I see them sometimes, hiding in your eyes.”
― Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring
The cold air bit at my cheeks and flushed them berry-red. Frost crunched beneath my every step across and my eyes watered, a combination of the chill and my sleeplessness. It was nearly seven o’clock on a Saturday morning. The grounds were silent, save for the cawing of crows. Hearing them made it impossible to ignore: November was here and the warm months were over.
Fog curled around my ankles as I trekked further down the hill. Its cloudy presence hung, phantom-like, over the lake. For a moment I considered stopping to watch its barely perceptible shifting. But there was too much to do.
Because Professor Sprout was overwhelmed with work I had volunteered to tend the plants on weekends. Now, more than ever, it was important to make a lasting impression with her. Her reference letter would be integral in being accepted into Herbology school after graduation—and if I weren’t, it would mean moving back home with my parents. There was no doubt that, given the events of this year, they would try to dissuade me from a magical life entirely.
There was no point in lying to them about the attacks that night. Photos of the poor Goblin family were all over the papers, robbing them of any privacy. It was awful: four of them, murdered in their beds as they slept, simply because they were non-human. The man they were calling You-Know-Who was suspected. It felt superstitious, the way thousands were incapable of saying his name, as if by not summoning the evil spirit, it would move on.
My parents had been inconsolable for weeks. But how could I possibly have comforted them? This man and his followers were targeting Muggles, sympathizers, and families with impure blood. That was us. So I told them nothing of the rumblings I heard in the corridors, or the fog of uneasiness that seemed to settle over Hogwarts. Even Marlene was rarely spotted these days without her nose in a newspaper and its awful stories.
I ignored the casual mentioning in their letters—between updates on their sheep and dogs—of how blackened the world was growing around us, like a bowl of fruit gone to rot. My father started sleeping with his old shotgun by the bed. I didn't tell them that it wouldn’t do any good.
As I reached greenhouse seven, these thoughts were pushed back into the tiny corner I had reserved in my mind, like forcing clothing into an overstuffed trunk. Be here now, Chloe. It was easier to ignore what was happening in the world with my responsibilities. Maybe that was why I had volunteered my weekend mornings to watering and sunning the plants. It was better than lying in my four-poster, worrying about my parents’ growing paranoia.
Or trying to stamp out thoughts of Sirius.
Shaking my head as if scattering the images, I fumbled for my wand. The sun was just starting to rise over the hills and caught my fogged breath in its light. I still hadn’t found my wand when I heard a loud rustling over my shoulder; the Whomping Willow, half a Quidditch pitch away, was twisting and turning as if in a great storm. But that wasn’t what surprised me. It was the figures near the tree. They were running towards the greenhouses as if to escape the tree’s wrath, but their hoots of laughter were a stone through the silence.
It took a moment to realize, through my still-blurred vision, that despite the cold they were naked. Three of them darted behind a blackberry thicket where they had apparently stashed their clothes. The last figure was running in circles, arms flapping like a great bird as he cawed loudly, mimicking the crows that scattered at the sudden ruckus. And it was another moment of shameless staring before I recognized them.
“Prongs, put your pants on!” Remus laughed tiredly. He looked worse for wear as he rested on the frosty ground, as if he had barely managed to pull his clothes back on. One arm remained inside his jumper rather than in its sleeve.
“Never!” James was now doing cartwheels, completely starkers. As a flush crept up my neck their cries of laugher and disgust echoed across the lake. “And I didn’t hear you telling Padfoot to cover up!”
“That would be fine, too…” Peter’s head poked out from the blackberry thicket.
“This frigid air isn’t doing you any favors, mate!” Sirius called to James as he emerged from the brush, buttoning a shirt over his bare chest. There was a kind of happy exhaustion hanging over them, like the fog, as if they’d been awake the entire night.
When their laughter was silenced, I realized a beat too late that it was because I had been spotted. Even James froze and someone’s voice drifted over, “Oh, shit.”
I jumped like I’d been electrocuted, searching feverishly for my wand in the pockets that now seemed ten times their size. “Come on, come on, come on, come on…”
“Relax, it’s just Fairchild.”
“Oi, Chloe!” James was unabashedly tugged his trousers on. “Enjoy the show?”
Having at last retrieved my wand, I feverishly unlocked the greenhouse and rushed inside without response. The door closed on their laughter (“You’ve probably scarred her for life!”) and I leaned against it to bury my face in my cool hands.
I’d never laid eyes on a naked boy before. Not even when Emily would try to embarrass me with dirty pictures, found shoved in a drawer with her Mum’s pantyhose. I had always screwed my eyes shut to her shrieking laughter.
At least it wasn’t Sirius. I forced myself not to recall the swatch of olive skin, framed by the stark white of his unbuttoned shirt.
There was a knock behind me and I leapt away. But hiding would only make things worse. I groaned, “Come in.”
Peter’s head poked through the door and he smiled sheepishly. At least he was as beetroot as me. Instead of entering the greenhouse, like anyone else would have, he remained in his silly pose.
“Sorry about that.” Before I could even speak—and probably to say something idiotic—he passed a small envelope through the opening. “Anyway, we wanted to give you this.”
Timidly I took the envelope. It was addressed to me in what looked like a boy’s poor attempt at calligraphy. Then Peter said, in one long rush as he struggled to make eye-contact, “Well, okay, bye then Chloe, sorry again!”
The door closed. He paused on the threshold for a moment as if collecting his breath; I could see his blurry figure through the fogged glass walls.
“How’d it go, you silver-tongued devil?” James’s voice came from just outside. They must have all been huddled there, listening.
“Shut up, mate,” Peter murmured. He was probably ruffling his hair with embarrassment, the way he often did.
Their banter grew quieter as they headed off, hopefully to the castle and their dormitory, rather than some other stupid escapade. The greenhouse was thick with silence and humidity. I felt incredibly stupid. But, as usual, they hadn’t seemed to mind anything that had just occurred. I couldn’t even imagine what I would have done, had they stumbled across me naked.
When I blinked I saw it again: the darkened library, the flickering torchlight, Sirius’s advancing figure. But this time the memory had changed, and my skin was bare and awaiting, covered in goosebumps.
Suddenly the letter leapt from my hands, startling me. The envelope tore itself open like a Howler, the folds in the enclosed parchment moving like a mouth as James’s voice boomed in an affected, posh accent:
“You are cordially invited to the second annual Marauders’ Ball. Bully for you! If you accept—and honestly, you’d be an idiot not to—then meet us at the One-Eyed Witch at ten o’clock next Saturday. Don’t be caught. And wear your dancing shoes!”
And with that, the letter returned to its inanimate self, fluttering to the stone floor. The greenhouse was silent again. But I squinted in confusion. Who in the world were the Marauders, and why were they throwing a ball?
“Peter gave you the invitation?”
I nodded and Marlene threw her head back, laughing throatily, until I smiled despite myself. “What?”
“Oh, he’s completely besotted with you, is all.”
My face was already blotchy with the chill, but her comment certainly didn’t help. “No he isn’t, he was just being nice.”
“If you say so,” she said in a sing-song, taking a long drink from her cider.
Her arm was linked through mine as we strolled through the bustling streets of Hogsmeade. Two enormous cups of cider warmed our hands; my throat tingled with the drink’s syrupy-sweetness. Despite the cold there was no snow on the ground. The sky had threatened as much, in the days since I received the strange invitation, but Hogwarts had yet to see a single flake.
“Don’t get me wrong, even if Peter hadn’t invited you then I would have. You have to come.”
“I just… What is it?”
She smiled at me, wide-eyed, like she was watching a spectacular memory playing out on a screen. “It’s absolutely brilliant, you’ll see. Wear a ton of makeup and look hot.”
I didn’t own makeup, or clothes that didn’t look like something from The Sound of Music, but chose not to comment. Whatever this ball was, it surely wasn’t school-compliant by the very fact that James, Sirius, Peter and Remus had created it.
The fact that they had a nickname for their group made me uneasy. It was more ridiculous than anything, really: four legal adults taking the time to create little code names for themselves. But something about secret clubs with monikers put me on edge. The Marauders. The Black Adders.
Two young girls shoved past us, nearly bowling Marlene over, and she bellowed, “Oi, watch it!”
“Sorry!” they whimpered (I offered an apologetic smile on her behalf) before continuing towards the Three Broomsticks. It was notorious for being the place where the popular boys congregated—boys like Sirius Black and James Potter.
Hogsmeade weekends were always more hype than their worth. Everyone around us behaved as if they’d never stepped foot outside the castle in their lives. True, these weekends were the best thing to come out of being a Third-Year. But you can only buy your weight in Honeydukes so many times.
We stopped at a bench across from the Three Broomsticks. By now we were killing time; the carriages bound for the castle wouldn’t return for another hour. We hadn’t intended to come at all, but Marlene had been struck by a craving for Honeydukes’ cider, which the Hogwarts House Elves apparently couldn’t even begin to replicate.
It was freezing outside. I was dying to be in the warmth of the pub across the street, but apparently the Three Broomsticks was now on Marlene’s list of protested establishments. The vanilla bean used in their Butterbeer recipe was harvested using slave labor, apparently.
I wasn’t sure where she heard this information. And I didn’t mention that half of the sugar in Honeydukes’s candy—and the cider we were drinking—probably followed the same practice. But I wasn’t about to spend an entire Hogsmeade trip out in the cold, when Honeydukes had four perfectly warm fireplaces roaring.
As I tugged my hat over my cold ears, Marlene released something between a scoff and a snort of laughter. I followed her eyes to the window of the pub, where James and Sirius were pressing their faces to the glass, crossing their eyes and puffing out their cheeks. I grimaced—there was no telling how long it had been since those windows had seen a good washing.
“Wow,” I managed.
Marlene quirked an eyebrow at Sirius, who had stopped to fix a wide grin on her. “Is he really going to crash Lily and James’s first, actual date?”
“Wouldn’t doubt it.”
The fact that he was gazing in the way Shakespearean heroes did their lovers was, of course, lost on her. She returned to her cider without a second thought. But I must have been staring because she turned a smirk on me.
My intention was to shake my head; to murmur never mind, as always. But I heard myself saying, as if they were somebody else’s words entirely, “It’s just—well—you say that Peter fancies me, but you haven’t even noticed…” I trailed off, eyes returning to the window where Sirius had disappeared with James.
I expected an eye-roll; a sarcastic grin; a shake of her head. But the look on Marlene’s face was one I’d never seen before, and it stilled me mid-sip from my cider. She looked at a complete loss. As if she were presented with an Arithmancy problem that she couldn’t solve. Like she knew what she was supposed to do, but couldn’t grasp how.
Marlene mumbled, as if struggling to find the words, “It’s not that I don’t know…”
I waited, but she only gazed sullenly at the cup in her lap, and we fell into silence. When at last the first snowflakes of winter began to fall, it was several moments before she snapped from her reverie to notice them, blinking in surprise.
I nudged her gently with my shoulder. “So, who’s going to this ball thing?”
She seemed grateful for the change in subject. “You, me, Lily… Oh, and we’ve invited Mary. She’s in a rough spot, but you already know that, obviously.”
“No, what’s wrong? Did she and Remus stop talking?” I knew they had been skirting around the edge of dating, he too shy to pursue her, but they had seemed fine at the lake.
Marlene blinked in surprise. “You haven’t…? Honestly, Chloe, you’re taking on way too much if you haven’t heard. It’s all over school.”
I only waited expectantly so she said, “She was attacked the other night. A couple of Slytherins tried to use some really nasty magic. She got away without being hurt, and they’re going to be expelled, obviously, but it’s terrible.”
It was as if a bomb had gone off and in the aftershock my ears were ringing. Marlene was giving me a sad look, but she couldn’t possibly have known what I was thinking. “Wh-who was it?”
She sneered. “Alex Mulciber did it, but he had help from those bitches, Artemisa and Coraline. They let him into the girls’ loo. It’s absolutely insane. We all knew he was a posh brat, but nobody could’ve guessed he’d do something like this.”
Except for me.
I could have stopped this. If I had just told McGonagall about what had happened last year, then maybe he wouldn’t have attacked Mary. At least Artemisia and Coraline would have been expelled. I remembered the way their bare skin glinted in the poor torchlight, slick with water, and almost as hard as their smiles.
Or maybe Alex Mucliber was as rotten as the rest. Maybe he would have attacked Mary without their help. The poison ran deeper than those who had there, that night.
Marlene said, “You okay? It’s awful news.”
And there it was: another moment when I could have said something. I could have pointed out that Artemisia and Coraline were part of the group calling themselves the Black Adders; that there were others. That in expelling them, they had only cut off one of the Hydra’s heads.
But how many were there, still within the castle walls, watching me?
So I only nodded and took a drink from my cider. It had gone cold.
The feelings of safety disappeared after the Hogsmeade trip. The following week I took extra precautions to avoid being alone, meaning no more early morning walks to the greenhouses, or late nights in the library. If the Black Adders had dared to attack another student, they were more drunk with self-righteousness than I’d thought.
Mary was brave in ways that I couldn’t have been. Despite the attempts not to, my eyes roved to her during meals, lessons, and in the corridors. It seemed that Marlene and the others—the Marauders, I supposed—were with her at all times. Mary laughed, then, her pretty face shining like a lantern.
But in the rare moments she was alone, her facade was made of granite. Whether it was a talisman to ward off others, or a new inability to smile, I wasn’t sure.
The Black Adders were livid. Expelling three of their own—ruining chances of succeeding family businesses; acceptance into law school; trust funds—put Mary in the crosshairs. But they were like household ghosts, never seen save for evidence of their discontent: the cupboards opened in the night, the book falling suddenly from the shelf.
One morning, during breakfast, Mary’s scream had split through the quiet chatter of the Great Hall. A dead mouse was in her oatmeal. But she had only stilled herself, the look of granite returning, and gathered her books. Lily Evans was by her side straightaway. Her dark look smoldered across the hall to the Slytherin table. But in the end, she couldn’t prove who had done it, and nobody was punished.
For this I felt justified in my silence. It was awful, the cross that Mary had to bear, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the same. If nothing was going to be done to prevent another attack—again, where was Albus Dumbledore?—then I had to remain quiet.
This was how I quelled my guilt as I sat by the crackling fire in Hufflepuff basement. Winter had arrived, abruptly and unapologetically, since the Hogsmeade trip. Nearly a foot of snow had covered the grounds over the last three days. The common room was full of people studying, reluctant to forego the cheery warmth for the library.
My Ancient Runes assignment was sprawled across the table: fourteen inches on Norse runes in the second century and how they influenced myth. With a start I realized that one of my library books, Reading the Past, was missing from my bag. I must have left it at in the Great Hall during dinner.
A groan escaped me. More than half of my citations were within that book; I couldn’t even begin the assignment without it. But the skies had long since darkened, the castle corridors with them, and I didn’t want to venture out.
Quill Hopkins was at the next table over. Maybe she could walk with me; we were almost friends. But an enormous book was propped before her like a child’s fort. Her frazzled bun looked like a pincushion for quills as she scrawled furiously on a parchment.
I decided not to ask her.
When the rounded door creaked open, the dark and flickering corridor appeared a hundred times longer than usual. There was no telling who else would be roaming the halls. But if I didn’t turn in this assignment, my marks would suffer, and so would my chances at Herbology school. Squaring my shoulders and sucking in a deep breath, I stepped out, only to immediately cry out in alarm.
Sirius was leaning against the wall, just to the left of the doorway. “Didn’t mean to scare you,” he said in a way that suggested he most certainly did.
As he walked towards me, with his hands in his pockets, I instinctually took a step back. My mouth twitched in an attempt at a smile. This was how things were now: casual friends. If you could even call us friends.
“How long have you been standing here?”
“Not long.” But then he grinned. “Alright, thirty minutes. But I swear, there was nobody coming in or out! Are you lot performing some sort of group suicide in there?”
I couldn’t help my snort of laughter. “Exams studying, so, basically. But—erm—what are you doing here?”
“Can’t I just say hello to my favorite Hufflepuff?”
I stared blankly before gesturing behind me. “Oh, do you want me to go and get Joanna?” It was no secret that he and Joanna McCoy had their fair share of carnal activity during the previous fall.
But he rolled his eyes. “I meant you, you nerd.”
Naturally his comment sent my cheeks smoldering. He gave something between a smile and a nervous grimace, before with a little bounce of his feet he confessed, “Okay, actually, I have a huge favor to ask of you. We have a favor.”
“My mates and I.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, you mean the Maraud—”
“Shhh!” he hissed with laugher, actually covering my mouth with his hand.
I felt my body stiffen, but he was looking past me. The door to the common room was still open. Several heads had turned towards the scene: Sirius Black and his latest conquest. I locked eyes with Emily, where she sat with a textbook on the sofa, her lips parted in shock.
“Come on.” Sirius had already taken several steps backwards. “Let’s go for a walk, and you can hear my proposition.”
And maybe it was the warmth from his hand that lingered on my lips. Or the satisfaction of showing Emily that I didn’t need her—that I was getting on just fine without her friendship—that made my decision for me. I followed after Sirius into the dimness, the ancient runes book forgotten altogether.
As I caught up to him I tugged my grandmother-worthy cardigan tighter. Despite the chill, he of course was playing the part, wearing only wearing a tee-shirt with some Muggle band I’d never head of.
“Can I ask you something?”
He merely looked down at me, eyebrows raised expectantly over his glimmering eyes.
“How do you do it? All of this—this sneaking about, and drinking alcohol, and—”
“Marauding?” His teeth glinted in the torchlight.
“Merlin,” I muttered to his satisfied laughter. “It’s like you lot don’t worry about getting into trouble at all.”
“Ooh, that’s right, trooouble.” He wiggled his fingers menacingly.
“I’m serious! Half of the things you do could get you expelled, never mind the lesser stuff. Don’t you worry about being caught? Or do you just spend your life in detention?”
We reached the top of a staircase that descended into more darkness. We stopped and I noticed he was smiling at me. “What?”
“Well…this is the most I’ve ever heard you talk.”
He was probably right. But I was too busy looking at the stairs, warily, to respond. Somehow, in all of my years in the Hufflepuff basement, I’d never encountered them. And if someone had asked me to find them again in the morning I probably wouldn’t be able to. But none of this was as unsettling as the fact that the stairs led to someplace even deeper below the castle.
“I just don’t understand how you do it,” I said at last, knotting my arms before my stomach.
“Don’t worry, you will.” Sirius was rummaging in his trouser pockets. There was the sound of crinkling paper as he performed a nonverbal Lumos spell. My impressed look disappeared at the sight of a folded parchment, now illuminated in his grasp. “Besides, it helps to have the proper tools.”
I looked up at him skeptically and he intoned, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”
Author's Note: Quite a lot happened in this chapter! Mary's attack, and Marlene's confusion about Sirius, and the Marauders asking Chloe for a favor. Their time at Hogwarts is dwindling, meaning we'll be moving on to the bulk of the story soon, when the characters have graduated. I would love to hear your thoughts and theories, especially about Marlene's confusion, as it's quite a large part of the story.
Thank you for reading ♥
(Also, I don't own The Sound of Music!)
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