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Chapter 21 : When Worlds Collide
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Charlie’s eyes burst open as the image of Connor’s motionless body jolted him awake for the second time that night. He blinked, glancing sideways at the digital clock on his bedside table. It was 2.13am.
Everything seemed so real; the pallor of the hospital corridor, the sanitary odours of alcohol gel and hand cleanser, and the mechanical rhythm of the machines, thumping out a beat that still seemed to persist even as he rubbed his eyes.
‘Hang on,’ he muttered to himself, ‘I’m not imagining that,’ he realised. ‘That’s real.’ Charlie pushed himself upright, shivering as he felt the chill of sweat against his shoulderblades. He edged towards his bedroom window, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the heavy fabric of the navy blue curtains. ‘What is it?’
The boy took a deep breath, dragging the curtain back before exhaling, stunned, as he recognised the outline of an owl on the other side of the pane of glass. ‘What the hell?’ He tightened his grip on the edge of the curtain, watching the bird tap out its consistent pattern on his window frame. Charlie tried to peer beyond the bird’s wingspan, searching for any further threats beyond. ‘Go away,’ he complained. ‘I’m trying to sleep.’ He sighed, resigning himself to opening the window and shooing the bird away, only to jump backwards with a shriek of surprise as the small owl, its plumage flecked brown and tawny, hopped nonchalantly through the window frame.
Charlie screwed his eyes shut. ‘I’m still dreaming,’ he told himself. ‘I have to be. I must be.’
An insistent squawk from the bird confirmed that he wasn’t, and as the brown-haired boy opened his eyes again he noticed the owl holding out one of its talons, with a sheet of parchment attached.
‘This is nuts.’ Charlie shook his head, reaching out to take the paper and stumbling down onto his unmade bed as the words sunk in. ‘I don’t believe it.’ Charlie looked back to the owl, and the still-open window frame, and shuddered. ‘I guess I’ve got to, though.’ He stood up again, jerking the window closed and shutting the cold December wind out of his bedroom, before settling back down on his bed to re-read the letter.
I’m sorry if this freaks you out a bit, but it was the only way we could think of to make sure you got this. The owl is called Kjeld. He belongs to one of my friends and is trained to do things like this. He knows to wait for a reply before he leaves.
You know the people in the van you saw? They are trying to get you. They tried to get you this morning but you got away, I don’t know how. I’m sure they’re going to try again. Please be careful. Don’t leave your house if you don’t have to. Don’t go anywhere on your own.
Our school finished today and the train comes back tomorrow, but we don’t get to London until late. I will come and see you first thing on Sunday morning, I promise. I will try to explain as much as I can then.
The eleven-year-old shook his head. ‘This is too weird,’ he exclaimed, locking eyes with the waiting bird, before looking away quickly as Kjeld seemed to stare back into his skull. ‘Way too weird.’
His sense of disbelief wasn’t enough to stop him from following the letter’s instructions, however, and he scrambled across to the swivel chair beside his desk to pen a short reply. ‘I’ve got to go see Connor again tomorrow,’ he thought out loud as he wrote, explaining why he needed to visit his friend, ‘but Dad’s going to drive us there, so that’ll be alright.’
Charlie glanced back over his shoulder, spinning the chair a quarter-turn as he moved, and double-checking that the owl was still there, standing guard on his window sill. ‘Cool bird,’ he managed a thin smile. ‘Just like magic, really…’
‘Do you remember the last time we were on here, Al?’ Louis turned to his cousin as the Hogwarts Express gathered speed on its way into the Scottish countryside.
Albus reddened. ‘I reckon that’s going to be pretty hard to forget,’ he confessed. ‘I guess you were right about me ending up in Slytherin, though…’
‘What?’ Toby Stretton looked up.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Albus shrugged. ‘You know everything that happened right at the start of term…’ He shifted, uncomfortably, on his seat as the other Ravenclaw boys in the compartment turned to look in his direction.
‘Yeah, we do,’ Nathan interrupted, stridently, ‘and we don’t need to go over it again, not with everything that’s happened since.’
Louis nodded. ‘Sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘I didn’t mean it like that, Al… I just mentioned it cause we were here again, and everything’s turned out so different to how we… how I thought it would.’
‘It’s okay, Lou,’ his cousin smiled, ‘and you’re right. It’s totally different to what I thought, too.’
Daniel laughed. ‘I’ve no idea what I thought it would be like,’ he reflected, ‘but it’s been fun. When I wasn’t in detention, anyway.’
Felix Ashcroft snorted. ‘Tell me about it…’
‘It’s your own silly fault you got that week, Felix,’ Alexander Corner reasoned. ‘Calling Rose that when her mum was in the room…’
‘Yeah,’ Felix shrugged, ‘but she deserved it though, didn’t she?’ The Ravenclaw grinned, leaving the other boys in the railway carriage to descend into blushing laughter. ‘You were all thinking it, right?’
Toby grinned. ‘We knew better than to say it in front of her mum, though!’
‘Whatever,’ his housemate rolled his eyes. ‘It’s no surprise you’ve never got into trouble, is it?’ He jabbed. ‘That’s turned out how we all expected!’
‘Shut up,’ The tawny-haired boy flushed, quickly changing the subject. ‘I was going to ask if you wanted to come over at Christmas, but I guess I’m too boring for you,’ he glared.
Felix swallowed. ‘Sorry, Toby,’ he backtracked. ‘I was just joking.’
Toby smiled, before turning his attention to Daniel. ‘Are you staying at Professor Bennett’s all Christmas?’ He asked, and the muggle-born boy nodded.
‘Yeah, I think,’ Daniel sighed. ‘I don’t think my mum will ever want me back with her,’ he tried to make light of his situation, ‘and I wouldn’t want to go back, anyway.’
‘What’s his address?’ Toby asked.
Daniel shook his head. ‘I can’t remember,’ he admitted. ‘It’s London somewhere, I have to get to Richmond Underground station later tonight.’
‘Dad will be able to find out,’ the Ravenclaw reasoned. ‘If he’s on the Floo Network.’
‘Yeah,’ Daniel confirmed. ‘He is.’
‘Cool,’ Toby smiled. ‘I think we should do something just after Christmas,’ he suggested, and the boys’ conversation quickly turned to their plans for the forthcoming holiday. Thoughts of parties and presents were enough to distract the first-years from the threatening letter Nathan had received the previous evening – until the sound of talons on glass alerted the boys to the return of Albus’ owl.
‘Kjeld!’ The bird’s owner stood up, hurrying across to the compartment’s window, loosening its bolts and letting the messenger hop inside as the engine slowed down to take on board extra water at a rural station. The owl hooted softly, nestling into the eleven-year-old’s chest as Albus reached down to untie the message in the bird’s claws. ‘Has anyone got any treats, or something?’
‘Yeah, in my trunk.’ Alexander stood up, climbing onto the cushions of his seat before rummaging around in the luggage rack to answer the other boy’s question.
‘Thanks, mate,’ Albus acknowledged the Ravenclaw, taking his friend’s offering and feeding the little owl, before finishing the job of unfolding Charlie’s reply. ‘Do you want me to read it out?’ He glanced towards Nathan.
The blond boy nodded. ‘Okay.’
Albus cleared his throat.
Thanks for warning me. It was in Assembly this morning that they tried it, some guy called Kevin pretending to be from a charity. I didn’t fall for it though.
I have to go out tomorrow, to go and see Connor. He is in hospital in Oxford because he got hit by a car yesterday. I bet it was them again. Dad is taking me, so I will be alright. See you on Sunday.
Albus folded the letter in half, passing it wordlessly across to Nathan, and leaving the compartment to fall into a tense silence. The sound of the steam train’s whistle echoed through the carriage’s still-open window before Daniel broke the quiet.
‘Connor…’ He breathed. ‘Those bastards!’ His fists clenched. ‘Those fucking bastards! What did he ever do to them? What did he ever do to anyone?’
Scorpius swallowed, before measuring his words carefully as he spoke. ‘How do you even know it was them?’
‘Are you calling Charlie a liar?’ This time it was Nathan’s turn to snap. ‘Who else is it going to be?’
‘Nath, leave it,’ Louis’ voice trembled. ‘That won’t help,’ he glanced towards his cousin.
Albus understood. ‘Yeah,’ he added, backing up the redhead’s point. ‘Lou’s right. Arguing with each other won’t do anyone any good.’
Nathan nodded, slumping backwards onto his seat as his housemates’ words of warning registered in his mind. ‘Sorry,’ he mumbled.
‘It’s alright, mate,’ Louis reassured him.
Daniel grunted. ‘Connor isn’t, though, is he?’ He thumped the chair arm at the end of the compartment. ‘Fucking hell!’
‘He’ll be okay,’ Albus spoke up. ‘Charlie would have said if he wasn’t, right Nath?’
‘Right,’ Nathan answered without thinking.
Daniel shook his head. ‘This is getting stupid,’ he declared. ‘Even if Connor isn’t seriously hurt, then someone else is going to be soon! We have to tell somebody. We have to tell an adult.’
Alexander shuddered. ‘Are you sure?’ He asked. ‘You know what will have to happen. Your friends will have to be Obliviated, and even then it might not be enough, these people might still be after them.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Then we’ll all get into trouble for hiding them for so long…’
‘That’s what you’re worried about, isn’t it?’ Daniel taunted. ‘Getting into trouble for the first time in your life! Well, I don’t care about getting into trouble, not if it helps save my friends!’
‘Hey!’ Toby leapt to his friend’s defence. ‘We’ve been in the same House as Miranda and Rose all year! Do you think that’s been easy? Listening to them call us snake charmers, and everything else? Knowing we can’t get our own back because Rose’s mum is a teacher? You… you…’ He flushed, suddenly realising that he had got to his feet.
Daniel snorted as he watched the tawny-haired boy blush. ‘What’s wrong? You scared to swear at me?’
‘No!’ The Ravenclaw shrieked, sweat forming on his forehead. ‘You f… f…’
‘SHUT UP!’ Nathan’s yell silenced the carriage, and Toby glanced, gratefully, at the Slytherin as he slipped back into his seat. ‘We just said there’s no point in arguing with each other, so why are we still doing it? We’re all on the same side, right? We all want to stop whoever it is who’s doing this, so let’s stop fighting about it and think about something that we can really do to help.’
Toby nodded. ‘Sorry,’ he mumbled.
‘It’s fine,’ the blond Slytherin acknowledged. ‘You were only standing up for your friends, just like Dan wants to do.’
‘Yeah,’ Daniel shifted on his seat. ‘Sorry, Toby.’
‘I’ll swear at him for you, if you want,’ Felix lightened the boys’ mood. ‘Which word do you want me to call him?’
Toby stifled a laugh. ‘It’s alright,’ he murmured.
‘Fine,’ Felix grinned. ‘I’ll choose… you’re a dickhead sometimes, Daniel.’
Daniel stuck his tongue out.
‘I thought you got away quite lightly there, Dan,’ Albus shared the other boys’ joke.
‘Yeah, me too!’ the other Slytherin laughed, before his voice turned serious again. ‘Nathan’s right, though, we have to do something,’ he exhaled, ‘and if no one can come up with a better idea, then I’m telling Professor Bennett tonight.’
Greg Bennett pointed his wand at one final pile of essays, sending them skidding across his office desk and into a cabinet on the opposite side of the room. ‘That,’ he announced, ‘is that, until next year.’ He grinned, satisfied, taking hold of a bulky suitcase and, with one last look around, vanishing into the Sunday morning air.
‘Good morning!’ He called, cheerfully, moments later, as he rematerialised in the sitting room at 6B, Flint Avenue. ‘Nice that you’re up to welcome me home!’ He raised his voice, sinking down on the long black leather of the sofa, reaching for a remote control and cajoling a television set into life as a newsreader announced the ten o’clock headlines. ‘Oh, Sky Sports News, how I’ve missed you…’
‘Sir!’ A loud crash from the door behind him jerked the teacher’s attention back into the apartment. ‘Professor Bennett!’
‘Dan?’ The man blinked, turning round as he saw the eleven-year-old, silhouetted in a dark bedroom doorway. ‘You alright?’
The boy shook his head, still in his pyjamas as he rushed into the front room to stand between Greg and the television set. ‘It’s Connor,’ the boy gasped, ‘and Charlie, Nathan’s friend.’
Greg stared back at the first-year. ‘What about them, Dan?’ He asked, gently.
‘They’re in danger!’ Daniel turned away, feeling his eyes suddenly beginning to prickle. ‘They’re in danger,’ he shivered.
‘What?’ The teacher echoed, shutting off the background disruption of the television. ‘Why are they in danger?’
Daniel took a deep breath, steeling himself as he made eye contact with the man again. ‘Don’t you know anything about them?’
‘No,’ Greg admitted. ‘I know you guys wrote to them, but that’s all…’
‘The Oxford bombs!’ Daniel blustered. ‘They were there; they saw them! Connor saw a van, too, with “Just Like Magic” written on the side, but nobody else could remember it, and no one would believe him. Albus thinks everyone else got Obliviated, and he’s right!’
Greg’s mouth dropped open. ‘Dan,’ he counselled, ‘are you sure…’
‘Yes!’ The boy stopped worrying about his burning eyes. ‘I know it! Then they saw the van again, in Ascot, and this time it was Connor who got Obliviated, cause Charlie was hiding and saw it happen. Then there was a presentation at Assembly yesterday at Charlie’s school, by someone called “Just Like Magic”, and Connor got hit by a car. It’s all connected, just like the Daily Prophet says!’
‘Daniel,’ the teacher reasoned, ‘just because something’s in the Prophet, it doesn’t mean…’
‘I know that!’ The eleven-year-old snapped, furiously. ‘I saw what they wrote about Louis, I know that’s all lies, but this is true, I swear it!’
‘What happened to Slytherins Stick Together?’ Daniel refused to listen to the adult’s moderation. ‘Or was that just something you said? You’re as bad as my mum was,’ he yelled. ‘She never fucking believed me, either!’ Daniel picked up a cushion from the end of the sofa, hurling it at the teacher before storming back into the bedroom.
Greg winced, holding up a hand to block the boy’s angry throw.
‘Oh, yeah,’ Daniel paused, his voice suddenly cold as he turned back around. ‘What about the letter that Nathan got sent, promising they’d get Charlie next time, and saying “Just Like Magic” on the back? Was that a fake, too?’ He reached out to slam the door, only for Greg’s wandwork to freeze both boy and carpentry mid-motion.
‘Daniel,’ he swallowed, releasing the eleven-year-old from his trance having stood up to halt the door’s dangerous swing. ‘What letter was this?’
‘You promise you’ll believe me?’ Daniel glared up through his brown fringe, suddenly reminding the teacher of the withdrawn boy he’d met four months earlier on the outskirts of Oxford.
Greg nodded. ‘I promise.’
Daniel relaxed instantly, stumbling back onto the unmade bed behind him. ‘It was at the Christmas dinner, on the last day of term.’
‘What did it say?’ Greg sat down beside the eleven-year-old, letting the boy lean against his shoulder.
‘Just that,’ Daniel explained. ‘Your friend got lucky today, but we’ll get him next time,’ he swallowed. ‘It was made of ripped-up newspapers.’
The man shook his head. ‘Why didn’t you say something earlier?’
Daniel’s head dropped. ‘We didn’t want Connor and Charlie to get Obliviated again.’
‘Oh,’ Greg let his arm rest on Daniel’s shoulders. ‘Did you tell them anything…?’
‘No,’ the boy retorted, defiantly. ‘They don’t know anything about Hogwarts, or about magic. Except,’ he swallowed, ‘Albus sent Charlie his owl last night after Nathan got that letter. He said it was specially trained.’
Greg smiled, wryly. ‘Do you know where Charlie is going to be now?’
‘At home,’ Daniel answered. ‘Ascot, right? Nathan said he was going to see him…’
The man sighed. ‘And make themselves an even bigger target, if you guys are right about all of this?’
Daniel’s eyes widened. ‘Oh, shit…’
‘Yeah,’ Greg nodded, springing to his feet. ‘Shit.’ The teacher took a handful of brief strides towards the edge of the room. ‘Get dressed,’ he instructed, before thumping on the door of his best friend’s bedroom. ‘Theo!’ He hollered. ‘Get moving! Field trip!’
Half an hour earlier, Nathan had stood, nervously, at the gates of Charlie’s house, having retraced a familiar route through the back streets of Ascot. ‘Charlie,’ he held down a silver button on the metal of a security keypad. ‘It’s me,’ he swallowed. ‘Nathan.’
‘Nathan!’ Charlie’s voice echoed excitably in response, and the wrought-iron gates edged open as his reply crackled through a tinny speaker. By the time the blond boy had made his way up the gravel drive to the Rileys’ front door, his old friend was waiting to greet him. ‘Nath,’ he repeated, holding out a tentative hand. ‘I’m sorry about the…’
‘Forget it,’ Nathan cut him off, taking the offering without hesitation. ‘It’s alright.’
Charlie smiled, broadly. ‘Do you want to come in?’ He asked, but Nathan grimaced.
‘I don’t know,’ he bit his lip. ‘If anyone followed me, if anyone knows I’m here, then we’re just a sitting target, aren’t we?’
Charlie’s smile faded. ‘What do you think we should do, then…?’
‘Maybe go to the park?’ The blond boy suggested. ‘If we’re in public, we’ll be safer.’
‘Yeah,’ Charlie nodded, ‘you’re right.’ He ducked back inside his house, snatching a warm coat before grabbing a pair of trainers from a low rack by the door. ‘How’s your new school, then?’
Nathan smiled. ‘It’s great,’ he answered, honestly. ‘How’s Ascot?’
The brown-haired boy rolled his eyes. ‘What do you think?’
‘Yeah,’ Charlie snorted, ‘but when did you start swearing like that?’
‘Last summer,’ Nathan replied, drily. ‘After a cricket game…’
Charlie blushed, beginning to stumble over a reply before his friend’s laughter saved him from another awkward apology.
‘It doesn’t matter, anyway,’ Nathan continued, ‘I’d have learned it at Hogs… at Merchiston,’ he corrected himself, hurriedly.
‘Hogs?’ The muggle-born boy hesitated.
‘It’s, um, a nickname,’ Nathan lied. ‘For the first-year boarding house.’
‘Oh, alright.’ Charlie relaxed. ‘So what’s the best bit, then?’
Nathan paused, considering his answer. ‘My friends, I guess,’ he replied, ‘and my boarding house. History’s fun, too,’ he added.
Charlie nodded. ‘Well I got banned from playing rugby for the rest of term after hitting Denness,’ he noted, grumpily, ‘and the A’s have lost like every game since then. None of the others can tackle!’
‘Who’s playing at centre now?’
‘They keep changing,’ Charlie shook his head. ‘I don’t know who they ended up with. What team are you in?’
‘Oh, um,’ Nathan stalled again, giving himself a moment to concoct another lie. ‘B’s,’ he invented. ‘Outside.’
‘Your A’s must be good, then.’
Nathan flushed. ‘How’s Connor?’ He changed the subject, hurriedly. ‘Did you see him again yesterday?’
Charlie’s mood darkened immediately. ‘Yeah,’ the muggle boy muttered. ‘He’s still unconscious, but the nurse said some of his signs were improving. I sat there for like an hour, talking to him, cause they said it would do him good.’
‘Shit,’ Nathan swore again, and this time his friend didn’t comment. ‘I never knew it was that bad…’
‘Well it is,’ Charlie confirmed. ‘They don’t know how long he’ll be like that.’
Nathan shivered. ‘We should tell Daniel,’ he observed, ‘he’ll want to go and see him.’
‘I’m going back this afternoon,’ Charlie noted, picking his way along an overgrown track that marked a familiar back entrance to their local park. . ‘Dad’s driving again. You can come if you want.’
‘Yes,’ Nathan answered, instantly. ‘I’ll come. Charlie…?’ The blond boy stumbled to an untidy halt, wondering why his friend had suddenly stopped moving. ‘What’s up?’
‘That graffiti,’ the other boy swallowed. ‘Like you mentioned. Sons of Walpurgis,’ he mumbled, pointing out a white tag on the brick wall of a low-slung toilet block on the opposite side of a footpath inside the park. ‘Ouch!’ He yelled out, snatching his right arm back towards himself and sucking a fresh wound on the back of his hand.
‘Charlie!’ Nathan echoed.
The other boy grunted. ‘Just a bramble,’ he winced. ‘I wasn’t looking.’ He shook his wrist, pushing his way out of the bushes.
‘That graffiti,’ The blond boy clutched for the wand in the pocket of his coat. ‘It’s still wet,’ he observed. ‘Look, it’s dripping. Look out…’
Charlie blinked. ‘What for?’ He queried, his voice rising fearfully. ‘Nath, what’s going on?’
‘Shh…’ Nathan hissed, his eyes flicking around the familiar surroundings. ‘Quiet…’
‘Nathan!’ Charlie began to panic. ‘What’s happening?’ He grabbed his friend’s shoulders, before letting out a scream of terror as a loud bang echoed from inside the toilets. ‘That was just like it was in Oxford!’ He shouted. ‘We’ve got to get out of here!’
The blond boy shook his head, grabbing hold of his friend’s wrist with his free hand. ‘Easier said than done, I think,’ he swallowed as a masked figure stepped out from a door at the end of the squat building, levelling its wand as it advanced towards the two boys. Nathan shut his eyes, recalling the first time he had seen a spell being cast. ‘Sorry, Charlie,’ he apologised, drawing his own wand as the other wizard aimed to strike. ‘PROTEGO!’
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