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Chapter 4 : The Best and Brightest
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“So, ready for another grueling year?” Celestina asked as she and Lily filed into the Transfiguration classroom with the rest of the Gryffindors. She paused for a moment at the end of the row in which James and Sirius were sitting, frowning slightly as she watched Peter sit down next to Sirius, and then moved into the next row, tucking a piece of hair girlishly behind her ear as she settled for a place in front of him.
Lily took the seat next to her, paying the boys little attention as she retrieved her books from her schoolbag. It would indeed be grueling, if last year’s exams had been any indication. She knew she was bright, or at least all of her professors told her so, but she had still felt so inadequate sitting there with James and Sirius, knowing they had years of magical upbringing to help them out in a pinch if they forgot a couple things they’d studied – if they’d studied. Lily was on her own. Still, she had done well, and her parents had been pleased to see that her work had paid off.
Petunia, however, was a different story. Lily could hardly blame her sister for not paying much attention to Lily’s exam grades, given that Tuney had only gotten engaged a few months prior. She had been a little hurt to see the look on Petunia’s face when she offered to help with the wedding, one that made her wonder if she could even expect to be asked to be a bridesmaid. Her sister had murmured something about Lily keeping her wand far from both her wedding gown, newly purchased and hanging in their shared bedroom for all to admire, and her new fiancé. Lily’s only response had been to remind her sister that magic wasn’t permitted on school breaks.
She, of course, was already spending as little time with Vernon Dursley as humanly possible. The man was the strangest bloke she had ever seen, carefully lining up his peas and eating them three at a time whenever her parents had him over for dinner and insisting that he take his shoes off before moving beyond the foyer even though Mr. Evans had told him it was unnecessary. More than once she had wanted to tell Severus about Vernon. His eccentricity was preferable.
Sev. She hated thinking about him, and perhaps that’s why he cropped up without welcome all too often these days. No, he wasn’t preferable now, not even compared to Vernon the oddity.
“You okay?” Celestina had finally gotten bored enough with Sirius for the moment to turn her attention back to her friend. She noticed that Lily was biting her lip a bit hard, and she frowned.
Just then, the large door to the classroom opened, and Lily felt relief creeping up like a breeze.
The few conversations remaining in the room ceased as Professor McGonagall strode up the long aisle toward the front of the room. The heavy soles of her brown platform boots echoed in the newly quiet hall, the only other sound made by the simultaneous swishing of the hem of her stylish maroon tunic and the ends of her shoulder-length reddish brown hair. As she turned to face the students, Lily met her kind but sharp eyes and offered her professor a warm smile. She had always admired their Head of House in much the same way that she admired her mother. Both women worked hard, though one occupied a domestic sphere and the other an academic one. Both were beautiful and shrewd, humble and practiced, fashionable and perfectly serious.
McGonagall returned the gesture, but it was brief, and she did not hold Lily’s gaze for long.
“Good to see you all sorted out your schedules,” the professor said, leaning back slightly against her ancient desk. “As with every year, I hope you enjoyed a relaxing and safe summer.”
Something didn’t seem right. Professor McGonagall was all business, never taking more than two minutes for opening remarks before launching straight into the subject material. Lily had expected her to skip the welcoming speech altogether with N.E.W.T.s in the students’ future. Now, though, she appeared somewhat hesitant to begin. A couple of Ravenclaws, who were sharing the Gryffindors’ class period this year, leaned forward out of their own curiosity.
“I am certain that you all have noticed that the climate of our world has grown a bit darker of late,” McGonagall said, apparently having decided that there was no appropriate way to introduce the topic she found so pressing at the moment. “If not, perhaps your parents have been keeping some recent events from you, and while it is admirable that they wish to protect you, I must urge you to inform yourselves nonetheless. I have back issues of the Daily Prophet in my possession if any of you wish to avail yourselves of them.”
Lily felt an elbow in her side, and she glanced over at Celestina, whose own eyes had locked onto a trembling figure at the front of the room. Lily noticed that the girl seemed to be crying.
“I am saddened to report, particularly for those of you learning of the news for the first time, that one of your fellow students was murdered last week. Her name was Karen Meriwether, and she was a Prefect in Ravenclaw House. While on an internship at St. Mungo’s, she and several others were killed by…” She paused for a moment, seeming to have difficulty finding an appropriate word. This, too, was unusual for the fifty-year-old witch. “…thugs. Truly despicable men.”
Lily had met the girl once, when she’d come for a pre-exam review for Charms last year and found that Karen, who was working as Flitwick’s teaching assistant during the school year, was there to answer questions and guide the students as they went through their collective notes. Ellery had told her later that the girl had to work whenever she wasn’t doing homework, given that her Muggle parents had four children and no money set aside for a private school education.
“If any of you were close to Karen and need to take some time to recover from this terrible news, please know that I and your other instructors are more than happy to make allowances for that,” McGonagall continued, and her eyes lit upon the sobbing Ravenclaw for a fraction of a second. “I…” Again, she found herself lost for words. “You are all old enough to know that what is going on outside these walls is serious, and should be taken as such. Karen was much like any of you, preparing to finish her schooling and move on to a career. Her death provides an unfortunate lesson to us all, the lesson that we can no longer waste the carefree days of youth.”
Lily bit her lip again. She glanced at Celestina, who looked uncomfortable. They all did.
“With that said, I must urge you to prepare yourselves as best you can. That includes taking your schooling seriously, and realizing that your education does not end once your exams are completed.” McGonagall cleared her throat, looking for a moment like she wanted very much to say something else, like she was not yet convinced of her own final remarks. However, she reached for a small stack of paper on her desk instead. “Today’s lesson, like all of them, should prove helpful to you. We’re going to be learning the Incarcifors spell. On page twenty-three…”
Lily barely heard McGonagall’s instructions, though she did turn to the correct page, frowning slightly when she noticed how closely the snarling dog on the page matched the tone of her professor’s speech. She and Celestina practiced casting the spell on the beautiful blue butterfly they shared, and Lily felt her heart sink a little lower each time she watched a successful attempt wrap the butterfly in a prison made of spare twigs. Gradually, she stopped taking her turns, turning her gaze instead to the other butterflies beating their wings against the tiny magic-formed cages housing them at the other desks around the room. By the time Celestina noticed, however, Professor McGonagall was standing up to declare that their time for the day had fully elapsed.
As the students filed drearily out of the classroom, Lily noticed that James and his friends had stopped just outside the door to converse about the period’s events. As she walked past, stopping to release a butterfly that a couple of students in the back had forgotten to let free of its prison, she overheard a tiny snatch of their conversation, just a few words between Remus and James.
“…don’t think it’s a good idea. You heard what she said. Things are getting a bit dodgy…”
“Well, we can’t just sit here, not if it’s that bad. We could use the one by the one-eyed witch.”
Now, Peter chimed in. “Won’t she wonder how we got out? Besides, they must be strong.”
“McGonagall’s really worried, Wormtail. I don’t know that the rules apply here,” James said.
Just then, Peter glanced over at Lily, catching her in the act of listening in on their conversation. The group went silent for a moment, and then Peter and Remus moved simultaneously, adjusting their bags upon their shoulders and heading off in the direction of the Gryffindor Common Room. Sirius put his hands in his pockets, glancing from James to Lily with a slight smirk.
James cleared his throat. “Sirius, mate, could you give us a minute?”
Sirius shrugged in response, nodding at Lily. “See you around, Evans.”
Lily raised an eyebrow at him without fully realizing it, surprised at his nonchalant attitude toward her. She had always known him as an impulsive boy, shifting from teasing her about James’s affection to insulting her in defense of his best friend without pausing to stop anywhere in the middle. His acknowledgement of her had been so casual that it almost passed as friendly.
Then, James turned his hazel eyes upon her, and her train of thought derailed a bit.
“Your concern for Professor McGonagall is sweet,” she remarked, unable to help herself.
“She’s just acting strange. I’m not used to her being unsure about things,” James replied.
“Yes, it is sort of disconcerting,” Lily said, peeling her eyes away from his nervously.
They stood in silence for a few moments, both of them seemingly distracted by the chatter of the students around them, a crowd mostly composed of first-years filing into Transfiguration. As Lily watched a couple of Hufflepuff girls walk by, chatting over an issue of Witch Weekly, she felt a slight pang in her stomach. When she looked back at James, she saw that he was frowning. After a few seconds, he saw that she had returned her attention to him, and he spoke once more.
“Listen, Lily, this weekend is a Hogsmeade trip, and I’d love it if you’d have tea with me.”
Lily tried so hard not to blush that she wound up turning an unnaturally scarlet shade. “I, um… I actually have plans to study this weekend with Ellery, so… I’m sorry, but no,” she stammered, trying to ignore the part of her brain currently telling her that her skin and hair were just alike.
“Oh, right,” James said. “That’s Lily Evans, always worrying about exams,” he added awkwardly, digging himself an even deeper hole. “S-see you,” he said finally, heading off down the corridor and following in the footsteps of his friends. He’d never looked so unsure in his life.
Lily gave him enough time to disappear around the corner before she, too, began walking toward the common room. Along the way, she cursed Celestina for leaving her alone with James Potter and nearly knocked over a Slytherin first-year who had taken his glasses off mid-step to clean them. As she moved through the portrait hole, she realized that James had used her first name.
She sat down on her four-poster bed, drawing the curtains about her and considering taking a nap to pass the time until Charms. However, just as she was about to block out the remaining light with the sheer red fabric, she noticed something laying on her nightstand. She picked it up, running the pads of two fingers over the slightly raised emblem of Hogwarts painted in emerald, smiling as she re-read the formal script that detailed the purpose of the note card she held. It was an invitation to an organization run by Professor Slughorn, one of her favorite teachers. The obscure description on the card provided the only hint as to the activities of that very evening: a meeting of the best and brightest. Slughorn was certainly one to be dramatic, but then again, she wished just this once he had been more specific. After all, his best and brightest most likely included students who excelled at Potions. Wasn’t that why she was invited? Would he be, too?
She pondered the prospect of being trapped at a party with her former best friend for a few moments, and then her determination not to let her professor down triumphed neatly over it.
“The trophy room?”
Lily whispered out loud to herself, turning the card over in her scarlet-tipped fingers as she walked slowly down the empty corridor on her way to the moving staircase. Slughorn did not possess a spacious office, and so it was no wonder that he’d strayed from the drafty dungeons for this meeting, but it was Lily’s opinion that the Great Hall might have made for a better setting.
Then, she remembered the sentiment on the card and smirked. What a show-off.
She lighted on the staircase like a nervous butterfly, trying not to let the unsteady feeling of it moving beneath her feet sway her as she patiently waited for it to bring her down to the third floor. As it came to a halt, she turned the corner and made her way down the shadowy corridor, the subtle clicking of the short black heels on her feet becoming louder as she moved from carpet to the stone floor of the trophy room. Lily couldn’t help but pause and marvel at it momentarily.
The usually chilly room, which was barely ever occupied except for when foreign witches and wizards came to Hogwarts and the Headmaster wanted to show them its elaborate history, was now simultaneously lit and warmed by four small fires at each corner, all of them sitting comfortably atop wooden shelves without so much as singeing the material beneath them. Several of the awards had been moved aside to make room for a large, circular table, at which sat a few nervous-looking students whom Lily had never met before. At the center of the table was a massive spread of appetizers, and clean glass goblets and pristine white plates marked ten places. Two girls in silver dresses stood over by one of the fires, chatting amongst themselves and surveying the others in the room. A seventh-year boy who played for the Hufflepuff Quidditch Team with Ellery was standing by the three who were seated, making very awkward small talk. Across the room, Professor Slughorn was talking to a dark-haired boy, wearing his formal robes.
“Ah, Lily!” he said, watching her approach tentatively. “You look lovely, my dear, in Gryffindor red.” He, the boy, and Lily looked down at her dress, a knee-length number with short sleeves that she’d borrowed from Celestina, who had received it as a gift from her aunt back in Italy.
“Thank you,” Lily replied, trying not to blush. As she looked back up at Slughorn, she caught a better glimpse of his companion, whom she recognized as Sirius’s brother from the train platform. “I really appreciate being invited, Professor,” she added, smiling politely at the boy.
“Of course, Lily, I can’t think of a better person to join my little organization,” Slughorn said, waving away her manners. “Well, you and Regulus here… have you two met?”
“No,” Regulus replied, turning his eyes upon the redhead. “Nice to make your acquaintance.”
“And yours,” Lily said, finding that she sort of meant it, despite his behavior with the attendant from the previous morning. She had not failed to notice the dark, attractive features that he shared with other members of his family, after all. Celestina’s infatuation with Sirius was understandable to a point, but his personality had always turned Lily off. This boy, though, seemed much more quiet and reserved, at least when he was not being goaded on by his mother.
“Well, it’s just about time to take our seats. Wouldn’t want to keep the others waiting, hmm?” Slughorn said, guiding Lily to a seat a few feet away. Regulus crossed the room, smiling at the two girls in silver and sitting down across from Slughorn and Lily. The seventh-year Hufflepuff, who had already decided on the seat between Slughorn and Lily, reached for some of the food, but withdrew his hand quickly as Slughorn began to address the group.
“Welcome, all, to the first meeting of this term’s Slug Club!” he said, spreading his arms wide as if he wished to hold all of them together at once, to keep the best and brightest close to himself. “I hope you all approve of the location I chose for this initial gathering. I’ve asked my friend the Baron to keep an eye on Peeves, so never fear, our time together will not be interrupted by anyone not welcome to the club.” He paused for laughter, but he only received a few half-hearted chuckles. Lily and several of the others had suddenly remembered that Peeves had a particular affinity for trashing the trophy room, and Lily suspected that some students in the room had just been put off their dinner by the prospect of having to catch a glimpse of the Bloody Baron.
Slughorn continued, not insulted in the least. “Well, plenty to eat, and plenty of good conversation is promised, what with the company I’ve gathered for the evening. Tuck in!”
Lily ate sparingly with the appetizers, trying one of each and finding some more to her liking than others. However, when a small team of elves cleared the table and presented the main dishes, she could no longer help herself, eating two full lamp chops and a large spoonful of roasted potatoes before deciding that she was full. This decision, of course, lasted only until the raspberry custard tart was served. Thankfully, she did not reach for a second helping after her first was finished, choosing instead to glance at the other students around the table.
She realized that she must have seemed rude, paying more attention to her meal than the people around her, but apparently no one else minded. The seventh-year to her left was embroiled in conversation with Slughorn, discussing something related to the professor’s Ministry contacts, and the girl sitting to her right had gotten up to use the bathroom and had yet to return. She looked across the table at Regulus, who appeared only mildly interested in the two silver-clad girls, who were taking turns attempting to ask him about his preferences in Quidditch teams.
Then, out of nowhere, there was a loud crash, and all conversation about the table ceased.
It happened so quickly that Lily barely had time to get out of the way before the remaining two pieces of tart came flying in her direction. The dish hit the floor by her feet, smashing into bits and throwing stray pieces of custard onto her dress. She brushed them off, frowning, and hurried toward the back corner of the room, where the other students and Slughorn were gathered. Together, they watched as Peeves cackled past, moving quickly through the wall with a rather murderous-looking Baron fast on his metaphorical heels. The group could hear the sound of Peeves shattering dishes and throwing food in the distance. Slughorn had never looked so angry.
As soon as the ghosts were gone, the students departed for the night, save for Lily and Regulus. She moved for the broken plate, picking up each of the shards carefully and using them to scrape the custard off the floor. Several elves rushed in, took one look at the mess, and followed the trail of food out into the corridor. Regulus, meanwhile, picked a half-eaten piece of tart off a whole plate still on the table and put it between his lips, leaning against the wall and taking in the scene.
Lily glanced up at him expectantly, frowning. He was more like his brother than she had hoped.
“That damn poltergeist,” Slughorn said, looking like he wanted to use more offensive terms, were it not for the best and brightest still occupying the room. “It appears that most of the elves I’d asked to serve us this evening will be busy for quite some time, unfortunately. Lily, erm…” He looked at her sheepishly, watching as she stood up with a handful of broken china in hand. “Would you mind helping the others pick up the slack? Just a quick trip to the kitchens is all.” He glanced over at Regulus, who was licking tart off his fingers. “Regulus will help you, too.”
Both of the students frowned simultaneously, but nevertheless, they both also began picking up plates and pouring out goblets, Evanesco-ing the mess as they went. When both of their arms were full, they headed down the corridor after the elves, and Lily made a mental reminder to do a bit of cleaning to the dress she was wearing before returning it to her friend in the morning.
She was surprised when Regulus spoke to her. “So, does the red suggest Gryffindor?”
“Yes,” Lily responded, smiling at him. “Why do you ask?”
“There’s no reason in particular. I’m not really used to talking to people who aren’t in Slytherin, though, so I’m not sure how to handle the journey from here to the kitchen.”
Lily chuckled. “Well, what do you like to do for fun?”
“I play Quidditch,” Regulus replied, and his expression lit up slightly. “I kind of like potions, too.” He paused, and then he allowed himself to lie. “I think that’s why Slughorn invited me.”
“Oh, me too!” Lily said. “It’s my favorite subject, except for Charms.”
“I’m all right at Charms.” Regulus smiled this time. Her earlier comment had triggered a memory in his mind, the memory of Severus staring at her from across the empty library. Now that he had gotten a closer look at her, he could see the attraction. She seemed like a nice girl.
“Why do you think Slughorn asked us to help the elves with these, anyway?” Lily asked.
“What do you mean?” Regulus said, returning to the present.
“Well, at the opening feast, the food appears on the plates when Professor Dumbledore says we can eat, and then when everyone is done, the food and the plates disappear from the tables.”
“Right,” Regulus said, shifting the plates a bit as they had begun to feel somewhat heavy. He saw one of the elves up ahead tense its shoulders as the plates made a dangerously loud clinking sound, and for a moment, he felt sorry for the creatures. After all, if he broke any, they would have to take the blame and clean it up. That was how it was at home, anyway, when Sirius got into an argument with his parents and shoved his uneaten dinner off the table and onto the floor.
“Well, why couldn’t they just make these disappear? Like they will with the mess from Peeves?”
Regulus smirked slightly as he answered her. “Maybe he wanted us to get to know each other.”
Lily looked confused. “What do you mean?”
Regulus glanced over at her. “You know…” He nodded in the direction of the elves, who had now put a few feet of distance between themselves and the humans, as if to give them privacy.
“What?” Lily sounded surprised, but her brief moment of shock dissolved into a small laugh. “Well, I suppose he would love to say that we’d birthed some sort of Potions genius together.”
Regulus snorted softly. “I think Snape’d make a better husband if that’s the result he wants.”
Lily fell silent at this, trying to be subtle as she broke eye contact with him. Fortunately, they were no longer very far from the kitchens. They walked along without speaking until they reached the brightly-lit alcove, and one by one they laid their loads of dishes carefully into the sink, with Regulus taking extra care to prevent his from clinking together a second time.
As they turned out of the kitchen, Lily gave him one final awkward smile, making a second mental note not to sit anywhere near him at the next Slug Club function. Perhaps it had not been too much to hope that Severus wouldn’t make an appearance, but the way the mere mention of his name had caused her dinner to churn uncomfortably in her stomach wasn’t exactly pleasant. She opened her mouth to wish him a good night, but in typical Black fashion, he spoke first.
“How is Sirius doing?”
She blinked. “Fine, I suppose. I don’t see much of him outside of class.”
“Oh.” His expression faltered. “I just thought, since you were in Gryffindor…”
“Do you want me to tell him you said hello?” Lily blurted the words out before she even knew that she wanted to say them. Her stomach churned a little again, this time with a surprising pity.
“No,” Regulus said shortly, but without malice. “I guess I’ll see you around, Lily.”
“Yeah,” Lily replied, watching as he turned easily and moved in the direction of the dungeons, leaving her standing alone on a staircase that was about to move. “Bye, Regulus,” she said.
She pondered the evening as she made her way back up to Gryffindor Tower, still unsure what exactly to make of Regulus Black. It was sort of nice to talk to someone who was friendly with both Severus and Sirius, as she had always assumed that to occupy such a position would be difficult. He was a Black in appearance, but his personality seemed so different than before.
Once within the tower, Lily moved softly up the stairs and shed the dirty dress, dropping it into Celestina’s small laundry pile without remembering to clean off the remnants of tart. As she crawled under the sheets and embraced sleep, she considered discarding her other mental note.
Regulus Black might make a good friend, as long as he never again mentioned Severus Snape.
Incarcifors is a spell used to transform ordinary objects into traps or prisons for creatures. Evanesco, of course, is a vanishing spell often used to clear up spills and messes. Both of these spells, along with any other characters, events and places that you recognize, belong to J. K. Rowling. I’d also like to thank the HP Lexicon for assisting me with the menu.
Thank you for all of your dedicated reads, and please review! :)
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