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Six children sat around a table, before an empty fireplace, on a cold morning.

Sparrow was close by Jill’s side on a setee; Jocasta on Jill’s lap; Cormac and Violet in separate chairs pushed close together; Miranda perched cross-legged on an ottoman she had dragged away from the settee, sitting with her back straight and eyes looking far beyond anything in front of her.

One herbology professor sat at a desk in the corner, head bowed over a stack of papers.

One divination professor stood facing the bookshelves, head pressed against the glass, as if she had narrowed her search for a book to one shelf. But from what Sparrow could see of her expression reflected in the glass, she did not look like she was concentrating. She looked quite a bit like a student who was hoping the teacher would not call on them. 

One Headmistress stood facing the high window, between the children and the grey world. She had a huge book open on a reading stand in front of her.

All three adults had been in their current places when the children came in. McGonagall had acknowledged the children as they entered, and directed them to be seated, but had said nothing more. Professor Clearwater had waved her hand without turning around. Professor Longbottom had not given any greeting to the children at all. All three had left the children to contemplate their fate.

Miranda, for her part, upon seeing Professor Longbottom within the room, had not taken the sight very well. As the children sat around the firelace her eyes had begun to glow blue, and the air around her had started to drop in temperature until Violet had placed a hand over Miranda’s clenched fist, and laid her forehead on the girl’s shoulder. An awkward position for both, but it worked. The blue glow faded.

And for a while a tense silence had reigned.

Until Jocasta spoke.

“Well,” she said. “Guess the cat’s out of the bag now, eh? Or the fly. Not sure what sort of bag you would use for a – ”

McGonagall slammed the book shut.

Jocasta’s mouth closed with an audible click.

For a moment more nothing more was said.

Then the Headmistress let out a deep sigh. “My apologies, Miss Carrow. I am…I have been struggling to contain myself over the past week. It is too easy for me to lash out at the first person who looks as though they are putting a foot wrong.”

For a moment, she said nothing more.

Then, “Mister Longbottom, do you wish to speak first?”

Nope.”

Ahem.”

“You think I can face anyone when I’m this embarrassed?”

“We’re all embarrassed,” said Professor Clearwater. “If I’m reading everyone in the room right.”

“Embarrased is not how I would describe my feelings,” said McGonagall. “I think the proper word is ‘betrayed’. Mister Longbottom, if you wish to disobey me in this moment, I do not think you have a leg to stand on.”

“Fine.”

Sparrow heard his chair scrape as he pushed it back, heard him amble over to the children, saw him collapsing into a chair out of the corner of her eye. But she dared not look in his direction. She did not deserve to. Considering what icy stare she could see on Miranda’s face, she did not want to know what stony gaze the Professor was meeting it with.

“I don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to disobedience,” said Professor Longbottom, “but I have one to stand on when it comes to what we discussed, even if I can’t stand on the other. Permission to speak flippantly?”

“Denied.”

“Oh come on! I’m trying to ease the tension here. You’re all at sea, I’m mad at you as much as I’m ashamed of myself, Cordelia here is clearly not looking for a book, Miss Carrow looks like she thinks her life is over, Miss Jones doesn’t even want to look at me, and I’m getting an arctic blast from Miranda. Just because I didn’t like your plan – ”

“It’s not a plan, it’s an idea. I don’t actually know what to do.”

That dawn, Sparrow and Cormac had briefly discussed what the Headmistress might do to them. Detention for a year seemed like the kindest of all options. Possibly suspension and sending each of them straight back home, or wherever Cormac might go, perhaps to Violet’s house, certainly not to stay in the castle from whose academy he had been suspended, no? Possibly expulsion – the deaths of their wands and the ruin of their dreams.

They had considered one of these possibilities, and only these possibilities. In the scant words that everyone else had been willing to speak, they had not given credit any other option, save perhaps for being turned into frogspawn and tossed into the lake, or, most and least merciful, being hit with memory charms.

Sparrow knew the Headmistress, knew her history and her reputation. A living legend, one of the mightiest Wizards of the age, leader of the defense of Hogwarts against the worst enemy her world had ever known. Solid as a rock, unshakeable by storm and sea, a landmark in good times, a bulwark in bad times. For all that Sparrow’s world contained wielders of dark magics, not a single one had ever dared approach Hogwarts in the years Minerva McGonagall served as its leader.

Once upon a time, what felt like very long ago now, McGonagall had said she was all the security her office needed. Sparrow had not questioned her then. She had known the statement to be plain fact. At idle times Sparrow had wondered if she would need to stand in defense of her peers against mighty foes someday, and thought that, if such peril came to pass, her burden would be much lighter with Minverva McGonagall standing at her side.

This was the woman who now said she did not know what to do.

That was a possibility Sparrow had not considered.

And it was more terrifying than any scenario she had thought possible.

If it had been slightly less terrifying, then Sparrow would have been visibly shivering. As it was, she felt like she was frozen solid. Worse than when Jocasta had squelched her own tenuous welcome in the greenhouse. That was a surprise, a momentary lapse, a bit of foolishness for which one could apologize and then promise to scrub every window for the next month, and such thoughts could shake one out of the paralysis of terror. But this?

It was as if she had tied her boat to the great rock, and then discovered that the knot had given way in the night, and she was alone on the wide sea without a star in sight.

She had shaken the great rock and it was her fault. In her paralysis, that was the only thought in her head: My fault. My fault. My fault. My fault.

HEY NOW! whispered a familiar voice. DON'T HOG ALL THE BLAME. WE'RE BOTH DUMBASSES. 

◊◊ JOCASTA, NOW IS NOT A TIME FOR JESTS. ◊◊

IT IS IF THEY SHAKE YOU OUT OF YOUR MENTAL LOOP.

“…so if I tell you kids to be more circumspect I’m telling you something true and vital, but at the same time I feel like a horrible person for saying it. I feel like I’m telling you all to risk the same battle-fatigue I went through, and I wound up with enough trouble ever afterwards to make me wonder how my dear Hannah puts up with me.  Sparrow? You look like you turned to stone there for a minute. Are you okay?”

For a given value of okay, no. Alright so Sending didn’t work this time.

Sparrow grumbled as she brought out her pen and parchment and scribbled upon it, My apologies, Professor Longbottom. I quite lost my concentration for a minute and missed the greater part of your speech. Please tell me, what causes you to worry about us being circumspect?

She handed the parchment to the Professor.

He read it with an expression that implied a slight degree of exasperation. “As if I wanted to admit that again!” he said. “Somehow not a single one of us, Blaise included, noticed that a cat had followed us into the room.

◊◊ JESUS BLOODY CHRIST ON A POGO STICK. ◊◊

The Professor flinched as if struck, and looked around the room.

Cormac pointed to Jocasta. Violet pointed to Sparrow. Jocasta pointed to Sparrow. Sparrow pointed to Jocasta. Jocasta gave Sparrow a pointed look.

“Oh right,” said the Professor. “That…mental cry thing. Nice bit of work, and you’d better figure out how to get a handle on it or you might expose your own thoughts too easily.”

◊◊ I KINDA DID THAT ALREADY DIDN'T I? FOR ALL I KNOW, MY TITS ARE TOAST IF I STEP OUT THE CASTLE DOORS. ◊◊

“An excellent point,” said McGonagall without turning around. “Although slightly exaggerated for your own person, Little Miss Immovable Object. The safety of your friends, on the other hand, that is an open question.”

“I don’t have to worry,” said Jill. “I am immune to being toasted. Watch.”

Before anyone could think to object, she had placed Jocasta to the side, moved to the fireplace, and started a fire with a wave of her hand.

McGonagall finally turned at the unexpected sound of crackling fire, and looked relieved to see that it was safely contained. Then she looked confused. “Jill, why did you – ”

“Watch.” Jill knelt, stuck her hand in the fire, and held it for a hot second. “When I’m right I’m right,” she said, as she drew her hand back. She turned back to the gathered Wizards. She held her hand up. “See? Not a burn on me.”

Everyone in the room stared at her in open-mouthed shock, save for Professor Clearwater, who had not turned to witness the performance.

“Um,” said Cormac. “You might want to get a handle on that too.”

“How do I get a handle on not being burned?”

“The fireplace!” said Violet. “How did you light the fireplace?

Jill shrugged.

McGonagall and Longbottom looked at each other with the expression Sparrow remembered from her parents at Christmas. In this case it was less quick do something and more Can we even handle this?

“Fascinating work though,” said Miranda. “Wandless magic. A rare talent. You just waved your hand and – ” she waved her hand in the direction of the fireplace.

The mantle over the fireplace was suddenly covered in frost.

For a moment, nobody in the room spoke, or blinked.

Longbottom put his face in his hands.

Professor Clearwater sighed. “It appears that all of us are not only embarrassed, but in over our heads.”

“You sound like you want to be involved in this,” said Professor Longbottom, in a slightly muffled voice.”

“I don’t.” Professor Clearwater strode over to the staircase that led to the office’s second level, still not facing anyone. “But I have my responsibilities as you do.” She disappeared up the stairs.

Jill watched her go, and said, “I would just as soon Mrs. Clearwater keep her specific profession out of our lives.”

“Nothing doing!” came the professor’s voice from somewhere up above them.

“Look,” said Professor Longbottom, fixing Jill with a look of exasperation. “When I say ‘get a handle on it’ I think what I should be saying is that I am extremely worried for all of you. I was worried that your world-changing goals were coming from places of old pain, manifesting as heedless haste and unchecked impulses. Now I am worrying that such pain is manifesting as the sort of magic that Wizards get up to when they are forced to do none. As water seeping through a dam.”

“Like what happened to Dumbledore’s little sister,” said Violet. “And…that didn’t turn out well.”

“Like water bursting through a dam,” said Cormac. “Pity everyone downstream.”

Pity,” said Professor Longbottom. “Perhaps it was pity that stayed my hand from hindering you. Yet if that is true, then perhaps pity also stayed my hand from steering you on a safe course. Pity that paralyzed me. But then, it sounds as though I am deflecting blame from the grave mistake I made. Now guidance is vital to your survival, and the survival of people around you.”

Cormac glanced upward. “I think I can guess why Professor Clearwater is avoiding us, then. It sounds as though she’s been dealing with this question for a while.”

“She has,” said McGonagall. “And I do not believe she deserves any shame, considering that she has been informing me of her frustrations for weeks now.”

Jill snorted. “Miss-know-it-all doesn’t know as much as she wants. What a pity.”

The Headmistress gave Jill a cold stare. “Jillian Mina Patil. If you would be so kind as to refrain from insulting a professor of this school in my presence, then perhaps you would also be wise enough to recognize that you are already on thin ice. Please apologize to the Professor.”

Jill sat silent for a moment, looking away as if struggling to decide. Finally she let out a deep breath, and said, “I am sorry. I have been carrying a grudge for a while, but not from anything Professor Clearwater did.”

“What then?” said Violet.

Jill drew her finger across her lips, as if to say they were sealed.

“I never know as much as I wish,” said Professor Clearwater’s voice from somewhere above. “Any seer who claims a high success rate is either a liar or deluded. But there is quite a difference between an unclear reading, and having the crystal ball literally jump off the table every time you try to read someone’s future. And the mug of tea. I even tried oracle bones and they just formed a question mark.”

Jill’s expression went from one of conflict to confusion. “How is that possible? My grandmother used to read my fortune all the time without any trouble.”

“Perhaps,” said McGonagall, “you have opened yourself to too many possibilities. Divination is about looking ahead on someone’s particular path, and ever since December you have all been at a crossroads. Hopefully this morning’s discussion will make it clear which path you are actually on, and render divination possible.”

“That remains to be seen,” said Professor Clearwater’s voice from above, now a little more distant.”

“Both of us dropped the ball,” said Professor Longbottom.

“Not funny!”

“Wasn’t trying to be. I’m just saying – both of us failed to offer the guidance that we could have. The difference is, you had the ball slapped out of your hands, and I just…tossed it back to the children here, after Miranda had thrown it to me thinking I would know what to do. Guidance is vital to everyone’s survival here and I muffed it.”

“Guidance,” said McGonagall, “and reassurance.” She lifted the huge book from its reading stand, and, passing Professor Longbottom and the children, carried it to an open wooden case on a table near her desk. She placed the album in the case, shut the lid, and tapped it with her wand. There was the sound of many bolts sliding closed. “Such as some of us did not receive, when it might have saved us, such that many more of us were not saved. Terrible business. I only wish that, for once in your miserable lives, you children can relax.”

“And yet you would send them into a war?” said Longbottom.

“No!” said McGonagall, as she spun around. “That’s what you’re not getting, young man! It is about IF, not WHEN! I am saying that IF these children would risk having war brought against them, they MUST prove that they have the capability to survive it! It is about preparation! I am not willing to spend lives like they’re pawns! Not like…like Albus did to us, sometimes.”

Sparrow had heard many things over the years. But she had never heard anyone speak ill of the memory of Albus Dumbledore. Not once.

“I wonder,” said Longbottom, “if he ever came home from the war either.”

“I don’t think he did,” said McGonagall. “Never had the chance, did he? He knew the war wasn’t over. He knew Mr. Riddle was still out there. He knew everyone saw him as the rock they stood on. So, he never stopped playing that role. Never found peace.”

“Did you?” said Jill.

McGonagall turned to Jill and, for a moment, looked affronted at Jill's fairly personal question. But then her expression changed to one of old pain. “I do not know,” she said. “I would like to think so. But based on what I might decide…I would say otherwise. I am still organizing my thoughts around such a framework of opposition and struggle. As for what they are...I would not call it an insane idea but I wonder if it is too audacious. Mr. Longbottom, you had the other leg you wanted to stand on.” She sat down at her desk. “Would you care to continue?

“I am sorry,” said Longbottom. “That is the leg I did not wish to stand on. You could say it is a matter of my administrative authority, and thus worth discussing here. But I consider it a personal matter between me and Miranda. Permission to avoid that subject?”

McGonagall sighed. “Granted. Professor Clearwater, if you would please come down here and tell the children what you wished to tell them?”

“I’ve told them everything I want to,” said Professor Clearwater.

“What you said you would tell them, I mean.”

“Fine.”

The Professor at least re-appeared at the bottom of the stairs. Her eyes were downcast, and she did not meet anyone’s gaze as she moved to stand before them in front of the fireplace. Until at last she stood up a bit straighter, met Sparrow’s gaze, and said, “Is it particularly hard for you to guess why your Headmistress was in a position to follow you through that door in the first place?”

Sparrow shook her head.

Jocasta shrugged. “I thought one of the ghosts had tipped off McGonagall after all. But it was you, eh? Trying to run interference like Longbottom couldn’t.”

Now the Professor looked fierce. “I was trying to do the one thing I thought I could for you. Forcing the matter into the hands of someone who could guide you, instead of me with my daily failures. I was not trying to run interference, Jocasta Hestia Carrow, and if you think of sincere help that way I should think you will have a wonderful career in politics, or would if I had been able to warn you about your course, ahead of time. But I couldn’t, because I couldn’t see your course, because you are all, apparently, a deck full of JOKERS.”

For a moment no one spoke.

Until Jocasta broke the silence again. AH. THAT MAKES TWICE THIS MORNING I'VE PUT MY FOOT IN IT. 

“Correct,” said the Professor.

“Six wild cards in a deck,” said Miranda. “And even a crystal ball couldn’t predict that I would take the honorable course in doing something that was stupidly illegal.

“Indeed not,” said Jocasta. “If someone wanted to predict that, they would just have to know you on a personal basis.”

“Sure threw me for a loop,” said Professor Longbottom.

“So what made the prediction different this time?” said Violet. “The crystal ball finds us confusing most days, but then it shows us conspiring?”

“It showed me Jocasta’s predicament last night,” said Professor Clearwater. “Perhaps your fateful discussion in the Dragon Tower was a similar moment of peril, had you not found qualified help.”

Professor Longbottom looked away.

“Blaise doesn’t count?” said Violet.

“Blaise is how old?”

“Nineteen.”

“And they are whose sibling?”

“Mine.”

“There you go,” said Professor Clearwater. “Compromised in more ways than one.”

Violet’s expression was suddenly stony. “Please do not refer to my elder sibling in that manner.”

McGonagall nodded to Professor Clearwater, and said, “Thank you, Cordelia. I think you have made your concerns clear to these children. As for what Professor Longbottom has told me – Miranda, you did the right thing, and the wrong thing. You upheld the spirit of your oath to atone for your earlier transgressions, and put your favorite teacher in a position where he had to choose between being a friend and being an administrator. I wonder how much I ought to blame him for choosing neither.”

Miranda’s face was easy to read. But now Sparrow did not wish to read it. For the girl wore an expression that Sparrow had only seen a trace of before, in the moment when she had laid her sword at Sparrow’s feet – sorrow, and shame.

“As for me,” said McGonagall, drawing up a chair in front of the fire, “I have much to explain on my part as well. You all might be wondering why on earth I did not stop you at any point that evening.

All the children nodded, as did both professors.

“Let me begin by saying, I feel as though I am in the same bind when it comes to all of you children. You are all very lucky that Sparrow had the courtesy to discuss her basic goals with me before this point, and that Professor Clearwater here alerted me to your actions well before I would have found them out, or else I would have treated you all far more harshly. As it is, I feel betrayed instead of infuriated. You all chose to avoid asking my aid for a subject that is my primary area of expertise, after all. It feels like a personal affront instead of a mere measure of disobedience.”

“How could we possibly have done otherwise?” said Jocasta. “It was unrealistic to hope that Professor Longbottom would condone this. It was impossible to imagine you doing the same.”

McGonagall sighed. “You were accurate, in your assumption. As the chief administrator of this institution, I have no room to condone illegal behavior. I made that clear to Sparrow here. I do not have the room to smile and nudge and wink as a teacher might do. I cannot be seen to play favorites, nor do I wish to do so out of sight. I am not Professor Slughorn with his Slug Club. If I don’t uphold a basic fairness around here…if I don’t actually uphold the rules…then what rules are there except my own whim? I would be a monarch, a despot, a tyrant, dispensing favors and deciding who thrives and who withers. My administration would be entirely overtaken by politics.”

“And yet,” said Jocasta, “you wanted us to consult you on this matter?”

“Yes! I would have told you to do this above-board as I told Sparrow to push for legal reform above-board. So that I could try to help you with an endeavor that is incredibly risky. But no, you decided that I could not be trusted. But now, If I wish be a friend to any of you…I will always remember that you thought I was too dangerous and too inflexible. So now I wonder if I ought to even bother trying to help you, or if I ought to just tell you to scrap your ideas and focus on your studies.

“Except that, considering your behavior, you’ve all made it very clear that such a command would be obeyed for about half a second. Your spirits apparently cannot be contained by even the normal course of Wizarding life. As if the current state of the Wizarding World is to you what the house of Dumbledore was to Albus’ poor sister. I worry that you are all on a train hurtling out of control down a grade.

And yet. From what I have observed, from what I remember of Sparrow’s speech at the Grand Duel, from what I have heard you all say about the matter, you yourselves are desperately trying to apply the brakes, because you all know how much danger you might unleash – not just for yourself but for others. You have committed to your current course of extreme illegality in order to properly ascertain if the longer-term one is even necessary or desired. Which is…far less selfish than most scofflaws. My goodness me, it is as if you actually care about the consequences of your actions! But not the consequences of how you treat your elders. So now you can see why I have been in a pickle all week, just the same as both Professors here. I am desperate to help you all lest you explode, yet unable to do so on a clandestine basis as you wish, and worried that working with you either way would be like touching a hot stove.”

◊◊ I AM SORRY FOR THE PAIN I HAVE CAUSED YOU. ◊◊

McGonagall had a faraway look in her eyes. “Whatever pain you have caused me seems to be less than the pain this little world has caused you. I tell you, Sparrow, I am scared. I am scared that you will come to a tragic end no matter what course we take here – perhaps swiftly, if you continue on your current course, or delayed, if you are forced to keep yourself contained forever – and who knows which end would be more destructive to others?”

◊◊ I DO NOT KNOW. I THINK THAT, IF THE WIZARDING WORLD HAD EVER BOTHERED TO PRODUCE PROFESSIONAL THERAPISTS, NONE OF US WOULD BE SUFFERING AS WE ARE NOW – THOUGH I WONDER IF THE CARROW FAMILY WOULD HAVE LET JOCASTA OBTAIN SUCH COUNSEL? IF IT THREATENED HER FATHER’S CONTROL OVER HER? AS IT IS, WE SIX HAVE BEEN ABLE TO TAKE COUNSEL IN EACH OTHER, FOR GOOD AND FOR ILL. ◊◊

“And seemingly encourage each other’s foolishness,” said Professor Longbottom.

◊◊ AND KEEP EACH OTHER ALIVE IN DOING SO. ◊◊

“How do you figure?”

◊◊ EACH OF US HAS BEEN INSTRUMENTAL IN LAYING OUT THE CURRENT COURSE. ◊◊

Sparrow tapped her head against Jill’s shoulder, then against Jocasta’s head.

◊◊ HAD IT NOT BEEN FOR THE ADVICE OF THESE TWO, I VERY WELL WOULD HAVE DIED OUT THERE IN THE FORBIDDEN FOREST FOR MY REFUSAL TO CAST A CURSE. ◊◊

She rose, and went over to Cormac, laying a hand lightly on his shoulder.

◊◊ HAD IT NOT BEEN FOR THE ADVICE OF THIS LAD, AND THE ARGUMENTS OF MY DEAR JILL, I WOULD HAVE HURTLED FORWARD ON MY INITIAL COURSE AND SMASHED AGAINST THE WALLS OF MY WORLD WELL BEFORE THIS POINT. ◊◊

She moved to stand before Miranda, and offered her a brief, formal bow.

◊◊ HAD IT NOT BEEN THE AMBITION OF FRIEND MIRANDA, AND THE AMBITION OF MY DEAR JOCASTA, I WOULD NOT CURRENTLY HAVE THE CHANCE TO TAKE THE NARROW AND SLIPPERY PATH AROUND THE MINISTRY’S ROAD BLOCKADE, SUCH THAT I WOULD HAVE LESS DELICATE MEANS TO FOLLOW THE ADVICE JILL AND CORMAC HAVE OFFERED. ◊◊

She stood before Violet, and offered her the same bow.

◊◊ HAD IT NOT BEEN FOR MY LADY OF THE BOOK, WHO TAUGHT ME HOW TO DO PROPER RESEARCH, I MIGHT STILL BE STUCK IN THE LIBRARY BANGING MY HEAD AGAINST A LACK OF INFORMATION – ◊◊

“If only that were true,” said McGonagall.

◊◊ – AND MARCHING RIGHT DOWN TO THE MINISTRY TO GET THOSE BOOKS BACK, NEVER MIND THINGS LIKE DOOR GUARDIANS OR ALARMS OR MAGICAL WARDS OR THE ENTIRE AUROR CORPS STANDING IN MY WAY. ◊◊

Sparrow returned to her seat, noticing the slightly bashful looks on the faces of her friends.

“Marching to war to get some books,” said Violet. “I fear that for Sparrow it is likely.

“And for all I know,” said Jill, “I would have gone with her because I saw it as a chance to smack around some adults who deserve smacking, and never mind the cost to myself.”

That’s a hypothetical,” said McGonagall.

“True enough. But it is true that without Sparrow, I might have died for venturing into the Forbidden Section of the library alone. Or for the incident with the falling rocks. Or for the time Felonius Fimblewinter accidentally set the Hufflepuff table on fire. Or for the time a bludger smacked me off my broom during beater practice.”

“Excuse me,” said McGonagall, “What was that about the Forbidden Section?”

Jill waved a hand. “Tell you later.

Ahem.”

Jill glanced at Sparrow.

Sparrow nodded.

Jill took a deep breath. "Me and Sparrow ventured into the Forbidden Section of the library and all the Monster Books tried to eat us and then Sparrow and I confessed that we both had romantic feelings for each other and then I kissed her and then the books were all floating around for some reason.”

For a moment many of the gathered Wizards exchanged glances, but nobody said anything.

Jocasta put the back of her hand her forehead and swooned. “Oh my goodness, how shall I choose between my suitors now? They are both dashing!”

“And clearly prone to illegal behavior even without this current foolishness,” said McGonagall.

“Can’t say I would have died from getting into a scrape,” said Cormac, “but I will tell you that I’ve been kind of dying to tell people what I was about for a while. Couldn’t exactly explain the whole business without looking like I hated the Statute of Secrecy, could I? Didn’t find anyone besides Violet here I could speak to in confidence. So that whole business with the Dragon Tower…it was an opportunity to air certain grievances I would worry about airing otherwise, and meet some interesting folks I otherwise might have been nervous to approach, or unwilling.” He gave Jocasta a pointed look.

“And I feel about the same,” said Violet. “And I don’t often meet people as studious as me who are also less than arrogant.”

“I wouldn’t call this business less than arrogant,” said McGonagall.

“Call it audacious,” said Jocasta.

Chutzpah,” said McGonagall. “Audacity implies something to admire.”

“If I hadn’t met Sparrow,” said Miranda, “I might not have met Jocasta. Hm. Okay, maybe that’s not a good example. Wait, yes it is. If I hadn’t met Jocasta she wouldn’t have encouraged me to keep going with my experimental potions past the point of being embarrassed for the fox incident, thereby to develop the very potion that saved her life later.”

•I WOULD CERTAINLY BE DEAD IF SPARROW HAD NOT INTRODUCED ME TO EVERYONE HERE. AS I UNDERSTAND IT, EACH OF THEM WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN MY SURVIVAL.•

“Ah ha,” said Professor Clearwater. “Perhaps that’s it. I was trying to see the individual course for each person here, instead of trying to look at them all at once. Whatever futures you children have may depend upon you sticking together.

McGonagall rested her chin in her hand, lost in thought. For a minute no one dared speak.

Then she shook her head, and rose from her seat, moving once more to stare out the window.

“So you kids are really tangled together then,” said Longbottom. “Can’t live without each other, even if you’re all egging each other on here. And all for…a goal I wouldn’t necessarily call dubious.”

“Many would,” said McGonagall as she turned back to the gathered Wizards. “Especially when it comes to the social implications. Oh! Imagine telling the muggles that there had been a community of people with terrifying powers, hidden in their midst all this time. How in heaven’s name would it be possible to avoid creating chaos from such news? How long would it take the muggles to start trying to attack us in fear?”

◊◊ IF IT’S CLEAR TO THEM THAT THEY HAVE A CHANCE TO DO MAGIC, MAYBE THEY WON’T BE AS SCARED. ◊◊

“Right,” said McGonagall. “As if that’s easy.”

“Neither is curing lycanthropy,” said Miranda. “But hell, I’ll try it. We’re all encouraging each other’s ambitions here.”

“Excuse me,” said McGonagall. “You want to do what?”

“Will you look at that,” said Professor Clearwater. “I drew another joker.”

“Hardly a jest,” said Miranda. “But it’s a long story.”

“Right,” said McGonagall. “Right. And yet.” She turned back to the window. “I can’t help but wonder if all of this tomfoolery has been because I wouldn’t let Sparrow make the hills green.”

◊◊ IF IT WAS ONLY THAT I WOULD HAVE DONE IT BY NOW. ◊◊

“Mind how you go about openly defying my authority any further,” said McGonagall.  

◊◊ I FEAR THAT I WILL, IF YOU FORBID ME. LIKE WATER SEEPING THROUGH A DAM. BUT IT IS NOT YOU WHO FORBID ME. IT IS NOT YOU WHO HAVE DAMMED THE RIVER. IT IS THE STATUTE OF SECRECY. AND LOOK WHERE WE ARE NOW. ◊◊

Sparrow rose, and gestured at the window.

◊◊ CROPS THAT FAIL, LIVESTOCK WITHERING IN DROUGHTS, DUST STORMS IN THE SUMMER, FLOODING RAIN IN THE WINTER, HUMANITY HUDDLED IN ITS REMAINING CITIES AND DYING BY DEGREES WHILE ITS WIZARDS SIT PRETTY. CORMAC HAS SEEN PEOPLE DIE BEFORE HIS EYES, I HAVE SEEN THE PEOPLE OF MY CITY TEETERING ON THE EDGE OF THE COLD WATER, AND EVERY DAY MY PEOPLE DWINDLE. I COULD BE DEAD IF NOT FOR THE MIRACLE OF THAT HOGWARTS INVITATION. ◊◊

There was a golden light that shone in the room now, from some source Sparrow could not identify.

◊◊ I GREW UP NERVOUS ENOUGH, BEFORE LOSING MY FRIENDS. SINCE THEN I HAVE NEVER NOT BEEN ON EDGE, EVEN IN A FAMILY WHO HAS THE CHANCE TO ENJOY SOME COMFORTS. SO IMAGINE HOW I FELT WHEN I WAS GRANTED ACCESS TO A WORLD WHERE PEOPLE CAN ACTUALLY BE AT EASE. IMAGINE HOW I FELT WHEN I WAS GRANTED A TOOL THAT I COULD USE TO BRING EASE BACK TO MY WORLD. IMAGINE HOW I FELT WHEN I LEARNED THAT THIS WAS FORBIDDEN. I AIM TO HEAL THE PAIN OF MY PEOPLE, I HAVE THE VERY ABILITY AND THE MINISTRY WON’T FUCKING LET ME! ◊◊

A room with the windows closed has little opportunity to let any ambient noise fill the silence, save for the sound of wind blowing across the top of the chimney.

In this case, the silence was broken by Professor Longbottom, who chuckled and said, “Easy there, tiger. You look like you’re going to explode any second.”

Sparrow finally noticed that the golden glow was coming from her own skin.

She sat down beside Jill and fell over into her lap. Jill rested her arm over Sparrow’s shoulder.

The glow faded.

“For heaven’s sake, child.” McGonagall moved back to the gathered children, and stood before Sparrow, bending down to put a hand on her forehead. “I almost think you could give yourself a fever with that fire inside you.” She took her hand away. “Thank goodness you are not burning up on a physical basis.”

“Have you decided what you want to do with us?” said Violet.

“How can we atone for our transgressions?” said Miranda. “What reward will we suffer for our arrogance?”

McGonagall looked to the two professors.

They both nodded.

“First of all,” said McGonagall, “it would be simple and easy enough for me enough to cast memory charms on all of you – ”

Cormac’s eyes began to glow orange. “I will not accept a thing under any circumstances whatsoever,” he said, in a voice that was harder than any Sparrow had ever heard out of his mouth. “Not after what Sparrow told us. I will not accept the deception and further suffering of any of my friends.”

“I must learn how to do that eye trick,” said Violet.

“You mustn’t,” said Miranda, Jill, and Jocasta in unison.

“AHEM!”

All the children jumped.

I was going to say, if I hit you all with memory charms it would be the cruelest thing I had ever done. Instead I will be far less harsh than I would have if Sparrow had never discussed her goals with me. And I will be less harsh than I would have if Sir Podmore had not vouched for your valiance, if Professor Longbottom had not vouched for your honor, if Professor Clearwater had not warned me of your uncertain future. This is my decree: I require you to put your money where your mouths are.

The glow from Cormac’s eyes faded. “You are…telling us to do what we wanted to do?”

“If I just let you run wild as you have proposed,” said McGonagall, “that would also be cruel, to you as to everyone else.”

“What then?”

“Think of it this way. There are so many children who wish to grow up quickly, to jump into the world of adults, to no longer be considered children but taken seriously. And you are of an age that, long and long ago, would have been just a touch earlier than the lower bound on what people thought was a plausible age for beginning one’s adulthood. How old was the Maid of Orleans when she demanded to lead her king’s army against the English?”

“Seventeen,” said Violet. “She didn’t come out of it well, as I recall.”

“A bold spirit,” said Cormac. “Too idealistic to understand the sort of cynical manipulations that would be used to get rid of her.”

“Precisely,” said McGonagall. “Quite a bit like Sparrow here, I fear.”

“She can be perfectly cynical,” said Jocasta. “When she puts her mind to it.”

“But by default?” said McGonagall. “Clearly not by default. If I forego the use of memory charms then I am tempted to throw you into the meatgrinder of Wizard politics, and see if you or the meatgrinder breaks.”

“The what?” said Jocasta. “Is that a muggle thing?”

McGonagall frowned. “Miss Carrow, you had better not be joking."

Jocasta shook her head.

"How on earth do you not know what a meatgrinder is?”

“Because I’ve never heard of it? I didn’t know you could grind meat.” I REALLY DIDN'T.

“What exactly did you think ground meat was?” said Violet. “Meat from the ground?”

Jocasta looked her dead in the eye and said, “Yes.”

“Getting off track! Now, I will not toss you into the political blender – I mean the mixer – I mean the egg beater – Jocasta, what kitchen implements are you familiar with?”

“Never been in a kitchen.”

Never been –

Carrow Manor,” said Professor Clearwater.

“Oh,” said McGonagall. “Right. Where was I? I will not throw you into the political threshing machine – ” She shot a glance at Jocasta, whose face was conspicuously blank – “because, for all that I am angry with every one of you, I care about your physical and mental well-being. And Professor Longbottom here has insisted that I avoid throwing too much at you at once. But oh, you all invite the sky to come down on your heads, you flock of Chickens Little. The question is whether you can handle it.”

All the children looked at Sparrow.

◊◊I DON’T THINK I CAN HOLD UP THE SKY YET.◊◊

“Precisely. The key word is ‘yet’. I will begin by showing you what many adult Wizards do for their world. You have all been shut up in this castle long enough that it is easy to miss what actually goes on. So – It’s time for the Painful Pensive.”

“The what now?” said Jocasta.

McGonagall rose from her chair and strode over to one of the closed display cases. She tapped her wand on the glass and waited for the sound of clicking and whirring to cease. Then she opened the door, and withdrew a wide, shallow silver vessel, covered in swirls of carvings, save for an enamel rim the color of fresh blood

She set the bowl down on the table. It was filled with a silvery liquid, swirling in lighter and darker shades around each other, never mixing completely. Whatever liquid it was, it didn’t flow or ripple like water.

“This is for some of the memories I would retain but do not wish to consider. You will view them with me now. Longbottom – ”

“Seen ‘em already. And I ought to be preparing for work. Requesting permission to be dismissed.

“Granted. I will inform you of what fate I decide for these students. Mrs. Clearwater?”

“I, er, need to get to work as well.”

“Then both of you may go.”

The professors hurried out of the room.

“The rest of you,” said McGonagall, “are not to discuss the memories you see herein with anyone outside this room. As you are all in your current situation because of your overwhelming sense of honor, I can trust that you will require no magical bonds of silence. Am I correct?”

Everyone nodded.

“Then come and stand here.”

Everyone rose from their seat and stood around the table, peering into the basin.

“I will show you my days of tears,” said McGonagall.

And they all gazed into older years.

 

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