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Sirius is tapping his foot in rhythm. Nervous energy. It’s right annoying, but I’m twisting my hands from nerves so I can’t much blame him. We’re waiting for the start of our first-ever Order of the Phoenix meeting, gathered in one of the musty rooms above the bar in the Hogs Head. Dorcas Meadows is giving Sirius a peculiar look, now, and Benjy Fenwick just reached round James to snap him on the shoulder in an effort to get him to stop tapping. Benjy doesn’t know Sirius that well yet; soon he’ll learn that it takes more than a hit to the shoulder to stop him when he’s stuck on something. I look over, into the cobwebby corner, and catch Remus’ eye. It’s three nights since the full moon, but he still looks peaky, and is sitting half in the shadows to keep the attention elsewhere, I know. Of course, with Sirius here, that’s no trouble. Sirius is a magnet for attention. People’s eyes just follow him, even when they don’t want to. Take Dorcas over there; with her blonde hair pulled back severely, her long (and I mean long) legs crossed delicately, she sits very straight and gazes at him disapprovingly, but her pale eyes never leave Sirius for more than a few seconds, flickering round the room and coming back to land on him. She can’t help herself. No one can.

The silence drags on, and I can feel it pressing on my chest, easing the air out of my lungs, and leaving me feeling trapped. Lily sits across from me, and she gives me a kind smile, noticing my discomfort. I’m not sure what I’m doing here. I’m not as effortlessly brave as James and Sirius, as steady and determined as Remus, or as unwavering as Lily. I want to be. I want to be so badly. But I realise that I’m not. I’m a rat in a maze, and it’s brought me here. I followed the cheese, without knowing where it would take me, and here I am.

I’m not made for war, the way the others are, but I think the wanting, the admiration, the desire to be better than I am is the Gryffindor in me. Even though I’m fucking terrified, I’m pushing myself out there with my friends. I’m joining Dumbledore’s Order. In truth, the people in this room scare me nearly as much as the Death Eaters. They’re better than me – all of them – and I keep waiting for them to catch on to that. For Dorcas to look down her long nose at me in disdain. For Benjy to flex his huge shoulders and toss me from their midst with his tree-trunk arms. Even for James and Sirius and Remus to grow tired of my contribution to the group; my contribution that is so much less than any of theirs. And yet I remain seated with them all, weathering my fear, keeping my arms crossed impassively over my thin chest. I level my gaze back at Lily and return her smile. I don’t like this silence. It leaves too much time for reflection, but I endure it because this is where I’m meant to be. If not here, where?

In two months it won’t be like this anymore. The tenseness will have left us, the formality flown from our midst in the face more important worries. We will have held each others’ lives in our hands, watched our fellows’ backs, lost some of our comrades. Our silences will be comfortable or respectful, our chatter full of camaraderie and life. After all, these people who were made for war, they’re also made for life, full of vibrancy and vitality.

I’m not sure what I was made for, but even as I sit here in the silence, there’s a bubble of fear in my gut, rising up in my throat and nearly obstructing my breathing: it’s telling me it wasn’t this.

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I hate these meetings, I really do. It seems so senseless to sit here, reviewing facts and plans ad nauseum while we wait for the next attack on our neighbours, our families, our friends. Because no matter how we package it, how we pretend our planning and our strategies matter, we always seem to be two steps behind the Death Eaters, and that’s three steps too many.

I hate the meetings because now they only remind me of our impotence, of our failures, and they used to remind me of our hope and our promise. I used to think there was no way we wouldn’t win. That was before the Trimdale bus and before the Hoxton housing estate, before Benjy on his farm, and Marlene in her flat. Now I know better. I know that there is no guarantee any of us are getting out of this, and that the minutes we have left are ticking by as we all sit here, waiting.

I long for the passion, for the fire, for the clarity of a fight. It’s the Gryffindor in me, I suppose. And, James would say, the redhead, too.

But the one thing about the meetings I do like is that we’re all here together. For a few minutes, or sometimes a few hours, we’re all crowded into the same room, breathing the same air. All of us still breathing. And that’s worth all the waiting and the murkiness in the world. I can’t help thinking, at the end of each meeting, “This may be the last time I see them all.” And sometimes, God help me, I’m right. I watch Remus fade into the night quiet as a rolling fog, and know that, depending on his mission, he may not be back for weeks. I follow Sirius’ departure beyond my ability to see him, watching the glowing amber end of his cigarette in the darkness, and I wonder if the smoldering ash will be my last glimpse of him. I listen to the click-clack of Dorcas’ heels on the cobbles as they beat a tattoo of farewell onto my conscious. I check the urge to run after all of them, to rage against the situation in which we find ourselves. The Order is struggling and we who are left must, at least, keep up the façade of strength, because without it we have less even than now.

I hate these meetings, but even more I hate their endings.

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I wish this thing would get started already.

I’ve never been much good at waiting; it’s a big part of the reason that James and I were late for so many classes in school. Why waste time sitting around waiting for a lesson to start? Better to come in when the professor is just getting to the good part.

But even I know this is too important to brush off, too serious to miss even the first few minutes. Those minutes won’t mean the difference between an E and an A on my next essay. They might be the difference between my life and my death; or worse, one of my friends’. For that I’ll endure the uncomfortable anxious waiting for Dumbledore to arrive, to take inventory, to tally our victories and our losses, and to send us back out again. For that I’d do anything. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.

I drag slowly on my cigarette, the languid movement at odds with my rapidly beating heart. It calms me, the familiar push of smoke into my lungs and its return passage out my nostrils. It is methodical, measured. Wormtail bums a fag off me and I pass him the packet. He lights the tip with a spark from his wand that flares brightly, then dies too quickly. Ash is left. He tries again, and this time it takes. Our smoke mingles in the air and Dorcas wrinkles her nose, but says nothing. I almost wish she would. A good row would take my mind off the waiting.

It seems ages since we first arrived, waiting for the others to trickle in, in fits and spurts. And of course, waiting still for those who don’t come any longer, whose empty spaces remain in our meetings after they’ve gone. There’s an empty chair to Lily’s left that no one takes because of everyone knows it’s Marlene’s, knows it just as sure as we know she’ll never sit there anymore.

If being on time, if hearing every solitary word that Dumbledore has to say will ensure that there are no more empty chairs, that no one will be taken from us like Marlene, like Benjy, like Caradoc, then by Merlin I’ll never be late again.

But damn it, I know it won’t.

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I tap the box of cigarettes on the scarred table before me – one, two, three – before flipping open the lid and extracting one slim cylinder with clumsy fingers. They're Sirius’ fags; I bummed one off him and now he is holding out a light, turning the stick into a glowing lifeline through which I can finally, deeply, draw breath.

Around the table all eyes seem to be following our movements as we light up. Some meetings are like this, tense and quiet as we wait for Dumbledore to arrive. The tension is born as we watch our colleagues trickle in through the pub doors, sidle to the bar and get a drink, before coming to join us in our watchful vigil. Paradoxically, it gets worse with each new arrival. For each person who makes it, there are lingering nerves and unspoken questions about the ones who have not. Mission? Other business? Simply too fagged out to care? Or worse – death? Betrayal? The longer the uncomfortable silences stretch, the more these questions seem to tumble round our quiet group in a cacophony. Sometimes I can't hear myself think for the silences.

“So, Pete-“ I break into the quiet abruptly, my voice scratchy with the remnants of smoke in my throat. “I hear you pulled someone last night.” I wiggle my eyebrows suggestively, and Peter flushes red. I grin. Around the table there are several raised eyebrows at this line of questioning – poor Elphias Doge looks scandalised - but after a moment Sirius lets out a barking laugh. James nudges Peter significantly in the ribs with his elbow, and Remus, who is sitting next to Doge, offers a politely bemused smile that sure as hell doesn’t fool me. I don’t know if it fools anyone else.

“So, was she pretty?” I press, taking another long drag. Peter nods, turning the colour of a ripe plum. My teasing is fairly gentle and well-meaning, though Peter does embarrass easily. I suppose I shouldn’t pick on him, but I can’t quite help it. He sets up an awful lot of funny moments without even trying, and I always seem to be using them to entertain - others and myself.

Humour is my best trait. I can say that without self-consciousness or self-deprecation. I'm pretty enough, I suppose; my fair skin is framed by simple brown hair, and set with coffee brown eyes, but it's clear and I've been told I have a nice smile. I don’t have the steely composure of Dorcas, with her perfect blonde chignons and tailored outfits, and I don’t have the fiery passion of Lily, with her burning hair and glittering eyes. What I do have is a willingness to put myself out for a joke; an uncanny ability to push people’s limits with my (occasionally bawdy) humour, and to make them laugh. Sometimes I think - I hope - that those things might just be as important as passion or composure in a war.

“Don’t tell me she’s mousy, Peter. I can’t see you with someone mousy. You need a take-charge woman.” Benjy chuckles; James' face looks like it might split for grinning, and Peter gapes.

“Don’t worry about that, McKinnon,” Sirius interjects. “Mice aren’t Pete’s rodent of choice.” The boy in question splutters, while James and Sirius burst into inexplicable laughter, and Remus rolls his eyes but can’t quite hide his snickers. I don’t get the joke – except that it's off-colour and about Peter’s apparent proclivity for small animals – but their laughter is contagious. I want to keep it going – it seems crucial to keeping the dangerous, swallowing silence at bay. While we're laughing, nothing bad can happen. No one will be killed, captured, or maimed. Death Eaters can't run amok while we're laughing. We just have to keep laughing until the end of this war, and somehow, I know, that will get us out of it. I just have to keep it going. As the laughter begins to taper into chuckles and to die, I break in again.

“So… Have you lot heard the one about the hag, the healer, and the herbologist?”