Cryptophasia or Lack Thereof
The Sorting Hat’s cry echoed in-between Harry’s ears for a long second, so loud had its voice been. At first he believed the following silence to be the Hat’s doing also, just as it had quieted the Great Hall entirely as it fell over his ears; then he took the hat off with his heart in a frenzy, and realized that the silence was real.
No one clapped at first. For a dreadful moment, Harry thought no one would clap for him at all. But then Professor McGonagall shook the shocked look off of her face and took the Hat from him, and the hall erupted into clamors.
It all came from the table at the far left, the one in silver and green: a tidewave of cheers and howls, louder than any before, with some students standing or climbing up their benches, pumping their fists into the air. Harry stood frozen as he watched them, his mouth open dumbly; then Professor McGonagall said to him, “Go on, then, Mr Potter.”
Harry risked a glance at the head table. Professor Dumbledore was clapping too, and as Harry met his eyes, the old wizard tilted the head forward in salute.
Harry looked at the floor and half-walked, half-ran to the Slytherin table.
He didn’t know where to sit. The other students had not stopped clapping yet, and the cheer was already much more lasting than it had been for any of the other newly-Sorted Slytherins. Harry saw that a few were making room for him next to them, among them Draco Malfoy, who was waving a hand wildly at him; he looked over the table in a panic and sat, instead, next to the Bulstrode girl.
He ended up sitting on the hem of her robe in his hurry. “Sorry,” he stuttered out as she tugged it from under his behind.
Millicent Bulstrode was not one of those who had welcomed him with exaggerated cheer. Harry expected her to ignore him as she had when they walked side by side. But the girl frowned at him in confusion and relaxed her hands, which had tensed over her clothes as he knocked into her; she replied, “No problem, Potter.”
Harry found himself smiling at her. Bulstrode looked at him for another second, surprised, before turning away.
Immediately, however, his other side was occupied by Draco Malfoy. The other first-years had risen and hurried as well to join him—Harry flushed when he saw how wide the eyes of Nott, Theodore had become, as the boy looked him up and down.
“You’ve joined the best possible House, Potter,” said Malfoy haughtily. His pale face had become pink with excitement. “My father won’t believe it when I tell him—a Potter in Slytherin! You must be the first in—”
“Silence,” said a tall and somber-looking girl by Bulstrode’s other side. She, too, was staring at Harry, but her eyes shifted away quickly enough. There was a shiny badge at her collar declaring her to be prefect, just like Ron’s brother Percy. “Sorting’s not over yet, Malfoy.”
Malfoy flushed again—in embarrassment this time. “Of course, Farley,” he replied tensely.
The Slytherin table finally became silent. Only then did Harry realize that Professor McGonagall had been looking this way sharply, no doubt waiting for them all to quieten in order to continue. She cleared her throat and called, “Potter, Nicholas!”
Another whisper rode over the spread of black-clothed students as Nicholas made his hesitant way to the dais and the stool. Harry looked down to his lap when his—when the other boy tried to meet his eyes, but not quickly enough to miss just how shocked he looked.
His belly squirmed again. The vindication in him shone brighter, however.
Nicholas stayed a long time on the stool. The Sorting Hat over his head was unmoving and silent, and after two minutes had passed, murmurs echoed along the tables. Harry could see students from all houses at the edges of their seats, waiting for the Hat’s decision to fall—the Slytherins around him were excited again, and he heard Malfoy murmur to Nott—What if we get them both?
Nicholas’s lips were twisting, opening and closing, as though he were arguing.
Finally, as Harry was starting to feel antsy again, the Hat’s rim opened and shouted: “GRYFFINDOR!”
The Gryffindor table seemed even louder than the Slytherin one had been. Nicholas nearly jumped toward them, relief writ all over his face, though he spared another anguished looked toward Harry, who could not avoid it this time.
Harry didn’t know which expression to show. He looked away once more.
“Ouch,” said a blond girl seated before Bulstrode. She looked at Harry, toying with the end of her neat braid. “Tough on you, Potter.”
Harry hummed, hoping to seem saddened. His heart was still jumping leaps in joy with the realization that he would not have to share a dorm with Nicholas.
“That just means we know which twin is worth more than the other,” said Malfoy pompously.
Harry heard a grunt next to him. It came from Bulstrode and sounded oddly like, “Shut up.”
The rest of the Sorting was fairly uneventful. Ron ended in Gryffindor and was welcomed by the Weasley twins loudly—whom, Harry learned from watching the Farley girl and two gorilla-looking older boys exchange whispers, were a menace both in the air and on firm ground—and the list ended with Zabini, Blaise, who joined them in Slytherin.
Zabini looked even more pompous than Malfoy, if that was possible. Or perhaps he simply wore the pomposity better. He gave them all a look from under heavy eyelids before sitting on Theodore Nott’s other side, not saying a word at all.
Professor Dumbledore made a speech consisting of nonsensical words picked at random. The older Slytherin students muttered again, calling him a loon, which made Harry frown. Then the old man sat down, and the table before Harry filled itself with food enough to make him dizzy.
“Mum wasn’t lying about the food,” said a mousy girl seated next to the blond one, who scrunched her nose and replied, “Close your mouth, Davis.”
The mousy girl closed her mouth, but she served herself amply.
Harry had hoped that the food would busy the other first years, but although they dug in with enthusiasm, he could not help but feel their eyes on him. As he had no idea what to say to any of them, he simply waited and ate as much as he could.
He did not have to wait long. “So, Harry,” said the blond girl next to Davis. “You must be surprised to be in Slytherin, what with your family history. I’m Daphne Greengrass, by the way.”
Harry thought ruefully of Nicholas earlier saying, Both our parents were in Gryffindor.
“Nice to meet you,” he replied. “And, uh, no, not really surprised.”
Daphne’s brown eyes widened. She seemed to do everything with poise and grace, even widening her eyes. “Did you know you’d end up here?”
“Something like that.”
Something told him he should avoid telling them that he simply wanted to be away from Nicholas.
“Your brother’s looking like he’s going to swallow poison any second now,” said Theodore Nott with a snicker. He was turned around in his seat and staring at the Gryffindor table.
Harry risked a glance that way. Nicholas, indeed, looked miserable, now that the cheerful welcome of Gryffindor House had ended. He lifted his head as Harry met his eyes and gave him a wet smile—Harry looked down again.
The boys around him laughed. “Bit attached, is he,” commented Nott again.
“Your shoelace is undone,” Harry said quietly to Millicent Bulstrode.
Bulstrode jumped. She gave him a long glance, then looked down at her feet, resting right next to Harry’s. Her frown had something menacing to it, what with her square jaw and tiny eyes, as if she ought to constantly look angered. Her lips thinned.
“Thanks,” she replied.
Harry kept himself subtly turned her way so that Malfoy and Nott would not try to talk to him again. Daphne Greengrass and Tracey Davis were absorbed with each other, and sometimes with another girl who introduced herself as Pansy Parkinson. They barely asked Harry anything.
For the rest of the meal, all Harry had to deal with were occasional glances his way from the rest of the table, and the occasional brush of Bulstrode’s elbow against his.
At the end of the Welcoming Feast, Professor Dumbledore rose again. He had all of them sing the school anthem—”On whichever melody you think suits it best”—and seemed to take great enjoyment out of listening to the Weasley twins drawl every word out on the funeral march they had chosen. Once they were done, he was the one to clap the loudest of them all. He wiped a tear out of his wizened eye and said: “Ah, music. The most magical thing of them all.”
Most of Slytherin table laughed, although in a mocking way.
“Now, students, before we allow you to digest this wonderful meal in the comfort of your beds—there are a few things I must say.
“First, our caretaker Mr Filch tells me to reminds you that dueling is strictly forbidden—as well as a long list of several hundred other things, which you can consult in his office on the first floor.”
Dumbledore nodded to an old, mean-looking man at the very edge of the head table, who sneered meanly at the assembly.
“The Forbidden Forest is, of course, forbidden to all students,” Professor Dumbledore went on.
“Why’s it forbidden?” Harry heard Tracey Davis ask the prefect girl.
“Monsters,” Farley replied curtly. “Be silent, now.”
“And so is the third floor corridor of the east wing, this year, exceptionally,” Dumbledore said a little louder. “Unless you wish to die in terrible pain.”
Harry wondered if perhaps this was normal as well in Hogwarts, but the older students around him looked confused this time around. Dumbledore didn’t elaborate, however; he clapped his hands cheerfully and declared, “Now, off to bed with you!”
There came a loud rattle of chairs and benches as students stood up, and the deafening sound of conversation rose higher still. Some were running across tables to greet friends from other Houses—although Harry noticed that none from Slytherin seemed to do so. Farley called for the first year Slytherins to rally behind her, as she would show them to their dorm herself, and so he stood by Bulstrode’s side, ignoring Malfoy’s attempt to grab his arm and trying to look like he simply had not noticed it.
Slowly, the students trickled out of the Great Hall and then in direction of a great marble stairway which must lead to the higher floors. Harry saw the Hufflepuff first-years walk directly across the hall toward a fine wooden door at the other end of it. He wondered if Cedric Diggory had already gone there.
Harry froze in his steps.
Belatedly, he thought to bend the head and hide his presence as he had done in the first-year group before the Sorting—he was so much shorter than most of them, he could vanish easily. But Malfoy and Nott parted behind him to make way, and a single look Zabini’s way told Harry that he should know better than to try and hide by him. Only Bulstrode did not move.
Nicholas was running across the hall, with behind him a group of first-year Gryffindors looking over in surprise. Ron’s brother, Percy, seemed to be leading them toward the stairs.
“Harry,” Nicholas panted as he stopped before Harry. He gulped in a breath. “I just wanted to say, I don’t mind—well, of course I’m sad we’re not in the same House, but I—”
“You’re not in your place, Potter,” Farley barked.
Nicholas choked on his next words. He coughed, reddening, making Malfoy and his two tall friends—Crabbe and Goyle—snicker behind his back.
He gave Harry a pleading glance. Harry felt the panic in his chest rise and flutter at his throat.
“Can we see each other after breakfast tomorrow?” Nicholas asked, red-faced still. “Maybe walk together to class, if we’ve got the same schedule?”
“How old are you?” Pansy Parkinson let out shrilly.
Nott laughed. Daphne Greengrass hid a smile behind her hand. Nicholas’s eyes, to Harry’s horror, were starting to wetten. “Please?” he asked between clenched teeth.
There were calls of his name now from the Gryffindor group behind; from the great hall, a few Professors came and stopped to look, among them a tall man in black with a great hooked nose. When Harry looked at him—in order to avoid looking at Nicholas—the professor gave him a look of such deep, unabashed loathing that Harry was shocked out of his own embarrassment.
Before he could do, or say, anything, the man walked away in a flurry of his dark robes. He disappeared behind a stone arch descending into some underlevel corridor.
Harry blinked and looked at Nicholas again, whose red face and red eyes were are terrible to see as ever. At last, he swallowed. He replied, “Fine,” softly.
Nicholas did not lighten up this time as he had all the times previous. He nodded under the mocking glances of Harry’s Slytherin yearmates and walked back to his group. Ron Weasley put a hand on his shoulder and gave Harry a confused look.
Once he was gone, Malfoy laughed outright. “What a baby,” he sing-sang. “Did you see his face? Seriously, I’m glad we didn’t get this Potter.”
“You seem much more mature, Harry,” said Greengrass, staring at the Gryffindors in disdain. “No wonder this one didn’t end up with us. Does he ask you to read him stories before sleep, too?”
“Can we move on now?” prefect Farley barked again, saving Harry the pain of having to come up with an answer. “I’d like to reach the common room sometime tonight.”
With one last laugh, the Slytherin first years followed suit.
They walked down the same archway that the Professor in black did earlier. As Harry had guessed, it led to an underground maze of corridors, which he learned through Farley’s curt explanation were the dungeons. He lost count of the number of passes and doors he saw before they all stopped before a grey wall. There would have been nothing exceptional about it at all, if not for the fact that the greenery where it met the ceiling was not moss, but tiny, moving stone-snakes.
“The password changes every fortnight, so be sure to check what it is on the board once in a while,” Farley said. Then to the wall: “Memento mori!”
The wall rippled like the surface of a pond; then a door appeared, first in shape and then in color, and opened without being touched.
The Slytherin common room was everything Harry could have dreamed of. Lush green couches and armchairs were spread around a rectangular space; though there were no windows, the many torches around the walls kept the room well-lit; within the widest hearth Harry had ever seen, a fire crackled merrily. There were black bookshelves filled with odd books and quills. Paintings hung from the walls, all of them featuring snakes big and small, and sometimes a somber and bearded man walking around gloomily. A few older students were chattering here and then, playing cards or exchanging photographs, filling the warm air with warm voices.
Under it all, a sybillant whisper came to his ears. At first he could not make sense of the words, but then they came to him: New students… New students… repeated endlessly.
No matter where he looked, however, Harry could not find out the source of it.
“Girls are on the left side,” Farley said now, pointing to two dark corridors at the end of the common room. “Boys on the right, and don’t try to sneak from one side to the other. There’s traps to stop you.” Malfoy snorted, no doubt offended to be suspected of any such behavior. Farly went on, “Breakfast starts at six-thirty. The way’s a little difficult to remember at first, so one of the prefects will lead you there for the first week at seven, but after that, you’re on your own.”
“What about classes?” asked Tracey Davis. “And the library?”
“I reckon Professor Snape will tell you in the morning when he gives out timetables,” Farly replied. “As for the rest, just ask any Professor of any of us. Now get to bed—I don’t want to have to barge in and wake any of you up screaming on the first day.”
Davis nodded eagerly, looking a little worried, which made Greengrass by her side turn up her nose and Parkinson laugh sharply. Next to Harry, Bulstrode started walking toward the left-side corridor.
“Good night!” Harry called to her.
Her steps halted. She looked over her shoulder at him, surprised. After an awkward second, she replied, “Night, Potter.”
Harry gave her a shaky smile. She did not quite reply with one of her own, but she looked almost non-frowning.
“Come on, Potter,” Nott said, grabbing his arm. He followed after him and Malfoy down the right-side corridor, all the way to the very last door there. A small sign on it read: First Year.
Behind it was a small but cozy dorm. There was a window there, although whatever was behind was so pitch black that Harry could see nothing through it at all. His trunk was waiting for him at the foot of one of the two beds farthest from the door—right between Nott’s and Crabbe’s. Malfoy, thankfully, was on the other side of the room entirely.
The boys talked among themselves for a long time as Harry put on his sleeping clothes and settled into the comfortable bed. Once again, he could feel them looking at him.
“Potter,” said Nott at one point. “You don’t act much like I expected.”
He was staring at Harry with beady eyes, as if trying to peer at a very small insect. His irises gleamed in the firelight. There was a hearth here, too, no doubt to chase away the dungeons’ chill.
“I don’t know what you expected,” Harry replied, shrugging.
Nott’s nose twisted. “You’re famous,” he went on, as if that explained anything. Now Malfoy was staring too, not even half as discreet as his friends Crabbe and Goyle. “Famous people aren’t so quiet.”
“You’ve met a lot of famous people, have you?” Malfoy laughed.
Nott glared at him. Then he looked at Harry again expectantly.
Harry scrambled his mind for an answer that would not make him look like a fool, and not either reveal that he simply had no idea he was famous until a month ago. “I, er, I try not to let it get to me,” he attempted.
Nott and Malfoy nodded, approving, which Harry supposed was a good sign. “Suppose your brother is the arrogant one, then,” Malfoy added, and he laughed again, mimicking to Crabbe and Goyle how pitiful Nicholas had looked earlier.
In the middle of the good cheer, Nott asked Harry: “Say, d’you remember any of it? Killing the Dark Lord?”
The laughter died down.
Nott must have realized for himself even before Blaise Zabini sneered, “Tactful,” the only word he had uttered all evening. His face paled. He hurried to add, “I mean—”
“No,” Harry cut in. “I don’t remember any of it, and I don’t know how I or N-Nicholas did it.” Biting his lips and cursing himself for the stutter, he said: “I’m tired. Good night.”
“Nice one, Nott,” he heard after the curtains of his bed were tugged closed, and then Nott’s subdued voice, “Shut up, Draco.” But soon the murmur of conservations lessened as the other boys joined their own beds, exhausted from the journey and the feast and eager for the next day.
But even Nott’s words could not dampen Harry’s mood. He found himself wide awake in spite of the fatigue, staring up at the stone ceiling, watching the little snakes embroidered into the drapes slither around in the darkness. A bubble of joy grew within his belly and spread warmly to his fingertips and his toes. He thought he could feel again the tingling he had first felt when Professor Dumbledore knocked on the Dursleys’ door.
I’m in Hogwarts, he thought. I’m going to learn magic.
He was out of number four, Privet Drive for the foreseeable future. He was in company of boys and girls his age who had never heard of Dudley Dursley or of his stupid cousin with the broken glasses.
Harry fell asleep with a smile on his lips; and all around him the whisper echoed, hissing, comforting: Welcome… Welcome…
Harry found himself awake early the next day. The five other beds in the room still had their curtains shut tightly, so he had the joy of using the shower room on his own. It was wide and marbled, with three different stalls with enough room to stand three abreast in comfort. One of the showerheads let out not water, but bubbles and warm steam. The day had risen by the time he came back into the dorm; and so Harry stood for a good five minutes with his mouth wide open, as he realized that the window gave out to the murky depths of what could only be the lake. He saw fish swim before his eyes, and a creature he didn’t know with tiny eyes and long, pointy fingers. It grimaced at him when it noticed him, then vanished into the dark.
The common room already counted a few students in it when he made his way out of the narrow corridor, among them the prefect girl from the previous evening, Gemma Farley. She was speaking with the two fifth-year prefects, Alberic Madley and Eleanor Corran, who smiled at him approvingly.
Harry made his way to one of the couches by the fire. Millicent Bulstrode was sitting there with a book open in her lap.
“Hi,” he said, sitting tentatively next to her.
Like the day before, she jumped. Her eyes fixed his intently for a moment. “Good morning,” she replied warily.
Harry hesitated; but, thinking that he would have no hope of befriending anyone if he kept shut like an idiot, he continued: “We didn’t really introduce ourselves last night. I’m Harry. Er, Harry Potter.”
“I know,” Bulstrode said with a tiny smile.
It was the first time Harry saw her smile at all. It didn’t change her somber expression much.
As she seemed no more forthcoming, Harry asked, “You’re Millicent, right?” and tried a smile of his own.
Millicent shut her book loudly.
“Why are you talking to me?” she asked him in a sharp voice.
Harry blinked in surprise. “Shouldn’t I?”
She was silent for a moment longer. A few more students came into the room, this time a group of older girls who looked at Harry curiously for a second before walking out of the shape-shifting wall.
“The Hat usually puts smart people in Slytherin,” Millicent said then. “I thought you of all people ending up here meant that you were smart.”
“Er,” Harry said.
“I’m not someone you need to cozy up to, Potter. Keep that for Malfoy and the like. You don’t need to force yourself to talk to me.”
Harry frowned. “I don’t understand,” he admitted. “Why would I be forcing myself to talk to you?”
Millicent scrutinized him. She went so far as to lean down—she was so much taller than him—and squint her eyes. “You’re serious,” she said lowly.
For some reason, it made her laugh. This time, her face did seem less severe.
She has a nice laugh, Harry thought. He smiled as well, though he had no idea what was so funny to her.
“I’m Millicent Bulstrode,” she said, extending a hand somewhat formally. “Call me Millicent.”
“Only if you stop calling me Potter,” Harry replied, shaking her hand. “And, I wanted to talk to you because I saw you curse Malfoy yesterday.”
Millicent’s hand tensed.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Harry hurried to add. He smiled shakily. “I kind of wanted to curse him, too. I didn’t like what he said to Ron and—well.”
Millicent took her hand back slowly. “Malfoy is an acquired taste,” was all she said.
Then they waited side by side in companionable silence, Millicent reading her book, Harry looking at the snakes in the paintings. They were the ones whispering, he realized: he could hear them now, much clearer without the crowd and noise of the night previous. New students, they repeated to each other ceaselessly. Careful, one said, as a sleepy-looking boy came out of the corridor and tripped on the low step there.
Harry wanted to try talking to them as he had the boa in the zoo, but seeing as all the others around him studiously ignored the whispers, he kept quiet. Maybe it was considered stupid to talk to the snakes in the paintings.
Once all the first-years were assembled in the room, Gemma Farley led them to the Great Hall. It was still rather early, and only about a third of the school seemed to be up at all—the Ravenclaw table was mostly full; the Gryffindor one, mostly empty. Most of the Professors were there, however, speaking lowly to each other. Dumbledore winked at Harry above the head of a short, comely woman with wild hair and dirt-stained robes. Harry smiled shyly at him.
He did not hesitate to sit beside Millicent this time, and was glad when Daphne Greengrass took his other side instead of Draco Malfoy.
“You were up so early,” Malfoy moaned at him anyway. “Way too early.”
He rubbed his eyes and yawned. It rather broke the well-groomed, adult-like image he seemed so fond of giving out.
“Probably wanted to avoid his brother,” Nott snickered, and Harry frowned at his scones.
He had forgotten about his promise to Nicholas.
A little while later, the hall had filled out quite a lot. Harry unfortunately saw Nicholas arrive with Ron by his side; Nicholas met his eyes and waved at him brightly, causing Malfoy and Nott to laugh again. Professor McGonagall came down from the head table and took the direction of the Gryffindor first years. The woman with dirt-stained clothes did so as well toward the Hufflepuffs, and a tiny wizard in a tall hat was speaking in a high voice to the new Ravenclaws.
Then a deep and glacial voice said right behind Harry: “Potter.”
Harry jumped and let his knife fall loudly into his plate. Millicent was the one who grabbed the handle of it so that it stopped vibrating as he turned around.
The Professor with black hair and black robes and a hooked nose was standing behind him. He looked down at Harry with just as much disdain in his cold eyes as the night before, and Harry felt rather like a mouse in a trap, unable to look away—either to stare at the greasy shine of his hair or the dislike twisting his mouth.
“Your schedule,” the man drawled icily. “Or did you expect me to wait until you were done breaking your fast?”
Harry realized that the man meant for him to grab the piece of parchment he was holding between two fingers as if it were trash. “No, I don’t—I mean, thank you,” Harry stuttered.
He grabbed the timetable. For a second, the Professor held on tightly, preventing him from tugging it out of his grasp.
He let go at last. “Thank you,” Harry said again weakly. Something about this man made him feel a little like Uncle Vernon did. “Professor…?”
He thought the man would not respond at all, so busy was he glaring. When he did, it was not to give his name, as Harry was asking. “You may think this situation funny, Mr Potter,” he said in barely a whisper. “But rest assured that if I see you put so much as a toe out of line, I shall be the one to punish you. Slytherin,” and here the man’s nostrils flared, “or not.”
Then he handed Millicent her own schedule briskly and walked away.
“Who was that?” Harry asked her once the man was done handing Greengrass and Malfoy their own and walked further down the Slytherin table.
Millicent was also looking pensively at the dark silhouette. “Professor Snape,” she replied. “He’s our Head of House. Teaches Potions too, I think.”
“Is he always so…”
Millicent shrugged and kept eating.
Harry looked at his schedule as he nibbled on his scone. He had Transfiguration first, followed by Defense Against the Dark Arts—he looked up to the head table, and as expected, the stuttering Professor he had met in Diagon Alley was there, smiling weakly to an elegantly-dressed woman by his side. Harry’s first Potions class would be on Thursday.
With Gryffindor, said the note under the little square.
As if called by the very thought of the House he belonged to, Nicholas chose this moment to walk up to Harry and smile brightly. “Hey,” he said, waving again. “Are you done eating? I asked Professor McGonagall, she said Charms and Transfiguration aren’t far, so we can walk the way together!”
Ron was standing a little way behind him, squinting suspiciously at the Slytherin table. With a glance sideways, Harry found Malfoy sneering right back at the boy. Rather than answer Nicholas outright, he asked Millicent: “Do you wanna come too?”
Maybe Millicent was as scared as losing her way in the castle as he was. Or maybe she could simply see just how uneasy Harry was with the thought of following Nicholas anywhere on his own. “Sure,” she replied.
Nicholas’s smile shook a little.
“Oh, can I come too?” asked Tracey Davis hurriedly. “I’m sure to get lost if I try to find the way alone.”
“Seriously,” Daphne Greengrass muttered under her breath.
“Yes, of course,” Harry replied to her, too relieved to even care.
Tracey seemed to find it natural to let Nicholas stand by Harry’s side as they walked. Ron, as well, led them a little farther ahead, though he kept looking over his shoulder worriedly. Millicent, bless her, kept walking at Harry’s left as if the thought of leaving him some privacy hadn’t even crossed her mind.
“Did you sleep well?” Nicholas asked as soon as they exited the noisy hall. “Fred and George always say the Slytherins sleep in chains on the floor but, well, they’re Fred and George.”
He grinned as if this should mean anything to Harry, who had exchanged all of three words with Fred and George.
“It was fine,” Harry made himself reply. His own voice felt faraway. “I… I like the Slytherin common room.”
Nicholas smiled shakily. “The Gryffindor common room’s on the seventh floor,” he said excitedly. “Up in a tower. It’s awesome, you should come one day.”
“I don’t think you’re allowed to bring people from other Houses,” Millicent said bluntly.
Nicholas’s smile fell.
“This is, um, Millicent Bulstrode,” Harry managed in the awkward silence. “Another Slytherin first year. Millicent, this is—Nicholas. My… you know.”
“I know,” Millicent said serenely.
Nicholas did not look so comfortable now. “Bulstrode?” he repeated with a frown.
“Yes,” Millicent replied. “Bulstrode.”
She looked forward, unbothered, as they walked up the great staircase. Nicholas stared at her, then at Harry; then, with a miserable twist of his lips, attempted to smile again. “It looks like we only have Potions and flying lessons together,” he said, changing the topic entirely. “So no classes together until Thursday, and then first flying lesson next week… Are you excited?”
“For Potions?” Harry asked warily.
Nicholas waved a hand dismissively. “For flying!” he exclaimed. “You’ve never been on a broom before, have you? I’m sure you’ll be great.” Seeing Harry’s frown, he added: “Our dad was on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, you know. Charlie says I’m really good, but Charlie’s too nice, I never really know if he’s saying the truth.”
“You are good,” Ron said in front of them, rolling his eyes.
“So are you,” Nicholas grinned, so much more naturally than when he was looking at Harry.
Ron blushed and looked ahead again.
Harry was broken out of his dark musings of just how much Nicholas knew of their parents when they went through a wide wooden door. The hall behind it was bright and cheerful and full of moving staircases.
“That’s right!” Nicholas said as Harry stood in his spot, looking stupidly up at the endless stairs. “You didn’t see last night, did you? Since you’re in the dungeons. The stairs move! It’s really easy to get lost, apparently, but they always come back in their place at some point, no worries.”
Behind Harry, Tracey Davis whimpered.
The Transfiguration classroom was on the first floor, thankfully, so Harry was rid of Nicholas and Ron soon enough. Still Nicholas attempted to hug him—briefly, for he released Harry almost as soon as he felt how tense Harry became in his arms—and asked: “See you at lunch?” hopefully.
Harry bit his lip. “Right,” he replied.
“How come you’ve never been on a broom before?” Millicent asked a minute later as they waited by the classroom door.
Harry looked at the end of the corridor. Malfoy’s blond head could be seen approaching, gleaming in the sunlight pouring in from the windows, followed by the muted brown of Nott’s hair and the deep black of Zabini’s. “Don’t like heights,” he lied between his teeth.
Millicent hummed. She said, “You and your brother are interesting,” and nothing else.
Beside them, Tracey Davis was desperately repeating to herself the many turns they had taken on the way so as not to forget them.
Right, left; left; right again…
Harry’s life at Hogwarts found an uneasy balance in the next few days.
He never grew accustomed to the way people looked at him or reacted to his name. He couldn’t. All he felt when Professor McGonagall interrupted her roll call to smile at him was embarrassment, and when Professor Flitwick inhaled whistlingly at his name and fell down from his table, he thought he would burrow into the ground in shame. People still turned the head to stare at him in the corridors when he walked by. Malfoy still called his name loudly every time he talked to him, so that all who stood around knew he was talking to the Harry Potter.
He liked his classes, however: the complex process of willing a matchstick to turn into a needle in Transfiguration; the bright cheer he felt when Millicent’s charm first hit him and worked; even the tending of the plants in greenhouse one, so much more interesting than Aunt Petunia’s sorry flowerbeds. He pinched the skin of his right hand to stay awake during his first History of Magic lesson, and found that aside from Zabini, no one truly bothered to take notes of what their odd ghostly Professor Binns said. Zabini even graced him with a faint approving nod when he noticed.
And mostly, he adored the castle.
He loved the twisting and turning corridors he got lost in so many times. He loved the food of the Great Hall, which appeared magically before him every day and never failed to be delicious. He loved the castle grounds outside bathed in end-of-summer glow, just hot enough to bring shivers unto his skin, just cool enough that he dared not disrobe. He even loved the dark dungeons he lived in after he managed to memorize the way to the castle entrance and back; there was pride, he discovered soon, to be part of the few who knew the way, unlike the other Houses.
He spent most of his time with Millicent, who turned out to be, if not quite loquacious, at least friendly and nice. He avoided Malfoy and his group as much as possible, uncomfortable with the way they spoke to him and to others, but not otherwise bothered. He even crossed paths with Cedric Diggory on his third day, who congratulated him awkwardly for his Sorting and then showed him to the library for the first time.
“It was nothing,” Cedric said when Harry tried to thank him, between gritted teeth, for his help in Diagon Alley. “Truly, anyone would’ve done the same.”
But no one did, Harry thought glumly.
Cedric grinned at him. He didn’t gawk at Harry or tell him, You should’ve said you were Harry Potter! like other people would. He patted Harry’s shoulder amiably and let him go, muttering about Quidditch tryouts and being late for dinner.
The library was a dreary and dim-lit place, with a dreary and mean librarian, but Harry loved it anyway. He spent a long hour there after his third day of class, pushing back the time when he would have to meet Nicholas after dinner for yet another painfully awkward talk. He walked among the shelves and touched the spines of books with titles as mysterious as they were fascinating: A Compendium of Australian Magical Wildlife… Charms for the Charmless… The Beginner’s Guide to Arithmancy…
He felt the mean eyes of Madam Pince everywhere he went, following him wordlessly, but Harry did not mind. At least the librarian seemed to hold him in as much dislike as she did anyone else, regardless of his fame. He almost knocked into Hermione Granger as he turned around the corner of a shelf, and had to catch himself upon a cracked table to break his fall.
“Oh, I’m so sorry—oh”, said Hermione, looking at him after she had caught herself too. “Nicholas, I thought you were—no, wait, you’re not…”
Harry’s belly squirmed. “I’m Harry,” he said quickly. “Hermione, right? I haven’t seen you since the other day on the train, how are you?”
Hermione blinked at him owlishly. “I’m sorry,” she said again sheepishly. “You look so much like your brother! I shouldn’t be surprised, I know about identical twins, of course, but I didn’t think it two people could look so completely identical—oh, sorry. Yes. I’m fine, um, how have you been?”
“Just fine,” Harry replied, and promised himself to ask Gemma Farley where she had bought the Slytherin-colored scarf she kept attached to her bag every day. He really disliked being taken for Nicholas, he found. “Were you studying?” he asked quickly. “What class? I’ve been struggling with Transfiguration…”
It was the right thing to say. Hermione’s face brightened as if Christmas had come early, and Harry spent the next half-hour being babbled at extensively about power of will and knowledge of primary form and final form and It’s quite simple, really, as long as you study the theory.
Hermione was truly quite nice. Harry didn’t even have to think of an excuse to avoid dinner and Nicholas. It was Millicent who came to find him at seven, staring at him and Hermione in turn with those tiny, expressionless eyes of hers. She said, “Dinner’s going to be over soon, you know.”
Hermione jumped mid-speech, having not seen her arrive. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t even realize—we should go, Harry, but if you want to study together again…”
She hesitated. Harry saw the enthusiasm in her eyes dampen with sudden shyness, and felt that he knew very intimately the hesitation she was experiencing now. “I’d love to,” he told her.
Hermione’s eyes gleamed.
As Harry had hoped, the Great Hall was nearly deserted when he arrived, and the Gryffindor table empty but for Percy Weasley and a couple older students eating over their books. Ron and Nicholas must have given up on waiting for him.
He took this victory for what it was and went to sleep that night thinking very firmly that maybe Potions with Gryffindor the next day would be fine, too.
Harry’s very first Potions class started with Nicholas jumping into the chair next to his before he was even seated.
“Hi,” Nicholas greeted him excitedly, his breath hurried as if he had run there. Given that Harry had not seen him at all in the corridor, perhaps he had. “I’m so glad we have a class together! Fred and George say Snape is an awful teacher, but hopefully he’ll be nicer to us, you know? They said McGonagall’s a bore too, but she’s been super decent.”
Millicent, who had been just about to take the seat Nicholas was occupying, looked at the ceiling in exasperation. She sat by Harry’s other side wordlessly. Harry glanced at the row behind them and found Malfoy and Nott, predictably, grinning mockingly at Nicholas.
“I don’t know,” he replied at last.
It was a wonder that Nicholas could find the energy to look so delighted with every little word Harry said, considering they were always the same.
I don’t know. I guess. Is that so?
Nicholas’s Gryffindor yearmates seemed very awkward in the back, not knowing where to sit. Seamus Finnegan and Dean Thomas glared at the Slytherins and sat together at the other end of the room. Ron glanced painfully at Nicholas before sitting next to Hermione, who buried her head into One Thousand Magical Herb and Fungi to avoid talking to him. Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil were already seated and chattering away. Neville gave Harry a wan smile, then proceeded to walk right into one of the high tables and drop his cauldron over the floor loudly. Hearing Malfoy laugh again, Harry shot him a dark look over his shoulder; Malfoy frowned at him, his lips still half-shaped into a smirk.
One minute went by, then two. Millicent took out a soft cloth and started cleaning her stirrer with it. Nicholas made a comment or two, desperately trying to incite Harry into a conversation, whilst Harry nodded and hummed and tried to fight off the nerves rising up his throat.
Then the door behind the teacher’s desk opened with a bang, and Professor Snape entered, looking even more ominous and glum than he had on the first day of classes.
Silence spread over the room without his needing to call it. He shook a scroll of parchment out of his sleeve and began to call the names of each student. When he reached Harry’s, he paused.
“Ah,” he said darkly. “The Potter twins. Our new… celebrities.”
Malfoy breathed out a soft laugh.
“There’ll be no silly wand-waving in this class,” Professor Snape went on, before plunging into a complex and near-poetic speech about brewing glory and putting a stopper to death.
Harry listened to only half of it. His chest felt tight with Nicholas’s proximity—there was no way to avoid him now, and he had not spent so much time with him before, just sitting there by Harry’s side, knocking into his arm from time to time. In the past four days, Harry had only had to see him after meals. He could even avoid some of those meetings if he simply went to the library to read with Hermione and, occasionally, Millicent. And of course, Nicholas didn’t know where the Slytherin common room was. Now, each breath that Harry took seemed to echo in this mirror-image of him he was seated next to, and his very lungs ached.
“Potter!” Professor Snape called harshly.
“Yes,” Harry and Nicholas said at once, Nicholas in stupor, Harry with his heart lodged up his throat.
Nicholas grinned at him. Harry buried his fingers into the rough wooden table.
Snape sneered at them. “The Gryffindor one,” he said curtly. “Tell me, what would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”
Hermione’s hand shot into the air, nearly hitting Ron’s face on the way. Harry saw him glare at her.
“I don’t know,” Nicholas said awkwardly.
“Pity,” Snape replied, not sounding pitying at all. “Let’s try the other one, then. Potter,” and he was looking at Harry this time, “where would you go if I asked you to fetch me a bezoar?”
Hermione’s hand flew even higher. Harry looked into Snape’s dark eyes. He worried the side of his index with the nail of his thumb until the sharp pain there allowed him in breathe in.
“I don’t know,” he croaked.
If possible, Snape’s disgust became more evident. “Clearly,” he enunciated slowly, softly; “fame isn’t everything. Once more, for the both of you this time, seeing as two brains are rumored to be better than one. What is the difference between monkshood and wolfsbane?”
Harry felt Nicholas move the head to look at him, but kept his eyes firmly turned to the table. “We don’t know,” Nicholas said then, more loudly, “but Hermione looks like she does, so you should try her instead.”
Snape inhaled audibly. Nicholas, who must have gathered some bravery out of his outburst, seemed to shrink into his seat. Now the silence was thick and heavy, nearly palpable; and Harry wished more than anything to be away.
An odd feeling ran through him, like it had on that day in Diagon Alley, when he had made himself vanish from the Leaky Cauldron and out into the sun; but where his body seemed to have been sucked from one place to the other, he now found himself hitting something nearly solid in the way of his escape. He gasped at the feeling. The skin of his arms ran with painful shivers.
Heart beating up his throat, he sneaked a look to Nicholas and Millicent, but neither seemed to have noticed anything. Millicent was staring at the blackboard in boredom.
“Put your hand down,” barked Snape to Hermione, who obeyed with wet eyes. “Three points from Gryffindor, Potter,” he added for Nicholas’s sake. “For your cheek. If you must know, asphodel in an infusion of wormwood creates a sleeping agent so powerful it is called the Draught of Living Death. Wolfsbane and monkshood are the same plant, also known as aconite. As for a bezoar, it is a stone found in the stomach of a goat, and a counter to most poisons. Well?” he addressed to the rest of the class. “Why are you not taking notes?”
In the following flurry of quills scratching over parchment, Snape walked close to Harry and Nicholas’s desk. He loomed over them both with all the airs of a vampire, pale and unpleasant to look at, with the acrid smell of herbs following behind him. “I can imagine what a tragedy it must be for the two of you to be separated,” he murmured, and his tone could not have been construed for anything but pure, honest loathing. “But if you even think of using this class to catch up, you will find your lives in this castle… very difficult, Potters.”
He paused. His pale lips shrank over his yellow teeth.
“Gryffindor Potter, with Goyle,” he added. Then, more loudly: “Today, you shall brew a simple cure for boils. Let us all hope that the mediocrity we just witnessed is not shared by the rest of you.”
Nicholas, furious and red with shame, grabbed his things hurriedly. He did not address a single look to Harry, who felt an odd mix of relieved and uncomfortable with the fact. A glance upward told Harry that he had not been mistaken, after all.
Snape was staring at him as if he were filth under his shoes, and although he took no points from Harry at all, his expression said it all.
He truly hated Harry and Nicholas.
Harry turned toward Millicent. She had already started looking over her textbook for the recipe. Harry tried to do the same, but he could not seem to read any word over the page. They swam before his eyes, moving out of his focus each time he tried to grab them.
“Wanna slice the roots?” Millicent asked.
She was holding something his way. Some twisted root in a deep brown color. Harry took it wordlessly and went to work.
Mediocrity, he thought, even as he sliced the roots in as thin and even pieces as he could. He knew the word, had been called it before many times, but never had it cut quite so deeply.
For the rest of class that day, Harry gave secret glances to the table where Nicholas worked with Gregory Goyle. He looked at the uneven pieces which Nicholas cut out of the roots and herbs handed his way, and made sure to cut his own precisely. He observed the thoughtless way that Nicholas threw the ingredients into the boiling water of his cauldron, and took care to deposit his own gently. He watched Nicholas ignore the moment his potion’s smoke turned from silvery grey—good—to a stinky, heavy black—bad.
His and Millicent’s fumes remained light and airy.
Harry was many things, but mediocre was not one of them. He had never believed it even when Aunt Marge repeated it loudly, siccing her awful dogs on him. And if his—if his brother intended to be fine letting a Professor bully him into not caring for Potions, for magic, for the gifts he had been bestowed all his life and took so freely, so carelessly, for granted—
Harry would be better than this.
He watched his and Millicent’s boil-cure turn an adequate shade of green overfire, and it felt to him that the heat there was cradled in his belly. That never had any ambition of his burned quite so brightly as this one: to show all who would look that he could be better than Nicholas at anything he put his mind to.