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There were two parts of the school year that Sparrow despised. One was the part where she had to go home and could only practice magic inside the house and had no Jill close to hand. A trying three months of summer, which tested her patience to the limit.

The other part of the school year she hated most was the lead-up to Valentine’s Day. Because the decorations were everywhere. Every banister was draped in pink crepe. Every door had a red paper heart on it. Every portrait was dressed in their formal best. Everywhere, paper cutout letters proclaimed the magic of true love. Even down in the dungeons. At least barf didn’t look quite so out of place down there.

Worse, there were a number of students who asked her to deliver certain letters of a certain type to certain people. They could have waited for the Cupids to do the job when they arrived ahead of The Big Day, but they were so very anxious to get these messages sent, and so very anxious to make sure they were delivered quietly, without commentary and without the fanfare and fooforal that the Cupids brought, and wasn’t Miss Jones trustworthy as anything?

Was she, now. She didn’t know anymore. Not after what she’d done to McGonagall.

So Sparrow almost refused, but oh, those puppy-dog eyes should not be filled with tears. So she wound up being a postal worker in between everything else she was busy with. She began to understand very well what the Fat Lady had felt about her own request last November. Lest she be swamped by this new responsibility, she had to make it very clear that she would not work on Sundays.

And, per Cormac's recommendation, take advantage of the fact that her close friends came from all four houses. Not that Miranda felt she could help, owing to her social distance from the remainder of Gryffindor. So Sparrow wound up talking to George Peasegood, because he was a prefect, he knew Jill and he was easy to persuade when it came to maintaining confidentiality. Which is to say, he could not resist when Sparrow put on her Serious Face.

Sparrow had her Serious Face on fairly often these days, partly because of the holiday season, partly because it was always still raining or misting. The blooming season wouldn’t happen until March. So the options were to be cooped up in the castle with Romance shouting at her from every direction, or stand outside in the cold rain.

There was only one place where this was not true. A particular little tower atop a skinny rock, connected to a formerly neglected courtyard by a long wooden bridge. This misty Wednesday evening, the bridge was being nice, and she and Jill could reach the tower without being tossed into the raging torrent below. Yet that is not to say they could reach the tower without trouble, for the dueling club was meeting in the courtyard, and they noticed Sparrow heading towards the tower with Jill.

There were quite a few jeers from the crowd about the brave knight Jill cheating on her one true love, hopefully in jest, if they did understand that Jill was of a trio now. Sparrow began to worry that many of them had forgotten, and would challenge Jill for the violation.

Jill looked back at the crowd, and they shrank away from her.

Then she looked at Jocasta, who was standing on the dueling platform. Jocasta gave Jill a thumbs-up, and Jill gave one back.

The crowd was left confused, and there was a disgruntled muttering among them.

Sparrow and Jill crossed the bridge into the tower.

They crossed the threshold. Sparrow shuddered. There was…something about this place. It might have been the lichen growing on the inside of the walls, or the spartan setting -- nothing but a little rotted furniture and a stone staircase winding around the wall, leaving nothing for a floor except at the bottom and the top. Maybe it was the broken windowpanes that let in the wind and rain. Something about this place felt lost, and broken.

A familiar feeling, but one Sparrow had not returned to since she had come to Hogwarts.

Had any Wizard ever cast a repair charm here? Why did the castle let this part of itself die, and then cut off access to it at random?

There were not even ghosts, in this tower. On dark moonless nights the castle, despite being pitch-black, still had pale glowing figures flitting about the halls, and it never felt truly alone. Even without the ghosts, Sparrow could always feel a gentle warmth upon her skin, as if the centuries of magic had left a kind of eternal echo. There was something like that here, as the opposite -- not a gentle warmth but a subtle chill, a faint touch of what it felt like to pass through a ghost.

A chill on her mind, as well. Sparrow had hoped to ask Jill a question as soon as they stepped inside, but no matter how much she tried, the telltale echo was not forthcoming.

Sparrow tapped Jill on the shoulder. Jill turned. “What is it?”

Sparrow gestured to the tower in exasperated confusion, as if to ask what it was, and why. Jill herself looked confused. Sparrow put her palm to her face.

“Why here?”

Nod nod nod.

“It’s because nobody likes this place. Nobody would follow us in. It’s creepy.”

Nod nod nod.

“And you don’t like it either.”

Emphatic nod.

“You wanted some place quiet to practice nonverbal spells. I didn’t think there could be any place quieter than this. If you’d like, we can try the dungeons.”

Shake shake shake.

“Here it is, then. I’m sorry about picking this place. I just…I’d like to be able to show Longbottom some real progress before the end of this week, right? And you wanted help. And we couldn’t get any time until after dinner was over because Violet insisted we practice the locomotion charm until our fingers bled. And we couldn’t get any time before the sun rose because you had to help that kid get a ring away from something in a toilet – what exactly was that about?

Sparrow shook her head and put her hand over her mouth.

“Fine. We’re stuck here. So, first things first. Let’s see how our wands are doing. You show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”

Sparrow wiggled her eyebrows.

“Shut up,” said Jill. “Honestly, that’s not good thoughts to have right now. It would probably make things worse.” She took her wand out of her pocket, and rested it on her palm. It pointed itself towards Sparrow like a compass.

Sparrow took her wand out of her pocket, and rested it on her palm. It pointed itself towards Jill’s wand. The two wands were now pointing at each other, but not moving any more strongly than that. Jill let out a long breath.

Suddenly they shot out of their owner’s hands and clacked together.

Sparrow looked at Jill quizzically. She shuffled closer to the wands.

“Um,” said Jill. “I’ll admit that was my fault. What if we just…one moment.” She sat upon the clammy stone floor, and closed her eyes, breathing deeply in and out. For a few minutes, nothing happened.

Then both wands clattered to the ground. Sparrow dived for hers and snatched it off the floor.

“I guess that works,” said Jill, as she picked up the other wand. “They respond to thoughts. Maybe they fall asleep when there are none. Anyway! Why don’t you start by casting the shield charm without words. I know you can do that.”

Sparrow steadied herself, took a solid stance, pointed her wand and said clearly within her mind, protego!

Nothing came out of the end of the wand.

Oh, now the fussy bitch didn’t even want to cast a shield?

“Hang on,” said Jill. She looked at the wand in her hand. “I got mixed up. See the markings here?” She pointed to a series of faint markings on the handle. “This one is yours. We ought to – hang on, hang on.”

Sparrow was putting Jill’s wand in the girl’s face, handle-first, as if to demand hers back. She was also vibrating.

“I know you like you have your own wand in hand,” said Jill, “But this is an opportunity.”

Sparrow stamped her foot.

“Stop that. You’re acting like such a child right now.”

Sparrow crossed her arms.

“Here, I’ll stand close. Alright? Close as I dare. And then you try using my wand. I want to see if you can use it to cast a stunning spell.”

Sparrow raised an eyebrow.

“Just try it!”

Sparrow steadied herself, took a solid stance, pointed the wand away from Jill, and said clearly within her mind, Stupefy!

A jet of red light shot out of the wand and bounced crazily around the room, forcing both girls to duck. Jill shouted “Protego!” and a glowing dome appeared over their huddled forms. The stunning spell bounced a few times off the dome and dissipated.

“I knew it!” said Jill, dismissing the spell. “We can use each other’s wands without too much trouble. I even managed your dome trick. Hey, try shooting a fireball out of mine. Out the window, please.”

Sparrow pointed her wand at a broken window.

“Maybe it’s better if you stand closer to it,” said Jill. “Just to make sure you’re shooting out the window and not at it.”

Sparrow shook her head.

“Why not? Oh. Very well, I will stand beside you once more.”

Both girls went to the broken window, Jill standing as close as she dared.

Sparrow pointed the wand out to the dark night and hesitated.

“Oh, now what? Wait, you wouldn’t even know how to do that one, would you. Look here.” Jill held her wand out. “Quarter rotation upward from Six O’Clock to Nine O’Clock…good…then straight flick at the top of the arc…excellent. Got it in one. Now try it.”

Sparrow steadied herself again, pointed the wand out the window, and did the movement exactly as Jill had demonstrated, while at the same time reciting clearly within her mind: Incendio!

Nothing.

“Try it again,” said Jill.

Incendio!

Still nothing. Sparrow took a deep breath, let her heart rate slow, and pointed her wand out the window again. She focused on a tree in the twilight distance that she could barely see. It was a tree she had come to know and hate, a tree whose dead branches stood as a close and ugly marker of all that had been lost. She focused her hatred upon that mark. Once again she spoke clearly within her mind: Incendio!

Sparrow was nearly thrown backward into Jill as a ball of fire shot out the window and away from the tower. It struck the tree and set the outer branches alight. A number of the bushes nearby got up and ran away.

Well. Hagrid wasn’t going to like that.

“You did it,” said Jill. “You can cast spells nonverbally after all. Here.” She grabbed her wand out of Sparrow’s hand and replaced it with Sparrow’s wand. “Sorry to hold on to your wand so long. I’m sure you don’t want to be doing any more fireballs this evening.”

Sparrow nodded, then mimed turning a key in a lock.

“Hm? Oh! Right! We were going to try the unlocking spell. Here.” She produced the padlock from her pocket. “Guess I got distracted by my lovely friend.” Jill’s wand tugged towards Sparrow. “Stop that! Stop it!” She shoved the wand in her pocket, which didn’t exactly calm the wand but did stop it, after a certain distance. “UGH! See, Sparrow, this is what I put up with for you.”

Sparrow nodded, and took the lock, as Jill sat heavily on the floor with a harrumph and closed her eyes.

What was the wand movement for Alohamora? Oh right. Straight line down from 12 and then a quarter rotation counterclockwise, like a backwards J. She pointed her wand at the lock, made the movement as best she could, and said within her mind, alohamora!

Nothing.

Again and again she tried, but there was nothing. It had not even budged.

Professor Budge. What was he going to think? If she didn’t get this right he was going to be even more disappointed than he probably was already. He believed in her, he always believed in her. She loved talking to him more than any other teacher. Flutwick could go hang and Slughorn was an arrogant prat, Longbottom was always an awkward conversation these days and she’d only somewhat forgiven Hagrid for December’s incident. But Budge was nice.

It was with this desire to impress in mind that Sparrow, one last time, cast the spell. And it worked. In fact, it worked a little too well. The lock flew apart.

The sound of metal ringing on stone would probably have startled Jill out of her meditation even without the bolt hitting her on the shoulder.

Sparrow nearly dropped her wand as she knelt down to Jill and put a hand on her shoulder. ◊◊ SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY -- ◊◊

Jill rubbed her shoulder and said, "Sparrow, it's fine. I've had worse. At the very least it got you talking again." She waved her wand at the scattered bit sof metal. "Accio lock pieces!"

This time every piece of the lock came flying towards Jill, from multiple directions. The sound of them striking the instantly-raised barrier was that of pebbles hitting a window. 

"Should have thought of that," said Jill. "Hey, if you can speak after all, why'd you keep mum earlier?"

Sparrow raised her hands in a shrug of genuine confusion.

Jill looked equally confused. "Were you just...going non-verbal, then? You've never done that before."

Sparrow shook her head. I don't know what's going on with this.

Nothing.

I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THIS.

Still nothing.

Sparrow sat upon the stone and pouted.

Jill picked up the pieces of the lock and cast a simple repairing charm on them. “Good work anyway. Just don’t cast that spell willy-nilly until you’ve got it under control, eh? Usually you want to unlock things discreetly. You look anxious. What's the matter?”

Sparrow brought her ink and quill and parchment out of her robes and lay the parchment on the damp stone floor. It was tricky to write with ink in these circumstances. Nearly impossible. Come on, come on, she had to get a message to Jill. Lumos! There, that made it a bit easier.

She handed the parchment to Jill.

I’ve been thinking for a while about that Priori Incantatem. You get those effects from wands that are trying to oppose each other. So…what would happen if they tried to work together, instead? Put them side-by-side and cast a spell.

“If you think that would work…" Jill's shoulders slumped.

Scribble. Too much to venture?

Jill nodded. 

Scribble scribble scribble scribble. I see a great conflict within you, here. Between the your fear of the wands, and what you wish to be. I know you wish to protect people. I know you wish to keep me safe. I know how much you want to hold me in your arms. And yet – you feel so very embarrassed by the wands seemingly deciding that for you. So you hold yourself back. But how do you know what the wands are actually thinking?

“I don’t.”

Scribble. So why do you let them stop you?

“It’s…not just about the wands, alright?”

Sparrow tilted her head and looked perplexed.

“Let’s say the wand is a focus of my fear. You know of the fire behind my eyes. If I let it out, if I let it loose…I wonder if even you could survive.”

Sparrow mimed looking shocked and offended, then put her hands on her hips.

“Hey. I said even you. Trust me, I can burn hotter than you imagine. It might not even be safe for me to give you a hint!”

Scribble. Hint please.

“You’re sure?”

Sparrow nodded.

“You’re really sure?”

Sparrow nodded harder.

“As you wish..." Jill stood up, towering over Sparrow as high as she possibly could. "Keep your wand ready, then. And brace yourself. Come on, up."

Sparrow stood and set her feet in a stable stance.

Jill raised her wand above her head and said, “Fuego!”

At once a stream of fire erupted from the end of her wand, and became a ribbon, winding around the wall, until it met itself again and became a whirl of fire, swirling round and around and around the two Wizards, a tornado of fire just as Jill had raised a tornado of air many weeks ago.

Round and around it swirled, and the wind whipped Sparrow’s robe about her, and it stole her parchment right out of her hands, and tossed it into the fire.

The temperature in the tower might have become very high indeed if not for the open windows, and even with them, Sparrow was already sweating. She began to wonder if she ought to raise her shield after all. Jill did not seem to be focusing on her, or anything.

The temperature was making it difficult to breathe now. Sparrow at last raised her shield about herself --

And kept sweating. The shield didn't block heat. Great. And Jill wasn't paying attention. Time to snap her out of it.

Alright Jill, you can let go now.

Dammit, no luck. Sparrow let her shield down. Jill I get the message! You can stop now!

Still nothing. Sparrow reached up and put her hands on Jill's shoulders.

◊◊ FOR GOD'S SAKE JILL, STOP! ◊◊

At once the flames vanished.

Jill stood there a moment, gasping for breath.

Then she gasped for breath again when Sparrow hugged her about the middle. “Oh!” she said. “Did I scare you after all?”

Sparrow let her go and nodded.

“Well, you can see what I’m worried about. Look.” Jill gestured to the walls. “I think I weakened the mortar.”

Sparrow glanced at the walls. The walls did appear to be shedding black flakes from between the stones. They joined the piles of ash that had once been rotting furniture.

“I’m the problem here,” said Jill. “The wands are just…a visual manifestation, I suppose. They make me feel like I’m out of control. In spite of how much I work for that.”

Sparrow beckoned Jill towards her. Jill leaned forward. Sparrow took the girl’s head in her hands and put their foreheads together.

◊◊ NEVER CALL YOURSELF A PROBLEM. ◊◊

††††† SURELY IT IS A TITLE I DESERVE. †††††

◊◊ NEVER MIND DESERVING. NEVER MIND STERN JUDGMENT. NOT HERE, NOT NOW, NOT ANYWHERE OR ANYWHEN. ◊◊

††††† SO WHAT THEN, IF NOT JUDGMENT? †††††

◊◊ HOPE. BELIEF IN YOURSELF. IN WHAT YOU CAN DO, AND WHAT YOU HAVE DONE. ◊◊

††††† AND WHAT DO YOU THINK I HAVE DONE? †††††

◊◊ YOU HAVE WORKED VERY HARD TO CONTROL YOURSELF. AND THAT MATTERS A LOT. EVEN IF YOU SLIP UP SOMETIMES. BECAUSE IT MEANS YOU DON’T WANT TO HURT PEOPLE. ◊◊

††††† I APPRECIATE THE SENTIMENT, SPARROW, BUT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT REAL AND PHYSICAL DANGER HERE. †††††

◊◊ I KNOW. I KNOW YOU’RE SCARED OF YOURSELF. AND MAYBE YOU HAVE REASONS TO BE. BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE FOREVER. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE YOU. AND WHATEVER HAPPENS, I’M HERE FOR YOU. ALRIGHT? ◊◊

††††† EVEN IF I AM DANGEROUS? †††††

◊◊ JOCASTA TOLD ME TO BE A SOFT PLACE TO LAND. THAT MEANS I TAKE A FEW HITS. IF ANYONE CAN HANDLE THEM IT’S ME. ◊◊

††††† I TOLD YOU. THAT REMAINS TO BE SEEN. †††††

◊◊ WE CAN TAKE THIS ONE STEP AT A TIME. FIRST STEP IS MY SUGGESTION. MAYBE IF YOU PUT THE WANDS TOGETHER YOURSELF THEN YOU KNOW IT’S YOUR IDEA SO YOU DON’T THINK IT’S EMBARASSING. WHAT DO YOU THINK? ◊◊

“Just…give me a few minutes. I need to think about this alone.”

Sparrow let go of Jill. Then she bowed, and left her friend there in the bottom of the tower, while she ascended the staircase. Between the tower’s top floor and the bottom, there was no intervening floor, and there was likewise no railing, so Sparrow felt rather exposed as she ascended, though the tower itself rose no more than a few stories. Had the tower been completely open to the elements it would have been quite a dangerous climb in the rain.

Fortunately the top of the tower was closed with a trapdoor. Sparrow opened it, and climbed through the hole. She lit her wand. The top of the tower was as empty as anything. There were no boxes, no tables, no scraps of cloth or rusted iron. Whatever this tower was, it was not for comfort or relaxation.

Sparrow descended the stairs. Jill was waiting at the bottom.

“I have made up my mind,” said Jill. “I am willing to try your suggestion.”

Sparrow beamed, near enough to light the tower from the inside.

Jill drew her wand out of her pocket. “Let’s see if your theory works. On three, ready? One, two…”

On three, both girls tossed their wands in the air, and grasped each other’s hand.

The wands met with a clack, and hung there, above their heads.

For Jill, reaching the two wands was fairly simple. For Sparrow, alas, the wands were above Jill’s head, just out of her reach if she stood on her tiptoes. She jumped, but couldn’t get more than one hand on the wands at a time.

Jill put her arms around Sparrow’s waist and lifted her up to reach the wands.

◊◊ OH! I THOUGHT YOU WERE SCARED OF GETTING THAT CLOSE. ◊◊

“We managed to lower that particular barrier. Now, what spell do you want to cast?”

◊◊ MY FAVORITE. AND THIS TIME YOU MUST CAST IT SILENTLY WITH ME. ◊◊

“Ah ha. That one. The one I’ve never managed except when I’m using your wand. And casting silently, which I’ve never done at all.”

◊◊ HEY, IF YOU’RE USING BOTH WANDS IT OUGHT TO WORK. ON THREE, READY? ONE. TWO. THREE! ◊◊

As one both girls thought, Protego!

The shield that resulted from their combined efforts was not Sparrow’s typical shield, for, instead of staying in place, it expanded outward at the speed of a bullet.

The effect of Jill’s fire-tornado now became apparent, for if the mortar had been at its usual strength the stones might have held. As it was, the shield was able to expand to a diameter half again as wide as the tower itself, barely even slowing down, effectively blowing apart the lower-two-thirds of the structure from within.

The rest sat atop the glowing dome, until it slid off, and fell into the gorge with a distant but resounding boom.

Amidst the fading echoes of their actions, Sparrow and Jill stood dumbfounded.

Sparrow turned her head and saw the bridge, littered with scattered stones. She also saw the dueling club in the distance, many of whom were looking rather put-out.

Well, she had just upstaged them, hadn’t she.

Again.