Chapter 36 : Stepping on a Serpent
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Easter with Mandy was not quite the fun and carefree holiday it had been last year, but we managed to have a good time despite the circumstances. And April Fool’s Day was over the holiday this year, so I didn’t have to worry about Gryffindors turning my shoes to stone in the hallway. I did, however, have to worry about Mandy setting all of the electric appliances in her house to make noise at the same time, which scared me out of the house for a few minutes because I didn’t know how they worked and couldn’t make it stop. I got her back for it though, when she tried to have her lunch and got so far as setting a plate of food on the table only to have the table swallow it all up and then belch loudly.
I then had to explain to Mandy’s parents why there were now dishes missing from the set. Mandy’s mother merely shook her head in resigned acceptance, but her father wanted me to do it again so he could see. Anything magic in the house was cause for celebration.
Aside from that, though, nothing extraordinary happened over the holiday. Mandy and I tried riding bikes again, like we had done last year, and it was much easier this time with the aid of Balancing Charms.
Sirius and I wrote to each other almost every day. It was so much better to talk to him in person, but I knew I’d see him again soon, and I did like having those two weeks with Mandy. Somehow, with just the two of us away from all the distractions of school, it was easier to talk about Charlotte. We needed that time.
One sunny day, Mandy and I ventured out to a cemetery in Brixton – an old and exclusive one, hidden from Muggle eyes by enchantments, and close to the residence of the Avery family. We had been unable to attend Charlotte’s funeral, and as much as I dreaded seeing the finality of a stone with her name on it, we had to do it.
Birds chirped overhead as we walked among the rows until we found her. In a beautiful spot in the shade of a willow tree, six feet beneath the soft green grass and the wilting roses someone had recently left for her, Charlotte lay, marked only by a fresh grey marble block. An engraved border surrounded the words Charlotte Regina Avery, Beloved Daughter and Sister, 13 September 1959 – 14 February 1978. As I knelt down and ran my fingers over the letters, Mandy took out her wand and conjured a large bouquet of forget-me-nots, which we left at the base of that cold, impersonal headstone.
A few days after getting back to Hogwarts, a letter arrived for me in the morning owl post from the Ministry of Magic. With trembling fingers I opened it, while Mandy excitedly set down her fork and watched over my shoulder. I read the letter so quickly that I hadn’t actually processed what it meant and had to read through it a second time before it sank in. I had been accepted into the training program to be an Unspeakable in the Department of Mysteries!
“Mandy, look!” I said, and thrust the letter into her hands.
“I know, I read it over your shoulder!” she cried. “Congratulations!” She hugged me and then we mused on what kind of work I would possibly be doing there. But the mystery of it all was what made it so exciting.
“The one thing that bothers me is that as amazing as this will be, I won’t be out there fighting Voldemort, which I feel like I have to do. I don’t want to be an Auror, I just want to help!”
“Maybe you’ll be studying how Dark Magic works and how it’s different to regular magic, and you can make it so that Voldemort’s magic doesn’t work anymore.”
“That’s not what I’ll be doing. And you know, once I start working there, I won’t be able to share it all with you anymore. I have to keep it a secret.”
She shrugged. “Then I can just make up stuff I think you’re doing, and you can’t tell me I’m wrong. Besides, we’ll still be able to see each other, we just can’t talk about your job. That’s not too much of a sacrifice… And it’ll give me twice as much time to talk about myself instead,” she added with a laugh.
Mandy had gotten an apprenticeship at Gladrags and was hoping to revolutionise the clothing of the wizarding world by combining her skills at Muggle sewing with magical sewing. It was certainly an interesting idea.
Our last term at Hogwarts felt like a blur. Because we were so close to the end, and part of me never wanted it to end, the days just seemed to zip by. Professors piled the homework on to make sure none of us was caught unprepared for NEWTs, and I’d be up until the small hours of the morning writing essays on scrolls of parchment as long as I was tall. When I got tired of working, I’d distract myself with work for another class.
And on top of that, I still had Quidditch practise. Hector too seemed to be going out of his mind; he had a much more demanding position as Captain of the team, and more than once I heard him reciting charms and jinxes to himself as he whizzed by me with the Quaffle during practise.
One night in mid-April, I was working in the common room with Mandy, Hector, and Russell, punctuating our essay-writing with vocalising our worries of what was to come. Despite that this was so far the busiest term at Hogwarts yet, I decided it was time to make a difference for once, instead of just talking about it as we always did, and proposed the idea of starting a fighting and defence group.
“We have to learn how to protect ourselves,” I said. “Defence Against the Dark Arts as a class is good, but after what happened in February I think we all need to be better prepared for the real world outside of Hogwarts.” I turned to Hector and Russell. “We should all do it. Mandy and I have been practising together sometimes, but I know how she thinks so it’s really easy to block her spells. No offence, Mandy,” I added, and she smiled.
“That’s a good idea,” said Russell. “I wouldn’t mind getting better at duelling spells. But what do you want to do, just practise in the common room when everyone else is working?”
“Maybe other people would like to be involved as well,” Mandy suggested thoughtfully, and then stood up. “Everyone!” she announced. “We’re starting a duelling group. Who wants to join?”
Several faces turned to look at us, some with interest, some with annoyance that Mandy had just started talking loudly when everyone was trying to do their homework. Mandy peered down at me and raised her eyebrows; from my position still sitting down, she appeared to me like a queen critically evaluating her lowly subjects.
I stood up too. “There’s a war going on out there, and it’s going to affect all of us eventually,” I said, addressing the common room at large. “And after the death of one of our own Slytherins, Mandy and I think we need to learn how to fight, and how to defend ourselves. So if you’re with us, we’ll be practising in… er, classroom eleven on the ground floor, after dinner tomorrow. No one ever uses that room.”
“I’m in,” said Hector supportively. A few other people mumbled and nodded, but on the whole, most people just apparently wanted us to shut up. That wasn’t really a talent I possessed, though. And Jasper didn’t help matters.
“Why don’t you ask the Gryffindors, if you want to be all heroic and brave?” Jasper asked with a smirk.
“It isn’t about heroics, Jasper,” I said. “If you step on a snake, it doesn’t just lie there and wait for someone else to solve its problems – it bites back. Houses don’t matter when the whole wizarding world is at war.”
Russell added, “Charlotte Avery won’t be the last casualty of the war. And the next one is not going to be me either, if I can help it. That’s why we’re starting this group.”
Somehow, we had been convincing enough that thirteen Slytherins showed up for our meeting in the classroom the following night, including, to my surprise, Jasper. After the trickle of people coming through the door had come to a stop, everyone looked to me.
“Er, so I guess just find a partner and start duelling,” I said, unused to the feeling of all my fellow students looking to me as a voice of authority. “These are just practise duels, though, so don’t use anything too harmful. You can learn from whoever you’re working with. And if anyone has any questions or suggestions, just shout them out!”
And with that, people separated into pairs. Mandy worked with Russell, and I paired up with Hector. Spells flew around the room, and occasionally even people did as well; my Shield Charm blasted Hector backwards into the wall. He rubbed the back of his head in pain while I reached out a hand to help him up.
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s all right,” he told me. “That was an amazing Shield Charm, Melanie. How do you do it so well?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s see yours. Rictusempra!”
He blocked it with his own Shield Charm, but it wasn’t nearly as strong as mine. It worked, and my Tickling Spell hadn’t gotten through, but his shield merely forced me to take a step backwards.
“You’re holding your wand too tightly,” I observed. “If you release your grip just a little, you’ll be able to move the shield better.”
Hector’s Shield Charm might have been weak, but his Disarming Spell was powerful, and sent my wand flying clear across the room. He grinned and then Summoned my wand back to return it to me.
“Hastings!” said a voice, and I turned to see second-year Camilla Rookwood waiting at my side. “Can we all switch partners?” she asked. “I’ve been working with a fifth-year.”
I glanced at the girl standing behind her, who looked like she’d come off the worse in the duel, despite being three years older. “Yeah, actually that’s a great idea, Camilla,” I said. “That way we’ll all be able to learn from someone else.”
So I suggested to the group that we switch around; Hector went to work with Rachel, and I ended up with Russell. I Disarmed him with ease, thanks to Hector’s previous guidance. Russell and I duelled, interspersing our spells with tips on how to do a perfect Bat-Bogey Hex or a noodle-arm jinx.
Across the room I could see Elliott Jasper duelling with Regulus Black. Both of them were very good, and some of the students around them had even stopped to watch. I couldn’t help but be impressed at the precision and the strength of both of their spellwork. Slytherin House had some very talented people.
But as I watched, a slight feeling of unease overtook me. There was no guarantee that just because anyone was here at this meeting, that they wanted to fight against Voldemort. Some might be here to learn just in case they ever needed it for defence, or for other purposes entirely. Most Slytherins had initially seemed reluctant to participate in this group, after all. But as I watched Jasper and Regulus, I couldn’t help wondering, if they did choose a side in the war at all, which side would benefit from such talent? By calling this meeting, I could unwittingly have been helping future Death Eaters get tips on duelling.
When we switched partners again, Jasper was the only one remaining without a partner. What luck. So I made my way across the room to where he was standing. “Jasper,” I said coolly but politely.
“Time for a duel, Hastings,” he said.
“Let’s get to it, then.”
“Petrificus Totalus!” he bellowed, and I shouted “Protego!” simultaneously to shield myself from his spell, which deflected and hit the blackboard, forming a small crater. Jasper was an aggressive opponent, unlike Hector, and I had to think quickly on my feet. I practised the Disarming Charm and the Bat-Bogey Hex against him, using the skills I had just learned against his attempted Conjunctivitis Curse. It was quite therapeutic to me, and probably to him as well, as we freely attacked one another with our best jinxes, neither of us caring about hurting the other, because we didn’t like each other. We probably could have gone on duelling all night, but Hector finally separated us by casting a wonderful Shield Charm between us. I beamed proudly at Hector from the floor, where the force of his shield had propelled me.
When I stood up again I looked back to Jasper; as soon as he’d got to his feet as well, he inclined his head towards me subtly. “Good duel,” he acknowledged. That was the most I’d ever get from him; I nodded back with a slight smile and turned to Hector and Mandy.
“It’s almost curfew,” said Mandy to the assembled Slytherins in the room, now that the noise of duelling had died down. “We should probably call it a night. Same time and place next week?”
I glanced around the room at the destroyed blackboard and crumbled desks, and then added, “And anyone who wants to stay and help us clean up, that’d be great.”
But, although most of them thanked Mandy and me for coming up with such a great idea, they filed out the door, leaving Mandy, Russell, Hector, and me to return the classroom to its former glory. Despite that, I was quite pleased with the way our meeting had gone; I felt that I’d improved a lot just in a couple of hours. Working with several different people had challenged me to adapt my duelling strategy. And, it would all help me be better prepared for the real world.
“Reparo,” I said, pointing my wand at a crack in the blackboard, and watched as it sealed itself. I turned to Hector, who was fixing one of the desks near the front of the room. “Hector, do you think you’ll fight in the war? Searching out Death Eaters and stuff?”
He paused, leaning against the desk whose leg he had just reattached. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve always been against war. I’d love to do something useful to stop You-Know-Who, but not fighting.”
“That’s how I feel too, usually,” I said. “But someone has to fight, because the war won’t spare anyone. Everyone is going to lose someone – you and I already have.”
“Right,” Hector admitted, “I’m just not a fighter, though. I want to learn how to defend myself, because as you said, the war hits close to home… but I don’t want to get involved in that violence if I can help it. I don’t think war is ever the solution.”
I smiled grimly. “Neither do I, but Voldemort does, and he’s on the winning side, isn’t he? I’d love to sit him down with a cup of tea and tell him to call off his rubbish, but he’d Avada Kedavra me in a heartbeat. If he even has a heart, which I doubt.”
Hector laughed, turned his attention to fixing another desk, and then said, “You know I’ll always support you, Mel. I’m on your side. Someone has to resist him, and I’m really proud that you want to do it. But I can’t.”
“I understand,” I said. “And thank you.”
“Hector, that Hufflepuff you’ve been dating has totally had an effect on you,” Mandy piped up from the corner, where she was reattaching a door onto a cupboard.
He smiled. “Althea has nothing to do with this – although I know she and her friends have got their own defence group in Hufflepuff. Ever since Artemis Jones went to St. Mungo’s, they’ve all been working on protective spells in a group quite similar to this, from what I gather.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Voldemort may have power, but our side has got people who stick together – and that’s what will win in the end.”
As it turned out, our side stuck together even more than I’d thought: the Gryffindors had a similar group as well. I found this out the following week after the Slytherin duelling team’s second meeting. Once the classroom had been repaired, the desks were all aligned again, and the previously-cratered blackboard no longer resembled the moon, we headed out, and ran into a large group of Gryffindors exiting a neighbouring classroom.
“What’re you doing?” Mary Macdonald asked us, curious.
“Nothing anymore - we’re just finishing,” said Mandy. “Just spell practise.” As we Slytherins filed out, there was some sneering, narrowing of eyes, and possibly a hex or two that passed between the Slytherins and Gryffindors in the corridor – nothing too out of the ordinary. Most of them all went on their way, but I hung back with Mandy, who asked the remaining Gryffindors, “What were you doing?”
James shrugged. “The same – just working on spells.”
“All of you?” asked Mandy, then grinned. “You haven’t got a club for practising defence spells, have you? That’s what this is, I know it!”
“Come on, you’re not really that surprised, are you?” Sirius asked, still leaning against the doorway of classroom ten. “Gryffindor is the house for the brave! Of course we’ll learn how to duel properly so when we get out of here we can fight Voldemort.”
I yawned dramatically. “Oh, you Gryffindors think you’re something special, don’t you. But you’re a little behind the times – all the houses have a group like this.” Well, I hadn’t actually heard of a Ravenclaw group like this yet, but I would have been surprised if they didn’t have one too.
“So what spells have you been working on?” Peter asked.
“Various things,” I said. “We all help each other with what we’re good at.”
“That’s impressive,” said James appreciatively.
“What about your group?” asked Mandy. “Any particular spells?”
“We worked on Stunning Spells today,” said Remus. “I know we learned it in third year, but it’s such a useful one to remember. Practicing a spell in class doesn’t prepare you for how fast you have to be when actually using it.”
“That’s what we’re all about,” said Sirius. “Fast and stealthy spells. You’d never know what hit you.”
“So go on, show me what you’ve got, then.” I waved my wand at Sirius, stepping towards him, trying to goad him into a challenge. And it worked; Sirius grinned and took out his wand as well.
James snorted with amusement. “Only you two would think it’s a good idea to start a fight in the corridor, in front of the Head Boy and a prefect.”
“Rictusempra!” cried Sirius. His spell hit me and I doubled over, laughing.
“T – t – tarantallegra!” I gasped between bursts of laughter.
“We’ll just leave you to it, then,” said Remus, and started walking down the corridor, Mandy following him. James and Peter stayed long enough to laugh at Sirius flailing about as his legs danced out of control, and me rolling on the floor, and then they left.
“Finito,” said Sirius, regaining control of his legs, and reached out a hand to help me up. No sooner had he done so than he got me with another Tickling Charm. When I stood up again, I dragged him into the classroom the Gryffindors had just vacated, and then closed the door, in case Filch or Mrs Woodhouse decided to come prowling down the corridor. And then it was spell after spell – a Disarming Charm here, a wooden leg jinx there. I even turned his wand into a spear of asparagus at one point, which I was quite proud of, except that while I was laughing at him complacently, he was still able to use the asparagus wand to Stun me. Ah well.
“Prongs refused to duel with Lily,” Sirius told me as we circled round one another, wands drawn, during a brief pause in our duel. “He said he’d never be able to hex her.”
“Oh, well it’s wonderful you have no qualms about hexing your own girlfriend,” I said.
“It comes very naturally to me,” he said, laughing. “I knew you’d be brilliant at your defence club – after all, we’ve always been good at fighting with each other.”
“I know. I’m enjoying it.”
And so we resumed; he jabbed his wand sharply and I ducked from whatever nonverbal spell he’d just tried, and Disarmed him. His wand soared across the room, and we both stopped to watch as it clattered to the floor in a corner. Sirius shrugged, then turned back around, tilted my face up and kissed me passionately. I dropped my wand as well and pulled him closer, our duel long forgotten as we got caught up in each other. This was a million times better than duelling, anyway – a much better way to spend half an hour.
When we eventually did decide to leave classroom ten, we tiptoed out of the room and quietly closed the door behind us, then Sirius grabbed me by the hand and led me towards the castle doors. It was a stupid idea, but it was also mid-May and I didn’t care much about detentions anymore, we were so close to the end of school. So I ran along with him, through the doors and out into the night.
I felt so free. Once outside, I let go of his hand, skipped ahead of him and spun around in the grass until Sirius caught up to me; he grabbed me around the waist and twirled me around. The sound of our laughter echoed through the otherwise tranquil night air. When he finally set me down again, we walked hand in hand across the grounds for a while, and then lay down on our backs in the grass to look at the stars. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and we even saw a shooting star.
After a while it started to get a bit chilly, and I snuggled up next to Sirius, my head resting on his arm. I hadn’t a care in the world; my life felt like a paradise at the moment. Sirius could make me forget about the scary world outside the castle walls, if only for a while.
But eventually, it did get cold out there, so we made our way inside. It was somewhere around two in the morning, so we took caution as we snuck back through the corridors, without the aid of an Invisibility Cloak or Marauder’s Map. Thankfully, I managed to make it back to the Slytherin common room without being caught.
At least, I didn’t get caught by Filch. However, it did not escape Mandy’s attention that I had come back late at night with grass stains all over my clothes, and she gleefully teased me about it the following morning for a good fifteen minutes, despite my insistence that it wasn’t what it looked like.
I couldn’t even divert the discussion to Mandy’s love life, either. She had recently broken up with Roderick Cadwallader, which surprised no one; then she’d decided shortly afterwards that she was taking a break from boys for a while, which surprised everyone.
As it turned out, that resolution lasted all of two weeks, and I was back to being unsurprised.
The Slytherin duelling team was just one more task on my plate during the busiest term at school, but there was no way I was giving it up. In addition to improving our abilities and reaction time in duels, I found that it really brought Slytherin House together (at least those of us who were present).
Another event that united Slytherins even more was when we beat Ravenclaw in our last Quidditch match, and then afterwards threw a huge party in the common room. The excitement culminated when two of our duelling club decided to show off in the middle of the party; they staged a mock duel, which ended when a stray spell cracked the carved mantelpiece over the fireplace and scattered a tray of Chocolate Cauldrons to the floor.
The final Quidditch match of the year was at the end of May, between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw, and decided Gryffindor’s victory in the Cup for another year running. Slytherin had won two out of our three games this year – we’d beaten Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, but not by enough to counteract Gryffindor’s impressive scores. Slytherin ended up finishing second overall, which was at least better than last year’s third place.
And, true to form, Gryffindor had a celebration as legendary as always to celebrate their victory, and I snuck in, despite that Gryffindor’s main point of jubilation was that they had beat Slytherin. I didn’t care – I was there to see Sirius and so I could have a share of the plentiful food and firewhisky they had snuck up from Hogsmeade.
Seventh year was winding to a close, the Quidditch and celebrations and the late nights out under the stars acting as wonderful distractions from the otherwise continuous homework and studying for NEWTs. I didn’t sleep much anymore. But after the success of the Slytherin duelling team over the past month, I felt empowered. I’d at least have the ability to take care of myself when I left school, and I knew I’d need it.
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