November 1978

Why must the young always be the first casualties of war?

There is a strange kind of cruelty to it, as though Death surveys the scene and picks out the youthful, laughing faces for his own collection. How He must relish times of conflict (and the truth is, is there not always conflict? A sad symptom of our human condition, I think) when his ranks swell with bright-eyed young men and women, smiles still on their faces as they slip, too soon, through the Veil.

So it is, and so it was, and so it will ever be.

I have lived through so many wars now that it scarcely seems believable that there is anything left to fight over, or people to meet the call. Must we go on with the same battles, all stemming from one base, careless source?

As a young man, I watched some of the boys I had grown up with scurrying off to South Africa, a glimmer of gold and glory in their eyes; only one returned. Their sons trudged to the trenches in France, fighting a war which we wizards were not allowed to join. How many of them lie buried deep in unknown graves, all that remains a name carved into stone somewhere and a telegraph with the dreaded words: “Missing, presumed dead”?

Twenty years passed – peaceful, difficult years, in which the world struggled to stay on its feet – before we were plunged into darkness again. Twin wars; Gellert Grindelwald puppeteering, pulling on silky strings across Europe, while the Muggles tore each other apart and committed new atrocities in the name of the greater good. I, in my sixties now, could only watch helplessly as the names of the fallen grew ever longer, and we at the Ministry grew increasingly frustrated with our leader’s indecision and hesitation. 1945 arrived, and while the Muggle fighting swelled to a close, my old friend Albus met Gellert Grindelwald in a duel, the like of which has never been seen before or since.

It was too late for me then; too late for my wife, my son, my daughter. The name Doge was carved into stone with the others, and I have only a memorial and a pair of headstones by which to mourn my family.

You may understand how, after living through conflict after conflict, pausing every year to remember the countless lives lost in arbitrary power struggles – to remember those so dear to my heart – I did not want to believe that it could be happening all over again.

No, I would much rather not have believed it; would rather have attributed the growing disappearances and deaths to any other cause. I was not the only one to feel this way – and can we blamed for that, a willingness not to see the worst in humanity? Not to want to acknowledge that the world will be torn apart again, and those who remain will bear the scars for the rest of their lives?

It was Albus, of course, who convinced me, sooner rather than later, to join him in the fight – not to bury my head, ostrich-like, in the sand as the Muggles had done in the thirties, reluctant to imagine that anybody could be so stupid, so thoughtless, so power-hungry, as to repeat such costly mistakes.

Still, when I visited my old friend at Hogwarts, and saw the fresh, hopeful faces around him, my heart sank like a stone, settling in my stomach with an overwhelming sense of dread.

There was a cold, cruel certainty in the knowledge that some of these faces would not survive the coming years.

After all of this, it should not, in all honesty, have been such a shock when word first came of your deaths, my friends.

We knew, instantly, that something was wrong when Albus did not arrive on time to the Order meeting that day. I could count the number of times Albus had been late – in nearly ninety years of friendship – on one hand. As we waited around the table, swathed in an uncomfortable silence, I became painfully aware of the three empty chairs in the room. Your chairs.

When Albus arrived, his solemn expression quelled the clamour of questions at once. How quiet was his voice when it became his duty to deliver the first axe-blow.

‘I am deeply sorry, my friends, but I must tell you that Fabian and Gideon Prewett were killed this morning.’

I do not think I had ever heard your names uttered with such gravity before. The names Fabian and Gideon Prewett were enough to bring a smile to the most morose of faces – yet now they melted the silence into sadness.

I blinked at your empty chairs – seats you would not fill again – and felt a sorry sickness wash over me. Two bright lights, extinguished so soon. You would have protested to hear me say it, but you were barely more than children to an old man like me. Too young – far too young – to have a future cut away. Especially while I remained, bones creaking, joints aching, good for nothing but pushing paper in a Ministry department that was already overwhelmed by a war playing out in the shadows.

I glanced at Albus, who was preparing to tell the full story of your deaths, and knew that he understood me. We have lived so many years, known so many people, lost so many friends: is it still foolish to hope that one day the order of the world will change, and young lives will be allowed to stretch out into old age?

It was a leak at the Ministry which had resulted in your deaths, Albus told us. The simple fact-gathering mission you had breezily volunteered for became an ambush. You had fought until the very end, only two of the five Death Eaters who attacked you surviving.

‘Bloody heroes,’ Alastor growled beside me.

Would you have laughed at that, boys? Would you have teased me for sitting there, frozen with the sentiment of an old and helpless man?

I think you would have done. I think you are still laughing now, in that other place – looking down at us with grins stretching across your faces and merry tears glittering in your brown eyes.

It amazed me from the start – your ability to find humour and joy in any situation. A simple comment – a word – was enough to draw the laughter from you, the infectious sound bubbling up until it spread to everyone nearby. One of the first meetings you attended saw you, Gideon, crack a joke that made you, Fabian, snort for five full minutes. The mere memory brings a smile to my face. Though I cannot tell it as you could, if I recall correctly, it had something to do with a goblin, a vampire, and a hag sharing a drink together; even Minerva managed to crack a smile at it.

The laughter grew when James Potter and Sirius Black and their friends were invited to join the Order; once the four of you had duelled each other without finding a winner, your friendship was fast, the jokes crackling away like the fire in the grate of our meeting room.

You would drive Alastor insane with it – the half hours wasted at the start of our meetings, the sniggers that a stray word would trigger – and I think you both knew that, didn’t you? When he growled that you were both too young and immature to be there, you simply smiled at him, and offered no defence (that, I think, was when he threatened to curse you into next week, and I am sure he would have done so had Minerva not cast a Shield Charm just in time).

Albus, as calm as ever, when our frustrations boiled over and spat out – as they were, unfortunately, wont to do – in his direction, merely asked (in that special tone we have all heard at one point or another, possessing the full knowledge that the words it delivers are not a request) Alastor to take a seat and put his wand away.

‘Laughter,’ Albus had said then. ‘Is a magic far more powerful than we can pretend to understand. To claim it has no place here, Alastor, is to forget what we are fighting for.’

Your cheeks matched your hair at the compliment – though, if I am not mistaken, Gideon, there was at least a small part of you resisting the urge to stick your tongue out at our grumpier and more serious friend. I did not fail to notice you nudging your brother’s arm, Fabian – and from the smile that danced around his lips, nor did Albus.

You swallowed those words and clung to them, though, in the weeks and the months which followed.

No, with you there, our Order meetings were never quiet, and though it took us far longer than was, perhaps, necessary, there were no more complaints after that day. Young as you were, you both seemed, implicitly, to understand that each of us needed a reason to smile. In those brief minutes, the weight of the war would slip away and even I, old man that I am, would not mind gasping for air, tears rolling down my cheeks; as we all fought to stay that way, it was you, Fabian and Gideon, who helped us to feel alive.

But we were quiet that day, when Albus arrived and we let the terrible news of your deaths wash over us. None of us could stay for long after that to discuss information and plans, not with your vacant seats pushing into our consciousness with every blink.

You were the first of us, you see, to go. Twenty-two and twenty-three, flower stems which had barely budded. Old enough to know what you were doing, yes, and to make the choices yourselves, but I do not think that stopped the weight of responsibility pushing down on any of us.

To live in a time of war is to accept – however unwillingly – that you will know loss. If Death does not find you first, He will seek out your loved ones and tear them away before any of them are ready to let go. I hope that you would have been pleased to know that all of us there, around the table that day, renewed our fight with vigour, determined that your sacrifice would not be without a purpose, desperate to prevent our pain from spreading to other friends and families around the country.

I could not go to your funeral. Attendance at a forced farewell seems a sorry way to thank the dead for the light they have brought into our lives, but still it pained me that I could not be there to join the ranks of your mourners. The Order must remain a secret, and without it, there was no plausible connection to explain my presence. I think you would have understood that, even while you teased me for wanting to attend.

Albus and Minerva went; James Potter, claiming an acquaintance from the Gryffindor Quidditch team, followed them, taking Lily Evans and their three friends with him. They told us it was a beautiful service. And though Minerva told me that Molly Weasley was horrified with her sons, I believe that you would have both roared with laughter to see your young nephews pulling the flowers off your graves to wear as crowns in their games.

I spent the day at the Ministry, shuffling papers around my office in a charade of concentration, until Edgar Bones came and rescued me at lunchtime. Our years together at the Ministry meant that it was safe to slip away to the Leaky Cauldron together, and we chinked our glasses wordlessly, both of us filled with thoughts of two young boys with light in their eyes and laughter in their hearts.

You see, you were the first of us to be taken, but you will not be the last. I sit, sometimes, and look at the photograph that was taken of the Order last summer, smiling over the faces I find there. Your two red heads duck and grin, sharing a private joke. Looking at you, I make a promise and give thanks.

Fabian and Gideon Prewett: as long as I live, you will not be forgotten. Your sacrifice was great, yes; but when I look at that picture and remember you, I remember the friends who taught an old man to laugh again.

Author's Note: Welcome to the first chapter in my new short-story collection! It's a bit different to some of the stories I've written before, but Elphias had a story that simply had to be written. If you have the chance to review, I'd love to hear what you think.

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