LeadVonE

Dodging Prison & Stealing Witches

Chapter Forty-eight: Soul Anchors — Part One

Harry's trunk was still and silent.

Ginny Weasley sat in one of the armchairs, fiddling with the skirt of her robes, and occasionally glancing towards her current sole companion.

Opposite her, Daphne Greengrass sat in another armchair, silently staring into space. On the table between them, Daphne's pet, Freekey, nibbled on a brazil nut.

Every few seconds, Ginny felt the acute squeezing sensation that always accompanied apparition. She'd been feeling it for many hours now. "We must be getting close," she muttered, easily loudly enough for Daphne to hear.

Daphne nodded. "Soon," she said, her eyes not leaving the small spot on the wall she'd been staring at for the last ten minutes.

Ginny took a deep, shuddery breath and gripped the armchairs tightly. When they'd left Hogwarts, her heart had been beating heavily, a rhythmic pounding she could feel in her ears. It faded down as they crossed the English Channel, and the journey since then had been calm, but focused. Daphne had gone over the plan with her again and again, until it felt like they'd both be able to recite it in their sleep.

"That's enough," Daphne had said, somewhere over the south of France. "Let's get some rest before we arrive."

But whatever rest the future Lady Slytherin had thought they'd get, hadn't accounted for the sheer restlessness that would accompany doing nothing. Ginny felt the tension rising back up in her. She could feel her heart pumping blood. She could focus her brain on no one thing for more than a second or two before it jumped off again to some other small detail.

Her wand in its holster.

Her silk robes against her skin.

The dagger concealed under her skirts.

Would she be able to kill, if needed?

Would she hesitate?

Would she regret?

Would she let everyone down?

No.

Ginny's heart pounded faster. She recognised this feeling. It was the feeling she always got whenever she was about to do something new and dangerous. She'd felt this way when first sneaking out of the Burrow to practice flying. When she'd first followed Harry away from home. When she'd stolen her broomstick back from Mum and Dad. And when she'd gone after the teenage version of Lord Voldemort. This feeling. This… rush.

Ginny took another deep breath and gripped the armrests tightly again. She shut her eyes.

Suddenly, something felt different. Something was missing. The apparition squeeze, which pressed in on them every so often — it wasn't there any more.

She opened her eyes.

"We're here," Daphne murmured.

Ginny nodded.

They waited.

Eventually, a feeling of intense confusion swept over Ginny. She remained confused until Harry climbed in and told her the secret to the new fidelius charm he'd set up around the trunk. They all climbed out of the trunk and Ginny got her first ever view of the city of Rome — the former capital of the Roman Empire, and current seat of the International Confederation of Wizards.

It was a massive stone wall. She knew this was the first layer of defences of the Castel Sant'angelo, an almost most most ancient fortress, predating Hogwarts by almost a thousand years. There would be more defences inside.

"The time is seven o'clock," Harry whispered into the darkness. "We have one hour left to plant the order." He turned to Ginny. "Once phase one is complete you will have exactly fifteen minutes to get in and out before the area wards record your presence. But you can only move within the less warded area A."

Ginny nodded.

"Are we all ready?" Harry asked.

Ginny nodded again, and beside her, Daphne did too.

"Alright." Harry signalled Daphne for Freekey.

He then sat down, pointed his wand at the little monkey, and whispered, "Imperio."

Harry, now controlling Freekey's body, jerked, sat up, and looked around.

While this was going on, Ginny had fetched the long extendable pipe from the trunk and was busily setting it up. Moments later it was leaning against the outer wall of the castle.

Freekey jumped on the pipe, quickly shimmied up, and disappeared over the wall.

Ginny and Daphne quickly took the pipe back down.

They sat down next to Harry, whose eyes were tightly shut.

If everything went well, Freekey would be back in twelve minutes.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

It actually took twenty minutes. Harry spoke infrequently, and the few times he had were variations of, 'phew,' or, 'that was close'.

It wasn't doing anything for Ginny's heightened nerves, and by the time Freekey's head poked back over the wall and jumped down, she just wanted to get on with it.

"You're back," Daphne mewed quietly, hugging the little monkey to her chest.

Harry had already opened his human eyes again. "All to plan," he whispered. "Ginny, your turn. Earpieces on — potions, masks, everything."

Ginny and Daphne slipped on the runic mirror earpieces Daphne and Hermione had used the previous year during the stone mission. Ginny grabbed the three potions she needed and drank them all. While her body changed, she firmly attached a flame-red mask to her face.

Ginny's heart started to pound faster. This was it. There was only one person Harry knew who could theoretically pull this off, and she was that person.

Harry and Daphne both climbed back into the trunk, giving her one last good luck between them.

Ginny closed the lid, shrunk it down, and slipped it into her pocket.

Right, now.

She pulled the true cloak of invisibility out from her other pocket, wrapped it around herself, pooled magic at the tips of her fingers, picked up a small stone from the ground with her other hand, flicked it up the wall, aimed her spell at the ascending pebble, and switched.

Step.

Light as air, she arrived on top of the wall and looked around, eyes darting into the shadows for any kind of threat. She didn't see one, so she ran along the wall towards the first tower, constantly tasting the air for unknown magics. The buildings inside the castle grounds were narrow and packed together. Stone arches across streets below made for easy traversal. One tightrope-like walk and a switched stone later found her alighted on the roof of her target building.

There was a door. It was open. She slipped inside, and made her way down the narrow spiral staircase, down, down, down.

She arrived at the bottom. She paused. The stone walls were rough and damp. The ceiling was low. This was certainly underground. In front of her, she could feel a magical barrier — a perimeter ward — nothing special yet, just a detection line.

"I've arrived," she whispered.

Daphne's voice whispered in her ear. "Eye of Kilrogg in five."

Seconds later, Ginny sensed the divination magic of Daphne's magic eye fade into being beside her.

"Green Mask says this is the place," Daphne whispered.

"Guide me," Ginny whispered back.

The eye-ball zipped off ahead, passing straight through the ward line as though it wasn't even there.

"Forward until you reach the second left," Daphne whispered.

Ginny ran forward, using the invisibility cloak to pass through the ward line without bothering to switch through it. She reached the second left and turned.

"Forward," Daphne whispered. "Next right."

Ginny turned right. Ever-burning torches flicked on the stone walls. The floor was damp with water.

"Next left. Third right. The stone angel is around the next corner—no! Contact from the stone angel!"

Ginny skidded to a halt and ducked back around the corner she'd just come around. She heard the grinding of stone against stone and then voices echoing down the corridor.

"I suggest Piazza Magico."

"Bei Merlin, bitte nicht. The place is full of tourists."

"We are tourists."

"Och, nein. We are expats — big difference."

The voices were heading away from her position so Ginny risked a peek around the corner. She was just in time to see two old wizards with beards almost as long as Dumbledore's disappear around the opposite corner. The stone angel ground back into position, concealing a doorway that had momentarily been open.

"Go now," Daphne whispered urgently. "Fifth brick to the left, thirteenth up," she continued, as Ginny ran to a spot just off to the right of the stone angel. She counted the bricks and sent a pulse of magic into the stonework. A second door opened in front of her, unveiling a secret passageway.

"Go, go, go," Daphne whispered. "You're clear until you get to the end room."

Ginny sped up the passageway parallel to the angel-guarded corridor as quickly as she could and stopped when she reached the wall at the end.

Muffled through the stonework next to her, a soft, female voice said, "Grazie per la visita. Thank you for visiting the ICW."

"Stay here," Daphne whispered. "Someone is standing in eyesight of the wall on the other side. Four bricks up, seven across."

Ginny waited for what felt like forever, heart hammering. She was acutely aware of the time limit they had, and what was likely to happen should they fail to meet it.

"Go now!" Daphne hissed.

Ginny pulsed magic into the correct brick, let it swing open, and neatly stepped into the room beyond. The wall sealed itself up again almost the moment she was through.

A partition hid the section of wall she'd just come through from the rest of the room.

Safe.

Daphne's voice whispered in her ear again. "Around the corner to your right are the four security stations for wand checking. Only one is occupied. There is a young witch standing in front of the occupied station and a wizard walking away from your position to the exit door to your left. None are reacting to the eye, so they don't appear to be able to sense magic. Walk around the corner, to the centre of the room, and walk straight through the security checks to the open door at the far end. Do not stop unless you encounter a necromancy ward. Go, now!"

Ginny went. There were several perimeter wards in the security room — one for animagi, one for vampires, and another for demons. There was also another detection ward and the cloak made short work of all four just as it had done the one from before.

She reached the door at the end and slipped through. Then she stopped dead. There was another ward right in front of her, less than a foot from the tip of her nose. "Necromancy ward," she whispered into her earpiece. She slipped the cloak off herself, trading the perfect invisibility of the cloak for the partial invisibility of her disillusionment charm. She tucked the cloak into her pocket, well aware of the security wizards in the room just behind her, and fished out a small ever-cold ice cube from another.

She chucked the ice-cube across the ward and switched with it a moment later, letting the cube fall to the floor where she'd been before. The cubes were ever-cold in name only and would be gone before too long. She hurried down the corridor again, taking care to follow Daphne's directions, and after one more flight of stairs downwards, several more necromancy wards, and even one bottomless pit, which she'd had to switch over, she arrived at an unmarked door, which looked just like every other unmarked door.

"This is it," Daphne whispered.

Ginny tried the handle, but it was locked, and she felt the magic was so strong that even Harry would have trouble opening it.

No matter.

Ginny reached into another pocket, pulled out a folded up piece of paper, unfolded it, and slipped it under the tiny crack at the bottom so only the very tip was visible on her side. Then she switched with the paper, and because most of the paper was on the other side of the door, that's where she ended up.

She stumbled away from the door, got her balance back, and smirked.

The room was filled with paper. But not lifeless paper sitting in stacks, oh no. Thousands of tiny folded flying machines, each one no larger than the palm of her hand, flittered around the room in a swarm. There were two large holes in the wall on either side of the room through which dozens of the tiny enchantments zoomed in and out to where ever they were heading. The floor was covered with ripped and torn paper.

Ginny quickly reached into her pocket and let Harry and Daphne out of the trunk.

Harry looked around the room and nodded. "Yep, this looks about right."

"Will you be able to do it?" Daphne asked.

"I think so. One moment."

Harry snatched one of the airborne messages, and inspected it for a while. Then he produced a piece of paper of his own and cast some spells on it before tossing it into the air.

Two dozen of the other messages immediately dive-bombed the paper and shredded it to pieces.

Ginny winced.

"Yep, that's what happens if you don't get it right," Harry said. He tried several more times, until he got one that wasn't rejected by the room of vicious attack memos.

"White Mask, the official document."

Daphne handed Harry the parchment that he'd prepared well in advance. It had all sorts of official looking seals and stamps all over it, and had cost quite a bit of gold. A few of the stamps were even genuine.

Harry carefully waved his wand over the parchment.

Ginny couldn't help but admire the incredible display of skill as Harry weaved enchantments over it. It was like watching a master painter casually capture the essence of the world in simple clean strokes, none of them alone anything special, but combined to create something amazing. Slowly, the parchment became like the many paper ones circling the room. Harry held it up, and the folded parchment flying machine joined its fellows in the circling throng.

They didn't attack it. Some even started following the parchment plane, bobbing along in its wake like ducklings following their mother.

It was such a simple plan, Ginny thought. If what they needed was locked down so tight that not even Harry stood a hope in hell of getting to it, then they'd just have to persuade the people with the keys to bring what they needed to them. A forged purchase order from the French Ministry of Magic would do that.

Of course, it would have to be a forged document that had already been through all the security checks that such documents had to go through, not just this one. Even the forgeries that Harry could get hold of wouldn't stand up to that kind of scrutiny. No-one's could. So don't bother. Instead, simply give the document to the end reader directly.

Ginny waved impishly as their parchment flying machine zoomed down the 'out' pipe and down into the bowels of the ICW.

Daphne was already climbing back into Harry's trunk.

Harry was about to follow when he stopped, one foot already in the trunk. He turned to the flying mail and gave it a thoughtful look. He pointed his wand. "Accio Dumbledore's message!"

Ginny held her breath.

Nothing happened.

Harry smirked. "Well, it was worth a shot."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Ginny arrived back at their fidelius spot outside the walls of the Castel Sant'Angelo with time to spare.

She immediately opened the trunk to let Harry out. He spent five minutes taking down the fidelius charm, but just before he was done, a massive portal opened in the brickwork some twenty feet away, and a large black coach pulled by winged horses shot through the hole, roared across the bridge behind them, and plunged into the night traffic of Rome, seeming to not care one wit for other road users. Nor did it seem to need to, as most of the brightly lit cars and traffic just jumped out of its way.

Ginny cursed. She'd counted one barrel in the back, and five men on board, which was two more than they'd hoped.

Harry finished taking the fidelius down, threw her a broomstick, popped the trunk with Daphne in it into his pocket, mounted his own broom, and the two of them soared up into the sky.

They had to find the coach, which in the dark streets below wasn't easy. The air whistled through the holes in her mask. The cold bit into her bare hands, even through the broom's warming charms.

"There!" Harry yelled, and shot off heading north.

Ginny followed as best she could, keeping just in Harry's slipstream. Harry really was a very good flyer, but Ginny had been training on the quidditch team all year. Together they kept the coach below in sight until it had left the city walls of Rome and pounded out into the country.

"Any moment now!" Harry shouted.

Ginny lay flat on her broom, the better to match the coach's pace.

"There!"

Ginny looked down. Free of the city airspace, the horse-drawn coach had lifted off the ground, every horse spreading its wide, white wings, and soared up in front of them.

Without needing to say anything, both Harry and Ginny fell back.

They tracked the coach all the way from Rome to Tuscany, and just as it was passing Florence, they pounced.

It was supposed to be a surprise attack, but that went out of the window almost as soon as they got within twenty feet. An owl, perched on the back railing and invisible from its own disillusionment charm, let out an all-mighty HOOT, and took to the sky. It got all of ten feet before Harry transfigured it into a rubber ball, but by then the damage was done.

A man leapt onto the top of the flying carriage and cast a homenum revelio. He just had time to scream out, "Two!" before Harry's stunner dropped him like a sack of potatoes onto the constantly rolling rooftop, and he rolled right off the edge.

Harry dived, and Ginny was left alone.

Someone screamed something in Italian, and Ginny had to start dodging and shielding like crazy as spell after spell hurtled in her direction from the top of the carriage.

Three men now stood there.

Not good.

Not easy.

A nasty purple curse passed bare inches from her nose and she growled. That one would have done serious damage if it had hit and was definitely not in the rule book.

Unable to dodge a stunner, she was forced to shield.

The next purple curse, she swatted — from the same guy, too!

She traded back and forth with them for a few moments longer, and when the purple cursing guy managed to set her broom on fire, Ginny snarled, and without even stopping to think about it, aimed at the purple cursing man, and switched.

She stood, crouched on top of the coach.

The two men on either side of her had just enough time to form expressions of horror, before red light jumped from the tips of her fingers and slammed into both of them, dropping them like lead.

A scream from behind her fell rapidly into the night.

Then Harry was at her side, transfiguring her stunned opponents into rubber balls and chucking them off the side. "Driver," he commanded.

Ginny nodded and quickly stunned the driver too.

They steered the coach to a pre-planned spot, and brought it down to the ground.

Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, Ginny realised something.

"I killed him."

"Mm?" Harry said.

"I killed him," Ginny said. Her voice was shaking. Her hands trembled. "The purple cursing one — I switched him onto a burning broomstick. He fell clear out of the sky."

"No," Harry said, sharply. "You didn't kill him. The broomstick was just on fire. It didn't fail completely. I saw it. He would have been able to land it safely."

That filtered through Ginny's brain. "I didn't kill him?"

Harry shook his head.

Suddenly, and against all reason, Ginny felt cheated. She'd been all geared up to accept the reality of becoming a killer, and now… "Merlin damn it!" she screamed into the night.

Harry started laughing.

"It's not funny!"

"It really is."

And Harry continued to laugh and laugh.

"It's not that funny," Ginny grumbled.

"Sorry, Red Mask." Harry grinned. "I'm just really happy right now. I've been worried about how to do this for ages, but now we've done it! Our new forms will open so many doors for us. And stop other doors from being closed. As Brown Mask once so eloquently put it, 'Oh, I could sing!'"

"Shouldn't we make sure we actually have done it?"

"Excellent idea. Why don't you go do that?"

Ginny leapt off the front and quickly opened the back.

There was the large wooden barrel.

She unscrewed the tap, dipped a finger inside, and drew it back out, covered in light-grey powder. Phoenix ash.

They had done it.

Harry appeared at her side, beaming. "I'll take it from here. You need to take White Mask and get back home. You'll be missed before I am."

Ginny nodded and grinned. In all the time she'd known him, she was quite sure she'd never before seen Harry as joyful as this.

Several thousand kilometres away, Virgo sat bolt upright up in bed, panting. The covers fell around his waist. His nightdress slipped down one of his shoulders. An overwhelming feeling of happiness flooded through him — a feeling of happiness that was not his own.

What was that?! thought a shocked Julia in his head.

And the happiness clearly wasn't hers either.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

The first-year Gryffindor girls' dormitory was dark and quiet. The scarlet-red bed drapes of the five four-poster beds were all closed. A beam of moonlight shone in through the window. If there had been a clock, it would have shown the time to be two in the morning. There wasn't a clock. Hogwarts students were expected to actually use the magic they were taught.

Hidden in one of those four-poster beds, Virgo Malfoy was now very much awake and sitting up in bed, fists clenching hard at the bed's silk sheets, eyes staring hard at nothing.

Seriously, what was that? Julia thought.

'What was that,' indeed. Tom Riddle had done a lot of research into soul magic before he'd made his first horcrux, but Virgo Malfoy was under no illusions that Lord Voldemort would be far more knowledgable on such matters — he might well have experimented even further and created Merlin knew only what effects. But there was little doubt that this was soul magic. He hadn't felt any presence on his occlumency barriers, so it was unlikely to be mind magic.

So, this is a soul echo? Julia thought.

It could well be a soul echo. A vibration of sorts heading down the connection that held the horcruxes together. Didn't have to be a horcrux though. There were other connections between souls. Fidelius charms, and marriage bonds were the two most well documented, although obviously, the connection between them was far weaker than between horcruxes, which were so strong they could literally anchor the soul to the world of the living.

I imagine a marriage bond would make someone quite happy, Julia thought.

Virgo scrunched up his little button nose in distaste. While it wasn't impossible, he found that extremely unlikely. No, this was more likely to be another free soul fragment, although whether the original or a former Horcrux, he couldn't know. And that was aggravating.

What are you going to do then? Julia thought in his head.

Nothing, Virgo thought back. I have no wish to entangle myself with any of my others. Their doings are their own. And more importantly, I do not wish to be imprisoned again. Revealing myself only risks that.

What would happen to me if that happened? Julia thought.

You'd probably die.

Julia let out a single mental laugh. It sounded almost hysterical. I've been feeling things ever since you stole my body. Rage, pride, resentment, jealousy. Won't your other selves be able to feel them too?

They are all normal emotions. And no, I don't think so.

How can you know?

That brought Virgo up short. He didn't know. He had no way to judge how his own emotions might be broadcasted. But it shouldn't be too bad. After all, this was the first time he'd ever felt emotions across the connections.

But your emotions are getting stronger, Julia thought. I can feel them more clearly — now more than ever.

Virgo tried to stop his mind from jumping to the automatic, obvious conclusion — that what she spoke of had nothing to do with the strength of his emotions and everything to do with the possibility of Julia's soul being absorbed into his own — that her tiny spark would end up being nothing but a pinprick of light in his own dark soul — but with just how close they now were, he might as well have tried to stop water from flowing through a sieve.

Julia let out a huge mental sob. I don't want it! I don't! I don't!

Quiet! Do I have to curse myself again?!

N—n—no.

Good then.

Virgo put his head back on his pillow (it had lace around the edges) and curled up under the covers.

B-But, Julia started, clearly hesitant.

But, what? Virgo snapped.

But it's not good for you if that happens either is it? I know you don't know how that would effect the soul connections. It might split you off for good. It might make you mortal. It might just outright kill you.

Virgo grunted into the pillow. He considered that last one to be a very low probability, but Julia wasn't wrong. It was hard for her to be wrong, given that she had access to many, if not most, of his memories and knowledge.

At just that moment, another wave of unexplained happiness swept through the pair.

A promise? Julia wheedled. Promise you'll try and stop it. Please, Tom.

Virgo growled in annoyance at her use of his muggle name. Fine, he thought. Now go back to sleep, girl.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Despite the late night incident, Virgo woke up early the next morning. Virgo always woke up early. Quickly and efficiently, he went through the motions required for a young witch as taught by Narcissa Malfoy, and soon found himself, as usual, standing by the dormitory window, looking down towards the great lake, where John Potter was training, as he did each and every day without fail.

While the Potter heir wasn't the sharpest knife in the draw, he was dedicated and disciplined, something that Virgo could respect. He was also stupidly powerful — powerful to such a degree that if Virgo didn't know better, he'd suspect the boy were an undercover agent using polyjuice. Julia just enjoyed that the boy had taken to include swimming in his routine, despite how cold the lake must be, and so tended to leave his shirt off.

Virgo just rolled his eyes at the pre-teen girl's fantasies, which always revolved around knights in shining armour coming to save her from evil dark wizards.

He spent the rest of the time before breakfast in the Gryffindor common room, reading a book others would consider far too advanced for him, disguised as a book others would still consider far too advanced for him, but less so.

John Potter arrived in the tower wearing muggle exercise clothes and still-damp hair. He flashed Virgo a boyish grin and a thumbs up as he passed, to which Virgo responded with a curt nod. He disappeared up the stairs leading to the boys dormitory and reappeared minutes later in his expensive school robes. "Ready for your escort, Miss Malfoy?" He gave her what Julia thought was a charming smile.

Virgo closed the book with a snap. "Yes, Heir Potter. I am ready."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

The Gryffindors of Hogwarts had long become accustomed to John Potter and Virgo Malfoy being practically glued at the hip. They walked together everywhere, and John was always waiting for Virgo after each and every class. Few of the girls had been happy about it, especially the ones from noble houses, but with rumours swirling around that someone had tried to kidnap or even kill the newly revealed Malfoy daughter, they didn't grumble too loudly. There had also been rumours of a possible contract between the two. Virgo had squashed them all.

The great hall was still sparsely populated when they arrived. It took some time for it to fill up. Virgo sat so she could see the whole assemblage, including the Slytherin table. Now there was a difference of culture. Both were all about politics and power, but whereas Slytherin was a complex, multidimensional chessboard, Gryffindor felt more like a quidditch scrum. In Slytherin every wizard was part of a group, which was part of another group, often part of yet another group. Those groups had friends, enemies, allies, and competitors. The subsequent relationships constantly shifted, creating a complex web of favours and debts.

Gryffindor was nothing like that. In Gryffindor, the hierarchy was very simple. The loudest, most powerful, and most confident wizard was at the top. Everyone else competed in the general throng to be heard, shouting over each other like market traders — traders whose stock consisted of jokes, stories, and rumour. Information wasn't hoarded. Instead, it was proudly displayed to the entire table with the air of hunters displaying their latest catch.

This would have greatly annoyed Virgo, if he hadn't successfully managed to attach himself to a wizard who was clearly top of the pile, despite him only being a second year!

"Hey, John," said Ronald Bilious Weasley, sitting down on John's other side. "Double Defence Against the Dark Arts," he announced. "I am not looking forward."

John snorted. "It'll be fine."

"For you, maybe. Is it just me, or has Snape been going easier on you this year?"

"I'm sure it's just your imagination," John said.

Virgo swallowed a bite of toast. "Maybe Snape appreciates a student with enough power to go toe-to-toe with an adult wizard?"

"I doubt that," John said darkly. "Snape cares only about his Slytherins." He then turned away again and continued his conversation with Weasley.

Virgo frowned in annoyance. That was another thing he needed to crack. Even though John did give him the pretty witch treatment, it was clear he only did it out of force of habit rather than anything else. There was a distance there that Virgo needed to break.

Well, maybe if you acted a bit more girlish around him, Julia supplied, which Virgo promptly ignored.

"Don't worry about it," said Dean Thomas quietly from the other side of the table. "He's like that with loads of people. I wouldn't bother caring."

Virgo swallowed another bite of toast. "I wasn't aware that my personal life was anyone else's' business."

"Jeez, sorry."

Oh, nice going, Julia snarked. Truly you are far better than John Potter at this.

There was a flurry of wings, and owls carrying letters filled the hall.

Virgo frowned. "I'm sorry. That probably came out wrong. What I meant to say was, I didn't realise people were paying that much attention to me."

"Why wouldn't they? You're practically John's shadow now."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that." She picked up one of John's letters, which had just been delivered, and sliced it open with a knife.

On the other side of the table, Dean gave her a significant look, glancing between her and the envelope.

Virgo shrugged.

"Anything interesting?" John asked, turning briefly away from his conversation with Ron.

"Just one from your betrothed."

John snorted into his pumpkin juice. "I don't have a—! Oh, it's from Susan — very funny."

Virgo smirked at him. Over at the Hufflepuff table, Susan Bones was sitting in between the two first-year muggleborn twins. She gave Virgo a cheerful wave, which he returned.

"You're probably closer to John Potter than anyone else at Hogwarts, apart from Ron and Susan," Dean continued. "Any closer and you might as well be angling for an intention gift. That or people will think you're in a life debt, or under the pax magus."

"And what would you know about that?" Virgo asked. At a prompting from Julia he analysed how that sounded and added, "Sorry. I mean no disrespect, but you haven't been living in the wizarding world long."

Dean gave her a raised eyebrow "What about you? You haven't been with us long either. You're muggle raised too, aren't you?"

"I am. But I got special training from my family before I arrived," Virgo replied. "You didn't."

"Right." A sudden flash of nervousness shot across Dean's face. "So, what do you think about the duelling tryouts?" the muggleborn asked. "Are you entering? I expect you are, from what I've heard."

This time it was Virgo's turn to raise an eyebrow. That had not been a subtle subject change. "I will be entering, yes," he said. "Seeing as the big guns are out of the running this year,"—she gestured John Potter next to him, and Harry Potter, on the other side of the hall—"The honour of Gryffindor will fall to me."

"Shame. I wanted to see them fight again. That was so badass. But I can see why they they'd not let them. It was a bit unfair on everyone else."

Virgo was about to reply when a shout from beside him stalled him.

John Potter had the daily prophet open and was staring at a story with wide-eyes.

"Mate?" Ron said. "You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." John put the newspaper down flat on the table. Virgo leaned over to read.

It was the report of a violent theft from an ICW transport convoy.

PHOENIX ASH STOLEN — SKY RAINS RUBBER

Last night, the ICW was hit by the worst incident of high-theft for nearly a hundred years. Sometime after mid-night, a crack team of scoundrels impersonated the French Ministry of Magic, snuck into the ICW, ordered a whole barrel of phoenix ash, and then intercepted the delivery over the skies of Tuscany. The security team guarding the cargo was overwhelmed by two powerful duellists, then transfigured into rubber balls, which were dropped over the side to bounce around the idyllic country-side until the magic wore off.

"I've never felt more dizzy in my life," said one of the security wizards when asked for comment [name withheld for security reasons]. "I've duelled before," said another, "and this was like duelling the wind."

A third security wizard was asked for his comments, but his reply wasn't fit to publish in a public paper.

"We're taking this very seriously," said a representative of the ICW. "And procedures will be put in place to ensure it can never happen again."

Phoenix ash is used in many potions and rituals throughout the wizarding world, and its supply is tightly controlled. It has the properties to bend time and space, and is widely believed to be one of the secret ingredients used in floo powder, although this has always been denied by the British Ministry of Magic.

"Lord Slytherin," muttered John Potter.

Virgo shot him a look. "What makes you think it was him?"

John jerked up to look at her, almost as if surprised she'd been listening. "No reason," he said quickly. "It's just the sort of thing he'd do."

"Is it?" Virgo continued to stare at the younger boy. "I haven't heard of Lord Slytherin doing anything like this."

"No, I— ah…"

"I believe you," Ron said. "My mum says he can't be up to any good. Phoenix ash is supposed to be really useful stuff. Bill once told me he heard they even use it to make time-turner sand. And you never get anyone good from Slytherin. Nearly every one of you-know-who's inner circle was in Slytherin."

"Yes," John said. "But maybe he wasn't in Slytherin. I mean, he's supposed to come from New-Zealand, isn't he? Where the Albion Magics are weakest."

"Are you saying he's not up to something fishy?"

John laughed, hollowly. "No. He's definitely up to something. I just wish I could find out what it is. It could be very important. What if he's trying to bring Voldemort"—Ron flinched—"back again? Or take over magical Britain like Voldemort tried to?"

Ron was wide eyed now. "So what are you going to do?"

"I don't know." John frowned. "I've been thinking about it for months. But every option just doesn't seem to go anywhere. I wish Hermione—" He stopped. "I wish I had a plan that actually stood a hope in hell of working."

Virgo stared at John Potter with slightly narrowed eyes. That whole conversation had been odd. More than ever, he was now convinced that something was going on that he didn't know about. Virgo needed many things. He needed John Potter to give up the portkey he carried, so he had freedom of movement again. He hadn't been able to even try getting into the chamber even once since arriving. He needed to learn more about Lord Slytherin, just like John wanted to. And he needed to neutralise the threat of assassination, possibly in the rather improbable form of the eleven-year-old Ginny Weasley.

He needed all these things to lay the foundation for his ascendancy as the greatest wizard… no, the greatest witch, the world had ever seen. And to make sure he'd never be imprisoned again.

"Ronald," Virgo said.

"Ummff?" Ronald said, his mouth full of food.

"What else can you tell me about your sister?"

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

If Virgo had realised what a can of worms he'd be opening up with that last question, he honestly would have left the lid on. Clearly, Ronald Weasley had issues about anyone and anything Slytherin related. He might have let up on Virgo being sorted into Gryffindor house, but Ginny's Slytheriness was still a sore issue.

John also didn't seem all that happy with the subject. Still infatuated, apparently. Although by this point, Virgo was beginning to suspect it was more a matter of sour grapes than anything real. John's obsession with Ginny, and to a lesser extent Hermione Granger, just wasn't something that gelled with everything else Virgo knew about him.

Granger in particular was a mystery, since John didn't even have the excuse of being childhood friends. She was just a random muggleborn — a random muggle-born who was vassaled to the Most Ancient and Noble House of Slytherin—the house that should, by rights, be his— a random muggleborn who was by far the greatest academic achiever in her year, scoring ridiculously high grades, even by the standards Virgo set in his own time — a random muggleborn who was cultured, controlled, and who perfectly played the part of a pureblood heiress, despite not being one. And she was the most powerful witch in her year, had faced down Dumbledore at the duelling tournament the year before, and taken on a troll after having her wand for barely three months.

And from what he'd gleamed from his conversations with the likes of Lavender and Parvati, John had been mildly obsessed with her from the moment he'd first met her.

It does sound rather suspicious when you put it like that, Julia thought. Almost like they knew each other before Hogwarts.

And if that was true, did that mean that John knew more about Lord Slytherin than he was letting on? He had to find out.

"I need to go to the bathroom," Ron said a few minutes later. They were on their way to Virgo's charms class. "I'll catch you there."

"Be quick!" John called after him. "You know what Snape is like!"

Virgo quickly took Ron's place at John's side and matched his pace. Even though John was a little older than Virgo's body, girls went through their growth spurt earlier, so they were actually exactly the same height.

Womanly! Julia thought. Be womanly!

"Thank you for walking me to classes, John," Virgo said. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

"It's fine. You know that."

"Yes, but it's still worth saying thank you."

John flashed him a grin, then he sobered. "But that's not what you really wanted to say is it?"

"No," Virgo admitted.

"You always thank someone before you ask for a favour."

Bat your eyelashes at him! Julia shouted in his head, Be playful!

Virgo tilted his head, smiled, and blinked rapidly.

John laughed darkly. "Okay, Miss Malfoy, what is it?"

"I also want to find out about Lord Slytherin."

That brought Potter up short. "Why?"

"You know my father isn't happy with me. In his letters to me, contracts have been brought up, and apparently, one of the people asking was Lord Slytherin." And, except for the bit about Lord Malfoy being unhappy with him, it wasn't even a lie.

John stared at Virgo, wide-eyed. "Seriously?"

Virgo nodded.

"Oh, damn — sorry. I now understand why you're interested. Not that it helps. Unless you have some kind of plan."

Virgo smiled. "Actually I might just have one. Interested?"

"Sure! Let's hear it."

"Have you noticed how… knowledgable the muggleborns seem to be around here?"

"Not really?"

"I was talking to Dean Thomas this morning," Virgo continued, ignoring John's reply. "He knew about intention gifts, life debts, and the pax magus, and got very evasive when I asked how he knew all that stuff. There are two muggleborn twins in my year — Marigold and Violet Chesterfield — you know, the ones from Hufflepuff Duelling Club — and they are far better in class than any muggleborn has any right to be — almost like they somehow already know occlumency. And then there's Hermione Granger—"

"Hermione has always been a genius."

Virgo shot John a sharp look. "You did know her before Hogwarts!"

John looked furious with himself. "I didn't!"

"Liar."

"I…" John deflated a bit. He looked around, now merely annoyed. "Alright, keep it down. Yeah, I kinda did, a little. But that's not something you can tell anyone, got it?"

Virgo smiled. "Sure. Anyway, regardless of how smart Granger has always been. She's a vassal of Slytherin House. That hasn't been done for ages. So, Lord Slytherin apparently has an interest in muggleborns. And all of a sudden, all the muggleborns of Hogwarts start grouping up, getting better grades, getting smarter, and everything. Doesn't that seem a little suspicious?"

John hesitated. "I did hear Hermione was doing something with some other muggleborns," he admitted.

This time it was Virgo's turn to be brought up short. "Really? You actually heard that?"

"On the Hogwarts Express, yeah."

"But then that's practically proof! Don't you see?"

"You think Lord Slytherin is up to something with the muggleborns at Hogwarts?"

"Don't you?"

"I admit it sounds suspicious. And I keep feeling that Dean is hiding something. Maybe we should follow him sometime? Find out where it is he always sneaks off to."

"That's a great idea," Virgo said, bluntly. "We should do that."

Girly! Julia thought. Be girly!

Nope… Virgo smirked. They'd arrived at the charms classroom. He nodded to Potter and walked to his seat at the front. …I'm done now.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

A day passed. Virgo went to classes, dutifully did his homework, and continued to ponder the mystery that was both Potter twins and his Slytherin year-mates. The boys were nothing special, entitled purebloods to a man. The girls though… They were all good — extraordinarily good in the case of Black, Lovegood, and Weasley. The Carrow twins didn't have the same talent, but what they lacked in raw ability, they more than made up for in viciousness. They followed Black everywhere with awe-like reverence.

And if Black was anywhere near as good as he suspected Ginny Weasley might be, it was an awe well deserved.

It was breakfast, and the red-headed witch in question had just dashed into the great-hall, seemingly giving not one hoot for Slytherin protocol or dignity, dressed the same muggle-like clothes she always wore for morning training, and plopped herself down firmly next to Lovegood. Virgo sometimes saw her avoiding John during his morning training. The girl was fast. Abnormally fast.

Could she really be the one that tried to kill us? Julia thought. She looks so normal.

It does seem incredible, Virgo thought back. But, on the other hand, if she had the temperament, she would make the perfect assassin. No one would suspect her. The fact that whoever attacked us ultimately couldn't kill us, makes it even more likely that it was her. She still has the weakness of a child.

Not wanting to kill people isn't a weakness, Julia thought back at him, sounding rather peevish in his head. You're a horrible person.

I know.

I hate you.

I know that too.

Just then, a clinking of glassware echoed from the head table, and headmaster Lockhart stood up, as he quite often did. The hall slowly quietened, aided by glares from the other teachers.

"Boys and Girls!" Lockhart started with that stupid grin firmly planted on his face. "I have just a quick announcement to make before you all need to head off to classes. Don't worry! I won't keep you all here any longer than you need!" He gave them all another grin.

Many of the students looked down at their still-full breakfast plates with puzzlement.

Virgo rolled his eyes.

"Winter is upon us!" Lockhart continued, rather dramatically, "And I am pleased to announce that this year we will be celebrating the Winter Festival in our own unique Hogwarts way!"

Virgo mostly tuned out everything that came after that. He wouldn't be staying here for the festival, so it was irrelevant, although the fact that Hogwarts was now celebrating the Winter Festival rather than Christmas was interesting. One thing he couldn't help but notice, looking around the hall, was the older muggleborns looking rather confused, and, in a few cases, angry, while the younger ones all took the announcement with a certain equanimity.

Just another indicator that all was not as it seemed.

Of course, the Gryffindor thing to do at this point would be to do exactly as Potter suggested—start tailing a Gryffindor muggleborn—probably Dean Thomas or Colin Creevey—until one of them made an excuse and snuck away for some suspicious reason. Then follow them and learn both the when and the where of the hidden conspiracy.

But that would be the Gryffindor thing to do.

"Good morning, Susan."

Everyone was leaving breakfast quite some time after Lockhart's announcement had ended. Virgo had caught the Hufflepuff Heiress halfway to the door.

"Morning," Susan chirped back. "Don't you have classes now?"

"Yes, but I wanted to ask you something quickly. Do you know anything about the special muggleborn-only classes?" It was a random stab in the dark.

"Special muggleborn-only classes? Don't know anything about that. You don't mean the Founders Club, do you?"

The Founders Club? "Yes, that's exactly what I mean."

"In that case, sure. Justin and Kevin both go."

It was a random stab in the dark that hit pay-dirt. "Do you know when and where it is?"

Susan looked thoughtful. "Saturday and Thursday evenings, I think. But they sometimes do stuff on other days too. I don't know where though — they're quite secretive about that. I can ask if you like."

"No," Virgo said, quickly. "Don't do that." He didn't want them to know they were interested, yet. "I was just curious."

Susan narrowed her eyes. "John isn't up to something again, is he?"

"Again?"

"Again. He has this minor obsession with Lord Slytherin. I don't think it's a bad thing, but this is about that, isn't it?"

A lie was on the tip of Virgo's tongue as easily as if he were complimenting an older witch on her youthful beauty. But then he stopped himself. Susan was one of the keys to controlling Potter after-all, who was looking to be more and more important a chess piece.

"Tangentially?" he said, doing his best to sound a little contrite.

"Right — in that case, meet me after classes — there are some things you need to know."

Need to know? Virgo raised one dainty eyebrow. "Okay," he said. "I'll see you then."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"And that's everything," Susan finished off. The Hufflepuff had just finished recounting everything she and John had gone through last year to try and track down Slytherin's identity.

Virgo had listened to everything with rapt attention, and even a slight tinge of respect. These two had been on the trail far longer than he had. And their schemes might even have worked, if not for bad luck.

They were in an empty classroom after their first classes — She, the Bones Heiress, and John Potter. Potter hadn't said much since they'd begun (apart from having a brief argument with Susan about why she hadn't told him about the Founders Club before, to which she'd defended herself with the argument that he hadn't asked, and she hadn't known he'd be so interested, in any case). Instead, the Boy-Who-Lived just sat quietly watching Virgo and Susan with an expression Virgo couldn't quite match, but which Julia insisted was romantic interest.

"The polyjuice identification ploy could have worked," Virgo finally said, after a moment of silence. "That was inspired."

"That was my idea," Susan said proudly. "Auntie uses the same trick to catch rapists."

"Trying to catch Greengrass out while polyjuiced as Granger was far riskier though."

"We were a bit desperate by then."

"Mmmm…" Virgo steepled his fingers. "I do think that we could infiltrate the Founders Club in the same way though. Once we find out where it is."

"And how would that help?" Potter asked, suddenly entering the conversation. "Hermione's been utterly brainwashed. I agree everything about this is suspicious, but I can't see her just randomly blurting out Slytherin's real name to the muggleborns — At least with Greengrass there was a chance."

"Maybe so," Virgo conceded, "but learning Slytherin's identity is only one thing we need to learn about him. It would also be useful to learn his motives, his way of thinking, and, above all, what he's actually doing."

"And the Founders Club could be the perfect way to do that," Susan said, sounding a lot more enthusiastic now.

"Exactly."

"Right." Potter sat a bit straighter. "I'll get some polyjuice."

"Hang on, hang on," Virgo waved him down again. "That's another thing I wanted to ask. How exactly did you get polyjuice last time?"

"I asked Fred and George. They're really good for that sort of thing."

Virgo smacked his forehead. "You just asked them? Straight up? Holy Merlin, Potter!"

"What? Fred and George are cool."

"Yes, and even if you hadn't been caught, if anyone had even suspected, they'd just have had to follow the polyjuice trail back to massively narrow down the number of possible suspects. Just how many students do you think have polyjuice in this school?"

Potter grumbled something Virgo didn't quite catch. He ignored it.

"So, anyway," Virgo continued. "Yes, we'll need polyjuice — carefully acquired," he added with a look towards Potter. "We'll also need to learn a few new spells."

"Ooo!" Susan said. "What spells?"

Virgo opened a book on the table. "I suggest the tergeo charm, the silencing charm, and the disillusionment charm for starters."

"I can do the silencing charm already," Susan said. "Hannah snores. The tergeo charm should be doable, but the disillusionment charm… isn't that really high level?"

An interested John was now looking over Virgo's shoulder. "It is," the boy said. "But I bet I could learn it with a bit of practice."

"Of course you could," Susan snarked.

Virgo smiled a well-practiced smile. "I'm sure you can too, Susan."

"Really?"

"Yes. One reason we don't learn it sooner is we're not considered mature enough yet. We are talking about invisibility. It is a complex piece of magic, yes, but spells are like music — if you put enough effort into an individual piece, it's quite possible to learn an overture far ahead of your curve. It just takes longer." Sometimes, much longer, he added in his head, to which Julia snorted.

"Then it's decided," John said. "We will find out Slytherin's secrets, whatever it takes."

They all nodded, and together they made to leave for lunch.

Just before they got to the door, though, John stopped. He smacked his forehead, much like Virgo had done not long before. "I'm an idiot!"

Virgo and Susan both looked at him with bemusement.

"I didn't want to say anything," Susan said with a smile.

"No! I mean, I really am an idiot."

"For Merlin's sake, Potter," Virgo said. "What is it?"

"We don't need disillusionment to find out where the Founders Club meeting is — we just need the map!"

Virgo's eyes narrowed and his female voice lowered dangerously. "Map?"

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"Let me get this straight," Virgo said slowly.

Another day had passed. Herbology, charms, and potions. Professor Potter had given the first-years an extra two inches of homework on fire safety when one of the boys had nearly set Virgo's skirt aflame. He'd been annoyed at that, but not nearly as annoyed as he was now.

"Let me get this absolutely straight," he said again, trying not to snap out the words. "You say that there's this map that can track anyone in the castle — a map that by all rights should not exist, given just how ridiculously illegal the magic to make it must be—I mean, for Merlin's sake! Most of those enchantments will be exactly the same sort of thing Light Lord Dimwiddy used to build his empire! And you say that you can borrow this map whenever you want—in front of the head of the DMLE's niece, no less—"

Susan was sitting uncomfortably off to one side.

"—And that the people you can borrow this map from are a pair of wizards whose only obvious motivation seems to be making as much gold as they can. And now you're telling me that when you asked for another loan of it, they say they've LOST IT?" Virgo wanted to roar that last bit, but it came out far too squeaky for that.

John Potter was looking more than a bit uncomfortable. "Yes," he said.

"They're obviously lying!" Virgo shouted. "They've sold it! Or someone else doesn't want them to let anyone else use it! I mean, Merlin! For all I know, that's how whoever tried to kill me found me so easily!"

John winced.

"I could tell Auntie," Susan suggested. "She could search and confiscate something like that, no problem."

Deep in their head, Julia was projecting calming thoughts at Virgo over and over, just as she had been during the entirety of his rant.

Virgo calmed down. He took a deep breath. "Sicking your aunt on them might be a good idea at some point, but we need to check the legality first. You don't know if usage or ownership of this kind of artefact would be as illegal as casting the spells to make it, do you?"

Susan shook her head.

Virgo cursed. "We'd look stupid if we brought this up only to find we'd also get in trouble."

"But we're all noble," John pointed out. "The Weasleys aren't. Wouldn't that count for anything?"

"Yes, but not enough, I suspect. Not when it comes to divination magic. And if they have sold it, then we'd just be admitting to a crime that the Weasleys can then simply deny."

"Veritaserum," Susan said.

Virgo paused. He looked down at the Malfoy noble house ring on his right hand. That was actually a very good point. The Weasleys could be tried under veritaserum, but they couldn't. He smiled and nodded at Susan. "Wonderful. If we ever need leverage over them, we can use that."

"So," Potter said. "Since we can't use the map, let's learn the other charms instead." He seemed anxious to move away from this discussion.

Virgo and Susan both nodded and together the trio got to work.

Learning the tergeo and silencing charms wasn't difficult, but the disillusionment charm was another matter entirely — at least for Susan. By the time curfew neared, the boy-who-lived was already well on the way to getting a basic cast down, much to Virgo's utter shock. Potter was almost as quick on the uptake as he'd been when he'd learned the spell during his third year.

Potter escorted Virgo back to Gryffindor tower.

The next day after classes they were back again, and this time, Potter got it.

The day after that, Virgo allowed himself to 'learn' it, and the day after that, Susan got it. Honestly, as shocked as Virgo was with Potter, Susan was almost as surprising. Everything seemed to come effortlessly to Potter. It was as though he were several years ahead and just learning a new spell from the standard book. Susan on the other hand — she seemed to take both Potter and Virgo's accomplishments as a personal insult. She said so herself just after she finally achieved the spell for the first time, sneaking up on Potter and poking him in the back, before reappearing with a huge grin on her face. "If both of you can do it, there is no reason why I can't too." Only the weariness in her eyes betrayed the utter monumental effort she'd put into keeping up with them — and even then, casting the charm took her over five seconds, and wasn't exactly the best. If ever they actually needed to make Susan invisible, it would probably be better to have either Potter or himself cast the spell on her.

All that was academic though, because they had learned it, confirming Virgo's suspicions, once again, that Susan could be just as useful to him in the future as Potter — not only for her noble connections, and influence over Potter, but as a wand in her own right.

Soon enough, Saturday rolled around, and the moment that Dean Thomas and Colin Creevey separately made for the door of the Gryffindor common room, both he and Potter made their separate excuses and left the tower.

Virgo cast the disillusionment on himself.

Now all he had to do was find Potter and catch up with the muggleborns.

An outline nearby moved and he felt a hand plant itself into his.

"C'mon," said Potter's voice, and started leading them away.

Virgo had to fight down the intense feeling of revulsion at the physical contact, even while Julia was feeling something very different.

They had to stop several times to let students and ghosts past, and by the time they arrived at the grand staircase, the two Gryffindor muggleborns had vanished.

"This would be a lot easier if I had my invisibility cloak," Potter muttered.

Virgo wanted to scream. He settled instead for hissing, "You have an invisibility cloak?!"

"No," Potter whispered back. "It was stolen from my family before I got it." He sounded more than a little bit bitter. "I believe it was Lord Slytherin as well."

Despite himself, Virgo's grip on Potter's hand tightened slightly. "Do you have proof?"

"None."

"Then how do you know?"

"Because everything that goes wrong is always about him."

Virgo didn't say anything to that. Susan was right. Potter really did have a Lord Slytherin obsession. A movement from several stories up caught her attention. Potter had apparently seen it too — seen it and identified it. "It's those Hufflepuff twins," he whispered. "They're muggleborn — c'mon."

Virgo was unable to stop himself being dragged up the constantly shifting staircases and down one of the many corridors that led off from the main hallway. Amazingly, they were just in time to see the very Hufflepuff muggleborn twins that had helped tip Virgo off to something fishy going on, turning the next corner, each one practically hanging off the arm of a rather bemused-looking boy whom Virgo vaguely remembered from their classes, but had never bothered to learn the name of.

"But you're doing so much better now, Alan," one of the twins said, cheerfully.

"Yes," said the other twin, rather more seriously, "soon, you'll have to teach us."

Virgo and John reached and turned the corner.

"Oh, I don't know about that," the boy — Alan, apparently — said with obvious modesty. Then his voice turned nervous, although Virgo thought the nervousness sounded put on. "This isn't one of your jokes, is it? You two have a weird sense of humour."

The cheerful sounding twin giggled. "No jokes this time. But we do know a shortcut."

"Really?" Alan sounded intrigued, "Well, girls, I'd be happy to see that."

The threesome reached and turned the next corner.

Virgo and John rounded the corner not long after, and when they did, they both stopped.

"They're gone," Potter said.

Virgo wanted to smack him. "That much is obvious, Potter. Don't just stand there. We need to keep moving." So they did. They passed countless tapestries, statues, and paintings while making a surprisingly comprehensive sweep of the floor, and despite not finding another muggleborn, Virgo couldn't help but be grudgingly impressed again. Potter knew Hogwarts well for a second-year. Many of the passageways the boy-who-lived was leading him down he hadn't found until much later on.

But despite the comprehensiveness of the search, they weren't having any luck finding what they were ultimately looking for, although they did run into Susan being harangued by Professor McGonagall for loitering. They hung way back until their Hufflepuff conspirator was heading their way before grabbing her and casting a disillusionment on her too, well out of sight of the Gryffindor head of house.

"Merlin, you scared me!" Susan whispered. "Any luck finding anyone?"

"Not really," Potter whispered back. "We're thinking we'll need to try another floor."

Together they scanned the floor below and above for another half an hour, and were just about to give the whole thing up as a bad deal when they found something that, to Virgo's utter contempt, neither Potter nor Susan were able to ignore.

A group of three Ravenclaws girls had another Ravenclaw girl surrounded and were taunting her while constantly transfiguring something on the floor into various shapes.

The three girls had to be at least a few years older than the one they were ganging up on — possibly sixth-years, or maybe even seventh.

"Hah! How're those holiday plans working out for you now?" One of the girls snarked, turning the object into a teapot.

"Please, just stop," the maybe fourth-year girl sobbed.

"Would you like us to wrap it up in a little bow?" One of the other girls added, flicking her wand and adding a red and green ribbon to the teapot.

Before Virgo could even curse the twin names of Gryffindor and Hufflepuff, his two allies had dropped their disillusionment and were marching straight towards the group. Seeing nothing else to be done, he also dropped his disillusionment and followed.

"Hey," Potter said in an aggressive tone of voice.

"Go away, little un's," one of the older girls said, without even looking around, clearly taking her cue from the pitch of Potter's voice. The other girls, however, were looking in the right direction, and they both paled.

"Heir Potter!"

The older girl with her back to them squeaked and spun around.

"What are you doing?" Potter snarled.

"Nothing," the girl squeaked.

Virgo couldn't help but be miffed that despite being a daughter of the house of Malfoy, it wasn't him getting the royal treatment. But then, he wasn't in line for the Malfoy lordship, nor could he ever theoretically marry any of the girls in front of him, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, no one had seen him smack around an entire duelling team as a first-year.

Potter gave the squeaking girl a hard look. "Then I suggest you do nothing somewhere else."

"Yes! I mean, look, you know, we're not really doing anything wrong here. It was just a joke. I mean…" she trailed away under Potter's glare. "Sorry!" And the three girls rapidly retreated.

Susan was already comforting the sobbing older witch. Virgo shrugged, and untransfigured the teapot with a casual flick of his wand. It turned into a small white kitten, which mewed.

That was horrid! Julia gasped in Virgo's head. How could they?

It would not have hurt it, Virgo thought back.

Still!

"T-T-Thank you," the girl stuttered.

"You're welcome," Potter said, grinning. "What was that about anyway?"

What it was about was the girl's plans for the winter break — her Christmas plans.

"You're a muggleborn?" Potter asked.

Virgo and Susan caught each other's eyes, each clearly thinking the same thing.

"W-What if I am?" the girl said.

"You wouldn't happen to know where the Founders Club meets, would you?" Susan asked.

The girl suddenly looked uncomfortable. "Yes, but we're not really supposed to talk about it. It's supposed to be a muggleborn only thing."

"Please, Janet?" Potter asked, giving the girl his best charming smile. "We'd be ever so grateful." Virgo couldn't help but smirk, while Julia went into a mental sulk.

"Well, I guess it would be okay," Janet said, sounding hesitant. "But don't tell anyone I told you, okay?"

"Of course," Virgo said, smoothly, "we wouldn't have it any other way."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Somewhere deep in the maze of secret passageways and magical corridors that was Hogwarts Castle, two twin Gryffindors were inside a rather old and battered magical trunk, hard at work.

"Wow, this stuff gets everywhere," Fred Weasley said. "If Mum called us to dinner like this, we'd be grounded for a month." His hands were covered in slimy, wet clay. So were his forearms. Streaks of brown could be seen on his face.

"We will make it work," said his twin brother. George Weasley's hands and arms were equally messy.

The two were sitting on opposite sides of a large potter's wheel, which was slowly turning by magic. A huge lump of clay sat between, like a dirty melted candle.

A pulse in the alert ward let them know that someone was nearby. Fred quickly rinsed his hands with water from his wand, and jogged up the stairs to the trunk's lid. He poked his head through.

An older Slytherin girl was looking down at him, nervously. "Umm…" she said. "I need a potion."

Fred beamed. "That's what we do. What do you need?"

"It's a bit sensitive."

Fred chuckled. "We provide our customers with the most discreet services, guaranteed. There's no one around, so you can speak freely." And it was true. The occasional hustle and bustle of the new student market was limited to certain hours when everyone knew it was worthwhile to hang around. That gave them plenty of time to continue their own projects.

The girl smiled, apparently reassured. "I need polyjuice."

The smile on Fred's face froze. "One moment. I'll be back with you in a second." He closed the lid gently. "Oi, George," he said in a low voice. "Who does the map say this girl is?"

"Kathrine Winks."

"I'm sure she does," Fred muttered. "I vaguely remember the name. Is she noble?"

"Not that I've heard."

"Important?"

"No idea."

"Right." Fred creaked the lid back open just enough to talk through. "What did you say your name was, Miss?"

"Kathrine Winks."

"Are you aware how expensive polyjuice is?"

"I am."

"And you're aware that possession is strictly against school rules?"

"Yes."

"Well, I'm afraid you're out of luck. We don't have any polyjuice. We would never so fragrantly break school rules like that—would we George—?" he called back into the trunk.

"Not us!"

"—but perhaps I could interest you instead in our special skin-care potion for witches. Simply one dose, and you'll feel like a whole new person."

The Slytherin girl looked confused. "No, I want polyjuice."

Fred stared at her for several long seconds. "Well, we don't have any," he said, and snapped the trunk-lid firmly behind him. He turned to his twin. "Merlin, I thought Slytherins were supposed to be quick on the uptake."

George shrugged.

A few moments later, a knocking came from the trunk-lid.

Fred sighed and opened it. "Yes?" he asked.

The girl hesitated before speaking. "This, skin-care potion… it wouldn't happen to be mud-coloured, would it?"

"Funny thing that, it is."

"Oh. Oh!" the girl's eyes widened. "Yes, then. I'd like some of this skin-care potion."

"How many doses do you want?"

"Three?"

"You're in luck. Three's all we have left, isn't that right, George?"

"That's right, Fred. Very popular stuff, our skincare potion." George appeared at Fred's side holding three tiny vials, each filled with mud-coloured liquid.

Fred took the vials and turned back to the girl. "One dose lasts exactly one hour. Don't try to split them up, that doesn't work. And don't try to combine doses, that doesn't work either. Got it?"

"Yes, yes, I understand."

"Good."

They settled the trade and the girl vanished into the castle. Fred closed the lid and looked toward his brother. "Well?"

George was staring down at the map. "She's heading straight for the great hall. There are, like, a hundred students there."

Fred snorted. "Not quite as dumb as she made out."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"Is all this really necessary?" John asked. He was crouching, invisible, next to one of the many moving staircases of Hogwarts that led towards the great hall.

Next to him, Virgo Malfoy said, "Yes, it is. We can't assume we're not under watch until we find and destroy that map. We don't want polyjuice being tracked back to us if we can help it."

John nodded and unconsciously scanned the hall again for threats. He couldn't help but admit that the girl was right. Virgo was right about many things. In the brief time he'd known her, she'd come to be more useful to him than any of the other Gryffindors. She helped with his mail, advised him on how to deal with the other students, and even trained with Susan at the Duelling Club, despite being a Gryffindor. Maybe it was the time they were forced to spend together, but John couldn't help feeling protective, despite her occasionally razor-sharp tongue.

"Here comes our mule," Virgo muttered. An older student wearing a mask had just entered several floors up.

"Who is it?" John asked.

"I don't know."

"You don't?"

"Of course not. That's the point, you halfwit."

On John's other side, Susan giggled. "I don't think I've ever met someone willing to call the great Boy-Who-Lived that. I think I like it."

John groaned. "Susan, don't encourage her."

The masked-mule passed by on the stair opposite theirs, and John cast a summoning spell on the vials in the student's open book bag. The vials flew into his outstretched hand. Ten minutes later, they were all bundled up against the cold, walking the path to the great lake where very few students went during weather this cold. John couldn't help thinking just how cute Susan and Virgo both looked in their winter robes and scarves.

"So, what's the plan?" Susan asked, looking between John and Virgo.

"I'm going too—" John started before realising that Virgo had said the exact same words at the exact same time. They both paused, but in the time left open, Virgo jumped in again with, "I'm going to sneak into the Founders Club and collect information, and yes, I am the best person to do this. No offence, Potter, but you're not exactly the most subtle wizard in the world."

John frowned. Before he could say anything, however, Susan beat him to it. "But, Virgo, it's too dangerous for you. John's been spending all this time with you to protect you. You can't go around walking alone in the castle. You know that."

John nodded. "I couldn't have said it better myself. Yes, you're smart, Virgo, but that doesn't make it okay to put you in danger."

Virgo smiled. "What if I wasn't in danger?"

"What do you mean?" Susan asked.

"Potter here is so powerful and manly, I'm sure he could give up a little bit of his own protection for little old me."

John knew full well that his ego was being massively stroked, but that didn't make it feel any less good. After all, he was powerful and manly, and it was nice for people to recognise that. "What protection?"

Virgo smiled and pointed at where a small metal sphere hung around John's neck by a golden chain, hidden under his robes.

His portkey. The portkey his father had given him to keep him safe at Hogwarts.

Doubt flickered across his mind. "I'm not sure I can do that," he said.

"Why not?" Virgo asked.

"That's actually a really good idea!" Susan said enthusiastically. "That would keep Virgo much safer, and it would mean you don't have to tail her absolutely everywhere."

John grimaced. He really didn't want to give up his portkey. Apart from anything else, he'd come to see it as his own protection in case anything really bad went down — such as going up against a one-thousand-year-old basilisk, for example. In the last timeline, he'd been quite lucky, even if he didn't like to admit it.

"C'mon John," Susan said, looking at him with doe-eyes. "What could you possibly fear at Hogwarts?"

Looking into that trusting face, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "It's a Potter artefact!" As he said the words, he realised that not only was that the perfect excuse not to give the portkey up, but it was even true! Lockhart had gifted this portkey to the House of Potter.

Virgo looked shocked and possibly even a little bit angry.

Susan was taken aback for a moment, but then a sly smile came across her face. "Oh dear. That is a shame." The way she said it sent alarm bells ringing in John's head.

Virgo looked sharply at Susan. "What?"

Susan giggled and waved John closer so that only she and he could hear, leaving Virgo looking on suspiciously. "If it is a Potter artefact, you could always gift it to her anyway," Susan whispered. "I know your Mum and Dad cut off your gold for gift-giving to pretty witches, if you catch my meaning." Susan innocently played with the citrine and onyx encrusted bracelet that John had given her last year, and which she still wore around her wrist.

She was talking about a declaration of intention gift. John's thoughts screeched to a halt. It wasn't that he hadn't thought about Virgo in that way, but being put on the spot like this… and giving up his portkey… He straightened up. "Nope! No, no, no. Nope and double no." He pointed at Virgo. "We are going back to Gryffindor Tower." He pointed at Susan. "You are going back to your common room." He pointed at himself. "And I am going to deal with the Founders Club. No arguments!" He turned and strode off.

"That fool will never be able to get anything useful out of them!" Virgo ranted, loud enough to make her ire known, but not loudly enough for John to hear. They were walking some way behind the Boy-Who-Lived, back to the castle, after doing a round trip of the lake. "And he'll probably get himself caught! What a waste of time! What did you even tell him?"

Susan smirked. "I suggested that he should start courting you."

Virgo looked at Susan in horror. "You, what?!"

"Oh come on — it's not that strong a commitment — and you could do a lot worse. Do you even realise you're in the position that most every witch in the castle, and quite a few outside, would kill to be in? You don't, do you? You're impossible. You just waltz in here, like it's no big deal, and have the Boy-Who-Lived and heir to the most powerful house in Britain practically eating out of your hand, and you don't even see him as a potential husband."

Virgo seemed to be struggling with herself. Eventually, through gritted teeth, she said, "And you're okay with Potter courting me?"

"Sure," Susan replied. "You're better than most of the other options here. And a lot better than him marrying some foreign princess who'd treat me like some kind of mistress."

"I wasn't aware you were already contracted to him."

Susan felt herself blush a little. That had sounded a little presumptuous.

Virgo visibly calmed. When she spoke next, every word was clear and smooth. "I am not currently interested in pursuing romantic entanglements. I shall deal with such matters as they benefit me, as I see fit. Right now, I am far more interested in making sure that the idiot doesn't screw up matters so badly that our freedom to investigate Lord Slytherin is curtailed. I think that we should see to matters by ourselves."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

The time until the next Founders Club filled John with mild unease. Rather than being angry or giving him the cold shoulder, Virgo was instead acting extremely cordial, which actually unnerved him more. Susan too was acting differently, although she tried to hide it. He couldn't shake the feeling they were conspiring, which could never be a good thing.

Events in the rest of the castle hardly made matters any better.

In defence class, Professor Snape had moved onto giving them one-on-one duelling training against himself. This apparently was an excuse for him to continually hex the students he least liked, and, on one occasion, when Lockhart had randomly dropped in, the headmaster too (although Snape had claimed that one to be an accident).

In potions, even though Snape was no longer teaching, class ironically felt almost exactly the same as in the last timeline. It was impossible to slack off or hide anything when your mother was the one in charge. She always knew. Even worse was the way she practically fawned over his brother. John had crushed two quills already this month. He still couldn't understand how Harry could be so much better than he was. Virgo pointed out that this was only more reason to work harder to close the gap between them, and as much as it pained him, he couldn't help but agree.

The Dark was getting more and more sure of itself, now that it had Alexandra Black all but in charge, backed up by Draco Malfoy, who, if the papers were to be believed, had summoned an actual basilisk! He hadn't believed it until the Wizengamot had passed a law banning the blonde ponce from experimenting any further with that spell. Malfoy now walked with a definite strut.

And then there were the rumours about the Gray, swirling around the castle like the snow swirling outside the castle windows. Their children had been leaving the castle more and more often. It seemed that Greengrass, Lovegood, and Hermione left the castle almost every weekend now, and always arrived back for classes just in the nick of time. He'd heard grumbling among other students, envious of all the special treatment the three witches were being given. All kinds of ridiculous theories were circulating about what was up — everything from special auror training to political meetings with heads of state. Whatever it was, John assumed it was big. There was an energy about them — a kind of palpable excitement that not even their Slytherin masks could fully hide.

An excited enemy couldn't be a good thing.

But all-in-all, one other thing wrangled him the most. There still hadn't been any sign of the heir of Slytherin. He was starting to wonder if there ever would be.

"It's time," Virgo said, sitting opposite him.

John nodded and stood up. "Hey, listen, Virgo. It really is better for you to stay here, you understand that, don't you?"

"Perfectly," Virgo sniffed. "I'm sure you'll be fine by yourself. Make sure to buy a pensieve while you're out."

John grimaced and made his way out of Gryffindor Tower.

Moments after Potter was gone, Virgo snapped the book he'd been reading shut and made to follow. He walked past the groups of laughing and giggling Gryffindors and stuck his head out of the portrait hole. "Susan?" he whispered. His noble partner in crime and possible meat shield waved a disillusioned hand.

Hey! Julia thought, Don't call her that. Susan's nice!

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

John Potter tried to hold in his scowl. Fate was on his side — there was no doubt about that, but he couldn't help feeling that it would be nice if the evidence of this fact could stick around for more than five minutes. If it did, he might not currently be wearing a silken witches robe that Susan would probably describe as 'fetching'.

His luck had started out so well. He'd quickly and quietly made his way through the corridors of Hogwarts, on the lookout for one of his preferred targets. He, of course, knew where the Hufflepuff common room was, and so it was no issue to position himself between it and the room Hermione used for the Founders Club. He heard the lone footsteps before he saw their owner. Alan Gage, the friend of the muggleborn twins, loped around the corner. He seemed to be in quite a hurry and wasn't paying attention. Perfect. John quickly stunned the boy and dragged him into a nearby cupboard for safety.

One extracted hair, and a change of clothes later and John was indistinguishable from the plain looking muggleborn, right down to the tie.

In retrospect, he should have known it wouldn't stay so easy.

"Alan!" cried a voice behind him.

He whirled around to find himself nose-to-nose with one of the muggleborn twins.

"Why'd you rush off?" the other one said, far too innocently. "Are you trying to get out of your responsibilities?"

"Errr…" John said.

"Don't worry," the first one said. "We've got it all set up. Just follow us!"

She grabbed John's arm and started dragging him away. John let her, not daring to say anything that might blow his cover. Thankfully they were going in the direction of the Founders Club.

"Right," The second twin said, pausing in the middle of what looked like a normal, boring corridor. "Just step over that line." She grinned and pointed to a line on the floor.

"Umm…" John said.

"Now, Alan," the first twin said more seriously. "You said you'd do it. Fair's fair — you did try to steal our stuff."

John had groaned inwardly. Taking the fall for whatever Gage had done had not been part of his master plan, but it wasn't like he'd had a choice. Steeling himself, he had stepped over the line, and the moment he did, the robe he'd 'borrowed' had instantly changed, which was why he now was standing in a random corridor wearing a traditionally styled girl's robe, all white, complete with delicate trim, lace, and even two pink ornamental hearts dangling from the string ties of the cowl.

"It worked!" The second twin clapped. A second line appeared. "One more, c'mon! We need to thoroughly test this out before club starts."

John felt a sense of creeping dread. These twins felt far too much like another set of twins he'd known since childhood, but the best defence against them was just to get it over with. He stepped forward and instantly felt his underwear being switched. He was also now wearing a witches' wrap around his chest. The sensations were unpleasantly constricting.

"You are going to switch this back, aren't you?" he asked in a desperate voice.

"Yep," the second twin chirped as a third line appeared. "That's what the next line is."

Oh, thank Merlin. John stepped forward over the third line and shrieked like the girl whose clothes he wore, as several buckets of cold water fell on him from nowhere.

"Whoops," said the first twin, deadpan.

John choked and shook his now sopping clothes. The wet cloth clung to him in all the wrong places. "What the hell?!"

"Fair's fair, Alan," the first twin said, as though that explained everything. "But don't worry, Hermione knows the drying charm."

"Which is amazing because it's a super advanced third-year spell," the second twin added in a bright tone of voice.

John froze with his hand halfway to Alan's wand. He'd fully intended to cast a drying charm on himself right there and then—he certainly didn't want anyone seeing him in a see-through robe and certainly not while wearing girls' underthings, even if it wasn't his body—but if Alan Gage didn't know the charm…

The second twin winked. "Don't worry, we know you're secretly really into this. C'mon!" And together the two twins hooked their arms around his and started dragging him towards the Founders Club. John did the only thing he could. He whimpered.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

Meanwhile, in the Founders Club meeting room, Hermione and Harry were alone. Hermione was on tenterhooks. Ever since Harry had put up some proper warding around the sunken treasure ship, she'd redoubled her efforts to catalogue anything useful from all the books they'd found. Anything to help them move the mundane cargo of the magical ship to the jurisdiction of the muggle world, where it would be worth so much more. But what she'd just found might or might not be even more important — she wasn't sure, but Harry would surely know.

"Hermione, you've been desperate to tell me something since we started talking," Harry said. "If you fidget on that desk any harder you're going to wear a hole through the floor. Let's hear it."

Hermione coloured before taking a deep breath. "Well, I was reading through Akna Slytherin's diaries and I found… something. It might be nothing, but, well, I thought it might be."

"Go on."

"After Akna married Salazar's grandson, they had a number of children together, the ones recorded in all the family trees. But her diaries count one more than the official records do."

Harry quirked an eyebrow. "Okay…"

"Yes, so I read ahead to find out what happened to that extra child — it was a son — and he turned out he was a squib. The culture Akna came from was very clear on what to do with squibs and Salazar agreed with her logic, so when the son came of age, they banished him from the castle. They weren't unkind about it, apparently, but they also didn't give him much of a choice. The son travelled to the fens where Slytherin House originated from, and married the daughter of a local noble — one with Norman blood, if the diary is to be believed. This was before 1066, remember." Hermione looked towards Harry.

"All very fascinating," Harry said. "But why is this particularly noteworthy?"

"Well, because the Albion Family Magics stopped him from using the Slytherin name, and so he took the name of his new bride."

"Which was?"

"Ridel."

There was a moment of silence. Then Harry snorted. "Oh, that is rich. Oh, that explains so much."

"You believe it could be true then?"

"Probably. It would explain a lot about our dear little Miss Malfoy. And about her psychopathic other self."

"Does this change our plans for Virgo?"

Harry shook his head. "No, we shall continue as before. I'll make sure to bring this up the next time we're all together though. Alex will probably piss herself laughing. You just make sure everything goes well here and remember to ring me if anything goes down."

Hermione nodded. Then, the door banged open, and several muggleborns waltzed in.

"And that's my cue to leave," Harry quipped.

"Bye, Potter," Justin said as Harry swept towards the door. "Sorry for interrupting your courtship again."

Hermione pointedly didn't say anything while the rest of the group assembled, minus a few stragglers. Just as she was about to start, the door banged open again and Violet and Marigold Chesterfield barged in, dragging…

Oh dear, Hermione thought.

"We're here!" Marigold announced.

"We are," Violet confirmed.

Alan was blushing to the tips of his ears, dressed in a soaking wet robe that clung to his skin and concealed absolutely nothing. The twins had obviously been studying witch weekly.

Annoyingly, the drying spells Hermione aimed at the highly embarrassed boy only served to wring the water from the dress, and did nothing for the dampness. It still clung and was still see-through. "You can go change if you want," Hermione offered. "We will wait for you."

"No!" Alan said hurriedly. "I mean, no, I don't want to hold everyone else up. Please let's just get this over with."

Hermione nodded, but kept one eye on the boy as she began to lecture. Was something about him different? He seemed a lot more… noticeable than before. Well, he was wearing very witchy clothing.

"Today we'll be going over the rich tradition of extralegal settlements in the wizarding world. How wizards and witches settle disputes without resorting to the courts. Duels, games, tasks, favours, and magical arbitration. One by one into the pensieve."

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

John could barely contain himself. For starters, he was sure everyone was laughing at him. It might not be his body, but that didn't make it feel any better. Curse those girls.

For second, Hermione, his Hermione, had a bloody pensieve! In school! Who entrusts a thirteen-year-old with a pensieve?! And she had a shrinkable trunk with added expansion charms. He didn't have one of those, and he was the heir of one of the richest Houses in the country!

And thirdly, and worst of all…

"Now keep your eyes on that corner," Hermione said, pointing at one of the darkest recesses of the Slytherin common room. Moments later, a tall figure in a familiar mask materialised out of thin air, and every hostile Slytherin in the common room memory froze.

"That was soo cool," Justin Finch-Fletchley whispered in awe.

"Soo cool!" Sophie clapped.

"You haven't seen anything yet," Hermione said, beaming. "Now, listen carefully. He's about to propose the terms of the duel to Volf. Only noble houses can still do this, but a non-noble house can accept an honour duel, and, in some cases, is actually required to. This isn't one of those, but notice how that girl has just stepped in to adjudicate? There are some families that make a tradition out of it."

Lord Slytherin then beat the living shit out of Volf and his cronies so badly that John wanted to hurl. But, to his utter disgust, none of the muggleborns were disturbed or outraged by the man's use of legilimency to torture the older student. Far from it.

"Lord Slytherin will always protect those he considers his," Hermione said, as though uttering some deep fundamental truth of the universe.

And all the muggleborns just nodded along.

A chill ran down John's spine. He couldn't believe how right Virgo had been. If only he had started to listen to her sooner. And he suddenly wished that she and Susan were here with him — if only so he wouldn't feel so much like a lone human trying to blend into a pack of zombies. Then he remembered what he was wearing and was thankful they weren't.

Magic lifted them all off their feet, and then they were back outside the pensieve inside Hermione's trunk again.

"Any questions?" Hermione asked.

As it happened there was a question that John really wanted to know the answer to after having watched that — one he was fairly sure Alan wouldn't have already asked, and which wouldn't be too suspicious. He raised an uncertain hand. "Can Lord Slytherin get into any of the common rooms like he can the Slytherin one? I mean, if he needed to 'protect' one of us…"

Hermione frowned at his question, and for a moment he thought he'd blown it. Then she smiled. "No, he cannot. He only has right of passage over the Slytherin dungeons and the general hallways of the castle."

John let out a held breath. That was a relief. He did not want to wake up one day to find that mask hovering over his bed in Gryffindor Tower.

"Now, onto the next memory!"

They then plunged into several memories, each detailing an example of one of the other ways wizards settle disputes outside of the courts.

For settlement by game, they watched the ending of a blood feud in the 1500s by means of a chess match.

For settlement by task, they watched a former Lord Greengrass being sent to recover a particularly rare form of chimaera egg—half-man, half-bull, or what muggles would call a minotaur (Hermione also mentioned Lucius Malfoy, who'd recently been tasked, in court, to head a trade delegation to Japan, on behalf of Magical Britain, at his own expense. John couldn't help smirking at that).

For settlement by magical arbitration, they covered Hogwarts' Goblet of Fire, Black Book, and Sorting Hat, and the Ministry's Scales of Judgement.

"There has long been lively debate in Wizarding politics about how much of our governance should be left to magic and how much should be in the hands of men," Hermione lectured. "Theoretically, we could give far more of our decision making over to magic, and magic might well be able to make better decisions. There are people who would prefer that we do just that, but others say that to do such a thing would reduce our agency as a race, and that by giving up our control to a formless shapeless force, whose decisions we can neither comprehend, nor question, we give up a critical part of our humanity.

The Great Blood Feud, which took place immediately after the fall of Light Lord Dimwiddy, was largely a reactionary event by people who believed that magic should judge, since wizards had proved unsuitable."

And not for the first time since they'd started, John felt a stab of pain in his chest as the girl who was so like his Hermione rattled on, and on, and on, just like she always had done. This was not helped in any way by the final pensieve memory, settlement by favour, which, to John's horror, was the very incident that had caused Susan trouble the previous year — the time she'd used polyjuice to try and sniff out Slytherin secrets — just like he was doing now.

"Are you sure you're okay, Alan?" Hermione asked.

"Yeah, sure, I'm fine!"

"Mmmm, okay then." She didn't look fully convinced. "Now, any questions?"

Sophie put a hand up. "If favours aren't legally or magically binding, what's to stop someone just reneging?"

"Honour," Hermione answered. "The magical community is small. Word gets around. If you don't keep your promises, you quickly become a social pariah."

"That doesn't sound very reliable," Justin said.

"We don't live in a very reliable world," was Hermione's response. "You should know that by now. That's why the protection of someone honourable like Lord Slytherin is so valuable."

John couldn't help it. He let out a small snort. In the quiet of the classroom, the sound rang out like a gong.

Hermione sighed. "Perhaps refreshments are in order. We are all a little tired, I think." She summoned a tray of glasses from a nearby desk with a flick of her wand (wordless too, John noticed). "Are there any other questions?"

John thought quickly while the drinks were poured. He still needed to get more out of this gathering if he could manage it. What he had was eye-opening, but maybe he could push it harder. He brought his glass to his lips, but stopped just before taking a sip. "

"If Lord Slytherin cares so much about us, then why is he betrothed to two of purest purebloods in the country?"

Hermione smiled. "Because they proved themselves…"

John sipped from his glass.

"…just like me."

Slowly, the glass slipped from John's fingers. He stared at Hermione in horror. Faster than he'd ever thought possible for her, Hermione had whipped her wand out and had it pointing straight at him. The glass hit the floor and smashed. Dizziness swept over him. Hermione had potioned him. His noble house ring didn't protect against sleeping drafts, only mind control.

"We'll see who you are soon enough," Hermione scowled. "We just have to wait."

"NOW!"

Before sleep took him, the last thing John saw was two familiar female figures in masks dropping disillusionments from a corner of the room, wands drawn.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"NOW!"

Virgo leapt into action the moment John went down.

Susan was already casting ropes at a startled Granger, while the rest of the muggleborns stood around in various states of shock. Good for her. Virgo had some serious heavy lifting to do.

Why don't you try ventus divinum? Julia thought.

Casting levitate on someone John's size wasn't difficult, but doing it while keeping everyone else distracted was more tricky.

"Ventus divinum!"

Immediately the whole classroom was wracked by an elemental wind. Parchments were picked up in the maelstrom and flung around in a whirlwind of power. Chairs were knocked over. Students shouted in alarm and fought to keep their balance. In moments, Virgo had Potter by the magical scruff of the neck and was pulling him to the door.

Halfway to the door, some of the muggleborns had got their shit together and were levelling wands in her direction.

A quarter way to the door, spells were being shouted, and wands being flicked.

By the time he arrived at the door, three spells had bounced off a hastily cast shield, Susan right beside her.

A tied up Granger was shouting something about shield breakers.

Virgo grasped the door handle, flung it open, and dived through.

Or at least, that was the plan.

What actually happened was he slammed face first into an invisible shield right in front of her.

Head ringing, he looked up.

It was the other Potter, and he was smiling the smile of a cat looking at a mouse. "I don't think we've been formally introduced, Miss Malfoy. Harry Potter, at your service."

Then a spell caught her in the back and her legs turned to jelly.

— DP & SW: NRiCaD —

"Now, what have we all learned from this?" Granger was asking the muggleborns.

"Don't casually drink offered drinks while spying?"

"Don't use polyjuice when a mask could do almost as good a job?"

"Always have back up for your back up?"

"Dramatic one-liners don't protect you from incarcerous?"

"Violet, we're supposed to be dumping on team boy-who-lived."

"Oops, sorry."

Virgo kept a carefully neutral expression while Susan did her best at damage control. It was an hour later and the polyjuice had long worn off, leaving John totally exposed, and, much to his mortification, still wearing the clothes the Chesterfield twins had pranked him into.

I think it's cute. Boys get so flustered when someone says they should wear something girls normally wear. Except you, but you basically are a girl now. You should start thinking of yourself properly as one.

So far, John had been forced to promise to show Harry where the Potter family magic was kept in the Potter Library, Granger had extracted a minor favour from Susan, and he, Virgo, had narrowly avoided having to do a minor task on behalf of the assembled muggleborns, only by virtue of John, who'd stepped in to gallantly take the hit for him. He certainly could be useful — even if his infiltration skills were atrocious.

"Just keep her with you," Harry said, patting John on the shoulder. "You know, so that if I ever have need of her, I'll know exactly where she is."

"Harry, Virgo is not the diary."

A chill went down Virgo's spine.

"Of course she isn't," Harry said, lightly. "Just keep an eye on her, okay?"

He knew. He knew and he didn't even care that he knew he knew. Or, at the very least, he suspected.

The walk back up to Gryffindor Tower was muted. Susan trailed off from them for the Hufflepuff common room, while John led Virgo back up through the castle.

"Lord Slytherin is brainwashing the muggleborns," John said, once they were safe in a corner nook of the common room.

"Worse than that," Virgo said. "He's recruiting them. Just like you-know-who used to do with purebloods. He's already a Gray Lord. It feels as though he wishes to become a Muggleborn Lord too."

John frowned. "What good would that be?"

"I don't know. But I don't like it."

"I don't blame you. Ummm… Virgo?"

"Yes?"

"I just wanted to thank you for coming to help me, even when I told you not to."

Inside his head, Julia made a kind of gasping noise.

"I mean, you still shouldn't have, but I did appreciate it. When I was in there by myself, I felt alone, but I wasn't because you were there… Crap, I'm no good at this.

Oh my god! He's going to give you the thing!

"What I'm trying to say, is that I want you to have this."

He's giving you the thing!

Virgo's eyes widened slightly as Heir Potter pulled up the ball of silver from around his neck and presented it to him. The portkey. Then her eyes narrowed.

"This way you can be safer around Hogwarts, like Susan said."

Take it!

"Potter," Virgo said slowly, dangerously. "You know there is only one way you can give this to me."

John winced at her tone of voice. "We can just pretend?"

"Just pretend…"

Just pretend!

"Yes, just pretend."

Virgo took the portkey. "If you ever get any ideas about contracts or courting into your head, I will find a sufficiently painful way to make you stop. It will not be pleasant."

"Sure."

His words say one thing, but his grin says another.

"I'm serious."

"Sure."

Later that night, Virgo was sitting up in bed, staring at the portkey. With this he had freedom. With this, he could finally do one of the tasks he'd been meaning to do since arriving at Hogwarts — learn whether or not Lord Slytherin knew of the chamber, and if he did, what he was doing with it.

— End of Chapter Forty-Eight —