The days before Valentine’s Day did not go well.

For one thing, neither Professor Budge nor very many people believed that there was any danger involved in having another school dance. Some of them, such as Professor Budge, were well-versed in Divination enough to offer their own interpretations, such as the possibility of a magical accident, or the idea that a heart could very well represent any aspect of Valentine’s Day, and if the Cupids were going around handing out heart-shaped cards then the explosion could happen with any of them, which was so much of a bother to prevent that the Cupids might as well not be hired this year – but oh, that was too much to bear, wasn’t it.

Sparrow’s opinion of romance was not improved by such a stance.

Others simply thought that the Divination professor was being hysterical, and that nothing bad would actually happen.

Sparrow’s opinion of these particular people was not improved by such a stance.

She was reassured, at least a little bit, by Professor Budge’s promise to activate the castle defenses and increase security surrounding the event. And of course Sparrow would be there to establish security within the event, yes?

This was what she got for demanding to be treated as an adult.

Sparrow had never felt as though her demonstrable defensive skills were a burden before. But if they were now dragging her into a damn Valentine’s Day Ball she had managed to avoid for three years running – but then, Jill would be there, and Jocasta would be there. Sparrow did not need to have a huge amount of contrived coincidences to end up following the crystal balls’ prediction.

Despite these precautions, Sparrow still had a hard time falling asleep at night, more than usual. She lay awake wondering what the damage would be, and what bases she needed to cover. And she worried about the two people beside her, and the questions they would not answer. And worse – her Headmistress was still missing. The answer to where she was remained forbidden, just when Sparrow needed her.

Compared to McGonagall, Slughorn was more friendly to work with, but harder to get through to, especially when it came to describing the nature of depression. He was a friendly professor, to be sure, and hearing that Jocasta Carrow was feeling out of sorts, he proposed such potions as Draught of Peace and Felix Felicis. It took him a while to wrap his head around the idea that she could be happy in any given moment, yet still entertain suicidal thoughts on a daily basis, because her opinion of herself was extremely low, among other mental issues. So to speak, Jocasta could walk with a smile on her face, fling herself off the walkway, and smile all the way down. Slughorn had no potion for such a state of mind. He said he would ask Madame Pomfrey about the matter. Or perhaps Miranda could invent a potion made of sunshine and clouds, and it would make Jocasta feel like she was always walking on Cloud 9, because of course Miranda could make such a thing if she tried.

Perhaps Miranda was supposed to take this as a compliment, but she only looked exasperated as she departed the dungeons.

◊◊ YOU FEELING OKAY? ◊◊

"Oh sure sure, I'm perfectly chipper," growled Miranda. "I am perfectly happy to spend my time trying to explain a situation to someone, only to have them make a crack that implies they still don't get it. At this point I need a Draught of Peace myself. Or perhaps you do. I have heard tell that your week has gone about the same as what we just experienced."

◊◊ SO IT HAS, SO IT HAS. AND IT IS NOT OVER. ◊◊

For there was yet one more day before Valentine’s, and the one thing that Sparrow hated most, every year, was going to flit about the castle all of tomorrow’s day.

And tomorrow’s day came, and so did.

The cupids.

Little winged bastards with their happy faces and their stupid golden wings and their harps that were always perfectly in tune and their innocent angelic lack of anatomy. And oh the singing, the singing, the singing singing singing. Every time someone got a valentine the cupids would sing a song. Every. Goddamn. Time. It turned every delivery from a discreet incident to an event. Last year Professor Budge had specifically banished them from his classroom because they were wasting so much time, and the students were then bombarded by songs and valentines as soon as they stepped out.

It did not help that this year there was the distinct possibility that one of them might explode, and though Professor Budge thoroughly vetted each and every single Cupid as it entered the building, with no subterfuge detected, that did not account for possibility of some kind of magical accident.

And this year Sparrow could not avoid the damn things because she was no longer a distant figure to the rest of the students. She would, at some point, receive a Valentine, and she couldn’t quite get over the concept of such a thing, for each one contained a letter of anonymous admiration, what people called a Secret Admirer.

Sparrow found it difficult to understand this custom. Surely, if one had affections, they ought to be communicated, so as to get ridiculous things like silent pining out of the way, and move onto the fun stuff like kissing. One of her girlfriends had suffered through much of the schoolyear because she had refused to speak plainly, and had run instead of facing her fear. Both of her girlfriends were suffering for keeping vital information from her. This was not a good time for Sparrow to be enduring extra secrets.

Miranda was pruning a potted maple in her greenhouse as she listened to Sparrow complain about the custom. “You are correct,” said she, “there was much time wasted between you and Jill, and much time wasted between her and Jocasta, because Jill was embarrassed.”

◊◊ EXACTLY! ◊◊

“Yet if she was embarrassed,” said Miranda, “perhaps events could only have played out as they did. Perhaps they could not have gone better. You must give people time, Sparrow. I’ve heard you say a few times that if someone has something important they want to say, it has to be their decision to say it. You say you cannot force them to speak. Imagine if you’d caught up to Jill and demanded answers. Do you think she would be talking to you affectionately now? Do you think that the brave Jillian Patil would appreciate being forced to speak the truth about the one topic that she has trouble facing?”

◊◊ NO. ◊◊

“Then there’s your answer. And all these secret admirers are the same way. It’s a delicate subject, Sparrow. It means putting your heart in someone else’s hands.”

◊◊ SO ALL THESE PEOPLE SEND THEIR LOVE WITHOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF GETTING IT BACK? ◊◊

“You could put it that way.” Miranda slapped at a plant that was trying to twine around her arm. “Sounds a little altruistic, really. To let someone know they’re loved, without expecting anything in return.”

◊◊ I CAN HARDLY ARGUE WITH THAT. ◊◊ Sparrow poked at a bulbous succulent, which tried to nip her fingers. ◊◊ ALTHOUGH I WONDER IF THAT’S THE USUAL MOTIVATION. ◊◊

“I hope so,” said Miranda, “otherwise the Secret Admirer cards I get are all from people who want to get into my trousers, even though everyone knows nobody’s getting into them.” Her eyes lit up icy blue. “They know that kind of talk doesn’t end well.”

Bad memories?”

“Let’s just say I understand Jocasta’s reluctance to take any potions of mental healing. It’s not a pleasant thing to think that people are trying to Fix you, and even worse to be certain of it.”

◊◊ WHY WOULD THEY – GOODNESS. DO THEY REALLY THINK THE MATTER IS THAT BIG A DEAL. ◊◊

“You sound like I don’t actually have to hint at what I’m talking about here.”

◊◊ YOU DON’T. AND JOCASTA DIDN’T EITHER. BUT SHE WANTED ME TO ASK YOU BECAUSE SHE DIDN’T WANT TO SPILL YOUR BUSINESS WITHOUT YOUR PERMISSION. ◊◊

“That’s…intriguing. I made no such request regarding the subject.”

◊◊ BUT IT’S A FEELING SHE PICKED UP ON. YOU’VE BEEN BEATING AROUND THE BUSH FOR THIS ENTIRE SCHOOL YEAR AND NOT HINTING VERY SUBTLY. IT’S LIKE YOU’RE TRYING TO DISCUSS THE MATTER WITHOUT JUST SAYING THE DAMN WORD. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH JUST CALLING YOURSELF ASEXUAL? ◊◊

“I would feel that I was establishing it as an identity, rather than a trait, thereby giving the matter more significance than it deserves. And I feel as though many around here are inclined to do so. So, I dance around the subject.”

◊◊ IS THAT BECAUSE OF ALL THE PEOPLE OFFERING TO FIX YOU? ◊◊

“Among other things. Jill told me that the entire school believes in love, and yet, alas, they seem to think it necessarily involves physical affection. They think that if I will not bed someone, it means I cannot love. Thank you for informing them of other forms. I wonder if they believed it, though? That remains to be seen.”

◊◊ I THINK JOCASTA DOES. EVEN IF SHE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION BETWEEN YOU AND HER. ◊◊

“Me and her?”

◊◊ SHE HANGS AROUND YOUR GREENHOUSE DESPITE ALL THE MISTAKES SHE MADE. ◊◊

“Okay…”

◊◊ YOU LET HER HANG AROUND IN SPITE OF THOSE MISTAKES. DID YOU HAVE TO DRAG HER INTO APOLOGIZING TO PROFESSOR LONGBOTTOM? ◊◊

“Not very hard, no. As a matter of fact…she came to me and asked to get it over with.”

◊◊ I THINK YOU ENJOY HAVING HER AROUND. I THINK BOTH OF YOU WANT TO STICK TOGETHER. WHATEVER HAPPENS, WHATEVER YOU CALL EACH OTHER. LIKE ME AND JILL. ◊◊

“You and Jill are pretty lovey-dovey right now.”

◊◊ AND IF WE AREN’T? THEN WE’RE STILL FRIENDS TO THE END. THAT’S WHAT WE’VE BEEN FOR THREE YEARS RUNNING. MAYBE IT’S THE SAME WITH YOU AND JOCASTA. ◊◊

“That could be,” said Miranda. She turned away from her work and stared out the window, placing her hands behind her back. “That could be. What could I call the situation? I do not know myself. I hardly know what to make of it. All I know is, I have spent many years refusing to get close to my peers. Not wishing to risk coming in from the cold. And yet – I dance with the sun. I invite her into my greenhouse. Was that all it took?”

◊◊ ARE YOU…REFERRING TO ME? ◊◊

“Perhaps.”

◊◊ NOW I FEEL FLATTERED. ◊◊

“Don’t. There is danger there if you let yourself go. You could overwhelm, smother, scorch, wilt, dessicate – if you are ignorant and uncaring. But you have chosen to take care. That means a great deal to me. And so I let you enter this place by your request, not fearing your light. I wonder if everyone in here besides me has done well by your presence as I have.”

◊◊ NOW I FEEL EVEN MORE FLATTERED. IS THIS YOUR WAY OF FLIRTING? ◊◊

Miranda spun around. “This is a way of saying that you are my friend.” She put a hand on Sparrow’s shoulder. “In the same way Jocasta is. Whatever anyone calls it. I will keep your advice in mind.”

◊◊ IS THERE…ANYTHING YOU WANT TO TELL JOCASTA? ◊◊

Miranda glanced over Sparrow’s head. "Plenty. But if I am not mistaken, you have some messages heading your way."

◊◊ WHAT SORT OF – OH, NO. ◊◊

There was a polite, gentle knock on the door.

Two Cupids hovered just beyond the glass.

Miranda moved to open the door, blithely ignoring Sparrow’s frantic gestures for her to keep it closed.

The cupids flew in, hovered over Sparrow, dropped both of their envelopes on her head, then departed without a word.

“That’s odd,” said Miranda. “They usually make a big song and dance first.”

◊◊ I SUPPOSE THEY KNOW ME TOO WELL. ◊◊ Sparrow opened the envelopes and read the cards. She handed them to Miranda.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” read Miranda, “lots of love, from your secret admirer, Jill Patil. Next card. Happy Valentine’s Day, hugs and kisses, from your secret admirer, Jocasta Carrow. P.S. Go to the ball with me.” Miranda chuckled. “Sounds like they listened to your ranting.”

◊◊ THEY MUST HAVE BEEN LISTENING LAST YEAR. I HAVEN’T COMPLAINED ABOUT THE CARDS THIS YEAR UNTIL TODAY. THEY MUST HAVE REMEMBERED FOR A WHOLE YEAR. BOTH OF THEM. ◊◊

Miranda placed a hand on Sparrow’s shoulder. Sparrow suddenly realized that there was about an inch of space between her feet and the earth. ◊◊ WHOOPS. TELL ME SOME BAD NEWS. ◊◊

“Bad news is you’ve got a bunch more of those incoming,” said Miranda.

There were now approximately twenty cupids hovering near the door. Each of them held at least three envelopes. They all looked rather impatient.

Sparrow’s feet met the solid floor.

“Go on,” said Miranda, lightly shoving her from behind. “Face your fear.”

◊◊ I DON’T WANT TO DEAL WITH A HUNDRED DIFFERENT LOVERS! I’VE GOT ENOUGH! MAYBE ONE MORE FOR GOOD MEASURE! ◊◊

“Well then.” Miranda pushed her further towards the door. “You shall have to sort through all of those to pick the best one. I’ll help, if you want.”

◊◊ PLEASE. ◊◊

The two girls exited the greenhouse. Twenty cupids wasted no time, nor stood on any sort of ceremony whatsoever, as they dropped their envelopes in the mud and zoomed away. Perhaps they had many more students to get to, or perhaps, more likely, Miranda and Sparrow each offended their sensibilities in a different way.

The two girls gathered the envelopes, scraped the mud off, and opened them one by one. Fifty-five were for Sparrow, and ten were for Miranda. 

◊◊ I WOULDN'T EXPECT YOU TO BE. YOU ONLY HAVE TO WONDER ABOUT TEN SMITTEN ADMIRERS, I HAVE TO WONDER ABOUT FIFTY-FIVE. ALTHOUGH...AT LEAST I KNOW FIFTY-FIVE PEOPLE LIKE ME. ◊◊

“Fifty-five at least,” said Miranda. “Sounds like good news and bad news.”

◊◊ WHY? ◊◊

“Well, this could mean people are taking you seriously. Including the people who like you and the people who don't like you. If your reputation travels far enough, that could include the Ministry of Magic. They might be looking in your general direction now.”

Sparrow’s hesitant smile disappeared.

“Just a warning, I suppose. You have done your best for many people, and loved them in your own way, and they love you in turn. How ironic that you may come to harm for it.” Miranda looked up at the sun, whose light was breaking through the clouds close to the horizon. “How bitter. I call it ironic, but that’s just a way to shield myself from bitterness. To think that being kind and generous would make you noticeable, and mark you for being preyed upon –”

◊◊ IT HAPPENS. IT DOES NOT MEAN I WILL STOP. ◊◊

“Not even for your own safety?”

◊◊ YOU’RE ASKING THE GIRL TRYING TO BECOME AN ANIMAGUS ABOUT SAFETY. ◊◊

“Okay fine. But suppose you weren’t doing that.”

◊◊ YOU’RE ASKING THE GIRL WITH THE UNBREAKABLE SHIELD – ◊◊

“Assume you don’t have that.”

◊◊ FINE. I HAVE NOTHING, AND KINDNESS LEAVES ME WIDE OPEN. THAT’S THE POINT, ISN’T IT? TRUST MEANS LETTING YOUR GUARD DOWN. ◊◊

“That’s just what I mean.” Miranda flipped through her cards one by one. “You know the Ministry will have it out for you as soon as they think you actually know what you’re doing, you know the dogs are sniffing their way toward you, so why on earth would you let your guard down? ”

◊◊ BECAUSE JOCASTA ASKED ME TO DO SO. ◊◊

“Jocasta? As in, Jocasta Carrow, the prank queen of the school?”

◊◊ REMEMBER SHE ABDICATED? ◊◊

“Oh, yes. Of course. But pledging to be a good girl doesn’t exactly mean she’s a nice girl. Why would she want you to be?”

◊◊ LONG STORY. SHORT VERSION IS, SHE ASKED ME TO BECOME A SOFT PLACE TO LAND. ◊◊

“Oh, I see. This is about romance after all.”

◊◊ IT IS NOT! ◊◊

"It is too." Miranda tapped Sparrow lightly on the nose with a card. “You are infatuated, my dear. You have been trying to impress the prettiest girl in the school.”

◊◊ OK FIRST OF ALL, I’M THE PRETTIEST GIRL IN SCHOOL – ◊◊

“Cutest.”

◊◊ – SECONDLY YOU ARE CORECT, I FIND MYSELF IN CONSTANT DESIRE OF HER PRESENCE WHEN WE ARE APART. I HAVE TOLD HER THAT I NEED HER AROUND AND IT IS TRUE. ARE YOU NOT THE SAME? ◊◊

"I much prefer solitude. Sometimes it is is nice to be solitary with you, and solitary with her...hm. I do miss her sometimes, now that I think of it. But to your level of sharing a bed? No. I do not envy your obsession." 

◊◊ AH, YOU HAVE HEARD OF THAT ARRANGEMENT. WERE YOU AWARE THAT WE ACCIDENTALLY MARRIED EACH OTHER? ◊◊

"I...wait, accidentally?"

◊◊ WE DECIDED TO TAKE A SMART REMARK FROM JILL SERIOUSLY. ◊◊

"You're fourteen years old!"

◊◊ WHICH IS WHY WE DECIDED TO WAIT A FEW YEARS TO DO IT. SO THE THREE OF US ARE BETROTHED. ◊◊

"You don't want to, I don't know, leave the possibility of other lovers open?"

◊◊ NNNNNNNNNNNNNNMAYBE. ◊◊

"Maybe?"

◊◊ IT IS NOT AS THOUGH I CAN CHOOSE WHO I LOVE, OR STOP MYSELF FROM LOVING MANY PEOPLE. BUT I WOULD NOT SEE ANYONE HURT. AND OUR GRIEFS HAVE THEIR PHYSICAL MANIFESTATIONS. IT MAY VERY WELL BE THAT JILL, JOCASTA AND I ARE THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO CAN STAND EACH OTHER, BECAUSE WE ARE THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO CAN WITHSTAND EACH OTHER. ◊◊

"I think I could do both."

◊◊ AND THAT IS WHY WE ARE FRIENDS. BUT SURELY YOU CAN SEE THAT I HAVE ALREADY IMPRESSED MISS CARROW. I DO NOT NEED TO PERFORM FOR HER. I NEED TO DO AS SHE ASKED OF ME, FOR THE SAKE OF HER HEART, AND FOR THE SAKE OF MANY. THAT IS ALL. ◊◊

“So you’re working from entirely noble motivations. How virtuous. You should be careful to avoid lording it over the rest of us petty plebians.” Miranda went down upon one knee before Sparrow and bowed her head. “My liege, spare us your stern judgments, we beseech thee! Have pity on us poor paupers!”

◊◊ STOP THAT. I DON’T EVEN HAVE ANY BOOTS FOR YOU TO LICK. ◊◊

“Can I polish all the silver then?”

◊◊ I SUPPOSE YOU COULD DO THAT WITH A WAVE OF YOUR WAND, BUT THEN – WAIT, NOW IF YOU COULD DO THAT, WHY ARE YOU STILL ALLOWING YOURSELF TO BE A SERF? IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE. ◊◊

“I suppose it doesn’t, your excellence. As a matter of fact, have at thee!” Miranda sprang up and brandished her wand.

In that instant, before Sparrow even knew what she was doing, there was a glowing yellow dome surrounding her, and Miranda stumbled as she was pushed backward, falling upon her rear in the mud.

“Good heavens,” said Miranda, as she picked herself up, “you’re faster than blinking with that spell now. You didn’t even have to take your wand out of your robes.”

Sparrow realized that her hand was, indeed, not holding a wand outward as in a proper dueling stance, but just brushing the tip of her wand’s handle.

For a second she wondered if she had even been touching the thing before casting the spell. But, that was unlikely. Wandless magic was a wild thing, unpredictable and fierce. This had the shape of a proper spell. She must have had a finger on the wand.

◊◊ SORRY ABOUT THAT. I GUESS THERE’S YOUR OTHER ANSWER – IF ANYONE COULD SURVIVE GETTING ATTACKED BY MINISTRY GOONS, IT’S ME. MY SHIELD IS ALWAYS AT THE READY. I AM FAR LESS PHYSICALLY VULNERABLE THAN PEOPLE MIGHT THINK. ◊◊

“What about emotionally vulnerable? Like, give us the key or we kill your friends, sort of thing. I think your commitment to keeping everyone alive might leave you in a bad spot when it comes to hostage situations.”

◊◊ I HAVE BEEN WARNED OF THAT. BUT. ◊◊ Sparrow knelt down to the pile of cards she had dropped in the mud, and picked them up, cleaning them off as best she could with a Scourgify spell. ◊◊ CONSIDERING THE CONTENTS OF ONE CARD HERE…AH, HERE IT IS. YES, I THINK MY EFFORTS THUS FAR HAVE BEEN WORTH WHATEVER THE MINISTRY OF MAGIC WILL THROW AT ME. ◊◊ Sparrow handed Miranda one of the cards.

“From Ignotius Nott. Goodness, his penmanship is terrible. ‘Dear Sparrow: Thank you very much.’ What’s this about? And why are you floating again?”

◊◊ NOT MY STORY TO TELL. ◊◊

“Well it’s getting late,” said Miranda. “It is about time to get ready for the ball. Will you come?”

Sparrow nodded. ◊◊ I MUST. IF I AM TO BE THE LAST LINE OF DEFENSE. ◊◊

“Last line? What, are you anticipating a battle?”

Sparrow explained the matter of Professor Clearwater’s prediction.

“Oh, goodness. Now I am torn. I wanted to go, and yet, if I choose not to go then…perhaps the prophecy can be averted?”

◊◊ THAT IS A STRANGE WAY OF THINKING ABOUT THE MATTER. ◊◊

“Prophecy is a curious beast, and perhaps dangerous to examine closely. Let us say that I would prefer to avoid the ball in any case, because I know Jocasta will be there and I do not wish to let her know what happened to my arm after all.”

◊◊ WHAT HAPPENED. ◊◊

“The sun is going down,” said Miranda. “As soon as it does, so does my arm.”

◊◊ OH! AND JOCASTA WOULD BLAME HERSELF, YOU BELIEVE. OH, WHAT AM I SAYING. OF COURSE SHE WOULD. ◊◊

“Even though I blame myself. So – might as well not cause her any great amount of trouble on such a wonderful night as this. You go and get ready for the ball, and I shall see you in the morning.”

Sparrow bowed. ◊◊ I HOPE SOMEDAY YOU CAN BE CAREFREE WITH ALL YOUR FRIENDS. ◊◊

Miranda bowed in return. And they departed for the castle doors.

 

 

◊◊ PLEASE TELL ME WE HAVE EVERYTHING WE NEED FOR THE MOONLIGHT CEREMONY, ◊◊ said Sparrow, as she stood with Jocasta near the refreshments table.

There was a particular edge to Sparrow’s silent voice, this evening.

For starters, she had to consider the increased security presence at the ball. Most people who attend an event with extra security may note the stern guards, perhaps to consider them amusing, or reassuring, or worrisome; for the person in the crowd who is secretly a part of the security presence, the task is a weight on their mind, whether or not they hoped to have a good time.

Professor Budge had at least done Sparrow the courtesy of explaining security measures to her. The Floo Network had been de-activated save for the fireplace of the Great Hall, where Budge stood guard. Every other teacher who could hold a wand was stationed at doorways or at the great window on one end. Hagrid stood at the largest doors, just to make sure no one could force their way in from that direction. And each door, each window, each stone upon the floor glittered like a starry sky, where Professor Flutwick had given a touch of beauty to many defensive wards.

Likewise the hearts floating overhead were set to spit fire at anyone with aggressive intent, when Flutwick gave them the command. The candles could do the same.

Sparrow was less than grateful for this last provision, as she had quite a lot of aggressive intentions for the cupids fluttering around, jumbled up with her fear that all this extra security would be necessary after all, and it could come down to her. It was little consolation to think that she and her wand had chosen such a role, long ago. She had hoped to seek danger where it lurked, on her own time, not find herself thrust into it – and yet, here she was, standing guard because she had never bothered to keep her mouth shut until it was too late. Her only real consolation was the fact that Miranda had not appeared at the ball. Perhaps that little detail would be enough to defy fate.

The other problem for Sparrow came from Jill’s bright idea.

For Sparrow should have had her wand. She should have held her wand tightly in hand, all the night long, through every dance, no matter how awkward it was for her dancing partners. But she did not. The wand was in the room, to be sure – across the entire room from the refreshments table, hovering in mid-air next to the fireplace, stuck fast to Jill’s wand.

This had not been Jill’s bright idea. Jill’s bright idea had been to see if the wands could stick together and come apart with the simple aid of the Fetching Stick, just in case a dance between the two girls would cause their wands to pin them together. And the answer was: they could certainly stick together this evening; not only would they not come apart, the Fetching Stick would not leave them either.

Sparrow was not sure if that made the stick a Bad Dog or a Good Dog.

Jill had looked like she was fit to be tied, but then she had shrugged, and said it would be an opportunity for Sparrow to practice getting far from her wand, just in case that was a necessity.

Oh, what a wonderful time to be practicing not having a wand. But Jill could not still her thoughts this evening, nor could Sparrow still hers. So they would have to accept the situation, and do their best to reach the fireplace if need be.

And thus far, with Jocasta’s guidance, Sparrow had been gradually dancing farther and farther from the fireplace, until they had at last reached the refreshments table.

Sparrow was breathing more easily. She was able to pay more attention to Jocasta’s outfit now – was it the same black gown as before? It was cut a bit lower this time.

As for her, she had been nearly as reluctant to attend in something racy as she had been to leave the fireplace. Jocasta had pouted quite a bit, for pride of her work with the purple gown. But then she had come up with her own bright idea, and filled the back in with a pattern of plum-colored lace. And both girls had called it good.

Jocasta had then offered to turn the entire thing into lace, and had a hearty laugh at Sparrow’s look of horror.

And so here they were, talking business in the midst of a Valentine’s Day Ball.

“Ceremony?” said Jocasta. “You make it sound so fancy.”

◊◊ DO WE HAVE THE CHRYSALIS? ◊◊

“Check.”

◊◊ TEASPOON OF DEW? ◊◊

“Sitting wrapped in a towel in a locked box in my trunk.”

◊◊ YOU’RE SURE THE TRUNK WILL NOT BE JOSTLED? ◊◊

“I stacked your trunk on top of it to make sure.”

◊◊ THEN I WILL PROVIDE THE HAIR WHEN WE ARE READY. ◊◊

“All well and good. I only wish McGonagall could have been here to witness it.”

◊◊ BEST NOT TO GET HER INVOLVED TOO MUCH. ◊◊

“Yeah, well. Maybe we’re in this mess because I was a coward. But let us enjoy the festivities, and forget our troubles for a while. What do you think of the decorations?”

Professor Flutwick had outdone himself this time around. Not only were there cupids flitting about the air; not only did the candles shine with a soft gold; not only did the floor glitter like stars; not only were there hearts floating around everywhere; there was a special treat: the hearts would glow if they floated over a dancing couple. They would glow especially bright if they floated over a Couple couple.

As Sparrow observed the proceedings, there were a fair few such couples that did not realize they were anything more, until the red glow appeared above their heads. For example, Alastor Warbeck was dancing with Petrifax Goodman, rather more intimately than anyone besides Sparrow would have expected, and when the red glow appeared over their heads both fellows apparently took it as the sign they had been waiting for. Likewise Celestina Figgle, who was chatting with Hubert Spengler over pumpkin juice, saw the red glow above and decided in that moment to drag Hubert to a shadowy corner.

“How utterly convenient,” said Jocasta, as she sipped a glass of pumpkin juice. “Saves people the trouble of having to work out their feelings.”

◊◊ HOW DO WE KNOW THEY’RE RELIABLE? ◊◊

“Do you doubt the work of the master of charms?”

◊◊ I DO NOT UNDERSTAND HOW IT IS POSSIBLE TO KNOW THAT TWO PEOPLE ARE IN LOVE BEFORE THEY DO. ◊◊

“Oh, busybodies do that all the time,” said Jocasta. “But to do it with magic, well. The professor must be very clever. Oh, look.” She pointed upward, where a heart was casting a reddish glow onto their heads. “He did get it right.”

◊◊ WELL I’LL BE DAMNED, HE DID INDEED. ◊◊

Cormac and Violet were dancing together near the refreshments table. Cormac had come in a suit of midnight blue, full of glittering stars like the floor he danced over, as if he had drawn down a summer night sky and wrapped it about him. It made a marvelous contrast of color with his red hair – though there was one incongruity, and that was the lavender flower tucked behind his ear.

For her part, Violet had come in a suit of – not Lavender, this time, but pine and emerald green. With lavender trim. Perhaps she knew what Cormac liked, as Cormac appeared to know what she liked. Sparrow wondered how long it had taken them to put these outfits together, and when they had begun.

A heart floated over them and glowed red. Yes indeed, the charms professor knew what he was doing.

The heart over Sparrow and Jocasta had not moved away by the time Cormac and Violet came to stand by them. As they did, sparrow noticed that the color of the glow had changed. She looked up. The heart was now green, of all things.

“That’s funny,” said Violet. “I didn’t expect that. But, look. Over by the fire. There’s a blue heart.”

For indeed, just beside the fire, where no two humans were standing, but where two wands lurked in the shadows, a heart was drifting over them and glowing blue.

“Not sure what that one means,” said Violet. “Different kind of romance?”

Cormac glanced at Sparrow, then said, “Twin wands, yes? Sisters? Plus the dog?”

Sparrow nodded.

“Then perhaps the blue heart is not a matter of romance, but family.”

“Then what of the green hearts?” said Violet. “Look out at the crowd. There are more than a few.”

Indeed there were, and Sparrow observed the people under them. There was Melodius Figgle with his usual gang, near the refreshments table. There by the great fireplace stood young Miss Heaumont in a shimmering green suit, chatting merrily with Regulus Smith. There by the stained-glass window sat Professor Warbeck and, of all people, Blaise Brown. In the middle of the hall near Hagrid there stood Ignotius Nott and the same two friends as had dragged him into solving his problem – as Sparrow watched them, the heart over their heads turned from green to blue.

◊◊ HE DOES UNDERSTAND, ◊◊ said Sparrow.

“Understand what?” said Jocasta.

◊◊ THAT THERE ARE DIFFERENT KINDS OF LOVE. WHERE IS JILL? AH HA, THAT OUTFIT LOOKS FAMILIAR. ◊◊

Jill had come in her gown of shimmering royal blue. Not that it was hard to spot her, in any outfit, nor the girl she danced with, for both stood about as tall as the other. Sparrow wondered why she had never noticed the girl before, for her height was unusual enough, much less her pale skin, her white-blonde hair, her elegant white gown, her...multicolored irises, if Sparrow was not mistaken. Surely if this girl had been at any of the earlier dances, Sparrow would have had the chance to learn her name, but no, she was a complete unknown.

The two seemed to be having a decent time together. But, when the pale girl noticed Sparrow’s gaze, her smile vanished, and she stepped back, bowed, and disappeared into the crowd.

Jill turned, curious to see who could have driven her dancing partner away, and upon seeing Sparrow she grinned, and said, “May I have this dance?”

◊◊ YOU LEAD. ◊◊

And so the two waltzed around the floor, with Sparrow wondering if the band ever played anything besides a waltz.

For a long time the two girls said nothing, but, as they passed beneath a heart, and the heart began to glow red, Sparrow figured she ought to broach the subject.

◊◊ I AM SO VERY TEMPTED TO HOLD YOU FOREVER. ◊◊

“Oh,” said Jill, “you sound far more romantic than normal.”

◊◊ NOT ROMANTIC. DESPERATE. SCARED. WHEN I THINK ABOUT THE PAIN BEHIND YOUR EYES – WHAT YOU MUST SUFFER DAILY AND NIGHTLY – I WISH THAT I COULD TAKE IT AWAY. ◊◊

“You do as much as you can.”

◊◊ AND IF IT IS NOT ENOUGH? ◊◊

“Then the rest is up to me.”

◊◊ WHAT IF THERE IS MORE I CAN DO THAN YOU THINK? WILL YOU NOT GIVE ME THE CHANCE? ◊◊

“Oh, my dear friend. You take so much pain upon yourself for the sake of others.”

◊◊ NOT HALF AS MUCH AS YOURS. I HAVE SEEN A GLIMPSE OF IT. YOU WISHED FOR ME TO SEE. AND I HAVE ENDURED THAT GLIMPSE. ◊◊

“And exhausted yourself for it.”

◊◊ I HAVE NOT TESTED THE TRUE LIMITS OF MY ENDURANCE. AND YET – IF YOU FEAR TO HARM ME, I CANNOT ASK TO SEE ANY MORE. ONLY LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU ARE READY TO TELL ME WHAT YOU HAVE ENDURED. ◊◊

“I am…not yet ready. But I am mustering my courage. Someday soon I will tell you.”

◊◊ SOMEDAY? ◊◊

“Soon.”

◊◊ WILL YOU LET ME OFFER YOU REASSURANCE? ◊◊

“What more could you offer than what you have given?”

Sparrow gestured to the green heart floating in the distance, under which stood Violet, and Cormac, and Jocasta, chatting merily.

◊◊ WHATEVER ELSE HAPPENS, YOUR FRIENDS ARE HERE FOR YOU. ◊◊

“Even if I am dangerous?” said Jill.

◊◊ EVEN IF. ◊◊

“Goodness gracious.”

◊◊ PRECISELY. ◊◊

“So much to think about,” said Jill. “So much to ask them. But, perhaps that is for another night. As for tonight, let us be merry. For there is a merry tune at last. I believe this is O’Sullivan’s March.”

There was, indeed, a song from the musicians that was not a waltz, nor yet a minuet, nor anything sedate, but something Irish, with Uileann pipes and drums, a merry skipping tune. Something for the sake of light hearts.

And the two girls skipped over the dance floor, with little more on their minds than laughter at last. Now and then Jill picked up Sparrow and whirled her around, as she always did when they met again each September, for in such a moment, as in this moment, little more mattered than that they had each other.

Until at last they found themselves under the green heart brightly glowing, where stood Cormac and Violet, and Jocasta.

And as Sparrow and Jill came to stand beneath the heart, it began to glow blue.

“That’s funny,” said Cormac, as he stared up at the heart. “Didn’t expect that to happen quite so fast.”

“I wonder,” said Violet, “if one can ever anticipate such a thing.”

“You didn’t anticipate Cormac,” said Jocasta.

“Indeed not.” Violet put an arm over Cormac’s shoulders. “Call me a lucky duck.”

Cormac put an arm over her shoulders in turn. “Make that two lucky ducks.”

Jill picked up both of them in a fierce hug. “Three. I’ve been waiting for one of you to make a move for months.”

“We had to be able to communicate properly first,” said Violet, somewhat strained for lack of air.

“I shouldn’t call it that much of a surprise,” said Jocasta. “Cormac did say that his home is among his friends.”

“Ah,” said Cormac, as Jill put him down. “Fair enough. And pity we’re missing one, eh?”

“I’ve been trying to call her here for a while.” Jocasta pouted.

◊◊ OH, DEAR. I TOLD HER TO STAY AWAY. ◊◊

“You did what!” said Jocasta.

◊◊ FOR THE SAKE OF AVERTING PROPHECY! BECAUSE MAYBE WE’LL ONLY HAVE EXPLOSIONS IF ALL OF US ARE HERE! ◊◊

“Not that I would be one to lend credence to such divination,” said Jill. “Especially if any attempts to avert such a thing make one complacent, hmmmm?”

“Just like my namesake,” said Jocasta. “Sparrow, I daresay you will have to be on your guard at this event no matter what you do.”

◊◊ OH LOOK, THE SONG HAS CHANGED. A NICE STEP-DANCING TUNE. I THINK I SHALL DANCE TOWARDS THE WANDS. ◊◊

“Without me?” said Jill.

◊◊ OH, I DIDN’T SAY THAT. COME ON NOW. ◊◊

Sparrow took Jill by the hand and led her away. They danced towards the fireplace, bit by bit, not feeling so pressed for time as to move directly.

But when the two ran into Miranda, standing there by the fireplace in her suit of many colors, one arm in her suit jacket and one arm in a sling, Sparrow wondered if she was pressed for time after all.

“You have come,” said Jill. “Perhaps to bring our doom.”

“Oh dear,” said Miranda. “I thought I was here to speak with Jocasta. Sparrow, would you be so kind as to dance for me?”

◊◊ I MUST FOLLOW YOUR CUSTOM ONCE MORE? ◊◊

“I do not believe I shall have much time tonight, nor opportunity. Hard to dance with just the one arm, you know.”

◊◊ AH HA. THEN I OUGHT TO STEP IN FOR YOU. THOUGH I CANNOT MATCH YOUR HEIGHT, NOR CAN I MATCH YOUR CHARM. ◊◊

“Indeed not,” said Miranda. “You have your own charm, that you have been building these many years.”

◊◊ I CAN’T BE SURE THAT ANYONE WOULD WISH TO DANCE WITH ME, AFTER ALL THE TROUBLE I’VE CAUSED. ◊◊

“Sparrow.” Miranda put her working hand on the girl’s shoulder. “From what I’ve heard, everyone wants you to be there for them.” She nodded to the dancing floor.

Sparrow turned, and saw there many people dancing with spirit and abandon, for the tune had not lost its speed nor its mirth. There were not a few people who spotted her and looked inviting, even to gesture her to join them, though they be single or coupled.

“It seems they love you,” said Jill.

◊◊ I KNOW. I JUST CAN'T UNDERSTAND WHY, AFTER ALL I’VE DONE. I HAVE NOT MADE RESTITUTION FOR MY MISTAKES YET. ◊◊

“Perhaps not,” said Miranda. “And yet, you are their shield. That is what they know, and what they care about most. It may be that they have come to rely on you already.”

◊◊ LET THEM NOT RELY ON ME ALONE. ◊◊

And Sparrow stepped away from Miranda, and from her Jill, and from her wand, and towards everyone.

And in a moment Sparrow found herself dancing with the same abandon as everyone else. In such a dance, with such a tune, there were, in this one moment, no griefs, not cares nor woes.

And Sparrow took many by the hand and danced with them, for one moment or the next, and moved on, trying to dance with everyone she could, hoping she would not miss anyone. She gave everyone what time she could. Enough time to look them in the eye, and after saying their full name clearly, tell them,

◊◊ YOU ARE LOVED. ◊◊

And each time she did so, the heart above their head glowed, not red, nor even green, but yellow. Many laughed to see such a thing, but what it was, none could guess, perhaps not even Sparrow in this moment – not when there were so many still to meet. It was a question for the future, and now was only now.

And so Sparrow wandered among all her fellow students, leaving a trail of yellow hearts in her wake, as she named each person one by one.

She made only one misstep, when she was informed that the Heaumont child was a lad named Honorius, never mind the old name, thank you very much. Sparrow made her apologies to Honorius about the mistake, and he, in turn, forgave Sparrow, for, as he said, it was his prerogative to divulge such things, and he had decided that beyond his small circle of friends, Sparrow would be the one he told first. Sparrow thanked him for the honor and continued on to find whatever student she had not yet found.

But there was one she had not yet met – the one girl whose face she did not know. A girl she had not found, though it should have been easy to see her from anywhere.

Nor, indeed, had she seen Wilhelmina Burke tonight. They had met but twice before, once at each dance; Sparrow thought that she might have overlooked Miss Burke, or simply not reached her. And yet, there was the question of which Wilhelmina Burke she might find, for the one she had met in October was not the one she had met in December. They had looked quite similar, but only similar. Almost as if they were identical twins, or something. And oh, those curious particolored irises.

The tune ended, and became something slow, and sad. Sparrow slowed down at last, and wobbled, for while she could not be harmed, she could be exhausted. She might have even keeled over. But then there was Belladonna Yamakeg putting an arm behind her, and Percival Bulstrode taking her by the hand, and leading her towards –

a tall, pale, blonde girl, in an elegant white gown, with irises not merely multicolored, but every color of the rainbow.

The girl took her by the hand and by the waist, and led her in the slow dance. As she did so, Sparrow thought that her eyes were playing tricks on her, for the girl was shrinking, and her hair was shortening, and – yes, that was exactly what was happening.

Suddenly the girl before Sparrow looked exactly like her. Save for the irises, which had not changed.

She appeared to understand the look of utter confusion on Sparrow’s face, for she laughed, and in the next moment she was just a bit taller, and her black hair was curly instead of kinky, and her skin was a few shades lighter. And still her irises did not change.

“Before you ask,” said Wilhelmina, “I was the one who impersonated you back in December.”

◊◊ I THOUGHT THAT WAS JOCASTA’S DOING! ◊◊

“Technically it was. She got it started at least. Took the potion, sat in the classroom, raised her hand, Binns didn’t call on her because apparently you and Violet Brown dominate the conversation in that class so that was the day he decided to give anyone else a chance.”

◊◊ GOOD HEAVENS. SAVED BY MY OWN ACADEMIC DILLIGENCE. ◊◊

“So she ran out of potion and asked me to fill in for her the next day. By which point Binns had given up and called on you after all. I had thought he might have noticed that your eyes were different, but who knows if he loooks closely at any of his students. Oh, well. I give everyone a sporting chance to spot me but not everyone is observant.”

◊◊ WERE YOU, UM – IMPERSONATING ANYONE ELSE, THIS PAST MONTH? ◊◊

“After I realized what I’d done to you? Still tempting as ever. But I mostly avoided it. I am…sorry for what I did. And for failing to return your messages. I was too embarrassed. I feared the judgment of Sparrow Jones would fall upon me.”

◊◊ BUT YOU SPEAK TO ME NOW? AFTER HIDING FOR THE ENTIRE EVENING? ◊◊

“Let us say, I needed a few minutes. And I have been hearing that you are less judgmental than before.”

◊◊ I HAVE MY APOLOGIES TO MAKE AS WELL. ◊◊

“For what, exactly?”

◊◊ FOR WHAT I DID TO PERCIVAL. FOR WHAT I DID TO YOU. I MIGHT HAVE BROKEN SOMETHING THAT COULD NEVER BE REPAIRED. IF YOU WISH TO FORGIVE ME – ◊◊

“Sparrow, for heaven’s sake, have you never heard of Kayfabe?”

◊◊ WHAT. ◊◊

Suddenly Wilhelmina looked a lot like Maledictus Bulstrode with rainbow irises.

“Who do you think convinced Cormac to put on that show?”

◊◊ WHAT. ◊◊

“I figured that if portraits were going to blab about everything they saw in front of them, we ought to show them something that looked real from a distance. Something that looked like the Slytherins were mostly against your ideas after all, so that maybe everyone else would think you weren’t trying to be a Dark Wizard. That’s why Percival came on way too strong. He didn’t want you to accept his House as an ally.”

◊◊ SO I WASN'T THE ONLY MARK IN THAT HALLWAY? ◊◊

“I thought you were a Smart Mark! Your improv was excellent, by the way.”

◊◊ EXCELLENT IMPROV THAT HAD ME KICKING MYSELF FOR AN ENTIRE MONTH! ◊◊

“Perhaps I should have explained this sooner. Sorry about keeping mum for so long.”

◊◊ AND I’M SORRY I BOUGHT INTO THE SLYTHERIN-IS-INHERENTLY-EVIL CLAPTRAP SO READILY. I WAS VERY WORRIED THAT I HAD DRIVEN AWAY A DECENT ALLY. ◊◊

“Yes, well. That particular claptrap may have shielded you from the Ministry’s eyes just a bit longer. That was the idea.”

◊◊ I SEE. TWO ALLIES, THEN. ◊◊

“I would say one ally for certain. Percival desperately wants to help you. Me…I just want to keep you alive.”

◊◊ WHY? ◊◊

“So I can see how the dice fall. I think you would make my world…more amusing, at least. I can’t say if I like your mad scheme. Can’t say if I won’t decide to work against you, someday, if I think it’s a terrible idea after all. Who knows? We all grow older and change our ways, forget our youthful dreams…I would have you reach the age where you could. And there are some who would not.”

◊◊ SUCH AS PERCIVAL TRIED TO GET THROUGH MY HEAD. IT IS A SAD THING, TO THINK THAT MANY, OR ANY, WOULD STOOP TO DIRTY DEEDS. ◊◊

“Some people are quite jealous of the petty power they hold. I wonder – you have run around this entire hall tonight and told everyone they are loved. If you knew the real, awful things people do – would you still bother?”

◊◊ LET US SAY A HEART GROWS IN THE SHARING. ◊◊

“So when you stood out there in front of half the school and said you loved everyone, you weren’t kidding.”

◊◊ I NEVER JOKE ABOUT SUCH A THING, WILHELMINA. ◊◊

“So why did you sound more distant tonight? Why not say you love them, directly?”

◊◊ BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW IF THEY WOULD UNDERSTAND. BECAUSE I DIDN’T WANT EVERYTHING TO BE ABOUT ME. BECAUSE I DON’T WANT THEM TO THINK I’M ALL THEY’VE GOT. I JUST WANT THEM TO KNOW THEY’RE NOT ALONE. ◊◊

“And yet,” said Wilhelmina, “you might be leaving them hanging. Tell me, Miss Jones. Do you love me?”

◊◊ I DO, WILHELMINA. ◊◊

“But you hardly know me.”

◊◊ I LOVE THE WORLD AS WELL, THOUGH I BARELY KNOW IT. ◊◊

“And would you love it, if you knew it?”

◊◊ YES. ◊◊

“But what if you could prove to yourself that the world was awful?”

◊◊ I WOULD STILL LOVE IT. BUT IN A SELFISH WAY, IN A POSESSIVE WAY, PERHAPS. IT IS, AFTER ALL, ALL WE HAVE, FOR NOW. ◊◊

“And…is there anyone you hate? Please don’t tell me that you love literally everyone in the world. There are people who deserve none.”

◊◊ I CAN SAY THAT THERE ARE CERTAIN PEOPLE IN THE WORLD I HAVE STRENUOUS DISAGREEMENTS WITH, AND SOME PEOPLE WHO, IF I KNEW JUST WHAT THEY HAD DONE, I WOULD HATE. I WILL RESERVE JUDGMENT AND AWAIT ALL THE EVIDENCE. ◊◊

“Oh thank God! I was worried you were some kind of perfect little angel.”

◊◊ OH, HOW I WOULD LOVE TO BE. BUT NO. I AM NOT FREE FROM CYNICISM, NOR FROM FURY, NOR OBSESSION, NOR JEALOUSY. I WONDER IF I LOVE THE PEOPLE OF THIS SCHOOL ONLY BECAUSE THEY LET ME LIVE AND BE FREE. I WONDER IF I AM BEING SELFISH, AFTER ALL. IF I AM BEING POSESSIVE NOW. BUT. I TRY TO FREE MYSELF FROM SUCH PETTINESS. AND SOMEDAY MAYBE I CAN FREE THE REST OF THE WORLD. ◊◊

“You do seem to have a habit of setting your goals high.”

◊◊ I HAVE TO SET THEM HIGH TO GET ANYWHERE. HERE IS PERCIVAL ONCE MORE. WILL YOU DANCE WITH HIM? ◊◊

“Perhaps,” said Wilhelmina. She released Sparrow. “My dear madgirl. I cannot say I love you, not as sincerely as you love me. But…thank you for being willing to speak with me. Perhaps, if I knew your plans better, I could be a more steadfast ally. At the very least I will not stand in your way yet. You could have been a Slytherin, girl. You’ve got ambitions beyond even my dreams.”

◊◊ I AM WHAT I CHOOSE TO BE, MY DEAR WILHELMINA. ◊◊

 

The most impressive aspect of the evening, in Sparrow’s opinion, was the fact that Miranda was smiling as she spoke to Jocasta, and that Jocasta showed no sign of embarrassment, despite Miranda’s obvious impairment. Perhaps the fact that the green heart above them glowed brightly had something to do with it.

The least impressive aspect of the evening, in Sparrow’s opinion, were the refreshments. You would think a large fancy castle that was able to serve hundreds of children meat once per week could come up with something more interesting than pumpkin juice and those hard crumbly cookies that only look nice.

On the other hand, maybe the Kitchen Staff couldn’t be asked to do much more than they normally did.

Besides which, the real purpose of a Refreshments Table, in Sparrow’s opinion, was to provide a place for people to stand when they did not wish to be involved in dancing but did wish to look sociable. And Sparrow wanted pumpkin juice anyway.

As did a Fifth-year Gryfindor named Kingsley Cadogan. He got the last of the bowl before she did.

“Whoops,” he said, “I guess I beat you to the punch.”

◊◊ I APPRECIATE THE PUN. ◊◊

Mister Cadogan looked around in confusion, until Sparrow pointed to herself.

“That was you?” said Cadogan. “I wondered what was going on, back there on the dance floor. I thought for a second that the voice of God sounded like Sparrow Jones. How are you doing that?”

◊◊ LET US SAY THAT I AM MAKING MYSELF VULNERABLE. THAT IS AS MUCH AS I KNOW. ◊◊

“Ah ha. So the voice came from a different angel than I was thinking of. Say, erm – now that I do have your ear…would you mind clarifying?”

◊◊ CLARIFYING HOW? ◊◊

“Like, who exactly loves me? ‘Cause it would sure help if I knew.”

◊◊ ME. AMONG OTHERS. ◊◊

“But we hardly know each other. Why me?”

◊◊ BECAUSE YOU ARE A HUMAN BEING. BECAUSE YOU ARE A FELLOW STUDENT. I NEED NO MORE REASONS THAN THAT. ◊◊

Cadogan looked slightly disappointed. “Oh, I thought you meant…look, you’re really cute. Are you still dating Lady Braveheart?”

Sparrow beckoned to Jill, who in turn drew Jocasta away from Miranda. Jill took Sparrow by the hand, and Jocasta elected to rest her arm on Sparrow’s shoulder. There had been a heart glowing yellow over the refreshments table; it drifted over the three girls and glowed red.

“Both of them?” said Cadogan. “The Queen of Pranks and her knight?”

“Works for us,” said Jocasta.

“You can’t argue with the heart,” said Jill.

“No,” said Cadogan. “I certainly cannot. Well, that’s…something to think about.”

◊◊ FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, ◊◊ said Sparrow, ◊◊ I SAW HONORIUS HEAUMONT MAKING EYES AT YOU WHEN YOU WEREN’T LOOKING. ASK AFTER HIM. ◊◊

Cadogan’s face brightened. “I wondered when he was going to start telling people about his name. Excuse me.” He departed from the refreshments table and moved into the crowd, having left his glass untouched on the table.

“Ah ha,” said Jocasta as she picked up the glass. “Free drinks.”

Suddenly a mass of owls swooped in through a window high overhead. One, two, three…perhaps a hundred. And half of them carried a red envelope, which they were dropping, one by one by one. Sparrow realized with some regret that she had still neglected to send her own letter home.

“How charming,” said Jill. “Some extra secret admirer cards, delivered late.”

Two sounds happened in quick succession.

First, there was a crash of splintering glass upon the stone floor. Sparrow whirled around. Jocasta was staring up at the owls, holding her hand just where it had been before her glass fell from it.

Second, there was the sound of a heavy thud. Sparrow looked up at the window. There was an arm thrown over the sill, as if someone outside was hanging for dear life.

“What is it?”

“Those are not valentines,” said Jocasta.

And indeed they were not. As Sparrow could see quite plainly, when an envelope fell in front of her.

For what Wizard, child or elder, would be foolish enough to send a valentine in a red envelope with a tell-tale gold border?

And yet…no official Ministry Stamp. So was someone foolish enough to put all their valentines in Howler Envelopes, after all? And hope it would trick someone into opening the things quickly?

But the one before her was beginning to curl and smoke at the edges.

Sparrow looked up to see the rest of the Howlers falling, being knocked this way and that by streams of flame that shot out of the hearts overhead – for what was falling towards the hearts was a hundred pieces of someone’s ill intent, and each of those pieces had quite a bit of ill intent within them.

But they were also tough, because they had to withstand the reactions of a panicked recipient. Which meant that the flames did nothing but toss them around and scatter them even more.

And all Sparrow could think was that someone had taken the very low road, after all.

Accio Howler!”

Now who in their right mind would – That was Jocasta’s voice, wasn’t it?

A red envelope zoomed by her face. Then another. And another. For Jocasta was not hesitating, but summoning Howlers to her, one by one, dropping them into a pile at her feet.

But it was one by one, and Sparrow was counting down. One Howler per second, forty seconds left. Most of them had been dropped in among the crowd. The students were ending away from them in fear and confusion. Maybe if she and Jill summoned them as well they could clear every envelope but that would still leave a gigantic pile that might go boom and oh right neither girl had her wand anywhere near them.

If there was any consolation at all, in this moment, it was that a few of the Howlers were flying upward to the window, as if someone was summoning them in that direction.

The streams of fire from the hearts were directed mostly downward now, turning anxiety into panic, causing students to run around and run into each other, a fair few of them casting shield charms against the flames as best they could, so that there were far fewer burns than everyone might have suffered – yet there were enough casualties already that the panic of the crowd was not abating very quickly, or at all.

The teachers at the doorway to the corridor were moving as fast as they could to herd students out of the room, in case the crowd got stuck in the exit. Fortunately and unfortunately for them, most of the students had not thought to go in that direction yet, because the Howlers were scattered well enough that moving in any direction was a risky prospect, even without everyone running into each other.

And Jocasta’s efforts had not yet caught them all, or even half. The ones next to her were already smoking.

And Jill had a faraway look in her eyes.

“Why aren’t you helping?” said Jocasta.

Jill shook her head, as if coming out of a daze. “Because my wand is across the room,” said Jill, “because I’m a dumbass. Why are you standing next to a pile of explosives?”

“Maybe I think it’s invigorating!” IT’S A NICE AND CONVENIENT HEROIC DEATH.

The pile of howlers had indeed began to smoke. Yet Jocasta would not leave it, for she was attempting to vanish the pile, to no avail.

◊◊ LEAVE IT, ◊◊ said Sparrow. ◊◊ NO CONVENIENT ESCAPE FROM LIFE’S TROUBLE BY HEROIC DEATH, MY DEAR! ◊◊

“What else would you have me do?” said Jocasta. “We’re running out of time here!”

Indeed the seconds were ticking down. What to do? Run, and crash into people, and trip them up? Blow all the cards away somehow? But oh, HER wand was on the other side of the entire room –

Thirty seconds left.

A voice rang out amidst the din.

“ACCIO HOWLERS!”

And every red envelope in the room shot towards one point, just above a wand held aloft – a wand of golden wood that Sparrow had never seen before, held by a hand that Sparrow had seen many times.

Unfortunately for Cormac, and most unfortunately for his wand, the wand could not handle the job it had been assigned, and went off bang in the boy’s hand, peppering his face with bits of wood and scattering the Howlers all about the room.

Well now that set the crowd into a worse panic, and now some of them were beginning to jam the doorway.

Sparrow started towards the fireplace and discovered that, despite the surge of the crowd in one direction there were still far too many students in her way. A tiny slip of a girl could have slipped between calmly chatting people easily enough, but when they were milling about in terrified confusion it would have been like tossing a muffin into a paper mill.

Fifteen seconds. Maybe she and Jill could call their wands to their hands?

In an instant, three thoughts flashed into Sparrow’s mind that were not from her own head.

One was of a dog fetching the morning newspaper.

One was of bowling pins clattering as they were scattered by a well-placed ball.

And the third was too many at once – a field of domed camping tents, a set of bubble wrap, the bubbles she had blown in her milk the other day, a view over a rainy street where all strollers were hidden by umbrellas, a shell game – what did those have in common?

Jill grabbed Jocasta and pushed her to Sparrow’s side. Then she dashed to Miranda and grabbed her by her functioning arm and dragged her toward the scrum in front of the doorway, barging through any students in the way.

Ten seconds.

What was the dog supposed to do?

Jocasta nudged Sparrow.

◊◊ WHAT? ◊◊

Fetch?”

Oh, of course.

◊◊ FETCH! ◊◊

And three wands shot over the heads of the crowd, straight towards Sparrow’s hand.

◊◊ GOOD DOG. ◊◊

Five seconds. Jill and Miranda had managed to get themselves in front of the crowd and now they were helping the teachers shuffle students through the door.

Sparrow put one hand on the wands. She met Jocasta’s eyes and nodded to her hand.

“Neither of those belong to me!”

◊◊ TWO SECONDS. LIBRARY TRICK, TRY IT. ◊◊

Jocasta put her hand on the wand, her other arm around Sparrow, and kissed her hard on the mouth.

Together they cast the spell.

◊• PROTEGO! •◊

A translucent yellow dome appeared over each howler, just before it exploded.

 

It was not quite as impressive a sight as fifty-odd letter bombs might have been. Then again, there were five that Sparrow and Jocasta missed, and three cases where the shield failed. These few open explosions did enough damage, blasting the card table and the refreshment table to splinters, slashing the arms of a few children who had not managed to back away, snuffing the candles, knocking quite a few students off their feet, and deafening everyone.

Still, the sight of all those shields appearing, filling with fire, and holding, was impressive enough. Mingled with the shouts of fear were cries of admiration and relief.

And in the dimness that was left, the sight of a brilliant silvery light in the middle of the room was enough to make the students pause in their flight from the hall.

Sparrow could not see anyone beyond the light, and perhaps they could not see her. But she could, at least, speak to them.

◊◊ I LOVE YOU ALL. ◊◊

The hall went quiet.

◊◊ AND I AM SORRY. I FEAR I HAVE LED YOU ALL INTO GREAT DANGER. FAR MORE QUICKLY THAN I HAD HOPED. BELIEVE ME WHEN I SAY THIS WAS AN ATTACK, NOT ONLY ON OUR BODIES BUT ON OUR SOULS, FOR NOW WE FEAR. NOW WE LOOK UP IN TERROR AT EACH LETTER THAT COMES, DAY BY DAY. THAT WHICH WE THOUGHT WAS SAFE, IS SAFE NO LONGER. ◊◊

◊◊ I AM SORRY. I NEVER ASKED PROPERLY IF YOU WANTED TO FOLLOW ME DOWN THE PATH I AM TAKING. I WOULD NOT BLAME YOU FOR ASKING ME TO LEAVE THIS PLACE, IF YOU THINK MY PRESENCE IS PUTTING YOU IN DANGER. ◊◊

There was some muttering from the crowd to that effect.

“Now hang on a second,” said the voice of Kingsley Cadogan. “We can hardly lose the best shield witch I’ve ever seen, not if more Howlers are going to come at us. We need you, Sparrow. Everyone says you would have gone into Gryfindor if you hadn’t picked Hufflepuff. Live up to that now, why don’t you?”

◊◊ NO RUNNING, HUH? IS THAT AN ORDER? ◊◊

“More like a plea!”

“Yeah,” said Ignotius, from somewhere beyond the light. “This is definitely a please-don’t-leave-us situation.”

◊◊ IF YOU BELIEVE YOU WOULD BE SAFER WITH ME...WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF YOU? ◊◊

“You said you loved us all,” said Wilhelmina, “all together and one by one. And sometimes love means letting people go. But I’m with the Cadogan boy on this. I think in this case that love means staying.”

◊◊ WOULD YOU WANT TO FOLLOW A FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD MADGIRL INTO GIVING MAGIC TO MUGGLES? WOULD YOU WANT TO RISK THAT? THE IRE OF YOUR ELDERS, THE FEAR OF SMALL-MINDED PEOPLE? ◊◊

There were mutterings from the crowd of the rumors are true and she doesn’t sound crazy and how would we go about it.

“If you can figure out how to even do that,” said Cadogan, “I’d love to see it.”

“I wouldn’t,” said Melodius Figgle. “Magic’s ours, isn’t it?”

◊◊ DOES IT HAVE TO BE? ◊◊

“I don’t know,” said a 7th-year Ravenclaw named Catarina Fletcher. “I mean, I wouldn’t call this place cozy and little, but compared to the muggle world it is. There’s a lot that happens there that doesn’t happen here because there are so few of us to begin with. Like wars and…terrorist attacks and…hm. Scratch that.”

◊◊ WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF YOU? ◊◊

The consensus from the student body, as far as she could hear, was that the students found the notion amusing, but didn’t think it was at all possible. Magic was hereditary, and that was that. There were a fair few, like a 5th-year Slytherin named Cantankerus Ranganathan, who were eager to help in what way they could, but for the most part people still thought that Sparrow had more ideals than ability.

◊◊ SOMEDAY, ◊◊ said Sparrow, ◊◊ WE WILL DO WHAT CANNOT BE DONE. FOR WE ARE WIZARDS, AND WE DO THE IMPOSSIBLE DAILY. ◊◊

◊◊ AND WHATEVER HAPPENS – WHETHER I AM WITH YOU, OR GONE FOREVER – WHETHER YOU ARE WITH ME, OR AGAINST ME – YOU MUST BE HERE FOR EACH OTHER. ◊◊

◊◊ NEVER FORGET THAT. ◊◊

 

It came close to midnight in the Dragon Tower.

Sparrow had hoped to stand alone, in an appropriately dramatic fashion for the occasion, but with Jill and Jocasta flanking her rather closely, she did not have the chance. Not that it was that much of a shame.

Likewise Cormac and Violet would not let go of each other’s hands, nor indeed would Miranda let go of Jocasta’s other hand, nor would she let go of Cormac’s other hand, such that, where six children might have stood in equal positions around the fire, they were instead gathered to one side of it.

Which was well enough. The three adults in the room needed to have room at the fire anyway, while leaving room for Abrax, which Professor Clearwater might have needed a lot of if Blaise had not been standing between them. She was in her full flying gear, helmet and kneepads and all, but dragonfire was not the sort of thing that could handle.

Professor Longbottom was the only person who did not jump in a nervous reflex when Argus Filch floated through the wall.

“The castle ghosts are distracted,” said Filch. “Don’t thank me, they were already distracted by tonight’s fiasco. Were you going to invite me to this?”

◊◊ I CERTAINLY WOULDN’T WANT YOU TO GET INTO MORE TROUBLE. I DON’T THINK THERE’S ANYTHING THE MINISTRY OF MAGIC CAN DO TO GHOSTS, BUT...BETTER NOT TO CHANCE IT. ◊◊

“Fair point,” said Filch.

“You do realize,” said Violet, “that once you spit that leaf into the vial, we’re getting closer to being in over our heads.”

◊◊ WE ARE IN OVER OUR HEADS ALREADY, ◊◊ said Sparrow. ◊◊ MIGHT AS WELL SWIM NOW. BLAISE, DO YOU THINK IT’S TIME? ◊◊

“No sense waiting any longer.”

At that moment, in a space where nobody was standing, there was a whirl of fire.

If the children had not been holding onto each other, they may very well have fallen over backwards. Professor Clearwater had stumbled backward, as had Professor Longbottom. Blaise had not moved an inch.

Abrax was awake, now, and snarling.

Their snarls ended, and they bowed their head sheepishly, when the fire died down to reveal Minerva McGonagall. She looked far more tired than she had been when she had left.

“This doesn’t look like the Great Hall,” she said. “What happened?”

“A narrowly averted fiasco,” said Professor Clearwater.

The children explained the night’s incident.

“I see,” said McGonagall. “Budge must have missed this place when he shut off the Floo Network. And now, I suppose, you are all doing what you said you would?”

Everyone nodded.

“And past this point, you cannot go back.” McGonagall shook her head sadly. “Well. I wonder if I could possibly convince you to register at the end of it all. But call that a habit born of many decades of being sensible.”

◊◊ VERSUS OUR FEW YEARS OF BEING IMPATIENT. ◊◊

“And how often impatience wins out! Well, my fine feathered friends, you might as well get going. As for me, I have more matters to attend than I expected. We will discuss these matters in the morning. Have a good night, children. Cordelia. Neville. Argus. Abrax.”

She strode out the door and slammed it.

“Alright,” said Jocasta. “Blaise, I think it is time now.”

Blaise tickled Abrax under the chin, and the dragon rose, and roared. Six children shivered at the sound echoing among the stone. Overhead the myriad dragons began to crawl out of the windows and take to the air.

Six children and three adults strode out into the cold night. One adult floated.

Again there was no moon, or, on a normal night, there would not be.

Blaise whistled sharply.

Above came the roar of a hundred dragons breathing fire into the sky.

And yet -- the fire did not chase away the clouds, but merely obscured them. When it was done, the clouds remained.

"As I feared," said Blaise. "The clouds are too high tonight."

"Ah ha," said Jill. "Second resort, then. Sparrow, Jocasta, if you will?" She drew her wand, and held it out in front of her. "Time to shoot the breeze."

Sparrow drew her wand, and let it fly over to Jill's, where it stuck fast. Then she, Jocasta, and Jill, placed a hand on the wand.

Sparrow felt a hand on her shoulder. 

"Gonna take more power this time," said Cormac. 

"Seconded," said Violet, and she placed a hand on Jocasta's shoulder.

"Thirded," said Miranda, as she placed a hand on Jill's shoulder.

Together they cast the spell. ∫≠†°•◊ VENTUS! ◊•°†≠∫

When the roar of the wind finally faded, the moon was shining down upon the gathered Wizards, from a clear sky.

The creation of the Transfiguration Vial was a peaceful moment, in comparison to the rest of the evening. Perhaps it was even mundane. For all that Sparrow called it a ceremony, there was no chanting, no singing, nothing to make it too dramatic. The part where Sparrow had to spit the leaf into the vial was even a bit vulgar.

There was, however, one homily.

“You know,” said Violet, “I’ve heard people say that there are weeks when decades happen. But I think there are months when centuries happen as well. Like August 1914 or October 2016. I think this month was the same. We found a rock at the top of a mountain and now we’re kicking it down. No stopping it now.”

“I think,” said Professor Clearwater, “when the Ministry gets wind of this you will need to prepare for an avalanche.”

 

END PART 2

Hello. I am Dr. Peter Swilling of the North Utica Behavioral Health Hospital. I am here utilizing this communication system on behalf of Berhardt Goats, as noted on July 20, 2020. For those who served in the military, thank you for your service.

Valentine's Day can be hard on a lot of people. For those boys who were skinny, had pimples, were too scared to talk to girls, or all of the above, it can be hard. For girls who were heavyset, ugly, geeky, or all of the above, it can be hard. When you grow up and you still only get a date once every five years, it can be hard. Especially when that person raids your medicine cabinet and steals drugs after a one-night stand. It can be hard on so many people.

But, should you end your suffering? No, because the place you end up could be a little white room with a rabbit in it that torments you but never kills you. There are so many possibilities of what happens after you leave here that you can't even comprehend. So many variables go into your next locale. You die here, you get born somewhere else. And it could be a little white room with a rabbit in it. Think about that. Imagine the rabbit is all the things you suffer from and it lives inside you. Think about that the next time you go out for a bottle of wine to drown your sorrows in. Really think about it.

Suffering is meant to go on. You are supposed to revel in it, roll around in it, and make fried dough out of it. This is the kind of thing that it is. Don't wimp out on the suffering. Invite it over for dinner.

Valentine's Day isn't even really a thing. It is a made-up thing by Hallmark which makes greeting cards and movies in which a holiday of some sort plays a central role. Think about that the next time you want to end your suffering because you won't have a finger up your ass on Valentine's Day this year. This about that. Stick around. Be part of the program. There is always something new, especially this year.

There are many books you can read. This helps to expand your mind and imagination. You don't want to be a dullard and die of natural causes and end up in a white room with a rabbit who actually lives inside you. What you want is something wonderful. A wonderland of some sort tailored to the suffering you want and need. It lives inside you. Get in there and explore it. Come on now. Think about that motel on the beach where you had a good time once. If it wasn't you and it was someone else, just project yourself into the person in your vision. You can do that. It is your imagination. You can manipulate the shit out of it. Have a good time.

I am a person involved in the practice of psychiatric medicine. I also used to do stand-up in the Catskills Mountains. Had a bit of a following. They all wore white shoes and carried banjos.. It ended up not being for me. Not really, no. I'm more of a professional set player. You know the type. You really do.

One of the ways of ending your suffering rather than foolishly ending your life before the rabbit in the room comes for you is to reach down and grab it. Go ahead. Reach down and just grab that rabbit of suffering. Grab it firmly by the ears. Tell that suffering bunny that he is going to be the one suffering now. You are declaring war on your suffering and you already have the upper hand. You do. You really do.

There was a time where we used to do things like darn socks, fix holes in pants, give holy hell to minority groups, but now we just throw these things in a dumpster instead. We have lost our way. Do people think the dumpster is a magic place where what they throw out disappears? It has to go someplace. It ends up on barge on the Hudson River and then where does it go? Keep that shit at home and learn to live with it. You know who you are. Makes me sick. It really does.

When it comes to Valentine's Day and not having anyone to dance with, there are alternatives and I am not kidding about this. They sell dolls now. And role playing games. You can substitute these items for a "dance partner" as they call it in polite society. You can make love to the doll. They make all kinds of dolls for this purpose. You don't want to get weird with a child's doll. That is just sick. It really is.

Now, a role playing game or board game of a nerdy sort can be useful for getting together with other losers. And then what happens is you have winners who come out of the pack of losers. This is called grading on a scale, a bell curve, or something of that sort. You understand? If you have enough occasions where losers get together to play role playing games or board games of a nerdy sort, everyone gets to be a winner eventually. This is great. It really is. You get to feel good about yourself at someone else's expense. This is what life is all about. It is why we have suffering. We should change this. We really should.

I don't generally like to use the word "should" because it seems to eliminate other possibilities in life other than following what everyone else is doing and becoming a drone. I used it there for effect. This is something you do sometimes when communicating with other people. It punctuates a statement with a kind of vigor that draws their attention. It does. It really does.

For now I will close, but I hope you choose to either continue your suffering or reach down into yourself and deal with it and find a way to change your life in a more positive direction. I believe in you. I really do.

Faithfully yours,

Dr. Peter Swilling

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