I crawled on my hands and knees behind Delphine, trying to ignore the freezing puddles of slushy water numbing my fingers and staining right through the knees of my trousers. “This is absolutely ridiculous,” I muttered. “The things we do just to see Harry Potter.”
“Shh,” she commanded, scooting along faster. She poked her nose over the stands, looking all around. “We need to get up higher.”
“We can’t,” I beseeched. “They’ll see us. Can we get into trouble for this?”
“Of course not. We’re not on Ravenclaw or Gryffindor Quidditch teams, and besides, it’s only practice. I’m certain that anyone can watch if they want to.”
“Then why am I lying down?” I brought my head up and she promptly pushed it back down, concealing me from view and grinding my nose into a patch of melted snow.
“Because,” she hissed. “Do you want to get eaten by a dementor? Now come on.”
We made a scramble for the top of the Quidditch stands and then threw ourselves down flat on the surface where feet are supposed to rest, huffing and puffing. “Did anyone see us?” she breathed, slithering along on her stomach. Her tone was vaguely hopeful, as if she would have enjoyed having Harry Potter catch her lurking around while he practiced Quidditch.
“I don’t think so?” I wiped the hair out of my eyes and squinted. “They’re just now walking onto the pitch.”
“Oooh,” Delphine squealed. “There’s Oliver Wood – he’s in seventh year now, isn’t he? And there’s Angelina Johnson and Alicia Spinnet…and the Weasley twins…they’re all fifth years now. Katie’s a fourth year, like us –”
“I already know this,” I interrupted, staring nervously at the sky. “You don’t have to narrate; you’re not Lee Jordan.”
“And Harry Potter is a third year…” She sighed dreamily.
“You don’t think that the dementors will try to come onto the pitch again, do you?” I wondered aloud, hunching my shoulders together and propping my weight onto my elbows. “Like they did in November during the Quidditch game.”
“Poor Harry, falling off his broom,” Delphine lamented. “Although I was happy for Cedric, catching the Snitch. He gets such flack for being good-looking. All of the boys say such rude things about him…especially those nasty Weasley twins.”
I sniggered. “Cedric can handle it. He’s got people like Matilda to build up his ego whenever one of the boys makes a comment.”
“Still,” she went on, glowering, “they’re obviously so jealous of the attention Cedric gets. If Harry wasn’t on the team, I would definitely be rooting for Ravenclaw to win tomorrow.”
I wasn’t listening, I was still tracing the clouds for any signs of black hooded figures. Out of the corner of one eye, I saw Delphine retrieve a handful of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans from one of her pockets and bring them to her mouth, chewing thoughtfully and never allowing her eyes to leave Harry Potter’s figure.
“Doesn’t he ever brush his hair?” she complained to herself, popping more Every Flavor Beans into her mouth. “Wait a minute – is that – Holy Hobgoblins!” She grabbed my shoulder and shook it aggressively. “It’s true! Harry’s got a Firebolt!”
My head snapped back to attention. “What?”
“I heard people talking about it, but I thought it was just a rumor. I broke into the Quidditch shed last month and didn’t see any Firebolts in there –”
“You’re right,” I murmured, helping myself to one of her Every Flavor Beans. “That’s a Firebolt. He’s going to sweep the board with that thing.”
“The rest of his teammates are going to look so slow in comparison,” she added gleefully, watching in fervent expectation as the Gryffindor Quidditch Team kicked off of the frost-compacted grass. Just as predicted, the others appeared sluggish next to Harry, who zoomed straight up into the clouds like a firecracker. “Look at the twins,” she snickered. “Their Cleansweep Fives look like they’re barely moving! And that George is an idiot, hanging upside-down on his broom, showing off…”
“That’s Fred,” I corrected out of habit. I made to swipe some more Every Flavor Beans from Delphine’s hand, but she swatted me away.
“I didn’t get to finish my breakfast, and you did,” she reprimanded. “And how do you know for sure that that’s Fred and not George?”
“You eat too slowly,” I insisted, making another grab.
Delphine dumped the last of her sweets into her open mouth and covered my eyes from behind. I flailed. “Hey! Your fingers are sticky!”
She removed them. “All right, now that they’ve moved around a bit, can you tell me who is who?”
“What are you talking about?” I was watching the skies for dementors again.
Delphine gave a dramatic sigh. “The twins. Can you tell one from the other now?”
I gazed across the pitch. Harry was chasing after the Snitch, swooping low to the ground. Oliver hovered above them, analyzing Harry’s progress and looking happier than I’d ever seen him in my life. Alicia and Angelina had stopped focusing on the Quaffle and were both admiring Harry’s broom, too; my eyes strayed to a ginger-haired boy protecting Oliver from getting smacked in the head with a Bludger – George. Katie was calling to Oliver to look out.
Separated a bit from the rest of them was Fred, who swung his bat at a Bludger rolling lazily by. A crack split the air, and the Bludger was sent soaring across the pitch. Fred grinned to himself, not paying the least bit of attention to what was going on behind him.
“That’s George,” I told her, pointing at the twin trying to keep a Bludger from knocking Oliver’s head off. “And that’s Fred over there.”
She evaluated me, a crease developing between her eyebrows. “How do you know that?”
I pondered her question, which I hadn’t really given much thought to before. It was simply another useless fact my brain stored – just like how I could always tell the difference between letters my mother wrote in the morning and letters she wrote in the evening. “Because one of them once told me that his name was Fred, and I never forgot. Even when I can’t see their faces, I always know who’s who.”
“You’re strange, Hollis.”
I shrugged. “No argument there.” We were quiet for a spell, watching Oliver release the Snitch and Harry repeatedly catch it, his success dousing the rest of the team with frequent bouts of delight. I had never seen Oliver so ecstatic – he was torn between clapping his hands until they fell off and bullying his team to shut up and keep practicing over and over again.
“Cho’s got a Comet Two-Sixty,” Delphine mentioned with a smirk. “Rotten luck for Ravenclaw.”
We spied on Gryffindor’s practice session until the foggy moon dropped low in the night sky, tilting heavily, and Oliver Wood was sufficiently satisfied that his team was invincible. Delphine smiled, the stars reflecting in her glasses. A gust of cold February wind blew her fringe away from her face and she leaned forward, daring to peer closer because of the cloak of darkness that protected the stands where we hid. “Just look at him,” she said softly.
I glanced down at the group, who had disbanded from the huddle where they’d been talking (Angelina and Alicia were visibly shivering). Harry and Ron remained where they were, and Harry pressed his Firebolt into Ron’s waiting arms.
George carried his broomstick behind his head, holding it with both arms and swerving from side to side so that both ends narrowly missed whacking Angelina and Katie on both sides. Oliver darted ahead of them, still rampant with energy, and had disappeared into the black shadow of trees.
Fred walked the center of a slender strip of moonlight, his shadow colossal. I remembered how remarkable Delphine had found it that I could tell the Weasley twins apart, no matter which angle or lighting they stood in. From up in the stands, I thought to myself that from this view above, seeing him bathed in silver so bright that it reminded me of a Patronus – silent and calm and with his hair windswept from flying – it was a good angle for him.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” Delphine murmured, resting her chin in her interlaced hands.
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” I responded, watching Fred travel along the ribbon of silvery white to the edge of the Quidditch pitch. “But you know, he’s really not that bad.”
Just before falling out of view, Fred turned his head in our direction. I ducked immediately (Delphine was busy focusing on Harry, who was patiently waiting while Ron Weasley zoomed around on his Firebolt), but I could have sworn… For a few fleeting moments, it seemed almost as if Fred had known all along that we were up there.
Just as most of the school predicted, Cho Chang was no match for Harry Potter and his new Firebolt. Gryffindor smashed Ravenclaw the very next day, and could be heard celebrating by anyone strolling along the seventh floor corridor (or so a few nosy first year Hufflepuffs told us) late into the night. Our House was quiet as usual, seeing no reason to join in the scarlet-and-gold joy, and most of us retired to our beds early. It was peaceful right up until I awoke to see Alice Whitman bending over me, her face mere inches from the tip of my nose.
“Flamel’s foot!” I hollered, shrinking away from her. “What are you playing at?”
“I heard some seventh years talking down in the common room,” Alice whispered, her face as pale as her dressing gown. “Sirius Black. He’s in the castle.”
“What?” Delphine cried, trying to jam her glasses onto her face upside-down.
I studied Alice, still sleepy. “You’re winding me up,” I decided, closing my eyes again. “You’ve got some serious issues, Gardenia, if this is how you get your kicks.”
To my surprise, she didn’t boil over at my use of her real name. “I’m not making it up!” she yelled shrilly, clenching her hands into tight little knots. “Sirius Black was up in Gryffindor tower, inside the dormitory for third years.”
Delphine made a noise like a cat that had just had its tail shut in a door. “Gryffindor!” She clutched at her heart, weak with fear. “Third years! Harry Potter! Blimey!” She fell back against her pillows, paralyzed.
“Do you reckon Black was angry that Gryffindor won the Quidditch match?” Orchid inquired, scratching at one of the curlers attached to her scalp.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Matilda scoffed, yawning hugely.
“No one asked for your opinion,” Orchid snapped. Her eyes were bloodshot and hateful. “And you never know what could motivate someone like him to attack people. Maybe he supports Ravenclaw.”
“He’s a mad mass-murderer,” Matilda shot back. It was uncharacteristic for her to listen to the four of us, much less speak to us. She must’ve been too tired to realize that she was gracing her inferiors with her notice. “He doesn’t care about bloody Hogwarts Quidditch teams.”
“You say that like you know how he thinks, Orchid hissed into the darkness. “What say you, Clark – have you been practicing the Dark Arts lately? Have you got a thing for men recently escaped from Azkaban?”
“Hush up,” Alice groaned.
“No!” Orchid sat straight up, pointing a finger at Matilda, who simply looked bemused. “This is proof! She’s on Black’s side. She knows what he’s up to – they’ve probably been conversing like a couple of old pals all this time, and she was the one who let him inside the castle on Halloween. Remember the portrait that got slashed to smithereens?”
“I’m getting up,” I told them flatly, “and going down to see about all this for myself.”
“I’m coming, too!” Delphine chimed, throwing herself out of bed. “Wait for me, Hollis. I have to find –” she dug around in her sheets for a pair of slippers (Delphine kept tons of things hidden under her coverlet) and hopped around in circles until she was breathless, trying to put them on. “All right! I’m ready!”
As soon as we entered the common room, we found Professor McGonagall and Professor Sprout interrogating the students who had already been sitting out there on the sofa. Several others trickled down from various round tunnels, curious to know what had happened. Professor McGonagall looked shaken.
“If you see anything at all that warrants alarm, Macmillan,” she said to a slim boy still in his pajamas, “come find a member of staff immediately. Presently everyone in the castle remains accounted for and unharmed, and the most efficient way for it to remain so is if you stay in here and be calm and alert.”
“I want someone to stay down here with us,” Susan Bones shouted tearfully, squeezed next to Hannah Abbott in an armchair. “I think we should have some kind of protection.”
“You can protect yourselves by staying put and not letting anyone into your common room,” McGonagall answered stiffly, her mouth set in a very thin line. “If something happens, you’ve all got perfectly decent lungs. Put them to good use and scream as loud as you can. It worked with Ronald Weasley, so it might just work again.”
Professor Sprout ended up fetching Mrs. Norris to “guard” the frightened crowd now sitting on the floor with their knees tucked to their chests. Filch was supremely distressed about this, and he could he heard shuffling in the corridor outside the portrait for several hours, muttering irately. Mrs. Norris, however, seemed to enjoy the attention she was receiving from the younger Hufflepuff girls. No matter how much I despised Filch and Mrs. Norris, it was a small comfort to have them near. They were the first line of defense for Hufflepuffs, albeit a pretty weak one.
“I’ll bet Slytherin have got gargoyles to protect them,” Zacharias Smith relayed to Alice in confidence. “And you can bet that Gryffindor is armed with statues and probably Dumbledore himself, too.” I pictured the wizened old wizard standing firmly in front of the Fat Lady’s portrait, feet planted far apart and bracing himself for battle against a knife-wielding lunatic.
Everyone began to discuss what they would do if Sirius Black broke into the Hufflepuff common room (which, as the late hours accumulated, became increasingly more possible in the eyes of my fellow students). “I would conjure ropes with Incarcerous and tie him right up,” Megan Jones claimed, eyes wide and glistening. “It’s really not that hard – I’ve done it before to my brother when I was nine years old. And then I could just nick his wand,” she snapped her fingers, “like that. And then I suppose we could taunt him for a bit before Dumbledore came down and carried him off to the dementors.”
Their collective knowledge of curses and hexes was pooled together, each of them voting on which spells would be the likeliest to keep him from turning us all into mounds of ash. After half an hour of this, Delphine wryly brought it to their attention that not a single one of them carried a wand; they all swarmed back to their dormitories to grab wands and anything that might be used as a weapon – toothbrushes included.
“Cave Inimicum,” Matilda announced knowingly from across the room. She was lying sideways in an armchair, her bare feet dangling over the edge. She twirled a strand of hair with one finger. “It’s a standard defense spell.”
No one seemed to hear her. “Is it true that if you say an Unforgivable Curse backwards, it’s twice as powerful?” someone wanted to know. “That’s what my cousin said.”
“Can you imagine the reward?” a second year with curly brown hair commented, her eyes glistening with awe. “What’s the bounty on his head? Ten thousand Galleons, right? And we’d probably get our pictures in the Daily Prophet – front page.”
Wayne Hopkins was a bit more zealous. “I would Crucio him.” He jumped up on the sofa, brandishing his wand at an invisible foe. “Crucio!” Nothing happened, not even a spark from his wand – but Hannah Abbott still screamed, anyway.
“You absolutely would not use that spell,” Macmillan stated over the uproar. “You heard McGonagall. I’m in charge. I’ll just set up a force field around us and do a Caterwauling Charm. If he steps one toe over my force field, the alarm will go off and all of the professors will come running.”
“She didn’t say that you were in charge,” Justin Finch-Fletchley argued, but his voice was promptly swallowed up by Mrs. Norris’s meowing – she was making a show of her disapproval for all of the loud voices.
“He’s not going to physically step over the line, you ignorant git,” Alice called over the din. “He’s Sirius Black! He’ll use Avada Kedavra!” They began to quarrel back and forth until a loud sound like something hitting the door stirred in the corridor outside and made them all hush up. It was probably just Filch, pacing because of separation anxiety with his cat, but it succeeded in scaring everyone into silence.
“What do you think is going on up there?” Orchid asked to no one in particular. She was drifting along, arms hugging her chest while Delphine hopped up and down excitedly next to me. “Do you think Cornelius Fudge is up there right now, looking around for him?”
“Who knows,” mumbled a fifth year boy named Geoffrey. “No one ever tells Hufflepuffs anything.”
It was several long hours later until Professor Sprout opened up the common room door (producing several great shouts of terror and also many snores from all around) and announced, with very tired eyes, that Black had escaped Hogwarts once more.