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The Brave at Heart by marauderfan
Chapter 25 : Carry That Weight
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 4

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After Quidditch I dropped my stuff off in my dormitory, then headed to the Gryffindor common room, my feet leading me there almost of their own free will. If my feet had consulted my head about doing this, I would certainly not be going, because if Sirius was there I might end up saying stupid things around him. But my feet resolutely led me there. I walked in and saw groups of people here and there; Sirius was sitting with Peter by a window, the former tapping his foot rapidly as if something was bothering him, the latter flicking pieces off a chessboard moodily.

“Er, hi,” I said as I approached. Sirius looked up at me, his frown disappearing when he saw me. Peter began to clean up his chess pieces, and I talked briefly with the two of them. Apparently James had just left for the Owlery, but I hadn’t seen Remus all day, even in class. “Where’s Remus been today?” I asked.

“He’s ill again,” said Sirius. Remus seemed to be very prone to illness; it happened quite frequently. I guess it ran in the family, because he’d often be gone from Hogwarts for a couple of days to visit his sick mum every now and then.

“Aw, I hope he feels better,” I said.

Peter had finished picking up the fallen chess pieces and stowed them, and then started walking away. “Good to see you, Melanie,” he said as he left. “See you later, Padfoot.”

“What is it with those nicknames? After a year of hearing them, I still don’t get it. You’re Padfoot, Peter is Prongs… no, that’s James…?”

“That’s sort of how nicknames are, not everyone needs to understand,” said Sirius evasively.

“Where’d old Snaketail go, anyway? Is he afraid of me?”

“Snaketail?” asked Sirius blankly, and then laughed. “You mean Pete – and it’s Wormtail, by the way. And sure, I reckon he’s afraid of you. Maybe because of the way you walk around like this.” He raised his hands like claws and made a face. “It scares everyone.”

“What are you talking about, that’s my friendly face,” I said, imitating his expression and claw hands, and then laughed as I sat down beside him. “You know, I actually saw something that looked like that on holiday in Wales when I was little,” I said. I began telling him the story of how Nathan had tricked me into believing there were Yetis in Wales, but when I saw one, it turned out to just be Nathan in a furry costume. This led into a competition of sorts in which we tried to outdo each other’s stories. I had a feeling Sirius was embellishing most of his anecdotes.

“…and that’s when we found a unicorn,” Sirius continued. His story was sounding increasingly less probable the more he told of it.

“I don’t believe you,” I said dismissively. “Unicorns are shy – they only like innocent, trustworthy people. They wouldn’t go anywhere near you.”

“I was six! And Reg was five. Little kids are innocent and trustworthy. The unicorn loved us.”

“Until you scared it away.”

“No, until my mum started shouting at us to stop wandering off and come back. Family holidays, they were the greatest…” He sighed. “It’s strange to think that we were once actually happy.”

After a short silence, in which I had no idea what to say, and Sirius apparently felt no need to elaborate, I informed him of some relevant Slytherin Quidditch news.

“Regulus is the new Seeker for Slytherin this year, did you know?”

Sirius raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t even know he knew how to play.”

“He’s actually rather good.”

“Who cares,” Sirius grunted, frowning again.

I had a feeling that was not entirely true. After encounters with Regulus, Sirius was usually rather moody, and it was plain to me that he did care. But I could sense him starting to close off, so I didn’t press the issue. I knew Sirius well enough by now to know that he would only talk about Regulus of his own accord, and not because anyone asked.

So I leaned on his shoulder, without really knowing why I did. If he made a big deal about it, I could easily just say I’d fallen over or something. But he didn’t seem to mind, and I savoured how nice it felt to sit there together, though very aware of how close his hand was to my leg. Maybe if I moved my leg… No. That would do nothing except probably make him uncomfortable with sitting next to me. Besides, the memory of him and Carol in the corridor together kept popping up in my mind.

“We used to be so close,” said Sirius unexpectedly, and I looked up at him; he was staring off into the distance, his face set, eyebrows knitted. “He was my best friend when we were children. That was before I really noticed anything wrong with how my parents raised me. But I eventually figured it out by putting together all the pieces, and Regulus refused to listen to anything I said against the family. He cut me out of his life when I ran away, just like the rest of them did. And it just kills me every time I see him.”

Unprepared for this deluge of all the emotions and anger Sirius was holding on to, I suggested timidly, “Maybe you should talk to him?”

“No,” Sirius retorted vehemently. “He wants nothing to do with me.”

“You think so? I think you’re both just too stubborn to talk to each other. Maybe he’s as unhappy about this as you are.”

Sirius shook his head. “He’s not. I just ran into him before I came up here… it’s what I was upset about when you came by. He never talks to me, but when he does, it’s only to remind me that he’s ashamed to be related to me. I can’t fucking handle it anymore. I hate him and my whole family. And I hate myself,” he added forcefully, pounding his fist against the cushion we sat on.

“Sirius, don’t,” I said, wrapping my arms around him and resting my head against him, and he seemed to relax slightly. “Don’t blame yourself.”

“But things could have been different,” he continued, in a softer tone. “If I’d gotten him out too, when I ran away. But I didn’t. I’ve tried so hard to be a good brother, to guide him, to make up for leaving, but he’s turned his back on me, and there’s nothing I can do about it anymore.”

“Maybe he just keeps up the act because he’s worried what his friends will think about him otherwise,” I said. “If he’s anything like you, he’s full of secrets, so it can be hard to know what he really thinks. But… some things you can’t be told, you just have to figure out your path on your own. Like you did.”

“Hopefully he figures it out before he gets involved with the Death Eaters.”

“The world is not split into good people and Death Eaters, Sirius,” I said softly, thinking of Nathan. “It’s possible for someone to be both.” I hadn’t talked to Nathan since I left, and the last thing he’d written to me was over the summer when he tried to justify his decision to join the Death Eaters, but I was still convinced that despite everything, he was a good person. Then there were also people like Vanessa Saltz, who was neither a Death Eater nor a good person.

My thoughts drifted to my estranged brother. I wanted to fix things with him, but I just had nothing to say to him. I’d be willing to talk to him again if he admitted he was wrong. And maybe that was the same reason Sirius and Regulus wouldn’t talk to each other – they were each convinced the other was wrong, and if Regulus was as stubborn as Sirius was, they’d never work it out.

Sirius only shrugged, so I told him, “It’s hard. I understand.”

He sighed. “I know. And, er… thank you.”

We lapsed into silence for a few moments. I took hold of his hand and squeezed it, in what I hoped could be interpreted as just a friendly, comforting gesture. Although he didn’t try to withdraw his hand, he looked down at our hands after a moment and I reluctantly let go of him.

Just then, the common room door opened and James walked in. He cast a glance at Sirius and me by the window, flashed a quick grin at us, and started to head for the stairs to his dormitory. Sirius moved slightly, causing me to stop leaning against him, and I instantly missed his touch.

A worried second year walked up to talk to James. Across the room, Lily was sitting in an armchair taking notes on a book, but began tapping her quill against her book and occasionally looking up at James out of the corner of her eye. I didn’t pay attention to James’s discussion with the kid, but after a few minutes the kid smiled, and James gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder and headed for the stairs again. Lily instantly leapt up and walked over to James before he disappeared up the stairs. “Potter, wait,” she said.

James turned around. “What is it, Lily?” he asked politely.

She took a step closer to him, glancing around as if to make sure no one was watching them. I looked at the wall past Sirius and kept subtly listening to James and Lily.

“Oh, it’s nothing important,” she said. “I was just wondering how you found that room where we danced together after patrol last week? I’ve been looking all over the seventh floor but it seems like that room’s just disappeared!”

I giggled to myself and leaned forward slightly to hear them better, now making no effort to be subtle. Apparently patrols were more fun than I imagined.

“I’m not sure, actually,” said James. “It just shows up every now and then.”

Lily smiled wryly. “I guess that’s one of the few advantages of having a rule-breaker as Head Boy – you know the castle better than anyone.”

Former rule-breaker. I haven’t broken a rule in at least… two weeks.”

“Congratulations,” said Lily. “But I think staying out after patrol counts as breaking rules as well. So that’d be one week, not two.”

“All right, one then. I had fun last week, by the way – you’re a great dance instructor. I managed that Eclectic Slide thing much faster than I learned Apparition last year.”

“Electric,” Lily corrected. “I’m glad you enjoyed it. Maybe we can do it again sometime. Erm… how are you doing, by the way? I heard about your dad…” She looked up at him with eyes full of concern, her nervous hands held behind her back.

Confused, I looked back at Sirius. “His dad is really ill,” he explained. I returned to watching the Head Boy and Girl – Lily was hugging James, and he thanked her for her support. With a slightly red face, he then headed up the dormitory stairs, and Lily marched back across the common room in a dignified manner and returned to reading her book.

Shortly before I left the Gryffindor common room for the night, I met up with Lily to discuss our new Runes translation, and in response to it we wrote up some silly runic poetry full of double entendres. Eventually I asked her how she was liking being Head Girl. She discussed how much work it was, but how rewarding… and even mentioned that she was starting to enjoy working with James.

“He’s really changed a lot this past year, you know,” she said, more to herself than to me.

“In a good way?” I asked, eager for her response.

“Yes,” she said pensively. “I mean, I never thought I’d…” She stopped and looked at me again, perhaps realising she might be about to say too much. “He actually seems responsible. He puts his Head Boy duties ahead of pranks with his friends… most of the time, anyway. And I’d never realised how much he cares about people; I’ve seen him be so compassionate without expecting anything in return. And I just felt awful for him after hearing about his dad. I think patrolling with James has made me see an entirely different side of him.”

I smiled slyly. “Like the side of him that does the Electric Slide?”

Lily blushed. “You were eavesdropping! Well, we had been discussing music during patrol, and he’s not too familiar with Muggle music and dance. He was so confused by the idea of disco that I told him I’d teach him. And then after patrol we found a little dance studio room – I’d had no idea Hogwarts had one, but there’s one on this floor – and I taught him the Electric Slide. He’s a quick learner. We had a lot of fun.”

“So you think you two could actually be friends?”

“We are friends. And that’s all, so stop it, I can see you’re getting ideas about us, just like Mary and Carol are.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. But I couldn’t help grinning.

The Slytherin Quidditch team had another practice the following day, albeit a shorter one, because there wasn’t a whole lot of time between afternoon classes and dinner that day, and Gryffindor already had the Quidditch pitch booked for after dinner.

On my way back into the castle after practice, I saw Lily, Remus, and Sirius walking together towards the Great Hall ahead of me. Remus appeared to be chewing a piece of Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum; he was blowing large blue bubbles which lingered behind him in the hallway as they walked. As I ran up behind them to catch up, Peeves the poltergeist whooshed in from an abutting corridor and hovered in the air above them. He threw something at Lily, who jumped aside, and Sirius reached up to knock Peeves out of the way.

Remus calmly took the chewed piece of gum out of his mouth, pointed his wand at Peeves, and muttered “Waddiwasi,” shooting the gum into Peeves’s nostril. The others laughed as Peeves cursed and zoomed away.

“Sometimes those spells you lot make up are pretty good, I’ll admit,” Lily told Remus.

“Hey,” I said to them, catching up. “I saw that, Remus – I think I’ll have to make sure I always have gum with me wherever I go in case Peeves drops by. That was neat.”

“Thanks! I’ve got a few more of those tricks; I’ve finally learned how to stay one step ahead of Peeves. I could teach you a few if you want.”

“Please do,” I said. “I’m usually one step behind.” I recalled the many times Peeves had interrupted Luke and me when we were in the corridors or alone together in empty classrooms.

“What are you doing following us to the Gryffindor table?” asked Sirius as we approached. “Decided to be a Gryffindor today because it’s the best house? Or – don’t tell me – it’s because I’m so irresistible that I’ve led you astray.”

“That’s exactly it,” I said. “I couldn’t stay away because I fancy you.” Then I realised what I had said, and clapped my hands over my mouth, as if to prevent more unintentional words from spilling out. He’d meant it as a joke, but I’d gone and ruined it, and I glanced at him nervously to see a very confused look on his face.

“Only joking,” I insisted, thinking this would work better, as he didn’t seem to want to hear that I liked him. “Tricked you, didn’t I?”

Then I turned away to pretend I was interested in what Lily and Remus were discussing (they were talking about rules, so that was already a lost cause for me), but moments later I heard Sirius chuckle beside me, and did not appreciate it.

“What is it now?” I asked him.

“Well, it was a clever joke, but I notice you’re still here…”

“Fine then, I’m leaving,” I said. A few people at the nearby Hufflepuff table were staring at me; I gave them a rude hand gesture as I stormed by. Sirius called my name to get me to turn around again, but there was no way I’d let myself near him ever again. On my way over to the Slytherin table, which, unfortunately, was all the way across the hall from the Gryffindor one, I thought of a lot of great comebacks I could have used instead of the lame “I’m leaving”. Too late…

I made sure to sit in such a location at the table that I couldn’t see him. I was facing away from the Gryffindor table, and indeed away from all the other tables, but I could hear the excited buzz of talking. In reality, they were probably just talking about normal things, but at that moment I couldn’t help feeling that everyone was laughing at me. I could still feel the intense blush on my face, and I wanted to disappear.

Mandy joined me at the table, and it seemed she’d witnessed the whole thing too. “Hey,” she said.

I sighed. “Mandy, I’m an idiot,” I said.

“It wasn’t that bad,” she said. “I’ve done much worse, trust me. I know you’re embarrassed, but honestly it isn’t a big deal. It was just one little thing; no one will care tomorrow.”

Of course, word got round the school that I fancied Sirius, much to my shame, and it seemed Vanessa Saltz had elaborated the story, as she always did. The story circulating around Hogwarts was that I had told Sirius I was madly in love with him and then we had gotten into a fight. Vanessa also had supplied any listeners with her opinion that Sirius would never go for a Slytherin like me, I had absolutely no chance with him, and everyone regarded me as such a joke. There was no way I could actually ask him out now, like Mandy had suggested.

It was another two days before I spoke to Sirius again. Every time I saw him, I would quickly walk in the opposite direction; I couldn’t trust myself to say normal things around him anymore, after my complete blunder in the Great Hall. But eventually, on my way out of class, I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around to see Sirius. My heart started beating faster, and I fidgeted with the clasp on my bag. “Melanie,” he said.

“Black,” I responded coolly, in control of my emotions this time.

He let out a barklike laugh. “Been a while since you called me that.”

I didn’t really know what to say – it would have been so much easier if I knew where I stood with him. “Sorry about that display in the Great Hall the other day,” I said airily, as if it was nothing. “That was awkward. I know I’m an idiot, you don’t have to tell me.”

“Oh – that’s not what I was going to talk about,” said Sirius. “I had almost forgotten about it.”

I rolled my eyes. “No you hadn’t,” I said.

“Okay, no, I hadn’t forgotten,” Sirius admitted. He was regarding me with a strange expression; he kind of looked lost. “Actually, I wished you hadn’t run away after that, because… well—”

Some loud giggling interrupted him. We turned and saw a few fifth year girls hiding behind the statue of Winifred the Worldly, sneaking glances at Sirius and waiting in vain, as they always did, for him to stop what he was doing and come talk to them. One of them waved, and Sirius turned back to me instantly, a scowl on his face. So maybe Mandy had been right – I wasn’t that bad.

But whatever Sirius had been about to say, he no longer felt like saying it with an audience. He merely twirled his wand in his fingers.

“You didn’t get enough hexing people during class?” I asked. He’d been transfiguring Snape’s quill into a centipede from across the room every few minutes during class.

He laughed when he saw that I knew what he was thinking. “I’m not actually going to do anything,” he said. “I just wish they’d leave me alone for once.”

“What, leave you alone with me? That’d never be good, considering what happened last time I talked to you. But don’t worry, I won’t do that again – I was tired and couldn’t speak clearly.”

“You can do it again if you want to,” he said. “I rather enjoyed it.”

I jabbed him hard in the ribs with my elbow. One of the fifth-year girls stared at me in shock, as if I’d just burnt down a building or something.

“Sod off,” I said to the girls finally, waving them away. “Find something else to entertain you.” They slunk away down the hallway with jealous sullen faces. “Easy as that,” I told Sirius.

“You have a way with words,” he said. “Well, sometimes.”

“We’re done talking about that,” I insisted. He was never going to let me live that down. “I have to go, actually.”

“Why?” Sirius seemed content to just stand there and talk with me in the corridor, but I was worried I’d say something stupid again; I couldn’t think straight when he was around. Keeping up the act of ‘just friends’ was becoming more difficult each day. And as much as I loved Sirius’s company, I didn’t really enjoy talking with someone I had very strong unrequited feelings for. He took a step towards me but I turned and walked away. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“It’s getting late, I should start my homework,” I invented.

He frowned. “All right,” he said. “Well, see you around then.”

I walked away, frustrated and confused, and tired of going in circles with Sirius. Sometimes it came across that he cared about me; the memories of the summer riding around on his motorbike always made me smile. We had a lot in common, and sometimes even enjoyed fighting with one another. I had thought for a little while that he was changing – that he was letting me through his wall he’d built up around him. But we weren’t really that close, as much as I wanted it; we still got in plenty of fights, after all. I didn’t know what to make of it.

I was browsing a shelf in the library, which was becoming one of my most frequent haunts this year, when someone showed up by my side to grab the last copy of An Encyclopedia of Toadstools. It was Carol Whitby. I offered her a friendly smile, but it probably looked more like a grimace.

“Hi, Melanie,” she said brightly. “I never thought we’d need to remember all of these toadstools – Herbology has been such a challenge this week! NEWT year is intense. It was even too intense for my rucksack, you saw what happened to it with all those books!”

“Yeah,” I said. “At least if nothing else, this year will give us strong arms.”

“That’ll help you out in Quidditch,” said Carol with a laugh. “Walking to class with an armful of textbooks is a workout.”

“Carol! There you are,” said Lily’s voice, and we turned to see her at the end of the shelf. “I wondered where you’d got to. Oh, hi, Melanie!”

Carol turned to go, encyclopedia in hand, and I looked back at the shelf. There was a pair of eyes watching me from the other side.

“Althea?” I asked, surprised.

She stepped around the shelf, a book in her hand entitled An Introduction to Healing Magic. “Hi,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be creepy. I was just looking at this shelf and heard your voice through there, and then… well, you saw me just at that moment.”

“You weren’t creepy!” I laughed. “It’s good to see you again.” I glanced once again at the book in her hand. “Is that for a class, or are you thinking of becoming a Healer?”

“Oh! Yeah, I am,” she said, grinning. “It’s not for class. Is it weird that I read books like this in my spare time?”

“Not at all,” I admitted. “Just yesterday I declined to hang out with my friends in favour of curling up with a book about the core of magic. A lot of it didn’t make sense, but it’s really interesting.”

She just stared at me in bewilderment, and then asserted, “Maybe we’re just both really weird.”

Just then, Hector walked by the shelf where Althea and I were standing. “Hey, Mel,” said Hector, and lightly hit the side of my head with a book.

“Watch it, Hector, I’ve got three times as many books in my hand right now, and I’m not afraid to use them.”

He dodged out of my reach, continuing down the shelf away from us, and waved at Althea before disappearing out of sight. “Sorry about him,” I said, turning back to Althea, who looked like she was attempting to camouflage with the bookshelf, her face brick red as she stared at the floor.

“What’s up?” I asked her, baffled, and then wondered… maybe she liked him? Hector was a really nice person. And I supposed he was cute too, if you ignored how weird he was and how often he demonstrated his ability to cross his toes after Quidditch practices.

But the only time I’d ever seen Althea and Hector interact was when Hector helped her with her trunk on the Hogwarts Express at the end of last term, and she hadn’t really spoken to him then, although he had tried to talk to her.

Althea said nothing. With no idea what to say, I merely told her, “That was Hector Branstone.”

“I know,” she finally said. “Although I don’t think he knows who I am.”

“Do you want him to?” I asked. She blushed even more. I suggested subtly that she should try talking to him, and that he was friendly, and I might have slipped in the fact that he did not already have a girlfriend. I was really bad at this advice stuff, but she seemed to be encouraged.

“What should I say to him?” Althea asked. “How do I get him to notice me?”

“Well… the ways I’ve gotten guys to notice me include accidentally hitting them in the head with Bludgers or fighting with them. That’s worked for me. But maybe I wouldn’t really advise that…” She really needed Mandy’s advice, not mine!

She laughed. “Maybe I… I’ll stop by the Slytherin table at dinner tomorrow? And you can introduce us?”

“Sure.” That seemed easy enough. There would be no injuries involved at all, and no fights. Why couldn’t I have thought of something so normal?

I added a fourth book to the stack in my hand, said goodbye to Althea, and went back to sit at my table. Across the library I could see a large group of Gryffindor seventh years sitting together, just a big group of friends, and it made me think that I had possibly just been overreacting to seeing Sirius and Carol that time in the hallway. I could only be embarrassed now about how much time I had spent stewing in jealousy, when in reality they were just housemates and good friends in the same year – much like myself and Hector, probably. I needed to stop getting paranoid about little things, because I’d worked myself up over nothing. I supposed now that the only way to find out how Sirius felt was to ask him out – which was a task I found quite daunting.

I contented myself with the fact that I was helping Althea do something I could never do. Maybe this was why Mandy was so prone to matchmaking for her friends – it drew her attention to other people’s happiness rather than her own unrequited love for her various crushes. This was at least something to hope for if Sirius and I together ended up just being nothing more than a wish.

But at dinner the following day, Althea happened to stop by while Hector was levitating his soup out of his bowl to cool it down, and somehow poor Althea ended up with soup all over the front of her before Hector even noticed she was there. She remained behind us, as if rooted to the floor, her face crimson, and although blushes didn’t show up on Hector’s dark skin, I could tell by his twitchy movements that he was mortified. They both apologised profusely to one another, Hector helped Althea siphon the soup out of her robes, and then they had a laugh about it. The introduction was made; it had all worked out, although entirely not how I had envisioned.

On the last Wednesday morning of September we had Charms, in which we were learning the Protean Charm. As I took notes at the beginning of class about how the charm causes one object to change and to mimic another, I spent part of my time watching Sirius and trying to figure out what exactly was going on between us, and debating whether I should still bother asking him out.

“Stop staring at him,” hissed Charlotte, “you’re as bad as Mandy.”

Mandy and I both scowled at her. I went back to my notes until we were to work on the practical aspect of the charm: We each had two identical teacups, and by changing the characteristics of one, the other was supposed to follow.

“This would be useful with writing notes,” said Charlotte. “If Mandy took notes for all of us, and we put a Protean Charm on her notes, it would copy onto our parchment.”

“Brilliant,” I agreed.

“I would take useless notes,” said Mandy. “Then you wouldn’t get anything from copying!”

“And you would have useless notes to study from,” Charlotte reminded her. “All right, where was I?” She attempted a Protean Charm on the teacups, and then elongated the handle on one of them. The second cup did nothing.

A teacup whizzed by my ear, sailing all the way to the front of the classroom where it crashed into the blackboard. “Sorry,” said a voice behind me. “Think that was the wrong charm…”

“That almost killed me,” I muttered as I prodded one of the teacups in front of me.

“Better you than Mandy, because I need her notes,” said Charlotte. I hit her with my elbow.

Mandy rolled her eyes. “Well I’d be sad, Mel. At least one of us cares about you.”

Charlotte scoffed. “If I died, you wouldn’t need to be sad, because I’d come back and haunt you from the grave. Isn’t that nice? The things I do for you two…”

“Yeah, that’s pretty great,” I said dryly. “I’ve always wanted my own personal ghost.”

“Plus, as they say, dead people tell no tales,” Charlotte continued, “so obviously I’d want to stick around and get all the dirt from living people anyway. I wouldn’t let something silly like death get in the way of gossip.”

Mandy and I laughed. “Divination is really getting to you,” Mandy said. “Having to predict your own death every other week – you’ve gotten so used to it that you’ve already planned out what will happen after your death.”

“Hector had a really good one in class the other day,” said Charlotte. “He said he’d unexpectedly die from heavy books falling on his head. He usually sits at the table right in front of the bookshelf, where everything’s really poorly balanced. There are some books that could easily fall, and he sits right underneath them – I swear Professor Sage was actually wondering whether to move those books for his safety, or to leave them there and prove him right and show the class what a good Seer he is.”

“I’ve never been more glad that I dropped that class,” said Mandy.

“Ah, sitting around chatting?” squeaked Professor Flitwick, who had showed up right next to our desk as he walked around the room to check on everyone. “So you must have figured it out. Let’s see, Miss Hastings.”

I turned back to my own teacups, clearing my throat. “Protea,” I said, waving my wand extravagantly. This charm had weird wand movements that made it a particularly difficult charm. Then I attempted a colour-change charm on the first teacup. The second one melted into a porcelain puddle. “Er – still working on it, sir,” I explained.

“Good try,” he said. “You’ll find that the easiest way to master the charm is to practise.” He walked off to the next desk, and I renewed my efforts to perform the Protean Charm, but was mostly unsuccessful. Towards the end of class I had managed to turn the second cup a slightly lighter shade of blue, but it wasn’t much.

About ten minutes before when class would normally get out, the corridors filled with noise. It didn’t sound like the noise of students fighting – it sounded like a lot of people running around. Flitwick walked over and opened the classroom door curiously.

After he’d done little but stand there trying to calm the commotion, and a few people in the corridor had come to talk to him, some of us in the class stood up and walked to the doorway to witness it ourselves. We looked out of the classroom to absolute disarray and chaos in the corridor. Prefects were running around, herding younger students; everyone was talking in whispers. I was overcome with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. Whatever this was, it was serious.

James appeared from inside the classroom and walked into the fray, attempting to bring some sort of order and calm people down, although it was clear he had no more idea what was going on than anyone else did. Lily came up behind me and asked what had happened, and I shrugged, but then she saw James talking to two sixth year prefects and went to join. I asked Priya Kaur, next to me, what had happened.

She replied, “No idea – I was just asking Carol!” She turned to the girl next to her.

Carol Whitby looked at us with wide eyes. “All I heard is that someone’s been injured, they were just taking her to St. Mungo’s a few minutes ago.”

“I heard there were Death Eaters in the tower!” someone else supplied.

By the time we got to lunch, we had talked to enough people and had a pretty good idea what had occurred, unless the tale had been altered significantly before getting passed on to us secondhand, or fifth-hand, as it were. Two Death Eaters had found a way to get into the castle. They had shown up on the West Tower, and on their way in, attacked a student before being discovered and caught. The Death Eaters had been taken to Azkaban, the high-security wizard prison, but Artemis Jones, a sixth-year Hufflepuff, had been taken to St. Mungo’s, as she’d been found critically injured and barely alive.

The Great Hall was abuzz with discussion at lunch. “How did they get in?” I heard Hector asking Andrew Derrick.

“And what were they trying to do? There were just two of them.”

“Who knows if we’ll ever find out,” said Russell. “But at least they’re in Azkaban now.”

Dumbledore made a brief announcement at lunch about what had happened, so as to clear up any confusion, and to assure us that the protective spells on the castle would be improved immediately, and there’d be Ministry workers here for a couple of days until that was sorted out.

I wondered if Dumbledore’s words would be enough to convince people, or whether some parents would pull their kids out of Hogwarts. Students had been disappearing from Hogwarts gradually over the past couple of years. Not a lot of people, but enough to notice. Two had disappeared mysteriously over holidays, others had left school after things had happened to their families, and still others left because they felt Hogwarts was no longer safe, like Mark. It was true, Hogwarts wasn’t entirely safe – we had a painful reminder of that today – but I felt it was still much safer here than I’d be anywhere else.

Rumours continued to circulate about Artemis Jones for days. She was so far unresponsive to the Healers’ treatments; she’d been hit with very powerful Dark curses. No one would say it directly, but all I heard was that things were not looking up for her and people were expecting the worst.

A task force had been appointed to developing further magical protective spells to put on the castle. Some Aurors had been brought in from the Ministry – people whose job it was to fight Dark wizards and prevent things like this from ever happening again. I kept seeing them in the corridors and on the grounds.

“Those Death Eaters must have found a way to get around the protection already on the castle,” growled a tough-looking Auror to Professor McGonagall before Transfiguration on Friday. “Merlin knows it was well protected – there were a thousand spells on the castle. Now it can withstand more; there are about three times as many spells. Nothing’s getting through that at all. Of course, this is a war and you’ll still want to be on guard and vigilant at all times.”

“Good. Thank you, Alastor,” said McGonagall. Then she led the queue in for class, a few of us still staring after the Auror as he departed. Scars covered his entire face. And that eye – he had a bright blue eye that rotated around creepily, and independently of his normal other eye. I felt uneasy just looking at it. So that was what you got for a lifetime of fighting Dark wizards…

This Dark activity and the unease surrounding it, combined with the information that Charlotte had confided in Professor Slughorn about her brother Lester, prompted me to ask our Head of House for advice as well. Slughorn might have liked Mandy better than he liked me, but he wouldn’t turn away a student who needed help; he appreciated when his opinions were valued. So I stayed behind after Potions one day, and told him my terrible truth, that my family and I were on opposing sides of the war and I didn’t know what to do.

He offered me a piece of crystallised pineapple to buy time as he let my words sink in. I appreciated that he didn’t ask for more details, or blame either party more than the other; like many of Slytherin house, he put out the impression of not being on either side in the war. Finally, he said, “Miss Hastings, I’m sorry to hear that. It’s a rough time. I think perhaps a lot of people are going through similar trials.”

It was odd to hear him speaking without any trace of his normal jolly mood. I nodded, admitting, “I just… I have all this regret, but I know I’d do the same thing over again. They won’t change their minds and neither will I.”

“We all live with regrets,” said Slughorn lightly, retrieving another piece of pineapple from the jar. “I don’t think anyone knows how to deal with a war like this properly. All we can do is take it a day at a time, and see what happens.”

There was a brief moment when we sat there silently in intense thought, him inspecting a piece of pineapple, and me staring at the desk. The fingers of war had an enormous reach, which no one knew how to navigate and solve everything; even an adult and professor like Slughorn was as lost as I. But even if the road ahead would be rough with my family, I knew where I stood, and I’d stay true to it. There was little I could depend on outside Hogwarts, but I could count on myself, and I left feeling slightly better.

Charlotte, Mandy and I were sitting on the sofa in the common room, practicing for Charms, when Charlotte’s cat came slinking down the stairs and stopped by the sofa. His name was Lancelot, although Mandy always called him Wilbur, a name she said was more fitting considering the way Charlotte doted on him. Apparently it was from one of Mandy’s favourite Muggle books as a kid. It wasn’t like it mattered, anyway; Lancelot didn’t respond no matter what you called him.

“Wilbur!” said Mandy, reaching out and stroking Lancelot as he jumped up on the sofa.

“His name is not, nor will it ever be, Wilbur,” said Charlotte mechanically.

“What if it was his middle name?” said Mandy. “Lancelot Wilbur Avery. That’s a great name!”

“If you think it’s so great, name your first kid that,” said Charlotte, reaching over and picking up Lancelot off of Mandy’s lap. “Hi Lancelot,” she said in a much higher voice, stroking her cat behind the ears.

“But my last name isn’t Avery.”

“Well, what about two middle names, and Avery is the second one,” I suggested to Mandy.

“Or you could marry Lester,” said Charlotte, which resulted in a great deal of laughter from all of us. It was weird to hear the sound of laughter for what was probably the first time in two days. I wasn’t sure if it was acceptable yet. I sighed and set back to work.

Several hours later, I was the only person still awake in the common room, still practicing the Protean Charm on two quills. It was well past midnight when I heard a noise behind me and jumped, then turned around and saw only Mandy.

“Hey,” she said. “I finally finished that Charms essay and my eyes are crossing.”

“Ugh, I know,” I said, flailing my arm and sweeping my two quills off the table.

Mandy pointed her wand at the quills and watched as they zoomed neatly back to the table, atop my textbooks. “Time to go for a walk?” she suggested.

I raised an eyebrow. “Sneaking around at night two days after a Death Eater attack? Brilliant idea.”

“But I asked Slughorn if Hogwarts would be safe anymore. He said the Aurors tripled the protection on the Hogwarts castle and grounds. We’re actually safer sneaking out now than we ever have been.”

She had a point. And I had spent so much time sitting in this common room the past couple of days, and the room was starting to have a suffocating quality to it. Maybe it’d be a good idea after all. I tried to ignore the voice in the back of my head that sounded a lot like Professor McGonagall scolding me – something she was bound to do if we got caught. “Okay… where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know, the kitchens? I’m sort of hungry. Or outside.”

“Outside sounds good.” I left my books and quills in a pile on the table, and we skipped up the three carpeted steps up to the door out of the common room, speeding through the corridors until we reached the comparative safety of outside.

We wandered over to the lake, chatting about mundane things, and I started when I noticed a lone figure sitting under a nearby tree. A petite, shaking figure, hugging her knees to her chest. It was Althea.

Mandy and I shared a glance, and then headed over to the tree where Althea was sitting. She looked up when we were only a few feet away, and her red, puffy eyes suggested she’d been out here crying for hours.

Althea had become even more withdrawn than usual since the attack; I never even saw her in the library anymore. Understandably, she’d taken the potential loss of her fellow sixth year Hufflepuff very badly.

“Are you okay?” I asked, and then wished I hadn’t – of course she wasn’t okay. It was a stupid question, but I hadn’t the faintest idea what to say to her. Althea ignored me and went back to staring out over the lake.

It hurt to see Althea like this. Why did something like this have to happen to her? She had never said an unkind word to anyone, and took all setbacks with grace and patience. But it seemed she had reached her breaking point, and had pushed everyone away now that one of her friends was possibly on her deathbed at St. Mungo’s.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, sitting down beside her and putting my arm around her shoulders. “I wish I could do something. I understand how hard this must be—”

“No. You don’t understand,” said Althea forcefully, pulling away from my arm. I hadn’t been expecting that, and pulled my arm back to my side as she continued. “You have no idea what it’s like to live every day in fear because you’re Muggle-born; that’s what it’s like for me. You Slytherins have nothing to fear in all of this. You’re the one house that’s off the hook.”

I stared at her, feeling defensive but with nothing to say for myself – not when she was like this. But Mandy said, “You’re right – we don’t know exactly what that’s like. But everyone is at risk here, even Slytherins; I’m a Slytherin, and Death Eaters tried to kill my parents this summer for stuff my mum wrote in the Daily Prophet.”

Althea sniffed. “Artemis is one of my best friends. And they say she’s… that she might not be coming back.”

“The Healers are doing everything they can,” I assured her. “She’s in good hands.”

“You don’t know that. What if they can’t do anything? And don’t give me that sugar coated sympathy. I know what they were saying about her. What happens if she’s gone?”

“Then she’d want you to be happy,” said Mandy. “It wouldn’t mean you have no one left. You’re in Hufflepuff – the house that’s composed of the nicest people at Hogwarts. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them; you don’t have to go through everything alone. You’re surrounded by people who love you and we are all here for you.”

“It’s just… so hard,” said Althea, her voice calmer now. “I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m scared.”

“Me too,” I said. “I think everyone is. But we’re here for you if you need.”

“I want to be alone for a while,” she said eventually.

Mandy and I looked at each other over Althea’s head. “Okay,” I said, and we stood up; I felt bad about leaving her there by the tree, but there was nothing else we could do for her. If she needed to be alone, we’d let her. I just hoped she’d stop pushing everyone away eventually.

“Let’s just go back in,” Mandy muttered as we left, and we headed back to the castle in silence, my mind overcome with worries about Voldemort, and whether people I loved would get hurt.

No one was going to make it out of this war without losing someone. Everyone had already been touched by the war and lost people in some way. I had lost my family – not because anyone had died, but because the war had split us apart, putting us on opposing sides. It could be a long time before I spoke with any of them again. How much more would we have to lose before it was over? What would happen after we left Hogwarts forever at the end of the year?


A/N: Sorry that chapter was so long - it just kept writing itself and wouldn't stop! Also, I do not own the song "Carry That Weight" by the Beatles, or the book Charlotte's Web by E. B. White.

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