In the dry season, the lake at Hogwarts became a lakebed as the shoreline receded.

Nobody knew where the giant squid went, in the months when the lake was the size of a pond. In those months, the world was not fit for a squid, or any sort of swimming creature; the land had a stark beauty, all sharp shadows and gleaming rock faces. Not a soft beauty. In such times the soft things that were green and growing became brown, brittle and hard. A spectral beauty, for those haunted by what they knew of older times. Those who were old enough could tell you that the blackened poles upon the farther hills had been oaks, once, that the long-leaved shrubs stretching out to the horizon now stood in place of mighty pines. They knew that the dusty dirt stretching from the castle to the shrubs had been a field of grass.

And so did Sparrow Jones, for, despite her tender age of fourteen, she had a mother who had survived the drying of the world. And so, in the times when she told her friends what she thought of the landscape, she never let the memory of the past go unremarked, heedless of their growing exasperation over the subject.

“I get it,” said Jill. “Our earth was once green. I don’t understand it, though. Something called Global Warming?”

Climate Change,” said Sparrow. “It’s not all that warm around here when November rains come. But, the world used to be softer, and kinder. That’s the important thing.”

“You’re soft,” said Jill, as she draped an arm over Sparrow’s shoulder. “Maybe that’s all I need.”

Sparrow was too short to return the favor, or perhaps Jill was too tall, but then, she never minded putting an arm around the girl’s waist.

To observers, the two girls looked like the sun would give up trying before it could never manage to burn them, and sink into night, defeated. Yet in all other respects, they looked as different as moon and sun, as night and day. One was a short little slip of a girl, and her parents having named her after a bird was an inspired foresight. The color of her skin might have lent itself to the name of a darker bird, like a starling, and indeed if one looked into the girl’s eyes you could just see the stars reflected, though it be brightest day. And there were some students who called her the African Swallow, for she was always flitting about the castle, bringing her gifts to her fellow students. Yet, Sparrow she was and would be, and she sang so prettily of what could be.

The other, in the times when she stood, led people to wonder if she would ever stop growing, for already she was up there with the older students, and people wondered how many bludgers she could hold at once, and usually their estimate was just one over the true limit, and the girl knew that if she worked hard she could get one more. Jillian Patil was the most feared player on any team at Hogwarts, for not a single bludger could ever get past her, and when they tried they tended to be hurtled towards an opposing player at a speed faster than anyone expected. There were some students who called her “Himalaya”, because she was an Indian mountain, hardee har har. This latter epithet had only lasted for about three weeks before Jill’s furious glare had scared the laughter out of half the student body. You did not mess very long with someone who could hold a bludger in place with one arm.

For those who met the two the first time, they were always surprised that the little Sparrow was the more protective. Oft times there was a shield that sprang up, and those it opposed would cast their eyes to the mighty Jill, before realizing that it was coming from the wand of the little Sparrow.

Sparrow was only a little ashamed that it seemed to be the only thing she was good at, for, as she said so often, Wizards could do much, and possibly anything. But not everything, as Jill said, and yet, when they spoke of such things, it always devolved to that one topic. For, as Sparrow said, if Wizards could do so much, why not do more than simply live easy? Why not run to the hills, and cover them with trees as they once had been? Why not remake the world from what it had become?

Many was the time Sparrow had asked Jill this question over the previous school years, and every time Jill had told her friend to leave it be, until finally she had blown up at Sparrow, and told her to drop the subject for good.

But, here they were, on the highest walkway, between the astronomy tower and the dragon tower, gazing down at the wide grounds, where the patchy brush had not tasted a bit of rain since last March, and Sparrow still wondered why the groundskeeper didn’t at least do a bit of touchup. Jill had taken Sparrow to a Paradise Garden over the summer. Quite the lush place. Surely a bit of magic could do the same here?

“We could make this place soft,” said Sparrow. “We could make it green again.”

“My friend,” said Jill, turning her bright green eyes upon Sparrow. “Do not start that again.”

“Why not?”

“Because you keep tempting me, and it’s difficult to resist the urge to remake the world, along with all else I resist. I am scared that I might wind up agreeing with you.”

“I’m not asking to remake the world,” said Sparrow. “I just want to know why you don’t even want all this – ” she swept a hand out to the wide grounds – “to look a bit nicer.”

“Well maybe you should ask the Headmistress,” said Jill. “I’m not in charge of this school.”

“No indeed,” said a voice behind them. “And that is an important thing to understand, my dear students. One might say it is the beginning of wisdom, to understand what you can control and what you cannot.”

Sparrow turned. There stood Minerva McGonnogal. An old woman she was, wrinkled of face and white of hair. But there are other markers of age, and the Headmistress wore, as she always wore, the kind of expression that made one wonder if she had ever been young. Some old people that Sparrow had met acted like they had been young, but the Headmistress never did.

“How very convenient,” said Sparrow. “I was just going to ask you – ”

“The answer is no,” said the Headmistress. “Believe me, I’ve been hearing about your question since the beginning of your first school year. I should have put a stop to it as soon as I did, but perhaps I was curious to see how far you would go. Was that a mistake?” She fixed Sparrow with her trademark glare. “Have I let you go too far? Are you planning to remake the world without so much as a by-your-leave?”

“I hardly even know how to transfigure anything,” said Sparrow.

Jill smacked Sparrow in the back of the head.

“Ow! I mean, no.”

“You have been absolutely abysmal at transfiguration classes,” said Headmistress McGonnogal. “I’ve never seen anyone turn a teacup into a blast-ended Skrewt before, at least not by accident. How did you even know what they look like? They haven’t been a part of Hagrid’s coursework for years.”

“I didn’t.”

“As I said. Worst transfiguration student I’ve ever heard of. Not much in the potions department either, nor particularly adept with basic charms. You’re not exactly likely to actually cause much trouble to the world itself.”

“But what about the shield charm?” said Jill. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“No indeed,” said the Headmistress. “Nor have I ever seen anyone who actually pays attention in the History of Magic class, nor in the Muggle Studies class. You are a most unusual child, Miss Jones, and you have your own talents worth developing.” She put a hand on Sparrow’s shoulder. “I would not see you throw that away. Your current line of inquiry could take you down a path that is dangerous for yourself, as well as for others. Leave it be.”

“But nobody’s ever told me why,” said Sparrow. “They just tell me to hush up.”

Curiosity,” said the Headmistress. “A terrible thing. Impossible to resolve, until it is satisfied, or until the quester is given a very harsh lesson. And yet, if it is satisfied, it may lead to harsh lessons anyway. Well.” She stepped to the wall and gestured to the grounds. “I will tell you this. The Paradise Gardens you know of are all enclosed, shielded from muggle eyes. They are safe. This place has its own protections, yet if it were a bright patch of green in a world gone barren, no spell could prevent muggles from noticing. It is for your safety that we leave the grounds looking dull.”

Sparrow hadn’t seen muggle habitation in the last forty miles of the train ride. But she had seen an aeroplane yesterday, so that had to count for something. She kept her mouth shut.

“And there’s more to it than that,” continued the Headmistress. “Think of who we are, dear child. We are Wizards. Powerful, dangerous, prone to flights of fancy and destructive anger. There have been many of us who wished to re-shape the Wizarding world, and to impose their ideas upon it, without asking anyone. If you would do so yourself, well, think of it this way: you can’t change someone’s life for them.”

“I guess.”

Jill looked up at the sky. “The sun is moving towards three o’clock,” she said. “I think it’s time we get to class.”

“What class?” said Sparrow. “Wait. It’s Wednesday, isn’t it? Transfiguration.”

“Don’t blow anything up this time,” said the Headmistress.

The transfiguration classroom was on the fourth floor today. On Monday it had been on the first floor, but things tended to shift quite a bit in the castle. Once upon a time it had only been the staircases and the occasional hallway that moved, but these days, a magically-updating map was on the list of essential school supplies. Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes had the monopoly on the supply. Some students, like Sparrow, were annoyed at being forced to enter a joke shop. Other students, like Jocasta Carrow, made full use of the opportunity to purchase Invisible Whoopie Cushions and Exploding Cauldrons.

The really mean prank was when Miss Carrow had replaced the dessert selection for the entire Hufflepuff table with Vanishing Cupcakes. Oh, nobody proved it, yes. But there was only one person with pranks like that.

And so, when Sparrow and Jill’s journey through the fourth-floor corridor was interrupted by a sudden bag of flour emptying above her head, she knew who to blame. Partly because Miss Carrow was nearby. There she was, standing in her green-trimmed formal school robes as always, wavy jet-black hair tumbling past her pale face to her shoulders and down her back, her deep dark eyes searching you.

“You,” said Sparrow.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Jocasta. “Nice shield charm, though. You’re always quick on the draw. I’ve had to get more creative because of you. It’s no fun tossing stuff at people anymore.”

The bag of flour had not reached Sparrow’s head, but had been halted by a disc made of soft yellow light. For Sparrow had been forced to practice her reaction time, over the past few years.

Jill shifted a bit closer to Sparrow. “It’s always you,” she said. “Nobody comes up with pranks quite the way you do.”

“Oh, is that a compliment?” said Jocasta. “That’s odd. You have never complimented me once over the past three years. What’s got into you now?”

Sparrow glanced at Jill, whose face looked a bit flushed.

Jill shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re – ”

“Are you trying to flirt with me?”

Jill folded her arms and stood a bit taller. “Fie upon thee, my archrival! I shall vanquish thee in the dueling club tonight!”

Archrival? Now that is definitely a compliment.”

“Never mind!” Jill departed through the classroom door.

Sparrow and Jocasta watched her go. “What a pity,” said Jocasta. “I enjoyed the flattery. Alas, this was not my idea. I think this one was a bit…pedestrian. Not even involving a Wheezy! How primitive.”

Sparrow looked around. Who was looking guilty? There he was. Cormac McKinnon, a stout lad who had about the reddest hair and the palest skin in the school. At the moment his face was also red.

“I’m sorry!” said Cormac. “I was trying to get Jocasta and you got in the way.”

“Is that so?” said a voice from the classroom door. The door had been transfigured to look like a human face, and it spoke. “Mister McKinnon, pranking people. Ten points from Hufflepuff.”

“Tsk tsk,” said Jocasta. “Never admit fault when you prank someone, Kinney old bean. You’ve much to learn. I could teach you.”

“I shall not go any further down a dark road!” said Cormac. “I shall not become a dark prankster wizard like you!” He dashed into the classroom.

“Why don’t you explain yourself,” said Sparrow. She had taken a seat close to Cormac, hoping that his own struggles with transfiguration would overshadow her own.

“What’s to explain?” said Cormac. “Jocasta pranks everyone and never apologizes. And she pranks the Hufflepuffs more than anyone. She’s the reason we have to check our seats at the table at every meal. So I thought I would get back at her.”

“You don’t trust me to protect you? Nothing gets through my shield.”

“Sometimes you’re not there.”

“Fair point.”

“Explain the bag of flour,” said Jill, sitting on the other side of Cormac.

“It seemed like a very Muggle thing,” said Cormac. “Maybe I wanted to show her up without using magic. You ever thought of that? Doing something without using magic?”

“I write homework with my own hands,” said Sparrow. “Does that count? I walk up stairs instead of flying.”

“No,” said Cormac, “I mean like, washing dishes, digging holes, tying shoelaces. That sort of thing.”

“Why bother?” said Jill. “You can just wave a wand.”

“Speaking as a muggleborn,” said Sparrow, “you can imagine I’d want to take full advantage of my wand during the school year.”

“Fair point,” said Cormac. “Just don’t forget muggle stuff. In case you lose your wand. Or something.”

“Attention!” shouted the professor. “Today we will be learning about Animagi.”

Sparrow had been informed that the Transfiguration Professor used to be Headmistress McGonnogal, back when Dombledore ran the school. Perhaps if it had been, Sparrow would have learned how to transfigure something, under the stern but patient gaze of a legendary professor. As it was, the incident with the Blast-Ended Skrewts had left her successor Volund Smith in such a bad state that they had to come up with a hasty replacement. The replacement, named Petrus Wimble, was the sort of professor who lectured far more often than he had the students practice. Which meant that half of the time, Sparrow’s mind was free to wander.

Today was such a day, fortunately. As Professor Wimble droned on and on about the legal details of animagi and the registration process, Sparrow thought about what the Headmistress had said. She had said that you couldn’t change someone’s life for them. But that wasn’t literally true, was it? Especially with magic involved. Why, there was a muggle story about a fairy clad in blue who changed a poor washer-girl’s outfit into a beautiful gown, and let her go to the Ball, and she lived happily ever after! Muggles always used the term “fairy godmother” when they were talking about someone being granted magic wishes out of the blue. Why couldn’t Wizards be fairy godmothers? Maybe, once upon a time, they had been.

Something the professor was saying finally caught her attention.

“The legal penalties for failing to register as an animagi are severe,” said Wimble. “The Ministry of Magic will levy a fine of not less than twenty thousand galleons, or impose a year in Azkaban, depending on the financial status of the perpetrator.”

The entire class shivered.

Sparrow raised her hand.

“Yes, Miss Jones?”

“I still don’t understand. Why is it necessary to register?”

Professor Wimble raised an eyebrow. “I just told you.”

But – ”

You are a bold one,” said Wimble. “Perhaps you should have been in Gryffindor.”

“She’s proposing to break the law,” said Jocasta. “That sounds more like Slytherin.”

“But she wants to know why something is the way it is,” said Jill. “That sounds like Ravenclaw.”

Sparrow felt her face grow hot.

“Be that as it may,” said Professor Wimble, “we must return to the lesson.” And he droned on and on, leaving Sparrow wondering, now, about the Ministry of Magic itself, and how harsh it could be. She’d done magic over the summer and almost had her wand taken from her. The folks who had appeared at her door had not been very nice at all. They had used a memory charm on her entire neighborhood and then magically bound her arms to a chair and yelled at her for an hour.

Just for using a charm to make a tree grow. They’d cut the tree down too.

Sparrow couldn’t understand why anyone would want to work for such people. But, maybe they liked the taste of power.

Just like she did.

That was something to think about.

The Hufflepuff table did not have any cupcakes that night.

“So why ARE you in Hufflepuff?” said Cormac, through a mouthful of shepherd’s pie. “You’re about the boldest person I’ve ever seen at this school.”

“We’re both fourth years,” said Sparrow. “There’s still a few years for you to find someone bolder than me.”

“I don’t think there is,” said Cormac. “I think if anyone was more daring they would have run afoul of the Ministry already. You’re right on the edge, you know. People talk about you. They wonder why you haven’t done anything stupid enough to get expelled yet.”

“Because I wish to learn,” said Sparrow. “I want to learn everything.”

“Sounds more like a Ravenclaw to me,” said Jill beside her. Jill had cleared her plate but had not left the table.

“Perhaps we all need a little Ravenclaw in us,” said Sparrow, “if we want to pass our exams.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” said Cormac. He banged his fork on the table.  “Hufflepuff. Why did the hat pick you for Hufflepuff?”

“It didn’t,” said Sparrow. “I did.”

“Just like Harry Potter,” said Cormac. “So why didn’t you pick Gryffindor? That’s the grand old house of brave people. Right?”

Are you saying Hufflepuff doesn’t have brave people?”

“Well I’m not saying that, but – ”

“Do you think Hufflepuff was a bad choice?”

“I just think it’s the least fitting of all your possibilities. So why bother?”

“Long story,” said Sparrow. “Maybe I’ll explain later.” She leaned upon Jill. “What about you, my dear? You’re a Patil. Most of them go into Gryffindor. Why’d you pick Hufflepuff?”

“Think of it this way,” said Jill. “Everyone knows what to expect of a Gryffindor. Everyone knows what to expect of a Ravenclaw and a Slytherin. But Hufflepuffs can do what they like, because everyone underestimates them.”

“Ooh,” said Cormac. “Sounds Slytheriny to me.”

“No doubt,” said Jocasta, appearing beside Cormac.

He jumped, scattering bits of potato. At the same time Sparrow was jostled as Jill stiffened and sat up straighter.

“Oh hello,” growled Sparrow. “Where did you come from?”

“Perhaps from nowhere,” said Jocasta, giving Sparrow an innocent smile. “Perhaps from the very air itself. Anyway, Jill. I bet I know why you went into Hufflepuff.”

“Oh?”

“You were trying to follow Sparrow.”

Cormac made that “OOO” sound with the rising tone, the sound that children make when they collectively stumble upon a guilty secret.

“I don’t see why that’s supposed to be embarrassing,” said Sparrow.

“Of course you don’t,” said Jill, and Sparrow was left to lean on nothing as Jill departed the table and the hall in haste.

...

Jill did not appear at the dueling club that night in the great hall. Jocasta looked disappointed. “This is very disappointing,” she said. “I wanted to get our arch-rivalry going in earnest. What happened to her? Did she fly her broom into a wall?”

“You happened to her,” said Sparrow.

The students gathered around made that “OOO” sound people make when someone has delivered a sick burn, although at least one was making the sound that children make when they hear of an embarrassing secret.

“Why are you even here?” said Jocasta. “You quit coming around to the club last year.

“Figured I could find her here,” said Sparrow. “Or on the Quidditch pitch, I guess. Thanks a lot for that.”

“I was just – ”

“There’s no ‘just’ when you talk about stuff like that.”

“Oh, am I going to get a lecture from the high and mighty Miss Jones now? Are you going to tell me what it means to be a good student? I’m all ears.”

“I’m busy.” Sparrow swept out of the room towards the door to the grounds.

There was a figure flying high around the Quidditch pitch in the twilight, smacking away bludgers as they flew towards her. The figure dismissed the bludgers with a wave of their wand, and descended as if curious, but, before Sparrow could determine who it was, they soared upward, off the pitch and around the castle.

In the following weeks, Jill did not speak much to Sparrow, nor sit near her in classes, nor at the Hufflepuff table in the great hall. Many was the time that Sparrow attempted to confront Jill on the matter, only for the girl to make a hasty excuse and slip away. She did not even sleep in the same dorm room as Sparrow anymore; when Sparrow asked after her current arrangements nobody could say where she had gone.

There was, at the beginning of October, a point where Sparrow had the chance to corner her friend, only for Jocasta to distract her with a pink Pygmy Puff. It was utterly adorable. Sparrow could not look away. When she did look away, Jill was gone. She looked back at Jocasta, who was wearing an Innocent expression.

“I swear to Christ,” said Sparrow, “it’s like you’re trying to be the next Peeves.”

“Swear to who?” said Jocasta.

“Never mind, never mind.”

Sparrow was already missing her friend. She had thought that their bond was strong, but evidently Jill’s embarrassment was stronger. Sparrow was disappointed, and quite cross with the girl, and with Jocasta, enough that when the Slytherin girl tried to bounce things off Sparrow’s shield, they tended to ricochet at high speed right back towards her.

Sparrow had hoped that over a few weeks Jill’s embarrassment would fade. But even into mid-October she remained distant. The Hufflepuff quidditch team was victorious against the Ravenclaws, and then against the Slytherins in their next match, and Jill did not even celebrate with Sparrow as she had once done for every Hufflepuff victory.

On a Tuesday in October, the weather was now gentle enough that Care Of Magical Creatures could be held outside. Not that Wizards minded a little hot sun, but Hagrid insisted on working with certain specimens from the world of long ago that couldn’t take the dry season easily.

“I think he’s a little hidebound in his old age,” said Jocasta. “Look, he’s bringing out Flobberworms. They’re nearly extinct.”

“Or maybe,” said Violet Brown, “he wants us to understand recent history.”

Violet Brown always wore lavender, in open and typically unchallenged defiance of the school’s dress code. Sparrow had never seen her wearing any other color. She wasn’t certain if the girl bought clothes in that shade, or if she simply used a coloring charm, or if her clothing simply turned lavender when it touched her skin, but Sparrow had never seen lavender leather, lavender brass buttons, or lavender belt buckles. Her wand wasn’t lavender, yet, but perhaps it was only a matter of time.

As it was, Violet embodied the name of her ancestor, unto the very color of her long curly hair, unto her long fingernails, unto the very irises of her wide eyes, and though Sparrow felt that the whole effect did not precisely go well with the girl’s deeply tan skin, she had long since decided that nitpicks of fashion were less important than keeping memory alive. Violet embodied her decision most strongly in the rare moments when a new teacher thought to deduct house points for her being out of uniform; her glare nearly always got them to back down.

As to memory, Violet was the only student besides Sparrow who paid any attention in History of Magic. She was also, somehow, always right behind Sparrow at the library checkout counter, with as many books. No Ravenclaw lived up to the house’s reputation as well as she did.

Which unfortunately meant that she was ALSO difficult to approach, because she always seemed to be running off somewhere, or kicking off on a broom to reach a high balcony quickly, in either case her head of long lavender curls flying in the wind of her speedy passage.

But here was an opportunity.

“So,” said Sparrow, as she sidled up to Violet. “Read any good books lately?”

“I read them for information,” said Violet, “not for quality.”

“What KIND of information?”

“History.”

“Interesting history?”

“I don’t care if it’s interesting.”

“Then why do you bother?”

To gain knowledge.” Violet didn’t even bother to glance at Sparrow.

But then she did.

“What is it?” said Sparrow.

“I do have questions for you.”

“For me! Little old me? What could I possibly tell you that you don’t already know?”

“Not here,” said Violet. “Not now. Later.”

“Ooh,” said Jocasta. “Someone has a crush.”

Violet’s face turned red.

“Will you knock it off!” said Sparrow as she shooed Jocasta away.

THUMP.

Sparrow jumped, as did the rest of the class. Hagrid had wrinkles and a big white beard, but age had not reduced his strength. When Hagrid put his foot down, you jumped, and you didn’t get to ask how high.

“Listen ter me!” he growled, as he pointed to the large slimy mass on his shoulder.  “What ye see here is a Flobberworm. Used to be more common. But they aren’t extinct, Miss Carrow. The Scamander Foundation takes care o’ that, sure as rain.”

“So, not very sure,” said Sparrow.

Hagrid glared at the girl. “Pardon me old expressions,” he growled. “Sure as sunrise, let’s say. Now, the way Flobberworms work is – yes, miss Jones?”

“When are we going to learn about the Rhiannons?”

“Later,” said Hagrid. “Now, the Flobberworms used to be more common, right, but things have dried up a bit for ’em, so Wizards take care o’ them these days.”

“Why?” said Cormac. “They don’t, um, do anything.”

Hagrid scowled. “Ye mean ye haven’t even been paying attention to the greenhouses, then? Young Professor Longbottom never made ye notice the Flobberworms mulching the leaf litter?”

“Well he did, but – ”

“There ye go,” said Hagrid. “There’s something useful for ye. But I don’t need ‘em t’ be useful to keep ‘em alive. I just figure if they’re alive I oughter help keep them alive. If I let any magical creature go extinct I’d be letting meself go as well.”

Sparrow raised her hand.

Hagrid sighed. “Yes, miss Jones?”

“We let the non-magical creatures go extinct.”

“Not our domain,” said Hagrid. “More’s the pity.”

“Seems like we have a small domain,” said Sparrow.

See me after class,” said Hagrid, “And we can talk more about that.”

Sparrow had been informed by Cormac that the Forbidden Forest used to have towering pines, and that there were deep shadows, and in the deep shadows lurked all manner of nasty beasties like giant spiders and werewolves, and snobbish beasties like unicorns and centaurs.

Sparrow thought that the Forbidden Forest of the modern day was not quite as impressive, for the trees were as short as your regular old apple tree, and sparse. Mostly it was shrubland. Annoying, perhaps, and maybe fit for a centaur, but not anything to hide a giant spider. The Forbidden Shrubland. The name just didn’t ring. Ooh, a forbidden shrubland, what does it have, thorn bushes and stinging ants? Perhaps it would have been better to call the place “badlands”, but some names stuck around.

There were few thorn bushes that Sparrow ever noticed along the shrubs of the edge. Nor a significant amount of vile beasts. They did, however, hide a surprising number of Rhiannons, which blended into the shrubs perfectly. In fact, Sparrow was pretty certain that a significant number of these tall birds had been shrubs a few seconds ago. Then again, it was easy to mistake a tall, long-legged bird for a low bush. Perhaps that was what they counted on.

It didn’t help that they fixed the girl with a glare far more intelligent than she was used to getting from any creature.

“Let me tell ye about domains,” said Hagrid, sitting on a wide stump. “Beasties have their domains. Shouldn’t go out of them, or they might overrun th’landscape and ruin it. What do muggle call’em…‘invasive species’, I think. These birds here, they’re a monument to that.”

“How – ”

“Long story. My point is, Wizards also have their own domains. Ye might think we’re cooped up, but it keeps us safe, and it keeps the world safe. We don’t go about budging our way into muggle affairs, and they don’t ask us to grant wishes, and that’s that.”

“You want to keep the wizarding world hidden because you don’t want to grant wishes,” said Sparrow. “Sounds a bit selfish.”

“There’s more to it than that!” said Hagrid. “Think of me job, right? I know all kinds of nasty beasties. What do ye think would happen if they could just run around all over the place? What if a nundu could get into the London Underground? The Statute of Wizarding Secrecy isn’t just a law, lass. It’s a whole system, and it keeps everyone safe. And that’s that.”

“Well then,” said Sparrow, “Maybe everyone in the world needs magic, so they can defend themselves.”

Hagrid clapped a hand on Sparrow’s shoulder, and fixed her with a steady gaze. “Listen t’ me, girl. Yer trying to go down a dangerous road. I won’t have it. I said That’s That and I mean it. I don’t want you talking about this subject again, you understand? And I’ll tell all the teachers about it. I’ll tell them that if they hear you talking about breaking the Statute, you’ll get a detention with me. And you’ll see just how nasty some beasts can be. Understand?”

Sparrow nodded.

“Run off t’ yer next class, then.”

Sparrow’s next class, by sheer luck, had been Defense Against the Dark Arts, and not only was it been Defense Against the Dark Arts, it was the day they were practicing shield charms. So Sparrow hadn’t missed anything when she arrived five minutes late.

The professor, Hermetray Budge, decided to discipline Sparrow by making her teach the entire class how to do a shield charm. She was, after all, known to be quite competent at it. And the class seemed to be keen on having the mighty Shield Girl teach them.

Yet, for all that the shield charm was simple to say and easy to cast, Sparrow could see the class growing frustrated. She was confused, for everyone’s shield was perfectly formed, bright as anything. It took a little work for Professor Budge to get a stunning spell through them.

“What is the matter?” said Sparrow. “You’re all doing it properly.”

“No we aren’t,” said Bertrand Bulstrode. “Things are still getting through. These are supposed to be unbreakable. How do you manage to get yours to be perfect?”

“Well, I – ” Sparrow hesistated. She didn’t actually know.

“Well done, class,” said Professor Budge. “Well done indeed, I think you’ve got the hang of it. Five points to Gryffindor for Sparrow’s willingness to lead the class.”

“Hufflepuff,” said Sparrow.

“Oh right, right. Now, class, let us discuss cushioning charms…”

After class Sparrow stayed behind, and sat upon the professor’s desk as he went around rearranging chairs.

“Yes?” said Professor Budge. “What is it?”

“I was hoping you could help me figure out this business with the shield spell,” said Sparrow. “I don’t actually know what I’m doing.”

“Hrm,” said the professor. “Perhaps you do, and you just aren’t paying attention? There is a mental component that goes into spells, after all.” He finished arranging the chairs, then swept Sparrow off his desk with a wave of his wand. She brought an ink bottle to the floor with her. The Professor waved his wand and the stain disappeared. “Yes, magic accomplished without speaking. Something you will learn eventually. The spoken part is only to guide your mind.”

“So…what if I say one thing and I’m thinking another?”

“Then you would cast the spell that you are thinking.”

“That might be it, then. I thought for sure it was. Last year in the Hufflepuff common room, I broke a mirror because something bounced off my shield at high speed. I thought it was because I was thinking “expelliarmus” while I was casting the shield. Was I right?”

“I’m not sure,” said Professor Budge. “I’ve never seen your shield do that again, so perhaps it was a fluke. Unless…what exactly were you thinking, when you broke the mirror?”

It was a bit difficult to remember one’s specific thoughts of a year ago. “I remember hating the mirror,” said Sparrow. “It was an ugly, awful thing. I wanted it gone.”

“Perhaps that is it, then. It would confirm some suspicions of mine regarding spell mechanics. I have often thought that one’s emotional state has something to do with how a spell works. Tell me, when you cast a shield, what are you thinking?”

“I am thinking…er…usually I’m offended that people are throwing things at me, but that’s because I can do a proper shield in the first place.”

“What is your emotional state? Oh, what am I saying. You are always determined. That must be it. You will never let anything through if you can help it.”

“But my shield has broken a few times,” said Sparrow.

“And what had happened to your determination in those times?”

Once it had been just after her grandfather had died. Once it had been when Jill kissed her on the cheek. Once it had been after she had seen a dragon for the first time. To be sure, the moment of seeing the dragon has also involved her trying to hold up a to of falling rock, which itself had been more daunting than anything before.

“I faltered,” said Sparrow.

“This is excellent evidence for my theory,” said Professor Budge. “I must write a letter to the Department of Mysteries. You should run along now. Go and practice your shield charm with different emotional states.”

In the ensuing weeks Jill still did not speak to Sparrow, nor did Violet say anything in regards to her own desired meeting, and Sparrow would have felt quite bereft if not for Cormac’s company. The most that she got was a note left on her pillow one evening. All it read was, I am not angry at you. No further explanation. Sparrow was left as confused as she was reassured, and yet as lonely as ever.

This issue came to the fore at the Halloween Ball.

The ball was one of those affairs that, in an era of greater misery, was meant to stand in bright contrast. Professor Flutwick had pushed for more celebrations, for the sake of children who would otherwise feel as dreary as the wet season was becoming. And so on the evening of 31 October, the Great Hall was decorated in the professor’s inimitable style, with cut-out paper bats flittering this way and that between the innumerable Jack-O-Lanterns and the ceiling, which, in contrast to its usual veracity, was displaying a clear moonlit night while rain pelted the great windows.

The hall was lit only by the Jack-O-Lanterns, and Sparrow was glad of it, for her formal robes consisted of a plum gown with white lace sleeves, which her mother had packed for her with a wink. It was old-fashioned enough that Sparrow wondered if it had ever been in fashion; the dim light of the hall was the only setting in which it looked anything besides frumpy.

Sparrow stood there on the sidelines, without her Jill, for the first time in years. They had always gone to balls togther, and danced mostly with each other. This time, though, Sparrow could not see Jill in the dim light, nor could she spot Violet.

And there was a girl, nearly as broad and tall as Jill. One whose name Sparrow had never learned, for she was older than Sparrow, and somehow never in the same classes, and Sparrow would have noticed if she had been, would have homed in on the sight of the girl, as she had done in the hallways, as she was doing now, for not only was the girl as imposing as Jill, she was, in a school full of brown and black students, the only one who had skin darker than Sparrow’s. Which was no mean feat. The girl practically absorbed light. And she wore a suit that appeared to be changing colors as she danced with one person after another. On occasion, where the girl spun her partner into the shadows, her skin blended into the shadows and made it look as though the suit was empty. In the shadows, only her long mane of tight braids made it clear that there was a head above the jacket.

And she was always in the lead. The girl was as butch as a hunk of muggle machinery.

“I noticed her as well,” said Cormac.

Sparrow jumped. She had not noticed him coming up beside her.

Cormac chuckled. “A regular halloween scare,” he said. “Sorry about that. Do you know the name of that girl?”

“No,” said Sparrow. “Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone’s name.”

“How about that,” said Cormac. “You would protect them, but you do not know them. Seems a trifle aloof, don’t you think? Perhaps you will know them if you dance with them.”

Sparrow folded her arms. “I do not wish to dance with anyone besides Jill.”

“Indeed not,” said Cormac, “nor have you ever, it seems. Well then. Dance with me? I won’t step on your feet.”

Sparrow acquiesced, and at last the two spun out onto the dance floor, stepping as carefully as they could for two fourteen-year-olds in dim lighting, which involved a fair amount of stopping and starting as they tried to get into each other’s rhythm. They did their best, and made no exasperated faces at each other, and, as it happened, looked not a bit different than any of the other awkward couples their age.

Yet at a certain point, Violet Brown finally appeared, and she cut in, leaving Sparrow somewhat in the lurch. Violet and Cormac waltzed away, perfectly in sync.

And then appeared the girl that Sparrow had been following, whose suit, in this light, now looked red and gold. She took Sparrow’s hand and placed a hand on her waist, and led her in a slow waltz, without saying much of anything. Sparrow in turn felt no desire to speak, but to stare upward into the girl’s eyes in fascinated intimidation. Surely there was nothing that could harm Sparrow Jones of the Unbreakable Shield, but this girl was already past her defenses.

After some time, the girl finally spoke. “I have not asked your name,” she said, “for I know it already. You are well known, Sparrow Jones. But do you know me?”

Sparrow shook her head.

“Do you know anyone?”

“Jillian Patil,” said Sparrow. “Cormac McKinnon. That’s about it.”

“And yet what I hear of you is that you would – you do – protect everyone. And yet – ” the girl dipped her low – “you do not know them. How strange. Why would you seek to save people you do not know?”

“If you let me out of this position, I might tell you.”

The girl stood her back up. “Well then. Tell.”

“Tell me. You’re a seventh-year. You must know the shield charm by now. Why don’t you protect them?”

The girl laughed, and her suit turned yellow and black. “Oh, my dear. I fool many people with my height. I am but a fifth-year. But to answer your question, yes, I could cast a shield charm everywhere I saw misbehavior in the halls. And why don’t I? Because I have not been asked. Because I worry about intruding in the lives of strangers, people who might feel annoyed that someone was barging into their personal problems. Do you know, I have managed to dance with everyone on this floor? And it was all to ask about you, girl.”

Sparrow shivered. “That’s, uh. Um.”

The girl grinned.

“You’re not helping!”

“My apologies. What did you wish to say?”

“I wanted to say,” said Sparrow with some shortness of breath, “that it is intimidating enough to know that the giant of a girl who I have beeen noticing for four years without bothering to speak to her has, in fact, noticed me. The fact that you seem interested in me is even more intimidating. What, then? Do you wish to bed the adorable little Sparrow after all? Have you been waiting this long?”

The girl laughed. “Oh! No. No, little bird, you do not have to worry about that, not at all, not ever.”

“I am a trifle disappointed.”

“Do not be. You never had a chance.”

“I am a trifle insulted.”

“Do not be. No one had a chance.”

“How’s that?”

“Never mind. Just take that as is.”

“Fine,” said Sparrow. “You are interested in me in a platonic sense and went around asking every single person about me. I am simply annoyed, then. It is as if this entire evening revolves around me.”

“Indeed,” said the girl. “A bit self-centered, eh? Do you want to know what people think of you?”

“No,” said Sparrow. “No, I think it is my responsibility to figure that out on my own. Thank you for your effort, though.”

“No trouble,” said the girl. “It gave me an excuse to learn the names of everyone here, anyway. But ah, I think there is someone who wishes to dance with you. I must be gone.”

Sparrow spun around, hoping to find the one person she had been missing this whole time. Alas, the girl who stood before her was pale as the driven snow, her dress and her hair both melting into shadows, such that her face, shoulders and arms stood out in the darkness as if floating. Precisely the opposite color effect that her immediate predecessor had.

Jocasta giggled. “Your face,” she said, “just fell in the most amusing manner. I am sorry to disappoint you, my erstwhile adversary. May I have this dance?”

“You may,” said Sparrow through gritted teeth. “I lead.”

“Not a chance,” said Jocasta. “I saw you lead.”

“I think Cormac and I were both trying to lead,” said Sparrow. “But, if you wish! Very well! Guide me, o great and terrible dancer, my sworn adversary.”

And Jocasta took Sparrow’s hand, and put a hand on her waist, and led her in a more lively waltz around the hall. They managed to find each other’s rhythm in short order, although managing to avoid other couples was somewhat of a challenge, for Jocasta seemed to have eyes only for Sparrow, and Sparrow was too busy following her rhythm to watch where they were going.

“Have you danced with the tall girl?” said Sparrow.

“Specify, please.”

“The one with the suit.”

Again, specify.”

“The girl who looks more intimidating than pretty.”

“Again – ”

“The one who danced with everyone.”

“Ah, yes.” Jocasta grinned. “You don’t know her name?”

“Stop beating around the bush!”

“Miranda McClivert.” Jocasta tried to dip Sparrow, but did not do it so low. “Alas, I have not strength enough to sweep you off your feet as she did for me. I bet she swept you off your feet. Who knows? She may be yet another one who has a crush on you.”

“So you did dance with her.”

“Oh, yes,” said Jocasta. “I think I could do it all night. But oh, if I did. I would worry that I had given up on Jill. Have you seen her?”

“No,” said Sparrow. “I was hoping you had.”

“What a pity.”

You fancy her then, after all? You’re not just having a laugh with all this rivalry business?”

“I don’t know.” Jocasta’s face, for the first time in a while, registered an emotion other than smugness. “I don’t know. I have seen the way she looks at you, sometimes. I thought she only had eyes for you. I have also seen the way you look at her, on occasion. And, um, seen you with your arms around each other, up on the walkways.”

“You were spying on us?”

“I was hoping to catch her alone for once! But no, you’re always there with her, going on about the stark beauty of the land or something. What’s it in this season? The gathering storm?”

“Gathering blue,” said Sparrow. “Growing cold, not just in the land but in my heart, for nothing can grow admist endless rain. The sky cries for what the land lost. I like to have Jill by my side in those moments, but…she has grown cold as well. I still don’t know what happened. She won’t tell me.”

“She’ll come around,” said Jocasta. “I know that girl well enough, the embers in her always catch light again after long. And she’ll come back to you.”

“Back to me? You sound as though you’re not cutting in after all.”

“I could, I could. And that would be quite the prank. But perhaps more awful than anything I had done.”

Sparrow shook her head as if to clear water from her ears. “Do my ears deceive me? Is the awful, conniving, scheming Jocasta Carrow giving up the opportunity of her dreams because she wishes to be kind?”

“Please,” said Jocasta. “If I were to hurt you, I would hurt Jill, and I would have no chance with her. Alas for monogamy. It leaves me with such a dilemma.”

“On that note,” said Sparrow, “why do you prank people so much anyway?”

“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know. Ta-ta, my dear.” Jocasta spun away and vanished into the darkness, leaving Sparrow to realize that the girl had somehow managed to unravel the entirety of Sparrow’s sleeves.

A simple Diffindo charm severed the hanging strands, and Sparrow decided that the resulting sleeveless gown was much more chic than what she had started out with. Jocasta had done her a favor. Perhaps she was off her game.

The evening came and went, and Jill never appeared at the ball, her existence only becoming clear later, when she stepped through the Hufflepuff Common Room door, swept past Sparrow and entered the second girl’s dormitory without a word.

In subsequent weeks Jill still managed to avoid Sparrow at every possible turn, and Sparrow was becoming increasingly frustrated, despite Jocasta’s reassurance. Which was, in a way, fortunate, because it meant that she was experiencing a pure emotion that wasn’t the usual determination. And there were even times, as when Jocasta lured Sparrow around with an Ever-Retreating Galleon, or when she somehow turned Sparrow’s school robes into Slytherin colors, that Sparrow felt a pure anger, such as the normally reserved girl was not used to.

On this basis, one evening in the common room, Sparrow asked Cormac to help her practice the shield charm.

“Surely you don’t need any more practice,” said Cormac.

“I need to experiment. Go on. Throw something at me.”

Cormac faffed about for a bit before picking a seat cushion. He tossed it in Sparrow’s direction. “Protego!” she shouted, bringing her wand up faster than blinking.

The cushion hit the shield and disintegrated.

“Erm,” said Cormac. “That’s new.”

“It supports Professor Budge’s theory,” said Sparrow. “Emotions have some kind of effect on spells. Now I just need to STOP being angry, and my shield won’t be a hazard to life and limb.”

Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned. There was Jocasta Carrow.

If Sparrow had cast her shield at that moment, Carrow would likely have been disintegrated.

“How the hell did you get in here?” said Cormac.

“I have my ways,” said Jocasta. “I just wanted to let you know that your erstwhile lover wants to meet you at the Dragon Tower at midnight.”

“Which one?” said Sparrow. “Violet, Jill, or you?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re the one who keeps going on about how people are interested in me. I’m gonna take a wild guess and say you’re projecting your own emotional state onto other people.”

“I – ”

“And you danced with me. And you prank me more often, lately. The bit with the galleon was clever. You made me look like a right fool. I think you’re also interested in me, Jocasta. Am I right?”

Jocasta’s face was red. “Never mind!” she said. “Dragon tower at midnight! Be there!”

There was a small thump of displaced air, and suddenly there was a tiny little insect where Jocasta had been. It flew away.

“Now that explains a lot,” said Cormac. “Do you think she’s registered?”

“I would put it past her,” said Sparrow.

Argus Filch had been unlucky and cruel in life, and in death he was not much happier. He had stuck to the mortal plane as a ghost, being happy with the way he could surprise students more easily than before, but otherwise still miserable. Happy people do not leave ghosts.

The Slytherin prefect, Percival Bulstrode, had informed Sparrow of Filch’s ghost, and had advised her on tips for avoiding the old codger. Soft shoes were essential, as well as a total lack of personal illumination. Preferrably a disguise charm as well.

“That’s all a lot of rubbish,” said Cormac at approximately 11 PM. “He can see right through disguise charms, I’ve heard it straight from Lenkin Zabini. No, we’re going to need a Muggle solution.”

“What!” said Sparrow. “Are you saying there’s no magic that can help us? Surely there’s an advanced spell in the library somewhere.”

“And you could find it and perfect it in an hour? I don’t think so. You’d have to get to the – oh, you’ve got the advanced charm book checked out again.”

Sparrow flipped through the pages. “See here, this is the medical section. If we make our ears twice as large – ”

“Please,” said Cormac. “For once in my life I want a Muggle thing to beat a Wizard thing. Is that too much to ask?”

“What exactly do you suggest, then?”

There was one professor in the school, by the name of Mincent Warbeck, who stood approximately seven feet tall.

Sparrow and Cormac, at their age, were both four feet five inches. So with Sparrow on Cormac’s shoulders, they came to a little under Warbeck’s height. It was fortunate that the standard wizarding uniform of black robes obscured so much in terms of shape and size, especially at night. 

“This is completely ridiculous,” whispered Sparrow.

“It will work,” whispered Cormac. “The best way to slip past a guard is to look like you belong there.”

The going along the upper corridor was tricky. The roof beams nearly hit Sparrow in the head and Cormac was struggling to maintain a steady pace, and Sparrow found herself having to lean one way and the other in a counterbalalance as Cormac struggled to keep Sparrow upright. In the darkness they looked like a frightening giant man who was more than slightly tipsy. In the moonlight they looked like two twerps stacked on top of each other.

It was highly lucky, then, that Filch spotted them before they hit the next patch of moonlight.

“Who goes there?” said the luminous Filch, as he floated up through the floor. “Who is this wandering the halls at night? Who on earth are you?”

Sparrow put on her best Mincent Warbeck voice. “My name,” said Sparrow, “is Mincent Vincente Theodolphus Bombastus von Warbeck.”

“Oh right,” said Filch. “The new professor. What do you teach again?”

“Erm – ”

“Arithmancy,” whispered Cormac.

“Arithmancy,” said Sparrow.

“What was that? I thought I head something.”

“I heard it too,” said Sparrow. “Very strange. Almost like someone whispering. Almost like someone is here with us. Hm. Might be an intruder. Tell you what. You search that way – ” she pointed behind her – “and I’ll search ahead.”

“Your arms are oddly short for a tall man,” said Filch.

“Er…one of the students played a nasty prank. That black-haired Slytherin girl. Haven’t shaken the effects off yet.”

“Ah yes,” said Filch. “Jocasta Carrow. She brings back bad memories. But I don’t think we should search that way. You just came from that way and you didn’t see anything. Why don’t we search forward together?”

“Uh…Plenty of things in this wizarding world are invisible,” said Sparrow. “Such as can only be revealed with the wave of a wand. Tell you what. You search forward that way and I’ll search back the way I came, just to see if I missed something.”

“If it is an intruder,” said Filch, “I ought to be alerting the castle right now.”

“I’m sure it’s just a student out of bed,” said Sparrow.

“You said it was an intruder.” Filch narrowed his eyes at Sparrow. “Which is it?”

“I must have been mistaken,” said Sparrow. “It is far more likely to be a student out of bed. Hogwarts security is tight these days, as you said.”

“Right,” said Filch. “Well, Professor Mincent, I wish I could ask why you were also out of bed, considering that you have a reputation for sleeping like a log as soon as the sun goes down. In fact, I will ask. What exactly are you doing, wandering the upper corridor, which happens to lead to the Dragon Tower, where I just so happened to catch two students waiting for a friend, such that I nearly had to serve them detentions before I got the whole story?”

“Uh – ”

“Not to mention that the portraits saw them sneaking around. They also informed me that two other students were out of bed after hours, one of them carrying a bundle of cloth.”

“Well, you see – ”

“Leave your explanations. I’m inclined to be lenient tonight.”

“Erm – ”

“Goodnight, Sparrow Jones. I will dock you and your friend there fifty house points each from Hufflepuff, but you may go on to your meeting. There is someone you should meet.”

He floated off.

“May I present Blaise Brown,” said Violet.

The Dragon Tower stood gleaming alabaster in the moonlight, a tower taller and far wider than the astronomy tower. The Astronomy professor had raised quite a fuss when the new tower had risen, because suddenly the there was this shape getting in the way of seeing Orion. But one does not argue with dragons. The Astronomy professor had to put up and shut up.

Nobody was sure why the tower had risen, nor how the dragons had decided to call it home in the first place, but then, nobody was certain why the castle had started to shift its corridors on a daily basis either. Some people blamed the extra defensive spells that had been put on at the battle of Hogwarts, others said that magic was somehow waking up. Some people blamed goblins. But these were the people that blamed goblins for everything, including Voldemort.

And there was a keeper of the dragons, one who had not come with the tower, but had appeared there shortly after the dragons did. Blaise Brown.

Not that one would normally see the keeper of the Dragon Tower. Blaise only ever stepped out of the shadows on nights when the moon was clear and full. Violet could not say why, nor could Sparrow tell. Maybe it was a Romantic thing, like the green cape and the tall green pointed hat. Something to look impressive.

Or maybe Blaise was a vampire.

“Greetings,” said Sparrow, taking Blaise’s hand. “A pleasure to meet you, mister…miss?”

“Maybe,” said Blaise.

“Maybe Brown,” said Sparrow. “Fair enough.” She turned to Violet. “Why have you called me here? If it was for a Tryst, this location is hardly private.”

“It’s because of me,” said Blaise. “Kind of.”

“Tell,” said Sparrow.

“Someday I will,” said Blaise. “But you’re here for Violet’s questions, right? Violet, go ahead and ask.”

Violet looked sheepish for the first time that Sparrow had ever seen.

“Go on,” said Blaise. “I’m sure your friend doesn’t bite.”

“Her shield charm does,” said Cormac.

“You have but to ask,” said Sparrow, “And I will answer.”

“Fine,” said Violet. “Do you actually want to break down the Statute of Secrecy?”

Sparrow frowned. “I guess I haven’t been very discreet over the years, have I? Well, let’s say I’m thinking about it. I would love to, at the very least, be able to restore some green to the world without interference. Is that too much to ask? And why are you so concerned anyway?”

“Because I study Wizarding history same as you, and I’m having my misgivings. I know about what muggles did to us. A lot of things. If they knew that we existed again…it could go bad again, and we’d wind up hiding again. But.” She jerked a thumb at Blaise. “My sibling here, they’re practically a dragon themself, and dragons shouldn’t be cooped up like they are now, forced to wait until the rainy season to go flying at all. And I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since you started blathering about it. I’ve been studying muggle history too. Which is why I’m still torn, because the things they did to each other…do not bear repeating, not now. That’s a story for later.”

“What would make the decision for you?”

Violet looked up to the heavens. “Ideas too wild to venture. Of all the people in the school, you’re the safest to tell anything, but…I have to believe it myself, first. I’ll let you know.”

“And why were you embarrassed to ask me about this? Surely I would be the most receptive person in the whole school for your question.”

“Because,” said Violet.

“Cause why?”

“Because. If I asked anyone else they’d laugh it off. But if I asked you…there would be a chance that you would get the ball rolling. And I would feel responsible for that.”

“It’s my idea,” said Sparrow. “I thought of it first.”

“Technically it was Carlotta Pinkstone’s idea first, decades before you.”

“Who do you think I’m drawing inspiration from? I know Wizarding history.”

Cormac was gazing up at the heavens. “Funny it is,” he said. “Muggles think they can reach the stars, and they have wondrous devices to carry them closer. But they’ve only gotten as close as the moon. If Wizards could help them, would they reach the stars eventually? But Wizards can’t help them, because Magic itself does not want to work with electricity. Talk about a spoilsport.”

Violet blinked. “Okay,” she said, “you guessed my wild idea. And you stole my thunder. Thanks for that.”

 “Ideas go nowhere if we keep them to ourselves,” said Cormac. “I’ve always admired Sparrow here for being outspoken about an idea that is, frankly, hazardous to her life and limb. There’s still pureblood supremacists in the world, you know.”

“I know,” said Sparrow. “But there’s so much I want to know about the world entire, and the way things are right now…I’m more than a little stifled.”

“Spoken like a Ravenclaw,” said Cormac. “Yet, what is the goal of this knowledge? A Ravenclaw seeks knowledge for its own sake. A slytherin would gather knowledge for the sake of power. A Gryffindor gathers knowledge for the sake of adventure. What does a Hufflepuff gather knowledge for?”

“For protecting my friends,” said Sparrow. “Why do you think I can do a good shield charm?”

“The love of friends,” said Blaise. “Spoken like a true Hufflepuff. Well, Sparrow. If you have time later, and you can sneak back to me again, I may tell you more about me. You sound as though you have a story to tell me, as well. But the hour is already late, and I’m sure you have work to do tomorrow. I have work of my own to do, for some dragons are restless in the moonlight.”

A long silver head on a long silver neck stuck itself out of a window and breathed white fire into the sky.

“And restless dragons, only me and Charlie Weasley can handle. Be off, now.”

Cormac and Sparrow stood before the barrels that concealed the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room. Sparrow raised her hand to knock on what she thought was the right barrel, but someone in the darkness knocked on a different one, and there was a splashing sound.

“My goodness,” said Cormac. “It sounds as though someone has tried to prank us, and has failed. Hello, Jocasta.”

Jocasta spluttered. “I suppose that’s my fault. I should have picked the barrel above your head. So what happened at the tower? Did you have that romantic liaison after all?”

“You’re still on about that!” said Sparrow. “For Dimbledore’s sake, Jocasta – ”

“Dumbledore. It’s Dumbledore. You make yourself sound like a total m – muggleborn.”

“I am impressed,” said Cormac. “You avoided the M-word deliberately. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard a Slytherin do that.”

“Yeah, well.” Jocasta folded her arms. “Last time I called someone a…M-word…they licked their hand and slapped it on my face, and then everyone started singing about how I had mud on my face, and they started stomping and clapping. It was really weird. I’m not going to risk that again. Anyway, Sparrow. Was there any kissy-kiss?”

“Nothing romantic happened,” said Sparrow. “Just business. It was kind of annoying, really.”

“So what DID happen?”

“I don’t trust you enough to tell you,” said Sparrow.

“Humph,” said Jocasta. “Bet I know what that’s about.” She disappeared into the shadows.

Cormac prepared to knock on the correct door. But he hesitated. “Argus said there were two friends waiting for us.”

“Blaise and Violet, right?”

“He didn’t know the situation was about Blaise until he was informed. And they’re not a student anyway. Who was it then? How did they get up to the tower without alerting Filch in the first place?”

“Boo,” said a voice that Sparrow hadn’t heard in a while.

Cormac jumped.

There was Jill at the far wall, holding her broom, a Nimbus Plus Ultra.

Sparrow moved to embrace her friend.

Jill, for her part, reciprocated. “I always enjoy having your arms around me,” she said. “I wanted to let you know that.”

“Does that mean you want to talk to me again?”

“Maybe. I have some things to think about. Give me a week or so.”

“As you wish.” Sparrow let her go, and they entered the common room.

Unfortunately, within that week someone managed to spread a rumor that Violet Brown and Sparrow Jones were dating, and the student body was proving very difficult to convince otherwise.

Which meant that Jill was suddenly not on speaking terms with Sparrow again. And this time Someone left a note Sparrow’s pillow that said Now I am mad at you.

It was a morning in late November, and the steady rain down rained down, fully quenching the thirsty earth. It would become a right downpour in December, and not let up until January, and the lake would fill once more. In the wet season, within the concealing curtain of rain, the headmistress saw fit to more openly manipulate things, and the rain tended to avoid hitting the castle. But it was still becoming the dreary season. Well. The other kind of dreary.

“The use of charms,” said Professor Flutwick, “is to add properties to an object. You know that well enough. But why bother to charm something when you can transfigure it? Yes, Miss Jones?”

“You don’t want to transform the object because you don’t want to hurt it.”

“That is not quite correct,” said Flutwick. “transfigurations, unless Miss Jones is doing them – ” the entire class giggled – “do not permanently injure the object, whereas charms, especially dark charms, can cause permanent changes to the object. What is the answer? Zabini?”

“You want to do something to the object that a transfiguration can’t achieve. You can’t transfigure a teacup into a portkey.”

“Indeed, Zabini, indeed. One might say that a transfiguration is an illusion powerful enough to become reality, whereas a charm is a matter of rewriting reality without bothering with illusions at all. One must be careful, of course.” And Professor Flutwick went on speaking for some time about the cheering charm.

Sparrow had spent the past few years confused by Professor Flutwick, because something about him seemed slightly off. Perhaps his nose was too small, or perhaps his ears were too big, or perhaps he was shorter than anyone seemed to have the right to be. But earlier this year she had heard that the school once held a professor named Flitwick, who was about as short as Flutwick, and had a similar face. In fact…was Flutwick even a different person? There were no rumors about Flitwick or Flutwick that she’d heard, other than a penchant for treacle.

After class, and having plenty of time this time, she confronted Flutwick with her suspicion.

“Bold as ever,” said Flutwick. “Why, you even tower angrily over me.” He waved his wand at Sparrow, and she shrunk to his height with an awkward squawk.

“What the hell was that for!” said Sparrow.

“It is as I said during class, if you were paying attention. Charms are a way of writing our will upon reality, even if only for a moment. Now, as for my own situation, let me say this: Professor Flitwick died and was buried. Wink.”

“Wink?”

“Precisely. Now, off you go.” He returned her to her original height.

Sparrow stumbled out the door, dizzy from the sudden changes.

 

The upper-floor corridor was dark as a tomb in the midnight’s downpour. Sparrow was practicing the night-vision charm that she had found in a book a few days ago. It seemed to be working well, although perhaps too well. Argus Filch was lit up like a Christmas tree.

“Do you want me to be docking fifty house points again,” said Filch, “and calling the head of your house? Or are you going to go back to bed?”

“I really want to talk to Blaise,” said Sparrow. “I’m ready for the whole story.”

“Hrmph. Well. It’s not like they’d be available.”

“What do you mean?”

“The moon’s not out.”

“But – oh, goodness, you’re right. That means I won’t see them again until the dry season.”

“Then I take it that means you won’t be trying to sneak by me up here again?”

“I can’t guarantee that.”

The next day Sparrow confronted Professor Flutwick again. This time with her wand ready.

“You’ve learned,” said Professor Flutwick. “It seems you have learned not to trust me.”

“Damn right,” said Sparrow.

“So will you be this defensive every time we converse?”

“I think it would be prudent. You did terrible things to me.”

“Indeed, indeed. And I didn’t even ask, did I? What an awful way to treat people.” He wiggled his eyebrows.

“I just wanted to ask you,” said Sparrow, “about the nature of charms.”

Flutwick raised an eyebrow. “I thought we went over that in class yesterday.”

“I mean the nature of spells in general.”

Flitwick raised the other eyebrow. “Well, erm. My dear. That’s a very high-level question. Shouldn’t you be focusing on HOW to do the spells, at your age? In fact, I think you should be focusing more in my class. Your levitation charm is quite a bit wobbly. Yes, that will be your extra homework. You must practice Wingardium Leviosa tonight. I want to see you do it much better by tomorrow.”

“But – ”

“Off you go.”

Good old Cormac was not in the common room that evening.

Nor was anyone else, besides Jill. Which was odd indeed, for the room was normally full of students doing homework at this hour.

Jill stood there looking like she wanted to speak to Sparrow again. Sparrow did not acknowledge her, at first, for she was scanning the gaps beneath the doors of the girl’s and boys dormitories. One of them had an Extendable Ear in it. Sparrow pointed her wand at the ear and said “Expeliarmus,” but what came out was little more powerful than a flicking finger.

“We’re not going to get any privacy here,” said Sparrow. “Walk with me?”

“People will think we’ve gone out for a snog.”

“Perfect,” said Sparrow. “It will counter all those rumors about me and Violet.”

“You mean you and her – ”

“Did you actually bother to ask her?”

“No.”

“Did you bother to ask me? No. Come on.” Sparrow started for the door and motioned for Jill to follow her. “If we hit up the library I think Violet would be the only person there at this hour.”

Sparrow and Jill strode along the middle third-floor corridor. Some Ravenclaw students were hurrying to bed, under the watchful eyes of the portraits. If the portraits were confused about why two girls were stolling without hurry, they said nothing, for the Ravenclaw Tower entrance was, this evening, in the direction that the two girls were going, and it was not yet after curfew. Close, perhaps. But the moon had not risen. And so the girls were able to walk rather close to each other, as close as either dared, though not arm in arm.

“Speak to me for once,” said Sparrow.

“What would you have me say?”

“Whatever you wish to say. I’m sure there is much you want to tell me.”

“I’m not sure how to say it.”

“May I ask a question, then?”

“I can hardly stop you. I can hardly stop you from doing anything. No one can.”

Sparrow sighed. “I wish that were the case. Someday it may be. But answer me this – why have you been avoiding me for so long? I miss your warmth. Why have you been so cold?”

“Because of what you said! You said you couldn’t understand why I would be embarrassed about what Jocasta said!”

“Well I couldn’t.”

“Maybe not. But the situation wasn’t about you, was it? It was about me. It was about what I was thinking. I feel like you don’t ever really stop to think about what other people are thinking.”

“I think about other people all the time.”

“But are you thinking about what they’re thinking?”

“Well I hardly know it, do I?”

“You could ask them.”

“True enough, Miss Avoids-Her-Friends. Ah, the library. Here we are.”

The doors of the library were still open. Suddenly they were less open. “Come on,” said Sparrow. “We won’t get in after the doors close.”

She took Jill by the hand and dragged her inside. The doors closed with a boom.

Sparrow had been in muggle libraries in her early youth. They tended to be bright places, full of laughter and conversation, with sunlight pouring through windows. This library, by contrast, was a place of dark old oak wood, and hushed whispers.

Mostly from the students.

“Why exactly did you decide to jump in here?” said Jill. “And why did you drag me with you?”

“I wanted to get your opinion on a particular topic of study,” said Sparrow. “Someplace we wouldn’t be overheard.”

“Well what if the books hear us?” said Jill. “What if the librarian is still here? This place just closed. If anyone catches us in here we’ll look doubly suspicious. And furthermore, I haven’t got a chance to say everything I wanted to say to you.”

“Go ahead, then.”

“Not here,” said Jill. “As long as we’re in here I’m still mad at you.”

“Then let us leave,” said Sparrow. “We might be able to evade the prefects if we hurry back.” She moved back to the door and pulled. It would not budge. She drew her wand and whispered, “Alohamora”. The door still would not budge. “That’s a problem,” she said. “I guess the librarian takes their security seriously.”

“Did you plan this?”

“I’m hardly a sneak,” said Sparrow. “And you did say that I don’t care about what other people think. So, what do you think?”

“I think we might as well have that talk in here, if we can’t get out. Let’s just find some seats and – ” There was a snarling noise, and an unearthly howl. “And I need to figure out what the heck that was.” Jill started towards the direction of the sound.

“Get behind me,” said Sparrow, “I’ve got the unbreakable shield.”

“It’s not a perfect one! And I need to practice mine.”

“I can’t cast offensive spells,” said Sparrow. “If it comes to that I’d like you to survive long enough to get a stunner in, at least.”

“What about you surviving long enough? Just stay here. I can blast away anything I need to.”

“You know full well I’m coming with you, Jill.”

“UGH! Stubborn girl. Fine. I’ll be at your side instead of behind you, how’s that?”

They moved forward together, wands at the ready, towards where they had last heard the snarl. There was a deep growl, farther away this time but in the same direction. Then, the creak of a rusty hinge, and a metallic slamming sound, as if a heavy gate had been shut.

“Sounds like it went into the forbidden section,” said Jill. “But…only the librarian has the key, right? How did that creature get the key?”

“Onward,” said Sparrow. “Our answer lies ahead.”

The forbidden section of the library was forbidden for two reasons. One, it was full of books that contained knowledge too dangerous for students to be dealing with on an uncontrolled basis. Dark magic of all kinds. Yech. Not the sort of thing you were allowed to look at unless you could give your professor a really good excuse about needing to study evil.

Two, it was full of books that were, by themselves, dangerous. Sparrow had no idea why the school had decided to stock copies of the Monster Book of Monsters, but then, if anyone in the Wizarding World was going to put that stupid thing anywhere, it might as well be the forbidden section of the library of Hogwarts.

And the Monster Book of Monsters had a lot of friends. So Sparrow had to keep her shield spell up, and essentially plow her way through a pile of very angry books. There was one with long spider legs, and one with a nasty stinger tail, and a lot of books that had big grasping hands with sharp claws.

If the girl had been alone, she might have faltered and been overwhelmed. But she could not, would not, for Jill was beside her, and Jill had never done a proper shield spell yet.

Fortunately for them, Jill was pretty good at the basic stunning spell, and put it to good use by zapping any books that had circled around behind the shield. And so the girls inched forward through the forbidden section, in a whirlwind of paper and fangs.

“I think these books are angry at us!” said Sparrow. “I wonder why.”

“Think about it,” said Jill. “For once, think about – stupefy! – think about what someone else might be thinking.” She gestured to the bookshelves, which were oddly empty. “Look at this barrenness. My mother told me this section used to be full. What do you think happened that  -- stupefy! – what do you think happened that would have taken these books away? Stupefy!”

“The aftermath of Voldemort?”

“Stupefy! Precisely. Cormac told me that his father in the Ministry library was in charge of adding a bunch of new forbidden texts to the restricted section there. That’s assuming that some titles weren’t destroyed outright. So maybe all of these forbidden books were whisked away to a section that was a hell of a lot more secure than this school, and the ones that were left were the ones that were just mean, not full of dangerous knowledge.”

“And they’re attacking us because we’re on their turf and they’re sad that they lost their friends?”

“Exactly!”

“But what about the books that are still on the shelf?”

“Maybe they’re also monster books. And they just haven’t gone after us yet.”

“We passed them, didn’t we? So why did they not –”

There was a sound, as of the rustling paper of many books.

“Can you make that shield a dome?” said Jill.

“I, uh – ”

The rustling was getting closer. “I need that boldness now, Sparrow. Come up with something fast.” Jill was firing off stunners as fast as she could but the press of books was beginning to overwhelm her.

“Talk to me,” said Sparrow.

“About what, exactly!”

“About why you followed me into Hufflepuff. You proved yourself as bold as I am, didn’t you? You were the only one besides me in our first year that wanted to touch the dragons. You jumped on a broom before anyone else did, and you did it from a second story balcony. You would have been perfect in Gryffindor. You would have been able to hang out with all your brothers and sisters every evening, and speak to them more often before they graduated. So why did you follow me?”

“How do you know I followed you?”

“Because you were so embarrassed when Jocasta said it. It must have hit a nerve.”

“Stupefy!  Well, now you’re thinking about other people – stupefy! – so that’s a good start. And you’re right, and – stupefy! – Jocasta was right – stupefy! – and it was because of that shield charm you cast. Stupefy! The first one, remember?”

Sparrow had been standing in line with the rest of the first years, waiting for her turn with the hat. And a Fanged Frisbee had come whirling out of the crowd. Before anyone else could react, even the teachers, Sparrow had her wand out and had deflected the Frisbee.

It had been highly unusual, because beginning first years weren’t supposed to know shield charms yet, or much magic at all. They had purchased their spellbooks, of course, but nobody had expected them to READ the things, nor to practice anything in them before the start of the term, nor yet to perfect it.

“Alright, so did you think I was going to go into Ravenclaw?”

“I fully expected you to be sorted into that house, yes, or into Gryffindor. But you picked Hufflepuff. You PICKED a house. That doesn’t happen often, does it? People go where they’re placed by a wiser person. Or someone they think is wiser. Older, at the very least. And you didn’t. You made a choice. So I decided I would make one, too, and follow you. Because I…wanted to see what you would get up to.

“And when pranks came flying at us Hufflepuffs over the years, you managed to intercept half of them. Why did you bother? They weren’t even coming at you, but you saved people from fanged Frisbees, india-ink eggs, falling chandeliers, dung bombs…Why? Why save someone that isn’t you or your friends?”

“I don’t like to see people hurt,” said Sparrow. “That’s all.”

“Is it that simple?”

“No.”

“Do you want to tell me about it?”

“I want Blaise to hear the whole story too. I don’t want to tell it twice.”

The monster books on Sparrow’s side had gone. So had the books on Jill’s side. All that was left was a pile of tomes that lay stunned. “I think we’re safe now,” said Jill. “Let’s press forward.”

Sparrow looked around.

All the books on the shelves had gone.

There was a rustling of paper all around them.

And it was growing very close.

“What I’m gathering from your story,” said Sparrow, “is that you are interested in me. Is that correct?”

“Of course! We’re still friends, right?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if you still want to be friends. You abandoned me for weeks, and then ran away again. Perhaps, in the short amount of time we have, you’d be willing to explain why. I have an idea but I’d prefer to hear it from you.”

The rustling of paper was growing louder.

“I, uh –– ”

“It’s clear to me that you’re prone to feeling embarrassed but we’re running out of time here, so I’m going to take a wild guess and say that you’ve had a crush on me for a while. Am I right?”

Jill’s face reddened. “Damn it. Yes, yes I do.”

The rustling was nearly on top of them.

“And I likewise. I like you. I mean – I mean perhaps my idea here will work. If you would be so kind, kiss me.”

“What!”

Rustle, rustle.

“Oh, do you not want to?”

“I didn’t say that!”

Rustle, rustle.

“Then do it! We’ve got about three – ”

Jill planted a hard one on Sparrow’s lips. In the same moment, the books burst out of the stacks from every direction, fully intending to tear the two children to shreds. Sparrow, still locked in the kiss, pointed her wand in a random direction and said clearly within her mind, Wingardium Leviosa.

If Professor Budge’s theory was right, and sheer determination could make a shield spell as hard as iron, perhaps sheer elation could make someone as light as air. Or, in this case, everything around the caster.

About five seconds later, Jill finally let go, and Sparrow opened her eyes.

Thousands of books hovered in mid-air around the two girls, having been halted in mid-leap. They snapped furiously, unable to escape the spell or move forward at all.

“That’s very impressive,” said Jill, as she looked around. “When did you learn to do that?”

“Just now,” said Sparrow. “I had a bit of help, from a very good friend.”

 

The two girls awoke at the library table in the morning.

Having escaped the forbidden section intact, Jill had suggested that they go to sleep at the table by resting their heads on some open books, so as to pretend that they had fallen asleep in the library.

Yet when they awoke, the books had been moved into a stack next to them.

Even though there was nobody else in the library yet.

Sparrow and Jill rose, and checked the doors. They remained closed.

The librarian was nowhere to be seen.

“I really would like to get out of here,” said Sparrow. “I’ve been caught sneaking around after dark too often.”

“I thought you liked my alibi!” said Jill. “It’s perfect.”

“I thought it was perfect,” said Sparrow. “But think about it this way. We’re stuck in the library all night, right? We never sent an owl, never tried to call anyone for help, and I’m dead certain the administration knows there’s a monster in here every night, because the library doors can’t be opened after hours. So what are they going to think when we claim to have just ‘fallen asleep’ in the library? At the very least they’ll be suspicious.”

“You’re thinking of what other people are thinking,” said Jill. “I’m so proud.”

“I’m giving it a shot. Now, how are we going to get out of here?”

“Wait until the doors open?” said Jill. “And then duck out like nothing’s the matter?”

“Hide in the stacks and start studying,” said Sparrow, “and maybe people will think we just got in before they did. Come on. There’s a book I want to ask you about anyway.”

Sparrow led Jill to the history section. There were huge tomes and skinny tomes. The section on wizard-muggle relations was fairly substantial. “Here it is,” said Sparrow. “Late seventeenth century.” She hefted a weighty tome off the shelf and thumped it down on the table. “There’s only one big thing that happened in that decade.”

“Oh come on,” said Jill. “I thought you were off that subject for once. Half the reason I ditched Violet that one evening is because I didn’t want to hear you two talk about it.”

Indeed,” said a voice from the end of the stack. “It is a touchy subject. And the librarian hears many whispers and rumors spoken within his walls. You are already spoken of frequently, Miss Jones, and not in the best of lights.”

There stood The Librarian.

He was a grey man, grey of hair and literally?grey of face and grey of clothing. No one knew his name. No one had ever asked. To the students, he was simply the one who signed out their books, and who put the shelves back in order. Sparrow had heard much from Ravenclaws about consulting the library, but not one had ever mentioned consulting the Librarian. For all intents and purposes he was a background figure at the school.

“What’s your name?” said Sparrow.

The Librarian looked confused. “Name? Name. Erm. You know, I stopped asking myself after a while. I don’t leave the library, and nobody says much of anything to me. So, I stopped remembering what it was myself. Perhaps you could give me one?”

“You must pick for yourself,” said Sparrow.

The Librarian looked around at the shelves. He dragged a massive book off the shelf, opened it, and pointed to a section. “There. Timothy Treadpoor. You shall call me Tim.”

“Very well,” said Sparrow. “Tim it is.”

“Now, about this whole studying business,” said Tim. “You want to learn about the Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, hm?”

“I do,” said Sparrow. “And yet, if I were to ask Professor Binns, word would get back to Hagrid, and I would have a detention. So I thought to ask the books.”

“Books spill their secrets without hesitation,” said Tim. “As might I.”

“Oh no you won’t,” said Jill. “You know we were here last night. We know what you are. If you leave us alone we’ll leave you alone. Deal?”

Tim was visibly shaken.

“That’s quite harsh,” said Sparrow. “I have a better idea. Mr. Treadpoor, do you enjoy being a werewolf?”

“I…erm. What’s it to you?”

“What if we could help you?” said Sparrow.

“How?”

“Figuring out how to cure your lycanthropy.”

Tim stared in confusion.

“And then you help us learn about the statute,” said Sparrow. “Deal?”

“I cannot make a deal for something impossible,” said Tim. “I am sorry. At the very least, I will keep your secret if you will keep mine. Just don’t let me catch you studying that subject in here again.”

Sparrow slammed the book shut. “Fine,” she said. “Fine. Fine. Nobody wants to help me. But for God’s sake, let me help you. You’ve been shut up here for years because people are scared of you. At least let me try to get you out of that mess.”

Tim sighed. “I really don’t think there’s anything you can do.”

“We’re Wizards,” said Sparrow. “The question is what we CAN’T do.”

We can’t study the Statute of Magical Secrecy,” said Jill.

“I have an idea of where we can,” said Sparrow. “But we have to figure out how to get there.”

“Am I hearing you right?” said Cormac, in potions class. “You want to find a CURE for Lycanthropy?”

“I can goddamn well try,” said Sparrow, as she was grinding beetle wings in a mortar. “There’s got to be something.”

“There certainly is,” said Professor Slughorn. “Alas, it has not worked for me, all these years. I have tried so many times and it just never went right.”

Professor Slughorn was an old man, nearly as old as McGonnogal. He had been more mobile, once, but these days he tended to levitate himself around on a chair. Accordingly the spaces between the rows in the potions classroom were wide. It made it easier to whisper about sensitive topics without being overheard, at least by other students. The professor, though, had a habit of managing to come around just when you were getting to the good part.

“Remind me what this method is,” said Sparrow.

“It is a particular potion,” said Slughorn, “that, when drunk before the full moon, will reduce one’s lycanthropy to the state of a regular wolf, as opposed to a vicious werewolf.”

“And if you forget to drink it?”

“Ah, well,” said Slughorn. “It is a terrible thing indeed to be a forgetful werewolf.”

“Then the potion isn’t good enough,” said Sparrow. “Not at all. I need something that only has to work once.”

“Are you absolutely mad?” said Slughorn. “There’s no permanent cure for Lycanthropy.”

“That’s what you think,” said Sparrow. “How many people have tried to find one?”

“Well, I, er…I hardly know what they get up to at the Ministry, so I can’t say, can I? But nobody likes werewolves anyway, do they? It’s a surprise anyone bothered to come up with anything for them at all. Why don’t you concentrate on your potion of hiccup-curing and get back to work, Miss Jones.”

The class passed in its usual dullness. Sparrow had not appreciated potions last year, and her opinion this year had not changed. There just didn’t seem to be much to them, not the way Slughorn was teaching. Potions for curing hiccups, potions for staying warm in the cold, potions for staying cold in the warm, all rather pedestrian stuff so far. Sparrow wondered if they were going to get into anything really interesting, or if that was for levels above fourth year. Surely the possibilities were endless? This was magic, after all. Nobody had found the boundaries, as far as she knew. Nor did anyone seem to know how to find them. They just did the things that worked, and they worked, and that was that.

And even in the library, Sparrow hadn’t been able to find anything in the way of theory. Just books of spells, history, law, poetry, and bestiaries. There was a section on theory. But it was empty.

Professor Budge had mentioned a Department of Mysteries. Perhaps they knew what was up. Or at least they knew how to find out. Or at least they had an idea. Maybe. At least they were given the job of trying.

Sparrow decided to file that information away for later use. It wouldn’t do to go skipping off to the Ministry when she had classes to attend.

Her cauldron began to bubble and fizz. Sparrow realized that she had been grinding the beetle wings far too long, and the mixture was overboiling. She hastily dumped the ground beetle wings in.

The resulting explosion tossed her back into someone else’s cauldron, which spilled hot potion all over them. There was a terrified scream that quickly became a snarl, as the poor student, Miranda McClivert, was transformed into a large fox.

Well that was interesting. Potions could clearly change a person’s shape. Maybe this was a means of getting past Filch. If she could take a form small enough, why then, how would he even notice her?

Ten points from Hufflepuff for being negligent. Twenty points from Gryfindor, as McClivert appeared to have been concocting a potion that had no relation to what Slughorn had been teaching. Slughorn would have taken more points, but considered himself at fault for failing to pay attention.

The poor girl hadn’t taken much effort to change her back, fortunately, and she was able to walk out of the classroom with everyone else. But she had expressed no desire to speak with anyone, and had rushed off before Sparrow could catch her.

Sparrow spent much of the next day, a Saturday, looking through what library books she could find for details of shape-changing potions. Much of it was something called Polyjuice. Nasty stuff, and rather complicated. McClivert had been working with simple ingredients on a short time frame, presumably. No, there was nothing in the low-level potion books regarding animal transformations.

“Interested in potions now,” said Tim the Librarian, “as if I don’t know what you’re up to.”

“I’ll get to your potion eventually. I’m just pursuing a related lead right now.”

Tim put his hands on his hips. “My potion? What do you mean, my potion? It was your idea. I have no interest in it.”

“Oh come now,” said Sparrow. “Of course you do. Who would want to be a werewolf?”

“Fenrir Greyback and his ilk. Nasty fellows. But that’s beside the point! I take advantage of my malady, Miss Jones. It gives me an excuse to stay shut up in here, where things are relatively quiet and peaceful, and I am master of this domain. If I went out into the castle, why, I could get lost.”

“I am resolved to help you,” said Sparrow, “whether you like it or not.”

“You are impossible,” said Tim, and he departed.

In the mid-evening after supper, Sparrow stood at the portrait of the Fat Lady.

“A Hufflepuff,” said the Fat Lady. “Are you waiting for a friend?”

“I was hoping you could tell me if someone was in,” said Sparrow. “Miranda McClivert.”

“Quite a strange request, child. I have no knowledge of what occurs on the other side of me, alas. The most I can do is relay a message to this person, when they happen to meet me again. What would you have them know?”

“To meet me on the walkway between the astronomy tower and the dragon tower at noon on Sunday.”

“If that is what you wish.”

That night Sparrow stole out of the Hufflepuff common room and cast an invisibility charm upon herself. Then she made her way to the upper corridor leading towards the dragon tower.

Filch spotted her within three seconds.

“Is that supposed to be an invisibility charm?” said the ghost. “You look like a heat mirage walking along the corridor. And I can see your footprints in the dust. Terrible form, girl. Fifty points from Hufflepuff.”

“Is it possible for points to go negative?”

“No…I don’t think so.”

Then there’s only so far I can make the house fall.”

In the days leading up to the Sunday that Sparrow hoped to meet Miranda, Jill was bit less handsy with Sparrow than normal.

“I should have thought you would want to get right to the snogging,” said Sparrow, as the two sat on a love seat in the Hufflepuff common room, hands intertwined. “Are you holding back?”

“Maybe I’m not as lusty as you, have you ever thought of that? Maybe I want my love to be as pure as the driven snow.”

“Oh, well. Is that why you ran away from me? Didn’t want to get all dirty?”

“No.”

“Why, then?”

“It’s things I still don’t want to talk to you about yet. I’m sorry. It’s a little complicated.” She stood and turned to face Sparrow, still holding her hand. “You know I get embarrassed about things easily. Can you wait another week, and then I’ll tell you?”

“All this waiting for everyone! Fine. I waited weeks for you, I can wait again.”

“Speaking of that. How did you guess I had a crush on you anyway?”

“How could I not? It’s a common Romance trope, you know, to run away instead of confessing your feelings for someone. Also common in real life. I had that idea, and Jocasta gave some hints that made me more certain. But I wasn’t going to ask. I figured it was your decision to tell me, not mine.” She stood, turned back to Jill, and took the girl’s other hand in hers. “I’m sorry about putting you in a situation where we were pressed for time.”

Jill frowned in confusion. “I thought I put you in that situation.”

“Surely it was my fault, for suggesting we enter the Forbidden Section.”

“Maybe. But, if either of us had been the one to instigate it, do you think the other would have even considered staying behind?”

“Definitely not.”

“Well then.” Jill rose, and gave Sparrow a peck on the cheek. “Perhaps we shall follow each other to the ends of the earth. Not even perhaps. I would follow you anyway. You get into so much trouble, you know.” She gave Sparrow another peck. “You could get yourself into a real mess, someday, and then I must be there for you.”

“I certainly would not mind.”

Noon on Sunday. Jill and Sparrow stepped out into the mist, on the walkway between the Astronomy and Dragon towers. Miranda McClivert was not there.

However, Jocasta was on the walkway, looking out at the grim drear.

Upon spotting her, Jill made a hasty apology, and departed. Jocasta raised an eyebrow. Sparrow shrugged, and said, “She’ll be back for me eventually, I suppose, as always. Now, I fully expected to meet Miranda here. Instead I meet one of my potential lovers. How fare you, my love?”

“Shut up,” said Jocasta.

“I haven’t seen a prank from you in weeks,” said Sparrow. “You’re completely off your game. What has happened?”

“Maybe I got bored.”

“Surely Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes has an endless supply of tricks? Unless you’ve purchased the entire store by now? Oh, but wait! You only have a limited supply here at school. You must have used them all up! My dear, you shall have to start devising your own pranks, instead of buying them from a shop.”

Jocasta gritted her teeth. “That’s not it at all.”

“Well what then? Presumably you are aware of why Miss McClivert decided not to show up?”

“I know quite a bit of gossip at this school,” said Jocasta. “And I can tell you that she blames herself for what happened. But she doesn’t really wish to discuss the matter with someone who has a reputation for bowling right through the wishes of other people.”

“Uh --  ”

“In any case I’m not here to speak for her. I’m here to speak for me. Because I thought, Oh, why on earth would the high and mighty Sparrow Jones want to talk to Miranda McClivert? It can’t possibly be to apologize. Sparrow never does that. And it can’t be to drink in the sight of Miranda’s mighty shoulders. Sparrow is too high-minded for that. It must be because Miranda has knowledge that Sparrow wants. And the only knowledge that Miranda has that Sparrow knows about is the business with the shape-changing potion. Now, why on earth would Sparrow Jones want to know about shape-changing? Who knows? But I have an offer.”

“Which is?”

Let me teach you how to become an Animagus.”

There was a long pause as Sparrow took in this concept.

“I think I wasted an opportunity to spit out my drink in surprise,” said Sparrow. “You should have asked me at dinner.”

“Is it all that surprising? I know you want power. That’s why you seek knowledge. You’re always looking through the spellbooks for new things, even though you can’t cast half of them to save your life. I can offer you power that is…more reliable.”

“Oh really,” said Sparrow, as she crossed her arms. “And WHY do you think I seek power, hmmmmmm?”

“To…be more powerful than other people? I thought that was the whole point.”

“No no,” said Sparrow. “Keep going, there’s more to it. What do armies always say about themselves?”

“I don’t – ”

“That they’re defending their country. Well, maybe I’m like that. I want to be able to defend my friends. A shield isn’t cutting it.”

“They tend to not cut things,” said Jocasta.

“And this…Animagus business. Notwithstanding that it could get me in more trouble than I’ve ever been in, ever, it feels like a more selfish power. A snooping power. If I thought snooping would be useful I might consider it, but it doesn’t seem to be what I need.”

“Oh really,” said Jocasta. “Who’s the one trying to get past Argus Filch?”

“How did you -- goddamit, you really are a fly on the wall. You’re literally a fly on the wall. How do you avoid getting smashed? How do you avoid spiders?”

“Luck, I suppose.”

“Can’t you pick a different form? Something safer?”

“Nope. Animagus form is fixed by personality. I don’t make the rules.”

“Someday I’m going to figure out how to break those rules,” said Sparrow.

“Spoken like a true Slytherin.”

“So why are you asking me about all this?” said Sparrow. “Why not only reveal to me that you’re a –hang on. Are you even registered?”

“That’s a long story.”

“Ok. Assuming you’re not registered, why not only reveal to me your secret, but ask me to join you? What’s your angle?”

“Think of it this way,” said Jocasta. “I know that you’re asking about the Statute of Secrecy. Dangerous business, to go poking at that rule. And I happen to have a very dangerous secret of my own. So, I’m giving it to you as a gesture of goodwill. I’m making things mutual between us. Because I want you to trust me.”

“Mutually assured destruction,” said Sparrow. “There’s ways that can go wrong, if one party turns out to be suicidal. Such as, for example, trying to secretly become an animagus at fourteen years old? What on earth were you thinking? You could have been disfigured for life.”

Jocasta looked surprised. “You care about me.”

“I care about everyone’s safety. If I ever manage to get past Filch again and meet Blaise, maybe you’ll hear why. But answer the damn question. Why the HELL do you want ME to become an UNREGISTERED ANIMAGUS?”

“Son of a troll, Sparrow, keep your voice down. Look.” She took Sparrow’s hands in hers. “I didn’t ask for this animagus business. My father told me I had to uphold the family legacy, or else he’d disinherit me. He shepherded me through the process but he still didn’t ask if I wanted it. And now I’ve got this great secret that I can’t tell anyone, that I can’t ask anyone questions about, that I can’t commiserate with people about, because letting that secret out to the world would be my end. They’d toss me into Azkaban and I would go mad.”

“There’s a guy named Black who supposedly survived the Dementors because he could turn into a dog. If you can turn into a fly the place couldn’t possibly hold you, could it? You could just zip right out of there.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. But it’s beside the point. The point is, I need to be able to talk to someone about this whole animagus business. Who better than you?”

“Miranda.”

Jocasta snorted. “She’s a Gryffindor. And I hardly know her.”

“No, seriously. Miranda McClivert. She clearly has some interest in shape-changing. I think she was mixing that potion in class deliberately. She must have been using ingredients that weren’t in the supply cabinet. You need to go and ask her about shape-changing. I think she will be a sympathetic ear.”

“I can’t risk that.”

“Well, you’re asking me to risk a lot here. Not for much gain on my part. Nor yours, really. We can talk about stuff without, you know, making me go through an incredibly dangerous and difficult and illegal process.”

“I….I wanted to offer you the possibility, if you would have it. I thought of it as a gift.”

“Oh, DO you fancy me?”

“Shut up.”

“That’s not a no.”

“Shut up!”

“Fine.” Sparrow let go of Jocasta’s hands and turned towards the grim rain-soaked land. “I’d have to ask Jill about letting you in on our thing anyway.”

“You’re dating – well, maybe that’s not a surprise, but I am a trifle disappointed.”

“Ah ha!” Sparrow spun around. “I knew it!”

“Not like that!” said Jocasta. “It’s because…because she might be distracted in dueling, now, especially if you show up. She’s a good dueling partner. Taught me a lot. And now she’s gonna be all lovey-dovey and stuff. Right?”

“Give her more credit,” said Sparrow. “She’s not going overboard with the romance even though she’s dating me.”

“Oh, well. That’s because she’s dating you.”

“How do you mean?”

“Miss high-and-mighty doesn’t hold with anything so sordid as taking someone to bed, now does she? I’m sure Jill is holding back because she knows you have strict limits.”

“Oh come on. I’m not that much of a prude. I’m just…ambitious. Like you. You know? Easily distracted by my ideals.”

Jocasta winked. “That’s what I like about you, your ambition.”

 “But, getting back to the issue of Animagism. My relationship with Jill presents some complications. Because, if I’m dating her, she’s gonna find out about this thing eventually. And she will want in. Because she’s Jillian Patil, and she’s – ”

“Never backed down from a challenge,” said Jocasta. “That’s what I like about her. Alright. Does this mean you’re interested or not?”

“I’ll think about it. Doesn’t the process involve the full moon? We’re not going to get another clear full moon until March at least. In the meantime, feel free to talk to me about stuff.”

“It is always my pleasure,” said Jocasta.

Sparrow began to depart, but as she was nearing the door she turned and said, “You know, I’m pretty sure that you fancy me.”

“How do you know?”

“A Slytherin not only talks to a muggleborn, she dances with her, and then entrusts her with this much? Old Salazar is rolling in his grave.”

“Never mind,” said Jocasta. There was a small thump of air as she became a fly, and she zipped away.

“I heard a rumor that you fancied Jocasta Carrow,” said Violet.

It was mid-November, still at the beginning of the rainy season. There were a few sunny days left. Sparrow was sitting near Violet in the library. They were both working on History of Magic essays.

“Okay,” said Sparrow, “I’ve heard of rumors growing wild in the retelling, but I’ve never heard of them getting flipped backwards. It’s Jocasta that fancies me.”

“Good for you then.”

“Are you jealous?”

“Well, your rumor self is cheating on my rumor self, and on Jillian Patil, according to what I hear. Quite the scandal. You should be ashamed.”

“Let’s say there’s a rumor that I’m ashamed.”

“Fair enough. I also heard that you wanted to cure lycanthropy.”

“Well, yes…I mean, I’ve kind of got that idea shelved right now. If I can’t make a potion without seeing it explode then I probably shouldn’t be making experimental stuff for anyone. I wanted to ask the McClivert girl about that shape-changing potion first, that seems like it would be more simple. But eventually I’ll work on the lycanthropy one. I just can’t find any good information in this library. At least not the regular section.” She winked.

“Maybe you just don’t know how to do your research properly,” said Violet. “Have you asked the librarian?”

Sparrow glanced left and right. “I have the feeling that he’s not going to help me look for this particular info. Let’s just say he’s sensitive about that topic.”

Violet raised her eyebrow. “If you’re trying to not imply that he’s a Werewolf – ”

“Dammit.”

“You can’t get anything past a Ravenclaw, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, hype up your house. Anyway, how do I research properly?”

Violet stood and motioned Sparrow to follow. She barely gave the girl time to roll up her essay as she moved to the end of the row.

Violet led Sparrow to a section that she had never seen before. A lot of large tomes with the same binding. It looked perfectly boring.

“This is the reference section,” said Violet. “This is where you look for bibliographic references and cross-references.”

“Bibliowhat?”

“Did nobody teach you how to do your own research?”

“That’s never really come up in any of my classes. We’re still working out of the textbooks.”

“So all this time,” said Violet, “you’re in the library and you’re not taking full advantage of it? I thought you were studious. You were just looking for the cool stuff, weren’t you?”

“All I look for is new spells.”

“Of course. Because you want power.”

“I want to protect my friends.”

“So I am told,” said Violet. “Protect them from what, though? We haven’t had a real dark wizard since the Voldemort War. Potter’s Army killed half of them and the rest haven’t been seen since.”

“That’s…not exactly something I want to talk about. It’s a long story. If you can help me sneak past Filch and reach Blaise on a moonlit night, you may hear it.”

Violet crossed her arms. “If you’re not going to tell anyone what you’re protecting them from, they can’t help you or themselves.”

 Sparrow shook her head. “Bad memories! Leave it be for now. I haven’t seen anything nasty hanging around the castle so it’s not like it’s an immediate problem.”  She dragged a giant tome off the shelf. “Cross reference, hm, alright. Shall we get to it?”

It turned out to be the first time in a while that Sparrow’s time in the library could be called truly productive. She managed to follow references all the way to a tome of experimental potion-crafting. By Hermione Granger, of all people. Did she know anything about potions? That wasn’t part of the legend of the Second Wizarding War. But, as the introduction explained, the tome itself was produced by copying all the liner notes of the potions textbook of someone named “Severus Snape.”

Apparently this particular tome was far more effective than the regular potions textbook could ever be. Sparrow wondered why it hadn’t been famous enough for her to know about already. Maybe the regular textbook writers didn’t appreciate a young student who outdid them, nor yet a famous witch who tended to outdo everyone.

Unfortunately the book still didn’t have anything related to lycanthropy. Mostly what it had was improvements on the basics. But, it was a demonstration that experimenting with potions was possible and productive. Sparrow wondered how many times this Severus Snape had blown up his cauldron.

This was volume 1. There was supposed to be a volume 2 with all the bibliographic references. But it was not on the shelf. In fact there was an obvious hole where it must have been no more than a day ago. Someone had taken that volume, and that volume alone.

Someone else was trying to make advanced potions. Perhaps. But why take the second volume with all the references, and not the first volume with the actual information? Why not take them both together? The question was, did this person want to gain knowledge for themselves, or keep it from someone else?

Sparrow had the feeling that Tim the Librarian wasn’t going to give her any answers, if he had the slightest hint that she was looking for information about lycanthropy or potions.

She resolved to wait, and see if the book returned to the shelf. Three weeks. That was a good time to wait for the book to come back.

In the ensuing weeks while she waited, she attempted every trick she could think of to get past Filch. She attempted to improve her invisibility charm, which didn’t get past his searching eyes. She attempted to use a shrinking potion and creep through the shadows, but Filch spotted her in a patch of moonlight. She tried making a potion that would turn her into a puff of air, but all it did was send her to the hospital wing for three days. She tried riding a broom out the Hufflepuff window and up to the tower, but nobody would lend her one, because she was a terrible flyer. She tried conjuring up an illusion to distract him. He floated right through it. She tried hiding in the astronomy tower until after dark. Filch checked it thoroughly.

The idea of becoming an animagus for the sake of getting past Filch began to look more appealing. A petty impetus for a noble goal, perhaps, but it was an impetus. Besdides which, if she got caught trying to pass him again he was going to restart the fifty-point deductions.

It was a dreary Monday morning in November, getting closer to December. Sparrow stood at the front of the Defense Against the Dark Arts class and, as ever, completely failed to produce an effective Stunning Charm. Professor Budge exclaimed that he had never seen anything like it. It was only when Sparrow had the opportunity to look in Jill’s direction and see her giving the thumbs-up sign that she even managed to get anything out of her wand at all.

After class, Professor Budge asked Sparrow to stay.

“Are you going to tell me that I shouldn’t take your class?” said Sparrow.

“My dear Miss Jones.” Professor Budge chuckled. “Think about your performance over three years. You’ve managed to master every defensive spell I’ve taught you, and quite a few that I haven’t. If it came to a fight you would be a wall the very world could not break. Yet you’ve never once managed to cast a proper offensive spell. Do you even want to?”

“No. No, I don’t want to hurt anyone, at all.”

“Yet we are speaking of a defense against the Dark Arts, child. These are, or were, or will be, very nasty people. What if they decide not to attack your wall at all? What if they go after someone else?”

“I’ll just have to make my wall bigger.”

“You can’t put a wall around the entire world,” said Budge. “Nor would anyone wish you to. It would be quite annoying for people to discover that they couldn’t go down to the candy shop because there was a glowing yellow wall at the end of the lane. No, my dear, sometimes you do have to take action. Sometimes, yes, you do have to hurt someone, in order to save someone else.”

“But hurting people is wrong,” said Sparrow. “If we do it, how are we any different?”

“You are fourteen years old, child, and to you the world looks very simple and straightforward. But as you grow older, you will learn that some moral situations are complex, and you cannot always hold to your highest principles. Sometimes your goals are more important. You, of all the people I have known, are most desperate to defend the innocent. Set that as a goal, above even a pledge to do no harm. Do you understand?”

“I think so.”

“Now, let me see your wand.”

Sparrow produced her wand. It was a long one, nearly twelve inches, made of hornbeam. She handed it to Professor Budge with reluctance.

“A highly passionate wandwood,” said Budge. “The kind of wand that hews closely to the principles and style of the owner, and refuses to do anything uncharacteristic. Indeed it practically absorbs the user’s code of honor. And what is the core?”

“Unicorn hair.”

“Ah yes. The core least suited for dark magic. If you were to attempt to cast the Cruciartus Curse with this wand, it might jump up and hit you square in the nose. If you’re lucky. What did Ollivander tell you, when this wand selected you?

Sparrow thought back to the shop in Diagon Alley. Ollivander had tested a fair few wands with her. Applewood, a rare kind, for being suited to high ideals. Walnut, for those with the talent for magical innovation. Yet it was the hornbeam, the wood of those with great passion and singular vision, that had been the most lively in Sparrow’s hand.

“He warned me,” said Sparrow. “He said that if I had strong principles, the wand would take them to heart, and it would be harder to convince the wand to ignore them than it would be to convince me. He said I ought to be careful about which principles to follow doggedly.”

“And you have chosen the principle of defense, above all others.”
Well. That one had come up shortly after the wand had chosen her. Before the wand itself had chosen her, what Sparrow had been thinking was that everyone ought to see a dragon.

She decided to keep that to herself for now.

“I chose defense, yes. I can’t even imagine smacking someone in the face with my bare hands, much less using a wand.”

“There is such a thing as offensive defense,” said Budge. “Remember that. I want you to practice the basic stunning spell on your own. I expect you to perform it within two weeks.”

Sparrow left the classroom feeling like she’d been chastised, even though she knew Budge hadn’t meant to.

Among the extensive grounds at Hogwarts there were many open walkways and covered walkways. Normally they stayed put, although, on occasion, the walkway would shift its endpoint in full view of the students, as if to mock them for thinking they had a chance of getting to class on time. Even the walkway to the Dragon Tower would, on occasion, detach and move all the way around to the Ravenclaw tower.

This particular one, crossing a narrow chasm to connect a disused tower to a little-used courtyard, occasionally shifted itself to become a staircase going down the side of the chasm. Violet had taken careful note of its timing, and deduced that it became a staircase every eight days, for the space of twelve hours. The trick was that those twelve hours could begin any time on the day of shifting. If you were at the bottom of the chasm, and the staircase left you, you’d better hope you had a broom, or it was going to be a long walk to get back into the castle.

Currently it was in staircase mode. It was also the rainy season. Which meant that the chasm was full of flowing water. Not exactly a safe place to step into unless you were a mermaid. Perhaps even if you were a mermaid.

Sparrow, Cormac, and Jill had hoped to reach the disused tower for a little more privacy. They had forgotten what day it was.

“Well how was I supposed to know?” said Cormac over the pounding rain. “Violet didn’t tell me what day it shifted last week.”

“Never mind,” said Sparrow. “Let’s just get practicing.”

Jill had suggested the disused courtyard for the sake of Sparrow. She herself would not have raised much fuss if she’d been practicing her shield charm in the Hufflepuff common room, but for Sparrow, firing off a stunner might have caused a few problems. They tended to ricochet, as Jill had learned the first time she cast one. It had not been in a safe place such as a charms class, but in the very great hall where Sparrow had first demonstrated her shield spell to a surprised crowd. Jill had seen the Fanged Frisbee, attempted to stun it out of the air, missed, and bounced her spell off the wall back at the crowd. Thus Jill’s introduction to the school was someone as bold as Sparrow, but dangerous.

This evening, then, the goal was for Jill to perfect her shield spell, and Sparrow to perfect her stunning charm.

“Tell you what,” said Jill. “I’ll try to cast a shield while you try to cast a stunner at me. We’ll see who manages it first, alright?”

Sparrow drew her wand.

“Hang on a minute,” said Cormac. “Shouldn’t you perfect the spell before you cast it at each other?”

“It’s perfectly fine,” said Sparrow. “It’s not like I can do it anyway.”

“I have faith in you,” said Jill. She kissed Sparrow on the cheek.

“Dammit,” said Sparrow. “Now it will work after all. Alright, we’ll see how this goes.”

It did not go. Sparrow tried, and tried, yet nothing more than a little mote of red light came from her wand. Likewise Jill, no matter how hard she waved her wand, no matter how loudly she shouted “protego”, could not produce a wall of yellow light.

“Maybe I’m just not in the mood for it,” said Sparrow. “Professor Budge said there was an emotional component for spellcasting. Then again, I’m never in the mood for it. I’m not sure how I can be. He told me there were times when I would need to hurt people in order to save others, but…what if I can’t cast an offensive spell until that moment comes? I’d have no practice at all.”

“I don’t understand why you always want to play defense,” said Jill. She flicked her wand again. Still nothing. “It means you’re always ceding the initiative. Unless your defense is perfect – ”

“It is,” said Sparrow.

“No it isn’t.” She flicked her wand again. Still nothing. “Three times in your life, you faltered. Three times your shield was broken. If an enemy can make you falter, then they can get past your supposedly mighty defense, like water through a tiny crack in a dam. You have to learn how to attack.”

“I don’t want to,” said Sparrow. “There’s got to be another way.”

“There is none,” said Jill. “There is attack and there is defense, and you’re missing half.”

“So are you,” said Cormac. “I’ve never seen you cast an effective spell of defense, no matter what it is. Shields and counterspells alike, you never bother. That only works if your assault is relentless. And you have to take the initiative, instead of waiting for your opponent to make the first move.”

“Exactly,” said Jill. “If I can get in the first blow hard enough there doesn’t have to be a second.”

“And what if you can’t? What if your attack does nothing? Do you then retreat? How do you retreat without a good defense?”

“Turn into a spider and hide,” said Jill. “Or something.”

“You don’t want to cast defensive spells,” said Cormac. “Can I see your wand?”

Jill hesitated for a few seconds, glancing at Cormac as if he were asking her to spill a mighty secret. Then she relented, setting her mouth into a grim line and handing the wand over.

Cormac studied the wand intently. “Hornbeam. Hm. The kind of wood that follows its owner’s principles to the letter. And the core?”

“Unicorn tail hair.”

“Least susceptible to the dark arts,” said Cormac. “So you’re strongly committed to an offense, yet there are some spells where you won’t go. Length, I’d say fourteen inches – ”

“Hang on a minute,” said Sparrow. “I’ve got a hornbeam with unicorn hair. Did you grab my wand by mistake, Jill? Wait, no. It’s in my pocket here.”

“Most unusual,” said Cormac. “Ollivander tries to vary his wood and wand cores in order to present the greatest range of possibilities to first-time wizards. Why on earth would he make two wands of precisely the same type?”

“Maybe he always does,” said Sparrow. “Like if he needs to have a few of each type on hand, just in case there’s high demand.”

Cormac was stroking his chin. “Possible,” he said. “Although that’s a muggle way of doing things, right? Supply and demand, market forces. But we’re Wizards, and there’s only so many of us. Always few. We don’t do market forces. The Ollivander family is pureblood through-and-through, so I doubt that old Garrick would be thinking of supply and demand at all.”

“Just in case then,” said Jill. “On the rare chance that he’d meet two wizards on the same day with the same…affinity?”

“Personality,” said Cormac. “But you two are hardly the same. One desperate to protect and defend, the other eager to strike down foes – ”

“Same goal different methods,” said Jill. “And we’re both stubborn when it comes to certain topics.” She gave Sparrow a knowing look. “Pig-headed, even.”

“Oink,” said Sparrow.

“So I don’t find it a big surprise that we’d wind up with similar wands. Is it supposed to be a big surprise?”

“Yes,” said Cormac. “Enough so that Tom Riddle had no reasonable expectation of what would happen when his wand met Harry Potter’s. Priori Incantatem is an extremely rare occurrence. You only get it when you have two wands with cores taken from the same animal, and think about that – trying to get more than one tail feather from a phoenix, or more than one tail hair from a unicorn…you can get lots of heart strings from dragons, mind you…”

“We’re not talking about sibling wand cores,” said Sparrow. “These are just two wands of the same type. We’re not dealing with Priori Incantatem here.”

“That remains to be seen,” said Cormac. “There is, after all, only one way to find out.”

“Ask Ollivander?” said Sparrow.

“Two ways to find out,” said Cormac. “Sparrow, may I see your wand?”

Sparrow glanced around her. “As long as we’re safe.”

“We’re at Hogwarts, for goodness sake. The wards are strong.”

“But safe from a flying prank?”

“Have you always been this nervous?” said Cormac.

“Yes,” said Sparrow and Jill at the same time.

“What,” said Cormac, “were you born nervous?”

“No,” said Sparrow. “But in my life I have been given great cause to keep my eyes and ears open. I have no wish to leave myself vulnerable, not even for a minute.”

Cormac looked concerned.

“It’s fine,” said Sparrow. “I’m fine, it’s just…never mind. Maybe I’ll explain later. The point is I’ve never let my wand be more than an arm’s length from my hand, and never given it to anyone.”

“You rely on it,” said Cormac. “Perhaps too much. I told you about muggle solutions. Maybe you should be thinking about how to use them, just in case your wand is lost.”

“It won’t be,” said Sparrow.

“May I please see your wand?”

Sparrow shook her head.

“What if you stood real close to me while I held it? Then you could grab it out of my hands in case a big hairy monster attacked.”

Sparrow stepped close to Cormac. Still she held tight to her wand.

“Come on,” said Cormac. “I don’t bite.” He held out his hand, where lay Jill’s wand.

Sparrow shivered as she held her wand over Cormac’s open palm. She let it stay there for a few seconds, then let it go. She did not stop shivering.

Jill moved to her side and placed her mighty arm around Sparrow’s shoulder, drawing her close. “You are safe with me,” said Jill. “Always.”

Sparrow’s trembling ceased, and she let out a deep breath.

Cormac peered at the wands in his hand. “I think I made a mistake,” he said, “by putting them in the same hand. I can hardly tell these apart in the dim light.” He drew his own wand from a pocket of his robes. “Lumos.” He held the light over the wands. “Damn. It’s still difficult. Precisely the same length, extremely similar grain pattern, clearly from the same piece of hornbeam. The only real difference is the pattern on the handles, but even that’s close enough to keep fooling my eyes. If I were to toss these wands from hand to hand – ”

“Don’t even think about it,” said Sparrow.

“ – I would wind up forgetting which was which. These wands look like identical twins. A veritable Fred and George Weasly of wands. In fact, I think I have forgotten already. Do either of you remember which one was – ”

Jill pointed to the wand on the right side of Cormac’s palm. “That one’s mine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Definitely.”

“How?”

“No idea. I just am.”

“Fair enough.” Cormac passed the wand on the left wie of his palm to his left hand, and held up one wand to each ear in turn, then both together.

The two girls stared at him with quizzical expressions.

“They sound about the same,” said Cormac. “Almost as if their cores came from the same animal after all. I think these wands were born at the same time. I think they are identical twins. But, let us be more certain.” He handed the wands back. “Why don’t you cast some spells at each other that will strike each other, so we can see if they get a real Priori Incantatem going. And it would have to be a spell both of you could cast…something that wouldn’t be offensive or defensive. A cheering charm. Try that.”

“After as much as you have asked already,” said Sparrow, “you would have me alter someone’s mind without their permission?”

“Perhaps a color-changing spell then.”

“A warmth charm,” said Jill. “Perfect for a night like tonight.”

“I don’t know,” said Sparrow. “If you turned up the heat on that one, it could become an offensive spell.”

“For Harry’s Sake,” said Cormac, “stop trying to talk yourself out of this and cast the damn spell!”

Sparrow and Jill separated and stood facing each other. They lined their wands up, readied their proper dueling stances, and said “Ciribiribin.”

Out of the ends of both wands floated a line of visible water vapor.

The two lines met, and held there. At the place where they met they began to glow more brightly, and more again as the seconds passed.

For those seconds, no one spoke.

At last Cormac broke the silence. “This is it then,” he said. “The Priori Incantatem. Two wands with a core from the same animal cast spells at each other, they meet in the middle, they struggle, they push against each other, until one wins the duel and – now hang on a minute.”

The lines of water vapor were not pushing against each other, but wrapping around.

“They’re supposed to be fighting,” said Cormac. “I don’t know what’s going on here.”

“Perhaps,” said Jill, “Each wand loves the other too much.”

“Perhaps,” said Sparrow, “each wand thinks it is one half of a whole, and refuses to fight against itself.”

The water vapor had become a cloud, glowing bright white now, and growing ever larger, and larger, filling the space between the three students. Sparrow put out a finger and tried to touch the cloud. No spark jumped to her finger, nor did her finger dissolve. Perhaps it was safe.

In the next moment Sparrow could only hope that the cloud was harmless, because it suddenly expanded to engulf all three students. Within was bright white light, and she had to put her hand in front of her eyes to avoid being blinded. She could not look around to see where Jill was, but she felt a fumbling hand grip her shoulder, and then another one.

It almost felt like Jill’s hands. Large, strong. Yet not nearly as heavy. Couldn’t be Cormac’s hands either. His were always gentle. So whose –

The cloud vanished.

Sparrow looked around. There was nothing in this courtyard but three students, some stone benches, and the rain.

And yet…there was something else.

Heat.

Not oven heat, but soft heat. Tropical heat. Just like the Ciribiribin spell. Sparrow put a hand out to one of the stone benches. It was pleasantly warm.

“Fascinating!” said Cormac. “The two wands must have amplified the spell a thousandfold when working together. If we can find a place that we wouldn’t worry about destroying then we ought to see what else happens with that effect.”

“I think I’m perfectly satisfied for the time being,” said Jill, sounding and looking like she was about to cry, this time, as Sparrow had a few minutes before.

“But – ”

“I said. I am. Satisfied. Sparrow, maybe you ought to practice with Cormac instead of me for the time being. And…hold off from dating, for a while. Until we figure this thing out.”

“We’re Off then?” said Sparrow.

“For now.”

“Would you still hold me close?”

“If ever you feel afraid. Otherwise, I am…I don’t want to make you afraid, that’s the thing.”

“So you abandon me minutes after promising the opposite?”

“Like I said. I’m here if you need me. But only in that capacity. I am sorry.”

“I’d like to think you could still experiment,” said Cormac.

“Not that either.”

“But – ”

“You seem to know wandlore,” said Jill. “Go and ask Ollivander. This is his fault anyway. Come on, let’s get into the common room before we’re spotted being out of bed.”

“I think I know how you can cast an offensive spell,” said Jocasta.

They were in the History of Magic classroom, approximately ten minutes before the class was to begin.

“Do tell.”

“You have to hate your target.”

Sparrow frowned. “I’m not sure that I hate anybody specific.”

“Nobody at all?”

“There’s plenty of people in the world who have made bad choices, I suppose, and plenty of people I would have strenuous disagreements with, if I knew them personally. But, around here? No. I don’t have any personal enmities.”

“So little miss nice-nice doesn’t want to hurt anyone and doesn’t hate anyone,” said Jocasta. “You’re a sweet little angel covered in sugar.”

“Are you trying to goad me?” said Sparrow.

Jocasta sat down heavily at a desk. “I’m just…I mean, I thought it would be easy for you to follow my advice. Now I have to come up with something better.”

“Like what?”

“I haven’t thought of it yet.”

“Why do you even want to help me with that?”

“Never mind.”

She said nothing more to Sparrow, as they waited the remaining time before the class began.

At the sound of the clock striking one, the remaining students shuffled reluctantly into the classroom, sat down at their desks, and prepared to take a post-lunch nap. Professor Binns floated out of the blackboard and started his usual drone. “In the mid seventeenth century, the Welsh Wizarding Council blah, blah, blah…”

Jocasta leaned over to Sparrow and whispered, “your mother’s a whore.”

“She was,” whispered Sparrow. “Is, kind of. I never asked her much about it though. Who knows? Maybe I’m a half-blood.”

“Are you serious? Fine. Your father’s a whore.”

“I thought I had made it clear that I don’t consider that an insult.”

Jocasta said nothing more for a while, but fumed silently, drumming her fingers on the table. Then she poked Sparrow.

“Knock it off,” said the girl.

Poke.

“I said knock it off.”

Poke.

“Quit it!” Sparrow flicked Jocasta’s hand away.

Jocasta kept trying, with Sparrow trying to fend her off. They went at this for about twenty seconds before a glowing yellow wall sprang up between them.

Sparrow looked around. The entire class was staring. Including, of all people, Professor Binns.

“Twenty points from Slytherin,” said Binns, “and twenty from Hufflepuff.”

“I’ve never heard of Binns doing anything with house points,” said Cormac, as he played a soft tune on his ukulele.

The Hufflepuff common room was busy this evening with people doing homework. Nevertheless, people did their best to stay away from Sparrow and her friends. Apparently losing Hufflepuff more than a hundred house points within the first 6 months of the school year could put a dent in your reputation.

Sparrow was sitting in a comfy chair by the fire, holding her wand in the palm of her hand. “Oh, I’m sure he’s done it once,” she said. “Maybe back in 1960. But I wanted to ask you about wands.”

“I am surprised,” said Cormac. “After what I put you through in the Courtyard.”

“I have my wand in hand,” said Sparrow. “And so I have my confidence in hand.”

“But not your girl.”

“Now that’s a touchy subject.”

“I’m just saying, I blame myself for that one too.”

“Don’t. Jill’s been running away from me this entire school year so far. Maybe the wand thing is just an excuse…but I can never think that badly of her, can I? She’s got to have good reasons. I just wish she would tell me what they were. I wish she would explain.”

“Likewise you to me,” said Cormac. “I’d appreciate knowing why you’re always nervous.”

“I said I’d tell you later. On a night when we can get to the dragon tower again. That’s a promise. Anyway, wands. You said that my wand had absorbed my own principles. It’s not alive, though, is it?”

“They’re alive,” said Cormac. “That’s the first chapter of the book on basic wandlore. The question is, how much can they think? Even Ollivander isn’t certain. Then again, I don’t know if he’s ever bothered to figure out. That’s something to ask him, I suppose. As it is, your wand is learning along with you. That’s why we’re in school, Sparrow. That’s why it takes so long to become a proper wizard. You’re shepherding your wand along the path to power as much as the teachers are shepherding you. You have to figure out how to work with the wand.”

“So can I, like, talk to the wand?”

“Oh sure! But it might not talk back.” Cormac winked. “If you want a conversation, well. I’m sure there’s something on that in the library. Maybe. The wand lore book makes much of wands having personalities, but maybe it’s the same way a dog has a personality. You can tell it what to do, but it can’t tell you what to do.”

“That’s been bugging me.” Sparrow held her wand up to the light. “We talk about mastering the wand, of owning the wand, but if it’s a living thing – ”

“It’s like being the master of a dog. You’re not some kind of slave driver.”

Sparrow glanced at Cormac, a lad as pale as anything. Then she glanced at her own hand, which had a tendency to blend into shadows. “I should certainly hope not. But it’s still uncomfortable. I do not want to be a master. I want to be a partner. I want to have a relationship with this thing that isn’t just ‘do this do that.’ What I mean is, I would like to be able to convince this wand to do some basic offensive spells. I’m a little more amenable to the idea now, but this thing is a real…stick in the mud. Har har har.” She pocketed the wand.

“A relationship? The wand isn’t a person, Sparrow. It’s a tool. Like a boarhound or a farm cat. It has a personality but there’s only so much you can do to connect with it.”

“But what if that isn’t true? Come on. You’re the wand expert around here, you have to at least entertain the possibility.”

“Are you going to turn into another Hermione Granger? Going to Liberate the Wands?”
Sparrow gave Cormac a searching glance.

“What?”

“Are you saying the liberation of the House Elves was a bad thing?”

“I mean, it caused a bit of mess, didn’t it? Wizards had to start doing things themselves, things they didn’t exactly know how to do.”

Sparrow glanced at her hand, then back to Cormac. “It only caused a bit of mess, did it? Yes, you’re right. That’s all it caused. A bit of mess. Wizarding society was able to pick up where the House Elves left off. Which means they never needed the elves in the first place. They were just a bunch of lazy twats who liked to boss elves around. Now, think about what it would have meant if the loss of the House Elves DID cause a real problem. It would mean that we’re not as powerful as all that, and that we did, in fact, require slaves to do the menial tasks, the heavy lifting, et cetera. Either way Wizards don’t come out looking good, do they?”

“They liked it!” said Cormac. He strummed a discordant note, grimaced, and set the ukulele aside. “Granger’s first effort flamed out because the House Elves genuinely enjoyed serving Wizards! She went around calling for freedom and the house elves did not want it. She thought she knew what they needed and when they told her she didn’t listen. Just like you sometimes. I’ve heard you want to break the Statute of Secrecy down. Did you ask anyone if they would benefit?”

“To be fair,” said Sparrow, “I haven’t had a chance. You know it’s a forbidden subject for me. Nobody’s explained why, exactly. I’m just supposed to get the idea. I mean, if it were true that Wizards were only so powerful, maybe we’d be in genuine danger from the muggles, but. We can just wave a wand and have things happen. What can they do to us?”

“Obliterate an entire section of countryside in an instant with one bomb.”

Sparrow’s eyes grew wide. “Are you serious?”

“Entirely serious.”

“How on earth – ”

“And,” said Cormac, leaning forward in his chair, “Despite their troubles in recent decades, they still have the capability to launch half of the bombs they’ve got.”

“How many do they have?”

“Enough to blow the world’s surface to oblivion a hundred times over.”

There was a long pause.

“Well,” said Sparrow. “Shit.”

“You’re the muggleborn, girl. You ought to know about this more than I do.”
“Hey, I’m the kind of kid who had their wildest dreams come true when they went to Hogwarts. I haven’t studied muggles much lately. You’re more interested than me. It’s like when you go to a friend’s house and they’ve got all kinds of new toys that you don’t, so you say ‘wow’ and they say ‘ho hum’. I’m a kid in a goddamn candy store here at Hogwarts. But tell me more about this county-obliterating bomb. It sounds positively wizardly.”

“You know from Muggle Studies that by this era, long after we abandoned them, they’ve managed to come up with their own kind of wizardry. They’ve unlocked secrets of the universe that we never bothered with, just as we unlock secrets that they don’t even know how to look for. They’ve found elements beyond what we know, and discovered the smallest unit of each, and discovered how to break those units in two. That’s where the bomb comes from. They figured out that there’s quite a bit of energy packed into each of those units. They discovered the fundamental properties of light itself, peered into the heavens and discovered cold heavens far beyond what we know, and cold heavens far beyond them, and beyond them, and beyond them. They figured out how to focus light to go all in one direction, so as to travel miles upon miles in a tiny straight line, burn through metal, and so forth. They strapped a kind of internal combustion engine to wings, attached those to long narrow vehicles – ”

“I know what aeroplanes are, Cormac.”

“Believe me, some pureblood wizards don’t. Ignotius Travers – you know him, he was the one who put a knee through the Cadogan portrait last year – he asked me if I knew what those tiny things zooming along in the sky were, and couldn’t understand me when I said that they’re thirty thousand feet above. Some people don’t bother to teach their children about muggle things and don’t care if their children fail the Muggle Studies class.”

“Pureblood nonsense,” said Sparrow.

“Mostly,” said Cormac. “Sometimes you get mixed parents who figure their children will be totally ensconsed in the Wizarding World anyway so why bother. But everyone else has some idea of what Muggles can do. If Voldemort had ever revealed himself to the Muggle world, if he had ever tried to overthrow them, he would have been vaporized in short order. They’ve got bombs that can level entire city districts. They’ve got aeroplanes that can fly without humans in them and throw a missile straight at your house. Muggles would have been able to erase the entire Death Eater squad in one fell swoop if they’d had a mind to. Mr. Riddle and his ilk, all the pureblood-superiority people, they’re totally ignorant of what muggles can do. They’re lucky that we hide ourselves away. If Muggles were ever exposed to Lethifolds, they’d probably start dropping bombs like crazy.”

“Lethifold?”

“A black blanket creature that smothers people and eats them.”

Sparrow’s eyes grew wide. She began to shiver. Even as she left her chair and sat directly upon the hearth, she shivered.

“Something the matter?”

“Nothing,” said Sparrow.

“Does this have to do with your being nervous all the time?”

“Please drop the subject.”

“It sure sounds like you were attacked by a – ”

Sparrow turned her head towards Cormac, glaring at him with nearly as much fury as a tiny schoolgirl could muster.

Cormac fell silent.

After a few seconds, he picked up his ukulele and played a soft tune, head bent to his work. For a while he played, one tune after another, never speaking, never raising his head, as if he did not dare to meet Sparrow’s gaze again.

Sparrow was the first to break the silence. “I think I remember that song,” she said. “I’ve got sixpence, jolly jolly sixpence…”

“Just playing the muggle tunes I remember,” said Cormac. “Try this one.” He plucked out another tune.

“Mm-ah went the little green frog one day…”

“Marvelous. I didn’t expect you to know that one, it’s an American tune.”

“Well how do you know it, then?”

“Now that’s a long story that I’ll have to explain later.” Cormac winked.

Sparrow did not smile at this, but set her mouth in a grim line.

Cormac set the ukulele aside. “I am sorry,” he said. “I have crossed a line tonight that I should have known not to cross. Or come much too close to it, anyway. I would appreciate hearing your story someday, even if it is far from now. But that’s up to you. As for me and my story…you hear the muggle songs out of me, and you already know I have an interest in the things they do. I had hoped our efforts to get past Filch would benefit from being a muggle method, something he was unfamiliar with, I mean, he’s lived so long at this school he can’t possibly know the muggle world – no such luck, that time.”

“Why are you interested in muggles?” said Sparrow. “Wizards are cool.”

“Are we?” said Cormac. “Are we really? I don’t feel it. I’m actually insecure about the whole thing. I think that if Wizarding Britain ever revealed itself to Muggle Britain they would look like laughingstocks. Look at what we have around us and what we use. Candles? Coaches? Quills? This world is practically frozen in time.”

“It makes me wonder,” said Sparrow. “If we’d never done the Statute of Secrecy, would we have gotten stuck like this? Or would we have taken the opportunity to integrate Wizard magic with muggle magic?”

“Judging from personal experience I’d say neither. But that’s a story for another time.” Cormac winked. “Keeping my lips sealed about that for now.”

“Just like me, huh? Well maybe when I tell you my story you can tell me yours. For now…I can see that we’ve got our world and muggles have theirs. I can’t say I like it. But at the very least, I understand why it’s worth being hidden at the moment. Thank you, Cormac, for the explanation. That was more about the subject than anyone has ever told me.”

“Glad I could help. Say, where’s Jill got to lately? She used to hang around here more often. I only see her in class now.”

Sparrow sighed. “It’s like I said. She’s running away from me again. I wonder if I can even blame her? Imagine if we cast a fireball at each other. We’d probably blow up the entire castle.”

“Next time I see her, I’ll tell her you’re disappointed.”

“She knows.”

“And I will tell her that you understand her actions.”

“Fair enough.” Sparrow rose from the fire, and departed without a word.

In the ensuing weeks, Sparrow had to admit, reluctantly, to herself, that Cormac had helped her by mentioning Lethifolds, even if he had touched a painful nerve. In his blundering curiousity he had given Sparrow the opportunity to name the fear that had haunted her for so long, to give it shape, to set it in the world, such that she could at last confront the matter –

Through study, of course. If Lethifolds were indeed the culprit of the worst night she’d ever had, then they were extremely dangerous, and not the sort of thing one should attack without understanding its patterns.

So she asked Hagrid about these curious black blanket things, hoping for some further explanation. He could offer little more than what Cormac had told her. According to him Lethifolds were tropical things, rarely seen even in the tropics. He’d seen two in the Forbidden Forest during the later part of the blooming season – Sparrow had gone pale at this news, and Hagrid was only able to get her to stop shaking like a leaf when he told her that he’d only seen one Lethifold at a time over two decades, and never again. That information plus a great deal of tea had settled her nerves.

Hagrid didn’t know what the Lethifolds were made out of, because he’d never been able to catch one, nor how they reacted, because he’d never wanted to stay around long enough to observe one. His reaction was the same as that of anyone who had sense – to blast it with a patronus, instead of standing there taking notes like an idiot.

So even big strong old Hagrid didn’t feel safe around these things.

Sparrow then turned her attention towards the Magical Creatures section of the library. One book after another she searched, from thin catalogues to weighty tomes. And yet no matter how weighty the tome, no matter how much it could go on about unicorns and dragons and grindylows and centaurs, there was always the same paltry explanation of Lethifolds: Tropical creature, nocturnal, devours sleeping people, can only be repelled by a strong patronus charm. There was almost nothing more, in any text, than what she could find in any other text. She might as well stick to her magical creatures textbook, for all these books were telling her.

So, at the same time that Sparrow was pleased to have an idea of what had happened to her so long ago, she was immensely frustrated to have no further information than that. Typically an entry on any animal would explain its habitat, diet, living arrangements, method of reproduction, and so forth, such that someone wishing to deal with, say, a man-eating lion, or an elephant in Musth, would have some assumptions from which they could craft a counterstroke. Villagers in India used to wear masks on the backs of their heads because they knew tigers never attacked when someone was looking at them. Doves would fly out of a bush if you beat the ground. Deer were extremely sensitive to movement from the side but could be more easily approached from the front. That sort of thing.

 For Lethifolds there was nothing, a blankess, a blackness, like the creature itself. And who could blame these writers? Nobody in their right mind would attempt to study these things up close. Not Hagrid. Not Mr. Scamander. Not Dangerous Dai Llewellyn. Maybe not even Godric Gryffindor. It would be more insane than trying to study a dementor. At least those things had restraint. When you looked at a Dementor, the abyss gazed back; when you looked at a Lethifold the abyss tried to eat you.

The only clues available were personal accounts of attacks form survivors, and those were few. Less than few, in fact: two. One, the ubiquitously repeated tale of Flavius Belby, whose successful repelling of the Lethifold with a Patronus was Sparrow’s one slim hope of defense; and the attack on Lady Warbeck, wherin a Lethifold…disguised itself as a stage curtain, apparently. They could be clever, then. Even devious.

That was more troubling than anything. What if any shadow, any curtain could be waiting to devour her? What if it was right behind – but such thoughts did not bear entertainment, lest she collapse into paralyzing terror once more. The castle had wards. And walls.

And open windows.

The days would have become difficult to bear, if a certain someone had not been distracting Sparrow from her darkest thoughts. For Jocasta was trying everything she could to get on Sparrow’s bad side. She disguised a plate of rocks as cupcakes and gave it to Sparrow. She stole Sparrow’s potions textbook. She tried to trip the girl. All of it happened, but none of it worked. Sparrow knew what Jocasta was trying, and couldn’t muster any hatred for her, because she knew that Jocasta’s ultimate goal was to help.

It got more annoying when Jocasta started going after other students. Finny Wambsgans, for example, missed the content of a Muggle Studies class because he’d been slipped a Daydream Chocolate. Percival Bulstrode had his favorite shoes turned barf orange. There were at least three Fanged Frisbees per week. That was Jocasta losing her touch. She must have known that there would always be a shield to block a Frisbee.

Then the Quidditch teams started finding their brooms missing, the quaffles acting strangely, the snitch let loose on the pitch. Not the bludgers, though. Nobody in their right mind would mess with a bludger.

And still Sparrow knew that Jocasta was trying to help her. So none of it worked.

The staff was beginning to get more than a little annoyed, and they were watching the students much more closely in the hallways now. The pranks, at least the violent ones, began to dwindle.

And then, they ceased altogether.

Jocasta had given up.

Sparrow felt sorry for the girl. She had tried so hard, and none of it had stuck. Sparrow wished she could offer an apology, but the girl did not visit Sparrow, nor stop to talk to her in the halls. She simply walked away, as quickly as she could.

The student body breathed a sigh of relief.

One fine December morning, in about the middle of the month, there was frost on the windowpanes. It was one of the few days in the year that it would happen. A pretty scene, and Sparrow was in high spirits for once. She was in high spirits as she traipsed to the library, past the curious glares of her classmates. She was in high spirits as she dragged a history tome off the shelf and opened to the seventeenth century. She was in high spirits as she read passages about wizards in the royal court of William and Mary.

She was in high spirits as she looked up from the book at Rubeus Hagrid standing there at the end of the table.

“Perfesser Binns tells me,” said Hagrid, “That yer’ve been asking after the Statute of Secrecy like I told ye not to.”

“Hagrid, I – ”

“’E said ye said yer’ve been thinkin’ o’ letting muggles know about us.”

“How on earth did – I’ve never spoken to the man.”

“’E said ye asked him all kinds o’ questions about the statute.”

“And when was that?”

“Didn’t say.”

Professor Binns never lied. He had no interest in lying, nor, as far as anyone knew, any interest in anything. “It must have been someone in his class who looks like me,” said Sparrow.

She realized how silly that sounded when she said it, but too late to take it back. Then again, there was such a thing as polyjuice potion. Was that it? Jocasta hadn’t yanked one of Sparrow’s hairs, had she? That would have been remarkably difficult to do. Sparrow wore her hair extremely short just in case someone tried that. So how would Jocasta have managed to look like her?

“I’ve never asked Professor Binns about it, Hagrid. I mean, I talked to Cormac McKinnon, but – ah. I shouldn’t have said that. I should not have said that.”

“If yer interested in steppin’ over the line I set, Miss Jones, I think it’s high time ye had a lesson only a Care of Magical Creatures perfesser can teach ye.”

“I’m not going,” said Sparrow, and a glowing dome settled around her. “You cannot harm me. No one can.”

Hagrid brought out his umbrella and made a circular motion in Sparrow’s direction. A section of floor beneath her chair separated from the rest of the library, and Sparrow found herself picked up and borne out of the room despite her best efforts.

The Forbidden Forest. The land of endless shrubs. Just the sort of place where Hagrid had seen Lethifolds. Thank goodness this detention was in the rainy season instead fo in warm weather. But oh, what if? What if?

Sparrow had halted at the edge, and refused to tell Hagrid why, before finally gripping her wand tight in hand, squaring her shoulders, and pressing forward. If she was going to learn whatever Hagrid wanted to teach her then she couldn’t be stopped by ancient fears.

She could be slowed down by them. Now and then she did have to stop for the sake of her nerves, and for all that this was a Detention, Hagrid never asked her to carry onward until she was ready.

An hour into the journey to wherever they were going, Sparrow finally thought to ask the question that had been on her mind.  “I thought this detention was going to be something like cleaning the Thestral stables for a month,” she said. “Not hiking into the Forbidden Forest. How long does this thing go on anyway? And why am I carrying this gear when you could carry it? You could carry all the supplies without a sweat. In fact, why do we have rucksacks at all when we could just magic everything we need? These things are for muggles.”

“Hardly a punishment if it’s a walk in the park,” said Hagrid. “I can stop for ye as often as ye like but I’m still cross. So yer learnin’ a lesson. And we can’t magic everyin’ we need, because we don’t have a mokeskin bag, yer not skilled enough to handle all the spells ye’d need, and anyway ye don’t want t’ rely on magic alone in a dangerous place. So, muggle gear it is. Complain all ye like but I’m not changin’ me mind about that.”

“And where exactly are we going?”

“To the grave of an old friend.”

“Out in the middle of the woods?”

“Don’t know if it’s the middle,” said Hagrid. “Never really found the other side, no matter how long I walked. And I’ve walked a long, long time. But it’s deep in. Or maybe I should say, it’s far in. Can’t call it deep if all the big trees are gone, can ye?”

Sparrow looked around. There were a lot of low bushes with long greyish tapering leaves, and the occasional tree about twice her height, a rare few twice the height of Hagrid. But there was, indeed, no depth to this place, just endlessness. Not eternity, exactly – that would have required more open space. This was more enclosed, in its own way.

Had it been the usual rainy day, as opposed to a frost day, it would have been endless misery. With frost on the leaves and upon the blades of grass, it was more like endless mystery.

“Where did the big trees go?”

“Long story,” said Hagrid. “Not all me own fault, but somewhat. It’s not me that made the world hot and dry and cold and stormy all at the same time. I just…let some things happen that weakened this place, ye could say.

“T’ begin with, there’re these birds called Rheas. Native to South America. They run over the dry plains, ye see. Tall flightless birds, like ostriches. Right? Well, some twat decided ‘e wanted ‘em around his nice parkland down in Devon.”

“So?”

“So, Rheas belong in South America. That’s their domain. Have ye not heard of Invasive Species?”

Sparrow shook her head.

“Right. Well, us humans, we think we know where to put animals, and sometimes, it turns out we don’t. Sometimes we introduce animals to places they shouldn’t go. No natural predators, right? And nobody wants to hunt ‘em. So they overrun the whole landscape and eat everything and ruin everything. Like what old Professor Kettleburn told me about Starlings in the Americas -- some idiot introduced them and suddenly the regular birds started to get crowded out. Things like that. Well.”

“What does that have to do with these things?”

“I’m gettin’ t’that. I’m gettin’ t’that. See, the Rheas were kind o’like the starlings. They got loose, and this fool muggle couldn’t catch’em, and nobody could. They wouldn’t eat the poison set out for ‘em, they dodged the guns. And they multiplied. And they nibbled the landscape half to death. Ate all o’ the heath and all o’ the harvest mice. Muggles didn’t know what t’ do.”

“So why didn’t a Wizard help the muggles deal with them?”

“Muggle problem. Not our domain.”

“But – ”

“We’re Wizards, Sparrow. We also have domains. Like the starlings. Anyway, getting back to the story. The Rheas, well, they’re wild animals, they don’t know how t’ obey the Statute of Magical Secrecy. So some o’ them got themselves into the Old Forest and, er…interbred with a bunch of cockatrices. And produced these things, that hide like shrubs, run like the wind, and never get fooled by the same trick twice. Arr, see, then it became a Wizarding matter. So I got meself authorization from the Ministry of Magic, I did, and got down to Cornwall and scooped up all the new birds, and all the old birds too.”

“But you said those weren’t your domain.”

Hagrid chuckled. “I know how t’bend the rules, Miss Jones. Might even have a reputation for it. I’m lucky the prime minister is a doddering old fool who signs things without looking at them, otherwise I might never have been given the job.”

“I’m not sure where you’re going with all this,” said Sparrow, as she swept a branch out of her way.

“The story isn’t done yet, Miss Jones. I brought the birds here and called them Rhiannons. And I didn’t know what I was doing with them, because they went and they ate up all the pine cones, and they kicked out all the underbrush, and suddenly there were fewer pine trees around here, and when the world got dry…there were even fewer. So that’s why I think it’s partly me own fault that the Forbidden Forest looks the way it does now. There’s domains for you. If ye break them without knowing what yer doing, like I did, you change yer world in ways ye don’t expect.”

Sparrow looked around. There was a Rhiannon following them. Big eyes, bigger than the girl’s fist, deep eyes. There was a mystery there too. Sparrow had the feeling that this bird knew a lot more than it was willing to let on.

For one thing, it nodded its head in the direction that Sparrow had been going, as if to tell her, “turn around”.

Sparrow turned. There was a wide clearing amidst the bushes. And there in the clearing grew the most grass she had ever seen in one place.

“What is this?” said Sparrow.

“This is it,” said Hagrid. “Aragog’s grave.”

“I don’t see it.”

“Yes ye do.”

“Well where is it then?”

Hagrid nodded to the clearing. “There.”

“The clearing?”

“Yep.”

“But where in the clearing? I told you I don’t – ”

“It’s the entire clearing.”

“ – oh. Um. Was Aragog a dragon?”

“Jus’ a spider,” said Hagrid. “A mighty one. Ruled the forest, ‘e did, along with all his children. Almost killed Harry Potter, but I was friends with Aragog, and they was friends with me. So the old spider paused long enough for a bit of muggle magic to save ‘em. Long story. If ye ever meet Ron Weasley remind him about tha’ fer me.”

“So where did Aragog’s children go? We haven’t seen any of them.”

“Can’t say fer certain.” Hagrid placed his own rucksack down, and sat upon a large rock. “Maybe they ran off to the muggle world and all got killed. Maybe they ran so far into these woods that we’ll never see them again. Either way, the Rhiannons kind of crowded them out, and once the pines were gone there weren’t much left fer ‘em so I can’t hardly blame ‘em fer leavin’. Makes detentions in this place a bit safer in th’rainy season, if a bit more boring. Anyway!” He slapped his knee. “Lesson number one. Magical creatures can get this big, and bigger. What do you think would happen if ye introduced them to the muggle world?”

“Muggles would start talking about wild monsters again like they used to?”

“And?”

“Send out some kind of knight to slay them. Or just someone with a shotgun, I guess.”

“Exactly,” said Hagrid. “Without the Statute of Secrecy, Aragog would never have survived in peace. In our little hidden world, he had the chance t’ live in peace and sire many children.” Hagrid stood, and hoisted his rucksack onto his shoulders. “Come on. The next grave is a fair distance away.”

“How far?”

“Far enough that yer goin’ t’ need that tent yer carryin’.”

“Son of a – ”

It took the rest of the day and half of the next day before there was another clearing. It would have taken less time, but as they continued Sparrow had to stop more and more often. Hagrid began to look a little exasperated, but didn’t give Sparrow an unkind word. He just let her tremble, as long as she needed, until she could go on again. They reached the clearing after many delays.

 It was a slightly smaller space than that of Aragog, and more encroached by trees. In fact, Sparrow had not seen quite so many trees in one place before, outside of the paradise gardens.

There was a simple headstone.

grawp the short, last of the giants.  1933-2030.

“That’s a funny name,” said Sparrow.

“It’s a giant name,” said Hagrid. “Giants understood it. I never did.”

“How did you know him?”

Hagrid told Sparrow the whole tale, from meeting him in the Ural Mountains all the way to putting him up in the Forbidden Forest.

Sparrow went over to the stone and touched the place that said 2030. “And he died close to the time I was born. What happened? Did he meet his match?”

“Ye might say that.” Hagrid dropped his rucksack and took out an apple, which he popped into his mouth and chewed like a shorter person would eat a cherry. “So did muggles, in a way, although it was their own fault. Ye can’t expect a giant to be able to handle the heat. Grawp couldn’t. There was a summer when he didn’t manage to get t’ the highlands in time, and a heatwave came on and killed him. I have enough trouble handling the summer meself.”

“And you managed to drag him all the way out here?”

“Ar, well. We’d buried him at the edge of the forest, didn’t we? But the forest has its own way of doing things, let’s leave it at that. But it’s the second part that’s important. ‘Last of the giants.’ I’m sure Grawp was the last. Never saw another after him. I went back to the place where I’d seen ‘em last, back in Scandinavia. But they were gone, and all I found there were bones. So. When Grawp was gone so was the giants, and that’s that, I suppose. Now, why do ye think there were so few?

“I really have no idea. They’re in all the children’s stories.”

“Righ’, and what does old Jack do to ‘em in the stories?”

Sparrow thought. Jack, who slew a giant. Always one giant or another. Sometimes he tricked them into a hole, sometimes he tricked them into hanging themselves. “Never suffered a giant to live,” said Sparrow.

“Righ’. And Neither did King Arthur, or Thor, or anyone. Understandable, I suppose. Giants were never very friendly. They were dangerous! Ate everyone’s livestock, smashed houses, all manner of mischief. So muggles and wizards alike couldn’t let ‘em live. That’s yer second lesson. The Statute of Secrecy is for protecting muggles from dangerous beasts. There’s some that even the biggest Muggle bomb and the best muggle guns couldn’t handle. Ye know about dementors, well enough. Ye know about Lethifolds as well. Not many people do. Didn’t expect ye t’ ask about them things. Why did ye?”

“Never mind.”

“Come on, now. Ye can tell me.”

“I most certainly cannot.”

“Am I not trustworthy?”

“I said cannot. Not that I won’t tell you, but that I can’t. I can’t bring up the subject here, I can’t talk about it – here of all places I can’t even tell you, you who know how to cast a Patronus – ”

“Oh, so the brave and talented Miss Jones is scared – ”

“I have every fucking right to be!” Sparrow shrugged her rucksack off her shoulders and let it fall with a clatter. “I have every right to be scared of something you’re scared of! And it’s not just about that, because if it was only that I could just climb up on your shoulders and feel safe there! You saw very clearly what happened to me when we spoke of the matter before, and how much effort it took to get me to calm down! Why the hell did you decide to bring me into the midst of this place when you knew what it would do to me?” Sparrow’s voice broke as she felt tears come to her eyes. “Why did you put me through – through all – this – ” And then there were no more words, only tears.

Hagrid placed his own rucksack upon the ground, sat down before Sparrow and fished a handkerchief out of one of his pockets. A Hagrid-sized handkerchief, enough to make a tunic for a man of normal height. He handed it to Sparrow, who buried her face in it, still weeping. It was just the sort of thing she needed right now. Her tears would have soaked a normal handkerchief fairly quickly.

Hagrid picked her up, placed her on his knee, and put a huge arm around her, as she cried herself out.

When she was finished, he said, “I’m sorry. Fer takin’ ye this far without askin’ how ye were doin’. I could’ve asked…and I was wonderin’, anyway. I thought ye might have some trouble when ye halted at the edge there. But ye decided t’ square yer shoulders and follow me. So I figgered ye were alright with the whole journey, and ye were stopping out of exhaustion. Wouldn’t be a spurprise. Yer a little slip of a girl carryin’ an entire rucksack. But yer havin’ a bad time. Worse than most who come here. Why’d ye decide to keep goin’ after all?”

“You didn’t give me a choice.”

“Well…I didn’t tell ye there was a choice. I’ve been meaning to offer to end this whole journey for a while now, ever since ye had to stop that first time. I guess I should’ve made th’ offer earlier, eh? I was too focused on makin’ sure you got to see what I was tryin’ t’ tell ye, and didn’t realize how bad ye were takin’ it. We can go back and ye can polish everything in the trophy room, if this is too much fer ye. Or…we can go on, and I can show ye the last thing.”

“Are you making me go on?”

“After what I just saw out of yer eyes? I couldn’t possibly make ye go on. I shouldn’t have even offered. We ought t’ head back to th’ castle and finish up with somethin’ else.”

“It’s fine,” said Sparrow. “I can go on as long as…as long as you’re with me. Alright?”

“Fair enough,” said Hagrid. “And I won’t mention th’ L-word again.”

“Thank you.”

“Yer still carryin’ yer own rucksack, though.”

“Fair enough.”

Past the grave of Grawp, there was no more path to be found. From this point on it was a complete wilderness, full of those bushes with the long tapering leaves. They scraped Sparrow as she walked by, and she had to keep her shield spell up just to brush them out of the way. Sometimes Hagrid carried her on his shoulders, though she didn’t want to make him a pack horse for the entire trip. Most of the time she walked.

For days. Through the cold rain. The frost had long since gone. Sparrow’s one solace in the whole journey was that, in this cold and misery, crawling insects were dormant. Blooming season should have been the joy of the year for her, as it was for so many, but for her it was bittersweet, for it meant that the ants would be back beside the path again. Had she been out in the forest in March she would not have gone a step beyond the giant’s grave.

Yet here in the wet season she was stepping farther than she had ever dreamed of going. Sparrow lost count of the hills they climbed, the mountains they skirted, and the rivers they forded -- well, Hagrid towed a floating Sparrow behind him. In these hills the trees began to thin out, but the bushes never did. In fact they seemed to get thicker.

“It occurs to me,” said Sparrow, as they descended a slope towards a lake, “that you could fit quite a lot of Wizards in here. In fact, you could probably fit all of Wizarding Britain in here.”
“True enough,” said Hagrid. “There aren’t many wizards around anyway. What do you have, thirty to a year? You could fit every wizard in Britain into Hogwarts, although some o’ them might be competing for elbow space. And then inventing spells to steal people’s elbows.”

“So why don’t we?”

“Stuff every wizard into one place?” said Hagrid. “Make every wizard live in Hogsmeade? Turn it into a Wizard City? Ha! Sounds like something a Pureblood Supremacist would come up with. No, Miss Jones, Wizards themselves wouldn’t take kindly to that. Our magic is secret, but plenty o’ folks still got friends in the muggle world. Imagine tellin’ them they had to live far away from muggles, away from their parents, their relatives, their favorite parks and forests.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. What if we stuffed all of Britain into this forbidden forest? I feel like we’ve walked as far as Kent is wide.”

“I sincerely hope yer jokin’ about that.”

“Maybe. I mean, supposing the pureblood supremacists did want to completely withdraw from the muggle world, they could re-create their own wizard society entirely within this place, couldn’t they?”

“Maybe,” said Hagrid, as he lowered Sparrow down a tall ledge. “But then, yer thinkin’ o’ this whole thing like the fellers in Berlin in the 1880s thought about Africa. Who are you to shift th’ whole world around like it’s yer chess board, hm? It aren’t hardly fair to change people’s lives for them without asking, now is it?”

“Perhaps not,” said Sparrow. “Sometimes it’s for their own good though.”

Hagrid had been preparing to climb down the ledge after her, but then he paused. “And ye know what’s good for ‘em better than they do, eh?”

“Sometimes. I mean, people do some really stupid things.”

“Like run around asking too many questions about the Statute of Secrecy?”

“Well – ”

“You just want to be able t’ do yer magic in public, I’ll be bound. That’s why ye were askin’ about domains.”

“There’s more to it than that!” said Sparrow. “The first time I read my magical creatures textbook, I wanted everyone to see dragons. I thought every kid in the world should get the chance to see a unicorn. And then I come to Hogwarts and people tell me no, it all has to be secret. Shush shush. Everybody’s missing out on this! Everyone is missing out on doing wonders, because we’re all shut up here. I want the whole world to have magic, Hagrid. Is that too much to ask?”

Hagrid raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

“Been thinkin’ about this all yer school years, have ye?”

“Sort of. I only came up with the idea of giving everyone magic after you told me about dangerous creatures attacking muggles.”

Hagrid sighed. “The things I set off because I can’t keep me big mouth shut. Again. Yer beginnin’ t’ sound like ol’ Grindlewald. But yer not interested in lordin’ it over muggles, are ye? Yer not selfish like he was. But still dangerous. Who would have thought that a little Hufflepuff girl would be wanting t’ do things more dangerous than Voldemort ever thought of? Ar, but he was selfish too.”

“What do you mean, dangerous? I want to give everyone the same power I have.”

“Exactly the point,” said Hagrid. “Ar, but McGonnogal knows more about wizard politics than I do. I’m bring ye along t’show ye what I can demonstrate, not speak fer her. So.” He finished climbing the ledge. “Ye want t’ give every bloke and blighter and biddy in the world some magic, is that it? Let ‘em in on the wizarding world. Ha! I’m about t’ show yer some things even most wizards can’t handle.”

“If you’re taking me to meet my worst fear after all – ”

“I’m not a complete idiot,” said Hagrid.

“Then what are we seeing? Dragons?”

They had halted at the top of a low mountain.

Hagrid had decided this was a good place to end the journey, for, as he said, the plain beyond was something he’d barely escaped alive. He waved his wand in the air and the image of the plain grew in their sight as if through a giant telescope. “Here,” he said, “We ought ter be safe watching from this distance.”

“Watching what?”

In the magical telescope Sparrow could see the Rhiannons. They ran almost too fast to notice – at one moment they were on one edge of the view, and in the next moment they were on the other. And it was a wide view indeed. Sparrow stepped to the side of the magical telescope and tried to take in the view of the plain as a whole. From one horizon to another, over a flat expanse, there were clumps of the very sorts of bushes that she and Hagrid had passed between to get here. There was nothing else.

She’d been told that, once upon a time, there had been more plant variety in the world. But that was mostly gone now. It was all about the same, only changing color from green-gray in the wet season to green-brown in the dry season.

 From this distance, she could see the Rhiannons moving faster than she’d ever seen a car go.

So what, exactly, was able to overtake their speed by an order of magnitude? What was the creature moving so fast that she could only see its aftermath when a Rhiannon’s neck exploded in blood?

“Things down there,” said Hagrid. “Never quite figured out what they were or where they came from. I was too busy tryin’ t’escape, ye see. Got a bit too close last time.”

“You can’t apparate out of here?”

“We’re on the Hogwarts grounds, Miss Jones. Besides which, I never got taught how, now did I? Got expelled in me third year fer somethin’ I never did. Long story, ye might have heard it already. It was back when Aragog was a wee little spider…”

Sparrow was not listening to Hagrid, for she had finally seen one of the swift creatures come to a halt. It was feasting upon the Rhiannon that had died messily. A creature like a cat, yet extremely narrow and pointed, as if meant to slice right through the air. She thought of a shark in cat form.  This one was dull gray, like everything in this landscape. But what to call it? A Shark Cat? A Cat Shark? A Cark?

The most dangerous cats she had never heard of were called Nundu. They could spread poison breath over a whole area and nothing could take them down. Perhaps these were related.

“You haven’t named them yet,” said Sparrow. “So I get to do it first.”

“Now hang on a minute, I saw them first – ”

“They shall be known as Narks.”

Hagrid scratched his head. “Name sounds familiar, but alrigh’. Fair enough. Narks it is. Let’s keep watching a bit and head back then.”

Sparrow shrugged. “I feel like I’ve seen everything there is to – wait.” Sparrow stepped away from the magical telescope and surveyed the landscape.

The Rhiannon had started from there…and reached there within the space of a second. The Nark had started from somewhere and reached there within half a second. Even the shorter distance was slightly longer than the distance from the corpse to the mountaintop.

“We may not actually be safe here,” said Sparrow.

“Nonsense,” said Hagrid. “They can’t see us from up here.”

“Then how do they spot a Rhiannon from a longer distance? They have the eyes of hawks, Hagrid. I’ve seen enough. We should be going. Right now.”

Sparrow glanced at the magical telescope. In it, the Nark had lost the Rhiannon to a larger and more powerfully built beast. This one had no need to move as fast as the Nark, because it could just bully other creatures out of their kills. Having no chance to get its food back, the Nark had lost interest.

And it was staring straight at the two wizards.

Sparrow had the space of half a second to get her shield up before the cat slammed into it. The shock of the impact forced the girl a step back. She had never been forced back before, not even an inch. No spell of Jill’s had ever hit with as much force as the Nark did, and before Sparrow could even react the Nark had run back and then straight at the barrier again. Every impact forced the girl backward. And why was it not going at her from the side?

She turned her shield into a dome over herself and Hagrid, just before the Nark slammed into it from the side.

“Oh boy,” said Sparrow, “I sure wish we could apparate out of here.” She winced as the Nark slammed into the barrier again. “I sure wish someone had learned how to do that.”

“Excuse me fer gettin’ framed by Voldemort ninety years ago!” said Hagrid.

“Well maybe you can stun this thing,” said Sparrow. “Cause I sure can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t? Oh right, I’m talkin’ t’ Sparrow Jones. Ha! Well, What if I just try to catch it with me bare hands?”

“Somehow I don’t think you’d survive that. Oh, great. Now what’s it doing?”

The Nark had ceased to ram its head into the barrier, and was now attempting to bite through it. Sparrow thought this to be comical.

Until the barrier began to flicker.

“You didn’t answer my question,” said Sparrow. “Why can’t you stun this thing?”

“It eats magic,” said Hagrid. “Tell you what. I’ll just get close here…” He moved to the space where the Nark was eating the barrier and waited. The Nark looked at him and snarled, then moved to a different spot and took a bite. Hagrid wound up spinning in place as the Nark continued to move, stopping only here and there to keep biting.

The barrier flickered, and finally disappeared.

In that instant, Hagrid whirled around, and he caught the beast, holding his hands over its muzzle.

The Nark was surprisingly strong, for all that its build seemed more gracile than powerful. Perhaps it took a great deal of strength to reach near-supersonic speeds. As it was, Hagrid had a hard time keeping the Nark’s jaws shut, and it scratched at his arms and torso as they struggled upon the ground. Sparrow began to understand why Hagrid wore that giant moleskin coat, because it tended to make sharp claws slide off.

“Stun it!” said Hagrid.

“What if I hit you?”

“I can take a few hits!” said Hagrid. “Don’t worry about me, just stun this thing and keep at it!”

“But it eats magic – oh. I see.”

Stun magic. Offensive magic. The very sort of magic she had sworn to avoid. Every bit of her life past eight years old had bent towards learning how to defend her friends without having to hurt anyone. She didn’t want to hate anyone or hurt them, not even the fierce wild beasts, not even – perhaps not even the most deadly of them all.

“What are ye waitin’ for?” said Hagrid.

He was beginning to lose ground. Sparrow tried to think of a good defensive spell, something that would tie the Nark up. She pointed her wand at the Nark and shouted, “Petrificus Totalis!”

The Nark froze for the space of half a second, just long enough for Hagrid to get a better grip on its muzzle. But then the Nark began to thrash again.

“Stun it!” said Hagrid. “Don’t waste time playing nice!”

Hagrid was already back to where he had been. He wasn’t going to last much longer. And Sparrow was out of ideas. But she had no idea if the stunning spell would even work, and there might not be enough time to try anything else if it didn’t. How was she supposed to make it work?

Jocasta had told her she needed to feel hatred if she was to cast an offensive spell. How could she hate a wild creature? It was innocent. Fierce, deadly, but technically innocent. And yet, by that criteria a Lethifold was as well. Sparrow had no desire to entertain that possibility.

Hagrid looked like his grip was about to slip.

Jill had told Sparrow about the value of offensive spells. How sometimes a friend was in danger and there was nothing you could do but to strike their assilant down. And Hagrid was a friend. And Sparrow had sworn to never let a friend come to harm, never again. There was nothing for it, then, but to break her vow of peace.

Sparrow pointed her wand at the nark and, with all the fear and rage and hatred she could muster, shouted “Stupefy!”

A jet of red light shot out from the wand and struck the creature between the shoulder blades. The Nark shuddered, and then seemed to grow slightly larger. Again Sparrow shouted “stupefy!” and the nark grew a bit larger still, and slightly reddish.

Again and again she threw a stunning spell at the beast, while Hagrid held on for dear life. Bit by bit the Nark grew larger and redder. Hagrid began to look like he was reaching the last of his strength. The Nark was now half again as large as it had been, now twice as large, now three times as large. Hagrid was holding into the beast now instead of being able to hold it down. If it got a bit larger it would be able to carry him away. A swipe of its paw was now powerful enough to go right through the moleskin coat and draw blood.

Sparrow hesitated.

“What are ye waitin’ for?” said Hagrid. “Finish it off!”

Another stunning spell wouldn’t be good enough. What else was there? Stupefy was the only one she was familiar with because it was the one she kept trying to do. But Jill had a dozen different attacks in her repertoire. What was her favorite? Oh yes.

“Expulso!” shouted Sparrow. “Expulso! Expulso!”

Three mighty blasts in quick succession, all absorbed by the creature’s skin. Had the Nark not been full of magic already it could have survived all three. Yet, having devoured an entire magical barrier cast by the strongest barrier witch of the age, and at least fifty stunning spells, there was no more room within the Nark for anything else. Red light shone through its cracking skin, and then it exploded, showering Hagrid and Sparrow with blood and bone.

For a moment afterwards, neither Wizard moved nor spoke.

Hagrid got to his feet and wiped his face off with another handkerchief. Yet when he offered a third handkerchief to Sparrow, she did not move to take it, nor did she even look at it. She remained standing there, wand held outward, her gaze never leaving the spot where the Nark had been.

Hagrid sat back down upon the stone. He spoke not a word as Sparrow remained standing.

Until at last the girl said, “I cast an offensive spell.” She let her arm drop. “Let that be the last time.”

The journey back to the castle was quiet, especially at first. Sparrow’s only communication with Hagrid had been to nod when he offered to carry her upon his shoulders. Otherwise she spoke not a word, not for a good long while. There was, after all, nothing left to say. The lesson was learned. The job was done. Good enough, right? More than good enough. It was done too well.

Well, there was something to say when magic had to be done. Here was a stream to ford. Narrow, deep and swift, something that Hagrid could cross but Sparrow could not. The girl produced her wand, pointed it at herself and spoke for the first time in hours. “Levicorpus.”

Nothing happened.

“I thought ye had that spell mastered,” said Hagrid.

“I did,” said Sparrow. “I think my wand won’t produce magic.”

“I shan’t say I’m surprised,” said Hagrid. “Ye’ve had a rough day and ye’ve been through a lot this week. I’m surprised ye decided t’ talk t’ me again.”

“I’m fine,” said Sparrow. “Well, better. I’m blaming my wand for this one. I cast offensive magic. I killed the Nark. I think my wand is mad at me.”

“Fer savin’ our lives?”

“For violating some of my core principles, which the wand took on as its own core principles.”

Hagrid looked confused. “Ye mean te tell me,” said Hagrid, “that even if it’s fer a good cause, even if it’s t’ save the life of a friend, yer wand will punish ye fer doing somethin’ out of character?”

“Seems like it.”

Hagrid scowled. “Pardon me French, Miss Jones, but yer wand is an uptight bitch.”

“I am not at liberty to agree with you,” said Sparrow. “But my wand and I appear to be having a row. So, would you be a dear and carry me across the river?”

Hagrid grumbled as he lifted Sparrow onto his shoulders. He grumbled as he waded into the water.

As the river got up to Hagrid’s waist, he said, “No more hexes, then, eh? No more jinxes, no more curses. Ha! But wizards have to get creative sometimes, don’t they, ‘cos sometimes a spell just doesn’t work on yer target, and sometimes ye just can’t cast the spell ye want. Well, here’s an idea. The wand won’t let you cast curses. But what if ye cast regular spells offensively? Like turning up Lumos way high in order to blind people. Or making yer shield move forward at high speed.”

“Can I do that?”

“Yer a Wizard, Miss Jones. What can’t ye do?”

They walked on, and, day by day, drew nearer to the forest’s edge, until at last the castle came in sight.

“This is it, then?” said Sparrow. “Is my detention over? Am I free to go?”

“Almost,” said Hagrid. “Almost. I need ye t’promise y’won’t go asking any of the teachers about the Statute of Secrecy.”

“Hagrid, I – ”

“Promise?”

“You have my word. Now can I go?”

“I’ll walk ye t’ the edge. Ye’ll see why when we get there.”

At the edge of the forest, where the bushes brushed up against Hagrid’s hut, they stopped. “Right, now,” said Hagrid. “Turn around.”

Sparrow turned.

The bushes had gone. In their place were those birds that looked so much like bushes, the birds with the intelligent eyes, the Rhiannons.

“When I said they kicked out all the underbrush,” said Hagrid, “What I meant was they replaced it all. These are funny birds, Miss Jones, more adaptable than ye’d think, and once the Nark came around they figured out how to disguise themselves as bushes so perfectly that they became plants. That’s where the forest went. That’s some unintended consequences for ye. Keep that in mind.”

Sparrow left for the castle, wondering how on earth she’d survived long enough to reach the Nark plain in the first place.

There were things Wizards could do, and things they couldn’t do. What Sparrow could do was notice that nobody at school was talking to her. Except for the one student who, sitting across from her at the dining table, said “we’re not speaking to you.” So that made things straightforward, if not necessarily clear.

Fortunately, Cormac was still willing to converse with her. And so they found themselves in front of the portrait of the Fat Lady, where Sparrow had been trying to get the woman to relay a new message to Miranda McClivert. But the woman was having none of it.

“I can’t believe this,” said Sparrow. “Even the portraits don’t like me.”

“The rumors have grown pretty wild,” said Cormac. “People are saying you want to break out of Azkaban and free all the prisoners. They’re saying you want to unleash magic on the entire world. They’re saying that you butter your bread on the wrong side.”

“Oh,” said Sparrow. “Everyone does that. And how am I going to break out of Azkaban if I’m not in there in the first place? Although I’d probably get tossed in there if I kept on my current course. No, Cormac, I’m not interested in such a thing. Although I have heard that Jocasta Carrow is dabbling in dark magic.”

“Doesn’t sound surprising. I mean, she is a Slytherin.”

“No, that’s not – dammit.”

“What?”

“I’m trying to spread a nasty rumor about her.”

“And you’re accusing a Slytherin of dabbling in dark magic. Are you going to accuse a Gryfindor of being too bold?”

“Clearly I am not good at this. I’ll have to think of some other revenge.”

“Revenge! From you? Of all people?”

“I am that angry. Yes.”

“What on earth did Jocasta do to you?”

“She – look, if you think you crossed a line, Jocasta dashed over it at a full sprint. I am utterly furious. And I’ve been putting up with her pranks long enough. I will have my satisfaction against her.”

“Are we talking about the line whose details you can’t describe to me until it’s the right time, which hasn’t even come around yet?”

“That one.”

“And you expected Jocasta to know where it was?”

“Well…I mean, she’s a fly on the wall.”

“You’re assuming she eavesdropped.”

“Well…”

“What’s your name?”

“What on earth does that – ”

“Answer the question, please.”

“Sparrow Jones.”

“And your reputation at this school is?”

“A nice girl and very protective.”

“Bingo. And that same girl suddenly wants revenge. Something has gone wrong indeed. What happened to you in the Forbidden Forest?”

“Something that made me decide I wasn’t going to get pushed around anymore.”

“And you want to – what? Permanently harm a young girl by slandering her? What on earth has gotten into you? Oh, for Heaven’s sake – look. Don’t go too far, alright? If you want to respond to Jocasta’s actions, keep your answer proportional. Keep it just and keep it honest. Otherwise…I’d wonder where my good old friend went. I’d wonder if she died in the forest after all.”

Cormac departed without another word.

And Sparrow realized that, as far as she could remember, this was the first time Cormac had ever described her as a good friend. She had called him a friend now and then, but – this was different. How many times now had he tried his best to warn her away from dark paths? Twice? Just like Hagrid.

Good God. What a precious thing she could lose, if she let fury have its way with her. And she had been preparing to give someone else twelve helpings of vitriol. Not anymore.

She departed for the Herbology lesson. 

There was one student in Herbology who stood out above the rest, having managed to get her Dittany, a notoriously fickle plant, to grow thrice the height of anyone else’s, while keeping it safe from fungus and stem worms as none others had done. This was also the student who seemed to excel in Care of Magical Creatures. This was the tall and mighty Miranda McClivert.

Sparrow felt that it stood to reason the bold potions experimenter would also have the foresight to secure her own potions ingredients, of the floral and faunal variety. Goodness knew there weren’t enough wild specimens left for the aspiring potioneer. The greenhouses at Hogwarts, accordingly, took up about 1/3 of the grounds and supplied mandrake, dittany, Shrivelfig and Moly, among other ingredients, to the wizarding world. Professor Longbottom, being the Master of the Greenhouses, was in a position to significantly influence the potioneering of the Wizarding World. He did, in fact, take advantage of this position to severely reduce the amount of magical poisons that wizards produced, keeping the necessary plants purely as scientific specimens, in a separate greenhouse locked with enchantments that no student had ever managed to break.

Professor Longbottom was the foremost Herbologist of his age, and Miranda McClivert stood to replace him in that role, or at the very least become his most trusted assistant. In time, if she proved herself, perhaps. Longbottom did not play favorites, and the only time that his expression grew dark was when someone suggested that he was doing so. So, the most that Miranda had as an advantage over her fellow students was that Professor Longbottom had set her up with her own experimental greenhouse, recognizing that a promising talent should not be stifled. In exchange she was graded on a more difficult rubric than the rest of the class.

The greenhouse was mighty useful for Miranda, and it was also useful for people who wanted to have private conversations. Miranda’s spells of warding had to be strong to prevent people from sneaking in during the lessons. She was, in her own way, learning about defensive charms nearly as fast as Sparrow.

So when Sparrow saw Miranda beckon her INTO the private greenhouse, she was taken aback, and wondered for half a second if it wasn’t Jocasta in disguise, playing games again.

Miranda looked annoyed and beckoned again. Sparrow followed her in.

Jocasta had been right about the girl’s physique. Perhaps years of hauling heavy pots had done it. The girl could have the pick of anyone in the school, if she wanted. Yet Sparrow had never heard of her picking anyone.

She shook her head. Too distracting. She looked around at the plants in the pots. They were nothing she had seen before in the regular greenhouses. “Bird Berries? Thunderbird Feather? Bulbous Canarygrass? This looks like something that would be in one of Longbottom’s special rooms.”

“They’re from North America,” said Miranda. “We’ve neglected the potion-making capabilities of that continent for rather too long, I fear, and possibly until it was too late. It was at my strenuous insistence that Professor Longbottom brought back a few specimens. I had to convince him that I wouldn’t let them escape my greenhouse.”

“Ah,” said Sparrow. “So, whatever these things do, you’ve got a monopoly on them the way Longbottom has a monopoly on the regular stuff.”

“I…hadn’t thought of that. I’m just experimenting. Like with that fox potion. It was foolish of me to do that in class, I realize now, but I was impatient and bored.”

“It was my fault you were revealed,” said Sparrow. “I’m sorry about that.”

“It’s me who ought to be apologizing,” said Miranda.

“For what?”

“Who do you think helped Jocasta frame you?”

Sparrow smiled, in the way a chimpanzee smiles as a warning. “I had a pretty damn good idea, Miss McClivert. There’s no spell to transfigure someone into another human being, and Jocasta isn’t a Metamorphmagus, and she never had the opportunity to get one bit of my hair, nor is she so accomplished at potions that she would have any chance of making Polyjuice. Unless, of course, she was aided by a highly competent potioneer who had no qualms about crafting something difficult and dangerous, and had to be a student because getting a teacher involved would have given the game away. Have I got it right?”

Miranda nodded.

“So what was – hang on.” Sparrow shook her head, trying to clear the edge out of her voice. “What was the big idea?”

“I didn’t mean to frame you,” said Miranda. “I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing. Jocasta flattered me, that’s the thing. She told me I was a wonderful potioneer, and that my fox potion was just the sort of thing she’d been looking for. I thought it was a failure because it only lasted ten minutes, but she said that was just the amount of time anyone really needed for a proper impersonation. She said that I had managed to do what others had not, and come up with an easy, inexpensive Polyjuice. She asked me to do it again. She said I could do it again. So, I did.”

“And gave it to her.”

“Why do you think I’m apologizing now? I figured she wanted to play a prank but I didn’t realize she would go as far as she did.”

“You were led astray by pride.”

“So it would seem. Call it the chief sin of my house.”

Sparrow looked at the plants around the greenhouse, and sighed. “It wasn’t you who nearly got me killed,” said Sparrow. “Only you who helped set me on that path. By accident. Well.” She shrugged. “Perhaps you ought to research healing potions, for the next time that you want to put someone in danger.”

“I’m sorry, okay? I was tricked. If you want to be angry at someone pick Jocasta for this whole business.”

“I don’t have to accept your apology.”

“What more do you want, then?”

“I don’t know. For you to be more careful, I guess? Professor Longbottom doesn’t give out his dangerous secrets to anyone, does he?”

“No.”

“Then don’t give them to anyone unless you trust them. Alright? Not even me. There’s already enough mortal danger at this castle in the normal course of events. We have a dueling club, for Heaven’s sake. I’m surprised the Hospital wing isn’t eternally busy.”

“Fine. You don’t have to accept it either, but I wanted to give you my apology for not speaking to you sooner. The Fat Lady did relay your message but I was too embarrassed and angry to contact you. If I had, if we had spoken earlier, maybe you would have been able to avoid being impersonated.”

“Perhaps,” said Sparrow. “Jocasta’s a tricky one, you know.” She sighed again. “I would appreciate talking to you about potions sometime. You know how good I am at those. In the meantime I should be getting back to the lecture about shrivelfigs.”

“Anytime you want to ask,” said Miranda, “I’ll be here if nowhere else.”

Legend had it that the dueling club had been started by Harry Potter himself, when he knocked Dolores Umbridge tail-over-teakettle into a clump of gorse bushes. Legend had it that the resulting duel had been mighty, but that Umbridge had been at last chased from the castle, shrieking insults all the way and vowing revenge. Legend had it that the students had gathered around Potter and become known as “Dumbledore’s Army”, which was the part Sparrow couldn’t figure out, because it should have been Potter’s Army.

Nevertheless, the school had a dueling club, where it had not possessed one before Potter came along. It was the kind of place where students could take a whack at each other without getting in trouble, so it tended to attract the more violent types, such as Jillian Patil, Percival Bulstrode, and, of all people, Jocasta Carrow.

They used to hold their exhibition matches in the great hall, having to reserve the space ahead of time, but as a particular disused courtyard had suddenly become nice and warm out of season, the club had decamped there. It was the sort of place where students felt a little safer watching because they could duck behind a sturdy pillar if need be.

And here was Jocasta, facing off against Jill. There was rage upon Jill’s face, such as she had never seen. Sparrow had no idea why. She had not spoken to Jill since she arrived back at the castle.

Jocasta and Jill raised their wands, bowed to each other, and began.

Sparrow had never been to the dueling club, yet she knew the girl well enough to understand why students were clearing out of the way and ducking behind sturdy pieces of stonework. You didn’t want to get hit by any of that girl’s hexes. Even Madame Pomfrey had trouble healing the results, sometimes.

And Jocasta Carrow was facing off against her…and yawning.

Surely a mere transfiguration witch wouldn’t stand a chance?

The duel began with a fireball towards Jocasta’s face. Yet the girl sidestepped it just in time. Likewise a cone of wind she sidestepped like it was nothing. Sparrow began to understand. The girl had finesse where Jill had power. Where Sparrow’s shield was absolute, Jocasta’s was placed deftly, never wasting energy on absorbing all of a spell’s effect but deflecting in a way that, if Jill was foolish enough to try a stunner, would bounce the spell back at her.

 And that was, in fact, just what happened, though on most occasions Jill had the sense to dodge. But something was different this time. Her wand was moving erratically, always pulling left, and not only left. Towards Sparrow.

Jill looked distracted, and even moreso when she seemed to notice Sparrow within the collonade. As a result, she went down with one of her own Stupefy spells.

“Tsk tsk,” said Jocasta. She strode down the dueling platform, knelt at the slumbering form of Jill, and cast a reviving charm upon her. The girl opened her eyes.

“You need some more finesse,” said Jocasta. “Perhaps you will learn eventually, and our duels will be even more impressive.” She raised her head to the crowd, who felt safe enough to raise their heads. “Come on, then,” she said. “Bulstrode’s ill today and I already beat Greengrass. Does anyone want to give it a go or is the show over?”

Sparrow stepped out from behind a pillar, and said, “I’m up.”

She came down to where Jocasta and Jill stood. Jill, still recovering from being stunned, was supporting herself on Jocasta’s shoulder. Jocasta passed her off to Sparrow.

“Are you here to duel?” said Jill.

“I figured I ought to try it,” said Sparrow. “I’ve got some advice from Hagrid to test.”

“Are you sure you want to try it?” Jill brushed some dust from her robes. “You’re in for a challenge that you might not be able to handle. Carrow’s a tough one, you know that? I haven’t beat her in nearly a year.”

“I’m sure. And – I’m sorry I distracted you.”

“It’s not like I’m into you right now anyway.”

“Sure you aren’t.”

Jocasta looked confused. “Is the barrier witch trying to duel? Surely that is not your domain, my dear. Our match would be terribly boring, would it not? In fact, I remember you saying yourself last year that it would be pointless. You said, as I recall, that hurling hexes at a stone wall is like playing ‘tennis’ alone. But now you wish to duel. Have you, at long last, learned to cast curses of your own? Have my efforts at last paid off?”

Sparrow stepped up to her end of the dueling platform and raised her wand. “Jocasta Carrow,” she said in a clear voice. “I have been informed by your accomplice that you arranged to frame me, and in so doing sent me into a detention where not only I but Hagrid were both nearly killed.”

Jocasta’s face paled.

“That aspect, at least, could not have been your fault. You had no way of knowing where Hagrid would take me, nor indeed could he have known just how powerful the beasts of the forest were.”

“What did he – ”

“That I am here is owing to Hagrid’s bravery and encouragement of my own abilities, as well as Jill’s encouragement and large repertoire, as well as your own advice regarding the casting of curses, for which I thank you. For the peril I faced, I lay the blame at the feet of everyone, especially everyone who is so concerned about the Statute of Secrecy that it would, by sheer social pressure, convince Hagrid to set me a detention that was more drastic than anything I’ve heard of.”

“Where the hell did you go?”

“The far reaches of the forbidden forest,” said Sparrow.

The crowd gasped.

Sparrow heard whispers. “Out to the edge!” “Where demonic monsters roam!” “Maybe she can tell us what’s out there!” “She survived the forbidden forest!”

“Oh come off it,” said Sparrow to the crowd. “It wasn’t dangerous until the edge. Besides which, if anyone could survive that kind of place, it would be me, wouldn’t it? Anyway.” She turned to Jocasta. “Miss Carrow, you were the catalyst of this circumstance. You played the greatest prank upon me that you have ever played, perhaps will ever play. Well done.”

Jocasta gave a flourishing bow.

“As such, I cannot say that I hate you.”

Jocasta straightened, and said, “Can you at least cast a hex and get this duel going? I haven’t got all day.”

“No,” said Sparrow, “my wand will not cast a hex again.”

Jocasta looked exasperated. “Was my work all for nothing then? Why are you even here?”

“To express my great frustration with your behavior,” said Sparrow, “and – ”

As one the crowd roared, “Get on with it!”

“ – And to demonstrate that there is far more to an offence than hexes and curses.” She bowed to Jocasta, ducking a jet of red light, and shouted, “Luminalos maxima!

A blinding white light erupted from Sparrow’s wand. Sparrow had the forewarning to shut her eyes, but the crowd, and especially Jocasta, did not. Thus blinded, she had no chance to brace herself for Sparrow’s next spell. “Scutum Percutiens!

This particular spell was, as ever a shield – but tilted to an angle of thirty degrees and rocketing forward as swift as an arrow.

Pureblood wizards, being shut up in their wizarding world, hear of automobiles and do not often understand them. As such, when they hear of someone being run over by a car, they think that the car ran them over, much as many muggles think. But this is not precisely the case. Cars typically run people under. The car’s general wedge shape, if it is going fast enough, combined with the sudden rise in angle of the windshield, serves to toss the unlucky pedestrian high in the air, whereupon they land hard and die, if the impact of the windshield had not already killed them, or die upon the impact of the next car coming along.

Jocasta’s circumstance was slightly different. The shield, despite being tilted at the basic angle of an automobile’s slope, had not the sudden rising angle that a windshield presents, but rather a smooth upward curve at the end. Jocasta was effectively tumbled straight into the air, high enough to present a possible injury when she landed.

And this was what Sparrow counted on. For she had noticed that, for all Jocasta had the ability to seemingly vanish by turning into a fly, she had not bothered to do it once during the battle with Jill, despite her opportunities. A fly could be practically invisible when it was moving, and it would have presented her with an immense advantage in terms of battlefield placement and dodging. Yet she had not bothered. Why? Was she intending to show how much better she was than Jill? Did the fly’s fragile form present too much vulnerability? Or did she simply not want to reveal her ability to an assembled crowd?

Here and now, Jocasta could choose between being injured in the fall, or revealing herself to the crowd, or flying out of the duel and effectively surrendering in disgrace. Which would she choose?

She chose injury. She came down hard on her right wrist, and cried aloud in pain.

And that was it. The duel was over.

No one said a word as Jocasta was led off to the hospital wing. They just looked at Sparrow in confusion and fear.

The second festivity of the year was the Yule Ball.

In years past, a ball at this time of year had chiefly been a feature of the Triwizard Tournament. And indeed, when the tournament was on, every once in a while, the ball was quite spectacular, with not a few different bands invited to perform, and all manner of decorations. The normal December dance was more subdued, with illusory snow falling throughout the hall, and silver candles, and sky-blue draperies, and a nice, sedate chamber orchestra playing somber winter music.

It would have been better if any of the children understood what snow was, but Flutwick was hidebound in his own way, and anyway having rain fall throughout the hall would have put quite the damper on things. So, instead of being an accurate representation of the season it was a reminder of what had been lost.

This time around, Jill came along with Cormac and Sparrow to the dance, but danced with Cormac and with Violet, and gave a polite curtsy to Sparrow, but said nothing. Sparrow felt disappointed to see Jill waltz away, for the girl was wearing a pretty royal blue gown that shimmered in the candlelights. Sparrow’s sleeveless purple gown could not compare.

Sparrow waited on the sidelines for one of her friends to be available, and, seeing that Cormac was catching her eye, she took the opportunity. This time around they seemed to have a better understanding of who was leading who, and so their waltz was less awkward than it had been.

Still, when Miranda came around in a suit that shimmered blue and silver, Sparrow made no objections to her cutting in, nor did Cormac, who seemed pleased that he had more chance to dance with Violet.

And so Miranda McClivert led Sparrow in a slow waltz once more.

“How many people have you danced with so far?” said Sparrow.

“Enough,” said Miranda. “Would you like to hear what they’re saying about you?”

“Don’t tell me you went around asking about me again!”

Miranda laughed. “Oh, no. I didn’t have to ask. The whispers are flying, girl. You might want to go and hear them yourself.”

“Go around?” said Sparrow. “Like you? But I cannot intimidate people into dancing with me the way you do.”

“Oh no?” said Miranda. “You who managed to toss the unbeatable Jocasta Carrow into the air cannot intimidate people? You who made it to the edge of the Forbidden Forest and back cannot venture to look your fellow students in the eyes? You doubt yourself too much, girl. But, I know what you are referring to. I trade on my height too much. And yet you were very well able to confront me about my transgression, in the very place where I feel most powerful. Do not be so intimidated by your peers. You are the bold Sparrow Jones, are you not?”

“I do not know,” said Sparrow. “Perhaps I will follow your advice, in time. Perhaps I shall do so now. Very well! I must leave you, friend Miranda, and discover the truth for myself.”

“Friend?”

“Friend.” She spun away from Miranda, and, one by one, danced with as many students as she could, inquiring each as to their name, and asking what they thought of her. It was hard to get a consensus, as many of the students did not, in fact, know or care about the girl, and though gratified for the offer of a dance (for many had themselves been standing alone) they were confused as to why Sparrow would ask who they were, for they did not consider that a total stranger would care about them at all.

Still, there were those students who did know of the girl, and many of them, mostly among the first-years, were grateful that there was someone older than them who was looking out for them in the halls, for they had not begun to master defensive spells, nor had they begun to fully understand the culture among the students. And there were also those students, most of them among the sixth and seventh-years, who felt it was somewhat presumptious for a fourth-year to believe that the older students could not defend themselves.

And all of the students who knew of her, even the older ones, were just a little intimidated, for reasons they could not articulate.

Sparrow had just begun a dance with a second-year student named Melodius Figgle when a familiar pale girl, wearing her customary black gown, appeared beside her, and said, “May I cut in?”

Sparrow apologized to Melodius, and, before Jocasta could say anything further, Sparrow held one of her hands and had the other on her waist. And so they waltzed through the crowd, eyes upon each other.

“You have been asking after your reputation directly,” said Jocasta. “Rather forthright. Arrogant, even. Most people prefer to hear it through a second party.”

“I wonder,” said Sparrow, “if that is why they did not wish to answer fully.”

“If it were only that!” said Jocasta. “If only. No, I think they have good reason to be fearful of you. I think they wonder who you are now. For their great protector, the sweet angel who is so reluctant to hurt people that her wand can’t even cast hexes, has wielded her own shield as a weapon. The girl who only wishes to shield people from blows has the heart of a warrior after all. You are now dangerous.” She wiggled her eyebrows.

“If my wand approved of it,” said Sparrow, “perhaps it does not violate my own principles.”

“You broke my wrist! That’s totally offensive.”

“But it’s not a hex,” said Sparrow.

“Your wand’s principles are to not cast curses? Well, you sure found the giant loophole. Ow.”

“Indeed,” said Sparrow, “and, related to that, I wished to apologize to you. I mean, not about that specifically. Perhaps I should not have injured you, but I did intend to knock you arse over teakettle. I’m not sorry about that.”

Jocasta looked confused. “What are you sorry for, then? What sort of sword are you laying at my feet? Were you intending to defend your beloved?”

“Kind of. I mean, Jill and I aren’t on right now. I’m not sure if or when we will be.”

“You aren’t – oh! Well, ho ho ho! That’s just perfect for – ”

“I wanted to apologize for what I intended.”

“You just told me you were sorry. ”

“I mean the other thing. The whole idea of tossing you into the air was to force you to transfigure yourself in front of everyone. So that everyone would realize you were an animagus, and then the rumors would spread that you’re unregistered. I wanted to injure your reputation at the school as you had mine.”

“And you’re apologizing for it now? Surely turnabout is fair play.”

“So I thought,” said Sparrow, “but now that I think about it, the Ministry doesn’t like unregistered animagi, do they? They were remarkably uptight about me using a little magic to grow a tree, I think they’d grind your bones to dust if they knew what you were. And then fine you twenty thousand gold. And then toss you into Azkaban. I might have ruined your wizarding career.”

Jocasta chuckled, then giggled, then laughed.

“What?”

“You!” said Jocasta. “My God, you are such a Hufflepuff! You have this secret evil plan that could put away your sworn enemy forever, and then you regret it, that’s fair enough, we all do that. But then you go straight to them and apologize for it? If I tell this story to the people in Slytherin house their heads would explode.”

“From what I’ve read,” said Sparrow, “Helga Hufflepuff valued honesty and loyalty.”

“And Salazar Slytherin valued cunning and ambition. A properly devious person would only apologize if it furthered their ambitions.”

“And you think I’m not doing that right now?”

“What, by being transparent?”

“By being honest. I need you in my good graces, Jocasta, for the months when we can see the full moon. I fear that I have got off on the wrong foot with Miranda, and so I must work to repair that relationship as well. We’re going to need her.”

“We – oh. Oh. Yes. Ahem. Perhaps you shouldn’t have told me even that much.”

“You handle the details,” said Sparrow. “I am too honest to be trusted with them.”

“And tell me,” said Jocasta, “how can you be certain that I wouldn’t decide to just give the whole game away?”

“Because you’re a Slytherin,” said Sparrow. “You value ambition, correct?”

“Undoubtedly.”

“Considering my current lack of talents in the area of transfiguration, this task, this journey, is a great ambition of mine. Not the greatest, but close. I am eager to see it through. I believe that Miranda will be eager to aid me on this quest as well, considering the ingredients that the potion requires. If you were to attempt to foil this ambition, you would injure your own principles, and gain nothing. Unless, perhaps, you were the type of person who thought they could only magnify themselves by seeing the people around them fail, or unless you thought my ambition was getting in the way of yours. I have considered both possibilities.”

“Ooh,” said Jocasta. “You’re less naïve than I thought. How do you trust me, then? After I’ve already gotten you in trouble.”

“We share ambitions. If you take me down, you go down with me. Not as a matter of each of us blackmailing the other, but as a matter of your own heart.”

“Oh, my dear Sparrow. You believe in integrity too much. I have heard many tales of people betraying their closest friends and dearest wishes for the sake of gaining temporal power.”

“And I’m saying you’re not one of those people.”

“You trust me?”

“I trust you with this, at least.”

“Let sworn enemies work together, then. I would ask to shake hands on it, but we are already holding hands.”

Sparrow drew her dancing partner close, and looked her square in the eye. “My dear Miss Carrow. You are in no way my sworn enemy.”

Jocasta pouted. “But I worked so hard!”

“You tried. But I understood you were trying to help me. And you were the one who put your secret in my hands to begin with, weeks ago, as if you trusted me. I don’t think you ever wanted to be a real enemy. Just annoying. I am sorry that I treated you like a real one at the dueling club, and deliberately risked a violation of your trust. I was…you could see I was furious.”

“I sent you into the Forbidden Forest,” said Jocasta. “I don’t blame you.”

“As if that was all!” said Sparrow. “Then I would have been content to let you look like a fool pounding my shield and getting nowhere. No, I was taking revenge for the fact that you put me in a position to open an old wound you didn’t know about. I was answering my own terror by taking it out on you.”

“Terror of…something worse than the Forbidden Forest?”

“Quite a bit worse. What you have done to me this year, what happened to me out there in the wild, none of that compares to what I have already experienced before I came to this school.”

“What did you – ”

“Someday I will place all my trust in you, and you will hear the full story. But only that is if you help me become an Animagus. Not before then.”

“My my,” said Jocasta. “Sealing the bargain by appealing to my curiosity. Very well, my dear, it shall be done. As for me being unregistered – that’s actually an open question. Even I don’t know how to describe it.”

“How the hell do you not know?”

“It’s a strange tale of attempted deceit,” said Jocasta. “You shall hear the full tale only after I am certain that you will set out on your goal.”

“Does that mean I apologized for nothing?”

“Hardly!” Jocasta drew away from Sparrow, and spun around. “You have salvaged your conscience and strengthened the relationship between us. That’s something. On the other hand, the way you’re going about it…does remind me a bit of my father. All this high-and mighty business just because you don’t fully trust me.”
“Should I?”

“I’d like you to. It would make a nice contrast to home life. There’s your reason that I won’t betray you. Not because you hold curiosity over my head, not because I value ambition, but because I’m already sick of plotting and conniving.”

“The merry prankster, sick of conniving? Who would have thought.”

“There’s a difference between pranks and what my father does. You don’t know what it’s like to have people try to tear you down deliberately because they think it will hone your skills. Wait. Goddamit. That’s what I did, didn’t I? I’m turning into my father after all. Look – ” She drew close to Sparrow again, pulling her into an embrace. “Please. Don’t go down the road my father has done, and don’t let me. You value protection. Protect me and yourself from that dark road. Be a soft place to land, always. You have been bold, and intimidating in your own way. Keep in mind that those who seek your protection may also be seeking warmth. Do not forget that. Promise me you won’t forget that.”

“You have my word.”

“Good.” She let go of Sparrow. “Good. I think, perhaps, that if we are to work together I should play no more pranks upon you. Except for one.”

“What would that be?”

Sparrow suddenly felt a curious chill upon the small of her back. She turned. There was an oval of purple fabric on the floor. “Why you – ”

“That old thing was so frumpy,” said Jocasta. “I figured I could improve it. Ta-ta, dearie.” She disappeared into the crowd.

There was but a day left before the Christmas break, when students would be going home. Sparrow debated whether she should go, and be with her family, or stay with the castle’s few orphans.

It would be more convenient for her to study the history of magic, if she could do it without anyone walking in on her in the library. And perhaps she could ask the ghosts without being overheard, for once. Yet by the same token, her parents expected her home, and she had not actually made any arrangements with the school to remain over the holidays.

She was torn, and there was less than a day to decide, and she had things to do on this particular day that might land her in trouble with the headmistress anyway. For she had taken Jill’s advice to heart, about thinking of others, and she had taken Hagrid’s advice to heart, about the sheer dangers of the Wizarding world. She had to research, extensively, before acting in any direction.

Hagrid had also said that she could not ask the teachers. But he said nothing about the ghosts, nor, indeed, the headmistress.

So, Sparrow found herself standing outside the statue that barred the way to the Headmistress’ office. What was the password this time? “Potter,” said Sparrow. Nope. “Granger.” Nope. “Weasley.” Nuh-uh. “Fiddlesticks.”

She looked around, hoping to find a teacher who had business with the Headmistress. There was only a cat, with markings around its eyes in the shape of spectacles. “Oh hello Headmistress,” said Sparrow, and turned to the statue. “Where was I? Longbottom. Hagrid. Moody. Son of a – ”

The cat meyowed, and the statue stepped aside.

“You call that security?” said Sparrow. “Anyone who brings a cat could get in.”

“I am the security,” said McGonogall, as she swept by. “And from what I hear of your capabilities, someday you may be the security for the school.”

She had not beckoned Sparrow to follow, but the girl did so anyway.

McGonogall turned. “What exactly is it that you want?”

“Your own experiences regarding the Statute of Secrecy.”

“Hasn’t Hagrid forbidden that subject for you?”

“It didn’t stop me.”

“Didn’t you have a detention regarding that very subject?”

“Yeah and if anyone had bothered to explain to me why we need the statute I wouldn’t have had to go all the way to the edge of the forbidden forest and nearly get killed. I would appreciate understanding the nature of the statute instead of having to absorb it. And you’re old –”

McGonogall huffed.

 “ -- so you have more experience than I do. And I figured that the office of the Headmistress would be a safer place to talk about it than echoing halls. What do you say?”

“Step into my office.”

The office of the headmistress occupied the entire floorspace of the upper part of the tower. Which tower, Sparrow never knew. They tended to shuffle around. Today the view out the tall window was of the mountains.

The office consisted of many, many bookcases, and not for browsing, it seemed, for they were all behind glass. And there were portraits, many portraits. Pictures of the headmasters of the school. Sparrow wondered if they went all the way back to the beginning.

“If it isn’t Sparrow Jones,” said the portrait of Albus Dumbledore. “The girl who keeps sneaking out at night, or so the other paintings tell me.”

“Is that so,” said the Headmistress, taking a book off her shelf. “I recall having to punish some students severely for such behavior. And you’re doing it repeatedly. Shall we test to see if house points can go negative?”

“We could,” said Sparrow. “But it sounds as though Filch hasn’t been telling you and the portraits haven’t told you. It sounds as though you have a discipline problem at this school, and not with me.”

“Ooh,” said the portrait of a young witch with dark hair neatly tied back in a bun. “The attack reflection! She’s got your number, Minerva.”

The Headmistress looked like she was ready to tell someone off, though who, at this point, was difficult to choose. She composed herself, and said, “I shall have to have some choice words with Filch. Now. As for your question, Miss Jones.” She motioned Sparrow to take a seat at a couch near the fireplace. “A few photographs might aid your comprehension.”

Sparrow sat, and McGonogall sat in a chair before her. She opened the book, a weighty tome full of photographs. Some of them, pictures from what appeared to be the 1940s, waved and smiled. There were earlier photographs that were entirely static.

“My mother and father,” said McGonogall, pointing to one where a carousel was going around and around. Sparrow wasn’t sure which people on it were the mother and father, but politely said nothing.

“Mother was a witch,” continued McGonogall, “and Father was not. She married him without telling him. She had me without telling him. But then, once I started summoning toys to my hand, I suppose she had to let the secret out. And what happened after that…it took years for them to reconcile. Father resented Mother for keeping such a secret so large for so long. Mother resented Father for taking so long to marry her, thus preventing her from telling him about magic.”

“I never knew my grandparents, on either side.” She pointed to some of the moving images, which looked like they were from the 1890s. “Mother’s side had disowned her.” She pointed to the static images, from about the same time period. “I was not permitted to know Father’s side. These pictures are the only memory I have of them.” She sighed. “I grew up without much connection to my heritage. A small sacrifice, I suppose, for the sake of upholding the Statute of Secrecy. Father was the only person in his family permitted to know of Mother’s abilities. He was never permitted to know of her world. That’s the law, for the sake of protecting us from muggles. Let the witch hunts never arise again.”

“She couldn’t tell him straight off?”

“Legal precedent is that only spouses are permitted to know.”

“This sounds like it wouldn’t make marriages easy.”

“Decidedly not. Nor does the Ministry of Magic employ any marriage counselors for mixed marriages. That would be giving away too much, you see. Nor would a muggle marriage counselor be able to make any headway. Orford Umbridge once told me that he had tried to seek the aid of one, only for the effort to be completely useless because he couldn’t reveal the precise cause of the conflict. He could let his wife Ellen say that it was a conflict over magic, Oh, that was fine -- as long as the spouse said nothing to back her up. There’s the rather nasty loophole -- you can say what you want but your spouse can’t save you from being proscribed a stay in a mental asylum, and that is why the Umbridge marriage fell apart.”

“Did you ever regret this kind of secrecy?”

“After meeting Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington…perhaps.”

“Oh yeah, the nearly-headless guy. I should have asked him earlier, but he seems to favor the Gryffindors, for some reason, so I’ve never really met him. Are you saying he got his head cut off by muggles? How could that even happen?”

“I was without my wand when they caught me,” said the nearly headless Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, as he floated up through the couch, causing Sparrow to jump out of the way. “Which is precisely why I tell students to always have their wands.”

“Really,” said McGonogall. “Startling students like that. How did you even know we were talking about – ” She glanced up at the portrait of Dumbledore. He was missing.

“Discipline problem,” said Sparrow.

McGonogall glared at the girl.

“Sorry. Mr. Porpington, please tell me. Why did muggles decide to cut your head off in the first place?”

“It was at the court of Henry VII,” said Nick.

“The court! Of the King!” said Sparrow. “I thought Wizards were hated and feared!”

“Witches,” said Nick. “Not Wizards. Witches were associated with worship of the Devil. Wizards, ah well. You could get yourself a nice appointment as the king’s Court Astrologer. Many Wizarding fortunes were founded upon such a plum position. Alas, if something went wrong…”

“What happened to make witches get hunted?” said Sparrow.

“Muggle propaganda,” said McGonogall. “Scurillous screeds. Perhaps wizards did not do enough in those years to counteract such lies, in the years when we had the chance to operate more openly.” She raised an eyebrow at Nick.

“I was busy being an astrologer,” said Nick. “I was not appointed for my political opinions, my dear young witch. I imagine the King would have cut my head off for venturing such impudence. Anyway. I met lady Grieve. Ah, lady Grieve, such a beautiful young thing, but her teeth were not straight. I elected to fix them. Alas, alas. My spell misfired and I gave her tusks. I was unable to fix the mistake before I was dragged before the king, tried quickly, and beheaded ineptly. I wonder if anyone ever fixed her teeth.”

“Oh yes,” said McGonogall. “Oh yes. She was a pretty young thing, except her teeth. How old were you when you were killed, Sir?”

“Seventy years. Please, my dear Headmistress, I had no prurient designs upon the lady. I only wished to…fix something that I could.”

“Did you ask her?”

“Erm. No, as a matter of fact, I did not.”

“There you go. And now you can see, Sparrow, why associating with muggles has always been dangerous. No wonder my mother kept her secret for so long. She could not be sure that her husband would attack her, until she knew him well.”

“Now hold on a minute,” said a voice from the wall. The portrait of the young witch looked indigant. “It wasn’t always as dangerous as all that. Why, when I was Headmistress everyone in the entire isle was doing magic.”

Sparrow looked at the nameplate on the woman’s frame. Maud McKinnon, AD 999-1035, Headmistress 1034-1035.

“Everyone?” said Sparrow. Her face brightened.

“Magic was a thing everyone tried,” said Maud. Only, there were few who actually had the talent, and the rest were reciting things that would never work for them. We trained the talented ones. It wasn’t until the whole row with Slytherin leaving the castle that we began to make a significant distinction between muggles and wizards. Muggles themselves didn’t stop trying to do magic in my lifetime. I’m not sure if they ever did, until…well I wouldn’t know. Nick here makes it sound like it was still common for them to try in his day.”

“It was!” said Nick. “As I traipsed through muggle society I had the opportunity to read many of their texts for summoning demons and preparing spells of invisibility. I laughed at it all, for it was a lot of overcomplicated nonsense. One wonders when they left off that rubbish and turned towards…whatever it is they do now.”

“Discover their own secrets of the world,” said Sparrow, “and build bombs that can obliterate an entire countryside in an instant.”

There was a gasp, as of a hundred voices. Sparrow looked up. All the portraits she could see were staring at her now in rapt wonder and fear.

“That’s impossible,” said Nick.

“That’s insane,” said Maud.

“That was the state of their world,” said Dumbledore, “although from what last I heard, they’d tacitly agreed never to use them.”

“And always live on the knife’s edge,” said McGonogall. “I read muggle newspapers, you know. They were always on about Mutually Assured Destruction.”

“They have their own magic,” said Sparrow, “and it is hard, and cruel. I know you’re all worried about me revealing Wizards to the world. After what Cormac told me about their weapons, I can tell you for certain that I have no interest in trying to somehow let the Wizarding world live openly alongside such proven danger. And yet, I burn. I want so badly to be able to share the wonders of our world. Imagine if the muggles knew ghosts existed! So many religious questions would finally be answered! Imagine if children knew there were unicorns! They would grow up more fascinated with the wide world, because they would never have to tell themselves the lie that there is no magic. And yet, they can never know.”

“They can’t do magic,” said McGonogall. “They would never be able to do more than look, and be jealous, and angry, and scared.”

“And that is resolutely unfair,” said Sparrow. “Imagine if the whole world had magic. Imagine if everyone could fly on carpets and brooms and mortars instead of running around in smoke-belching metal beasts. They never would have had to invent their bombs. They never would have had to invent their furnaces that poisoned the air until it was left a dessicated ruin. And nobody, in all of Wizarding, ever figured out how to bring magic to the muggles. Did you even bother?”

She looked up to the paintings. There were people in them, now, besides the headmasters. There was the Fat Lady, there was Sir Cadogan. Perhaps all the portraits in the castle were gathered around her now. Ghosts of all kinds hovered where they would not block the view.

“We never bothered,” said Sir Cadogan, “Because it’s impossible.”

“Tell me that for certain!” shouted Sparrow. “Tell me that any of you, at any point in the entire history of magic, tried to figure out how to give muggles the gift! Tell me that you tried and failed!”

The portraits mumbled between themselves, but nobody answered.

“And what do you think would have happened if that had been achieved?” said McGonogall.

“There would have been no pureblood bullshit,” said Sparrow. “Perhaps Salazar Slytherin would never have left. Perhaps there would have been no witch hunts. And Tom Riddle would have grown up to be Tom Riddle, not Lord Voldemort.”

There was a gasp, as of a thousand voices, and the crowd murmured.

“And I shall tell you what else,” said McGonogall. “For, as Harry Potter once told me, he had impressed a Goblin by bothering to dig a grave with a shovel instead of using a wand. As for me, I wash my dishes by hand, when I have a mind, in memory of my father. There is something to be said for doing things the hard way, every once in a while, and I am less than impressed with wizards who wave a wand to do everything. Imagine if all of humanity had only to wave a wand to do anything. We would be indolent, fragile. And, perhaps, hidebound as Wizards are now. What I know of Muggles indicates that they have uncovered secrets of the universe that Wizards do not know. If everyone was magic, would those secrets have been uncovered at all? Would the basic principles of motion in space be understood? Would we know how large the universe is? Most wizards don’t. I have lost count of the number of times that a pureblood wizard from one of the old families has told me that there are only four elements. There are ways, my dear Miss Jones, in which we’re a pack of idiots. Would you wish that upon the entire world?”

“I would,” said Sparrow, “if it meant that the world as you knew it could have survived. But it didn’t, did it? There’s little left of the wild green, now.”

“You are trying to be kind,” said McGonogall. “Yet in your kindness you may do things that threaten the world. I am sorry that Hagrid forbade you this topic before I could help you understand it, such that you have been burning for so long. Please. Remember what I told you at the beginning of the school year. You cannot change someone’s life for them. Only they can change their own life. I cannot make you cease this course of action. Only you can. But I can tell you that trying to do what you wish, without consulting anyone, will lead you to Sir Mimsy-Porpington’s end, and that is if you’re lucky. If not, many would suffer the same fate, even many people you love.”

“I already lost some of the people I loved,” said Sparrow. “Because they could not protect themselves. If they had possessed my abilities, they might have been saved.”

“Is that what this comes down to?” said McGonogall. “Grief propelling you into madness? Many dark wizards have taken the same path.”

“Does this school have counselors of any kind?”

“I usually handle that business.”

“So, nothing professional.”

“Once long ago,” said Nick, “the students told each other that every dark wizard had arisen from the house of Slytherin. I cannot say from my long experience if that has been true. Yet, it is true that nearly every British wizard of the past thousand years has come through our halls, not one of them receiving anything like professional mental care. One wonders if the students who turned to darkness would have taken such paths, if they had been consoled in time.”

“I’m not a dark wizard!” said Sparrow. “I can’t even cast those kind of spells. My wand doesn’t even want to. Also considering my skin color I slightly resent the association of darkness with evil but that’s beside the point. I’m trying to save people from evil, as I was unable to do years ago.”

“So it seems,” said McGonogall. “You would not spread darkness over the land, yet you would shine like the sun. Yet if you shine like the sun, your light may well burn the world to ash, as the real sun has nearly done to the world of muggles.”

“Oh, touché.”

“I should certainly hope so,” said McGonagall. “I should certaintly hope that I have touched your heart well enough to warn you away from a path of destruction. I wonder if I have. Sometimes I do speak to children who plan to do terrible things in the name of good, like you, and I am able to reassure them that the world is not so terrible as to merit their wrath. Young Rodolphus Carrow would have burned his family’s house down if we had not had the chance to converse. Other times, they refuse to listen, and I can’t understand why, because I am being perfectly reasonable. That was the fate of young Antonio Bolu, who said he would try to apparate across the sea, despite all my warnings, and he was never seen again. Perhaps some ambitions are too great to discourage, and they consume their bearers. I fear that this will be your fate. It would be a tragedy to see someone of your skill and your compassion come to the same end as a Wizard like Grindelwald.”

Sparrow frowned. “Does the Wizarding World have professional counselors?”

“Professional in what sense?”

“I mean like, have they gone through training to practice proper therapy. Have they got a license to provide counsel. Is there a board of people at Saint Mungo’s or wherever that certifies people to do mental health care on a professional basis.”

“I have not heard of such a thing.”

Sparrow sighed. “Problem number one, I suppose. Problem two is what my Father always tells me – just like what you said. You can’t change someone’s life for them, and you can’t give mental health care to someone who refuses it. They have to choose to change. I think the more stubborn children you’ve spoken to decided not to listen to you, and sealed their own fate. You hoped that being reasonable would change them, but in the end the choice came down to them.”

“As it does to you,” said Nick. “What have you chosen?”

“I am willing to be less hasty and more circumspect, at the very least.”

Nick did not look pleased with this answer. “I had hoped you would be willing to give up this mad quest entirely.”

“Is it mad?” said McGonagall. “Madly done, if not guided properly, but mad in itself? I cannot say. I have given you what warning I can, child, and that is all I can do. Goodness! I go to far as it is. I, the Headmistress of this school, endorsing criminal behavior? Such a thing is not done!” She winked. “Now let us say that we shall have no more talk of your mad ambitions. I am officially forbidding the topic of violating the International Statute of Secrecy.” She winked again. “You are forbidden to discuss the subject with students or professors.” Wink.

“Something in your eye?”

“It’s dreadful, I can’t seem to get it out. Oh, and feel free to speak to me any time you wish, about what troubles you. I would hear more about what happened to your friends.”

“Bad memories.”

The headmistress put her hand on Sparrow’s. “Tell me if you wish, when you wish. Not before then.”

“Perhaps when the moon is full,” said Sparrow.

“And I will admit,” said the Headmistress, gazing up at the portraits, “our world does have its manifest cruelties. You ought to talk to Argus Filch about his life as a squib.”

“A what?”

“Miss Jones,” said Filch, floating in the moonlight. “I told you there would be consequences if you tried this again.”

“I’m not here to sneak past you,” said Sparrow. “I’m here for you.”

Filch’s expression froze. He blinked. “Me?”

“I wanted to ask you about what your life was like as a squib.”

For the first time in a long time, Filch’s face softened. It was entirely possible that nobody had ever asked him this question before. “Well, erm…I mean…” He squinted. “Did you lose a bet or something? Are you planning to ask me a personal question and blab about it to the whole school? I bet that’s what this is.”

“I just want to know,” said Sparrow.

“Oh yeah? Why?”

“Well, I figure if I know why people are born as squibs, then I can have an idea of how to make muggles into Wizards.”

“Oh I see,” said Filch. “You’re not here for me. You’re here for your mad plan. Well forget it. I’m not telling you anything.”

“Please?”

“I have never,” said Filch, “Ever, in my entire life, yielded to a student who said ‘please.’ So run along.”

The train ride to London was largely uneventful, in the sense that there was no possibility of it having anything that could be called an event, because nobody in the entire student body wanted to sit in a compartment with her. Some of them started to, but then they realized who they were about to sit near, muttered implausible excuses, and fled. The train ride was thus spent by staring out the window at the passage of dull grey countryside.

It was not until near the end of the journey that Violet Brown deigned to enter her compartment.

“I’m sorry for not getting to you sooner,” said Violet. “I was taking a survey. 61 percent of the student body thinks you’re barking mad, thirty percent believes you’re an idiot, five percent believe you’ve been possessed by Peeves, two point nine seven percent think you’re a muggle spy, and one percent want the Ministry of Magic to arrest you immediately. Zero point zero three percent are of the opinion that you are on to something interesting and wish to see where this is all going.”

‘Good heavens,” said Sparrow. “There is a storm between my light and the gentle earth.”

“How’s that?”

“Never mind. I’m interested in that last bit. Who is it?”

“Me,” said Violet. “And Cormac. Jill’s on the fence.”

“Oh,” said Sparrow. “I would have expected you, with your exhausting knowledge, to tell me that I had no chance.”

“Please. This is a topic that I’ve never even heard of. How could I resist looking into it? And Cormac’s interest is piqued because he wants to get into the nature of magic itself. Something to do with Wandlore, I’ll be bound. And Jill is torn because she thinks she isn’t supposed to totally disavow you. Something to do with her wand. Oh, and she loves you.”

“I knew that much. But she didn’t want to be with me in the train car? Nor Cormac?”

“There is such a thing as keeping up appearances for the sake of staying safe,” said Violet. “I’m only getting away with talking to you right now because everyone thinks I’m here to make fun of you. So, I am giving you a directive. Don’t contact any of us over the holidays. It might look suspicious. Wait until we’re back at the castle when we have plenty of secret passages to use.”

The train stopped.

“Got to go,” said Violet. “Remember. Until the holidays are over, you never heard of me.”

Sparrow pouted. “But I like you.”

“Officially, you don’t. Ta ta.” She left the compartment, joining the mass of students shuffling through the corridors.

As Sparrow brought her bags down and waited for the line of students to end, she wondered about Violet’s admonition. What did she mean about looking suspicious? Did the ministry consider her a threat already?

Sparrow departed the train and, stepping out of the barrier between Platform 19 ¾ and Queen’s Cross, greeted her parents with a look of pity in her eyes. They would never have the chance to see her school, nor her world, not as long as the Ministry stood there like a menacing door guard. She embraced them, and wondered if she had bit off more than she could chew.

The greater portion of the city of London was on stilts in the shallows, such as had been constructed by the acting muggle government at one point, though the houses atop them had not. Those were rather ramshackle, being left to the devices of the inhabitants, and were composed primarily of debris created when the city had flooded, assorted driftwood, and the cast-off building materials scavenged from the worksites of new houses. These were more difficult to come by lately. There was little enough of the quality material to go around these days, and those who commanded money and power guarded their building materials more jealously than in previous decades.

The stilts had been the creation of the previous acting government, yet this government had cared more for building new things than maintaining them, and the new regime could not be said to be interested in the well-being of anyone who didn’t have Connections.

Likewise the greenhouses also went to rust, on occasion, especially in those areas that were designated as staple crops for the poor.

Yet neither they nor the stilts ever fell, for reasons no muggle understood.

Sparrow berated herself for ever believing she ought to waste a winter holiday break at Hogwarts. There was much in this city that needed her. If she had to wade into chill water to make sure that the citizens could stay safe and dry, so be it. She had enough time in these two weeks to see to the most urgent columns.

She had not expected to see a figure in the shadows, down here in the filthy water. Who in their right mind would be waiting for anyone under the platforms? Perhaps a clandestine meeting? Perhaps something she should not be involved in. They could not harm her, not as long as she had her wand. Could they even see her? But she could see them, well enough.

The shadowy figure extended their hand and shouted, “Stupefy!”

Sparrow’s shield was up before she had even drawn her wand.

“So,” said the voice of an adult man, “it is Sparrow Jones after all. Greetings, Sparrow.” He bowed. “You’re already on watch with the Improper Use of Magic office. I assume you’re here to give them more evidence against you?”

“I am here to fix the columns, such as nobody else seems to bother doing,” said Sparrow. “And if the Improper Use of magic office isn’t going to come straight out and arrest me, or even warn me, I should think they’re being much too coy about enforcing the law. I should think they are waiting to bring the hammer down later, just to be cruel. What’s it to you, anyway? Who are you?”

“Lumos.”

The figure’s face was revealed. A man in his mid thirties, it seemed, with reddish hair, worn slightly long and quite messy. He had sharp features, and his eyes were not very kind.

“I’m sorry,” said Sparrow, “I still don’t know who you are.”

“Albus,” said the man. “Albus Severus.”

“Okay…”

“Potter. Albus Severus Potter. Come on, you know me. Everybody knows me.”

“Well I mean. Harry Potter had a family. I just ever paid attention to who was who. Was I supposed to?”

Albus looked extremely put out. “I thought my time at school would have been remembered. I was the one who won the famous duel against Blaise Brown.”

“You have a long way to go if you want to match your father’s renown,” said Sparrow. “And I have the distinct impression that when it comes to renown, I just blew you out of the water by accident. I’m terribly sorry.”

Now the man’s face was beginning to match the color of his hair. “Never mind!” He said. “I’m with the Improper Use of Magic office and I’m issuing a warning. You are not to go around using magic outside of school. No more sneaking around down here fixing things.”

“But – Mr. Potter. If I don’t help these people, they’ll be in the drink, soon enough.”

“That’s not your concern,” said Albus. “It should never have been your concern in the first place. There’s a time and place for magic and this is not it.”

“They need me!” said Sparrow. “They need SOMEONE, for God’s sake! The most they get from the muggle government is a hearty ho-hum!”

“I’m not going to warn you again,” said Albus. “If you’re caught doing magic outside of school you’re going to face actual discipline for once. You could be expelled.”

“And why,” said Sparrow, “Have I not been arrested already, if the office has evidence against me? Why have I not been issued a warning?”

“They were planning to,” said Albus. “The office has your number, girl. But given your recent exhortations, they think you’re a blithering idiot, and not quite as much of a threat. They sent me here to give you one last chance, and to assess your mental state. You sound sane enough.”

“I don’t think it’s at all stupid to wonder why Wizards have magic and Muggles don’t,” said Sparrow. “Nor is it dangerous to research the question.”

“Oh sure,” said Albus. “And it wasn’t dangerous to make steam engines, either, until the entire world ecosystem went tits up. Well, I’ve got all I needed to know. Go home and live without magic for a couple weeks.”

The man vanished.

“You may have been doing them a disservice,” said Mother, as the family sat around the table. There was Father, a man with more lines on his face than his age would suggest; there was Mother, a woman with more grey hair than her age would suggest; there was Robin, a girl of ten who had no qualms about floating the chickpea bowl over to her plate; there was Finch, a boy of six who was not yet skilled enough to effectively resist Robin’s commandeering of the bowl. It wobbled dangerously. Father glared at both of them, and Robin set the bowl down with her own two hands.

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” said Sparrow. “Those columns are made of wood. They rot all the time. If I didn’t fix them – ”

“Someone would end up in the drink,” said Father, “and they would all remember they had to maintain their platforms.”

“With what resources?”

“Driftwood. Before you ask, yes, that is what they’ve always used. The City Government didn’t build those platforms for them.”

“And do they build the nails out of driftwood as well?”

“Pegs. Yes. Easier to replace than nails. What I’m saying is, if they knew there was a mysterious miracle upholding their work, they might begin to rely on it, and if you wanted to be honest about what you were doing they would almost certainly come to rely on you, and you could never live anywhere but London because you always had to shore up the timbers. Do you want that?”

Sparrow huffed. “Maybe if they could all do magic then they wouldn’t need me.”

“I don’t know,” said Mother. “Considering what I’ve had to put up with in this house, I’d just as soon nobody had any magic.”

All three children gasped in offended shock.

Mother winked. “But then the world would have even less color than it does now, I suppose.”

“Why don’t they have magic?” said Robin. “Mum, why can’t you do magic?”

“I wasn’t born with the gift,” said Mother.

“That’s not fair.”

“Yeah,” said Finch. “That’s not fair. Everyone should have magic. It’s fun.”

Mother and Father gave each other a look. Sparrow knew that look. It said “quick, do something.”

“I have the feeling,” said Mother, “that children are keenly aware of what is and isn’t fair, sometimes moreso than adults.”

“Yeah!” said Sparrow.

“However,” said Mother, “sometimes when children say something should be fair, what they mean is that things should be unfair in their favor.” She gave sparrow a Look.

“I don’t see how I’m trying to be unfair in my favor,” said Sparrow. “I’m trying to reduce the elitist exclusivity of Wizards.”

“And yet magic does not seem to allow electricity to exist in its midst,” said Mother.

“Our lights work perfectly fine, don’t they?”

“Except when you get near them. I can tell you’re coming when the light flickers.”

“Oh, touché.”

“I can turn on a light just fine!” said Robin.

“Maybe you’re not as powerful as me,” said Sparrow with a grin.

“Oh yes I am!”

“Oh no you’re not.”

“Oh knock it off,” said Father.

 “If you gave the whole world magic all at once right now,” said Mother, “and there was so much magic that all the electricity disappeared, what would all the children say who were no longer able to watch their television shows?”

“Um. Hadn’t thought of that.”

“What would all the muggle scientists say when they were no longer able to use their wondrous optical machines and atom-crackers?”

“They would be mad.”

“And what of all the hospital nurses whose machines for keeping people alive stopped working?”

“They would be very mad.”

“Well then.”

“Do I have to give up my plans then?”

“I’m not saying that.”

“You’re not?” said Father.

“No. What I’m saying, Sparrow, is if you are going to let the whole world have magic, I suggest you be very gentle and very slow. Lord knows there have been too many good things ruined by people who thought they knew what other people needed, without ever asking them.”

“The Headmistress told me about that. But how often does that actually happen?”

“One of my ancestors in Senegal,” said Father, “had that sort of thing happen to her with the Peace Corps. They came in and built her village a school. The only problem was, they built the school. Not the village. So the whole thing lapsed after a while because nobody really cared about it. If the village had known they wanted a school, and gotten a little bit of help FROM the Peace Corps, then it might have gone better.

“I’ll give you another example. I had another ancestor in Mozambique that opened a shoe shop. Only, he did it right before people from the United States started donating old shoes to Africa. Free shoes versus not-free shoes? No contest. His shop was ruined, and that branch of my family tree remained poor for longer than it should have.

“I’ll give you another good example. My grandfather managed to survive the Ethiopian Famine in the 1980s by doing things I won’t mention. And supposedly there was this big concert in the United States that raised all kinds of money to solve the problem, and got all kinds of resources, and sent it to Ethiopia. And my grandfather says he never saw it. Why? Because the warlords stole it all. The folks from the US dumped it all on Ethiopia without bothering to figure out where exactly it would go, or pick trustworthy distributors, or protect it in any way. So.” He harrumphed. “Now you know what happens when you go around deciding what people need, instead of supporting the efforts that they’re already making. Genies and fairy Godmothers grant the wishes people ask for, not the ones they think their recipients need. ”

“And what would muggles ask for, dear Father?”

“Predictable weather. More gentle rain in the summer, less in the winter. More trees and less heat. More fertile soil. That sort of thing.”

“And what do you think muggle children would ask for?”

“More candy and later bedtimes, I expect.”

“And?”

“You sound like you have something in mind.”

“They’d ask for magic! Every damn one of them! The books they read have wizards and witches and fairies and dragons, and then they have to grow up with the complete lie that those things don’t exist! I think they are very well primed to accept what I’d be offering.”

Mother put a hand on Sparrow’s shoulder. “Child. Remember the first magic you did. You saw the wonder and the terror of it in the same moment, at much too early an age. Would you visit that upon others?”

“At least I had the chance to see the wonder,” said Sparrow. “Unlike all my friends. Their ignorance didn’t save them. And it doesn’t save anyone else. I hear stuff about how the Ministry has to have people go around all the time cleaning up messes made by magical beasts, using memory charms on everyone.”

“And do you think the parents of these children would appreciate knowing that they couldn’t control their children anymore?”

“They’re going to have to learn that at some point, right? At some point you have to let your kid go.”

“I’m learning it right now,” said Father.

“There is something else to consider as well,” said Mother. “Giving magic to the whole world, well, it might end the purpose of the Ministry of Magic, wouldn’t it? Or at least upend it.”

“I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing it upended,” said Father. He and Mother shared a look between them, a look that was quite different than their usual genteel detachment.

Robin looked from Father to Mother, her face wondering and worried. “Why?” she said.

Father closed his eyes and sighed. “A story for when you are older, child, and entering school. Not now. Now, let us simply be thankful that we have each other.”

And the rest of the meal passed in tense silence.

The house of the Joneses was nice. It was not fancy, but it was nice. Mother had made plenty of Connections. Hem hem. And she had managed to get her family an allotment for a nice house on a private lot, in far fewer years than it normally took. And the family had enough to purchase Christmas gifts.

Sparrow did not know what to think of Christmas gifts. They were nice toys, and all, but compared to the thousand wonders of the Wizarding world they tended to pale in comparison. Especially the electric toys. It had taken her parents a few years to realize why those never worked for her. The sort of gift Sparrow usually appreciated was tubes of paint. Not simply because of their rarity. You could do magic to wash the dishes, you could do magic to take out the garbage, you could do magic to keep mice out of the house, mow the lawn, shine your shoes, tidy a room. But with art, you had to supply the creativity yourself.

Perhaps there was a point of connection there between muggles and wizards. A place where they had even footing. Then again, Wizard art tended to move, so maybe that wasn’t a fair competition after all. Then again, she enjoyed Muggle paintings more because the damned things stayed put.

What Sparrow most appreciated, though, was her siblings. Because their constant use of underage magic made it impossible for the Ministry to detect when she was using magic inside the house. That might not work once they were also in school, but for now she was able to get away with a lot. It’s good to be the eldest child.

So, on Christmas morning when it was time for the children to open their presents, and all the family sat around, each with their box in their lap, Sparrow elected to open hers with a magical flourish. She waved her hand. Rip!

She discovered to her dismay that the gift was a stack of comics from decades ago, and she had ripped the cover of the top one. Father looked indignant, and her siblings giggled.

“Never mind,” said Father. “Never mind. The story is more important. It’s not like the whole idea of selling them in mint condition for lots of money ever made sense, and even less so now.”

 Robin got the tube of paint this time. Red paint. Finch got a Superball, a muggle toy that had been made circa 1991. Mother gave Father a Look. He shrugged.

Sparrow said her thanks, and silently wished a little blessing of priceless-object-avoidance upon the Superball. She had no idea if that had ever worked but what she was really wishing that that her wand (which was always on her person, of course) would figure it out for her. It was a spell of protection, after all. Then she picked up her comics, gingerly, and took them upstairs to read. She flopped down on the bed and opened one.

Superhero comics.

Seemed a bit redundant, these days. She’d already become a superhero. Reading about them was kind of like reading about her own life, only these people were adults who liked to beat people up in the name of Fighting Crime. Seemed like the kind of thing that was more in line with Jill’s style. And look at this! They went around blowing things up and cracking the street and rescuing cats from trees and thumbing their noses at police officers and all without a by-your-leave, operating as if there were nothing in their world that even resembled the Ministry of Magic.

Sort of like Sparrow fixing support columns and greenhouse roofs without asking.

But what she did, what she wanted to do, was constructive, supportive, and defensive. These louts were largely destructive. Sparrow didn’t buy it for a second when the text said the falling building was abandoned. The one it crashed into surely wasn’t. Really, the utter nerve of these people.

Sort of like her deciding the entire structure of Wizarding life had to be swept away.

But the structure of Wizarding life was confining, distorting, warping. It had done terrible things to the Headmistress’ parents, and it was stifling her at home. Perhaps it needed to go.

How that was to be achieved, Sparrow did not know. She had to be considerate, to be thoughtful of others, as Jill had stipulated. She had to take their opinions into account, and in general give them the things they already wanted, as her Father had stipulated. Including muggles. But that would require talking to muggles about the situation, outside of her family, which would violate the Statute of Secrecy, no two ways about it. To make it clear to muggles beyond a shadow of a doubt that what they hoped for was real, that was what the Statute of Secrecy was supposed to prevent.

 What an awful confinement, that could not be ended gently without incurring the wrath of her confiners. Then again, such people would never let confinement end gently in the first place, would they? Not if their galleons depended on it.

And yet. There was, it seemed, one avenue to which the Ministry was totally blind, the way guards of a perimeter assume that nobody will come through through the nasty thorn bushes, or the way the French assumed the Germans couldn’t get through the Ardennes forest. From what Sparrow had heard Jocasta tell her, the Ministry had no real understanding of how many unregistered animagi existed, because they assumed nobody was stupid enough to attempt the process without openly seeking aid from qualified professionals. So that path was totally unguarded, except by its own mortal peril.

If Sparrow could achieve this goal, such a thing would prove very useful indeed.

Time to take the first step.

 


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