The weather was beastly, which luckily suited Hilary's mood quite nicely. It had been raining all morning, and a thick fog still lingered over the Hogwarts grounds, which meant that the pitch was utterly deserted, where on a warm Saturday afternoon there might have been half a dozen students of uncertain flying skill flitting around. Which in turn meant that she could smack Bludgers about as hard as she pleased without risking them finding anyone but herself.
That was the intent, anyway, and it kept her occupied for the better part of the afternoon, at least until she gave the Bludger a particularly hard whack and, instead of returning, it produced a thwack and a loud yelp from somewhere in the distance.
"What-- oh, sorry, Accio Bludger!" It hurtled back towards her-- landing in her hand as intended, but stopping hard enough that Hilary winced with the impact. She flicked her wand down out of her sleeve and hastily tapped the Bludger with it, and it shot back home to its case on the ground. "Who's there?"
"Only me, if perhaps a bit less of me than there was a minute ago." A boy appeared through the fog, one hand carrying a broomstick and the other covering his eye, and sat down heavily in the bleachers; from above and with his face thus obscured, Hilary couldn't immediately place him. "Is that you, Thorpe? You're a Ravenclaw, aren't you; are you any use at healing spells?"
"Merlin's balls," Hilary swore, irritably, and shot down to land at his side. "Did I get you that badly?"
"Good God, Thorpe, the mouth on you." The boy glanced over at her and cautiously uncupped his hand from his eye. With his face uncovered, Hilary recognized him as one of Gryffindor's Chasers, though she couldn't immediately recall his name. "How long have I got, do you think?"
Hilary squinted. "It's swelling beautifully. Might take a whole three minutes in the hospital wing to put right."
"Well." He shrugged, relaxing, and stretched his legs out in front of him. "At least it got your attention, didn't it?"
Hilary stiffened again in response. So that was how it was. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage."
"Oh Merlin, don't be like that about it. It isn't as if I walked in front of your Bludger on purpose, is it?" He offered her a hand and a sickeningly earnest smile. "Jerry Wimsey."
"Of course." The relief of connecting a name with the familiar face distracted Hilary from her ill-temper, long enough at least for her to shake his hand. "You're Gryffindor's star Chaser, right? The one whose father's got some sort of fancy Muggle title. None of which explains why you know who I am."
Wimsey wrinkled his nose. "Well, you're rather handsome, and you're quite loud-- in print, at any rate. They aren't qualities that particularly recommend you to anonymity. I hadn't heard you were thinking of taking to Quidditch, though; it's a pity you aren't in our House, or you and Sep Weasley might make quite a nice matched pair of Beaters."
"Pity I'm not a boy, either, or I might be playing in matches people would actually come watch." Hilary groaned. "Wimsey, what do you want?"
"The same as you, I expect." He waved vaguely at the broom lying by his side.
"I very much doubt that," said Hilary sourly. "And anyway, it's a terrible day for it. You might as well go flying in the lake."
"Must you be so down?" He nudged her leg with one foot, then withdrew it hastily in response to her expression. "Which isn't to say I wouldn't go flying in the lake, if I thought it might cheer you up, but I'd rather it weren't necessary."
Hilary stiffened; she was willing to tolerate a certain amount of clowning, but this was intolerable. "If you know who I am, I'm sure you can guess why I'm down."
"Oh." Wimsey emitted a sort of strangled croak. "Oh Merlin, you're that Thorpe. Of course you are. I heard about your father; my uncle used to say he was a favorite for Minister for Magic, when that time rolled around. I'm sorry, I honestly am."
"What do I care about the beastly Ministry? He was my favorite father." Hilary hunched in on herself, burying her hands in the sleeves of her robes. Her cheeks were damp, and even she wasn't stubborn enough to blame it entirely on the fog. "He was all I'd got, and I came out here hoping there was one place on the grounds where I couldn't find anyone who was sorry, a fat lot of good that's done me."
"Christ above," Wimsey blurted, and Hilary looked up despite herself, jarred by the Muggle epithet. "I can't say anything right, can I?"
"No," Hilary agreed without hesitation. "No, you can't."
"Look, I feel terrible, I honestly do; you've got to let me make it up to you." Hilary considered pointing out that she hadn't got to let him do a damn thing, but he wouldn't shut up for long enough to let her. "We could get some practice in together, and I won't even say anything if you don't want me to. Not a word. I don't know if I want you hitting any more Bludgers at me, though, and I'd have an advantage with a Quaffle, so-- a Snitch, all right? We'll get out a Snitch, and it'll be equally unfair for all concerned parties."
He grinned hopefully at her, shoving his damp hair out of his face, and Hilary understood exactly why he had the reputation he did with girls; for a moment, she was even tempted to kiss him. It was a vicious, spiteful thought-- an urge to see him knocked off balance, a thing she had the idea rarely happened to him-- and a moment later she only felt sickened by herself for thinking that way about a boy when her own father was so recently dead. So it was pure guilt, at least as much as a genuine desire for company and a distraction, that made her say "Yes, all right; if it'll keep you quiet, why not?" and reach to pick up her own broomstick again.
Maybe it would help, having someone to fly with, but she certainly wasn't going to admit it.
"You're terribly ungrateful, did you know that?" Jerry wrapped an emphatic hand around his bottle of butterbeer and edged it a bit further towards his side of the table, away from his sister's inquisitive eye. "Here I am, shepherding you around half of wizarding London, treating you to sweets out of my own pocket money--which sixth years have far more need of than first years, might I add--all at the expense of time I would usually spend with my friends. And here you are asking me to risk my educational career because you can't wait another week to start school."
Winnie ate another jelly bean and promptly wrecked her perfect composure by pulling a horrified face; Jerry, who hadn't noted the color, wondered what flavor she'd gotten. He hoped it was rotten egg. It would serve her right. "But you taught me to fly. Ages ago."
"Whereupon you immediately crashed my broom into the roof of the gardener's shed. And anyway," said Jerry--very reasonably, he thought--"that's not at all the same as actually doing magic."
His sister had recovered, and appeared as unruffled as ever. "Why not?"
The difficulty with Winnie--one of an assortment of difficulties--was that she had never exactly grown out of asking why to everything. She didn't even do it to be annoying; well, she was eleven, so inevitably she did. But most of the time she was quite sincere, and their parents were prone to hinting that excessive curiosity was unladylike, so Jerry tended to take the brunt of it--and in this case he felt emphatically unqualified to give the intelligent answer she clearly wanted. He took a sip of butterbeer, found it unenlightening, and resorted to blatant honesty. "Because I've got a healthy assortment of warnings for underage sorcery already, and another will bring the Improper Use of Magic lot down on my head and likely get me expelled, and Mother will crow in delight and ship me off to Eton or somewhere else equally ghastly." Not to mention that expulsion would mean giving up Quidditch; Jerry had no compunctions about attracting detentions, but a man had to have limits.
Winnie bore this line of speculation patiently, with only a skeptical twist of the lips at the idea of their mother crowing in delight over anything. "Only one of those was my fault."
"Two. At least." Jerry propped his chin in his hand, staring a little blankly across the street into the window of Flourish & Blott's, and wondered whether he had been this much of a nuisance when his uncle had taken him shopping for first year supplies. "That time with the books, if that's what you mean, but that horse I shrank was definitely your idea." He couldn't bring himself to feel very much regret about those books; when Winnie had had the measles two years back he had charmed some of her books to read themselves aloud, since she wasn't allowed much real company while she was contagious, and Jerry still felt rather proud of himself both for having been such a good brother and for having managed what he still thought was quite an tricky bit of magic. For the sake of argument, though, now didn't seem the time to admit that, and anyway there was no question that the incident with the horse had been an utter disaster.
"That isn't even what I asked." Winnie, he noticed, didn't bother to contest the books or the horse. "What's the difference between flying brooms out of school and casting spells?"
"I don't know," admitted Jerry, conceding defeat. "Ask a professor when we get to school. Uncle Peter's Ministry and probably knows a thousand times more magical theory than I--ask him. I honestly haven't a clue."
"I will." Winnie hunched forward over the table. "But it isn't fair," she insisted, sadly. "I've got my books and my wand and everything and I'm not even allowed to do any magic."
Jerry had known Winnie her entire life; he could tell perfectly well when she was trying to coax him into agreement on something. He had meant it, too, when he said he was worried about being sent back to Muggle schooling. Three years of it pre-Hogwarts had been bad enough, while his parents hoped desperately that their children--like the Duke himself--had been spared the Dowager Duchess's "peculiarities." Jerry liked to think of himself as a friendly and likable sort, but the occasional magical accident had been inevitable, and charm could only get one so far once the Muggle boys picked up that something was a little off. If there was one thing he envied about Winnie's more carefully controlled upbringing, it was that she had been far more prone to accident than he, and for discretion's sake had been kept at Denver with a Squib governess until her own letter came.
On the other hand, Winnie was very small and her eyes were very wide, and he had to share lodgings with her for another week.
"I'll tell you what," he began, and she immediately sat up straight again. "Seeing as you have your wand and books, and you're terribly determined and all, there's only so much I can do to stop you trying a spell or two. I may even offer guidance from a safe distance. But if it turns out they already have the Trace on you and you land in Azkaban for it, I was never there, understand?"
"Oh, Jerry, thank you." Winnie giggled happily and beamed at him; another girl would have been squirming impatiently. It was sweet of her, really, to go on pretending he was capable of maintaining any real clout over her whatsoever. "Can we go try something right now? I want to know if I can turn my trunk different colors. Or make it lighter. That'd be useful and everything, right?"
"Robes first, I think. So you can look the part of a proper witch," Jerry suggested, in a last desperate bid at playing the authority figure, and stole one of her jelly beans just to make the point clear.
The bean, of course, was aubergine-flavored.
There had always been something a little disconcerting about Winifred. She was short and chubby, quiet and bookish with a particular knack for Arithmancy; her brother's complete opposite in every way, except that they shared the same fair hair and pale eyes. And yet, despite her round face and golden curls, the girl never quite looked cherubic; there was something far too solemn about her that Hilary was fairly certain was not native to twelve-year-olds, or ought not to be.
For all their differences, Winifred worshipped Jerry, and he adored her. She had, apparently, badgered him into teaching her to fly when she was eight--though Hilary had difficulty imagining her doing anything so unrestrained as badgering--and he in turn had nearly burst with pride when she had been Sorted into Ravenclaw. All the same, Hilary felt a little sorry for Winifred's luck in relatives. Despite being so fond of Jerry--honestly, because she knew him so well--it wasn't difficult to imagine how a small girl growing up with Jerry for an older brother and the Duchess for a mother might have turned out so quiet and neatly self-contained. Might, in fact, have found it easier to form a rapport with the ghosts at Denver than with the living members of the household.
For if there were anything Winifred were noticeable for, it was her ability to get on with the Hogwarts ghosts. Not that it was difficult to get on with Nearly Headless Nick or the Fat Friar, but it was generally apparent to Ravenclaw that the Grey Lady--kind, but generally much more reserved--had a particular fondness for her. What was more, Maya Strathairn, one of Slytherin's Beaters, had once sworn heartily to Hilary that she had not only seen Winifred in conversation with the Bloody Baron but seen the Baron smile. But even Hilary had limits to her credulity.
It wasn't that Winifred wasn't a perfectly nice girl, or didn't have her share of friends, or was even particularly morbid. She just happened to get on specially well with ghosts, in the same way some people get on specially well with dogs or Fanged Geraniums.
"Thorpe. Thorpe. Thorpe."
Hilary batted irritably at the finger prodding her ear and buried her face deeper into the crook of her arm with a groan. "Go away, Jerry. I don't feel well."
"Nor would I, if I spent as much time in the library as you." He hopped up to sit on the table next to her-- she refused to oblige him by looking up, but she could feel it shake under her as his weight landed on it. "It's nearly time for the feast, Hilary, would you get a move on?"
"I said I don't feel well." She turned her head, still resting it on her elbow, and stared blankly at the side of Jerry's leg. His robes were hanging open, and he was wearing grey flannel trousers underneath; the texture was quite soothing to look at up close, really. "Do I come pester you before Quidditch matches?"
"Oh, no, never." He snorted, somewhere above her head. "Only every single time Gryffindor has played Ravenclaw since I've known you."
"That's different," Hilary protested. "It's in a good cause. And anyhow, you can admire Beauxbatons girls perfectly well without my help."
"I could admire them better without you there as competition, which is why you ought to know better than to say a thing like that to begin with." He patted her shoulder. "You've got to come to dinner, Hilary; for all you know you're one of the guests of honor."
"Why did I do it?" Hilary moaned. "Why did I throw my name in, Jerry? Why didn't you throw yours in? Why didn't I throw your name in? It would serve you right for being such an irritating twit all the time."
"In reverse order: because Dippet enchanted the Goblet not to let you; because risking your life in recreational combat to honor your family name isn't quite as much in fashion among Muggle nobility as it was a hundred and forty years ago, even though wizards seem to still love it enough to be resurrecting this Godforsaken tradition; because-- well, I can't speak for you on that first one, really. Not," he went on hastily, when she lifted her head to stare at him, "that I think you're likely to be killed if the Goblet chooses you. In fact, I'm sure you're far too stubborn to let any such thing occur."
"Funny thing." Hilary dropped her chin to her arm again. "I believe that's exactly why I put my name in."
"To get killed?" Jerry demanded incredulously.
"To honor my family name," said Hilary miserably. "Somone's got to do it, haven't they?"
"Oh, well, in that case." His hand lightened on her back, fingers drifting up over her hair. "I'm sure you'd have made your parents very proud indeed by hiding up here."
This was so unlike his usual methods of cheering her up that Hilary actually sat all the way upright, dislodging his hand from her head. "That was low, Wimsey."
He shrugged, head cocked. "I had to get your attention somehow, didn't I? Now come on." When she still hesitated, he pulled out his wand and tapped it meaningfully on the table. "I'll hex all your schoolbooks into illegibility for a week; don't think I won't. I've been practicing on mine in case of emergencies."
"I don't think I want to know what your idea of an emergency is." Hilary slammed her book shut with a sigh and just barely managed to collect her bag before he was hauling her out the door and down after everyone else, towards the Great Hall. "You do realize the girls from Beauxbatons aren't any prettier than the girls here, don't you? It's not a bit reasonable of you to think so."
"I happen to believe they are. And in any case, even if they aren't, they're French; you can tell they're starved for civilized male company." Jerry paused-- for a second, at least, long enough to let her catch up and walk beside him rather than trailing behind. "Jealous, are you? You're welcome to assert a claim over me at any time."
"Eugh," said Hilary fervently, catching his reference; this was a months-old and oft-repeated discussion, nearly comfortable by now. "That was one time, and I was drunk, and which of us provided the mead?"
"I did," he admitted imperturbably, "and I seem to recall being the one who drank the lion's share of it, too. If it takes that little alcohol to get you to kiss me that enthusiastically--"
Hilary staggered, remembering suddenly that she might be heading to her doom, and clutched at his arm. "Seriously, Jerry, I think I might be ill."
"You might, but you won't-- and I won't take that as a judgment on my kissing ability, because I'm feeling generous tonight." He took advantage of her grip to hook his arm firmly through hers before she could escape down the nearest convenient corridor. "You'll be brilliant, and if the Goblet doesn't pick you it's a silly ass of a Goblet anyway. Now hurry up, or we'll miss the view-- the food, I mean."
"Are you quite sure he'll be able to carry that?"
Entirely focused on affixing a letter to her owl's leg, Hilary yelped in surprise and nearly dropped him. "Professor Vane-- ouch, Otto, don't, you little-- I mean, hello."
"Good morning." Professor Vane gave her a quick smile and returned to inspecting the selection of school owls, hands on her hips. "Congratulations, by the way; I imagine you've quite a number of letters to send today."
Hilary felt herself flush and was immediately glad the Potions mistress hadn't seen. "Well-- my aunt and uncle, mainly. Though I imagine Uncle Edward's already seen the Prophet and I'll be hearing from him by the evening post." She peered up into the musty heights of the Owlery, trying to discern where Otto had escaped to, but Hilary knew by virtue of long experience that the fist-sized, dust-colored owl would be nearly impossible to spot.
Professor Vane laughed. "I gather from your tone you're not expecting congratulations."
"He means well," said Hilary, reflexively and a little desperately. "I'm positive he does. But he didn't approve of my playing Quidditch for a year, and he started putting up an awful fuss the moment he heard they were letting girls put their names in for the Tournament. He's going to have such a fit when he learns there are two girl champions and I'm one of them-- actually," Hilary added, brought up short by a more cheerful thought-- "I think I'm rather looking forward to it."
"In that case," said Vane, quite deadpan, "for your sake, I hope he throws a tremendous fit. Is there any hope for a Howler?"
Hilary sighed. "That'd be rather fun-- only my aunt likes to add a postscript asking whether I've given up consorting with Muggleborns yet, and I'd rather not have her shrieking that all over the Great Hall."
Professor Vane's smile stiffened, and Hilary remembered belatedly that the older woman was herself Muggleborn; remembered, in fact, that two or three Daily Prophet writers had made much of that fact two years ago. "That," she said at last, " is the best sort of person to put one in the eye of-- if you'll excuse me talking that way about your family, Miss Thorpe."
"I don't mind," admitted Hilary, "seeing as you're right. I'll show you the letter when it arrives, if you like. And if I can ever get hold of an owl to write Uncle with-- Otto!" The owl responded at last, though having once landed on Hilary's hand he made an elaborate show of ruffling and preening, just to be sure she knew he had plenty of far more important things to be doing. "Hold still, you rotten little beast," said Hilary affectionately, tying the letter firmly around his leg.
Professor Vane watched this process with an air of considerable doubt. "That letter's larger than he is."
"And I ought to leave it that way. It'd do him good." Hilary cast a quick Shrinking Charm, reducing the burden to a more manageable one, ruffled Otto's feathers cheerfully, and was duly bitten again for her trouble. "Go on," she said, "get out," and watched him flit out the window.
"So that's how people manage with those tiny owls." Professor Vane sounded genuinely enlightened. "I always wondered-- though I think I'd still rather a decent-sized one, myself. And perhaps a better-tempered one."
"Oh, Otto does all right-- he likes to complain, that's all. And anyway, he used to be my mum's." Hilary rocked back on her heels, gathering courage. "Professor, can I ask you something?"
"That is my job," said Vane absently, occupied for the moment in bribing an owl down to her own arm.
Hilary gulped and forged ahead. "Why did you come back this year? I mean-- last year we had Professor Rucklebyrne again, and I thought either you didn't want to come back or Dippet wouldn't have you."
"I didn't mean to come back at first," admitted Professor Vane, startling Hilary, who hadn't really expected a candid response. "But I found I missed teaching, and Professor Dippet was softhearted enough to let me no matter what the parents think-- and you won't tell anyone I said so, if you want to hang onto that O you're making in Advanced Potions."
Hilary made the necessary promises, more than a little thrilled to be so confided in.
Professor Vane grinned. "And regardless-- I wanted to put one in the eye of some people. I expect you can understand that."
"I'm glad," Hilary declared, and then added, embarrassed by her own enthusiasm, "Professor Rucklebyrne was a pretty rotten teacher, really. And Violet-- you know, Cattermole, in Slytherin-- swears he got drunk last Halloween Feast and made a pass at her. Not that I wouldn't be glad to have you back even if he hadn't-- oh, bother," she finished, and gave up all hope of expressing herself with poise. "You know what I mean, don't you?"
"Well, I happen to know Thaddeus Rucklebyrne, and you're right; there isn't necessarily much flattery in being compared to him." Vane softened. "But I do know what you mean-- thank you."
Hilary bobbed her head, somewhere between pleased and mortified. "I ought to go-- speaking of Cattermole, actually, she said she wanted to talk to me-- something for the Tattler."
Professor Vane returned her attention to her owl, which was growing restless. "Better go, then. Although-- have you thought about writing about the Tournament?"
"I hadn't." Hilary bit her lip. "I haven't had time, really-- but do you think people would like that? An insider's perspective, and that sort of thing?"
"I can't say whether people would like it." Vane provided the owl with a treat and a thick envelope, both produced from the sleeve of her robe. "But I should think it'd be interesting for you to write about."
"Good enough," said Hilary, delighted. "I'll certainly try-- anyway, I really ought to go. I'll see you in class next week?"
Vane nodded, dismissing Hilary and the owl simultaneously. "Of course."
"You're brooding again," said Jerry resignedly.
Hilary hitched her bag up on her shoulder. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
He shrugged. "You're always brooding; you might as well ask how I can tell you've got red hair. It's quite a tedious habit, by the by-- you really ought to give it up."
"I thought you had detention with Kettleburn all this week." Hilary turned down a corridor more or less at random, hoping to dislodge him, but Jerry followed implacably.
"Have you ever had detention with Kettleburn?"
Hilary had to admit she had not.
"Don't," said Jerry darkly. "I was lucky to escape with my life and half an eyebrow last night. The man is a menace to society. Perhaps that'll be your first challenge tomorrow," he added, looking quite pleased with the idea. "Detention with Kettleburn."
Hilary snorted. "I just wish I knew. Every time I try to imagine what they might toss at me tomorrow, I imagine something worse." It was peaceful and quiet down this way, or would have been without Jerry there making the usual nuisance of himself; she leaned back against a wall, comforted by the cool solidity of the stone, and closed her eyes. "Perhaps this is the first challenge. A test of nerve, or something."
"Oh, I do hope not. That wouldn't make nearly as good a spectator sport." Hilary opened one eye to see that he had leaned against the wall next to her, grinning apologetically. "I don't suppose it'd help for me to remind you that you're marvelous and will do splendidly at whatever they give you tomorrow."
"I know that." Hilary smiled briefly back at him, then returned to studying the painting on the opposite wall, in which a cow had just grazed its absent way into view. "It's the waiting I hate, and nothing seems to be able to distract me." It was very nearly a deliberate challenge; long experience had taught Hilary both that she did have a tendency to get lost in her own head and that Jerry had an uncanny knack for jarring her out of it again.
There was an ominous pause, during which Hilary went on refusing to look at him and the cow wandered on into the next painting, causing considerable alarm to the swarm of pixies therein.
And then he kissed her, of all the stupid things, and Hilary-- who, in what Jerry had once claimed were her best moments, could be very stupid indeed-- squeaked in surprise and clutched at his tie. He didn't seem to mind one bit being hauled in closer against her; indeed, he responded quite enthusiastically, and it took a good few moments before she could think of anything whatsoever but him. Which had, after all, been the point of the exercise.
"Well?" He pressed a solemn kiss to the end of her nose-- as solemn as such a gesture could be, anyway. "Did that do any good?"
"Mmph," said Hilary, still half-stunned. "If I said it had, would you do it again?" In the next instant she realized what she was asking and laughed sheepishly, hiding her face in Jerry's shoulder-- but that too seemed counterproductive, so she pulled away again. "Merlin, Jerry, don't mind me. I don't know what came over me just now."
"Nor I, for that matter." His hands slipped away from the sides of her face, and he smiled ruefully. "I hope you don't feel I--"
"No." Hilary shook her head hastily. In truth, she was so far from minding that she was still half-heartedly contemplating kissing him again-- but that seemed less than wise, and surely the urge would pass soon enough. "Oh, no, of course not." She squinted at him. "Jerry, are you blushing?"
"Who, me?" He coughed, straightening his tie as he took a step backwards. "I'm a well-brought-up man of the world, Hilary. I don't blush."
Hilary touched her finger to his jaw and inspected him critically for a moment, knowing perfectly well the gesture would make him flush a little deeper, before retrieving her bag and slipping out from between him and the wall. "What's gone wrong with your face, then?"
He shrugged. "Oh, that-- that was sheer accident. Double Charms with Hufflepuff. With Pomfret," Jerry clarified mournfully, in response to her quizzical look. "He had a sort of mishap and charmed my face pinker than usual. I'm surprised it took you this long to notice."
Hilary glanced at the main corridor, where students were beginning to flow past towards the Great Hall for dinner. "I can believe that of Pomfret-- and yet I don't believe you."
Jerry's eyes followed hers. "Hungry, are you? And don't give me any nonsense about nerves; you are going to eat dinner. And breakfast, too, if I have anything to say about it."
"Very well-- but you blushed, and you can't convince me otherwise." Hilary folded her arms across her chest, even as she let herself be herded. It was funny, really, how quickly things could become very nearly ordinary again-- though oddly enough, kissing and all, she didn't really feel as though they had veered too far from ordinary to begin with.
It was quite cold when Hilary woke up Saturday, which of course meant that Wimsey had summoned the champions outdoors at the unconscionable hour of nine in the morning. The jacket and knickerbockers with which she'd been furnished, trimmed in Ravenclaw colours and emblazoned with the Hogwarts crest on one arm, were warm enough, and she had a heavy cloak besides; she felt rather sorry for the Beauxbatons champion, who was shivering in his shirtsleeves with a pale grey waistcoat and trousers. But her nerves and the sudden onset of frost were getting to her all the same, and she hugged herself as she stared up at the dark mass of the Forbidden Forest before them.
She had never been inside the forest; Sep Weasley had once in his third year, well before she'd known him--either on a dare or to impress a girl, she couldn't recall which. When asked, he always claimed that the place had really just been terribly damp and boring, but there had always seemed something unconvincing about how he said it.
"Miss Thorpe," said Professor Dippet gently at her side. "Are you all right?"
"Of course," said Hilary, immediately warmed by indignation. She considered for a moment pretending that her parents were among the crowd of students gathering at their back, but she wasn't sure whether the thought made her feel better or worse. She certainly wasn't going to look over her shoulder and see if she could spot any of her friends there, though the thought was tempting. She didn't doubt they'd be there; an enormous set of bleachers had sprung up overnight, with three enormous round glass lenses on poles in front; they looked unsettlingly like Quidditch goal posts, or enormous magnifying glasses, but Hilary guessed they were to allow the crowd to follow the progress of the champions.
Wimsey cleared his throat, and for all her anxiety Hilary was relieved to transfer her attention to him from Dippet. "Your task this morning," he announced, "is a fairly simple one. You are no doubt aware, thanks to the learned Mr. Kettleburn--" there was a soft ripple of laughter among the gathered Hogwarts students, which Wimsey chose to ignore-- "that among the animals living in this forest is a herd of wild unicorns. Your task this morning--and you do have until noon to complete it--is to go into the forest and return with a single freshly-collected unicorn hair. I'm told the creatures shed rather copiously, so I will be testing the hairs to see how long they've been parted from the animals that grew them. It is now--" he produced a watch from the sleeve of his robe-- "nine-seventeen."
There was an expectant pause.
"Well?" said Wimsey, and spread his hands meaningfully.
Louis Renard glanced back and forth between Hilary and Katerina, shrugged, and began abruptly to shrink. Before Hilary could even decide whether she ought to be alarmed, he had been reduced to knee height--indeed he no longer looked himself at all. Instead a large swan stood there, pure white but for the same shock of black atop his head. He ruffled his feathers in what was somehow a very self-satisfied manner, picked up his wand in his beak, and shot up into the air; soon he was lost to view amid the gloom of the forest.
"That cannot be fair," said Hilary, addressing Katerina for sympathy rather than Wimsey, from whom she knew she would have none, and strode off among the trees after him.
The gloom crowded around her quickly, so that within a few minutes she might have thought it was already night again. "Lumos," Hilary murmured. The word seemed--not to echo exactly, but to be answered by a rustle in the forest not far off, and the view that greeted her when her wand lit was scarcely any more encouraging than the surrounding gloom. Thanks to two years and change with Professor Kettleburn--who knew his subject, whatever else might be said of him--she could name dozens of animals both magical and ordinary that lived in this forest, but none were stirring within view. She couldn't even see Katerina, which was even eerier, because Hilary could have sworn she'd only seen one path leading into the forest. Perhaps the other girl had found another route after all; it didn't necessarily mean anything.
Hilary glanced back over her shoulder; the glint of sunlight from the edge of the forest was growing dim, and it occurred to her that having once lost sight of it she might have a difficult time getting back. "Levilumos," she said uncertainly, having never tried the spell before, and gave her wand a brisk shake. To her surprise and delight, a small globe of light split off, glowing bright orange, and flitted up to hover over her head. Hilary took a few experimental steps down the path, but it remained where it was. "Perfect," she said aloud, "now mind you stay there," and continued down the path with somewhat more confidence, leaving hovering lights at appropriate intervals--even though she began to notice after a few more minutes, that they were starting to attract insects. Very large insects.
"Idiot!" said someone shrilly behind her and Hilary yelped and whirled around, nearly dropping her wand. The glow at its tip went out, and while she was fumbling to relight it something rustled past her leg. "Silly girl," said the voice gleefully, and added a few more epithets that were outright obscene.
Having got her light back, Hilary looked around to see who was talking, but no one was there; the voice had fallen silent the moment it was bright again. "Who's there?" she demanded. Perhaps Wimsey had sent people in to trip them up; it could easily be part of the challenge.
The only reply was a fit of high-pitched giggles. Then something brushed her leg again, and she flinched away and looked down at the ground. Something long and furry was grinning up at her, easily the size of her forearm, with a long nose and bright beady eyes. "Silly girl," it squeaked again, "great ugly noisy girl. Go away!"
"You little bastard," said Hilary, in the spirit of speaking the thing's own language, "you frightened me," and prodded the Jarvey away from her with one foot.
It squealed indignantly and lunged up at her, teeth bared. Hilary jumped back, stumbling over a rock and nearly falling, but she wasn't quite quickl enough; the Jarvey sank its teeth into her arm and then shot away into the trees with a cackle so grating that it left Hilary's ears ringing.
Hilary pushed her jacket sleeve up and inspected the neat set of teeth marks that had been left in her arm. "Oh, hell--Episkey." Healing spells were not her forte, and even less so when she needed to hold her wand left-handed to get at a wound in her wand arm. It stopped the wounds bleeding, at least, and to the best of her knowledge Jarveys weren't poisonous, so she supposed that was the best she could do for now. She left an extra-bright globe on the spot, out of spite, and continued on down the path.
She still had not found a good answer to the central questions: first, how to locate a unicorn, and second, how to coax one into letting her remove a hair from its tail. Being airborne, Louis would have an advantage at the first, but Hilary consoled herself that--also being the only male champion--he would be at a disadvantage later in the process. She thought she might have an idea about how to procure the hair, but it seemed rather a silly one, and her ears were still ringing.
It couldn't have been the jarvey, Hilary decided; its voice had been shrill, but not so awful as to leave her ears still ringing what felt like ten or fifteen minutes later. She knew some people whose wands hummed quietly when they cast Lumos, but hers never had, and anyway this didn't sound like that either. Indeed, as she crept deeper into the forest the sound deepened and began to be more of a low hum, almost palpable; Hilary glanced upward, but saw nothing that might be producing it. Setting the problem aside for a moment, she checked her watch and found it was just shy of ten o'clock. Nearly a third of her time gone, and she'd hardly accomplished a thing yet. As far as she could tell the trail of light she'd left behind her was intact, but every bit of this forest so far looked more or less alike--except no, something was glinting silver a little ways off the path.
Hilary flicked another light into the air, just to be sure, and then went to investigate. It certainly looked very much like a unicorn hair; not too much help to her, but nonetheless a hopeful sign that made her spirits rise.
The low hum, from which Hilary had momentarily been distracted, gathered its strength and rose into a great boooonnnng. Somewhere far overhead, Batty Thomas was tolling out the hour.
Hilary recognized it at the first strike, and was only mildly confused; at the second, she remembered that Batty Thomas had no business being anywhere near here, nor indeed had any bell at all. It was the bell, though, quite unquestionably; she knew all their voices just as well as those of her family, or her professors. By the fourth, she had all but forgotten the long silver hair still clutched in her hand; one ring she might have imagined, but certainly not four, and there had to be a reason. Surely it was better to try and work out the problem than to give in to the panic she could feel creeping in at the back of her mind.
By the time the tenth and final note faded away, Hilary was shaking, back pressed against a convenient tree. For the moment she had quite forgotten any intention of puzzle-solving; she was just waiting for it to end, and half-afraid that the bell might go on tolling past its ten allotted notes. Even once the noise faded, down even to the low hum that had bothered her before, she seemed to feel something buzzing in her bones. She had wondered before what it might have been like for Deacon, in his last hours, and she wondered it now more than ever; was this what it had felt like at first, when the old year was rung out and he first realized what it was he was in for, this sensation as though every last particle in his body was about to shake apart?
Hilary dug her nails into her palms and stood upright, though not without another wary glance upward. She would have given a great deal of money to know where the other champions were within the forest, and whether they had heard the bell too. In the meantime, she still clutched the shed hair in her fist--so tightly, indeed, that it was cutting into her fingers. She held it up and watched it glimmer in the light of her wand; it was a long time since first-year Potions, when Professor Vane had taught them how to distinguish unicorn hair from other kinds, but it certainly looked right. Perhaps the animal had shed more, and she would thereby be able to follow it, but no more glints of silver were immediately visible. Hilary sighed, chose a direction nearly at random, and set off once more, checking behind her occasionally to be sure that her trail of orange lights was staying where she'd left them.
After a while she noticed that the lights were beginning to flicker--not the ones further behind her, funnily enough, which for all their distance shone small but quite steady, but the several nearest behind her. She paused and watched for a moment, and found that it didn't look as though they were in danger of going out, but rather as though a great number of small things were flitting around them. Not moths, Hilary hoped, and shuddered as she continued on her way.
It was just occurring to her to check on the time when she began to hear a high chittering noise. "Oh, bugger off," said Hilary, taking pleasure in knowing there were no teachers about to hear her say it. "You can't have liked the taste of my arm that much."
It wasn't the Jarvey. It was a whole flock of small creatures that swarmed around Hilary, tugging at her hair and clothes (and, she was nearly sure, her shoelaces).
"Get off," she said breathlessly, flailing at them and clutching her wand; unfortunately, then the pixies took an interest in that as well, and she was forced to shove it safely up her sleeve before she could think of a spell to get rid of them. She would have given anything for her old Beater's bat just then. If anything, the pixies seemed to enjoy being swatted at--or else it made them angry; it all sounded like a lot of frantic high chittering to Hilary, and all she knew was that she was making it worse. She greeted the inevitable tug on her ears almost with resignation; at least that meant they'd be done with her soon, and surely it couldn't be that much worse than riding a broomstick.
It was infinitely worse than riding a broomstick, in fact, with nothing at all holding her up in the air but a handful of little creatures the size of her hand, and the ground getting further and further away all the time. Hilary had to force herself after a minute or so not to squeeze her eyes shut, or to struggle, but she knew she had to keep an eye on what was happening.
At long last the swarm dropped her unceremoniously on a branch and streaked away, squeaking gleefully all the way; the branch, which was very high and a little thin for comfort, creaked and bowed in surprise under Hilary's weight. She clutched at it, her hands slipped despite her gloves--and then she found a grip and the branch decided to hold, at least for the moment.
Hilary edged very slowly over until at last she was pressed up against the trunk of the tree, about as secure as she could expect to be for the moment. A breeze rustled past her--not a strong one, but the tree swayed alarmingly, and she clung to it until the movement passed. In the midst of her incipient seasickness, Hilary had an idea; when she felt relatively safe again she withdrew her wand from her sleeve and tapped it into the palm of her free hand. "Epoximise minima," she said, improvising desperately, and was amazed to find that it worked; now, when she pressed her gloved hand against the trunk of the tree, it clung but could still be pulled away. "So there," Hilary added, to no one in particular, as she performed the same charm on her other glove; for the first time since her name had been spat out of the Goblet, she began to feel a bit like Triwizard material.
Having guaranteed her safety as best she could, she kept her grip on the tree trunk with her non-wand hand and had a look round. She was terribly far up--it was difficult to estimate, but she thought maybe a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet, in a tree she couldn't easily identify without its leaves. The pixies clearly took pride in their work; she was level with the tops of many other trees in the forest, and if she risked climbing a bit higher she might have quite a good view of the surrounding area. Hilary looked up uncertainly; there was a good bit of tree to go, but she hardly trusted this branch, let alone the ones still further up.
As she sat there, trying either to decide whether to climb further up or to think of a spell that would make the climb safer, she realized she must have quite lost track of time, for Batty Thomas began to ring out once more and cracked her nerve all over again. Hilary glanced at her wrist, found her watch gone--the pixes must have taken it--and merely leaned into the tree trunk, shivering and counting the bell strokes. It must have been up there somewhere, for she felt the vibrations roll through her much more strongly than before; even the tree was humming with the noise, and she imagined for a panicked second that it might simply fall to bits under her. But there was no bell in sight, and she couldn't seem to fix on a direction from which the sound might be coming. "Stop it," said Hilary aloud, uselessly. Her cheeks were damp, and she could feel bark rubbing her skin raw where she'd pressed her face against the tree. She could hardly hear her own voice. "Please--I know you're not here, you can't be, please stop."
It was difficult to concentrate, but she was nearly certain the bell had rung eleven o'clock. There was no way to be sure whether it was accurate, of course.
Hilary clenched her fists around her branch. She couldn't go on like this; she had an hour left and hadn't even found a unicorn yet, and purely for the sake of doing something she pointed her wand up at a spot ten feet or so above her and said "Funio!"
She had been a little too emphatic, if anything, and the rope shot out of her wand and knotted itself around the trunk several feet further still above where Hilary had wanted. But it was still a perfectly good rope--Hilary gave it a few sharp tugs to be sure--and with a last regretful pat to her branch, Hilary transferred her grip to the rope and began to climb. The tree creaked and bent in protest, and it seemed to take forever, but at last she had crawled up to a new branch nearly twenty feet higher and done her best to find herself a new perch on it. It seemed steady enough, but Hilary tied the other end of the rope around her waist all the same.
Up here, she was high enough to be in the sunlight, and Hilary wasted a minute or two just basking in being able to see again. She would have liked to see Katerina or Louis, somewhere out there, but she saw no sign of them; the edge of the forest was only just visible from here, and the dark bulk of a crowd gathered beyond it. If one of the other champions had already made it out again, she wasn't sure there was any way to tell from this distance, though she consoled herself with the thought that the gathered spectators might not seem nearly so calm if anyone had already finished the task.
Hilary now turned her attention to her immediate surroundings. The tree's own leaves were gone, but there was some kind of yellow moss growing in patches all over the trunk. It took some brain-racking--Herbology had always been one of Hilary's more difficult subjects--but Hilary was sure she remembered Professor Beery showing dried samples of it at some point. Third year, she thought--Beery and Kettleburn had given joint lessons for a few weeks about what plants to feed to what magical animals, Ravenclaws doubled with Slytherin, and Flaxman had wandered off during one of them and gotten bitten on the nose by a geranium at the other end of the greenhouse. Hilary had enjoyed the event rather too much at the time, and she enjoyed the memory of it rather too much now.
Golden Fleece! Of course, that was what the stuff was called; it certainly looked the part. Not much in the way of magical properties, apart from a slight shimmer one wouldn't expect from Muggle plants, or nutritional value for that matter; but there were several magical creatures who were quite fond of the taste all the same, and could be coaxed to eat when ill if some of the moss was added to their food. Hilary couldn't remember whether unicorns were among them, but it couldn't hurt to bring some along and try. She pulled a few handfuls away cautiously--one never knew when plants were likely to emit poison gas, or scream, or something, but the moss didn't seem to mind--and bundled them up in her handkerchief for safekeeping.
And now she had no choice but to address herself to the most urgent problem: getting down from this tree. Hilary was sure there must be magical ways to fly without a broomstick, but she didn't know of any. She tried conjuring another rope, but she couldn't see far enough straight down to tell whether it had reached the ground or not. All the same, it was the best option Hilary had, and she was just steeling herself to begin climbing back down when something snorted behind her, nearly startling her off the branch prematurely. "What now?" she said tiredly, gripping tightly to the tree as she tried to look behind her.
Hovering behind her was a very young thestral; Hilary had never seen a cub before, but there was something awkwardly adolescent in the movement of its wings that made her smile. "Hello," she said, and touched its nose gently, being careful to keep the sticky palm of her glove off its skin. She was nearly used to seeing the full-grown creatures Hogwarts used, but she had never been this close to one before. It felt warm and dry and a little slippery under her hand--almost like handling a snake. "I thought you lot only liked meat."
The thestral let out a high-pitched croak, clearly intended to be a friendly noise.
Hilary stripped off her glove and offered it a handful of moss, which it snatched happily out of her hand with small sharp teeth. "I wonder," she said thoughtfully, wobbling on her perch as she watched it. It was always difficult to tell how much thestrals understood of what was said to them, but she might as well try. "By any chance have you got a mum nearby?"
As luck would have it, the foal had, although the larger beast appeared suspicious of Hilary's motives. After a few careful negotiations that required giving up the better part of her pocketful of Golden Fleece, and some exciting near-falls, Hilary was successfully transferred from her branch to a thestral's back. It didn't feel much more secure, but at least she was mobile now, and had a creature who might be helpful if she lost her grip. They stayed above the treetops--the full-grown thestral had far too great a wingspan to stay in flight between the trees, and in any case Hilary was keeping an eye out for anything white.
"There," she said at last, stunned but sure of what she'd seen. She only barely had the presence of mind to note the direction in which the edge of the forest lay before the thestral dropped earthwards, and Hilary yelped and clung more tightly around its neck. Even once it had landed, folding its wings around her, she stayed a moment longer to recollect her wits. "Thank you," she murmured once her feet were back on solid ground, keeping an eye on the glint of white between the trees as she gave the beast's shoulder an absent rub, and the thestral emitted an affectionate sort of death-rattle in response and stalked away.
Had Hilary been barefoot, she would have wiggled her toes in sheer relief at having the ground under her feet again--even the ground in the forest, riddled with inconvenient tree roots and slippery with damp fallen leaves, felt like the best surface she'd ever stood on. As it was, she didn't think she had much time left, and her heavy leather shoes weren't conducive to toe-wiggling anyway.
The unicorn was grazing idly among the trees, but the moment she took another step its head jerked up, looking around for the source of the noise. Hilary very nearly apologized, but she was terrified of scaring it off entirely, so she reached into her jacket pocket and skipped directly to offering it her last handful of Golden Fleece.
The unicorn stared at her--at her hand, most likely--all but vibrating in fear. It really was beautiful, shining amidst the general murk of the forest, and Hilary felt terribly guilty all of a sudden. "I'm sorry," she breathed. "I won't hurt you, I swear I won't." Surely it could smell that on her, or something. "Just a moment--I only need a moment."
The unicorn came one cautious pace nearer, than another, nostrils flared.
Hilary forgot to breathe entirely. "Please," she said, without really meaning to, and gave the moss a bit of a rustle.
It felt like years, but at last the unicorn came within arms reach and began to nibble delicately at the moss in Hilary's hand. Hilary was fairly sure that by now her heart had stopped as well as her breath, but she touched the unicorn's nose gently and found it inconceivably soft.
"Thank you," she murmured, slipping her wand into her hand as subtly as she could manage, and pointed it at the unicorn's tail. "Crinisectio!"
She hadn't a very good shot at the unicorn's tail, and had counted on this to keep the spell from cutting the whole tail short; in fact several hairs fell to the forest floor, and the unicorn didn't even notice their loss. Hilary gave its nose another apologetic rub, wondering at last how to get out of the forest; having once had the opportunity to be this close to the beast, she was reluctant to break the moment.
At last the decision was made for her when Batty Thomas began once more to toll above her head. The unicorn leapt away into the trees, so fast that it almost looked as though it had Disapparated; Hilary shuddered and hunched in on herself, but forced herself to look up and try to spot the source of the sound. She thought she saw a hint of gray up among the trees--the grey of stone, most certainly, but misty and so insubstantial-looking that it might have been a trick of the light.
Three short notes this time, and then the bell fell silent. Hilary forced herself to think fast; the whole matter was so completely incongruous. She had abandoned the theory that Wimsey had laid traps deliberately, but it was a great deal of coincidence that she should be haunted by the one object that frightened her more than--oh.
"Idiot," said Hilary to herself, already laughing a little just in relief; and then she pointed her wand straight upwards, ducking her head in case anything went wrong, and said "Riddikulus!"
A few seconds later, something small fell from on high and hit Hilary's hands, with which she had been shielding her head, and then slid to earth with a protracted tinkling noise. Hilary straightened up cautiously and picked it up; it was a string of sleigh bells. Hilary grinned, turning it over in her hands, and then remembered that she had less than fifteen minutes to get out of the forest and hurled it into the bushes before the boggart could recover its wits.
She was long out of sight of the trail of lights she'd so carefully left herself, but she supposed having a compass would be better than nothing, so she gathered the unicorn hairs up from the ground, said "Point me!" and, once her wand had found its bearings, began heading due east.
She reached the edge of the forest in much less time than she'd anticipated, but nearly a hundred yards down from where she'd entered; from here Hilary could make out the crowd of Hogwarts students huddled in the bleachers, and Wimsey and the judges at their table further forward, and--was that Katerina already there standing with them?
Hilary ran for the judges' table, only to find that Katerina had already beaten her there; appeared to be waiting quite comfortably in fact, accompanied by a few other Durmstrang, although she greeted Hilary almost apologetically. There was no sign of Louis, and Chauvinieux was beginning to look distinctly restless. Heart pounding, Hilary produced her unicorn hairs and handed them to Wimsey, who pulled out his wand with raised eyebrows. "Not one to do things by halves, I see."
Hilary shrugged, unaccountably embarrassed. It occurred to her for the first time, with very inconvenient timing, to wonder whether Jerry ever talked about her to his uncle; he certainly boasted to her readily enough every time Wimsey made it into the papers, which was often. "I thought it couldn't hurt to be sure," she said, which was true enough, and clenched her fists anxiously in her jacket pockets.
Wimsey touched his wand to the hairs, and after a moment they glowed a warm blue; he nodded, and Hilary relaxed, even though she had known perfectly well they were barely ten minutes old. "Very neatly done, Miss Thorpe. And very well-timed, too." He produced his watch and showed it to her; it was just a few minutes shy of noon.
"Thanks," said Hilary, feeling much surer of herself now. She wanted to ask what would become of the hairs, and if perhaps she could keep one for herself, and whether Louis had been misplaced, but before she could she was grabbed from behind and yelped in surprise.
A small horde of people had descended upon her from the bleachers: half the girls in her year, it seemed like, Cattermole and Kapoor and a lot of Hilary's other friends, along with Jerry and Sep and a handful of Gryffindors Hilary didn't even know whom they seemed to have brought with them by accident. Even Winnie had tagged along after Jerry, and Flitwick after her, though he didn't look entirely sure of how he'd gotten there. "You were splendid," Amy Kapoor was saying; she was the one who had gotten Hilary around the waist.
"Hallo, Uncle," said Jerry brightly, as though they had run into each other at the Leaky Cauldron and it were all a pleasant surprise, and the entire group somehow managed to shuffle off to the side where they could sit on the grass before the enormous crystal lenses.
Two of these were now blank; the third showed some part of the forest, but with neither boy nor swan in sight. "What happened?" inquired Hilary, fascinated all the same.
"Wufflegritt fouled these things up," said Violet, with a hint of satisfaction; Professor Wufflegritt was not terribly likeable. "Adjusted the charm on them to follow people, not birds."
"Too small," Sep explained, "and too fast. We haven't seen him for hours. The Beauxbaton head's just about to blow his top--have you seen him?"
"Afraid so," said Hilary unhelpfully; much as she wanted to be sure Louis was all right, she was suddenly exhausted, and the better part of her attention was given to the sad thought that her chances of getting a nap after this didn't seem very good. She shivered, pulling her cloak more snugly around her shoulders.
"We nearly lost you." Jerry sounded suspiciously gleeful at the thought. "That flying trick you pulled to get out of the tree--how'd you manage that?"
"Made friends with a thestral." Hilary smiled wanly at him.
"I'd love to try it myself," said Jerry, a little dreamily.
"You ought to count yourself lucky you can't see the things," Hilary pointed out, and suddenly sat up straighter, grabbing at whoever's arm was nearest. (It turned out to be Amy.) "Look--I think that's him."
Louis was emerging from the forest, not too far from where Hilary herself had come out but looking significantly the worse for wear. He didn't look badly injured apart from a slight limp, but his clothing was rumpled and torn, and he was shimmering oddly; it took Hilary a moment to realize that this was the last of his feathers vanishing from his arm.
"I wish I could do that," said Winnie, startling everyone--including herself, it seemed, for she gulped and went quiet again.
"You'd come out as a kitten," Jerry said, absentmindedly but with an absolute certainty that suggested he'd considered the matter before. "One of those little grey ones that's mostly fluff."
Winnie hugged her knees sulkily.
"Well, it seems he hasn't been eaten by anything, at least." Hilary craned around to see better, with little success; Chauvinieux was helping Louis to a chair, and certainly quite a lot was being said, but it was impossible at this distance to tell what any of it was.
"Surely they'll tell us what happened," said Sep optimistically.
But whatever story Louis had told, neither Wimsey nor the judges passed it on. Only the scores came back--Louis's points totaled a mere fourteen out of thirty, but Hilary had earned a very respectable twenty-three, and Katerina a quite impressive twenty-six. These numbers were announced in haste before Louis was bundled up to the Hospital wing; Hilary suddenly remembered the bite in her arm, and offered to go with him as combined guide, crutch, and fellow-sufferer, but whatever hopes she had of getting information out of Louis were dashed by Chauvinieux's insistence on accompanying them.
Once in the hospital wing, they were separated; Madam Horrell healed Hilary's bite almost perfunctorily with a quick tap of her wand, not even pausing to scowl at Hilary for having made such a shoddy job of it, and agreed to Hilary's request for a few hours' privacy and sleep without really seeming to pay attention to the question.
Hilary stumbled out of the hospital wing a few hours later, better-rested but still a bit rattled. Louis was nowhere in evidence, so she hoped that whatever had happened to him had been fixed and he was feeling better. She thought about going down to the Great Hall to see if it was dinnertime, but it felt too early for that yet; and then Hilary remembered about the enormous crystal lenses, and that the entire school had probably seen her huddled in a tree crying over a silly old church bell, and thought she'd better just go quietly back up to her dormitory to change.
She answered the doorknocker almost at a guess, and was frankly surprised when the door opened for her--and even more surprised to find that the common room was stuffed full of people. Not only people but food, streamers, and a vague sparkly haze drifting through the air--in fact, there seemed to be a party going on in her honor, which made it all too easy to guess who was responsible.
"There you are." Jerry appeared out of the crowd, taking Hilary's arm firmly. "You can't go skiving off your own party. It simply isn't done. We've all been terribly worried about you, you know."
"Yes, I can see that." Hilary eyed the table full of food, half tempted and half wary. "Who provided that lot? It wasn't you and Weasley, was it?"
"You needn't worry about any of it having been tampered with, if that's what you--" Jerry was interrupted by a shriek, and glanced sheepishly over towards the fireplace, where a handful of first-years were drifting slowly up towards the ceiling.
"Needn't I?" Hilary tried to fold her arms, but couldn't while he still had a hold on one of them.
"I didn't say we hadn't tampered with any of it," said Jerry cheerfully. "I was only going to promise to tell you which bits were safe. And thus: no worry required on your part."
Hilary patted his arm and firmly extracted herself from his grip. "Tell me in a minute, would you? I'm sick of these clothes--I've got to go up and change."
"I'll save you some punch," Jerry promised solemnly. "It hardly turns your hair green at all."
"I need some better friends," Hilary mourned, but in truth she was feeling much better already, and she ran upstairs to change into the first jumper and skirt she happened to get out of her trunk. The Triwizard kit she folded carefully away; one never knew when one might need some good practical outdoor wear.
It was quite nice at first, having a party thrown in one's honor, but parties were hardly a rare occurrence in any Hogwarts common room, and it got awfully wearing after a while when one kept having to explain over and over again about Thestrals, as though most of one's friends weren't Ravenclaws who damn well ought to be able to work it out for themselves.
After an hour or two Hilary slipped back out of the common room to sit on the staircase outside; her head was pounding, but mercifully the door almost entirely muffled the music that had been struck up within. She wished almost immediately that she had brought a cloak along so that she could go outside for a walk, but it was too late for that now unless she wanted to navigate back through the crowd and up to her dormitory to get it. At least it was much quieter out here and just a little bit cooler; Hilary took what she could get and sat quietly for a good few minutes, slumped back against the outer wall of the staircase. A few people came or went, but she gave them all the same stiff smile and reassurance that really, she was fine, and they passed on.
Eventually Jerry stuck his head out the door, said "Aha! We're playing hide-and-go-seek, I see," and claimed the step below hers without asking, stretching his legs out across the stair. Hilary sincerely hoped no one else meant to come up the stairs any time soon; they weren't likely to see the obstruction until it was nearly too late.
"If you've found me," said Hilary at last, inanely, "aren't you meant to be hiding now?"
"Don't rush me." Jerry glanced sidelong at her. "What is it now? You're done with the task, you tackled it splendidly, and you haven't a thing more to worry about until February, which is lifetimes away. You might give in and enjoy yourself for once."
"I'm quite capable of enjoying myself, and you know that perfectly well--and it isn't that I don't appreciate your party, either. I'm sure you spent at least ten good minutes throwing it together." Hilary smiled at him. "I'm a bit tired, that's all, and I was beginning to get a headache. It feels as though I've had a terribly long day, though it's barely dinnertime."
She thought her reassurance had been fairly convincing, but Jerry's eyes narrowed. "Are you all right? Really? It looked as though you had a rough time of it in the forest this morning."
Hilary had been asked this several times already, some more sympathetically than others; most people she had brushed off as quickly as possible, but none were friends as close as Jerry was. Not to mention that Jerry had a way of encouraging confidences by being relentlessly sympathetic in the most irritating way possible. "Boggart," she explained shortly. "They're rough on anyone, I suppose. And I may not be as steady about heights for a little while as I once was."
"You'll have to find someplace else to live, then," Jerry observed, leaning over precariously to peer down between the stairs. "Do you think it's too late for the hat to re-Sort you into Slytherin? Nice and close to the ground, that one."
"I'd rather Hufflepuff than Slytherin any day." Hilary grimaced. "They at least have windows. But then, imagine having Beery for Head of House."
"I suppose you'll just have to make do, then--oh, hello." Jerry accepted her head on his shoulder with good grace, slipping his arm around her waist. "Are you quite sure you're all right?"
"Of course I am." Hilary frowned down into her lap. "The Goblet wouldn't have chosen me if I couldn't bear up, would it?"
Jerry hummed. "That depends. Did Wufflegritt charm it?"
"I think it was Dippett, actually, and for all that he's, well--" Hilary made a vague expansive gesture with one hand by way of expressing what Dippett was like-- "he's quite good at actually doing magic. I don't doubt him."
"There you are, then," said Jerry triumphantly. "Why should you trust in Dippett's strength of character over your own?"
Hilary laughed, lifted her head, and kissed him quickly.
The ensuing several seconds, which she largely spent figuring out just what she'd just done and all the things that were wrong with it, were about as awkward as a silence could possibly be. At last Jerry coughed and said, "You probably don't want to make a habit out of that, you know."
"Did you really mind that much?" demanded Hilary, who knew perfectly well that he hadn't. The girl had yet to be found whose kiss Jerry would find objectionable.
"Of course not." He grinned down at her. "But my skill might ruin you for all other men, and then what would become of you?"
"It doesn't seem any great loss to me," said Hilary, spurred to contrariness. "After all, given the day I've had, haven't I earned a kiss or two?"
"Well, when you put it like that, I'm practically obligated. But you shan't blame me for the long-term consequences." Jerry turned his head and kissed her again, with great care.
Hilary hadn't quite thought her argument through this far, but she couldn't very well object to the results. Surely, she thought, it was only a brief kiss; surely they would break apart in the next moment, or the next, or a few more seconds after that. But Jerry went right on kissing her, and it wasn't as though she wanted it to end, so she twisted around--rather carefully, to avoid falling down the stairs--to be closer to him. The stair was still too narrow, though, and she slipped down off it right into Jerry's lap.
"Going so soon?" Jerry laughed, slipping his other arm around her waist as well to keep her in place. He sounded quite breathless, in a way that made Hilary feel inexplicably accomplished.
"Not just yet." She shook her head, leaning in for more, and Jerry kissed her yet again, a good bit less carefully than before.
Admittedly Hilary's prior experience of kissing was rather limited--a few perfunctory experiments with boys and other girls both, mostly for curiosity's sake, and that one mead-fueled accident a year ago--but none of it had been remotely like this. She was pushing herself as close to Jerry as she could, short of breath and altogether too warm; he made a small noise that made her laugh, almost a muffled groan, and his fingertips crept up above the waist of her skirt to brush her bare skin.
"Oh," said Hilary, a little strangled-sounding. For a moment she was entirely unable to think of anything but the few small places where his fingers had found her skin. They were no longer kissing, but only because Jerry was nuzzling her neck, and at some point she had turned to face him fully and kneel astride one of his legs. It was only then that she fully realized the situation they were rapidly heading towards--and, furthermore, that she didn't mind the prospect one bit. She would have trusted Jerry with anything at all, and she had done so much today of which she would never have thought herself capable; why not this? If nothing else, she was desperately in need of a good physical mindless distraction.
On the other hand, she realized dimly, if they were going to investigate further, they needed to find somewhere else to do it.
"Jerry." She let her head fall forward, pressing a kiss by his ear, and dug her fingers involuntarily into his shoulders when he responded in kind. "Mmmm--what are we--"
It was the wrong way to begin. He blinked, shook his head sharply, and stared at her. "Hilary--oh hell, you're right." Jerry shifted her hastily off his lap. "I'm sorry, I'm really sorry. That isn't what I meant to happen at all."
"But," said Hilary stupidly, staring up at him as he scrambled to his feet. It was as though they were having two completely different conversations, and she'd hardly even said anything. Surely he must have been interested in the same thing she had been.
Jerry was flushed and fidgeting; he looked terribly guilty about something all of a sudden, but she couldn't imagine what. "I'm sorry," he said yet again. "I've just remembered, I've got detention with Kettleburn tonight, must dash--" and incredibly, he did, clattering away down the stairs before Hilary could even get her wits back, let alone a word in.
"Oh for Merlin's sake," Hilary said, much too late, when she had more or less got her breath back, and went back into the common room. Her party still appeared to be swinging merrily along without her, and she slipped through the crowd as discreetly as she was able to fetch her cloak from the dormitories.
It wasn't as chilly outside as she had feared; if anything, it had warmed a few degrees from the frosty morning she'd spent in the forest. The air was crisp, but not at all unpleasant, so Hilary let her cloak hang loose around her shoulders as she walked. She had thought at first of finding Jerry, but she knew perfectly well that he didn't have detention and would be actively avoiding her. If he wanted to be chivalrous with her and only her, she decided, that was his own damn business, and it wouldn't be any use talking to him anyway.
Not that talking was what Hilary necessarily wanted to do just then. For all her annoyance, she still felt restless and overheated; the feeling wasn't exactly unfamiliar, but no one had ever encouraged her in it before. Her curiosity and her physical instincts had both been frustrated, and Hilary wasn't one to deal well with frustration without doing something about it. Her best hope was that a walk might clear her head a little and disperse the spare energy buzzing in her.
More by accident than design, she found herself near the lake, not far from where the Beauxbatons carriage had been parked. Still not feeling particularly social, Hilary decided not to go any nearer; instead she sat down on the grass near the lake. The squid was at the surface tonight, tentacles thrashing lazily about and batting at whatever unfortunate birds happened to be passing overhead. "It must be so lovely and simple to be you," said Hilary bitterly, folding her arms on her knees. "I suppose you've never had a boy friend. Or thought about having one. I expect you don't even remember your parents."
The squid didn't appear to be listening.
After a few minutes she decided it had more or less the right idea and took out her wand; she hadn't anything particular in mind, but just lay back on the grass and made patterns of varyingly-colored sparkles in the air above her, trying to see how subtly she could control the variations in color. It wasn't terribly productive, but it was surprisingly soothing and the effect was quite lovely at night, and in the process Hilary lost track entirely of time.
"It's very pretty," said someone overhead, after a while.
Hilary sat up quickly, so quickly that she put her face into her own cloud of sparks and winced at the prickly heat of them as they dissipated. "Good evening," she said, and smiled politely.
"Good evening." Louis Renard smiled back. He was fully dressed this evening, and with a cloak of his own, though lighter and silkier-looking than Hilary's. "May I join you?"
"Of course." Hilary patted the grass next to her and he sat down, gathering his cloak around him. "You seem to be doing much better than you were this afternoon," she observed; in retrospect this was a bit blunt, but Hilary didn't feel she had much patience for small talk right now.
"I am--thank you." If anything, Louis seemed more composed than Hilary, who became suddenly self-consciously aware that she was plucking up grass for no reason at all. "More frightened than hurt--or so your Madame Horrell told me."
Hilary smiled ruefully. "She doesn't seem a terribly sympathetic soul, does she? But she's quite a brilliant Healer, really. I suppose one would have to be here, with children thinking up new accidents to have everywhere. Not that that's really the point--I expect you wouldn't care to tell me what happened to you in the forest?"
"It's really quite straightforward." Louis said, and ducked his head. "But I shall tell you--if you tell me how it went for you."
"Fair enough," said Hilary resignedly, and gave him a few minutes' short retelling which she had had ample time to perfect during the evening. With the exception of a few listeners whom she had known would understand, she had learned quickly to gloss over the matter of Batty Thomas, but she felt that though she barely knew Louis that would do him some kind of disservice as her fellow competitor, and stumbled awkwardly over the subject instead.
"About that bell," Louis observed afterwards, as she had feared he might.
Hilary drew up her knees. "It was a boggart," she admitted. "I think I kicked it out from under a stone. I didn't realize at first--I've only ever met one in my second-year Defence Against the Dark Arts class, and it was something different then."
Louis let out a thoughtful hmph. "The thing you fear most is bells?"
"One particular bell." Hilary glanced sidelong at him, but at least he wasn't laughing yet. "The village I grew up in--it's been largely witches and wizards for ages and ages, and the Muggles there sort of politely pretend there's nothing queer going on, but hundreds of years ago the village was attacked and some poor wizard tried to cast a protective spell to keep the soldiers out of the church. Only it went wrong somehow, because he was in such a hurry, and one of the bells has been all queer ever since and ever so often there are nasty accidents. I used to think there wasn't much in it when I was small--children used to dare each other to climb up in the bell tower, that kind of thing. But something did happen two years ago and ever since--" She swallowed.
"I don't think this will comfort you," began Louis, "but I think your bell almost killed me."
Hilary looked up in surprise. From the majority of her friends, she might have thought it a tasteless attempt at a joke, but Louis seemed such a serious type, and if he were keeping his face straight he was doing it very well. "You don't mean that."
"It isn't much fun," said Louis solemnly. "Having an enormous noise like that start up when one is quite small and in midair. It stunned me quite badly."
"Oh, hell," said Hilary, suddenly horrified. "I am sorry. And here I was quite jealous of you."
"It is quite a nice skill," said Louis, with a bit of an apologetic smile. "I will admit to showing it off somewhat."
"I thought so." Hilary laughed. "Serves you right, then, for trying to show us both up--though I really am glad you're all right."
"And then," Louis went on, "there was a--I don't know the English word? A huge flying thing with hooves and a beak. I think it thought I was dinner."
"A hippogriff," Hilary suggested, through her astonishment. "They eat birds."
"Yes--that, of course." He shook his head. "I never even got close to a unicorn. I made a mess of taking my usual shape again, took a nasty fall in the process, and then realized the time and only wanted to get out of the woods. Not a very impressive first showing, was it?"
Hilary shifted a few inches closer to him. He might have been her competition, but she felt it wasn't exactly sporting to get one's opponent nearly eaten, even if it had been quite unintentional. "I've heard everyone always has one task that turns out utterly beastly for them. Surely it'll go better for you in February. And horribly wrong for me, and then you can take your turn at sitting here and telling me how exciting it sounds that I fouled everything up."
"I do hope that won't be necessary." Louis was smiling outright now. "But I am glad to have found you here tonight. You have been very reassuring--very gracious."
He ducked his head and kissed her; it was gentle enough to feel almost like a courtesy, but Hilary touched his jaw by way of encouraging him to linger. She had only just succeeded in tamping down the hopes that Jerry had frustrated, and had thought herself safe from them, but Louis's kiss sent that warm confusion flowing back through her out of all proportion to how much he was actually doing to encourage it.
Louis blinked at her once they had separated; he looked almost confused. "I hope you realize," he began apologetically. "I am not usually like this--eager with girls, I mean. After all, you hardly know me, and I wouldn't like you to think I meant to push you."
"Don't be sorry." Hilary swallowed hard. She was shocked at herself--both for doing this now, and rather belatedly for what she had done with Jerry earlier. Having goes at two boys in one evening was surely rather indecent, but after all Jerry had turned her down, and surely two chances in a row might also be some sort of sign in her favour. And damn it, whatever attempts she made to justify herself, she realized that she wasn't in the least thinking straight; she wanted someone's touch very badly, never mind who, and it was Jerry's own fault that he'd missed his chance to be of use.
Perhaps, then, now would be a good time to stop thinking about Jerry for the next little while.
"I'm not either," she admitted. "I hardly ever go out with boys at all, really. But it's been such a strange day, and I don't--look, I don't want to talk about it any more, but I should very much like some company all the same."
Louis had a look on his face rather as though he meant to ask if she was sure, really and truly sure, and so forth, so Hilary curtailed the process by kissing him again on the logic that the more she did it the less cause she would have to be nervous about it. So far she thought it might be working.
"Please," she said at last, the only remaining argument she could think of, and guided his hand under her skirt to rest on her knee.
Morning found Hilary still mostly sleepless and increasingly unhappy; at last she abandoned what was left of her pride, realizing the alternative was far worse, and got out of bed to dress by what scant daylight was just starting to appear. Breakfast would probably have been a good idea, but it was far too early for any to be available in the Great Hall, and she hadn't much of an appetite.
She didn't spend too long waiting outside Professor Vane's office, sitting in damp silence on the cold stone floor, but it felt like a year until Vane came down to join her, the office keys jingling in her hand, and paused. "Miss Thorpe? After the day you had yesterday, I'd think you'd want to sleep late if anything."
Tears prickled behind Hilary's eyes, and she dug her nails into her palm for a few seconds. Once the danger had passed she scrambled to her feet, but couldn't seem to meet Vane's eyes. "I think I've made a really terrible mistake. I need help."
The bemused smile with which Professor Vane had greeted her wavered into something grimmer. Hilary was suddenly miserably convinced that she had already guessed; could it really be so obvious what she'd done? "Come in and tell me about it-- I'll see what I can do."
Hilary had been in the Potions office dozens of time; it was sparsely decorated but by no means stark, and she had never felt anything less than comfortable there. This morning, even as she settled into a chair-- forcing herself to sit in it properly, and not to curl up and hide her face in her knees-- she felt faintly out of joint. The prospect of airing her shame out before someone she admired so greatly made her feel ill; if anyone else had been Potions master or mistress she wasn't sure she could have done it at all, no matter the risk. "I need a potion," she admitted, before Vane had the chance to ask. "There are things you can take, aren't there-- if you need to make sure you're not pregnant?"
Professor Vane only paused a moment before nodding and unlocking the supply closet. "It's quite basic, really; a third year could make it, if we taught that kind of thing to third years, which of course we don't. You'll be wanting to make a cup of tea to wash it down with; there's a kettle over there on that shelf."
Hilary spotted the kettle, but instead of getting up to do anything about it she buried her face in her hands, swamped with relief and strangely comforted by Vane's matter-of-factness. "Thank you," she said, muffled. "Oh, Merlin, thank you, I've had such a rotten night."
Vane paused with furrowed brows and an armful of bottles. "Hilary, has someone hurt you?"
"What?" Hilary shook her head, not in denial but in confusion. Parts of it had been uncomfortable, of course, but she didn't think that was what she was being asked.
"The boy-- whoever it was-- did he force you?"
Hilary jolted upright. "No! No, of course he didn't. It was my idea-- it was a terrible idea, that's all."
"You're hardly the first girl to try it." Professor Vane began to measure some of her ingredients into an undersized cauldron, but she cast Hilary a look of concern. "And no matter what anyone else might tell you, it won't ruin your life, either; especially not since you've had the sense to come to me."
As much as Hilary had feared judgment, she didn't exactly enjoy feeling pitied, either; it was enough to spur her back to her feet and over to the fireplace, where she fumbled out her wand to fill the kettle with water. "It isn't even that," she admitted, hugging herself and watching as the pot began to warm of its own accord. "I meant to try it sooner or later; you can call it Ravenclaw curiosity, if you like. Do I need to put something under this?"
Vane shook her head. "Don't worry; it'll be quite cool to the touch on the outside. Would you care to tell me what is wrong?"
"I didn't want you to ask for advice. Just--" Hilary glanced at the cauldron on Vane's desk, which was beginning to emit bright blue steam.
"But you clearly do want it." Vane leaned against the desk, arms folded.
Hilary gestured aimlessly, remembered that her wand was still in her hand, and hastily put it away as she tried to figure out a way to explain herself without naming any names. "It wasn't the right boy, that's all. I'm not in love with the other or anything, we aren't even seeing each other, but I wanted to, with him-- which is bad enough, I suppose." She grimaced down at the stone floor. "But he got all gentlemanly and left before I could say so, and I went for a walk and got to talking with this other boy and I thought, well, if J-- if the first one wouldn't, then why should that mean I shouldn't get to find out what it's like?"
Professor Vane smiled ruefully. "Ravenclaw curiosity at its finest."
"It didn't occur to me until afterwards, what if that first boy thought it had meant something and I hadn't realized?" Behind her, the kettle let out a loud bong and began to bubble; Hilary yelped and leapt to cope with it. It was easier to finish explaining herself to a teacup than to Professor Vane's face, anyway. "I didn't mean to hurt him, but I'm afraid I might if I tell him, and I don't like keeping secrets from people. He always says I'm a terrible liar, anyway."
Professor Vane frowned in thought as she poured the potion out; it had turned a lurid pink. "Here's what you came for."
Hilary crossed the room and accepted the cup, gulping down the contents immediately. She nearly gagged them right back up again-- the liquid was thick and slimy and tasted unbearably sour-- but forced herself to swallow it all. "Ugh." She shuddered. "Thank you, but ugh."
"The way I see it, either there was something that you betrayed and you ought to tell him, or there wasn't and it's none of his business." Professor Vane accepted the cup back from her. "You can't go on feeling guilty for jilting the poor boy and for wanting to confess it to him; you'll have to choose one."
It was a minute before Hilary could find an answer; she was too busy with her tea. It was unappetizingly weak-- she hadn't left it enough time to steep-- but it soothed her throat from the burn of the potion. "We'll have to talk eventually," she concluded. "About what we did do. I'll see how that turns out, I think."
Vane settled into her chair behind the desk. "Personally, I'd tell him either way-- but having been sixteen myself, not terribly long ago, I understand how that prospect must look to you."
Hilary smiled cautiously over her teacup. "Does it mean these things get easier to talk about as one gets older?"
"Not particularly," admitted Vane. "Although I could tell you something else you might find useful."
"Anything," said Hilary hopefully.
Professor Vane produced her own wand and tapped it idly on the desk. "There is a spell you can use before the fact, if you're worried about getting pregnant. It'll save you any more scares like this one." At Hilary's visible waver, she narrowed her eyes. "You've as good as told me you mean to go on sleeping with men you aren't married to, later on if not while you're still here; it'd be foolish of me not to suggest it. And of you not to learn it."
Hilary nodded and set the teacup aside-- although she paused as a thought occurred to her. "Have you had girls come to you asking for help before?"
Vane shrugged. "Apparently for some reason I inspire confidence about romantic mishaps-- and no, I haven't any intention of telling you who."
"Honestly?" Hilary sighed and withdrew her own wand once again. "I'm just glad to know I'm not alone."
One night in early December, Hilary found herself up late studying in front of the fire in the common room--not because she had any homework of particular urgency, but simply because she felt restless and preferred finding work to lying in bed and not sleeping. She had made herself quite comfortable with her book and robe and a cup of cocoa, in fact, and had got through nearly a whole week's exercises in Frustratingly Complex Numerology And You! before she began to doze off in her armchair. For a moment she thought she was imagining the tapping at the window, but it went on at irregular intervals, and after a couple of minutes Hilary bundled her robe tightly around herself and went to see what the matter was. She had a few friends whose owls had never entirely grasped the idea of delivering mail only when people were already awake, and Otto wasn't always so clear on the concept either.
The windows in the Ravenclaw common room were tall and narrow; Hilary leaned on the windowsill of one, and for all that she had expected an owl, she was not entirely surprised to find Jerry out there instead, quite awake and cheerful as he hovered outside the window on his broomstick. He was, even less surprisingly, motioning for her to unlatch the window.
"Not a chance," said Hilary, making sure to enunciate clearly so that he could read the words on her lips.
Jerry shrugged, apparently unfazed, and withdrew a roll of parchment from the leather school bag slung over his shoulder. It read:
OH BE A GOOD SPORT AND GET OUT HERE
IT'S FRIDAY NIGHT
YOU'RE PROBABLY STUDYING ANYWAY
BECAUSE YOU'RE A BORE
IT'S IN A GOOD CAUSE
WEASLEY HAS ABANDONED ME
HAVE PITY ON A LONELY YOUNG WIZARD
BRING YOUR BROOM
(and stain-proofed clothing)
This last line had been scribbled in at the very bottom edge of the parchment, clearly as an afterthought to what was a semicoherent plea at best. Hilary narrowed her eyes at it, and then at Jerry, who responded with an expression that was unmistakably a pout.
Fifteen minutes later, Hilary had found some old clothes--not stainproof, but she didn't care what happened to them, which came out the same in the end--added the first cloak, muffler and boots she could find, and emerged into the chilly night clutching her broomstick. Jerry was waiting there for her, looking far too self-satisfied. "I knew I could count on you, Thorpe. Unlike some people I could think of."
"It's good to know where I rate on your list of potential accomplices," said Hilary, with no real hurt.
Jerry grinned, unapologetic. "It was a pet project of his and mine, and meant to be a surprise for the rest of the school. But you're a witch who can appreciate fine craftsmanship if anyone can--although good heavens, Hilary, what have you been doing to that thing?"
"What thing?" Hilary glanced down at her broom. "Nothing. I've hardly used it in months."
"Well, there's your problem, then." He reached out to take it from her, and Hilary handed it over in bewilderment, taking Jerry's in exchange as they walked away from the castle. "Poor thing," said Jerry, smoothing his hand along the handle. "It served you perfectly well for quite a respectable season of Quidditch, and you repay it by cramming it into your trunk for six months afterwards. The 'Trimmer may be a bit out of date, but it's a distinguished object all the same. It and you could both use a bit more fresh air, if you ask me." His tone was lighthearted, but the sentiment was undoubtedly genuine, and he was fussing absently with the tail of the broom as he walked, snapping the bent ends off some twigs and straightening others with practiced fingers.
Hilary watched this process with fascination; his dedication to the subject was compelling even at second hand, and made her feel guilty for no real logical reason. "Is that why you've brought me out here? For the health of my broom? Where is Sep, anyway?"
Jerry frowned, either at Hilary's broom or at his absent comrade. "Where would you expect Sep to be sneaking out to, generally, in the middle of the night?"
"With you--or with a Malfoy," Hilary remembered. "Which of them is it tonight?"
"Abraxas," said Jerry, with a weary sigh. "I almost wish Weasley weren't so damned patient with him. Any other wizard would have given up by now and tried to duel that idiot in earnest, and it'd serve him right for constantly challenging someone four years his elder. As it is Sep is just going to let Malfoy disarm him for the hundredth time, and everyone knows tomorrow night he'll be out taking a lovely moonlit walk with the boy's sister just the same as ever. I suppose he and Esme really are fond of each other, but it's such a crashing bore for everyone else."
"Not for Esme, I suppose." Hilary gave him his Comet back, accepting her proffered Moontrimmer in return. The tail didn't look a great deal better to her eye, but she had faith that it had in fact been improved in some way. "From what I know of her, she probably goes on seeing him as much for the fun of seeing her baby brother fume as for Sep's own sake."
"Well, for God's sake don't tell him that. I can believe it well enough, but he won't, so you might as well save your breath." Jerry paused in his tracks. "Here, I think this is about the right spot."
Hilary looked around, but saw not the faintest clue of what they were there for. She had taken for granted they were going to the Quidditch pitch, but in fact they had gone off in a somewhat different direction and stopped atop a hill between the pitch and the lake. The middle of a field, essentially--an empty and very cold field. "The spot for what?"
Jerry grinned; his eyes were shining with either moonlight or anticipation. Hilary trusted him absolutely, and at the same time not a single inch. "Come on up and I'll show you," he said, and had straddled his broom and shot back up into midair before she could ask anything further.
Hilary followed him up without the slightest hesitation; she might be six months out of practice, but she wasn't a poor flyer by any means, and she performed a somersault or two on her way up just for the joy of it. There was no lack of room to do them in; Jerry was waiting for her easily a couple of hundred yards off the ground, well above the highest point of the castle itself. It felt even colder up here, and she removed each hand in turn from the broom handle to warm them over her mouth. "It's a beautiful view," she admitted, and it was; this was higher even than the tree where she'd been trapped in the forest, and the view was clear all the way to Hogsmeade. There was no sign of a far side to the Forbidden Forest, but then again Hilary didn't really believe it had one. "Do you come up here much?"
"Never before," Jerry admitted, rummaging one-handed in his lbag. "We've only ever tested this in the third-floor boys' bathroom--it has that nice high ceiling, but then again you probably haven't seen that."
Hilary shook her head and tugged her muffler tighter around her neck. "Tested what?"
"This." Jerry produced a large glass bottle, tightly stoppered, and edged his broom closer so that he could hand it over to her for examination. It was over a foot high, and looked at first as though it were full of muddy water, but it felt as light in Hilary's hand as though it were empty; when she looked closer, she realised it was a gas and not a liquid, flowing and eddying in ways that bore no relationship to how she tilted the bottle, and sparkling occasionally where the moonlight caught it just so. "It's a two-person job, you see." His hand joined hers, holding the bottle steady. "One to open the bottle and one to do the last bits of spellwork, or it'll all get away before you can drop the bottle and get hold of your wand to take care of it."
"You're not going to let me know what it is, are you?" Hilary shrugged and grinned back at him. "All right, it's your show and I shan't spoil it--what do you need me to do?"
"It's an Atmospheric Charm--more or less. Heavily condensed, somewhat unpredictable." Jerry laughed, a vividly white puff of frost. "I just need you to keep your broom steady hands-free for a few seconds, just long enough to pop the cork out of that bottle and hold it open for me. And then to be properly impressed by the results, of course."
Hilary shifted on her broom for a moment, clenching it tight between her knees, and nodded. "I can manage that," she concluded, and accepted the bottle from him. "Just tell me when."
Jerry watched the transition of the bottle into her hands with evident anxiety; Hilary wondered just how long he and Sep had been working on it. Once it was out of his hands, however, he withdrew his wand from his bag and sat poised astride his broom. "Ready?"
"Ready," said Hilary, and yanked the cork out.
The brown gas burst free, curling and fading upwards into the air around them; Jerry rattled out a long memorised charm with an urgency she rarely associated with him, so fast she could hardly make out any of the words.
At first nothing seemed to happen; the charm fled the bottle and dissipated, melting into the darkness above their heads, leaving only a faint glitter to the air that was too bright to be frost. Beside her Jerry held his breath, wobbling dangerously on the Comet, and Hilary had to extend a hand to remind him to take hold of it again.
"If I've fouled this up," he began anxiously, but then the air began to thicken and sparkle overhead, and Hilary forgot to let go of Jerry's hand. Another few seconds and the first snowflakes were falling: big heavy white ones, very pretty and scenic, except--
Hilary glanced up and then, when snow began falling into her eyes, over at Jerry. There was snow catching and melting in his fair hair, and even by moonlight it was plain to see that the snow wasn't white at all, each flake one of a thousand different colours. Right now they looked dim and iridescent; in the daylight, Hilary guessed, they would be brilliantly colourful. "Jerry," she said, delighted, and edged her broom over close enough to kiss his cheek before dropping his hand. "You and Sep made this? It's beautiful."
"It also stains clothes quite hopelessly," said Jerry with glee. "I shouldn't wear my school uniform outside until this stops, if I were you, but I'm pleased you like it. You wouldn't believe how long it took us to stop it all blurring together into mud-colour when it came out of the bottle, let alone in it."
"Longer than you've been putting into your actual Charms work, I expect," said Hilary, but she was still distracted by the view. She flicked her tongue out cautiously, and found that it tasted just like ordinary snow. "Just how much of it is there?"
"If Sep worked it out right, enough to go on snowing until well into Saturday afternoon and cover from the nearer bits of the Forest down to Hogsmeade." Jerry executed a complicated little twirl on his broom and was laughing again when he came right-side-up; Hilary didn't think she'd ever seen him quite this pleased with himself. "The colour fades as it goes further out. We thought ruining the wardrobes of the entire village was going a bit far, but Hogwarts people ought to know what they're in for by now."
Hilary turned a thoughtful loop-de-loop of her own. "Shall we go and see for ourselves?"
"What, to Hogsmeade? At this hour?" But Jerry was already closing his bag and tucking it behind his back, safely out of his way. "This is because I said your broom was out of date, isn't it?"
"It wasn't, but now that you remind me--" The village was still visible through the snow, a dark blur in the distance; Hilary laughed, tossed him the empty bottle, and shot off towards Hogsmeade as he sprang by reflex to catch it.
Jerry was the more expert flyer, and his broom was admittedly newer and better; but Hilary had a head start, and a size advantage, and no school bag flapping behind her. Jerry caught her up, but not by much, and he was still catching his breath above the Hog's Head when Hilary joined him there. "That wasn't a bit sporting," he complained the moment she was within earshot.
"You still won, didn't you?" Hilary pulled a face at him: a deliberate taunt, but she knew she wasn't likely to outfly him honestly, so she had to get her fun where she could. "I'll race you back to Ravenclaw again, and you can beat me properly this time."
The snow was falling thicker still by the time they reunited back above Ravenclaw Tower; it was growing colder, too, and Hilary kept moving to hug herself and then remembering a moment too late that she needed to keep at least one hand on her broom. It took her a minute to even find Jerry, who, if he had any compunctions about outflying her so handily, certainly hadn't let them slow him down. "Think we'd better go inside?" he called out, cheeks bright pink with cold. "This lot ought to be able to look after itself."
Hilary nodded, looking up and blinking snowflakes out of her eyes. "If it goes on like this we shan't have anywhere to land."
In fact there were a good few inches of snow on the ground already when they landed. "We may have been a bit generous," said Jerry as they stood in the Great Hall, removing their soaked overclothes. "What do you think--any chance I've done us out of Herbology lessons for the week?"
"No such luck with Beery, I suspect," said Hilary, stomping snow off her boots. Her cloak was, as he had predicted, utterly ruined by coloured stains; she was careful to bundle it up inside-out, so that at least it wouldn't get the colour on anything else. The ceiling, on the other hand, looked very lovely indeed; she had always liked it best in here when it was snowing. "I'm for cocoa upstairs, I think. Care for some?"
Jerry shrugged. "Much as I appreciate the invitation, the kitchens are right downstairs. We might as well go there instead."
"Oh, let the poor house-elves sleep. I'd just made some when you came to get me--I can easily make two more cups." Hilary grinned. "And anyway, the kitchens haven't got any rum to put in it, but Layton has at the bottom of her trunk, and I happen to know that she sleeps like a log."
"You're a miracle," said Jerry solemnly, folding his own cloak neatly over his arm and following her out the other end of the Great Hall. "A true genius. The Ministry ought to invent a new O.W.L. to measure people against you, but then they'd likely all fail. Ds and Ts all round."
"Quiet," said Hilary, giggling and trying not to be genuinely flattered, but then she turned to look at him and began laughing all over again. "Jerry--oh no, Jerry, your hair."
"What about it?" Jerry looked around frantically for something reflective; the nearest option proved to be a suit of armor in a corner, and he stared at his blurred reflection in dismay. "You might have told me."
"It would have been too late to do you any good--and anyway, I wasn't to know it would stain that too." Hilary, who had worn her muffler pulled up over her head, and whose hair was a deep enough colour that the staining wasn't likely to show very well anyway, tugged at his arm. "Come on up already and stop making those anguished faces at yourself. I'll see if I can think up a way to fix it by morning."
But Jerry was still anguished fifteen minutes later, when they were curled up on a sofa in front of the Ravenclaw fireplace and Hilary was dosing two mugs of cocoa with a healthy splash of rum each. Along with the rum, Layton's trunk had provided a small (and evidently never-opened) booklet of charms for doing up one's hair and face, and Hilary was thumbing hopefully through it. "I could bleach it," she said thoughtfully, "but I don't think you'd want that."
"Of course I do." Jerry reached for the book. "Why shouldn't I?"
Hilary handed him his cocoa, but kept the book. "Because magically bleached hair always looks it. It's meant to, because it's fashionable or something--you know, that really pale colour the Malfoys both have but more fake-looking, and even I know that'd look all wrong on you. I think there are potions and things for better colour, but I haven't a clue how to make those." She took a long sip of her cocoa and sighed, sinking back against the arm of the sofa. "I thought you knew how to colour hair. Didn't you put something in the punch at that party?"
"It takes three days to brew," said Jerry, slumped glumly opposite her. He kept tugging locks of his own hair down in front of his eyes, as if in hope that the colourful stains had vanished of their own accord. "And it's not terribly precise, either--we were aiming to make people's hair look bad. Just go on and bleach it, Hilary, please."
"I really think you'd be better off not." Hilary shrugged. "If I bleach it, everyone's going to want to know why it's gone all the wrong shade of blond since you went to bed last night. But half the school is going to have hair like that the moment they step outside tomorrow. If we leave it, all you'll have to do is stop anyone noticing until you've been out in the snow."
"You make it sound so simple." He still looked doubtful, but he lifted her mug to her before drinking, and Hilary chose to take that as acquiescence. "Mmmph--where does Layton get this? I could do with more of it."
"She has an obliging older brother, I think." Hilary set the booklet aside with a touch of relief; she wasn't particularly comfortable with cosmetic spells apart from having tried curling her hair once or twice, and tended to avoid the subject in conversation with other girls, but she wasn't sure why it should matter whether Jerry knew she wasn't much good at them. Boys expected a certain degree of it, she thought, but Jerry didn't count, not exactly, and she hadn't any idea what Louis might expect.
Oh, Merlin, Louis.
"Hogsmeade next week," she observed, as though she had just remembered. Which, indeed, she had. It seemed terrifyingly close.
"Well, of course it is," said Jerry lazily. "I'd hardly have snowed in the castle on a Hogsmeade weekend."
Hilary laughed. "Renard's never been," she said, tucking her feet more tightly beneath her and trying her very hardest to sound casual. "I've promised to show him round if he buys me a drink at the Three Broomsticks afterwards."
"Have you, now?" Jerry cocked his head, suddenly alert again and very interested in her. "Getting a little cosy with the opposition, aren't you?"
"I like him," said Hilary, resorting to simple honesty.
It wasn't the entire truth, of course, and she chewed on that for a long quiet moment. She wanted, on principle, to tell him the real reason Louis was taking her out, and there was no real reason not to--and yet she couldn't bring herself to. The entire truth wouldn't only have been that she had offered herself up to Louis and that she wasn't a bit sorry for it, even though she suspected Louis was; it was, worse, that whatever attraction had brought it about had dulled and settled into a vague warm affection, while even now she was just a little too conscious of Jerry as a living body sitting near her. Physical affection between them hadn't quite been the same since that night, had gone from a friendly thing to something with just an edge of uncomfortable potential, and she badly regretted that.
But it was only natural to be a little confused, under the circumstances; even Hilary understood that. Whatever parts of her mind were lagging behind would catch up soon enough, and then things would be much simpler. If things went well with Louis--yes, then she would definitely tell Jerry all about it, and he'd probably find the whole mess entertaining and leave it at that. It was bewildering, that was all, that what she had done with Louis had been so much more egregious, and yet it was a brief and relatively innocent interlude with Jerry that had made the greater impression.
"I think it'll be good for you," he was saying, meanwhile, and Hilary blinked at him, momentarily lost.
"That isn't why I'm doing it," she reminded him.
"Of course not," Jerry agreed. "But I suppose you'd have to learn somehow or other how to get boys without hurling yourself bodily at them--not that I objected, of course, but there are other lesser-quality members of my sex who might not have the sense to enjoy it."
Hilary narrowed her eyes. After all her anxiety over bringing the subject up with him, she felt almost disappointed that he seemed to be taking it with such ease. She wondered, for the first time in a good while, what it might take to genuinely rattle him. "All right, I promise not to take any flying leaps at him. Will that do, or have you any other wisdom to impart?"
"Oh, I'm not worried about you." Jerry smiled at her, warm and full of friendly support, and all right, fine, Hilary wasn't above wishing for just a moment of jealousy out of him. "But I've already thought up seven things to do to him if it goes wrong in any way. Just say the word."
Hilary hadn't had a chance to see Jerry since they had parted ways to get ready for the ball. He was bringing some girl from his own House whom Hilary had never met-- Gillian, she thought the girl's name was-- and had doubtless been occupied with her. And then, once there, she and Louis were whisked off to the top table so quickly that she hardly had time to seek him out. She thought she spotted him during the first course, but his head was bent over his soup bowl, and she could only glimpse sleek blond hair before Dippet asked Louis a question and Hilary-- being seated between them-- was forced to actually pay attention to the conversation around her.
She couldn't help but tense up slightly, remembering her previous nerves, when it came time for Louis to lead her out onto the dance floor. At least, Hilary consoled herself, she couldn't possibly be a worse dancer than Katerina, who had a terrified-looking Slytherin boy in tow. "I'm afraid I'm not a terribly good dancer," she murmured to Louis apologetically. "Better if I warn you, I suppose."
"Please don't worry." He squeezed her hand and smiled. "I will look after you."
If it had been Jerry, or a less formal occasion, or even a less visible formal occasion, Hilary would have had something less than pleased to say about the thought of being looked after; as it was, she choked down the brief surge of annoyance and nodded. "I'd rather just get this over with."
"As you like." He set a hand on her waist, and Hilary remembered to put hers on his shoulder just in time before they swung into motion.
The waltz was straightforward enough, at least, and she took great care with her steps until she found the rhythm of it-- at least until the dance seemed to be drawing to a close, when the blond boy she'd glimpsed before suddenly caught her eye. It was Jerry, and he winked broadly at her over Louis's shoulder and grinned. Hilary laughed, startling herself, and stumbled over her own feet.
"Careful," said Louis patiently, and helped her back into the rhythm of it. She noted, with momentary irritation, that Katerina was in fact quite unexpectedly light on her feet.
It was fully half an hour until Hilary was able to get away from him for any length of time. She felt vaguely guilty; Louis was the perfect partner, patient and attentive and undeniably handsome, but she did want the chance to see Jerry all dressed up.
She found him at the drinks table, considering the selection, and touched his shoulder; Jerry turned to her and beamed immediately. "Hilary, old thing! Holding up all right?" His dress robes were quite immaculate, and a black tie, and the flower pinned to his chest had been charmed to shimmer red and gold. Despite the robes and the charmed flower, he looked uncannily like Muggle photographs Hilary had seen of him at similar events, and the memory pained her for reasons she couldn't quite seem to define.
Shoving those particular thoughts away, Hilary tapped the blossom meaningfully. "You do realize this is a ball, don't you? Not a Quidditch match?"
"You're only jealous you didn't think of it first." He plucked the flower from his robe and considered it. "Besides, you haven't answered my question."
"Don't tell me you're worried." Hilary blinked at him. "And I'm fine; Louis has been very sweet. It's more your sort of game than mine, that's all."
"Anything I could do to improve it?" Jerry let his wand slip down out of the sleeve of his robe and tapped the flower with it, almost absentmindedly. It turned white, for a moment, and then began instead to shimmer blue and bronze. "This, for instance."
"What, make me look absurd instead of you? Thanks very much." Hilary accepted it from him, though, and touched it to her hair, where she was pleased to find that it clung neatly behind her ear.
"You're quite welcome." Jerry bowed slightly, deliberately ignoring the sarcasm, and extended a hand to her. "Care to dance, Miss Thorpe?"
Hilary glanced back towards Louis-- who was chatting happily with some other Beauxbatons students and did not look back-- and eyed the offered hand, and then the rest of Jerry, warily. It wasn't really him that concerned her; the music was much livelier now than it had been when the ball began. "Oh, all right," she said at last, not really very reluctantly. "Just promise you won't show me up too badly."
"How many times must I tell you you worry too much?" His grip on her hand, as he hauled her back onto the dance floor, was too firm to allow any escape. "Just follow my lead."
"Of all the things I'm not good at," Hilary grumbled, far more intent on his feet than on the music. As she'd feared, after two or three steps she stumbled and clutched at his robes. "See? I haven't a clue what I'm doing."
"And it hasn't killed you yet, has it?" Jerry caught her hands and helped her back into motion again. "I thought you'd brought a girl," she said absently. "Where is she?"
"Well." Jerry let out a sigh so deep and tragic that Hilary couldn't help but laugh. "I did try to do a good turn for a girl who had just had her heart broken, but the culprit made an appearance earlier this evening and seems to have unbroken it. So I suppose it's a good thing I've got you to be charitable towards instead."
It occurred to Hilary that, for the next song or two, she wouldn't have to work at being the elegant ladylike heiress, or even just a good date; there was no point, when Jerry already knew better. It was a marvelously soothing thought. "All right," she said, and took a deep breath. "Show me again?"
The Hogwarts Express made an extra trip the morning after the Yule Ball, for those students who had stayed to attend the ball but still wanted to spend the rest of the winter holidays with their families. Most people had taken advantage, including Sep Weasley, who had offered to bring Jerry along to the Burrow; Jerry had found some way to decline politely. What he had said Hilary didn't know, but the two of them needed Sep out of their way for a few days--they had combined their wits and pocket money to buy him a handsome but rather bulky wizarding chess set which hadn't arrived until the day before Christmas, and Hilary had been keeping it hidden at the bottom of her trunk until she and Jerry could find the opportunity to wrap it up and present it to him properly.
They had arranged to meet in the Gryffindor common room at noon on Boxing Day, which was as sure a way as Hilary knew to ensure that Jerry would still be in bed fast asleep at eleven forty-five. She was unusually cautious in making her way there from her own House, afraid of drawing notice for her slightly unorthodox manner of dress that morning and for the bulky parcel she carried, but most likely what few students remained in the castle had already gone to lunch. She encountered only the Grey Lady, who paused to glance over Hilary and chess set with equal efficiency.
"Er, good morning," said Hilary, wondering whether she was more conspicuous for going about in her uniform robe over the holiday or for the lack of collar and tie at her throat.
If the Grey Lady guessed at Hilary's mission, or had passed any judgment on it, she gave no sign, but then again Hilary had known her long enough not to expect one. She gave Hilary a warm smile--the warmest a ghost could give, at least--and drifted on down the corridor, disappearing quite suddenly through a wall into Professor Merrythought's office.
"Jobberknoll!" she said brightly to the Fat Lady, who appeared to be indulging in a little leftover cheer.
"And the same to you, dear," giggled the Fat Lady, who was perfectly accustomed to seeing Hilary come and go. She let out a loud hiccup as Hilary climbed through the hole into the Gryffindor common room.
The common room, too, was deserted; she had spent the Christmas and Easter holidays at Hogwarts last year too, but she could never seem to get used to seeing the castle so empty. Up the stairs to the boys' dormitories--this was less familiar territory, and the narrow twisting stairs were difficult to navigate with the chess set still in its box, but after a few precarious flights Hilary located the door that said Seventh Years and slipped inside.
Four beds were empty in here, but Jerry was folded into the fifth, fast asleep just as predicted. (Hilary checked her watch--eleven forty-three.) He was snoring, she noted with delight, as she set the chess set on the floor and perched on the edge of his bed. "Wimsey," she said sharply. "Make an effort, would you?"
"'mcoming," said Jerry into his pillow, "lay off, would you--Hilary?" and bolted upright. He was shirtless; Hilary flushed but met his eyes. "What are you trying to pull? Surely I haven't slept that late."
"It's quarter to twelve," said Hilary placidly. "I thought I'd come up and visit, that's all. I was curious about what the Gryffindor bedrooms look like, and one can't usually come up here without people making--well, remarks."
"Fair enough, I suppose." Jerry still looked off-balance, though; he ran his fingers through his hair, looking uncomfortably around the room, and made a half-hearted attempt to tug the sheet further up and cover his chest, at which Hilary couldn't help but laugh.
"I can't believe you've got curtains," she said, trying desperately to distract herself from her own nerves. "We've only got brass headboards--very pretty, I suppose, but with knobs in all the right places for one to hit one's head on every morning."
"Well, it doesn't seem to have done you much damage in the long term." Jerry gave up on the sheet and settled back against his pillows. "Look, I know perfectly well you don't give a damn about headboards. What are you doing up here? And in your school robes, no less?"
Hilary bit her lip. "I've had a sort of--well, Louis and I aren't going to go on seeing each other. Not after last night."
Jerry's eyebrows shot up. "And what happened last night? Something terribly scandalous, I hope?"
"Not at all, I'm afraid," confessed Hilary. "That was the problem--there just wasn't anything in it. He's very nice and all, but the Daily Prophet was getting more out of it than we were."
"Anything to spite the Prophet," agreed Jerry, a bit distractedly. "Are you really all right? Surely it can't be so simple as you're making out."
"It more or less is. Honestly." Hilary shrugged, but she had detected the inroad she needed, and she gathered all her courage and plunged ahead. "Although you could do me a kind of favour."
"Anything," said Jerry instantly. "If it'll help cheer you up."
"I don't need cheering up," Hilary insisted, though she rather did, if only a bit. "I just wanted to--" talk wasn't really an accurate word for it. Not at all accurate, in fact. "You kissed me," she blurted, "last month. And then you ran away."
"I didn't run away," Jerry protested immediately; then he realised what was being discussed, and stared at her. "I just thought I'd pushed things a bit too far."
"You might have asked what I thought, first." Hilary thought about trying a seductive smile or something at this point, but she really wasn't sure how one went about that, so she reached up without further preface to undo the top few buttons of her robes. She had meant just to let the fabric slip down over her shoulders, enough to make the suggestion clear; but instead it caught only momentarily at her chest, found too little there to support it, and crumpled down around her waist.
Jerry produced a choked, wordless noise. His gaze slid blatantly down her body; then he jerked back up to meet her eyes again, looking faintly guilty.
Hilary managed a laugh, hoping it wasn't too shaky. She was certain she was blushing madly, and didn't dare look down at herself to see how far the colour spread--but something in her gut clenched quite sweetly in response to his speechless fascination. "It was rather more subtle when the woman in the photograph did it," she offered, by way of explanation.
Words seemed to be beyond Jerry just now--a state in which she had never before seen him--but he reached over to her, tracing a maddeningly light finger up Hilary's side, and she gasped when his hand brushed the side of her breast. "You mean this." He still sounded strangled. "Hilary, you really want to?"
When his hand withdrew she followed it without letting herself think--slid right over to sit across Jerry's lap and tilt her head in next to his. "I want to." Hilary's heart was hammering with anxiety, but she was unbearably aware of his body pressed up against hers, of how much of him was already available to her touch. "I want to know all about it--and I can't imagine anyone would be better to me than you would."
"Flattery will get you everywhere." He grinned, so sudden and bright that Hilary forgot her embarassment entirely for a moment, and leaned back against the pillows; his hand, when it settled at her bare waist, was shockingly warm.
Hilary fit herself against his side and kissed him, giddy with anticipation. Oh, she did want to, very much indeed. "I always knew you were fast."
“Oh!” she said, a while later, squirming and clutching at him. “That’s so good—Jerry, it’s too much, wait--”
Hilary was sorry for saying it almost immediately—both because he stopped what he’d been doing with his hand, and because he looked so suddenly stricken. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Hilary slumped back against the pillow, finding herself unable to focus very well on unimportant things like talking. “I got overwhelmed, that’s all; it wasn’t nearly as good as that, last time.”
Jerry shifted away to lie down next to her, propped up on his elbows. “Last time?”
Hilary groaned and threw an arm over her eyes, already sorry she'd plunged ahead and mentioned it. “It was all terribly embarrassing. I didn’t want to tell you about it.”
“Some friend you are.” Jerry pried her arm up again to squint down at her. “Keeping back a bit of news like that. Do you know how much I’ve been worrying about hurting you?”
“I’m sorry.” Hilary reached up to touch his jaw, and he leaned down to kiss her briefly; perhaps all wasn’t lost, after all.
“I just want to know what happened.” He was staring at her, looking more fascinated than hurt.
Hilary rolled onto her side, pillowing her head on her elbow to avoid meeting his eyes. “It was after the first task. After you kissed me,” she went on hastily, before he could raise that particular point. “It was that, and I was all wound up from the tournament still, and Merlin knows what would’ve happened if you hadn’t decided to play at being a good boy all of a sudden. Detention? Really?”
Jerry nosed idly at her shoulder. “So this is my fault, is it?”
“What isn’t?” said Hilary dully. “As it happened, you weren’t there, and Louis was, and we got to talking and—well. He was very nice about it, I suppose, but it wasn’t anything like this has been, and then we felt obliged to do all the dinner-and-flowers thing afterwards when neither of us really wanted to. I just wanted to do it over again, properly--but I’ll understand, you know, if you’d rather not carry on.”
“Rather not,” repeated Jerry with clear scorn, and ducked his head to look her in the eyes. “Hilary, I think—while we’re confessing things—I’d better tell you something.”
Hilary laughed with relief. “Jerry, I know something about what you’re like with girls. You needn’t confess that.”
“No, you see—“ He flushed. “It’s perfectly natural, you know, for a young man, well, to boast to his friends about his experiences with women—and to embroider, just a little, where embroidery seems called for. It’s just that it doesn’t often come about that one’s actual level of experience should become particularly relevant to the friends in question.”
Hilary gazed blankly at him for several seconds, trying to coax her desire-muddled brain to the end of this rather extraordinary ellipsis. “You’ve never done this before?”
Jerry fidgeted. “Not—entirely, no. Which is not to say I don’t have a good idea of how it’s meant to work. In theory. And it isn't as if I've never touched a girl before, I've just never gone to bed with someone like this before. Not properly.”
Hilary hesitated, somewhat thrown by having suddenly become the expert in this situation. “Reach over and fetch my wand, will you?”
Jerry leaned away obligingly to part the curtains and rummage on the floor by the side of the bed, and reappeared with her wand after a few moments. “Whatever for?”
“So I can hex you into oblivion for lying to me; what do you think?” Hilary touched the tip of the wand to her stomach. “Noli concipio,” she murmured, and gasped in surprise at the chill that spread briefly through her belly.
Jerry spread a hand low on her stomach, and Hilary pressed up against it, happy beyond all reason to have him touching her again. “Was that what I think it was?” He was still rather pink, but for once Hilary elected to say nothing about it; she thought she had had quite enough, for now, both of teasing and of being teased.
She reached over for him, and Jerry came back into her arms without another word of complaint. Hilary smoothed her hands down his back and grinned. “You wouldn’t keep a friend waiting, would you?”
The bed was rather narrow, and didn't allow much room for separation afterwards; Hilary and Jerry lay on their sides, unsure whether to stare at each other or avoid eye contact at all costs. "Thank you," said Hilary, and immediately hid her face in the pillow; she was fairly sure that was not the right response, but after all she had asked him for a favour.
Jerry laughed; his knee bumped up to rest against her leg, and stayed there. Surely it was an accident, and yet Hilary couldn't seem to concentrate on anything but that one small point of contact. "I take it I provided what you wanted, then."
"It was very nice," said Hilary, though that didn't feel like the right word for it at all. "And quite a lot of fun. I don't suppose," she added, in an impulsive rush, "you'd care to try it again sometime? Just for the fun of it?"
"All for the sake of your education. I understand." Jerry attempted a nonchalant shrug; the effect wasn't very convincing, not with the intently speculative way he was looking at her. "Well, we might as well. I haven't anything else to do until dinnertime."
"Jerry--I meant it, thank you." Hilary squirmed, unaccustomed to being utterly unable to put her feelings into words, and shifted closer to him. There wasn't much closer to get, really. "For all of this." What she really wanted to say, she supposed, was that she felt damned lucky to have a friend who would help with this kind of thing, but that was a little too sentimental to be comfortable.
Jerry looked like he couldn't believe his own luck either, but that wasn't stopping his arm from creeping around her waist. Taking the hint, Hilary leaned over and kissed below his ear, and giggled at the way it made him shiver. "Well, " he admitted, "it isn't any great hardship on my part."
"So as best as I understand it," Hilary said, sitting down on the edge of the bed and untying her shoes, "you're giving me yourself for my birthday."
"I got you a proper present too," Jerry protested; he had already removed his own shoes and was currently disentangling himself from his school jumper. "And anyway, I sometimes suspect you devote far more thought to my supposedly enormous ego than I do."
"Someone's got to keep the thing in check. But since you've made all these arrangements, we may as well put them to use." Hilary let herself fall backwards onto the bed, grinning over at him, and rolled over to tuck her wand under the pillow for use in the hopefully not-too-distant future.
Jerry had sworn up and down that he hadn't a clue how he had found this room; it was small and cozy, furnished with a large comfortable bed and a fireplace and not much else, and Hilary couldn't imagine what it was doing in the castle barring some kind of magical accident. As a trysting-place, however, it showed signs of being an enormous improvement over the deserted classrooms they'd used half a dozen times since their first attempt on Boxing Day, and Hilary hoped it intended to stay in existence.
Before her hand was even out from under the pillow Jerry lay down behind her, kissing her neck, and Hilary rolled onto her back and wriggled happily. "It's lovely," she said more softly. "It really is. Thank you."
"Terribly generous of you to say so, your Highness." He leaned over to kiss her; Hilary decided it wasn't worth breaking away again to retort, and instead tugged his shirt free of his trousers so that she could slide her hands over the smooth warmth of his bare waist. Jerry hummed, slinging his leg over hers. "Shh," he murmured, "no need to rush."
"I want to touch you," said Hilary petulantly, though the eagerness with which he was trying to push her gymslip down off her shoulders spoke for itself. "I hope you don't mind," and gave in to a spiteful urge to tickle him instead.
Jerry laughed, was indignant a moment later, and gave her uniform a violent tug that was nonetheless utterly fruitless. The brief grapple that ensued was more or less sincere, but also enjoyable for several more reasons than the usual, and resulted in most of Jerry's clothing being removed and most of Hilary's bunching up around her waist in a thoroughly undignified manner. Ultimately he got on top of her and his hands got inside her brassiere, and Hilary whimpered pathetically and decided to let herself be pinned. Just this once. "You see," he declared triumphantly, settling down full-length atop her and nuzzling her jaw, "you see how nice it is to stop complaining and let someone do you a good turn once in a while?"
"Maybe." It wasn't a clever response at all, but it was difficult to be clever when Jerry was kissing her throat and his thumbs were stroking the undersides of her breasts. Hilary shrugged her straps and her open blouse down off her shoulders and settled for the much more immediate--and more effective--strategy of arching her hips up against his.
"Oh, God." Jerry choked and froze above her for a few seconds, cheeks flushing, and she really hadn't anticipated how much she would enjoy seeing that. He dropped heavily back down and kissed her, with much less finesse this time, and Hilary wrapped herself bodily around him and groaned encouragingly. "Tell me what you want," he said, strangled, though he was already ducking back down to take one of her nipples into his mouth. "Anything. It is your birthday."
"That," said Hilary delightedly, digging one heel into the bedspread and clutching at his arms. "I want you to never, ever stop doing that, that's really quite good, oh Jerry--what are you doing?"
Jerry glanced up at her, not looking the least bit sheepish. "I only wondered whether I could get your entire breast into my mouth."
Hilary stared dazedly at him. "I did say not to stop," she pointed out, after a long moment, and let out a startled moan as he started in on her other breast. She was already aching for more, and when his hand slid up her thigh a little time later she was more than happy to open her legs in response. "Jerry," she said suddenly; it was the first proper word she'd produced in a few minutes, and she hadn't expected to sound quite so hoarse. "There is something I'd like to try."
He paused midway through the process of removing her knickers and wet his lips. "Fire away. No reasonable offer declined."
Hilary thought about his tongue, and then quite abruptly stopped thinking entirely; what she had thought was a simple request only a moment ago now seemed beyond words. "Your mouth," she finally managed, flushed right through with a hot uncomfortable mixture of embarrassment and desire. "I've heard girls--women--I've heard it's really good, if you use your mouth on me, though I'm not entirely sure how it works."
Jerry swallowed visibly, twice. "I haven't the faintest idea how it's done either," he admitted, and went on hastily, "but I'd love to give it a go, all the same. I'm sure between us we can work it out," he concluded, and sat back on his heels to finish removing her knickers. Hilary shifted her hips, partly to be helpful and partly because she was desperate to do something, and pulled her skirt up to her waist to bare herself entirely; but then Jerry only lay down between her legs and stared.
All in a rush, Hilary found herself suddenly profoundly glad that they weren't actual lovers. If they had been, she imagined this would have been an important and serious act, momentous and fraught with significant emotion and so on. But Jerry was her friend and this was fun, and even if she was still wearing everything but her knickers and shoes, and being examined so closely at such length felt equal parts embarrassing and silly and utterly obscene, she found she didn't mind feeling silly with him. It was much nicer, really, than the dramatic romantic things people got up to in books.
It wasn't nearly as nice as him actually doing anything, however, so after a minute or so she propped herself up on her elbows to meet his eyes. "Are you all right down there?"
"You're terribly complicated-looking from this angle," said Jerry uncertainly. "Although--did you know you've got freckles? Just here." His fingers found places maddeningly far up on her thighs.
"Look," said Hilary, though she couldn't seem to breathe right. "If you honestly don't want to, just say," but instead Jerry kissed her, just a light press of lips on the edge of where she was dying to be touched, and she squeaked and grabbed at the bedspread.
He lifted his head to check on her, but there was a terribly promising glint in his eye. "Shall I go on?"
Hilary nodded frantically. "Yes, you damn well shall."
She had to give him credit, he took his time figuring it out. It felt like ages, though very pleasant ages, that he spent nuzzling her open and exploring, testing out places to lick and suck at her while Hilary squirmed and giggled and bit her lip. At one point she missed having her hands on him, badly enough that she reached down to stroke his hair and down his cheek, and Jerry turned his head to suck at her fingertips, and even that sent a jolt of heat through her. It was so unhurried and affectionate that the purely physical pleasure snuck up on her; one moment she was watching him between her legs, utterly fascinated, and the next she realized that she was rocking her hips up into his mouth, that she was clinging to the bedspread again, that when he licked over certain places little helpless cries were breaking out of her.
And then at some point he paused, hesitated just long enough to be frustrating, and pushed his tongue right up inside her, and Hilary let out such a shriek that she shoved her hand into her mouth to muffle herself.
Jerry sat up, eyes huge and mouth wet, and shifted up to remove her hand and kiss her; it took a minute for Hilary to realize the odd taste in his mouth was herself, and only another second to stop minding. "Don't," he gasped, clutching her hand and pinning it by her head. "It's your birthday, make as much noise as you like."
Hilary laughed into his mouth, hooking her leg around one of his. His free hand was between her legs, fingers wandering and teasing but never slipping into her no matter how she tried to move her hips. "Please." She was throbbing, right through her whole body, past thinking about much of anything besides the need to get some part of him inside her. "I hate you, please, please."
"You should see yourself," said Jerry, staring down at her. "Oh, Merlin, you are--well, you're certainly something."
She shoved pointedly at his shoulders, and he went back down where he belonged.
There was no need for exploration by now. His fingers slid into her, and his tongue slid over her, and then again, and again, and Hilary moaned and fell back flat against the bed. The oncoming tide of pleasure was steady and relentless, though Jerry was making eager noises of his own by now, muffled between her legs. "More," she pleaded, "oh, oh," digging one heel into his shoulder, and he obligingly worked faster, until at long last she went tumbling over the edge with a sob of relief.
"Good?" inquired Jerry, collapsing on his stomach next to her.
Hilary stared blankly down herself, and then over at him. "Think we could do with a bit more practice at it," she said lazily, "don't you?" and was giggling helplessly before Jerry even had a chance to take her seriously.
"Just for that--" He rolled over onto his side, pressing up meaningfully against her hip. "I think I might just go back to the dormitory now."
"I'd like to see you try." Hilary twisted to face him, sinking her hips against his for a moment, and gasped. "Oh," she said faintly. "You did enjoy that."
"Rather more than expected," agreed Jerry, face buried in her neck. "Can we still--"
""Yes," she said hastily, feeling a fresh thrill already running through her. "Absolutely, just give me a minute. I need to concentrate to get this right."
"And I need to get my trousers off." He groaned, though, and shoved against her once or twice more before sitting up.
Hilary took a few long deep breaths, trying to steady herself, before kneeling up and reaching to retrieve her wand from under the pillow so that she could do what needed to be done. It took two tries, but she breathed a sigh of relief when she felt the familiar cold burst in her gut. "I've still got my socks on," she observed, distracted and still inexplicably a bit embarrassed by the sight of Jerry naked, and reached down to pull her gymslip over her head and toss it somewhere onto the floor.
The moment this was accomplished, Jerry shifted right back over to kneel at her side and hug her; Hilary laughed, startled by the casual affection, and leaned into him as she kicked her socks away. "Your hair looks a complete fright," he confided, quite earnestly.
"Have you any idea how lucky you are that I like you?" Hilary turned her head to press a sloppy kiss to the side of his neck, and then another, and relished the way he squirmed, fumbling in the process of helping free her entirely from her blouse and brassiere. She had to admit she loved doing this; loved getting to see him flustered for once, embarrassed and needy just like every other boy in the world.
One of his hands had wandered up to cover her breast and the other was straying back down between her legs, and that didn't exactly hurt either.
"I wonder," Hilary murmured, and turned to throw a leg over him, straddling his lap. He was terrifically hard, and when she settled into place he pressed right against her where she was most sensitive, making her duck her head and gasp at the pressure.
"I take back everything I said about your hair," said Jerry, voice gone ragged; Hilary draped her arms over his shoulders and he gave her a long thorough kiss, playing with her chest and rocking up against her until she was whimpering all over again. "And you're brilliant, and you're killing me, Hilary, please."
It took an effort even to break that much contact, but she knelt up so that together they could guide him inside her. Positioned like this, it was easier than usual for Hilary to look down and watch as he pushed inside; coupled with the too-full feeling to which she still hadn't quite accustomed herself, the process became something astonishing all on its own. Once she'd settled down onto him, though, she was too occupied with blind want to think much more about it.
They were getting better, at least, at finding a rhythm together, and this time it was quick and shallow and thoroughly unromantic. Even if Hilary had still cared to muffle herself, she was digging her fingers too deeply into Jerry's shoulders to do so, and he in turn was gripping her hips near-painfully, guiding her as she pushed blindly against him. "Come on," he was panting in response to her frantic moans, mouth pressing hotly against her shoulders and neck; and then he ducked his head and sucked at her nipple again and Hilary choked and shuddered as another climax slammed through her, taking her by surprise. "Oh thank God," he gasped, and thrust up a few times more before spilling into her.
Hilary slumped against him, still shivering, and Jerry toppled backwards against the bed and took her with him. They sprawled there together for a little while before she finally mustered the inclination to stir--and then only to locate the head of the bed so she could pull the bedspread back. "I need a nap," she announced, already tangling herself up in the blankets. "And I'm not going back to Ravenclaw Tower in this state."
It hadn't precisely been an invitation, but she didn't really mind either when Jerry joined her under the covers, his arm loose around her waist. "It must be past curfew by now," he observed. "The damage is probably already done."
"And you're hoping to do it again, I suppose." Hilary laughed at his guilty expression and reached over to push his damp hair out of his face. "You heard me," she murmured, letting her foot slide against his calf. "I want a nap. But it might do you good to hang about and see what happens after that."
She hadn't anticipated, when she'd first suggested this, how much she would relish touching him just for the sake of touching; it was meant to be an educational arrangement, but no matter how far they went it always seemed somehow to be a completely natural extension of the friendship they'd always had. Which was why Hilary finally caved and wriggled closer into Jerry's arms, hooking one leg sleepily around one of his. "Mmmph," he said drowsily. "Good birthday?"
"Excellent," said Hilary, and closed her eyes. It felt terribly grown-up and decadent, finishing off her seventeenth birthday this way with this young man; nothing romantic, she decided, could ever possibly have been as good as this.
"But what do I do with it?" Hilary asked, turning the bottle over in her hands. It appeared to be full of perfectly ordinary, nonmagical ink--which, under the circumstances, made it perhaps not so very ordinary. She had expected something far more interesting at the end of the trail, that was all, and felt almost disappointed.
"Well, I shouldn't go writing your Arithmancy homework with it just yet." Wimsey shrugged, cheerfully unhelpful. "You'll be wanting it in June, though if you care to know what for you'll have to work it out for yourself."
"I was afraid you might say that," said Hilary ruefully. "Can't I at least open it? Just to test a few drops." It wouldn't be safe, she suspected, to treat a suggestion like that as genuinely optional.
"A few drops at most," Wimsey agreed.
He seemed about to say more, but Professor Vane came up behind him and touched his arm; Hilary thought, a bit anxiously, that she looked rather pale. "Peter," she said quietly. "Could I speak to you a moment?"
Something about being greeted thus seemed to startle Wimsey, Hilary noted with interest--she hadn't thought of him as a man easily startled. This didn't look like a conversation that was meant to include her, Louis, or Katerina, and it was obviously extremely urgent, so she looked around uncertainly at the other two, who seemed equally lost.
"Go on," said Wimsey inattentively, and glanced at them. "I expect you've all got friends you'd like to be with, and for the moment I'm perfectly willing to pretend it's only butterbeer they've got waiting for you."
Louis laughed, but Hilary glanced at Professor Vane again; behind the apprehension there she recognized, from six years' experience, the expression that said Go ahead and try it, children, but I won't be responsible for the consequences. Somehow she didn’t think that expression had to do with anyone’s drinking habits. "All right," she said, and stepped back with the other two Champions. The entire Great Hall felt that something was off; people were murmuring, and Hilary suddenly wanted to stop being the focus of attention as quickly as she could.
"Armando sent me to--" she heard Professor Vane saying into Wimsey's ear, but the rest was too low to hear. Hilary clenched the ink bottle in her fist and went back to sit with her own House, offering Jerry a quick rueful smile as she passed the Gryffindor table. He shrugged back, apparently unconcerned, but Hilary still felt just a little too conspicuous to stop and talk to him, especially with Louis at her heels.
"Well done," said Amy quietly, when Hilary dropped into a seat beside her. "At least, I thought so."
"Thanks," said Hilary, tucking the bottle safely into her pocket.
By this time Dippet had joined Vane and Wimsey in conference, all of them looking serious; Hilary thought she saw Wimsey place his hand on Vane's arm, but it didn't stay there long. At last Dippet cleared his throat and turned to address the hall. "My apologies, but it seems we won't be feasting tonight after all. Please return to your Houses, all of you--there will be food there, and your Heads of House will be there shortly to talk to you."
Hilary snorted as she scrambled to her feet. "A lot of use that is--no feast, and he won't even tell us anything."
"Perhaps someone cheated at the task," suggested Winnie, slipping through the crowd to Hilary's side. Judging by her expression, this was just about the worst situation she could imagine.
"Well, if someone did, it wasn't me," Hilary assured her. "But I don't think that's it."
Professor Merrythought had the sort of voice Hilary had always envied--quiet and polite, and yet instantly commanding attention. Tonight it was shaking a little, though, and she looked grim as she shut the common room door behind her.
"I'm afraid I have some terrible news for you," she went on, once most of the room’s attention was on her. "Professor Fedorov is dead."
The whole room went still.
"What happened?" said Flitwick suddenly; his high voice seemed even shriller and more ridiculous than usual.
Merrythought wet her lips. "A dreadful accident, I’m afraid. There’s no danger to any of the students, I’m sure, but the Ministry is sending an Auror just to be certain.”
“Why is it,” murmured Amy to Hilary, “that when she says she’s sure it makes me think she’s nothing of the kind?”
Hilary snorted, but her heart wasn’t in it; she was thinking of Vane’s expression when she’d come up to the High Table. “What do you think’s happening?”
Amy shrugged. “Something really bad, I’d think--if Merrythought’s rattled.”
Flitwick’s question had broken the silence; people were muttering everywhere, most likely having more or less the same conversation. “Poor Katerina,” said Hilary involuntarily, but it wasn’t Katerina who occupied the majority of her mind; it was, in fact, her chances of slipping out the common room door.
Luckily Merrythought was now besieged by curious students, and Hilary was able to get out without too much difficulty; in fact she was able to acquire a couple of sandwiches on her way out, and bit into one thoughtfully as she crept down the tower stairs. It was roast beef and mustard, which was far from her favourite, but she hadn’t exactly had time to examine the selection the house elves had provided. She wondered whether perhaps the elves in the kitchen had felt the upset as well.
She had to be cautious going past the door to the Slytherin dungeon, though to no purpose; even outside it, the hallways were quiet. Whatever was happening within, the heavy stone walls muffled it quite well, but Hilary paused for a moment anyway; she knew the Durmstrang students generally ate with Slytherin, and she wondered whether they were in the common room with them now.
A few doors further along she found the Potions office, with--thankfully--the door ajar and the light on. She was about to knock when she heard voices from inside and realised someone was already paying a visit. While she was still hesitating, wondering whether to wait or try again another time, Vane raised her voice:
“Must we do this right now?”
“It does seem the time for it.” It was Peter Wimsey’s voice, and Hilary grimaced; this was the one thing that could possibly have made her timing worse.
“For playing detective?” Vane snapped. “Or for making love to me?”
“I confess, both instincts are so profoundly ingrained I sometimes have difficulty separating the two.”
This was followed by a long silence; even Hilary, who like anyone who read the Prophet was familiar with the stalemate between the two, was beginning to feel embarrassed on both their behalves. “I’d be happy to help with the former,” said Vane at last.
“Are you sure you don’t need any--”
“I don’t need you hovering so you can feel you’ve done some kind of duty by me, if that’s what you mean. Tell Armando I’ll be up in his office shortly.” Vane paused. “Before Mr. Parker arrives, for certain.”
Hilary forced herself not to flinch away when the door opened; she hadn’t a hope of concealing herself, anyway, but she gave Wimsey a wan smile when he emerged. She had tried and failed, on her way down to the dungeons, to think up an adequate excuse for being out of her House, and concluded she had none. So she was bracing herself for confrontation, but he only said “Miss Thorpe,” in a distracted tone and strode on past. Not that she could blame him for being distracted, really, under the circumstances.
When Wimsey was safely out of sight around the corner, Hilary poked her head through the office door, which had been left open again. Vane was sitting at her desk, fidgeting with a large quill, and hadn’t noticed her arrival; for the first time Hilary considered going back home without bothering her. “Professor,” she said instead, hesitantly.
“You were meant to go to your common room, Miss Thorpe.” Professor Vane looked up at her and smiled, though the goose feather went on twirling between her fingers. “But I expect you know that.”
“I did go,” said Hilary--a bit too smartly, and she was immediately sorry about it. “And then I came down here. I wanted--well, I wanted to know if you were all right, Professor.”
Vane lifted an eyebrow. “You’re curious and thought I could be wheedled round into telling you what’s going on, is more like it.”
“It’s both,” Hilary admitted, shutting the door quietly behind her. “But you came and told Mr. Wimsey something, and no one knew anything about Professor Fedorov before that. It was you who found him--wasn’t it?”
“I can see why you and Peter get on,” said Vane.
Under the circumstances, Hilary wasn’t sure how to receive this; she resisted the urge to apologise. “Please, Professor, I just want to know--was he murdered?”
Vane grimaced. “I should say he’d had a pretty rough time of it. In fact, that’s all I’d care to say about it. Mr. Wimsey’s gone to owl the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, so I suppose it won’t be a secret much longer anyway.”
“I’m sorry,” said Hilary quietly, and went looking for the tea kettle. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll do,” said Professor Vane, and mustered another smile.
"I'll give you three Sickles," said Jerry, sliding neatly into a seat at the Ravenclaw table and ignoring dirty looks from several other seventh-years who actually belonged there, "if you'll write this for me."
Caught in the middle of a mouthful of roast beef, Hilary spared a glance for the roll of parchment he'd brought with him. "I've told you," she said, once she could speak again, "I'm not writing that essay for you. I wouldn't even if I thought Dumbledore couldn't tell the difference, and I promise you he can."
"Hang Dumbledore," said Jerry, with an unexpected hint of irritation. "I mean, don't really, he's a decent old chap, but you'll be glad to know I've quite resigned myself to struggling with that essay on my own. This is something far worse. Is Winnie still here?"
"Then you're definitely not pinning it on me." Hilary had a quick look up and down the table, but most people were finishing their dinners and leaving by now, and seats were clearing rapidly. "As for Winnie, I think she's already gone back up to the Tower."
"In that case--oh hell, there isn't much to see here anyway, I'd just rather not have her hearing about it." He unrolled the parchment; it proved to be mostly a mess of crossouts in the vague shape of a letter, but several blots were still recognizable as being addressed to one or both parents.
"I see," said Hilary, postponing the need to offer more cogent help by grabbing a deliberately excessive plateful of bread pudding. "Why do you even still bother with them?"
Jerry gave another look round and then scooted an inch or two closer on the bench and lowered his voice, just in case. "For one thing, I may be of age by wizarding law, but I've over three years to go by Muggle law, so I don't care to find out what happens if my decidedly Muggle parents foul up the cash flow in the meantime." He retrieved an unused fork from across the table and carved a piece off Hilary's pudding, sucking moodily on the fork.
Hilary nudged the plate over towards him; normally she wouldn't have let him get away with it, but she had some idea of the conversation that was coming, and she felt they could both use some fortifying. "Are they threatening to disinherit you?"
"I wish they would," said Jerry mournfully. "I don't know whether it's even possible, but money or no money, at least that'd sort things out for good and all. But then that'd land Uncle Peter in the soup, which for one thing wouldn't be very fair to him, and for another would be the death knell of the family as far as the Governor's concerned. I think they're still cherishing hopes that once I get all this magic nonsense safely in hand I might still be redeemable, but Uncle's got a nice respectable Ministry job and is therefore quite beyond saving. The irony must be killing my mother."
Hilary patiently waited out this complaint, which she had heard many times in various forms. "What do they want, then?"
"Mother thinks I ought to go to Muggle university." Jerry rustled the parchment restlessly. "It's her last effort at finding a way to make me into a suitable Duke-to-be after all. I could tell her that I don't really give a damn, but that wouldn't sway her an inch. Now if only I had somewhere else to go after school finishes up, I could write her a terribly polite owl about how I couldn't possibly go back on my word, and that might get me loose for a year or two at least. It's a pity--" He cut a glance at Hilary, flushed, and shut up quite abruptly.
"What?" said Hilary, sticking her fork into the pudding and forgetting about it.
"It's a pity I haven't a job or something to go to in June," Jerry finished, with a little too much hesitation to be convincing. "That's all."
Hilary propped her head in one hand, watching him patiently. "Jerry."
He sighed. "I was going to say, it's a pity there's no Interhouse Quidditch Cup this year. I was rather counting on the chance to catch a team's eye. As it is I'll have to wait for the usual tryouts next spring, which is too late to be any use putting off Mother."
"Oh." Hilary's gaze shifted down towards the table. "I'm sorry." She had thought it rather gracious of Jerry, not complaining about the loss of his last Quidditch season--well, not complaining /much/--but she hadn't realized the further implications. And she did know how very much it meant to him; she enjoyed flying as much as the next person, but Jerry loved it right down to his bones, and she couldn't quite imagine him being indefinitely earthbound.
"Don't you be sorry." Jerry batted at her arm. "It was Dippet who decided to cancel the Cup. And anyway, if I must sacrifice my glory to someone else, I'm jolly glad that someone was you. I should mind a thousand times more if it were anyone else as Hogwarts champion, but since it's you the the loss is worth it."
"Jerry," said Hilary again, with very different feeling; she was quite sure she had just flushed bright red, and terribly thankful that the table was all but deserted by now. "You don't mean that."
"Of course I do." Jerry had gone a bit pink in the face himself, and Hilary found the sight sufficiently endearing that she dared to give his knee a squeeze under the table. "I'd be a poor excuse for a friend if I felt otherwise, wouldn't I?"
"I've had a thought," said Hilary evasively, though she left her hand on his knee--by way of an experiment, that was all, to see whether it would distract him. "You're stuck with your title, as best you can work out--but it's stuck with you, too. So to speak."
"Meaning?" Jerry perked up, although his eyes flickered for a moment; Hilary had moved her hand an inch or two further up his leg.
"Meaning once you've got it, you can make of it whatever you damn well please." Hilary grinned at him. "You could be an eccentric reclusive Duke, and spend the same kind of time in wizarding society that your father spends in Italy and all those sorts of places, and no one could do a thing to stop you."
"Now there's an encouraging thought," said Jerry, and jerked his leg free, just in time for someone wearing a yellow prefect's badge to walk past behind them. "I suppose I've plenty of time to consider it--although, I say, Hilary, since you mention my father buzzing off to Italy."
"What about it?" Hilary wiped her hand on her skirt.
"It happens that my parents are going to be away for the Easter holidays." Jerry grinned, jabbing his fork into the remains of the pudding next to hers. "They've offered to leave the place open for me while they're gone, if I care to make use of it, and seeing as you always have rather a rough time of it at Easter--and, admittedly, that the other of my closest friends has been replaced by an impostor who actually cares about his N.E.W.T.S--I was wondering whether you might like to come along. I don't know whether you'd care for a diversion or not."
Hilary considered. Easter and New Year's generally /were/ pretty beastly for her, and last year or the year before she would have felt guilty for trying to find a distraction from the resurgence of grief, but it had been a little easier this January, and she thought perhaps his offer might do her good after all. "You'd better not try anything," she warned. "You boys are all alike; turn a girl's head with a fancy old manor house, and then--"
"And then what?" inquired Jerry, watching intently as she swung herself off the bench and rose to her feet.
"Come by the fifth-floor stationery cupboard in half an hour," suggested Hilary. She rather wished she could kiss his cheek by way of farewell, but even that was likely to catch an authority figure's eye. There was nothing, of course, to stop her from pressing a bit too close to him, quite by accident, when she reached under the table to retrieve her schoolbag. "I'll tell you all about it."
It was a warm, sunny spring afternoon, perfect for a nap, but Hilary couldn’t seem to sleep. Jerry appeared to have no problem taking advantage; he was sprawled at her side fast asleep, letting out the occasional soft snore, and she caught herself stroking his hair every time he did so. With a sigh, Hilary bundled a sheet around herself-- it was only fair, considering that he had stolen most of the blanket, no mean feat in a bed this size-- and swung her legs over the edge of the bed only to sit there, irresolute. She was thirsty, but after they had spent months scrabbling to find privacy wherever and whenever they could on the Hogwarts grounds, it seemed a shame not to take full advantage of the luxuries of a place like Denver. Not to mention the chance to laze properly with Jerry.
This, of course, was when he let out a snuffle and curled around her again, pressing his face against her hip and slipping an arm around her waist. “Going so soon?”
“Only for a moment.” Hilary cupped her hand over his and smiled down at Jerry-- not that it made much difference, with his eyes still shut. “What are the chances there’ll be pumpkin juice in the pantry? I think I could do with something cold.”
He shrugged, just a twitch of one shoulder. “Not if my parents had anything to say about it-- but my grandmother visits often enough that she may have. You’ve seen the pantry?”
Hilary nodded. “I should be able to get there all right-- but you’ll have to let go of me.”
Jerry groaned, but loosened his arm enough to let her stand up. “Don’t be long.”
Hilary bent to kiss him, humming happily when his fingers slid down her bare spine. “I won’t,” she promised, and shed the bedsheet in favor of borrowing his dressing gown and tucking her wand into one pocket. The house was meant to be nearly empty, thanks to the holiday, and she ought not to care what people would think in any case, but she didn’t feel quite daring enough to go wandering around it entirely naked.
The bang of her Apparition echoed slightly in the large pantry, making Hilary wince; she really had to learn to control that noise somehow. Tugging the dressing gown more tightly closed around her, she explored the room until she found a large metal cabinet up against the wall, cool to the touch, and remembered vaguely that Muggles used some sort of machine to keep their food cold. There was a jug of pumpkin juice inside, more than half full, and Hilary claimed it triumphantly and then ventured out into the kitchen to locate a pair of tall glasses.
Thus equipped, she could easily have Apparated right back to Jerry’s room, but Hilary found she wasn’t inclined to do so just yet. Jerry had given her a sort of vague tour of the house when they’d first arrived, but they’d been far too preoccupied ever since for Hilary to explore properly. Since she didn’t doubt that he had gone back to sleep the moment she’d Disapparated, now seemed the perfect time to have a few minutes’ look around. Hilary murmured a charm to let the jug of pumpkin juice and the glasses fit easily into the empty pocket of Jerry’s dressing gown-- she would have to remember to undo that, later-- and went up the narrow stairs to the dining room. It was easily twice the size of that at the Red House-- luxuriously furnished, but somehow all the more intimidating for it, and she shivered and moved on.
The next room was a hall of portraits-- Muggle portraits, of course, the unnatural stillness of which didn’t do much to settle her nerves, but far more fascinating all the same. It was a long hall; Hilary couldn’t recall how many Dukes of Denver there had been, but there were portraits of a good few dozen men lining both walls, the most recent of which she easily recognized as Jerry’s father. It was a rather depressing thought to imagine that one day her best friend would be added to that row of paintings, immortalized motionlessly like the rest; it felt almost like a trap.
Or perhaps-- Hilary started as something twitched at the edge of her vision-- not quite motionless.
She shuffled a few steps and peered up at the next portrait over. “I saw that, you know.” And if she were mistaken, she was about to feel very silly, talking to an empty room.
Mortimer Gerald Bredon Wimsey, fifteenth Duke of Denver-- according to the brass plate beneath him, at any rate-- uncrossed and recrossed his legs, looking back down at her with distinct displeasure. “And you’ll be a friend of young St. George’s, I suppose. I ought to have known it would come to this.”
“Come to what?” asked Hilary, feeling her teeth set a little on edge.
“Affairs with witches,” said His Late Grace, with a great deal of starch. “I suppose it can’t be helped that the boy is what he is, under the circumstances, but I did trust that Helen might have raised him firmly enough that things would balance out.”
Hilary folded her arms across her chest; she had forgotten for a moment that, while going about in Jerry’s dressing gown technically made her decent to the eye, it didn’t make much of a secret about what business she had in the house to begin with. She was of age now, she reminded herself, at least by wizarding standards, and it ought not to have made a difference to anyone else what she did or to her what they thought; but she felt the portrait's sharp Victorian eye on her rather keenly all the same. “Whatever did you go and marry a witch for, then?”
“Honoria’s got sense in her,” said Denver pointedly. “She knew this family was more important than any of that wizarding rot-- though I do wish,” he added, with a faint plaintiveness that was startling in its sudden reminiscence of Jerry-- “I hadn’t indulged her by sitting for this portrait. Damned vulgar custom, if you ask me, and one gets so stiff having to sit perfectly still every time guests are brought through or risk disgracing the family.”
“Surely people come and visit you.” Hilary had never met a wizarding portrait of a Muggle before; indeed, she wasn’t sure she had known such a thing was possible. She wasn’t finding herself terribly fond of the man, so far-- certainly not enough to feel in any way sorry for him-- but she couldn’t help being curious.
“Oh, yes, all the family do-- even Helen and Gerald speak to me, every so often, and Mary brought her son once. She married a policeman, did you know that? A wizard policeman. Of all the blasted things. No thought for family whatsoever, you young people.”
“I think Mr. Parker’s quite nice,” objected Hilary.
“Not the sort one wants one’s daughter marrying, though, all the same.” Denver frowned at her. “I expect you think St. George is going to marry you.
Hilary stared. She hadn’t any intention of marrying anyone, really, and most certainly not of marrying into any family of which this man was representative—but it stung a little worse each time she was reminded that Jerry, for all that he was a wizard, had familial obligations that would sooner or later force him to withdraw from wizarding society. And thus, inevitably, from her. Not that it ought to have mattered so much, of course; they were really only friends, after all, and she had never meant this particular facet of their friendship to go on for very long. But it did hurt, and quite badly, sometimes--as the prospect of losing a friend was wont to do, she supposed. “I don’t think anything of the kind.”
Denver smiled, thin and disdainful. “And what, I wonder, does that say about your character?”
“Perhaps,” Hilary suggested, “it means I’ve got a sense of humor. A thing you appear to have lacked.”
“Oh, you are a friend of that boy’s, all right.” Denver huffed and settled back in his chair. “You should hear the way he talks to me; no respect whatsoever. Do you know, he promised once that when he was Duke I should be turned to hang with my face to the wall, just to shut me up?”
Hilary shrugged. “I can’t say I blame him. My mum did much the same with a portrait of her mother at home. I believe Grandmother felt much the same about Muggles as you did about wizards. Perhaps,” she went on, suddenly enlightened, “it might be instructive to hang the two of you up in a room together. I bet you’d get on marvelously.”
“I see you’ve met my father.”
The voice was so similar to the portrait’s that Hilary could not for a moment understand why it came from behind her. For another moment, she thought it might be Jerry, come looking for her-- but when she turned to look it was Peter Wimsey, standing in the door to the dining room with his hands folded into the sleeves of his robes. “Oh, damn,” said Hilary, remembering the dressing gown all over again, and did the first thing she could think of—which was to Apparate immediately back to Jerry’s bedroom.
Her arrival startled him half-awake, and he leaned up on one elbow and stared blearily as Hilary began to toss away the dressing gown, remembered the jug and glasses just in time, and paused to remove them and her wand from the pockets before letting the garment crumple to the floor and going hastily in search of her own clothing. “Where’s the fire?”
“No fire-- worse, actually.” Hilary located her brassiere and knickers and struggled into them hastily. “Your uncle’s here. In the dining room.”
“Don’t be absurd,” Jerry rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in a pillow. “What would Uncle Peter want in our dining room?” he went on, muffled. “He’s got one of his own.”
“Me, I think,” said Hilary, occupied in pulling her dress over her head. “Have you seen my other shoe?”
“Well, he can’t have you; I’ve got a prior claim. For Easter weekend, anyway, and it’s only Saturday.” There was a moment’s pause, during which Hilary began to be concerned by how much this sentiment pleased her, and then Jerry bolted upright, eyes wide. “Did you say Uncle Peter’s here? He saw you dressed like that?”
Hilary threw up her hands. It was easy to be exasperated with him; she was used to it, after all, but it didn’t make his continued state of undress any less distracting. “A lot of use you are. Get up, would you?”
Jerry shoved his fingers back through his hair, though it could hardly have gotten any messier. “Your shoe’s by the door.”
“Thank you,” said Hilary fervently, scrambling to retrieve it, and decided she could spare a moment to get one knee up on the edge of the bed and kiss him once more. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, smoothing her hand down his bare arm. “It's been such a lovely weekend. Maybe he’ll go away again.”
“It’s Uncle Peter,” said Jerry gloomily, “he never goes away unless you actually want him for something.” He gave her knee a regretful sort of squeeze. “I’ll be right down—deny all knowledge of your existence, that sort of thing, not that it'll be any use.”
Hilary rolled her eyes and Disapparated.
Wimsey hadn’t left; had barely even budged, in fact, apart from having pulled out a dining room chair and settled himself in it to wait for her. When she reappeared, he looked up and smiled ruefully. “I’m afraid I rather startled you, Miss Thorpe.’
Hilary smoothed her skirt hopelessly as she stood before him. She had long since gotten over a tendency to feel grubby and poorly put-together next to Jerry: partly just because she was used to him, but partly because she had come to recognize that Jerry’s grace and poise were necessary to mask a severe lack of good judgment. The elder Wimsey possessed both poise and judgment, and was more than twice Hilary’s age to boot; in short, he unnerved the hell out of her, for all that she didn’t think he meant to, and the circumstances of their meeting on this particular occasion weren’t exactly dignified either.
All the same, Hilary was the last of an old and respectable wizarding family, and if she could never quite manage to look the part, she could at least try to act it. “I’m sorry,” she answered, smoothing her skirt one last time before forcing her hands to be still. “This is your brother’s house, isn’t it? I should say that makes me the intruder.”
“I take for granted that you’re here with my nephew’s knowledge-- which, since it is also his home, makes you an invited guest, and therefore entitled not to be crept up upon by his relatives.” Wimsey rose briefly to pull out another chair. “Shall we call it even?”
“I think we’d better.” Hilary stared blankly for a moment before realizing he meant it for her and taking a seat, hands folded tightly in her lap. Her cheeks were hot, but there was hardly anything she could do about that; she couldn't decide whether Wimsey's extreme tact about Jerry's having brought her there made her feel better or worse. “So you were looking for me, then?”
He bent his head briefly. “Circumstances require that you be brought back to Hogwarts a day early-- for your own protection, you understand, Miss Thorpe. Since the locator spell indicated you to be on my own home ground, so to speak, I thought I might as well come take care of the matter rather than letting Charles send two of his men.”
“I don’t understand,” said Hilary, a bit more sharply than she really meant to. “Protection from what?”
“Er.” Jerry peered in cautiously, more or less fully dressed; he was in his shirtsleeves, without even robes over his clothes, but then again Hilary hadn’t bothered with hers either. “Have I missed all the excitement?”
“Lots,” said Hilary, the instinct to needle him momentarily overcoming her desire to remain poised in front of his uncle. “Apparently I’m being fetched.”
“There has been another attack on the Hogwarts grounds,” said Wimsey, eyes flicking only briefly to Jerry. “Mr. Renard has been cursed quite severely. Not fatally, as Professor Fedorov was, but that is thought to have been the intention.”
Poise forgotten, Hilary slumped back in her chair. Jerry moved towards her, but she caught his eye and shook her head slightly-- not in front of your uncle-- as if there were any chance Wimsey wouldn’t notice the exchange anyway. “Oh Merlin-- is he going to be all right?”
“Madam Horrell and Professors Vane and Merrythought are working with him; they believe so, but he may not be able to compete in the third task of the tournament. Which does, I am afraid, cast a certain light upon our visitors from Durmstrang-- but you can see, I’m sure, why the Ministry would rather that you cut your holidays short and be somewhere where the Aurors can keep an eye on you.”
“I suppose I’d better, then. Poor Louis; I’d like to see him, if Madam Horrell will let me.” Hilary smoothed her hands over her lap once more-- not to rearrange her skirt this time, but because her palms were damp. “How are we getting back, if not from King’s Cross?”
“I’ve got a car,” said Wimsey, “if you don’t mind them; I’ve found that many wizards don’t like motor vehicles, enchanted or otherwise. Makes ‘em ill. But I happen to be rather attached to mine.” He seemed almost embarrassed by it.
“You don’t mind this one,” Jerry confided, at Hilary’s elbow. “It’s a marvellous car.”
“I’ve never been in one, actually—only taken the Knight Bus a few times.” Hilary looked between them and nodded. “Might I get my things?”
“Of course.” Wimsey made a gesture that she assumed to be a gracious dismissal; Hilary stood up and exited, as gracefully as she could in her distraction.
“Excuse me,” said Jerry quickly behind her, and was at her side in another moment. “Would you rather I came with you? There doesn’t seem much point my sticking around and waiting to take the Express tomorrow afternoon-- certainly not without you here for company.”
Hilary smiled gratefully and took his arm. “I think you just want the car ride.”
“I can’t say I object to it, no.” Jerry glanced back at the dining room door to make sure his uncle wasn’t in sight, and then slipped his arm around her waist-- only to be greeted by a pointed throat-clearing from the other end of the room. “Oh.” He groaned, leaving his arm where it was. “Hilary, I’d like you to meet my grandfather.”
“We’ve met.” Hilary leaned against him, as much to irritate the late Duke’s portrait as to soothe her own nerves. “In fact, we’re practically old friends.”
She put her tongue out at the painting as they went out of the room, and the loud “Hmph!” she got in response went a surprisingly long way towards cheering her up.
Having once been granted permission to see Louis, Hilary almost couldn't bring herself to approach his bedside. He was unnaturally pale, and oddly dry and drawn-looking; if it weren't for his dark hair he might have blended right in with the pillow and sheets. Hilary had wondered for months exactly what kind of curse might have killed Fedorov; she hadn't ever worked up the courage to wheedle that degree of gruesome detail out of Professor Vane, who either wasn't willing to talk about it any more than necessary or had been forbidden to discuss it with students.
Hilary had known it was something unpleasant, though, and this was just about the worst way she could imagine to satisfy her curiosity.
She edged closer to the bed, and flushed guiltily when she realized he was awake and watching her. "How are you feeling?"
"Not very much." Louis's voice was a dry rustle, like paper; in fact he looked very like paper as well, dry and white and sort of crumpled, more in some places than others. Hilary had the awful suspicion that that was, in fact, precisely the case. She had never heard of a curse that turned people into paper, but surely if there were such a thing Professor Merrythought knew something about it--and was very quickly learning more. "I can't move very well. Or talk much. But there is no pain."
"I know." Hilary reached out and then hesitated, unsure whether she ought to touch him. She was trying not to wonder what this had been like for Fedorov--whether it had been a quick death, or an easy one. Merlin help her, but she had had more than enough of sickbeds for a lifetime. "I thought you might like some company."
Louis blinked up at her; his eyes were still bright and incongruously blue amidst the crumple one side of his face had become. "I am so tired."
"I'm sure." Hilary found that in lieu of touching him she was twisting her hands together. "I'll let you rest, then, and come back in a bit."
"Hilary," Louis rasped. "Your teachers--they think I may die."
"Of course you won't," said Hilary scornfully, or as close an approximation of it as she could manage. "Vane and Merrythought are brilliant--and the Horror's not so bad either. They'll fix you right up."
He shook his head, ever so faintly. "Not from this--from the Oath. If I cannot compete in the third task."
Hilary went quite cold for a moment; this was not a ramification she had yet considered. "You won't," she insisted. "Wimsey's terribly clever; he'll find a way to sort it out."
"I hope so. But I have been hoping to say to you--" Louis paused.
Hilary felt a sudden flutter of panic. She was not remotely in the mood to have anyone's adoration declared to her, but she couldn't very well tell him that whatever it was she didn't want to know, so she nodded encouragingly.
"What we did once--" Louis did something odd with his face; it took a second for Hilary to grasp that he was trying, and failing, to wet his lips. "I'm not sorry, but things have been strange, since. And I would like it if we could be friends."
Hilary felt a rush of relief; for months she had been desperately avoiding discussing this with him, and yet he had resolved it so simply. "I would like that," she said honestly. "Friends."
All the same, when she had left the hospital wing, she found she was still shaking and horrified; she had to curl up into the deepest corner of a windowsill for a little while, pressing her cheek against the cool stone wall until was sure she wouldn't be ill.
"It's only to be expected, you know," said Cattermole two days later, in between fits of worrying at the end of her quill with her teeth. "All this mess might so easily have been avoided if the Department of International Magical Cooperation had put someone better-suited in charge."
Hilary frowned across the table; she resented the reduction of Fedorov's death and Louis's near-brush with the same to "mess," but she also felt a surge of defensiveness that she vaguely recognized as arising more on Jerry's behalf than from any particular strong feelings of her own about the elder Wimsey. "I don't see how you figure that."
Cattermole shrugged. "Look, I haven't got anything against halfbloods or Muggleborns on principle, you know that. If anything I feel sorry for the poor man. He's clearly doing the best he can, but one can't expect a halfblood to be able to cope as well with this sort of thing as well as a pureblooded wizard might. It's a matter of expertise--that's all."
Hilary wrinkled her nose skeptically. "You're saying that if the Tournament were being run by a pureblooded wizard, there wouldn't be a killer about?"
"Well--" Cattermole bit at her quill again, seemed almost about to see sense, and then brightened. "I suppose, with someone more imposing in charge, a killer might not have dared go after Fedorov to begin with?"
"It's not Wimsey's job to stop murders," Hilary pointed out. "It's Parker's. Which doesn't seem to have stopped Wimsey from trying, all the same, but if you're looking for a way to make a scandal out of it somehow I doubt you've much hope. You might as well say it's Dippet's fault that Peeves goes about making everyone miserable."
"Of course you doubt it," said Cattermole with scorn. "I'm talking perfect sense, but I suppose since you've got one of that lot by the broomstick--"
Hilary giggled sheepishly, realized Cattermole couldn't possibly know what an accurately rude pun she'd just made, and choked it back down.
"--you think every last one of them could turn lead into gold by breathing on it. But honestly, Thorpe, you must admit there's some sense in it. I think I might put a bit in the /Tattler/ about it."
Hilary, who had met Jerry's parents, was pleased to be sure that she thought no such thing. "No, I mustn't, because I don't believe it, but if you really want to be a nuisance I can't stop you writing it up. Dippet will probably eat a thing like that up with a spoon."
"Do you think?" Cattermole propped her chin in one hand, and the quill went back between her teeth. Hilary, giving in to an impulse that had been building for years, took advantage of the other girl's distraction to duck her head, slip her wand out of her sleeve, and murmur a few words; the end of the quill burst open with a very satisfying noise, and Cattermole shrieked as ink splattered all over her face.
"Oh!" Hilary made a show of looking as if she were just about to spring helpfully to her feet. "Do you need help--?"
Cattermole made a strangled noise, wiping ink off her mouth with the back of her hand. "No," she said, grimacing at the taste of ink, "I'd better just, washroom's just outside, I'll see you," and scrambled out of the library with her books gathered up into a precarious armful.
Hilary went placidly back to her essay, thankful for the peace. After a minute of half-hearted scribbling she realized she needed more references, and, leaving her papers in a neat stack, wandered off among the shelves.
She was still there a few minutes later, trying to locate either the librarian or the section on 17th-century Mermish politics. Jerry found her first, though, appearing around the end of the shelves with his tie hanging loose around his neck. "Hullo," he said lightly. "I don't suppose you know anything about the state Cattermole was in when she all but knocked me over in the corridor just now."
"Well," said Hilary significantly, and grinned sidelong at him.
"What happened?" He came down the aisle to her side, shoulder pressed to hers just a jot more closely than was strictly appropriate. "I've never known you to go in for much of the practical-joking rag."
"Why bother, when I've you and Weasley handy to do the dirty work for me?" Hilary sighed, staring blankly up at the top shelf. "If you must know, she was being a little beast about your uncle's ancestry--and yours, by extension."
"I see." His smile twisted thinly for a moment before warming again. "So you were trying to defend my honor? I'm flattered."
"She doesn't mean it," Hilary offered; for all her frequent irritation with Jerry and Violet both, she found herself reluctant to create enmity between two of her friends. "She never does. She only ever likes getting a rise out of people--I don't think I've ever known her to mean it personally."
"And yet that's always how it seems to turn out." Jerry glanced around to make sure no one else was in sight, and for a moment Hilary thought he might kiss her; but the ensuing gesture was more subtle than that, his fingers brushing lightly down the inside of her forearm. "Much as I hate to continue on to still less pleasant subjects, have you been in to see your friend Renard?"
"Only for a minute or two," said Hilary glumly. "It was all the Horror would give us. He seems to be holding up all right, though I can't imagine how, in the state he's in. Not to mention I feel he's earned a bit in the Tattler. Beauxbatons Champion's Brush With Death; Renard Keeps Stiff Upper Lip Despite All. That kind of thing."
"He's got to keep a stiff upper lip, hasn't he?" Jerry observed. "He's a swan. Hallmark of the species, and all that."
"He can't become one at the moment, I should think--and anyway, Jerry, that's an awful pun and I'm ashamed of you for making it. I'm sure you could do better."
Jerry met her half-hearted shove with good grace, swaying neatly away and back and slipping his hands into his pockets. "I'm hurt, honestly. The Frenchman gets a front-page headline from you, and all I get is the fleeting joy of seeing Cattermole with blue splatters all over her. Perhaps I'm not so flattered after all."
Hilary eyed him warily. "You do realize I gave up seeing him for the privilege of--not even actually seeing you? What are you, jealous?"
"Of course not," said Jerry indignantly. "Merely curious. I always thought he seemed much more to your taste."
"Yes, well--" Hilary shrugged; this was a question she had spent months trying to answer even to her own satisfaction. "He just wasn't--" you, she nearly said, but it seemed too transparently obvious an explanation. And then, once she gave it a moment's thought, it began to seem rather queer how at some untraceable point she really had stopped being able to conceive of involvement with anyone but Jerry--and that was was rather important, wasn't it? It felt it, anyway; huge and important and yet somehow not the least bit alarming.
She became aware that she had been silent for just a bit too long; Jerry was peering at her anxiously, brow just beginning to crease. "Have I broken you?"
"What? No, of course not." Hilary let her hand creep into his trouser pocket to join his own. His fingers curled safely around hers, and something very odd happened in her chest. It felt like something turning over and settling neatly into a more comfortable place, and Hilary realized the sensation was a familiar one; only her ability to put a name to it was new. "I don't know," she admitted at last. "He just wasn't."
It wasn't Jerry that Hilary spotted first upon entering the infirmary; it was the side table piled high enough with flowers and chocolate to obscure whoever was in the bed beside it, but it wasn't difficult to draw the obvious conclusion.
He was dozing, and appeared perfectly healthy, though Hilary knew otherwise. She hovered at his bedside for a moment, wondering whether to come back later, but while she was still dithering, Jerry blinked awake and grinned drowsily at her. "Hullo, my girl; come to gloat over my suffering?"
"You seem awfully comfortable for someone who's suffering. And well looked-after." Hilary glanced at the table. The parcels there were a variety of colors, a few charmed to glitter for some reason, most of them addressed in distinctly feminine handwriting. She spared a moment for a pang of jealousy, another to shove it ruthlessly down again, and a third to reflect on how depressingly quickly the process had become habit. "I brought something myself," she added, withdrawing a small parcel from her sleeve, "but as you don't seem to be in any particular need of chocolate I may just keep it for myself."
"Don't you dare." In the blink of an eye Jerry had snatched the parcel away from her--left-handed, Hilary noted, keeping his right arm still carefully bundled under the blanket. "I need all the comfort I can get."
Hilary perched on the edge of the bed and watched him tear the parcel open. "It isn't just chocolate," she said, unnecessarily. "I thought--I wasn't sure which arm you'd lost the use of, but I figured it couldn't hurt."
Jerry attempted, with only clumsy results, to twirl the quill betweeen his fingers. "Why--what have you done to it?"
"Nothing," said Hilary indignantly. "It takes dictation--actual dictation, not like that heinous new Quick-Quotes thing Violet's got--but I bought it that way."
"It's so drearily like you to bring me a present to help me do homework just when I thought I'd got the best possible excuse not to, but thanks all the same." His grin, though, was warm and sincere, and Jerry squeezed her hand before proceeding to investigate the chocolate.
Hilary hesitated, watching him fumble to unwrap the enormous Honeydukes bar one-handed. "How bad is it--your arm?"
"Deeply irritating." He squirmed, maneuvering his right arm out from under the blanket, and--though Hilary had known full well what to expect--she flinched anyway. "Is it safe to touch?" She extended a cautious hand.
Jerry shrugged. "Go ahead; it looks constantly on the verge of falling to dust, I know, but Merrythought cast some sort of protective job on it to hold it together until it gets fixed."
Hilary took his hand between both of hers, holding it gingerly despite the faint warm tingle of the protective spell Professor Merrythought had cast. It was only one arm--not nearly the degree of damage that Louis had taken from the same curse--but it wasn't any less ghastly-looking for all that. It looked as though Jerry's arm and shoulder had grown, not of flesh and blood, but of crumpled old parchment; and though it held the shape of his arm, there was a slight but unnerving give to the way it moved. The sight made Hilary's skin crawl-- and yet, because it was Jerry's hand, she couldn't bring herself to let go either. "Does it hurt?" she wondered. "Or itch, or anything?"
He pulled a face, breaking off a square of chocolate and offering it to her. "It doesn't feel like a thing. The cures people keep trying on me--now, those itch and burn like anything. Vane's got a potion that's doing some good. I've gained an inch of flesh back since this morning, but it makes me abominably ticklish."
"I'll be sure to remember that," said Hilary cheerfully, accepting the chocolate and sucking on it idly.
"I'm glad to be of use, at least," Jerry admitted, "since apparently whatever works on me is getting tried on your friend Renard as well. But I believe I'm gaining a new respect for those hordes of unfortunate mice Dumbledore keeps about for us to turn into teapots or chess pieces or whatever else suits his twisted whims."
"If you grow a spout, let me know. I'll be very curious to see what pours out of it." Hilary shifted, making herself a little more comfortable on the edge of the bed and resting one hand absently on his leg through the blanket. "But you needn't have gone to all this trouble, you know; if you didn't want to bother fetching my Arithmancy book for me you might have simply said so."
Jerry groaned. "Merlin knows I wish I hadn't. That thing's been far more trouble than it's worth; no great loss, if you ask me, but then I've the sense not to take things like Arithmancy to begin with."
Hilary straightened, alarmed; she had taken for granted that the book was still in his possession. "What do you mean, no great loss? What have you done to it?"
"Who, me?" He paused and stared at her, midway through taking another bite of the chocolate bar. "It wasn't any of my doing-- don't tell me no one's told you."
"Told me what?"
"Hilary," said Jerry, aghast. "It was your book that got me. I was on my way up to Ravenclaw Tower with it in hand and collided with that half-goblin friend of Winnie's, Flippit or whatever--"
"Flitwick," said Hilary automatically.
"Flitwick. It's much worse for him, I'm sure, only ever coming up to anyone's knees, but one never can see him coming around corners--anyway. I was coming up the stairs and he was coming down, and we tripped over each other and I dropped the book and it fell open and, well, this happened." He shrugged his withered shoulder to the best of his ability. "The boy's bloody lucky it didn't catch him as well, though I give him credit for shepherding me here afterwards. Regardless, Uncle Charles and Merrythought've got hold of it now, and I doubt you'll be seeing it again any time soon. I'm sure you'll get a bit of leeway on homework, though, under the circumstances."
Hilary stared at him. "Jerry, for Merlin's sake, don't joke about that. It isn't the least bit funny."
"My hand to whatever deity you care to swear to." He set the chocolate aside to make the appropriate gesture. "That's exactly what happened."
"I took for granted someone'd attacked you in person. Unless it was Flitwick, and somehow I really can't see him murdering a man and trying twice more." Hilary swallowed. "Jerry, someone cursed my book. Someone was trying to get at me."
"Which is why I'm amazed no one told you." He frowned and bent his leg up against her hand--an odd yet effective gesture of reassurance. "I'm sorry I mentioned it; I didn't mean to frighten you."
Hilary scoffed. "Would you rather I didn't know?"
"Well, when you put it like that, no."
"I hate it, though." She let go of Jerry's cursed hand, for fear of squeezing too tightly and crushing it. "First Louis and then you; perhaps I'm some sort of jinx on boys."
"That depends," said Jerry, very seriously. "Did you seduce Fedorov and never get around to telling me? Normally that's the sort of thing I could happily go my entire life without thinking about, but seeing as it's a matter of life and death I feel I'd better be sure."
"Ugh." Hilary laughed, half in horror. "Absolutely not."
"Then I doubt you've anything to worry about." He shifted restlessly against the pillows. "Unless I die of tedium before I'm declared fit to leave here, which is a serious concern for me, if not for you. It's such a bore not being able to do any magic."
"I hope you aren't suggesting I keep you entertained; this really doesn't seem the place for it." Hilary glanced around the room; they were alone, for the moment, but that wasn't likely to last.
Jerry's grin turned briefly sharp. "You mentioned it--not me. Personally, I'd much rather a Quaffle; it couldn't hurt to work on throwing and catching wrong-handed."
"I'll see what I can do about getting you one," Hilary promised, and leaned in to kiss him lazily. "There, did that help?"
Jerry beamed at her. "If I said it had, would you do it again?"
"Not a chance," murmured Hilary, and kissed him again anyway, leaning into his good hand when it settled on her shoulder. She spared a thought for their less-than-private location, and then promptly forgot it again; she thought she'd suppressed her concern for him rather well, but the physical familiarity of him was better reassurance than anything he could possibly say.
"Miss Thorpe!" shrieked Madam Horrell, scandalized, and Hilary twisted out of Jerry's embrace and off the bed so quickly that she nearly landed on her tail on the stone floor. "Have you no respect for yourself?"
"This really can't go on, Miss Thorpe." Dippet looked terribly sad; far more sad, Hilary felt, than the situation really warranted. "I should have thought you, of all people, would have more sense than that."
"All I did was kiss a boy," protested Hilary, fidgeting sheepishly in a chair on the other side of his desk. "I don't see what's so terrible about that; it happens all the time."
"Perhaps so, but given your reputation as such an intelligent girl--and your, ah, highly visible status as the school's Triwizard Champion--one does expect a higher degree of decorum from you than from most." Dippet frowned at her; he looked as though he had a toothache. "A quality of which, according to Madam Horrell, you showed quite a distressing lack this afternoon."
Hilary held back half a dozen smart replies. She had been afraid of being disciplined for her involvement with Jerry, but now that it came down to it--and over being caught at something relatively mild, too--she found she had difficulty understanding exactly where her error lay. "I suppose," she said carefully; she refused to admit to regret she didn't feel, but it was difficult to respond respectfully without lying. "I may not have been thinking quite clearly."
"You ought to count yourself lucky; as I say, you are very visible just now, and it wouldn't do to discipline you too publicly. All the same, I feel it might be advisable--in the interests of your own security and self-control, of course--" He smiled hopefully, and Hilary somehow managed a thin smile back. "Better, I think, that you don't visit Mr. Wimsey in the hospital wing again. Girls do have a way of succumbing to his charms. There have been other incidents."
Succumbing, hell. Hilary physically bit her lip, too bewildered and annoyed to even respond. "I understand," she said dully.
Dippet, on the other hand, appeared to be hugely relieved by her agreement. "Go on, then," he said more brightly; "I'm sure you have plenty to do to prepare for the third task, and that less than two weeks away."
Hilary kept herself from sprinting out of the room, but it was an awfully near thing. Once safely down the staircase, she sagged back against the wall and groaned, finding herself unexpectedly angry. Even if Hilary had expected the possibility that they'd get caught sooner or later, there was something invasive about the whole experience. It wasn't anyone else's damned business if she and Jerry were, well, whatever exactly they were; even if they weren't properly seeing each other the way Hilary would have liked, it was still theirs. (Still hers alone, really, judging by that load of flowers on his bedside table.) She would have preferred, impractical as it might be, to keep everyone else out of it.
Dippet banned me from the hospital wing; wish I could blame you, but I suppose in this one case the blame is mutual. Not that there's much left for you to be deprived of at the moment. It's such a load of rot--from the way he came down at me you'd think we'd been doing something obscene in the middle of the Great Hall.
I can't promise much in the way of correspondence in the meantime, either, since I don't trust Otto to do anything subtly, but I thought I'd send him along and let you know. I did tell Sep you were wanting a Quaffle.
Feeling the need to consult with an authority figure who was actually somewhat competent, Hilary made her way to the spare office that Parker and Wimsey had jointly taken over. It was a relief to find Parker there and Wimsey absent. She was aware, abstractly, that both of them were Jerry's uncles, but it was much easier to forget that in Parker's case and deal with him confidently.
Not to mention that Parker had never once caught her and Jerry in any kind of compromising position.
"Mr. Parker?" she asked, hovering in the doorway, and he looked up from his desk and gave her a tired smile.
"Is there something I can do for you, Miss Thorpe?"
Hilary advanced into the room, and wasn't terribly surprised to recognize her Arithmancy book sitting off to the side, looking significantly the worse for wear. "I just visited Jerry." She considered sitting down in one of the spare chairs, but, feeling restless, stayed on her feet and drummed her fingers on the back of the chair instead. "He says someone cursed my book-- that he was only hurt because he opened it by accident. Is that true?"
Parker glanced at the book on his desk, then back at her. "I've been running some tests on the book," he began carefully, "and I didn't like to tell you a thing like that until I was sure."
"But it seems likely," Hilary concluded, and laughed hollowly. "I don't know what to do, Mr. Parker. No one's ever tried to kill me before."
Parker folded his arms on the desk in front of him, considering her; Hilary could almost see him trying to decide how much to say. "Mr. Wimsey tells me there is no way he can find to safely cancel the Tournament, even if that seems the only safe option, but I am bringing in more wizards from the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol. The castle will be quite thoroughly protected, I promise you."
Hilary wet her lips. "But you do think it's something to do with the Tournament."
He nodded. "Given the people who've been attacked so far, I'm afraid that does seem likely. But there's no need to be frightened, if that's what you mean."
"I'm not frightened," said Hilary, genuinely astonished by the idea. "My friends have been hurt, and I'm worried about them, but it's strange, that's all, to think that someone actually tried to kill me. And if there's anything I can do to help--I don't suppose there is, but I don't much like seeing my friends hurt."
"Which is perfectly understandable." He made a good pretense, at least, of thinking the question over. "I'd like to ask you a few questions, either way; though it looks like the attack wasn't personal, I'd always rather be sure. If you have the time right now."
Hilary had been hoping for something a little more exciting--someone to hex the ears off, if she were honest, for attacking Louis and now Jerry--but chances of that seemed slim, so she sat down and nodded. "Whatever I can tell you."
I refuse to take any blame in the matter. If I weren't so irresistibly charming, we might not have these kinds of difficulties, but I can't very well help that. Horrell gave me a good long talking-to, but you're right: having deprived me of your company, there isn't a whole lot worse they can do save forbidding me visitors altogether. (She claims I have no respect for the fairer sex, but I happen to think I have a very healthy respect for most things you say you want of me.)
Writing this with the quill you gave me, by the way. It's working quite well, so far as I can tell. If you're fretting about the third task again, stop it. Call it a personal favor to a sick man if you like.
Speaking of visitors, Sep came by and provided the Quaffle as requested--and also, I'm sorry to say, a forbidding pile of homework that's apparently due this week. I think I preferred your idea of sympathy. Are you sure there's no way you can get back here?
The drawing decorating the bottom of this note was utterly crude both in execution and content, and hardly seemed worth the effort of producing a drawing wrong-handed. Hilary flushed, crumpled the parchment, and almost tossed it directly into the fireplace of the Ravenclaw common room-- but, thinking better of it, she opened the note and spared a minute to decipher the tangle of limbs and memorize the image carefully in case it somehow came in handy later on.
Then she crumpled it up and tossed it into the fireplace.
It had seemed natural that there would be a great spectacle of some kind for the third task; instead everyone in the castle was gathered into the Great Hall, where a corner near the High Table had been partitioned off into a little room of its own. Hilary, who had spent the morning outdoors as far away from the castle as possible, cast a wistful glance up at the cloudless blue of the ceiling; then she joined Wimsey, Katerina and the other judges at the High Table. Louis arrived a few minutes later, in a well-padded wooden chair charmed to hover a few inches above the ground. He was looking a little less pale--whatever Horrell had been trying on her hapless patients, it must have been working--and gave Hilary a sheepish little smile as he maneuvered it up to her side. There wasn’t time for conversation, but she touched his shoulder by way of greeting.
“Mr. Renard,” greeted Wimsey, “Miss Thorpe, Miss Chernikova--I’m afraid that under the circumstances this task may not be as much of a thrill as any of us might have hoped. In fact, I don’t expect you’ll even need your wands. My apologies,” he added over their heads, with a bit of a grin to the very interested Hogwarts population assembled in the Hall behind them. “But what you will face today is a test of character--and that, of course, is what makes a great wizard, more than whatever number of hexes and tricks you may know.”
Hilary slipped her wand down her sleeve, no matter what he said; it gave her something to fidget with.
The new Head of Durmstrang was fidgeting too, she noticed. His name was Petrinovich, a small balding man, and he had been the Deputy Headmaster for some time, but he had only recently arrived to take Fedorov’s place among the judges. He had brought with him a large and somewhat rickety-looking camera, and had been fiddling with it behind Wimsey’s back. Hilary felt rather sorry for him; there were few worse ways to become Head of a school, surely.
“Andrei,” said Wimsey patiently, “if you please, I don’t believe it’s the time for photography just now,” and Petrinovich stilled. “As I was saying--you all have the objects you retrieved in the second task, I hope?”
Hilary produced her ink bottle, which she had never been able to determine the use of besides the obvious, and Louis his pocket watch; Katerina’s turned out to be a china teacup, which she had understandably been keeping in a small wooden box.
Wimsey himself produced a monocle and screwed it firmly into his eye, where it made his face look even more ridiculous than it was naturally inclined to. “Each of these objects has been enchanted with quite powerful Divinatory abilities, but they will only work for this one afternoon. You will each in turn go in there alone with your object, and whatever it may show you--your task is simply to judge whether it is true or false. This little job--” he tapped the lens in his eye-- “will let us know whether you’ve judged correctly.”
“Then how is the task to be scored?” asked Louis, still hoarse.
“Zero points, or fifty,” said Wimsey. “You need answer only yes or no--which is rather unsubtle, I admit. Miss Chernikova will go first, being first in points; then Mr. Renard; and then Miss Thorpe.”
Hilary, who was not very good at waiting and suspected Wimsey knew it, swallowed and nodded. She wished there were a way to take advantage of the time to prepare herself, but she couldn’t imagine how.
Katerina wasn’t gone long; she came back pale and hollow-eyed, and for some reason the handle had been snapped off the teacup in her hand. “Well done,” said Wimsey brightly, but she barely looked at him as she reclaimed her seat. Hilary glanced over sympathetically, but Katerina was staring down at her own folded hands.
Louis went next, and this time Hilary kept herself occupied by watching Wimsey narrowly while they waited. The wait was longer--it was difficult, as her nerves mounted, to say how long--but this time she was able to catch sight of the bright red sparkle that danced around Wimsey’s monocle moments before Louis emerged from the room. This time Wimsey offered a quieter, more conciliatory “Good show, I’m sure,” but Louis looked unexpectedly delighted. “I was wrong,” he whispered, as he slipped his chair back into place at Hilary’s other side. “I don’t care about the points. I guessed wrong. It isn’t true.”
Which was not especially comforting.
“Miss Thorpe,” said Wimsey again; Hilary rose to her feet, smoothing her skirt, and went on into the little room.
The space was quite bare: just a few feet square, with walls thick enough that no one in the Great Hall could hear what happened within. Once inside, she took the bottle out of her pocket and waited a moment; nothing happened, until it occurred to her to uncork it. Immediately the cork flew up into the air above the bottle and hung there. The ink swiftly followed, churning up out of the bottle to hover in a grey cloud in midair.
There was silence for a moment, during which Hilary determinedly gathered her composure, and then the cloud shuddered once more and took more definite form.
“I can’t tell her,” said Jerry, “I can’t ever tell her, not now,” and although his face and voice were roughly reproduced at best, his unhappiness was so acutely apparent that Hilary’s heart plummeted.
It wasn’t difficult to guess what was forthcoming, but she swallowed all the protests she wanted to make; they would have been fruitless, and anyway she didn’t dare take the chance that the bottle would interpret denial as her final response to the challenge.
“God knows the very first time we met I thought--here’s a girl who thinks she’s all alone in the world and should never, ever have to be.” If he had been there in person, Hilary knew beyond a doubt that his hands would have been clenched into fists in his trouser pockets. “I ought to have promised her then, when I still thought I’d be able to keep a promise like that. Knowing her, I’m not sure how well she’d take to outright declarations, but if nothing else she ought to know I always want to be at her back. She deserves that much--at the very least.”
Hilary blinked, stricken. In the midst of her shock she was suddenly sick with fury: at the gross invasiveness of the entire procedure, and at her inability to respond to what she was hearing.
“But there’s the rub, isn’t it?” Jerry’s gaze was appealing to some empty point in space over Hilary’s shoulder. “She deserves better than me. Far better, surely, than whatever future I’ve got to offer her, which is frankly uncertain at best. My father’s bound to peg out sooner or later, and then no more carefree magical frolic for the young heir. She’d have to choose, then, between me and magic, and I can’t help thinking it’d be so much simpler if the problem never presented itself at all.”
“Oh,” said Hilary faintly, though she’d been trying to keep quiet. “You bastard.”
“I could just--go,” Jerry went on. He made it sound so simple. “I’m sure I wouldn’t be completely alone. There must be other wizards at Oxford, after all. I expect they have dining clubs or something. And Hilary--well, Hilary’s going to do something really magnificent with her life, and perhaps it’d be better if I weren’t there to complicate things for her.”
The image froze; Hilary assumed at first that he was hesitating again, but after a long moment of still silence she realized that she had in fact been shown all she was going to see. There was no way to reason her way out of this--but the churning in her gut left no room for genuine doubt over her answer.
“Congratulations,” said Wimsey levelly when she emerged. “Full marks.”
Hilary eyed him sidelong. “Do you see what happens in there?”
“Nothing at all.” He touched the lens in his eye. “Only whether your answer was right or wrong.”
“Well, I think you’re a cruel little man,” said Hilary bitterly, and shoved the empty bottle at him. “You’d have to be, to have thought this up, and you can take it out of my score if you like.”
She didn’t wait to see his reaction before taking her seat next to Katerina, but she could see Dippet’s face slackened with shock, and that at least was worth a few shreds of satisfaction.
There was a presentation ceremony of some kind, but Hilary didn’t really process most of it; in fact, she very nearly forgot to be disappointed at having lost the tournament. She was only dimly aware of Wimsey presenting Katerina with the Triwizard Cup and her prize money, and that Katerina seemed very nearly as stunned as she felt. Even getting to eat dinner at the High Table afterwards, which she had always thought would be rather a thrill, felt more lonely than anything. She wanted, for once, to get out from under the eye of the entire school and be alone somewhere, and Merlin only knew when she’d have the opportunity for that.
There was one small mercy, and that was that Jerry wasn’t due to be released from the infirmary until the next day and had missed seeing the entire debacle. Hilary was grateful for that, at least; it would give her a little breathing room to decide how to deal with him.
Unfortunately, she still hadn’t decided by Sunday afternoon, when he caught up to her in the hallway on her way up to the Owlery. “Hilary,” he called after her, and then when she hesitated, “I say, hang on a moment, won’t you?”
Hilary sighed and tucked her letter in her pocket--she was, admittedly, in no particular hurry to be in touch with her uncle either. In the mood she’d been in all day, she would quite happily have cut off contact with every other human being in the world. “What do you want, Wimsey?”
He looked a little stung; it was a long time, probably, since she’d addressed him thus. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you’ve been avoiding me. You swore up and down you’d send Otto or something last night to let me know how it went.”
“I think you know me too well,” said Hilary dully. “That might be the problem, actually.”
“Hilary,” he said again, more uncertainly, and touched her shoulder; she shook him off. “If there’s something wrong--I mean, I know it’s rotten you not winning and all, but I really think you--”
“Oh, shut up,” said Hilary. She thought of him saying I’m not sure how well she’d take to outright declarations, and bile rose in her throat again; she had to swallow it back down, hard.
He removed his hand, but not entirely; it hovered irritatingly in Hilary’s peripheral vision. “Look, are you angry at me?”
“Congratulations.” Hilary scrubbed her hand over her face. “Full marks, Wimsey.”
Jerry threw up his hands. “I can’t believe I’m the one who’s got to ask this, but are you going to be the adult here and tell me just what I’ve missed?”
“Fine,” said Hilary, who was not naturally inclined to any kind of long-term manipulation, and momentarily regretted that fact. “After the end of this week I’ll never see you again anyway; what difference does it make?”
They located, as they were accustomed to doing, the nearest abandoned classroom; Hilary sat down on a desk, head in her hands, and after a moment’s uncertain fluttering in her periphery Jerry took the nearest chair.
Hilary made the mistake of looking up at him; he was watching her with unaccustomed wariness. She remembered, abruptly and unwillingly, that she was in love with him and that that was the reason she felt so utterly wretched. “Are--” He paused. “Is it--are you pregnant?”
“Of course not,” said Hilary scornfully. “I’ve been more careful than that. I didn’t want to be this kind of girl,” she blurted suddenly. “I never--I thought I was better than this, I thought I was smarter, I really did.”
“What kind of girl?” asked Jerry; there was nothing else to say.
“The kind of girl,” said Hilary hopelessly, addressing herself to her own knees, “who goes in for a bit of fun with a young man--no, it isn’t that, that on its own would have been all right, it’s the bit where I was stupid enough to go and fall for him and expect anything good to ever come of it.”
There was a mutually mortified silence for a few moments.
“This isn’t what I expected at all,” she went on, before he could start trying to reassure her of things she already knew and didn’t want to hear again. “I got into bed with you because I wanted to know what it was like, and because I trusted you better than anyone, and then it was so much fun and we kept on doing it and I--I’ve been so very happy with you the past six months, just the way things were, and I kept telling myself everything was perfect, that I didn’t want it to be anything more, and I lied, all right? It’s not enough and it’s never going to be, not now.”
Jerry produced a noise like a blow to the gut-- whether to his own or to hers, Hilary couldn't decide. "Me. I've made you happy?"
"You did," Hilary admitted; she hadn't meant to, and she was beginning to feel thoroughly ill. "I thought I was so lucky to be with you, damn it. Even if you were never going to love me back, or even be serious about me--I thought I ought to count myself lucky to have had this much time with someone I liked. Someone who understood me. What a load of rot that's turned out to be."
"That's what I thought too," said Jerry, nearly frantic. "But if something's gone wrong we can still sort it out, can't we? Just tell me what it is. You’ve no idea what it’d be worth to me, to be sure you’re all right." He sounded so bewildered, and Hilary resented him more than ever for it, if only because the alternative was to soften; what right did he have to be hurt by any of this? He'd gotten everything he wanted, after all.
"Oh, I know.” Hilary was scrabbling to express herself coherently; she had just enough clear thought left in her to realize that this was all pointless if she never explained at all. "The inkpot your uncle gave me for the third task--it was enchanted to tell the truth, the absolute truth, and it told me that you are in love with me after all. Except you were never going to tell me, were you? You thought you knew better. You were going to go off to Oxford and spare me whatever the hell you thought I needed sparing from, and get to feel very noble and tragic forever after about having broken my heart for my own good. And Merlin knows I haven’t any right to judge about not telling me how you felt, but thinking you knew better than me what I’d want--I can’t bear that, Jerry, I don’t think you could have thought of anything worse if you’d tried."
Jerry had gone parchment-white as her explanation progressed. "Would you listen," he began again. "If you'd just be reasonable for a moment and let me explain--"
Hilary shook her head, burying her face in her knees. "I can't, Jerry. I've been being reasonable nearly all year and it hurts far too much. I'm sick of it. I'm not going to be reasonable any more." She was beginning to shake all over, and hated it. “I would have said yes, you know,” she went on, because it was the most hurtful possible thing she could think of to say. “If you had only asked me to my face, if you had said, Hilary, do you want to be with me knowing you might have to make that choice someday, I wouldn’t have even hesitated.”
Jerry reached out to touch her. "Hilary--"
"Don't!" she almost screamed, clenching her fingers around the edge of the desk. "Look, don't--don't touch me, don't talk to me, don't look at me, I shan't be able to stay angry, just please, please, go away."
The backs of his fingers settled lightly against her cheek; Hilary knew full well he was doing it on purpose for the sake of being contrary, but seeing as this might well be the last time he ever touched her, she thought maybe she'd better permit it. "And here I thought I'd been a good influence on you." It was a thing he usually said in jest, but he seemed to have forgotten to joke about it this time; his voice was tight and shaking. Hilary had never been sure Jerry possessed even a shred of a temper, but if he did this was the closest she'd ever heard him come to showing it. "It's bad enough you've got the wrong end of the stick, but I wish you'd at least take a look at what the stick is before you start waving it about. I love you, Hilary; even--especially, Merlin help me, when you're being a stubborn idiot. Any other girl in the world would be glad to find their feelings returned, but since I've had the rotten luck to be stuck with you and you find it so damned inconvenient, I suppose I'd better just keep out of your way."
How typical of him, Hilary thought, doubled over and miserable; she should have guessed he'd manage an eloquent exit despite everything.
In the end Hilary felt she had no recourse but to explain the situation to Amy--who, being of an impressively practical and logical mind, was wholly sympathetic but couldn’t bring herself to deny the facts at hand any more than Hilary could.
“I don’t know what to do,” she concluded, bundled up in a blanket at one end of her bed while Amy sat cross-legged at the foot. “I never thought he would do a thing like this to me--but then again no girl ever does, does she?”
“That’s a dreadfully cynical way to look at it,” said Amy, although Hilary noted that she neither agreed nor disagreed. “And I don’t want you to think I’m siding against you or anything, because if it’s true he really has been a tremendous ass, but--”
“If?” Hilary blinked fuzzily at her.
“He seems very sure that you’ve made some kind of mistake,” said Amy cautiously.
“Don’t you think I’d love to believe that?” Hilary scowled. “The mistake would be in his uncle’s spellwork, then, and that doesn’t seem likely. Or I misunderstood somehow, and trust me: there wasn’t much room for misunderstanding.”
“You’re not going to like my advice, then,” said Amy, and sighed.
Hilary groaned pitifully. “I can’t talk to him, all right? I just can’t.”
“You’ve known him a long time,” Amy continued, relentlessly. “If you asked him outright, do you think he’d answer you honestly?”
“He would,” said Hilary, although she burrowed more deeply into her blanket for admitting it. “Even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.”
“Then you’ve got to ask.” Amy propped her chin in her hands. “I know you’re terrifically upset, and I understand, but suppose you /are/ wrong, and never mind why. If he’s that important to you, do you really want to miss that chance?”
“You’re a cruel woman,” said Hilary. Her stomach twisted, though; she knew the other girl was right. “The Wizengamot will love to have you one day.”
Hilary delayed as long as she could, but there was only so much fussing she could do over her choice of clothing with Amy there to egg her on. In any case her wardrobe had never been one of her greatest priorities to begin with, so eventually she settled for a clean skirt and her least wrinkled blouse and was pushed unceremoniously out of the dormitory. She set her shoulders and thought: where was Jerry most likely to be?
The Gryffindor common room was nearly abandoned, which she supposed was understandable; exams were over, and most students were likely to be outside. The kitchens, too, were empty of everyone save the house-elves who worked there, which left the Quidditch pitch as the next most likely prospect.
The walk to the pitch felt far too long; long enough, certainly, for Hilary to sink back into brooding. She felt a guilty pang of longing for her mother, and suppressed it. Mothers were, after all, meant to be confided in in this kind of situation--but she knew motherly reassurance wasn’t what she had needed to hear today. All the same, she couldn’t help thinking wistfully of her parents’ portraits back at home. It was nowhere near the same as having them alive and well, but whatever happened she’d certainly have a lot to tell them when she went home to the Red House. She had photographs, of course, but they were a still more inadequate substitute. Just useless little bits of the past, Hilary thought bitterly, bits of people trapped like--
Something clicked over in her head, and she stopped in her tracks.
It was a ridiculous idea, really; surely Merrythought and Parker had thought of it already, and whether right or wrong they must have been on the right track if Jerry and Louis were healing. But then again, seeing as it wasn’t her job to deal with the attacks in any case, surely a little curiosity couldn’t hurt one way or the other. And if it turned out there was something to the idea, she couldn’t very well leave it alone.
She stood there a minute and looked around, conflicted. The pitch wasn’t so far off, and she realized for the first time that she could recognize Jerry among the handful of other students practicing there. She had known him long enough to recognize his exuberant style of flight, but she saw no evidence of it now; he was hovering quite still and level with the goals, pelting Quaffle after Quaffle through them. Hilary wanted nothing more, and at the same time nothing less, than to to go there and face him.
The dark spike of a tower in which the Durmstrang students had arrived, and in which they had been living ever since, wasn’t too far off either. The new Durmstrang Head was fond of photography, Hilary recalled; perhaps he would know.
She stood there a moment longer, indecisive, but after all Jerry had been one of those attacked; his safety was more important, she told herself, than addressing their mutual heartbreak. In full awareness that she had just found an excellent excuse to put off an unwanted confrontation, she turned her path for the moment towards the Durmstrang tower.
It was a small space compared to any of Hogwarts’s House towers--after all, it only had to house one teacher and a dozen students--and it didn’t take Hilary long to find Petrinovich’s office, the very top room of the tower. She knocked on the door and someone said “Come in,” immediately, in a reedy voice she recognized as that of the man she was looking for.
“Oh!” said Hilary, as she shut the door behind her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t--hello, Katerina, I didn’t know you were here. I could come back later.”
“We were only talking,” said Katerina. “It’s quite all right--isn’t it, Professor?”
“And I would not have expected you, either,” said Petrinovich, and smiled. “I assumed it was another of my own students at the door. What can I do for you, Miss Thorpe?”
His office was understandably bare, lent character only by a shelf bearing a variety of cameras and a certificate not in English that Hilary suspected to be some kind of diploma. She noted, curiously, that for all his seemingly singular passion no actual photographs seemed to be on display. He seemed far more at ease than he had the last time she’d seen him; perhaps he, too, was relieved to be more inconspicuous now that the tournament was over.
“I had a question,” said Hilary, trying not to look round to see whether the Quidditch pitch was visible from his office window. “About photography. I can use a camera and all that, but I thought since you’re supposed to be rather an expert--it’s more about the magic that works it, really, and I don’t know anything about that. I was wondering--” She hesitated, suddenly embarrassed by the thought, but the only way to extricate herself from the situation at this point was to proceed. “The people who have been attacked during the Tournament. They’ve all been turned into paper, haven’t they? But it didn’t necessarily kill them. I mean, I saw Jerry Wimsey after his arm was cursed, and he could still move his fingers somewhat, even if they didn’t work right. So could the curse work on something of the same principle as a camera? Only turning the people themselves into images rather than creating images of them.” She laughed nervously; the idea sounded even worse aloud.
And yet, now that she had finished explaining herself, Petrinovich’s eyes had narrowed in a way that was beginning to make her genuinely uncomfortable. “It’s an interesting thought,” he said slowly. “But you’d have to ask one of the Aurors or your own professors. They are, after all, the ones who have been working on healing the poor young men who were cursed.”
“I haven’t yet,” said Hilary, and realised a moment too late that if a lifelong weakness for adventure novels had taught her anything, and if the absolute worst were true, she might have just said exactly the wrong thing. “I was only out for a walk, and I was passing the tower anyway so I thought I’d ask.” She glanced over at Katerina, who after all knew the man much better, but the other girl must have picked up on something as well, for she looked equally uneasy. No matter what, Hilary concluded, she was committed, and might as well see the thing through. “It was only a silly idea, really--but what do you think of it, Professor? Could I be right?”
“I think you’d better sit down,” said Petrinovich, but his smile this time looked far less welcoming somehow.
“Thorpe,” said Katerina hopefully, “it’s a beautiful day outside, isn’t it? We could go for a walk.”
“You can go, if you like.” Hilary shook her head, although she also didn’t think she cared to sit down. “I’d like to hear what you think first, Professor.”
“I think--” Petrinovich reached out of sight and laid his wand on the desk, holding it comfortably. Despite her resolve, Hilary edged a little closer to Katerina’s chair. “I think you had both better stay here for the moment. Just until I have an answer to your question, of course, Miss Thorpe.”
“Professor,” said Katerina, wide-eyed. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t understand,” said Petrinovich, sparing a glance for his own student and then looking back at Hilary. “Having been such a clever little girl and caught me out, why would you come directly to me and tell me so? And tell me first? You seem to lack forethought, Miss Thorpe. I imagine that’s why my own student here has proven to be the superior witch.”
Katerina looked pained. “You killed Professor Fedorov. And cursed Renard--and that Wimsey boy--why?”
“Gregor was old,” said Petrinovich sadly, “and growing soft. Too soft on all of you, and yet he could have gone a long time yet before retiring. Miss Thorpe wouldn’t understand; the English don’t know to be afraid of Grindelwald. But you should, Miss Chernikova; you should be afraid, and all your classmates too. That is why Gregor needed, unfortunately, to be replaced.”
“Grindelwald killed my father,” said Katerina, her usually low voice jumping up an octave for a moment, and Hilary stared; she hadn’t known. “In the attack on Varna, in 1918. I know what he is.”
“And yet England thinks nothing of him,” said Petrinovich, apparently worked up to a sufficient state to take this information in stride. “Grindelwald won’t cross the Channel; no one knows why; no one seems to care why. It isn’t that I wish he would; but it’s been so nice, for once, to see the English Ministry in a panic as ours must be all the time. Not to mention that it disguised my motives quite nicely. The Beauxbatons champion, and then Wimsey’s nephew--I imagine Wimsey and that Auror have been frantic to find someone who would want to sabotage the tournament.” His hand was tightening on his wand--whether consciously or not, Hilary couldn’t say, but she took advantage of his distraction to let her own slip down into her fingers. The reasonable thing would have been to run for it, but she hadn’t been lying; she had come with a question, and she /did/ want an answer.
Katerina was grim-faced again. “So you killed Professor Fedorov to get his job?”
“That’s a cruelly simplistic way to put it, but yes, I suppose so.” Petrinovich frowned. “You both realise, of course, that I won’t be able to let you repeat this to anyone else. But what, exactly, I shall do--”
He and Hilary raised their wands at almost the same moment, Katerina’s appearing half a second later. “Expulso,” blurted Hilary, desperate to think of something before he did, and the shelf over his head flew into bits and rained down on him. “Get out,” she told Katerina, in the precious few seconds while Petrinovich was cursing and recovering his wits. “I’ll keep him busy or something, go get help.”
Katerina opened her mouth to argue; then, to Hilary’s immense relief, she scrambled out of her chair and clattered away down the stairs.
Her relief was premature; Petrinovich was finding his feet again. He flung his wand hand out, shouted “Confringo!” and Hilary ducked just barely in time before the chair that had been Katerina’s exploded into flames.
“Stupefy,” she gasped, at the same instant that Petrinovich said “Confringo!” again, and the spells collided and ricocheted up into the ceiling. “People will know--Impedimenta--oh hell--if you kill me, you won’t be able to hide it this time. Impedimenta,” she tried again, and Petrinovich flew back against his desk, giving her a chance to get her back against the wall by the window before he could get back to his feet. She had to get her wits together; she had to Stun him properly, and soon, but her palms were sweating and she couldn’t seem to get a good grip on her wand.
Petrinovich wiped a trickle of blood from his head, blinked at his hand, and then shrugged. “I’d rather go out on my feet,” he decided, and raised his wand. “Confringo,” he said once more, just as Hilary got her grip back and shouted “Stupefy!”
The split second afterwards felt very long. It was enough time for Hilary to consider exploding in flames, and the sheer drop from the window, and to decide which she preferred. It was not, fortunately, enough time to reconsider; she twisted out of the way of the curse and leapt outward.
She didn’t hear the explosion, but she certainly heard and felt the loud /crack/ with which she hit the ground. She lay there for a minute, winded and contemplating the wide range of pains springing to life throughout her body, before it occurred to her that Petrinovich had not reappeared and that her own curse must have found its mark as well.
After a few more minutes Hilary groaned and decided to try to sit up. She could feel a variety of bruises, and she still hadn’t got her wind back; she also found her wand under one hip, snapped nearly in two, which doubtless explained the cracking noise. “Damn,” she muttered, and shoved the heels of her hands into her eyes before steeling herself to try getting to her feet.
The effort didn’t last long; the moment Hilary planted her left foot and tried to put weight on it, her shin bent in a way shins were absolutely not meant to do, and she screamed and collapsed back to the ground. The agony subsided slowly--how slowly she couldn’t tell, but it felt like years before she could think again and understood that her leg was broken.
She wished she knew how long it could possibly take for Katerina to get to the castle, and come back with help; for that matter, she wished she knew how long Petrinovich would remain Stunned.
For lack of anything better to do, Hilary fumbled with her wand, trying to hold it together enough to send up some sparks and attract attention. The best she was able to manage was a large cloud of oily-looking purple smoke, which hovered overhead for a moment and then drifted unhelpfully off towards Hogsmeade.
It was Parker, at last. Hilary hadn’t seen him arrive--her range of motion was, after all, somewhat limited--but she could hear the clatter of several more Aurors charging up the stairs inside the tower. “I broke my wand,” she said blankly, and then after a moment’s further consideration: “And my leg, I think.” She was trying not to look at it, to be honest; the sight was making her ill. “Is Katerina all right?”
Parker smiled reassuringly, kneeling down at her side. “Miss Chernikova is back at the castle. As far as I know she’s quite well, but it seemed best that she stay with Professor Dippet until the situation is cleared up.”
“Charles!” called a witch who was leaning alarmingly far out of the gap in the tower wall through which Hilary had jumped. “He’s up here--still out cold, looks like.”
“Oh,” said Hilary faintly. “Good.”
“Bring him down, then,” Parker called up, and then turned back to Hilary. “Well done, I see--although Mr. Wimsey will be dreadfully disappointed. He’d just gone off to Durmstrang to work out how Petrinovich had got that curse to Fedorov via post. It seems you’ve rather removed the need for that.”
“Never goes away until you need him for something,” said Hilary, and shivered. “That’s what Jerry said to me about him once--although you’d probably better not tell either of them I told you that, because really Jerry worships him terribly, and you’d probably better not tell either of them I told you that either.” She giggled nervously; the pain in her leg was subsiding into a surprisingly dull ache, but she was beginning to feel quite cold all over.
“Don’t worry,” said Parker, now examining her leg; Hilary reached reflexively to bat his hands away, and fisted her hands in her skirt instead to keep them out of his way. “I can do something about this for you, enough at any rate to get you to the Infirmary to get fixed up properly. You’ve been very brave, you know; stupid as hell not to leave the matter to me and Wimsey, but brave all the same.”
After an entire school year of being told how brave she was, not to mention clever and mature and generally outstanding, Hilary found quite suddenly that despite Parker’s good intentions she was thoroughly sick of it. “Of course I am,” she said, with a bitterness not even she could explain. “I haven’t got much of a choice, not when things keep happening, and it isn’t as though anyone else is going to be brave for me, is it?” She lay back on the grass and took in a deep breath, trying to calm herself, but it turned somehow into a sob instead; the next, for all her efforts, was worse. The tears that followed felt all but inescapable.
“Er,” said Parker, and hesitated in the middle of binding up her leg. “Miss Thorpe--” Amidst her shudders, Hilary felt the hesitant touch of his hand to her shoulder, and was so ashamed on top of everything else that it nearly made her sick.
She curled away from him, as much as she could without moving her leg, and wept into the crook of her arm. “I don’t,” she mumbled, “please don’t--I don’t want--” She did in fact want reassurance, but not if it were a lie, and no other kind seemed possible.
Not many people came to see her in the infirmary the next day--thanks no doubt to Madam Horrell’s draconian visitation policies, which Hilary had never thought she would appreciate quite so much. She loathed infirmaries and hospitals, but she thought perhaps she could stand it for the few days it would take her leg to fully heal, if only because she was so desperate for peace and quiet.
Professor Vane brought her breakfast and a pile of books to read, and was perfectly willing to make conversation about things irrelevant to either the tournament or Petrinovich, for which Hilary was profoundly grateful. Parker came as well and questioned her with an excess of care that embarrassed her dreadfully, no matter how many times she apologised for having broken down all over him the day before. Hilary startled herself partway through the interview with the recollection that Jerry’s infant cousin was Parker’s son; she wondered how he coped with his own child’s moods.
Wimsey visited too, close on Parker’s heels and no doubt freshly returned from Bulgaria. This encounter was still more awkward and much briefer, since he insisted on apologising profusely but exclusively for not having curtailed Petrinovich sooner, a matter for which Hilary had never blamed him to begin with. The real problem sitting between them was that of the last task--and that was a problem to which Wimsey was clearly not yet willing to admit, and for which Hilary was certainly not yet able to forgive him.
The rest of the afternoon was mercifully solitary, apart from Horrell’s occasional tactful appearances to administer more Bone-Mending Potion. Hilary flipped half-heartedly through one of the books Vane had brought her--it was inevitably a Potions textbook, and an old-looking one at that, but she found it strangely soothing and suspected the choice had been deliberate. For the most part, however, she dozed; it was as good a way as any to pass the time and to keep her mind occupied.
She lost track of time somewhat, but at some point Horrell brought a tray of dinner rather than a bottle of medicine. “You’ve one more visitor,” she said, helping Hilary balance the tray on her lap. “Miss Chernikova is here, but I can send her away if you prefer.”
“Katerina?” said Hilary, surprised; until the previous day she and Katerina had barely interacted outside of the Tournament and its peripheral functions. “Yes--yes, I think I’d like to see her.”
Horrell looked as though she would rather not have asked to begin with, but she nodded and withdrew into her office. Katerina appeared at Hilary’s bedside a moment later, hands kept uncertainly behind her back. “I only just heard you had been hurt,” she said apologetically. “I was kept in the Durmstrang tower much of the day--your Law Enforcement wizards have been very protective of us. How are you feeling?”
“Tired,” said Hilary. “I’m told my leg is in a few more pieces than it was this time yesterday, but the--er, Madam Horrell has been giving me something for the pain along with her healing potions. I’ve just had a rough weekend. How are people bearing up on your end?”
“Not too well. It’s been rough, as you say. And I know my school has a rough reputation, but losing two headmasters in six months is unusual even for us.” Katerina smiled wanly and took the chair at Hilary’s bedside revealing the plate she had been keeping behind her back. “Dinner was already served in the Great Hall, so--here. I don’t know if you like lemon sponge cake, but if your Infirmary is anything like ours it must be an improvement on what you’ve got there.”
“I /think/ this is just leftovers from what you lot had,” said Hilary, prodding her shepherd’s pie with a fork, but she accepted the plate and wedged it onto the tray with the rest. “Nothing too nightmarish. But I love sponge cake, so thank you.”
“I’m so glad.” Katerina beamed for a startling moment.
“How did you get in?” asked Hilary, between mouthfuls. “I have other friends who I’d hope would want to see me. I assumed the Horror just wasn’t letting students see me at all.”
Katerina looked embarrassed all over again. “She isn’t, but your Head had a word with her about it. It may be because what happened happened to us both, but I suspect being Triwizard Champion had something to do with it.”
“I imagine so.” Hilary sucked at her fork. “Congratulations on that again, by the way.”
“Thank you,” said Katerina, but she didn’t look entirely sure about it. “You did quite well yourself, though.”
“I spent half the first task up a tree,” said Hilary, and giggled. “It all seems a little ridiculous now, I suppose. I don’t mean to sound bitter or anything; it really does.”
“No, I see what you mean.” Katerina twisted her fingers together. “But the idea that I am somehow more worthy a person than you, or than the friends who came with me--after all, you saved my life.”
“I was fool enough to get you in danger in the first place,” Hilary reminded her.
Katerina was gracious enough not to contradict this. “I think,” she said thoughtfully, “that all things considered we’ve really all been very lucky.”
The footsteps weren't Madam Horrell's; they were softer, more hesitant, the footsteps of someone who wasn't supposed to be there and knew it. Hilary curled up and squeezed her eyes more tightly shut, hoping vainly that that might make whoever it was go away.
"Hilary," said Jerry hoarsely from her bedside, and her eyes snapped open before she could stop them.
He was standing over her, fully dressed, eyes wide in the dim light; Hilary sat up in bed, hugging her uninjured knee to her chest and watching him warily.
"I don't want you to think I've given up on convincing you you've got the wrong idea about me, because I haven't and you have, but this clearly isn't the most opportune time. I'll go," he concluded, and of course stayed right where he was, tugging restlessly at his own cuffs. "She wouldn't let me see you," Jerry went on, after a minute's uncomfortable silence. "The Horror. I don't know what she thought, that I was likely to take advantage of you while you were vulnerable or something, but she and Uncle and--well, both uncles, I mean--have got all cosy and won't tell anyone what's happened except that nothing too dreadful had happened to you and we ought not to worry." His face crumpled suddenly with exhaustion. "I had to see you, though. That's all. I had to know you really were all right. I’ve gummed up the door to Horrell's office to keep her out of the way for a bit, and you haven't hexed me yet, but you've the look of someone making up her mind to do just that, so I really do think I'll get out while I'm still safe."
Still lost for words, Hilary managed a pathetic little hiccup; it was enough, thankfully, to make him hesitate a moment longer. She had never been good at staying angry at him, even when he deserved it, and right now she was too worn out to be angry at anyone--and especially not Jerry, who looked so very frightened of what she might have to say to him.
"I don't know," she said at last, hopelessly. "I'm not--Jerry, I haven't even got my wand, stop looking at me like that. It's too much all at once. I don't know what to do about anything."
Jerry sat down on the edge of her bed, still hesitant. "So not all right, I take it?"
Before Hilary could even think, she was surging forward to kiss him; it wasn't even a very good kiss, but she needed the contact so desperately. It wasn't fair, she thought; now, when she needed someone to lean on more than ever, she didn't even know whether she could trust him. "This can't be right," she admitted, staring at a spot on the blanket between them. "Look at us, Jerry, we were so good together for so long--this can't possibly be right. Your face--"
"What's wrong with my face?" Jerry managed a wan semblance of a smile, thereby answering his own question.
"Nothing. Nothing whatsoever." Hilary dug her nails into her own palm, trying to steady herself. "Look, I haven't any right to ask anything of you any more, and I know that--but please, Jerry, I hate it here, I don't know how it's meant to be restful at all. Get me out?"
She couldn’t hold back a bit of a grimace as she maneuvered her splinted leg around to sit on the edge of the bed. As soon as she had pushed the blanket aside, Jerry scrambled to his feet to let her up--and then crouched, taken aback, to examine the splint. “I’m sorry,” he said, and sounded it. “I didn’t know. Does it hurt dreadfully?”
“It’s more of a nuisance than anything,” admitted Hilary. He touched her knee above the splint and then kissed the spot gently, and she flushed in embarrassment. “Don’t be silly--Jerry, please get up? All I need is your shoulder to lean on.”
There was a row of deeply-set windows down the corridor outside, their seats large and well-cushioned; through these they found that it had begun to pour rain outside, with the occasional flash of lightning to keep things interesting. Hilary fit herself as far back as she could into the corner of a window seat, hitching her nightgown up around her knees so she could let her splinted leg dangle freely out of her way. Jerry stayed seated upright on the edge, twisted round to keep a suddenly uncertain-looking eye on her. "You don't half look heroic with your leg all banged up like that," he offered. "I suppose that happened when you jumped out the window?"
Hilary rolled her eyes. "Don't mind me; it isn't as though I'd been looking forward to telling you all about it myself or anything like that."
Jerry laughed; for a second he hardly looked uncomfortable at all. "And I haven't been looking forward to hearing it straight from you, so you needn't worry."
"Not tonight, though," said Hilary apologetically. "I've hardly slept the past few days--don't make that face, I'd much rather be out here with you than staring at the ceiling back there. I just don't feel up to talking about it just now."
Jerry nodded, strain returning to his mouth. "I can't say I blame you there."
"I'm sorry," Hilary went on after a minute, picking at a bare patch on the velvet cushion; she had concluded that there was no way whatsoever to bring the subject up tactfully. "I'm really sorry, Jerry. I've been such a little beast to you."
"You were upset," said Jerry, as though she might have somehow forgotten.
"I am upset. I feel as though I'd been kicked in the teeth," said Hilary frankly. "But I feel as though I'd kicked you in the teeth right back--repeatedly--and I don't feel any better for it. I feel rather ill, honestly, and I don't--oh, Jerry, I don't know what to believe and I can't bear having hurt you and I don't how to fix this."
Jerry half-smiled. "Does that mean I'm allowed to explain now?"
"Please." Hilary swallowed.
He turned a little bit further towards her; that, at least, was something. "I went to my uncle yesterday and told him--not as politely as I might've, in hindsight--that that inkpot had told you something rotten about me I knew for a fact wasn't true, and what was I supposed to do about it? And he says the inkpot--and the watch and the spectacles--were charmed to tell the truth, but of course not the whole truth, else it'd have gone on for weeks. And, more importantly, to tell the truths one least wants to hear or else the falsehoods one wants most, just to confuse the issue. I think," Jerry concluded unhappily, "Uncle has been enjoying his job a little too much."
Hilary switched from picking at the cushion to picking at the hem of her nightgown, just for variety. "Then what didn't it tell me?"
Jerry frowned; she could almost see him searching for the right words. "I have to admit, I thought about going away, and you're right; I felt very heroic for a few moments, thinking about the great sacrifice I was making for your sake. But then I realized how utterly furious you'd be if you knew what I was thinking--and anyway, I couldn't have borne it." He sounded quite blatantly miserable. "I didn't /want/ to keep my feelings all to myself. So I was going to declare my intentions this week, after the tournament was done with, but now that it's been done for me I'm not entirely sure how to proceed."
"Tell me now," suggested Hilary, still staring determinedly at her own fingers. She was too tired to properly sort through everything that had gone wrong, but she believed him, right down deep inside where reason wasn't worth anything, and that was all she gave a damn about just now. "For starters."
"I love you," said Jerry hoarsely, and Hilary shuddered and closed her eyes. She felt his hand settle lightly over hers. "You said I'd made you happy for a while, and I'd do anything for the chance to have another try. Damn it all, Hilary, I'd never leave you like that. You've got to believe me. Unless--" he swallowed-- "unless you really wanted me to. And even then I expect you'd have a fight on your hands."
He hadn't asked a question, but it hung in the air all the same. Hilary rather thought this was the point at which she was supposed to throw herself passionately into his arms, and the urge was certainly there, but it was difficult to fling oneself about with a broken leg. "I love you," she said, very small: the second most difficult thing to say, though she'd all but told him already, and sure enough Jerry's hand clenched suddenly tight around hers. "Please--please don't go," and that was for some reason the hardest thing of all.
"Dear God, no," said Jerry vehemently, and all but flung himself at her. "Not if I can possibly help it."
Hilary, finding herself now sheltered snugly between him and the wall, turned her face into his shoulder. "Funny thing," she said, with good humor that was utterly unconvincing even to herself. "And here I always thought you were just the sort to go and fall in love with completely the wrong girl and go mooning about embarrassing yourself and her both, and I'd have to be the poor unfortunate who poured mead into you and let you weep into my shoulder."
"It seems you weren't far off in places." Jerry's hand slid over her cheek and into her hair. "Weasley may even tell you there was weeping, but he's a perfect rotter, and don't you dare believe him."
Hilary slumped against him; she felt she wasn't making a very good job of this passionate reconciliation thing. And he had wept over her. It was difficult to imagine. "I'm sorry," she said miserably. "I don't mean to go on like this, I swear. Tomorrow I'll--I'll wake up and remember about this, and I'll be so happy, and terribly proud of having come through the tournament so well and caught a real live murderer. But right now I've hurt you and let my parents' memory down and nearly been killed and oh Merlin, Jerry, I'm so tired. I don't mean to be a wet blanket just because I've got a--because I've got you."
"I'm sorry too." For all the lightness in his tone, Jerry still looked anxious. "I seem to have caused you quite a lot of pain and I'm still not entirely sure how it came about. Or what I'm meant to do about it."
"I don't know. I'm so tired, I can't think--but I'm not certain it was anyone's fault. Just a whole lot of rotten luck on everyone's part. More like you being used against me. I think." Hilary shivered. "Just be honest with me--which you are. You always are."
Jerry let out a long breath. "I think I can manage that."
"I love you," Hilary said again, just to learn the way the words felt in her mouth, and warmth flared in her chest when she heard his breath catch. They were in love with each other, and going to be, well, lovers; Hilary wasn't entirely clear on how that differed in practice from what they'd already been, and yet the thought made her dizzy. "Such a lot of fuss," she added aloud. "Just to go on doing the same thing we've been doing all along."
"Just the same thing?" Jerry kissed the corner of her eye, surprising a laugh from her.
"No," Hilary admitted. "No, you're right; just the same but better."
He smiled, and she was reassured, enough so to kiss him again, and this time to fully relax into it and forget everything else for a while. She felt that the world was nearly bursting with possibility; already it was beginning to seem insane that she should have taken it so much for granted that this could never be.
So, of course, she eventually began to giggle.
"What?" said Jerry softly. His fingertips were resting behind her knee, distracting her terribly despite not doing anything in particular; Hilary honestly couldn't tell whether he meant the light touch to be provocative or not. She was too worn out tonight for them to have any real fun, but it had been weeks since they'd been properly alone together, and the brush of his fingers there was intimate without being immediately suggestive.
"You," said Hilary, and grinned, despite the lingering ache in her chest. "I’m just glad. Incredibly glad. That’s all."
On Thursday morning Madam Horrell at last declared Hilary’s leg mended and released her from the Hospital Wing. Hilary was more than ready to be set free; apart from Jerry’s nightly visits she had had no opportunity to see her friends, and intended to go directly back to Ravenclaw Tower to locate them.
No sooner had she stepped out into the corridor, however--still a little cautious in putting weight on her leg, even though it was meant to be back to full strength--than Nearly Headless Nick flitted up. “Miss Thorpe!” He was visibly excited; so excited that his collar had gone askew, and his head was slipping slowly forward off his neck. “Something tremendous has happened.”
“Tremendously good, I hope,” said Hilary warily.
Nick beamed from ear to ear, which seemed answer enough. “Mr. Wimsey--young Mr. Wimsey, that is--and Mr. Weasley asked me to come find you as soon as possible. Sooner, Mr. Weasley said, if it could be swung; a very tactless choice of words on his part, I thought.”
“Common room?” guessed Hilary, and hurried away without waiting for him to answer.
Gryffindor Tower was in chaos, but it wasn’t difficult to locate the focal point of the confusion. What took effort was pushing her way through the crowd to the source of the trouble, which was honestly practically always Jerry or Sep. In this case, it was both.
“Thank heaven you’re here, Thorpe,” said Sep gravely. “There’ll be no managing him after this. Here, Jerry, look who we’ve found for you.”
Jerry had had his back turned, talking to Winnie, but he turned back and let out a great whoop of delight. “Hello, beautiful,” he said, and gathered her up right off her feet. “And here I thought the morning was already perfect.”
“Flatterer,” said Hilary, but she threw her arms around him in return to hide her blush. “What have you done now?”
Jerry set her down carefully. “I’m not sure, but I’m certainly not going to question it--here, look.” He uncrumpled a letter that had been clenched in his fist and offered it for her inspection.
Hilary didn’t even read it; she got as far as recognizing the Appleby Arrows’ logo at the top of the parchment, and her jaw dropped. “Jerry,” she said faintly. “Oh, Jerry, they didn’t. I thought you said--”
“I did say.” He swallowed visibly, gripping her hand. “But they sent a witch to scout Farringdon last year when we played Slytherin--you remember--and she remembers me, Hilary, she said that she was sorry not to have had the chance to see me play this year and that they want me to try out next month. It is only a tryout, I admit, but I won’t have to give up Quidditch--Hilary, I can stay. With you.”
Hilary slung her free arm around his neck and kissed him giddily. The gesture was received by the rest of the room with a mixture of groans and laughter and some insincere-sounding polite applause, along with the unmistakable rattle of coins, but she didn’t particularly give a damn about any of it. “I’m proud of you,” she murmured. “Not surprised, but proud. Well done.”
“I’ve never got anything by honest hard work before.” Jerry laughed shakily. “It’s a little unnerving.”
“You got me,” Hilary pointed out, and his grin brightened. “You’ll be perfectly fine, Jerry. Anyone who’s ever seen you fly could tell you as much.”
“Oh, Jerry,” said an irritating falsetto beside them, courtesy of Sep, whom they had all but forgotten. “I do love the way you use your broomstick--”
“Shut it, Weasley,” said Hilary, and kicked him viciously in the shin.
“So,” said Hilary, sidling into Wimsey’s makeshift office. “May I ask whom you’ve befriended in the Department of Magical Sports and Games?”
“Quite a few people over the years, as it happens.” Wimsey was, for some reason, rummaging through Parker’s desk; he shut a drawer and glanced up at her. “I take it my nephew has had some unexpected good news.”
“Not unexpected by you.” Hilary rocked on her heels, facing him across the desk. “He’ll work it out sooner or later, you know; he isn’t a complete fool. He knows someone somewhere went out of their way on his behalf.”
Wimsey perched on the edge of the desk, smiling sheepishly. “I haven’t done so very much, have I? Only given him the chance to show his own worth.”
It was clearly meant to be a rhetorical question, so Hilary chose to answer it. “Then you’ve done quite a lot, and all three of us know it. I don’t know what Jerry will think when he works it out--although I can’t imagine he’ll be so very put out, under the circumstances--” She hesitated, grimaced for a moment, and caught herself at it. “You’ve done me quite a good turn, too, by extension. So I came to thank you for it.”
“You forget the greatest benefit of all, which is that my sister-in-law will be extremely annoyed.” Wimsey grinned. “But you’re welcome all the same, and anyway it seems to have balanced things out in the end.”
“Let’s not talk about that,” said Hilary, and looked back down at the floor. She presumed him to be making a venture towards an apology, which at this point was enough for her to feel comfortable abandoning the matter altogether. “I think I’m allowed just one thing to be in denial over, and I don’t know whether I ought to be angry or thanking you, so I’d rather pretend you had nothing to do with it at all.”
“As you like,” said Wimsey; he might almost have sounded relieved himself. “It seems to have been a painful incident all round, but everyone’s come out of it for the better, which must count for something.”
Hilary had devoted some thought recently to the possibility of marrying Jerry--not soon, she had said firmly when he had made what he obviously felt to be an obligatory offer, but perhaps eventually. It occurred to her now, for the first time, that this also brought the prospect of having Peter Wimsey for an uncle.
There were many worse candidates, she decided: her current uncle, for example.
“Are you going today?” she asked at last. “I thought you’d only be here as long as the tournament lasted.”
“That was my intention,” he admitted, “but Professor Vane suggested that with only a day or two left until the end of school I might as well hold out for the Leaving Feast.”
“Did she?” said Hilary, interested. “Well, I’m sure she was only being polite.”
There was a mutually contemplative pause.
“You don’t suppose--” said Wimsey.
“I’m only seventeen,” said Hilary scornfully, “and she’s only my teacher. Why should I know anything about anything?”