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Snakes and Ladders by Sheriff
Chapter 1 : Convalescence
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 4

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The distinctive form of a long-eared owl spread its wings wide as it neared the quiet Devon village of Chudleigh, allowing the draughts of wind that blew onshore to guide it down towards the roofs below. The bird’s yellow eyes picked out the nondescript form of 11, Manaton Close, and the diamond piping that covered the glass of an upstairs window. The owl tucked in its wings, swooping downwards to perch beside the pane and begin to tap, insistently, on the frame.

On the other side of the glass, a twelve-year-old boy stirred in his bed, blinking his eyes open as the noise grew louder. ‘I’m coming, I’m coming....’ Greg Bennett muttered, though he knew no one could hear. He dragged a set of dark blue curtains open, searching for the source of the noise, before his eyes fell on the owl. ‘Hello there, Marazion.’ The boy smiled, unfastening a latch on the window and allowing the bird to hop through with a contented chirrup. ‘Have a treat,’ he reached for a bowl that sat further along the windowsill, offering a handful of small biscuits to the owl, which seemed content to accept the food. In return, the twelve-year-old unfastened a small strip of parchment from the bird’s leg, trotting back over to his bed to digest its contents.

‘Miss Pomfrey will Apparate you in,’ Greg read aloud. ‘She says she’ll meet you at two o’clock.’ He squinted, searching for the untidy scrawl of a signature that sat in the bottom corner of the paper, finally picking out the sender’s name – “Josh”.

Greg turned the paper over, wondering for a moment whether to scribble a reply, before concluding that the bird wouldn’t be able to return before he himself arrived. ‘You can go, Marazion,’ he called out, watching the bird step back through the open window before taking off into the morning sky. Greg smoothed the parchment out, placing it on top of a small stack of similar letters on his bedside table, before lifting a hard-bound book from the floor next to his bed.

The twelve-year-old ran his hand through an untidy blond fringe, stretching out over his duvet as he flicked through the heavy volume to a page titled “House Quidditch”, and begun to read it out. ‘Gryffindor’s grasp on the House Quidditch title was loosened in spectacular fashion this summer, following an unprecedented penalty shoot-out defeat against a Slytherin side that counted four first-years amongst their number.’ A wide grin spread across the boy’s face as he read the sentence again, recalling the moment when his friend Lucas Brand had scored the goal that confirmed their team’s victory. Nobody had given the team a chance going into the season, and not without reason, as the previous year had seen Slytherin finish bottom of the standings by a record margin, but – with the help of a little good fortune on the way – the tables had turned.

The letter that had arrived that morning, however, had not come from a team mate, or even a fellow Slytherin, but from a boy who had spent much of the year at odds with Greg and his friends, until the end of the summer term at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It had taken a chain of supernatural events to break the hostility, as the Wild Hunt, a battalion of hostile spirits, had attacked the school, and – more specifically – Jacob Tregeagle, the Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, and Joshua’s father. With this threat hanging over their school, the first-years had managed to overcome their House rivalry and work together towards defeating the Hunt.

Joshua’s father had not recovered completely from the attack, though, and it was for this reason that the two Tregeagles remained at the school. At least, this was what Joshua had said on the final day of term when he had tentatively invited Greg to stay at the castle: a request that Greg had accepted without hesitation. Now, however, as he re-read the story of Slytherin’s season, and remembered the way that the Gryffindor children had treated his own House, not to mention a number of his other friends, for much of the year, he found himself having second thoughts.

Greg flicked through his copy of the school yearbook, searching for the pages that held pictures of the pupils themselves, and their snapshot memories of the year. He knew the Slytherins had filled a page with a photograph of the celebrations after the Quidditch Cup playoff, but he had never bothered to read the other Houses’ entries.

‘Gryffindor,’ Greg read, ‘Ciaran Abercrombie,’ his eyes picked out a picture of a sandy-haired boy, who waved shyly back. ‘Best Memory: making so many new friends from all the other Houses.’ He looked down the page. ‘Spencer Dawlish,’ a boy with spiky black hair barely looked back out of the book. ‘Best Memory: making the right choice.’ Greg sighed, looking back to the boy’s forlorn expression. ‘Joshua Tregeagle,’ a boy with dull, mousy hair and a rash of freckles stared back despondently, above a blank space where Greg knew his favourite memory ought to lie.

Greg shook his head, shutting the book and pushing himself up from his bed, gazing into a mirror on the far wall of his bedroom, and wondering what he would have written had he needed to come up with his own favourite memory. He crossed his hands over his chest, covering the scattered freckles that that splashed over his shoulders. ‘Maybe that day when the Gryffindors started to trust me,’ he thought aloud, ‘or the day I met Glyn,’ he wondered. ‘I don’t think I’d have put that down, though. Maybe I would have put the Quidditch final.’

He pulled open a drawer, grabbing the first t-shirt he could find from the top of a pile, and trudged slowly downstairs to the kitchen. ‘Morning, Mum,’ he offered, greeting his mother as she bustled past.

‘Morning, Greg,’ Elaine Bennett echoed, busily cleaning one of the kitchen worktops as her only son reached for a glass of orange juice before settling around a circular table in the centre of the room. ‘Everything packed? Do you know how you’re getting there?’

‘Yes, Mum,’ the twelve-year-old nodded placidly, swallowing a mouthful of his drink. ‘Someone’s coming to collect me at two,’ he answered, before pre-empting the next question, ‘and everything’s packed.’ He smiled.

‘Who is it you’re going to stay with, again?’ Elaine enquired.

‘Josh Tregeagle,’ Greg answered. ‘His Dad works at the school,’ he didn’t expand on the events of the last weeks of term. ‘He’s a teacher.’

‘That’s nice,’ his mother nodded. ‘Is he coming to pick you up?’

‘No,’ Greg shuddered, grateful for a moment that his mother had her back to him. ‘He’s busy,’ the boy lied, before deciding to add a garnish of truth. ‘That’s why I’m going, to keep Josh company.’ Greg swallowed another mouthful of orange juice, reflecting on how easily he had deceived his mother. Slytherin, he thought to himself, before shaking his head, but so what?

A sharp crack, a similar sound to a car backfiring, signalled the arrival of Poppy Pomfrey, the school nurse, and Greg’s route back to his boarding school, a couple of minutes before two o’clock. ‘Good afternoon,’ she greeted Elaine Bennett primly as Greg’s mother opened the front door. ‘A pleasure to meet you.’

‘You too,’ Elaine answered, introducing herself. ‘I assume you are here for Greg?

The nurse nodded, glancing around the small house’s hallway. ‘Is he ready?’ She adjusted the collar of her smart, black dress as the twelve-year-old appeared, changed into a dark pair of jeans and a simple white t-shirt, dragging a black carryall down the staircase. ‘You have everything?’

‘Yes,’ Greg answered, mechanically. ‘I packed last night.’

‘Excellent,’ Nurse Pomfrey acknowledged, ‘and have you Apparated before?’

‘Once,’ the boy answered, with a shiver.

The nurse dug into a pocket on the front of her dress, fishing for a small, orange tablet. ‘For Apparition sickness,’ she explained, offering it to the twelve-year-old, who smiled, self-consciously, as he took it.

‘Apparation?’ Elaine Bennett questioned, abruptly. ‘What’s Apparition?’

‘Magical transportation,’ the nurse answered, matter-of-factly, ‘straightforward once you get used to it, but a little...’ she paused, searching for the right word, ‘...unsettling for first-timers.’ She held out her hand towards Greg, who turned back towards his mother, throwing his arms around her.

‘Bye, Mum,’ he breathed, ‘see you next week.’

‘Goodbye, Greg,’ she returned the boy’s hug, kissing her son on the forehead. ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.’

‘I’ll be good,’ the boy blushed, returning to the nurse and taking her offered hand, before the two of them vanished with another loud crack, reappearing a few moments later – and several hundred miles away – beside an imposing pair of iron gates.

‘You can’t Apparate into Hogwarts, Greg,’ the nurse explained, taking out her wand and pointing it towards the gates as she whispered a complex set of incantations. ‘Security,’ she added, leading the twelve-year-old onto a wide gravelled track that led up to the castle itself. Greg, still feeling a little queasy after the Apparition, didn’t trust himself to both answer and keep his dinner inside his stomach, and so settled for a curt nod, following without complaint as Madam Pomfrey led him to a door near the base of Gryffindor tower.

‘Joshua,’ the nurse announced, peering into an untidy bedroom as she scuttled through the doorway, ‘your friend is here.’

‘Greg!’ The blond boy heard his name being called before he saw its speaker, as Joshua Tregeagle sprung to his feet, knocking a pile of spellbooks to the ground as he hurtled to greet the newcomer, only to slow down as he came face to face with the Slytherin. ‘Hi,’ his face paled as he swallowed, looking down at the bottoms of Greg’s jeans, and suddenly reminding the other boy of his melancholy yearbook photograph.

‘Hey,’ Greg smiled as warmly as he could, holding his hand up for his friend to weakly high-five. ‘You alright?’

‘I guess,’ Joshua shrugged, turning back to his bedroom and navigating a treacherous path back to his unmade bed. His hair was tangled and unkempt, and the unbuttoned cotton shirt that he wore above a pair of knee-length shorts didn’t seem to have received much more care.

‘Has Spencer been yet?’ Greg asked casually, but the other boy shook his head, glumly.

‘Not till the end of August,’ Joshua answered, sinking back onto his crumpled duvet. ‘It’s just been Miss Pomfrey,’ he nodded towards the doorway, ‘looking after Dad.’

‘What have you done?’ Greg asked, glancing around the untidy room, from the stack of spellbooks that Joshua had knocked over in the haste to greet his visitor, a broomstick covered in an apparently neglected pile of Quidditch padding, and a scattered set of gobstones.

Joshua shrugged, before looking away to gaze out of his window and onto the school’s grounds. ‘Not much,’ he answered, quietly.

Greg hesitated, before sitting down on the end of the other boy’s bed, just as his friend turned back to him in a rush. ‘What was I meant to do?’ He gasped, as his eyes began to burn, and though Greg shook his head, Joshua’s outburst continued. ‘It’s been nearly two weeks,’ he snapped, ‘no one’s been here! Not even a house elf!’ He gestured to the chaotic condition of the room around him, and Greg found himself remembering the state in which he had found Joshua in the school library on the day when the two boys’ friendship had begun.

‘How much have you been eating?’ He paraphrased one of the first questions he’d asked the Gryffindor that afternoon, glancing at his friend’s thin waist as he spoke.

Joshua looked away again.

‘Josh?’ Greg pressed. ‘I’m serious,’ he looked back at the other boy’s pale chest, where a scattering of freckles stood out over his ribcage.

‘I didn’t like what the house elf brought,’ Joshua dodged the question feebly.

‘Well, you know where the kitchen is!’ The Slytherin was surprised at the force in his voice, but the other boy shook his head, sadly. ‘I can’t remember how to get in,’ he sniffed, a tear beginning to roll down his cheek.

‘Shit...’ Greg muttered, scrambling along the bed to sit beside his friend. ‘You should have said,’ he held an arm around Joshua’s shoulders, ‘in one of your letters. I’d have told you,’ he chided, ‘I’d even have come up earlier. Why didn’t you?’

Joshua shrugged, still avoiding his friend’s gaze. ‘Don’t know.’

Greg took a deep breath, before calmly making a suggestion. ‘Gryffindor Pride?’

The other boy snorted, before shaking his head sadly. ‘If that was it, I would never have invited you in the first place,’ he sighed. ‘I wish we never got split into Houses like this. I hated you for almost all the year, just because the Hat said Slytherin.’

Greg swallowed, but he didn’t respond. He had known that the boy’s last sentence was true – and indeed he had felt the same way in return – but, for some reason, hearing it said aloud made it feel altogether more personal.

‘I don’t hate you any more,’ Joshua filled the silence, turning back to his friend and brushing a matted forelock away from his eyes.

‘Good,’ Greg managed a thin smile, ‘it’d have been a bit weird if you’d asked me to stay and you still did...’

Joshua’s eyes sparkled for a moment, as a thin smile edged across his face. ‘Your jokes are worse than Kennedy’s,’ the Gryffindor recalled the seventh-year Ravenclaw boy who had taught part of their History of Magic course the previous term.

Greg stuck his tongue out. ‘If you’re gonna be like that, I might just go home again,’ he tried to keep a straight face, but failed to prevent a grin from breaking out as the other boy elbowed him in the side. ‘You’re right though,’ he counselled, ‘but the Houses don’t have to be like that, do they?’

Joshua shook his head. ‘I wish they weren’t.’

‘Well, let’s make it that way,’ Greg insisted. ‘By the time we’re prefects, it won’t matter what House you’re in.’

‘Okay,’ Joshua nodded, resolutely, and Greg smiled brightly.

‘Shall we go to the kitchens, then?’ The blond boy sprung to his feet, carefully ensuring he would land between the debris on his friend’s bedroom floor. ‘Pay attention this time, so you know how to get in!’

Joshua rolled his eyes, before dragging himself to his feet and following his friend to the doorway. ‘Yes, sir,’ he muttered, and Greg laughed.

‘It’s the pear,’ the Slytherin emphasised the name of the fruit as he reached out to stroke the portrait that guarded the kitchens’ entrance. ‘You’ve got to tickle it!’ Greg bent down as the painting swung backwards, allowing the two boys through, to be greeted by a swarm of house-elves.

‘Hello,’ Greg raised his voice in greeting. ‘My friend,’ he paused, emphasising the word and causing the other boy to laugh as he remembered the first time the two of them had visited the kitchens, ‘hasn’t eaten properly in, like, two weeks. Make him the best dinner he’s ever had.’ Greg sat down on a squat stool beside a worktop-come-table on one side of the kitchen, and waited for Joshua to join him. ‘This time I know I really mean it,’ he grinned, watching the house-elves busy themselves with the task he had given them, planting a plateful of steaming cuts of meat, garnished with a generous helping of fresh salad, in front of the other boy.

‘Thank you,’ Joshua mumbled, through a mouthful of steak, and the elves beamed.

‘Can we be getting anything for you, master?’ The lead elf turned to Greg.

‘Oh, no,’ he hesitated as he saw the elf’s expression falter. ‘Well,’ he corrected himself, ‘just a glass of lemonade, please.’

No sooner than he had asked for it, a glass – full to the brim – had appeared on the table by his side.

‘Thanks,’ Greg smiled, leaving the elves to return to whatever they had been doing before the two boys had disturbed them, and allowing Joshua to finish his meal uninterrupted. ‘Good?’ He ventured, a little more than a quarter of an hour later, as his friend polished off the last of the meat.

‘Yes,’ Joshua nodded, wiping the juices away from his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘Awesome,’ he grinned.

Greg laughed. ‘Cool,’ he swallowed the last mouthful of his lemonade. ‘Did you have any plans for the rest of the day?’

Joshua shook his head. ‘I never really thought about it,’ he admitted. ‘I suppose we could explore the castle,’ he offered, ‘all the places no one ever goes... there’s meant to be secret passages and everything.’

‘Yeah, alright,’ Greg smiled. ‘Why not?’

‘Hey, Josh, you live here!’ Greg coughed through a mouthful of dust as the two children stumbled out of a cupboard that Greg thought couldn’t have been opened in more than a century. ‘How come you didn’t know that was full of junk?’

‘Do you know how big this castle is?’ The other boy laughed through a cough of his own. ‘I bet there’s bits even McGonagall doesn’t know about properly...’

Greg shrugged. ‘Do you think anyone knows about every room at Hogwarts?’

‘Maybe,’ Joshua led his friend up a wide staircase, ‘but who cares? It’s not exploring if you know where you’re going, is it? Wouldn’t it be cool if we found somewhere that none of the other kids knew about...?’

Greg nodded, enthusiastically, ‘as long as we could find it again...’ he paused for a moment’s thought. ‘Things keep changing as well, like the staircases, don’t they?’

‘Yeah,’ Joshua recalled. ‘We got so lost once in the first week of term... We went one way, then we realised it was a dead end, so we tried to go back, but then the staircase had gone all together.’

‘Sucks to be a first-year,’ Greg observed, ‘unless you don’t have to muck around with all these bloody staircases, and have a nice, sensible dungeon to spend your time in...’

‘Piss off,’ Joshua laughed, leading the other boy along a wide corridor on the seventh floor. ‘It’s a freezing cold dungeon, isn’t it?’

‘We’ve got these things called fireplaces,’ Greg slowed his voice to a patronising pace. ‘You might have heard of them,’ he smirked, ‘and we can turn them off, too, so we can sleep at night when it’s hot as well.’

‘Whatever,’ Joshua ignored his friend’s jibe, heading further along the corridor, only to turn back and retrace his steps when he noticed the other boy hadn’t followed. ‘Come on, Greg,’ he nagged, ‘that’s just a dumb painting of St Barnabas, trying to train trolls to do ballet. I wanna see what’s in the East Tower.’

‘Fine...’ Greg muttered, turning to follow his friend, only to stop dead in his tracks as a wide door appeared in the wall on his left. ‘Um, Josh,’ he called down the corridor.

‘What?’ The Gryffindor turned round. ‘Greg... you said...’ he tailed off, noticing the doorway that had made the other boy call his name. ‘That wasn’t there before,’ his voice wavered. ‘Was it?’

Greg shook his head.

‘Shall we go in?’ Joshua suggested, but the other boy baulked at his friend’s idea.

‘Are you sure?’ Greg shuddered. ‘We don’t know what’s in there. It just appeared as you walked past it...’

‘What’s the worst thing it could be?’ Joshua shot back.

Greg raised his eyebrows. ‘I don’t even want to think about the answer to that question.’

‘Alright,’ Joshua nodded, slowly, retracing his steps again to stand beside his friend. ‘Wands out,’ he proposed. ‘We’ll go in together.’ The Gryffindor gripped his wand tightly in his right hand, before reaching for the ornate door handle with his left, and pulling it toward him. ‘What on earth...’

Greg followed Joshua through the doorway, carefully closing it behind him, as the two boys paced slowly into a room that Greg thought looked almost exactly like one corner of the school library, right down to the colour and shape of the furniture that lay scattered around. It was no wider than his own bedroom, although the set of windows that gazed out over the school’s vast grounds was at least three times as high as his own room’s walls. On either side of a small circular table and a set of low stools, there stood a pair of high, but sparsely populated, bookcases, although neither boy paid any heed to the books within.

‘What on earth is this place?’ Joshua blinked, turning to his friend, only to stop, mid-motion, as a fresh piece of parchment appeared in the centre of the table. ‘Hang on... Did that just...’

Greg nodded, scrambling to sit on one of the low stools, and dragging the parchment towards himself. ‘This is the Room of Requirement,’ he read out a clear script that snaked across the page in front of him. ‘It is what you wish it to be.’

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