James Potter and the
Hall of Elders' Crossing
G. Norman Lippert
Based upon the characters and worlds of J. K. Rowling
Then I have an ivory chair high to sit upon,
Almost like my father's chair, which is an ivory throne;
There I sit uplift and upright, there I sit alone.
- Christina Rossetti
1. Shadow of Legends
2. Arrival of the Alma Alerons
3. The Ghost and the Intruder
4. The Progressive Element
5. The Book of Austramaddux
6. Harry's Midnight Meeting
7. Broken Loyalties
8. The Grotto Keep
9. The Debate Betrayal
10. Holiday at Grimmauld Place
11. The Three Relics
13. Revelation of the Robe
14. The Hall of the Elders' Crossing
15. The Muggle Spy
16. Disaster of the Merlin Staff
17. Night of the Returning
18. The Tower Assembly
19. Secrets Unveiled
20. Tale of the Traitor
21. The Gift of the Green Box
Mr. Grey peeked around the corner and surveyed the corridor. It stretched off into dim infinity, dotted with floating globes of silvery light. Mr. Grey had been told that the globes were swampfire, encased in a timeloop charm so they were inextinguishable. He'd never even heard of swampfire, much less a timeloop charm, but then again, Mr. Grey had never been in a place quite like the Hall of Mysteries. He shuddered.
"I don't see anybody," he whispered to the two figures behind him. "No gates or locks, neither. Do you think maybe they're using invisible barriers or something?"
"Nar," a gravely voice answered. "We was told exactly where the beacons were placed, wasn't we? This section's clean. Sentry's all we have to worry about. If you don' see him, then move in."
Mr. Grey shuffled his feet. "I know what we was told, but it don't feel right, Bistle. I has a sense about these things. Me mam always said so."
"Don't call me Bistle, yeh sodding half-wit," said the gravely voice, which belonged to a particularly grizzly goblin in black shirt and trousers. "I'm Mr. Saffron when we're on the job. And blast yehr sixth sense. Yeh're just a great coward whenever yeh get in an unfamiliar place. The sooner we get on, the sooner it'll be over and we'll be back to the shack to celebrate."
The third figure, a tall, old man with a pointed, white goatee, stepped past Mr. Saffron and walked casually down the corridor, scanning the doors.
"See how Mr. Pink does it?" Mr. Saffron said, following closely and glancing around. "Knows to trust his information, he does. No sentry, no problems. Right, Mr. Pink?"
Mr. Grey trailed behind Mr. Saffron, frowning massively and watching the mysterious doors. There were hundreds--maybe thousands--of them along the endless corridor. None had names or markings of any kind. In the lead, Mr. Pink could be heard counting softly under his breath.
"Why do I have to be Mr. Grey?" Mr. Grey said petulantly. "Nobody likes grey. It's hardly even a color at all."
The goblin ignored him. After several minutes, Mr. Pink stopped walking. Mr. Saffron and Mr. Grey halted behind him, looking around the corridor with furrowed brows.
"Can't be the place, Mr. Pink," the goblin said. "There's no doors in this section at all. Are yeh sure yeh counted aright?"
"I counted right," Mr. Pink said. He glanced down at the floor, and then scuffed at a section of the marble tile with his toe. There was a chip in the corner of one of the tiles. Mr. Pink grunted and knelt down. He probed the broken corner with a finger. He nodded to himself, then hooked his finger into the hole and gave a tug. A rectangular section of the tile floor popped upwards, pulled open by Mr. Pink's tugging finger. He heaved and the rectangular chunk of floor slid upwards like a long, vertical drawer, rising with a grating rumble until it touched the ceiling. It shuddered into place. It was as wide and tall as a door, but only a few inches thick. Mr. Grey peered around it and could see the endless corridor of the Hall of Mysteries stretching away behind it.
"How'd yeh know that was there?" Mr. Saffron demanded, slitting his eye up at Mr. Pink.
"She told me," Mr. Pink responded, shrugging.
"She did, did she? Anything else you might know that you hain't told us about, yet?"
"Just enough to get us there," Mr. Pink replied. "You're the lock breaker, Mr. Grey is the heavy hand, and I'm the mapper. We all know what we need to know, and nothing else."
"Yar, yar, I remember," the goblin grumbled. "Let me get on with it, then, won't yeh?"
Mr. Pink stood aside as Mr. Saffron moved closer to the slab of mysterious stone. He studied it carefully, squinting and muttering. He laid one of his huge ears against it and tapped here and there. Finally, he reached into a pocket of his black shirt and produced a complicated device made of dozens of brass loops. He unfolded one and peered through it at the stone slab.
"Hardly worth the effort, really," he muttered. "It's a homunculus lock. Only opens when a predefined set of factors is present. Could be it only opens when a redheaded lass sings the national anthem of Atlantis at three o'clock on a Thursday. Or when the light of the setting sun is reflected from a cracked mirror onto a goat's eye. Or when Mr. Grey hawks a bogey onto a purple newt. I've seen some good homunculus factors in my time, yar."
"Is this a good one, then?" Mr. Grey asked rather hopefully.
The goblin grinned, showing lots of tiny, pointed teeth. "S'like Mr. Pink says, isn't it? We all knows what we need to get the job done." He reached into another pocket and produced a tiny glass vial filled with red powder. Carefully, the goblin uncorked the vial and upended the contents onto the floor before the stone slab. The powder swirled and eddied as it fell, so that as it hit the ground, it formed an unnaturally regular pattern. Mr. Grey peered down and saw that it had formed the shape of a skeletal hand with one finger pointing toward the slab.
Mr. Saffron produced a tiny brass tool and muttered, "Acculumos." A narrow beam of greenish light glowed from the end of the tool. The goblin squatted and carefully laid the tool across the bony hand so that the light pointed at the exact angle of the pointing, skeletal finger.
Mr. Grey gasped and took a step backwards. Seen in the carefully arranged light of Mr. Saffron's tool, the rough stone surface of the slab was no longer random. The play of light and shadow revealed an ornate engraving of a grinning skeleton surrounded by dancing, impish shapes. The skeleton's right hand was outstretched, forming something like a door handle. The left hand was missing, and Mr. Pink shuddered again, realizing it was the shape formed in red powder on the floor.
"It's a danse macabre," Mr. Saffron said, studying the engraving. "A dance of death. Revealed with powdered dragon's blood and cavernlight. Yar, it's a good one, Grey."
"Is it unlocked, then?" Mr. Pink asked briskly.
"Never was locked," the goblin replied. "We just had to know where to grasp. Feel free to do the honors, Mr. Pink."
The tall, bearded man approached the slab, careful not to block the greenish light. He reached forward and wrapped his hand around the outstretched fist of the skeletal engraving. He turned it, producing a low, grinding click. The engraved shape of the door swung inwards, revealing a large, dark space and a sound of distant, dripping water. Cold air pushed out of the opening, filling the corridor and ruffling Mr. Saffron's black shirt. Mr. Grey shivered as the sweat on his forehead went cold.
"Where's that go to? That space isn't even here, if you know what I mean."
"Of course it isn't," Mr. Saffron replied tersely, but he was clearly shaken as well. "It's the hidden depository. We was told about it, just like everything else. That's where the chest is. Come now, we haven't much time."
Mr. Pink led them through the doorway, ducking to fit through. It became apparent by the smell and the echo of their footsteps that they were in a deep cavern. Mr. Pink produced his wand and illuminated it, but it revealed little more than the shiny, wet rock beneath their feet. The blackness sucked at the light, and Mr. Grey had the sense that they were in a place so deep that it had never known sunlight. Raw, musty cold pressed onto their skin, chilling them after the warmth of the corridor. Mr. Grey glanced back once and could just see the shape of the door leading back. It glowed like a pillar of silvery light, almost as if it were a mirage.
"Wh-where do you think we are?" he asked.
"Air pocket in a cavern under the Atlantic ocean," Mr. Pink replied, still walking.
"Under…" Mr. Grey said faintly, then swallowed. "I got a bad sense about this. Really bad. I want to go back, Bistle."
"Don't call me Bistle," the goblin said automatically.
"What's in this chest, anyway?" Mr. Grey moaned. "It better be worth a lot. I can't think of anything worth coming to a place like this."
"Never yeh mind that," Mr. Saffron said gruffly. "It's more than yeh've ever dreamed of. We'll never have to work like this again. No more petty cons and midnight holdups for us. Once we get the chest, we'll be set for good."
"But what is it?" Mr. Grey insisted. "What's in the chest?"
"Well, yeh'll just wait and see, won't yeh?"
Mr. Grey stopped walking. "You don't know, do you?"
Mr. Saffron sputtered. "It doesn't matter what it is, yeh great dummy. We was told it was more than we could ever dream of, wasn't we? Alls we have to do is nick the box and gives a twenty percent share to our inside informer. They'd hardly help us break into the Ministry of Magic if they didn't have a prize bit of swag in mind, would they? Mr. Pink knows what it is, anyway. Why don't yeh arsk him?"
"I don't know either," Mr. Pink said thoughtfully.
There was a long moment of silence. Mr. Grey heard the steady drip of water echoing out of the darkness.
Finally Mr. Saffron said, "Yeh don't know neither?"
Mr. Pink shook his head slowly, barely visible in his own wand light.
The goblin frowned. "Each of us only knows what we needs to know, aye?"
"All we need to know is where to go," Mr. Pink said. "Once we get there, we'll know what to do."
The goblin nodded, remembering. "All right, then. Let's go, Mr. Pink. You're the mapper."
"We're there," Mr. Pink replied. "It's Grey's job from here." He turned and shone his wand ahead of them. A horrible, monstrous face loomed out of the blackness, lit in the feeble silvery light. Mr. Grey's knees went watery.
"It's jest a statue, yeh ninny," Mr. Saffron growled. "It's the dragon's head we were tol' about. Go on and open it. Earn your share, Mr. Grey."
"I hate that name," Mr. Grey said, walking toward the dragon's head statue. It was taller than he was, formed eerily from the stalactites and stalagmites of the cavern wall. "I wanted to be Mr. Purple. I like purple."
He crouched and slipped his hands between the snaggle teeth of the dragon's upper jaw. Mr. Grey was unusually strong, but lifting the dragon's jaw required every ounce of his formidable power. Sweat streamed down his face and neck as he strained, but the statue wouldn't budge. Finally, just as Mr. Grey was certain he would tear his muscles loose from his bones, there was a glassy shattering sound and the jaw jarred loose. The stalactites that formed the hinge of the jaw had broken. Mr. Grey heaved the jaw upwards until it was high enough for the others to scramble through.
"Hurry!" he ordered through gritted teeth.
"Just don't drop the blasted thing on us," Mr. Saffron whined as he and Mr. Pink ducked into the gaping dragon's jaw.
The opening behind the dragon's head was low and almost perfectly round. Stalactites and stalagmites surrounded the space like pillars supporting a smooth, domed ceiling. The stone floor was terraced, leading down to the center where a strange shape sat in the darkness.
"It's not a chest," Mr. Pink stated flatly.
"Nar," Mr. Saffron agreed. "But it's the only thing here, isn't it? Think we can lug it between us?"
Mr. Pink descended the terraces, leaving the goblin to scramble after him. They studied the object for a moment, and then Mr. Pink placed his wand between his teeth. He bent down, grasping the object, and nodded for the goblin to grasp the other side. It was surprisingly light, though crusted with calcium and mineral. Clumsily, they carried the object between them, hefting it up the terraces. Mr. Pink's wand light bobbed and jerked, making their shadows leap wildly on the pillared walls.
Finally, they heaved the object through the open jaw of the dragon's head statue. Mr. Grey was sweating profusely, his knees trembling. When he saw that his companions were out of the way, he released the upper jaw. It slammed down and shattered, producing a cloud of gritty dust and a deafening crash. Mr. Grey collapsed backward onto the stony floor of the cavern, faint with exertion.
"So what is it?" Mr. Saffron asked, ignoring Mr. Grey's heaving breaths. "It doesn't look like it's worth a fortune."
"I never said it was worth a fortune," a voice said from the blackness behind them. "I merely said it was enough to take care of you for life. Funny how many meanings a phrase like that can have, isn't it?"
Mr. Saffron wheeled around, seeking the source of the voice, but Mr. Pink turned slowly, almost as if he'd expected it. A shape formed out of the darkness. It was draped in black robes. The face was obscured behind a horrible glinting mask. Two more similarly dressed figures emerged from the darkness.
"I recognize your voice," Mr. Pink said. "I should've known."
"Yes," the voice agreed. "You should've, Mr. Fletcher, but you didn't. Your years of experience are no match for your innate greed. And now it is too late."
"Wait now," Mr. Saffron cried, throwing up his hands. "We had us a bargain. Yeh can't do this! We had a deal!"
"Yes we did, my goblin friend. Thank you very much for your services. Here is your cut."
A flash of orange light leapt from one of the masked figures, striking Mr. Saffron in the face. He stumbled and clutched at his throat, making thick choking sounds. He collapsed backwards, still writhing.
Mr. Grey stood shakily to his feet. "That's not right. You shouldn't have done that to Bistle. He only did what you asked."
"And we are only doing what we promised," the voice behind the mask said pleasantly. There was another jet of orange light and Mr. Grey collapsed heavily.
The three masked figures drifted closer, surrounding Mr. Pink. He looked around at them
hopelessly. "At least tell me what it is," he said. "Tell me what this thing is that you made us get for you, and why you made us do it instead of doing it yourselves."
"Your last question, I am afraid, is none of your business, Mr. Fletcher," the voice said, circling him. "As they say: if we told you, we'd have to kill you. That would not be living up to our end of the bargain. We promised to take care of you for life, and we intend to fulfill that promise. It may not be much of a life, granted, but beggars cannot be choosers."
A wand appeared, pointing at Mr. Pink's face. He hadn't used the name Fletcher for years. He'd given it up when he'd given up being a crook. He'd tried so hard to be good and honest. But then he'd been approached about this job: an inside job at the Ministry of Magic, a job so perfect, with a payoff so grand, that he simply couldn't turn it down. Sure, all his old friends in the Order would be disappointed in him, but most of them were dead now, anyway. Nobody even knew his real name anymore. Or so he thought. Apparently these people had known who he really was all along. They'd used him, and now he was going to be disposed of. It was fitting, in a way. He sighed.
The voice went on. "As for your first question, however, I expect we can answer that. It seems only fair. And after today, who could you possibly tell? You came looking for a chest of riches because you are a small man with small aims. We are not small, Mr. Fletcher. Our aims are grand. And thanks to you and your cohorts, we now have everything we need to accomplish those aims. Our goal is power, and what you see here is the means to that power. What you see here, Mr. Fletcher… is simply the end of your world."
Hopelessness filled Mundungus Fletcher and he fell to his knees. When the jet of orange light struck him, choking him, covering him with darkness, he welcomed it. He embraced it.
1. Shadow of Legends
James Potter moved slowly along the narrow aisles of the train, peering as nonchalantly as he could into each compartment. To those inside, he probably looked as if he was searching for someone, some friend or group of confidantes with whom to pass the time during the trip, and this was intentional. The last thing that James wanted anyone to notice was that, despite the bravado he had so recently displayed with his younger brother Albus on the platform, he was nervous. His stomach knotted and churned as if he'd had half a bite of one of Uncles Ron and George's Puking Pastilles. He opened the folding door at the end of the passenger car and stepped carefully through the passage into the next one. The first compartment was full of girls. They were talking animatedly to one another, already apparently the best of friends despite the fact that, most likely, they had only just met. One of them glanced up and saw him staring. He quickly looked away, pretending to peer out the window behind them, toward the station which still sat bustling with activity. Feeling his cheeks go a little red, he continued down the corridor. If only Rose was a year older she'd be here with him. She was a girl, but she was his cousin and they'd grown up together. It would've been nice to have at least one familiar face along with him.
Of course, Ted and Victoire were also on the train. Ted, a seventh year, had been so quickly absorbed into a noisy throng of returning friends and classmates that he'd barely had time to wave and wink at James before disappearing into a crammed compartment from which emanated the thump of music on a sleek new wireless. Victoire, five years older than he, had invited him to sit with her during the trip, but James wasn't as comfortable with her as he was with Rose, and didn't relish the idea of listening to her prattle on with the four other girls in her compartment about pixie powder blushes and hair care charms. Being part Veela, Victoire had never had any problem making friends of either gender, quickly and effortlessly. Besides, something in James felt that he needed to assert himself as an individual straight off, even if the thought left him feeling nervous and lonely.
It wasn't that he was worried about going to Hogwarts exactly. He'd been looking forward to this day for most of his life, ever since he was old enough to understand what it meant to be a wizard, ever since his mum had told him of the school he'd one day attend, the secret school that witches and wizards attended to learn magic. He was positively itching with anticipation of his first classes, of learning to use the brand new wand that he carried proudly in his backpack. More than anything, he was looking forward to Quidditch on the Hogwarts pitch, getting on his first real broom, trying out for the team, maybe, just maybe...
But that was where his excitement began to melt into cold anxiety. His dad had been the Gryffindor Seeker, the youngest one in Hogwarts history. The best he, James, could hope for was to match that record. That's what everyone would expect of him, the first-born son of the famous hero. He remembered the story, told to him dozens of times (although never by his own dad) of how the young Harry Potter had won his first Golden Snitch by virtually jumping off his broom, catching the golden ball in his mouth and nearly swallowing it. The tellers of the tale would always laugh uproariously, delightedly, and if Dad was there, he'd smile sheepishly as they clapped him on the back. When James was four, he found that famed Snitch in a shoe box in the bottom of the dining room hutch. His mum told him it'd been a gift to Dad from the old school headmaster. The tiny wings no longer worked, and the golden ball had a thin coat of dust and tarnish on it, but James was mesmerized by it. It was the first Snitch he had ever seen close up. It seemed both smaller and larger than he'd imagined, and the weight of it in his small hand was surprising. This is the famous Snitch, James thought reverently, the one from the story, the one caught by my dad. He asked his dad if he could keep it, stored in the shoebox when he wasn't playing with it, in his room. His dad agreed easily, happily, and James moved the shoebox from the bottom of the hutch to a spot under the head of his bed, next to his toy broom. He pretended the dark corner under his headboard was his Quidditch locker. He spent many an hour pretending to zoom and bank over the Quidditch green, chasing the fabled Snitch, in the end, always catching it in a fantastic diving crash, jumping up, producing his dad's tarnished Snitch for the approval of roaring imaginary crowds.
But what if James couldn't catch the Snitch, as his father had done? What if he wasn't as good on the broom? Uncle Ron had said that riding a broom was in the Potter blood as sure as dragons breathed fire, but what if James proved him wrong? What if he was slow, or clumsy, or fell off? What if he didn't even make the team? For the rest of the first years, that would only be a mild disappointment. Even though the rules had been changed to admit them, very few first years ever made the House teams. For James, however, that would mean he already hadn't measured up to expectations. He would already have failed to be as great as the great Harry Potter. And if he couldn't even measure up to his dad in terms of something as elemental as Quidditch, how could he ever hope to live up to the legend of the boy who defeated the Basilisk, won the Triwizard Cup, united the Deathly Hallows and, oh yeah, put old Moldy Voldy, the darkest and most dangerous wizard who ever lived, in the ground for good?
The train gave a protracted, noisy lurch. Outside, the conductor's voice called for the doors to be shut. James stopped in the corridor, suddenly overcome by a cold certainty that the worst had already happened, he had already failed miserably even before he'd begun to try. He felt a deep, sudden stab of homesickness and blinked back tears, looking quickly into the next compartment. There were two boys inside, neither talking, both looking out the window as Platform Nine and Three Quarters began to slip slowly past. James opened the door and blundered in quickly, hoping to see his family outside the window, feeling an enormous need to make eye contact with them one last time before it was too late. His own reflection in the glass, lit by the hard morning sun, blotted the view of the crowd outside. There were so many people; he would never find them in that throng. He scanned the crowd desperately anyway. And then there they were. They were just where he'd left them, a tiny knot of people standing still in the milling faces, like rocks in a stream. They didn't see him, didn't know where he was in the train. Uncle Bill and Aunt Fleur were waving to a point further back on the train, apparently mouthing goodbyes to Victoire. Dad and Mum stood smiling somewhat wistfully at the train, scanning the windows. Albus stood next to Dad, and Lily held Mum's hand, transfixed by the gigantic crimson engine as it chuffed great bursts of steam and hissed and rang, picking up speed. And then Mum's eye caught James and her face lit up. She said something and Dad turned, looked, and found him. They both waved, smiling proudly. Mum wiped her eye with one hand, held up Lily's hand with the other, waving it to James. James didn't smile back, but watched them and felt a bit better anyway. They receded backward as if they were on a conveyor belt, more faces, more waving hands and milling bodies coming between them. James watched until they all vanished behind a wall at the end of the platform, then he sighed, dropped his backpack onto the floor, and plopped into a seat.
Several minutes of silence went by as James watched London scroll past the windows. The city thinned into crowded suburbs and industrial areas, all looking busy and purposeful in the bright morning sunlight. He wondered, as he sometimes did, what life was like as a non-magical person, and for once he envied them, going to their non-magical, less intimidating (or so he thought) schools and jobs. Finally he turned his attention to the two other boys sharing his compartment. One was seated on the same side as him, closer to the door. He was big, with a squarish head and short dark hair. He was flipping avidly through an illustrated booklet called Elemental Magic: What to Know for the New Witch and Wizard. James had seen copies of these being sold from a small stall on the platform. On the cover, a good-looking teenaged wizard in school robes was winking as he conjured a series of objects from a trunk. He had just produced a full-sized tree with cheeseburgers for fruit when the boy flipped the cover backwards and settled in to read one of the articles. James turned his attention to the boy across from him, who was looking at him openly, smiling.
"I've got a cat," said the boy, unexpectedly. James blinked at him, and then noticed the box sitting on the seat next to the boy. It had a hinged grate for a door and a small black and white cat could be seen inside, lounging and licking its forepaw. "You aren't allergic to cats, are you?" the boy asked James earnestly.
"Oh. No," James replied, "I don't think so. My family has a dog, but my Aunt Hermione has a big old carpet of a cat. I've never had a problem with it."
"That's good," the boy answered matter-of-factly. He had an American accent that James found a little amusing. "My mom and dad are both allergic to cats so we could never have one, but I like them. When I saw that I could bring a cat, I knew that was what I wanted. This is Thumbs. He has extra toes, see? One on each paw. It's not particularly magical, I suppose, but it makes him interesting. What'd you bring?"
"I've got an owl. He's been in the family for a few years. A big, old barn owl with plenty of miles on him. I wanted a frog, but my dad says a boy should start school with an owl. He says there's no more useful animal for a first year, but I think he just wanted me to have one because he had one."
The boy grinned happily. "So your dad is a wizard, too? Mine isn't. Neither is my mom. I'm the first in my family. We just found out about the magical world last year. I could hardly believe it! I always thought magic was the sort of thing that happened at little kids' birthday parties. Guys in tall black hats pulling silver dollars out of your ear. Stuff like that. Wow! Have you known you were a wizard all your life?"
"Pretty much. It's hard to miss when your first memories are of your grandparents arriving for Christmas morning via the fireplace," James answered, watching the boy's eyes widen. "Of course, it never seemed strange to me at all, you know. It was just life."
The boy whistled appreciatively. "That's wild and crazy! Lucky you! Anyway, my name's Zane Walker. I'm from the States, if you haven't guessed. My dad is working in England for the year, though. He works on movies, which isn't as exciting as it sounds. I'll probably be going to the wizarding school in America next year, but it looks like it's Hogwarts for me this year, which is fine by me, although if they try to give me any more kidneys or fish for breakfast, I think I'll blow a gasket. Good to meet you." He finished in a rush, and reached across the compartment to shake James' hand in a gesture that was so guileless and automatic that James almost laughed. He shook Zane's hand happily, relieved to have so quickly made an acquaintance. "I'm happy to meet you, too, Zane. My name's Potter. James Potter."
Zane sat back and looked at James, tilting his head curiously. "Potter. James Potter?" he repeated. James felt a small, familiar surge of pride and satisfaction. He was used to being recognized, even if he pretended to not always like it. Zane made a sort of quizzical half-frown, half-grin. "Where's Q, double-oh-seven?"
James faltered. "Excuse me?"
"What? Oh, sorry," Zane said, his expression changing to one of bemusement. "Thought you were making a James Bond joke. Hard to tell with that accent."
"James who?" James said, feeling that the conversation was slipping away from him. "And what accent? You're the one with the accent!"
"Your last name's Potter?" This came from the third boy in the compartment. He'd lowered his booklet a little.
"Yes. James Potter."
"Potter!" Zane said in a fairly ridiculous attempt at an English accent. "James Potter!" He raised his fist next to his face, index finger pointed toward the ceiling like a pistol.
"Are you related to this Harry Potter kid?" said the bigger boy, ignoring Zane. "Only I'm reading about him right here in this 'Brief History of the Magical World' article. Seems like he was a pretty big deal."
"He's not a kid anymore," James laughed. "He's my dad. He's less of a big deal when you see him eating Wheatabix in his boxers each morning." This wasn't technically true, but it always put people at ease to think they'd gotten a mental glimpse of the great Harry Potter in a candid moment. The large boy raised his eyebrows, frowning slightly. "Wow! Cool. Says here he defeated the most dangerous evil wizard ever. Some guy named, umm…" He glanced down at the booklet, scanning it. "It's right here somewhere. Volda-whatsit or something."
"Yeah, it's true," James said. "But really, now he's just my dad. That was a long time ago." But the other boy had turned his attention to Zane.
"You're Muggle-born, too?" he asked. Zane looked baffled for a moment. "What? I'm what-born?"
"Non-magical parents. Like me," said the bigger boy seriously. "I'm trying to learn the language. My dad says it's important to get a handle on the basics straight off. He's a Muggle, but he's already read Hogwarts: A History cover to cover. He quizzed me on it the whole ride in. Ask me a question. Anything." He glanced back and forth between Zane and James.
James raised his eyebrows at Zane, who frowned and shook his head. "Um. What's seven times forty-three?"
The bigger boy rolled his eyes and slumped in his seat. "I meant about Hogwarts and the wizarding world."
"I've got a new wand," Zane said, abandoning the bigger boy and turning to dig in his pack. "It's made of birch, with a unicorn tail in it or something. Can't get it to do squat, yet. Not for lack of effort, though, I'll tell you that." He turned, flourishing the wand, which was wrapped in yellow cloth.
"I'm Ralph, by the way," said the bigger boy, putting aside his booklet. "Ralph Deedle. I just got my wand yesterday. It's made of willow, with a Himalayan yeti whisker core."
James glanced at him. "A what?"
"A Himalayan yeti whisker. Very rare, according to the man we bought it from. Cost my dad twenty Galleons. Which translates to a good bit, I think." He studied Zane's and James' faces in turn. "Er, why?"
James raised his eyebrows. "It's just that I've never heard of a Himalayan yeti."
Ralph sat up and leaned forward earnestly. "Sure! You know what those are. Some people call them abominable snowmen. I always thought they were imaginary, you know. But then on my birthday, my dad and me found out I was a wizard, and I'd always thought wizards were imaginary, too! Well, now I'm learning about all kinds of crazy things that I thought were imaginary that are turning out to be true." He picked up his booklet again and fanned the pages with one hand, gesturing vaguely with the other.
"Just out of curiosity," James said carefully, "where did you buy your wand?"
Ralph grinned. "Oh, well we thought that was going to be the hard part, didn't we? I mean, there don't seem to be wand merchants on every corner where we come from, which is Surrey. So we got down here to the city early and followed the directions to that Diagon Alley place. No problem! There was a man right there on the street corner with a little booth."
Zane was watching Ralph with interest.
"A little booth," James prodded.
"Yeah! Of course, he didn't have the wands right there in the open. He was selling maps. Dad bought one and asked directions to the best wandmaker in town. My dad develops security software. For computers. Did I mention that? Anyway, he asked for the best, most state of the art wandmaker. Turned out the man was an expert wandmaker himself. Only makes a few a year, but keeps them special for people who really know what they are looking for. So Dad bought the best one he had."
James was trying to keep his face straight. "The best one he had," he repeated.
"Yeah," Ralph confirmed. He dug in his own backpack and pulled out something about the size of a rolling pin, wrapped in brown paper.
"The one with the yeti core," James confirmed.
Ralph suddenly glanced at him, halfway through unwrapping the package he'd removed from his backpack. "You know, it starts sounding a little silly when you say it, doesn't it?" he asked a bit morosely. "Ah, bugger."
He pulled the brown paper off. It was about eighteen inches long and as thick as a broomstick. The end had been whittled to a dull point and painted lime green. They all stared at it. After a moment, Ralph looked a bit desperately at James. "It's not really good for anything magical, is it?"
James tilted his head. "Well, it'd be a treat for killing vampires with, I'd think."
"Yeah?" Ralph brightened.
Zane straightened and pointed to the door of the compartment. "Woo! Food! Hey, James, you got any of that wacky wizard money? I'm starved."
The old witch that operated the food cart peered into the open door of their compartment. "Anything you'd fancy, dears?"
Zane had jumped up and was looking eagerly over her wares, examining them with a serious, critical eye. He glanced back at James expectantly. "Come on, Potter, now's your chance to welcome us Muggleborns to the table with a little wizard generosity. All I have is an American ten dollar bill." He turned back to the witch. "You don't take American greenbacks, do you?"
She blinked and looked slightly aghast. "American green… excuse me?"
"Drat. I thought not," Zane said, wiggling his upturned palm towards James.
James dug in the pocket of his jeans, bemused and amazed at the boy's temerity. "Wizard money isn't like play money, you know," he said reproachfully, but there was a smile in his voice.
Ralph looked up from his booklet again, blinking. "Did he just say 'drat'?"
"Oooh! Look at this!" Zane cried happily. "Cauldron Cakes! And Licorice Wands! You wizards really know how to carry a metaphor. Us wizards, I mean. Heh!"
James paid the witch and Zane flopped back into his seat, opening a box of Licorice Wands. Assorted colors of wands were laid out in neat compartments. Zane produced a red one, brandished it, and then flicked it toward Ralph. There was a pop and a shower of tiny, purple flowers peppered the front of Ralph's tee shirt. Ralph glanced down at them.
"Better than I've gotten out of my own wand, yet," Zane said, biting off the end of the wand with gusto.
James was surprised and pleased to find that he wasn't nervous anymore, or at least not much. He opened the box containing his own Chocolate Frog, caught the frog in the air as it leaped out, and bit its head off. He looked down into the bottom of the box and saw the face of his dad peering up at him. 'Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived', ran the caption at the bottom of the card. He took the card out of the box and handed it to Ralph.
"Here. A little something for my new Muggle-born friend," he said as Ralph took it. Ralph hardly noticed. He was chewing, holding up one of the tiny, purple flowers. "I don't know for sure," he said, looking at it, "but I think these are made out of meringue."
After the initial rush of excitement and worry, then the whirlwind of making new acquaintances, the rest of the train ride seemed remarkably mundane. James found himself in turns either acting as a tour guide for his two new friends or having their conversation explained to him wherever they centered on Muggle life and concepts. He found it incredible that they had apparently spent a great chunk of their lives watching television. Whenever they weren't watching it, it seemed that they and their friends were playing games on it, pretending to drive racing cars or go on adventures or play sports. James had, of course, heard of television and video games, but having had mostly wizard friends, he'd assumed Muggle children only engaged in those activities when there was absolutely nothing better to do. When he asked Ralph why he'd spent so much time playing sports on the television instead of playing them in real life, Ralph merely rolled his eyes, made an exasperated noise, and then looked helplessly at Zane. Zane had clapped James on the back and said, "James, buddy, it's a Muggle thing. You wouldn't understand."
James, in turn, had explained as best he could about Hogwarts and the magical world. He told them about the unplottable nature of the castle, which meant it couldn't be found on any map by anyone who didn't already know its location. He described the school houses and explained the House points system Dad and Mum had told him about. He tried, as best he could, to explain Quidditch, which seemed to leave both of them confused and frustratingly unenthusiastic. Zane had had the ridiculous idea that only witches rode brooms, apparently based on a movie called The Wizard of Oz. James tried very patiently to explain that both wizards and witches rode brooms and that it wasn't at all 'a girly thing'. Zane, apparently sensing the consternation this was causing, went on to insist that all witches were supposed to have green skin and warts on their noses, and the conversation quickly deteriorated.
Just as evening was beginning to turn the sky a pale purple and silhouette the trees outside the train's windows, a tall, older boy with neatly cropped blonde hair knocked sharply on their compartment door. "Hogsmeade Station straight ahead," he said, leaning in with an air of brisk purpose. "You fellows will want to be getting your school robes on."
Zane frowned and raised his eyebrows at the boy. "We will, will we?" he asked. "It's almost seven o'clock. Are you quite sure?" He pronounced the word 'quite' with his ridiculous English accent. The older boy's brow darkened very slightly.
"My name is Steven Metzker. Fifth year. Prefect. And you are?"
Zane jumped up, offering the boy his hand in a parody of the gesture he'd shown James at the beginning of the trip. "Walker. Zane Walker. Happy to meet you Mr. Prefect."
Steven glanced down at the proffered hand, and then decided, with an apparently great effort, to go ahead and shake it. He spoke to the compartment at large as he did so. "There will be a dinner in the Great Hall promptly upon your arrival on the school grounds. School robes are required. I will assume by your accent, Mr. Walker," he said, retracting his hand and looking bracingly at Zane, "that dressing for dinner is a relatively new concept. No doubt you'll catch on fast." He caught James' eye, dropped a quick wink, and then disappeared down the corridor.
"No doubt I shall," Zane said cheerfully.
James helped Ralph and Zane make sense of their robes. Ralph had put his on backwards, making him look to James like the youngest cleric he'd ever seen. Zane, liking the look, had turned his around on purpose, proclaiming that if it wasn't the style yet, it soon would be. Only when James had insisted that it would be disrespectful to the school and teachers did Zane reluctantly agree to turn it back around.
James had been told repeatedly and in great detail what would happen when they arrived. He knew about Hogsmeade Station, had even been there a few times when he was very young, although he had no memories of it. He knew about the boats which would ferry them across the lake and had seen dozens of pictures of the castle. Still, he discovered that none of that had quite prepared him for the grandness and solemnity of it. As the tiny boats glided across the lake, drawing V-shaped wakes on the glassy water, James stared with a kind of wonder that was perhaps even greater than that felt by those with him who hadn't come believing they knew what to expect. The sheer bulk of the castle amazed him as it rambled and clumped on the great rocky hilltop. It soared upwards in turrets and ramparts, each structural detail lit on one side by the blue of the approaching night, on the other by the golden rose of the setting sun. A galaxy of windows dotted the castle, glowing a warm yellow on the shaded sides, glittering like sunfire on the lit. The massiveness and weight of the sight seemed to press down on James with a pleasant awe, going straight through him and down, down, into its own reflection deep in the mirror of the lake.
There was one detail he hadn't expected, however. Halfway across the lake, just as conversation had begun to spring up again among the new students and they began to hoot excitedly and call to each other across the water, James noticed another boat on the lake. Unlike the ones he and his fellow first years rode in, it wasn't lit by a lantern. Nor was it approaching the castle. It was pointed away from the lights of Hogwarts, a larger boat than his own, but still small enough to be nearly lost in the dim shadows at the edge of the lake. There was one person in it, lanky and thin, almost spiderlike. James thought it looked like a woman. Just as he was about to turn away and forget the decidedly unremarkable sight, the figure looked up at him suddenly, as if aware of his curiosity. In the darkening light, he was almost sure their eyes met, and a totally unexpected coldness came over him. It was indeed a woman. Her skin was dark, her face bony, hard, with high cheeks and a sharp chin. A scarf was tied down neatly over her head, hiding most of her hair. The look on her face as she watched him watch her wasn't frightened or angry. Her face didn't seem to have any expression at all, in fact. And then she vanished. James blinked in surprise, before realizing, a moment later, that she hadn't actually vanished, she had simply been obscured behind a hedge of reeds and cattails as their boats grew further apart. He shook his head, smiled at himself for being a typically jumpy first year, and then returned his gaze to the journey ahead.
The gaggle of first years entered the courtyard with a chorus of appreciative chatter. James found himself straggling, threading almost unconsciously to the rear of the group as they climbed the steps into the brightly lit corridor. There was Mr. Filch, whom James recognized by his hair, scowl, and the cat, Mrs. Norris, which he held cradled in the crook of his arm. Here were the enchanted staircases, even now creaking and grinding into new positions to the mingled delight and trepidation of the new students. And here, finally, were the doors into the Great Hall, their panels gleaming mellowly in the light of the chandeliers. As the students congregated there, conversation faltered to silence. Zane, standing shoulder to shoulder with Ralph, who was nearly a head taller, turned and looked over his shoulder at James, waggling his eyebrows and grinning.
The doors creaked and swung inwards, light and sound pouring out through them as they revealed the Great Hall in all its splendor. The four long House tables were full of students, hundreds of faces grinning, laughing, chattering, and capering. James looked for Ted, but couldn't find him in the throng.
The tall, slightly gawky teacher who'd led them to the doors turned and faced them, smiling disarmingly. "Welcome to Hogwarts, first years!" he called over the noise of the Hall. "My name is Professor Longbottom. You'll be sorted into your houses straight off. Once that's done, you'll find your table and dinner will be served. Please follow me."
He turned with a flap of his robes and proceeded briskly down the center of the Great Hall.
Nervously, the first years began to follow, first in a shuffle, then in a brisk trot, trying to keep up. James saw the heads of Ralph and Zane crane back, their chins pointing higher and higher. He'd almost forgotten about the enchanted ceiling. He looked up himself, but only a little, not wanting to look like he was too impressed. The higher he looked, the more the ceiling beams and alcoves retreated into transparency, revealing a stunning representation of the outside sky. Cold, brittle-looking stars glittered like silver dust on jeweler's velvet and off to the right, just over the Gryffindor table, the half-moon could be seen, its giant face looking both mad and jolly.
"Did he say his name was Longbottom?" Zane said to James out of the corner of his mouth.
"Yeah. Neville Longbottom."
"Wow," Zane breathed. "You Brits really have a thing to learn about subtlety. I don't even know where to start with a name like that." Ralph shushed him as the crowd began to quiet, noticing the first years lining up along the front of the hall.
James looked along the table on the dais, trying to pick out all the teachers he knew about. There was Professor Slughorn, looking just as fat and ridiculously baroque as his parents had described. Slughorn, James recalled, had come on as a temporary teacher during his parents' time, apparently reluctantly, and then simply never left. Next to him was the ghostly Professor Binns, then Professor Trelawney, blinking owlishly behind her gigantic spectacles. Further down the table, recognizable by his size (James could see he sat on a stack of three enormous books) was Professor Flitwick. Several other faces James didn't recognize were scattered about: teachers who'd come since his parents' time and were therefore relatively unfamiliar. No sign of Hagrid, but James had learned that he was off among the giants again with Grawp, and wouldn't return until the following day. Finally, at the center of the table, just then standing and raising her arms, was Minerva McGonagall, the Headmistress.
"Welcome returning students, and welcome new students," she said in her piercing, rather tremulous voice, "to this first banquet of this new year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry." A cheer of happy acknowledgement went up from the seated students behind James. He glanced back over his shoulder, scanning the crowd. He saw Ted seated, hooting through his cupped hands, surrounded by group of somehow impossibly handsome and beautiful older boys and girls at the Gryffindor table. James tried to smile at him, but Ted didn't notice.
As the cheers diminished, Professor McGonagall continued. "I'm glad to see you are all as excited to be here as are your teachers and school staff. Let us hope that this spirit of mutual understanding and unity of purpose accompanies us throughout the school year." She eyed the crowd, picking out certain individuals. James heard scattered scuffling and the marked silences of conspicuous guilty grins.
"And now," the Headmistress went on, turning to watch as a chair was carried onto the stage by two older students. James noticed that one of them was Steven Metzker, the prefect they'd encountered on the train. "As is our proud tradition on the occasion of our first gathering, let us witness the Sorting of our newest students into their respective houses. First years, will you please approach the platform? I will be calling your names individually. You will approach the platform and have a seat…"
James tuned out the rest. He knew this ceremony well, having quizzed his parents endlessly about it. He had been, in the previous days, more excited about the Sorting ceremony than he had been about anything else. In truth, he recognized now that his excitement had actually masked a numbing, terrible fear. The Sorting Hat was the first test he'd have to pass in order to prove he was the man his parents expected him to be, the man the wizarding world had already begun to assume he was. It hadn't quite hit him until he'd seen the article in the Daily Prophet several weeks earlier. It had been a fluffy, happy, little article of the 'whatever happened to so-and-so' variety, and yet it had filled James with a sort of cold, creeping dread. The article summarized the ongoing biography of Harry Potter, now married to his school sweetheart, Ginny Weasley, and announced that James, the first-born son of Harry and Ginny Potter, was to be attending his first year at Hogwarts. James had been particularly haunted by the line that ended the article. He could recall it word for word: We at the Daily Prophet, along with the rest of the magical world, wish young Mr. Potter all the best as he moves on to fulfill, and perhaps even surpass, the expectations any of us could hope to have of the son of such a beloved and legendary figure.
What would the Daily Prophet, or the rest of the wizarding world, think of the son of the beloved and legendary figure if he sat on that chair and the Sorting Hat proclaimed him something other than a Gryffindor? Back on Platform Nine and Three Quarters, James had confided this very fear to his dad.
"There isn't any more magic in being a Gryffindor than there is in being a Hufflepuff or a Ravenclaw or a Slytherin, James," Harry Potter had said, squatting down and putting his hand on the boy's shoulder. James had pressed his lips together, knowing his dad would say something like that.
"Would that have comforted you back when you were getting ready to sit on the chair and put that hat on your head?" he'd asked in a low, serious voice.
His dad didn't answer, only pressed his lips together, smiled ruefully and shook his head. "But I was a worried, superficial, little git back then, James, my boy. Try not to be like me in that regard, OK? We know great witches and wizards from all the houses. I'll be proud and honored to have my son in any of them."
James had nodded, but it hadn't worked. He knew what his dad really wanted--and expected-despite the talk. James was to be a Gryffindor, just like Mum and Dad, just like his uncles and aunt, just like all the heroes and legends he'd been told about since he was a baby, all the way back to Godric Gryffindor himself, greatest of all the founders of Hogwarts.
And yet now, as he stood, watching the Sorting Hat being produced and held aloft by the skinny arms of Headmistress McGonagall, he found that all his fears and worries had somehow drained away. He'd had a sort of idea during the last few hours. Now it came fully to the front of his mind. He had assumed all along that he had no choice but to compete with his father and try to fill his enormous shoes. His subsequent terrible fear had been that he would be unequal to the task, that he would fail. But what if there was another option? What if he simply didn't try?
James stared ahead, unseeing, as the first students were called to the chair, as the hat was lowered onto their heads, almost hiding their intensely curious, upturned eyes. He looked like a statue--a statue of a small boy with his father's unruly black hair and his mother's nose and expressive lips. What if he simply didn't try to live up to the giant shadow cast by his dad? Not that he wouldn't be great in his own way. It would just be a very different way. A decidedly, intentionally different way. And what if that started here? Right here, on the platform, on his first day, being proclaimed… well, something other than a Gryffindor. That would be all that mattered. Unless…
"James Potter," the voice of the Headmistress rang out with her distinctive rolled 'r' on his last name. He startled, looking up at her as if he'd forgotten she was there. She looked a hundred feet tall standing there on the platform, her arm held out ramrod straight and holding the Sorting Hat over the chair, casting a triangular shadow onto it. He was about to move forward and climb the short flight of steps to the platform when a noise broke out behind him. It shocked and worried him for a moment. He was irrationally afraid that somehow his thoughts had gotten out and betrayed him, that it was the noise of the Gryffindor table standing, booing him. But it wasn't the sound of booing. It was the sound of applause, polite and sustained, in response to the calling of his name. James turned to the Gryffindor table, a smile of gratitude and happiness already lighting his face. But they weren't the ones applauding. They sat there rather blankly. Most of their heads were turned toward the source of the sound. James turned, following their eyes. It was the Slytherin table.
James felt rooted to the spot. The entire table was looking at him with pleasant smiles, every one open, happy, applauding. One of the students, a tall, very attractive girl with wavy black hair and large, sparkling eyes, was standing. She clapped lightly but confidently, smiling directly at James. Finally, the other tables began to join in, first in dribs and drabs, and then in a sustained, rather puzzled ovation.
"Yes. Yes, thank you," Headmistress McGonagall called over the applause. "That will be enough. We are all quite, er, happy that we have young Mr. Potter here with us this year. Now, if you'll please resume your seats…" James began his ascent of the dais while the applause died down. As he turned and sat down on the chair, he heard the Headmistress mutter, "So we can finish this and have dinner before the next equinox." James turned to look up at her, but saw only the dark maw of the Sorting Hat coming down on top of him. He closed his eyes tightly and felt the cool softness of the hat cover his head, slipping down over his brow.
Instantly, all other sound stopped. James was in the mind of the hat, or perhaps it was the other way around. It spoke, but not to him.
"Potter, James, yes, I've been expecting this one. The third Potter that's come under my brim. Always difficult, these…," it mused to itself, as if it enjoyed the challenge. "Courage, yes, as always, but courage is cheap in the young. Still, good Gryffindor stock, just like the ones before."
James' heart leaped. Then he remembered the thought he'd had standing before the dais and he faltered. I don't have to play the game, he thought to himself. I don't have to be a Gryffindor. He thought of the applause, thought of the face of the pretty girl with the long, wavy black hair, standing beneath the green and silver banner.
"Slytherin, he thinks!" the hat spoke in his head, considering. "Yes, always that possibility as well. Like his father. He'd have made a great Slytherin, but hadn't the will. Hmm, very unsure of himself is this one, and that is a first for a Potter. Lack of sureness is neither a Gryffindor nor a Slytherin trait. Perhaps Hufflepuff would do him some good…"
Not Hufflepuff, thought James. Faces swam up before him in his mind: Mum and Dad, Uncle Ron, Aunt Hermione, Gryffindors all. Then they faded and he saw the girl at the Slytherin table, smiling, applauding. He heard himself thinking, as he had thought minutes earlier, I could be great in a different way, an intentionally different way…
"Not Hufflepuff, hmm? Perhaps you're right. Yes, I see it now. Confused you may be, but
uncertain you are not. My initial instincts are correct, as always." And then aloud, the Sorting Hat called out the name of his house.
The hat was whipped off his head, and James had actually thought he'd heard the word 'Slytherin' still echoing from the walls, actually looked with sudden horror toward the green and silver table to see them applauding, when he realized it was the table beneath the crimson lion that had jumped up and applauded. The Gryffindor table cheered loudly and raucously, and James realized how much more he liked that than the polite, practiced applause he'd gotten earlier. He leaped from the chair, ran down the steps, and was enveloped amongst the cheers. Hands patted his back and reached out to shake his and high-five him. A seat near the front opened for him and a voice spoke in his ear as the cheers finally subsided.
"Never doubted it a minute, mate," the voice whispered happily. James turned to see Ted give him a confident nod and a slap on the back before settling back to his seat. Turning back to watch the rest of the Sorting ceremony, James felt, so suddenly, perfectly happy that he thought he might split right down the middle. He didn't have to follow exactly in his dad's footsteps, but maybe he could start doing things deliberately differently tomorrow. For now, he gloried in the knowledge that Mum and Dad would be thrilled to know that he, like them, was a Gryffindor.
When Zane's name was called, he trotted up the steps and plopped on the chair as if he thought it was going to take him on a roller coaster ride. He grinned as the shadow of the hat fell over his head, and it had no sooner done so than the hat cried out "Ravenclaw!" Zane raised his eyebrows and rocked his head back and forth in a cheerfully mystified way that brought a peal of laughter from the crowd even as the Ravenclaws cheered and beckoned him to their table.
The rest of the first years made their way to the dais and the house tables filled out appreciably. Ralph Deedle was one of the last to climb up and sit on the chair. He seemed to shrink a bit under the hat as it thought for a surprisingly long time. Then, with a flourish of its peak, the hat announced, "Slytherin!"
James was stunned. He had been sure that at least one, if not both, of his new friends would end up seated next to him at the Gryffindor table. Neither of them had joined him, however, and one of them, the one he least expected, had become a Slytherin. Of course, he conveniently forgot that he himself had almost succeeded in getting sent there. But Ralph? A Muggle-born if ever there was one? He turned and saw Ralph seating himself at the table on the far side of the room, being patted on the back by his new housemates. The girl with the sparkling eyes and the wavy black hair was smiling again, pleasantly, welcomingly. Maybe Slytherin House had changed, he thought. Dad and Mum would hardly believe it.
Finally, Headmistress McGonagall put the Sorting Hat away. "First years," she called, "your new house is your home, but we are all your family. Let us enjoy competitions wherever we may find them, but never forget where our ultimate loyalties lie. And now," she pushed her spectacles onto her nose and addressed the crowd over them. "Announcements. As always, the Forbidden Forest is off limits to students at all times. Please be sure that this is not a merely academic preference. First years may ask any older students-except for Mr. Ted Lupin and Mr. Noah Metzker, whose counsel you might wish to avoid on the matter-what they can expect if they determine to ignore this rule."
James let the rest of the announcements roll over him as he scanned the faces of the crowd. Zane, at the Ravenclaw table, had pulled a bowl of nuts in front of him and was determinedly working his way through it. Across the room, Ralph caught James' eye and gestured wonderingly at himself and his new housemates, seeming to ask James if it was all right. James shrugged and nodded noncommittally.
"Leaving us with one last order of business," the Headmistress finally said, to the accompaniment of a few brave cheers. "Some of you may have noticed that there is one empty chair amidst your teachers here on the dais. Rest assured that you shall have a Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and that he is indeed a uniquely qualified and gifted expert on the subject. He will be arriving tomorrow afternoon, along with a full complement of fellow teachers, students, and associates, as part of a year-long international magical summit between his school and ours. I will expect you all to turn out tomorrow afternoon in the main courtyard for the arrival of the representatives from Alma Aleron and the United States Department of Magical Administration."
Sounds of mingled excitement and derision erupted in the hall as the students instantly turned to discuss this rather remarkable turn of events with their fellows. James heard Ted say, "What is some old Yank gonna be able to tell us about the Dark Arts? What channel to watch them on?" There was a chorus of laughter. James turned around, looking for Zane. He found him, caught his eye, and pointed at him, shrugging. Your people are coming here, he mouthed. Zane clapped his hand over his heart and saluted with the other.
In the midst of the debate, dinner appeared on the long tables, and James, along with the rest of Hogwarts, dug in with fervor.
It was nearly midnight by the time James made his way to the portrait of the Fat Lady marking the entrance to the Gryffindor common room.
"Password," she sang out. James stopped short, letting his green backpack slip off his shoulder and thump to the floor. No one had told him any passwords.
"I don't know the password yet. I'm a first year. I'm a Gryffindor," he added lamely.
"Gryffindor you may be," said the Fat Lady, looking him up and down with an air of polite patience, "but no password, no entry."
"Maybe you could give me a little hint this time?" James said, trying to smile winningly.
The Fat Lady stared at him levelly. "You seem to have some unfortunate misunderstanding of the nature of the term 'password', my dear."
There was a commotion on the moving staircase nearby. It swung into view and settled, lurching slightly, at the end of the landing. A group of older students clambered up, laughing and shushing each other conspicuously. Ted was among them.
"Ted," James called in relief, "I need the password. A little help?"
Ted saw James as he and the others approached. "Genisolaris," he said, and then added to one of the girls in the group, "Hurry it up, Petra, and don't let Noah's brother see you."
She nodded, brushing past James as the portrait of the Fat Lady swung open to reveal the fire-lit glow of the common room. James began to follow her in when Ted threw an arm around his shoulder, turning him around and bringing him back out onto the landing. "My dear James, you can't imagine we're going to let you toddle off to bed at such an early hour, do you? There are Gryffindor traditions to think about, for Merlin's sake."
"What?" James stammered. "It's midnight. You know that, do you?"
"Commonly known in the Muggle world as 'The Witching Hour'," Ted said instructively. "A misnomer, of course, but 'The Witching and Wizarding Pulling Tricks on Unsuspecting Muggle Country Folk Hour' is just a bit too long for anyone to remember. We like to call it, simply, 'Raising the Wocket'."
Ted was leading James back toward the stairs, along with three other Gryffindors. "The what?" James asked, trying to keep up.
"Boy doesn't know what the Wocket is," Ted said mournfully to the rest of the group. "And his dad's the owner of the famous Marauder's Map. Just think how much easier this would be if we could get our hands on that bit of skullduggery. James, let me introduce you to the rest of the Gremlins, a group you may indeed hope to join, depending on how things go tonight, of course." Ted stopped, turned and threw his arm wide, indicating the three others skulking along with them. "My number one, Noah Metzker, whose only flaw is his unwitting relationship to his fifth-year prefect brother." Noah bowed curtly at the waist, grinning. "Our treasurer," Ted continued, "if we ever manage to come across any coin, Sabrina Hildegard." A pleasant faced girl with a spray of freckles and a quill stuck in her thick reddish hair nodded to James. "Our scapegoat, should such services ever be required, young Damien Damascus," Ted gripped the shoulder of a stout boy with heavy glasses and a pumpkin-like face who grimaced at him and growled. "And finally, my alibi, my perfect foil, everyone's favorite teacher's favorite, Ms. Petra Morganstern." Ted gestured affectionately to the girl who was just returning from the portrait hole, stuffing something small into her jeans pocket. James noticed that everyone but him had changed out of their robes and into jeans and dark sweatshirts. "Is everything clear for takeoff?" Ted asked Petra as she met them.
"Affirmative. All systems go, Captain," she replied, and there was a titter from Damien. They all turned and began to descend the staircase, Ted steering James along with them.
"Should I go change or something?" he asked, his voice shaking as he pounded down the stairs.
Ted gave him an appraising look. "No, I don't think that'll be necessary in your case. Relax, mate. You're going to have a blast. So to speak. Jump just here, then. You don't want to step on that step, mind you." James jumped, his backpack swinging from his shoulder, feeling himself pulled along partly by the group's enthusiasm, but mostly by Ted's grip on his elbow. He landed on the floor of a long, torch lit corridor and stumbled to keep up. At the end of the hall, the group met three more students, all standing in the shadow thrown by a statue of a gigantic, hunchbacked wizard wearing a very tall hat.
"Good evening, fellow Gremlins," Ted whispered as they all clustered together in the shadow of the statue. "Meet James, son of my godfather, some guy named Harry Potter." James grinned sheepishly at the new faces, and then did a double take at the third face in the group. "James, meet our Ravenclaw chapter, Horace, Gennifer, and young whatsisname." He turned to Gennifer. "What's his name?" he asked, gesturing at the boy on the end.
"Zane," Gennifer said, throwing an arm around the smaller boy, who grinned and let himself be playfully shaken. "Just met him tonight, but he's got a little something that says Gremlin to me. I'm thinking there might be some imp in his lineage somewhere."
"We're gonna play Hunt the Wocket!" Zane said to James in a stage whisper that carried along the entire corridor. "Sounds iffy to me, but if this'll make us cool, well, I figured we might as well get it out of the way straight off!" James couldn't tell if Zane was joking, and then he realized it didn't really matter.
"Raise the Wocket," Noah corrected.
James decided it was time to impress himself upon the conversation. "So where is this Wocket? And why are we all crammed into a corner behind a statue?"
"This isn't just any old statue," Petra said as Ted shimmied as far between the statue and the wall as he could, apparently looking for something. "This is St. Lokimagus the Perpetually Productive. We only learned his story last year and it led us to a rather amazing discovery."
"Led you, you mean," Ted said, his voice muffled.
Petra considered this and nodded. "True enough," she agreed matter-of-factly.
"Back in your father's day," Noah said as Ted scratched around behind the statue, "there were six secret passages in and out of Hogwarts. But that was before the Battle. After that, a lot of the castle was rebuilt, and all the old secret passages were permanently sealed off. Funny thing about a magical castle, though. It just seems to grow new secret passages. We've only found two, and those only because of Petra and our Ravenclaw friends here. St. Lokimagus the Perpetually Productive is one of them. It's all right there in his slogan."
Noah pointed to the words engraved into the statue's base: Igitur Qui Moveo, Qui et Movea.
Ted made a grunt of triumph and there was a loud click. "You'll never guess where it was this time," he said, puffing from beneath the statue. With a grind of moving stone, the statue of St. Lokimagus straightened up as much as his humped back would allow, stepped carefully off his plinth, and then walked across the corridor with a slightly bowlegged gait. He disappeared into the door opposite, which James saw was a boys' bathroom.
"What's his slogan mean?" James asked as the Gremlins began to duck hurriedly into the low doorway on the back of St. Lokimagus' plinth. Noah grinned and shrugged. "When you gotta go, you gotta go."
The passage led to a short stairway with rounded stone steps. The Gremlins pounded noisily up the steps, and then shushed each other as they reached a doorway. Ted creaked the door open a fraction, peering through the crack. A moment later he pushed the door wide and motioned for the rest to follow him outside.
The door opened inexplicably out of a small shed near what James recognized as the Quidditch pitch. The tall grandstands rose into the moonlight, looking bleak and imposing in the silence.
"The passage only works one way," Sabrina explained to James and Zane as the group ran lightly across the Quidditch pitch toward the hills beyond. "If you go into it without having come through St. Lokimagus' tunnel first you just find yourself in the equipment shed. Pretty convenient, since it means that even if we get caught, nobody else can chase us back through the tunnel."
"Have you gotten caught yet?" James asked, puffing along next to her.
"No, but this is the first time we've tried to use it. We only discovered it at the end of last year." She shrugged as if to say we'll see how this turns out, won't we?
Zane's voice came out of the darkness behind James, conversationally. "What if St. Magic Buns gets done with the loo before we all come back through his hole?" James shuddered at Zane's turn of phrase, but admired his logic. It seemed like a question worth asking.
"That's definitely a question for a Ravenclaw," Noah called back as quietly as he could, but nobody answered.
After ten minutes of skirting the border of a scraggly, moonlit wood, the group clambered over a wire fence into a field. Ted pulled his wand from his back pocket as he approached a patch of rambling bushes and weeds. James followed and saw that there was a low barn hidden among the growth. It was ramshackle, bowed and buried in vines.
"Alohomora," Ted said, pointing his wand at the large rusted padlock hanging on the door. There was a flash of yellow light. It bloomed out of the lock, and then resolved into the shape of a glowing, ghostly arm that snaked from the padlock's keyhole. The arm ended in a fist with the index finger pointed in the air. It waggled the finger back and forth reprovingly for a few seconds, and then vanished.
"Protective charm's still in place, then," Ted announced happily. He turned to Petra, who came forward, pulling something out of her jeans pocket. James saw it was a rusted skeleton key.
"That was Gennifer's idea," Horace, the second Ravenclaw, said proudly. "Although I had wanted it to be a different gesture."
"Would've been a nice touch," Zane agreed.
"We figured any magical types that tried to break in here wouldn't think to try anything as boring as a key," Noah explained. "We put up Disillusionment Charms to keep the Muggles away, but they don't come out here anyway. It's abandoned."
Petra turned the key and pulled away the padlock. The doors of the old barn swung open with surprising silence. "Creaky doors are for novices," Damien said smugly, tapping the side of his pug nose.
James peered inside. There was something large in the shadows, its bulk blotting out the rear of the barn. He could just barely make out the shape of it. More than anything, it looked like somebody's very antiquated idea of a flying saucer.
"Cool!" Zane cried happily, understanding dawning on him. "Raise the Wocket! You're right, James. There was nothing like this in The Wizard of Oz."
"The Wizard of what?" Ted said to James out of the corner of his mouth.
"It's a Muggle thing," James replied. "We wouldn't understand."
Frank Tottington awoke suddenly, sure he'd heard something out in the garden. He was instantly alert and angry, throwing off his covers and swinging his legs out of bed as if he'd fully expected such an annoyance.
"Hmwah?" his wife mumbled, raising her head sleepily.
"It's those dratted Grindle kids out in our garden," Frank announced gruffly, jamming his feet into his tartan slippers. "Didn't I tell you they were sneaking in at night, trampling my begonias and stealing my tomatoes? Kids!" he spat. He shrugged into a threadbare robe. It flapped about his shins as he clumped down the stairs and grabbed his shotgun off the hook by the back door.
The screen door squeaked open and clapped against the outside wall as Frank barreled out. "All right, you hooligans! Drop those tomatoes and step out here into the light where I can see you!" He raised the shotgun in one hand, pointing it warningly at the star-strewn sky.
A light popped on over his head, illuminating him in a blinding white beam that seemed to hum faintly. Frank froze, his shotgun still held barrel up, pointing up into the beam of light. Slowly, Frank raised his head, squinting, his stubbly chin casting a long shadow down the front of his robe. There was something hovering over him. It was hard to tell the size of it. It was simply a round black shape, with dim lights dotting the edge. It was turning slowly and appeared to be lowering.
Frank gasped, stumbled and nearly dropped his gun. He recovered and backed quickly away, not taking his eyes from the gently humming object. It lowered slowly, as if cushioned by the beam of light, and as it came to rest, its hum deepened, throbbing.
Frank boggled at it, his knobby knees bent in a sort of alert crouch. He chewed on his dentures fretfully.
Then, with a burst of steam and a hiss, the shape of a door appeared in the side of the object. It was outlined in light, and the light brightened as the door unfolded, forming a short ramp. A figure was standing framed in the light. Frank gasped and raised his shotgun, socking it to his shoulder. There was a blast of red light and Frank jumped. He made to pull the trigger, but nothing happened. The trigger had changed, become a small button instead of the comforting loop of metal. He glanced down at the shotgun, and then held it out in front of him in shock. It wasn't his shotgun at all. It was a small, ratty umbrella with a fake wooden handle. He'd never seen it before. Recognizing he was in the presence of something truly otherworldly, Frank dropped the umbrella and sank to his knees.
The figure in the doorway was small and thin. Its skin was a purplish green, its large head was nearly featureless, with the suggestion of large, almond-shaped eyes barely visible in the glare of light from the open hatchway. It began to walk down the ramp toward Frank, and its footsteps seemed unusually careful, almost awkward. It ducked slightly to clear the doorway, then, suddenly the figure tripped on the lip of the hatch. It stumbled forward, pinwheeling its arms, and seemed about to throw itself upon Frank. He scrambled backwards desperately, terrified. The small figure toppled forward, its disproportionately large head zooming towards Frank, filling his vision.
In the moment before Frank blacked out, he was distracted only by the rather strange fact that the figure seemed to be wearing, if nothing else, a fairly ordinary dark green backpack slung over its shoulders. Frank fainted with a look of rather worried confusion on his face.
James awoke blearily the next morning. He pried his eyes open, taking in the unfamiliar shapes of his surroundings. He was in a four-poster bed in a large, round room with a low ceiling. Sunlight beamed cheerily in, lighting more beds, most of which were disheveled and empty. Slowly, like owls coming in to roost, he remembered the previous night: the Sorting Hat, standing before the portrait of the Fat Lady and not knowing the Gryffindor password, meeting Ted, and then the rest of the Gremlins.
He sat up in bed quickly, reaching for his face. He patted his cheeks, his brow, the shape of his eyes, and then sighed with relief. Everything appeared to be back to normal. Something flopped onto his bed next to him, a newspaper James didn't recognize. It was turned to an article with the headline: 'Local Man Insists Martian Rockets Steal His Tomatoes'. James glanced up. Noah Metzker was standing at the foot of his bed, a wry look on his face.
"They misspelled 'Wocket' again," he said.
2. Arrival of the Alma Alerons
By the time James had dressed and made his way down to the Great Hall for breakfast, it was nearly ten o'clock. Less than a dozen students could be seen moving disconsolately among the detritus of the morning's earlier rush. At the far corner of the Slytherin table, Zane sat hunched and squinting under a beam of sunlight. Across from him was Ralph, who saw James enter and waved him over.
As James made his way across the Hall, four or five house-elves, each wearing large linen napkins with the Hogwarts crest embroidered on them, circled the tables, meandering in what at first appeared to be random paths. Occasionally, one of them would duck beneath the surface of a table and then reappear a moment later, tossing a stray fork or half a biscuit casually onto the mess of the table. As James passed one of the elves, it straightened, raised its spindly arms, and then brought them swiftly down. The contents on the table in front of him swirled together as if caught in a miniature cyclone. With a great clattering of dishes and silverware, the corners of the tablecloth shot upwards and twisted around the pile of breakfast debris, creating a huge clanking bag floating improbably over the polished wood table. The house-elf leaped from floor to bench to tabletop, and then jumped, turning in midair and landing lightly on top of the bag. It grasped the twisted top of the bag, using the knot as if it were a set of reins, and turned the bag, driving it bobbingly toward the gigantic service doors in the side of the Hall. James ducked as the bag swooped over his head.
"Phew," Zane muttered as James plopped down next to him and reached for the last piece of toast. "These little waiters of yours may be weird-lookin' buggers, but they know how to make a good cup of coffee."
"They're not waiters, they're house-elves. I read about them yesterday," Ralph said, happily munching half a sausage. The other half was speared on the end of his fork, which he used like a pointer, indicating the elves. "They work downstairs. They're like the elves in that kids' story. The ones that came at night and did all the work for the cobbler."
"The what?" Zane asked over his coffee mug.
"The guy that makes shoes. He had all these shoes half finished and just lying around, and he was about to fall over from all the work. You know that story, don't you? So he falls asleep, and in the middle of the night, all these little elves show up and whip out their hammers and go to town, fixing up all the shoes for him. He wakes up and bammo, everything's cool." Ralph bit the rest of the sausage off his fork and munched it, looking around. "I never pictured them wearing napkins, though."
"Hey, alien-boy, I see your face is back to normal," Zane said, examining James critically.
"What passes for it, I suppose," James replied.
"Did it hurt at all when Sabrina zapped you?"
"No," James said. "It felt weird. Really weird. But it didn't hurt. It just went back to normal overnight."
"She must be an artist. You looked great. Webbed feet and all."
"What are you two talking about?" Ralph asked, looking back and forth between them. They told him all about the previous night, about raising the Wocket, and the farmer who'd fainted when James, the little alien, had stumbled and fallen on top of him.
"I was hiding in the corner of the yard, near the shed, and I about gave myself a hernia trying not to laugh when you tackled him. Attack of the Martian Klutzes!" He dissolved into laughter and after a moment, James joined him.
"Where'd they get the spaceship?" Ralph asked, bypassing the humor.
"It's just a bunch of chicken wire and papier-mâché," Zane said, downing the last of his coffee and clapping the mug onto the table. He raised his arm and snapped his fingers twice. "Sabrina and Horace made it last year as part of a float for a Christmas parade down in Hogsmeade. It used to be a giant cauldron. Now, with the help of some paint and something Gennifer called a 'Visum-ineptio charm', it's the R.M.S. Wocket."
A very small house-elf approached Zane, frowning. "You, er, snapped, young master?" The elf's voice was gratingly deep despite his size.
"Here you go, buddy," Zane said, handing the elf the empty coffee mug. "Nice work. Keep it up. This is for you."
The elf looked down at the piece of paper Zane had just handed him. He raised his eyes again. "Thank you, young master. Will there, er, be anything else?"
Zane flapped his hand dismissively. "No, thanks. Go get some sleep or something. You look tired."
The elf looked at Ralph, then James, who shrugged and tried to smile. With a barely perceptible roll of the eyes, the elf tucked the five dollar bill into his napkin and disappeared under the table.
Zane looked thoughtful. "I could get used to this."
"I don't think you're supposed to tip the house-elves," Ralph said uncertainly.
"I don't see why not," Zane said airily, stretching. "My dad tips everybody when he's travelling. He says it's part of the local economy. And it fosters good service."
"And you can't just tell a house-elf to go get some sleep," James said, suddenly realizing what had just happened.
"Why the heck not?"
"Because that's exactly what he'll have to go and do!" James said in exasperation. He was thinking of the Potter family house-elf, a sad little pug of an elf whose moroseness was only offset by his sheer bloodyminded determination to do exactly what was asked of him. It wasn't that James didn't like Kreacher. It was just that you had to learn precisely how to ask things of Kreacher. "House-elves have to do what is asked of them by their masters. It's just the kind of beings they are. He's probably heading back to his cupboard, or shelf, or wherever it is he sleeps even now and trying to work out how he's going to sleep in the middle of the morning." James shook his head, and then realized it struck him funny. He tried not to smile, which only made it worse. Zane saw it and pointed at him.
"Ha ha! You think it's funny, too!" he chortled.
"I can't imagine that they have to do everything we ask of them," Ralph said, his brow furrowed. "We're just students. We don't own the place or anything. And we're just first years."
"You remembered the name of the spell Sabrina used to make the Wocket look like a rocket?" James asked, turning to Zane, impressed.
"Visum-ineptio," Zane said, relishing the sound of it. "It means something like 'eye-fooling'. If you work through the Latin, you can sort of figure it out. Horace says it just helps people see what they think they are going to see."
James frowned. "So when that beam of light came out of the sky onto that farmer, he, sort of, expected to see an alien spaceship?"
"Sure. Everybody knows that a beam of light, at night, in the middle of nowhere means the little green guys are coming."
"You're a strange guy, Zane," Ralph said, not unappreciatively.
Just then, James sensed someone standing behind him. All three of them turned, looking up. It was the Slytherin girl from the previous night, the one who'd led the applause for James before his Sorting. She was looking down at him with a pleasant, vaguely indulgent expression. She was flanked by two other Slytherins, a boy with handsome, rather sharp features whose smile showed an awful load of teeth, and another girl, who wasn't smiling. Heat rushed to James' cheeks as he remembered he was sitting at the Slytherin table. Before he could think, he scrambled to get up, a chunk of toast still sticking out of his mouth.
"No, no!" the pretty Slytherin girl said, raising her hand toward him, palm out, stopping him in his tracks almost as if she'd used magic. "Don't stand. I'm happy to see you feel comfortable enough to sit at the Slytherin table with us. These are quite different times than those of your father. But I assume too much. Mr. Deedle, would you be so kind as to introduce me to your friend?"
Ralph coughed, clearing his throat in embarrassment. "Uh, this is my friend, James Potter. And this is Zane. I forget his last name. Sorry." He said the last to Zane, who shrugged, grinned at Ralph, then jumped to his feet and reached across the table to shake the Slytherin girl's hand.
"Walker. Zane Walker. It is a distinct and heartfelt pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms…"
The girl's smile broadened a tiny bit and she tilted her head, still looking at Ralph.
"Oh!" Ralph said, jumping a bit. "Yes. This is, um, Tabitha Corsica. She's a prefect in Slytherin House, a sixth year, I think. Captain of the Slytherin Quidditch Team. And the debate team. And, um… she has a really cool broom." Having exhausted himself of everything he could think of to say about her, Ralph slumped as if exhausted.
Tabitha finally accepted Zane's hand, holding it lightly, then releasing it. "I'm glad to have officially made your acquaintances. Mr. Potter, or may I call you James?" she said, turning to him. Her voice was like silver bells and velvet, lower than James' own, but rather beautiful. He realized she'd asked him a question, shook himself, and answered.
"Yeah. Sure. James."
"And I'd be delighted if you'd call me Tabitha," she said, smiling as if this gesture of familiarity pleased her immensely. "I'd just like to say, on behalf of Slytherin House, that we are glad you are among us, and we hope sincerely that any remaining," she glanced upwards with her eyes, considering, "prejudices will be left in the past, where they forever belong." She turned left and right, encompassing the two Slytherins with her. "We all have nothing but the highest respect and, yes, regard for you and your father. Can we, I hope, expect to all be friends?"
The boy on Tabitha's right continued to smile down at James. The girl on her left studied a spot on the table somewhere between them, her face expressionless.
"S-sure. Friends. Of course," James stammered. The silence of the rest of the hall seemed a huge thing. It swallowed his voice, made it tiny.
Tabitha's smile warmed even further. Her green eyes twinkled. "I'm pleased that you agree. And now we will leave you to finish your, er, breakfasts. Tom? Philia?"
The three turned on the spot and swept away down the aisle.
"What did you just agree to?" Ralph asked as they stood and followed the Slytherins at a careful distance.
"I think James here has either just made a gorgeous friend or a sultry enemy," Zane said, watching the swoop and drape of Tabitha's robes as she turned the corner. "I can't say for sure which I am rooting for."
James was thinking hard. Things certainly had changed a lot since Dad's and Mum's day. He just couldn't quite tell if they were, in fact, better.
The three of them spent the rest of the morning exploring the school grounds. They visited the Quidditch pitch, which looked to Zane and James remarkably different in the bright, hazy sunlight than it had in the dark. Zane's mouth fell open when he saw a group of older students playing a scratch three-onthree Quidditch match. The players swooped in and out of formations, barely missing each other, calling out plays and occasional swear words.
"Brutal!" Zane proclaimed happily as one of the players walloped a Bludger at an opposing player's head, knocking him into a barrel roll around his broomstick. "And I've been to a rugby match."
They passed Hagrid's cottage, which looked empty and dark, with no smoke in the chimney and the door shut tight. Shortly after, they ran into Ted Lupin and Noah Metzker, who led them to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. A gigantic, ancient-looking willow tree dominated the edge of the clearing. Ted held out his arm, stopping Ralph as he moved toward it.
"Close enough, mate," he said. "Watch this."
Ted loosened the mouth of a large laundry bag he'd been dragging behind him. Out of it, he produced an object shaped roughly like a four-legged animal with wings and a beak. It was covered in multicolored scraps of paper whose colors shifted and swam in the light breeze.
"No! It's a piñata!" Zane exclaimed. "In the shape of a… a… don't tell me! A… sphinxoraptor!"
"It's a hippogriff," James said, laughing.
"I like his name better," Ralph said.
"Me too!" Noah added.
"Silence!" said Ted, raising his hand. He lifted the piñata in his other hand, hefted it, and then threw it as hard as he could into the curtain of branches hanging from the willow. It vanished into the dense foliage, and for a moment, nothing else happened. Then there was a rustle among the whiplike branches. They writhed, as if something large was moving beneath them. Suddenly, the tree exploded into a violent flurry of motion. Its branches flailed wildly, slapping, groaning, and creaking. The noise it made was like a very localized windstorm. After a few seconds, the piñata was caught up visibly in the branches. The tree embraced it in dozens of coiling, angry whips, and then all of the branches pulled at once. It was as if the piñata had been dropped into a blender. Shreds of multicolored paper and wizard candy exploded as the ballistics charm core of the piñata triggered. Confetti and candies peppered the tree and the surrounding clearing. The tree thrashed in apparent annoyance at the sudden colorful mess in its branches, then seemed to give up. It settled into its original shape.
Ted and Noah laughed uproariously. "Behold the death of the Sphinxoraptor!" Noah proclaimed. James had heard about the Whomping Willow, but was still impressed by both its violence and the other Gryffindors' casualness about it. Zane and Ralph simply stared, mouths agape. Without looking, Ralph plucked an Every Flavor Bean out of his hair and stuck it in his mouth. He chewed meditatively for a moment, and then glanced at James. "Tastes like taco! Cool!"
James separated himself from the group a little later and made his way up the stairs to the landing outside the Gryffindor common room.
"Password," the Fat Lady sang out as he approached.
"Genisolaris," he replied, hoping it hadn't changed already.
"Proceed," the painting answered, swinging open.
The common room was empty, the fireplace cold. James ascended to the sleeping chamber and headed for his bed. He was already feeling a warm sense of belonging in this room, even in its dozing, midday emptiness. The beds had been neatly made. Nobby, James' huge, brown barn owl, was sleeping in his cage with his head tucked under his wing. James flopped onto the bed, took a sheaf of parchment and a quill, and began to write, being careful not to spill ink onto the blankets.
Dear Mum and Dad,
Arrived last night with no problems. Met some cool new friends so far. Ralph turned out to be a Slytherin, which I'd have never guessed. Zane is a Ravenclaw, and he's about as crazy as Uncle George. They're both Muggle-born, so I'm learning a lot even though classes haven't started yet. With their help, Muggle Studies should be a breeze. Ted showed us the Whomping Willow, but we didn't get too close, Mum. Some new teachers here. Saw Neville yesterday, but didn't have a chance to give him your greeting. Oh, and a delegation of American wizards and such is arriving later today. Should be interesting since Zane is from the States himself. Long story. More later.
P.S. I'm a Gryffindor!
James smiled proudly as he folded and sealed the letter. He'd debated about the best way to announce his house to Mum and Dad (and everybody else, since they'd all be waiting to hear about it from his parents), and had decided that just saying it straight up would be best. Anything else would have seemed either too casual or unnecessarily grand.
"Hey, Nobby," James whispered. The bird raised its head halfway, revealing one great orange eye. "Got a message for you to deliver. How about a nice fly home, hmm?"
Nobby stretched, ruffled his feathers so that he seemed to double in size for a moment, and then stuck out his leg. James opened Nobby's cage and attached the letter. The owl sidled carefully to the window, unfolded his wings, hunched, and then launched himself easily into the bright daylight beyond the window. James, feeling almost absurdly happy, watched until Nobby was a speck between the distant blue mountain peaks. Whistling, he turned and ran noisily down the stairs.
He had lunch at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall and then met up afterwards with Zane and Ralph as the rest of the school began to assemble in the main courtyard. A small student orchestra had assembled to play the American national anthem upon the arrival of the United States delegation. The cacophony as they tuned their instruments was deafening. Zane commented with conviction that it was the first time he'd ever heard The Star-Spangled Banner played on bagpipes and accordion. Students milled and congregated, filling the courtyard. Finally, Professor Longbottom and another professor who James didn't know yet began to move among the crowd, pressing the students into orderly arrangements along the walls. James, Zane, and Ralph found themselves near the great front gates, watching for the arrival of the Americans with growing anticipation. James remembered the stories his parents had told of the arrival of the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang delegations back when the Triwizard Tournament had been held at Hogwarts: the gigantic horses and flying carriage of the one and the mysterious submarine galleon of the other. He couldn't help wondering how the Americans might choose to arrive.
The gathered throng watched and waited, voices hushed. The student orchestra stood on a small tiered grandstand, instruments held at the ready, blinking in the hazy afternoon sunlight. Headmistress McGonagall and the rest of the teaching staff stood, watching the sky, arranged along the portico which led into the main hall.
Finally, someone pointed and voices called out. All eyes turned, straining. James squinted into the golden haze over the distant mountain peaks. A dot resolved, growing larger as it approached. As he watched, two more became visible, closely following the first. Sounds drifted into the courtyard, apparently coming from the approaching objects. James glanced at Zane, who shrugged, obviously mystified. The sound was a low, droning roar, growing quickly louder. The objects must have been moving at a great speed because they were already swooping down, taking on shape as they approached the courtyard. The sound of them became lower, vibrating, a beating thrum as of giant insect wings. James watched as the objects slowed appreciably, lowering to meet their shadows on the courtyard lawn.
"Cool!" Zane called out over the sound of them. "They're cars!"
James had heard about his grandfather Weasley's enchanted Ford Anglia, flown once by his dad and Uncle Ron to Hogwarts, where it took refuge in the Forbidden Forest and was never seen again. These weren't like that at all. One difference was that, unlike the photos James had seen of the Anglia, these cars were shiny and immaculate, with chrome accents throwing darts of sunlight all around the courtyard. The other difference, which produced a sustained sigh of appreciation from the gathered Hogwartians, was the wings which folded out of the rear half of each vehicle. They were exactly like giant insect wings, thrumming loudly, catching the sunlight in blurring rainbow-colored fans.
"That's a Dodge Hornet!" Zane called, pointing at the first one as it landed. Its front wheels touched down first and rolled slightly forward as the rest of the car settled behind them. It had two doors, and was a fierce yellow color, with long wasplike wings. The second, according to Zane, who seemed to be an expert on the subject, was a Stutz Dragonfly. It was bottle-green, low and long, with swooping fenders and chrome pipes curling from its tapered hood. Its wings were also long and tapered, making a deep, beating drone James could feel in his chest. Finally, the last one landed, and James didn't need Zane to identify it. Even he knew what a Volkswagen Beetle was. Its bulbous body rocked back and forth as the flaming red car descended, its stubby wings thrumming underneath two hard outer wings which were unfolded from the back of the car just like a real beetle. It settled onto its wheels as if they were landing gear, and the wings stopped thrumming, folded delicately, and disappeared beneath the hard outer wings, which closed over them.
The Hogwartians erupted into a great, exhilarated cheer at the same moment that the orchestra began to play the anthem. Behind James, a girl's voice scoffed over the noise, "Americans and their machines."
Zane turned to her. "That last one's German. I'd have thought you'd known that." He grinned at her, then turned away, enjoying the applause.
As the Hogwarts band plodded its way through the anthem, the doors of the cars opened and the American delegation began to emerge. Three identically dressed adult wizards appeared first, one from each car. They wore dark, thigh-length grey-green cloaks, black vests over high white collars, and loose grey pants that gathered just above their white socks and shiny black shoes. They stood for half a minute, blinking and frowning about them as if surveying the crowd. Apparently satisfied with the security level of the courtyard, the men stepped away from the open doors of each vehicle and assumed guard positions nearby. James could see a bit into the open door of the nearest car, the Beetle, and wasn't surprised at the disproportionately large and sumptuous interior. Figures moved inside, and then the view was blocked as they began to climb out of the car.
The number of figures that emerged from the cars surprised even James, who'd camped inside wizard tents on many occasions and knew how flexible wizard spaces could be. Porters in burgundy cloaks moved to the boots of each vehicle, producing small flat carts and unloading innumerable trunks and cases onto them, forming dizzying, swaying piles. Young wizards and witches in surprisingly casual robes, some even wearing jeans and sunglasses, began to fill the center of the courtyard. Official-looking adult witches and wizards followed, their light grey cloaks and charcoal tunics identifying them as the members of the American Department of Magical Administration. They gravitated, smiling, hands outstretched, toward the portico, where Headmistress McGonagall and the staff were descending to meet them.
The last to emerge from the cars were also adults, although their variety of dress and ages implied they were neither department officials nor students. James guessed these were the teachers of Alma Aleron, the American wizarding school. There appeared to be one per car. The one nearest, climbing from the Beetle, was as stout as a barrel, with long grey hair parted to frame a pleasant, blocky face. He wore tiny, square glasses and smiled with an air of vaguely arrogant benevolence at the Hogwartians. Something about him rang a faint bell in James' memory, but he couldn't quite place it. James turned, looking for the second professor, and found him emerging from the Stutz Dragonfly. He was very tall, white-haired, with a long, grey face, unsmiling and severe. He surveyed the crowd, his bushy black eyebrows working on the slab of his forehead like a pair of caterpillars. A porter appeared next to him and held out a black leather case. Without looking, the professor grasped the handles of the case in a great knobby-knuckled hand and moved forward, approaching the portico like a ship under full sail.
"I'm making it my New Year's resolution to avoid any classes with that guy," Zane said gravely. Ralph and James nodded.
James found the third professor from Alma Aleron just as she was climbing slowly, imperiously out of the Dodge Hornet. She raised herself to her full height and turned her head slowly, as if examining each face in the crowd. James gasped, and without thinking, ducked down behind Ralph's bulky form as her gaze moved over the crowd. Carefully, he peeked over Ralph's shoulder.
"What're you doing?" Ralph asked, straining to see James out of the corner of his eye.
James squinted through the crowd over Ralph's shoulder. The woman wasn't looking at him at all. She didn't appear to be looking at anything, precisely, despite the scrutinizing expression on her face. "That tall lady over there. The one with the scarf tied down over her head. I saw her the other night on the lake!"
Zane stood on tiptoe. "The one over there that looks like a gypsy mummy?"
"Yeah," James said, suddenly feeling foolish. The scarfed lady looked a lot older than he
remembered. Her eyes were a dull grey, her dark face bony and lined. A porter handed her a large wooden cane and she accepted it with a nod. She began to make her way across the crowded courtyard slowly, tapping the cane ahead of her as if feeling her way.
"Looks to me like she's blind as the proverbial bat," Zane said doubtfully. "Maybe it was an alligator you saw in the lake instead of her. It'd be an easy mistake."
"You guys know who that other teacher is?" Ralph suddenly interjected in a low, awed voice, indicating the stout man in the square spectacles. "That's…! That's…! He's the five… no! Wait, the fifty…!" he babbled.
Zane looked at the portico, frowning. "The little dude with the John Lennon glasses and the weird little ruffled collar?"
"Yes!" Ralph rasped excitedly, beckoning to Zane as if trying to pull the man's name out of his head. "That's… oh, whossname! He's money!"
"How surprisingly hip of you to say so, Ralph," Zane said, slapping Ralph on the back.
Just then, Professor McGonagall touched her wand to her throat and spoke, magnifying her voice so that it echoed throughout the courtyard. "Students, faculty and staff of Hogwarts, please join me in welcoming the representatives of Alma Aleron and the United States Department of Magical Administration."
Another burst of perfunctory applause filled the courtyard. Someone in the student orchestra, mistaking the announcement as a cue, began to play the American anthem again. Three or four other musicians joined in, hurriedly trying to catch up, before they were silenced by Professor Flitwick's frantic waving.
"Esteemed guests of Hogwarts," the Headmistress continued, nodding at the crowd of newcomers, "thank you for joining us. We all look greatly forward to a year of mutual learning and cultural exchange with such long-standing and steadfast allies as our friends from the United States. And now, representatives from Alma Aleron, if you would be so kind as to step forward so that we may introduce you to your new pupils."
James assumed that the tall professor with the steely features would be the leader, but this was not so. The stout wizard with the square glasses approached the portico and bowed gallantly to the Headmistress. He turned and addressed the crowd without using his wand, his clear tenor voice carrying expertly, as if speaking in public was something he was quite used to.
"Students of Hogwarts, faculty and friends, thank you for such a warm welcome. We've come to expect no less, though I assure you that we require nothing so grand." He smiled and winked to the crowd. "We are thrilled to be a part of your schooling this year, and let me assure you that the learning will certainly go both ways. I could, at this point, stand up here in the sun and regale you with endlessly impressive anecdotes of all the assorted similarities and differences between the European and American magical worlds, and I promise that such a diatribe would be, of course, endlessly engaging…" Again, the smile and the feeling of a mutual, inside joke. "But, as I can see that my own delegation of students are eager to rid themselves as quickly as possible of our administration for the afternoon, I can only assume that the same is true of our new Hogwarts friends. Thus, I shall merely provide the necessary introductions so that you may know who will be teaching what, and then release you all to your assorted devices."
"I like this guy already," James heard Ted say from somewhere behind him.
"In no particular order," the stout wizard called out, "let me introduce Mr. Theodore Hirshall Jackson, Professor of Technomancy and Applied Magic. He is also a three-star general in the Salem-Dirgus Free Militia, so I'd advise you all to call him 'sir' as many times as possible whenever you address him."
Professor Jackson's face was as impassive as granite, as if he had long since grown impervious to his associate's joking. He bowed slowly and gracefully, his chin raised and his dark eyes hovering somewhere over the crowd.
"Next to him," the stout professor continued, gesturing expansively with one arm, "Professor of Divination, Advanced Enchantments, and Remote Parapsychology, Desdemona Delacroix. She also makes a rather, er, intimidatingly delicious gumbo, although you'll consider yourselves very fortunate indeed if you are allowed to taste it."
The dark woman with the scarf over her hair smiled at the speaker, and the smile transformed her face from that of a skeletal hag to something resembling a desiccated but pleasantly mischievous grandmother. She turned and her blind eyes roved, unfocussed, over the crowd, crinkling as she smiled. James wondered how he could have thought that blind, milky gaze had been the same one he'd seen piercing him through the darkness across the lake the evening before. Besides, she'd just arrived, he reasoned. She couldn't even have been there the night before.
"And finally," the stout professor said, "last and, quite possibly, least, allow me to introduce myself. Your new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, head of the Alma Aleron debate team, and unofficial, but very willing, wizard chess contender, Benjamin Amadeus Franklyn, at your service." He bowed deeply, arms wide, his stringy grey hair drooping.
"That's who I was trying to think of!" Ralph whispered harshly. "He's on your money, you goon!" He elbowed Zane in the ribs, nearly knocking the smaller boy off his feet.
Minutes later, James, Zane, and Ralph were pounding up the stairs toward the Ravenclaw common room.
"Benjamin Franklin?" Zane repeated disbelievingly. "That can't be the original Ben Franklin. He'd be…" He thought for a moment, frowning. "Well, I don't know how old, but he'd be really, really old. Crazy old. Older than McGonagall even. No way."
Ralph wheezed, trying to keep up. "I'm telling you, I think these wizard types--us wizard types--have ways of sticking around for a long time. It's not all that surprising when you think about it. Ben Franklin almost seems like a wizard when you read about him in the Muggle history books. I mean, the guy caught lightning with a key on a kite string."
James was thoughtful. "I remember my Aunt Hermione telling me about some old wizard they learned about in their first year. Nicholas Flannel or something. He'd made a sort of stone that made him live forever, or close to it. Of course, it was the sort of thing that always seemed to be falling into the wrong hands, so eventually he destroyed it and ended up dying just like everybody else. Still, I think there probably are lots of ways for witches and wizards to prolong life for a long time, even without Flannel's stone."
"Maybe you should get his autograph on one of your hundred dollar bills," Ralph mused to Zane.
"I don't have any hundreds. I gave my last five to that elf doorman downstairs. It was all I had."
"He wasn't a doorman!" James tried again to convince Zane.
"Well? He got the door for us," Zane said placidly.
"Ralph knocked him over when he shoved it open! He wasn't trying to open it for us!"
"Well, I'm out of money anyway. I just hope the service doesn't suffer."
Zane stopped in front of the door to the Ravenclaw common room. The eagle door knocker spoke in a high, trilling voice. "What is the significance of the hat in magical mastery?"
"Ahh, sheesh, these are supposed to be the easy ones," Zane complained.
"Are you sure it's all right for us to go in there?" Ralph said, shuffling his feet. "What're the rules for hanging out in common rooms other than your own?"
"There aren't any rules about it that I know of," James said. "I just don't think people do it much." This didn't seem to ease Ralph's mind. He looked up and down the corridor fretfully.
"The hat… the hat…," Zane mumbled, staring at his shoes. "Hat, hat, hat. Rabbit out of a hat. You pull things out of a hat. It's probably like a metaphor or something. You wear a hat on your head… your brain's in your head, under the hat. Ummm…"
He snapped his fingers and looked up at the eagle door knocker. "You can't pull anything out of a hat that you haven't already put in your head?"
"Crude, but close enough," the door knocker replied. The door clicked and swung open.
"Wow!" James said, following Zane into the common room. "And your parents are Muggles?"
"Well, like I said, my dad makes movies, and my mom has E.S.P. about anything I try to sneak past her, so I assume I am unusually prepared for the magical world," Zane said in an offhand manner. "So this is the Ravenclaw common room. Not an electric light or a Coke machine in sight. We do have a really cool statue, though, and a talking fireplace. Saw my dad in it last night. He's adapting to all of this a little too well, if you ask me."
Zane toured them through the Ravenclaw rooms, apparently making up details whenever he didn't know them. Ralph and Zane tried to teach James how to play gin rummy with a deck of Muggle playing cards, but James couldn't get interested in King, Queen and Jack cards that didn't actually attack one another. When they got bored, Ralph took them to the Slytherin common room, leading them through a maze of dark, torch-lit cellar passages. They stopped at a large door that dominated the end of a corridor. Set in the middle of the door was a brass sculpture of a coiling snake, its wedge-shaped head protruding menacingly, open-mouthed.
"Oh, yeah," Ralph muttered. He shook back his sleeve, revealing a new ring on his right hand. The ring was set with a large green emerald, shaped like an eye with a slit pupil. Ralph pressed it carefully into one of the snake's eye sockets. The other socket glared to life, glowing green.
"Who sssseeks entry?" the snake's head said in a thin, hissing voice.
"Me. Ralph Deedle. Slytherin, first year."
The glowing green eye flicked over James and Zane. "And thessssse?"
"My friends. I, uh, I can vouch for them."
The glowing eye studied Zane then James for an uncomfortably long time, and then finally winked out. A series of complicated ratchets, clicks, and clanks came from within the door. It swung ponderously open.
The Slytherin rooms occupied a large, gothic space carved from beneath the lake. Thick, stainedglass windows in the vaulted ceilings looked up through the depths of the lake, making the filtered sunlight flicker greenly on the glass portraits of Salazar Slytherin and his progeny. Even Ralph seemed jumpy as he showed them around. Only a few other students were in the common room, draped over the furnishings with extravagant indolence. They followed Zane and James with their eyes, smiling cryptically, but apparently without malice. Ralph stiffly mumbled greetings.
The Slytherin sleeping quarters felt to James like someplace a very tasteful and wealthy pirate captain might sleep. The room was wide, with a sunken floor and low ceilings hung with gargoyle head lanterns. The large beds were mahogany with great square pillars at each corner. The Slytherin House crest hung on curtains at the end of each bed. The three boys clambered onto Ralph's immaculately made bed.
"These guys are pretty hardcore," Ralph admitted in a low voice, indicating the owners of the other beds. "To tell you the truth, I feel a little out of place here. I like the Ravenclaw rooms better."
"I don't know," Zane said, looking around the room admiringly. "They sure have a flair for decorating. Although it'd be hard to sleep with all those stuffed animal heads on the walls. Is that one a dragon?"
"Yes," Ralph replied, his voice strained and terse. "These guys bring them from their houses. They have families that actually go out dragon hunting."
James frowned. "I thought dragon hunting was illegal."
"Yeah," Ralph whispered severely. "That's the thing, isn't it? These guys' families have hunting preserves where they can go shoot just about anything! That over there is the skull of a unicorn. Still has the horn on it, although they said it isn't the real horn. The real horn is too valuable for magical uses to leave hanging on the wall. And that thing back behind Tom's bed is a house-elf head! They put them on the wall when they knock 'em off! And I swear it looks at me sometimes!" Ralph shuddered, and then seemed to decide he'd said too much. He pressed his mouth into a thin line and looked from James to Zane and back.
"Yeah, it is pretty creepy," James admitted, deciding not to tell Ralph any of the things he'd heard about how some of the Slytherin families lived. "Still, I expect it's mostly just for show."
"What's that?" Zane said suddenly, pouncing forward on the bed. "Is that a GameDeck? It is! And you've got the wireless uplink for online competition and everything!" He rummaged into a duffle bag at the end of Ralph's bed, pulling out a small, black box about the size and shape of the deck of cards they'd been playing with earlier. It had a tiny screen set into the front, with a mind-boggling array of buttons beneath it. "What games do you have for it? Do you have Armageddon Master Three?"
"No!" Ralph rasped, grabbing the tiny machine away from Zane. "And don't let anybody else see this thing! They flip out about stuff like this."
Zane was incredulous. "What? Why?"
"How should I know? What's the deal with wizards and electronic stuff?" Ralph addressed the question to James, who frowned and shrugged.
"I don't know. Mostly, we just don't need it. Electronic stuff, like computers and phones, are just Muggle things. We do what we need to do with magic, I guess."
Ralph was shaking his head. "That's not how these guys act about it. They talked about it like I'd brought something nasty to school with me. Told me if I meant to be a real Slytherin, I needed to abandon all my false magic and machines."
"False magic?" Zane asked, glancing at James.
"Yeah," he sighed, "that's what some wizarding families think of Muggle electronics and machines. They say those things are just cheap knockoffs of what real wizards do. They think any wizards who use Muggle machines are traitors to their magical heritage or something."
"Yeah, that's pretty much what they told me," Ralph nodded. "They were, like, passionate about it! I hid my stuff right away. I figure I'll give it all to Dad at the next break."
Zane made a low whistle. "I'll bet your orthodox wizard types didn't like seeing my guys landing today in those hunks of rolling iron. You can't get much more machine-y than a Dodge Hornet."
James considered this. "Yeah, they might not like it very much, but there's a difference between electronics and clockwork. They think of cars as just a bunch of cogs and pistons. They aren't so much false magic as just unnecessarily complicated tools. It's the computers and stuff they really hate."
"I'll say," Ralph breathed, looking down at his GameDeck, and then stuffing it back into his duffle bag. He sighed. "Let's get out of here. Dinner's soon and I'm starved."
"Are you ever full, Ralph?" Zane asked as they jumped off the bed.
"I'm big-boned," Ralph said automatically, as if he'd said it many times before. "It's a glandular problem. Shut up."
"Just asking," Zane said, raising his hands. "Frankly, around here, I like the idea of having a friend who is the size of a dumpster."
At dinner, the three of them sat together at the Gryffindor table. James was a little worried about it until Ted appeared and slapped Zane on the back affectionately. "Our little Ravenclaw imp. How's life in the second best house on campus?" After that, James noticed that Zane and Ralph weren't the only students to sit down at other House tables.
After dinner, they discussed the following day's schedules. Zane would be joining James for his Technomancy class with Professor Jackson, and Ralph would be with James in Defense Against the Dark Arts. The boys explored the library, hovering outside the Restricted Section for a while until the librarian shooed them away with a stern warning. Finally, they said their goodnights and went their different ways.
"See you tomorrow with Professor Stonewall!" Zane, who had a unique predisposition for nicknaming teachers, called as he climbed the staircase to the Ravenclaw common room.
Entering his own room, James found Ted seated on the couch with his arm slung casually around Petra. Sabrina and Damien were at a nearby table, arguing quietly over some papers spread on the table between them.
"Ready for school tomorrow, Junior?" Ted piped as James joined them.
"Yeah! I think so."
"You'll do fine," Ted said reassuringly. "First year is mostly wand-practice and theory. Wait until you get to fourth year and Professor Trelawney."
"At least we get to dilute Trelawney with that new bag of bones from the States," Petra said.
James raised his eyebrows. "How do you mean?"
Ted answered, "Looks like they'll be dividing the class. Last year it was Trelawney and Firenze, the centaur, but he's gone this year, moved back with the valley centaurs in Greyhaven. So this year, it's Trelawney and the voodoo queen, Madame Delacroix."
"I imagine they'll be best of friends," Damien announced philosophically. "Like peas in a pod. Like powdered dragon eggshell and Mandrake sap."
James blinked, but before he could ask Damien what he meant, Ted shook his head, smiling wickedly. "Use your imagination, mate."
A few minutes later, James detached himself from the group and climbed up to the sleeping quarters. He felt a pleasant mix of nervousness and excitement about the next day. For a moment, he simply stood in the moonlit room, soaking up the thrill of being there, being a Gryffindor, and starting his studies. He had a momentary dizzying sense of the adventures and challenges he'd be facing in the coming years, and in that moment, he wished he could jump ahead and take them all on at once.
Noah appeared from the tiny washroom. He glanced at James before flinging himself onto his bed. "We all feel that way sometimes," he said, as if he'd read James' thoughts. "Wait until tomorrow evening and you'll be back to normal. A good dose of lectures and homework does it to the best of us." And he blew out the candle by his bed.
3. The Ghost and the Intruder
James awoke early. The room was silent but for the breathing of his fellow Gryffindors and the whistling snore of Noah several beds away. The light in the room was only a few shades above night, a sort of pearly rose color. James tried to go back to sleep, but his mind was too full of all the unknowns that he was sure to experience in the next twelve hours. After a few minutes, he swung his feet out of bed and began to dress.
The halls of Hogwarts, while relatively quiet and empty, seemed busy in a completely different way this early in the morning. Dewy coolness and morning shadows filled the spaces, but there was a hint of busy commotion just out of sight behind unmarked doors down flights of narrow steps. As James moved among the corridors and passed empty classrooms that would later be filled with activity, he caught secondhand clues of the house-elf activity that thrived in the morning hours: a bucket and mop, still dripping, propped open a bathroom door; the scent of baking bread and the clatter of pots and pans drifted up a short flight of stairs; a row of windows stood with tapestries draped carefully out of them for airing.
James meandered to the Great Hall, but found it quiet and empty, the ceiling glowing a pale rose as the sky outside absorbed the light of the sunrise. James blinked and looked again. Something was moving among the semi-transparent rafters and beams. A grey shape flitted, humming a rather annoying little tune. James watched, trying to make out what it was. It seemed to be a small, fat man-shape with a gleefully impish expression of concentration. Against all probability, the figure seemed to be very carefully balancing tiny objects on the edges of some of the rafters. James noticed that the balanced objects were directly above the House tables, arranged at intervals and balanced so delicately as to fall at the slightest breeze.
"Fi!" the figure suddenly cried, making James jump. It had seen him. It swooped down upon him so swiftly that James almost dropped his books. "Who spies on the spy when he's planning his morning funnies!?" the figure sang, annoyance and glee mingled in its voice.
"Oh," James said, sighing. "I know you. Dad and Mum told me about you. Peeves."
"And I know you, little crumpet!" Peeves announced merrily, looping around James. "Little Potter boy, James! Oooo! Sneaking about early-early, unlike your daddy! He preferred the night, he did! Seeking a spot of breakfast, is we? Oh, so sorry, all the little elfy-welfies are still cooking it up in the basements. Hogwarts belongs only to Peeves this early. Care for a Peruvian ballistic bean instead?"
Peeves shoved a wispy arm toward James' face. The tiny objects filling Peeves' hand looked like dried green kidney beans.
"No! Thanks! I'll… I'll be off, then." James hooked a thumb over his shoulder and began to back away.
"Suresy, are we? Mmm! Beans, beans, the musical fruit!" Peeves dismissed James and swooped back up to the rafters again. "The more I plant, the more to toot! Tooty fruits in little Potter's pumpkin juice, perhaps!" he cackled merrily.
James wandered until he was out of earshot of Peeves' singing. After a few minutes, he found himself on a long, pillared balcony overlooking the school grounds. Mist arose from the lake in a great golden cloud, burning off in the sun. James leaned against a railing, soaking up the happiness and excitement of beginning his first day.
Something moved in the stillness. James glanced toward it. It had been at the edge of the forest, near Hagrid's cabin. Perhaps Hagrid was back. James studied the cabin. There was still no smoke in the chimney. The yard looked untended and overgrown. James frowned slightly. Why wasn't Hagrid back yet? He knew that the half-giant had a notorious soft spot for beasts and monsters, and he worried, along with his parents, that this would eventually be his undoing. Perhaps the alliance with the giants, tentative at the best of times, had fallen apart. Perhaps they had attacked Hagrid and Grawp or imprisoned them somehow. Perhaps--
The movement caught James' eye again. Just behind the stack of firewood by Hagrid's cabin, there was a flicker of color and a flash. James squinted, leaning as far over the balcony railing as he could. There it was again. A head peered over the firewood. In the distance, James could only see that it was a man about his dad's age. The face seemed to study the grounds, and then the man stood slowly and raised a camera. The flash came again as the man took a picture of the castle.
James was about to go find someone to tell about this strange sight, a teacher or even a house-elf, when something flew suddenly past him. James jumped aside, dropping his books for certain this time. The figure was white, semi-transparent, and utterly silent. It streamed past him and swooped down to the ground below, aiming for the interloper with the camera. The ghostly form was indistinct in the brightening sunlight, but the interloper saw it coming as if he had expected it. The man let out a little shriek of fear, but didn't run, despite the fact that at least part of him seemed to want to. Jerkily, he raised the camera again and snapped off a few quick shots of the ghostly form as it streaked towards him. Finally, just as the form was about to overtake him, the man spun on his heels and sprinted clumsily into the perimeter of the woods, disappearing into the darkness within. The ghost pulled up at the edge of the woods like a dog on the end of its leash. It peered in, then prowled back and forth restlessly. After a minute, it turned and began to return to the castle. As James watched, it began to take on a somewhat more solid shape. By the time the figure had returned to the ground in front of the balcony, it looked like a young man. The ghostly man walked with a determined, if rather dejected gait, head down. Then he glanced up, saw James, and stopped. There was a long moment of perfect stillness in which the man stared up at James, his transparent face expressionless. Then the figure simply evaporated, quickly and completely.
James stared at the place where the figure had been. He knew he hadn't imagined it. Ghosts were as much a part of Hogwarts as wands and moving paintings. He'd seen the Ravenclaw House ghost, the Grey Lady, only the day before, gliding down a corridor and looking quaintly morose. He was looking forward to meeting Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor House ghost. But this ghost was new to him. Of course, his parents couldn't have told him about every little detail of life at Hogwarts. A great deal of it was new to him. Still, the figure nagged at him, as did the sight of the man with the camera, sneaking about and taking pictures. Could he have been from one of the wizarding tabloids? Not The Quibbler, of course. James knew the people who ran that publication, and they wouldn't be interested in the snoozing morning life of Hogwarts. Still, there were plenty of muck-raking wizarding publications always interested in the supposed dirty little secrets of Hogwarts, the Ministry, and even James' dad.
Heading back toward the common room where he hoped to find Ted or one of the Gremlins before breakfast, James remembered that he hadn't yet given his parents' greetings to Professor Longbottom. He determined to do so at breakfast, and to use the opportunity to ask Neville about the ghost and the man with the camera.
In the Great Hall, however, Neville was nowhere to be seen. The long tables were now crowded with students in their school robes.
"So you saw some guy snapping pictures out on the grounds?" Ralph asked around a mouthful of French toast. "What's the big deal about that?"
"I'm more interested in the ghost," Zane said determinedly. "I wonder how he was killed. Do ghosts only come back when they've been killed in some really messy way?"
James shrugged. "I don't know. Ask one of the older guys. For that matter, ask Nick when you see him next."
"Nearly Headless Nick?" Sabrina said from further down the table.
"Yeah. Where's he at? We have a question for him."
"Gone," Sabrina said, shaking her head so that the quill in her hair wobbled. "He hasn't been with us since our first year. Finally made it into the Headless Hunt after all those years. We had a party for him, and then off he went. He never came back. Must have been the thing he needed to finally move on. Good for him, too. But still."
"The Headless…" Ralph queried tentatively, as if he wasn't sure he wanted clarification.
"He never came back?" James repeated. "But he was the Gryffindor House ghost! Who's our ghost now?"
Sabrina shook her head again. "Don't have one at the moment. Some of us thought it'd be old Dumbledore, but no luck."
"But…," James said, but didn't know how to continue. Every house had a ghost, right? He thought of the wispy shape that had turned into the silent young man on the front lawn.
"Mail call!" Zane called. Everyone looked up as owls began to swoop in through the high windows. The air was suddenly full of flapping wings and dropping letters and packages. James' eyes widened as he recalled Peeves' strange project from earlier that morning. Before he could say anything, the first loud pop rang out and a girl screamed in surprise and anger. She stood up from a nearby table, her robe spattered with yellow gobbets.
"My eggs blew up!" she exclaimed.
More pops erupted throughout the hall as the owls banked among the rafters. Zane and Ralph looked around wildly, trying to see what was going on.
"Time to go, mates!" James called, trying not to laugh. As he spoke, a Peruvian ballistic bean dropped from a rafter nearby, landing in a half empty cup and exploding with a loud pop. Juice erupted out of the cup like a tiny volcano. As James, Zane, and Ralph ran out of the milling chaos, Peeves swooped and dove through the Great Hall, laughing gleefully and singing about musical fruit.
Technomancy class was held in one of the smaller classrooms in the levels above the main hall. It had one window immediately behind the teacher's desk, and the morning sun shone directly through it, making Professor Jackson's head a corona of golden light. He bent over the desk, scratching away with a quill and parchment as Zane and James arrived. They found seats in the uncomfortable hush of the room, taking care not to break the silence by scraping their chairs. Slowly, the room filled, few students daring to speak, so that no noise could be heard except the busy scritch of the professor's quill. Finally, he consulted the clock on his desk and stood up, smoothing the front of his dark grey tunic.
"Welcome, students. My name, as you may know, is Theodore Jackson. I will be instructing you this year in the study of technomancy. I believe a great deal in reading, and I put a great stock in listening. You will do much of both in my class." His voice was calm and measured, more refined than James had expected. His iron grey hair was combed with military neatness. His bushy black eyebrows made a line as straight as a ruler across his forehead.
"It has been said," Jackson continued, beginning to pace slowly around the room, "that there is no such thing as a stupid question. No doubt you yourselves have been told this. Questions, it is supposed, are the sign of an inquisitive mind." He stopped, surveying them critically. "On the contrary, questions are merely the sign of a student who has not been paying attention."
Zane nudged James with his elbow. James glanced at him, then at his parchment. Zane had already drawn a simple but remarkably accurate caricature of the professor. James stifled a laugh, as much at Zane's audacity as at the drawing.
Jackson continued. "Pay attention in class. Take notes. Read the assigned texts. If you can
accomplish these things, you will find very little need for questions. Mind you, I am not forbidding questions. I am merely warning you to consider whether any question would require my repeating myself. If it does not, I will commend you. If it does, I will…," he paused, allowing his gaze to roam over the room, "remind you of this conversation."
Jackson had completed his circuit of the room. He turned to the chalkboard next to the window. Taking his wand out of a sheath in his sleeve, he flicked it at the board. "Who, pray, might be able to tell me what the study of technomancy entails?" On the chalkboard, the word spelled out in neat, slanting cursive. There was a long, uncomfortable pause. Finally, a girl raised her hand tentatively.
Jackson gestured at her. "Call it out, Miss, er… forgive me, I will learn all your names in time. Gallows, is it?"
"Sir," the girl said in a small voice, apparently thinking of Franklyn's advice from the day before. "Technomancy is, I believe, the study of the science of magic?"
"You are of the Ravenclaw House, Miss Gallows?" Jackson asked, eyeing her. She nodded. "Five points for Ravenclaw, then, although I don't approve of the word 'believe' in my class. Belief and knowledge have little, if anything, in common. In this class, we will apply ourselves to knowledge. Science. Facts. If you want belief, Mistress Delacroix's class will be convening down the hall in the next hour." He pointed, and for the first time there was the surfacing of something like humor in the stony façade. A few students dared to smile and laugh quietly. Jackson turned, flicking his wand at the chalkboard again.
"The study of the science of magic, yes. It is a common and sad misunderstanding that magic is a mystical or unnatural pursuit. Those that believe--and here I use the term 'believe' intentionally--those that believe magic is simply mystical are also prone to believe in such things as destiny, luck, and the American Quidditch team. In short, lost causes with no shred of empirical evidence to support them." More smiles appeared in the room. Obviously, there was more to Professor Jackson than met the eye.
"Magic," he continued, as the chalkboard began to scribble his notes, "does not, I repeat, does not break any of the natural laws of science. Magic exploits those laws using very specific and creative methods. Mr. Walker."
Zane jumped in his seat, looking up from the drawing he'd been working at while the others scribbled notes. Jackson was still facing the chalkboard, his back to Zane.
"I need a volunteer, Mr. Walker. Might I borrow your parchment?" It wasn't a request. As he spoke, he flicked his wand and Zane's parchment swooped up and wove toward the front of the room. Jackson caught it deftly with a raised hand. He turned slowly, holding the parchment up, not looking at it. The class looked with marked silence at the rather good caricature of Jackson Zane had drawn. Zane began to sink slowly in his seat, as if he was trying to melt under the desk.
"Is it simply magic that makes a true wizard's drawing take on life?" Jackson asked. As he spoke, the drawing on the parchment moved. The expression changed from a caricature of steely-eyed sternness to one of cartoonish anger. The perspective pulled back, and now there was a desk in front of the Jackson drawing. A tiny cartoon version of Zane cowered at the desk. The Jackson drawing pulled out a gigantic cartoon clipboard and began to make red slashes on the clipboard, which had the letters O.W.L. across the top. The cartoon Zane fell on his knees, pleading silently with the Jackson caricature, which shook its head imperiously. The cartoon Zane cried, his mouth a giant boomerang of woe, comic tears springing from his head.
Jackson turned his head and finally looked at the parchment in his hand as the class erupted into gales of laughter. He smiled a small but genuine smile. "Unfortunately, Mr. Walker, your subtracted five points cancel out Miss Gallows' awarded five points. Ho hum. Such is life."
He began to pace around the room again, placing the drawing carefully back onto Zane's desk as he passed. "No, magic is not, as it were, simply a magic word. In reality, the true wizard learns to imprint his own personality on the paper using a means other than the quill. Nothing unnatural occurs. There is simply a different medium of expression taking place. Magic exploits the natural laws, but it does not break them. In other words, magic is not unnatural, but it is supernatural. That is, it is beyond the natural, but not outside it. Another example. Mr. um…"
Jackson pointed at a boy near him, who leaned suddenly back in his chair, looking rather cross-eyed at the pointing finger. "Murdock, sir," the boy said.
"Murdock. You are of age for Apparition, I am correct?"
"Oh. Yes, sir," Murdock said, seeming relieved.
"Describe Apparition for us, will you?"
Murdock looked perplexed. "S'pretty basic, isn't it? I mean, it's just a matter of getting a place nice and solid in your mind, closing your eyes, and, well, making it happen. Then bang, you're there."
"Bang? You say?" Jackson said, his face blank.
Murdock reddened. "Well, yeah, more or less. You just zap there. Just like that."
"So it is instantaneous, you'd say."
"Yeah. I guess I'd say that."
Jackson raised an eyebrow. "You guess?"
Murdock squirmed, glancing at those seated near him for help. "Er. No. I mean, yes. Definitely. Instantaneously. Like you said."
"Like you said, Mr. Murdock," Jackson corrected mildly. He was moving again, proceeding back toward the front of the room. He touched another student on the shoulder as he went. "Miss?"
"Sabrina Hildegard, sir," Sabrina said as clearly and politely as she could.
"Would you be so kind as to perform a small favor for us, Miss Hildegard? We require the use of two ten-second timers from Professor Slughorn's Potions room. Second door on the left, I believe. Thank you."
Sabrina hurried out as Jackson faced the classroom again. "Mr. Murdock, have you any idea what it is, precisely, that happens when you Disapparate?"
Murdock had apparently determined that abject ignorance was his safest tack. He shook his head firmly.
Jackson seemed to approve. "Let us examine it this way. Who can tell me where vanished objects go?"
This time Petra Morganstern raised her hand. "Sir. Vanished objects go nowhere, which is to say, they go everywhere."
Jackson nodded. "A textbook answer, Miss. But an empty one. Matter cannot be in two places at once, nor can it be both everywhere and nowhere. I'll save our time by not taxing this class's ignorance on the subject any longer. This is the part where you listen and I speak."
Around the room, quills were dipped and made ready. Jackson began to pace again. "Matter, as even you all know, is made up almost entirely of nothing. Atoms collect in space, forming a shape that, from our vantage point, seems solid. This candlestick," Jackson laid his hand on a brass candlestick on his desk, "seems to us to be a single, very solid item, but is, in fact, trillions of tiny motes hovering with just enough proximity to one another as to imply shape and weight to our clumsy perspective. When we vanish it," Jackson flicked his wand casually at the candlestick and it disappeared with a barely audible pop, "we are not moving the candlestick, or destroying it, or causing the matter that comprised it to cease being. Are we?"
Jackson's piercing eyes roamed over the room, leaping from face to face as the students stopped writing, waiting for him to go on.
"No. Instead, we have altered the arrangement of the spaces between those atoms," he said meaningfully. "We have expanded the distance from point to point, perhaps a thousandfold, perhaps a millionfold. The multiplication of those spaces expands the candlestick to a point of nearly planetary dimensions. The result is that we can actually walk through it, through the spaces between its atoms, and never even notice. In short, the candlestick is still here. It has simply been expanded so greatly, thinned to such an ephemeral level as to become physically insubstantial. It is, in effect, everywhere, and nowhere."
Sabrina returned with the timers, placing them onto Jackson's desk. "Ah, thank you, Miss Hildegard. Murdock."
Murdock jumped again. There was a titter from the class. "Sir?"
"Fear not, my brave friend. I would like you to perform what I suspect you will find to be a very simple task. I'd like you to Disapparate for us."
Murdock looked shocked. "Disapparate? But… but nobody can Disapparate on the school grounds, sir."
"True enough. A quaint and merely symbolic restriction, but a restriction nonetheless. Fortunately for us, I have arranged a temporary educational allowance that will allow you, Mr. Murdock, to Disapparate from over there," Jackson paced to the front corner of the room and pointed at the floor, "to here."
Murdock stood and swayed slightly as he worked out what the professor was asking. "You want me to Disapparate from this room… to this room?"
"From over there, where you are, to here. This corner, if you could. I wouldn't expect it to be much of a challenge. Except, I'd like you to do it carrying this." Jackson picked up one of the small hourglasses Sabrina had brought. "Turn it over at precisely the moment before you Disapparate. Understood?"
Murdock nodded in relief. "No problem, sir. I can do that blindfolded."
"I shouldn't think that'd be necessary," Jackson said, handing Murdock the timer. He returned to the front of the room, picking up the second timer himself.
"On three, Mr. Murdock. One… two… three!"
Both Murdock and Jackson turned their timers over. A split second later, Murdock vanished with a loud crack. Every eye in the room snapped towards the front corner.
Jackson held the timer, watching the sand flow silently through the pinched glass. He hummed a bit. He allowed himself to lean slightly on his desk. Then, lazily, he turned and looked into the front corner of the classroom.
There was a second crack as Murdock Reapparated. In one remarkably swift motion, Jackson took Murdock's hourglass from his hand and laid both his and Murdock's on their sides in the middle of his desk. He stood back, looking severely at both hourglasses. The sand in Jackson's hourglass was divided almost evenly between the two bulbs. Murdock's hourglass still had nearly all of its sand in the top.
"I'm afraid, Mr. Murdock," Jackson said, not taking his eyes off the hourglasses, "that your hypothesis has proven faulty. Do return to your seat, and thank you."
Jackson looked up at the class and gestured at the hourglasses. "A difference of four seconds, give or take a few tenths. It appears that Apparition is not, in fact, instantaneous. But--and this is the very interesting part--it is instantaneous for the Apparator. What can technomancy tell us about this? That is a rhetorical question. I will answer."
Jackson resumed his pacing around the room as words began to scribble onto the chalkboard again. Around the room, students bent over their parchments. "Apparition utilizes exactly the same methodology as vanished objects. The Apparator magnifies the distance between his or her own atoms, expanding themselves to such a degree that they become physically insubstantial, unseen, immeasurable, effectively, everywhere. Having achieved everywhereness, the Apparator then automatically reduces the distance between his or her atoms, but with a new center point, determined by their mental landmarking immediately before Disapparition. The wizard standing in London envisions Ebbets Field, Disapparates--that is, achieves everywhereness--and then Reapparates with a new solidity point at Ebbets Field. It is essential that the wizard make that predestination in his mind before Disapparition. Can anyone tell me, using technomancy, why?"
Silence. Then the girl named Gallows raised her hand again. "Because the process of Apparition is instantaneous for the wizard?"
"Partial credit, Miss," Jackson said, almost kindly. "Depending on distances, Apparition takes time, as we have just seen, and time is not, relatively speaking, flexible. No, the reason that the wizard must firmly fix his destination before he Disapparates is that, while the wizard is in the state of everywhereness, his mind is in a state of perfect hibernation. The time it takes to Apparate is not instantaneous, but because the wizard's mind is effectively frozen during the process, it seems to be instantaneous to him. Since a wizard cannot think or feel during the process of Apparition, a wizard who fails to fix his solidity destination before Disapparating… will never Reapparate at all."
Jackson frowned and scanned the class, looking for some sign that they'd grasped the lesson. After several seconds, a hand slowly raised. It was Murdock. His face was a pall of misery as he apparently struggled to arrange these radical concepts in his mind. Jackson's bushy black eyebrows rose slowly.
"Yes, Mr. Murdock?"
"Question sir. I'm sorry. Where--" he coughed, cleared his throat, and then licked his lips. "Where is Ebbets Field?"
James met Zane and Ralph after lunch, all three having a short free period. With too much time to head directly to their next classes, but not enough time to go to their common rooms, they strolled aimlessly along the crowded halls near the courtyard, trying to stay out of the way of the older students and discussing their morning's classes.
"I'm telling you, old Stonewall has some wacky magical effect on the passage of time!" Zane told Ralph passionately. "I swear, at one point, I saw the clock actually move backwards."
"Well, I liked my teacher. Professor Flitwick. You've seen him around," Ralph said, amiably changing the subject.
Zane was undeterred. "Guy's got eyes in the back of his wig or something. Who'd've thought a school of witchcraft would be so sneaky?"
"Professor Flitwick teaches beginning spells and wandwork, doesn't he?" James asked Ralph.
"Yeah. It was really excellent. I mean, it's one thing to read about doing magic, but seeing it happen is something else. He made his chair float, books and all!"
"Books?" Zane interjected.
"Yeah, you know that stack of books he keeps on his chair so he can see over the desk? Must be a hundred pounds of them. He floated the chair right off the floor with them still on it, just using his wand."
"How'd you do at it?" Zane asked. James cringed, thinking of Ralph's ridiculous wand.
"Not bad, actually," Ralph said mildly. There was a pause as Zane and James stopped to look at him.
"Really. Not bad," Ralph repeated. "I mean, we weren't lifting chairs or anything. Just feathers. Flitwick said he didn't expect us to get it the first time. But still, I did as well as anybody else." Ralph looked thoughtful. "Maybe even a little better. Flitwick seemed pretty happy with it. He said I was a natural."
"You made a feather float with that crazy snowman-whisker log?" Zane asked incredulously.
Ralph looked annoyed. "Yes. For your information, Flitwick says that the wand is just a tool. It's the wizard that makes the magic. Maybe I'm just talented. Did that occur to you, Mr. Wand-Expert-All-of-a-Sudden?"
"Sheesh, sorry," Zane mumbled. "Just don't point that crazy snowman log at me. I wanna keep the same number of arms and legs."
"Forget it," James soothed as they started walking again. "Flitwick's right. Who cares where your wand came from? You really got the feather to levitate?"
Ralph allowed a small grin of pride. "All the way to the ceiling. It's still up there now! I got it stuck in a rafter."
"Nice," James nodded appreciatively.
An older boy in a green tie bumped James, knocking him off the path and into the grass of the courtyard. He bumped into Ralph as well, but Ralph was as tall as the older boy, and rather wider. The boy bounced off Ralph, who didn't budge.
"Sorry," Ralph muttered as the boy stopped and glared at him.
"Watch where you're going, first years," the boy said coldly, glancing from James to Ralph. "And maybe you ought to be more careful who you allow yourself to be seen with, Deedle." He stepped around Ralph without waiting for a response.
"Now, that's the Slytherin spirit you told me about on the train," Zane said. "So much for 'I expect we'll all be friends.'"
"That was Trent," Ralph said morosely, watching the boy walk away. "He's the one who told me my GameDeck was an insult to my wizarding blood. Didn't take him long to borrow it, though."
James barely heard. He was distracted by something the boy had been wearing. "What'd his badge say?"
"Oh, they've all started wearing those," Ralph said. "Tabitha Corsica was handing them out in the common room this morning. Here." Ralph reached into his robes and produced a similar badge. "I forgot to put mine on."
James looked at the badge. White letters on a dark blue background read 'Progressive Wizarding Against False History'. A large red 'X' repeatedly slashed itself across the words 'False History', and then faded out.
"They don't all say that," Ralph said, taking the badge back. "Some of them say 'Question the Victors'. Others have longer sayings on them that didn't make any sense to me. What's an Auror?"
Zane piped up. "My dad got called for 'Auror duty' once. He got out of it because he was on a shoot in New Zealand. He says if 'Aurors' got paid more, we'd get better verdicts."
Ralph looked bewildered at Zane. James sighed. "Aurors," he said slowly and carefully, "are witches and wizards who find and catch dark witches and wizards. They're sort of like wizarding police, I guess. My dad's an Auror."
"Head of the Auror Department, you mean," a voice said as a group passed. Tabitha Corsica was at the head of the group, looking back at James as she swept on. "But do pardon my interruption." The others in the group looked back at James with unreadable smiles. All of them were wearing the blue badges.
"Yeah," James said, loudly but rather uncertainly, "he is."
"Your dad's chief of the wizard cops?" Zane asked, glancing from the departing Slytherins to James. James grimaced and nodded. He'd had a chance to read another of the badges. It read 'Say No to Auror Fear Mongering; Say Yes to Freedom of Magical Expression'. James didn't know what any of it meant, but he had a bad feeling about it.
Zane suddenly turned and nudged Ralph with his elbow. "Better get that badge on, mate, or your house buddies will think you've gone all soft on False History and the Auror Imperialists or whatever."
James blinked, finally registering something Ralph had said a minute ago. "Did you say that your roommate borrowed your GameDeck thing?"
Ralph smiled humorlessly. "Well, maybe not him. Somebody did. Not that many people knew about it, though. Unless they talked it up behind my back. All I know is it went missing from my bag right after I showed it to you guys. I suppose my housemates were just purging the room of counterfeit magic." He sighed.
James couldn't shake the nasty feeling that was cooling in his belly. It was all wrapped up in the sugary niceness of some of the Slytherins, and the odd badges. And now, one of them had taken Ralph's weird Muggle game device. Why?
They were passing the Hogwarts trophy case when Zane, who had drifted ahead, called out. "Hey, club sign-up sheets. Let's do something extracurricular." He leaned in, examining one sheet in particular. "'Read the Runes! Predict your Fate and the Fates of your Friends! Learn the Language of the Stars.' Blah, blah. 'Constellations Club. Meets at eleven o'clock on Tuesdays in the West Tower.' Sounds to me like an excuse to be out late. I'm there." He grabbed the quill which had been affixed to a shelf by a length of string, dipped it theatrically, and scribbled his name on the sheet.
James and Ralph had caught up with him. Ralph leaned in, reading the sign-up sheets aloud. "Debate teams, Wizard Chess Club, House Quidditch teams."
"What? Where?" Zane said, still holding the quill as if he meant to stab something with it. He found the parchment for the Ravenclaw Quidditch Team tryouts and began to sign his name. "I just gotta get on one of those brooms. What do you think my chances are, James?"
James took the quill from Zane, shaking his head in amusement. "Anything's possible. My dad was the Seeker for the Gryffindor team his first year. Youngest Seeker in team history. He's part of the reason they changed the rules. Used to be that first years couldn't be on the team. Now it's allowed, but really, really rare." James signed his name to the bottom of the sheet for the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Tryouts, he saw, were after classes the next day.
"Ralph, you going to sign up for the Slytherins? Come on! All your friends are doing it!" Zane leered at the bigger boy.
"Nah, I was never very good at sports."
"You?" Zane cried heartily, throwing an arm rather awkwardly over Ralph's shoulder. "You're a brick wall! All you have to do is park yourself in front of the goal and the defense is all shored up! All they'd need is to find a broom that'll hold you, you big lug."
"Shut up!" Ralph said, twisting away from Zane's arm, but smiling and turning red. "Actually I was thinking about signing up for the debate team. Tabitha thinks I'd be good on it."
James blinked. "Tabitha Corsica asked you to be on the Slytherin debate team?"
"Actually," Zane said, peering at the debate sign-up sheets, "debate teams aren't divided by house. They're just random Teams A and B. Look, people from all different houses are on each team. There's even some of the visiting Alma Alerons on here."
"Why don't you go ahead and sign up, Ralph?" James asked. Ralph obviously wanted to.
"I don't know. I might."
"Oh, look, Petra's on Team A," Zane said. He began to sign his name again.
James frowned. "You're joining the debate team just because Petra Morganstern is on it?"
"Can you think of a better reason?"
"You know," James said, laughing, "Petra is going out with Ted, I think."
"My dad says girls don't know whether they like ice cream until they've tried every kind," Zane said wisely, sticking the quill back into its holder.
Ralph furrowed his brow. "What's that mean?"
"It means Zane here thinks he can give Ted a run for his money in the romance department," James said. He both admired and worried about Zane's lack of inhibition.
"It means," Zane replied, "that Petra doesn't know what she wants in a man until she's had a chance to get to know as many men as possible. I'm thinking only of her best interests."
Ralph studied Zane for a moment. "You do know you're eleven years old, right?"
James stopped as Zane and Ralph began to walk on. His eye had been caught by a picture in the trophy case. He leaned in, cupping his hands around his face to block the glare of the sun. The picture was black and white, moving, as all wizard pictures did. It was his dad, younger, thinner, his black hair wild and unruly over the famous, characteristic scar. He was smiling uncomfortably at the camera, his eyes moving as if he were avoiding eye contact with somebody or something outside the camera's view. Next to the framed photo was a large trophy made of silver and a sort of blue crystal that glowed with a shifting, curling light. James read the plaque below the trophy.
The Triwizard Cup
Jointly Awarded to Harry Potter and Cedric Diggory,
Hogwarts students of the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff Houses, respectively,
for winning the Triwizard Tournament, which was held upon these grounds
with the cooperation of representatives from the
Durmstrang Institute and the Beauxbatons Academy of Magic.
There was more, but James didn't read it. He knew the story. Harry Potter's name had been drawn as a competitor fraudulently, having been placed into the running by a dark wizard named Crouch. It had led to both Harry and Diggory being sent via Portkey to Voldemort's lair, resulting in the evil wizard's bodily return. No wonder his dad looked so uncomfortable in the photo. He had been under the legal age for the tournament, and had been the superfluous fourth contestant in a three wizard competition. He'd been in a room full of people who suspected him of cheating and dark magic, at best.
James glanced at the photo on the other side of the cup, the one of Diggory. His smile looked genuine and hearty compared to his dad's. James had never seen a photo of Diggory before, but it looked familiar nonetheless. He knew the story of Diggory, knew he had died next to his dad in the graveyard they'd been sent to, killed at the command of Voldemort. His dad rarely talked about that night, and James understood why, or at least thought he did.
He sighed, and then ran to catch up with Zane and Ralph.
Later that day, when James stopped in his room to swap books for his Defense Against the Dark Arts class, he found Nobby waiting for him, scratching the windowsill impatiently. James grabbed the rolled parchment off Nobby's leg and read it.
Your father and I are thrilled to hear you are settling in well, as we knew you would. Your Uncle Ron says congratulations on becoming a Gryffindor, and we all concur. Can't wait to hear how your first day's classes go. Also, I hope you hear about this from us first: your father has been asked to go to Hogwarts for a meeting with the American wizards about international security and other matters of 'mutual interest'. I'll be staying home with Albus and Lil, but your father looks forward to seeing you next week. Make sure you are eating more than pastries and meat pies and be sure to get your robes and yourself washed at least once a week. (That was a joke. Actually, no, it wasn't.)
Love and kisses,
James folded the note into the book he was carrying as he ran down the steps. The knowledge that he'd be seeing his dad next week had left him with mixed feelings. Of course, he was excited to see him and to introduce him to his new friends. Still, he feared that the visit would also make the shadow of his famous father that much harder to escape. He was fleetingly thankful that Zane and Ralph were both Muggle-born, and therefore, relatively ignorant of the exploits of his legendary dad.
As he joined the crowd of students filing into the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, James saw another of the badges on a Slytherin's robe. 'Progressive Wizards Against Magical Discrimination', it read. He felt a sort of aimless, sinking feeling, and then he noticed the newspaper clipping tacked to the wall near the door. 'Harry Potter to Join International Wizarding Summit', ran the headline. Below it, smaller type read 'Head Auror to Meet United States Representatives During Hogwarts Ceremony. Security Questions Prevail.' Pinned to the newspaper clipping so that it obscured the photo of a smiling adult Harry Potter was another of the blue badges. 'Question the Victors', it flashed.
"Come on," Ralph urged, joining James. "We'll be late."
As they navigated the crowded room and found two seats near the front, Ralph leaned toward James. "Was that your dad on that newspaper story?"
James had assumed Ralph hadn't noticed it. He glanced at Ralph as they sat down. "Yeah. Mum just wrote me about it. He'll be here beginning of next week. Big meeting with the Americans, I guess."
Ralph said nothing, but looked uncomfortable.
"You already knew about it, didn't you?" James whispered as the class quieted down.
"No," Ralph muttered, "at least, not specifically. My housemates have been talking about some sort of protest all day, though. Looks like it's about your dad, I guess."
James stared at Ralph, his mouth open slightly. So that's what Tabitha Corsica and her Slytherins were up to, behind all the friendly smiles and speeches. The Slytherin tactics had changed, but not their purpose. James pressed his lips into a grim line and turned to the front of the room as Professor Franklyn approached the main desk. Professor Jackson was walking next to him, carrying his black leather case and talking in a low tone.
"Greetings, students," Franklyn said crisply. "I suspect many of you have already met Professor Jackson. Please forgive the short delay." Jackson eyed the seated students from over his shoulder, his face like granite. Zane's nickname for the man did seem to be rather appropriate, James thought. Franklyn turned back to Jackson and spoke in a hushed voice. Jackson seemed discontent with what Franklyn was saying. He set his case down on the floor next to him, freeing his hand to gesture minutely.
James looked down at the case. It was only a foot or two from where he sat in the front row. Jackson was never seen without the case, which was unremarkable in nearly every way apart from the fact that he guarded it so closely. James tried not to listen in on the conversation between the two professors, which was obviously meant to be secret. Of course, that made it all the more intriguing. He heard the words 'grotto' and 'Merlin'. Then a third voice pierced the room.
"Professor Jackson," the voice said, and while it wasn't a loud voice, it rang with an air of understated power. James turned around to see who was speaking. Madame Delacroix was standing just inside the doorway to the room, her blind gaze hovering somewhere over everyone's heads. "I thought you might like to know dat your class is awaiting you. You are always such a…," she seemed to search the air for the right word, "stickler for punctuality." Her voice had a slow drawl that was somehow both French and Southern American. She smiled vaguely, then turned, her cane clicking the floor, and disappeared down the hall.
Jackson's face was even harder than normal as he stared at the now empty doorway. He glanced pointedly at Franklyn, and then dropped his gaze, reaching for his case. He froze in mid-reach, and James couldn't help glancing down toward the professor's feet. The black leather case had apparently come slightly open when he'd set it down. Its brass catches glinted. No one else seemed to have noticed except for James and Professor Jackson. Jackson resumed reaching for his case, slowly, clicking it closed with one large, knobby-knuckled hand. James had only a narrow glimpse into the case. It appeared to be stuffed with folds of some rich, dark cloth. Jackson straightened, picking the case back up, and as he did so, he glanced at James, his stony face grim. James tried to glance away, but it was too late. Jackson knew he'd seen, even if he didn't know what it was.
Without a word, Jackson strode back up the aisle, moving with that purposeful, sweeping gait that looked so much like an old battleship under full sail, and then turned into the hall without looking back.
"Thank you for your patience," Franklyn said to the class, adjusting his glasses. "Welcome to Defense Against the Dark Arts. By now, most of you know my name, and many of you, I assume, know something of my history. Just to get some of the obvious questions out of the way: Yes, I am that Benjamin Franklin. No, I didn't actually invent electricity for the Muggles, but I did give them a small push in the right direction. Yes, I was a part of the American Continental Congress, although for obvious reasons, I was not one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. At that time, I used two different spellings of my name, only one of which was known to the Muggle world, which made it easier for me to know which correspondences to open first. Yes, I realize my face graces the American one hundred dollar bill. No, contrary to popular myth, I do not carry sheets of uncut hundreds around to snip out and sign for admirers. Yes, I am indeed quite old, and yes, this is accomplished through means of magic, although I assure you that those means are a lot more mundane and prosaic than many have assumed. Emphatically no, I am not immortal. I am a very, very old man who has aged rather well with a little help. Does that cover most of the obvious questions?" Franklyn finished with a wry smile, surveying the remarkably full classroom. There was a murmur of assent.
"Excellent. Onward and upward then. And please," Franklyn continued, opening a very large book on his desk, "let us avoid any 'it's all about the Benjamins' jokes. They weren't funny two hundred years ago and they are even less funny now, thank you."
Crossing the grounds on their way to dinner in the Great Hall, James and Ralph were passing Hagrid's cabin when they noticed the ribbon of smoke coming out of the chimney. James broke into a grin, called Ralph to follow, and ran up to the front door.
"James!" Hagrid bellowed, opening the door. He threw his arms around the boy, completely engulfing him. Ralph's eyes widened and he took a step backwards, looking Hagrid up and down. "So good to have a Potter back in school. How's yer mum an' dad, an' li'l Albus an' Lily?"
"Everybody's fine, Hagrid. Where've you been?"
Hagrid stepped out, closing the door behind him. They followed him as he crossed the grounds toward the castle. "Up the mountains meetin' with the giants, that's where. Grawp and me, we go every year, don't we? Spreadin' goodwill an' tryin' to keep 'em all honest, for whatever it's worth. Stayed a li'l longer this year on account o' li'l Grawpy findin' himself a girlfriend. Who's yer mate here, James?"
James, momentarily distracted by the thought of Hagrid's half-brother, who was a full giant, performing mating rituals with a mountain giantess, had completely forgotten about Ralph. "Oh! This is my friend, Ralph Deedle. He's a first year, like me. Hagrid, are you telling us Grawp's in love?"
Hagrid grew vaguely misty. "Aww, it's sweet to see the li'l fella and his lady friend together. Why, they're both just as happy as a pair of hippogriffs in a henhouse. Giant courtships are very delicate things, yeh know."
Ralph was having some difficulty keeping up with the conversation. "Grawp, your brother, is a giant?"
"Well, sure," Hagrid boomed happily. "He's only a li'l one. Sixteen feet or so. Yeh should see his lady friend. She's from the Crest-Dweller's tribe, twenty-two feet if she's an inch. Not my type of girl, o' course, but Grawpy's just smitten by her. Not surprising, really, since the first step in any giant courtship is smitin' the mate over the head with a big hunk of tree trunk. She laid the li'l fella right out cold for the best part of a day. After that, he's been as google-eyed as a pup."
James was afraid to ask, and suspected he knew the answer. "Did Grawp bring his girlfriend back home with him?"
Hagrid looked taken aback. "Well, sure he did. This is his home, now, isn't it? He'll make a good wife of her, once they're done a-courtin'. She's made herself a nice little hovel up in the hills behind the forest. Grawp's there now, helpin' her settle in, I expect."
James tried to imagine Grawp helping a twenty-two-foot giantess 'settle in', but his exhausted imagination shut down. He shook his head, attempting to clear it.
"I hear your dad's comin' in for a meetin' next week, James," Hagrid said as they entered the shadow of the main gates. "Havin' a meetin' of the minds with the muckety-mucks from across the pond, eh?"
James puzzled over Hagrid's terminology. "If you say so."
"Ahh, it'll be nice to have yer dad over for tea again, just like old times. Only without all the secrecy and adventure. Did I tell yeh about the time yer dad and Ron and Hermione helped my Norbert escape?"
"Only about a hundred times, Hagrid," James laughed, pulling open the door of the Great Hall. "But don't worry, it changes a little every time I hear it."
Later, when dinner was almost over, James approached Hagrid where he thought they could have a more private conversation. "Hagrid, can I ask you a, sort of, official question?"
"O' course yeh can. I can't guarantee I'll know the answer, but I'll do my best."
James glanced around and saw Ralph sitting at the Slytherin table on the edge of Tabitha Corsica's group. She was talking seriously, her pretty face lit in the candlelight and the deepening light of the dusky ceiling. "Do people ever get, I don't know, sorted wrong? Is it possible that the Hat could make a mistake and put somebody in the wrong house?"
Hagrid sat down heavily on a nearby bench, making it groan appreciably. "Well, I can't say as I've ever heard of it happ'nin' before," he said. "Some people may not like where they're placed, but that doesn't mean it's not a good fit. It might mean they just aren't happy with who they really are. What is it yer worried about, James?"
"Oh, it's not me I'm thinking of," James said hurriedly, taking his eyes off Ralph so as not to implicate him. "It's just a, sort of, you know, general question. I was just wondering."
Hagrid smiled crookedly and clapped James on the back, making him stumble half a step. "Just like your dad, yeh are. Always lookin' out for other people when yeh ought to be watchin' your own step. It'll get yeh in hot water if yeh aren't careful, just like it did him!" He chuckled, making a sound like loose rocks in a fast river. The thought seemed to bring Hagrid a great deal of hearty pleasure. "Nah, the Sorting Hat knows what it's up to, I expect. Everything'll come out all right. Yeh wait and see."
But as James walked back to his table, making eye contact with Ralph for a moment as he passed the Slytherins, he wondered.
4. The Progressive Element
James Potter sat up in his bed, stifling a gasp. He listened very intently, peering around the darkened sleeping chamber. All around him were the small sounds of sleeping Gryffindors. Ted rolled over and snorted, muttering in his sleep. James held his breath. He'd awakened a few minutes earlier with the sound of his own name in his ears. It had been like a voice in a dream: distant and whispered, as if blown on smoke down a long, dark tunnel. He had just about convinced himself that it had, in fact, been the tail of a dream and drifted back to sleep when he'd heard it again. It seemed to come out of the walls themselves, a faraway sound, still somehow right next to him, like a chorus of whispers saying his full name.
Very quietly, James slipped out of bed and shrugged into his bathrobe. The stone floor was cool under his feet as he stood and listened, tilting his head. He turned slowly, and as he looked toward the door, the figure there moved. He hadn't seen it appear, it was simply there, floating, where a moment before there had been darkness. James startled and backed into his bed, almost falling backwards onto it. Then he recognized the ghostly shape. It was the same wispy, white figure he'd seen chase the interloper off the school grounds, the ghostly shape that had come to look like a young man as it came back to the castle. In the darkness of the doorway, the figure seemed much brighter than it had appeared in the morning sunlight. It was wispy and shifting, with only the barest suggestion of its human shape. It spoke again without moving.
Then it turned and flitted down the stairs.
James hesitated for only a second, then wrapped his bathrobe more tightly about him and followed the figure, his bare feet slapping lightly on the stone steps.
He reached the deserted common room just in time to see the ghostly shape glide through the portrait hole, passing through the back of the portrait of the Fat Lady. James hurried to follow.
James expected the Fat Lady to scold him as he snuck past her, but she was deeply asleep in her frame as he closed it gently. She was snoring a remarkably tiny, ladylike snore, and James wondered if it was an enchanted sleep cast by the ghostly figure.
The halls were silent and dark, it being the very pit of night. Silvery blue moonlight sifted through the few windows. It occurred to James that he should have brought his wand. He couldn't do much with it yet, but he did know a basic Illumination Spell. He glanced around the pattern of moonlight and shadows that was the hall, seeking the ghostly shape. It was nowhere in sight. He chose a direction at random and trotted along it.
Several turns later, James was about to give up. He wasn't even sure he'd know his way back to the Gryffindor common room. The corridor here was high and narrow, with no windows and only one torch guttering redly near the archway he'd entered by. Closed doors lined the corridor on both sides, each one made of thick wood and braced with iron bars. Behind one of them, a gust of night wind made something creak, low and long, like the moan of a sleeping giant. The overall effect was rather frightening, but James couldn't quite bring himself to turn back just yet. He walked slowly down the corridor, the torch making his shadow stretch before him, flickering into blackness.
"Hello?" he said quietly, his voice hoarse, just above a whisper. "Are you still there? I can't see you."
There was no response. The corridor was growing colder. James stopped, squinting hopelessly into the shadows, and then turned around. Something flickered across the corridor inches from his face and he jumped. The white shape streamed through one of the doors, and James saw that that door wasn't entirely closed. Blue moonlight filled the space he could see through the crack. Trembling, James pushed the door and it creaked open. Almost immediately, the door caught on something, making a grating scrape. There were broken chunks of iron on the floor next to something long and black with a hook on the end. It was a crowbar. James kicked these aside and pushed the door further open, stepping in.
The room was long and dusty, cluttered with broken desks and chairs, apparently once sent here for repair, but long forgotten. The ceiling sloped down toward the back wall, where four windows glowed with moonlight. The window on the far right was broken. Glass glittered on the floor and one of the swinging panes hung crookedly like a broken bat wing. The ghostly figure stood there, looking down at the broken glass, and then turned to look at James over its shoulder. It had resumed its human shape, and James gasped as he saw the young man's face. Then two things happened simultaneously. The ghostly shape evaporated in a wisp of silvery smoke, and there was a crash and clatter from the corridor outside.
James jumped and spun on the spot, peering out the door. He didn't see anything, but he could still hear an echoing clatter from the darkness. James leaned against the inside of the door, his heart thudding so hard that he could see dull green flashes in his peripheral vision. He glanced around the room, but it was completely dark and empty except for the cobwebby furniture and broken window. The ghostly man was gone. James took a deep breath, then turned and crept out into the corridor again.
There was another, smaller clatter. James could tell by the sound of it that it was further down the corridor, in the darkness. It echoed as if it were coming from another side room. Again, James berated himself for having forgotten his wand. He tiptoed into the darkness. After what felt like an age, there was another open door. He held onto the stonework of the doorframe and peered in.
James vaguely recognized the Potions storage room. There was a man in it. He was dressed in black jeans and a black shirt. James recognized him as the very same man he had seen the morning before at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, sneaking photographs. He stood on a stool, examining the shelves with a small penlight. On the floor by the stool were the shattered remains of a couple of small vials. As James watched, the man stuck the penlight in his teeth and groped for another jar on the top shelf, keeping a precarious hold on the opposite shelf with his free hand.
"Heritah Herung," he read to himself around the penlight, craning his neck to direct the light onto the jar. "What the heck ith thith thtufh?" His voice was a low, awed mutter. Suddenly, the man looked toward the door. His eyes made contact with James, and for a long moment, neither moved. James was sure the man would attack him. He was obviously an intruder, and James had seen him. He tried to will his feet to turn and run, but there seemed to be some disconnect between his brain and his lower extremities. He stood and stared, gripping the stonework of the doorway as if he meant to climb it. Then the man did the last thing James expected. He turned and ran.
He was gone almost before James realized it. The curtain at the back of the storage room still swayed where the man had blown through it. To James' great surprise, he darted to follow the man.
The Potions storage room led into the Potions classroom itself. Long, high tables stood in the darkness, their stools tucked neatly beneath them. James stopped and cocked his head. Footsteps echoed from the corridor beyond. His own feet smacked the stone floor as James dodged around the tables and out into the corridor, following the man.
The man was hesitating at a point where two corridors crossed. He looked desperately back and forth, then glanced up and saw James coming. The man let out the same high, little shriek James had heard him make when he'd been chased by the ghost. He slipped on the stones, his feet seeming to run in three directions at once, then he mastered them and ran clumsily down the broader corridor. James knew where he was now. The man would come out onto the hall of the moving staircases. Even as James was thinking it, he heard another little shriek of surprise echoing back to him. He grinned as he ran.
James stuttered to a stop at a railing and leaned over, peering intently into the darkness of the floors below. At first, the subtle grinding of the stairs was the only noise, and then he heard the clatter of the man's shoes. There he was, holding onto a railing for dear life and stumbling down a staircase as it swiveled ponderously. James hesitated for a moment, then did something that he'd always wanted to do but never quite had the temerity to try: he clambered up on the railing of the nearest staircase, straddled it, and then let go.
The thick wooden railings, polished by generations of house-elves to a rocklike, glassy shine, were like beams of ice beneath James. He shot down the railing, craning his head over his shoulder to see where he was going. His hair, which had gotten lank with sweat in the minutes before, ruffled as air whipped past. When he neared the bottom, he gripped the railing again with both his arms and his legs, slowing, and then hopping lightly off the bottom. He cast around, looking for the man, and saw him clambering toward another landing, one floor below.
James' dad had told him about the moving staircases, had explained the secret of navigating them. James gauged the moving labyrinth, and then chose another staircase just as it began to swivel. He swung himself over the railing and let go, streaking down it as if it were greased. On one side was the swaying chasm of landings, staircases, and halls; on the other, the speed of the blurring stairs. James gritted his teeth and craned to look behind him again. The man was just reaching the landing below. He stumbled, disoriented, as he backed off the staircase, and then looked up just as James rocketed into him.
James hit the man at full speed, rebounded off him, and sprawled onto the flagstones of the landing. The man shrieked a third time, this time in frustration and surprise, as the force of the collision knocked him entirely off his feet. There was a piercingly loud crash, followed by a shower of tinkling glass. James rolled and covered his face instinctively. When silence descended again, James peeked through his fingers. There was a very large, roughly man-shaped hole in the stained-glass window at the foot of the landing. Through it, the spindly black fingers of trees swayed in a night breeze, scratching amiably at the star-strewn sky.
"What is going on up there?" a raspy voice called, vibrating with rage. James scrambled to his feet, being careful not to step on any of the broken glass with his bare feet. Gingerly, he edged as close to the hole as he could and peered down. It was hard to tell how high the window was. There was no noise from the night except the hiss of the wind in the treetops.
Mrs. Norris the cat streaked up a nearby staircase, her orange eyes baleful as she flicked her gaze over the window, the broken glass, and then James. Mr. Filch followed, puffing and cursing as he climbed.
"Oh," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "It's the Potter boy. Why, oh, why am I not surprised?"
"What were you thinking, Potter, chasing an unidentified individual, through the castle, at night, alone?" Headmistress McGonagall was standing behind her desk, leaning on it with both arms, ramrod straight. Her eyes were incredulous, her face scowling.
"I--" James began, but she raised one hand, stopping him.
"Don't answer. I've no patience for it this morning." She sighed and stood up straight, pushing up her glasses and pinching the bridge of her nose. "I've heard enough Potter explanations throughout the years to know the general shape of them, anyway."
Filch stood nearby, the jut of his jaw and the glint of his eye showing his pleasure at catching the latest Potter troublemaker so quickly. Mrs. Norris purred in his arms like a small, furry engine. James risked a look around the Headmistress' office. The room was still dim with very early morning shadows. The portraits of all the previous headmasters and headmistresses dozed in their frames. James could just see the portrait of his brother's namesake, Albus Dumbledore. Dumbledore was seated, his chin on his chest and his hat lowered over his eyes. His lips moved as he snored silently.
McGonagall lowered herself into her chair. "Mr. Potter, you, of all people, cannot tell me that you are not aware that there are rules against students wandering the school grounds at night."
"No," James said quickly. "Er, yes, I do know about the rules. But the ghost--"
McGonagall raised her hand again. "Yes, the ghost, I know." Everything except her actual words expressed doubt about that part of his story. "But Mr. Potter, you understand that even if a ghost appears in a student's bed chamber, that does not give said student a free pass to break whatever rules he deems temporarily inconvenient."
Mr. Filch stirred, seeming to decide that now was the time to press the point as he saw it. "He destroyed the Heracles window, Headmistress. Priceless bit of glasswork. We'll not find a replacement to match it, I'll wager." He sneered down at James as he finished.
"Windows are one thing, Mr. Filch," McGonagall said, not looking at him, "but intruders on school grounds are quite another. I presume you've already arranged an inspection of the campus, beginning with the area outside the Heracles window?"
"Yes, ma'am, and we've found nothing. The Venus Rose Gardens are immediately below that window. They're a bit of a mess, broken glass everywhere, but there's no sign of any intruder. We've only got this boy's word that there ever was such an intruder, Headmistress."
"Yes," McGonagall replied. "And unfortunately, in this case, that is a word I am inclined to trust. Someone obviously went through that window, unless you are suggesting that Mr. Potter himself came in through it."
Filch ground his teeth and glared at James as if he wanted very much to suggest such a possibility.
"But he was in the Potions room, ma'am!" James insisted. "He broke some vials! They must still be there. And he broke in through a window not far from there. I saw it. The ghost led me there."
McGonagall studied James carefully. "Mr. Potter, I believe that you saw someone, but the likelihood of that person actually having broken onto the school grounds from outside is extremely small. You are aware that Hogwarts is protected by the best security measures and Anti-Magic spells available. No witch or wizard, regardless of their skills, can possibly get into these halls unless they are supposed to be here."
"That's just it, ma'am," James said earnestly. "I don't think he was a wizard. I think he was a Muggle!"
He'd expected gasps of surprise from the Headmistress and Filch, but there were none. The Headmistress merely gazed at him, her expression unchanging. Filch glanced from her to James and back, then let out his breath in a nasty little laugh.
"You've got to hand it to 'em, Headmistress. They get a little more creative every year."
"James," McGonagall said, her voice softer, "the unplottable nature of the school, as well as the innumerable Disillusionment Charms that blanket the grounds, make it truly impossible for any Muggle, no matter how persistent, to ever find their way in. You know that, don't you?"
James sighed and tried not to roll his eyes. "Yes. But that doesn't change what I saw. It was a Muggle, ma'am. He used a crowbar. And a penlight. Not a wand."
McGonagall read his face for a long moment, and then turned businesslike. "Well, Mr. Potter, if you are correct, then we have a situation on our hands that certainly needs remedying. You may trust that we will look into the matter. However, in the meantime, there is still the issue of breaking curfew, as well as the damaged window. Under the circumstances, I won't blame you for the latter, but you must still face the consequences for the former. You will serve two hours of detention with Mr. Filch this Saturday night."
"But--" James began, then Filch's hand descended heavily onto his shoulder.
"I'll take care of the lad, Headmistress," he growled. "It's not too late to save 'em when you catch 'em early. Is it, young lad?"
"Potter," McGonagall said, apparently having already moved on to other matters, "take Mr. Filch up to the Potions closet and the other broken window, won't you? Let's try to get things cleaned up before classes if we can. Good morning, gentlemen."
James stood miserably and Filch guided him to the door with the great, callused hand on his shoulder.
"Come along, my lad. We've got mischief to rectify, haven't we?"
On the way out, James saw that one of the headmaster portraits was not sleeping. The eyes of that headmaster were black, like the lanky hair that framed the white face. Severus Snape studied James coldly, only his eyes moving to follow as Filch marched him from the room.
Tina Curry, the Muggle Studies Professor, led the class briskly out onto the lawn. The day which had started rather brightly was now turning grey and blustery. Gusts of wind sprang up and flapped the edges of Professor Curry's sport cloak and the nets Hagrid was trying to hang on the wooden frame he had just finished assembling.
"Expertly done, Hagrid," Curry called as she approached, the class trotting to keep up. "Sturdy as a barn, I daresay."
Hagrid looked up, losing his grasp on the netting as he did so and scrambling to catch it. "Thank yeh, Ms. Curry. Weren't what yeh might call a challenge. Up to this part, o' course, which is a might hairy."
Hagrid's construction was a simple wooden framework, roughly rectangular. There was another one several dozen yards away, its netting strung taut and swishing in the stiffening breeze.
"Curry's new this year, if you haven't guessed," Ted commented to James as they gathered. "Has some pretty crazy ideas about how to learn about Muggles. Makes a fellow wish he hadn't pushed off taking this class until his last year."
"As if these outfits weren't bad enough," Damien said sourly, glancing down at his shorts and socks. Every Thursday, Muggle Studies class was required to dress out in shorts, athletic shoes, and one of two colors of Hogwarts jerseys. Half the class was wearing burgundy, the other half, gold.
"You wouldn't look quite so, er, interesting, Damien, if you had some white socks," Sabrina said as diplomatically as she could.
Damien gave her a tell-me-something-I-don't-know look. "Thanks, sweetie. Tell my mum that next time she goes shopping at Sears and bloody Roe-mart"
Zane didn't bother to correct Damien. He beamed with annoying good cheer, obviously far more comfortable in the outfit than the rest. "I have a good feeling about this. The breeze will air some of you vampires out. Lighten up."
Damien hooked a thumb toward Zane. "Why is he even in this class?"
"He's right, Damien," Ted said good-naturedly. "Shake out the old batwings a bit, why don't you?"
"All right, class," Curry called, clapping her hands for attention. "Let's look orderly, shall we? Form two lines, please. Burgundy over here, gold over there. That's very nice."
As the lines formed, Professor Curry produced a long basket from under her arm. She paced to the head of the burgundy line. "Wands out," she called. Each student produced his or her wand and held them at the ready, some of the first years glancing around to see if they were holding theirs correctly. James saw Zane sneak a peek at Ted, then swap his wand from his right hand to his left.
"Excellent," Curry said, holding the basket out. "In here, then, please." She began to pace along the line, watching the students reluctantly drop their wands into the basket. There was a mass groan throughout the gathered students. "You all surely can tell your wands apart, I expect. Come, come, if we are to learn anything about the Muggle world, we must learn how to think non-magically. That means, of course, no wands. Thank you, Mr. Metzker. Mr. Lupin. Ms. Hildegard. And you, Ms. McMillan. Thank you. Now. Is that everyone?"
A very unenthusiastic noise of assent came from the students.
"Hup, hup, students," Curry chirped as she laid the basket of wands next to Hagrid's framework. "Are you implying that you are so dependent upon magic that you are unable to play a simple, a very simple game? Hmm?" She glanced around at the students, her sharp nose pointed slightly upwards. "I should hope not. But before we begin, let us have a bit of discussion about why it is important for us to study the ways and means of the Muggle world. Anyone?"
James avoided Curry's eyes as she looked from student to student. There was silence but for the gusting wind in the nearby trees and the flap of the banners over the castle.
"We learn about Muggles so that we will not forget the fact that, despite our myriad differences, we are all human," Curry said crisply and emphatically. "When we forget our essential similarities, we forget how to get along, and that cannot but lead to prejudice, discrimination, and eventually, conflict." She allowed the echo of her words to diminish, and then brightened. "Besides, the non-magical nature of our Muggle friends has forced them to be inventive in ways that the magical world has never achieved. The result, students, are games so simple and elegant that they require no broomsticks, no enchanted Snitches, no flying Bludgers. The only things necessary are two nets," she indicated Hagrid's new structures with a sweep of her left arm, then held something else aloft with her right, "and one single ball."
"Excellent," Zane said ironically, gazing at the ball in Curry's upraised hand. "I came to a school of magic to learn to play soccer."
"Around here, we call it 'football'," Damien said sourly.
"Madam Curry," a pleasant female voice said. James looked for the speaker. Tabitha Corsica stood near the end of the opposite line, all but cringing in her gold jersey. She wore a black sport cloak over it, tied neatly at her throat. A group of other Slytherins stood in line near her, the distaste very clear on their faces. "Why is it necessary, exactly, for us to learn to play a Muggle, er, sport? Might it not be sufficient to read about Muggle histories and, ahem, lifestyles? After all, even if they desired to, witches and wizards are not allowed to compete in Muggle sporting competitions, according to international magical law. Am I correct?"
"Indeed you are, Ms. Corsica," Curry answered quickly. "And have you any idea why that might be?"
Tabitha raised her eyebrows and smiled politely. "I'm sure I don't, ma'am."
"The answer to your question lies therein, Ms. Corsica," Curry said, turning away from Tabitha. "Anyone else?"
A boy James recognized as a third-year Hufflepuff raised his hand. "Ma'am? I think it's because wizards would throw off the balance of competition if they used magic."
Curry motioned for him to elaborate. "Go on, Mr. Terrel."
"Well, my mum works for the Ministry and she says there are international laws that keep wizards from using magic to win Muggle sporting events or lotteries or contests and the like. If witches and wizards got into a Muggle sport and used any magic, they'd be able to run circles around any Muggle, wouldn't they?"
"You are speaking of the International Department for the Prevention of Unfair Advantage, Mr. Terrel, and you are, more or less, correct." Curry dropped the ball to the ground at her feet and kicked it lightly. It rolled a couple of yards across the grass. "To be honest, it is not accurate to say that witches and wizards are forbidden from competing in Muggle sports. There are allowances for persons of magical heritage who do wish to compete. However, they must agree to undergo certain spells that, performed upon themselves with the help of wizarding officials, temporarily nullify their magical abilities. If this were not so…"
Professor Curry produced her own wand from an inner pocket of her cloak and pointed it at the ball. "Velocito Expendum," she trilled. She pocketed the wand, and then strolled toward the ball. She kicked it in a casual, offhand manner. The ball virtually exploded off her foot. It shot across the grass and hit the netting of the goal with a sharp smack, belling the netting outward as if the ball had been shot from a cannon.
"Well, you get the point," Curry said, turning back to the double line of students. "The WizardMuggle Sportsmanship Program is, as you might imagine, distasteful enough that virtually no wizards or witches have participated in it. That is not to say, however, that many witches and wizards do not attempt to circumvent these laws each year, upsetting the fairness of the Muggle sporting world."
"Madam Curry?" Tabitha said again, raising her hand. "Is it true, then, that the Ministry, and the international magical community, believe Muggles are unable to cope with the skills of the magical world, and that witches and wizards must be hobbled in order to be considered equal with them?"
For the first time, Professor Curry seemed rather ruffled. "Miss Corsica, that is hardly a discussion for this class. If you wish to discuss the political machinations of the Ministry--"
"I'm sorry, Madam Curry," Tabitha said, smiling disarmingly. "I was just curious. This being a class devoted to the study of Muggles, I thought we might be planning to discuss the obvious disrespect for the Muggle world that the magical community has shown by assuming them too feeble to deal with our existence. Please forgive my interruption and carry on."
Curry stared at Tabitha, obviously fuming, but the damage had been done. James heard whispers all around, saw the sideways looks and nods of agreement. He noticed that the Slytherin students were still wearing their blue 'Question the Victors' badges, having pinned them to their gold jerseys.
"Yes," Curry said curtly. "Well, then. Shall we begin?"
For the next forty minutes, she led them through drills and ball-handling techniques. James had been unenthusiastic at first, but began to warm to the simplistic nature of the sport. Besides disallowing wands, football apparently demanded that players not even use their hands. The pure silliness of it amused and intrigued James. Few of the students were any good at the sport, which allowed them to approach it without being afraid of getting it wrong. Zane had, of course, played football before, although he claimed very little skill at it. Sure enough, James noticed that Zane didn't seem to be much better at running down the field with the ball than anyone else. As James watched, Zane tangled his feet around the ball and fell over it. The ball squirted out from under him and Zane simply lay there, staring up at the marching clouds with a look of thoughtful grimness on his face.
Tabitha Corsica and her Slytherins stood in a disdainful huddle in a corner of the makeshift field, one of the footballs lying forlornly in the grass between them. They made no attempt to practice the drills, and Curry seemed to have dismissed them, spending her time near the goal, where students were taking place kicks into the net.
James found that he was enjoying himself. He dug his heels into the grass, eyed the ball lying twenty feet ahead of him, and then charged it. He timed his steps carefully, planted his left foot next to the ball and kicked it solidly with his right. The thump of it leaving his foot was surprisingly satisfying. The ball sailed through a smooth arc and through the reaching arms of Professor Curry, who was acting as goalie. There was a thump and swish as the ball struck the net.
"Very nice, Mr. Potter," Curry called, breathing hard. Her hair had come askew and hung in loose curls around her thin face. She pushed up her sleeves and bent to retrieve the ball. "Very nice, indeed."
James smiled despite himself as he trotted to the back of the line.
"Teacher's pet," Zane muttered as James passed.
"Nice foot, Potter," Ted called as the class finally headed back to the castle. "We need to work that into the Wocket routine somehow. Sabrina, think of something we can do with that. High-kicking aliens from the planet Goalatron or something. Got it?"
"Aye, aye," Sabrina called, saluting as she entered the castle gate. "By the way, Captain, you've got grass stains on your bum. Nice work."
After lunch, James and Zane joined Ralph in the library for a study period. As they unpacked their books and spread them around a corner table, Ralph seemed even more melancholy than usual.
"What's going on, Ralph?" Zane said, trying to keep his voice low so as not to attract the attention of Professor Slughorn, who was monitoring the library that period. "Your Slytherin buddies tell you your underwear aren't magical enough or something?"
Ralph looked around cautiously. "I got in trouble this morning with Professor Slughorn."
"Seems to be going around," James said. "I spent my morning in McGonagall's office getting detention."
"McGonagall?" Ralph and Zane both exclaimed. "You first, then, James. McGonagall outranks Slughorn," Ralph said.
James told about the ghost the night before, and about being led to the Muggle intruder and the chase that followed.
"That was you?" Ralph asked incredulously. "We all saw the broken window on the way down to breakfast. Filch was covering it with canvas and muttering away under his breath. He looked like he wanted us to ask him about it so he could rant and rave a bit."
"Who do you think it was?" Zane prodded James.
"I don't know. All I know is that it was the same guy I saw hiding out by the forest the other morning. And I think he's a Muggle."
"So?" Zane said, shrugging. "I'm a Muggle. Ralph's a Muggle."
"No you aren't. You're Muggle-born, but you're both wizards. This guy was just a plain old Muggle. Although, according to McGonagall, that's impossible. No Muggle can get past the school's Disillusionment Charms."
"Why not? What happens?" Ralph asked.
"Well, for one thing, like I said on the train, Hogwarts is unplottable. It can't be mapped. Also, no Muggle has ever heard of it. And, even if some Muggle did just happen to wander into the grounds, the Disillusionment Charms would guide them around so they didn't even know they were passing us. If they tried to push through the Disillusionment Charms, they'd just get all disoriented and doubt themselves. Their compasses would go all wacky and they'd end up turning around even without knowing it. You can't just force your way through that kind of Disillusionment Charm. The whole point of it is to deflect anybody who isn't supposed to get in, and make them believe the deflection was their idea."
Zane frowned. "So how do any of us get in, then?"
"Well, we're all basically Secret-Keepers, aren't we?" James said, and then had to explain the idea of being a Secret-Keeper, about how only a Secret-Keeper could find the secret place or lead others there. "Of course, it all gets a lot less secure with this many of us. That's why there are laws against even Muggle parents of students telling anyone."
"Yeah, my parents had to sign some big non-disclosure agreement before I came," Zane said, as if the very idea was the greatest thing he'd ever heard. "It said that any 'privileged Muggles' like my parents weren't allowed to talk to any other Muggles about Hogwarts or the magical community. If they did, the contract would kick in and their tongues would curl up until somebody from the Ministry came to release the spell. Excellent."
"Yeah," James said, "Ted told me about a Muggle-born girl he dated his third year. Her parents accidentally mentioned Hogwarts at a dinner party and their hosts called the Muggle paramedics because they thought both of them were having some sort of weird seizure at exactly the same time. The Ministry had to do memory modifications on everybody. It was a mess, but it was pretty funny."
"Cool," Ralph said meaningfully. "Hey, I should've used one of those Disillusionment Charms on my duffle bag. Would've saved me some trouble."
Zane turned to him. "So what's the deal, Ralphie? What kind of trouble are you causing now?"
"It wasn't me!" Ralph protested, and then lowered his voice, glancing toward the front desk. Slughorn was reclined behind it, peering at a gigantic book through a pair of tiny spectacles and drinking something frothy in a stoneware mug. Ralph grimaced and sighed. "Slughorn found my GameDeck this morning. He said I left it in the common room. He was all diplomatic about it, but he told me I wanted to be very careful about things like that. Said I should probably try to leave my 'Muggle toys' at home."
James furrowed his brow. "I thought you said it'd gone missing a few days ago?"
Ralph became animated. "It did! That's what I mean! I didn't leave it in the common room! I'm about to chuck the stupid thing in the toilet! Somebody took it out of my bag and left it out there for Slughorn to find. I hate those guys!" Ralph's voice had descended to a harsh whisper. He glanced around quickly, as if he expected his housemates to pop out from behind the nearest bookcase.
Zane looked thoughtful. "You don't know who took it?"
"No," Ralph said sarcastically. "I'm pretty sure that was the point."
"You have it with you?"
"Yeah," Ralph said, deflating a bit. "I'm not letting it out of my sight until I can get rid of it. It doesn't work all that well around here anyway. Too much magic in the air or something." He dug the game console out of his backpack and handed it under the table to Zane.
James watched as Zane worked the buttons swiftly and the screen came to life. "If anybody sees you with that thing," Ralph muttered, "it's yours. Happy Christmas."
Zane pressed buttons fluidly, making the screen flash and cycle. "I'm just checking to see if the last person who played it made a profile."
"What's a profile?" James asked, leaning to look at the screen.
Zane waved him away without looking up. "Don't look. Slughorn will see. Ralph, tell Mr. Wizard here what a game profile is."
"It's just a way to keep track of your game," Ralph whispered. "Before you play, you create a profile, with a name and stuff, usually just something made up. Then anything you do in the game is recorded under that profile. When you come back later and log in to that profile, you can pick up wherever you left off." "You 'the Ralphinator'?" Zane asked, still working the GameDeck.
"I'm not even going to answer that," Ralph said flatly.
"Here we are then," Zane said, stubbing a finger at the screen. "Does the name 'Austramaddux' mean anything to you?"
"No," Ralph said, raising his eyebrows. "There's a profile with that name?"
"Right here. Created around midnight day before last. No other info and no game progress at all."
James blinked. "No game progress?"
"Nope," Zane said, shutting the device down and passing it back to Ralph under the table. "Plenty of login time, but no actual gaming. Probably couldn't figure out that D-pad up and the left shoulder button worked the super attack. Newbies."
James rolled his eyes. "So what's it mean? Who is Austra-whatsisname?"
"It's just a made up name, like I said," Ralph said, stuffing the GameDeck into the bottom of his bag. "It doesn't mean anything. Right?"
Ralph said the last to Zane, who was sitting across the table looking almost comically thoughtful. He had his head tilted, his brow furrowed, and one corner of his mouth cinched up, dimpling his cheek. After a moment, he shook his head. "I don't know. It's familiar. Seems like somebody just mentioned that name, but I can't place it."
"Well, all I know," Ralph said, propping his chin on his hands, "is I'm dumping this thing off with my dad at the break. I'm sorry I ever saw it."
"Mr. Potter," a voice suddenly boomed nearby. All three of them jumped. It was Professor Slughorn. He had approached the table and was suddenly standing behind James' chair. "I had hoped to run into you. So good to see you, my boy. So good indeed."
James forced a smile as Slughorn patted him on the back. "Thank you, sir."
"You know, I know your father. Met him when he was a student here and not yet the famous Auror that he is now, of course." Slughorn nodded knowingly, winking, as if Harry Potter had not, in fact, been enormously famous even before he'd become Head Auror. "He's mentioned me, no doubt. Very close we were at the time. Of course, I've lost track of him in the years since, what with my teaching, pottering about, turning into an old man, and his getting married, developing his illustrious career, and making fine young men like yourself." Slughorn punched James playfully on the shoulder. "I look forward to catching up with him a bit during his visit next week. Do tell him to look me up, won't you?"
"I will, sir," James said, rubbing his shoulder.
"Good, good. Well, I'll leave you boys to your studies, then. Carry on, er, lads," Slughorn said, glancing at Ralph and Zane with no apparent recognition, despite the fact that he and Ralph had spoken that very morning.
"Oh. Uh, Professor Slughorn? Could I ask you a question?" It was Zane.
Slughorn glanced back, eyebrows raised. "Why, certainly, er, Mr.?"
"Walker, sir. It was your Potions One class, I believe. You mentioned someone named Austramaddux?"
"Ah, yes, Mr. Walker. Wednesday afternoon, was it? Now I recall." Slughorn glanced distractedly toward the front desk. "Yes, not really potions-related, but his name did come up. Austramaddux was a historian and Seer from the distant past. His writings are considered, well, apocryphal at best. I believe I was making a little joke, Mr. Walker."
"Oh. Well, thank you, sir," Zane replied.
"Never a problem, my boy," Slughorn assured him, glancing around the library. "And now, I must return to my duties. I'll not distract you further."
"That was quite a coincidence," Ralph whispered, leaning over the desk as Slughorn drifted away.
"Not really," Zane reasoned. "He mentioned Austramaddux in class as a joke. I remember now. It seemed to be a reference to a source that isn't all that trustworthy or is a little loopy. The way we'd refer to a tabloid or a conspiracy theory or something. Slughorn's head of Slytherin House, so he probably uses that same reference among your guys. They'd know it. That's why the one that made off with your GameDeck knew the name."
"I suppose," Ralph said doubtfully.
"But why?" James asked. "Why use a name that means 'don't trust me, I'm a loon'?"
"Who knows what dopiness lurks in the hearts of Slytherins?" Zane said dismissively.
"It just doesn't make sense," James insisted. "Slytherins are usually all about image. They love all that cloak and dagger stuff, with the dragons' heads and secret passwords. I just don't get why one of them would use a name that their own Head of House treats like a joke."
"Whatever," Ralph said. "I have actual homework to do, so if you two don't mind…"
They all spent the next half hour working on their homework. When it was time to pack up, Zane turned to James. "Quidditch tryouts tonight, right?"
"Mine, yeah. Yours, too?"
Zane nodded. "Looks like we'll be sharing the field. Good luck, mate." Zane shook James' hand.
James felt surprisingly touched. "Thanks! You too."
"Of course, you'll rip it up out there," Zane pronounced airily. "I'll be lucky to stay on top of a broom. How long have you been flying, anyway?"
"I only ever flew a toy broom around the house when I was little," said James. "The laws used to be pretty loose about brooms. There were underage height and distance restrictions, but pretty much anyone of any age could take one up as long as they were careful not to be seen by any Muggles. Then, back around the time Dad got his honorary diploma from Hogwarts, some teenagers got drunk on Firewhisky and tried to play Quidditch in Trafalgar Square. Since then, the laws have been tightened up. Now it's almost like getting a Muggle driver's license. We have to take flight lessons and get certified before we can fly legally. Some wizarding families will still let their kids go up on a broom in the backyard and stuff, just to practice. But my dad being an Auror…"
"Both your dad and your mom were big-time Quidditch players, though, right?" Zane asked, nudging James with an elbow and grinning. "Even if you don't even know which end of a broom is up, you'll still be killer on it when you hit the field. Metaphorically, of course."
James smiled uncomfortably.
They headed to their classes. James couldn't help feeling nervous. He'd nearly forgotten all about Quidditch tryouts. The knowledge that he'd be out there in a few hours, getting on one of the team brooms for the first time and trying to be one of the few first years to make the Gryffindor team left him feeling vaguely sick. He thought of the Snitch he'd grown up playing with, his famous Dad's famous first Snitch. Back then, he'd never doubted his future. The way Uncle Ron talked about it, it was almost James' birthright to be on the Gryffindor Quidditch Team his first year, and James had never questioned it. But now that it was imminent, he was afraid. The fears he had felt during the Sorting ceremony all came back. But that had turned out all right, he reminded himself. He'd been so worried about it, he'd almost talked the Sorting Hat into sending him to Slytherin House with Ralph, and he knew now what a mistake that would've been. The key was to relax. Quidditch, like being a Gryffindor, was in his blood. He had to just let it happen and not worry.
By dinner, he had to admit his plan wasn't working. He could barely eat.
"That's right, Potter," Noah nodded, seeing James' untouched plate. "The less you eat, the less you'll have to throw up when you're in the air. Of course, some of us see a little well-aimed sick as a great defensive technique. You've had your first broom lesson with Professor Ridcully, right?"
James drooped and rolled his eyes, "No. I haven't. First class is on Monday."
Noah looked serious for a moment, and then shrugged. "Eh, you'll do fine. Brooms are easy. Lean forward to go, pull back to stop. Lean and roll into turns. Piece of cake."
"Yeah," Ted agreed. "And all the rain and wind out there will only make it easier. You probably won't even be able to see the ground, what with the fog. Easier to trust your guts."
"Just as long as you keep them on the inside," somebody called from further down the table. There was a chorus of laughter. James dropped his head onto his folded arms.
The Quidditch pitch was sodden and muddy. Rain fell in great sheets, beating the ground and creating a dense mist that drenched James to the skin within the first minute. Justin Kennely, the Gryffindor Captain, led his group out onto the field, yelling over the steady roar of the rain.
"Quidditch isn't called on account of rain," he bellowed. "Some of the best Quidditch matches have taken place in weather like this, and much worse. The nineteen eighty-four Quidditch World Cup was held with a typhoon off the coast of Japan, you know. The Seekers both flew over sixty miles chasing the Snitch in gale-force winds. This is a trickle by comparison. Perfect weather for tryouts."
Kennely stopped and turned in the center of the pitch, rain running from the tips of his nose and chin. There was a large Quidditch trunk at his feet, as well as a line of broomsticks neatly laid out on the wet grass. James saw that most of the house brooms were Nimbus Two Thousands, serviceable but rather obsolete models. He was a little relieved. If he'd been asked to fly a new Thunderstreak, he was pretty sure he'd have ended up in a tree a hundred miles away. At the opposite end of the pitch, James saw the Ravenclaw team assembling. He couldn't recognize any of them through the spattering rain and mist.
"All right, then," Kennely called out. "First years, you're up first. I'm told that some of you haven't yet had your first broom lessons, but thanks to new regulations and the disclaimers you all signed before school, there's no reason you can't climb on up and give it a go. Let's see what you can do before we try anything with the rest of the team. No worries about formations or stunts, let's just see you get in the air and navigate the field without knocking each other to your dooms."
James felt his stomach plummet. He had hoped to spend some time watching the older students practice. Now that he was about to climb onto his first broom, he wished he had paid more attention to how the players handled them during the matches he'd been t, rather than looking for the spectacular stunts and messiest Bludger hits. The other first years were already moving forward, picking brooms and holding out their hands to summon them. James forced himself to join them.
He stopped next to a broom and stared down at it. For the first time, the thing looked like nothing more than a chunk of wood with a brush on the end instead of a sleek flying apparatus. Rain dripped from the sodden bristles. James held his hand over it.
"Up!" he said. His voice seemed tiny and silly to him. Nothing happened. He swallowed past something that felt like a steel marble in his throat. "Up!" he called again. The broom bobbed, and then dropped back to the grass with a dull smack. He glanced around at the other first years. None of them seemed to be having much more luck. Only one of them had succeeded in raising his broom. The older players were gathered around watching with amusement, nudging each other. Noah caught James' eye and hoisted his thumb into the air, nodding encouragingly.
"Up!" James called again, mustering as much authority as he could. The broom bobbed again and James caught it before it could drop back. Close enough, he thought. He gave a huge sigh, then slung a leg over the broom. It floated uncertainly beneath him, barely supporting its own weight.
Something swooped past him. "Way to go!" Ted cried over the rain as a first-year girl named Baptiste swept upward, wobbling slightly. Two more first years kicked off. One of them slipped sideways and swung, dangling from the bottom of his broom. He hung on for a second or two, then his fingers slipped from the wet broomstick and he tumbled to the ground. There was a roar of amiable laughter. "At least you got into the air, Klein!" somebody called.
James pressed his lips together. Gripping the broomstick so tightly his knuckles turned white, he kicked off. The broom bobbed up and James saw the grass glide beneath him, then he began to descend again. His feet skidded and he wobbled, trying to kick up again. The broomstick arced upward and picked up speed, but James couldn't seem to make it maintain any height. He was skidding along the grass again, sending up rooster tails of muddy water. Hollers of encouragement erupted behind him. He concentrated furiously, holding his breath and kicking along as the broom weaved toward the Ravenclaws, who turned to watch. Up, he thought desperately, up, up, up! He remembered Noah's advice at dinner: lean forward to go, pull back to stop. He realized he was pulling on the broomstick, trying to make it rise, but that wasn't right, was it? He had to lean forward to go. But if he leaned forward, common sense told him he'd simply plow into the ground. Ravenclaws began to sidle away as he approached, trying to get out of his path. They were all calling advice and warnings. None of it made any sense to James. Finally, desperately, James abandoned his own logic, lifted his feet and leaned forward as far as he could.
The sense of speed was shocking as the broom rocketed forward. Mist and rain stung James' face and the grass beneath him became a blur of muddy green. But he wasn't going up, he was merely streaking along the ground. He heard shouts and exclamations as he plowed through the Ravenclaws. They scrambled and leaped to get out of the way. He was still picking up speed as he leaned forward. Ahead of him, the ramparts of the grandstand filled his vision, getting alarmingly close. James tried to lean, to steer aside. He felt himself banking, but not enough. Up, he thought furiously, he needed to go up! Finally, for lack of a better idea, he leaned back, pulling the broomstick as hard as he could. The broom responded instantly and with sickening force, angling into a steep climb. The grandstands fell away. Rows of seats and banners flickered past, and then gave way to an enormous, grey sky.
Motion seemed to stop, despite the air and rain that barreled past him. James risked a glance behind him. The Quidditch pitch looked like a postage stamp, shrinking and growing hazy behind a raft of clouds and mist. James gasped, inhaling wind and rain, panic gripping him like giant claws. He was still climbing. Great grey slabs of cloud barreled past, buffeting him with shocking darkness and cold. James shoved down on the broom again, gritting his teeth and stifling a cry of terror.
He felt the broomstick dip sickeningly, almost hurling him off. He couldn't seem to make it do anything other than drastic altitude changes. James had lost all sense of direction. He was surrounded by rain and dense clouds. For the first time, getting on the Gryffindor Quidditch Team seemed much less important than simply getting both feet back on the ground, wherever it was. He couldn't gauge how fast he was going or in what direction. Wind and mist tore at his face, making his eyes water.
Suddenly, there were other shapes nearby. They swooped around him out of the clouds. He heard distant yelling, calls, his name. One of the shapes angled toward him and James was shocked to see Zane on a broomstick, his face chalk white, his blonde hair whipping wildly around his head. He motioned at James as he banked, but James couldn't make sense of his gestures.
"Follow me!" Zane shouted over the wind as he swooped by.
The other figures resolved as they centered on James. He saw Ted and Gennifer, the Ravenclaw. They moved into formation around him. Ted was calling directions to James, but he couldn't make them out. He concentrated on angling the broom in the direction that Zane was flying. The clouds barreled past again like freight trains, and James lost sight of the other flyers. There was a buffeting shock of cold air, and then the ground opened up beneath James, swaying with enormous finality. The Quidditch pitch was rising to meet him, its matted grass looking very hard and unforgiving. Zane was still ahead of James, but he was pulling back, slowing, gesturing wildly with one hand. James pulled back on his own broomstick, trying to emulate Zane, but the force of the wind roaring past fought him. He battled it, turning, wrestling the broomstick up so that he feared it might snap beneath him. And then his rain-slicked hands slipped, fumbled and he fell backwards, gripping the broom desperately with only his legs. He was spinning wildly, end over end. James felt the force of Zane whipping past, Zane's shouts diminishing behind him with horrible speed. The ground swooped around his head, reaching up to embrace him, and James heard the sound of it, a huge, low roar, getting louder and louder until…
There was a horrible jolt. James squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to hear the sound of his body hitting the ground. There was no sound. He risked opening his eyes just a tiny bit, and then looked around with relief and surprise. He was hovering five feet above the center of the Quidditch pitch, still straddling his broom, but not holding on. Rain hissed all around him as the Ravenclaws and Gryffindors stared at him. Zane, Ted, and Gennifer drifted down around James, gawping at him. Then Ted turned. James followed his eyes.
Ralph stood on the edge of the field, his robes soaked through and sticking to him, an umbrella lying abandoned at the edge of the grandstands. Every muscle in Ralph's body seemed to be tensed, straining, as he held his ridiculous, enormous wand straight out, pointing it at James. He was trembling visibly. Rain streamed down his face, matting his hair to his forehead.
"Do I have to keep this up?" he said through gritted teeth. "Or can I let go now?"
5. The Book of Austramaddux
"Don't think of it as looking like a miserable failure on a broomstick," Zane said afterwards as they all sat in the Ravenclaw common room. "Think of it as giving Ralphie here a chance to look positively brilliant!"
James said nothing. He sat slumped at the end of the couch, his head propped miserably on his hand.
"Besides, if I hadn't hopped on my broomstick and took off after you, I don't think I'd have been able to figure it out at all. It was just a matter of not thinking about it, really."
"Spectacular stuff out there, Walker," an older student said as he passed the couch, ruffling Zane's damp hair.
"Yeah," another one said from across the room. "Normally, first years tryouts are just for laughs. With you, we get the laughs and the skills." There was a round of laughter and scattered applause. Zane beamed, soaking it up.
"Seriously, though," Ralph said from where he sat on the floor, his back to the fire, "how'd you do that? Flying is supposed to be pretty tough to master."
"I dunno, honestly," Zane said. "I saw James heading into the stratosphere and I just took off after him. I hardly even knew I was doing it until the very end, when I realized I was nose-diving straight into the pitch. I pulled up at the last second, just as the human torpedo here went past me, and I thought, 'Look at me! I'm flying!' Maybe it was all those racing games and flight simulators I grew up playing with my dad. The feel of it all just made sense to me." Zane suddenly seemed to realize this conversation wasn't lifting James' mood much. "But enough about me and my broom. What about you, Ralphie?"
Ralph blinked thoughtfully, and then picked up his wand from where it lay on his wet cloak. It was just as huge and ridiculous as always, still with the tip whittled down and painted lime green, but nobody was laughing at it anymore. "I don't know. It's like you said, isn't it? I just didn't think about it. I saw James falling and I thought of the feather in Flitwick's class. Next thing I know, I'm pointing my wand at him and yelling--"
Several students, including Zane, ducked and called out as Ralph flicked his wand ahead of him. Ralph smiled sheepishly. "Get a grip, everybody. I wasn't gonna say it."
"Ralph, you're the real deal, mate," Zane said, recovering. "You went from floating a feather to a human body in one class, you know? My boy's got talent."
James stirred. "If you two are done congratulating yourselves, I'm gonna go find a hole and live in it for the rest of the year."
"Hey, I'll bet Grawp's girlfriend has room in her cave," Ralph said. Zane did a double take at Ralph, open-mouthed.
"What?" Ralph said. "It'll save him some time looking!"
"He's joking," Zane said, glancing at James. "I couldn't tell at first."
"Congratulations on making the team," James said quietly, standing and collecting his cloak from a hook by the fire.
"Hey, really," Zane said awkwardly. "I'm sorry about how things worked out. I didn't know it was that important to you. Really."
James stood still for several seconds, staring into the fire. Zane's expression of regret struck him deeply. His heart ached. His face heated and his eyes burned. He blinked and looked away.
"It wasn't that important to me, really," he said. "It was just really, really important."
As the door closed behind James, he heard Ralph say, "So who was it important to?"
James walked slowly, his head down. His clothes were still damp, and his body ached from the jolt of Ralph levitating him at the end of his long dive, but he barely noticed those things. He had failed. After the victory of becoming a Gryffindor, he'd been cautiously confident that Quidditch, too, would work out. Instead, he'd ended up looking like a complete fool in front of both the Gryffindors and Ravenclaws. Far from the spectacular aerobatic displays his dad had legendarily performed, James had to be rescued from killing himself. There was no surviving this kind of failure. He'd never live it down. Nobody was making fun of him now, at least to his face, but what would they say next year when he showed up for tryouts again? He couldn't even bear to think about it.
How would he tell his dad? His dad, who would be coming at the beginning of next week to see him and hear of his exploits. He'd understand, of course. He'd tell James Quidditch didn't matter, that the important thing was for him to be himself and have fun. And he'd even mean it. And still, knowing that didn't make James feel any better.
Zane had made the Ravenclaw team, though. James felt a stab of bitter jealousy at that. He felt immediately sorry for it, but that didn't make the jealousy go away. Zane was Muggle-born. And an American, to boot! Quidditch was supposed to be a baffling mystery to him, and James was supposed to be the instinctive flyer, the rescuing hero. Not the other way around. How could things have gone so totally wrong so fast?
When he reached the Gryffindor common room, James ducked around the edge of the room, avoiding the eyes of those gathered there, laughing with their friends, listening to music, discussing homework, snogging on the couch. He ducked up the stairs and into the sleeping chamber, which was dark and quiet. Back in his dad's day, the dorms had been separated by year. Now James was glad that he shared the room with some of the older years. They usually brought reassurance that all of this was survivable. He needed some of that reassurance now, or at least someone to notice his misery and validate it. He sighed deeply in the empty room.
James washed up in the little bathroom, changed, then sat on his bed, looking out into the night. Nobby watched him from his cage by the window, clicking his beak from time to time, wanting to get outside and find a mouse or two, but James didn't notice him. The rain had finally exhausted itself. The clouds were breaking up, revealing a great silvery moon. James watched it for a long time, not knowing what he was waiting for, not even really knowing he was waiting. In the end, what he was waiting for didn't happen. No one came upstairs. He heard their voices below. It was Friday night. Nobody else was going to bed early. He felt utterly lonely and bereft. He slid under the covers and stared out at the moon from there.
Eventually, he slept.
James spent most of his weekend moping about in the Gryffindor Common room. He knew that neither Ralph nor Zane could get into the common room without the password, and he was in no mood to see them or anyone else. He read his assigned homework chapters and practiced some wandwork. He was particularly annoyed to discover that he couldn't get his practice feather to do any more than scuttle pathetically around the table. After twenty minutes, he grew exasperated, growled a word his mother didn't know he knew, and slammed his wand onto the table. It shot a stream of purple sparks, as if surprised at James' outburst.
Saturday night's detention with Argus Filch came. James found himself following Filch around the corridors with a bucket and a giant, stiff-bristled scrubbing brush. Occasionally, Filch would stop and, without turning, point at a spot on the floor, the wall, or a detail of a statue. James would look and there would be a bit of graffiti or a patch of long trodden-upon gum. James would sigh, dip the brush, and begin to scrub with both hands. Filch treated James as if he was personally responsible for each bit of defacing he scrubbed. As James worked, Filch muttered and fumed, lamenting about the much better sorts of punishments he had been permitted to mete out in years past. By the time James was allowed to return to his rooms, his fingers were cold, red and sore, and smelled of Filch's ugly brown soap.
On Sunday afternoon, James went for a moody wander around the grounds and ran into Ted and Petra, who were lounging on a blanket, ostensibly working out star charts on sheets of parchment.
"Now that Trelawney's sharing Divination class with Madame Delacroix, we have actual homework," Ted complained. "Used to be we just had to look at some tea leaves and make up doom and gloom predictions. That was kind of fun, actually."
Petra was leaning against a tree, shuffling maps and charts on her lap, comparing them to a huge book of constellations that lay open on the blanket. "Unlike Trelawney, Delacroix seems to have the quaint notion that astrology is a hard science," she said, shaking her head in disgust. "How a bunch of rocks rolling around in space know anything about my future is beyond me."
Ted told James to stick around and keep them from getting too much done. Sensing that he wasn't interrupting anything personal, and that neither Ted nor Petra were going to bring up James' disastrous Quidditch tryouts, James flopped onto the blanket and peered at the book of star charts. Black and white drawings of planets, each emblazoned with names and illustrations of mythical creatures, circled and spun slowly on the pages, their orbits drawn as red ellipses.
"Which one of these planets is the Wocket from?" James asked drily.
Petra turned a page. "Hardy-har."
James turned the enormous pages of the constellation book slowly, examining the moving planets and other-worldly astrological symbols. "So how do Professor Trelawney and Madame Delacroix get along, then?" James asked after a minute. He remembered Damien implying there would be some friction between them.
"Oil and water," Ted replied. "Trelawney tries to make nice, but she obviously hates the voodoo queen. For Delacroix's part, she doesn't even pretend to like Trelawney. They're from two different schools of thought, in every sense of the word."
"I like Trelawney's school better," Petra muttered, scribbling a note on her parchment.
"We all know what you think, dear," Ted soothed. He turned to James. "Petra likes Trelawney because she knows that, at its heart, divination is really just a set of random variables that you use to order your own thinking. Trelawney thinks it's all mystical, of course, but she still knows it's just a bunch of totally subjective mumbo-jumbo. Petra is a facts girl, so she likes that even if Trelawney takes all this stuff seriously, she doesn't try to make it, you know, rigid."
Petra sighed and clapped her book shut. "Divination isn't science. It's psychology. At least Trelawney gets that in practice, if not in belief. Delacroix…" She threw the book onto the pile next to her, rolling her eyes.
"We have a test this week," Ted said mournfully. "An actual Divination test. It's all about some crazy astrological event that's happening later this year. The linings of the planets or whatever."
James looked quizzical, "The linings of the planets?"
"Alignment of the planets," Petra said patiently. "Actually, it is a pretty big deal. It only happens once every few hundred years. That's science. Knowing what silly mythical creature each planet represents, what it was a god of to some bunch of dotty primitives, and what it means to 'the harmonics of the astrological precognition matrix' isn't."
Ted looked at James and frowned. "Someday, we'll get Petra to reveal her true feelings about it."
Petra smacked him over the head with one of the larger star charts.
Later, at dinner, James saw Zane and Ralph sitting together at the Ravenclaw table. He saw Zane look over once, and was glad that he didn't try to come over and talk to him. He knew it was extremely petty of him, but he was still sick with jealousy and the shame of his embarrassment. He ate quickly, and then wandered out of the Great Hall, unsure where he would go.
The evening was pleasant and cool as the sun dipped behind the mountains. James explored the perimeter of the grounds, listening to the song of the crickets and throwing stones into the lake. He went to knock on the door to Hagrid's cabin, but there was a note on the door, written in large, clumsy letters. The note said that Hagrid was up in the forest until Monday morning. Spending time with Grawp and Grawp's lady giant friend, James figured. It was beginning to get dark. James turned and headed dejectedly back in the direction of the castle.
He was on his way up to the common room when he decided to make a side trip. He was curious about something.
The trophy case was lit with a series of lanterns, so that the cups, plaques, and statues each glinted brightly. James walked slowly along, looking in at the team photos of decades-past Quidditch teams, their uniforms outdated, but their smiles and expressions of hearty invincibility eternally unchanged. There were gold and bronze trophies, antique Snitches, game Bludgers strapped down with leather belts, but still wiggling slightly as he passed.
James stopped near the end and looked in at the Triwizard Tournament display. His dad smiled the same uncomfortable smile, looking impossibly young and unruly. James leaned in and looked at the picture on the other side of the Triwizard Cup, the one of Cedric Diggory. The boy in the picture was handsome, guileless, with the same expression on his face that James had seen in the old Quidditch team photos, that expression of perpetual youth and seamless confidence. James studied the photo. The expression was what had kept him from making the connection the first time he'd seen the picture.
"It was you, wasn't it," James whispered to the picture. It wasn't really a question.
The boy in the picture smiled his smile, nodding slightly, as if in agreement.
James hadn't expected an answer, but as he started to straighten up, something changed on the plaque below the Triwizard Cup. The engraved words sank into the silver plaque, then, after a moment, new words surfaced. They spelled out slowly, silently.
A shiver thrilled down James' back. He nodded. "Yes," he whispered.
The words sank back into nothing. Several seconds went by, and then more words drifted up.
Has it been
James didn't understand the question at first. He shook his head slightly. "I… I'm sorry. How long has it been since what?"
The letters receded and spelled again, slowly, as if they took great effort.
Since I died
James swallowed. "I don't know, exactly. Seventeen or eighteen years, I think."
The letters faded out very slowly. No more formed for almost a minute. Then:
Time is so strange here
It feels longer
James didn't know what to say. A sense of great loneliness and sadness had crept into the corridor, filling the space, and James himself, like a cool cloud.
"My--" James' voice caught. He cleared his throat, swallowed, and tried again. "My dad and mum, Ginny, used to be Weasley… they talk about you. Sometimes. They… they remember you. They liked you."
The letters faded, surfaced.
Ginny and Harry
I always knew
There was something there
Cedric's ghost seemed to be seeping away, leaking out of the air of the corridor. The letters faded slowly. James had wanted to ask more questions, had meant to ask about the Muggle intruder, how he was getting in, but now it seemed unimportant. He just wanted to say something to lessen the pall of sadness he'd sensed in Cedric's presence, but he couldn't think of anything. Then the letters came once more, spelling out very faintly and slowly.
Are they happy
James read the question, considered it. He nodded. "Yeah, Cedric. They are. We are."
The letters evaporated as soon as James spoke, and there was something like a sigh all around him, long and somehow exhausted. When it was over, James glanced around the corridor. He could tell he was alone again. When he looked back at the plaque below the Triwizard Cup, it had reverted to its normal state, covered in elaborate, engraved words. James shivered, hugged himself, then turned and began to walk back toward the main hall. The ghost had finally spoken, and it was Cedric Diggory.
We are happy, James thought. As he climbed the steps to the common room, he realized it was true. He felt a little silly about the way he'd mooned around all weekend, stirring his jealousy and sense of failure like a stew. At this moment, it all seemed unimportant. He was just glad to be here, at Hogwarts, with new friends, challenges, endless adventures before him. He ran along the hallway to the portrait hole, wanting nothing more at that moment than to spend the last couple of hours of his first weekend at Hogwarts having some fun, laughing, forgetting the silliness of the whole Quidditch disaster. He realized, reluctantly, that on some level, it was even a little funny.
As he entered the common room, he stopped and looked around. Ralph and Zane were there, sitting with the rest of the Gremlins around the table by the window. They all looked up.
"There's our little alien," Zane said happily. "We're trying to work your broom-handling skills into the routine. What do you think of a Roswell crash kinda gig? Ralph's got his wand all ready to catch you."
Ralph wiggled his wand and smiled sheepishly. James rolled his eyes and went to join them.
James awoke late Monday morning. He ran into the Great Hall hoping to grab a piece of toast before Transfiguration class and met Ralph and Zane, who were just coming out.
"No time, mate," Ralph said, hooking James' arm and turning him around. "Can't be late to first class. McGonagall teaches it and I've heard bad, bad things about what she does to tardy students."
James sighed and trotted along with them through the noisy, busy corridors. "I hope she doesn't do terrible things to students whose stomachs growl during class as well."
Zane handed something to James as they walked. "Check that out when you get a chance. I already showed it to Ralphie and it blew his mind, didn't it? I've marked the spot for you." It was a thick, bedraggled book. The cover was clothbound in frayed fabric that had once probably been red. The pages were yellowed, threatening to fall out of the binding in chunks.
"What is it?" James said, unable to read the embossed title, which was ghostly faint with age. "Between Jackson and Flitwick, I've got enough reading to last me until next term."
"You'll be interested in this, believe me. It's the Book of Parallel Histories, Volume Seven," Zane said. "I got it from the Ravenclaw library. Just read the section I marked."
"Ravenclaw has a private library?" Ralph asked, struggling to wrestle his Transfiguration textbook out of his overstuffed backpack.
"Do you Slytherins have dragons' heads on your walls?" Zane shrugged. "Sure. To each his own."
As they filed toward the Transfiguration classroom, they passed through a cluster of students standing beside the door. Several of them wore the blue 'Question the Victors' badges. More and more students seemed to be wearing them as the days went by. Signs on some of the bulletin boards had identified the badges as the mark of a club called the 'Progressive Element'. James was dismayed to see that not all of the students wearing them were Slytherins.
"Your dad's coming today, eh, Potter?" an older boy called out, smiling crookedly. "Going to have a little meeting with his cronies from the States?"
James stopped and looked at the speaker. "He's coming today, yeah," he said, his cheeks going red. "But I don't know what you mean about his 'cronies'. He hasn't even met the Americans before. Maybe you should read a little before you open your mouth."
"Oh, we've been reading, believe me," the boy replied, his smile disappearing. "More than you and your father would like us to be, I'm sure. Your kind can't hide the truth forever."
"Hide the truth?" James said, anger overcoming his caution. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Read the badges, Potter. You know exactly what we're talking about," the boy said, hoisting his backpack and moving casually down the hall with his friends. "And if you don't, you're even stupider than you look." He turned his back on James.
James blinked in anger and amazement. "What was that all about?"
Ralph sighed. "Come on, let's get a seat. I'll tell you, although I don't understand much of it myself."
But they had no time to discuss it before class. Headmistress McGonagall, who had taught
Transfiguration to James' mum and dad, taught it still, and with apparently the same degree of businesslike briskness. She explained the basic wand motions and commands, illustrating by transforming a book into a herring sandwich. She even asked one of the students, a boy named Carson, to eat a portion of the sandwich. Afterward, she transformed the sandwich back into the book and showed the class that the book still bore the bite marks Carson had made. There were sounds of awe and amusement. Carson looked at the bitten chunks and pressed his hand to his stomach, a look of thoughtful dismay on his face. Near the end of class, McGonagall instructed the students to produce their wands and practice the motions and commands on a banana, which they were to attempt to transfigure into a peach.
"Persica Alteramus, emphasis on first syllables only. Don't expect to make much progress your first time," she called over the noise of the students' attempts. "If you produce even a banana with a hint of peach fuzz, we will consider that a success for today. Do be careful, Miss Majaris! Small circular flicks only, please!"
Zane stared furiously at his banana and flicked his wand at it. "Persica Alteramus!" There was no apparent change. He pressed his lips together. "Let's see you try, James."
Shrugging, James raised his wand and flicked it, speaking the command. The banana flopped over, but remained decidedly a banana.
"Maybe they're transforming on the inside," Zane said hopefully. "Maybe we should peel it and see if it's all peachy in there, eh?"
James thought about it, and then shook his head. They both tried again. Ralph watched. "More wrist movement. You guys look like you're directing jetliners."
"So easy to criticize, so hard to create," Zane said between attempts. "Let's see you have a go, Ralphinator."
Ralph seemed reluctant to try. He fingered his wand, keeping it under the edge of the desk.
"Come on, Ralph," James said. "You've been pretty excellent at wandwork so far. What are you worried about?"
"Nothing," Ralph said, a little defensively. "I don't know."
"Rats!" Zane said, dropping his wand arm and grabbing the banana with the other. He plunked his wand onto the table and pointed the banana at it. "Maybe I'd have better luck doing it this way, you think?"
James and Ralph stared at him. He rolled his eyes. "Oh, sheesh, come on Ralph. Make with the peach. You know you can do it. What are you waiting for?"
Ralph grimaced, then sighed and raised his gigantic wand. He flicked it lightly at his banana and said the command flatly, almost as if he was trying to get it wrong. There was a flash and a noise like a pine knot exploding in a fireplace. The rest of the class heard the noise and glanced over at Ralph. A puff of heavy smoke lingered on the table in front of Ralph, who had pushed back from it, his eyes wide and troubled. As the smoke dissipated, James leaned in. Ralph's banana was still lying there, completely untouched.
"Well," Zane said into the sudden silence, "that was a whole lotta--"
A small, squishy noise came from Ralph's banana. The peel split slowly and began to separate, opening like a pulpy yellow flower. There was a prolonged gasp from the students as a green tendril grew out of the center of the peeling banana. It seemed to sniff the air as it grew, twisting and lengthening like a vine. The tendril began to straighten as it rose, snaking up from the table with a graceful, writhing motion. More tendrils came out of the banana. They spread along the surface in a starburst pattern, found the edges of the table, and curled under them, gripping tightly. Branches began to separate from the main shoot as it grew, thickening and turning lighter, until it was a woody, yellowish grey. Foliage sprouted from the branches in great, sudden bursts, growing from tender shoots to full leaf in a matter of seconds. Finally, as the tree reached a height of about four feet, there came a series of soft pops. Half a dozen peaches sprouted from the ends of the lower branches, weighing them down. Each one was fuzzy, plump, and pristine.
James tore his glance away from the tree and looked around the room. Every eye was on the perfect little peach tree Ralph had conjured, mouths dropped open, wand hands still frozen in mid-flick. Headmistress McGonagall stared at the tree intently, her mouth a frown of complete surprise. Then motion returned to the room. Everyone exhaled and spontaneous, awed applause broke out.
"He's mine!" Zane called, standing and throwing an arm around Ralph's shoulders. "I saw him first!" Ralph broke his eyes away from the tree, looked at Zane and smiled rather blankly. But James remembered the look on Ralph's face when the tree was growing. He hadn't been smiling then.
Moments later, in the corridor outside, Zane spoke through a mouthful of peach. "Seriously, Ralph. You're creeping me out a bit, here. That's some serious wizarding you've got going on. What's the deal?"
Ralph smiled his uncertain, worried smile again. "Well, actually…"
James looked at Ralph. "What? Tell, Ralph!"
"All right," he said, stopping and pulling them into a windowed alcove. "But this is just a guess, right?"
James and Zane nodded enthusiastically, gesturing for Ralph to go on.
"I've been practicing a lot with some of the other Slytherins at night, you know," Ralph explained. "Just the basic stuff. They've been teaching me a few things. Disarming Spells and some tricks and pranks, stuff to pull on your enemies."
"What enemies have you got already, Ralph?" Zane asked incredulously, licking peach juice from his fingers.
Ralph flapped his hand impatiently. "You know, just average enemies. It's just the way the guys in my house talk. Anyway, they say I'm better than average. They think I'm not really just a plain old Muggle kid who got some random magic genes. They think maybe one of my parents is from one of the great wizarding families and just don't know it."
"Seems like a pretty big thing not to know, doesn't it?" James said doubtfully. "I mean, you said your dad made Muggle computer stuff, didn't you?"
"Well, yeah, him," Ralph said dismissively, and then dropped his voice. "But my mum… I didn't tell you guys she was dead, did I? No," he answered himself. "Of course not. Well, she is. She died when I was really little. I never even knew her. What if she was a witch? I mean, what if she was from one of the great old pureblood wizarding families and my dad never even knew it? It happens, you know. Magic types fall in love with Muggles and can never tell them the secret their whole lives. Pureblood types don't like it, I guess, but still…" He trailed off and looked back and forth at Zane and James.
"Well," James said slowly, "sure. I guess it's possible. Stranger things have happened."
Zane raised his eyebrows, considering. "Would explain a lot, wouldn't it? Maybe you're, like, a prince or something. Maybe you're an heir to fabulous riches and power and stuff!"
Ralph grimaced and stepped out of the alcove. "Let's not get carried away. It's just a guess, like I said."
James walked with Zane and Ralph until it was time for his next class. Neither of the other two had Herbology class with him, so he told them he'd see them that afternoon and struck off across the grounds toward the greenhouses.
Professor Longbottom greeted James by name as he entered, smiling warmly. James had always liked Neville, even though he was much quieter and thoughtful than his dad or Uncle Ron. James knew the stories of how Neville had fought back during his last year of school, when Voldemort had taken over the Ministry and Hogwarts had been under his control. In the end, Neville had been the one to cut off the head of the great snake, Nagini, Voldemort's last link to immortality. Still, it was hard to imagine the gaunt and rather clumsy professor doing such things as he arranged pots and planters on the table at the front of the greenhouse classroom.
"Herbology is--" Neville began, gesturing and knocking over one of the smaller pots. He interrupted himself, righting the pot quickly, spilling dirt onto his papers. He looked up and smiled in a harried sort of way. "Herbology is the study of… well, herbs, of course. As you can see." He nodded to the greenhouse at large, which was packed with hundreds of plants and trees, all growing in a bewildering variety of containers. James thought Professor Longbottom would probably be quite interested in examining the peach tree currently growing on the Transfiguration room table.
"Herbs are the root, er, so to speak, of much of the most fundamental practices of magic. Potions, medicine, wand construction, even many charms, all rely on the essential cultivation and processing of magical plants. In this class, we will be studying the many uses of some of our most important vegetable resources, from the lowly bubotuber to the rare Mimbulus mimbletonia."
Out of the corner of James' eye, he saw something moving. A plant was spreading a vine along a windowsill next to a first-year girl, who was furiously scribbling the names Neville was listing off. The vine separated from the windowsill, tapped lightly along her back, then curled into her earring. The girl's eyes widened and she dropped her quill as the vine began to pull.
"Ow! Ow, ow, ow!" she cried, scrambling sideways off her chair and clapping a hand to her ear. Neville looked around, saw the girl and came bounding towards her.
"Yes, grab the vine, Miss Patonia! That's right." He reached her and began to carefully extract the vine from her earring. It twisted slowly as he pried it loose. "You've discovered our Larcenous ligulous, or rather, it has discovered you. I apologize for not warning you before you sat down. Bred by pirates several hundred years ago because of its innate attraction to sparkly objects, which it uses to magnify sunlight for photosynthetic purposes. Nearly extinct, after having been systematically hunted and burned during the Purges." Neville found the base of the plant and wrapped the vine methodically around it, pinning its tip into the dirt with a diamond topped hoop. Patonia rubbed her ear and stared at the vine as if she'd like to do some burning of her own.
Neville returned to the front table and began talking the class through the long line of potted plants he'd arranged there. James yawned. The heat of the greenhouse was making him rather drowsy. In an attempt to stay awake, James reached to get his parchment and quill from his backpack. His hand bumped the book Zane had given him. He pulled it out, along with his parchments, and cradled it in his lap. When he was sure Neville had descended deep enough into talking about his favorite subject not to notice, James opened the book to where Zane had marked it. His interest was immediately piqued by the heading at the top of the page: Feodre Austramaddux. He leaned over the book and read quickly.
Proponent of Reverse Precognition, or the art of recording history through counter-chronological divination, the Seer and historian Austramaddux remains known to modern wizardry mainly for his fantastic accounts of the last days of Merlinus Ambrosius, legendary sorcerer and founder of the Order of Merlin. Austramaddux's account, which is recorded in its entirety in his famous Inverse Historie of the Magickal Worlde (see chapter twelve) deals with his acquaintance with Merlinus at the end of the latter's career as special magical regent to the kings of Europe. Having grown disenchanted with the corruption of the magical world as it became 'infected' by influences from the growing non-magical kingdoms, Merlinus announced his plan to 'quit the earthly realm'. Further, he claimed he would return to the society of men, centuries or even millennia later, when the balance between the magical and non-magical worlds was more, as Austramaddux put it, 'ripe for his ministrations'. These predictions have been the source of many plots and conspiracies in the centuries since, usually led by those of a revolutionary bent, who believe that the return of Merlinus would facilitate their plans to overcome and subjugate the non-magical world via politics or outright war.
James stopped reading. His mind was racing as he considered the implications of what he'd just read. He'd known of Merlin his whole life, in much the same way that Muggle children knew about Saint Nicholas: not as a historical figure, but as a sort of mythical cartoon character. It had never occurred to James to doubt that Merlin had been a real person, but it had also never occurred to him to wonder what kind of a man Merlin might have been. His only references were silly sayings he'd grown up with, like 'by Merlin's beard' or 'what in the name of Merlin's pants', none of which implied much about the character of the great sorcerer. According to Austramaddux, Merlin had been a sort of magical advisor to Muggle kings and leaders. Was it possible that, in Merlin's time, witches and wizards lived openly in the Muggle world, with no laws of secrecy, no hiding, no Disillusionment Charms? And if so, what did Merlin mean by saying the wizarding world had been 'infected' by the Muggles? Even more, what had he meant by the creepy prediction that he'd return when the world was 'ripe for his ministrations'? It was no wonder that dark wizards through history had tried to make Merlin's prediction come true, to bring the great sorcerer back into the world somehow. Dark wizards had always sought to rule the Muggle world, and apparently, there was some basis to believe that Merlin, the greatest and most powerful wizard of all time, would help them bring that about.
A sudden thought occurred to James, and his eyes widened. He had first heard the name
Austramaddux via a profile created by a Slytherin. Slytherin had always been the house of dark wizards intent on domination of the Muggle world. What if the enigmatic mention of Austramaddux wasn't just a meaningless coincidence? What if it was a sign of a new dark plot? What if the Slytherin who had made that profile was part of a plot to facilitate the predicted return of Merlinus Ambrosius, who would lead a final war against the Muggle world?
James closed the book slowly and gritted his teeth. Somehow, the moment he thought of it, it seemed completely true. That explained why a Slytherin would use a name that even his Head of House thought was a joke. The Slytherin knew it wasn't, and would soon be victorious in a plot that would prove it. James' heart pounded as he sat and thought furiously. Who could he tell? Zane and Ralph, of course. They might have already thought of it. His dad? James decided that he couldn't. Not yet, at least. James was old enough to know that most adults wouldn't believe such a story from a kid even if the kid could provide pictures that proved it.
James didn't know exactly what he could do to stop such a plot, but he knew what he had to do next. He had to find out which Slytherin it was that had taken Ralph's GameDeck. He had to find the Slytherin that used the name Austramaddux.
With that in mind, James bolted from the greenhouse as soon as class was over, forgetting entirely that tonight was the night his dad, Harry Potter, was arriving for his meeting with the Americans.
As James ran across the grounds, he became aware of the noise of a crowd. He slowed, listening. Shouts and chants mingled with the babble of raucous, excited voices. As he turned the corner into the courtyard, the noise became much louder. A mob of students roiled around the courtyard, gathering from all directions even as James watched. Most were simply curious to see what the commotion was about, but there was a very active group in the center, marching, chanting slogans, some holding large, hand-painted signs and banners. James saw one of the banners as he approached crowd, and his heart sank. It read 'End Ministry Auror Fascism'. Another sign waved and poked at the sky: 'Tell the TRUTH, Harry Potter!'
James circled around the group, trying to stay inconspicuous. Near the steps of the main hall, Tabitha Corsica was being interviewed by a woman with garish purple cat's-eye glasses and an overly-attentive expression. With growing unease, James recognized her as Rita Skeeter, lead investigative reporter for the Daily Prophet, and one of his dad's least favorite people.
As he passed, Tabitha glanced sideways at him and made a slight shrug and smile, as if to say so sorry about this, but these are hard times and we all do what we must…
Just as James was about to climb the steps into the main hall, the Headmistress appeared, striding purposefully into the sunlight with a very grim expression on her face. She placed her wand to her throat and spoke from the top step, her voice echoing all around the courtyard, cutting through the noise of the crowd.
"I won't ask what the meaning of this is, as I find it disappointingly obvious," she said sternly, and James, who had known Minerva McGonagall in a peripheral way for most of his life, thought he had never seen her so enraged. Her face was deathly pale, with livid red high on her cheeks. Her voice, still ringing around the courtyard, was controlled but steely with conviction. "Far be it from me to disabuse you of the right to maintain whatever ill-founded and preposterous notions many of you might have picked up, but let me assure you, regardless of what you might choose to believe, it is not the policy of this school to allow students to insult esteemed guests."
The signs sagged, but did not lower completely. James saw that Rita Skeeter was staring up at the Headmistress with a look of hungry excitement on her face, her Quick-Quotes Quill scribbling wildly on a pad of parchment. McGonagall sighed, gathering her composure. "There are proper avenues for expression of disagreement, as you all know. This… display… is neither necessary nor appropriate. I expect you all, therefore, to disperse immediately with the knowledge that you have most certainly…," she allowed her gaze to fall upon Rita Skeeter, "made your point."
"Madam Headmistress?" a voice called, and James didn't need to turn to know that it was Tabitha Corsica. There was a pregnant silence as the entire courtyard held its breath. James could hear Rita Skeeter's quill scratching avidly.
McGonagall paused, studying Tabitha meaningfully. "Yes, Miss Corsica?"
"I couldn't agree with you more, ma'am," Corsica said smoothly, her beautiful voice echoing around the courtyard. "And for my own part, I hope that we can all choose to pursue these issues in a more reasonable and relevant manner, as you suggest. Might it be too soon to propose that we make this the subject of the first All-School Topical Debate? That would allow us to approach this sensitive issue respectfully and thoroughly, in the manner I'm sure you'd agree it deserves."
McGonagall's jaw was like iron as she stared down at Corsica. The pause was so long that Tabitha actually looked away. She glanced around the courtyard, her composure faltering slightly. The QuickQuotes Quill had caught up to the proceedings. It hovered over the parchment, waiting.
"I appreciate your suggestion, Miss Corsica," McGonagall said flatly, "but this is neither the time nor the place for discussion of the debate team calendar, as you can surely imagine. And now," she let her gaze sweep over the courtyard critically, "I consider the matter closed. Anyone who wishes to continue this discussion may do so much more comfortably in the privacy of their rooms. I'd advise you to be off now, before I send Mr. Filch out to take a census."
The crowd began to break up. McGonagall saw James, and her expression changed. "Come along, Potter," she said, beckoning impatiently. James climbed the steps and followed her back into the shadow of the Hall. McGonagall was muttering angrily, her tartan robes swishing as she stalked into a side corridor. She seemed to expect James to follow, so he did.
"Ridiculous rabble-rousing propagandists," she fumed, still leading James into what he recognized as the staff offices. "James, I'm sorry you had to witness that. But I'm even sorrier that such an ugly bit of rumor-mongering has found a foothold within these walls."
McGonagall turned and opened a door without breaking stride. James found himself entering a large room full of couches and chairs, small tables and bookshelves, all arranged haphazardly around an enormous marble fireplace. And there, standing to greet him with a crooked smile was his dad. James grinned and ran past McGonagall.
"James," Harry Potter said delightedly, pulling the boy into a rough hug and ruffling his hair. "My boy. I'm so glad to see you, son. How's school?"
James shrugged, smiling happily but feeling suddenly shy. There were several other people present he didn't recognize, all of them looking at him as he stood with his father.
"You all know my boy, James," Harry said, squeezing James' shoulder. "James, these are some representatives from the Ministry who've come along with me. You remember Titus Hardcastle, don't you? And this is Mr. Recreant and Miss Sacarhina. They both work for the Department of Ambassadorial Relations."
James shook hands dutifully. He did remember Titus Hardcastle when he looked at him, although he hadn't seen him for a long time. Hardcastle, one of his dad's head Aurors, was squat and thick, with a square head and very tough, weathered features. Mr. Recreant was tall and thin, dressed rather fussily in pinstriped robes and a black derby. His handshake was quick and loose, rather like holding a dead starfish. Miss Sacarhina, however, didn't shake hands. She smiled hugely at James and squatted down to his level, examining him up and down.
"I see so much of your parents in you, young man," she said, tilting her head and affecting a conspiratorial manner. "Such promise and potential. I do hope you'll be joining us for the evening."
In answer, James looked up at his dad. Harry smiled and put both hands on James' shoulders. "We're having dinner tonight with the Alma Alerons. Do you want to come along? Apparently, we're having true American food, which could mean anything from hamburgers to, well, cheeseburgers, as far as I can guess."
"Sure!" James said, smiling. Harry Potter smiled back and winked.
"But first," he said, addressing the rest of the group, "we'll be joining our friends from Alma Aleron for a look at some of their proprietary magic. We're due to meet them in the next ten minutes, and I've asked a few others to join us as well. Shall we?"
"I'll not be joining you, I'm afraid," McGonagall said briskly. "It appears that I will need to be keeping a close tab on certain elements of the student populace during your tour, Mr. Potter. I apologize."
"Understood, Minerva," Harry said. It always sounded strange to James that his dad called the Headmistress by her first name, but she seemed to expect it from him. "Do what you have must, but don't worry about squashing every little outburst. It's hardly worth the effort."
"I'm not sure I agree with you about that, Harry, but I expect I'd not be able to maintain perfect order regardless. I shall see you this evening, then." With that, the Headmistress turned and left the room brusquely, still fuming.
"Shall we, then?" Miss Sacarhina inquired. The group began to move toward a door on the opposite side of the room. As they walked, Harry bent toward his son and whispered. "I'm glad you'll be coming along tonight. Sacarhina and Recreant aren't exactly the most pleasant travelling companions, but Percy insisted I bring them. I'm afraid this whole affair's gone all political."
James nodded wisely, not knowing what that meant, but happy to be invited into his dad's confidence, as always. "So how'd you travel?"
"Floo Network," Harry answered. "Didn't want to make any more visible entry than necessary. Minerva warned us about the demonstration the P.E. types were planning."
It took James a moment to realize his dad was talking about the Progressive Element. "She knows about those guys?" he asked, surprised.
His dad put a finger to his lips, nodding slightly toward Sacarhina and Recreant, who were ahead of them, talking in low voices as they walked. "Later," Harry mouthed.
After a few turns, Mr. Recreant opened a large door and stepped out into sunlight, the rest following. They descended a broad stone stairway which led down to a grassy area bordered by the Forbidden Forest on one side and a low stone wall on the other. Neville Longbottom and Professor Slughorn were standing near the wall, talking. They both looked up as the group approached.
"Hi, Harry!" Neville said, grinning and coming forward to meet him. "Thanks for inviting me and Horace along for this. I've been curious about it ever since the Americans got here."
"Harry Potter, as I live and breathe," Slughorn said warmly, taking Harry's hand in both of his. "Very good of you indeed to ask us to come. You know I'm always interested in new developments in the international magical community."
Harry led the group to a gate in the stone wall. It opened onto a neat flagstone path that meandered toward the lake. "Don't thank me, either of you. I only brought the both of you along so that you could ask all the smart questions and make sense of what they show us."
Slughorn laughed indulgently, but Neville only smiled. James figured that his dad was probably telling at least part of the truth, and only Neville knew it.
The group approached a large canvas tent that was pitched on a low rise overlooking the water. An American flag hung limp on one of the tent's poles, over a flag emblazoned with the Alma Aleron crest. A pair of American students stood talking nearby. One of the students saw the group and acknowledged them with a slight nod. He called toward the tent. "Professor Franklyn?"
After a moment, Franklyn emerged from the side of the tent, wiping his hands on a large cloth. "Ah! Greetings, visitors," he said graciously. "Thank you so much for coming."
Harry shook Franklyn's outstretched hand. It was apparent that they had already met earlier and arranged this gathering. Harry turned and made introductions all around, finishing with James.
"Of course, of course," Franklyn said, beaming at James. "Young Mr. Potter is in my class. How are you today, James?"
"Good, sir," James answered, smiling.
"As you should be, on such a fine day," Franklyn said seriously, nodding approvingly. "And now that the pleasantries have been seen to, do follow me, my friends. Harry, you were interested in seeing the means by which we care for our vehicles, is that right?"
"Very much so," Harry said. "I wasn't here to see your arrival, of course, but I heard all about your interesting flying vehicles. I am very eager to see them, as well as your storage facility. I have heard quite a lot of speculation about it, although I admit I understand very little of it."
"Our Trans-Dimensional Garage, yes. Virtually none of us understands very much about it, I am afraid," Franklyn said dubiously. "In fact, if it were not for our technomancy expert, Theodore Jackson, none of us would have the slightest idea how to maintain it. Speaking of whom, he sends his apologies for not being able to be here for the tour. He will be joining us this evening and will be happy to discuss it with you then, should you have any questions for him."
"As I'm sure we will," Titus Hardcastle said in his low, gravelly voice.
James followed his dad around to the open side of the tent and nearly tripped over his own feet when he looked inside. The tent was quite large, with complicated wooden struts and frameworks supporting it. All three of the Alma Aleron flying vehicles were parked inside it, leaving enough room for neat arrangements of tool chests, maintenance equipment, extra parts, and several men in work clothes who moved among the vehicles busily. The strangest thing about the tent, however, was that the back was missing. Where James was sure he should have seen the hanging canvas wall he had seen from the outside, there was simply open air, looking out onto a view that was definitely not any view of the Hogwarts grounds. Neat, red brick buildings and huge, horny trees could be seen in the distance beyond the tent's missing back wall. Even stranger, the lighting of the scene was completely different than the bright noon sunlight of the Hogwarts grounds. On the other side of the tent, the scene was lit with a pale pink light, the huge, fluffy clouds in the distance tinged with gold. The trees and grass seemed to sparkle, as if covered in morning dew. One of the workmen nodded at Franklyn, then turned and walked out into the strange scene, brushing his hands on his overalls.
"Welcome to one of the worlds few trans-dimensional structures," Franklyn said, gesturing proudly. "Our Garage, which simultaneously stands both here, in temporary residence on the grounds of Hogwarts castle, and in its permanent location in the east quadrangle of Alma Aleron University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States."
"Great Ghost of Golgamethe," Slughorn said, stepping forward slowly. "I've read of such things, but never thought I'd live to see one. Is this a naturally occurring temporal anomaly? Or is this orchestrated via Quantum Transference Charms?"
"That's why I invited you, Professor," Harry said, smiling and examining the interior of the tent.
"The former," Franklyn said, stepping between the Dodge Hornet and the Volkswagen Beetle to make room for the group. "This is one of only three known dimensional plurality bubbles. What that means, I am told, is that this tent exists within a dimensional bridge, allowing it to span two places simultaneously. Thus, we can see on one side the noontime grounds of Hogwarts," he gestured out the open side of the tent through which they had entered, "what you might think of as our side of the transdimensional bubble. And on the other side," he spread a hand toward the dim landscape seen magically through the rear of the tent, "the dawn-time quadrangle of Alma Aleron University, the other side of the bubble. Meet Mr. Peter Graham, our head mechanic."
A man straightened up from the open hood of the Stutz Dragonfly. He smiled and waved. "Good to meet you lady and gentlemen. So to speak."
"Likewise," Neville, who was closest, said a bit faintly.
"Mr. Graham and his men are all in the American half of the bubble," Franklyn explained. "Seeing as they are specifically trained to work on our fleet, we find it best to let them handle the care and maintenance even while we travel. As you may guess, however, they are not, technically, here." To illustrate, Franklyn reached toward one of the workmen who was squatted near the Hornet. Franklyn's hand swept through the man as if he were smoke. The man seemed not to have noticed.
"So," Harry said, frowning slightly, "they can hear us, and see us, and we can see and hear them as well, but they are still there, in America, and we are still here, at Hogwarts. Therefore, we cannot touch them?"
"Precisely," Franklyn said.
James spoke up. "Then how is it we can touch the cars and so can your mechanics in the States?"
"Excellent question, my boy," Slughorn said, patting James on the back.
"It is indeed," Franklyn agreed. "And that is where things get a bit, er, quantum. The simple answer is that these cars, unlike us, are multi-dimensional. You've all heard, I expect, the theory that there are more dimensions beyond the four we are familiar with, yes?"
There were nods. James hadn't heard of any such theory, but he thought he understood the idea nonetheless.
Franklyn went on. "The theory states that there are extra dimensions, unknowable by any of our senses, but just as real. Effectively, Professor Jackson has created a spell that enables these vehicles to tap into those dimensions, allowing them to exist simultaneously in two places anytime they are inside the walls of this Garage. While they are parked here, they cross the dimensional bubble and exist in both places at once."
"Remarkable," Slughorn said, running his hand along the fender of the Hornet. "So, effectively, your crew can service the vehicles regardless of where they travel, and you are afforded a view of home, even if you cannot access it."
"Very true," agreed Franklyn. "It is indeed both a great convenience and a touch of comfort."
Neville was interested in the cars themselves. "Are they actual mechanized creatures or are they charmed machines?"
James lost interest as Franklyn launched into a detailed explanation of the winged cars. Walking over to the other side of the tent, he looked out into the grounds of the American school. The sun had just peeked over the roof of the red brick building nearby, casting its rose-colored light onto a clock tower. It was just after six in the morning there. How utterly strange and wonderful, James thought. Tentatively, he reached out his hand, curious to see if he could feel the coolness of the morning air in that other place. He felt a strange, numbing feeling in his fingertips, and then they brushed unseen canvas. Sure enough, he couldn't pass through or even feel the air of the place.
"Too bad you can't come on over, friend," a voice said. James looked up. The head mechanic was leaning against the fender of the Beetle, smiling. "It's almost breakfast and today's mushroom omelet day."
James grinned. "Sounds good. It's lunchtime, here."
"Professor Franklyn," James heard Mr. Recreant's voice say rather loudly, "how does this, er, structure comply with the International Magical Coalition's ban on unproven or dark magic? Being virtually one of a kind, it would seem difficult to establish much of a safety record."
"Ah, too true," Franklyn agreed, looking steadily at Mr. Recreant. "We have been fortunate enough not to have experienced any problems so far, thus we have gone more or less unnoticed by the Coalition. In any case, it would be difficult to prove the threat of any danger. Even a total failure of Professor Jackson's trans-dimensional spellwork would mean, at worst, that we'd have to take a taxi home instead of our beloved cars."
"Excuse me," Miss Sacarhina interjected, affecting a rather plastic smile. "A what?"
"I'm sorry, Miss," Franklyn said. "A cab. A rented Muggle vehicle. I was being somewhat ridiculous, of course."
Sacarhina cinched her smile a notch tighter. "Ah. Yes, of course. I tend to forget the American wizard's fascination with Muggle machinery. I cannot imagine how it slipped my notice."
Franklyn seemed oblivious to her sarcasm. "Well, I won't speak for my compatriots, but I admit I do enjoy tinkering. Part of my appreciation for the Garage is that it allows me to oversee the maintenance of my fleet. I never get tired of figuring out how things work, and trying to make them work just a little bit better."
"Mm-hmm," Sacarhina nodded primly, glancing around at the cars.
One of the mechanics touched a wire under the hood of the Stutz Dragonfly and there was a spurt of blue sparks. With a squeak and a jerk, the long wings of the car unfolded, beating the air several times before screeching to a halt again. Neville had had to duck backward to avoid being pummeled by them.
"Good reflexes, Neville," Harry said. "That was almost a case of 'fly swats man'."
Neville glanced at Harry and saw the suppressed smile. Hardcastle cleared his throat. "We should be moving along, ma'am, gentlemen."
"Of course," Harry agreed. "Mr. Franklyn."
Franklyn raised a hand. "I insist you call me Ben. I'm three hundred years old, give or take, and being called 'mister' just reminds me of that. Will you indulge me?"
Harry grinned. "Of course, Ben. I look forward to seeing you at dinner tonight. Thank you very much for showing us your remarkable Garage."
"A pleasure," Franklyn said, beaming proudly. "I've got a very interesting thought-powered printing press back home I'd love to show you when you come to visit us in the States. I'd even show you the bell I helped cast back during the birth of our country, but the blasted thing's broken and they won't let me fix it."
"Don't listen to him," Graham, the mechanic, called after them. "Or he'll have you believing he forged the copper for the Statue of Liberty." There was laughter from the rest of the crew.
Franklyn grimaced, and then waved Harry and the group on. "Tonight, my friends. Bring your appetite. And perhaps a competent Freezing Charm. I understand that Madame Delacroix is overseeing the gumbo."
6. Harry's Midnight Meeting
James hurried back to the Gryffindor common room after classes, shrugging out of his school robes as he ran up the steps. He changed into a jacket and an evening cloak, matted his hair down with water from the basin, frowned critically at himself in the mirror, and then ran back down the steps two at a time to meet his dad.
Harry was waiting with Neville by the portrait of Sir Cadogan.
"A spirited tussle it was," Cadogan was saying, leaning nonchalantly against the frame of his painting and waving his sword illustratively. He was talking to Neville, who looked extremely uncomfortable. "I saw the whole thing of course. Took place right there. Bollox Humphreys was his name, and he fought like a man possessed. Lost, of course, but noble as a thousand kings. Spilt most of his innards right where you're standing and still swung his sword with more strength than a mountain troll. Gallant man. Gallant!"
"Ah, James, here we are," Neville said loudly as James approached. Harry and Sir Cadogan looked up. Harry smiled, looking his son up and down.
"Your mum will be glad to know you're putting that cloak to use."
"To be honest, this is the first I've had it out of the trunk," James admitted, grinning sheepishly.
Harry nodded, "And it'll go right back into the trunk after tonight, won't it?"
"Good man," Harry acknowledged. James fell into step next to his dad as they headed toward a staircase.
"Wait!" Cadogan cried, sheathing his sword and jumping into the center of his frame. "Have I ever told you about the Battle of the Red Mages? Bloodiest massacre these walls have ever seen! Happened just at the foot of those stairs! Next time, then. Courage!"
"Who's that?" James asked, looking back over his shoulder.
"You'll get to know him," Neville said. "Enjoy your ignorance while you can."
As they walked, James listened as his dad told Neville about the current happenings at the Ministry. There had been an arrest of several individuals involved in a counterfeit Portkey operation. More trolls were being seen in the foothills, and the Ministry was stepping up patrols to keep the troublesome idiots from venturing into Muggle territories. The new Minister, Loquatious Knapp, was preparing to give a speech on expanded trade with Asian wizarding communities, including lifting the ban on flying carpets and something called 'shades'.
"In other words," Harry said, sighing, "things are more or less the way they always are. Little breakouts here and there, small conspiracies and squabbles. Politics and paperwork."
"What you mean," Neville said, smiling crookedly, "is that peace can be a pretty boring thing for an Auror."
Harry grinned. "I guess you're right. I should be thankful my job isn't any more interesting, shouldn't I? At least I get to spend most nights at home with Ginny, Lil, and Albus." He glanced down at James. "And take on an ambassador's assignment that just happens to afford me the chance to see my boy during his first week at Hogwarts."
"I understand he's only been to McGonagall's office once so far," Neville commented mildly.
"Oh?" Harry said, still eyeing James. "And what for?"
Neville raised his eyebrows at James as if to say you have the floor.
"I, er, broke a window."
Harry's smile hardened a bit around the edges. "I look forward to the story of how that happened," he said thoughtfully. James felt his dad's stare like it was a set of tiny weights.
They reached a double doorway with both doors thrown wide open. Delicious smells wafted down the hall.
"Here we are," Neville said, standing aside to allow Harry and James to enter first. "The Americans' quarters during their stay. We've given them most of the southwest turret. Had it temporarily refitted with a recreational area, common room, kitchen, and staff to suit their needs."
"Sounds nice," Harry said, examining the space. The common room was, in fact, rather small, with circular walls, high, rough-beamed ceilings, a cramped stone fireplace, and only two very tall, narrow windows. The Americans had, however, been very busy. There were bearskin rugs on the floors and tall, vibrantly colored tapestries hung on the walls, positioned over the stone staircase that spiraled the room. A three-story bookcase was crammed with gigantic volumes, most accessible only via a very rickety-looking wheeled ladder. The most amazing detail, however, was a mind-bogglingly complex armature of brass gears, joints, and mirrored lenses that hung from the ceiling, filling the upper chamber of the room and moving very slowly. James stared up into it, delighted and amazed. It made a very faint squeaking and clicking as it moved.
"You've discovered my Daylight Savings Device, my boy," Ben Franklyn said, coming from a large arched doorway beneath the spiral staircase. "One of my absolute necessities whenever I travel for long periods, despite the fact that it's a veritable bear to pack, and the calibrations when I set it up again are simply dreadful."
"It's wonderful," Neville said, also staring up into the slowly ratcheting network of mirrors and wheels. "What does it do?"
"Let me demonstrate," Franklyn said eagerly. "It works best in full daylight, of course, but even the stars and moon of a bright night can provide adequate light. An evening such as this should prove most satisfactory. Let me see…"
He moved to a battered high-backed leather chair, settled himself into it carefully, and then consulted a chart on the wall. "Third of September, yes. Moon is in the fourth house, it is, let me see… approximately a quarter past seven. Jupiter is approaching the final leg of… mm-hmm…"
As Franklyn muttered, he produced his wand and began pointing it at bits of the Device. Gears began to spin as parts of the Device whirred to life. Bits of the armature unfolded as other bits pivoted, making room. Mirrors began to slide, positioning behind cycling groups of lenses, which magnified them. Ratchets clicked and shuttled. The entire device seemed to dance slowly within itself as Franklyn directed it with his wand, apparently making calculations in his head as he went. And as it moved, something began to form within it. Ghostly beams of rose-colored light began to appear between the mirrors, pencil thin, turning motes of dust into tiny specks of fire. There were dozens of the beams, brightening, swiveling into place, and eventually forming a complicated geometric tracery. And then, in the center of the tracery, shapes shimmered into place. James turned on the spot, watching raptly as tiny planets coalesced, formed out of colored light. They spun and orbited, tracing faint arcs behind them. Two larger shapes condensed in the very center, and James recognized them as the sun and the moon. The sun was a ball of rose light, its corona spreading several feet around it. The moon, smaller but more solid, was like a silver Quaffle, equally divided between its light and dark sides, turning slowly. The entire constellation weaved and turned majestically, dramatically lighting the brass Device and spilling delightful patterns of light over the entire room.
"Nothing so healthy as natural light," Franklyn said. "Captured here, through the windows, and then condensed within a carefully calibrated network of mirrors and lenses, as you can see. The light is filtered with my own optical spellwork for clarity. The final result is, well, what you see here. Excellent for the eyesight, the blood, and one's health overall, obviously."
"This is the secret to your longevity?" Harry asked, rather breathlessly.
"Oh, certainly this is a small part of it," Franklyn said dismissively. "Mostly, I just prefer it to read by at night. Certainly, it's more fun than a torch." He caught James eye and winked.
Professor Jackson appeared in the archway. James saw him glance from Franklyn to the light display overhead, a look of tired disdain on his face. "Dinner, I am told, is served. Shall we adjourn to the dining room or shall I have it brought in here?"
Along with Harry, James, Neville, and the representatives from the Ministry, most of the Hogwarts teaching staff was present, including Professor Curry. To James' consternation, Curry told Harry all about James' skills on the football field, assuring him that she would work to see that said skills were developed to their fullest extent.
Contrary to his dad's suspicion, the meal was remarkably diverse and enjoyable. Madame Delacroix's gumbo was the first course. She carried it to the table herself, somehow not spilling a drop despite her blindness. Even more curiously, she directed the ladle with her wand, a gnarled and evil-looking length of graperoot, dishing a portion into each bowl at the table while she stared at the ceiling and hummed rather disconcertingly. The gumbo was indeed spicy, thick with chunks of shrimp and sausage, but James liked it. Next came fresh rolls and several varieties of butter, including a brown and sticky goo that Jackson identified as apple butter. James tasted it carefully on a hunk of bread, and then spread a gigantic dollop on the remainder of his roll.
The main course was rack of lamb with mint jelly. James didn't consider this typical American food, and commented as much.
"There's no such thing as American food, James," Jackson said. "Our cuisine, like our people, is simply the sum total of the various world cultures we come from."
"That's not entirely true," Franklyn interjected. "I am pretty sure we can lay undisputed claim to the spicy buffalo wing."
"Will we be having those tonight?" James asked hopefully.
"My apologies," Franklyn said. "It is rather difficult to collect the ingredients for such things unless you possess Madame Delacroix's unique voodoo capabilities."
"Is that so?" Neville inquired, helping himself to more mint jelly. "And what abilities are those, Madame?"
Madame Delacroix composed herself, having given Professor Franklyn a wilting, albeit blind glare. "De old man, he don't know what he speaks of. I just know about de sources he not as familiar with, bein' more int'rested in his machines and gizmos."
Franklyn's smile, for the first time, seemed icy. "Madame Delacroix is being modest. She is, you may already know, one of our country's foremost experts on Remote Physio-Apparition. Do you know what that is, James?"
James didn't have the slightest idea, and yet something about the milky gaze of Madame Delacroix made him reluctant to say so. Franklyn was watching him earnestly, expecting a response. Finally, James shook his head. Before Franklyn could explain, however, Harry spoke up.
"It just means that the Madame has, let's say, different means of getting around."
"'Different means' is one way to put it," Franklyn chuckled. James felt uneasy, hearing that chuckle. There was something nasty in it. He noticed that Franklyn was emptying what was likely his third glass of wine. "Think about it, James. Remote Physio-Apparition. Can you factor it out? It means that poor old blind Madame Delacroix can project herself, send a version of herself out into the wide world, collect things, and even bring them back. And the beauty of it is, the version of herself she can project isn't poor or old or blind. Isn't that right, Madame?"
Delacroix stared blindly at a spot just over Franklyn's shoulder, her face a grim mask of anger. Then she smiled, and as James had seen on the day of the Americans' arrival, the smile transformed her face. "Oh, deah Professah Franklyn, you do tell such tales," she said, and her strange bayou accent seemed even thicker than usual. "My skills were never as grand as ye speak of, and they're far less now that I'm de old woman ye see before ye. If I could project such a sight, I hardly think I'd ever let anyone see me as I really am."
The tension in the room broke and there was laughter. Franklyn smiled a bit tightly, but let the moment pass.
After dessert, Harry, James, and the rest of the Hogwartians retired to the common room again, where Franklyn's Daylight Savings Device had reproduced a condensed and shimmering version of the Milky Way. It lit the room with a silvery glow that James thought he could very nearly feel on his skin. Jackson offered the adults an after dinner cocktail in tiny glasses. Neville barely touched his. Both Miss Sacarhina and Mr. Recreant sampled tiny sips and gave forced, rather strained smiles. Harry, after holding it up to the light to look through the amber liquid, downed his in one gulp. He squinted and shook his head, then looked inquiringly at Jackson, unable to speak.
"Just a little of Tennessee's finest, with a little wizard afterburn thrown in," Jackson explained.
Finally, Harry thanked the Americans and bid them goodnight.
Retracing their steps through the darkened corridors, Harry walked with his hand on James' shoulder.
"Want to stay with me in the guest quarters, James?" he asked. "I can't guarantee I'll be able to see much of you after tonight. I'll be busy all day tomorrow, meeting with the Americans, keeping our friends from the Department of Ambassadorial Relations from making 'an international incident' of themselves, then I'm off home again. What do you say?"
"Sure!" James agreed instantly. "Where are your quarters?"
Harry smiled. "Watch this," he said quietly, stopping in the middle of the hall. He turned around and paced idly, looking thoughtfully up at the dim ceiling. "I need… a really cool room with a couple of beds for me and my boy to sleep in tonight."
James stared at his dad quizzically. Several seconds went by as Harry continued to pace back and forth. He seemed to be waiting for something. James was about to ask him what he was up to when he heard a sudden noise. A low grind and rumble came from the wall behind him. James turned around just in time to see the stonework alter and shift, reforming itself around a huge door that hadn't been there a moment before. Harry glanced down at his son, smiled knowingly, then reached and opened the door.
Inside was a large apartment, complete with a set of draped bunk beds, framed Gryffindor posters on the walls, a wardrobe containing Harry's trunk and James' school robes, and a fully equipped washroom. James stood inside the door, opening and closing his mouth, speechless.
"The Room of Requirement," Harry explained, plopping onto a low, overstuffed chair. "I can't believe I never told you about it."
James got ready for bed, but his dad simply changed into a pair of jeans and a sweater and freshened up in the basin.
"I need to go out for a little while," he told James. "After dinner tonight, Professor Franklyn asked me to meet him privately. He wanted some time to discuss a few things outside of tomorrow's official meetings." There was something about the way Harry said this that told James his dad preferred a private chat over an official meeting anyway. "I shouldn't be too long, and I'll be just down the hall, in the Americans' quarters. Breakfast tomorrow, you and me?"
James nodded happily. He still hadn't brought himself to tell his dad about his abysmal failure on the Quidditch pitch, and he was happy to put it off as long as possible.
When Harry was gone, James lay in the top bunk, thinking about the events of the night. He remembered the sudden nastiness of Franklyn, which had surprised him. It was almost as great a change in character as the change that came over the voodoo queen, Madame Delacroix, when she smiled. Thinking of Madame Delacroix reminded James of the way she'd spooned the gumbo, unseeingly, operating the ladle with her creepy black wand, never spilling a drop.
James realized he was simply too excited to sleep. He slid off the top bunk and prowled the room restlessly. His dad's trunk sat open in the bottom of the wardrobe. James looked into it idly, then stopped and looked closer. He knew what it was when he saw it, but was surprised his dad would have brought it along. What use would he have for it here? James considered it. Finally, he reached into the trunk and withdrew his dad's Invisibility Cloak, unfolding its smooth, heavy length as it came.
How many times had the young Harry Potter explored the grounds of Hogwarts safely hidden away under this cloak? James had heard enough tales, from both his dad, Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione, to know that this was an opportunity not to be missed. But where to go?
James thought for a moment, and then smiled a long, mischievous smile. He slipped the cloak over his head, just the way he used to on the rare occasions when Harry would let him play with it. James vanished. A moment later, the door of the Room of Requirement seemed to open all by itself, rocking slowly on its huge hinges. After a pause, it shut again, carefully and silently.
Tiptoeing, James headed for the quarters of the representatives of Alma Aleron.
James had only gotten halfway down the corridor when there was a flicker of motion. Mrs. Norris, Filch's awful cat, had darted across the passage that intersected the corridor twenty feet ahead. James stopped, his breath caught in his chest. "Shouldn't you be dead by now, you ratty old carpet sample?" he whispered to himself, cursing his luck. Then, worse, Filch's voice came echoing down the passage.
"That's it, dearest," he said in a singsong voice. "Don't let the little buggers escape. Teach them a lesson that will have their little mousey kin shivering with fear." Filch's shadow leaked across the floor of the intersection, weaving as he approached.
James knew he was invisible, but he couldn't help feeling that he should hunker up against the wall. He sidled into a narrow space between a doorway and a suit of armor, trying to keep his breathing shallow and silent. He peered around the elbow of the suit of armor.
Filch stepped into the intersection, his gait rather unsteady. "Find a hidey-hole, did they, precious?" he asked the unseen Mrs. Norris. He reached into his coat and produced a silver flask. He took a swig, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and then spun the cap back on. "There they are, coming this way again, my dear. Come, come."
Two mice scurried into the intersection, looping and dodging as they approached Filch's feet. Mrs. Norris pounced, batting at them, but the mice scampered away, darting along the wall toward where James was hiding. Mrs. Norris followed, growling. To James' great chagrin, the mice scampered behind the suit of armor and wriggled under the edge of the Invisibility Cloak. Their cold little feet scurried over James' bare toes, then they stopped between his feet, sniffing the air as if sensing a hiding place. James tried to push them out from under the cloak with his toes, but they refused to go.
Mrs. Norris padded down the corridor intently, her whiskers twitching. She hunkered along the front of the suit of armor's base, one paw outstretched, then pounced around it, stopping inches from the edge of the Invisibility Cloak. She looked around, her eyes flashing, sensing the mice were nearby, but not seeing them.
"Don't tell me those dumb animals have bested you, my dear," Filch said, scuffling down the corridor toward them.
James watched Mrs. Norris. She had encountered the Invisibility Cloak before, years earlier. James knew the stories, having been told them by both Aunt Hermione and Uncle Ron. Maybe she remembered the smell of it. Or maybe she was sensing James himself, his heat or scent or the beat of his heart. She raised her eyes, narrowing them, as if she knew he was there and was trying very hard to see him.
"Don't be a sore loser, my dear Mrs. Norris," Filch said, coming closer still. He was almost near enough that if he reached out, he might inadvertently touch James. "If they got away, they'll just tell their rodent friends about you. It's a victory either way you slice it."
Mrs. Norris inched closer. The mice between James' feet were getting nervous. They tried to hide under each other, scooting further back between James' feet. Mrs. Norris raised a paw. To James' horror, she brushed the edge of the Invisibility Cloak with it. She hissed.
The mice, hearing the hiss, panicked. They scampered out from under the cloak, darting right between Mrs. Norris' feet. She jumped at the sight of them, ducking to watch them scurry away into the corridor. Filch laughed raspily.
"They put the spook on you, precious! I'd never have expected it. There they go! After them, now!"
But Mrs. Norris half turned back toward James, her baleful orange eyes narrowed, her slit pupils flared wide. She raised her paw again.
"Go, Mrs. Norris, go!" Filch said, his mood swinging to annoyance. He shoved her with his foot, scooching her away from James and toward the mice, which had disappeared further along the corridor. Filch's foot caught the edge of the cloak, pulling it away from James' feet. He felt cool air on his toes.
Mrs. Norris looked back toward James and hissed again. Filch, however, was too sodden to take heed. "They went that way, you blind old thing. I'd have never guessed a pair of dumb animals would get the jump on you. Let's go, let's go. There're always more near the kitchens." He ambled on into the shadows of the corridor and eventually Mrs. Norris followed, throwing occasional rankled glances back towards James.
When they turned the corner, he exhaled shakily, composed himself, then continued down the corridor, running lightly and feeling extremely lucky.
When he reached the door to the Americans' quarters it was closed and bolted. In the darkness, James could hear the voices of his dad and Franklyn inside, but they were muffled and unintelligible. He was about to give up and head downstairs, thinking he might perhaps find Cedric's ghost again, or even the Muggle intruder, when the voices inside the door grew louder. The bolt socked back and James scrambled out of the way, forgetting for a moment that he was hidden under the cloak. He pressed himself against the wall on the opposite side of the corridor just as the door creaked open. Franklyn emerged first, talking quietly. Harry followed, closing the door with the practiced stealth of any good Auror. "Practice being quiet when you don't need to," Harry had told his son on many occasions, "and you won't need to think about it when you do."
"I find it's safer to move around during a private conversation," Franklyn was saying. "Even our own quarters are subject to eavesdropping by those whose philosophies differ from my own. At least this way no, unwanted ears can hear the entirety of our dialogue."
"Funny thing," Harry said. "I spent so much time sneaking around these halls and corridors when I was a student that even as an adult, it's difficult to avoid the instinct to skulk and sneak, for fear that I might get caught and be given detention."
The two men began to walk slowly, apparently meandering in no particular direction. James followed at a safe distance, taking care not to breathe too heavily or stumble against any of the statues or suits of armor that lined the walls. "Things haven't changed much, you know," Franklyn said. "Now, however, we have worse things than detention to worry about."
"I don't know," Harry said, and James could hear the wry smile in his voice. "I had some pretty horrible detentions."
"Mm," Franklyn murmured noncommittally. "The history of both our schools has involved some unsavory characters and unnecessary ugliness. Your Miss Umbridge, our Professor Magnussen. Your Voldemort, our… well, honestly, we have no one in our history that compares to him. Indeed, he was a terrible threat to all of us while he lived. Our duty is to ensure that such things don't happen again."
"Am I to assume that this meeting, then, is an opportunity to compare notes about such threats? Off the record, so to speak?" Harry asked seriously.
Franklyn sighed. "One can never have too many friends or too many sources, Mr. Potter. I am not an Auror, and I do not have any official authority or policing jurisdiction even in my own country. I am just an old teacher. Old teachers, however, are often underestimated, as you certainly know. Old teachers see quite a lot."
"You have your own version of the Progressive Element at Alma Aleron?"
"Oh, it's beyond that, unfortunately. For most of the students and even the staff, the facts of Voldemort and his Death Eaters are up for conjecture. It's incredible how short a time must pass before a certain kind of mentality feels it is safe to turn history onto its head."
"The Progressive Element here knows they need to be very careful," Harry said in a low voice. "Enough people are still alive who have firsthand memories of Voldemort and his atrocities. Enough people still remember lost family and friends, killed at the hand of his Death Eaters. Still, the lure to challenge the status quo, whatever it may be, is strong in the young. It's natural, but typically short-lived. History will out, as they say."
"History is bunk," Franklyn said disgustedly. "I should know. I lived during quite a bit of it, and I can indeed tell you that sometimes, there is, in fact, a wide gulf between what gets reported and what actually happened."
"I would expect that that is the exception and not the rule," Harry stated.
Franklyn sighed as they turned a corner. "I suppose. The fact is, though, that the exceptions give rabble-rousers like the Progressive Element all the ammunition they need to challenge any historical record they wish. The history of Voldemort and his rise to power, as we know it, doesn't fit their agenda. Thus, they carefully attack it, sowing the seeds of doubt among minds shallow enough to believe the distortions."
"It sounds," Harry said, keeping his voice low and conversational, "like you have a pretty good idea what their agenda is."
"Of course I do, and so do you, Mr. Potter. The agenda hasn't changed for a thousand years, has it?"
"No, it hasn't."
"Harry Potter." Franklyn stopped in the darkness of the corridor, looking at Harry's face. "Even now, a sizeable minority in my country believe that Lord Tom Riddle, as they prefer to call him, has been unfairly demonized by you who defeated him. They prefer to believe that Voldemort was a revolutionary hero, a fresh thinker, whose beliefs were simply too much for the traditional ruling class to tolerate. They think he was destroyed because he threatened to make things better, not worse, but that the wealthy and powerful were resistant even to a change for the good."
James, standing several feet away, hidden under the cloak, could see his dad's jaw clenching as Franklyn spoke. But when Harry responded, his voice remained calm and measured. "You know that these are lies and distortions, I assume."
"Of course I do," Franklyn said, waving a hand dismissively, almost angrily. "But the point is that they are attractive lies to a certain type of person. Those that preach these distortions know how to appeal to the emotions of the populace. They believe the truth is a wire to bend to their will. It is their agenda only that they care for."
Harry remained stoic and unmoving. "And the agenda, you believe, is the domination of the Muggle world?"
Franklyn laughed rather harshly, and James thought of the nasty chuckle the professor had made during dinner, when discussing Madame Delacroix's powers. "Not to hear them tell it. No, they are crafty these days. They claim to be for the exact opposite. Their rallying cry is absolute equality between the Muggle and magical worlds. Full disclosure, the abolition of all laws of secrecy and non-competition. They preach that anything less is unfair to the Muggles, an insult to them."
Harry nodded grimly. "As we are seeing here. Of course, it is a two-edged sword. Prejudice and equality in the same message."
"Certainly," Franklyn agreed, resuming his walk along the corridor. "In America, we are seeing a resurgence of stories about Muggle scientists capturing witches and wizards, torturing them to discover the secret of their magic."
"A throwback to the old Salem witch trials?" Harry asked.
Franklyn laughed, and this time there was no malice in it. "Hardly. Those were the good old days. Sure, witches were put on trial, and loads of them were burned, but as you know, any witch worth her wand wouldn't be hurt by a Muggle bonfire. She'd stand in the flames and yell for a while, just to give the Muggles a good show, then transport herself from the pyre flames to her own fireplace. That was the origin of the Floo Network, of course. No, these days, the stories of witches and wizards being captured and systematically tortured are pure fabrications. That doesn't matter to the faithful, though. The culture of fear and prejudice works side-by-side with their mission of 'equality'. Full disclosure, they claim, will bring peace and freedom. Continuing the program of secrecy, on the other hand, can only lead to more attacks on wizarding society by an increasingly invasive Muggle world."
Harry stopped by a window. "And once they've achieved their goal of total disclosure with the Muggle world?"
"Well, there's only one outcome to that, isn't there?" Franklyn answered.
Harry's face was thoughtful in the moonlight. "Muggles and wizards would descend into competitions and jealousies, just like they did in eons past. The dark wizards would make sure of it. It would start as small challenges and outbursts. Laws would be passed, enforcing equal treatment, but those laws would become the basis for new contentions. Wizards would demand to be placed into Muggle power structures, all in the name of 'equality'. Once there, they'd push for greater control, more power. They'd win over Muggle leaders, using promises and lies where they could, threats and the Imperius Curse where they couldn't. Eventually, order would break down. Finally, inevitably, there would be all-out war." Harry's voice had gone soft, considering. He turned to Franklyn, who stood watching him, his face calm but dreadful. "And that's what they want, isn't it? War with the Muggle world."
"That's what they've always wanted," Franklyn agreed. "The struggle never stops. It just has different chapters."
"Who's involved?" Harry asked simply.
Franklyn sighed again, hugely, and rubbed his eyes. "It's not so simple. It's virtually impossible to tell the instigators from their followers. There are some individuals it would be instructive to watch closely, though."
Franklyn glanced up, studying Harry's face. He nodded. "And Professor Jackson."
James gasped, and then clapped his hand over his mouth. His dad and Professor Franklyn stood very still. James was sure they'd heard him. Then Harry spoke again.
Franklyn shook his head slowly. "Of course. But then you'd just be watching everyone and everything. It's like an infestation of cockroaches in the walls. You can either watch the cracks or burn down the house. Take your pick."
James backed away very carefully, then when he felt safely out of earshot, he turned and retraced his steps back to the Americans' quarters. His heart was pounding so heavily he had been sure that his dad or Professor Franklyn would hear it.
He knew the so-called Progressive Element was no good, but now he knew it must be them that were planning the return of Merlinus Ambrosius, believing he would help them to accomplish their false goal of equality, which would lead inevitably to war. Merlin had said that he would return when the balance between Muggles and wizards was 'ripe for his ministrations'. What else could that mean? He hadn't been surprised that Madame Delacroix might be involved in such a plot. But Professor Jackson? James had come to quite like the professor, despite his crusty exterior. He could hardly imagine that Jackson could be secretly plotting the domination of the Muggle world. Franklyn had to be wrong about him.
James ran lightly past the Americans' quarters, looking for the door to the guest room he and his dad were staying in. With a sudden stab of fear, he remembered that the doorway had vanished when he'd come out. It was a magical room, after all. How was he supposed to get back in? He had to be inside the room, apparently asleep, by the time his dad came back. He stopped in the corridor, not even sure what stretch of wall the doorway had appeared in. He glanced around hopelessly, unable to keep himself from looking for some subtle clue or hint of where the doorway was hidden. What had his dad called it? The 'Room of Requirement'? James had remembered his wand this time. He pulled it out and shook his hand out from under the cloak, revealing it.
"Uh," he began, whispering harshly and pointing his wand at the wall. "Room of Requirement… open?"
Nothing happened, of course. And then James heard a noise. His senses had grown almost painfully sharp as his body shot full of adrenaline. He listened, his eyes wide. Voices. Franklyn and his dad were coming back already. They must have begun their return journey at almost exactly the same time as James, but a little slower. He heard them talking in hushed voices, probably as they stood by the door into Franklyn's rooms. His dad would be returning in mere moments.
James thought furiously. What had his dad done to open the room? He had just stood there, hadn't he, waiting, and then bang, there was the door? No, James recalled, he had spoken first. And paced a bit. James replayed the evening in his memory, trying to remember what his dad had said, but he was too flustered.
Light bloomed at the end of the corridor. Footsteps approached. James looked down the corridor frantically. His dad was approaching, wand lit but held low, his head down. James remembered that he had his own wand held out, his arm outside the cloak. He yanked it in as quickly and silently as he could, arranging the cloak to cover him completely. It was hopeless. His dad would enter the room and see that James wasn't there. Maybe James could follow him in and claim to have been to his rooms to get a book he needed? He had never been any good at lying. Besides, he'd have the cloak with him. He almost groaned out loud.
Harry Potter stopped in the corridor. He held the wand up and looked at the wall. "I need to get into the room my son is sleeping in," he said conversationally. Nothing happened. Harry didn't seem surprised.
"Hmm," he said, apparently to himself. "I wonder why the door won't open. I suppose…," he looked around raising his eyebrows and smiling very slightly, "it's because my son isn't sleeping in the Room of Requirement at all, but is standing here in the corridor with me, under my Invisibility Cloak, trying as hard as he can to remember how in the world to open the door. Right, James?"
James let out his breath and yanked the Invisibility Cloak off. "You knew all along, didn't you?"
"I assumed it when I heard you gasp downstairs. I didn't know for sure until the trick with the door. Come on, let's get inside." Harry Potter chuckled tiredly. He paced three times and spoke the words that opened the Room of Requirement and they went in.
When they were both in their beds, James in the top bunk, staring up at the dark ceiling, Harry spoke.
"You don't have to follow in my footsteps, James. I hope you know that."
James worked his jaw, not ready to respond to that. He listened and waited.
"You were down there tonight, so you heard Professor Franklyn," Harry finally said. "There's one part of what he said that I want you to remember. There are always plots and revolutions in the works. The battle is always the same, just with different chapters. It isn't your job to save the world, son. Even if you do, it'll just go and get itself into danger again, and again, and again. It's the nature of things."
Harry paused and James heard him laugh quietly. "I know how it feels. I remember the great weight of responsibility and the heady thrill of believing I was the only one to stop the evil, to win the war, to battle for the ultimate good. But James, even then, that wasn't my duty alone. It was everyone's fight. Everyone's sacrifice. And there were those whose sacrifice was far greater than my own. It isn't one man's duty to save the world. And it certainly isn't the duty of one boy who can't even figure out how to open the Room of Requirement yet."
James heard movement from the bunk below. His dad stood, his head rising to look at James in the top bunk. In the darkness, James couldn't make out his expression, but he knew it nonetheless. His dad was smiling his crooked, knowing smile. His dad knew it all. His dad was Harry Potter.
"What do you think, son?"
James took a deep breath. He wanted to tell his dad about everything he'd seen and heard. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell him about the Muggle intruder, and Cedric Diggory's ghost, and the secret of Austramaddux, the plot to return Merlin and use him to start a final war with the Muggles. But in the end, he decided not to. He smiled at his dad.
"I know, Dad. Don't worry about me. If I decide to save the world single-handedly, I'll send you and Mum a note first. OK?"
Harry smirked and shook his head, not really buying it, but knowing there was no point in pressing the point. He climbed back into the bottom bunk.
Five minutes later, James spoke up in the dark. "Hey, Dad, any chance you might let me keep the Invisibility Cloak with me for the school year?"
"None at all, my boy. None at all," Harry said sleepily. James heard him roll over. A few minutes later, both slept.
When James and Harry Potter entered the Great Hall the next morning, James sensed the mood of the room change. He was used to the reaction that the wizarding community showed whenever he was out with his dad, but this was different. Rather than turning to look at them, James sensed people looking pointedly in the other direction. Conversations quieted. There was the strange sensation of people glancing at them sideways or turning to watch once James and Harry had passed them. James felt a surge of anger. Who were these people? Most of them were good witches and wizards, from hardworking parents who had always been supportive of Harry Potter, first as the Boy Who Lived, then as the young man who helped bring about the downfall of Voldemort, and finally as the man who was Head Auror. Now, just because some rabble-rousers had painted a few signs and spread around a few stupid rumors, they were afraid to look directly at him.
Even as James thought that, however, he saw that he was wrong. As Harry and James sat down at the end of the Gryffindor table (James had pleaded with his dad not to make him sit up at the teachers' table on the dais), there were a few grins and hearty greetings. Ted saw Harry, whooped, and ran down the length of table, giving Harry a complicated handshake that involved a lot of banging fists, hand grips and finally, an embrace that was one part hug and one part body slam.
Harry collapsed onto the bench, laughing. "Ted, you're going to knock yourself clean out one of these times."
"My godfather, everybody," Ted said, as if introducing Harry to the room at large. "Have you met Noah yet, Harry? He's a Gremlin, like me and Petra."
Harry shook Noah's hand. "I think we met last year at the Quidditch championship, yes?"
"Sure," Noah said. "That was the game where Ted scored the winning point for the opposing team. How could I forget?"
"Technically, it was an assist," Ted said primly. "I happened to wallop their team's Quaffle carrier through the goal on accident. I was aiming for the press box."
"Hate to interrupt, but do you guys mind if James and I get a little breakfast?" Harry asked, gesturing toward the table.
"Have at it," Ted replied magnanimously. "And if any of these malcontents give you any trouble, just let me know. It's Quidditch tonight, and we hold grudges." He eyed the room grimly, then grinned and sauntered away.
"I'd tell him not to sweat it, but that'd be taking away his fun, wouldn't it?" Harry said, watching Ted depart. James grinned. They both began to fill their plates from the steaming platters along the table. As they began to eat, James was pleased to see Ralph and Zane enter. He waved them over enthusiastically.
"Hey, Dad, here're my friends, Zane and Ralph," James said as they piled onto the benches, one on either side. "Zane's the blond one, Ralph's the brick house."
"Pleased to meet you, Zane, Ralph," Harry said. "James tells me good things about both of you."
"I've read about you," Ralph said, staring at Harry. "Did you really do all that stuff?"
Harry laughed. "Straight shooter, isn't he?" he said, raising an eyebrow at James. "The major points, yes, those are probably true. Although if you'd've been there, it would have seemed a lot less heroic at the time. Mostly, me and my friends were just trying to keep ourselves from getting blasted, eaten, or cursed."
Zane seemed uncharacteristically quiet. "Hey, what's the deal?" James said, nudging him. "You're a little too new to all this to have an idol complex about the Great Harry Potter."
Zane grimaced, and then pulled a copy of the Daily Prophet from his backpack. "This stinks," he said, sighing and flopping the paper open onto the table, "but you're gonna see it sooner or later."
James leaned over and glanced at it. 'Hogwarts Anti-Auror Demonstration Overshadows International Summit', the main headline read. Below it, in smaller type: 'Potter Visit Sets Off School-wide Protest as Magical Community Re-evaluates Auror Policies'. James felt his cheeks flush red with anger. Before he could respond, however, his dad placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Hmm," Harry said mildly. "That's got Rita Skeeter's name all over it."
Zane frowned at Harry, then glanced at the paper again. "You can tell who wrote it just by the headline?"
"No," Harry laughed, dismissing the newspaper and digging into a slice of French toast. "Her name's on the byline. Still, yeah, that is pretty much her typical brand of tripe. It hardly matters. The world will forget it by this time next week."
James was reading the first paragraph, his brow furrowed furiously. "She says that most of the school was there, protesting and shouting. That's complete rubbish! I saw it, and if there were more than a hundred people there, I'll kiss a Blast-Ended Skrewt! Besides, most of them were just there to see what was going on! There were only fifteen or twenty people with the signs and the slogans!"
Harry sighed. "It's just a story, James. It isn't supposed to be accurate, it's supposed to sell papers."
"But how can you let them say things like this? It's dangerous! Professor Franklyn--"
The look Harry gave him stopped him from going any further. After a second, Harry's expression softened. "I know what you are worried about, James, and I don't blame you. But there are ways of handling these things, and one of those ways isn't arguing with people like Rita Skeeter."
"You sound like McGonagall," James said, dropping his eyes and jabbing at a chunk of sausage.
"I should," Harry replied quickly. "She taught me. And I think it's Headmistress McGonagall to you."
James poked at his plate sullenly for a moment. Then, not wanting to look at it anymore, he folded the newspaper roughly and stuck it out of sight.
"First Quidditch of the season tonight, then, right?" Harry asked, waving his fork at the three boys in general.
"Ravenclaw versus Gryffindor!" Zane announced. "My first game! I can hardly wait."
James looked up and saw his dad grinning at Zane. "You made the Ravenclaw team, then! That's very cool. If I can finish early enough, I plan on coming to the match. I look forward to seeing you fly. What position will you play?"
"Beater," Zane said, pretending to swat a Bludger with his fork.
"He's pretty good, Mr. Potter," Ralph said earnestly. "I saw him fly his first time. He just about made a crater in the middle of the pitch, but he pulled up at the last second."
"That takes some serious control," Harry acknowledged, studying Zane. "You've had broom lessons?"
"Not a one!" Ralph cried, as if he were Zane's public relations agent. "That's the amazing bit, isn't it?"
James looked at Ralph, his face grim, trying to catch his eye and warn him off the topic, but it was already too late.
"He probably wouldn't have figured it out at all," Ralph said, "if he hadn't taken off after James when he did the big outta-control-like-a-bottle-rocket-rumba." Ralph squirmed on the bench, mimicking James' inaugural broom flight.
"But you'll be supporting the Gryffindors, of course!" Zane interrupted suddenly, planting his palm on Ralph's forehead and pushing him backwards.
Harry glanced around the table, chewing a chunk of toast, a quizzical look on his face. "Er, well, yes. Of course," he admitted, still looking from boy to boy.
"Yeah, well, that's cool. I understand completely," Zane said quickly, waggling his eyebrows at Ralph who was sitting there looking nonplussed. "Be true to your school and all that. Whoo. Look at the time. Come on, Ralphinator. Classes to get to."
"I have a free period first," Ralph protested. "And I haven't had any breakfast yet."
"Let's go, ya lunkhead!" Zane insisted, coming around the table and hooking Ralph's elbow. Zane could barely move Ralph, but Ralph allowed himself to be tugged along.
"What?" Ralph said loudly, frowning at the meaningful look Zane was giving him. "What'd I do? Did I say something I wasn't--" He stopped. His eyebrows shot up and he turned back to James, looking mortified. "Oh. Ah," he said as Zane pulled him toward the door. As they rounded the corner, James heard Ralph say, "I'm just a big idiot, aren't I?"
James sighed. "So yeah, I stink at Quidditch. I'm sorry."
Harry studied his son. "Pretty bad, was it?"
James nodded. "I know," he said. "It's no big deal. It's just Quidditch. There's always next year. I don't have to do it just because you did it. I know, I know. You don't have to say it."
Harry continued to stare at James, his jaw moving slightly, as if he was thinking. Finally he sat back and picked up his pumpkin juice. "Well, that's a load off my chest, then. Sounds like you've done my job for me."
James looked up at his dad. Harry looked back at him as he took a very long, slow drink from his glass. He seemed to be smiling, and hiding his smile behind the glass. James tried not to laugh. This is serious, he told himself. This isn't funny. This is Quidditch. On that thought, his composure cracked slightly. He smiled, and then tried to cover it with his hand, which only made it worse.
Harry lowered his glass and grinned, shaking his head slowly. "You've really been worried about this, haven't you, James?"
James' smile faltered again. He swallowed. "Yeah, Dad. Of course I have. I mean, it's Quidditch. It's your sport, and Granddad's, too. I'm James Potter. I'm supposed to be excellent on a broom. Not a danger to myself and everybody around me."
Harry leaned forward, putting his glass down and looking James in the eye. "And you may still be great on the broom, James. Merlin's beard, son, it's your first week and you've not even had your first broom lesson, have you? Back when I started here, we wouldn't have even been allowed to get on a practice broom without lessons, much less try out for the House teams."
"But even if you had," James interrupted, "you'd have been excellent at it."
"That's not the point son. You are so worried about living up to the myth of who I was supposed to be that you aren't giving yourself a chance to be even better. You're defeating yourself before you even start. Don't you see that? No one can compete with a legend. Even I wish I was half the wizard the stories make me out to be. Every day, I look in the mirror and tell myself not to try so hard to be the Famous Harry Potter, but just to relax and let myself be your dad, and your mum's husband, and the best Auror I can be, which sometimes doesn't seem to be all that great, to tell you the truth. You have to stop thinking of yourself as the son of Harry Potter…" Harry paused, seeing that James had really heard him, perhaps for the first time. He smiled a little again. "And give me the chance to think of myself simply as James Potter's dad instead. Because of all the things I've done in my life, raising you, Albus, and Lily, are the three things I am proudest of. Got it?"
James smiled again, crookedly. He didn't know it, but it was the same crooked smile he so often saw on his dad's face. "All right, Dad. I'll try that. But it's hard."
Harry nodded understandingly and sat back. After a moment, he said, "Am I always that predictable?"
James broke into a knowing grin. "Sure, Dad. You and Mum both. 'You aren't going outside wearing that, are you?'" Harry laughed out loud at James' impression of Ginny. James went on. "'It's cold in here, put on a sweater! Don't say that word in front of your grandmum! Stop playing with the garden gnomes or you'll get green thumbs!'"
Harry was still laughing and wiping his eyes as they said goodbye, promising to meet that evening at the Quidditch match.
7. Broken Loyalty
James' first class, ironically, was Basic Broom. The teacher was a giant slab of a man named Cabriel Ridcully. He wore a fawn-colored sport cloak over his Quidditch official's tunic, which displayed his enormous forearms and calves.
"Good morning, first years!" he boomed, and James guessed that Cabe Ridcully was one of the world's great morning people. "Welcome to Basic Broom. Most of you know me already, having seen me at the Quidditch matches and tournaments and whatnot. We'll be spending this year getting familiar with the fundamentals of flight. I believe in a very hands-on approach, so we'll all be jumping right into essential broom-handling and control. Everyone approach your brooms, please."
James had been dreading getting back onto a broom again, but as the class progressed, he found that, with proper guidance, he was able to manage getting his broom to levitate and support him, and even control its altitude and speed in very small formations. He realized that there were subtle variations in how the broom responded, based on speed and inclination. If the broom was merely hovering, leaning forward on the broomstick pressed it forwards, while pulling up drove it backwards. Once the broom was moving, however, those same controls began to also manage height. The faster the broom was moving, the more James' posture controlled altitude instead of speed. Finding the fine difference between a speed-lean and an altitude-lean was dependent entirely on the velocity of the broomstick at any given time. James sensed that the slightest panic would cause him to lose even the tiny degree of control he had already learned, and he began to understand why he'd been so dreadful during the Quidditch tryouts.
As pleased as James was at his own tentative control of the broomstick, he still felt a shudder of jealousy when he saw Zane managing his broom through elaborate, effortless swoops and banks.
"Let's avoid showboating, Mr. Walker," Ridcully called reproachfully, and James couldn't help feeling a petty surge of gratification. "Save it for the match tonight, why don't you?"
Ralph's entire body was tensed as he struggled to stay atop his broom. He'd gotten it to float about four feet off the ground and seemed to be stuck there. "How do I get it to swoop like that?" he asked, watching Zane.
James shook his head. "I'd just worry about staying right-side up if I was you, Ralph."
The rest of the morning's classes were far less interesting, with Basic Spellwork and Ancient Runes. At lunch, James explained to Ralph and Zane the happenings of the night before. He told them about Franklyn's Daylight Savings Device, and the dinner conversation involving Madame Delacroix's voodoo powers. Finally, he explained the conversation he had heard between his dad and Professor Franklyn, and how it fit in with the Austramaddux story about Merlin's predicted return.
"So," Zane said, narrowing his eyes and staring thoughtfully at the wall behind James' head, "I am to understand that your dad has a cloak… that makes anyone who wears it invisible."
James moaned, exasperated. "Yes! That's hardly the point, though, is it?"
"Speak for yourself. I mean, forget x-ray specs. Just think what a guy could do with an Invisibility Cloak. Is it steam-resistant, do you think?"
James rolled his eyes. "I don't think that the wizard who spent his lifetime creating the world's most perfect invisible garment did it to sneak into the girls' showers."
"But you don't know that, do you?" Zane said, undeterred.
Ralph chewed slowly, thinking. "So Franklyn told your dad that there were wizards in the States who were pushing for the same thing as the Progressive Element? Muggle and wizard equality and all that?"
James nodded. "Yeah, but it's all just a sham, isn't it? I mean, since when have Slytherins really wanted anything nice for the Muggle world? All the old pureblood Slytherin houses have always been for going public, but just so they can take over the Muggle world and rule it. They think Muggles are an inferior species, not equals."
Ralph looked oddly troubled. "Well, maybe. I don't know. Most of the people out in the courtyard the other day weren't even Slytherins, though. Did you notice that?"
James hadn't, actually. "Doesn't really matter. It was the Slytherins that got the whole thing started, with the Progressive Element slogans and badges and stuff. You said so yourself, Ralph. Tabitha Corsica was handing the badges out to all the Slytherins. She's behind the whole thing."
"I don't think she's in on it like you think she is," Ralph said, "with this whole bringing-Merlin- back-from-the-dead plot and all that. She just thinks we should be fair to everybody, Muggle and wizard alike. She's not trying to start a war or anything stupid. I mean, really, it doesn't seem fair that we shouldn't be able to work in the Muggle world, does it? Or compete in Muggle games and sports? Just because we have magic on our side, doesn't make us outcasts."
"You sound just like one of them," James said angrily.
"Well?" Ralph said suddenly, his face going red. "I am one of them, if you haven't noticed. And I don't appreciate the way you're talking about my house. Things are a lot different now than they were when your dad went here. If you're so worried about truth and history, you should be all for debate on the subject. Maybe Tabitha's right about you."
James sat back, his mouth dropping open.
Ralph lowered his eyes. "She wants me to be in the first school debate with Team A. I assume you know the topic. They're calling it 'Re-evaluating the Assumptions of the Past: Truth or Conspiracy'?"
"And you're going to be on the team, then? You're going to argue that my dad and his chums made the whole Voldemort story up just to scare people into keeping the wizarding world a secret?"
Ralph looked miserable. "Nobody believes your dad made it up, but…" He didn't seem to know how to finish the sentence.
"Well!" James cried, throwing up his hands. "Great argument, then! I'm speechless! Tabitha sure has a great partner in you, hasn't she?"
"But maybe your dad wasn't on the right side after all!" Ralph said hotly. "Has that ever occurred to you? I mean, sure, people got killed. It was a war. But why is it that when your side killed people, it was a triumph of good, but when their side killed, it was an evil atrocity? The victors write the history books, you know. Maybe the truth of the whole affair has been skewed. How would you know? You weren't even born yet."
James threw his fork down onto the table. "I know my dad!" he shouted. "He didn't kill anyone! He was on the right side, because my dad is a good man! Voldemort was a bloodthirsty monster who just wanted power and was willing to kill anyone who got in his way, even his friends! You might want to remember that, since you seem to be choosing to side with people like him!"
Ralph stared at James and swallowed. James knew, in some small, distant part of his mind, that he was overreacting. Ralph was Muggle-born: everything he knew about Voldemort and Harry Potter, he'd only read in the last two weeks. Besides, Ralph was being fed all this by his housemates, who he was desperate to get along with. Still, James was furious to the point of wanting to hit him, mostly because he didn't dare hit any of the Slytherins who were directly responsible for the malicious, self-serving lies about his dad. James broke eye contact first. He heard Ralph gather his books and backpack.
"Well," Zane said tentatively, "I was going to see if you two wanted to meet after the match tonight for Butterbeers with the Gremlins, but maybe I'll just take a rain check, eh?"
Neither Ralph nor James spoke. After a moment, Ralph walked away.
"You were pretty horrible to him, you know," Zane said evenly.
"Me?" James exclaimed.
"Before you defend yourself," Zane said, raising a hand in a conciliatory gesture, "just let me say, you're right. Of course, it's all a load of crap. But it's Ralph. He's just trying to get along. You know?"
"No," James said flatly, "not when 'getting along' means talking up a bunch of lies about my dad."
"He doesn't know they're lies," Zane said reasonably. "He's just a guy hearing all this for the first time. He wants to believe you, but he also wants to fit in with his house. Too bad for him they're all a bunch of wacked-out, power-crazed lunatics."
James felt slightly mollified. He knew Zane was right, but he still couldn't quite regret his outburst against Ralph. "So? You're just a new guy hearing all this for the first time, too. Why aren't you running off to join the Progressive Element and chant slogans?"
"Because lucky for you," Zane said, throwing an arm around James' neck, "I got sorted into Ravenclaw, and they all hated Old Voldy just as much as you Gryffindors. Besides," he looked slightly wistful, "I happen to think Petra Morganstern is, on the whole, just a little bit hotter than Tabitha Corsica."
James elbowed Zane away from him, groaning.
They both went to the library for study period. Knossus Shert, the Ancient Runes professor, was monitoring the period, his thick glasses and long, skinny limbs in green robes making him look rather like a praying mantis seated behind the library head desk.
Zane was copying Arithmancy theorems, frowning as he worked them out. James, not wanting to disturb him, but equally disinterested in embarking on his own homework, pulled the morning's copy of the Daily Prophet out of his backpack, where he'd stuffed it at breakfast. He glanced at the lead articles again, pressing his lips together in disgust. Near the bottom of the front page, James was annoyed to see a picture of Tabitha Corsica. She looked like she always did: reasonable, thoughtful, and polite. 'Hogwarts Prefect Discusses Progressives Movement on Campus', the headline next to her picture read. Knowing he shouldn't read it, James glanced at a random couple of lines in the middle of the article.
"Of course, my house doesn't believe in disturbing the harmony of the school for these discussions, but we respect the members of other houses as they voice their concerns," Miss Corsica explained, her eyes full of regret for the disruptions of the day, but obviously recognizing the validity of her fellow students' motivations. "Despite the Headmistress' reluctance to be clear about the debate schedule, I am confident that we will be allowed to forge ahead with our plan to foster a discussion about Auror practices and policies, and the assumptions those are based on, in an open and free-ranging debate format."
Miss Corsica, a fifth-year Slytherin, is also captain of her Quidditch team. "I had my broomstick fashioned by Muggle artisans," she explains shyly. "They had no idea of the magical properties of the wood, and of course, I had it registered by the school as a Muggle artifact. But still, I just thought it would be nice to experience something handmade by our Muggle friends. It also happens to be one of the fastest brooms on the pitch," she adds, biting her lip modestly, "but I credit that to the hands that made it, as much as to the spells that infuse the wood."
James picked up the paper and flipped it over angrily, slapping it onto the table and earning a loud hush from Professor Shert.
He stared unseeingly at the back of the paper. How could anyone believe such obviously contrived drivel? Tabitha Corsica and her special-order Muggle-made broom were just the icing on the cake, and she knew it. When James had seen her in the courtyard, Tabitha had been giving her interview with Rita Skeeter. James remembered the breathless eagerness on Skeeter's face as her quill danced across the parchment. Stupid, gullible woman, James thought. Still, apparently she was just being true to herself and her readership. James had been told about his dad's first encounters with Skeeter, back during the Triwizard Tournament. Aunt Hermione had caught on to the secret that Rita Skeeter was an unregistered Animagus, her animal form being that of a beetle. Eventually, Hermione had captured Skeeter in her beetle form, preventing her, for a time, from continuing her assault on the truth via her articles in the Daily Prophet. This morning, however, Harry had told James that the way to fight for the truth was not to argue with people like Rita Skeeter. Frankly, James preferred Aunt Hermione's methods to those his dad claimed to espouse these days.
As he ruminated on this, James' eye roamed unseeingly over the headlines and pictures on the back of the paper. Suddenly, however, one headline caught his attention. He leaned over it, his brow furrowing.
Ministry Break-in Remains a Mystery
LONDON: Last week's burglary of the Ministry of Magic Headquarters leaves Aurors and officials alike baffled, as questions still surface about the burglars' motives and the possibility of inside accomplices. As reported by this news organ early last week, three individuals of questionable backgrounds were arrested on the morning of Monday, August 31st, related to a break-in and ransacking of several departments of the Ministry of Magic. The three alleged burglars, two humans and a goblin, were found during a search of the surrounding area hours after the break-in was discovered.
Upon the realization that the individuals had fallen under the Langlock jinx, rendering them incapable of responding to interrogation, all three were sent under guard to St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. A search of the ransacked departments, which included the Department of International Magical Cooperation, the Currency Conversion Office, and the Department of Mysteries, however, revealed no apparently missing objects or moneys. The criminal charges were subsequently reduced to destruction of property and trespassing, and the story, while curious, was dismissed until late last week, when it became known that no amount of counter-curses or jinxes were having any effect on the Langlocked accused.
"These are remarkably powerful curses, involving a not insubstantial degree of dark magic charm work," said Dr. Horatio Flack, head of the counter-jinx facility at St. Mungo's. "If we are unable to release the curse on these men by this weekend, I am afraid the spells may become permanent."
As it turns out, one of the accused, identified to this reporter as the goblin, a Mr. Fikklis Bistle of Sussex, did begin to respond to the counter-jinxes over the course of the weekend. "He was making sounds and grunts, getting rather close to actual words," reported one of his nurses, who asked to remain anonymous. Shortly after dawn this morning, however, Mr. Bistle was found dead in his room, apparently the victim of a mislabeled medication. This has sparked a wide range of speculation, resulting in a renewed investigation into the break-in.
Quorina Greene, lead investigator for the case, was quoted as saying, "We are now primarily concerned with ascertaining how, exactly, these three individuals were able to gain entry into Ministry offices. These are small-time crooks, none having ever attempted something of this magnitude in the past. We cannot rule out the likelihood of outside help, or even a Ministry insider. The death of Mr. Bistle, however, while suspicious, is still being ruled as an accident. We can only be thankful," Ms. Greene added, "that the thieves apparently failed in their efforts, seeing that nothing has apparently gone missing."
"Come on," Zane whispered, startling James out of his reading. "I'm gonna sneak out early so I can get in some practice time on the broom. Want to come along? I could use a Potter for good luck."
James decided it would be good to swallow his pride and tag along with Zane. He even thought he might spend a little practice time on a broom himself. He folded the newspaper again and stuffed it into his backpack.
"Think you can show me how to do that hard stop and spin I saw you pulling in Basic Broom class today?" James asked Zane as they pounded up the stairs to change out of their robes.
"Sure, mate," Zane agreed confidently. "Just don't show it to Ralph until he can keep his broom under him while he's floating still."
James felt an ugly pang at the mention of Ralph's name, but he pushed it away. Minutes later, changed into jeans and tee shirts, the two of them ran exuberantly out into the sunlight of the afternoon, heading toward the Quidditch pitch.
James spent the afternoon on the pitch with Zane, practicing his broom-handling a little, but mostly just watching the Ravenclaw and Gryffindor teams assemble and run drills. When Zane joined his team to grab some quick dinner and get into their gear, James accompanied Ted and the Gryffindors back to the common room as they changed and headed down to dinner themselves. The atmosphere before the first match of the season was always charged with excitement. The Great Hall was raucous with good-natured teasing, shouts and impromptu outbursts of House anthems. During dessert, Noah, Ted, Petra, and Sabrina, all dressed in their Quidditch jerseys, lined up along the front of the Gryffindor table, arms linked and grinning like they were about to perform a show tune. In unison, they stomped their feet on the stone floor, garnering the room's attention, then launched into a roughly choreographed but enthusiastic Irish jig, singing a tune Damien had written for them earlier that day:
Ohhh, we Gryffindors like to make jokes and have fun,
But the Quidditch pitch with us will be overrun,
And we hope that the Ravenclaws know that they're done,
When the lion team drops down on them like a ton.
Ohhh, the game can be tough and the body checks harsh,
And you might find your Seeker's been tossed in the marsh,
But we Gryffindors with our goodwill are not sparse,
So we'll warn you before we kick you in the—
The last words were drowned out by the mingled roars and cheers of the Gryffindors and the boos and catcalls of the Ravenclaws. The Gremlins bowed deeply, grinning, obviously pleased with themselves, and then joined their teammates as they ran out to the Quidditch pitch for final preparations.
The first and last matches of the Quidditch season, as James knew, were always the best attended. At the end of the year, during final tournaments, everyone knew that, whichever teams were playing, they'd be exciting matches. At the beginning of the year, though, people were excited and hopeful for their own House teams. Most matches saw the grandstands filled with students and teachers, decked out in their team colors and waving flags and banners. As James entered the pitch, he was delighted to see and hear the enthusiastic crowd. Students milled and shouted to each other as they filed into their seats. The teachers mostly sat at the tops of the sections dedicated to their houses. As James climbed the stairs into the Gryffindor section, he saw his dad seated near the press box, flanked by the Ministry officials on his right and the Alma Aleron delegation on his left. Harry saw James and waved him up, smiling broadly. As James reached him, Harry orchestrated a complicated rearrangement of the seating that, while only freeing a single seat for James, required nearly everyone in the group to move. James mumbled apologies, but didn't really mind seeing the look of annoyance on Ms. Sacarhina's face, masked thinly by her omnipresent plastic smile.
"As I was saying, yes, we do have Quidditch in the States," Professor Franklyn said to Harry, his voice carrying over the dull roar of the assembling crowd, "but for some reason, it isn't quite as popular as sports like swivenhodge, grungeball or broomstick gauntlet. Our World Cup team shows some promise this year, though, or so I am told. I tend to remain skeptical."
James glanced around at the Americans, curious to see who was in attendance and what they seemed to think of the match so far. Madame Delacroix was seated on the end of the row, her face expressionless and her hands folded tightly on her lap so that they looked unpleasantly like a ball of brown knuckles. Professor Jackson glanced at James and nodded in greeting. James saw that his black leather case, with its inexplicable cargo, was sitting between his feet, securely closed this time. Professor Franklyn was dressed in what passed for his dress robes, with a high white collar and a frilly ascot at his throat, and his square spectacles which caught the light cheerfully as he looked around the grandstands.
"Where's Ralph?" Harry asked James. "I thought I'd see him with you tonight."
James shrugged noncommittally, avoiding his dad's eyes.
"Ah! Here we are," Franklyn announced, sitting up and craning to watch.
The Gryffindor team streaked out of the broad doorway at the base of their grandstand, their red cloaks snapping behind each flyer like a flag.
"The Gryffindor squadron, led by Captain Justin Kennely, is first to take the pitch," Damien Damascus' voice rang out stoutly from the press box.
The team pulled into a corkscrew formation that tightened as it rose, and then yanked their brooms to a halt as the players formed a large letter 'G' right in front of the Gryffindor section of the grandstands. Then the shape dissolved as the players broke formation, dodging around one another in a dizzying bout of aerial acrobatics, and reformed into the letter 'P'. All the players sat up straight on their brooms, faced Harry and James, and saluted, grinning broadly. The Gryffindor grandstand applauded wildly, deafeningly, and James saw dozens of smiling and shouting faces turning to view Harry's reaction. He waved and nodded curtly, half standing to receive the accolade.
"You'd think the Queen was in attendance," James heard Harry mutter as he sat back down.
"And now, here come the Ravenclaws," Damien called, his voice echoing around the pitch. "Headed by Captain Gennifer Tellus, fresh from last year's tournament victory."
The Ravenclaw team burst from the opposite side of the grandstand like fireworks, each flyer pulling off into a different direction, weaving through each other and tossing a Quaffle from player to player with speed that defied the eye. After several seconds of spiraling wildly and apparently randomly around the grandstands, the Ravenclaws streaked simultaneously into the center of the pitch, pulled to a sudden stop, then spun on their broomsticks to face the crowd in all directions. Each player raised their right arm, and Gennifer, in the center, held the Quaffle over her head. There was wild cheering from the Ravenclaw grandstand, and cheers of appreciation and respect from the rest.
Finally, Gennifer and Justin flew into position in the center of the pitch, nodding greetings as the teams took up formation behind their captains. Beneath them, standing in the center-mark of the pitch in his official's tunic, Cabriel Ridcully held the Quaffle under his arm, his foot resting on the Quidditch trunk.
"I want to see a clean match," he called up to the players. "Captains, ready? Players in formation? Annnnd…" He hefted the Quaffle in his massive palm, arm outstretched. "Quaffle in play!"
Ridcully heaved the Quaffle straight up and simultaneously lifted his foot from the Quidditch trunk. The trunk sprang open, releasing the two Bludgers and the Snitch. All four balls shot upwards, merging with the players as they exploded into motion. The grandstands erupted into cheers and wild shouting.
James remembered to look for Zane among the Ravenclaws. His blond hair wasn't hard to find against the royal blue of his cloak. He spun through a knot of players, executing a surprisingly tight barrel roll, then leaned precariously and backhanded a Bludger as it banked around the group. The Bludger missed its target, but only because Noah ducked and rolled aside at just the right moment. The crowd roared in mingled delight and disappointment.
The heat of the summer evening was unusually fierce. The lowering sun beat down on players and spectators alike. On the ground, both teams had marked out team cool down areas, one at each end of the pitch. Each area held a dozen large buckets filled with water. Occasionally, a flyer would perform a wand signal, alerting the team's cool down crew. One member of the crew would use his wand to levitate the water out of one of the buckets, so that it floated thirty feet over the pitch like a solid, wobbling bubble. Then, just as the flyer swooped into position, another crew member would point his wand at the levitating ball of water, exploding it into a cloud of droplets just as the player flew through it. The crowd laughed delightedly every time a player emerged from the rainbow-laden mist, shaking water from their hair and joining the fray again, happily refreshed.
Gryffindor took the lead early on, but Ravenclaw began a steady comeback that stretched into the evening. The sun was setting by the time Ravenclaw overtook Gryffindor, and the match took on that feverish, hectic tone that only very close games can sustain. James watched the Seekers, trying to get a glimpse of the elusive Snitch, but he couldn't see any sign of the tiny golden ball. Then, just as he looked away, there was a flash of setting sunlight on something over the Hufflepuff grandstand. James squinted, and there it was, flitting in and out of the banner poles. The Ravenclaw team's Seeker had already seen it. James shouted to Noah, the Gryffindor Seeker, jumping to his feet and pointing. Noah spun around on his broom, looking wildly. He saw the Snitch just as it angled down, directly into the melee of circling flyers and careening Bludgers.
The Ravenclaw Seeker lunged as the Snitch streaked past him. He almost fell off his broom, turned the fall into a diving loop, and doubled back toward the match. Ted, one of Gryffindor's Beaters, aimed a Bludger at Ravenclaw's Seeker, making the boy duck and weave, but not deterring him from his course. Noah was approaching from the other side of the field, ducking and banking wildly through the other flyers. The rest of the crowd caught on to what was happening. As one, the spectators leaped to their feet, shouting and cheering. And then, just at the very height of the action, James saw something else that completely distracted him from the match for the first time since it had begun.
The Muggle intruder was down on the field, standing just to the side of the Ravenclaw cool down area. James could hardly believe he was seeing it, but the man was simply standing, wearing a cast-off cloak from one of the cool down crew, staring up into the match with an expression of total awe and bewilderment. He was holding something to his eye, and James recognized vaguely that it was some sort of handheld Muggle camera. He was filming the match! James tore his gaze away from the intruder and looked up at his dad, who stood next to him, shouting happily at the end-of-game brawl. James yanked Harry's robes and yelled up at him.
"Dad! Dad, there's someone down there!" He pointed wildly, trying to indicate the Quidditch pitch through the throng of standing, waving spectators.
Harry looked at James, still smiling, trying to hear. "What?" he yelled, leaning toward James.
"Down there!" James shouted, still pointing. "He's not supposed to be here! He's a Muggle! I've seen him here before!"
Harry's face changed instantly. The smile snapped shut. Harry stood up to his full height and scanned the field. James glanced back down as well, searching for the Muggle intruder. He was sure he'd be gone and that James would be left looking like a fool, but the man was still there, staring up into the melee above. He had lowered his camera, James saw. It dangled from his right hand. James looked closer and saw that the man had bandages on his upper arm, and smaller bandages taped to two places on his face. He had gotten hurt crashing through the stained-glass window, but apparently not hurt enough to avoid coming back.
Harry was pushing past the American delegation, excusing himself politely but firmly, heading toward the stairs. James followed, trotting to keep up. Together, they traversed the stairs two by two, heading down to field level. James recognized that his dad was in full Auror mode now, not thinking, really, but letting instinct take over. There was no sense of panic or worry or anger, just businesslike purpose and unstoppability. Harry reached the field with James right behind him just as the game ended. There was a thunderous ovation and suddenly people were running onto the field. The cool down crews came out to collect the empty buckets. The teams began to come in for landings, dropping to the pitch like dandelion seeds. Cabe Ridcully strode across the center line, using his wand to summon the game balls. Undeterred, Harry walked purposefully toward the end of the field where he and James had seen the strange man, but now that they were on the pitch, they couldn't see him anymore. There were too many people moving about, too much noise and confusion. James knew that there were a hundred ways the man could already have slunk away, disappearing into the spreading shadows of the hills and woods beyond the pitch.
Harry didn't stop moving until he stood on the spot they'd seen the man standing. He turned slowly, taking in the sights from what would have been the man's perspective.
"There," he pointed. James looked and saw that his dad was pointing at the base of one of the grandstands, at the doorway leading into the Ravenclaws' holding pen. "Or there. Or there," Harry said, talking partly to James and partly to himself, indicating first the path that ran between the Hufflepuff and Slytherin grandstands and then pointing at the equipment shed. "He probably wouldn't choose the shed, since he'd know there was no back way out. At best, it's a hiding place, and he'd be looking to get away, not hide. The grandstand exit would just take him farther in. No, he'd choose the path, then. It's only been two minutes. James?"
James looked up at his dad, eyes wide. "Yeah?"
"Tell the Headmistress what we saw and have Titus meet me at the entrance to that path in five minutes. Don't run. We don't know what this is about and we don't need to cause any concern yet. Just walk fast and tell them what I said. OK?"
James nodded briskly, and then turned back the way he and his dad had come, reminding himself not to run. As he climbed the steps, pressing through the departing crowd, not even knowing yet who'd won the match, he realized how utterly gratified he was that his dad had believed him. In some small part of his mind, James had been worried that his dad would doubt him, perhaps even dismiss his concerns. But James had counted on the hope that his dad knew him better than that, that his dad would trust him. Harry had done just that, descending to the field to investigate the strange man without any question or hesitation. Of course, that was how Aurors worked. Investigate first, then ask questions if any are required. Still, James was extremely glad that his dad had trusted him enough to go after the man based solely on James' word.
Despite his relief at his dad's response, however, James was sorely disappointed that the man had gotten away so easily. Somehow, he knew that Harry and Titus would not find any sign of the man or any clue of where he'd gone. Then, James would be right back where he'd started, with nothing but the glimpse of an unknown person on the Quidditch pitch to back up his story.
Thinking that, he finally caught up to Titus Hardcastle and the rest of the group. When he gave them his messages from Harry, Titus excused himself with a word and headed briskly down the stairs, his hand in the pocket he kept his wand in. McGonagall and the Ministry officials listened to James' explanation of the man he and Harry had seen on the field, the Headmistress with a look of stern attentiveness, Ms. Sacarhina and Mr. Recreant with looks of mild puzzlement.
"You say he had some sort of camera, dear boy?" Sacarhina asked mildly.
"Yeah, I've seen them before. It makes movies. He was filming the match."
Sacarhina looked at Recreant with a strange expression that James took for disbelief. He wasn't surprised, and he didn't really care. He was more concerned that McGonagall believe him. He was about to tell her the man was the same man that he'd accidently kicked through the window, but something about the expression on Sacarhina's face made him decide to wait until they were in private.
On the way down the steps again, flanked by McGonagall, the Ministry officials, and the Alma Alerons, James finally heard the score. It turned out that Ravenclaw had won the game. James felt annoyed and deflated, but he took some comfort in knowing that at least Zane was probably having a good evening.
When they reached the path leading back to the castle, Headmistress McGonagall sidestepped out of the line.
"Professors and guests, please feel free to return to the castle on your own. I prefer to attend to this situation in person," she said briskly and turned to cross the field. James darted to follow her. When he caught up with her, she glanced down at him.
"I suppose it would be pointless for me to tell you this is no business of a first-year student," she said, apparently choosing, against her better judgment, not to send James up to the castle. "The Auror in charge being your father, he'd probably ask for you to be there, no less. One wonders how he is able to keep his head on straight without Miss Granger to reel him in."
It took James a moment to realize 'Miss Granger' was Aunt Hermione, whose last name was now Weasley. He couldn't help smiling at the thought that the Headmistress still tended to think of his dad and aunt and uncle as troublesome, if generally likeable, little kids.
By the time they reached the head of the path that cut between the Slytherin and Hufflepuff grandstands, Harry and Titus Hardcastle were coming back from their cursory examination of the area.
McGonagall spoke first, "Any sign of the intruder?"
"Nothing so far," Hardcastle said gruffly. "Too dry for footprints and too dark to pick up his trail without a team or a dog."
"Madam Headmistress," Harry said, and James could tell his dad was still in Auror mode, "may we have your permission to conduct a broader search of the area? We'd require the help of a small crew of our choosing."
"You believe that this individual is a threat?" the Headmistress asked Harry before answering.
Harry spread his hands and shrugged. "There's no way of knowing without more information. But I do know that the man I saw was too old to be a student, nor did I recognize him as any of the faculty or staff. He was wearing a cloak from one of the ground crew as an attempt at disguise, so he was certainly hiding from someone, if not everyone. And James tells me he's seen this person on the grounds before."
Everyone looked at James. "He's the one I told you about the other morning, ma'am," James explained, addressing the Headmistress. "I'm sure of it. He had bandages on his arm and face. I think he got hurt when I knocked him through the window."
"I knew that would be an interesting story," Harry muttered, suppressing a smile.
"But certainly, Mr. Potter, Mr. Hardcastle," McGonagall said, looking at the adults, "you realize there is no conceivable way that anyone could overcome the protective perimeter of the school. Anyone you saw simply must have been permitted to be on the grounds, otherwise…"
"You're right, Minerva," Harry said. "But the individual I saw didn't act as if he believed he was permitted to be here. So the question is, if he's been allowed in, who gave the permission, and how? These are questions I'd very much like to ask, but our only hope of doing so rest on our beginning a search of the grounds immediately."
McGonagall met Harry's eyes, nodded reluctantly, then more certainly. "Of course. Who do you require?"
"I'd like Hagrid, for starters. No one knows these grounds like him, and of course, we'll want Trife. We'd like to split into three teams: Hagrid with Trife, myself leading a team into the Forbidden Forest, and Titus heading the other team around the perimeter of the lake. We'll need more sets of eyes to watch for sign. Too bad Neville is away tonight."
"We could summon him back," Hardcastle commented.
Harry shook his head. "I don't think that's necessary. We're looking for a single individual, possibly a Muggle. All we really need are a couple people who know how to spot a trail. How about Teddy Lupin and you, James?"
James tried not to look too pleased, but a thrill of pride went through him. He nodded at his dad with what he hoped looked like duty and confidence, instead of giddy excitement.
"Does the school keep any hippogriffs at the moment, Madam?" Titus rumbled. "A view from above is what's called for here. If the man's been on the grounds before, he must be camped out nearby."
"No, none at the moment, Mr. Hardcastle. We have Thestrals, of course."
Harry shook his head. "Too light. Thestrals can only carry one person, and none as heavy as Titus or myself. Hagrid would break one right in half."
James was thinking hard. "How high do you have to be?"
Hardcastle looked sideways at James. "Higher than man-height's really all that matters. High enough to get a bird's-eye view of the ground, but slow enough to be able to study it. You've an idea? Spill it, son."
"What about giants?" James said after a pause. He was worried it was a stupid idea. Mostly, he was afraid of losing the respect his dad had shown him by inviting him along on the search. "There's Grawp, who's tall as some trees, and his new lady friend. Hagrid says she's even bigger than your regular giant."
Hardcastle glanced at Harry, his expression unreadable. Harry looked considering. "How fast do you think Hagrid can get them here?" he asked, addressing the question to the Headmistress.
"That's certainly a question worth asking," she said, a little archly, "seeing as I had no idea we now had two giants living among us. I'll go and request their services from Hagrid personally." She turned to James. "Go and fetch Mr. Lupin, and tell no one what you are up to. Both of you meet your father at Hagrid's cottage with cloak and wand within fifteen minutes. I'll need to return to the castle to see to our guests."
"And James," Harry said, smiling that crooked smile, "now, you can run."
James was out of breath by the time he reached the common room. He found Ted still in his Quidditch jersey, moping with several other players in a corner alcove.
"Ted, come here!" James called, catching his breath. "We don't have much time."
"That's no way to enter a room," Sabrina said, turning to look at James over the back of the couch. "One might get the rather inescapable impression that you were up to something."
"I am. We are," James said, leaning forward, his hands on his knees. "But I can't tell you right now. Not allowed to. Afterwards. But they want you, Ted. We're supposed to be at Hagrid's cabin in five minutes. Wand and cloak."
Ted jumped up, apparently happy to forget the first loss of the season and always ready to tag along for an adventure. "Well, we all knew this day would come. Finally, my unique skills and insight are being recognized. We'll regale you with the story of our adventure, assuming we live to tell the tale. Lead on, James."
Ted stuffed his wand into his pocket and slung his cloak over his shoulder. As both boys strode through the portrait hole, James still panting, Ted strutting and rock-jawed, Sabrina called after them, "Bring more Butterbeers when you get back, oh mighty ones."
On the way around the balcony, James was dismayed to see Zane wave at him from across the stairwell. He detoured to meet them at the landing.
"Hey, Ted, great game!"
Ted growled, annoyed to be reminded of it.
"Where you going?" Zane asked, trotting to keep up with James and Ted.
"Adventure and mortal peril, I'm thinking," Ted replied. "You want to come?"
"Yeah! What's the plan?"
"No!" James exclaimed. "Sorry. I'm not supposed to tell anyone about it but Ted. My dad said--"
Zane's eyebrows shot up. "Your dad? Cool! Serious Auror stuff! Come on, you can't run off to have Harry Potter-style adventures without your buddy Zane, can you?"
James stopped in the main hall, exasperated. "All right! You can follow us out, but if Dad says you have to come back in and be quiet about it, you have to. All right?"
"Woohoo!" Zane called, running ahead of them down the steps into the courtyard. "Come on, you guys. Adventure and really wild stuff awaits!"
Harry and Titus Hardcastle were standing outside Hagrid's cabin with their wands lit by the time the three boys arrived.
"Thanks for coming, Ted," Harry said, his face stoic. "And Zane, as well, who I hadn't exactly expected."
"I asked him to come, Harry," Ted said, effecting a grave expression. "He's new, but he's sharp. I thought he might be of service, depending on what you're planning." Ted studied Zane critically. Zane wiped the grin off his face and attempted to look serious, without much success. Harry studied them both.
"Mainly, we just need eyes. Since Zane has as many of those as the rest of us, I guess he's qualified. Let's just hope Minerva doesn't find out I took another first year into the forest or she'll bloody well figure out a way to give us all detention. James hasn't told you what we're doing here tonight?"
Ted shook his head. "Nary a word. Just said it was top-secret, hush-hush stuff."
Harry slid an eye toward James. "The Headmistress told you not to say anything, my boy."
"I didn't!" James protested, shooting a look at Ted. "I just said I wasn't allowed to tell anyone what we were doing!"
"Best way to get people suspicious, James, is to tell them not to ask." But Harry didn't seem angry. In fact, he seemed a little amused. "No matter, though. We'll be done and back to the castle before your Gremlin friends mount any kind of reconnaissance. Right, Ted?"
"They're probably tucked into their beds even as we speak, Godfather," Ted said primly. Harry rolled his eyes.
James became aware of a dull rumbling underfoot. Moments later, he heard the distant barking of Trife, Hagrid's bullmastiff, who had long since succeeded his beloved boarhound, Fang. Everyone present turned toward the woods as the rumbling underfoot became a rhythmic pounding. After a minute, huge shapes loomed in the darkness, lumbering between the trees, their footfalls shaking the ground. Trife bounded in and out of the giants' legs, apparently unfazed by the fact that he'd be squashed to putty if one of them accidentally stepped on him. He barked up at them excitedly, his normally substantial frame dwarfed by the plodding figures. Hagrid followed, occasionally calling at Trife to quiet down, but with no real conviction.
"Grawp was easy to bring along," Hagrid called, stepping out of the forest. "He always wants to help. Got himself a great big heart o' gold, he does. Gettin' better and better with his words, too. His lady friend, though…" He dropped his voice as he approached Harry, affecting a secretive pose that James thought was about as subtle as a banshee in a matchbox. "She's not quite so used to being around folks as Grawp is. Didn't take too well to being woken up, either. Barely understands a word we say, but it seems best just to keep on talkin' to her as if she does. She'll come along all right, so long as we take it slow with her."
James reminded himself that this was the same Hagrid who had raised Blast-Ended Skrewts for fun, and persisted in thinking that the primary characteristic of dragons was their cuteness. Any warning from Hagrid about a creature's temperament, therefore, was definitely worth hearing. Everyone turned to greet the giants as they emerged from the trees. Grawp came first, blinking and smiling in the wand-light. He waved a piano-sized hand at Harry.
"Hullo, Harry," Grawp's voice was deep and slow. James had the impression that making words wasn't quite what it had been designed for. "How Herm-ay-nown… Her-mime-nin…"
Harry tried to save Grawp the effort. "Hermione is fine, Grawp. She would say hello if she had known I'd be seeing you."
This seemed to be more than Grawp could quite wrap his mind around. "Hullo, Herme
nimminie…" He continued working through Hermione's name as the she-giant emerged tentatively from the forest behind him. James craned his neck, feeling an involuntary thrill of fear course down his spine. The she-giant was so tall that she had to push the canopy of the trees apart as she stepped out of the forest, cracking and snapping branches. The wand-light only reached her chest, which was roughly about the same height as Grawp's head. Her head was merely a shadowed shape moving above the treetops, outlined against the starry sky. She moved slower than Grawp, ponderously, her great feet coming down to the ground like falling millstones, shaking leaves from the nearby trees with each step.
"So much for stealth," Hardcastle commented, staring up at the monstrous figure.
"Harry, Titus, James, Zane, and Ted," Hagrid called out very slowly, "meet Prechka. Prechka, these are friends."
Prechka bent down slightly so that her head hovered over Grawp's shoulder. She made a low, interrogative grunt that James thought actually rattled the windows in Hagrid's cottage. Harry raised his lit wand over his head and smiled. "Prechka, Grawp, thank you both for coming and helping us. We won't keep you long, I hope. Hagrid has explained what we are asking you to do tonight, has he?"
Grawp gathered himself to speak. "Harry look for sneaking man. Grawp and Prechka help."
"Excellent," Harry said, turning to address the group. "Hagrid, you take Trife and get him on the scent from the path. See if he can pick up anything leading off the trail into the forest or around the lake. If so, send up a red signal. Ted, you'll be with me and Prechka in the forest. Zane, James, you'll both join Titus and Grawp searching the perimeter of the lake. We're searching for a back trail as much as we're looking for the intruder himself, so watch for broken branches, disturbed undergrowth and ground leaves, and anything human-related, such as bits of cloth, trash, papers, or anything of that nature. Everyone clear?"
"Who're we looking for, Harry?" Ted asked.
Harry was already approaching Prechka slowly. "We'll know that when we find him, won't we?"
8. The Grotto Keep
Zane, James, and Hardcastle climbed onto Grawp's back as the giant squatted down. James and Zane both clambered onto a shoulder, gripping Grawp's ragged shirt for support. Hardcastle, apparently oblivious to how ridiculous it might look, straddled the back of Grawp's neck like a kid being carried by his dad. He held his lit wand up and out, spreading a halo of light onto the ground around them, and then directed Grawp toward the lake. As they left, Harry and Ted were still working out the best method to get onto Prechka's shoulders.
"Do we need a ladder, you think?" Ted called.
"Get her to bend all the way over, with her hands on the ground," Harry called, waving up to the she-giant, who had kneeled, but become distracted by Hagrid's garden. She pulled up a handful of pumpkins, roots and all, and began stuffing them into her mouth.
"That's right, that's right," Hagrid called soothingly. "Just lean over here a bit. There we go. Oh!"
There was a sharp wooden crunch as Prechka leaned on Hagrid's wagon, crushing it to kindling.
Hagrid patted the gigantic elbow, shaking his head. "Oy, at least yeh can climb up now, Harry. Just use the wall there as a step. There yeh go."
Prechka was being coaxed upright again, Harry and Ted perched on her shoulders, when Grawp entered the woods lining the west side of the lake and all view of the Hogwarts grounds vanished behind dense, stunted trees.
Grawp was surprisingly gentle, turning sideways and ducking to avoid branches that might knock his cargo off his back. James could feel the weight of Grawp's footsteps pressing into the ground far below, but experienced none of the shudder and thump he had expected to feel riding on a giant's back. Hardcastle directed Grawp quietly, being seated almost right next to the giant's ear. He led them in an orderly zigzag, approaching the lake, and then turning back into the thick of the wood again, slowly advancing around the perimeter. Their progress was slow and the motion of Grawp's walking began to rock James into sleepiness. He shook himself awake, studying the ground below for any of the signs his dad had described. In an attempt to keep himself awake, he explained to Hardcastle and Zane how he had seen the unidentified man on the Quidditch pitch. He told them about the camera, and described the other two times he'd seen the man on the grounds.
"You've seen this person three times, then?" Hardcastle asked, his voice a gravelly monotone.
"Yeah," James nodded.
"But apart from your dad tonight, no one else has seen him at all?"
James felt rankled by that, but answered directly. "No. Nobody."
They were silent again for a while. James guessed that they had travelled approximately a third of the way around the perimeter. He saw glimpses of the castle looming over the lake whenever they neared its edge. The woods seemed annoyingly untouched and normal. Crickets buzzed and creaked, filling the night air with their strange chorus. Everywhere James looked, fireflies stitched the shadows, going about their nocturnal business. There was no sign that anyone had ever been through this wood, much less anyone recently.
"Stop, Grawp," Hardcastle said suddenly, his voice tense. Grawp stopped obediently and stood still. His massive head turned slightly as he looked around. James peered around Grawp's enormous, dirty ear, trying to see what Hardcastle was looking at or listening for. Half a minute crept by. James knew not to speak. Then, in the near distance, there was a harsh scurrying sound. Something scrambled, unseen, through the fallen leaves and stopped again. A branch creaked, as if it were being stepped on. James' heart was suddenly pounding. Still, neither Grawp nor Hardcastle moved. James saw Hardcastle turn his head slightly, trying to pinpoint the direction of the sound.
It came again, nearer this time, but still unseen. It was ahead of them, behind a low rise on the woods side of their path. James couldn't help thinking that there was something distinctly inhuman about the scurrying sound. It was, somehow, too busy. The hair at the base of his neck prickled.
Hardcastle tapped the back of Grawp's head lightly and pointed toward the ground, reaching so Grawp could see his hand. James felt the giant lower, and was surprised again at the slow grace of the motion. The leaves underfoot crackled only slightly as Grawp put his hands on the ground. Hardcastle slid silently off Grawp's back. His eyes were locked on the low rise ahead.
He was interrupted by the noise of scrambling movement. It was much closer this time, and now James saw the motion of it. Dead leaves scattered into the air as a large, shadowy form scuttled over the rise, moving with horrible speed. It darted in and out of the trunks of the trees, crashing through bushes. It seemed to have far too many legs, and there was a strange bluish glow emanating from its front. It flickered wildly as the thing moved. Hardcastle leaped in front of Grawp as the thing approached. He flicked his wand with the practiced economy of a trained Auror, sending red Stunning Spells into the thrashing brush and leaves. The creature changed course, skirting around them and into a gully. The flickering blue glow marked its progress as it skittered over dead logs, retreating deeper into the wood.
"Stay with Grawp, you two," Hardcastle growled, setting off after the creature at a run. "Grawp, if anything other than me comes back, crush it." He moved with amazing agility for his size. Within fifteen seconds, neither he nor the retreating creature could be seen or heard. The two boys jumped off Grawp's shoulders to peer down into the gully.
"What was that?" Zane asked breathlessly.
James shook his head. "I'm not even sure I want to know. It definitely wasn't the guy we're looking for."
"I'm glad of that," Zane said with conviction.
They watched the gully that Hardcastle and the creature had vanished into. The incessant chorus of crickets and the flashing of the fireflies filled the woods again, seeming to deny that anything unusual was happening. There was no noise or movement from the gully.
"How far will he chase that thing?" Zane finally asked.
James shrugged. "Until he catches it, I guess."
"Or it catches him," Zane added, shuddering. "You know, I felt a lot better about this when we were up on the big guy's shoulders."
"Good idea," James agreed, turning. "Hey, Grawp, how about--"
He stopped. Grawp was gone. Zane and James glanced around for several seconds, both too stunned and spooked to say anything. "There!" Zane said suddenly, stabbing a finger in the direction of the lake. James looked. Grawp was just disappearing around a gigantic, moss-bearded boulder, lumbering slowly. "Come on! Don't let him get out of sight!"
Both boys scampered after the giant, crawling over huge fallen trees and slipping on leaf-covered rocks. They rounded the house-sized boulder they had seen Grawp pass. Grawp was even further away, ducking under a leaning, dead tree.
"Where's he going?" Zane cried exasperatedly.
"Grawp!" James called, hesitant to yell too loudly for fear of attracting any more of the horrible, scuttling creatures. The night had gone dim. Heavy, marching clouds obscured the moon, reducing the woods to a muddle of grey shadows. "Grawp, come back! What are you doing?"
For several minutes, Zane and James followed Grawp's trail, struggling through creek beds and over tree trunks that the giant traversed in one step. Finally, they caught up to him near the edge of the lake, where a group of small, wooded islands obscured the view across the water. The air smelled damp and mossy and was dense with buzzing insects. Grawp stood under a gnarled tree, methodically plucking walnuts off the branches and popping them into his mouth, shell and all. He crunched them audibly as the boys approached, panting.
"Grawp!" Zane cried, struggling to catch his breath. "What're you doing?"
Grawp glanced down at the sound of Zane's voice, his expression quizzical. "Grawp hungry," he answered. "Grawp smell food. Grawp eat and wait. Little man comes back."
"Grawp, we're lost now! Titus won't even know where we are!" James said, trying to control his anger. Grawp stared at him, still crunching walnuts, his expression one of mild bewilderment.
"Never mind," Zane said. "Let him chomp some nuts, then we'll get him to carry us back the way we came." He plopped onto a nearby rock and examined the scrapes and bruises he'd gotten during the chase. James grimaced in annoyance. He knew there was no point in arguing with the giant.
"All right," he said tersely. "Grawp, just carry us back when you're done. Got it?"
Grawp grunted agreement, pulling one of the larger tree branches down to him so that it creaked ominously.
James wandered disconsolately toward the water's edge, pushing reeds and bushes aside. The lake looked more like a creek here, with only a narrow stretch of mossy water between the shore and one of the marshy islands. The island was wild, covered with densely packed bushes and trees. It had the look of a place that was underwater at least part of the year. Twenty feet away, a group of trees had fallen away from the island. James assumed they'd been pried loose from their watery roots by a recent storm. The scene was remarkably ugly and foreboding in the shadowy night.
James had just decided to turn back, worried that Hardcastle would be looking for them, when the moon came out. As the silvery light spread across the woods, James stopped, a slow, gravid chill shaking him from head to toe. The crickets had fallen suddenly and completely silent. James felt rooted to the spot, frozen except for his eyes, which roamed the surrounding woods. The silence of the crickets wasn't the only change. The perpetual, myriad flashes of the fireflies had also ceased. The wood had gone completely and suddenly still in the wash of moonlight.
"James?" Zane's voice came, tentative in the sudden, oppressive silence. "Is this… you know… normal?" He joined James at the edge of the lake. "And what's the deal with that place?"
James glanced at Zane. "What place?" He followed Zane's eyes, and then gasped.
The island that lay just off the shore had changed. James could tell that no individual part of it was different, exactly. It was just that, what had appeared as totally random trees and bushes a minute before, now, in the silvery moonlight, looked much more like a hidden, ancient structure. There was the unmistakable suggestion of pillars and gates, buttresses and gargoyles, all crafted out of the island's natural growth as if it were a sort of incredibly complex optical illusion.
"I do not like the look of that joint," Zane said emphatically, his voice low.
James looked further. The group of trees that had fallen across the water, connecting the island to the shore, had changed as well. James could see that there was order to them. Two of them had fallen together so that they formed what was obviously a bridge. The bridge was even stylized, fashioned to resemble a gigantic dragon's head. A brown rock jutting from the upturned roots served as the eye. Two more trees, only half collapsed, formed the open upper jaw, jutting out over the bridge as if to snap down on anyone that attempted to cross.
James walked carefully toward the bridge.
"Hey, you're not going in there, are you?" Zane called. "That doesn't look so healthy to me."
"Come on," James said, not looking back. "You said you wanted adventure and really wild stuff."
"Well, actually I think I just want those things in little bitty doses. I had enough with that crazy monster we saw already, if you don't mind."
James skirted an outcropping of bushes and spindly trees and found himself standing at the mouth of the bridge. Closer to, it was even more perfect. There were handrails formed by fallen birches, smooth and easy to grip, and the two trees that formed the floor of the bridge were so close together, with vines and leaves packed between them, that they made an easy walking surface.
"Fine, stay here," James said, not really blaming Zane for his reluctance. The mystery of it was strangely attractive to James, though. He stepped onto the bridge.
"Ahh, sheesh," Zane moaned, following.
On the island side of the bridge, a complicated growth of vines and small trees had formed into a set of tall, ornate gates. Beyond them was impenetrable shadow. As James crept closer, he could see that the vines formed a recognizable pattern across the gates.
"I think it spells something," he said, his voice almost a whisper. "Look. It's a poem, or a rune or something."
As soon as he was able to make out the first word, the rest sprang into view, as if he'd just had to train his eye to see it. He stopped and read aloud:
When by the light of Sulva bright
I found the Grotto Keep;
Before the night of time requite
Did wake his languid sleep.
Upon return the fretted dawn
With not a relic lossing;
Bygone a life, a new eon,
The Hall of Elders' Crossing.
Something about the poem made James shudder.
"What's it mean?" Zane asked when he'd read it over twice.
James shrugged. "Sulva is an old word for 'moon'. I know that. I think the first part just means you can only find this place when the moon shines on it. That's got to be true, because when I first saw it in the dark, it just looked like some ugly old island. So this must be the Grotto Keep, whatever that is."
Zane leaned in. "What about this part? 'Upon return the fretted dawn'. Sounds like we're supposed to come back when the sun comes back up, eh? Sounds pretty good to me."
Ignoring Zane, James wrapped his hands around the gates and gave them a hard yank. They rattled woodenly, but didn't budge. The action seemed to trigger a response from the island. A sudden, creeping sound came from beneath the boys' feet. James glanced down, and then jumped backwards as tendrils of thorny vines grew up from underneath the bridge. The vines twined through the gate, weaving up it with a noise like a newspaper in a fire. The thorns were an ugly purple color, as if they might contain some sort of venom. They grew longer as James watched. After a minute, the gates were completely entwined with them, obscuring the words of the poem. The noise of their growth died away.
"Well, that settles that, then," Zane said in a strangely high voice. He was standing behind James, backing away slowly. "I think this place wants to be left alone, don't you?"
"I want to try one more thing," James said, pulling his wand out from beneath his cloak. Without really thinking about it, he aimed his wand at the gate. "Alohomora."
There was a streak of golden light, and this time, the result was immediate and powerful. The gates repelled the spell, obliterating it in a burst of sparks, and the entire island seemed to shiver, to tense menacingly. There was a sound like a thousand people suddenly breathing in, and then a voice, an entirely inhuman, swarming sort of voice, spoke.
"Get… Thee… Hence!"
James stumbled backwards at the vehemence of the response, tumbling into Zane and knocking them both to the floor of the bridge. The bridge shuddered beneath them, and then James saw that the gates were swaying, leaning over them. The trees overhead, the ones that were fashioned to appear as the upper jaw of the dragon's head bridge, were creaking down, looming, their broken branches looking more and more like teeth.
"Get… Thee… Hence!" the island said again. The voice sounded like it was comprised of millions of tiny voices, whispering and raspy, speaking in unison.
The floor of the bridge buckled, tearing loose of the shore. The upper jaws crackled and began to collapse, ready to devour the two boys. They scrambled backwards, tumbling wildly over each other, and fell onto the weedy shore just as the bridge ripped loose. The gigantic jaws snapped and gnashed ferociously. Broken branches and bits of bark exploded from the writhing shape, peppering James and Zane as they scuttled away, their hands slipping on dead leaves and pine needles.
The ground rumbled under them. Roots began to burrow up from the dirt, tearing the earth apart. James felt the shore disintegrate beneath him. His foot slipped into a sudden hole and he yanked it out, narrowly avoiding a dirty, carrot-like root that writhed up out of it. He struggled for purchase on the collapsing shore, but it sank beneath him, dragging him back toward the water's edge. The surface of the lake roiled, rushing into the forming sinkhole. The boys' feet splashed into the muck, and it sucked at them, pulling them in. Zane grasped at the shore as he was pulled slowly into the frothing water. James groped for purchase, but nothing seemed solid. Even the tree roots revealed by the crumbling earth grew loose and slippery under his hands, covered in a horrible slime that came off in coats.
Then, suddenly, there was Grawp. He dropped to his knees, gripping a nearby tree trunk with one hand and reaching for Zane, who was nearer, with the other. He plucked the boy from the murk and plopped him onto his shoulder. Zane grasped for a handhold on Grawp's shirt as the giant lunged down to retrieve James, who was nearly submerged in the thrashing waters. A horrible, hairy root snaked across the water and curled around James' ankle, yanking him back. He hung there, caught between Grawp's grip and that of the horrid root, and James was sure he'd be torn in half by the force of it. The root slipped on his pant leg and yanked his shoe off. James saw it twine hungrily around the shoe and pull it under the surface.
Grawp tried to stand, but roots were ripping up from the ground all around him. Huge, crackling wood tentacles twined his legs. Green vines grew with lightning speed up the thicker tentacles, sewing themselves into the fabric of his pants with tiny, threadlike roots. Grawp roared and yanked, ripping his pants and tearing the roots further out of the ground, but their combined force was too strong. They pulled him back to a kneeling position, and then lunged up, circling his waist, climbing his back and shoulders. The vines battened onto James and Zane, threatening to pull them off. Grawp roared again as one of the green vines twisted around his neck, forcing him lower, pulling him down into the sinkhole.
Just as James began to slip off Grawp's shoulder, pulled back toward the ground by a dozen muscling vines, sudden, shocking light filled the air. It was a vibrant golden green, and it was accompanied by a low humming sound. The vines and roots recoiled from the light. They loosened, repulsed by it, but were dreadfully reluctant to abandon their prey. Waves of the light washed over them, and each wave loosened the tangling mass until the smaller vines fell away as dead and the larger roots retreated, sucking back down into the earth with a nasty, gurgling noise.
Grawp, James, and Zane half fell, half crawled up the bank until they found firm ground. There they collapsed, panting and heaving, amid the dead leaves and broken branches.
When James rolled over and pulled himself to a kneeling position, there was a figure standing nearby, glowing faintly with the same golden green light that had repulsed the vines. James could see through the figure, although what he saw through it was both brightened and refracted, the way things might look if seen through a raindrop. The figure looked like a woman, very tall and very thin, in a dark green gown that fell straight from her hips and, apparently, right through the ground. Her whitish-green hair spread and flowed around her head like a corona. She was beautiful, but her face was grave.
"James Potter, Zane Walker, Grawp, son of the earth, you are in danger here. You must leave this wood. No human is safe under this canopy now."
James struggled to his feet. "Who are you? What was that?"
"I am a dryad, a spirit of the wood. I have managed to silence the Voice of the Island, but I won't be able to hold it back for long. It grows more restless with each day."
"A spirit of the wood?" Zane asked as Grawp helped him rather roughly to his feet. "The woods have a ghost?"
"I am a dryad, a tree sprite, a spirit of a single tree. All the trees in the wood have spirits, but they have been asleep for ages and ages, seeped down into the earth, almost diminished. Until now. The naiads and dryads have been awakened, though we know not why. Those few humans that once communed with the trees are gone and forgotten. Our time is past. Yet we are summoned."
"Who summoned you?" James asked.
"We have not been able to know that, despite our greatest efforts. There is disharmony among us. Many trees remember only the saw of man, not his replanting. They are old and angry, wishing only to do harm to the world of men. They have gone over. You have experienced their wrath, though not as they would have it."
"What do you mean they've 'gone over'?" Zane asked, taking half a step closer, squinting at the dryad's beauty. "Is it that place? The island? The… the Hall of Elder's Crossing?"
"Man's time is short on the earth, but we trees watch the years march past like days. The stars are motionless to you, but we watch and study the heavens as a dance," the dryad said, her voice becoming soft, almost dreamy. "Since our awakening, the dance of the stars has become dire, showing a thousand dark destinies for the world of men, all swinging on the balance of the coming days. Only one possible destiny bears good. The rest are heavy with bloodshed and loss. Great sorrow. Dark times, full of war and greed, powerful tyrants, famines of terror. Much will be determined within the closing of this cycle. We tree folk can only watch, for now, but those of us who remain faithful to the memory of harmony between our world and the world of men, when the time comes, we will help as we can."
James was almost hypnotized by the dryad's voice, but he felt a rising sense of helplessness and frustration at her words. "But you said there is one chance we can avoid this war. What can we do? How can we make the one good destiny happen?"
The dryad's face softened. Her large, liquid eyes smiled sadly. "There is no way to predict the path of a single action. It could be that you are already doing that which will bring about peace. It could also be that the very things you do to for good are the things that will result in war. You must do what you know to do, but only with an unclouded mind."
Zane risked a derisive laugh. "Helpful stuff, there, Sensei."
"There are greater dangers in the fabric of destinies than you yet know, James Potter," the dryad said, slipping closer to James so that her light played across his face. "The enemy of your father, and of all who know love, is dead. But his blood beats within a different heart. The blood of your greatest enemy lives still."
James felt his knees grow watery. He wobbled, and then threw his hand out, pressing it against a nearby tree for support. "Vol-Voldemort?" he whispered.
The dryad nodded, apparently unwilling to say the name. "His preferred plan was thwarted forever by your father. But he was infinitely crafty. He prepared a second plan. A successor, a bloodline. The heart of that bloodline beats today, at this moment, not one mile hence."
James' lips were trembling. "Who?" he asked in a barely audible voice. "Who is it?"
But the dryad was already shaking her head sadly. "We are prevented from knowing. Not from without, but from within. Those trees that have gone over work against us, fog our vision, keep many of us asleep. We can only know of that heartbeat, that it is there, but no more. You must beware, James Potter. Your father's battle is over. Yours begins."
The dryad was fading. Her eyes slipped shut and even as she drifted into nothingness, she already seemed to be asleep.
There was a creaking groan, then a splash from the island.
"Well," Zane said with manic cheerfulness, "what say we jump back onto our giant buddy's shoulders and make this place a memory before it does the same to us?"
The three of them met Titus Hardcastle before they were halfway back to their starting point. His face was like a thunderstorm, but all he said was, "Is everyone safe?"
"Safe enough," Zane called down from Grawp's shoulders. "But let me tell you, we've had one weird time of it."
Grawp bent down to allow Hardcastle to climb onto his back. "It's going around, then, isn't it?" Hardcastle grunted.
Zane held a hand out, intending to help Hardcastle climb up and almost getting yanked from his seat instead. "So what was that thing you were chasing, anyway?" he said, puffing.
"Spider. One of old Aragog's kin, no doubt. They've grown dumb in the last decade or two, but that one had gone and found himself a toy." Hardcastle held something up, and James saw that it was the little handheld video camera that the intruder had been using on the Quidditch pitch. "It was still working when I caught up to the brute, the little screen all lit up. Got broken when I, er, dispatched the beast. At least it'd had a good last meal."
James shuddered involuntarily as Grawp began to make his way back through the woods. "You really think it… ate the guy?"
Hardcastle set his jaw. "Circle of life, James. Strictly speaking, though, spiders don't eat people. They just suck their juices out. Ugly way to go, but at least he's not a problem anymore."
James didn't say so, but he had a feeling that the real problems were just beginning.
Wednesday morning, James felt sluggish and prickly as he entered the Great Hall for breakfast. It was a thoroughly glum morning, with a low, bruised sky filling the top portion of the Hall and a fine mist speckling the windows. Ralph and Zane were seated at the Slytherin table, Zane blowing on his traditional morning coffee and Ralph attacking an orange with a butter knife, sawing through it, peel and all. They didn't appear to be talking much. Zane wasn't typically a morning person, and he had been out just as late as James had been. Neither Zane nor Ralph looked up, and James was glad. He was still angry and disgusted with Ralph. Under that, though, he was sad and hurt about the boy's betrayal. He tried not to feel resentment toward Zane for sitting with Ralph, but he was too tired to make much of an effort, and the mood of the morning wasn't helping.
James made his way to the Gryffindor table, glancing up at the dais as he went. Neither his dad nor Titus Hardcastle were anywhere to be seen. James figured that, despite the lateness of the previous night, they had still risen and breakfasted shortly after dawn and were already about their morning's business. The thought that his dad's and Titus' day was already well underway, probably full of exciting meetings and secret intrigues, while he was just now having breakfast on his way to a day of gloomy classes and homework, filled him with melancholy. He found a seat surrounded by happily babbling Gryffindors, plopped into it, and began to eat methodically, joylessly.
The night before, James had been up with Titus Hardcastle, his dad, and Headmistress McGonagall for almost two hours after their return from the perimeter of the lake. Titus had sent up a wand signal as soon as they'd reached the castle, summoning Harry, Ted, Prechka, and Hagrid back from their forays. When they'd all assembled again by Hagrid's cottage, the Headmistress dismissed Grawp and Prechka, thanking them both formally, and offering them a barrel of Butterbeer for their efforts. After that, the group convened in Hagrid's cottage, congregated around the huge, rough table, drinking Hagrid's tea, which was suspiciously cloudy and brown and tasted vaguely medicinal, and avoiding some rather stale biscuits.
Hardcastle had spoken first. He explained to everyone present how he had first heard the spider, and then pursued it, leaving James and Zane in the protection of Grawp. Harry had shifted in his seat, but refrained from comment. After all, he had been the one to request that James go along on the expedition, and had consented, albeit reluctantly, to Zane's accompaniment. The Headmistress had pointed a rather long and penetrating glare at Harry when she'd seen Zane enter the cottage. Now McGonagall turned to Hardcastle, asking how he'd managed to kill the spider.
Hardcastle's beady eyes glinted a little as he said, "Best way to kill a spider that won't fit under your boot is to get its legs off. First one's the hardest. After that, it gets easier and easier."
Hagrid wiped a hand over his face. "Poor ol' Aragog. If he'd lived to see his young turn wild, it'd have killed him. Poor fellow was just doing what spiders do. You can hardly blame him."
"The spider had the intruder's camera," Harry said, glancing down at the broken object on the table. The lens was shattered and the little screen on the back was cracked. "So we know the man escaped via the lake woods."
"Nasty way to go, whoever he may have been," McGonagall said.
Harry's expression didn't change. "We don't know for certain that the spider caught the man."
"Seems unlikely the thing asked to borrow his camera so it could make home movies of its kids, doesn't it?" Hardcastle rumbled, "Spiders aren't the polite type. They're the hungry type."
Harry nodded thoughtfully. "You're probably right, Titus. Still, there's always the chance the intruder dropped the camera and the spider simply found it. It wouldn't hurt to increase security for a while, Minerva. We don't yet know how this person got in or who he was. Until we learn those things, we have to assume there is an ongoing risk of breach."
"I'm particularly interested in knowing how this camera managed to operate within the grounds," the Headmistress sniffed, staring hard at the device on the table. "It is well-known that Muggle equipment of this sort doesn't work inside the school's magical environment."
"That is indeed well-known, Madam Headmistress," Hardcastle rumbled, "but very little understood. The Muggles are endlessly inventive with their tools. What once was true may not be so anymore. And we all know that the protective spells erected around the grounds since the Battle are not quite as perfect as those maintained by old Dumbledore, God rest his soul."
James thought of Ralph's GameDeck, but decided not to mention it. The broken video camera was all the proof they needed that at least some modern Muggle devices worked on the school grounds.
Finally, attention turned to James and Zane. James explained how Grawp had wandered away in search of food, and how the two boys had chased him, finding him by the lake and the marshy island. Zane chimed in then, describing the mysterious island and the bridge. He carefully glossed over the part where James had tried to open the gates using magic, and James was glad. It had seemed foolish the very moment he'd done it, and he regretted it. Still, at the time, it had felt so natural. They took turns telling of the enchanted dragon's head bridge that attempted to eat them, then the attacking vines that had almost pulled them all into the sinkhole. Finally, James explained the tale of the tree sprite.
"Naiads and dryads?" Hagrid exclaimed incredulously. James and Zane stopped, blinking at him. Hagrid went on, "Well, they're not for real, are they? They're just stories and myth. Aren't they?" He addressed the last question to the adults present.
"The lake woods are just an extension of the Forbidden Forest," Harry said. "If there is a place where things like the naiads and dryads can exist, it'd be there. Still, if it's true, they haven't been seen for hundreds of years. Of course we'd think of them as myth."
"What do you mean, 'if it's true'?" James asked, a little louder than he'd intended to. "We saw her. She spoke to us."
"Your father is being an Auror, James," McGonagall said placatingly. "All possibilities must be considered. You were all under a great deal of stress. It isn't that we don't believe you. We must simply determine the most likely explanation for what you saw."
"Seems like the most likely explanation to me is that she was what she said she was," James muttered under his breath.
James purposely hadn't told his dad or any of the other adults the last thing the sprite had said, the part about the successor, the blood of the enemy beating in another heart. Part of his reluctance was in his remembrance of his dad's stories of how the wizarding world had treated him, Harry Potter, when he'd returned from the Triwizard Tournament maze with the tale of Voldemort's return, how he had been doubted and discredited. Another part of it was that his dad wasn't even prepared to believe the part about the dryad. If he doubted that, how could he accept that the dryad had predicted a new kind of Voldemort's return, through an heir, a bloodline? But the thing that had finally determined James not to tell was his memory of the very last words the dryad had spoken: Your father's battle is over. Yours begins.
The conversation had droned on long after all the details had been described and discussed, long after James had grown bored with it. He wanted to get back so that he could sleep, but more than that, he wanted time to think about what the dryad had said. He wanted to work out what the island was for, what the poem on the gate meant. He worked to remember it, itching to write it down while it was still fresh in his mind. He was sure, somehow, that it all fit in with the story of Austramaddux and the secret plot of the Slytherins to bring back Merlin and start a final war with the Muggle world. He wasn't even asking himself anymore if it was true. It had to be true, and it was up to him to prevent it.
Finally, the adults finished talking. They had determined that the mysterious island, while obviously dangerous, was just one of the many mysterious and inexplicable dangers that made the Forbidden Forest forbidden. The primary concern was still discovering how the intruder had gotten in, and making sure no one else was able to do it again. With that resolution, the meeting broke up.
Headmistress McGonagall had accompanied James, Zane, and Ted back to the castle, instructing them to do their best to keep the discussions of the night a secret.
"Especially you, Mr. Lupin," she said sternly. "The last thing we need is you and your band of hooligans running off into the woods in the middle of the night attempting to duplicate Mr. Potter's and Mr. Walker's experiences."
Fortunately, Ted knew enough not to try to deny the possibility of such a thing. He merely nodded and said, "Yes, ma'am."
James only saw his dad once more during his visit, and that was after classes that evening, just as Harry, Titus, and the Ministry officials were preparing to leave. Neville had returned to Hogwarts that afternoon, and he chaperoned James to the Headmistress' office to say goodbye to Harry and the rest. The group planned to travel via the Floo Network, as they had arrived, and had decided upon the Headmistress' fireplace for their departure since it was the most secure. If it struck Neville odd that the office now belonged to his former teacher, who he'd known as Professor McGonagall, instead of to Albus Dumbledore, he didn't let on. But he did pause for a moment next to the portrait of the former headmaster.
"Off again, is he?" he asked Harry.
"I think he generally just sleeps here. Dumbledore's got portraits all over the place," Harry sighed. "Not to mention all his old Chocolate Frog cards. He still shows up in them sometimes just for fun. I keep mine in my wallet, just in case." He pulled his wallet out and slipped a dog-eared card out of it. The portrait space was empty. Harry grinned at Neville as he put it back.
Neville moved to the group congregated around the fireplace. Harry squatted down next to James.
"I wanted to thank you, James."
James hid the look of pride that surfaced on his face. "I was just doing what you asked us to do."
"I don't just mean coming along with us and helping us find out what happened," Harry said, putting a hand on James' shoulder. "I mean for spying the intruder on the field and pointing him out to me. And for being alert enough to see him the other times. You've got a sharp eye and an alert mind, my boy. I shouldn't be surprised, and I'm not."
James grinned. "Thanks, Dad."
"Don't forget what we talked about the other night, though. Remember?"
James remembered. "I won't be saving the world single-handedly." I'll have at least Zane's help, he thought, but didn't say, and maybe Ted's, too, now that Ralph's abandoned me.
Harry hugged his son, and James hugged him back. They grinned at each other, Harry with his hands on James' shoulders, and then he stood, leading James over to the fireplace.
"Tell Mum I'm doing good and eating my vegetables," James instructed his dad.
"And are you?" Harry asked, raising one eyebrow.
"Well, yes and no," James said, a bit uncomfortable as everyone looked at him.
"Make it true and I'll tell her," Harry said, removing his glasses and tucking them into his robe.
Moments later, the room was empty but for James, Headmistress McGonagall, and Neville.
"Professor Longbottom," the Headmistress said, "I suspect it'd be best for me to inform you of all that has happened these past twenty hours."
"You mean regarding the campus intruder, Madam?" Neville asked.
The Headmistress looked markedly taken aback. "I see. Perhaps I might simply be repeating myself, then. Do tell me what you've already heard, Professor."
"Merely that, Madam. Word amongst the students is that a man was seen or captured on the Quidditch pitch yesterday. The common theory is that he was a representative of the gambling community either reporting on or influencing the match. Pure rubbish, of course, but I assume it's better to let tongues wag and inflate the tale to something ridiculous than to deny anything."
"Mr. Potter would no doubt agree with you," the Headmistress said pointedly. "Although, since I will be requiring your services in increasing the security of the grounds, I should explain to you precisely what did occur. James, you are free to wait a moment, aren't you? I shall not detain the professor for long, and he will accompany you down to the corridor." Without waiting for a reply, she turned back to Neville, launching into a detailed account of the previous night.
James knew the whole story, of course, but still felt he was meant to wait near the door, as far from earshot as possible. It was uncomfortable and vaguely annoying. He felt rather proprietary about the intruder, having been the first to see him, and having been the one to point him out on the Quidditch pitch. It was just like adults to deny something a kid said, then, when it proved true, to completely take over and dismiss the kid. He realized that this was another part of why he hadn't yet told any adults about his suspicions concerning the Slytherin-Merlin plot. He felt even stronger now about keeping that his secret, at least until he could prove something substantial.
James crossed his arms and hovered near the door, turning to look back at Neville, who was seated in front of the Headmistress' desk, and McGonagall, who was pacing slightly behind it as she spoke.
"What are you up to, Potter?" a low voice drawled behind James, making him jump. He spun around wildly, eyes wide. The voice cut him off before he could respond. "Don't ask who I am and don't waste my time with a load of pointless lies. You know exactly who I am. And I know, even more than your own father, that you are up to something."
It was, of course, the portrait of Severus Snape. The dark eyes probed James coldly, the mouth turned down into a knowing sneer.
"I'm…," James began, and then stopped, feeling very strongly that if he lied, the portrait would know. "I'm not going to tell."
"A more honest answer than any ever provided by your father, at least," Snape drawled, keeping his voice low enough not to attract the attention of McGonagall or Neville. "It's a pity I'm not still alive to be headmaster or I'd find ways of getting the tale from you, one way… or another."
"Well," James whispered, feeling a little braver now that shock had worn off, "I guess it's a good thing you aren't headmaster anymore, then." He thought it might be a bit too much to say it's a good thing you're dead. James' dad had a load of respect for Severus Snape. He'd even made Severus Albus' middle name.
"Don't try the smart tactic with me, Potter," the portrait said, but more tiredly than angrily. "You, unlike your father, know well enough now that I was as devoted to Albus Dumbledore and the downfall of Voldemort as was he. Your father believed it was up to him to win battles entirely on his own. He was foolish and destructive. Don't think I didn't see that very same look in your eye not five minutes ago."
James couldn't think what to say. He just met the portrait's dark gaze and frowned stubbornly.
Snape sighed theatrically. "Have it your way, then. Like Potter, like son. Never learning the lessons of the past. But know this: I will be watching you, as I did your father. If your unnamed suspicions are, against all probability, accurate, be assured that I will be working toward the same end as you. Try, Potter, not to make the same mistakes as your father. Try not to leave others to pay the consequences for your arrogance."
That last stung James to the core. He assumed Snape would leave his portrait frame after a salvo like that, confident of having had the last word, but he didn't. He stayed, that same penetrating stare on his face, reading James like a book. Still, there wasn't anything specifically malicious in that gaze, despite the pointed words.
"Yeah," James finally found the voice to say. "Well, I'll keep that in mind." It was a lame response and he knew it. He was only eleven, after all.
"James?" Neville said behind him. James turned and looked up at the professor. "Sounds like you had an exciting night last night. I'm curious about the vines that attacked you. Maybe you could tell me more about them sometime, yes?"
"Sure," James said, his lips feeling numb. When he turned back toward the door, following Neville out, the portrait of Snape was still occupied. The eyes followed him darkly as he left the room.
9. The Debate Betrayal
As James became more familiar with the routine of school, time seemed to slip past almost without his noticing. Zane continued to excel at Quidditch, and James continued to feel an uncomfortable mix of emotions about Zane's success. He still felt the stab of jealousy when he heard the crowd cheer for one of Zane's well-hit Bludgers, but he couldn't help smiling at how much the boy loved the sport, how he delighted in each match, in the teamwork and camaraderie. Also, James was growing increasingly confident of his own broom skills. He practiced with Zane on the Quidditch pitch many evenings, asking Zane for tips on technique. Zane, for his part, was always enthusiastic and supportive, telling James that he'd definitely make the Gryffindor team next year.
"Then I'll have to stop practicing with you and giving you pointers, you know," Zane said, flying next to James and calling over the roar of the air. "It'd be like consorting with the enemy." As usual, James couldn't tell if Zane was joking or not.
James enjoyed becoming more confident on the broom, but he was surprised to discover that he loved football. Tina Curry had divided all of her classes into teams and arranged a casual game schedule for them to play against one another. Many students had grasped the essential concepts of the game and being competitive at heart, had worked to make the class-time matches interesting. Occasionally, a student would forget the non-magical nature of the sport and would be seen frantically searching their pockets for their wands or simply pointing at the ball and yelling something like "Accio football!", resulting in a general breakdown of the match while everyone laughed. Once, a Hufflepuff girl had simply grabbed the ball in both hands, forgetting the basic rules of the game, and charged down the field as if she were playing rugby. James discovered, rather reluctantly, that Professor Curry's assessment of his skills had been fairly accurate. He was a natural. He could control the ball easily with the tips of his trainers as he zigged and zagged down the field. His ball-handling was regarded as among the best of any of the new players, and his scoring rate was second only to fifth-year Sabrina Hildegard, who, like Zane, was Muggle-born and unlike Zane, had played on Muggle leagues when she was younger.
James and Ralph, however, barely talked. James' initial anger and resentment had simmered down to a stubborn aloofness. Some small part of him knew that he should forgive Ralph, and even apologize for yelling at him that day in the Great Hall. He knew that if he'd kept his cool, Ralph probably would have seen the error of siding with his Slytherin housemates. Instead, Ralph seemed to feel it was his duty to support the Slytherins and the Progressive Element as earnestly as he could. If it wasn't for the fact that even Ralph's enthusiastic support was rather weak-willed and doleful, James would have found it easier to stay angry at him. Ralph wore the blue badges, and he attended the debate meetings in the library, but he did so with such a dogged attitude of obligation that it seemed to do more harm than good. If any of the Slytherins actually spoke to him, he'd jerk upright and respond with manic eagerness, then deflate as soon as they turned their attention elsewhere. It hurt James a little to watch it, but not enough to make him change his attitude toward Ralph.
In his room at night or in a corner of the library, James would study the poem he and Zane had seen on the gate to the Grotto Keep. With Zane's help, he had written it down from memory and was confident it was accurate. Still, he couldn't seem to make much of it. All he knew for sure was that the first two lines referred to the fact that the Grotto Keep could only be found by moonlight. The rest was a puzzle. He kept fetching up on the line that read 'Did wake his languid sleep', wondering if that could refer to Merlin. But Merlin wasn't asleep, was he?
"Makes it sound like he's Rip Van Winkle," Zane whispered one day in the library. "Snoozing away a few hundred years out under a tree somewhere." Zane had had to explain the fairy tale of Rip Van Winkle, and James considered it. He knew from hearing his dad's conversations with other Aurors that much of Muggle mythology came from long, distant encounters with witches and wizards. Stories of wizarding lore made their way into Muggle fairy tales, became stylized or altered, and grew into legends and myth. Perhaps, James mused, this story of the long sleeper, who awoke hundreds of years later, was a Muggle echo of the story of Merlin. Still, it didn't get James or Zane any closer to figuring out how Merlin could possibly return after so many centuries, nor did it offer any clues as to who might be involved in such a conspiracy.
At night, as he was drifting to sleep, James often found his thoughts returning, strangely enough, to his conversation with the portrait of Severus Snape. Snape had said he'd be watching James, but James couldn't imagine how that could be. There was only one portrait of Snape on the Hogwarts grounds, as far as James knew, and it was up in the Headmistress' office. How could Snape possibly be watching James? Snape had been a powerful wizard, and a potions genius according to Dad and Mum, but how would either of those things allow his portrait to see around the castle? Still, James didn't doubt Snape. If Snape said he was watching him, James felt confident that, somehow or other, it was true. It was only after two weeks of mulling over the conversation he'd had with Snape that James realized what struck him most about it. To Snape, unlike James and the rest of the wizarding world, it was a foregone conclusion that James was just like his father. "Like Potter, like son," he'd said, sneering. Ironically, though, to Snape, if no one else, this was not precisely a good thing.
As the leaves in the Forbidden Forest began to settle into the browns and yellows of autumn, the blue Progressive Element buttons were augmented by the posters and banners for the first All-School Debate. As Ralph had predicted, the theme was 'Re-evaluating the Assumptions of the Past: Truth or Conspiracy'. As if the words themselves weren't enough, the right side of each banner and poster bore a drawing of a lightning bolt that was enchanted to shift into the shape of a question mark every few seconds. Zane, who, according to Petra, was quite good at debate, told James that the school debate committee had argued for quite some time about the topic of the first event. Tabitha Corsica was not on the debate committee, but her crony, Philia Goyle, was the committee chair.
"So in the end," Zane had reported to James, "the debate team turned out to be a great example of democracy in action: they argued all night, then she chose." He shrugged wearily.
The sight of the signs and banners, and especially, that very unambiguous lightning bolt, made James' blood boil. Seeing Ralph on a ladder finishing hanging one of the banners just outside the door to Technomancy class was more than he could take.
"I'm surprised you can reach like that, Ralph," James said, anger pushing the words out, "what with Tabitha Corsica's hand so far up your backside."
Zane, who'd been walking next to James, sighed and ducked into the classroom. Ralph hadn't noticed James until he spoke. He glanced down, his expression surprised and wounded. "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded.
"It means, I'd think by now, you'd have gotten sick of being her little first-year puppet." James already regretted saying anything. The guileless misery on Ralph's face shamed him.
Ralph had the mantra down well, though. "Your people are the puppetmasters, preying on the fears of the weak-minded to maintain the demagoguery of prejudice and unfairness," he said, but without much conviction. James rolled his eyes and walked into the classroom.
Professor Jackson was absent from his usual spot behind the teacher's desk. James sat next to Zane in the front row. As he sat down, he made a point of joking and laughing with a few other Gryffindors nearby, knowing Ralph was watching through the doorway. The mean pleasure it gave him was hollow and raw, but it was pleasure nonetheless.
Finally, the room hushed. James looked up and saw Professor Jackson entering, carrying something under his arm. The object was large, flat, and wrapped in cloth.
"Good morning, class," he said in his usual, brusque manner. "Your last week's essays are graded and on my desk. Mr. Murdock, would you mind distributing them, please? On the whole, I am not terribly disappointed, although I think most of you can be relieved that Hogwarts does not generally grade on the curve."
Jackson carefully set his parcel on the desk. As he unfolded the cloth from around it, James could see that it was a stack of three rather small paintings. He thought of the painting of Severus Snape and his attention perked up.
"Today is a day for taking notes, I can assure you," Jackson said ominously. He arranged the paintings in a row along the shelf of the chalkboard. The first painting was of a thin man with owlish glasses and an almost perfectly bald head. He blinked at the class, his expression alert and slightly nervous, as if he expected someone, at any moment, to jump up and shout "Boo!" at him. The next painting was empty but for a rather bland wooded background. The last showed a fairly ghastly clown in white face with a hideously large, red smile painted over its mouth. The clown leered inanely at the class and shook a little cane with a ball on the end. The ball, James noticed with a shudder, was a tiny version of the clown's own head, grinning even more insanely.
Murdock finished handing back everyone's papers and slid back into his own seat. James glanced down at his essay. On the front, in Jackson's perfect, left-slanting cursive, were the words, Tepid, but borderline cogent. Grammar needs work.
"As always, questions about your grades may be submitted to me in writing. Further discussion will be obtained, as needed, during my office hours, assuming any of you remember where my office is. And now, onward and upward." Jackson paced slowly along the line of paintings, gesturing vaguely at them. "As many of you will recall, in our first class, we had a short discussion, spearheaded by Mr. Walker," he peered beneath his bushy eyebrows in Zane's direction, "about the nature of magical art. I explained that the artist's intentions are imbued on the canvas via a magical, psycho-kinetic process, which allows the art to take on a semblance of motion and attitude. The result is a drawing that moves and mimics life at the whim of the artist. Today, we will examine a different kind of art, one that represents life in a wholly different way."
Quills scratched feverishly as the class struggled to keep up with Jackson's monologue. As usual, Jackson paced as he spoke.
"The art of magical painting comes in two forms. The first one is just a more lavish version of what I illustrated in class, which is the creation of purely fanciful imagery based on the imagination of the artist. This is different from Muggle art only inasmuch as the magical versions may move and emote, based on the intention--and only within the imaginative boundaries--of the artist. Our friend, Mr. Biggles here, is an example." Jackson gestured at the painting of the clown. "Mr. Biggles, thankfully, never existed outside the imagination of the artist who painted him." The clown responded to the attention, bobbing in its frame, waggling the fingers of one white-gloved hand and waving the cane in the other. The tiny clown's head on the end of the cane ran its tongue out and crossed its eyes. Jackson glared at the thing for a moment, and then sighed as he began to pace again.
"The second type of magical painting is much more precise. It depends on advanced spellwork and potion-mixed paints to recreate a living individual or creature. The technomancic name for this type of painting is imago aetaspeculum, which means… can anyone tell me?"
Petra raised her hand and Jackson nodded at her. "It means, I think, something like a living mirror image, sir?"
Jackson considered her answer. "Half credit, Miss Morganstern. Five points to Gryffindor for effort. The most accurate definition of the term is 'a magical painting that captures a living imprint of the individual it represents, but confined within the aetas, or timeframe, of the subject's own lifetime'. The result is a portrait that, while not containing the living essence of the subject, mirrors every intellectual and emotional characteristic of that subject. Thus, the portrait does not learn and evolve beyond the subject's death, but retains exactly that subject's personality as strictly defined by his or her lifetime. We have Mr. Cornelius Yarrow here as an example."
Jackson now indicated the thin, rather nervous man in the portrait. Yarrow flinched slightly at Jackson's gesture. Mr. Biggles capered frantically in his frame, jealous for attention.
"Mr. Yarrow, when did you die?" Jackson asked, passing the portrait on his way around the room again.
The portrait's voice was as thin as the man in it, with a high, nasal tone. "September twentieth, nineteen forty-nine. I was sixty-seven years and three months old, rounding up, of course."
"And what--as if I needed to ask--was your occupation?"
"I was Hogwarts school bursar for thirty-two years," the portrait answered with a sniff.
Jackson turned to look at the painting. "And what do you do now?"
The portrait blinked nervously. "Excuse me?"
"With all the time you now have on your hands, I mean. It's been a long time since nineteen fortynine. What do you do with yourself, Mr. Yarrow? Have you developed any hobbies?"
Yarrow seemed to chew his lips, obviously mystified and worried by the question. "I… hobbies? No hobbies, as such. I… I always just liked numbers. I tend to think about my work. That's what I always did when I wasn't figuring the books. I thought about the budgets, the numbers, and worked them out in my head."
Jackson maintained eye contact with the painting. "You still think about the numbers? You spend your time working out the books for the school budget as it stood in nineteen forty-nine?"
Yarrow's eyes darted back and forth over the class. He seemed to feel he was being trapped somehow. "Er. Yes. Yes, I do. It's just what I do, you understand. What I always did. I see no reason to stop. I'm the bursar, you see. Well, was, of course. The bursar."
"Thank you very much, Mr. Yarrow. You've illustrated my point precisely," said Jackson, resuming his circuit of the room.
"Always happy to be of service," Yarrow said a little stiffly.
Jackson addressed the class again. "Mr. Yarrow's portrait, as some of you probably know, normally hangs in the corridor just outside the Headmistress' office, along with many other former school staff members and faculty. We have, however, come into possession of a second portrait of Mr. Yarrow, one that normally hangs in his family's home. The second portrait, as you may guess, is here in the center of our display. Mr. Yarrow, if you please?" Jackson gestured at the empty portrait in the center.
Yarrow raised his eyebrows. "Hm? Oh. Yes, of course." He shifted, stood, brushed some nonexistent flecks of lint off his natty robes, and then stepped carefully out of the portrait frame. For a few seconds, both portraits stood empty, then Yarrow appeared in the center portrait. He was wearing slightly different clothes in this portrait, and when he sat, he was turned at an angle, showing the prow of his nose in profile.
"Thank you again, Mr. Yarrow," Jackson said, leaning against his desk and crossing his arms. "Although there are exceptions, typically, a portrait only becomes active upon the death of the subject. Technomancy cannot explain to us why this should be, except that it seems to respond to the law of Conservation of Personalities. In other words, one Mr. Cornelius Yarrow at any given moment is, cosmically speaking, sufficient." There was a murmur of suppressed laughter. Yarrow frowned as Jackson continued. "Another factor that comes into play once the subject is deceased is the interactivity between portraits. If there is more than one portrait of an individual, the portraits become connected, sharing a common subject. The result is one mutual portrait that can maneuver at will between its frames. For instance, Mr. Yarrow can visit us at Hogwarts, and then return to his home portrait as he wishes."
James struggled to write all of Jackson's comments down, knowing the professor was notorious for creating test questions out of the least detail of a lecture. He was distracted from the task, however, by thoughts of the portrait of Severus Snape. James risked raising his hand.
Jackson spied him and his eyebrows rose slightly. "A question, Mr. Potter?"
"Yes, sir. Can a portrait ever leave its own frames? Can it, maybe, go over into a different painting?"
Jackson studied James for a moment, his eyebrows still raised. "Excellent question, Mr. Potter. Let us find out, shall we? Mr. Yarrow, may I beg your service once more?"
Yarrow was trying to maintain the pose of his second portrait, which was studious and thoughtful, looking slightly away. His eyes slid to the side, looking out at Jackson. "I suppose so. How else may I help?"
"Are you aware of the painting of the rather odious Mr. Biggles in the frame next to you?"
Mr. Biggles responded to the mention of his name by feigning great shock and shyness. He covered his mouth with one hand and batted his eyes. The tiny clown's head on the end of the cane goggled and blew raspberries. Yarrow sighed. "I am aware of that painting, yes."
"Would you be so kind as to step into his painting for just a moment, sir?"
Yarrow turned to Jackson, his watery eyes magnified behind his spectacles. "Even if that were possible, I don't believe I could bring myself to join his company. I'm sorry."
Jackson nodded, closing his eyes respectfully. "Thank you, yes, I don't blame you, Mr. Yarrow. No, we can see, therefore, that while a much stronger magic is required to create the imago aetaspeculum, it isn't designed to allow the portrait to enter a painting of a purely imaginary subject. It would be, in a sense, like trying to force yourself through a drawing of a door. On the other hand, Mr. Biggles?" The clown jumped up ecstatically at the mention of its name again, then looked at Jackson with a caricature of intense attention. Jackson spread an arm toward the middle frame. "Please join Mr. Yarrow in his portrait, won't you?"
Cornelius Yarrow looked shocked, then horrified, as the clown leaped out of its own painting and into his. Mr. Biggles landed behind Yarrow's chair, grabbing it and nearly rocking Yarrow out of it. Yarrow spluttered as Biggles leered forward, his head over Yarrow's left shoulder, the miniature clown's head cane over his right, blowing raspberries into the man's ear.
"Professor Jackson!" Yarrow exclaimed, his voice rising an octave and trembling on the verge of inaudibility. "I insist you remove this… this fevered imagining from my portrait at once!"
The class erupted into gales of laughter as the clown leaped over Yarrow's shoulder and landed on his lap, throwing both arms around the man's skinny neck. The clown's head cane kissed Yarrow repeatedly on the nose. "Mr. Biggles," Jackson said loudly, "that's enough. Please return to your own painting."
The clown seemed disinclined to obey. He threw himself off Yarrow's lap and hid elaborately behind the man's chair. Biggles' eyes peeped over Yarrow's right shoulder, the miniature head peeped over his left. Yarrow turned and swatted at the clown prissily, as if it were a spider he was loath to touch but anxious to kill. Jackson produced his wand--a twelve-inch length of hickory--from his sleeve and pointed it carefully at the clown's empty frame. "Shall I alter your environment while you are away, Mr. Biggles? You'll need to return to it eventually. Would you prefer to find it stocked with a few more Japanese Thorn Thickets?"
The clown frowned petulantly under its make-up and stood. Sulking, it clambered out of Yarrow's portrait and back into its own frame.
"A simple rule of thumb," Jackson said, watching the clown give him a very enthusiastic nasty look. "A one-dimensional personality can merge into a two-dimensional personality's environment, but not the other way around. Portraits are confined to their own frames, while imaginary subjects can move freely into and through any other painting in their general vicinity. Does that answer your question, Mr. Potter?"
"Yes, sir," James answered, then rushed on. "One more thing, though. Can a portrait ever appear in more than one of its frames at once?"
Jackson smiled at James while simultaneously furrowing his brow. "Your inquisitiveness on the subject knows no bounds, it seems, Mr. Potter. As a matter of fact, that is possible, although it is a rarity. For great wizards, whose portraits have been duplicated many times, there has been known to be some division of the personality, allowing the subject to appear in multiple frames at once. Such is the case with your Albus Dumbledore, as you might guess. This phenomenon is very difficult to measure and, of course, depends entirely on the skill of the witch or wizard whose likeness appears in the portrait. Is that all, Mr. Potter?"
"Professor Jackson, sir?" a different voice asked. James turned to see Philia Goyle near the back, her hand raised.
"Yes, Miss Goyle," Jackson said, sighing.
"If I understand correctly, the portrait knows everything that the subject knew, yes?"
"I believe that is apparent, Miss Goyle. The painting reflects the personality, knowledge, and experiences of the subject. No more and no less."
"Does a portrait, then, make its subject immortal?" Philia asked. Her face, as always, was stoic and impassive.
"I am afraid you are confusing what appears to be with what is, Miss Goyle," Jackson said, eyeing Philia closely, "and that is a dreadful mistake for a witch to make. Much of magic, and much of life in general, I might add, is concerned primarily with illusion. The ability to separate illusion from reality is one of the fundamental basics of technomancy. No, a portrait is merely a representation of the once-living subject, no more alive than your own shadow where it falls on the ground. It can in no way be thought to prolong the life of the deceased subject. Despite all appearances, a wizard portrait is still merely paint on canvas."
As Jackson finished speaking, he turned toward the painting of Mr. Biggles. With one swift movement, he pointed his wand at the painting, not even quite looking at it. A jet of clear, yellowish liquid spurted from the end of the wand and splashed on the canvas. Instantly, it dissolved the paint. Mr. Biggles stopped moving as his image blurred, then ran freely down the canvas. The unmistakable smell of turpentine filled the room. The class was deadly quiet.
Professor Jackson walked slowly behind his desk. "I fancied myself a bit of an artist when I was younger," he said, studying the end of his wand as he turned. "Mr. Biggles, horrid as he was, was one of my better works. You may freely guess what kind of life circumstances could lead to my creating such a thing, as I myself have forgotten. I thought Mr. Biggles was long forgotten as well, until I found him in the bottom of a trunk while packing for my journey. I thought," he said, glancing over at the streaky mess that ran out of the frame and dripped to the floor, "that this would be a fitting end for him."
Jackson sat down at his desk, carefully laying his wand on the blotter in front of him. "And now, class, what technomancic truth can we derive from what I've just illustrated?"
No one moved. Then a hand raised slowly.
Jackson inclined his head. "Mr. Murdock?"
Murdock cleared his throat. "Don't try to be an artist if you're supposed to be a Technomancy teacher, sir?"
"That wasn't quite what I had in mind, Mr. Murdock, but that is inarguably true as well. No, the truth I was illustrating is that, while a wizard painting, portrait or otherwise, is indeed still merely paint on canvas," Jackson's gaze searched the class, then settled on James, "only the original artist can destroy his painting. No one or nothing else. The canvas can be slashed, the frame destroyed, the bindings cut, but the painting will endure. It will continue to represent its subject, no matter what happens to it, even in a hundred pieces. Only the original artist can destroy that connection, and once he does, it is destroyed forever."
As the class was dismissed, James couldn't help slowing as he passed the destroyed painting of Mr. Biggles. The clown's face was nothing more than a muddy grey blur in the center of the canvas. Squiggly streaks of paint ran over the bottom edge of the frame, puddled in the chalk tray, and dripped onto the floor, making a drab spatter of white and bloody red. James shuddered, and then walked on. He thought he'd never look at another wizard painting the same way again. As he made his way to his next class, he passed a painting of several wizards gathered around a gigantic globe. Ironically, James noticed that one of the wizards, a severe man with a black mustache and glasses, was watching him closely. James stopped and leaned in. The wizard's stare became stonier, his eyes piercing.
"You've got nothing to worry about," James said quietly. "I don't even know how to draw. Art is Zane's department."
The painted wizard grimaced at him, annoyed, as if James had entirely missed the point. He made a harrumphing noise and pointed in the direction James had been walking, as if to say move along, nothing to see here.
James resumed his walk to Charms class, musing idly about the wizard in the painting. He'd looked familiar, but James couldn't quite place him. By the time he entered Professor Flitwick's classroom, James had already forgotten the little painted wizard and his piercing stare.
The day of the much ballyhooed first school debate came and James was surprised at how many people were planning to attend. He had assumed debates were typically stodgy little affairs attended only by the teams themselves, some teachers, and a handful of the more academically-minded students. By lunch that Friday, though, the debate had generated the sort of boisterous tension that accompanied certain Quidditch matches. The one thing that seemed to be missing, however, was the joking taunts between the supporters. Thanks to the carefully worded banners and signs advertising the debate, the student population had been rather evenly divided between two worldviews that, it seemed, were not compatible on any level. The result was a sullen tension that filled the silences where jests and competitive taunts might otherwise have been. James had not been seriously considering attending the debate. Now, though, he realized that the outcome of the event would very likely affect the entire culture of Hogwarts. For that reason, he felt an obligation to go, as well as a growing curiosity. Besides, if Zane was going to be arguing in front of a large portion of the school populace, partly in defense of Harry Potter, James knew it'd be important that he be there to show his support.
After dinner, James joined Ted and the rest of the Gremlins as they made their way to the event, along with much of the rest of the student populace.
The debate was held in the Amphitheater, where the occasional play and concert were usually performed. James had never been in the Amphitheater before. The open-air seating area, carved out of the hillside behind the east tower, descended in steep terraces down to a large stage. As James made his way through the crowded arch that opened onto the top tier of seating, he saw that the stage below was nearly empty. A high-backed, official-looking chair sat in the center rear of the stage, flanked by two podiums and two long tables, with chairs arranged along their backs. Professor Flitwick was on stage, guiding a phosphorous globe into the air with his wand, placing it among several others that lit the stage at strategic locations. The orchestra pit had been covered over with a great wooden platform, and then arranged with a library table and six chairs. Zane had explained that the judges would sit there. The noise of the crowd of students was a hushed babble, nearly lost in the normal evening noises emanating from the dim hills and the nearby forest. Ted, Sabrina, and Damien led the way into a row halfway up the middle section, joining a group of other Gryffindors. Noah was already there. He waved at James as they found their seats.
"Gremlin salute," Noah said, performing, with a straight face, a complicated series of hand gestures that involved a traditional hand to the forehead salute, a raised fist, a waggle of both elbows that looked a bit like a chicken dance, and ended with both hands framing the sides of his face, pinky and thumbs extended, apparently mimicking Gremlin ears.
Ted nodded, responding with only the Gremlin-ear gesture, which was apparently the countersign. "Have our friends from triple W come through for us?"
Noah nodded. "We ran a small test this afternoon under controlled circumstances. Looks even better than we hoped. And," he added, grinning, "they provided their services free of charge. George sent a note with the package, asking only that we tell him exactly how it turns out."
Ted smiled rather humorlessly. "We'll give him a full report either way."
James nudged Ted. "What's going on?"
"James, my boy," Ted said, scanning the crowd, "do you know what the term 'plausible deniability' means?"
James shook his head. "No."
"Ask your buddy, Zane. It was invented by the Americans. Let's just say, sometimes, it's best not to know anything until after the fact."
James shrugged, figuring he was sitting close enough to the action to know, probably before anyone else, what the Gremlins were up to. Someone nearby had a small wireless tuned to the Wizarding Wireless Network. The tiny voice on the speaker burbled away, forming part of the background noise, until James heard the phrase 'crowded Amphitheater'. He swept his gaze over the groups clustered near the stage, and then saw what he was looking for. A tall man wearing a purple bowler hat was speaking into the tip of his wand. The cadence of his speech blew small, smoky puffs off the end of his wand, the puffs forming the shapes of words as they floated through the air. On a small table near the man was a machine that looked somewhat like an old-fashioned record player with a huge funnel. The wispy word-shapes were sucked into the funnel as fast as they flowed off the man's wand. James had never seen a magical broadcast in action. He read the words the wizard was speaking a second before they were broadcast to the nearby wireless.
"The curious and the contentious alike seem to have gathered in droves for tonight's contest," the announcer said, "illustrating the ongoing debate all around the wizarding world these days, as doubts about Ministry policy and Auror practices meet questions regarding recent magical history. Tonight, via this special broadcast of Current Wizard's Newswatch, we will see what one of the country's foremost centers of magical learning thinks of this divisive issue. I'm your host, Myron Madrigal, speaking on behalf of tonight's sponsor, Wymnot's Wand Polish and Enchant-Enhancer: better spells come from a Wymnot wand. We'll be right back for opening comments after this important message."
The announcer twirled a finger at an assistance, who plugged the funnel with a large plunger, then spindled a record into the device. A commercial for Wymnot Wand Polish began to play on the nearby wireless. James had been concerned about the debate being broadcast to the wizarding world at large, but then decided it was better than having it parsed and reported in bits by someone like Rita Skeeter. At least this way, all the arguments would be heard in their entirety. He could only hope that Zane, Petra, and their team would argue well against Tabitha Corsica and her carefully woven agenda of doubts and half-truths.
Just as the commercial on the nearby wireless ended, Benjamin Franklyn approached the left side podium on stage. On the wireless, the announcer's voice spoke in a hushed tone, "In a daring turn of events, the chancellor of the American wizarding school, Alma Aleron, Benjamin Amadeus Franklyn has been asked to officiate tonight's debate. He approaches the podium."
"Good evening, friends, students, guests," Franklyn said, forgoing his wand and raising his clear, tenor voice. "Welcome to this, Hogwarts' inaugural All-School Debate. My name is Benjamin Franklyn, and I am honored to have been chosen to introduce tonight's teams. Without further delay, will Teams A and B take their places on the stage?"
A group of ten people stood from the front row. The group split, half ascending the stage on the right side and half on the left. They filed into the chairs behind the two tables as Franklyn introduced them. Team A consisted of Zane, Petra, Gennifer Tellus, a Hufflepuff named Andrew Haubert, and an Alma Aleron student named Gerald Jones. Team B was, not surprisingly, mostly fifth- to seventh-year Slytherins, including Tabitha Corsica, her crony, Tom Squallus, and two others, Heather Flack and Nolan Beetlebrick. The fifth person at the table, and the only one younger than fifteen, was Ralph. He sat in his chair as rigid as a statue, staring at Franklyn as if he was hypnotized.
"Tonight's debate," Franklyn continued, adjusting his square spectacles, "as can be assumed by the turnout and the press coverage, deals with subjects both weighty and far-reaching. It has been said that dissent is the greatest expression of freedom, and that debate and discourse are the fuel for a right-thinking populace to maintain a fair government. These are the axioms that define us, and tonight, we will see them in action. Let us all assume an attitude of respect and reason, regardless of our own opinions, so that what flows tonight does so in a manner befitting this school and all who have passed through its halls. No matter the outcome," Franklyn turned at this point, acknowledging the two debate teams seated on either side, "let us leave here as we entered: friends, classmates, and fellow witches and wizards."
There was a round of applause which, James thought, sounded rather more perfunctory than appreciative. Franklyn produced a paper from his robes and examined it.
"As was determined earlier this evening by lots," he called out in an official voice, "Team B is first to offer opening statements. Miss Tabitha Corsica, I believe, will represent. Miss Corsica."
Franklyn backed away from the podium, taking a seat in the high-backed chair at the rear center of the stage. Tabitha approached the left podium, her hands empty. She smiled her wonderful smile at the crowd, seeming to take every person in one by one. "Friends and classmates, teachers and members of the press, may I be so bold as to begin by pointing out that the remarks of our esteemed Professor Franklyn, in fact, represent the very heart of the error that underlies our discussion tonight?"
The crowd reacted with something like a mutual gasp or sigh of anticipation. Tabitha took the moment to turn and smile at Benjamin Franklyn. "With apologies and respect, Professor." Franklyn seemed entirely unperturbed. He raised a hand to her, palm up, and nodded. Do tell, the gesture seemed to say.
"Of course, decorum and respect must rule the day during a discourse like this," Tabitha said, returning her attention to the audience. "In that respect, we couldn't agree more with the professor. No, the error lies in Professor Franklyn's last sentence. He encourages us, most of all, to remember that we are all, in the end, fellow witches and wizards. Friends, is this the essential basis of our identity? If so, then I contend that we are the worst of tyrants, the lowest form of bigot. For are we not, beneath the wands and the spells, more human than witch or wizard? To allow ourselves to be primarily defined by our magic is to deny the humanity we share in common with the non-magical world. Worse, it relegates, by omission, the rest of humanity to a status both lower and less important than our own. Now, I do not ascribe these prejudices to Professor Franklyn in particular. These prejudices are as ingrained into the methods and manners of current wizarding policy as magic is ingrained into a broomstick. It is not the innate belief of the magical world that Muggle humanity is inferior to our own, but it is the unfortunate and inevitable result of current Ministry policies.
"Our argument tonight is that the assumptions of the current ruling class have led to this prejudice. Those assumptions are threefold. The first is that the Law of Secrecy is a necessary safeguard against a Muggle world supposedly incapable of dealing with our existence. While possibly necessary in a past age, we maintain that the Law of Secrecy is now obsolete, resulting only in a segregated society that unfairly denies both the wizarding and the Muggle worlds the benefits of each other.
"The second assumption is that history proves the idea that magical-Muggle congress can only result in war. We will argue that this claim has been vastly orchestrated out of a series of isolated and unconnected historical incidents that, on their own, were unfortunate, but relatively unimportant. The specter of the allpowerful evil wizard seeking world rule has been placed alongside the prejudice of the weak-minded Muggle world, incapable of accepting the existence of magical society. Both of these threats, we assert, have been cultivated by the magical ruling class to maintain a culture of fear, thus cementing their own agenda of power and control.
"And the final assumption we wish to question is the existence of so-called 'dark' magic. We will argue that 'dark' magic is simply a form of complex, if occasionally dangerous, magic, only considered evil because it was mostly used by those who at one time opposed the current magical ruling class. 'Dark' magic is, in short, an invention of the Auror Department, used to justify the squashing of any individual or group that the ruling class feels threatened by.
"We assert that these three assumptions form the basis of the policies of prejudice against the Muggle world. Our goal is equality, and nothing less, for Muggles, as well as ourselves. After all, before we are witch or wizard, Muggle or magical, we are first and foremost… human."
With that, Tabitha turned and walked back to her seat at the Team B table. There was a moment of rather awed silence, then, to James dismay, the crowd erupted in applause. James looked around. Not everyone was applauding, but those that were, roughly half, did so with a grim vigor.
"…outpouring of support from the assembled students," the voice on the wireless could just be heard to say, "as Miss Corsica, the picture of composure and assurance, takes her seat. Miss Petra Morganstern, captain of Team A, now approaches the lectern…"
Petra arranged a small stack of note cards on the podium as the cheers died away. She looked up, unsmiling.
"Ladies and gentlemen, fellow classmates, greetings," she said, her voice crisp and ringing. "The members of Team B claim that there are three points to their argument, their 'three assumptions'. Team A will argue that there is, in actuality, only one 'assumption' that is valid for debate tonight, their other two arguments being completely dependent upon it. That 'assumption' is the notion that history, as a science and as a study, is not reliable. Team B must convince us that history, rather than being trustworthy, is a complete fabrication, woven by the whims and deliberate manipulations of a small group of incredibly powerful ruling witches and wizards. These ruling individuals must be powerful indeed, because the history they have allegedly invented is, in fact, still in the memory of many of those still living today. Our parents and grandparents, our teachers, and yes, our leaders. They were there when this supposedly fabricated history took place, much of it right here on these very grounds. Using the logic of Team B, the Battle of Hogwarts either never occurred or occurred so differently as to be completely meaningless. If this is so, then we may well argue their other 'assumptions', such as the assertion that there is no necessity for the Law of Secrecy and that dark magic is an invention of the Auror Department. If, however, the historical record of the rise of the Dark Lord and his bloody quest for power and dominion over the Muggle world can be shown to be accurate, the rest of Team B's claims fall as well. Thus, we will spend our energies on that argument only, with apologies to Team B."
There was another moment of charged silence, precipitated by the mention of the Dark Lord, then another burst of applause, equal in volume to the previous, but scattered with exuberant whoops and whistles.
"A short but pithy opening statement by Miss Morganstern," the announcer's voice said. James saw the man in the purple bowler and read his words as they flowed from his wand to the broadcasting funnel. "Apparently crafted on the spot as a response to Miss Corsica's threefold outline. This promises to be a direct and spirited dialogue, ladies and gentlemen."
For the next forty minutes, members of each team took to the podiums, offering argument and counterargument, all timed and officiated by Professor Franklyn. The audience had been instructed to refrain from applause, but this had proven impossible to prevent. Once one round of applause had been sounded for a team's argument, it seemed incumbent upon supporters of the opposing viewpoint to cheer their own side as well. Night descended on the Amphitheater, ominously dark, with only a thin sickle moon low on the horizon. Enchanted lanterns floated over the stairs and archways, leaving the seating areas in shadow. The stage glowed in the center, lit like noonday in the glow of Professor Flitwick's gently floating phosphorous globes. Zane faced off against Heather Flack, debating the assertion that recorded histories were always manufactured by the victors.
"I'm from the United States, you know," Zane said, addressing Heather Flack across the stage. "If your statement is true, it's a remarkable thing that I've ever learned anything about my country's occasionally terrible past, from our treatment of Native Americans, to the Salem witch-hunts, to the one-time institution of slavery. If the victors fabricate our histories, how is it that I know that even Thomas Jefferson once owned slaves?"
Benjamin Franklyn winced at that, then nodded slowly, approvingly. The supporters of Team A applauded uproariously.
Finally, with no clear outcome, the captains of both teams approached the podiums for final arguments. Tabitha Corsica still had first option.
"I appreciate," she began, glancing at Petra, "that my opponent in this debate has made it a point to restrict discussion to this one central tenet: that the recent history of the wizarding world has been enhanced and stylized to instill terror of some fabled, monstrous enemy. To be specific, they have continuously raised the image of 'the Dark Lord', as they prefer to call him. If Miss Morganstern wishes to evade the other valid facets of tonight's discussion, I will concur. If, that is, she is willing to debate the details of the one figure around whom all the other details revolve. Let us discuss the treatment of Lord Tom Riddle."
A distinct gasp of surprise and awe washed over the crowd at the mention of Voldemort's name. Even for Tabitha Corsica, James thought, bringing up Tom Riddle seemed like a terrible risk, even if he was, in fact, the heart of the issue. James sat forward in his seat, his heart pounding.
"'The Dark Lord', as the Auror Department likes to call Tom Riddle," Tabitha said into the hushed darkness, "was indeed a powerful wizard, and perhaps even a misguided one. Overzealous, he may have been. But what, really, do we know for sure about his plans and his methods? Miss Morganstern will simply tell you he was evil. He was a 'dark' wizard, she will say, intent only on power and death. But really, do such people even exist? In comic books, perhaps. And in the minds of those who breed fear. But is anyone, in reality, utterly and irredeemably evil? No, I suggest that perhaps Tom Riddle was a misguided but wellmeaning wizard whose desire for Muggle-wizard equality was simply too radical a notion for the magical ruling class to allow. The powers-that-be put together a very careful campaign of half-truths and outright lies, all designed to discredit Riddle's ideas and demonize his followers, whom the Ministry-controlled media dubbed 'Death Eaters'. Despite this, Riddle's reformers were eventually able to win enough confidence to assume control of the Ministry of Magic for a short time. Only after a vicious and bloody coup were the old powers able to defeat Riddle and his reformers, killing Tom Riddle in the process and defaming what he stood for as mercilessly as they could."
As Tabitha spoke, a grumbling spread around the assembled crowd. The grumbling grew into isolated shouts of outrage, then calls of "Let her speak!" Finally, just as she finished, the crowd erupted into an agitated frenzy that James found frightening. He glanced around. Many students had stood and were shouting through cupped hands. Several had climbed onto their seats, stomping or shaking fists. James couldn't tell who, among the crowd, was shouting for or against Tabitha.
At the height of the disturbance, James had a vague sense of Ted Lupin and Noah Metzker huddling around something. Suddenly, there was a burst of blinding light between them, throwing them into stark silhouette. The light shot upwards, filling the Amphitheater with its glow. At about a hundred feet, the ball of light exploded into a million tiny lights. The crowd hushed, bewildered, every eye tilted up. The tiny lights swam together, forming shapes. There was a collective gasp as the lights formed the huge shape of the legendary Dark Mark: a skull with a snake squirming out of the mouth. Then, almost instantly, the shape was overwhelmed by a stylized lightning bolt shape. The lightning bolt seemed to strike the skull, which bit the snake in half. The front half of the snake rolled over dead, its eyes turning to little crosses, and then the skull broke in half. The lightning bolt vanished as a sign popped up out of the broken skull:
You'll laugh your skull off
at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes!
Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade Locations!
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There was a long, silent moment of complete bewilderment as everyone stared up at the glittering letters. Then the letters broke apart and fell, showering prettily into the Amphitheater. There was a titter of laughter somewhere.
"Well," Professor Franklyn said, having stood and moved center stage, "that was, I must admit, a well-timed, if somewhat puzzling, diversion." There was some scattered, embarrassed laughter. Slowly, people began to resume their seats. James turned toward Ted and Noah, who were squinting and looking dazed, blinded by the Weasley Brothers' special-order fireworks.
"Bloody Weasleys made a public service announcement out of it," Ted muttered.
Noah shrugged. "Guess that's why it was free of charge."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Franklyn continued, "this is indeed a subject of much passion for many of us, but we must not allow ourselves to become carried away. Miss Corsica has made some assertions that are, to many of us, very difficult to hear. However, this is a debate, and where I come from, we do not," he said with great emphasis, "squash debate simply because an argument makes us uncomfortable. I hope we can complete this discussion with dignity, otherwise, I am sure the Headmistress will agree with me that postponing final arguments will be the only recourse. Miss Morganstern, I believe you had the floor."
Franklyn sat back down, and James sensed that he was far angrier than he was letting on. Petra stood behind her podium for several seconds, eyes down. Finally, she looked up, obviously shaken.
"I admit I don't know quite where to begin in responding to Miss Corsica's frankly incredible hypothesis. The Dark Lord was not merely evil because it was convenient for those in power to call him so. He used unspeakable methods to gain and maintain power. He was known for freely using, and for instructing his followers to use, all three Unforgivable Curses. Lord Voldemort was no more interested in Muggle equality than… than…" She stopped, fumbling. James pressed his lips together furiously. He felt for her. There were so many lies to address. Any that slipped past would be touted as truths she was reluctant to admit.
"Miss Morganstern," Tabitha said, her voice beseeching, "do you have any basis for these claims, or are you simply repeating the things you've been told?"
Petra looked over at Tabitha, her face pale and furious. "Only the totality of recorded history, and the living memories of those who experienced it firsthand," she spat. "It is incumbent on you, I suggest, to provide proof for your claims that Lord Voldemort was anything other than what all of accepted record tells us he was."
"Since you mention that," Tabitha said smoothly, "I believe that there are individuals here this evening who were firsthand witnesses to the Battle of Hogwarts. We could settle accounts right now, if we desired, by interviewing them in person. This is not a courtroom, though, so I will merely ask the following: Can anyone in attendance, anyone who was there at the Battle, deny that Lord Tom Riddle himself stated for all to hear that he deplored the loss of any blood in battle? Can anyone deny that he pleaded with his enemies to meet with their leader personally, so that violence could be avoided?"
Tabitha peered out over the audience. There was perfect silence but for the distant drone of the crickets and the creak of wind in the trees of the Forbidden Forest.
"No, none deny it because it is the truth," she said, almost kindly. "Many died, of course. But it is a matter of fact that many more died than Lord Tom Riddle desired. All because those who opposed him could not bear for him to be known as anything other than a murderous madman."
Petra had regained her composure. She spoke now, clearly and strongly. "And is it the act of a peace-loving reformer to seek out and personally murder the family of an infant, then attempt to murder the infant as well?"
"You speak of Harry Potter, then?" Tabitha said, not missing a beat. "The man who, ironically, happens to be the Head of the Auror Department?"
"You deny it is true, then?"
"I deny nothing. I simply question and challenge. I suggest only that the truth is a far more complex thing than we have been allowed to believe. I submit that allegations of cold-blooded murder and attacks on children, all of which are rather conveniently unprovable, factor very well into the doctrine of fear that has ruled us these past twenty years."
"How dare you?" James heard his own voice before he realized he'd meant to speak. He was standing, pointing at Tabitha Corsica, trembling with rage. "How dare you call my dad a liar? That monster killed his parents! My grandparents are dead because of him, and you stand there and tell us that it's some sort of made-up story! How dare you?" His voice cracked.
"I'm sorry," Tabitha said, and her face was, indeed, a portrait of compassion. "I know you believe that is true, James."
Professor Franklyn had stood and was moving forward, but James shouted again before Franklyn could speak.
"My dad killed your great hero!" he called, his eyes blurring with tears of rage. "That monster tried to kill my dad twice, the second time because my dad gave himself to him. Your great savior was a monster, and my dad finally defeated him!"
"Your father," Tabitha said, her voice rising and becoming stern, "was a half-rate wizard with a good PR department. If it wasn't for the fact that he'd been surrounded by greater wizards than himself at every turn, we wouldn't even know his name today."
At that, the crowd exploded again, angry outbursts and shouts filling the space like a cauldron. There was a clatter onstage. James looked and saw that Ralph, who'd never even spoken, had jumped up, knocking over his chair. Tabitha turned and looked at him, and he met her eyes for a second. Sit down, she mouthed at him, her eyes livid. Ralph returned her glare, then turned resolutely and left the stage. James saw it, and even in the midst of his anguish and fear at the nearly rioting crowd, his heart rejoiced.
There was no point in continuing the debate any further. Headmistress McGonagall joined Professor Franklyn on the stage and both shot red flares from their wands, restoring order to the Amphitheater. With no preamble, the Headmistress instructed all the students to return immediately to their common rooms. Her face was stern and very pale. As the crowd muttered and grumbled, funneling through the arched entryway back into the castle proper, James saw Ralph working toward him through the crowd. He moved aside until the larger boy caught up.
"I can't do it anymore," Ralph said to James, his voice low and his eyes downcast. "I'm sorry she said those terrible, stupid things. You can keep hating me if you want, but I just can't keep up with all this Progressive Element rubbish. I don't know anything about it, really, except that it's just too much work to be so… so political."
James couldn't help grinning. "Ralph, you're a brick. I don't hate you. I should apologize to you."
"Well, let's apologize later, OK?" Ralph said, working his way toward the archway with James following in his wake. "Right now, I just want to get out of here. Tabitha Corsica has been staring holes into me ever since I left the stage. Besides, Zane says that Ted's invited us to hang out in your common room. He wants to gloat over having won over a member of Team B."
"That won't bother you?" James asked.
"Nah," Ralph replied, shrugging, "it's worth it. Gryffindors have better snacks."
10. Holiday at Grimmauld Place
The next Monday, James, Zane, and Ralph stood outside the door of Headmistress McGonagall's Advanced Transfiguration class until the last of her students left and she was gathering her things.
"Come in, come in," she called to the three boys without looking up. "Stop lurking outside the door like vultures. How may I help you?"
"Madam Headmistress," James began tentatively, "we want to talk to you about the debate."
"Do you, now?" she asked, glancing up at James for a moment, then shouldering her bag. "Why, I cannot begin to imagine. The sooner we can all forget that fiasco, the better."
The boys scrambled to follow the Headmistress as she strode toward the door. "But nobody is forgetting it, Madam," James said quickly. "It was all anybody talked about the whole weekend. People are getting really stirred up about it. There was almost a fight out in the courtyard yesterday, when Mustrum Jewel heard Reavis McMillan call Tabitha Corsica a lying twit. If Professor Longbottom hadn't been nearby, Mustrum probably would've killed Reavis."
"This is a school, Mr. Potter, and a school is, in its simplest form, a place where young people gather. Young people are occasionally prone to have spats. This is why, among other reasons, Hogwarts employs Mr. Filch."
"It wasn't a spat, Madam," Ralph said, following the Headmistress out into the corridor. "They were really mad. Daft mad, if you know what I mean. People are coming unglued about this whole business."
"Then, like Mr. Potter says, it is fortunate Professor Longbottom was nearby. I fail to see, precisely, why this is your problem."
Zane trotted to keep up with the Headmistress' stride. "Well, the thing is, ma'am, we're just wondering why you're letting it all go on? I mean, you were there when the Battle took place. You know what this Voldemort guy was like. You could just tell everyone how it was and put Tabitha in her place, neat as you please."
McGonagall stopped suddenly, leaving the boys to scramble to a halt near her. "What, may I ask, would you three wish me to do?" she said, dropping her voice and looking at each one intently. "The truth about the Dark Lord and his followers has been common knowledge for thirty years, ever since he murdered your grandparents, Mr. Potter. Do you suppose that my repeating it one more time will dispel all the revisionist rabble-rousing that has been going on, not only at this school, but throughout the wizarding world? Hmm?" Her eyes were like diamond chips as she glared at them. James realized that she was, if anything, even more agitated about the debate than they were. "And suppose I summon Miss Corsica to my office and forbid her from disseminating these lies and distortions. Do you expect that this 'Progressive Element' of theirs will simply give up? How long do you suppose it would be before we'd be reading an article in the Daily Prophet about how the administration of Hogwarts is working with the Auror Department to stifle the 'free exchange of ideas on school grounds'?"
James was stunned. He had assumed that the Headmistress was indulging Tabitha Corsica for some reason, allowing, for a time, her charade to continue. It simply hadn't occurred to him that McGonagall might not, in fact, be capable of addressing the matter without making it worse.
"So what do we do, ma'am?" James asked.
"We?" McGonagall said, raising her eyebrows. "My dear James, I admit that you amaze and impress me. Despite what you may believe, the future of the wizarding world does not, in fact, rest upon you and your two friends' shoulders." She saw the annoyed grimace on his face, and then she showed him one of her rare smiles. She bent a bit to speak more conspiratorially, addressing all three boys. "The revived memory of the Dark Lord is not an overlarge concern to those of us who once faced the living thing. This is a whim in the mind of a fickle populace, and irritating as it may be, it will pass. In the meantime, what you three can do is attend your classes, do your homework, and continue to be the sharp-witted and strong-hearted boys you obviously are. And if anyone around you tries to say Tom Riddle was a better man than Harry Potter, you have my permission--my instruction, even--to transfigure their pumpkin juice into nurgle water." She eyed the three boys seriously, one by one. "Just tell them I prescribed you to practice that particular spell. Understood?"
Zane and Ralph grinned at each other. James sighed. McGonagall nodded curtly, straightened herself, and continued briskly on her way. After five steps, she turned back.
"Oh, and boys?"
"Yes, ma'am?" Zane said.
"Two sharp flicks and the word 'nurglammonias'. Emphasis on the first and third syllables."
"Yes, ma'am!" Zane replied again, grinning.
The school year descended through autumn, approaching the winter holidays. The football field became carpeted with leaves, crunching and kicking up under the feet of Professor Curry's Muggle Studies teams. The unofficial football tournament ended with James' team winning. James himself scored the winning goal, his third of the day, against goalie Horace Birch, the Ravenclaw Gremlin. His team collected around him, jumping and hollering as if they'd just won the House Cup. In fact, the winning team's house was rewarded one hundred points by Professor Curry, that being the best prize she could offer. The team circled James, heaving him onto their shoulders and carrying him into the courtyard as if he had just returned from slaying a dragon. He grinned hugely, his cheeks beet red in the chilly autumn wind, and his spirits were higher than they'd been all year.
The routine of classes and homework, which had been daunting during the first weeks, became dull and predictable. Professor Jackson assigned endless dreaded essays and sprung unsuspecting 'pop quizzes' on his class every couple of weeks. Zane told James and Ralph amusing tales of confrontations between Professor Trelawney and Madame Delacroix during his Tuesday night Constellations Club, which, like Divination class, both professors managed to share. On the Quidditch pitch, James continued to advance his broom skills with the help of both Ted and Zane until he began to feel cautiously confident that he might, indeed, make the Gryffindor team next year. He began to imagine how rich it might be to show up at tryouts next spring and wildly surpass everyone's memories of his first year attempts. Zane, for his part, continued to fly remarkably well for the Ravenclaws. Calling on his rather unique Muggle background, he invented a move he called 'buzzing the tower', in which he'd hit a Bludger around the press box, letting it gather speed as it circled back, then meet it on the other side, striking it again to add even more speed and a bit of direction. Using that trick, he had managed to knock two players completely off their brooms, leading to a few apologetic visits to the hospital wing.
Life for Ralph in the Slytherin house had been rough for a while. Tabitha had never actually spoken to him about his desertion of the debate stage or his abandoning of the Progressive Element meetings. James and Zane figured she'd ceased having any use for him when he'd returned to being James' friend. Eventually, the older Slytherins simply forgot about Ralph, apart from a few cool stares or snide remarks in the Slytherin common room. Then, surprisingly, Ralph began to befriend some other first- and second-year Slytherins. Unlike the blue badge wearers, none of them seemed all that interested in the broader world of politics and causes. To be sure, there was a sort of shifty guile to even the first-year Slytherins, but a couple of them seemed to genuinely like Ralph, and even James had to admit they were funny, in a double-edged sort of way.
Defense Against the Dark Arts became a favorite class of James, Zane, and Ralph. Professor Franklyn taught a very practical class, with many exciting stories and real-life examples from his own long and wildly various adventures. James, to no one's surprise, was a very good dueler. He admitted, with a sheepish grin, that he'd been taught quite a lot of defensive technique by his dad. Nobody, however, including James, was willing to go up against Ralph in a duel. Ralph's wand skills seemed remarkably haphazard when it came to defensive spell-casting. The first time he'd dueled, Ralph had attempted a simple Expelliarmus spell on Victoire. He struck out with his wand, a bit wildly, and a bolt of blue lightning had erupted from the end, singeing Victoire's hair so that a ragged bald stripe ran straight across the top of her head. She patted at it with her hand, then her eyes nearly boggled out of her head. She screamed in rage and had to be restrained by three other students from tackling Ralph, who was three times her size. Ralph backed away, apologizing profusely, his wand still smoking.
Only once, during an evening in the Ravenclaw common room, did anyone have the temerity to mention anything to James, Zane, and Ralph about the debate. They were just finishing their homework when a large fourth year named Gregory Templeton sat down at the table across from them.
"Hey, you were both in that debate, weren't you?" he said, pointing back and forth between Zane and Ralph.
"Yeah, Gregory," Zane said, shoving his books into his backpack, his voice betraying his general dislike of the older boy.
"You were the one at the table with Corsica, right?" Gregory said, turning to Ralph.
"Er. Yeah," Ralph said, "but…"
"You tell her from me she's right on the mark, eh? I been reading a book that tells all about the whole thing. It's called The Dumbledore Plot, and it's all about how the old man and that Harry Potter cooked the whole thing up, start to finish. Did you know they made up the whole story about Riddle and the Horcruxes on the night the old man died? Some even say it was Harry Potter himself killed him, once they'd worked it all out."
James struggled to control his temper. He looked levelly at Gregory. "Do you even know who I am?"
Zane stared hard at the bottle in Gregory's hand. "Hey," he asked with forced casualness, surreptitiously pulling out his wand, "what's that you're drinking?"
Ninety seconds later, James, Zane, and Ralph scrambled as Gregory spat nurgle water all over the common room table.
"Practicing!" Zane called, ducking under Gregory's grasping arms. "I swear! I was supposed to practice that transfiguration! Your drink just got in the way! Ask McGonagall!"
The three boys successfully ducked from the room, laughing uproariously at the ensuing chaos.
By Christmas holiday, James was ready for a break. After lunch on his last day of class, James went up to the Gryffindor sleeping chamber to pack his things. The sky outside the tower window had grown chilly and grey, making him wish for the grand fireplace back at number twelve Grimmauld Place and one of Kreacher's very complicated hot chocolates, which consisted, at last count, of fourteen unnamed ingredients, including, he had been assured, at least a pinch of actual chocolate.
"Hey, James," Ralph's voice called up the stairs, "you up there?"
"Yeah. Come on up, Ralph."
"Thanks," Ralph panted, climbing the steps. "I came up after lunch with Petra. She said you'd be here packing. All raring to go, I expect."
"Yeah! We're having everyone over to the old headquarters for the holidays this year. Uncles George and Ron, Aunts Hermione and Fleur, Ted and his grandmum, Victoire, even Luna Lovegood, who you don't know, but you'd be keen on. She's the weirdest grownup I've ever met, but in a good way. Mostly. Grandmum and Granddad won't be there, though. They're visiting Charlie and everybody in Prague this year. Still, I think even Neville will be there. Professor Longbottom, I mean."
Ralph nodded glumly, staring into James' trunk. "Sounds swell. Yeah, well, I hope you have a happy Christmas and all that, then."
James stopped packing, remembering that Ralph's dad was traveling for business over the holidays. "Oh, yeah. So what will you be doing, Ralph? Will you be spending Christmas with your grandparents or something?"
"Hmm?" Ralph said, glancing up. "Oh. Nah. Looks like I'll just be hanging around here for the holidays. Zane's not leaving until next week, so at least I'll have him to hang around with over the weekend. After that… well, I'll figure out something to do with myself." He sighed hugely.
"Ralph," James said, tossing a pair of mismatched socks into his trunk, "do you want to come and have Christmas with my family and me?"
Ralph tried to look surprised. "What? No, no, I'd never want to impose on your big family gathering, what with all the, you know… I couldn't. No…"
James frowned. "Ralph, you prat, if you don't come home with me for the holidays, I will personally perform a random transfiguration on you with your own wand. How about that, then?"
"Well, you don't have to get pushy about it!" Ralph exclaimed, then his face broke into a grin. "Your mum and dad won't mind?"
"No. To tell you the truth, with all the people that'll be in and out of the place, I'm not sure they'll even notice."
Ralph rolled his eyes. "I meant about me being on the… you know, the wrong side of the debate and everything."
"They listened to it on the wireless, Ralph."
"And you never said a word."
Ralph opened his mouth, then closed it. He thought for a moment. Finally, he grinned and plopped onto Ted's bed. "I see your point. So you say Victoire will be there?"
"Don't get any ideas. She's part Veela you know. She puts the whammy on any guy that gets within ten feet of her."
"I just wanted to try to make it up to her somehow. You know, about that whole incident in D.A.D.A."
James slammed his trunk. "Ralph, mate, the less you say about that, the better."
The next morning, breakfast in the Great Hall was thinly attended. A heavy frost had fallen in the early hours, etching silver fern shapes in the corners of the windows and giving the view beyond a hoary ghostliness. James and Ralph arrived at the same time and found Zane at the Ravenclaw table.
"You're a lucky stiff, Ralph," Zane said grumpily, huddling around his coffee cup. "I'm dying to see what a magical Christmas is like."
"To tell you the truth," James said, pouring himself a pumpkin juice, "I doubt it'd live up to your imagination."
"Maybe you're right. Even at the best of times, I gotta admit, it feels a little like Halloween around here."
"Hey, Ralph," James said, nudging the bigger boy, "wait until you see our traditional Christmas parade of ghouls! We'll have candy cane-stuffed bats to eat and drink hot chocolate out of elf skulls!"
Ralph blinked. Zane looked sour and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, you're a laugh riot. Not."
"Come on," Ralph said, finally getting the joke. "You'll have a great Christmas with your family. At least you get to see your mum and dad."
"Yeah, sure. An eight-hour flight back to the States with my sister, Greer, bugging me the whole way about life at that crazy magical school. She'll be disappointed that, so far, the only way I can affect things with my wand is to hit them with it."
"We're not allowed to practice magic out of Hogwarts, anyway," Ralph said instructively.
Zane ignored him. "And then Christmas with the grandparents and all my cousins in Ohio. You have no idea what kind of craziness that always is."
James couldn't help asking. "How do you mean?"
"Imagine the traditional all-American Norman Rockwell Christmas scene, right?" Zane said, holding up his hands as if framing a picture. "Opening presents, and carving turkey, and carols by the Christmas tree. Got it?" Ralph and James nodded, trying not to smile at Zane's grave expression.
"All right," Zane went on. "Now imagine hinkypunks instead of people. You'll get the idea."
James burst out laughing. Ralph, as usual, just blinked and looked back and forth between the two other boys.
"That's fantastic!" James hooted.
Zane smiled reluctantly. "Yeah, well, it is pretty funny, I guess. The screeches and the clawing, all those tiny shreds of wrapping paper flying all over the place, landing in the fireplace and nearly burning the place to the ground."
"What's a hinkypunk?" Ralph asked, trying to keep up.
"Ask Hagrid next Care of Magical Creatures," James said, still chuckling. "It'll all make sense."
Late that morning, Ralph and James said goodbye to Zane, then hauled their trunks out to the courtyard. Ted and Victoire were already there, sitting on their trunks on the top step, framed against the strangely silent, frost-laden grounds. Victoire's hair had been regrown as well as possible by Madam Curio in the hospital wing, but the new hair was just different enough in texture and color to be noticeable. As a result, Victoire had taken to wearing a rather amazing variety of hats. The hats, if anything, enhanced her appearance, but she complained about them at every opportunity. Today, she had donned a small ermine pillbox cap, cocked rakishly over her left eyebrow. She glared coolly at Ralph as he dragged his trunk out onto the step. A few minutes later, Hagrid drove up at the head of a carriage. Ralph's mouth dropped open when he saw that nothing, apparently, was pulling the carriage.
"You lot aren't s'posed to see these until next year, mind," Hagrid said to James and Ralph. He yanked the brake lever, climbed down, and began heaving their trunks easily onto the back of the carriage. "So be sure to act surprised when yeh sees 'em next spring, right?"
"Oh, Hagrid," Victoire said haughtily, "if zese awful things are as ugly as mummy tells me, I'm glad I can't see zem, anyway." She held out a hand and Ted took it, helping her rather unnecessarily into the carriage.
There were a few other students crammed into the carriage, all similarly late departures for the holidays. Hagrid drove them to Hogsmeade station, where they boarded the Hogwarts Express again. The train was far emptier than it had been on their arriving journey. The four of them found a compartment near the end, then settled in for the long trip.
"So Hogsmeade is a wizard village?" Ralph asked Ted.
"Sure is. Home to The Three Broomsticks and Honeydukes Sweetshop. Best Cockroach Clusters in the world. Lots of other shops, too. You'll get to go on Hogsmeade weekends starting your third year."
Ralph looked thoughtful, which meant his brow pinched down while his lower lip pooched up, squeezing his entire face toward his nose. "So how do wizards keep Muggles out of a magical village? I mean, aren't there any roads or anything?"
"Tricky question, mate," Ted said, slouching on his seat and kicking off his shoes.
Victoire wrinkled her nose. "You will keep zose dirt-kickers away from me, Mr. Lupin."
Ted ignored her, stretching his legs across the compartment and resting his feet on the opposite seat. "I'm in old Stonewall's Applied Advanced Technomancy class this semester, and all I can tell you is that places like Hogsmeade aren't just hidden because Muggles can't find a road in. It's all quantum. If Petra was here, she could explain it better."
James was curious. "What's 'quantum' mean?"
Ted shrugged. "It's a joke in A.A.T. When in doubt, just say 'quantum'." He sighed resignedly, gathering his thoughts. "All right, imagine that there are places on the earth that are like a hole in space patched with rubber, see? You can't tell anything's different from the top, but it's maybe a little bouncy or something. Then, say, some wizard comes along who really knows his quantum. He says, 'Gor, here's a place where we can put up a smashing wizard village." So what he does is he conjures something sort of like a huge magical weight, but it's really, really tiny, right? And the weight drops into the bit of rubbery reality and pulls it down, down, down. OK. So the weight punches that rubber reality right out into another dimension, making a funnel in the shape of space-time."
"Wait," Ralph said, frowning in concentration. "What's space-time?"
"Never mind," Ted said, waving dismissively. "Doesn't matter. It's all quantum. Nobody gets it except for crusty old parchment-heads like Professor Jackson. So anyway, there's this funnel in space-time where the weight pushes down on the rubber reality. Muggles, see, can only operate on the surface of reality. They don't see where the funnel dips down into this new dimensional space. To them, it just isn't even there. Magic folk, though, we can follow the funnel down off main-space, if we know what to look for and share the secret. So we build places like Hogsmeade there."
"So Hogsmeade is down in some sort of funnel-shaped valley," Ralph said experimentally.
"No," Ted said, sitting up again. "It's just, you know, a metaphor. The landscape looks just the same, but dimensionally, it goes out through the other side of space-time, where Muggles can't go. Lots of wizard places have been built that way. We breed magical creatures in quantum preserves. Whole mountain ranges where the giants live, all buried in quantum, off the Muggle maps. That's pretty much how unplottability works. Simple as that."
"Simple as what?" Ralph said, frustrated.
Ted sighed. "Look, mate, it's like the Cockroach Clusters in Honeydukes. You don't need to understand how they make them. You just need to eat 'em."
Ralph slumped. "I'm not sure I can do either."
"This bloke's a real barrel o' laughs, isn't he?" Ted asked James.
"So if Muggles can't get in," James replied, "how'd that Muggle get onto the school grounds?"
"Oh yeah," Ted said, leaning back again. "The mysterious Quidditch intruder. Is that what people are saying now? That he was a Muggle?"
James had forgotten that not everything he knew about the intruder was common knowledge. He recalled now what Neville Longbottom had said about the wild rumors surrounding the mysterious man on the Quidditch pitch. "Yeah," he said, trying to sound nonchalant, "I heard he may have been a Muggle. I was just wondering how a Muggle could get in, what with all this stuff about, you know, quantum."
"Actually," Ted said, squinting out the window at the brightening day, "I guess even a Muggle could get in if they were accompanied by a wizard or led in somehow. It's not that they can't get in, exactly. It's just that, as far as their senses are concerned, the spaces don't even exist. If a magical person led them in, though, and the Muggle pushed through what their senses were telling them… sure, it'd be possible, I guess. But who'd be stupid enough to do such a thing?"
James shrugged, and looked at Ralph. The look on Ralph's face mirrored what James was thinking. Stupid or not, somebody had indeed led a Muggle onto the Hogwarts grounds. How or why that had been arranged was still a mystery, but James intended to do his best to find out.
The four of them lunched on sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, taken from the Hogwarts kitchens that morning, then settled into companionable silence. The day became hard and bright, with the sun shining like a diamond over the marching fields and woods. The frost had burned away, leaving the ground raw and grey. The skeletal trees scoured at the sky, standing on carpets of dead leaves. Ralph read and napped. Victoire flipped through a pile of magazines, then wandered off in search of a few friends she suspected were somewhere on board. Ted taught James to play a game called 'Winkles and Augers', which involved using wands to levitate a piece of parchment folded into the shape of a fat triangle. According to Ted, both players used their wands--the winkles--to simultaneously levitate the folded parchment--the auger-each one trying to guide the paper into their designated goal area, usually a circle drawn on a piece of parchment and placed near their opponent. James had gotten marginally better at levitation, but he was no match for Ted, who knew just how to undercut James' wandwork, bobbing the auger out of range and swooping it onto his goal with a resounding smack.
"It's all about practice, James," Ted said. "I've been playing this since my first year. We've had as many as four people on a team sometimes, and used augers as big as the bust of Godric Gryffindor in the common room. I'm personally responsible for the fact that his left ear's been glued back on. Didn't know the Reparo charm back then, and now we've come to rather prefer him that way."
By the time the train pulled into Platform Nine and Three Quarters, dusk had begun to turn the sky a dreamy lilac color. James, Ted, and Ralph waited for the lurch as the train came to a full stop, then stood, stretched, and made their way out to the platform.
The porter took their tickets, then produced their trunks with an Accio spell, sucking each trunk rather roughly out of the baggage compartment and plunking it at its owner's feet. Victoire caught up with them as they piled their trunks onto a large cart.
"I'm to escort you all to the old headquarters," Ted said importantly, drawing himself to his full height. "It's close enough, and your parents are pretty busy tonight, James, what with everyone else arriving, and Lily and Albus just getting out of school today as well."
They filed through the hidden portal that separated Platform Nine and Three Quarters from the Muggle platforms of King's Cross station.
"You don't drive, Ted," Victoire said reproachfully. "And you'll hardly fit the four of us on your broom. What do you expect to do?"
"I suppose you're right, Victoire," Ted said, stopping in the center of the concourse and looking around. Muggle travelers moved around them, hurrying here and there, most bundled into heavy coats and hats. The huge concourse echoed with the sound of train announcements and the tinkly din of recorded Christmas carols.
"Looks like we're stuck," Ted said mildly. "I'd say this is an emergency of sorts, wouldn't you?"
"Ted, no!" Victoire scolded as Ted raised his right hand, his wand sticking up out of it.
There was a loud crack that echoed all around the concourse, apparently unheard by the milling Muggles. A huge, purple shape shot through the doors framed in the gigantic glassed arch at the head of the concourse. It was, of course, the Knight Bus. James had known to expect it when Ted had made the signal, but he'd never known it could travel off-road. The enormous triple-decker bus dodged and squeezed through the oblivious crowd, never losing speed until it squeaked violently to a halt directly in front of Ted. The doors shuttled open and a man in a natty, purple uniform leaned out.
"Welcome to the Knight Bus," the man said, a bit huffily. "Emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard. You know this is the middle of effing King's Cross station, don't you? Seems like you could've at least made it to the front step."
"Evening, Frank," Ted said airily, hoisting Victoire's trunk up to the conductor. "It's this bad leg of mine again. Old Quidditch injury. Acts up at the worst of times."
"Old Quidditch injury my topmost granny's last molar," Frank muttered, stacking the trunks on a shelf just inside the door. "You try pulling that gaf one more time and I'm going to charge you a Galleon just for being a nuisance."
Ralph was reluctant to get onto the bus. "You say it's close? This headquarters place? Maybe we could, you know, walk?"
"In this cold?" Ted replied heartily.
"And with his bad leg?" Frank added sourly.
Ralph climbed on and had no sooner crossed the threshold when the doors slammed shut.
"Corner of Pancras and St. Chad's, Ernie," Ted called, grabbing a nearby brass handle.
The driver nodded, set his face grimly, gripped the steering wheel as if he meant to wrestle it, then punched the accelerator. Ralph, despite James' advice, had forgotten to grab onto something. The Knight Bus rocketed forward, throwing him backwards onto one of the brass beds that, strangely enough, seemed to occupy the lowest level of the bus instead of seats.
"Hmmph?" the sleeping wizard that Ralph had landed on muttered, raising his head from the pillow. "Grosvenor Square already?"
The bus performed an inconceivably tight hairpin turn, circling a group of tourists who were staring up at the departures board, then rocketed across the concourse again, whipping around businessmen and old ladies like a gust of wind. The glassed arch loomed over them, and James was certain the Knight Bus couldn't possibly fit through the open doorways, large as they were. Then he remembered that the bus had, indeed, come in through those doors. He braced himself. Without slowing, the bus squeezed through the door like a water balloon through a mousehole, popping out onto the crowded street and swerving wildly.
"I hear we're having goose for dinner tonight!" Ted called to James as the bus careened through a busy intersection.
"Yeah!" James called back. "Kreacher insisted on a full course meal our first night back!"
"Gotta love that ugly little brute!" Ted yelled appreciatively. "How's Ralph doing?"
James glanced around. Ralph was still sprawled on the bed with the sleeping wizard. "It's all right," he yelled, clutching the bed with both hands. "I threw up in the souvenir sleeping cap they gave me."
The Knight Bus screamed around the corner where St. Chad's Street met Argyle Square, then jammed to a halt. If anything, the sudden cessation of motion was as jarring as the ride itself. The gigantic purple bus sat quietly and primly, puttering a dainty cloud of exhaust. The doors shuttled open and Ted, Victoire, James, and Ralph clambered out, the latter a little drunkenly. Frank, despite the rankled look he shot Ted, stacked their trunks carefully on the sidewalk and bid them a happy Christmas. The doors cranked shut and a moment later, the Knight Bus leapt down the street, streaking around a lorry and performing something rather like a pirouette at the intersection. Three seconds later, it was gone.
"That worked as well as could be expected," Ted said heartily, grabbing his and Victoire's trunks by the handle and yanking them toward a line of dilapidated row houses.
"What number is it?" Ralph said, puffing and dragging his huge trunk.
"Number twelve. Right here," James replied. He had been to the old headquarters so many times he'd forgotten that it was invisible to most people. Ralph stopped at the base of the steps, his brow furrowed and frowning.
"Oh yeah," James said, turning around. "OK, Ralph. You can't see it yet, but it's right here. Number twelve Grimmauld Place, right here between eleven and thirteen. It used to belong to my dad's godfather, Sirius Black, but he willed it to Dad. It was the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, back in the day when they were fighting Voldemort. They buried it with the best Secrecy Spells and Disillusionment Charms all the most powerful good wizards at the time could conjure. It was the best kept secret place of the Order, until right at the end, when a Death Eater followed my aunt here using Side-Along Apparition. Anyway, it officially still belongs to Dad, but we don't live here most of the time. Kreacher keeps it up when we're not here."
"I didn't understand about every third word of that," Ralph said, sighing, "but I'm cold. How do we get in?"
James reached down for Ralph's hand. Ralph gave it to him, and James pulled him up onto the first step of the landing leading into number twelve. Ralph stumbled, regained his footing and looked up. His eyes widened and a grin of delight spread across his face. James had no memory of his first visit to the old headquarters, but he knew from other people's descriptions how the doorway revealed itself the first time you arrived, how number twelve simply pushed numbers eleven and thirteen aside like a man shouldering his way through a crowd. James couldn't help grinning back at Ralph's wonderment.
"I love being a wizard," Ralph said meaningfully.
As James slammed the door, his mum strode quickly toward him from the hall, wiping her hands on a towel. "James!" she cried, gathering him into her arms and nearly yanking him off his feet.
"Mum," James said, embarrassed and pleased. "Come on, you're gonna melt the Chocolate Frog in my shirt pocket already."
"You're not too old to give your mum a kiss after being gone for four months, you know," she chided him.
"You know how it is," Ted exclaimed mournfully. "One moment, they're yanking your apron strings, the next, they're asking to borrow the broom to go snogging with some crumpet. Where does the time go?"
James' mum grinned, turning to Ted and embracing him as well. "Ted, you never change. Or shut up. Welcome. And you too, Victoire. Adorable hat, by the way." Ralph groaned, but James' mum went on before Victoire could offer any pointed explanation. "And you are Ralph, of course. Harry mentioned you, and of course, James has told me loads about you in his letters. My name's Ginny. I hear you are quite the wand master."
"Where is Dad, by the way?" James asked quickly, cutting Victoire off again.
"He picked up Andromeda after work today. They should be home soon enough. Everyone else will be here tomorrow."
"James!" two smaller voices chimed in unison, to the accompaniment of thundering footsteps. "Ted! Victoire!" Lily and Albus shoved past their mum. "What'd you bring us?" Albus demanded, stopping in front of James.
"Direct from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry," James said grandly, "I bring you both… hugs!" He grabbed Albus in a bear hug. Albus pushed and struggled, simultaneously laughing and annoyed.
"No! I wanted some Drooble's Best Blowing Gum from the cart lady! I told you!"
Ted squatted down and squeezed Lily. "I got you something you'll love, my dear."
"What is it?" she asked, suddenly shy.
"You'll have to wait until Christmas, won't you? Your mummy's all stocked up on dragon kibble, isn't she?"
"Ted Lupin!" Ginny snapped. "Don't get her hopes up, you rogue. Now come on, all of you. Kreacher's been in the basement all afternoon preparing what he calls 'a fitting and proper tea service'. Don't fill up, though, or you'll not be hungry for the goose he cooked, and he'll sulk all week."
Harry and Ted's grandmum, Andromeda Tonks, arrived half an hour later, and the rest of the evening was a whirlwind of food, happy laughter, and catching up. Harry and Ginny, it turned out, hadn't even listened to the Hogwarts debate, despite what James had assumed. Andromeda Tonks had, though, and was full of endless vitriol for Tabitha Corsica and her team. Fortunately, she had no idea whatsoever that Ralph had also been on the team, and Ralph was all too happy to allow her to continue in that ignorance.
"Don't worry," Ted murmured to Ralph over dessert, "if anybody says anything, I'll tell her you were a spy operating undercover. She loves espionage, does the old dear."
Kreacher hadn't changed a single iota. He bowed low to James, one hand over his heart, the other spread wide. "Master James, come back from his first year of schooling, he has," he warbled in his bullfrog voice. "Kreacher has prepared Master's quarters just the way he likes them. Would Master and his friend care for a watercress sandwich?"
Kreacher had, as usual, kept the house in exceptional order, and had even gone to the trouble to decorate for the holidays. Unfortunately, Kreacher's concept of good cheer was a bit rustic, and the result would have amused Zane endlessly. The severed heads of the previous house-elves, which still hung in the hallway as a testament to the original pureblood owners of the estate, had been dressed with fake, white beards and conical, green caps with jingle bells on the tips.
"Kreacher had bewitched them to sing holiday songs, too, he did," Kreacher told James and Ralph a bit petulantly. "But the missus decided that that was perhaps a bit too… festive. Kreacher liked it, though, just the same." He seemed to be angling to be allowed to reinstate the caroling heads. James assured Kreacher that it had been a wonderfully inventive idea and he'd talk to his mum about it. He was, in fact, morbidly curious to see and hear the heads in action.
Both Lily and Albus followed James and Ralph around most of the night, begging to see what the boys could do with their newly learned skills.
"Come on, James!" Albus demanded. "Show us a levitation! Levitate Lily!"
"No!" Lily cried. "Levitate Albus! Fly him out the window!"
"You both know I can't do magic once I'm off the train and officially out of Hogwarts," James said wearily. "I'll get in trouble."
"Dad's Head Auror, you git. You probably won't even get a warning."
"It's irresponsible," James said seriously. "You get older and you'll know what that means."
"You can't do it, can you?" Albus taunted. "James can't do a levitation! Some wizard you are. First Squib in the Potter family. Mum will die of shame."
"You're the same Albus-blabbus you ever were, you little skrewt."
"Don't call me that!"
"What, skrewt or Albus-blabbus?" James smiled. "You know Albus-blabbus is your real name, don't you? It's on your birth certificate. I saw it."
"Albus-blabbus!" Lily sang, dancing around her older brother.
Albus jumped on James, wrestling him to the floor.
Later, as James and Ralph headed to James' bedroom for the night, they passed a curtain that seemed to be drawn over a section of wall. A sleepy muttering came from behind it.
"Old Mrs. Black," James explained. "Crazy old nutter. Wigs out about people desecrating the house of her fathers and stuff every time she sees any of us. Dad and Neville have done everything they could think of to get the old bat off the wall, but she's stuck there right good. Even considered cutting out the section of wall with the portrait on it, but it's a main wall. Cutting her out would probably bring the next floor right down on top of us. Besides, strange as it may seem, Kreacher's rather attached to her, since she was his old mistress. So I suppose she's part of the family forever."
Ralph peeked tentatively behind the curtain. He furrowed his brow. "Is she… watching television?"
James shrugged. "We discovered that a few years back. We had the front door open because we were moving in a new sofa. She saw a telly through the window across the street and shut right up for the first time in weeks. So we hired a wizard artist to come and paint one right into her portrait. Crazy old bat loves the chat shows. Ever since then, well, she's been a lot more bearable."
Ralph slowly let the curtain drape back over the portrait. A man's voice behind it was saying, "And when did you first notice that your dog had Tourette's syndrome, Mrs. Drakemont?"
Kreacher had arranged a cot for Ralph in James' room. His trunk was placed neatly at the end of it, and there was a ribbon-wrapped pinecone on each pillow, apparently Kreacher's idea of a Christmas mint.
"This used to be my dad's godfather's room," James said sleepily, once they had settled down.
"Cool," Ralph muttered. "Good guy, was he? Or was he a nutter, like the old witch in the portrait?"
"One of the best guys ever, according to Dad. We'll have to tell you about him sometime. He was wanted for murder for over a decade."
There was a minute of silence, and then Ralph's voice spoke in the darkness. "You wizards can be pretty bloody confusing, you know that?"
James grinned. A minute later, both of them were asleep.
11. The Three Relics
After the initial excitement of travel and arrivals, Christmas break at Grimmauld Place became rather humdrum. James introduced Ralph to everyone, and Ralph very shortly became simply one more of the throng of friends and family that crammed the house. On the Wednesday before Christmas, Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione arrived, along with their children, Hugo and Rose. They were followed shortly thereafter by Uncle Bill and Aunt Fleur, Victoire's parents. James was very fond of them all, and even though the house was beginning to feel rather strained to capacity, he was thrilled they were staying over through the break.
"It's a good thing Mum and Dad are off with Charlie this year," Ron commented, lugging his and Hermione's luggage up the steps to their third-floor bedroom. "This place seems so much smaller than it did when we were kids."
"It's just you who's bigger, Ron," Hermione chided, elbowing him affectionately in the stomach. "You've got no room to complain."
"I'm not complaining. At least we get a room. If Percy was here, he'd have to bunk in with Kreacher."
James and Ralph, along with James' siblings and cousins, spent their days by the fire, playing wizard chess with Uncle Ron or roaming the nearby streets, performing last-minute errands and Christmas shopping with Ginny or Aunt Hermione. Fleur and Bill enlisted James and Ralph's help in picking out and transporting a Christmas tree, which had looked merely charmingly plump outside, but had taken up twothirds of the main hall when they'd brought it in.
"Seems a shame to do it," Bill said, producing his wand and pointing it at the tree. "Reducio!"
The tree shrunk by a third, but managed to maintain its density, so that it ended up looking rather more like a Christmas bush than a tree. Ralph, James, Rose, and Victoire spent most of the day before Christmas Eve stringing popcorn, decorating the tree, and wrapping presents. That night, Hermione gathered the entire household with the intention of bundling everyone up and going Christmas caroling. Neither Ron nor Harry, however, were particularly overjoyed about the idea.
"Give us a break, Hermione," Harry said, dropping into an easy chair by the fire. "We've been on our feet all day."
"Yeah," Ron chimed in, bolstered a bit, "it's just the start of the holiday. We haven't even had a chance to sit down yet, have we?"
"Ronald Weasley, you get your bottom into your coat and hat," Hermione replied, tossing Ron's things onto his lap. "We only get the whole family together once a year anymore, if we're lucky, and I'm not going to let you sit on your bum all night just as if you were at home. Besides," she added a bit truculently, "you said on the way here that you thought caroling sounded fun."
"That was before I knew you were serious," Ron muttered, climbing to his feet and shrugging on his coat.
"You too," Ginny smiled, grabbing Harry's hand and pulling him out of the chair. "You can lounge around all Christmas day if you wish. Tonight, we're going to have some fun, whether you like it or not."
Harry groaned, but allowed Ginny to work his coat onto him. She punched him playfully in the stomach and he grinned, grabbing his scarf. To Ron's and Harry's apparent annoyance, Bill was raring to go, performing scales in the hallway, his hand on his chest. Fleur, dressed as resplendently as her daughter, smiled adoringly at him. As they headed out the door, James heard Uncle Ron mutter to his dad, "I swear he acts like that as much to spite us as to impress her."
The night had turned out so perfectly and quintessentially Christmas-like that James wondered if his mum and Aunt Hermione had somehow bewitched it. Fat, silent snowflakes had begun to fall, muffling the distant city sounds and blanketing the grimy walls and sidewalks with sparkling white. Hermione passed out sheets of music, and then arranged everyone so that the youngest were in front and the oldest and tallest were in back. "If Mum weren't still around," Ron said to Harry in a low voice, "I'd swear Hermione was channeling her." During a practice chorus, Hermione became annoyed at Ted, who insisted on singing amusing variations of the lyrics, to the great delight of Albus and Hugo. Finally satisfied, she led the troupe through the streets surrounding Grimmauld Place, ringing doorbells and directing the choruses. Most of the Muggles who answered their doors stood and listened with something like strained amusement on their faces. Once, an old man with a large hearing aid yelled at them that he didn't support any charities except the Hortense Home for Feral Felines, and then slammed his door.
"McGonagall owes him a Christmas card, then," Ted said, barely missing a beat.
James waved a hand at Ralph before he could ask. "Animagus. I'll explain later."
Christmas morning dawned with dazzling brightness, the sun turning the snow-frosted windows into blinding tableaux. Ralph and James met Albus and Rose on their way down the steps to breakfast.
"It's no use," Rose said dolefully. "Mum swears she'll Crucio anyone who tries to open a present before breakfast."
James blinked. "Aunt Hermione said that?"
"Well," answered Albus, "not in so many words. But she's really in a snit ever since she caught us using a pair of Uncle George's z-ray spectacles on the presents to see what was in them. She just about turned Dementor on him. It was scary!"
"Uncle George is here?" James asked, trotting down the rest of the stairs and heading for the kitchen. "Excellent!"
"Yeah, but he brought Katie Bell with him," Albus said, pronouncing the name with his most ingratiatingly snarky voice. Albus didn't so much disapprove of Katie Bell as he disapproved of anyone threatening to alter George Weasley's impish bachelorhood.
As James and Ralph turned the corner into the old kitchen, they heard George's voice saying, "That's the sort of publicity that has allowed triple W to grow to two locations and become the wizarding world's leading joke shop, you know. You can't turn down a primo showstopper at a broadcast event like the debate. It's all about the spectacle."
Katie Bell, an attractive woman with long brown hair, stirred her tea. "You should've heard the way Myron Madrigal described it on the wireless," she said, stifling a smile.
Ted scowled, then his curiosity got the better of him. "What'd he say?"
"He called it 'a puerile display of monumental poor taste'," George said proudly, raising his juice glass in a toast.
"That's beautiful!" Ted grinned, clinking his glass to George's.
"James, good to see you!" George said, clapping his juice onto the table and patting the seat next to him. "Have a seat and tell us how the old alma mater is treating you."
"Great," James said, sitting down and grabbing a piece of toast. "George, this is my friend, Ralph."
"Oh, we know all about you, don't we?" George said, leaning toward Ralph and tapping the side of his nose. "Our man on the inside, eh? Infiltrating the slimy underbelly of the Slytherin war machine. Spying and sabotaging left and right, no doubt."
Ralph rolled his eyes at Ted.
"I didn't say anything," Ted said primly. "I happened to mention to him that you were on Team B, way back when we ordered our little surprise package. He figured out the rest on his own when he found out you were here."
Ralph squirmed. "Well, that's not really true, you know. I'm just a kid."
"Never underestimate what a kid can do, Ralphie," George said seriously.
"That's right," Katie nodded. "George and his brother, Fred, caused the best class disruption in Hogwarts history in the middle of the reign of Umbridge the Terrible."
"Like I said, it's all about the spectacle," George said.
"With a little revenge thrown in," Katie said, smiling.
"How dare you even suggest such a thing?"
Ralph and James exchanged looks.
James, Ralph, Ted, and George were the last at the breakfast table. The younger siblings and cousins fairly dragged them from the table, finally getting the entire household together for the opening of the presents.
"Didn't you do like I told you?" George said, laughing as Albus pulled him into the parlor. "Open the presents in the middle of the night and then re-wrap them again with the Reparo charm?"
"I tried!" Albus replied earnestly. "I nicked James' wand and practiced on a box of biscuits. Couldn't get it to work! Made no end of a mess. Mum just about thrashed me."
"You nicked my wand!" James cried, lunging after Albus. "I'll thrash you myself! Give it back!"
Hooting, Albus darted away with James in pursuit.
There was much yelling and shredding of paper, and James couldn't help thinking that Christmas at Grimmauld Place probably wasn't much different than Zane's description of his family Christmas in the States, hinkypunks and all. When the younger Weasleys and Potters had all opened their presents and scampered off to enjoy them, the rest of the gifts were opened with a bit more reserve. Harry had gotten Ginny an unusual new cauldron, which she unwrapped and stared at rather blankly.
"It's a Conjure-Pot," he explained, a little defensively. "It makes dinner a snap! You just throw in a few ingredients each morning, whatever you have left lying around the cupboard. It doesn't matter what. The Conjure-Pot figures out the best dish to make with it, prepares it, and cooks it up during the day. We all come home at night and voila, mystery meal. Great for the working mum on the go."
"At least that's what the sign on the display at Tristan's and Tupperworth's said," Ron remarked, grinning. Harry clipped him on the back of the head.
Fleur sniffed. "Vere I come from, eet is considered improper for a man to buy cookery as a gift."
"That's because where you come from, my dear," Bill said gently, "the men do most of the cooking."
"Oh, just open the next one," Harry said, annoyed.
Ginny's next present turned out to be a pair of mer-pearl earrings, which went over much better. Ginny seemed simultaneously distraught and overjoyed by them.
"Harry! How did you pay for these? Mer-pearl! I never expected…!" Her eyes glittered as she blinked back tears.
"Just put them on," Harry smiled. "If it makes you feel any better, they're fake. Leprechaun-pearl. They came as a bonus gift with the Conjure-Pot."
"No, they didn't," she smiled, and kissed him.
Ron had gotten Hermione a small but apparently expensive bottle of perfume called Whimsies' Enchantment, which Hermione was very pleased with. Ginny and Hermione had gone together to buy Harry and Ron tickets to the Quidditch World Cup.
"We knew you'd both been wanting to go for the past several years," Hermione explained as Harry and Ron congratulated each other. "But you never think ahead to get advanced tickets. We've got eight total tickets, so you can take the kids, if you wish. They'd love it. And your wives, of course, if you wished. It's up to you."
But Harry and Ron had fallen into a debate about what teams would be in the Cup and barely heard the last.
James opened his present and was surprised to see that his parents had gotten him a new broom.
"Wow," he breathed. "A Thunderstreak! Mum, Dad, you got me a Thunderstreak?"
"Well," Harry said slowly, "I knew you'd had some trouble getting started on the broom, but I spoke to your friend, Zane, and he said you were coming along really well. I thought you might like to practice on your own broom. Those school brooms are too old. Slow, unwieldy, and the handling's gone all mushy. You try this out and I think you'll notice the difference straight off."
"Course, if you don't want it," George offered, "you could always trade with Ted. That old Nimbus of his may be slow as a flobberworm, but it has loads of antique value."
Ted hurled a ball of wrapping paper at George, hitting him square in the face.
James felt a little sorry for Ralph, who had not heard from his dad since the message that he'd be travelling over the holidays. Ralph shrugged it off, saying his dad had probably sent his Christmas gift to the school. James and Ralph were both surprised when Ginny handed Ralph a small, wrapped package.
"It's not much," Ginny smiled, "but we thought you might enjoy it."
Ralph unwrapped the package and looked at it. It was a very dog-eared and dilapidated book, the words on the cover almost illegible with age. It was called Advanced Potion-Making.
"That belonged to a great Slytherin, like you'll be, no doubt," Harry said somberly. "Frankly, I thought I'd lost it, but it turned up a few weeks ago. I didn't know what to do with it until you came for the holiday. Then it just made sense that you should have it. Don't let Professor Slughorn see it, though. Just use it as a… reference."
Ralph flipped carefully through the old book. The margins were crammed with hand-written notations and drawings. "Who wrote all this stuff inside?"
"Doesn't really matter," Harry said cryptically. "You don't know him. Just take care of it, and be careful how you use some of the stuff in there. It can be a little… dodgy, sometimes. Still, it just seems right that it should be in the hands of a good Slytherin man. Happy Christmas, Ralph."
Ralph thanked Harry and Ginny, a bit puzzled at the serious looks both he and the book were getting. He recognized that, mysterious as the book was, it was apparently rather meaningful. He wrapped it in a piece of cloth Ginny gave him and placed it in the bottom of his trunk.
James was delighted when Neville and Luna Lovegood arrived that afternoon. The two had been seeing each other for the past few months, but James had heard his mum tell Andromeda Tonks that it wasn't going anywhere. James couldn't guess how his mum knew such things, but he never doubted that she was right. For James' part, Neville and Luna seemed just a bit too brotherly and sisterly to be a couple.
After dinner, Grandmum Weasley appeared in the fireplace to wish everyone a happy Christmas.
"We're having a perfectly delightful time here with Charlie," she said from the grate. "And Prague is just lovely. I think you boys need to have a talk with your father, though. He's gotten rather enamored with the Muggle architecture here and is talking about staying on a few more weeks. He's become so unpredictable now that he's retired from the Ministry. Oh, it is so difficult having you kids all over the world like this. How am I supposed to keep track of my grandbabies?"
"How are Charlie and Claire and the kids, then, Molly?" Hermione asked, gently steering the topic to pleasanter subjects.
"Quite well, although Charlie insists on taking little Harold and Jules to work with him on occasion. How these poor children can endure the sight of such creatures and not have constant nightmares is simply beyond me."
James, who'd met his younger cousins, Harold and Jules, a few times, knew that it was likely that they, in fact, might give nightmares to the dragons rather than the other way around.
Late that evening, as most of the household was beginning to drift to bed, James and Ralph found themselves seated near the fire with Luna Lovegood, who was telling them about her latest expedition into the Highland Mountains in search of the Umgubular Slashkilter.
"Still no positive identification," she said, "but I discovered a vast network of their tracks and leavings. Their diet seems to consist almost entirely of blusterwermps and figgles, so it's pretty easy to identify their dung by smell alone. Sort of pepperminty. Not at all unpleasant."
"Unglubulous… slashkillers?" Ralph attempted.
"Close enough," Luna said kindly. "They're a species of flightless raptor, distantly related to hippogriffs and octogators. I took a mold of one of their tracks and a stool sample from one of their leavings. Would you like to smell it?"
"Luna," James said, leaning forward in his chair and lowering his voice, "can we ask you a question about something? I'd rather nobody else knew about it."
"I specialize in things nobody else knows about," Luna said mildly.
"I mean, I want to keep it sort of a secret."
"Oh," Luna said, her face placid. James waited, but Luna merely watched him, smiling politely. Luna, he recalled, occasionally had a rather unique approach to conversation. He decided to plow on.
"This isn't about Slashkilters or Wrackspurts or anything. Really, it'd be a better question for your dad, if he was still around, but I bet you know the answer, too. What can you tell us about… about Austramaddux and Merlinus Ambrosius?"
Luna was the only completely unshockable person James knew. She merely looked into the fire and said, "Ahh, yes, not exactly my specialty. A lifelong hobby of my father's, though. Austramaddux was the historian who recorded the last days of Merlinus and his promised return, of course. The subject of much speculation and intrigue for centuries, you know."
"Yeah," James said, "we know. We read about him and the prediction of his return. What we're wondering is how it could happen? What would it take?"
Luna looked thoughtful. "It's a pity my father isn't here. He could speak on the subject for days. He did once, in fact, at a gathering of alternative magical publishers and broadcasters in Belfast. Gave a speech on the implications of the Merlinus conspiracies and their hypothetical plausibilities, if I recall. It went on for three and half days, until he fell asleep at the podium. Actually, I think that he was asleep long before anyone realized it. He was a notorious sleep-talker. Gave more than a few of his speeches in a nightgown. Most people thought it was eccentricity, but I think he was just multi-tasking." She sighed fondly.
James knew he wouldn't have much time before someone else, George, or worse, his dad or mum, would come back into the room. "Luna, what did he say about it? Did he think Merlin's return was possible?"
"Oh, he certainly did. Had a hundred theories about it. Hoped he'd live to see the day, in fact, although even he wasn't any too sure that when Merlinus returned, he'd be anything like what we'd call a good wizard. Wrote a whole series of articles for The Quibbler explaining the three relics and offering a hundred Galleon reward for anyone with valid clues to their whereabouts."
James tried not to interrupt Luna. "What are the three relics?"
"Oh," Luna said, looking at him. "I thought you'd read about it?"
Ralph spoke up. "We did, but it didn't say anything about any relics. It just said that Merlin would leave the world of men and return when the time was ripe for him, or something."
"Ah, well, that's the key, then, isn't it?" Luna said placidly. "The relics determine when the time is ripe. Merlin's three required magical elements, his throne, his robe and his staff. He left them in the charge of Austramaddux. According to the prediction, once the three relics are brought together again in a place called the 'Hall of Elders' Crossing', Merlinus will reappear to claim them."
James gasped. The Hall of Elder's Crossing, he thought, remembering the legend inscribed on the gate of the secret island. He felt his heart pounding and was sure Luna would hear it in his voice. He struggled to sound merely curious. "So what became of Merlin's three relics, then?"
"No one knows for sure," Luna replied airily, "but my father had developed some pretty strong theories. According to legend, Merlin's ceremonial black robe was made of incorruptible fabric, allowing it to survive eternally. It was supposedly used as a caulk over the body of Kreagle, the first king of the wizarding world, in the belief that it would prevent corruption. Alas, no one knows the location of Kreagle's tomb, its Secret-Keepers having been inhumed within it to secure its secrecy forever." Ralph shuddered as Luna went on. "Merlin's throne as advisor to the kingdoms of the Muggles was passed from regime to regime, always kept ready for the wizard's return, until it was eventually lost in the mists of time. Some believe that it was recovered by a wizarding king in the sixteen hundreds, and that it is stored today in the Ministry of Magic, forgotten in the endless vaults of the Department of Mysteries. Finally," Luna said, narrowing her eyes as she searched her memory, "the greatest of Merlin's relics, his staff. Back then, wizards used staffs rather than wands, you know. Long sticks, often as tall as the wizard himself. Merlin's was