“Another year, another marvellous display of drunken wisdom,” breathed Sirius Black, gazing off reverently, “What an absolute stud.”
He lifted his half-full glass of fireball whiskey in the direction of one Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore – eccentric, maverick and current Earl of Warwick, presently engaged in a bordering-on-violent game of Connect 4 with a teenager at the annual 'welcome back' party of the summer.
“Your lust for him is tangible, Black,” replied James – a mess of black hair, glasses and a frankly distressing attempt at stubble.
“Jealous, Potter?” Remus asked, small smile and slightly raised eyebrow and forever a mix of subtleties and almost-there's.
“Now now, my handsome bookish fellow,” James said, tapping Remus on the nose, “You know my heart belongs only to you.”
Peter snorted into his drink.
They sat at the back of the Great Hall at Warwick Castle, tucked away beside a fireplace bigger than Peter's bedroom. 18 years old and on the brink of adulthood, this was to be their final summer working at the historic castle before leaving for separate universities, separate apartments, separate lives. Separate had always been a word that didn't apply to them, but now it was like a gaudy lit up beacon on the horizon; a few bulbs missing and paired with a bright pink flamingo.
“Hey hey hey, look,” Sirius cackled, elbowing James in the ribs and gesturing over to where a lanky, dark-haired, large-nosed fellow stood brooding in the doorway.
Identical, mischevious grins appeared on the two boy's faces. “Snivellus,” they purred.
Remus curled a hand firmly around the back of Sirius' shirt, engendering a bewildering moment for Sirius as he tried to discern what cruel trick gravity was playing on him this time.
“James, my man,” he announced, “I appear to be stuck.”
“Gracious,” frowned James, “So you do. Oh - Lupin, end this madness! Look at that horrible, slimey bastard. He's asking for it. Stood there, all...” He gestured around wildly for a moment. “Vertical.”
“It really is quite offensive,” Peter reasoned.
“Be that as it may,” he admitted, “Dumbledore appears to be staggering in the general direction of the stage, and I really would prefer it if we didn't start the year fired.”
“Speech!” Sirius exclaimed, sinking back into his chair and lighting up like a toddler in a sweet shop. He gazed upon the mad old Earl with hands clasped together in what looked like prayer - foot twitched in a tell-tale sign of excitement. This was always one of the finest moments of summer, and the momentarily sickening realization that this would be the last time they'd hear it was promptly pushed aside. It was banished to a dark and dusty corner of his brain box where all things that were too painful or awful to think about went; his family, his Maths GCSE, and the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“Honestly,” James began, “I think this man could pay me in speeches.”
“Don't be ridiculous, then you wouldn't be able to fund my sweet, sweet loving,” Sirius said, “Now do shut up, our Lord and Master is speaking.”
Though Sirius had every faith that James' response would have been witty and biting and shimmering with brilliance, he calmly placed a hand over his mouth before it had a chance to air.
“Lord, ladies, peasants and plebeians!” boomed Albus Dumbledore, voice echoing through the Great Hall this was his sole purpose in life. Dressed in a velvet suit of the most vibrant purple and with his long white beard tied in an plait, he seemed quite at home amongst the gargantuan portraits of preposterous nobility that lined the walls. Sirius could have swooned.
Rapturous applause greeted his words, and James bit the palm of Sirius' strong grip to free himself and to whoop and holler and stamp his feet. Even Minerva McGonagall – manager of the gift shop, who ruled with an infamous iron fist – looked like she might even be on the brink of smiling.
“Ah, my silly little cabbages,” Albie continued, glassy-eyed with joy as he gazed around the hall, “We come to it again; a summer of false weather reports, ice cream smeared children and overpriced burgers. Oh, how you make me proud!”
Everyone in the hall laughed, and Remus leaned a little bit closer on his chair to rest his chin in his palm and smile. Sirius caught his eye and grinned.
“I want you all to remember that we work as a team in these walls, and although I wouldn't dream of putting you through any team building exercises -”
A tangible shudder ran through the room, and McGonagall looked tempted to vomit.
“- I must make it clear that bullying, victimising or abusing in any form Will Not Be Tolerated. I simply won't have it.”
Dumbledore cast a firm glare around the room, and Sirius could have sworn that those clear blue eyes flicked between him, James and Severus Snape more than once. He cowered beneath the look that could switch from stern to admiring in an instant.
“Some of you have been with us for many years,” continued the Earl, looking upon them all with the fondness of a slightly mad grandfather, “Some of you have only just begun your journey, and for some of you, this will be the end.”
(If the four boys at the back of the hall pulled their chairs slightly closer together at this, nobody mentioned it afterwards.)
“I hope you remember that fun cannot be had by our visitors if fun is not had by our workers, and that you would not have been hired did I not trust you all to handle that fun responsibly. I hope you remember that friends are to be found in all manner of places – customers, co-workers and yes, even bosses. I hope you make friends, cement friendships, hold yourselves in the highest regard - as the knights, fair maidens, queens, kings and ice cream sellers of old! And, old fool that I am, I do hope at least some of you fall in love.”
The benevolent smile he cast upon them then was returned by most, except for Sirius who pretended to retch behind Remus' chair, and James who had become somewhat distracted by the appearance of a red-haired and freckled young woman in the doorway. Sirius' retching increased twofold.
“And I shall leave it there! Join me, if you will, in a toast to our most marvellous summer yet. Nitwit, blubber, oddment, tweak!”
Fully recovered from his faux-retching fit, Sirius clapped his hand on James' shoulder as the hall erupted with applause, and the raised hands blocked Lily Evans from view. He placed a wet, sloppery kiss on his best friend's cheek and blissfully ignored the manly squeaks of protest.
“Let's do him proud, boys.”