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Getting back to Hogwarts is always a relief for Chris. Not because he doesn't miss his mum and his three younger sisters, he does. But it's easier for his mum with only three mouths to feed, and Chris hates being apart from magic. He's always noticed that something was missing, even before he transformed one of his mom's shoes into a toy out of the lack of one or made the milk carton explode because he was tired of not being able to afford something more exciting, like soda pop. That green-inked letter, though, and the pair of Ministry workers who had come to explain to his mother that her son was special, that changed everything. Now Chris knows what was missing, and it makes summers longer than the first eleven years of his life were.

There's also his friends. Joey's excellent about sending letters, even if his spelling leaves a lot to be desired, and JC's also good, if intermittently incoherent. Justin's forgetful about it but when he manages to get one off there's always a ton of good information in it, particularly regarding Quidditch. Chris doesn't really support the same teams as Justin, but he can generally figure out what is going on with his teams through contextual clues. Nick is incredibly dutiful about it, firing off a letter every Monday without fail. Chris senses that this is probably an act of restraint on Nick's part, since the longing to talk to someone who isn't his family is evident in every line of Nick's letters. Nick loves his siblings but his relationship with his mom is less than ideal. Luckily, Joey, who managed to form a best friendship with Nick on the common tenants of them both being in Hufflepuff and having the same birthday generally rescues Nick about half-way through the summer. Nick, being probably too sweet for his own good, never forgets a letter, even after he's safely away from the Carter stronghold.

Lance, of course, is the problem. Lance's mother being a Malfoy and his father being of the pure-blooded American Bass clan (with wizarding lines going back well before the colonies ever seceded, as Lance once managed to explain to Chris in his snottiest voice) doesn't leave much room for the kid to be writing to a poor Irish mudblood. Chris is a Ravenclaw, which is acceptable by Slytherin standards, he knows, but the rest would get Lance killed for even throwing an owl in his direction. It would be Lance that Chris started snogging in the middle of their third year. He hasn't really stopped since, either. Well, at least not until they had to leave school.

Oddly, it's JC who writes to him of the latest gossip. JC is half-and-half. He generally lives in the wizarding world at the behest of his father, a pureblood descendent from a long line of other purebloods. His main interest so far as being a wizard goes is to play around with Charms (which he's ridiculously good at, Chris can admit with only a slight tinge of jealousy) and make Astrology charts. JC isn't as good at that, but he puts his heart into it and then some. JC's not a gossip monger. That's more Justin, the near-squib who -- it's generally agreed -- made it into Gryffindor the year before on sheer moxy and family connections. JC and Justin are related somehow, Chris knows, but he can never figure out exactly how. (Which probably means that Lance is related to the both of them as well.)

JC is good friends, however, with the two Weasleys who are a year behind him, the twins. They use gossip as one of their best weapons in an endless war of humor that Chris can only sit back and admire. He thought about seducing George in an attempt to find out how they created their myriad of jokes but then Lance had taken over his study carol without asking and Chris felt the need to teach the Slytherin a lesson and well, Lance learned. Sadly, Chris did too, so his plan to break Lance's heart was something of a failure.

Chris is pretty sure everything worked out for the best in the long run.

According to JC, Harry Potter is coming to Hogwarts this year. Nobody seems able to confirm it, and Chris senses that having only learned about the wonder that is Harry Potter five years ago upon his entrance into Hogwarts, the overwhelming awe of this is somewhat lost on him, but it's enough to make JC go on at length and with surprisingly good syntax, so Chris understands that this is definitely an Event of Some Note.

It only makes him more anxious to get back to school. Chris finishes JC's letter and scribbles off one of his own to return back with JC's owl. Well, Heather's owl, but she's really nice and lets JC borrow the bird whenever he needs it. Chris ties the letter to the owl's leg and sends it off. The letter says, "See you in a week."

*

Chris finds Lance as soon as it's safe after the sorting ceremony. It's always easiest that first night, when everybody's attention is focused on making sure all the first years make it to their dormitories without getting thrown off of temperamental staircases. Chris slips into the library, past all the books that are popular or at least necessary on a regular basis, and into the wizarding history and biography books written on topics such as the Mermaid Secession and Harbinger the Hapless, the man to blame for several of the more dangerous interbred magical creatures currently in existence.

Lance is there minutes later and there's no talking for a bit as hormones take over and the only thing either of them is thinking about is what the spice cake served up at dessert tastes like on the other boy. Spice cake being their favorite is one of the first things they discovered having in common. By accident. The kind of accident that occurs when one boy realizes the tongue he's sucking down his own mouth tastes sort of familiar.

His hands still inside Lance's robes, clutching at the waist of Lance's trousers, Chris finally pulls his mouth just far enough away to say, "How was your summer?"

"Full of self-righteous pure-bloods. I used to like all those people, you arse." There's a tightness to Lance's voice even as he jokes, and Chris hates that the two of them being together means that Lance has to rethink his whole world. Even if it probably is better for him in the long run, the thought of the immediate pain of the whole situation for Lance makes Chris's stomach clench. Lance doesn't dwell on it. "Yours?"

"Well, mum finally met a guy with some prospects. Some land and a house, that is. So the girls are currently settled and learning how to do things like milk cows. Emily's learning to ride horses, which she loves. She tried teaching me, but," Chris shudders, "heights."

Lance laughs. "There goes my dream of marrying a Quidditch star."

Chris's inability to mount a broom is really the least of Lance's problems but he laughs at the joke anyway. "Mum's pregnant."

The, "Again?" tumbles out of Lance's mouth and a look that says he very clearly did not intend to voice the question flashes over his eyes before his features resettle into a very Slytherin mask of "who, me? Nah."

It's all right, though. Even if Lance doesn't know it, he's earned the right to ask the question. "Again."

Chris has dreams, even if he never admits such fancy to anyone else, not even the boy whose prick he's studied every inch of with his mouth. Despite Trelawney's complete inability to tell anyone what the next minute of the day is going to be, let alone teach someone how to divine anything, Chris loves Divination. Dream studies are his favorite, have been since he went to the library to try and understand the dreams he was having in first year and discovered tome after tome dedicated to the magical exploration of the subconscious. Chris is hoping that between his brown-nosing with Trelawney and the near perfect record he's kept up to this point in order to keep the scholarship that is the only thing allowing Chris to come back every year, he can pull another scholarship and go onto post-graduate studies. (The wizarding world, unlike the Muggle one, considers anything post seventh year a post-graduate program.)

Post-graduates in Dreams and Divinations are rare, not even Trelawney holds a degree like that, and Chris knows he could get a job at any school willing to overlook his Muggle-born status. Thanks to Dumbledore, those are becoming more and more widespread. Once he has a job he can help his mum out with money a lot more but there's a good five or six years before that eventuality and her tendency to keep getting pregnant concerns Chris. If it's necessary, to help his sisters, he will take a job straight out of Hogwarts. For all intents and purposes though, that would ruin his chances at getting into a good program. Post-graduate programs in the wizarding world want to see that students are serious about their studies and have nothing else on their minds. Chris thinks there are pluses and negatives to this system, the obvious one in his case being that it holds back less-privileged students from studying in their field of choice.

Lance draws back just enough to seriously consider Chris. "Don't worry about whatever you're worrying about. I'm not like you, it's straight to Gringotts for me, thank you very much, and financial independence. We'll figure out something. Even if you have to pay me back later."

Chris glares. That's three years from now and they both well know that Lance will have found himself some pretty Slytherin (possibly Ravenclaw) pureblood girl to take care of on his security consultant salary. Lance has a brilliance for Arithmancy as pertaining to ward magic that evidently hasn't been seen in Hogwarts halls in so long that Vector never seems to know what to do with him. Chris has no idea how Gringotts got their hands on this information but they've been soliciting him ever since. Mr. and Mrs. Bass are absolutely insistent that their son finish up at Hogwarts, however, so Lance is biding his time. Chris doesn't really want to have the fight that's going to happen if he mentions any of this, so he resorts to kissing the conversation away.

Lance gives in for the moment, but the bite he sneaks onto Chris's upper lip suggests that he's done anything but actually let things go.

*

As it turns out, Harry Potter is the best thing to ever (not) happen to Ravenclaw. He and the youngest Weasley are double-handedly destroying the near run Gryffindor usually gives Slytherin for House Cup, which means Ravenclaw is in the running for the first time since long before Chris was a rather intimidated first year.

Lance is stressing over his cousin’s own escapade to bring down Slytherin with whatever blood feud Malfoy and Potter managed to spark between themselves.

As far as Chris can tell, Slytherin doesn’t have anything to worry about, Malfoy is more clever than Potter, not to mention infinitely more aware of the rules and ways of the magic world. It almost makes Chris want to help Potter out. Almost. Not enough to overcome his house loyalty. (As it is. Nick says that dating a Slytherin is pretty much the ultimate betrayal of any house outside The House o’ Snake. Nick also smiles as he says that. Nick worships Lance.)

Joey, the eternal optimist, is convinced that Gryffindor’s downfall is Hufflepuff’s opportunity as well. Even Nick, who generally agrees with just about anything Joey says, seems doubtful of this but nobody has the heart to verbally disagree.

Chris has made it his goal to get under JC’s skin about this issue, mostly because JC is so incredibly implacable that he presents quite a challenge. Sadly, JC is so excited by the idea of being in the same House with Boy Wonder that Potter's downfalls are evidently negligible. Then again, JC has never been that competitive. He’s always the first to find and congratulate Lance after the final point counts are in.

Justin is the one Chris can’t figure out. Justin doesn’t have a non-competitive bone in his body. There’s a bit of hero worship going on so far as Harry Potter goes but that shouldn’t really be taking care of the point losing issue. No, Justin is distracted. By the little should-be-Ravenclaw Granger, no less, if what JC says is true. Which it usually is.

“Mm,” JC says, “complete puppy love. She helped him with this Charms assignment. A first year helping a second, and she’s Muggle-born, can you believe? Brains, brains and more brains. I can’t imagine what she’s doing with us, but time will tell, I’m sure. It generally does.”

This is true. Chris couldn't imagine himself being studious when he first came to Hogwarts. He was always more intent on actions than reading in Muggle schools. Chris has since realized that part of his placement has to do with raw talent, part of it has to do with the fact that he loves magic and everything involved in it. He could spend years in the Hogwarts library without ever once leaving and never feel the pull of anyplace else. Well, unless Lance was there.

All the same, Chris makes a note to keep his eyes on the Granger girl. Justin, despite his hard-won balance, is sometimes all too easy to abuse.

The only problem with Potter’s arrival is the seemingly heightened tension between Slytherin and the rest of the houses. Nobody is taking Malfoy’s treatment of the cum-lately hero well. It makes Chris’s trysts with Lance harder to arrange.

When they finally manage, Lance says, “I’d kill my cousin, most Slytherins wouldn’t even look twice, except him being Lucius’s son.”

“You just need to think about how to manage without being traced. If you can figure out how to trace just about anyone, you can figure out how not to be traced.”

Lance laughs. “I think you have more faith in me than I have in myself.”

“Impossible, but I try.”

“Maybe I’ll just lock him in a closet with Potter. They’ll either kill each other or fall in love. Either way, our problem is solved.”

“I can ask Fred and George for a good location.”

“You’re going to have to introduce me properly some day. I have a feeling that knowing them could be useful.”

“It might be safer to keep going through me.”

Lance runs a hand up Chris’s thigh. “You’re underestimating me.”

Chris isn’t, he never does. “Give me good reason not to.”

Lance rises to the challenge.

*

Chris often thinks that despite everything he’s a pretty lucky guy. Between being the oldest of his family and mostly able to take care of himself, and always having magic on his side, things have worked out for him far better than he could have expected from most people’s early predictions. Watching Ron Weasley has only confirmed this sense of his.

Ron seems like a sweet enough kid, but the twin pressures of having to perform up to his family’s previous standards and now his best friend -- without any of the advantages of the latter -- are doing the guy no favors. Chris notices this pretty early on, when Potter first Gryffindors his way onto the Quidditch team. (Gryffindor is Chris’s verb for when someone accomplishes something that he should never have managed by illicit acts on his part. In Potter’s case, it seems to be a way of living.) Even if Chris wasn’t terrified of heights, it’s not unusual for Muggle-borns (which Potter might as well be if the stories about his upbringing are true. Casual observation says they probably are) to feel uncomfortable on a broom at first. Some get over it with a vengeance. Others never manage.

Ron isn’t a Muggle-born. He looks at brooms the same way JC looks at the stars: as though they’re something he wants to dance with but he knows how out of reach they are. Chris knows that feeling, he’s felt that way about food before. Though Chris’s version of poverty is a drastically more severe one than that of the Weasleys, he can understand Ron’s frustration at it. The fact that his new best friend is the evident savior of the wizarding world on top of having the capability to finance his own desires, and being everything Ron probably dreams of being can't help.

Ron seems content to ride along on Potter’s coattails but Chris remembers what eleven felt like, when it was easy to just meld into everyone else, easier than working to find himself among others. That will change. Chris’s stomach clenches to think how Ron’s going to struggle when it does. He says to Lance, “Can you get Malfoy to leave off the Weasley kid?” because he figures every little bit helps.

Lance sighs. “I’m still working on getting him to lay off the Slyths with lesser names. Weasley’s going to have to wait. They’re blood traitors, for Merlin’s sake, Chris.”

Chris glares. “And that’s somehow worse than a mudblood?” His tongue curls on the last word.

Lance sighs. “Chris, stop. You know it is, all right. I can only risk my status so much right now, I’m sorry. If I could move Houses, or if I could guarantee my own safety while trying to change the bloody world as Slytherins know it, then yes, I’d try, Chris. I can’t though, so I have to choose between my safety and Weasley’s comfort and I’m still a member of Slytherin, you tell me which I’m going to go with.”

Lance throws up his House allegiance as a last line of defense whenever Chris is getting far too close to things that he dislikes about himself. It’s generally a good sign that if Chris just waits, he’ll have an ally in his latest pursuit. What Chris loves most about Lance is that, at heart, he knows the same scale of right and wrong that Chris does. He’s just been trained not to admit to it.

Honestly, Chris tells him, “Of course I care more about keeping you safe than Weasley’s peace of mind.”

Lance glares at him.

“I’m sorry I asked.”

Lance holds the glare for a few seconds longer before backing down. “What the bloody hell is a nice boy like you doing in a place like this?”

They’re in the Prefects bathroom because Lance is a Prefect, and it’s an easy place to escape notice late at night. Lance is really asking what Chris is doing there with him. Over a year and a half together, and Lance still thinks Chris should hold out for someone with better moral character. Chris knows Lance will end up holding out for someone with better pedigree.

Chris kisses him. “Couldn’t resist the company.”

*

JC, who sometimes surprises Chris with his insights, says, “A troll finds his way into a school that is more heavily guarded than almost any institution in this world; Gryffindor suddenly has five more points; Ron, Harry and Hermione are fast best friends, and Professor Snape is hurt. I would say things have the imminent possibility of getting ugly.”

This isn’t something Chris wants to know. The wizarding world is hard enough to navigate as a Muggle-born without added complications. Professor Snape’s injury is particularly worrying, as the man seems somewhat invincible, if only for the fact that nobody that virulent ever dies. Chris feels bad thinking it, Professor Snape has always helped whenever Chris has asked and has never once called him a mudblood, spite rolling off his tongue, the way most Slytherins have. Still, it can’t be denied, the Professor isn’t someone he would ever go to in an attempt to boost his self-confidence.

“What is ugly?” Chris asks.

Nick is acting skittish. Joey’s got both hands on his shoulders and is looking somewhat plaintively at JC, who’s missing all of this. JC says, “My dad thinks You-Know-Who is gonna rise again. Try and finish Harry off.”

JC’s voice lilts fondly around Harry’s name, and Chris nearly grimaces for him. JC treats all the Gryffindors who have come after him as younger siblings, even the ones he doesn’t like all that much. Nick is now positively rigid, so despite the fact that Chris thinks this is probably important stuff for him to know, he says, “Lance misses y’all.”

It’s three inches from impossible for Lance to meet up with them as a group. Lance and Chris manage erratic meetings at best, but the whole group isn’t as easy to hide as two people and the Slytherins would take Lance apart from his toes up if they knew he was hanging out with Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors and mudblood Ravenclaws.

Nick slips out from under Joey’s hands. “I have something for him.” Nick hands Chris something tiny.

Chris can feel the magic emanating from it. “You Shrink it?”

“It’s goodies. Ginger sent’em to me.”

Ginger is Nick’s half sister, the only member of his family who has so far escaped the homestead. She regularly sends care packages to let Nick know she hasn’t forgotten him. Nick is a sharer. Chris thinks he’s trying to create an alternative version of family by way of doing this but Chris knows better than to throw stones. He wouldn’t know what to do if his family treated him the way Nick’s does Nick.

“I’ll get it to him. He’ll love it.” He will too, the only time Lance gets anything sent to him, it’s by way of the house elves. Chris gets the feeling it’s not really the same. “I’m going to study. Tell Justin he was missed?”

JC gets up. “I’ll walk you to the library, that’s where he is anyway. Mooning again.”

Chris grins. “At least his grades are improving.”

JC smiles, but it’s pained. Justin is understanding better but that’s never going to make his magic stronger, a loss that everyone who knows Justin feels. Justin spends most of his time pretending it’s not an issue. JC says, “If I find out more, about the, y’know, You-Know thing, I’ll tell you.”

“It makes Nick nervous.”

“It makes Nick scared. It should. It makes me scared. Knowledge helps, though.”

“Hufflepuffs are different.”

JC nods at that. “You should ask Lance, too.”

Chris should. He doesn’t think he will.

*

He ends up asking much later that year, when Gryffindor has stolen the cup from Slytherin. Lance looks so miserable that Chris doesn't even have the heart to send JC's apologies, JC being old enough and sweet enough to think that what just happened was incredibly unfair. Instead he kisses Lance. "Just know that you deserved it."

"So instead of having it taken away by a more deserving House, it was taken away by a more liked one?" Lance pulls away, clenching his fists to his stomach. Chris has noticed that he does this whenever he's ready to scream and simply can't afford to.

Chris isn't a liar, and even if he was, he wouldn't want to lie to Lance. Instead he says, "I'm going to miss you."

Lance bites the inside of his cheek until Chris is concerned that when he opens his mouth there will be blood. It occurs to Chris that perhaps reminding Lance of one more problem wasn't the smartest thing to do. All there really are right now are problems, though, and Chris is at a loss for what to do.

Lance finally unclamps his teeth to say, "Tell me you have other options than coming back here."

It's a rhetorical plea, Chris knows. Lance knows what Chris's options are and that they are only options in the most liberal sense of the word. Chris attempts to touch Lance again, this time merely brushing his fingers over Lance's knuckles. Lightening quick, Lance grabs Chris's hand. "Things are going to get worse."

Chris looks at his hand. "Tell me."

"If the Dark Lord is trying to regain corporeal form… Chris, he will. No eleven, twelve year old boy is going to stop him."

"He did," Chris feels compelled to point out. All right, so maybe the House Cup wasn't completely undeserved. Still, there had to be a better way to handle it.

Lance squeezes Chris's hand. "But the Dark Lord won't give up. He will try again and again and again. And powerful people, people like my parents and Draco's parents, they'll help. You have no idea, all right? You…to you Dark Magic is something to be defended against in some vague way because no Professor ever stays around here enough to actually round out the concept. To me it's something that my parents practice as a bit of a common past time. Chris, please-" but Lance stops, biting the inside of his lip this time, unable to finish.

Chris takes his free hand and wiggles Lance's chin a bit to get him to let go. "Your problem is that your faith in things that aren't malevolent is a fledgling thing."

"Chris-" Lance starts.

"I'm willing to let go of this, you, for the summer. No longer, Lance. If I have to be willing to let things come at me that have no desire greater than to take me apart piece by screaming piece… There are some things that are worth that risk."

"I'm not bloody well one of them, Chris."

"Maybe not just you," Chris is willing to concede, "maybe. But you and Joey and JC and Justin and Nick? Trelawney and Sprout and Sinistra? Even Kevin and Howie," Chris says, naming the two Ravenclaws in his year, both of them his friends if for no other reason than Chris doesn't fancy living with people with whom he isn't on good terms. "And magic, for fuck's sake. My wand. The plants in the greenhouse. This library." Chris's hobby, similar to JC's astrology charts, is Herbology. It almost rivals Divination for favorite subject, but Chris suspects this is because Sprout is a much better professor.

Lance tries one more time. "Your life. Chris."

Chris kisses him again, this time with more success, if not much help on Lance's part. "I'll see you in September."

Lance grabs at Chris's robes. "I- I'll try to get out an owl."

Chris doesn't think that's a wise idea. "No."

Lance's hands have disappeared completely in the cheap black of Chris's school apparel.

*

Nick's letters arrive like clock-work, conspicuous in what they don’t say. Nick talks about his siblings (whom he loves dearly, even if BJ is a squib and Leslie's the snottiest Beauxbaton Chris has ever had the displeasure of meeting. Angel and Aaron are starting Hogwarts next year and are both terrified that the hat will Sort them into different houses.) He talks about Quidditch, which Nick is awful at, but makes up for it by being the best cheerleader Chris has yet met whenever Hufflepuff takes the pitch. Nick is completely un-phased by his House's steady string of defeats.

Joey's letters, when they come, are generally full care packages, with food that Chris mostly gives to his sisters, who don't get three squares September through June every year, and are allotted less food with a new mouth to feed. Sometimes he says things about missing Nick or what he plans on taking that next year. Sometimes all he says is, "You want to visit?" knowing full well how impossible that is for Chris. It's the thought that counts.

Justin's letters are about the letters Hermione Granger writes to him. He's mystified by the world of Muggle dentistry, in which Hermione seems deeply enmeshed. Chris often times has to explain things to him, even though Chris has only been to a dentist twice, and it was an emergency both times.

JC sends him pertinent copies of The Daily Prophet and updates on the political clime. He tells Chris about his summer apprenticeship with an older cousin, who works for a private firm developing weather-controlling Charms. He says, "The pureblood grapevine has L doing fine."

There are unexpected letters, like the one from Howie, telling him all about his family reunion in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico sounds sunny and like a nice place to visit, and Chris has met Howie's parents, they're exuberant and sweet. His mom is a witch in a long line of witches, her family going back to a time when she claims that white men, "were just starting to figure out what magic was."

Howie's dad, who is Irish and a Muggle, just snorts at this and looks on adoringly at his wife and oldest child.

Kevin always writes at least once a summer. This summer the letters have been more frequent. Kevin's dad is dying. The Healers at St. Mungos are at a loss, and Kevin's family can no more afford to go looking for specialists than Chris's can. Kevin only mentions this once. The rest of the letters are about Kevin's hiking expeditions through the woods near his house, the new dress robes he's saving up for, the new family that moved in near to him and their really really pretty daughter. Anything but his father.

Chris answers those letters carefully with his own type of small talk. He tells Kevin about the new boy Molly is carrying on with, the book of Muggle prophecies he has checked out from the library, his mom's somewhat risky decision to plant fruit trees in the patch of land they've been letting lie for a year.

Once, just once, he says, "Let me know if there's anything I can do."

Trelawney sends him an account of some of her more dire predictions, which Chris laughs over before thinking up something suitably gory to send back.

The school sends him notification of his scholarship being renewed and information that he needs to get the money so as to purchase his books. Chris daydreams about new robes before reading the practical portion of the letter. When he's done, he considers what types of magic he can use (once back at school, the last thing Chris needs is a count against him resting up at the Ministry) to make the robes at least seem to fit him.

In late July an owl that he doesn't recognize flies up to the window, a small piece of parchment tied to its leg. Chris unties the parchment absent-mindedly and gives the owl a small treat of appreciation. It is not unusual for Hogwarts to use whatever owl is available from the owlery and rarely ever does a missive from there come delivered by a familiar owl.

Chris unfurls the parchment and immediately knows the bird is not a Hogwarts owl. It's a postal owl. Unmarked. The parchment contains three words.

I love you.

*

Potter and Ron (Chris doesn't bother to think of any of them as Weasley, it gets too confusing) don't show up to the Sorting Ceremony. Granger looks a bit frantic. Justin is playing the White Knight more than adequately, coming up with suggestions for what could have happened and making sure she always has enough pumpkin juice.

Ginny looks miserable, even with the rest of her brothers congratulating her on her sorting. It reminds Chris of Emily every time he has to leave. It's all he can do not to make his way over to the Gryffindor table and give her a hug. JC does the next best thing and hits her with the most subtle Cheering Charm Chris has ever seen while on the way over to the Ravenclaw table, where he ignores the mildly suspicious looks that are par for the course whenever anyone table crosses (unless they're visiting Hufflepuff). He greets Kevin, who's sitting to Chris's right and asks if he can sit.

Kevin moves over. JC asks, "She looks happier, right?"

Chris says, "I'm sure they’re fine." He is, too. Potter has a wacky penchant for surviving when he probably shouldn't.

JC nods. "Joey's dating Katie Bell."

This catches Kevin's attention. "Since when?"

JC shrugs. "He told me before the Sorting. It was kind of quick, there wasn't much time to talk."

Kevin nods and goes back to eating. Chris suspects that Kevin is interested in Katie, it's not like him to care much about other people's dating lives. Katie's probably a much better match for Joey, but Chris can't help feeling sorry for Kevin. Things just refuse to go his way of late.

Chris pulls out his one item of gossip, the one that nobody's told him about but that he's figured out all by his lonesome. "Nick has a crush on your dorm mate."

JC's eyes widen. "Which one?"

Chris shovels a spoonful of potatoes into his mouth and doesn't say a word.

JC kicks him.

Chris gives. The correct amount of anticipation has been built. "Brian."

"Brian chaser Brian?" JC is obviously doing everything he can not to clap his hands. "That's so cute!"

Chris is glad that JC knows how to keep his voice down even in the throes of passionate excitement. "Does Brian, um-"

"He's receptive," JC says.

"You know this?"

JC blushes. "Yes."

Oh. Chris laughs. "All right."

"So," JC leans in, and Chris knows that whatever he's going to say next is really what he risked inter-House scorn coming over to this table for, "tell me about the Beauxbatons transfer."

Alexander McLean was sorted earlier that evening into Ravenclaw. This is only unusual as McLean is a fourth year, rather than a first. Chris tells what he's learned, which isn't much. "His mother is French, so that's where they were living. Father was Scottish, but he left them pretty early on. She's Muggle. I guess she got transferred over here and didn't want him going to school in another country."

"The entire Gryffindor table is counting on me and that's all you know?"

"You could go talk to him yourself, you know."

"I can't."

Chris doesn't understand, JC can approach anyone. "Why not?"

"He's sitting right next to Padma Patil."

Chris is about to ask what that has to do with anything when he catches JC's face. "Oh."

"She's looking really pretty this year, don't you think?"

Chris isn't really a good judge of that sort of thing, so he just pats JC on the shoulder. "I bet she'd let you sit in between them."

"Sure, be all blithe. We can't all be happily settled and assured of our positions with the person of dreams," JC whispers.

Chris's back is to the Slytherin table. He's managed one peek all night long, and it took some artful maneuvering. Lance looked tired, but happy to be back. Chris wants to curl up in his four poster bed with Lance underneath him and keep him there until the weariness dripping off Lance's frame is a bad memory. "No, we can't. Go talk to Alexander."

Padma does let JC sit between them.

*

After Mrs. Norris has been carted off to the infirmary and the students have been safely shuffled back to their dorms, Lance sneaks into the Ravenclaw Common Room. It's three in the morning and Chris is only sitting there because Lance managed to whisper the words "Common Room" to Chris in the craze of herding everyone out of the hallway. Chris doesn't even know what Lance plans and is forced to ask, "Are you out of your bloody mind?" when Lance steps inside the portrait guarding all good little Ravenclaws.

Chris gave the password to Lance, of course, just as Lance gives Chris the password to the Slytherin dorms every year, in case of an emergency. Lance tells him, "This was an emergency."

"Lance, it's Filch's cat. Everybody hates that thing, even the most ardent cat-lovers in the school. I heard Susan Bones badmouthing it, and Susan owns four kneazles and two regular cats, according to a very jealous Nick."

"Who gives a flying squat about the cat, Chris? The message. And don’t play stupid with me, I know you. There are very few people in this school who challenge you when it comes to sheer brain power."

"Lance, stop. I don't know what the message is about. There's no reference to any Chamber in anything I've read about this school, and the heir to whom?"

Lance collapses into a chair, all of his anger draining away to leave only a sort of sickly fear. Chris gets up from the sofa to go curl himself around Lance. "Tell me, Lance."

Lance runs his fingers through his hair. "No, I suppose it wouldn't be in anything they'd stock here. Well, maybe in the Restricted Section."

Chris kisses the back of Lance's neck. "You're worried. Is it because of what your cousin said? About the mudbloods?"

"My cousin is an arsehole," Lance says angrily.

Secretly, Chris agrees, but he knows that it's more anger speaking than anything else at this point. Lance still thinks Draco has the possibility of coming out all right: he just needs a little encouragement. "But he's not always wrong."

Lance sighs. "The heir being spoken of is the heir to Slytherin. It is his enemies that need beware."

"So. Muggle-borns. Draco's phrasing could have used a bit of tidying up, but in effect-"

"Chris, it won’t end with cats and Petrification."

"I'll be careful."

Lance hooks his fingers over Chris's shoulders, pressing into skin even through the cotton of Chris's pajamas. "I wish there was some way I could…"

"Protect me?" Chris smiles. "Believe it or not, I can hold my own most of the time."

"More than most of the time but the things going on here, they aren't things that we've been prepared to deal with. All the O's in the world mean shite in all of this, genius boy." Lance's tongue twists fondly around the epitaph despite everything. Chris outdid him on the OWLs by one O and Lance evidently doesn't plan on letting him forget it. Ever.

Chris presses his lips to Lance's only to smile. "Have a little faith."

"Don't go in the hallways alone and try your hardest not to piss any Slytherins off," is Lance's counter advice.

"Put in a good word for me," Chris says. Then, when Lance looks like he's actually thinking about it, Chris tells him, "Don’t you dare. That not pissing Slytherins off thing goes for you as well. I don’t want to suddenly find out that your bloodline doesn't count for as much as we thought it did."

"I'm safe, Chris."

"See that you stay that way, Lance."

"I should get back to my dorms, though."

Chris doesn't move to facilitate the action.

*

Chris would be annoyed at getting slammed with a faulty disarming spell during the first dueling lesson, especially when he's managed to duel with Lance under the guise of actually wanting to hex the crap out of him but Ron looks so miserable with his broken, neigh useless wand, that all Chris has the heart to say (once he's recovered his breath) is, "Not a problem. It seems to be aiming wide to the right, maybe you should compensate for that."

Ron looks so surprised not to be yelled at that Chris can't help but feel sorry for the kid. Between that Howler at the beginning of the year and all the threats to his best friends (in one form or another), Ron has very obviously not been having a red-letter year.

Not that Chris has either, exactly. Lance insisted that Chris come to these dueling lessons, despite Chris's objections that, "I'm a lover, not a fighter." Chris feels safer with his books, tea leaves and plants than he does with his wand. Especially when going up against other people.

This explanation only causes Lance to say, "That's why you need to go."

So far, his arse is being kicked as thoroughly by Lance as Lockhart's was by Snape. Chris has never had a crush on a professor before in his life, but he thinks that little performance by the Potions Master may just have won his heart. In a purely I'm-bound-to-someone-else-but-if-you-were-to-show-up-at-my-doorstep-for-a-one-nighter-he-would-have-to-understand way, of course.

Chris is about to ask Ron if he wants to switch partners -- Lance is looking like he needs a bit of a challenge, Finnegan is looking sick from whatever incorrect hex Ron's wand threw, and Chris thinks he may actually be able to handle Ron, who looks like he needs a break -- when Snape and Lockhart cut in on the mayhem around them.

Malfoy and Potter seem rather intent on destroying each other (behind him, Chris can feel Lance wincing) and Bulstrode and Granger have left aside magic, choosing to grapple in the old-fashioned way instead. Justin throws himself at Bulstrode at the same moment that Potter goes in to see if he can get her off of Granger. Between the two of them, they manage, and Justin goes down on his knees to check that Granger is all right. She's gasping for air, but seems fine otherwise.

The rest of the room is in pandemonium. There are bleeding noses, torn clothes, appendages spouting from odd spots. Snape is hastily making his way through the room, applying rough first aid before Lockhart can get it in his head to do so. Chris almost wishes Ron's wand had done something to him. Almost. Lance is still standing behind him.

Chris watches as they send Malfoy and Potter up to the front. This seems like a bad idea to him. Granted, the two of them can both hold their own but Malfoy has a decent leap on Potter in the Dark Arts according to Lance, and Potter only has Lockhart advising him.

Everything that happens from the time Snape shouts, "Go!" seems a little surreal to Chris. For one thing, Chris likes snakes, so he's one of the only students who actually leans in when the snake lands, spitting and hissing. Chris isn't close enough to upset it and despite himself, Chris has great faith in Snape not letting anyone die. Plus, it's gorgeous.

He's a little taken aback when Potter begins communicating with the snake, but Potter can do all kinds of weird things like survive Avada Kedavra and defeat mountain trolls with almost no magical training.

It's only later, when he realizes how scared everyone else is of Potter that Chris figures this particular talent of Potter's might not be so innocent as the others. He finds Justin, because Justin's book knowledge of things is better than almost anyone Chris knows -- none of them point out the fact that this is a type of compensation -- and he can't get hold of Lance to save his life. Justin has the added advantage of being head over heels for Granger, who is standing loyally by Potter, so if nothing else, Justin will probably give a fair and balanced account of what is happening.

Justin says, "He's a Parselmouth, he can talk to snakes."

Chris prays for patience. "I saw that, Justin. Why is everybody scared of him?"

"Because Salazar Slytherin was the most famous Parselmouth ever to live and the last known one was You-Know-Who. Prestigious lineage, wouldn't you say?"

"They think he's the heir?"

Justin nods.

"What does he say? What does Granger say?"

Justin shuffles his feet. "Harry doesn't even really know his own parents, Chris."

Chris leaves off. "All right. So they don’t know."

Justin shakes his head. Chris ruffles his curls. "Thanks. I bet Granger really appreciated you coming to her rescue with Bulstrode."

Justin hides his face, a sure sign that he's blushing. "I wanted to hex her." His voice is soft and mildly ashamed.

Chris says, "What you did was braver."

Justin looks up. "It was a Muggle thing to do." There's no malice in the statement, just fact.

"She grew up with Muggles. Trust me, they have their moments."

"You really think she appreciated it?"

Chris grins. "I bet she even wrote her folks about you. The wizard boy with the spirit of the bravest Muggle. They probably want to meet you already."

"Shut up, Chris!" Justin is laughing. Chris considers his work here done.

*

Chris and Luna are the only two Ravenclaws to stay for the holidays. Luna's dad is off researching something for the Quibbler but he's promised to be back for the New Year according to her. Chris gets the feeling Christmas is something of a sore subject for Luna and her dad. He suspects this goes back to her mother but Chris likes Luna and doesn't feel any need to pour salt in possible wounds by asking.

Instead he asks, "Mum sent me ginger biscuits, you want one?"

Luna holds out her hand. "Dad sent me chocolate jarveys."

Chris can’t imagine where Luna's dad would have come across such an item but he holds his hand out for one anyway. She supplies him with it. It curses at him a few times before he pops it in his mouth and does it in for good.

Luna grins. "Funny, huh?"

"Does he make them?"

Luna looks proud. "Yeah, he's really good at Charms. And, er, chocolate casting. Mum taught him that."

"Give him my compliments."

Luna giggles. "You know you have other gifts under there, right?" She motions toward the tree.

Chris frowns and bites back a few curses of his own. It's not like he didn't get the other boys something. He impinged on Sprout to help him raise a night-blooming Keysote -- a flower that stores up sunlight and glows warmly during the night hours -- for each of them. She let him "pay her" by helping in the greenhouses all semester. Somehow he senses that the gifts in the boxes underneath the table weren't self-grown and cost a sight more than those flowers. It's sweet, but it forces Chris to push away at feelings of inadequacy, which he hates. "You want to open one?"

Luna peruses her choices and picks the biggest box. Chris doesn't mind. She pulls away the paper and lifts the top of the box off. She blinks. "Um, I don't think there's a card."

"What is it?"

Luna lifts yards and yards of dark material. It overtakes her and she stands to allow it more area to unfold over. "Wow."

Chris stands and takes the robe from her. It's gorgeous. Lined so as to be usable in all seasons, made of good material, the Hogwarts crest intricately embroidered into the lapel, rather than patched on, and Chris knows this wasn't picked off some rack. No, it was custom ordered, probably from Madam Malkin's. Chris has never been in her shop. He generally can't afford the trip to London, and even when he can manage it he knows better than to tempt himself. There's no point.

He's going to kill Lance.

Chris takes the robe from her and folds it carefully.

She says, "You have a nice friend," and there's no suspicion in the statement, no jealousy, not even a little bit of teasing, just fact.

There are too many possible responses to that so Chris just clutches the robe to himself and asks, "Mind helping me open the rest?"

*

Chris is glad he's thought up a rather plausible lie for where the robe came from when term starts and everybody is asking him, admiring the fabric and the cut. It's possibly the nicest robe in school, perhaps excepting Malfoy's, but Malfoy is kind of a wardrobe queen so far as Chris is concerned. Chris is also glad he got over his pride long enough to accept the robe, when every time he looks at Lance in the first week he's back, he's glowing. Chris tries to find a more masculine way to describe it, but it eludes him.

It's nearly impossible to find time together with all the new safety rules placed as a result the Petrification attacks. Chris thanks Merlin regularly (and the Muggle Lord occasionally) for Lance's position as Prefect. It allows for what little time together they manage to steal.

When they finally manage a meeting a full week and a half after Lance has returned to school, it takes them several minutes to get to a place where talking is a viable option. Chris hates hates hates not even being able to see Lance for extended periods of time, let alone touch him. Lance evidently isn't much more fond of it.

Finally Chris, who has so many things to say, says, "I love the robe, you big blimy git."

"There's appreciation for you."

Chris hits Lance lightly. "It's as nice as one of your cousin's, and rumor has it he can spend hundreds of galleons on one robe."

"That's only technically true. Lucius has bought him a couple of particularly extravagant dress robes, and that's where people took that figure from. Stop worrying, it was something I wanted to give you and something that I most certainly could afford. Besides, it's a boring present. I much preferred what you gave me."

Chris doesn't look at Lance as he says, "It's a post-graduate level plant. Sprout wasn't thrilled about letting me work with it."

Lance pulls Chris's gaze back to him. "I know. My mum was really impressed that one of my school mates could handle it."

"Who'd you tell her it was from?"

"Frederick Nott. Don't worry, he'll cover, he owes me."

Frederick is a year older than them, also related to Lance in some vague way, and pretty much like every other Slytherin Chris has ever chanced to come across. Whenever Lance mentions him though, it's usually fond, so Chris figures there are things he doesn't know. "I'm glad you liked it."

"I love it. I left it at home so the wankers here couldn't mess with it."

Probably for the best. Things seem to go on in the Slytherin dorms that Chris can only pretend to fathom.

Chris can feel Lance's hesitation and almost breaks in before Lance says, "Chris, if there's another attack…" but is too late.

"I know. I've been not thinking about it. I mean, at least I have a home to go to. I suppose that's something."

"I'd rather you be safe, there."

"I know, but then, that's rather easy for you. Not much ends on your end if the school closes."

"Is it so bad, Muggle living?" It's a switch for Lance, who once pretty much believed that Muggles spent their days rolling boulders up hills, only to have them fall over and over again.

"For some I imagine it's wonderful," Chris says. "But they haven't known what anything else feels like. Back there, the best I can hope for is that my family stays on this farm and is able to eke out a living year after year. I don't have the education necessary to do anything else and at this point, there's very little hope of me ever getting it. Maybe it's selfish but I want something better."

"Maybe the attacks will stop." Lance sounds more desperate than Chris has ever heard. "This world can be it's own kind of awful, you know."

Chris says, "Nothing's perfect," but the boy sitting next to him is touching his hand and Chris thinks he might be lying about that, too.

*

Granger's falling to the Chamber's Monster is worrying for two reasons. The first is that, reluctant though he is to admit it, Granger is as smart (and probably more so) as any Ravenclaw around so the theory that just keeping on his toes is going to help has been pretty thoroughly invalidated. The second is that when Justin is told he completely loses it, and in the face of having nobody better to blame, tries to curse Potter.

Thankfully, Justin can barely manage enough magic to accomplish an alohamora or a leviosa spell even at the best of times. Which this is patently not. Unfortunately, his failure to produce a result only upsets Justin more and he falls back on a last resort: he flings himself on Potter and proceeds to go to town the Muggle way.

All this happens in the Great Hall, wherein Malfoy sits back and cheers Justin on. Evidently for-all-practical-purposes-squibs are a step above Potter for him. Then again, if Chris remembers correctly, Justin and Malfoy are technically related. Of course.

JC shrieks and lifts his wand, separating the two of them with a simple Charm and then holding Justin immobile. Nick and Joey have already rushed over from the Hufflepuff table. Chris is on his way. He gets there at the same time as Professors McGonagall and Snape, both of whom are taking points. McGonagall stops as soon as she realizes that Snape is doing an adequate job all on his own.

Potter, who looked pretty upset to begin with, now looks alarmed and upset. Justin is struggling in JC's "hold" and Ron is looking at both of them (more Justin than Potter but both all the same) as though the world has just gone mad. Chris isn't sure he disagrees.

Joey asks if Justin can come to the Hufflepuff table for the evening, and while McGonagall appears loathe to allow him to just slip off with friends, one look at him evidently convinces her, because she charges him with a detention and releases JC's Charm as soon as Nick and Joey are safely flanking him. No sooner has he been let go than do they yank him over to their table. It's probably unnecessary; Justin's face has already begun to shatter into a rictus of shame.

The Gryffindors who are still talking to Potter -- mostly the Weasley clan and JC -- huddle around him to check that he's all right. Potter shakes them off and sits down to eat. Chris returns to the Ravenclaw table and slides in next to Luna, since she's on the end.

Across from him, Howie and Alexander are gazing at him in concern. Howie, who's known Chris considerably longer, asks, "Um. So. What was that about?"

Chris is glad that he actually knows, since Ron told the twins who told him. "Granger and Clearwater are in the infirmary. 'Nother attack."

Alexander grimaces. "Ma mere est very worried. She speaks of taking me out."

Howie looks miserable at this thought, so Chris says, "Dumbledore's working on it."

Luna says, "And Potter." She seems fairly confident that this is a good thing. Chris hopes she's right. The last thing anyone needs is to find out that Potter's a raving psychotic.

Howie and Alexander are eating their food with opposite hands, the hands adjacent to each other firmly under the table, and Chris knows that they're interlocked without having to look. For a moment he feels bitter and jealous. He thinks he probably needs to make sure he sees Lance later. He digs into his food. "It'll be fine, honestly."

It has to be.

*

Potter saves the day (and evidently a Weasley or two) again, and even Chris is starting to be a little impressed. Overall, though, he's too busy being relieved at the removal of fatal threats, the miraculous illness of Professor Lockhart, and exams being done away with for the year to put much thought into it.

Justin is positively glowing at Granger's being restored to full capacity. He even apologizes to Ron and Potter, rather publicly. Potter stammers something about it not being a big deal, and Ron just glowers but shrugs and accepts the apology, so nobody intercedes.

When Chris finally manages to catch Lance, Lance practically blabbers over his relief that the Heir wasn't his cousin. Lance still thinks the Malfoys were somehow involved -- he's pretty sure he saw Lucius skulking around the castle recently -- knowing that Draco wasn't actually releasing a monster to attend it's attempted killing spree upon innocents is enough for Lance. For the moment.

Joey and Katie break up on ridiculously good terms. Chris would be impressed except that it's Joey and he always managing things like that. Chris tells Kevin the news because it's all he can think to say to Kevin -- who left in the middle of spring term and returned after all the ruckus with one less parent to account for -- anymore. Kevin actually perks up at the news. "Yeah?"

Chris says, "Maybe you should write her this summer. If you, y'know, have the time."

Kevin shakes his head. "Maybe." Chris has learned that means that Kevin will think about it. It's the best Chris can do.

JC decides that Padma is too young for him, but Chris doesn't think that has anything to do with anything. Padma is young but JC's flighty, and he moves from one crush to the next easily. The fact that Padma has lasted almost a full academic year (with only a few notable lapses) is remarkable.

Brian, who has turned out to be more perceptive than anyone (even JC) gave him credit for, asks Nick if he'd like to come visit him for a week or so over the summer hols. Nick doesn't stop talking about it for over a week straight.

Howie asks Chris and Kevin if it would be possible for him and Alexander to have the room to themselves for a few hours the last night of school. Chris agrees readily, hoping it will afford him an easy opportunity to slip away.

He finds Lance in the stacks, waiting for him. It's dangerous to be there on the last night, when other couples will be wanting to take advantage of these hours, but Chris has been through too much in the past year not to press his lips to Lance's, not to say, "I hate summer."

Lance says, "I got you a subscription to the Prophet." He holds up a hand. "Don't start with me, Chris. You need to know what's going on, at least as much as you can find out from that piece of tripe. JC's updates just aren't good enough. He's kind of…a Gryffindor."

Chris laughs at Lance's delicate sniff but he understands. "All right, but keep the receipt. When I'm rich, I'm paying you back."

"I was planning on demanding a return to the barter system."

Chris can handle that.

*

Despite the fact that Chris's mum has managed to stay with Taylor's father for more than a few years now, and that the farm seems to be working out for all of them, they're not really at the level where they can afford a TV.

It's Kate's new boyfriend, Danny, who alerts Chris to the fact that the Ministry is even more worried than the Prophet is making it seem. Which is impressive, Chris has already found himself looking out the window at night expecting to see the plum-crazy eyed stare of Sirius Black.

Danny says over dinner one night, "Crazy about this escaped convict isn't it?"

The Muggle paper is another luxury in which Chris's clan can't really indulge, so they all look at Danny a bit oddly until he stammers, "This Black fella, you haven't heard?"

Chris has but he's pretty sure Danny doesn’t have a subscription to the same paper he's been reading, and if he does, this isn't exactly the place to be bandying that news about. Sure enough, though, Danny's off now, having a captured audience. "It's all they can talk about on the evening news. Escaped from some high-security prison. He murdered twelve people, something like that, anyway. Completely mad."

Bev frowns and Chris can see her gaze wander to Taylor, happily playing in the playpen that her father built for her. Molly, on the other hand, is completely enraptured. She can be a bloodthirsty little thing at times. "What does he look like?"

Danny lights up. "Completely mad. He's," Danny holds a hand in the air to implicate height, "and really skinny. He's got this long black hair, and these eyes…they're scary." Danny's tone suggests that this delights him to no end.

Chris doesn't say a word and the subject, as subjects are wont to do at their table, wanders to another topic of conversation. He helps clean up before rushing up to the room he shares with Molly when he's home. In his trunk are all the back issues of the Prophet. It seems foolish to dispose of it here, wherein so many Muggles could get their hands on it in the process.

Chris rereads the article on Sirius Black twice, noting that nearly all of his victims were Muggles. He swallows down his panic and finds a bit of paper on which to write. It's not as durable as parchment and always stands the chance of getting torn to pieces in transit, but it's all Chris has. Chris tries to figure out who to write to. Not having an owl, the easiest thing to do is to wait and see who sends him an owl first. Almost any of his friends are more likely to know what's going on than he is. Chris really wishes he could write Lance, he's pretty sure he remembers Lance mentioning having Blacks for cousins, but that's straight out of the question.

Chris scribbles: "What would make a prisoner so scary that the Ministry would enlist the aid of the Muggle world?" After all, murdering that many people was of course, A Very Bad Thing, but they had been Muggles, and it was easier than Chris could be at ease with for a wizard to do away with that many non-wizards at once. It didn't make Black any more fearful than most of the people the Ministry locked up in Azkaban.

Nick's letter comes first but Chris just can't justify sending the query to Nick, who looks like he wants to vomit anytime anything mildly sinister is mentioned. Plus, he's at Brian's and Chris doesn't know Brian well enough to be thrilled at the idea of displaying ignorance where Brian might notice.

JC's letter comes shortly after, though, and Chris sends his question along. JC's reply is, "Nobody has ever escaped from Azkaban. Their confidence in being able to recapture him is shaken by the fact that it has never been necessary."

Chris tells his mum, "Sirius Black? You have to promise me that even if you see him, you'll just ignore it. You and the girls."

"Christopher-"

"Mum." Chris grabs both her hands. "Promise me."

Beverly looks at her son, takes a hesitant breath and says, "He's one of you, then."

Chris just holds her eyes.

"I promise, Chris. Promise."

Chris doesn't let go, even so.

*

Regardless of who does or does not pass out in the aftermath of the Dementor attack on the train, Chris is just about ready kill Malfoy for taunting Potter about it. Chris was in a car with Joey, Nick and Kevin. Kevin ran to the loo as soon as it was over, Nick hid his face and cried, yelling when Joey even tried to touch him, and Joey shook like a leaf. It was the first time Chris had ever seen Joey even mildly disconcerted.

Chris isn't feeling all that brilliant himself and the first thing he does when they get off the train is search for Lance. He can't bring himself to care whether he's being circumspect or not. He finds Lance looking a bit paler than normal but otherwise the most ideal prefect anyone could ask for. (He should be Head Boy, even Fred and George agree on that issue, but Percy is a Gryffindor and Lance never stood a chance.) Watching Lance herd the first years through the rain into Hagrid's capable hands, Chris allows himself to breathe again.

Chris files into the Great Hall with all the other returning students, casting a Drying Spell on himself as soon as he's under the shelter of the roof.

Once the sorting and eating are done, Chris waits patiently to hear Dumbledore's yearly speech, suspecting there might be more than one thing he needs to know encased in the old man's whimsy. To Chris's surprise, there's a bit less whimsy this year than in those past. Chris misses it. He misses it because it was fun and calming and he misses it because it's lack signifies dangers that Chris doesn't want to think about.

He's a Ravenclaw. He thinks about it.

Chris and Lance meet in a hidden passage that George informed Chris about in an unexpected fit of compassion (or something) at the end of the last year. Chris isn't sure if Fred and George know what is going on and have a surprising amount of discretion or if they just suspect he needs somewhere to sneak off to for whatever reason. Either way, having another meeting place is useful.

Lance is late but he doesn't apologize. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Chris says, "more worried about you than anything."

Lance waves the experience off, "Saw something I could have done without seeing again."

Lance, like Chris, has too many of those in his past for them to be casually tossed aside but Chris lets him. What are boyfriends for, after all? Chris asks, "Correspondence from Gringotts picked up?"

Lance grins. "They're practically tugging at my ankles. I'm to start the day after commencement. Ten thousand galleons yearly as a starter."

Chris tries not to salivate in envy.

Lance asks, "When are your applications due?"

"November. I wrangled recommendations from Sprout and McGonagall. Trelawney's would really be ideal for the program but as I understand it her reputation precedes her and the deputy Headmistresses really ought to be good enough as a substitute. Plus, I'm not sure I trust her to summon enough coherence to handle writing a letter. You should see the stuff she sends me over the summer."

"I can imagine."

Things are silent for a second before Chris asks, "You scared?"

"Of leaving here or the Dementors?"

Chris thinks for a second. "Either, both."

Lance looks away. "Terrified."

Chris hates to see Lance frightened but he's awfully glad to know he's not alone.

*

Chris has never thought of himself as someone who could face down Dark Creatures, even the more innocuous of them, but when he finds himself in front of his family, starving and without recourse (or, more accurately, a boggart mimicking this tableau) Chris knows, understands at a basic level, that it isn't real. He shouts the Riddikulus clearly and suddenly they're all dancing an Irish jig. His mother is a horrid dancer.

Professor Lupin congratulates him and ushers in the next student, but not before he murmurs, "Stay after class, Mr. Kirkpatrick, if you wouldn’t mind."

Chris doesn’t exactly mind but he is curious as to what this new professor could want of him. He stays, waiting until the rest of his class has cleared out. "You wanted something, Professor?"

"You don’t like this class," the Professor says without preamble.

Chris tilts his head. It's not in his nature to trust men and after the last several Defense Professors, he's less inclined to trust this breed than most. "It's not my greatest area of strength."

"I suspect more so than you believe. Why would you think that?"

Chris shrugs. "There is some truth to the assumption that Ravenclaws are best at what they can be taught by book rather than practical demonstration."

Professor Lupin laughs. "Perhaps some. But as I understand it, you are quite good at Divinations. An innate Art."

"Dream Reading is a learned form of it. As are the tea leaves. I can't See." Chris works his hardest to keep any wistfulness out of his voice.

"Dreams and Leaves can only be learned so far. One must have a talent for it. A sensitive nature, for lack of a better way to describe it."

Chris says, "I pay attention to things." Another Ravenclaw trait, although Lance would claim it for Slytherin.

"Which is what will make you good at Defence. Defence is mostly the art of understanding what is going on and keeping a clear enough head to defeat it."

Chris frowns. "I'm not sure I understand why it matters to you whether or not I do well in this subject."

The Professor gives him an assessing look. "It matters to me that all Muggle-borns do. They are the ones who will perhaps most need it in the years to come."

"You're not supposed to be telling me this." It's not a question, or perhaps it is, but not a direct one.

"At the end of this year you will be free of the protection these walls provide you with, if not now, when?"

It's the first time an adult has admitted the disadvantage of Muggle-borns to Chris and given him a weapon with which to protect himself and his family. Chris says, "We haven't learned anything, the other professors, they've all been-"

"I know. I started nearly all of the years out at the same place for that reason. I plan on accelerating the older years so as to get more in by the end of the terms."

Chris thinks about this and then nods. "Thank you."

Professor Lupin smiles back and there's something familiar in the way his eyes are drawn, the lines around his mouth, although Chris can't quite place it. "You're quite welcome. Off you go."

Chris goes, still thinking about where he knows the look of Professor Lupin's face. It only hits Chris later that when he looks in the mirror, those same lines of worry are fighting to form on his own face.

*

Chris doesn't (nor has he ever) believe that the Shrieking Shack is haunted. He knows what he feels when he gets near the ghosts in Hogwarts or even Peeves, and nothing like that has ever touched him anywhere near the Shack. Chris knows how much faith it takes on Lance's part -- since Lance swears he has no idea what Chris is talking about, "feeling" something when near the ghosts -- to believe as well. He does, though, he takes Chris at his word and it means that Hogsmeade visits are one of the few times when it's relatively easy for them to get some time alone.

There's old blood inside the Shack, and large gashes everywhere, and Chris has no doubt that something happened here to cause those screams but he doesn't think it has anything to do with spirits.

Lance ignores all these things when he slips in the front door, his pocket robes bulging in an undignified manner, filled with sweets from Honeydukes and two bottles of butterbeer. He hands one to Chris immediately. "It's chilly in here and I have no interest in kissing someone with the temperature of a corpse, drink up."

Chris knows that Lance is manipulating him. Chris will only accept gifts (edible or otherwise) if Lance finds some way to make Chris believe that it's really for Lance's sake that he's accepting. Nonetheless, Chris twists the top off and swallows down a few sizeable guzzles. No sooner has his mouth come off the bottle rim than Lance is taking it. They kiss until Chris is sure he's going to drop his bottle given any more sensory input, at which point he draws back and takes another sip. Reluctantly, Lance raises his own bottle to his lips. When he's swallowed he says, "I wrote to some people in my family, people who were likely to tell me things if I just made it seem like I didn't really want to know."

"About?"

"Professor Lupin."

Chris can respect Lance's distrust in this case, seeing the way in which the past few Defence teachers have gone. "And?"

"It's…odd."

Chris frowns. "Odd?"

"Well, you know how everybody thinks that Sirius Black is looking for Potter because he stopped the Dark Lord all those years ago?"

"Sure. Last obstacle, as it were."

"The thing is, according to one of my aunts, Sirius was always the black sheep of that family, no pun intended. He was a bloody Gryffindor, for Merlin's sake."

"Someone related to you was a Gryffindor?"

Lance scowls. "JC is like my eighteenth cousin, you realize? Anyhow, it doesn’t matter, the point is, Sirius Black was in Gryffindor with James Potter."

"What does any of this have to do with Professor Lupin?"

"It seems he was in that same class. Always hung around with them."

Chris tries to think through all the possibilities this opens up. "If that's the case then, isn't it likely that Black betrayed both him and Potter? After all the wizard he killed, Peter Pettigrew, I looked it up, Pettigrew was in Gryffindor at the same time as James as well."

Lance looks like he hopes this is the case. "I just think it's something that should be at the back of our minds, yeah?"

Chris doesn't disagree. "Do you know what it is your Head of House has been giving him? Some kind of potion. I assume it's to fix whatever keeps causing him to miss class but I was wondering if you had any more details."

"None whatsoever, other than that Professor Snape would have been at school those same years. He doesn't seem to like Professor Lupin very much, though."

Chris laughs at the understatement. Lance snorts in agreement. "I'll try and find out what's going on there."

Chris will too but he knows Lance is more likely to have a measure of success than he is. "Think we can get away with an hour?" It's unwise for them to stay in the Shack much longer than that. Lance is a prefect and at the very least, the chaperoning faculty will notice his absence.

Lance says, "We're going to try."

It leaves them thirty minutes to put to good use.

*

"Cedric's too upset about the way we won to really care that we did." Joey looks pretty torn over the issue himself. It's Hufflepuff's first Quidditch victory in quite some time but Joey has a gigantic sense of fair play and this is rubbing at it all the wrong way. Next to him, Nick is devastated. Nick's been waiting for a win as long as Chris can remember but now that it's happened, all Nick can talk about is how upset Brian is and that Nick gets it, because, well, Potter nearly died. His broom did.

Justin is studying with them for a change, because Granger has been insanely busy. Justin has told Chris that she's taking several classes over the limit. While Chris has never thought of Granger as someone with a tendency toward the hyperbolic, he has to wonder from the things that are filtering down. She's also suckered Justin into helping research anything that might help Hagrid's pet not be executed.

If Chris had any time outside of classes and getting his applications ready he would actually pitch in on that. Hagrid has been nice to him since the first day he got here, and Chris is a big believer in returning favors. He just knows he won't be able to help to much of any effect at the moment.

Chris wonders if it's Granger's workload that's affecting her relationship with Potter and Ron, because he hasn't seen them together nearly as much of late. Of course, Potter and Ron have evidently had their ups and downs this term as well, if what JC says is to be believed. It generally is.

Chris tells Joey and Nick, "There'll be other games. Then Cedric can prove just how good he really is." Chris has faith, too. Cedric's the best thing that has happened to Hufflepuff's Quidditch team in quite some time.

Joey goes back to his Transfigurations text. It is Nick, surprisingly, who says, "Having the Dementors there was awful. The worst part, maybe."

Besides Chris, Justin makes a gasping sound. Chris looks over but Justin's face is very carefully buried in his book. Chris says, "Yeah, but it pretty much guarantees that it will never happen again. Did you catch Dumbledore's face?"

All three other boys shake their heads no. Chris wonders what exactly they were paying attention to. "He looked about ready to rip the stadium apart so as to dismember every last Dementor."

Justin looks up at this. "Wow."

Chris knows that this response is colored by how much Justin wishes he could do but he's hard pressed not to agree. "Mm."

Nick thinks about that for a second, nods, and goes back to studying. Joey smiles at Chris surreptitiously. Chris goes back to explaining in 300 words or less why the Saturn Fellowship should be awarded to him.

*

Chris stands on his tiptoes, frustrated yet again by his lack of height, and stares over the top of someone's head at the slashed canvas that once held Gryffindor's Fat Lady. JC is standing beside him, shaking. Chris thinks that the curdled fear sloshing around in his stomach is what the real world must be like. Until now, even with the Quirrell Mishap and the Basilisk Incident, Chris has put a considerable amount of store in Hogwarts's vaunted protection. The students are being herded into the Hall, however, and the Fat Lady is shrieking about Sirius Black and Chris knows that this, just like everywhere else, isn’t as safe as he wishes it was.

JC whispers, "Harry," and Chris looks desperately around for Potter. He finds him safely ensconced between Ron and Granger.

Chris says, "He's behind us."

It calms JC's shivers somewhat. Chris asks, "Can you see Lance? I shouldn't look."

JC says, "Black's only looking for one person. And it isn't very likely that Lance would have been anywhere in his way." He scans the room anyway and says, "He's with the other Prefects."

Chris slips away from JC to rejoin with his House. Howie, who is counting heads as per the headmaster's instruction, gives him a look of relief. Chris smiles tightly at him.

When everyone has been counted bedrolls are brought and a pandemonium of organization -- or lack thereof -- ensues. Chris takes the time to check on all of his friends. Nick is white as a sheet and obviously trying to figure out how to maneuver himself closer to Brian. Hufflepuff is caddy corner from Gryffindor, so both move to the closest end of their House and situate themselves with their heads lying close together.

Joey settles himself in between Nick and Ernie MacMillan. Joey doesn't particularly like MacMillan, finds him sort of pompous, but the kid is looking shaky and Chris knows that Joey is hard-pressed to ignore that type of thing. Also, he hasn't got much choice if he wants to be close to Nick, and Nick looks like he can use all the friends he's got right now.

Surreptitiously, Chris watches as Lance "reluctantly" agrees to be the border between Gryffindor and Slytherin. Chris makes his way down to where Nick has laid out. "Mind if I camp here?" He indicates the spot next to Nick, where Ravenclaw's terrain technically begins.

Nick grins, "Hi, Chris."

Chris takes that as an affirmative. He looks over at who's across from him in Gryffindor. He's not surprised to see JC there, but the fact that Justin has disengaged from Granger at this point in interesting. Justin waves a little but doesn't say anything. Tactfully, Chris chooses not to ask.

Chris doesn’t look at Lance, not once. Lance says something suitably nasty to Brian, who acts like he hasn't heard. Brian is oddly sedate for a Gryffindor. Well, unless he's playing Quidditch, in which case, he's hell on a broom. The rest of the time, though, Chris has to wonder what the hat was thinking.

Then again, Chris wonders that a lot.

Satisfied that Lance is close, which despite how they got here, is a rare treat, Chris murmurs, "'Night," and forces himself not to think about anything more stressful than his soon due applications. It's more than enough to keep him up for hours.

*

Chris is walking when he finds Ron. Chris is staying close to the school walls, knowing that to step very far away from them at this point is to invite trouble, but he needs the air, needs the movement in his limbs, needs to not think about how he's just sent his future off to people who probably don't care.

He finds Ron walking up ahead of him, sans either sidekick. Mostly, Chris wants to ignore him. Chris came out here to get as far away as he could from this world. It's obviously not far enough, though. Ron's shoulders are slumped and he's kicking anything that gets in his way, including the grass, and Chris sidles up to him. "Bad day?"

"Scabbers is missing again. I think-" Ron takes a deep gulp of air and cuts himself off.

Chris can determine the rest of the sentence from context clues and the fact that Granger's kneazle half-breed has rid the school of countless vermin this year. Secretly, Chris sort of likes the thing. It has an underdog quality (no pun intended) that Chris can appreciate. Still, Ron has had Scabbers ever since he's come to Hogwarts and Chris can only imagine what it feels like to loose a pet. He's never had the opportunity to own one, but if he had something that was his own, something living no less, well… Yes, Chris can imagine.

Ron starts again. "I mean, I know he wasn't a very exciting pet. Didn't do much other than sleep, really, but." Ron moves his hands in meaningless little circles. "He was mine. Not always, I know, but Percy gave him to me and that made him mine."

Chris nods. He's intimately aware of this concept and even more aware that there's absolutely nothing to say. "How'd he get his name?"

Ron looks over at Chris with a flush of surprise in his eyes. "Er, when he showed up. I mean, well, see, we didn't buy Scabbers, he just kinda came to us and he wasn't causing problems and my mum, she's sort of a softie, right?"

Chris smiles. "Mine's the same way."

"Anyway, he was all scabbed up, like maybe he'd gotten into a fight with a bigger rat, or something. Percy was really responsible about taking care of him and all that. Not that that comes as any great surprise. Mum let him name Scabbers, and, uh, imagination isn't Percy's greatest strength."

Politely, Chris holds back a laugh. "My mum made one of my sisters a doll that she named 'Doll.'"

Ron laughs at that. It's more a soft chuckle than anything else but it's a considerable improvement from where they were. "He was sick anyway, y'know," Ron says softly, "but I kept thinking that something would happen. I mean, our owl Errol is much older than the average delivery owl is expected to live. I guess I was hoping for…"

"Magic?" Chris asks.

Ron shrugs. "Magic is something I'm used to. I think what I was looking for was a miracle."

Chris thinks it's kind of sad that Ron doesn't know that the two are the same thing. For the first time in quite awhile he remembers that there are advantages to coming from a completely different world. "Those are harder to come by," is all Chris says.

Ron slumps even further. "I'm telling you."

"I hope you get yours. I'll be looking for him."

Ron glances over at Chris. "Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Why? I mean, it's just a rat, and you're not in my year or my House."

Chris wants to tell Ron just how unimportant all those things are. He wants to invoke JC's name, Justin's name, even Brian's. All he says is, "I know what it's like to have very little to call my own."

He hopes it gets the point across all the same. There's something in Ron's eyes that seems to validate that hope but Chris knows he could just be reading too much into things.

*

Chris realizes he needs to stop hanging out with Gryffindors around the time he spots Justin hugging a completely disconsolate Granger. Justin waves at him but doesn't say anything. Chris waves back. Despite himself he mouths, "Are you okay? Is she?"

Justin's mouth answers with a silent, "Later."

Later turns out to be after dinner than night, when Justin snags Chris coming out of the Great Hall. "Can I talk to you?"

Chris has four hours of NEWT studying ahead of him, a headache from the vertigo of being in the Astronomy tower all afternoon, and is experiencing lack-of-Lance snappiness. He sighs. "Yeah, 'course."

Justin leads him up to the library. "She's been under a lot of pressure lately, Granger."

Which is the only "she" Justin ever talks about but Chris lets the opportunity to mock go free. "Ron thinks her cat killed his rat."

"Yeah, well, that's just another thing on top of the Firebolt incident."

Chris has heard of this, of course, of Potter receiving a Firebolt from a mysterious source and Granger turning it over to be looked into by McGonagall. Personally, with all the trouble Potter's gotten himself into during Quidditch, Chris thinks this was the only prudent move to make but evidently Potter and Ron disagree. Vehemently.

"And she's been researching for Hagrid. The ministry wants to put that pet of his to death."

Justin has mentioned this to Chris before. Something about the fact hits him differently this time, however. Suddenly Chris, who will admit to having been overwhelmed by Granger on more than one basis and therefore avoiding the chance to come to know her further, understands what Justin sees in this girl. Kindness and diligence of that sort are rare. "Is she using Waking Charms?"

Waking Charms are the equivalent of caffeine pills for wizards.

"I don't think so but she does seem to be drinking loads of tea." Justin frowns. "I think I'm her only friend right now. Ron and Harry weren't the only ones upset by the broom thing."

Chris nearly falls over at hearing Justin call a Firebolt by the more sedate, uninformed "broom." Instead he says, "You're a good one to have."

Justin wrinkles his nose. "Yeah, 'cause everyone wants a Squib for their best friend when they're used to hanging out with the most powerful wizard in the school, maybe the world."

"He hasn't really proven that yet."

Justin shakes his head. "You still don't get it. He has proven it. He proved it as a baby."

"Nothing like resting on one's laurels."

Justin sighs. "Look, I've seen you talking to Ron some of the time. I was wondering if you could maybe convince him to talk with Hermione. She really misses them, and where one goes, the other follows."

Chris hates himself for promising, "I'll see what I can do," but Justin is hard to resist when he's on a Mission To Do Good.

Justin grins. "Owe you."

Chris hates Gryffindors.

*

Chris also hates Slytherins.

Malfoy has been on a rampage for most of the year anyway but Potter's very public (and rather deserved) whooping of Malfoy's arse with a Patronus (of which Chris is insanely jealous) has sent him into full out apoplexy. Of course, with Malfoy, apoplexy just means that his digs get more dangerous and consistent.

Which is how Chris ends up in Madame Pomfrey's care.

Granted, Chris is willing to admit that he probably should've moved from his normal spot in the library when it became clear that Malfoy wanted to start something. Malfoy, however, started his something with the words, "Get your filth away from the table, mudblood, can't you see that actual wizards are in need of its use?"

Chris is quick with his wand and has a certain level of talent in Charms but his knowledge of the Dark Arts is nearly non-existent. If the rumors are true (and Lance has more than once hinted that they are) Malfoy's is extensive. Despite knowing this, Chris hesitated. He was on his fourth hour of studying for NEWTs, still trying to figure out what to say to Ron, worried about the fact that no letters had yet come in response to his application and, oh, tired of being viewed as less than human. So he looked up at Malfoy, blinked slowly and said, "No."

At which point, Malfoy hexed him. Twice. Chris managed to get several defensive spells off but they only blocked one of the hexes. If done right, Chris discovered, it only takes one powerful hex to take a person down.

He doesn't know who got him to the hospital ward. He doubts it was Malfoy, and there's nobody else around when he wakes up, his ribs still sore where the hex collided with them. He opens his eyes and waits for Madame Pomfrey to realize he's awake. In nearly seven years of attending Hogwarts, Chris has never actually had to be treated for anything. This is new, and Chris is pretty sure he would have rather avoided it altogether.

Before Madame Pomfrey comes back from wherever she is, Lance slips into the infirmary. Chris whispers, "You can't be here."

Lance says, "Don't worry, everyone's at lunch and I spelled the room silent."

Chris still worries but he doesn't have the energy to argue anymore. "You're going to have to teach me some of the stuff you know. Offensive stuff."

"He was bragging, the little shit. I'm going to kill him. Luckily about twenty people who were in the library at the time all reported him, so it won't go unpunished. It would've been hard for me to orchestrate that myself. Before I knew that the matter was taken care of I had a plan to get Flitwick to deduct House points. Without acknowledging why, of course." Lance shakes his head in frustration.

But Chris can recognize the limits to which Lance would have gone. Having points taken from one's own House is no small thing. "Flitwick?"

"He's good at reading between the lines. I wouldn't have to say anything, which was what I was going for. I can't risk getting Draco into trouble straight out." Lance looks sick as he says this.

"I appreciate the thought."

Lance sighs. "How're you feeling? I snuck up here last night after I heard Draco talking but I couldn't ask Madame Pomfrey or anything."

"Bone-breaking hex. He hit my ribs. She fixed them. I'm a little sore, otherwise fine."

"You passed out from a bone-breaking hex?" Lance frowns.

"There might've been something else. I only heard two being thrown and I'm pretty sure I blocked the first one but it was Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle, so there's a definite possibility that there were others."

"Crabbe and Goyle both specialize in hexes that affect the heart and the lungs. It's what all Dark oriented families teach children who aren't terribly bright because it's a sure hit almost every time."

"Oh."

"Oh?"

"I thought the trouble breathing came from the ribs."

Lance's fists are clenched so tight that Chris fears he's probably hurting himself. Chris puts a hand over one of the fists, trying to see if he can loosen some of the tension. "Who got me here?"

"Lovegood and JC, they were studying together across the library. JC must've thrown some pretty incredible Charms, Draco was beyond spitting mad."

"I'll have to warn JC." Thank him, too, but that isn't as pertinent to the conversation.

"JC's pretty safe. Besides being far more able to take care of himself than people generally suspect, the Chasezs have connections of whom even the Malfoys need be wary. Draco may be foolish but he knows when he's overstepped his bounds. You're probably safe by way of his rescue, if for no other reason." Lance sounds bitter, and Chris knows he's thinking that Chris should be safe by way of their relationship.

Chris brings Lance's fist, still closed but infinitely more loose, up to his mouth and kisses it. "Well, that's good then, right?"

Lance looks chagrined. "Yes, of course."

"I don’t need you to be a Gryffindor," Chris says.

"But it would be useful if I weren't Slytherin."

"Be that as it may, I'll take you as you are."

Lance leans forward, resting his head in Chris's lap. "Nice to know someone will."

*

Chris gets out of the infirmary by nightfall. Madame Pomfrey warns him against dueling but there's a knowing look in her eyes as she says it, and the warning sounds more like, "Brush up on those defensive skills, Kirkpatrick," than anything else.

Chris goes up to the Ravenclaw dorms to grab his books. It takes him quite a while to get out, as nearly everyone (well, all those who don't completely and utterly agree with Malfoy) feels the need to personally verify that he's doing well. Chris allows the verbal examinations, mostly because he knows how he'd feel if it were Kevin or Howie or Alexander or Luna.

When he can, he slips back out of the dorm and makes his way to the offices of all the teachers whose classes he has missed. McGonagall takes him through the lesson quickly, Trelawney reassures him that he'll catch up in the next session; evidently her Eye warned her both of the duel and its consequences. Chris, in an unusual fit of pique towards her, holds back the words, "Wish you'd seen fit to tell me. Could've used some advance warning."

Sinistra quickly takes him through the chart and gives him the names of several students in the class who understood and can probably help him with the assignment. Snape looks up at Chris, closes the door to his office with a small flick of his wrist (if he uses his wand, Chris can't tell) and says, "Were you truly taunting Mr. Malfoy, Mr. Kirkpatrick?"

Chris has to think about his answer. Snape has proven himself to be anything but fair, particularly when Slytherin is concerned. Despite this, Snape doesn't strike Chris as being malicious without motivation. "I suppose, in a way."

Snape raises an eyebrow. "A way?"

"He wanted the table I was at, I refused to give it to him. Culturally, given the status Muggle-borns have in regards to the wizarding elite, I imagine that could be considered taunting."

Snape's scrutiny is nearly painful for a moment before he says, "You are too Ravenclaw for your own good, Mr. Kirkpatrick. You see everything in the boundaries of its literal definition. It makes you quite satisfactory at Potions but I can only imagine it makes you a disaster at the less practical, more action drawn disciplines."

Chris doesn't know whether he is more taken aback at the bizarre compliment or the bitingly accurate criticism. He settles on the former.

Snape continues, "You must find a way to make those qualities work for yourself in an atmosphere that will not cease to provide increasing danger for one of your bloodline."

Chris forces himself to get over the shock of Snape displaying any kind of discernable concern for him. "I understand."

Snape nods. "Very well then. Find Mr. Bass to explain today's assignment. He is well-versed in the making already and will best be able to assist you."

Chris wonders whether this is Snape's failed attempt to make his life a little miserable after betraying something that he would normally never let a student see. It is either that, or face the idea that Snape knows and this is actually a moment of kindness on his part. Chris isn’t entirely sure which thought is more horrendous. "Yes, sir."

Chris gets himself out of the office, intent on getting Lance to tutor him. After all, he has the teacher's permission.

*

Chris is still despairing of anything to say when Ron finds him. Ron sidles hesitantly up to Chris in the Great Hall during a study period. "Erm, you don’t mind, right?"

Chris thinks for a second and then realizes that Ron is Gryffindor and this is the Ravenclaw table. From across the table, Alexander says, "None of us do," and then goes back to his homework.

Ron's breathing is a bit relieved. "I just wanted to check that you were okay. The way JC described things with Malfoy," Ron practically spits the name, "it all sounded nasty."

Chris smiles at him. "I'm not even bruised anymore."

"Well, that's good."

Chris can feel the awkward swing of Ron's legs under the table. Part of him wants to have mercy on the kid and let him run free. The other part has caught a rather hopeful looking Justin in the corner of his eye. Chris slumps over his books a bit and thinks. He says, "That broom of Potter's, it's a marvel." Chris knows no such thing. He hasn't the slightest idea what makes one broom better than any other. He's heard all the whisperings and such, though, so he figures it's as good a place to start as any.

"Isn't it?" Ron perks right up. He spews off statistics and numbers that Chris assumes have to do with flight patterns and speed but really can't understand. Ron finishes off his homily with a little, "Luckily none of that was ruined by She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named's interference."

Chris has a feeling that Ron isn't referring to either McGonagall or You-Know-Who's twin sister. "I take it you don't appreciate her caring about Potter's well-being?"

Ron looks dumbstruck. "You don't disassemble a Firebolt."

Chris feels equally dumbstruck and wonders if they've hit a cultural roadblock. "Not even to save your best friend's life? I mean, it's not like Potter hasn't had more than his share of close calls out on the pitch. And you've got to admit, it is awfully odd that the most expensive broom on the market would just appear with no note to credit who gave it to him. Even an admirer would probably claim their just due, don't you think?"

Ron's expression is mutinous. "You don't understand."

Chris is in total agreement with him there. "No, I guess I don't. If I thought something might happen to someone I loved I would do anything to stop that. Anything." And Chris, who has never had the money to support doing anything, knows the limits of what anything means.

Evidently Ron does too, because doubt flickers behind his eyes. Still, he is a thirteen year old boy and this isn't the only issue standing between him and Granger. "She didn't have to involve McGonagall."

Chris just shrugs. That's what he would have done but then, he's a Ravenclaw. Gryffindors are odd, mysterious things who always handle tasks in the most roundabout way possible, so he can see how Ron might be affronted by Granger's forthright handling of the situation. "Maybe she just didn't know how else to keep Potter safe."

Ron grunts. He's frowning the frown of the seriously preoccupied when he climbs off the bench and says, "I'm glad you're all right, anyway."

Chris says thanks, and watches as Ron makes his way back to the Gryffindor table much more slowly than one would expect him too.

*

Joey asks, "Are you sure you're okay? You seem a little…worn, maybe."

Chris feels like a sweater that began fraying and was then slowly unraveled by a twelve year old girl, but all he says is, "Really tired. Studying for NEWTs and all."

Joey looks like he knows he's being lied to but all he does is put his hand over Chris's shoulder and say, "I'm sure you've heard of diminishing returns."

It gives Chris the excuse he needs to pack up his books and stand up. "I think I'm going to give into your gentle but implacable persuasion and go to bed."

Chris feels even more like crap when Joey gives him a genuine smile. "Knew there was a reason you were put in the Smart House."

Chris just smiles weakly, slings his bag over his shoulder and trudges out of the library. He barely even hears the hissed insults of Malfoy and Co. as he passes the table that he was sitting at the night of the attack. He does hear the footsteps following him in the corridor, but it's not after curfew or anything and there's no reason for other students not to be wandering about so Chris doesn’t look over his shoulder.

It's three steps past terrifying then when he feels himself being grabbed from behind and pulled into a classroom. Chris spins around, wand already in hand, but it's only Lance. Chris probably doesn't need to attack Lance and if he does, he's probably be screwed.

Chris says, "You just pulled me right out of the middle of the hall."

Lance shakes his head. "There wasn't anyone watching. What is going on with you?"

Chris really doesn't want to talk about it. "Nothing. NEWT stress."

"Rubbish. We've been dating for four years Chris, I know how you handle stress."

Chris rubs at his eyes and tries honesty. "It's not something I really want to talk about."

Lance drops into the nearest seat. "Um. All right."

Lance's easy capitulation does nothing to ease Chris's feelings of guilt. "Look it's just-"

"No, I understand." It's obvious though that Lance doesn't, and Chris realizes that for all Lance is Slytherin, he is very rarely the one to hide things. Even things that Chris sometimes wishes would remain hidden.

"I didn’t get the scholarships," Chris says. "Acceptances abound but absolutely no money and well…" Chris shrugs. "I'm planning on speaking to the Headmaster, seeing if I can garner an apprenticeship for a year and see if that makes any difference. McGonagall tried to warn me, I mean, well, she said all this stuff about Dumbledore being one of the few educators willing to spend money on mudbloods-"

"Don't use that word." Lance's eyes are a cold green, the kind Chris remembers from before their first touch.

"That's what they see me as."

"They are self-important, deluded arses who wouldn't know a talented wizard if he performed a Hawaiian hula naked in front of them."

"As proof of his talent?" Chris asks.

"You're not going to distract me."

Chris knows. Lance can be incredibly single-minded when he gets in his head to be. "Anyway, like I said, I'm going to apply for apprenticeship-"

"To Trelawney? Chris, you couldn't even count on her as a recommendation."

"Do you honestly think I don’t know the flaws in the plan myself? At the very least an apprenticeship is paid. It's too late in the year to apply for most other jobs when everybody else has been working at it since October. And all the official apprenticeships have already long been filled. You know how it works."

"But it does you nearly no good if you can't get into a school. You've chosen one of the few areas where a degree is required if actual Sight can't be proven."

Chris recognizes that Lance is worried but it's more than a little obnoxious to have every single insecurity he's already thought through voiced aloud. "Lance, stop, all right? It's not your problem."

"Fuck you it's not my problem. Are we only pretending to be in love when things are going just fine?"

Chris thinks that’s an odd question, since things have never exactly gone just fine for them. "I'm just saying-"

"You're just saying that because I have all the things you think you want that I have no right to try and help you through this."

Chris makes his voice as cold as Lance's eyes at the mention of the word "mudblood." "That's exactly what I'm saying." He steps out of the classroom quickly but not without making sure that nobody's watching. It's of vague concern to Chris that his lungs don't seem to be working quite properly but he supposes that's just from how quickly he's making his way back to the dorm. He'll have time to breathe when he gets there.

*

Chris needs a spot in the library to sit and get things done. He wants a spot that will help take his mind off Lance, off the fact that the Headmaster agreed with Lance (if not in so many words), off the fact that Chris is running out of options that aren't go-back-to-the-farm-and-learn-how-to-milk-a-cow. Unfortunately, there are no such spots. In fact, given the time of year it is, the only spot available is the one next to Granger, who has been given a wide berth. This is not surprising, given her unpredictable behavior of late.

Chris isn't afraid of a little spontaneity, though, and he needs somewhere to settle, so he sets his bag on the ground next to a chair and asks, "Is this open?"

She looks up at him. Her eyes are red with sleeplessness. "You sure you want to risk contacting plague?"

"I'll take my chances."

They study for a few moments in silence before she says, "Of course. Chris, Justin's Ravenclaw friend. Sorry, it was just driving me mad as to why I knew you. Mind's been on a bit of a holiday of late."

Chris shrugs and goes back to his reading. She interrupts again. "Look, sorry, I know I'm being a pest but it's been a while since anyone other than Justin or Hagrid has really spoken to me and you're sitting here and-"

As much as Chris needs to study, he could do with the diversion himself so he says, "How's the case research going?"

"Justin tell you?"

"He's been a bit concerned for you."

"He always is, it's sweet."

The way she says it tells Chris that she knows everything so he doesn't feel bad asking, "And you're not?"

"Oh, um. Would you believe I haven't thought about it?"

She's thirteen. Chris would believe.

"He says you're good at Divinations." Her somewhat dubious nature at the true skill of this makes Chris laugh if only just a little bit.

"Check out and read Signs and Wonders: the Delicious Art of Tesromancy one day when you're looking for a little something to do. It's pretty much basic theory on what goes into Sight that's not inherited Sight. As the title would suggest, it's overwhelmingly about tea leaves but it delves a bit into palm readings and tarot and dream interpretation. All of the learned disciplines."

Granger scribbles the title down on the edge of her notes. "Thanks."

"For the rest of the time that I'm here I feel it is my duty to undo some of the damage dear dear Trelawney has wrought upon the student minds of this school."

She smiles. "Then you're going to study in that area?"

"That part's a bit up in the air at the moment."

"Justin said you were applying for fellowships. I was a bit surprised. I mean, Muggle-borns…"

"Yes, well."

"And I don’t suppose an apprenticeship would do you much good in this case."

Chris says, "I've already had this argument once, just so you know."

"Actually, I was going to ask if you'd considered private patronage."

"Private patronage?"

"A really old wizarding custom. So old the only people who would know about it are those who are in families old enough to remember the tradition and girls who spend too much time reading histories."

Chris has read a few histories himself but obviously he missed the one she's talking about. "Tell me."

"Well, in areas like Divinations or even Potions, wherein a scholar of the subject could be very useful to a specific family upon graduating, families would pay for that wizard's schooling. In return the wizard would have to promise a given number of years, enough to balance out the tuition fees, of service to the family before going off to find his own career path."

Chris thinks this over. "In some ways it puts me in the same place. I mean, what non-pureblood family is going to be willing to finance a wizarding education? They'd have no use for me afterward. And what pureblood family would finance a Muggle-born's education?"

Granger's eyes wander over to a table several feet away from them. Instinctually, Chris slides his eyes to find out what she's looking at. The table she's pinned has Lance sitting at it, pretending rather well to be engrossed in his reading. The only reason Chris knows he's not is well… Lance never picks a table wherein he can see Chris when he wants to concentrate. Never. Even if their last fight truly was their last, and Chris can't think about that, he can't, Lance still wouldn't be sitting there doing work. He's neither that resilient nor that cruel.

Meanwhile there is the problem of one Hermione Granger, who obviously knows more than she should. Chris considers saying, "I don't understand," but they're both too smart to play that game, so instead he asks, "Justin tell you that, too?"

"Not purposely. He doesn't know I know. I just picked up on everything he was always not saying."

"Thanks for, uh, not saying anything." Chris knows she hasn't. It would've gotten back to him by now.

She shrugs. "I don’t get it but it's pretty apparent that it's working for both of you, since Justin would be a lot more upset about it if it weren't."

"He's kind of different than he gives the impression of being."

"For your sake, I hope so."

"His family won't support me. They don't even know about us."

"'Course not. Rumor has it though that he's landed himself a spot with Gringotts."

She has a point. It still feels like asking for-

"It's not charity. It's services rendered for payment given. The services are just a bit delayed. If you're as good as Justin thinks you are, his bringing on a Seer without Gringotts having to recompense for the first few years will speak highly of him. Gringotts uses those versed in Divination to predict economic and political trends. Also, with that sort of deal, you're most likely to get hired after the 'probation' period -- so to speak -- is up."

She's making sense. Too much of it. Chris needs to think. He folds up his parchment and packs his books up and says, "I think I'm skipping the studying for tonight in favor of my bed. I really…thanks for the suggestion."

She grins. "Thanks for the chat. Good luck with everything."

Impulsively, he says, "Give Justin some thought."

She says, "Yeah, I was getting around to that."

*

Lance looks awful. Chris is willing to bet he hasn't slept since they fought. He doesn't seem to be doing much eating, either.

Chris thinks he probably looks similar but he's been avoiding mirrors.

Chris wants to ask Lance about the whole sponsorship idea. He wants to but that would involve getting hold of Lance, which is even tougher than usual when they're technically not speaking to each other on top of everything else. Also, that would involve asking Lance for a kind of assistance that he's never asked of anyone before, not even his family and Chris isn't entirely sure he can. He doesn't want to waste Lance's time only to discover it's beyond him.

He's still stewing over how to go about ignoring all of these difficulties when JC finds him. JC says, "Percy is furious."

Chris tries to guess how this might relate to him. He can't come up with anything so he asks, "Oh?"

"Evidently Lance was a total prick at the Prefect meeting today. Called Perce a blood traitor and some other pretty insulting things, went off on Penny and Nora as well. A bit unlike him, wouldn't you say?"

Even when being Mr. Slytherin, Lance is pretty refined. It's hard to find a time when anyone has actually been insulted by him, rather than just thinking they've been insulted.

"Anyway, to heap reason for ire on top of that, Lance stormed off the Prefect's bathroom and evidently hasn't emerged since. Won't let anyone in."

Chris whispers, "If I weren't about to go patch things up with my boyfriend, I would kiss you."

"I'll reserve the favor, if that's all right with you. I have no doubt I'll need something from you in the foreseeable future."

"Anything," Chris says, and packs up his stuff to head off to the Prefect's bathroom. Once down the hall he is careful to make sure that nobody is watching but to all evidences, the other Prefects have given up on Lance emerging. Either that, or something has happened to distract them. Chris wonders if he has more to thank his friends for than even he knows.

Chris slips up to the bathroom door and taps out the code that they've worked for themselves. A second passes but Lance opens the door to the bathroom, his expression caught between sullen and surprised. Chris rushes past him and closes the door. "I'm sorry."

Lance looks like he's about to cry. He doesn't. "Me too."

Now that the easy part is over, Chris has suddenly forgotten how to talk. He takes several deep breaths, trying to remember. To his surprise, Lance says, "I could be your patron."

Chris glares at him a little. "Are you practicing Legilimancy on me?"

"Chris, I'm crap at that and you know it. Granger told Justin who slipped me a book on the history and tradition of it. I'm pretty sure he thought he was being subtle so I'd appreciate you not mentioning it."

"Your family will never go for it."

"My family can rot."

Chris sighs. "Words are fine and well but I know you love your sister, at the very least." Chris suspects that Lance is also more attached to his parents than he cares to admit but one problem at a time will do fine enough for both of them.

"As much as I may love them, if they aren't willing to accept what I want out of life I can't very well live with their wishes, can I? Do you honestly think I've just ignored this situation from the first moment I figured out that I wanted to sleep with a male Muggle-born? You know me better."

Chris does. "It will mean even more of a delay in helping my family financially."

"Another two years. The amount of time equivalent to the schooling. I guarantee you though that once you start on as fully employed by Gringotts you'll more than be making up for that. It's not like the other option seriously alleviates that problem anyway."

This is true. Chris is still thinking through all the variables when Lance says, "Besides, it's tradition for the student to live with his patron. Room and board are part of the deal."

"Honestly?"

Lance's smile is so Slytherin that if Chris hadn't seen the pictures, he would think he was dating Salazar himself. All Lance says though, is, "Honestly."

At the moment, Chris doesn't really care whether it's the truth. It's enough to make him say, "All right then."

The response, in turn, is enough to make Lance kiss him. Chris thinks he would sacrifice a considerable amount more of his pride for the way the skin of Lance's wrists feels underneath his palms, the way Lance's tongue knows its favorite spot in Chris's mouth. The way Chris thinks that spot is becoming his favorite as well.

*

The end of the year is mildly surreal in the same way that it has been every year since Potter showed up on Hogwarts' premises. Two "convicts" escape from right within the school's wards, Professor Snape outs Professor Lupin as a werewolf and Lance's family disowns him. The last has nothing to do with Potter of course.

Well, none of them seem to directly have anything to do with Potter but Chris has a hunch, all the same. Weird events happen in his presence.

Luckily, Chris has suspected the whole werewolf thing since Professor Snape assigned the whole school essays on the subject during a full moon wherein Professor Lupin was missing. While academically he is aware both of the consequences of getting caught up by a werewolf and of the wizarding world's resultant prejudice of such creatures, Chris can't help thinking they're a lot like Muggle-borns: hated for something they can't really control or change. Chris likes Professor Lupin too much to bother rethinking this assumption, he owes the Professor too much.

As for the convict thing, the Headmaster seems a little too serene about that situation, which makes Chris wonder if there isn't more going on than everyone is being told. Chris gets the feeling that happens a lot. Either way, Dumbledore has made it clear that he does not consider Black to be a huge concern. As such, the Dementors have been sent away. For that Chris is deeply grateful.

Meanwhile, the disowning comes quickly on the heels of a letter that Lance writes to his family mere days after locking himself in the Prefect's bathroom. The letter isn't particularly detailed. It tells his family that he's invoking Patron rights over a Ravenclaw named Chris Kirkpatrick who intends to study in the field of Divinations.

His family does a little research and writes a letter back stating clearly that in no way is Lance allowed to support and encourage the, "prurient yearnings of impoverished mudblood filth."

Lance writes back that it's nice that his family feels that way but as the money will be his own he can't accede to their wishes as to how he spends it.

Lance finds out that he's disowned from an announcement in the society column of The Daily Prophet. Several of the other Slytherins use the opportunity to taunt one of their own with his downfall -- a rarity in the House -- until Lance reminds them that he has been one of them for seven years and can out-hex most of them to within an inch of their lives. After that, he's given a wide-berth even when walking in the halls.

For the first time in over two years of being with Lance, Chris uses the alienation to his advantage and walks beside Lance when they're going in the same direction. They study together in the library and it doesn't take long for Joey, JC, Justin and Nick to join up. Some nights Justin drags Granger along. She's made up with Ron and Potter at this point, though, and where she goes, they go, so it's only if she's managed to settle them down long enough to study.

When she hasn't, she always asks Justin, "I'll see you in the tower, right?" and Chris knows the tone she uses. Yeah, they'll be seeing each other.

Luna sometimes joins them too. She sits next to JC and studies quietly, only looking up when he forces her to pay attention. JC has confided to Chris that he's probably going to visit her over the summer. A few times.

Brian joins them when he's decided that the library makes a better study spot than the Gryffindor common room, and on odd occasions, Kevin and Katie or Howie and Alexander will be part of their group dynamic. It just depends on the night.

Nobody who wasn't aware of what was going on before the disownment seems to mind Lance's presence. The people who were are hard pressed to hide their excitement at this change of events.

Gringotts, for its part, expresses its pleasure at Lance's parting with his family by raising his salary a few thousand galleons. They prefer to have employees without strong familial ties. It makes the employee's loyalty less questionable.

Lance says, "Books and tuition, right there." He buries his face in Chris's chest. Chris holds on, knowing that all the positives in the world to come from this situation can't change the fact that Lance has just effectively cut off a part of himself that has existed before he was cognizant of his own being.

Chris says, "I love you more than anything," and does not let go. Not for the world.

*
Epilogue

Six Years Later

Chris gets home from Gringotts earlier than Lance but not by much. He's still sorting through everything the owls have seen fit to bring them since they left the house that morning when Lance walks through the door, shouts a greeting and continues straight to the bedroom to change out of his work robes.

Underneath a request for a charitable donation, Chris's mum's weekly letter and an advert for some new Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes product is a particularly ornate envelope. Chris frowns, as most wizards don't bother with envelopes, definitely not ones this fancy.

It is addressed to both of them so Chris yells, "Lance, come in here, there's something I want to open."

Lance saunters in on his own time, now in slacks and a jumper. He leans down to kiss Chris. "How was your day?"

Chris hits him with the advert. "Seriously, look at this."

Lance inspects both sides of the envelope. "Well, shall I?"

"Get on with it already."

Lance slides the envelope open and extracts an even fancier piece of parchment from inside. He scans it and then laughs. "Bloody hell."

Chris reaches up for it. "What?"

Lance just hands it over. Chris gets as far as reading Mr. and Mrs. Henry Granger announce the marriage of their daughter Ms. Hermione Honora Granger to a Mr. Justin Randall Timberlake before diving for the floo.

He calls JC but gets Luna who takes one look at his face and laughs at him. She calls for JC and soon enough JC's standing there, also laughing. Chris scowls. "Was I the last one to know about this? I mean, I knew he was thinking about it but-"

"He didn't tell anyone he was actually going to ask. He was scared she wouldn't say yes."

Justin, although happily settled into a Ministry job that largely only requires his theoretical expertise and attention to detail, is still often times made to feel less than confident in the face of his near Squib-like state. So far as Chris can tell this doesn’t bother Hermione one whit but Justin is always expecting it to.

Suddenly Lance is at Chris's back and asking, "Is Potter going to be the maid-of-honor?"

JC snickers and in the background Chris can hear Luna saying, "prat," in a rather fond tone. JC says, "Actually, I think Harry's officiating."

Potter, having saved the world once and for all (or at least until the rising of the next Dark Fucktwit) in his seventh year at Hogwarts has been given so many honorary positions and titles that Chris is pretty sure he can do anything from marrying a couple to overseeing wand production. Or anything else that anybody needs, really.

JC continues with, "I'm pretty sure she asked Justin to have Ron be his Best Man. John and I are both groomsmen." John is Justin's younger brother.

Chris says, "I feel old."

JC laughs. Lance says, "Excuse us, I have to go disabuse him of this notion." He pulls Chris back from the flames and puts the fire out with a wave of his wand. He wraps one hand against the back of Chris's neck. "All this talk of marriage."

The hand against Chris's neck is the one that bears the ring they both wear. It's not a wedding ring. It's the traditional form of proclaiming one's self to be a patron to someone. Chris has one that declares himself the recipient of a patron's attentions. They are worn on the middle finger of the right hand.

Despite the fact that Chris has worked at Gringotts under his own auspices for almost two years now, they still wear the rings. Chris says, "If you wanted to do it we could. We have the money to do it ourselves even with what I send back to mum. She'd be thrilled."

Lance shakes his head. "I don’t need it. I know what becomes of respectable families." Most of Lance's family is dead or imprisoned. The initial pain of cauterization from their severing ties has long since healed to a dull throb but Lance will never completely leave them behind. Chris wouldn’t want someone who could do that.

"You wouldn't mind getting on with our disrespectable ways, then?" Chris leans forward and kisses Lance lightly. An invitation, less frilly than the one still lying on their table but every bit as enticing.

Lance kisses back. "Not at all."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile