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    When James and Mindy didn’t come down for dinner, the Gryffindors, at Sirius’ pleading, decided to postpone their party until they were better. Sirius and Remus went up to the hospital wing to see what was going on. The matron accosted them at the door.

    ‘I’m sorry, children,’ said Madam Pomfrey. ‘I can’t let you go in. It’s a worse case than I thought and they’re both highly contagious. I was just going to tell the Headmaster. Now you’re sure neither of you are feeling at all different from normal?’
    ‘No, Madam Pomfrey, we’re fine,’ said Remus.
    ‘Well, go back to your dormitory now, please. I will inform you when you can see your friends.’
    ‘But he’ll be all right won’t he?’ demanded Sirius.
    ‘They, will be fine,’ said Madam Pomfrey firmly. ‘Now come on, back to your dormitory.’

    ‘Thank you,’ said Remus.
    Sirius felt too subdued to talk. As they turned around and walked back to Gryffindor Tower, he was thinking that if James hadn’t been scheming to get him into the Quidditch team, he wouldn’t have talked to Mindy Hampton, and he wouldn’t have got sick.
    ‘It’s not your fault, you know,’ said ever-perceptive Remus.
    ‘I know,’ said Sirius with a sigh. What else could he say, after all?

    By Monday, there were notices up all over the school declaring that anyone displaying certain symptoms should go to Madam Pomfrey immediately. Hypochondriacs inundated the hospital wing, as well as a few genuine cases that were put into quarantine. At dinner Professor Dumbledore stood up and told everyone that they shouldn’t panic, it was all under control, and the treatment just took a while to work. It was unusual, in the wizarding world, for illnesses and wounds not to be Healed straightaway, but nasty strains of influenza like this were not unheard of. Mindy Hampton was said to be the first case, having probably caught it in the Hog’s Head. It wasn’t frequented much by students, but Mindy’s friends had dared her to go in.

    Sirius found himself missing James more than he’d ever have guessed he would, but at least the others weren’t ostracising him now. At breakfast on Tuesday morning, all the first years sat together. Sirius noticed that Lily Evans was more talkative with James absent. He wondered why she disliked him so much, and, moreover, why he seemed to like her so much. He paid her far more attention than any of the other girls. Sirius supposed he fancied her.

    He looked around at them all. Merlin was thrashing Peter in a spirited game of Gobstones, while keeping up an argument with David Morris about the relative merits of Nimbuses and Comets. Sirius occasionally chipped in on the conversation. Remus was finishing the chapter of A History of Magic that they’d been set to read. Annie and Vanessa were gossiping about someone called Joseph Atkins and his girlfriend. Lily was trying to draw out Polly Hannah, the other new Gryffindor girl, who was so painfully shy that she hardly said a word to anyone.

    They all went off to Charms. Sirius was paired with Remus, a relief, because he wasn’t in the mood for Carl Bertram. They were told to open their books at page eighteen and work on making objects dance. They were each given a piece of fruit or vegetable and told to get on with it. Sirius and Remus got a cucumber.
    ‘Hang on,’ said Sirius. He pulled out a pocket knife. ‘It’ll be funnier like this.’
    Remus looked on in amusement as Sirius deftly cut some bits of cucumber out of each end, making it look like it had legs and a spiky haircut. Then he carved out some holes about halfway up, and stuck a cut out bit in each side. Now it had some arms. Grinning, Sirius danced it about on the tabletop.

    ‘Surely you don’t think you’ve finished,’ said Remus. He took Sirius’ knife and carved two eyes, a nose and a mouth.
    ‘There,’ he said. ‘I think his name’s Jeff.’
    ‘Nice to meet you, Jeff,’ said Sirius, pretending to shake the cucumber’s hand.
    ‘Very creative, Mr Black, Mr Lupin,’ Flitwick squeaked sarcastically (proving that one can squeak sarcastically). ‘Have you actually started working on the spell yet?’
    ‘Don’t worry, sir, we’ll start now,’ said Sirius. ‘What is it that you do?’
    He looked at the page in front of him, studying the wand movement. Flitwick watched him with eyes narrowed. A few people glanced over at them, wondering if Sirius and Remus were in trouble, giggling at what they’d done to the cucumber.
    ‘And you say ... “Tripudio!” Is that the right pronunciation?’
    ‘Yes,’ said Flitwick.
    ‘OK,’ said Sirius. He moved his wand swiftly from side to side and then pointed it at the cucumber. He had a captive audience now.
    ‘Tripudio!’ he said commandingly.
    The cucumber stood up on its makeshift legs, grinning its inane, carved-on grin. It looked as if it was taking a moment to find its feet. Then, whirling like a dervish, it tripped lightly across the desk, coming to a stop in front of Sirius and falling flat on its face. The class laughed loudly.
    Flitwick’s face split into a grin and he clapped.
    ‘Oh, well done, boys, well done!’ he said.
    ‘Wait, I haven’t tried it yet,’ said Remus. ‘Show me the wand movement, Sirius, I’m hopeless at diagrams.’
    He watched carefully as Sirius repeated the movement, mirroring it with his hand.
    ‘OK,’ said Remus. Taking a deep breath, he now did the movement with his wand.
    The cucumber stood up again. This time it tapdanced lightly around, and landed on its back. Everyone applauded.
    ‘Excellent!’ squeaked Flitwick. ‘Take ten points each for Gryffindor. Keep practicing, see how long you can keep it dancing.’

    Sirius and Remus grinned triumphantly at each other. When Flitwick moved on they had a goodnatured argument about who had made the cucumber dance better. They practiced a few more times before becoming bored.
    ‘Let’s flip ahead a bit,’ Remus suggested, picking up his book.
    ‘There’s not going to be anything good in there,’ said Sirius.
    ‘I was thinking we could just get ahead - do next week’s work so we don’t have to do it then,’ said Remus. ‘I could do with being ahead instead of behind for once.’
    Sirius shrugged.
    ‘What’s the point when it only takes us five minutes to learn things?’ he asked. ‘Give me that, there must be something worth trying.’
    He flipped through it until he found a likely-looking spell.
    ‘Aha,’ he said with a wicked grin. ‘That’s what we want. Look.’
    He pushed the book over so they could both see the page he’d turned to.
    ‘ “The Effrego Spell,” ’ Remus read aloud. ‘A useful alternative to the Alohomora charm, Effrego can be used in a hurry and on a greater variety of materials. It has the effect of a small explosion, breaking apart its target object. Please note that the Effrego spell is ineffective on living things including plants, but will work on wooden objects and foods that have been harvested.’
    He looked at Sirius, his mouth slightly open.
    ‘You wouldn’t.’
    Sirius chuckled.
    ‘But that’s not fair!’
    ‘Think about it,’ Sirius whispered. ‘A few well-timed Effrego charms ... there’s no wand movement with it, you just have to point ...’
    ‘You’re not allowed to hurt Jeff,’ said Remus, picking up the cucumber and holding it protectively.
    ‘Just watch.’
    Sirius looked around for a likely-looking victim. He grinned evilly when he saw that Carl Bertram was about to try the dancing spell on a fat watermelon.
    ‘Right,’ said Carl to Flora O’Brien, who was his partner. ‘On the count of three ... one ... two ... three ... Tripudio!’
    ‘Effrego!’ whispered Sirius, pointing his wand in Carl’s direction.
    The watermelon promptly exploded, showering Carl and Flora with its pink flesh and seeds, leaving them gasping with shock. Sirius shook with silent laughter. Remus, despite himself, was doing the same.
    ‘What did you do?’ demanded Flora, taking out a handkerchief and wiping her face clean.
    ‘I don’t know,‘ said Carl, aghast, ‘I did everything the book said ...’
    ‘Let me try next time,’ she said crossly. ‘Excuse me, Professor Flitwick, we need a new subject.’
    ‘I’m afraid I only have a pineapple left,‘ said Flitwick, ‘and I’m not sure I want to give you that, after seeing what happened to the watermelon.’
    ‘But Professor, I haven’t had a go yet!‘ protested Flora.
    ‘Very well,‘ said Flitwick, ‘but be very careful.’
    When Flora tried the spell it worked, of course. Sirius wasn’t going to risk hurting anyone. The pineapple did a merry dance across the desk. Carl tried it again, but he wasn’t confident enough now; the pineapple moved a bit, then lay still. Carl looked fed up.
    By the end of the lesson, Sirius had disintegrated every harmless fruit or vegetable in the room. Flitwick couldn’t understand why his first years had apparently become so inept at the dancing spell, especially since many of them had managed it before their subject exploded. He was about to set them all extra homework when he happened to pass the desk where Sirius and Remus were working. He saw the book open at the wrong page, and the intact Jeff lying beside it. He frowned.
    ‘Black, give me your wand,’ he said, a distinct note of suspicion in his voice.
    Sirius surrendered it, fighting a desire to laugh.
    ‘Priori Incantatem!’ Flitwick chanted.
    Sirius groaned inwardly as his wand showed the Effrego charm.
    ‘Hmm,’ said Flitwick. ‘Black, I expect you in my office at break. The rest of you, please practice the charm tonight, and I will test you on it quickly tomorrow. Class dismissed.’
    ‘Thanks a lot, Black,’ snapped Flora O’Brien, when the Gryffindors and Ravenclaws were on their way to their next classes. ‘Do you know how hard it is to get watermelon stains out, even with magic?’
    ‘Well, you don’t have to,’ said Peter Pettigrew, ‘the school house elves do. And I bet you’ve never had to get a stain out of anything in your life.’
    ‘That’s not the point!’ said Flora.
    ‘Oh, get a grip, sis. Get a sense of humour,’ said Merlin, who had bits of banana stuck in her hair and didn’t seem too bothered about it.
    ‘Yeah, it was funny really. No one got hurt,’ said David.
    ‘That’s true,’ admitted Carl. ‘That’s why our watermelon exploded, but not the pineapple, right Sirius?’
    ‘Of course,’ said Sirius. ‘It was just a bit of fun.’
    ‘But we’re all behind now!’ complained Adela Tremaine, a Ravenclaw girl with a voice almost as shrill as Flitwick’s.
    ‘Rubbish. I saw you make your carrot do ballet before it exploded,’ said Carl. ‘Anyone who was going to do it in the first class it was introduced has done it. Come on. We’ve got Transfiguration. See you Gryffindors later.’
    ‘Wow,’ said Peter, falling into step with Sirius and Remus. ‘I didn’t think Carl Bertram would stick up for you, Sirius.’
    ‘He’s nothing if not fair,’ said Remus. ‘He only fought with Sirius because Sirius punched his brother. Have you got brothers or sisters, Peter?’
    ‘No,’ said Peter, shaking his head. ‘You?’
    ‘I haven’t,’ said Remus, ‘but Sirius has, haven’t you Sirius?’
    ‘I’ve got a brother,’ said Sirius. ‘He’s nineteen months younger than I am.’
    ‘And how would you feel, if someone went up and punched him in the face?’ asked Remus.
    ‘I dunno,’ said Sirius. ‘I think I’d say: “Go on mate, you’re doing me a favour.” ’
    ‘No,’ said Remus. ‘I don’t believe you.’
    ‘You don’t know him,’ said Sirius. ‘He’s a right little toerag, is Regulus. Give him an inch and he’ll stab you in the back. He’s like all the Slytherins. I’m sure he’ll be one when he comes to Hogwarts.’
    ‘But surely you wouldn’t let someone hurt him?’ Remus said incredulously.
    Sirius opened his mouth to argue, but paused to think.
    ‘No,’ he admitted with a sigh. ‘I know I wouldn’t. We, um - well. We get the belt at home, if we misbehave. I’m sure a lot of people do, especially the old pureblood families. I know Lucius Malfoy did when he was younger. And I know when Regulus gets it, sometimes I want to wrench the belt out of the air and tear it to pieces.’
    ‘If he doesn’t deserve it, you mean,’ Remus said gently.
    Sirius nodded.
    ‘Does he mostly deserve it? Do you?’
    ‘I don’t know,’ said Sirius. ‘It’s not always clear why my parents do what they do.’

    ‘I’ve never been hit,’ said Peter. ‘I haven’t got a dad, you see. Just my mum, and she’s an invalid.’
    ‘Sorry to hear that,’ said Remus. Sirius wondered what Peter would think if he knew that in the Black household, it was the mother who dealt out most of the beatings. But he didn’t say anything. He felt like he’d said too much already.
    ‘It’s OK,’ said Peter. ‘Actually she saw a Healer the other day and apparently they’re trying out some new potion they’ve invented. She’s agreed to be guinea pig.’
    ‘So - she’ll die of it eventually? Her illness?’ asked Sirius.
    ‘We hope they’ll find a cure,’ said Peter. He looked like he didn’t want to talk about it any more, so the others dropped the subject just as they reached their Potions classroom.
    ‘Know what I think?’ said Sirius.
    ‘What?’ asked Remus.
    ‘I think we ought to plan some sort of prank to play when James gets better. Sort of a “welcome back” thing. What do you think?’
    ‘Yeah, he’d like that,’ said Remus. ‘As long as it’s nice and harmless, like your Effrego charm.’
    ‘Can I help?’ asked Peter. ‘I’d like to help. I like James.’
    Sirius hesitated. Peter was hardly the sharpest tool in the shed. But he was nice enough, and perhaps he could be quite useful ...
    ‘OK,’ he said. Peter looked delighted.
    ‘But just us three, OK? If we involve too many people it’ll be too hard to keep secret.’
    ‘Fine with me,’ said Remus. ‘You can keep a secret, right Peter?’
    ‘Of course,’ said Peter.
    ‘Great,’ said Sirius. ‘Now we just need a plan.’


    At break, Sirius tramped unenthusiastically up to Professor Flitwick’s office, expecting some horrible detention. But all Flitwick did was hand him a mop and bucket and march him to the Charms classroom.
    ‘I want all that cleaned up in the next twenty minutes!’ he said firmly. ‘I have another class then.’
    ‘Can’t I use magic?’ complained Sirius.
    ‘No,’ said Flitwick, and left. Sirius puffed out his cheeks and set to work. As he cleaned up all the scattered bits of fruit and vegetables, he began thinking carefully about what to do when James came back. He thought about all the things he’d learned in the past just-over-a-month, and discarded most of it, wondering if it was time to go to the library and read up on a few more advanced spells. Admittedly he hadn’t looked to the end of his set books yet. Maybe that was the best place to start.

    Sirius worked quickly, and there were still five minutes left of break when he’d finished, so he hurried off to the washroom to splash his hands and face. As he was picking a potato peeling out of his hair, Patrick Hallam came out of one of the cubicles and washed his hands.
    ‘All right Black?’
    ‘All right. You?’
    ‘Pleased I ran into you. You’re Potter’s best mate, you’ll be able to help.’
    ‘Oh, that’s right, you wanted a word with him didn’t you?’
    ‘And I never got it,’ said Hallam. ‘Remember that secret weapon I told you about?’
    ‘Yeah,’ said Sirius, ‘but what’s that got to do with James?’
    ‘That’s nothing to do with you - not yet,’ said Hallam. He winked conspiratorially. ‘I need you to do me a favour. Potter said you were trustworthy, but I know he didn’t want to tell you about the secret weapon until he’d got it. Unfortunately he’s ill. I need you to get a message to him. And I need a reply by tomorrow night.’
    ‘What if Madam Pomfrey won’t let me see him?’ worried Sirius.
    ‘You don’t have to see him, just make Madam Pomfrey deliver the message,’ said Hallam impatiently. He handed Sirius a piece of parchment, folded up and sealed. ‘Wait outside for the reply. Get it to me by dinner tomorrow, OK?’
    He turned to go, and was halfway out the door before Sirius spoke again.
    ‘What if James isn’t conscious?’
    Hallam clicked his tongue with annoyance.
    ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If you don’t manage to get it to him come straight to me. But try, OK? Use your powers of persuasion. You’re a good looking kid. Charm her. Look cute or something, I dunno, just do it, all right?’
    He left the washroom, and Sirius stood there for a moment, feeling vaguely insulted at the words ‘Look cute.’ Then he looked down at the message in his hands. He put it securely into an inside pocket of his robes.

    Then, realising he’d be late for Transfiguration, he hurried off, determined that nothing was going to get him kept in at lunchtime. He behaved like a model student all the way through the double lesson, though his fingers itched to try the Effrego charm on the tiny pumpkins they’d all been given to try and turn into pillboxes. Too many eyes watched him suspiciously, including Professor McGonagall’s. Sirius didn’t risk it. He was so distracted by the letter burning a hole in his pocket that he couldn’t manage a pillbox that wasn’t orange. Everyone laughed at Merlin, whose pumpkin turned into a Golden Snitch and flew out the window.
    ‘Your mind is not on your work, Miss O’Brien,’ said Professor McGonagall, handing her another pumpkin. ‘Five points from Gryffindor.’

    As soon as she dismissed them for lunch, Sirius rushed up to the hospital wing. He knocked on the door. Madam Pomfrey stuck her head around it, and tutted when she saw who it was.
    ‘I’ve told you before, Black ...’ she began.
    ‘No, no, I’m not trying to get in,’ Sirius reassured her hastily. ‘But how is James, Madam Pomfrey?’
    ‘The treatment is working,’ said Madam Pomfrey stiffly. ‘He is awake and feeling a bit better, but still contagious. You can’t see him.’
    ‘I was wondering,’ said Sirius, ‘since he is awake - I’ve got a message for him from one of the other Gryffindors - could you please take it to him and ask him to answer it?’
    Madam Pomfrey’s eyes narrowed.
    ‘What could it possibly be that it can’t wait a few more days?’ she asked.
    ‘Apparently it’s urgent,’ said Sirius. ‘Please? Surely a couple of minutes reading and writing won’t hurt?’
    ‘I suppose not,’ admitted Madam Pomfrey. ‘I will take it to him.’
    Sirius handed her the note, and she disappeared behind the hospital wing door. He waited about ten minutes, which seemed like hours. Then, to his relief, the door opened.
    ‘Here we are,’ said Madam Pomfrey. ‘He said to say hello and not to worry.’
    She handed him both the original note and two replies, one addressed to Sirius and one to Hallam.
    ‘Thanks Madam Pomfrey!’ Sirius said brightly. Only dignity kept him from skipping back to Gryffindor Tower. The common room was deserted because everyone was in the Great Hall, eating lunch. Sirius made himself comfortable in a chair by the fireplace and opened the note addressed to him. He found a few lines scrawled in James’ messy handwriting.

    Hi Sirius,
        I hope you’re not coming down with this awful bug. Luckily it’s starting to go away now. You caught me at a good time. Yesterday I wouldn’t have had the strength to write anything. I’m glad Pat’s still going through with the plan. Deliver the note to him ASAP and do whatever he asks. It’ll be worth it in the end, trust me. You can read his note to me and my reply, that might make it a bit clearer. Please burn this note and Pat’s original one.

    See you soon,

    Sirius grinned. He unfolded Hallam’s note and read it quickly.

    James, sorry to hear you’re ill. I want to know whether you still want me to get the secret weapon for you. I’m going to send this note up with your friend, Sirius Black. You said before that we could trust him. I hope you’re right, because if I’m caught we could both be in big trouble. Reply saying yes or no about the rendez-vous and about Black too. Get Black to burn this note after you’ve read it.

    James’ reply was even shorter:

    Yes to both. Sirius will do whatever you need him to. Can’t wait to get out of here and see it.

    Sirius took out his wand and placing both notes in the fireplace, cast the blue flame spell at them. They were reduced to ash in a matter of seconds. Sirius used the water jet charm to put the last vestiges of the fire out, and ran down to the Great Hall with James’ note for Hallam.
    Hallam looked up when he saw Sirius. Sirius winked. Hallam stood up and approached him.
    ‘How’s it going Black?’ he asked jovially, holding out his hand as if to shake Sirius’. Sirius took the hint; the note was already in his right hand and in a second it was in Hallam’s. The tall Seeker carried on walking past Sirius; as he did so he whispered in his ear: ‘Await instructions.’
    Burning with curiosity and the thrill of a possible adventure - what was that rendez-vous that Hallam had talked about? - Sirius joined his friends at the Gryffindor table.

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