“We really shouldn’t be taking our time down here,” said Jocasta.

It was quite early on a Friday morning, in those hours before students were expected to be awake, but after they were allowed to be out of their dormitories. Or, one might say that they were not not allowed to be out of their dormitories; according to Jocasta the rules only said that children had to be in bed by ten PM. They said nothing about being out of bed before six AM. They also said nothing about being out of the common room before six AM. They also said nothing about being in the dungeons before six AM.

Sparrow supposed that teachers and prefects were supposed to have broad discretion to apply the spirit of the rules, but that point was moot, as none of them were ever out of bed and wandering at 5 O’clock in the morning, except, on occasion, Mincent Warbeck.

Two girls snuck past a room that held an echoing conversation. One might call it an argument. Mincent Warbeck was strenuously asserting to Argus Filch that he was, in fact, Mincent Warbeck, and not two children stacked atop each other. This was rather difficult for him to prove without disrobing, as he was about as tall as two teenagers stacked atop each other.

As the two girls crept by, Sparrow halted. Jocasta gestured for her to keep moving, but Sparrow shook her head, and pointed in the direction of the doorway.

“You’re going to spoil things,” said Jocasta. “Come on. Why would you want to blow our cover?”

◊◊ HUFFLEPUFF’S HONOR, JOCASTA. ◊◊

Jocasta took Sparrow by the hand, and held her gaze. •I AM SORRY FOR ASKING YOU TO IGNORE YOUR HONOR. BUT I MUST INSIST. OUR BUSINESS DOWN HERE IS PERSONAL. AND I DO NOT WISH TO SPEND ANOTHER MOMENT AWAY FROM JILL.•

◊◊ JOCASTA – ◊◊

“Come on!” she whispered, and tugged on Sparrow’s sleeve.

Sparrow relented, and Jocasta lead her down the long corridor, and down longer corridors. Sparrow began to wonder if they might somehow lead to the Chamber of Secrets by a back entrance, or if there were other secret chambers, and Slytherin was simply grandstanding when he had named his own.

In the dank darkness of the dungeon hall, down at the end where the wall stood solid, there stood before it a girl not nearly tall as Warbeck. But Sparrow was certain the girl would get there eventually. Jill had, at the last measurement, grown nine centimeters beyond her height at the school year's beginning.

If Sparrow had not let Jocasta go, the girl would have dragged her behind like a kite as she rushed forward. If Jill had not been as sturdy as she was, she might have been knocked forward when Jocasta ran into her and hugged her about the middle

"Miss me much?" said Jill.

"You have no idea. Why did you run ahead of us?"

"I...thought I heard something calling me. I don't know. For all I know it was nothing."

"I didn't hear it," said Jocasta. "Oh wait. You mean like silent calling?"

"Like Sending, yes. But I couldn't make out the words. And they're gone now. And the deep tunnels are still closed off from me, so I can't figure why I was being called. Maybe it was just...all in my own head. I don't know."

◊◊ PLENTY OF REASON TO BELIEVE IT WAS FROM OUTSIDE. ◊◊

"Plenty of reason to think it was from inside too. Ah, well. We should be attending to our business. Not that I entirely understand why you wanted to look for a moth here. There's no flowers in a dungeon. And there's no cloth. They have nothing to feed on."

"Do they not?" said Jocasta. She let go of Jill and led the two girls into a dark and empty cell. Rusty chains hung from the wall, rusty manacles lay open on the stone floor. Jocasta peered at a certain chain, shook her wand out of her sleeve and cast a gentle light upon the links. "From my observations, a Death's-Head Moth does not feed on nectar. Let us see...Ah ha." She plucked a small brown lump off the metal. "We now have our chrysalis. As for our other business...come, let us find a less morbid location."

"That would be literally anywhere else except Azkaban," said Jill.

"Oh," said Jocasta. "I don't know. Execution chambers, charnel houses, graveyards..." She glanced at the manacles and shivered. "No sense lingering here though. Come on." She led Sparrow and Jill towards an open classroom.

There was little in it this morning, as the chairs and desks and podium remained in their places by the wall. Nor was there more than a little bit of light, for neither the fireplace nor the lamps were lit, and none of the three girls dared to set them alight. So they tiptoed into the near-darkness, and Jocasta sat upon the dais, and motioned Sparrow to sit beside her. Upon Sparrow sitting beside her, she patted her lap.

Sparrow raised an eyebrow.

Jocasta giggled. “Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t think about how that would look when I did it. Just lay your head down.”

Sparrow was more willing to oblige this, and Jocasta’s lap was as soft as the rest of her, so it wasn’t a bad deal. Although it was funny to look up at someone from below. Not typically a flattering view, to see the underside of someone’s nose.

“Now,” said Jocasta, “I did promise that I would resolve Sparrow’s loneliness eventually.”

In your own special way,” said Jill. "Ah, speaking of which -- Sparrow, this business could involve my wand flying right towards you. Do you want to try the trick you taught me earlier? I mean, unless you don't want to be away from your wand."

Sparrow drew her own wand from her pocket. It was faintly pulling in Jill's direction.

◊◊ YOU'RE HERE. JOCASTA'S HERE. I THINK I'LL BE FINE. ◊◊

"If you're sure...alright then." Jill drew her wand from her pocket.

"Now hang on," said Jocasta. "You told me the wands make a loud noise when they meet. We can't be making too many whoops and hollers now that we know Filch might be down here."

Jill pouted.

"What I mean is, get closer and then do the wand thing. Like, hold them an inch apart."

"And get my fingers trapped between them?"

"Just do your best."

Jill sat close in front of Sparrow and drew her wand, holding it delicately as she could. Unfortunately having a minimum number of fingers on the wand meat that she could not resist its pull, and the wand flew out of her hand as Sparrow's wand flew to meet it. Once again they met in the air with a sharp CLACK, and there remained.

Sparrow held her breath as she looked at the doorway.

But there was no sound of someone asking after the noise, nor did anyone appear.

Jill tiptoed to the doorway and peered around it.

††††† NO ONE THERE. †††††

CLOSE THE DOOR ANYWAY? NO WAIT DON'T --

The hinges creaked just enough to echo through the hall. Jill pulled her hand back from the door but it continued swinging until she put a foot in front of it.

She peered around the doorway again, turned back to the other two and said, "Can't we be doing this somewhere else?"

"Well we can't be going anywhere else now," murmured Jocasta. "Unless you can get yourself out of the doorway without touching the door. I can do that and Sparrow can do that, but I don't know about you, Miss Giant."

"Fair enough. What a price I pay for the way you find me attractive."

"One of a few ways, yes. Now, let's just keep our voices down, and we can actually get started here."

Jill sat down on the stone close in front of Sparrow. "Begin, then. You were saying, you wanted to resolve Sparrow's loneliness?"

◊◊ LONELINESS RESOLVED. ◊◊

"Ah, said Jocasta, "But what of my tutelage? I have been neglecting that."

◊◊ THAT MATTER REMAINS TO BE RESOLVED. I WOULD ENJOY HAVING YOU RESOLVE IT. ◊◊

Jocasta chuckled. "I'm sure you would. Very well, very well. I have promised you the Tender Caress." She cupped Sparrow's cheek in her palm, her fingers just brushing the skin. "Easy enough, eh? Or so it looks. You have to be thinking gentle. But if you want some real fun, well! That is when you go for the neck.”

“Oh dear,” said Jill. “Sparrow, it appears that we are dating a vampire.”

Sparrow wiggled her eyebrows.

Jocasta bent her head to Sparrow’s neck, but halted when Jill said, “Hang on.”

“Come now,” said Jocasta. “I can hardly resist here. I thirst!”

“Well if you want to be showing me how to do whatever you’re doing, your hair’s in the way. I can't see through it in this light.”

"Come on," said Jocasta. "I don't like doing up my hair. It feels so...prim and proper."

"Well if you don't want to then I can shove my face in, do you want that? Don't answer that. Just let me see what's going on here."

“Sheesh, fine." Jocasta waved her wand and her hair gathered itself up behind her head. “Pfah. I look like a librarian.”

“A hot librarian,” said Jill. She wiggled her eyebrows. “Continue.”

◊◊ WAIT. ◊◊

“Oh, now what?”

◊◊ I AM MAD AT YOU. ◊◊

Jocasta grinned. “I bet you won’t be in a few seconds.”

◊◊ I AM SERIOUS. I COULD HAVE STAYED BEHIND TO SAVE PROFESSOR WARBECK FROM AN AWKWARD SITUATION, WHILE YOU SENT AND FOUND JILL. BUT YOU MADE ME RUN AWAY. SO I COULD NOT HELP THE PROFESSOR. FOR ALL WE KNOW HE’S STILL THERE HAVING A ROW WITH ARGUS. ◊◊

Jocasta stopped grinning. “He’s a professor, Sparrow. He can handle himself. We can’t get away with as much as he can, not when we’re on a narrow mountain path. That business with the tower, you might have made us all fall. We can’t be that reckless for a while, get it?”

Sparrow grumbled.

“I know you want to save everyone,” said Jocasta, “but there is such a thing as triage. Get it? Save the most vulnerable targets first. That’s us, right now. Now may I please begin?”

◊◊ YOU MAY. ◊◊

Jocasta began. Sparrow learned things about her neck, then, that she had not been aware of. Certain spots that were pleasing to be kissed, pleasing indeed. She could not tell if Jill had the same points of vulnerability, but it was something to try.

“There is something I don’t understand,” said Jill.

Jocasta looked up. “Yes?”

Five in the morning? Down here?

“If it were any later I’m sure one student or another would be begging for Sparrow’s attention. Little Miss Helpful here has definitely got herself ingratiated with the student body.”

Jill giggled. “She sure looks like she’s ingratiated with the student body right now.”

Jocasta rolled her eyes. “I walked right into that one. Now, as I have said, between our private discussions of sensitive topics and Sparrow’s own hither-thither, I have hardly had time to fulfill my promise to her. Although…we have not taken advantage of nights, have we? And there is one bed we could all share."

Sparrow glanced at Jill, whose face would have been blank if not for the fact that her eyes were gleaming like they had last year when someone offered her a genuine strawberry.

◊◊ YOU LOOK LIKE YOU'RE OKAY WITH THIS. ◊◊

"Maybe," said Jill.

◊◊ NOT WORRIED ABOUT YOUR WAND THIS TIME? ◊◊

"A little less so," said Jill, "and, more importantly, I would have the chance to cuddle you more often."

◊◊ AH HA. GOOD REASON INDEED. WELL, IF JOCASTA WANTED TO JOIN US SHE WOULD HAVE TO SNEAK OUT OF SLYTHERIN HOUSE LATE IN THE EVENING. ◊◊

Jocasta scoffed. “That’s what you think. The Dorm Room of Requirement is proving remarkably useful for clandestine meetings between me and Jill. All either of us would have to do is wake up and sneak over to that door.”

◊◊ HUFFLEPUFF DORM ROOM 6? AS IN, HUFFLEPUFF HOUSE? AS IN, NOWHERE NEAR SLYTHERIN? ◊◊

“Perhaps so,” said Jocasta. “But then, how could I get to it?” She giggled. “Some things are still a mystery. But, as I said, this is the time we have. And…who knows how much time we still have? So I will teach you both what I know, starting with Sparrow because she’s been waiting a while, and because she can carry on when I’m not around.”

◊◊ NOT AROUND? ◊◊

“Well, I mean.” Jocasta shrugged. “I’m not going to be in your company all the time, right? That's true for any of us. Sometimes it will be just two, alone with each other, missing the third. And I want both of you to be happy. This is my gift to you both.”

And with that, she bent to her task once more, pausing now and then to explain what she was doing. In those moments Sparrow missed her kisses already.

Yet after a time, Jill said, “Hold on a moment.”

“I’m holding,” said Jocasta.

◊◊ YOU SURE ARE. ◊◊

“God, I keep walking into innuendo this morning.”

“If we may think of something more chaste for the moment!” said Jill. “Jocasta, you have not had a chance to look Deeply into Sparrow’s eyes yet, correct?”

Jocasta shook her head.

“Then I think this would be a perfect opportunity for you to do so. Provided you are willing for her to look into yours. Would you feel comfortable with that?”

Jocasta did not meet Jill’s gaze, nor Sparrow’s. “I…would need to be in a more secure location. Something with a door I could actually close. And lock.”

◊◊ YOU WOULD FEEL VULNERABLE? ◊◊

“That is part of it.”

◊◊ WHAT WOULD YOU WANT TO KEEP OUT? ◊◊

In. Keep in.”

Sparrow glanced at Jill, whose face was grim.

“I’m sorry,” said Jocasta. “Being cryptic again. I told you there was a door that I couldn’t open for you yet. This is part of it. If I let you know what’s in my eyes…I can't guarantee that you won't get hurt."

◊◊ JOCASTA, WHAT ON EARTH – ◊◊

“Hush now.” She gave Sparrow a kiss on the forehead. “Let me put it this way. Over the last three years, Jill and I have been closer than I realized. We shared modes of thought as much as we shared talents, though perhaps we differed in the execution. Pity that we did not speak sooner, or I might have understood this earlier."

◊◊ AH, BUT THEN YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE BEGUN YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH A SPECTACULAR DUEL. ◊◊

"We would have begun more sensibly," said Jill. "Also later. You have been an excellent liaison."

"A what now?" said Jocasta.

"Go-between," said Jill.

"Now you're the one setting up for innuendo," said Jocasta. "Ah, but I will not pursue it, for that one is much too easy. Now, Sparrow, as I said -- Jill and I have been alike in soul for longer years that we realized, hard as it was for us to see."

“If you want to frame it that way,” said Jill. “For my part, I would say you were always one of two people keeping my heart intact.”

“Didn’t even realize I was doing it,” said Jocasta. “Yes, I suppose that goes a bit deeper than sharing interests, doesn’t it? And you did the same for me, and whether or not you realized that...we were keeping each other at the dueling club without intending to. The only place besides Sparrow's company where we could meet, and thus find peace, though it looked like war -- the dueling stage allowed us to meet, to learn from each other, even at times to collaborate, without ever having to venture speaking to each other. Each of us was -- I mean, I know on my part that every time I thought of quitting I was terrified of not seeing you again."

"Likewise," said Jill. "I'm sorry I skipped out on the Dueling Club so many times last September."

"Call it my fault for being a bitch," said Jocasta.

"You didn't know."

"Oh yes I did! I've been wondering for the past three years why you two never made your relationship official -- "

"Because we didn't start it until October of last year? Because you pushed the big red lever at the worst possible moment?"

"Right, right. I thought I was making fun of an established relationship instead of a developing one because I'd barely ever spoken to you. It appears that I am an idiot despite my talent."

"You learned," said Jill. "And you have me now."

"I do indeed." Jill sighed. "Ah, to lie in your arms. I wonder how many dream of it? And then a little bird told me I had the chance, and my wildest dream came true. And yet...if the matter had been left there...I would still have been less than content."

◊◊ YOU GOT TO DATE YOUR FAVORITE DUELING OPPONENT. WAS THAT NOT ENOUGH? ◊◊

Jocasta huffed. “It was enough! I was satisfied! Yet not satisfied. Not certain. Not one hundred percent. I could fall asleep in Jill’s arms and feel safe for a time but...I still had awful thoughts in my mind, shameful doubts. She made me feel safe from those who would do me harm, and yet...I was worried that I might hurt her. And that upon such a mistake, she would decide I was too much to handle, and distance herself from me."

"Despite how much I need you," said Jill.

"Precisely. I was discounting your fortitude. And yet -- here is the important part, Sparrow. Think about what it means, that I could have reason to believe I would pose a danger to Jillian Patil, of all people."

◊◊ DANGER? ◊◊

"As in, both physically and mentally."

◊◊ AH. THEN YOU WOULD HAVE REASON TO BE TERRIFIED OF YOURSELF. ◊◊

"Precisely. I was worried that I was putting Jill in a dangerous position by getting so close. There were times when I felt like I did not at all deserve to be near her, any closer than the length of a dueling stage. That if I were truly dangerous, then I did not deserve to be in her presence at all."

◊◊ DESERVE? OH, MY DEAR. WHO WOULD I BE, WHO WOULD JILL BE, IF EITHER OF US SPOKE OF YOU AS DESERVING OR UNDESERVING? WHO WOULD WE BE IF WE THOUGHT WE HAD THE RIGHT TO DECIDE THAT? ◊◊

Jocasta said nothing, but glanced at Jill.

“Someone you must never meet,” said Jill. “And if we were to act like him, then we would most certainly not deserve Jocasta.”

“Yes. That figure. Well.” Jocasta shivered.

“Pray continue, my dear.”

“That is just the thing,” said Jocasta. “Before my mortal peril, I worried about continuing on the course I had found. I worried about being able to tell Jill everything, and about what might happen when I did. But then Jill dragged my shiny green arse away from certain doom...and then -- Jill, do you mind if I tell Sparrow what we talked about in the Hospital Wing?"

"We spoke of many things I would not reveal," said Jill. "Your troubles and mine alike. But as for the main thing, I will say it as I said it before. No matter what horrors lurk in your past, no matter what you fear of yourself, I will always be there for you."

"As I will be there for you," said Jocasta. "And that was the final piece that fell into place, Sparrow. Why I cling to Jill now. She does not flinch, even when she knows all of me."

"And Sparrow will always be here for both of us," said Jill.

◊◊ HOW COULD I POSSIBLY RESIST? ◊◊

"Isn't that just what you do?" said Jocasta. "You stand sturdy against all. No matter what comes." She kissed Sparrow on the forehead. "Perhaps I should think that, if I were to tell you the extent of my troubles, you would not flinch either. And yet -- who would I be, if I were to put you in such a position? What if your heart breaks, when you know what I went through?"

◊◊ TRUTH HURTS. BUT I WILL REMAIN AT YOUR SIDE. I SAY TO YOU AS I SAID TO JILL. WE WILL WORK THROUGH THIS TOGETHER. WHENEVER YOU ARE READY. ◊◊

"When we are ready," said Jill.

"That could take a while," said Jocasta.

◊◊ I CAN WAIT. AND WHATEVER FIRE LEAPS FROM YOUR EYES, I CAN SURVIVE IT. ◊◊

Jill and Jocasta exchanged worried glances.

"That might not be true," said Jill.

◊◊ BUT JOCSTA CAN SURVIVE? ◊◊

"I know how to run," said Jocasta. "I know how to dodge. But you? You stand sturdy. Solid as a stone wall. You will not yield for anything. So if there is something that can overwhelm you, after all, then by the time you run it would be too late."

◊◊ WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE THAT DANGEROUS? ◊◊

"Me," said Jill. "And many other people. I will tell you this much. Firstly, the details of Jocasta's past, as she has described them to me, are the sort of matters that one would keep hidden even from a true love, for fear of breaking their heart. That is one way the truth could hurt you. Secondly -- when Jocasta described the matter to me, I ran to the deeper tunnels below the dungeons. And there are sections of those tunnels that are now igneous rock. Some of it is still cooling. Do you understand what I mean?"

◊◊ JILL, WHAT THE HELL. ◊◊

"That's exactly what I said."

"There are some things you must run from," said Jocasta. "Even you, Sparrow."

◊◊ WHAT IF I CAN'T? WHAT IF THERE ARE PEOPLE IN THE WAY WHO CAN'T ESCAPE? I WOULD GLADLY GIVE MY LIFE TO BUY THEM TIME. ◊◊

"That is what I fear," said Jill. "That the very reason I love you is the reason I would lose you. How awful it would be, were it my fault!"

Sparrow hugged Jill about the middle. ◊◊ DON'T BE SO SCARED. I KNOW YOU AND YOU KNOW YOU. YOU KNOW HOW TO CONTAIN YOURSELF WHEN YOU MUST. ESPECIALLY WHEN I'M HERE. I BET YOU MELTED THOSE WALLS BECAUSE I WASN'T THERE. ◊◊

"You might be right," said Jill, as she embraced Sparrow in turn.

"Well then," said Jocasta." We surely must work through this after all. So, Sparrow, I will tell you the details of my past someday soon. I promise you that. But not now. Not today."

“Today is for fun,” said Jill. “Or it was. Before we got all dramatic.”

◊◊ I’D SAY YOU HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO BE DRAMATIC. BUT AH, SUCH THINGS WEIGH HEAVY ON THE HEART, DO THEY NOT? IF WE WOULD LIVE, WE MUST BE LIGHT, WHEN WE CAN. ◊◊

“Would you prefer I kiss you more lightly?” said Jocasta.

◊◊ CERTAINLY NOT. ◊◊

“Ah ha. Well then. I’ll just – oh, dash it all, I think we have a visitor.”

For the door was creaking open.

There in the doorway stood three figures, shadowy silhouettes against the dimness of the hall. One tall, one medium, one short.

Sparrow was about ready to grab her wand and cast a shield spell, but then the tallest spoke in a familiar voice. The voice of Percival Bulstrode. “Hello? Is someone in here?”

◊◊ WHAT DO YOU THINK, FRIENDS, SHOULD WE GREET HIM? ◊◊

•NO, LET HIM PASS.•

Lumos!” said Percival. His wand lit up the three girls. “Goodness heavens,” said Percival, “it’s Jocasta Carrow, cheating on her one true love with the scurrilous Sparrow Jones! Scoundrel! Wastrel! Oh hi, Jill.”

“Looks like fun,” said a younger boy next to Percival, a first-year Slytherin by the name of Maledictus Bulstrode. “Can I get in on that?”

“First of all you’re too young,” said Percival, “secondly – ”

Two sets of eyes stared at him, one glowing red, the other glowing green.

“I think that means no,” said the boy to the other side of Percival. “Hard luck, Mally my lad.”

The glow faded.

“Sorry about that,” said Jill. “You really don’t want to get involved in what we’ve got going right now.”

“But Sparrow does?” said Maledictus.

“She can survive better than you,” said Jocasta.

“What in the hell do you – ”

“Apologies for the intrusion,” said Percival. “Sparrow, I did wish to speak to you regarding certain matters, but first let me introduce my brother Maledictus – ” he gestured to Maledictus, who waved – “and to my brother Bertrand – ”

“We have met,” said Bertrand. “Bit of a bold move there at the Yule Ball, but I suppose that giant Gryffindor girl set some precedent. You’re much easier to dance with than her.”

Percival. The fellow Sparrow had rejected and slandered. Whatever thoughts she had before he arrived, they were crowded out by the memory of that moment. She rose from where she lay, and stood before the boys. She nodded to Bertrand, then bowed before Percival.

◊◊ MY APOLOGIES AS WELL, MY DEAR PERCIVAL. ◊◊

Percival looked around. “Who speaks?”

◊◊ IT’S ME. IT’S THE MADGIRL. IT’S SPARROW. I STILL DON’T KNOW EXACTLY HOW I’M DOING THIS BUT…THAT DAY, IN THE HALL, I DID NOT TRUST YOU. IN SOME WAYS I STILL DON’T, NOR SHOULD I BE TRUSTING MANY PEOPLE RIGHT NOW. IF I LET TOO MANY PEOPLE INTO MY LIFE, THEY MIGHT GET HURT. BUT…I WASN’T THINKING OF YOUR SAFETY, THEN. OR YOUR REPUTATION. I WAS JUST SCARED OF YOUR HOUSE. OF ALL THINGS, YOUR HOUSE. AND YET HERE I AM SNOGGING JOCASTA CARROW. WHAT RANK HYPOCRISY, ON MY PART! AND WORSE PERFIDY, FOR ME TO BELIEVE IN SHARP DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN HOUSES AT ALL! ◊◊

“Are you hearing any of this?” said Percival. “Is anyone else hearing this?”

“Nope,” said Bertrand.

“Nothing at all,” said Maledictus.

My ears must be blocked,” said Jocasta.

“It’s between you two,” said Jill. “Have at it.”

◊◊ IS THERE ANY WAY I CAN ATONE FOR MY TRANSGRESSION? ◊◊

“You could let me help you with this whole Statute of Secrecy business. My offer stands.”

◊◊ I FEAR THAT POSSIBILITY. IF IT MEANS PEOPLE ARE TAKING ME SERIOUSLY AFTER ALL. SOMEONE MIGHT DECIDE I AM A THREAT, AND ACT ACCORDINGLY. I WOULD PREFER TO REMAIN A DISREGARDED MADGIRL FOR THE TIME BEING, IF MAKING A CLEAR MOVE WOULD PUT ANYONE HERE IN DANGER. ◊◊

“You might have done that already,” said Percival. “Considering how loud you’ve been about the business, I would say that retreating and hiding behind a reputation right now is just ceding the initiative. But we can discuss that matter later. I didn’t say how I wanted to help you.”

◊◊ THAT IS FAIR ENOUGH. AND I AM SORRY FOR PUTTING YOU IN DANGER FROM THE RIGHTEOUS WRATH OF MY PEERS, BY PRETENDING YOU HAD CHEATED ON YOUR GIRLFRIEND. ◊◊

“Oh!” said Percival, eyes widening. “That’s, um – ” He looked away for a moment. “No trouble. Ask Wilhelmina Burke about that matter.”

“Can we get going?” said Bertrand. “You’re the one who wanted us to get up this early, so let’s not waste any time before I fall back asleep.”

“Now there’s a question,” said Jocasta. “What on earth are you doing here at this hour?”

“Getting the grand tour,” said a familiar voice, and Professor Warbeck appeared behind Percival. “Well, perhaps not the grandest tour. That would require a map, and extra paper for when we run off the map. But they did ask me to take them as far as we dared go, and I know how to open that particular wall. Would you be willing to accompany us, before breakfast? Safety in numbers down here.”

Jill looked disturbed. “Safety against what?”

“Hush,” said Warbeck. “Listen.”

All the children fell silent. For a while, there was no sound, but the plink of water dripping somewhere nearby. Then came a low whisper, as if from everywhere, and nowhere.______WHO INTRUDES, WHO INTRUDES. HM HM HM. WELL, COME THEN. THESE COLD BONES HAVE BEEN…LONGING FOR COMPANY._______

“I vote no,” said Jocasta.

“That sounds precisely like the voice that called me,” said Jill. "I must know what it desires."

Sparrow shook her head.

“My dear,” said Jocasta, as she took Jill by the arm, “Do not leave us here in the dark! Oh, we shall be attacked by vampires and nightmares!” She took Jill by the arm.

"Consider it this way," said Jill. "This is a chance for you to learn how to let go of me sometimes, as Sparrow has had to learn how to let go of her wand. Will you take that chance?"

"As long as you are warning me ahead of time," said Jocasta.

"Very well," said Jill. "Come on, then, men, let us be off!” And the Bulstrode boys were off with Jill and Professor Warbeck before Sparrow could make any further objections.

Jocasta linked her arm with Sparrow’s and said, “Of course we are following, yes?”

◊◊ DIDN’T YOU JUST VOTE NO? ◊◊

“Ahem. Of course we are sticking close by our large scary girlfriend, yes?

◊◊ WE OUGHT TO BE PRETENDING THAT WE DIDN'T SNEAK OUT OF OUR DORMS AT FIVE IN THE MORNING. ◊◊

Jocasta pouted at Sparrow and put on her best puppy-dog-eyed face.

◊◊ YOU SAID WE WERE IN A PRECARIOUS POSITION. ◊◊

“But Sparoooooow…”

◊◊ YOU CAN SEE YOUR GIRLFRIEND LATER. BESIDES, YOU’VE GOT A SPARE RIGHT HERE. ◊◊

“I want two.

◊◊ AREN’T YOU GREEDY. ◊◊

“I suppose I could say the same for you! Oh, very well. You probably need to be able to explain Jill’s absence to your own prefect anyway.”

The two girls rose, and exited the dim cell, walking as swiftly and silently as they could in the direction of the upward stairs, hoping nobody else would wander down here and ask them what they were doing.

That was until Jocasta stopped short, a look of horror on her face.

◊◊ WHAT IS IT? ◊◊

“You don’t hear it? Come on.” She grabbed Sparrow by the hand and fairly dragged her away from the dungeon’s exit, back towards the cell, ignoring Sparrow’s protests.

CEASE! LISTEN!

Listen to what?

But then she heard it – not in the distance with her ears, but faintly in her mind. Two things. The same low voice as before, and surrounding it, Jill’s screams.

In an instant the two girls dashed towards the stairway into the deeper dungeons, wands at the ready, fears of the worst driving them into a frantic sprint.

And yet, upon reaching the bottom of the stairwell they found Jill there – whole of limb as she had been before entering. Her only sign of physical damage was her hair, singed at the ends. Even her school robes were not marred.

Beside her were the three Bulstrode brothers, looking quite a bit more singed, and Professor Warbeck, looking equally injured, and not a little embarrassed.

“Interesting,” said Jocasta, in a low tone Sparrow had never heard from her before. “It almost looks as though you all picked a fight with Jillian Patil and lost. I am tempted to finish the job.” She raised her wand. Her eyes began to glow green.

Four faces looked horrified as their owners began to back away. Only one remained passive.

Four faces relaxed slightly as a glowing translucent yellow wall sprang up between Jill and Jocasta. One face still remained passive.

Jocasta’s face turned from cold fury to exasperation.

•LET ME THROUGH, SPARROW. THERE ARE SOME LADS HERE THAT DESERVE RECOMPENSE.•

In Sparrow’s head, Jocasta’s words echoed oddly, each word sounding as if were spoken by two people, one of whom sounded furious, the other of whom sounded terrified.

◊◊ UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES WHATSOEVER WILL I LET YOU HARM ONE OF MY FELLOW STUDENTS. ◊◊

OH, EVEN IF THEY’VE HARMED ONE OF YOUR FAVORITES?

◊◊ I AM ASSUMING THERE IS A PROPER EXPLANATION TO BE HAD. ◊◊

GODDAMIT, IF YOU DON’T DROP THIS SHIELD I VERY WELL MAY BREAK IT.

††††† JOCASTA! FOR GOD’S SAKE, GIRL, HOLD YOUR FIRE! THIS ISN’T THEIR FAULT! †††††

Jocasta lowered her wand.

EXPLAIN.

“I picked a fight with the walls,” said Jill. “These people got caught up in it. We were having a good time before the place decided to get nasty.”

I SEE. THEN PERHAPS I SHOULD BE NASTY TO THIS PLACE IN RETURN.

††††† LEAVE BE.†††††

I CAN’T EVEN AVENGE YOU?•

††††† I WOULD NOT HAVE YOU SUPPORT MY OWN IMPULSES, EVEN IN THIS CASE. WHAT DO YOU THINK THAT WOULD DO TO SPARROW? †††††

Jocasta let out a long breath. Her eyes stopped glowing. ALRIGHT. SPARROW, PLEASE LOWER THE BARRIER.•

◊◊ I’M STILL WAITING FOR AN EXPLANATION HERE. ◊◊

AND I’M SEEING THREE BOYS WHO CLEARLY HAVE SECOND-DEGREE BURN MARKS ON THEIR SKIN SO IF YOU WOULD PLEASE LOWER THE BARRIER NOW? HERE.• Jocasta slapped her wand into Sparrow’s hand.•CALL THAT A HOSTAGE OR A TOKEN OF TRUST. I’M LAYING DOWN MY ARMS HERE, JUST PLEASE LET ME THROUGH.

Sparrow had half a mind to ask what Jocasta was going to do without a wand, but she decided to let it go. The barrier vanished.

Through this entire conversation, the Bulstrode boys, along with Professor Warbeck, had gone from relaxation to confusion. It must have appeared to them as though the three girls were just standing there, gesturing at each other for no reason, as if they were either into theater, or were mad. Either way, when the barrier vanished, Percival and Bertrand ran to hide behind pillars, leaving Maledictus there alone.

Strange, that he should remain there while Jocasta ran towards him. Perhaps whatever he had seen was worse.

Jocasta took his hand without asking. He shook his head and appeared to realize where he was. He looked as though he were desperate to pull away. Yet, as Jocasta held her gaze fixed upon his hand, and as she muttered words under her breath, the burns upon it slowly faded. Maledictus finally relaxed.

“Goodness gracious,” said Percival, as he cautiously emerged from behind a pillar. “If my eyes do not deceive me, that’s wandless magic. I thought that sort of thing was wild and untamable. The property of the savage depths of the American wastes. And yet Miss Carrow here – ”

“Practice,” said Jocasta. “Years of it. And this is the best I can do so far, so don’t go singing my praises. It’s not like I can set broken bones or any big stuff without a wand. Also don’t let Cormac McKinnon hear you calling the Americas savage, he’s got family from there.” She turned to Bertrand. “Lad, you look like you’ve got some burns as well. Come here.”

“I’m fine, miss, really – ”

“For pity’s sake,” said one of the pillars, as it resolved into the form of Professor Warbeck, “don’t allow yourself to ignore an injury, master Bulstrode.”

“But she can do wandless magic! She’s not disarmed after all!

Jocasta huffed. “And if I was going to burn you to ashes, don’t you think I would have done it to Maledictus by now, hmmmmm?”

Well maybe you were poisoning him – ”

“Come on,” said Percival, and he dragged Bertrand away, Maledictus eagerly following. “No sense casting suspicion if it means you’re ignoring an injury.” He turned back for a moment, and said, “We’re off to the Hospital Wing, Jocasta. Don’t worry, the boys will be fine.”

Jocasta nodded once.

The boys ascended the stairs and were soon out of sight.

Professor Warbeck sighed. “This all was…quite unfortunate. I am sorry, Miss Patil. I should not have led you into this place.”

“I blame myself,” said Jill. “For getting angry. I think I was the one to provoke the walls, and then…well, it all hardly bears repeating. I was the target, that’s the important thing. I think you would have had a fine time if not for me.”

“Would we?” said the Professor. “I don’t know. Maybe what we saw was…I mean, you’re the fireball witch, correct? So if we saw flames, they were because of you, but if I went down here alone, perhaps I would see, I don’t know, terribly-done algebraic theorems. Or if it was Percival Bulstrode, maybe it would be his father scolding him for being irresponsible. I don’t know.”

“Are you saying this place is full of boggarts?”

“Didn’t you hear me trying the riddikulus spell? It didn’t work at all. Oh, who knows! I shall have to have a further look at this place when I can bring professor Budge along. Or maybe the Headmistress. I think the walls would not dare to try any nonsense with her. But as for what we saw…I am not exactly sure what I was seeing in those flames. Something like a lion? And a house?”

“I’m sorry,” said Jill. “I could explain what those images meant, but that is a matter for private conversations.” She shuddered. “Preferably in a sunlit room.”

◊◊ JILL, WHAT ON EARTH HAPPENED TO YOU? ARE YOU OKAY? ◊◊

††††† I AM SORRY, MY FRIEND. THIS IS NOT EVEN A MATTER FOR YOUR EARS. YOU SEE NOW, WHAT WE MEANT? ABOUT KEEPING DOORS CLOSED? WHATEVER I MET DOWN HERE TRIED TO FORCE MINE OPEN. YOU CAN IMAGINE THAT I WOULD HAVE NO WISH TO SPEAK OF THE MATTER FURTHER, FOR THE TIME BEING. †††††

◊◊ THEN I WILL NOT INQUIRE FURTHER. I WILL WAIT UNTIL YOU ARE READY TO TELL ME. ◊◊

††††† I HOPE THAT SOMEDAY I WILL BE. †††††

That afternoon, after the day’s classes were over, the children met Professor Longbottom in his office and gave their week’s report. Violet and Cormac, for their parts, had been practicing the Growth Charm, and had already managed to reliably increase the size of a quill by fifty percent without having it disintegrate, but had become thoroughly distracted by the details of the Goblin Wars. Professor Longbottom was faintly amused to think that anyone would be.

Miranda had been quite distracted by her own experiments, but had managed to throw together a Calming Draught that morning. Longbottom had been meaning to ask why she had rushed into the greenhouses and out without saying a word.

Sparrow had been attempting to cast the Locomotion Charm silently since yesterday, and, having got the basics, had attempted to move on to the Vanishing spell, with the result that her favorite pair of socks was still missing. This particular news caused Longbottom to wonder if Sparrow’s reputation for poor wandwork was simply a matter of her getting complacent with a single subject area over three years, because a Sixth-year student hearing Sparrow speak in such a casual manner of silently casting a tricky spell would wonder if she was boasting.

In response, Sparrow jerked her thumb at Jill, who retorted that she couldn’t possibly be more than a catalyst.

And as for Jill and Jocasta, they remained thoroughly distracted by each other, enough so that Jocasta would have had little to show if not for Miranda teaching her about the Fanged Geranium, and Jill’s primary breakthrough was in learning silent spellcasting alongside Sparrow. Longbottom reminded the two that, while Wizards in love could prove mighty when they fought side-by-side, both of them had to learn proper wandwork first.

So their directive for the week was for each child to narrow their focus to their areas of expertise, for, while there were many weeks left to study, it did not do to waste any of them.

Sparrow was not sure if she ought to feel sheepish, but evidently Jill and Jocasta did, because they were first out of the room. It was tempting to run after them, though these days a few words of reassurance Sent their way could travel much faster. And Sparrow wished to speak with Professor Longbottom in private, anyway.

So, after all her friends had gone, Sparrow remained sitting in her chair.

“Yes?” said Professor Longbottom. “What is it, Miss Jones?”

◊◊I WORRY. ◊◊

“Don’t we all, these days. But I assume you have a specific worry? Something I could help you with?”

◊◊I DON’T KNOW. JILL AND JOCASTA HAVE PAIN IN THEIR PAST THAT THEY CANNOT REVEAL TO ME. I CAN BE AS PATIENT AS I WILL, AND YET…I WONDER WHAT I CAN DO TO HELP THEM, WITHOUT A FULL UNDERSTANDING OF THEIR GRIEFS. ◊◊

“Yet another burden you would shoulder?”

◊◊THEY TAKE SUCH BURDEN UPON THEMSELVES ALREADY. I WOULD AT LEAST LIGHTEN THEIR LOAD. ◊◊

“Well then…” the Professor drummed his fingers on the table. “I would say that they ought to be willing to speak with me, until such time as the school can hire a professional therapist. Which is proving difficult. I have made my enquires to Saint Mungo's and received no response. McGonagall said she would look for one when she is in London, but I can hardly ask her to do more than she is doing."

◊◊ SHE TOLD ME THE WIZARDING WORLD HAD NONE. AND YET IF THE SCHOOL HIRED A MUGGLE THERAPIST -- HOW WOULD THAT EVEN WORK? ◊◊

"It wouldn't," said the Professor, and sighed. "There's your Statute of Secrecy for you. Perhaps your girlfriends will need to speak with me, then. At the very least I could help them understand how to keep living after the burden of fear is passed."

◊◊ BUT...WHAT IF EITHER OF THEM EXPLODES LIKE YOU WERE WORRYING ABOUT? COULD YOU SURVIVE? ◊◊

"Well, I could. Perhaps my office would not. But I think that I can provide an environment that feels safe enough for them that they would not explode."

◊◊ I CAN TRY TO DO THE SAME. ◊◊

"I should think that you could, in your own way. And yet...as I said, you take so much upon your shoulders. Recall the time that you held up those falling rocks -- "

◊◊ YES YES I REMEMBER. I WAS THERE, AFTER ALL. ◊◊

"And you broke under that weight."

◊◊ MY DEAREST FRIENDS ARE A BURDEN? IS THAT WHAT YOU MEAN? ◊◊

"No, no, what I mean is -- you would gladly take on more than you could bear. And for the ones you love, you would not even hesitate. You would go far beyond what anyone thought was the limit of your responsibilities, as you have sought to do for the world itself. Do not feel that you have to take such responsibility, Sparrow. Not to that level. Goodness knows my dear Hannah would have had quite the trouble helping me, in the years just after the war, if our surviving friends had not been there to call upon. Sometimes doing what you can for people means letting other people help. Do you understand?"

◊◊ I THINK SO. I DO HAVE OTHER FRIENDS, AFTER ALL. ◊◊

"And you have adults with greater experience to draw upon, some of whom enjoy speaking with you."

◊◊ AND SOME WHO DO NOT, IF I AM CORRECT ABOUT PROFESSOR CLEARWATER. ◊◊

"Ah, well. Perhaps Cordelia is just bad at expressing her affection in any other way than trying to help you, so she works very hard and then beats herself up when she fails. Gee, I think I know someone like that. Have you learned how to delegate when it comes to aiding your fellow students?"

◊◊ OH, OF COURSE. ◊◊

"Then you can see how you might have to do the same for two in particular. And I would urge you to consider calling on whoever you can, whoever might be available, for the situations you can't handle. You did precisely that, when Jocasta was in grave peril. Perhaps someone a little more self-centered might have tried to do everything themselves instead of call upon the school ghosts. As it is...you may wind up having to call upon many people, for none of us are always available as a professional therapist might be."

◊◊ BUT WHAT CAN I DO? HOW CAN I BE A REASSURING PRESENCE TO THE PEOPLE I LOVE, IN THE MOMENTS WHEN HELP IS NOT THERE? WHAT CAN I SAY TO SOMEONE I FIND CRYING IN THE NIGHT? ◊◊

"Say? Well now. Perhaps nothing. But what you can do -- you can offer a shoulder to cry on. You can listen to them speak, when they are ready to speak. You can listen actively, without judgment or scorn. In such moments, one does not need a savior offering to fix everything, as much as they need the strength to go on. And, on an active basis...try to make it clear, among your friends, that keeping each other safe and whole is more important than casting stern judgment. I survived because my friends stood by my side, all personal griefs aside. I would say the same will be true for each of the people you love. Not merely because each of you is talented on your own, but because you stand by each other, because you love each other."

◊◊ THAT CERTAINLY MAKES SENSE TO MY USUAL WAY OF THINKING. BUT IT SOUNDS ALL A BIT HIGH-HANDED WHEN IT COMES TO COMFORTING SOMEONE IN THE MOMENT. ◊◊

"Ah. Yes." Professor Longbottom shook his head as if to clear out stray thoughts. "Sorry. Easy for me to get carried away by old ways of thinking. In the moment, I would say, the key is to lay yourself aside for the moment. Remember -- if you love someone, you help them survive, no questions asked, no demands made, save those that are towards keeping them alive. You help them and never mind why. Because love is a gift, not a demand. I would ask if you understand. But considering how much you used to throw your shield around, at a moment's notice, to protect people you know nothing of -- I would say you understand that part well enough. The hard part for you will be coming down from your high horse. Do you think you can do that?"

◊◊ I WILL TRY. ◊◊

"Then I think you will do well for the people you love. Now, I have my papers to attend to. Was there anything else you wished to ask?"

Sparrow shook her head, and left the office without another word.

...

 

That evening, the dueling club had an unexpected surprise, for Jocasta Carrow was back to give a demonstration – with Sparrow Jones, of all people. Whether it was a duel or a game, the students were undecided, for Sparrow was levitating heavy blocks, and then tossing them at Jocasta with the Locomotion Charm. In return, Jocasta used these blocks to practice her Vanishing Spell.

“Seems a bit boring,” said Belladonna Yamakeg, as she stepped back from the stage.

“I will admit it is less flashy,” said Jocasta.

At first the effort was merely amusing for being halting. Neither girl had completely perfected control of their chosen spell. There were times when Sparrow could not move the block forward at all, or she would move it too fast, and there were times when a block would refuse to vanish, and Jocasta had to dodge, or, as it happened, use a locomotion spell of her own to shove the block out of the way.

“Seems a bit reckless,” said Belladonna.

“Quite,” said Jill beside her. “But Jocasta has always been reckless, and only once come near to great harm for it. She will be fine.”

“Sparrow’s almost got the hang of the locomotion spell,” said Violet. “I didn’t expect her to pick up on it that fast.”

“She’s bound and determined,” said Jill. “Like any of us, I suppose.”

The game of block-tossing went on another ten minutes, then Jocasta and Sparrow switched places. This time things were even more awkward, for Jocasta only managed a few times to make any block move, and when Sparrow had to vanish any block, she only managed one.

Sparrow was getting increasingly frustrated, her frustration matched by Jocasta at the other end of the stage, and the crowd was beginning to giggle. It was easy to give up in that moment, to bow to the crowd and thank them for coming, like a cat who licks itself after a clumsy fall.

But one voice through the whole crowd convinced them otherwise.

††††† TRY IT ONE MORE TIME. YOU CAN DO IT. BOTH OF YOU. †††††

At this, the faces of both girls brightened, and they went at it again. Suddenly blocks were flying towards Sparrow at high speed, and vanishing before they got there, for the most part, although any block that did make it through tended to hit a shield that was raised faster than blinking. Jocasta picked up speed. Sparrow found herself faltering again. Her shield was not lowered, now, and she vanished no more blocks.

“Don’t hide,” said Jocasta. “You’ve got to have more variety, girl.”

◊◊ SORRY ◊◊, said Sparrow. ◊◊ I THINK I'VE HAD ENOUGH. I THINK WE MANAGED TO GET THE HANG OF THINGS. ◊◊

Jocasta bowed, and stepped off the platform, Sparrow likewise. A couple other students, a third-year Slytherin named Duplicita Heaumont and a third-year Gryffindor named Regulus Smith, stepped up to the platform and tried to do what the first two girls had been doing. For Duplicita’s part she managed to get the locomotion charm working quickly; Regulus wound up with the more difficult spell at first, and out of ten blocks he only vanished one. Bit by bit the crowd dwindled.

Four students stayed to watch as long as seemed respectful. Then they departed the dueling club, heading for the library where Miranda and Cormac were studying.

“Have we figured out how to get the dew?” said Jill. “It’s not like there’s much grass around here.”

“Indeed not,” said Jocasta, “nor is there at the Carrow house. My father got his by sitting in a broom and scraping the underside of a bridge. Only way to guarantee the dew had never been touched. Do we have a bridge?”

“Just the one,” said Violet. “Bit dangerous. It’s supposed to shift on Sunday, if my calculations are correct. We’ll want to go gathering dew tomorrow evening.”

“I can do it,” said Jill.

“Let me have a little fun,” said Jocasta. “I like flying.”

“You’re terrible at it.”

I’m wonderful at it! Except on a broom. Although lately I suppose I’m terrible in general. Ah, here’s the library.”

Within, at a long table, there sat Cormac and Miranda, both of them with their heads buried in books. Miranda’s books were on herbology. Cormac’s books were all about wandlore again.

“Looks like someone has got off-track,” said Jocasta.

“What are you,” said Cormac, “a professor? I got the color-change spell working. Watch.” He waved his wand at the table and it became ebony. “Whoops, that’s the switching spell.”

I could hardly bear to keep him away from wandlore,” said Miranda. “What’s up?”

“Checking in,” said Jill. “Also, we need to talk about getting dew from the underside of a bridge at midnight. Can you fly?”

“I have tried,” said Miranda. “But, you know, no matter how hard I flap my arms – ”

“I mean on a broom.”

“Oh! I can do that. So can you, from what I’ve heard. Could you not simply waltz into the broom closet and get a broom, and do the job yourself?”

Jill shook her head.

“Foxtrot then?”

“Suspended from classes means I’m suspended from the Quidditch team. Couldn’t exactly tell the captain why, could I? So I don’t have a key to the closet anymore. The most I could do is lend you my broom but that’s a flat no because it’s MY broom. Mine. And I’ll be on it anyway, because I want to get this done fast. I’m just trying to figure out if you can help gather.”

“Hopefully I’m not the only one helping,” said Miranda. “Violet, what about – ”

“I’m out like a light at eleven these days.”

“Cormac – ”

“Ten.”

“Sparrow?”

◊◊ YOU NEED SOMEONE ON SOLID GROUND TO KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR SAFETY. ◊◊

“Damn.”

“Looks like it’s up to you,” said Jocasta. “Sorry, young bean.”

“Hardly,” said Miranda. “I have no broom of my own. So I would need access to the broom closet. If I recall correctly, the school still has one of the prototype double-seaters, of the sort that only moves when four hands are on the stick. But how to get in –”

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” said Jocasta. “The lock isn’t even magically warded.”

“Right,” said Jill, giving Jocasta a pointed look. “And you should know. Nearly cost Gryffindor the game, that one time. I shall never forgive you.”

“I hardly deserve forgiveness,” said Jocasta. “Steal a long-broom, then, is that it? Seems simple.”

◊◊ NO. ◊◊

“No what?” said Jocasta.

◊◊ WE’RE GOING TO ASK PERMISSION FROM THE HEADMISTRESS TO ACCESS THE CLOSET. I HAVE BEEN DISHONEST ENOUGH FOR A WHILE. ◊◊

“All this asking permission!” said Jocasta. “Instead of just going where we will. I guess that’s what I get for dating two Hufflepuffs.” She sat down at the table next to Cormac as the other students found extra chairs. “Wandlore,” she said. “What are you looking for in this book?”

“Anything about nonmagical cores,” said Cormac. “But, there’s nothing.”

“Of course there’s nothing,” said Jocasta. “You might as well put a wet noodle in a crossbow. Magic does have limits, my friend.”

“But what are they?” said Cormac. “I don’t think we’ve got even close to the edge yet.”

“Easy there,” said Miranda. “You’re jumping the gun by a few years, aren’t you?”

“So am I,” said Violet. “Found anything about Wizard Spaceships yet? No? Then we’ll have to make one. And Miranda, you wanted to cure lycanthropy, did you not?”

“I still do. Someday.”

“And I thought Sparrow was ambitious,” said Jocasta. “Alright, Mister Experimental Wandcrafter. Where are you going to get the wandwood to start practicing, hm?”

Cormac sank in his chair. “I don’t know. The ministry charges a high price for its supply. It’s not like there’s any other place to find wandwood besides the protected groves. Is there?”

“I don’t know,” said Jill. “If anyone knows it would be Mr. Ollivander, over in Hogsmeade. Maybe we can go there and ask him.”

“I’d like that,” said Cormac. He leaned over to Sparrow. “But we would have to ask permission, right?”

◊◊ AND NOT GO JAUNTING OFF LIKE WE OWN THIS PLACE. ◊◊

“You’re no fun,” said Jocasta.

◊◊ EXCUSE ME? IF I WEREN’T AROUND YOU’D STILL BE STUCK IN CLASS WRITING ESSAYS. ◊◊

“That’s a fair point,” said Jill, “Although I’ve never heard of anyone citing an indefinite suspension as a net positive. We ought to be studying the stuff we’re missing, besides the O.W.L. questions.”

“Already did,” said Cormac. “Honestly, we go way too slowly in our classes around here. I can’t believe we spent three weeks on the levitation charm.”

“Nerd.”

“Proud of it,” said Cormac. “I wonder why I didn’t go into Ravenclaw. Could have met Violet earlier. Well.” He thumped the book closed. “It’s late enough, and if we’re going to be able to speak to Ollivander tomorrow we need to catch McGonagall before she leaves tomorrow. And her office hours end in a few minutes. Come on.” He rose and left the library, not stopping to see if anyone was following. The remaining children scampered after him.

McGonagall’s response to both parts of the request was to glance up at Cormac, fix him with an unsettling stare, and nod once.

The children beetled out of the office before the Headmistress could glance at the rest of them.

Hogsmeade on the morrow, then, and bridge in the evening.