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More Than One Path - A Marauders Era Fic

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There is more than one kind of magic. The most familiar kind is taught at Hogwarts. However, there exists an older, stranger magic, not well understood, but powerful in its own way. Once, perhaps, it was the dominant force in the magical world, but now few children are born with it. Those who do possess it present a special challenge to those who must teach them to control their gift.


AUTHOR'S NOTE

Due to mature situations, this story may not be suitable for younger readers



CHAPTER ONE - MAGIC, AND OTHER SUBJECTSEdit

For years, Severus Snape has dreamed of going to Hogwarts, but his first night there is a disaster. He quickly discovers that although he excels at lessons, getting along with the other kids requires skills he can’t learn in a book. However, help may be at hand, from some surprising sources.




The Sorting Hat shouted,

“Slytherin!” and Severus almost ran to take his place at the table. One of the oldest boys spoke to him, his tone welcoming, and Severus nodded, though he took in little more than the boy's name. His head was reeling with the feeling of triumph: he was skadooosh! actually here, at Hogwarts, in Slytherin House as he had so desperately hoped.

He watched as the last few First Years were sorted, most going to either Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff. Finally, one child was left, a girl, very slight and looking absurdly young to be at Hogwarts, apparently no more than nine or ten.

“Solstice Flidae,” called Professor McGonagall, and the girl went and took her place on the stool. The Sorting Hat slipped down, partly covering her eyes, and she said something, although her words were heard by no-one but the Hat itself. For a couple of minutes, there was silence; there almost seemed to be an air of bafflement about the Hat’s posture.

Then Solstice spoke again, and in a doubtful voice, the Hat said, “Gryffindor...?”

The little girl jumped off the stool, and trotted over to the Gryffindor table, scrambling up onto the bench next to Lily. her bright brown eyes sparkling with excitement. Professor Dumbledore rose from his place at the High Table, and the Great Hall fell silent.

“Welcome to another year at Hogwarts,” he began.

Only half-listening, Severus looked over at the distant Gryffindor table, trying to catch Lily’s eye, but she was paying attention to Professor Dumbledore, her expression rapt. He watched her as the speech continued, then, as Dumbledore moved back to his chair, the empty dishes on the table were suddenly filled with food.

To a child accustomed to meals that were erratic at best, and frequently completely absent, the sight was overwhelming. Severus piled food onto his plate, and began to eat, shoveling it into his mouth with both hands, oblivious to the sudden hush around him.

“You disgusting little pig!”

Severus looked up, startled, to find Lucius Malfoy, the 7th year prefect who had spoken to him when he took his place at the Slytherin table, glaring at him. “I don’t know what gutter you were dragged up in,” Lucius continued, “but here at Hogwarts we expect table manners.”

Severus tried to swallow his mouthful, his throat suddenly tight, as if a lump of something was stuck in it. Around him, the other First Year Slytherins snickered. Years of experience had made Severus reasonably adept at ducking his father’s heavy hand, but shame dulled his reflexes, and he didn’t react as Lucius suddenly leaned over, grabbed his hair, and slammed his face down on his plate.

Pain exploded through his nose, and the howl of laughter from his tablemates was momentarily drowned by a loud ringing in his ears. Choking, he lifted his head, lumps of mashed potato falling from his face. The noise was attracting attention from the other tables, and Severus caught sight of those Gryffindor boys, the ones who had jeered on the train, laughing at him. Next to them, Lily was pressing her lips together, and from that distance it looked to Severus as if she was trying not to laugh.

To his horror, he felt tears pricking his eyes. If he cried now, in front of everyone, on his first day... he ducked his head, his dirty black hair falling in curtains, covering his face. He mustn’t cry, he mustn’t... Gradually students started whispering to each other, casting sneering glances at Severus. Malfoy, meanwhile, had returned to his conversation with a fellow prefect as if nothing had happened.

As the moment passed Severus gulped hard, slowly regaining control then reached for a table napkin and wiped the food from his face. Mortified at having forgotten his table manners like that, he picked up the knife and fork beside his plate. His hands were shaking, and he fumbled with the cutlery at first, but after a couple of tries he managed to get some food into his mouth.

Looking up across the room, he noticed the last child to be sorted – Solstice, he thought her name had been – was staring at the Slytherin table, but not at him. Her eyes were on Malfoy, and there was an expression on her face that reminded Severus of a cat he had once seen, defending her litter of kittens from a large, angry dog.

He finally made eye contact with Lily. She looked horrified, and he quickly dropped his gaze back to his plate, concentrating on getting through the rest of the meal.

Magic, it seemed, was not the only subject considered important at Hogwarts.

* * * * *

As the students filed out of the Great Hall after supper, Lily caught up with Severus. “What happened?” she hissed in a whisper. Not wanting to think about it, Severus shook his head, but a scornful voice said,

“Well go on, tell her!”

They both looked up at Malfoy, who was grinning unpleasantly. “Tell your... little friend... about your disgusting performance at supper.” Severus glanced at Lily, but said nothing. Leaning closer, Malfoy said menacingly, “Apparently your so-called upbringing also neglected the fact that when a prefect gives you an order, you obey it!” He seized Severus by the collar of his robes. “Evidently, it’s time you had another lesson in...”

“Leave him alone!”

Before either Severus or Malfoy had time to react, Solstice Flidae burst from the crowd of students. In the silence that fell, she shouted, “You're a big bully!”

For a second or two no-one moved. Then Malfoy spluttered, “You little...” Letting go of Severus, he turned on Solstice and grabbed her shoulder roughly. Instantly her head whipped around, and she sank her teeth into his hand. In the uproar, Malfoy staggered back a couple of steps, clutching the fleshy part at the base of his thumb, blood already running between his fingers. Before anyone else could react, Professor McGonagall strode into their midst.

“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded.

Half a dozen people tried to tell her at once, but Malfoy’s voice rose above them as he spat, “She bit me!”

Professor McGonagall stared at Malfoy, then Solstice, in disbelief. “Is this true?” she demanded.

“Yes.” Solstice’s tone implied that she was stating the very obvious. Professor McGonagall was speechless for a moment, then drawing herself up to full height, she pointed at the staircase.

“My office, now!” As Solstice turned and headed in the direction indicated, Professor McGonagall added, “You too, Mr. Malfoy.”

* * * * *

"I really don’t know, Headmaster, neither of them would enlighten me.” Professor McGonagall sounded exasperated as she faced Dumbledore in his office later that evening. “All Solstice would say was that Malfoy should apologize. And he swore it was an unprovoked attack.”

She paused, considering. “I can’t help wondering if it’s wise to have such a child at Hogwarts, on top of everything else – goodness knows, it’s going to be enough of a challenge having that Lupin boy changing into a werewolf every full moon. Taking on a child who has Elemental magic is just asking for trouble – they are known for their impulsiveness! And both in the same house, in the same year!”

“An Elemental witch has as much right to an education as any other child. Elemental magic is poorly understood – there are so few born with it - but there is no doubt that a child who possesses it must be taught control.” He smiled. “Not to mention tact!”

Professor McGonagall relaxed enough to return the smile. Thoughtfully, she said, “You know, Headmaster, I could swear the whole thing had something to do with that grubby black-haired Slytherin First Year, but...”

“Ah yes, young Severus. He is another child who, I fear, may have trouble fitting in at first.”

Professor McGonagall raised an eyebrow. “And why would that be?”

“A thoroughly chaotic home life. His mother was here at Hogwarts some years ago – Eileen Prince.”

“Ah, I see. Hardly the maternal type, if I recall. And the father?”

“A muggle, with no sympathy for the magical world. I suspect that Severus’s childhood has been less than harmonious.” Seeing McGonagall’s grim expression, Dumbledore went on, "Such children frequently blossom once they start Hogwarts, Minerva, we’ve both seen it on many occasions.”

McGonagall rose from her chair. “Let us hope that you’re right.” She turned towards the door. “I must go and round up the stragglers in the Gryffindor corridors. Goodnight, Headmaster.”


SEVERAL WEEKS LATER

The other Slytherins had already gone to bed, but Severus was still sitting in the dilapidated armchair in the common room, poring over the chapter set for Charms homework, and making notes in his cramped, untidy handwriting.

He’d been at Hogwarts for a few weeks now, and was finding the schoolwork well within his abilities, even discovering a flair for some subjects. Potions, for example, was like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle, putting all the different pieces together just right. And Defense Against the Dark Arts was fascinating; he hadn’t realized before just how many possibilities existed, how many different kinds of magic there were.

To his joy, Lily was in some of the same classes with him. True, so were those boys who had mocked him; they just couldn’t resist any chance to taunt him. But Lily seemed to find them just as obnoxious as he did. As long as he had her, he really didn’t care if he didn’t make any other friends – and that was starting to look like a distinct possibility. A number of his classmates, following Malfoy’s example, had started criticizing him at every opportunity, telling him to wash his hair, or brush his teeth more often, or generally commenting on his manners. He made an impatient movement with his shoulders. His mum hadn’t bothered much with stuff like that, so why should the other kids care?

He shrugged again, dismissing them, and resumed scribbling, so absorbed in his work that he didn’t even notice that someone else had come into the common room, until...

“Ah, Severus. Just the boy I was looking for.”

Severus jumped, recognizing the voice, and looked up. Lucius Malfoy dropped elegantly into the armchair opposite, shaking his long, silver-blonde hair back from his face. He fixed Severus with a stare, his ice-pale eyes boring into him.

“I’ve been watching you,” he said lazily. Severus swallowed nervously, wondering what he’d done now. Malfoy continued to stare at him for a minute or two, then said abruptly, “I think you have potential.”

Severus gaped at him, mentally thrown off balance. “I do?” he gulped.

“Oh yes. You’re a bright boy; good student or so I hear.”

“I – er – I mean...”

Malfoy smiled almost indulgently at Severus’s confused stammering. “You also seem to be capable of learning from your mistakes. Your table manners, for example, have really improved. Well done.”

Severus squirmed slightly at the reminder of that humiliating first evening of term. Still, Malfoy’s condescending approval was definitely better than his contempt, and he managed to reply, “Yes, I – I tried.”

“Well don’t stop trying. Still plenty of room for improvement, you know.” Severus nodded uncertainly, and Malfoy glanced at the clock on the wall. “Time you were in bed. Run along.” Severus bundled together his books, parchment and quills, but as he stood up, Malfoy added, “One more thing...”

Severus stopped, his heart beating faster with anxiety. He must have done something wrong after all. “Y-yes?”

“Don’t forget, you can always come to me if you have any problems. That’s what we prefects are here for, after all. Off you go.” This was definitely dismissal, and Severus started for the door, clutching his books. On the threshold, he glanced back. Malfoy was staring into the fire, his expression unreadable.

Tentatively, Severus said, “Goodnight.”

Malfoy inclined his head, but did not reply, and Severus hurried away along the hallway leading to his dormitory. Alone in the common room now, Lucius continued to watch the dying flames. Absently, he rubbed the inside of his left forearm.

“Yes, he has potential,” he murmured. “We shall see.”

CHAPTER TWO - A DIFFERENT KIND OF MAGICEdit

It was mid-October, but the weather was still almost summerlike. On that particular Sunday, the sky was cloudless, and students were out all over Hogwarts’s grounds.

Lily had assumed that she would be able to talk to Severus alone, but it wasn’t turning out that way. That irritating Potter boy insisted on following them at a short distance, along with the entourage he had already acquired; Sirius Black, lithe, dark-haired and precocious; Peter Pettigrew, chubby and red-faced from exertion, and that quiet, skinny boy, Remus Lupin, who looked pale and tired at the best of times, but today appeared to have been in a fight, with his face scratched and puffy, and a spectacular black eye.

If that wasn’t bad enough, she thought, it appeared that Severus had a follower of his own. Solstice, who had bitten that prefect on the first night of term, seemed to have decided that Severus needed a bodyguard, and that she was it! It would have been comical if it wasn’t so annoying to have her tagging along at every opportunity, even though she never actually said much. It had turned out that, despite her diminutive appearance, she really was eleven like the rest of them, but apart from that, she was definitely different. There were several classes she attended, but seemed unable to participate in the practical side, like Charms and Transfiguration; and as far as Lily knew, she didn’t even have a wand. She was in Lily’s dormitory, and one night Lily had asked her about these differences. Solstice had shrugged and said simply,

“My magic is different from yours.”

The ill-matched group was approaching the lake, Potter and his friends clowning and teasing, and Solstice at a slight distance, glowering when the boys taunted Severus. Lily was feeling cross that the promising day seemed to have been spoiled, when the situation got even worse. Three Seventh Years strolled into view, and one of them was Lucius Malfoy. After what had happened on the first night, Lily had been surprised to discover that Severus seemed to regard the prefect with awe, almost as if Malfoy was an older brother whose approval he craved. She’d heard Malfoy ticking Severus off quite harshly on several occasions, but at other times he showed a patronizing interest.

Today was evidently one of the former occasions. Blocking the path of the First Years, he surveyed the seven children, his upper lip curling derisively. “Severus – what is this?” From his tone, he might have been referring to a particularly loathsome insect. “It’s bad enough you spend so much time with Gryffindors, but really – a blood traitor, a mudblood, and a...” His gaze fell on Solstice. “Well, I don’t think they’ve quite worked out yet just exactly what you are, have they?” he sneered.

Solstice took a step forward, pushing her long, dark brown hair off her face. “Well I bet it didn’t take them long to figure out that you’re a Winter Sprite!" Lucius froze, a look of total outrage on his pale face. Not understanding why the term Solstice had used was so offensive to him, James glanced at Sirius, who seemed caught between horror and outright giggles.

At James’s questioning glance, he muttered, “Winter Sprites are a myth – they have white hair, but the thing is, they’re supposed to – well - like other boys.” James continued to frown, puzzled, and Sirius added, “You know – they – they really like other boys!” James finally caught on, his eyes widening. Luckily, Sirius’s explanation went unnoticed by Malfoy, who now appeared to be shaking with anger.

“You little bitch!” he hissed, seizing the front of Solstice’s robes, and almost jerking her off her feet.

The result was, in hindsight, rather predictable: Solstice bit down as hard as she could on Malfoy’s wrist. Malfoy let go instantly, took a half-step backwards, and with all his strength, backhanded Solstice across the face. The voices of the other First Years rose in an outcry, and James and Remus ran to pick up the girl. The blow itself, and the force with which she had hit the ground should have stunned Solstice, if not knocked her out completely, but she was back on her feet before her classmates reached her.

A livid red weal was rising on the left side of her face, but the rest of her skin had gone deathly white. Her blazing eyes locked on to Malfoy’s and he realized with shock that he was literally unable to look away. Struggling to break from her gaze, he didn’t see, as the others did, that Solstice had extended her left hand towards him, fingers splayed and curving back.

There was a violent sizzling noise, and a brilliant flash of light seemed to travel down from the sky, through Solstice’s fingers, and exploded at Malfoy’s feet. There was a roar of thunder, followed by a second flash of lightning, and Malfoy screamed and put his hands to his eyes. The acrid smell of burning hair filled the air, but before the flames could do more than singe Malfoy’s neck, rain started to fall heavily, extinguishing them.

Malfoy fell to his knees, covering his face, as black clouds, tinged with green, boiled in the sky above the lake; the next crack of thunder made their ears ring. Solstice took another step towards Malfoy, her hand still outstretched, but before she could do anything else, Sirius hurled himself bodily at her, knocked her flat, and pinned her face-down by her shoulders.

Not surprisingly, the sudden appearance of a thunderstorm out of a clear blue sky attracted the attention of everyone in the grounds, and it wasn’t long before several teachers arrived at the scene, with Professor McGonagall leading the pack. The first thing she saw was Sirius still pinning Solstice to the ground. One look from McGonagall made Sirius release her and pull her to her feet. The damage to her face was worse than it had first looked. The weal was already darkening to a huge bruise that extended over her left eye, and both her eyes were beginning to swell. A trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth, and a larger one from her nose.

Professor McGonagall would have attended to the girl at once, unaware that she wasn’t the only one hurt, but one of the Seventh Years bending over Malfoy cried out in a scared voice, “Professor, he’s burnt!” Professor McGonagall brushed aside the two boys, and after a moment persuaded Malfoy to take his hands away from his face.

What she saw made her exclaim, “He needs to go to the hospital wing immediately!” As Malfoy’s friends pulled him to his feet, McGonagall said to Solstice, “You need to go too. No...” as the other First Years began to babble. “I will hear what happened later! Right now, Mr Malfoy needs immediate treatment.” Taking Solstice by the hand, she followed briskly after the older boys who were half-carrying Malfoy towards the castle.

* * * * *

“So there appears to have been provocation on both sides,” Professor Dumbledore said thoughtfully to Professors McGonagall and Slughorn, after the First and Seventh years who had witnessed the incident had been dismissed.

McGonagall compressed her lips. “I find it hard to believe that a Seventh Year – and a Prefect at that – could strike a child so much younger and smaller than himself - whatever the provocation.”

“Whilst I agree with you on that point, Professor...” Professor Dumbledore began, but Professor Slughorn interrupted,

“The girl’s response was out of all proportion! Lucius could have been blinded, if not killed...”

“And that is exactly what I was afraid of at the start of term!” Professor McGonagall exclaimed. “A child of her age, capable of drawing down lightning with her bare hands, and with so little self-control... today’s events prove, Headmaster, just how dangerous it is to have her here at Hogwarts.”

“Yet she must remain here so that she can be taught that necessary control. Fortunately, I have just found a teacher willing to come to Hogwarts to focus on teaching Solstice according to her special requirements. Hopefully she will prove amenable to such lessons.”

“From all I’ve seen, she is co-operative in class, and seems eager to learn. It’s just when she loses her temper... Just who is it that’s coming to teach her?” asked Professor McGonagall.

“Do you remember Jack Greenwood, Minerva? He would have been a student at Hogwarts for several years after you started to teach here.”

“The name does sound somewhat familiar...”

“His mother was an Elemental, and Jack inherited some of her abilities – along with his father’s more usual magic. The important thing is that he understands the particular challenges that an Elemental faces. He will be here by the end of the week, and I think it best if he starts to teach Solstice as soon as possible. Minerva, I leave it to you to make the necessary adjustments in her timetable. And to decide on a suitable punishment for today’s misdeeds.”

He turned to Professor Slughorn. “Now, as to Mr Malfoy’s actions...”

“But surely, after what happened to him today, you can’t expect me to impose any penalties on him!” Professor Slughorn exclaimed.

Professor Dumbledore regarded him steadily. “As Professor McGonagall pointed out, he struck a much younger child. And this is not the first time there have been accusations of bullying against him. It is hardly a good example to have him remain a prefect. I know that prefects are a matter for the head of house, but I urge you to consider the consequences for Slytherin House, if his treatment of Solstice is allowed to go unchecked.”

Professor Slughorn stared at Professor Dumbledore, aghast. The Malfoys were a wealthy and influential family. He had counted Lucius as a prize member of his 'Slug Club', and demoting the boy would certainly mean an end to that. Still, he was uncomfortably aware that Professor Dumbledore had a valid point. He sighed. “Very well. I’ll see to it – when Lucius is feeling better!” Professor Dumbledore got up from his desk. “And now, if you would both care to accompany me, I will look in on the patients myself.”

In the hospital wing, Madam Pomfrey gave them the news they had hoped for. “He will make a full recovery. I was able to apply the potion in time, and Mr Malfoy’s sight will be back to normal in a few days. He’s very uncomfortable at the moment, or course, but I’m confident that there won’t be any scarring.”

“Good news indeed, “Professor Dumbledore replied. “And Solstice?”

“No lasting damage at all, although she’ll have quite a headache for a day or so. I’m keeping her here overnight, just to make sure she keeps quiet.”

* * * * *

Solstice did not return to school until late the next day, but was back at the Gryffindor table at supper. She ate little as her jaw was still sore and swollen, and as soon as the meal was over, went straight up to her dormitory. Lily, going up to bed at her usual time, saw that Solstice was not asleep. She was sitting up, knees drawn to her chest, and her arms clasped around her legs. She was staring out of the open window at the grounds, which were flooded with light from a moon just a few days past full.

“How are you feeling?” Lily asked tentatively, her irritation at Solstice’s habit of tagging along having vanished for the moment. She was now rather in awe of the dark-haired girl, after seeing what she was capable of with her “different magic”.

Solstice shrugged. “Okay. Wish I could sleep outside though.”

“Outside? But - but why? It must be so scary in the grounds after dark. All the shadows and noises and stuff.”

Solstice glanced sideways at Lily. “What’s scary about that? Just trees moving in the wind, and animals hunting. I hate being inside so much.” She got off her bed and padded to the window, climbing onto the broad window seat and leaning out in a way that made Lily, who was a bit nervous of heights, feel queasy. Solstice knelt there for a while, oblivious to the other girls coming into the dormitory. Finally she went back to bed, curled up on her side, and closed her eyes.

Some hours later Lily awoke suddenly, feeling thirsty. It must be past midnight, she thought. She got up and went into the bathroom for a drink of water, and it was only on her return that she realized that Solstice’s bed was empty. Had she felt ill again, and gone to the hospital wing? Or maybe she was just down in the common room...

Her gaze fell on the wardrobe beside Solstice’s bed. The door was standing open, and the hook that should have held her cloak was empty. Lily remembered Solstice talking about wanting to be outside. That must be where she’d gone. Lily glanced nervously at the window. Should she go after Solstice? Her own fear of being outside after dark made her discard this idea almost immediately. Well then, should she tell a teacher? Or a prefect? Would that be sneaking...? She sat down on the edge of her bed, irresolute, but at that moment she heard steps in the hallway outside. Quickly, she got under her quilt, just before the dormitory door opened.

Professor McGonagall came in, leading Solstice who looked sulky. Solstice’s feet were bare and dirty, and the hem of her cloak was damp. Professor McGonagall took Solstice’s cloak and hung it back in the wardrobe, then watched sternly as Solstice climbed into bed. “I will see you in my office before breakfast, Miss Flidae!” Solstice didn’t reply, just lay down, not bothering to pull the covers over herself, and when Professor McGonagall tried to pull the quilt up around the girl’s shoulders, Solstice pushed it off again petulantly, and turned her back to Professor McGonagall.

The Professor looked at her, lips set in a straight line. Then her expression softened slightly, and all she said was, “Goodnight, Solstice,” before going out and softly closing the door behind her.

* * * * *

Malfoy returned to school three days later. As he walked into the Great Hall, a whisper spread through the students already there eating breakfast, but he walked unhurriedly to his accustomed place at the Slytherin table, his head high. It was beneath him to pay attention to such vulgar gossiping.

The skin on his face was slightly inflamed, in sharp contrast to his normal pallor, and still stung and itched on occasion, but that was fading. And apart from being slightly bloodshot, his eyes were, as Madam Pomfrey had predicted, unharmed. Nonetheless, he was acutely aware that his appearance would cause a great deal of comment.

Until the preceding Sunday, his fine, silver-blonde hair had reached halfway down his back, contrasting splendidly with his dark clothing. But it had been so badly singed that Madam Pomfrey had cropped it to within an inch of his scalp.

The only possible consolation was that the shock of seeing him without his trademark hair would distract everyone’s attention from the fact that his Prefect badge was also missing.


CHAPTER THREE – MEDITATING ON REVENGEEdit

Jack Greenwood shouldered his backpack, and walked through the main gate of Hogwarts. It was thirteen years since he’d last been there, but not much had changed. He’d never imagined that he’d return to teach. At the end of Seventh year, all he could think of was traveling, and he’d spent most of the time since graduation on the road, rarely staying more than a few months in any one place.

He paused, looking up at the castle, and wondered if he’d made the right choice; the opportunity was an intriguing one - to teach, one-one-one, a First Year Elemental child who had come uncomfortably close to killing another student with lightning. It seemed that she hadn’t known that she even had the ability to summon storms.

Jack had had a similar experience when he was ten, though his Elemental powers were much less pronounced, having been passed down from his mother. As an Elemental herself, she’d known what to watch for. He’d been exhibiting signs of latent Elemental powers - along with normal magical tendencies inherited from the father he’d never met - since the age of ten months, when he had literally been able to charm the birds from the trees. Always fascinated by flying things, he’d one day started to call them to his playpen, set in the grass on a fine day.

Other manifestations had followed over the years, until the memorable day during a storm when he’d called the lightning in the same way as he called birds. Only his mother’s quick reflexes had prevented him being fried, and after that she’d started to teach him to control his more dangerous abilities. Special lessons at school had refined his control, and he’d learnt much about his gift during his travels. Now he had the chance to pass on some of that knowledge; his only worry was the idea of staying in one place for the next few years.

* * * * *

At the end of supper, Solstice was on her way to the common room when Professor McGonagall called after her, “Solstice! Come along to my office, please.”

She complied rather unwillingly, remembering the vigorous scoldings she’d received the last few times she’d been in that office. However, Professor McGonagall didn’t appear to be angry about anything as she opened the door of her office and ushered Solstice in. As she entered the room, Solstice saw a stranger rising from his chair.

“This is Professor Greenwood,” Professor McGonagall told her. Solstice eyed him uncertainly. He was tall, with dark brown hair swept back from his face and reaching almost to his shoulders. His dark blue eyes met hers more steadily than anyone she’d yet encountered. He held out his hand to Solstice, and she shook it, then stood by the desk, feeling unsure of herself.

Professor McGonagall closed the door and indicated for Solstice to take a seat. “Tomorrow you will be changing to a new timetable,” she explained. “You will drop several subjects - specifically Charms, Transfiguration and History of Magic, although you will continue to take Potions and Herbology with the rest of your year. In place of those subjects you drop, you will be taught by Professor Greenwood, who can fill you in on what you will learn instead.”

She looked expectantly at Greenwood, who nodded and said,“We’ll work out a timetable over the next few days. I’ll need to find out what will be most useful for you to learn.” His voice was quiet but very clear, with the faintest lilt of an accent that Solstice couldn’t identify.

“I’m afraid we don’t have an office ready for you yet, Professor Greenwood,” said Professor McGonagall, “so perhaps you would care to use my office for the first few lessons?”

“I appreciate the offer, but I think that tomorrow, at least, I’ll meet Solstice in the main courtyard after breakfast.”

‘Oh... well...” Professor McGonagall was surprised, but nodded. “As you wish.” She turned to Solstice. “Directly after breakfast, mind. Don’t be late.” Solstice nodded, and Professor McGonagall added kindly, “You can run along now. Goodnight.”

Solstice walked slowly to the Gryffindor common room. She’d known that she would be having special lessons, but she hadn’t realized that there would be no other students in the class with her, and she wasn’t sure that she liked the idea.

Next morning, as directed, she was waiting in the courtyard when Professor Greenwood arrived. “This way,” he told her, heading down the steps. “I thought we'd walk down to the lake and talk about what you’ll be studying.” Solstice followed, looking confused, and he paused, waiting until she caught up. “Don’t you prefer to be outside?” he asked.

“Oh yes - but...”

He smiled. “If you were expecting a normal teacher, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. ‘Normal’ was never my strong point.” If anything, Solstice was even more baffled, and seeing the girl’s face, Professor Greenwood stopped, sat down on the stone steps, and indicated for Solstice to do the same. He looked at her with that steady gaze, and said, “I’ll be honest with you, Solstice. I’ve never been a teacher before. But the Headmaster thinks that I’m the best person to teach you, because I understand what it means to be an Elemental.”

Solstice frowned. “But I thought all Elementals were girls.”

He nodded. “True Elementals, yes. Those born with only Elemental magic, to parents with normal magic. My mother was an Elemental, my father was a regular wizard, and along with his magic, I inherited many of her powers and personality traits. That’s how I know you prefer to be outside. There are lots of other things I understand, that an ordinary teacher wouldn’t.” He grinned. “I know what a shock it is when you discover you can control the weather - calling lightning, for example.” Solstice turned red, as he went on, “In my case, it was myself that I almost burnt to a crisp. I was about the same age as you are now. I know it’s not quite the same as trying to set fire to someone you don’t like, but at the time I had no idea I could do it, and it was quite a surprise. I imagine you felt the same way?”

“I’d never done it before,” Solstice admitted. “I got really angry and it just... happened.”

Professor Greenwood nodded. “That’s exactly why I’m here to teach you. You have to learn to control your powers, so that you don’t hurt anyone with them.” He glanced sideways at her, smiling, and added conspiratorially, “Even if they desperately deserve it!” Solstice smiled uncertainly, and he went on, “Yes, I heard exactly what happened. The thing is, Solstice - if you go on doing things like that, someone is going to wind up dead, and it could be someone you like. Do you understand?”

She nodded.

“Well, that’s a good start.” He stood up. “Let’s go. I’m used to being on the move.” When they reached the edge of the lake, they stopped, and Professor Greenwood said, “Can you make some waves?”

Solstice walked to the very edge of the water, and looked at the smooth surface. Frowning, she reached her left hand out, as she had when calling the lightning, and the water began to ripple slightly. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, concentrated, and...

Greenwood pulled her back just before the great, curving wave crashed onto the shore where she had been standing. They watched as the water trickled back into the lake; Professor Greenwood grinned. “Okay, I think we’ve established that you can make waves.” He started walking towards the nearest trees. “Let’s try something a little gentler.”

They stopped under an oak tree, and Professor Greenwood stood motionless, his gaze on the upper branches. There was a fluttering, and a sparrow flew down and settled on his shoulder. He turned one palm upwards so that a robin could land on his hand. Solstice watched, entranced. Professor Greenwood glanced at her, as the birds took flight again. “Try it,” he suggested. Solstice started to stretch out her hand again, but Professor Greenwood gently stopped her. “You don’t need to do that. Just look up at the trees and let your thoughts reach out.”

Solstice nodded and looked up, seeking movement among the leaves. For a minute or so, nothing happened. Then Solstice changed her stance slightly, and there was a sudden rush of movement, as birds began to fly towards her. In moments, dozens of birds were crowding around her, and she raised her arms to protect her face. Professor Greenwood clapped his hands sharply, startling the birds and sending them fleeing back to the safety of the trees.

Solstice looked up at her new teacher, bemused. He smiled. “Well,” he said, “one of the first things you need to learn is controlling the scale you work on.” Suddenly Solstice laughed and Professor Greenwood said, “That’s better. You’ve been far too serious this morning.” He started walking back towards the castle, and as Solstice followed, he said, “Still, I’ll know who to talk to if I ever need a whole flock of birds!”

They sat on the steps again, and Professor Greenwood started to explain about Elemental magic. “The usual kind of magic you see at Hogwarts is very specific. It comes from within. When I want to use it, it’s as if I take a little piece of it, and make it do what I want. That’s a bit simplified, but I want you to understand that there’s a difference. Elemental magic is less about doing, and more about knowing, and making connections. Instead of reaching inward, and calling on your own inner magic, you reach outward, and draw the natural magic of the world to you. You use the elements to work magic - hence the name. You know what the elements are, don’t you?”

Solstice nodded. “Earth, fire, water and air.”

“Yes. Except that you forgot the fifth one - spirit. That’s what you use when you control animals and birds, but it’s much more unpredictable, because living creatures have a will of their own. And with people, it’s very difficult, partly because they’re conscious of their own will, but also because - as I want you to learn - you must always be aware that you don’t have the right to control people that way. You have the ability to use your magic that way, but it doesn’t mean you should. Just as it would be wrong for me to make you do something you don’t want to because physically I’m bigger and stronger than you, it would be equally wrong to use Elemental magic to make people do things that they don’t want to do. You see, when it’s used to its greatest potential, by someone who has strong magic and has been trained to use it, Elemental magic can be far more powerful than anything most wizards can manage.”

Solstice was listening intently. She’d always had the impression that her magic was somehow inferior to the other kind, because she couldn’t do stuff like working charms, or transfiguring things. “Do you have strong magic?” she asked. Professor Greenwood shook his head.

“No, because I’m not a true Elemental. My mother was, and I have many of her powers, but it’s never been as strong in me as it was in her. Or in you - what I’ve seen today makes me think that in you it’s very strong - or at least, it will be. Right now you’re not powerful because you haven’t learnt how to use your magic. Both kinds of magic require you to concentrate, to focus on what you want to do. But for Elemental magic, it’s even more important. That’s why it’s when you’re angry that you’ve done your most powerful magic. Your whole mind is focused on the thing that’s making you angry. The difficult part is to be able to concentrate like that when you’re calm, or worried about other things, or if you’re sad or scared - or even just cold or hungry. Anything that distracts you will weaken your magic.”

“How can I learn to concentrate like that?”

“There are lots of ways to do it. Some of them will seem very boring at first, I’m afraid. And practice is a huge part of it - at the moment, my Elemental magic is much more powerful than yours.”

Solstice frowned. “But you just said...”

“I said I wasn’t as strong as you. But because I know how to use the magic I have, I can do much more than you can. You’re what, eleven?” She nodded, and Greenwood went on, “That means I’ve had twenty years more practice than you. And I know more about what’s possible. For example, I can draw down the power of the moon, to protect or heal myself. I know how it’s done. You can’t do that now, because you don’t know the ways to use the moon.”

“Are you going to teach me that?”

“Yes, but not for a couple of years. That particular ability usually doesn't develop until adolescence - and in any case, you’ll need to learn a lot of self-control before you’re ready for moon magic.”


LATE NOVEMBER

Lily scowled at James Potter across the common room. She was having a really bad week, and it was all because of Potter and his gang. Every chance they got, they’d been playing pranks on Lily and her friends. Stupid things, mostly, like the essay she’d spent hours on, only to find that the ink had been bewitched to vanish after she handed it in. She’d lost house points for that. Solstice had required a brief trip to the hospital wing after her Potions notebook unexpectedly sprouted sharp teeth and bit her fingers.

Perhaps the cruelest prank had been played on Severus; for a whole day, any food he touched had turned into soap. Not only did he go hungry that day, but it had given his Slytherin tablemates more material for taunting him. There had been more pranks along those lines - not really harmful, but annoying. She was getting tired of wondering what was going to happen next. She glanced at the boys again, and saw them in a huddle, whispering excitedly.

Lily grabbed her books and headed to her dormitory. Boys couldn’t get to the girls’ dormitories, which meant that there was at least one place where she could find a little peace. Not that she wanted to spend all her evenings up there, as Solstice had been doing lately. Lily was surprised by this; it wasn’t like Solstice to back off from a fight. Lily reached the dormitory, and stopped in the doorway, puzzled.

Solstice was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, gazing intently at a solitary candle on the floor in front of her. When Lily opened the door, a draught caught the candle flame which flickered and danced. Solstice blinked and looked up.

“What are you doing?” Lily asked, going into the room and dumping her books on her bed.

“Meditating,” Solstice replied.

“What?”

Solstice got up, put the candle on her bedside table, and went to sit in the window alcove. It was her favourite place to sit, and the other girls had once found her asleep there in the morning. “I have to learn to meditate. Professor Greenwood says it will help me concentrate.”

“So - you just look at a candle? What do you think about?”

“Well - I’m supposed to look at the flame, and just think about that, but it’s hard. I can do it for a few minutes, but then I start thinking about other stuff. But Professor Greenwood says it’s the most basic skill of all, so I want to get good at it.”

Lily grinned. Since Solstice had started her special lessons, she’d been talking of little else, and there was just a touch of hero-worship in her attitude to her teacher. For once, though, there was something else on Solstice's mind. “We have to think of a way to get that James Potter. Him and his stupid friends won’t leave us alone; and they were really mean to Sev."

Lily nodded. “They were planning something when I came upstairs. The trouble is, I can’t think of anything good to get them back.”

“I’ve thought of a few things,” Solstice said. She looked out of the window. It had started to snow that evening, and already there was a light covering on the window ledges. “If it snows a bit more, there’s one thing we can do. But we need lots of ideas - good things, not silly little things. Magic stuff.”

“Well - I can transfigure a few things. And there’s some charms I might be able to do. But...” She looked at Solstice doubtfully. “It’s not very much. And what could you do?”

Solstice slid down from her perch by the window, and Lily wondered if she was cross at her mentioning Solstice’s lack of regular magical skills, but the other girl grinned. “I can do other stuff that you can’t!” She took a running jump onto her bed, bouncing on her hands and knees. “I’ve got some ideas. But I’ll save them for later. If we just get enough snow - and Professor Greenwood says that now it’s almost December, it’ll snow a lot - I’ve got a plan that doesn’t need any magic at all!”

* * * * *

It had snowed every day for over a week, and Solstice intended to take full advantage of it. It was Saturday, and she was crouched at the top of a steep, almost vertical bank, waiting. Around and behind her, snowballs were piled. She had been waiting for some time, but eventually she heard muffled footsteps running towards her along the top of the bank.

Lily, who had been lookout, skidded to a stop in the snow, and gasped, “They’re coming! Just like you said.”

Solstice grinned. “They always come this way!”

She went to the edge of the bank and whistled softly. Severus, standing some twenty feet along the path, looked back and nodded, then crouched down behind a snow-covered bush, packing more snow around the snowball in his hands. Within minutes, he could hear voices, and when he judged they had reached the bend in the path, about ten feet ahead, he stepped out from his hiding place and hurled the snowball, hitting James Potter squarely in the face. Barely waiting to see that he’d hit his target, he turned and fled along the path towards the bank.

The four boys erupted into shouts, and began to run after him. Above the others, he heard Sirius yell, “We’ve got him, it’s a dead end!” But as he reached the bank, Lily and Solstice leaned down, grabbed his hands, and hauled him up to safety, then all three began to pelt the boys with snowballs. On the lower ground, the boys scraped up a few handfuls to throw, but it was no match for the three well-armed children above them, and before long all four were covered with snow from direct hits.

When the pile of snowballs was almost exhausted, Solstice said, “Ready to make a run for it?”

Lily nodded, and as Severus threw the last snowball, the three of them turned and raced through the trees to where they’d hidden a sheet of wood. It was just big enough to hold the three of them seated, and as Potter and his friends, having scrambled up the bank by now, came running into sight, Severus pushed off, and they went skimming down the long steep slope on the makeshift toboggan, their winter cloaks billowing behind them. There was no way the boys could keep up, and all they could do was shout insults after the ambushers.

All went well until the board began to drift over to the left, heading straight into the path of a little knot of older students, taking the air. With joy, Solstice realized that her nemesis, Malfoy, was among them; there was no way they could stop their descent, and they ploughed inexorably through the group. “Hang on!” screamed Lily, and although there really wasn’t much to hold onto, the three First Years managed to stay on their sled, and they swept on down the hill.

Inevitably, the board eventually hit a bump in the snow, flipped up, and the children shrieked as they went flying. It was a soft landing, and knowing they now had two sets of angry victims in their wake, they scrambled to their feet and floundered onwards. They kept running until they reached the main castle entrance. Lily was first through the doors, so that when she suddenly stopped, the other two fell over her, laughing, landing all of them in a wet, disheveled and breathless pile at the feet of Professor Dumbledore. The Headmaster’s blue eyes twinkled as he surveyed the children.

“I’m glad to see you’re enjoying the weather,” was all he said as he strolled past them.

Lily, Solstice and Severus took refuge in the Great Hall. They were still sitting in a huddle at the top of one of the tables, eating lunch, when Potter and his gang came in. The presence of a few teachers at the High Table meant they couldn’t do much, but as he passed, Potter hissed,

“We’re gonna get you for that!”

Sirius and Peter scowled as they passed, but Remus, bringing up the rear, just grinned. He had no real grudge against them, and had frankly enjoyed the morning’s skirmish.


CHAPTER FOUR - A DARKER PATHEdit

EARLY APRIL

The moment he saw the vacant space at the table, Snape was suspicious. Usually, his fellow First Year Slytherins found it the height of humour to spread out at mealtimes, so that there was no space for him, forcing him to find a place among the older students, where he was equally unwelcome. Such a conveniently-empty spot looked planned; they probably had something special arranged for today. But if he looked for another spot, they would think he was afraid of them.

He kept his head up, and walked defiantly to the empty space. For a couple of minutes, the other kids ignored him. Then, as he was lifting a forkful of food to his mouth, his elbow was violently jogged, scattering the food over the table. There was a ripple of laughter around him, and he stared angrily at his plate, not wanting to give them the satisfaction of a response. After a few moments, he resumed eating, but as he was slicing a piece of meat, another sharp blow connected, this time knocking the knife out of his hand. It skittered across the table, and Snape only just grabbed it before Avery, across from him, could take it.

Snape clamped down on his anger; making him lose his temper was, he had realized, the ultimate goal of many of their games, and he wasn’t about to let them win this time. The meal progressed in this fashion for a while, until a shrewd blow caught him in the ribs, and he gasped at the sudden pain; unfortunately he inhaled a crumb of food, and began to choke. The students around him set up a jeering chorus of disgust, and when Snape reached for his water goblet, Mulciber, seated on his right, quickly knocked it over, so that its contents spilled onto Snape’s plate. The laughter this provoked was suddenly cut short; the other students fell silent, looking up at a point over Snape’s shoulder.

“What’s going on here?” Snape didn’t have to turn around to know it was Malfoy. There was a long, tense moment of silence, then Malfoy said, “I asked you all a question.” There was an edge to his voice, and Avery muttered resentfully,

“...not even a prefect any more...”

“What did you just say?” Malfoy hissed; it was fortunate for Avery that he was on the other side of the table. “Prefect – or not...” he continued, his tone acidic, “...I have a duty to interfere when I see this kind of disgusting bullying going on!” The First Years were speechless at the injustice of Lucius Malfoy, of all people, scolding them for bullying.

“Who tipped over the water?” Malfoy demanded. Mulciber raised his hand, too scared to speak. Malfoy stared at him for a few seconds, noting with satisfaction that even without a prefect’s authority, he still had the ability to terrify the younger students. “Change your plate with his,” he ordered. Mulciber gazed at him in dismay, but didn’t move, and Malfoy smacked the boy’s head. “Are you deaf?” he demanded, leaning closer. Mulciber shrank away from him, and did as he was told, pushing his still-full plate towards Snape, and moving the water-logged dish to his own place. Even that, apparently, didn’t satisfy Malfoy, who was still glaring at him. “Well? Start eating!”

Mulciber looked down at the ruined food, torn between fear of the tall Seventh Year, and revulsion at the mess on the plate. Suddenly, Malfoy’s fingers clamped the back of his neck in a bruising grip, forcing his face towards the plate. Leaning over the boy, Malfoy said in a soft, menacing voice, “Either you start eating, or I shove it down your throat myself. Your choice!” Shaking slightly, Mulciber picked up a fork and began to shovel the nauseating mush into his mouth. He managed to swallow one mouthful, but gagged on the second.

From the corner of his eye, Malfoy saw Professor McGonagall rise from her seat at the High Table, looking in his direction; the Gryffindor head would feel no compunction at interfering with Slytherins if she saw fit. Abruptly, he released Mulciber, and straightened up. “Finish your meal,” he said, and strode back to his own seat. Moments later, Professor McGonagall reached the silent group of First Years.

“Is everything all right, boys?” she asked, her tone indicating that she knew perfectly well that it wasn’t. Several of the boys cast nervous glances in Malfoy’s direction. He appeared to be engrossed in his own lunch, but they knew that if they complained, they would suffer the consequences later in the common room.

“Everything’s fine, Professor McGonagall.” It was Snape who spoke up, though he kept his eyes fixed on the table.

Professor McGonagall looked sharply at the subdued Slytherins, but contented herself with saying, “See that it stays that way.” She looked in Malfoy’s direction, and this time he looked up, meeting her eyes with an insolent gaze. She stared back, her expression clearly showing that she knew what had been going on. But with the First Years refusing to say anything, there was little she could do. She turned stiffly and walked away from the Slytherin table, leaving the First Years to finish eating in silence, and Malfoy to smile smugly to himself.

As Snape left the Great Hall, Malfoy fell into step with him. “You shouldn’t let those boys pick on you,” he said abruptly.

Snape nodded unhappily.“I don’t know what to do about it,” he admitted. “I tried ignoring them, but...”

“That won’t work with their sort.” He stopped walking, and looked at Snape for a few moments, a calculating expression on his pale features. “I could give you a few suggestions. I’ll see you in the common room tonight, ten o’clock.” He turned and walked away, leaving Snape wondering uneasily what Malfoy’s suggestions might entail.

* * * * *

That evening, Snape was finishing his homework when Malfoy approached. “Come with me,” he commanded, and walked out of the common room. Snape followed him, noting that Malfoy’s hair now hung past his shoulders; since the infamous incident when his hair had been scorched, it had grown at an unlikely rate, and general opinion was that he’d been helping it with magic. It was not an opinion that anyone had expressed in his hearing.

They entered one of the dungeon classrooms, now dark and silent. Malfoy flicked his wand at the fireplace, and the fire blazed into life. Another flick, and several candles in the holders above the fireplace ignited. Malfoy placed a box he had been carrying on the nearest desk. Something was moving inside the box, tiny claws scratching on wood. Malfoy opened the box to reveal a scrawny black rat, which peered nervously over the edge, whiskers quivering.

We need a subject to work on,” he explained. He looked at Snape. “The best approach with those boys is to make sure they’re afraid to bother you again. The quickest way to do that is with a curse, so I’m going to teach you the Imperius curse. Simple but effective – and quite entertaining.”

“But...” Snape hesitated, not wanting to argue with Malfoy. “Isn’t that an Unforgivable curse?”

Malfoy grinned. “Only if you get caught.” He pointed his wand at the rat and said, “Imperio!” The rat, which had been sniffing around the rim of the box, suddenly crouched down, quite still and docile. “Turn around,” Malfoy said. The rat quickly turned to face the other way. “Lie down.” It flattened against the bottom of the box. “Sleep.” The beady eyes closed, the rat’s breathing slowed. “Finite Incantatum!” Malfoy prodded the rat with his wand to wake it. It sniffed the air cautiously.

Malfoy looked up at Snape. “Try it.”

Snape pulled his wand from his pocket and pointed it at the rat. “Imperio!” The rat ambled into the corner of the box. “Imperio!” Unconcerned, the rodent began to groom.

Malfoy nodded, as if he’d expected this. “It will only work if you really mean it,” he explained.

Snape frowned in concentration and said once more, “Imperio!” This time, the rat froze as it had done when Malfoy used the curse. “Walk forward!” He made the rat perform some simple actions, before he ended the spell.

“That’s good – so far as it goes,” Malfoy said. “We’ve been making it do easy things, that it has no reason to resist. The next step is to make it do something it doesn’t want to do.” He reached into the box, picked up the rat by the scruff of its neck, and crouched beside the hearth. He put the rat down, facing the fire. “Imperio! Now – walk towards the fire.” The rat took a couple of steps, hesitated, then a couple more. It wasn’t close enough yet to get burnt, but it was clearly afraid. It continued walking, fighting against every step.

Snape looked up at Malfoy, expecting him to make the rat stop; but Malfoy was quite still, on his knees, watching the frightened creature intently, a strange glitter in his eyes. The rat seemed terrified now, a couple more steps and it would start to suffer from the heat of the flames. It squeaked, and Snape suddenly pointed his wand and said, “Finite Incantatum!” Instantly, the rat turned and scuttled away from the fire, disappearing into the darkness of the classroom.

Malfoy whipped around, and Snape shrank back from the fury in the older boy’s icy-grey eyes. Then Malfoy seemed to catch himself, and got up abruptly. He picked up the box and strode from the room without a backward glance. Snape was still crouching by the fire; he felt a sense of awe at how effective the Imperius curse could be; but at the same time there was a quiver of sick fear in the pit of his stomach at what he had just witnessed.

Would Malfoy actually have forced the rat to walk into the fire? Of course not, he told himself, he was just seeing if Snape would intervene... wasn’t he? After repeating this to himself a few times, he almost believed it. He got to his feet, extinguished the fire and candles, and made his way to bed, deep in thought.

* * * * *

“What’s the matter? Are you deaf as well as stupid?”

Snape clenched his fists at his sides, but kept on walking. The four boys who customarily bedeviled him at mealtimes had expanded their repertoire to following him around at odd moments, hurling insults and occasionally jostling him. On this afternoon, the First Year Slytherins had a free period; after a couple of days of rain, the weather had suddenly turned hot, and Snape had hoped to find a quite place in the grounds where he could sit unobserved and make a start on his homework, but it looked as if he wasn’t going to be allowed to do that.

Two of the boys would probably have become bored fairly quickly, but Avery and Mulciber were tenacious and intelligent, quick to identify weak spots, and often creative in exploiting them. Snape’s hand went to his pocket, and he fingered his wand. He hadn’t yet tried out the Imperious curse on his own, still a little disturbed by Malfoy’s apparent cruelty when demonstrating it. He kept walking, wondering how to shake the other boys.

“He’s ignoring us. That’s really rude,” Avery said loudly.

“Yeah – we should teach him some manners.” A second later there was a thud on the turf just in front of him, and a stone, thrown by Mulciber bounced at Snape’s feet. A second stone brushed his leg, then one reached its target, catching Snape just behind the ear. He gave a yelp of pain and spun around, suddenly furious.

He pulled his wand from his pocket, pointed it at Avery, and yelled, “Imperio!” Avery stopped dead, staring at Snape, his eyes wide with surprise. Quickly, Snape flicked his wand at Mulciber and repeated the curse. Now both boys were standing still, their eyes fixed on Snape. Behind them, the other two glanced at each other, and Snape saw, with a thrill of satisfaction, the fear in their eyes, before they turned and ran.

Snape turned his attention back to his two victims. “You’re always looking for a fight,” he sneered. “Well – why don’t you – fight each other!” Mulciber swung an awkward punch at Avery, catching him a glancing blow on the chin, as Avery tried to dodge and then lunged at Mulciber. Moments later they were kicking and punching each other, their faces betraying a mix of anger and fear. Snape watched them, relishing the unfamiliar feeling of power. What else, he wondered, could he make them do?

“Stop!” The two boys staggered back from each other, panting. Snape looked at Mulciber, then glanced at the muddy ground at his feet. “Eat dirt,” he commanded. With satisfaction, he watched Mulciber drop to his knees, and scoop up a handful of muck. He seemed to struggle for a moment, then put the mud into his mouth.

“Stop doing it,” he begged, choking, even as he reached down for another handful.

“Get up then!” Now he had control of these two, Snape found the power intoxicating. His eyes flickered to the lake, and he grinned. “Both of you – go down to the lake.” He followed them, and as they reached the water, he said, “Stop there.” Here, the rocky ledge overhung the water, and he knew it was quite deep. “Mulciber – go jump in the lake,” he said, grinning.

Without hesitation, Mulciber leapt off the rock, entering the water with a resounding splash. He surfaced spluttering, and began to tread water. Snape turned to Avery, who now looked terrified. “I can’t swim,” he gasped but Snape snarled,

“Do I look like I care? Just jump...”

Finite Incantatum!” roared a voice behind Snape. Avery sagged, trembling, and Snape spun around to find Professor Slughorn bearing down on him. The Professor caught Snape by the shoulders and shook him, as Mulciber swam to the shore and clambered out of the water. “What the devil are you doing?” he demanded. “That’s an Unforgivable curse! Do you know what happens to wizards who use Unforgivable curses, boy?”

Jolted back to his familiar feeling of powerlessness, Snape shook his head mutely, though he knew perfectly well what the punishment was.

“Azkaban,” roared Professor Slughorn. “They go to Azkaban. You know what that is, don’t you?”

“Y-yes sir. Wizard prison... Dementors...”

“That’s right!” Professor Slughorn had to pause for breath. Beside him, Snape could see his two other tormentors; they must have run straight for Professor Slughorn. “It’s lucky you’re only twelve, Snape!” Professor Slughorn said. He was no longer shouting. “If you were of age, you’d be looking at serious time in Azkaban. As it is...” He stared at Snape, shaking his head. “Professor Dumbledore must deal with this.”

* * * * *

Snape sat on the hard chair, across from Professor Dumbledore, and stared at his hands. He had retreated into a defensive silence, refusing to answer any questions. Professor Slughorn had marched him, along with the four other boys, to the Headmaster’s office, where Mulciber and Avery had given a blow-by-blow account of Snape’s actions. In the process, their own misdeeds leading up to Snape’s use of the curse had been conveniently forgotten; but despite Snape’s refusal to speak, even in his own defense, Professor Dumbledore had a shrewd idea of what had been going on.

Finally, he dismissed the other four with a warning that he would speak to each of them individually later that day. When they were gone, Professor Dumbledore exchanged a glance with Professor Slughorn. Quietly, he said, “Severus – where did you learn the Imperius curse?” Snape said nothing, and Professor Dumbledore said, “Please answer me!”

There was an edge of steel in his tone, and Snape muttered, “I read about it.”

“You read about it? And which professor gave you the permission slip?”

Snape looked up, puzzled. “Permission slip?”

Professor Dumbledore nodded. “Books which describe the Unforgivable curses are in the restricted section. You would need a permission slip to go there. Who gave it to you?”

“I... I don’t know,” Snape said lamely, dropping his gaze.

“I thought as much. I think, perhaps, that you actually learnt it from someone at Hogwarts...” Professor Dumbledore turned to Professor Slughorn. “Professor, please ask Mr. Malfoy to join us?” Snape flinched slightly, something which did not go unnoticed by Professor Dumbledore. Professor Slughorn left the room, and five minutes later – during which time Snape glowered determinedly at his shoes – he returned with Malfoy in tow.

Malfoy’s expression hardened when he saw Snape, guessing instantly what must have happened. He said nothing, however, as he took the seat indicated by Professor Dumbledore.

“Mr. Malfoy...” Professor Dumbledore’s tone was almost conversational. “Mr. Snape here used the Imperius curse on several other boys this afternoon. Do you happen to know where he learned it?”

“I’m afraid not, Professor.” Malfoy’s tone was calm, his voice firm.

“You’re quite sure of that?” Professor Dumbledore watched him intently, but Malfoy kept his gaze fixed on a point on the desk, careful not to meet Professor Dumbledore’s eyes for even a moment.

“Quite sure, Professor.”

After a brief silence, Professor Dumbledore turned back to Snape. “Severus – did Mr. Malfoy teach you the Imperius curse?” Malfoy tensed, waiting for the answer that would condemn him. He was well aware that at almost eighteen, he would certainly be dealt with as an adult when it came to Unforgivable curses.

“No, Sir.” Snape’s voice was steady. Malfoy glanced at him, barely able to conceal his surprise.

“You need not be afraid to answer honestly,” Professor Dumbledore told the younger boy, his voice gentle.

“I read it in a book,” Snape said stubbornly.

Professor Dumbledore looked at him steadily. It appeared that there was no other way... “Severus – look at me.” Snape looked up. Professor Dumbledore looked deep into the black eyes, searching, and saw... nothing. He frowned slightly, continuing to probe for the information he sought, but it was as if he looked into an impenetrable fog. “Very well,” he said at length. “Please go directly to your dormitory and stay there until Professor Slughorn gives you permission leave it.”

Wordlessly, Snape got up and walked out of the room. After the door was closed, Professor Dumbledore turned his attention back to Malfoy. “It appears that I must take you at your word.” Malfoy nodded, and Professor Dumbledore noted the hint of smugness in his expression, though he still refused to meet Professor Dumbledore’s gaze. “You are almost at the end of your time at Hogwarts,” Professor Dumbledore continued. “You have a great capacity for influencing others – as I’m sure you are already aware. I urge you to use that gift wisely, Lucius, during your final months here - and especially when you leave us.”

Malfoy inclined his head, but did not reply. Professor Dumbledore sighed inwardly, knowing that his words carried little weight with the young man who had been raised to regard himself as accountable to no-one. “You may go, Mr. Malfoy.”

Malfoy rose. “Thank you, Professor Dumbledore.” His voice held the faintest hint of amused insolence, but Professor Dumbledore let it pass.

As the door closed behind Malfoy, Professor Dumbledore shook his head regretfully. Then he frowned slightly, and said musingly, “It would seem that young Severus is a natural Occlumens.” Professor Slughorn looked surprised, as Professor Dumbledore continued, “Remarkable in a child of his age. He is a boy who will need careful guidance – I only hope I can be more successful with him than I have been with Lucius.”

He looked up at Professor Slughorn. “The decision rests with you, as head of Slytherin, as to the nature of Snape’s punishment. I will talk to him myself in a day or two. He must be left in no doubt as to the seriousness of his actions. I would have no choice but to expel him, except that I am convinced that it was Lucius’s idea in the first place.”

After Professor Slughorn departed, Professor Dumbledore sat for a long time, deep in thought. He would provide all the care and guidance within his power, if it would prevent Severus from following the same dark path that he feared Lucius Malfoy had already chosen.


CHAPTER FIVE - WHAT LIES BENEATH...


SECOND YEAR - NOVEMBER

"There they go again!"

Solstice looked up at Lily's words, and the girls watched the Marauders (as they had started to call themselves) slip out of the Gryffindor common room. For the past few weeks, it had become increasingly common for the four boys to vanish for an hour or so in the evening, returning with damp hair. "They can't be swimming in the lake," Lily said. "It's far too cold for that."

Solstice nodded, frowning. "And if anyone asks where they've been, they just laugh," she said, deep in thought. "I bet it's somewhere they're not supposed to be." She grabbed Lily's arm. "Let's follow them and see where they go!" Lily grinned and the two girls bundled their books onto a table and dashed through the portrait hole. They followed the boys at a distance, careful not to be seen, although the boys were far too engrossed in their adventure to worry about being followed. Finally, on the fifth floor, they stopped at one of the doors, using a password to gain access.

Lily and Solstice exchanged a glance, then returned to the common room. "Once they get back," Solstice said, "we'll go and see what's in there." As it turned out, it was almost eleven before the Marauders returned, so the girls decided to leave their investigation until the next day.

As soon as the last lesson was over on the following afternoon, they retraced their steps of the night before. Using the password they had overheard, they opened the door and slipped inside the room. "This is the Prefects' Bathroom," Lily said. "They must come in here to swim - it's as big as a swimming pool."

Solstice nodded. "I wouldn't mind swimming in it myself."

* * * * *

A day or two later, during Double Potions with the Slytherins, Lily suddenly turned to Solstice. "I just had a thought...!"

"Did it hurt?"

Lily ignored the lame joke. "I think we could use this colouring potion to get Potter and his gang." Solstice grinned, as Lily continued, "We could make it really strong and put it in the Prefects' bath, and then we'd get them all at once. Potter's always boasting now about being on the Gryffindor Quidditch team - we should dye him to match his Quidditch robes!"

Solstice's eyes sparkled with mischief. "Be even funnier if we dyed him Slytherin colours!" Lily laughed, and Professor Slughorn looked up from his desk at the front of the room.

"Have you finished your potion, Miss Evans?"

"Yes, Professor," Lily replied with a hint of smugness. Professor Slughorn nodded indulgently. Lily, with her obvious talent for his subject, was something of a favourite of his.

Over the next few days, Lily and Solstice spent most of their free time experimenting with the colouring potion; both had a flair for the subject, and before long they had hit on a formula that would dye anything in a swirling pattern of green and silver. They then spent an evening in the library, and with what they learnt there, they achieved a potion that would last for a week or more before fading completely. The next problem was how to add it to the bath water. If they put it in ahead of time, there was a chance that the wrong person would get dyed.

It was Solstice who suggested waiting until the boys were already in the water; they would only need to open the door a crack, and then Lily would quietly levitate the bottle over to the bath, and pour the potion into the water without the boys noticing. Solstice, of course, couldn't do the levitation, so she would keep watch in the corridor while Lily worked the spell.

On Saturday evening, Lily and Solstice kept a close watch on the Marauders. As expected, about halfway through the evening, the boys sneaked out of the common room. Knowing their destination, the girls gave them ten minutes before following.

The fifth floor hallway was dark and quiet. Solstice waited at the corner nearest the bathroom, while Lily crept along to the door. She spoke the password very quietly, and opened the bathroom door a little way, waiting to see if the boys had noticed. After a minute, she pulled a bottle from her pocket, uncorked it, and pointed her wand. The bottle rose off the floor a few inches, and Lily pushed the door a little further open, so she could see to guide it.

From her place down the hall, Solstice could only see Lily crouched by the doorway, frowning in concentration. After a couple of minutes, she started to straighten up, putting her wand in her pocket. Then she froze, and whipped the wand back out, pointing through the narrow gap in the doorway. Whatever she was doing took her some minutes, but finally she drew something dark through the doorway. Very slowly and quietly, she closed the bathroom door; then scooped a bundle into her arms, and ran down the hall towards Solstice. "Come on," she called, running past her. She headed in the direction of the common room, but once they were safely away from the bathroom, she stopped, slightly out of breath.

"Did you do it?" Solstice demanded.

Lily nodded. "They never noticed a thing - too busy fooling around."

Solstice looked curiously at the bundle in her friend's arms. "What's that?"

Lily began to giggle. "I took their clothes! They'll have to come back to the common room in towels!"

Solstice started to laugh. "What shall we do with the clothes? Hide them around the common room? We could do it when everyone's gone to bed, so they won't get them back till at least tomorrow." Lily nodded, and the girls fled along the hallway and up the stairs, trying to stifle their laughter. Once they were through the portrait hole, they dashed straight up to their dormitory and dumped the pile of clothes on the floor.

"We'll shove them under my bed for now," Solstice said, but as she bent gather the pile, something brightly coloured caught her eye. She pulled at it, then froze. Slowly, she turned to Lily, her face incredulous, and held up a pair of lurid pink boxer shorts. Lily gaped at the unlikely garment. "Who would wear something like that?" she said slowly.

Her eyes met Solstice's; in unison they said, "Sirius!" The girls collapsed on Solstice's bed, shouting with laughter.

"Only Black... would have the nerve... to wear them!" Solstice gasped, lying on her back, with the shocking-pink shorts still clutched in her hand. Finally Lily sat up, catching her breath.

"This is too good to keep to ourselves," she said. "Somehow, we've got to let everyone else see them - and who they belong to - but not so he knows it's us." Solstice also sat up, tucking her legs under her. Her face was thoughtful.

"Fish out the other underpants," she said suddenly. They scrambled off the bed and sorted through the pile of clothes, coming up with some blue Y-fronts, a pair of white briefs, and... "Urghhh!" Lily looked revolted, pulled out her wand, and gingerly used it to lift a greyish, shapeless garment. Solstice wrinkled her nose in disgust. "I bet those are Pettigrew's," she said.

"So what are we going to do with them?" Lily asked. Solstice grinned, and to an accompaniment of giggles from Lily, explained her idea. "Too bad we have to wait till next term to do it, though," Lily said.

"Yeah, but by then, they'll have forgotten all about it, so it'll be a bigger surprise. Look, don't bother with hiding the other stuff in the common room, let's just dump itoutside their dormitory. Then they'll find the underwear's missing, and they'll wonder..."

* * * * *

"Water's getting cold," Remus remarked, floating lazily.

"It's well past eleven - we've been here a couple of hours," James said. He ducked under the water and surfaced by the edge of the pool, sleeking the water from his hair. He paused, rubbing his hands together. "That's strange - the water feels a bit oily... anyway, maybe we should get out. If we get caught, that'll be the end of swimming here."

He hoisted himself out to sit on the side of the pool, reached for a towel and rubbed his hair briskly, then stood up, wrapping the towel around his waist. As the other boys climbed out, James walked to the bench near the door where they had all dumped their clothes. He stopped, frowning, and looked around. "Who moved the clothes?" he asked, turning to his friends. None of them had, and they began to search the bathroom, quickly establishing that their clothes were nowhere to be found.

"Where did they go?" Sirius said, exasperated.

Remus turned to Peter. "Didn't you say you heard someone at the door earlier?"

Peter nodded. "I thought so, but no-one came in - wouldn't we have noticed if they did?"

James shrugged impatiently. "Well someone must have! Maybe - maybe they Summoned them out... the point is, we have to get back to the dormitory, and all we have is towels." The Marauders looked at each other in dismay.

"Getting caught in the hallway after hours is one thing," Remus said, "we can talk our way out of that - but not if we're only wearing towels!"

"We could try Summoning our clothes," Peter suggested, but Sirius snapped,

"With what? My wand was in the pocket of my robe. Does anyone have theirs? Didn't think so!" He checked that his towel was wrapped securely, and went to the door. "Well - no point waiting around. Let's get going, and get it over with." He opened the door and peered out into the hallway. "Come on - there's no-one around."

Apart from a narrow escape when they heard Professor McGonagall's voice from the other end of a hallway, and had to run up the nearest staircase to avoid being seen, the Marauders made it back to the common room without getting caught. The Fat Lady greeted their appearance with slightly tipsy giggles, but eventually opened the portrait hole for them. Remus was last in, and as the portrait swung shut, it caught the corner of his towel, and he squawked in horror as he felt the towel start unwrapping itself from around his waist. He freed it with a tug, and rewrapped it hurriedly, looking around to see if anyone had seen, but to his relief, the common room appeared to be empty, apart from the three other Marauders.

They dashed across the room, heading for their dormitory. As their footsteps died away on the stairs, two heads peered from behind a shabby sofa in the darkest corner of the common room. Lily and Solstice exchanged glances, stifling their laughter. "For a minute there, I thought Lupin was going to give us a peek!" Lily spluttered. She glanced towards the staircase. "Right about now, they'll be finding their clothes outside their dormitory, and thinking they're safe." She chuckled. "And the potion should be taking effect soon - if it worked!"

"We'll find out tomorrow," Solstice said yawning. "Let's go to bed, I want to be up early to see the fun."

After their late night, the boys slept in; it was past nine the next morning when Peter stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom. Seconds later his yell of shock jolted the other three instantly awake. By the time Peter ran back into the room, they were out of bed, staring horrified at each other. Every inch of skin was either emerald green or iridescent silver, and their hair was similarly coloured. James dashed to the bathroom and began to scrub his hands and arms. "It doesn't come off," he yelled. He ran back to the dormitory. "What the hell happened? We were fine last night when we..." he paused, light beginning to dawn, "...when we got out of the bath! It must have been something in the water - I said it felt oily!"

"How long does it last?" Peter asked anxiously.

"Oh, how should I know?" James demanded.

"Maybe - maybe one of the teachers can make it come off. Or Madam Pomfrey - she has to cope with all kinds of weird things happening to students. I bet she has something that can change us back to normal," Remus said hopefully.

"Well, let's go then!" Sirius began to pull on whatever clothes were closest, and the other boys followed his example. James, Remus and Sirius were ready in a couple of minutes, but Peter was still scrabbling among his clothes.

"Come on, Peter," James said impatiently.

"I can't find my underpants. I'm sure they were here last night."

"Just get another pair..."

"But - I don't - that's my only pair!"

"What?" James looked scandalized. "You only have one pair of pants?" He stared at Peter for a few moments, then yanked open a drawer beside his own bed, grabbed a pair of Y-fronts and threw them at Peter. "Now hurry up!"

Five minutes later, the boys ran down the stairs then stopped at the threshold of the common room. There were already quite a few students scattered around. The Marauders looked at each other - there was no way they could get through without someone noticing their green and silver colouring. Finally, James led the way; and as they hurried across the room, students fell silent, turning to look at the unexpected sight.

"What happened to you?" asked a boy sitting by the fire.

"That's what we'd like to know," Sirius yelled over his shoulder, as they climbed out through the portrait hole, and vanished in the direction of the hospital wing. Seated on the same sofa they'd hidden behind the night before, Solstice and Lily looked at each other with suppressed glee.

"It worked!" Lily hissed, barely able to hide her delight.

Solstice nodded. "They're covered! Even their hair. I bet they're going to Madam Pomfrey to see if she can reverse it."

"You think she can?" Lily looked disappointed.

Solstice shrugged as she answered, "Maybe. But at least we got to see them!" She jumped up, pulling Lily with her. "Breakfast!" she said. "I think playing jokes on people makes me hungry!" She and Lily scrambled through the portrait hole, giggling together as they headed to the Great Hall.

The Marauders returned in the afternoon, their expressions glum and their spectacular colours intact. "Madam Pomfrey couldn't do anything," James said, in reply to the barrage of questions that greeted them. "She said we'll just have to let it fade."

"So it will fade then?" the Gryffindor Quidditch captain asked anxiously.

"She's - fairly sure..."

"Because I don't fancy playing the next match with our Seeker the colour of the Slytherins!"

"What? But that's not till January. I'll be okay by then - I have to be!" James was horrified by this new side of his predicament. He turned and headed back to the portrait hole, herding his fellow-Marauders ahead of him. "Come on - maybe we can find a cure, there's got to be some book in the library that..."

"The library? On a Sunday?" protested Peter, but James ignored him.

Solstice and Lily were standing at the edge of the group that had been gathered around the four boys, and as they passed, Lily suddenly called out, "Hey Black - what happened to your eyebrows."

Sirius glared at her. "One of the spells Madam Pomfrey tried made them fall out. They'll grow back - she said so!" The boys clambered out through the portrait hole, with the galling sound of Lily's laughter following them.

* * * * *

As expected, the brilliant colours began to fade after a couple of days, and by the following weekend the boys were almost back to normal, apart from a faint greenish tinge in certain lights; and as promised, Sirius's eyebrows were starting to grow back. However, instead of celebrating, the Marauders seemed faintly nervous, and ill-at-ease. Returning to the common room after dinner on Sunday, one of the prefects glanced around and demanded, "Where's Lupin? Was he with you at dinner?" James and Sirius exchanged wary glances, and Sirius replied,

"Yeah, but he - er - didn't feel well. He's - um - gone to the hospital wing."

Following behind, Lily and Solstice overheard the explanation, and looked at each other. Lily nodded towards the stairs, and Solstice followed her to the dormitory. "Do you think it was the colouring potion that made him ill? I mean, they're a bunch of prats, but we didn't want to really hurt them..."

Solstice gazed at Lily for a few moments, then shook her head. "Shouldn't think so. The others are okay."

"Yes - I think you're right. Besides..." Lily looked relieved as she continued, "He's been ill before. Haven't you noticed that every so often he goes to the hospital wing for a few days. Maybe he has a - a weak stomach or something."

Full moon
Solstice nodded, and wandered to the window. "Look, isn't the moon beautiful tonight? It must be just about full."

Lily joined her, kneeling in the window alcove and gazing out at the moonlit grounds. Suddenly, she turned to Solstice. "Let's go out!" she said.

Solstice looked at her, faintly puzzled."I thought you didn't like going out after dark."

"Oh, I don't mind it any more. I went out all the time over the summer. It's fun, everything looks so different."

"Ok!" Solstice jumped from the window alcove to Lily's bed, then attempted to jump to her own bed, missed, and thudded to the floor. Lily giggled, opening the door of her wardrobe and reaching for her cloak. "You make more noise than a herd of hippogriffs," she teased.

Solstice scrambled to her feet, and collected her own cloak. "Wouldn't that be a flock of hippogriffs?" she pondered. "After all, they can fly..."

"Yeah, but they're part horse too, I think it's a herd." They ran down the stairs together, arguing good-naturedly.

Once they were out in the grounds, they kept to the shadows at first to avoid being seen from the windows. Darting past the greenhouses, they made for the sparsely-growing trees that marked the beginning of the Forbidden Forest, then Lily led the way past the Whomping Willow. They kept running for some ten or fifteen minutes, until Solstice slowed to a walk. "Where are we headed?" she panted as she caught up to Lily, who had stopped to wait for her.

"To the front gates. I want to look at the statues - you know, the winged boars."

Solstice shrugged. "Okay." They continued at a walk, but had only gone a dozen steps or so when a faint but unmistakable howl split the silence. Both girls stopped, looking around.

"Was that - in the forest?" Lily whispered.

Solstice shook her head. "I don't think so..." Hesitantly she pointed past the gates. "I think it was..." As she spoke, another, louder howl echoed through the crisp, clear night air. "That definitely came from Hogsmeade!" The girls looked at each other uneasily. "Maybe we should go back..." Solstice suggested. Lily nodded, and they turned and headed back towards the castle.

They made it to the Whomping Willow before their luck ran out. Having come that far keeping close to the trees, they decided to make a run for it across the grass. They skirted the tree, but before they could go any further, Professor McGonagall suddenly stepped out from behind the tree. It was hard to say whether they or the Professor were more surprised, but predictably, it was Professor McGonagall who recovered her composure first. "Miss Evans! Miss Flidae! What is the meaning of this?"

Lily gulped."We - um - we're just out for a walk..."

"A walk? At this time of night? Perhaps detention next Saturday will help you remember that there are times when you may not just take a walk, Miss Evans." Her steely gaze switched to Solstice. "As I recall, Miss Flidae, this is not the first time I have caught you in the grounds after hours. In addition to Saturday, you will also report for detention next Sunday."

Solstice opened her mouth as if to protest, but thought better of it in the face of Professor McGonagall's glare. Lily, however, spoke up. "Professor - it was my idea to come outside tonight..."

"Indeed? In that case, you will also spend Sunday in detention. Back to the castle this minute. And you will both go straight to bed after dinner all week!" The two girls followed the Professor as she strode towards the castle. After a few minutes, Solstice ventured to say, "Professor - we heard something howling..."

Professor McGonagall looked sharply at the girl, then said, "That is hardly surprising, considering how close you were to the Forbidden Forest."

"But it wasn't from the Forest - it came from Hogsmeade."

Professor McGonagall looked hard at Solstice and Lily; finally she said, "The Forbidden Forest is not the only place you will find - dangerous creatures. You would do well to remember that the next time you feel like taking a walk after dark!" She ushered the pair back into Hogwarts in repressive silence, breaking it only long enough to remind them to go straight to bed.

Lying in bed, waiting for the three other occupants of the dormitory to come up to bed, Solstice said thoughtfully, "She knows something about whatever was howling in Hogsmeade!"

"Yes - but she's not going to tell us, is she?"

"I suppose not." Solstice sighed. "A whole weekend in detention!" she said in disgust. She turned onto her side and pulled the covers up to her chin, wondering just what they had heard that night.


CHAPTER SIX – …AND OCCASIONALLY ABOVE

SECOND YEAR – JANUARY

Lily shivered as she got off the train, and pulled her cloak close around her. When she went home before Christmas, she had left Hogwarts in deep, soft snow. Now, in early January, with sleety rain falling steadily, the snow was nothing more than freezing slush. To make matters worse, she could only find one of her gloves, and her gloveless hand was already red and stinging from the cold.

All things considered, it had been a rotten journey. Her sister had – as usual - refused to accompany their parents to see her off at Kings Cross; and she’d found herself stuck in a compartment with Potter and his cronies, without even the consolation of her own friends, as both Solstice and Snape had stayed at Hogwarts over Christmas. To cap it all, she had spent so long searching for her missing glove that by the time she reached the place where the carriages usually waited, the last one had already moved off.

Lily no longer minded being out after dark, but she already felt frozen through, and now had the prospect of at long, cold walk up to the castle. Muttering to herself, she started out, but after just a few steps, she stumbled on the uneven ground, and fell to her hands and knees, inches deep in an icy, slushy puddle. She let out a cry of sheer exasperation, but before she could clamber out, hands grasped her from behind, and she was lifted out of the puddle and set on her feet. Startled, she whirled around to see who had been following her.

“Looks like they left without us,” her rescuer commented, and Lily recognized Professor Greenwood. He regarded her bedraggled appearance with sympathy. “You must be soaked – and only one glove! Here...” He pulled off his own gloves and gave them to Lily.

“Oh, I couldn’t...” she began, but he grinned.

“Yes you could. It’s a fair hike to the castle. I won’t suffer, I assure you. I’ve been out in much worse than this.” He waited until Lily had put on the gloves, then started off towards the castle, moderating his pace so that Lily didn’t have to run to keep up with him. “You’re Lily, aren’t you – Solstice’s friend? She talks about you all the time...”

As they walked, Lily found herself understanding why Solstice liked him so much. He talked with her naturally, as if she were another adult, and was genuinely interested in her replies. Lily was so engrossed in their conversation that she barely noticed the discomfort of the journey, and she was surprised to find that they had reached the stone steps leading up to the front doors.

As they reached the top of the steps, Lily heard someone calling her name, and she looked up to see Solstice hurtling towards her through the downpour. "How was your holiday? Did you get some good presents? How come you weren’t in a carriage? Everyone else...”

“Miss Flidae!” Professor McGonagall’s voice rang out, her tone outraged. “Back inside this minute! You don’t have a cloak on – and you are not even wearing shoes!”

Solstice pulled up short, spun around, and raced back towards the doors. Professor Greenwood chuckled, and when he and Lily reached the haven of the Entrance Hall, they were in time to hear Professor McGonagall concluding a sharp scolding with, “...at twelve and a half, you are quite old enough to think before you act! Straight up to your dormitory and put on some dry clothes... and look where you’re going!” she added as Solstice narrowly avoided bowling over a little knot of First Years in her hurry. Hiding a grin, Lily took off the gloves and handed them back to Professor Greenwood. “Thank you, Professor,” she said. He smiled as he took the gloves, and replied, “You’re quite welcome.”

* * * * *

After taking off her heavy winter cloak, Lily headed towards the Great Hall, and looked around, searching the faces at the Slytherin table for her other best friend. Her brows drew together in a frown as she saw Snape, already seated and talking to Avery and Mulciber. She couldn’t understand why Snape had become friends with two boys who had spent most of the First Year tormenting him mercilessly.

She knew that something had happened last spring – for a full month, Snape had been in detention every night and all weekend. From the little he’d said, most of those detentions had involved cleaning up the messes that were a common feature of most Potions lessons; or failing that, rebottling some nameless horror that floated in one of the rows of jars that lined the shelves of the main Potions dungeon – although she suspected that he was secretly fascinated by the nightmarish creatures.

Avery and Mulciber, along with two other Slytherins, had received lesser punishments; and since that time they had treated Snape with a sort of wary respect. Lily knew that having friends in his own house made life slightly easier for Snape, but she couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable about his choice of friends.

She took her place at the Gryffindor table, taking care to sit as far away from the Marauders as possible. Within minutes, Solstice joined her. Her hair was damp, but she had put on dry clothes, and was somewhat calmer than she had been when she greeted Lily.

Lily spent most of the meal answering Solstice’s questions about what she’d done over the holidays. Finally, she had a chance to ask Solstice how her Christmas at Hogwarts had been. Solstice grinned. “It was – eventful.” Lily looked at her, wondering just what ‘eventful’ had entailed. She was accustomed to her friend’s impulsiveness, and most of the time it was fun, but occasionally she had to admit it caused more trouble than it was worth. “Eventful how?” she asked.

“Well – on Christmas Eve, I got in a big fight with Sev... that was after my fist fight with Mulciber... but before I got locked out overnight...”

Lily’s eyes widened; this had evidently been one of Solstice’s wilder episodes. “Okay – what did you fight with Sev about?”

“Well, I’d been trying to talk to him all day, but he just stayed in the Slytherin common room. So after dinner, I went down to see him. I couldn’t get in, of course, so I pounded on the door for a while. And Mulciber finally answered, but when I said I wanted to talk to Sev, he said he wasn’t going to give him any messages, because he didn’t think Sev wanted to talk to a...”

She glanced around then leaned close and whispered the phrase Mulciber had used to describe her. Lily gasped, but Solstice grinned and went on. “So I said he was a...” Again she murmured in Lily’s ear, and giggled as her friend blushed.

“And – what did he say then?” Lily asked.

“He didn’t say anything – he just came belting out of the common room and knocked me down. So I got up and smacked his face, and that’s when we really started fighting.”

“Did you get caught?”

Solstice shook her head. “No – after a couple of minutes, Sev came out and dragged me off Mulciber, and said I shouldn’t be fighting with his friend. I said he should tell that to Mulciber first – or was he saying that I wasn’t his friend. Sev’s, I mean,” she added as Lily looked confused. “And Sev said...” or the first time Solstice frowned. “He said I’d never been his friend in the first place, and I only thought I was 'cause I was always tagging after you...”

“He said what?” Lily started to get up, looking over at the Slytherin table, her face flushed again, this time with anger. Solstice grabbed her arm and pulled her back into her place.

“You don’t have to say anything! We made it up later, and he said he didn’t mean it. Well, you see we were both really cross by then,” she explained, seeing Lily’s sceptical expression. “We both said – stuff we shouldn’t have. I – um – I told him to go and make friends with a bottle of shampoo...”

“Solstice!”

The younger girl shrugged impatiently. “I said we made it up later, we both apologized. But anyway, after that, I decided I was going to send you an owl – oh, not about the fight, just to say Happy Christmas.”

By this time, dinner was over; as the girls joined the crowds of students heading off to their common rooms, Lily said, “So why didn’t you send the owl? I never got one.”

Solstice nodded. “It was getting a bit late by then, and when I got to the Owlery, the door was locked for the night. And then, when I got back to the castle, that door was locked too. And I didn’t really want to knock – not after everything Professor McGonagall said to us last term when she caught us outside.”

“So what did you do?”

“I went down to Hagrid’s cottage – I figured he’d probably let me into the castle without telling anyone. But he wasn’t there – I think he’d gone to Hogsmeade. Anyway, I was cold, even though I had my cloak on. And I could see there was a big pile of straw in that lean-to round the back of the cottage, so I climbed in there to wait for him to come back, but I fell asleep. I didn’t wake up till the next morning. He found me there when he went out to get some firewood.”

“Did he let you in the castle?”

“Oh yes, he was really nice about it! First, he made me some tea, cause I was just about frozen by then, even in among all that straw. Oh, he’s got a wolf in his cabin that’s going to have cubs – he said we could both go and see them after they’re born. Then he let me back into the castle. No-one else in our dormitory stayed, so no-one had really missed me.” She sighed. “Apart from that, it was rather boring. Sev was sulking in the Slytherin dungeon, so I went out and climbed pine trees. I only fell out of one!”

The two girls went straight through the Gryffindor common room, and up to the dormitory. "Quick, before the others come up – have you figured out how to do the spell?” Solstice asked eagerly.

Lily nodded. “I think I could do it with anything light enough. I couldn’t practice it at home of course... let me try it.” She pointed her wand at a quill lying on Solstice’s bedside table. “Proprietas Insisto!”

The quill rose into the air and floated over to Solstice, hovering above her dark hair. Solstice took a few steps, and the quill floated after her, keeping position above her head, but when Solstice tried to catch it, it moved abruptly upwards, staying just out of her reach.

Solstice grinned delightedly. “Perfect! You’re sure the spell makes things go to the right person?”

“Pretty sure. We’ll know for certain...”

“Shhh! The others are coming up!” Solstice hissed, and Lily finished in a whisper, “...a week from Saturday!”

* * * * *

James Potter leaned back in the armchair, propped his booted feet on the table, and grinned at his friends. He’d just got back from Quidditch practice, and was describing his exploits in the air, still dressed in his Quidditch robes. “You should have seen it! Fifty feet in an almost-vertical dive, I caught the snitch and pulled out of the dive just inches from the ground.” He laced his fingers behind his head, enjoying the rapt attention of his audience. “Too bad it was just practice,” he continued. “If I could just do something like that in the match tomorrow, it’d wipe those smug grins off the Slytherins. Just because they beat Ravenclaw by 400 points in October...”

At a nearby table Lily and Solstice, ostensibly hard at work on their Potions homework, exchanged grins. They were also looking forward to tomorrow’s match with considerable anticipation, but for a very different reason.

“Oi, Evans!”

At James’s shout, Lily glanced at Solstice, frowning slightly, but answered curtly, “What?”

“Going to watch me in the match tomorrow?” He twisted around to look at her, smirking.

Lily shrugged. “Only if there’s nothing better to do,” she replied offhandedly. She bent her head over her essay. She was careful not to catch Solstice’s eye, but she knew that the other girl was also hiding a grin.

* * * * *

Saturday morning was clear and sunny, but bitingly-cold. Traces of snow lay along the edge of the path out to the Quidditch pitch; the students were bundled in scarves and gloves, and many had the hoods of their winter cloaks pulled up. For Solstice it was no problem to conceal a small bundle under her cloak as she and Lily took their place in a back corner of the Gryffindor stand.

They looked around, noting the position of the Marauders right at the front. James, of course, was not with them; by now, he and the rest of the two teams would be waiting anxiously for the moment to walk out onto the pitch and mount their brooms. The two girls watched with suppressed excitement as more students and teachers arrived. There were a lot of Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs - those two houses weren’t involved in the match that day, but it was well known that the long-standing and bitter rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin made for tense and spectacular matches.

Finally, the two teams emerged, to roars from the crowd. The snitch was released, the players kicked off from the ground, and the match was underway. “Give it five minutes,” Lily murmured. “We want to make sure that everyone’s attention is on the game...”

Those five minutes seemed endless, but finally Solstice drew the bundle from beneath her cloak. In her hands were the four pairs of underwear that she and Lily had liberated and hidden in Solstice’s trunk the previous term. One at a time, she held out the garments to Lily, who pointed her wand at them, muttering, “Proprietas Insisto!” each time.

Solstice, keeping a firm grip on them, grinned as she felt them tugging at her hands. “They want to go!” she told Lily.

“Okay... just a few more seconds...”

Gryffindor scored, excitement rippled through the crowd, and Lily said, “Okay – now!” Solstice opened her hands, and the bewitched underpants shot straight up in the air before each was pulled, as if by an invisible magnet, towards the boy that owned them.

At first, Remus ignored the flicker of white that caught the edge of his field of vision, concentrating as he was on watching the match. Behind him, there was a sudden murmur. It was different from the excited chatter that had been ringing in his ears, and he glanced back. To his surprise, a number of students seemed to be ignoring the play around the goal posts, and looking at something else – something right above him... puzzled, he looked up. It took a few seconds to sink in that the object floating above his head, just out of his reach, was a pair of underpants... his underpants, he realized with shock. Instinctively, he made a grab for them, finding that they bobbed upwards, remaining just beyond the reach of his fingertips.

On either side of him, Sirius and Peter turned their heads, wondering why Remus had started leaping repeatedly into the air, and making wild lunges with both arms. As they did so, each realized that they were similarly afflicted. It briefly occurred to Remus to be glad that at least his appeared to be clean! Peter, on the other hand, was trying in vain to capture a pair of pants that were, grey, wrinkled and sagging.

On the other side of Remus, Sirius was staring dumbfounded at the vivid pink boxer shorts that floated lazily above him. For a few seemingly-endless seconds, all he could do was gaze at them in disbelief. Then as it sank in what was happening, he began to laugh. His first few lunges at the shorts were half-hearted, then he hurled himself upwards, feeling his fingertips brush the fabric, but even as his hand tried to close on the shorts, he knew that he’d jumped too far forward, and he collided with the railing at the front of the stands. For a second, he found himself staring down at the ground far below, tilting dangerously over the rail. Then someone – he never knew who – grabbed the back of his cloak, and pulled him back.

Watching from the back, Solstice and Lily gasped as it appeared that Sirius was about to fall right out of the stand; then he was back safely on his feet, trying to grab the shorts again, and roaring with laughter. The girls exchanged grins – somehow, it wasn’t surprising that Sirius was enjoying the situation. The other two boys were flushed with exertion and varying degrees of embarrassment. Then Lily grabbed Solstice’s arm and pointed. “Look!”

It was a sight they would treasure. James Potter, resplendent in his gold and crimson Quidditch robes, tearing at top speed across the pitch with a pair of pale blue Y-fronts in hot pursuit. Totally oblivious to the situation, he lost sight of the snitch he’d been chasing, and finally noticed that the excited cheering all around him was changing to laughter. Frowning, he pulled up out of the dive, and swung around sharply to see what was going on.

The Y-fronts hit him in the face, wrapping themselves around his head. Thinking at first that some kind of bird – or possibly a bat – had attacked him, he swiped wildly, rocking dangerously on his broom. He clutched at the handle with both hands, as the pants untangled themselves and shot upwards, bobbing gently a few feet above his head. He made a grab at them, but as had happened to the other boys, they darted away from his hand, staying just out of reach. James chased the pants halfway across the pitch before realizing the futility of the maneuver.

Now, however, he was close enough to the Gryffindor stand to see the three other Marauders each with a garment floating elusively above them. Suddenly it clicked – the memory of the night their clothes vanished from the bathroom, and Peter’s predicament the next morning when he found his only pair of underpants was missing. Whoever had carried out the sabotage of the bath must have been planning this sequel for weeks, and come up with a spell to make the pants go after their owners without getting close enough to be caught.

Despite the embarrassment of his underwear being on public display, James grinned. He had to admit that it was a great prank – one he would have been pleased to play himself. He scanned the stands, hoping for some clue as to who had bewitched the underwear.

Noting the expression of realization on James’s face, Lily waited until the boy was looking in the opposite direction, then flicked her wand unobtrusively, muttering, “Finite Incantatum!”

The four pairs of underpants fell out of the sky simultaneously. Peter’s landed on his head, falling over his eyes. James, as he had hoped, had the opportunity to make a spectacular diving catch – and although he would have preferred it to be the snitch, he had enough presence of mind to wave the Y-fronts triumphantly above his head before stuffing them into his pocket. The crowd roared in appreciation, and more than one person reflected that at least Potter was taking the joke against him with good grace.

It was Sirius, however, who got the biggest cheer; retrieving his outrageous pink boxers at last, he placed one hand over his heart, bowed theatrically to the Third Year girl on his right, and with a flourish, presented her with the shorts. Blushing wildly, she felt forced to accept this unexpected gift. Some of these Second Year boys, she found herself thinking, definitely had style! As the crowd began to calm down, and it seemed likely that Quidditch might actually break out again, she glanced sideways and smiled shyly at Sirius. Exhilarated by all the attention, Sirius took a chance, and leaned over to murmur in her ear. Blushing even more, she giggled and nodded, and Sirius scooted along the bench to sit closer to her.

In the back row, Lily turned to Solstice in disbelief. “Did he just...?”

Solstice looked at Sirius, now sneaking an arm around the girl, and nodded. “Yeah! He just asked her out!”

Lily stared open-mouthed, then shook her head and unwillingly began to laugh. “Trust Sirius Black to make the most of being pranked!"


CHAPTER SEVEN - A STEP BEHIND

THIRD YEAR – SEPTEMBER

Platform 9 ¾ was crowded with the usual mix of excited students, anxious parents, luggage, owls and steam, as the Hogwarts Express prepared for the long journey north.

The four Marauders were standing in a group, everyone talking at once as they discussed the summer holidays that had just ended. All had grown noticeably, but Remus had outdone them all. Still as thin as ever, with his customary faint air of exhaustion, he now towered over his friends, and moved with the awkwardness that often accompanied a sudden growth spurt. His one consolation was that when his voice broke, it had done so almost overnight, so that he was at least spared the disconcerting croaks, squeaks and changes of pitch that his friends were enduring.

Suddenly, James broke off in the middle of a joke, and gazed down the platform. The other boys turned to look in the same direction. Lily Evans was standing a short distance away, talking to Snape. She had obviously done her own share of growing over the summer. She was taller, more shapely, and her manner was outgoing and confident. She shook her long, gleaming chestnut hair back from her face and turned, still laughing, to get on the train. Remus nudged Sirius and nodded towards James, who was now oblivious to his friends, a bemused expression on his face as he watched Lily disappear onto the train. Sirius grinned and said, “Smitten, that’s what he is.”

“Who wouldn’t be?” James murmured. Suddenly he snapped out of his daze. “Come on, we’ll get in the same compartment.”

As they pushed open the sliding door and crowded in from the corridor, Lily glanced up and frowned with annoyance, but her attention was mostly on the wicker basket that Solstice held. In contrast with her classmates, Solstice hardly seemed to have grown at all, and looked much as she had done on the night she was sorted. She could easily have been mistaken for a First Year.

Paying no attention to the boys, she unlatched the door of the basket, reached in and gently drew out a bundle of fluffy, greyish-white feathers. As she placed it on her lap, it suddenly stretched out scrawny legs and claws, flapped rudimentary wings, and snapped its long, pinkish beak. It blinked, its round black eyes peering from the heart-shaped ruff that surrounded its face.

“What the hell is that?” Sirius demanded, regarding the odd-looking creature with amusement.

BabyBarnOwl
Solstice scowled at him. “It’s a baby barn owl, of course!”

“Where did you get it?” Lily asked, watching as the bird took a few wobbly steps. It clicked its beak again, looking up at Solstice, who fished a damp, blood-stained package from her pocket. She unwrapped the gory parcel, revealing chunks of raw liver, picked up a piece and fed it to the owlet.

“I found the nest,” she explained. “Someone had shot the mother, and I rescued the eggs. Three of them hatched, but only this chick survived.” She rubbed the bird’s head with a finger, and it squawked softly, settling down in her lap, so that its feathers covered its skinny claws.

“It thinks you’re its girlfriend,” James said jeeringly.

“No, actually it thinks I’m its mother!”

The boys shouted with laughter, and the owl screeched in alarm. Sirius reached out and poked at the bird. It promptly hurled itself onto its back, striking out with its feet and hissing loudly. Naturally, this only increased the Marauders’ amusement, and even Lily had to laugh at the ridiculous sight. Solstice gathered the screeching bundle of feathers to her chest, and gently covered it with her cloak. “That’s what barn owls do when they’re scared,” she explained. “It won’t be so funny when it has proper talons.”

“What do you mean – it thinks you're its mother?” Lily demanded.

“I was the first thing it saw when it hatched – it’s called imprinting. Normally they imprint on their mother. This one imprinted on me.” The owl screamed again, slightly muffled under the cloak, and Lily frowned.

“You’re not – um – planning on keeping it in the dormitory, are you?" she asked. "It’ll keep us awake all night!”

Solstice grinned. “Of course not. It needs feeding during the day, so I’m going to ask Hagrid if he’ll help me with it.” Lily looked extremely relieved.

“What’s its name?” Remus asked.

“I was thinking of Tyto – that’s the genus it belongs to, so...”

Sirius laughed derisively. “Better call it Hoot, so it remembers it’s an owl!” There was more laughter, but Remus smiled at Solstice sympathetically.

She shrugged. “For your information, barn owls don’t hoot!” She curled her legs up under her, and opened the book lying on the seat beside her. She flipped through it until she found a page depicting various owls in flight, and began to read. Lily glanced at her, then pulled a magazine from the pocket of her robe. Both girls ignored the bantering chatter of the Marauders who were now discussing Gryffindor’s chances in that year’s Quidditch Cup.

* * * * *

Sitting at the Gryffindor table before dinner that night, watching as the latest batch of First Years filed in nervously, Lily turned to Solstice and asked, “Remember when we were sorted? How come they called you last? Your last name begins with an ‘F’ so you should have been called right after me.”

“It’s because I’m an Elemental. They weren’t sure how long it would take to sort me. There was a girl last century who sat for half an hour before the Hat made up its mind. Professor McGonagall said I should go last, so if the same thing happened with me, at least everyone else wouldn’t be standing around waiting.”

* * * * *

During dinner, Solstice and Lily talked mostly to each other, catching up on all their holiday news, but as they waited in the queue to get into the Common Room, one of their dormitory mates caught Lily’s arm. “Did you get your Hogsmeade permission signed? I can’t wait to visit Gladrags Wizard Wear.”

“Yes, Aralia, I’ve got my permission slip. When’s the first visit?”

“It’s usually around Halloween. My mother gave me enough Galleons for a set of dress robes. She says I’m old enough to choose my own now.”

Lily looked doubtful. “I don’t expect I’ll be able to afford much – but it’ll be fun to look all the same. Solstice, did you get permission?”

“Yes. My foster parents signed it – even though they’re not really my guardians any more...”

“Why not?”

“They decided they couldn’t foster me any more.” Solstice grinned. “They had a bunch of reasons, but I think the owl sort of decided them. So I’ll have a new family next summer. Anyway, they signed the form for me. But I don’t want to waste time in a dress shop...”

Aralia glanced at her, her lip curling slightly.

“I suppose all you’re interested in is the sweet shop,” she said, a faintly scornful edge to her voice.

“Why would I be?" Solstice looked surprised. "I don’t like sweet stuff. What I want to see is that shack at the end of the village. I heard one of the Fifth Years say that it’s haunted.”

“Haunted!” The scornful tone was unmistakeable now. “There are lots of haunted houses. Why would you want to go and stare at one?” Aralia tossed her fair, curly hair back from her face and climbed through the portrait hole.

Once they were inside the common room, Lily pulled Solstice aside. “You know what you said about that shack? Maybe it’s got something to do with what we heard last year – you know, the howls, when we were out in the grounds that night.”

Solstice nodded. “That’s what I thought. I don’t know how close we’ll be able to get – it’s fenced off. It was only built a few years ago, but it’s already starting to fall down, so it could be dangerous. That’s what I heard, anyway. But we might see something...”

“Lily!” Aralia called from the steps leading to the dormitories. “Come upstairs – my mother gave me my own make-up case for my birthday last month, and she said I could bring it to school. I want to show it to you.”

“All right.” Lily started towards her, then glanced back at Solstice. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Um – no, I want to finish the chapter on how owls learn to fly.” Solstice seemed a little uncertain, and Lily urged,

“Come on – don’t you want to see what Aralia’s mum gave her?”

“No – not really.”

Lily looked at her friend curiously for a moment, then said, “Well – all right then. I’ll see you later.” She headed off to the dormitory, leaving Solstice to curl up at one end of a shabby sofa, her book in her hands. But although she flipped over a page occasionally, she didn’t take in much of what she read. Now and then, she glanced up at the stairs to the dormitory, looking puzzled.

Going up to bed later, she found that Aralia had encouraged Lily to try on some of her make-up. “What do you think? Does it look good?” Lily asked enthusiastically.

Solstice gazed at her silently, her expression slightly awestruck. “You look – so grown up!” she said at last.

“Thanks! But I’d better go and wash it off before I go to bed...” She and Aralia went into the bathroom, and Solstice could hear them chattering as they got ready for bed. Solstice pulled on her nightgown and climbed into bed. She felt a bit put-out by Lily’s new interest in make-up and clothes, but she wasn’t really sure why it made her feel uncomfortable. She lay down, pulling her sheet and light blanket around her shoulders, then mentally shrugged. There would be plenty of time to talk to Lily later, she told herself.

But somehow, as they settled back into school routine over the next few weeks, there didn’t seem to be as much time to talk as in the past. Solstice was busy with her owl, and had discovered that she had a way with the animals – of varying size and ferocity – that Hagrid had in and around his cottage, so after taking care of the baby owl, she often spent extra time there, helping out, or just asking questions.

During the evenings, although she and Lily still did their homework together, they were often interrupted by Aralia, or the other two girls, Sophie and Mary, who shared their dormitory.

* * * * *

Halloween came at last, and the Third Years set out excitedly on their first trip to Hogsmeade. Solstice wasn’t too pleased to find that Aralia, Mary and Sophie joined her and Lily as they walked along the main street of the village.

Solstice paused at the turn-off to the shack she had told Lily about, but Lily said, “Let’s look at the shops first.”

“Well – all right. I need to go to Dervish and Banges – I have to get some new balance scales and a cauldron....” Lily giggled. During the last Potions lesson, Solstice had misread the instructions in her text book, with the result that her cauldron sent up a cloud of brilliant blue smoke and began to melt. Jumping back from the hissing mess that spilled onto the floor, she accidentally dropped her balance scales, which fell into the remains of the cauldron. Solstice had spent an hour after class cleaning up the damage, and needed to replace the two pieces of equipment, which were now a single shapeless lump of melted metal.

Dervish and Banges proved fascinating, and after purchasing her new cauldron and scales, Solstice spent some time looking at the other items on offer. Many of them were useless to her variety of magic – even if she had been able to afford anything else – but she was intrigued nonetheless.

After about ten minutes, Aralia said, “Let’s go to Gladrags. I want to try on those robes they’ve got in the window.”

“Come on, Solstice!” Lily called, following Aralia, but Solstice said distractedly, “I’ll catch up..."

The other girls filed out, and as the door swung shut, Solstice heard Aralia say,

“We don’t need a kid tagging along anyway...”

Solstice’s face burned, and she turned angrily back to the crystal globe she had been examining.

Outside, Lily faced Aralia indignantly. “That wasn’t nice! And anyway, her birthday’s in June, and yours is in August, so she’s actually older than you!”

Aralia shrugged. “She may be older, but I’m much more mature than her. I don’t know why you let her hang around you.”

“She doesn’t hang around me – she’s my friend!” Lily exclaimed heatedly.

“Well anyway,” Sophie put in hurriedly, “she didn’t want to go to Gladrags. So let’s not argue about it.”

Lily glanced back at the shop they had just left. Solstice had seemed quite happy looking around Dervish and Banges, and she probably hadn’t heard Aralia’s snide comment anyway... She followed the other girls through the door of the clothier’s. She hadn’t given it much thought before, but now she was here, it wouldn’t hurt to try on the outfit that Aralia was pointing out to her.

Finally emerging from the shop next door, Solstice paused, scowling at the door of the clothes shop. If the other girls didn’t want a ‘kid’ around, she would just explore Hogsmeade on her own. Just down the street, she saw the four Marauders heading towards Zonkos. They had evidently just left Honeydukes, and were sampling the sweets they had bought. Solstice had been thinking of taking a look at Zonkos, but now changed her mind, and headed down the main street.

The shack was a disappointment. As she had been told, it was fenced off, and despite looking more dilapidated than one might expect for a building only a few years old, there was really nothing special about it. The path that ran past the shack ended at the railway line just ahead, and on the other side of the track the trees clustered thickly on the slope that ran down to the lake.

She crossed over the railway track, and shifted her new cauldron awkwardly under her arm. Pausing at the edge of the woods, she tucked the cauldron under a thorny bush, dropped the new scales inside, and pulled some fronds of bracken across to hide it from view. Without another glance back at the village, she plunged in among the trees.

Solstice rejoined Lily and the other girls as they headed back towards Hogwarts at the end of the morning. She was somewhat dishevelled, and had several twiggy branches tucked into her new cauldron. "I was exploring the woods on the other side of the railway line," she explained in answer to Lily's query. She indicated the twigs. "There were some trees I didn't recognize, so I brought back samples - Professor Greenwood will probably be able to tell me what they are."

"Who cares what they are. Trees are trees," Aralia drawled.

"Oh, Solstice is obsessed with trees," Lily exclaimed. She had meant it as a gentle tease, but to her surprise, Solstice scowled and flushed darkly red. Shifting her cauldron in her arms, she broke into a run, quickly outdistancing the others, and ignoring Lily's shout of, "Solstice, wait - I didn't mean..."

"Oh, let her go, if she's such a baby she can't take a joke." Aralia's tone was dismissive.

"She's not a baby!" Lily snapped. "Why are you always so mean about her?"

"I'm not mean, I just don't have time for little kids."

"Well she's my friend, so stop saying things like that!"

* * * * *

At lunch, Solstice seemed to have cooled off a little, and talked quite happily about the progress that her owlet was making. But as they were leaving the Great Hall, she said, “Come and see him this afternoon. He really looks like an owl now, and I think he'll learn to fly soon.”

Lily stopped in the hallway, looking dismayed. “Oh, Solstice - I can't. I'm sorry, but I already promised Aralia that I'd...”

Solstice's face darkened. “Fine! If you'd rather mess around with make-up...”

“It's not that -” Actually, Lily would have much rather gone to visit the owl, but she'd already promised. “It's just that she asked me first and...”

“Forget it! It doesn't matter,” Solstice snapped. She continued along the hall and up the stairs to the Common Room in stormy silence. Once there, she flung herself into an armchair, picked up the nearest book, and pretended to become absorbed in it.

“Come on, Lily!” Aralia sounded smug as she called from the stairs. Lily hesitated. “Well...”

“It's okay,” Solstice muttered, not looking up. All the anger seemed to have drained out of her, and her voice was subdued as she said, “If you promised...”

“I did. I'm sorry.” Lily turned towards the stairs.

Remus Lupin, waiting by the portrait hole, while James fetched his broomstick, had overheard the exchange. He could see Lily's point in sticking to her original promise, but he suddenly felt sorry for the younger girl. Impulsively he called out, “Hey Solstice! Come and watch the Quidditch practice this afternoon.”

Solstice looked up at him, startled, but after a moment she said, “Okay - I'll go and get my cloak.”

Once outside, Solstice's mood lightened a little, and she told Remus about her owl.

“Why don't you fetch him?” Remus suggested.

“Would it be okay - to take him to the Quidditch practice, I mean?”

Remus shrugged. “I don't see why not. Hey, James!" he shouted to his friend a short distance ahead. “We'll be there in a few minutes - we just have to fetch something first.” Remus was surprised by the change in the baby owl. It now had proper feathers, with just a few traces of baby down remaining, and it was clearly recognizable as a barn owl. As he and Solstice headed for the Quidditch pitch, he noticed how fond she seemed of it - and how the bird responded to her. As soon as they were seated in the stands, Solstice put the owl down beside her and it began to walk solemnly along the wooden bench. As the players kicked off from the ground, Remus asked, “Do you know much about Quidditch?”

“Not really. I've watched a few matches, so I know the basic rules, but that's about it. I mean, why do they do that?” she asked, watching the team practice a tricky manoeuvre. Remus plunged into an explanation, continuing his commentary as Solstice asked further questions.

After a while, Peter and Sirius joined them, and having listened to Remus for a few minutes, Sirius said, “Professor Lupin - Quidditch instructor!” Remus grinned, but before he could reply, Sirius noticed the owl. “How's your feather duster?” he asked teasingly.

“He's fine - he can almost fly,” Solstice told him. Somehow, his teasing didn't bother her the same way Lily's unfortunate remark that morning had done.

Sirius whistled at the bird. “Hey, Hoot!” he called.

“His name's Tyto!” Solstice insisted, but Sirius just grinned infuriatingly.

“Nah, Hoot's a much better name. Hey, Hoot!” The bird began to sidle towards him, and Sirius laughed. “Look, he knows his name.” Solstice grinned unwillingly. Sirius stood up and reached towards the owl. It screeched, snapping at him, flapped its wings - and flew a dozen feet to the end of the bench. Solstice leapt to her feet excitedly, shouting,

“He flew! Did you see? He actually flew!”

“Am I good or what?” Sirius bragged. “I made Hoot fly - now you have to call him Hoot, in my honour!” He was teasing her again, but Solstice suddenly nodded, laughing.

“Okay - I'll call him Hoot! Hoot, come here!” As if on cue, Hoot ruffled his feathers, and flew directly to her, landing clumsily on her shoulder. One of his claws raked her accidentally, leaving a livid red scratch down her cheek, but she was too pleased with her pet's accomplishment to notice.

It was dark by the time Solstice returned Hoot to Hagrid's care, and followed the Marauders back to the castle. Her earlier bad temper was forgotten, and she went into the Great Hall, looking for Lily. She was eager to tell her about Hoot's new skill, but she found her sitting with a group of Third and Fourth year girls. Her high spirits evaporated immediately, and even as Lily looked up and called to her that she had saved a space, Solstice turned away, trying hide her disappointment, and the sudden unexpected surge of resentment.

Just as he had done earlier that afternoon, Remus noticed Solstice's downcast expression. As she passed, he caught her arm. “Plenty of space here,” he told her, gently pulling her towards the bench. She returned his smile fleetingly, but said nothing as she slid into the space he indicated.

* * * * *

In the dormitory that night, Lily had hoped to get a few minutes alone to talk to her friend, but as happened so often these days, Aralia had monopolized her attention. She liked Aralia, and they had some interests in common, but she much preferred Solstice's company. The problem was, Solstice had been so touchy recently, and Lily wasn't really sure why. She'd never minded before if Lily was friendly with others - and Lily got on well with most people. But Aralia seemed to enjoy belittling Solstice, and had been unrepentant when Lily tackled her about it. This morning in Hogsmeade was a good example. Lily was at a loss to know what to do, beyond telling Aralia to stop teasing Solstice.

Lying in the darkness, listening to the other girls' breathing, a sudden thought struck her. Maybe Solstice was upset about something else - hadn't she started to tell Lily about having new foster parents? Perhaps she was unhappy about that... As recently as a few weeks ago, Lily would not have hesitated to ask Solstice about it, and see if there was something she could do to help; she could, at least, have offered a sympathetic ear. But the other girl's mood was so unpredictable now that Lily wasn't sure if that was the best approach. She didn't want to upset Solstice even more.

Lily lay for a while, trying to decide the best way to help her friend. After a while, she slipped out of bed and went to sit in the window alcove. It was raining hard, and Lily's mind wandered back to the start of the previous spring term, when she'd had to walk from the station in a downpour, and had barely noticed the discomfort because she had been busy talking to Professor Greenwood. Lily sat up straight, smiling with relief. Of course - she could talk to Professor Greenwood, and see if he knew what was really bothering Solstice. Maybe he would have some idea of how Lily could help her. Feeling much better, she got up from the window and went back to bed.

* * * * *

Monday's weather was as wet as it had been on Saturday night and all through Sunday. Solstice was still sulking. In a fit of temper she had thrown her twig samples on the fire in the Common Room, and was now regretting it, as she really had been interested in finding out what they were. She was supposed to be writing an essay on the formation of storms; true weather magic - as opposed to the freak lightning she had summoned during her first term at school - involved working with the natural weather processes, so she needed to understand exactly how they worked. When she had started studying it at the beginning of term, she had found it fascinating. But today, she felt disinclined to settle to any work, and she fidgeted, and doodled on the margin of her parchment.

Professor Greenwood was working at his own desk, but he had glanced at Solstice several times, fully aware that she wasn't doing any work. After a while, he said, “How's the essay coming?”

Solstice jumped slightly. “Fine,” she mumbled. “I'm - um - thinking...”

“Have you actually written anything?” Professor Greenwood asked mildly.

Solstice scowled. “I said, I'm thinking,” she snapped. There was silence. Professor Greenwood looked at her steadily, and Solstice stared at her parchment, her cheeks burning, waiting for the explosion.

Professor Greenwood pushed his quill and parchment aside, and stood up. “Get your cloak,” he said gently. Solstice looked up at him, startled.

“What?”

“Put your cloak on. I think we could both do with some fresh air.”

“But - it's pouring...”

Greenwood's mouth quirked. “I don't think we'll melt.”

Within a few minutes of going outside, Solstice started to feel better, despite the weather. She found the heavy rain and high winds quite exhilarating. They walked in silence for a while, heading along the shore of the Black lake. Eventually, Professor Greenwood asked, “So what's going on?” Solstice looked up at him, and he continued, “You haven't been yourself lately. You've been out of sorts for weeks, your work has been poor. And I think this is the first time you've ever been rude to me. So what's bothering you?” Solstice looked away uncomfortably, and Professor Greenwood continued, “I know there's something. Did you quarrel with someone?” Noting the sharp glance she gave him, he went on, “Was it with one of your friends?”

“I thought Lily was my friend, but now she's not!” Solstice burst out.

“She's not?” Professor Greenwood's tone was conversational, and he was careful to keep any note of scepticism out of his voice.

“No! Well, she's always going around with the other girls now, and she thinks I'm a baby!”

“She said that?”

“Yes - no. Well, not really, but that's what she thinks.”

Professor Greenwood watched her face, seeing the sudden uncertainty in her expression. “Tell me what she said.”

“Well, she - it was - I mean...” Solstice fumbled with her words. Now that she was trying to tell someone else about it, she was no longer sure exactly what had been said.

“Did she actually call you a baby?”

“No. But Aralia did. She said I was a little kid.”

“And what did Lily say to that? Did she agree?”

“Um - I'm not - I didn't hear what she said. They were going out of the shop, and the door closed.”

“I see. Don't you think you're being unfair to Lily?" Professor Greenwood suggested gently. "You didn't hear her agree, did you.”

“Well, no.” Solstice flushed. “But she's always hanging round with Aralia now. They do things together. They play with make-up and stuff.”

“Did they say you couldn't join them?” Professor Greenwood asked.

“No, but Aralia never asks me to join in, she just asks Lily.”

“So Lily has never said that you're not welcome?”

“No.” Solstice looked down, suddenly feeling a wave of shame. “Lily usually asks me to join in. But I don't.”

“Why not?”

Solstice faced him, and he could see the misery and confusion in her face. “I don't know. Aralia is mean to me. Whatever I say, she sneers, and she acts like she's grown up.”

“But Lily doesn't?”

Solstice shook her head unhappily. “Not in a nasty way. But she's different this year. We always used to like all the same things, and we did everything together. But suddenly she likes different things.”

“Things like make-up and hairstyles and clothes?” Professor Greenwood suggested.

Solstice frowned, surprised. “Yes! All those things!”

Professor Greenwood gazed out across the rain-swept lake. He thought he knew what the problem was, but he would have to explain it carefully to Solstice. “Lily's grown quite a bit, hasn't she?”

Solstice seemed baffled by his question. “I suppose so. I mean, she's taller and - and things like that...”

"But you're not.”

“No.” Solstice continued to look puzzled, and eventually he continued, choosing his words with care.

“Perhaps the real problem is that Lily is growing up, but you aren't, yet. And you're feeling as if she's left you behind.” When Solstice nodded, Professor Greenwood went on, “It's not really unusual. Friends don't always grow up at the same time. One of them starts to grow up first, and they become interested in new things. Maybe they wonder why the other person isn't interested too. And the one who hasn't started growing yet - or is just slower - feels that their friend isn't as much fun any more, and they wonder if they've stopped being friends.”

“And - do they stop being friends?” Solstice asked hesitantly.

“Sometimes. But if they're really good friends, they can usually find a way to stay friends.”

Solstice sighed. “But why aren't I growing? Lily's only five months older than me - and I'm older than Aralia, and she's grown a lot.”

“Everyone grows at a different rate. In your case, it has a lot to do with being Elemental - we tend to reach adolescence later than average. I didn't start growing until Fourth Year. I was the smallest in my class that September, and some of the other kids teased me about it. But by the end of Fourth Year, I was the tallest in the year!”

“I wish I could start growing now. I hate being the smallest...”

Professor Greenwood glanced at her, consideringly. “Solstice, you may find that you never grow as tall as most girls in your year." When Solstice's face fell, he added, "I'm not trying to make you unhappy. But you've always been small for your age, and your bone structure is very fine. If your parents were small, you may take after them. But even if that's the case - well, it's not necessarily such a bad thing. And you'll probably find that you feel differently about it, when you're a little more mature. You'll start to understand people better, and you'll have more self-control - and both of those will help you, not just with getting along with your friends - they'll help with your magic, too.”

Solstice looked a little more hopeful. “How will it help my magic?”

“You'll be able to control your power better, and understand how it works. And you'll find that you develop new abilities, magic that you don't have as a child. So we'll be able to start studying things like moon magic and fire spells.”

“And - will I start to like the things that Lily likes now?”

“Possibly - but not necessarily. But you'll have your own new interests, and even if they're not the same as Lily's, and you don't do as much together as before, you can still be just as good friends as you always have been.”

Solstice nodded, thinking all this over. “But Professor - when will I start growing up?”

He smiled at her. “I can't say. But once you do start, you'll probably find that its happens quickly, and you'll catch up fast.”

“Is that an Elemental thing too?”

“Partly. But don't worry about it - it doesn't help.”

Solstice nodded, then her expression clouded again.

“What is it?” Professor Greenwood prompted.

“Well - I think I've been mean to Lily lately. What if she doesn't want to be my friend because of that?”

“I don't think Lily's like that. If you make an effort not to get upset with her, I think Lily will realize that you still want to be friends.”

“Should I - should I apologize to her?”

“If you like. If it's difficult at first, just show her you're sorry by not taking offence when she has new interests, or is friendly with other people.” He studied her face for a moment, then smiled again. “Feel better about it all now? You already look happier.”

“Yes. Thank you, Professor. And - I'm sorry I was rude to you.”

“Then we'll forget about it.” He slicked his wet hair back from his forehead, and grinned. “So - now that we've spent all this time outside, do you think you can bear to start writing about what causes this sort of weather?”

Solstice nodded, returning his grin, as they began to head back towards the castle.

* * * * *

After dinner that evening, Professor Greenwood was unwinding in his study, reading in front of a crackling fire, when a hesitant knock sounded on the door. "Come in,” he called. The door opened and Lily stood in the doorway, looking uncertain. Professor Greenwood put his book aside and stood up. “What can I do for you this evening, Lily?” he asked.

“Could I talk to you about something, Professor?”

“Certainly. Come in and sit down.” Lily took the second chair beside the fire, and Professor Greenwood resumed his own seat. “So - what would you like to talk about?”

“Solstice.”

Professor Greenwood nodded, catching back his smile just in time. “All right. Tell me what's on your mind.”

Lily hesitated for a moment, not sure how to begin. “Well, I'm worried about her. She's been acting strangely, and I think she's unhappy about something. Did you know that she's going to have new foster parents?”

"Yes, she mentioned it, but she didn't seem to mind. Has she said something to you that makes you think she's miserable about it?"

"I'm not sure. She only mentioned it once, and she didn't say that she was upset about it. But she just hasn't been the same this term. She snaps at me, and she gets angry about things that wouldn't have bothered her before. There must be something wrong, and I want to help if I can but I just don't know how."

Professor Greenwood regarded Lily seriously for a moment. He was inclined to think that the change of behaviour Lily described was a result of the problems Solstice had talked about earlier that afternoon. "Lily, you may be right about the foster parents. But I know that something else has been worrying her, because she told me about it today.”

“What is it?”

“She's unhappy because she's not growing up as fast as she thinks she should. She feels as if she's getting left behind.”

“Left behind?” Lily looked perplexed.

“Yes. She sees that you have some new interests, and she's worried that you don't want to be friends with her any more.”

“But - I do want to be friends! I keep asking her to join in.”

“But there's usually another girl around - Aralia? Just between you and me, I think Solstice feels jealous of her.”

Lily looked incredulous. “Jealous? But I like Solstice much more than Aralia! Aralia is interested in clothes and things, and sometimes I like talking about that too, but not all the time. There are lots of things I still like that Solstice is interested in too.”

Professor Greenwood nodded, but said, “Solstice feels that Aralia has been unkind to her. Is that true?”

Lily flushed miserably. “Yes. But I've told Aralia to stop being mean!”

“Does Solstice know that?”

“Um - I don't know. Surely she doesn't think I agree with what Aralia says?”

“I'm afraid that's what she's been thinking. But... “ he held up his hand as Lily started to object. “I think she's started to realize that she's wrong. The problem is that she doesn't have the maturity to take a step back and ask herself if she's been taking things the wrong way, so she needed help to do that. I think she might be a bit jealous of you, too, because you're growing up and she isn't.”

“Well - I can't help that I'm growing up!” Lily protested, and Professor Greenwood smiled as he replied,

“No, I know. Just as she can't help that she isn't. But you have the advantage of having more maturity, and you can try to see her side of it. Suppose it was the other way around? Suppose she was growing up, and you weren't? You'd probably be unhappy if you thought she wasn't interested in the things you used to do together.”

Lily nodded, thoughtfully. “Yes - I would.” She looked up at Professor Greenwood. “What should I do? Should I tell her that I'm sorry?”

“You could tell her that you didn't realize that she felt left out.”

“What about Aralia?”

“You've already told Aralia that you don't like the way she treats Solstice. That's a good start. You can still be friends with her.”

“But she keeps trying to get me to do things with her instead of with Solstice.”

“Then you must be firm. You don't have to be unkind to Aralia, just make sure she understands that you won't let her push Solstice out of the picture.”

Lily was silent for a few minutes, thinking over the new perspective on the problem, then she suddenly burst out, “It's all been so complicated this term!”

Professor Greenwood nodded sympathetically. “Growing up isn't easy. But it gets less difficult as you go along, and start figuring out what works to solve the problems.”

Lily stood up. “Thank you, Professor. I was so confused about what was wrong with Solstice, but I think I understand now.”

“That's good.” He stood up and opened the door for her. “Goodnight, Lily.”

She smiled up at him. “Goodnight!”

After he closed the door, Greenwood took a bottle from the cupboard and poured out a small firewhisky. He sat back down by the fire, staring into the flames for a while. Although he was fairly sure that Solstice was not fretting about her new foster parents, it might be as well to talk to her about it in the next day or two, just to be certain. He leaned back in his armchair, feeling drained, then he suddenly grinned to himself, and took a gulp of firewhisky. A couple of sessions dealing with teenagers' growing pains was more exhausting that an entire week of teaching!

When she got back to the Common Room, Lily couldn't see Solstice; she normally spent part of the evening meditating, so Lily ran up the stairs to the dormitory, hoping to find her there alone. She was in luck. Solstice was alone in the room, sitting in the window alcove. There was a lighted candle beside her, but instead of meditating she was gazing out of the window.

Now that she had the opportunity to talk, Lily wasn't sure how to begin. She opened the drawer of her bedside cabinet, pretending to look for something; then she abruptly turned to her friend and blurted, “Solstice, I'm sorry Aralia's been mean to you!” at the same time as Solstice said, “Sorry I've been so cross lately.”

They both paused, looking at each other, then Lily said, “I didn't realize that Aralia was upsetting you so much. And - I'm sorry I said that thing about you being obsessed with trees...”

“I know you weren't being unkind. I just - overreacted.” Solstice blushed as she spoke.

Lily went to the window, moved the candle, and sat on the ledge beside Solstice. “I - um - I went to see Professor Greenwood just now. I was worried, because I didn't know why you were unhappy...”

Solstice nodded. “Yes, I talked to him about it too. He said that you have new interests because you're growing up faster than me, and I shouldn't be upset about that. I'm just slower – because I'm an Elemental - but I'll catch up.”

“But I still want to do things with you. Aralia's okay, but these days all she wants to talk about is clothes and things like that. I don't mind it sometimes, but it gets boring after a while. And Solstice - I keep telling her not to be unkind to you.”

Solstice smiled, looking a little ashamed of herself. “I should have known that. I just got upset, and I was so confused, and I couldn't figure it out myself, until I talked to Professor Greenwood.”

“He's nice,” Lily commented. “He doesn't treat us like kids - he just explains things really well. I - I didn't know you felt left out. I mean, I have asked you to join in, but...”

“I know. I was being silly - I suppose I was sulking. I thought you weren't interested in the things I like any more... Oh, Lily!” she exclaimed, suddenly remembering her news. “I never even told you - Hoot can fly now! He flew for the first time on Saturday.”

“That's great!” Lily said, but she looked puzzled. “Hoot? Weren't you going to call him...”

“Yes, I was. But then Sirius Black scared him and made him fly, and he said I should call him Hoot in return for teaching him to fly! It is sort of funny to call him that when he doesn't hoot!”

“Sirius Black? How come you were with him? Oh - I'm not saying you shouldn't be friends with him - it's just that - I thought neither of us liked Potter and that crowd.”

Solstice shrugged. “Remus is all right. He asked me to watch the Quidditch practice, and of course Black was there. You know, I think I might go and watch more practices...” Her face suddenly lit up. “Professor Greenwood was right! He said I'd find new interests of my own - and there's my owl, and now Quidditch!”

Lily nodded. “Yes - but it's okay for us to have different interests. We don't have to stop being friends. And maybe I could come and watch Quidditch with you sometimes!” She got up and went over to her bed, then stopped and turned back. “Solstice - I thought at first that you were upset because you're going to have new foster parents. Is - is all that okay?”

Solstice looked faintly surprised. “Oh yes - I don't mind. When I go to a new family, it's fun exploring a different neighbourhood. I mean, I'm here at school most of the time, so it's not as if it makes a lot of difference. I'm used to living with different people every few years.” She got up, snuffed out the candle, and went over to her own bed.

As she rummaged under her pillow for her nightgown, Lily asked curiously, “Do you remember your real parents?”

“No. I was only a year old when they realized that I was an Elemental, and they didn't want me after that.”

“Do you know what their name was?”

Solstice shook her head. “No. It wasn't Flidae - that's the name they gave me in the first foster home. I don't care who my real parents were! They abandoned me because they were purebloods, and I would have disgraced them if they'd kept me!”

“That's so stupid! I'm glad I'm muggle-born, if that's what purebloods are like.”

At Lily's vehement words, Solstice looked thoughtful. “Some purebloods don't care about all that. Potter and Black are both purebloods, and they think it's all rubbish.”

Lily frowned, surprised to hear of the boys' attitude. “Is that what their families think?”

“They were talking about it on Saturday - Potter's family think the same way he does, but Black's family - well, they sound just awful. They think only purebloods should be allowed to learn magic, and no-one else should even be allowed to use it. They hate muggles. And any purebloods who disagree with them - they call them blood traitors. Black was really angry about it, he said he'd be friends with whoever he wanted. He's the first person in his family that wasn't sorted into Slytherin. His brother started school this year, and he's in Slytherin." Solstice pulled her nightgown over her head, before adding, “I'm glad my parents didn't want me, if that's what they'd have tried to teach me!”

The two girls climbed into their beds, as the three other occupants of the dormitory entered. Aralia seemed put-out to find Lily deep in conversation with Solstice. The atmosphere in the dormitory was rather cool, but when Aralia's back was turned, Lily winked at Solstice who grinned in reply. When the room was finally in darkness, Lily suddenly said, “Solstice? Can I come and see your owl tomorrow?”

“All right. We can go down to Hagrid's cabin before dinner, and see if Hoot will fly some more.”

There was a snort of disgust from the direction of Aralia's bed, and Lily grinned. She wasn't planning to shut Aralia out completely – but she was very glad that everything seemed to have worked out with Solstice. She turned over, snuggling under her quilt, and was asleep within minutes.


CHAPTER EIGHT - A PERSON OF INFLUENCE

As the students filed out of the Potions dungeon after the last class of the morning, Snape caught up with Lily. "I need your help," he said abruptly.

Lily looked up at him – he was quite a bit taller than her now. "Sev, is something wrong?"

He shook his head. "No, it's – it's just that I've never had to do this before – not something like this, anyway…"

Lily grinned. "Sit with me at lunch and explain properly!" Snape nodded, and ten minutes later they found places at one of the tables in the Great Hall. "So, what do you need my help with?" Lily asked, but before Snape could reply, a sharp blow caught him between the shoulder blades. He swung around to find James Potter sneering at him.

"Sorry Snivellus, didn't see you there. I thought it was someone's dirty washing!" Potter began to walk away, amid the laughter of his inevitable entourage, but Lily called after him,

"I'm not surprised Gryffindor lost the last Quidditch match, Potter, with a Seeker as clumsy as you!"

Potter turned back to her, his face flushed with anger. The recent loss was a sore point, especially as the opposing Seeker had beat him to the Snitch by mere inches, but before he could retort, one of the Gryffindor prefects said, "Move along, you Third Years. Other people are trying to get past!"

James scowled but held his tongue; Lily and Snape were left in peace, and Lily repeated her question. Snape looked mildly uncomfortable. "I need to buy dress robes, but – well, I don't know what I should get. I've never bought my own robes before."

Lily smiled – despite his earlier denial, she had half-suspected he was in some kind of trouble. This was something she could cope with. "We've got another Hogsmeade visit coming up next weekend, we could go to Gladrags and I'll help you find something."

"Thanks." Snape smiled at her, and it suddenly struck Lily how rarely she saw him smile these days. He took his school work very seriously, and outside class, even though he had a few friends in his house, he seemed to spend a lot of time off on his own.

"So what's the occasion? Why do you suddenly need dress robes?"

"It's for Christmas – I've got an invitation…" He felt in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of thick, cream-coloured parchment. Lily glanced at the crest that headed the letter, and her eyes widened.

"Do you mean – you've been invited to Malfoy Manor for Christmas?"

Snape nodded. "Yes – Malfoy writes to me occasionally – he says there's someone he wants me to meet."

"Who?"

"I don't know. Here - he says – it's someone who could, umm…" He began to read from the letter. "…'a person of considerable influence, who has expressed an interest in offering his patronage to promising individuals during their time at school and, potentially, when they are endeavouring to establish a career upon leaving school'."

Lily chuckled. "Sounds like Malfoy doesn't like using one word where ten will do." Snape frowned slightly, and she added hurriedly, "So this person might be able to help you get a job when you leave school? That's good. But – I mean, Malfoy Manor! The Malfoys are supposed to be the richest wizard family in England. Won't it be a bit – well, I think I'd feel a bit nervous if it was me… not that a muggle-born would ever get an invitation from them," she finished, grinning.

"Well…" he met her gaze. "I suppose it could be a bit intimidating at first. But Malfoy says that his family always has a lot of guests at Christmas, so I won't be the only one. And I'd like to see Malfoy Manor."

Lily laughed again. "You'll be able to tell me if it's true that they actually have albino peacocks. Aralia says that's what she's heard, but I think she's just having me on!"

* * * * *

Accordingly, on the day of the Hogsmeade visit, Lily and Snape headed towards Gladrags at the end of the main street. Solstice was with them – she had no interest in the shops, but as she explained, she wanted to replace the twig specimens she had destroyed after the last visit, and was heading for the woods beyond the railway line. "But there won't be any leaves on them," Lily protested, when Solstice explained her quest.

"It doesn't matter – Professor Greenwood can identify them from the buds and the shape of the leaf scars and things like that. And he can tell me if they have any special uses in medicines or potions - knowing that will be useful after I leave school."

Lily glanced at her friend with interest – this was the first time Solstice had mentioned having had any thoughts about a future career. "What do you think you'll do when you leave school, then?"

"Well, lots of Elementals become herbalists – we like to travel, you see, and it's useful to know all this stuff so we can make potions and medicines, in exchange for money or food. That's what Professor Greenwood was doing before he started teaching. What was it he called it… oh, I know, he said he was an 'itinerant healer and gardener'."

"Is that what you want to do?"

"I think so – I really like the idea of just traveling to lots of different places, so I'd need a way to support myself."

By now, they were outside Gladrags, so Solstice continued along the road, and as she watched the younger girl cross over the railway line, Lily reflected that her two closest friends seemed to be preparing for very different futures – Snape already making contacts among rich and influential wizards, and Solstice dreaming about a life drifting from place to place… As for herself, she had no idea what she really wanted to do when she left school.

* * * * *

When Lily and Snape left Gladrags, having found some dress robes that would be acceptable in the kind of company he would be keeping over Christmas, without exhausting his savings, Solstice rejoined them. Her pockets and hands were full of twigs. As they started back towards Hogwarts, Solstice asked, "Why do you need dress robes anyway, Sev?"

Snape explained, and Solstice looked genuinely puzzled. "But – Malfoy wasn't exactly nice to you when he was at school – why do you stay in touch with him?"

"He helped me sometimes – he told me how to stop Avery and Mulciber picking on me, and he taught me…" He stopped abruptly, realizing how close he'd come to letting out the secret. He wasn't sure if Malfoy would still be in trouble with the Ministry of Magic after all this time, for teaching him an Unforgivable curse, but he was certain that Malfoy would not be pleased if he found out that Snape had told anyone about the incident.

"Taught you what?" Lily prompted.

"A spell. They stopped going for me after that."

The two girls exchanged glances. There was obviously more to the story than Snape was telling them, but knowing how stubborn he could be, it wasn't likely that he would explain. "I don't like Mulciber," Solstice remarked. "He's spiteful – he bullies the First and Second Years."

"I'm not asking you to be his friend, so why do you care? Anyway, you can't talk – I've seen you going around with Potter and his crowd."

Solstice shrugged. "I just go to watch Quidditch. Black and Potter are pretty annoying, but Lupin's okay."

They walked in silence for a while, then Snape said, "There's something odd about Lupin…"

"How do you mean, odd?"

"Well – haven't you noticed how often he's in the hospital wing? And when he comes back, he usually looks like he's been in a fight."

Solstice nodded in unwilling agreement. "I know – but I don't think it's from fighting. He's not really like that."

"So what's wrong with him?"

"I don't know. I suppose he can't help it if he's ill a lot." As they continued towards Hogwarts, Solstice frowned to herself. She'd noticed that Lupin was often absent, every few weeks, it seemed. And if anyone commented on it, the three other boys closed ranks to shut them up, so they must know something about the problem. If that had been all, she might have dismissed it as being some ailment they were embarrassed to discuss; but the injuries that were usually visible after one of Lupin's absences were harder to explain. She couldn't believe he was fighting – had it been Potter or Black, it might have been more understandable, but from what she had seen, Lupin actually had quite a gentle nature…

"Solstice!"

She looked up, startled, to find Lily laughing at her, and even Snape grinned. "I've been yelling your name for five minutes!" Lily exclaimed.

"Oh – sorry, I was thinking about something."

"Does it usually take that much effort?"

Solstice laughed. "What is it, anyway?"

"I said, can we come and see your owl this afternoon?"

"Oh yes, of course! He flies really well now, and I'm going to move him to the Owlery soon, he's almost old enough…" They went into the Great Hall together, to have lunch, and Lupin's mysterious illness was forgotten.

* * * * *

On the last day of term, the students woke to find snow falling steadily, and lying a good six inches deep already. Naturally, the weather only added to the festive spirit. Most of the students were leaving for the holidays; only a handful remained in Gryffindor house, including Solstice, and as she preferred to stay at school during the holidays, her spirits were as high as anyone's, with the prospect of a couple of weeks' freedom from study. After waving goodbye as her friends headed for the station, she pulled on her gloves and cloak, and set out to visit Hoot. She was planning to move him to the Owlery during this holiday, but for now he was still living in Hagrid's cottage.

As she approached the cottage, she could hear the occasional shout, and quickened her pace, curious to find out the cause. The door of the cottage was open. Hagrid and Professor Greenwood were backing out of the door, both hanging on to one end of a thick rope. As Solstice watched, a shaggy, tawny head emerged; the rope was around the beast's neck, and it was resisting at every step. Gradually, the two men managed to drag the animal further through the doorway, and Solstice could see more of it. The creature was the size of a large dog, but its head resembled an overgrown cat, and its body was goat-like. By the time she could see its spiky, scaly tail lashing angrily, she had realized that it must be a Chimera. A very small one, certainly, probably just a baby, but it was putting up a good fight.

For a few moments, Solstice was too fascinated by the beast to do more than stand, staring at it. Then it looked up and saw her, and letting out a snarling roar, it bounded forward. The sudden slackening of the rope sent Hagrid and Professor Greenwood sprawling backwards into the thick snow, but Solstice didn't notice. With the Chimera heading straight for her, she took off running toward the edge of the forest. Luckily, the nearest tree had several low branches; she swung herself easily onto the lowest, and began to scramble higher. The tree shook slightly as the Chimera hurled itself against the trunk. Without looking down, Solstice continued to climb, hoping desperately that Chimeras couldn't climb trees…

On the ground, the Chimera circled the tree, snarling, and churning up drifts of snow as it lashed its tail in fury. It whipped around, growling, as the two men approached, and Professor Greenwood pulled out his wand, but before he could shout any spell, the Chimera snarled again, turned, and began to gallop into the forest. Gradually, the sound of its rush through the dense undergrowth died away, and silence descended. Solstice peered down anxiously. She'd climbed further than she'd realized, and found herself about twenty feet off the ground.

"Solstice! Are you all right?" Professor Greenwood was standing under the tree, looking up.

Slightly out of breath, Solstice answered, "Yes. Is it … gone?"

"It ran into the Forbidden Forest. I don't think it'll bother us again for the moment." He was out of breath himself. "It's safe to come down now – can you climb down on your own?"

"Of course I can!"

Professor Greenwood grinned at her affronted tone, and stepped back from the trunk as she began to descend. When she reached the lowest branch she jumped, and her feet slid from under her, so that she fell to her knees in the churned snow. Greenwood pulled her to her feet, and Solstice brushed half-heartedly at the snow caking her cloak and robes, then said, "That was a Chimera, wasn't it? I thought they lived in Greece."

"Most of them do," Greenwood replied dryly. Professor and student turned to look at Hagrid, who was standing rather awkwardly in the doorway of the cottage.

"I was jus' lookin' after him for a friend, jus' temporarily," he explained.

"And where did your friend find it?"

"Brought it back from Greece in the summer. Course, it was jus' an egg then. After it hatched he figured he couldn't take care of it himself, so I said I'd find a spot for it here. It was no trouble at firs', but the past few weeks it's been a right handful!"

Professor Greenwood sighed. "And I suppose it broke out of its pen…"

"Course not! I built that pen to last!" Hagrid told him indignantly.

"So – what was it doing in your cottage?" Professor Greenwood's tone was faintly resigned. He had a feeling he could guess…

"Well, what with all this snow, I took him inside to warm up. He was a bit sleepy at first, but once he was warm, he got a bit above himself. Lucky you heard me yelling – if we hadn't got that rope on him, things could've got nasty!"

"But as it is, all that happened is that he nearly ran down a student, and now there's a Chimera loose on school grounds"

"Jus' in the forest! And he's jus' a baby…" Hagrid protested.

Professor Greenwood glared at him for a moment, then grinned and shook his head. "Well, he's your problem – have fun catching him!" He turned to Solstice. "Looks like you need to change. Come on back to the castle…"

"But I came to fetch Hoot!" she protested. "He's been living in Hagrid's cottage…" She turned to look anxiously at Hagrid, but he hastened to reassure her.

"Now don' you worry, Solstice. Hoot was safely up in the rafters when I took Spot inside…"

"Spot?" Professor Greenwood chuckled. "Hagrid, only you could call a Chimera 'Spot'! Well, let's get that owl."

They went into the cabin, where Hagrid tried unsuccessfully to coax the outraged owl down from its perch. Even Greenwood, using Elemental magic, couldn't summon him; then Solstice made an odd sound in her throat, a bubbling trill, and the owl spread its wings and glided noiselessly to her shoulder. The snow was still falling heavily, as Solstice and Professor Greenwood started back towards the castle, leaving Hagrid to clear up the chaos that the Chimera had caused in his cottage.

* * * * *

As the train pulled out of the tiny country station, the sole passenger to alight stood uncertainly for a moment, looking around. Snape put his suitcase down at his feet. His letter had said that he would be met at the station, but as far as he could see, it was deserted. He walked through the brick archway into the lane beyond, and as he paused once more, he heard the crunch of wheels on the stony ground.

A carriage, pulled by a pair of pale palomino horses, drew up and stopped in front of him. There was no driver, but the Malfoy crest was emblazoned on the door of the carriage, so Snape pulled it open, heaved his suitcase inside, and climbed in. As soon as he was seated, the carriage moved off smoothly. Evidently the horses were perfectly capable of drawing it without guidance.

For the first few miles, the country on either side of the quiet lane was unremarkable, but then the horses veered off onto a narrower road, which soon led into dense woods. Looming oak trees, massive, leafless and menacing in the gathering dusk, were interspersed with thorn bushes. Occasionally, stealthy movements caught Snape's attention in the undergrowth closest to the road, and once the piercing scream of an owl shattered the oppressive gloom. At length, the woods became less dense, and not quite so wild-looking. The final transition was imperceptible, and Snape suddenly realized that the carriage was now passing between high, clipped hedges of yew, the dark spiky branches dotted with innumerable blood-red berries.

Malfoymanor
The road passed through an intricate, wrought-iron gate, the hedges were left behind, and the carriage emerged into a wide driveway. There was a sudden rush of wings and hoarse, angry cries, as a murder of crows rose up into the sky, disturbed by the carriage; watching their flight, Snape's eyes were drawn to the building silhouetted against the last of the deep orange sunset. Malfoy Manor presented a broad front, surmounted by innumerable towers and chimneys. Lighted windows in the lowest floor of the main building gleamed like a row of bared teeth.

A flight of broad, shallow steps ran up to the double front doors, and the carriage drew up before them. Snape climbed out, watching as the horses moved off again. He looked up at the house, getting a better idea of the height; it rose more than four storeys above him, the towers even higher. As he started up the steps, a long, mournful call echoed through the trees that dotted the expansive lawn which stretched away from the courtyard. Glancing back, he glimpsed pale shapes moving through the shadows, but before he could make out what they were, the massive doors swung inward a little, spilling light down the steps to where he stood.

Snape walked through the doors, finding himself in a grand foyer. It was brilliantly lit, the glow from many lamps reflecting off the highly polished furniture and the gold railings that edged the expansive staircase at the far end of the foyer. Whoever had opened the doors for him had vanished, and he stood a little awkwardly, wondering where he was supposed to go now. There were several doors leading off the foyer. Before he could decide what to do, the tall gilded door closest to him opened, and a familiar figure emerged.

Lucius Malfoy had always had a knack of appearing well-dressed, even in the Hogwarts school uniform; in garments of his own choosing, with his platinum hair spilling over his shoulders and halfway down his back, he possessed an effortless elegance that made Snape feel untidy and awkward. During his first year at school, Snape had never been sure from one day to the next whether Malfoy would treat him with approval or censure. Tonight, he was clearly in the role of the patronizing older brother figure. He clapped Snape on the shoulder, directing him to leave his suitcase for a servant to deal with, and inquiring how his journey had been.

"So the train from London was delayed? Well, no matter, we don't dine until eight, so you haven't kept us waiting. Come into the drawing room, you must be introduced to my parents. It's just family this evening, no need for formality…"

Later, after the company had retired for the night, Snape relaxed slightly as he unpacked his suitcase in his exquisitely furnished guest room. He'd felt a little overawed at first, in the grand surroundings, but once the introductions were over, he was able to sit quietly, listening to the conversation, and observing those gathered.

'Just family' apparently included a fairly large number of relatives, ranging in age from an elderly witch with an autocratic manner, to a number of young adults, Lucius's contemporaries. Among the latter, he recognized Narcissa Black, who had been in Slytherin house until the previous summer. Snape noticed that she seemed to regard Malfoy with a faintly proprietary air; and he sensed that perhaps Malfoy found this a little irritating.

Over dinner, the situation became clearer. Mrs. Malfoy steered the conversation towards the subject of the formal betrothal that was to take place in a few days, between two of Malfoy's cousins, then turned to her son, her icy-blue eyes challenging. "No doubt we will be making the same plans for you and Narcissa before long…" but Malfoy's father interrupted brusquely.

"There'll be plenty of time for that once Lucius has a thorough grasp of the family business. I want him to accompany me to the continent over the next few months. I have some business dealings in mind that will be excellent experience for him. Besides…" He glanced slyly at Narcissa. "Every young man needs to sow a few wild oats before he settles down!" Narcissa blushed, and Abraxas chuckled at her discomfiture. Mrs. Malfoy regarded her husband with chilly disapproval at such vulgarity, and immediately changed the subject, but Snape saw Lucius glance at Narcissa with malicious amusement glittering in his eyes.

As he clambered into bed, Snape wondered whether Lucius had been given any choice in the matter. It was clear that Abraxas and his wife regarded the match as a foregone conclusion, differing only in their expectation of the timing of the formal betrothal and eventual marriage. Snape knew that in the circles the Malfoys frequented, arranged marriages were the norm, often contracted when the two individuals concerned were small children. He wondered how he'd feel if he were in that situation himself. He lay down, suddenly feeling exhausted. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if one liked the girl… his eyes drifted shut, and in moments he was asleep.

* * * * *

The next few days were so full that Snape had no time to be intimidated by the lavish surroundings. His worst moment had been on Christmas Day, when the guests started arriving for the evening, and he spotted Regulus Black among them. For a full, horrified minute he thought he would find himself thrown into the company of one of his sworn enemies; but he overheard Regulus explaining that Sirius was 'staying with a friend for Christmas'. This information was received with a curt nod from Mrs. Malfoy, but as the boy moved away to join the other youngsters, Snape heard her mutter,

"Why they allow that friendship to continue, I simply can't imagine… I've never trusted the Potters; blood traitors, no better than the mudblood scum they associate with!" Abraxas nodded, clearly in full agreement with his wife's sentiments, as he turned to welcome the next group of guests. Snape frowned; while he was delighted to hear that James Potter's family was regarded so poorly by the Malfoys, the venom in Mrs. Malfoy's tone was troubling. Lily Evans was muggle-born, and Snape felt a sudden flare of anger at Mrs. Malfoy for referring to those like her as scum.

Later in the evening, Lucius appeared at his side. “Do you ride?” he asked abruptly.

Snape stared at him. “Ride? A - a horse, do you mean?”

“Yes, a horse.” He regarded Snape for a moment, his pale eyes betraying momentary irritation, then he shrugged. “No, I don't suppose you do. Most of us will be hunting tomorrow morning. No doubt you can amuse yourself. Feel free to use the library.”

Snape nodded. “Will you be fox-hunting?”

Lucius grinned. “Ah, foxes. The favoured prey of muggles with delusions of grandeur. No, Severus, I suspect that our intended quarry will provide us with far more amusement than any four-legged beast...” He turned away, laughing, and Snape wondered uncomfortably exactly what kind of two-legged creature would find itself on the wrong side of tomorrow's hunt.

* * * * *

Snape joined several other non-riding guests watching as the hunt gathered early the next morning. It was an impressive turnout. Lucius was riding a powerful-looking grey, which moved impatiently against the bit, stepping sideways, throwing its head up, and occasionally trying to half-rear. Lucius seemed unconcerned by the animal's restlessness, checking its antics automatically as he chatted to other riders. He presented a striking figure, clad in a dark green jacket, spotless white breeches and gleaming leather boots, and had collected a knot of young women around him, including one wearing an elaborate habit, and riding side-saddle. Her formal turnout contrasted with her flirtatious manner, and she met Lucius's speculative gaze boldly.

Eventually, the riders began to move off, and as the sound of trotting hooves faded into the distance, Snape went back inside, finding his way to the library, where he became absorbed in the wide selection of books, including an extensive section dealing with the Dark Arts. Several hours later, he heard the first sounds of the hunt returning. He put aside the book he was reading, and went to the window which overlooked the courtyard, in time to see Lucius dismounting.

He'd clearly taken a fall; he was plastered with mud on his left side, and his horse's front legs were caked to the knees. A groom approached, and Snape just caught Lucius's words through the glass. “I thought this horse was trained! The brute stumbled, had us both in a ditch...” He was furious, his normally pale face flushed. He strode to the horse's head and raised a leather crop in his hand, apparently intending to slash the animal's head, but before the blow fell, a voice roared,

“Lucius!” Abraxas rode into the yard, and the strong resemblance between father and son was reinforced by the identical expression of fury on his face. “That's a valuable animal! I won't have another horse ruined by your temper, boy!” For a moment, it seemed that Lucius might strike the horse anyway; but his father was still mounted, and his vantage point gave Abraxas both a physical and a psychological advantage. Lucius flung the reins at the groom, and stormed towards the nearest door. Watching him go, Abraxas shouted, “Get yourself cleaned up, boy! Your appearance is a disgrace!”

Snape, shrinking back from the window to avoid being caught eavesdropping, had a brief glimpse of Lucius's face, contorted with rage, as he passed the window.

Nothing more was said about the incident, but at dinner that evening, despite maintaining an outwardly calm and relaxed appearance, Lucius was still furious. The fall itself he had forgotten; but he fumed at the memory of his father's words and tone. To be spoken to as if he were a grubby child was impossible for his arrogant nature to shrug off. The old man had been pushing him almost beyond endurance lately, and Abraxas would do well to brush up on family history, Lucius thought sardonically. His father seemed to have forgotten that more than one Malfoy ancestor had suffered a mysterious and untimely demise, leaving the way open for a son to take over as head of the family...

However, there was nothing to be gained from dwelling on it this evening. If his father realized how infuriated Lucius was, he was quite capable of dragging the incident up over dinner in order to humiliate him. He drew a breath, forcing himself to relax, and raised his goblet to his lips. As he sipped the wine, he glanced up, and realized he was being watched. It was the flirtatious young woman from the hunt; her name was Serafine, he recalled, and she had been trying to catch his attention for the past few days. This, he thought, might be just what he needed to distract him from the day's events.

He glanced across the table at Narcissa, who was conversing politely with fellow diners, every inch the demure young lady. Lucius's eyes narrowed slightly. Although their betrothal had yet to be formalized, there was no doubt in his mind that he would eventually marry her. That was just the way things were done. Yet she allowed him few of the privileges he felt were his by right. She tolerated his advances to a point, but the moment he tried to initiate something more intimate, she stopped him cold, insisting that he must wait until they were married. Forcing the issue would merely result in tiresome recriminations, and he had long resigned himself to seeking an outlet for his desires with more willing partners.

His gaze slid back to Serafine, and he stared at her intently for a few moments, long enough to communicate his interest to her. She blushed and glanced down at her plate, then looked up at him once more, her eyes meeting his with mingled challenge and promise. He smiled slightly, knowing he would have her later, and turned to answer a question from his mother.

The conservatory was dark and shadowy, with a heady scent of foliage and damp earth that contrasted with the bleak, wintry landscape outside the glass. Lucius drew Serafine into the room, and slid his arms around her. She turned vivid blue eyes up to his face, a hint of triumph on her full lips. Lucius bent his head and kissed her hard, feeling his desire intensify as her mouth opened under his. Without breaking the kiss, he moved her further into the garden-room. Serafine drew her head back, smiling, and ran her tongue teasingly over her lips as she trailed her hands down over his chest, toying with the buttons of his shirt.

Lucius pulled her down onto a wrought-iron bench that was set in an alcove between two tropical ferns. He pressed Serafine back against the cushions, kissing down her neck as his hand slid from her waist to her knee, then back up, this time beneath the whispering silk of her dress. She jumped and put her hand on his, now halfway up her thigh. “You really mustn't...” she murmured.

His fingers tightened on her leg. “You knew what I wanted when we came in here.” There was the faintest edge to his voice.

“Well..." She had, of course, but... "Suppose someone interrupts us...?"

Lucius suddenly stood up and walked towards the door. Serafine watched, torn between her desire and fear of being caught. She got up and followed him, but when they got to the door he suddenly caught her waist in both hands, pulling her tight against him. “Which guest room are you staying in?” he asked softly, his lips close to her ear. Serafine hesitated. Allowing Lucius into her bedroom risked discovery and scandal - for her, anyway.

Lucius watched her face, knowing what she was thinking. He moved his hands, one down past the small of her back, the other tracing a path upwards from her waist. He kissed her neck and brushed his lips along the line of her jaw, making the lightest of contacts with her mouth. He held her gaze, and whispered, “Which room? No-one would interrupt us - we'd have all night...”

She was breathing faster, and he pressed his fingers harder against her. Finally, she murmured, “The Blue Room...”

He smiled, kissed her, then was gone without a word.

* * * * *

Serafine smiled to herself as she dressed the next morning. Lucius had left her just after dawn, with a final kiss that seemed to hold the promise of future favours expected and reciprocated. She took extra care with her hair and makeup, choosing a dress that complemented her colouring perfectly. It was too soon to know where this would lead, but a liaison with any Malfoy held the possibility of advancement in society.

She descended the stairs gracefully, and walked confidently into the breakfast room. Then she stopped dead, suddenly feeling as if she'd been slapped. Lucius was there already, sitting beside Narcissa. His hand covered one of hers, and his head was inclined towards her, his entire attention apparently focused on what she was saying. Trying to cover her reaction, Serafine continued into the room, as Lucius stood up.

“Are you finished, my dear,” he asked Narcissa, his voice loud enough to ensure that Serafine heard him. Narcissa nodded, and as she stood up she smiled at him, pleasantly surprised by his attentiveness this morning. Her expression was faintly smug as they walked out of the room, and she barely glanced at Serafine as they passed her. Lucius, however, looked directly at her, and there was no mistaking the mockery in his smile.

Summoning what little was left of her dignity, Serafine went to the sideboard, and poured herself a cup of coffee, trying unsuccessfully to swallow the feeling of having been expertly manipulated.

* * * * *

Snape had been starting to wonder if the planned meeting that Malfoy had mentioned in his letter had been canceled. However, after dinner on the final night of his stay, Malfoy steered him towards the library. At the door, he paused. “You mention this meeting to no-one,” he cautioned. “Even my father does not realize exactly who my - visitor - is.” Snape nodded, wondering why such secrecy was necessary. Malfoy stared at him intently. “Answer his questions truthfully!” he said abruptly. “If you don't, he will know. And he will be... displeased.” His face tightened momentarily, as if at some painful memory.

He hesitated a moment longer, then tapped on the door. A low voice responded, “Enter.” When they walked into the room, Snape saw a figure seated in the chair beside the fire. Without turning, the man said, “This is the boy you told me about, Lucius?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

Snape glanced at Malfoy, startled by his deferential tone. The man by the fire rose to his feet, turning to face Snape. He was tall, and despite being heavily cloaked, he seemed thin and angular in build. He stood partly in shadow, and Snape had a fleeting impression of greying hair swept back from a gaunt face that was so pale as to seem almost transparent. He noticed little more about the man's features, however, because the stranger's eyes locked onto his in an intense, almost hypnotic gaze. “What is your name?” His voice was soft yet penetrating.

“Severus Snape.”

“Snape... that's not a pureblood name, is it?”

“No, sir.”

“You're a half-blood?”

“Yes, sir.”

The man continued to hold Snape in his snake-like gaze. “Do you know who I am?” The dark, bloodshot eyes gave nothing away.

“No, sir.”

“You may address me as Lord Voldemort. Do not be discouraged by your blood status. Despite what my pureblooded young friend may believe...” his gaze flicked towards Lucius with more than a hint of malice, “...a half-blood can rise to unimagined heights of power, if he desires it strongly enough. Come closer.” Snape took several steps towards Voldemort. The dark eyes remained locked on his, and he had a sudden sense that Lord Voldemort could see his thoughts, that all his innermost secrets were laid bare. Briefly, he resisted the intrusion, but his defenses were quickly brushed aside.

“Interesting...” Voldemort's voice had a chill, bleak quality, like dry reeds scraping against each other in a winter wind. “Few people are capable of resisting my mind for even a few moments. Have you been trained in occlumency?”

“No, Lord Voldemort.” His answer seemed to please the man.

“So it comes naturally to you? With training and practice you may develop considerable skill in the art. A valuable asset. Why do you hate your father so much?”

The sudden change of subject caught Snape off guard, and he said harshly, “Because he beats my mother!” He sensed a sudden slight movement from Malfoy; his answer had been brusque to the point of disrespect, but Voldemort merely nodded slightly.

“He beats you too.” It was a statement, not a question, and Snape replied,

“Yes, Lord Voldemort.”

Again he nodded, never allowing his compelling gaze to waver. “A man may come to regret such actions, when the son achieves his full potential!” He was silent for a moment. “It seems to me that you may achieve a great deal if you fulfill your own potential. You have qualities that would be useful to me one day. If you work to develop them, there may, perhaps, be a place for you in my plans.” At last he released Snape from the compulsion of his gaze, and glanced towards Malfoy. “Lucius...”

“Yes, my Lord?”

“You did well to bring the boy to my notice. Stay for a moment, I have words for your ears alone.” Snape felt Malfoy's hand grip his shoulder, drawing him away, but he had already started to back towards the door, knowing that he had been dismissed. He slipped out, closing the door softly, as Voldemort said to Malfoy, “Now, as to the matter we discussed earlier...”

Snape let out a breath, feeling a sudden release of tension. Nothing specific had been said, no promises of patronage, yet he sensed that he had taken the first step on a path that would affect his future in ways he could scarcely begin to imagine.

* * * * *

To Snape's surprise, Malfoy joined him in the carriage that took him to the station very early the next morning. As the driverless horses set off between the high holly hedges lining the drive, Malfoy said, “Lord Voldemort was pleased with you. He thinks you have great potential. However...”

He paused, his expression calculating, and Snape said, “Yes?”

“You should consider carefully the company you keep at school. Who you choose as friends may reflect on you if you don't choose wisely. There are... certain types that you should regard with caution. Mudbloods, muggle-lovers... the sort of people who will not find favour with Lord Voldemort when he... in the days ahead.” Snape nodded, uncomfortably aware that his friendship with Lily would come under this stricture. “Even among purebloods, there are undesirables. Blood traitors. Misbegotten freaks like Elementals. Of course, they have their uses from time to time. But associate too closely with them, and the taint will rub off on you. Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

Malfoy regarded him appraisingly. “But you don't agree. At your age, it's difficult to comprehend how important such things are. But you must keep it in mind if you want to be a part of Lord Voldemort's plans.”

“What - what is he planning?”

Malfoy shook his head. “I cannot speak of it to you. But - it will change our world forever. Those who are on his side will prosper. Those who aren't... well, just make sure you're not among them.” He spoke little more during the rest of the carriage-ride, but as Snape climbed out, checking his pockets for his train ticket, Malfoy said, “Keep my advice in mind. You'll come to realize that I'm right.” He swung the door of the carriage shut, and Snape stepped back as the horses started forward. He picked up his suitcase, and went through to the station platform.

As so often in the past, Malfoy's words had raised more questions in his mind than they answered.


CHAPTER NINE – CATCHING UP

THIRD YEAR - EARLY JUNE

Solstice looked up from the essay she was writing. Professor Greenwood was absorbed in his own work, but it didn't look as if he was writing - the strokes of the quill weren't right. Cautiously, Solstice sat up straighter, craning to see what he was doing.

He was sketching. It looked as if he was drawing a stone circle - like Stonehenge, but with a lot of the stones missing. It was, she realized, a drawing of how Muggles apparently saw Stonehenge, not as a complete circle of capped stones, but with gaps and missing stones, the remaining standing stones tilted at crazy angles. She'd heard that every year, thousands of Muggles gathered at the ancient monument, celebrating midsummer - completely unaware that among their number were a few wizards who could see the circle as it really was, rather than a haphazard ruin.

For a moment, Solstice felt a flicker of sympathy for Muggles, unable to see one of England's most impressive monuments in its full glory; then she remembered what she'd wanted to ask. “Professor...?”

“Hmm?” he replied distractedly, still absorbed in his sketching.

“Professor - what's the Great Rite?”

That got his attention. He put down his quill and looked up at her.

“Where did you hear about it?” he asked cautiously.

Solstice reached into her school bag, and pulled out a large, battered book that she'd borrowed from the library.

“I read about it in here. At least - it mentions it several times, but it never actually says what it is.”

“I see.” He paused for a moment, considering what level to put his explanation on.

“The Great Rite is sex magic,” he said simply. “In some cultures, it's done when the fields are planted, to ensure a good harvest. I wasn't planning to talk about it for a few years. It's very advanced magic, because it requires focus and concentration that most people aren't capable of, even as adults.”

Solstice nodded, apparently satisfied with the explanation. She wrote a few more words on her essay, then looked up again. “Why are the other kids so silly about sex?”

"How do you mean?”

“Well... any time something to do with sex is mentioned, the girls blush and giggle, and the boys laugh and make jokes. Usually the jokes aren't even funny.”

Professor Greenwood smiled. “I know what you mean about the jokes. Some adults are like that too.”

“But why?”

“Well - for most people sex is a very private thing, and often they feel embarrassed talking about private things. So they laugh, or make jokes, or change the subject, to cover up how they feel.” Solstice nodded, and he went on, “Elementals tend not to feel that way. It's just one of the personality traits that makes us different. We see sex as being just another thing that the body does - like breathing or eating. So we don't feel embarrassed talking about it. Most girls of your age would feel very uncomfortable discussing sex with their teacher - especially if their teacher is a man. Come to think of it, a lot of teachers would feel just as awkward!”

Solstice looked sceptical, and he grinned, and added, “You'll have to take my word for it. But as you get older, you'll learn more about how other people see things - especially that non-Elementals often see things very differently from Elementals. The important thing is to respect how other people feel. It's not fair to make them feel uncomfortable.”

“Okay.” Solstice looked thoughtful, suddenly frowning, and Professor Greenwood said,

“What else? You can talk to me about it, because it doesn't make me uncomfortable.”

“Well - one of the boys said something about Elementals and sex - he said we were... promiscuous, but I don't know what that means. Then everyone laughed - and it was me they were laughing at.”

“Ah yes.” Professor Greenwood sighed. “Promiscuous means that someone has sex with a lot of different people, and many people think that's wrong, especially if it's a girl. I'm afraid Elementals have a reputation for being promiscuous - not because it's true, but because non-Elementals simply don't understand our different attitude to sex.”

“But - that's not fair, if we have to respect the way they see things, but they don't respect us in return.”

“No, it's not fair - and that's just life. A lot of things aren't fair.”

“Well, I don't even want to have sex - not till I'm a lot older, anyway!”

“And that's fine. If you don't want to - even when you are older - you don't have to. Not for any reason. But there is one more thing you need to know...”

“Yes?”

“You will have to be more careful than other girls, because you won't be able to use a charm to stop yourself getting pregnant. The other girls have the option to use a charm instead of a potion, but you don't have that choice. Well - you could also ask the boy to perform the charm for you, but you have to be certain that he can do it properly, so you'll need to learn it anyway, in order to tell him. All the girls at Hogwarts learn how to make a contraceptive potion - in Fourth Year, I think. And the charm is taught to all students later.”

Solstice sighed. “It all sounds very complicated.”

“Yes. It's complicated for everyone - just a bit more so for Elementals, because we have a different way of looking at things, that other people don't always understand.” He glanced over at her parchment. “How are you doing with that essay on the use of animals in weather magic?”

Solstice looked down at the parchment. “It's a bit confusing - some of the rituals seem quite simple, but people hardly ever use them.”

“Such as?”

“Well - “ she pulled a book titled 'The Golden Bough' from her bag, and opened it at a marker. “It says here that a way to encourage rain is to bathe a cat... but that it's not a popular ritual. I mean, there are always lots of cats around, so you'd think...”

Greenwood's lips twitched. “Solstice... have you ever tried to bathe a cat?”

She suddenly giggled, as she pictured the process. “Oh, I see!”

“Exactly! Sometimes perfectly good magic just isn't... practical.” The bell rang, and Solstice started to gather her books and papers. “Potions next?” Professor Greenwood asked.

“Yes. I really like Potions, Professor Slughorn says I have a natural talent for it.”

Professor Greenwood nodded. “Most Elementals do - that's one reason why we're good herbalists. Anyway, you'd better get going, or you'll be late.”

* * * * *

By the time Solstice arrived in the Potions dungeon, Professor Slughorn was already there, handing out ingredients. “Ah, Miss Flidae, I'm delighted you decided to join us at last.”

“I'm sorry, Professor, but it's a long way from...”

“Yes, well - next time you're late I'll deduct house points. Take a seat, please - I believe Mr Lupin is the only one without a partner...” Solstice made her way to the back of the room, and dumped her school bag beside the workbench where Remus was already setting up a cauldron.

Remus smiled at Solstice, and she said, “What are we making today?”

“We're revising Shrinking Solution. I've already started cutting up the daisy roots - why don't you skin the shrivelfig?”

“Okay.” She set to work, carefully running the tip of her knife down the skin of the shrivelfig. Most of the time, the students picked their own work partners, but occasionally, as was the case today, Professor Slughorn assigned them at random. James Potter was at the desk in front of Remus, with another Gryffindor girl as his partner, while the other Marauders were on the other side of the room.

Lily was at the bench next to Solstice, and by her expression, it was clear that she had something she wanted to tell her. After five minutes or so, she leaned over and said, “Guess what?”

“What?”

“Vincent Algethi asked me out!” She spoke quietly, but at least two other students besides the two girls were suddenly paying attention. James's head snapped around; and on Lily's other side, Snape looked up from his daisy roots, his expression darkening. Oblivious to the boys' interest, Lily and Solstice leaned closer together.

“But he's a fifth year,” Solstice whispered.

Lily nodded. “Yes. And he's gorgeous!”

Snape flung a handful of chopped daisy roots into the cauldron, and began slicing up caterpillars with considerably more force than necessary.

“So you said yes?” Solstice asked, her voice rising slightly.

“Of course I did.”

“So where are you going to go? Is he taking you out for the Hogsmeade visit on Saturday?”

“Yes. But he asked me to go for a walk by the lake this evening, too.” She looked at Solstice a little anxiously.

“I know I was going to watch you training Hoot today, but - would you mind terribly if we put it off? If you do, I'll tell him I'll go for a walk tomorrow, but...”

“No, it's all right. I don't mind. Maybe I'll take Hoot to watch the Quidditch practice instead.”

“Thanks!”

The girls turned their attention back to their work for the moment. Lily glanced at her friend, remembering how jealous Solstice had been, back in the autumn, when Lily seemed to be spending time with other friends. She really didn't seem to mind now. Lily grinned, and leaned over again. “I bet you'll get asked out by someone soon,” she said, only half-teasing.

“Me?” Solstice giggled, and her hand shook as she poured leech juice into the cauldron she was sharing with Remus. She peered into it anxiously, wondering if she'd added too much, but then shrugged and turned back to Lily. "Who'd ask me out? I'm still just a kid...”

Lily looked at her appraisingly. “Hmm... you know, I think you've actually grown a bit.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I'm sure you're taller.”

Solstice grinned. “If I am, it's not much. Remember what happened in the library?” The girls both grinned. Reaching for a book on a high shelf, Solstice had tried to use the second-lowest shelf as a step, slipped, and brought a pile of books crashing down on her head, resulting in a painful bruise on her forehead, the loss of ten house points, and a stern lecture about the proper use of the library.

“Solstice - is the rat spleen ready?” Remus asked.

“Yes, I've just finished cleaning it.” She dropped the lump of red flesh into the cauldron, and they both watched as the contents bubbled briefly, then turned brilliant green.” They grinned at each other. “I thought I'd put in too much leech juice,” Solstice explained, “but it looks as though it was just right.”

They began to clean up their bench, while Lily looked worriedly at the potion she and Snape had created. Instead of bubbling, it continued to steam slightly, remaining a murky brown colour. “I don't know what went wrong,” she said.

Snape scowled. “I think I put in too many sliced caterpillars,” he muttered.

“Oh - well there's not much we can do about that. Maybe we'll get a mark for at least knowing what we did wrong.”

At the bench where James was working, the cauldron suddenly gave out a prolonged hiss, and clouds of vile-smelling pink smoke billowed into the room. Above the exclamations of disgust that rose on all sides, James's partner could be heard saying, “I told you that was ferret liver, not rat spleen, you were using! Why didn't you listen..?”

Filing out of the dungeon at the end of the lesson, Sirius said, “What happened? You made that potion perfectly the first time we made it.”

James shrugged. “Must've been distracted,” he said shortly, and changed the subject.

* * * * *

Solstice climbed the stairs to her dormitory, expecting to find it empty, but instead found Lily lying on her bed, apparently engrossed in a book. For a few minutes, neither girl spoke. Solstice had set a fresh candle in an iron candlestick, and was searching for her matches. It looked as if she'd lost them, which was a nuisance. Not many people at Hogwarts had them, having no need for matches when they could produce a flame with a wand, but Professor Greenwood had provided Solstice with a supply so that she didn't always have to rely on others. Finally, she turned to her friend.

“Lily - light this for me, please. I can't find my matches.” Lily silently pulled her wand from her pocket, and pointed it. The candle wick flared, and Solstice said, “Thanks.” She set the candle on the window ledge, before asking, “So how was your walk with Vincent?”

Lily slammed her book shut with a bang. “He's an absolute git!” she said angrily.

Solstice frowned. “What happened?”

“He couldn't keep his hands to himself. I told him three times that I didn't mind if he put his arm round me, but to stop letting his hand go so low.”

“And - he wouldn't stop?”

“Oh, eventually he stopped that. But the next thing I knew, he reached around and put his hand on my... well, anyway - if he doesn't have a black eye tomorrow, I'll know I didn't slap him hard enough!”

“Oh.”

“And then - “ Lily's eyes sparkled angrily at the memory, “he had the cheek to ask me if I was still going to Hogsmeade with him on Saturday! I always thought he seemed nice, but it turns out he's as - as arrogant as - I don't know...”

“Potter?” Solstice suggested.

“As bad as Potter and Black put together!”

Solstice grimaced.“What a horrible thought!”

Lily sighed, then grinned reluctantly, feeling better now she'd let off steam about the incident. “Well, anyway - I suppose you want some peace so you can meditate. I'll see you later.”

As the sound of her footsteps faded away down the stairs, Solstice sat down in the window alcove, drawing her legs under her, and moving the candle so she could rest her gaze on it comfortably. It was warm in the dormitory - it was June, after all - and she reached over and opened the window a little. In the sudden current of fresh air, her candle flickered and went out.

Solstice looked at it in exasperation. Now she'd have to go down to the common room and get someone to relight it for her. She reached to pick it up, but as her fingers touched the wax, the wick suddenly reignited. Solstice examined the candle suspiciously. Maybe it hadn't gone out all the way... but she was sure it had. She frowned as a thought struck her. She licked her finger and thumb, and pinched out the flame, making sure that it was completely out. Then she focused her gaze on the wick, and slowly reached to touch the candle again. There was a tiny crackle, and the flame flickered to life.

She tried again several times, and quickly found that she didn't even have to touch the candle. She could relight it just by concentrating. She sat for a few minutes, enjoying the feeling of triumph. Then she snatched up the candle and hurtled down the staircase.

“Lily, I can do it! Look!” Lily looked up from the sofa where she was reading a magazine article that Aralia had pointed out to her. Solstice set the candle on the table beside the sofa, stepped back a little, and lit it.

“Solstice! You've never done that before!" Lily exclaimed.

Solstice grinned. “No - I didn't realise I could do it yet. It just happened by accident” She whirled around and ran to the portrait hole.

“Where are you going?” Lily sounded confused, and Solstice turned back just long enough to say,

“I have to show Professor Greenwood!”

* * * * *

Professor Greenwood was writing a letter when Solstice hammered on his study door. Wondering what was wrong, he opened the door, but one look at Solstice's face told him that whatever had happened, she was pleased. “I can finally do it!” she announced. “Watch!” She took a candlestick from over the fireplace, set it on the Professor's desk, and demonstrated her new talent.

“Can you do it consistently?” he asked.

“Every time.”

“Try something bigger...” He glanced around. There was no fire burning in the fireplace, but there was wood piled there, and Professor Greenwood said, “Light the fire - but do it gently! Try not to burn the school down...” Solstice grinned - her tendency to work unfamiliar magic on too large a scale was a running joke between them. She concentrated for a moment, then the logs ignited, flames leaping up the chimney. Professor Greenwood extinguished the fire, and said, “Try again with a touch more control.”

Solstice nodded, and this time the flames were much smaller. Once again Professor Greenwood put out the flames, then smiled at Solstice. “Congratulations. It looks as if your adult magic is starting to manifest. It's too late in the term to do much with it, but in September you can start to study fire magic properly.”

“And moon magic too?”

“Certainly. Although you may not be able to work it for a couple more months. The ability usually comes a little later than fire magic.”

“Can I try it on my own?”

“There's no harm in attempting it.” A sudden thought struck him. “Solstice! There's just one thing...”

“Yes?”

“I know it's tempting, but don't try anything at full moon.”

“Why not?”

Professor Greenwood hesitated. He couldn't explain the real reason; normally he would never consider withholding the truth from his student, but in this case... “There are things about the moon that you won't understand for a while yet. It could be dangerous for you to go out at full moon. It's not something to fool around with. Promise me you'll stay inside after dark at full moon.”

Solstice sensed that there was something more behind his warning, but all she said was, “All right - I promise.”

“Good.” He grinned. “And so long as you're careful, you can practice fire magic. But don't try setting fire to anything you shouldn't!”

“Okay. I'll be careful.”

“I'm glad to hear it. The last thing we need is - oh, I don't know - the Gryffindor Seeker's underwear spontaneously combusting during an important match...” Solstice looked at him sharply, and he gave her a conspiratorial grin. “Off you go. I've got a letter to write.”

Running back up the stairs to the Gryffindor common room, Solstice wondered how Professor Greenwood knew she'd been involved in that legendary incident at the Quidditch match back in Second Year. He'd never said anything about it before, but it was surely too much of a coincidence for him to use that example if he didn't know - especially with the way he'd grinned.

She laughed to herself, and paused at a window, looking out at the darkening grounds, and the moon starting to rise in the east. It was just about full; it was a pity Professor Greenwood had made her promise not to go out at full moon, but maybe in a couple of years, it would be okay.

She continued on her way, remembering as she climbed through the portrait hole that she wanted to check her notes on the Shrinking Potion with Remus. She glanced around, but he wasn't with the other Marauders. “Where's Lupin? I need to check something about that potion?”

“He's not feeling well,” James told her casually.

“Oh. Is he in the hospital wing?”

Sirius nodded. “Yeah. But his books are on the table...” Sirius reached over and rummaged in the pile, extracting a battered notebook. “Here's his Potions notebook.”

“Thanks.” Solstice took the notebook, and began to flip through it; with her attention diverted, she didn't notice the glance that passed between the three remaining Marauders.


CHAPTER TEN - NEW DIRECTIONS

FOURTH YEAR - SEPTEMBER

Lily made her way along the corridor of the Hogwarts Express, with Snape a few paces behind. They had already passed several empty compartments, but they were looking for Solstice. Finally they found her, standing on the seat to stow her travelling cloak beside her trunk in the overhead rack. As her friends entered the compartment, Solstice turned and grinned. “Hi! Did you have good holidays?”

Snape shrugged - his holidays were never good with his father around - but Lily smiled in response. “Yes, pretty good.”

She looked up at Solstice, who was still dressed in holiday clothes. The snug t-shirt and jeans revealed that she had finally started to develop a figure, and when she jumped down from the seat, Lily could see that she was several inches taller. There was something about her face, too, an indefinable change that had turned it from a child's face to that of an adult. Solstice sat down opposite Lily and Snape, and unlatched Hoot's travelling cage. The owl walked out, then fluttered to Solstice's shoulder, nibbling her ear before ruffling his feathers and settling down.

“What about you?” Lily asked.

Solstice grinned ruefully. “It was interesting... remember I had new foster parents? Well, they've refused to have me back.”

“Why? What happened?”

“They had a daughter about the same age as me, and she didn't want me there. I did try to make friends in the first few days, but after that, I just gave up. She made it obvious she wasn't interested in being friends, and she kept on about Hogwarts being an inferior school - she goes to Beauxbatons. So we argued a lot.”

“What were the parents like?”

“They tried to be kind, but I think they were a bit hurt when I didn't want to go on outings with them. I like to explore on my own, and I wanted to study too, but I suppose they didn't understand that. But the real problem was Hoot. Their daughter had pet mice, but one day she didn't fasten the cage properly. The mice got out and, well, Hoot ate them.”

“Oh, Solstice!”

“Don't look at me like that - it wasn't deliberate. And you can't blame Hoot, mice are his natural prey. But of course the girl really hated me after that - she started saying stuff about Elementals - you know, about being promiscuous and all that. Even if they wanted me, I wouldn't go back! So it's a relief to be going back to school.”

“So - I suppose you'll have another new set of foster parents next summer?”

“Yes - but a witch came to visit me from the Ministry department that deals with foster kids, and said she'll try to find some people soon, so I can start writing to them this year, and maybe visit at Christmas to see if we get along. That way, at least we'll know a bit about each other before next summer.”

Lily sighed. “I wish I could have you to stay with me during the holidays, but my sister - I mean, she sulks for days if I visit Sev, so if I had someone from school staying at the house...”

Solstice shrugged.

“It's okay - I'm used to it, and I don't really mind much. I think it'll help if I can write to the new people before I meet them.”

* * * * *

Crowding into the Great Hall for the beginning-of-term banquet that evening, Solstice caught sight of the Marauders, but frowned when she realized that only James, Sirius and Peter were there. Asking Lily to save her a seat, she made her way over to the three boys. “Isn't Remus here?” she asked. James shook his head.

“No, he's - he's not well. He should be here in a few days.”

“How come he gets ill so much?”

James looked uncomfortable. “Well, it's - it's something he's had since he was a little kid. It flares up every so often. But he doesn't like to talk about it, so don't go asking him.”

“Oh - sorry. I just wondered where he was.” Solstice turned away, frowning, and made her way slowly back to Lily.

* * * * *

On the way to the Common Room after dinner, the Gryffindor Quidditch captain pulled James aside, and when James finally joined his friends in the Common Room, he looked furious. “What's up?” asked Sirius.

James took a couple of deep breaths. For a moment he seemed too angry to speak, but finally managed to say, “I've been kicked off the Quidditch team!”

“What? That's crazy!”

“Apparently they think I'm too big to play Seeker. They've got some skinny little second year as Seeker now.”

In his anger, James was almost shouting, and the other students had fallen silent, listening. Suddenly realizing that he had an audience, James headed for the stairs, with Sirius and Peter following.

Lily glanced up at them as they went through the doorway, and she muttered to Solstice,“Maybe he'll be a bit less big headed now he's not a Quidditch star!”

Solstice grinned, but before she could reply, a third year came up to her. “Professor McGonagall wants to see you in her office.” Solstice got up, looking puzzled.

“You're not in trouble already, are you?” Lily asked.

“I don't think so. I can't think of anything I've done...”

“She said 'now',” added the third year importantly, and Solstice shrugged.

“I suppose I'd better go.”

* * * * *

She returned about ten minutes later, looking serious. In answer to Lily's questioning look, she explained, “Professor Greenwood won't be back until next week. His mother died, and he had to go to Ireland to see about the funeral and everything.”

“So - what's going to happen about your lessons?”

“Professor McGonagall said I should be old enough to work on my own for a few days. I know we were going to start fire magic this term, so I could do some reading, and practice a bit. And I'll still be coming to Potions and Herbology anyway.”

* * * * *

The first full day of lessons was over; Lily was curled up in bed reading when Solstice came into the dormitory. The younger girl had already changed into a sleeveless summer nightgown, and now sat on her bed and began to braid her hair. Lily glanced up and said,

“I learnt how to do a French braid this summer - shall I do one on your hair?”

“Yes, all right.”

Lily knelt on the bed behind Solstice, and deftly began to weave her friend's hair down the back of her head. When she reached her neck and began on the regular plaiting, she remarked, “You must have been sunbathing this summer - you've got a really nice tan.”

“No, I wasn't sunbathing, I was just outside a lot. I don't think it's a regular sun tan anyway, because it's all over. It just sort of developed.”

“That's odd.”

“Well - I think it might be an Elemental thing. I never thought about it before, but Professor Greenwood always looks like he's got a tan, even in winter. I suppose I'll have to wait until he gets back, though, to ask him.”

“You're lucky if it is - it looks really nice. I have to be so careful I don't burn, with my skin.”

“Yes, but that's because you've got red hair - and I think you're lucky to have that. I wish I did, instead of just brown.”

Lily looked at her friend's hair as she reached the end of the plait and tied it with a red and gold Gryffindor ribbon. “It's not 'just brown' - it's a nice shade. Sort of rich, like dark chocolate. At least it's not mousy!” She picked up a mirror from Solstice's bedside cabinet, angling it so that the other girl could see the back of her head reflected in the wall mirror.

Solstice smiled. “That's really nice! Where did you learn how to do that?”

“My sister taught me, and let me practice on her hair.” Lily put the mirror down, looking troubled. “That's about the only way I got to spend time with her this summer.” She got back into her own bed and sat with her arms clasped around her knees. “She's always been jealous of me coming to Hogwarts. And now she's got a boyfriend, she spends all her free time with him, so I hardly got to see her. I don't much like her boyfriend, I think he's rude - I don't see why she's going out with him.”

Solstice piled her blankets over the foot of her bed, before lying down with just the sheet over her. After a moment, she said thoughtfully, “Maybe it's because it's something that she's doing but you're not.”

“Hmm - maybe.”

Solstice turned on her side facing Lily. “I bet that won't last though - you not having a boyfriend, I mean.” She grinned as Lily pulled a face.

“Well if Vincent Algethi is a typical example of Hogwarts boys, I don't think I'll bother!”

Solstice chuckled. “I don't suppose they all have wandering hands like him. There are lots of others. I know who'd go out with you - Potter!”

Him?” “Well, you know he would!” “Huh! Me going out with Potter iss about as likely as - as you going out with Sirius Black!”

Solstice laughed. “Funny you should say that...”

Lily sat bolt upright, staring at her friend incredulously. “Solstice! You're not!”

Solstice grinned wickedly, but finally relented. “No, I'm not! But - he did kiss me before dinner!”

“He kissed you? What did you do?”

“Nothing - I was too surprised! But I'm pretty sure he did it for a bet, because right after, Potter gave him a Galleon. And then Potter tried to kiss Theresa, but she wouldn't let him.” She was giggling now. “Then right after dinner, Black kissed Arielle, and Potter gave him another Galleon. I think they've got a bet going to see who can kiss the most girls. So you'd better watch out!”

“I certainly will!” Lily lay down, pulling the covers up, and watched as the other girls who slept in their dormitory came up to bed. Sleepily, she reflected that Solstice seemed to have changed in more ways than just physical.

* * * * *

The next few days passed quietly. Professor McGonagall observed that Solstice took her books outside to work, but further investigation revealed that she really was studying, so she let the girl continue. Perhaps, the Professor mused, Solstice was finally growing out of her wilder tendencies. By the end of the morning on Friday, she wasn't so sure.

Remus had arrived at school on Wednesday evening, and his appearance caused a lot of comment. At first glance, he appeared to have lost a fight with a thorn bush. One gash on his left cheek was particularly bad; swollen and inflamed, it had come dangerously close to his eye.

All week, James had been sulking, on and off, about his removal from the Quidditch team. Remus's return had provided some distraction, as had James's ongoing bet with Sirius, about how many Gryffindor girls each could kiss within a week - although by this point, it was clear that Sirius was going to win. However, by Transfiguration class on Friday morning, James was sulking once more, knowing that the following day would see the first Quidditch practice from which he was excluded.

Leaving the Great Hall after breakfast, Professor McGonagall stopped Solstice and indicated the rain streaming down the windows. “Since you won't be able to work outside today, I think perhaps you should sit in on my class this morning. You can take your books and continue with your own work.”

Solstice nodded, and when Lily and Snape entered the classroom later, they found Solstice already there, sitting in the second row, making notes on a parchment. They took seats just in front of her, and were discussing the coming lesson when James and Sirius burst in. James was already looking grim, and at the sight of Lily sitting beside Snape, his scowl deepened.

Speaking loudly enough for the Slytherin boy to hear him, he remarked, “Pity we don't have to go outside to get to class - getting caught in the rain is the closest Snivellus gets to taking a bath.”

“Oh, that's very original, Potter,” Lily shot back, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “Did you think it up yourself in all that free time you've got now you've been dumped from the Quidditch team?”

“Keep out of it, Evans!” James snarled.

“Why should I? It's my friend you're picking on.”

James glowered at her, then turned to Sirius, saying something in a low voice. They huddled over one desk for a few minutes, then as a few more students began to file into the room, James and Sirius pulled out their wands, and a cloud of paper darts rose in the air, swooped across the classroom and dived on Snape. They were only paper, but the point of one dart caught Snape in the eye and he winced.

“What's the matter, Snivelly? Afraid of a little paper dart?” Lily whipped out her own wand, and the darts rose again, this time aimed at James.

“Thanks for returning the ammunition, Evans,” Sirius called out, and the darts rose once more, followed by successive waves as the boys manufactured more.

As the third batch descended on her friends, Solstice leaned forward and murmured something to Lily, who nodded. The twenty or so darts lifted into the air yet again, heading for the two Marauders, and Solstice watched intently as they neared their target. As the darts were making their final dive, each one burst into flame.

The boys tried to duck away, their voices rising as the flaming darts threatened to land in their hair, but above the noise, Professor McGonagall's voice rang out. “What is the meaning of this?” She strode to the front of the room, her sharp eyes noting the two angry groups facing each other across the room.

“They're trying to set us on fire!” Sirius burst out, and immediately Solstice responded,

“Well they started it!”

“Whoever started it, you are all old enough to know better. I will see you boys...” she glared at James and Sirius, “...and the three of you...” she swung around to include Lily, Snape and Solstice in her pronouncement, “...in my office as soon as this class is over.”

Lily glanced at Snape. “But he wasn't...” she began.

“Silence, Miss Evans! You will all sit down and take out your text books this instant. Miss Flidae, you may take your books to the back of the room, as you are not officially part of this lesson.” Silently, Solstice gathered her books and moved to a desk in the back row, glaring at James and Sirius as she passed.

* * * * *

Professor McGonagall looked sternly at the five students who stood before her desk, silent now that they had finished their account of what they had been doing when she entered the classroom. Her eyes moved to the tall, black-haired boy at the end of the row. “Mr Snape, it appears that you were merely the innocent target. You may go.” James and Sirius cast poisonous looks at their enemy as he left the room.

Professor McGonagall continued her judgement. “Miss Evans - defending your friends is admirable, but doing so by prolonging the situation is extremely foolish. Miss Flidae - I will be speaking to Professor Greenwood when he returns on Sunday. Your particular type of magic is not a gift to be misused in such a childish and dangerous manner.” She turned to Sirius. “Mr Black - I strongly suggest that you have a few independent thoughts of your own occasionally, instead of blindly following Mr Potter.”

Sirius scowled, but Professor McGonagall went on, “You three will each loose ten house points. Mr Potter - I understand how disappointed you are about no longer being Gryffindor's Seeker, but it does not give you an excuse for bullying. You will lose twenty house points. All of you may go.”

James muttered angrily to himself as he left the office, silently vowing that he would make Snape pay for getting off without even a lecture.

* * * * *

To James's annoyance, the rain had stopped by Saturday morning, and the weather was perfect for Quidditch. He might have felt a little better if the practice was taking place in torrential rain. He watched, his expression dark, as his former team-mates headed out after breakfast, then he turned to his three friends. “Come on - let's go down by the lake.”

Remus and Sirius exchanged glances, and Sirius shrugged. It had been their custom to watch Gryffindor practices, but apparently now that James was no longer on the team, they wouldn't be doing that any more. As they followed James out, Peter tagged on behind, not particularly caring whether they watched the practice or not. Heading across the damp grass, they spotted two figures standing by the shore, talking as they looked across the water. Lily and Snape were engrossed in their conversation, and didn't look up as the four boys approached, until James shouted, “For a Gryffindor, you spend far too much time hanging around that Slytherin, Evans.”

Lily looked up at him, irritated. “Oh, give it a rest, Potter!” she snapped. “Didn't you make enough trouble yesterday?”

“Trouble that your snaky friend managed to slither out of, I notice!”

“That's because he had nothing to do with it in the first place. Anyway, if you're holding yourself up as an example of Gryffindors, then I'd rather spend time with Slytherins!”

“Nice work, Snivelly,” James sneered, turning his attention to Snape. “Getting Gryffindors to turn traitor! Maybe it's time you had a lesson in what happens to grubby Slytherins who go sniffing around Gryffindor girls!” He pulled his wand from his pocket. Snape drew his own wand, and took a step towards James, but before either boy could start casting spells, Sirius said,

“Watch it, mate, we've got company.” They turned to see Professor Slughorn strolling towards them.

“Well, well, Miss Evans, my star pupil enjoying the lovely morning, eh?” he said jovially. He noticed the two boys facing each other with drawn wands, and his eyes narrowed slightly, but his tone was still genial as he remarked, “Not duelling, I hope. Messy business - besides, I'd have to deduct house points!”

“No, Sir, we're not duelling,” Snape said quietly, stowing his wand in his pocket.

“Good! Well, you and Miss Evans are just the pair I was hoping to see. I wanted to ask how you achieved such a fine result with your instant polishing potion on Thursday. I rarely see such excellent work from NEWT students, never mind from a pair of fourth years...” He began to stroll on, drawing Lily and Snape along with him, and paused only to call back, “Mustn't keep you, Potter, no doubt you're anxious to be off to a Quidditch practice, eh?”

James kicked viciously at a tuft of grass, watching his enemy move out of range. “Squirmed out of trouble again!” He shoved his wand in his pocket. “Well I'm not going to give up that easily. Sooner or later we'll catch him when there are no teachers he can hide behind. I've got a few ideas I've been saving up all summer that should put Snivelly in his place.”

He set off along the shore, explaining his ideas to his companions. Sirius and Peter plunged into the conversation with relish, but Remus suppressed a sigh as he followed them. It looked like being an eventful term, just when he'd been hoping for a little peace between full moons.

* * * * *

On Sunday evening, going into the Great Hall for dinner, Solstice caught sight of Professor Greenwood taking his accustomed place at the High Table. Professor McGonagall paused beside him, and glanced in the direction of the Gryffindor table as she spoke to him. Greenwood's face tightened slightly, and he nodded curtly. Solstice sat down beside Lily. “I think I'll be in trouble tomorrow.”

“Why?”

“Professor Greenwood's back, and it looks like Professor McGonagall just told him about Friday. He looked pretty grim.”

“Oh - I'm sorry I got you involved in it.”

Solstice shrugged. “You didn't - I involved myself. But he told me at the end of last term not to use fire magic on the wrong things.”

“Do you think he'll be very angry? What will he do?”

Solstice considered for a moment. “Nothing too drastic - he's easy-going most of the time. But he's strict about not misusing magic.” She sighed. “Oh well - I'm glad he's back anyway.”

* * * * *

As he unpacked after dinner, Jack Greenwood lit several candles using fire magic, then grinned. Although he'd received Professor McGonagall's report on his student's conduct with appropriate seriousness, he had to admit that the tale had lightened his sombre mood. It was, of course, exactly the sort of thing he'd told Solstice not to do, but he rather wished he'd been there to see the two boys' reaction to being attacked with flaming paper darts. He opened the cupboard and looked at his bottle of firewhisky for a moment, then closed the door again, and set a kettle to boil on the fire to make tea instead.

As well as his customary backpack, he had a large wooden trunk that needed unpacking, but instead of opening it, he pushed it into a corner behind his armchair. It contained the few possessions that his mother's family had passed on to him, and he didn't feel up to sorting through them tonight.

Although they had been very close when he was growing up, he had seen little of his mother as an adult. Both had followed their inborn Elemental impulse to travel, and their paths had rarely crossed. But her death had been a great shock, and he still did not have a clear picture of exactly what had happened. It had appeared to be an accident - except that it was almost unheard-of for an Elemental to drown. Her body had been found in a small, quiet cove not far from a Cornish fishing village; the weather had been good, there were no particularly dangerous currents in the area, and his mother - apart from being an excellent swimmer, as were all Elementals - had not been the type to take unnecessary risks. It seemed unlikely that she'd had a fall or been injured in some way that prevented her from swimming, as there had not been a mark on her body.

The mystery remained unsolved; and having seen that she was buried in her birthplace of Sligo, in the north west of Ireland, where Jack had also been born, he had found unexpected comfort in the thought of returning to the familiar surroundings and routine at Hogwarts School.

* * * * *

“Good morning, Professor.” Solstice set her books on her desk, then turned to close the study door behind her. She had made sure she was on time for lessons on Monday morning, still not sure how much trouble she would be in for her misuse of fire magic the previous week.

Professor Greenwood looked up and smiled. “Good morning, Solstice. Did you have a good summer?”

“Oh, it was all right. Professor - I'm sorry about your mother.”

He nodded. “Thank you,” he said quietly. As Solstice settled herself at her desk, he asked, “So what did you study when I was away last week?”

“Well, I started reading about fire magic - I've been making notes...”

“From what Professor McGonagall tells me, you've been working on the practical side too,” Professor Greenwood remarked dryly.

Solstice looked guilty. “Oh - yes, I suppose so.”

Professor Greenwood looked at her seriously. “We talked about that last term, didn't we? It's not a talent to be used carelessly. Fire magic is dangerous if you fool around with it.”

“Yes. I'm sorry, Professor.”

He nodded. “Elementals already have a reputation for being impulsive - it wouldn't take much for you to acquire a name for recklessness. And that will reflect on others besides yourself!” Solstice looked down at her desk, her face flushing. By Professor Greenwood's standards, this was a stern scolding. Greenwood watched her for a moment, noting that the lecture was having its intended effect, but he felt a glimmer of sympathy for the girl, recalling some of his own early exploits with fire magic.

Relenting slightly, he went on,“I understand the temptation to experiment. But what on earth possessed you to do it in front of Professor McGonagall, of all people?” Solstice looked up sharply, but Greenwood kept a straight face. “Use a little common sense in future!” He smiled, and gestured at the sheets of parchment on the desk in front of her. “Are those your notes? Let me see them.”

Solstice handed them over, and he glanced through them.

“Yes - these are good. You're a good scholar when you put your mind to it.”

“I like studying, especially with the library we have here at school. Although there aren't a lot of books about Elemental magic.”

“No, there wouldn't be. I've had to build up my own collection over the years. Which reminds me...” He opened a drawer in his desk and brought out a book. He handed it to Solstice who took it with care, noting the faded pages and worn binding. “I brought it back from Ireland with me - I think you'll find it interesting. It's about the history of Elemental magic, and has some interesting theories about the origins. I warn you, though, some of it is quite grim. Elementals have long been regarded as different, even among magical folk, and reactions have been brutal at times. But you're old enough to learn about that now, I think. You know you can always talk to me if something you read bothers you. Take your time - I won't need it back for a while.”

* * * * *

Solstice spent a lot of her free time over the next week immersed in the book. After lessons had finished for the day on the following Friday, Lily and Snape found her sitting outside, engrossed in its pages. Pausing on the path a short distance away, Lily called out, “Hey, Solstice - you've had your head in that book all week! Take a break and come for a walk with us.” Solstice looked up and grinned, and stowed the book carefully in her school bag before getting up and following her friends. As she caught up with them, Lily asked, “So what's the book about, anyway?”

“Elemental magic. There's a lot I didn't know about the history of it. Some people think it was the first kind of magic, before the other kind - your kind - even started.”

“But why is it so rare now?”

“Well, your magic is more - versatile. So thousands of years ago, it was easier for people who had it to survive than for Elementals. And then later, being Elemental was seen as a bad thing, even by other wizards. Some people thought it was evil, so they - they would kill anyone they thought had Elemental magic.”

“That's horrible!”

“Yes. I talked to Professor Greenwood about it. He said that even now, occasionally a baby will be killed when the parents realize that she's an Elemental - though more often, they abandon her, or send her to an orphanage - like mine did. But not everyone thinks like that – Professor Greenwood's mother grew up with her own family. They didn't mind that she was different.”

“How come Professor Greenwood is an Elemental? I heard they were always girls.”

“A 'True' Elemental is always a girl. That's one who has a regular witch and wizard for parents - it only happens in families where they've been purebloods for generations. Even then it's really rare. Usually there's no history in the family of having Elementals - or if there is, it was way back. Anyway, if a True Elemental has children, then they'll have a lot of Elemental powers, but it usually won't be as strong in them as in their mother. Sometimes their regular magic isn't very strong either. But for some reason it usually stops with them - when they have children, they won't be Elementals. I think that's how it works, anyway, it's a bit confusing - it just doesn't seem to follow the same rules as ordinary inherited traits.”

Lily nodded, consideringly. “What I don't understand is why purebloods don't want to have an Elemental child. I mean, I'd have thought they'd make a big fuss about how special they are...”

“Yes, but to them it's not “special”, it's “different”. And they think different is bad. Purebloods think we're - well, they say we're freaks.” Walking on Lily's other side, Snape glanced quickly across at Solstice, remembering that this was the exact word that Malfoy had used to describe Elementals. Snape frowned; he was still struggling to reconcile the views of his mentor with what he knew of his two Gryffindor friends - one an Elemental, and the other a muggle-born.

Solstice went on. “Anyway, the part I didn't know about before is that in the Middle Ages, when Muggles tried to burn witches, it was really only Elementals they could do it to, because they couldn't escape the way regular magic folk could. We can start a fire, but not put one out, or use a charm to stop it burning us.”

She shivered slightly, even though it was a warm day, and Lily said, “Maybe you should do something else for a while - that book sounds very depressing.”

“Yes, parts of it are. That's why I've been talking to Professor Greenwood about it. He said he can give me some other books, that aren't so grim. I've almost finished this one, so I'm going to do something else this weekend. I think I'll watch the Quidditch practice tomorrow. I saw the one last week and that new Gryffindor Seeker is pretty good.”

Lily grinned. “I bet Potter won't be watching, then!”

Solstice shook her head. "No, he didn't watch last week - and neither did the rest of his gang. Silly, really, I mean it's still the house team, even if their friend isn't on it any more.”

“Well, that's Potter for you! He wants it to be all about himself, instead of the team.”

Solstice nodded, glancing up as a shadow flitted above them. She made her strange trilling call, and moments later Hoot swooped down and landed on her outstretched arm. “I want to spend more time with Hoot, too. I've been neglecting him a bit this week. Haven't I, boy?” She rubbed the owl's head affectionately. “He finds his own food, but I haven't done any training with him all week.” Hoot bobbed his head a couple of times, and Solstice felt in her pocket for owl nuts. She pulled one out, and threw it into the air. Hoot took flight, pouncing on the pellet as it hit the ground, then he soared high above the three students.

They watched him for a moment as he swooped towards the woods, and began to follow slowly, talking quietly as they went.

* * * * *

The following morning was warm and sunny again. As they were eating breakfast, James glanced resentfully at the members of the Gryffindor Quidditch team, who were sitting in a group, discussing tactics for that morning's practice. Two of the team were missing – Malcolm Ross, the captain, and Aidan Carver, a sixth year chaser. Towards the end of the meal, the two missing members joined the rest of the team. Carver looked flushed and angry, and Ross was visibly worried. He spoke in a low voice, and the rest of the team glanced at Carver and each other, dismayed. Then one of the Beaters looked more hopeful, and whatever he said made Ross look at James.

He hurried over, and said, “Potter - how would you feel about coming back on the team as a Chaser? We're a bit stuck - you see Carver did very badly on his O.W.L.S. and his parents think it was because he spent all his time playing Quidditch instead of studying. He wasn't supposed to play at all this year, but he didn't say anything, and his parents only just found out he was still on the team. They sent an owl to McGonagall, and she said he has to stop playing. Look, you already know our tactics, and you're a great flyer. The only reason I took you off the team was that I wanted to try someone smaller for Seeker - you know it wasn't personal. So how about it?”

James hesitated for only a moment. “Of course! Just give me a minute to change.” He leapt to his feet, glanced at his fellow Marauders, and said, “I'll see you out there!” before he sprinted off in the direction of the dormitories.

Sirius grinned wryly at Remus. “Looks like things are back to normal!”

* * * * *

Solstice was already out in the stands when she saw Sirius, Remus and Peter approaching. She looked puzzled.

“I thought you lot weren't going to watch now that Potter isn't playing.”

Remus sat beside her. “James is back on the team.”

“He is? How come? I thought the new kid was doing all right as Seeker...”

“Oh yes, the new kid is still on the team. James is going to play Chaser now. Aidan Carver has to stop - his parents think his marks are suffering because of Quidditch.”

“Chaser? That's not as glamourous as Seeker, is it? He won't be able to save the match with one spectacular catch.”

Remus grinned. “I suppose not - but I think he's just happy to be playing again.”

* * * * *

The practice went well, and as they all headed back to the school, James caught up with his friends. He was exhilarated, talking excitedly about the new position he was playing. Far from seeing it as a come-down, he seemed to think that playing Chaser was preferable to being the Seeker. “Good thing I switched, really. I mean, being Seeker is okay for a kid, but it's us Chasers who really get into the thick of things. It's real Quidditch, not just floating around looking for the Snitch. Gets pretty rough up there for the Chasers - did you see the way I...”

As James continued with his blow-by-blow account of the practice, Remus caught Solstice's eye and she grinned. He returned the smile, realizing that she saw, as he did, the ironic humour in James's sudden enthusiasm for a position that only a few months ago he would have derided as requiring brawn but no brains.

Remus glanced at Solstice again, noticing that she looked a lot older than she had before the summer holidays. Was her hair different? Or was it just that she was taller? Whatever it was, he decided, she was actually rather pretty with that golden tan she'd acquired. For a moment, he was surprised to find himself thinking along these lines, but then he shrugged and grinned to himself, as he followed his friends towards the castle.


CHAPTER ELEVEN – UNFAMILIAR PATHS

A solitary bird call echoed through the half light, as the sun rose. The Forbidden forest was very still at this hour; whatever dark creatures roamed its narrow paths at midnight were all in hiding now that it was dawn. It was the start of October, and mist hung thickly in the woods, coating everything with a fine film of moisture, that dripped occasionally from twigs and leaves. The morning had a slight bite to it, and the boy lying face down in the undergrowth shivered. The bird called again, and the mournful cry finally woke him. He shivered violently, raising his head slowly.

For a minute or two, Remus Lupin had no idea how he came to be outside alone in the Forbidden forest at dawn. Struggling to remember what he’d been doing the previous night, he sat up slowly, glancing down at himself. To his horror, he discovered that he was stark naked. His clothes… he had a vague memory of taking them off… they must still be in the shack. Now he remembered. Last night had been Full Moon, and he’d gone, as usual, to the shack at the edge of Hogsmeade. It had become his habit to remove his clothes, knowing that they would be little more than rags if he was still wearing them when he transformed. The shack was furnished with a bed – now somewhat gnawed – and he usually wrapped himself in a blanket and lay down on the bed while he waited for the familiar ache, deep in his bones that signaled that his body had started to change from human to werewolf form. He was rarely on the bed at the end of the night, but until now, he had always remained inside the shack.

He must have broken out somehow – his shoulders ached, and he discovered that they were scraped raw in places, with several large splinters of wood embedded in his flesh. He began to pull them out, wincing. He’d evidently forced his way out through some gap.

Still shivering, he stood up, trying to get his bearings. Perhaps he could make it back to the shack and retrieve his clothes before anyone realized he was gone. He glanced towards the rising sun, then looked around, attempting to orient himself. He was familiar with the layout of the Hogwarts grounds but, still trying to shake off the lingering effects of his transformation, he couldn’t remember where the shack was in relation to the forest.

Footsteps crunched in the undergrowth, and Remus looked wildly for somewhere to hide. He was supposed to report to Professor McGonagall on his return to school; if he was late, she might have gone to investigate, found he was not in the shack as expected, and started to look for him... he didn’t think he could stand the humiliation of the Professor finding him naked! He made a dive for a sturdy shrub, crouching behind it as the footsteps came closer.

“There yeh are!” Relief washed over Remus as he recognized Hagrid’s voice. He stood up, still half hidden behind the shrub, and the groundskeeper tossed a bundle to him. While Remus started to pull his clothes on, Hagrid explained, “When Professor McGonagall found yeh were gone, she told me to find yeh before anyone else spotted yeh.”

“Thanks, Hagrid. I don’t know how I got out of the shack…”

“Well, yeh’d torn a hole in the front door. Looks like yeh left a fair bit o’ fur behind when yeh crawled through.”

Remus nodded, pulling his shirt gingerly over his bleeding shoulders. “Feels like it too.”

“Yeh don’ remember anythin’?”

“No – I never do.” Remus crouched to tie his shoe laces, then followed Hagrid through the trees towards the castle.

* * * * *

The Marauders were in a quiet corner of the grounds, far enough away from anyone else that they were certain that they would not be overheard. Remus had just told them how he’d woken up in the forest that morning, and the other three looked concerned.

“It’s getting worse every month,” Sirius said quietly.

Remus nodded. “This time – and the one before – was really bad. My parents are worried. They don’t know how much worse it’s going to get. I broke a window at the start of September – that’s how I got so badly cut. And – I’m not sure, but I think I tried to bite one of them. They didn’t say so, but they were both really scared.”

“Don’t you have any awareness after you transform?” James asked.

“No. I never remember anything that happens when I’m a … after I change. The thing is – what if I run into something dangerous in the Forbidden forest next time? Or I meet someone and attack them?”

“And there’s no cure? Not even a potion that would make you less violent?”

Remus sighed. “Every so often, someone claims to have invented a charm or a potion that controls the worst symptoms. Some wizards even think that it might be possible for a werewolf to keep their human consciousness, even after they transform. But so far, nothing has really worked. It could be years before they get it right – or it could be never.”

James looked thoughtful. “Well, there’s always that idea we had about us keeping you company as animals. I know we tried a few times before, and we never managed to change into anything, but I think we should try again - really try this time. Werewolves don’t go for animals the way they do for humans. At least we’d be able to keep track of where you go, and warn people if we have to. There must be books in the library that would give us some ideas. Animagus magic isn’t Dark magic, so we should find something that’s not in the restricted section.”

Sirius grinned. “We have to decide what animals we want to be. I think I’ll be a dog – I’m named after the dog star, after all!”

James nodded, gazing into the distance as he considered the question. “I tried to change into a bird before, but I think I’ll try something else this time. Maybe a jaguar – a black one, so I can creep in the shadows.”

“What about you, Peter?” Sirius glanced at the fourth member of their gang. The chubby boy brushed his pale brown hair from his eyes.

“Something big and – and really fierce…”

“Well don’t go trying to be an elephant or a rhino,” Sirius said, grinning. “People will ask questions if they look out a window and see an elephant strolling by!” The boys laughed – Peter joining in a moment after the others, once he was sure that Sirius was joking.

“A bear!” he said suddenly. “One of those really big ones, with long claws and teeth – a grizzly bear.”

“I dunno – a bear might still get people wondering,” Sirius mused.

Peter looked crestfallen, but James said, “No more than a panther. I mean, they might think it was odd – but it’s not like seeing an elephant, which was your brilliant idea!”

“Yes – and no-one really know what lives in the forest,” Peter said eagerly. “There could be bears or panthers or dragons even…”

“Thanks - that makes me feel a whole lot better!” Remus interjected. “Just what I want to run into next time I break out of the shack…”

James grinned. “Speaking of the shack, it’s got a name now. I heard one of the prefects call it the Shrieking Shack. People already thought it was haunted, but now they’re saying it’s got dozens of ghosts.” He glanced at his watch. “Hey, we’d better get going! It’s Transfiguration in five minutes, and you know what McGonagall’s like if we’re late.”

They gathered their books and hurried back towards the school. Remus lagged behind a little. His friends seemed excited at the prospect of learning to change into animals. But there was no way they could really understand how it felt to have no choice, to face changing into a monster every month, knowing how much it was going to hurt, and to wonder what kind of mayhem he would cause once the human side of his nature was submerged by the werewolf side.

Still, it was a comfort to know that they wanted to help, and were willing to learn the extremely advanced and difficult magic required to become animagi.

* * * * *

Lily was about to pack up her school books for the evening when she realized that she’d forgotten to check her references for her Transfiguration essay – there wouldn't be time to do it tomorrow, as she had Transfiguration first thing in the morning. She looked at the clock. There was still time to make it to the library before it closed for the night, and she knew exactly which book she needed. She jumped up, clambered through the portrait hole, and set off towards the library.

At this hour, it was almost deserted. A few students were still working, but the maze-like network of narrow passages between the shelves was quiet and shadowy. Lily threaded her way along the stacks, towards the Transfiguration section in the far corner. She quickly located the book she wanted, and was about to retrace her steps when she heard whispering a couple of aisles over. She paused for a moment, and caught the words,

“…says it’s extremely advanced magic – and forbidden unless you’re registered.”

Lily heard a laugh, and recognized James Potter’s voice as he replied, “You only have to register if someone finds out you can do it. And I always find the word ‘forbidden’ makes things a lot more fun!”

“Okay, listen to this…” There was no mistaking Sirius’s voice. “To transform into an animal, you must first understand the nature of the beast you wish to become.”

There was a soft chuckle, and Remus said, “At least I didn’t have to study.”

“Maybe you should – you might have more control when you’re transformed.”

“I’ll pass, thanks. It’s bad enough transforming every month, without wasting my time reading about werewolves too!”

Lily suddenly felt icy-cold. Surely he didn’t mean what she thought…

“Can’t say I blame you, mate,” James replied. “If it was me, I’d want to forget about it as much as possible.”

“Does it hurt when an animagus turns into an animal? Does it say anything in that book?” Peter’s voice sounded anxious.

“I don’t think so – it just says it can be disorienting the first few times.” Lily heard Peter’s sigh of relief even at a distance.

Then Sirius asked quietly, “Is it painful when you change into a werewolf?”

After a moment of hesitation, Remus replied, “Yeah. It hurts a lot.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, then James said, “Library’s about to close. Let’s check these two books out, and take them back to the dormitory.”

As the sound of their footsteps died away, Lily stood rooted to the spot. There was no doubt in her mind now, no way she could have misunderstood the conversation. Remus Lupin was a werewolf. “Is anyone else here?” Madam Pince bustled along the main aisle of the library, and Lily managed to say,

“Yes – I’m just leaving.”

She checked out her Transfiguration book, and went slowly back to the Common Room.

Solstice looked up as her friend climbed through the portrait hole, and collected her schoolbag from the table where she’d left it. “Did you go to the library?” she asked.

Lily glanced at her swiftly. “What? How did you…?” Solstice grinned and pointed at the book under Lily’s arm. “Oh – yes. The library.” She laughed, trying to behave as if everything was normal, and Solstice looked at her curiously.

“Are you all right? You seem sort of – worried.”

“No! I’m not worried at all!”

“Are you sure? Are you feeling ill or something?”

Lily nodded, then shook her head in confusion. “I’m not ill, just – just tired, that’s all. I think I’ll go up to bed now.”

“Okay. I’ll see you later.”

* * * * *

Long after the other girls had gone to bed, and the dormitory was dark and quiet, Lily lay awake, going over in her mind what she had heard. It all made sense. Now she thought about it, Remus was absent about every four weeks. When he returned, he was scratched and bruised. She recalled the time that she and Solstice had heard the mysterious howls coming from Hogsmeade – and Professor McGonagall’s anxiety at finding the two girls outside. And – hadn’t Solstice said she’d been forbidden to practice moon magic outside at full moon?

Solstice! She was Remus’s friend – did she know? No, from the little things she’d said, Lily was sure that Solstice was just as puzzled by Remus’s absences as she had been herself until just a few hours ago. Should she tell her? No. She was convinced that she shouldn't say anything – it wasn’t her secret to tell. Besides – if no-one else had found out in all the years that Remus had been at Hogwarts, then surely the teachers must have the situation under control…

Lily sighed and turned over in bed. She wished she’d never overheard that conversation in the library. She closed her eyes and eventually, still turning the disturbing revelation over in her mind, fell into an uneasy sleep.

* * * * *

“Ready?” James nodded. “Okay – close your eyes and think about really big cats.”

It was early December, and the three boys had been working seriously on transforming into animals ever since Remus’s violent transformation at the start of October. Following a relatively mild transformation at the end of that month, Remus had awoken following the November 29th full moon to find his hands bleeding and full of splinters. The front door of the shack – reinforced following his escape – showed that he had almost succeeded in clawing his way through again. His face and shoulders were badly bruised, as if he’d been throwing himself against the door. Madam Pomfrey had removed the splinters, and done what she could for the bruises; but the wounds Remus suffered while transformed tended to heal more slowly that normal injuries, and his hands were still bandaged.

The Marauders had paid another visit to the library in search of more books on the subject of animagi. One in particular, with the vague title “Finding Your True Nature” had turned out to have some useful advice, plus they had each spent time reading up on their chosen animal.

The weather was still relatively mild for December, and the boys were crouched in a sheltered grove at the very edge of the Forbidden forest, watching as James took a deep breath and closed his eyes. For several minutes, no-one moved or spoke. Then an icy breeze made James shiver, and he opened his eyes, exasperated. “We need to find somewhere indoors to do this. I can’t concentrate when… what?” He broke off, realizing that Sirius was staring at him closely.

Sirius frowned. “I dunno – just for a second – it looked like your eyes had slitted pupils – like a cat. Did you two see it?” He turned to the other two boys, seeking confirmation.

“I’m not sure… I think maybe…” Peter mumbled, wanting to agree with Sirius, but Remus just shrugged.

“I didn’t see it.”

“Well, it was just for a second.” Sirius continued to frown. He was positive he’d seen it.

“Let’s call it a day and go back inside,” James suggested. “It’s getting too cold to concentrate properly.”

The boys got to their feet, Peter sighing with relief. He’d felt frozen for the past hour, but hadn’t liked to complain when it didn’t seem to be bothering his friends.

“What was that part in the book – about how to pick the animal you want to be?”

At James’s query, Remus pulled a small, shabby book from his pocket and flipped through the pages.

“It says you should choose an animal that’s close to your human personality.”

“Wasn’t there something about patronuses too?”

Remus nodded. “Yeah – it says if you can produce a corporeal patronus, then that’s the animal you should try transforming into…”

“…which would be a big help if any of us could produce a patronus…” Sirius broke in scathingly.

“Well – maybe we should all give it a try – just to see if we can come up with anything.”

Remus grinned. “I think I should give that a miss – somehow I don’t think anyone would appreciate a werewolf patronus tearing round the school!”

* * * * *

While the Marauders had been trying to master animagus magic, Lily and Solstice had been doing some experimenting of their own with unfamiliar magic.

One evening, they were sitting on the floor of their dormitory, with Solstice watching as Lily struggled to levitate a feather without using her wand. Having seen Solstice light candles and fires with a glance, or at most a casual flick of her fingers, Lily had decided to try wandless magic herself.

“It’s not impossible,” she had explained. “Some witches and wizards can do it, but it’s hard to focus the spell without a wand.”

With uncharacteristic forethought, Solstice had suggested that Lily should start with something a little less dangerous than fire, and after several sessions, both girls were certain that Lily had at least moved the feather slightly.

So far on this particular evening, Lily had been unsuccessful, and Solstice suddenly said, “Let me try!” Lily looked doubtful, and Solstice went on, “If I can create a fire, why couldn’t I create an air current to lift the feather?”

Lily nodded. “It can’t hurt to try.”

Solstice focused her gaze on the small, brown feather that lay on the floor between them. Making fire involved drawing heat from the surrounding air, and focusing that heat on a single point, such as a candle wick, until it ignited. Surely the same principle could apply to air currents – it was just a question of concentrating tiny movements in the air, and getting them to move in the same direction at once…

It was as if someone had opened a door into a howling gale. The hangings on the beds whipped wildly in the sudden gust, and the curtain at the foot of Solstice’s bed tore halfway off. Clothes, loose papers and books were hurled around, and all the lamps in the room went out simultaneously. Fortunately, the wind died the instant Solstice stopped working the magic, and the girls sat in the dark for a few moments.

“Well…” Lily’s voice was slightly awed, “…so much for it not doing any harm to try...”

Solstice chuckled, and relit the lamps, the flames flickering up in rapid succession. She looked at Lily thoughtfully. “Maybe I’m trying the wrong approach.” She retrieved the feather from beneath a bed, sat down on the floor again, and let her body relax slightly. Maybe it wasn’t a case of controlling air currents, but of working on the substance of the air itself. She visualized squeezing the air between her hands, compressing it until it was solid enough to support the feather, so that it pushed it upwards, and…

The feather rose slowly and steadily, until it was at eye level. Lily watched intently, not daring to move in case it disturbed Solstice’s concentration. Suddenly Solstice let out her breath, and the feather floated gently to the floor. She grinned. “I should have realized – it’s like water. I just have to find the right way to move it. It’s easier with water, though – and earth – I can see what I want to work on. That’s why it’s harder with air and fire, I have to visualize it more clearly to make it move.” She glanced around the room. “Maybe we should tidy up before the others see the mess!”

Together they repaired the chaos to the dormitory, Solstice gathering up books and parchments, while Lily flicked her wand and sent all the clothes hurtling back to their right places, neatly folded, then repaired the torn curtain on Solstice’s bed. When everything was back in place, the girls sat on the floor again, and Lily put the feather down in front of her.

“I’m going to try again – but this time I’m going to touch the feather,” she explained. She reached towards the feather, one fingertip just brushing it. Focusing fiercely, she said, “Wingardium Leviosa!” as she slowly raised her hand. The feather remained on the floor. Lily touched it again, and repeated the spell. Still nothing happened.

“You’re really tense,” Solstice remarked. “Try to relax, and feel calm…”

Lily nodded. She breathed out, and tried to relax her muscles. “Wingardium Leviosa!” This time, as she raised her hand, the feather also began to rise. Six inches off the ground, it fluttered slightly, then floated back down.

Solstice let out a whoop and jumped to her feet. “You did it!”

Lily grinned. “I did, didn’t I. Only a little way, though…”

“But still, you did focused wandless magic! You know, I think you might find it easier if you learnt to meditate. I know it’s helped me.”

“Yes – I’ll try it.” Lily got up, yawning. “Not tonight though. After all that effort, I’m exhausted.” She picked up the feather and put it on her bedside cabinet, before climbing into bed. Solstice got into her own bed, pulling a book from beneath her pillow. She found her place, and began to read. Five minutes later, she glanced up, about to speak, then grinned. Lily was already sound asleep.

* * * * *

On the following Saturday, the Marauders returned to the grove they had used a few days earlier. They'd spent the previous evening trying to produce patronuses, but although James had finally produced what looked like a faint puff of silver smoke from his wand, it hadn't helped give him any clues about what animal form he should take.

Sirius had been coughing as they crossed the grounds, and when they got to the grove, Peter said anxiously, "You're not ill, are you?”

“Nah, just a bit of a sore throat.” Sirius cleared his throat a couple of times, then sat down on a fallen tree at the edge of the clearing. “I'll try first today,” he announced.

“Still trying for a dog?” James asked.

“Yeah. I dunno, it just feels right.”

Once they were all seated - James and Remus on tree stumps, and Peter on a small boulder - Sirius closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. He couldn't seem to focus properly today. Ten minutes went by. He cleared his throat again. It was really starting to bother him. Maybe he'd stop off at the hospital wing later for some Pepper-Up potion. He hated to admit he was ill, even with something as inconsequential as a cold, but he reckoned he'd better give the potion a try. He swallowed painfully, sighed, and opened his eyes.

“It's not working.” At least, that was what he had intended to say, but what emerged from his mouth was a harsh, staccato noise, very much like a dog's bark.

“Yeah, very funny,” James said. “Okay, my turn...”

Sirius barked again. He looked thunderstruck, and clutched his throat. “I'm not fooling around!” As before, the words came out as a series of barks. The other boys stared at him.

“You're having us on...” Sirius shook his head.

“Nah.” James frowned. “Why would just your voice...?”

“Your throat!” Remus jumped to his feet. “You said you had a sore throat - I bet you were thinking about it when you were trying to change into a dog. You did the magic - but only on your throat!” He looked at James, and as it sank in what had happened, they both burst out laughing. Sirius scowled, and this time his words came out as a low growl. If anything, this made James and Remus laugh harder, and even Peter was grinning. Sirius looked at them indignantly, but kept his mouth shut.

At last, James got his mirth under control, and said, “Okay - now change it back.”

Sirius looked at him wildly, then tried to focus - surely he could make his voice go back to normal, if he could just... a volley of barks burst out, tailing off into a mournful howl. Remus's grin faded, as he looked closely at Sirius. “Are you - can't you change it?”

Sirius shook his head.

“Well - what did you do to make it that way in the first place?” This time Sirius gestured with his hands, indicating that he had no idea what he'd done, and couldn't prevent a frustrated yelp leaving his mouth. The boys looked at each other uneasily.

“Well, you can't go round barking - and none of us can fix it. Maybe - maybe you should go to Madam Pomfrey...” Sirius shook his head emphatically, but James said, “What else can we do?”

As they tramped back across the grass towards the castle, Peter suddenly said, “What if she can't - change it back, I mean?'

Sirius whined anxiously, and promptly looked outraged at having made such a pathetic noise. “Someone will be able to do it,” Remus said decidedly. “Even if we have to go to McGonagall - I mean, she's an animagus. Surely she'd know what to do.”

“Yeah, but - “ James looked dubious. “McGonagall's no fool, she'd guess what we've been doing and then...” Sirius's despondent howl spoke for them all.

* * * * *

Madam Pomfrey looked up as the four boys arrived at the door of the hospital wing. Sighing, she closed the cupboard she had been tidying. It was rare for a day to go by without at least one student turning up suffering from the effects of an unsuccessful spell, and today was obviously no different. She folder her arms and regarded the boys sternly. At least they all seemed to be in one piece – and the moon was well on the wane, so it wasn't one of Lupin's regular visits to be patched up following a transformation.

“Well? Which one of you is it?” she demanded. The boys glanced nervously at each other, and finally Sirius stepped forward. “You look healthy enough, Mr. Black. What's the problem?” Resignedly, Sirius barked at her.

“I see. I take it you can't speak at all?” Sirius shook his head, suppressing a nervous whine. Madam Pomfrey reopened the cupboard, and searched among the bottles of potion, then took out a squat yellow glass bottle. “Come with me.” Sirius followed her into her office, and waited as she measured out a dose of amber liquid into a glass. “Swallow that in one mouthful,” she directed.

Sirius looked at it dubiously for a moment, then gulped it down. It tasted like super-strength peppermint, with touches of chili pepper, vinegar and burnt toast. Sirius gasped, his eyes watering. Madam Pomfrey watched him for a few moments, then said, “Any better?”

“I dunno...” The words were, at least, just about understandable, but he still sounded more like a dog than anything else. Madam Pomfrey refilled the glass, and Sirius gazed at it reluctantly. “Go on - unless you want to talk like that for the rest of your life!”

He swallowed the medicine, wheezing as the fumes reached his lungs. “I think - yeah, that's better.” He now sounded as if he merely had a mild case of laryngitis.

"That should improve in the next day or two, but if you're not completely back to normal by then, come back for another dose of potion," Madam Pomfrey said, as she shooed him out of the office. She looked at the boys grimly. “Perhaps that will be a lesson to all of you. I know exactly what you were trying to do!”

The Marauders exchanged horrified glances, but Madam Pomfrey continued, “Oh yes! And the next time one of you gets a cold, come straight to me instead of experimenting with spells to cure it yourselves.”

Relieved, James murmured, “Well, we didn't want to bother you for a little thing like a sore throat.”

“Hmph! But you ended up bothering me anyway! Now off you go, and see if you can stay out of trouble for a few days...”

The boys headed towards the Gryffindor common room. As they approached the portrait, James said, “One good thing, anyway - that's the closest any of us have got to actually changing into an animal. We should keep on trying.”

“Go ahead, “ Sirius croaked. “I'm going to read up on how to change back before I try again!”



CHAPTER TWELVE - THRESHOLDS

FOURTH YEAR - MARCH The bell rang for the end of lessons for the day. Solstice began to gather up her books, and as she picked up her astronomy textbook, a thought struck her. “Professor - can we try moon magic again soon?”

Greenwood looked up. “You think you're ready now?”

Solstice looked thoughtful. Her last attempt had been in January, and she had been disappointed to find that she was still unable to perform moon magic. “I don't know - but I'd like to try. When we tried in January, at least I could see the magic you called down. I never did before, so maybe it's manifested a bit more by now.”

“True.” Greenwood pulled his almanac from the bottom of a pile of books, and flipped through the pages. “Let's see - the next full moon is March 27th, just two days away. I'll speak to Professor McGonagall and get permission for you to be in the Astronomy tower after hours.”

“Thanks, Professor.” She finished stowing her books in her school bag, and headed off to find her friends.

Two nights later, she followed Professor Greenwood up the winding stairs to the top of the Astronomy Tower. As they emerged, Solstice shivered, and wrapped her cloak more tightly around her. There was a hard frost that evening, and the stars were brilliant in the clear sky. She walked over to the east side of the tower, and watched as the moon began to rise, feeling a thrill of excitement. She had always been drawn to the serene beauty of the moon, and now that she was on the threshold of being able to call on its power, her fascination was even stronger.

Greenwood let her look for a while, then called, “Come and stand over here.” When Solstice complied, he said, “I'll draw down the magic first. Pay attention to how the light falls around us - and to what you feel and hear.”

Solstice nodded, and stood silently, watching as Professor Greenwood fixed his eyes on the silvery orb, noting how he relaxed his body and began to breath deeply and evenly. After a few moments, Solstice felt a faint tingling sensation, like a dusting of fine ice crystals on her skin. Cold as it had been when she stepped out into the night air, she was conscious of a definite drop in temperature around them. She looked up at Greenwood's face. His expression was calm and focused, his dark blue eyes intent on the moon.

Solstice tilted her head slightly, furrowing her brow. Was the noise she could hear real, or just in her head - a faint, high-pitched ringing sound, as if someone was running a finger around the rim of a crystal goblet. She turned her head a little - it was almost as if she felt, rather than heard the sound, felt it flowing through her body.

An eerie howl echoed through the night. Solstice glanced back at Greenwood's face, but he gave no indication that he had heard. Then slowly, the unearthly music she'd heard and felt faded, and the shimmering glow that surrounded them dissolved, and the intense chill that had accompanied Greenwood's moon magic lessened. Finally he sighed, and looked down at her. “Try not to break the connection too suddenly if you can help it. Even if something startles you.”

As if on cue, the howl came again, closer this time. “What is it?” Solstice asked. Greenwood shook his head, but did not speak.

“I - I think I heard it one time before,” Solstice said hesitantly. “Me and Lily went out for a walk one night, and we were almost at the school gates when we heard howling from Hogsmeade...” Professor Greenwood raised an eyebrow quizzically, and Solstice added quickly, “It was years ago! And Professor McGonagall gave us detention...”

Greenwood grinned. “It's all right, I'm not going to inquire into your old misdeeds. We'd be here till next full moon if I did!”

Solstice returned his grin, but said, “Is it just a wolf? Or - or something else...?”

“I really don't know. The Forbidden Forest is home to all kinds of dark creatures.” He looked up at the moon again. "Want to try?”

Solstice nodded, and turned to face the moon, now climbing steadily into the sky.

“Now remember - don't try to force it. If you're ready, it will come. If not - there's no point in exhausting yourself. Relax your body, focus your attention on the moon - just as if it's a candle flame that you're meditating on. Let the power flow down to you, don't actively draw it. And if it does work, don't let it startle you, or you'll break the connection.” Solstice nodded, listening carefully to his instructions, and he moved to stand behind her. “Ready? Then just go ahead.”

Solstice let the tension drain from her muscles. Her entire awareness was focused on the gleaming circle of light. Even the biting chill of the wind faded to the back of her consciousness. For a few minutes, she felt just as she did when she was meditating. Then gradually she began to feel as if she were floating gently in space, almost as if she were drifting towards the moon. Then, with barely a twitch in her concentration, the perspective changed. She wasn't floating towards the moon, it was floating towards her.

She breathed more deeply, feeling the cold intensify. And then it happened so quickly and smoothly that she could not pinpoint the precise moment that the fragile music swelled in her head, and the shimmering veil of light surrounded her. It felt so natural that she wondered distantly how it was that she hadn't been able to do it before. Of course! It was as simple as drawing the water from the lake, or fire from the air. A glowing sense of well-being suffused her body. The pool of light was narrow, barely wider than her own shoulders, but she was sure she could make it bigger. She nudged it gently with her mind, and gradually it expanded, spreading across the flagstones until it reached almost to the waist-high wall that ran around the perimeter of the tower...

The desolate howl came from almost directly below her at the foot of the tower. Solstice's connection with the moon shattered abruptly, and she took a staggering step backwards as a wave of dizziness and disorientation swept over her.

Professor Greenwood caught her shoulders, steadying her until she regained her balance. “All right?” he said softly. She nodded, and he let his hands drop from her shoulders. “That's why you don't want to break the connection too quickly - it's a physical as well as a mental shock.”

Solstice turned to face him. “Did I - was it right? Did I do it properly?”

Greenwood nodded. “You did extremely well. Considering it was your first successful attempt, it was very impressive. I've always said that your magic has the potential for great strength, if you can learn to harness it.” Solstice nodded vaguely, turning back towards the moon, but Professor Greenwood said, “No more tonight. You need to go slowly at first. It's late, and I can guarantee that in a few hours you'll feel exhausted from what you've just done.”

Solstice nodded, and turned to follow Greenwood as he led the way down the stone staircase. She felt curiously light-headed and distant, detached from the familiar solid surroundings of Hogwarts, but at the same time energized. When they finally arrived at the staircase that led up towards the Gryffindor common room, Greenwood paused, looking closely at Solstice. “Sure you're all right?” he asked, noting her slightly dazed expression. She looked up at him and suddenly smiled.

“I feel great!”

The professor nodded, reassured. “Off you go then. Get some sleep.”

Solstice headed up the staircase, and he watched for a moment, feeling a glow of pride in his student's latest accomplishment, before turning away in the direction of his own rooms.

APRIL

Lucius Malfoy glanced around, but there were very few people in Diagon Alley at this late hour. Nevertheless, he settled the hood of his cloak further over his face, and turned abruptly down the dark, forbidding laneway.

It was hardly his first visit to Knockturn Alley, but he was aware that he had never had a more important rendezvous than the one to which he was headed. Even the night when the Dark Mark had been seared, agonizingly, into his flesh, paled by comparison. This, he knew, would be his final test, the moment that would determine whether he became a full member of his master's band of followers. Failure, without a doubt, would mean not just exclusion, but death.

Arriving at the appointed place, he paused, making certain that he was not observed, then rapped lightly on the door half-hidden in the shadows. Almost at once, the door opened and he stepped inside. There were a number of hooded figures standing in the corners of the room, but Lucius pushed his hood back and walked to the centre of the room. Light from a single lamp hanging from the ceiling cast a pale glow over the tall, cadaverous figure standing in front of the fireplace.

“Ah, Lucius...” As always, the cold, soft voice seemed to hold the faintest trace of mockery. Lucius bowed his head and replied,

“My Lord?”

“You are ready, I take it, to do my bidding?”

“Always, my Lord.”

“Good. You stand on the threshold, my young friend, of attaining what you have long sought. If you succeed tonight, you will take your place in my inner circle, as one of my most trusted Death Eaters. All the power you so desperately desire will be within your grasp.” Lord Voldemort paused. “Do you know why we call ourselves Death Eaters?” Not waiting for Lucius to answer, he continued, “While the miserable masses cower in fear at the prospect of death, we will embrace its dark beauty. We will not be consumed by that final darkness. We will bend it to our will. Do you understand, Lucius?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“Do you?” Voldemort's voice was a dry whisper. “Do you really know the difference between merely ending a life, and taking a life? To end a life is just that. An end. But when you take that life, all the power and potential of that life force become yours. You are strengthened. It is a distinction that few really understand. But you - oh yes, Lucius, unless I have been mistaken about you from the start, you have the capacity to truly comprehend, to harness that elusive power. Have you ever killed a man, Lucius?”

“I - no, my Lord.” He felt for a moment as if he had admitted to a childish weakness, but Voldemort merely nodded.

“Then I envy you - for tonight you will savour the exquisite moment when you first experience what it means to to be master over life and death. Treasure the moment. Like the finest of wines, your first taste is always the best.” Voldemort was silent for a moment. A wintry smile touched his lips, before he said quietly, “Zachary Jordain.” His dark eyes held Lucius in a hypnotic gaze. “You know him, do you not?”

“Yes. Yes, my Lord, I know him.” His cousin. But more than just a cousin. As a four-year-old child, Lucius had idolized the boy six years his senior. He had followed him everywhere, tried to emulate his exploits, had wanted to be just like him - had wanted to become him. He had even broken his arm during his pursuit of that goal, and had basked in the older boy's approval when he bore the pain without so much as a whimper...

“Second thoughts, Lucius?” Again, that mocking edge.

But Lucius met the intense stare steadily. For a moment he thought to ask why his cousin was marked for death. But he realized that he didn't need to know. The mere fact that his master had ordered it was enough. “No second thoughts, my Lord. He will die tonight.”

* * * * *

Lucius stood over Zachary's body, his wand still gripped in his hand. The man could almost have been sleeping. There was no mark, no spatter of blood. But he was dead. No-one survived the Killing Curse. Lucius stepped back. He was breathing rapidly, his mouth dry; there was even the faintest tremor in the hand that held the wand. He had tried to imagine how he would feel at this moment, but nothing could have prepared him for this. Feeling almost light-headed, he lowered his wand hand.

He thought he understood now. The sense of strength. The flicker of exhilaration. The sheer, exultant joy of knowing that he had held the ultimate power over another, and had exercised that power. He had taken the vital strength that was the essence of his cousin's life, for his own.

Oh yes, he understood. What the hero-worshipping little boy had yearned for, the man had finally achieved.

His icy grey eyes rested on the corpse that lay crumpled before him. It had no meaning for him now. He turned and walked away from the lifeless form without a backward glance.

* * * * *

When Lucius entered the dimly-lit room for the second time that night, there was no-one present besides his master. Voldemort surveyed the young man who stood before him, noting the knowledge and triumph that glowed in his eyes, and a smile distorted his sunken, waxy features. He did not even have to ask. The traitor had been disposed of, and an example had been set, a clear message that anyone who decided that they no longer wanted to be a Death Eater would be executed.

“You have done well, Lucius. My faith in you has been justified. In a day or two, when my Death Eaters gather, you will stand with the foremost of them. The time is finally right and we will lay out our plan of attack. No longer will we move in the shadows. Our world will soon know of Death Eaters, will know, and fear - and ultimately revere - what we are.”

For a moment he was silent. Then he gestured towards a narrow hallway leading off the room, towards a staircase. “But now, Lucius, take your ease. In the room above you will find - diversion for the night. A small reward that I think you will find pleasurable.”

Lucius glanced towards the stairs. His senses were acutely alert, his nerves almost tingling. Yes. That was exactly what he wanted, what he needed at this moment. “Thank you, my Lord.” He bowed, then turned and walked towards the stairs.

Lucius closed the door of the upper room behind him, then stopped, a shock of recognition pulsing through him. “Miss Black,” he said formally.

Bellatrix Black rose gracefully from her seat on the edge of a luxurious four-poster bed in the far corner of the room. “Come, Lucius,” she said softly, her heavily-lidded black eyes sparkling. “Before long I will be your sister-in-law. Surely that puts us on a first-name basis?” Lucius nodded warily, and Bellatrix laughed. “You expected some sad little slut, forced into your company?” she asked, her voice full of amusement. Lucius shrugged, a little disconcerted, and Bellatrix went on, “Yes - I can see that's what you thought. Well, you will indeed have your expected reward. But you see, so shall I. The Dark Lord set me my own task, my own test of loyalty, and when it was complete, he generously allowed me to ask for a favour. Do you know what I asked for?”

Now Lucius smiled, his eyes following the vibrant, dark-haired woman as she walked towards him. “Please, do enlighten me,” he said, his tone bantering.

“I asked to be allowed to entertain you after you completed the task he set you. My prim little sister is a fool - I've seen how she keeps you at arms' length. But by rights, you know, you should have been mine. Oh yes, when our parents contracted our betrothals, so many years ago, they planned that you and I should be matched. Narcissa should have been betrothed to Rodolphus. But the Lestranges insisted that the right, the honour of wedding the eldest daughter of the family belonged to them. That is why, in a few months, I will marry Rodolphus. And sooner - or later - you will marry my sweet, virtuous, baby sister.”

She was standing very close to him now, teasingly running her fingers up and down his arm. The scent of her perfume was intoxicating. “But in the meantime, this chance presented itself... and I intent to take full advantage.” She caught his hand and led him towards the bed.

He let her move him a few steps, then stopped suddenly, and pulled her back against him. Bending his head until his lips brushed hers, he said softly, “And just how long have you wanted me, Bella?”

She laughed, pulling away again, then drawing him with her until they stood beside the bed, their bodies touching. “Long enough.” She raised her eyes to his, smiling provocatively. “Must I wait longer?” In answer, Lucius kissed her hard, holding her face in his hands. Bellatrix responded, her hands meeting behind his head as he pushed her down onto the bed beneath him.

MAY

Solstice sighed as she sat down at the Gryffindor table for dinner, and Lily glanced up at her. “What's wrong?” she asked, seeing her glum expression.

Solstice shrugged. “Oh - nothing much, I suppose. It's just that it's full moon tonight, and I was really hoping to have another moon magic lesson. But Professor Greenwood is busy.”

Lily looked sympathetic. She knew how much this new manifestation of her magic meant to Solstice. “Can you only do it at full moon?” she asked. With an effort, she forced herself not to glance over at the Marauders as she spoke the last two words. Lupin was with them, but she supposed that whatever precautions were taken when he transformed weren't necessary until later.

“In theory, I could do it at any time - even dark of the moon, if I was strong enough. But Professor Greenwood wants me to wait a while before I try at other times - and he doesn't want me to work without supervision yet, though I don't know why. So I suppose I'll have to wait a whole month before I can try again.

“Is it very difficult?”

“It's tiring - but I think I've made a lot of progress, and I don't really find it hard to focus. That's where all my practice with meditation really helps.” She looked thoughtful. “It's a shame I can't try on my own... but I suppose I shouldn't because he told me not to, especially right at full moon. Maybe he thinks I'd wear myself out.” She reached for the jug of pumpkin juice, and as she poured herself a glassful, she asked, “So how was your Charms test today?”

Lily plunged into a description of the charms they'd been tested on. Along with Potions, she thought that Charms was her favourite subject, and she forgot about Solstice's moon magic for the moment.

* * * * *

Lily glanced at the clock on the common room wall and frowned. Solstice had said something about going to the library, but surely she should have been back by now. She reread the paragraph she had just written, but her mind wasn't on her homework. For some reason, she felt uneasy about her friend's absence. Come to think of it, the library must have closed for the night half an hour ago - so where was Solstice? Gathering her books, she stood up and looked around. Was she working on something with Lupin? No, of course not, she reminded herself. Lupin had left the common room some time ago, and Lily had tried not to show that she had any idea where he might be going.

Feeling increasingly uneasy, she went up to her dormitory. Solstice's wardrobe stood open, and her cloak and outdoor shoes were gone. But - she'd said that Greenwood was too busy to teach moon magic that evening. Lily dropped her books on her bed as her stomach gave an uneasy lurch. Had Solstice gone to practice on her own? It seemed to be the only explanation, but Lily knew that without special permission, Solstice wouldn't have been able to use the Astronomy tower. Which meant that she must be out in the grounds somewhere, alone - and a werewolf was on the point of transforming...

She dashed to the window, peering out in an attempt to spot her friend. But Solstice would surely have found a place where she would not be seen from a window. Lily's heart was beating uncomfortably fast, and she tried to calm herself. Just because Solstice was outside, it didn't mean that she was necessarily in danger. Surely Lupin didn't just run free in the grounds - she was certain that wouldn't be allowed. But she still didn't like the idea of Solstice being outside, even if the chance of her encountering the werewolf was remote. Making up her mind quickly, she changed her shoes and was about to lift her own cloak from its hook when the chilling howl rang out. It sounded very close.

She went back to the window, looking down, and was just in time to see a huge dog-like shape lope across the grass. As she watched, it paused, raised its muzzle, and howled again. Lily forgot about her cloak, and as she raced down the stairs, she almost tripped several times in her haste. She had to find Solstice and get her back inside.

She managed to avoid the staff and students still loitering in the hallways, and was soon standing outside the huge front doors. She paused to catch her breath, and looked around, wondering where to look first. A flicker of movement caught her eye down towards the lake. She stared intently and was able to make out a cloaked figure standing at the edge of the dark shadows thrown by a small grove of trees.

It had to be Solstice - she was sure of it. She began to run, not wanting to call out in case she drew the attention of the beast at large in the grounds. By the time she was close enough to call out, she was out of breath. She took a few gulps of air, and called softly, “Solstice!”

Standing at the very edge of the moonlight, Solstice jumped slightly, but continued to stare upwards at the moon.

“Solstice!” Lily hissed, not understanding why the other girl didn't respond; but after a moment, Solstice seemed to relax slightly, and looked over at her. At first she seemed slightly dazed, then she frowned. “Lily - what are you doing out here?”

“Fetching you! You shouldn't be here.”

Solstice nodded. “I know - but I thought that if I just drew the moon once, it wouldn't hurt me...”

“You have to come back inside now! It's too dangerous.”

“What are you...?” Solstice began, but Lily snapped, “Don't argue. I'll tell you when we get back inside.”

Solstice frowned again, but realizing that Lily was genuinely anxious to get her back inside, she said, “All right - I'm coming.” She took a step, then faltered as something moved behind Lily. Her eyes widened, and Lily whirled around to see what she was looking at.

RemusWerewolf
The wolf was huge, standing a good four feet tall at the shoulder. Distantly, Lily noted the little differences - the grass-green eyes with slitted pupils, the squarish muzzle, and tufted tail-tip - that distinguished the beast from a normal wolf. Its reddish-brown coat was shaggy, and particularly heavy around its neck and shoulders, giving it the appearance of having a mane. It stood braced, head slightly lowered, its mouth open in a snarl. It was watching them intently, and Lily heard a low growl as it took a step towards her and Solstice.

Softly, in a surprisingly calm voice, Solstice said, “Get behind me and start moving back towards the nearest tree.”

“But...”

“Just do it. I think I can keep it back long enough for us to reach the trees. When you get there, climb up, as high as you can.” Unbelievably, her voice was even, almost conversational, and moving very carefully, Lily did as she said. Solstice looked up at the moon again, and although Lily couldn't see anything different, she could feel the temperature of the surrounding air drop dramatically.

Very slowly, not breaking her gaze, Solstice stepped backwards. The wolf darted towards her but something brought it up short a couple of yards from her. It snarled furiously, making several small advances, but each time some invisible barrier stopped it.

Lily had reached the trees, and began to scramble up onto the lowest branch. As she climbed higher, she glanced down and saw that Solstice had almost backed as far as the tree, with the werewolf advancing warily at the same pace. Lily could see now that Solstice was trembling with the effort of the magic she was working.

Solstice paused, breathing hard, then suddenly spun around, ran the last few steps, and leapt for the nearest branch. She hung for a moment, her arms wrapped around it, then levered herself up and reached for the next branch. Something seemed to pull her back slightly, then she heaved herself free and rapidly climbed further.

“Did it - did it get you?” Lily asked anxiously.

“Just my cloak.” Solstice twitched the hem of her cloak up, and Lily could see where a piece had been ripped out by the werewolf's teeth. Solstice looked down at the beast as it prowled around the foot of the trees, snarling and occasionally trying to leap upwards, its claws scrabbling on the bark before it fell back. “Is that what I think it is?” she asked.

“Yes - it's a werewolf.” Lily's eyes were fixed on the huge animal, so she didn't realize what Solstice was doing until the brilliant flash of light momentarily dazzled her. The lightning bolt struck almost where the wolf was standing. It yelped and scooted backwards, frantically pawing at its muzzle. There was a stink of burning hair.

Lily looked up to see Solstice preparing to draw the lightning again, and she lunged towards her, almost losing her balance as she grabbed at her arm. “No, you mustn't! Don't hurt it!”

Solstice looked around at her incredulously. “Don't hurt it? But that's a...”

“That's Lupin!”

Stunned, Solstice twisted back to look at the werewolf, then faced Lily again, her face white in the moonlight. “That's...? No. No, it can't be! Not Remus, he couldn't...”

“It is. I heard them talking. Lupin's a werewolf. Think about it!” she went on, as Solstice started to protest again. “He's ill every four weeks, he comes back hurt. The howls we've heard. That's why Professor Greenwood told you not to go outside at full moon.”

Solstice stared at Lily for a long moment, a horrified expression on her face. “But - but he's got such a gentle nature. I - I can't...” She looked down at the werewolf that still snarled and paced beneath them. A patch of fur was seared off across its muzzle, but apart from that it didn't appear to have been badly hurt by her lightning. “Poor Remus,” Solstice whispered.

For a while, they just clung to the tree, watching the werewolf which showed no sign of losing interest in them. Solstice glanced at Lily. “We can't stay here all night. If one of us slipped, or fell asleep and let go...”

Lily nodded. “But you can't hurt him.”

“No, of course not. But - I could draw the lightning so that it doesn't hit him. It might scare him off.”

“Well - I suppose we have to get past him somehow.”

Solstice shifted her position so that she had a better view of the werewolf, and raised her left hand. Although it wasn't really necessary for her to channel her magic through her hands, she sometimes found that it helped her to focus, especially when she was under stress.

Aiming carefully, she took a deep, steadying breath. The lightning struck a couple of yards from where the werewolf stood. It snarled again, backing up, and looked up at Solstice, and she was shaken by the hatred in the pale inhuman eyes. The beast started to lunge towards the tree again, and Solstice swiftly sent another bolt of lightning to land just in front of him. This time she didn't pause afterwards, and started a barrage of lightning that gradually forced the werewolf back. Finally, when the air was full of the smell of scorched grass and earth, the creature threw its head back in a plaintive howl of frustration, before it turned and ran in the direction of the Forbidden forest. Intermittent howls echoed through the darkness, each one sounding more distant than the last.

Finally, Solstice said, “I think we should go now - before it decides to come back.” Lily nodded, and the two girls scrambled down from their refuge in the tree. They took a direct route back to the castle - better to risk being caught by a teacher than by the werewolf! They were nearly there when a huge figure suddenly loomed up before them, causing both girls to cry out in shock before they realized that it was Hagrid. He was just as startled as they were.

“What're yeh doin' outside at this time o' night?” he demanded. “'Specially tonight!”

“We - er - it was such a nice night...” Lily began, uncertainly, and Solstice jumped in, saying,

“Yes, we went for a walk - we just wanted some peace and quiet. It's so noisy in the common room.”

Hagrid's fierce expression didn't change. “Noisy or not, yeh've got no business leavin' the castle at night. Yeh could've run inter... er... inter anythin'! Come on, back inside, and I've got a good mind ter take yeh straight to Professor McGonagall!” Lily and Solstice exchanged dismayed glances as they followed Hagrid, but as he finally let them in through the front doors, he said, “Off yeh go - get back ter yeh common room before anyone sees yeh.”

“We will,” Lily promised. “Thanks, Hagrid!”

The common room was still crowded, so they headed up to the dormitory. Solstice hung her cloak up, then turned to her friend. “Lily - you knew what was out there, and you still came to fetch me. Thank you.” Lily shrugged, still more shaken than she cared to admit. Solstice went on, “How - how long have you known - about Remus?”

“Not long - a few months. I heard him talking to the other boys. They know all about it. I wondered if I should warn you but - well - I didn't think it was something I had a right to talk about. It wasn't my secret to tell! But if I'd thought you might be in danger...”

“Yes, I understand. I'm sure he doesn't want everyone know about - what he is.” Solstice sat down heavily on her bed. “It's just... it's so hard to believe. I mean, he always seemed so - so...” Her words trailed off.

“But it doesn't change who he is when he's not transformed,” Lily said quietly. “I mean, he's still the same person you've been friends with.”

Solstice looked up and half-smiled. “Of course he is! I just can't help thinking about how hard it's going to be for him, especially when he leaves school.” She sighed. “I hope I didn't hurt him too much.” Footsteps sounded outside the dormitory, putting an end to their conversation. But long after everyone else was sleeping, Solstice sat in the window alcove, gazing out on the moonlit grounds, trying to come to terms with what Remus was.

* * * * *

Two mornings later, while she was eating breakfast at the Gryffindor table, Solstice glanced up to see Remus joining the other Marauders. An angry red burn extended from his nose across his right cheek. Solstice put down her spoon, no longer feeling hungry.

Despite everything, she had been secretly hoping that Lily was somehow mistaken, that the beast that tried to attack them hadn't been Remus. But seeing the burn on his face, in exactly the same place as the one she'd inflicted on the werewolf, she was finally forced to accept the truth.

She felt no horror, no revulsion, as many people might have done. Just a sense of sadness at what it meant for Remus, and the future that awaited him.


CHAPTER THIRTEEN - TRANSFORMATIONS

Remus walked down Platform 9 ¾ , looking around for his friends, but it appeared that he was the first of his gang to arrive. He leaned against the wall and pulled a book from his pocket, but before he could find his place, someone nudged his elbow.

Solstice grinned up at him. “Good summer?” she asked. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder; always small for her age, she’d never grown taller than 5 ft, and Remus felt a sudden unaccountable urge to put his arm around her protectively. Only the thought of her startled reaction stopped him. He looked away, feeling slightly flustered, and when he looked back she was watching him with a faintly puzzled expression. "Was it that bad?” she asked sympathetically.

“What?”

“Your summer.”

“Oh – no, it was okay. The usual.” With relief he suddenly remembered her mentioning new foster parents. “How about you? Did the new family work out?”

Solstice smiled. “Oh yes! I wrote to them all last year, and we go on really well. In fact…” she took a deep breath. “They said they’re going to start the process to officially adopt me!” Her face was glowing, and impulsively Remus put his hand on her shoulder.

“That’s wonderful news! What are they like?”

“Well, they’re older than my other foster parents – they could never have their own kids. They both work for the Ministry of Magic, but they’re in the department of mysteries, so they couldn’t tell me very much. Leora took the summer off, so she was always around, but she let me do mostly what I wanted – they live in Cornwall, so I was out exploring a lot of the time.”

“I bet you were studying, too,” Remus said with a smile.

“Of course – O.W.L.s this year! Anyway, you can’t talk, you had your head in a book when I saw you just now.”

He nodded. “Yes – It’s important for me to do well.” A sudden thought struck him. “Solstice – Professor Slughorn said at the end of last term that he wants each of us to work with the same study partner all through fifth year. Do you – I mean, would you like to, well, partner with me?”

“Yes, that would be great. We make a pretty good team.” At her words, Remus felt his stomach give a slight lurch. What on earth was wrong with him? He’d never felt this way around Solstice before. Luckily, she hadn’t noticed his reaction, as she had caught sight of the badge pinned to his robes. “Remus – you’re a prefect!”

He grinned a bit self-consciously. “Yeah – I got the badge with my Hogwarts letter this year.

“You know what this means, don’t you? You’ll be expected to keep Potter and Black in line from now on!” She laughed at his look of consternation, and he said, “Yeah – can you see their faces if I started giving them detention?”

Solstice chuckled, then spotted Lily further down the platform. She patted Remus’s arm briefly and said, “I’ll see you on the train – I haven’t talked to Lily all summer.” He watched as she darted off down the platform, feeling slightly bemused. This could prove, he thought wryly, to be an interesting term!

Solstice caught up with Lily, who seemed to be having some kind of argument with Snape.

“I heard what you said!”

“It didn’t mean anything,” he protested. “It’s just a figure of speech.”

“To you, maybe. I’m sure it’s common currency at Malfoy Manor! But it’s a horrible expression. Do you think my blood is dirty?”

“No, of course not. I don’t understand why you’re taking it personally.”

“Because most people who use the term Mudblood do it because they think people like me are inferior!” Snape flushed, but before he could reply, Solstice appeared at Lily’s side, looking faintly worried.

“Is something wrong?”

“Let’s just call it a difference of opinion,” Lily said, with an edge to her voice. She turned away from Snape. “Let’s go, Solstice. I’m sure Sev wants to travel with his Slytherin pureblood pals!”

As Lily stormed back up the platform, Solstice hesitated, looking at Snape. He glared back, defensively, and Solstice said, “Sorry Sev – I suppose I’ll see you at school…” He nodded curtly, and turned away, leaving Solstice to follow Lily.

The two girls found an empty compartment, and settled themselves in window seats, waiting for the journey to start. Lily pulled a copy of the Daily Prophet from her bag.

“Have you been reading the papers this summer?”

Solstice shook her head. “No, they didn’t take it. Why, what’s happened?”

“Well – it’s hard to know exactly, but it sounds as if there’s a gang of people going round causing trouble. It’s that stupid pureblood stuff again – you know, only purebloods are ‘real’ wizards, and everyone else is less than dirt. They’re trying to get things changed at the Ministry of Magic, but the Daily Prophet’s had some stories about them attacking people who don’t agree with them. There was one back in the spring, a man was found dead and his mother claimed he was killed by this gang. She said they call themselves Death Eaters.”

“Ugh, what was he, a muggle-born?”

Lily shook her head. “No, that’s why it’s had so much coverage, he was the heir of the Jordain family, one of the richest wizard families in England. He was Lucius Malfoy’s cousin, and his mother’s been accusing Malfoy of being involved, and being one of those Death Eaters. It’s been a huge scandal, the Malfoys are demanding apologies, and saying Jordain’s mother must be confunded.”

Solstice frowned. “Sev still goes to visit at Malfoy Manor, doesn’t he?”

Lily nodded. “Yes. From the sound of it, Malfoy certainly believes all that Death Eater crap, and Sev’s started picking it up too. That’s why we were arguing, he called someone a mudblood, and couldn’t understand why I didn’t like it. He said it was just an expression, and he didn’t mean it, but – well, why would he use it if he didn’t?”

“Well – maybe he’s just doing it because of his father. I mean, he hates his father, and his father’s a muggle, so…”

“But it makes no sense. He’s not even a pureblood himself.”

Solstice shrugged. “None of that pureblood stuff makes any sense.

Outside on the platform, the last of the stragglers were hurrying to take their places on the train. Three of the Marauders were gathered in a bunch, waiting for Sirius to join them. They could see him with his mother and younger brother. Mrs Black seemed to be delivering a lecture, and Sirius’s face was flushed with anger. When his mother finished speaking, he stormed away without a backward glance, and Regulus, after dutifully submitting to his mother’s embrace, followed, his expression faintly smug.

“You all right, mate?” James asked, his offhand tone masking his concern for his best friend. Sirius snorted, but catching sight of Regulus approaching, he muttered,

“Tell you in a minute.” He rounded on his brother. “Piss off, you hypocritical little git. So and suck up to someone else for a change! He snarled. For a moment it looked as if Regulus was going to argue, but he realized that James, Remus and Peter had closed ranks with Sirius, and he shrugged, turning away with a scowl. Sirius faced his friends again. “My parents have been on my back all summer. Seems they’ve decided it’s time they settled my future.”

“They’re trying to choose your career?” James asked, but Sirius shook his head, his expression darkening.

"They’re trying to get me betrothed to some ugly little French heiress!”

“What? But – you’re fifteen, for Merlin’s sake!”

Sirius laughed, a sharp, harsh sound. “Well apparently they’ve had a betrothal set up since I was a baby. But the girl ran away with a muggle, so that’s all off. My loving parents have been prowling the meat markets for some rich little airhead. I told them I’d rather be disowned than agree to the match.”

Peter stared at him, wide-eyed. “They wouldn’t really disown you for that, would they?”

“You’ve obviously never met my mother!”

“So what are you going to do?”

For the first time that morning, Sirius grinned. “I think my best bet is to work up a reputation that will put off even the most desperate family. You know, get involved in all the things my own parents hate. . You should see my room, I got a whole lot of pictures of muggle girls in bikinis, and put them on the wall with a permanent sticking charm. At least this part’s gonna be fun!”

Hearing the final whistle for the train, the boys climbed on board and began to look for seats.

* * * * *

As they took their seats in the Great Hall that night, Lily noticed Solstice smiling to herself. As soon as the speeches were finished, and the feast was underway, Lily nudged her friend. “What are you looking so smug about?”

“Me? Who said I was smug?” She was still smiling, and Lily said,

“Go on, obviously something happened. What was it?”

“Well...” Solstice paused tantalizingly, then said, “Damon Covington asked me out.”

“Darren - the Ravenclaw prefect? Oh Solstice, he's cute! Loads of girls fancy him.”

“Yeah - well he fancies me!” Solstice smirked. This was the first time she'd been asked out by anyone. “We're going for a walk tomorrow afternoon, we've both got free periods after lunch.”

Lily consulted her timetable. “And then it's Herbology at three - you can tell me all about it then.” Solstice grinned, helping herself to liver and bacon. Lily shuddered. “I don't know how you can eat that stuff.”

“I like it,” Solstice told her as she added fried onions and baked beans. “I don't know how you can eat those sickly sweet puddings.”

“But how can you not like sweet things? You don't even like chocolate!”

Solstice shrugged. “I don't know. I just never have. But we all get the food we like at the feasts. I don't think there are many plates of liver - and I bet that's the only dish of spinach in the hall,” she said, ladling a generous spoonful onto her plate.” Lily shook her head, and began to pile chicken and roast potatoes onto her plate. “You never finished telling me about your trip to France this summer,” Solstice said, and Lily plunged into her account of the holiday as the girls began to eat.

Next afternoon, Lily arrived at the greenhouse, full of anticipation. As well as wanting to hear Solstice's account of her walk with Darren, she knew that they had a new herbology professor. Solstice arrived several minutes late, but fortunately for her, the new teacher hadn't yet arrived. They'd seen her at the feast the night before, of course, and Professor Dumbledore had introduced her as Professor Sprout. She was a small, plump woman, with fluffy fair hair starting to turn grey. She appeared to be quite good natured, but none of the students had actually spoken to her.

Solstice found a place next to Lily, grinning at her expectant expression, but before she could speak, the new professor came bustling into the greenhouse. “Sorry I'm late,” she said. “Spot of bother in the vegetable patch.” She threw a couple of round, greyish roots, topped with bushy, dark green leaves, onto the workbench. “The Wildebeets have been trying to migrate again. Had to get the groundskeeper to help me round them up, and ask him to reinforce the fence... interesting chap... anyway...”

She looked up at the class of Gryffindors and Slytherins. “I'm Professor Sprout, your new Herbology teacher. I've got some Tumble Burrs for you to plant today. Everyone take a pot and a handful of seeds - that's right. Now, what you need to do is hold a burr firmly in your fingers - pinch the pointed end hard, until the skin bursts and the seed pops out - like so.”

She demonstrated, and the rough hairy skin split open, sending a greyish, wrinkled seed rolling onto the table. It squeaked pathetically. Several students shuddered, but Professor Sprout said robustly, “Doesn't hurt them - they just feel a bit cold without their skins. Now - poke a hole in the soil - make sure you put the pointed end of the seed into the ground first - so that you can just see their eyes - and smooth the soil around it. Five seeds per pot, spread out evenly. Off you go.”

As the students started their first attempts, Solstice raised her hand. “Professor - what are they grown for?”

"Excellent question. I was wondering when someone would ask. A point to Gryffindor. The are harvested primarily for the skins, which are used in several potions. So be sure to save the skins you take off today!” Across the table, the Marauders started an impromptu marble match with their burrs, flicking them so that they collided with terrified squeaks.

Lily ignored them, and turned to Solstice. “So? How was your date?”

Remus looked up, startled, but the two girls were too engrossed to notice.

“Oh we just walked by the lake - nothing special,” Solstice replied, attempting to sound casual and failing completely.

“Is Damon nice?”

“Oh yes, we talked a lot - well, we did at first, anyway.” She grinned, looking at the table and arranging her handful of burrs into a circle.”

Lily smirked. “Why only 'at first'?”

“I'm getting to that. So we talked, and after a while, he asked if I minded if he held my hand. So I said I didn't mind.” She arranged the burrs into a row, then began to stack them so that their rough coats stuck together. Across the table, Remus skinned his first burr so violently that the seed shot across the greenhouse and bounced off one of the potted sunflowers on the far side. Immediately, the sunflower swung in Remus's direction, and fired a barrage of seeds at him. He yelped, and Professor Sprout looked up.

“Who's bothering the Spitting Sunflowers?”

“Sorry Professor - it was an accident.”

“Well, be careful. Very sensitive plants, Spitting Sunflowers!” As Remus crossed to the other side of the greenhouse to find the seed, Solstice went on with her account to Lily.

“So we held hands for a while. When we got to the trees, we stopped to look at the lake, and he asked if he could put his arm round me.”

“You said yes, didn't you?”

“Of course!”

Behind them, Remus straightened up and cracked his head on the bench he was groveling under. Crawling out from beneath it, he was bombarded again by the sunflower, this time backed up by two other sunflowers in nearby pots. The girls glanced at him, barely registering the disturbance, before turning back to their workbench.

“And...?” prompted Lily.

Solstice grinned again. "And what?”

“Did he kiss you?”

“Yeah - he kissed me. And then he did it again.”

“Was it all right? I mean, is he a good kisser?”

“Well - not that I've got much to compare with - but I liked it.”

Back at his own bench, Remus scowled fiercely at the pile of burrs in front of him. They twittered with alarm and bunched closer together.

At the other end of the greenhouse, there were several loud thuds. The two Wildebeets had fallen off the table, and were attempting to make for the door. Their short, stumpy legs were no match for Professor Sprout, who grabbed them and pitched them into a deep stone sink. “You have to watch the little blighters,” she explained. “The urge to migrate is very strong this time of year.” She glanced around the greenhouse, and her gaze fell on Solstice and Lily. “Is there a problem over there?”

Solstice looked up. “Umm, no Professor, we're just...”

“Well get to work. You can discuss your dates after class,” she told them, making a shrewd guess at to the cause of their inattention. Both girls blushed, and Solstice giggled as they bent over their work. Solstice picked up a burr and examined it closely. She could just see two tiny black eyes peering at her through the rough coat. She stroked it with one finger, then frowned, holding it close to her ear. She looked up at Lily.

“It's purring!” she exclaimed. Lily bent close to it and listened.

“It is!” She held her own burrs to her ear, but could hear nothing. Solstice took one from her, and held it cupped in her palm. After a minute or so, they could both hear the faint hum coming from the burr. By now, the other students had noticed, and were seeing whether their own burrs purred. At the murmur of excitement, Professor Sprout looked in their direction. To forestall any disapproval, Lily raised her hand and said, “Professor Sprout - the burrs are purring when Solstice holds them. But not for anyone else.” The professor went over to them, and Solstice held up a burr so that she could listen.

“They only do that when they feel very safe,” Professor Sprout told them. She looked up. “Solstice, is it...? Ah yes, Miss Flidae - you're the Elemental, aren't you? That explains it - you've probably already discovered that you have a way with plants - and animals?” Solstice nodded, and Professor Sprout continued, “That's what these chaps are responding to. Carry on. I'll be interested to see how they grow for you.”

Solstice held the burr in her fingers, th en reluctantly squeezed it as they'd been show. The coat split and the seed slid out onto her palm. She could feel it trembling, so she quickly poked a hole in the soil and pushed the seed in. It seemed to wriggle a little deeper then, as Solstice smoothed the soil around it, she heard the tiny purr start up again. She smiled and reached for the next one.

“Lily - can you see the rest of my burrs,” she said, looking around on the workbench. “I can't find them...” Lily looked at her in surprise, then giggled and pointed at her friend's arm. The burrs were slowly inching their way up Solstice's sleeve - the leader was almost at her shoulder.

“They really like you,” she said, picking them off with difficulty - they seemed to have tiny hooks at the end of each hair that held onto the fabric - and handing them to her. Solstice finished planting the rest of the seeds, then carefully gathered up the discarded skins as they had been instructed. Now that they'd caught up their work with the rest of the class, Lily asked, “So - you're going out with Damon again, aren't you?”

“Oh yes. He invited me to sit at the Ravenclaw table with him at dinner this evening. And he's on the Quidditch team, he said that if I meet him at the pitch after their practice, he'll give me a ride on his broom.”

Lily stared at her for a moment, then dissolved into giggles. “I've never heard it called that before,” she said slyly.

“Haven't heard what called... Lily!” Catching on to her meaning, Solstice took a good-natured swipe at her friend, joining her laughter.

Neither of them noticed Remus, across the table, ramming his last burr - still in its coat - deep into the soil, his expression thunderous. He wasn't quite sure why he was feeling so angry - it wasn't as if he'd been planning to ask Solstice out himself - he was sure he'd never get up enough nerve for that. A sudden jab in the middle of his back made him look up, startled. He'd been so sunk in his thoughts that he hadn't noticed everyone packing up, and only an elbow in the back from a passing Slytherin had brought him back to reality.

He sighed, bundled his belongings together, and followed the rest of the students. As he passed the deep sink at the end of the greenhouse, he noticed that the two Wildebeets were now standing, one on top of the other, trying to climb out. Remus prodded the top one with his wand, and watched with bitter satisfaction as the Wildebeet fell back down with a loud thud and a pathetic squeak.

Remus started to head for the castle, but a shout from James called him back. “Oy! Aren’t you coming to watch? You’re the one we’re doing this for – you and your furry little problem.” Remus suddenly remembered that they had planned on heading for their clearing at the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Sirius claimed to have perfected his animagus form, and the three other boys were anxious to see if it was true. Feeling a bit more cheerful, Remus followed, listening to Sirius’s explanation.

“Of course, there’s the Trace, but at home there’s always someone doing magic, so they can’t tell it’s me. I didn’t want to hang around with my family, so I spent most of the time in my room, or out of the house, practising. I managed it in the middle of August, and after I’d done it once, it was much easier to do every time.”

They had reached their clearing, and Sirius threw down his schoolbooks and walked to the middle of the space. He grinned at his friends, shook back his hair – he’d let it grow longer over the summer – and then stood still, his gaze on a point in the middle distance. For a few minutes, nothing happened. Then Sirius seemed to melt, flowing down into a dark amorphous mass, that suddenly resolved itself into a huge, black, shaggy dog. Sirius barked at them, and wagged his tail, then sat down and scratched behind his ear with a hind leg. His tail thumped on the ground, then the transformation ran in reverse, and he changed back to human form. His friends stared at him for a moment, awed.

Then James let out a whoop. “One down, two to go! I think I’m almost there – I definitely changed into something last time I tried. Though it didn’t seem quite right – things looked really weird.

“Well, try it now,” Sirius urged. “With a dog and a panther, we should be able to keep Remus under control.”

Remus grinned. “Good luck! Last full moon, I chewed my way through a six inch thick oak door.” Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration - but not much.

“Yeah, well we’ll have a bear soon, too. How’re you doing with yours, Peter?” James asked.

Peter looked hopeful. “I think I’m nearly there – it won’t be long.” He remembered, uncomfortably, his last attempt. The strange, squeezing sensation had been almost suffocating and he’d lacked the courage to continue. But he’d definitely been on the point of changing, and if he tried it with the other boys watching, he was sure he’d be able to go through with it, if only to avoid the humiliation of chickening out in front of them.

“Well, keep working on it. You don’t want to be the only one who can’t do it,” James said, switching spots with Sirius. He stood silently, letting his mind fill with thoughts of a lean, dangerous panther. It felt like he was being twisted in one of those muggle kaleidoscope toys – disconcerting, but not exactly painful. Then he was there – four paws, a tail – he could feel that he had everything. But once again, it all looked distorted, like he was seeing things from too far away. Maybe it was just a question of getting used to animal perceptions. He looked up at his friends, and attempted a menacing roar. Even with his disorienting vision, he could tell they were staring open-mouthed. “What?” he tried to say, annoyed. Well, now it almost looked as if they were laughing at him. Irritation surged.

Remus, Sirius and Peter just stared, not quite believing it, and unable to contain their mirth. The tiny, fluffy, black kitten advanced on them, hissing angrily, and Remus had to lean against a tree for support, he was laughing so hard. The kitten’s stubby tail lashed angrily, then it seemed to explode back into the shape of a boy. “I don’t see what’s so damn funny,” he snarled at them. “I had everything I was supposed to!”

Sirius gulped, finally fighting back the laughter long enough to say, “Yeah, you had everything – it’s just a question of scale!”

“What? What’s scale got to do with it?” James demanded.

Still leaning against the tree, Remus said, “Everything! It’s the difference between a panther and a cute, fuzzy kitten!”

“What? I changed into a kitten?” He was outraged.

“A cute kitten,” Peter reminded him.

James shot him an infuriated glare, but Sirius said, “Oh, come off it, mate, you’d have laughed your head off if I’d changed into a puppy.”

James shrugged, and grinned unwillingly. “Yeah, well… I thought everything looked weird – like things were too big.” He sat down on the fallen tree, frowning. “I dunno – maybe I’m just trying for the wrong animal. Trouble is, I don’t know what would work better. I really thought a panther would be good…”

“Had any more luck with the patronus?” Remus asked. He was convinced that if James could manage that, he’d know what animal he was supposed to be.

James nodded. “Yeah, I can do a non-corporeal patronus now – and last time it actually looked a bit like an animal. Dunno what it was, though…” The sound of girls’ voices near the clearing made them all look up. James grinned. “Sounds like Evans,” he said.

Sirius met his gaze, his grey eyes sparkling wickedly. “Wanna have some fun?” he asked, knowing exactly what the answer would be.

Lily and Solstice, along with several other Gryffindor girls, were strolling along the edge of the trees, talking idly, when James, Remus and Peter emerged. Lily rolled her eyes at Solstice, but before she could say anything, a large black dog came galloping out of the woods. It ran up to the girls, then lowered its head, crouching, its tail waving madly, and its mouth open, panting. It was clear dog language for ‘let’s play’. Several of the girls exclaimed with delight. “Is that your dog, Potter? Isn’t he sweet!”

The dog trotted up to them, plainly overjoyed to make friends, wagging his tail as the girls patted him and rubbed his ears. Smiling, forgetting for the moment that she thought James was an obnoxious prat, Lily crouched down to pet the dog. Sirius promptly rolled over onto his back, all four legs pedalling in the air. “Nice doggy! Good boy!” she said, scratching the dog’s chest while it wriggled ecstatically. She glanced up and noticed the three boys exchanging smirks. Laughing at the way she talked to the dog, she thought indignantly.

Solstice was watching with a grin. “What’s his name?” she asked.

James looked momentarily floored, then said, “Snuffles! His name is Snuffles.” Abruptly the dog leapt to its feet and barked angrily at James. It turned and trotted towards Solstice, its tail wagging again. She smiled and bent to pat his head. As soon as her hand touched the dog, Solstice froze.

“What’s wrong?” Lily asked.

Solstice straightened up, looking bewildered. “I don’t know, it just – something doesn’t feel right – about the dog.” Sirius laid down, put his muzzle on his paws, and gazed up at Solstice mournfully.

Lily laughed. “Look, you hurt his feelings.”

Solstice grinned and knelt down so she could pat the dog again, but once more she had a sense of – what? It was just a dog, but when she touched it, the feeling she got from it was much too complex for an ordinary dog. Sirius stood up – now his eyes were on a level with Solstice’s. He cocked his head to one side, then suddenly licked her face lavishly before bounding away, barking and gambolling round the other students.

Peter, James and Remus roared with laughter, as Solstice wiped her face on her sleeve. She looked at the three boys, a little surprised by the extent of their mirth. “It’s not that funny,” she said. “A bit of dog slobber doesn’t bother me.” She stood up, looking at them, and it suddenly occurred to her that someone was missing. “Don’t tell me Black’s in detention already! The term’s hardly started.”

James shrugged, grinning. “Yeah, well – you know Sirius.”

Solstice nodded. "You lot will have to start working if you want to get any O.W.L.s this year,” she remarked.

Lily laughed derisively. “Potter – work? That’ll be the day!” She picked up her schoolbag from the grass. “Speaking of which, we should make a start on our homework,” she said, glancing at Solstice who nodded. The girls began to walk back towards the castle, and James stood for several minutes, watching Lily. “I think Evans is starting to come around. Notice it was my name she said…”

“Yeah – but whose chest was she scratching,” Sirius remarked, grinning, as he resumed human form.

“Huh! She thought you were a dog, that’s all!”

“Solstice didn’t,” Remus said suddenly. “She knew something wasn’t right.”

“Yeah, what was that about?” Sirius demanded, looking puzzled.

Remus shook his head, frowning slightly. “I dunno – remember how the burrs liked her in Herbology? Elementals have a way with animals…”

Sirius smirked. “From what I hear, that’s not all they have a way with, if you know what I mean,” he said with a leer.

For a split second, Remus’s eyes blazed with an almost inhuman rage, before he turned away. “I’ve got homework to do,” he muttered, and set off back to school. Sirius looked at James, baffled, but James grinned, put a hand over his heart, and sighed theatrically. Sirius looked disbelieving for a moment, then laughed, but he kept his voice low as he said, grinning, “Yeah – I suppose even werewolves fall in love!”


CHAPTER FOURTEEN - THE NEXT STEP

Sirius paused, lifting his head to snuff the air. There was the faintest trace of the scent he was seeking, but it seemed to be an old track. He growled softly in frustration. This was the fourth Full Moon that he’d attempted to keep watch on Remus after he transformed into a werewolf, but this time the beast had been agitated about something, and had set off at a gallop. With his greater size and stronger build, he had easily outdistanced Sirius’s dog form, and now Sirius was reduced to wandering the tracks that led into the Forbidden Forest, trying to pick up his scent.

He wished James and Peter would hurry up and learn to transform too, so that he wouldn’t have to track Remus alone. Part of the problem was that the werewolf never seemed to tire, and spent all night hunting, and roaming the forest and surrounding countryside, with Sirius panting in his wake.

It had proved quite entertaining, however, to recount to Remus everything he’d eaten as a werewolf – mostly rabbits, though he apparently wasn’t fussy, and after learning that during one night he’d made a meal off a long-dead crow, Remus had turned an interesting shade of green, and had spent the rest of the day in the hospital wing throwing up into a bucket. There hadn’t been any trace of evidence to back up Sirius’s claim, but the mere idea was enough to make Remus sick.

A faint noise reached him. Sirius pricked up his ears, listening intently, then began to move in the direction it was coming from. He went slowly at first, but he broke into a trot as he finally picked up the scent he had been searching for. Ten minutes later, he arrived at the edge of a little clearing in the trees. Remus was lying down, his muzzle resting on his paws, watching something. Slowly, Sirius crept forward, curious to see what it was.

On the other side of the clearing was a shaggy she-wolf, keeping guard as three youngsters played and tumbled around in the drifts of dead leaves. Startled, Sirius looked from the cubs to Remus, then back again. Was this what it appeared to be? Could Remus have….? Sirius was pretty sure that werewolves couldn’t reproduce that way while in their wolf form. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to tease him unmercifully about the possibility that he was the proud father of a litter of pups! He pictured the probable look on Remus’s face, and snorted with laughter.

In his dog form, the laugh came out as a sneeze, and in an instant the werewolf was on his feet, turning towards Sirius with a snarl. There was no way Sirius could outrun him, and fighting would have been madness. Instinctively, he crouched down, adopting a placating, submissive posture. The werewolf walked towards him, sniffing cautiously, his hackles raised, while Sirius remained frozen. After a minute, Remus seemed to decide that the dog posed no threat to him. His hackles settled, and he turned and dropped to a crouch, then relaxed, sprawling sideways, and lowering his head to rest on his paws again.

Cautiously, Sirius got up and went closer. When Remus raised his head to look at him, Sirius dropped into a crouch of his own, wagging his tail ingratiatingly. After a moment, the werewolf thumped his tail a couple of times in the dead leaves, before he turned back to watch the cubs in the clearing. Sirius sighed, resigning himself to a long, boring wait, but he soon found that it was rather pleasant to just lie there, watching the cubs as they jumped at fallen leaves, and wrestled good-naturedly together.

Maybe Remus had nothing to do with the litter of cubs, maybe he just liked watching them. Maybe Sirius wouldn’t tease him about it later… but no, that was too much to ask! Even if he didn’t believe it himself, Sirius was going to tease Remus about his ‘family’ anyway, just to see his reaction.

Sirius wagged his tail and sneezed again. Without looking up, Remus also wagged. Whatever else they might – or might not – be able to do, it appeared that a werewolf was, at least, capable of making friends with what it thought of as its own kind

* * * * *

The four Marauders waited outside the main door of the school. It was almost the Christmas holidays, and the weather had turned bitterly cold. Sleety rain had been falling all day, and James had been inspired to repeat Sirius’s animagus transformation for the benefit of Lily and her friends. They knew she’d be coming this way, on her way to the Herbology Greenhouse.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Remus murmured. He was getting tired of James’ increasingly harebrained schemes to get Lily’s attention. Beside him, James grinned.

“Don’t tell me you’ve suddenly remembered that prefects aren’t supposed to approve of unregistered animagus transformations?” he asked.

Remus shrugged. “I just think doing it with so many people around is asking for trouble.”

On James’ other side, Sirius smirked. “Sounds like he’s turning responsible on us, now he’s got a wife and kids to support!”

Remus flushed darkly. Sirius had wasted no time in telling the other Marauders how he’d found Remus, in werewolf form, taking a lot of interest in a she-wolf and her cubs. Despite finding a book in the library that stated categorically that a werewolf was incapable of reproducing while in its wolf state, the other boys had teased him unmercifully. However, this time the sound of voices approaching distracted their attention, and James said,

“Remember, I have to look like a stray – so as soon as I transform, you have to dunk me in a puddle, so it looks like I’ve been out in the rain all day.”

“With pleasure!” Remus muttered, but as soon as James had changed into his kitten form, Sirius picked him up and splashed him with water from the nearest puddle. He caught Remus’s annoyed glance.

“We just need him wet, not drowned!” he said with a grin. He, Remus and Peter ducked back behind the stone pillars, leaving the kitten sitting at the foot of the stone steps, shivering. When Lily and Solstice reached the steps, James stood up, and meowed as pathetically as he could.

“Look – it’s a kitten. A tiny one!” Solstice exclaimed. She ran down the steps. “Poor little thing must be half frozen.” She scooped it up, then her face changed. “It feels – weird…” she said, her voice perplexed. Behind the pillars, the boys exchanged glances; they should have remembered the younger girl’s odd senses when it came to animals.

“Weird? Oh, you mean like that dog we saw at the start of term?” Lily asked, remembering how Solstice had reacted to the big black dog they’d encountered. Solstice nodded, and held out the kitten.

“You take it,” she said. James tried to look appealing, but Lily took a step backwards.

“I’m allergic to cats.”

“Oh – yes, I’d forgotten,” Solstice said. “Well, what are we going to do with it, then? We can’t just leave it here – it’ll probably freeze.”

A large, familiar figure appeared in the doorway, and Solstice looked up. “Hagrid! I bet he’d look after it,” she said to Lily. She started back up the steps. “Hagrid, look - we found a kitten. It’s soaked through. I bet it’s a stray. Can you take care of it? We can’t because Lily’s allergic to cats.” She gave the scrap of black fur to Hagrid. James looked even smaller and more pathetic than ever, crouched in the groundskeeper’s huge hands.

“A' course I can look after it. A kitten’ll be no trouble – not after that chimera!” Solstice returned the grin he gave her, remembering her encounter a couple of years ago with a baby chimera that Hagrid had been keeping in his hut.

“What are you going to call it?” she asked, still grinning, knowing Hagrid’s penchant for giving entirely inappropriate names to his pets.

“Well, is it a boy or a girl?” Hagrid asked. “Can’t name it properly if yeh don’t know that!”

Solstice shrugged. “I don’t know – we only just found it.” Hagrid gently seized the kitten by the scruff of the neck, and flipped it onto its back. It promptly struggled and hissed, but Hagrid just smiled at its futile antics, and and held it still while he inspected its rear end.

“It’s a little boy,” he announced. He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Well, seein’ as it’s sorta snowin’, I think I’ll call him Snowy.”

Lily and Solstice looked at each other and giggled. “Hagrid! You can’t call a black kitten ‘Snowy’,” Lily protested.

“Don’ see why not! I can call him what I like,” Hagrid told her firmly.

Grinning, Solstice said, “When I touched him, I got a weird feeling from him. As if – as if he’s too smart to be an ordinary cat.”

Hagrid nodded. “In that case, he’s probably part-kneazle. Smart animals, kneazles. Yeh, that’ll be it.” He tucked the kitten into one of his huge pockets. “You girls best be getting’ along teh class now,” he said. “I’ll let yeh know how the little felleh gets on.”

“It’s Herbology next,” Solstice told him, “so we can walk part of the way with you.” A plaintive meow came from Hagrid’s pocket. “Poor little thing! He probably misses his Mum,” Solstice commented, as they headed down the pathway towards the greenhouses, and Hagrid’s hut beyond.

The three remaining Marauders looked at each other, speechlessly. They hadn’t known that Lily was allergic to cats, and certainly hadn’t anticipated that the girls would put James into Hagrid’s care. Remus grinned. “Well, Hagrid will take good care of little Snowy,” he said. Now at least he had a comeback, next time James teased him about being the father of a pack of wolf pups!

* * * * *

James paused at the bottom of the steps and glanced back at the three boys following close behind, before leading the way along the path towards the woods. Not the forbidden forest; although the temptation was great, their goal tonight was the quiet grove where they had previously practiced their animagus magic. They had to go quietly; it was after eleven, and the lower floors of the school were mostly in darkness. Hopefully, no-one would discover the unlocked door while they were gone. When they finally reached it, James wasted no time in pulling out his wand.

After the abortive attempt to impress Lily by turning in to a kitten, he had decided it was time to discover which animal he was really supposed to change into. He refused to believe that his true animagus form was a kitten! So he was determined to work on producing a corporeal patronus, convinced that this was they key to understanding what he should be aiming for. He focused for a minute, then said loudly,

“Expecto Patronum!”

JamesPatronus
Silver light began to pour from his wand, solidifying. Definitely an animal of some kind, though indistinct. But a large animal. The light faded, and James took a deep breath before trying again. “Expecto Patronum!” The light welled up again, condensing into a large animal form. This time it continued to swirl around the animal, and James could make out the sturdy legs, strong back and head held proudly, topped by a towering rack of antlers. Suddenly it leapt across the clearing, jumped a fallen log, and raced off into the forest, its light fading as it went. James lowered his wand, and looked at the other boys.

“A stag! Did you see that, it was..." His voice trailed off. He couldn't find the words to adequately describe his patronus, and how it had made him feel to produce such a magnificent aparition. After a moment more, he grinned at his friends. “Well, now for stage two...”

He walked a little further into the clearing, and took a breath, just as he had before his successful patronus spell. He closed his eyes, remembering the stag, then felt the now-familiar sensation of his body flowing into a different form. But this time, it seemed to happen without effort, and seconds later, he found himself standing on four legs. He turned his head, and felt a strange heaviness above hiM. He jerked his head up and down a few times. Yes, it felt as he would imagine it would, to have antlers.

He walked across the clearing towards the other boys. He'd become used to having four legs while in kitten form, but this was different, his legs were much longer, requiring a different movement. Then he stopped, and after just a moment's concentration, was back in his human form. He stared at his friends for a moment, then suddenly let out a wild whoop of joy.

“I did it! That's what I'm supposed to be, a stag. It was so easy that time, once I knew the sort of animal I was supposed to be.” Sirius and Remus slapped him on the back, congratulating him, but Peter hung back, looking downcast. He'd been afraid of this, now the others would be off exploring the grounds at full moon, while he was stuck in the dormitory alone, because he couldn't transform.

James glanced up, and saw the look on his face. Sometimes Peter's diffidence and eagerness to please irritated him, but today, elated by his success, he felt a sudden sympathy for him. He walked across the clearing and patted the smaller boy on the shoulder.

“Don't worry - we won't leave you behind,” he assured him. He glanced back at Remus and Sirius, then continued, “We'll help you learn to transform. But not tonight,” he added, as a biting wind shrieked through the treetops. He turned and began to lead the way back to school, while he and Sirius began to bombard Peter with advice on the best way to achieve an animagus transformation.

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