Disclaimer – JKR owns the world and all the characters from the books. I'm just building a few castles in her sandbox.
Malcolm frowned as he read the announcement tacked up on the message board. The board fixed to the rear wall of the common room didn't see a lot of use, but today a parchment affixed with a sticking charm announced that a Slytherin-only dueling club would be conducted on Sunday evenings, starting in November. He wondered what this entailed as he followed his friends down to breakfast.
Most of the table conversation was dominated by the Halloween Feast. The holiday fell on a Sunday this year, coinciding with the first Hogsmead visit for the older students. Hogsmead was only for third years and up, but the food and decorations in the Great Hall were said to be incredible each year.
Malcolm found it a little difficult to get excited about a meal, but he enjoyed watching Perren and Tobey repeat stories they'd heard from the older students. He frowned as he thought about the announcement he'd read earlier.
"Is something the matter, Malcolm?" Patricia asked with a note of concern in her voice. The boy repressed a sigh. His friends tended to do that whenever he frowned or expressed any kind of discomfort. He supposed they were just worried about his condition, but there were times he wished he'd never told them. The feeling intensified when he realized that Tobey and Perren had immediately gone silent.
"I'm fine, I'm just wondering about this dueling club."
"I heard there was one last year, but open to all the students," Tobey volunteered.
"Heard it was a bit of a joke, really," Perren scoffed. "That Lockhart bloke proved to be a quite a fake. Professor Snape cleaned his clock without even trying."
"At least the new Defense Professor seems to know his business," Patricia added, taking a sip of pumpkin juice.
"Still, he's a bit of an odd duck," Perren frowned.
Malcolm found himself agreeing. Professor Lupin taught his classes in a no-nonsense style that was still a bit warmer than Professor McGonagall. He emphasized the practical aspects in every lesson, reinforcing the positive impression he'd made on the students during the dementor attack. The first year students were still drilling on basic defensive charms and how to recognize the most common varieties of dark creatures. Since learning about his condition, Malcolm's spell work improved drastically – as long as he was able to master his emotions. When he was in control, only Annalise was faster.
On the other hand, the threadbare professor gave him the creeps.
Every class he attended, Malcolm swore he could feel the man's eyes on him more often than not. It wasn't that he favored them more or less than the Gryffindors they shared the class with; in fact he was scrupulously fair. This was even more surprising after one of the Gryffindors let slip that Lupin had been in their house when he attended Hogwarts, somewhere around the dawn of time from the look of him. It was a source of increasing embarrassment to Malcolm that his own head of house was the only professor to demonstrate an extreme bias.
Nonetheless, he still felt like he and his friends were being closely observed during their lessons. He had no idea why this was happening, other than the fact that they were Slytherins. Not for the last time, he cursed the sorting hat that stuck them into that nest of vipers in the dungeons.
Malcolm shook his head in irritation and stabbed his fork into a piece of bacon. "He's a weirdo, but if he teaches us something we can use on Sundays, I don't care."
"Malcolm, surely you don't want to be dueling? You're just a first year!" Patricia's eyebrows had leapt up almost to her hairline.
"I didn't see a sign-up sheet, did you?"
"You mean-" Perren's eyes were wide and he couldn't complete his question.
Malcolm swallowed his bacon and nodded. "I imagine it's compulsory. I know it will be for me."
Everyone looked at him in confusion except Annalise. She just shook her head. "Are you really so naïve? Certain parties," she glowered, "want some payback, and here is a perfectly legitimate opportunity to do so."
"Are you always this paranoid?" Perren asked plaintively.
"Do grow up, Hawkshorn," Annalise growled. Malcolm had to swallow to keep from chuckling. She used that line on him at least once a week, and it never failed to get a rise out of him.
"Shut it, you," Perren snarled at Tobey who was unable to keep himself from laughing. They started wrangling, but stopped when Malcolm spoke again.
"I'm not sure if she's paranoid or not," he said speculatively, "but this would present an opportunity. Clausewitz said you have to plan around the enemy's capabilities, not his intentions."
"Who was this Clausewitz bloke? Was he a war-mage?" Tobey asked curiously.
"Military strategist, he wrote 'On War'. He was a muggle in the Prussian army," Malcolm said absently as he poured HP sauce on his eggs. He didn't know how the kitchen managed to stock the stuff, but he wasn't going to complain. Annalise let out a derisive sniff and Malcolm stiffened. He turned and glared at the blond girl. "You know Dolohov, I'm quite aware of your opinion of muggles, but could you please stop flaunting your ignorance, it's spoiling my appetite." He didn't really understand why her attitude got on his nerves so much at times, especially when he usually found her arrogance amusing, but this was not one of those times.
He was a little surprised to see her head snap around like she'd been slapped, and all conversation at their end of the table abruptly died. Two points of color appeared on her cheeks as her eyes narrowed in fury. She opened her mouth, but Malcolm raised his hand as she inhaled. "Let's discuss this in private, unless you want to share with your friend Malfoy."
Annalise shut her mouth with a snap and stabbed her fork into her breakfast. The vicious manner in which she attacked the rest of her food made the skin between Malcolm's shoulder blades crawl. "Anna," he said in a low voice. "in the dorm, after transfiguration?"
The blond girl did not acknowledge him, but did begin eating in a somewhat more normal manner. Malcolm likewise focused on his food. He didn't need to look up to know that his friends across the table were staring at them.
If the truth were to be told, Malcolm spent more time that day thinking about what he was going to say than he did on his class work. He knew his audience was really more than just Annalise. His friends weren't bigots, but they were still brought up to think of muggles as inferior beings; at best pitied because they had no magic and at worse looked upon as little more than vermin. He had a bad feeling about this 'dueling club' and hints of other things he'd seen going on between the older Slytherins. He had a few ideas for how they could deal with that, but he had to address this muggle nonsense first.
There was still an hour before dinner when everyone sat down in the first year boys' dormitory. Malcolm suppressed a smile as everyone seemed to want to hear what he had to say. Most just looked curiously at him, but Annalise's eyes were like chips of blue stone. He needed to address that first.
"Alright," he began, not even noticing as he started to pace, "I need to start off with an apology. Annalise, I was rude and I should not have started this discussion where I did."
The girl blinked, but then her eyes narrowed. He hadn't apologized for what he said, just the way in which he'd said it. "But you still claim I am ignorant?" she asked in a glacial tone.
Malcolm sighed. "Who was the first wizard to travel to the moon?"
"You can't apparate to the moon, it's just not possible," Perren interjected. "No one has enough power to go that far!"
Malcolm just shrugged and smiled. "Muggles went there about thirty years ago." He almost wished he had a pin left over from transfiguration, that way he could have dropped it to see if it made a noise.
"You're barmy," Tobey scoffed.
"Look it up, or go ask the Muggle Studies teacher if you don't believe me. Bunch of Yanks went up there in a giant rocket more than a decade before any of us were born. A wizard with a wand is dangerous, but a Muggle armed with a gun can kill you by just twitching his finger. The worst Muggle weapons… well, picture a device about the size of your body that can generate a burst of heat that could incinerate Diagon Alley and most of central London in less than a second."
His words had produced their desired effect. His friends were staring at him now, mouths hanging open in shock. "When you get right down to it, the Statute of Secrecy is less about protecting the poor muggles from Wizards and Witches than it is about protecting the wizarding world from muggles who outnumber us thousands to one and possess technology that in some ways surpasses magic."
"That said," Malcolm continued, "we do have some advantages. There are a few things magic does better than technology. More importantly, we can use technology, while muggles can't do magic at all. Even potion brewing has processes that require some magical ability to perform. But I can pick up a telephone, hit the right combination of numbers, and talk to someone on the other side of the world. If we ignore things, if we just say "oh, it's just a silly muggle device", then we are limiting ourselves to only one world when we can have two. I'm not even convinced," he waved his hands around, "that this is the stronger of the two."
Malcolm abruptly sat back down on his bed. He watched the emotions play across the faces of his friends and wondered if he'd pushed them too hard. They were still young, but from what he could see children matured much earlier in the Wizarding world, compared to the Muggle world. He'd given them a lot to digest, and he hoped they didn't choke on it. He didn't want to lose his friends, but he had a feeling that he didn't have a lot of time to waste.
"So," Perren asked, breaking the silence. "Who was this Clausewitz bloke again?"
The first year Slytherins were quiet as they filed into the Great Hall for their evening meal. Malcolm was glad that it was at least a thoughtful silence, rather than the uncomfortable one that surrounded them at lunch. I'm not sure why I'm pushing them so hard, he mused, but I think it's going to be important. And I think it's going to be soon… or am I just projecting my own anxiety? Maybe I'm just worried that I don't have much time. He took a deep breath as the plates filled with food. Maybe so, he admitted to himself, but better to err on the side of doing it too soon, rather than too late.
"I know I pushed you lot quite a bit today," he said quietly.
"Malcolm," Patricia said in her 'peacemaker' voice, "we can tell it's a fairly sore topic with you. Can you, uh, tell us why it bothers you so much?"
Malcolm noticed everyone's utensils pause after the auburn-haired girl's voice trailed off. He thought for a moment. He'd spent a lot of his life alone, and he was used to thinking, but all the things going on since he came to Hogwarts hadn't left him much time to be introspective. When he did have a spot of time to sort through things, concerns about his friends and his own mortality tended to dominate his thinking.
"I'm not completely sure," he answered honestly. "This… prejudice bothers me. I don't want my friends to be close-minded like the rest of our house. I… don't like the position we are in. I think the narrow-mindedness the others have is a weakness, one I don't want to share in. I think… we're going to need any advantage we can get here." All the paranoid feelings he'd been accumulating since he was sorted made him shudder a little. Something was wrong here. Some of the older students acted like they were just wearing masks, waiting for something, some sign. He felt as cold and alone as he'd been since waking up in the hospital in Burkina Faso. He put his fork down, his appetite gone.
The other first years exchanged glances as Malcolm's face went pale. Patricia fidgeted like she wanted to get Madam Pomfrey. Tobey and Perren just frowned at each other. They'd never seen Malcolm look… almost scared… like that before.
"Well, if there is a strategic reason," Annalise drawled, a sneer marring her pale features, "then I suppose your bohemian sensibilities may be excused."
Malcolm's head jerked up and he turned toward the blond girl, lips pursed. "I suppose if you were to ever give me a break the world would come to a bleeding halt," he said peevishly.
"I'm here to get an education, Smith, not coddle you."
"So why Hogwarts, didn't you say most of your family went to Durmstrang?" Malcolm didn't know why the question popped out of his mouth. He'd wondered about it one evening, listening to her and Patricia talking, but he knew she didn't like prying questions, especially from him.
The girl's eyebrows went up. Evidently she didn't expect the question either, which may be why she answered it. "My uncle doesn't confide in me when he makes decisions regarding my future," she said coldly. "But I imagine he desires more influence in British wizarding affairs. He's made overtures toward the Malfoys, and I imagine I was sent here to see if my presence can entice the Malfoy heir and drive a wedge between the Malfoy and Parkinson families." Several people around her winced slightly at the word 'entice'.
"That's remarkably fucked up," Malcolm replied, for once drawing on the vocabulary he picked up from Nigel and the security detachment.
"Malcolm, language!" Patricia scolded, even as Perren snickered. Malcolm noticed that Tobey just had a sick look on his face. Evidently what she described isn't that unusual.
"So why aren't you over there 'enticing' the git?" Perren asked bluntly.
"Hawkshorn, as I have previously stated, my uncle does not confide in me. I can merely make educated guesses, and he has not ordered me to do anything with regard to that situation. Perhaps he hopes that my reactions will be more convincing if… things… happen on their own."
"Obviously, he did not reckon on Draco's enormous personal charm," Malcolm said dryly.
"No," she frowned, "I imagine Uncle will be somewhat… disappointed." She shook her head after a moment, sending blond hairs cascading over her shoulders. "Have I satisfied your curiosity regarding my family's politics?"
Malcolm replied in a clipped formal tone he heard Nigel use when making reports, "You have, Miss Dolohov. Thank you for your gracious assistance in this matter." That set Tobey and Perren to snickering again and everyone resumed eating.
Malcolm found that his appetite had returned. He found himself occasionally glancing at Annalise as he ate. Had she done that on purpose?
A bit longer between updates this time. Had to do some work on my outline, rough as it is, and sort out some plot complications on my timeline. I hope the update pace will pick back up again now.
Answers to questions:
I'm not an Australian, but yes, they do sell Vegemite in the US if you know where to look. I imagine that Men At Work song (Land Down Under) stirred up a bit of interest a while back. Malcolm has had a chance to try a wide variety of foods at embassy functions, and we'd both agree that Vegemite is definitely an acquired taste.
Yeah, John Ringo is a hoot. I got to meeting him and several authors at DragonCon in 2004, and he was definitely the life of several of the author panels. His favorite tagline was: "Good writers create, great writers steal." (Given how the most creative work is often re-combining cultural and dramatic elements into new configurations, this really rings true.)
PS – If anyone sees a canon-botch, please let me know. I'm working to keep this one hundred percent in canon for Prisoner of Azkaban as a writing exercise, so let me know how I'm doing. -Matthew