It was four against one. The boy was tall for his age, but he was all ivory skin and bones and ebony hair—no muscle to speak of—and it was painfully obvious that he had never thrown a punch in his life. He wasn't even trying to use his wand. First year, John concluded.
"Not so cocky now, are you, smartarse?" one of the attackers shouted.
John didn't know who the boy was, or why the pack of Slytherins had targeted him, but he knew an unfair fight when he saw one. Walking away was not an option.
"Oy! Leave him alone!"
Four heads turned his way, their expressions ranging from surprised to worried to disdainful. The raven-haired boy slumped to the floor.
"What's it to you?" asked the one who seemed to be the ringleader. He was a big, burly kid, already a head taller than John, with a scar across his left cheek.
"Is he your boyfriend?" asked another. His mates snickered. John rolled his eyes.
"Gay jokes—really mature," he said. "But then, I guess I shouldn't expect anything more from you lot. You think you're real tough, ganging up on that kid, don't you?"
"You offering to make things more even?"
Scarface took a step towards him, eyes bright and fists clenched. John pulled out his wand.
"I'm offering to let you off with a warning," he said. "Let him go."
"And if we don't?" asked Scarface.
He was clearly raring for a fight, but his cronies didn't look so confident. Maybe they recognized John from the last Quidditch match, when he'd batted a Bludger clear across the pitch, nailing the Slytherin Seeker right between the shoulders just as he was reaching for the Snitch. Or maybe they just realized that, as a third year, he would know more spells than all of them combined. The smallest of them, a weedy blond, put his hand on Scarface's shoulder.
"Seb," he whispered, "Seb, maybe we should—"
"Shut up, Nott," said Scarface, jerking his shoulder away. "If you're afraid, then I'll deal with him on my own."
"Oh, will you?" said someone right behind John.
Professor Longbottom was watching Scarface through narrowed eyes. John almost hadn't recognized his favorite teacher's voice, it was so uncharacteristically cold.
"That's bold of you, Moran," he said. "Especially considering Watson is older than you, possibly stronger, and definitely more experienced with dueling."
For one terrifying second, John thought the professor somehow knew about the incident with Angus Macnair the previous spring. Then he realized that, more likely, he was referring to the fact that John had studied jinxes in Defense Against the Dark Arts. The first years wouldn't be getting to that for months.
"But that's beside the point, really, since fighting is against school rules," Professor Longbottom continued.
"We were only joking around, Professor," said the weedy blond.
"Oh really?" said Longbottom. "And I suppose Mr. Holmes's nose started bleeding on its own?"
There was a pause. John rather enjoyed watching as each of the Slytherins tried very hard to think of a plausible explanation for the blood dripping down the raven-haired boy's chin.
"Detention for all of you, I think," said Longbottom. "Report to my office immediately after dinner tonight. And twenty points from Slytherin—each." He turned to John. "Mr. Watson, will you escort Mr. Holmes to the hospital wing?"
"Of course," said John.
The raven-haired boy was still sitting on the floor. John helped him to his feet and led him through the gang of Slytherins. None of them dared say anything, but Scarface gave them a look that nearly stopped John in his tracks. He had a sinking feeling that his new friend's troubles had just begun.
"Oh, and John?" Longbottom called. "Come and see me during your free period this afternoon. I'll be in Greenhouse Four."
"Yes, Professor," said John. He wondered if he was going to be praised or told off or both.
He knew he shouldn't feel disappointed about losing the chance to beat up a first year, but he did. It would have been so satisfying to give that berk what he deserved. Still, if a teacher had to come along at just that moment, Longbottom would have been his choice. The Herbology professor was notorious for his hatred of bullies; no one punished them more harshly.
John looked over at the cause of all this trouble. The boy had made no effort to clean up the blood on his face and robes, and his expression was oddly blank. John wondered if he was in shock.
"You all right?" he asked.
"Yes." The boy's tone was as emotionless as his expression. But then he met John's eyes, and there was a flicker of something, a carefully concealed emotion rising to the surface for a split second. "Yes, I'm fine. Thank you for helping me."
"Don't mention it," said John. "Holmes, is it?"
"Sherlock Holmes, yes."
The ridiculous names wizards gave their children never ceased to amaze John. Well, at least this one had a normal surname...hang on…
"You're not Mycroft Holmes's brother, are you?" he asked, frowning.
Sherlock glowered at him. "Much as I would like to deny it, yes."
Mycroft Holmes had been Head Boy the year before. John had only spoken with him two or three times, but those few encounters had been enough for him to develop an intense dislike. Mycroft wasn't as bad as some Slytherins—John had never heard of him beating up first years or calling people the M-word. But he was a pompous prat, sycophantic towards teachers and patronizing towards everyone else. John was glad the difference in their ages meant that he and Mycroft were only in school together for two years.
John studied Sherlock more closely. The boy was tall like Mycroft, and he had the same posh accent, but otherwise they couldn't have been more different. Judging by the look on his face, Sherlock didn't like his brother any more than John did. He decided not to hold the connection against him.
He sensed that Sherlock wanted to change the subject, so he said, "Slytherins don't usually go after their own kind like that."
"I'm not a Slytherin," Sherlock said. "I'm in Ravenclaw."
Sherlock shook his head in disgust. "Assuming that I'm in Slytherin just because my brother was! I don't assume you're in Gryffindor just because you bravely rushed to my defense a moment ago."
It was galling, being chastised by someone two years younger than him. John was so irritated that he nearly missed the compliment buried in Sherlock's words.
"Well, that's wise of you," he said. "Because I'm not in Gryffindor."
"No, of course not. Strong sense of justice, but little in the way of brains—you must be a Hufflepuff." Sherlock scanned John up and down. "And Muggle-born, too. No wonder you feel the need to overcompensate by excelling both in the classroom and on the Quidditch pitch."
John's mouth hung open. The kid talked like an adult, yet he didn't seem to have any grasp of basic etiquette. There was no malice in his voice as he declared John to have "little in the way of brains"—it was just an observation. To top it all off, the rest of his analysis was 100% accurate.
"How did you know—"
"Shouldn't we be going in there?" Sherlock asked.
John blinked. He had been so distracted that he had walked right past the hospital wing.
"Right," he said. "Er, just go in and tell Madam Pomfrey what happened. She'll have you patched up in no time."
"I should hope so, considering that's her job." Sherlock paused, his hand on the door, and looked back at John. "Thanks again."
"Er, no problem."
And with that, the boy was gone.