Rules of Engagement

Author's Note: This story fits into the Chronicles immediately after "Quidditch." I normally wouldn't do this, but if you're reading this as a separate story (instead of a chapter in "The Mercury Chronicles", then you might want to read "Quidditch" first, if you haven't already done so.

Rules of Engagement

It was six Hufflepuffs – four boys and two girls, all first-years – that followed us into the Great Hall that Saturday, whilst the first Slytherin Quidditch match of my young Hogwarts career was taking place outside. They introduced themselves to us when we got to our usual tables, which I'm sure helped at the time, and we played a few dozen hands of Exploding Snap together, once we taught the two muggleborns in the group a few of the easier games. Rose won most of these, of course, although there was one 'Puff that took a hand or two. Several hours later we had an impromptu Charms group study session going when two rather burly looking 'Puffs accosted their first-year housemates at our tables, muttering something about 'House Pride' and 'Loyalty' and some other such rot. The six 'Puffs seemed rather chastened, though and began to look at us sheepishly, as if they knew they should leave, but thought it might be rude of them to do so.

"Who were those yobs, anyway?" Scorpius asked them.

"A couple of fifth-years," one of them piped up, "We don't know them – the older ones don't talk to us firsties much. But they're not on the team or anything." Rose clicked her tongue and looked scandalized at this.

"So, this is the first time those boys say one word to you, and they have the nerve to talk about loyalty? Tsk! My mother always says that loyalty is something that is earned, not something just given away automatically."

It was hard not to break out in laughter when Rose brought up her mum, but a moment later I'd cottoned on.

"Right," I said, "my dad says the same thing. Suppose they learned that in the forest hunting down old Tom Riddle all those years ago." Rose kicked me under the table. Okay, it was a little heavy-handed, but their wide eyes were joined by gaping mouths at the mention of Head Auror and everyone's favourite saviour, Harry Bloody Potter. There was some whispering, and the two muggleborns were brought up to speed on the dropped names. We chatted a bit more, with the 'Puffs doing their best not to ask silly star-struck questions (bless their souls), and left to get ready for supper.

After supper the three of us grabbed our books to do some Potions work (eighteen inches on the proper way to prepare fluxweed for various potions, due Monday), and found our six Hufflepuffs at our tables, now joined by the rest of the first year 'Puffs. We said hello and sat down to begin work. Rose started to engage them in conversation (for some reason or other Rose had learned their names). Angelica stopped by as well, asking me to look over her assignment. She and the newer Hufflepuffs talked a bit about the match, and there was a buzz about the tables that hadn't been there previously. As curfew came upon us, I walked Rose and Scorpius to the Ravenclaw common room.

"Alright," Scorpius began as soon as we were out of earshot of the others. "Where are we going to sit now?" He was irked, and looked pointedly at Rose as he said this.

"What do you mean, Scorpius?" she asked. "We'll keep sitting where we've always sat. We'll just have more company is all."

"Rose," Scorpius continued, "did you see them? They were wearing blue jeans and trainers. One of the muggleborns was wearing a tracksuit. Are these really the sort that we want to associate with? What will people think?"

Rose got that grin on her face as Scorpius was lamenting the lack of fashion sense that pervaded Helga's house. The grin that has you feeling for your wand in your pocket and making sure you know where the exits are. When the Fates made her a witch, they certainly knew what they were doing.

"Boys, boys, boys. You really don't get it, do you? We're first-years. We're not going to have the entire school at our beck and call by Yule. Fifth years and above aren't going to pay any mind whatsoever to anything we do short of blowing up the astronomy tower or scoring eighteen quaffles or whatever at Quidditch. We need to start where we can. And Hufflepuffs are some of the best students to have on our side, what with their sense of loyalty and hard work. Come on, it's not like we've invited the Gryffindor cheer squad to tea or something."

"Do they really have a cheer squad?" I asked. Scorpius was still mulling all this over.

"No, and that's not the point. We need allies, and at this point we need to take them where we can get them. Did you see the looks in their eyes? They felt like they belonged to something, and they were happy to do so. Goodness, Scorpius, they gave up a house Quidditch match to be with us, and found others who thought they spent the afternoon better."

"Allies, you say?" asked Scorpius.

"Exactly, love. We're not inviting them home for Christmas or anything. And they certainly aren't to know about our plans. But if we're going to be influential around here, we need to start somewhere. And I think they're a perfect somewhere." A light seemed to go on in Scorpius's head.

"So, anyone who wants to sit with us at the tables is welcome, then?"

"Works for me," I interjected. "How about it, Scorpius?" He huffed, but it was clear that Rose's work was done.

"Fine. But you two will promise me that if I so much as allow one of those nylon monstrosities to come within a yard of my wardrobe, you'll send a reducto straight to my skull. Clear?" Rose stopped in her tracks, beamed and planted a kiss on Scorpius's cheek.

"Crystal clear. Albus, love, we'll see you in the morning."

"Wait," Scorpius said. "One more thing. We're not letting anyone else in on our plans, are we? I mean, it's one thing to be nice to them, but they're not us. We're the ones that are going to run things; that's clear, isn't it?" I looked sheepishly at my shoes, which didn't go unnoticed by either of them.

"Alright, who've you told, Albus?" asked Scorpius, warily.

"Er, no one, really," I started. "But Angelica rather sussed us out while we were all waiting to be sorted. What if she wants to be part of this? Is she okay?" Rose beamed and Scorpius fumbled around in his trouser pockets, pulling out a galleon and handing it to Rose.

"Knew it." She said in triumph. "Albus, you've got a torch burning for that Irish girl, don't you?" Their smirking had me torqued.

"No, I don't have any torch, and answer the damned question." Rose chuckled some more.

"She's fine by me. She can dress, seems to know which way is up, and it would add a bit of balance to our ensemble to have another girl and another Slytherin. Scorpius, what do you say?" Scorpius was non-committal.

"The balance does work, and if it had to be anyone in our year, I suppose she's the best candidate. So, we're going to let anyone who wants to sit with us, but we're the only ones who know of our plans. That good with you two?"

We agreed it was, and those became our first two rules. And I went back to my own common room. As I walked into the first-year boys' dormitory, I felt some rather icy stares from my roommates.

"Alright. What's the deal then, Potter? Too good for Slytherin house are you?" Right. Something was about to come to a head, and I was glad I had my wand on me as the other boys in the room had formed a rather menacing rank.

"What's this all about? I don't like Quidditch, they wouldn't let me sit with my friends, and I didn't want to stand around all day in a sweaty corridor just to be corralled into bleachers with a bunch of screaming yobs going on about some wonky Snitch. So we decided against it. Any of you lot could have joined us, you know. Moran sits with us all the time." That seemed to put them off guard.

"Look," I continued. I got my Potions assignment done, Rose showed us a trick to the levitation charm and I helped the 'Puffs with some transfiguration theory. That's why we're here; to learn magic. If you lot want to watch Quidditch instead, that's fine by me." I looked at a boy with royal blue bedclothes and a poster of a lithe Black footballer in a similar royal blue kit on his wardrobe. The nameplate said 'Stewart'.

"What about you, Stewart?" Figure out this whole Quidditch thing yet? You've known you're a wizard for what – three months now? You know, I hear Slytherin's playing Ravenclaw next, you might want to swap those sheets out for some green ones." He blanched. Suppose he doesn't like our house colours.

"Aye, you'll see me dead before you see me in Celtic green, you daft ponce," he said through a thick Glasgow brogue. He looked at me thoughtfully. "You say that Weasley lass helped you with the levitation charm?" And that was that. The others started coming around in a trice once I'd shown them that yes, the three of us had learned the finer parts of Wingardium Leviosa from Charms Queen herself. Next evening, Slytherin house was well represented at the tables, along with a smattering of Ravenclaws, courtesy of Rose and Scorpius. The three of us were holding court, gossiping about professors and generally exuding an air of nonchalance about common rooms, house points and other Hogwarts sacred cows. As we parted before curfew, Angelica walked me down to the Slytherin rooms.

"That was quick," she said, startling me.

"What was?" I asked, completely oblivious.

"You lot had most of our year sitting down there at your beck and call. Well, not the Gryffs, but that's to be expected. How'd you manage it?"

"Invited them, I suppose," I answered. "They accused me of being 'too good for Slytherin,' because I don't sit in the common room and go to Quidditch matches."

"No you're not," Angelica replied kindly, "you're simply too good for Hogwarts – at least for all the silly customs. Sometimes I wish I had taken you up on your offer before the sorting, you know, to join your group and all." This was shaping up well. All I had to do was re-offer it to –

"But then I realise that it was certainly for the best. I am a loner, Albus, and I mean to stay that way. Besides, if I were to be in your inner circle, I'd belong to the three of you somehow. It would never be my quartet; it would be your trio plus me. So, in a way, I'm in a better position for when you finally do take over Hogwarts right where I am."

"And where's that?" I asked.

"On the outside, but well respected. Not a follower, but not a leader either. Simply removed from that particular power circuit." Couldn't fault her on that logic. It was time to come clean with her.

"Well, do know that it's a standing offer, Angelica. Rose and Scorpius like the symmetry you'd provide: two girls, two Slytherins, that sort of thing. Plus Rose thinks you dress well, which is high praise indeed from her." Angelica chuckled, and then caught herself when she saw I was being dead serious about Rose.

"Yes, well, do thank her for me; that's awfully nice of you three to think of me, but I, well, good night, Albus." She broke upstairs not quite at a run, but she wasn't exactly in easy spirits, either.

Hufflepuffs are nothing if not loyal, and those hearty souls seem to have claimed the three of us as their raison-d'être. Turns out that Hufflepuff house had become rather brutal in the way they 'welcomed' first-years for a few years by '17, and in sitting with us, the 'Puffs from our year escaped some of the more vicious hazing, at least temporarily. But we couldn't keep them from their common room permanently, and the second Saturday in October was the day the fifth-year 'Puffs had scheduled The Badger's Gauntlet. Sixth and seventh-years apparently didn't sully themselves with contact with first-years. A second-year Hufflepuff told us a bit about the Gauntlet; it involved walking through a row of fifth-years shooting stinging hexes, which didn't sound like a particularly welcoming way to greet new housemates. As the firsties walked through, they were given platitudes about badgers and tenacity to recite, in-between hexes, of course.

The Hufflepuffs looked terrified by this prospect, and their second-year comrades were more than sympathetic as they all sat down at our tables one evening to strategise a response. Rose, Scorpius and I were trying our hardest to stay out of things – it was, after all, a Hufflepuff matter, and 'Puffs tend to be some of the most parochial in solving intra-house squabbles. But these poor souls were desperately out of their league, plotting against some fifth-years (and their whole house, if I'm honest). I understood what they were trying to do, trying to foil the Gauntlet without resorting to tattling. While tattling was something the three of us would do without as much as a second thought, for Hufflepuffs to do such a thing against members of their own house would be tantamount to spitting in the Fat Friar's face. Which is why I'm still aghast that it took me as long as it did to come up with my plan.

As the 'Puffs were busy with their existential angst over the meaning of loyalty, I nudged Scorpius who nudged Rose. We sent knowing looks at each other and found our way to the relative privacy of the top end of the Slytherin table.

"Right," I opened. "If this were a Slytherin or Ravenclaw thing, we all know what would have happened as soon as we'd heard – Flitwick or Venenio would know all about it. The 'Puffs can't very well go to their head-of-house or they'll be fairly thrown out of their common room, but there has to be a way we can help them. I'll take ideas."

Scorpius, in the role that would come to define his place in our scheming, laid out the ground rules nicely.

"It has to be us, obviously, and it has to be publicly so. We need to go to a professor, but do so in such a way that doesn't look like tattling. Could we be…"

"Jealous!" Rose interrupted. "That's it. If we go to a professor as if we're jealous of this opportunity the Hufflepuffs give their first-years, it won't look as though we're tattling on them at all." There was the general silence at this that usually denotes assent. Then Rose continued.

"Professor Longbottom. He's an old family friend, and it certainly wouldn't be out of place for us to come up to him at the end of Herbology to ask him about Hogwarts traditions, would it? No, of course it wouldn't. I'll go up to him after tomorrow's class and ask what the Gryffindors do for their first-year hazing ritual. He was always picked on as a firstie, so he's sure to have a soft spot for these kids and do his Gryffindor thing." I thought this was a brilliant idea. Scorpius looked at both of us incredulously.

"Would you really go to one of your folks' friends to ask about a Hogwarts tradition? Isn't that a bit out of character for you? Surely he'll notice something's up."

"He might, Scorpius," I answered, "but the opportunity for him to save someone will be too great for him to pass up. I think it's a chance worth taking, and probably the best opportunity we'll have. Are you in then?" He was, and I let the 'Puffs know that they'd be taken care of, and not to worry.

And they were. It turns out that this would have been the second year of the glorious Hogwarts tradition of The Badger's Gauntlet, and that the current sixth-years began it as a way to buck-up what they thought was a rather weak incoming class. And yes, old Neville saw right through us, just as Scorpius thought he would, but he assured us that there would be no way for the older 'Puffs to trace things back to us, but he'd be watching them nonetheless. And while "Take Care of Hufflepuff" never became an official rule like the other two, we suddenly had two years worth of very grateful yellow and black clad students who would have our backs on numerous occasions that year.

As we started to have a dozen or so at our tables nightly, the family members who had heretofore ignored us (Victoire, Dominique, Freddie, Roxanne and James) suddenly began to take notice of this group to which they had no invitation, and over which they had no sway. It started with Les Soeurs Veela (including La Première Fille herself) commending us on promoting inter-house unity. By December, the Goofy Twins (and their disciple James) had started pranking our tables (as if we wouldn't know who would send us WWW products), and by the time we got home for Yule, James had begun to get downright vicious. I had had quite enough of his comments about "minions" and being a "poncy, swotty know-it-all" and of mum and dad doing absolutely nothing about his use of Wheezes at home, and sought refuge at Rose's. I flooed Aunt Hermione (who had been ebullient all break about our marks) to see if I might come over.

"Of course you may, dear," she said warmly, "Scorpius is up in her room right now." Pleased at this chance to relax with my two best mates, I gathered up my Transfiguration and Charms papers that were due when we got back to school and headed up to Rose's room to see if that's what they were working on.

It wasn't. Turns out they were working on being locked at the lips for a good minute before they had noticed I had come in. And I'll bet they had been for a good while before that, too by the puffiness of their lips and their rather breathless greeting I received when they finally deigned to give one.

"Right. How long has this been going on, then?" I asked. They looked at each other sheepishly before Scorpius answered.

"Er, about a month, mate."

"Don't mind me, I'll just leave you to it. Be glad it wasn't Hugo or Uncle Ron who found you two." And I walked out and headed back to my own house and my own room. Aunt Hermione and Mum both asked what the matter was, but I was circumspect enough that they figured it wasn't worth knowing. Ten minutes later the happy couple appeared in my room with worried looks.

"Albus, really, we – " I cut Rose off quickly.

"Wait. Just wait. Mum!" I hollered. Rose and Scorpius looked as if their world was going to come crashing around their ears.

"You can't!" Scorpius broke in.

"I'm not. Just trust me here." Their looks softened as Mum walked in.

"Hello Rose dear. Scorpius, it's lovely to see you again. So glad Albus has made such good friends at school. Now Albus honey, what were you bellowing about?"

"Um, Mum? I was wondering if you wouldn't mind giving us a bit of magical privacy. The three of us have some rather personal things to hash out, and I really don't need to give James and Lily any more ammunition than they already have." Mum looked at me puzzled, but proceeded to cast a muffliato around the room, as well as a ward blocking anyone with the names "James" or "Lily" from touching the door. Dad wasn't home, so we didn't find out if that ward protected against middle names as well.

"I don't suppose I need tell you three to be good, but I can't imagine what you'd need privacy for. Be that as it may, I've cast some good wards for you three, but if you need anything, please call. Do you think you'll be staying for supper, Scorpius? I'll floo your parents if you'd like."

"Er, no Mrs Potter," he replied rather bashfully, "I'll be heading home in just a bit."

"Very well then, but do know that you have a standing invitation here if you change your mind. You three have fun, and you have an hour on those wards – whoops, fifty eight minutes now." Mum left, closing the door behind her, and I immediately went to test her privacy charm.

"What in Merlin's name could you two possibly be thinking? A month? And you didn't tell me a thing?"

"Albus, darling, we – "

"It was a rhetorical bloody question, Rose, and I think you owe me a bit of a monologue, or not? I can see you not wanting to parade down the halls holding hands. I can see you not wanting to tell the 'Puffs, or canoodle in your common room like two lovesick pigmy puffs, but honestly. I'm your friend here – at least I thought I was. What could possibly have possessed you when you thought it was a grand idea not to tell me about this? Don't you think I could have helped you two hide this? Were you perhaps hoping this would just get out rather than to face Uncle Ron with the news? What? Tell me, damnit!"

"We just – "

"Not good enough, Scorpius. Here it is, you two: rule number three. We tell each other everything. There are no secrets amongst the three of us. Sweet Salazar knows we hold everything else close to the vest, and we need to know that in this world there are two other people upon whom we can 100 rely, and for me that's Scorpius Malfoy and Rose Weasley!" And as I finished saying this, I slumped onto the floor of my room and broke down into tears. The two of them gave me a moment to collect myself, and then they each took one of my hands to pull me up off of the floor. Scorpius then pulled me into a tight embrace and kissed me lightly on the cheek. Rose followed with the same embrace and the same kiss immediately thereafter. I returned the gestures of friendship and we stayed in a three-way hug for a few minutes, but it seemed like much longer.

"Right. Now why don't you two head back to Rose's house and get your Transfiguration and Charms essays, so we can go over them. And you will be staying for supper – I don't reckon I can face a meal with Perky and Dopey the wonder-twins after all this drama." They chuckled and I walked them downstairs to the fireplace. After they left I turned to Mum.

"Thanks for the charms, Mum, you can let them down now. Oh, and you can let Mr and Mrs Malfoy know that Scorpius will be staying for supper. He changed his mind."

"Of course, honey. Everything okay up there? You seem a bit emotional."

"It's okay now, Mum. We've sorted things out." Mum placed a soft kiss on my cheek and gave me a squeeze.

"You need to hold on to friends like that, love. They'll stay with you for life. Did I ever tell you about the time your father and your uncle Ron saved your au– "

"I'm sure you have, Mum. And if you haven't, someone else has or will." Mum had a chuckle at this and gave me another squeeze.

"Right. Of course, love. Here, I almost forgot. You got an owl that came all the way from Ireland. Looks like a girl's handwriting, too." Mum handed me the letter from Angelica with a wink, and I pocketed it to read later.

The story Mum was going to tell was, of course, apropos. The Golden Trio had a troll, and the Mercurial Trio had a snog. From then on secrets amongst the three of us were strictly taboo; but if anything, this helped us keep our secrets from the rest of Hogwarts (and everyone else) even closer, which brought the three of us even closer. I told no one about Rose and Scorpius. Angelica found out about them third year because they fumbled their concentration for a moment, but she knew better than to tell anyone. The rest of the world found out about them between sixth and seventh years, but you already know that story. I always thought Mum had a bead on what was going on up in my room, but if she did, she never let on.

Further Author's Note: The "story" referred to in the last paragraph is, of course, "Albus Potter and the Misspent Youth". Please take the time to review; whether it's a quick note to tell me whether you enjoyed it or a longer critique, all reviews are welcomed and appreciated.