Christmas was fast approaching. Snow piled up on the window sills, scarves and gloves came out of dusty old trunks, and fireplaces were lit up. All this meant that Steven had end of term tests soon. He started spending a lot of time studying in the Wishing Room up on the seventh floor. Casey was usually up there as well, but he had a few other students that he was tutoring, and didn't have a lot of time for Steven. Often they would just wave at each other on Steven's way out while Casey helped a younger student with Ancient Runes or Transfiguration.
The Monday before finals, Steven had been studying Transfiguration especially hard. He was still having trouble with turning a mouse into a match box; every time he tried the spell, the box would stay fluffy and squeak angrily if he tried to open it. He had read over his notes for hours on this particular spell, trying to get it just right. There had to be something he was missing.
He leaned back in his chair, and looked at the clock on the wall. It was nearly nine at night. Steven stretched and pondered the quote next to the clock, "Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it." He did need some kind of help with this Transfiguration spell, but the room was empty except for the ghost of a young woman reading in a corner. Steven felt a chill go up his spine. Alone with ghosts again? He gathered up his books and shoved them in his book bag, even though he had been planning on looking over some History of Magic before he left. He would try to get that done tomorrow. He glanced nervously up at the ghost, who was still absorbed in her book, and ducked out of the room. Steven breathed a sigh of relief. He still wasn't completely comfortable with ghosts, even after being here for almost four months.
Steven made his way down to his common room, gave the secret knock, and let himself in. He looked around. No ghosts. He smiled. There were just a few people hanging out and doing their studying on the large, overstuffed couches. Steven saw a girl on one end of one of the couches writing an essay. He flopped down on the other end, the whole couch bounced, and the girl's quill flew out of her hand.
Steven whipped around. He knew that voice.
"Yeah? Wha'cha want?"
Steven's stomach clenched. He really wasn't in the mood to deal with angsty girls at the moment.
"Nothing, I'll just go, sorry." He stood up to leave.
"Now don't get all miffed, I ain't gonna bite."
Steven felt like now he didn't have any excuse to leave. He slowly sat down on the couch, and tried to swallow the awkwardness he felt building up in the back of his throat.
"Um… what are you working on?"
"Wha', this thing?" Rina shook the paper. "Muggle Studies. Stupid subject. Like I don't get enough of studying my mum at home." Rina rolled her eyes. "I'd much rather work on the real magic like Transfiguration, 'stead of this tosh."
Steven narrowed his eyes at her. "Wait… you like Transfiguration? That's a really hard subject!"
"You think I'm some knobhead, do you?"
"N-No, I just thought, well, I mean... I'm rubbish at Transfiguration. I was studying just now for my practical exam. I can't even get a mouse to turn into a matchbox."
"Matchboxes? That's easy as pie, how'd you botch that up?"
"Well, um, here, I'll show you."
Steven pulled out the white mouse he had borrowed from the study room to practice on. He had put it in a small box with some air holes poked in the top, and had put some crumbs of cheese in a corner so it wouldn't be hungry. Steven placed the mouse on the desk, and cast the spell.
The mouse turned into a rectangle shaped lump of white fur, with a crease where it should slide open. Steven hoped against all hope that it would open, but when he tried, all that happened were angry squeaks.
Rina tsked, and sat closer to Steven, pulling his hand off the mouse.
"Don't hurt it, it's already unconf'table. You'll only make it worse, treatin' it like that."
Rina untransfigured the mouse, scooped it up, and started petting it.
"Your mouse has got to be willing to change in the first place, see? This one's right riled up, you'll never get it to do nothin'."
Rina took her quill and transfigured it into a gray mouse.
"'Ere. This one'll be much easier."
Steven held out his wand.
"Hold on a moment, let me look at your notes. What're you thinking of while you're castin' this?"
Steven handed over his notes. Rina looked over them for a moment, then shook her head.
"Nah, you've got it wrong, see?" She reached for her quill, then realised she'd turned it into the mouse. Steven grabbed one out of his own bag and handed it over.
"Thanks. Now, 'ere's what you got wrong."
Rina made some changes on Steven's notes, straightened his wand arm, gave him some extra pointers, and within five minutes, Steven had turned Rina's gray mouse into a perfectly functioning matchbox.
"Nice one!" Rina cheered.
Steven swelled with pride. "Thanks! I've been trying to figure that out for weeks."
"It's nuffin. Now change it back and try again."
The next week, Steven walked out of the Transfiguration exam with his head held high. He had turned his mouse into a perfect matchbox, complete with label. He was so proud of himself that he didn't see Professor Slughorn coming around the corner, and walked right into him.
"Oh, Professor sir, I'm so sorry, I didn't see you there."
Steven took a good look at Professor Slughorn. He had circles underneath his red eyes, and he seemed less jolly than usual.
"Hm? Oh, it's nothing my boy, nothing at all. My fault."
"Professor, are you alright? You look tired."
"Hm? No, not at all son, not at all." Professor Slughorn waved his hand as if to scare off a fly. "Just end of term fatigue, you know."
Steven shrugged. "I guess… Well, have a good holiday Professor." He started to walk off.
"Holidays… Oh yes, Steven, I've just remembered that I had a quick question for you."
Steven turned back to Professor Slughorn.
"Do you still spend time with Mr. Riddle?"
"Yes sir, sometimes."
"Wonderful boy. Just wonderful. I was just thinking," Slughorn put his arm around Steven's shoulder, "I believe Mr. Riddle is staying at school for the holidays. He has no family to speak of. I wish I could offer him a place to stay. But of course, I couldn't. As a professor I'll be here over the holidays, and be of no use whatsoever. But if you're willing, I thought maybe…"
Steven didn't owe Slughorn any favors, after the whole Slug Club fiasco. But it might be good to patch things up with Tom. And Steven would really love to introduce Tom to his family. He felt like Tom needed some little sisters in his life.
"Of course, Professor. I'll invite him to come home with me. Although I can't promise he'll say yes."
"Fantastic! Fantastic, I'm so relieved. That is to say, he's been so lonely and quiet lately, it will to him some good to be around a good family."
Steven smiled. "Yeah, that will be good."
"Well, I must get to the Great Hall. Potions exams, you know." Slughorn patted Steven on the back and headed off.
Steven headed back to his common room lost in thought. Slughorn had said he had a good family. But… he knew that Steven was a Muggle-born. On the other hand he had also let Walberga stay in his club because she came from a 'good family'. What did that even mean, to have a 'good family'? Did it mean family with nice parents that loved you, or a family that had a name with a long magical history, like the Blacks? And what about people like Tom, who may have had important magical lineage, like Sylvia said, but didn't even know who his parents were? Did he have a 'good family'? If Tom's family was good, why would they leave him all alone? Steven shook his head, trying not to think about it anymore.
He opened the door to his common room, and saw Rina sitting at a desk. He smiled and headed over to her.
"Hey Rina, thanks so much for helping me with Transfiguration last week! I totally aced the exam! I even got the label on there."
Rina glanced up from her essay. "Ex'lent! She open and everything?"
"Grand." She went back to her essay. "Sorry, this is nearly done."
Steven waited for her to finish, bouncing on his toes.
"And… done. Bloody Muggle Studies… This is due tonight, started it a fortnight ago. Couldn't get enough to fill a bleedin' bit of parchment…"
"There were even working matches inside!"
"That's just grand, Steve."
"And now, I can just wait for the holidays." Steven flopped onto the couch. "No more homework or anything… I can't wait to go home, and see our Christmas tree, and eat my Mum's pie… Not that the Hogwarts pies aren't amazing, but you know... "
"Yeah. That'll be nice for you, won't it?" Rina rolled up her essay and put her book bag over her shoulder. "I better turn this in before Professor McCoy gets his knickers in a twist." She headed out the door and waved over her shoulder.
Steven went upstairs to his dormitory, a little confused at Rina leaving so quickly. It was only after he had put on his pajamas and got into bed that he remembered that Rina and her mum were not on good terms. She probably wasn't going home at all for the holidays. His eyes shot open and he gripped his sheets. He had been so terribly rude, talking about his mum's pies when Rina probably wouldn't get any pie if she was going home at all. Rina didn't have a good family in any sense of the word. Maybe he should ask her to spend the holidays with him instead of Tom.
Steven pulled the sheets over his head. He wouldn't be getting a lot of sleep tonight.