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Now begins Part 2 of this tale. Quite a bit different than what it might have been, if I posted in March. But, this website is allergic to fancy fonts, as I have discovered, and the first instance of my draft being deleted was enough of a blow that I had to put the whole thing aside for a month. At the end of which, in attempting to post Part 1 on this website, I discovered how threadbare the story was -- and so I threw myself into major revisions, in order to turn something skeletal into something substantial. So to speak, a phoenix rises from its own ashes.

I credit the existence of this website, and the advice of my friends herein, for the shape that this story has taken.

May it please you as it has done for me.

 

 

 

Only the foolish and the mad have any reason to keep a leaf under their tongue. Only the brave Wizard has any reason to do so for an entire month.

The very brave wizard indeed, and very skilled, because if you intend to keep such a thing secret, you can eat very little besides liquid, and suffer weakness and weight loss thereby – and Sparrow had no weight to lose.

And for a Wizard, who lives by talking to their wand, you can do very little talking without making yourself sound like an idiot. Sparrow felt that her reputation as an idiot was already set, but she didn’t want to add to it, nor take much risk of losing the leaf. Nor take much risk of speaking a spell poorly and having a wild yak land on her head.

Unfortunately she was a 14-year-old girl still learning magic, with years ahead of her before she would be taught how to cast wordless spells. Which meant that she had to speak them. Except for the fact that she couldn’t, because leaf. Which meant that, in every single class except for History of Magic, Care of Magical Creatures, and Potions, her academic standing threatened to plummet like a jinxed broom. The Professors were at a loss to understand why Sparrow refused to speak her spells. She could write answers on parchment, and hand them to someone else to read, but speaking was right out.

What on earth is the matter with you,” said Professor Budge, having kept Sparrow after class one day. “Do you have some manner of magical ailment?”

Sparrow shook her head, then, realizing that this left her somewhat exposed, nodded her head, then, realizing she might have to explain what the ailment was, shook her head again.

“For God’s sake,” said Professor Budge, “pick one. And think about learning to cast spells silently – yes, I know that’s for a few years ahead. But I know you can do it. It’s been a year since I’ve heard you actually say ‘Protego.’ If you can do that for your most perfected spell, you can do it for others. Here.” He rummaged in his desk and brought out a detached door lock, of the deadbolt variety. “Try using the unlocking spell on this. Just speak the word ‘alohamora’ clearly in your mind and concentrate.”

Sparrow thought to herself alohamora and waved her wand.

The bolt moved a little bit.

“Good,” said Budge. “You have potential. Keep practicing and don’t give up, alright? I’d hate to see my best defensive witch laid low by such circumstances.”

 

Later that evening in the library Sparrow attempted to confide in her more studious friends. Cormac and Violet were sitting at a table reading a book on wandlore together.

Violet was pointing to a particular passage. “Look here,” she said, “Ruxio says that wand cores have to be from magical creatures.”

“But Gregorovitch says they can be anything,” said Cormac. “It’s like…I mean, you know how muggle guns work, right?”

“They go bang.”

“Yeah but the whole point is that when they go bang, they shoot a thing, in a direction –”

“It’s a directed explosion with a bit of shrapnel specifically designed to penetrate something. Please, Cormac, you do not need to doubt my expertise in muggle studies.”

“I’m grumbling about the idea that it has to be a special area of study. Pfeh. Anyway the point is, they also have customs for firearm safety – ”

“Point the weapon at the ground, sky, or target, never rest your finger on the trigger, assume the gun is always loaded, store it in a locked container. I’m always a step ahead of you here, Cormac.”

“Step ahead of me in regurgitating facts, yes. But can you tell me why those rules exist?”

Violet frowned, and looked a bit sullen. “Um…something about the gun always being potentially dangerous, I guess.”

“Getting there.”

“Because…I mean it’s not dangerous if there’s no bullet, right?”

“Wrong! If there’s a bit of powder left and a solid object then it might as well be a bullet when the gun goes bang. You can shoot any little thing out of a gun the same way you can shoot any bigger thing out of a cannon. So what I’m thinking is, maybe it’s the same for wand wood. The wood is like a barrel and the core is like a bullet. So whatever you can fit in the barrel…”

“You need some kind of blasting powder,” mumbled Sparrow. “Otherwise the bullet would just sit there. Magic’s the blasting powder.”

Violet and Cormac looked up at Sparrow, glanced at the other students nearby, then put on exaggerated sneers. They closed their books loudly and stalked off, heads held a little too high. Violet brushed by Sparrow roughly.

It took Sparrow a second to realize that a note had been slipped into her pocket. Sixth girls dormitory room at midnight, it read.

Oh come on. Surely nobody minded the whole “take down the walls of the entire Wizarding World” thing anymore?

 

“You probably shouldn’t be talking too much,” said Violet.

In the sixth room of the girls dormitory, upon the thickly-piled carpet, sat Cormac and Violet. There was the light of a full moon through the mysterious windowpane. Which was odd, because from every single other window in the castle, through the scant gaps in the cloud cover, one could see that the moon had just begun to wane.

Cormac had entered the Common Room in a high dudgeon just the same as he had left the library. He had marched right up to his dorm room and slammed the door. He had then, near to midnight, stolen silently out of his dormitory room and into this one.

Violet, on her part, had not, as far as Sparrow could tell, ever entered the Hufflepuff common room that evening. So how she’d got into this dormitory room was an open question, and Violet didn’t bother to close it. Nor did Sparrow understand why Dormitory Room 6 had come back now.

Whatever the reason, when Sparrow entered the room, both of them had been sitting with their backs to the door, poring over what appeared to the same book as before. When Sparrow had closed the door, neither had given any sign of paying attention, until Sparrow cleared her throat pointedly, three different times. After the third time Violet had finally turned herself around, but Cormac was still fixed on his book.

Sparrow wondered if it was a good or bad thing that these two had each other for a study partner now.

Sparrow sat down upon the carpet. She took a bit of parchment from her pocket, and a ball point pen, and wrote, I was SLIGHTLY hurt by the whole high-dudgeon act before I realized what you were doing. You think we still need to be circumspect when it sounds like nobody gives a damn?

“Maybe you don’t,” said Violet. “Everyone lets you say all manner of nonsense because they still think you might be insane. But what if they see a smart person like moi associating with you?”

Sparrow pursed her lips.

“Exactly. They think that either I’ve gone mad, or you’re not mad at all, and then you might be in trouble because people think you’re a threat.”

“Hang on a moment,” said Cormac. “Jocasta and Jill are both associating with Sparrow quite a bit these days.”

Sparrow wiggled her eyebrows.

“That’s no trouble,” said Violet. “They think Jocasta is mad for abdicating the throne of the Prankster Queen, and Jill is mad because…well I mean, she’s angry a lot anyway, so there you go. Easy-peasy.”

Scribble scribble. I also talk to Miranda a fair amount. You don’t think the Ice Queen could lend me some unwanted credibility?

“She’s a reclusive genius, yes? She must also be mad.”

Do you actually know any of this or are you speculating?

“Some of it is from the rumors. Ah, but I’m keeping you up past your bedtime, aren’t I. What brought you to our table in the first place?”

Scribble scribble scribble. Studying past midnight is worth the time, I should think. But I have been having some trouble. Professor Budge suggested I learn how to cast spells silently – or else my grades will crash like a drunken dragon – got any tricks up your sleeve? Techniques hidden in old books?

“Hm,” said Violet. “Silent spell-casting. That’s some advanced stuff, isn’t it? A couple years ahead of us.” She shrugged. “But so is everything else we’re doing, I suppose. Let me think…there was something in the 1970 D.A.D.A. textbook about that. Apparently if you cast a spell silently, you have to get the wand movement perfect? Maybe a verbal spell makes up for lack of precision. I know you have the concentration and intention part set. Try the hand movements and see how it goes. How’s your leaf doing?”

Scribble scribble scribble scribble. Tastes awful, but no worse than polyjuice, I suppose. The real bugger is that it’s always on my mind, pressing against the bottom of my mouth, against the back of my tongue. So I’m always just a little tenser than I should be. A little more irritable. I can’t relax at all. It’s not doing wonders for my concentration. I should have got a smaller leaf. I can’t believe I haven’t choked on it in my sleep. Where’s Jocasta been, anyway? I thought she was going to help me but I haven’t seen –  

That was where Sparrow’s handwriting stopped abruptly, for in that moment she heard a curious voice, a tiny voice, saying,

HELP ME.•

Oddly familiar.

Scribble. Did either of you hear tha – and then Sparrow dropped her pen on the floor when she heard the voice again.

THE SPIDER'S GOING TO GET ME.

“Hear what?” said Cormac. “Sparrow, what’s going on?”

Her mouth full of the leaf, Sparrow just managed to say, “Jocasta. Trouble. C’mon.” She jumped up and ran to the door, not even waiting to see if her friends were following her.

There on the common room floor were milling a great number of people, voices raised in confusion and alarm, asking each other about the mysterious voice and why it had sounded familiar. Many of them, like Cormac, had no idea what people were talking about, but if there was trouble then might as well mill about and panic, right?

Sparrow shook her head. No sense wasting thought on annoyance now. There was the prefect, trying to calm everyone down by promising that he would go and seek the headmistress. It was working for most people. But what if that was too late? Good God, anything other than a mad sprint towards Jocasta could be too late.

Sparrow shook her head. No sense getting tangled in panic now.

“Sparrow,” said Violet, “are you okay?”

◊◊ NO! NO, VIOLET, I AM ABSOLUTELY NOT OKAY! THANK YOU VERY MUCH! ◊◊

“Excuse me?” said Violet. “What was – was that you?”

Wait, was that her voice? How was she doing that? Why did she sound like she was speaking in a vast cavern? Damn it, no time to speculate. Heads were turning her direction anyway, now that the Prefect had gone. Pfft. She’d been signing up for this job over the space of three or four years, hadn’t she? Shield Girl, the student body’s unofficial Sworn Protector, who had a level head in a crisis, yes? Who could take charge in the midst of panic, right?

But couldn’t communicate with anyone quickly using paper, right? Crap. She grabbed Violet by the shoulder, brought her close, and muttered, “Grey lady. Fetch. Rouse ghosts and portraits.”

She did the same for Cormac, muttering, “With me. C’mon. Library.” She took Cormac by the arm and dragged him out of the common room.

As they marched to the library, Cormac close at Sparrow’s heels, he made no word to Sparrow, but tried to wake up every portrait in passing. In some cases that actually worked. Soon enough the castle portraits were running to and fro, not knowing entirely why, until Cormac explained that Jocasta Carrow was in trouble, somewhere, somehow, did any of them have any memory of seeing her this evening? The answer was no.

Which meant that either the girl had snuck out after they were all asleep, or she’d been a fly the entire time. Great.

As they neared the library, Cormac finally got up the nerve to speak to Sparrow. “Why exactly are we heading to the library?”

She tapped her nose.

“Smell? Oh. Bit rude.”

◊◊ I DIDN'T FUCKING ASK YOU! ◊◊

“Very rude. How are you doing that?”

◊◊ HELL IF I KNOW. ◊◊

Here was the library. If the library doors were, in fact, locked at night, as once upon a time they had been, neither they nor Sparrow seemed to notice that fact, although perhaps the deadbolts did. Not very important right now.

“Sparrow, did you realize you’re glowing?”

She looked at her hand. No glow.

“Well you were. What the heck is going on here?”

Shrug. ◊◊ I MIGHT DIE TONIGHT, THAT'S ALL. ◊◊

Sparrow –

Ah, and here was the Tim the Librarian, awake in the night as ever. He looked a little confused about why Sparrow and Cormac were in the entry corridor of his library, at night, but Sparrow would not and did not give him time to speculate. She tapped her nose, nodded her head toward the door, and departed, not bothering to wait for him.

Both the Librarian and Cormac jogged to keep up.

“Really,” said Tim, “what exactly is going on here?”

“Jocasta’s in bad trouble,” said Cormac. “We don’t know where she is, I don’t know what kind of trouble, Sparrow won’t tell me anything specific, we’re running out of time. You’ve got a nose. Help?”

“Jocasta…Carrow, I assume? Ah yes. A subtle blend of human and insect, I know that scent well enough. Bit rude to ask that of me, I’ll tell you – ”

◊◊ SHUT UP AND SNIFF, YOU OLD DUST MOP! ◊◊

“Sparrow! Really!” Cormac shook his head. “Do you want to give us some gosh-darn hint so we can actually help you or do you just want to yell obscenities at us?”

Sparrow threw up her hands in frustration. She spun on her heels, faced Cormac, put her thumbs together and tried to wiggle her fingers in the approximate appearance of a crawling creature.

“Oh,” said Cormac. “Well, son of a gosh-darn bitch. Alright Tim, time to move.”

“What was – ”

“Spider.”

Tim took the lead without any more hesitation, leading the children up corridor and down staircase and up staircase, and all the children could do, in that moment, was pray that he was following Jocasta’s trail in the right direction.

Although Sparrow could at least try to do for Jocasta what she’d done to Violet, Cormac, and Tim by this point. Jocasta? Jocasta where are you? Bitch where the hell are you? But no matter how she tried to push those thoughts towards the girl, none of them had the curious echo of the real deal.

That is until, in her desperation, she sent a message that she hoped would reach the girl’s ghost, if nothing else. ◊◊ FOR GOD'S SAKE, JOCASTA, I LOVE YOU AND I DON'T WANT TO LOSE YOU. ◊◊

•HEY, THERE’S A FAMILIAR VOICE. LOVE YOU TOO.•

◊◊AND THERE’S A FAMILIAR VOICE IN RETURN. DO I SOUND LIKE I’M CRYING? BECAUSE I’M CRYING RIGHT NOW. WHERE IN THE HELL ARE YOU? ◊◊

•SOME GAP BETWEEN THE WALLS. IF I UN-TRANSFIGURE MYSELF HERE I’M DEAD. SO OF COURSE I HAD TO GET CAUGHT IN A SPIDER WEB. FRESH WEB. I DON’T KNOW IF THE SPIDER IS CLOSE BUT OH GOD THERE’S THE SPIDER.•

◊◊WHAT CORRIDOR? WHAT FLOOR? ◊◊

•FIFTH FLOOR NEAR THE TRANSFIGURATION CLASSROOM HURRY IT UP PLEASE. WAIT, WHAT IS – OH.•

◊◊ WHAT IS WHAT? JOCASTA? JOCASTA! JOCASTA! ◊◊

Fifth floor, opposite corner of the building on today’s schedule, miles away from here, and Jocasta wasn’t responding.

◊◊ SHIT ON A FUCKING SHINGLE! MOVE! BOTH OF YOU! ◊◊

Tim started running. Not fast enough. Nothing was fast enough. Some of the ghosts beside them were fast enough. Ha, one of them was even on a horse. Maybe one of them could reach the girl in time to wave her goodbye or something.

Why was one of them trotting towards her? A man with his head tucked into the cradle of one arm. What was his name, Sir Pod-something? Never mind, not like he could be in the way. Why was he chuckling?

◊◊ STOP LAUGHING AND GET OUT OF MY WAY YOU OLD WAR HORSE. ◊◊

Alright, so those words worked but he wasn’t registering them. Until a gaggle of grey letters appeared around his head, fuzzy and floating as if made of smoke. Alright, now he looked unhappy.

“Pardon me to have disturbed your heart any further this evening,” said the horseman, placing his head back on his shoulders with a harrumph, “but I wished to inform you that Ms. Carrow is currently at peace.”

◊◊ WHAT. ◊◊

“I mean, at peace in the arms of Jillian Weasley.” He chuckled. “Quite the heroic effort, I should say. Ah, but I assume you wish me to lead you to the scene. Come on, then.” He turned his horse around. “We all have a bit more time, now.”

Here, a staircase to the third floor. Sparrow rushed towards it. Then she turned around and gestured wildly to the stairs.

“Oh my!” said Sir Podmore. “Eager as anything, eh? I think I begin to understand your frantic behavior, now. Very well! Swift as you please, then.” He kicked his ghostly horse into a canter and led Sparrow on a lively chase, through one corridor and another, up staircase and down, leftways and rightways, slowly and slowly upward, as if fighting a castle that just would not let Sparrow find her beloved.

For that was what Jocasta was, was she not? After all?

Sparrow had admitted she’d caught feelings. She just didn’t expect to catch that many that fast. And here they were spilling outward, tinging every curse Sparrow sent the castle as they made their twisting way forward, every exhortation, and after a while, every silent plea –

Perhaps the castle had finally relented, because here at last was the fifth-floor corridor, where lay a scene Sparrow took a few seconds to comprehend, in her sudden exhaustion.

On twelve ghostly horses sat twelve ghostly horsemen, some carrying their heads, some with their heads on their shoulders. In the darkness of the rainy night, only they lit the corridor. They were gazing down at three figures, three shapes she was familiar with – Miranda in her nightgown, slumped against a wall; Jill in her pajamas, slumped forward; and Jocasta, body whole and breathing, in her school robes as if she’d been out all evening, with her head and shoulders in Jill’s lap, fast asleep.

The light did not travel much farther than those three. So Sparrow did not notice, at first, the woman coming to stand outside their weak illumination, until a tell-tale knee-length sleeve passed close to one of the horsemen, and Sparrow met a figure she thought she had abandoned.

Mrs. Clearwater, Professor Clearwater, Cordelia to her friends, though Sparrow did not feel she deserved to be among them. The Professor of Divination at Hogwarts, a woman whose sole concessions to eccentricity were her trademark long sleeves and floor-length jet-black hair, otherwise a woman of enough intellectual rigor that Sparrow had been thankful her subject was elective after Third Year. Sparrow had not successfully completed an act of divination within that woman’s class, not once in three years.

As for Jill, the girl had only half of her first year to experience the same frustration before she had gone straight to the Headmistress to request a transfer to Arithmency, a request made and granted for no reason Sparrow could fathom. So on this evening, when Jill caught sight of that tell-tale sleeve, and seen the woman’s inscrutable face looking down upon her, her eyes flashed red.

The sight of this woman distracted both girls from the cat in their midst.

And suddenly there was Minverva McGonagall, towering over all three students, as only she could. It did not matter how tall a student was. When McGonagall towered over you, you knew it. In this case, she could do it even in her nightgown, without her tall hat.

Which was why Sparrow found it a surprise when she elected to sit down.

“What happened,” said McGonagall, in a voice as firm as ever, yet not nearly as stern as her usual.

“Some great recklessness on the part of my friends,” said Miranda.

“Just the facts, please. Professor Clearwater here has informed me that a student was in grave peril from a spider in a fifth-floor corridor, but she had no further information to offer. I had to assume she was speaking of Jocasta Carrow. What exactly happened here?”

“Well. Jill heard Jocasta’s silent plea and I didn’t, so she’s up and out of the Gryffindor common room like a shot and I’m just hanging on. But Jill says – ”

“I could get the message,” said Jill, “but I couldn’t send anything back yet. Lucky for us there were all these ghosts running around the place. Figured maybe they might have seen something, right? And then they’re talking about all these grey letters floating around their heads…so someone rounded up the Headless Hunt to look for the source of the letters. Then we run smack into Professor Clearwater here, so I’m all discombobulated, so maybe that had something to do with how I managed to start sending messages back to Jocasta, so we could figure out she was on the fifth floor and what corridor – ”

“But not where in the corridor,” said Miranda. “Nor how to get to the fifth floor at night. I swear the staircases and hallways move around more at night than by day.”

“You are correct,” said Professor Clearwater. “An effective defense mechanism for this school, if annoying. Pity you were caught on the wrong side of that tonight.”

“Yes,” said Miranda. “Well. The Headless Hunt can see where the hell the grey letters are coming from even if we can’t, so once they get us to this corridor they manage to tell us where Jocasta is – and pass a ghostly hand through the wall to give us some light, nice touch, thank you – which is a big help because she’s caught in a spider web in a wall gap small enough to break all her bones if she un-transfigures, and it’s a narrow crack through which either of us can fit our hands. So – what do we do, accio housefly? But that spell doesn’t work on living creatures.”

“You could have grabbed the web and brought the fly along with it,” said McGonagall.

“Yeah,” said Miranda. “Well. Panic will do terrible things to a mind. Panic is when you default to the option you’ve trained for, right? When your arms take over because your head doesn’t know what to do.”

“In my case,” said Jill, “I cast a stunning spell hoping to hit the spider, and I hit both the spider and the fly. And then I thought I might poke around in there to get the fly out, but what if I squish the fly by accident? And then both Miranda and I start to really panic because what if Jocasta wakes up and un-transfigures herself on instinct?”

“So I fall back on my usual option,” said Miranda. She reached into a pocket and took out a small vial. “Potions. Transfiguration potion, in this case. I call it the ten-minute polyjuice. Works well enough. I figure I’ll use it and get Jocasta out of there but no, Jill here has to grab the thing and down it before I can utter a word of protest, and then she’s a beetle crawling towards Jocasta and I’m thinking wait a second, did I give her the ten-minute or the two-minute version, and it’s actually the two-minute one – ”

“Really,” said Jill, her expression not changing one iota. “Well, whoops.”

“So I’m counting down the seconds without being able to tell Jill why I want her to move faster because I don’t want her to panic – ”

“I wouldn’t have panicked,” said Jill.

Miranda looked nonplussed. “You flew Jocasta out of there with three seconds to spare and you’re not horrified?”

Jill shrugged. “It does sound a little disturbing, doesn’t it? Foolhardy, adventurous. Whatever. I would have been fine.” She gently stroked Jocasta’s crown. “More worried about this girl here anyway.”

Miranda raised an eyebrow.

 “Was I not supposed to be more worried about her?”

“As I recall,” said the Headmistress, “proper form for an emergency responder is to make sure you’re safe first, so that you avoid making two bodies to haul instead of one. And trying to take the safest route to the victim instead of, oh, I don’t know, nearly re-creating their very peril for yourself. Neither of you could have cut out a section of the wall?”

“Erm,” said Miranda. “No. I mean I’m awful at precise wandwork and Jill – ”

Likewise,” said Jill. “Not like there was time anyway, right? Pressed for time. Seconds. No, I sure wasn’t terrified for myself.” She took a deep breath, and then let it out, right into Jocasta’s face.

 Jocasta stirred, and opened her eyes a little.

"Oh!" said Jill. “Sorry, Jo.”

“ ‘s fine,” murmured Jocasta, and she closed her eyes once more. “I’m fine. You’re here. Sparrow’s here. Miranda’s here. Cordelia's here. McGonagall’s here.” Her eyes flew open. “Um.”

McGonagall glanced at the wall. Then at the ghosts. Then at Jocasta, eyes open and unblinking, hand clutching a fold of Jill’s pajama trousers.

“Panic,” said McGonagall. “Easy to forget things in such a state.” She flicked her wand. Light poured out of the tip, then flew to one of the wall sconces.

The hallway was lit a bit more brightly now. Sparrow could see more of the scene. A few students had arrived at the hallway’s far end, along with Violet, Professor Budge, Professor Wimble, Madame Pomfrey, Madame Abbot, and Professor Longbottom. McGonagall stood up slowly and went over with Professor Clearwater to speak to the adults.

Sparrow stood there, still processing everything that had been said. Jocasta. Jill. Miranda. Potion. Panic. Right right. McGonagall. Um.

Jocasta.

Sparrow rushed forward to where Jocasta lay shivering, and knelt on the cold stone. She gently pressed her forehead to Jocasta’s and closed her eyes. Jill’s shivers ceased.

◊◊ YOU LIVE. ◊◊

I DO RIGHT NOW.

◊◊ SORRY I COULDN'T BE MORE HELP. ◊◊

YOU'RE HERE. JILL'S HERE. THAT'S ALL I NEED.

◊◊ I WOULDN'T HAVE REACHED YOU IN TIME. ◊◊

YEAH WELL. SOMEONE DID. THANKS FOR INTRODUCING ME TO SOMEONE.

◊◊ ANY IDEA HOW WE'RE DOING THIS? ◊◊

NOT A CLUE, SORRY. MAYBE VIOLET KNOWS. SHE KNOWS EVERYTHING EVENTUALLY RIGHT? SLEEP NOW. NIGHT.

“Ahem,” murmured Violet. “Can I cut in?”

Sparrow raised her head. Violet was sitting beside her, with an expression quite the opposite of her usual know-it-all airy remove. She looked like she was waiting for permission.

Sparrow glanced at Jill, who shrugged and murmured, “She’s your friend too. Not hogging her tonight.”

Violet put a hand on Jocasta’s head, and gently tousled the girl’s hair.

Jocasta smiled a little in her sleep.

 “Sorry I didn’t get here sooner,” said Violet. “Maybe I could have been a level head. Unlike you…passionate people.”

“Excuse me,” murmured Miranda, “by passionate, did you mean ‘couple of nincompoops’?”

“Maybe.” Violet sighed. “Maybe. Wonder if I would have done any better. Not any braver, that’s for sure.” She looked up at Jill. “Brave. Foolhardy. Wonder what the difference is.”

“Hindsight based on results,” murmured Cormac. He sat down next to Violet and touseled Jocasta’s hair. “After-action criticism. What do you do in the moment, though. When a friend’s life is on the line. When the love of your life is on the line. No time to hesitate, I guess. Even if that would be a better idea.”

“Good question,” said Miranda. “Not like we have to answer it any more tonight. We’d better not. Although I’m sure everyone and sundry is going to be asking us in a few minutes.” She rose, facing away from Jill, and stood up straight and stern and stone-faced. Cormac rose beside her and adopted the same pose with a softer expression.

Sparrow looked behind her. More students gathering. Whispering, muttering. Some of them looking relieved. Most of them looking curious. Not going to be helpful tonight. Even if they did deserve to know. Sparrow turned away from them with a twinge of regret.

And there was then one more hand upon Jocasta, pressing against her forehead, then checking behind her ears. The hand of Madame Abbot. And the rest of her. Bending as if to a stubborn child, precise and firm as ever. Only her eyes spoke otherwise.

 “Still in good health then,” said Madame Abbot. “No fever nor broken bones. Might need a draught of peace to calm her nerves, but that remains to be seen. She looks as though she is in good hands right now.

“Oh,” said Jill. “Um. Thank you. Didn’t think I’d get that kind of praise from you. After what I did to poor Guillermo. And everything else over the years.”

Madame Abbot gave her a pointed look. “I could wax poetic about how you’re young and full of fire, but I was referring this time to everyone gathered around. Perhaps if you all keep her out of trouble I won’t lose a promising young witch.” She glanced to the rest of the adults. “Although after the Headmistress gets through with her there might not be enough left to work with. Well, children. Your doom approaches.”

“Those are not reassuring words from a school nurse,” said Jill.

“Indeed not,” said the Headmistress behind her.

Oh dear. Now she was towering.

Jill had not jumped, but had frozen in terror. She turned, slowly, and met the eyes of Headmistress Minerva McGonagall, whose expression of barely-contained fury matched that of Jill on a bad day.

“We have much to discuss,” said the Headmistress. “Yet not tonight. You been through too much tonight. And it is very late. I will expect to see you all tomorrow at seven.”

“Seven in the evening?” said Violet.

Seven in the morning.” She looked up at the students gathering in the hall. “Back to bed, all. Crisis averted. Nothing more to see.”

Sir Podmore cleared his throat.

McGonagall glanced at him with the same expression she had offered Jill. To his credit, he did not flinch.

“The Headless Hunt,” said Sir Podmore, “has yet one more thing to add.”

McGonagall raised an eyebrow.

Sir Podmore nodded to the remainder of the ghostly horsemen and twirled a finger at them. As one, they dismounted.

“To the brave young Wizard Jillian,” said Sir Podmore. As one, the ghosts swept their heads off their shoulders, as one removes their hat in the presence of a Lady. “A knight to her lady, undaunted in the face of danger, more dashing than a galloping stallion, more daring than we. To you, we bow.” They knelt as one. “Should you ever lose your head, we would be honored to have you join us.”

Jill looked distinctly uncomfortable with such praise.

McGonagall had her palm over her face. She took a deep breath, regained her composure, and said, “Rise, sir Podmore. And meet me in my office at 6 tomorrow.” She shot a glare at the crowd within the hallway. “Good. Night. Everyone.”

Now it was Sir Podmore’s turn to look uncomfortable. But he composed his features, placed his head back on his shoulders, mounted his horse with the rest of the Headless Hunt, and departed for wherever ghosts went.

And the students departed for wherever the students went. The places they were all supposed to be in the first place, if tonight’s terror had not occurred. Sparrow could not help but be a little cross with Jocasta for causing such a fuss. But then, if she had not caused a fuss tonight, perhaps she would have caused much more of a fuss the next morning.

Jill stood, scooping up Jocasta without a trace of visible effort on her part. She nodded to Sparrow, and gave her a gentle kiss on the top of her head. Then she turned to Madames Pomfrey and Abbot, and followed them away.

The remaining children departed, Sparrow and Cormac with their arms over each other’s shoulders, Violet and Miranda sticking close, and, at some distance, Professor Clearwater.

Sparrow tolerated the woman’s presence for a few turns, then turned around to face her.

Not that she could say anything. But perhaps it was easy for anyone to read Sparrow’s expression in this moment.

I tried,” said Professor Clearwater.

“Tried,” said Violet. “Couldn’t have done it a bit earlier?”

“I have been trying,” said the Professor. “I have been trying to look ahead to your coming dangers since December. Trying daily, trying nightly, always failing until just before the moment.”

◊◊ OH. THAT'S...SOMEWHAT REASSURING. AND DISTURBING. ◊◊

“Call it a painful subject of my own.”

“What about tomorrow?” said Cormac. “Do you have any idea what McGonagall will do to us tomorrow?”

“If I wished to terrify you all,” said Professor Clearwater, “I would say the answer requires no divination. But my crystal ball did not inform me of anything happening tomorrow. So whatever McGonagall does to you, it can’t possibly be immediate peril.”

Cormac did indeed look terrified.

“Professor Longbottom and I will be there to offer our support and disappointment, if that helps any.”

Cormac shook his head.

“That is all I can offer you,” said the Professor. “I am sorry.” She turned, and swept away, moving fast enough for her hair to trail out behind her.

And so the children were at last left with none but each other, to make their careful way towards rest. For once, the castle was giving them a straightforward course.

“Ravenclaw’s in the opposite direction tonight,” said Cormac, as they approached an intersection. “Right?”

“Figured you would want company all the way back,” said Violet.

“Fair enough.” He yawned. “Might fall asleep here if Sparrow wasn’t keeping me upright.”

“Talking of which,” said Miranda, “Gryffindor’s in the direction of this turn. I could stay with you all the way, but then, I might fall asleep and topple right onto you. Or fall asleep in the hallway and stay there all night.”

“I know Levicorpus well enough,” said Violet. “Hm, maybe I ought to help you get back to Gryfindor. Cormac, you’re alright then?”

Should be.”

“Come on then.” Violet took Miranda by the hand, not appearing to register her startled look, and led her away.

So it was just Cormac and Sparrow after all.

But that was enough.

“Sparrow?”

“Hm?”

“Sorry I couldn’t be more useful tonight.”

“Hrm?” Sparrow gave Cormac a confused glance.

“Miranda helped. Violet helped. You helped.”

“Hrm.”

“But I didn’t.”

Sparrow chuckled.

“What?”

◊◊ CORMAC, MY STEADFAST FRIEND. YOU DID DO SOMETHING IMPORTANT TONIGHT. ◊◊

“No I didn’t! You got Violet to rouse the ghosts and Miranda had that potion and it all fit very neatly together. What exactly did I do that was useful?”

◊◊ YOU KEPT ME SANE. ◊◊

“Oh. I guess that’s…something.”

◊◊ YOU SOUND LIKE YOU'RE SELLING YOURSELF SHORT. ◊◊

“It doesn’t exactly sound active.”

◊◊ COMPARED TO A MAD DASH OF RESCUE? YES. BUT WHEN I SAY YOU KEPT ME SANE TONIGHT, I MEAN I KNEW I COULD RELY ON YOU. YOU HAVE TRIED MANY TIMES TO KEEP ME ON THE RIGHT TRACK. I MIGHT HAVE GONE OFF THE RAILS A WHILE AGO IF YOU WEREN'T AROUND. WHO KNOWS HOW THAT MIGHT HAVE PLAYED OUT TONIGHT? ◊◊

“Probably alienated everyone trying to help you.”

◊◊ HIGHLY LIKELY. ◊◊

“I suppose that’s alright then. For what it’s worth…I feel the same way about you sometimes. That you’re a good friend to have around. In case I fly off my own rails.”

◊◊ YOU'RE SURE? AFTER I'VE DRAGGED YOU INTO MY PERSONAL AMBITIONS? I CAN'T THINK OF WHAT I DO FOR YOU. ◊◊

“Same thing you do for everyone. Give me a little hope in a crummy old world. I didn’t get dragged into anything, Sparrow. I’m following your course warily, remember? You make my life more interesting than it would be otherwise. ”

◊◊ DON'T WISH FOR TOO MUCH OF THAT. ◊◊

“Fair enough.”

They said nothing more as they made their way down to the Hufflepuff House. Nor when they entered the common room. But when they hugged each other there in the doorway, they did so tightly enough, and long enough, that Sparrow knew Cormac feared what she feared – dawn, and doom in its wake.

And so, each of them worried of fitful sleep, and unwilling to leave the other alone in the night, they decided that they would not rest in their rooms. It was not as though Sparrow could even drag herself up the stairs. It was not as though Cormac could bear to see her try. He could get up the stairs, and he could fetch his quilt from his trunk, and he could stumble back down the stairs, and if that was the most he could do, it was enough.

They slept on a couch by the fireplace, side by side, the quilt keeping their bodies warm as it could. It was enough. They had each other.

Sparrow’s dream that night was of hot chocolate and marshmallows, amidst falling snow.

And the uneasy feeling that she had never seen such things before.