Chapter Four: The Hogwarts Express
McGonagall reprimanded Ron for leaving once he returned to the main hall, now filling with people, and he knew that she was right. "Someday curiosity will get you into a trap you can't get out of," she said.
He looked at the floor and mumbled an apology. He had been wrong to snoop like that. Knowing that Malfoy was in trouble for a change wasn't as much fun as he thought.
McGonagall walked off. Potter sidled up. "Hey, champ! Heard Malfoy got himself disqualified!"
"Shh! Nobody's supposed to know anything until they announce it," Ron said. "Besides, you know Snape will cover the whole thing up."
"Granger told me everything. I didn't even know the Squirrel played chess. But I suppose he must have, or he never would have gotten past McGonagall's trap to the Mirror. None of us thought about it at the time."
Ron saw the sad look in Harry's eyes and knew his friend was remembering what he'd seen in the Mirror of Erised. Well, he'd never seen a chess championship when he'd looked for himself. Maybe Potter would find something he wanted just as much his parents someday.
"Quiet!" hissed Hermione. "They're going to make the announcement now!"
Professor McGonagall cleared her throat. The crowd settled down. "The preliminary results after the last two days are as follows: Gryffindor and Ravenclaw are tied for first place, Hufflepuff is second, and Slytherin has been eliminated." There was a buzz as the rumors started flying. "In the next two days," she continued in a slightly louder voice, "these three players will play the staff, while we complete our own championship games. Again, some of you will be allowed to observe, but only if your schoolwork is up to date. The rest of you will study in supervised rooms with those members of the staff who aren't playing. At least you will be quiet there. After the tournament we'll find out who has and has not kept up. Now to dinner, please."
Ron noticed Crabbe and Goyle talking to Professor Snape. Well, at least those two would be out of the way for a bit. He was a little nervous about what they might do if they thought it was his fault that Draco had gotten caught.
As he ate, he thought about the next two games. Would he and Brentwood have to play each other again, or would they play only the staff? Maybe he ought to go over the games he'd played with 'Malfoy'. The Squirrel was a horrible person, even as a ghost, but there was nothing wrong with his chess game. If Quirrell playing through Malfoy could crack the Ravenclaw in two straight sets, she might not be able to stand up to that style if someone else used it, too.
After dinner, he hastily made notes on the games he'd played with Draco. Fortunately the tourney boards were the kind that remembered what was played on them. The Squirrel depended more on a positional game, ready to pounce on any flaws in an opponent, rather than a more aggressive style. Ron knew how much he'd hated to be on the other side as the Squirrel's spider web started closing in.
"You need to go to bed," McGonagall observed from over his shoulder. "It's getting late. It will take longer than you think to analyze Quirrell's play.
"Well, it did throw him off when I used Filch's style at him," Ron said.
"So it would. Off to bed anyway, young man."
Ron obeyed, though his head was whirling. Maybe it was better to let things rest. Sometimes his brain worked harder for him when he was asleep or doing something else than when he concentrated directly.
The next day his games were going to be with Binns, Sprout, and Vector. The day after that, they were going to be with Flitwick, McGonagall, and...Snape. Fortunately it was only going to be one game apiece, not two out of three. He checked the schedule, and figured out his first game with Binns would probably be over in time for him to watch McGonagall against Snape. At least he would have some idea how the Potions Master played.
He sat down against the History Professor and Granger. It was a little distracting to have his friend actually moving the pieces while Binns kept up a constant chatter, but he managed all right. The ghostly professor's style seemed rather old-fashioned, but Ron had to pay close attention anyway. Some gambits Binns used had been given up by most players, and were brand new as far as Ron was concerned. But he managed to win respectably, bowed instead of shaking hands, and hastened over to another table to cheer on the Head of Gryffindor.
Snape's chess set was medieval, though he had cannon for his rooks. His pawns were miniature Swiss pikemen, and whoever had done the knights had really known horses. The bishops were in full ecclesiastical gear, while the queen wore a winged war-helm in place of a crown and carried a morning-star.
Then he stepped back and looked at the current state of the game. Ron had never seen anybody bring out so many powerful pieces down the middle so quickly.
Apparently McGonagall had. Her face was lit in a pleased smile, and she said, "I see the Hogwarts Express is back."
Snape nodded. "I need to go to that tourney."
"You could have asked, you know."
"But this is much more fun," said the Potions Master, with a smile that Ron had once seen on the face of a picture of a shark.
"Well, I suppose I could use an assistant while I'm there," McGonagall said, with an evil grin of her own.
Ron enjoyed watching the game, but for once it was way over his head. Granger had once said that "you know you're in trouble when the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train." He made a mental note to ask Dad to look Snape up in the championship books. McGonagall wouldn't hand out a nickname like that just for fun, not when chess was involved.
He thought Snape was taking a terrible risk by running so many pieces down the middle the way he was, especially with the Transfiguration Professor on the other side. But as the game developed, it looked like the Potions Master was going to get away with it. Pawns were moved up just in time to support the main thrust. While McGonagall forced some exchanges, the result became clear fairly quickly.
"All right," she said with a touch of peevishness. She tipped over her king with a vicious swipe of her finger, "that was the first game. We still have two more."
They started again. McGonagall had white this time. Her attack was far more subtle, but just as vicious. Ron was glad not to be playing her himself just now. Snape fought back, and seized the initiative back with some odd queen maneuvering. Ron was just beginning to see some of the patterns when he was called to play Professor Sprout.
He had no idea that the Herbology Professor even played at all. Her set was all carved plants, but it was still fairly easy to tell what each piece was supposed to be. The queen was a mass of thorny roses, some of which were so sharp they actually drew a drop of blood when he held his wrong.
She was better than he expected her to be. It was a fairly long game, and he really should have known better than to fall for a little maneuver she called "the Devil's Snare". After he tipped over his king, his face hot with embarrassment, she showed him how it worked, in case he ran into it later. "See, it looks like you have a chance at my queen, if you bring your bishop down like this. And there's nothing apparently in the way for a couple of moves ahead. But then I bring in my knight like this, and a couple of moves after that you've left yourself wide open at home to my rook. And once you're pinned down, here comes my queen to finish everyone off."
He admired it greatly. Any player who got just a bit too greedy might easily be suckered by that gambit. Someone like Filch, for instance. Ron pulled out some tattered paper and a pencil from his pocket and made notes.
The second round of the McGonagall-Snape match was still going on. Ron had to pass it by to play his game with Professor Vector. He started it eagerly, hoping to find some way to end it quickly so he could watch the other game.
Ron soon discovered that playing with half a mind was good way to get into a bad position. Well, his father had always told him that a good head for numbers often meant a good head for chess, especially when sighing over Ron's latest Arithmancy grade. But last spring 'Mione had brought in some weird stories by a mathematician even older than Binns (alive or dead). Ron had never been able to get that strange chess game from the second one out of his head. He tried a few moves from it, leading with the white knight.
Vector betrayed no emotion except for blinking her eyes, but judging by her response, did not find them congenial. Ron followed them up with an initiative of his own which had worked for him before. Vector responded with a sudden thrust down the middle, but Ron had left some pawns behind in a diagonal just in case.
The game turned out to be a draw, as Vector's endgame was just as unpleasant in its own subtle way as Filch's. They shook hands, and Ron hurried back over to watch the others.
As he passed the board, he glanced at today's standings so far. Abercrombie had played Flitwick to a draw and lost to Sprout and Filch. Brentwood had drawn with Sprout, won against Binns and Filch, and was going to play Vector after lunch.
Ron bolted his meal, despite Potter urging him to sit and talk a bit, and went back to watch. He was done for the day, unless he wanted to get his game against Flitwick in, though the Charms Professor was apparently busy gunning down Filch.
McGonagall and Snape were on their third game. Ron couldn't make sense of the board at first. Both the Potions Master and the Transfigurations Professor seemed to be in equally good positions at first. But Snape appeared to have the upper hand in board control. Ron watched as Snape tenaciously nibbled at McGonagall's defense. It was odd how the cannon on either side kept their barrels trained on the opposing player no matter where they on the board.
McGonagall took longer to make her moves than Ron remembered her doing so earlier. A few of her pawns fells, though she managed to remove one of Snape's heavily armored knights in exchange. But that was enough for Snape to stop working the edges and start rolling out more major pieces down the middle again. McGonagall looked grim. She put up a fight worthy of Filch, but at the end she sighed and watched as her king prostrated himself on the board.
"Well, Severus, unless Flitwick comes up with a miracle this evening, it looks like you're going to Bulgaria."
Snape picked up the pieces. "Yes, it does. Still have your personal invitation?"
"Always do. A pity you never went back to the game till now. You'd have quite a rating if you hadn't gotten involved in other things." McGonagall's voice had just a touch of acid in it.
"We all make choices, Minerva," Snape said. "Ah, Mr. Weasley. Don't you have any more games to play?"
"Not till tomorrow. This one was the most interesting to watch." Ron was glad that McGonagall was going, too. He and Dad talked about the tournaments all the time. Then he finally got up enough courage to say what he should have before. "And thank you, sir, for telling me to play other people last week. It helped a lot."
Snape nodded. "I will be playing Dumbledore after I've played Flitwick and you three students. You might wish to watch that, too."
"Thank you, sir." As much as he sometimes loathed the greasy git, Ron wasn't going to pass up a chance like this.
McGonagall said, "Go along and eat now, Mr. Weasley. You and Brentwood are still fairly even in the standings, and you will be facing the best of the staff tomorrow."
Ron took off and had a good dinner talking over the day with Potter and Hermione. Once back in the Gryffindor common room, he realized that he'd forgotten to pick up his own chess set from the tourney floor. He went back down to get it and was going back when he saw Crabbe and Goyle in the hallway. He tried to duck away before they noticed he was there, but it didn't work.
"Hey, Weasel! Malfoy wants to see you!" said Crabbe.
"I didn't squeal on him!" Ron protested.
"He knows that," Goyle said, who sounded like he was trying to be polite and didn't know how. "He just wants to talk to you."
Ron reluctantly followed the pair, clutching his chess-case, and hoped he wouldn't be stuck in the infirmary all the next day. Once past the Slytherin common room, where he was greeted by jeers and catcalls, the two took him to one of the bedrooms. Malfoy must have gotten better faster than they thought if he's out of the infirmary already.
He was awed by how much stuff was in the room. He'd give anything to be so rich. Robes that obviously came from stores where they were personally made, books that hadn't been marked on by a legion of previous owners, and a broom that even Harry would drool over provided just part of the background.
Draco stepped forward and offered his hand. Ron didn't know what else to do but to tuck the case under his left arm and accept the overture, especially with Crabbe and Goyle still hanging around. "I want to apologize for what happened at the tournament," Malfoy said.
Ron was so astonished he didn't know what to say at first. After a moment, he stammered out, "Um, McGonagall asked me to play that third game the way she'd set up the chess trap. I think she suspected what was going on then."
"I wouldn't know. I don't remember thing from when I saw Quirrell's ghost to waking up in the chair across from Binns." For a moment Draco looked terrified, then closed it off.
Ron wondered if Malfoy was telling the whole truth, but knew he wasn't going to find it out here. And he wondered if the three Slytherins still carried a grudge for what happened on the train last spring. "It must have been awful," he said.
"Almost as bad as getting three curses at once," Malfoy said, his eyes glinting.
"All right, we overdid it there," Ron had to admit. "But you three had no reason to say what you did about Diggory or Voldemort. Harry still hasn't forgiven himself for Cedric's death yet, and Voldemort almost killed him. But I suppose we shouldn't have been surprised after Potter told us that your father was there with the rest of the Death-Eaters." Oh shit. I'm in for it now.
"My father disciplined all three of us for what we said," Malfoy said, his face growing hard. "None of us had a good summer last year. But I'm sure that Potter only saw what Voldemort wanted him to see. Wouldn't it be nice for the enemy if we all suspected each other? What do you think the Headmaster was getting at in that speech of his at the Leaving Feast last year, anyway?"
"You're right," Ron said reluctantly. After all, Potter had seen Snape and Sirius Black actually shake hands. If that could happen, anything could.
Malfoy nodded. "You see? It's time for all of us to pull together. My father owled me this morning and included a note for you." He handed Ron a piece of paper.
Ron looked at it suspiciously. The small piece of parchment had the Malfoy crest delicately etched in one corner, and read Mr. Weasley-if you go to the All-Wizards' Tournament, look me up. I may be able to introduce you to some people who might be helpful to you. Lucius, Lord Malfoy
"Why should he care?" Ron asked.
"He respects anyone who plays chess well." Draco looked unhappy for a moment.
Ron snorted. "I'd better play as well as I can! Nobody would notice me at all if I didn't."
"It must be strange growing up in a crowd like that," Malfoy said. "From the outside, it looks like you're practically a House all by yourselves."
"It'd feel even stranger being the only one," Ron said, staring down at the letter. "It'd be nice to be the center of attention, and not have to fight for every scrap of it."
"Being the only one isn't that much fun sometimes," Draco said. "Look how Granger works like a Hufflepuff to be perfect at everything."
Ron hadn't thought of it that way. And then Potter was kind of the center of attention with the Dursleys, but not in the way that anybody would ever want. As for him, neither Mum nor Dad got on him about his grades that much as long as he didn't actually fail anything. Did that mean they didn't care? "It's hard to figure out what you want for yourself sometimes, when you don't know what they want. Or if they remember who you are in the first place." It wasn't really that bad, but it felt like it some days.
"At least you can do what you want," Draco said, his face stony again. "Well, enough for that tonight." He began to turn away.
"Why did I get a note?" Ron asked. "The girl from Ravenclaw is pretty good, too."
"The odds are 5-2 on you in the Betting Book right now. You asked me what it was like to have that ghost around. What's it like to enjoy chess so much?"
Ron had never been asked that before. "I don't know. Maybe it's like flying is for Potter, or reading books for Granger. Or maybe like drawing things is for you."
"What do you mean by that?" Malfoy's voice was sharp.
"Everyone knows you're the one who did those cartoons that kept appearing the walls and drove Filch out of his mind when school started this year. They were awfully mean, but you got everybody's faces perfect. I actually kind of liked the one showing McGonagall and Mrs. Norris in a cat-fight." Ron half-smiled, remembering how even the Gryffs had laughed themselves sick over it. "And I bet Snape blew his top when he spotted the one with the big-nosed snake getting stuck in the toilet in Moaning Myrtle's."
Draco grinned. "It was worth every cauldron I had to clean, even Longbottom's."
"Well, I'd play chess even if got me in trouble. Sometimes it's like the sky opens up and I can see what's going to happen ahead of time. Sometimes games are ugly, and sometimes they're beautiful, but it's always chess, and that makes it fun."
Malfoy shook his head. "Better you than me. Get out of here now, and don't fall down the stairs, Weasel."
"Same to you, Ferret," Ron said with a smile.
"My, you're not as soft as you look."
"I had Fred and George for older brothers. Who do you think they practiced all their jokes on first?" On that note, he left-fortunately without the escort he came with.
He went directly to McGonagall's office with the note. She handled it as if it were about to explode. If it had come from one of the twins, that would have been a distinct possibility.
"Oh, my," she said. "I must think about this. He will undoubtedly be there, and it may be difficult for you to avoid him completely. I will discuss it with you when I know something."
Ron went back to his bedroom, one he still shared with Potter and a couple of others, and told Harry all about it.
"I'd be really careful if I were you," Potter said. "Voldemort was going to kill me, Ron. Why should he care who I saw with him? I know Lucius Malfoy was there. And...this is something I heard Voldemort say to his Death-Eaters. I told Dumbledore as soon as I could, though I'm sure he warned Snape about it."
"What do you mean?"
"Snape used to be a Death-Eater, too, and didn't obey Voldemort when he was called. Voldemort said that one of the Death-Eaters was a coward too afraid to come, but that the other had left him for good. 'He will, of course, be killed,' is what he said about the second one. Just after that Dumbledore sent Snape on some kind of mission, and now he's going to this tournament. I'll bet a dozen Galleons that our Potions Master is going to be doing more than playing chess."
"A good thing that McGonagall is going too, then," Ron said. He knew which category Snape fell into.
"Now that we're both going to have nightmares tonight, we'd probably better turn in," Harry said, though he didn't look like he was joking.
"I have to survive Flitwick, McGonagall and Snape at the chess table tomorrow," Ron groaned. He was glad to have chess to distract him from anything to do with Voldemort. He had never forgotten knowing the Dark Mark had hung over the Burrows last year. "That's going to be enough for me to worry about!"
Oh, Merlin,I hope that's all I'm going to have to worry about.
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