The Sugar Quill
Author: catmeat (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Alexandra Sutton's Christmas  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Alexandra Sutton's Christmas

Alexandra Sutton's Christmas

Alexandra Sutton always thought Hogwarts' Christmas decorations were slightly odd.

Not in themselves, of course. In general, the spangled mass of shiny sparkly tastelessness that filled every available space in the castle, looked quite mundane. Broadly speaking, wizard decorations were similar to their Muggle counterparts, although the Christian veneer may have been slightly thinner and the pagan essence slightly more visible. She had noticed, without surprise, that Father Christmas was absent - for obvious reasons, wizards seemed to fixate on the three Magi as the gift bringers. But really, aside from that, there was little that was obviously different.

No. What made the decorations feel strange to her was the fact they were put up very early in December and by the time Christmas day arrived, the vast gaudy display would be on show to an empty school. She was from one of those obstinately traditional families that only put up decorations and strings of electric lights on Christmas Eve and always took them down on Twelfth Night. So for her, going to all that effort when there would be nobody actually around on the twenty-fifth to look at the damn things seemed to be well ... wastefully missing the point.

Although this year, that was not quite right; for the first time, she would be around to look at them.

It felt like the holidays had sneaked up on her. During her first four years at Hogwarts, things gradually wound down during the last day or two of term before the holidays. By the last day, most of the Professors would be quite relaxed and jovial - all that Christmas sherry in the staffroom, she guessed. Professor Vector would idly discuss the Arithmancical significance of prime number theory with the Ravenclaws in her class while turning a blind eye to the Gryffindors playing exploding snap. Professor Sinistra had been known to recite a risqué comic poem about Galileo and his telescope, then offer a giant bar of Honeyduke's chocolate to whoever devised the best Limerick that included the phrase "plane of the ecliptic." Professor Flitwick would always show up at the last lesson of term at the head of a procession of levitating plates of mince pies and crates of butterbeer.

Unfortunately, at that moment, it would be her friends in Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, who were enjoying the party in the Charms classroom. This term, Friday afternoon meant triple Potions for the fifth year Gryffindors and Slytherins. Something made infinitely worse, for Alex, by the presence of the bloody Weasley twins who were pervertedly inventive about making life hell for their Slytherin classmates and deviously clever about not getting caught doing it.

The afternoon crawled along. Instead of a practical class, which would at least have had cauldron fires to take the chill out of the air, Snape had chosen to launch into a lecture on the properties of asphodel root - it seemed to have an awful lot of them. His voice droned over the heads of the fifth years. Occasionally, he would punctuate his lecture with a sneer, an acidic comment or even just a snarl that reminded all present that this was most certainly not Binns' History of Magic Class and appearing inattentive, even for a second, would have unpleasant consequences. Alex knew she would never lose house points - it didn't matter who you were, the snake on your robes would keep you safe from that - but even the Head of House's notorious favouritism had its limits. The work of preparing potion ingredients was always laborious and usually revolting; Snape really didn't care who did it as long as it wasn't him. A "See me after the lesson is over, Sutton," would be no way to begin the Christmas holidays.

By five o'clock, she had a sore bum from sitting on a hard stool and a sore hand from writing twelve pages of notes. She was certain this was the only class in the school that hadn't been dismissed early. More and more students were furtively looking at their watches. As the last minutes ticked by, there was a muted shuffling as the bolder Slytherins and Gryffindors shifted in their seats, stretched stiff muscles and started packing away their books.

"I have not given you permission to leave," said Snape quietly.

The shuffling ceased. As if by magic, you might say.

Snape closed his textbook and slowly surveyed the class. He was quite thorough about it though his expression made it clear he didn't enjoy the experience - particularly when his gaze momentarily fell upon the Weasleys. Now that he had finished the last lesson of the term, it seemed there was something he wanted to get off his chest.

"The great Paracelsus," he said, "once wrote that the gift to fully grasp the intricacies and subtleties of the art of potion making is given to but few. Yet that does not stop almost anybody from gaining a useful basic skill by understanding elementary principles and following simple rules."

Snape paused for a second, in a way that was both theatrical and menacing.

"Had he taught a class such as this one, he might have reconsidered that opinion. While this school contains many students who are stupid, inept or idle, this class contains few that aren't-"

He continued down the familiar path of a Snape-tirade. Unlike asphodel root, it seemed a reasonable guess that "The Potions Master's Frank Opinions" would not feature as a question in the OWL exam in June, so Alex removed her glasses, rubbed her eyes and let and her attention wander. After about a minute or so of blissful blankness, it suddenly snapped back with a jolt, as if somebody had been tuning a radio inside her head. She was not surprised that Snape was still talking.

"- so you may be blasé about disgracing yourselves in your examinations. But as the incompetence you display will reflect badly on me, I will not permit it to occur. Our first lesson in January will be a mock-OWL examination with questions from old papers. The next week, there will be a mock practical examination. Anybody who fails to achieve a passing grade in both -"

Oh crap!

There was a muted groan from the class as they came to the same realization as Alex - that their two week Christmas break had instantly evaporated, to be replaced by possibly one weekend of snatched relaxation and twelve days of frantic revision.

"SILENCE! You may pack up you things and leave. Sutton, see me when the others have gone."

OH CRAP!

The students quietly filed out. The Gryffindors were happy to see a Slytherin apparently in hot water; the Slytherins were each happy it was somebody else.

"Merry Christmas, Professor," said a Weasley, loudly, as he followed Jordan and Angelina Johnson through the door. He skilfully used a tone that was almost, but not quite, insolent. "Have fun, Sutton," he said quietly with a grin that made Alex want to slap him.

Whatever Snape wanted, he was in no hurry to tell Alex. With flicks of his wand, he cleaned each of his blackboards in turn. Then he straightened out the odds and ends on his desk and returned several books to their allocated spaces on his shelves. All the while, Alex tried to remember what she had done (or failed to do) in the last week or so and anticipate the likely scale of punishment. The next day was a Hogsmeade Saturday before everybody went home on Sunday. She would be furious if she lost that because of a detention.

"Sutton, you are aware that you are the only member of Slytherin House who is staying in school over Christmas?"

"Yes, sir."

Well actually, she wasn't aware of that. She knew she was the only fifth-year staying, but she assumed there were bound to be some others. But experience had taught that if speaking to her Head of House was unavoidable, it was best to say as little as possible and to be sure what she did say was in general agreement with him.

Snape continued. "It is unusual for a student to have an entire house to themselves during a holiday. However, be aware that despite the festive season -" he said the phrase like he was a Puritan preacher and it was slang for some especially deviant practice " - the standard of conduct I require from one of my students shall not be relaxed in the slightest. I shall be remaining at Hogwarts myself."

"Yes, sir," said Alex, poker faced.

Ooh! Even Old Sevvie has nowhere better to go...

"Furthermore, certain precautions will be in effect because Sirius Black has not yet been caught and he may make further attempts to enter the school. So, I shall expect you to spend most of your time in the common room - you have no lack of work to keep you occupied. You may go."

Alex caught up her book bag and fled.

"It's, Christmas." she reflected. "Things could be worse."

She strolled back to the dungeon common room, whistling God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

***

On Saturday evening, after everybody had come back from Hogsmeade, the school became a bedlam of frantic activity as trunks were packed, animals retrieved, good-byes said and scores settled. By lunchtime on Sunday, only a small remnant of students could be seen in the Great Hall - those who, for one reason or another, weren't being met at King's Cross. The Knight bus collected them in the afternoon and, on Sunday evening , Alex went down to dinner and discovered she would be spending the holidays with two small Ravenclaws, three third-year Gryffindors and most of the staff.

In fact, as the days went by, it was only at mealtimes that she saw anybody else. Three times a day she would sit by herself with a book at the Slytherin table. The Ravenclaw kids would drag themselves from whatever first years did to fill the hours. On the Gryffindor table, there would be Scarhead Potter, that girl he always hung about with and What's-His-Name Weasley - who she knew to be the little brother of Those Bastard Twins. Much of the rest of the time, she spent in the Slytherin common room, grinding away at OWL revision. Not because Snape told her to, but because the rest of the rest of the castle felt unnervingly empty. It was just before the shortest day and it was getting dark outside soon after three o'clock. Filch only bothered to set lamps and torches in the main areas of the castle. Alex was nervous about walking the empty, echoing corridors during the long dark hours, when the only light would be her wand and the occasional misty glow of a passing ghost. That murderous lunatic, Sirius Black, had already broken in once and she got the nasty feeling that if he chose to try again, he could wander the dungeons and corridors for days before anybody actually noticed.

"I bet they would only realise he was here when people started disappearing, one by one," she said to a suit of armour - they were the first words she had uttered in two days. "Then, the bizarrely mutilated bodies would start showing up in peculiar places. Hogwarts at Christmas could be a real-life, wizard version of some God-awful low-budget horror movie."

"'Tis the season to be jolly..." it replied.

As the holidays progressed, Alex's books and notes gradually accumulated in front of the common room fireplace in a way that would be unimaginable during term-time. Each day, she methodically worked her way through Potions notes, with the other subjects taking it in turns to provide light relief - a wussy teacher, who didn't even issue threats, was no reason to neglect a subject. This went on until Christmas Eve.

Alex had woken early. After groping around for her glasses, her wand and her watch, a Lumos had revealed it was just before seven. Her bloody-minded stubbornness (the characteristic that had caused the Sorting Hat to mentally flip a coin to decide between Hufflepuff and Slytherin) made her blearily climb out of bed, wash and stumble down to the common room in her dressing gown so she could get another hour done before breakfast.

"Righto - Abramov's Potion..." she said to one of the large bronze snakes on the wall as she paced up and down. It didn't reply on account of having a green lamp on a chain hanging from its mouth.

She put her book down. "Mix blowfish venom, dried nettles and toad blood," she recited. "Simmer, stir clockwise, allow to cool while continuing to stir, add powdered meerschaum. Then add - What the hell are you doing here?"

Alex had turned to see a house-elf standing before her. He had a wooden bucket, a small shovel and a slouching, furtive look. There was a revolting little mangled cigarette end in his mouth. Supposedly, a properly trained house-elf took pains to do its work without being seen; this one looked like he couldn't care less. He took a last drag from his dog-end, pinched it out and stuck it behind his ear so he could finish it later.

"'ello, Miss. Don' mind Nobby; Nobby comes every morning to do yer fireplace...." He looked at her for a second. "Oh, Miss, if you is running out of clean clothes, you should send your laundry out." He gave an unpleasant leering grin. "If you likes, Miss, Nobby can takes your dirty laundry with him when Nobby goes."

With a shock, Alex remembered she had emerged from the bathroom wearing only her dressing gown, and she hadn't bothered to tie the cord belt very securely.

The house-elf squeaked and disappeared with a crack, an instant before a heavy Potions textbook crashed through the space he had been occupying.

After that, Alex made the effort to get dressed and emerge from the Slytherin common room. She spent the rest of the day working in the library. On Christmas day, she permitted herself the indulgence of sleeping in and mooched into the Great Hall at lunchtime.

Aside from the turkey, cranberry and Christmas pudding, she had expected the usual solitary mealtime routine and so had come prepared with her paperback. She was surprised the see the four house tables had been pushed to the wall. In the centre of the hall, there was a single table, set for twelve, with four places left. Alex walked across the large empty space from the door to the table, feeling embarrassingly conspicuous under the obvious scrutiny of the Headmaster and the four Heads of House. She shoved her book into a pocket and hoped nobody noticed the strange bulge.

"A very merry Christmas to you, Miss Sutton," proclaimed Dumbledore, loudly. He beamed from his great chair at the head of the table, full of seasonal goodwill towards the universe in general. "It seemed absurd for so few of us all to sit separately at Christmas dinner so I rearranged the tables. Would you like to take the empty seat between Derek and Mr Filch?"

Well, no actually.

"Yes, Professor. Thank you."

If Dumbledore noticed that both the students and the other Professors all looked slightly uncomfortable about the upset in their dining arrangements then he gave no indication of it. He happily continued the rambling anecdote he was telling Snape, who was looking respectfully bored. On Alex's left, Filch sat stiffly in his chair, sniffing loudly every now and again. In honour of the occasion, he had discarded his usual brown overcoat in favour of a grubby black tail-coat which, she decided, made him resemble a waiter from a high-class Victorian restaurant, who had been buried somewhere and only recently dug up. On her right, one of the first years sat, clasping and unclasping his hands, looking acutely nervous about dining with all the senior staff of the school. Alex sympathised. She had a niggling presentiment that, later that afternoon, she would be enduring a long lecture from Snape about something she had said or done that had "humiliated both himself and Slytherin house in front of the Headmaster."

Aside from Dumbledore, a heavy blanket of uneasy silence draped the table. Alex tried to think of something to say that would be clever, insightful, appropriately innocuous and (most difficult) wouldn't cause Snape to glare at her. But before she managed this feat, the three Gryffindors finally appeared.

"Merry Christmas!" sang out Dumbledore again. "As there are so few of us, it seemed foolish to use the House tables.... Sit down, sit down.... Crackers?"

Dumbledore's cracker detonated with a rolling boom that shook a small rain of dust down from the hall's rafters. All that remained of it was a small cloud of smouldering paper fragments, a smell of fireworks and a large witch's hat with a vulture perched on the tip. It took a moment for Alex to remember a story that had sprinted round the school last term leaving more mundane rumours choking in its dust. A story about a Boggart in one of Lupin's classes.

Oh hell, Alex! You must keep a straight face! If Snape sees you smirking, you'll be spending the rest of the holidays extracting the bodily fluids from wretched amphibians! You must keep a straight face!

"Dig in!" commanded Dumbledore.

With relief, Alex concealed her uncontrollable broad grin by stuffing in a large forkful of turkey.

***

"Alexandra -"

"Call me Alex; only my little sister calls me Alexandra, and that's only when she's being pompous. You know what little sisters can be like?"

Derek and his friend, Adrian, both world-weary first years, nodded sagely. They only had a vague idea of what pompous meant, but they knew all about sisters.

Derek. peered suspiciously at his cards. They were held tightly in his cupped hands with only a fraction protruding. He satisfied himself they hadn't changed in the fifteen seconds since he had last looked at them.

"Alex, I'll see you, and I'll raise you six."

They were sitting in the library after lunch, putting to good use the pack of Self-Shuffling cards that Alex had got from her Christmas cracker. Usually, Madam Pince tolerated games of chess (providing the pieces weren't too loud and boisterous) but she was notoriously straight-laced, cards and gambling would've been definitely beyond the pale. And bringing food and drink into the library would instantly bring down her wrath in ways too unpleasant to contemplate. Luckily, the librarian was away until January.

Initially, the two first years didn't know quite what to make of Alex. In their one term at Hogwarts, they had had little to do with fifth-years, Slytherins or girls, never mind a person who happened to be all three. Once their apprehension wore off they were happy to place her in the mental pigeon-hole of "thoroughly decent chap", or more precisely, "thoroughly decent honourary chap." Especially after she offered to teach them to play poker.

Adrian took a swig from his bottle of butterbeer, despondently considered his depleted pile of Bertie Bott's beans and threw down his hand with a disgusted look.

"Fold!"

Alex munched one of the beans from her pile - yuck... liquorice.

"I'll see you, Derek. And... a pair of kings." One of them winked roguishly at her; she ignored it.

Derek gave a wolfish grin. "Three fours!"

She slouched back in her chair and looked around as the suspiciously quick learner scooped his winnings into an already large pile. She had expected the library to be empty on Christmas afternoon. But the Gryffindor girl had scurried past not long before, with a faint humph of disapproval. She had quickly walled herself in behind a large pile of books on another table

Adrian stood up and bitterly announced he would have to go back to Ravenclaw Tower to fetch the last of his Christmas supply of Bott's beans. Taking advantage of the break in the game, Alex got up and strolled over to the table the other girl was sitting at.

Damn! What was her name? The other two Gryffindors called her Hermione at lunch. But Alex knew she could hardly be that familiar with her.

Oh that's right - Hermione Granger. She must be pureblood - the old families love oddball names. Almost certainly named after some great-great-grandmother who's on a chocolate frog card.

"Umm... Granger-"

The girl gave a slight jump, as if being approached and addressed by her surname had never happened to her before.

"I don't know if you know me; but I'm Alex Sutton. Would you like to join in our game? We could use a fourth if you're not doing anything. Though you would need to keep your eyes on Derrick over there; he's got the makings of a right little card sharp."

"No, I've got work... I've got a lot of work to catch up on," she said quickly, too quickly - she looked agitated.

On Christmas day? Sure, I believe that!

"Whatever, Granger; please yourself."

"Thanks for asking, though." She smiled weakly.

Alex shrugged and returned to the game.

***

Knowing she couldn't afford to take more than one day off, Alex was back in the library on Boxing day morning. She found the other girl already sitting at her table and they exchanged curt nods as she passed. Alex settled down at her own favourite spot with the previous year's Astronomy OWL paper.

   Calculate to the nearest minute, the time moonrise will be 
   visible from Salisbury (Latitude, 51 degrees, 4 minutes north. 
   Longitude, 1 degree, 47 minutes west) on the 4th of November,
   1998. Calculate the time the moon sets and the moon's phase. 
   Calculate the number of days until the next full moon.

Pretty pointless, she thought, unless you happened to be a werewolf or something. Even they probably got by with a well-thumbed astronomical almanac and a calendar that had certain dates circled in red very prominently.

Yet she knew whoever set the papers included something like this every year without fail. Most people would shy away from it, but if you could manage the dozen steps of calculation without a mistake, it was a straightforward fifteen marks.

   Name the parts used to construct an astrolabe. Describe 
   how an astrolabe may be used to measure a star's elevation 
   and calculate the observer's latitude. Name and describe
   the other main uses of an astrolabe in astronomy.

Easy stuff. Though best not mention that astrolabes have been obsolete amongst Muggle astronomers since about 1700. She started scratching rough answers on scrap parchment so she could check later that she had remembered the main points.

DAMN!

Halfway through, her old quill finally gave way, depositing a splodge of ink on Alex's fingers and on the parchment.

What to do now? Alex looked at her watch - ten o'clock on Monday morning. With the current arrangement of the passageways and staircases, it would be at least a ten minute trek from the library back to the Slytherin dungeon to get another quill.

Alternatively....

"Reparo!"

The quill gave a twitch then burst apart; the rest of its ink splattered over the parchment and a wisp of acrid smoke curled up from it.

Bugger! Clearly not.

The silence of the library was suddenly broken by the quiet rasp of a page being turned.

Ah! Well, there's no harm in asking...

***

Hermione was immersed in legal case recorded in the July 1824 edition of The Proceedings of the Wizengamot. It was an action brought against the owner of a Sphinx by a visiting wizard whom it had attacked and badly injured. The owner had contended that anybody with half a brain knew all about Sphinxs and what happened to people who failed to answer their riddles; so obviously it was the plaintiff's own damn silly fault for agreeing to answer it. Besides, although he was technically the Sphinx's owner, it was more intelligent than him so it should be deemed legally responsible for its own acts and the plaintiff should actually be suing it for damages. The whole thing had degenerated into a bad-tempered row over what constituted a intelligent being and what constituted a magical beast that only ended when the Sphinx broke loose from its cage and tried to eat the Court Scribe.

She decided this wouldn't help Buckbeak. With a sigh, she reached for August 1824.

"Wotcha, Granger. You got a quill I could borrow?"

She looked up to see the Slytherin girl standing in front of her. She had a friendly, lopsided grin and seemed unaware of a spot of ink on her nose, but Hermione was instantly wary. Experience had taught her it was best to avoid Slytherins, but opposing that was the belief her parents had firmly instilled into her - the importance of tolerance, of giving people the benefit of the doubt. She pushed her concern to the back of her mind. She would never, ever, let that bunch of complete sods stop her from being unprejudical. Ron would have called her a nutter if he was still talking to her.

"Yes, I've got one," she searched her pencil case for her oldest, most battered quill: the one she wouldn't mind never seeing again. The Slytherin girl continued to ramble but she only half-listened.

"I hate the damn messy things. The split after hardly any use and you continually get ink-stains on your fingers when they leak. I know a Muggleborn bloke in Hufflepuff who got so fed up with them he glued ball-point pen refills into the shafts of old quills. It worked brilliantly until he was idiotic enough to use one to write an essay for Professor Snape...."

Alex stopped, she cocked her head to look at the spines of the books piled on the table.

"What's that? Amendments to the Regulations for the Control of Magical Creatures -1905. You are a third year, aren't you? That's a bit remote from your syllabus, unless you've already decided to become a lawyer or something."

"I'm doing some research for a friend," said Hermione tartly. "Here's your quill." Her tone said that, as far as she was concerned, the conversation was at an end. Alex didn't care about that, she was bored, curious and had had few people to talk to since the end of term.

"Really! What? Must be important because you spent all afternoon on Christmas day doing it."

Hermione desperately didn't want to say anything about what she was doing for Hagrid. She suspected the other girl would treat it as tremendous joke - something to spread around the Slytherin common room as soon as the new term started. She knew instinctively it would be tactically better if Malfoy and his father didn't know she was working hard to make sure they would have a fight on their hands - Buckbeak's defence should be a complete surprise.

Unfortunately, she wasn't adept enough to be evasive, yet polite. And she did want to stay polite. But now, she had spent too long without replying and the other girl was looking at her quizzically. Aware she was reddening, Hermione reluctantly gave in.

"Well, you're in Slytherin. So you must have heard what happened to Malfoy last term, when he was supposedly injured by a hippogriff during-"

"Oh that... I heard all it all right! For a week, that little twit was swanning about the common room, playing the martyr with his so-called injury, then patting himself on the back for his so-called cleverness in arranging to get Hagrid sacked."

"He's not getting sacked," stated Hermione, firmly." Professor Dumbledore convinced the governors it wasn't Hagrid's fault. But they've referred the matter to the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures. The committee can order Buckbeak to be killed if they decide he's dangerous so I'm helping Hagrid prepare a case for his defence."

Noting that Granger was apparently on first name terms with the beast, Alex decided not to mention the last thing she had read about hippogriffs. When bored with Potions, she had been flipping through library books at random. According to Madame Jerablom's Booke of Householde Management, the recommended recipe was to stuff a hippogriff, with 100 pounds of cooked rice, 40 pounds of onions, mushrooms and almonds, four pounds of spices and one pound of salt. Then trim off the wings and roast on a spit for twenty-four hours (will feed 100 guests.)

Unfortunately, Alex's supply of thoughtful tact was limited and sometimes got used up before the end of the conversation.

"If you ask me, the miserable animal deserves everything it gets; it failed to finish the job when it had the chance."

Hermione gave a glare that would have etched glass.

"I'm joking, Granger," said Alex hastily. "Look, if I come across anything that looks useful when I'm doing my History of Magic revision, I'll throw it your way. Umm... thanks for the quill..."

"At least one of them has the sense to dislike Malfoy," muttered Hermione to the Slytherin girl's retreating back, before she turned her attention to August 1824.

***

The days slowly passed and New Year got ever closer. Alex's life had settled into a dull routine of sleep, food and library. She continued to wonder what was driving the Gryffindor girl to put in almost as many hours in the library as she. The research for Hagrid surely couldn't be taking all this time and the third year wasn't facing OWL's in a little over five months or a menacing Potions Master in less than a week. The fact that Granger now sat apart from the other two at meals suggested some vicious row had taken place in the Gryffindor Common room. Alex didn't ask - growing up in Slytherin didn't encourage impertinent nosiness. Besides, it wasn't as if she actually cared.

However, Alex was glad to have somebody within easy reach who could test how well she was memorising her Potions and the third year was happy to oblige. Pompously correcting other people on minor academic points seemed to be something she was born to do.

"Sutton, I think you'll find there are five main uses for blue sunflower seeds."

"No way, Granger. I remember it by thinking of a pile of seeds in a shed - that's Shrinking Solution, Hay Fever Potion, Egbert's Tincture, Draught of Peace."

"You forgot Versulatium."

"Oh please! That's not even on the NEWT syllabus. I'm trying to pass my OWL; I am not applying for Professor Snape's job."

"I should have thought you would be anxious to get bonus marks by showing the examiner you had read around the subject," declared Hermione, loftily. "You lot are supposed to be the ambitious ones, aren't you?"

"Currently, my ambitions include never again touching a cauldron after next June," retorted Alex, (though she made a mental note to read up on Versulatium.) "Can we get on?"

"As you like. Tell me the other ingredients of Shrinking Solution, the order in which they're used and special precautions that must be observed during the preparation of the potion."

"You mean, what you have to do to stop your cauldron instantly shrinking to thimble size, the moment the stuff is ready?"

Hermione rolled her eyes.

"Try to be serious, Sutton."

***

The next morning, Hermione entered the library after breakfast carrying Sutton's fifth year History of Magic textbook. She had asked to borrow it and had spent a pleasant evening lying on her bed, immersed in the things she wouldn't have to learn herself for another two years.

She had also learnt some things about the other girl. Hermione knew how personal textbooks could be. She could instantly recognise Ron's. They were all battered veterans held together with yellowing layers of Spellotape and bearing the scars of many previous owners - everything from Percy's meticulous margin notes to some dubious recipe of the twins, intended to make chocolate frogs explode instead of hop. Harry's books were only a few months old but t7hey also bore plenty of evidence of careless treatment. If Hermione had to borrow one, she would quietly tut to herself at the doodles, noughts and crosses games and other evidence of a mind elsewhere during lessons.

Hermione noticed the History book had the crossed-out name of a previous owner (a different name so it was second-hand, not inherited from an older sibling.) Its current owner seemed to be one of the few people who actually paid attention in Professor Binns' classes. The page margins were filled with scrawled, but detailed, notes and cross-references to other texts. Some passages were underlined or highlighted, others crossed out with an arrow leading to an untidy opinionated comment on the author's level of intelligence. A train ticket, dated last summer, was wedged between two pages as a bookmark. Hermione had examined it disapprovingly before she carefully put it back where it had come from. She went to a lot of effort to keep the two halves of her life - home and school, Muggle and magic - carefully apart. For her, the idea of sitting in a commuter train between... where was it... London Liverpool Street Station and Colchester, while reading about the Prague Congress of European Wizardry in 1752, seemed disconcerting, wrong somehow. She didn't know for sure if it was against the rules, but she felt instinctively that it must be; if not, then it ought to be.

The fifth-year was already hunched over her books furiously scratching away with her quill. She glanced up as Hermione approached her table.

"Here's your book, Sutton. Thanks for lending it to me."

"Was it useful?"

"No, not really. It is more detailed than my History of Magic textbook, but magic creature law still gets barely a mention."

"Then take a look at this, I found it this morning before breakfast."

Alex casually heaved a heavy volume in front of Hermione. The loud thump made her jump slightly.

"That's the Daily Prophet for 1926. On the sixth of August they reported the Committee for Disposal of Dangerous Creatures had met to investigate a hippogriff attack; they let the animal off because they judged it had been provoked. Now, the hippogriff's owner just happened to be the nephew of the then Minister of Magic -"

"Hiereomonous Meddowcalf, 1831 to 1957," interrupted Hermione, automatically. " He was Minister from 1913 to 1932."

"...If you say so," said Alex, slowly. Insufferable know-it-all! She felt a brief glow of virtue as she smothered a sarcastic retort. "It's virtually certain the committee was nobbled. But that doesn't stop their decision from being technically a precedent in your favour."

"That's right," said Hermione, in a distracted tone as she thought through the implications. "Golly, that's right! All we have to do now is show Malfoy deliberately provoked Buckbeak... I don't know about the Slytherins, but all the Gryffindors who were there would swear to that...thanks, Sutton. It's really good of you to help like that."

"No need to thank me, Granger. You see, three ghosts came to see me when I was in bed on Christmas Eve; they said I've got to be nice to Gryffindors from now on. Now, if you don't mind... I've got work to do."

Hermione gave a little snort, then carried the bound volume of back-issues off to another table so she could study the story at leisure.

Three ghosts? Actually, in this sodding place, that was vaguely plausible, Alex thought. She shuddered slightly, then picked up her Potions textbook.

***

Soon, it was Saturday evening, New Year's Eve, the last weekend of the holidays. Alex could say she was mostly satisfied with how things had gone. Her revision had successfully withstood daily tests which Granger had steadily made trickier and trickier. She was confident it would also withstand whatever ghastly exam paper Snape might be devising. Well, withstand it well enough to earn a respectable "Exceeds Expectation."

Tomorrow evening, the Hogwarts Express would disgorge its unruly payload onto the station platform at Hogsmeade, ready for classes to start again on Monday. The school's current unnatural quiet would be shattered for the next term. All her friends would be back, although the return of those identical Gryffindor, spawn of Satan bastards would show, as always, that no silver lining could be complete without its cloud. It was safe to assume those two had been ignoring their revision so they could concentrate on concocting vicious new surprises for their Slytherin classmates.

But, she was one of the tough, hard-headed sort who didn't waste time on pointless brooding about the future (at least, that's what she often told herself.) Right now, there was just the tranquil solitude of the library, which she was beginning to enjoy.

Well, near solitude. When Alex strolled into the library after dinner, Granger was already there. By now, she seemed as much of a fixture in the library as the card catalogue. If Alex had seen her table empty, she would have thought about going to find a professor so a search party could be organised.

"Hello, Granger."

"Evening, Alexandra. How's your revision going?"

"All done," said Alex, brandishing a paperback, "or as done as it's ever going to be. I intend to spend the rest of the evening trying to forget there is such a subject as Potions."

To Hermione, it sounded grossly lackadaisical not to be cramming until the last second before an important test. But she knew from experience that some people didn't take well to her opinions on how much work was appropriate. Why, in the dormitory on the last night of term, Lavender Brown had said some very unpleasant things to Hermione. And all Hermione had done was pass the observation that she wasn't packing any books and she really should be using the holidays to catch up on her Transfiguration. Of course, Lavender apologised later. Obviously, thought Hermione, she realized I only wanted to be helpful.

"You deserve a break," said Hermione, diplomatically. "You've scarcely been out of the library for two weeks."

"All too true! But that's because this is the only warm spot in the castle; I'll let you into a secret - the Slytherin dungeon is an icebox at this time of year. I suppose it's it the same up in Gryffindor Tower. Is that why you keep on coming down to the library?"

"Wizard ideas of heating are a bit old-fashioned," said Hermione, avoiding the question. Even after three years, she was still slightly in awe of the wizarding world and she was reluctant to criticise any aspect of it.

"Modern Wizard ideas of heating would have been called old-fashioned by Muggles in 1600. Yet, when it comes to moronic puerile pranks, every single one of them is Thomas bloody Edison!"

Hermione was now used to the way Sutton seemed to jump randomly from topic to topic. Some people were said to have minds like a steel trap, the Slytherin girl's seemed to be more like a cynical pogo stick. She half-suppressed a smile.

"So, which classes do you have with Fred and George?"

"Is it that obvious, Granger? Only Potions, thank God. Professor Snape usually keeps them in check but even he can't be everywhere at once. We've all learnt over the years never to turn our backs on either of them."

Of course "We" meant "We Slytherins". Even thinking in those terms felt odd to Hermione. She sometimes wondered how her life would have been different if the Sorting Hat had acted on its initial impulse to place her in Ravenclaw. But what would Slytherin have been like? The hat told her it saw plenty of drive and ambition. Luckily, it decided her other characteristics were more important.

"Those two can be a bit much sometimes," she said, carefully picking her way between loyalty and disapproval.

A bit much! Alex snorted. She could have talked about dungbombs, charmed with a ten minute delay and dropped into her book bag when she wasn't looking. Or she could have mentioned those casually offered sugar spiders, that did to teeth in ten seconds what took normal confectionery ten years - she had paid the twins back, though, early the next term. They were suspicious enough to use Sensor Incantium to check anything offered to them for similar magic booby-traps. But there's nothing in the least magical about home-made chocolate brownies, heavily dosed with the strongest laxative sold in a Muggle pharmacy.

She could have gone on about all this and more, but what was the point? The twins were just a fact of life. Complaining about them was like complaining about the cold or the damp; or the ghosts; or the stuck-up inbred swine in Slytherin, who made it clear to their half-blood housemates they didn't really belong; or the bastard Gryffindors who, a few years ago, liked to ambush lone Slytherins in remote corridors as revenge, in the days when they always lost at Quidditch.

Damn it! It takes more than bloody Hogwarts to finish off one of us! Grandfather always said we Suttons don't whine. I'm certainly not to start with some third year Gryffindor kid. Change the subject, Alex!

"Do you mind me asking, Granger... Why are you staying over Christmas? "

"I had work to catch up on. And I needed books from the library, " Hermione lied. The irony was not lost on her: she had stayed because she was worried about Harry and wanted to keep him company. But she had spent much of the time hiding in the library, talking to a girl she hadn't even met before the holidays.

"My family's in Hong Kong," said Alex. "Father's just been posted there for two years; I'll be going out for the summer, though."

Hermione looked interested.

"What do British wizards do in Hong Kong? Is it something to do with the Ministry?"

"A wizard! You're kidding! Father's a Muggle, he's a Major in the Army. I'm a half-blood. Or, as our mutual friend, Malfoy, would put it - a dirty half-breed."

Hermione gave a quiet "Oh" of surprise.

"I didn't know there were any half-.... I mean, I know Slytherins are picked for ambition, not their... well, you-know. But I just assumed you're all pure..." she tailed off and went crimson.

"I would have thought you'd have known straight away," Alex sniffed. "There's only a handful of pure-blood families and you're all second or third cousins of each other. You lot always know if somebody's not one of your clan the instant you hear a surname you don't recognise."

"Us lot!" said Hermione, incredulously. "What do you mean? My parents are dentists; I'm Muggle-born!"

"Ah... I see..." said Alex. Her cheeks matched the colour of Hermione's. "I just assumed... you know..."

There was an uncomfortable silence before Alex spoke again.

"Wizards love pinning people down in little categories. Pureblood, half-blood, Muggle-born, whatever. Embarrassingly, it seems to be contagious."

"You do realise," said Hermione, "that after we leave school the first thing people will ask after being introduced is: 'And what house were you in?'"

"Yeah, I'll say Slytherin and they'll be keeping a hand on their wallets and counting the teaspoons after I've gone."

"It could be worse, Alex. Say Gryffindor and you'll be expected to climb trees to rescue stranded cats."

Bloody hell! Was that a joke,Granger? Alex grinned.

"Sounds like we'd both be better off saying Hufflepuff. Look, on second thoughts, Granger, I think, I'll go back downstairs and turn-in early. I don't think there's much point in staying up until midnight to see in the new year, do you?"

"Not really, Alex," said Hermione, still smiling.

"Everybody's coming back tomorrow. But I suppose I'll see you about, in the new term."

"Neither of us are going anywhere, Alex. Happy New Year."

"Same to you, Granger. Happy New Year."

----o0o-----

//
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