Chapter 2 : The Fire
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My glasses were dry, but now they’re sheeted with rain again, and I shove them back into my pockets in annoyance. Erin, who still has hold of my elbow, jerks against me when I do, slamming into my side, her feet slipping in the mud so that I have to prop her up to keep her from going down entirely.
“Sorry!” she gasps, pushing soaked strands of brown hair off her face to see more clearly. A ring of people has already formed at a not-too-distant spot down the carriage path, still lined with horseless carriages.
With uncharacteristic impatience – and yes, still clutching my elbow – she starts shoving her way through. I’m trailing along after her, and I think I hear someone mutter my name. It makes heat rise to my cheeks in embarrassment, even in this weather.
“Get back! Back inside the castle, everyone! Now!” Professor Longbottom’s voice breaks horribly, an unfortunate side effect of his having to make himself heard over both chatter and rain. “There’s nothing to see here!”
That strikes me as a pointless thing to say – a dead man is definitely not an everyday sight for people other than gravediggers and morticians – but a few of the meeker students trot back into the castle at his words. Most of us stay outside, and as Erin breaks through the last wall of people, we get a glimpse of him at last.
He’s nothing out of the ordinary, and that disappoints me, even as I feel horrible for being disappointed at something like a dead body. I definitely know that I’ve never seen anyone like him in my life.
He’s sprawled on his back like he dropped from the sky, one of his legs jutting out at an odd angle. His eyes are shut, but his mouth is wide open, and rainwater is pooling in it, dribbling out one side. Mud and raindrops are caught in his wild brown beard and oddly close-cut hair. He’s wearing a set of plain, everyday black robes, but these are spattered with blood. His own blood.
And then I look away, because I don’t particularly want to know where the blood is coming from.
Erin’s on her tiptoes again, neck craned, and then her eyes must have landed on his abdomen too. She jerks away so fast she nearly falls in the mud again. Her eyes lock with mine, and I just grimace, because I can’t think of anything else to do. Even with this rain, I can see her face has gone chalk-white.
Whispers of what’s been found are scurrying through the layers of curious onlookers, still growing as more people tumble back out of the castle and onto the lawn. Professor Longbottom is still trying to unsuccessfully wave people back.
“Look,” Erin says, in as low a voice as she can get away with, and I follow the direction her finger’s pointing with my eyes. Tiny yellow lights are bobbing their way across the lake now. The first years are going to be arriving any minute now. What a way to start off Hogwarts, I think, and am then disgusted with myself for making it a joke.
The sound of heavy, splattering footsteps from the entrance hall makes me turn around. Professor Veratrum, the Potions mistress, is charging down from the oak front doors, looking severe. She has such a McGonagall-ish expression on her face that already I’m turned around, ready to start back for the school.
“Students!” she barks, and no one has any trouble hearing her. Her voice does what Professor Longbottom’s could not, and everyone shuts up immediately. “Back to the school! At once!” She turns, and it’s clear she’s seen the first year boats making their way across the choppy lake. “Anyone left out here in a minute’s time will earn themselves a full year’s worth of detentions!”
That does it. Just as quickly as we all hurried out to the crime scene, we’re slopping our way back up the castle, because no amount of murdered bodies would make anyone want a year of detentions, and definitely not with Professor Veratrum. Erin’s fingers are clutching the back of my robes, somewhat impeding my progress, but we’re able to crowd back into the entrance hall nevertheless. The smell of wet stone is overpowering.
From nowhere, Albus surges out of the chaos, grabbing onto the elbow Erin had latched onto earlier. Not an hour back at school, and suddenly I’m everybody’s handhold – which sounds very wrong, phrased like that.
“Did you see anything?” he asks, unable to keep excitement from flickering in his eyes.
“Later,” I whisper, more harshly than I mean to, because I’ve just seen Professor Veratrum stamping back into the hall. Her eyes are scanning the crowds sharply. I duck my head, and Albus, Erin, and I move into the Great Hall, walking along the back wall towards the half-empty Gryffindor table.
The conversation doesn’t die down until nearly everyone’s finally seated at their tables and Professor Veratrum has stepped onto the raised platform at the front of the hall where the teachers all sit. She surveys us all sharply, daring us to say anything more about the man outside. Silence drops so quickly it’s almost physical, and I can hear the water dripping off everyone’s clothes and hair.
It takes me a while to notice that Flitwick’s hoisted himself onto a stack of books behind the golden podium in the center of the platform. He smiles bravely down at all of us. As far as I can tell, no one smiles back.
“Students,” he squeaks, and I hear someone at the very back of the hall giggle. “Tonight’s, erm – event – is no cause for concern for any of you.” He clasps his hands on either side of the podium and does his very best to look imposing. “I know that it is a tremendous shock, but everything is being handled and cared for. Ministry officials will be arriving tomorrow to investigate, and until that time, I implore all of you to cast this tragic, tragic event from your mind.”
“Dad,” Albus mutters in my ear, and my stomach sinks a bit. Of course. Dad’s Head of the Auror Office at the Ministry of Magic. There’s no way he’s not going travel up tomorrow – this is big enough to require him to be here.
Flitwick never says outright that a dead body’s been found on the grounds, but everyone knows that’s what happens. And as the doors to the hall open and Professor Longbottom steps through, still pale and mud-splattered, trailing a line of extremely drenched and terrified-looking first years, probably now scarred for life – as all of this happens, I find that I can’t concentrate on the impending Sorting at all. My mind’s still back out on the grounds, stuck fast with Erin in the mud, looking down at the bloodied stranger.
It doesn’t make any sense. At all. Hogwarts is absolutely, completely, totally impenetrable unless you’re explicitly allowed inside, and I can’t think of any reason why someone like that man out there would be. Nobody seemed to know who he was, which rules out any of the professors having business with him, and who else would have been at the school to invite him in?
I can feel goosebumps shivering up and down my arms, and only part of that has to do with the fact that my robes are soaked. There hasn’t been a death here since Dad’s battle. There hasn’t even been so much as a serious injury, not counting the Quidditch scrapes wizened old Madam Pomfrey can take care of in about five seconds. And there’s definitely been no breaking of the barriers around the school that kept Muggles and unwanted people out.
It’s not a good sign.
The Sorting Hat does its thing like it always does – it doesn’t mention anything ominous, despite the fact that I’ve heard it’s fond of giving near-apocalyptic warnings when it sees fit. And when it’s done, all of the students are sorted without any more incident than a slight air of unease and discomfort, which is like a pall over everyone gathered beneath the magical ceiling, still stormy with rain. Gryffindor gains some new blood, who, in general, look a rather twitchy lot. Flitwick makes the standard start-of-term announcements without so much as mentioning any bodies, living or otherwise, on the carriage path.
“Do you think he’s right?” Erin asks me once he’s finished, and the tables are groaning under the weight of the feast. She’s sitting across from me, and Al, at her right hand, perks up instantly, hand frozen over a tureen of buttered peas.
“About what?” he pipes up at once.
“That we don’t have to worry about... that.” She jerks her head minutely in the direction of the door to the Great Hall and, I know, the corpse beyond it. “I mean...”
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” I agree, regretting instantly that I’d just forked a bite of baked potato into my mouth.
“I don’t think ‘weird’ covers it,” Albus interjects again, now moving his fourth spoonful of peas from tureen to plate, clearly no longer aware of what he’s doing. “I mean, that bloke had to get past all those wards and protective spells and everything. And no one knows who he is, do they? How’d he get in if no one knows who he is?”
Erin looks mildly impressed. I’m mostly just uncomfortable at how similar my brother’s train of thought it to mine.
“Not to mention,” she says, swirling pumpkin juice around in a goblet without drinking it, “that he’s a wizard, and had to have been killed by another wizard. He’s not just a Muggle who wandered into the ruins and got himself killed.”
“What do you mean?” Albus asks.
“Ruins?” I say, at the same time.
Erin looks at me first, and I’m struck anew by just how even and straight-thinking she seems, even while discussing murder over dinner. “It’s in Hogwarts, A History,” she explains. “If a Muggle were ever to come across Hogwarts by chance, all they’d see is a bunch of ruins and danger signs. No castle.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Erin, you very much need to meet our aunt Hermione, because she is going to just be thrilled to death that someone else in her lifetime has read that book.”
I don’t miss that the tops of her cheeks flush pink as she turns to answer Al’s question. “He was wearing robes, but his wound was also magically inflicted.” She’s cutting chicken into perfectly equal pieces now, and glances up at me. “Did you notice?”
The steak and ale pie on my plate, which I’ve just sliced into, suddenly seems extremely unappetizing as I’m forced to think back to that. I shove the plate away from me. “No.”
“Were you too squeamish to look?” Al looks extremely amused at this piece of information.
I glower at him. “You shut up.”
We don’t talk about the murder for the rest of the meal. We don’t actually talk about much of anything – Albus and I spent the entire summer together, after all, and it seems like he pretty much exhausted the topic of Erin’s trip to Barcelona on the trip up to the school. Midway through, she pulls out her wrinkled Transfiguration Today and begins flipping through the pages again. By the time Flitwick hops back onto his pile of books to announce bedtime, I’m just glad for something to do.
Lily comes up to Albus and me as we’re making our way out of the Great Hall. She grabs a fistful of both of our robes, concern etched all over her face. “Do you think Dad’s coming up to the school tomorrow to check out the dead guy?” she asks worriedly.
Albus rolls his eyes. “Tasteful, Lils.”
“Probably,” I tell her, and then my eyes rove over to the pink streak in her hair. I grin. “Sounds like you’re going to need to get rid of that,” I pointing at the offending strip of hair, and Lily lets go of us and runs her fingers through it worriedly.
“I never get to do anything,” she moans. “Everything just gets ruined.” She flounces away with an annoyed huff, cutting her way through the crowd, and Albus and I watch her go without comment. We make to follow her, and Albus checks surreptitiously to make sure Erin’s not far behind.
Everyone’s stopped in the common room to discuss what everyone was too scared to talk about at dinner, however, and it’s a huge mess of people standing and sitting on every available surface. Tiny clusters of people are locked together, one group backing up to another, and there is barely room to move.
“Hey, James was down there, wasn’t he?” I hear someone say, just as I’m about to make for the staircase to the boys’ dormitory. I wince involuntarily, but someone’s already grabbing my shoulder and absorbing me into their gossip circle. It’s Casper Finnigan, who is in my year and is mostly insufferable, but everyone’s already looking at me eagerly.
“You did go down there, didn’t you?” Casper prods. “Did you see anything?” I shrug one shoulder, trying to look noncommittal and remembering how funny Albus seemed to think it was that I hadn’t wanted to look at the wound.
“Not much,” I mutter. “I mean... only sort of. There were a lot of people.” I pause, and then add, “And rain.”
Casper looks considerably unimpressed. “Any ideas about who did it?” he asks. There’s an unasked question tacked onto the end of that sentence: Since your dad’s Head Auror, surely you know something we don’t?
I’m suddenly immensely frustrated. It’s this that I can’t stand, this putting me up to expectations I can’t meet because of who my family is. This mentality of needing to step back and give me air when sometimes, just sometimes, I want to be close to other people and feel lost in the crowd because I’m nobody. And it’s absolutely maddening that I’ve never done anything noteworthy in my life to deserve it, and there’s no reason that I’m a misfit, and yet I still am.
“No,” I say shortly. The top of Albus’s hair – he wears it long, so it just sort of springs up out of his head like a bush – flits over the top of the group of people. “Sorry, I’m exhausted. See you upstairs,” I add to Casper, who nods once, already trying to milk the little information he’s got for the good of the group. Albus’s hair is bobbing out of sight, already up the spiral stairs by the time I reach them, and there’s no further sign of Erin either.
My trunk’s already at the foot of my bed, like usual. I undress quickly and, as a rite, grab Dad’s old school map from it before sliding into my four poster, drawing the curtains around me. I stole it the week before I started at Hogwarts, and I’m sure he knew it, too. He definitely has to know about it by now, though it’s something we’ve never explicitly discussed. I did overhear Mum telling him once that he never should have showed Albus and me how to work it in the first place, but that’s Mum for you.
“I solemnly swear I’m up to no good,” I mutter, tapping the parchment with my wand, and just like that a pen-and-ink drawing of the castle blooms into existence. Labeled dots flit across it, most of them milling about the common rooms. It looks like Gryffindor isn’t the only House still up and chattering tonight, which isn’t a surprise.
My eyes rove over to the lower edge of the map almost of their own accord. A cluster of dots – I can see the one labeled Neville Longbottom most clearly – are grouped in a small circle around one dot. And then I squint more closely at it, because this dot, while clearly being a dot, has no name on it.
I suddenly feel sick.
“Mischief managed,” I mutter hastily, and then chuck the map back in the direction of my trunk, not caring that I miss by a mile. I smack my wand onto the nightstand alongside my glasses and roll onto my side, the covers drawn up to my chin, knees to my chest. It is still raining; I can hear it on the tower roof. Normally I find it soothing, but tonight it’s just unnerving.
I don’t think I’ll sleep, but I must, because I am definitely not expecting it when something jolts me awake.
At first, I don’t know what it is, and my sleep-fogged brain thinks it’s probably Casper making a racket as he’s getting ready for bed. But then I notice that the rain has finally stopped, and then that the light filtering in through the tower window is too odd for it to still be the same hour it was when I last remembered being awake.
And then I hear someone scream.
Across the dormitory, Kostos Anastas mumbles something incoherent and twitches violently on the bed, sending his pillow to the floor with a thump. Casper’s yanked back the curtains around his own four poster and is looking seriously put out.
“The hell is that racket?” he says around a yawn, sounding still more tired than annoyed. But I don’t have time to stop and answer even if I want to – which I really don’t – because I’m already up and running for the door, heart pounding. After that second scream, there hasn’t been another sound beyond the running of feet on floorboards.
There are people in the common room again by the time I make it down there, though nothing like earlier. It looks like a bunch of girls in nightgowns, which slows me down until I realize that they’re all fifth year girls, right about the time I realize something smells like smoke and burned cloth. And there’s Albus, one arm around Erin, who’s looking more out of sorts than I’ve ever seen her in my life. Her hair is rumpled, and the imprints of her sheets mar one cheek like a scar. Her mouth is tugging at the corners, like she’s trying not to cry or lose it, or both. My eyes drop to her fingers. They’re tapping out small, anxious drumbeats on her legs.
I cross to Al quickly. He looks rather pleased as the situation he’s found himself in, and conscious of trying not to.
“What happened?” I asked quickly, and my eyes fall on her again. For the first time, I notice that the ends of her hair are slightly singed, and my mouth falls open a little.
Somewhat to my surprise, it’s actually Erin who answers the question. “We were... we were just sleeping.” She stills her fingers and lifts a palm to lay it on her forehead, like she’s got a headache. “And all the girls promised there weren’t any candles or anything lying around.”
I look at Albus for translation. He’s lost the lucky-day look, and the set of his mouth is noticeably grimmer.
“The curtains around the beds in Erin’s dormitory just burst into flames,” he says matter-of-factly. “At exactly the same time. For no reason.”
A/N: And things get weirder! What do you think about this story so far? Any theories? This book will hopefully be a novel when everything's said and done, so there's quite a ways to go, but it's never too early to start poking around and figuring things out on your own.
While I'm thinking about it, MASSIVE thanks to Susan/Violet for the absolutely incredible banner! Isn't it gorgeous?
More James, Al, and Erin will be coming your way soon! Thank you for reading, and if you have the time, reviews are so appreciated!
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