Chapter 1 : The Body
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“James, give it back!” Al scowls at me so ferociously that the freckles on his face scrunch into nonexistence. “You already have Uric the Oddball!”
“That’s Fred,” I say, holding the Chocolate Frog card still higher, very glad that I’ve still got three or four inches over him. I pause. “Or Louis,” I correct myself, and then frown. That’s not right either. Who was it who got the Uric card this past summer, on holiday in Tunbridge Wells? But Albus makes another swipe at the card before I can figure it out, and this time he’s almost successful.
“Come on!” he howls. “I opened that Frog!”
The girl on the seat across from us, who’s been very patiently ignoring us until now, slams the magazine she’s been reading down on her legs. “You guys,” she says firmly. “You have got to cut it out. You’re giving me a massive headache.”
Albus stops at once, muttering under his breath but withdrawing his elbow from my face anyway. “Sorry, Erin,” he says more clearly, and it’s hard to hide my smirk as I slip the Uric the Oddball card into an inner pocket of my robes. Erin gives him a small smile and picks Transfiguration Today back up, sticking her nose right back in it. Silence falls in the compartment.
Poor Al. I stand up and rummage in the trunk over my head, trying to pretend I’m not looking at the way he’s staring at Erin McKay now, his eyes flicking over to her every few seconds. He’s got it so, so bad for her.
It should feel a bit weird that I’m sitting in a compartment with my younger brother and the girl he’s been mooning over since his second year, but if we’re being honest, I don’t really have any other options. I could make options – it’s not like I have no friends besides Albus and Erin, if Albus even counts. But there’s a very distinct difference between friends and good friends, and ever since I started Hogwarts, people have always put walls between themselves and me that prevent that “good” tag from getting attached.
Albus and Lily have noticed it, too, and I’m sure Rose and Hugo and every other cousin in my cattle herd of a family’s experienced the same thing. We’re not famous, but we’re definitely not unknown, and no one ever wants to touch Potter or Weasley kids because of the baggage that comes along with being one.
The thing about Erin is not just that she doesn’t seem to notice that she’s not supposed to hang around us so much, but she’s also quiet – not shy, just quiet. She never speaks unless she’s asked to, and then brilliant things come out of her mouth, which is a surprise when you’re not expecting it. Albus is a lot like her, actually, but there’s the same wall-building issue there. And outcasts of a feather, it turns out, flock together.
So yeah, I’ve got friends in my classes and my dorm, but they aren’t hey-James-come-and-sit-with-us-in-our-compartment friends. So that’s apparently what Albus and Erin are for.
Albus stares out the window at the splatter of raindrops, lower lip slightly pushed out in a sulk, and I try and distract him from the subject of his lost Chocolate Frog card. “Hey, Al,” I say, leaning back against the seat and propping my legs on the opposite bench. “Truth or dare?”
Albus glares at me. “What, are you five years old?”
“Not until my birthday.” I gesture at him to get on with it. “Stop moping. It’s a Frog card. Truth or dare?”
There’s a noise at the door into our compartment, and we’re both distracted as Lily appears in the entryway. I notice she’s put a pink streak in her hair since saying goodbye to Mum and Dad on the platform, but I don’t feel like telling her that it looks really bad against the red.
“You’ve got to change into your robes,” she says bossily. “We’re going to be at school any minute, and if you’re not in your robes, they’re going to be really mad at you.”
“Go away,” says Albus in a monotone, his eyes fixed on the window still. It’s so dark that there’s no way he can see anything outside it. Lily sucks in a breath to dish out more helpful advice, and without looking back he reaches around and yanks the door shut. Looking affronted, I watch our sister move off back down the train corridor in the direction she arrived.
However, she’s right. The brakes on the train start screeching, and Erin pops up from her seat, tucking her magazine into her trunk and, with some difficulty, tugging her robes out of the narrow opening. She sees me watching her and smiles politely. I hastily turn and start wrestling out my own.
There’s a lot of pressure that comes along with this year, and it’s not fully due to the impending N.E.W.T.s. Everyone always seems to want to make a big deal out of it, like people get magically better-looking or talented or something once they hit the homestretch. It’s a swan song year; people want to be remembered for what they do their last year at Hogwarts.
I still just feel like me.
We slide into a less-than-gentle stop, and the sound of doors being thrown wide can be heard all down the train. Erin’s adjusting her long brown hair in the train window, which is a better mirror than anything else when it’s so dark outside, and catches my eye again in the reflection. Al’s pulling on his robes with all the speed of a lethargic snail.
“I’ll grab a carriage,” I say, unable to think of anything else to say, and squeeze my way into the corridor. It’s already packed with bodies and luggage, the smell of soot mixing with the rain filtering in through the open doors. I jerk my trunk out into the corridor, and a couple of third years back away hastily, nearly tripping over their robes in the process. It’s another aspect that comes with the Potter name – no one wants to touch you.
It sounds stupid, but there was a rumor going around in my fourth year that my dad would hex anyone who even looked at me funny the next time he came down to the school to guest-lecture. I was basically wallpaper that year.
The rain’s coming down thicker than ever when I hop onto the platform, and my hair flattens to my skull instantly, sheeting off the ends and dripping straight onto my glasses. I shove them in a pocket of my robes, squinting through the mist that’s made all the blurrier by the fact I’m basically blind. A bobbing yellow blob in the distance accompanies the voice of Meriwether, the gamekeeper who replaced Hagrid the year before I started school.
Okay. Other direction.
“All right there, James?” Someone thunks me on the back so hard I nearly fall into a puddle. The hand catches the back of my robes just in time. “Sorry!”
I recognize, through the rain, the blocky features of Robin Japes, one of the Beaters on the Hufflepuff Quidditch team. I’m Chaser for Gryffindor, so by all Quidditch rivalry standards he should have let me fall in that puddle, but he’s so nice to everyone his intervening isn’t really a surprise.
“Headed to the carriages!” I roar, which is a dumb thing to say, because where else would I be going? But Robin just nods and points me in the right direction, and then moves off towards a group of other Hufflepuffs who’ve just spilled out of the train. Albus – lucky enough to have no need for glasses – comes up beside me and takes hold of my elbow.
“Let go,” I growl. He’s about to snap something back, but Erin comes up beside us then, shielding herself from the rain with her copy of Transfiguration Today, and he shuts up fast.
We make our way to one of the carriages toward the back of the line, and Albus hurries to open the door for Erin. I roll my eyes – difficult, with the rain and the blurriness and all that – and clamber in after them. The close smell of the damp curls into my nose, and I try not to make it too obvious that I’m breathing through my mouth.
“Did you have a good holiday, Erin?” Albus speaks up suddenly, as though he’s just realized that, after all these hours, he hasn’t managed to ask this most basic of back-to-school questions. The side of Erin’s mouth twists up into a smile that wrinkles the freckles on her nose – just like Albus earlier, though hers are less obvious.
“Yes!” she says enthusiastically. “We visited my aunt and uncle in Barcelona, actually. I’ve never been to Spain before.” And this is where I tune her out, because as much as I like being around Erin, I’m not interested in Spain or watching Albus’s goggle-eyed stare, hanging onto her every word. I make a mental note to bring the subject of Erin up later. He’ll either squirm or thank me for it, and either would be just fine with me.
The wheels of the carriage lurch forward, making great, horrible sucking sounds in the mud, and I have to reach out to steady myself as they trundle forward. Behind and in front of us are the same sounds of squelching, slurping gunk, overshadowed by the rain continuing to drip through branches and hammer the tops of the carriages themselves. It’s a long, sticky, messy ride, and I can’t decide whether I’d be in the moldy-smelling carriage or wading through the slime.
Erin’s still talking to Albus about Barcelona in her calm, straightforward, clear manner – I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl with a head more firmly set on her shoulders – when the carriage draws to a stop at last. I can already hear the shrieks of girls lamenting their ruined hair, and the sloppy sounds of boots and shoes in mud, when I leap down.
“Here, give me your hand,” I call into the open door as Erin, still holding her soaked magazine, pokes her head out. Her hair is frazzled with humidity, shoulders soaked, and she lets me help her down. Albus glares resentfully at me from the carriage interior, and, as a gesture of goodwill, I slip my hand into my pocket and withdraw the Uric the Oddball card.
His face clears instantly. “Thanks!” he says, lost loves forgotten, and slaps me in the shoulder before moving off after Erin through the oak doors of the school. I roll my eyes and, ducking my head, push my glasses onto my nose. They’re instantly opaque again.
It isn’t until I’m shoved into the entrance hall and crowding for the Great Hall doors, along with half the school, that I remember we’ve got a new headmaster this year. I’m expecting to see Professor Flitwick tottering around on the end post of the grand staircase, list of new students clutched in his fist, but this year it’s Professor Longbottom, who’s refrained from standing on anything. He’s tall enough to see over our heads.
“Old as sin,” my dad remarked when he heard Flitwick got the headmaster job. “The school board’s gone absolutely mad, giving him that job. He was old when we were at school.”
My parents both thought Professor Longbottom should have gotten the job in the first place, but then Lily told them they were biased, seeing as how he was a personal friend of theirs, and that sparked a very typical Mum-and-Lily argument that had Al, Dad, and me scurrying for the back garden to listen to the Puddlemere United game.
Professor Longbottom sees me then and lifts a hand in greeting. “All right, James?” he calls loudly, nearly dropping the first year student list. “Who’s starting Hogwarts this year?”
“Just Molly,” I holler back, right as I catch a sight of my cousin Lucy, Molly’s sister, who I’ve apparently embarrassed. Lucy ducks her head and pretends she can’t see me, gathering her friends closer. They move into the Great Hall swiftly.
“The last of you winding down, then?” Professor Longbottom, who apparently hasn’t noticed how mortified he’s just made Lucy Weasley, asks. “Many more Weasleys or Potters headed our way?” He says this like we’re sharing a big joke. I shrug one shoulder and try to press past him without being rude, not wanting to draw extra attention to being a Potter right now.
Someone comes up from behind me and grabs my elbow, and I half-turn. Erin smiles patiently up at me. “Should we go in and find a seat?” she says loudly as a clap of thunder shakes the hall, and one or two second years let out loud, frightened squeals.
“Yeah, let’s –”
But before I can get the words out of my mouth, there’s another scream – and this one’s real. I can tell because the hair on the back of my neck shoots straight up, and Erin, who’s still holding my elbow, grips it so hard that something pops.
“What is it?” I ask. It’s ridiculous, because there’s no way she’d know if she’s standing right beside me. She just clamps down harder, rising onto her tiptoes to try and see where the scream came from. Other people are doing the same thing, and we’re a mess of black robes and colored crests.
And then the sea of people parts, and there’s a fourth year girl running pell-mell through the center of the crowd. She’s soaked to the skin, her short blonde hair pasted to her face and falling into her eyes. Professor Longbottom pushes past me at once, heading for her, buck teeth clamped down over his lip.
The girl’s still wailing, clearly terrified. Those of us still crowded into the entrance hall are nearly silent, and her screams are bouncing off the rafters. She’s trying to speak, but her words are unintelligible until Professor Longbottom can get close enough to her to try and calm her down.
“What is it?” I hear him asking, and it seems like he doesn’t know what else to say, because he just keeps repeating it. “What is it? What is it?”
At last, we can hear speech through the noise. The girl hiccups loudly and screeches, “There’s a man on the carriage path! And he’s dead!”
A/N: Brand-new story! And I'm really so excited for this one, too. After finishing Bad Blood, I've been itching to get back into writing a mystery. I've never written a next gen novel, either, but there's a first time for everything! I'm going to be trying something new with this story, and that's taking it a bit slower than normal. No updating schedule, no backlog of chapters -- although I have already finished chapter 2. But I'm going to write this as it comes, and see what happens! It's just going to be a lot of fun, and a way to hurl all of my favorite things together in one story, and I really hope you enjoy the result.
And by the way -- yes, the story title is significant. And no, I'm not saying why just yet!
Reviews are very much appreciated! I read and respond to every single one, and with this story especially, I'd love feedback. Please take the time to leave even a line or two, if you have it. Thank you so much, and I hope you stick around!
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