Title: Two Worlds and In Between (1/?)
Author name: Minerva McTabby
Author email: minervamctabby@yahoo.com.au
Category: Drama, Action/Adventure, Romance
Keywords: Slytherin, history, Dumbledore, Marvolo, Riddle
Rating: PG-13 for now, may change to R later
Spoilers: all the books
Summary: The 19th Century history of the Potterverse: a saga with adventure, angst, romance (het and slash), ethical dilemmas, drama, betrayal, war, and lots of magic. Opens in 1855, at Hogwarts with the Dumbledore brothers - and Julius Marvolo, grandfather of Tom Riddle.
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. The title is a line from Lucretia, My Reflection - a song by the Sisters of Mercy. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's note: Don't look at me, I'm writing under Imperius. He's the OC from hell. He's Voldie's grandpa.

Two Worlds and In Between
by Minerva McTabby

In the time before the first Rising of the Dark,
before the invention of the Killing Curse,
the wizarding world had been at peace for centuries.
The boundaries between Dark and Light were less
distinct than they had been before and would be again.
Power lay with the wizarding aristocracy, the great families,
absorbed in their never-ending, lethal game of status.
They had no wish to look beyond that, to the changes
history had wrought around them. Their world was ordered
precisely as they liked it - and most of them still believed
it would remain that way forever...

Part One: STATUS
Julius Marvolo
1855

Chapter One

Fortune smiled on me when Albus Dumbledore's brother was Sorted into Slytherin. As he walked over to take his seat with us for the first time - to groans from the Gryffindors and silent horror among the Slytherins - I was already considering how this situation might best be turned to my advantage.

I glanced over at the Gryffindor table, where my cousin Valery sat directly opposite Dumbledore. The elder brother was calmly watching the next student under the Hat.

From the head of our table - the place I had held for a year now, against all challengers - it was hard to see anything of the new boy other than his fair hair. I leaned back in my chair, folding my arms over the anticipation building within me. Dumbledore's brother. Now a paradox: a Mudblood in Slytherin. Success in the game of status required one to be alert for opportunities.

I knew exactly what I was going to do.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Great Hall hummed with that peculiar intensity generated whenever a large number of wizards are all concentrating on the same thing. Every boy present - and probably every Master - was thinking of his own time under the Sorting Hat.

I was no exception. Four years earlier, the Hat had taken a disturbingly long time to Sort me. I could remember each agonizing moment, every word the Hat said as I grappled with the shock of imagining that I might not find myself in Slytherin House.

"What have we here? Another young Marvolo... I grow weary of
placing all of you in Slytherin... Time for a change, perhaps?
You could do well in any House... you're a worker, and loyal...
a fine mind, yes, and courage to spare... what to do with you?"

I would not beg.

Quiet chuckle. "Not rising to the bait, I see. Well, what do you want, boy?"

"I want to be the best." No dissembling possible here.

"Ah, indeed... And what would you be prepared to do for that?"

"Anything." I wasn't speaking as a child. Even then,
I knew the implications; and I meant what I said.

The Hat certainly understood. "Well, the best of luck, boy -
you'll be doing it in SLYTHERIN!"

"...GRYFFINDOR!"

A new round of cheers brought me back to the present, and I turned to the Gryffindor table once more. There was something I wanted from Dumbledore. Had wanted it for a long time, had run through every available measure of influence with no effect. I'd had nothing to bargain with; there was nothing he wanted from me. Now, at last, that would change. Measure of influence: extortion.

Lucan Valery caught my eye and nodded at the Ravenclaw table - where Carus Tamino was glaring at me. I blew him a kiss. He could guess what I was thinking, of course. Sweet, clever Tamino... He'd have a few words to say about it as soon as we got out of here.

I watched the rest of the Sorting in silence, my thoughts racing ahead, barely hearing the commentary provided by Aulus Belcore on my right, though he was being even more obscene than usual about how to recognize a Hufflepuff. Finally, it was over. Eight - no, nine new Slytherins. One could only hope the other eight would be assets to the House; and since I was now the fifth-year prefect it would be partly my task to see that they were.

I was already sure the ninth would be an asset to me.

"And what are you plotting now, Julius?" Belcore, my status partner, sounded idly curious but more intent on the feast. He and I had been a status pair for the past four years, a natural extension of the formal alliance between our families. As we piled our plates with food from the silver platters appearing before us, my eyes strayed down to the foot of our table, then back to the Gryffindors.

"Just a little well-aimed mischief involving an elf and two wands."

Aulus Belcore's sharp hazel eyes met mine, and a knowing smile spread over his round, freckled face. He reached into his robes, then passed a goblet to me.

"Drink up," he said softly. "A toast to the luckiest little new boy in the dungeons."

"Ah, but don't we make our own luck around here?" The absinthe burned my throat. As usual, he had Charmed it to look like pumpkin juice. "And yet, one has to admit... sometimes Fortune is unexpectedly kind."

~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Malfoy. A word, if you can spare me a moment."

Claudius Malfoy was the seventh-year prefect, a tall pale boy with a haughty manner. Eldest son of the family ranked second in the greater game - of course, I had never permitted him to forget which family ranked first. No challenge, this one. The Valery heir, who had completed Hogwarts the previous year, was far more powerful; the Delacroix heir, also in seventh year, was far more dangerous. I'd been generous enough, training with Malfoy on combat tactics some months ago; he had done well in his Dark Arts examination, and it had also served to confirm that angering me would be unwise. He would be civil to me now, and accommodating. Hogwarts did have its official marks of recognition, such as a prefect's position; but within Slytherin House the game would always take precedence over such formalities.

We moved away from the table, stopping in the shadows, out of earshot.

"Well, what is it?"

"A trifling matter. I do believe that as a prefect, I'm to have an elf this year. And I've just happened to see the elf I want. Would you be good enough to...?"

He raised an eyebrow at that. "The Mudblood? You're obsessed, Marvolo."

"Not at all," I said smoothly, giving him the same smile he'd seen the first time I hit him with Imperius. "I merely believe in taking full advantage of enticing coincidences. And after all, elving is a fine old Hogwarts tradition, is it not?"

"Very well. He's yours. I'll write it up." Malfoy turned away, a shade too quickly. "Now, if you'll forgive me, I do have to escort the first-years..."

Around us the tables were beginning to empty as the feast drew to a close.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Aulus Belcore and I left the Hall together, and Carus Tamino caught up with us in the doorway of the Central common room.

"I know that look - you're not thinking of - gods, Julius -"

I slid an arm around his waist and steered him quickly across Central, to our usual territory. Belcore followed, laughing helplessly. I took the center of the window-seat, with a good view of the whole room, and they settled on either side of me; Lucan Valery arrived a moment later and flung himself down on the floor in front of us, breathing hard. For a moment we were all silent, taking simple pleasure in being here once more, after a summer spent mostly apart.

Then all three of them turned to me and spoke at once: "Julius, what - "

I drew my wand and sent some colored lights flying at their heads: green dancing around Belcore's red hair, blue around Tamino's soft brown curls, and bright scarlet circling Valery's long dark mane. Charming effect - and very annoying.

"Too late, Carus. He's already spoken to Malfoy." Aulus Belcore swatted at a green sparkle.

"Oh, gods." Carus Tamino was the very picture of high-minded Ravenclaw outrage. "Julius, leave that poor child alone! Won't he have enough problems?"

I snorted. "Something of an understatement. Aulus, do you think he might have - ah - problems?"

"A Mudblood in the Snake-Pit?" Belcore shrugged and spread out his hands, looking across at Tamino. "He's doomed. No family, no alliances, no skills, no status. They'll tear him apart down there. He'll be gone within a week, a month at most."

"Precisely." I twirled my wand slowly through the air, drawing rainbows. "So what's wrong with putting him to good use, in the brief time he's with us?"

Lucan Valery had made himself comfortable, sprawled out on the worn rug, playing with the hem of Tamino's robes. Now he was nodding slowly, considering. "Useful enough to get you that duel - at long last. Preferably soon. We're growing old waiting for this."

"So what did Dumbledore say when the Hat spoke?" I had to admit I was curious.

"Something about lemon drops. Honestly, Julius, he didn't say anything much - you know what he's like - he didn't even seem shocked - "

"He must have been the only person in the Hall who wasn't," said Belcore. "Albus Dumbledore's brother, a proper little Slytherin... Wonder who got the Hat drunk today?" He burst out laughing again, setting off the rest of us.

"So you've made him your elf." Tamino sobered quickly, giving me a grave look. "Why this, Julius? I don't pretend to understand the ways of your House... but this is cruel to the boy. You could protect him..."

"I could indeed. For a while. If his big brother finally consents to face me with a drawn wand, right here in this room. Otherwise..." There must have been something too feral, too much of the game, in my smile; Tamino turned away, tight-lipped. "Carus, light of my life - don't look like that - it's perfect! And I'm the only one who can do it."

"True enough," said Belcore. "Julius leads in the game. The House would listen to no other. A few words, a few favors - and the Mudblood may have a far easier time of it, until his inevitable departure - "

"Or his life in Slytherin House could be much, much more distressing than need be," I added softly. Tamino shuddered.

"Distract him!" I mouthed to Valery.

Valery grinned, darting a hand up Tamino's leg under his robes. I sent a cloud of pink bubbles wafting around the tickling match that followed - ending with both of them on the floor, Tamino nestled in the curve of Valery's arm and looking much better.

"Actually, you could make his life miserable enough all by yourself," said Belcore. "Part of the elving tradition. I still remember that chap I elved for in first year - mad on Potions - ugh, the things I had to cut up and stir for him..."

"Mine was the Quidditch captain," added Tamino. "Kept waking me up at mad hours to get him ready for morning practice. I never wanted to see a broom again, ever."

Valery looked nostalgic. "Mine was nice. Great help with Transfiguration exercises. And yours, Julius - what was that disgusting trick he showed you - "

"Crucio on a Flobberworm. Apart from that, all I had to do was bring him mead and send off owls. Boring, really." I paused, thoughts racing ahead again, while my wand continued its patterns. Green bubbles. Purple stars. "You'll spread the word around Gryffindor?"

Valery's amused dark eyes met mine. "Dumbledore Minor, first-year Slytherin - property of Julius Marvolo!" His smile widened. "But of course... Lucretia would kill me if I didn't help with this... And I want to see the look on Dumbledore's face as much as you do - well, maybe not quite as much - I'm not the one mad to duel him - "

"Gryffindor duels. Child's play." Teasing him now, as I had since our first year. "No, no, you can't do that! And that's against the rules too! And that's so dishonorable!" Punctuating my words with bursts of black sparkles. "Ladylike swoons all around at the very mention of Cruciatus! Come down to the Snake-Pit some day, Lucan - let us show you how it's done - "

Tamino intervened before Valery could attempt to drag me down onto the floor as well. "Julius - I won't say I like it, but you've clearly made up your mind about this, so..." He looked at me with those winter-grey eyes that saw so much further than anyone else. "What will this mean for you? If you step in to protect a Muggle-born, won't that do something to your own status? Be careful, Julius - "

"You worry about me too much..." Only Tamino ever talked to me like this. "I'm hardly making him a status partner, after all. Since when does an elf's status - or lack of it - affect that of his elf-master? And my position is safe enough." I exchanged a glance with Aulus Belcore. Carus Tamino was too squeamish for the finer details of life in the dungeons; Lucan Valery, a younger son, enjoyed the tales but was free to indulge his preference for Quidditch over the game of status. Belcore alone could truly appreciate what I had gone through to secure that seat at the head of the Slytherin table. He was also his family's heir.

"They'll understand this," he was saying now. "The House will know Julius is only doing it to force Dumbledore into dueling. Measure of influence - extortion, right? And it's only for a short while, after all. No threat to his own status. Rather the opposite, if he does manage to get that duel... The Slytherins have been waiting for the great event as long as anyone else!" Belcore broke off to dodge the serpentine green ribbons I was casting at him.

"Gods, I hope this works," said Valery. "I've lost count of the plots we've hatched to get him to duel."

Belcore smiled. "I don't see how it can fail. We should start the real wagers now - the duel of the year - ten Galleons says you'll have his wand, Julius!" He looked around the room cautiously - no Masters, and I was the only prefect there - before reaching into his robes for a flask and four small cups. Belcore's absinthe trade was his passion, and very lucrative; he supplied the whole school.

The four of us together again, on our window-seat here in Central... That was certainly worth a toast. Then we toasted the plan, Dumbledore Minor, the Sorting Hat, Lucretia, and each other - several times. Eventually, very late, Tamino and Valery wandered off together - to recite Muggle poetry at each other by the lake, or whatever Ravenclaws and Gryffindors do when they're in love - while Belcore and I headed back to the Slytherin dungeons.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

That night I lay awake for some time, thinking. It felt good to return to Hogwarts for another year. It felt even better to know that a wish was about to come true, thanks to Fortune and the Hat.

I wanted to duel Dumbledore. Oh, how I wanted it! To wipe that smug smile off his face with a choice selection of curses, see what he could send against me, finally measure my strength against his and get an answer.

The problem was that he didn't duel. Ever. In Dark Arts classes, we all dueled - learning to throw and block every spell we could, as well as a number of other diverting and destructive tricks. But Dumbledore, being a Mudblood, wasn't taking Dark Arts; he'd signed up for Alchemy instead, from our third year onwards. And he had never been known to duel out of class. Not even within Gryffindor, for sport.

Of course, it didn't help that I'd been trying to provoke him into dueling for the better part of four years, and all of Hogwarts knew it, and yes, there were even bets going around on the outcome of this entirely hypothetical Marvolo-Dumbledore duel.

He always declined - mildly, indifferently, insufferably. With the obvious implication that it would be quite unsporting for him to duel any other student. Meanwhile, here I was, the best duelist at Hogwarts... or only the second-best?

I had to know. I just had to. Besides, my status within Slytherin would be significantly enhanced by clear proof that no one in the school could take my wand. And yet he always, always declined.

But now... yes, Belcore hadn't exaggerated. I was the only one in Slytherin House with the power to protect a newly-Sorted Mudblood, even temporarily. And once I had made that clear, in the right terms of persuasion... then I'd have my duel, faster than anyone could say Expelliarmus.

On that thought, I slept.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next morning I awoke to pounding on my door and the voice of Rosier, the sixth-year prefect. For one sleep-fogged moment my only thought was that my grandsire had killed his great-grandsire, in 1723 - and now this fool was taking revenge by waking me from a perfectly good dream. Something about Transfiguration and the Sorting Hat...

"Marvolo! Trouble with the first-years - come on!"

"It's their second day here, how much trouble could there be?" But I had already reached for my wand and said a Dressing Charm, and we were running for the first-year dormitory.

A crowd had gathered, but it was behaving strangely: while those at the back pushed for a closer look through the doorway, those at the front were trying to retreat. In the corridor Malfoy was hovering over a group of screaming first-years, who seemed to find the sight of him far from reassuring.

To my relief, Professor Lott was the next to arrive. He quickly pushed his way through to the dormitory threshold - and stopped cold. I had seldom seen our Head of House and Dark Arts Master look so surprised. When I reached the door myself, I understood why.

The walls, the floor, the beds, and all other surfaces were covered in spiders.

I could hear a faint rustling as countless thousands of tiny bodies shifted, crawling over and around each other, a shimmering living carpet of brown and white and black. The air crackled with the afterflash of strong magic.

The spiders covered the whole room, except for a small patch of stone at the very center - where a boy stood alone, a boy with one black eye and a sleeve half-ripped from his robe. His face was white with shock, even in the candlelight; he clutched his wand in both hands, knuckles straining as if he were trying to break it. No need to guess who this might be. The hair was yellow, not auburn, but the long nose and those pale blue eyes could belong to only one person's brother.

"Finite Incantatem." Lott's voice was low and hoarse. For a long moment, nothing happened - then, very slowly, the spiders began to fade. Those of us in the doorway watched in silence as they vanished.

Professor Lott spoke over his shoulder. "Mr. Malfoy, bring the other first-year boys back into their dormitory. Mr. Rosier, Mr. Marvolo, remain here. Everyone else, kindly go about your business - now."

Voices behind us, growing fainter as the Slytherins outside dispersed. Candles flickering. Still a trace of the spell in the air, making my bones hum. Muttering from the other first-years as they trooped back into the room and faced the lone boy, glaring. Some of their faces and robes also bore signs of conflict.

Eight against one. Ahh. From eight very fine old families, of course.

"First-year class of Slytherin House. Look at me, all of you. What, may I ask, is the meaning of this?"

The eight all broke out at once, their voices rising over each other.

"Sir, it was Dumbledore Minor - "

"Sir, he bit me - "

"And he punched me - "

"Cowardly, filthy Mudblood - "

"That's enough!" Lott's hard dark eyes swept them into silence. "Well, Mr. Dumbledore, have you nothing to say for yourself?"

The boy just stared at Lott, sullen and mute, not sparing a glance for the rest of us in the room.

"We have no time for this now," said Lott coldly. "All of you have to be in the Great Hall, and you cannot possibly be late for your first class. I will only say that this is a disgraceful start to your time at Hogwarts. Common physical brawling is unworthy of Slytherin House. And by this evening, I will know exactly what else happened here." He turned to the door. "I shall now escort you to breakfast. Mr. Malfoy, if you could take charge of Dumbledore Minor - "

Malfoy. Oh gods, I knew what he'd say before he spoke.

"Sir, this boy is Marvolo's elf. Wouldn't it be more appropriate - "

"Indeed it would, if that is the case. After all, you have taken pains never to become involved in anything... unusual... haven't you, Mr. Malfoy?"

Sometimes I truly admired Lott. He had a way with words that was positively feline. After delivering this magnificent scratch at both Malfoy and myself, he ordered me to get the boy cleaned up and deliver him to his first class. Behind that I heard another command, unspoken but unmistakable: Get the story out of him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Belcore was waiting in the corridor. His eyebrows shot up at the sight of me with my wand drawn and a firm grip on the shoulder of Dumbledore Minor.

"In need of assistance, Julius?"

"No," I snapped. "Go on to breakfast. I'll see you in Potions."

I led the boy into my own chamber, locking the door behind us and adding a Silencing Charm to my usual door-wards. This conversation would be quite unpredictable enough, even without the risk of eavesdroppers. When I looked around, he was standing by the bookshelves with his back to me. Oh, splendid.

Where to start? Maybe I should explain to the little Mudblood what Slytherin House generally thought of Mudbloods... or that none of his kind had been Sorted into Slytherin for at least two decades. Under any other circumstances, I would not have considered the behavior of his eight pureblood year-mates to merit a reprimand; in truth, they were only being Slytherins. But now we had a Mudblood Slytherin - whose responses apparently included biting, and casting unprecedented spells - oh gods, this was Dumbledore's brother, I should have anticipated something like this... what else might he be able to do? And whatever was I supposed to do with him?

However, first things first. I'd been told to clean him up, and he certainly needed it.

"Here, let's have a look at that eye - "

He wrenched away. "Sod off and leave me alone!"

"Oh, I do beg your pardon. We haven't even been properly introduced." He glanced at me curiously - good, I had his attention. "My name is Julius Marvolo. I'm the fifth-year prefect. Also the dueling champion and Dark Arts champion. Popularly known as the most dangerous student in Slytherin." Before he could blink, my wand was pointing straight at his head. "And I don't care how many spiders you can conjure - you do not talk to me like that. Understood?"

The look on his face took me perilously close to the edge of laughter.

"Now I'm going to Heal your eye. Hold still, or I'll hex you as well. You won't like it."

As I passed my wand over his black eye and other scrapes, rattling off some Healing charms, I silently cursed my own clever ideas from the evening before. I didn't want this hostile brat as my elf. Not even a duel with his brother could be worth the potential trouble I sensed swirling around this situation. I wanted nothing to do with him - yet now I was stuck with him, spiders and all. Suddenly I wished very much that Carus Tamino could be here - or perhaps Lucretia. Now, should I keep threatening him, or...?

Oh, confound it - a Mudblood Slytherin - the very idea was ludicrous. He'd be gone in a week, maybe less, and that would be the end of the story.

A quick Mending Charm on the sleeve, and the clean him up part of my task was done. I stepped back, looking him up and down critically. "You know, apart from the hair, it's extraordinary how much you look like your brother - at least, as I remember him from first year - "

He turned on me with a fury that completely took me aback. "Don't talk about him! I hate him! This is all his fault. I never want to see him again - I asked the Hat to put me anywhere but Gryffindor - " Gods, the brat was waving his wand at me! "Just don't talk about him, ever - "

"Expelliarmus!" His wand flew into my hand; he stumbled back and fell silent, astonished. "Fine. We won't discuss your brother. That suits me well." I took a deep breath, and looked him straight in the eye. "So here you are - not in Gryffindor - and, as you may have realized, you're in trouble. Now, I'm a prefect, and I have some influence within this House, and what's more, you're my elf. I can help you - but you're going to have to talk to me. Will you do that?"

He nodded slowly; still staring at me warily, eyes narrowed.

"Good. Let's start with the obvious. What in Hades happened this morning - and what spell did you use for those spiders?"

"I'm... not sure. I didn't know it was a spell. I think the word was Arachniomnius."

I felt slightly ill. "You've never done any magic before?"

"No." He was looking at the floor now, almost whispering. "I kept hoping that - that if I didn't really do it, it would go away - it might all be a mistake, so I wouldn't have to be here..."

"You didn't want to come to Hogwarts?" I wasn't quite speechless, but close to it.

"No!" His head came up - and all at once, the dam broke. "I don't want any of this! All I was thinking of was how to get out of here - and then they started in on me. They kept waking me up all night - saying what real wizards should do to Mudbloods - and this morning... they tried to take my wand. Said no Mudblood should be allowed to carry one." His voice rose, bewildered and bitter. "I don't even want the bloody thing! But I wasn't letting anyone take it off me. I'm good with my fists. So I hit a few of them - and then they started pointing their wands at me, and saying all these silly words - but nothing happened - and I said some of the words back, just to make fun of them - and suddenly there were spiders everywhere..."

Now he simply looked confused, and very much alone. "This place is awful... I knew it would be..."

So that's how it was. Eight against one - more than a duel. A garbled word, a burst of untrained power fuelled by raw panic and rage; with an unwanted wand in his fist. He had just won his first status fight, and he didn't even know it. He knew nothing at all.

Flying to Hogwarts with my father in the best carriage.
Excitement. Pride.
Looking forward for years to taking that first step into the great game of the families.
Sorted into Slytherin, and knowing with all my being that I was born for this and it was where I belonged.
The thrill of using my new wand.
My only sadness: that Lucretia wasn't here at Hogwarts with her brother and myself.
Not sad for long - too busy planning how to secure top place among the first-years, then take on the second-years... As I did...

Somehow, I continued to appear unruffled. I started tracing colors in the air with my wand - a useful little habit which always helped me concentrate, while distracting others. Green... blue... purple... The boy slumped against the wall, silent again, and I let him be. Violet... red... I had a decision to make.

This one must not be lost. The thought rang clear and loud in my mind. Must not.

He talked like a Muggle. He had no idea what he was doing.

That spell shocked Lott. How did it work? What else could he do?

He knew nothing of the game. He didn't even want to be a wizard.

Skill like his brother's. Like my own. Potential to be one of the best.

The sensible move would be to disassociate myself from him immediately. Forget the plan, just throw him back in the Snake-Pit and out of Hogwarts very soon thereafter.

Skill like my own.

He was a Mudblood. I came from a wizarding line over nine hundred years old.

Like my own.

I couldn't walk away from this. It would be like casting my own wand aside.

Would not be lost.

There was one way to give him a permanent place in Slytherin... at a price. I could provide him with lasting protection if I chose to form a status pair with him. As my status partner, he would be safe - as long as I was prepared to defend the arrangement. And challenges there would certainly be. Bringing a Mudblood into the game? Impossible. At the head of the table? The outrage would shake the dungeons.

My wand went on making leisurely patterns in the air, but my pulse was pounding and my mouth was dry. This could cost me the game.

What's more, everything he did would reflect on me. That was what it meant to be in a status pair: successes and failures were shared. I had never paired with anyone but Aulus Belcore. This boy... to avoid complete disaster, I would have to train him; not only in the game and the use of magic, but in every aspect of life in the wizarding world - especially in Slytherin House.

Rather ruefully, I recalled what I'd said to Tamino the previous evening: "I'm the only one who can do it." I had spoken more truth than I knew. I'd have to tell Tamino he could start worrying about me again.

I couldn't believe I was going to do this.

Once again - first things first. I had to pull him back from the brink of running away, persuade him to enter a classroom and learn some magic. Unless the Sorting Hat really had been drunk, there must be a few sparks of ambition and determination in him somewhere. If I could reach those - maybe I could make a Slytherin of him. In any case, there was surely no point in talking like a Hufflepuff now...

I pried him from the wall, secured his attention, and took another deep breath.

"Well, I'm much obliged to you for the explanation. I believe I can relate it to Professor Lott in such a way that the consequences for you will be minimal."

His shoulders relaxed in relief - exactly what I had been waiting for. A long ribbon of red force shot out of my wand, wrapping itself around him and jolting him to the bones. I made my next words crack like a whip.

"This is where you stop pretending it will all go away. You're a wizard. And you're here at Hogwarts, you're in Slytherin, and you're a Mudblood. Now let me explain how you're going to survive." I withdrew the red ribbon and set my wand to tracing flowers in the air, my voice brutally casual.

"You say you're good with your fists. That won't help you here. Fortunately, you seem to be very good indeed with your wand. If you also have a brain, you ought to do well enough."

Was that a spark of anger in his eyes? A good sign, if so.

"You just scared eight baby Slyths into screaming fits. Not one of them could have done what you did - most new boys don't know any spells, or they can barely cast a Jelly-Legs Jinx. Of course, I knew slightly more than that, four years ago." I gave him my best ominous smile. "It helped. And today your year-mates are thoroughly confused and somewhat afraid of you - much as my own year-mates were, after our first day together. Well done, Mudblood."

Then I abandoned all cleverness and spoke straight from the heart, giving him the deepest truths I knew about life in Slytherin House - and in the greater game for which it prepared us. He needed to hear this.

"In the end, there are no rules here. Whatever you can do, do it. Whatever works, use it. If you're intelligent and ruthless and magically skilled, the others will respect you - and fear you. If not, you'll be fearing others for the next seven years."

I placed his wand back in his hand. "Welcome to the game. You've made a good start this morning. Now get into that classroom and learn something else you can use."

He met my eyes this time, and gripped the wand almost without looking like he wanted to drop it.

Maybe I had reached him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sending the boy out of the room ahead of me, I closed the door after him and paused, raising my wand.

"Arachniomnius."

Spiders, floor to ceiling. I had just become the second wizard in the world to work this spell. And I now had a clear sense of how much power it required.

"Finite Incantatem."

Spiders gone. I permitted myself one quiet shudder at the implications. Then I walked out to continue the task of launching my elf on his career at Hogwarts.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

I worked with Aulus Belcore in Potions, as usual; and that morning it was a relief to turn my attention to the delicate but comparatively straightforward tasks of cutting and measuring. Better still, none of the potion ingredients had anything to do with spiders.

"There was some curious talk over breakfast," said Belcore. He gave me a wicked smile, idly tossing a rat's spleen from hand to hand. "Tell me, is it true about the new boy... is he really a spider Animagus?"

I buried my head in my hands. "No. And frankly, I don't know what he is - except that he's trouble - and we need to forget everything we said last night."

"What do you mean?" He threw the rat's spleen aside.

"Aulus... I'm making him my status partner."

"You're what?!" Heads turned at Belcore's shout, and Professor Jigger gave us a stern look over his spectacles. We busied ourselves with our potion ingredients, continuing the conversation in muttered whispers.

"Out of your mind... Didn't even ask me... Damn you, Julius, he's a Mudblood!"

"Exactly why I'm doing it.... Any other way to keep him here?"

"And you'll be only too delighted to duel everyone in Slytherin for the sake of Dumbledore's little brother..."

"Oh, leave me alone, Aulus! I really need to think."

"You might start by thinking of Gryffindor," he suggested, nodding across the room. We shared Potions classes with the Gryffindors, and right now Lucan Valery was obviously expiring from unsatisfied curiosity. A moment later, a small ball of crumpled parchment danced through the air and hit me on the nose.

Are you two going to tell me what is happening?!

I wrote Plan cancelled - unexpected complications! on another scrap and sent it in Valery's direction. It fluttered across the floor like a tiny Snitch, then rose to land among the roots he was cutting up. His reply was swift, bouncing angrily along the tables separating us.

Tell me NOW you snake or I'll send all the Gryff first-years after your darling elf!

My second note flew openly across the room... too openly. As Valery reached out for it, another hand intervened.

"Dear me," said Professor Jigger, unfolding the parchment. "Mr. Valery, it grieves me to tell you that someone among us considers you an 'unspeakable idiot'."

Ripples of laughter across both sides of the classroom. Valery suddenly became very interested in the contents of his cauldron.

Jigger shook his head, smiling slightly. "Well, Mr. Valery - five points from Gryffindor for being an unspeakable idiot." Then he turned to look directly at me, shrewd eyes gleaming. "And, Mr. Marvolo - five points from Slytherin, for choosing such an unfortunate method of expressing your assessment of Mr. Valery's character."

Our Potions Master, also Head of Ravenclaw House, had a reputation for being scrupulously fair and very hard to deceive.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

For the rest of that class I worked on my potion in silence, thinking hard. At my request - and after a few more remarks about what he'd like to do to me for this - Belcore was subtly moving among the other Slytherins, spreading the news. A murmur of tension followed him around the tables.

His last barb hadn't been far off the mark. While I was prepared to defend a status partner within my House, I did not relish the whole school sharing a good laugh at the sight of me playing mentor to the brother of... him, of all people.

This reminded me of the boy's puzzling hostility toward his elder brother. Too many unanswered questions there. Add them to the list of Albus Dumbledore mysteries.

I raised my head to look at him, partnering one of the weakest Gryffindors across the room - he seemed serene as ever. His long auburn hair was neatly tied back, and a silver prefect's badge adorned the front of his black robes; his tall body moved with an unobtrusive grace. By all accounts, Dumbledore was a very good flyer - but he played no Quidditch, preferring to fly alone, at night. We had tried to follow him several times, unsuccessfully.

Although I had seldom spoken to him, I knew Dumbledore's habits well enough from four years of watching him in classrooms and from Valery's accounts of life in Gryffindor Tower. It was said that he only slept two or three hours a night. He was usually to be found in the Gryffindor common room, surrounded by books - somehow gaining full access to the Restricted Section of the library back in third year. He spoke little, but his steady blue gaze seemed to miss nothing. And he kept a barrier around himself with that infallible gentle courtesy, confiding in no one, not even his Gryffindor classmates. Had they ever dared call him a Mudblood? I doubted it.

I knew what was said of him: "The most brilliant Hogwarts student in a hundred years." It gnawed at me. I was well aware of the powerful impression one could create through apparently effortless excellence. But Dumbledore... try as I might, I couldn't rid myself of the terrible suspicion that for him, it really was effortless. Which only made me more determined to face him in a duel, a test of true magical talent and skill.

Well, the latest duel plan was now in ruins. As for the new circumstances... Albus Dumbledore might well return his brother's dislike. Enough to duel me? Probably not. I had never seen him truly angry, though the four of us had tried often enough to produce that effect. But if he felt otherwise about his brother - then he would be in my debt. He should also be very, very worried. And that situation could offer its own opportunities...

No time for that now. Reluctantly, I set aside all thoughts of dueling and returned to my new elf and status partner. I had personally pushed him across the threshold of the Transfiguration classroom; I could only hope he was still there. The next test would come very soon, when we faced the rest of the House in the Great Hall.

I added the final dash of nightshade to my potion, nudging it along with the required incantation, and watched it change from murky grey to a clear green. Perfect. The classic recipe for the Sleep of a Hundred Years. I felt like drinking it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Wonder if Dumbledore's heard about the spiders yet," said Carus Tamino as we moved toward the Great Hall for luncheon. During History of Magic, a class shared with the Ravenclaws, I had still been so distracted that I didn't answer a single question, and Professor Binns started giving me concerned looks. But I had managed to tell Tamino about the status pair - and now he couldn't stop smiling.

"I'll wager the whole school has heard about it by now," Aulus Belcore responded. "All eyes on your new partner, Julius... Sure you want to keep him? You might find yourself upstaged."

"Right now I'm far more at risk from Gryffindor fury - " Lucan Valery was approaching us along the intersecting corridor. I ducked behind Tamino's back, laughing. "Save me, Carus - I'm about to be hexed to pieces!"

"Hexing's too good for you," said Valery, falling into step beside us. "But you might care to know I've already owled Lucretia about your acquisition of an elf... And if you don't tell me the rest - this minute - I'm off to the Owlery again, to send her the most lurid version of these spider rumors I can possibly invent. Then she can hex you."

"I'm mortified, terrified, and deeply wounded. And of course I'll be writing to her myself, tonight, if only to report that her brother is an - "

" - unspeakable idiot!" The others joined me in the chorus.

"Come on, Lucan, I'll tell you the story," added Tamino. We had now reached the doors of the Great Hall. "Julius - when do we get the pleasure of meeting him?"

"I'll bring him to Central tonight, and you can entertain him - or hex him - while I go talk to Lott." I shifted to a conspiratorial whisper. "And I know the spider spell... How would it look here in the Hall? Ten Sickles says I can do it!"

Tamino groaned and strode off toward the Ravenclaw and Gryffindor tables, dragging Valery by the sleeve.

Belcore nudged me in the ribs. "Look at that. In need of rescue already?"

The Slytherin table was filling up, but there was a wide gap on either side of a small figure sitting well apart from the cluster of other first-year boys. The older Slytherins were watching me avidly, waiting for a reaction. Word had spread from the Potions classroom.

"So it would seem. The direct approach in this case, I think." I walked straight over and sat down at the boy's left, while Belcore took the seat at his right. Pleasant, deliberate smile directed up and down the table; eye contact made - held - and broken by several of them. Message conveyed: The head of the table is wherever I choose to sit. No weakness here, back away.

Dumbledore Minor's shoulders slumped under his slightly oversized robes. He stared down at the table, making no move to eat, not even looking up as we joined him. Whatever encouragement he'd found in our earlier conversation had clearly evaporated.

"Doesn't talk much, does he?" Belcore was piling food onto his own plate. "Or eat much, for that matter. Is this some form of Muggle ritual?"

I rolled my eyes at him, then took yet another deep breath - how many would I need to get through this day? "The tactless creature on your right is Aulus Belcore. I'm sure you remember me. And at this moment we are all that's shielding you from a tableful of voracious Slytherins - so the least you could do is say hello."

He mumbled something that might have been a greeting, without raising his eyes.

I persisted. "So, how was the rest of the morning?"

The reply was clearer this time. "...Just as horrid as I thought it would be."

"That's the other complication," I explained to Belcore. "He doesn't want to be here."

"Interesting elf. Does he do anything else, besides conjuring spiders and sulking?"

"Shut up, Aulus. And you - what's the trouble? It was all Transfiguration this morning, right? What's so bad about that?"

New students usually found their first Transfiguration class exciting, if sometimes daunting. Professor Switch used the standard approach of opening the class with a dramatic gesture - changing a chair into a dog, or a desk into a pig - followed by teaching the basic steps of changing a twig into a needle.

"I hated it. Nobody's talking to me. And they were all whispering about me." He raised his pale, miserable eyes to mine. "And... I lost five house points."

Belcore looked intrigued. "What a coincidence, so did Julius! Bad case of careless communication. And how did you manage five points in the infamous twig-to-needle class?"

"I wouldn't do it."

I was surprised, but tried to sound reassuring. "Look, most new boys don't get a needle - but surely Switch wouldn't take points for that - "

"No... I mean I refused to do it... It was too awful."

"What was awful?"

"He - he turned the desk into a pig... a real pig. People just shouldn't be able to do that," he whispered, shuddering. "It's... unnatural."

Belcore's expression would have been amusing if I hadn't been equally flabbergasted. Unnatural? This was downright offensive. Transfiguration was one of my strengths.

"So I wouldn't touch the twig - I felt sick - and I lost five points - and they were all laughing at me..." His lip trembled, and he lowered his head again.

"Gods, must we go on with this? It's ruining my meal - and people are watching us. Enough!" Belcore drew his wand and cast a light Cheering Charm at the boy, then pushed a plate of food and a goblet toward him.

"What's this?" Dumbledore Minor no longer seemed on the verge of tears, but he sniffed at the goblet suspiciously.

"Pumpkin juice." Belcore nodded at me to confirm that it was indeed as it seemed. "Stop looking as if I'd handed you hemlock - just drink it. Oh, what wouldn't I give to see you in your first Potions class!" He snorted, draining his own goblet.

For the next few minutes the boy ate silently, while I thought rapidly - and Belcore probably pretended he was unacquainted with either of us.

This was not a good start. The other first-years would soon spread the word that he was afraid of magic - and whatever would he do in the next Transfiguration class? With a slight grimace, I thought of his actions being bound to my own. But I knew he could do it... that spell this morning had a fair dose of Transfiguration about it, and a trace of Summoning, and more... Oh, this would be a very long letter to Lucretia.

Meanwhile, he needed some sort of help immediately, that much was clear. Help that reached right into his head and twisted those cursed Muggle prejudices into their own undoing. I stared down into my pumpkin juice, wishing it were something stronger... and an idea came to me.

Everyone was already talking about him. Some more attention, if favorable, couldn't hurt. Nor would it be the first time I had entertained the Great Hall, though it seemed odd to do so without the other three at my side... This would make the rest of the Slytherins even angrier, but it would also unsettle them - if it worked. Any hostile rumors would be publicly refuted. I raced through the measures of influence involved, and the status implications... It was worth a try. Now.

Wand in hand, I turned to my right and moved to guide him into our first performance as a pair.

"Mudblood." Mocking, challenging voice, no reassurance in it now. "Draw your wand."

He was taken aback, but slowly obeyed.

"So you think Transfiguration is unnatural? Well, beware - I'm about to do some, right here."

I tore off a piece of bread, changed it into a white mouse, and threw it in his lap. He jumped in fright as the mouse ran up to his shoulder.

"Don't like that, do you? Well, all you have to do is change it back to bread. Go on, do it - Mudblood."

No effect. He was only staring at me in disbelief. I grabbed a potato next and Transfigured it into a rat.

"Is this unnatural enough for you?" Tossing the rat at him. "No? How about this?" His plate turned into a piglet, squealing loudly as it dashed across the table. "Don't like pigs, Mudblood? Your choice. Change - it - back!"

No response - then a shocked gasp as his shoes changed into two large fish. He leapt to his feet. So did I. Oh, we were getting plenty of attention now.

"Do something about this! It's not right, is it? I shouldn't be able to do it, should I?" The pointed hats of the six boys closest to us turned into wreaths of flowers. "It's unnatural! You really hate this, don't you, Mudblood?" Louder. Faster. A handful of peas flew at him, transforming into butterflies on the way, hovering around his head. "And I'll just keep on and on until you stop me, so do it! Change it all back!"

Slytherin House was watching every move, and our audience expanded as heads turned at the other tables. I changed a loaf of bread into an owl, and sent a few more mice after it. Then I pointed my wand at his robes. Green fur blossomed at the hem like flames, and quickly spread up to his neck. One of Lucretia's holiday tricks. He ripped at it in sheer horror.

"No, you can't tear it off, you stupid Mudblood! Use your wand! You're a wizard. Change it back! Do it! Go on, stop me before I do something worse - or are you still afraid? What are you waiting for - spiders?" Half a dozen biscuits became tarantulas and ran straight at him.

"Is it unnatural enough for you yet? Is this your worst nightmare? So stop it now. Use your wand. Change it all back." One after another, goblets were changing into ravens and flying at his head. The edge in my voice became even sharper. "Mudblood. They're all laughing at you, Mudblood. This shouldn't be happening, should it? Stop me now! Change it back!"

I was circling him, closing in, keeping up the barrage of Transfigured objects. Belcore was leaning back and enjoying the show; in the distance I caught a glimpse of Tamino, hands over his mouth, and Valery's broad grin. Another owl. A cat. A ferret. Knives and forks into tiny snakes, skimming across the floor. A rising wave of mirth across the Hall. Damn the brat, he had to break soon - I was tiring fast.

The eight other Slytherin first-years shrieked as their robes became pale pink silk. "Pretty, aren't they? But not natural. Go ahead. Change them back. Do it!"

There were only a few Masters at the staff table, and they were making no moves to intervene. Binns and Jigger were laughing openly; Switch was watching me closely; Lott looked thoughtful - but Lott knew me very well, and he'd seen the spiders.

The boy was trembling now, tightly clutching the wand, eyes wild. Almost there - maybe... I swayed with the effort of sustaining so many spells. Reached for more.

"Mudblood. Change it all back! Just tell it to stop. Do it now. Wingardium Leviosa!"

He screamed. I was levitating him over the Slytherin table.

"Shouldn't happen, should it? Oh, it's so unnatural! Stop me, Mudblood!"

Colored lights joined the dance of objects in the air around him.

"Use your wand! Do it, Mudblood!"

Spinning helplessly above the table, dazzled and terrified... Angry? Desperate?

"Do it now."

His wand moved.

No light - only a rush of force that rocked me back a pace and seemed to draw all the breath from my lungs. The power I had sent into the Transfigured objects flickered - and was gone.

Abrupt silence. Food and random objects lying still, scattered over the stone floor - the house-elves would have some work to do here. I stepped forward and helped Dumbledore Minor off the table, brushing a few crumbs from his plain black robes.

"Next time, make it easy for both of us," I whispered. "Stop me at the first mouse."

He gaped at me, still speechless - then suddenly giggled. I smiled back at him, wiping the sweat from my forehead. "Well done, Mudblood."

The applause started - first the Ravenclaws, led by Tamino - then Valery set off the Gryffindors, and the Hufflepuffs joined in as a matter of course. The Slytherins were in a delicious dilemma: torn between house loyalty and the dishonor of applauding a Mudblood. They'd seek to make me pay for that as well, later. But all of them had now seen - and felt - what he could do.

I made one sweeping bow and stepped back, letting him absorb the understanding that the Hall was applauding him.

Then I looked over at the Gryffindor table, searching for one particular member of the audience. He was there - but I could read nothing in his face, nothing at all.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

"So how much detention are you giving him for that piece of theater? Or was it all part of the game, yet again?"

I stood in Professor Lott's office, ready to report on the spider spell and ensuing events. Professor Switch, Transfiguration Master and Head of Gryffindor House, had emerged from the fireplace just as I arrived. The two of them settled behind the desk to hear me out, with the ease of an old, practised team; Switch's craggy features and untidy grey hair somehow complemented Lott's dark sleekness, and I could have sworn they read each other's minds on occasion.

"Everything is part of the game - and whyever should I penalise the most innovative player in my House? Go ahead, Mr. Marvolo. Let's assume that you knew what you were doing. Explain it to us. Full status implications, now."

Smiling inwardly at Lott's description of me, I straightened my shoulders and began.

"Status of the House. Two members of Slytherin held the attention of everyone in the Great Hall today. The other three houses all applauded members of Slytherin. Around the whole school tonight, people are talking about magic worked by members of Slytherin. Measures of influence: attention, approval, curiosity, admiration. Result: a gain in status for Slytherin House."

"You left out 'horror'," growled Switch. "If any Gryffindor had done to another student what you did to that boy, I'd have taken fifty points at least."

I didn't back down; Switch preferred students who stood up to him. "With respect, sir - that which may be a liability for Gryffindor may be an asset for our House. Message conveyed: Slytherins play rough. Measure of influence: intimidation. Result: a gain in status for Slytherin."

Lott had poured mead for himself and Switch. Now he raised his goblet to me in a wry salute. "Go on, Mr. Marvolo. Your assessment of the boy."

"Personal status of Dumbledore Minor. First-year student, Mudblood, the only Slytherin with no status based on family, thus entirely dependent on his own performance. Made a promising start this morning. Measures of influence: attention, intimidation. This was subsequently placed at risk - "

"That pathetic little coward, I took five points off him." Switch looked disgusted. "Didn't have the gumption to try the simplest task."

" - placed at risk because his Muggle beliefs blocked his magical abilities. He referred to Transfiguration as 'unnatural'."

Lott sighed. "I can't blame you, Adrastus. I would have taken ten points, for a disgraceful display of Muggle attitudes. We need to teach Defense Against the Muggle World here - Know your enemy. Constant vigilance! At Durmstrang..." He shook his head, and motioned for me to continue.

"My intervention applied pressure to his revulsion toward magic - turning it into a motivation to work magic. It also gave him a taste of the rewards of the game. Measures of influence: surprise, attention, admiration. Result: a gain in status for Dumbledore Minor, and for the two of us... as a status pair." It was still hard to say those words without wincing.

"Hmmph. I'll be watching him in class next time." Switch scowled into his mead. "You seemed very certain of the outcome. But what if he had failed to respond to your... pressure? Would you have washed your hands of him at once?"

"No, sir. I would have created the illusion that he had succeeded. Priority of house status and personal status. Then washed my hands of him. Quietly."

"This game of yours creates monsters, Gesius."

"Nonsense. It creates wizards capable of a worthy performance in the greater game. This boy may outrage your sensibilities, Adrastus, but he is an asset to Slytherin House; and I look ahead to the wizard he will become, fifty or a hundred years from now. You know what his family is, as well as I do - so enough of that."

I was used to this sparring between the two of them. In fact, something of the sort happened whenever Slytherin and Gryffindor worked together; Valery and I had our own version of it. Never held us back, just as it had never prevented Lott and Switch from being a formidable team - with much underlying affection for each other.

Now Lott refilled their goblets, smiling; and I was able to move on with the story, in the crisp formal language of status analysis, familiar to me from childhood.

"Personal status outside Slytherin House. The whole school saw me perform a number of advanced Transfiguration exercises, sustained and at speed. I also displayed dominance over, and partnership with, the student responsible for the spider incident and a flash of powerful magic in the Great Hall. Measures of influence: intimidation, admiration, attention, association. Result: a gain in personal status."

"Well enough, Mr. Marvolo," said Lott softly. He leaned forward. "And at the heart of the game? Where do you stand tonight?"

This was the difficult one. "Personal status within Slytherin House," I began. "I have chosen to partner with a Mudblood. I knowingly drew the school's attention to the presence of an unusually gifted Mudblood wizard in our House. I manipulated other members of Slytherin into public expression of support for a Mudblood. Risky combination of measures of influence: intimidation, humiliation, coercion. Result: uncertain. I expect some form of challenge no later than tomorrow morning."

Our Head of House would not advise me, nor even wish me luck. That was not his role. He watched the game within the House and took careful note of each new twist. I led in the game - so he gave me special attention. Lott valued my skills; he even liked me. His way of expressing this was usually to throw me into the deepest possible water and demand that I swim. This time, I had managed to dive in entirely by myself; he now expected me to face the consequences - confront the rest of the House and prevail - any way I could. Afterwards he would hear my account of whatever happened, point out the flaws, and send me back into the Snake-Pit.

Lott was the perfect Slytherin mentor; the only tactics he ever condemned were those which were unsuccessful.

"Where is the boy at present?"

"In the Central common room, sir. With Aulus Belcore, Lucan Valery of Gryffindor, and Carus Tamino of Ravenclaw."

Lott had that thoughtful air again. "After all this time, the Hat suddenly presents us with a Mudblood... Why now, I wonder?"

"Sir, he told me that he requested the Hat not to place him in Gryffindor. For personal reasons."

Lott and Switch exchanged a long look, one I couldn't decipher.

"I shall not press you for your own personal reasons here," said Lott slowly. "But do take care, Mr. Marvolo. Remember the first rule of the game: think before you act."

That startled me. Lott never talked to me like this - as if in warning...

"And make one small correction to your analysis," added Switch. "That Muggle-born child is nevertheless not entirely without status based on family."

I was then asked about the morning's events, and gave a full account of what Dumbledore Minor had told me of the fight in the first-year dormitory. By that time, enough mead had been consumed to make both of them quick with the obvious response to hearing the key word of the spider spell.

"Will you do the honors, Gesius?"

"Very well." Then Lott glanced at me. "Unless you would care to try it?"

"I already have, sir. It worked."

Switch chuckled. "Ah, Gesius, trade me this one! I'll give you the Valery lad, and throw in a couple of Weasleys - "

"No trade," said Lott lightly, standing and reaching for his wand. "Not unless you're parting with Dumbledore."

"Certainly not. And that's for your own good - he'd ruin your reputation down here. Now show me some spiders."

"Arachniomnius."

Low whistle. "Well, I'll be damned. What a pretty little spell."

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The common rooms of the four houses tended to be places for quiet study or conversation. The Central common room was considerably more lively.

This vast, noisy, magnificent room - directly above the Great Hall - was where all houses met and mingled for informal competition, cooperation, or both. There was always something in motion: exercises, wagers, arguments, tricks, experiments, games, dares, and a large amount of individual showing-off. Central was where fashions and feuds started, and rumors took flight. It was where the most spectacular duels were fought.

Being there required being able to accept challenges readily, dodge fast-flying objects or hexes, and hand over your Sickles with good grace when you lost a wager. No one ever went into Central without his wand.

I practically lived there.

If my elf needed to see plenty of casual, entirely natural use of magic, Central was the ideal place for him. Yet as I made my way back from Lott's office I did feel some apprehension about what my friends might have done to him - or he to them.

However, there they all were on the window-seat; and no sparks seemed to be flying. I started toward them across the room, looking around as I went to see who was with whom tonight and what entertainment might be available. It seemed like a relatively quiet evening. Someone had Charmed the ceiling to change color at regular intervals; hardly original, probably a Hufflepuff prank... Not many Slytherins about; well, I knew where they would be... A duel was in progress in the far corner; no one important... I nodded a greeting to some sixth-years by the fire - two Gryffindors, a Hufflepuff, and a Ravenclaw - who were our most frequent rivals in Central group challenges. They waved back cheerily and called out a few interesting, if painful, suggestions for how I should next apply my Transfiguration skills.

The window overlooked the lake and the window-seat formed a broad curve, its worn brocade cushions a deep, inviting dark red. This had been our territory ever since we first teamed up in a challenge to win the rights to it, nearly four years ago now. Tonight the low table was pulled over to one side of the curve, and three heads were bent over it intently. Dumbledore Minor didn't even look up as I approached. Valery and Belcore raised a glance to greet me, then turned their attention to the table again.

Tamino had the lute with him this evening; he had taken the other side of the curve, legs outstretched, his graceful fingers making random bits of melody. Clear grey eyes smiled a welcome. I sank down on the floor at his side, leaning back against the seat.

"How was Lott?"

"In fine form. Switch likewise. And how goes it here?"

A soft laugh above me. "Well, we've all learned a few things about Muggles this evening... Fascinating, really - though I rather think Aulus has been on the verge of apoplexy several times..."

"What are they doing over there?"

"Quidditch explanation. Lucan's idea - he's picturing the last Gryffindor-Ravenclaw match on the table-top. I thought I'd sit back and leave them to it. But it might indeed be fun to see your status partner on a broom."

"He'll either fall off at once, or fly it halfway to Avalon." I closed my eyes with a sigh. "Gods, I'm tired... And I still have to get him through the Snake-Pit tonight."

A break in the melody. Gentle touch on my cheek, then moving through my hair in a caress like comfort. "Rest, while they keep him occupied. And you know how I love a captive audience..." His music resumed, this time flowing into song.

Night, night, blow out the candle...
Inside a blazing building, on a sacred mission...

Tamino's rich voice enveloping me, over the familiar hum of Central. I felt more at peace than I had all day.

Up the wooden stair, up into my heart...
I know that you know this is all that matters...

So Valery couldn't resist trying to convert a Mudblood to Quidditch. Well, the new season was about to start, and he was the Gryffindor team's best Chaser... I had played Seeker for Slytherin in our third year - then decided my time was better spent on study, dueling, and the endless permutations of the game. Valery still lived for Quidditch matches. I just loved to fly.

Nowhere near, wade in a lake of silence...
Only say that word and I will pour myself like wine...

Murmur of voices from the other side of the window-seat. This probably counted as a successful evening, so far: the boy was neither hiding in a corner nor screaming. Of course, it helped that the other Slytherin first-years were nowhere about. And Albus Dumbledore was almost never seen in Central.

And you know this is nothing special...
With one slip we could lose ourselves forever...
One time for all times.
And you are the only thing that shines...

I rested my head against Tamino and allowed myself to drift for a while.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

As the three of us made our way along the twisting, torch-lit corridors of the dungeons, I gave Dumbledore Minor some basic instructions.

"We have to walk through the common room, that's all. So keep behind me and walk. Be prepared to stop if I do. But don't look anyone in the eye, and no matter what they say, don't answer."

"And don't trip over anything," Belcore added solemnly. "And no spiders!"

It felt good to be able to laugh at that moment. Very soon we would enter a long, low room packed with other aspiring players of the game. Many genuinely outraged by the very idea of a Mudblood in Slytherin, let alone in a status pair. Some thrilled at the prospect of conflict. Some simply scenting the possibility of a major shift in status within the House, and swimming toward that promise of opportunity. A few determined to see me fall.

There would be a challenge; but I had no way of predicting what it would be.

"Remember: look straight ahead, follow me. This won't take long." At least, I hoped it wouldn't. What awaited us might range from an exchange of harsh words to some extremely unpleasant forms of magical violence.

We reached the wall which hid the Slytherin entrance. The Bloody Baron was hovering outside it. His hungry eyes widened at our approach, and he gave me a smirk of anticipation.

"So many people waiting for you in there, young Julius... Shall I give your regards to your illustrious ancestors, and inform them that you will be joining them shortly?"

Before I could reply, he had slipped away through the wall.

"A ghost?" It seemed one of us had suddenly reached his limit for accumulating new experiences that day. He looked worse than he had in the Great Hall. "No - I'm not going in there! You can't make me!"

"Just get him under Imperius," said Belcore impatiently. "We can't wait around out here!"

"No." For some reason, I felt reluctant to take the obvious course of action. I considered alternatives for a moment... then turned and looked steadily into the scared, defiant eyes of my elf and - oh, gods - new status partner.

"Listen to me. The people in that room are angry with us. Because you are what you are. Because I'm protecting you. But they are also uneasy about us - and that's good. I am linking my status with yours, and - after what they have seen today - they fear what we might be capable of, together. This is an opportunity for us. This is the game."

He wasn't looking away. He was listening, head tilted up at me. I went on.

"Now we use their fear. Heighten it. We walk right through them - and I intend to explain a few things along the way. They will try to stop us somehow. If they fail, the gain in status will be substantial - for both of us." Oh, Lott would just love this story... "I'll do whatever I have to do to get us through. I need you to be there. Do you trust me?"

He hesitated. Maybe thinking of being levitated in the Hall, fish on his feet.

"Remember this morning? Do you want to fear others for the next seven years - or will you play to win, starting right now? Mudblood... This is Slytherin. This is the game. Walk in there with me."

He bit his lip - then nodded, once. Ahh... perhaps the Sorting Hat hadn't been completely insane after all.

I faced the wall and spoke the password. "Silver and green!" The door slid open and we went through, Belcore last. The door closed behind us with a soft, final click.

I started walking, calmly and evenly, straight down the middle of the crowded room. Not allowing my expression to change at all - even as all eyes focused on us, and the voices rose around us in counterpoint... and I felt a spell take hold. I only reached out to draw Dumbledore Minor to my side, my left hand now on his shoulder.

They had cast the Shuttle for us, and it was already weaving the room into a trap.

A Dark Charm, very useful for a subtle many-on-one attack, in that it avoided direct confrontation with any individual attacker. The Shuttle used the power of the voice: as the attackers spoke, it flew from one to another, catching their words and weaving them into a net tightening around their target. Any of the seventh-years could have cast it, but it would be powered and sustained by every person here.

The effect was not unlike that of a dementor. The Shuttle's web drained the will, confusing its target, bringing the deepest doubts to the surface of the mind. Before the three of us reached the end of the room we would all be frozen in place by our own indecision, unable to move a step or work the simplest spell. The price of lifting the Shuttle's paralysis would certainly include my abject apology for the insult done to Slytherin honor this day... and whatever sport they cared to have with the Mudblood.

Voices rising and falling, words blurring into each other... I could feel the net now, light as gauze, pressing on my mind. The boy beside me let out a slight gasp, and I tightened my grip on him in warning: Don't you dare break and run. We can fight this. I have been learning the game all my life.

Long evenings in my father's chambers. Rosewood and ormolu, with floating globes giving soft yellow light, and tapestries bearing our mark of silver and green serpents on a black shield. Dark rows of shelves and cabinets rising to the ceiling. Spellbooks handed down through the generations, and his own books from the work in France, with Saint-Germain himself, almost a century ago...

My training in the Dark Arts had begun years before I came to Hogwarts, and was still continuing. Years in those chambers, with my father methodically leading me through the history, the skills, and the spells: first learning to identify, then to block, and then, as I grew in strength, to cast. I was his heir.

He looks up from his desk, half-smiling, the streak of white in his black hair catching the light. First question for tonight... "How would you block the Shuttle, Julius?"

The simplest way was to bring down those who spoke it, one by one. No, too many of them here. The other way... All at once, I felt very thankful for those Quidditch matches in my past.

Measures of influence: surprise, intimidation. How far would we have to walk? Half-way, I decided - to the hearth at the center of the common room, under its great mantelpiece carved with runes and figures from the earliest history of our House. Far enough to impress; and what a perfect place to make a point.

The net pressed closer now; I leaned into it, as I had been taught. A slight shift of vision - and I could see its smoky grey threads, see the Shuttle itself as it criss-crossed the room - darting now to Rosier's lips, and on to Delacroix - then circling us again to weave more words into the spell. One firm instruction to myself, while I could still form the thought: keep watching the Shuttle. I walked on, trying to keep it in sight, hearing Belcore's harsh, furious breaths behind me. The shoulder under my hand flinched, trembling...

And what would my father say if he could see me now, risking my status for a Mudblood? However had I managed to get myself into this position - this completely unnecessary confrontation with almost everyone in the House? I could still choose to stand aside. The game did not require this of me. Not for a Mudblood. Not my problem. Priority of personal status. Yes, stop now, stand aside...

With an effort, I pried the Shuttle's tendrils from my mind.

The boy at my side was certainly hostile, obstinate, and ignorant as a Muggle. But he also had talent - and damned if I would stand by and see that blocked by the creeds of the world he came from, or crushed by the antipathy of the world I knew. The waste in that prospect offended me. And - what a challenge, to make a wizard of this unknown quantity - what enticing possibilities for new twists in the game...

My eyes remained on the Shuttle. Twenty paces more, perhaps, before we reached the hearth, and the net was closing in fast. Thank the gods the boy was here of his own will; I couldn't have sustained Imperius now...

Could I have cast it at all? Not entirely without status based on family. This was Dumbledore's brother. Yes, that other unknown quantity, over in Gryffindor Tower, the one who had set my teeth on edge and placed my status in question for the past four years. And the duel I sought was surely the duel I was fated to lose - for my power was based on hard work and flamboyance alone, while his was the true magical genius that is born once in a century... And to aid this boy would be to aid my rival; or perhaps even to raise up another rival, within my own House...

I fought the Shuttle's net, but it only clung closer, sending my thoughts spiralling inward into chaos. My left hand loosened its hold, started to draw back - then steadied once more. The Shuttle darted to the left, swung wide and to the right. The hearth seemed impossibly far away. Ten paces. No, I couldn't...

I was - and was not - in the Slytherin common room. I was in Central, in my element, and my friends were there waiting - Belcore pouring the absinthe, and Valery with his arm around Tamino, each holding out a hand to me, their smiles pure mischief... My awareness shifted, the two visions sliding past, grazing each other, holding on. I was watching the Shuttle - counting paces to the hearth - straining past the net's cloud of confusion... I was walking across Central, and with these three I knew no doubts and never could.

Five paces to the hearth. A sound from Dumbledore Minor, between a sob and a snarl; he slowed his pace, but I pressed him on. Felt the stir of expectation in the crowd on either side. The Shuttle circled us and flashed away. The net tightened.

Voices all around, weaving into the spell; yet I could hear a lute playing somewhere. Now I was seeing Lucretia there with the others, which made no sense at all - she had never set foot in Central... I found I no longer knew where I was. Only knew I had to keep watching the Shuttle.

And then, as we drew level with the great mantelpiece, I saw it turn at the far side of the room and come swooping toward us once more.

I braced myself, for a single moment shutting out all sound and all images apart from that sleek grey dart flying at my head; and time seemed to slow as my right hand came up with one sure motion - half Dark Arts training, half Seeker's reflexes - to catch the Shuttle as it brushed past, and grip it tight. It burned in my hand, becoming fully visible, fighting to break free and continue the spell.

The absurd maelstrom in my head now sounded exactly like Valery, shouting: One hundred and fifty points for Slytherin! Made me bite back a laugh that would have carried too much madness.

I raised my arm high, so that all could see what I held, aware of the voices fading away as I strode to the hearth and hurled the Shuttle into the flames.

The net shattered. My mind was clear again - and I would give those gathered here no chance to shape any other spell tonight. I turned to face them, with the fire blazing behind me and multiple serpents writhing in the carvings arched over my head.

Time to drive the point home.

"This hearth is my birth-right." Not words, to them. A slow, fierce hiss sweeping the room, sending a visceral shudder down the spine of every Slytherin.

This was the core of my status here, though I rarely resorted to such blatant demonstrations of it. The core of what the glass showed me each day as I grew into who I was: my slender height, jet-black hair, and deep-set dark blue eyes marking me out as being from the oldest family of all - in a House which knew how to appreciate such distinctions of history.

The Marvolo line. Direct descendants of Salazar Slytherin. Tall and dark-haired and powerful. Parselmouths.

Briefly, I wondered if anyone else had caught the irony of Parseltongue being spoken in defence of a Mudblood.

My companions still stood on the path down the center of the room. Belcore's face was flushed with the anger which had undoubtedly been his way of fighting the net. The boy was wide-eyed and wary as a startled young Kneazle, but when I beckoned him forward he moved to join me before the hearth - to give the crowd a good look at what was, admittedly, one of the strangest status pairs Slytherin House had ever seen.

"Permit me to make something clear." Words cool and deliberate now, slicing through the silent room. "This Mudblood will be a true Slytherin, and an asset to the House. Far more so than some people present, in fact... You have my word on that. Will anyone here question my word?"

I looked around slowly. Not one person stepped forward in challenge. Good.

Then I pivoted on my heel and continued down the length of the room, not hurrying. A flicker of satisfaction at the sight of boys moving out of my way. Silence unbroken until I had passed through the door, followed by Belcore and Dumbledore Minor.

Victory in the game took many forms: one of them was walking through a crowd of people who wanted to see your blood, and knowing none of them dared to touch you. Slytherin House was the training-ground for wizards capable of doing that.

Once we had passed the first bend of the corridor I stopped to lean back against a cold stone wall, waiting for my heartbeat to slow down.

"Well, Salazar Serpent-tongue - could you do with a drink after that performance?" Belcore's eyes gleamed in the torchlight. "Feel free to answer in Snake or English, as you please..."

I laughed, rather shakily. "Just now I think I could sing the School Song in Mermish - without noticing." Took a long swig from the flask he offered me, allowing some of the tension to drain from my shoulders at last. "My thanks, Aulus. Here's to the hope this will keep them quiet for a good long while."

Then I looked down at Dumbledore Minor's bewildered face, finding a smile for him. "My thanks to you also. And don't make a liar of me. I hate having to hiss at them."

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Later that night - once my elf had been escorted back to the first-year dormitory and a few mild threats had been applied to his room-mates - I was finally free to start my letter to Lucretia.

Lucan Valery's sister. The last person to take my wand from me in a duel, while I was staying with the Valerys over the past Yuletide holidays - twelve days of warmth and spells and wild games... She'd hit me with a viciously complex, rapid sequence of curses - and as I struggled to counter them, a swift and simple hex knocked me to the floor. I'd looked up to see her holding two wands, cheeks pink with triumphant delight - then she'd pulled me to my feet and thrown her arms around me, as Lucan whooped and applauded - he and I swept her up and swung her in circles until we were all dizzy and breathless with laughter...

I had met Tamino in our first year here; Belcore and I had met earlier, though we were never close before starting at Hogwarts. The Belcore and Marvolo families were in formal alliance, but with the Valerys we had something more than that. My mother had been a Valery. And I couldn't remember a time when I hadn't known the Valery twins, Lucan and Lucretia; nor could I imagine being without them.

I would have made Lucretia my status partner in an instant, if I could. I still regretted - as I had from our first day at Hogwarts - that she couldn't share this with us. She would have been the best possible partner in Transfiguration and Dark Arts classes. She would have thrived in the frenzy of Central. But no witches had been admitted to Hogwarts for the past three centuries...

My father was over a hundred years old, and Tradition was his favorite word. The Valerys, decades younger, were daringly intent on a full magical education for their daughter as well as their sons: Lucretia's father taught her himself, following the Hogwarts curriculum as closely as possible, and encouraged her to test her skills against ours. She had the vast Valery library at her disposal - saving all of us many a permission note for the Restricted Section. And we tried to share our school lives with her, as far as we could.

It was a rare day that none of us received an owl from Lucretia - an endless stream of books, gifts, food, anything we asked for. She exchanged letters with Lucan every day, sometimes several times a day; she discussed novels and music with Tamino, absinthe recipes and money with Belcore. As for myself... ah, Lucretia, my secret weapon in the double-edged game of status! I could tell her anything - in fact, I told her everything. And she kept my secrets, and responded with her true thoughts, and I valued this more than any non-Slytherin could ever comprehend. She would be very interested indeed to hear of this night's events in the common room.

I smiled, preparing to explain Dumbledore Minor to her. Which would she find more intriguing, his skills or his opinions?

In any case, I could describe the spider spell in detail - knowing Lucretia, I had no doubt she would try it immediately. She would also attempt to find out how it worked and what it might mean. Then there was that puzzling moment in my talk with Lott and Switch: they were warning me off the idea of a duel with Dumbledore... Why? They had never done that before. And Lucretia would probably send me a Howler if I didn't include a complete account of what I'd done in the Great Hall, even though she would receive three other owls tomorrow bearing versions of that story...

I picked up my quill.

To Lucretia from Julius, greetings
I do believe I have just lived the longest, most complicated, most confusing
day of my entire life - and I know I shan't be able to rest until I have shared
the full tale with you...

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Notes:

Tamino's song uses the words of Only Thing That Shines, by Shriekback from the Oil and Gold album (1985).

The names Gesius and Adrastus are borrowed from Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay (HarperPrism, 1998) - a most wonderful AU Byzantium in the time of Justinian and Theodora.

Like Chapter One? Hate Chapter One? Please don't hesitate to express your opinion. There's plenty more of this story to come: it's intended to run from 1855 to around 1920. If you tell me what's wrong with it now, I can still change it before submitting it to Schnoogle - which won't be until there are three or four chapters of it.

And if you like Julius so far... would you like to see him in the canon era? Read Phoenix Riddle by teluekh: see Julius, Aberforth, Young Albus, Lott, Switch, Tamino, and Lucretia arrive in the 1990s and meet the Trio. I'm awfully flattered that teluekh has chosen to use my OCs in her fic, and I'm enjoying it greatly.
Phoenix Riddle: http://www.fanfiction.net/read.php?storyid=613321

The structure and narrative style of Two Worlds and In Between are heavily influenced by the historical family sagas of Susan Howatch. I love her first-person narrators, and wanted to try writing something like that... and, well, the 19th Century history of the Potterverse was simply begging to be invented. :-)

Thank you in a huge way to Julius Marvolo's gang of beta-readers, guinea-pigs, intrepid volunteers: Dorothy, Lyle, Riley, Catherine Cook, teluekh, Juliane, Lev, Hypatia, Frances, Kristina, Hecate, Vulgarweed, jodel, Keket, Bree... and all those on the WIKTT list who liked Julius, Albus, and Aberforth when they appeared in the Stooping to Conquer round-robin in January... and everyone else whose virtual presence hovers around www.witchfics.org