At six-thirty-seven in the morning on July 25th, 197-, Severus Snape was awakened by insistent tapping at his bedroom window. Dragging his head of long, greasy black hair from the pillow, he found a screech owl knocking on the glass outside, a thick envelope clamped in its beak.

"Finally!" Severus cried, throwing open the window and grabbing the envelope from the owl. It flitted inside and perched expectantly on the back of his chair. Severus gazed at it with a frown.

"You're not waiting for a couple of Knuts, are you?" The owl wore no moneybag, but it waited all the same. "Well I haven't got anything for you, so go on! Get out!" The screech owl hooted in annoyance and took wing, deliberately cuffing Severus on the head as it departed, but he hardly noticed.

"My Hogwarts letter," he whispered blissfully, running his fingers over the green-inked words:

Mr. S. Snape

Snape Hall

Collin's Coppice

Bishop's Stortford

His father had been on him for weeks about this. Only the night before they had been fighting about it.

"Bellatrix Black's mother said she got her letter at the beginning of the month, and Rodolphus Lestrange's father owled my office all the way from bloody Paris to brag about his son's 'budding magical skills,' " Septimus Snape had growled after work, as he brooded with a glass of sherry.

Septimus was the head of the International Magical Office of Lawin the Department of International Magical Cooperation at the Ministry of Magic. He also sat on the Wizengamot, in a position traditionally passed down the Snape line. Septimus, to all appearances, enjoyed his work in diplomacy and legislation, but detested his colleagues. Their favourite pastime, if one believed his evening ranting, was boasting about their children's myriad talents.

"If your Hogwarts letter doesn't come within a fortnight, I'll be the bloody laughingstock of the office!" They all knew Septimus would never be in that position. Imperious and austere, he cut a daunting figure in all circles.

"At least he's not a Squib," Rosella Snape had murmured without looking up from her needlepoint. "That would be unendurable. Finish your cocoa, Severus darling… Imagine he were a Squib, and had to live amongst Muggles all the time! He'd go batty."

"You don't know the first thing about Muggles," Septimus growled at his wife, who flushed dark pink.

"I do! I've been among them. Severus darling, you remember, don't you," she began to giggle, "that time we went into Muggle London and we were nearly run down by that metal thing, the long automobile with a giant boot…"

"A lorry, mum. I remember. And that fat Muggle woman in that shop, who was rude about our robes, and you cursed her daughter with the Hair-Thickening spell that made her hair grow to her knees?"

That had been a memorable jaunt. Only Septimus' high rank and connections in the Improper Use of Magic office had saved Rosella from prosecution. They hadn't meant to cause trouble, not at first; the allure of Muggle London lay in the exhilaration of mixing with the Muggles, the guilty pleasure of slumming; the smug satisfaction derived from knowing they were better than all these other beings, that they were special.

Of course, the Snapes were special in other ways. For one thing, they were—or, more specifically, Severus was—the last of their line. It had been a pureblood tradition for several centuries to produce a single male heir per marriage, but the Snapes were virtually the last wizarding family in England who followed the custom. It set them apart from other families like, say, the Weasleys, who, as Septimus put it, seemed to multiply exponentially.

Because of their strict beliefs and stubborn adherence to the most ancient pureblood traditions, the Snapes were beacons of resilience and determination for other pureblood families who opposed the invasion of wizarding society by Muggle-born witches and wizards. Septimus' political opinions bordered on fanatical; this fact, combined with his high position in the Ministry, and his quite immense wealth, gave him a lot of political and societal influence.

"You're making him soft, Rosella," Septimus said in annoyance. "It's not good for a boy to run round Muggle London-"

"It was just once, Septimus-"

"And then come home and loll about like a bloody Flobberworm," Septimus went on, warming to his subject, "careless and lazy, letting his thoughts run amok while he sits here and rots-"

"You won't even let him near a broom!" Rosella snarled.

"If I let you look after his health, he'd be long dead!" Septimus fired back.

They fought loudly and frequently. Years ago Severus had done the arithmetic: his conception predated his parents' marriage by over two months. They had married in haste and now repented at leisure. Looking at them now, listening to their arguments, he couldn't understand what had attracted them to each other in the first place.

Rosella, daughter of a French baron, had been a famed beauty in her earlier youth. Severus had seen photographs of his young mother with other members of the Parisian aristocracy. How harsh the marriage had been to her soft features, her sweet form! Now she was a waif-like creature, pale of hair and face, with large, doleful eyes. Her small shoulders were perpetually slumped beneath the weight of her strong emotions: dread of her husband, devotion to her son. Sometimes Severus felt as if her stifling solicitude for him was not borne of real love or even of duty, but of boredom.

Once the companion of kings and noblemen, the pivot of French urban society, Rosella's life as a housewife could be distilled as a choice between smothering her son or quarrelling with her husband, simply to pass the time. Always the dithering one, she did a fair bit of both activities.

Septimus Snape was tall, swarthy, and cold. He was an unusual wizard in that he kept a real, paying job, despite his family's prosperity. No one ever had the courage to ask him why he still worked, but Severus was certain it was an excuse to be away from his stiff, wooden family life.

Severus could sympathize. He tried to spend a lot of time away from Snape Hall, too. Whenever possible, he went to stay with Rodolphus Lestrange or Bellatrix Black, whose homes, while fairly dysfunctional themselves, at least had the advantage of not being Severus' problem.

He said earnestly, "My letter's sure to come soon, Father. But perhaps if you're worried that the other students will be cleverer than me, perhaps I could practice some magic this summer, with a- er- wand."

The suggestion garnered an immediate and violent reaction from both parents. Rosella pricked herself with her needle and Septimus nearly dropped his glass. The necessity of protecting Severus was the one thing they always agreed on. "You will not get a wand until your letter comes and we're certain you can be trusted with such a powerful magical implement."

"I know, Father, but-"

"No buts!" Septimus said sharply, giving his son a quick warning smack on the back of the head. "Or have you forgotten what happened last time you got hold of a wand?"

Severus fell silent and lowered his eyes. Rosella said softly to Septimus, "You needn't pour salt on that old wound all over again."

"Rosella, you act as if I forced the boy to steal your wand and shoot himself in the face with a Blasting Curse!"

"That was eight years ago, Father! I was confined to my bed for half a year and I still have fragile ribs—I've learned my lesson!"

"Well, you haven't exactly shown us proof that you understand the dangers of magic yet, have you?" Septimus retorted.

It was in fact quite the opposite. The accident that had nearly crippled three-year-old Severus hadn't taught him to fear magic at all. In fact, it had whetted his appetite to learn more of this astonishing power. Little did Septimus know that his son had been sneaking into his study for years to read his magical books, especially the ones on Defence Against the Dark Arts, and now knew over thirty curses and countercurses by heart. But the second and final chance he had had to steal a wand and practice them, he had accidentally Vanished his own legs and solicited the house-elves' assistance. Now, though, was clearly not the time to confess his disobedience.

"But magical ability is most crucial now, when that Dark wizard the Daily Prophet's been talking about is stalking the streets," Severus persisted, pointing at the front page of his father's newspaper. "If He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and his Death Eaters are going round killing people, I should be armed."

Septimus gave a bark of laughter. "That's the best you've got? Let me put your idiotic fears to rest. You'll be fine, so long as you don't go wandering down dark alleys looking for Death Eaters. But don't go prying in what doesn't concern you, boy. You leave matters of security to me, and pray that Hogwarts letter comes soon, because if it doesn't, you'll be driving the Knight Bus for a career, I promise you that!"

"Don't harangue him so, you know he has weak nerves!" Rosella burst out fearfully.

"I'll say what I like to him—but maybe he wouldn't have weak nerves if you didn't mollycoddle him all the time!"

"I do not mollycoddle him! How dare you say such a thing, you- you slug!"

Severus covered his eyes. The sound of a hand connecting with his mother's pale cheek was followed by her pained cry, then by sobs. He didn't like to be in the room when his father was striking his mother. He had run out with his hands over his ears and lain in the dirt behind the unused broom shed until the house was quiet.

But there would be no more need for tension amongst the three of them, because the letter was here at last. Severus ran downstairs in his pyjamas to show it to his parents, which showed how excited he was: proper dress and dignified conduct were to be observed at all times in the Snape household.

One week earlier, in the gardens of a mansion miles away, James Potter had been engrossed in the latest adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle. A brown owl had deposited an identical envelope in his lap. He dropped his comic book in glee and snatched up the thick envelope. "Fantastic!" he shouted to no one in particular, as the owl fluttered into a nearby birdbath and distressed a pair of doves.

And two weeks before that, a barn owl had caused a terrific ruckus in the Basingstoke kitchen of the Evans family, by soaring through the window and landing in a bowl of porridge. It was carrying a thick envelope addressed in green ink to the youngest daughter, Lily.

"Great Scott!" cried Lily's father, leaping up and prodding the owl with his London Times. "What the devil is an owl doing on the kitchen table?"

"Perhaps it would like a bite to eat?" suggested Lily's mother nervously, who, when confronted with unexpected guests, inevitably fell back on her prim English hospitability. She was proven right when the barn owl dropped the letter in Lily's lap and dipped its beak in her coffee, then hungrily eyed the half-muffin on the elder daughter Petunia's plate.

"No, no, no!" shrieked Petunia, panicking and trying to push it away. "This isn't happening! Owls are nocturnal—they live in forests—they don't steal coffee or muffins!"

She fled. The owl began to nibble at the sausage as Lily tore open the envelope and read in a small shocked voice, " 'Dear Miss Evans, We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry!' "

With one final push Severus and his father jammed his trunk onto an overhead rack of the Hogwarts Express. Septimus Snape turned his stern gaze on his only child.

"Think you'll be all right on your own?"

"Yes, Father."

"We'll send you a little something tomorrow," Rosella said tearfully. Septimus shot her a sharp look, which she tried to ignore as she embraced Severus. "Good-bye, my darling."

"Good-bye, Mother. Would you ask the house-elves to send a few sweets? I don't know how good the food will be at Hogwarts."

"Of course, Severus darling, whatever you want."

"Well," said Septimus, staring down at his son. Severus waited for words of encouragement or pride, but Septimus only said gruffly, "Don't embarrass us."

Was that all? Severus stared at him, then said in a strangled voice, "Yes, Father."

"See you at Christmas," Septimus said curtly. Severus watched his parents walk away till they passed through the barrier. Then he turned slowly and boarded the train.

He wandered the length of the train, looking for an empty seat, but every compartment seemed to be full of students much older than he. Even when there was an open seat he didn't dare to ask for it, only shut the door quietly, intimidated, and moved on.

Towards the end of the train he found a compartment occupied by only one girl, who was sitting and staring out the window absently, while turning her wand over and over in her hands. She had dark red hair and long, gawky limbs. Severus imagined her walk; in his head it looked like a fawn's first awkward steps. He watched her for a moment from the door, then decided to end his search. When he cleared his throat, she turned quickly and saw him.

"Hello," she said, seeming startled.

But it was Severus who was startled, because she had the most astonishing green eyes he had ever seen, almond-shaped mint rock-crystal eyes. When he realized the eyes were fixed questioningly on him, he stammered, "Sorry—do, ah, d'you mind if I join you?"

"No, go ahead," said the girl. He sat across from her. "I'm Lily Evans," she said.

"Severus Snape," said Severus. They didn't shake hands because she was still toying with her wand. She blushed a little when she saw him looking at it, and she put it away.

"You're a first year too then?" he asked.

Lily nodded. She looked nervous and he said so.

"I am nervous," she admitted. "I don't know anyone—except you now, obviously… Everything's new and strange."

Severus looked at her curiously. "Then you're not-"

He was interrupted by the door sliding open. A short plump girl with spectacles and long yellow braids popped her head in. "Hi! Can I sit here?"

"Sure," said Lily.

The girl marched in and plopped down next to Lily. "I've been searching forever for an empty seat. First years?" She was rather plump, Severus thought to himself disdainfully, and her long yellow braids made her look juvenile. When he nodded she said, "Me too, aren't you excited? I'm Petula Swipe."

Severus and Lily introduced themselves. Petula said to Severus, "I can't place your face, but you look familiar."

"Maybe we met at one of the Malfoy family's parties," suggested Severus. "There are always loads of other wizarding kids our age."

"I don't think so," said Petula.

"Severus!" cried a voice from the doorway.

Severus closed his eyes and groaned inwardly, recognizing the owner of the voice. But Lily and Petula both looked with interest at Rodolphus Lestrange, a good-looking, genial boy with close-cropped blonde hair. He was small and slight, something he had always considered a flaw, contrasting himself with his brawny older brother Rabastan. Rodolphus was Severus' oldest childhood companion and, ironically, the one person he had hoped to be able to avoid at Hogwarts.

When Severus opened his eyes Rodolphus had squeezed in between Lily and Petula, and he himself was sandwiched between Bellatrix Black and a bored-looking, dark-haired boy he had never met.

"How've you been, mate?" Rodolphus said brightly to Severus. "I haven't seen you since the Quidditch World Cup in July. And who are these ladies?"

"I'm Petula Swipe," Petula said.

"Enchanté," said Rodolphus, kissing her hand grandly as she giggled and blushed. Severus, to his surprise, heard the dark-haired boy next to him mutter under his breath, "Git."

"Hello Rodolphus, Belle," said Severus cautiously.

"Severus," Bellatrix said archly. She had thick, sleek dark hair, and a sly smile. She was another of Severus' best friends, and another person he'd wanted to avoid.

She gestured to the bored boy. "I don't believe you know my cousin Sirius. He's been…" she frowned, "out of the country… for a few years."

Severus smiled thinly. He knew Sirius Black by reputation only: Mrs. Black had shipped her troublesome son off to a reformatory school in Ireland after he set off fireworks in his brother's hat—while his brother's head was still in it.

"How do you do," Sirius Black said without interest to Severus. Then Sirius caught sight of Lily and brightened. "How do you do! I'm Sirius Black."

Lily grinned vaguely, but she was looking at Bellatrix. "Oh, hello Bellatrix. I don't know if you remember, but we met in Ollivander's..."

"Yes, certainly, 'willow, ten and a quarter inches, whippy'," joked Bellatrix, doing a credible imitation of the eccentric and somewhat sinister wandmaker Ollivander. "But sorry, I didn't catch your name before."

"I'm Lily, Lily Evans."

"Evans," Rodolphus repeated. "That's not a surname I'm familiar with."

She shrugged. "No, I suppose it wouldn't be. I'm from a non-magic family."

The casual remark froze Severus. Of course he knew about Mudbloods but he'd never actually met one. His family was pureblood, and pureblood children were brought up with the knowledge that their kind was infinitely superior to that of Muggle-born witches and wizards.

It was an inarguable fact of life, and was the main reason that the Snape, Lestrange, and Black parents socialized, often in spite of thinly veiled dislike.

"Non-magic, really?" said Rodolphus, raising his eyebrows discreetly at Severus.

"Yes, I had no idea things like Hogwarts and witches and magic even existed outside of books until my letter came," Lily went on, apparently oblivious to their sudden discomfort. "It's all very queer to me—but you must all have grown up with this sort of thing. Do you all know each other?"

"Our parents work at the Ministry of Magic," Bellatrix said, indicating herself, Severus, and Rodolphus.

"And Sev and I have been best mates since we were in nappies," said Rodolphus, using a nickname that Severus hated.

"My name is Severus," he said through clenched teeth, adding, "Roddy."

Rodolphus shuddered at the mention of his own detested nickname. "All right, all right, Severus." Turning hastily back to Lily, he said, "So you don't know anything about magic? Not even about Hogwarts houses?"


"Yes, you know, Slytherin, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff," explained Sirius. "We'll all get separated into the four houses during the Sorting Ceremony when we get to Hogwarts. But we all know that traditionally Ravenclaw gets the brainy ones, Hufflepuff gets the hard-working ones, Gryffindor gets the rebellious--sorry, courageous--ones, and Slytherin gets the most ambitious ones."

"Slytherin is the best house by far," said Bellatrix. Rodolphus and Severus nodded confidently, and Petula agreed after a moment, but Lily looked perplexed and Sirius only snorted.

"You're not telling me you've already all picked your house?" he said derisively. "Didn't we all come here to get out of our little gangs? Frankly, I've seen enough of Rodolphus and Bella to last me a lifetime, and I'm not looking forward to sharing a common room with them for the next seven years, so if you're all picking Slytherin I think I'll choose something else."

"If you're all picking Slytherin I'll choose something else," Bellatrix mimicked in a singsong voice. "What will your mother say to that, Sirius? Blacks are always in Slytherin."

"So are Snapes, but I'll be lucky if I get in," Severus said grimly. "According to my father the only advantage I have is my name."

"Maybe if you hadn't had the accident, you'd at least be more able-wanded," Rodolphus said unhelpfully. Severus shot him a dark, searching look—when Rodolphus said mean things, it was difficult to tell whether it was out of malice or sheer stupidity.

"How do we go about choosing our houses?" Lily asked.

"Well, I don't know really," said Petula, looking anxious, "but I heard that we'd have to take a test to see how much we knew about magic."

"My brother Rabastan said we'd have to duel each other and the winners would get into the houses of their choice, and the losers would get shunted into any random house, to make up equal numbers," Rodolphus said. "But he got into Slytherin, and he's barely scraping by, so his story really doesn't hold water."

"I suppose I'll become Ravenclaw, as I've always been first in my form at regular school," Lily said without egoism. "I did start reading some of my textbooks as soon as I got them from Flourish & Blott's—but it was all a bit confusing."

"That's understandable," said Bellatrix, oozing false sympathy. "After all, Muggles are usually too oblivious to even notice magic at all! You certainly were lucky to be plucked from the—er—mire of ignorance, as it were."

Lily frowned. "I find that rather rude. You make it sound as if I won a raffle."

Severus put in, coldly, "Actually, it is a bit like a raffle, for your type. When a magical child is born, his or her name is written on a list by a magic quill. Hogwarts sends out letters to the magical children when they are of age."

"It's simple as that," agreed Rodolphus. "You just happened to have been born magic to Muggle parents. But it doesn't matter what you've done with your life up to this point. I think you'll come to understand, Lily, that the entire order of magical society is dictated by birthright."

Rodolphus was quoting almost verbatim from his father's lectures. "And you may find that your particular heritage is somewhat of a disadvantage."

"I beg your pardon?" Lily said coldly. Petula was glancing between them uncertainly and Sirius Black had leaned his head back and was listening silently, with his eyes half-closed.

"Being Muggle-born carries a certain stigma," Bellatrix said. "We're all from pureblood families-"

"Which, I suppose, are the sort that would never stoop to allow Muggle-borns into their breeding pool," Lily interrupted sarcastically.

"Well- yes, I suppose." Bellatrix was smiling sweetly, but her dark eyes were challenging. At times like these she quite frightened Severus, as she had a tendency to cause nearby objects to spontaneously burst into flame, though she had recently been getting treatment for her temper. He found little comfort in the St. Mungo Healers' assurances that her affliction would disappear in time—they weren't going to have to live with her while they waited out their childhood.

"Slytherin usually doesn't even accept Muggle-borns. There's a theory that pureblood witches and wizards are more powerful than Muggle-borns, and, naturally, pureblood clans are a bit wary of propagating substandard wizards."

She smiled as the word substandard registered.

Lily looked like she wanted to slap Bellatrix, and for a moment Severus thought she might; but then she drew in a deep breath and calmed herself, and said with barely restrained sarcasm, "Fine, if you're all so clever about this magical social order, enlighten me as to how I can drag myself out of this 'mire of ignorance'."

"Well I don't know if you can," Rodolphus said thoughtfully. "It's a very exclusive society."

"I see," Lily said coldly. "Well, if I get desperate I can always marry into a pureblood family, I suppose?"

"Oh, I don't know about that, Lily," said Bellatrix. Severus tried to gauge Bellatrix's annoyance from the honey-sweetness of her voice, the tightness of her jaw. It was the first time either of them had met a Mudblood. There was a great difference between meeting a real Mudblood and reading in the newspaper about one of them being murdered. The hem of Severus' trousers began to smoke, but as he was used to such little fires, he carelessly put it out with a slap.

"Like I said, most pureblood clans aren't exactly keen to embrace Muggle-borns into the heart of their families," Bellatrix went on, her eyes sparkling with malice. "There's a name for you people, you know—you're called Mudbloods."

Lily gave a start and put a hand to her mouth. "Mudbloods? As in 'dirty blood?' That's horrible!"

Bellatrix shrugged, clearly pleased that she had rattled Lily. "It's only a word."

She was saved another murderous look from Lily as the door slid open again, to reveal three boys. The first was tall and wiry, with round glasses framing hazel eyes, jet-black hair flying up in all directions, and a wand in one hand. He was flanked by a sandy-haired boy with thoughtful eyes and a short, fat blond boy wearing an eager, nervous grin.

"Hello," said the boy with the wild black fringe, grinning. "You're all first-years too? I'm James, and here's Remus Lupin and Peter Pettigrew."

"Hello," said Remus Lupin, surveying the occupants of the compartment.

"Oh! I remember you," Lily said to James.

James looked pleased. "My reputation precedes me!"

"So does your smell," Severus muttered, touching his nose.

James flushed in annoyance and everyone else sniggered. The three newcomers gave off a faint odour of smoke and brimstone.

"No," Lily said through her shy giggles, "I saw you in Flourish & Blotts. You were there right before me and you bought the last copy of A Beginner's Guide to Transfiguration. I had to make a special order to the publisher, it took forever to get to me."

"Oh. Well sorry," James said carelessly.

The six in the compartment introduced themselves; then Rodolphus asked, "Why do you reek of smoke?"

"Are they raising dragons in the locomotive?" drawled Sirius Black.

"No, actually," said Lupin, "we reek because we've got hold of some Floo powder and we're planning to make a magical fire and see if an Ashwinder will slither out."

"Why?" Severus asked.

James shrugged. "Just for fun. Who wants to join us?"

"I do," said Sirius, perking up. "I don't think you'll be able to do it, but anything's better than sitting round talking about nothing."

"Aren't Ashwinders dangerous?" Petula asked. "I've heard that one egg alone can burn down a whole house!"

"I don't think you should be messing about with silly tricks, Sirius," Bellatrix said bossily. "I promised Aunt Lacerta I wouldn't let you get into trouble."

"Well, my mum's not here now, is she?" Sirius retorted. When Bellatrix scowled, he mimed choking and fiddling with something at his throat.

"What are you doing?" Bellatrix demanded.

"Untying myself from your apron strings," Sirius said gleefully, hurrying out. He, Lupin and Pettigrew went off down the hall.

James laughed. "I suppose you're not too keen on our plan then, Bellatrix."

Bellatrix rolled her eyes. "Stow it, Potter."

Potter grinned and turned to Lily Evans.

"And you? Don't you want to practice some magic, in case we need it for the Sorting Ceremony?"

"Yes, it sounds rather interesting, though I don't think you'll succeed," Lily said, standing up.

Potter glanced at Severus, who hadn't yet objected to the Ashwinder. "What about you?" he said coolly.

"Well…" Severus did sort of want to see whether an Ashwinder could be conjured from their magical fire, but Rodolphus interrupted:

"No, Sev's staying here."

He looked very hard at Severus, who said slowly, "I guess I am."

Lily studied him for a moment. "You know, you have quite good posture for someone with no backbone," she said suddenly.

Abashed, Severus could not think of a reply before she turned on her heel and left, the door sliding shut behind her and muffling James Potter's chuckling.

"Imagine a Mudblood presuming to sit with us," Bellatrix said disdainfully.

"You came in after her," Severus reminded her.

Bellatrix shrugged with a complacent smirk. "Only because you were already here, Sev. In any case we've put her in her place."

Petula said uneasily, "You don't think you went too far with that stuff about dirty blood and elite social orders?"

"No," answered Bellatrix flatly. "I didn't say anything she shouldn't know."

"Oh come on Bella, it's not like it's the first time you've met a Mudblood," Rodolphus chided. "What did you think of those other blokes, Potter and them?"

"Une bande d'écervelés," Severus said with a grin. ('A bunch of nutcases.')

Rodolphus laughed. "That Potter, un vrai bouseux!" ('He's a real bumpkin.')

"English, please," Bellatrix said crossly, while Petula looked puzzled.

Severus and Rodolphus smirked. They always spoke French when they wanted privacy, because they were both fluent and Bellatrix had never bothered with any European cultures.

Severus let Rodolphus translate their remarks while he stared out the window. He was still dwelling on Lily Evans' parting jibe.

He wasn't really spineless, was he? He'd always been content to tag along with Rodolphus and their other friends, while taking as small a part in their antics as possible. His father had taught him to fear reckless escapades, not so much for the danger involved but for the inevitable punishment at the end of the fun.

He realized how reticent his detachment made him seem to the other youths, but was always well aware of Hogwarts, which promised emancipation from years of careful diffidence and distance. Like Sirius Black had said, Hogwarts was a place to branch out and explore new prospects.

And he would never say it to Rodolphus' face, but he was beginning to get sick of him. Long ago they had been real best friends, roaming the hills from dawn till dusk and causing their parents no end of worry. They liked catching toads to put in people's beds, and pinching bags of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans from Rodolphus' older brother Rabastan. They even had a special way of eating them, always splitting each bean in half, to share equally the risk of encountering the bad flavours like grass and ear wax.

But as in most friendships, their bond faded as they began to grow up. Rodolphus pursued trouble more actively, while Severus retreated into books and learning. Severus had hoped to avoid Rodolphus as much as possible and make new friends among their classmates, but he saw now that his plan had been preposterously unrealistic. Rodolphus would never leave him alone, and they were all going to be in Slytherin together anyway.

How, Severus thought miserably, will I get myself out of this?

The other three continued to talk, leaving him to his dour ruminations until the shrill train whistle interrupted their conversation. The Hogwarts Express began to decelerate. A voice on the loudspeaker instructed them to leave their luggage on the train, as it would follow them up. They located their crisp new Hogwarts robes and put them on. Brushing off a speck of dust, Severus felt much older and strangely elegant.

Presently the Hogwarts Express pulled into Hogsmeade station. Students spilled onto the platform, the older ones laughing and greeting old friends, the first years nervously collecting in a corner as they recognized people the same age and size as themselves, and wearing identical wide-eyed expressions of apprehension.

"Firs' years, firs' years over 'ere!" called a huge man in a new moleskin overcoat. Bellatrix let out a shriek of surprise when she saw him. The huge man was waving a frilled pink umbrella to attract the attention of the first-year students, though the gesticulations seemed quite unnecessary as they were all already gaping at him. Severus observed with some dismay that he would not reach the height of the man's chest if he stood on Rodolphus' shoulders.

The giant man was counting heads. "Thirty-five, thirty-six... I reckon that's all. I'm Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of the Keys at Hogwarts! Righ' then, come on, firs' years, to the boats!"

"Malédiction! Those miserable boats?" Rodolphus muttered in dismay, and a few people laughed.

Privately, Severus felt the same way as he stared at the rickety little flotilla assembled on the shore. Hagrid had one all to himself, which sank alarmingly as he got in.

Severus was followed into his boat by Petula Swipe, Lily Evans, and Remus Lupin. As their vessel slipped magically into the water, Severus felt an elbow in his ribs. "Did you see that hideous overcoat?" Petula whispered with a giggle.

"Poverty-chic," Severus grinned. "Why is he so tall, I wonder?"

"Maybe he's a giant," suggested Lupin.

Lily Evans started in surprise. "Oh! Do they really exist? I wouldn't have thought it possible."

"You didn't believe we could conjure an Ashwinder either," said Lupin.

"Did you?" Petula asked.

"Well, no, not really. I think you have to leave it burning for a few hours. Sirius Black wants to try again when we reach the school."

They passed under an outcropping of rock. "Watch yer 'eads now, careful... and 'ere's 'ogwarts!" called Hagrid. There were gasps from all the first years.

"It's breathtaking!" Petula murmured.

Severus was in total agreement. Rising up from a bank of sheer cliffs, seemingly carved from the same rock, Hogwarts was an enormous and quite intimidating castle whose numerous lit windows were reflected in the black hyaline waters of the lake. Here was their home for the next ten months—and for six more years after that. Not for the first time, Severus felt a tremor of anxiety.

Lily suddenly gave a little shriek and half-rose, throwing them all off-balance.

"Sit down or we'll tip over! What is it?" Lupin exclaimed as they all gripped the sides of the boat, trying to right themselves.

"Sorry, sorry," Lily gasped, sitting down, "but there was this slimy sort of thing that came up over the side and touched my arm—look, there it is!"

Severus looked up in time to see a pale tentacle slide back into the dark waters without a ripple. This must be the giant squid, mentioned numerous times in Hogwarts, A History, which Severus had read cover to cover over the summer.

In his excitement he forgot himself. "The giant squid!" he cried, jumping up, and this time the boat really did tip over into the lake.