‘Bennett?’ A sharp voice echoed across the open-plan living area of the London flat that Greg Bennett had shared with his old school friend, Theo Forrest, for the five years since they had graduated from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
‘Coming...’ Greg groaned, blinking the sleep out of his eyes as he grabbed for the wristwatch on his bedside table. ‘Six thirty...?’ He muttered. ‘Who wants to see me this badly?’
‘Bennett!’ The voice called out again.
‘I said I was coming!’ The man shouted back, pushing himself to his feet and pulling the nearest shirt he could find over the untidy crop of his hair, which, though blond in his childhood, was now much closer to a light brown. He lifted his wand from the top of the dresser, raising it defensively in front of him, and pushed open his bedroom door. ‘Hello...?’ He offered. ‘Who’s there?’ He flicked a light switch, straining to notice the outline of a face in the false fireplace. ‘Professor McGonagall...?’
‘You may call me Minerva now, Gregory,’ McGonagall’s face creased into a thin smile, ‘and a good morning to you.’ She glanced around the flat. ‘I see you keep the place in order.’
‘That’s Theo’s,’ Greg defended himself, suddenly feeling very much like a teenager once again. He reached inside his fridge, pouring himself a glass of orange juice before settling onto a wooden-topped stool beside the kitchen table. ‘What do you want?’
‘I’d like to be asked in, for starters,’ McGonagall commented, wryly. ‘It gets awfully cramped in these things after a few minutes.’
‘Yes, yes, of course,’ Greg nodded, hurriedly. ‘Please come in.’
‘Thank you,’ Minerva McGonagall’s head and body rose gracefully up through the grate of the fireplace and into the man’s flat. ‘Now,’ she continued, ‘What were your plans for the day?’
The man shrugged, swallowing a mouthful of his drink. ‘Nothing much. Just a typical Monday in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office.’
‘Sounds like fun,’ McGonagall rolled her eyes. ‘Tell me, Gregory, is this what you imagined when you left Hogwarts?’
‘Not really,’ he sighed, ‘but what am I going to do about it now? I suppose I’ll get a move at some stage, get a promotion...’ He shook his head. ‘Are you still teaching?’
‘Not exactly,’ McGonagall’s eyes sparkled. ‘How should I put this?’ She paused. ‘Several of the... more senior members of staff – that is to say, Horace, Filius and I – have decided that now is the time to... to pass on the flame.’
Greg stared back at the former Headmistress. ‘Who’s taking over?’ He asked bluntly, still feeling the effects of the early hour.
‘A number of people,’ she replied. ‘Several subjects need teachers, and several Houses need Heads.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘Mr Bennett,’ McGonagall addressed him like one of her erstwhile pupils. ‘One of the subjects which needs a teacher is Transfiguration, and one of the Houses which needs a Head is Slytherin. Can you think of anyone who would be suited to this task?’
Greg coughed on his mouthful of orange, spraying the juice all over the table. ‘Sorry, Prof... er... Minerva, I mean.’ He swallowed, noticing the spilled drink. ‘Scourgify.’ The stain vanished, and the man returned his attention to his visitor. ‘You’re not serious? You can’t be serious...’ He blinked. ‘You are serious.’
McGonagall smiled. ‘To look after yourself, sometimes you need other people’s help.’
‘I remember hearing that before.’ Greg’s forehead wrinkled in thought. ‘Who said it?’
‘You did, as I recall,’ McGonagall’s thin smile broadened. ‘At the age of eleven, when I asked you whether or not Slytherin was indeed the right place for you.’
Greg took a moment to look around the walls of his flat, taking in the photographic memories of his seven years at the school, with four pictures of Quidditch Cup success taking pride of place. ‘I think I was right,’ he offered.
‘I know you were,’ the old teacher nodded. ‘That was the moment when I realised you were no ordinary Slytherin. So,’ she pressed him, ‘who better to preserve the legacy?’
‘I’m only 23,’ he protested. ‘I’ve never taught anyone before...’
‘I was 21,’ McGonagall paid him no heed, ‘and you were a Quidditch Captain for three years, as well as taking more than your fair share of study lessons.’
Greg shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t know where to begin...’
‘I will be able to pass on a few hints,’ she regarded him with a thoughtful stare. ‘I’ve been doing this job for long enough. Unless, of course,’ she paused, ‘you’d rather spend another day dealing with exploding toilets?’
The man allowed himself a wry smile.
‘Seven o’clock,’ McGonagall nodded to the tray of floo powder by the fireplace, throwing a handful into the grate before taking her leave. ‘The Headmaster’s Office, Hogwarts.’
Greg watched his former Headmistress depart, before staring down into the bottom of his now-empty glass and rubbing his eyes in near disbelief. ‘Never be surprised by anything,’ he murmured, remembering something McGonagall had said during his own first year; a phrase that he had turned into a watchword for the Slytherin Quidditch team under his captaincy. He got to his feet, walking the short distance across the apartment to knock on his best friend’s bedroom door. ‘Theo!’ He knocked again, more loudly. ‘Theo!’
An unintelligible groan told him that the other man was awake, and Greg pushed the door open.
‘Greg...?’ Unlike his friend, Theo Forrest’s hair hadn’t settled down with age, and its blond strands still fell wildly over his eyes as he struggled into consciousness.
‘McGonagall just flooed me,’ he wasted no time on pleasantries. ‘She’s retiring,’ he swallowed. ‘She wants me to replace her.’
Theo gazed up at his friend for a moment, before suddenly grasping what the other man had told him. ‘That’s awesome, mate!’ He beamed.
‘You think so?’ Greg did a double-take.
‘Sure!’ Theo stood up, pushing his duvet covers off. ‘You don’t seriously want to stay at the Ministry do you?’
Greg took a step backwards, looking his friend up and down. ‘Is that what you went out in last night?’ He asked. ‘What time did you get in?’
‘How often do you knock Bigonville out of the Champions League?’ Theo shrugged, and Greg couldn’t help but smile.
‘The bit I remember was.’
‘So, when are you going?’
‘I’m not sure if I am,’ Greg shuddered.
‘What? Are you mad?’ Theo shook the remainder of his fringe out of his eyes. ‘Oh, right,’ a sly smile crossed his lips. ‘You’re shitting yourself, aren’t you? Don’t deny it! It’s just like you were when you got made Quidditch Captain...’
Greg opened his mouth to protest, only to discover that he couldn’t find words that argued back against his friend’s teasing. ‘I... I guess.’
‘Well, we all know how that turned out in the end, don’t we?’ Theo pointed across the apartment, to the series of victorious team photographs that his friend had already looked at once that morning. ‘You’ll be great! When do you start?’
‘McGonagall asked me to be there at seven.’
‘Hang on... that’s in, like...’ Theo blinked, focusing on the roman numerals that circled a simple clock above the fireplace, ‘fifteen minutes!’ He cuffed his friend over the side of the head.
‘Hey!’ Greg complained. ‘What was that for?’
‘To try and knock some sense into you, you daft git!’ Theo laughed. ‘Honestly, mate, I can’t believe we’re even discussing this! Get some bloody clothes on, and get yourself up there!’
‘You really think so...?’ Greg hesitated.
‘I know so,’ the other man smiled. ‘Now get on with it, and let me go back to sleep. I’ll see you tonight, mate.’
Greg allowed himself a thin smile, closing Theo’s bedroom door as his friend got back into bed. ‘Sometimes you need other people’s help to look after yourself,’ Greg whispered to himself, recalling McGonagall’s words a few minutes earlier. ‘I don’t think I realised just how right I was.’
‘Ah, Mr Bennett. Excellent.’ A businesslike voice, belonging to a woman that Greg didn’t immediately recognise, greeted him as he emerged from the fireplace of the Headmaster’s Office at two minutes past seven. There were around twenty wizards and witches gathered around a long rectangular table: and as Greg looked up and down, he realised that he didn’t recognise more than a handful of their faces. He knew enough of them, however, to be able to work out that this get-together must have been a staff meeting.
‘Please take a seat.’ Greg followed the woman’s instructions, trying to keep as low a profile as possible as he slipped between two older wizards.
‘Hi, Greg,’ the man on his left, a few inches taller than the newcomer, and with short black hair, whispered to him. ‘Long time since I saw you.’
‘Hi,’ Greg’s reply was stilted, but he was saved from having to admit that he couldn’t recognise his new colleague when the woman who had greeted him spoke up again.
‘So, as I was saying,’ she shuffled a stack of papers on the table in front of her, ‘that concludes our appointments for the new academic year. Gregory Bennett joins us to teach Transfiguration, and as Head of Slytherin House, Tara Lyttle will be taking on Potions, and I will be teaching Charms... as well as taking over from Neville as Deputy Head, and Head of Gryffindor,’ she paused. ‘Neville, of course, becomes the Headmaster, but will be continuing his teaching role in Herbology. Finally,’ she peered closely at the notes in front of her, ‘Neal Kennedy replaces Filius as Head of Ravenclaw.’
Greg looked to his left again as he heard the last name to be announced, and allowed himself a smile as he realised who his neighbour was. Neal Kennedy had been a seventh-year when Greg had started at Hogwarts, an opponent on the Quidditch pitch but a teacher in the History classroom.
‘Hi, Neal,’ Greg offered. ‘Who’s that?’ He nodded towards the speaker.
‘Hermione Weasley,’ Neal took the chance to answer the other man’s question whilst a polite round of applause acknowledged the new arrivals.
‘Oh...’ Greg nodded, recognising the woman’s surname. ‘Have you been here long?’
‘Fifteen minutes,’ Neal grinned, wickedly. ‘Or three years. I’m guessing that’s what you actually meant?’
‘Your jokes haven’t got any better since you taught me!’ Greg shook his head. ‘Has Binns stopped teaching altogether now?’
Neal nodded. ‘Yes. About bloody time, too!’
‘Thank you, thank you.’ Hermione’s voice, crisp and clear, brought the applause to an end. ‘I trust all matters are in hand for the new year. New staff will expected to liaise with their predecessors regarding handover and curriculum. There will be no significant changes to school policy from last year: the significant change of staff will be more than enough upheaval for many of the students.’
‘She certainly sounds like she knows what she’s talking about, for someone who’s never taught before,’ Neal whispered in Greg’s ear.
‘How come she’s Deputy Head, then?’ Greg answered back. ‘Why not someone who’s been here longer?’
‘I’m not sure if anyone else wanted it,’ Neal shrugged. ‘Too much like hard work for my liking, that’s for sure! Nev says she’s always been obsessed with Hogwarts, ever since she was a first-year.’
‘There will be one change, however,’ the Deputy Head announced, ‘to the procedure for introducing muggle-born children to the wizarding world.’ She re-ordered the stack of papers in her hands. ‘For many years, children have been visited by professors once, sometimes several months before the start of their time at Hogwarts, and then left to their own devices. This is unfair.’ The sharp edge of her stack of notes struck the polished surface of the Headmaster’s table. ‘Children need to learn from someone closer to their own age.’
‘Well what do you suggest?’ A dark-haired woman interrupted Hermione’s speech. ‘We send students?’
‘Yes, Tara.’ Hermione answered, coldly. ‘We can send a wizard-born boy or girl, who will also be entering their first year at Hogwarts. The child will then be able to help them settle in on the Express, and at the school.’
Tara Lyttle looked back at Hermione scornfully. ‘And if they prove to be in different Houses...?’
‘Then they can still be friends! Nothing precludes children from different Houses forming friendships, Tara!’
‘I beg your pardon, Hermione,’ a man opposite Greg, a wizard with a bald head and a small, tufty moustache, spoke up, diffusing the tension before it could boil over into anything more. ‘How will you find wizard-born children to meet these muggles? Surely, it cannot be compulsory?’
‘No, Dylan,’ Hermione smiled, taking a breath and obviously grateful for the opportunity to answer an easier question. ‘It will be strictly voluntary. I would hope that wizarding families will rise to the responsibility.’
The man nodded. ‘What about this year?’
‘That is more straightforward,’ Weasley allowed herself a grin. ‘There are three muggle-borns, two boys and one girl. They will be partnered with my daughter, and two of my nephews, all of whom will be beginning their first year next month.’
‘What about the staff?’ Lyttle was not yet satisfied. ‘Who gets the dubious pleasure of hosting these little get-togethers?’
‘It is a role rather more suited to the muggle-borns amongst us, I admit,’ Weasley looked across the table to Greg. ‘I will happily bear part of the responsibility, and I would be delighted if Gregory would share it.’
‘Me?’ Greg swallowed. ‘Already?’
‘You’re the only muggle-born bloke here, mate,’ Neal pointed out, before lowering his voice so that Greg was the only one who could hear. ‘Nev says you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of her.’
‘It... It would be an honour,’ Greg managed a weak smile.
‘Excellent,’ Hermione replied, briskly. ‘Thank you. If you could meet me at home tomorrow morning – nine o’clock – we will take it from there. The Burrow, Ottery St Catchpole. So, unless anyone has anything else to say... this meeting is over.’
‘What did I just agree to?’ Greg had eagerly agreed to Neal’s suggestion that they took a walk across the school grounds.
‘Muggle duty, I think,’ Neal grinned. ‘Working out how to convince some freaked-out little kids that they’re wizards.’
Greg rolled his eyes. ‘Great...’
‘You get some Weasley babysitting to do, too,’ the older man couldn’t hide his amusement. ‘All the perks of being a fresher.’
‘Don’t,’ Greg shook his head. ‘I still haven’t got my head round what just happened.’
‘You signed your life away, Greg, that’s what,’ another man caught up to the pair, extending his arm in greeting.
‘Professor Wood...’ Greg gasped.
‘Call me Oliver,’ the man grinned, his voice thick with a Scottish accent. ‘We’re colleagues now. Although,’ he added, ‘I can’t say I expected to see you back here. Had you down for a glorious career, I did.’
‘Really?’ Wood looked at him, a look of surprise etched on his face.
Greg sighed, looking away. ‘I guess I didn’t have the guts to go for it, more like... not like Theo and Zac. That’s why they’re playing for the Wasps and United, and I’ve spent five years pissing around at the Ministry. I’m too bloody scared of screwing up.’
‘Hey, come on mate,’ Neal chastised him. ‘That’s not true, and you know it. You won the Quidditch Cup as a firstie, for Merlin’s sake...’
‘I didn’t win it,’ Greg snapped. ‘I missed the penalty! I was scared of screwing up then, and I still am now...’
‘Hold up, Greg,’ Wood’s voice hardened. ‘You’re only kidding yourself if you really think that. I saw you here for seven years, mate, and you achieved more as a firstie than most people do in their whole lives.’
‘It was other people...’ Greg tried to protest, but Neal cut him off, joining in on his colleague’s side.
‘Oli’s right,’ he insisted. ‘I remember that year, Greg, back when people wouldn’t even piss on a Slytherin if they were on fire, and what did you do? You changed it all!’ He held up his hand, keeping Greg from interrupting him whilst he paused for breath. ‘Don’t say it was the others, either, because it wouldn’t have happened without you. That’s you, Greg, you make other people do things they never thought they would be capable of. That year is why I decided I wanted to be a teacher, because of what I could see happening... the way I saw all you first-years grow up and change.’
Wood smiled as he heard the other teacher’s words. ‘Damn right, mate. That’s what’ll make you so good at this Greg. The fact that you want to believe in everyone. Just try believing in yourself half as much.’
Greg nodded, ‘I guess...’ he murmured. ‘If you put it like that.’
‘I do, mate,’ Wood insisted. ‘Now,’ he switched into an obviously exaggerated classroom voice, ‘I don’t want to have this conversation with you again, is that clear?’