9

Close on to two hundred students shared the Slytherin dungeons, but the ones who stood out the most to Hermione were the seventh-years prefects. Gemma Farley, a tall, tanned athlete of a girl who was also Hogwarts's Head Girl, and Alex Sykes, a frail-looking bloke with black-frame glasses. They welcomed the first-years by giving them a talking-to on their very first evening in the common room.

"You might have heard rumours about us, that we're all into the Dark Arts, and will only talk to you if your great-grandfather was a famous wizard, and rubbish like that," Alex'd said. "You don't want to believe everything you hear from competing houses. We're really like snakes; sleek, powerful—and misunderstood. Well, I'm not denying we like to take students who come from noble lines of witches and wizards, but nowadays you'll find plenty of people in our house who have one Muggle parent. And you know what? It can be useful, having a reputation for walking on the dark side. Tell people that you've got access to a whole library of dark curses, and see whether anyone feels like annoying you."

Gemma had added that Slytherins were a family who looked out for one another. "As far as we're concerned, once you've become a snake, you're one of ours, one of the elite," she had declared. "Because you know what Salazar Slytherin looked for in his chosen students? The seeds of greatness."

Hermione had been flattered to hear she'd been chosen because she had the potential to be great, in the true sense of the word. But then again, like had said Pansy, "A bit hard to believe since Crabbe and Goyle are in our house. I don't reckon they're destined for anything special."

Another thing, Hermione had somehow collected an odd assortment of acquaintances.

It wasn't that she minded—actually, she rather enjoyed it—but she'd feel better if she had any clue how it happened. She'd just woken up on Friday morning and realized that she'd spent nearly every day of the week with Daphne Greengrass and Pansy Parkinson and the usual crowd they hung out with. The other first-years were never far—Blaise, that went without saying. Nott, because he was mysteriously friendly with Daphne. Malfoy who couldn't be kept away. Crabbe and Goyle because they followed him everywhere. Terence Higgs because Pansy had demanded an introduction, and then bonded with him over sports. The Carrow sisters of the year above. The prefects, occasionally, since they were always looking out for first-years getting lost in the castle. The Head Girl was kind of a joke, because Pansy was convinced that jealous enemies from the other houses were lurking in the shadows waiting to take her out. So Gemma couldn't just hang out with them. She had to be in disguise. These disguises almost always involved round glasses, and the Slytherin crowd reckoned that was because Pansy found round glasses ridiculous.

They also mingled with non-Slytherin people. Sometimes Hermione wasn't sure if they even liked each other. Her classmates were willing to put up with anyone they'd interacted with before Hogwarts. Like Hannah Abbott and Ernie Macmillan from Hufflepuff. The Patil twins, who were terrifying in combination with Lavender Brown. Morag MacDougal from Ravenclaw. There was this ghost who sometimes floated by with the Bloody Baron, chatted with Daphne, and then wandered off again. There were the orchestra guys. There was a Scottish fourth-year who apparently came from Kirkwall.

"You see how confusing it gets," Daphne had commented. "None of us have held still together for this long before. We all live so far apart. Now that we're gathered all at once like this—it's quite mad, isn't it?"

It was quite mad. But exciting. Sometimes confusing.

"How's your mother doing?" Parvati Patil asked Pansy as they were getting out of their first Potions lesson with the Gryffindors.

"She's fine, why do you ask?"

"Mum's asking."

"Not asking about mine, is she?" Daphne lashed out. She sounded hateful. Unlike herself.

Parvati Patil looked guilty for a second. "I don't know."

"Don't bug Parvati," Lavender Brown said with a sour expression. "She didn't do anything. It's grown-up stuff."

Parvati quickly walked ahead, joining the rest of the Gryffindors. Lavender gave Daphne and Pansy a you big bullies look before following suit.

This was confusing to Hermione. She had to work backwards through rumours to get a clue of what people were talking about. It did help that most of her new friends were purebloods. While it was true that people who didn't work for a living had way too much time on their hands, at least their interests didn't change that much from one country to another. Now Daphne and Pansy were discussing whether rubies or emeralds were more appropriate for young witches to wear. Maybe they were planning on asking their parents for some.

Why not? The rich tossed away money on childish whims, and Hermione, someday, would be expected to marry a townhouse in Paris, a chateau in the country, and a suitable accumulation of jewellery. And, presumably, the wizard that came with it all, although that seemed, from what she understood, to be less important.

I am an explorer, Hermione thought, an explorer surveying the customs of an exotic tribe.

"Well done, Potter," a gleeful voice called as they climbed the steps out of the dungeon. "That was some performance you gave. I knew you had more to you than just the dull-eyed and slimy poser you are."

You didn't need to be an expert in the wizarding world to see through Draco Malfoy. He kind of reminded Hermione of Kayss Beaumont, on Kayss's very worst day. She glared at him, but couldn't muster the energy to maintain the outrage for long, not with the class they just had. Okay, so classes at Hogwarts were bound to be bizarre, since it was a magic school and all—she hadn't known just how bizarre. History of Magic was taught by a ghost, Professor Flitwick was an eccentric dwarf, and the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher a stuttering fool. Today they had Professor Snape, for the first time. Older students had told them about his singular teaching-style so Hermione hadn't gone into the dungeon with a lot of hope, which turned out to be wise. Snape took his famed meanness to a whole new level with Harry Potter. He started with singling out their 'new celebrity' by asking him ridiculously advanced questions—to which Hermione could've answered, of course, but she was the exception since no one in their year read the material beforehand. It didn't stop Professor Snape from ignoring her raised hand and taking points off Harry. Worst was when scatterbrained Neville Longbottom managed to melt his cauldron into a blob and Snape went on blaming Harry for it—they hadn't even been paired off together!

However, to Hermione's admiration, Harry showed true strength of character and didn't talk back or storm out, even when treated so unfairly. Yes, strength. Because it was one thing for Daphne and Pansy to be nasty toward people like Tracey Davis, or even Draco to Ron Weasley. They were all the same age—but Snape was an adult and a teacher. He should be the one they went to when confronted to a problem. He should help them. Obviously that wasn't the case. And he seemed to hate Harry Potter—why? Hermione was dying to know. She had a bit of a soft spot for Harry, ever since the instant she'd spotted him in the train with his Sellotaped glasses and befuddled expression.

Friday didn't get any better, with the Slytherin girls refusing—once again—to come study in the library, Blaise disappearing who-knows-where, and Hermione ending up all alone in the common room, embarking on the notoriously long process of finding a good seat to practice transfiguring matches into needles. They had had transfiguration the day before with Professor McGonagall giving them tons of homework, and Hermione had been simultaneously pleased and worried to learn that they'd have her as a teacher. She liked Minerva McGonagall, but she also feared and respected her. The woman gave off an Ariel Ehrenfels vibe, only older—and it was nice—familiarity in the midst of all this madness.

Before starting wizard school, Hermione also had no idea just how tedious sharing her space with other kids was going to be.

Well, you wouldn't, would you? You'd think you'd be part of a study team in some thrilling, busy classroom, arguing the toss over which of this week's world-shattering lesson was the best, sprinting around wearing those glittery wizard hats patterned with stars and moons and screaming 'I'm out of parchment!' every five minutes. Or, more accurately, as she was really secretly hoping to be in Gryffindor, you'd think you'd be staggering in at noon, bone-tired from the day's thrilling adventures in the woods, smelling of patchouli and pumpkin spice, lips stained dark red from eating wild berries and laughing so loudly with your friends that other students stared at you.

Being a first-year Slytherin in Hogwarts consisted of none of those things. There was no study team; there were no star hats; there were no outgoing friends and there were definitely no grand exploits. Learning magic outside the classroom itself was no more than Hermione and Ernie Macmillan, slumped at graffiti-covered tables in the unloveliest corner of an empty library. Toilets to the right, Divination Section to the left, and a bank of bins blocking them from the view of all the proper subjects and older students who worked this early in the year. Though in Hermione's opinion, calling them 'proper' subjects and 'students' was being a bit generous. The Gryffindor seventh-years consisted of interchangeable rowdy lads who seemed to have fallen into the castle by accident. They chucked enchanted balls of paper at each other a lot, sniggered about Madam Pince, and awaited the upcoming trips to the neighbouring village with impatience. The Hufflepuff group was a more professional outfit, and there were only two Ravenclaws; Robert Hilliard and Ophelia Rushden, both prefects. Astonishingly, Slytherins were no regulars. They drifted in and out of sections, silently chose books, and went back to where they came from.

The reason why Hermione spent so much time observing who visited the library was simply because she was astonished by this general attitude toward schoolwork.

Why did Hogwarts students never want to study? They were learning magic, for Merlin's sake! Did they know how lucky they were to be here? Or did they just take it all for granted? While muggles everywhere had to try to remember various parts of cells and struggle through maths, these tossers were discovering how to make things float, brewing potions and bloody teleporting. But what did they do instead of being grateful and diligently doing their homework?

They complained about it. Incessantly! And went on doing basically anything that wasn't school-related. Playing with friends, going to the Gobstones Club, wandering the sunny grounds, playing Quidditch or knitting, mocking the rare students who actually wanted to get good grades, labelling them as know-it-alls...

Hermione had known all her life that other people weren't like her, and that they could be unkind and unsympathetic purely because they didn't like that she wasn't like them—but she never thought she'd feel out of place in Hogwarts. It was jarring, even if, in her opinion, there was no express reason to make new friends; she liked the ones she had. And probably, she'll grow on her classmates, just like back in France. A couple of derisive glances from some girls sitting in high carved chairs, however, were sufficient to persuade her that this might be an overly optimistic view. Very Lucas-ish of her. If he were here, he'd laugh at her for getting so worked up over 'British losers'. The more she thought about him, the more she realized that she shouldn't care. She wasn't doing anything wrong, not breaking a law, not bothering anyone. Her father would be proud of her diligence, actually, and the very minute the teachers gave them the exam schedule, she was making a revision timetable.

And just to save valuable time, why didn't she make a start on that now? She pulled out a notebook from her bag as she headed to an empty chair set back from the fireplace, turned to a fresh page and started drafting it. Or at least, she planned on until she saw the paper pinned up on the noticeboard saying that first-years would be having flying lessons on Thursday along with Gryffindor House—and came to a full stop.

Hermione didn't know how to fly. She'd never even tried. She didn't want to try. Brooms scared her. They did this because Rosalind, her grandma-who-wasn't-really-her-grandma, used to beat her up with one. They did this because they were scary. Imagine sitting alone on a thin stick in the air, many meters above the ground. Now imagine the stick being very unstable, and that if you did one movement wrong, or lost your balance, you might fall off, hit the ground under you and possibly injure yourself very badly and die and all sorts of stuff that was scary.

As these thoughts tumbled through her head, Draco Malfoy appeared, moving her way, and in a drawling tone, asked, "What is this? Flying lessons on Thursday... with the Gryffindors?" He sounded overjoyed. Flying was the one skill at which he was confident he would outshine all the other first-years. To hear him say it, he was fast enough to create tides on the Black Lake if he flew past it too quickly. "This is brilliant."

"All right," Hermione muttered irritably. "Calm down, we're not all massive fans of broomsticks. Does your family own a Quidditch team somewhere or something?"

"You're a witch, you can't possibly understand. Girls are more concerned with dresses and the like, how to get shiny hair, and where to get Harry Potter's autograph."

"Careful, Malfoy. Your jealousy is showing."

"Jealous? Me? I know it's near impossible for you, but don't be ridiculous."

"You do have to admit Harry is unquestionably the most talked-about and admired person at school."

Her classmate shot her an irritated look that clearly asked, 'Where is this going?'

"This would naturally anger somebody like you," Hermione went on delicately. "I mean, it's like a slur on your family name. Must be why you're always bullying the Gryffindors. Especially Potter and Weasley. Jealousy."

The 'Where is this going?' faded into 'Are you out of your mind?'

"Look, I'm not trying to be rude, but you must—"

Draco Malfoy was posh enough to disregard pesky things like manners. "Shut up, Bourbon. You don't know anything about my life, so keep your nose out of it if you know what's good for you."

Pompous git. Pompous, arrogant, ignorant git. Hermione had read all about his family in Nature's Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy. "I also got wizarding blood going back centuries," she said sourly, "but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the values Gryffindor stand for. Anyway, I'm not asking you to become best friends with them, but couldn't you at least leave them alone? You're pushing your luck, what if you get caught by a professor and lose us points, as your housemate I—"

"Have no right to tell me what I can or cannot do," Draco snapped. "You're not my mother. Actually, you're a nobody, so shut up."

"You know what? Fine, I don't care!" Hermione exploded. "God, I don't even know why you of all people had to be in this school, in my house, even poor Harry would have made a much better addition to Slytherin. Who knows, we could have been friends!"

Something nasty flashed in Draco's grey eyes. "Don't you grow bored of your own voice, Bourbon? Stop living in your little fantasy world. You weren't going to be anyone's friend. The only way Potter's ever going to talk to you is if you do his homework for him. Because you're a lousy, lousy witch. A good student, I'll grant you that. That big brain of yours has had teachers hooked from the start. But you're annoying. No one in their right mind is going to be interested in you. Merlin," he snorted, "haven't you ever even realized Parkinson and Greengrass don't actually like you? Zabini let them know you lived in some big French castle, so they'd accept being seen with a teacher's pet. If that wasn't the case, they wouldn't come near you with a ten-foot broomstick!"

Hermione felt something loosen in her, that shouldn't have loosened. "Shut up, swear, Malfoy, swear on my parents' graves, that if you don't shut up—" She broke off. Partly because she was so upset she was shaking. And partly because someone had just come into the common room.

An expectant hush fell over just as the secret stone door closed back behind an unusually short boy. Black hair ruthlessly buzz cut against his scalp, purple circles under his eyes, shiny prefect badge. Visibly deranged. Meet Niles Hanley, sixth-year prefect.

Draco took this opportunity to flee, pivoting on his heels and sprinting up the stairs to the dormitories.

Hermione was about to do the same when she was asked, "Hey, you there. Whats-your-name, Bourgon? Nah, Bourbon? What was all that about?"

"I reckon that's none of your business."

Niles Hanley didn't respond. What he did was stare expressionlessly at her for a long, worrying moment in a way that immediately got her talking. When she was done explaining what had just transpired, he asked, "Why didn't you tell somebody instead of telling him off yourself? That's what we're for."

Hermione startled. It had occurred to her, but it seemed like a situation she could deal with herself. "I don't know."

"You shouldn't take the law into your own hands," Niles counselled. "That way it'll be you who ends up in trouble."

She listened because she respected him, but what he was saying didn't sound right. If you didn't have a choice, if you wanted to get things done, you did have to take the law into your own hands. If you were hungry and no one would feed you, then you had to steal food from the fridge at night; that was how real life worked. If someone got locked in you did your best to get them out. If you wanted someone to stop doing something, you had to make them.

Niles was staring at her curiously. "You've had quite a stressful week, haven't you? All the running around..."

"Well, our first Potions class was certainly an experience."

"Ah! You met Snape!' His face cleared, like a little boy who suddenly understood his algebra. "No wonder you're feeling a bit out of sorts. You work yourself too hard. Gemma was telling me about it, you're that girl who gets up at seven to study every morning, aren't you?"

"I do like to knock out a couple of chapters before breakfast," Hermione admitted.

The prefect pushed her toward the stairs. "Go to bed, Bourbon. And can you take the afternoon off work at all? Tell you what, I'll talk to Malfoy—boys can be such little shits at that age—don't worry."

"I don't think—"

"Just go along with it. I've been looking for a chance to destroy this kid."

Hermione went along with it. Good to have some of the crazy people on her side, for a change. There was a smile on her face as she mounted the first steps of the polished black stairs curving upward.

"A new addition to the goon squad?"

Hermione turned round. She found herself looking down at a head of hair, so black it shone blue under the greenish candlelights. Theodore Nott stood at the foot of the staircase, so quiet and unobtrusive, she'd walked past without even noticing him. Until he talked. Despite the fact they were classmates, it was the longest thing he had ever addressed to her. She didn't count the time he said, 'Mind lending me a quill?' in Herbology.

"Pardon?"

"Malfoy," he said, lethargically. "Seems like you're close friends. Are you telling me you like Crabbe and Goyle too?"

Hermione wasn't sure she liked his tone. "Not close friends," she said stiffly. "Not any kind of a friend, in fact. Just an acquaintance."

"Right. Didn't mean to offend. Your conversation sounded interesting."

"Why, what did you hear?"

There was a sudden racket downstairs, which turned out to be a gang of girls falling about with hilarity, standing back up, and collapsing into giggles again. Now that's what a Friday evening was meant to be like. Just a bunch of friends having fun. How come Hermione was stuck talking to this awkward dullard? She winced at the thought. That was not nice of her. After all she had always hated those people who spent parties looking over their shoulder for someone more interesting to talk to. And she was not about to start losing her manners just because this idiot Malfoy got her upset. Besides, Nott might be a little on the reserved side, but he was far from repulsive, and Blaise liked him. "And," she went on more politely, "where are you going?"

Theodore blinked, then shrugged. "I've asked myself the same question. Sitting back home watching water boil would've been a better use of a day."

Hermione stared at him. "But... we're at a boarding school!'

He stared back. "So?"

"Well, there's free food, and amazing books... and all these different people..."

His mouth gave a twitch. "You can find that anywhere. And I have nothing to say to a single one of these people. But I see your point. The castle is better than home in many other ways." It seemed to be a long speech for him and he stopped abruptly, as if he had used up his quota of words for the day.

As Hermione watched him disappear in the passage, she realized he hadn't really answered any of her questions at all.

Next morning at breakfast, it looked safe enough for her to go sit with her classmates. No one was showing any signs of hating her with unspeakable passion. Pansy was busy talking Blaise's ear off, and Malfoy was sipping his pumpkin juice, looking slightly less arrogant than usual. He even pulled her chair out for her to sit down. Well, he kicked it out for her to sit down. But it was an improvement. Hanley must have had words with him.

"Hermione," said Blaise, shoving a chunk of bread across the table to her, "you have to taste this."

"What is it?"

"Rolls."

"But I don't like rolls."

"You'll like these rolls."

Hermione chewed off part of it. Blaise was right. When it came to food, Blaise was always right. His knowledge was vast, his taste flawless. "Did you get through all of your Transfiguration homework?" he asked. "I've been working on that formula McGonagall gave us for ages. The variables of wand power and concentration, I could understand, but that part about bodyweight has been driving me crazy."

"The overall mass and size of the object to be transfigured?"

"Yeah, I don't see what that's got to do with anything."

Hermione was explaining that weight had to be taken into account because it was proportional to the difficulty of the spell and skill of the wizard when she was interrupted by the arrival of the post. To her pleasure, no less than three owls soared down, circled the long table and dropped letters on to her lap. Malfoy and she were the only first-years who received packages every day. A screech owl brought her the latest issue of Magie d'Aujourd'hui—the world-famous French newspaper—then it was Lucas's owl's turn, and they had hardly fluttered out of the way that one of the school birds dropped a letter on top of the table.

What? Who would be writing to her from school? She ripped it open, frowning. It said,

Miss Bourbon,
I am sorry to hear about your medical condition that makes it impossible for you to ride a broom. You are thereby exempt from Thursday's flying lesson.

R. Hooch

Hermione had difficulty hiding her bewilderment as she handed the note to Blaise to read. This particular problem had been bugging the hell out of her head all weekend and it was solved just like that, out of nowhere?

"You can thank your dad for that one," Blaise said offhandedly when he was done reading. "Have you been crying your nerdy little heart out to him?"

Hermione had in fact complained to her father in her last letter—but she had never thought he would act on her blathering. "What the heck? It wasn't that serious. Why would he take the trouble to—?"

Blaise got serious, in that mock-serious way he had where you never knew if he was clowning or not. "Of course he's going to take it seriously, he loves you more than anyone could love anything in the world. You can tell that in thirty seconds."

"A little melodramatic, don't you think?" Hermione said, weighing the benefits of spending Thursday afternoon studying against the drawbacks of having to miss out on British wizard experience. Sadly, she had plans for her school path—like being the best student to ever grace the corridors of Hogwarts—so the study-afternoon won. She surmised that as a man of science, her father must have understood that getting his progeny out of this ridiculously dangerous class was essential. Basic biology, wasn't it? Didn't each species do whatever it could to survive? Well, he probably wasn't going to stick around and see what happened to the Bourbon species when they put his daughter on a deadly stick of death.

Pansy leaned over. "Are you skipping flying lessons? You can't do that. That's against your morals or something."

Hermione folded the note and stuffed it in her pocket. She did feel guilty. But not as bad as she would have felt if she had to touch a broomstick. "It's not skipping, and even if it were I can give you a bunch of good reasons why I have no other choice. The alternative being that I would be stuck in a horrifying, deadly class, with rubbish security, rubbish gear, and at the end nothing for my father to boast to his friends about. I'm doing everyone a favour, really. And why do we have to take flying classes in the first place? Frankly, safety provision at Hogwarts is unacceptable. The main sport played by the school, to name one example, is incredibly dangerous and should be reviewed by the Ministry's Department of Magical Education immediately."

That cracked Pansy up. Things that she found funny were highly unpredictable. "GREENGRASS," she yelled, "you've GOT to listen to this."

Daphne, who kept a bit apart from them, stopped playing with the tip of her cashmere scarf. "I beg your pardon?" Beside her, Theodore Nott just sat there, saying nothing, swinging his hair left and right to crack his neck. They made a good couple—a silent, poker-faced couple.

"Don't you laugh at me, Pansy."

"She tells me the funniest stuff I've heard all year, and then she says don't laugh. This is aweso—"

"Shut up, Sissy," cut in a voice from the other end of the table. Chairs were scraping against the floor as a bunch of giant blokes stood and the biggest of them all started Terminator-marching toward them. He was rugged-featured, with black stubble and a heavy brow over deep-set eyes. "Stop being so fucking loud, first thing in the morning," he said when he was close enough to loom over them.

With a squeal, Pansy stood and threw herself at him in a tackle-hug, utterly unmoved by the fact that fifth-years and above were the scariest thing ever. "Marcus! No 'good morning'? No 'and how did you sleep, pretty witch?' No introduction to your friends?"

'Marcus' grabbed her by the collar and lifted her up, peeling her off him like she was a kitten. Bringing her up to his eye level, he said, "No noogie, no fist in your face. You've been lucky so far. Keep up the bullshit, though, and I might just drop you on your dumb little head."

"Hey! Put me down this instant you troll-faced—"

Hermione grabbed Pansy's dangling foot. "We'll be late to class." That wasn't the case, but she was trying to avoid bloodshed.

Marcus snorted and set Pansy back on her feet. "Try to keep this lunatic out of trouble," he ordered Hermione before stalking back to his big, scary friends. People gave him a wide berth, as if they expected him to draw an axe and come after them.

"Marcus's captain of the Slytherin team," Pansy explained when they were leaving the hall. "He's my cousin on my mother's side."

"...Is he, now."

"I can see it," said Blaise.

"Ugh, he's way too big and annoying, but I guess most wizards are." On the way to the first floor, Pansy launched into a story about how they went to Greece on holiday and her cousin went insane while they were touring museums in Athens. It required a lot of patience, she explained, and Marcus had none. "Our mums told us to sketch these old skeletons of famous dead Greek wizards. Marcus tore up his paper and threw all his pencils on the floor. He's kind of a giant retard and his friends are just... weird, and mentally, they're all three years old. He's always flunking all his classes. They actually put him in some remedial Potions class because he brews like somebody who doesn't understand English."

Hermione whipped back toward her classmate. The proverbial light bulb had just lit up over her head. "Remedial Potions?" she asked avidly. "With Professor Snape?"

"Yup, along with some other retards. They're that bad. Anyway, with any luck you'll never have to talk to them. But I don't know much about Snape."

These menacing blokes who spent hours alone with Snape, on the other hand, probably knew him better than anyone. Assuming they would be willing to help.

"There's something I've been wondering about, something very important," Hermione explained. "I think the seventh-years would know about it. How convenient. I need to ask."

"Right," Pansy said skeptically. "That might be a bad idea." She seemed to think Hermione was all talk and not actually planning to go through with it.

. . .

Marcus Flint sprawled back in a leather armchair near the fireplace, thumbing through a months-old issue of The Wizard's Friend and trying to curb the urge to punch the dickhead sitting next to him in the face for coughing in his general direction. Salazar knew what kind of germs he was spreading.

"Bloody hell," Sebastian called, after he was done polluting the general vicinity and a group of attractive girls had walked into the common room. "Is it just me or did Julia really fill out over the summer?"

"I don't know," Maxwell Berrow said, "but I got dibs on the fit brunette next to her."

"Berrow, did you just come in your pants?"

"Fuck off, Flint."

Sebastian was craning his neck to get a better look at the witches. "Banging, but high maintenance. Sebastian Is Wise And He Knows," he imparted, tapping a finger to his head.

"You're a retard, Daley," Marcus said companionably.

"Whatever. And Berrow," Sebastian hissed, kicking the other sixth-year under the table, "just go and talk to your bird already if you're gonna drool all over your robes."

"I will later," Maxwell said, kicking him back. His tone changed as he added, "No one's caught your eye, Flint, eh? I can't help but wonder if you've realized how much you've changed lately."

Marcus frowned in confusion. "What? What the bloody hell are you talking about?"

Sebastian crossed his arms, nodding. "No, no. He's quite right." Pointing at the fourth wizard sitting with them, he said,

"Yatty-Baby here—"

"You did not just call me that," Yatin Bhagat said with a sigh. "You did not."

Sebastian, of course, ignored him and went on, "—and I were just saying the other day that you've changed, Marcky—"

"The fuck did you just call me?"

"Marcky," Yatin and Maxwell chorused, before bursting into laughter.

"Hilarious," Marcus snarled.

"Will you let me talk!" Once all the attention was once again on Sebastian, he cleared his throat importantly and continued, "So we all think that you've been kind of different lately, compared to, I don't know, last year."

"I am still the definition of tough, okay? The baddest of the bad. Ask anybody."

Maxwell, Sebastian, and Yatin all stared at him without answering.

"All right. Different how?"

Sebastian offered, "You haven't talked about any new witches you've shagged in a while."

"You actually come to class now." This from Yatin.

"When's the last time you went drinking or to a party?" Maxwell.

Marcus racked his brain for the last time he went to a party and got smashed. Images of him eating and staying at home with his family this summer popped up instead. Fucking hell. "What are you sayin'?" he shouted defensively. "It's only the second week of school!"

"Never stopped you before," Sebastian threw back. "You've also dialled down your dickhead levels. Don't get me wrong, you're still a dickhead, but you don't make me want to curl up in a ball and cry now."

Marcus knew why they were saying all this rubbish. He massaged his temples. The problem was that his cousin Pansy was adorable, the same way chihuahuas were adorable—sweet until they bit off your finger and left it bleeding on the ground. She was a pain in the neck, a little pest. But Marcus did not beat up little dogs. Just wasn't this kind of bloke. Similarly, he couldn't beat up his cousin because mate, that was totally against his man-code. Which was why he had to be on his best behavior around the eleven-year-old, he didn't want to scare her, or worse, give her something to use against him at a family function. He'd already threatened to beat the crap out of anyone daring to tell her any stories that floated around about him—what if she filed the information away for blackmail purposes?

He was tempted to act on these threats now that his friends were being their usual stupid selves. Sebastian and Maxwell were the most vocal in attacking him, Yatin just sported a faintly superior smile. Three against one. The whole place looked like some sadistic playpen.

"Shit's going down like it's 1473," Marcus mumbled, then chuckled at himself. The non-Quidditch players at the table all exchanged looks of confusion and he stopped laughing. These were his mates, but they really were idiots sometimes. "Forget it. Anyway, you don't know my little cousin, she's a serial snitch with a split personality. That's why I'm trying to keep a low profile."

Sebastian waved his hand about. "Even if she catches you doing shit, so what? What's the worst she can do?"

"I don't even want to imagine."

Yatin scoffed. "She's a first-year, for fuck's sake. You could scare twenty of these kids to death on a good day. Just tell her to piss off."

"Or buy her something," suggested Maxwell. "What do firsties even like? Chocolate cake? Ice-cream? Ice-cream cake with rainbow sprinkles?"

Marcus despaired at their naiveté. "Mate, you've never seen Pansy after she's had sugar. You don't even know the craziness that small body can hold. She's like my aunt Ivy but tinier and with literally no impulse control. Whatever you're imagining, it's worse."

That amused Maxwell. "Marcus Flint, are you scared of your cousin?"

"Pussy," Yatin coughed in his fist loudly. "Oh excuse me, Flint. Terrible cough I'm developing."

"I'm not scared of anything, let alone a three foot gremlin! Merlin, you know what, just zip it and let me read in peace before I lose patience and my fist ends up in your face."

"Why, what grand book are you reading?" Sebastian asked, squinting at the page. "Septimus 007: The Mage Spy? I'm just not sure it's the right career choice for you, Marcky."

Marcus rolled his eyes and went back his magazine because, mate, spies were like the world's smartest badasses, when another shadow fell over his page. He lifted his eyes to see a little girl standing next to his armchair. Pansy's friend, he'd seen her around. A first-year, dark-haired, with a big leatherbound book under her arm. Her brown eyes had a purposeful look to them, like she were considering the best way to take him down in a fight.

Marcus couldn't read the title of her book. He thought he was too stupid. Then he realized the book wasn't even in English. It was written in another alphabet. Ancient Greek, he reckoned. The odd silver letters seemed to glide across the cover.

The girl was still standing there, just waiting, so he asked, "What are you staring at? I know I'm a stud, but you're pushing it."

"What's a stud?"

Marcus barely checked a snort. He was pretty sure he knew what was a stud at that age. What kind of slobbers did this kid have for parents? Teaching her loser old languages but not basic vocabulary? "Whatever. Get lost." All he intended to say. He'd always thought it wise to avoid entangling himself in a conversation with anyone under fourteen.

The girl had other ideas. "I couldn't help but overhear your conversation, about Pansy. If you want my opinion, she doesn't give an owl's hoot about what you do in your spare time—and to be honest, it's a bit arrogant of you to presume so. I mean, don't get me wrong, she'd definitely rat you out to your parents if you get in trouble, but only if she hears it from someone else. Your best shot is to have her hear it from you. I'd go as far as to say she'd feel important to be trusted with your secrets and would help you keep them."

Who was this kid? A therapist?

But she did have nerve, didn't she? Marcus liked that. He hated people who kissed his ass.

The girl paused and then went on, in a secretive tone, "This is kind of off topic but I noted Professor Snape hates Harry Potter. You know, the Harry Potter—well, obviously you know who Harry Potter is. Anyway, Harry hasn't done anything, to anyone. You wouldn't happen to know why Snape loves bullying him so, would you?"

Maxwell gave a loud snort. "This kid's so full of it," Yatin commented and Sebastian peered at her and said, "You lose your way from the hospital wing or something?"

She ignored them all, still staring up at Marcus impatiently. "At first I thought it was a one-time thing, but then it happened again," she said, utterly serious, and pointed to the cluster of first-years next to the windows. "The others were here, and the Gryffindors too—though I hardly expect you to know any of them. I've been discussing it with Harry, but he hasn't been really cooperative. Then again I'm not very likeable," she added matter-of-factly, "that might be why. Anyway, I doubt he knows anything useful. He grew up with muggles, so, he doesn't know our ways. I could have asked Professor Snape but…" She grimaced a bit. "All right, so I've been dealing with this wizard for weeks now. And he's mean. So mean he probably dreams of killing small children. Twisted in some deep way that probably should involve counselling, six kinds of pharmaceuticals, and a stay in prison."

"Are you for real?" Marcus asked, and she just frowned and nodded like, of course. He nodded back, just once, thinking, Right, this is going to be hilarious. Even if this kid was a complete liar or just out of her mind in general, or maybe doing performance art of some kind, he liked that she believed in what she was trying to sell him. "What's your name?" he asked.

"Hermione. Hermione of Bourbon."

The name resonated in Marcus's mind, like he should know it. He always had trouble remembering things. No matter. Pansy knew this girl, so he couldn't kick her ass or something. Besides, he had to admit this whole twisted murdered thing sounded pretty bad. What if Snape went psycho in class and something happened to his defenceless, loudmouthed cousin? Assuming it was true and not some kind of invention. It was weird to think how easy it was to believe this frowning child.

"Come on," he said, "tell me your best guess, then."

"My guess?" the girl said, her brows snapping together.

Marcus smirked, encouraging her to keep the game going. Of course she'd back down after he pushed for more, he figured, because there probably wasn't any. "Yeah," he said. "Snape. Bullying a kid. What's in it for him?"

"That's what I'm asking you," she said, shaking her head in resignation. Marcus thought, Here it is, mate. But then she went on, "There could be many reasons, he's what, thirty-five? Meaning he was in Hogwarts in the seventies, so he must have been like twenty-five when the thing with You-Know-Who went down, meaning—"

"Oh," Sebastian was clapping his hands excitedly. "Ooooh, you cant think... You don't possibly think that—"

A defiant and obstinate look came over Hermione Bourbon's face. "Well, it's not completely impossible, is it? He seems so bitter about everything and the dates coincide."

"Could be an isolated incident. You're reading too much into it. It's just Snape being Snape."

"By definition, an isolated incident is isolated. You haven't seen it, he really, really hates Harry."

"There must be a reason. It's a small world down here, I can give you the names of at least two kids that my own grown-ass parents would hate on sight, just because of bad relations."

"They've never met before," the girl dismissed. "Given the difference between the two families' geography, occupations, and lifestyle, what are the odds that their only common point is a famous homicidal maniac?"

"Supposing what you say is true," Sebastian continued relentlessly, "how in the world was a convict allowed to teach for all these years? Most of these guys are behind bars or laying low in their manors. And more importantly, what's the endgame? Bloody killing the kid?"

"Very unlikely, given that you're talking about a murder, which, at least in Harry's case, would occur in a castle full of trained teachers. A disorganised idiot might have the impulsiveness for such an attack, and Professor Snape's not an idiot. He would take the time to scout out the risks."

"So what, the bullying is part of some elaborate methodical plan?"

They started talking really fast about murder plans and wizarding wars but in Marcus's mind, they might as well be discussing the floo network in third world countries. "Mind explaining to the rest of us what the hell you're talking about?"

"Shut up, Marcus," Sebastian said irritably before turning back to the first-year. "Look, taking down somebody far-famed, under the nose of Dumbledore, just out of revenge, in a span of a year—long shot. That kind of bloodlust toward one kid, combined with such high-level control..." His voice trailed off. "I can't picture it. It doesn't fit."

"But a full grown man randomly deciding to make a child's life hell, going out of his way to do so, said child just happening to be Harry Potter—that makes sense?"

"Coincidences happen."

"It's not a coincidence!"

"Then, what?"

"We need information. I know: we'll ask around. What a great idea! Wish I would have thought of it!"

"Now she's all mad and sarcastic," Sebastian sing-sang. "You're lucky I'm a curious person, I'll help. Well, Marcky will help and I'll help him help!"

"What do you want me to look for?" Marcus asked. Because what the hell, humouring the two lunatics seemed like the safest option here.

Hermione's brown eyes got big as saucers as she ripped a parchment and quickly scribbled on it, muttering, "Obviously family relations... Maybe records, letters? Or pictures? If your parents know anything—"

Marcus snagged the paper. "Fine, whatever," he said. "But if you tell anyone, I'll rip your ears off and staple them to your neck."

Hermione beamed at him. "Oh, thank you so much! I'll leave you alone now. Have a good evening!"

"Yeah." Like it's been amazing so far. "You too."