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We’re the first ones awake the next morning, which is no surprise considering that there are no classes this week. We had exams last week, and now we’re just waiting for our marks to come in before we get the train back to London. Normally, this week is the best one of the entire year. And, until yesterday – or, more accurately, early this morning – it was. Now, however, it's eight am and we’re squinting, yawning, and stumbling down the stairs to the common room.

‘Unnatural,’ Ian, who is NOT a morning person, is mumbling to himself. ‘Completely unnatural…’

‘Oh shut it,’ Kates, who requires coffee before she can attain civility, growls back. ‘Let’s just get this over with.’

James and I shrug at one another and amble out of the portrait hole, the four of us walking silently towards Habersham’s office, wincing each time we pass through a shaft of bright sunlight. ‘Think the Slytherins’ll be there?’ James murmurs to me as we draw near her door.

‘Dunno,’ I mumble back. ‘I just hope they caught them all, the bastards – and that they’re in as much trouble as we are.’

‘We’ve just got detention,’ Ian reminds us, rather hopefully.

I snort. ‘For now,’ I murmur as we pass into Habersham’s room. ‘We’ve just got detention for now.’

‘Good morning,’ Professor Habersham says sharply, a maliciously pleased gleam in her eye as she surveys our sorry, sleep–deprives selves. ‘I trust you all slept well? Excellent. Now, before I set you to your task for the day, there is something I feel obliged to tell you.’ She’s definitely smirking now, and I feel the bottom drop out of my stomach: this cannot be good. ‘I’m sure you noticed that a single detention and the loss of a few house points was a rather light punishment for your crime - experienced as you are, you doubtless have been wondering what is to follow. While I can't get you specifis,' she positively purrs, 'I can say that the remaining portion of your punishment has been devised.’ I can see Ian’s head whip round to stare at us as she speaks, but I resolutely stare ahead. ‘This evening you will meet with the headmistress – she will inform you of the details as soon as all of the requisite permissions have been granted.’

‘Permission? Whose permission – ‘

‘All in good time, Miss Laramie, all in good time. Now, don’t look so apoplectic Mr. Potter, it will all sort itself out. In the meantime, you will be cleaning the Trophy Room – without magic.’

Finally – something familiar.

* * * * *

‘Wonder if the Slytherins are in detention, or if Renier just let them off for attacking us,’ Kate muses as she viciously scrubs tarnish off of a plaque.

‘Probably they’re sitting round in their common room, having brandy and arguing about whose father is richest, or whatever it is they do for laughs,’ I snort, resisting the urge to hurl the trophy I’m polishing (lauding someone called Humphrey Humperdinkle for taming the giant squid in his fifth year) across the room.

‘If we were caught by at least three professors though… I mean, he talked with Habersham, and then she mentioned that other students had been caught as well, so he’s got to punish them, at least a little,’ Jamie points out.

‘Still,’ Ian sighs. ‘I doubt they’re scrubbing anything by hand – their detention is probably to trace their bloodlines back to Salazar Slytherin or something.’

I snigger, placing Humphrey’s bit of history back into the case where it belongs, and taking up the next bit of brass. It’s not really funny, I suppose, because we’ve been at this for hours, and still have hours to go, but it is sort of satisfying knowing that at least four of Hogwarts’ most repulsive students are being punished as well. Which puts another thought into my head. ‘Last night, who do you think they were?’ I ask. ‘I mean, I recognised Lyre, and Geoffrey Donovan, but who were the others?’

Everyone thinks for a moment, hands going still as minds cast back to the darkness, the voices. ‘I suppose the girl would have to be Marielle Madryga, wouldn’t it?’ Kate says after a moment. ‘She’s the only bird what hangs round with them.’

I nod slowly, considering. ‘And the other was Caleb Rochester,’ Ian adds after a moment. ‘I’m almost sure of it. You’re positive it was Lyre though? I saw Donovan, but the whole bit seems, er, clumsy for Lyre.’

I roll my eyes. ‘Yes, I’m sure it was him – couldn’t you hear his nasty grating voice? And besides, you could see a bit of his hair hanging out from under that ridiculous mask.’

‘Whatever you say,’ Ian nods, turning away quickly. It’s common knowledge that, since our first year when the two of us had a full–fledged, if inept, duel, Atticus Lyre and I have hated one another. And who can blame me? Lyre is a conceited, disgusting, chauvinistic, narcissistic, smarmy wanker. And those are just his good qualities.

‘What do you think they were looking for?’ Kate asks a moment later, closing up a case she’s just finished with.

‘Probably some drug or other – rumor has it a few of the seventh years mix up Hazing Draughts pretty regularly,’ Ian replies nonchalantly.

‘And that translates to…?’ she trails off, still looking confused.

‘Er, sort of like cocaine, I guess,’ I reply. Third year I decided it would be fantastic to take Muggle Studies and see how the other half lives. The only things I actually remember are how to build explosives and the names of various illegal substances – just in case I ever get offered anything, I’ll know what it is. Needless to say, I dropped it before O.W.L.s.

Kate is grimacing slightly, and shaking her head. ‘The Muggle school I would have gone to was supposed to have problems with that,’ she explains. ‘It’s really nasty.’

‘Yeah, Hazing Draughts are too – you don’t even have to ingest them,’ James sighs. ‘You can just smell them, or rub them on your skin, and you immediately have trouble focusing, thinking, even talking. And its very addictive.’

‘Whatever they were looking for in the Potions room was in with the poisons,’ I supply, remembering overhearing Lyre ordering the others to look there.

‘Mandrake is essential in Hazing Draughts,’ James points out.

‘Yeah, but it’s not really a poison, is it…’

‘This is absolutely ridiculous,’ Ian groans several hours later, sprawling on his back, a rag in his hand. We’ve long since given over talking about the Slytherins, potions, and even what the Headmistress wants to see us about.

I stretch, popping my shoulders gently. I have to agree with Ian – it’s nearly five in the evening and we’re still polishing things in the Trophy room. If that’s not ridiculous, I don’t know what is. ‘We’re almost finished though,’ Katie points out, nudging him with her foot. ‘Just that last cabinet to finish with…’

We all stare at the gargantuan construction of wood and glass, full of cobwebby, tarnished trophies that, judging by the amount of dust gathered in the corners, no one’s cared about in roughly a thousand years. Still, it’s another easy hour of work, and since Habersham confiscated our wands at the door, there’s little chance we’ll finish before dinner. ‘Er, I don’t suppose you could help us along a bit, could you Si?’ Ian asks hopefully, nodding at the case.

I grimace, trying not to get any hopes up. ‘Course not – if she could do it, we wouldn’t have wasted all day cleaning by hand, would we?’ Kate finishes off a touch unsurely, turning to look at me curiously.

I heave a sigh and try to remind myself that this is fairly advanced. What they’re talking about is wandless magic. I’m supposed to be learning it – I showed a particular skill for nonverbal spellcasting, and our Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, who happens to know Dad, decided I ought to try some private lessons. So far I can open locks, levitate objects, and summon things by silently waving my hand. But those are all basic, common, everyday spells that I could accomplish without thinking in any case. The sad truth of the matter is, I’ve had more experience polishing brass by hand than I have with magic.

But James is giving me that wry, speculative look, and I sigh again. ‘I can try, I suppose. But there’s not much chance it will work –‘

‘If you could get rid of the dust and cobwebs, it would be worth it,’ Kate sighs wistfully.

Another shrug – I clean periodically. Mayhap a good Scourgify will do the trick. I shake out my shoulders, concentrate very hard, and take a deep breath. Keeping my eyes on the cabinet I extend one arm, gather my thoughts, and complete the requisite motion with my finger tip while thinking the spell very hard. The cabinet wobbles a bit, and I unintentionally shut my eyes, afraid that it will topple over like the suit of armor from last night. But when one eye cracks open to survey the damage, I’m greeted by the sight of a clean, sparkling case of gleaming brass. ‘Wow,’ I breathe.

‘Not too shabby,’ Ian agrees, grinning broadly.

‘Impressive, Miss Potter,’ a dry voice says from the doorway. Grimacing, I turn to see Professor Habersham standing just inside the room. ‘I’ll be sure to remember that you’re studying wandless casting the next time I assign non–magical cleaning as a punishment.’

‘It’s the only thing we’ve done,’ James assures her quickly.

‘Yes,’ she replies wryly. ‘I can see that. But never mind – come and take your wands back, and then kindly follow me to the Headmistress’ office.’

It’s a very quiet walk. We have, of course, spent the entire day theorising and projecting what punishment could possibly require permission from persons outside the school. Ian was afraid we were going to have to do one of the internships with the Ministry where you sorted post all day. James thought it was possible they had written our parents to see about keeping us a week into the summer for extra detention. Kate, the only Muggleborn out of us, wondered if we were going to have something called “community service”. I don’t have any idea what they could possibly be planning, but I'm willing to bet it'll be something much nastier than anything we’d come up with. After all, they are professors.

When we arrive at the stone gargoyle that guards the Headmistress’s office, Professor Habersham murmurs the password very softly, undoubtedly trying to keep us from hearing. Which is silly, because we’ve known it for ages. But we step onto the rotating stone stairs as though we’ve never been here before, and solemnly ride to the top. ‘You may come in,’ a voice says calmly once we are deposited on the stoop before the great wooden door.

Professor Habersham straightens her hat and throws the door open, motioning for us to proceed. I step through first, being the most experienced with the space. Jamie is probably right after me, seeing as he’s a Prefect and spends a bit of time in here as well. Ian and Kate follow apprehensively, trying to look collected and coming off as scared senseless. ‘Good evening,’ Professor Vespa says politely, her eyes twinkling at us across her desk.

I smile slightly. ‘Good evening, Professor.’ I rather like our headmistress. There’s something very clever about her, something powerful. She must have been very beautiful in her youth, with long dark hair and strong, aquiline features. Now she's what Mum would call handsome, her hair an even mix of black and white, her eyes like lodestones in her face, glittering and amused and wise.

‘You may stay, if you like, Professor Habersham,’ she adds, smiling slightly at the younger witch, who is slipping back out the door. Professor Habersham, looking embarrassed, takes up a space in the corner, shifting nervously from foot to foot. Professor Vespa, still looking slightly amused, turns back to us. ‘Please, do have a seat.’ Four armchairs plop into existence behind us, and one by one, we sink down into them. ‘Now, I am well aware of the reasons for your being in detention today, and I would like to say that I am very disappointed in you. But, that said, I must accept some of the blame for the situation.’

We all exchange glances, but no one dares interrupt. ‘You see,’ she continues, ‘Hogwarts has long had a legacy for creating powerful bonds between the members of its respective houses. However, there has never been any serious notion of school harmony, or of unity. Perhaps it is a flaw of our current Sorting system, and perhaps it is simply part of the human condition. Either way, it is something that has long bothered the Board of Trustees, and they are resolved to do something about it. You do not need to admit that the four students you engaged in a duel with early this morning were of another house. You do not even need to admit that there is a serious, long-standing rivalry between their house and your own – I know this already.

It is the goal of the Board of Trustees to create what they have termed a “neutral ground”. A space where students from the four respective houses can spend time – perhaps weekends during the school year, perhaps even summers – together, engaging in group activities designed to build trust and unity. It is their goal that, once removed from the group mindset of the Hogwarts House, students will develop compromise skills and the ability to socialise less exclusively, eventually destroying the negative elitism inherent to the house system.’

Her smile is beyond amused, bordering on the sadistic. And I get the impression that she thinks this plan for unification and trust is absolute bollocks. Which, as anyone with a grain of sense can see, it is. While its true that Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Gryffindor coexist in relative peace (meaning we mostly just leave one another alone), no one will ever be able to get along with the Slytherins. And I think Professor Vespa knows that. But Professor Habersham is nodding happily in the corner, and my three comrades look appalled. ‘After many months of searching,’ Professor Vespa adds, ‘The board has settled on and purchased an old estate, a house with a fair amount of land attached, and are resolved to restoring it immediately. That is where the four of you come in. You will be spending the summer working in this new house, which is called Idlewild,

It will be your responsibility to see that the house and grounds are cleaned and brought up to standard. I believe it is, at the moment, rather dusty and overgrown. Your parents have been applied to, and have given their consent, for you to spend six weeks of your summer thus employed. This is intended not only as a punishment for the serious lack of respect you have shown for both your fellow students and the rules of this school, but as a learning experience. We hope that, in these six weeks, you will discover the importance of living in harmony, and the necessity of being able to put aside personal differences for the good of the whole.’

She pauses, and I swallow. There is a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I’m fairly sure the tips of my ears are pink from not breathing. When I finally manage to speak, my voice is shaking and tremulous. ‘But, Professor – that would – that would mean that –‘

‘Yes, Miss Potter,’ she smiles, the gleam back in her eye. ‘This means that you will not be working alone.’

‘Professor Renier, if you would be so kind as to fetch your charges?’ Professor Vespa says with a cool, gleaming smile.

The four of us jump slightly and turn to the corner behind her, finally spotting the mass of black robes that is the spindly, wraithlike professor. ‘Of course,’ he murmurs in his faintly nasal voice, fingers nimbly twirling his wand round to draw up the outline of a door. Murmuring some word or other – probably a portus incantation – he throws the filmy door open and stands back. ‘You may come out now,’ he orders sharply.

Four figures, all familiar, slowly amble out of the doorway. I assume that this is some sort of portal into their common room, or some other space where they were being held while our sentence was read. The sight of them makes me ill. The dark, smooth face of Caleb Rochester; lanky, ranging Geoffrey Donovan; voluptuous, nonchalant Marielle Madryga….all of them – they make me want to vomit. And then the last of them comes sauntering out, moving like a great languorous cat, too pleased with himself to ever be ruffled or disturbed. My nemesis…Atticus Lyre.

I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t good – looking. He’s got the sort of face that, even though the person behind it makes you want to tear out your hair while screaming obscenities, could still make a killing curse pause for a second look. Elegant, I suppose, sculpted – the features clean and even, shaded by just enough stubble to seem dangerous. But he’s not dangerous – he’s just a seventeen year old wanker who specialises in making my life miserable. And he probably looks like a five year old when he shaves, so no wonder he’s always got a five o’clock shadow. Ha.

‘Thank you for joining us,’ Professor Vespa says dryly to the new arrivals, motioning for them to remain standing. ‘I will not keep you much longer. Now that you are all aware of whom you will be spending the summer with, I would simply like to inform you that aggression, dueling, fighting, or trouble of any sort will not be tolerated. You will be given a detailed schedule as well as a list of tasks, rules, and other information tomorrow morning. You will be expected to complete all tasks assigned to you and carry all duties out politely, respectfully, and safely. The twelve of you –‘

‘Twelve?’ I hear a voice that sounds strangely like my own asking. ‘Twelve of us?’ Funny, my mouth seems to be moving too. And now she’s looking at me. Oh Merlin, I’ve interrupted again.

‘Yes, Miss Potter, twelve. Two members of Ravenclaw and two members of Hufflepuff have been appointed by their heads of house to join you – it would hardly be a productive bonding experience if everyone were not represented. They will not, however, be partaking in the more strenuous aspects of the restoration. That is your punishment for indiscretions past and present.’ I have the grace to blush before nodding. She smiles at me slightly, and continues. ‘This exercise is for your benefit, and therefore it is ultimately your decision how much you will take away from this experience. And now, having kept you quite long from your supper, I will say only this: true friends cannot simply be found, they must be made – the deepest and most enjoyable relationships in life are those that we work steadily to build and sustain. Do not overlook what is in front of you simply because you have never bothered to see it before.’ She gives one last, quelling look around, and nods once. ‘You may go.’

A/N - please review and let me know how you think it's going. comments and criticism are always welcome!

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