The letter. After years of expectation, he finally held it in his hands.
"Go on Master Choab, open the bloody thing. We 'aven't got all day." Mrs. Puckett said irritably.
Choab ignored the crotchety old witch and read the name on the envelope carefully.
'Mr. C. Nightshade.'
Choab slowly opened the letter, thinking about how he couldn't remember anyone calling him by his last name.
"I've got me own work to do. When you're done with that letter, bring it to me sitting room so's I can see what you'll be needin from Diagon Alley." Mrs. Puckett said sharply as she waddled from the room.
Choab carefully read the letter and made note of the school supplies he'd need to buy.
'Finally.' He thought as a rush of relief coursed through his veins.
'After all these years of being alone, I'll finally be able to be around others my own age... in three weeks, my life begins.'
* * * * *
"What is that?" Choab asked as he walked out of the mansion he'd called home all his life.
"A carriage. It's just got a glamour to make it look like a muggle automobile." James said as he led the way.
"Auto...?" Choab asked with confusion.
"Nothing worth thinking about Master Choab. It's just the easiest way of getting us where we need to go." James said with a smile as he held the rear door of the vehicle open for his young charge.
* * * * *
Choab looked with wide eyes at everything around him.
He'd never been away from the mansion before and wasn't at all prepared for the chaos of Diagon Alley.
James had been somewhat concerned about keeping track of his young charge, but needn't have worried. Choab kept held fast to his hand every step of the way through the street, gripping with fear and excitement.
"Here we are, we need to get you some school robes." James said as he pulled Choab into a shoppe.
"Let me guess. Someone needs some robes for Hogwart's?" The elderly shopkeeper asked with a delighted smile.
"Yes sir." Choab said timidly.
"Set him up with your finest of everything made from only the best cloth, and every item custom tailored, if you please." James said with pride.
"No." Choab said in a full voice that surprised everyone in the room, including himself.
"Master Choab, it's proper for you to wear only the best. Your father..." James began to say, but was cut off.
"My father!? I've seen him twice in my life and neither time did he speak to me. If he's so concerned about my appearance, he should have come to outfit me himself. I'll have the robes of my choice, or I'll have nothing." Choab said defiantly.
"Mrs. Puckett will be hearing of this, you can believe that!" James said as his anger started to rise.
"And she'll be hearing about what happens when she leaves the maids unattended every full moon. Is? it worth you and Catty getting sacked just to dress me up like a bloody ponce?" Choab asked with a superior look.
"Blimey, 'ow'd a young lad like yourself learn to be such a right bastard?" James asked in wonder, forgetting to use his proper language.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe it's in my blood, or maybe it's from watching the staff members stab each other in the back. No matter, are we agreed that I will be choosing my own wardrobe?" Choab asked in a very businesslike tone of voice.
"Y... Yes Master Choab." James said hesitantly.
"Good. I'm sorry sir, I should have thought to resolve that before we entered. Could you outfit me with whatever is the most common style of robes and uniforms for first year Hogwart's students? I'll take whatever you have ready made that's nearest my size." Choab said kindly, contrasting the demanding voice he'd just used with James.
"I'll just need a few measurements." The shopkeeper said with a wide eyed expression.
* * * * *
"I can't believe you'd allow 'im to buy such common things. The Master will not approve!" Mrs. Puckett said in disgust as she looked through the purchases.
Choab watched without expression while James tried to think of something to say.
"We'll just 'ave to go tomorrow and take all this rubbish back and buy proper things." Mrs. Puckett said as she dropped the robes in a crumpled heap.
"No." Choab said flatly, the first thing he'd said since they'd returned to the mansion a half hour earlier.
"I'll 'ave no lip from you. Young master or no, I'll 'ave proper respect from ye. I don't know what you did to make poor James buy you these rags, but I'll have none of it!" Mrs. Puckett said as her face began to redden.
"I think you'll allow me to keep these things, you'll report to my father that everything is as it should be and you'll do so without complaint." Choab said? firmly.
Mrs. Puckett opened her mouth to begin an all out tirade, then noticed the calculating twinkle in Choab's eyes.
A moment of silence fell over the sitting room.
James used the battle of wills between the head housekeeper and the young master of the house to mask his escape.
"I know my father would be quite interested in the missing volumes of magical texts from his library. How much did you get for 'The Tome of the Archmage Konikal' anyway?" Choab asked with a sly smile.
"I... I..." Mrs. Puckett sputtered as she looked around to see if anyone was listening.
"I'm sure he probably didn't inventory my mother's jewelry, so he won't notice what's come up missing as long as you stay away from the big pieces." Choab said, then muttered a magical phrase and gestured with his new wand.
The robes and uniforms began to straighten and fold themselves and fall into order.
Mrs. Puckett's eyes got even wider as she watched the young boy, barely eleven cast a spell that was beyond her ability.
"You don't think I spent all my life in this house without reading the magical library do you? How do you think I knew about the missing books?" Choab asked as he turned to look at her.
"You... you..." Mrs. Puckett sputtered, this time in fear of the child.
Choab dropped all pretenses and said in a chilling tone, "I'm off to school in three weeks. After I'm gone, you can steal whatever you want, it's no concern of mine. I've been holding my tongue and biding my time until the letter arrived. Now it's here and certain decisions have to be made. I would like those decisions to be made in my favor. I have enough evidence on every person in this house to make sure that none of you have a future in any respectable job ever again. And the evidence I have gathered against you may or may not be enough to have you sent to Azkaban. To prevent finding out, all you have to do is follow my instructions."
Mrs. Puckett could only nod.
"Then have someone properly store my school supplies until my departure. I'll have my tea in half an hour." Choab said firmly, then walked out of the room.
"James!" Mrs. Puckett called in a screech.
* * * * *
Choab walked into his room and looked around.
'Oh Merlin! I'll be glad to be out of this place.' He thought to himself as he walked to his mirror.
Looking back at him he saw his reflection. Eleven years old, slender, straight brown hair, brown eyes, plain features, completely unremarkable.
With little effort, Choab affected an expression of wide-eyed innocence, then switched easily to fearful confusion.
'I think I'm ready. My life will be much easier if they underestimate me.' Choab thought as he switched to his masterpiece, the sad and dejected look.
"Am I interrupting?" A chilling voice asked from behind him.
"No Grandmother Tuboll." Choab said as he turned to face the ghostly figure, letting all expression fall off his face.
"Quite a performance in the sitting room. Your great Aunt Celia was laughing so hard that she nearly manifested." The ghost said with an expression that was almost a smile.
"I'm glad she didn't. It might have made my intimidation of the old thief more difficult." Choab said seriously.
"Quite right. Oh, by the by, Bertram wanted you to know that Mrs. Puckett is planning a special surprise for you at tea-time."
"Poison or a sleeping spell?" Choab asked without concern.
"Poison of course. The pathetic old thing isn't much more than a muggle anymore, not that she could do that much in her prime." Grandmother Tuboll said haughtily.
"It's what I expected, thank Bertram for the confirmation. This will be the... sixth? Maybe seventh time she's tried to poison me... unless you count her dreadful cooking, then she does it every night." Choab said with a chuckle.
"My poor little duck. If only I had a body, I'd teach the old hag to mess with my boy." Grandmother Tuboll said with a shake of her insubstantial head.
"Don't worry Grandmother. Her plotting is somewhat entertaining. Tell me, has she lured James into her bed yet?" Choab asked with a mischievous chuckle.
"Oh Merlin no! Even a half-wit like James has better sense than that. But you have to give the pathetic creature credit for trying." Grandmother Tuboll said, this time giving an actual smile.
"I suppose I'd better dress for tea. I wouldn't want to give the bitter old thing cause to chastise me." Choab said with a grin.
"As if you haven't given her enough cause over the years." Grandmother Tuboll said with a chuckle.
Choab put on an expression of wide-eyed innocence.
Grandmother Tuboll let out an audible laugh as she dissolved into the ether.
* * * * *
Choab walked into the dining room carrying a letter.
"Your tea is ready Master Choab." Mrs. Puckett said through gritted teeth.
"In a moment, I just have to owl a message." Choab said as he passed through the room.
It took a moment for Mrs. Puckett to realize what he'd said. She hurried out of the family dining room and found Choab attaching a message to the leg of an owl.
As she approached him, he whispered his instructions to the owl and let it go.
"Who... Who did you send a message to?" Mrs. Puckett asked quickly as she waddled up to him.
"Oh, to myself at Hogwart's. It's my insurance that nothing will happen to me before I arrive there." Choab said as he walked past her into the hallway leading back to the family dining room.
"I... What's in the message?" Mrs. Puckett asked in frustration as she tried to keep up with Choab.
"Only what we discussed earlier about you being a thief... and that I'm in fear for my life and believe that you're going to try and kill me before I can get away." Choab said in a nonchalant tone.
"Oh Master Choab! You have such an imagination." Mrs. Puckett said with forced humor as they entered the dining room and Choab sat down to his meal.
"Would you look at that..." Mrs. Puckett said and gestured to the tart in the middle of the table.
"Catty should know better. Those berries aren't even ripe. That tart won't be edible. I have a nice custard ready to go. Tuck into your meal and I'll be right back." Mrs. Puckett said as she whisked the tart away.
"Make sure you dispose of it where the dogs won't get into it. We lost two dogs to the 'tainted quail' incident." Choab said, hammering home the point that he knew what she was doing.
"Yes, quite." She muttered as she waddled out of the room.
* * * * *
"Are you ready to prepare for bed Master Choab?" James asked timidly.
"Yes James." Choab said as he looked at the young man.
"Shall I draw your bath?" James asked, averting his gaze.
"In a moment." Choab said and waited for James to look him in the eyes.
"Sir?" James asked, and chanced a look.
"I'm sorry about the incident at the clothier's. If I could have thought of another way to have achieved my goal, I would have used it." Choab said quietly.
James seemed to relax a little.
"You're the closest thing I have to a friend here James. And to tell you the truth, you're the only one I'm going to miss." Choab said as he looked away.
"Thank you for saying so Master Choab. And thank you for not mentioning... you know... the things we do..." James said uncomfortably.
Choab smiled as he said, "No one will ever hear of those things from me. You've given me the closest thing to affection I've known in my life. In fact, if you'd like to draw that bath now, you could join me if you wanted."
James gave a warm smile and said, "I'd like that Master Choab."
* * * * *
"The portal is just over there, through that post." James said as he pushed the cart.
A woman and young girl walked through the portal while Choab watched.
"I can take it from here James." Choab said seriously.
"Are you sure? I wouldn't mind coming with you to see you off." James said with honest caring.
Choab smiled as he said, "Thank you James, knowing that you want to means a lot to me. I just don't want my classmates to think I'm flaunting the family wealth or some nonsense like that."
"I understand. Then I'll say my goodbye to you now Master Choab." James said formally.
"Goodbye James. I hope things work out so you and Catty can get away from the mansion and have a good life together." Choab said honestly.
"We'll be gone in a fortnight. I asked her to wait till you'd gone to Hogwart's." James said happily.
"Be good to each other." Choab said seriously.
"We will. Now off with you. It wouldn't do to be late." James said as he gestured to the portal.
On impulse, Choab ran up and gave James a quick hug before taking hold of his luggage trolley and walking briskly toward the portal.
* * * * *
"Do you mind if I sit with you?" Choab asked hesitantly from the cabin doorway.
The two girls looked at each other with question, then gave identical shakes of their heads.
"I'm Pansy Parkinson and this is Darla. We only just met, so I don't know her last name yet." One of the girls said as the other seemed to shrink away and try to blend into the seat cushion.
"Are you both first years too?" Choab asked, carefully watching Darla's expression, thinking such a timid, fearful expression might come in handy someday.
"Yes. Isn't it exciting? What house do you think you'll get sorted into?" Pansy asked with excitement.
"Oh, I hadn't really thought about it. I suppose it doesn't matter to me." Choab said casually.
"You have to have some kind of idea. Are you a good student? Because if you are, that might mean Ravenclaw." Pansy said seriously.
"I don't know. I've been taught by a private tutor all my life so I don't know how I am compared to others." Choab said, consciously making his voice tremble, giving the effect of being fearful.
"Maybe not then. And if you're scared of answering a few questions, then you probably won't be in Gryffindor. They're the brave ones. You'll probably be in Hufflepuff. I think Darla is going there too." Pansy said with a considering glance at the girl beside her.
"Where will you be going?" Choab asked, trying to sound as if he didn't know.
"Slytherin of course. That's the house where leaders and politicians come from. Both my parents and all my grandparents were in Slytherin." Pansy said proudly.
Choab nodded thoughtfully, not wanting to prompt the pug faced girl into further chatter.
"Do you know what I've heard?" Pansy asked in nearly breathless excitement.
Choab looked at her, knowing that he didn't have to ask, she'd tell him.
"Harry Potter is going to be going to Hogwart's this year. Can you believe it? 'The boy who lived' is going to be in our year. Isn't that exciting?" Pansy asked with glee.
"What house do you think he'll be in?" Choab asked before he could catch himself.
"Gryffindor of course. He's got to be one of those hero types." Pansy said with certainty.
Choab nodded, filing the information away for later.
"Have you had a chance to look at your books yet? I couldn't believe everything we're going to have to learn in the potions book. It'll just take forever to understand it all." Pansy said emotively.
"It didn't look that hard to me." Choab said slowly.
"What? Did you see that first potion? I didn't even know what some of the ingredients were. This is going to be so much fun. I can't wait to get started." Pansy said with delight.
Choab thought back to the first potion. It was a simple concoction that he could have mixed when he was five. As Pansy pulled the potion book out of a bag she was carrying, Choab quickly said, "I'm going to see if I can get a look at that Potter guy. I'll see you two later."
"Good luck at the sorting." Pansy said, then started reading aloud from the potions book to Darla.
Choab closed the door behind him and shook his head to try and dispel the buzz from her incessant chatter.
* * * * *
Choab wandered along, looking in different rooms, trying to find one where he thought he could get some peace and quiet.
He peeked in one where two boys had apparently bought the entire trolley of snacks. Imagining the aftereffects of all that candy, he decided to try elsewhere.
Finally, he was able to find an unused room where he could sit by himself quietly.
Less than a minute later, a voice interrupted him, "Here's one. Come back when we've arrived, I need some rest."
Two other boys, rather stout, nodded and walked away.
"You don't mind do you?" The blond boy asked, not waiting for an answer before walking in to take a seat.
Choab gave a noncommittal smile and gestured to the seat opposite.
"Malfoy. Draco Malfoy." The boy said with arrogance and superiority in his voice.
"Choab." he said without expression.
Malfoy looked at him, as if willing him to give his full name.
Choab was not in the mood to be bullied, so he matched Malfoy's stare with his own indomitable resolve.
Their staring contest might have lasted all the way to Hogwart's if not for someone opening the door uninvited.
"Do you mind if I join you?" A frizzy haired girl asked hopefully.
"Yes." Both Malfoy and Choab answered simultaneously.
The girl got a shocked look, then slammed the door.
Malfoy and Choab looked at each other and smiled.
* * * * *
The rest of the trip to Hogwart's passed without conversation. Both boys were content with the silence and appreciated it.
Almost immediately after the train stopped, the two stout boys appeared at the door.
Malfoy nodded at Choab before leaving the cabin.
A moment later Choab left the cabin and followed the tide of students off the train.
A large man called, "First years, follow me!"
Choab immediately fell into line with the other first year students to follow.
After a pleasant night ride on some enchanted boats, they arrived at the grand castle that was Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Choab assessed the place carefully and decided that from the outside, it seemed a decent enough place to spend the next seven years.
* * * * *
As they reached the top of the stairs to enter the great hall, they were stopped by a witch that reminded Choab of the upstairs maid at the mansion, Millicent.
She blathered on about the sorting for a while which didn't interest Choab in the slightest, then they followed her in.
The ceiling was an impressive glamour that Choab had to admire. The floating candles seemed a bit showy, but he supposed that it was expected, what with people from all social classes attending and what not.
The group stood in a line at the front of the hall before a stool with a ratty old hat on it.
Choab was frankly impressed when it started to speak. That's when all the things he'd heard about the sorting came together in his mind and it finally made sense to him.
The first student was sorted into Gryffindor and you'd have thought from the ruckus he'd just invented broomless flight. Choab couldn't understand the fuss. He hadn't achieved anything, he hadn't won anything, he was simply sorted into his house.
The students seemed to cheer louder with each successive sorting and Choab couldn't wait until it was his turn, so he could sit down and be away from the focus of the shouting.
"Draconis Malfoy." Was called, and he watched as Malfoy was sorted into Slytherin to many cheers and much congratulations.
"Cherub Nightshade." The old witch, McGonigal said firmly.
A few whispers could be heard, mostly from the Slytherin table at the mention of his name.
Time seemed to stand still as the hat sat on his head and sorted through his mind.
After an exaggerated silence he finally heard the hat announce "Slytherin".
Choab walked to the Slytherin table and was greeted with handshakes and welcomed as part of the Slytherin family.
'So that's what it feels like, I've always wondered.' Choab thought to himself as he took a seat.
* * * * *
After a well prepared meal, and a somewhat longwinded speech by the headmaster, first years were led to their houses.
Choab followed along, trying to pay attention to where he was going so he wouldn't get lost later.
"The female Slytherin prefect led them to a blank wall in the lower level and told them the password.
As she said it, the doorway revealed itself and opened to them.
Choab walked in slowly and was impressed with what he saw.
The common room was large and well appointed.
It was filled with comfortable, good quality furnishings. The atmosphere was nothing short of luxurious.
"Boys, follow me." The male prefect said and started down a hall.
Choab followed, not sure what to expect next.
"Two rooms, four students each. You sort out where you go, or I'll sort you." The prefect said without humor or malice.
Draco Malfoy made a show of looking into each room before saying, "Crabbe, Goyle, and Choab. In here with me."
Choab looked at the other four boys who weren't chosen and saw the looks of disappointment and envy on their faces.
"Crabbe and Goyle, over there." Malfoy said and pointed at the two beds on the far side of the room.
"Choab." Malfoy said and pointed at the bed nearer the door.
Choab nodded and moved to his bed.
The luggage started appearing by each boys bed. Although Choab had never seen it before, he knew it to be the work of elves.
"Good. I'm glad to see they're on top of things." Malfoy said firmly as he started to unpack.
Choab opened his trunk and began to put his casual clothes away.
"What's that you've got there?" Malfoy asked, looking at several pairs of dark green, brown and black pants.
"I was told that we would need casual clothing." Choab said in confusion.
"Is that casual where you're from?" Malfoy asked, using something between a sneer and honest curiosity.
"Yes. What do you consider casual?" Choab asked curiously.
Malfoy moved to his trunk and pulled out a pair of very nice dark blue pants.
"I don't recall seeing that style when I was shopping. Do you think I should get some clothing like yours?" Choab asked hesitantly.
"No. Now that I've seen what you call casual, it makes my own casual clothes look rather common. Did you buy those in Diagon Alley?" Malfoy asked as he looked them over.
"Yes. The clothier on the main street directed us to a more discreet store for casual wear." Choab replied cautiously.
"I'll need to go there when next I visit." Malfoy said seriously, then went back to his own clothes.
Choab got to his robes and decided to hang them the easy way.
"Clotho Leviosa." He said with a wave of his wand.
The robes levitated in a row and hung themselves in the wardrobe.
"You're pretty good at that. But I wouldn't go showing off in class with it." Malfoy said casually.
Choab looked at Malfoy curiously.
"From what I've been told, some of the professors get a little put out if you learn anything before they've taught it to you." Malfoy said seriously.
"Thank you. I understand." Choab said in thought.
"We're from two of the oldest families here. We have to set the example for everyone else of what's expected." Malfoy said as he put the last of his robes away.
"Why?" Choab asked as he took a seat on the edge of his bed.
"We're kind of like the prize. If they live the right way, marry the right way, go to the right parties, socialize with the right friends, then some day maybe they'll get to be us." Malfoy said seriously.
Choab looked at Malfoy with confusion, trying to decide if he was joking or insane.
"Well, not literally, of course. But be like us. We are an example of what it is to have wealth, bloodlines, social standing and all the rest. It falls to us to show them that all that they go through to reach the top is worth it." Malfoy said as he took a seat on his own bed.
Choab thought about his words and finally looked at Malfoy with question.
Malfoy smiled and said, "You held my gaze and didn't cave in when I demanded something you weren't ready to give. You sat in comfortable silence with me on the trip here. I didn't know your name then, but I could see your breeding. Nightshade is a well respected family in the wizarding world and I'd be proud if I could call you my friend."
"I'd like that... what should I call you?" Choab asked cautiously.
"In private, when it's just the four of us, you can call me Draco. Outside, you should call me Malfoy." Draco said seriously.
Choab nodded in thought. When he looked up he saw Draco's expectant expression.
"Oh. Excuse me Draco. You may call me Choab outside. When we're alone... Cherub I guess. No one's ever really called me anything but Choab."
"What about Cherry?" Draco asked with a playful smile that looked somehow out of place on his face.
"No. I don't think so. Not a very flattering name." Choab said with a chuckle.
"But it is descriptive." Draco said with a sly smile, that looked more proper for him.
"Perhaps, but in my case, inaccurate." Choab said in response.
Draco's eyes went wide and he got an expectant look.
"Maybe I'll tell you later... not on the first date." Choab finished with a wink.
Crabbe and Goyle laughed from the other side of the room and drew Draco and Choab's attention.
"Sorry, small room." Goyle said, trying to hide his smile.
"Cherub, This is Goyle and the other one is Crabbe. Both these guys are from good families and I've known them for years. They've sort of volunteered to be my body guards until I get settled in." Draco said in a relaxed voice.
"Why do you need body guards?" Choab asked cautiously.
"Well. When you're dealing with people who are trying to climb socially, there's no problem. But there are mudbloods and mixbloods and a few families like the Weasleys here who have given up any hope of progressing socially and preach that breeding and social status doesn't matter anymore. When around those types, violence tends to erupt." Draco finished with irritation.
"There are mudbloods here?" Choab asked in wonder.
"Yes. They don't advertise it in the school literature, but witches and wizards born of muggle parents are allowed to attend here. I happen to know that there are a few in our year... not in Slytherin, of course." Draco said seriously.
"I had no idea. I've never even met a muggle." Choab said in awe.
"I can't say I've really talked to any myself. From what I've heard, we're better off for not having had the experience." Draco said seriously.
"Bloody boring, they are." Goyle said frankly.
"We met some over the summer. They kept going on and on about 'telly' this and 'telly' that till I was sick to death of it and wanted to punch 'em in the mouth." Crabbe said in a growl.
"What did you do?" Choab asked cautiously.
"I punched 'em in the mouth." Crabbe said in a tone of voice as if to say, 'isn't it obvious'.
A knock on the door preceded the entry of a tall, slender man. Choab recognized him as one of the professors.
"I am Professor Severus Snape." The man said, then paused to be sure he had everyone's undivided attention.
"I am the Head of your House.? If you are having problems in this school, you will go to your prefects or come to me and we will help you. As Slytherins you are expected to remain at the top scholastically by whatever means. I expect each of you to bear yourselves with the decorum and proper studiousness as befits your place in this school." Professor Snape said and looked at each boy to gauge their comprehension.
In a quieter tone, he continued, "Mr. Nightshade, a word with you."
Choab stood from his bed and walked to Professor Snape.
"Come along." Professor Snape said and walked out of the room.
Choab looked back into the room to see Draco, Goyle and Crabbe looking back at him.