Elaine knew that they were following her. They'd been doing it all term, lurking in the shadows. She'd waited for them to do something at first. She'd waited for a flash of light and a shout to scatter the group of first years she was walking to class and show them how unsafe they all were. She'd waited but there'd been nothing. Exams were looming, and still there'd been nothing; so she kept her wand at the ready but she didn't worry much about it. She dropped the first years off with a pleased Professor Flitwick and listened as she walked away, less alone than she'd have liked to be.
She didn't run. Running would be nearly pointless in their world of impediment and leg locking jinxes and in such a narrow hall. Running would make them act to stop her. Better by far to walk and seem confident. They weren't following her; she was leading them to her hiding place. They didn't know the way inside. She'd be fine there until they gave up and went away.
I'll be more careful next time, she thought. Then she laughed a bit as Razi's voice came to mind. You should be more careful now. Don't let them see where you're going.
Elaine disillusioned herself as she reached the proper corridor. Using a spell she'd always thought of as the height of lazy magical ridiculousness, she opened a door further down and then another as she passed it. She was heading for the portrait of Winston the Wan.
"They mean me harm and that won't fool them for long," she whispered. The portrait nodded sadly, even as it moved aside.
She saw them, Thorfinn Rowle and several other Slytherins, coming down the hall as the portrait closed.
"Find her," Rowle snarled as it locked into place.
Elaine was stuck for the time being. She walked to the far side of the smallish room and leaned back against the shelving that lined the wall.
She was spine to spine with novels by Sayers and Tolkien. Somewhere above her was an assortment of muggle items ranging from dolls to pens and pencils. The other walls had still posters of film stars Sellotaped to them. Whatever they had planned, it'd be worse if they found her in that particular room, but where else could she go? The others would forgive her, surely? Maybe Razi would know of somewhere else that was safe from the future death-eaters.
Elaine's heart pounded against her ribs as she closed her eyes and let the fear she'd been holding back crash over her. God and Merlin alike, what if they found her? What if they got in? if she wasn't safe, in that moment, hiding as they sought her actively, then had they ever been safe? The weight of all the risks they'd taken was daunting, but those risks had been necessary. She had to believe that, and she had to calm down.
Classes were going to start soon; the footsteps outside need not be their footsteps. They were, of course, but they didn't have to be. Winston wouldn't let them in. Everything could carry on as before, except -
Rats! she thought, I'm going to be late, and then I'll get detention and mess up the whole schedule.
Maybe She'll let me off, she continued. Won't be the first muggleborn to show up late and tired or roughed up. She understands most of the time.
McGonagall knew what and who Elaine was. She'd understand.
A low, angry voice growled at Winston, "She in there?"
Winston was silent. Elaine slowed and deepened her breath, fighting against a spike of fear. All she could do was wait.
She could do that. She'd done it before.
Years before, on a rare sunny afternoon at beginning of summer holidays, Elaine had been reading in a chair she'd dragged out to the front step when McGonagall had walked up the street. Elaine wouldn't have said at the time that she was waiting for anything, but then, there was so much that she hadn't known about herself back then. Pushing back against the Sayers novel she smiled a little despite herself.
She'd been waiting her whole life for that hot, sleepy day, and the professor in that stuffy muggle approximation of her robes - a long-sleeved black dress with a hem that brushed her shoes and a wide brimmed black hat – to walk up and say, "Elaine Walker?"
That moment was the start of the conversation that would grant her access to a world, to power that had been hers since birth. It would also gift her with the only pocket of time in which she honestly believed that to be a perfect and uncomplicated good.
McGonagall couldn't have known how bad it would get, how bad it already was back then. Her lions had always had their fights, and with Slytherin in particular. If more muggleborns and "blood traitors" fought than usual, it would have been easy to miss. She couldn't have anticipated Elaine's sorting, or any of it, and if she had, well – McGonagall wasn't head of Gryffindor house for nothing. She certainly wasn't deputy headmistress for nothing. Professor McGonagall would still have come to Suffolk to put the 'witch' in Ipswich (or rather to let Elaine know she'd been there the whole time). What else could she have done? Elaine had waited, albeit unknowingly. Cursed or blessed with an October birthday, Elaine had even waited longer than some. She'd turned eleven after the cutoff for the previous year. It was time.
Elaine looked up from her book as a woman approached from the road. Elaine had been draped over her chair, but she turned and sat more properly as she realized that she was being looked for. She glanced down at the wireless she'd left playing, but the batteries must have died while she'd been reading.
"That's me, Ma'am," Elaine replied, wary. Then she tilted her head and asked, "How did you know?"
The woman gave a small smile.
"All in good time, child," she said. "Are either of your parents home?"
"My mother", Elaine said. "She's just inside, should I get her?"
"That might be best," the woman answered. "I am a professor at a rather special school, and I've come to discuss your future. My name is Minerva McGonagall."
Elaine decided that it might be best to be kind to the woman who, by all appearances, would not only be discussing but deciding her future. She offered the woman her seat and then ran inside.
"Mum!" she called. She found her mother in the sitting room watching something on television. "There's a professor here. She's in my chair and she knew my name. She wants to talk about my future. "
"Elaine," her mother scolded as she stood and turned off the device, "you told me that you'd done well last school term. Why is a professor showing up during the summer?"
"She's not from my school," Elaine clarified. "She sounds Scottish."
Elaine walked with her mother to the front door and when they opened it they found Minerva McGonagall sitting where Elaine had left her and examining the wireless radio with unusual interest.
"Please, come in," Lucy Walker said, and soon Elaine and the professor were sitting in the dining room as Lucy pulled a pitcher of lemonade from the refrigerator and brought it over to sit beside a plate of biscuits on the table. The professor had passed the wireless to Elaine and she was holding it on her lap, not wanting to miss anything by going upstairs to put it away.
Mrs. Walker poured the professor a glass and then sat down, asking, "What brings you here, professor? And may I ask where you teach?"
"Of course, I'm from Hogwarts, a school for students who were born with certain talents. I also act as deputy headmistress."
"What sorts of talents?" Elaine asked, intrigued.
"Talents like turning on and playing a muggle wireless that has no clear power source," The professor noted. "It doesn't have batteries in it, I looked. And it turned off as I approached, without you having touched it."
Elaine froze and looked for herself. It was true. "I…I really wanted to hear a radio drama that played earlier today; I didn't even look before I turned it on."
"That's not the first time something like that has happened before though, is it? Something happening when you wanted something very much, or were afraid, or very happy?" McGonagall asked, leaning towards her in interest.
Elaine thought back to that time she'd been afraid of the dark after seeing a horror movie and had found her room full of little lights, like small stars glowing and protecting her. She recalled a dozen or so times when, about to be late for dinner, she'd found herself moving faster than she'd thought possible.
"It's … it's like magic," she murmured to herself. "Those times, I wasn't dreaming or pretending… it's been real."
"Magic is exactly what it is," McGonagall told her gently. "You have magic. You are a witch, as I am."
"Hogwarts is a school for witches?" Elaine asked, even as her mother sighed heavily.
"This is impossible," Lucy said. She reached out and put a hand on Elaine's shoulder, holding just a bit too tight. "I know my daughter. I'd know if my child was- how do I know that you're telling the truth?"
Professor McGonagall pulled a slender bit of wood, Elaine realized that it must be a magic wand, from her bag and proceeded to clean the few dishes in the sink before turning her lemonade glass into a lemon and back. Finally, she stood and changed into a tabby cat. When she was human again, she looked into Elaine's eyes and spoke.
"Elaine, you are a witch and so you must understand that you possess powers which, if trained, could serve you well. If left untrained, it is possible that you will do great harm, much greater than your family is equipped to prevent." The professor's voice was stern but not cold as she continued, "Hogwarts has had your name down since you were born. You have always been a witch and it is your right to learn with others of your kind and to take up your place in our world."
The professor pulled a few books out of her bag, along with a letter with an extremely specific address. Passing the letter to Elaine, she let the girl read while turning to address Lucy, who was staring at them.
"My daughter is a child, and whatever place you have for her, you have to help me understand this first. And you'd better stay for dinner as well. I am not explaining this to Allen by myself. My husband should be home soon," Lucy said. She took a deep breath, though it didn't seem to steady her much. "Is she- Are you human? What exactly do you mean by witch? Will she need a cat?"
When Elaine's father came in from work, they repeated the discussion and Elaine was sent upstairs with dinner and the books that the professor had brought for her. By the time the professor left in the evening, it was fairly well decided. Elaine was going to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the fall, to learn magic.
That night Elaine lay in bed and pinched herself a few times. She'd never had a dream that lasted so long, but clearly, if she'd learned anything from the last few hours, there was a first time for everything.
Staring up at the ceiling she thought about her life. It was going to be something entirely different now. Different from what she'd thought it would be, different from what her parents' lives were, different from everything she knew, it would have to be.
She rolled over, turned on the lamp at her bedside, and pulled out the book that Professor McGonagall had given to her before she left, Wizarding Welcomes: a Primer for the Muggleborn Magic User. It was a thin book, plum with an emerald silhouette of a pointed hat and wand on the cover. It gave information about vocabulary, an index of wizarding places that even a beginner should be aware of, and modes of travel. The largest section detailed the need for secrecy and punishments that would result for any attempt to expose the wizarding world to muggles who were not the parent or guardian of a witch or wizard.
The book was her only source of information about anything at all relevant to her new future. Besides that, the pictures moved on their own, and there were quite a few pictures in the short chapter on magical beasts. In the safety of her room she felt the wonder of it all overtake her suddenly.
I am a witch, she thought to herself, I can turn things into other things and make myself into other things and fly. I could fly. And I'm going to live in a castle like out of a fairytale, and meet other witches and…. It was all weeks and weeks away. It'd be late in July, the 25th, before she'd even see any magic at all and then only to buy her school things and there'd be more weeks still.
Nearly four years later and those weeks felt like nothing to Elaine as she hid behind Winston's portrait. Enemies paced just meters away, and the secrets and safety of her friends and their young charges would be compromised, maybe forever, if they found where Elaine was hiding. Those months were seconds. These seconds were years.
The book at her back by Dorothy L. Sayers was the one she'd been reading that day, one of her favorites. Elaine remembered a quote.
"To the person who has anything to conceal […] there is one name above others which promises a haven of safety and oblivion."
Elaine settled in for another few seconds, another few years, and wished very much to be in London.
Chapter 2 –
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Elaine rolled her eyes at the thought, because of course life at Hogwarts had been like 'this' from the first days. It was running and hiding. It was contingencies and pockets of safety, and mysterious - but clearly Faustian - bargains to make it more of the latter and less of the former. She'd thought herself more safe than the other group members, which was why they'd set the schedule as they had. In hindsight that had been a mistake. Had there been others?
Elaine knew that she ought to be focused on her next steps, on the future, but the past was known and tempting. It stretched out, a wealth of time that was hers and safe. No new harm could enter that space, not for herself or for her friends. There'd even been some happiness there, and hope.
The train ride to school that year was full of anticipation and optimism. Elaine and Pepper exchanged very mature and clever nods as they met up in the same compartment that they'd occupied the year before. She'd known where to be without thinking about it and she knew where she'd go once they reached Hogsmeade station. She'd made this exact trip before. The repetition felt novel and comforting at the same time. The nods devolved into hugs and laughter as the two sat down.
"How was America?" Pepper asked.
Elaine had been abroad the last few weeks, visiting cousins and lying through her teeth about the staid little boarding school she attended.
"Big," Elaine replied, "and too far away. Feels like it's been ages since I even got to talk to you."
They were soon joined by Matt and Robin, both displaying gold and black prefect badges, and then others from Gryffindor and Ravenclaw. Their compartment filled quickly. They talked strategy. How soon should they try to approach the new muggleborns and half-bloods? Should they wait for them to need help before they offered it?
Practiced in their methods and pleased at their potential, they thrilled at the chance to do and be more than they'd managed in the preceding years. Tasha - a muggleborn Ravenclaw who'd joined up with them the year before- had brought friends, ideas, and a knack for organization that was already entirely indispensable. Who else might they meet? Maybe they'd get a Hufflepuff who'd let them know where their bloody common room was, since Matt and Robin had been thoroughly disinclined.
When they arrived at school, Elaine hopped down from the carriage while scanning the crowd for Razi.
The older girl -now a seventh year- had been up ahead, chatting with Alyssa Blythe. A glance even further up towards the castle had revealed Avery and his usual procession, apparently waiting for Alyssa to finish so that they could make a proper entrance.
Turning back to her friends Elaine moved to speak, but Pepper beat her to it.
"Say 'hi' for us, would you? And give her this."
Pepper didn't so much hug Elaine as pounce her, nearly sending them both to the ground.
Elaine gave a thankful nod, laughing as Matt stepped forward and kept the pair from falling over. It was a small enough spectacle, but she'd nearly knocked someone over as she'd flailed. Elaine heard someone hiss "mudbloods" and the telltale rustle of someone reaching into their robes for their wand.
She nearly groaned as she turned to find Rowle glaring at her, wand in hand.
Alyssa must have seen him stop though, or Razi had, as Alyssa made a show of checking her pockets and looking around before walking back towards the carriages. She bumped into Rowle, who turned lowering his wand.
"Ah, there it is." Alyssa gestured to a pocket sized book on the ground. "Rowle, since you've got your wand out would you mind?"
Rowle greeted Alyssa politely, and brought the book to its normal size as he bent to pick it up for her.
Elaine took the opportunity to join Razi and the two went inside to their house table. Not long after that, the first years were led in, and the sorting began. It was, generally, a pleasant and typical first of September. Then, McGonagall called "Grey, Vanessa" up to be sorted.
Through a combination of her size and the inattention of the other nervous first-years Vanessa was slow to get up to the hat, and a low rumble of conversation started. ("Is she…?" "Muggleborn, I'd guess." "The Hufflepuffs can have her. You missed our last fete; a prior engagement?") It petered out as she finally climbed up onto the stool. She used her hands to gather up the riot of dark curls into a puff at the back if her head, allowing McGonagall to set the hat in place. It slid down easily over a face that was roughly the same warm brown of the candlelight on the dark wood of the tables.
The sorting hat considered for long enough that the girl's arms seemed to get tired, and she rested them in her lap until, finally, it decided. Looking entirely too pleased with itself, in Elaine's opinion, the hat called out "Slytherin".
Elaine tensed, as Razi did beside her. The hat had done it again.
They watched Vanessa climb down from the stool and make her way over to the silent table. She was accompanied by the polite murmur of applause from the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws who didn't realize what had just occurred. Slytherin house had just received its third muggleborn student of the most recent decade.
Elaine shared a glance with Razi, not so much asking permission as giving a warning, before waving the girl over and making room for her on the bench between them. The sorting hat continued with its work but Elaine paid it no more mind. Vanessa's face was more than open, it invited casual spectators like a propped up window with the curtains undrawn and a wireless playing loudly inside. The girl's relief at being sorted and welcomed, her fascination with Razi, her curiosity concerning Elaine, all were evident in moments.
One day someone's going to torch that hat, Elaine thought, and I will gladly bring marshmallows and chocolate.
Vanessa's sorting hadn't seemed hopeful in the moment, but Elaine was glad for it now. Razi was graduating and there was so much that Elaine had needed to learn, so much she still needed to learn to keep herself and her friends safe. It was easy to live in the future, to be constantly preparing. Vanessa couldn't do that. New to their world and thrown into hostile territory, she held them solidly in the present. She kept them near enough to help her and to see each other.
Properly Slytherin, Vanessa did that mostly instinctively and out of self-interest, but Elaine – and probably Razi- allowed it for similar reasons. Hope, Elaine had found, had a lot to do with reaching out for light sources in dark rooms. Need didn't cheapen it or make it less and fear? Well, that remained to be seen.
Elaine stood and walked to the back of the portrait. It'd been a few minutes. Maybe they'd gotten bored and found someone else. She reached up a hand and moved to push it open, but she'd barely applied any pressure when it spoke to someone.
"Shouldn't you boys be in class by now?" Winston asked with his usual blend of boredom and sadness. Someone snapped a harsh reply, stomping over to the portrait, and Elaine froze in place until they stomped away.
Moving back into the corner of the room, Elaine made a mental note to thank Winston later. Why were they lingering like this? Surely there were other muggleborns around, other half-bloods. And Avery had given specific instructions regarding her, was Rowle so eager to risk Avery's displeasure and have another encounter with Mulciber? She gave an involuntary shudder at the thought.
Irrationally, Elaine wished for Pepper. Gryffindor to the core, this waiting business would bore the other girl to tears and bad decisions, but at least she'd have a plan. Perceptive in ways that no one ever really thought about, she'd see right through whatever plot this was, and she'd know what to do. She had from the day they'd met, during that first trip with the muggleborns of their year to go into Diagon Alley for their wands and school supplies.
Bright, colorful, and loud, the wizarding world had opened up in front of them as the bricks moved and exposed the hidden alley. They'd walked through the Leaky Cauldron, but that had just been an inn, and a pub. Annoyed patrons had glared at crowd coming through and disturbing their routines, they'd been greeted by the barman with a smile and a quick wave, people ate and drank; it'd all been very normal. The alley was much less reserved.
Here, Elaine realized, were wizards in their own element. The group had been bumped and jostled along, past shop fronts with signs in greens, purples, and oranges. Radios in doors blasted barely comprehensible songs, beckoning harried shoppers inside. Pepper grabbed her hand and used it to tug her this way and that. She was always pointing and gasping at things, even during their trip into Gringotts, the solemn and intimidating bank with its goblins for tellers and guards.
Feeling awkward and dizzy with all of the new information, wanting desperately to seem less new, the odd glares their group had received and the barely audible insults had seemed signs that she and the group were doing something wrong.
"Tone it down, Pepper," Elaine asked after the sixth or seventh time someone shot them a hateful look for no apparent reason. "People are getting angry with us."
"It's not because I'm loud," Pepper said. "So I'm going to have fun."
How do you know? Elaine wondered. What if you're wrong?
Even as she thought this, it occurred to her that very few people in the busy, crowded street were quiet. Green was right, her crowing about most of the things that she saw shouldn't have registered.
They'd bought their things and been chosen by their wands. Elaine went last and had, somewhat foolishly pointed out that she didn't know any spells when Ollivander has asked her to try one out. He'd taught her a spell though, lumos, which she'd cast perfectly once her wand had found her. They were on their way out of the alley when someone had bumped into Elaine. They'd done it hard enough to knock her to the ground and make her drop the handle of her new trunk.
As she tried to catch hold of the handle again she heard someone growl, "filthy mudblood."
Another of the students helped her to her feet and dusted her off while Pepper grabbed the handle to her trunk and passed it to her, but Elaine's eyes were focused on Professor McGonagall.
"What did that mean, professor?" she asked "calling me a 'mudblood'?"
A shadow passed over the older woman's face and might have passed over the sun for the chill that Elaine felt.
Finally, the professor sighed, "Come along, children."
As they entered the Leaky Cauldron again, the group was altogether more subdued than they'd been the first time.
"Tom, may we borrow a parlor?" Professor McGonagall asked, and the innkeeper led them down a narrow hallway and into middling sized room. The professor sat in a large chair beside the fireplace, and the muggleborn students sat down on their trunks and waited.
She took a moment to make eye contact with each of them, and then began.
"I had hoped to avoid telling you this," she said, "not out of any desire to leave you unprepared, but to preserve your right to experience this world, for as long as possible, without any more fear or anxiety than you might have when faced with anything new."
She met each of their eyes again and continued, "You have come to our world at a dim time. There are those that favor wizarding heritage and scorn those with muggle or magical creature connections, prizing purity of wizard blood over all else. A group of those who hold these beliefs have proven dangerous to muggleborns and those who support them. You must be careful and consider your actions and surroundings, but this has always been true. For now, I ask that you take extra care in wizarding spaces like Diagon Alley and Platform 9 and ¾, and trust that once you arrive at Hogwarts you will be protected."
"What do you mean, 'dangerous'? They hurt people?" A boy asked, Reggie Anderson, Elaine remembered after a moment.
The professor nodded. "I'm afraid so. A small number have been killed. None of them were attending Hogwarts at the time. You will learn many things in the next few years, among them will be the skills to protect yourselves."
There was silence in the parlor as the students took that in. Elaine reached into the bag from Ollivanders and held her wand, letting the warmth comfort her and remind her of what she could have someday. Part of her felt as though she'd lost something, learning that a world with castles and magic would also have… have villains who wished harm on children? Maybe she'd always known deep down that she couldn't only have part of the story.
Pepper had known it too, she realized, or had known something. In any case, she'd been right. The anger and the irritation, the instant dislike from people, it wasn't because they were loud-
So I'm going to have fun, Elaine mouthed. Those words hadn't ever really left Elaine. They couldn't; they were Pepper in a nutshell, and Pepper had never really left her, not even when the hat had basically tricked Elaine into choosing Slytherin.
("Smart but directed; you learn what you can use. Loyal to be sure, and brave. I know where to put you, but will you do well there?"
"Please, just put me where I best fit," Elaine replied, "where I can learn and become the best that I can be. I'll do it. You're in my head. You know it."
"Confident, and cunning, ah well, better be"Slytherin!")
Razi had been different then, so for more than a week Elaine hadn't had the support of the only other muggleborn student in Slytherin house, but Pepper had kept her safe and away from the dungeons as much as she could.
Pepper wouldn't just sit and wait, getting more and more late for class.
"Think I can slip out now?" she whispered.
"Always leaving," Winston sighed in reply.
Elaine grabbed her bag, disillusioned herself and crept out into the now empty hall. Watchful for signs that someone was resuming the chase, she moved quickly. Exams were too near, and McGonagall wouldn't repeat anything Elaine missed by being late.
"Miss Walker, how lovely of you to join us this afternoon," McGonagall announced as Elaine entered the classroom. "If I may continue with my lecture now?"
Elaine took a seat in the back, on the Hufflepuff side, nodding and mouthing a quick apology. Pulling out a muggle note pad and a pencil from home, she began taking notes despite not quite knowing what they'd be doing that day. Trying to work it out made it easier to ignore the smug looks coming from some of the Slytherin boys that she knew usually followed Rowle.
The walk to class had been tense, even more so than hiding behind Winston had been. She needed to relax for a bit or she'd not have the strength to focus when she needed to. They couldn't get her during class, but she'd need a plan for what to do next.
Noticing that she'd stopped writing, she tried to concentrate on what remained of the lecture. It was hard to do. One of the Slytherins passed another a note. A sharp glance in her direction followed, and a nod.
The professor wrote a word on the board that Elaine recognized from her reading and she got an idea of where they were in the theory. She glanced up at the front row seats, noting that Reggie Anderson was there. She'd not spoken to him in ages- he thought that their group was too much of a risk – but maybe he'd share his notes from the beginning of class. If he wouldn't, there was always Pepper. Lily Evans too – she was better for Charms help than Transfiguration, but lately she'd been able to get Potter to lower himself enough to share his skills with the confused and undeserving masses. He was a prat about it, but a smart one. Even Razi'd probably be willing to offer aid, or Blythe would if she could pry herself away from Avery long enough.
It was endlessly reassuring to be able to list her options for help, even with something as small as a transfiguration lecture. It was reassuring to think how much that list had grown. She'd come a long way from that first night at Hogwarts, newly sorted into Slytherin house, when she'd felt that she had no one at all.
Elaine climbed down from the stool to scattered applause, disturbingly little of which came from the table that McGonagall had pointed out. She walked towards the benches where the other first years had sat, looking for a friendly expression in the row of faces. Finding none, she sat down between two larger groups and settled in to watch the last students of her year be sorted.
As "Weston, Wallace" was sorted into Hufflepuff, Elaine thought back to what she'd read about the school over the summer and stifled a wince. Salazar Slytherin had wanted nothing to do with muggleborn students. Why had the hat put her there? Even if she'd not done her reading, there was Robin.
Elaine glanced over at the Hufflepuff table at the older girl she'd met on the train.
"Just stay away from the upper level Slytherins, and you should be fine," she'd said. Elaine had worried then. Hadn't McGonagall told them that they'd be safe once they got to school? Protected, her mind corrected. McGonagall had said that they'd be protected.
As little comfort as that had been in the moment, it was less now. What would they need to be protected from exactly? She'd thought that the professor had meant that nothing could get inside the grounds to hurt them, but Robin's warning had implied threats within the walls. Elaine felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up and she glanced around at her new housemates only to find rather a lot of them looking back, if only for seconds. Nothing's happened, she thought, maybe it'll be fine.
The sorting ended and Dumbledore gave his speech. The feasting began, and Elaine found that she was hungrier than she'd realized. She took food from all of the dishes that she could reach, and tried to get a sense of the house. The older students sat further up the table, with a large group attending to a single boy who looked older than some but was probably not a seventh year. There was more to it than seniority. Was it more of that blood nonsense? She got a second helping and puzzled over it as she ate.
When some of the other first years began to yawn, the prefects led them out into the dark corridor and down others till they reached the stairs that took them into the dungeons. There were sconces on the walls at regular intervals as they descended, but the light they gave off was too cold and the intervals too far apart for Elaine's liking. They did little to hold off the deepening shadows and the damp staleness of the air. The only windows that Elaine saw were in the common room, and they looked out into the eerie blackness of the lake, so far down that only the barest hint of moonlight made it through.
When the prefects showed them where the dorms were, Elaine spotted her trunk at the end of a four poster bed. She walked over and sat down on it and looked around at the other girls. Some were opening up trunks and putting moving pictures or figurines out onto the tops of the bedside tables, or pinning posters to the walls at the heads of their beds.
Elaine opened her trunk and got out a quill and parchment to write a letter to her parents. she'd practiced writing with a quill over the summer but it still felt odd, and they'd be glad to hear from her. She told them that she'd arrived and been sorted and was looking forward to classes starting. She wrote a bit about the feast and the train ride.
She let the parchment dry a bit as tried to think of other things that she might add then put the parchment back into her trunk, on top of a picture of her parents, and pulled out clothes to sleep in. It took her a few minutes to find the bathroom and change. When Elaine got back, she went to her trunk for a book that she wanted to read before bed.
Upon opening the trunk, she was greeting by the still, muggle photograph of her parents sitting on top of the letter she'd started and several other things seemed out of place as well. Someone had gone through her things. She paused and looked around but there was no way to know which of the other girls it had been. She pulled out the book that she wanted, and then took a key from a pocket in her robes and locked the trunk. She put the key down on her bed and sat beside it, closing the hangings on her bed before putting the key onto the chain of the necklace that she'd put on that morning.
Elaine pretended not to hear the whispers of that name she'd been called in Diagon Alley as she lay down in the bed. She got under the covers, pulling them over her head. It didn't make her feel any less exposed. There was nothing stopping any of the older Slytherin girls from entering her dorm. Someone in the room had been through her things, and she'd only been in Slytherin for a few hours.
Will you do well there? The sorting hat had asked, and she'd been so sure that she could do what she needed to do no matter where it put her. She curled up, hugging her shins as she reached for that certainty and struggled to hold on to it. Lumos, she whispered in her mind, in part because it was the only spell she knew but also out of a deep desire to banish the darkness pressing close around her.
Elaine hoped that Pepper was having a better time up in Gryffindor.
It had been the longest night of Elaine's life, shivering beneath her covers in an entirely new place and surrounded by people who might be dangerous. Vanessa's first night had been better - her bed warded and with new friends just down the hall who'd come to her aid - but even Vanessa plainly preferred their nights on sofas in Gryffindor or Ravenclaw.
Razi's would have been more like Elaine's than Vanessa's, but she never talked about it, so Elaine didn't really know. As much as Vanessa tended to hold her older counterparts in the present, Elaine supposed that she'd once done that just fine on her own. Elaine might have been even more focused on the present than Vanessa was. Vanessa had been offered help and protection from the first moment. She'd had the space and time to wonder about what the school had been like before she'd arrived in it. Elaine had had to actively seek Razi's help, and she'd only known to do that much when a passing remark by Professor McGonagall had shown her that the older girl existed.
If Razi hadn't fought with some Slytherins later that week, if Pepper hadn't been bold enough to call her a "poor excuse for a Slytherin" to test her response to being bothered by first years, if any number of things had gone differently, Elaine would have been on her own in Slytherin for much longer. As it was, inside of her first week at Hogwarts she'd not only met the other muggleborn Slytherin, but coerced her into advising her on how one went about surviving life at the school.
The Professor ended her lecture, summoning some boxes from a table at the back of the room. Elaine jumped a bit as one flew rather close to her head on its way to the table where the professor was directing it.
"Alright class, Now I want you each to select an item from this box and note on this parchment which item you have chosen," the professor said, pointing her wand to indicate the aforementioned materials. "I want you to put your item through as many transformations as possible before returning it to its original form at the end of class."
Elaine took an item and began on the assignment. It was enjoyable work, puzzling out how to use which spells she knew to take the goblet she'd chosen through various non-living forms before bringing it back to its starting shape. She didn't look to see what her fellow Slytherins were doing. She was just glad that they'd stopped paying attention to her as they concentrated on their own spell-work.
There'd been a time early on when classes were the only safety she had. A muggleborn, Slytherin might be her house but it could not be her home in any real sense. A Slytherin, she was constantly out of place among her friends in other houses. The twin threats of harm and isolation loomed large in her thoughts, but in class they shrunk to nothing. In class, she could not be harmed for what she was, or sent away because of what she was not.
In retrospect it shouldn't have been surprising that what she needed to function better outside of class was a bit of tutoring.
"They have no reason to go after your family," Razi said, reaching out slowly and putting her hand on Elaine's desk, not far from where Elaine's hand sat. "No reason to go after you."
"Excepting the obvious," Elaine countered. She could have platitudes from anyone, she needed answers. "Please, explain it to me. What's this about? How can I make us safe, my family and me?"
"It's about power," Razi said sharply then she mellowed as she continued, "Who has it? What kind? Who wants it? What will they do or give to get it? That is the heart of Slytherin thinking. That is what you need to know."
"Are there spells?" Elaine asked, thinking of the complex monstrosities she'd run across in the library, with several coordinated wand motions that had to be timed with words and breath.
"The spells are too advanced for you now. I'll ward your bed so that you can sleep in it, but you need those answers. If you pick your battles wisely, you won't need the spells," Razi answered.
"Alright," Elaine sighed, accepting it before saying, "Slytherin. Those questions and I'll ask more if I need to."
Razi looked at her before standing and going to the chalkboard at the front of the room. She conjured a bit of chalk and wrote "Power – Slytherin."
"Right now," Razi began, "Power is linked to blood status, and mediated by the relationships at play in our house. Avery rules Slytherin, in part because his is one of the oldest names and his heritage is one of the purest, but also because other candidates, Mulciber and Smythe, benefit from not having to hold court."
"Slytherin is a monarchy?" Elaine asked, leaning in.
"Not unlike one. but Avery didn't inherit from his father or mother, he rose to power after Lucius Malfoy and Narcissa Black graduated. He was largely uncontested. There are people like Snape, in my year, who aren't purebloods, but who have freedom and power because Malfoy liked him. Halfbloods are people with muggle heritage that is more recent despite growing up in this world, and most in Slytherin want that sort of position, and they try and get it by obeying and imitating the purebloods, so be wary of them."
Elaine thought about this then asked, "And it's different in other houses? Your friend doesn't seem to be in charge just because she's a pureblood."
"It's different," Razi confirmed. "Slytherin is a house of ambition, so power is our currency and more of a focus. Other houses have different values. Besides, you might know something of our founder. Maybe blood status has always been more pressing for us because it was a concern of his."
The pair continued for a while until Elaine raised her hands in surrender.
"Alright. You've given me a lot to consider," she told Razi. "Can I owl you if I have more questions? I never know if you'll be at the Slytherin table at meals."
Razi nodded. "Use a school owl, always a different one. You've said that my reputation recommends me, but it does you no favors."
Elaine opened her mouth to argue but Levine continued, "Be intentional in your choices of associates, and in how you relate to them in public. I'd tell Green to be careful about approaching you at the house table during meals."
"I'll keep that in mind, Levine. Thank you," Elaine replied, standing and leaving the classroom.
Coming back to her bed that night, finding both the wards and a note promising that Razi would continue renewing them had been brilliant. Elaine turned the quill that she'd transfigured back into the goblet that she'd picked up from the box of random objects and wished fiercely to be safe within those wards.
"Come to our next meeting promptly," The professor said, her eyes lingering on Elaine as she looked around at the room, "and be prepared to take your exam. Anything that has been covered in this class since the start of term in September may be included, so study thoroughly."
Class was ending. A pair of Slytherin boys and a girl that she hadn't noticed before weren't putting away their wands as most of the class did, along with their books and notes. Elaine put all of her things away, trying not to let them see that she knew what they were doing. She moved quickly, but not with unreasonable haste when the class was dismissed, stepping into the crowded hallway and promptly disillusioning herself. She ducked behind a nearby suit of armor and waited.
If they didn't look for her, then she could accept that she was being paranoid and make it to History of Magic on time.
She watched as they rushed out into the corridor, glancing around before one of the boys turned to the other. "She can't have gone far. No one is that fast."
"Doesn't matter," the girl, Greengrass, replied. "We're all going to the same place. If we hurry, we can get her before she goes into the classroom. Could probably get her during class at that. Bet you a galleon that barmy Binns wouldn't even notice."
The two boys laughed and Elaine slipped out from behind the armor and into the midst of a group of students walking down the hall. Greengrass was right. If she went to class they'd have her, and Merlin only knew what Rowle had planned or what he might have asked them to do. McGonagall was still in the classroom but Elaine lacked evidence beyond her memory. If the professor didn't believe Elaine she'd just send her to class. Resistance might win her a trip to the headmaster's office, but it might also just get her a detention which would lead to more risks later on.
What Elaine really needed was backup, and not just someone like Pepper who could help her hide. She needed Razi. Razi could help her figure out why they were chasing her. Razi would know who to tell to get them to stop chasing her even, but Razi'd been so busy lately. The older girl had been off studying, or training so much that Elaine had no real idea of where she might be.
The group that she was walking with passed near the greenhouses and Elaine veered off. She walked quickly through the warm light of the late afternoon sun, feeling exposed as she looked into the greenhouse windows, trying to work out which of them would be empty for the next hour or so. She'd have to stay disillusioned, but if she kept to the floor near the shelves of supplies she'd be well hidden.
Settling into place, she tried to take a deep breath of the warm damp air. It was difficult, and it didn't soothe her at all. They were actively hunting her. Rowle was actively hunting her. His friends were hunting her. Had something happened between Avery and Blythe? Was this some sort of sanctioned punishment? Elaine thought about them going after Vanessa, about what it would take to successfully strike out against Razi. She wouldn't be able to warn either of them until dinner – at the earliest – and the situation was already in progress. Any move they were going to make against the others had likely started already. If Avery had ordered this, then where was Mulciber?
Another possibility raced along beside her train of thought like an outlaw on horseback preparing for a robbery. What if Avery wasn't behind this?
Elaine reached into her bag and pulled out a yo-yo. slipping the string over her finger she spun it away and back a couple of times, before idly falling into the pattern of trial and failure she'd been stuck in for the past week as she tried to work a new trick. Razi wasn't around to show her what powers were at play and how, but she'd given her the skills she needed to do the work herself. She focused her eyes on the task at hand and began to think through the facts.
Looking at the situation with as much distance and objectivity as she could summon, it was clear enough Rowle wished her harm – regardless of any other motives he might have. He had wanted to get at her since her first year, and he'd never been very subtle about biding his time.
Elaine could remember the exact moment when his hatred of her had gone from general prejudice to a very specific sort of grudge. She ventured back there in her mind occasionally to remind herself of what it meant to be a Slytherin.
("I don't care if the muggleborn chit ended your fun," Avery had told a tense Rowle. "I will bring Blythe over to our side and she's worth ten of them. You will not get in my way. Find another to practice on."
With his court spread out on chairs around them in the common room, Avery's edict had carried all the weight that it was meant to and the implications were clear.
That didn't stop Rowle. He stood, nearly knocking over a chair as he shouted, "THIS IS BLOODY DIM! You think You-Know-Who is gonna care whether Blythe-")
He'd had been full of rage and fear as Mulciber and Parkinson dragged him out of the Slytherin common room. His eyes had locked on Elaine's in the midst of his thrashing and resistance and hate had sparked as brightly and clearly as a struck match.
Rowle had traced a clear line of responsibility for his pain straight to Elaine, who'd dared to be rescued by the girl that Avery wanted. It was unfair but not untrue and it certainly hadn't ended there. That was where it had started though, as much as anything could be said to start anywhere.
The web of wants and revenges, the ways that it swept her up and tied her hands when she didn't pay enough attention, that day had been her introduction to it all. Where had she messed up this time? What failing could she attend to so that she'd never have to hide during another class? How could she be better?
Elaine pulled the yo-yo in so quickly that it stung her palm. She held it tightly as the sting faded but, as often happened, thinking about the consequences of her rescue had brought to mind exactly what she'd been rescued from.
The fingers of her free hand brushed her neck and she could hear Rowle's voice hissing the spell that made her feel as though she couldn't breathe. Exanimes, he'd said and the mocking phantoms of their laughter made her face burn as her chest tensed. She'd been so scared then, and held still and vulnerable by more than fear.
Leaning back against the wall of the greenhouse, she followed the memory through to its end. It was a good end. If she could just get to the end, there'd be rescue. There'd be a way forward. She just had to get through it.
Elaine had forgotten her history of magic text, so she'd left the hall at a quick pace trying to retrieve it and get back upstairs without being late.
Professor Binns wouldn't notice. Professor Binns called Elaine "Stevens" and had once given Pepper, whom he'd called "Nichols", a detention for wearing the wrong uniform; but the principle of the thing mattered. She grabbed the book and relocked her trunk before hurrying back out into the dim corridor.
Even during the day, the shadows of the dungeon were long. The low, damp corridors were the twisting roots of the castle and Elaine wondered sometimes if they didn't play tricks like the stairs did. She imagined them winking in and out of existence, becoming more and then less solid. As she neared the stairs, she felt the sun-warm air, saw the shadows pulling back. She tried to remember the way to Binns's class.
Elaine was scant meters from the feet of the stairs when an older Slytherin boy stepped out in front of her. She stopped short, trying not to stumble as she did.
"Rowle," a low voice spoke from behind her, dark and eerily smooth, "I've told you, it's more fun when they don't see you coming."
It was Mulciber. Elaine was caught between Rowle and Mulciber. In a moment of panic, she ran at the stairs far to the right of Rowle but a couple of boys came out of a nearby corridor, one of them summoning the bag on her shoulder. The strap from the bag wrenched her back and to the ground as she struggled to hold onto it. The summoning spell ended but then Mulciber waved his wand and she floated into the air. She let out a scream but Rowle silenced her as they began to pull her down a narrow hallway. Her bag thumped at her side as she kicked helplessly in the air, terrified.
"Now, try the spell I showed you," Mulciber said, the hint of something like a smile in his voice made Elaine struggle harder. He put her down, but did not lift the spell. She couldn't run away. "Exanimes."
"Exanimes," Rowle hissed aiming his wand at Elaine and there was a flash of light before Elaine's throat closed as though someone had placed a hand around her neck and squeezed hard. Rowle's new spell had ended the silencing charm but, desperate and un-able to breathe, the few whimpering cries that she gave didn't seem to cause anyone much concern. Rowle lifted the spell, letting air rush into her lungs for a moment only to choke her again. The curse seemed to grip tighter than before as Elaine tried to pull at fingers that weren't there, tried to find it in herself to reach for the wand in her bag, tried to pretend that she knew anything that could make them stop once she held it.
There was an unfamiliar voice. Elaine tried to work out if she was in more trouble or less. Then, she heard someone that she did recognize.
"Walker?" Razi asked.
She and Alyssa had come into the hall rather suddenly, drawn by the noise, Elaine would guess later.
"Finite!" Razi added, wand appearing in her hand, Elaine could breathe again and focus on the movements of her attackers but she didn't bother, moving towards Razi and Alyssa while she could, before someone could cast another spell to pull her back. Razi stepped forward and pulled Elaine over to Alyssa by her arm. No one tried to resist. Elaine noticed that Alyssa had her wand out and glanced back, realizing that Rowle was on the ground. Alyssa had hexed Rowle.
"You should have stayed out of this, Levine," Mulciber said darkly. "Or at least not brought Blythe. This is House business."
Elaine coughed as her throat began to relax. She felt dizzy and vaguely ill. Her chest hurt, and as much she wanted to breathe deeply, it would take time before she really could. The confrontation washed over her, and she leaned a bit on Levine, exhausted.
"I thought it was pureblood business, Mulciber," Razi retorted. "In which case Alyssa is even more qualified than you."
Alyssa was silent. There was a shocked sort of anger on her face, and Elaine wondered if it had anything to do with Levine's use of her heritage to taunt Mulciber.
"Finite," Mulciber muttered over Rowle as one of the other Slytherins helped him up. "We're gone."
Alyssa and Razi had walked her to class after that, while Alyssa had worked out what Elaine later understood to be the basis for her current arrangement with Avery. The working out of it had continued through that first awkward dinner at the Ravenclaw house table. It might have gone on longer, but it wasn't something that Elaine could ask Razi about directly. For all that Elaine depended on the ruse, she could understand and respect Razi's discretion on the subject.
They'd talked around it sometimes, of course, at the beginning. They'd spoken more as Elaine had matured and gained a fuller sense of what Alyssa was doing to protect them. It'd never really felt right. There was a strange weight to the debt that she owed the older girl, in part because she could never quite work out if Alyssa felt that Elaine owed her anything. In better moments, Elaine was sure that she didn't. In darker ones, she wondered if a person could really become Slytherin royalty without adopting Slytherin modes of thinking.
At the beginning of term, she'd been rather closer to that darker state of mind and had tried to convince Razi that the arrangement could end. It had been so clear then. Elaine had felt ready to face the other half of her time at Hogwarts. Of course now she felt the truth in Razi's reply. Halfway out of danger was exactly in the middle and, lacking all protection except for the shadows of the greenhouse, the remaining years loomed long and darkly. She couldn't focus enough to work out why they were after her in the present. How was she ever going to manage tracking their motivations over the course of months?
Elaine jumped as a crash in the next greenhouse over sent her heart into her throat. She looked around. Just a clumsy student. She smiled. Pepper would have laughed at her. Matt likely would have jumped as well, but Tasha always had better things to think about than shadows and people who jumped at them. The odd reminder of her friends soothed her, and she wished that she hadn't left the room behind Winston, where there'd be even more reminders to hold on to. Could she go back?
A glance through the windows of the greenhouse showed that the classmates pursuing her were nowhere in sight. She watched longer, remembering the day the room had become theirs.
She'd had the idea not long after Rowle and Mulciber's attack. They had friends and places that they could use to do as they liked. Why shouldn't she? She even had a place in mind. Matt, Robin, Pepper, and Reggie followed her there after dinner one evening, having been told only that she had something to show them.
"It's a room," Reggie said, looking around at the bare shelves and dusty little table in the middle, "not even a big room. Why the fuss?"
"It's a room," Elaine pointed out, "with a portrait who won't open unless you know what to tell him. It's not in any of the four houses. Levine was using it before, so it's a good bet that the scarier Slytherins can't get in here. We could be safe for a while."
Robin's eyes widened, "Elaine Walker, what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking it would be nice to be able to talk about things from home without worrying so much," Elaine said, "and Gryffindors give us dirty looks when I spend too much time in their tower. If we have a place to go, we could hang out more. Maybe we could even talk with some other muggleborns and learn how they're keeping safe. We could help each other."
"If people can look at your friends and know who the muggleborns are, that's no help," Reggie said. Robin seemed to agree with him, nodding and backing towards the door.
"They already know," Matt said. "Robin, you know that they do. They've even bothered you before. I've seen it."
Robin turned her face away from them, looking towards the back of the portrait.
Elaine watched her tense and she wanted to reach out to Robin but she didn't know if she really could.
Pepper, having no such qualms, hugged Robin until the older girl turned around and hugged her back.
"It's nothing so bad," she told them quietly. "They cut the straps on my school bag or summon my quills or ink in class. Once, they… well I don't like to think about it much, but they chased me around in the dungeons after potions. It was frightening, but I got away after a while. I'm fine."
"Robin, if you'd had somewhere to go that was closer than the common room, it might have helped you," Matt said. "If some third year had been kind enough to warn you, you'd have never been alone like that."
"Matt," she sighed.
"It's a room," he said. "It's not a declaration of war, is it?"
Elaine shook her head 'no' immediately and Pepper seemed to hesitate but did so as well.
"I like what you're doing and I'd like to help," Matt said. "Even if it's just by helping you find people. How does the door work?"
Elaine explained it and Robin and Reggie left. Matt stayed though and they began making plans.
They cleaned the room the next evening with spells that they found in the library. It took time to get posters and gather books, and the space would change to suit them as their needs grew and changed, but that first night was when they'd claimed it. Those first moments had marked the room as their own.
In retrospect, it occurred to Elaine that they might have stolen it. Like a blanket or a quill, the space had been lent idly and then held until giving it back would have seemed strange.
Elaine couldn't really feel bad about it. From that first day, through meeting after meeting, through her birthday parties of the last three years, and even up to that morning, the room had served them well. She had every reason to hope that it would continue serving her, Vanessa, and anyone else who needed it, for a long time to come. Putting her yo-yo into her bag, she moved to the greenhouse door and hoped that she wasn't making a mistake by going back there. It'd only a couple of hours since she'd gone over all of the dangers of leading her enemies to the center of her small world, but it was the only place that she could think to go where she knew help would come eventually. Class was still in session, so she couldn't go to dinner early, and she couldn't afford to be sent to class by any of the authorities she might think to run to.
If she was getting help or information, she'd get it behind Winston.
She renewed the disillusionment spell, but didn't bother silencing herself. She'd have to remove it to speak to the portrait anyway.
Elaine had to make a detour to avoid Filch, and then another because she thought that she'd heard something, but soon enough she turned onto the hallway where Winston brooded. At the end of the hall she removed the spell that hid her, and she walked quickly, feeling exposed.
She'd just made it up to his frame when she heard something that froze the blood in her veins.
"No! No! PLEASE," a terrified voice called. The cry was loud with panic and wet with tears. Vanessa? The voice certainly sounded young enough, but Elaine couldn't quite place it. She'd known that Rowle's group might be going after the others too.
"HELP!" the voice called, and it broke through Elaine's hesitance. That was Vanessa. They had her.
Elaine locked eyes with Winston. He shook his head, but she had to go. Even if it wasn't Vanessa, someone was in trouble. If she just walked away, then nothing she'd built was worth anything. She'd promised to work beside the other muggleborns, to help them all stay safe. She'd promised to make Vanessa's time at Hogwarts different, better. If she broke those promises, if she didn't honor the promises she'd received in return, then there'd be no point in moving forward. They didn't sound far away, just at the bottom of the stairs. She could body-bind the girl's attackers and get herself and the younger child behind Winston.
Plan formed, she took out her wand and ran down the corridor. She took the stairs two at a time, her bag an ungainly weight at her side until she reached the bottom stair and heard "locomotor mortis, Expelliarmus".
Her legs snapped together and only a quick twist of her upper body stopped her face from slamming into the stone floor as she fell. Her wand flew from her hand.
"You've always been far too much trouble," Greengrass hissed, stepping out from a side corridor, "Rowle is still out looking for your pathetic arse, but don't worry. We'll keep you company. Got a room set up and everything."
There were footsteps coming down the stairs behind her.
"Where is she?" Elaine asked even as she pushed herself up to her knees, to try and stand. Someone behind her kicked her in the back and then bound her by magic. A smirking Greengrass said something under her breath that Elaine couldn't hear and waved her wand. Vanessa's terrified voice filled the air again.
It was a trick, a trap, and it had worked brilliantly. Elaine screamed, loud and harshly, but the sound cut off sharply as someone spelled her silent. Greengrass kicked her hard in the chest. A dull, sickening crack accompanied the laughter of those watching, along with a wave of pain so fierce that Elaine thought she might pass out. Her body tensed with it, trying and failing to break the bonds and curl forward.
Someone levitated her, and one of the boys from before belted her across the face with the back of his hand. Dizzy with pain and fear, she quickly lost track of where in the dungeons they were taking her. She struggled to keep her eyes open, to look for hints to guide her back to the stairs if she escaped somehow.
These were students from her year, with no more skill than she had. She'd made a huge mistake. She had to hope that they'd make mistakes too. Besides, she'd be missed soon. Help was still possible. The boy who'd apparently disarmed her passed by in the narrow hall. Her wand had been stuck in the pocket of his robes. Changing tactics, she focused on him and settled in to wait for her moment to take it back.
They took her to an old classroom, used most recently for storage. There were piles of cauldrons of varying sizes shoved hastily against a wall. The group dropped her onto the stones and she landed on her side, gasping in pain as the impact jarred her broken rib. The sound wasn't loud enough to cover the click of the door as it closed, creating yet another obstacle between her and any help that might come.
The next few minutes passed in a barrage of kicks, punches and worse, of grabbing hands. They took her bag and her robe, dropping them in a corner.
"Not like you need it, muggle bitch," one of the boys spat.
Elaine, held still by the spell, could barely even flinch back from the blows. Fear, pain and a frustration beyond any she'd ever known left her screaming in her mind. She struggled to glare outwardly, but felt her eyes burn and betray her, sending hot tears down her face and onto the potion stained floor.
When the physical attacks let up, Elaine had an idea. All she could properly move was her face, so she mouthed a sentence over and over again.
"What's it saying?" Greengrass asked. "Take the silencer off. This should be good."
Spitting a bit of blood, Elaine summoned all of the cold spite in her soul and said, "Never took you for a drudge."
The other girl laughed, "I'm not. This was more fun than History, and getting more fun by the minute."
"Rowle's boots taste that good?" Elaine asked.
"You'll have to let me know," Greengrass shot back, "I'll tell him you were wondering, and next year when there's no Levine to help you, and no lovesick twits to hold your leash, well-"
She broke off with a cruel bark of laughter before finishing. "I imagine you'll get very familiar with all of his shoes, and others' besides. It's his house now. Avery's as good as done."
"They're graduating, not dying." Elaine countered, "They'll be out in the world and free to use magic as they please. More than a few of my friends will be. You'll be out there with them this summer."
"Such a clever little pet," Greengrass said darkly. "maybe Rowle will let me keep you and that puppy of yours. Think I'd enjoy bringing you to heel, I would, if he doesn't break you first."
"And if you're wrong? If someone else takes the high seat?"
"Then it's been a nice night," Greengrass drawled. Then she smirked, and cast a finite, freeing Elaine.
Elaine scrambled to her feet and moved to fling herself at the boy who had her wand. She was stunned before she'd moved more than a few steps and fell to the ground with a shout. The Slytherins left the room, with Greengrass bringing up the rear to add, "I'll be waiting by the door but please, just for me, try and get out."
In a rush of low laughter, they were gone.
Elaine tried to summon the energy to move, but in the end she couldn't even properly curl up on her side. Her heart pounded in her ears and her nerves were lightning, shocking and burning with each attempt at motion. All she could do was close her eyes and try to marshal her remaining strength.
The damp smell of the dungeons was a cold counterpart to the greenhouse where she'd been hiding just a few minutes before. It couldn't have been half an hour ago that she'd been sitting there trying to understand what was going on. Now she knew, and it didn't matter. Nothing would matter if she couldn't get off of the floor. If help came, they'd need her to be able to run.
She wished desperately to be back at home, to move back in time to Christmas holidays when everything had been warm and bright.
"Well aren't you just a doll?" Shara Levine said, looking down at Vanessa in pleased amazement. "Whatever would your mum have done if you hadn't come home in time to make it under the tree?"
They'd only just been introduced, and Elaine could feel a wide smile on her face as she watched younger girl fall inexorably under the spell of Shara's kindness.
"Knowing my mum, she'd not have let me come back to school next year," Vanessa replied, "or she'd storm the castle and have me home anyway."
"And she'd be right to," Shara said. "All three of you are treasures. Now, come over here and sit with us till your parents arrive."
Elaine followed Vanessa, Shara, and Razi over to a bench, scanning around for her mother in the crowd and taking in the lights and trees set up at equal intervals. Pepper's family had been waiting when the train arrived, and she'd waved to them as they walked off, plans already in place to meet up later in the holiday.
Elaine turned to ask Shara a question but then jumped as a hand clasped her shoulder. She turned to see her mother and father and stood up to hug them. After a brief chaos of introductions, made more complete as Vanessa spotted her own parents and waved them over, the three families parted ways.
There wasn't much said until they'd crossed the street and found their car in the parking deck. In the quieter, calmer space, Lucy Walker had hugged her daughter and held on for a long moment. The warmth of those arms melted places in Elaine that she hadn't known were frozen. She was home. Her dad was mussing her hair and putting his arms around Elaine and her mum. She could smell his cologne and hear his voice saying, "Good to have both of my best girls again."
As the hold drew on, Elaine whispered, "I'm fine. I'm here. I've missed you so much."
"I've missed you more," Lucy replied softly. "I wish they'd at least let you home for your birthdays."
"I know," Elaine said. "But I've got pictures! My friends really came through this year."
"I'm glad," Allen replied, smiling. "Let's get you home, and you can show us."
They took the scenic route home, gazing out through the car windows at a world that glowed with a magic that was purer and more mundane than Elaine had grown accustomed to seeing. It was perfect, and she felt safe and at home long before the car pulled into the drive.
She'd gotten so many letters over the holiday, so many phone calls from muggleborn friends who'd gone home. There were so many people who'd want her to find a way to get up.
She used her arms to push herself up into a seated position and looked around, her movements slow and stiff.
They'd left her bag, so once she got to her feet she had the heavy books and the yoyo with its string. If she moved quickly enough maybe she could knock Greengrass out and tie her feet together. Then she'd just have to get to an adult. She had proof now. Maybe she could find Slughorn in his classroom. A glance at her watch told her class was ending soon. She'd have to be quick.
It was time to stand up.
Even if she couldn't make a proper run for it, Elaine refused to be sitting and helpless when Rowle came back. She and her friends had been outrunning and outsmarting Rowle since his first purposeful strikes, the first of which had come just weeks after he and Mulciber had cornered her.
Elaine and Pepper had been walking down by the lake on a sunny afternoon. Captivated by the way the sunlight played on the waves, they sat down on some stones near the water's edge. Nearly an hour passed as they exchanged stories from home and ate the snacks they'd brought. Then suddenly, small, sharp stones started pelting them, some hard enough to leave scratches that stung and bled. Elaine looked around frantically for the source, but was forced to cover her eyes as the stones threatened to blind her. Scrambling away, she fell into the muddy water at the base of the rock. The stones followed her, leaving a final few bruises on her hands and arms before splashing down beside her, unmoving.
A muffled sound drew Elaine's attention as she climbed out of the muck, bending to help Pepper, who'd jumped in after her. Looking in the direction of the sound, she saw a large oak tree. There was a boy leaning against it, she realized, only just visible from where she stood. He was doubled over in silent amusement, but as he straightened up, she realized - Rowle.
Elaine turned and looked at Pepper till the other girl met her eyes. In a quick series of gestures, she pointed out their attacker and then whispered, "That spell from our first day in Charms, would it work on a person, do you think?"
She glanced back at Rowle's hiding place and Pepper followed her gaze. "It'd work on his robes and his shoes. Lake?"
They pulled their wands out and, almost in sync, shouted, "Wingardium leviosa."
Rowle yelped loudly as he was lifted off of the ground. He dropped his wand in surprise and the girls got him as far as the lake's edge before their spells gave out. He fell into the shallows flailing and shouting as Elaine and Pepper grabbed their bags and ran.
They toasted their victory with fresh lemonade in the room behind Winston, while Matt and Razi tended to their scratches.
If Elaine had been anywhere else. the memory might have made her smile. As it was, she was standing trapped in a room, her body protesting from the beating and the number of times she'd hit stone in the last few minutes. She took an experimental step forward and then another. It wasn't easy but she didn't think she'd pass out while going for her bag.
She staggered over to it and fell to her knees, taking the yoyo out and gripping the straps as she tried to get to her feet again. She hadn't accounted for her ribs, and the pain of lifting the bag made her gasp, which only hurt more.
Elaine could hear footsteps in the hall.
Rowle had years more experience in magic, and training in dark spells. Rowle had a wand. If it was him, then she'd just have to last through whatever he meant to do. She dropped the yoyo. Maybe she could hide behind some of the cauldrons? They'd know she hadn't left the room and summon her. Maybe she could grab Greengrass's wand?
Elaine stumbled to the door and pushed it open only to have it slam closed so hard that she fell to the ground again. There had to be a way out of this. Hadn't she once led these same idiots on a merry chase through the castle so that the 1st year they'd been about to hex could escape? Hadn't she and Tasha worked out which classes the second years were most likely to be attacked near and set up the system for walking them there safely? She'd even managed to disarm Rowle once, not even two months before, when he was going to attack Pepper after a quidditch match. The party they'd had behind Winston after that was still talked about fondly. There was always a way; she just had to find it.
This was the moment when one of Elaine's friends was meant to show up. She wanted that so much that she could almost see it. They'd come with enough people to get her out, and then they'd go to the hospital wing and they'd talk about what to do next. They'd think of something, or Razi would tell Alyssa and she'd think of something, and everything would be fine. They'd all be fine not because this was Hogwarts, not because they were 'protected', but because they were friends, and they'd always found a way.
Panic was wasting time but what could she do, even if she had it? She focused on getting back onto her feet.
Elaine was standing when the door opened again and a line of Slytherins walked in, surrounding her. Rowle entered last and stood directly in front of Elaine. His eyes were wide and dark, burning with malicious excitement. When he spoke, his voice was low and certain. It was heavy with the weight of every unwanted answer to every purposefully stifled question she'd ever had about him. No, it wasn't just for show or to prove a point. Yes, he enjoyed it. No. No.
"When we're finished here," Rowle said, "I want you to go to Avery and Blythe, and I want you to show them how much power they have at Hogwarts. Go to Levine, and show her what you and your little friends will look like next year. Might even be next week, if I have the time. Go wherever you like, to the professors even; you can't stay with them. In the end you'll only end up right here."
Someone behind her cast a spell, levitating Elaine before turning her suddenly and harshly, sending her head flying towards the floor. The tips of her hair swept along the stone as she tried to shake free of her bonds. Some of the gathered audience laughed.
Without warning, and for the first time since her first year, she felt her throat clench as though grabbed by an invisible hand. She couldn't breathe. Her hands jumped to her neck and she struggled, feeling more and more light-headed with each moment. Her chest, already hurting from the broken rib sent waves of agony radiating outward. Another boy put up a silencing ward and she felt the spell holding her dissipate. Her world tilted as she fell, head and shoulder slamming the ground before another spell caught her and lifted her back into the air. There was a pause and she could breathe, but a hex hit her in the stomach like a fist. She writhed in pain, feeling sick and cold.
Rowle growled, "Exanimes" and the curse stole her breath again. Spots danced in front of her vision, and she'd thought that she couldn't be more afraid but she was wrong. This was wrong. They were making a mistake. How could she deliver his sick message if-
Elaine felt herself turned in the air as a pain jinx made her skin feel as if it had torn where it struck. Dizzy and in so much pain, she found herself losing touch with what was happening. Her eyes felt heavy. The awful sound of their laughter dimmed, covered over by roaring in her ears. What would they tell her family, if- She needed to stay awake. This was wrong. Someone had to come stop this. She was fourteen years old. They were only two years older, possibly less. This couldn't be the end.
Distantly, she felt her lungs fill for a moment only to spend that air on a voiceless scream as another pain curse struck. She felt the spell close her throat again. She gripped at the invisible restraints around her neck. She fought with all of her mind, with all of her strength. Though it hurt beyond all telling she pushed out with her rib cage to fill her lungs but her chest wouldn't move. He'd told her to go. She had to go.
She was four years old and the candles on her birthday cake lit themselves an hour before the party. She was sitting on her father's lap as he read her a child's mystery story, her eyes focused on the pretty blue night light across the room. She was decorating a Christmas tree with her mother. She stood in Ollivander's shop as her first spell sent shadows fleeing. Smaller lights, a thousand spells, the shine of wards, of eyes, of stars filled her head as pain numbed and the mocking laughter faded further into the distance.
Then there was a new place and no time to run back and say goodbye to the old, not if she wanted to leave the dungeons. She did. She'd never belonged there. She couldn't stay.
Elaine was gone.
On Elaine's fourteenth birthday, back in October before anyone knew that it would be her last, she and her friends gathered together behind Winston's portrait for a party.
There'd been a death notice at breakfast, and the day had felt heavy as a fresh wave of fear crashed over a certain portion of the student body. Elaine had expected that her party would be canceled or that they'd have to do it on a different day. She'd gotten letters from her parents by way of the school owl she'd sent to them a few days before. She was content.
She wasn't, not really. They'd killed a man and his muggle fiancée at a dinner celebrating their engagement. The papers had brought the story as surely as the note to his younger brother had. There was no contentment to be found when things like that were happening, but she'd fairly well accepted her life as it was. So she was understandably confused when she stood at the end of dinner - expecting Pepper to lead the way to Gryffindor tower - and was instead marched over to stand in front of Winston.
"Pepper," Elaine sighed. "There was a notice. We can't-"
"Did Razi hint that it wouldn't be safe?" Pepper asked.
"No, but you know just as well as I do what they'll be like tonight," Elaine said, "all smug and terrible."
"So it's better if everyone is off by themselves and not together behind Winston?" Pepper asked.
"They will be later, when it's time to leave," Elaine replied.
"Not if we're careful."
"Pepper," Elaine groaned.
Elaine moved to continue to argue but then she realized that she could hear people on the other side of the portrait. Her friends were already gathered. She felt tired suddenly, and frustrated. She'd worked so hard to help make them safer and less alone, and they were risking everything over a birthday party. Then it hit her, she'd worked so hard to make herself safer and less alone, but how many times had she put herself at risk to broaden her circle, to help other students find what she'd built? Besides-
"It's not because we're loud," Elaine murmured to herself. Pepper heard, and nodded before speaking to Winston. The portrait moved, allowing them inside. Elaine looked around at her friends, packed into the too small room that had been decorated with a banner and floating streamers. They saw the expression on her face and waited for some sign of how to proceed.
Any day, any one of them could tell the aspiring death eaters where their group would be gathered or where their members might be alone. Any day, they could be followed or tricked. Every moment of this life and these friendships was a risk.
For the moment though, they were together. Razi and Alyssa were sitting at the table with Matt and Robin. Vanessa was there, and a couple of other first years. Tasha was there. With so many students, with so much defensive knowledge, they were safe, and they wanted to celebrate her birthday.
Elaine relented. She smiled and the entire room seemed to sigh in relief.
"You guys are all amazing," she said. "Thank you so much for doing this and being here."
There was a loud stumbling shout of "happy birthday" from the crowd and she was ushered forward. A cake appeared on the table and Elaine guessed that someone had hidden it using a spell. As she drew closer she realized that the books on the shelves had been replaced by presents, more than there were guests at the party.
"Thank you," Elaine said again. "I'll never forget this."
Inside of seven hours, all of the party goers were back in their dorms; as safe as they ever were. In seven days, the pictures from the party were developed and spread around. (Elaine's favorite was one with herself, Pepper, and an odd lens flare that was probably intended to be Razi at the time.) In seven weeks, Elaine was at home with her mother and father; making plans to meet up with the Levines and the Greens for New Year's.
Seven months from that day, Elaine Walker died. Her body was discovered by Razi Levine and Matthew Ellison and then sent home, to be buried in a small but well attended funeral seven days later. Her story might have ended there, but it didn't.
Seven years later, an old family friend of the Walkers noticed Elaine's young twin siblings levitating toys at each other. Having been there, all those years ago, looking through the shop window as her best friend received her first wand, Pepper sat down and told them a story about their sister who'd lived and died before they were born. At the end of it, she took one of each of their hands, wrapped them around her own wand, and said "lumos". When she took her hand away, the light remained.
She called out for Lucy and Allen Walker. She used a phone to call Razi. One by one, they all gathered and saw, and cried, but the light remained. It grew, and changed colors. It did not dim until Pepper took her wand back. Even then, it lingered in the children's eyes, different, but just as bright.