”

Castiel blinked at her owlishly, his mouth hanging open. Her rejection was delivered kindly and bluntly, with a sprinkle of charm that stopped him feeling anything more than mild indignation. He cleared his throat, pulled his mouth closed, and shrugged.

“Your loss,” he said, pleased to hear his voice come out sounding nonchalant. Charlie nodded at him approvingly.

“Almost definitely,” she said. “But hey, thanks again. I’ll see you around, Novak.”

“Not if I see you first,” Castiel snipped lightly, with a grin – another one of Gabriel’s retorts that he was grateful for hearing, now. Charlie beamed, hefted her bag higher up her shoulder… and closed the door in his face.

Charlie Bradbury was quite something, Castiel couldn’t help thinking, as he walked away.

*

There was a buzz in the air at breakfast. Castiel could feel it as soon as he walked into the room, Hannah at his side. She turned to him with a smile, which he returned. They were both wearing their boldly-coloured Gryffindor scarves, and Hannah was sporting a lion-shaped badge on her chest. Throughout the Great Hall, one word was on everyone’s lips.

Quidditch.

Today was the first match of the year: Gryffindor versus Slytherin. As Castiel sat down at his House table and joined his friends, all he could hear was excited talk about the upcoming match.

“I heard that Kali’s playing Seeker for Slytherin,” Anna was saying excitedly, as Jo munched on her breakfast and nodded along.

“You know Billie Reaper’s our team captain? She’s going to kick butt,” Jo said happily, through a mouthful of toast. “She’s like, eighteen foot tall and has biceps the size of my head.”

“She’s amazing,” Anna added fervently.

“I bet she could lift Anna and me and Hannah all at once,” said Jo.

“Sure, with a Charm or two to help,” said a deeper voice from behind them; Castiel and his friends turned to see Billie herself, already in her Quidditch robes, striding past them and laughing. Jo and Anna gaped after her for a second, and then looked at each other with wide, wide eyes.

“She’s even more beautiful than I remembered,” Anna said. “She’s like… a Queen.”

“A Queen who could throw me the length of the Quidditch pitch,” said Jo. “A Giantess… a… a beautiful Giantess Queen.”

Castiel wrinkled his nose.

“Giants aren’t pretty,” he said. “Haven’t you seen the pictures? Their faces are like slabs of rock. They’re only pretty to other rocks.”

“Really?” Jo said, staring down the table at where Billie was sitting down amongst her friends, punching one of them on the arm and grabbing herself a croissant. “Then I guess I must be a rock.”

“Or maybe you just rock,” Hannah said, with a small grin. Jo looked at her, head on one side.

“Rock?”

“Yeah, you know… when you’re really cool, people say that you rock?” Jo was looking confused; Castiel wished he could help, but he’d never heard the phrase either. Hannah, meanwhile, was turning pink. “Must be a – a Muggle thing,” she murmured.

“Muggle?” Jo said, as Hannah got to her feet abruptly. “I thought you said you were Pure Blood?”

“Meet you at the match,” Hannah said to them all, offering a weak grin before walking away. Jo, Anna and Castiel stared after her for a moment.

“Should one of us go after her?” Jo said worriedly. “She’s not great. Gordon’s still being a moron, and…”

“I’ll go,” Anna said, when Castiel made to get up. “I can give her back this magazine I borrowed from her.” She picked up a copy of a tatty-looking magazine from the Gryffindor table, hiked her bag up onto her shoulder, and went running after Hannah.

“See you in the stadium!” Jo called after her as she disappeared into the melee of excited students. “Half an hour!” From deep in the thicket of bodies, they saw a thin arm raise a magazine aloft and wave it in recognition. Jo grinned as she turned back to face Castiel.

“Anna’s great, isn’t she?” Castiel smiled back at her, and then something occurred to him.

“Jo,” he said, and Jo stopped buttering more toast to listen. “I ran into Charlie a few days ago. And somehow she’d heard –”

“Oh, I know,” Jo said airily, turning back to her toast. “She told me all about it. Well, actually, she told Bela who told Ruby who told Garth who told Ed who told Anna who told me. You’re the guy who opens doors, Castiel.”

Jo was grinning at him as though expecting him to be pleased; her smile slipped when she realised that Castiel didn’t look happy at all.

“What’s up?” she said. “That’s a pretty cool title, right? ‘The guy who opens doors?’”

“I blew up seven of them,” Castiel said bluntly. “And I told you and Anna and Hannah that in confidence.”

Jo’s eyes widened.

“Castiel, I – I thought you wouldn’t mind. It was such a cool story, and I was just talking with Charlie and Bela and it just sort of – Bela was saying how you were such a square because you were in the library the whole time, and I said that wasn’t true, because you were the first one in our year to get a detention, and Charlie said it was probably for keeping a book checked out of the library for too long, so I just…” Jo shrugged. “It wasn’t fair, I wanted them to know what you’re really like. I’m really sorry, Castiel, I shouldn’t’ve done it.”

She looked miserable, and Castiel’s sense of betrayal broke in two, and dissolved.

“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s OK. I’m just worried that my brother or my mother will hear about it and think… I don’t know, think I’m becoming…”

“One of those crazy reckless Gryffindors?” Jo said, a little of her sparkle reviving. She took another huge bite of toast, and continued to talk through it. “Well, aren’t you?”

“Never,” Castiel said, and then snorted with mingled laughter and indignation when Jo made a derisive noise, and crumbs sprayed out of her mouth all over Castiel’s robes. Jo giggled and tried to help him brush them off, but only ended up smearing some butter on one of his sleeves, which made them both laugh even more.

“EMERGENCY!” Jo said, her cheeks turning pink with laughter. “NAPKINS NEEDED! ALERT THE BUTTER AURORS!”

Across the table, a pair of bemused fourth-years watched as they laughed and dabbed at the crumbs and the butter.

“You’ve got some on your face,” Jo said, twisting a napkin up against Castiel’s cheek as he tried to fend her off, giggling. “You’ve got a big blob of butter on your face! Oh – wait, no, that’s just your nose.”

They left breakfast together, allowing themselves to be swept down through the grounds towards the Quidditch Stadium along with the rest of the students.

“Jo!” called a voice that Castiel recognised; he turned his face away quickly, pretending to be suddenly extremely interested in watching a band of burly-looking Gryffindor fifth years pass by so that it would seem as though he hadn't heard Dean Winchester calling Jo’s name. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jo wave in response and then motion towards Castiel.

“See you after!” she shouted, and then turned back to face Castiel. “He's not looking anymore,” she said shrewdly. “You can stop staring at that boy's shoes, he's starting to get creeped out.”

Castiel quickly snapped his eyes away, reddening.

“You two are going to have to stop all this stupid fighting,” Jo said severely, sounding three times older than she was. “It's dumb. You two would totally get on if you'd just…”

“Jo, I saved his life once,” Castiel said flatly. “If we were going to be friends, I think it would've happened after that.”

Jo rolled her eyes.

“He was just embarrassed,” she said cajolingly, as they entered the stadium itself and began to climb the creaky wooden steps up to the tiered seating. The structure smelled of old lacquered wood and rain; Castiel took a deep breath in, and then let it go.

“Look, if you think he's great, great,” he said. “Be his friend. But I think he's rude, and conceited, and lazy. He's ignored me and got me into trouble with my Mom and he thinks he's so great because he's so good at magic, but he's really not great. So you can ask all you want, but you're not going to get me anywhere near him, not even if you used the strongest summoning charm known to wizardkind.”

Castiel finished his diatribe and was surprised to look left and see Jo still smiling.

“What?” he demanded.

“‘Known to wizardkind,’” Jo quoted, as they emerged into the open air once more, high above the Quidditch pitch below. She turned to Castiel and winked. “I'm no wizard, Castiel.”

Castiel gaped after her for a moment as she moved to find a seat, choosing an aisle near the front of the stand.

“Wizard- and witchkind, then,” Castiel grumbled to himself, as he followed her. “Move up.”

“We need to leave room for Hannah and Anna,” Jo said, leaving a couple of seats at the end of the row empty, and sitting down. Castiel frowned.

“How are they going to find us?” he demanded. “This isn't the only stand, and…”

“Hey, guys!” chirped Anna, appearing by Castiel’s shoulder, Hannah in tow behind her. She beamed at Jo, who was shuffling along to sit at the end of the row, now that they didn’t need to save the spaces.

“Do you have some kind of tracking spell on each other?” Castiel asked Anna as she squeezed past him to sit down in the seat next to Jo. She smiled at him, and shook her head, opening her mouth to speak – but then Jo leaned across and interrupted.

“Yes,” she said solemnly. “It’s magic. But it’s not a tracking spell. It’s… mind-reading.” She waved her fingers mysteriously, and Anna rolled her eyes.

“We said we’d sit in this stand,” she said, shoving Jo away gently. “We decided yesterday. Jo said that Bela said that she heard a sixth-year saying that the angle is best in this one, and then Dean said that we should try it out, so.”

“Dean?” Castiel said, trying not to seem alarmed.

“You want something, Novak?” came a voice from further down the row. Castiel closed his eyes for a brief second, before turning to look. Dean Winchester was sitting two seats down from Hannah, who had also turned to look. Castiel thought he saw Dean’s eyes flicker in recognition – with some warmth – over Hannah, before locking onto Castiel’s with his customary arrogance.

“You called?” he said, smirking.

“Yes,” said Castiel, thinking fast and doing his best not to show it. “I said I was looking for an idiot, and someone suggested you.

“Sure,” mocked Dean, his eyes bright. “Probably just telling everyone how much you wish you were me.” A couple of the Hufflepuffs made ‘ooh’ noises.

“In your dreams, Winchester,” Castiel said, slamming his back against his seat and sinking into it, removing himself from Dean’s line of sight. He heard a few stifled giggles from Dean and his Hufflepuff friends – and something that sounded suspiciously similar to his right, from Jo and Anna, too. He tried not to let his cheeks redden. He was here to watch Quidditch with his friends. He wasn’t going to let Dean Stupid Winchester ruin that.

“He’s really not that bad,” Hannah said quietly. Castiel glared up at her.

“Why don’t you and Jo get chatting,” he said. “You could start a Dean Winchester fan club.” He lowered his voice to almost imperceptible levels to say those last four words. The last thing he needed was for Dean to hear the phrase ‘Dean Winchester fan club.’

Hannah gave him an exasperated look and turned to look at the pitch. The oval of green grass was still empty, the players still waiting in the tunnel to come out. Jo, Anna, Castiel and Hannah sat with mounting excitement, waiting for it to begin. Castiel had never seen a Quidditch match before. His mother hadn’t ever particularly approved of sport; she’d allowed Castiel a broom of his own so that he could practise for first-year flying lessons, and she’d given him a Quidditch rulebook at his request for his eighth birthday, but he’d never been allowed to go along to Ilkley Moor to watch a real game. A part of him – not a small part of him, either, he had to admit – had been hoping that in his flying lessons, he’d have proven himself to be some kind of prodigy… Professor Mills would have taken him to find the Gryffindor Captain… “Reaper,” she’d have said, “I’ve found you a Seeker…”

But that was just idle dreaming. Those sorts of things only happened in the best kind of books. Castiel was a fairly good flier – adept at saving lives while flying, at least, he thought to himself a little bitterly, aiming the thought Dean Winchester’s way – but he was no first-year-Quidditch-team prodigy. Still, he was going to try out for the team next year, when he was allowed.

His mother wouldn’t approve, though, he thought with a sinking feeling. If he did get on the team, she’d say it was time wasted that should be spent on studying.

She was right, too. Studying had to come first. That was the way of the family, the Novak way, the Ravenclaw way…

Except Castiel wasn’t a Ravenclaw.

Castiel looked down at the pitch, at the hoops, at the flapping banners and excited students… and he could have sworn he felt his stomach flip. Freedom, he thought. I don’t have to be like all the other Novaks. I’m already not like all the other Novaks.

He felt as though he were up very high, not just in his body: on the edge of a precipice of thought, ready to take a leap. His heart was beating hard in his chest. He could do anything. He could do anything at all, because… he was already so different from everything that he was supposed to be that it didn’t even matter anymore. It was the same feeling as when he’d blown up the doors, only different, more controlled – he was a failure, yes, but since he was already a failure, he could fail at whatever else he wanted, and it could hardly make things worse.

And yet – and yet –

Naomi’s face loomed up in his mind… not angry, but softened, like it had been at King’s Cross. You know I’m proud of you, don’t you, Castiel? That’s what she’d said. It was… it was so tempting to just – just throw out the rulebook, be mediocre in his classes, blow off homework to spend time messing around with his friends, and try out for the Quidditch team next year. But… as tempting as those things were, Castiel couldn’t bear the thought of the look on his mother’s face when she heard what he’d done. Her anger had hurt him, but thinking of her sadness and her disappointment made him want to curl up and cry for a thousand years.

No. He’d been doing the right thing so far, working hard, trying to prove himself a worthy Novak. He couldn’t just give that up, bring his mother more shame and embarrassment. He had to do his best. He had to keep going, keep trying.

“Are you OK?” Hannah said, turning to Castiel. “You’re quiet.”

Castiel let out the breath that he hadn’t even noticed he’d been holding, his fingers clenched in his scarf.

“Just thinking,” he said. “That’s all.”

“About how much you hate Gryffindor,” Anna said, a little slyly. When Hannah sent her a glare, Anna shrugged, her voice pitched high in defence. “What? When he looks all gloomy like that, it’s always what he’s thinking about.”

“It’s going to start soon,” Jo said, her upbeat tone only slightly forced. They turned their attention to the pitch once more, and sure enough Professor Mills was striding out onto the pitch, followed by two columns of students – one set of seven clad in gold and red, the other in silver and green.

“Here we go,” said a voice behind Castiel – and then Hannah jerked forwards with a little yelp, her hand to the back of her neck. Castiel spun around to see Gordon Walker sitting behind them, with a Slytherin and a Ravenclaw that Castiel didn’t know on either side of him, sniggering. “Looking forward to the match, Castiel? You don’t have to sit with it if you don’t want to. Creedy can make space. Or maybe you could just switch with Kubrick, see how he gets along with Hannah.”

Castiel turned back to face the pitch without another word. He could see that Hannah’s hands were shaking in her lap; after a moment of hesitation, he reached out and put his own small hand over both of hers. He said nothing, and the gesture was hidden from Gordon by their shoulders; Hannah tapped her little finger against Castiel’s palm twice, thanking him without words.

“It’s going to begin!” said Jo, who had missed the exchange since she was at the end of the row, and had been talking with Anna. She pointed directly across the pitch, to where a small figure was visible, stepping up onto the commentator’s box.

"Gooooooooood morning Hogwarts, and welcome to the first match of the Quidditch season!" yelled a familiar voice, magically magnified. Cas grinned; of course Gabriel had managed to land the commentator's job. He heard Gordon talking to one of his friends in a loud voice.

“Weren’t you saying you know him, Creedy, isn’t he in your House?”

“Gabriel Novak, he’s a third-year,” Creedy confirmed in a nasal, whiny voice. “No one can stand him, he’s so annoying.”

“That’s not true,” Castiel said before he could stop himself, whipping around to glare at Creedy. Gordon grinned at getting a rise out of him; Castiel turned back around, meeting Hannah’s eyes briefly as he did so – and past her, he could see another face turned towards them – Dean Winchester. Castiel hardened his expression, and shrugged at Hannah, who raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“It’s time to get this year’s Quidditch interhouse tournament on the road! This year we’re starting off with the traditional rivals, Gryffindor…” A huge roar from the red-and-gold-clad crowd around Castiel, which he joined in with belatedly. “And Slytherin!” Around the stadium, there were yells of support from Slytherins and their friends. “Professor Mills brings the two captains forwards… that’s Billie Reaper for Gryffindor, word is she once punched a troll in the face and the troll said thank you… and for Slytherin, we’ve got Lucifer Morningstar, otherwise known as the coldest guy on the entire planet. The captains shake hands… break his fingers, Billie… they fly to their starting positions, we’ve got a couple of new recruits in both teams, for Slytherin you’ll see a new Keeper in Meg Masters, weedy-looking sprout if you ask me, but Morningstar tends to know what he’s doing, so I’ll reserve my judgement. On the Gryffindor squad, there’s little Tracy Bell, just a second year… but apparently Billie’s got more faith in her muscle than I do, because the kid’s going to chance her arm at being a Beater today. Everyone’s in position… Professor Mills releases the Snitch! Be on the lookout for our two Seekers, Kali Sharma and Kate Sheridan, who’ll be doing their best to catch it today! And there go the Bludgers… Professor Mills is in the air… annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd…”

At the centre of the pitch, Professor Mills blew hard on her whistle.

“THE GAME BEGINS! The Quaffle’s in the hands of Gryffindor’s finest, that’s my little brother’s House, hey Cassie!” Castiel buried his face in his hands as the kids around him catcalled and whooped. “It’s Reaper with the Quaffle, heading up the flank towards Masters, will this be the first test for the new Slytherin Keeper? No, that’s Uriel Wisdom’s Bludger pelting towards Reaper, and she’s knocked off course. The Quaffle drops into the waiting hands of Morningstar, and he’s off – meanwhile, up above, Sharma and Sheridan are circling, waiting for a glimpse of the Golden Snitch…”

It was everything Castiel had ever dreamed it would be. The bitingly-cold air burned in his chest but he barely noticed as he kept his eyes fixed on the game, fiddling absently with the tassels of his scarf. Both sides looked good, well-trained and disciplined, although mistakes did start to show after ten minutes or so – the Quaffle dropped more often and Bludgers avoided more narrowly as the initial focus of the players wore off, and they tried to settle into the match.

“Pass it… pass it,” Castiel muttered under his breath, as one of the Gryffindor Chasers, Eliot Ness, held onto the Quaffle for too long and was pincered to a standstill by Morningstar and Tessa McKeon, another Slytherin Chaser. They were soon flying back up the field, their paths easier without Ness to contend with…

“Gryffindor Keeper Cassie Robinson comes out to meet Morningstar!” Gabriel said excitedly. “Can she hold him off? She’s blocked him, oh, that’s a beautiful bit of flying – oh, but wait… Morningstar’s dropped the Quaffle into the hands of McKeon. Let’s see, can Robinson defend this, drop, drop – no, she won’t make it in time… SLYTHERIN SCORE!”

Castiel found himself groaning along with the rest of the Gryffindors and Gryffindor supporters around him.

“Wait, but I want Slytherin to win,” said the other one of Gordon’s friends – Kubrick, had it been? – from behind Castiel.

“Yeah, but I don’t,” Gordon said. “Cheer whoever you want. GO GRYFFINDOR!” His final shout was loud enough to draw a few whoops from the crowd around them. Castiel narrowed his eyes, and tried to concentrate on the action. Billie Reaper was heading back up the wing, her eyes fixed determinedly on the hoops beyond the Slytherin Keeper, Masters.

“Hey, Hannah,” said Gordon, leaning forwards. Castiel felt Hannah’s shoulders stiffen. “I was thinking, the Quidditch teams are for boys and girls, right? But where do they put someone who isn’t even a proper boy or girl? Are you going to have your own Loser Team just for you?”

“Ignore him,” Hannah breathed, when Castiel clenched his fists and made to turn around. “Ignore him.”

“Why?” Castiel whispered furiously, probably loud enough for Gordon to hear – not that Castiel cared. He could hear Gordon and Kubrick and Creedy giggling behind him. What he wouldn’t give to be able to hex them right in their stupid faces… but it would get back to his mother, it would reflect badly on him, he would get in terrible trouble and Hannah didn’t even want him to…

Hannah didn’t answer Castiel’s question, blinking down towards the match, her messy hair falling across her face. Through it, Castiel thought he could make out tears. Gabriel’s voice was getting louder as something exciting happened down on the pitch; Castiel stopped staring at Hannah, wanting to give her a moment to pull herself together, and tried to pay attention to the match. A streak of red and gold was shooting up the pitch: Billie Reaper, the Quaffle clutched under her arm. As Castiel watched, she dodged a Bludger, looped around McKeon, the Slytherin Chaser, pelted up to Masters, the Keeper, slipped past her… and…

“GRYFFINDOR SCORE!” yelled Gabriel, as the crowd around Castiel went wild. “That’s ten points each to Gryffindor and Slytherin! First goal of the season for Reaper, and it’s a beauty – she’ll be pleased with that! But most of the work was done by Billie on her own, there… will that worry her as play resumes? Can she rely on her team? Let’s find out, they need to block this Slytherin play – that’s an expert piece of flying from Lilith Tinoshemet, stalwart Slytherin Chaser, the yin to Morningstar’s yang… yep, there she goes, passing the Quaffle to him – he ducks under an overzealous attack from Dorothy Baum, Gryffindor Chaser… oh, now hang on!” Gabriel said, loud and excited, as a Bludger smashed into Lucifer Morningstar’s left side, sending him spinning off course, the Quaffle flying out of his hands. “Who was that – Ganesha Ganapati?” But the big, muscled Gryffindor Beater was on the other side of the pitch, beaming proudly over towards the player who had actually sent the perfectly-placed Bludger. “Tracy Bell?!” Gabriel exclaimed, voicing the surprise of the entire crowd. “Unbelievable!” Tracy took a moment to soak up the moment – she was too far away to see her expression, but Castiel could just imagine the mixture of elation and smugness she must be feeling, to have proven Gabriel wrong – and then she was off again, bat in hand, focus in every line of her tiny body.

“And it’s Baum and Reaper heading up the left flank, protected from above by Ganapati. Sharma swoops in low – no, she hasn’t seen the Snitch, just dodging a Bludger, looks like… aaaaaaaand Reaper to Baum, Baum swerves round McKeon, heads towards Masters… but Masters blocks her left hoop easily, and the Quaffle’s quickly passed to McKeon, who passes to Tinoshemet, who begins to make her way – no, she’s dropped it, and it’s caught in the fingertips of Ness…”

The play became bitty and messy for a while, the Chasers grasping for the Quaffle, shoving at each other and dropping it frequently. The audience began to get restive, muttering amongst themselves, shuffling and drawing their cloaks tighter around themselves. Castiel could almost feel the boredom radiating from the seats behind him; silently, he begged for the action to start up again, so that they wouldn’t seek alternative distractions…

“Hey, Hannah,” Gordon said, leaning forwards. Castiel groaned internally, closing his eyes for a moment. Beside him, he heard Hannah let out the breath that she’d been holding.

“What is it, Gordon?” she said suddenly, with a snappishness to her tone that had Castiel turning to stare at her, along with Anna, and Jo, and some of the people to the other side of her in their row – Dean Winchester, Castiel noticed, was leaning out to see what was happening. Hannah turned around to look at Gordon. “What do you want? To make fun of me some more because I’m a girl who sleeps in the boys’ dormitories? Is that what you want? Is that what’s fun for you? You really can’t think of anything better to do with your time than get upset about that? You know what, Gordon?” Hannah said, looking him straight in the eye; her tone had been getting louder and more confident the longer she talked, and now it didn’t even shake at all. “That’s just sad.”

“Super sad,” Anna chIpped in, nodding.

“Incredibly lame,” agreed Jo.

“Seriously,” said Castiel. He only had eyes for Hannah, his heart bursting with pride for her. He could barely believe that she’d done it – stood up for herself to Gordon! Things would be better after this. She’d see him off, if he came after her again. And she had him, Castiel, and Anna and Jo too, right behind her. She’d –

“What did you say about me, you weirdo?” demanded Gordon, shoving Hannah’s shoulder viciously hard, sending her pitching forwards. Her head smacked into the seat in front; when she sat back up, she raised a hand to her forehead – and it came away with a streak of blood across it.

“Hannah!” said several people all at once, reaching for her; Castiel, one hand on her shoulder, pulled out his wand with the other.

“I’m going to hex him,” he snarled, starting to turn around, looking into Gordon’s grinning, self-satisfied face. “I’m going to hex him right now.”

“No!” Hannah said, waving away the hands grabbing at her robes and sitting up straight, wiping the blood away onto her cloak. “No, you’re not going to do that,” she said, looking into Castiel’s eyes.

“Too scared, Hannah?” Gordon mocked. “You don’t even belong in Gryffindor, let alone the boys’ dormitory…”

Hannah’s thin face set into lines of determination and anger. She threw a quick glance to her left – Castiel saw a movement amongst the sea of staring faces, and could have sworn that it had been Dean Winchester dipping his head in a tiny nod – and then in one swift, decisive movement, Hannah stood up, turned round, pulled her wand out of her robe, pointed it straight at Gordon, and shouted,

“FURNUNCULUS!”

With a BANG and a great splash of rolling smoke, Gordon was sent sprawling back in his chair. As the smoke cleared, Gordon could be seen clutching at his face with one hand, yelling as pimples erupted over his cheeks – and with the other hand, he was bringing out his wand, and he wasn’t the only one: Kubrick and Creedy were shouting and brandishing their own wands in Hannah’s direction. Before he could think twice, Castiel was pushing Hannah behind him, or doing his best to, since they were in the narrow aisle – and then there were sparks, and BOOMs, and Castiel was waving his wand without even knowing what he wanted to happen, light bursting from the tip – Anna was clambering up over the back of her seat, almost ramming Kubrick in the stomach with her head as she straightened up and fired a jinx straight into his ear, and Jo was yelling and trying to hold her steady whilst threatening Gordon with her wand… the Hufflepuffs seemed to be getting in on it, too, and Castiel even thought he saw fists swinging out of the corner of his eye – who was Muggle fighting? He turned to look and sparks grazed his face, singing his cheek – and then Kubrick pointed his wand at Anna and yelled, “FLIPENDO!”

There was a burst of noise and a gout of purple flame; the jinx itself was completely ineffective, but the unintended fire licked over Anna’s shoulder, down to where Jo was standing; with slow-motion horror, Castiel watched it catch her full in the face, yelling as she raised an arm to cover her eyes too late…

“JO!” Anna shrieked, and dropped her wand, opting to punch Kubrick full in the face with her tiny clenched fist. Kubrick howled, clutching his bleeding nose, still muttering vague incantations and swear words under his breath as Anna dropped back down to kneel beside where Jo had fallen. Castiel made to help her, but then almost fell forwards as Hannah was knocked sideways by a jinx – he turned, wanting to help –

“PET-PETERICUS TOTALUS!” yelled Gordon, swinging his wand wildly at Hannah; at first Castiel thought nothing had happened, but then he realised that Hannah hadn’t moved, that she was frozen… no, but her head was moving, her mouth was moving, she was whimpering in pain and holding out her – her arm…

“NO!” Castiel shouted. Starting at her fingers and creeping up Hannah’s arm was a greyness, a grittiness.It was up her forearm, she was – Castiel felt a cold clutch of horror. She was turning to stone. Gordon's bad jinx hadn't paralysed her, it was turning her to actual stone. All around him, he could hear the sounds of jinxes and yelps, and the smoke and bangs were making it hard to think, and Hannah was saying his name over and over in a tiny voice and Castiel had to think of something

“Castiel… Castiel… Castiel,” Hannah whispered, her bottom lip trembling in fear, her breath short and her eyes swimming with tears. “I’m scared, I’m really scared…” It was past her elbow, now, and the weight was starting to tell, she was having to hold up her stone arm with the hand that was still her own. But the bad jinx wasn’t stopping, it just kept crawling up her arm – it had to stop, the spell had to stop –

Something shifted in Castiel’s mind.

“Hold still!” he shouted to Hannah, whose eyes were glazed with panic; she couldn’t even nod to say she’d understood. “Hold still…” He took a deep breath and tried to steady himself, or the spell wouldn’t work. “F-f-f-finite incantatem!” he said, pointing his wand at Hannah’s arm and willing with all of his might for the stone to stop creeping, for Hannah to be alright, for the jinx to halt its progress…

“Castiel… Castiel, it’s stopped!” Hannah said, and Castiel realised that he’d closed his eyes, screwing them up tight with concentration. He opened them to see Hannah, her face tear-streaked and scared-looking, holding her stone arm up with all the strength in her free hand – but the spell had stopped. The grey and grit had ground to a halt just before her shoulder.

Castiel opened his mouth to say something, but Gordon shot a spell right between him and Hannah at that moment, the whoosh of its passing silencing Castiel completely. Hannah’s face tightened, that resolve and anger that Castiel had seen earlier returning to her features.

“Castiel,” she said. “Would you please hold my arm.”

Castiel took the weight of Hannah’s arm in his hands. He couldn’t stop thinking about Jo, he needed to turn around, to check if she was alright – but Hannah, unaware of Jo’s plight, was focused entirely on Gordon. With the hand that was still flesh-and-blood, she gripped her wand tightly and pointed it straight at Gordon’s chest. He jerked back, but in the thin aisle, there was nowhere to go. He put his hands up slowly, dropping his wand.

“You aren’t ever going to come after me again,” she said. “You sad boy. Swear it, or I’ll hex you. I know worse ones than Furnunculus.”

Gordon swallowed, the pimply side of his face turned towards Castiel. It looked repulsive, leaking pus. Castiel didn’t want to look, he wanted to turn and face Jo, but it was impossible with Hannah’s arm in his hands… at least Kubrick and Creedy weren’t fighting anymore, both of them sporting bloody faces and teary eyes.

“Swear it!” Hannah insisted, jabbing her wand forwards and poking Gordon in the chest. “Swear you won’t come after me again, or I’ll come after you, Gordon Walker.”

Castiel stared at her. He’d known that Hannah’s emotions ran deep, but to see her sheer rage and determination on show took his breath away.

“I s-swear,” Gordon said, eventually. The side of his mouth started to twitch downwards, like he was going to cry. “I swear I won’t, OK? Get off me.”

Hannah pulled her wand back instantly, and turned her face away. She looked at Castiel.

“Are you –” she began, but then a sharp, loud, mildly terrifying voice shut her up completely.

“WHAT is going on here?” shrieked the voice; when Castiel leaned sideways, still holding onto Hannah’s stone arm for her, he saw that it was emanating from a very irate-looking Professor Tran, standing at the end of the aisle. Castiel swallowed hard, and then opened his mouth to speak.

“Professor, please! Jo Harvelle got fire in her face, she’s behind me, I can’t turn around because I’ve got Hannah’s arm, it’s made of stone, but…”

“She’s OK!” Anna said, her voice muffled from being knelt down behind Castiel, but still audible; Castiel felt a wave of relief break over him. Jo was alright. He knew he’d have nightmares about watching those purple flames roll over her terrified features. “Her face is – I don’t know, but she’s breathing and everything – but she needs the Hospital Wing!”

The numbness and shock were finally sinking in for Castiel. He allowed himself to be organised by Professor Tran, and helped up to the Hospital Wing for the light burns on his cheek by kind hands, whose owner he couldn’t remember later. He was too busy watching Jo, who was floating along beside Professor Tran, her face obscured by her golden hair. Anna was walking beside her friend, hand twisted into her robes, refusing to be separated. Hannah was somewhere behind them, talking to another teacher; Castiel could hear the sound of her voice, a small comfort.

When their bedraggled party reached the Hospital Wing, Castiel was sat down on a soft bed by a smiling, gentle-faced woman.

“Castiel?” she said. “I’m Madam Hanscum, and I’m just going to fix up these burns for you. They’re a little nasty, aren’t they? Won’t take a spot of magic to heal it up, though, don’t you worry.”

“My friends,” Castiel said. “Jo… Hannah?”

“Over there,” Madam Hanscum said, her hands soft and cool on his face as she turned it and began to apply an orange paste over his burns. Castiel could see Jo and Hannah resting on two beds opposite the one he was sitting on; Hannah was awake, but Jo appeared to be sleeping, her face already covered in the orange paste. “They’ll be just fine, dear.”

“Please take care of them,” he said. Madam Hanscum’s polite, kind smile warmed a little further.

“That’s what I do,” she said, tipping him a wink. “I’ll fix you all up, don’t you worry. Ooh, I see you’re a Gryffindor,” she said, pulling on his scarf for a change of subject, her tone bright and cheerful, obviously hoping to make Castiel feel happier too. “You won, didn’t you? I hear that Kate Sheridan caught the Snitch! You must be very proud to be a Gryffindor today.”

Castiel chewed on his lip as the paste got to work, tingling and stinging in the way that let him know he was healing.

“Yes,” he said, looking over at Hannah, and Jo, and Anna sitting between their beds. “Yes, I am.”

Chapter Text

“Settle down, settle down!” called out Madam Hanscum, clapping her hands to settle the students in front of her. They were standing in three haphazard rows on the steps up to the top table in the Great Hall, a mixture of all four Houses. “Now, I know how excited you all are to be here, but let’s try to have some dignity, OK? I don’t want to see any repeats of the incident with the frog and the Engorgement Spell we had last year. Now, we’ll take it from the top!”

She pointed her wand at a phonograph sitting on the table next to her, its brass funnel gleaming towards the children. The crank started to turn, clicking and groaning like an old man rising to his feet, and the first hoarse strands of Good Witch Wendelin started to play.

“We’ve got less than a month until Christmas!” Madam Hanscum said, raising her wand like a baton. A few sparks shot out the end, and she looked at it in surprise for a moment, before swapping it for the actual conductor’s baton lying on the table beside the phonograph. “Oopsie. Yes, Christmas is only a month away, and we have to get this perfect for the end-of-term feast! Now, frog-holders, remember that they’ll do most of the work for you… we’ll start with hearing just the fifth years and above, let’s nail those descants, sopranos, counter-tenors… tenors, bass, let it rip! Altos, no messing around, hold the melody. Younger years, stay quiet. Listen and learn. Right, on three, then. One, two…” The upper years took a deep breath in as one, and started to sing with enthusiasm.

“Good Witch Wendelin looked out

On the Muggle pyres

Where the logs lay round about

Ready to be fires…”

Castiel.” Stood in the middle of the front row, Castiel pressed his lips tightly together and did his best to ignore the whisper that had been directed his way. The older students’’ voices were strong and assured, a little boisterous. Castiel held his hands out flat, carrying inside them a big, fat, magical frog. He was wearing a thick pair of dragonhide gloves to protect him from actually touching the frog’s skin – for which he was glad, since it seemed to be rather slimy-looking. He wasn’t scared of the frog, exactly; it was just that he’d never been this close to any animal other than an owl before in his entire life, and it was quite heavy, and its eyes blinked strangely, and it was just so… alive. If he moved, if he startled it, it could hop onto him, climb up his robes, put its funny webbed feet all through his hair…

Castiel!” The whisper came again, more of a hiss this time. Castiel narrowed his eyes, pretending to be paying far too much attention to Madam Hanscum to be able to hear the whisperer trying to get his attention. When he’d signed up for the Frog Choir, he hadn’t imagined that he would have to be one of the ones actually holding the frogs. But he’d taken his first step inside the Great Hall and Madam Hanscum had come over to him with a bright grin on her round, friendly face, a frog in one hand and a pair of gloves in the other.

“Your brother Gabriel’s got a tarantula, so I hear,” she’d said, beaming and passing him the gloves. “Well, you’ll be used to all manner of strange animals, then! Just put these on and you can take Amphibious Nigellus, he’ll be no trouble.”

And so Castiel, too tongue-tied in the face of her kind authority to refuse, had ended up holding a frog in his hands – as delicately as if the slimy creature were a tower made of Exploding Snap cards, ready to go bang at a moment’s notice. As such, he had absolutely no time to be turning around and chatting to whichever friend it was that wanted his attention. Anna, he thought, though it might have been Jo; it was harder to tell them apart when they were only whispering his name like that.

“Brightly shone the flames that night

And the heat was cruel!

Lo, she put up not a fight

No, she did not duel…”

The person standing right next to him – a little Ravenclaw boy that Castiel didn’t know – elbowed him in the side. Castiel barely kept from calling out as the frog in his hands wobbled, and tilted its head back to give him a cold, emotionless stare. Castiel made the most contrite face he could at it. When the frog looked away again, Castiel turned to look at the Ravenclaw boy very slowly, his eyes narrowed.

Your friend wants you,” the Ravenclaw whispered. Castiel sighed, looking into the middle-distance and barely containing the urge to roll his eyes. It wasn’t this boy’s fault that he’d been presumably forced into passing the message along the row.

I know,” Castiel whispered back out of the side of his mouth, turning to look forward again. “I’m a little busy?” Out of the corner of his eye, saw the Ravenclaw boy look down at the frog in his hands, and nod.

Gotcha,” the boy said. He turned to his other side, and whispered something.

“Stay on beat!” Madam Hanscum called. “And sopranos, I can hear you fudging the runs! Come on, I know you can do this!”

Castiel almost leapt a foot into the air as his frog gave a loud gribbit, in time with all the others. He let out a slow, shaky breath. He hadn’t quite imagined that Frog Choir would get his heart pumping, but here he was all the same. And a moment later, there was the Ravenclaw boy in Castiel’s ear again, bearing a new message.

Anna says, ‘what did Tran say about the fight?’” he whispered excitedly. “You were in a fight? Was it that one I heard about at the Quidditch Match?

Castiel gritted his teeth. The story of the fight seemed to have spread through the school like wildfire, burning up all the actual accurate details in its path; apparently, the fight had taken place between an entire army of Gryffindors and Slytherins, who had turned on each other when the Snitch had been caught – or perhaps it had been a group of rowdy OWL students protesting their homework quantities – or perhaps it had been some first-year nobodies having a personal brawl, though no one seemed especially inclined to believe that last version. People were saying that there was a kid in St. Mungo’s with a missing arm, that someone had punched a goblin, that Professor Tran had been hit by a spell that had permanently turned her nose hair purple…

For all Castiel knew, that last one could be true. She’d been incandescent with rage when she’d broken up the fight, after all. Perhaps it really had been because she’d got hit by a stray jinx.

It hadn’t looked purple at all when Professor Tran had come and found him right before his first Frog Choir rehearsal just half an hour ago, and taken him to her office to discuss the fight. Castiel hadn’t been able to stop staring at her nostrils the entire time he’d been explaining his side of the story, but there hadn’t been so much as a lilac tint. When she’d nodded her head and curtly pronounced her verdict on his punishment for participating in the fight, he’d been almost too fixated on determining her nasal hue to feel relieved.

She said detention,” he whispered curtly, now, and left it at that. The Ravenclaw boy paused for a moment, waiting for more, and then nodded and turned away. Castiel could faintly hear the boy passing the message on. He wondered how many people there were in the row between himself and Anna – and then how many more between Anna and Jo, because inevitably the message would be passed on down to her – and then between Jo and Hannah, because Jo could never stand to see anyone in their friendship group left out, and besides, this had been Hannah’s fight more than it had been anyone else’s in the group.

Just one detention?” came the message back, passed on by the Ravenclaw boy. Under the same circumstances, Castiel would have been irate and terse – but the boy seemed to be quite enjoying himself. He was short, even shorter than Castiel, having to stand on tiptoe to whisper in his ear.

No. Two,” Castiel breathed. The frog shifted its weight in his hands and he gulped. “And we lose ten house points each. Not more, so long as when Anna and Jo and Hannah go and see her, their stories corroborate mine.”

Hither page and stand by me

If thou knowst it telling…sang the upper years.

Croba-what?” hissed the boy. Castiel really did roll his eyes this time, sighing out through his nose.

“Yonder witch there, who is she?

Why now is she spelling?

So long as our stories are all the same,” he hissed back. “About what Gordon did.

The faint mutterings of the message being passed back were heard. Castiel kept his eyes focused on Madam Hanscum, so that he wouldn’t look down at the frog. He didn’t want to think too hard about the fact that he was holding it.

Gribbit,” went the frog loudly, which didn’t help.

Anna says that Jo says, what about Gordon?” the Ravenclaw boy said. “Did he get more points taken away?

Castiel wanted to shrug, to answer without using words in an attempt to bring the conversation to a close, but that would surely disturb his amphibious passenger. Instead, he shook his head.

Don’t know,” he said. “Why would Tran tell me?

As his words were passed back down the row to Anna, Castiel chewed on his lip. There was a large part of him that was glad that the fight had happened – after all, Hannah had been glowing with rebellious triumph for the entire twenty-four hours since... even when there had been complications restoring her stone-encased arm back to normal, and she’d had to stay in the Hospital Wing overnight. Gordon, meanwhile, hadn’t spoken a word to anyone since Madam Hanscum had healed over the effects of the Pimple Jinx in a wave of her wand, and sent him on his way – and as far as Castiel was concerned, that was an excellent state of affairs.

On the other hand, in Castiel’s story to Professor Tran – which he’d told scrupulously honestly – he’d had to admit that the fight had been largely due to Gordon’s incessant teasing... though, true to his word to Hannah, Castiel hadn’t said a word about why Gordon was bullying her. The problem lay in the fact that they were all Gryffindors, and Castiel’s House was losing points no matter if they were taken away from him or from Hannah or from Gordon Walker. Why was Gordon even a Gryffindor? He didn’t seem to be chivalrous or brave in the slightest.

Luckily, the confusion surrounding the details of the fight meant that all the participants were almost certain to avoid major backlash from the older Gryffindors for losing them all those House points – and most of them were too busy trying to get a good look at their Head of House’s nose hair to be angry, anyway. Though that could all be changing, of course, since Jo and Anna were making Castiel air the details of their punishment in front of various members of the Frog Choir. Hopefully, the buzz about the fight would have died down by the time these titbits started making the rounds, and no one would really care anyway.

Anna says that Jo says ‘well done’,” the Ravenclaw boy whispered in Castiel’s ear. Castiel couldn’t help a small smile at that. Turning his head, he leaned forwards just a bit, far enough to see Anna standing three places away down the line. She beamed at him and nodded her head, and Castiel nodded back. Amphibious Nigellus shuffled in his hands and offered up an irritable gribbit.

“Let’s go over that part again!” Madam Hanscum called, picking up her wand and pointing at the phonograph, restarting the song. “Can we please get the diction perfect on that last line? Wendelin was spelling, not smelling.

Gribbit, said the frog, again.

Castiel looked down at it, and thought that perhaps it didn’t look quite as big or menacing as it had when Madam Hanscum had first dropped it into his palms.

Shh,” Castiel whispered to it, and the Ravenclaw boy turned to him.

Yeah?

Castiel frowned at him.

No, I was… telling the frog to ‘shh’,” he said, confused.

Oh, right. I thought you said my name. It’s Ash,” the tiny boy said, grinning. He had chubby cheeks and bright blue eyes, and a smile wide enough to show the gap in his gums where a baby tooth had fallen out near the back - and his hair was a little strange, short at the top but longer at the back. Castiel stared at him for a moment, before smiling politely back.

Castiel,” he replied guardedly. Part of him was expecting some kind of reaction to his name, and was surprised when he didn’t get it. “Castiel Novak,” he added, but Ash only grinned at him again and nodded, and then turned back to face Madam Hanscum. Castiel blinked and turned to look at her too, without really seeing her.

Somehow, he’d assumed that everyone in Ravenclaw knew about the Novaks, about how they were always in Ravenclaw… he’d thought that if he ever actually did speak to a Ravenclaw first year, they’d ask him about why he was in Gryffindor, probably sneeringly. He’d actually prepared his answer, just in case, muttering to himself in the mirror when he brushed his teeth in the mornings. He’d even gone so far as to think up witty retorts to the imagined ensuing insults. And now this Ravenclaw, the first one in his year that he’d properly spoken to, didn’t seem to want to hear them.

Well, this was only one Ravenclaw. His efforts wouldn’t be wasted on the others, who would surely be better prepared to mock him with in-depth knowledge of his personal House drama.

Now that he said that to himself properly in his head, Castiel began to wonder whether perhaps he had overestimated the amount that the Ravenclaw students around him even cared. Somewhere along the line, he’d just assumed that they were all side-eying him, talking about him in their Common Room, making fun of Gabriel and Michael for having a defective younger brother… after all, when his mother had shouted at him in the Entrance Hall, hadn’t she said that everyone had been asking her about him? But… who had done that? Castiel had imagined rows and rows of faceless students and teachers badgering her about her strange, disappointing youngest son… but would anyone at Hogwarts, apart from the Novaks themselves, actually care that much?

Well, even if they didn’t, Castiel thought, what was really important was that certain Novaks really did care. Michael and his mother would never be proud of him so long as he was in Gryffindor – or at least, so long as he seemed like he didn’t actually belong in Ravenclaw.

You know,” Castiel whispered to Ash, as the upper years moved on to the next few lines of the carol. “I was meant to be in Ravenclaw. The Hat made a mistake.

“Wendelin she caused alarm

When she did some magic…

Casting a flame-freezing charm

Dodging death most tragic!”

Ash turned to look at him, his expression full of surprise. “It can do that?” he said, eyes as round as galleons. “I thought it was always right? D’you think it made a mistake when it didn’t put me in Gryffindor, then? I always wanted to be in Gryffindor…

For a moment, Castiel caught himself nodding at that – and then he realised what he was doing, and quickly stopped and shrugged his shoulders.

Ravenclaw’s better,” he said. “You’re lucky.

“Aaaaaaand let’s have you all joining in now, a repeat of those last few lines!” Madam Hanscum said, gesturing to all the students with a big smile on her face. “Before we move on to ‘God Rest Ye Merry Hippogriffs’.” She put down her baton and picked up her wand again, to put the phonograph back to the beginning of the carol. Castiel gave Ash a small smile before turning to face the front, waiting for Madam Hanscum’s cue.

Ravenclaw’s better, he thought to himself. He thought of the Riddling Eagle in front of the Common Room, of the light, airy tower he’d always imagined, of clean lines and innovation and inspiration and creativity and intellect. Yes, Ravenclaw was better than any of the other Houses. He’d known that since before he could remember.

So – so why, when he said it out loud now, did the words suddenly sound… different? As though they were not quite… well, different, anyway?

Gribbit, said Amphibious Nigellus, quietly. He blinked up at Castiel, and Castiel smiled back at him. For a frog, he wasn’t so bad.

“One, two, three, four!” Madam Hanscum said, counting them in, twirling the wooden baton in her hand – only it wasn’t her baton. Castiel grinned and opened his mouth to sing as Madam Hanscum’s spinning wand sprayed a great swathe of yellow sparks all around her, falling to the floor like stars.

*

The days of November glided past on the clear, smooth frosts that arrived each morning. There were fires lit throughout the castle to help keep it warm, burning apple logs and pine cones that smelled spiced and strong. The first snowfall came with December; the weather swirled in over the hills and castle like a queen’s white cloak, painting fractals on windowpanes and turning every outdoor footstep into a satisfying crunch.

The detentions with Professor Tran had been simple enough; Gordon had been there for both of them, along with Kubrick and Creedy, but Castiel, Anna, Jo and Hannah had been able to ignore all three of them completely in the enforced silence of the classroom whilst they copied out paragraphs from their Transfiguration textbook. Castiel, of course, had already read over these pages several times, and had furthered his knowledge in the library besides, so the exercise hadn’t been the practical punishment that Professor Tran had been expecting, not for him – but all the same, it hadn’t been bad.

Castiel’s time in the library, whilst heavily diminished since he started spending more time with Hannah and his other friends, was still a part of his day that he looked forward to. Weekends were his favourite, because he had so much time to simply sit and read quietly. Hannah sometimes came with him. She always brought her own books, rather than reading anything from the library itself; Castiel always tried to sneak glimpses of the titles, but could never quite make them out. Hannah didn’t seem to want to share them, particularly, either, so Castiel didn’t ask. He was grateful for her company, and didn’t want to repay her in nosiness.

One Sunday afternoon, sitting in the library with Hannah opposite, they had an unexpected visitor. They were at a desk towards the back of the library, right next to a high, arched window, lead-lined and latticed, looking out onto the snowy grounds outside. Castiel had long since finished all his homework, and the follow-up reading he’d wanted to do, too, and was now flicking idly through yet another obscure history of Hogwarts. He hadn’t quite given up hope of finding the Door again, not yet, even though it had been months since he’d seen it. Returning to the seventh floor several times hadn’t helped at all; once, Mr Singer had caught him up there, and after being asked gruffly if he was planning on blasting down any more doors, Castiel had been sent firmly but kindly on his way.

“What a surprise,” said a voice from behind Castiel, jerking him and Hannah out of their quiet, literary reverie. “Castiel and Hannah studying up in the library. Don’t you two ever do anything else?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Castiel said, doing his best to sound confident and cryptic. He wasn’t quite sure he’d pulled it off, but Charlie grinned at him all the same.

“I was looking for you, Novak,” she said. “Carroll, could you give us a second?”

Hannah looked to Castiel, who shrugged and shook his head.

“Hannah can hear anything you’ve got to say,” he said. He had no idea what this was about, and honestly he’d prefer to have Hannah by his side if Charlie had some kind of problem with him. Charlie squinted at Hannah for a moment, weighing her up.

“You’re the one who started the fight at the Quidditch match?” she demanded. Hannah paused for a long moment, her expression frozen, and then raised her shoulders.

“What if I am?” she said. Her tone sounded cool, and Castiel thought that perhaps only he would know Hannah well enough to hear the edge of nervousness to it.

“Then we’re good,” Charlie said easily. “I was wondering when you were going to give that bully a lesson in jinxing. I was going to do it if you didn’t, soon. But nobody would ever have been able to trace it back to me.” She grinned at Hannah, who blinked owlishly at her, taken aback. Castiel knew how Hannah felt. Charlie, apparently, was always full of surprises. She turned her bright eyes back to him, and narrowed them, that same speculative look on her face.

“Look, Novak, I know it was a one-time favour, before,” she said. “But that thing you did with the door? I’ve got a friend who needs to get a certain place, and he’s willing to pay.”

Castiel stared at her.

“I – I don’t need money,” he said, which was the first thing that came to mind. Charlie snorted.

“Alright, Mister Moneybags. But there must be something you want. My friend really needs to get through this door, Novak. You could ask for something big here.”

Castiel could only gape at her. Something big? Like what, a Hippogriff? Castiel wanted for nothing – nothing that he could ask for from a stranger, anyway. He wanted information about the Door, but he didn’t want rumours about that starting to circulate, or else the seventh floor would suddenly find itself packed with eager first years. He wanted to be in Ravenclaw, but that was hardly within the powers of some student who apparently didn’t even know Alohomora. What, then?

Charlie looked at him processing, and rolled her eyes.

“You really don’t have any experience negotiating, do you, Novak?” she said, smiling at him. She had her hands on her hips, now, looking down at him with benevolent pity as though she were his kindly great-aunt, not an eleven-year-old student with a seeming bint for dealing in trades and trouble.

Castiel looked over at Hannah, who raised one shoulder, communicating with her expressions rather than with words. Might be fun, Castiel interpreted. Then she tilted her head to one side, narrowing her eyes. Might also be extremely not fun.

“Who is this for?” Castiel asked. Perhaps if he knew who he was dealing with, it would clear up this strangeness. Who was Charlie in the same House as – Bela Talbot, Gordon’s friend Kubrick? His knowledge of the first-year Slytherins was still pretty limited, but based on what he did know, he wasn’t exactly keen to make a better acquaintance.

Charlie shrugged. “A Ravenclaw,” she said. “But don’t be put off by that. I know you’ve got Ravenclaw issues, Novak.” Castiel gritted his teeth. Anna and Jo, again, no doubt. Still, he couldn’t deny it was true. “His name’s Ash. He wants to get into the Potions classroom… tonight. Says there’s something weird about the door, and he needs an expert.”

“I’m not… wait, did you say Ash?” Castiel demanded. “I know him, I met him in Frog Choir. He’s…” Castiel struggled for a way to describe his surprise that little Ash wanted to do something against the rules. “Small.”

“We’re all small, Novak,” said Charlie. “Let’s not waste time underestimating ourselves, when we could be busy making use of the fact that everyone else is underestimating us too.” She grinned at him challengingly, her red hair brushing over her shoulders. It had grown since Castiel had helped her into that abandoned classroom in October, but the persuasive lengths she was willing to go to were just the same as before. Castiel gave Hannah one final look, and she shrugged. Your decision.

“I’ll do it,” Castiel said. “No promises it’ll work, though. I’m not actually an expert, I just read.”

“Great,” Charlie said, her eyes sparkling. “Are you even asking for a fee, or…?”

“Yes,” Castiel said, without the faintest idea what he was going to ask for. “Yes. If I manage to get him in, then, um… tell Ash… tell him that I want – want him to owe me a favour. And I’ll call it in one day. And if he doesn’t do what I ask… I’ll… I’ll make him regret it.”

Charlie’s expression, which had started off dubious, ended up looking vaguely impressed.

“That’s what we in the business call a blank check,” she said, nodding. “I’ll ask him if he’ll go for it. I think he will.”

“How can you be sure?” said Hannah, speaking up for the first time in a while, now that Castiel’s decision was made. Charlie smirked at her.

“Because it’s in my interests for it to work out,” she said matter-of-factly. “When people come to me to get their problems solved, people start owing me favours, too. And I find out all kinds of things that no one else knows… I kinda like that. You let me know if you ever need anything, Carroll.”

Hannah looked equal parts confused and amused, but she shrugged and nodded.

“Maybe I will,” she said, and Charlie’s eyes twinkled as she looked back to Castiel.

“If you don’t hear from me, assume it’s on,” she said. “Be in the Entrance Hall at half-past six, while everyone’s at dinner. Ash’ll meet you there.”

“Got it,” Castiel said, whilst thinking hard. I find out all kinds of things that no one else knows, she’d said…

“Well, I’ll leave you two to –”

“Charlie,” Castiel said suddenly, letting himself be carried by his impulse. “Charlie, have you heard anything at all about a room that isn’t always there?”

Charlie paused, staring at him. For a moment, she looked at him as though he’d gone mad – but then her eyes narrowed, assessing him.

“Well, we are in a magical castle, Novak,” she said. “I think there’s probably one or two of those floating around the place. Can you be more specific?”

Castiel frowned, thought for a moment, and then shook his head. If Charlie didn’t immediately think of the room on the seventh floor, and the Door inside it, then she didn’t know about it. It wasn’t the kind of thing you forgot.

“Just something I heard about,” he improvised, lifting one shoulder and letting it fall. “It doesn’t matter. I didn’t think there was anything in it.” Hannah was staring at him quizzically, he could feel her gaze; he tried to be nonchalant about avoiding meeting her eye. She’d see right through him if he looked at her.

“Who’d you hear it from?” Charlie asked inquisitively. “I could ask them a few questions.”

“Um… Kubrick and Creedy,” Castiel improvised; as hoped for, Charlie snorted and rolled her eyes, all curiosity forgotten.

“Those morons,” she said. “I’d’ve thought you’d know better than to listen to anything they say, Novak. They probably take three attempts to find the way out of their pyjamas. Losing a room sounds exactly like something they’d do.”

“In the fight, they were pretty terrible,” Hannah agreed, a small smile on her face. “Creedy kept hitting into Gordon all the time and throwing his aim off, which was lucky.”

“He’s like a human Bludger,” Charlie agreed. “I think he gets places by just bouncing off the walls until he happens to turn up.”

“What does that make Gordon, the Beater’s bat?” Castiel said, smiling. Hannah laughed.

“Yes,” she said. “And Kubrick’s the other Bludger.”

“And that makes you two…” Charlie said, looking between them.

“Snitches, I guess,” Hannah said. “Since we told on Gordon to Professor Tran.”

Castiel blinked at her. He hadn’t realised that she felt even slightly bad about that. He certainly didn’t; Gordon had got everything that was coming to him. The way he was acting these days – isolating himself, not talking much – had improved the lives of the people around him radically, as far as Castiel could see.

Charlie shrugged.

“I would’ve told on him the second he laid a finger on me,” she said. “You held out pretty well, Carroll.”

Hannah offered her a half-smile and a nod, her thin fingers fidgeting with the pages of her book. Charlie cleared her throat.

“Anyway, like I was saying. I’ll leave you two to get on with studying. Six-thirty, Novak, don’t be late unless I send word that it’s off.”

Castiel nodded, raising a hand as she began to head back out of the library.

“Bye, Charlie,” he said, at the same time as Hannah said exactly the same thing. Charlie turned to grin at them, still walking away.

“Peace out, Snitches,” she said, and disappeared amongst the shelves.

Castiel turned back to face Hannah, who was watching after Charlie with a thoughtful expression.

“Well, that was new,” he said, and she nodded.

*

Castiel was in the Entrance Hall at half-past six, as promised. Hannah had left him at the bottom of the stairs, heading into the Great Hall with a smile and a murmured promise to sneak some dinner out for him in a napkin. Castiel’s stomach had rumbled its thanks in response.

And now he waited.

The sounds of happy eating coming from the Great Hall weren’t helping him to be patient. He stared around the empty Entrance Hall, catching sight of the House point hourglasses to one side. It wasn’t completely clear from this distance, but it looked as though Gryffindor were losing. That was to be expected, Castiel thought, after the House points they’d lost in the fight. Even still, he couldn’t help the sinking feeling in his stomach.

Ravenclaw were in the lead, of course.

“Hey – Castiel!”

A hiss across the Entrance Hall dragged Castiel’s attention away from the hourglasses. Standing at the entrance to the dungeons stood a tiny figure, waving him over excitedly. Castiel recognised Ash, noticing again how odd his hair was – long at the back, but sort of spiky and short at the front. It really did look very strange.

Castiel hurried over to meet him, keeping his eyes peeled for any teachers – but the place was deserted, with everyone else busy tucking into their dinner in the Great Hall. As he followed Ash, descending into the gloom of the dungeons, Castiel couldn’t help wishing that he were with them. He took a moment to wonder, as he headed down and down and down the flights of stairs, how many other students were using tonight’s meal as a time to go about the murkier side of their business. How many students in the history of Hogwarts had walked down these same stairs, wishing that they were up in the feast above.

“Okay, so here’s the thing. See, I’m learning pretty fast about the spells to unlock things,” Ash was saying, skipping down the stairs. “It’s not that I don’t know Alohomora or something like that, that’s not why I need you.”

Interesting, thought Castiel. And also worrying. His knowledge of how to unlock doors pretty much started and ended with the contents of the Standard Book of Spells, Chapter Seven. Why had Charlie thought that he could help, when all he’d ever done for her was show her the exact spell that Ash said he already knew?

It looked as though this was going to be a wasted venture. If Castiel hurried, he’d still be able to make it to the first course of dinner.

“Look,” he said, “I don’t want to pretend to be better than I am. Alohomora’s about as much as I know, so I don’t think I’m going to be able to help you…”

“You know anything about runes?” Ash demanded, interrupting. Castiel paused for a moment, taken aback.

“Well… yes,” he said. He’d picked up a few runic texts over the past few months, curious to see if any of the runes inside them would trigger a memory of what had been written on the Door. In doing so, he’d picked up a few things, just out of curiosity – and in the hope that he’d find them useful later. “Not much. A few things.”

“Better than no things, which is what I know,” Ash said. “Don’t even know where to start looking for this stuff.”

“I’ve found the library to be useful,” Castiel said, the comment coming out more sarcastically than he’d intended. Ash turned around to look at him, blue eyes narrowed. Castiel had a sudden sense of his intelligence, of a need to treat Ash with more respect.

“I’ve got things to do,” Ash said simply, leaving Castiel to wonder exactly what things were keeping him busy. They sounded intriguingly mysterious. “But Charlie said that Jo said that Hannah said that you read books about runes sometimes, so I thought – perfect.”

How did these things filter across the school like that? One second Castiel was in the library flicking through the pages of an Ancient Rune textbook, and the next he was... ‘The Guy Who Opens Doors’, trying to break into the dungeons using his runic knowledge – and for reasons unknown.

He really needed a catchier title than The Guy Who Opens Doors, if this was going to become a regular thing. But how many first years could possibly need doors to be opened against the rules? This was supposed to be a school, not a hive of budding criminals. The quota of regular rulebreakers in first year already seemed to be being more than met by Charlie, by Ash, and by Castiel himself. If any more appeared, Castiel thought that the teachers might start calling up the Misuse of Magic Office rather than putting them all in another detention.

“Aren’t we…” Castiel said aloud, as they reached the dungeon where they normally had Potions with Professor Crowley, pointing vaguely at the door. Ash looked back at him, and then grimaced and shook his head.

“No way we’re getting in there,” he said. “That thing has, like, eight hundred spells on it. Advanced stuff. It’s because the Potions cupboard is in there, I guess. They don’t want us making potions without teachers there. Which is a shame, because I could blow a lot more things up if Crowley wasn’t watching me all the time.” He grinned, and Castiel tried to look as though he were nodding along wisely. He had a feeling that if he ever tried to make something blow up in Potions, it would either wipe out the castle or else emit a small fizzle. His low marks in Potions continued to irk him.

Ash, meanwhile was walking on down the gloomy hallway. “C’mon, we’re going down here.”

He led Castiel onwards, past barred doors and cobwebs and flickering lights, until finally they reached what Ash was apparently looking for – a door that seemed exactly like all the others. It stood at the furthest end of the dungeon corridor, the light barely reaching this far.

“I asked Professor Crowley what was down here one time, after Potions,” Ash said.

“What did he say?”

“He said to mind my own business, and get my hair cut like a normal person.”

“Oh,” said Castiel.

“But after that, he said that it was only disused classrooms that no one ever went into.” Ash wiggled his eyebrows at Castiel, who shrugged his shoulders, not understanding the big deal. “No one ever goes into them,” Ash repeated more slowly. “Do you know how few places like that there are in this castle? If I can get into here, I can set up shop. I can’t keep practising Potions in my free time in my dormitory, someone’s going to complain to Professor Novak if I mess up and leave the whole place smelling like burnt seaweed again.”

“And you want to practise Potions in your free time because…?” Castiel said. As hard as he was working to improve in class, he couldn’t imagine wanting to stand behind a cauldron for a second longer than he had to.

“Because I want to experiment!” Ash said excitedly. “Look, how do you know that the things it says to do in your Potions textbook are right?”

“Because…” Castiel said, frowning. “Because. They wrote down the best way to do it. If there was a better way, they would have written that down instead.”

“Yeah, but what if they didn’t know about it? What if they just didn’t try? There’s so many ingredients and methods, and some of them – no one’s even tried some of them! Can you imagine discovering a new potion – you’re just stirring, and then boom, there it is – you feed it to your frog, and next thing you know, it’s – it’s a giraffe!” Ash’s face was glowing with enthusiasm, even in the gloom of the corridor where they were standing.

Castiel considered for a moment.

“What if the frog liked being a frog?” he said.

Ash frowned at him, not angrily – more as though he was genuinely taken aback by the question. Castiel opened his mouth to say something more, and then shut it. He couldn’t imagine Amphibious Nigellus would be especially pleased to suddenly find himself with several feet more neck and leg, in a tiny dungeon.

“I – I don’t know,” Ash said. “And I guess there’s no way to be sure that the potion would even turn the frog into a giraffe. What if it turned it into a – a tiger? Or a dragon?” Ash seemed somewhere caught between concern and excitement at the idea.

“Or a dead frog,” said Castiel, which wiped the smile off Ash’s face.

He went silent for a few seconds.

“I won’t test the potions on frogs,” he promised, after a moment’s thought. “Not until I know they’re not poisonous and stuff. I was talking to this guy in the sixth year – well, I was listening in on his conversation – OK, I read his private notes, whatever… and he had this whole thing he was writing about how you can test a potion’s… com… complacent parts to see if it’ll kill you.”

“Component,” Castiel corrected. “Component parts.”

“Yeah, those,” Ash said, nodding sagely. “So I could check it won’t kill the frog, and then give it to the frog. That’s genius.” In the gloomy, flickering light of the dungeons, Castiel could see the enthusiasm on Ash’s face, his drive. It surprised him in a way that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Ash seemed to love Potions, really love it, beyond the point of wanting to succeed in class… he wanted to try new things, and break the rules, and experiment. Castiel had never even thought of diverging from the textbook, until now.

Well, except insofar as he’d already broken away pretty spectacularly from the Novak textbook, a small voice in his head whispered. But that was different. Castiel had stumbled into that accidental rebellion. Ash, meanwhile, had a real conscious determination to break out of the mould.

“So, can you help me with this door, or what?” Ash said, bringing them back to the matter at hand. “They’ll be finished with dinner soon, we’ve got to hurry.”

Castiel squared his shoulders and gave the door a long, hard look. It seemed relatively simple, made of dark, polished wood, with no distinguishing marks easily visible in the flickering candlelight. With a brief glance at Ash, Castiel hesitantly stuck out his hand, reached for the doorknob, and wrapped his small fingers around the cold metal handle.

It burned colder against his skin than it should have done, even in the chilly, gloomy dungeon. Castiel shuddered, and as he did so, he noticed something that he hadn’t seen before; there on the door, carved into the dark wood, was a large circle with strange, thin slashes on it. Within the circle was another, smaller one, and then another, and another, perfectly concentric rings that grew smaller and smaller, all with the same unusual markings on them - until at the centre there was a perfectly-round disc, with just two thin slashes on it, running from edge to edge, bisecting the circle. Castiel reached up his hand, and touched the carvings: they seemed utterly random.

“So… can you solve it?” said Ash, watching him closely. “The runes?”

Castiel glanced at him, and then back to the door. He shook his head.

“It’s not runes,” he said. “I’m sorry, it’s – it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before.”

Ash let out a long sigh.

“I knew it wouldn’t be as easy as just getting you to help,” he said. “Charlie was all ‘he’s a genius!’, but I should’ve known.”

Castiel looked over at him sharply.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he demanded. Ash looked taken aback by Castiel’s tone, his eyes widening slightly.

“Huh? Oh, nothing, it’s just –”

“Is it because I’m not a Ravenclaw? Is that why you should’ve known?”

“What?” Ash said. A little voice somewhere in Castiel’s head registered the fact that Ash sounded genuinely confused, but it was being drowned out by the alarm bells that were ringing angrily inside his head. “No, wait –”

“I can do this,” Castiel said fiercely, turning back to the door. “I’m going to do this.”

“Castiel, I didn’t –”

“I need quiet,” Castiel snapped, doing his best impression of his mother’s anger, purely by instinct. It seemed to work; Ash subsided into quiet at once, cowed.

Castiel felt guilt rising up in his chest, but he pushed it down and away. If he was going to prove himself, he needed to focus.

He raised his hands to the door and pressed his fingertips against the wood. It felt smooth against his skin, a little rough graininess around where the etchings were carved in. The circular lines that separated the circles from each other were deeper than the scratches, Castiel noticed, his awareness of Ash and the dungeon around him fading away as he sank into the problem. Why was that? They seemed to go back quite far. It almost looked as though…

Castiel pushed harder against the outermost circle. Smoothly and silently, it turned clockwise.

“Wow!” Ash said, coming closer. “It moves? Do you think you could… does it…”

He subsided into silence, chewing on his lower lip. Castiel, who hadn’t taken his eyes off the door and its puzzle, squinted at it and tilted his head.

“That scratch,” he said, reaching up and touching it. “And that one – both of them together – they’re at the same, um… they point the same way as these ones down here on the circle next to it.” Castiel slid the big circle round so that the lines matched up, the angles matching perfectly. Castiel blinked, looking at the door with new eyes.

“We’ve got to make it all match up,” he said. “That’s all it is! Look, start with the disc in the middle, because…” he pushed on it, confirming his theory. “It doesn’t move, so it must already be facing the right way. Look, this line on the one next to it matches up…”

Moving swiftly now that he’d understood, Castiel began to flick the wooden circles into place. He could feel a buzz of excitement in his mind, and he started to grin as a picture slowly began to emerge out of the mess of dark carved lines. It was working, it was working!

“Wow – wow!” Ash said, as Castiel rotated the last two circles into place. “Whoa – hey!”

As the last lines fell into place, the whole image lit up through the cracks with a definitely magical brilliance. Castiel took a step back, finally seeing the whole picture instead of just the details, the lines that needed to dovetail; on the door, glowing orange and bright and rippling like fire, was the outline of a salamander, stylised and strange.

“Six,” Castiel said under his breath. He saw Ash turn his head, and said it again, louder. “Six. The salamander, when it’s drawn like this, is the runic number six.”

“So it was something to do with runes,” Ash said. “I was kind of right.”

He was still keeping his distance from Castiel, a wariness in his body language that hadn’t been there before. Castiel saw it out the corner of his eye, even though he was still watching the door, and swallowed hard. He wanted to say nothing, and just pretend it had never happened – but there was something inside him that simply wouldn’t allow it.

“Ash, I’m – sorry,” he said shamefacedly, keeping his eyes on the door and its glowing picture. “I, um. I shouldn’t have assumed… or snapped at you…”

“It’s OK,” Ash said. “I remember what you said, in Frog Choir. It can’t have been easy, being put in a different House to the one that you wanted.”

Castiel felt a little pressure land on his shoulder, and turned his head to see Ash with his hand up, patting him gently. He felt another little twist of guilt. Ash seemed nice, and kind. And he was giving Castiel pity, which was the last thing that Castiel wanted, but he appreciated the thought behind it, all the same. It was better than Ash not caring at all.

“It’s not so bad,” Castiel said. “Gryffindor’s… alright.”

“I’ll say,” Ash said. “D’you get to hang out with Jo much? She is so pretty.”

Castiel blinked.

“Um, yes,” he said. “We hang out a lot. She is pretty.”

He was repeating the words exactly, and wasn’t quite sure why they didn’t seem to mean the same thing to him as they meant to Ash.

“Well, look,” Ash said, gesturing towards the door. “You unlocked it. Do you want to open it?”

“Me?” Castiel said. After Gabriel had put a slime trap over his bedroom door to catch his little brother breaking in when he was eight, Castiel had learned his lesson about walking into places where he wasn’t supposed to be.

And that lesson was: be prepared for anything, including having to take a very long shower.

“OK,” Castiel said, stepping forwards and taking hold of the door handle once more. This time, it felt warm and welcoming under his palm. He gripped it more firmly. “Ready?” he said to Ash, who had his wand out. Ash frowned and nodded, wand raised aloft to point over Castiel’s head.

“On three,” he said. “One – two –”

“Go!” Castiel said, and twisted the handle hard to the right, throwing his shoulder against the door at the same time. With a great scream of a creak, the door’s maw opened; Castiel tumbled inside the darkened room beyond, his mouth open in a gasp as he looked up to see…

Nothing much. The room was filled with stacked-up cauldrons, dimly-lit by the flickering candles outside.

“Well,” Castiel said, looking around, feeling a little embarrassed for having entered in quite such a dramatic fashion. The place smelled of dust and rust and a vaguely unpleasant blend of old potions ingredients.

“It’s perfect,” Ash whispered, and even in the gloom of the room, Castiel could see the way his eyes were sparkling. “It’s perfect. Castiel,” he said, turning to look at him, “you’re a genius. And I owe you that favour someday, OK? It’s a deal.”

He held out his hand, short little fingers and a fat tiny thumb. Castiel could barely see it in the dark, but he took it all the same, and shook it.

“Better run,” Ash said. “The feast must be over. Crowley might come down to his office…”

They pelted helter-skelter out of the room, slamming the door behind them. Castiel whirled the circles into a random pattern – they could only hope that Crowley didn’t always leave it in a particular way when he locked the room – and then they both made for the stairs.

Giggling without even being sure why, they ran up the steps, feeling their breath come a little sharp in their chests by the time they made it to the top and back into the Entrance Hall.

“Act natural,” Ash cautioned, as Castiel was about to go rushing out into the Hall without pausing to catch his breath. For a few moments, they leant against the wall of the staircase, grinning at each other and regaining their composure.

“I’m going back to my common room,” Ash said. “You?”

“Same,” Castiel said, and then, with the giddiness of triumph washing over him, he shook his head. “Actually… somewhere else first.”

Ash squinted at his cryptic statement, but when Castiel was not forthcoming, he allowed the secret to stay buried without complaint. When they were both a little calmer and more collected, they made their way across the Entrance Hall, and parted at the top of the first staircase with a grin from Castiel, and a knowing nod from Ash.

Castiel ran down a few corridors before reaching the Grand Staircase, swinging around corners and trying to take the steps two at a time – no mean feat for someone with such small feet. His stride wasn’t big, but his determination made up for it, and before too long he was standing, again, in the place where he’d expended so much frustration over the past months: in front of that blank piece of wall opposite the tapestry of the trolls.

Hands on his knees, he waited to get his breath back. Even though he was skinny, Castiel was not especially athletic, since Naomi had never particularly encouraged sporting activities. That had been changing, recently, with daily voyages up and down the stairs to the Gryffindor Tower and to classes, but even still, he was worn out by running so fast and so far.

But he had to be here, he just had to. If he couldn’t find that room behind this wall again, right here, right now, tonight, with the elation of his victory still rolling over him, then he would never find it again at all.

Straightening up, Castiel walked up to the blank wall, and ran his hands over the rough brick surface. He pressed his ear against it, as though he might be able to hear some strange whirring or tapping or talking that might let him know that he wasn’t chasing down a phantom. He heard nothing.

Pushing back from the wall, Castiel stared at it with his arms hanging down by his sides for a few moments. It had to be tonight. He pushed his hand through his hair, leaving it standing up on end. If he could just figure it out, like he had done with the salamander…

He began to pace up and down in front of the wall, trying to think. There had to be some way to get the door to come back, to see that room again that existed beyond it. If he could only work out this puzzle, if he could only get back inside… up the corridor, and back down. And then back up once more…

When Castiel turned around, ready to stride back down the hallway, there it was.

Quiet, normal, and innocent-looking, as though it had been there all along. The door he’d been trying to summon.

Suddenly short of breath, Castiel took a few hesitant steps forward. He reached out a hand, grabbed hold of the handle – and pushed.

There, beyond, was the room that Castiel recognised. At the end of it, there it was – the Door. Just as big as before, with the same runic design. Castiel let out a long, long sigh of relief.

He’d done it.

He was back.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Deeeeeeeeeeeaaaan!”

The sound of a shrill voice echoed through the near-empty Great Hall, causing Dean to look up from where he was still eating. Garth was barrelling towards him and skidded to a stop in front of the very end of the Hufflepuff table where he was seated.

“What’s up?” Dean asked, nibbling off the last of the meat from his chicken leg.

Garth took a few moments to catch his breath before he tugged on Dean’s arm. “No time - snowball fight - losing - Gryffindors! C’mon!”

Dean made a noise of protest as Garth attempted to drag him away from the food. “But I’m not done yet!”

“Everyone’s been done for ages, Dean. You can eat again at dinner! Come ooooon!” Garth grunted as he tugged on his arm again and Dean finally relented, but not before grabbing a baked potato to eat on the run to wherever they were headed.

Dean was dragged out into the front courtyard, where the snow had been piling high for the past few days. There had been a good amount of snowfall that someone in the school had been magically sculpting into various things around the grounds for the past few days, so when Dean walked out to see a wall of sparkling snow that was twice as tall as him, he wasn’t as surprised as he could have been.

Looking down, he could see it end at the other side of the courtyard and turn left, creating what seemed to be a very large square with just a single opening in his line of vision.

“Garth, what is this?” he asked as Garth ran in front, leading him towards the opening.

“It’s a giant snow maze!” Garth yelled back.

Dean gaped as they ran down the first pathway, making a sharp left at the next turn. “Who made it?”

Garth shrugged and bent down to scoop up a handful of snow as he ran, making Dean a little nervous. “We don’t know! I think it was Singer, but Charlie thinks it was the Headmaster.”

“Headmaster? Why would he -”

“Duck!” Dean stared at Garth in bewilderment for only a moment before seeing the look on his face and holding his arms out to catch him as he dropped to the ground. He glanced up and saw Garth hurl the snow he’d packed at a girl in a blue scarf that had been about to pelt him with snowballs of her own. The girl made a distressed noise and fell to the ground.

Dean scrambled up onto his feet again and began running behind Garth, this time with a little bit of adrenaline in his system, beginning to realize what was going on.

“Where are we going?” Dean yelled as he scooped up a handful of snow and compacted it into a ball.

“We’ve got a base up ahead with some Slytherins! They all sent me to go get you while they plan our next attack.” Garth suddenly dropped to the ground and disappeared beneath the wall of snow, only to poke his head out of a small opening in the base of the wall and gesture for Dean to follow.

Dean wasn’t as claustrophobic as he should have been, crawling through the tunnel of snow. Seeing as it was about the same size as the barrel entrance into the Hufflepuff common room, he’d had a few months to get used to the feeling of being in an enclosed space such as this and had no problem crawling through to the other side. His ungloved hands burned against the packed snow on the ground. When he finally made it out, he found himself in what seemed to be a small room, with four walls of white snow surrounding a huddle of about ten first and second-year students wearing both green and yellow scarves for warmth. While above them was still open to the falling snow, it seemed the only other way in was through the small tunnel.

“Dean!”

A girl with bright red hair came bounding towards him with a smile plastered on her face. It was Charlie Bradbury, her cheeks pink with cold and excitement. “Nice! Garth got you! Okay here’s the deal. We’ve found the GryffinClaw’s base and it’s not nearly as protected as ours.”

With a quick glance, Dean saw that a majority of his roommates had been roped into this snowball fight, and a part of him was almost regretting not finishing lunch sooner so as to get involved in the beginning of what looked to be an incredibly fun winter’s day.

Almost.

Philippe walked up with an armful of snowballs and astonishingly white hair to match the color of the snow around them. “Bela and Bartholomew said to make these. Is it enough?”

Charlie eagerly rubbed her hands together and nodded. “Perfect. Now we’re going to do some sneak attacks. Run up to their base, pelt ‘em with the snowballs, then run back. Don’t wait around long enough for them to throw stuff at you, okay?”

Dean nodded and bounced on his toes a little, eager to get going.

“One more thing,” Charlie smiled mischievously and glanced at the other snowballs that were still being created. “So far we haven’t been able to get them to fall for it, what with the Ravenclaws being on the team and all, but if you can get any of them to follow you back, we’ll be waiting around the corner next to the tunnel ready to shower them in some good ol’ SlytherPuff snowfall.”

“Novak is there, you know,” Philippe murmured nonchalantly, shifting the snowballs in his arms.

Dean saluted her and smirked at the idea of Castiel being hit with dozens of balls of snow.

It was a very pleasant thought.

Charlie grinned and motioned to a few of her fellow teammates. Dean and Charlie hadn’t had much of a chance to interact outside of class after the train ride to Hogwarts, but he liked what he could tell about her.

“Aye, aye, captain. I’ll do what I can.”

“Perfect. I’ll get Bart to charm the snowballs through the tunnel and you, Philippe, and….” Charlie scanned her eyes over the rest of the students before clicking her tongue. “Ruby!”

Ruby perked up at the sound of her name and walked over to their small circle. “What’s up?”

Charlie clapped her on the back. “You’re going to help Dean and Philippe cream the other team. Ready for a sneak attack?”

Ruby looked less than enthusiastic.

“But I wanted to stay and help plot with you and Bela and the other Slytherins.

In all honesty, Dean felt bad for Ruby, but he was also getting gradually more annoyed with the way she was acting.

Ruby went out of her way to let her fellow Housemates know that Hufflepuff was not the House that she was supposed to be in and that the Sorting hat had made a mistake. During mealtimes Dean would always see her at the Slytherin table, and she always sat with the Slytherins during classes whenever she could.

It was sad that she hated the House that he loved so much.

“They’ll still be here when we get back, Ruby.” Dean muttered, kicking at the snow.

Ruby stomped her foot against the ground and shook her head angrily. “No! I’m staying here with Charlie and Bela.”

Dean looked over at Charlie, who just shrugged her shoulders and sighed. “Fine. You two can probably do this on your own anyway.”

Dean gave her a nod while Philippe dropped all of the snowballs and the two of them headed out towards the tunnel. If Ruby didn't want to go on this secret mission, it was her loss. Once they’d crawled back out to the other side of the tunnel, the snowballs floated out after them, presumably charmed by Bartholomew.

“Alright,” Dean turned to Philippe as the two of them started to gather up the delicately made snowballs. “Do you know where we’re going?’

Philippe nodded and started back down into the maze, a part that Dean hadn’t been to yet.

“So what are we looking for? What’s their base?” Dean asked, probably just a little bit too loudly for the stealth that was required for this mission.

Philippe shushed him with a look and tiptoed to the next corner, looking down it before jerking his head in that direction. The maze was eerily quiet. Dean held his breath for a moment, listening for the sounds of Gryffindors and Ravenclaws sneaking around with snowballs of their own.

“They’ve got a pretty big wall in the center of the maze, but there’s a way around it. We’ll just be really quiet and throw the snowballs and then run like hell,” Philippe said.

The plan didn’t have a lot of finesse, but Dean was all for it.

“Aren’t you cold?” Dean whispered, noting Philippe's lack of winter clothing, but the other boy just shook his head.

“Why not?”

Philippe sighed and turned back to look at Dean, his very pink ears slowly turning into furry cat ones.

“Oh... right.”

The two snuck further into the maze until Dean could hear voices coming from not too far away. Luckily, it didn’t seem like the bases were too far apart, but for some reason the maze seemed to be a lot bigger once you got inside it. Maybe there was something magical going on there, Dean thought.

“Is that it?” Dean peered around the next corner and saw a group of kids with blue and red scarves huddled outside of a fairly expansive wall of snow. But what were they doing in front of the wall?

Philippe nodded.

Dean licked his lips as he looked at the Ravenclaw and Gryffindors in their circle. “It’s probably a trap,” he murmured. His heart was beginning to beat a little faster.

“Yeah.”

“Wanna do it anyway?”

“Of course.”

Dean grinned. “Alright. You should probably go around to the other side and then I’ll start throwing some first, and you throw yours when you see it.”

Philippe nodded and doubled back into the maze to go around. At least it seemed like he knew what he was doing.

Dean waited just around a pillar of snow and kept peeking around to get a good look at the enemy. There was about eight of them in all and he was pretty sure he recognized Ash’s mullet. Crap. If Ash was there then there was no doubt that something crafty was happening. The guy was eccentric, but he was crazy smart, too.

Okay. All he had to do was wait a good few minutes for Philippe to -

Was that Castiel?

Dean squinted and studied the boy with the dark hair that had briefly glanced back. It sure seemed like it could be. Man, it would be so great if he could manage to get snow on the ever-pompous Castiel and dampen his attitude a little bit.

The boy turned back again, scanning the entrance and Dean ducked behind the pillar. It was. Castiel was there.

Perfect.  

Dean no longer cared if his teammate had made it to the other side yet; Dean had to get him now, before they all decided to go back behind the wall, Castiel included, where Dean would never be able to hit him.

Dean set his snowballs down, leaving just one in his hand. It was cold and sharp, melting just a little in his freezing hand. He stepped to the side, out into the open, just long enough to make sure he got a good aim - and threw.

The glee that Dean felt at seeing the perfectly aimed snowball was shattered when he was the snowball break apart in the air and fall slowly around the huddled group of students. It was obvious that they had some sort of protection spell surrounding them.

Oh, no.

The group immediately looked back at where the snowball had come from, and there was no hiding from them now.

Dean ducked back to grab some more ammunition, and then stuck his tongue out at Castiel.

“Hey Novak! Bet you couldn’t hit me from outside of that fancy spell!”

He tossed another snowball their way when it seemed like none of the students were going to move away from the magical barrier. It was too far away to make out Castiel’s exact facial expression, but Dean thought he seemed to be a bit agitated. If he could just get Castiel to take the bait...

“C’mon! Try and get me! “ Dean taunted. “I’ll bet you could get me if you were a Ravenclaw! Too bad about that, huh?”

Might work, right? After all, everyone in their year knew by now that Castiel Novak had desperately wanted to be in Ravenclaw just like the rest of his family, and that it was a bit of a sore subject.

“Castiel, no! You’ll ruin the plan!

Dean grinned when he heard the badly-suppressed shout, realizing that maybe he was on the right track.

“I’m right here! Can’t you outsmart me?” Dean tossed one last snowball before he saw a solitary figure with dark hair break away from the group and start running in his direction.

Let the games begin.

Dean whooped as he ran for his life back the way he came. He could hear Castiel gaining on him with every step - Dean hadn’t planned on him being so fast. He glanced behind him and saw the determined face of Castiel Novak pulling forward. Dean reached down and grabbed a handful of snow, not even bothering to pack it into a ball before tossing it in his direction.

Dodging it slowed Castiel down, but not enough to do any damage. Dean skidded round a corner, smashing into a wall, and ran on. He heard Castiel do exactly the same a few moments later, and laughed. There was a long stretch out ahead of him now...

He pumped his legs, but after just a few more seconds, he felt a hand on his shoulder yank him down into the snow.

Winchester,” a voice above him said.

Dean, lying on his back with Castiel standing over him, grinned and did a little wave. Castiel looked singularly unimpressed. “Well, hey there, Novak. You know I didn’t really mean -”

And Dean’s mouth was filled with snow.

With a sweep of Dean’s hands he managed to lock onto Castiel’s ankle - which was, frankly, a miracle, seeing as his face was covered with snow - and pushed, hard. He felt Castiel’s foot slide out from under him on the hard, iced-over snow below them… but as soon as the other boy landed right on top of him, and caused all the air to leave his lungs, Dean regretted his decision instantly.

Wiping away the snow away from his eyes, Dean saw that Castiel’s face was a just a few inches from his own. Taking evasive action, Dean locked his legs around the Gryffindor’s and flipped them over while grabbing another big pile of snow.

He cackled at the look on Castiel’s face - the horror at his impending doom - and let the snow fall, before scrambling back on to his feet and booking it back towards the base.

“Try and catch me now!” he yelled back when he heard Castiel splutter, and get back on his feet.

Dean was tired, wet, and cold, but at least he knew he had back up if he could just reach the next corner. With a loud yell, he ran down the snow-covered pathway, flung himself around the bend and pressed his back against the wall once he turned the corner - to find eleven of his teammates waiting with mounds of snowballs and delighted, expectant grins.

Sliding down the wall to make sure he was out of the line of fire, Dean waited. The sound of footsteps grew louder and louder, and then Castiel rounded the corner…

Dean couldn’t hold back a laugh, watching Castiel skid to a stop in front of his own personal snow firing squad. The Gryffindor boy’s look of confusion turned to one of horror as snowballs began to rain on top of him.

“Get him!” Charlie yelled gleefully.

Castiel crouched for a moment, trying to block the neverending balls of snow, but after just a few seconds he apparently decided he stood no chance here, and only managed to give Dean one last look of loathing before running back the way he came.

Dean grinned and dragged his finger through the snow, creating a tally mark of sorts.

Another point for Dean Winchester.

***

“Are you crying?”

Dean jumped from where he was sitting on his bed and shoved the paper in his pocket.

“No,” he said firmly and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “What are you doing here, Garth?”

“I… live here,” he heard Garth say.

Dean fought back the urge to sniffle again and shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I’m heading out. See you tonight, Garth.”

“Alright, well, if you need any-”

Dean had already shut the door to their dormitory behind him. He blinked back any more tears that were threatening to spill as he passed the large grandfather clock in the common room and headed back out the exit.  It shouldn’t be a big deal. It really shouldn’t. Lots of students stayed home over the Christmas holidays. Okay, well, not lots. A few. But still, it wasn’t going to be as big of a deal as he was making it out to be.

The door to the barrel closed behind him and Dean stood in the middle of the hallway, trying to decide where to go. He could go back to the Door? He hadn’t been making much progress on it and it might prove to be a good distraction. So far all he knew about it was that it was a funky-looking door and it was big. Last week he’d went back to go ask the Sphinx what she knew about it, but she’d all but ignored him and he’d stomped back down the stairs frustrated and annoyed.

Right. So Door it was.

Unfortunately, once he reached the staircase that would normally have sent him up to the seventh floor, he found that it had changed to a different direction - and he wouldn’t be surprised if it stayed there for the next few days.

Grumpily, he trudged back down the stairs to an unknown location and figured exploring the castle a little more wouldn’t hurt, seeing as there was still so much about it he didn’t know.

He stopped two floors down, wandered down the hallway, and began exploring for nothing in particular. There were a few interesting paintings here and there but nothing like the tapestry of the dancing trolls that was on the seventh floor.

Dean wiped his nose on his sleeve one last time and took a deep breath. Crying about this was dumb. His mom would get it all sorted out with his dad soon and he could come back home. Admittedly, she had a point. If he went away over the holidays, his dad might not let him come back to Hogwarts. It hadn’t been easy getting Dean here in the first place, after all. Hopefully, his mom would be able to smooth things over and get him to come around by the end of the school year.

Ahead of Dean along the corridor was a turning into a stairway that seemed to go up very quickly. It was in a shallow doorway and from the looks of it, curved upwards at a steep pace in an extremely tall spiral. Perfect for exploration.

Dean shrugged to no one in particular and gently placed his foot on the first step. When it didn’t give way or crumble or block his passage like some of the other steps that he’d already come across during his time at Hogwarts, he assumed it was safe and headed onwards and upwards.

His original assumption had been right. It was a narrow spiral staircase that probably led to a tower of some sort. The Astronomy tower, maybe? He’d heard that there was a class or two in a tower, but he hadn’t had one yet. Dean was breathing hard by the time the spiral staircase came to an abrupt halt at a single door with a flaming torch next to it to give off a little more light. It wasn’t anything particularly interesting compared to a certain other door that he’d seen, though this one didn’t have any door handle. Instead, it had a bronze-looking eagle for a door knocker.

Why did he keep finding all of these doors?

Dean licked his lips and reached out to touch the front just as the bronze eagle opened his beak.

“What is the size of a dragon but weighs nothing at all?”

After a small gasp of shock and a step backwards down the stairs, Dean chastised himself. He really needed to stop being so surprised every time an inanimate object tried to talk to him at Hogwarts. Honestly, he should be grateful that his silverware didn’t talk to him during meals.

The size of a dragon but weighs nothing at all? What did that mean? Should he back away slowly and forget this door ever existed? Should he even try and make a guess? What if he got it wrong? But what if he got it right? Maybe this door could give him a hint on how to deal with the other door if he solved the puzzle!

Okay. Size of a dragon. What was the size of a dragon? A bus? No, Hogwarts wasn’t going to have a muggle answer be correct. Some other magical animal? Did this door really expect him to know another giant magical animal that weighed nothing?

So. Big things that weighed nothing. Clouds? But they weren’t always the size of a dragon. They shifted all the time. Dean chewed on his lip and scratched his head, noting the movement of his shadow that was created in the torchlight. He paused and waved his hand while staring at the shadow curiously.

Wait.

“Its shadow?” he asked hesitantly, cringing automatically in expectation of something terrible that could happen by guessing wrong.

Correct,” came the soft voice.

The door in front of him swung open to reveal an expansive, airy room, with midnight blue carpeting and bronze silks draped over the windows. Inside, there were a few students that he’d seen around school sitting at desks, poring over books, or taking naps on a few of the couches.

Dean took a hesitant step forward and peered inside, making eye contact with a girl to his left that was sprawled out on the floor with a length of parchment in front of her and a quill in her hair.

“Hey... what is this place?” he asked, his voice just above a whisper.

The girl did a double take, squinting as she inspected him. “The Ravenclaw common room, of course. Are you not a Ravenclaw?”

Dean’s eyes widened as he gulped. “O….kay.”

And so Dean ran as fast as his Hufflepuff legs could carry him, all the way back down the staircase and far from the Ravenclaw tower.

***

The news that a Hufflepuff first year had somehow unknowingly opened the Ravenclaw common room had spread through the school quicker than Dean would have liked. The older students weren’t too impressed and had mainly just rolled their eyes, but to the younger students, it was incredible. What made it especially amazing was apparently the fact that Dean was a Hufflepuff -  but he didn’t see what the huge deal was. Managing to get in wasn’t anything to be proud of? He’d just answered a question.

Unfortunately for Dean, the Ravenclaw girl that he had talked to had recognized him and his name had been drawn into the limelight along with his feat. It wasn’t that people didn’t know non-Ravenclaws could get into the room if they wanted, it was just that most couldn’t or didn’t care to.

Not to mention the added fact that he’d run from it in horror.

By the same time the next day, Jo, Charlie, Ash, and every single one of his roommates had already grilled him on the details (which he’d desperately attempted to downplay).

It had been an accident.

The only highlight of the whole situation was Jo mentioning that Castiel seemed to be in a foul mood about it, and would leave the room whenever it was mentioned.

“Hey, Dean, have you -”

“Yes!” Dean rolled over on his bed to glare at Garth. “I have gone up to the Ravenclaw tower. I have opened the door and I have looked like an idiot because of it. Okay?”

Garth paused. “Uh, actually I was going to ask if you’d gotten the sign up sheet yet? For if you’re staying over the holidays.”

“Oh. Right.”

“You know that no one thinks you’re an idiot, right?” Garth walked over and sat on his own bed, kicking his legs back and forth as they were too small to reach the ground. “You got into the Ravenclaw common room!” Garth’s grin was from ear to ear in pride. “That’s designed specifically for Ravenclaws and somehow you got in!”

Dean opened his mouth and closed it again. He hadn’t thought about it that way; he’d just been so focused on how embarrassed he’d been about not knowing where he was. If he’d stopped to think about it, he’d have realized it was a little clever of him.

“But...other people have done it before, right? Non-Ravenclaws?”

Garth shrugged. “I heard some people talking. It’s mainly just other teachers but it’s not super strange for a different student to guess an answer right. I think you’re really smart, though.”

A tendril of warmth trickled its way up Dean’s chest and he sat up a little straighter on the bed. “Yeah. Okay,” he murmured. “Hey Garth?”

Garth tilted his head. “Yeah, Dean?”

“Sorry if I’ve been mean to you. I didn’t mean to.”

Garth just shrugged. “That’s okay. I just let everything rooooll right off me.” He smiled as he did a wavey motion with one hand.

Dean huffed out a laugh and slid off the bed, ready to head out into the common room and put his name on the list. “Are you going home for Christmas?”

“Nope. I’m gonna stay here with you,” Garth said matter-of-factly, and bounced a little. “Don’t want you to get all sad and mopey without me, you know?”

“I don’t get all-” Dean stopped himself and shook his head, grateful for the weirdo he got to call his roommate. “Thanks, Garth.”

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Castiel sat at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, fuming. He pushed away his dinner, half-eaten.

“Well, you shouldn’t have gone running out there if you didn’t want to get a faceful of snow,” Anna said, for what felt like the hundredth time. Castiel glared at her, but Jo and Hannah both nodded sagely in agreement.

“And so what if Dean got into the Ravenclaw common room. It’s not a big deal,” Anna added.

“Pretty cool, though,” Jo said, earning herself an elbow in the ribs.

It had been days since the Great Snowball Fight, and Castiel’s pride was still severely dented. He couldn’t believe he’d managed to let himself be goaded into leaving the safety of the protective spell, and by Dean Winchester, of all people. Looking back and remembering the moment he’d snapped and ran after Dean made him squeeze his eyes shut with embarrassment. He’d made it so easy, just because Dean had hit him in that weak spot of his – the Ravenclaw problem. People only had to mention it and Castiel still flew off the handle, and when the person doing the mentioning was Dean Winchester, well… in that case, the whole door flew off along with handle, too.

Speaking of doors flying off their hinges… the memory resurfaced of Castiel blasting those doors, back in September. Castiel was much better these days at keeping his emotions in check, at accepting being a Gryffindor. At least, that was superficially true. But underneath, it seemed, the hurt still kept him on ice, emotions slip-sliding.

Around him, Anna, Jo and Hannah started having a lively conversation about the next Quidditch match of the season. Castiel, however, was too lost in thought to join in.

It would never get better, he thought to himself. Deep down, he would always be this way, always be angry, always wish he were somewhere that he could never be.

Oh, Castiel didn’t want that to be the case.

He didn’t… want to be angry all the time. To have a weak point like that, to never be happy where he was.

Castiel blinked down at the table in front of him without really seeing it, trying to get to grips with this brand new thought inside his head.

He didn’t want to always wish he was in Ravenclaw. He didn’t want to be forever railing against something he couldn’t change about himself. He wanted… what he wanted, now, after all these months of frustration, was a respite. He wanted to be happy. He wanted to want to be in Gryffindor.

That wasn’t quite the same as actually wanting to be in Gryffindor, but… it was a step closer, Castiel thought. Hannah nudged him in the side, and Castiel’s eyes refocused. He found himself staring down at some familiar graffiti on the table in front of him: Slytherin suks.

He ran his thumb over the letters he’d first seen on the night he’d arrived at Hogwarts, on the night he’d been sorted into this House. When he compared himself to how angry and naïve he’d been then, Castiel could see how far he’d come. That meant… surely that meant that he could keep moving on, keep feeling better and better about where he was? Surely that meant that he could be happy to be a Gryffindor one day?

If nothing else, Castiel felt like he had something to work towards, now, in his mind. Hannah, apparently unaware of his quiet epiphany, elbowed him in the side again and pushed a piece of parchment into his hands.

“What’s ‘is?” Castiel asked, putting a forkful of savoury chicken pie into his mouth with one hand, and taking the parchment with the other. It seemed to be a list of names, not especially long.

“A list of who’s staying for Christmas,” Hannah said. “Tran said to pass it around apparently. Write your name if you’re not going home.”

For a brief moment, at the sound of the word home, Castiel remembered Christmas at Cloudesley Street with a sudden intense nostalgia. Naomi and his brothers had all stayed at Hogwarts over the festive season for the past couple of years, so he and Muriel, their housekeeper, had put up the tree, cooked the Christmas dinner together, and given each other presents. She’d always been so kind. Castiel wondered if he would get a present from her this year, even though she was still far away back in Cloudesley Street now, keeping the house neat and well-kept. He, meanwhile, would be staying at Hogwarts with his mother and brothers. He took the quill that Hannah was proffering, and wrote down his name.

As he did so, he quickly scanned the names of the other students staying at Hogwarts over Christmas. Ash was there, Castiel noted with a little smile. Most of the others he didn’t know, but –

He felt a little clench of anger in his chest. Written in curling letters, surprisingly neatly, was the name Dean Winchester. Castiel hesitated for a second, and then put quill to paper once more.

“What are you doing?” Hannah asked, and Castiel started guiltily. A big drop of ink blotted over half of the skull and crossbones he’d been doodling next to Dean’s name.

“Nothing,” Castiel said, hastily spreading the puddle of ink with the tip of the quill, so that it covered all of the little drawing before Hannah could see it. He passed on the list to Jo, sitting next to him, who thankfully had been too involved with her conversation with Anna to notice what he’d been up to.

“You’re staying?” Jo said, sounding surprised, picking up the list and running her gaze down the names.

“My family always does,” Castiel said, shrugging.

“Yeah, I remember you saying,” said Jo. “I actually meant Hannah…” She leaned around Castiel to address Hannah directly. “You’re not going home?”

Castiel frowned, leaning over Jo’s shoulder to read the list of names anew. Sure enough, in small, flat letters right above Castiel’s shapely scrawl, was the name Hannah Carroll. Castiel wasn’t sure how he’d missed it.

“You’re staying?” Castiel asked, copying Jo’s question with a frown, turning to look at her. Hannah shifted, looking uncomfortable.

“Yes,” she said. “I – I like it here. I’d rather not… I – I just like it here.”

Castiel opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it again. Hannah hadn’t said a word so far about her family at home, and Castiel didn’t want to push her - even though his curiosity was so strong now that it was a physical sensation in his throat, questions gathered there that begged to be asked. He took another mouthful of chicken pie.

“Well, it’ll be you and Castiel,” Jo said, giving the list to Anna, who immediately passed it on down the table without signing it, either. “I’m going home for Christmas, and so’s Anna.”

“Time for your mom’s famous cooking?” Castiel asked Jo, smiling, to move the attention away from Hannah. Jo nodded, her eyes sparkling.

“It’s going to be so good,” she said. “One year, you guys have got to come home with me for Christmas.”

Given the company that he’d apparently be keeping over the holidays – Hannah and Ash notwithstanding, of course – Castiel was almost tempted to ask whether he could take her up on that offer immediately. But he couldn’t even begin to imagine what his mother would do if Castiel fled the castle with a Gryffindor friend instead of spending Christmas with her and the rest of the family, just because he didn’t want to come into contact with a certain Hufflepuff.

And so, a few days later, Jo and Anna left the school - and the majority of the other students went with them. In each year there were a few who remained; in first year, it was only Castiel, Hannah, Ash, Dean, and Garth who had opted to stay in the castle over the Christmas break.

After opening the dungeon door together and being on the same side of the Great Snowball Fight, Castiel and Ash were on good terms. Castiel didn’t consider them close, but Ash was fun to be around – a little weird, but clever with it.

“We should brew up some Christmas Grog,” he said to Castiel at the breakfast table on the morning of the twenty-third, and so the two of them, along with Hannah, disappeared down to the dungeon room as soon as they were excused. Castiel had no idea how Ash had managed to accumulate so many boxes of assorted ingredients in such a short time, some edible and some strictly for use in poisonous potions – and when asked, Ash only tapped the side of his nose – but it came in useful as the three of them stood around a little crackling cauldron, adding red berries and a sprinkle of cloves and cinnamon sticks to the contents of a bottle of grape juice that Ash said he’d been saving specially.

“Next year, maybe we’ll get hold of some Firewhiskey,” he said, with a grin, as he stirred the mixture. The curling steam smelled delicious, and when they drank it, it was sweet and strong and filling, and left red stains on their chins.

If only actual Potions lessons ended this way, Castiel thought as he took his last swallow, then he would probably work a great deal harder in class.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, an owl brought Castiel an unexpected gift – well, not entirely unexpected, but Castiel hadn’t quite allowed himself to dare to hope. They were sitting at the breakfast table, a shared one between all four Houses, since there were so few students staying over the holidays. Castiel, Hannah and Ash sat together, and the other two first years who’d remained were close by; Dean Winchester was chatting happily with Garth, who was laughing as he chewed on some toast. They looked happy, thought Castiel, watching them. For a brief second, he almost wanted to smile about that.

Then the image of Dean’s face swam before him, his smug smile seen through a blizzard of snowballs. Castiel’s face hardened, and he turned back to talk to Ash and Hannah – but as he did so, there was the call of an owl above him; when Castiel looked up, it hovered for a moment, trying and failing to figure out the best way to land considering its burden. It flopped down onto the table, its parcel clattering over drinks and plates. It was a long, thin parcel, larger at one end, with an envelope attached.

“Castiel – what’s… this…?” Hannah asked, righting her pumpkin juice cup and looking sadly down at the remains of her cooked breakfast, which were now swimming in the sweet orange-coloured juice. Castiel, his heart pounding, tore the letter off the parcel and ripped it open, aware of more than one set of eyes resting on him along the table; he could only hope that the staring hadn’t made it all the way to the end, where the teachers were sat.

Inside the thick parchment envelope was a card, a simple one with balloons on the front. Castiel opened it up, read what was written inside several times over – which took only a few seconds – and then put it down on the table carefully. He could sense Hannah eyeing it up, but she made no move to pick it up. Ash, meanwhile, leant over her and snatched it away before Castiel could even voice an objection.

“Dear Castiel, Happy Birthday, From Dad,” he read out loud, and then lowered the card slowly. “It’s your birthday?”

“You didn’t tell us it was your birthday?” Hannah demanded, when Castiel swallowed awkwardly.

“I would’ve cooked you up something if I’d known!” Ash said. Hannah shushed him quickly, and Ash seemed to remember that his potions endeavours were supposed to be a secret. “Cooked you up a new pair of socks!” He said, even more loudly, to all the people still watching and muttering about the parcel on the table. “Lovely new socks. Because I knit. But I call it cooking, because…”

“Ash,” Hannah said.

“Yup, yup, shutting up,” Ash said. Both of them stared at Castiel, who was fidgeting with his robes, making eye contact with neither of them.

He hadn’t told anyone at all that it was going to be his birthday. Since it was the day before Christmas, it usually got swept under the carpet of the seasonal festivities; this year, however, it seemed that he’d swept it under a flying carpet, which had zoomed off and left his guilty secret exposed. Hannah and Ash were watching him, waiting for him to say something, and he didn’t know what to tell them.

At home, his birthdays had always been… a little awkward, a little lonely. His father was never home, his mother was never home; for a while, Michael and Gabriel had been, but Michael had never paid him any attention, and Gabriel hadn’t known how to make the day special, so he’d just teased Castiel worse than usual.

And yes, Christmases with just Muriel had been good, but his birthday… there was always a part of Castiel that had wished his family would make a little bit of a fuss of him. That wished he could be just a tiny bit special, on this one day of the year.

Here at Hogwarts, he hadn’t wanted any expectations. He’d thought about telling all his friends, of course he had, but… he didn’t think he could have borne the feeling of telling them all and getting excited, only to have them completely ignore it, breeze past it like it was nothing. Instead, he’d decided to keep completely quiet.

“Look, you don’t have to explain,” Hannah said suddenly. Castiel looked up into her eyes, and saw understanding and kindness in them. Ash, behind her, looked only confused, but he nodded, too. “It’s alright.”

“I just don’t like a fuss,” Castiel lied, but it was the most rational thing he could think of to say. “I wouldn’t have told you at all, except…”

Except now, his father had sent him a present.

It wasn’t out of the ordinary – Castiel always got his gift once a year, which was more often than he actually saw the man who’d sent it. Michael and Gabriel got two gifts, but apparently Castiel’s father assumed that one would be enough for him, since Christmas was so close.

“Well, are you going to open your present, then?” Ash said, smiling uncertainly. Castiel blinked at him for a moment, and then caught Hannah’s eye, and grinned back at them. This was the one time in the whole year that he got to feel like his father cared about him. He was going to enjoy it for all he was worth.

He began to tear at the paper, feeling the shape of what lay underneath and feeling his heart skip a beat. It couldn’t be, surely –

Castiel could feel more than one pair of eyes on him as the last of the brown paper came away, and a broom rolled out onto the wooden table. A sleek, dark Nimbus 2001, its handle polished to a shine, its twigs clipped perfectly into shape. For a second, Castiel could only sit in silence – along with the majority of the people sitting at his end of the table – and gaze at it in awe.

It seemed to have its own aura; its dark shine promised future glory.

Hesitantly, as though unsure of its reality, Castiel reached out a hand and brushed the backs of his fingers against the broom’s handle. It felt smooth as satin.

“Castiel,” Hannah said, in a hushed voice. She herself was a good flier, and she knew a decent broom when she saw one. “Your father gave you a broom?”

“My – my father gave me a broom,” Castiel confirmed, barely above a whisper. He could hardly believe it. Had his father actually taken the time to speak to his mother, and figure out what his son would really like? Castiel was getting better and better in his Flying Lessons, and was going to try out for the Quidditch team next year – how could his father have known that, unless he’d decided to put in the effort to find out? It was incredible. Castiel could feel his cheeks flushing with happiness. His father cared about him – and even though he was in Gryffindor, too!

“My father gave me a broom,” Castiel said again, a little more strongly. He gripped the handle in both hands, and lifted the broom off the table. It felt so good to hold, light and balanced. He leaned forwards, and called down the table, towards the middle where people were still eating their breakfast and having normal conversations.

“Gabriel!” he called. His brother’s face popped up above the rest as he got to his feet.

“What?” Gabriel called back. Castiel lifted the broom up above his head and waved it.

“Dad! He gave it to me for my birthday!”

Nothing could have been better than seeing the way that Gabriel’s jaw dropped. As he lowered the broom back to the table, Castiel caught sight of Dean Winchester rolling his eyes – but of course he’d be jealous, Castiel thought to himself with a little spike of triumph.

“It’s the newest Nimbus,” he said to Hannah, who was still round-eyed, and Ash, who was poking at the twigs curiously. “It goes from nought to ninety in ten seconds, I read about it. Professor Mills said in the last Flying Lesson that it was the best broom on the market right now.” He couldn’t keep the pride out of his voice; people were actually standing up to come and have a look at it. Castiel basked in the reflected glow of their admiration for the broom. Waking up this morning, he could never have imagined that he’d be this happy, on today of all days. His father had actually tried…

“It looks great,” said a third-year Hufflepuff that Castiel didn’t know, nodding down at it. Gabriel, who had come down the table too, poked Castiel in the shoulder and grinned at him. He knew what this meant to Castiel.

A second-year Slytherin had her mouth open as she leaned over Dean Winchester to see it better. Castiel met Dean’s exasperated gaze for a moment, saw his scorn, and blinked, looking away. He didn’t want anything to ruin this moment, with a fuss being made of him on his birthday. He didn’t think he’d ever forget –

“Castiel?” said a sharp voice, which Castiel recognised with a slight sinking of his heart. He turned around, the little gathering of students behind him parting to make way for Naomi, imposing in her dark grey robes.

“Um, yes, Professor?” Castiel said, trying not to sound too guilty. He hadn’t done anything wrong, had he? Perhaps his mother had only come to wish him a happy birthday.

“Is that yours?” Naomi said, pointing over his shoulder at the broom. Castiel swallowed.

“Yes,” he said. “It was a birthday gift from Dad. From – from my father, Professor.”

For a moment, Castiel saw Naomi’s face go completely still. He thought she whitened just a little. Then she frowned, and shook her head.

“Brooms are banned for first years,” she said simply, and all of Castiel’s rosy glow vanished, was swallowed up in horror. “I’m going to have to confiscate this, Novak.”

“But –” Castiel began. This couldn’t be happening. Surely – surely his mother had known this was coming, if his father had consulted her about what he’d like? But from the look on her face, she hadn’t known. And that meant –

That meant that Castiel’s father had just picked out the first expensive thing he could think of, and probably had someone else wrap it up and send it off.

He hadn’t even managed to get Castiel something he could keep.

“Rules are rules, Novak,” Naomi said. She stepped forwards and picked the broom up off the table. Castiel couldn’t say anything as he watched it being lifted away; he felt sick to his stomach and icy cold. He felt his mother’s hand on his shoulder, just for a moment, hidden by the swathing sleeves of her robes. She squeezed, just gently.

“Yes, Professor,” Castiel managed to say.

Naomi walked away without another word, taking the broom with her.

The group around Castiel dispersed quickly, now that the magic gift was gone. Castiel felt Hannah’s hand come to rest on his shoulder, but couldn’t look at her. He was only holding back tears by gritting his teeth, his lips trembling with the effort. He gathered his courage and looked up, to see Dean Winchester looking right at him – his face split by a grin, laughing with Garth at Castiel’s humiliation.

“Don’t worry, Castiel,” he said jokingly. “I’m sure your rich dad will figure out something else to spoil you with…”

It was too much. Shaking off Hannah’s grip, Castiel got up from the table and left the Great Hall with as much dignity as he could. The first big tear rolled down his cheek as soon as he reached the quiet safety of the Entrance Hall, and he ran all the way to the library.

And there he sat, and sobbed.

He was alone for half an hour. The tears would not stop coming.

“Castiel?” said a soft voice, eventually. Castiel’s head shot up, and he began hastily wiping away his tears. A couple of figures stepped out from the shadows of the bookshelves, concern on both of their faces: Mr Singer, his eyes sad, and Joshua, the librarian.

“A-Am I in trouble?” Castiel asked, beginning to slide off his chair. “I’m sorry I was making some noise…”

Mr Singer squatted down in front of Castiel, Joshua standing upright by his shoulder.

“I heard you had a rough day,” Mr Singer said, and the kindness in his tone had Castiel’s tears rising all over again; he put his face into his hands, and his shoulders shook.

“My… dad… and… it’s m-my birthday, and… my mother didn’t even… and I only wanted – I only – I should have – it was too good to be true,” he said. “I should have realised. And they were all laughing – Dean Winchester said…”

Castiel couldn’t even get the words out. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see Joshua’s worried, kind old face.

“Your birthday hasn’t had a very good start,” he said. “Has it?”

Castiel shook his head mutely. Mr Singer gave him a handkerchief, which Castiel took and used to wipe his nose.

“Thought you might like to come with us,” he said gruffly. “Got some books that need sorting. It’s a lot of work, and we could use your help. If you’d rather go back to your friends, though…”

“I want to help,” Castiel said at once, drying his eyes on his sleeve, and then remembering the handkerchief and using that instead. “Please?”

Mr Singer’s eyes lit up, and his beard twitched as he smiled.

“Good boy,” he said. “Let’s get started.”

And so Castiel passed the morning of his birthday in the quiet company of Joshua and Mr Singer, carrying books to and fro, leafing through pages to find exact references for Joshua, dusting off old spines, and checking for mould. The sunlight shone bright through the clouds, lighting their work in soft white tones. Castiel felt peace settle over him. Joshua and Mr Singer didn’t talk much – just muttering to each other about the state of various books, and giving Castiel gruff-voiced but gentle instructions – but their company was a balm.

The library itself seemed friendlier with them there. Castiel wasn’t sure why he had run here, of all places – he could have gone just about anywhere for peace and quiet, with so few students in the castle – but something had drawn him to this place. Looking up at the towering bookshelf beasts that had so frightened him before, Castiel didn’t feel the same clutch of fear, the same sense of inadequacy. With Joshua and Mr Singer beside him, he felt the weight of their reassurance.

When they were almost done with their work, Joshua turned to Castiel with a smile.

“You’ve been very helpful,” he said. “One last thing. Would you mind going to shelf fifteen, and picking up Dear Helga? I had a report that page fifty-one was missing.”

Castiel dutifully wandered away down the shelves, counting them absently as he walked. He hoped that he really had been useful to Joshua and Mr Singer, and they hadn’t just been humouring him. He felt as though he’d made some kind of contribution, anyway.

Shelf fifteen was quite close to where Castiel’s favourite desk was; it had a lot of the books about the Hogwarts founders in it, Castiel discovered on scanning the titles. In fact, these were the same shelves he’d been searching when he’d still been trying to find the Door through reading about the four founders. He had abandoned that research completely since finding the room again – his efforts had switched to deciphering the runes on the Door, which he could now study at his leisure.

He found Dear Helga, a slim volume stuck in at the very end beside a weightier tome entitled Daring and Nerve: The Exploits of Godric Gryffindor. Castiel wrinkled his nose at that, and turned his attention back to his task. He flicked through the pages, seeking out the hundred-and-fifty-first. The little book smelled sweet with age, each page wafer thin. Catching glimpses of the contents as he went through it, Castiel saw that it seemed to be some kind of collection of letters – or scraps of letters, in most cases, presumed to have been written to Helga Hufflepuff.

Castiel couldn’t help stopping a few times on the way to his hundred-and-fifty-first destination. The scribbled letters were written in an old English that Castiel couldn’t understand, but they were transcribed beneath: - could not wait to hear your thoughts about the addition of pears to the recipe, for it was much argued, and…; - perhaps there is some truth in that, dear Helga, though I myself cannot imagine kindness springing from aught but courage…; - I never met anyone quite like you, dear Helga, you are an inspiration and a blessing to all who…

Castiel found himself smiling as he read them. Helga Hufflepuff’s friends seemed to have loved her very well indeed. And valued her thoughts and intelligence, too, which was interesting. Castiel felt himself a little humbled. He had always subscribed without thinking to the popular idea that Hufflepuff was a House created... by a stupid person, for stupid people, who couldn’t get in anywhere else. Was that idea even popular, though, Castiel wondered. Or was that just in his own family?

He reached the page that was supposedly missing, and found it fully intact. He was about to slam the book closed and return to Joshua to report the good news, when something about the entry on that page caught his eye. He frowned, and looked down at the transcription.

Dear Helga, it’s a wonderful idea. I don’t know how you’ll manage the magic for it, but a room that gives the one who enters whatever they have in their mind as they walk past? A ‘room of requirement’... what a feat. I suggest some secrecy, and some form of lock – perhaps they should need to walk past thrice before…

Castiel turned the page, but only that fragment of the letter had survived long enough for the compiler of the book to record its existence. He blinked down at the words again, feeling a tug in his mind, something important. He’d been researching the founders and their connection to the room opposite the tapestry of the trolls… and here, now, was some evidence that Helga had been working on – what? A secret room? But it couldn’t be the same, surely… a ‘room of requirement’ wasn’t the same as a room with a very large door in it, was it?

All the same, Castiel couldn’t help wondering. He hadn’t quite figured out the exact way to get back into the room where the Door was yet – whenever he’d been back, he’d recreated every one of his movements from the night with Ash, not sure which combination of actions was making it work – but if Helga had chosen to make the enterer… what was it… walk past thrice… well, that sounded about right…

Castiel went back to Mr Singer and Joshua with his head full of ideas, barely even looking where he was going, so that he almost walked right into Mr Singer carrying an armful of books.

“Whoa, easy there,” Mr Singer grunted, before setting the books down on a desk.

“Sorry,” Castiel apologised, and then turned to Joshua. “The page wasn’t missing. Everything was fine.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Joshua said gravely. There was the slightest twinkle in his eye that told Castiel… something. How would Joshua have known what he’d been looking for information on all this time? Unless… well, Mr Singer and he were friends, and Mr Singer was the one who had caught Castiel up by the tapestry of the trolls, so perhaps…

“Thank you,” said Castiel sincerely, to both of them. “Thank you for everything. For letting me help, and…”

Mr Singer smiled as he began to shelve some books.

“We find that whenever we need help,” he said, “Hogwarts finds a way to give it to us.”

Joshua nodded solemnly.

“Best get back to your friends,” he said. “They’ll be wondering about you.”

Castiel found Hannah and Ash in the courtyard in front of the castle entrance, playing in the snow. Castiel spent the rest of his birthday with them, building snowmen and throwing snowballs, only pausing to eat lunch before dashing back outside to play for longer.

By the time it came to the evening, Castiel had almost forgotten about the broom.

It was the best birthday he’d ever had. He closed his eyes on Christmas Eve night, and he dreamt only of good things.

*

Christmas morning was bright and fresh, the sun already peering curiously through the windows when Hannah shook Castiel awake.

“Look!” she whispered excitedly, pointing to the bottom of Castiel’s bed. Sitting there was a red, patterned stocking, lumpy with presents.

“I got one, too!” Hannah said, skipping back to her bed. Her stocking looked a lot smaller than Castiel’s, but she turned it upside-down with gusto and picked up the first present that fell out. Castiel yawned, stretched, and then followed her lead, shuffling down his bed to fumble inside his stocking. He pulled out a present, neatly wrapped in silvery paper, which he tore open. Inside was a pair of gloves made of thin grey silk, and a note.

Dear Castiel, it read. Merry Christmas. With love from your mother.

There was no mention of the incident of the day before. Castiel wondered if she’d written the note before it happened, or if she had decided to ignore it. He laid the gloves to one side, thinking as he did so that they looked far too thin to actually keep out the cold. Still, perhaps she’d noticed that when he came back inside after playing in the snow, his hands were always red raw with the cold. He tried to let the anger and hurt he felt when he thought of her be eased a little by her gift.

The second present was far less prettily wrapped, but the plain brown paper was sealed with care. Castiel opened it to find… another pair of gloves, these ones thick and tough, leathery on the outside and softly woollen on the inside. The note read, Thought these might come in useful. Merry Christmas. Mr Singer. Castiel felt a rush of happiness as he pulled them on and admired them, feeling the warmth of them. They would be perfect for when he was playing outside.

He slid them off and placed them on top of the gloves his mother had given him, and then returned his attention to the rest of his presents. Michael hadn’t given him anything, as usual, but Gabriel had given him the same gift he always gave Castiel – a big pack of Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans. Ever since he was tiny, Castiel had loved the danger of them, though he hadn’t usually been allowed to have any at home – but for Christmas, Gabriel had always managed to find a way to sneak some into the house for his little brother.

Castiel pulled out his final present just as Hannah made a pleased little noise and got up, waving Castiel’s present to her in one hand as she walked over to him – a new quill, that he’d written home to Muriel to ask her to send specifically. Hannah’s own quill was all ragged and scratchy – Castiel wasn’t sure why, since the ones in Diagon Alley always seemed fairly priced if his mother’s reactions were anything to go by – but he wanted Hannah to have something nicer. The one he’d given her was eagle feather, with a golden nib. She held it in her hands as though the whole thing was actual solid gold, entranced.

“Castiel, you shouldn’t have,” she said, sounding overawed.

“I wanted to,” Castiel said simply. He hadn’t expected Hannah to be so taken with it, but it made him happy to see her happy.

“How did you… I mean – thanks. Thank you,” she said, and perched herself on the end of his bed.

“You’re welcome,” Castiel told her, smiling. He picked up his last present and squinted at it for a moment, before tearing off the paper. Inside was a small book; flicking through it, Castiel saw that all the pages were bare.

“It’s a notebook,” Hannah said. “Sorry, it’s – I forgot to include a note – it’s from me. You’re always carrying around all those pieces of paper with notes and runes and stuff and I thought maybe you could use a place to keep them all together.”

Castiel ran his hand over the heavy paper cover. He looked up at Hannah, and beamed at her.

“I love it,” he said sincerely. “Thank you.”

Hannah grinned back at him.

“Next year, I’ll remember it’s your birthday,” she promised. “So you won’t have to just have one present for two special things.”

For a moment, a silence hung heavily in the air, full of unspoken words. Then Hannah leaned forwards and said tentatively,

“I – I saved your dad’s card. If you want it…”

“I don’t,” interrupted Castiel, a little sharply. He softened his tone deliberately. “I… don’t. He probably didn’t even write it himself, anyway.”

He fidgeted with his bedspread. Hannah leaned forwards and awkwardly smacked him on the arm with the flat of her hand.

“C’mon,” she said. “It’s Christmas! Let’s go find Ash.”

They got dressed quickly and ran down the stairs, and spent a happy Christmas morning in much the same way as they’d spent their Christmas Eve. Castiel wore his new gloves from Mr Singer, and they kept his hands warm as the three of them got themselves involved in a strange game, half snowball fight and half deeply tactical game of secrets, born mostly of Ash’s imagination. When they finished for the morning and came in for Christmas lunch, Castiel’s cheeks were rosy and his mind was buzzing with thoughts and secrets and strategies.

They raced to the lunch table, which had been set with festive golden plates; sprigs of holly festooned the red tablecloth, and candles had been lit. Castiel, Hannah, and Ash took their seats, and soon after, Dean and Garth came tumbling in, looking equally buoyant. Castiel carefully ignored both of them as they sat down opposite, Dean facing Castiel.

“Hi, Dean,” Ash said.

“Hey, Ash. Hey, Hannah. Hey, Castiel,” Dean said, and it irked Castiel even more that Dean said his name differently, somehow, as though reserving his most particular ability to irritate especially for him.

“Dean,” said Castiel, forcing himself to be polite by imagining the look on Jo’s face if she could see him blowing off Dean’s technically courteous greeting. “Garth.”

“Not still sore after yesterday, are you?” Dean said, as Garth raised a hand in greeting. “Look, if you were really upset, I’m –”

“I wasn’t,” Castiel said, as airily as he could. “I’d just had enough of looking at your face, Winchester.”

Ash sucked in a breath through his teeth, and Garth let out a little laugh, which earned him a hard stare from Dean.

“Well, I guess you’re stuck opposite my face for another mealtime, Novak,” he said. “Deal with it.”

“I’ll suffer through,” Castiel said. The remaining seats on the lunch table were starting to fill up; Castiel couldn’t wait to see what the kitchens had in store for them, since he’d worked up such an appetite playing outside.

He didn’t have to wait for long; before Dean could even come up with another insult, the golden plates were being filled with piles of food. A huge plate of turkey meat sat beside a great bowl of roasted potatoes; there were pigs-in-blankets, there was stuffing, there were Yorkshire puddings; there were carrots and roasted parsnips and string beans and mashed sweet potato, and peas and chipolatas and cranberry sauce, and what seemed like ten thousand other things. For a moment, Castiel simply let the heady, hearty smell wash over him – and then he dived in.

The food tasted twice as good as it looked, and that was saying something. Castiel ate two whole plates, and was full to bursting; he looked across to Dean, who could only nod in approval as he patted his own stomach. Castiel nodded back. If nothing else, they could both appreciate good food.

They pulled their crackers right after the first course, Professor Shurley beginning the chain which looped through Michael, and Gabriel, all the way down the first years and back up again. On the count of three, they pulled the crackers, which exploded with huge bangs that had Dean and Hannah leaping three feet into the air, and then laughing at each other.

Inside Castiel’s cracker was a large pirate hat and a deck of Exploding Snap cards. Castiel stared down at them for a moment, and then looked up over the table, to see Dean Winchester in a Stetson looking right back at him.

“Care for a game of Exploding Snap?” he said, raising the deck enticingly as he pulled the pirate hat onto his head. Dean raised his eyebrows. Garth, catching sight of the cards in Castiel’s hands, quickly leant over and whispered something in Dean’s ear.

Dean’s eyebrows raised further.

“Exploding Snap,” he said. “Right. Okay, Novak. You’re on.”

Castiel opened the packet gingerly and pulled out the cards. He set them down on the table between himself and Dean, where they sat innocent and still. Castiel reached for his wand.

“Classic rules?” Castiel asked, and Dean swallowed. Garth leaned over and whispered something else. Dean frowned, and then drew out his own wand.

“Classic rules,” he agreed.

“I’ve never played. What are the rules?” Hannah said, leaning forwards; Castiel noticed Dean looking at her with something like relief, which was odd. It was strange for both of them never to have played Exploding Snap, since they both came from wizarding families.

They did both come from wizarding families, didn’t they? Castiel was pretty sure he would have realised if either of them had been Muggle-borns.

“I tap the deck, and the cards will start to turn over. When you see two in a row the same, you tap the deck with your wand and get the point,” Castiel said. “But if you tap the cards when there weren’t two the same, they explode. And if we miss one, they explode.”

“Explode?” Hannah said, sounding alarmed. Ash, meanwhile, was grinning and nodding. “But not a big explosion, right? It couldn’t hurt anyone?”

“Nah,” Ash said. “Well, unless you count first-degree burns as hurt, and it’s just a simple trip up to Madam Hanscum to sort that out. Believe me, she’s great with the burn cream.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” Hannah muttered.

Her frown did not abate, and there was a part of Castiel that agreed with her – but Dean was staring him down challengingly from across the table, and there was no backing out now. Castiel cleared his throat, settled himself in his seat – and tapped the cards.

The first one turned over. A unicorn.

A second. Centaur.

A third. Bowtruckle.

Goblin, House Elf, Witch, House Elf, Centaur, Giant, Troll, Troll –

“Snap!” Dean yelled, at the same time as Castiel leaned forwards and tapped the cards sharply with his wand. The pair of them immediately flew over to rest by him. One point.

“You don’t have to say it,” Castiel said. Dean shrugged.

“In my rules, you do,” he said. Castiel glowered at him.

“We’re not playing by your –”

“C’mon, Castiel, it’ll be fun,” Hannah said, smiling at Dean. Castiel glared at her, too, and then relented.

“Alright. Fine. Ready?” he said to Dean, who had rolled up his sleeves.

“Ready,” he said.

Goblin, House Elf, Goblin, Centaur, Giant, Wizard, Witch, Kneazle, Kneazle –

“Snap!” yelled Dean and Castiel at the same time, jabbing forwards with their wands. Dean managed to land it just moments before Castiel, and the cards flew to his side. Castiel gritted his teeth.

“One all,” Ash announced. A couple of people further down the table were watching, getting interested in the game.

Bowtruckle, Giant, Giant –

“Snap!” Castiel said sharply, tapping the cards. They flew straight to his side.

“That was a quick one,” said Dean. “Wasn’t ready.”

“Need some Wideye Potion, Winchester?” Castiel replied. He tapped the deck once more, and they were off again.

Kneazle, Bowtruckle, Witch, Wizard – Castiel almost moved on that one, the two human figures were so similar, but he caught himself – Troll, Giant, Troll, Bowtruckle, Centaur, Unicorn, Giant, Bowtruckle – they were starting to get impatient, now, their hands tight around their wands – Witch, Troll, Goblin, Goblin –

“SNAP!” they both shouted, lunging forwards; the cards seemed to hover in the air for a moment, before zooming over to rest on Dean’s side of the table. Castiel let out a little yelp at the injustice.

“The magic knows, Novak, don’t complain!” Dean said smugly, as he waited for Castiel to restart the cards.

The game began to move faster, the cards shuffling more quickly the longer they played. The next point went to Castiel, the one after that to Dean – then Castiel, then Dean, then Dean, then Castiel, then Castiel…

The pace of the cards was starting to become hideously difficult.

Goblin Centaur Wizard Witch Bowtruckle Bowtruckle SNAP!

Point to Dean.

Wizard Giant Troll Kneazle Centaur Kneazle Kneazle SNAP!

Another one for Dean.

Troll Giant Centaur Centaur SNAP!

The cards flew to Castiel, who breathed out to calm himself before starting up the cards again. This wasn’t working, he thought. They were too well-matched… he was going to have to try something different…

Goblin Centaur Troll Centaur Witch Goblin Kneazle Giant Wizard Witch – Castiel seized his opportunity, and made a quick movement as though he were going to tap the cards. Dean, catching sight of him, made to beat him –

“SNAP!” he yelled, tapping the cards though they weren’t the same, exactly as Castiel had hoped he might…

BOOM. The deck exploded in a plume of purple smoke that left everyone coughing. When the billowing lilac cloud finally dissipated, Castiel brushed a hand over his face to wipe away any soot, and looked up to see…

He slapped his hand over his mouth, to stop himself from snorting aloud.

Dean was sitting rooted to the spot, looking shell-shocked. He had definitely borne the brunt of the miniature blast. His hair was purple at the front and standing on end, and he had purple soot all over his face, and…

Both of his eyebrows were missing.

“Um. Dean?” Garth said, tentatively touching Dean’s shoulder when he didn’t move for several seconds. “Dean?”

“That –” Dean said, and then coughed. “That was not what I expected.”

Castiel, Ash, Hannah and Garth couldn’t contain their laughter any longer. Their snorts joined the giggles of the higher years further up the table, who had watched everything. Dean was turning red under his new purple make-up. Seeing the start of a situation not unlike his own yesterday, Castiel moved quickly.

“Anyone else fancy taking me on?” he demanded. “I’ll take the eyebrows off anyone on this table.”

The gathered students suddenly seemed very interested in the puddings which magically appeared on their plates. Dean, still looking wide-eyed with shock, blinked at Castiel.

“You’d lose if we played again,” he said, a tad too aggressively, and somehow Castiel understood perfectly that what he meant was... Thanks.

“I’m never going to let you forget this,” he replied easily. You’re welcome.

Dean managed to delay the necessity of going to the Hospital Wing to have his small burns looked at long enough to eat some Christmas Pudding, and a mince pie, and several pieces of marzipan – and then Garth grabbed his arm and tugged him away from the Feast. Castiel saluted his exit jauntily, grinning at Dean’s narrow-eyed grimace.

For once, it seemed as though he’d won.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Madam Hanscum was easily the nicest person Dean had met in all of Hogwarts, but watching her in her element was an entirely different experience to briefly chatting with her while she waved her wand and magically dried his clothes in the hallway after the Great Snowball Fight.

She had a cheerful voice that - combined with her incredibly optimistic view on life - could probably make even Dean’s dad smile if she wanted to give it a try.

Madam Hanscum had already shooed Garth back to dinner after she sat Dean on one of the beds, something for which he was grateful. He already had some burns and missing eyebrows and he’d rather not have his friend watching and worrying over him.

“Oh dear; first time playing Exploding Snap?” she asked sympathetically as she opened up a small brown bottle.

Dean nodded his head, wondering if it had been as obvious to Castiel as it had been to her. Then again, she was a medical professional and maybe she could magically tell somehow.

“Trust me, you’re not the first to come into the Hospital Wing because of that game and you won’t be the last.” She smiled at him reassuringly and set the bottle on the bedside table next to him. “Now, if you don’t mind holding out your wrists, I’ll get ‘em nice and healed up.”

Dean did as he was told and rested his wrist in Madam Hanscum’s hand while she dabbed some thick, orange paste on every red mark she could find. Dean sucked in a breath as a strange, cold, tingling sensation appeared wherever the paste was placed.

“What is that stuff?” he asked curiously, leaning in closely to study what she was doing.

Madam Hanscum smiled and continued to gently administer the paste. “This is for burns. In just a few minutes, you should be in tip-top shape!”

Dean tilted his head. “It only takes a few minutes?”

“Yes, siree.” She looked up and began rubbing some of the ointment onto his cheek. “Are you a Muggle-born, dear?”

“Yeah,” he immediately bristled out of instinct and straightened his back. “Yeah, I am.”

Madam Hanscum chuckled and patted the unburned part of his cheek lightly. “Don’t you worry, dear. I’m just trying to figure out how to explain things to you. If you’d been a wizard you would have grown up with this stuff. My mother always used to have some of this in the kitchen because she was a little bit clumsy when it came to hot things.”

Dean ducked his face down, embarrassed that he’d assumed the worst of her. Here she was, probably one of the nicest people on the planet, and he’d thought she was going to belittle him for who he was.

Not everyone was mean.

“So you put this orange stuff on, and it just magically disappears?”

“You know it, sweetheart.”

That would have come in handy last year when his dad had a bad accident at work that resulted in most of his arm being covered in really bad burns. Maybe he’d be able to find a way to take some home with him for his mom to put in her first aid kit. If that was even allowed.

“What if I had a broken bone?”

“There’s a spell called Episkey that you can use for most small injury and breaks. There’s a different spell for more complicated breaks but I don’t want you -” She winked and tapped his nose, adding a dab of the paste to the burned area, “- trying it before you’re ready. So I’m going to let you learn about it in your classes.”

Dean pouted for the sake of his foiled curiosity, but decided he’d be better off focusing on what she was doing with the medication.

“Can you heal everything?” he asked, truly wondering what the boundaries were.

“Oh no, dear.” She shook her head. “Not everything. Some things are even beyond magic, but that won’t stop me from trying. If witches and wizards stopped trying, we wouldn’t have the potions and spells that we have now.”

That made sense, he supposed.

Once every single one of his burns had been covered with orange blobs, Madam Hanscum waved her wand, making the paste disappear in the same order that she’d applied it. Dean brought his wrist up to inspect, surprised to find that the skin was just as smooth and unhurt as it had been before his game of Exploding Snap. Of course she’d said it would be, but hearing about it and actually seeing it were two entirely different things.

He’d thought this about a thousand times already during his stay at Hogwarts but…magic was really cool.

“There you go, that should take care of the burns.”

Dean nodded and made to slide off the bed.

“Oh no, hold on!” Madam Hanscum rested a hand on his shoulder. “Unless you want to make having no eyebrows and purple hair a new trend, let me fix that for you. It will take just a second.”

Dean waited as Madam Hanscum flicked her wand expertly and waited for her to nod her head before reaching up to feel his newly-grown eyebrows. All seemed well up there.

“And you are good to go, Dean.” Madam Hanscum smiled warmly at him as she put the cap back onto the ointment bottle, a twinkle in her eye. “Now don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope you don’t come back to visit too often.”

Dean grinned bashfully and waved. “Thank you.”

“No worries, sweetheart. Just remember to lean away from the cards next time.”

She padded away, taking the bottle with her into the back office, and Dean took the time to sweep his gaze around the Hospital Wing a few times. It was very different from a Muggle hospital, but it was also similar. They both had the sick beds with the nightstands. But there was something distinctly magical about it all, though that might just be due to the Christmas decorations that were floating in the air.

“Winchester?”

Dean turned his head to see Castiel Novak peering through the doorway.

“What?” Dean rolled his eyes, suddenly glad he had eyebrows again. “Come to gloat some more? We could always go out and have another snowball fight and see who’s laughing by the end of it.”

Castiel scoffed and folded his arms. “No. I was just wanted to see if… your hair was still purple. I was hoping it was irreversible.”

Dean took a few steps forward and cockily ran a hand through his now-sandy hair. “Nah. I thought about keeping it for a while but figured that this school isn’t ready for that yet. I might go back, though.”

He watched as Castiel snickered, probably picturing what he’d look like walking around school with the purple as a style.

“I’m glad your face is normal looking again.” Castiel muttered, averting his gaze. “Not that I care or anything. And it’s still an ugly face. But I’m happy it’s not worse. For the sake of people that have to look at it.”

Dean furrowed his eyebrows, deciphering the hidden meaning. Was Castiel making sure he was okay?

Nah. He probably really had come to gloat.

Maybe.

“Careful, you two,” Dean turned to see Madam Hanscum wink and gesture above them. “Don’t want to get in the habit of standing beneath mistletoe.”

The two of them looked up and sure enough, a small sprig of green mistletoe complete with pale-white berries was hung directly above them in the middle of the doorway.

Dean made a dramatic gagging noise and made sure to roughly bump shoulders with Castiel as he walked out of the Hospital Wing, and headed back down to his common room.

*

Dean’s Christmas haul wasn’t something that he would have described as particularly large. He’d woken up that morning to find a small pile of presents next to his bed, including a plate of chocolates stamped with the Hogwarts crest that he assumed was given to all students that were staying over the holidays. His mom had sent him a package that included a plate of homemade cookies, another drawing from Sam, a fairly expensive-looking notebook, and a watch with a black leather band and a pearly face. Nothing was nearly as expensive-looking as, say...a shiny broomstick, but it was a good haul and he was happy nonetheless. He didn’t need expensive gifts to feel special.

Unlike some people.

Garth had surprised him with a set of wizard’s chess, which Dean had absolutely no idea how to play. He’d never even learned how to play normal chess before, but seeing the different pieces shatter each other was enough to make him willing to sit through Garth’s explanation of the game.

They’d set up the chess board on a desk in the middle of the empty common room next to the crackling fire, at the end of Christmas Day. The sun was just beginning to set, letting the copper lights hanging from the ceiling kick in to cast a warm light across the room. It wasn’t often that they got the entire common room to themselves, but with so many Hufflepuffs gone for the holidays, seeing it empty was a luxury he wasn’t going to get used to.

“Okay, knight to...um... C-5.” Dean said after a good two minutes of studying the board.

The knight trotted across the board until it pulled out it’s sword and swung it down across the back of a pawn, causing it to crack in half.

“So like,” Dean scratched his head as he watched his knight dragged the pieces off the board, “Can you only play with a set once? They seem to get destroyed pretty fast.”

Garth shook his head. “Most sets come with a repair spell infused in ‘em so that they’ll fix themselves when a game is done. Queen to C-5.”

Dean pouted when Garth’s queen beheaded his knight. He’d completely missed that move.

“Pawn to C -”

BONG. BONG. BONG.

Dean jumped as the loud metallic sound interrupted his thoughts. Turning, he glared in confusion at the large grandfather clock that was nestled a few feet away from the fireplace. Never in his entire stay at Hogwarts had he heard the clock make any sort of noise. Not even ticking. The clock didn’t work at all and frankly, he’d been wondering why the Hufflepuffs kept it around.

“Why is it -” Dean had to raise his voice as the noise got louder. “Why is it doing that?”

Garth was wincing at every loud bong and shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve never heard it go off before!”

Dean shot up from where he was sitting as the sounds got even louder. “How do we get it to shut up?” He grimaced as he jogged over to the clock and yanked open the glass case that was covering the pendulum. Where did the noises in clocks come from? The face? If he stopped the swinging pendulum, would that stop the noise?

Dean grabbed the brass pendulum and stopped it in it’s tracks, gritting his teeth when it did nothing to stop the noise.

“What if you tried -”

“Oof!”

Garth reached over Dean, pushing him forward and causing him to stumble and push the pendulum back to gain his balance.

Did he break it? Oh no, he’d broken it, and -

And the clanging had stopped.

Right as Dean was about to panic (who knew how old that clock was and how much it was worth) the back of the clock behind the pendulum swung backwards to reveal a narrow passageway, lit with the same copper lamps as the common room.

Dean turned to Garth, the shock on both of their faces turning into looks of delight at what could only be a secret passage. It was as if all of Dean’s dreams were coming true.

The passageway looked like it was wide enough for him to be able to walk through comfortably, though if he got much taller, Dean reckoned he’d have to hunch over a bit.

“Oh, we have got to check this out.” Dean grinned and glanced back over to Garth, who was suddenly looking hesitant.

“But… but what if it’s not safe?” Garth murmured, eyeing the dimly-lit stone walls beyond the grandfather clock.

“I’ll go first,” Dean said with a small shrug. “Besides, it’s got the same lanterns. Helga Hufflepuff must’ve made it. She wouldn’t make something dangerous.”

He hoped.

Garth still looked a little unconvinced, so Dean took a deep breath and rested a hand on his shoulder. “If we don’t do this we’re going to wonder what’s in there for the rest of our lives. I’m going to go, but you don’t have to follow. I can just tell you what it is when I get back?”

Dean took a step back from his friend and ducked down underneath the pendulum before standing back up in the passageway. “Seems okay so far.”

He reached down to grab his wand from where he’d shoved it in his sock and held it out in front of him. Just in case.

Lumos,” he murmured, blinking at the bright light that lit up the passageway. It was a spell he’d learned last week in Defense Against the Dart Arts and he was already enjoying all of the uses he could find for it. After taking a few steps inward, he glanced back, smiling when he saw Garth had decided to follow him.

“I’ll bet it’s treasure,” Dean whispered, trying to relieve the tension in the air. “We’re going to find treasure at the end of the tunnel and we’re going to be rich.”

Garch chuckled from behind him. “If we find treasure it’ll get confiscated. They’ll want to preserve it.”

“Not if we don’t tell anyone.”

It wasn’t long before the tunnel curved slightly, revealing an opening in the distance with light pouring from it.

The smell of warm apple pie and broiling meat filled Dean’s nostrils as he walked towards the light source. The sound of clanging echoed from up ahead like pots and pans being knocked together as well as distant chatter of voices that Dean didn’t recognize. .

Nox,” he whispered, cutting off the light as the light source up ahead became more and more relevant.

“Is that food?” he heard Garth whisper behind him.

It sure smelled like it.

Dean continued to take hesitant steps forward until just before he reached the opening, eyes wide as he watched small creatures with bat-like ears and large eyes walk past carrying trays and trays of food. There was a small amount of chatter in squeaky voices as they moved about the room.

“What is it? Why’d you stop?” Garth asked.

Dean turned to shush him just as a one of the creatures, dressed in what looked to be a bright red pillowcase with a white lining and carrying a handful of green onions, stopped in front of their opening, noticing them with a pleased expression.

“Hello!” The creature smiled and did a little wave as Dean tried to calm his beating heart. “Is sir ready to come out now?”

Dean swallowed. “Uh… no?”

“Is that a house-elf?” Garth called from behind him and Dean could feel him getting a bit too close for comfort in order to try and get a glimpse at what was happening. “It sounds like a house-elf.”

What was supposedly a house-elf nodded enthusiastically and gestured for them to leave their passage. “Indeed, good sirs! Turvey is a proud house-elf of the Hogwarts castle. Will the sirs be joining us, then? It’s been a good few years since I has seen Hufflepuffs discover the passage.”

Dean harrumphed as Garth pushed at him to move forward. “Alright, already!”

He stepped forward as the house-elf took gave them both a small bow as they blinked at the sudden brightness of the new room they’d discovered.

Dean gaped as he looked around what could only be described as the Great Hall. But it wasn’t. It was a large high-ceilinged room with same four tables that were to be found in the Great Hall, in the exact same positions. The biggest differences, however, were the pots and pans and other kitchen utensils that were hanging over every spare inch of wall, and an incredibly large brick fireplace, at the opposite end of the hall from a large door.

For a moment Dean perked up as he studied the door, but quickly rejected the idea that it was the same one from the strange room. It was the wrong shape and wasn’t anywhere near this place; they were both just very large.

“Is this the kitchens, then?” Dean asked, noting all the food that was being bustled around.

“Oh yes sir; very good sir.” Turvey the house-elf nodded excitedly. “Welcome to the Hogwarts Kitchens. Dinner is being prepared currently, but I thinks we have some extra food lying around if the sirs are hungry.”

Dean stomach growled as he nodded enthusiastically. A secret passage to the kitchens with house-elves that would willingly give them food was easily the best thing that happened in the past few days.

He and Garth followed Turvey to the center of the kitchen with wide-eyes.

“So we’re not the first to come here, then?” Garth asked, only slight disappointment in his voice.

“Oh no, sir.” Turvey shook his head and handed his handful of onions to another house-elf who immediately began chopping them up into tiny slices. “Every few years a Hufflepuff stumbles across this passage. Most others use another. But Hufflepuffs -” Turvey tapped his nose knowingly, “- are particularly good finders.”

Dean snorted. That would definitely explain why he kept accidentally finding the weirdest mysteries at Hogwarts.

“So what’s for dinner then?” Dean said, waving at the other house-elves that nodded pleasantly in their direction.

“Let’s see. We has got roast chicken, mashed potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, orange rolls, pesto pasta, and our main dessert will be eclairs.” As he said it, Turvey produced a plate of stacked eclairs and smiled at them expectantly.

Dean reached out hesitantly, and when Turvey didn’t stop him, grabbed two, immediately devouring them as quickly as possible. Garth politely thanked him and grabbed some of his own.

Turvey spent the next ten minutes or so showing them around the kitchens, introducing them to some of the main chefs and offering the two of them food from almost every plate they passed (gifts that the boys graciously accepted).

House-elves, Dean decided, were some of the most pleasant beings he’d ever met. Though, to be fair, there wasn’t a huge selection as of yet. He’d met humans, obviously, and he’d passed what he was fairly sure was a goblin while he’d been in Diagon Alley, but house-elves just seemed so incredibly… nice.

Heh. Castiel Novak could learn a lesson or two from them.

“So why does that passage exist?” Dean asked through a mouthful of potatoes.

Turvey shrugged his shoulders. “All I knows is that it’s been there for as long as anyone can remember. We reckons it was the mistress Helga Hufflepuff that made it. Nowadays we house-elves is using it to come and go into the common room at night when we clean. But we always welcome those who be finding it, sirs.”

Dean peered over the shoulder of a house-elf that was standing on a stool to reach a pot of soup that was stirring. She lifted up the spoon and held it out red liquid to Dean expectantly. “Care to try, sir?”

He shrugged and took a small sip.

The taste was both foreign and familiar. It tasted extremely similar to something his mom would make for him and Sammy when they were sick, though she would add rice to it. Still very similar, but the only thing it was missing was some -

“Oregano,” he murmured. “You should add some oregano.”

The house-elf looked at him thoughtfully and nodded with a smile as Dean was tapped on the knee.

“Excuse me, sirs?’ Dean looked down to see Turvey bowing a little again. “I hates to suggest your leaving but dinner is going to be served soon and we don’t want you to be missing it.”

“No worries,” Garth smiled, and wiped at his mouth with the sleeve of his robe. “We’ll get out of your way. Thanks for showing us around, Turvey.”

The house-elf smiled gratefully and did another small bow in their direction before handing them both another orange roll and walking them back over to the opening in the side of wall. “I hope we see you again, sirs. You’re always welcome here.”

Dean saluted his new house-elf friend before stepping back into the dimly-lit corridor with Garth trailing behind him a few moments later.

“Well, I’d say that was definitely worth it.” Dean said through a bite of the orange room. He turned to Garth with a huge smile plastered on his face. “We found a passage to the kitchens! Do you know what this means?”

Garth shrugged. “That we’ll always know what’s for dinner?”

“Better. We can have food whenever we want. The house-elves seem pretty generous when it comes to giving that stuff away.” He took another bite of the roll and hummed.

Dean whirled around and held out his hand in a sudden idea. “Garth. We have to promise not to tell anyone else about this, okay? This is our secret, okay? We don’t want this passage crawling with all of the Hufflepuffs.”

Garth took the hand and shook. “You got it.”

Dean squeezed the hand firmly and nudged his shoulder. “This is so cool.” he said in a higher voice than he would have liked as he turned back around. “A secret passage! I wonder how many of them there are, here.”

“There’s supposed to be a lot,” Garth whispered. “My dad told me there are hundreds but I never expected to actually find any.”

Dean smiled to himself as they neared their original entrance.

If he could figure out one secret passage, he could figure out another.

Chapter Text

 

Dean thought that this Potions class might actually kill him.

Besides the fact that he’d had a few close calls with the safety of his potions recently - his eyebrows, purple not so long ago, were in increasingly frequent danger of coming right off - Dean’s professor loved to assign his classes with essays.

Dean grumbled as he trudged his way up to the library. Professor Crowley had assigned another essay for them to write. Dean was all for magic but what he liked the most was being able to actually practise it instead of just writing about of it. The thrill of knowing that he had the ability to do something incredible, like create light out of nothing, was something he’d never get tired of. A cramped hand? That he got tired of. At least the topic wasn’t incredibly boring this time. They’d had to pick one of the uses for dragon’s blood and write about it on twelve inches of parchment, which was a lot better than rambling on about the best places to find wolfsbane.

Unfortunately, this meant that Dean had to do some research. The library was easily in his top five least favorite places to be at Hogwarts. Part of that was because there were just so many other places that were cooler, but it was mostly because every time he went, there was a good eighty percent chance that Castiel Novak was already there. Apparently he’d calmed down a little from that solid month where he’d basically lived in the library, but he still could be found there at any given time.

Dean stepped inside the library and let out a breath when he didn’t immediately see Castiel, though that wasn’t saying much. The library was a huge place and he could be anywhere.

Not that Dean cared.

It wasn’t like his life revolved around Castiel Novak.

The Hogwarts library was an enormously expansive room that had books as far as the eye could see. Where they weren’t neatly stacked in rows they were piled on top of each other in large towers or were being levitated by students for easier reading. Sunlight shone through large windows and the occasional creak of footsteps or hiss of a whisper could be heard. While it looked cool and all, Dean continuously felt out of place in the enormity after spending so long getting used to the quaint comfort of the cosy Hufflepuff common room.

Dean rubbed at his nose and walked to the front desk, asking Joshua the librarian which book he’d recommend. After a brief moment of thought, Dean was pointed in the right direction.

He quickly passed the corner that couples used to kiss in, and found the section with the books he was looking for.

Encyclopedia Draconium, Encyclopedia Draconium…

Dean ran his fingers over the spines of books as he walked along the isle, squinting as he tried to find the correct one. It would be just his luck that someone had already checked it out, but completely possible. He frowned after searching for a good five minutes.

“Excuse me?” Dean walked back up to the librarian who looked up from his writing. “The book you recommended. Has it been checked out already?”

Joshua shook his head. “No. It should still be in the library.”

Dean raised an eyebrow, a little concerned that he hadn’t needed to check… perhaps a list, or something. “You know that off the top of your head?”

Joshua nodded, something twinkling in his eyes. “I remember every book that comes to me. Perhaps someone is reading it at a table?”

Dean pursed his lips and thanked him before turning and walking up to the first table he could find. Tilting his head, he quickly discovered that the Slytherin girl wasn’t reading the book he was looking for, though she did send him a suspicious glare. The next table fared no better. Just two boys sitting close together and smiling at each other - ignoring the book completely. A quick glance at the illustrations showed different flowers. Yeah. Probably not his dragon book.

He moved on to the next desk where a girl with dark hair was hidden behind a large, red book with “ Encyclopedia Draconium” printed in bright gold lettering across the front.

“Hey,” Dean said, trying to keep his voice down in the library. “Excuse me?”

The girl didn’t seem to notice him, so he sat in the chair next to her.

“Hannah?” he asked, recognizing the book-thief.

Hannah jolted with a surprised gasp as looked up and snapped a much smaller book behind the big red one closed.

“Dean!” She let out a breath and smiled at him. “I’m sorry, I was… not paying attention.”

“It’s okay. Are you using that book?” he asked, pointing at the Dragon book, but looking at the smaller book that Hannah was currently trying to cover in her lap.

“What - oh! No. You can use it if you need it.”

“Thanks.” He heaved the red book closed and dragged it towards himself. “So what are you reading?”

Hannah flushed heavily and cleared her throat. “Oh, it’s just a… book.”

Dean smiled and rested his chin on his hand. “Oh really?” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Hannah, did you get a book from the restricted section? Man, you start one fight and suddenly you think you’re some kind of rule-breaker.”

Hannah shook her head emphatically. “I am not. It’s a book from… well, it’s a...Muggle book.”

Dean’s eyebrows shot up and he suddenly grew a lot more invested in this conversation. “Really? Which one?”  

“Well… you wouldn’t know it.”

Dean scoffed, feeling a little offended that she doubted his knowledge of books. Sure, he didn’t actually study a whole lot, but assuming he didn’t read at all was a bit of a stretch. “Wanna bet? I read.”

She sighed gave him an almost pitying look. “But you don’t read Muggle books.”

Dean opened his mouth, then closed it again before talking. “Hannah, I’m a Muggle-born. Of course I do.”  

Hannah’s mouth fell into an “o” shape as something seemed to click in her head. “ Oh. You’re a Muggle-born. That’s… oh.” Her look of astonishment turned into a friendly and understanding smile. “I’m reading Lord of the Rings.”

Dean momentarily forwent asking why she seemed so surprised by that, and looked at the cover that she brought back up onto the table.

“Return of the King! I love that one.”

“Me too! It’s my favorite!”

The two of them jumped as the librarian gently shushed them from across the room.

Hannah grinned at him excitedly. “So who’s your favorite character? Mine’s Eowyn. I think that she’s amazing.”

Dean clicked his tongue as he thought about it. He’d never actually picked a favorite Lord of the Rings character before. Book? Yes. But actual character? How could he with so many great ones? “I think…” he paused. “I think my favorite would have to be Legolas. But I really like Treebeard, too.”

Hannah giggled. “Really? Treebeard?

A small blush crossed his face. “I dunno. He’s just like... super protective. And good in a fight. And a talking tree.”

“Ent,” Hannah corrected.

Dean rolled his eyes. Of course he knew Treebeard was an Ent. “Oh! You know what I think?” Dean smiled mischievously and nudged her with his shoulder as he remembered a thought he’d had cross his mind back when he first got to Hogwarts. “You know the Whomping Willow? What if it was an Ent?”

Hannah clapped a hand over her mouth to quiet her laughter. “But… but it’s too fast to be an Ent! They move really slowly. We must not be hasty,” she added, quirking her lips in mirth at her own quote.

Dean shrugged his shoulders. “So maybe it’s an Ent that’s really motivated. You know how they can move pretty okay when they’re protecting something?” Dean gestured at her. “Maybe it’s just really protecting something.”

Hannah ducked her head with a grin and widened her eyes at him. “Or maybe the Whomping Willow is one of the missing Ent Wives. And it’s still mad about something.”

The two devolved into fits of giggles at the table, though they tried to smother as much of the sound as possible so that Joshua wouldn’t be forced to shush them again. He seemed like an okay guy but he kept a strict library.

“So,” Dean managed after taking a few breaths. “The Whomping Willow is obviously some kind of Ent. I’m glad we could agree on that.” He paused and tilted his head as he studied Hannah. “So how do you know about it? Are you a Mu-”

“Hello, Hannah.”

The two of them turned to find the disgruntled face of Dean’s least favorite person.

“Heya, Novak.” Dean said with an overly peppy attitude. “Did your mom finally let you come out and play? That was nice of her.”

Castiel’s eyes narrowed at the jab and his shoulders immediately hunched in a defensive stance.  “I suppose you’re here to write the Potions essay?” He asked, his eyes flicking to the red book. “Sad. I finished it two days ago. You’re falling a little behind don’t you think? You seem to do a lot of falling. Brooms included.”

Dean scoffed. That had been once at the beginning of the year and he hadn’t fallen off his broom since. In fact, he was getting pretty good and as long as he didn’t look down, he could almost keep up with Castiel. “At least I didn’t get mine confiscated by my own mother,” he taunted.

He watched as Castiel’s jaw clenched and Dean wondered for a moment if the nerve he’d struck had been a little too deep.

“I’ll have one for next year. When I try out for the team.” Castiel retorted, heightening his chin. “A good one, too. You’ll have to borrow a Cleansweep Seven. Or worse.”

Dean paused. “Who said I was trying out for the team?”

He hadn’t even considered it, and honestly was just grateful that he hadn’t died yet. But if Castiel was going to be trying out…

“Well, I just thought -”

“Maybe I will.” Dean squared his shoulders and grinned. “That would be fun. Me on the Hufflepuff team… you watching from the crowds ‘cause you didn’t quite make it... I think I’d like that a lot. What do you think, Hannah?”

Hannah looked at him with an unimpressed glare, like he was betraying everything they’d just been working towards.

Oh, right. Castiel actually had some friends.

“I’d tell you to go jump in the lake,” Castiel shot back with an attempt at a smirk, “but the giant squid might mistake you for one of its own.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “That was lame, Novak.” Giant squid. Please. As if there would be one of those in a lake. Novak might be smart at wizard stuff, but apparently he didn’t know much about animal habitats.

Castiel’s smirk vanished.

“Well, it’s been fun, guys, but I’m going to head out.” Dean grabbed the giant book and heaved it under his arm. Ugh. It was heavier than he’d expected it to be. “Nice talking to you about highly important things, Hannah.” He pointed a finger at her and smiled in a sort of half-apology before turning back to Castiel and rolling his eyes. “And it’s always nice to be around you, Novak.”

He could feel Castiel’s glare on the back of his neck as he sauntered out of the library, book in hand.

Giant squid? Ha.

Dean Winchester wasn’t going to fall for that one.

***

Defense against the Dark Arts was not the most boring class Dean had. In fact, he thought it was actually pretty interesting, but the professor was so scary that sometimes she overshadowed all the cool stuff she was teaching. It wasn’t that she was petrifying or anything, but she had the attitude of someone with a low bar for patience, who wouldn’t hesitate to send your severed finger to a family member if you crossed her.

Professor Apollyon was a teacher whose fiery red hair matched her general outlook, or at least that was how it seemed. The first day of class she’d made it very clear not to get on her bad side and so far, no one had dared to try. She was strict in her teaching, but tended to get easily frustrated when her students didn’t catch on as quickly as she thought they should… or if she thought they weren’t paying attention to her lectures.

Which is why Dean originally ignored the tapping on his shoulder.

Professor Apollyon was dragging her fingernails along the chalkboard as she explained - yet again - how to create light from a wand. It was something that they’d learned about a month ago already but after a small quiz, she’d begrudgingly realized that not many of her students could successfully complete the spell.

The tapping grew more urgent.

Dean glanced over his shoulder and frowned as Charlie smiled and held out a piece of crumpled parchment for him to take. Passing notes? Was she crazy ?

He shook his head and turned back towards the chalkboard.

The tapping continued.

Dean gritted his teeth together and turned back around, mouthing: “What?”

Charlie shook the piece of parchment insistently and smiled again.

Dean glanced up at Professor Apollyon and grabbed the paper when her back was turned, glaring at Charlie briefly before opening it under his desk.

Where do you keep getting your food?

He crinkled his nose at the words on the page and harrumphed to himself. That was what was so important that it couldn’t wait until after class? How did Charlie even know about that? Right after they’d gotten back from the kitchens he and Garth had pinky-sworn that they wouldn’t tell another living soul about the secret passageway through the clock. And they’d kept their word. They hadn’t spoken about it to anyone else. Sure, they’d offered some of the proceeds around now and again - what was the point of having loads of food if you couldn’t share it? But it wasn’t like they’d gone around shooting their mouths off about it. Generally, their mouths had been too occupied with chewing the latest snack, anyway.

Alright, it was possible that they weren’t as discreet as he’d thought they’d been.

Dean waited until the Professor had turned her back to write something up on the board and quickly dipped his quill in ink and scratching it on the paper.

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

He turned and dropped the paper on Charlie’s desk just before Professor Apollyon turned back around to lecture the class.

“- highly inadequate results. So in order to keep the level of the spell up you should be focusing on your intent . I think that too many of you are thinking about getting out of class, which is getting in the way of your performance. Now -”

Dean cringed when he felt the tapping on his shoulder again. They’d gotten lucky so far and they hadn’t been caught; anything more might just land them both in detention. Dean shrugged his shoulder, hoping that it was enough to get Charlie to stop.

After a few more shoulder shrugs at the insistent fingers, the note was tossed over his shoulder and landed in his lap.

Dean turned to glare at Charlie, who just shrugged.

Was she not even worried about breaking the rules?

Grumbling internally, he unfolded the note and squinted at the loopy handwriting again.

Yes you do. You keep getting food that’s not from the Great Hall. How are you doing it?

What was he supposed to say? That he’d discovered a hidden passage into the kitchens? No way! If he told Charlie she might tell others and then maybe someone would come and block the passageway. As great as he thought Charlie was, he didn’t entirely trust her with this sort of information.

“What’s this, Mr. Winchester?”

Dean looked up as he felt the crumpled piece of parchment rise out of his hand into the air, and winced as it burst into flame above him, sprinkling ash all over the desk and front of his robes. When the fire died out, Professor Apollyon was standing in front of him with a bright-eyed, dangerous expression on her face and her arms crossed.

“Passing notes? In my class?”

Dean gulped as she took a step closer, her long, red nails tapping against her arm.

She raised an eyebrow. “Well, Mr. Winchester, since you obviously have no need for this lesson or this class, why don’t you show everyone here how to properly complete the spell?”

Dean opened his mouth, then closed it. Oh. That was simple enough. Where most of the class was struggling, he’d managed to master it during their first lesson and had even been using it in day-to-day life. You never knew when you’d need a good light.

He held up his wand and glanced up at the professor, waiting for the go ahead.

“Lumos,” he said aloud, concentrating on the spell, and blinked when a bright light erupted from the tip of the holly.

A few Slytherins huffed and hunched over in their chairs, while Dean could see Thaddeus tapping his wand against his leg in frustration.

“Now put it out.”

Dean shrugged his shoulders.

“Nox.”

And just as suddenly as the light appeared, it vanished.

Dean set his wand down and smiled up at his teacher, expecting some sort of praise for his accomplishments - at the very least, an acknowledging nod - but all that he got in return was a dark glare from less-than-impressed eyes.

“Detention, Winchester.” Professor Apollyon murmured, soft as velvet. “For passing notes in class.”

He slumped low in his seat as he heard the tittering of his classmates around him. What was the point of having him complete the spell if he was just going to end up being punished anyway? A sudden thought popped into his head. They didn’t send an owl to your parent telling them their child got detention, did they? The last thing he needed was for his father to find out he’d gotten in trouble and would use that as an excuse to pull him out of Hogwarts and into a Muggle school.

The lesson continued on, with Professor Apollyon blatantly ignoring his presence.

There was a simmering contempt directed at Charlie for having gotten him in this mess, and though he knew he could have simply not responded, he still blamed her for starting the whole thing. Was the fact that he had managed to get ahold of some food that big of a deal to her?

Dean folded his arms on top of his desk and rested his chin on top of them with a scowl.

***

Dean adjusted the bag over his shoulder and pretended that he didn’t hear Charlie calling out his name as he walked down the hallway after class.

“Dean!”

There was a hand on his shoulder that caused him to pause in his step and turn to glare at her.

“What?” He snapped. “What do you want from me now ?”

Charlie winced and tucked a strand of orange hair behind an ear. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t think...I’ll make that up to you, okay?”

“Unless you want to go to Professor Apollyon’s office tonight to do lines for me then I don’t know how you’re going to.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“I’ll do your next Potions essay for you. Just don’t be mad at me.”

Dean perked up a little when he heard that. According to rumor, Charlie was actually really good at Potions, and while Dean was at least adequate at writing the essays for the class, he wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity like this one.

His shoulders slumped. “Alright. Fine. I’m not mad at you.”

Charlie grinned and punched him in the shoulder - a little harder than she probably needed to. “Sweet! So what about the food?”

Dean groaned and turned back around to walk back towards the Hufflepuff common room. “It’s just food! I grab it at dinner to eat later.”

Charlie snorted. “No, you don’t. I’ve been watching.”

Dean yelped as Charlie reached into the side-pocket on his robe and pulled out a custard cream that he’d wrapped in a napkin earlier that day. “Then what about this, huh? We haven’t had these at any meal for at least a week, but I’ll bet we’re having some tonight.”

He swatted her hand away and snatched at the cookie.

“Stop being so nosy!” Dean shoved the dessert back into his pocket and began to walk away, but not fast enough for Charlie. She jogged ahead of him and turned, walking backwards as she pleaded with him.

“Come on, Dean! I know you’ve found a secret passage. I have too! I just want to know about as many as I can.”

Dean stopped. There were more secret passages at Hogwarts? He chastised himself mentally. Of course there were. Now that he was thinking about it, it was stupid of him to assume that he’d found the only possible secret passageway in the entire castle. There were probably hundreds!

“You’ve found one, too?” he asked curiously, causing Charlie to grin.

“Oh, I’ve found more than just one.” She nodded her head seriously. “How about a trade? You tell me one, and I’ll tell you one?”

Dean pondered it and figured that if he hadn’t heard of any other secret passages by now, Charlie was probably very good at keeping secrets and wouldn’t go around snitching on him. That, and it was in the Hufflepuff common room - and the chances of her sneaking her way in there without getting vinegar sprayed on her were very slim.

And he really wanted to know about another secret passageway.

“Alright,” he said finally, squaring his shoulders and taking a look around the hallway to make sure that none of the passing students were paying attention to them. “It’s in the Hufflepuff common room, behind the big old clock. There’s a tunnel that leads to the kitchens when you push on the pendulum.”

There was a gleam in Charlie’s eye as she learned the new information before it was quickly extinguished.

“Oh, it’s in your common room? Lucky,” she grumbled. “I can’t find any in my common room. With it being under the lake and all, they probably couldn’t build any. I’ll bet Salazar didn’t make anything cool and secret.”

Dean shrugged. “You never know.” He tilted his head expectantly, trying not to seem too excited about the information he was about to learn. What if it had something to do with the door? “Alright, your turn!”

Charlie took a deep breath and pursed her lips.

“Well?” he asked.

“I’m trying to decide which to tell you about.”

Dean tapped his foot as he waited, sure that Charlie was just trying to show off that she knew about more secret passageways than he did.

Charlie finally clapped her hands together and grinned.

“Alright, so there’s this door sorta by the courtyard, right?”

Dean shrugged and nodded, not sure which room she was talking about exactly - but if he just agreed, maybe she’d get on with it faster.

She licked her lips. “So I found it a while ago and it was always locked. I couldn’t get it open. So I recruited No... um, no one. I recruited no one at all. And I figured out I needed to use Alohomora all on my own. And voila ! The door is open.”

Dean raised an eyebrow. “If you’re trying to tell me that some dumb locked door is a secret passageway then I’m going to like...hex you or something.”

Charlie sighed in exasperation. “Let me finish, Winchester. Inside this room there’s a statue. That’s it. Just a statue. It’s some hoity-toity looking witch with long hair and she’s holding her hand out like she’s got a wand in it, but there isn’t one.”

“So?”

So I found out that when you stick your wand in her hand, the walls sort of shift around and lead you directly to the restricted section of the library!”

Charlie paused dramatically, smiling when she saw Dean gaping at her.

Really? The restricted section?

The restricted section was always something that had intrigued Dean ever since he’d first set foot inside of the library. The libraries back at home in the Muggle world didn’t have anything like that at all, so it must be because of something completely magical. The idea that there was some magic that he wasn’t allowed to just walk up and learn about was… exciting. There had been a single time that he’d tried to get past the tasseled rope that was hung in front of the section, but it was as if there was some sort of magical barrier that he couldn’t get around.

Jo had later told him that if he wanted a book from there, he’d need a teacher’s permission.

It wasn’t as if he needed any book from there, but he was just so curious as to what sort of things wizards and witches would keep away from students.

“So… did you go?” He asked.

“To the restricted section? Not yet!” Charlie shook her head and clenched a fist. “When I saw where it led I just walked back out. I need to be prepared for this sort of stuff.”

Dean slowly nodded to himself, taking a moment to absorb what he’d just learned.

“I’ll show you where it is sometime, if you like.” Charlie’s smile curled into a smirk. “If you grab me some sweets from the kitchen tomorrow.”

“Hey, that wasn’t part of the deal!”

She held up her hands defensively. “Fine, fine. I was kidding. But pleeeease could you grab me like… a cream puff or something? Or four. I’d love you forever.”

Dean scoffed and bumped her shoulder playfully. “I’ll think about it.”

Charlie pulled him into a surprise hug, locking her arms over his frame. “Thank you, Dean! And... I really am sorry about that detention, okay? I just want us to be friends.”

Dean froze for a moment before relaxing into the awkward hug. Charlie’s soft tone on that last confession pulled at his heartstrings a little. He’d already sort of considered them friends. Not like good friends or anything, but fairly decent at the very least.

“Don’t worry. We’re friends,” he murmured into her shoulder, only slightly peeved that he was just now realizing that Charlie was a few inches taller than him. “Even if you get me into trouble, we’re friends.”

She pulled back with a wide smile on her face and punched him on the arm. “Nice! See ya later, friend!”

And with that, she trotted away.

***

“GUESS WHAT GUESS WHAT GUESS WHAT!”

Dean took his pillow and swatted at Nick’s head as he jumped up and down on the other boy’s bed. Nick groaned and shoved his head underneath his own pillow to protect himself from Dean’s attacks.

“NICK. GUESS WHAT DAY IT IS,” Dean hollered as he flopped down horizontally on top of Nick’s chest.

“It’s your birthday,” Dean heard him mumble from underneath his pillow.

“IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!” He rolled onto the floor and immediately popped back up to start beating Garth with the same pillow, as Nick sat up and rubbed at his eyes.

“GARTH, DO YOU KNOW WHAT DAY IT IS?” Dean yelled when Garth shot up from where he’d been silently sleeping a moment before.

Garth squinted his eyes and looked around the room groggily. Light from the morning sunrise was just beginning to peek through the windows on the ceiling and spill into the room. “Christmas?” He guessed with a yawn.

Dean laughed and smacked him in the face with the pillow. “IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!”

“Oh, right!” Garth chuckled and grabbed at his own pillow once he’d started to wake up more fully and realize what was happening. “It’s that day that you’ve been talking about for weeks.”

Alright, so maaaaaybe he’d been a little bit excited for his first birthday at Hogwarts.

Or just excited for his birthday in general.

“WE KNOW IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY!”

Dean looked over as Thaddeus poked his head from behind the curtain of his four-poster and glared at him, hair askew in every which way.

“It’s all you’ve talked about since forever! Well... that and Novak , of course,” Thaddeus harrumphed and snapped the curtains back around him.

Even mention of Novak couldn’t dampen Dean’s spirits today.

Dean was nearly skipping as he and the rest of his bunkmates made their way to the Great Hall for breakfast.

It was his birthday. Dean Winchester was turning twelve years old today and it was going to be the best day of the school year so far.

“Hey, Jo!” He grinned and waved as she walked past them, apparently having already finished her meal. “It’s my birthday!”

Jo rolled her eyes but chuckled. “Yeah, I know. The whole school probably knows.”

Dean bent his knees and clicked his tongue as he shot some finger guns in her direction.

She paused and tilted her head. “What’s that?”

The guns paused in mid-air as Dean frowned momentarily. “This?” He repeated the movement. “A finger gun?”

“What’s a gun?”

Dean pursed his lips together and scratched at his head. Huh. It was a little bit foreign that a witch didn’t know what a gun was, but he could work around that.

“It’s like…” He gazed up at the ceiling, which was currently sporting some very lovely clouds that were growing darker by the second. It was probably going to snow again. “It’s like a wand, yeah? But it’s made of metal and all it does is shoot another bit of metal out really fast.”

Jo scrunched her eyebrows together and frowned. “And you were pointing them at me?”

Dean mimed blowing on the guns and sticking them in the pockets of his robes.”Not anymore, ma’am.” He grinned and waved as skipped past her. “Hope you got me a present that’s not a broom!”

He waltzed past the Gryffindor table, smirking as he saw Castiel glare at him over the remark he’d said rather loudly, and continued on to the Hufflepuff table and sat down in the middle of Philippe and Garth.

Breakfast was toast with a myriad of jam flavors, as well as bacon, eggs, and potatoes, and Dean was soon piling as much food as he could onto his plate.

His escapades into the kitchens were not as frequent as he would have liked, but sometimes when Dean wanted to go, there were students in the common room; he couldn’t very well open the secret passageway and alert the entire Hufflepuff House to its existence. It was for that very reason that he was eating as much as he was today. He’d been hoping that he could make a birthday trip, but so far there had always been someone present.

However, Dean had smiled when he’d seen an expertly decorated cupcake on the bedside next to him when he’d woken up that morning. He wasn’t just getting food out of the kitchens  it seemed like he might be getting friends, too. He’d made a happy mental note to thank Turvey next time he made it through the secret passage.

A loud screech was heard overhead, signalling that it was time for the mail and causing Dean to look up in eagerness. A few moments later, a rather small tawny owl flew just over head and dropped a small package directly onto Dean’s eggs.

“Happy birthday to me,” he murmured excitedly and pulled at the strings until all of the wrapping was finally off and the box was torn into. Inside, packed carefully in tissue paper to keep them safe, was an ornate looking wristwatch, a large bag of cookies, and another letter with his mom’s handwriting on it. As he unfolded the paper, something small slid out and landed on his lap. Setting the letter aside briefly, Dean scooped up what appeared to be an interesting metal amulet in the shape some sort of tribal head, attached to a cord that was obviously meant to go around his neck.

Huh.

He first pulled out the watch and studied it intently. It had an opal face with some sort of silver-looking metal holding it together, attached to what seemed to be black leather. Dean held onto it for a few moments, admiring it, and then he set it aside to get one of his housemates to help him put on later.

Next was the letter.

Dear Dean, it read. Happy Birthday! I hope you’re having so much fun at Hogwarts on your special day! I made you some of those cookies that you love so much and I hope they make it to you still fresh and not eaten by this owl. I know you’re a big twelve-year old now but it still feels like only yesterday your father and I took you home from the hospital.

The watch is from your dad. He says to keep it looking nice and that he hopes it helps you. It’s supposed to be pretty durable, so don’t worry too much about breaking it. Just don’t get too forgetful. The necklace is from your brother. Sam says that he found it in the park by our house and it reminded him of you.

I’ll see you in a few months, Dean! I miss you so much!

Mom

Dean grinned and immediately tugged the necklace up and over his head, gazing down at it as he proudly displayed it over his robes. He shoved aside his platter of breakfast food and took a large bite out of his mother’s cookies.

They weren’t warm anymore, but that was just fine. They tasted just as amazing as he remembered.

After wiping his hands on his robes, he reached out and looked at the watch again. It was old, he could tell that much. There was a little bit of wear and tear on it, but it was mostly in really good condition. This was really from his dad? He held it up to the light and squinted. On the back-side was an engraving that said HW.

Dean nearly dropped it when he realized his dad had actually given him his Grandpa’s watch. The one he’d barely let Dean look at, let alone own.

What - what did that mean?

“Happy birthday, Dean!”

Dean looked up as Garth tossed him a small, crudely-wrapped present from across the table.

“Aw, Garth! You didn’t have to get me anything,” he said as he was already halfway through tearing the paper off.

Garth just shrugged and smiled.

It was a roughly knitted black and yellow scarf. At least he was pretty sure it was a scarf.

“Wow - thanks, Garth!”

He shot his roommate a wide smile as he wrapped it around his neck, causing Garth to blush and wave a hand at him dismissively.

“I just figured you might want something from your House that you can wear in the Muggle world. It’s not a big deal.”

Dean felt a swell of pride in his chest at that. He did. He really did. He’d already come to love the yellow and black hues that he associated with his closest friends, and the idea of being able to wear the colors with pride around his home was something he would cherish. He could already see himself strutting around with it and telling Sam all about his common room.

“I do. Thank you so much!”

Nick cleared his throat next to him and stared pointedly at Garth, who raised his eyebrows. “Oh, right!”

The two of them stood up and started belting out a song in the middle of breakfast.

“Happy birthday to yooooooou! Happy birthday toooo yoooou!”

Dean blushed deeply as the rest of the Hufflepuff house turned in their direction and immediately joined in the song. Some quickly caught on and jumped up to start belting as loudly as they could, while a few groups of students leaned on each other and began swaying in time to the song until practically the entire table had chimed in their voices to help with the cringe-worthy harmonies.

“Happy biiiirthdaaay, dear Deeeeeeeeeean...”

Dean dropped his head in his hands, though he still had a smile on his face.

“Happy biiiiiiirthday toooo yoooooou!”

A loud cheer went up from the table and even from a few others before it finally died down as a few people clapped him on the back with a murmured “Happy Birthday, mate.”

What a House.

***

Dean admired his watch as he walked down the hallway with a skip in his step. It was looking to be a really good birthday so far. Even if he wasn’t able to actually see his mom or Sam (whom he really missed), or even his dad, he was at least able to read their letter and have some of his mom’s cooking. After breakfast Nick had given him a small package of chocolate and even Philippe had given him some brand new winter gloves that he’d had his mother send him from France.

“For future snowball fights,” he’d said, with a cat-like grin.

Thaddeus had pointedly ignored his birthday, which was fine seeing as he tended to ignore most things that didn’t revolve around popular wizarding singers.

Dean admired how his watch looked, lamenting that it was still a little loose on his wrist, even with it tightened to the last hole.

“Don’t you think it was a little ridiculous that Winchester got his entire table to sing to him?” Dean could hear Castiel talking loudly from behind him. “Kind of pompous, if you ask me.”

Nope. Not even Novak was going to bring him down, on today of all days.

Dean turned around and smiled serenely at Castiel and Spangler and...what was his name - Zeddy something - as he continued to walk backwards down the hallway.

He waved.

“Man, don’t you just hate it when people send you illegal and expensive presents that you don’t even get to keep? I wouldn’t know. I’m too busy having a great birthday.” Dean shrugged his shoulders with a faux-pout and whipped back around with his hands in the pockets of his robes as he skipped away. He knew that it was already a big sore point for Castiel and if he wasn’t such a pain, Dean would stop bringing it up. But here Castiel was on his birthday, trying to bring him down a few notches.

Poor, bitter Novak.

Dean spent the rest of the day in a great mood, but he kept finding himself shoving the watch up his arm to hide it underneath his robes. If anyone noticed it, he’d deflect the question.

He just… didn’t feel like mentioning his dad. If he mentioned his dad he’d have to think about how against Hogwarts and magic he was, and how he might not let Dean come back next year. Still, it meant a lot that his dad had trusted him with something as important as grandpa Winchester’s wristwatch.

Maybe his dad was starting to see reason after all.

 

----------------------------

 

BANG.

Castiel jumped as a wooden locker near to where he was sitting was slammed shut loudly.

“Shut it, Fitzgerald!” yelled a voice from across the room, louder than the general chatter and catcalling that filled up the changing room where Castiel was sitting.

“He already did!” Castiel watched Dean Winchester call back, shoulder to shoulder with Garth. “Didn’t you hear him?”

There was general laughter. The class was full of excitement, emotions running high as they threw their schoolbags into the lockers at the side of the changing room and prepared to head out into the pale January sun for their flying lesson. There was some tussling and yelping as the last few students pushed out through the doorway, leaving Castiel on his own.

He was sitting on a low slatted bench, his small hands clasped neatly on his lap, just the way Naomi would have liked to see them. His legs swung beneath him, not long enough yet to reach the ground - which was stone, worn smooth by the footsteps of countless students who had sat here before Castiel. He looked down at the glossy surface, imagining them in their Quidditch robes. The walls were marked all over, messages scratched into the walls by magic - and inky fingerprints pressed against the stone, too. Castiel squinted at one and hovered his thumb over it; he was a lot smaller than the fingerprint’s owner. Maybe one day he, too, would be pulling on the colours of his House and flying to win matches, just like they had.

None of his family had ever been great fliers; it was one of the few parts of the Hogwarts castle that the Novaks hadn’t already made their own in some way. Castiel, though - he knew he was good at flying. He enjoyed it. Maybe it was something he could put his fingerprint on, in a good way. Something that he wouldn’t ruin by doing differently - something that he could add to the proud family history.

He got to his feet, knowing that Professor Mills would soon be calling the class to attention and preparing them for the lesson - the most important lesson in their flying careers so far. Castiel gritted his teeth together as he pushed out through the heavy wooden door of the changing room, and into the sunlight.

The Hogwarts Quidditch stadium was huge - terrifyingly so, the grass stretching away in all directions, green acres fanning out from under Castiel’s feet all the way to the hoops at either end of the pitch. The stands rose high, looming down out of the grey-blue sky, tilted slightly like slanted, downturned eyebrows. Even the sun itself seemed intimidated, shrinking back behind a cloud as Castiel began to make his way over to his classmates, their ragged group only a darkly-robed puddle in an ocean of distance on all sides. He’d seen the stadium before, of course, from the stands - but it had never seemed quite so huge from up there.

Castiel took a breath of the clean, cold air. Good flying conditions, he thought to himself. Not too much wind, which was all the more important since he wasn’t wearing Quidditch robes - only his everyday school robes, which were ungainly and not meant to be streamlined, so any wind usually hit them like a sail and send him spinning off course.

“Hurry up, Novak!” Professor Mills called, and Castiel ran the last few yards up to the rest of the group. Dean Winchester was standing on the periphery, near Hannah; he caught Castiel’s eye and grinned.

“If you’re scared of playing against me, Novak, you don’t have to hide in the changing room like a baby. I’m sure Professor Mills will let you out of the game if you ask nicely.”

Castiel rolled his eyes. Professor Mills, meanwhile, was launching into a reiteration of the rules of Quidditch, which Castiel knew only too well. He’d studied up the night before, of course, just to be sure.

“The only thing I’m scared of is laughing too hard when we win,” he said shortly to Dean.

“Yeah, winning,” Dean whispered back, dropping his voice when Professor Mills sent a quelling glance their way. “D’you ever wonder what that feels like, Novak? I could tell you, if you want. You know, since I won the snowball fight.”

“Wait…” Castiel said, frowning and looking intently into Dean’s face. Dean’s eyes went a little wider under the scrutiny. “Wait, is that - I think maybe you’ve still got some purple in your eyebrows, Winchester. From the time I beat you at Exploding Snap. Remember?”

Dean’s bright, mischievous smile darkened immediately to a frown, and he shrugged.

“Purple looked better on me than snow looked on you,” he muttered. Castiel opened his mouth to retort, before realising that the rest of the class was dispersing - half to one side, and half to another, Gryffindors to the right and Hufflepuffs to the left, leaving Dean and Castiel stranded in the middle for a few long moments.

“My brother Michael just learned about Cheering Charms,” said Castiel to Dean, a parting shot. “I’ll make sure he’s ready to help you after the match. You’re going to need it.” He walked away, giving Dean no time to respond. He was pretty sure that there was a tongue being stuck out at the back of his head - in fact, in a way, he thought he’d be disappointed if that wasn’t the case. Of course, there was no way that Michael Novak would actually take the time to perform his newly-learned Cheering Charm on a first year, but Dean didn’t need to know that.

Castiel walked over towards his fellow Gryffindors, feeling his heart beginning to beat a little faster. This was it. The first actual Quidditch match he’d ever played. His classmates had already chosen their brooms, so Castiel was left with the only one they hadn’t picked up yet - an old Comet, the twigs sticking out at odd angles. Castiel looked down at it distastefully.

“Problem, Mr Novak?”

Castiel blinked up into Professor Mills’ hard stare. He’d earned her approval with some of his flying, but she was yet to offer him anything other than a stony expression whenever he talked to her.

“I - I was just thinking, Professor,” he said, making sure to keep his voice as low as possible. “My father - he gave me a broom for my birthday. I know it’s not allowed for first years to play Quidditch for their House, but I thought maybe…”

“No,” Professor Mills said crisply. “Rules are rules, even for the Novaks. Everyone’s on the same broom, young man, quite literally. They’re all Comets. You wouldn’t want to cheat, would you?”

“No,” Castiel said quickly, his voice coming out a little whiny. He really hadn’t thought of it as cheating; he only wanted the chance to ride the broom that his father had given him. “No, Professor, I just…”

“Pick up your broom, Novak, and get ready for the whistle.” Professor Mills never spoke to Castiel unkindly, but she also offered him no special treatment, nor even any of the friendliness that she occasionally showed other members of the class. Castiel wondered whether perhaps it was something to do with his mother, or one of his brothers - he couldn’t imagine why Professor Mills wouldn’t like Naomi, since she was a very good teacher, or why she wouldn’t like Michael, who must have been competent enough in her class as he was in everything he did. Maybe it had been Gabriel. He went out of his way to make the other students laugh sometimes, Castiel knew that much. Surely that was it, then. Gabriel had pranked someone in Professor Mills’ class one time, and now she was worried that the youngest Novak would pull something similar if she wasn’t stern with him.

Or perhaps Naomi had spoken to her, and asked her to be particularly firm. It sounded like something Castiel’s mother would do. He could picture her face perfectly as she earnestly asked for him not to be given any praise unless he had done something outstanding.

“Hufflepuffs, Gryffindors - on my whistle, you will begin the game! I’m going to assign you positions now. You know the rules of the game; I don’t want to see any rulebreaking. That goes for everyone,” she said, blandly enough, though Castiel still cringed. Had that been directed at him? Probably.

Professor Mills began with the Hufflepuffs.

“Keeper,” she said, pointing to Ruby, who clenched her jaw a little tighter. Keeper wasn’t the most glorified position to play, Castiel thought to himself, watching her subtle anger, and Ruby loved the chance to show off. The only time he ever saw her happy was when she was with Bela, trying on her Slytherin tie at the Hufflepuff table and casting superior looks at everyone else sitting nearby.

He understood how badly she wanted to be in a different House - even now, looking at the Ravenclaw table gave him pangs of longing - but he hoped that he was doing better at adjusting to life after the Sorting just recently. It had been months, after all.

“Chaser, Chaser, Chaser,” Professor Mills said, pointing to Philippe LeChat, Nick Munroe, and Thaddeus MacInnes. “Beater.” Dean turned to his left and high-fived Garth, who then came forward and took a bat from the box at Professor Mills’ feet. “Beater.” A girl with long, curly hair and big brown eyes - Lisa, Castiel thought her name was - frowned, and came forward to pick up her bat, too. Finally, Professor Mills pointed to Dean. “Seeker.”

Dean preened a little and flexed his fingers on his broomstick’s handle. Castiel watched Ruby, who was eyeing Dean jealously as he turned and grabbed Garth’s bat out of his hands and swung it experimentally, before handing it back with a little reluctance.

“Gryffindor Keeper,” Professor Mills said, pointing her finger at Gordon Walker, who shrugged. He still wasn’t the same since the fight - Castiel had seen him spending some more time with Kubrick and Creedy, but it wasn’t often and otherwise he seemed virtually friendless. It was only fair, Castiel still thought. He’d behaved so badly to Hannah, and received a thorough come-uppance.

“Chaser, Chaser, and Chaser,” said Professor Mills, encompassing Hannah, Jo, and Anna with a sweep of her hand. The three of them turned to each other with grins on their faces; Castiel blinked and shifted from one foot to the other. He wished there were room for a fourth Chaser. He looked back over at the Hufflepuffs, and caught Ruby watching him with an astute look on her face. Castiel frowned at her, and looked away.

“Beater and Beater,” Professor Mills continued. Spangler and Zeddmore went to pick up their bats, their faces alight, as though they hardly dared to believe their luck. Finally, Professor Mills turned her gaze to Castiel.

“Seeker,” she said indifferently, as though it hardly mattered.

Castiel let out a breath, and nodded to himself. It did matter, it mattered hugely. If he put in a good performance at this match, Professor Mills might even drop in a tip to the Gryffindor Quidditch team, so that the captain could have her eye on him for next year. And if he did badly, it might be weeks before Professor Mills took him seriously again.

“Hey, Castiel,” Jo said, beaming. “Make sure you catch the Snitch before Dean, OK?”

“Hey!” Dean called, feigning offence. “I heard that!”

Jo held out her arms in a big mock shrug.

“There’s friendship, and then there’s Quidditch!” she said back, grinning. Castiel thought he caught an approving twinkle in Professor Mills’ eyes. The flying class were twisting their hands on their brooms, excited to begin - even Ruby looked keen. Lisa was biting her lip, looking a little more nervous than the rest.

“Mount your brooms!” called Professor Mills. “I am going to release the Bludgers and the Snitch! Be on your guard - your Beaters are still novices. If any of you are injured, it will be easy to remedy in the Hospital Wing, so don’t panic. Chasers, in a circle above me for the toss-up. Positions!” She clapped her hands to chivvy her students along; Castiel swung his leg over the old Comet broom and kicked off the ground.

The familiar sensation of flight tugged at Castiel’s stomach, and he grinned to himself at the rush of air through his hair. He gripped the handle carefully, remembering Professor Mills’ pointers. Even though his legs were neatly tucked, as they should be, he could still feel his robes flapping around beneath him, and his smile faded as he gritted his teeth in annoyance. Whenever they watched a Quidditch game here in the stadium, none of the players on the House teams had to deal with the fact that their robes were swishing around and throwing them off course.

“Seekers, above the Chasers!” Professor Mills called up, and Castiel angled himself higher and swooped into position - a little faster than he’d meant to, since his control still wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t think anyone had noticed.

“Nice moves, Novak,” said a voice nearby. “You know, Professor Mills would probably do another beginner’s class, if you asked.”

Castiel glared over at Dean Winchester, who was holding his broom steady with one hand while he ran the other through his hair. His grin was wide and charming, his eyes twinkling and glinting a little with the fun of the competition. Castiel rolled his eyes.

“If you think you need another beginner’s class, you should ask her yourself, Winchester,” he said. “Don’t rely on me to ask for you.”

Dean smirked at his response, and Castiel grinned back. It was at times like this that he could almost forget that they weren’t friends.

“I miss the look on your face after I’ve beaten you,” Dean said. “I’m gonna see it again soon.”

Right. That was why they weren’t friends.

“I miss you being purple,” Castiel countered. “I could see less of your face, which is always good.”

“You’re good at seeing less of things, Novak. Like the Snitch, for example, I bet you’ll be seeing a lot less of that than I will.”

“Yeah, you can watch it for me as I catch it with my eyes closed. I won’t even need to keep them open to beat you, Winchester.”

Dean snorted, and then looked down as Professor Mills called for their attention. Castiel followed his gaze, seeing the top of Anna, Jo, and Hannah’s heads arranged in a neat semicircle opposite the Hufflepuff Chasers. Their hair was blowing in the breeze that was starting to pick up, Hannah’s soft, unruly curls tumbling over her face no matter how many times she reached up and pushed them behind her ears.

“On my whistle!” Professor Mills called up. “Three - two - one -”

The sound of the whistle was shrill and piercing - and immediately, there was chaos.

The Chasers bundled for the Quaffle, and there were yells as they collided into one another. Castiel looped away from the action, his eyes roving the pitch for any sign of the Snitch.

“Should I stay near you?” Castiel heard Garth call out, and swung in the air to see him looking at Dean, Beater’s bat hanging limply in one hand.

“No, Garth, do your job!” Dean called back, his voice thin to Castiel’s ears over the distance, as Lisa beneath him did a roll to avoid a fast-paced Bludger and almost fell off her broom. Castiel realised suddenly that he’d been flying without looking where he was going, and faced front again to see he was on a collision course with the Hufflepuff hoops. He careened left, avoiding them by inches.

“Smooth,” he heard Ruby say snidely, and went pink. He tried to shrug it off. It looked like Professor Mills was still too involved with the tangle of Chasers - which hadn’t moved far - to notice his almost-mishap.

Castiel squinted, and thought he could see the Quaffle lying on the ground beneath the scrum of bodies above. None of them seemed to have noticed.

He narrowed his eyes - and just then, noticed Dean Winchester at the other side of the pitch. He had gone very still, hovering in midair, his head angled towards the Chasers, too. Castiel knew, he knew that Dean had seen it too - the Quaffle, lying unnoticed, begging to be picked up.

For a split second, he hesitated. He wasn’t a Chaser, he was a Seeker -

Dean dived, making straight for the Quaffle. Castiel didn’t hesitate a second longer. He plunged forwards too.

They sped across the pitch, swooping in low from opposite sides. Castiel saw Dean notice him and narrow his eyes, leaning a little further forward, pushing himself faster - following his lead, Castiel tipped his body weight forwards, silently pleading with his broom to move, move, move…

They were making for a head-on collision, and neither of them was prepared to slow. Castiel was going so fast now that the grass was a blur, but he could still make out the stern, unrelenting set of Dean Winchester’s jaw. He gritted his own teeth and held his nerve, roaring closer and closer to the lost Quaffle…

At the last second, they both swerved hard to their left, their momentum carrying them into each other side-on all the same. They each let out a little yelp of pain; Castiel thought he heard something crunch along his ribcage where Dean’s elbow drove into him. For a moment they scrabbled for balance, struggling not to fall off their brooms - above them, the Chasers were still locked together in a miasma of moving limbs, seemingly each certain that the other team had the Quaffle - and then both Dean and Castiel remembered, as one, that the Quaffle was sitting on the ground directly below them.

Dean’s balancing weight disappeared from beside Castiel as he barrel-rolled off his broom to the floor. Castiel followed him more clumsily, falling hard with another shout, his bruising ribs bearing the brunt of his weight as he sprawled. He looked up in time to see Dean Winchester snatch up the Quaffle with a laugh of triumph, mount his broom, and zoom away into the air towards the Gryffindor hoops.

“Dean Winchester, you are a Seeker!” Castiel heard Professor Mills calling over the rabble of the Chasers - up until that point she’d seemingly been happy to sit back and let them figure it out on their own, but apparently breaking the rules of their positions was enough to stir her castigation. Dean, however, paid absolutely no attention. He continued to fly right towards Gordon Walker, who was hovering uncertainly between two of the Gryffindor hoops.

Castiel let out a huff of mingled frustration and hurt, and then pulled himself to his feet. His broomstick shot up into his hand the second he held it out, and he mounted it and kicked off, hard. The ground fell away fast.

“Jo!” he yelled as he flew away, hoping to attract her attention to the situation at the wrong end of the pitch. “Hannah! Anna!”

He didn’t look around to see whether they were following him, too focused on staying streamlined so that he could catch up to Dean as quickly as possible. Gordon was flying out to meet the attack, his tall frame shielding a little of the goals from Dean’s view. Dean, the Quaffle clutched under one arm, seemed to hesitate. Castiel kept flying, the wind biting at his face and his open eyes - but he kept them fixed on the Quaffle. Dean was almost at a standstill now, considering his options…

Until Castiel smacked the Quaffle out of his arms, caught it in the tips of his fingers, and rolled away towards the Hufflepuff hoops.

“Yeah, Castiel!” He heard Jo celebrating, and realised that the tussle of Beaters and Chasers must have finally disbanded. A dark streak came into his field of vision on his left - it was impossible at this speed to tell easily whether it was a Gryffindor or a Hufflepuff -

“To me, Castiel!” yelled a voice that Castiel recognised, and he instantly threw the Quaffle over to the dark form that was Hannah, matching him for pace and for determination. Castiel could see Anna flying above Hannah, and to their right were a couple of Hufflepuffs - Lisa with her bat, and Nick Munroe. Castiel took the opportunity to glance over his shoulder; sure enough, there was Dean Winchester flying close behind him, his expression taut with concentration. Castiel considered breaking away from the Chasers, and going back to seeking out the Snitch.

“Castiel!” Hannah called, and Castiel turned towards her in time to see the Quaffle flying towards his face, a back pass that nearly knocked him out of the air. He jerked up and took the Quaffle to his chest, wrapping one arm around it tightly so that it wouldn’t fall. They were almost at the Hufflepuff goals, now, Hannah slightly ahead of Castiel, Anna to her left and Jo to her right, an arrowhead formation. Castiel heard a swish as someone behind him - Dean, it had to be - changed course suddenly, diving off to one side. He knew he should keep his eyes focused on Ruby and the goalposts, but couldn’t resist the temptation to turn around and look.

What he saw almost made him fall off his broom. As it was, he slowed almost to a stop to watch in horror; Dean had flown over to Garth and asked for his beater’s bat - and there was a Bludger rocketing their way, fast as a bullet, and Dean had his eye on it…

“That's cheating,” Castiel said, too surprised to make the observation to anyone but himself.

“Castiel!” yelled Jo. Castiel swung his gaze back around to see Jo, Anna, and Hannah all hovering near the Hufflepuff hoops, watching him with expressions of consternation. Ruby was behind them, her sharp eyes seeing everything. The Quaffle was still clutched tightly under his arm. Castiel turned back to Dean just in time to watch him give the Bludger a heartfelt thwack. It resounded off the bat, and Dean gave a whoop of excitement.

And his aim was true; the Bludger came pelting directly towards Castiel. For a long second, all he could do was stare at it, hearing the thud of his heart in his ears and the gentle outward huff of his breath.

“Castiel!” called Hannah, with even more urgency than Jo. Castiel took his eyes off the Bludger, mere yards away from him now, and leaned hard sideways on his broom to shift himself out of the way. As he began to roll over, he caught sight of Dean's face behind the Bludger that had been about to take his head off… if Castiel hadn't known better, he would have said that Dean actually looked almost scared for him, too…

Whoosh.

The Bludger went over Castiel’s head just as he completed his roll. He tried to catch his breath, blinking hard and frowning as the sense of unreality faded. He looked over towards Dean again, wondering if… but no, Dean’s expression was indubitably one of disappointment. He obviously regretted that he hadn't managed to take off Castiel’s head.

“You'll have to do better than that!” Castiel called to him, his heart still pounding. He gripped his broomstick handle tighter to stop his hands trembling in the aftermath of narrowly-avoided disaster.

Dean raised his eyebrows at something below Castiel, and then grinned.

“Oh, yeah?” he said. “Then where's the Quaffle, Novak?”

Castiel felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as he realised that there was nothing clutched under his arm any longer. He looked down beneath him to the floor, but there was no Quaffle lying on the grass; casting his gaze around the pitch wildly, he finally caught sight of it - gripped tightly in the arms of Lisa Braeden, who was pelting up the length of the Quidditch pitch towards the Gryffindor hoops.

“Better luck next time!” Dean hollered with a laugh as he zoomed away to follow the Quaffle.

Castiel made to follow him, his broom tipping awkwardly with his sudden decision to move - and then he saw it.

The Snitch. Hovering just a few yards away from him, glittering invitingly against the overcast sky.

If Castiel could catch the Snitch, they’d win the game. Professor Mills would have to be impressed by that.

Castiel lurched his broom sideways, the violence of the turn almost toppling him right out of the air. He kept his eyes on the Snitch, which quivered slightly in the air for a second, and then took off to the left at an impossible pace. Castiel wrenched his broomstick again, gripping harder with his knees this time and making the bend without losing his balance. The Snitch was gaining on him, even still; he lowered his head, rounded his shoulders, and pressed on. The wind whistled through his hair, making his eyes water. He had no idea where he was on the pitch; all of his focus was centred entirely on the golden, winged ball in front of him.

“Castiel!” he heard someone yell. “What are you doing?

He paid them no attention, too breathless to answer. He was gaining ground, now, the Snitch whirling down towards the ground with Castiel in hot pursuit. He could only hope that whoever had yelled to him hadn’t attracted the attention of Dean, his counterpart in seeking…

Wham. A heavy body crashed into Castiel’s side, and he only held his course steady by sheer determination as his bruised ribs screeched angry protestations. He glanced furiously to his left and saw the profile of Dean Winchester, his lips tight with determination, his eyes on the Snitch.

“I saw it first!” Castiel yelled as he turned his own gaze forwards once more, gripping tight to the handle of his broom. It was a stupid, whiny thing to say. He didn’t know if he meant it, or if he was only hoping to distract Dean. Perhaps a mixture of the two.

“Yeah, I’m gonna catch it first!” Dean called back, loud in Castiel’s ear. The Snitch dropped even lower, zigzagging left and right; Dean and Castiel followed it, bumping into each other and shoving. Dean rammed Castiel hard with his shoulder, so Castiel pushed him back and elbowed him hard in the side. Dean took a hand off his broomstick to give Castiel’s shoulder a hard push, so Castiel raised his own hand to smack Dean’s away. Without a secure grip, both of their brooms wobbled in the air - and their shoving, fisted hands became suddenly scared and grasping as they both realised at the same moment what was going to happen…

Crash. Castiel felt Dean’s hand torn out of his grip as he pitched forwards off his broom, and fell flat onto the grass. With a jolt that ran the length of his body, Castiel felt the wind knocked out of him; he could only stare upwards, immobile and shocked.

He tried blinking, and it worked.

He coughed, trying to fill his lungs back up, and it ached. He saw a broomstick go zooming past overhead, and wondered if anyone had even noticed that the two seekers had managed to plough themselves right into the ground.

Gingerly, he sat up, wiggling his fingers and his toes. Nothing seemed to be broken, although - he crunched over in pain - his ribs’ protestations had become all-out rioting, it seemed. His head swam a little with the pain. He was dimly aware of a whistling noise.

He looked to his left, and saw Dean Winchester sitting up, too. He had blood spilling out of his nose, and his eyes looked blank and glazed.

“Dean?” Castiel said. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah,” he responded quietly, shaking his head. “Castiel… you...”

Dean squinted over at him, blinking hard, the glassiness in his eyes replaced with narrow dislike.

“You pushed me off my broom!” he said. “You broke my nose!”

“What?” Castiel said, taken aback. He frowned and made to get up, but the pain in his ribs was too bad. Dean’s nose, meanwhile, was bleeding freely, red streams trickling over his lips and dripping off his chin onto his robes. “I did not!”

“You’re a cheat, Novak,” Dean said, his voice getting thicker. He tilted his head back and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re a cheat!”

“I’m not !” Castiel insisted fiercely. “Your nose isn’t even broken, you just have a nosebleed!”

“Oh, well, if you want another shot at breaking my face, let’s get back on our brooms and give it a go!” Dean said. “Maybe you’ll be able to cheat better the second time!”

“If you want to get back on the brooms, then let’s do it!” Castiel snapped. “But only so I can prove to you that I’ll beat you fair and square, any time you want!”

He tried to pull himself to his feet, and encountered some troubles. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Dean Winchester struggling similarly, their bodies bruised and aching after the fall - and that whistling was still going on, shrill and piercing, getting louder and louder as they struggled towards their abandoned broomsticks and tried to pick them up, hunched and groaning like two old men.

“DOWN! EVERYONE DOWN TO THE FLOOR THIS INSTANT! I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME!” Castiel heard a voice saying, getting louder and more intelligible as its owner approached him. He straightened up to be greeted by the sight of Professor Mills’ face, pale with anger, her eyes sharp as tacks.

“Mister Novak,” she said, icily calm. “If you make one more move to get on that broom, you will spend what’s left of this term in its entirety in detention. Do you understand?”

Her expression was forbidding, and brooked no excuses. Castiel felt his mind go blank with panic. He didn’t know exactly what he’d done wrong, but guilt washed over him.

“Yes, Professor,” Castiel said at once, making his mouth small like he always did when Naomi shouted at him, to stop himself from crying. All around him, the other players were arriving on the ground with varying levels of grace; Lisa touched down lightly, but Spangler planted himself hard into the ground and then promptly fell over backwards.

“Get in a line!” Professor Mills snapped, and the students hurried silently to fulfil her bidding. Castiel and even Dean, his nosebleed only just starting to ease off, followed suit.

“I have never seen such a shambles in my life ! That wasn’t a game of Quidditch, that was twenty minutes at a daycare for delinquent chimpanzees!”

Castiel wilted under her briskly-worded chastisement. Beside him, he could hear Dean breathing through his mouth; the nosebleed had to be blocking his nose.

“Chasers, your ball skills were generally shocking ,” Professor Mills went on. “I saw one instance of an arrowhead formation - passable work from you, Milton, Harvelle, Carroll - but the rest of it was abominable. Utterly abominable. A shambles. Beaters, did I see you use your bats, even once? Braeden, you dropped yours halfway through! Fitzgerald, you palmed yours off! That is not the idea behind this training!”

There was silence along the row of first years. Castiel had his head hung down, so he only saw Professor Mill’s worn brown boots under her robes as she stopped in front of him and Dean.

“And Seekers,” she said ominously. “Or were you Beaters? Or Chasers? It was difficult to tell, what with you two trying to take on just about every role on the field. Maybe next time, I’ll just get everyone else to sit out, and we can all watch you two play, hmm?” Castiel saw her hands rise to her hips. “Quidditch is a team sport,” she said fiercely. “You play it with your team. Personal rivalry can fuel your fire, but if you’re not playing co-operatively, you’re going to burn out faster than a dry branch in a dragon cave. I’m disappointed in both of you. You’ve injured each other, on top of bad play. You will both receive detentions. Now, help each other up to the Hospital Wing.”

For a moment, the whole class stood frozen, caught in the ice-cold web of her disapproval. Then she clapped her hands together, jerking them out of their silence.

“Come on, come on, back to the changing room to get your things!” Professor Mills called, and the first years broke ranks, running back across the field to pick up their bags. Dean and Castiel glanced at each other before starting to follow them, Dean limping a little on one leg, and Castiel clutching his left side and hissing through his teeth at every jarring footstep. The journey up through the castle was made mostly in silence. Right before they entered the Hospital Wing, Dean turned to Castiel, a grin splitting his blood-stained face.

“Not bad for our first game, though, huh?” he said.

Castiel rolled his eyes, shook his head… and found himself smiling.

“Not bad,” he agreed, and then nodded. “Yes. Not bad.”

**

“Castiel!” Gabriel greeted his younger brother with a wide smile, as Castiel walked through the door into the Great Hall for dinner that evening. He slung an arm around his little brother’s neck and began walking him further into the Hall, which was still quiet - dinner wasn’t due to begin for another fifteen minutes. “Looking cheerful as always. Do you do facial workouts? I’m worried about these muscles always frowning.” Gabriel reached over and pinched Castiel’s cheeks, squishing up his lips into a pout. Castiel shook him off, and ducked out from under his arm.

“What do you want, Gabriel?” he asked, smiling despite himself. Gabriel was trying to steer them towards the Ravenclaw table, but Castiel walked determinedly past it and sat down on a bench his own House’s table. Gabriel shuffled awkwardly for a moment, and then seemed to shrug, and sat down beside him.

“I want to catch up with the lion cub,” he said, nudging Castiel in the side. “I heard you got pretty beat up in your Flying Class, little bro.”

Castiel lifted a shoulder diffidently, and pulled a textbook out of his bag. The Standard Book of Spells. He couldn’t remember the precise wand movement for the Locking Spell, and he’d promised to show it to Ash after dinner.

“I also heard it was a Hufflepuff who beat you up,” Gabriel pushed, his tone a little snide. Castiel looked up hotly.

“He did not ‘ beat me up ’,” he said angrily. “It was just a mock game of Quidditch, we weren’t actually fighting .”

Gabriel held his hands up in mock surrender.

“That’s not what I heard, is all,” he said archly, and then grinned as Castiel sat up straighter and puffed out his chest.

“Well, if that’s not what they’re saying, it’ll be because he spread a rumour! Dean Winchester is smug, and... and arrogant, and lazy. If he’s telling people we got in a fight, then I’m going to start telling everyone who came off worse. He had blood all over his nose by the time we were done.”

“You punched him in the nose?” Gabriel asked, sounding impressed. Castiel hunched his shoulders and picked up his book.

“Well,” he said. “The ground did.”

Gabriel snorted, and ruffled Castiel’s hair. Castiel didn’t bother to shrug him off; he’d fix it when his older brother left, after the inevitable future rufflings.

“I should’ve guessed this Quidditch Hufflepuff would be that nemesis of yours,” he said easily, earning himself another glare. “You and Dean Winchester need to calm down. It’s only first year. Feuds shouldn’t start until at least third.”

“He’s insufferable! He tried to make fun of me in front of Hannah. He got all his friends to throw snowballs at me. He never even thanked me for saving his life last year when he almost fell off a broom!” Castiel paused for a second, and then added in a slightly different tone, “He made fun of me because Dad’s present got confiscated.”

Gabriel leaned forwards, his light expression clouding over.

“He did what?”

“You heard.” Castiel shifted uncomfortably; Dean’s mockery had been on his mind more than he cared to admit, and he both did and didn’t want to talk about it. “On my birthday, he laughed at me right after it was taken away. And then on his birthday, he brought it up again. Said how nice it was to get presents he could keep.”

Castiel’s blinked hard and stopped talking, his voice threatening to wobble. He wished he could forget how much it hurt him that his father hadn’t even so much as written him a letter after what had happened at Christmas. He didn’t know why he had hoped for one - he couldn’t remember a time when his father had so much as acknowledged his existence beyond his annual gift - but somehow, a part of him had hoped that his mother would write to his father and tell him what had happened. That his father would send him something else, something he could keep.

“He can’t like you all that much,” Gabriel said, and Castiel looked up at him with wide, hurt eyes.

“You think Dad doesn’t...”

“Dad? No, I was talking about Dean Winchester,” Gabriel said, his frown deepening. “If he’s messing with you, he better watch out. He’s picking on the wrong little brother.”

“He’s not picking on me , Gabriel,” Castiel said, turning back to his book determinedly. “I can take care of myself. I always come off better.” Briefly, the image of snowballs being pelted into his face surfaced in his mind; Castiel pushed it away crossly.

“If I hear about him doing anything I don’t like, he won’t enjoy what comes next,” Gabriel said, his tone sharp and sincere. Castiel turned to look at him, and saw that his golden eyes were hard as flint.

“I can take care of myself,” he said again, but more quietly, with a little shrug. The last time he’d seen that look on Gabriel’s face, it had been back at Cloudesley Street, when Castiel had spent most of the day baking chocolate-chip cupcakes with Muriel and Michael had fed them all to the dog that lived next door. The dog had been horribly ill, and Castiel had been pale and upset for hours, refusing to cry. Gabriel’s eyes had hardened to rock and the next day, Michael had unknowingly eaten dog food pasta for dinner. Muriel had turned a blind eye.

Castiel was grinning at the memory, and Gabriel cocked his head.

“What?” he demanded, though he’d softened at seeing Castiel smile.

“Dog food pasta,” Castiel said, the same guilty glee washing over him as it had when he and Gabriel had sat opposite each other at the dinner table, burying their laughs in their own plates of spaghetti bolognese as Michael blithely tucked into his meal.

Gabriel snorted.

“Ah yes,” he said. “Spaghetti à la canine. My specialty.”

“Are we ever going to tell him about that?”

“He’d kill me, little bro. He’d kill us both. Maybe when we’ve learned how to apparate, so that we can just…” He made a ‘poof’ motion with his hands. “... disappear as soon as he realises what we’re talking about.”

Castiel laughed, shaking his head.

“I still can’t believe you did that.”

“You were complicit!”

“You were the one who stole the dog food from next door. And the one who mixed it with the tomato sauce.”

“Alright, alright, I was the guilty one,” Gabriel conceded. “Mostly. I got sauce on my hands, little bro. I can’t wash it off…”

He waved his hands, fingers splayed, in front of Castiel’s face. Castiel laughed and batted them away, and then squirmed when Gabriel went to tickle him

“Gabriel! Not in front of everyone!” he said, casting an embarrassed glance at the rest of the Hall. No one was paying them any attention. Gabriel ruffled his hair, and Castiel gave a long-suffering sigh.

“Speaking of Michael,” Gabriel said suddenly, as though he’d just remembered something. “He mentioned that he wanted to speak to you. I don’t know if that means you want to find him or you want to avoid him, but he’s coming in right now, so you’d better make a decision.”

Castiel looked over his shoulder towards the doors to the Great Hall, where Michael was walking in next to a tall boy with dirty blond hair and a slight smirk. Castiel thought he recognised the boy - wherever Michael was, he seemed to be there, too.

“Who’s that?” he asked Gabriel. “He’s always with Michael.”

“Don’t I know it,” Gabriel said, a strange look on his face. “That’s Lucifer Morningstar.”

“As in, the Slytherin Quidditch Captain?” Castiel said, surprised. “I thought he was taller.”

“He’s tall enough,” Gabriel said. Castiel couldn’t figure out whether Gabriel sounded admiring or disapproving.

“Well... I might as well get it over with,” he said aloud, trying to sound upbeat even though his heart was skittering with sudden nerves at the idea of talking with his brother. They hadn’t so much as said ‘hello’ to each other since September. “I’ll go and see what he wants.”

He swung himself off the bench and stood up, threading his way through the students beginning to filter into the Great Hall in larger numbers as dinner neared. Above, the sky was already dark and cloudy. Michael was standing at the end of the Ravenclaw table talking to Lucifer, elegant and composed as always. His robes fell so well, his tie done neatly without being too perfect. He gestured lightly with one long-fingered hand, and Lucifer laughed. Castiel walked up to them, feeling short and uncomfortable.

“Michael?” he said, when his older brother didn’t notice him approach. Michael kept talking to Lucifer, confidence radiating like a sunblast.

“And then I realised that he was Muggleborn,” he was saying. Lucifer shook his head.

“No wonder,” he said, sounding relaxed, his eyes bright. “I know it’s fashionable to think that Muggleborns belong with real wizards, but it just doesn’t seem to work in reality.”

Castiel’s eyes flicked between them, two real wizards standing so tall and sure of themselves. They had a glamour to them, a strength, and Castiel was seized with a sudden desire to be them - to be tall and confident, going against the crowd and not caring, talking about it loudly in the Great Hall. Lucifer wasn’t even bothered by the fact that his opinion wasn’t the same as the mainstream. Castiel was sure that if Lucifer had been sorted into the wrong House, he’d have held his head high all the same. He tilted his own chin up, and shifted his body, trying to pose himself like Lucifer did.

“Michael,” he said more certainly, and his eldest brother turned to look at him at once. Lucifer did the same, and his gaze was strange - a little cold and unsettling, not taking him seriously.

“Castiel,” Michael said, smiling thinly. “I’m glad you came to see me.” He said it as though Castiel had stepped into his office; he was totally in control. “I just wanted to say, I know things have been hard on you since the Sorting. It must be difficult to be in a House with so many wizards of a lesser calibre. But I want you to know that I still think you can make something of yourself, Castiel. I hear you’re doing well in your classes.”

Castiel was quiet for a moment, not quite sure what to say. His heart was beating fast. Michael kept tabs on him - paid attention to what he was doing? That was… that was wonderful.

It was wonderful because it meant that Michael wasn’t cutting all ties. Castiel knew Michael was cool and aloof and even cruel sometimes, but... he still yearned for his oldest brother’s approval. To know that he still had a chance of making Michael proud of him… to know that Michael had been following his progress and effort in class, that his hard work wasn’t passing unnoticed…

“I did hear that a Hufflepuff is outdoing you in some of your classes, though,” Michael went on. “And that you’re friends with Charlie Bradbury.”

Lucifer snorted.

“The Bradburys are blood traitors,” he said easily. Castiel felt himself shrink a little inside. He opened his mouth to speak, and then thought of Charlie’s bright, sharp face, and closed it again. Michael was looking at him expectantly.

“We’re - we’re not really friends,” Castiel said hesitantly. “We just know each other.”

Michael reached out and put a hand on Castiel’s shoulder, and Castiel’s eyes went wide.

“Don’t worry, Castiel,” he said. “I knew you’d be doing the right thing.”

His expression was hard and forbidding, just for a second, before easing back into a casual, confident smile. Castiel felt himself quail. He nodded down at his shoes. Michael let go of his shoulder, and when Castiel looked up, he and Lucifer were already walking away.

He blinked, trying to figure out whether he liked what he’d just heard - whether Michael really was proud of how he was doing, or just trying to warn him that there was a close eye being kept on him. He wanted to believe the first, but it felt more like the latter.

At least none of his close friends were Muggleborns. Castiel hadn’t really been paying any attention to who was and who wasn’t in his year, but if he wanted to stay in his brother’s good books, he perhaps ought to start. He assumed that the Muggleborns would be at the bottom of the class, going by what Michael and Lucifer had said about them not really belonging with proper wizards. If they were that bad, Castiel wondered, why weren’t they kept out - like Squibs?

He shrugged to himself, and wondered what Gabriel thought of Muggleborns. He couldn’t imagine it was all that different to what Michael thought. Something about it needled him a little, but he pushed the feeling away. He was wrong enough inside already, Gryffindor and not Ravenclaw. Somehow Michael didn’t hate him, was even willing to talk with him in public - and Castiel didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise that. If he said Muggleborns weren’t worthy of being here, then - then Castiel thought that, too.

It wasn’t an issue. This was probably the last time it would ever really come up.

 

----------------------------

 

Dean trudged down the hallway with his hands in his pockets, already mentally preparing himself for a night of detention spent with Castiel Novak. Dean had already had his fair share of detentions in his short time at Hogwarts, but doubted that even writing an endless amount of lines with Professor Apollyon breathing down his neck would compare to hours of being trapped with Castiel doing whatever Professor Mills had planned.

The last time the two of them had spoken to each other, it had been when they’d silently made their way up to the hospital wing after the fiasco of a quidditch match to present their bloody selves to Madam Hanscum, who had tutted at the sight of them. As much as she fretted over his injuries, Dean was really starting to like her and didn’t mind the excuses to visit her and learn more about healing magic. Castiel, of course, had been sullen and grumpy the entire time, which seemed to be two of the three emotions that he knew how to display.

Dean rubbed at his at his nose as he walked down the hallway, careful to move to the side when he saw Lucifer Morningstar walking towards him with his small team of groupies trailing behind him. Michael, who Dean only really knew as Castiel’s brother - specifically the brother on the train who was talking badly about Muggleborns with Castiel - was always one of the students that seemed to hang around the seventh-year boy. Dean kept his head down just a little as they got closer, and didn’t even realize he was doing it until they passed. It wasn’t something he meant to do, it was just… this aura that Lucifer seemed to exude. Confidence, sure. But he also creeped Dean out a lot.

He turned right and made his way down the stone staircase, his footsteps echoing slightly as he nearly tripped into the Gryffindor changing room where they were supposed to be meeting Professor Mills. Inside the changing room, where it usually at least had a semblance of order and neatness, were rows upon rows of broomsticks lying against the wall and along the floor.

“Welcome, Dean.” He turned to see Professor Mills standing with Castiel next to her, his jaw rigid. “In case you couldn’t tell yet, tonight you two are going to be caring for every set of broomsticks that Hogwarts owns.”

She pulled out a set of broom clippers and grabbed the nearest broom, flipping it around so the tail was facing upwards. “Now, in case you’ve never done this before, you’re going to just trim any stray twigs that seem to be out of place; give it a sense of order.” She began clipping masterfully and the pieces of twigs fell to the ground until she was left with a nice, aerodynamic shape at the end of the broom. “Got it?’

They both nodded, though Dean was pretty sure he was never going to make a broom look that good.

Professor Mills set the broom aside. “I have to leave, but I’ll be back in a few hours and I expect a lot of progress.”

“Yes, Professor,” they both mumbled with their heads down.

Dean slumped down onto a bench as Professor Mills left the changing room, and folded his arms across his chest.

“Well this sucks,” he muttered, glaring at the rows of broomsticks they were meant to take care of.

Castiel grabbed a pair of clippers and picked up a broom, propping it between his legs so he could trim it at an easy angle. “Well, it is your fault we’re here, so stop complaining.”

“Oh yeah?” Dean shot back. “Tell that to my bloody nose, cheater. We both got in trouble so don’t blame this on me.”

Dean glared at Castiel, who pointedly ignored him in favor of trimming his stupid broomstick. Dean grumbled as he stood and grabbed second pair of clippers as well as the nearest broom and slumped back down in his seat across from Castiel. He studied the twigs halfheartedly and experimentally snipped a piece of one off. Huh.

Snip.

Snip.

It was slightly therapeutic the more he got into it, cleaning up the cracked and worn edges of the twigs and letting them fall to the ground. Every once in awhile the broomstick would shiver after he got rid of a particularly scraggly bit of branch, which made him feel like he was doing an alright job. After a few minutes, he looked up to see that Castiel had already moved on to a second broomstick and was still steadfastly not making eye-contact with him.

The rigid silence dragged on with only the sound of snips breaking through, and it was a little more than Dean could take. Even conversation with Castiel would be better than boredom.

A small piece of twig dropped into his lap as he snipped and he paused to pick it up and inspect it. Without completely thinking through what he was about to do, he took carefully took aim and tossed it at Castiel, smiling when it bounced off his shoulder and fell to the ground.

Castiel looked up, a surprised look on his face that quickly turned to contempt when he caught Dean smiling.

Dean picked up another small piece of wood and again threw it directly into Castiel’s lap.

“Stop it,” Castiel snapped, glaring at him.

Dean put a hand on over his heart in mock surprise. “Stop what? I’m not doing anything.”

“Yes, you are!” Castiel said and rolled his eyes and huffed out an angry breath, choosing to go back to his clipping with more fervor.

This time, Dean gave it a few minutes to lull him into a false sense of security before snipping off another piece of twig and flicking it onto Castiel’s chest.

Castiel immediately stopped his task and stood up, glaring as he stomped over to a new seat across the room where he apparently thought Dean couldn’t reach him. “You’re insufferable,” he muttered venomously.

Dean grinned. “Yeah, well… I don’t even know what that word means, so joke’s on you!”

He grinned as Castiel rolled his eyes again and muttered something under his breath before resuming his task and switching to a new broom.

There were plenty of twig parts to choose from, and Dean seriously considered either chucking more at him or levitating a few pieces over his head and dropping them, but decided he may have poked the sleeping dragon with enough sticks today.

However, that godawful snipping sound during the long stretch of silence was something he still couldn’t stand for.

“Don’t you think it’s a little weird that your brother hangs out with Morningstar?” he asked nonchalantly as he inspected the broom he just finished trimming.

That got his attention.

Castiel’s head snapped up. “No.”

Dean allowed a small silence to permeate before Castiel spoke again.

“Why do you think it’s weird?”

Dean shrugged. “Well, they’re not really friends are they? Lucifer doesn’t have friends.”

“They’re friends,” Castiel said resolutely. “They hang out all the time.”

Dean hummed as he started snipping the ends off a new broom. “I mean, haven’t you noticed that seventh years don’t really hang out with younger students? But Lucifer always has a few that follow him around.”

“Maybe Lucifer is different.”

“Yeah, that’s for sure,” Dean said with a snort.

Castiel paused his snipping. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that it seems like Morningstar wants fans, not friends.”

“You want to know what I think?”

“Not really.”

I think that you’re just jealous,” Castiel said, his voice growing more confident as he continued, “Jealous that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks and he can do whatever he wants.”

Dean was fairly sure he heard Castiel sigh wistfully.

“You wanna be like him, Novak?” Dean asked, a lot more surprised than he should have been. Though they were probably more similar than Dean knew, what with Castiel’s view on Muggle-borns. He wasn’t totally sure what Lucifer thought about that, but he had that sort of air about him.

Castiel paused in his snipping. “Maybe I do,” he retorted.

Dean scowled as he tossed his finished broom aside in favor of another.

Figured.

It was so unfair. While Castiel and his brother had been Dean’s first introduction to someone looking down on him purely because of his blood status, they hadn’t been the last. Just last week he’d been chatting with Hannah in the hallway about a Muggle television show and had that had earned them a few glares from some passing older students. He’d heard hissed “ Muggle-born” under the breath of a Slytherin once to a friend, only to have the friend whisper something back that had produced a shocked gasp followed by a giggle.

Dean didn’t know what they could have said, but he doubted it was nice.

Even his roommates, though meaning well, would sometimes have rapid talks about something that Dean didn’t understand and instead of taking the time to explain, would occasionally say, “Sorry, Dean. It’s a wizard thing.”

But he was a wizard.

There were always going to be people like the Novaks. People that didn’t agree with who he was. But the longer he stayed at Hogwarts, the more he was learning that he was going to have to ignore the dumb people who thought that way and keep kicking their butts. If nothing else, Dean was glad that he was doing better than Castiel in almost every class.

The sound of silent clipping stretched on once again, but the more they focused on grooming the brooms, the faster they went, and before he knew it, they had about three quarters of the brooms clipped and looking as sleek as second (or even third) hand brooms could look.

“So what’s it like having your mom as a teacher?” Dean asked, when - once again - he got bored of the silence.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Castiel stiffen. Oh. Touchy subject much?

“It’s fine.”

Snip.

Snip.

“Get an easy grade?”

Cold laughter was all that Dean got in return.

“Not even a little?” he goaded with a small smile. “C’mon. You can tell me the truth. Does she go a little easy on you? You’re probably a little bit of a teacher’s pet.”

Castiel’s clippers just increased in speed, and from across the room Dean thought he could see his face turning red.

“I’ll take that as a yes, then,” he chuckled and brushed the twigs from off of his lap. “Man, that must be easy, having your family with you at school. You probably don’t have to write any letters, or worry about getting a failing grade in your mom’s class. Your dad’s obviously loaded going by what kind of presents you get and -”

“Will you shut up?”

Dean looked up to see Castiel glaring daggers at him.

“Why? Am I -”

“You don’t know anything, Winchester!” Castiel was gripping the handle of the broomstick tightly with one hand, loathing clearly written on his face. “You think you can just waltz around and say whatever you want. It’s insufferable and I hate it . Worry about your own family. You don't know anything about mine. So just shut up for once in your life.”

Dean snapped his mouth shut and busied himself with the task at hand as he felt his face grow red with embarrassment. Had he gone a little far? Maybe that had been a bit too much to fit in with their normal banter. Was he getting a little too venomous in his teasings?

Worry about your own family.

Dean frowned at that insinuation when he rolled Castiel’s words over in his head. Was Castiel jabbing at him for having Muggle parents?

He made a small disgruntled noise, knowing he was being ridiculous for feeling guilty about making Novak lash out like that. What did he care how delicate Castiel’s emotions were? Castiel didn’t like Muggle-borns. He’d heard him say so! It shouldn’t matter how bad Dean accidentally made him feel, right?

Dean shoved down all the feelings that were making him feel slightly uncomfortable about the whole situation and was about to toss his finished broom to the side when he had a much better idea. Hopefully one that would get rid of that dumb weird tension that was hanging in the room.

Holding the broom out, he hitched a leg up over the handle and lightly pushed up off the ground. Not enough to go very high, but enough to hover a few feet in the air. Dean compromised his own gravity and allowed himself to drop over the side of the handle until he was hanging from the broomstick upside down like a sloth.

Tugging on the handle he nudge the broom forward until he was hovering right in front of Castiel’s face.

“Hey, Novak.”

No response.

“Novak.”

“I’m ignoring you.”

“You can’t talk to me and ignore me at the same time.”

Castiel continued snipping at his broom aggressively, refusing to look up at him.

“Hey, Novak. Novak. Hey. Hey, Novak. Hey -”

What?”

Dean closed his eyes and blew a raspberry at him before cackling and jumping off the broom, only to race back to the spot he’d been sitting at before.

Castiel was grimacing and wiping at his face with the sleeve of his robe. “Why do you always do that?” he muttered.

“Do what?”

“Act like we aren’t mad at each other.”

Dean shrugged and reached for another broom. He was still mad at Castiel and he was pretty sure that Castiel was still mad at him, but he hated awkward moments a lot, too.

When they had about five brooms left to trim, the sound of footsteps made them both look up.

“Well done, boys. It looks like you managed to hunker down and stop bothering each other for long enough to get some work done.” Professor Mills smiled proudly at them as she admired the broomsticks that they’d been leaning against the walls when they were finished with them. “See what can happen when you stop antagonizing each other?”

Dean nodded solemnly in agreement.

Castiel’s eye twitched.

***

“Uuuugh!”

Dean smacked his head against his potions book a few times as he walked down the hallway with Nick after class.

I hate this class. I hate this class. I hate. This class.”

Potions was never a class that he enjoyed, but at least he was always able to rely on the one true fact that he and Castiel would always be equally as awful when it came to brewing potions.

Except for today.

The smug look on Novak’s dumb face when he’d gotten a mere TWO whole points higher on their last potions quiz was almost enough to make him pour the contents of his half-brewed disaster all over his lap.

“Do you? Or do you hate that Novak did just a little bit better than you?” Nick murmured as he flipped through his own book as they walked. “Because I actually kind of like this class.”

Dean made another groaning noise as he gazed up at the ceiling and shoved the book into his bookbag. “Both. This class is dumb and you have to be, like… a genius to get a potion right. I mean, c’mon! If you dice the leaves just a little bit too large you get the wrong color?” He threw his hands up in the air. “I hate it!”

Nick carefully shut his own book and tucked it under his arm. “I got mine right, today,” he said with a shrug. “It wasn’t all that bad. You’re just being a baby about it.”

Dean playfully knocked into Nick with his shoulder. “Whatever. Maybe you’re just meant to be a potions brewer. And I’m meant to kick butt everywhere else.”

They walked in silence a few minutes, dodging through the bodies that were trying to make it to their next class.

“Maybe he cheated,” Dean said suddenly. “Maybe that’s how he did it.”

Nick snorted. “C’mon, Winchester. Castiel Novak did better than you on the quiz. It happens. Let it go. Focus on the test for next time.”

“No, but maybe he did! We’re always pretty evenly matched in that class and suddenly he’s doing this much better?”

“Two points, Dean.”

“How would you even cheat on a test here?” Dean wondered aloud.

“How about a smart-answer quill?”

Dean and Nick jumped at the new voice that had suddenly entered the conversation. Behind them was a boy not too much taller than them with sandy hair and a smirk that set a few alarms off in Dean’s head. He wasn’t unfamiliar, and Dean was fairly sure that the boy was only a few years above them.

What was his name again?

“Gabriel Novak, nice to officially meet you,” he said and clapped a hand on top of the two Hufflepuffs’ shoulders to make room for himself.

Oh, right. Dean had seen him with Castiel.

“Aren’t you Castiel’s brother?” Dean asked warily, really starting to detest how more and more Novaks seemed to pop up all over the place.

“Sure am. As you can tell, I got the looks in the family.” Gabriel gave a pitying sigh as if it were a travesty. “But anyway. I hear you’re looking to cheat on a test?”

Dean shook his head. “What? No, I was just -”

Gabriel pressed a finger to Dean’s mouth and tutted. “Never fear, oh first year. We all stray from the path every now and then. Allow me to assist you.”

Dean squinted at Gabriel. “What do you mean?”

“If my ears are correct I heard that you have a test soon? And that you’re competing for a better grade than my kid-brother, right?”

Dean nodded, getting even more suspicious the more Gabriel talked.

Gabriel ran a hand through his tousled hair. “Like I said. Smart-answer quill.”

Dean opened his mouth to ask what that was, but was cut off by Nick.

“But those aren’t allowed.”

Gabriel grinned and tapped Nick on the nose. “Exactly, my Huffy friend. But, it would mean that you slaughter Castiel in that test,” he said with a wink in Dean’s direction. “Imagine: writing down anything you want and the quill changing it to the right answer.”

Dean’s eyes widened. That sort of thing existed ? He glanced over at Nick and it at least looked like something he knew about, so Gabriel probably wasn’t making it up completely.

“Where would I get one?” he asked curiously, licking his lips at the thought of being able to beat Castiel by a large margin for their upcoming test.

Gabriel smiled widely and reached into his bag, pulling out what looked to be a perfectly normal-looking quill. “I just so happen to have a few.”

“How’d you manage to sneak some into Hogwarts?” Nick asked, looking surprised and impressed.

“Hello,” Gabriel pointed to his face and rolled his eyes. “Maybe you’ve heard of me? Gabriel Novak, remember? Trickster extraordinaire.”

Dean looked at Nick, who shrugged.

“Okay,” Dean said slowly, “Let’s say you did have one of those smart-answer quills. Why would you give it to me? Castiel’s your brother.”

Gabriel’s grin turned downright mischievous.

“Yes, well… this is where negotiations begin.”

*

Dean slowly walked across the wobbly boat dock and took a deep breath.

Those had been unexpected negotiations.

The lake got darker the further out he walked, until he passed where the the small boats were tied - the ones that he’d used to cross the lake at the beginning of the year - and made it to the very edge of the furthest point, and realized that the black lake was aptly named.

Dean turned and looked back towards the shoreline where Gabriel and Nick were standing - so that there would be “no funny business”, as Gabriel had put it.

He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted back to him.

“Can I take off my shoes?”

“No! Fully clothed!”

Dean grimaced at the response but shrugged his shoulders. The promised quill knew the answers to every test question. Jumping into the black lake was going to be peanuts compared to that quill Gabriel was going to give him for doing it.

Why was he jumping into the lake that no one dared go into in January?

Because apparently, Gabriel didn’t like him. That had come up in the negotiations. Dean could live with that, so long as he got that quill.

Dean peered into the depths of the lake and felt his heart begin to race in his chest. Two minutes. He could do that.

A cold breeze blew by, causing him to shiver as he steeled himself for what he was about to do.

Dean jogged back a few feet down the dock, turned around, counted to three, sprinted to the edge... and jumped as far out as he could manage.

The moment the icy water touched his skin his entire body seized up, rejecting the demanding cold that quickly surrounded him. Dean immediately gasped for air when he surfaced again - probably a little too soon - coughing and spluttering as he flailed in the water.

The water felt sharp against him as he struggled to stay above the surface. Wearing his Hogwarts robes into the lake had seemed like an alright caveat when Gabriel was introducing what Dean would have to do for the quill, but he didn’t realize how heavy they felt once they were wet. Normally Dean was really good at treading water in the pool that his mom would sometimes take him and Sam to, but he was already feeling tired with the added cold and clothing.

He coughed again and forced himself to take deep, calming breaths while his teeth chattered. Two minutes. That was it. It had already been - what, thirty seconds, right? Dean kicked his legs furiously to keep himself above the surface.

From where he was, he could barely hear Nick shouting over the sound of water sloshing in his ears, and he could see him shoving Gabriel backwards.

“Hey! Get out of there!”

Dean jerked his head back to look at a burly figure heading towards him on the dock, shoulders rounded, strides wide and angry. “ What in the hell are you doing, boy ?” Dean groaned internally as he recognized the furious face of the Hogwarts caretaker, Bobby Singer.

But it hadn’t been two minutes yet, and he was fairly sure that Gabriel was going to be strict..

“Why?”

Mr Singer’s face darkened. “Why - kid, I said get back here! You’re gonna get yourself killed!”

Worry started to twist its way into Dean’s gut as he detected the fear that Mr Singer’s anger was clouding. Sure it was cold, but there was, like… an instant warming spell that Madam Hanscum had used on him after the snowball fight, so he wasn’t going to die from that. Why was Mr Singer so upset?

“I’m fine!” Dean protested through chattering teeth.

“If I have to come in there after you, there’s gonna be hellfire, boy!”

Dean wasn’t sure how long he’d been in the water but it had to be close to two minutes. Plus his legs were starting to feel a little numb.

“Alright,” Dean muttered, and flailed a little before attempting to propel himself back towards the dock towards the angry caretaker.

And then something brushed against his leg.

“Ah! Something touched me!” he gasped, kicking his leg out frantically, only to have something slimy brush up against his ankle. “There’s something in here!”

The memory of Castiel smirking as he joked about a giant squid in the lake was quickly beginning to feel a lot less like a joke, and a lot more like the actual reason swimming in the black lake was banned.

“Swim!” Mr Singer said, gesturing towards the dock, which now had Gabriel and Nick sprinting down its length. Nick’s arms were flailing in his haste, obviously worried.

Dean kicked his legs out and pumped his arms, panicking as he made his way back towards the pier, dreading the twist of something slimy grabbing his ankle and pulling him down to the deeps. Oh, God. He was going to drown in a lake, wasn’t he? He was going to die here at Hogwarts. It was the second time he’d had that thought, only now Castiel wasn’t here to save him.

Who’d have thought he’d ever actually miss Castiel?

He could still feel something on his legs as Mr Singer reached out and grabbed his arms, but it was only then that he realized that, if anything, whatever it was seemed to be gently moving him forward and not dragging him down under.

Dean collapsed on the wooden panels, gasping for air as Mr Singer dragged him a safe distance away from the edge. He sat up and caught a glimpse of something impossibly large re-submerging itself into the depths of the black lake.

“What -” Dean fought to catch his breath as he shivered. “What was that?”

Mr Singer looked him over, double checking that nothing was seriously wrong before he shook his head. “ That is the reason you have detention, ya idjit. Now let’s get you to the hospital wing.”

*

The worst part of it all wasn’t the horrified look Madam Hansum had given him when he explained what had happened as she dried him off. The worst part wasn’t four detentions that Mr Singer had given him for blatantly disregarding the lake ban and nearly getting himself killed. It wasn’t the gossip that immediately was spread around the Hufflepuff common room and it wasn’t the maniacal laughter that Gabriel had produced once he knew that Dean hadn’t died, and was handing over the well-earned quill.

The worst part was that the quill - which Dean would later test out on an assignment he knew the answers to - didn’t even work.

*

As much as he hadn’t been looking forward to spending his detention pruning plants with three grumpy men, it hadn’t been all that bad. Better than his detention with Castiel, anyhow. Mr Singer was grumpy because that’s just how he was, Mr Turner, the groundskeeper, was grumpy because Mr Singer was (and Dean was fairly sure that they tried to out-grump each other) and Professor Gadreel was grumpy because this was Dean’s tenth detention this school year - a fact which Dean had been chastised on briefly.

Dean had pruned plants before with his mom and had found it kind of boring, but dealing with magical things made the task at least a little more exciting. If anything, it had made him really excited to be able to take herbology again next year, something that seemed to put Professor Gadreel in a better mood once he’d noticed how many questions Dean was asking.

There were medicinal plants, plants that screamed, plants that were extremely deadly, plants that could protect you from dark magic just by touching it, plants that sang, and plants that would attack for no reason whatsoever.

Basically, magic plants ruled.

Sure, it was hard work and he was covered in dirt and small traces of vegetation, and yes, he had accidentally bumped into a plant that made him laugh uncontrollably for the next five minutes, but he’d learned a lot about some really cool plants that might give him a leg up on Novak next year during herbology.

Dean brushed a leaf from out of his hair as he made his way back to his common room. He’d rather liked the ambiance that the herbology greenhouses had and it kind of reminded him of the Hufflepuff common room. He was definitely going to start paying more attention to the different plants that always seemed to thrive there as well.

He stopped, suddenly realizing that he’d been walking deep in thought, not concentrating on where he was going. He clicked his tongue as he tried to figure out where he was. Even though he had more or less memorized all of the important places, Hogwarts was still confusing and he hadn’t been to this part of the castle much. It didn’t help that the sun had just barely set in the sky and there was no light shining through the windows to help guide him.

After a few more minutes of wandering Dean let out a sigh of relief as he recognized a suit of armor that should mean the Great Hall was nearby. Sure enough, after a few more turns, familiarity once again surrounded him - though the hallways were deserted; it looked like most students were in their common rooms.

“I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

Dean furrowed his eyebrows as he heard a conversation echo from somewhere down the hallway he was currently walking through. That voice sure sounded like -

He stopped just before the corridor turned and peeked around the corner to see two people he didn’t expect to ever see together. Lucifer Morningstar and Ruby Cortese.

“Ruby! I’m Ruby. I’ve talked to you before.”

Dean frowned when he saw Lucifer essentially towering over Dean’s housemate as she preened under his stare.

“Ah yes. Well. Ruby,” Lucifer smiled in a way that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m afraid I don’t have much use for you, but thank you for the offer.”

Dean was glad that there was a suit of armor shielding him from view as he listened in on something he definitely shouldn’t be listening in on.

“What, but… why? Everyone else -” Ruby’s complaints were cut off.

“Yes, well, everyone else that I talk to isn’t a first year Hufflepuff.” Lucifer reached out and patted her on the cheek in almost a pitying motion. “You’re very young, and - well… I did mention that you’re a Hufflepuff, didn’t I?’

Ruby stomped her foot. “I am not! I’m not a Hufflepuff! The sorting hat was wrong! I should be in Slytherin with you!”

Lucifer sighed and shook his head. “One thing I’ve learned from my time at Hogwarts is that the Sorting Hat is never wrong. The Mudbloods and blood-traitors of your House have probably already weaved and ingrained their ideals inside you and you haven’t realized it yet.” He rested a hand on the top of her head before turning around and walking down the hallway. As he went, he called back over his shoulder,

“So thank you, but no thanks.”

Mudblood? Blood-traitor?

Dean had no idea what those words were but they didn’t sound like compliments.

Dean pressed his back against the wall, waiting for the sound of footsteps to fade, and held his breath when they paused in their walk down the hallway.

“A parting gift,” Lucifer said, after a moment. There was a moment of silence before Ruby cried out - not in pain, but in shock. “Since you seem to have some confusion as to where your loyalties lie. I hope that clears it up.”

The sound of sniffling replaced the echoes of footsteps that disappeared. .

Dean licked his lips as he remained pressed against the wall, trying to digest what had just happened. Was Ruby crying? Because of that jerk?

C-colovaria. Colo-colovaria.”

Dean tilted his head as he heard Ruby speaking the spell. It was one he’d read about but not one that he’d learned quite yet. The practice of it didn’t seem too hard, though.  

“Colovaria! Come on, you stupid - green!” Dean turned stepped out from behind the suit of armor to see Ruby on the floor of the corridor with tears streaming down her face, pointing her wand at her robes. Instead of the normal black color, her robes had been changed to the familiar Hufflepuff yellow.

She looked ridiculous, fighting against something that was supposed to be part of who she was. It had been months since the Sorting and he had just assumed that she’d at least gotten used to the idea of her House. Sure, she still sat with the Slytherins sometimes, but it was a lot less often than before, though now that he thought about it, the Slytherins were probably trying to phase her out.

“What are you doing?” Dean asked, causing Ruby to jump and immediately scowl as she wiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her robes.

“None of your business,” she snapped.

Dean frowned and pulled out his own wand as he neared her, the holly wood bright under the moonlight shining through the window. Even without her explaining, Dean knew exactly what she’d been trying to do.

He squinted in concentration and pointed his wand in the same area that Ruby had been. “ Colovaria.” he murmured, and the yellow of her robes immediately shimmered into a deep Slytherin green.

“That’s what you wanted, right?” Dean asked, his voice flat. “Not to have to wear Hufflepuff colors. There you go.”

Ruby hiccuped and wiped at her eyes again, trying to retain a grimace. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m still-”

“Yeah. You are.” Dean crossed his arms in front of his chest. “You’re still in Hufflepuff anyway. I’m sorry that sucks so much for you.” It almost surprised him how much Ruby’s betrayal to his House hurt and offended him. Hufflepuffs were generally a kind and supportive group of people and Dean had never seen anyone be anything but nice to Ruby. Her roommates were nice, the Head of House was nice, and the common room was nice.

“You know who you’re acting like? Novak.” Dean felt only a little smug that she winced at that statement. “Remember him at the beginning of the year? Always whining about Ravenclaw?”

Ruby looked away and hiccuped again.

“At least he got over it. Kinda looks like he enjoys it, too.” He shoved his wand back inside his robes. “I know we’re not your precious Slytherins, but I sure think that we’re a pretty great family. Maybe look into actually joining it soon.”

“You don’t understand,” Ruby said in a voice just above a whisper. “I - I don’t belong - I’m out of place and I shouldn’t even be here -”

Dean rolled his eyes and pointed at himself. “Muggle-born. I get it.”

Ruby visibly shied away from him, her eyes darting down the hallway to where Lucifer had disappeared before looking back at Dean.

Dean sighed and held out a hand. “Want help? I can walk you back to the common room if you want.”

Ruby glanced at the hand and hit it away, looking up at Dean with anger in her eyes. “I don’t need help from Mudbloods like you.”

Mudblood.

Dean pulled his hand back, slowly curling it into a fist and stuck it in his pocket.

Mudblood.

Now that he had a rough idea of what it meant, he could feel a pit forming in his stomach where the word settled, deep in his gut. He clenched his fists.

Mudblood.

“One day you might,” he said evenly to Ruby, and continued walking down the hallway towards the Hufflepuff common room.

Mudblood.

 

----------------------------

 

It was Sunday, and Castiel was headed towards the library. His feet walked the well-known path without him even really having to pay attention, lost in thought about his Charms homework and how the exact nature of the flick of the wand affected the spells he cast, and whether or not it would be possible to cast the same spells with a messier movement if he were determined enough -

“Cassie!”

Castiel stopped in his tracks, wondering whether he still had time to run. Before he’d made up his mind, he felt an arm sling around his shoulders, and Gabriel was walking beside him.

“What’s a first year like you doing in a place like this on a Sunday?” he said, giving Castiel a little shake. “Shouldn’t you be out in the grounds catching some sun on those pale cheeks?” He pinched one of them, a little too hard.

“It’s February, Gabriel,” Castiel said dryly, pushing him off with forbearance. “I could catch some freezing wind, instead. But after I’ve been to the library.”

“You’re going to the library? Again?” Gabriel said, pretending to be aghast - but under the mockery, Castiel knew his brother well enough to hear the genuine surprise in his voice. “Come on, Cassie, it’s a Sunday. Have a little fun.”

“The library is fun, Gabriel,” Castiel explained patiently. “You get to learn, you get to discover things you never knew, and then when you’re in class you don’t have to…” He broke off, noticing that Gabriel was performing a huge, fake yawn, and rolled his eyes. “You don’t even try to understand.”

“Well, I don’t think you even try to understand what ‘having fun’ really means,” Gabriel shot back quickly, grinning. “You never did know how.”

“I know how to have fun!” Castiel said hotly. “How many times are you going to tease me about this?”

“Hmmm… until it stops being funny,” Gabriel smirked. “You still make that face like an offended owl every time I do it.” Castiel’s face tried to arrange itself into the least owl-like expression possible, and Gabriel laughed. “How about a game?”

Castiel frowned at him, shifting his schoolbag on his shoulder.

“A game?” he said suspiciously. “Like what? I don’t want to play fifty-two card pick-up again.”

“No, no,” Gabriel said, waving his hand airily. “I was thinking of something a little more like… hide and seek.”

Castiel’s mouth dropped open, and then he was smiling before he could help himself. Hide and seek had always been his very favourite game to play back at Cloudesley Street; for the past two years, whenever Gabriel had come home for the summer, he’d been greeted by his younger brother running up to him and tugging on his robes, wanting to play immediately.

“Don’t you have friends to be with?” Castiel said. Gabriel lifted one shoulder, and then let it drop.

“One or two,” Gabriel replied with a smile. “But there’s no one I’d rather hang out with than my baby bro. I’ll seek first.”

Just for a second, a memory flashed into Castiel’s mind: Gordon Walker, at the Quidditch game, saying that Gabriel had no friends in Ravenclaw because he was annoying. The thought made Castiel clench inside; he’d always thought of Gabriel as hugely popular, friends with everyone. The idea that he might be lonely… it hurt, in a strange way. Castiel wanted Gabriel to be able to live up to the image he’d painted of himself.

“Gabe!” shouted a voice from down the corridor. “You in for Gobstones, or what?”

“Count me out,” Gabriel yelled back. “Got stuff to do!”

Castiel blinked, and then relaxed. Maybe he didn’t have to worry about Gabriel, after all.

“I don’t know,” he said aloud. “I was really looking forwards to reading in the library…” He was playing up his reluctance and Gabriel grinned, seeing it easily.

“C’mon, Cassie,” he said. “It’ll be great. It’ll - oh! Hey, you!” Castiel whipped around as Gabriel shot out an arm, grabbing hold of someone who was about to walk past them. Messy brown curls and a shabby robe - Castiel recognised Hannah with a little happy burst of surprise.

“Castiel?” she said, as Castiel pushed Gabriel’s arm off her shoulder. “I thought you were… ?”

“It’s Hannah, isn’t it?” Gabriel said, interrupting. “I’ve seen you around with Castiel. Want to play hide and seek?”

Gabriel ,” Castiel said, flushing. “Sorry about him,” he said to Hannah. “He’s - we were just, um…” He lapsed into awkward silence, and Gabriel wiggled his eyebrows at Hannah questioningly.

“I... like hide and seek,” Hannah said cautiously, still looking a little wide-eyed from the suddenness of her involvement in the conversation, but not entirely put out.

“You do?”

“I’ll play if you are, Castiel.”

“Oh, he’s playing,” Gabriel said, giving Castiel a nudge. “I’m Gabriel, by the way. Castiel’s older brother.” He stuck out his hand, and Hannah shook it tentatively. Castiel felt protective of her, knowing her shyness and her lack of confidence around strangers.

“I’ll seek first,” he said quickly. “With Hannah.”

“Nuh-uh,” Gabriel said. “I already called dibs. You go and hide. I’ll seek with Hannah.” He flashed her a grin, which she awkwardly returned. Her shoulders were a little hunched and her thin hands were fists. Castiel tried to catch his brother’s eye and get him to change his mind, but Gabriel was very determinedly not taking any hints.

“I really think -” Castiel began, but Hannah interrupted him.

“It’s alright, I’ll seek with - um - Gabriel. I can do it.” She smiled at Castiel, and he could see her trying to look relaxed in the face of spending time with a taller third-year boy she’d never spoken to before.

“I won’t go far,” he promised her, and then switched his attention to Gabriel. “I’ll go easy for the first round.”

Gabriel grinned at the familiar words, the ones they always said to each other before beginning to play the game. He flicked his eyes towards Hannah and then gave Castiel a tiny wink. Castiel wanted to believe it was the kind of wink that meant I know she’s shy and I will take care of her, not I know she’s naive and I plan to prank her immediately. With Gabriel, both were equally possible, but Castiel could hope for the best.

“We’ll count to twenty,” Gabriel said. “And then come after you. Here, give me your bag.” Gabriel grabbed Castiel’s schoolbag, heavy with all the books wedged inside, and stuffed it out of sight behind a floor-length tapestry hanging on the wall. Hannah hesitated, and then handed her bag to Gabriel, too. The two bags were little lumps at the bottom of the fabric, but hopefully no one would be investigating.

“Are there any -” Castiel began, but Gabriel interrupted.

“One,” he said, grinning. “Two. Three…”

“Four. Five,” Hannah joined in, her face cracking into a smile too.

“That’s too fast!” Castiel said, already turning away and beginning to race down the corridor. “That’s too fast!” He rounded the corner as they reached eight, and careened past the library, heading for the grand staircase. He pushed past a big group of older Slytherins, ignoring their catcalls as he ran, making it to the Entrance Hall just as Hannah and Gabriel, by his count, had reached twenty. He stood stock still, trying to figure out the best place to go. If he headed upwards then he could aim for one of the more obscure statues and hide behind it - but then again, he would have to run the whole way, exposed the entire time…

He made up his mind, and darted towards the Great Hall instead. It was past lunch and not that close to dinner, so the place was completely deserted; Castiel crouched down and ducked under the nearest table, the Hufflepuff one. He crawled his way beneath it up the Great Hall, keeping his ears peeled for the sound of footsteps entering the room after him. Around halfway up the length of the long table, he stopped, and sat tight, bringing his knees up to his chest and hugging his arms around them. It wasn’t the best place to hide, but he had told Gabriel and Hannah that he’d make the first round easy, after all.

He was huffing a little after his mad run through the corridors, and he took a moment to deliberately slow and quiet his breathing. He could feel his heart beating a little more quickly than normal, like it always did when he was the hider. He grinned to himself, burying the smile in his knees. He loved this game.

There was a loud creak as the door opened, and he heard footsteps - was that too many for it to be just Gabriel and Hannah? For the first time since taking up his hiding place, Castiel realised how strange it would look if anyone apart from those two discovered him sitting under here. He tried to peer out over the benches, but soon realised that he wouldn’t see much unless he stuck his head out rather conspicuously and stared around. He stayed as quiet as he could, listening.

The footsteps padded quietly, stealthily - no one would walk like that unless they were playing, Castiel reasoned.

And then a bright, beaming face that definitely did not belong to Gabriel or Hannah appeared upside down, peering under the table.

“Ash?” Castiel said after a moment of stunned surprise.

“Alright, Castiel? Found you,” Ash grinned, and then his face disappeared. “I’ve got him!”

“Which one was he under? Hufflepuff?” Castiel heard Gabriel say, and then he tutted. “Didn’t even go for Gryffindor, Cassie. What a betrayal.”

“Yeah, you could have done Gryffindor,” said another voice that wasn’t Gabriel’s, or Hannah’s, or Ash’s. Castiel paused in the act of getting out from under the table, frowning in surprise, and then pulled himself upright and made his emergence. Standing at various points throughout the hall were at least ten students - Gabriel and Hannah were there, as were Charlie, Spangler, Zeddmore, Thaddeus, Lisa Braeden, a few older students Castiel didn’t know, probably third years - and, bizarrest of all, Billie Reaper. Her lips quirked into a smirk as Castiel’s wide-eyed gaze turned into all-out gaping at the sight of her. She was standing closest to him, her hands on her hips, robes falling neatly over her strong, athletic body.

“What?” she said coolly.

“Um,” Castiel said, trying not to be intimidated. “You’re playing?”

“What, a sixth year can’t like hide and seek?” Billie said challengingly, and Castiel quailed - but she had a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face. Still, when Gabriel walked up beside her, barely over half her height, and put his hand on her arm familiarly, she pushed him off with a flick of her elbow that sent him into a spin. Castiel grinned at her weakly. He’d expected to play a quick game with his brother, not somehow end up involving all these other students, half of whom he barely knew.

“Next round?” Gabriel said, walking over to Castiel and clapping him on the shoulder, apparently shaking off his firm rejection with little chagrin.

“Um…” Castiel said, trying to signal to his brother with his eyes that he was surprised to see all the people standing around them. Gabriel looked like he wanted to fake being confused and move on, but he relented and pulled on a smirk instead.

“Oh, these guys?” Gabriel said. “They saw you running and asked what was happening, so I told them. And then they wanted to join in, and then the people who overheard me telling those other people wanted to join in, too. And then Ms Reaper overheard me telling those people who overheard me telling the other people that they could join in, and she said that she wanted to join in, too. It’s simple, really.”

Castiel blinked, twice.

“It’s true,” Hannah said helpfully, from across the room. Castiel’s mouth closed, and Gabriel seemed to take this as a sign of acquiescence, because he clapped Castiel on the shoulder again.

“Good,” he said. “Let’s get started. There are more of us now, so we should have more than one person hiding. Teams?”

He turned to face the rest of the group, who nodded enthusiastically. Castiel would never have been able to predict even one other person at Hogwarts sharing his love of hide and seek, let alone ten or more.

“Teams,” agreed one of the older students that Castiel didn’t know. He was tall, with dark skin and a smile. “How are we going to divide them up?”

“Girls against boys?” suggested Billie, looking around and counting up the students she could see.

“No,” said Castiel quickly, not even needing to catch Hannah’s eye. “Houses? Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws and Slytherins?”

They did a quick count, and found that their numbers evened out well, with only one more player on the Ravenclaw and Slytherin team. Billie rolled her eyes.

“I’d beat you guys even if there was just one of me against all of you,” she said airily, and shrugged. Castiel, buoyed by her confidence, nodded along and crossed his arms, trying to look tough. Gabriel caught his eye, and Castiel uncrossed his arms and looked down at his feet.

“Houses it is, then,” Gabriel said. “I’m team leader for Team Blue, Castiel’s team leader for Team Red.”

“Red?” demanded Thaddeus. “I’m a Hufflepuff! It should be Team Yellow!”

“Tough breaks,” said Ash, from behind Castiel, who swivelled to see Ash sitting cross-legged on top of the Hufflepuff table. He was eating something that looked like chocolate, a little bit of it on his cheeks.

“Team Yellow,” insisted Thaddeus. Billie Reaper sighed.

“Team Rellow,” she said, pointing at Castiel. “Team Bleen,” she said pointing at Gabriel.

“Bleen?” Gabriel said, high-pitched with incredulity, along with some of the rest of his team.

“I like it. Sounds like a kind of whale,” said Charlie’s voice, which hadn’t been heard for a surprisingly long time. Castiel turned to look at her, and caught her staring wide-eyed at Billie Reaper’s profile. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one a little struck by her imposing presence.

“Why can’t we just be Slytherclaw?” whined one of the older-year students, a short girl with a thin face and blue eyes.

“Team Bleen,” said Billie sternly, turning her frown onto the girl in question, who opened her mouth to argue and then seemed to think better of it. Billie caught Castiel’s eye, and he could have sworn she winked.

“We’ll count to twenty,” Gabriel said. “If we don’t find you in twenty minutes, come back to the Entrance Hall, you win. Finders get a point for every person found, hiders get a point for every person missed.”

Ash put up his hand, still chewing on his chocolate.

“I don’t have a watch. How’m I supposed to know when twenty minutes are up?” he said, and many of the students nodded agreement. Castiel knew exactly what Gabriel was going to say, and so kept quiet.

“Your loss,” Gabriel said nonchalantly. “Come out when you think the twenty minutes are up. If you’re before, you’ll get found. If we start the next round without you because you hid for too long, your points aren’t given to your team. Count the seconds, kiddos. And, um, ladies,” he added quickly, when Billie gave him a raised eyebrow and a hand on her hip.

“If more people want to play…?” she said.

“It won’t get much bigger than this,” Gabriel said, with confidence. “Not that many people like hide and seek. But if anyone wants to play, send them to the Entrance Hall. They can join in next round.”

“Let’s play,” said Charlie impatiently. There were nods of agreement all around her. Gabriel clapped his hands.

“Team Rellow leader,” he said. “Hide or seek first?” He grinned at Castiel, who raised a shoulder uncertainly - and then realised that he was the centre of attention for everyone in the room, and straightened his back, folding his hands neatly in front of him.

“Um,” he said nervously, looking up at Billie, who blinked at him and looked impatient. “Um. I like hiding best.” He didn’t know why Billie’s face softened like it did, but he relaxed a little. He’d made a good decision. Gabriel held out his arms, making ushering motions to the gathered students.

“Team… Bleen,” he said, with only a hint of distaste. “Into the Entrance Hall to count.” He gave Castiel a pointed look, and Castiel also held his arms out a little wider. He felt like a scarecrow.

“Team Rellow,” he said, as confidently as he could. “Let’s go.”

In the Entrance Hall, the Ravenclaws and Slytherins closed their eyes. Charlie gave Castiel a quick wink before she began counting, which Castiel returned with a weak smile. He still wasn’t sure how he felt about all these people playing his and Gabriel’s game with them - it had been strange having Hannah join in at first, and now there were so many more, and too many opportunities to look stupid.

“One!” Gabriel said loudly, and the rest of the team quickly caught on; the counting became a chant. “Two! Three!”

Castiel met Hannah’s eyes across the space between them; she was looking even more nervous than Castiel. He grinned for her sake, and waited for her to smile back before turning on his heel and running. He made it up the stairs in the Entrance Hall and came to an abrupt stop, just as Team Bleen reached ‘ten’. The rest of Team Rellow pelted past him; even Hannah didn’t stop to ask what he was doing. Castiel took a quick look over his shoulder, biting his lip - and then dived back the way he’d come.

He tiptoed past Team Bleen, his footsteps disguised by the sound of their boisterously loud counting. Slipping inside the Great Hall once more, he moved stealthily between tables, ducked down, and hid in exactly the same place he’d been before. He had his knees up to chest, a smile on his face; his heart was thud-thudding a little harder and there was a tremble of anxiety in his stomach now that the stakes were raised by all the new players. Of all the tricks that he and Gabriel used to play on each other to win the game back in Cloudesley Street, the one that had duped Gabriel most often was this: Castiel going back and hiding in exactly the same place that he’d been before.

“Nineteen! Twenty!” Castiel heard them yell outside the doors to the Great Hall, and then the sound of scattering footsteps as they ran off into the castle. Not one of them came for the House tables again, and Castiel grinned to himself and relaxed a little. He’d be able to hear when the twenty minutes was up, since Team Bleen would be back outside in the Entrance Hall making a lot of noise - but all the same, he decided to keep count inside his own head. Twenty lots of sixty, that was… he did some quick mental calculation. One thousand two hundred. He took a deep breath, and then started to count, whispering the numbers into the robes bunched around his curled-up knees.

“One,” he said. “Two. Three…”

It was deathly quiet in the Hall. Castiel was glad of his own voice, counting out the numbers. He wondered idly as he sat there, the counting becoming automatic enough to free up his thoughts for other things, whether Jo and Anna would have liked to play. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that other students joined in. Maybe he wouldn’t make a total fool of himself. He’d managed to find a good hiding place this time, he was sure he could do it again. And as for seeking - well, he didn’t like it as much, because Gabriel always used to choose to hide in wardrobes and then burst out suddenly just to scare him - but that didn’t mean Castiel was bad at it. He didn’t have to worry about looking stupid, he decided. He was too good to look stupid.

Just as he reached this comforting conclusion, there was a loud creak, and the sound of one pair of feet entering the Hall. Gabriel, wise to his younger brother’s tricks? Or…  a teacher? Castiel held his breath, keeping count in his head. Four hundred and thirty one, four hundred and thirty two…

The owner of the feet strode up the length of the Hall; Castiel could see their shoes, and was relieved to see that they were plain and a bit scuffed at the toes, with a student’s robe hanging over them. Castiel bit his lip as the shoes came closer and closer to the Hufflepuff table under which he was hiding, burying his face into his knees and clasping his hands into fists to stymy the urge to get up and run away.

With a loud scrape, the bench right beside Castiel was pulled out from under the table, and the owner of the shoes swung their legs over it and sat down. A schoolbag was thrown under the table and hit Castiel in the side before thomping to the ground; for a second Castiel panicked, thinking that whichever student this was must have surely heard the sound of the bag hitting him… but apparently not, because no curious face appeared to stare under the table. Castiel was breathing, just barely, his eyes wide and caught between fear and humour. He was just inches away from the stranger’s legs, his eyes about level with their knees. He didn’t want to breathe too hard, in case he was heard. He heard the sound of something being put down on the desk above him, and then the swish of a page turning. A book.

Whoever this was hadn’t even come in here to play hide and seek. They were just reading.

Castiel sat frozen, unable to think of anything else to do. Gabriel would be laughing himself to tears if he could see Castiel now, trapped under the Hufflepuff table with some student - probably a burly seventh year - as his unknowing prison guard.

On the subject of prisons, Castiel supposed he could at least be thankful that his particular prison guard wasn’t a Dementor.

He looked down at the stranger’s shoes, careful not to brush against their legs. The shoes seemed, on further inspection, too small to belong to a seventh year; in fact, they were barely larger than Castiel’s own. A first year? Castiel squinted at the schoolbag next to him, trying to figure out which Hufflepuff this could be. He didn’t know any of them well enough to be able to tell them apart by their shoes and bag alone. There was one, in particular, that Castiel really hoped it absolutely was not…

The owner of the shoes stretched out their legs suddenly, and kicked Castiel in the ribs.

“Ouch!” said Castiel before he could stop himself, and then clapped his hands to his mouth.

The legs went very still for a second, and then, for the second time that day, Castiel was being stared at by someone as he sat guiltily under a table. This time, however, the face was a lot less welcome.

“Novak?” said Dean Winchester incredulously.

“Um,” said Castiel. “Hello.”

Dean opened his mouth to say something else, and then didn’t seem to know what to say. Castiel blinked up at him owlishly.

“You’re under the table,” Dean said. As observations went, Castiel thought that perhaps it was a bit obvious.

“Yes,” he said. He thought for a moment. “You kicked me,” he added, with a frown.

“I know,” Dean said. “That’s because you’re under the table.”

“I didn’t get under here to be kicked,” Castiel said. “I would have preferred it if you hadn’t.”

This had to be one of the strangest conversations Castiel had ever had. Dean looked like he wanted to laugh, but was too confused.

“I didn’t know you were there,” he said. “You didn’t say anything.”

“I thought you might be my brother,” Castiel said.

“Why would I be your brother?” Dean demanded, his confusion only seeming to increase. “Why would your brother be in here?”

“Why are you in here?” Castiel deflected. He didn’t honestly believe that he could get out of this situation without revealing that he was playing a game of hide and seek, but he was fairly sure that telling Dean would set him up for weeks of teasing. Castiel remembered briefly that Billie Reaper was playing, and filed that away to use later as a defence when Dean started to make fun of him.

“Why am I in here?” Dean said incredulously. “You’re alone in the Hall sitting under a table, and you’re asking me what I’m doing?”

“Yes,” Castiel said.

Dean opened his mouth, and then closed it.

“Nothing,” he said, after a moment.

Castiel, who had only started this line of questioning as a distraction, felt his curiosity aroused by the curt response. He squinted up at Dean, who blinked and looked away.

“You came into the Hall on your own… to do nothing,” Castiel said disbelievingly. Dean shrugged, a little angrily, Castiel thought.

“M’just reading,” Dean said uncomfortably. “Why is this about me now?”

“You were reading?” Castiel said. Dean raised his eyebrows and shrugged, a quick, defensive yeah, like I said gesture. Castiel pulled a surprised face. “I didn’t know that you could read.”

Dean’s expression fell into the lines of mild offence that Castiel knew well; in fact, it made him feel much better to see the usual irritation than trying to deal with Dean’s embarrassment.

“Read my lips, Novak,” Dean said. “Youuuuuu. Suuuuuuck.” He said the words loud and slowly, exaggerating them out. Castiel scowled at him, and Dean grinned. There it was, the other expression of Dean’s that Castiel knew well. Smirking arrogance. He ground his teeth.

“At least I don’t…” Castiel began, but then there was the sound of the door creaking open, and someone coming inside. Castiel froze. “Who’s that?” he hissed, keeping his voice low. Dean frowned, looking confused again, and glanced over at the door.

“It’s Charlie,” Dean said, whispering as well - by instinct rather than because he was trying to help, Castiel assumed. Dean raised his hand to wave, and then got cut off when Castiel reached up and snatched the sleeve of his robe, pinning his arm awkwardly below the table.

“Don’t tell her I’m here,” Castiel whispered, as Dean stared down at him.

“Why shouldn’t I… ?” he began to demand, but was cut off by Charlie’s sharp, self-confident greeting.

“Hello, Winchester,” she said comfortably. “Are you talking to your schoolbag, or your knees?”

Dean stared down into Castiel’s wide eyes for a brief moment, and Castiel could see him come to a decision. Dean looked away, turning to talk to Charlie. Castiel prepared himself for Dean to tell on him immediately...

“Just memorising some stuff,” Dean said casually, and Castiel let out a breath of surprised relief. He let go of Dean’s sleeve, and then heard Dean use his newly-freed hand to shift something that was on the table above him. “For next class, you know.”

“Potions?” Charlie said, her feet stepping closer. Castiel stared at the way her robes swished, his mouth falling open. Dean was reading a Potions book? Dean had come into the Hall, on his own, to study extra Potions? So Dean was capable of making an effort sometimes, after all. This was too good for Castiel to resist; he gave Dean a hard poke in the knee.

Dean shifted, and kicked out with his foot. It connected hard with Castiel’s shin. Castiel clapped his hands over his mouth to stop a second loud ‘ouch’ escaping.

“Yeah, Potions,” Dean said casually. “You wouldn’t believe it ‘cos I’m so naturally gifted in all our classes, but I’m actually not doing great in that one.”

“I would believe it, actually,” said Charlie tartly. “Jo told me all about it. You and Novak, the two prodigies, bringing up the rear in Potions class. How poetic. The only thing she couldn’t decide is which one of you is worse in that class.”

“Novak,” said Dean at once. Castiel couldn’t help it; he punched Dean, hard, in the leg. Dean made a quick, high-pitched noise, like a mouse whose tail had been trodden on. He kicked out again, and caught his own schoolbag instead of Castiel.

“Are you… alright?” Castiel heard Charlie say, though he was too busy burying his face in his knees to stop himself from laughing to hear her properly. From what he could tell, she sounded vaguely concerned for Dean’s sanity.

“I’m fine,” Dean said, sounding tense, as though he, too, was trying not to laugh. “How are you?”

Castiel had to hold his breath so that he wouldn’t snort with laughter. Dean’s legs were jiggling up and down with anxiousness.

“I’m fine,” Charlie said, a little slower than usual. Castiel couldn’t tell if she was suspicious or if she was worried that Dean was going off the deep end. “Anyway, I’m playing in this big game of hide and seek. Slytherins and Ravenclaws against Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs. Want to play?”

Dean was silent for a beat; Castiel could sense him working it out. Castiel, Gryffindor, under the table. Charlie, Slytherin, walking into the Great Hall.

“Aw, man,” Dean said. “We have to be with the Gryffindors?”

“Yup,” Charlie said, and Castiel could hear the grin in her voice. “Castiel Novak’s playing, too. He’s one of the ones that started it. Him and his brother Gabriel.”

“Gabriel?” Dean said. “Huh. And Castiel. So I guess he’s hiding somewhere around the place?”

“Yup. I thought he might be in here, but you’d have seen him,” Charlie said.

“Yeah,” Dean agreed solemnly. “I mean, if he was hiding under the table or something, I’d know, right?” He laughed, and Charlie joined in. Castiel put his foot on top of Dean’s, and pressed down hard. Dean tried to wriggle his foot free, and accidentally smacked his knee into the underside of the table when Castiel suddenly let go.

“Ouch!” Dean said.

“Winchester, you need to take a break from studying,” Charlie said, sounding definitely concerned now. “I think it’s making you crazy.”

“I guess you’re right!” Dean said, with enough forced brightness in his voice to make Castiel want to laugh all over again. “I’ll play hide and seek with you. Just let me finish this chapter.”

“Don’t be too long,” Charlie cautioned. “Next round starts in a few minutes.”

“You got it,” Dean said, in a strained voice.

Castiel watched Charlie’s feet walk away; he brought his head a little closer to the edge of the table again, so that he could look up into Dean’s face. Whether from repressed laughter or from the lies, Castiel wasn’t sure, but it was a little pink under the freckles. Up close, he was a lot more freckly than Castiel had realised. Dean tilted in his seat so that he could meet Castiel’s eyes just as Charlie left the room - and then they both exploded at the same moment, breaking into quiet snorts and giggles.

“Shhhh,” Castiel cautioned. “Shhhh…” He put a hand over his mouth so that his laughter wouldn’t carry. Dean twisted down his lips into a frown to try to stop.

“That - that was…” he said, his voice all wobbly with laughter. “Her face… you should have seen… she thinks I’ve gone crazy!”

“You hit your leg,” Castiel said, trying to be quiet. “When you - you hit your leg…” He mimed it happening with his own leg, and shook his head.

“You kept punching me!” Dean said, though he didn’t sound angry.

“You kept saying things that were stupid!”

Dean was still shaking with laughter, still a little pink. “I can’t believe we got away with that.”

We.

Castiel looked up at him, his face still split by a grin, and felt his stomach twist strangely.

The laughter in him faded, replaced by something different - something more complicated. He and Dean weren’t meant to be friends. This wasn’t right.

Dean seemed to be feeling the same way; Castiel watched the light behind his eyes leaving. For a second, he dithered over asking Dean why it happened like this, sometimes - why they could seem like friends, until they remembered they weren’t. What was it about them that was keeping them apart?

He wanted to ask, but he didn’t. There wasn’t much point. Dean would probably just brush him off and Castiel wasn’t struggling for friends, he didn’t need another one. They didn’t even have much in common, anyway. It wasn’t as though Dean would be interested in spending hours in the library with him, or wanted to research strange doors in his spare time.

“I only didn’t tell her because we’re apparently on the same team,” Dean said, interrupting Castiel’s train of thought. “And that sucks, too, just so you know.”

Castiel shrugged off Dean’s explanation.

“And I thought you did it because you like me,” he said drily. Dean scoffed.

“Like you? Please, Novak.”

Castiel couldn’t have explained why the words put a little pit in his stomach, but they did. He rolled his eyes.

“I’m glad the hatred is still mutual,” he snapped. “Now let me out. I can hear the others outside. The next round must be starting.”

In actual fact, he hadn’t heard anything of the sort - but as Dean wordlessly moved out of his way, he heard laughter and shouting from the Entrance Hall. Making his way down the Hall and out into the group, Castiel was swept into a tide of exuberance - there had to be thirty students all gathered together, and Castiel didn’t know half of them. He spotted Jo, who beamed at him, and thought he spied the back of Hannah’s head between two tall Slytherin girls. He stared around, lost in the melee, and then felt Dean come to stand by his side.

“What a mess,” Dean said, a little fussily. His tone almost made Castiel smile, but he was quicker to catch himself, this time.

“You’re a mess,” he replied intelligently.

“You,” said Dean.

“You.”

You.

“Students of all Houses wishing to play hide and seek, listen up!” came a voice, loud and clear over the rabble: Castiel recognised Gabriel, even though his short stature meant that his older brother wasn’t visible. “If your points haven’t been counted from last time, come and see me now.”

“I would if I knew where you were!” said a voice to one side, and the crowd laughed. Gabriel stuck up a hand, and Castiel could see his fingertips waving. Everyone laughed even more; Castiel joined in until he caught Dean’s eye, and it felt too much like laughing together, again.

“If you’re new, figure out which team you’re on and what you’re doing! Team Rellow are seekers, Team Bleen are hiders,” Gabriel said. Castiel left Dean’s side awkwardly, not knowing whether or not he should be saying goodbye before going. Pushing through tall bodies, he almost received several elbows in the face - but finally he managed to locate his brother, standing with his hands on his hips with a piece of parchment floating beside him, preening under the attention of two fourth-year girls with matching ponytails.

“Can’t we be on the same team?” one of them pleaded. “She’s practically a Ravenclaw, she’s top of the class in Transfiguration, and…”

“Sorry,” Gabriel interrupted, holding up his hands to dissuade them from argument. “Team Bleen for you, Team Rellow for her.”

“Those are the stupidest names ever,” said the other girl - a Gryffindor, Castiel recognised her from the common room.

“Say that to my face,” said the deep voice of Billie Reaper, turning around to eye the fourth-year girl beadily. Her timing was so perfect that Castiel almost wondered whether she had been tracking Gabriel’s movements, just waiting for someone to complain to him about the names. He shook off the idea. Billie Reaper was too cool to track anyone. She was just always wherever she needed to be.

He was starting to sound just like Jo and Anna. They often talked about ways to befriend Billie Reaper, or stared at her surreptitiously across the common room, or wondered if she’d ever talk to them. Castiel caught Billie’s eye as she turned back around, and she winked at him. He made a mental note to tell Jo and Anna later; they would probably want his autograph. The boy winked at by Billie Reaper.

“Just so everyone knows, Team Bleen is ahead by two points!” Gabriel called out, to groans and cheers from different quarters of the crowd.

“I wasn’t found,” Castiel said, tugging on his older brother’s robes.

“Make that one point!” Gabriel amended loudly. “Oooooh, it’s close. Time to begin the next round. Bleens hide, Rellows seek, got it?”

“Can we use magic?” called a voice from the crowd. Gabriel shrugged.

“Sure,” he said. “But if you get caught by a teacher, you lose... hmm, five points for your team. If you get the game shut down, you lose the whole thing and the other team wins. So if you’re going to use magic,” he grinned, “you’d better be good at it. OK, now I’m not biased, but Team Bleen, great job, keep it up, and let’s drive my little bro’s team into the dirt. In a totally objective, non-biased way.” He winked at Castiel, who rolled his eyes. “Twenty minutes by my watch. Rellows, count for twenty seconds. No skipping numbers, or I’ll hex you. No, wait, I’ll get my older brother Michael to hex you. He knows some really good ones.

“Okay. Three - two - one - bananas !” Half the Bleens started to run off and then cut themselves off, confused; Gabriel was laughing, while Castiel - more than used to the joke - folded his arms with an exasperated smile. “Sorry, Mum,” Gabriel said, looking at him, and Castiel quickly unfolded his arms. “OKAY. FOR REAL, THIS TIME. THREE - TWO - ONE - GO!”

Castiel clapped his hands over his eyes and started to count, keeping the numbers as slow as he could. His voice fell in time with the others’; he was a part of the chant, now, and it felt strangely good to be amongst so many people, saying the same things as them, belonging in their game. He could barely hear his own voice amidst everyone else’s.

“Eighteen,” he said, part of the many. “Nineteen. Twenty!”

He opened his eyes, blinking in the sudden light - and took off, elbows out to protect himself from the mad scramble of laughing Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs who jostled each other up stairs and down corridors.

“Castiel!” panted a voice beside him. “This is fun!”

He turned his head to see Hannah, her face a little pink with excitement, beaming from ear to ear. He grinned back at her.

“Did you get found last time?” he asked, and she nodded ruefully.

“By Charlie,” she said.

“She gets everywhere,” Castiel said vaguely. They were racing up the grand staircase, with no clear idea of where they were going - but they were still surrounded by other students, moving together like a hungry pack. Every turn they made whittled down their numbers - in the tumult, Castiel lost track of Hannah, but ran onwards, keeping his eyes peeled for any Ravenclaws or Slytherins crouched behind statues or tapestries. He pulled back as they passed a row of doors which he knew led to classrooms, which would be empty at the weekend; he wanted to check them, see if they were unlocked.

He pushed at the first door, and met with resistance. No one in there, then - unless, of course -

“Alohomora,” Castiel said, and the door unlatched with a swift click.

“Neat,” said a voice behind him. Two Hufflepuffs were standing behind him, watching him. Castiel knew them both by name - Nick Munroe, who had open, friendly features, and Philippe LeChat. He, on the other hand, had high cheekbones and narrow eyes, and a smirk.

“Thanks,” Castiel said guardedly. He’d seen both of these two laughing in the corridors between classes with Dean Winchester, and so could be fairly certain that they would be no friends to him. He turned to peer into the classroom, bending down so that he could see under the desks. Nothing - not even a giggle or a caught breath of nervousness. He shut the door once more, and sealed it with a murmured incantation. Nick and Philippe were still watching him intently. He heard Philippe whisper something in Nick’s ear as he began to turn away.

“What?” he said, looking back. It came out a little more aggressive than he’d intended; having friends of Dean’s around made him uncomfortable, somehow. Had Dean set them up to prank him, or tease him?

“Nothing,” said Philippe diffidently, raising his eyebrows at Castiel’s tone. “I was just saying, you’re really good at magic.”

“Oh,” said Castiel, the wind taken out of his sails. “Um, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Philippe said, and Nick grinned affably. “I suppose you thought I was being rude?”

“Well…” said Castiel. The clock was ticking on the game. He began to walk down the corridor, heading for the other classrooms. The second door, too, was locked. He unlatched it with a flick of his wand and a whisper, the spell coming easier every time.

“Well?” prompted Philippe.

“Shouldn’t you be looking for people on the other team instead of following me around?” Castiel demanded. “Or go and find Winchester, and seek with him.”

“You know, your brother played a prank on Dean,” said Nick, cocking his head to one side. “Was that your idea?”

“What? A prank?” Castiel said, looking at another empty classroom. “When?”

Nick and Philippe shared loaded looks. Nick raised one shoulder, and Philippe looked back at Castiel with narrowed eyes. Castiel, uncomfortable under his sparkling gaze, walked into the vacant classroom - ostensibly to check if anyone was hiding in it. He could hear Philippe and Nick having a conversation in furious whispers outside. He checked under the desks, his heart beating hard. What did they want?

He turned back around and walked into the corridor -

And for a moment, his heart stopped. There, standing in the corridor, was - himself. His own blue eyes, his own brown hair… but with a big, piggy snout. Castiel raised a hand to his own face in horror, caught for a split second wondering if it was a mirror. And then the other him gave a few loud, exaggerated snorts, before the face melted and morphed… back into the grinning face of Philippe LeChat.

Behind him, Castiel could hear giggles. He turned to see Nick Munroe, doubled up with laughter.

“Got him!” he said, talking past Castiel to Philippe. He practically skipped over to stand by Philippe, raising his hand for a high five.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Philippe remarked, landing the high five with nonchalance and then folding his arms triumphantly at Castiel, who could still feel his heart in his throat. Seeing himself like that, his own face…

“How - how?” Castiel said dumbly. Philippe rolled his eyes.

“Metamorphmagus, duh,” he said, with a shrug. “Listen. If you or your brother mess with my friend again, there’s worse coming your way. You tell him that, OK? I can do worse things than put a pig snout on you.”

“I - I don’t know anything about any messing,” Castiel said, a little faintly. He’d never considered Philippe to be especially scary - in fact, Castiel hadn’t really considered him at all, given that Philippe was mediocre in class and Dean Winchester’s friend, too, and so obviously had bad taste - but now, suddenly, Castiel was considering him very hard indeed. Beside him, Nick Munroe was looking pleased with himself. Castiel had no idea what part Nick played in all this, but he seemed happy about it.

“Tell your brother, then,” Nick said. “Tell him from both of us. But, um, mostly from him.” He pointed to Philippe. “He’s the one who can… yeah, I mostly just…”

“Come on, Nick,” Philippe said coolly, and Nick stopped talking. He didn’t seem naturally disposed to threatening or bullying like this, Castiel thought. Something pretty big must have happened to make him come out in defence of his friend. Dean. Castiel briefly wondered if he, himself, had friends as loyal to him as Philippe and Nick apparently were to Dean, watching his back like this. He hoped so.

Maybe it was just a Hufflepuff thing.

“Pass on the message,” Philippe added into the silence left by Castiel’s dumbstruck shock. “Don’t forget.”

He sauntered away, Nick walking with a little bounce by his side.

Behind him, Castiel heard footsteps, and turned to see Charlie walking out of the classroom that he’d just checked - the one that he’d thought was empty.

“What was that about?” she said, her eyes wide. Castiel, lost for words, could only shrug. She sighed. “Come on, Novak. I lost this round just for a shrug? I was hoping you’d tell me juicy details if I caught you in a moment of weakness.”

Her easygoing humour brought Castiel back to reality. He smiled, a little weakly.

“Bad decision,” he said shortly, but not unkindly. “I’m taking you back to the Entrance Hall.”

“I can go on my own,” Charlie offered. “I won’t hide again or anything, you can trust me.”

“Yeah, sure,” Castiel said, not without sarcasm, since if truth be told, he wasn’t quite sure at all - Charlie was too full of surprises for him to know for sure that she wouldn’t try to claim the points for her team. “But I’ll come with you. I need to talk to my brother.”

In the Entrance Hall, students were already milling around - mostly peeved-looking Ravenclaws and Slytherins. Castiel stopped and looking around, but saw no sign of his brother, which upon reflection was hardly surprising; Gabriel was too good at hide and seek to easily be found. Dean wasn’t here, either, and nor were Philippe and Nick. Castiel considered going out to look for them, but decided better of it. Over half the time had elapsed, and he didn’t want to miss the start of the next round, and his opportunity to talk to Gabriel.

“So,” Charlie said, standing beside him as he surveyed the hall. Castiel had completely forgotten about her, but her tone told him that she’d construed the silence between them as awkward. “Winchester tells me that he’s better than you at Potions.”

“I know,” Castiel said. “I was there when he told you.”

“You were… ?” Charlie said wonderingly, and then closed her eyes. “You were actually under the table.”

“I was,” Castiel said, a little sheepishly.

“No wonder he was acting like he had a kneazle up his robe. I can’t believe he didn’t tell me you were there, like… straight away.”

“I asked him not to,” Castiel said, and Charlie pulled on a mock-offended face that made Castiel smile.

“And here I am, his actual friend instead of his mortal enemy, and he still helped you!” she said.

“Only because you told him we were on the same side,” Castiel explained swiftly. “Gryffindor and Hufflepuff.”

“Uh huh,” Charlie said. “I didn’t say that until halfway through the conversation, though, did I?” Castiel opened his mouth to reply, and then ran out of explanation. Charlie raised her eyebrows at him significantly - though Castiel wasn’t quite sure what the significance was supposed to be - and then began to move away. She threw a grin back over her shoulder as she walked in the direction of Bela Talbot, who had just walked into the Entrance Hall with a triumphant-looking Ruby.

“Peace out,” she said, and Castiel waved an awkward goodbye.

The Entrance Hall filled up quickly, students pouring in - more even than there had been before. The game just seemed to keep growing, Castiel saw with continued astonishment. He saw Philippe and Nick walk in, and purposefully looked away before they could make eye contact. There was Hannah, and Jo and Anna, and Zeddmore and Spangler. Ash was there, talking animatedly to a tall boy who looked at least a couple of years older than him - though that might have just been because Ash was incredibly short. Castiel waited with his back pressed to a wall, watching out for his brother.

“Points!” Gabriel said, walking into the room in the centre of a rowdy gang of laughing upper years. Castiel made to move forwards, but was buffeted back by the onslaught of students. “Let’s make this faster. Hands up when I say something that applies to you. Who’s Team Bleen and got caught?”

There was a show of hands; Castiel could see Gabriel struggling to count them. Eventually, Gabriel turned to the person on his left - tall, beautiful Billie Reaper - and smiled at her sheepishly. She was as poker-faced as usual, but she started counting from her higher vantage point.

“Eleven, got it,” Gabriel said, when she murmured something to him. “Now, who’s Team Bleen and didn’t get caught?”

Another show of hands, maybe a few less. Castiel would have cared twenty minutes ago, but now he only wanted to find out what was happening with Gabriel and Dean.

“Ten,” Gabriel said. Just one fewer, then. “Alright. And finally, who here would go on a date with me?”

There were catcalls and laughter, and a few hands raised mockingly before being jerked back down. Gabriel, looking pleased with himself, tucked his parchment and quill into his robes and clapped his hands.

“Equal points!” he said. “A dead heat. The next round will make or break the winning team. We could go on longer, but… it’s dinner soon.”

There was general solemn agreement that dinner was more important. Even Castiel, distracted as he was, found himself nodding.

“Alright. Rellows hide, Bleens seek. Twenty minutes, Bleens counting for twenty seconds. On your marks, get set, GO!”

Castiel leapt away from the wall, ready to sprint off - and then caught himself, and wanted to pull back and talk to Gabriel - but the game! He was still technically supposed to be team leader, and he could sort out whatever was happening with Gabriel and Dean afterwards… right?

Dean. A light bulb went on in Castiel’s brain. Just as Team Bleen counted past four, Castiel looked up the staircase and saw the back of the figure that he recognised as Dean Winchester’s disappearing round a corner, taking Castiel’s other chance of answers with him.

Castiel didn’t hesitate a second longer. He took the stairs two at a time, his short legs stretching to make the leaps. He dived down the corridor that Dean had taken, but couldn’t see him; going by instinct, Castiel took the next turning down towards the kitchens and the Hufflepuff common room, guessing that Dean might head for somewhere familiar. He sprinted as fast as he could, his feet thudding on the stone floor. Down steps, round bends, through doors...

And he was rewarded. As he rounded a corner, Castiel saw Dean Winchester standing in front of some barrels, his wand out. Speeding towards him, Castiel saw Dean turn around, his hands in the air, obviously expecting a Ravenclaw or Slytherin - and then his expression crumpled into frustration at the sight of Castiel.

“You again ?” he demanded, his wand still in his hand. Castiel bent over, panting, trying to catch his breath.

“I need - I need…” Castiel gasped.

“Look, I’m trying to hide,” Dean said. “Move along, Novak, use your own common room.”

“I… this is your common room?” Castiel said, standing up straight, momentarily distracted. He looked at the barrels. “That’s the entrance?” He’d known the rough area where the Hufflepuff common room was, but he’d had no idea that it was guarded by these strange, large kegs. Dean was chewing his lip, obviously trying to figure out if he’d somehow done something wrong.

“Yes?” he said finally, apparently not seeing any point in denying it.

“You’re not supposed to hide in your common room,” Castiel said, the thought occurring to him suddenly. “It’s not fair. None of the other team can get in.”

“That’s why I picked this place,” Dean said, as though he were being stupid. “Your brother didn’t say anything about it.”

“It’s not fair,” Castiel maintained stubbornly. “You should -”

A sudden bang from the other end of the corridor startled them, and Dean grabbed Castiel’s sleeve, but it was only a beleaguered-looking fifth year dropping a stack of books.

“We need to find somewhere to hide,” Castiel said. “Somewhere fair ,” he added sharply, when Dean eyed the barrels longingly. Dean rolled his eyes and seemed to suddenly realise that he still had hold of Castiel’s sleeve; he dropped it as though he’d been burned.

“Fine,” he snapped. “Back here, there’s a statue.”

He shoved Castiel backwards, and Castiel let himself be manhandled a little roughly behind a statue of a pretty, chubby-cheeked witch with a small hat sitting atop big, tightly-curled hair.

“I need to talk to you,” Castiel said, pushing Dean off him as soon as they were out of sight. Dean adjusted his own robes fussily, scowling. He overcorrected his tie, pulling it slightly too far to one side.

“We already talked once today,” Dean said. “Isn’t that enough for both of us?”

“Normally it would be more than enough,” Castiel assured him drily. “But this is important. What did my brother do to you?”

For the second time that day, Castiel saw an expression on Dean’s face that was definitely shifty.

“Michael?” Dean hedged. “Nothing. He’s still hanging out with Lucifer from what I can tell, acting like a jerk to everyone. Why he thinks he can just decide who’s a proper wizard and who isn’t based on…”

“No,” Castiel interrupted, knowing diversionary tactics when he saw them. He ignored the anger in his chest that burned to hear Michael and Lucifer insulted, and tried to focus. “Not Michael. Gabriel. What did he do?”

“Nobody did - what did - who told you…?” Dean said awkwardly. Castiel said nothing, hoping that silence would tease the truth out of Dean sooner than words. The corridor was deathly still; Castiel became suddenly aware of how close he was to Dean, tucked behind the statue. Maybe it was because they’d already been forced into closeness when Dean had discovered him under the table earlier, but the proximity wasn’t as uncomfortable as Castiel usually found it.

“I know he played a prank on you,” Castiel said, when Dean wasn’t forthcoming, only chewing on his lip and blinking at the ground. At Castiel’s words, though, he looked up sharply.

“It wasn’t a prank! It was a trade,” he said. “Or at least… it was supposed to be. I thought it was. But really, it was… yeah, it was more of a prank. The quill didn’t even work.”

“Quill?” Castiel asked, and Dean didn’t meet his eyes.

“Ha, yeah, I guess you won’t approve, Mr Fair Play.” He sighed, and then shrugged. “Fine. All of Hufflepuff knows anyway, you’ll find out somehow. Here goes. Your brother heard me talking about - well, about you, and how I wanted to beat you in Potions, so he offered me this quill that would correct all my answers on the next test.”

“Cheating,” Castiel said slowly. “He showed you how to cheat.”

“Yeah, except not really,” Dean said. “Because I had to do something to get it, and the thing was - it sucked, OK, and in the end the quill didn’t even work. I should’ve checked it before I jumped into the… before I, um, jumped into the trade without thinking.”

“Didn’t you ask Gabriel why it didn’t work?”

“What? I already looked stupid enough. He obviously tricked me, I’m not gonna give him the satisfaction of an opportunity to rub it in.”

Castiel frowned at Dean, thinking hard. He had a lot of freckles, and his eyes were very green. No, wait, he was thinking about Philippe and Nick and what they’d said… yes, it made sense now. Gabriel had tricked Dean into doing something embarrassing, and the reward had been something useless. Castiel had learned to see through that one at the age of about three. It must have been fun for Gabriel, Castiel thought with a smile, to have someone so unsuspecting to play around with. He couldn’t approve, but…

“Of course you’d smile,” Dean said, aggrieved. “Probably cooked up the whole thing with him.”

“I didn’t,” Castiel said at once. “I really didn’t. And you can tell Philippe and Nick that, too.”

“Philippe… and Nick?” said Dean, sounding confused. “What do they have to do with this?”

Castiel thought of trying to explain what had happened in the corridors upstairs to Dean, and shuddered.

“Nothing,” he said, too quickly. Dean tilted his head to one side, apparently sensing fun. Castiel decided to cut him off before this went any further.

“What did my brother make you do?” he shot back, and Dean closed his mouth.

“Fair point,” he said, after a moment. “Seems like we’ve both got people watching our backs. And embarrassing the other one.”

“I suppose so,” Castiel said uncomfortably. He both did and didn’t like the idea of Gabriel intervening on his behalf.

“Innocents are getting involved in this war,” Dean said, sounding unnecessarily dramatic. Castiel wondered if they said that kind of thing in the books Hannah was always reading, the ones she wouldn’t let Castiel see, but which he could divine had something to do with battles and elves - probably some History of Magic textbooks. Dean had read them, too - Castiel had walked in on a conversation between him and Hannah about things called Ents one time.

“They are,” Castiel agreed seriously, trying to sound like he, too, had read important History of Magic textbooks. He could hear the sound of footsteps approaching. “They must be protected.”

“You mean it?” Dean said, looking at him closely. “You think we should be nicer to each other?” Castiel looked into his eyes and saw something too complicated for him to understand - a veneer of jocularity hiding some quieter emotion underneath.

“Hmm,” Castiel said, as the footsteps got louder. He thought of all the things Dean had said to him, all the times he’d laughed at Castiel, the times he’d embarrassed him and teased him. He wrinkled up his nose, at the exact same time that Dean made his face into a grimace, too.

“Nahhh,” they both said, at the same time.

The footsteps were moving fast, and Castiel suddenly recognised Ash’s voice.

“There’s a statue round the corner, we can check there in a second, too…” he was saying. Castiel reached out, and grabbed Dean’s sleeve.

“Come on,” he said urgently, quiet enough that he wouldn’t be heard. “Run!”

He’d only taken Dean with him because they were on the same team, Castiel told himself, as they pelted away together down the corridor. That was, absolutely truthfully, the only reason.

He pushed Charlie’s imagined sceptical face out of his mind, and ran by Dean’s side to look for a place to hide.

*

Castiel found Gabriel at dinner, and walked up to him with a smile.

“Congratulations to Team Rellow,” Gabriel said, clapping his younger brother on the shoulder. “Team Bleen is coming for you another time. Though we might rethink the names, if we can get Billie to be flexible.”

“Gabe,” Castiel said, accepting his brother’s congratulations with a smile. “What did you do to Dean Winchester?”

“Got him to jump in the lake,” Gabriel said promptly.

Castiel looked over to Dean immediately, his eyes alight. Dean, sitting between Nick and Philippe at the Hufflepuff table, seemed to sense Castiel’s gaze on him, and looked up. He met Castiel’s eyes, saw who he was standing with, and went a little pale. He turned to Philippe quickly and muttered something; Philippe whispered back. Dean’s face cracked into a wide, wide grin.

He looked back to Castiel, and pulled up his nose into a pig snout. Castiel narrowed his eyes.

“I don’t know what he’s doing,” Gabriel remarked, having evidently followed Castiel’s gaze, “but I could probably put him back in the lake for you.”

“No,” Castiel said. “It’s fine. I’ve got this.”

He made an exaggerated shivering motion at Dean, whose laughter eased a little, replaced by a slight scowl. Castiel broke their eye contact and headed towards the Gryffindor table where his friends were waiting. He smiled to himself - and made a mental note to ask Dean for a spare quill at every possible opportunity.

Chapter Text

Castiel walked out of Transfiguration class with his textbooks clutched in his arms and his heavy schoolbag slung over one shoulder, frowning. He was trying to remember the exact wording for the Transmogrifian Torture; he’d looked it up only the week before and he’d wanted to ask Professor Tran a question about its relation to the transmogrify spell that she’d mentioned in class, only he hadn’t been able to remember the incantation and he hadn’t wanted to make a fool of himself - particularly since Dean Winchester had been sitting right in front of him as usual, and any slip-up was sure to result in a smug smile right across that annoying, freckled face.

Castiel rolled his eyes and tried to push Dean out of his mind. He could look up the spell again tonight, and then ask Professor Tran about it in the next class.

“... no, it’s not just a regular ponytail,” came Anna’s voice from behind Castiel; he turned around to see her talking animatedly to Jo. “You have to kind of fold it over at the top. I’ll show you later.”

“Fine, but you’re not practising hair stuff on me for three hours again like you did last night,” Jo said. “No one needs eight plaits. I looked like the Giant Squid. Oh, hey,” she said, grinning at Castiel as he held back long enough to walk beside them. “What’s up?”

“Nothing much,” Castiel said. “We’ve got Charms next, right?”

“Yup,” Anna said gloomily. “I didn’t do my homework.”

“Oh, no...” Castiel began, but he was interrupted by Jo clearing her throat.

“I think you did,” Jo said, looking very deliberately innocent.

Both Anna and Castiel looked at her for a long moment, and then shared a glance of confusion.

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t,” Anna said. “I forgot.”

“No, you definitely did yours at the same time as me,” Jo said. They were heading up the stairs towards the Charms classroom, swept on a wave of other students heading to their next classes. On the ends of their little trio, Castiel and Anna stuck out their elbows, so that they wouldn’t get shoved around too much by the older years. Anna was still frowning, deep in thought, obviously trying to remember whether she’d remembered to do her homework.

“You need a Remembrall,” Castiel told her, and she nodded distractedly. Castiel looked back at Jo, who had an expression on her face as though she were telling a very funny joke that no one else was clever enough to understand. “What?” Castiel demanded of her, and she shrugged smugly.

“Nothing,” she said airily, looking back at Anna.

“But, wait,” Anna said, being lightly buffeted by a fourth-year Hufflepuff with a big shoulder bag. “You did your Charms homework while I was doing your hair last night.”

“Yep,” Jo said cheerfully.

“But - but I couldn’t have done it, then, could I,” Anna said impatiently. Jo grinned, reaching into her bag.

“Then how do you explain… this?” she said, lifting out a roll of parchment and floating it in front of Anna’s nose. Anna reached up and grabbed it, scanned it for a moment, and then let out a little gasp of excitement.

“Jo!” she said happily, reading over it. “No way!”

“Yes way,” Jo said, beaming. “Well, I guessed that you might not have remembered to do it, so I just did it twice. I wrote the same answers slightly differently, so you’re stuck with whatever mark I get… I’m not normally too bad in Charms, though.”

“You’re better than me,” Anna said.

“As if,” Jo said. “You actually got that feather to levitate, didn’t you? Only took you a few more tries than Mister Know-It-All, here.” She punched Castiel lightly on the arm to take the sting out of the comment. “Or should I say, Mr Novak-It-All.”

Anna laughed, while Castiel rolled his eyes.

“Get it?” Jo said, nudging him. “Because the first half of Novak sounds like…”

“I got it,” Castiel interrupted her, shaking his head and smiling. “Very good.”

Anna read through the answers Jo had made, her cheeks a little flushed. Castiel, meanwhile, stared over at the roll of parchment, frowning. Jo noticed his expression and narrowed her eyes.

“What,” she demanded flatly and a little aggressively, though still with a smile on her face.

“I just - I think we should all do our own homework,” Castiel said, trying not to sound too prim - and failing miserably, he was sure. “It’s supposed to show the teachers what we understand and - and what we don’t. If you do Anna’s homework then the teacher might not realise if she needs help with -”

“Castiel,” Anna said severely. “It’s one homework.”

“Yes, but -”

“Mm-mm,” Anna said, holding up an admonitory hand. “Just let me enjoy the fact that I’m not going to get given a detention next class.”

“You mean, enjoy the fact that you have an amazing friend who got you out of a detention,” Jo said mock-seriously, and Anna elbowed her in the side.

“Sure, that too, I guess,” she laughed, flicking her long hair back over one shoulder. Castiel opened his mouth to argue with them further, and then closed it again. There was no point looking for trouble, and he’d noticed that Anna and Jo were of roughly similar talent levels, anyway - however much Jo professed to the contrary. Their little deception probably wouldn’t skew the results of the homework marks too badly.

“Come on, Castiel, don’t get your wand in a knot,” Jo said. Castiel realised that he hadn’t changed his slightly stormy expression, and relaxed into a smile. “That’s better. We can’t all be prodigies, you know. Some of us just want to get by.”

“But -” Castiel said, unable to help himself. “But you’ll actually get better at magic if you write about it and practise it. But you won’t at all if you just -”

Castiel ,” said Anna and Jo together, and Castiel raised his hands in defeat.

“Fine,” he said, “fine. But Anna, if you want to borrow my notes to read over what was in the homework, you can do that anytime. Also, there’s this great book in the library that I found, it was about the same subject, only in a lot more detail and there was a more narrow focus…”

Anna and Jo listened to Castiel patiently for several minutes, until he suddenly stopped both walking and talking at the same time, struck by a sudden thought.

“Castiel?” Anna said, as he pulled open his bag and started shuffling through its contents with one hand, the other still clutching his books to his chest. He’d dropped his quill near the end of Transfiguration class and he hadn’t picked it up immediately because he hadn’t wanted to seem inattentive to Professor Tran’s teaching, and he had a sudden sinking feeling that he hadn’t remembered to pick it up off the floor at the end of the lesson.

“I think I left my quill in the Transfiguration classroom,” he said to Jo and Anna, who were still watching him looking slightly bemused, after he’d sorted through his neatly-packed bag twice. “I don’t have it.”

“What, and you just remembered that out of thin air?” Jo said, sounding perplexed. “Do you have some kind of Remembrall stored in your brain?”

“No,” Castiel said, closing his bag and reshuffling the books in his arms, which had tipped alarmingly as he’d searched. “I just suddenly remembered that I dropped it on the floor in Transfiguration and forgot to pick it up. I’ve got to go back for it, it was a gift from my dad.” And it was Charms, next, which meant being taught by Naomi, and she was sure to notice if he was writing with a borrowed quill.

“Ah,” Jo said, nodding. “Want us to come too?”

Castiel shook his head.

“Get to Charms,” he said. “And tell Professor Novak that I’ll be there soon, OK?”

“Don’t be too long!” Anna called after him, as Castiel turned on his heel and began to jog back in the direction they’d come. He passed Hannah, who was talking with Dean Winchester; she gave him a quizzical look, but Castiel only offered her a quick smile and didn’t stop to speak to her. Quite besides the fact that he didn’t have time to tarry, seeing Hannah talking with Dean always gave him a strange, twisted-up feeling that he couldn’t quite name. It was almost angry, except he knew that he couldn’t be angry with Hannah just for spending time with someone Castiel himself didn’t like. His problems weren’t Hannah’s problems, and it wasn’t Hannah’s fault that she was becoming friends with a rude, irritating, lazy person like Dean…

The corridors were clearing as the students filed into their classrooms; only stragglers were left. Castiel picked up his speed, racing down the corridors, the sprinting reminding him of when he’d played hide and seek with Gabriel.

He managed to make it back to the Transfiguration classroom before all of the students for the next class had filed in - they were all tall, far taller than Castiel. Seventh years, he guessed. His suspicions were confirmed when he spotted, with a little leap of his heart, the blond, elegant figure of Lucifer in their midst, talking in a low drawl with another Slytherin.

For a moment, Castiel held still, forgetting why he’d come in the first place, wanting only to watch. Lucifer kept talking, but he seemed to sense that he was under scrutiny; his eyes flicked lazily over the other seventh years gradually filing into the Transfiguration classroom, did a double pass at a lower height, and finally alighted upon Castiel.

His eyes narrowed just a fraction, and he smiled. He said something to the Slytherin with whom he’d been talking - a quick goodbye, Castiel thought - and then Lucifer walked over, hands in his pockets, his aura of authority powerful even when he stood so casually. Castiel could feel his heart hammering, and he tried to stand up straight without looking as though it was an effort. Lucifer had actually said goodbye to the person he’d been talking to, just to come over and speak to Castiel. He could feel a buzzing sensation in his fingertips from the sheer excitement.

“Castiel,” Lucifer said, needing no more greeting than his name. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”

“I - I - yes,” Castiel said, hating himself for stumbling over his words. He cleared his throat. “I forgot my quill. I only came down to get it before going to Charms.”

“Ah, I see,” Lucifer said. “And here was me thinking that you’d come to find me, specifically.” He smirked, and Castiel reddened.

“I…” he began, unsure what to say without being rude. Lucifer said nothing, seeming to enjoy watching him struggle. It must be some kind of test, Castiel realised. He had to prove himself worthy. He frowned slightly, and raised his chin. “I thought that if you wanted to talk, you’d come looking for me .”

For a moment, he stared Lucifer in the eye. The older boy seemed slightly taken aback. It only took a moment before Lucifer blinked, his smirk replaced by a more genuine smile.

“You aren’t much like Michael, are you,” he said, looking down at Castiel with eyes that calculated.

That couldn’t be good. Michael was Lucifer’s close friend, so being different to him must mean not being Lucifer’s friend. Castiel opened his mouth to deny it, and then closed it.

Perhaps Lucifer was right. Michael was a Ravenclaw; he was witty, and aloof, and serious. Castiel wasn’t always witty, and was only sometimes serious. And whilst he was sure that Dean Winchester would like to paint him as aloof, he himself knew that he wasn’t arrogant. He had a pride in being a Novak, but nothing more than that.

Michael had that, too, though. Michael was proud of being a Novak; and suddenly, Castiel knew what to say to impress Lucifer, who was still looking at him as though trying to figure him out.

“I’m like Michael in the most important way,” he said, as coolly as he could. “I’m a Novak.” Blood status was important to Lucifer, Castiel knew, and the Novaks were one of the oldest wizarding families. There was no way that Lucifer wouldn’t approve of Castiel’s understanding of his own important heritage.

“A Gryffindor Novak,” Lucifer mused. Castiel felt the old sting return, just a brush of it. He was almost immune to it, now, but hearing it spoken by Lucifer, with just a slight snide twist of disdain, made him wish all over again that he had his time under the Sorting Hat back.

The Hat made a mistake, he wanted to say, but he didn’t think that Lucifer would be much taken with whining. He pursed his lips, thinking before he spoke.

“Well,” he said after a moment’s pause, “I’m still top of my year. Perhaps I’m the first Novak to be brave as well as smart.” There was a voice in his head - a voice that, irritatingly enough, sounded a lot like his brother Gabriel - that was laughing at him over that one. Brave as well as smart, he could almost hear Gabriel saying. Shall I curtsey now, or later? Castiel mentally pushed Gabriel away. He was trying to impress Lucifer, here. It didn’t matter if what he said was a little bit arrogant, particularly given the way that it made Lucifer’s eyes light up and his smile widen.

“I do like people who know their own strengths,” Lucifer said. “And I like people who aren’t afraid to buck the trend. You’re interesting, Castiel.”

Castiel could hardly keep the smile off his face. He tried not to look too obviously pleased with himself, sure that being happy would be somewhat gauche. He schooled his face into a slightly haughty acceptance of the compliment.

I like people who aren’t afraid to buck the trend. Lucifer actually thought it was a good thing that he’d been put in Gryffindor. And the reason he thought that was because Castiel had convinced him of it, had said the right words. He felt more proud of himself than he had in months.

“Morningstar, you coming?” called a voice from behind Lucifer, and Castiel peered around to see the Slytherins making their way into the Transfiguration classroom.

“On my way,” Lucifer said in reply, and then turned back to Castiel.

“I need to get to Charms,” Castiel said. Lucifer nodded.

“By the way,” he said. “You have been leaving the Bradbury girl alone, haven’t you?”

Castiel paused. He wanted to say yes, but he couldn’t deny the fact that he’d played hide and seek with Charlie not all that long ago, and definitely since he and Michael and Lucifer had had that conversation about her blood status. It had hardly been his fault, he thought. He hadn’t invited Charlie along, and there had been dozens of other students there…

Again, he was struck by the thought that Lucifer probably would not enjoy hearing excuses.

“I spend some time with her,” he admitted, speaking more hesitantly than before. “She isn’t a bad person. She’s in Slytherin, too, like you.”

“Mmmm,” Lucifer said, looking disappointed. Castiel could feel himself deflating, his euphoria of not thirty seconds ago all evaporated in that one sigh. “Not all Slytherins are the same, Castiel.”

“No, but -”

“We don’t all have those important values , do you see?”

“But - if the Hat put her in Slytherin…”

Lucifer made a dismissive gesture with his hands.

“Oh, I have no doubt that Miss Bradbury is cunning as they come. But if she’s anything like her family - and the apple rarely falls far from the tree - then she won’t have that understanding of her place in the wizarding world that you and I do.”

“Understanding?” Castiel said in a small voice. He respected Lucifer, and he wanted to believe everything the older boy was telling him, but Charlie’s impish grin kept bursting into his mind. He couldn’t believe that she was a bad person, just on the say-so of Lucifer.

“She mingles with people of low blood status,” Lucifer said. “Additionally, she frequently destablises the established routine of the common room.”

“I thought it was good to buck the trend,” Castiel said, barely above a whisper. Lucifer was speaking so coldly. He laughed, though, at Castiel’s words.

“There are good rules to break and bad rules,” Lucifer said. “It’s good to blaze new trails, but it’s bad to burn down bridges. Do you see?”

Castiel nodded; he didn’t want to seem like he was trying to be obtuse, or even actually stupid. He hoped his face was blank enough to hide the fact that he did not understand at all, not even one bit.

Lucifer put a hand on Castiel’s shoulder.

“Bradbury is a bad influence,” he said, his tone kind and warm. “That’s all you need to know for now. She’ll lead you down a path that is beneath you. Next thing you know, you’ll be socialising with muggle-borns, and maybe even muggles themselves.”

“And what would be wrong with that?” piped up a small, angry voice from behind Lucifer. Castiel frowned. He knew that voice, didn’t he? But surely, it couldn’t be -

“Well, who do we have here?” Lucifer said, turning around and looking at the speaker. He sounded faintly amused. Standing behind him, fists clenched, was the irate, tense figure of Gordon Walker.

“Gordon,” Castiel hissed. “What are you doing here?”

Lucifer's gaze was flicking between them, apparently mildly intrigued.

“Friend of yours?” he said. Castiel scowled.

“Gordon Walker,” he answered shortly, and then rounded on Gordon. “Why aren’t you in Charms?”

“Well, what are you doing here, Castiel?” Gordon demanded defensively. He was here for an embarrassing reason, then, Castiel quickly surmised. He’d probably been held back by Professor Tran. Castiel had noticed he’d often looked disappointed in class when he got his homework mark back. Maybe he was doing so badly that he was actually needing remedial classes, or something.

“Castiel is talking with me,” Lucifer was saying smoothly, his eyebrows raised, one hand still on Castiel’s shoulder.

“About anti-muggle stuff,” Gordon said. “I heard you.”

He looked furious. Castiel tried to meet his eyes, tell him silently to go away, but Gordon was eyeballing Lucifer. Castiel wanted to hide his face in his hands. He’d just managed to convince Lucifer that being a Gryffindor wasn’t a bad thing, and now here was a fellow Gryffindor behaving impossibly rudely.

Lucifer, however, looked unfazed.

“You seem to have something to say?” he said.

“It’s all stupid,” Gordon snapped immediately, as though he’d been bursting to say it. “Pure-blood wizards are no better than muggle-borns.”

“Of course you’d say that,” Lucifer replied comfortably. “You’re - what was the the name? Walker?” Lucifer made an exaggeratedly confused face. “Never heard of you, Gordon Walker. You must be a half-blood, at best.”

“What about it?” Gordon said fiercely. “All the blood status stuff is stupid. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Lucifer was smiling. He shook Castiel’s shoulder gently.

“See what I mean?” he said to Castiel. “A half-blood, and he can’t even form a cogent argument beyond ‘it’s stupid’. This is why blood status does matter. They don’t want it to, but it does.

“There’s loads of reasons to believe that muggle-borns are just as good as pure-bloods!” Gordon said angrily. He looked like he wanted to say more, but Lucifer quickly interrupted.

“Mmmm,” he said. “And I’ll believe them when I see them published in the Prophet . Hearing them from you… would just be like hearing a pig-farmer telling me that pigs don’t stink.”

You stink!” Gordon half-shouted.

“Hey!” Castiel said. “Don’t say that!”

Castiel eyed Gordon, who looked incensed. Small, angry, and rude. Castiel knew what Gordon was like - a bully, a stupid bully. He’d targeted Hannah for the first half of the year and now, inexplicably, he’d picked Lucifer as his next victim. Well, Castiel wasn’t going to stand by and watch.

“Leave him alone, Gordon,” he said. Gordon stared at Castiel, his eyes narrowed.

“Should have known someone like you would be just like him ,” he snarled, jabbing his finger towards Lucifer.

“What if I am?” Castiel demanded. “That wouldn’t be a bad thing!”

“Bad for all the muggle-borns,” Gordon said bitterly. Castiel hated him, hated how sour and cruel he was.

“On the contrary,” Lucifer said. “The muggle-borns would feel so much happier if they weren’t at Hogwarts. Don’t you see? It must be so hard for them to see pure-blood wizards everywhere. They just don’t belong here. Castiel and I, we can see that clearly. We’re trying to do them a favour.”

Castiel found himself nodding along to what Lucifer was saying. If muggle-borns really were not as good at magic as pure-blood wizards - well, then didn’t it make sense that they shouldn’t be at Hogwarts? It was just cruel to them to always force them into competition with real wizards. It would be like if Castiel had to attend school with all of his family from down the generations, all at once - all those Ravenclaws, and him just trying to live up to them. He’d want to run away, he’d feel inadequate and out of place; and he wouldn’t hate someone like Lucifer, who thought that he didn’t belong there. He’d think that Lucifer was right.

“Anyway, we’re all late for class,” Lucifer said. “Castiel… accio quill!

They only had to wait a brief beat before Castiel’s quill came soaring out of the still-open door to the Transfiguration classroom, and neatly into Lucifer’s hand.

Castiel’s mouth was open as Lucifer smoothly dropped the quill into Castiel’s palm.

“No magic in the corridors,” Gordon said, resentfully. Lucifer caught Castiel’s gaze, and rolled his eyes. Castiel smirked, pleased to be in on the joke. He thought he understood, now. Some rules were good to break, and some rules weren’t. The trick was knowing which was which.

***

As much as Castiel had enjoyed spending time talking to Lucifer, he found himself automatically avoiding him in the Great Hall and around the school over the next few days. He wasn’t sure whether it was out of respect for Michael, who clearly considered himself Lucifer’s favourite Novak, or if it was because he didn’t want Dean Winchester to have reason to point out that Castiel had also become Lucifer’s new lackey. On top of that, there was something about the way that Lucifer made him want to act… something that he wasn’t quite sure that he liked.

On the one hand, it felt good to be with Lucifer; to know that he, Castiel, was important, was powerful.

On the other hand, Castiel couldn’t help feeling something inside him rejecting the idea of being more important than everyone else, just because of the family he was born to. It wasn’t as though it had been anything but luck. He hadn’t earned it.

It was a difficult problem for him to keep turning over in his own head, and so for now, he did his best to set it aside. He avoided Lucifer, and Michael - and also Charlie. Luckily that wasn’t too hard, since the most time he’d usually spend with her was in class, and it was easy to choose a seat further away from her without looking like he was deliberately shutting her out; he could almost pretend to himself that he wasn’t consciously avoiding her at all.

And that was another problem with what Lucifer made him do. Charlie was so nice. She was fun and bubbly. Castiel didn’t want to believe that she could be - some kind of traitor, someone not worthy of his time, just because she made friends with people who were below her in blood status, and therefore magical capability. If anything, didn’t that make her kind? Kinder than Lucifer, anyway…

But then Gordon’s mulish expression would pop into Castiel’s mind, and he would find himself back on Lucifer’s side, again, defending him against Gordon’s mindless bullying.

None of it made any sense.

For the hundredth time, as he walked to class with Hannah, Castiel deliberately set it out of his mind.

“You’re quiet,” Hannah observed. “Are you OK?”

“I’m always quiet,” Castiel said back, with a small smile. “Nothing’s wrong.”

Hannah smiled back at him. She reached into the book that she was carrying, and pulled out a scrap of parchment, which she held out to him as they walked.

“What is it?” Castiel said, reaching out and taking it from her. Hannah lifted a shoulder as Castiel read the words scratched onto it in messy ink.

“Just something I found while I was reading,” she said. “I thought you might like it.”

It is possible that the inventor of the Disarming Spell was Merlin, who studied at Hogwarts at the same time as Salazar Slytherin was likely still teaching at the school.

“What?” Castiel said. “Is this true?”

“Absolutely,” Hannah said, with a grin. “What, did you think I’d make something up?”

“No, it’s just - I never knew that,” Castiel said. He looked up in time to see Hannah rolling her eyes fondly.

“You don’t know everything,” she said. Castiel tucked the parchment into his textbook. Later on, he’d copy it into the notebook that Hannah had bought him for Christmas; true to her idea, he’d been using it more and more to keep all the strange little details that he liked and magical facts that he read together in one place, written down, so that he wouldn’t forget them. As a system, it was working much better than relying on various parchment scraps and memory power.

“Actually,” he said to Hannah, “I’ve been reliably informed that I do know everything. Jo even said so the other day.”

“She did?” Hannah said, as they reached the doorway of the class they were headed to - Transfiguration again, and Castiel had remembered to look up the incantation for the question that he’d wanted to ask Professor Tran, too.

“She did,” Castiel said. “She called me Mr Know-It-All.”

Hannah’s expression of mild scepticism melted into dry humour. She walked into the classroom with a pensive look on her face.

“Mr Novak -it-All,” she said, after a moment’s thought. Castiel sighed.

“She said that too,” he replied. That one had better not stick to him, he thought to himself. Novak-it-All was hardly a good reputation.

A small part of him couldn’t help being a little pleased with it, though.

He sat himself down beside Hannah, and they chatted amicably as the rest of the class filed into the room. Jo and Anna sat down together at a pair of desks on the other side of Hannah, and Zeddmore and Spangler were closer to the front. Thaddeus MacInnes was the first Hufflepuff to arrive, with his hair styled as carefully as ever; the rest of them arrived in a group, with Dean at the centre. As usual, Garth Fitzgerald and Dean came to sit in the two chairs right in front of Castiel.

“Novak,” Dean said, as he casually pulled his chair out and dropped his schoolbag onto his desk. Castiel tipped his chin higher and pulled a bored face.

“Winchester,” he said, careful to say it like he was more indifferent to Dean’s presence than it was possible to imagine.

“Hannah,” Dean said, looking to Castiel’s left with a much more friendly grin.

“Dean,” Hannah replied easily, returning the greeting; Castiel turned his head to see her smiling. He frowned, and looked back to the two Hufflepuffs in front of them.

“Garth,” he said, nodding to Garth Fitzgerald. Garth frowned. He and Castiel had spoken perhaps twice in their entire time at Hogwarts.

“Novak,” he said in response all the same, with a little easygoing shrug of his shoulders and a small, goofy grin. Castiel looked to Dean, and saw him pulling a face at Garth. He smiled to himself.

“Everyone settle down!” A sharp voice came from the front of the room. Castiel started; Professor Tran was short enough that he frequently didn’t notice her coming into the classroom until she was already giving him a shock with her snappish tone. He took a moment to neaten his book, his parchment, and his quill on his desk, before raising his hand.

“Open your books to page - yes, Mr Novak?”

“Professor, I remember last lesson you mentioned transmogrify, ” Castiel began. Dean twisted around in his seat to look at him, and Castiel kept his gaze carefully averted. No doubt Winchester would try to put him off by crossing his eyes or sticking out his tongue if Castiel made the mistake of eye contact. “I spent some time in the library reading around the subject, and I wondered if you could tell me…” He went on to explain his question as concisely as he could. The truth was, he was genuinely intrigued by the answer - but he couldn’t deny the little spark of enjoyment he derived from watching Dean’s face as Professor Tran replied simply,

“Mr Novak, that question is more advanced than the level of this class. Please speak to me after the lesson and I can talk you through the finer points of that spell’s origin. Anyone else with an interest may also stay.” She gave a sharp nod, and moved away. “Now, open your books to page one hundred and seven. As we begin to look towards the end of the year and the exam, we’re going to be doing some review work…”

Castiel flipped open his textbook, the pages crumpled and splattered with ink in places. He’d done his best to keep it pristine, but months of constant reference for homeworks and his own research had meant that it had lost its sleekness. He felt a little embarrassed about it; he could only imagine his mother’s face if she saw him toting around a Transfiguration textbook with a huge ink blot on the contents page. His Charms textbook, of course, he’d been extra careful with, and there wasn’t so much as a fold at the top of a page corner.

Hannah’s textbook, Castiel knew without looking, was even more dogeared than his own. He thought that perhaps she had bought it second-hand. He tried to let that make him feel better; at least he’d had the opportunity to start with a book that was tidy.

In effect, that only made him feel worse. He still hadn’t managed to find out where Hannah’s family lived or why they hadn’t been able to afford new robes and books for her before she came to Hogwarts, and he didn’t want to snoop too obviously into a topic that made her mouth turn down and her eyes look like closed doors every time it was mentioned. Even still, he could never help his curiosity…

“Look down at your book,” Professor Tran said, shocking Castiel out of his momentary reverie. “You will see a series of topics written there, all of which we have covered this year. These are the topics that it will be absolutely necessary for you to revise in your own time, in the coming weeks. There is only so much homework and class time that I can give you. Think of these tests as the beginning of your examination careers, that will ultimately end in the N.E.W.T.s when you leave the school.” Castiel listened attentively, making sure to look as though he were listening attentively, too. In front of him, Dean Winchester seemed to be making notes - or doodling snitches, probably, Castiel thought. It sounded wildly out of character for Dean to be making notes of any kind.

“She means business,” Hannah murmured. Castiel looked over at her, and smiled reassuringly.

“We’re easily going to pass,” he said. “I’ve got lots of notes and extra essays written, and you can study with me, I don’t mind.”

Hannah had a look on her face that was a little dry when she nodded her head, and Castiel turned to face the front again with a little flush on his face. You can study with me, I don’t mind, mocked a little voice in his head. The words sounded arrogant and stupid when he played them back to himself. What if Castiel were the one who had the opportunity to study with Hannah - what if it depended on whether or not she minded?

But Hannah wasn’t doing nearly so well in classes as Castiel was, another voice in Castiel’s mind said, the one that sounded a lot more like Lucifer than the other one. She needed Castiel’s help more than he needed hers, that was just a fact.

Castiel’s thoughts brushing over Lucifer made him frown, and he refocused himself on Professor Tran.

“In order to impress upon you all the importance of thorough revision,” she was saying, “you will now be undergoing a small test - a quiz, of sorts. You will be answering questions on this year’s work, and I think you will be surprised by how much of it you have forgotten. Unless, of course, you have been regularly consolidating your knowledge throughout the year, as I advocated at the start of the autumn term.” She gave them all a hard look, and Castiel sensed other students around him dipping their heads in an effort to avoid her gaze. He, however, kept his head up. He’d done exactly as she’d told them, and had nothing of which to be ashamed. In fact, he felt a little burst of excitement. He was ready to show Professor Tran the results of his work, and maybe finally gain her approval.

In front of him, Dean Winchester also didn’t move, though Garth shifted uncomfortably at the next desk. Castiel wondered if Dean were foolish enough to think that his lazy attitude and supposed flair for magic would carry him through any test, or if he just didn’t care. Either way, Castiel was fairly certain that Dean would not be posing any kind of serious threat to him as far as scores went, despite the high marks that Dean got on homeworks. Without books to check at the last minute, he’d be lost.

Professor Tran’s eyes seemed to linger on both himself and on Dean, Castiel thought; the only two in the class meeting her stare. The twitch of her eyebrow before she continued speaking suggested that she had some kind of opinion on their confidence, but her flat mouth gave Castiel no clues as to what that opinion might be.

It didn’t matter, Castiel thought. If she thought he was overconfident, he’d prove her wrong. And if she approved, then he’d prove her right. Either way, he was going to get every single answer on this test. He reached for a piece of parchment and a quill.

“No need for quills,” Professor Tran said, hearing the rustle of several other students with similar ideas reaching for their stationery. “And no wands, Mr Winchester, thank you.”

Dean, who had plucked his wand out of his bag hopefully, put it away again with a slope to his shoulders that spoke volumes of his disappointment. Castiel rolled his eyes. Dean couldn’t create any sparks and bangs, here, so his attention span would probably run out in the first five minutes.

Actually, thought Castiel, that was being too generous.

He smiled at the thought of Dean’s face, if he could only hear the things that Castiel was thinking about him. He’d look so offended; maybe he’d even go red with anger under his freckles. He had a definite tendency to do that - whenever Castiel was around, anyway.

“Stand up for the first question. I am going to give you two possible answers. If you think the first answer is correct, you raise your left hand. If you think the second answer is correct, you raise your right hand. If your choice was correct, you remain standing, and move on to the next question. If your choice was incorrect, you may sit down, and use the time while the test continues to reflect on the manifold hours you will be spending on revision. Now,” she said, clapping her hands, as all the students scraped back their chairs to get to their feet. “How many taps do we give a matchstick when we want it to turn into a needle? One, or two?”

Castiel shot his left hand up into the air, at the exact same time as Dean stuck up his left hand, too. He could remember the first lesson so clearly; the way that Dean had somehow managed to get his needle so silvery and pointy, so fast. Dumb luck had served Dean well in class, that was for sure - but the exams were going to be a different story.

“Which hand was it for the first answer?” someone said. Castiel rolled his eyes.

“Left,” Professor Tran said, with forbearance.

“Left is the right hand?”

“Left is the right hand if you think the first answer is correct,” said Professor Tran.

“The right hand?” Dean Winchester said, and Castiel could hear the smirk in his tone, even if all he could see was the back of Dean’s head. Typical Winchester, he thought. Making unnecessary trouble.

“Left hand for the first answer. Right hand for the second answer,” Professor Tran said, sending Dean a quelling look.

“What was the question again?” chirruped an uncertain voice at the other side of the room.

Professor Tran sighed, staring for a moment into a point in the middle distance.

“The question is this,” she said, her voice still calm. “How many times do you tap a matchstick to turn it into a needle? One, or two? Put your left hand up for one. Put your right hand up for two. Is everyone clear?”

Castiel still had his left hand aloft; he used his right arm to prop it up, since it was starting to hurt. After some more urgent mumbling, everyone in the classroom raised a hand - a few only half up, uncertain.

“Left-handers, you are right. Right-handers, please sit down.” A couple of people sank into their seats. Castiel looked around at them, making mental notes of their names. Part of him was just curious, but he could also offer to help study with them later, if they wanted - after all, if they were getting such a simple question wrong, they needed all the help that they could get.

“Next question,” said Professor Tran, eyeing the students sitting down, who carefully avoided her gaze. “Which set of animals is easier to transform - vertebrates, or invertebrates?”

Castiel saw a few of his fellow students turning to look at one another out of the corner of his eye, undoubtedly asking each other what the long words meant. Hannah had her right hand up, and Castiel smiled at her as he raised the same hand.

In front of him, Dean Winchester also had his right hand up. Castiel rolled his eyes. He needed Professor Tran to start asking some more exacting questions, that would expose the weaknesses in Dean’s knowledge.

“Right-handers, you’re correct. Who can explain why? Miss Harvelle?”

“Um,” Jo said uncertainly. “Because invertebrates are the ones without backbones, so they’re simpler… and easier to do magic on?”

“House point for Gryffindor,” Professor Tran said crisply, and the atmosphere in the room shifted - suddenly, there were house points up for grabs, and everyone’s focus was immediately sharpened. The end of term didn’t only mean exams - it also meant that the winners of the House Point cup were going to be decided in the not-too-distant future, and everyone was on the look-out for ways to make points. “Well done, Miss Harvelle.”

Castiel had the pleasure of watching the conflict on Dean’s face as he watched Jo get the point; he knew that Dean and Jo were friends, but she was also a Gryffindor. Dean’s half-forced, half-sincere smile as he tried to look proud of her, whilst also wanting that house point for Hufflepuff, was a sight that Castiel truly enjoyed.

The next point would be his, he decided.

“What is the incantation,” Professor Tran said, and there was a more definite quiet, this time, as she posed her question, “for the spell that transforms a cauldron into a sieve?” Is it levicribrum or cribrum muto ?”

Castiel raised his right hand with absolute certainty. Beside him, Hannah paused a moment before also putting up her right hand. Castiel wondered, briefly, if she knew the answer, or if she had just copied him. Not that it mattered, really, he thought, with only a little begrudgement. After all, if Professor Tran hadn’t wanted copying to be part of the quiz, she would have blindfolded the students or somehow made sure they couldn’t see each other. Hannah was just doing her best within the rules of the game.

Charlie would have liked her style, Castiel caught himself thinking, and then pushed that idea away. He wasn’t supposed to be thinking about Charlie.

“Right-handers, you’re quite right.” There was a more significant loss of students to their seats, this time; Dean, irritatingly, was still standing, as was Garth, but Jo and Anna were both sitting down. “Who can tell me why?”

Castiel kept his eyes trained on Professor Tran as he raised his hand, determined to catch her eye. She cast her stern gaze across the room, taking note of the fact that no one but Castiel had their hand up - and then she called on Dean Winchester.

“Mr Winchester,” she said. “Any thoughts?”

“Uhhhhhhh,” Dean said, sounding like he had no idea. “Um. Because, uh - yeah, um, because… um…”

Castiel cringed at the stutters. At the dining table, at the Novak family’s nightly quiz, Gabriel would always leap in for Castiel at this point - say the answer for him, and then give some elongated explanation, so that Naomi would be distracted from the fact that Castiel himself hadn’t known the correct answer. Castiel swallowed hard. He came quickly to a conclusion: Dean might be irritating, but since there was no one else in the room who actually knew the right answer, only Castiel could come to his aid.

“It’s cribrum muto,” Castiel said, in a rush, drawing the attention of the rest of the class with his interruption. “It’s cribrum muto , because the ending of the incantation - ‘muto’ - is often used in transfiguration spells, and the first option was levicribrum, and even though that has the ‘sieve’ part in it, ‘cribrum’, it begins with ‘levi’, which I think is associated with levitation spells.”

Castiel glanced around the room; he could still see some eyes on Dean.

“So,” he pressed on, despite Professor Tran's attempt to forestall him, “that spell might be for levitating a sieve instead of transfiguring a cauldron into a sieve, and if you haven’t already transfigured the cauldron into a sieve, then you have nothing to levitate anyway so the spell is redundant. And -”

“Mr Novak,” said Professor Tran, silencing him with two words - softly-spoken, and yet pointed. “That’s quite enough.”

The room was silent. In front of Castiel, Dean was sitting absolutely still.

“A point to Gryffindor for your knowledge, and a point away for interrupting. You break even, this time. I would not test the waters again.” Professor Tran gave him a sharp look, to ensure he understood her meaning.

Castiel pressed his lips together and nodded.

Being told off by Professor Tran was completely different to being told off by his mother, he thought to himself. Professor Tran was whiplash smart and quiet and calm, whereas Naomi always had a current of powerful emotion running right under the surface, one that never failed to make Castiel afraid. He was glad, though, that the two teachers were so different. It made it far easier to be told off by Professor Tran without losing his dignity.

When Professor Tran had moved her gaze away, Dean immediately whipped around, looking furious.

“Why’d you have to do that?”

Castiel opened his mouth to protest, indignant - but Hannah leapt in first.

“He just knew the answer. Don’t fight about it.”

Dean cast her a quick glance, and then rolled his eyes hard as he turned back to face the front, ready for Professor Tran’s next question. Castiel glared daggers at the back of his stupid, irritating head. Of course, he thought. He wouldn’t expect Dean to understand that Castiel had only been trying to help someone in need. Dean probably thought that he’d just been trying to show off, or something - Castiel almost scoffed. As though he needed to show off. The proof of his knowledge and hard work would all be in the exam, anyway.

He wondered, briefly, whether Professor Tran had been impressed with what he’d done. She, at least, understood what he’d been trying for, didn’t she? Wasn’t that why she’d given him a warning, rather than just taking a House Point away from him for interrupting? The thought of Professor Tran misunderstanding him, and thinking he was some kind of suck-up, bothered him. He was sure she didn’t think that. Did she?

“Next question,” Professor Tran said, jerking Castiel out of his thoughts. “Who described the optimum wand movements for transfiguration? Was it Adalbert Waffling, or Emeric Switch?”

Castiel barely had to think about it; his right hand flew into the air. He remembered reading a brief biography of Switch in the library one time; it had been a little boring, but he’d persevered. Hannah, on the other hand, had been reading one of her own books - the ones that she very carefully, and very casually, would not allow Castiel to see. She put up her right hand, too. Castiel remembered the fact that she’d defended him against Dean, and didn’t look over at her or say anything about the fact that she was copying, again.

Of course, she might not be copying, Castiel thought. She might easily have remembered the answer from class.

Ahead of them, Dean had his right hand in the air. He looked around at Castiel, obviously trying to be surreptitious about it until he saw that Castiel was watching him, and then turning his head further and pulling a face.

“Stop copying me, Novak,” he said. Castiel scowled at him.

I don’t need to copy,” he said angrily. Dean snorted.

“Protesting too much, much?”

“People with your right hand up, you’re correct,” Professor Tran said. Garth - to whom Castiel had been paying no attention whatsoever - sat down, looking unbothered. “If you didn’t know that one, it might behoove you to take a look at your textbook, since it is Switch’s name on the front. A House Point for the person who can tell me the wand movements that Switch described.”

Castiel thrust his hand into the air as high as he could get it; in front of him, Dean also raised his hand, though a little more hesitantly.

“Hannah,” Professor Tran said, raising her eyebrows expectantly. Pinkness bloomed on Hannah’s cheeks immediately; she looked to Castiel, who glanced at Professor Tran - she was watching him, hawk-like. If he tried to tell her the answer, Tran would see. He could leap in again like he had done with Dean… but Tran had told him not to…

“Um,” Hannah said. “Um, well. Kind of like…” Her blush was worsening. Castiel swallowed hard.

Firm ,” he tried to mutter out of the side of his mouth.

“Worm?” Hannah said, loud enough for everyone to hear, and then clapped a hand to her mouth as the class exploded into laughter.

“Worm movements,” Garth said; Hannah looked scandalised by her own mistake. Across the room, Jo and Anna had taken out their wands and were making them wiggle snakily at each other. Dean Winchester, right in front of them, was obviously doing his best not to laugh in solidarity, and was turning a gentle fuschia in the process.

Firm, ” Castiel repeated, and Hannah’s bright red face cleared.

“Firm,” she said, speaking over the general giggling. “I meant firm…”

And decisive.

“And decisive!”

Professor Tran was looking at Castiel particularly hard as she nodded her head.

“Well done, Miss Carroll.” She left it at that, and Castiel was grateful. Hannah didn’t look as though she needed any further encouragement to brush up on this particular topic; her cheeks were still flushed.

“Are you OK?” Castiel asked, and she glanced at him.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Thanks for helping.” She smiled at him wryly. “I knew the answer. My brain just goes empty.”

Castiel nodded understandingly. He knew that feeling all too well; standing in front of Naomi was normally enough to make his mind a totally blank slate.

“Next question,” Professor Tran said, not giving them time to linger; the last few snorts of laughter died down at her slightly snappy tone. Castiel watched Jo catch Dean’s eye, in front of him, and make a wiggling worm movement with her finger. Dean’s shoulders shook with silent laughter, and Castiel narrowed his eyes, losing focus on Professor Tran.

“It’s OK,” Hannah said, nudging them. “They can laugh. It is pretty funny.” The grin she gave him this time was a lot lighter, and she wiggled her finger up the arm of his robes. “Worm movements.” Castiel allowed his smile to show, and she brightened even further.

“Worm movements,” Castiel said, letting himself laugh, softly so as not to catch the attention of Professor Tran, who was still talking. He pulled a serious face. “When practising transfiguration, be sure to always use worm movements.” Hannah pressed a hand to her mouth to stop a giggle escaping.

“Worm and decisive,” she said. “Wiggle like you mean it.”

Castiel heard a snort from in front of them, and looked up to see that Dean had been following their conversation. When he saw that he’d been caught, Dean grinned, put his hands on his hips, and shook them from side to side with a serious expression on his face.

“Wiggle like you mean it,” he said. Castiel and Hannah dissolved into laughter, completely oblivious to what the rest of the class were doing.

“Winchester, Novak, Carroll,” said a hard voice, which brought them back to reality. “If your impromptu dance party is quite finished, perhaps you’d care to hazard a guess at the answer?”

Castiel felt a kind of horror sink in. While they’d been messing around, Professor Tran had already asked the next question - and Castiel hadn’t heard it. A quick glance towards Hannah told him that she hadn’t been listening either. Dean, although he’d turned back round to face the front, had a similarly frozen set to his body language.

“Um,” Castiel said. “Could you possibly repeat the question, Professor?”

Professor Tran’s expression took no pleasure as she said simply,

“You should have been listening, Mr Novak. I will not repeat questions for people who do not show the courtesy of paying attention in my lessons.”

Castiel shrivelled. Ahead of him, Dean Winchester turned around, his eyes wide. He raised his eyebrows at Castiel, who shrugged. Dean mirrored the action, threw a look around the room - the four or so people who were left were divided fairly evenly between left and right - and then hesitantly raised his left hand. Castiel frowned, and glanced at Hannah, who looked lost.

“Come on, Novak, make a decision,” Professor Tran said impatiently. Castiel gritted his teeth, and then put up his left hand as well. If Winchester was right, there was no way he was going through to the next question without Castiel. If that happened, he might actually win the whole thing.

Beside him, Hannah raised her right hand. When Castiel caught her eye, she raised a shoulder.

“At least one of us will get through,” she whispered. Castiel nodded seriously; she was quite right.

Professor Tran left a moment of quiet - she had an ever so slight flair for the dramatic, Castiel realised, watching the spark of enjoyment in her eyes - and then she said,

“Left-handers, you’re right. Right-handers, take a seat.”

Castiel offered Hannah a regretful look, even as a little flare of victory sparked in his chest. Dean, in front of him, had a triumphant set to his shoulders, too.

There were only four people left standing, now, including Dean and Castiel - across the room, Ruby was standing with her hands on her hips, trying to look bored, and a few seats away Gordon Walker had his arms folded, typically surly. Castiel met his gaze, briefly, and felt a lurch of the anger he’d felt earlier. Castiel’s first concern was beating Dean Winchester, but there was no way that he was going to let a bully like Gordon win this thing, either, for all that they were in the same House.

“Next question,” Professor Tran said, and Castiel sharpened his focus. There was no way he was going to be caught unawares twice in a row. In front of him, Dean squared his shoulders.

“Since there are four of you, we will do this question slightly differently. I would like each of you to name one of the four branches of transfiguration, beginning with you, Mr Winchester.”

Castiel clenched his hands into fists. Of course Winchester got to go first, when it was easiest. With any luck, Castiel himself would be able to go second - they had only studied magic pertaining to one of the four branches, so far, and his knowledge of the others was decidedly shaky.

“Uh, Transformation,” Dean said, and Castiel barely refrained from rolling his eyes. Winchester would pick the most obvious branch, the one they’d worked on all year.

“Good… Miss Cortese?”

Ruby’s face was working, her eyes far-off. After a few moments of thought, she shrugged her shoulders and seemed to give up.

“Banishment?” she said, carelessly. Professor Tran pressed her lips together.

“A good try,” she said. “I believe you intended to say ‘vanishment’.” Castiel cursed internally; vanishment was the other branch of which he’d been certain. “Please take a seat, Miss Cortese. Now, Mr Walker?”

Ruby slung herself down into her seat with bad grace, her eyes glittering. Gordon, meanwhile, shifted awkwardly.

“I…” he said. “I, uh - um…” He cast a quick look across the classroom, at Castiel. There was a look in his eyes, a kind of hope - Castiel narrowed his eyes as he understood. Gordon was hoping that Castiel would leap in for him, just as he had done for Dean, or maybe try to whisper the answer, like he’d done for Hannah.

Castiel very pointedly looked away. Even if he had been sure of an answer, there was no way that he would share it with someone like Gordon.

“Well,” he heard Gordon say, sounding angry - as though that were any great change, Castiel thought acerbically. “Well - isn’t there - uh, untransformation?”

Professor Tran once more pulled her nearly, but not quite face.

“Untransfiguration, Mr Walker,” she said. “In an examination context, I could not give you the mark. Please have a seat.”

With slightly more dignity than Ruby, but still with sullenness, Gordon flopped down into his chair. Castiel watched him, his heart starting to beat harder. He didn’t want to be like that - didn’t want to sink back into his seat, scowling, while Dean won. He just had to think -

“Mr Novak,” Professor Tran said, and there was an ever so slight glitter in her eyes that told Castiel very, very clearly that she’d left him until last on purpose. I wanted exacting, Castiel reminded himself. And I now I’ve got it.

He tried to cast his mind back to that one lesson where they’d covered the four branches. In a way, he was furious with himself; this was basic transfiguration, and yet he’d focused all his research efforts into the first branch, and ignored the other three completely.

Professor Tran raised an eyebrow. She was expecting him to fail, Castiel realised. She was waiting for him to tell her he didn’t know. She wanted him taking down a peg or two.

Castiel gritted his teeth. Think, he told himself. If you can’t remember the answer, then work it out. What can you do in transfiguration? Transform, yes. Untransfigure, the opposite. Vanish, right. And the opposite of vanishment would be…

And suddenly, Castiel still didn’t know, but he had a guess.

“Mr Novak? Unless you’ve been hit by immobulus, we’re waiting,” Professor Tran said. Dean turned around to look at him, and wiggled his eyebrows. Castiel narrowed his eyes, and spoke.

“Conjuring, Professor?” he said.

There was silence, but for the creak of chairs as the seated students turned to look at Professor Tran - awaiting her judgement.

“Conjuration,” she corrected, in a soft voice. And then she smiled. “Let’s be entirely accurate wherever possible. But very good, Mr Novak. Well done.”

The class dissolved immediately into murmurs; Dean’s face dropped into disappointment as he turned to face the front once more. Professor Tran put her hands on her hips.

“Two left,” she said. Castiel glanced around the rest of the classroom, at the sea of eyes looking up at him, feeling a little kick of pride. “How to separate you?”

Castiel and Dean were silent, the lone two standing students in the room, awaiting her judgement. After a moment’s thought, she snapped her fingers.

“How about something a little more practical,” she said, and Castiel repressed a reflexive groan. Practical magic played so much more into Dean’s strengths than his own…

“Come to the front,” Professor Tran said, beckoning them forward. “Let’s see. Poculum. Geminio.” On Professor Tran’s desk, a beautiful tree-patterned teacup appeared, and was immediately doubled. She pushed them to either end of her desk, and indicated with her hands that Dean and Castiel should stand facing each other, the desk between them, teacups before them.

“I would like a pair of rats, please,” she said, and Castiel felt a tingle go up his spine. Rats were not easy subjects in transfiguration; they were vertebrates, they were mammals... and Castiel and the rest of the class had only studied the incantation so far, not practised the spell itself in actuality. If he were to create half a rat, or get the spell completely wrong somehow, the poor thing would suffer -

“I am on hand to aid with any mishaps,” Professor Tran added, correctly deciphering the concerned expression on Castiel’s face. “Let’s see what you can do.”

Ratifors, Castiel reminded himself mentally. That was the incantation, he was sure of it. Emphasis on the first syllable; he could remember Professor Tran saying it. How many taps had she given the teacup? One? No, it had been more than one - two, Castiel thought - two, yes, he remembered her counting them out - didn’t he?

“On three, then, boys,” Professor Tran said. Students, corrected Castiel in his mind, thinking of Hannah. “One.”

He tried to focus. Transfiguration needed decisiveness - it needed worm movements - firm movements -

Castiel repressed the sudden urge to laugh.

“Two - three -”

Ratifors!” Castiel exclaimed at the same time as Dean, tapping the teacup twice, briskly and decisively. Across the table, Castiel heard Dean say the same phrase and make the same motion - his ‘decisive’ movement bordering on wand-breaking, Castiel thought, but still, it worked. Murmurs of excitement, and a few yelps of disgust, rippled around the room as two rats appeared in the place of the teacups, their white fur patterned with dark brown leaves.

Dean’s rat began to sniff at some papers on Professor Tran’s desk, while Castiel’s rat sat primly and washed its ears.

“Hmmm,” said Professor Tran, walking around the desk to pick up each of their rats, and inspect them for flaws. “Mr Winchester, your rat is missing a toe.”

“I think the teacup had a chip, Professor,” Dean said meekly, and Professor Tran narrowed her eyes at him. “I can’t make a whole rat from a chipped teacup.”

“My cups are in perfect condition,” Professor Tran said, unruffled, putting down Dean’s rat.

“But, Professor -” Dean said, a little desperately, as Castiel met his eyes with a cool expression across the desk. Professor Tran stymied him with a repressive hand.

She held up Castiel’s rat. “Mr Novak’s rat also has a flaw.” She reached out a finger, and flicked at one of the rat’s ears. It made a little chink sound, and Castiel winced. “One ear remains china.” Castiel internally berated himself. Had his determination been lacking? Had he wavered on the pronunciation of the spell? He glared at the rat sitting contentedly enough in Professor Tran’s hand. She blinked at him, and then began to wash the offending ear again.

“Both of you performed imperfect spells,” said Professor Tran. “There isn’t much to choose between them. We need a further last test.” She replaced the rat with the porcelain ear on the desk, looking pensive, until her dark eyes lit up from within. “A squeak,” she said.

There was a pause, aside from the muffled murmuring of those members of the class who had already lost interest in the competition. Out the corner of his eye, Castiel could see Garth rolling his wand up and down his desk absently.

“Excuse me, Professor?” Dean said. He definitely didn’t look bored, Castiel thought. Dean’s face had that same underlying hunger to win that Castiel felt.

“A squeak,” Professor Tran repeated. “I want to hear your rats squeak. Use magical means, no touching them with your hands. The first to make their rat squeak aloud wins the quiz. There will be fifteen House points for the victor.”

Dean’s face shifted from confusion at the bizarrity of the request to determination at the mention of the reward; he rolled up the sleeves of his robes, and focused on his rat. Castiel frowned, and looked down at China-Ear on the desk. She was sitting with her paws folded neatly. Magical means? Was he supposed to transform her somehow - into a squeaking rat? No, that didn’t make sense. His eyes raked over the desk, checking over the tools at his disposal. Papers, a quill, a few textbooks… nothing sprung out at him, or gave him any ideas.

“On my word,” Professor Tran said. Castiel met Dean’s eyes. He was looking confident, half-smirking smugly. That could mean anything, though, Castiel knew. Dean’s ability to seem assured when he was about to completely mess something up was second to none. Still, it made him nervous that Dean might possibly have a plan, when he, Castiel, had nothing… his anxious, fidgeting hands found the edge of the desk. A thin strip of wood splintered off under his worrying fingers, soft and bendable to his touch…

An idea leapt into his mind, fast as quicksilver.

An idea that wasn’t particularly nice, but he couldn’t think of anything better…

“Three,” Professor Tran said. “Two -” Castiel’s eyes roved over the desk for something different to try, but came up blank. The strip of wood rested in his hand, promising victory.

“One…” Professor Tran said. The class had fallen completely silent again, waiting to see what was about to happen. Dean, across the table, was already raising his wand, ready to perform his magic. Castiel had no other option. He’d have to do it.

“Go!” Professor Tran said. Castiel raised the strip of wood, dropped it onto the desk, pointed his wand at it, and said loudly,

Aculeolus!”

Over the table, at the same time, Dean said,

“Wingardium Leviosa!”

The splinter of wood hardened and grew shiny in front of Castiel’s eyes; he blinked, and a needle was sitting on the desk in front of them. Reaching for it, he was distracted by the sight of Dean’s leaf-patterned rat rising into the air, twisting in fright, little legs making vain running motions - there could only be moments before it emitted a squeak of protest -

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” Castiel murmured to the rat in front of him, and with the shine of the needle pinched between his finger and thumb, he reached down, and pricked her gently in the rear.

Squeak!

Castiel dropped the needle as though it were hot, and dropped to his knees in front of the desk.

“Are you alright?” he said to China-Ear, who blinked at him, her nose twitching.

“Novak,” said a voice from across the desk. Castiel looked up to see Dean smirking down at him, rat in his hand. “You idiot. That squeak wasn’t your rat.”

Castiel frowned, and then looked down at China-Ear.

“You didn’t squeak?” he said to her.

“Well,” said Professor Tran, who had walked around the desk to inspect Castiel’s transfiguration spellwork on the splinter of wood, “you did poke her with the blunt end, Mr Novak.”

“I didn’t want to hurt her,” Castiel said, with a hint of outrage, and China-Ear chose this moment to offer a loud squeak, seemingly of agreement.

“As admirable as that is,” Professor Tran began, “Mr Winchester’s rat did squeak first -”

“Professor,” Castiel said, in a rush, “Didn’t Winchester use wingardium leviosa ?”

“Sure did,” Dean said, smugly, folding his arms. “What about it?”

“That’s a charm, Professor,” Castiel said. “Not a transfiguration spell. He can’t win a transfiguration quiz with a charm, can he?”

Dean grimaced and turned to Professor Tran, obviously expecting her to be making a similar that’s-a-lame-argument face. When he saw her pensive expression, however, his jaw dropped.

“What - my rat squeaked first, Professor! You can’t -”

“Charms won’t get you far in my class, Mr Winchester,” Professor Tran said. “Mr Novak technically demonstrated a better grasp of transfiguration techniques today. I award him fifteen points.”

The Gryffindors in the room made assorted noises of victory; the Hufflepuffs, meanwhile, crossed their arms. Even Garth looked vaguely put out, Castiel thought, as a little happy clench of triumph still tightened in his chest. From what he could tell, for Garth, that was the equivalent of a teary temper-tantrum.

“You’re a cheater, Novak,” Dean said angrily. Castiel swivelled to face him, feeling his cheeks flush pink.

“I’m not. I transfigured the needle, my rat squeaked -”

“Yeah, but mine squeaked first -

“Enough,” cut in Professor Tran. “Please resume your seats.”

As the pair of them glowered their way back to their desks, Professor Tran sighed.

“A little more inter-house warmth, perhaps, gentlemen,” she said. Dean looked at her as though she were mad.

“It’s no use, Professor,” Jo said gloomily. “They’ll never get on. Trust me.”

************************************************************************

A sour taste had settled itself in Dean’s mouth a week ago, and hadn’t made any moves to leave since.

Nick and Garth had almost immediately sensed that something was wrong, and while Garth had made an attempt to talk that Dean had quickly brushed off, Nick seemed to realize that Dean just needed space for whatever reason.

Mudblood .

The worst part was that even though he didn’t know the full extent of its meaning, Dean could already feel it sinking into his gut and burning its way through him. The moment Ruby had flung it at him, the poison took hold, and Dean couldn’t seem to shake it off.

Maybe it had to do with the fact that he still didn’t completely understand it, yet. Sure, he knew it was a mean word, but everyone that used it just seemed so - so angry , that it already made him feel small.

The longer he thought about it, the worse his mood became.

Novak hadn’t helped - with his smug attitude about technicalities during their quiz - and he wasn’t getting any better.

Dean’s stomach grumbled as he walked back from Transfiguration. It was almost lunchtime, and while he knew that he should eat, he didn’t really feel like being very social at the moment.

Which, of course, is usually when overly social people pounce.

“Dean!”

Dean turned just as Jo bounded up to him and grabbed onto his wrist with a wide smile on her face. “Hey, can I eat with you today? I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while and I know you don’t really like sitting at the Gryffindor table because of -”

“I’m not really hungry,” Dean muttered, just as his stomach loudly gave him away.

Jo giggled and punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Of course you’re not. And I hear you’re also transferring to the Gryffindor House, too. But really -”

“I’m not hungry, Jo.” Dean adjusted the strap of his bag on his shoulder, and tried not to scowl.

Jo’s smile faded. “Well, why’d you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, huh?” She tilted her head curiously. “Is this about that quiz? Because we both know that it didn’t mean anything. Honestly, I think you should’ve won.”

“No, it’s -” Dean sighed as his shoulders slumped. “C’mere.”

Dean tugged on the sleeve of her robes and headed down a side corridor with a lot less people in it, and sat down next to a window, hugging his bag to his chest. Jo frowned and sat down next to him.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, sounding concerned.

Instead of answering Dean stared at the stone walkway beneath his feet. “Jo, what’s a Mudblood?”

Beside him, he heard Jo inhale sharply.

“Did someone call you that?” Jo’s voice grew angry. “Who was it? I’ll -”

“Jo,” Dean interrupted and looked over at her pleadingly. “What does it mean?

Jo chewed on her lip, looking like she was deciding whether or not she should tell him, before finally sighing. “Remember on the train? When you said that you overheard some people talking badly about Muggle-borns?”

Dean nodded, feeling a sharp jab of anger at Castiel again and the conversation that he’d overheard him participate in.

“Well some people,” Jo continued, “are worse than that. To some people, Mud- well... that word is something you call a Muggle-born. It means they think that Muggle-borns have dirty blood. No actual wizard blood in their family.”

Dean nodded slowly and turned his gaze back down to the floor.

“But they’re not right,” Jo continued hastily. “They’re wrong and they’re mean. You’re just as much of a wizard as I am a witch, okay? Anyone who says you’re not is wrong.” Jo reached over and set a hand on his shoulder. “It’s dumb. My mom says that anyone who uses that word is old-fashioned and should immediately be turned into a toad for the rest of their life. Besides, you know how good you are at magic, right? There’s your proof.”

Dean smiled a little and shifted where he was sitting. It was true. He was doing really well in most of his classes.

Jo grinned and patted him on the head twice before the smile changed to concern once more. “So, who was it?”

“Ruby,” Dean muttered, “and Lucifer, but he didn’t know I was there. She was trying to convince him to be her friend or something. Be a part of that group that always hangs out with him.”

Jo scowled and folded her arms in front of her chest. “Well, Lucifer is the most wrong out of everyone. He and his whole family are a bunch of grindylows if you ask me. My mom says they’re going to ruin the Ministry one day.”

“Of Magic?” Dean asked.

“Yeah.” Jo tossed her hair in a huff. “Apparently his parents both work there and he’s got his eye on a spot in the Ministry, too. I hope he falls off a tower first, though.”

Dean snickered and silently agreed. Lucifer seemed like bad news all around and he couldn’t fathom how people liked him. Though, if they all felt the same about things like Muggle-borns, then maybe that explained it.

He grimaced when he thought about Castiel’s brother Michael trotting alongside Lucifer like a lovesick puppy. Another reason to stay far away from the Novaks.

“So, Ruby did too?” Jo asked.

“Yeah, but I think she was just angry, and-”

Jo shushed him by pressing a finger roughly to his lips. “Nope. Not an excuse. Never let anyone get away with using that word, okay?”

Dean leaned back a little and parted his lips to press his tongue against Jo’s finger, giggling when it caused her to yelp and quickly snatch it back and wipe it against his robes.

“You’re so gross . I’m being nice and here’s what I get for that!”

Dean grinned and pulled her into a hug. “Thanks, Jo,” he mumbled. “I’m glad Gryffindors aren’t all bad.”

Jo let out an affronted noise. “Just ‘cause you’ve got an issue with one..." She squeezed back briefly before shoving him away. “You wanna come eat now? I know you’re hungry. I can hear it.”

“Yeah. Alright.”

***

Eating in the Great Hall this time seemed to be a lot cheerier than it had been for the past few days. His dormmates seemed to realize that he was open to conversation and teasing again, much to Garth’s delight, and immediately started a miniature sort of food fight between the five of them.

For some reason, Dean felt a lot better now that he understood the meaning of the word. It wasn’t as menacing as it used to be.

All throughout lunch Dean glanced over at the Gryffindor table to look at Jo, but she didn’t seem to be interacting with her House mates all that much today. He hoped he hadn’t forced a rain cloud over the rest of her day by making her talk about all that stuff.

After briefly debating whether or not he could hit Novak with a potato from this distance, Dean decided it might be better to leave the Gryffindor table alone. If Jo still seemed down about something by the end of lunch, he’d go and talk to her about it, and he didn’t need to expand his food fight to get her attention. Yet.

Not ten minutes later, Dean watched as Jo quickly stood - nearly tripping over herself - and forced a casual walk out towards the door, though she kept staring at something.

Dean followed her eyes and realized that Jo was leaving the Great Hall at the same time as Ruby.

Ruby had been avoiding contact with Dean ever since the incident last week. When she saw him in the common room she’d immediately turn to go back to her dorm, or if she was in the same class as him she’d sit on the opposite end and out of his line of sight.

But that didn’t mean he wanted Jo to go and do something about Ruby! He’d just wanted to talk to Jo about the meaning of the word. He shouldn’t have said any names, or he should have made some up, or -

Ugh. He was going to have to follow her to make sure she didn’t do something stupid on his behalf.

“Be right back,” he murmured to Garth, and made his way out of the Great Hall after the two girls.

He’d already lost sight of them when he exited and there were too many different sounds of footsteps to follow for him to find them. Though, if Jo were following Ruby, then Ruby was probably headed back to the common room. It wasn't too long after heading in that direction that Dean finally heard the sound of hushed female voices.

“- and I swear if you start spreading that around, I’ll -”

“You’ll what? Why do you even care? If Mud- OW, alright - if Muggle-borns really are so great then it shouldn’t matter if people know!

Dean frowned and slowed his steps to a tiptoe as he neared the corner. What was going on?

“Because,” Jo’s voice hissed, “You know who you’ll tell and what they might do. Just leave him alone.”

“I can do what I want! Besides, he’s not going to do anything about it. Why do you care if people know that he’s a Muggle-born?”

“I don’t. Most people don’t. But it’s Dean’s thing to tell, alright? So you keep your mouth shut about it.”

“Or what?”

Dean pressed in against the wall, straining his ears. He’d feel a lot worse about listening in, but they were talking about him, so he figured he shouldn’t feel too guilty about it.

“Or I’ll send your parents a letter telling them you’re a Hufflepuff.”

There was a pause. Dean frowned, waiting.

“I - I don’t know what you’re-

“I saw you write a letter to them saying you were in Slytherin. So, you know. Your choice.”

Dean held his breath.

“Whatever. It’s not like I care, anyway.” Ruby sounded a little breathless.

“Yeah, you do. And so do your parents, apparently.”

Dean nearly tripped as he scrambled to run down towards the other end of the hallway when he heard footsteps headed in his direction.

For as much as Jo had been supportive about him owning who he was, she sure did seem awfully worried about something happening to him, which didn’t make him feel particularly good - especially because it seemed like she didn’t think he could protect himself. She had blackmailed someone because of him.

Sometimes the magical world was more complicated than Dean had realized.

*

“Now, the Vampire War of 1347 is not to be mistaken for the Banshee revolution of 1424. There were similar reasons for the bloodshed but ultimately, one takes place in Romania while the other was in Ireland. Please don’t mix those two up on the quiz.”

Dean was resting his chin on his arms as he struggled to pay attention to Professor MacLeod drone on about the different wars. Really, it should actually be incredibly interesting. Vampires! Banshees! All of these things that Dean once thought didn’t exist - they had wars, and politics and all kinds of interesting stuff!

But apparently, even Vampires can lose their cool factor when you were forced to learn about their history, and have tests on them for a grade.

He yawned just as Charlie nudged him with her elbow.

“I’ll bet she’s a Vampire.”

Dean raised an eyebrow and squinted at Charlie. “Who?”

“Professor MacLeod.” Charlie nodded seriously as she took notes.

Dean probably should be taking notes.

“Why?” he asked, glancing back over at their teacher, who continued to scratch different dates onto the black chalkboard upfront. “She doesn’t have the teeth.”

Charlie shrugged. “But she’s Scottish. And her teeth are, like… a little pointy.”

“Vampires are from Romania, right?” Dean might have been new to this whole “Vampires actually exist” thing, but at least the Muggle world hadn’t let him down on that front.

He watched as realization dawned on Charlie’s face. “Oh, right.”

“But,” he added, regretting that he’d crushed her fun, “She does have pointy teeth I guess? And she talks about the Vampire War like she’s on the Vampires’ side.”

Charlie tapped on her chin and shrugged her shoulders. “Hmmm.”

When Dean finally tuned back into the sound of the Scottish drawl, he’d missed the reason behind the uprising and where it took place; the Professor was just describing how the war was brought to an end.

He stared down at the answer sheet he was supposed to be filling out and frowned. The only thing he could answer right now was “Who was the war between?” (Vampires and humans) and “What brought the fighting to an end?” (A vampire sucking the life out of some important human).

Well. There went another History of Magic assignment that he was going to get a low score on. Dean yawned widely and flipped the parchment over onto the other side so he could doodle as he listened. It was hard to believe that all of these wars and all of this history happened and continued to happen right under the nose of the Muggle community, and they were always kept blissfully in the dark about it. How did they miss the time that a Prime Minister was kidnapped and replaced by Metamorphmagus? Or the time when some magizoologist accidentally let loose hundreds of beasts in the United States?

The more he learned about Magical History, the more he was sure that the Muggle world was either really good at ignoring things, or was really good at receiving memory charms.

Probably a little of both.

Dean lolled his head and looked over at Philippe, who was sitting a few desks away and looked just as interested in the lesson as Dean felt. After waiting until Professor Macleod had turned around to write on the chalkboard, Dean waved until he caught his attention.

Philippe squinted at him and mouthed, “What?”

Dean licked his lips and glanced over at Professor Macleod before gesturing at his teeth with two fingers and tilting his head in a question.

Philippe only squinted harder.

“Vampire,” Dean mouthed, pointing at his own teeth again and then at Philippe.

Understanding dawned on Philippe’s face as he shrugged and nodded. There was a brief pause, before he opened his mouth to reveal a pair of abnormally sharp canines amidst his own normally shaped teeth.

Dean stifled a giggle and nudged Charlie until all three of them were covering their mouths in an attempt to keep quiet.

“Are you three quite finished?”

Dean immediately sat up straight and flushed when he realized that the entire classroom was looking at them while Professor Macleod tapped her foot from the front of the room with a stern expression on her face.

There was a mumbled “Yes, Professor,” from the three of them as they ducked their heads down.

“Philippe LeChat?” Professor MacLeod raised her eyebrows expectantly. “You are a Metamorphmagus, correct?”

Philippe nodded hesitantly and there was a scattered murmuring throughout the classroom from the few who apparently weren’t aware of that fact.

“Please come to the front of the classroom.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest, but her expression didn’t change.

Dean quickly stood up and raised his hand. “Professor, it was me, not Philippe. I started it. I’m sorry.”

Professor MacLeod sighed and continued to look expectantly at Philippe. “Do sit down, Mr. Winchester. I understand your loyalty complex needs soothing, but it’s of no use right now.”

Dean slowly sat back down in his chair, face burning, as Philippe shrugged and made his way to the front of the room.

“Right. Now, Monsieur LeChat, can you please repeat the teeth that you were showing Mr. Winchester and Miss Bradbury?”

Philippe opened his mouth to show the two sharpened canines, tilting his head back for the class to see.

“Good, thank you.” Professor MacLeod gestured at him with a flourish and looked out at the classroom. “Now, what you see before you is a common misconception perpetuated by years of both wizarding and Muggle propaganda alike. Vampire teeth do not look like this. Having only two sharpened teeth would be ineffective.”

She leaned over - not much, seeing as Philippe was already nearly her height - and whispered something into his ear. After a moment, he nodded and opened his mouth even wider as a row of thin shark-like razors grew in front of every single one his human ones, until he had a mouthful of much more intimidating teeth.

“Very good, Philippe. That’s nearly right. Now, this is not a Defense Against the Dark Arts class, so I won’t go into too much detail. But when you’re picturing Vampires and their wars and how they killed, if you’re picturing a paltry pair of sharpened top-teeth, you won’t be getting the bigger - and frankly more terrifying - reality. Thank you. You can sit down now.”

Philippe swallowed and retracted his set of teeth.

Dean clapped.

*

Sam’s birthday was getting too close for Dean to be comfortable. He needed to send his younger brother something magical and incredible - something that would make Sam go wide-eyed with wonder, and maybe make up for the fact that Dean couldn’t be there in person - but he was drawing a blank. He’d asked Jo what she thought, but she’d just cautioned against getting anything too obviously magical for a Muggle, just in case Sam wasn’t good at keeping secrets yet. Nick had suggested maybe getting him his own owl to communicate with, but Dean didn’t know how to buy owls that weren’t at Diagon Alley, and he didn’t think he had enough money for that. One evening while he was in the Kitchens he even asked Turvey what he thought, and while the house elf didn’t know what Dean should send, he enthusiastically volunteered to bake something sweet to send along with whatever Dean decided.

“Well, what does Sam like to do?”

Dean had his chin rested on the top of the table and shrugged his shoulders as Hannah flipped the pages of her book. He’d asked pretty much everyone else, so when he’d found himself chatting with Hannah, he’d figured he might as well.

“I dunno. Stuff. He likes to read, I guess.”

Hannah tapped her chin thoughtfully from across the table. “How old is he?”

“Turning eight.”

She put a bookmark inside of the large book and set it down in front of her. “Have you ever heard of ‘ Tales of Beedle the Bard’ ?”

Dean frowned and shook his head.”No? Should I?”

“It’s a book of wizarding fairytales. Muggles have the Brothers Grimm stories, and witches and wizards have ‘ Tales of Beedle the Bard.”

He perked his head up in interest. “Wizards have fairy tales? They are the fairy tales.”

Hannah giggled and nodded. “Everyone has stories. I’ve read them and they’re kind of weird but do you think Sam would like reading them? I know he’s not a wizard, but-”

“Not yet, ” Dean corrected confidently. Just because his family hadn’t noticed any signs of magic in Sam yet didn’t mean that he wasn’t going to be going to Hogwarts eventually. “He’s still got a while before he gets his letter.”

“Right,” Hannah said with a nod, “Do you think he might like them? It might be a nice birthday present, and you can order a copy through owl post.”

The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea of sending Sam a wizarding book. His little brother had already read through most of the books that they owned, and the last Dean knew, he’d been checking out quite a few from the library.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Dean said with a grin. “Thanks, Hannah.”

She opened up her book again and shrugged. “I can’t wait to meet him when he comes to Hogwarts.”

“Me too. I’m going to show him everything.” His smile died down slightly when a thought came to him. “Families usually get sorted into the same House, right?” What if he wasn’t able to hang out with Sam as much because he wasn’t a Hufflepuff?

Hannah chewed on her lip and shrugged. “I think, usually? But not always. I mean, look at Castiel. He told me that his entire family has been in Ravenclaw for generations. Like all of them. And now he’s the first one to be sorted into Gryffindor.”

Huh. Dean licked his lips and tried to imagine being in Novak’s place for the first time. What if Dean’s entire family had been magical and had been in, say, Gryffindor, since forever - and then he was the only different one?

Maybe that explained why Novak had been so depressing to be around for the first part of the year.

“I hope he’s in Hufflepuff,” Dean muttered and flopped back over the table. “Hannah, if he’s a Gryffindor, d’you promise to make sure Novak doesn’t turn him against me?”

Hannah rolled her eyes. “That’s three years away, Dean. Who knows? Maybe you and Novak will actually be friends in three years and you won’t have to worry about that.”

Dean snorted at the absurdity of it. “Ha. Yeah, maybe.

*

Dean had been making an effort during his stay at Hogwarts to visit the mysterious Door at least once a month to see if anything had changed. So far, ever since the first change with the addition of the pale wood and strange symbols, the Door had remained exactly the same. No change in color, size, or look.

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and Dean had made his excuse to Garth and Nick that he was going to go hang out with Charlie around the castle and made a beeline for the tapestry of the trolls. He didn’t know why, but the advice that the Sphinx had given him about walking past the wall three times seemed to always work flawlessly, causing the entrance into the room with the bigger Door to appear instantly.

While he didn’t regret his deal with the Sphinx, he didn’t like the uneasy feeling that settled in his stomach every time she smiled as he passed her portrait. If only she would decide the favor and be done with it.

Either way, it was a deal he didn’t intend to take back anytime soon, and maybe he would leave after seventh year before she ever decided on anything.

Or maybe his father would put his foot down on this whole “magic nonsense” during the summer break and Dean would never be coming back.

Wrong train of thought.

Dean shook his head and stared up at the Door, feeling just as confused about it as the first day he ever saw it. Why was it here? What was behind it? How did you open it?

He pulled out his wand and licked his lips, wanting to try out a spell that he’d read about in his Standard Book of Spells from one of his classes. It was supposed to be able to unlock any doors that weren’t affected by magic and while he knew it was a long shot, he wanted to give it a try.

“Alohomora.” he murmured with a small wave of his wand.

The door didn’t budge.

“Alohomora!”

Nothing.

He’d made sure that he had the incantation properly pronounced and memorized so it couldn’t be a problem on his end. Chances were that this door was protected with too much magic for that spell to have any effect on it.

Dean glanced at his watch and sighed. He could afford to be here for another forty-five minutes before lunch started and his dorm mates started wondering where he was.

It was a door. Doors opened. There had to be a way to open it.

He stood with his hands on his hips, glaring at the framework. There was no way that the strange writing on the wood wasn’t important but he had absolutely no idea where to start when it came to that. If it was some magical language, then Dean as a Muggle-born would be woefully behind in his knowledge and would just have to keep an eye out for any similar markings in textbooks or something. But maybe it was like… hieroglyphs? Half of the Door did look very muggle-like, after all, with all the cogs and gears.

He cleared his throat as an idea came to him. Not necessarily a good one, but he was drawing a blank and anything was worth a shot at this point.

“Mellon,” Dean said, more as a question than anything else.

The door stayed firmly put and Dean was glad no one was around to witness him trying to speak “friend” in elvish to a door. He should have realized that those sorts of things only happened in stories.

“Well then what do you want me to do?” he said aloud, gazing up at the ornate “H” that was carved at the keystone.

Just as he was about to leave in a huff, the letter on top of the door started to faintly glow.

Dean gasped and squinted up at it. This was the most exciting thing that the door had done all year, besides the time it had turned into what it was now.

But what did it mean ?

Another not quite incredibly intelligent idea crossed his mind, and it took only a moment for him to give the Door another brief once-over and decide to roll with it.

There were enough metal plates and gears that he felt he could climb up the face of the door with only minor safety issues in order to reach the glowing letter. While he wasn’t entirely confident in his climbing skills, if he didn’t attempt to seize the moment, the moment might pass him by and he’d never know what this door wanted from him ever again.

Taking a deep breath, Dean found a handhold on a large gear and another behind one of the metal sheets and lifted himself up with a small groan. About two feet off the ground, and so far so good.

Dean huffed as he reached up to grab onto the top of the metal sheet and found that he couldn’t quite reach it yet. Settling for a gear that was a little closer, he shifted his weight so he could make a small jump and firmly wedged a foot in a space between two cogs. Looking up, he could still see the faint glow of the “H” that had enticed him to climb in the first place start to turn a faint red color.

He grimaced and realized that there weren’t many handholds left for him to climb in order to reach the giant metal sheet that ran directly along the mid point of the door. Maybe if he jumped?

Dean chewed on his lower lip as he judged the distance between him and the handhold. It would be a reach, but he could probably make it if he jumped far enough.

After sticking out his tongue in concentration, Dean took a few deep breaths as he shifted his body and crouched his legs in concentration.

“Okay,” he mumbled to himself, “One, two, three-”

Dean was mid lurch when he realized that the angle he was standing on was just a little too awkward for him to successfully reach the large handhold he was aiming for. His foot slipped and his fingers barely brushed against the large metal plate, missing any hope for a good landing.

He heard the crack of bone against stone a split second before he felt it. A sharp pain started in his ankle where he landed incorrectly and quickly travelled upwards as he almost immediately collapsed onto the floor to try and cushion the worst of the fall, not to much success.

Arrrgh!”

Tears prickled at Dean’s eyes lay on the stone floor with his ankle throbbing in pain. Stupid! Why did he have to go and jump for? He slowly sat back up, gritting his teeth as he pulled up his dark robes to take a look at the ankle.

Not broken - he was fairly sure. It at least looked like everything was in the right place, but it hurt like he’d either severely sprained it or had maybe even fractured it in some way.

“You stupid door!” Dean smacked his hand against the Door’s frame in frustration.

The Door didn’t respond.

Dean hissed as he gripped some of the cogs and pulled himself onto his feet - well, foot - and hopped a little as he tested out the ankle. Rolling it wasn’t too bad, but as soon as he stepped on it, the sharp pain returned.

He grimaced up at the Door, not surprised to see that the glow around the letter had faded, though he did feel a bit disappointed that he hadn’t been able to reach it. Looked like the Door was going to best him once again.

Dean pulled out his wand from inside of his robes and licked his lips. It was only after he’d pointed it at his leg that he realized he didn’t know any spell that could help him right now. What was it that Madam Hanscum had said, when he’d asked her about fixing bigger injuries while she was helping him with the burn salve? Something about not wanting to tell him the bigger medical spells in case he got them wrong.

Maybe it was time to check out a library book on wizarding medical stuff soon. Seemed like a useful thing to have handy in case something like this happened again.

Dean gasped sharply as he tried stepping down on it again and the pain spiked up his leg. Nope. Walking on it just wasn’t going to work.

While he didn’t know the extent of his injury, he did remember a spell that Madam Hanscum had told him about for minor injuries, and even though he’d never done it before and he didn’t know if it would help, he figured it was worth a shot.

No training. No wand movement memorized. No other ideas.

Episkey,” Dean murmured with a sort of jabbing motion at his ankle.

There was a warm, flowing sensation that felt like it was wrapping around the bottom of his foot up to the base of his leg, cocooning the injured area in an invisible, comfortable wrapping. Dean’s laugh of surprise turned to a shout of pain as he lost control of the spell and felt a burning sensation grip tightly to his ankle instead.

He yanked his wand away and gripped onto the door tightly as he began to breathe deeply. Alright then. No magic he didn’t know yet. Dean closed his eyes tightly, wishing that there was some way he could get ahold of some gauze so he could wrap up his ankle tightly until he could make it to the hospital wing. His dad had shown him at least five different ways to wrap up a broken bone thanks to his training. Too bad Hogwarts was a magic school and didn’t much believe in Muggle stuff like -

When Dean opened his eyes there was a small table directly in front of him with a large roll of gauze, some safety pins, and a first aid kit just like the one his mom had under the kitchen sink back home resting on top. He hadn’t heard anyone or anything move a desk around and it definitely hadn’t been there before he closed his eyes. This door was always the only thing in the room.

Still. This was a school for magic. Anything was possible.

Rather than looking a gift horse in the mouth, Dean immediately got to work taking off his shoe and wrapping it up the best he could under what felt like the amused stare from the Door.

“Thank you,” he said to no one in particular. The castle, maybe.

Shoving his wand back into his pocket and gingerly putting the shoe back onto his foot, Dean hopped his way back to the exit and prepared himself for the seven flights of stairs down to the hospital wing, praying that he’d be able to skip the false stair on one foot.

With one more glare at the accursed Door, Dean shut the entryway behind him and carefully made his way past the tapestry and down the first set of stairs. The stairway began to rumble underneath him, forcing his grip to tighten as the stairway decided to shift to a different floor. No matter. All he had to do was continue headed downwards. It didn’t matter what was above him.

Hopping down the second flight of stairs carefully and on one foot left him a little breathless. By the end of the third flight, his other foot was starting to hurt from the strain he was putting on it with all the persistent jumping. Why did the hospital wing have to be so far away?

Dean let out a breath and sat down at the top of the next staircase, gingerly stretching out his leg with the hurt ankle and took a bit of a breather. He was sure this would be something that Madam Hanscum would be able to sort out in just a few minutes (something that never ceased to amaze him) but he just had to get there.

An internal groan crawled up his throat when he heard the sound of footsteps on the cool stone as someone plodded up the stairs - and he soon saw none other than Castiel Novak himself turn to face him.

Surprise flashed across Castiel’s face before it was quickly replaced with the usual haughty demeanor as Dean quickly covered his ankle with the folds of his robes.

“Winchester,” Castiel said shortly, then squinted as Dean tried to wipe his face of anything suspicious. “What are you doing here?”

“Sitting down.”

“Here?”

“It’s a free staircase, isn’t it?”

Castiel’s usual frown deeped. “But why are you just sitting here?”

Dean shrugged casually. If he made a move to leave he’d have to start hopping on one leg again which would mean explaining why he was doing so - and even if he managed to come up with a solid excuse as to how he’d hurt himself, he’d never be able to explain how he’d gotten access to muggle bandages.

“Why not? Thought I’d take a look at the view from here.”

Castiel turned his head and raised an eyebrow as he looked at the various portraits that hung along the walls nearby before slowly turning back to face Dean.

“You’re being weird.”

Dean just shrugged his shoulders and waved his hands in a dismissive gesture. “Yep. That’s me. I’m just weird all the time. Anyway, I’m sure you’ve got somewhere important to be so…” he waved again. “Goodbye.”

How could Castiel see clearly when all he did was squint all the time?

“You’re up to something, aren’t you?”

Dean planted his elbows on his knees and propped his head up in his hands. “Wow, Novak. Why are you so curious all of a sudden? If you keep this up you’re gonna seem really obsessed with me.”

Castiel just rolled his eyes, but luckily he seemed annoyed enough to glance back up the staircase. “Never mind,” he muttered and turned around, stomping up the stairs. “If you’re getting yourself into trouble I don’t want to be involved.”

The footsteps continued for a few more minutes before they stopped after what seemed to be three staircases later. Once he could no longer hear Castiel, Dean carefully heaved himself back up onto one foot and continued his journey onwards and downwards.

Three more staircases up.

That would mean he was on the seventh floor, then. Would’t it?

Dean smiled to himself as he bounced down the stairs. If only Castiel knew what sort of cool things were hidden on the seventh floor.

************************************************************************

Castiel pushed his way on up the stairs, trying to put Winchester and the weirdness of their conversation out of his mind. The less time he could spend thinking about Dean Winchester, the better, no matter how oddly he was behaving. In all likelihood, he’d just been looking for secret passages up here - Castiel had heard a rumour that Dean already knew a way into the kitchens.

A sudden cool shiver went down his spine. It wasn’t possible that Dean had - had somehow found the room with the Door in it, up here, was it?

After a moment, Castiel snorted to himself. There was no way that Dean Loudmouth Winchester could find something as unique as that Door, and not immediately go blabbering to all his friends about it. In fact, not just his friends. Castiel felt as though he already knew everything there possibly was to know about Dean Winchester, and they absolutely were not friends. Jo mentioned Dean had a little brother; Hannah said he was called Sam. Anna knew from Garth that Dean had the same shoe size as Castiel. Philippe told Spangler and Zeddmore that Dean had a Holly and Dragon Heartstring wand. And always, somehow, these little details found their way back to Castiel. Honestly, if there was anything Castiel didn’t know about Winchester at this point, it was probably something that wasn’t worth knowing in the first place.

Enough dwelling on Dean, Castiel chastised himself, and deliberately turned his thoughts away from his irritating enemy, facing them instead towards a far more enjoyable prospect: seeing the Door again, and pitting his wits once more against the room’s puzzle. As he strode three times up and down the corridor - focusing only on the Door, and definitely feeling no residual sullenness towards Dean - he watched the familiar first entryway into the mysterious room appear in the wall, as innocent and banal-looking as though it had always been there. It opened easily under Castiel’s hand, and the door seemed to weigh less than Castiel remembered it had at first - though he wasn’t sure whether that was because the room was more friendly to him, now, or if it came down to how he’d grown both taller and stronger over the past months.

Even still, the larger Door within the room towered over him quite as imposingly as it ever had, its mystical runes still impenetrable, its circles of metal teeth just as beautifully intricate and impossible to understand. Castiel took a moment to simply gaze at it up and down, one hand resting on the top of the bag that was slung over his shoulder, filled with some promising runic texts that he’d found under Portals in the library.

Castiel’s eye caught on the top of the door, and stuck there, suddenly arrested; for a second, he only frowned, wondering what was wrong - and then he saw it.

There was a difference in shade between the crowning stone at the top of the stonework lintel, and the ‘H’ that was carved into it.

Castiel narrowed his eyes. The single letter seemed almost to… glow, now, as though lit with soft magical light from behind the stone wall - as though it were, in some new and indefinable way, more awake than before -

Castiel stepped forward, and felt his foot knock against something that skittered metallically over the hard, stone ground.

He froze, staring around, trying to catch sight of the source of the noise - and finally seeing it, illuminated by the gentle flickering of the copper lamps. On the ground, glittering ever so slightly, was some kind of jewellery. A watch, Castiel saw, as he approached it.

He looked down at its innocent-seeming face. The hands ticked. For a strange moment, Castiel found himself wondering if the watch were looking back up at him.

Castiel had heard stories about cursed jewellery - necklaces that could wring the breath from your body; rings that would burn away your flesh, impossible to remove until they’d chewed down to the bone; crowns that would melt into your skull the moment they touched the hair on your head.

Tick, tick, tick, went the watch.

Then again, thought Castiel, it could be a perfectly ordinary item, that someone had simply… left here. But did the room not swallow the belongings that were left inside? Castiel had once made the mistake of leaving a pile of his notes inside to save himself carrying them all the way up and down the stairs every time he wanted to visit the Door; the next time he’d come, the notes had been gone, and had not returned.

So why was this watch still here?

Tick, tick, tick.

Castiel’s mother had told him about cursed objects. She’d said that anything could be cursed - but that people tended to curse pretty things, jewellery and mirrors and precious stones. Why? Castiel remembered asking. I don’t know, Naomi had admitted, the words looking sour on her usually omniscient tongue. The romance of it, maybe. Or to protect the jewellery from thieves. Remembering the conversation now, Castiel frowned. If you cursed the object, you - the owner of it - couldn’t touch it either, he thought. What was the point in protecting something you would never use again?

The watch still sat on the floor, shining. It did look old, Castiel thought, but not especially magical - the face showed a simple twelve-hour dial, no interplanetary movements or particular features of sorcery - beyond, Castiel assumed, the magical means behind the face that made it function. He had never opened up a watch before. He wondered briefly what spells were needed to tell time. They were sure to be fiddly and difficult.

Tick, tick, tick, said the watch, snapping away the seconds in thick, calm, steady beats. Castiel squatted down, pulled out his wand, and, with the tip of it, he tentatively poked at the wrist strap.

It moved, ever so slightly, the rim of the metal face chinking on the stone floor. Nothing else happened.

Castiel looked around the room. He didn’t like this - didn’t like the changes, the glowing letter, the watch - he hadn’t realised how he’d come to rely on this place as a stable part of the palace, unmoving and unchanging, when all the stairways shifted and the passageways took time off on Sundays and just about anything in the castle seemed to have the potential to turn completely on its head without warning. The sudden change in this place - the place that was completely, and almost frustratingly without variation - made him feel almost scared in a way that he couldn’t quite put a name to.

“I’m not scared,” he said out loud, because he didn’t want to be. His legs were starting to ache from squatting down. He glared down at the watch, its shining face and ticking hands, counting away the seconds, unruffled. This was the place where he was supposed to be safe, the place where he’d come on that terrible night and it had helped him, made him feel calm. This stupid thing, sitting there so smugly - it was ruining it.

“I’m not scared!” he repeated, more angrily And on impulse, he reached down, and grabbed the watch.

For a second, he felt a seize of fear - but then he realised that the coldness against his palm was no curse, only the natural coolness of the metal. He took in a deep breath and then let it go, still squatting down on the floor; after a moment, he opened his palm, and looked at the watch more closely.

Tick, tick, tick, it said, sounding more friendly now that Castiel knew it wasn’t cursed.

It seemed older than Castiel had first thought; it had wear around the face - and on the leather strap, there were marks at a particular point that had to be where the owner of the watch had regularly fastened it. Castiel slid the watch over his own hand - guiltily, feeling as though the owner themselves were watching him somehow. It was big, and heavy - the strap could go small enough to fit his slim wrist, but the point at which it had mostly been fastened made the watch strap far longer than he needed it.

Castiel straightened up, considering. The watch seemed to belong to someone a lot older than him, with much larger wrists. That probably meant that another student or teacher knew about this place, and had left their watch here - and the room had decided, for some unknown reason, to leave it where he could find it - but then again, it was possible, wasn’t it, that if the room could make that kind of decision, then the watch could have been left in the room centuries ago, and had only just been revealed by the room’s magic?

None of it seemed to make any sense.

Castiel wished he still had those notes that the room had swallowed. He’d been making some notes in there about the properties of the room itself, notes that it seemed he would need to significantly develop.

At the very least, he needed some parchment and a quill to start making new notes. Castiel turned around -

And there, on a desk behind him, were all his notes, neatly stacked. And, beside them, a fresh sheet of parchment, and a fresh quill.

Castiel stared at the desk, the watch hanging limply on his wrist, his mouth open. After a moment of silent staring, he cast his eyes quickly around the room.

“Hello?” he tried. He wasn’t sure how anyone would manage to get the desk into the room without him hearing, but maybe with some quick spellwork…

Nothing in the room moved, however, and there was nowhere to hide.

“Is this a joke?” Castiel said. He frowned. “Gabriel?”

No teasing brother appeared, and besides, Castiel knew for a fact that Gabriel couldn’t cast a charm that made him invisible - however much he’d have liked that. No, a person couldn’t have left these here. Which meant… which had to mean… it was the room. The room itself. It had to be some kind of mind-reading room, some kind of telepathic… space. Castiel was running up against the edges of his knowledge just trying to think of words to describe it.

He frowned. If the room could read his mind, then it was dangerous - far more dangerous than he’d ever thought it could be before. He’d been worried about the watch, but what if the whole room was cursed? Stepping carefully around the table with the notes and the blank parchment on it, Castiel moved back over to his bag, picked it up, and headed for the exit, walking slowly, as though the room might be able to sense his sudden alertness, and spring its trap.

The door to the corridor opened as smoothly as ever, however, and Castiel took one last glance around the room before he left. The copper lamps shone brightly; the parchment and quill still sat there, inanimate, neither inviting him nor rejecting him. Simply existing. It didn’t feel like a bad place. Still, Castiel knew his mother would probably seriously consider using an Unforgivable Curse on him if he lingered in a magical space that he didn’t completely understand and couldn’t control.

“I’m not scared,” Castiel said, again, to the room. “I’ll be back. I just need to understand what you are, first.”

He turned away, and therefore did not see the tall stack of books that appeared on the desk at his words, before he closed the door.

He only realised when he got back to the Gryffindor common room that the watch was still in his hands. He ran up to his dormitory and shoved it away under his mattress for now, making a mental note to fetch it later so that he could take it and try to find something about it in the library.

Not only that, but he also needed to try to find out about the room itself - what it was, who had created it, and whether it was safe.

And on top of that, he had to study for his exams - the ones that would decide whether or not he would be able to return for a second year at Hogwarts.

He had a lot of work to do, he reflected.

*

“Don’t touch my book. Put it back.

“Seriously? You aren’t going to let me touch your book now?”

An icy pause fell briefly over the section of the library where a few first years were sitting and revising together for their exams. Castiel swallowed hard. He met Hannah’s eyes across the table; she let her impassive expression melt into concern for a moment, before quickly smoothing it back over and turning back to her work.

“You always let me borrow your Potions textbook,” Jo hissed.

“Well, the offer just ran out,” Anna replied, mock-sweetly. “Use your own.”

“You know Ruby stole mine!”

“Well, why don’t you go and ask for it back, seeing as you’re such good friends now?” Anna demanded, her fake smile falling away. From where he was sitting, one desk away, Castiel watched Jo set her jaw.

“I can’t believe you’re still accusing me of telling her about your weird toes.”

“My - you said they weren’t weird!” Anna said, her voice slipping for a second. “You said they were fine!”

“Well,” Jo said, grabbing her bag, “maybe I was just trying to make you feel better because I felt sorry for you. Did you ever think of that?”

“I don’t want your pity,” Anna said. “Where are you even going?”

“To Hannah and Castiel’s desk,” Jo announced, causing Hannah and Castiel to share another look of consternation. “You know, I only study with people who have normal feet.”

Anna’s mouth fell open, but no words came out; Jo marched over to the desk where Hannah and Castiel were sitting, dumped her bag down beside Hannah’s stack of books, and plunked herself heavily down into one of the thickset wooden library chairs.

“Oh, fine ,” Anna called over. “You two are just going to let her sit with you? I knew you liked her better than me. Should’ve known you’d take her side.”

“I’m - she’s - we’re not -” Castiel began, but Hannah caught his eye and shook her head sharply. He closed his mouth, confused; Anna, across the aisle, huffed out a quick, offended breath, and scraped her chair around so that her back was facing them.

“Can you believe her?” Jo said. “She’s making this huge unnecessary drama and just dragging everyone into it.”

“Well, thanks for doing your best to try to keep us out of it,” Castiel said drily. Jo spared a moment to look guilty, and then shook her head.

“She’s just being stupid. It’ll all blow over anyway when she realises that you’re on my side and no one’s talking to her unless she quits with her dumb attitude.”

Hannah was frowning.

“We aren’t taking sides,” she said. “You can’t use us like that to get at her. She’s our friend too.”

“Yeah,” Jo said, “I know, but she’s wrong, because she’s saying that I told Ruby that her toes are weird, right, and I told her I couldn’t believe she was just leaping to assume I did something like that on purpose, and she’s still just assuming it! Can you even believe that? We’ve been friends for a whole year! And all of a sudden she’s saying I deliberately told everyone her secret! I let her read my diary two weeks ago and everything and I never let anyone see it, but I let her, and she was going to come to my house this summer to stay but now I don’t want her anywhere near my house because apparently, trust means nothing to her, you know?”

Castiel glanced over at Hannah, who looked much like he felt: as though a brief but intense hurricane had passed over her.

Are her toes weird?” was all that Castiel could think of to say.

Jo gave him a look.

“They’re fine,” she snapped.

“Then why is she -”

“They’re just a little weird, OK?”

“But how -”

“Listen,” said a voice, unexpectedly sudden and deep. Castiel whipped around to see a tall, dark-skinned girl staring over at them from the next desk, her expression promising murder. The spine of the textbook next to her notes read Advanced Potion-Making. Her bushy hair looked a mess. “I have my N.E.W.T.s coming up. I have a revision schedule that cannot be broken. And if I have to hear one more word about red-head over there being a web-toed weirdo, then I swear I am going to jinx the lot of you. Got it?”

There was a beat of silence.

“It’s not that they’re webbed,” Jo said, in a small voice.

“Great,” said Anna from across the aisle, turning around in her chair. “Now even more people know about it. Good job, Harvelle.”

“Harvelle? Who do you think you are, Professor Tran?”

“Sorry, Joanna.

“You know I hate it when people call me that, you little -”

“Enough!” the seventh-year girl said, snapping the word out so sharply that Jo, who had been drawing out her wand, dropped it in shock. A couple of magical sparks flew harmlessly out of the end. Castiel looked around nervously; they were starting to draw angry looks from more and more students.

“Come on, Jo,” he said, and Hannah tugged on her sleeve to make her sit down. “Let’s just study. We can sort all of this out in a couple of weeks when the exams are done. We’re all just stressed.”

“It’s not because of the stress,” Jo said witheringly, though she subsided into her seat. “It’s because she’s being the worst.

The seventh-year girl gave them one last threatening look, and then turned back to her notes.

“Let’s just study,” Castiel repeated, attempting to sound calming. “Look, you can borrow my Potions textbook.” He pushed it towards her, trying not to feel like a zookeeper pushing a manticore’s dinner into its cage. Jo snatched the book up bad-temperedly and wrenched it open. Castiel watched the spine snap with a wince.

An uneasy silence fell - with Jo giving plenty of angry sighs, turning the pages of Castiel’s book too quickly to have absorbed any of the information. Eventually, unable to stand it any longer, Castiel stood up.

“Where are you going?” Hannah said, sounding reminiscent of Anna earlier, her tone sharp. Her expression was very clear: you leave me here with her, and there will be consequences.

“I just need to fetch something from the shelves,” Castiel said placatingly. “I won’t be long.”

Hannah’s glare became a little less menacing; she nodded grudgingly. Beside her, Jo shrugged.

“Don’t even think about coming over here to study,” Anna said, seeing Castiel on his feet.

“I wasn’t,” Castiel said honestly as he walked past her towards the shelves; he caught a glimpse of her hurt expression as she said,

“Oh. Well, good.

Castiel kept walking for a moment, and then stopped, and rolled his eyes, and turned back around.

“Um,” he said, standing awkwardly beside Anna’s desk. “Is this - is this argument really worth it? Because you both seem very upset, and -”

“Worth it?” Anna whispered, casting a glance over her shoulder at Jo, who was very deliberately reading the textbook in front of her, eyebrows slightly raised, clearly and resolutely not paying them any attention. “Castiel, do you have stuff about yourself that embarrasses you? Like, you wouldn’t want anyone to know?”

Castiel swallowed.

“Yes,” he admitted. Half the tricks of Gabriel’s that he’d fallen for growing up - he wouldn’t want anyone knowing about them. “But -”

“Well, now Ruby knows that thing about me. Ruby. Which means everyone in the whole school is going to know and they’re all going to laugh at me. I’m going to be that freak with the weird toes forever.”

“But - Jo says that she didn’t -”

“Jo was the only person who knew,” Anna said. Her eyes were suddenly looking dangerously full, and she swallowed hard. “I didn’t tell anyone else. I just… never thought she’d do something like that to me.”

“She says she didn’t do it…”

“No,” Anna said fiercely, “she doesn’t say that. She hasn’t denied it once. All she says is that she can’t believe I’d assume it.” Her lower lip started to wobble.

“Well,” said Castiel helplessly, “it’s just toes… no one’s going to care, Anna.”

Anna’s lip stiffened and she glowered at him. Castiel took a step backwards.

“It’s easy for you to say,” Anna said. “You aren’t the one whose toes are going to be the topic of conversation at breakfast tomorrow.”

Castiel opened his mouth to argue, and then closed it, and thought for a moment.

“I won’t talk about your toes,” he said.

For a moment, Anna looked vaguely mollified - and then Jo, across the aisle, cleared her throat. Anna’s expression dropped.

“Do you want me to sit with you?” Castiel said. She waved a dismissive hand.

“Sit with Hannah,” she said. “It’s not your fault Jo’s there, being an idiot.”

Castiel turned away, heading towards the shelves once more.

“Thanks, though,” Anna added, the words coming out awkwardly. Castiel offered her a weak smile over his shoulder, which she returned. He slipped out of sight between the bookstacks, breathing out a sigh of relief.

Even though he thought the reason they were arguing was stupid, he hated seeing both of them upset in their different ways - Jo being angry and brash, Anna looking pale and bright-eyed with hurt. It made his chest ache to watch them.

“They’ll be OK,” he whispered to himself. Of course they would. They were Anna and Jo; everyone knew they’d be best friends forever. They wouldn’t be angry with each other forever over toes.

Castiel reached into the pocket of his robes, seeking distraction in the form of the mystery of the wristwatch that he’d found a couple of hours earlier. He held it cupped in his palm again, standing under the shadow of a bookshelf, running his fingertips over its face. The numbers were in roman numeral form, but that wasn’t especially unusual… he flipped it over, and felt his heart skip a beat in excitement.

There, engraved on the back of the face, was an inscription.

It read simply, HW.

Castiel ran the tip of his thumb over the letters, feeling the divots in the metal. HW? Who could HW be? He frowned, wracking his brains. Did anyone in their year have those initials? There was Harry in Gryffindor with him, but his surname was Spangler. What about in the whole of Hogwarts? But Castiel didn’t know all that many people… he resolved to ask his brother Gabriel about it next time they met in the Great Hall. In the meantime, he could look to history. After all, the watch looked quite old. Maybe it was possible that it had been left in the room by someone else centuries ago.

Castiel headed for the biography section and began pulling out titles - Notable Magical Names of Our Time, Great Wizards of the Twentieth Century. Time passed by him unnoticed as he sat, cross-legged in a dark aisle, nose buried in wizarding genealogies; the bookshelves rose on either side of him, and the part of his mind that wasn't completely absorbed in his researches registered their dark mahogany presence as vaguely comforting, as though he were sitting beside the flanks of a great beast with the soft whispers of the books like soughing breaths.

“Castiel!” said a quiet voice, eventually, snapping Castiel out if his reverie. He lifted his head up unwillingly to see Hannah standing in front of him, looking caught between concern and annoyance.

“Ah,” Castiel said, remembering in a rush how he'd left her: caught somewhere in the middle of Jo and Anna's argument. He tucked the wristwatch back into his pocket, and regretfully closed the book he'd been reading - making a mental note of the page, however, since he'd just excitingly discovered the existence of Hengist of Woodcroft, who sounded like a promising HW.

“I thought we were studying for our Potions exam,” Hannah said, frowning down at the title of the book.

“Oh -yeah,” Castiel said, feeling a quick lie leaping to his lips - I was just looking for a potioneer’s autobiography, that's all - but then he blinked and pushed away the urge. He didn't want to lie to Hannah. “I was just doing some research. Trying to find the name of a particular wizard or witch.”

“What for?”

Castiel swallowed.

“Fun?”

Hannah studied him for a moment, her brow wrinkled.

“What?” Castiel said, trying to keep the guilt out of his voice. He hadn't lied - he just hadn't told her everything.

“Nothing,” Hannah said, after a pause. “You'd have made a good Ravenclaw, you know.”

Against his expectation, Castiel felt a lurch of triumph, of almost savagely sudden vindication. He schooled his face.

“Thanks,” he said, as coolly as he could. Hannah nodded, smiling slightly.

“Come back to the tables,” she said. “I think Anna might be about to hex Jo’s toes to her forehead.”

Castiel followed her as they wended their way back through the shelves to the more open study section of the library, watching the back of her messy brown hair sway with a little twist in his chest. She must have known what saying something like that would mean to him - and in return, he kept secrets from her. But if he showed her the watch, she'd ask where he got it, and he'd either have to properly lie or tell her about the room with the Door… and even now, there was something about his time in the room that he just didn't want to share, not yet.

He wondered as he resumed his seat and pulled his notes towards him, catching Jo’s frosty gaze as he did so, whether his secrecy over the room was a bad thing. Was it only his own naturally secretive instinct that stopped his tongue, or was there some kind of magic at work? Was he cursed, now that he'd been inside it?

He peered down at the parchment in front of him: an examination timetable in green ink, detailing his schedule for the next couple of weeks. His first exam, Charms, loomed close. His last, Potions, seemed altogether too close as well, by virtue of being the subject that he still found the hardest.

As much as he wanted to research the watch and the room until he had all the answers, Castiel knew he had to be pragmatic. If he didn't pass these exams, he wouldn't be allowed back into Hogwarts - and whilst he didn't think failure was especially likely, there was always a little voice in the back of his mind telling him that if he came top of the class in this, their first official exam, he might still somehow be able to convince Professor Shurley to let him try on the Sorting Hat again… it might put him in Ravenclaw… his summer might not be spent enduring the eternally disappointed gaze of his mother…

Dreams, Castiel knew. No one ever changed houses. But wouldn’t that just make it more impressive and fantastic, if he succeeded?

Across the desk, Jo crumpled up a piece of paper, pulled out her wand, pointed it at the wad and murmured,

“Oppugno.”

The ball of paper fired forwards, ricocheted off Hannah’s shoulder and a bookshelf corner, before missing Anna by a scant few inches. She whipped around in her chair, looking furious.

Castiel said nothing, until he realised that Jo was pointing at him with an innocent expression on her face.

“No - that was -” Castiel said, but Anna had already rolled her eyes and turned back around.

“Missed,” Jo said, unsatisfied, her pretended innocence falling away. Castiel frowned and pulled out his own wand, screwing up a piece of paper.

Oppugno,” he said softly, flicking his wrist more precisely, keeping his intention clear in his mind. The paper ball zinged off the table, hit a second-year boy between the eyes, smacked into a window, and bounced back to land squarely in Castiel’s outstretched hand.

He looked down at it for a moment, blinked, and then smiled up at Jo.

“Am I supposed to be impressed?” she said. “You didn't hit her either.”

Castiel huffed and dropped the rolled-up paper. At least in Ravenclaw, his spellwork would be appreciated properly.

He bent his head down to his Charms notes. Enough messing around. It was time for him to truly prove what he was made of.

*********************************************************************************

Madam Hanscum could, apparently, now recognize Dean by his particular brand of footsteps outside of the hospital wing as he walked by. While he wasn’t there nearly as often as he received detention, Madam Hanscum had taken the time to give him a decently long lecture about how worried she was that he was constantly getting himself hurt in one way or another.

And yet, even with the inevitable safety monologue that he heard every time he dropped by with an injury, he enjoyed Madam Hanscum’s hospital wing - as well as spending time with the nurse herself. Luckily for him, she never asked too many questions, so he never had to lie to her too badly. Most of the time he could tell the truth, but part of him suspected that if he ever told a teacher about the mysterious room with the Door, he might never get to see it again.

The gauze he’d wrapped his ankle in had been a bit hard to explain, however. He didn't think she'd completely bought his story about happening to run into a house elf carrying assorted linens, but she had at least stopped asking probing questions.

Dean stomped on his foot a little firmer than usual as he walked out of the hospital wing, marvelling once again at how quickly and perfectly Madam Hanscum had managed to heal him with just a wave of her wand.

It kind of made him feel invincible.

Dean yawned as he made his way down the hallway, trying to decide if he should work on his Charms homework, or if he should put that off until later tonight and explore the school grounds a little more.

Normally, he spent his Sundays either exploring something with his roommates, or trying to figure out that stupid Door - and seeing as he’d already spent a significant amount of effort and pain trying out the latter, he figured he might as well reward himself with some exploring.

The Hogwarts grounds were something that both excited him and made him uneasy. To him, they felt like the time his mother had shown him a picture of a venus fly trap in one of her gardening books and explained how they worked. The gorgeous landscape around him continuously called to him like a fly to honey, and it was only when he discovered things like the Giant Squid and the Whomping Willow that he started to realize these grounds weren’t always what they seemed.

Dean shuddered as he made it to the courtyard and looked out towards the lake, watching as a few ripples ran across the surface.

Despite the experience he’d had on its surface, Dean wasn’t afraid of the lake. Was he afraid of the Giant Squid that lived in it? Maybe a little. But the lake looked beautiful in the springtime, glittering waters wreathed next to flowering mountains and budding trees. It looked like something that had been peeled off of the front of a postcard and set in front of him.

Ripples caressed the surface once more, and as much as Dean was sure it was most likely just a few fish skimming the surface, part of him couldn’t help but wonder if it was something bigger. Whistling casually, he walked along the shoreline where the water licked against smooth stones, and reached down to pick up a particularly flat rock that had been smoothed from years of tumbling underwater.

He gave himself a few seconds to study the stone before the impulse became too much and he attempted to throw it out towards the ripples.

The rock plopped into the water a few disappointing feet away, instead of the continued skipping that Dean had been hoping for.

With a frown, Dean grabbed another smooth-looking stone that looked like it could feasibly be skipped along the surface of the lake, only to be confounded again by his lack of skill.

On instinct, Dean looked behind him towards the courtyard to make sure Castiel wasn’t around to watch him not be good at something - as trivial as it was, he wouldn’t hear the end of it.

There were a few students sitting in the courtyard, some with their books out in aggressive study, but most were lazily enjoying a Sunday afternoon to themselves. A few of the students were casually looking his way, but none looked like Castiel, so he didn’t mind.

He rolled his eyes. Castiel would probably know exactly how to enchant the rock to do what he wanted it to.

Dean paused and looked down at the stones around him, and shrugged his shoulders.

Castiel wasn’t the only one who knew how to do magic.

Reaching into the pocket of his robes, he pulled out his wand and pointed it at a rust-colored rock the size of his fist.

“Wingardium Leviosa,” he murmured as he flicked his wand with a swish, and immediately the rock began to hover a few feet above the ground.

As the rock slowly rotated in the air, Dean was struck with the memory of his transfigured rat hovering before him the time he thought he’d won Professor Tran’s quiz, only to have Novak steal that from him. How was he supposed to know that only Transfiguration magic was allowed? He barely knew the difference between all the different kinds of magic, and all he’d been told was to make a rat squeak - and he’d done it.

He’d done it first.

Dean grimaced as he marched over to what looked like a broken branch about half the size of his arm that was floating just before the shoreline, and grabbed it.

Novak and his dumb face only won that because he’d cried about it.

Dean tucked his wand behind his ear and gave the branch a few test swings, gripping it with both hands as he stood just behind the hovering stone.

Novak had ruined that quiz.

Dean brought the stick back and swung it as hard as he could at the levitating rock, making a loud crack as he sent it soaring through the air - much farther than he was able to throw it - before it plopped just outside of the ripples.

A small smirk played on his lips as he pointed his wand at another rock and made it hover with a murmured spell.

Novak had ruined that quidditch match, too.

Crack!

Dean swung again, a satisfied huff of air leaving his lungs at the impact. The rock crashed into the lake again with a larger splash.

Novak just seemed determined to make him look stupid -

Crack!

“You’ve got quite a bit of aggression for a Hufflepuff, you know.”

Dean dropped the branch and spun around, and saw an older student sitting cross-legged in the grass a few feet away. He had been so focused on hitting the rocks he hadn’t even noticed her come up behind him. He recognized Jenna Nickerson almost immediately, her piercing blue eyes giving her away. He’d seen her in the Hufflepuff common room more times than he could count, and though he’d never actually talked to her, he’d definitely cheered her on during the many quidditch matches he’d gone to.

He opened his mouth to defend himself. . . but what was he going to say? That she was wrong? That he was just hitting rocks to hit rocks?

“It’s okay,” Jenna smiled at him and grunted as she pushed herself back onto her feet. “I think that’s a good thing, sometimes. It’s fine to not fit in the box.”

“Thanks,” Dean muttered, a little confused as to where this conversation was going. He’d never been complimented for feeling angry.

“It’s Dean, right?”

He nodded, and looked up, deciding that the only person who had more intense blue eyes than her was Castiel.

“Have you ever considered finding a healthier way to. . . let out some issues?” Jenna tilted her head and folded her arms together.

Dean shrugged his shoulders and dropped his gaze as he kicked at the rocks with his shoe, figuring that silence was probably better than letting the captain of the Hufflepuff quidditch team know that he had no idea was she was talking about.

He looked up to see her to see her smiling at him.

“You should try out for the team next year, Dean.”

Dean’s mouth fell open as her smile widened. He enjoyed quidditch alright, but it was still very high up in the air and Professor Mills was constantly telling him that his fear of heights was getting in the way of him being better. He definitely didn’t think he was ready to be on the school team, no matter what he’d told Castiel.

“Uh... okay,” he said, in awe of the fact that the Hufflepuff quidditch captain was asking him to try out for the team.

“Great!” Jenna reached out and patted him on the shoulder once. “I can’t make any promises, but I’d like to at least see you at tryouts, okay?”

Dean nodded slowly, eyes wide as he imagined ten different ways that he was going to end up disappointing her.

“I’ll see you, then!” Jenna waved goodbye and Dean hoped he imagined the spark of intrigue in her eye as she turned to walk back towards the courtyard.

As soon as she was out of view, he picked up a rock and lobbed it as hard as he could, breathing out as it crashed into the water again.

*

Dean’s heart thudded in his chest as he made his way down the hallway towards Professor Gadreel’s office.

The slight high that he'd been riding the past few days after talking to Jenna, even though it was mixed with some anxiety, had come crashing down.

During breakfast that morning, a smaller, tawny owl had dropped a slip of parchment into his lap with an official Hogwarts seal on it, summoning him to Professor Gadreel’s office right after he was done eating.

This was it.

Professor Gadreel must have figured out that he’d found the secret entrance into the kitchens and was going to tell him off for using it. That had to be it. Or maybe it was the Door? Either way, he must be in big trouble.

Dean had already had a rough day, having realized that the ornate watch his father had given him was no longer on his wrist. He’d spent a long time tearing apart his dormitory with no luck, and after remembering his time in the room with the Door the day before had also gone back to search there - to no avail, even though he was sure that was where he had lost it. Unless it had flown off when he'd been batting rocks into the lake?

Luckily, during his search, he came across the watch that his mother had given him before his father’s gift, and figured they looked similar enough to hopefully fool his dad when he went home over break, as long as he didn’t look at it too closely.

Dean took a deep breath as he came up to the simple wooden doorway of Professor Gadreel’s office, not too far away from the Hufflepuff common room. Steeling himself for some stern words, he knocked on the door.

“Come in.”

Dean hesitantly pushed the door open and peeked around the corner.

The room was warmly lit with the same copper lights that illuminated the common room - and Dean was sure that he had seen them somewhere else, too - as well as the same kind of windows that let sunlight into his dorm room from the ceiling. Different kinds of plants crowded most corners of the room and seemed like they were either overgrown, or were just meant to be huge.

Dean gave a small gasp when one plant twitched and curled in a vine closer to its pot.

Professor Gadreel looked up from where he was reading over a scroll of parchment, and smiled at Dean as he took a small step forward.

“Welcome, Mr. Winchester. Thank you for coming.” He waved his wand and produced a yellow porcelain teaset on the table in front of him with a smile. “Would you like some tea?”

Dean nodded slowly as he sat down in the chair that stood in front of Professor Gadreel’s desk; it was slightly too big for him. Professor Gadreel poured something that smelled like honey into the cup and handed it over.

Dean murmured his thanks and took a sip, humming as the sweetness hit his tongue.

“So, Mr. Winchester, firstly I’d like to let you know that you’re not in trouble.” Professor Gadreel folded his hands together on the table in a way that didn’t make Dean feel like he wasn’t in trouble. “But I thought I should talk to you about something before it gets completely out of hand.”

Dean felt the heat rise to his face, already preparing his apology speech for using the secret tunnel to the kitchens. “Okay,” he said quietly.

“If what I’m reading here is correct,” Professor Gadreel tapped at the parchment in front of him, “you’re about to end your first year of Hogwarts in just a few weeks and you’ve already received . . . ah, let me look -” he dragged his finger down the paper, “ -fourteen detentions from multiple different professors.”

Oh.

The moment of relief he felt was brief but relaxing. Dean’s shoulders sagged as the tension drained from them. He’d been so caught up in the potentially bad stuff he’d been doing that he didn’t see how obvious this talk was going to be. Just a little while back, Professor Gadreel had mentioned to Dean while they’d been gardening that he was growing concerned about his track record, and now this was going to be some sort of official talk about it.

“Is there. . . “ Professor Gadreel rested his hands together on the table, looking concerned. “. . . anything you’d like to talk to me about, Dean?”

Dean pursed his lips and shook his head.

“Nothing?” Professor Gadreel raised an eyebrow. “Then would you please explain to me how you keep getting yourself into trouble? This is an unusually high amount of detentions for a first year.” He leafed through a few different papers and pulled one out. “What about this detention given to you by Professor Mills? It says ‘refusal to follow instructions’-”

“That was Novak’s fault!” Dean sat up, ready to defend himself on that one. “He was cheating during the game so then I had to, too. Then, he shoved me off my broom and -”

He stopped when Professor Gadreel raised a hand in the air.

“Which Novak are we talking about?”

“Castiel, sir,” Dean said emphatically.

“And you’re trying to tell me that Castiel is responsible for your actions in this?”

Dean opened his mouth, and closed it again when he realized the trap.

“Well, no. I am. But, he keeps doing things to. . . make me do things,” he finished, fumbling over the sentence.

Everything was so in the heat of the moment when they happened, and it was so easy to blame most of his detentions on Castiel - but now that he was trying to explain it out loud, it was so difficult.

“And the detention with Professor Crowley a couple weeks ago?”

Dean scowled and folded his arms against his chest. “Novak put something in my potion to make it explode on Professor Crowley and he thought I did it.”

Professor Gadreel rubbed at his forehead with one hand as he sighed. “Did you see him do it?”

“Not . . . exactly,” Dean admitted with a grimace. “But he looked really smug about it when it happened.”

He’d probably put in some ingredients while Dean wasn’t looking that he knew reacted badly, or did some sort of spell that he knew would make it explode. Dean knew it had been him.

“What about your detention with Mr. Singer?” Professor Gadreel asked, looking significantly more tired than he had seemed when Dean had walked in. “Jumped in lake. Was that Castiel Novak’s fault as well?”

Dean shook his head with a frown. “No. That one was mine.”

Professor Gadreel’s expression lifted.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I should have known better than to trust a Novak.”

Professor Gadreel’s expression dropped, again.

“So you think this was Castiel’s fault, then?”

“Other Novak. Gabriel.” Dean rolled his eyes as he said the name. He’d been an idiot to fall for that prank. Especially one that was so obvious. “I was being dumb and should have known he was gonna be on Castiel’s side.”

Professor Gadreel sat back in his chair, looking resigned. “Dean, I’m concerned that you’re taking this. . . rivalry a little too far. The Novaks are good people and while I’m sure you will both grow out of this eventually, do you think you could at least try to be nice to each other? I don’t want you two getting into any more trouble.”

Dean frowned as he listened to Professor Gadreel. It was obvious that he was just trying to be a good Head of House but he didn’t understand the bigger picture that was going on, here.

“I don’t want to be nice to someone that hates me,” he muttered.

The Professor’s face softened a little as he waved his wand, causing the teapot to float over and pour more honeyed tea into Dean’s cup. “Hate is a strong word, Dean. One that I think is thrown around far too often. I’m sure Castiel doesn’t hate you.”

The reassuring words fell on deaf ears as Dean replayed the times he’d heard Castiel talk lowly about Muggle-borns, and how he looked up to someone who called people like Dean Mudbloods, and how high and mighty he seemed to think of himself over everyone else, especially Dean.

“He does, though,” Dean said, absolutely positive in this fact. “He hates me.”

Professor Gadreel tutted and shook his head. “I don’t think you should be too presumptuous, Dean. It’s easy to say that people hate each other, but it’s usually different in reality. Would you say that you hate him?

Dean furrowed his eyebrows as he set the cup of tea back on the table, and watched as Professor Gadreel realized a moment too late that he was not going to get the answer he wanted.

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

The worst thing about the end of the year was the crushing pressure that came from exams, constantly looming over the entire school like an ugly black cloud, making even the the most stubborn of students crack open a book.

Yes, even Dean Winchester.

Dean licked his thumb as he turned the page of his Book of Spells and sped through the next few lines, barely internalizing any of the information - but at least going through the motions of studying made him feel like he was making progress. Most of the essays in his classes had been due the previous week to give time for the students to study for as long as they could before the exams, and as much as Dean hated to admit it, he probably needed to.

It was safe to say that he’d cruised through the school year almost entirely based on natural ability alone. The moment he’d found out that most practical magic came pretty easily to him was the moment he’d realized he might be able to get away with doing a lot less work than most people. Sure, he’d had to look up a few things for the essays that he’d written and for a few quizzes, but there had been many times that he’d come across people like Novak hunched over a desk in the library with five different books open as they struggled to get the wand movements of a spell correct.

Not Dean.

The practical side of magic was just so easy for him. Once he’d learned a wand movement, matching it to the correct spell was simple. They just fit in a way he couldn’t explain in words, but it was as if he could naturally follow the rules of spells as simply as he could speak English.

Dean looked up from his book when he saw a very large platter of buttery rolls set on the table next to him out of the corner of his eye.

“Sir looked like he could use something to eat!”

Dean grinned down at house elf and took a roll from the platter. “Thanks! I was actually getting a little hungry.” He rubbed at his eyes as he chewed, glancing around at the dozens of other house elves that were bustling around in the kitchens. “How long have I been in here?”

Turvey wiped his hands on the red pillowcase he wore. “At least three hours now, young sir.”

Dean whistled to himself and tossed the roll from one hand to another before finally finishing it.

“If I may ask,” Turvey said, setting a few more rolls aside for Dean before taking the platter back into his hands, “What is sir doing studying in the kitchen? Wouldn’t the library be a quieter place?”

Dean shook his head and stretched his arms over his head. “I mean, probably. But in the library, anyone could see me and I can’t have people see me studying, Turvey. I have a reputation, now. Besides, the library probably closed like an hour ago.”

Turvey looked at him oddly, but eventually shrugged his thin shoulders and gave Dean a smile. “Alright, sir. Turvey is getting back to work, now. Good luck with your sneaky studying.”

Dean helped himself to another roll and the sounds of pots and pans clanging together quickly faded into background chatter as he allowed himself to be sucked into the book again.

What were the chances that Professor Novak was going to let them just show her that they knew how to use the spells? Probably not likely. There was almost certainly going to be a written test they had to take on wand movements and incantations. Maybe spell inventors, too. Dean wasn’t too worried about it. He had most spells accidentally memorized anyway.

Honestly, most of this studying was just to make sure he thoroughly beat Castiel in the exam. Dean smirked as he read. How great would it be to get a better grade when Novak’s own mother was the teacher?

Okay, okay. The spells.

Dean screwed up his face as he tried to remember which spells he was most likely to get tested on. Levitating for sure. Unlocking. Locking. Light. Mending?

He nodded to himself and tapped his wand against his chin. He hadn’t mended anything in a while.

Dean reached out and tore a page out of his book with a loud rip. He would have been a bit more hesitant to do so if he wasn’t so confident in his abilities.

“Reparo,” Dean murmured, pointing his wand at the disconnected page and smiling as the paper fibres began to knit themselves back together, until the page was whole again.

He was going to ace this part of the test, that was for sure.

Alright. Now for the more knowledgeable side.

Who invented the Levitating charm?

Dean sat and dropped his chin into his cupped hands as he strained his brain, trying to think it through. He remembered the story of how it was created. Anyone would; the man who made it stripped himself naked after levitating himself. How could anyone forget that?

Unfortunately for him, Professor Novak probably wouldn’t care if they remembered that bit of the story and would be more concerned about her students remembering the wizard’s actual name and the year it was invented.

Dean sighed when neither came to him and skipped back to the beginning of the book, reading over the history of the charm for probably the fourth time that day.

Jarleth Hobart, he thought to himself, 1544.

He had to remember that if he wanted to beat Novak.

After another half hour of staring at the words on the page, Dean groaned and snapped the book closed. If it wasn’t going to stick, who was he to force it to? He’d read over the facts of each charm at least five times now and he’d just have to see if he remembered them when it came down to it.

Studying was the worst. How did Novak do it all the time?

Dean shoved the book back into his bag and threw it over his shoulder. He gave a wave to Turvey and crawled back through the secret passage as quietly as he could.

When Dean had first slipped through the passage, it was still early enough in the evening that he’d had to wait around for a time when no one was in the common room. Hopefully, it had been long enough that there would be no one else left in the common room this late at night.

Maybe not, though. It was nearing exams and the older students tended to stay up really late sometimes.

Dean paused when he reached the end of the hallway, pressing his ear up against the back of the large grandfather clock and listened intently. It didn’t sound like there was anyone else on the other side, though one couldn’t be too careful. He carefully pulled the back open and peeked out, letting out a breath of relief when he saw that no one was there.

He was pretty sure that he wouldn’t get in trouble if another Hufflepuff saw him using the passage, but it was a secret that only he and Garth knew about-  and he selfishly wanted to keep it that way.

Dean yawned as he tiptoed back to his dorm and changed into his pyjamas as quietly as he could.

“Dean?”

Dean looked over and saw Garth sleepily poke his head out from behind the curtains on his bed.

“Where were you?” he asked, rubbing at his eyes. “Everything okay?”

Dean nodded. “Yeah. I was just...exploring and stuff.”

Garth hummed and nodded, pulling his head back behind the curtains.

“See you in the morning, Garth.”

Dean laid his head back on his pillow as numbers and names jumbled together in his mind.

***

“I dunno, I heard that her end of year exams are actually really hard and that not many of her students pass at all. Do you think that’s right? That sounds like it could be right, I guess. But I don’t know how true that actually is because I heard it from Lisa, who heard it from a sixth year that -”

Dean clutched nervously at the book bag on his shoulder as Garth rambled on next to him. He’d noticed that while Garth tended to word-vomit when he got anxious about anything, Dean himself was the opposite and was usually too stressed to do much more than listen to his friends discuss the upcoming exam while he listened with his jaw clenched tightly shut.

“Hey, Garth?” Nick nudged him lightly with his shoulder as they walked down the hallway. “Calm down a little, okay? We’re all going to do just fine. I heard that all the older students tell the first years the exams are hard.”

Dean heard Garth take a deep breath next to him and exhaled loudly. “Right. Okay. Just fine. Well, at least you guys will probably do fine.”

“Don’t be like that,” Nick said, offering him one of his bright smiles. “I’ve seen you studying every day for the past couple of weeks. You’re going to do fine.”

There was a snort from behind them; Dean had momentarily forgotten that Thaddeus was trailing closely behind the other four roommates.

“Yeah, if anything, Dean’s the one that has to be worried. I haven’t seen him open his Charms book since the beginning of the year.” Thaddeus rolled his eyes and ruffled his hair.

Dean looked back and shot him a grin that he hoped was coming off as extremely confident and not at all terrified. “Thank you for being so worried, Thad.”

Thaddeus shrugged and dug around in his bag for a few second before pulling out a quill. “Always looking out for the roomie.”

“Don’t worry,” Dean heard the French accent to the other side of him and turned to see Philippe staring calmly at Garth. “If worst comes to worst, the plan is, I change myself into Headmaster Shurley and announce that the exams are cancelled. C’est vrai ?”

“Except we barely know what he looks like,” Thaddeus muttered.

Dean smiled genuinely for the first time that morning as they turned down the corridor.

Instead of students quickly bustling into the classroom like he’d become used to seeing, often with just a few minutes until class started, the entirety of his class was already standing outside the door and was whispering among themselves.

“What’s going on?” Thaddeus murmured, standing on his tiptoes in an attempt to get his head above the small crowd, but to no avail.

“I dunno,” Dean said, squinting as he studied the rest of the students, though most of them seemed to be just as confused as he was.

He stopped when he finally saw Castiel near the back of the crowd as well, frowning the usual frown he did when he seemed to detect things were Not Quite Right.

Dean checked his watched and grimaced. Class was supposed to be starting right this very second… so why were they all crowded around the door?

He sighed and began tactically maneuvering his way to the front of the group, using his elbows every once in awhile when people were being particularly stubborn.

“S’cuse me,” he muttered, and shoved until he’d finally managed to earn a spot near the front of the crowd.

Stuck onto the door, right below the room number, was a piece of parchment paper with perfectly curled writing on the front of it.

The First Year Charms Exam begins now. You have until the end of the class period to complete the written and practical portion. Good luck.

“Well, go inside!” Dean said, frustrated that no one was letting themselves into the room so they could get this test taken and over with.

“It’s locked,” said one of the girls next to him, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. She reached forward and turned the handle for effect. “See?”

The students began to murmur amongst themselves, some sounding nervous, some just completely confused.

“Is it in a different room?”

“Is she just trying to fail us all?”

“Did we forget to go to another classroom?”

Dean looked around at the other students in disbelief as they tried to figure out what kind of cruel joke this could end up being.

“So unlock it?” he said, shoving himself in between two members of the front row and pulled out his wand from his pocket, pointing it at the door. He had not spent so much of his precious free time actually studying to be locked out of an exam now.

Alohomora,” he murmured, blinking as a white light flashed briefly and the sound of a latch coming undone silenced the students.

“Come on,” he muttered as he pushed the door open easily. “This was like our third lesson.”

Dean blinked when he stepped into the room, surprised by the incredible darkness that had settled over the area. Normally, the large windows behind Professor Novak’s desk were open and pouring in sunlight, while candles were also burning where they were hung on the wall. Never before had it been pitch black.

Dean grunted as he stepped forward and banged his knee on what he was pretty sure was a chair. He could hear students shuffling in behind him, confused whispers echoing throughout the room along with other bangs and thuds.

The room was way too dark. They needed light.

He reached for his wand again, ready to cast the light spell, when he heard a familiar and unwelcome voice beat him to it.

Lumos!”

Every head turned to see Castiel holding his wand high up in the air, squinting as he created enough light for most of the other students to be able to find their way to their seats.

Lumos,” Dean said as well, holding his up too as he chose a desk at random and sat down.

A few other students seemed to get the idea as well, igniting the tips of their wands to help the light situation until the room was bright enough for everyone to be able to see as they usually would. Dean noticed that not every student was able to get the spell to light up their wand, but it was good enough.

He looked down at the parchment and quill in front of him, noticing with a glance to left and right that it was in front of every student, with the same curled writing on the top of the page.

“The following is the writing portion of your exam. Answer these questions with the quill I have provided. You will not need ink. Cheating in any way will result in an automatic failure.”

Dean frowned at the page of questions and turned his gaze to the quill next to the parchment. He’d brought his own quill, of course, but the instructions clearly said to use this one. Professor Novak herself didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby to check he followed the rules - he cast a couple of sharp looks over each shoulder, but saw no sign of her. Still, he wasn’t going to risk losing points just because it looked like Professor Novak wasn’t going to bother showing up to class on exam day.

The moment he picked up the quill, he noticed that it was shredded perfectly down the middle, stopping just enough into the feather to keep it hanging together, but not enough to be able to use it effectively as a writing utensil.

How were they supposed to use a broken quill to answer the questions?

He supposed he could use mending charm to make it work. They’d learned that spell back when -

Oh.

Oh.

Dean slapped his forehead and groaned as he suddenly connected the dots. It was so obvious . How could he be so dumb? Every one of these obstacles they’d come across in the past few minutes had needed to be solved using some sort of spell they’d learned this year in their Charms class. The practical part of exam was to see if they could use the spells to help themselves.

He shook his head as he briefly doused the light in his wand so he could twirl it at the feather, still in awe of his stupidity.

“Reparo,” he murmured, watching as the feather pressed itself back together to make itself whole again.

A few of the students around him seemed to get the same idea when they picked up their own mangled feathers, prodding at it with their wands to make it useful again.

Now for the hard part.

He wrote his name on the very top of the page, surprised to see red ink automatically flow onto the parchment where he would have expected to see black. Looking around, he saw a few students that had given up on repairing their quill when the spell didn’t work out for them; they were instead writing in black ink with their own quill.

It didn’t take much to assume that answers written in black ink would probably get you points off the exam.

Dean chewed on his lip when he realized that Lisa, a girl from his own House, was seated not too far away and was on her fourth attempt to repair her own quill with shaky wand movements and a feeble whisper.

Come on, he thought, hoping that sending her silent encouragement would help her. He’d witnessed her do this spell with relative ease on more than one occasion, but he could see the nerves in her wobbling hands.

It would be so easy for him to walk over to her and quickly repair it for her so that she wouldn't get marked down for having the wrong ink, but what would be the consequences of that?

He quickly looked around the room, seeing each classmate either hunched over in concentration or still trying to spell their quill together. No sign of Professor Novak. She had to just assume that no one would help each other, Dean supposed.

Almost on instinct, Dean looked over at Castiel and found him staring over at the Gryffindor next to him who was struggling to repair his own quill; Novak seemed to be facing the exact same ethical conundrum as Dean was. It was either that, or he really enjoyed watching someone do worse than he was doing. Dean, of course, wouldn’t put it past him, but the look in his eyes was more on the softer side - the side of helpless observation.

Dean watched Castiel take a deep breath as his face hardened in resolve. In one movement, Castiel looked away from his struggling classmate and focused on the exam in front of him. He was, apparently, not going to help.

That settled it.

As much as Dean could feel every fibre of his being telling him not to do it - not to take the chance - Lisa had always been nice and it wasn’t fair that she was going to get marked down just because of a case of exam nerves.

Pushing his chair back almost silently, Dean pointed his wand over at Lisa’s quill, hoping he had the range for the spell as he’d never actually tested his limits. Everything he’d ever had to repair had been directly in front of him.

Dean concentrated, putting all of his intent into the incantation.

Reparo,” he whispered, feeling the magic surge forward.

Lisa gasped in shock as her quill instantly folded back together like a zipper, covering her mouth with her hand to stifle the noise. She whirled around, glancing about until she caught Dean’s eye.

Thank you,” she mouthed after dropping her hand and nodded at him once in gratitude, before turning back to her work.

Dean smiled to himself, enjoying the warm feeling of knowing that Lisa was going to get a better grade now. He spared one last glance over at Castiel, and licked his lips nervously when he saw Castiel staring back.

Was Castiel going to tell on him? Go and run to Professor Novak and whine that he’d helped someone else in the exam?

Dean glared back, a silent challenge in his gaze - until Castiel turned to his own work, his expression entirely unreadable.

Taking a deep breath, Dean moved on to his own exam.

“The Levitation Charm was invented in 1544. Who was the creator?”

Dean smiled to himself as the readings from the past few days flowed back into his brain as easily that he’d hoped they would.

“Jarleth Hobart,” he wrote, far too pleased that he could remember anything about the inventor of a spell. “ He was naked.”

Maybe there was something to be said for studying.

Maybe.

***

Dean left the Charms exam feeling fairly confident in whatever grade he was going to receive for it. As he’d predicted, the practical half of the exam had been simple for him, especially when he’d realized what Professor Novak had cooked up. He’d been the first to figure out how to unlock the door, and the first (as far as he knew) to repair his quill. Unfortunately, he realized with a small frown, Novak had been quicker to his wand when it came to lighting up the room, but Dean had also thought of that and had followed immediately after.  

All he wanted was to get a better grade than Novak, and he thought he had a decent shot at it.

Luckily, Novak wasn’t in his History of Magic class, because he could easily predict that Novak would pummel his exam score into the dust. Trying to remember Muggle history was hard enough, but now he had to remember Muggle and Magical history and try not to mix up the dates. It was a little unfair that everyone else had such a large advantage on him in that aspect, but as long as Castiel never found out, he could deal with it.

“Any idea what the Herbology exam is going to be?” Garth asked, wiping at his forehead as all of the Hufflepuff first years began piling into the common room. “Because that Charms one was kind of tough if I’m being honest.”

Dean shook his head as he flopped down on one of the overly-stuffed couches.

“Not really. Shouldn’t be too difficult though. It’s just plants.” Dean jerked his head in the direction of one of the potted plants that hung from the ceiling and was gently swaying back and forth, a gentle tune emanating from it.  

“Easy for you to say,” Thaddeus remarked as he passed by, continuing onwards to their room before Dean could make a retort.

Garth’s shoulders slumped as Philippe took up the rest of the space on their couch, lounging very much like a cat, while Nick took up a respectable amount of space next to Dean.

“No, really,” Dean sat up straighter, “that exam was difficult because Professor Novak is difficult. We should have realized that she was going to do something like that. Professor Gadreel isn’t like her. It’s probably just going to be something like repotting a Bouncing Bulb or showing some Devil’s Snare who’s boss.”

“Lumos Solem, right?” Garth asked, perking up a little.

“And relaxing. You got it.” Dean gave him a grin and a thumbs up. “See? You’re gonna do fine.”

“Hey, Dean?”

Dean looked over at the sound of a small voice and saw Lisa Braeden standing next to the couch, shuffling her feet awkwardly.

“Uh, yeah?”

“Can I - can I talk to you?”

Dean glanced over at Philippe, Nick, and Garth, all of whom shrugged.

“Yeah, sure.” Dean hopped up off the couch and followed Lisa over to a corner of the common room.

‘Corner’, of course, was relative, seeing as the entire common room was in the shape of a circle, so there really weren’t any corners - but they found an unoccupied spot where no one else could eavesdrop.

“So, what’s up?” Dean asked, rubbing at the back of his neck.

Lisa looked at the ground and clasped her hands in front of herself.

“I just wanted to say… thanks. For what you did during the exam.” She wasn’t meeting his eyes. “I would have had to use my own quill if you hadn’t helped me and I didn’t have red ink.”

She finally looked up, her cheeks tinged pink in what must have been embarrassment.

“It’s okay, really.” Dean smiled crookedly and shoved his hands into the pockets of his robes. “I know you can do that spell. I’ve seen it.”

“I was just… really nervous,” Lisa said quietly, a small tremor in her voice. “I got nervous and forgot how to do everything. I can’t believe that happened.”

“Hey, it’s okay.” Dean shrugged. “It happens to everyone.”

“Not to you.

“Just you wait until the Potions exam. I’m gonna be a mess.”

Lisa’s lower lip wobbled at the assurance, and Dean could see that her dam against the tears that must have been brewing since the pressure of the exam eased was about to spill over.

“Thank you for being so nice,” she said in a rush.

Before Dean could react, Lisa had stepped forward and hugged him tightly, burying her face in his shoulder for a few seconds before stepping back and running off to the girls’ rooms, covering her face with her hands.

That was… unexpected.

Dean found his way back to the couch and sat back down, still a little in shock at having a girl hug him, and cry about how nice he was.

A long whistle jolted him out of his thoughts.

“Did you kiss her?” Philippe asked, a sly smile on his face.  

Dean made a face at the accusation that involved a lot of sputtering.

“What? Gross, no!”

“Did she kiss you?” Garth asked, wide eyed.

“No! We didn’t kiss! That’s disgusting.” Dean folded his arms in front of himself and leaned heavily into the couch, hoping that it would swallow him and take him away from this conversation.

“Do you have a girlfriend now?” Nick said, poking at side.

No!”

Dean has a girlfriend -” he said in a sing-song voice.

Dean grabbed one of the couch pillows and began pummelling a cackling Nick, only to have Garth and Philippe jump up and gang up on him with pillows of their own.

“We were just talking -”

“DEAN HAS A GIRLFRIEND -”

“No, I don’t!”

“GIRLFRIEND GIRLFRIEND GIRLFRIEND -”

They eventually fell onto the floor in a tired heap, exhausted from the constant barrage of pillows and false accusations as they tried to get their breath back.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Dean said, a little breathless, breaking the few moments of silence. “And we didn’t kiss.”

“Have you ever kissed a girl?” said Garth’s voice.

“Blegh. No.”

I have,” Philippe chimed in.

“Shut up, no you haven’t,” Nick interjected, still sounding out of breath.

“I have!”

“Who was it, then?”

“It was in France. You wouldn’t know her.”

“Suuuuuuure.”

“It was!”

There was another long stretch of silence before Nick piped up again.

“So, to recap, Dean kissed Lisa, and Philippe hasn’t kissed anyone.”

Both Dean and Philippe shouted and picked up their pillows, resuming the thrashing for their honor.

***

Dean had been at least sort of right about the Herbology exam.

When they walked into the greenhouses that class period, rows of what looked like Flitterbloom plants in small pots had been lined up along the long tables, with empty pots lining the shelves on the walls.

Dean knew better, however. Professor Gadreel had told them many times that Devil’s Snare was often mistaken for Flitterbloom.

It looked like they were going to be getting up close and personal with some Devil’s Snare.

“Welcome to your end-of-year exam, everyone.” Professor Gadreel strode into the room wearing a pleasant smile, as the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws began filing into the greenhouse. “I see some terrified looks on some of your faces, so please don’t worry. I promise this exam won’t be difficult.”

Garth was still anxiously bouncing from one foot to the other as he surveyed the potted plants.

“First off, I will be here to make sure nothing goes horribly wrong, so no need to panic about that. Secondly, I expect you all to work together and help each other repot. As long as each plant gets moved to a new plot, and I see everyone helping, you’ll all get good marks.”

A low murmur went throughout the crowd of students.

This changed things.

“Everyone start out by choosing a partner. Of a different House, if you please. Then, when you’re done, you may help others.”

Dean immediately stepped towards Ash from Ravenclaw, who apparently had the same idea.

“High five,” he said, holding up his hand.

Dean grinned and slapped it, already feeling more confident about the exam. Garth had apparently paired up with Rachel, a rather stuffy Ravenclaw in Dean’s opinion, and he could see Nick standing a little uncomfortably next to Ion.

“And time starts... now . Good luck, everyone.”

Dean and Ash stepped forward towards their pot.

“After you,” Ash said with flourishing gesture towards the deadly plant.

Dean snorted.

“How nice of you.”

Dean tugged up the sleeves of his robes and tucked his wand behind his ear for safekeeping - just in case he needed to get at it quickly - and picked up the trowel that Professor Gadreel had provided.

Just relax, he thought, Be calm.

The moment Dean shoved the trowel into the dirt around the plant, thin tendrils shot forwards defensively and wrapped around his arm, grasping firmly. Gadreel had shown them all what a fully mature Devil’s Snare looked like and Dean thanked his lucky stars that they were only working with the saplings.

Still, small or not, the vines definitely put up a good fight and were quickly cutting off his circulation.

Dean began to tug away instinctively.

“Relax!” Ash said, hovering just behind his shoulder.

I know, ” Dean hissed, trying to calm his nerves. “I got this.”

After taking a deep breath, he managed to relax his wrists and give control over to the plant, fighting against the instincts that told him not to.

The effect was almost immediate.

The moment he stopped fighting, the plant’s grip relaxed and slowly began to loosen.

“There you go,” he murmured soothingly. “No need to get all worked up, okay? Just going to move you to a new home.”

Dean elected to drop the trowel and reach into the pot with his bare hands, letting his fingers sink into the dirt and gently pull upwards. With a fair bit of tugging, and a nicely-timed light spell from Ash that made it recoil a little, the Devil’s Snare had successfully been moved into a bigger pot.

“Nice job,” Ash said, a wide smile of his face. “You’re a natural Herbologist.”

Dean shrugged his shoulders and wiped his hands against his robes to remove the loose dirt.

“Plants are easy. You know what’s hard? Potions.”

Ash scoffed as he began refilling the new pot with soil.

“Potions? Potions is easy. All you have to do is follow a recipe or get a little creative.” Ash winced when the vines began wrapping around his wrists, though with less fervor than before. “I once forgot to memorize the recipe for the Cure for Boils so I just made something up that made sense with the ingredients Professor Crowley gave us.”

“And you got away with it?” Dean asked, awestruck by this revelation.

“Well, no. He knew it wasn’t legit, but it still decreased the boil size a little, so I got partial credit.” Ash prodded at the plant with another light spell and drew his hands back when he was done, resting them on his hips with a satisfied hum.

“I wish I could do that,” Dean muttered, putting away the used pot onto one of the empty shelves. “Anytime I try I either mess it up spectacularly. Or Novak throws something in my cauldron when I’m not looking, to make sure it blows up anyway.”

Ash’s laugh sounded almost like he didn’t believe it.

“What? He does. It’s the one subject he’s not amazing at so if he can’t be good at it then he has to make sure I’m not.”

“He’s not amazing at Defense Against the Dark Arts,” Ash mused and grabbed another pot full of Devil’s Snare, this time taking the initiative to dig it out of its current home.

Dean paused, taking a moment to make sure he hadn’t misheard.

“What?”

“I said, it’s not the only subject he isn’t amazing at. I’m in his Defense Against the Dark Arts class, you know.” Ash grimaced as the plant wrapped around him again, nearly reaching his neck. “He does alright, but he’s not quite up to par, one might say.”

Dean tried to keep a smile from his face, not wanting to show Ash how badly he wanted to know everything about it.

“Yeah?” he asked, trying to keep his voice casual.

“Don’t get me wrong, Novak is crazy smart.” Ash said, allowing the Devil’s Snare to relax around him. “And I think he’s pretty cool. Got me out of a tight spot once. But he’s more book-smart, you know? Booksmarts can only get you so far in Defense Against the Dark Arts.”

Dean nodded slowly. It was one of the reasons that the class was one of his best, despite the less-than-ideal teacher. Sure, they had to memorize when to use what spell against what creature and so on, but it was pretty much a show of how well you could use the spells in practice - something that Dean obviously excelled at.

“One time, I got paired with him to practice the knockback jinx, and all he did was make me sneeze.” Ash dropped the plant into the next pot as Dean made the tip of his wand light up, to stop it from getting any ideas. “It’s like he didn’t trust himself to make it work. So it didn’t work.”

“That’s a… shame.” Dean said, unable to keep the glee from his voice. “So, if he’s not top of that class, then who is?”

Ash wiped his hands on the front of his robes and flipped his hair dramatically.

“Me.”

Dean snorted and bumped him with his shoulder.

“Anyway, I also have a theory.”

“Let’s hear it,” Dean said, eyeing the Devil’s Snare across the table that had almost reached Garth’s neck.

“The only classes that he does really well in, are the classes he has with you.” Ash ran a hand through his hair. “He probably needs you to whip him into shape in order to have that drive to win. Kinda funny, huh?”

“Yeah,” Dean murmured, absorbing everything Ash had just told him.

It was true that the times that he’d seen Castiel flub a spell hadn’t lasted very long. Dean would start laughing or coughing obviously, and Castiel would look back at him with some sort of fire in his eyes, only to do turn around and do the spell almost perfectly.

Maybe Ash was onto something. Maybe rivalry with Dean really did help Castiel to do better.

Dean didn’t know what to think about that.

“Kinda funny,” he said to Ash, and turned back to the Devil’s Snare.

*****************************************************

Castiel burst out of the Transfiguration classroom, his expression thunderous.

“Oh, look,” someone called behind him, from the general clatter of the rest of his classmates as they left the room. “Novak looks unhappy. What a surprise.”

Castiel thought he recognised Dean Winchester’s tones, and growled to himself as he stomped away down the corridor. He tried to walk fast enough to leave everyone else behind.

Four. He’d made at least four mistakes in that exam, and those were just the ones he knew about. Four whole mistakes. Professor Tran’s eyes had been narrowed as she’d watched him fail, her expression otherwise inscrutable - but Castiel thought he could guess at her feelings.

Surprise.

Confusion.

Disappointment.

Her star pupil - Castiel had a brief mental tussle with himself over self-describing with so much confidence, and then remembered the results of that revision quiz a couple of weeks ago, and decided to let himself have this one - her star pupil had forgotten wand movements, had mumbled and misspoken during an incantation, had produced both theoretical answers and spellwork that could at best be defined as shoddy.

He was partway through these exams, and he'd already been a disappointment.

There hadn’t even been a good reason for it. He hadn’t been unavoidably distracted or ill. He’d just been bad.

He could hear his mother’s voice, whiplash-hard and angry, when she’d shouted at him after the Sorting.

I expect you to be top of all of your classes… Everyone thinks you are defective , Castiel...

Full of frustration, Castiel could feel the urge to cry building inside him. He walked faster, leaving the sounds of his peers behind.

Out of their earshot, he let out a long breath.

He hated knowing that he hadn’t done well, that he hadn’t been good enough. More than that, he hated that he was powerless to change anything. He wanted to disappear from the whole castle, just vanish into thin air. No matter that his other exams so far had almost certainly been decent; without a high Transfiguration mark, he was going to be in trouble when his mother saw his results. She would shout at him, and she would be right to - it was his own fault, he just hadn’t studied enough. He just hadn’t been clever enough. The Sorting Hat had known that right from the start, and of course it was true. He was just stupid, deep down.

He resisted the urge to kick the nearest wall. Or explode the nearest door.

He needed to disappear, if only into the bathrooms where he could be alone. He was going to cry, there was no help for it, and he didn’t want anyone to see. For now, his eyes were dry - but he could feel the frustration pent up behind his careful composure, and he wouldn’t be able to hold it back for long.

He heard running footsteps behind him, and sniffed loudly to gather himself. He prepared himself to be polite to whoever it was - probably Hannah, or -

“Hey, Novak!”

And Castiel dropped his polite face again. He threw Dean Winchester a glare. Apparently, he’d walked away from the exam fast enough to get away from his friends, but not his enemies.

Ooh. He’s angry, he’s upset,” Dean said, narrating as he matched Castiel’s pace. “Should I get some tissues?”

“For yourself,” Castiel said darkly. He kept walking down the corridor.

“Aw, are you gonna make me cry?”

“No,” Castiel said. “I’m going to punch you in the nose. You’ll need the tissues to mop up the blood.”

Dean jostled him a little, good-naturedly. Castiel surmised from the sunny attitude that the exam had gone better for Winchester than it had for him.

“You wouldn’t ruin this perfect face, would you?” Dean said; when Castiel turned to give Dean another full-power stare of disdain, Dean was blowing out his cheeks and crossing his eyes. It was unexpected enough that for a moment - if only for a moment - Castiel felt his face slipping towards a smile.

He quickly curtailed the impulse.

“I’ll just play you at Exploding Snap again,” he shot back. “So you can ruin your own face.”

“You didn’t find the purple pretty on me?”

“You wouldn’t look pretty after eighteen love potions,” Castiel said. His tone came out even more brutal than usual when he was talking to Dean, his frustration adding an extra edge.

“I’ll remember that,” Dean said. He pretended to write on his hand. “Buy… future… dates… at least… nineteen… love potions.”

Castiel shook his head.

“As if you’d be so courteous,” he said.

“Courteous?” Dean snorted. “Speak English, Novak.”

Castiel rolled his eyes.

Non.

“Oh, super clever.”

“What,” Castiel said, reaching for the first thing in his head to lash out at Dean with. “As clever as cheating in the Charms exam?”

Dean’s eyes widened.

“Right. You saw that. It wasn’t cheating.

“You mended Lisa’s quill for her,” Castiel said.

Dean shrugged.

“Maybe.”

“That’s not the point of the exam,” Castiel said. “It’s supposed to test how much you know. Not how much your smarter neighbour knows.”

“You think I’m smart, Novak?”

Castiel bristled. “Smart er. In comparison.”

Dean blew out a sharp breath.

“Well… it was the right thing to do. She needed help. She’s my friend… sort of...”

“It was cheating,” Castiel said firmly. Dean grabbed suddenly at his shoulder, pulling him a little roughly to a stop.

“Are you gonna tell?” Dean asked. Castiel raised an eyebrow.

“Tell?” he said. “Tell who?”

“Professor Novak. Your mom, ” Dean said, like it was obvious. Castiel squinted at him, trying to figure out if Dean was joking - but he could only read a sincere question in those irritatingly green eyes.

“You think I need to tell her for her to know?” he said.

Dean’s face scrunched in confusion.

“What?” He shook his head. “Listen, I just don’t want to get failed, alright - and I don’t want Lisa to get embarrassed in front of everyone. No one knows except her and you and me.”

“You’re just being stupid.”

“Don’t tell me there isn’t a part of you that doesn’t think it was the right thing to do,” Dean said hotly - and Castiel found he couldn’t retort immediately, the memory of Harry Spangler struggling with his own quill in the Charms exam returning to him. Castiel himself had been on the point of helping, before remembering that his mother was sure to be watching all the students perform their spells and complete the exam; he’d had no desire to land himself in a world of trouble with her, just to give Harry an advantage that would surely not be taken into consideration in his final result.

Castiel looked back at Dean, and felt even more anger rolling through him - this time, anger at Dean’s stupidity in thinking he could get away with this. Anger, and slight pity.

“I won’t tell,” he said out loud. “But if you think you’re going to get away with this, or that you’ve actually helped Lisa at all, you don’t know my mother.”

Dean chewed on his lip, but nodded - looking satisfied, at least for now.

“Well, thanks,” he said, managing to make a little mockery of the single word, swinging the mood back towards the shallows.

They kept making their way down the corridor, Dean’s gait decidedly more upbeat than Castiel’s. He was practically skipping. After a few more paces, Castiel couldn’t help it any longer; he rounded on Dean with a deep scowl.

“I get it, OK? You did well in the Transfiguration exam. Congratulations. Why don’t you go and write home about it and leave me alone?”

Dean put his hand to his chest, mock-wounded.

“You mean you aren’t enjoying my company?”

“I never enjoy your company.”

Dean smirked.

“I’m glad my efforts to be irritating are paying off.”

“Efforts? You mean you’re actually capable of making an effort at something?” Castiel said, laying on the sarcasm. “I’m shocked.”

“He says, to the guy who just beat him in an exam,” Dean replied easily.

Castiel ground his teeth. “It’s not - I studied so hard,” he said, and was horrified at the suddenness of the vulnerability in his own voice. He cleared his throat. “I studied so hard,” he said again, harsher. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Dean was quiet for a moment; when Castiel looked over, Dean was watching him with a strange expression on his face.

“You know, it’s normal to not do great in an exam,” he said. “It’s, like, okay. Like… that happens.”

“Not to me,” Castiel said. Dean’s softened expression faded, and he rolled his eyes.

“Right. I forgot. You’re the Great Novak-It-All.”

“I’m expected to be the best,” Castiel said. He could see his mother’s face in his mind’s eye, her flat eyes and her stern mouth and her hunger for his excellence. “So I need to be.”

“What if you’re not?” Dean said.

Castiel shook his head.

“I need to be.”

“Even in Potions?”

Castiel came to an abrupt stop. In his anger and confusion over the Transfiguration exam, he’d forgotten that he still had Potions to come. Potions, his worst subject by far. He hadn’t managed to come higher than average in any single homework, so far as he could make out, and his practical classwork was far, far worse.

He met Dean’s eyes. Dean was just as bad at Potions as Castiel was. Dean distracted him in class, throwing strange ingredients into his cauldron and turning up the heat under it. Dean’s own potions frequently ended up smelling like a bonfire on a date with a rotten banana.

Dean stood about as much chance of coming top in the Potions results as an average bowtruckle. As far as Castiel could see, that put them on level ground.

“Even in Potions,” Castiel promised. He met Dean’s eyes challengingly. “I’ll beat you, at least.”

Dean’s smirk was back.

“There’s the Novak I know and hate,” he said comfortably. “See you in the dungeon.”

He skipped ahead of Castiel, made a sharp left around a corner, and just like that - he was gone. Castiel, whose feet had been walking him towards the bathrooms so that he could be alone, blinked around at the suddenly empty corridor.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

He turned his path instead towards the library. He needed to study up if he was going to beat Winchester.

***

In the corridor outside the dungeons, the first-years huddled together - a bedraggled mass, tossed and tousled by a long week of examinations. A couple of them were still reading over notes, trying to get in some last-minute practice; Castiel was, of course, one of them.

“Do you ever wonder whether you overstudy?” Hannah said softly. Castiel looked up from his notes, aware that his expression had to look slightly fevered.

“Overstudy?” he said. The idea seemed outlandish.

“Yeah. Like, how you were awake until three in the morning before the Transfiguration exam? Or how -”

“Let him make his own decisions, Han,” said Jo, who was leaning up against the wall next to them. “He’s Castiel Novak. He knows it all.

Castiel offered her a weak smile of thanks.

“No, I’m with Hannah,” said another voice, from their other side. It was Anna, her long red hair pulled harshly back from her face, which looked pale and greenish in the dungeon’s eerie light - or perhaps that was only her nerves showing. “You study too much, Castiel. You need to stop getting so worked up, it’s making you do worse.”

Exchanging a look with Hannah, Castiel shrugged his shoulders awkwardly and went back to his notes. Of course, if Jo was taking Castiel’s side then Anna was taking Hannah’s. The two girls hadn’t stopped fighting, and were always on the lookout for new topics to argue about.

“Studying is what you’re supposed to do before exams,” Jo pointed out, her tone deliberately superior. “And it’s normal to be nervous. It means you’ll do better. It’d be worse not to care.”

“Did your mommy tell you that?” Anna said, mocking, leaning round past Castiel to send Jo a withering glare. Jo sneered back.

“Did your mommy give you those toes?”

Anna’s face crumpled for a second, and then she whirled around and faced away from them all, crossing her arms. Castiel and Hannah studiously avoided each other’s eyes. Being friends with both Jo and Anna was proving more trouble than fun by far, at the moment.

“What’s that about toes?” said a familiar voice, and Castiel felt a press of the usual irritation in his stomach. He glared at Dean Winchester, who was standing a few paces away with his back to the wall.

“Nothing,” Jo said quickly. She offered Dean a brief smile to take the edge off the brusque retort. Dean shrugged.

If anything, Castiel thought, Dean looked even greener than Anna; his typical effortless attitude didn’t seem to be sitting as easily as it usually did. He was fidgeting with his wand, and his hair was ruffled - as though he’d pushed his hands through it multiple times. He looked nervous.

Castiel opened his mouth, and the words are you alright almost escaped - before he quickly shoved them away and instead said coolly,

“You look excited for the exam.”

Dean caught his eye.

“I’m excited to beat you,” he said back, but without any real sting. Castiel smirked.

“Like I’m going to be beaten by a Hufflepuff.

Dean made a face - and so did Jo, and so did Hannah. He frowned. He’d thought that that one would go down better.

“A Hufflepuff who got into the Ravenclaw common room, if you’ll remember,” Jo said.

Castiel swallowed the immediate surge of annoyance that rose up in his throat, and nodded mutely. It was true. These days, Dean Winchester had more right to access the Ravenclaw tower than he, Castiel, did. More right to call himself wise.

Feeling his mood start to swing low again - those post-Transfiguration woes casting a shadow over his head - Castiel turned back to his notes.

Three stirs anti-clockwise, he read. Dittany.

“Didn’t know you cared, Jo,” he heard Dean say. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jo make a playful swipe for Dean’s arm.

“I think you need all the help you can get right now, this being Potions,” she said.

What, and I don’t? Castiel thought bitterly - and then caught himself, and pushed away the feeling. No. I don’t. I’m going to be fine. I’ve studied.

“What are you talking about?” Dean said. “I’m great at Potions.”

This was so blatantly incorrect that Castiel couldn’t let it pass by him.

“You’re great at messing up my potions,” he said, and Dean’s expression turned indignant.

You’re the one who -”

“Good morning, class,” said a louder, more commanding voice, echoing down the dungeon corridor. Professor Crowley stood at the head of the line, his hands clasped behind his back. He looked around at the young, drawn faces peering up at him, and his dark eyes twinkled with amusement. “You all look ready for your examination. Come in.”

Dean and Castiel fired one last angry glance at each other before filing into the classroom with the rest of their peers. They found the room already set up for a class: cauldrons on big, rough wooden desks, perched above grates that were safe to light magical fires inside. Behind them, there were individual desks - on each, Castiel could see a roll of parchment and a quill.

“Take your places behind your cauldrons,” Professor Crowley said, moving to stand at the front of the room, beside his desk - on which stood a large sandglass. Castiel quickly found his own cauldron, with its pewter nameplate - Novak - welded onto the side. Ahead of him was Lisa Braeden; to his right…

Castiel gritted his teeth. Dean Winchester.

Of course, Dean Winchester.

Crowley cleared his throat. Behind him was standing the blackboard where he’d normally have already written the instructions for the potion they were going to make during the class; it was blank. Castiel felt a little lurch of sick nerves, looking at that empty space where the guidelines had once been given to him.

No help, today. No guidelines to refer back to when his potion started to spit and hiss and smell like a damp dog at a fireworks festival. Just his own memory of whatever potion Professor Crowley was going to ask of them, and his own skills in making it.

“I’ve mixed up your little groups where I can,” Professor Crowley said. “We’ve got Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors in here, so I want no showings of chivalry or loyalty or any of that nonsense. If your friends fail, they fail alone.” His eyes, roving the rows of students, seemed to rest for a moment longer on the corner where Dean and Castiel were standing.

Castiel cast a look to his right. Dean Winchester caught his eye. For a few moments, animosity was put on truce as they shared expressions of mild panic.

“Now, the potion I’m going to be asking you to make today has a brewing time in the middle, in which no ingredients should be added and no stirring is necessary. During that time, you are to go to the back, find your desk, and complete your theoretical questions. I am not going to tell you how long the break should be, only that it should be ample for the completion of the questions.” He smiled around at them all. “Ingredients in the usual places. There will be no talking whatsoever. Sandglasses for keeping track of brewing time are in the cupboard at the back.”

Castiel could feel his heart in his throat. He thought he was going to be sick. He tried to remember a single fact from all the studying he’d been doing - and it was all gone. He was as blank as the blackboard.

“The potion that you will be trying to remember…” Crowley said, clearly enjoying the sight of their anxious expressions, “... is the Forgetfulness Potion.”

There was a little flurry of groans and whispers in the dungeon, soon silenced by a quelling glare from Crowley. Castiel himself felt his brain jamming, too nervous to feel either relief or disappointment. He had no idea if he remembered the recipe or not. He had a feeling that he’d managed to crisp this potion to the sides of his cauldron, when he’d tried to make it in class.

“You have an hour and a fifteen minutes to complete the entirety of this exam,” Professor Crowley said. He reached out a stubby-fingered hand for the sandglass on the desk beside him, lifted it, and flipped it. The sand began to trickle through - very, very slowly. Crowley nodded to them. “You may begin.”

At once, most of the class hurried over to the ingredients cupboard, forming a bottleneck around it. Castiel watched them push and shove for a moment, all struggling to stay quiet, before managing to sort themselves into something vaguely approaching an orderly queue.

He should join the queue.

The only problem was, he had no idea which ingredients he’d pick up once he got to the front of it. He had nothing. His brain wasn’t working.

Defective, whispered his mother's voice. He pushed it away.

At the front of the room, the sand in the glass was running. Already, a little pool of it had formed. Castiel blinked, and tried to remember the method to produce a Forgetfulness Potion.

He could remember reading the page. He’d been in the library, sitting opposite Hannah; he’d made a note on a piece of parchment and ringed it several times, but his mind was in a fog and he couldn’t remember what he’d written at all -

“Novak,” came a sharp whisper. “What are you doing?”

Castiel tried to ignore Winchester’s question.

Novak.

Castiel threw a look across the room, checking that Crowley wasn’t watching them; luckily, the Professor was busy trying to stop Philippe LeChat from removing the cupboard’s entire store of what looked like rat spleens. Castiel turned to glare at Dean, making a point not to look at the various ingredients Dean had gathered; he’d rather fail than pass because he cheated. Cheated off Dean Winchester, too. He’d rather actually leave Hogwarts than that.

“What?” he hissed to Dean.

“Why aren’t you getting any ingredients? You trying to make this easy for me?” Dean grinned, and poked his wand towards the bottom of his cauldron. Magical flames flurried up - a little haphazardly, but strongly.

“Easy?” Castiel snorted. “I’m giving you a chance, Winchester. A few minutes’ headstart.” He turned away smartly and headed over to the cupboard, catching Lisa Braeden’s eye as she walked away with an armful of ingredients. He offered her an awkward half-smile, half-grimace, which she returned.

She was the last, except for Castiel himself, to pick up her ingredients. There was no one else standing at the cupboard when Castiel reached it, and peered inside.

Jars upon jars, familiar in a hateful way after so many weeks struggling through practical Potions classes. Castiel cast his eyes over the labels, hoping one of them would jog his memory.

Shrivelfig skin. Caterpillars. Wormwood.

None of the names meant anything to him.

Come on, brain, Castiel begged himself silently. Come on. Forgetfulness Potion would need…

He closed his eyes. He could see Dean Winchester’s smirking face, when Castiel had to admit that he had no idea how to make the potion - when he had to fail the exam by choice and leave the dungeon in shame. He could see that stupid, stupid smile Winchester would be wearing.

Castiel opened his eyes again. No. There had to be something in this cupboard that would remind him...

Daisy root. Leech juice. Lethe water…

And just like that, it all came back in a rush. Castiel sucked in a breath of air. His page of notes, all written out in dark ink. Yes!

Lethe River Water (2 drops)
Valerian Sprigs (2)
Standard Herb Blend (2 measures)
Mistletoe Berries (4)

Add Lethe River Water to cauldron…

Castiel could see it all unrolling in his mind. He grabbed for the jar of valerian sprigs, and pulled out two of them; he reached for a phial of Lethe River water; he snapped off a spray of mistletoe berries, and reached for one of the small pots of standard herb blend. Hurrying back to his cauldron, he dropped his ingredients down onto the desk and began to line them up neatly.

“You managed to find something to do, then,” Dean whispered to him.

Castiel rolled his eyes, and refused to answer back. He was not going to get disqualified from the exam because of Dean Winchester.

Igniting a fire under his cauldron - with a deal more expertise and control than Dean had used, Castiel noted to himself with a certain smugness - Castiel reached for his Lethe River water. It was beautiful, silvery and shimmering inside the phial; he carefully poured out two drops into his cauldron.

He began counting, and resisted the immediate urge to stir.

One, two, three…

That was what usually got him in trouble, and ruined his potions - he’d stir it as soon as the first ingredient was in, without thinking, and somehow the magical ingredients were volatile enough for that to be catastrophic.

Four, five, six...

He blamed all the hours he’d spent cooking with Muriel, back at home in Cloudesley Street; he had always been a little too enthusiastic every time he’d helped her, so she’d often given him the job of “chief stirrer”. That way, at least his efforts only resulted in messy walls and floors, not hands burned by boiling water or fingers lost on chopping boards.

Seven, eight, nine...

Castiel blinked down at the water inside the cauldron; it was already bubbling softly. Did that mean it had been in there long enough? He thought that next he needed to add the sprigs of valerian - but was it already too soon?

He resisted the impulse to glance around him for answers. No. He was going to do this right, or not at all. As far as he could remember, his notes had said twenty seconds. He’d wait until then.

Thirteen… fourteen…

Unless he was heating it too fast, in which case he’d need to turn down the flames and add the valerian immediately?

Fifteen. Sixteen.

Castiel shook his head at his own wretched inability to ever get potions right, and reached for his valerian sprigs, and threw them in.

In a puff of blue sparks, they shuddered down to dust as soon as they touched the hot Lethe water. Biting his lip, Castiel stirred the potion - three times, clockwise. He was almost certain that was it. Now that he was getting into the swing of the potion and his confidence was growing, it was becoming easier to remember what he needed to do.

With the sprigs thoroughly stirred in, it was time for another addition. If Castiel recalled correctly, he needed to pour water into his potion - one and a half gills, precisely - to give the potion some body. He swallowed hard. If he wasn't accurate in his measuring, this was where Dean could easily outstrip him.

Castiel clenched his fist. Not if I can help it. He went back to the ingredients cupboard and poured out a careful measure of water from the tall glass canister on one side.

Returning to his cauldron, he carefully tipped the water into the cauldron, and watched it blend with the thickened Lethe and valerian mixture. Once his measuring cup was empty, he set it aside. The cauldron was now half-full of a slightly runny-looking potion that gently bubbled as it warmed.

For the first time since beginning, he looked up and around at the rest of the classroom. Most people had already left their cauldrons, and made their way to the back of the room to sit the theoretical part of the test. Among them was Dean.

Castiel turned off the heat under his cauldron with a poke of his wand, and headed towards the back, too. He was feeling slightly - ever so tentatively - relieved. Half of the practical part of the test was over, and whilst Castiel knew that it had definitely not gone perfectly, there was no gushing of black smoke, no smell of month-old milk. So far, he was doing far better than he ever could have hoped.

He met Hannah’s eyes as he slipped past her desk towards the cupboard at the very back of the room, the one with the sandglasses that would help him keep track of how long he’d left his potion to brew. There were tens of them, muddled and dirtied after so many years of use at a school as old as Hogwarts; each one had a label attached to it, detailing the time it would run for in black ink on rumpled yellow parchment paper, tied on with old and fraying string.

Castiel chewed his lip. His memory told him that the potion needed to be brewed for forty-five to sixty minutes. He thought it was safest to choose a forty-five minute timer, and check his potion after that - just to make sure it didn’t start emanating sparks or lethal steam in that extra fifteen minutes.

He grabbed a sandglass with 45 mins on the label, and headed to one of the individual desks crammed into the back of the classroom. There was hardly any space between them; Castiel wished that they could have just sat the written examination next to their cauldrons, but he guessed Crowley didn’t want there to be any question of anyone tampering with anyone else’s potion - and that would be easier for him to supervise if they weren’t all moving around each other between the cauldrons as much.

It made sense, thought Castiel grudgingly as he slipped as gracefully as he could into a seat shoved up close behind a desk. He just didn’t like it.

“Nice, Novak,” Dean Winchester whispered, from the desk behind. “You should train for the ballet.”

A hand gesture that Castiel had once seen a man outside the window of Cloudesley Street use popped into his head, one that he didn’t think was particularly friendly. He considered using it over his shoulder at Dean, and then decided to take a higher road. Besides, he wasn’t completely sure what it meant, and he didn’t want to accidentally tell Dean to do anything other than go throw himself in the lake.

He pulled his sheet of parchment towards him, and read the first question. What is the correct colour for a Shrinking Solution?

Castiel let out a long, slow breath. He could do this. It was just remembering stuff - and that was what he was best at. No pressure, no one able to watch and judge what he was doing, no mistakes that he couldn’t immediately cross out and take back - just him, and a quill, and his own memory. This was what he could do.

He started writing - and when he next looked up, he’d finished all the questions.

It felt as though it had gone by in a blink. The paper had had some complicated parts, of course, but it hadn’t been anything he couldn’t handle; his immersion had been complete. He thought a troll could have come into the dungeons, and he wouldn’t have known.

He looked at his sandglass, and blinked at it in surprise. There was still just under half of the sand left inside it; he’d finished the questions faster than most of the people around him, and they’d all come and sat down at their desks before him. He felt his drained confidence rise a little higher.

It was important to check your answers, in any written test; that had been drilled into him by his mother since before he could remember, a by-product of her hammering it into Michael and Gabriel as they passed through their first exams. He scanned his answers, adding more details here and there, occasionally correcting some bad handwriting to make it more legible. Before long, though, he’d run out of additions to make - and his sandglass still had at least fifteen minutes’ worth of sand in the top half.

He slid out from behind his desk. Behind him, Dean was still working; Castiel was on the receiving end of a sharp glance as he stood up. He made sure to look smooth and unconcerned as he picked up his parchment and sandglass, and walked up to Professor Crowley to hand it in.

“Sir,” he said, approaching the front desk. Crowley, who was watching the whole class with those bright, beady dark eyes, held out his hand for the paper.

“Think you’ve done well, Novak?” he said. Castiel, used to this kind of trick question at home, kept his face blank.

“I did my best, Sir,” he said quietly.

Crowley smirked.

“Not traditionally a guarantee of your success.”

Castiel felt a cold clench in his gut. He forced a thin smile.

“Thank you, Sir,” he said, as coolly as he could, and turned away.

That hadn’t even made sense, he reflected to himself as he walked back to his cauldron. Hey, Novak, have an insult. Oh, thank you, Sir, thank you so much.

Castiel cringed. He made his way back to his potion, wishing that he could sink into the floor. Crowley had already guessed the inevitable: he was going to fail. His best wasn’t going to be anywhere near good enough.

He arrived back at his own cauldron, and peered into it. Inside, the ingredients were softly simmering. They smelled like flowers and forgetfulness; when Castiel took a breath in, just for a second, he was swimming in his own mind far away from the dungeon. He forgot all about exams, all about Crowley, all about not being good enough at anything to ever make anyone proud of him -

He pulled back, almost stumbling, but steadied himself. That had been - it had been a good feeling. Part of him already wanted it again, the suddenness of that freedom. The immediate ability to not care at all.

The rest of him knew that if he was going to stand any chance of succeeding in this exam, he couldn’t let Lethe Water fumes carry him away to the Hospital Wing.

Letting out a sharp breath to pull himself together, Castiel glanced down at his sandglass. There was still perhaps ten or twelve minutes’ worth of sand left to fall. Castiel scuffed his feet on the floor. Part of him wanted to just perform the rest of the potion-making process now, just to get it over with - a couple of other people seemed to have decided to take that course, because they were already bent back over their cauldrons. But Castiel steeled himself. He could wait it out.

He flicked his eyes idly over the other students’ desks. Now that he was settled in his own choices, there was no risk of him gaining an unfair advantage by seeing what his classmates were up to. Someone in the corner had a fair amount of blue smoke pouring out of their cauldron; rising like a wave was the scent of toast, which Castiel recognised as being on the point of burning. Whoever owned the cauldron emitting that smell needed to come and deal with it, fast.

It was someone close by; the scent was strong.

Castiel turned slightly, a wrinkle between his brows - and then he saw it. The light of flames beneath the cauldron right beside him.

Dean Winchester’s cauldron.

Dean had left his potion to burn.

Castiel stared, his mind going into a sudden flurry of panic.

What should he do? What could he do?

The potion didn’t need heat at the brewing stage. In a rush, Castiel remembered the words that he’d written in big letters on his notes, and ringed to emphasise them: NO FLAMES WHEN BREWING. That was what had caused his potion to crisp up and be useless last time. If Dean’s potion was left like this, it would be inadmissible for the exam within the next ten minutes.

Chancing a glance inside on his tiptoes, Castiel could see that it was already browning strangely - but it wasn’t past the point of saving, if he was any judge.

He gritted his teeth, and glanced over his shoulder. Dean was still working on his paper, oblivious to what was happening to his own potion. Castiel could try to go over there, and tell him - but there was no way Crowley wouldn’t see. Having handed in his paper, Castiel had no reason to go back there; he’d be caught straight away. And catching Dean’s attention in any other way wasn’t looking likely; Winchester was absorbed in trying to answer a question, his tongue sticking out as he wrote.

Castiel looked back at the troublesome potion, with its increasingly burnt-toasty scent. Soon, the whole classroom would be able to smell it, including Professor Crowley - and Castiel’s chances of doing anything surreptitiously to help would be over.

Help? Did he really want to help Dean Winchester?

It would be cheating. According to the rules, Dean should suffer the unfortunate effects of his own lack of study, lack of forethought. And Castiel, meanwhile, as his unofficial arch-nemesis, should enjoy it.

So why did Castiel feel distinctly no amusement whatsoever? All he could see in his mind’s eye was the look on Dean’s face in that Charms exam, when he’d made the decision to help Lisa Braeden. Castiel had been watching - of course he had - and Dean had looked determined, and good, somehow. Righteous, perhaps. Not right , but righteous.

And Castiel - which of those did he want to be? The person who did the right thing, or the person who did the - the - the honourable thing? Honour. That was it. There was no honour in enjoying someone else’s downfall, like Castiel was trying to enjoy Dean’s. And the more Castiel thought about it, the less honour he saw in leaving Dean’s potion to crisp into nothing, even if he didn’t derive any amusement from it.

It wasn't as though Castiel had felt good about leaving Harry Spangler to his fate in Charms. Maybe this way, he'd feel better about himself after making a choice.

Did Dean deserve Castiel’s help? No, of course not. But it wasn’t about Dean, it wasn’t about deserving. It was about Castiel, and doing the honourable thing.

It was about stopping the whole room smelling like burnt toast.

Castiel poked his wand towards the flames under Dean’s potion, and muttered a quick incantation to snuff them out. Abruptly, the ominous bubbling from within the cauldron stopped; the scent of crisp bread lingered, but didn’t worsen.

With a little relaxing of his shoulders, Castiel lowered his wand. He’d done it. He’d broken the rules. For Dean Winchester. If his mother could see him now -

“I saw that, Novak,” hissed a furious voice, and Castiel whipped around to see Dean Winchester standing behind him, his face pink with anger. “You just ruined my potion, didn’t you?”

Castiel waved his hands in a repressive gesture, looking to Crowley; their Professor’s attention was distracted, however, by watching Thaddeus MacInnes attempting to staunch the billow of blue smoke from his cauldron.

“I didn’t do anything,” Castiel muttered back.

“You did!” Dean was peering into his cauldron, at the thick, caramel-coloured mess inside. “How did you manage to burn it that fast?”

“I didn’t! You left it -”

“Oh, yeah, sure, blame me,” Dean said sarcastically, and a little more loudly. Castiel hushed him furiously.

“I was just trying to -” Castiel said, and then stopped himself. The sight of Dean’s face after he realised Castiel had actively helped him would surely be even more unbearable than the sight of his anger - Castiel didn’t have it in him to bring on that smugness. “I was - I didn’t…” he sputtered.

“Sure, you did nothing,” Dean said. “And this is me, doing nothing. ” He snatched up his measuring cup of water, which sloshed a little liquid over the rim as he swung it towards Castiel’s potion - Castiel's lovely, well-brewed, near-perfect potion.

Castiel uttered a barely-repressed squeak as a great spurt of water jettisoned over the top of his cauldron, missing it by inches and instead splattering on the ground. In front of them, Lisa turned around, looking confused; Castiel found himself pulling the most innocent expression he could, blinking blandly at her. At the head of the class, Crowley picked at something in his teeth.

Lisa turned back to her potion, and Castiel rounded on Dean.

“You -” he got out, before realising that while he’d been distracted, Dean had managed to get a far more accurate aim - and had splashed the remainder of the contents of his measuring cup into the cauldron. The last drop fell, glistening, into the potion as Castiel watched. Under his breath, Castiel hissed, “ No!”

He shoved at Dean, trying not to create a scene or draw attention; helped by the shadows, they managed to keep their scuffle undercover, but it was as vicious a fight as ever. Dean elbowed Castiel in the stomach, while Castiel rammed him in the shoulder. Dean jabbed, Castiel tugged. Both of them were silent, and pink with the effort, and furious.

“Fifteen minutes left,” said Crowley, at the front. Both Dean and Castiel went still, just for a moment, resting their bodies against each other. Castiel could feel Dean panting.

“Get off me,” he hissed, and pushed hard.

“Settle down, back there,” Crowley said, his tone idle.

Dean went stumbling back a pace, not expecting the suddenness of the movement. “I didn’t do anything to your stupid potion! And now look at mine!” Castiel peered into his cauldron, and saw that his potion had the consistency of thin soup. He groaned to himself. It had been going so well. This was what he got for trying to help Dean Winchester. After everything they’d fought over this year already, he should have known better than to even try it.

“You deserved it,” Dean said angrily. “You messed with mine first. I saw you.”

“I didn’t do anything to ruin it!”

“I saw you !”

Castiel growled and turned away. He could at least add the final ingredients to his potion; that way, he might still pass, no matter what Crowley said. He snatched for his standard herb blend - and then realised that Dean was holding up his pot of it, looking smug.

“Looking for this?” he said, and then dropped it into his own potion. Castiel rolled his eyes and reached for Dean’s own pot instead - but quick as a flash, Dean had snatched that up too.

“Give - that - to - me,” Castiel said, trying to keep his movements quiet and natural as Dean hid the ingredient he needed behind his back.

“No!”

“Just - give it!”

“No!”

Castiel almost managed to snatch it - and in a seeming sudden panic, Dean lifted the pot, and poured the entire contents into his own cauldron, too.

Green sparks snapped up over the rim.

Both Dean and Castiel watched for any more signs of impending disaster, but none came. As one, they turned to each other.

Now see what you’ve done,” they both mouthed at each other, in unison - and then, with equal indignance, said,

Me ?”

“You just used up all the standard herbs on your potion!” Castiel half-mouthed, half-whispered.

“You made me!”

“I made you?!”

“Ten minutes,” called Professor Crowley.

“You started this whole thing!” Dean said furiously, under his breath. “You know, I actually thought you were above doing something like that in an actual exam, but I guess I was wrong!”

Castiel clenched his teeth.

“And I thought you were too smart to leave the flames on under your cauldron for the entire time it was brewing,” he retorted. “I guess we were both wrong!”

Dean pulled back, his expression suddenly confused.

“You - I didn’t - we’re not supposed to…?”

He looked stumped. Castiel, acting on impulse, took advantage of his confusion to seize Dean’s mistletoe berries - all of them, and then his own - and shove them into his thin, waterlogged potion.

He met Dean’s eyes. They stared at each other.

“Why did I do that,” Castiel said.

“I have no idea.”

“I just - you put all the standard… so I just…” Castiel gestured hopelessly. His cauldron was giving off a kind of pinkish, thin smoke, and smelled like a wet sponge. Dean’s, meanwhile, had stopped giving off the scent of overdone toast - and with the standard herbs added, had started smelling more like overdone garlic bread.

“It’s supposed to smell like lemons,” Castiel said bleakly.

“Like cleaning fluid,” Dean said, as if in agreement. Castiel wondered briefly what ‘cleaning fluid’ was, and then remembered the stuff that he and Muriel used on the windows at Cloudesley Street, because she said cleaning by magic alone never quite got them to sparkle.

“Well…” he said.

“Let’s finish this,” Dean said grimly.

“Five minutes, everyone,” Crowley called out.

Castiel stared into his cauldron. He didn’t know whether to stir the disaster inside, which looked like dirty bathwater. One of the mistletoe berries hadn’t yet dissolved, and was floating disconsolately in the runny mess.

Lifting his wand, Castiel cleared his throat. He at least remembered the incantation to finish the potion off. And Dean’s potion looked in just as bad a state as his own - he wasn’t the only one whose chances of a good mark were completely ruined.

Obliviate, ” Castiel murmured. The spell fell like a sheen over the potion, glamourising its pinkish-grey to pinkish-silver. It didn’t look or smell anything like a Forgetfulness Potion, Castiel reflected, but at least it now looked vaguely attractive. It smelled like mistletoe, now, and not a huge amount else.

Castiel glanced over at Dean, who was prodding the inside of his cauldron dubiously with the end of his wand.

He wondered if Dean remembered the time at Christmas when they’d got caught under the mistletoe together by Madame Hanscum. Not that it had been anything to particularly remember; Dean had made a typically childish throw-up noise and run off, and that was about it. Castiel wasn’t even sure why he remembered it so clearly.

“And… time!” Crowley announced. “Bring a phial of your completed potions up to me. After that, you may leave.”

Castiel filled a phial, the thinness of his potion actually helping; he couldn’t help noticing that everyone else’s potions were in shades of light green and yellow, next to his strange pinky concoction. Dean, meanwhile, was slowly dribbling his potion - which was the rough consistency and colour of thick toffee - into his own phial, with some difficulty.

They headed up to the front desk together, making sure they were the last ones to hand in their potions, hands tight around their phials to disguise the evidence of the failure inside. It was impossible to hide, however, from Crowley; he gave Castiel a sneer as he accepted the potion, the look in his eyes quite clearly saying I thought so.

Castiel left the room, hearing Dean’s footsteps following close behind. Once they were outside, back in the dungeon corridor, they turned to face each other. Dean’s face seemed to be a mess of contrition, anger, confusion, and humour; Castiel imagined he looked much the same way. Later on, he could worry about what his mother would do. For now, despite his mess of emotions running deep underneath, it was enough to see the funny side.

He kept replaying the moment in his head where he dropped the mistletoe berries into the cauldron, and then met Dean’s bemused, horrified gaze. He wanted to laugh so badly - and he could tell that Dean did, too.

But laughing together was what friends did. And after everything that had happened between them this year, there was still no way that Dean and Castiel could ever be friends.

“I hate you,” Castiel said.

“So much,” Dean agreed.

They left the corridor together, and went separate ways on the staircase.

**************************************************************

“Stop bouncing your leg.”

Dean turned and stuck his tongue out at Thaddeus, who was seated next to him, and continued bouncing his leg with a vicious fervor. It was a nervous tic that he couldn’t help, and he definitely wasn’t going to be able to stop it until after Professor Novak had handed them back their Charms scores and he could stop panicking about it.

He turned back towards the front when he heard the sound of a throat clearing.

“Welcome back, class.” Professor Novak stood at her desk and waved her wand at a large pile of papers that were stacked neatly in front of her, causing them to rise up. “As I’m sure you all know, today I give you back the result of your end-of-year exam. Some of you should be very proud of yourselves, while some of you should consider reflecting on your shortcomings.”

Dean clasped his hands in front of himself on the desk, nervously licking at his lips. It was fine. He was fine. He had aced that test with flying colors, thanks to some ingenuity and a little studying.

Not that he would ever admit that studying had played a part in it.

“None of you completely failed, you should all be pleased to know. But some of you came close. I hope you all realize that I will not be so lenient next year. I will expect more from you all.”

Another wave of her wand and the papers began gently floating across the room and landing on each student’s desk one by one.

Dean watched in nervous tension as each student plucked their paper from the air and read their grade. There were a few fist pumps and a few frowns, but it seemed like most students were pleased that they hadn’t failed it.

Finally, a paper floated down right in front of Dean’s face and he quickly made a grab for it, his heart thundering in his chest as he looked for the scrawled-out red number at the top of the page.

A seventy-five?

Dean felt his heart drop as he stared at the number, not quite believing it.

He quickly flipped through the pages, sure that something had been miscalculated. There was no way he’d messed up on that many questions. Sure enough, he had only missed two of the answers and those were only partial mess-ups - he’d gotten most of the questions correct.

Bright red words were scrawled in ink on the very back of his test.

“Cheating will not be tolerated in my class. If I see it happen again, it will result in automatic failure and not just docked points.”

Dean sunk low in his seat and flipped the test back over to the front side.

“And finally,” Professor Novak’s voice rung throughout the classroom once more when there was just one paper left hovering in the air next to her. “A special congratulations to Mr. Novak for top marks. Five points to Gryffindor.”

A small smile appeared on her face, so small that Dean wouldn’t have dared to call it a smile on anyone else - but on Professor Novak there was no mistaking it. Her face was generally such a permanent frown that anything else was basically a neon sign of ecstasy.

The paper gently made its way over to Castiel and settled itself onto his desk.

“Thank you, Professor,” Castiel said, and Dean could hear how badly he was trying to hide how pleased he was.

Professor Novak nodded at him, and Dean wanted to throw up.

He folded his arms on the desk and leaned forward on top of it, effectively covering the paper so no one else could see it.

He could see Lisa excitedly whispering with a friend, but Dean could see that she’d received a seventy-nine from the look of her paper, and Jo and Nick looked pretty pleased with themselves too.

Professor Novak turned her back to walk back to her seat and that’s when Castiel turned to look back at Dean, chin raised high.

Dean scowled and turned away, wishing that Professor Novak would teach them the bat-bogey hex. He’d make good use of it.

***

The school was abuzz with chatter about the final Quidditch match. Even if you were someone who didn’t particularly care for the game (or, as Dean would call them, a boring person) it was impossible to escape the talk and the excitement that surrounded the prospective outcomes.

Dean was fairly sure that the Quidditch teams had been talking about it for the past few weeks, but none of the other students had really bothered to participate in it much - not when considering the looming pressure from the exams that had nearly crippled the school.

Now that those were all over with, the trash talk could begin.

The year’s final match was going to be between Slytherin and Ravenclaw, a fact that Dean was slightly put out by. He’d shown up to every single Hufflepuff match during the entire school year to cheer on his team - but, while it had been a bit touch and go with Gryffindor for a while, had ultimately watched them turn up in last place.

Luckily, the Gryffindors couldn’t be too smug about it, seeing as they’d turned up in third.

This match was going to be a tricky one, or so he’d been told.

While he was still learning all of the nuances of the Quidditch scoring system, he’d been told that it could easily be anyone’s game, but the Slytherins were at a slight disadvantage going into it.

Earlier on, as Jo had explained to him just the other day, Gryffindor had beat Slytherin by a really close margin - but Ravenclaw had slaughtered Gryffindor soon thereafter. If Slytherin wanted to win the Quidditch cup this year, not only would they have to beat Ravenclaw, but they’d have to beat them by at least 60 points; otherwise, the cup would go to Ravenclaw.

A little unfair, if you asked Dean, but it was what it was.

Quidditch was a lot more complicated than he’d first thought it to be.

“Hey, Jo!” Dean jogged to catch up with her as she was leaving the Great Hall after lunch. The moment she turned around, Dean got a brief glimpse of the dark-haired figure she’d been talking with walk away quickly.

It looked a lot like Castiel, but Dean couldn't be sure. He didn't linger.

Fine.

Dean didn’t really feel like talking to him today either, especially since Castiel had probably just been thinking about how to gloat over his higher Charms score for the past couple of days.

“Hi, Dean.” She smiled and shoved her hands in the pockets of her robes. “What’s up?”

Dean craned his neck to get a better look at the figure walking away, before deciding that he didn’t care enough to see if his suspicion had been correct.

“Just wondering what you wanna do for the match tomorrow,” he said, bouncing on the tips of his toes in an attempt to reign in his excitement for the next day. “We’re sitting together, right?”

“Obviously!” Jo rolled her eyes playfully as they continued walking down the hallway. “And obviously we’re sitting next to Hannah… and I guess Anna.” Jo rolled her eyes and sighed.  “Anyway, you can bring Nick and Garth, too.”

“And Philippe.”

“Yeah, and Philippe. Merlin, we’re going to need to leave early if we want to save enough seats for everyone.” Jo pressed her lips together. “You know that I’m bringing Castiel too, right?”

Dean made a gagging noise, but he hadn’t expected any less.

Being friends with someone who was friends with your mortal enemy sure was tough sometimes.

“Stop that,” Jo reprimanded, smacking Dean lightly on the shoulder. “I hate how much you guys hate each other. I thought Hufflepuffs were all about friendship and stuff.”

“And I thought Gryffindors were all about chivalry and doing the right thing!” Dean skipped away briefly to avoid another slap. “Doesn’t seem very chivalrous to be friends with a jerk, if you ask me.”

“He’s not a jerk, Dean. You just…” She sighed and shook her head. “Never mind. There’s no point. Anyway, if you want to sit together, Castiel is going to be there. Tough beans.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dean shrugged his shoulders. “At least he might be tolerable this time because Gryffindor got squashed last match -”

Hey -”

“Just sayin’!”

They walked for a few more feet in silence.

“I can go early and save us some spots around where we always sit,” Dean offered. “I’ll meet you there. And I’ll make sure it’s far away from Gordon.”

Jo snickered, clearly remembering the events from their disastrous first Quidditch match attendance.

“Good plan. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow!” Jo waved and split off up towards the stairway, while Dean headed towards his own common room to relay the news to his roommates.

***

Students had already begun filing into the large stadium by the time Dean arrived the next day. Luckily, it wasn’t an exorbitant amount - but enough to make him worried that he might not have been fast enough to save their favorite spot.

Dean rushed forward, slipping in between the taller students as he made headway into the small crowd.

His heart dropped when he finally made it into the stands, only to see that someone was already seated there. Maybe if he went up to them, and politely asked if he could -

The person shifted, and Dean saw that it was Castiel.

“Oh,” Dean said loudly as he sauntered forward. “Guess you’re here, then.”

Castiel scowled when he saw him approach, turning his gaze back towards the empty pitch.

“Obviously,” he said. “Jo asked me to go ahead and save us some seats.”

Dean frowned.

“But I told her I was going to save them.”

“Then I guess she wanted to make sure it got done properly.”

Dean harrumphed and sat down on the bench just above Castiel, propping his feet up next to him, almost touching his robes.

Castiel inched away.

“Nah,” Dean said after a few moments’ thought. “I’m pretty sure Jo just thinks that if she leaves us alone together enough, we’ll realize we should actually be friends.”

Castiel snorted, but still refused to look at him.

Dean moved his feet closer, just barely tapping Castiel on his thigh.

“Move your feet.” Castiel said, his voice getting that hard edge it always got when he was about to lose his patience.

It was a voice Dean was very familiar with.

“If I have to sit with you, I at least want to be comfortable,” Dean said.

“Well I want to sit with someone who got a decent Charms score, but you can’t always get what you want. What did you get, anyway? A thirty?”

Dean shoved his leg against Castiel, nearly knocking him over with the force of it.

Hey -”

“We can’t all have our parents give us good grades, Novak,” Dean said angrily. On most levels, he knew it was an unfair insult to throw at him, but it was the best one he could think of at that moment. Everyone at school knew that Professor Novak was a rigid teacher that make no exceptions for her own sons, but Dean knew accusing Castiel of his mother’s favoritism was one of the quickest ways to get under his skin.

“I earned those top marks. And you know it.” Castiel had whipped around to stare daggers at him. “I answered all of the questions correctly and my m- and Professor Novak still gave me notes on how to improve.”

“Well, at least she didn’t mark you down for helping -”

“Cheating , you mean.”

I wasn’t cheating.”

“You were helping someone else cheat which is the same thing as cheating.”

“You didn't seem to think that was a bad thing during our Potions exam. Right?”

Castiel snapped his mouth shut and turned back around, his shoulders shaking ever so slightly. “I think... we both got the scores that we deserved in Charms, and that'll be true in Potions as well, Winchester.”

“Well, I think -”

“Hey, guys!”

Their argument was interrupted by the presence of Hannah, who sat down next to Castiel, turning in her seat so she was facing Dean.

“What are you guys - oh.” Hannah paused, taking in the look on both of their faces. “You were fighting again.”

They both turned away, arms folded.

“Um, so who are you going to root for, Dean?” Hannah asked, hesitantly trying to change the conversation to a new topic.

Dean shrugged his shoulders and leaned backwards, surveying the empty pitch and imagining the green and blue robes that were soon going to be zooming around at incredible speeds. On one hand, he hated Ravenclaw almost on principle, due to how much Novak had moaned about the House for the first part of the year. But he couldn’t very well stand by and cheer for Slytherin - otherwise known as Lucifer’s House. Sure, there were decent people that were also in Slytherin, but none who he was friends with and were also on the Slytherin team.

“Neither,” Dean said, though he knew if it came down to it, he’d root for Ravenclaw over Slytherin.

Castiel rolled his eyes.

“Well, who are you rooting for, huh?” Dean asked snidely. Probably Ravenclaw, considering how much he worshipped them.

“Slytherin.”

Both he and Hannah turned to look at him with odd looks on their faces.

“What?” Castiel said, leaning away from their gaze. “I don’t know anyone on the Ravenclaw team and Lucifer -”

And Lucifer,” Dean mimicked, causing Castiel to narrow his eyes, “Lucifer - the greatest and most perfect person in the world.”

Dean reached down and grabbed Hannah’s hands, holding them up in the air.

“Lucifer the magnificent. Please tell me how I can serve you. Can I lick your shoes, maybe?” Hannah frowned and tried to tug her hands away, but Dean’s grip tightened. “No, please! Tell me what I can do! Here, take my wand.”

“Are you cheating on your girlfriend, Winchester?” Nick plopped down - seemingly out of nowhere - on the bench next to Dean, but Dean must have just been too caught up in his own dramatics to notice his friend approaching them.

Hannah yanked her hands back and looked at Dean quizzically.

Even Castiel looked like he was taking a pause in his anger to be confused.

“You have a girlfriend?” Hannah asked.

No,” Dean said in exasperation, at the same time as Nick nodded his head.

Philippe gracefully sat himself down on the opposite side Dean.

“He does. It’s Lisa.”

“Lisa Braeden?” Castiel asked, giving Dean a knowing look.

Great. Now Castiel was going to think that’s why Dean had helped her during the exam.

“Lisa is not my girlfriend!” Dean threw his hands up in air, wishing that the teasing would stop. Honestly, if all it took was a hug then he was never going to hear the end of this for the rest of his time at Hogwarts.

“I hear Philippe has twelve girlfriends,” Garth piped up, seating himself next to Philippe.

“But hasn’t kissed any of them,” Nick said, nodding solemnly.

“You can all shove it,” Philippe make a crude hand gesture, causing the rest of them to roar with laughter.

“What are we shoving?” Jo interjected as she skipped on over, sitting herself down on the other side of Castiel.

“Novak, hopefully,” Dean muttered, shrugging when Castiel stuck his tongue at him.

More and more people began pouring into the stands and it got increasingly harder to speak at a normal level and still be heard.

Still, even though Dean had been determined to remain neutral in the match, he couldn’t help but feed off of the energy that sitting in a buzzing arena gave off.

“Oh... my god.” Jo clapped a hand over her mouth and pointed in the direction that they had all come from.

There, making his way through the myriads of people over to their little group, his skin completely sky blue, was Ash.

“Hey, everyone,” Ash tossed his mullet back and smiled widely, taking a seat next to Hannah. “How’s it feel to go to a final Quidditch match and not have anyone to root for?”

“Well,” Jo reached over and prodded at his skin, “I was going to root for Ravenclaw, but I think you’ve got that covered enough for all of us.”

“Do you like it?” Ash held out his hands, flexing his fingers as they all stared.

As far as Dean could tell, it didn’t look like it had been painted on, but he couldn’t figure out how he’d dyed it.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Made a potion,” Ash said simply. “Worked out pretty great if you ask me.”

“Do you have a counter-potion?” Hannah asked, her voice soft as she surveyed the blue.

Ash shook his head.

“Nope. I’ll probably have to go to Madame Hanscum after this. But at least the potion worked.”

“Gooooooooooood Morning Hogwarts!” A loud voice boomed over the stands, and Dean recognized it as the voice of Gabriel Novak, who usually did commentary for the Quidditch matches. As if on cue, the hundreds of people milling about in the stands began seating themselves. “And welcome to the final match of the Quidditch season! That’s right, folks. You heard me. The final match of the season, so let’s hear some noise!”

The thunderous noise of hundreds of excited students yelling and stomping their feet soon made Dean’s ears ring as he shouted along with the rest.

“We’re starting!” Hannah said, doing a little dance in her seat.

Dean watched as Jo chewed on her lip, glancing around her.

“As you all know, this final match will determine the winner of this year’s Quidditch Cup! A match between Ravenclaw -”

Dean whooped loudly and pumped his fist in the air alongside Nick and Philippe.

“And Slytherin!”

Dean and the others booed and hissed, trying to drown out Castiel’s clapping.

“Allow me to introduce you to the Slytherin team! In robes of green, we have Masters, Wisdom, Roman, Tinoshemet, McKeon, Morningstar - the captain, as you all know - and filling in for the lovely Kali Sharma for this match is the newly-minted Bartholomew Harrington!”

Riders decked in green came shooting upwards into the Quidditch pitch as their name was called, waving at the crowd as they began to fly in circles to warm up.

“What’s that he said?” Ash said, trying to be heard over the roaring crowd. “Kali’s got a sub in?”

Dean shrugged.

“Yes, unfortunately for all the Kali fans out there today, myself mostly, she will not be playing in the match today. She became suddenly ill last night, but Morningstar would like me to assure you all that Bartholomew is still a worthy competitor and a more than passable Seeker.”

“Yes! They’re weak!” Ash pumped his fist in the air and Castiel shot him a glare that Dean usually only saw reserved for himself.

“Don’t be rude, Ash,” Castiel chastised.

“Next up is the Ravenclaws! In robes of blue and up for your constant cheering - we have Raphael Ware, the Captain of this fantastic team! Barnes, Henricksen, Pond, Maxwell, Mullen, aaaaaaaaaaand Tian!”

Blue robes now rocketed into the arena, goading on the loud cheers with large waves of their arms.

“Yes, the Ravenclaw team definitely deserves a little pride after coming in fourth last year, but I think we can all agree that Raphael Ware sure has made some significant improvements to the team since they became Captain! An interesting choice in Ambriel Tian for Seeker at the beginning of the year - a choice I thought would be the team’s downfall, but I’m glad she proved me wrong. A big kudos to you on that one, Ware.”

Dean looked up, watching one of the dark-skinned figures in blue saluting the podium where Gabriel was commentating.

“And Professor Mills calls the teams back down to the ground - nice and easy there, everyone - she has the Captains step forward and shake hands… Raphael Ware for the Ravenclaws, a true light in the darkness, and Lucifer Morningstar, a true dark in the lightness… Professor Mills releases the Snitch… careful now, Bartholomew, don’t start yet -”

Dean cheered as Professor Mills blew the whistle, the sharp sound nearly swallowed by the loud yelling.

The players on both sides of the field shot up into the air, already a blur to Dean’s eyes - and he was ever grateful for Gabriel’s commentary to help him make sense of the scene in front of him, even if he wasn’t exactly Gabriel’s number one fan since the lake incident.

“AND THEY’RE OFF! We’ve got Morningstar with the Quaffle right off the bat - a little Beater pun for you there - passed off to McKeon after a bit of a loop around… looks like the back-and-forth move has become a favorite of the Slytherin team this year… and we’ve got Tian and Harrington circling from above, keeping their eye out for that elusive Snitch. Harrington is going to have an especially interesting game play, for those of you that don’t know. Not only is this his first match, but Slytherin needs to win the game by at least sixty points to win the Cup this year… definitely going to need a tricky strategy against a Seeker that just needs to catch the Snitch to have a guaranteed win.”

Dean’s eyes darted back and forth, trying to keep up with the gameplay.

“Where’s Anna?”

Dean looked over at Jo, who had leaned towards him to shout, but Dean only shrugged his shoulders. He hadn’t seen Anna all day, and he definitely hadn’t seen her around the Quidditch pitch.

“Ooooh, an interesting pass from McKeon to Tinoshemet, right over Pond’s head. A little bit faster next time, Pond, do us right… Tinoshemet makes a dash for the hoops but Ware is ready… Tinoshemet readies a throw and - passes to Morningstar? I don’t know where he came from, but Morningstar shoots and SLYTHERIN SCORE!”

The green and silver-clad crowd went wild, waving their flags and banging on the stands.

Yeah, Slytherin!” Castiel yelled, jumping out of his seat to cheer more effectively.

“Definitely a practiced maneuver…” Gabriel continued, sounding a little less enthused than he had at the start of the match. “Well done to Slytherin, I suppose… anyway… Quaffle is back in play and in the careful hands of Mullen… Colette Mullen, who we all know is currently dating Cain, a seventh-year Hufflepuff. We all know this because they have no qualms about PDA in the corridor. Yes, Mullen, this is a callout! Please consider getting a room so that this Quidditch commentator doesn’t have to see it at all hours of the day...”

Dispersed whooping and whistling came from the crowd.

“Mullen passes to Pond… Pond passes back to Mullen - THAT’S A BLUDGER, MULLEN - well dodged! Mullen to Maxwell, THAT’S A SHOT ON GOAL, AND… aaaah, a good save from Masters, unfortunately. No score for Ravenclaw yet.”

The energy from the crowd shifted as soon as Meg caught the Quaffle and passed it on to Lucifer. The Ravenclaw team was definitely good, but the Slytherin team was better.

“Morningstar flies to the goalposts… loops around, and - LOOK AT THAT, TIAN IS ALREADY IN A DIVE - those keen eyes must have seen the Snitch!”

Sure enough, one of the figures in blue was making a dive from the top of the stadium, closely followed by a figure in green, who must have been the Slytherin Seeker.

“Go! Go! Go!” Dean leapt up onto the bench and cupped his hands in front of his mouth, the crowd around him going crazy at the early find.

“Tian dives and AND REACHES… a quick maneuver around Wisdom’s franticly aimed Bludger, and a slam from Harrington - c’mon, ref, that can’t be fair…”

The crowd around Dean was hissing at the supposed foul play, but no whistle sounded.

“Tian is slowing down and… is she waving at Harrington? She is. Cheeky play. Did she even see the Snitch? Probably just wanted to know how the other team would react if she dived when they weren’t ahead by sixty points. Well, my hat is off to Ambriel Tian, that’s for sure.”

The Slytherin Seeker seemed to fly off in frustration, as Nick and Philippe cackled on either side of Dean.

“Morningstar loses possession of the Quaffle after a glorious save by Ware. Ware passes to Mullen who passes to - ah, repossession by McKeon mid-pass… McKeon passes to Morningstar who makes another attempt on goal … and is pummeled by a well-aimed Bludger from Barnes! Careful, there, Morningstar. He seems to have nearly lost his grip on his broom... ”

Lucifer was halfway off his broom from the Bludger to the chest, and seemed to be heaving while trying to scramble back on.

Dean had no desire to see him, or anyone, fall hundreds of feet onto the Quidditch field to their doom - but there was a small part of him that felt a little smug at watching him struggle. He glanced at Castiel, who was watching avidly with wide, concerned eyes.

“Raphael Ware leaves the goal posts to fly over to Morningstar… offers their hand and helps him back onto the broom… good old fashioned chivalry, there. Maybe Ware should have been a Gryffindor! Looks like Morningstar is back up on his broom with help from Ware, he’s passed the Quaffle by McKeon and he takes a shot before Ware can get back to their goalpost! WHAT KIND OF COWARDLY, CHEATING MOTHERF-”

Dean couldn’t quite hear what happened next, due to the microphone probably being yanked from Gabriel after a string of swearwords and the absolute uproar from the entire stands. Jo’s face was red from how much she was screaming and Hannah, the proclaimed mediator of the group, was scowling with her hands on her hips.

Even Castiel was frowning grimly up the display he’d just seen.

“BOOOOOOO!” Dean shouted, his hatred for Lucifer nearly ready to boil over. How dare he make such a low blow? Raphael had helped him, and he’d taken advantage of that situation to take a shot at the hoops?

Dean was definitely with Gabriel on this one.

“After that grotesque and despicable display of desperation and deceit…” Gabriel said, sounding breathless and furious, “twenty to zero with Slytherin in the lead.”

Everyone was jeering at the Slytherin team, and Dean was pretty sure that if Charlie were there, she’d being jeering right alongside the rest of them. There were Slytherins, and then there were Slytherins.

“Raphael Ware in possession of the Quaffle… no one will blame you if you hit Morningstar in the face with it, Ware… throws it to Eve Maxwell… again, Eve, Morningstar’s face is right there if you need a target… Maxwell passes to Mullen… Mullen makes a dash for the Slytherin hoops… it’s going to be a faceoff between Mullen and Masters… RAVENCLAW SCORE!”

“WHOOOOOOOO!” Dean wrapped his arm around Nick’s shoulders and hollered as loudly as he could. It was the perfect time for a score from Ravenclaw, seeing as most of the spectators were being sour towards the Slytherin team at the moment.

“WELL DONE, RAVENCLAW! I take back that comment about your PDA, Mullen, feel free to display whatever affection you want wherever you want! You’ve earned it! Quaffle’s back in play with Tinoshemet passing it back and forth with McKeon… aaah, don’t punch the hoops, Masters. We understand you’re upset but those poor hoops haven’t done anything to you…”

The next hour was one of the most straining - and most fun - hours of Dean’s entire life. Ravenclaw had found their spirit of competition and seemed to be soundly trouncing Slytherin. Every point that Ravenclaw scored earned them a eruption of noise that never seemed to stop. No one on the team seemed relaxed, however. All it would take was for Slytherin to earn just enough points and then catch the Snitch in order to cinch their win, and every point they earned was another point getting them closer to that goal; enough for the Slytherin Seeker to start seriously looking for the shiny golden glimmer of the Snitch.

“Another Slytherin score….” Gabriel announced to much groaning and some scattered cheers. “That makes it one-hundred and thirty to forty with Ravenclaw in the lead….again, Ravenclaw is in the lead and just needs to catch the Snitch to win! No pressure, Tian.”

Dean rubbed at his brow in nervous tension. His math wasn’t great, but if he was calculating right, Slytherin were down by just ninety points - which meant that if Bartholomew caught the Snitch now, Slytherin would win the match by sixty points, and win the Quidditch Cup!

“C’mon, c’mon,” Dean was bouncing on the balls of his feet, staring up at the two figures that were circling the near the top of the stadium. All Ambriel Tian had to do was catch the Snitch. That was it. Just find it, and catch it before -

Bartholomew went into a dive.

“....and Maxwell passes to Mullen who - Harrington enters a dive! Folks, I think he sees the Snitch. THIS MIGHT BE IT!

Dean brought his hands up to his face as a second figure in blue - Ambriel - also began to dive, but probably just a little bit too late.

“Both of the Seekers are diving for it - this could be anyone’s game! Harrington is in the lead and he’s reaching out to - WAIT, MERLIN’S PANTS - RAVENCLAW SCORE! And Harrington’s got the Snitch in his hand!

Dean immediately whipped his head around to the hoops that everyone had been neglecting to watch in favor of witnessing the catch of the Snitch, something that Colette had apparently decided to use to her advantage.

“RAVENCLAW SCORE, JUST BEFORE HARRINGTON CATCHES THE SNITCH!” Gabriel was shouting into the microphone in a voice that would have been deafening if the crowd wasn’t already being louder. “No, no, Harrington… no point in letting the Snitch go again! We all saw you catch it. No take-backs! That’s a final score of one-hundred and forty to one-hundred and ninety with Slytherin winning the match, but losing the Quidditch Cup!”

The Ravenclaw team flew to the ground and landed in a heap, dog-piling on top of each other in the middle of the field. The Slytherins, meanwhile, hit the turf looking dejected.

Ash had his fists in the air and was screaming at the top of his lungs. Dean was pretty sure that he would have been red in the face from all of his yelling if he weren’t - well, blue.

“Ravenclaw! Ravenclaw! Ravenclaw!”

Dean found himself chanting along with the rest of the students around them. Jo and Hannah were hugging and Garth had climbed on top of Nick’s sturdier shoulders so that he could scream above the crowd.

Castiel, however, had his hands folded in front of him and was wearing a grimace on his face.

“Oh, come on, Novak!” Dean leaned forward so that Castiel could hear him. “The Slytherins didn’t deserve that win!”

Castiel’s frown deepened.

“But they did win!” It looked as if he was trying to solve some sort of puzzle. That, or he had bad gas and didn’t want to tell anyone. “They won but they still lost. Doesn’t that seem unfair to you?”

“You’re not defending the Slytherins after that stunt they pulled, are you?”

“Obviously, that was deeply unsportsmanlike,” Dean had to lean forward to hear better as the crowd got even louder at the presentation of the Cup. “But… Lucifer… I mean, he isn’t the only one on the team, and Slytherin did do better than the Ravenclaws. They should have won the Cup.”

Dean rolled his eyes, knowing it was a lost cause with Novak.

“Ugh. Just cheer along with everyone else, you sore loser.”

Leave it to Novak to try and sour a moment as wonderful as this one.

*****************************************************

Outside the Potions classroom once more, Castiel was twirling his wand nervously between his fingers. He kept almost dropping it, but he couldn’t stand to be still. This was his last result left, and it was the one that he knew he’d done worst in.

The rest of his exams had gone better than even he could have expected, thought not perhaps as well as he could have hoped for. His practical magic had let him down; his results in the theory papers had boosted his marks up to the very top of the class, but it wasn’t enough. Castiel didn’t just want to be the best in the year, he wanted to be good at magic.

He did, of course, also want to avoid the sharp side of his mother’s tongue. He’d done well in her Charms exam - he’d thought his heart was going to burst out of his chest when she offered him special congratulations. The seventy-nine percent mark he’d received in Transfiguration should help, too; it was nowhere near perfect but it wasn’t a failure like he’d feared, and he’d received full marks for the bonus question at the end of the paper - Offer up to three examples of a spell that could be used to transfigure an animal, and compare the merits of each. He’d enjoyed that question, had almost forgotten he was in an exam as he’d immersed himself in answering it - which had come with its own horror after he’d finished his essay and realised he only had three minutes to go back and check his previous answers, and found all his mistakes, and had no time to correct them.

Still, as badly as it had gone, it could have been worse. Naomi wouldn’t be impressed by seventy-nine percent, but she wouldn’t be angry, either.

As for Potions, however…

Castiel twirled his wand, round and round and round. His fingers were getting more nimble the longer he did it. If he were to fail this exam… they couldn’t kick him out of Hogwarts for just failing one of the tests, could they?

Could they?

Castiel pictured his mother’s face. He imagined her talking to the Headmaster, Professor Shurley, with that hard-eyed expression on her face that he knew so well. Yes, well, Headmaster, I think we knew from the day of his Sorting that he wasn’t well-suited to life here at Hogwarts, he’s different to my other sons, he’s frankly defective... and this Potions mark only proves it… I think it’s best if he’s kept at home from now on…

Pushing the image away, Castiel wished that it didn’t seem so plausible. His mother would do anything to keep him from bringing her shame and letting down the family - and failing Potions was definitely a good way to tick both of those boxes. Castiel couldn’t imagine any of the rest of the long line of Novaks deciding to throw eight mistletoe berries into their Forgetfulness Potion, just because of a stupid rivalry with a stupid Hufflepuff.

Castiel paused, remembering the expressions on the faces of his friends when he’d joked before that all Hufflepuffs were stupid. They’d been in this very corridor, right before the Potions exam.

With an apologetic twist of his lips, he mentally retracted the stupid in front of Hufflepuff. A stupid rivalry with a Hufflepuff. There. That was better. It didn’t sound so mean, now. Mean, and - well, incorrect, Castiel had to admit. Dean Winchester wasn’t stupid, as much as it was frustrating even to think it.

Castiel twirled his wand more aggressively. Dean was easily his closest competitor for top of the year; in fact, he wasn’t sure whether or not Dean was actually beating him. Castiel had got ninety-six in his History of Magic, which was sure to push him closer to the very top. It didn’t matter, of course - not really, except for his mother almost certainly knew which one of them was top of the year, and if it was Dean, then he’d be enduring a whole summer’s worth of Another hour of reading, Castiel... don’t you want to beat that Hufflepuff boy?

Castiel let out a breath. Ugh.

“Hey,” said a soft voice, and Castiel was gently bumped on the shoulder. “Last result!”

Turning to Hannah, Castiel swallowed and nodded.

“Last result!” he said. It came out sounding far too nervous; Castiel was glad that Dean Winchester was standing far away down the line of students, this time, out of earshot.

“You OK?” Hannah said. Castiel let out another, slower breath, and then smiled at her. Hannah’s blue eyes, touched with concern, relaxed a little.

“Yeah. You?” Castiel said.

“I’m good. I think I did OK in this one. And the rest of my results were alright.” She nudged him again. “Not as good as yours, though! You did great.”

Castiel shrugged. “Not really,” he said, embarrassed. He didn’t know whether to play down his achievements - which would mean accidentally playing down Hannah’s results even more - or accept her praise, and sound arrogant. He decided to just tell the truth. “My mom won’t be impressed by my Transfiguration marks. And my Defence Against the Dark Arts could have been better, too. I mean, they all could have been better, because they weren’t one hundred percent. That’s what she’ll say.”

Hannah’s brow wrinkled.

“Your mom is way harsh on you.”

Castiel shook his head.

“Michael and Gabriel both came top of the year in their first year. So did my mom herself. And her dad, and his dad, and his mom. And my dad, and my dad’s mom, and… you get it.” Castiel shrugged. “Family tradition. They were all Ravenclaws, though.”

Hannah’s expression of worry had been replaced with something else - something Castiel found hard to read. Her eyes were wide.

“You have so much family,” she said. It sounded almost like she was envious. “And I guess your mom just wants you to do well. She wants the best for you.”

“Yes.” Castiel nodded. “She wants the best for me.” And she wants me not to be defective. Which is fair.

Hannah smiled, and there was something a little bit sad about it. Castiel still hadn’t managed to figure out anything at all about her family; she was an expert in changing the subject at exactly the right moment, or avoiding answering a question directly without seeming rude or defensive at all. She must have had a lot of practice at it, Castiel realised. No one got that good at hiding something without practice.

He didn’t know why she’d want to hide where she came from, or who her family was, though. He had no idea. Maybe her parents were bad wizards; maybe they were criminals, or maybe they were - Castiel swallowed - maybe they were Squibs. He’d heard Michael use that word, once, as though it were dirty. It meant being born without magic, even though you had magical parents.

Maybe, Castiel considered suddenly, her parents weren’t even wizards. Maybe Hannah was a Muggle-born.

He rejected the idea. Lucifer had said that Muggle-borns were all bad at magic, noticeably worse than children of magical parents. Hannah wasn’t top of the class, but she was nowhere near the bottom, either. It wasn’t possible for her to be a Muggle-born.

Castiel tried to push thoughts of Hannah’s family out of his mind. He knew who she was, and it didn’t matter who her family was. Family was important, yes, but… not for being friends with someone. Right?

Probably.

Or maybe not.

It was a confusing thought. Of course family was important in who you were friends with - hadn’t Lucifer said that being friends with Charlie Bradbury was a bad idea? But Castiel felt as though he didn’t need to know anything at all about Hannah’s family history to keep being friends with her. She was standing right in front of him, being herself, smiling at him a little oddly as she watched him think. She was a good friend - a great friend. Castiel felt a rush of warmth for her, and smiled back.

“Sorry,” he said.

“For thinking? You do it a lot,” Hannah said.

“No…” Castiel bit his lip. He lowered his voice, so that the other students waiting in the corridor with them wouldn’t hear. “For the past couple of weeks. I’ve been… you know… not good company. Grumpy.”

Hannah’s smile changed, becoming softer, while her eyes twinkled. “More than usual, you mean?”

Castiel ducked his head.

“Yes,” he said. “More than usual. I’m sorry if I’m… not a good friend.”

Hannah frowned, and shook her head.

“Castiel,” she said, and then stopped. Castiel scraped his foot on the floor.

“Did I… make it awkward?” he said, using a phrase that he’d heard Jo say the day before. Hannah’s frown cracked into a smile.

“No,” she said. “No.” She swallowed. “You… you’re a good friend. You have been right from the start. Remember?”

Castiel blinked at her. “When we were in the boys’ dormitories?”

“Yeah. I didn’t think anyone would stand up for me.” She met his eyes. “But you did. It was cool. You’re a good friend, Castiel. I’m glad… you know.” She looked embarrassed. “I’m just glad.”

“She’s glad you’re friends,” Anna said, leaning into their conversation with customary shamelessness. She grinned as Hannah shoved at her shoulder. “What? You were going to be too embarrassed to say it!”

“And you’re never too embarrassed to say anything,” Castiel said.

“Well. Not really,” Anna said. “I mean, it just feels good to say true stuff.”

Castiel tilted his head to one side.

“But with Jo… you’re embarrassed about…” Castiel broke off as Anna’s face closed. She looked down at her toes.

“That’s different. It’s not about… you know.” When Castiel pulled a sceptical face, Anna said defensively, “It’s not!”

“You were saying just the other day how upset you were that everyone knew,” Hannah said. Anna rolled her eyes.

“Well, yeah, it sucks. You know a third-year Slytherin actually came up to me and asked me about them? And a Ravenclaw, like, took her shoes off right next to me the other day. I don’t know if she saw me or if she just wanted to do that, actually, she was kind of in her own world. But, like, I’m not not talking to Jo because of them. It’s not about how embarrassed I am or whatever. It’s about the fact that she told.” She was looking down the line as she spoke, to where Jo was standing with Dean, laughing with him. Her face was creased. “I trusted her. And she blabbed. And now I have no idea what I can say to her that won’t be all across the school in ten minutes.”

“She wouldn’t…” Hannah began, but Anna cut her off.

“She might. Like, I thought that too, but it turns out… she might. And she did .”

“You miss her, though,” Castiel said.

Anna looked away.

“I miss the Jo I could trust,” she said, and then pulled back, made her tone sound bored. “It’s whatever. I’ve been busy with exams, anyway.”

She turned to face the front of the line. Hannah and Castiel shared a look, and the expression on Hannah’s face told Castiel that he hadn’t been the only one to see tears at the corners of Anna’s eyes. Hannah shrugged helplessly, and Castiel frowned. There had to be something they could do.

His thoughts were cut off by Professor Crowley coming out of his classroom, a wave of hush rippling from the front to the end of the line. Castiel thought it was Dean at the back who he heard say,

“- and then he PUKED,” before snorting with laughter on realising everyone else had fallen quiet.

He rolled his eyes. Typical Winchester.

“Apologies for my lateness, class,” Crowley said. “Unavoidably detained.”

“Were you making a potion?” piped up Thaddeus MacInnes.

“I was,” Crowley said. “But it wasn’t a hair product, MacInnes, so don’t get excited.”

Castiel frowned. Crowley’s veneer of professionalism, which had been fairly solid at the start of the year, was definitely showing signs of wear.

“In, in, in,” Crowley said, chivvying them into the classroom. “Come on. Let’s get those results over with.”

Castiel remembered in a rush what was to come; for a moment, he’d been too caught up thinking about Hannah and Anna and Jo that he’d forgotten the reason he was here, the reason his wand was still spinning in his hands - unconsciously, now. He stowed it away in his bag as he walked past Crowley, who smiled at him a little nastily. Castiel had no idea what that meant - whether he’d passed or failed - but he felt his nausea rise a notch, all the same.

The classroom had been cleared; there were no cauldrons out, today, and no individual desks at the back, just wide wooden tables in a horseshoe shape with stools under them. Castiel took a place between Hannah and Anna, and looked up to see Dean sitting down next to Jo on the other side, directly opposite. He looked away before Dean could catch him watching, or make eye contact.

“Settle down,” Crowley said irritably. “I am going to hand your papers back to you. Your practical mark is on the left at the top. Underneath it is your theory paper mark. Your total is on the right. As with the rest of your exams, I assume, above fifty percent will give you a pass mark. Consider me impressed by anything over eighty percent. If you received over ninety percent, you have earned five House points.”

He began to hand out rolls of parchment, his gestures bordering on careless. Castiel considered asking him if he had somewhere better to be, and then quashed the urge. If that got back to his mother, she’d never let him leave his bedroom again, let alone come back to Hogwarts.

“Joanna Harvelle…” Crowley passed her exam back. “Hannah Carroll. Nicholas Munroe. Castiel Novak…”

Castiel’s mouth went dry. His parchment landed in front of him, and rolled a few inches before he stopped it with a hand that trembled ever so slightly. He opened it up…

His eyes sought numbers, numbers. On the left, ten - and below it, forty-nine. On the right, his total. Fifty-nine.

Fifty-nine percent. Fifty-nine percent. It was terrible, yes - but he’d passed.

Before he could think, he’d looked across the room to meet Dean Winchester’s eyes. Dean was just unrolling his parchment; his eyes were flicking over the top, reading his own scores. As though sensing Castiel’s eyes on him, Dean looked up.

Castiel raised an eyebrow.

Dean nodded once, and tilted his head.

Castiel nodded in return.

They looked away. They’d both passed. Despite the mess they’d made, they’d managed to pass.

Castiel let out a long, long sigh of profound relief. He’d done it. He’d passed every single one of his exams. He could feel a burden lifting from his shoulders; it was as though he’d been carrying around a sack of rocks on his chest without realising it, and only now was he setting it down.

He hadn’t done perfectly. He hadn’t come top of every class, he hadn’t made his mother proud.

But he was coming back to Hogwarts. He was coming back.

He had another chance to prove himself, and that was all that mattered.

***

Two days later, Castiel was in the library - of course.

He didn’t even need to be; the exams were all over, the results all received. He could be looking up more information on that watch with its mysterious engraving, or on the Door - but floating on the relaxation of post-exam relief, Castiel found that he didn’t want to be here for research. He wanted to be here, just to be here.

The great beast of the library had become a friend, through all the troubled evenings and quiet days. Its dark corners and long silences had become balms rather than intimidations, places where Castiel could go to turn the world off. He wrapped the hush around his mind like a cloak. No more people talking about what other people told them someone else had said, when Castiel didn’t care; no more loudness and arguments, which Castiel wanted made-up and sorted but was powerless to fix; no more… Dean Winchester. If there was one person Castiel could be sure to avoid in the library, it was his greatest enemy.

It was calming.

He walked between the shelves. He was going to miss this place over the summer, when he was at home in Cloudesley Street. In here, he thought, he could even hide from his mother. At home, he’d have no such luck. For as long as she was in the house, she always had eyes on him.

Maybe she’d go away to France or the North, as she sometimes did, to share her research with professors from other magical schools. Castiel found himself hoping so. He loved his mother so hard that it hurt, but he didn’t have to worry about disappointing her when she wasn’t close by - and he could spend those long, lazy days with Muriel, learning how to cook and clean and be useful.

Castiel brushed his fingers along the backs of the books nearest him as he walked by, wondering if he’d ever get around to reading them. The place was so full of knowledge, full of wisdom, full of potential. He’d barely tapped one-millionth of it in a whole year. He had so much more to do.

He rounded a corner, and came to an abrupt stop.

There, reaching up for a book on a high shelf, was a figure that he recognised: tall, blond, graceful.

Lucifer.

Castiel bit his lip. Before the Quidditch match between Slytherin and Ravenclaw, he would have been thrilled to find himself alone with Lucifer. He’d have gone striding casually over there, his heart pounding, hoping that Lucifer would be entertained by his jokes and his attitude. But now…

He turned away.

Too much. Too confusing. He was only here to say goodbye to the library.

“Castiel?” Lucifer’s voice followed him into the next row of shelves. Castiel closed his eyes for a moment, and then turned back around. He was angry with Lucifer, but he wasn’t above basic politeness.

“Hello,” he said, as Lucifer rounded the corner, his usual cool expression on his face.

“What are you doing here?” Lucifer said, sounding amused. “Your exams must be finished by now.”

“They are.” Castiel shrugged.

“Did you come top of the class?”

Castiel raised his shoulders again, silently this time. Lucifer cocked his head.

“I sense something amiss.”

Biting his lip, Castiel shook his head once - and then stopped, and nodded instead.

“Is there something wrong? I’m very good at problem-solving.”

“It’s not - it’s just…” Castiel said, not sure whether or not to be honest. He swallowed hard. “You…”

He broke off. He wasn’t brave enough.

Lucifer was frowning. “Me? Are you angry at me?”

Castiel shrugged. He didn’t know whether to call it anger; confusion seemed more like it. I’m confused at you.

“You know, Castiel, when you’re angry at someone, you need to tell them so that they can explain themselves. Otherwise, how will you know their side of the story?” Lucifer said. He was looking very solemn, and Castiel was caught off-guard by how seriously he seemed to be taking the situation. If Castiel was angry at his mother, or Michael, or even at Gabriel, they didn’t care at all. But the fact that he felt mad seemed to genuinely matter to Lucifer. It was this thought that prompted Castiel to say,

“What you did during the Quidditch match. When Raphael helped you up and you just…” He paused, uncertain how to phrase it. Lucifer’s face softened in slight surprise.

“Oh,” he said. “That. When I looped around them and scored?”

Castiel nodded mutely.

“You’re angry with me about that?”

“It wasn’t the right thing to do,” Castiel said. “They helped you.”

Lucifer tilted his head to one side, thinking. He didn’t seem ruffled, which Castiel found reassuring. It didn’t feel as though he’d caught Lucifer out in some way, as though Lucifer was called out or shamed by the accusation; instead, he seemed relaxed, as in control as ever. That meant there had to be some good explanation for what had happened, something that would redeem Lucifer in Castiel’s eyes.

“You know,” Lucifer said, “I could try to justify myself a thousand ways. I could tell you all the things that Raphael has done to me this year to try to break down the Slytherin team. I could tell you about what they’re really like. I could tell you about what really happened to Kali Sharma on match day…” he trailed off delicately. Castiel blinked, his mind reeling. “But I know that you’re a smart boy, Castiel. Too smart to think that one bad turn deserves another. Too smart to let my excuses change your mind.”

He put a hand on Castiel’s shoulder, ever so briefly. The touch was electric.

“I want to treat you with the respect you deserve,” Lucifer said sincerely. “I want to tell you the truth. The truth is, I’m ashamed of what I did. It was the wrong thing to do.”

“You think so too?” Castiel managed. Lucifer nodded, his head bowed.

“And I’m deeply sorry for it,” he said.

Castiel opened his mouth, and then closed it. He was so taken aback that he didn’t know what to say. He’d been expecting defensiveness, anger - but this? This vulnerability, this honesty? He cleared his throat.

“I didn’t realise you regretted it,” he said.

“I do,” Lucifer said. “I was caught up in the moment. I wanted to win so badly…” He shook his head. “I wanted my team to win so badly that I let it go to my head. I was wrong.”

Castiel stood silently, looking up into Lucifer’s sorrowful expression, those ice blue eyes made blank with contrition.

“I… I didn’t -” he started, and then stopped.

“I know you’ll probably not want to forgive me,” Lucifer said, shrugging those elegant shoulders of his. “I know I’ve probably lost your good opinion. I’d hoped we could be friends after Hogwarts, Castiel, but I understand if you see me differently after this. I just hope you’ll remember that everybody makes mistakes. This was one of mine. And I’m not proud of it. I just hope I can be proud of being better than it, one day.”

He moved as if to turn away, and Castiel reached out a hand, stopping just short of grabbing hold of Lucifer’s robes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realise you were so sorry about it. I didn’t mean to bring it up and make you feel worse. I was just… I thought it was the wrong thing to do, and I was angry.”

Lucifer’s face was the picture of hopefulness and understanding.

“I know,” he said. “Trust me, Castiel, I know. But… you forgive me? You think that this isn’t… unforgivable?”

Castiel shook his head.

“The only unforgivable things I know about are curses,” he said stoutly. “And I didn’t see any of those flying around.”

He was hoping for a laugh, and he got one. Castiel felt a surge of pride, of happiness. He’d been hurting over his anger with Lucifer, wishing that it would go away, that he could just forgive the wrong that had been done. Now, seeing Lucifer’s genuine apologies, he felt like he could.

After all, everyone made mistakes. Lucifer was right. Castiel himself was full of them. Who was he to judge?

“I’m glad you feel that way,” Lucifer said. “That makes me happy. I have a feeling you’re going places, Castiel. I wouldn’t want to lose your friendship.”

Castiel felt his chest puffing out just a little. He couldn’t seem to help it. Lucifer just made him feel so special, so important, without even trying. It was the best feeling in the world.

“You have it,” he said. Lucifer nodded, aloof and gracious, as though accepting his due.

“I’d better get back to returning my books. I can’t have any left checked out - I hear Joshua comes after you with a broom handle if you leave Hogwarts with a single one of his precious tomes.” His tone indicated that Joshua was something of a joke.

“I like Joshua,” Castiel said. Lucifer’s face shifted immediately.

“Oh, of course,” he said smoothly. “No one could ask for a better librarian. I suppose I know him so well after all these years that I feel like I can tease him a little bit.” He winked at Castiel, who smiled back. “So… I’ll see you around, Castiel. Look out for my name in the Prophet, won’t you? I have big plans for my future.”

“The Prophet ?”

“Indeed. I’ve got political leanings. If everything goes to plan, you’ll be seeing me trying to make important changes once I join the Ministry.”

“Oh,” Castiel said quietly. “That’s right. You’re leaving this year.” He’d somehow forgotten that Lucifer was a seventh year, and that he’d be gone from Hogwarts for good after term ended in a few days.

“I certainly am. Heading for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. I hear they have a great team over there… I’m looking forward to making myself some friends.”

Castiel nodded silently.

“I’ll write to your brother,” Lucifer said. “And if you want, you can write to me too. I’ll be very busy, but I’ll put a postscript in your brother’s letter for you, whenever I can.”

Nodding harder, Castiel tried for a smile. He didn’t want Lucifer to leave - he wanted to stand in the sunlight of his attention and good opinion forever - but at least Lucifer was kind enough to still think of him. That was something.

“I’ll see you around, then, Castiel,” Lucifer said, beginning to walk away. “Thank you for being honest with me earlier. Take care.”

“Bye,” was all Castiel could say, stupidly. Stay, he wanted to say. Talk to me. Teach me. I want to know all about you, I want to tell you all about me. Everything Lucifer touched seemed glamorous and genuine. Castiel wanted those threads to run all the way through his life.

But with a swish of his robes round a corner, Lucifer was gone.

Castiel headed for the library doors, not wanting to awkwardly run into Lucifer again later, after they’d already said goodbye. He’d come back and give the library a proper farewell again later.

As he left, he caught sight of Joshua, organising books far down a long row of shelves. He raised his hand, and Joshua nodded to him; it was hard to tell in the darkness, but Castiel thought he saw a smile on the old wizard’s face.

Outside the library, the castle was busier than usual; all the students who would normally have been confined to classrooms at this time of the day were celebrating their freedom after the exams. The fifth and seventh years, especially, were enjoying the fact that they no longer had to study - Castiel watched a group of fifth-year Gryffindors go tearing down the corridor, laughing loudly and trailing sparks from their wands.

“Cassie!”

Castiel groaned to himself, and sure enough, the next thing he knew there was an arm around his neck and he was being squeezed tightly under his brother Gabriel’s arm.

“Don’t tell me you were studying now. I’ll just about allow it during term-time, but after the exams? Please.” Gabriel himself looked to be in high spirits; when Castiel, flush-faced with effort, pulled himself out of the soft headlock, he saw that Gabriel was wearing a large fake moustache and a grin.

“I wasn’t!” he promised. “Just… you know… doing stuff.”

“Probably best done in the privacy of the shower, Cassie.”

Castiel didn’t completely understand that joke, but he understood from Gabriel’s wink that it was almost certainly something he didn’t want to understand, so he rolled his eyes and hit his brother on the shoulder.

“Shut up. I was just saying goodbye to the library. And to Lucifer.”

“Ah, yes, the evil cheat.”

“He’s not evil, ” Castiel said. “Didn’t you talk to him about it?”

“Me? Talk to that pretentious, self-absorbed -”

“Shut up, Gabriel,” said Castiel hotly. “If you had talked to him, you’d know he was sorry.”

“Oh, and that’s supposed to make it alright?”

Castiel stared.

“How else is anyone supposed to make anything alright?” he asked. Gabriel shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Just don’t think you should be able to say the sorry spell and make all the consequences disappear. Can you imagine if that worked on Mom?”

“I wish,” said Castiel. Gabriel shoved him, just a little.

“Don’t fall into that guy’s trap, Cassie,” he said. “I’m telling you. He’s slippery. And now I’m done talking about him, because he’s all I ever seem to hear about these days.” He ruffled his little brother’s hair. “Now. Seriously, quit saying goodbye to inanimate objects and go have fun with your friends. You’ll thank me later.”

Castiel pointedly pushed his hair back into place. “I like inanimate objects. They don’t put me in headlocks.”

“Devil’s Snare?”

“Not inanimate.”

“A determined ghost?”

“Not possible.”

“The crushing sense of pressure that lingers over our futures, and keeps us awake at night, worried that we aren’t doing enough or being enough?”

Castiel considered. “Not an object,” he said.

Gabriel grinned. “I’ll see you around. Go have fun.”

He peeled off his false moustache, and slapped it onto his younger brother’s face. With a wink, he turned away, and was gone.

Castiel sighed. The moustache fluttered. The sticking charm on the back had to be wearing off, because it already felt as though it was drooping.

“Nice look,” said Philippe LeChat, walking past with Nick Munroe. “It really adds a certain je ne sais quoi .”

“I don’t know what that means,” Castiel said, just to be annoying. Philippe was altogether too connected to Dean Winchester for Castiel to like him much, and that wasn’t even taking into consideration the time Philippe had used his Metamorphmagus powers to give Castiel a pig snout.

He turned away from Philippe’s eye roll, and headed towards the Gryffindor common room. Gabriel was right.

Before the year ended, it was time to have some fun.

Chapter Text

Castiel climbed into the empty space on the bench next to Hannah with a little groan of effort. He had dark circles under his eyes, and was trying to blink away the bleariness that came with an early morning after a late night.

“Tired?” she said sympathetically, pouring him out some pumpkin juice. Castiel ran his hand through his hair, yawned widely, and then mock-glared at her.

“I wouldn’t be,” he said, “if you hadn’t kept winning.

A little pleased smirk pulled at the corners of Hannah’s lips. Castiel’s narrow stare intensified.

“Well, you shouldn’t have said you’d only go to bed when you won, then, should you?” Hannah said, and Castiel wished he could contradict her. In hindsight, telling Hannah that he’d only call it a night when he’d won a round of Exploding Snap had been an error. Eighteen rounds later, he’d been distinctly purple and very, very tired, and he’d laughed so hard in utter bemusement at his seemingly permanent bad luck that his sides had hurt.

He pushed his hand through his hair again, and cast a surreptitious glance towards the Hufflepuff table. He hoped he’d got all of the purple out in the showers. If a certain Hufflepuff were to catch sight of so much as a hint of lilac, Castiel knew that the Hufflepuff in question would never rest until he’d got the whole story out of Hannah. And that so, so wasn’t happening. Castiel wanted to be able to tease that certain Hufflepuff about the time he’d got a faceful of purple in the middle of the Great Hall for years to come, without this eighteen-losses-in-a-row incident being brought up in retaliation.

Which meant he had to keep this very quiet indeed. 

“You know, I can’t tell...” Hannah said, leaning closer, “whether you’ve got bags under your eyes, or if that’s still the purple from the -”

“Shhh!” Castiel waved her into silence hastily as footsteps approached - footsteps that could have belonged to a Hufflepuff. “They’re bags," he said loudly. "Purple bags. Bags. I’m fine, I just - you know - might take a nap later.”

“Oh - you’re not coming down to the lake?” said Anna, swinging down into a seat next to Castiel, who breathed a little sigh of relief not to be seeing sandy hair and green eyes. “We were going to try to feed the Giant Squid!”

“The Giant Squid?” Castiel repeated, attention caught.

“The squid that’s giant,” Anna confirmed. She picked a slice of apple off Castiel’s plate and popped it into her mouth.

“Have you researched its diet? Did you look in Fantastic Beasts and -

“I heard from a sixth-year that it likes toast,” said Anna composedly. “You’re still in, right, Hannah? No quitsies on the plan.” She began to gather slices from the toast rack, stacking them neatly in front of her on top of a napkin.

“No quitsies,” Hannah repeated, the word sounding slightly awkward when she said it. “I’m there. And is… ?”

“It’ll just be us three,” Anna said breezily, and picked up the toast, standing again. “I’ve got to go - I said I’d help Charlie Bradbury with something. Meet in the Entrance Hall in half an hour?”

“OK,” Hannah agreed, looking rather windswept by the determination of Anna’s planning. Castiel himself was fixed with a hard stare in turn, and quickly said,

“Half an hour. We’ll be there.”

“No quitsies!” Anna warned again as she stowed the toast in her bag and walked away. Hannah waved a half-hearted hand as Anna strode off, and Castiel gave her a look.

“What?” Hannah said. “Do I have a milk moustache?”

“No, no,” Castiel assured her. “I meant, what was that about now? Why does she think we’re going to -”

A heavy clatter beside Hannah announced the arrival of Jo, who was looking vaguely unkempt compared to usual; her hair was straggling and her tie was out of place. She smiled at them with a hard look in her eyes.

“Good morning, ladies and - everyone,” Jo said, glancing at Hannah and correcting herself a moment too late. “How are we all?”

“We’re -” Castiel began, but was swiftly cut off.

“Have any plans today?”

“Well, we were going to -”

“Because I’ve got a plan. We’re going to go into the Forbidden Forest.

Stunned silence greeted this particular announcement. Jo used the pause to wiggle her eyebrows persuasively.

“Um… Jo… that’s - you know…”

“Let me guess… against the rules? Wow. I had no idea.”

“Well… I was going more for ‘dangerous to the point of stupidity’, but that as well,” Castiel conceded. Jo rolled her eyes dramatically and reached for the plate of sausages closest to her. She grabbed one between two fingers and bit into it.

“Listen,” she said, before she swallowed. “It’s a thing. We can’t go our whole first year without going into the Forbidden Forest. I mean, come on, we’re Gryffindors.

You are, Castiel almost said, and then caught himself. And I am too.

“It’s still dangerous, even if we’re Gryffindors,” he said. “Hannah?”

She nodded, her messy hair falling over her face. She tucked it behind one ear.

“Castiel’s right,” she said. “Besides, we already have plans today. You can join, if you want?”

“Let me guess,” Jo said, sounding bored this time. “Anna’s making you do hair-braiding in the girls’ dormitories.”

“No,” Hannah said, frowning at Jo’s tone.

“I can’t even get up there,” Castiel said. “Not that I’ve tried. It’s just in Hogwarts: A History.

“We’re going to feed the Giant Squid,” Hannah said brightly. “You could come. It’s beautiful weather outside.”

Jo glanced upwards at the ceiling of the Great Hall, looking uninspired by the bright sunshine and cloudless sky she saw above. She shook her head.

“Doubt Anna wants me there,” she said, determinedly casual. “Anyway, that sounds way boring compared to my plan. Forbidden Forest, guys. Just tell Anna that you forgot you already made a plan with me, and -”

“We can’t,” said Hannah.

"Can't ,” Jo repeated mockingly.

“We said no quitsies,” Castiel said solemnly.

Jo huffed. “You guys suck. You both suck.

“Jo…”

“No, it’s fine. You guys just hang out with Anna. I’ll be with Dean Winchester if you want me.” She met Castiel’s eyes as she said his name, looking for a reaction - and she got one. Castiel couldn’t help his teeth gritting, his eyes hardening.

“Bet he’ll go into the Forbidden Forest with me,” Jo added.

Castiel snorted.

“Maybe if you tell him there’s a cake in the middle.”

“What would I tell you is in the middle to get you to go in? A Ravenclaw tie?” Jo shot back, and then immediately bit her lip when she saw Castiel’s face go slack.

Hannah didn't touch Castiel, but she shifted her body on the bench, angling herself defensively in front of him. Jo met their combined stare, and took a step back.

“Whatever. I'll see you around,” she said awkwardly, and moved away.

Hannah turned to Castiel with her eyes loaded.

“She didn't mean anything by it. She's just upset about -”

“Anna,” Castiel finished. “I know. This argument just keeps getting worse. And we're all getting dragged down into it.”

“I'm worried,” Hannah said quietly, as Castiel reached for his pumpkin juice and took a world-weary sip. “I thought they'd make up but it's end of term so soon. If they stay not-friends for the whole summer…”

Castiel nodded slowly. A whole two months spent hating each other, with no new conversations or even arguments - nothing to progress the troubles between them? It was sure to cement their status as reluctant enemies.

“We've got to do something,” Castiel said.

“What?”

“I don't know. Something. So that they remember why they were friends in the first place.”

Hannah watched him, waiting for the answer to appear - for a solution to magically arrive.

Accio friendship, thought Castiel wryly. No, magic wouldn't be any good here.

“We need to hurry up,” he said aloud. “Or we'll be late to meet Anna. We'll figure something out later, or something… just keep trying to think, OK?”

Hannah nodded, her little face determined. “Yes. I will.”

“There has to be something,” Castiel said, almost to himself. “There has to be something.

***

“No!” squealed Anna, dropping her stack of toast and laughing. “Castiel, stop it!”

She grabbed for the back of his robes as he began wading into the lake, hitching his clothes up with one hand and waving a slice of crisp toast in the other.

“Castiel!” called Hannah from the stony shore, her voice sounding caught between amusement and concern. “Be careful…”

Castiel kept walking. Under his bare feet, the stony ground softened to squidgy, muddy lake bed. He stepped more easily, enjoying the strange feeling. The water soaked up to his knees, cool and murky - not unpleasant when the hot sun was beating down on the back of his head.

In front of him, a large tentacle waved gently.

“Castiel!” called Anna. When Castiel threw a glance over his shoulder, he saw that both she and Hannah had their shoes half-off, making as if to follow him. He grinned, and kept walking.

“Do not make us come in there after you!”

Castiel kept going. The tentacle’s end was waving gently.

Around his legs, he could feel the careful touch of plant fronds. At least, he hoped that was what they were. He held his slice of toast higher aloft in one hand, and let go of his robes with the other so that he could dip his fingers beneath the lake’s surface. Sure enough, when he grasped at the things floating in the dark water and pulled, he found himself holding a handful of slimy green tendrils.

“Huh,” he said softly, and made a mental note of their colour and size before he dropped them back into the water. He'd look them up later. Maybe there would be a note on what fed on them; maybe he'd be able to find out more about what lived in here with the Squid.

Yes, he reminded himself. The Squid.

His robes, thick with water now, slowed his progress; he regretted dropping them. At least the toast was still intact.

The tentacle was slowly receding into the water.

“Hey,” Castiel said softly. “Hey - it’s OK. I just want to give you one more slice of -”

The tentacle in front of him whipped suddenly. Behind him, Castiel heard sudden screams and yells - as he was sprayed all over with a generous amount of water.

The yells turned to giggles, and Castiel fountained a little spout of lake water out of his mouth. He rubbed at his eyes with his free hand, and squinted narrowly for a moment - and then let it melt into a smile. That had been kind of funny - apparently, the Squid had a sense of humour. 

“Hey!” he said, and kept moving out. “I'm just trying to give you some nice toast…”

“Castiel, be careful!” Hannah called again. Castiel could hear the concern in her voice, under the fun.

“It’s OK,” Castiel said gently. “It’s OK…” He waved the toast temptingly. “Nice toast… nice - um - bready toast, lovely and… full of… yeast…”

He hardly knew what he was saying, only wanted to keep talking, because a second tentacle had emerged from the waves; confronted by their combined size, Castiel was suddenly aware of the strangeness of trying to be reassuring towards the Squid - rather than realising that he was the one who should be frightened.

“Easy,” he said quietly. “Easy. I'm not going to hurt you…”

The tentacles waved, looking distressed. Maybe it was like when people saw a spider, Castiel thought. They yelped and lashed out even when the spider was so much smaller and couldn't hurt them at all. If only the spider had a way to say it’s OK, it’s all alright, don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you…

“Don’t worry,” Castiel kept saying in a low, calm voice. “It’s all OK. Don't worry.”

He stopped moving when the water was up to his navel. The fronds below were thick and twisty - their touch was clammy and vaguely repulsive, now, where before it had been ticklish and strange.

The tentacles dipped, as though considering him.

Castiel held up the toast.

“It’s OK,” he said to them. “It’s alright.” He remembered suddenly that tentacles didn't have eyes, and wondered where the body of the Giant Squid was - wondered if it could even see him -

One tentacle ripped back under the surface with a hiss and a groan of displaced water. Castiel flinched.

“Casti-” yelled Hannah, and then she was abruptly shushed. Castiel was grateful; he didn't want any sudden sounds scaring the Squid. The single tentacle still above the surface turned its tip to face Castiel; it loomed over him, and he could see the suction cups along one side, paler and milky compared to the rest of its glistening skin.

It came closer. Castiel held his ground, and raised the toast high.

The other tentacle could, even now, be moving around him - wrapping closer and closer to his legs, ready to pull him under and drag him out to the centre of the lake -

“It’s OK,” Castiel said, as much to himself now as to the Squid. “It’s OK, everything’s OK… just take the toast…”

The tentacle came nearer. There was a delicacy and slowness to its movements that Castiel thought suggested it was being careful with him, and hopefully that wasn't because it didn’t want to frighten away a delicious meal. He swallowed hard. Behind him, all was silent, tense.

“Come on…” The tentacle came closer and closer. “Come on… yes… that’s right…” It was so close, now - Castiel held the toast in only a finger and thumb, pinching it, and still the sheer size of the Squid’s tentacle meant that when it took the treat, its skin slid over his hand - it was rubbery, and cold, and unpleasant. Castiel tried not to shudder, and tried not to imagine the Squid taking his hand along with the toast; and then, quite suddenly, the wet-mackintosh slide of it was gone.

The toast was gone, too.

The tentacle disappeared beneath the waves with a rather anticlimactic plop . Castiel smiled after it, surveying his own hand after the strangeness of the sensation it had just experienced. He seemed undamaged.

“Thanks,” Castiel said, a little wonderingly. The lake showed not a ripple.

Castiel turned round, back towards the bank - and met Dean Winchester’s eyes across the twenty feet between them.

Dean, standing with his arms folded, said nothing.

Castiel threw his arms in the air, and whooped.

“Who said I couldn’t get the Squid to take it out my hand?” he said, beginning to wade back to shore. “Who was it?”

Jo, standing beside Dean, had her mouth slightly agape.

“Take care…” Hannah called, as Castiel did a little jump in the water.

“Who dared me to try? Who thought I'd never do it?” Castiel said, jubilant. Dean shook his head.

“You are out of your mind, Novak,” he said. “Seriously. That was… ridiculous.”

He couldn't keep the tiniest note of respect out of his voice, though - and Castiel hugged that to himself as he splashed back through the shallows, sodden robes clinging to his ankles.

“What did it feel like?”

“Did it hurt you?”

“Could you see it looking at you?”

“What were you saying to it?”

“Just that it was going to be alright,” Castiel said, shrugging. “And that I wasn't going to hurt it, you know.”

"You weren't going to hurt it ?” Dean snorted. Castiel ignored him, staring down at his wet clothes. He wished he knew a spell to dry them; Muriel back at Cloudesley Street could have done it in a second. He was going to have to go back up to the castle.

“Come on,” he said, smiling at Hannah and Anna. “Can we go change? Unless…” He turned to Dean and Jo. “Unless you two had something you wanted to say, besides ‘bet you can't get it to eat one out your hand’.”

Dean rolled his eyes. When he and Jo had come and crashed their little trio, Castiel hadn't expected anything particularly good to come of it - in fact, the way things had turned out was much better than what he'd been imagining, which was something more along the lines of a protracted argument between Jo and Anna.

“I thought you were going to the Forbidden Forest, anyway?” Castiel added to Jo, wringing out the bottom of his robes.

“Rufus caught us before we even got past the Pumpkin Patch,” Jo sighed. “We just came to -”

“Spoil someone else's fun as well?” Anna said sharply. Jo eyed her, her gaze defensive.

“Anyway,” Dean said determinedly, “we had a great idea for what to do instead. Sleepover. Tonight.” He wiggled his eyebrows, just as Jo had done only that morning when she'd suggested going to the Forbidden Forest. Castiel wondered which one of them had picked up that particular habit off the other; he suspected Dean had started it, as it was a fairly annoying thing to do.

“Ooh,” Hannah said, sounding interested. Castiel and Anna, however, folded their arms.

“Sleepover?” Anna said dubiously.

“Organised by you ?” Castiel added to Dean, who narrowed his eyes.

“Didn't say you were invited,” Dean retorted. Jo nodded, crossing her arms.

“It's an exclusive sleepover,” she said. “By invitation only.”

“I -”

“You aren't invited, Novak.” Dean looked smug. Castiel glared at him.

“I guess I don’t have a super special invite either,” Anna said, and Jo smiled sweetly.

“Wow, you guessed right! Congratulations!” she said, managing to outdo Anna's sarcasm by a small margin.

“Um…” said a little voice to their left.

“Hannah can come,” said Dean and Jo together, and then grinned at each other. Castiel met Hannah’s eyes; she shrugged, looking uncomfortable.

“I think…” she said.

“Maybe she'd rather come to our sleepover,” Castiel said. He said the words quickly, the first thing that came into his head to get Hannah out of an awkward situation.

“Yours?” said Jo sceptically. Castiel glanced at Anna; she put her hands on her hips, and gave him a sparkling little smile of approval.

“Ours,” she said airily, turning back to Jo and Dean, tilting her head to one side - simultaneously sweet and challenging.

We were having a sleepover,” said Jo, her eyebrows lowering. Castiel glanced nervously at Hannah, who was shaking her head, looking as though she wanted to intervene but didn’t quite have the guts; they both recognised the mutinous look on Jo’s face. It was a dangerous one.

“Well,” Anna said, “now, so are we. ” They glared at each other. Dean met Castiel’s eyes; for a second, there was a moment of shared concern on their faces - before they remembered that they were on opposite sides of the argument.

“You can’t have a sleepover,” Dean said.

“I’d like to see you stop me,” Castiel snapped. He was angry, irritated at having suggested the rival sleepover in the first place. He was supposed to be figuring out a way to help Jo and Anna stop fighting, not giving them new things to fight about. It was stupid Dean Winchester, ruining everything again - Castiel was always so annoyed by him that he forgot all the things he was supposed to be doing.

“Everyone’s coming to ours, anyway,” Dean said, folding his arms. “Who’s going to be at yours? Just you two?”

“Awww,” Jo said, and made a big fake kissy noise. Anna, immediately, was red in the face; Castiel, meanwhile, brushed off her ploy to shame them into submission, and narrowed his eyes.

Well, he thought, in for a knut, in for a galleon.

“They’ll come to ours,” he said, “because ours will be way better. We’re going to have games, and…” he dropped off, his knowledge of sleepovers almost non-existent; thankfully, Anna swooped in to his aid.

“Ghost stories,” she said. “And marshmallows to toast on the fire.”

“You don’t have marshmallows,” Jo scoffed.

“Mom sent them,” Anna said smugly. “They’re under my bed. So, yes I do.”

“I ate them,” said Jo, equally smugly. “From under your bed. So… no, you don’t.”

Anna stamped her foot - actually stamped her foot onto the stony bank of the lake, her already-red face going scarlet with rage.

“What,” she said, “so, spreading gossip about me wasn’t enough? You’re stealing my stuff, too?”

Everyone was looking between them uneasily; Jo, unperturbed, patted the air with her hand once, dismissive.

“I was kidding,” she said. “I didn’t eat your stupid marshmallows. Whatever. Everyone knows Dean’s always got the best food in the castle. Your marshmallows are going to be like eating dried kneazle droppings compared to what we’ve got.”

“And you’d know all about kneazle droppings,” Anna said, “since that’s what I’m sure your mom serves up for dinner every night.”

There were audible gasps. Hannah, looking distressed, stepped forwards.

“Let’s just go back to the castle,” she said. “We can all just…”

“Like I’m walking back with her, ” Jo said, glowering at Anna, who was looking caught between feeling guilty and looking pleased with herself. “C’mon, Dean.” With a final pair of scowls, the two of them were gone.

Slowly, Castiel, Anna, and Hannah began to follow them back up to the castle.

“So… sleepover,” said Anna, her tone taut. Hannah threw Castiel a warning glance - he knew what she wanted right away. She wanted him to talk Anna down from the plan, get her to give up on the idea. It would probably be for the best, he acknowledged. It was hardly encouraging the healthiest of rivalries between Anna and Jo; the mean-spiritedness between them just kept worsening and worsening. And yet…

That look on Dean Winchester’s face - the smug one, where he thought he was going to win without any problems. Castiel hated that look.

“Sleepover,” Castiel echoed, thoughtfully. Anna smiled at him; Hannah, meanwhile, shook her head in despair.

***

“Ash… I need something.”

Ash nodded seriously, stirring a cauldron filled with glowing potion.

“Um… it’s a potion. Well, kind of - potions, actually. Plural.”

Ash continued to nod, very solemn, very calm.

“Ash…” Castiel swallowed. He shook his head. He couldn’t do it. “Ash, I can’t take you seriously when you have that on your head.”

Ash’s eyes widened in surprise.

“What, this?” He pulled a big, blueish something off the top of his head, and let it dangle from his hand by one of its several long strings. Castiel eyed it distastefully; it looked like a cross between a hat and a squid.

“What is it?” he said. Ash rolled his eyes.

“You don’t have to look so disgusted,” he said. Castiel tried to neutralise his expression, and felt as though he partly succeeded.

“Sorry,” he said. “But what is it?”

Ash shrugged. “Ever hear of Uric the Oddball?” he said. Castiel nodded; the name had come up in his reading, but he’d never got around to further research. Ash grinned. “Well, he wore a jellyfish as a hat. I thought it sounded pretty…” He made a hand gesture of some kind that Castiel didn’t quite catch, but which he assumed meant bizarre or possibly dangerously foolish. “So, like, I decided to try out his style.”

“It’s not a real jellyfish,” Castiel pointed out. It looked like it was made of blue sewn-together pyjamas. Ash put the strange hat back on.

“Neither’s your face,” he returned pleasantly. “So, what was that about potions you wanted?”

“Yes,” said Castiel, remembering why he’d come down to Ash’s dungeon room in the first place. It was just as dark and creepy down here as he remembered; the torches flickering on the walls cast a eerie light over Ash’s stack of cauldrons, his bottled and pickled ingredients, his jellyfish hat. “Yes, um. I was wondering if you had any potions that are just for… for fun.”

“Fun?” Ash grinned. “What kind of fun are we talking? Explodey fun?”

“No, no,” Castiel hurried to deny. Ash looked disappointed at Castiel’s immediate unwillingness to blow something up, but made a recovery.

“So…?” he said. Castiel sighed.

“We’re having a sleepover,” he said. “I was wondering if you had any potions that are just for fun. You know, something silly. Just to make us all laugh. Like games.”

Ash sucked in a breath through his teeth, slowly. He gave his cauldron another couple of stirs, anti-clockwise, and it changed colour seamlessly and started to smell like fresh flowers. Castiel eyed him narrowly, trying not to be too envious of his skill.

He reminded himself that Ash had turned his whole body blue by accident not too long ago, and that he shouldn’t be too jealous.

“I think I've got what you’re looking for,” Ash said coyly, one of the tentacles from his hat waving dangerously close to the surface of his potion. “But it won’t come for free.”

Castiel had been expecting this. His pocket was weighed down with galleons, pocket money that he’d brought along with him to Hogwarts just in case - for the first time - he had a chance to spend it. When he heard the clink of coins, though, Ash waved his hand.

“No, no, no,” he said. “Not money. I want help.”

Castiel’s brow wrinkled. “Another door?” he said, but Ash shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Well, I don’t know. I hope not. But I got a problem with this place.” He gestured around at the room they were standing in, shaking his head. “It’s not safe. Twice now I’ve come down here and all my stuff’s been cleared away. First time they got all my ingredients, too. I’ve got smarter since then, I keep ‘em under my bed. But it sucks having to bring them all down here every time I wanna brew, I gotta do it in three journeys all the way from the Ravenclaw Tower. Which is, like, way up -”

“I know where it is,” Castiel said, more tightly than he’d intended.

“Right. And then when I’m here, brewing, I feel like I’m about to be walked in on any second. Like, Professor Crowley could just burst in right now.

For a moment, they both turned to contemplate the door. After a few seconds, Castiel pointed his wand at it and muttered,

Colloportus.

The door clicked shut.

“Nice,” said Ash, with easy admiration. “Wish I could do that. I can’t, though, I suck at magic like that.”

“You don’t,” Castiel said, taken aback by Ash’s bald statement - the way he openly owned being bad at something. “You’re almost top in Defence Against the Dark Arts.”

“Ha! I am top in Defence Against the Dark Arts,” Ash said, grinning. “No, I meant, like, I suck at magic that does things like doors, and moves things around and stuff. The non-combative kinda things.”

Castiel narrowed his eyes. You’re not top in Defence Against the Dark Arts , he wanted to say. You took two more tries to get the last counter-jinx than I did. It was true, he thought, that Ash was often right alongside him - well, maybe occasionally even faster - but sometimes Castiel himself was faster, too. Ash wasn’t definitely top.

As long as Castiel beat him in the exam, it would all be fine. He ground his teeth. Now he had to worry about his mother coming down on him over two people getting the best of him in the tests - not just Winchester, but now Ash, too.

“Anyway,” Ash said, seeming to sense the slight stickiness of the moment. “Fun potions, you got it. I have a whole bunch. But in return, I want your help next year. Either something to hide my stuff down here, or new premises entirely.” He stuck out his hand, tentacles swaying from his hat. “Deal?”

Castiel had no idea how he would help Ash; nothing whatsoever came to mind. Still -

“Deal,” he said firmly. He had a whole summer to think of something.

“Nice,” Ash said, beaming. “Here we go. I've got Babbling Beverage, Hiccoughing Solution…”

When Castiel left the dungeon room, he had his pockets bulging with little vials of various potions as well as the galleons. He began to walk back up to the dormitory, thinking hard. Anna had said she’d figure out how to clear the common room for them by ten, which was when they were starting; Hannah, begrudgingly, had said she’d help make up some sleeping arrangements - moving pillows and blankets down from the dormitories and draping them over sofas and armchairs, building tents for them to sit in.

It was all going to be great. But was it going to be greater than Dean and Jo’s? That was the real question. He’d bought up all Ash’s stock of funny potions - at least they wouldn’t have anything like that.

He was just stepping onto the first step of the marble staircase that led up from the Entrance Hall, when he caught sight of an unexpected and ever-unwelcome figure - Dean Winchester, walking past the top of the stairway, moving with his usual messy, too-cool-to-care-how-I-walk gait.

“Hey!” Castiel called, the sound out of his mouth before he'd thought about it. He sounded more aggressive than he'd meant to, and gave an awkward, soft half-wave to take the edge off. Dean looked down at him, and mockingly returned the same gesture.

Castiel supposed he deserved that.

“Are you still having a sleepover?” Castiel said rather breathlessly, jogging to the top of the stairs so that he and Dean were on a level.

Dean folded his arms.

“What's it to you?” he said, also fairly aggressive. He played it off cooler than Castiel, though, with only a slight shift of his feet betraying discomfort.

“It's just…” Castiel said. He thought of the potions in his pockets - and then thought of Hannah, and pressed on with what he'd been about to say. “This whole thing... isn't about having fun. It's about a stupid argument between Jo and Anna, and having these sleepovers is only going to make it worse.”

“So?” Dean said, frowning - not dismissive, though, definitely paying attention.

“So… maybe we shouldn't do this,” Castiel said slowly.

“What? Why?”

Castiel wondered how Dean had missed the point. “Because… maybe we should not let them ruin their friendship forever?”

Dean considered, his freckled face screwed up in thought. Castiel thought about saying, does it really hurt that much to think, and is that why you do it so rarely? On further reflection, he decided that wasn't diplomatic enough for this conversation.

“Jo’s been sad for ages,” Dean said, shrugging. “She wants to do this, and I'm her friend. So I'm doing it with her, to cheer her up. Anna's free to do whatever she wants.”

Castiel pressed his lips together. He knew that in his place, Hannah would keep arguing - but privately, he agreed with Dean. After all, who was he to judge someone for holding a grudge? He'd been nursing one for almost a year, now, and it wasn't doing him any harm.

“Hmm,” he said aloud. “Well.”

“Also,” Dean said, “what makes you think this is all about Anna and Jo?” He grinned slyly. “Maybe this is really about you and me, Novak. About the fact that you're the worst.”

“About the fact that I'm better than you,” Castiel corrected, remembering exactly why he'd been holding this particular grudge for so long. “And you can’t handle it.”

“At sleepovers?” Dean said sceptically. Castiel pretended to consider.

“Well, yes,” he said. “I meant at everything. But I suppose that would include sleepovers.”

Dean snorted.

“Please, Novak. This is going to involve, like, speaking with other people. We both know I'm going to be better.”

Castiel felt a little jolt of insecurity. Wait - was he really bad at talking to people? Was it noticeable?

He brushed the thoughts off to consider later, and retorted quickly to cover the moment.

“I see your natural smugness is covering up your own problems in that area,” he said. Dean laughed.

“Me? Smug? Look at the pot calling the kettle black.”

That was an unusual phrase; Castiel supposed it had to be some kind of old-fashioned variant of pot calling the cauldron black, since  he had never heard it used with the word kettle before. Wasn't that what some muggle-loving wizards used to boil their tea over the fireplace, instead of using a spell - a big copper kettle? Castiel wondered whether Dean had some mixed blood further up his family tree, for him to have picked up a phrase like that. Or maybe he learned it from Charlie, or one of the other wizards at the school who weren't purebloods.

He wanted to ask, but he knew that Dean would never answer anyway - so he dropped it.

“I'm not smug,” he said instead. “I just know how good I am. There's a difference.”

Dean looked vaguely revolted. “If you could only hear yourself,” he said, clucking sadly. “As my mom would say. Oh, speaking of which…” He nodded his head meaningfully over Castiel's shoulder - and when Castiel turned, he saw Naomi walking towards the pair of them, looking forbidding.

“Oh…” Castiel said quietly. He wanted to finish it off with a swear word, but didn't know one bad enough.

“Well, I'll leave you to have a nice talk about how well your exams went, Cassie darling, and how clever you are,” Dean said, contemptuous. "Shall I?" Castiel turned back to look at him, feeling old.

“You really haven't been paying attention,” he said. “Have you?”

He saw the moment of uncertainty on Dean's face before he turned back towards his mother, and stepped forward to meet her. To all outward appearances, she looked normal - but Castiel saw danger in the exact angle of her eyebrow, the slight glint in her eye. He clenched himself up inside, bracing for what was to come.

This had to be about his exam results.

Behind him, he heard rapid footsteps; Dean was hastily walking away. Castiel didn't blame him, but wished he’d have stayed. Even Dean Winchester’s company was an acceptable shield against his mother's disapproval.

Then again, if he was going to get shouted at, it was probably better that Dean Winchester wasn’t around to laugh at him over it.

“Castiel,” Naomi said, when she reached him. She folded her hands neatly. “I haven't seen you since the exams ended.”

“No, Professor.” Castiel didn't know what to do beyond nervously agreeing. Was he supposed to have gone and seen her? But she had always been so adamant that at school, her sons were to behave towards her like any other student would. No family friendliness, no visits, no expectation of abnormal warmth or extra time.

Naomi seemed to be considering him. Castiel submitted to her scrutiny quietly, feeling his heart thud in his chest - wondering when the storm he sensed brewing in the air would break.

“I have heard from Joshua,” Naomi said, “that you have been spending a great deal of time in the library this year.”

“Yes, Professor,” Castiel said quietly. Surely she couldn't fault him for that? Or was he supposed to be more like Gabriel, easygoing and never seen studying?

Naomi nodded.

“Castiel…” She glanced around them, making sure no one was within earshot. A pair of Hufflepuff students eyed them nervously as they scuttled past. When they were gone, Naomi resumed. “Castiel, at the start of this year, I was severely concerned by your behaviour. Your Sorting was a shock to everyone. You embarrassed me.”

Castiel hung his head. He wanted to say something - to tell his mother how hard he'd worked, every day of the school year, to try to live up to her wishes. To prove to her that he wasn't - wasn't defective, as she had said. He wished he could pour his memories into her hands, show her all the times he'd missed meals to study up before a quiz or sat alone in the library, knowing that his friends were in the common room relaxing and joking together.

His throat was locked, and the words wouldn't come.

“From the start,” Naomi said, “every day of your life, I have impressed upon you the importance of one thing. What is that thing, Castiel?”

“Um…”

“No, not um. Speak definitively.”

“Learning, Professor?”

Naomi’s face twisted wryly. “Any Muggle with a textbook could learn, Castiel. No.”

Castiel’s mind was humming too loudly with worry for him to be able to hear his own thoughts; he was thinking so hard about the fact that he had to think fast for him to be able to think properly at all.

“Knowledge…?” he guessed, knowing it was wrong. Naomi frowned, her only answer. “Um - I mean, not um, I - hard work?”

“Family,” Naomi said, icy. “Family, Castiel. Learning, knowledge, hard work… what do these things mean, without context?" She looked down at him, her expression stern. "If you were a Muggle, would it matter if you knew the ingredients of a Forgetfulness Potion?”

“... no,” Castiel said uncertainly. Muggles couldn’t make potions, anyway.

“Precisely. You’ve been told about your grandmother, Lucinda Novak, who invented a new use for dragonskin? Your great-grandfather on my side, Gilbert Tapping, who perfected the wand movement for several key counter-curses? Your great-great-aunt Henry, who -”

“Was an inventor of fine flying carpets that changed the face of the industry,” Castiel supplied, trying to regain some approval. His mother only thinned her lips at the interruption.

“Everyone in your family has made notable contributions to wizarding society,” she said brusquely.

“Yes, Professor.”

“Because of who we are,” she said, “what we do matters more. We have expectations, we have outside opinion, we have a reputation, we have…”

“Honour?” Castiel supplied, when Naomi was searching for a word. She tilted up a dangerous brow at the suggestion.

“Honour is for… soldiers,” she said, her tone somewhere between dismissive and disgusted. “You sound like a thirteenth-century idiot in a helmet. We are not knights of the round table. We are scholars . We have academic excellence to uphold. People look to us for those things you spoke of before - learning, knowledge. People look to us to advance their society for them, Castiel, because we Novaks and Tappings - we always have.”

Castiel nodded, looking down at his feet.

“I’ve been trying…” he said. “You said - at the start of the year, you said -”

“I recall what I said,” Naomi said tightly. “And it’s true that you have tried to achieve acceptable results. Your endeavours have been satisfactory in many classes. But it’s not enough, Castiel. You follow the written rules, you read your textbooks, you regurgitate facts. Yet you offer no new insights, you bring nothing original to the table. This is true in my class, and in many others. I have spoken with your teachers.”

Castiel stared up at her, his mind racing. This was - he was sure she had never asked this of him before. All their tests and questions over family dinners, all their achievements and rewards, all of their punishments - they had all stemmed from memory games and knowledge of facts. Not originality, not creative answering.

“But…” he said, trying to phrase himself in a way that wouldn’t anger his mother - trying to keep his face blank, so that she wouldn’t read any insubordination on his features. “Professor, I thought - I thought you wanted me to learn. To be able to answer all the questions in the exams, to have knowledge…”

“Knowledge is nothing,” Naomi said flatly, “without its context, Castiel. And your context is demanding. If you were anyone else, your learning would be enough. But because of who you are and who you will become, you need to do better now.”

Castiel could feel himself shrinking. All this time, he’d thought he was doing it right - being a Ravenclaw who just didn’t quite live in the tower, being the person his mother wanted him to be. It turned out, all his hard work had been not even half of what was needed. Seeing his deflation, Naomi seemed moved; she reached out and briefly clasped his shoulder with her steely fingers.

“You are of good family, Castiel. Yours will not be the easy and little life of many of your peers, who lack the…” She sighed, and looked away from him for a moment, one hand raising to press momentarily against her chest. “The unique pressure of heritage.” She seemed to speak more to herself than to Castiel when she said - more quietly - “It is a blessing and a curse.”

It was like Lucifer Morningstar said, Castiel thought. It was all about family, and where you came from. It mattered. His mother was saying that the other people in his year group - most of them probably half-bloods, some of them even Muggle-borns - would be looking to him, in the future, to be producing the best magic and creating new charms and jinxes and potions.

Well - Castiel swallowed. Probably not the potions.

But the point was, he had a responsibility - both Lucifer and his mother agreed. As a wizard of purely magical blood, he had a responsibility to be the most creative, the most brilliant, the most inventive. The fact that he’d somehow been put into Gryffindor couldn’t counter the fact that he should be the best, in ways that he simply hadn’t been up until now.

He needed to work harder, and do better. He needed to fulfil the role that his heritage had prescribed for him. He didn’t know if he could do it - he just knew that he had to.

“Yes, Mother,” he murmured aloud. He understood now. So long as he put into practice Lucifer’s advice on remembering the importance of his blood status, he could keep his family happy - and as Naomi said, family was the most important thing of all.

He could make them all proud of him. He could. He tried to convince himself by thinking it, hard. If he didn’t have his family… he didn’t even want to think about it.

Naomi nodded to him.

"I won't accept complacency from you, Castiel," she said. "Now that we've spoken, I hope you understand that."

"Yes, Mother."

She began to move away; at the last moment, Castiel turned to her.

“Mother,” he said, “the exams. My marks. Did I…?”

Did I do acceptably? he wanted to ask. Did I pass? Naomi seemed to sense the question that was on his mind, because her face closed, and the slight spark of warmth that had been showing in her eyes flickered out. The anger that Castiel had sensed when she’d first walked up to him showed through, as he’d known it inevitably would when he said the wrong thing. He clenched his jaw, trying to stop the instant rise of tears that he felt every time Naomi wore that look on her face.

“Mr Novak,” she said coldly, “I am your Professor. Revealing your result to you early would be absurdly unprofessional.” She glared at him. Castiel swallowed hard. “You disappoint me.”

She turned around, and walked away.

Castiel stood frozen for a long moment, made of ice. He held the tears inside, just barely - or rather, he thought he did, not noticing the single one that slipped down his cheek. Nor did he notice the person who came to stand beside him, watching after Naomi as she strode off.

“Well,” said the person eventually. “You passed my exam with flying colours. Top of the year.”

Slowly, Castiel turned to his right; Professor Tran was regarding him with her usual unreadable expression. After a moment, she added,

“Truth is not objective. That is important to remember, Mr Novak. Unless you think I am absurdly unprofessional.”

She gave him a curt, meaningful nod, and walked away.

Castiel watched after her. He didn’t understand - not at all.

************************************************************************

“- and if that’s not enough, Novak wants to get all competitive on something that doesn’t even have to do with school, so now we have to make sure our sleepover is better than his.”

Dean stomped down the secret hallway as he and Garth made their way to the kitchens to grab some food, to make sure that their night was infinitely better than anything the Gryffindors could come up with.

Well - Gryffindors minus Jo, of course.

“I’m sure they’ll both be fun,” Garth said, obviously not understanding the point of the story.

“But ours has to be better , Garth,” Dean explained as the hallway opened up into the kitchens; he waved at the house elves that smiled at them as they entered the large room. “It has to be so much better that Novak feels embarrassed every time he thinks about the time that he tried to have a better sleepover than me.”

Garth made a noise of acknowledgement, but didn’t say anything more beyond that. Dean rolled his eyes internally. Sometimes, Garth just didn't quite get it.

“Hey,” Dean said stopping one of the house elves, a tiny one wearing the same red pillowcase they all had on. “Is Turvey around?”

“Yes, sirs, he’s over making pastries.” The little house elf smiled and pointed over towards the oven; beside it, Turvey was at a table, overlooking a large bowl as it self-stirred.

Dean thanked her and jogged over to his favorite house elf with a slight skip in his step.

“Hi, Turvey!” Dean plopped himself down at the table, and Garth seated himself a few moments after. “So, what’s on the menu tonight? Anything special?”

“Ah, yes, for sir’s sneaky party,” Turvey looked up and tapped the side of his nose with a wink. “I’ve got just the things!”

Dean looked over at Garth, expecting him to admit he’d told Turvey about the sleepover - Dean had definitely not - but Garth only shrugged.

“Uh, you know about the sleepover?” Dean asked, frowning.

Turvey dropped down from his stool and opened an oven to reveal a large plate of fresh cookies.

“Turvey knows about everything that happens in the castle, sir.” He opened another of the ovens and pulled out a tray of what Dean hoped were cinnamon rolls. “If you don’t mind me saying, sir, not much gets past us house elves.”

Dean tapped his fingers on the table and chewed on his lip.

“So, have you heard anything about the other sleepover, then?” he asked, trying to sound casual about it.

“The one being planned in the Gryffindor common room?” Turvey set the plates in front of Dean and nodded, a twinkle in his eye. “Indeed, Turvey has, sir. Pardon if this isn’t welcome, but to Turvey, it seems that sir’s life might be easier if he mended bridges with that Gryffindor boy.”

Dean frowned and ducked his head behind the large mixing bowl to hide his disagreement on that opinion. Not being friends with Castiel didn’t make his life more difficult. Besides, even if it did, he’d take the consequences of not being friends with someone like Novak.

“That’s for sure,” Garth cut in, grabbing one of the cookies and tossing it from hand to hand when he realized it was still hot.

“But did you hear about what they’re gonna do there?” Dean pressed.

“Something about funny potions,” Turvey said, placing one last platter of cream puffs onto the table next to the other desserts and snapping his fingers to make all three float. “Funny potions that do funny things.”

Funny potions?

Dean’s nose crinkled as he tried to think about what that could possibly mean. Novak definitely couldn't provide the potions. Dean knew first hand just how well any of his concoctions turned out.

“Here you go, sirs,” Turvey gestured towards the floating pastries and snapped his fingers again, causing the plates to hover next to Dean’s head. “I hope you have a good sneaky party!”

“Thanks, Turvey. You’re the best.” Dean said and stood up, pleased to see that the food was following him.

“The pleasure is all Turvey’s.” Turvey said, inclining his head with a grin. “Now, shoo. Turvey hopes the young sirs have fun.”

Dean waved one last time as he and Garth entered the dimly lit tunnel again, each lighting their wands to help along the way. Discovering this secret had easily been one of the best things he’d accomplished during his entire year at Hogwarts. Being great at magic was fine. Beating Castiel at things was also pretty alright. But access to the Hogwarts kitchens whenever he wanted?

Truly a blessing.

“So, what’s our plan for the sleepover?” Garth asked, a few feet behind him to make room for the floating platters of pastries. “Are we gonna have an eating contest or something?”

Dean grinned and shook his head.

“That’s a great idea. One day we absolutely have to do that, but tonight we need to have enough for a lot of people.” Dean’s voice became a whisper as they neared the back of the grandfather clock, pressing his ear up against it to listen for anyone on the other side. “Philippe said that he had some ideas for stuff to do.”

Dean pressed at the back of clock and eased it open, peeking out into an empty common room. The sleepover wasn’t scheduled to start for another half an hour, so it was lucky that they hadn’t invited anyone that showed up super early. Most people were probably finishing up their dinner in the Great Hall, still, but Dean and Garth had gulped theirs down quickly so that they could go and get everything ready.

They each grabbed at one of the floating platters and set them on the coffee table, admiring the large piles of sweets they now had ready for everyone.

“Alright, I’m going to go pick up Jo, and you go talk to Philippe and brainstorm ideas. We’ve got to do better than whatever the Gryffindors are going cook up with those potions.”

Garth shrugged.

“If you say so.” As usual, he looked indifferent in an easygoing, happy kind of way.

Dean saluted Garth before crawling through the barrel entrance and dusting himself off on the other side. He and Jo had decided to meet up near the moving staircases so that Dean could show her the way to their common room.

As far as he could tell, it wasn’t against the rules for students to know where each other’s common rooms were, so he figured it would be alright for Jo to know. After all, he knew where the Ravenclaw tower was, and had opened it once - and so far no teacher had come to talk to him about it, or anything like that.

Dean wandered through the hallways, wishing that he had more ideas for how to make this sleepover better than Castiel’s. Obviously, they were going to have better food, but he didn’t have a clue on what kind of activities they could do besides some Muggle party games. As much as he liked them, he couldn’t be sure if people were going to look down on that particular suggestion.

Dean sped up when he spotted Jo waiting just next to the bottom staircase and bouncing lightly on her feet as she stood.

“Jo!” Dean said and waved in her direction.

“Are you ready for the best sleepover of all time?” Jo asked, holding her hand up for a high-five.

Dean smacked it and grinned.

“Obviously.” Dean nodded his head in the direction of the hallway he’d just come from and started walking. “Did you get any inside details on the other one?”

Jo let out a long sigh and shrugged her shoulders once.

“Not really, they’re all being super secretive about it around me. But Castiel is kind of in a mood so who knows what sort of sleepover it’s going to be.”

Dean raised an eyebrow as they walked, but didn’t find it particularly strange, as Novak always seemed to be in some kind of mood.  

“Just sounds like one of Novak’s three emotions if you ask me,” Dean said, holding up three fingers to better help him list them off. “Books, arrogant, and grumpy.”

He snickered at his own joke, but stopped when it didn’t seem like Jo was joining in.

“Oh, come on...” He nudged as her with his elbow and turned down a different hallway, “You know it’s true.”

Jo allowed herself to smile, but shrugged her shoulders.

“Yeah, he does seem... moody a lot, but you’d probably act that way too if you had to go through what he does, you know?” Jo was looking directly ahead and Dean wondered if she was purposefully not making eye contact with him.

Dean made a face and held a hand over his heart in a faux-shocked manner.

“I’m sorry, is Mister Pure-Blood-Rich-Boy going through a lot right now?” Dean rolled his eyes and smirked to himself. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind next time he brags about beating me in a quiz or an exam or at Exploding Snap or a Quidditch game, or whatever else he decides to bring up next.”

“You’re not being fair, Dean,” Jo pursed her lips as they walked. “You don’t know -”

“You’re right. I don’t know,” Dean shoved his hands in his pockets, getting more and more annoyed with this line of conversation. Jo was supposed to be on his side right now, not defending the enemy. “I don’t know what it’s like to have my dad spend a lot of money on me. I don’t know what it’s like to have my family at school with me. I don’t know what it’s like to have everyone think I’m so great just because both of my parents are magical.”

It was silent for a few moments and all they could hear was the sounds of their feet hitting the stone floor.

“I’m just saying,” Jo ventured, and Dean could hear the hesitancy in her voice, “you don’t know as much about him as you think you do.”

“Well... neither do you,” Dean muttered, thinking back to the first time he saw Castiel Novak, and all of the awful things he agreed with, and how he looked at Lucifer like he was God’s gift to mankind.

“Like what?” Jo folded her arms against her chest and stopping in the middle of the hallway.

Dean stopped too and chewed on his lip. Obviously, he didn’t have a very high opinion of Castiel, but Jo still seemed to. Dean knew very well that she even considered him one of her friends. How would he feel if Jo kept trying to tell him how awful Garth or Nick was? Would he even want to know the truth if it was something like hating Muggle-borns? Was that high opinion something that he could feel right about taking from her? Especially when she'd already lost her best friend in the last couple of months...

“Never mind,” Dean mumbled, turning back around and continuing their path to his common room. “Just forget about it.”

Neither of them said anything more about Castiel Novak - or anything at all, really - for the rest of the walk to the common room.

“What’s this?” Jo asked, when they finally arrived at the barrels at the end of the hallway.

“It’s the Hufflepuff common room,” Dean said, allowing a smile onto his face as he gestured towards the barrels with a flourish. “Can’t you tell?”

Jo eyed him curiously.

“Dean, if this is just some prank -”

Dean held up one finger and knocked against the very specific barrel, reveling in Jo’s gasp as the hidden entryway swung open.

“After you.”

This is your common room?” Jo said, mouth gaping open once they’d made it inside. She stared up at the plants hanging from the ceiling. No sunlight was currently pouring through the windows above, but they still provided a neat ambiance. “It’s so… round!”

“And amazing,” Dean said with a smile, delighted to see that a pile of blankets and pillows seemed to have been dumped in the middle of the common room. “We’ve got snacks and blankets, it seems.”

“How did you get all this food?” Jo asked, already snatching one of the cinnamon rolls and shoving it into her mouth.

Dean mimed zipping his lips shut and throwing away the key.

One of the two circular doors just past the couches swung open - and out walked a large mound of blankets with two legs poking out underneath it.

“Dean!” Nick’s head popped out from behind the blankets as he threw them into the pile and jogged on over to them, holding out his hand for Jo to shake. “And guest.”

Jo grinned and shook Nick’s hand, though she still seemed to be mostly looking around herself with wide eyes. “Nice place you guys have. Very homey.”

Both Nick and Dean puffed their chest out a little, their house pride shining through.

“So, what’s the plan?” Dean asked, rubbing his hands together.

“Not sure yet. Philippe had an idea - hey, LeChat!” Nick turned to shout through the open doorway until Philippe sauntered through, eyebrow raised.

“Yes? To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Tell Dean your idea for the sleepover.”

Philippe’s eyes brightened.

“Ah, yes. How would you like to play with some brooms in here?”

Dean perked up. Flying brooms inside the castle? Dangerous and not allowed, but as long as they were careful it could be fun. Maybe even more fun than drinking some mysterious potions.

“Well, sure, but how would we get some? Did you want us to ask some of the older students?” Dean frowned and tapped his foot. He doubted any older students would voluntarily give their broom to a first year.

“I was thinking that one of us would walk down to the broom cupboard and grab a couple,” Philippe said with a nonchalant shrug. “Easiest way, if you ask me.”

“Easiest?” Jo put a hand on her hips and frowned. “It’s nearly lights out. We’re not allowed out of bed, or anywhere near the broom cupboard if you’re not on the house team.”

Philippe tapped on his chin dramatically.

“Yes. You’re right.” With every tap Philippe’s appearance shifted, ever so slightly - his voice changing, gradually - and his face ageing. “If only we knew someone who could look like anyone else. Maybe even look like someone who had every reason to be near the broom cupboard.”

In a matter of a few seconds, Professor Jody Mills stood before them, tapping on her chin in deep thought - and in a student’s uniform.

“Merlin’s beard,” Jo whispered, staring up at the - now slightly taller - figure. “I keep forgetting you can do that.”

“Indeed I can,” Professor Mills said with Philippe’s signature smirk. “So, I don’t think that acquiring some brooms will be an issue, no?”

Dean snickered when he heard Professor Mills speak in a very definitely French accent.

“Maybe just don’t talk to anyone while you’re out there,” Dean mused. “But other than that, it seems pretty spot on.”

“Hmmm. I think her nose it actually a bit longer,” Nick said, squinting up at him.

“Oh, and her hair’s actually lighter than that,” Jo added, nodding when Philippe sighed and made the corrections. “Much better.”

“Can you make her hair pink?” Dean asked curiously, always endlessly amused by Philippe’s talent. If he had this ability, he wasn’t sure he’d ever stop changing.

All three of them laughed; Professor Mills stuck out her tongue as her hair turned a bright bubblegum pink, and then back to the brown.

“Well, she - er - he can’t go out in that uniform,” Jo pointed out, tugging on Philippe’s clothes that were now a little too small on him. “People will know something’s up if Professor Mills is wearing clothes that don’t fit.”

“Hold on,” Nick raced over to the door to the boy’s rooms, closed it, waited a few seconds, then reopened it to reveal a different room. They waited as Nick ran inside and was back a minute later with a set of larger robes.

“Whose are those?” Dean asked when Nick shoved them into Professor Mills’ hands.

“A seventh year’s. Just hurry back, okay?”

Philippe shifted back into himself and hugged the robes to himself, walking back to the door. “Let me go change, and I’ll find us some brooms.”

They all grinned at each other.

This night was going to be awesome .

***

The sweet snacks were nearly half gone an hour later as the common room filled with Hufflepuffs and few students from other houses that had been invited by their friends. It mainly consisted of first and second years and not many of the older students mingled with the younger ones, but word had gone around about the end-of-year Hufflepuff party, much to Dean’s delight. People were wrapped in blankets and leaning on pillows; some had made small forts and were chatting back and forth while eating pastries.

“Dean, these are so good, ” Nick mumbled through a mouthful of cream puffs. “How do you keep getting them?”

Dean laughed it off.

“A true magician never reveals his secrets.”

Garth looked over at him quizzically.

“Yes, we do. Like… all the time.”

“It’s a -” Dean shook his head, caught out by yet another Muggle saying. “Never mind.”

Dean plopped down next to Jo on one of the couches and handed her a cinnamon roll.

“So, what do you think so far?” Dean asked, licking the frosting off his fingers. “Better than the Gryffindors’?”

“You mean better than Castiel and Anna’s?” Jo asked, side-eyeing him. “I don’t know… I hope so. I don’t want Anna bragging about it forever and ever if it isn’t.”

“So like...” Dean wiped his hands on his robes and sank lower into the couch. “What happened between you and Anna? You guys were super good friends and then… you weren’t.”

Jo threw her hands up into the air with a dramatic breath. “I don’t know. Well, I do. But it doesn’t really matter anymore. The whole thing got blown up a lot bigger than it ever should have been and now if I say sorry first, I lose. She should be the one to apologize first.”

“Or you could just go and get it over with. Then you guys wouldn’t be mad at each other,” Dean suggested. Truth be told, he’d liked it much better when Jo and Anna weren’t fighting. Sure, their rivalry usually meant that Jo sided with him on a lot more things now, because Anna would side with Castiel, but he knew that they both hated that they were fighting - and it didn’t seem worth them losing their friendship over.

“Oh sure, you’re the one to talk,” Jo said, rolling her eyes. “You’re really the king of getting along. Why don’t you tell me more about how many enemies you don’t have?”

“That’s different,” Dean stuck his tongue out at her and propped his legs up on hers. “Novak and I were never friends, so it’s nothing lost. You and Anna were, though, and it’s kind of sad that you’re not anymore.”

Jo folded her arms together and frowned in a way that would have looked a lot more angry if she didn’t have frosting on her upper lip.

“So? Anna can go braid Castiel’s hair, for all I care,” Jo said with a huff.

“But -”

“Just drop it, Dean.” Jo grabbed a pillow and threw it at his head, smacking him in the face. “I didn’t come here to talk about Anna.”

Her face looked sour. Dean knew what an attitude like that could do to a party - the easygoing atmosphere would be punctured in the space of minutes. He cast around for something that might distract Jo, get her laughing.

“Fine,” he said, seizing on the first thing that came to mind. “Then I won’t talk!” He stood up, cleared his throat - thought for a moment, and then began miming what he hoped looked a lot like braiding.

Jo squinted.

“What are you doing?”

Dean pressed a finger to his lips and continued his braiding motions, getting more and more animated with it.

“... braiding?” Jo asked, still sounding confused as to what was going on.

Dean nodded and held up three fingers.

“Three. Braiding three? Braiding three what? What are you doing?”

Dean let out a breath of air.

“Have you never played charades?”

Jo shook her head slowly.

Dean rubbed his hands together and grinned.

“It’s a game. I act something out, and you have to guess what it is and I’m not allowed to say anything. Usually when I hold up numbers it’s telling you how many words are in the thing that I’m acting out. Usually there’s two teams that compete to see who can guess the most.”

Jo sat up on the couch and leaned forward, the spirit of competition seeming to get her interested.

“Okay… go again?”

Dean winked and held up three fingers.

“Three... words?” she asked, looking at him to make sure that was correct, and smiling when he nodded and did the braiding motion again. “Braiding. Braiding hair. Braiding hair… slowly? Braiding a person’s hair?”

Dean pointed and nodded.

“Braiding whose hair?” Jo scratched at her head.

Dean paused for a moment, considering, before pointing at Jo’s Gryffindor crest and puffing his chest out, tossing his head from side to side.

“Braiding Anna’s hair?” Jo guessed, making a small face until Dean shook his head and began prancing around in a circle as haughtily as he could, holding back his laughter as best he could. “Castiel? Dean, is that supposed to be Castiel? Braiding Castiel’s hair. That’s my guess.”

“Hey, you got it!” Dean’s laugh escaped; he kept going with the snooty walk for a second before collapsing back onto the sofa, giggling. Even Jo was smiling as she rolled her eyes; she had to admit that it was funny.

“Wait, do another one,” Garth dropped down to sit next to Jo while Nick sat cross-legged at their feet. “That seemed fun.”

“Uh,” Dean picked himself back up off the sofa and looked nervously at the three of them, and the few other curious stares that he seemed to be picking up. “Okay. Hold on.”

He frowned as he sped through things he could mime for a group of wizards and witches, most of whom probably didn’t know Muggle stuff.

Dean held up three fingers again.

“Three words!” Jo nearly yelled, eyes bright with excitement now that she understood the game.

Dean mimed grabbing something and holding it out in front of him, then throwing his hands up into the air with enthusiasm.

“Magic!” Garth shouted, “Doing magic!”

“That’s only two words, Garth,” Nick said, pointing up at Dean. “Doing magic... homework?”

Dean shook his head and did the motion again, this time adding a small explosion after setting the item down.

“Making an explosion?” Jo asked, tilted her head to the side before smirking. “Besides, Dean doesn’t know what it’s like to do homework.”

“I think it’s Exploding Snap.”

They glanced over at Lisa, who immediately blushed at the attention when Dean nodded and pointed at her.

“Uh, playing Exploding Snap!” Jo said emphatically, nearly standing up in her seat. “Is that it? Did I win?”

Dean held out his hand and tilted it back and forth, making the international sign for “sort of”, before holding out a fist triumphantly.

“Winning Exploding Snap!” Lisa called, dropping herself down next to Nick and smiling up at Dean.

“Yeah!” Dean pointed at her like she’d just won the lottery, jumping up and down with a wide smile on his face. “Lisa’s got it!”

Jo folded her arms against her chest with a scowl.

“It’s not like Dean would even know what that’s like, either,” she said.

Dean stuck his tongue out at her and put a hand on his hips, but otherwise didn’t rise to the bait that Jo was clearly dangling.

To Dean’s surprise, they’d apparently managed to amass a larger group of people around them that all seemed interested in the new game, and it seemed that most of them had never heard of it before. This was new and exciting to Dean, as he’d pretty much grown up on the game, and they all made room for the new players.

Dean cleared his throat as he counted the newcomers.

“Okay, so now that we have more people, we should split up into teams and -”

What is going on in here?”

The light chatter in the common room died almost instantly as they all heard the voice near the entryway.

There, standing with his arms folded against his chest - and with a sterner look on his face than Dean had ever seen - was their head of house: Professor Gadreel.

“Professor,” Garth said, his voice a small squeak, “what - what are you doing here?”

Professor Gadreel looked them all over, his frown deepening, and Dean dropped his eyes to the floor. He was already on shaky ground with head of the Hufflepuff house and he didn’t want to ruin any credit he’d gained in the last few days of school.

“You should all be in bed,” Professor Gadreel said gruffly. “And instead you’re eating sweets? I’m very disappointed in you all. Yes, very disappointed. In order to make me not disappointed, I think that you should give me the rest of the food you have here.”

Several heads popped up from where they’d previously hung in shame, and looked more confused than anything.

“Professor -” someone said nervously.

“Hey, you’ve got a lot better at hiding your accent, Philippe.”

The entire common room turned to stare at Thaddeus, who was leaning against one of the walls in his pyjamas, looking over - thoroughly unimpressed - at the professor.

Thaddeus waved once and brushed the hair out of his face.

“Yeah, I’m here too.” Thaddeus rolled his eyes and let out a dramatic yawn. “And you’re all really gullible.”

Dean glanced back over at Professor Gadreel, who smirked and dipped into a low bow as he shrunk back into the shorter French boy Dean had come to know. He let out a laugh, too relieved that they weren’t in trouble to get mad. Most of the common room seemed to feel the same way; there was general laughter, and someone gave Philippe a good-natured soft punch on the arm.

“Thank you very much, Thad,” Philippe said, his true accent flowing back into his voice. “I have been practising.”

“Whatever,” Thaddeus said with another hair toss. “I’m going to bed.”

The dorm door shut with a click, and the attention turned back to a still-smug Philippe in large black robes as he reached through the entryway and pulled in two Quidditch brooms, holding them out as an olive branch.

“I have brought more fun!”

“We can do that after!” Jo said, having seemingly moved on; she was still focused on winning this new game she’d just learned. “We’re playing a game where you have to guess what someone’s miming. But the miming person can’t say anything.”

“Oh?” Philippe said as he propped the brooms up against a wall and walked over to the group when the chatter started up again.

“Yeah,” Jo tapped her hand against her leg. “But so far, I think all the guesses have to be about Castiel, because that’s what Dean keeps acting out.”

“Hey! I do not -”

Philippe grinned again and tilted his head to the side as he easily morphed into a near-perfect replica of Castiel Novak in large Hufflepuff robes.

“I think I’ll be good at this game.”

Dean waved his arms emphatically in front of himself, too weirded out by hearing Philippe’s accent come out of Castiel’s mouth.

“No! No, that’s creepy and it’s cheating, Philippe.”

The Philippe-Castiel laughed as both Dean and Jo stared at him in unease. His shifting was all fun and games when he was impersonating professors, but now that it was Castiel… it felt weird.

“How is this creepy?” The fake-Castiel screwed up his face into a frown that was much closer to the Castiel Dean knew - and the voice that came out this time was nearly accent-free. “Dean Winchester is the worst person in the entire world and I want to crush him.” The fake-Castiel shrugged. “But to tell the truth, I’m also just as obsessed with him as he is with me.”

Dean grabbed a nearby pillow and smacked the fake-Castiel as hard as he could in the face, pulling away to see that Philippe had changed back and was laughing loudly again.

“I’m not obsessed with him.” Dean growled. “Let's go back to charades played properly, shall we?”

***

Dean and Jo surveyed the crowd that had formed in the Hufflepuff common room from a slight distance away, trying to judge how much everyone was having fun. The food was nearly gone, but everyone had also seemed to eat their fill, and they were all currently playing charades loudly.

Philippe’s team was winning.

“Do you think this’ll top the other sleepover?” Dean asked, feeling pretty confident.

He turned and saw Jo chewing on her lip.

“I don’t know… I hope so.” She said slowly. “It probably will, right?”

“We could go check, you know,” Dean suggested. As much as he didn’t want to leave this sleepover, it would put his mind at rest to know for a fact that Castiel and Anna’s sleepover was a flop. If he could just see that with his own two eyes…

“Check? How?” Jo squinted at him. “I can’t just show up! It’ll be suspicious. They'll kick me out.”

“What if you’re just… grabbing something from your room real quick?” Dean shrugged his shoulders. It seemed like a plausible reason to him. “Then we can just pop in and pop out.”

“Hmmmm,” Jo tapped on her chin. “But we’re not supposed to be in the corridors right now. We’ll get caught.”

Dean glanced over at the brooms leaning against the wall and a plan started to formulate in his head.

“What if there was a way that we could get there real fast and not make any sound?”

Jo looked over at him, then towards the brooms.

“Dean,” she said, “You’re a genius.”

*************************************************************************

“What in the name of Merlin is this?”

Castiel heard the familiar voice, muffled through layers of material, and frowned. With a deft push of the thick brocade blanket in front of him, he released himself from the warmth and hubbub behind; he stood up with some difficulty, flat to the wall.

He peered across the common room at Jo.

“It's a blanket fort,” Castiel said proudly. “A big one. Probably more like a blanket castle at this point.”

Jo stared at him over the swathe of materials that reached chest-height on them both; from beneath came the sounds of chatting and laughter, and the occasional squeal or bang. Castiel hoped one of the second-years wasn't trying to set fire to the bed curtains they'd used for corridor partitions again.

“Well, I just came to get my… stuff,” Jo said uncertainly. She seemed to hear a whisper from behind the still-open portrait of the Fat Lady, because she turned her head briefly and then said more confidently, “My pyjamas. I wanted… my pyjamas.”

“Fine,” Castiel said, keeping his tone flat and his expression blank, even as internally his eyes narrowed. “Let me just…” He began to walk around the side of the structure, ducking under blankets and the occasional piece of twisted, golden rope.

“The curtain ties are a nice touch,” Jo commented.

“Anna’s idea,” Castiel said, and Jo rolled her eyes.

“Great,” she said tightly. Castiel reached her, and smiled - tried to remember that Anna's fight wasn't his own, and he himself had nothing against Jo whatsoever.

“How's yours going?” he asked. She smiled at him, with a mix of competitiveness and self-awareness in her eyes.

“Pretty amazing,” she said. “You?”

“Couldn't be better,” Castiel replied. “So, did you…”

He stopped talking when his eye was caught by the sudden appearance of a head, which popped out to his right through one of the gaps in the roof of the blanket fort. The head had red hair, and a face with an impatient expression.

“Castiel!” the head said. “You're needed for Snap!”

“Still playing Snap?” Jo said, a little contemptuously. Castiel reddened - but before he could answer, Anna cut in.

“Oh,” she said to Jo. “It's you.

Another head appeared out of the same hole - this time, one with brown, messy curls and a curious expression.

“It's who?”  said the second head, and then brightened when its eyes alighted on Jo. “Oh! It's you!”

“Hi, Hannah…” Jo waved.

The first head looked disgruntled. A hand appeared out of the blanket fort hole, and shoved the second head back down. Hannah made a little squeak of protest as she was pushed back out of sight, and only Anna’s disembodied head remained.

“No coming in,” Anna said to Jo flatly. “You'll kick down the blanket fort or steal our games or fart or something.”

“I would not do any of those!” Jo said, and then seemed to consider. “Well. Not on purpose.”

“It’ll be like that time in Charms -”

“No!” Jo said, shaking her head furiously. “No, don't -”

“- when Castiel heard you fart -”

“I did?” Castiel said, astonished.

“Shut up,” Jo groaned at Anna, who looked deliberately and airily unconcerned.

“- and then I told him it was my chair squeaking,” she said calmly.

“Oh, what - I remember that!” Castiel said indignantly, turning to glare at Jo, who had gone distinctly red. “You two kept giggling about something and you wouldn't say what! And it was all because you -”

“It’s worse for me,” said Hannah’s head, reappearing through a different hole in the blanket fort’s soft roof. “I was sitting next to her! I was breathing it in!”

“Can we stop talking about this, ” Jo said, with enough of a tinge of begging to her tone to make Anna grin. Jo stared at her, tight-lipped. “That was our secret! You swore -”

“Oh,” said Anna, deadly cool. “I'm sorry, did you expect me to keep my word when I told you I'd never tell anyone? I thought we had a mutual agreement now where all our embarrassing stories are acceptable to spread around to make other people laugh?”

“You - you -” Jo said furiously, turning scarlet. “You big baby!”

“Coming from you? Hypocrite!” Anna shot back.

“Whiner!”

“Promise-breaker!”

Hypocrite!”

“Insult-thief!”

“Hello,” said a voice, and a third head appeared out the top of the blanket fort, on the other side. Castiel and Hannah stopped giving each other tired looks and blinked instead at Billie Reaper, who was regarding them with a calm that seemed at odds with her vaguely farcical location.

“Billie,” said Castiel, in hushed tones. He couldn't help it; she commanded respect. Even when it was just her head sticking out of a blanket.

“Reaper,” she corrected him. “And if you tiny people could stop yelling and squawking, that would be great. We're trying to have a party here - aren't we, guys?”

There was general cheering and thuds of agreement from beneath the blanket canopy. Both Anna and Jo were red in the face now - though whether that was due to anger or embarrassment at being overheard, Castiel wasn't sure.

“Sorry, Reaper,” Jo said in a small voice.

Anna swivelled a full one-eighty to look Billie in the eyes, and evidently twisted her body beneath the blankets to do so, because there was a muffled ouch! as she kicked someone.

“Sorry,” she said solemnly, ignoring the ouch.

Billie nodded, looking pacified. “One more thing.” She pointed at Jo. “No farting.”

Jo’s face was aflame as the entire blanket fort seemed to explode into giggles. She turned to Castiel, her eyes bright with hurt.

“Are you going to let me go through this stupid thing and get my stuff from the girls’ dormitories, or what?” she demanded, her tone right at the edge of outright upset.

“Ugh,” Anna cut in, before Castiel could reply. “I’ll take her.”

“That’s nice of you,” Hannah said hopefully. Anna narrowed her eyes.

“Castiel won't watch her like I will.”

“Just don’t talk to me,” Jo snipped, as she bent down to crawl into the blanket fort. Anna rolled her eyes and then disappeared back into the fort herself; after a few moments, she appeared at the entrance, and gestured for Jo to start crawling first - her lips sealed.

When they’d gone, Castiel shared a long, long look with Hannah, their faces showing matching levels of exasperation. Were they going to have to actually sit Anna and Jo down, and stage some kind of talk between them where they could air out their problems? But whenever they saw each other, they seemed to do nothing but air out their problems, and it only appeared to make things worse.

Castiel turned towards the portrait of the Fat Lady, which was still hanging open. Frowning, he watched it for a moment, waiting for it to swing shut like it normally did - but it didn’t move.

He stepped outside the common, through the portrait hole, one hand raised to touch the back of the painting as though hoping to sense anything amiss through touch alone.

“Hello?” he said, as he poked his head around the edge of the picture and peered around, expecting to see the Fat Lady perhaps sleeping or even missing. Instead, he saw a flurry of robes and a suddenly-casual Dean Winchester standing in front of him, his arms folded across his chest, and an unbothered expression on his face.

“Novak,” he said, by way of greeting.

“Were you… spying through the gap in the hinge?” Castiel said slowly.

“Absolutely not.

“You were. I saw you,” Castiel said.

“I was not! I was just… checking for dust, right here.” Dean swept one finger up the side of the Fat Lady’s portrait; it came away clean. “Guess we’re good.”

“Right…” Castiel said sceptically.

“Right,” Dean echoed, self-assured.

“I didn’t know you were so interested in cleaning,” Castiel said. “I would have thought making a total mess of everything was more your style, judging by what happened in the Potions exam.”

Dean scowled at him.

“What do you want, anyway?” he said. “Aren’t you busy? Don’t you have any more giant squids to frighten with your face?”

“It wasn’t frightened, ” Castiel said. The giant squid had been quite calm by the time it had disappeared back into the deeper water, he was sure. “It was just… hesitant.”

“Your face is enough to make anyone hesitant , it’s true,” Dean said seriously. He had something in one of his hands, Castiel realised, eyes adjusting to the darkness outside the soft, deep light of the common room. Dean was leaning on something, one hand gripping it tightly.

“What’s that?” Castiel demanded, and had never seen anyone look so pleased to be asked a question as Dean Winchester in that moment.

“This?” Dean said, swinging it up and holding it in both hands. “This old thing? Oh, just one of the brooms from the broom cupboard. We’ve got two of them, actually.” He gestured loosely to a second broom, leaning behind him against the wall, before leaning back on his own.

“From the - the what?” Castiel demanded.

“The broom cupboard. Like I said.”

“How did you…?”

“A magician never reveals his… I’m not telling you,” Dean said, seeming to change his mind halfway through whatever he’d been going to say before. It was Castiel’s turn to scowl.

“Well, we have a blanket fort,” he said. “It’s very good. Well-built.”

“We flew up here,” Dean said airily. “On these brooms. That we had, you know, at our sleepover.”

“You flew ?”

“Best way to get around the castle,” said Dean, flicking an imaginary speck of dust off one of the broom’s twigs. “At least, I’ve always thought so. Don’t you agree?”

“Um,” Castiel said, wondering if he could successfully pretend to have ever ridden a broom through the Hogwarts castle. It was briefly tempting to try, but he decided against it. “I’ve never tried. I suppose when you fly slowly, like you, it must be OK to do it inside. But I go quite fast.”

Castiel tried to deliver the lines with absolute sincerity, and keep the laughter out of his voice; he knew Dean would be more needled by it, that way. Sure enough, he saw Dean’s face darken.

“I went fast,” he said.

“Of course you did,” Castiel said, mock-soothingly.

“I did!”

“Yes, you did. That’s right.”

Dean’s eyes narrowed. He snatched up the extra broom, and held it out to Castiel.

“You think you’re faster than me?” he demanded. “Then let’s do this.”

Castiel took the broom in careful hands, playing it as cool as he could. “Where do you suggest we go?” he said. “It can’t be too far. I’m supposed to be in charge of a sleepover, here, and not everyone who organises a sleepover decides to run off halfway through.”

“Ravenclaw Tower,” Dean said, and Castiel paled. His hands clutched the broom harder.

“Ravenclaw Tower,” he repeated, trying to keep the dismay out of his voice. His mother had her rooms up there. If she were to discover him, flying around in the middle of the night on a battered old Comet Two-Sixty - well, Castiel doubted she’d wait long enough to check the model of the broom before she sent him up in flames.

“Scared, Novak?” Dean said, grinning.

“No,” Castiel said automatically, and defiantly. He wasn’t scared, he was just…

Well, he was a little scared. And that was exactly why he was going to do it. Because after he’d done it, he wouldn’t be scared anymore.

He mounted the broom, and kicked off from the ground.

“Let’s do this,” he said.

Right .” Dean swung up onto his broom, and rose off the ground too.

“Remember,” Castiel said, “if you fall off your broom again, I’m not catching you this time.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “You won’t need to. I wouldn’t take your stupid help, anyway.”

“So you’d rather fall all the way down the grand staircase than be saved by me?”

“Any day of the week,” Dean said, leaning forwards slightly on his broom.

“Interesting,” said Castiel. “I didn’t realise getting rid of you would be as easy as that. I’ll make sure to be nearby in all dangerous situations from now on, so that you refuse all help and die a miserable death.”

Dean blinked. “Whoa, OK? Easy.”

Castiel did a quick little loop in the air. “Ready?” he said, his stomach a pit of nerves.

“Ready.”

“Three -”

“Two -”

“One -”

“Stop!”

A sudden voice halted them both; Castiel, who had been tensed to go, almost slipped sideways off his broom. He covered it by doing another loop. On the ground, hands on hips, Hannah peered up at them in the gloom.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she demanded.

Dean and Castiel shared a look.

“Uh,” Dean said, at the same time as Castiel said,

“To the… bathroom.”

“On brooms?”

Castiel swallowed.

“We’re desperate,” he said.

“Brooms are fast,” Dean added.

Hannah shook her head. “You’re both terrible liars,” she said. “Get back in here, right now! Castiel, it’s potions time, come on - you can’t leave...” She blinked up at him owlishly, and Castiel relented.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he said, dropping back to the floor and standing the broom up against the wall. He looked back at Dean, who had also landed.

“This isn’t over,” they both said, at the same time. Hannah groaned, and grabbed Castiel’s sleeve.

“Come on, ” she said. “Dean, you come too.”

“What?” Castiel said indignantly - but before he knew it, Hannah had dragged them both through the portrait hole, and the Fat Lady had swung shut behind them.

“Potions!” she said, and pulled them down into the blanket fort. “Castiel, did you leave them -”

“In my schoolbag, in the room just next to the boys’ dormitories,” he said. Inside, the blanket fort was warm and cosy. The entrance was a kind of hallway, and there were curtains partitioning different rooms and corridors throughout; Castiel glanced back at Dean, and saw him looking reluctantly impressed with their dedication to the architecture.

“Did you have anything like this at your sleepover?” he asked blandly, and watched Dean’s expression turn quickly into vague contempt.

“No,” he said. “Blanket forts are kind of annoying, anyway.”

“We’re going to find the potions,” Hannah interrupted, before Castiel could retort. “Come on, you guys, don’t be boring.” She began to crawl away. Castiel and Dean had a brief scuffle to decide who would crawl immediately behind her, and who would go last; Castiel only won by using his knowledge of the terrain to his advantage, and smacking Dean in the face with the loose end of a heavy curtain.

They made their way through the fort, passing by groups of students: Billie Reaper gave them a barely-there smile as they passed, while her friends laughed and lounged against cushions; there was a big group of third-year Gryffindors who Castiel had never spoken to, but they grinned at him and one thanked him for the party as he passed; Gabriel, who had somehow managed to creep in when Castiel wasn’t looking, threw a wad of slightly damp parchment at his face. He decided not to ask how it had become damp, lobbed it back, and crawled on - following Hannah all the way to the back of the fort.

“Hey!”

“Guys, what’s up?” They were greeted by Ed Zeddmore and Harry Spangler, who were lying flat on their backs in the middle of a room on their own, looking up at the ceiling.

“What are you doing?” Castiel asked, crawling past them towards his schoolbag, which sat in the corner unnoticed.

“Stargazing,” said Zeddmore dreamily.

“Uh,” Dean said. Castiel glanced up at the blanket above them. It was red, and a little dusty, and definitely not starry.

“Well. Thread-gazing, if you want to be precise,” Spangler clarified. He pointed a finger at the ceiling. “Look, I can see the dog star.”

“Are you serious?”

“Well, it kind of looks like a golden retriever, if you look at it from here, I guess.” Castiel turned to see Dean also squinting up at the blanket, evidently trying to make out a dog shape.

“Sounds like this conversation is really going to the dogs,” Gabriel said, poking his head round the blanket wall and grinning; he received general groans in response.

“Gabriel, get out,” Castiel said - mostly because if his brother found out about the exciting potions in the bag beside him, Castiel knew he and his friends wouldn’t get the chance to try a single one of them.

Gabriel shrugged. “What? Come on, I held back on dog star and sirius a second ago. How much can you expect a person to resist?”

Dean was hefting a cushion in his hand, apparently weighing up whether or not to launch it across the low-ceilinged room towards Gabriel’s head. Castiel leaned over, snatched it off him, and threw it himself.

“Alright, alright!” Gabriel said, fending off the cushion and laughing as he disappeared back behind the curtain.

“I’m allowed to throw stuff at my brother,” Castiel said to Dean. “Not you.”

“I’ll throw anything at anyone who dumped in the lake,” Dean shot back.

“Ha! I’d forgotten about that,” said Jo’s voice, and then she appeared in the room with Anna crawling behind her. “That was a good one, though, Dean, you gotta admit.”

“It was not, ” said Dean with feeling.

“Ugh. They're arguing again. Come on, Zedd, let's go," Harry Spangler said, and the pair of them crawled quickly away. Castiel watched after them, his mouth slightly open.

"We don't argue that much!" he called after them, even as a part of him presented various memories that proved him wrong.

“So where are these potions?” Hannah said determinedly, clearly trying to steer the conversation away from contentious topics. The group of them - Hannah, Anna, Jo, Dean, and Castiel himself - had sat themselves down in a messy circle. Castiel reached inside his bag, but Anna’s face had fallen.

“What - aren’t we getting rid of these two, first?” She gestured to Jo and Dean; Dean smiled blithely, while Jo looked caught between sheepish and defiant. Castiel raised a shoulder.

“Hannah wanted him here,” he said, pointing to Dean, who stuck out his tongue.

“Hannahhhh…”

“Look, we’re all here now. Let’s just… have some fun, before Dean and Jo go back to their sleepover,” Hannah said cajolingly. Anna and Jo looked unconvinced; Dean looked unfussed. Castiel sighed. Hannah hadn’t even wanted this sleepover to happen, but she’d helped them set up for it with good grace. It was only right that he backed her up now, however much he wanted Dean Winchester as far away as possible.

“There are too many potions for just the three of us, anyway,” he said, making sure he sounded as reluctant as he felt. He reached into his bag, where he’d safely stored the potions Ash had given him so that they’d be away from prying eyes. There were seven bottles, each labelled with childish, careless handwriting on peeling parchment.

“Manegro,” Jo said, narrowing her eyes as she picked up one of the bottles. “Do you say that like, many-grow, or…?”

“Vol- vol- volubilis,” Anna read out. “Volubulus. Bilis. Bilius. What’s this do?”

“Hiccoughing,” said Hannah, smiling, holding up another bottle. “At least we know what this one does.”

“OK, no looking before you choose,” Castiel said, watching everyone’s eyes lock onto the known quantity in Hannah’s hand. “All the potions go back in the middle, and then we choose one with our eyes shut.”

“Do there have to be rules for literally everything, ” Dean said, but the others returned the bottles to the centre of the circle without a fuss.

“Grab one,” Castiel said. “Close your eyes…”

“What’s going on in here?” A voice interrupted them, and a figure pushed into their group; with some dismay, Castiel recognised Ruby, the Hufflepuff who hated being a Hufflepuff. Castiel had never sought out Ruby’s company, even though there was definitely a part of him that knew how similar they were. She wanted to be a Slytherin as much as he wanted to be a Ravenclaw. Somehow, the fact that there were two of them who wanted to switch houses was - embarrassing, made a mockery out of it. Seeing the same emotions he himself felt in another person’s behaviour made Castiel cringe, so he avoided her whenever he could.

“Ruby,” Jo said levelly. Anna was glaring at them both. Castiel remembered, suddenly, that Anna and Jo’s argument in the first place had centred around Jo telling Ruby one of Anna’s secrets; he watched the colour rise into both of their faces.

“Didn’t see you at the Hufflepuff sleepover, Ruby,” said Dean, and Castiel could hear the tinge of dislike in Dean’s tone; it was easy for him to recognise, because he heard it so often directed at himself.

“I’m barely a Hufflepuff,” Ruby said, caustic. “So that would be why.”

Castiel shuddered internally. Embarrassing.

“Anyway, we were about to…” he said aloud, indicating the potions and hoping Ruby would take the hint and leave. Instead, she only looked more interested.

“Where’d you get these?” she said, picking one up and reading the label. “This looks like a five-year-old wrote it. Manegro?” She smirked, and held it out to Jo.

“I don’t even know what this does,” Jo said doubtfully, not taking it.

“We were going to choose with our eyes closed…” Castiel said, but Ruby interrupted him.

“That’s lame. We should all choose for the person on our right. I gave Jo the Manegro. Now, Jo, you pick for Dean.” Castiel glared at her, and she glared right back. He wanted to ask her if she didn’t have someone else’s evening to go and ruin, but he bit his tongue; tensions were already running high enough with Anna, Jo, and Ruby all in the same place. If someone were to start an argument, who knew where it would end.

“Don’t you have someone else’s evening to go and ruin?” said a voice to his right; Dean Winchester, lounging back lazily against a cushion, was rolling his eyes. Castiel gritted his teeth at the uncomfortable feeling of agreeing with Dean about anything at all, ever. Meanwhile, Hannah laughed nervously, and Ruby scowled.

“Now, Winchester, play nicely,” Castiel interrupted before she could retort, his voice pitched carefully at the patronising tone he knew would make Dean’s eyes narrow with annoyance. “We can… you know… do the thing Ruby said. Jo, pick a potion for Dean.”

With a nervous shrug, Jo grabbed the Manegro potion out of Ruby’s hand and reached for another of the bottles in the centre of their circle.

“Hmm,” she said. “No… no… ah, yeah! Definitely. ” She handed him a potion with a beam. Dean stared down at the label, and then looked back up at her, indignant.

“Babbling Beverage?” he said. “Isn’t babbling, like…”

“When you say a lot and make no sense,” Castiel cut in. “Good choice, Jo.” She winked at him. Dean blew out an angry huff and then grabbed for a bottle, reading the label with a slight squint. Immediately, his face lit up.

“Novak,” he said. “It’s exactly what you’ve always needed. No, really, this is going to solve all your problems. Like, if only you could take this every day, you know?”

He passed Castiel the little green bottle; with no small amount of trepidation, Castiel stared down at the label.

“Well?” Ruby demanded. “What is it?”

Dean was already snorting to himself beside Castiel, who sighed, and read out the label in a flat tone.

“The Elixir to Induce Happiness,” he said. The group burst into giggles, muffled to various degrees. Hannah’s eyes were bugging as she struggled to keep a straight face for Castiel’s benefit, and Jo was punching Dean on the arm and shaking her head, unable to wipe off her grin.

“Because you’re always wearing that sour face!” Ruby said. “I get it.”

Castiel opened his mouth to point out the irony, and then caught Hannah’s eye, and stopped himself. In an attempt to get everyone to move on from Dean’s oh-so-hilarious joke, he picked up a bottle for Hannah, and read the label. Volubilis. No, he didn’t know what that did… Forgetfulness?  No, that was scary - what if she lost her memory forever? Ageing Potion. Castiel lingered over that one. Yes, that could work - he knew ageing spells and potions could be reversed, at least, without too much difficulty. He nodded, and handed her the bottle.

“Ageing Potion,” she read aloud, looking anxious - but she smiled at Castiel with what looked like gratitude before she reached to pick Anna’s potion, so Castiel guessed he’d made a decent choice.

Anna got the Volubilis, and looked none too happy about it - but she agreed with Hannah that it was better than getting the Forgetfulness Potion.

She gave Ruby the Forgetfulness Potion.

“On three,” Jo said, “we drink.”

“Shouldn’t we go one at a time?” Castiel said. “You know… in case one of us needs to go to the Hospital Wing, or…”

“Someone out there will hear our gurgling noises,” said Jo dismissively, jerking her thumb behind her at the chatter of the others at the sleepover. “Come on, everyone, open your bottles, let’s do this!”

Castiel shared a look with Hannah as someone in the blanketed-off room next to them said loudly, “I NEVER SAID I WOULDN’T TRY TO EAT A SKREWT -”

Wonderful, Castiel thought. These were the people he was potentially entrusting his life to. He uncorked his bottle at the same time as everyone else, though, feeling Jo’s eyes on him, authoritative.

Do as you’re told, he could hear his mother saying, in his head. He doubted she’d imagined a scenario like this one when she’d said those words.

“Ugh. It won’t come open. Should I use a spell?” Anna said. Jo rolled her eyes.

“Sure. Use… bombarda, ” Ruby replied innocently, and Castiel hastily shook his head.

“That’s way too powerful. Try…” he began, but Anna’s struggles suddenly yielded a faint pop and her bottle came open.

Bombarda ?” Jo said thoughtfully, and Castiel had a moment of instant regret for teaching her that one. Going by the look in her eyes, it was going to come back to haunt him. He hoped it’d be later rather than sooner.

“Shall we?” Hannah said, raising her own open bottle with a little smile. They all nodded, and raised their potions as though in a toast.

“On three. One,” Jo said. She was staring around the circle, challenging anyone not to join in. Castiel looked to his right, at Dean, who was gripping his bottle tightly.

“Two.” She raised her bottle to her lips, and Castiel followed along. He drew in a breath, and inhaled the faint scent of baking bread and Christmas trees.

“Three!” Jo tipped her head back, and downed the contents of her bottle in one gulp. As one, the others did the same - and Castiel paused just long enough to make sure no one was immediately choking. That was only responsible, wasn't it? He watched them all swallow, their eyes wide, waiting for the effect to hit…

It was Hannah who began to change first. Her blue eyes grew wider, and her cheeks grew chubbier, and her clothes seemed to be getting bigger and bigger - and then Castiel realised that Hannah’s whole body was shrinking, she was disappearing, looking terrified. But before Castiel could lean over and help her, his head whipped round at the sound of Jo gasping, and his jaw dropped; her hair was shingling down off her head in inches per second, growing so fast that her clutching hands couldn’t hold onto the strands of it - meanwhile, Ruby beside her had a suddenly soft, confused expression on her face.

“Are you OK?” Castiel said to both of the