Chapter 16 : Playing Pretend
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He stood up, downing the last bit of orange juice and the rest of the bacon, and turned his back before his plate and empty goblet could vanish. The boy moved out into the corridor and took the staircase down to the dungeons. He walked along the dark path, turning corners as he went, until he stopped just short of Professor Slughorn’s office. Regulus could barely hear his Head of House telling another student goodbye, but he saw no one when he rounded the last turn, so he knocked on the door.
The aging teacher opened the door and smiled brightly in an imitation of youth. “Regulus! Please come in, my boy. I had forgotten you were my eight thirty.”
“Hello, Professor,” Regulus replied, returning the smile somewhat nervously as he stepped into Slughorn’s office. He found an empty chair in front of the large desk.
“So,” Slughorn said, seating himself at the other side of the desk and putting on a pair of comically large, thin-rimmed spectacles. He picked up a piece of parchment and crossed off Regulus’s name, signifying that he’d attended his scheduled appointment. Then, Slughorn fished a tightly coiled roll of parchment out of his desk and opened it until he found a clean space, where he copied down Regulus’s name. “We are here to discuss your career ambitions and determine suitable courses for next year.” He glanced up. “Sixth year already! Very exciting. You’re almost through.”
“In which direction are you hoping to take your studies?”
“To be quite honest, sir, I need your guidance on that matter,” Regulus admitted. There was no sense in denying it; he had wracked his brain over the past few weeks, including over his morning meal that day, and come up with no potential avenues.
“Well, I will help, of course, but we must determine a starting place. No one can tell you what you should do with your education and future years. No one should tell you what you ought to be interested in. Those choices are entirely yours, my boy.”
Regulus glanced up at him, feeling a tide of panic rising in his stomach, one for which he had not prepared. His family had always made decisions for him—his mother dragged him to Diagon Alley to be fitted for robes, and the elves always put his meals in front of him at home without ever asking what he wanted to eat. He had made friends with people who talked to him or mentioned knowing his family name. His course selection thus far had depended on what Wilkes was taking and what his father thought was best for a young man to learn. How could he be expected to make a decision as large as the future when smaller decisions had never been left to him?
“Regulus?” Slughorn was looking at him over the tops of his glasses expectantly.
“I’m sorry, sir, did you ask me something?”
“I’m wondering what you are interested in studying further. That’s one way to begin thinking about this matter. What have you taken so far that you’ve found enjoyable, or at least practical?”
“Potions,” he said automatically, hoping it would make Slughorn leave him alone.
“All right, there’s a beginning. Really, you could use Potions in almost any future occupation. It’s a very useful subject,” the professor commented proudly, writing Potions down under his student’s name. “What else?”
“I like Charms,” Regulus said. Neither of his admissions thus far were really lies.
“Again, a helpful subject to have mastered.” Slughorn wrote it down under Potions. “I would encourage you to pursue becoming an Auror, because I know you’re talented—”
Regulus froze, averting his eyes.
“—but you don’t seem like the type to crave the spotlight.”
The boy in front of him tried not to relax too visibly.
“How about becoming a Healer? We always need more of them.”
“I don’t want to do a lot of extra schooling.”
“Fair enough.” Slughorn paused, taking a sip of the rapidly cooling tea on his desk. He offered Regulus some, but the boy politely refused. “You could become a Mediwizard. They’re more for times of crisis, just to provide extra reinforcements, and the training isn’t as long or complicated. I’ve heard it’s an exciting profession.”
Regulus shook his head.
“Hmm… well, the Ministry is looking for Obliviators.”
“What’s an Obliviator?” Regulus asked thickly.
“They’re just what they sound like. They go out on Ministry missions and clear the minds of Muggles who witness spellwork. In fact, I seem to remember reading in the Daily Prophet that they are seeking good potioneers.” Slughorn put down his tea. “You see, normally you can Obliviate someone with a charm, but then you have to wipe the memory of anyone who sees the charm being performed, too. It has led to a lot of unnecessary back tracking and extra work. The Ministry thinks that it would be beneficial to try to develop a potion that will also wipe the memory, one that could be dropped into a teacup and not detected. It would be much more subtle.”
“Interesting,” Regulus said, perking up slightly.
“Does that sound like a good prospect?”
“Well, you’ll need an ‘E’ in my course this year, and I believe Professor Flitwick wants ‘E’ students as well. You will need some knowledge of Transfiguration and Defense Against the Dark Arts as well—never know when you might be in a tight spot on the job—so be sure to get at least an ‘E’ in each of those subjects as well. Then, you’ll be taking your Apparition course, and perhaps an elective if you’d like to.”
Regulus watched as Slughorn copied these notes from his gigantic roll of parchment onto a separate piece of paper for him. He wondered how many generations of students had their career plans documented on that massive sheet, and how many of them had wound up sticking to what they stated they wanted to eventually do. Slughorn handed him the completed piece of parchment. “Thanks, sir.”
“You’re very welcome.” Slughorn leaned back in his old chair, making it creak slightly. “Listen, if you think about things a bit more and decide that you’d like to pursue something else, feel free to drop by again, and we can discuss it further.” Regulus noticed he wasn’t smiling. “You’re a very good student, and I’d love to do anything I can to help you achieve the goals you set for yourself.”
“Thank you,” Regulus said. “Perhaps a letter of recommendation?”
“Oh, that’s the bare minimum, obviously!” Slughorn cracked a grin, though something in his eyes seemed to hang back. “Go on, now, my eight forty-five should be coming any moment.”
Regulus nodded, turning and heading for the door. He gripped the sheet of paper tightly, as if he could release the unease in his stomach by squeezing it out onto the few notes that currently existed regarding his future. He turned the handle with his free hand, seeing Wilkes standing out in the corridor.
“He’s ready for you,” Regulus said quietly.
“I saw him at eight fifteen,” Wilkes replied. “I was hoping to talk to you, actually.”
“You waited out here?”
“Well, I went to see what was left of breakfast. Not much.” Wilkes was clearly trying to bring a sense of normalcy to the conversation. “Do you have a minute?”
“Yeah,” Regulus said, sighing. “Transfiguration is in fifteen minutes. Don’t forget.”
He and his old friend walked outside under an overcast sky, the morning fog still floating calmly on the surface of the Black Lake. After a few steps, Regulus cleared his throat, looking over at the other boy. "Well, what did you want to talk about?"
"The end of the year is coming up fast," Wilkes said.
"Yes," Regulus replied bluntly, wondering where this conversation was going.
"What are your plans for the summer?"
"Not sure. Mum and Dad will probably want to go on holiday somewhere. Narcissa's wedding is right after exams, too."
"Oh," Wilkes replied. "I think my parents are going to stay in and keep a low profile. Mum has been cutting down on her spending lately. It's weird to see."
"Yeah," Regulus replied. For a moment there, he thought he had found the beginnings of a normal conversation, but he knew it couldn't last. He knew that it was polite to express concern, a remnant of a long past etiquette lesson given by his mother or grandmother, but his heart simply wasn't in the task. He didn't care if Wilkes's family went bankrupt or got arrested, at least not as much as he used to. He only thought of it in the sense of passing a pathetic stranger on the street.
"Maybe we can meet up, play some Quidditch," Wilkes suggested.
"Sure," Regulus replied half-heartedly, looking back toward the castle.
"Right, Transfiguration," his friend remembered. "Come on."
As they walked back inside, moving wordlessly up the stairs and approaching Professor McGonagall's classroom, it occurred to Regulus that he hadn't even asked Wilkes how his career meeting went. Even as the pair of them entered the room and sat down, even as they set to work in a team, he still did not ask it. Before he realized it, the class was over, and he was left to walk to lunch alone.
“Are we using the History of Magic classroom?” Lily asked, looking around her as she and James entered the dusty room. Sunlight came in pale sheets through the windows; when Professor Binns was teaching, he sometimes had a habit of streaming in and out of the light puddles, his form disappearing almost totally and then suddenly reappearing when he paced over to the shadows in the corners.
James flicked his wand lightly, moving the first row of desks against the wall with a dull creak. “Sure, why not? It’s not like anyone else will bother us in here.”
Lily took out her wand as well, following his lead. “What if he catches us practicing in here? Aren’t you worried he’ll tell the other teachers about it?”
“I don’t think they really talk to him beyond ‘good morning’ or ‘lovely black pudding’,” James replied. “He might bore you to death. You know, literally.”
Lily smirked. She had never had problems with any of the Hogwarts faculty and was not usually one to make a joke at another’s expense, but even she had to admit that Binns’s lessons were less than enthralling.
When there was a large enough space cleared in the center of the classroom, James closed the door and began speaking muffled incantations. Before Lily’s eyes, he charmed a statue of Adalbert Waffling to fire spells from its position in the corner closest to the door, knocking a few books off Binns’s shelves in the process. He dodged a Stunning Spell and grinned at Lily.
“Okay, let’s start with this one. We can’t have you destroying old Adalbert here, but you at least need to disarm him before Binns comes back and sees that his library has been destroyed. Approach with caution, because I’m not as skilled as Moody and I don’t really know what spells he might use. Try to keep your voice down, too, obviously.”
Lily looked at him, dumbfounded. “This is what you had to do?”
“Something like it. Go on, give it a try. He has nothing personal against you.”
Lily set her jaw, looking at the statue. Adalbert’s right hand, outstretched with the pointer finger gesturing straight up, sent a small ball of fire hurtling into the ceiling. “How am I supposed to disarm him? He doesn’t have a wand!”
“You’ll have to get creative,” James replied, backing up a little bit more.
Lily faced the statue again; it responded by sending an Aguamenti charm straight for her shoes. She yelped slightly at the feeling of the cool water and looked determinedly into Adalbert’s empty stone eyes. “Finite incantatem!” she shouted.
Adalbert went still and the spells came to an abrupt halt.
“Good, just try not to be so loud next time,” James said, smirking.
Lily blushed. She wouldn’t exactly call her response ‘creative,’ but she felt like she was missing something. It all seemed easy so far. “What’s next?”
James picked up his bag, pulling several small vials of as-yet undetermined liquids out of it and lining them up on Binns’s desk. “One of these vials contains poison. I’ve charmed them to all look the same, and you have to figure out how to undo my charm and see which one is the culprit.” He glanced over at the statue. “I’m going to work on putting Binns’s bookshelves right while you think about it.”
Lily stared at the vials. She picked them up gingerly, trying to see if one had a different consistency from the rest or if the shades of blue were at all discrepant. She decided to try heating them up, but none of them bubbled or changed color. When she switched to a Freezing Charm, however, the one in the center turned a sickening green. “Is this it?” she asked, holding it up and showing it to him.
“Yes,” James said. “You changed the temperature, right?”
“Yeah.” Lily handed the poison vial to him, and he transfigured it and its fellows into pieces of garbage, which he promptly pitched into the bin beside the desk. “James… how do you think I’m doing?”
“I just—it seems too easy. I figured it would be hard to qualify for the Order.”
“It is. You’re a Gryffindor. We’re braver than most.” James grinned at her. “I mean… it must have been a bit frightening to face a rouge statue firing spells at you, but you took care of the problem right away. Not everyone could do that.”
“It’ll be different when it’s another witch or wizard staring me down.”
“Of course,” he said softly. “But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is just the trial to get a place in the Order. Moody and the others still have to teach us how to really survive out there. I think right now having potential is probably enough.”
Lily nodded. She didn’t know if she really believed him, but his response satisfied her. It was nice to stay in this moment. She had potential. She was not in danger.
James cleared his throat. “I didn’t really have a chance to organize the other two tasks. You’ll have to face a Boggart, though, and avoid some rogue Bludgers.”
“They had you face a Boggart?” Boggarts had come up on their final exam for Defense Against the Dark Arts in third year, but she had never dealt with one personally. She hadn’t even figured out exactly what hers would become. Is it worse to dread your fear, Lily wondered, or to be unable to anticipate it at all?
“Well, it was a house elf transfigured into a Boggart. You had to knock it out of a glass box, deal with it, and then put it right.” He couldn’t help but smile slightly at the horrified look on her face. “Moody swore up and down that it didn’t hurt.”
“And then what? Rogue Bludgers?”
“Yeah. I mean, we can’t really practice that here. But you wanted to come out to the pitch after practice one night, we could try it out then.”
“What would you do if one of them hit me?” Lily smirked.
“I’d never forgive myself.” James smiled, but his expression looked genuine.
Lily picked up her bag, glancing up at the ceiling and clearing up the mark caused by the rogue fireball. “Have you heard when the trials will be held?”
“You’re supposed to tell McGonagall when you think you’re ready. They probably use Side-Along Apparition or a Portkey or something to get you there and back. You know, like spy stuff.”
I think I’d better do it soon, before I lose my nerve, Lily thought to herself.
“You really did well today. I think you’re going to do a good job. Just come by and practice the Bludgers with me before you say anything to McGonagall.”
“I will.” Lily smiled at him. “You’re going to do great, too. You’re plenty brave.”
James broke eye contact, afraid he might blush. “Thanks.”
In the quiet moment between them, Lily remembered that she had promised to meet with Severus that afternoon to work on N.E.W.T. preparation. “I have to go.”
“Oh, where?” James asked.
Lily quirked a brow. “I, um… well, Ellery, Celestine, Remus and I are having a little party to celebrate our last study group of the year. I’m supposed to put together a list of what everyone wants and divide it up for our next Hogsmeade visit so that we can get supplies.”
“Your last study group? It’s barely even April.”
“I figured you’d be studying right up until the exam, that’s all.”
“Everyone has to have some fun once in a while, right?” She bit her lip, wondering if it would be easier to just tell him the truth. She was a bit terrified that even saying Severus’s name would cause him to turn back into his former self.
“Right. Anyway, I have to go, too. I told Sirius we’d write our Herbology essays together before dinner,” James replied, shrugging. “See you in the Great Hall?”
“Yeah.” Lily smiled at him one more time before turning and leaving the room.
James watched her walk down the corridor until she turned a corner and he couldn’t see her anymore. It was exciting to think of him and Lily fighting side by side with his friends, helping to catch Death Eaters and protecting the wizarding world. Plus, it was easier than becoming an Auror, because you didn’t have to do the Ministry training or worry about your N.E.W.T. marks. Still, he couldn’t shake the empty feeling in his stomach, the one that wondered if Lily would get hurt out there after all the encouragement he had heaped upon her about trying to join up.
The silence of the room filled his ears. He had not yet considered that possibility.
Hope you enjoyed this chapter! I would love to get a little note from you about what you think, especially since I don’t yet know how the last chapter went over for anyone. How do you feel about Regulus’s character progression so far? What about Lily and James—how is the pacing of their relationship? Any thoughts you have would be helpful to me as an author.
As usual, everything that you recognize from canon belongs to JKR, not me. This includes Adalbert Waffling, who was said to be a “father of magical theory” and would likely have been emphasized by Professor Binns in his long, boring History of Magic lessons. At the very least, Waffling was important enough to merit his own Chocolate Frog card :)
Thank you for all of your lovely reads and reviews thus far!
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