Nathan shut his eyes, concentrating all of his effort into holding the shield charm, and keeping his left hand locked around his friend’s wrist all the while. It had been one of the earliest things the first-years had learned in Defence Against the Dark Arts and, with the memory of the back-garden hailstorm firmly in his mind, Nathan had practised it religiously. All the same, he couldn’t remember holding one for more than ten minutes, and he didn’t have a back-up plan.
‘Nath…’ Charlie shivered. ‘What’s happening…? Who is that…? What are you doing…? What’s going on?’ He blinked, feeling petrified tears filling his eyes as the mask of the other wizard stared impassively back. ‘We’re going to die…’ The eleven-year-old gazed, open-mouthed, at the sight unfolding in front of him, even as part of his mind willed himself to tear his eyes away from the scene.
A pink and purple orb pulsed vividly around the two children, its energy flowing from the wand that shook in Nathan’s hand as the blond boy struggled to hold it steady. Less than ten yards away, the masked man, dressed all in black, stood bolt upright as he attacked, sending multicoloured bolts of light from his own wand towards Nathan’s defences.
Every curse that hit the shield charm made its lights waver and its colours dim, but with sweat beginning to bead on his forehead, and his teeth gritted grimly together, Nathan was still holding his ground. By the time Charlie saw two men sprint through a set of iron gates and turn towards the confrontation, the shield’s glow had almost completely faded. The muggle boy watched Nathan’s body fall limply onto the path in front of him, before a blue beam shot through the space where the shield had been seconds earlier.
‘Expelliarmus!’ Theo thrust his wand arm outwards, catching the attacker’s weapon in his other hand as the masked man turned around.
‘Incarcerous!’ Greg reacted, following his friend’s example and conjuring a thick set of ropes that wrapped themselves around the unsuspecting wizard, knocking the man to the ground. ‘Theo,’ he panted, ‘did you see what happened?’
The other man nodded. ‘Shield charm,’ he swallowed. ‘The blond kid had one up, but it was fading… he looked like he passed out just as I got here. Then the other boy took a bolt of something to the head just as the shield went down… I don’t know what it was.’
‘Do you have any idea what spells do to muggle kids?’ Greg walked slowly across to the fallen boys, leaning down beside each one as he checked their pulses. ‘They’re still with us, at least,’ he noted, looking up as heard the scramble of Daniel’s footsteps arriving in the distance.
‘Nathan!’ The boy yelled out, cutting across the damp grass between the gates and the stricken children before dropping to his knees beside his housemate. ‘What happened, sir?’ He asked, breathlessly, resting his hands against the blond boy’s sweat-covered forehead. ‘Is he, is he…?’
‘He’s exhausted, Dan.’ Greg lowered his voice. ‘He’s just given absolutely everything he could to a shield charm to try and save himself and his friend.’ He sighed. ‘We got here just in time, mate,’ the teacher observed. ‘Seconds later, that bastard would have got them both.’
Daniel shivered. ‘What are we going to do now?’ He looked up at the teacher, his eyes wide.
‘You’re going to stay here with Theo for the moment,’ Greg decided. ‘Stand guard, whilst I take these two to St. Mungo’s, and get the Aurors in.’ The man shook his head, taking the two unconscious boys’ hands in his own. ‘Some Christmas holiday this is…’
Daniel gulped a deep breath of winter air, watching his teacher vanish from the ground in front of him, and backtracked nervously towards Theo.
‘Alright, mate?’ The man clapped him gently on the shoulder.
‘Yeah… yeah. I think.’ The eleven-year-old forced a weak smile, and Theo ruffled his hair in acknowledgement.
‘Good man,’ the Quidditch player responded simply, turning his attention back to their masked captive. ‘As for you,’ he sneered. ‘I think it’s time you played Sleeping Lions.’ He levelled his wand. ‘Immobulus.’
‘Aurors,’ Greg breathed, moments later, as he re-appeared in the emergency wing of St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, the two children still unconscious by his side. ‘We need Aurors. North Ascot. Laburnum Park, I think… These two boys just got attacked by a guy in a mask…’ The teacher looked up, taking in the brown cowls of the Healer behind the reception desk, and watched the man’s face suddenly whiten as he lifted his wand, letting a stream of white-blue light burst skywards.
Before the teacher had time to imagine what the receptionist’s wandwork could mean, another three Healers had appeared alongside him, two of them hurrying to the lifeless children whilst the oldest of the trio headed towards him, parchment in hand and self-inking quill at the ready.
‘Nathan Llewellyn… I think he’s exhausted,’ Greg guessed the other man’s question, pointing out the blond boy. ‘He was holding a shield charm until he couldn’t do it anymore… and then Charlie, Riley I think, copped a hex full-on. Not sure what.’
The Healer nodded. ‘Any more casualties?’
Greg shook his head.
‘What is your relationship to the two boys?’
‘I teach at Hogwarts,’ he sighed, ‘but…’
The Healer cut him off. ‘Have their parents been notified?’
‘No,’ Greg began, pausing to give the other man a chance to interrupt again. ‘I’ll do that,’ he offered, and the Healer nodded.
‘He’s right,’ one of the junior Healers looked up from his crouch beside Nathan’s body. ‘His magical imprint is very faint.’
‘Same here,’ his colleague echoed.
‘No time to lose, then,’ the senior Healer made his decision. ‘Fourth floor; Borthwick Ward. I assume we will see you later?’
Greg nodded, dumbfounded, before the three Healers faded out of his vision, all oblivious to the stunned expression that had crossed the teacher’s face just seconds earlier. ‘Charlie…?’ He mouthed. ‘Magical imprint…?’ Greg shook his head. ‘Never be surprised,’ he remembered Professor McGonagall’s first-year advice, before bracing himself for a return trip to Ascot, clenching his hand around his wand and remembering Destination, Deliberation and Determination.
Two purple-robed Aurors were hunched over the rope-bound body in Laburnum Park, whilst a third stood beside Theo and Daniel, his wand out and pointed at the blond man’s chest. All three Ministry men turned in an instant as they heard the tell-tale crack of Apparition.
‘Hands in the air!’ The lone Auror commanded, aiming his wand towards Greg as one of his colleagues turned to cover Theo. ‘Ministry of Magic!’
Greg nodded, following their instructions without argument. ‘I know,’ he swallowed. ‘I’ve just been at St Mungo’s. I asked them to call you.’
‘Very well,’ the Auror conceded. ‘Do you know these people?’ He jabbed his wand towards Theo and Daniel, who couldn’t help but flinch backwards.
‘Yes!’ The teacher flushed. ‘One of them’s been my best friend since school, and the other’s an eleven-year-old boy, who you’re scaring out of his bloody mind!’
The Auror gritted his teeth. ‘Your name is…?’
‘Greg Bennett!’ He took a deep breath. ‘Hogwarts. Professor of Transfiguration. Head of Slytherin House. Do you want a pound of flesh, too?’ He glared back at the other man. ‘Pound of Flesh,’ he repeated. ‘From The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare. Did I mention I was muggle-born… just like my friends?’ He held his stare. ‘Now can you put your wand down, and get on with working out which scumbag tried to kill two first-year kids?’
The Auror lowered his wand. ‘Well, we’ll need a statement from each of you…’
‘Daniel saw nothing,’ the teacher’s tone of voice didn’t change as he marched over to his pupil. ‘Theo and I will tell you what we saw, but this lad’s been through enough right now.’
‘Well… then… I suppose we can proceed with that, Mr Bennett…’
‘I’ll go first,’ Theo interrupted, watching Daniel shuffle towards to his teacher, letting Greg rest a gentle hand on his shoulder.
Greg smiled. ‘Thanks, mate,’ he nodded as his friend took a handful of steps beyond the boy’s earshot. ‘Danny…’ His voice softened. ‘Sorry…’
‘It’s okay, sir,’ Daniel mumbled. ‘It’s not your fault.’ He cleared his throat, managing a weak smile. ‘I hope you never get mad with me like that.’
‘I hope you never give me a reason to get mad at you like that,’ Greg pulled the eleven-year-old closer, letting Daniel lean against his side. ‘You’ve got yelled out at before, haven’t you, Dan?’
The boy nodded, and the teacher sighed.
‘Well,’ Greg vowed, ‘I can promise you that I won’t do that to you unless I’ve got absolutely no other choice.’
Daniel sniffled. ‘Thank you, sir…’
‘Do you want to go and tell Albus what’s happened?’ Greg sought to change the subject, and Daniel nodded.
‘After we go and see Nathan and Charlie in hospital, though,’ he insisted, steeling himself as looked up into the teacher’s eyes, and biting back hot tears as he spoke.
‘That’s fine,’ the teacher agreed. ‘We’ll Floo you in from St. Mungo’s.’
‘Have you used the Floo before, Dan?’ Greg led the eleven-year-old to a row of glowing green fireplaces on the topmost floor of St Mungo’s Hospital, opposite the quiet rattle of cutlery and low thrum of conversation that echoed from the building’s coffee shop and restaurant.
Daniel shook his head, before brushing his loose fringe away from his eyes. ‘No,’ he admitted. ‘Al and Louis have talked about it, though.’
The teacher nodded, reaching for a small handful of the dusty powder and lobbing it onto the nearest hearth. ‘Say the address, Dan, and hold your head in the flames,’ he patted the boy on the shoulder. ‘You won’t get burnt, mate.’
Daniel smiled, weakly. ‘Okay,’ he took a deep breath as he turned to the fireplace. ‘12, Grimmauld Place!’ The boy ducked forward, pushing his head into the fireplace before blinking, hurriedly, as his eyes showed him the other end of the connection. ‘Al!’ He yelled, recognising his friend’s face.
‘Ow!’ The black-haired boy covered his ears, before turning to face the source of the noise and laughing. ‘Hey, Dan!’ He grinned. ‘You don’t need to shout, you know. Just speak normally.’
‘Oh,’ the muggle-born blushed, although the flames didn’t show his embarrassment. ‘Sorry,’ he whispered, as his friend called down the hallway of his own house, explaining to his mother why exactly she could hear her son’s conversation from the other side of the building.
Albus smiled again. ‘It doesn’t matter. Hey,’ he continued, eagerly. ‘Do you want to come through? James is out, and I’m not doing anything until…’
‘No,’ Daniel cut off his friend abruptly, and Albus’ face fell as he heard the other boy’s sombre tone of voice. ‘I can’t,’ he apologised. ‘It’s Nathan… and his friend, Charlie. They got attacked. They’re in St Mungo’s.’
‘Shit…’ Albus stammered. ‘What… what happened?
Daniel shook his head. ‘I don’t know, not properly. I’m there, now, with Professor Bennett. They’re both unconscious. I was, I was just wondering if…’
‘I’ll come,’ Albus announced, guessing his friend’s question and answering instinctively. ‘Have you told Louis?’
‘No,’ Daniel grimaced. ‘I don’t know his address.’
‘It’s fine,’ Albus assured him. ‘I’ll get him. We’ll meet you there as soon as we can.’
The muggle-born boy managed a thin smile. ‘Thanks, Al,’ he nodded. ‘See ya.’ Daniel lifted his head up and out of the fireplace as the green flames waned to embers. ‘He’s coming,’ the boy reported, ‘as soon as he tells Louis.’
‘MUM!’ At the other end of the Floo call, Albus sprung to his feet, calling up the narrow hallway of the old terraced house. ‘Is Louis back at Shell Cottage yet, or are they still at the Burrow?’
‘Still at the Burrow, I think,’ Ginny Weasley’s voice called back, answering her younger son. ‘Why do you need to know?’
Albus sighed. ‘Cause one of our friends… his best friend… is in St Mungo’s,’ he replied, matter-of-factly, ‘and we need to go see him!’ The eleven-year-old checked his progress down the hallway, turning back to the marble of the Georgian fireplace and grabbing his own handful of powder. ‘The Burrow!’
Albus coughed on the dust around the heavy stone fireplace in the old kitchen at his grandparents’ house, stumbling out of the hearth and into the low, timbered room.
‘Albus!’ A French accent pulled on the sound of the vowels in the boy’s name, and a blond woman spun gracefully towards him. ‘Mon cher…’
‘Tante Fleur,’ Albus returned the French greeting of his aunt, and Louis’ mother. ‘Salut,’ he managed. ‘Ça va?’
‘Oui, ça va bien, merci. Et toi?’ Fleur indulged the boy’s weak French, and the eleven-year-old grimaced as he struggled to come up with an appropriate reply.
‘Oui, bien,’ he echoed, before opting to switch to English. ‘Where’s Louis?’
‘In the back room,’ Fleur’s English was much better than Albus’ French, but her native tongue still flowed around the words, joining their consonants together. ‘With Rose.’
The boy cursed to himself. ‘Merci, Tante Fleur,’ he made one last effort at the foreign language before excusing himself from the kitchen. He hurried along the narrow arch of a corridor that wound its way beneath a plastered ceiling, before forcing the oak door at its far end open without a knock. ‘Louis…’ He noticed his friend, curled up in the corner of an old armchair, holding up a tattered hardback book over his face.
‘Al?’ The redheaded boy blinked, allowing his cousin a moment’s chance to notice his darkened eyes, before a wide grin spread across his face. ‘Hi!’ He snapped his book shut. ‘How come you’re here?’
Albus glanced around the room, noticing Rose’s brooding presence on an opposing sofa. ‘Just wanted to come over, that’s all.’ He swallowed. ‘Not interrupting anything, am I?’
Rose rolled her eyes extravagantly. ‘What makes you think I’d be bothered enough to talk to that creature?’
‘I don’t know,’ Albus forced levity into his next question. ‘Maybe you’re under orders from Skeeter?’
His cousin took the bait. ‘I don’t take orders from her!’ Rose snapped, jolting to her feet.
‘Could’ve fooled me,’ Albus shot back.
‘Me too,’ his housemate added. ‘Unless she’s taking orders from you, which makes you even more of a bitch than I thought you were,’ Louis stood up, crossing the room to stand alongside the other boy. ‘You never called me a half-breed before.’
Albus shook his head.
‘What makes you think you’re so much better, Albus?’ Rose spat. ‘You were the first one to tell her he was a Veela.’
The black-haired boy reddened. ‘I know,’ he mumbled, ‘but I know I fucked up! I know I was being an idiot… but you’re too fucking proud to ever admit that you might be wrong.’ His voice turned cold. ‘I can’t believe I was ever bothered about what you might think of me!’
‘Maybe you’re still wrong?’ His cousin blustered.
‘Still wrong?’ Albus shouted. ‘What about? Skeeter? Don’t you remember that note Xander found?’
‘You could have planted it on her.’ Rose held her nerve, her voice staying level. ‘You’re a Slytherin, remember.’
‘Oh, fuck off,’ he turned around, catching his housemate on the shoulder. ‘Come on, Louis,’ he turned, ‘I’m not listening to this shit.’
Louis shrugged, following the other boy without argument before Albus slammed the door of the back room, continuing on his way back through the Burrow without bothering to check whether it had stayed shut behind him. ‘Al,’ the redhead counselled, ‘don’t let her get to you. It’s what she wants. She’s been trying it all morning.’
Albus stopped. ‘You’re right, Lou,’ he sighed. ‘It’s just…’ The eleven-year-old hesitated, before taking a deep breath and lowering his voice. ‘There’s another reason I’ve come here. It’s Nathan. He’s in St Mungo’s. He just got attacked by someone. Him and his muggle friend.’
Louis’ face turned a deathly pale. ‘Oh, shit…’ he stuttered. ‘What…? Who…?’
‘I don’t know,’ his cousin shook his head, sadly. ‘Dan is there, with Professor Bennett. He just Flooed us. I told him we’d go and see him… I mean… I thought you would…’
Louis nodded, cutting his cousin off before he could stumble over any more of his question. ‘Yes,’ he insisted. ‘Of course. Come on, let’s go.’
A handful of powder later, the two boys had stumbled out of a fireplace onto the crowded ground floor of St Mungo’s Hospital.
‘Have you been here before, Lou?’ Albus asked, warily, as he glanced around the waiting room, turning his nose up at some of the bizarre and grotesque maladies that had afflicted some of the patients.
Louis grimaced. ‘Not that I can remember,’ he whispered. ‘I was in a lot when I was a baby, because,’ he grimaced, ‘well, you know…’
‘Right,’ Albus acknowledged, noticing his cousin’s unease. ‘I get it, mate’ he nodded, and the other boy returned a shy smile.
‘Thanks, Al.’ Louis changed the subject. ‘Can you see Dan or Professor Bennett anywhere?’
Albus craned his neck, scouring the waiting room for any sign of his friend or teacher. ‘Yeah, look,’ he pointed towards one end of the lobby. ‘Over there.’ He waved both hands above his head. ‘Dan!’
‘Hi, Al,’ the other first-year acknowledged his friend. ‘Louis. Thanks for coming.’
Albus nodded. ‘That’s alright.’
‘Morning, boys,’ Greg greeted the two children. ‘I take it you want to go and see Nathan and Charlie?’ The teacher sensed the moment had come to take charge, and his suggestion was met with a quiet murmur of agreement from the three boys. ‘Alright,’ the teacher assented, ‘but afterwards, I think we need to talk.’
‘Fine,’ Albus swallowed, trying to force a thin smile onto his face that his eyes obviously didn’t reflect.
Greg’s voice softened as he noticed the boy’s unease. ‘We are going to work out what’s happening here, Al,’ he insisted, ‘but whatever happens, we’re still all on the same side. Remember that, mate.’
‘Thanks, sir,’ Albus hated the way that he heard his own voice waver, but managed a more genuine smile as he felt Greg’s reassuring hand rest against his shoulder. ‘Slytherins Stick Together, right?’
‘Right,’ Greg echoed. ‘Come on, then,’ he clapped his hands together, ‘fourth floor. The Borthwick Ward.’ He set off, leading the small party as it wound its way along the corridors and passageways of the vast hospital, but it didn’t take long for the teacher to notice that Louis had begun to lag behind the other two boys. Greg slowed his stride, dropping in line with the redheaded boy, and allowed Daniel to take the lead in his stead. ‘Alright, Lou?’
Louis jerked his head upwards, his fringe jolting away from his eyes as he twisted his neck around. ‘Um…’ his reply stalled immediately, and he looked back down at his feet.
‘You’re Nathan’s best friend, right?’ The teacher asked, anticipating a simple answer.
‘I guess,’ the redhead muttered his answer without looking up. ‘It depends if you count Charlie or not.’
Greg swallowed an involuntary sigh as he heard the boy’s downbeat response. ‘It’s pretty tough right now, isn’t it?’ He changed the subject. ‘It’s hard to work out exactly what you’re feeling.’
‘Yeah…’ Louis managed a one-word answer, leaving the teacher to continue in monologue.
‘I remember my own first year,’ he recalled, ‘when sometimes it felt like there was way too much going on for just one person to deal with. Discovering magic for the first time, keeping up with my lessons, being on the Quidditch team, trying to make friends with the other Houses, coping with homework, and then everything with the Wild Hunt…’ He took a breath. ‘You’re never the only one who feels like that, though. There’s always someone who’s been there before, who understands what it’s like… no matter what you feel like, no matter how bad it seems.’
‘Yeah,’ Louis echoed. ‘Nathan did that,’ his voice stuttered, ‘after the Quidditch game, just before you came in… I said I was a freak, but he just said that reminded him of the first time we met, and the first thing he ever said to me…’
‘It sounds like he’s a pretty damn good friend to me,’ Greg suggested, and the eleven-year-old didn’t argue.
‘Better than me,’ Louis mumbled.
Greg clapped an arm onto the redhead’s shoulders. ‘Says the boy spending the first day of his holiday visiting a hospital to see someone who won’t even realise he’s there…’
Louis looked up, sharply. ‘What?’ He blinked. ‘What happened?’
The teacher lowered his voice. ‘How much has Dan told you?’
‘Just… just that he got attacked,’ Louis swallowed. ‘Nothing else. I didn’t… I didn’t know he was, he was… knocked out…’
Greg sighed. ‘I think there’s a lot of things that we don’t know at the minute, Lou,’ he shook his head, ‘and I reckon you guys might even know more about all this than I do.’ The teacher looked to his left, wondering what kind of reaction he might provoke from the boy. ‘Why would someone go after a first-year?’
‘I don’t know,’ Louis looked back at his feet, shivering for a moment as he heard the man’s question.
‘Just Like Magic, right?’ Greg forced a casual tone into his voice as the small group turned to head up their final flight of stairs, and Louis almost tripped over the very first step.
‘What?’ He blurted loudly, grabbing for the nearest banister. ‘How, how, what… I…’ The eleven-year-old clutched at the masonry, earning himself several disapproving glances from the pictures of healers past that adorned the stairwell. ‘Sorry,’ he murmured, composing himself. ‘How did you know…?’
The teacher held out a hand, helping his pupil back to his feet. ‘Daniel told me,’ Greg explained, simply, ‘and a good job too, or else I’ve no idea where Nathan would be right now.’
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Louis repeated, his face reddening. ‘I didn’t realise, I, I…’
‘No one else did either, mate,’ Greg slung an arm around the boy’s shoulders, ‘so don’t go blaming yourself, alright?’
The boy nodded, slowly.
‘Good man,’ Greg acknowledged. ‘Now, he continued, catching the other two first-years as they waited beside the wooden double doors that led to the Borthwick Ward, ‘brace yourselves. This won’t be easy.’
A single corridor, bathed in a jaundiced yellow light, stretched into the distance and away from the boys and their teacher as the heavy doors swung shut behind them. Each side of the room was filled with a single file of metalled beds, their headboards touching the whitewashed walls and their occupants all but motionless.
‘They’re all kids…’ Albus’ mouth dropped open as he took in his surroundings, ‘and they’re all… they’re all…’
Greg took a small step towards the black-haired boy. ‘Al,’ he pleaded, ‘keep your voice down, mate. This is the children’s intensive care ward. Every patient in here is assigned their own individual Healer, so that their condition can be monitored around the clock. Nathan and Charlie are at the end.’
Albus nodded, mutely, falling into step behind Greg as the teacher led the small party down the ward. Louis followed his cousin, his right hand clapped across his mouth in dismayed shock, and Daniel brought up the rear. Nathan lay, his eyes shut and his features frozen, beneath a simple white blanket, whilst a brown-robed man watched hawkishly for any movement.
‘Lucas,’ Greg greeted the Healer on familiar terms. ‘Any news, mate?’
The Healer, a pale, red-headed man with a sharp, well-defined jaw shook his head sadly. ‘Nothing,’ he grimaced. ‘Not a movement, neither of them.’ He glanced across to the opposite bunk, where another man stood guard beside Charlie. ‘Breathing’s fine; pulse is fine. Nothing else.’
Greg sighed. ‘There’s something about a first year in that place that never goes to plan, isn’t there?’ He reflected, before changing the subject slightly. ‘Thanks for keeping an eye on Nathan.’
‘Are you kidding?’ Lucas smiled. ‘Slytherins Stick Together, remember?’
‘I remember,’ Greg reflected a shadow of his old friend’s smile. ‘Slytherins Stick Together, always.’ He turned to face Daniel. ‘Just like I said,’ he emphasised. ‘Anyway, Lucas, there might be more to this than you might think,’ he lowered his voice. ‘Charlie over there… he’s a muggle. Or at least he was when he woke up this morning, anyway.’
‘What?’ Lucas gaped.
‘Nathan’s shield went down, and Charlie took the curse, so I brought them both here. The guys in reception said his magical signature was low… and they’d gone before I realised what they’d said.’
Lucas shook his head, slowly. ‘Never be surprised,’ he whispered. ‘You were right about that, mate. Merlin…’
‘I’ll keep you in the loop, mate,’ the teacher assured his friend, ‘but Al,’ he turned to face the first-year. ‘This might well end up with your dad getting involved.’
The black-haired boy nodded, slowly. ‘Oh…’ he mumbled, his shoulders sagging.
‘It’s okay, mate,’ Daniel nudged his friend. ‘Slytherins Stick Together, remember.’
Translations from French to English
"Mon cher" = "My dear"
"Tante Fleur" = "Aunt Fleur"
"Salut. Ça va?" = "Hi. How are yout?"
"Oui, ça va bien, merci. Et toi?" = "I'm fine, thank you. What about you?"