It was three days before the dungeons were dry enough for the Slytherins to move back into them, but a fetid, swampy odour still lingered, wafting up the steps into the entrance hall. Fortunately, no one had drowned, but several students checked into the hospital wing with chills and fevers earned during the long minutes it had taken to unstick the door of the Slytherin common room and evacuate everyone to higher ground.
Everyone was furious. The professors. Mr Pringle. Madam Pomfrey. Even amiable Headmaster Dumbledore had a firm set to his mouth when he announced over breakfast the morning after Halloween that anyone with information regarding the flooding of the dungeons should report to their Head of House. Sirius had even heard a rumour that Professor Slughorn had tried to enlist the help of the Defence master in tracking down the culprits, but that Professor Gandolfsson had flatly refused, saying that his business was catching Dark wizards, and he wasn't going to waste his time on pipsqueaks and hooligans.
James was keeping a low profile. Peter wore a perpetually-terrified expression, as if Professor McGonagall might leap out at any moment and collar them. Remus was being unusually quiet, even for Remus. Sirius was fairly confident that they wouldn't be expelled if they were found out, though they might end up serving detention until they sat their NEWTs.
"If they nick us, we'll swear you and Pete had nothing to do with it," he promised.
It was only safe to discuss the events of Halloween night in hushed voices in the privacy of their own dormitory. Suspicion had immediately fallen upon Gryffindor House, due to their age-old rivalry with Slytherin, but so far, no one had been able to prove anything, or seemed to think that students as young as second year might be involved.
"Mm," said Remus, not looking up from his Astronomy calculations.
"You know we didn't do it on purpose."
Remus gave him a stony look. "Well done. You've hit on the only reason why I'm still speaking to you. D'you know I had to lie to Lily when she asked if you had anything to do with it?"
Sirius sighed theatrically and flopped back onto his bed. They had managed to annoy the Slytherins, and they hadn't been caught, and yet somehow the prank still felt like a failure.
"We just need to work on the planning side of things," said James. "If Lupin had helped out a bit more, the Slytherins might've stayed warm and dry and just a bit smellier than usual."
"Oh, so now it's my fault you almost drowned the Slytherins?" Remus raised his eyebrows.
James shrugged. "You were the one telling us all the reasons why it wouldn't work. Maybe if you'd done a little re-con with us --" he said, using a favourite term of the Prewetts', "-- you'd have spotted the flaw in our otherwise brilliant plan."
"See, Moony? We need you." Sirius threw a pillow at him, which Remus deftly deflected. "You can be 'planning' -- you and Pete," he added, to be fair, since Peter seemed to have mostly got over his reservations about Remus, "and James and I will be 'execution'."
"I don't mind helping with planning," Peter said. "It's just getting caught and detention I'm not keen on."
Remus contemplated Peter's eager face, and sighed. "Fine. If it'll keep you lot from getting expelled or losing so many House points, I'll do what I can."
But the fallout from the Halloween prank had cast a pall over the beginning of November which that one small victory did little to alleviate.
The Saturday marking the first Quidditch match of the year dawned wet and windy, with sheets of near-freezing rain washing down from a lead-grey sky. Peter took one look at the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall and quickly agreed to skip seeing Gryffindor play Hufflepuff in favour of studying for Defence Against the Dark Arts with Remus. The two of them left the hall together after a quick breakfast.
As Sirius and James finished their own meal, a few post owls straggled in, soggy and ruffled from the weather. Not unexpectedly, one of them was for James, who had owls from home at least twice a week. More surprising was the annoyed-looking grey bird that alighted next to Sirius's plate: his parents' owl, Athenasius. It glared at him disdainfully as he detached the scroll from its leg and unrolled the parchment.
Father found the last Letter you sent. He and Mother are angery that I have been writting to you. They said I coud write you this one Time to tell you some Things but this is the Last time.
First I am to tell you you have to come Home for the Crismas Holidays. Cousin Bellatrix is having a Party and Mother and Father want you there.
Second I am to say that Mother and Father think you are letting your Frends influents you to much. They do not care about your future Prospects and will only leed you Astray. Mother and Father say that you are yung and do not understand how the World works yet. You must trust that they have your best intrests in Mind. Some day you will thank them.
A hastily-scrawled postscript followed the body of the letter.
P.S., Sorry. I no you like your Frends. I had to say those Things. Mother red it befor she let me send it. Tell Jamse and Peter I said Hello. I miss you. I wish you coud of been here for my Birthday. See you at Crismas.
Sirius scowled, shooing the owl away and glancing sidelong at James, ready to deflect any questions. But his best friend was still staring at his own short letter, a troubled expression on his face.
"Is everything OK?" Sirius asked.
James looked surprised to find that Sirius was still there. He shook his head. "It's from Mum. Dad's in hospital."
"What?" The thought of something bad happening to either of James's parents made Sirius's belly squirm. "What happened? Is he going to be all right?"
Wordless, James handed the letter to Sirius, who almost tore the parchment in his haste to read it.
I just wanted to make sure you knew before you heard anything from anyone else that your father is going to be fine. Something happened at work last night, and he's being treated at St Mungo's. I'm here with him. The healers say he should be able to go home in a day or two. I probably shouldn't say any more than that here. Your father will write to you when he's able so that you will know he's well. Give our love to your friends, and don't worry.
Sirius stared at the letter, remembering the bright smile and warm embrace with which Mrs Potter always greeted her husband when he came home. He looked up to see his friend sitting silently, shoulders hunched, and did not know what to say to him. Feelings weren't something he and James talked about much; Remus was better at that sort of thing. Sirius's stomach churned with worry for the family who had taken him in, but he knew James must be feeling at least ten times worse.
"Are you OK, mate?" he asked quietly.
James stood abruptly, plucking the parchment scroll from Sirius's hands and stuffing it into his pocket. "Yeah. Fine." He cleared his throat. "I'm -- just going to go write them back."
Sirius glanced up at the ceiling and its reflection of the driving sleet that battered the castle's walls and windows. "You'll never get an owl out in this," he said. "Let's just go down to the Quidditch. Half the school will be there, even in this weather. We can ask if anyone's seen today's Prophet. If something big happened, it'll be in there, yeah? We can write back once the weather lets up."
James hesitated a moment, then nodded reluctantly.
They made their way down to the Quidditch pitch, bundled in their winter cloaks, wind tugging at the red-and-gold scarves wrapped around their necks and ears. The cloaks were mostly waterproof or they would have been soaked to the skin in minutes. Fortunately, the Gryffindor stands stood with their backs to the wind, providing some protection, but sneaky gusts still found their way down necks and up cuffs.
The match started, but James refused to settle. "You can stay here and watch," he told Sirius. "I'm going to ask around."
But Sirius was just as anxious to find out what Mrs Potter had been unable to say in her letter, and followed his friend silently from one cloaked and hooded spectator to the next, as James asked if anyone had heard any news that day. None of the Gryffindors seemed to know anything, apart from a girl who had overheard some Ravenclaws discussing an attack of some sort, but she had no details. No one, it seemed, took the Daily Prophet.
"What do you want to do, mate?" Sirius asked, as they stood shivering at the corner of the stands.
They watched the match desultorily for a moment as Hufflepuff scored a goal. The players were so bundled up against the weather that it was nearly impossible to tell who was who, apart from the colours of their robes. Sirius had never seen James so disinterested in Quidditch, especially when Gryffindor were playing.
"It sounds like the Ravenclaws might know something. That swotty bunch are bound to take the paper, aren't they?"
James shrugged. "Yeah, OK."
They made their way down the steps and through the covered walkway to a staircase marked with a blue-and-bronze banner. The presence of the two young Gryffindors in the Ravenclaw stands was largely ignored, apart from a few curious glances. The first few people they asked shook their heads, but finally they were pointed towards a fifth year girl named Septima Vector, seated near the top of the stands.
"Someone said you get the Prophet," said James, not bothering to introduce himself.
"What about it?" replied Vector warily.
"Was there anything in today's about an attack on some Aurors?"
The girl's expression melted into sympathy at the desperate look on James's face, and she drew a much-folded sheaf of newsprint from inside her robes. "I brought it down to finish, but it's too wet to read. You can have it, if it's important. I can always borrow someone else's later."
"Thanks," said James, snatching the paper from the girl's hand.
He immediately unfolded it and sat down, eyes darting over the words as the figures in the moving pictures scurried to avoid the spatter of raindrops. Sirius sat close beside him, leaning over his shoulder, searching for the name "Potter". Wind rattled the pages and the soaking rain caused the print to bleed through from the other side, making reading difficult. The name wasn't there, but the story was, about halfway down the front page.
Auror Killed in Raid Gone Wrong
A senior member of the Auror Department is in hospital, and a second Auror is dead, following a raid on a Yorkshire home Friday night.
A statement released by the Department confirms that the Aurors were following up on an anonymous tip concerning the Easter Murders earlier this year. The home was owned by a Muggle family who were reported missing last month. No suspects were apprehended in the course of the raid.
As of this printing, no further details are available. The Department is withholding the names of the Aurors involved until their families can be notified.
"Well, that doesn't tell us anything," complained Sirius.
James did not reply, but only sat with his head bowed, eyes closed. Something that looked suspiciously like a tear leaked down one cheek.
"Hey," said Sirius softly, scooting closer. "It's OK. Your mum said your dad will be fine, didn't she?"
James shook his head, scrubbing the sleeve of his cloak over his face. "It's not just Dad, though, is it? Ambrose is dead."
"Who?" asked Sirius, confused. He glanced back at the sodden pages of the paper, but saw no mention of anyone named Ambrose.
"Dad's partner, Ambrose Brown. They've worked together as long as I can remember. Dad trained him. They're really close." James's lip trembled, and he bit down on it. "Oh," said Sirius, at a loss. "D'you want to go back up to the castle?"
James shook his head. "Let's just watch the match."
Sirius had a hard time focusing on the action, knowing his best friend was upset. James did not seem to care much about what was happening above the pitch either. When Gryffindor's Captain, Gertrude Brown, fumbled an easy catch from fellow Chaser Columbanus Grey, James said nothing. He barely seemed to notice the two goals their House managed to score. And when Hufflepuff's Seeker, Amos Diggory, easily outmatched Matilda Hathersage to catch the Snitch, James only sighed.
The Ravenclaws began to leave the stands, but James remained slumped in his seat, staring into the distance. Sirius waited in silence, watching as the players returned to the ground and dismounted their brooms. The Gryffindor team shook hands with the Hufflepuffs, formally congratulating them on their win before heading to the changing rooms. The Gryffindor Captain looked as if she was crying.
"Typical girl," commented Sirius, hoping to distract his friend from his sombre thoughts. "So what if we lost? It's only the first match of the year."
"Yeah," James said, eyes following the players as they disappeared into their changing rooms, Gryffindor's Captain leaning on the consoling arm of the Keeper, Florence O'Neill. Abruptly, he stood. Sirius hurried to follow him, eager to get back to their dormitory and change into warm, dry clothes. But at the exit from the pitch, James stopped to lean against the wall.
"What're we doing?" asked Sirius, pushing damp, windblown hair out of his eyes.
"There's something I need to do." James looked uncomfortable. "You don't have to wait. I'll see you back at the room."
Sirius was not about to leave his best friend on his own in his hour of need. It was a mark of his particular fondness for James and his family that he did not complain once about how cold and wet and miserable he was, but merely stood by the other boy, waiting in silence for as long as James felt the need to do so.
The Hufflepuff team reappeared first and headed up to the castle, still in high spirits over their win. They gave the two young Gryffindors a curious glance in passing, but James ignored them, and Sirius followed his lead. The Gryffindor players took longer to emerge, and when they did, it was as a tightly-huddled and much-subdued pack, with their Captain at its centre.
James pushed away from the wall and fell into step beside them. "Brown?" he said.
The Captain turned. Her eyes were red and there was a forlorn set to her mouth. "Oh. Hey, Potter. Did you want something?"
"You're related to him, aren't you?" James stuffed his hands into the pockets of his cloak, looking uncomfortable. "To Ambrose Brown?"
Tears welled up in the girl's dark eyes and she bowed her head. "He's -- he was my cousin," she said softly.
"I'm sorry," said James. "I just wanted to say -- he was a really good bloke. My family really -- If there's anything I can do --"
She gave him a wobbly smile. "Thanks, Potter. He always had good things to say about your dad. Is he OK?"
"Mum says he will be."
"I'm glad to hear it," Brown said sincerely.
Sirius, following silently, experienced an odd sense of disorientation. He had always supposed that the line between boy and man was something that one crossed when one turned seventeen, or perhaps when one left school. But without any warning, his best friend seemed to have stepped over it, at least for the moment. The strain of grief made James look older, and he seemed taller than Sirius remembered. A vast chasm had opened between them which Sirius had no idea how to cross, and he felt suddenly very young, very lonely, and very much left behind.
"Gertie told us about what happened," said a voice at his elbow, nudging him out of his thoughts.
He glanced sideways at the concerned face of Matilda Hathersage, and gave a non-committal shrug.
"Could you -- I mean, if you don't think he'd mind -- just tell him I hope his dad is better soon?" The girl blushed and looked down at her feet.
"Sure," he said. And he supposed he would, too, if he remembered later.
He and James split off from the team when the reached the Gryffindor common room. By the time Remus and Peter returned from their study session just before lunch, they were in their dressing gowns, sitting on Sirius's bed, drinking tea and writing letters to James's parents.
Remus stopped in the doorway, eyes narrowed. "That's my tea, isn't it?"
"Might be," said Sirius, rolling up his parchment and securing it with a Sealing charm.
The tea had a pleasant soothing effect, which was why Sirius had pilfered it in the first place. James's demeanor was much calmer now, and Sirius, too, felt more relaxed.
"I wish you'd ask first," Remus grumbled, checking his stash to see how much was missing. "That stuff's not cheap, you know."
"James had bad news from home," Sirius told him.
"Oh." Remus sat down on his bed. "What happened?"
James handed over the disintegrating remains of the Prophet, and Remus tried to make out the story while James supplied the few known details in a dull tone.
"I'll replace your tea," he finished. "I know you get it special."
"No, it's all right," Remus said quickly. "It sounds like you needed it."
"Thanks. I will, though."
"So --" fidgeted Peter, ever uncomfortable in the face of other people's distress, "who won the Quidditch?"
Following Saturday's wet weather, the coughs and sniffles which had plagued the Slytherins since Halloween spread to the rest of the school. By Sunday evening, Madam Pomfrey had run out of her usual cure-alls, and was turning away those with non-critical ailments until she could find the time to brew more. So many people, including professors, came to class bleary-eyed on Monday, or were out altogether, that Dumbledore announced over supper that Tuesday's lessons would be cancelled, and advised everyone to use the day for rest.
Aside from a pair of red, runny noses on the part of James and Sirius, the Marauders were untouched by illness. A side-effect of Remus's lycanthropy was that, apart from headaches and nausea related to the lunar cycle, he rarely fell ill, for which he was grateful; he spent more than his fair share of time feeling miserable as it was.
Nevertheless, a grimness hung over the Gryffindor dormitory. The danger of the political situation in Wizarding Britain had touched James and Sirius for the first time, and they both felt it keenly. They reacted with a restless irritability, especially after James went to see Professor McGonagall, and was told that she had already spoken to his mother, and no, he would not be permitted to go home for a visit until the following weekend, nor would Sirius be allowed to accompany him without his own parents' consent.
Meanwhile, details of the attack trickled in, including the obituary notice of Ambrose Brown, age 29, printed in Monday's Prophet. Brown, it was reported, had died a hero, taking a Killing Curse meant for his partner, senior Auror Joseph Potter. Even the short letter James received from his father on Monday evening, saying that he was resting at home and not to worry, did not make James or Sirius feel much better.
Peter tried in vain to distract his friends with manic cheerfulness and abrupt changes of subject, but only succeeded in grating on his roommates' already-frayed nerves. Remus watched his friends with sympathy. Distraction was something they all sorely needed, but not of the sort Peter was trying so desperately to create. What James and Sirius needed was something constructive to occupy them.
"C'mon," he said, swinging his legs off the bed and shoving his feet into trainers. "Let's do something."
"Like what?" James asked suspiciously.
"Have either of you even started the assignment for Defence yet?"
Sirius groaned and flopped back onto his bed. "Defence is cancelled, you swot! We're meant to be resting today; not doing boring schoolwork."
"What if I promise it won't be boring?"
Peter sat up, closing the comic book he had been reading. "It's actually really cool."
"What is?" asked Sirius.
Remus rolled his eyes. "Do you even remember what the assignment was?"
Sirius shrugged. "Concealment charms or something."
"No, he's right," said James, sitting up. "We have to learn this stuff. It's not safe out there. Anyway, I need to do something. I'm going spare, just sitting around here."
Sirius sighed, reaching for his robes. "Fine, if you're all going."
Remus led them through the deserted corridors, pausing now and then to reach out with his senses, looking for just the right spot. At last, he stopped.
"OK, this is good," he told the others. "You can put your wands away; you won't need them for this."
"You said it wouldn't be boring," accused Sirius. "What kind of not-boring magic can you do without a wand?"
Remus shook his head, exasperated. "Magic isn't boring. D'you have any idea how many Muggle kids would give anything to trade places with us? Imagine what life would be like if you had to do everything the hard way -- if you didn't even know magic existed."
"I thought you said wizards weren't better than Muggles," Sirius sniffed.
"We're not," Remus told him. "We're just really, really lucky."
"All right, Professor Moony." It was Sirius's turn to roll his eyes. "What sort of 'interesting' magic are we doing without wands?"
"Pete? You want to show them?"
Immediately, Peter scrunched his eyes shut, screwing up his face in concentration. He swayed back and forth on the spot for a moment, tilting his head from side to side. Then his eyes popped open.
"There!" he pointed triumphantly at a shallow alcove in the stone wall.
Remus nodded approval. "Well done."
Sirius and James remained unimpressed until Remus stuck his hand into the alcove. His fingers appeared to sink into the stone. He felt around the edges and then ducked into the concealed space behind the illusion. A low stone passageway with an arched ceiling lay on the other side, disappearing into darkness.
When he reappeared in the corridor, James and Sirius looked back and forth between him and Peter in astonishment before hurrying over to inspect the enchanted alcove for themselves.
"How did you know that was there?" Sirius demanded.
"Can you teach us?" asked James, pulling his head back out of the wall.
"He taught me," said Peter. "If I can do it --"
Remus patted him on the shoulder. "You caught on really quickly once you understood it. You're better at this stuff than you think, Pete. Don't let anyone tell you you're not."
Peter beamed with pride, and Remus allowed himself a rare smile. He had known that his friends would never rest once they realised Peter had one up on them.
"And there's stuff just hidden all over the school?" asked Sirius. "Doorways and rooms and things we can't even see?"
Remus nodded. "Secret passages, hidden stairways, all kinds of things."
"Merlin, this is brilliant!" breathed James, eyes lighting up for the first time in days. "We could get all around the school without being seen!"
"Pringle and the rest of the staff probably know about most of them," Remus reminded him. "Anyone who knows how can find them as easily as we can."
"They could still be really useful," said James. "Show us how?"
It took Sirius and James a while to get the hang of it.
"It's not really 'seeing'," Remus explained patiently the fourth time he caught James peeking when he was meant to have his eyes closed in concentration. "I don't care what Gandolfsson says; you have to feel for it."
"But what does it feel like?" Sirius asked, arms flailing blindly.
Remus caught his hands, forcing them gently back down to his sides. "Sort of prickly. Tingly. Like static electricity. You know how you get a shock sometimes when you touch something metal after walking around in your stocking-feet? Like that. But it's really light, so you have to focus."
"But how do you --?" James started.
"You'll never get it if you keep talking," Remus told them. "Just relax, breathe deep, and empty your minds."
"No wonder Pete managed it," he heard Sirius mutter. "His mind's already as empty as a house-elf's sock drawer."
"Oi!" cried Peter, reddening.
Remus shot Sirius a quelling look. "Don't listen to him, Pete; he's just annoyed because you're better at something than he is. It's a feeling he should get used to if he's not willing to do the work."
"Shut up, all of you," snapped James, eyes popping open. "I almost had it for a second."
"Show me," said Remus.
James closed his eyes, turned, and pointed in the direction of the enchanted alcove.
"Yeah, brilliant," said Sirius sarcastically. "If he didn't already know where it was."
"OK," Remus sighed. "Let's try again. You two close your eyes, and Pete and I will spin you. You're not to peek until you've shown me you can sense the charm."
He took James by the arms and turned him half a dozen times, while Peter spun Sirius. The two boys swayed dizzily on the spot for a moment, but obediently kept their eyes shut. Remus circled around them so that his position would not give away the location of the enchanted alcove.
"Just breathe and reach out with your minds," he said softly. "I know you can do this. Be patient. Feel for the energy. Where is it coming from?"
"I think I feel it," Sirius muttered. "It's sort of -- warm."
"OK. Go towards it," said Remus. "Keep your eyes closed."
Sirius took a couple of hesitant steps, changed course, grew more confident -- and blundered straight into Remus, nearly knocking both of them to the floor.
"That's me, you prat," Remus informed him as Sirius clung to his shoulder for balance, eyes still closed.
"Sorry. I thought I felt -- never mind."
"It's all right," said Remus, steadying him. "We've all got magic in us. It didn't make as much difference the other day when it was just me and Pete, but I guess with four of us here, it's more confusing. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to use it to sense when there are other witches or wizards nearby, which can be really useful, too. But magic that's part of a person feels different from an enchantment. I should have realised when Sirius said it felt warm. Magic only feels warm when it's attached to something living. Anyway, good try, Sirius. You're definitely catching on. Now see if you can sense a cool energy instead."
"That's no good," quipped James. "He'll be bumping into me next."
Sirius snorted and Remus bit back a laugh. "Let's try again."
When they finally got the hang of it, Remus made them each show him they could do it three times in a row after being spun around, and they were rather giggly, both from dizziness and from the success of the lesson, by the time they headed back to Gryffindor tower.
"This is brilliant," said James. "We should make a map of the school with all the secret bits on it."
"Maybe there already is one," Peter mused. "We could ask the Prewetts."
"Dunno how Gandolfsson expects us to learn anything if he doesn't explain it properly." said Sirius.
"He's a rubbish teacher," agreed James.
"Not like our Professor Moony." Sirius grinned and gave Remus a slap on the shoulder. "Maybe you should apply for the job next year."
Remus's cheeks coloured at the praise. "I dunno," he said, biting his lip to hide a smile. "Some of the NEWT level students might not like being taught by a third year. Anyway, I heard the job is cursed."