- Chapter Seventeen -
Following the Caretaker
By the next morning, a brand-new notice had appeared in the Gryffindor common room. It read: 'First-year flying lessons, starting on Monday' and was surrounded by James, Sirius and Marlene McKinnon.
James was beside himself with joy. "We get to fly!" he yelled, shaking Peter, who stood next to him.
Peter wriggled free of James' grip and massaged his shoulders. "That's not a good thing. I've never been on a broomstick before," he told the others, his mousy face sweating slightly.
"I have," said Remus, who also didn't look happy at the sight of the notice. "Only once, though. And I'm not especially fond of heights. I didn't like it very much."
"How could you not like it?" demanded James, turning away from the sign and looking incredulously at Remus. "Flying's the best feeling in the world. What's not to like?"
"What if you fall off?" said Peter worriedly.
"Well, you die, don't you," said Sirius, waving a hand airily. "Or you just break a couple of bones. It all depends on how high you are and how fast you're flying..."
This did nothing whatsoever to make Peter feel better.
"You won't fall off, Peter," said James, clapping Peter on the shoulder. "And, even if you do, you probably won't be far enough off the ground to do more than break your wrist. And that's only if you're really unlucky."
Remus stifled a yawn. He was still tired from the nighttime stroll - a still that neither he nor James had mentioned to the others.
Some things, James had told Remus as they made their way back to Gryffindor tower, were nice to keep private.
"Why are you so tired, Remus?" asked Sirius, leading the way out of the portrait hole. "You were the last to wake up this morning. And James looks tired too."
This was true. Although, while James merely yawned occasionally, Remus had dark smudges under his eyes and looked exhausted.
"Oh, I... I think I'm just coming down with a cold," said Remus evasively, pinching his cheeks when the others weren't looking. He needed to look well or they'd suspect him. And then they'd do some digging, find out what he was and desert him.
Remus couldn't let that happen.
"Poor you," said Peter sympathetically. "You should go down to Madam Pomfrey and get her to give you some Pepper-Up Potion. My mum gives it to me when I'm ill and it works really well."
"I might go later," Remus told him, knowing fully well that he wouldn't. "What are we going to do today? We've got the weekend off, haven't we? And didn't Sirius say he wanted to explore?"
"Yeah," said Sirius, grinning. "I said we could find some secret passageways."
James nodded. "Let's do that first, then. We can do something else later. We'll eat breakfast and then have a look around. Come on."
They entered the Great Hall and sat down with their fellow Gryffindor first-years, all of whom were talking excitedly about flying.
"I've got a Cleansweep Six, back at home," said Frank Longbottom, accidentally dipping his sleeve in marmalade as he reached across the table. "The latest model. Dad bought it for me last Christmas. I've been flying it around the garden ever since."
"I fly a lot, too," said Marlene McKinnon. "And sometimes I play Quidditch with other people. We don't have proper balls or anything, obviously, but there's a clearing in the woods that we use. And there are a couple of trees that we can use as goalposts."
Lily Evans and Mary MacDonald were both looking anxious.
"I don't know anything about flying," whispered Mary, mid-way through buttering her toast. "I'm muggleborn, so I've never learned. I don't follow Quidditch, either. All I know is that it's played on broomsticks and there are four balls."
James leaned over the table and studied her pale face. "Quidditch is easy enough to understand," he said bracingly. "You just have to learn the rules. There are four balls - like you said - and seven players on each team. There's a Keeper, three Chasers, two Beaters and a Seeker. The Chasers have to score goals, the Keeper has to guard the goal hoops at either end of the pitch and the Seeker has to catch the Snitch. Then there are the Beaters, who have wooden bats and have to hit these two balls, called Bludgers, away from their team. It's not hard, really."
"It sounds complicated," said Mary, still looking worried. "Even going in the air sounds terrifying."
"It's not," said James, looking earnestly at her. "Honestly, you just have to kick off from the ground-"
"Ignore him, Mary," said Lily Evans, cutting across James. She gave him a very nasty look. "He's probably just trying to show off. Sev's told me all about Quidditch and he says it's much harder than it looks-"
James glared at her. "Oh, if Sevy's told you, he's probably right," he muttered sarcastically. "Precious little Snivellus - he must know absolutely everything."
"I didn't say he did!" cried Lily, a light flush starting to creep up her cheeks. "In fact, he's told me a hundred times that he might not have all the facts right, but he's still told me a good deal of things! And all of them, so far, have been true! So I'd just shut your fat mouth, if I were you, Potter. And mind your own business."
"You were the one butting into Mary and James' conversation," said Sirius suddenly, turning away from the discussion he'd been having with Peter and Remus. "No one asked your opinion, Evans."
Lily snarled something under her breath, then threw James and Sirius another glare. She stood up, fists clenched, and stormed off, stopping by the Slytherin table to talk to Snape.
Sirius rolled his eyes. "I dunno what you see in her, mate. She's the most snappy person I've ever met."
"I think that's just because of you and James," said Remus softly, joining the discussion too. "She seems to dislike you for some reason."
"She just doesn't know what she's missing," James said, exhaling deeply and shaking his head. "She'd be fine if she didn't hang around with Snivellus. He's brainwashing her."
Remus sighed. "If you say so. Come on, let's go back to the common room and get our things. We can start exploring."
"Where are we going to go?" asked Peter, as they came to a halt outside the portrait hole.
The Fat Lady stared down at them. "Password?" she asked, adjusting her dress as she spoke.
"Shuntbumps," replied Sirius. He turned to Peter. "I don't know. We could look through the grounds, I guess?"
The portrait swung forwards to admit them.
"Yeah," said James eagerly, all thoughts of Lily Evans vanishing from his mind. "I want to look at the Whomping Willow. It sounds awesome, don't you think?"
Remus suddenly went very quiet. He gnawed his lip and fiddled distractedly with his sleeve. "I- I don't think that's a good idea," he said, avoiding his friends' gaze. "It might be... it might be dangerous."
Sirius scoffed. "Dangerous? Oh, come off it! It's a tree, for Merlin's sake! A tree! How many trees have you come across that are dangerous?"
"Dumbledore said at the feast that we should be careful around it," said Remus stubbornly, now folding his arms. "He said that it won't tolerate human contact."
"Well, yeah, but we will be careful, won't we? It's not like he said 'don't go near the tree. It's dangerous', is it? He just warned us to keep our eyes open."
"And we won't be wandering around with our eyes shut," added James, as Remus continued to look apprehensive. "We're not stupid. We'll keep our distance and just look at it for a bit. It won't hurt, I promise."
"Of course it'll hurt!" cried Peter who, like Remus, looked anxious. "It's a violent tree! It'll attack us!"
"No, it won't," said James "Because, like Sirius said, we'll be careful."
"But... but..." Peter seemed to be struggling to find another reason not to go near the terrifying tree. "I don't want to go," he said at last, sounding unusually adamant. "I'm not going near the Willow. You can go if you like, but I'm not."
"Aw, come on, Peter, don't be a wuss," said Sirius, smirking at the smaller boy. "You're in Gryffindor! You're supposed to be brave, you know."
But Peter shook his head. "I don't care," he said, although it was obvious that he did. His voice was shaking slightly. "I'm not coming with you."
"Suit yourself," said Sirius, shrugging. He turned to Remus. "Remus, are you coming?"
"No," said Remus at once. Then a new thought occurred to him.
What if the others saw the passageway at the base of the trunk? What if they went down it and found the place he was supposed to hide? If he went with them, he might be able to prevent them from looking too closely...
"Actually, no. I'll come." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.
Peter let out a small wail. "No, Remus, don't go with them! I need you to keep me company."
Remus sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Peter, but I have to. You can come with us, though. And it won't be too scary. After all, it is just a tree."
"But it's a whomping tree!" cried Peter, as though this was the most obvious thing in the world. "Its branches will attack you! You'll be hurt! You'll get into trouble!"
James and Sirius both rolled their eyes.
"Come on, let's get going," said James loudly, completely ignoring Peter's continued protests. "We won't have time to do anything if we keep arguing."
"Yeah," said Sirius. "We won't find any passages."
Wondering whether this was such a good idea, after all, Remus followed the other two out of the common room.
Peter trailed behind, still whimpering.
Much to Peter and Remus' delight, however, the four boys didn't even make it to the Whomping Willow. They were halfway through the Entrance Hall when they were accosted by none other than Filch the caretaker.
"What're you up to?" he snarled, his jowls quivering with suspicion. "Sneaking around as if you've got nothing better to do. Why aren't you in your common room, flicking toad brains at the walls and plotting to cause mayhem."
"Oh, we were just doing that, actually," said Sirius casually, looking Filch up and down, taking in his moth-eaten clothing and oily hair. "We came downstairs to have a change of scenery."
"Change of scenery!" snorted Filch, as though it was unnatural for a group of eleven-year-olds to walk through the school on a weekend. "As if! Don't think I don't know what you're up to, you nasty little rats! I'm not stupid, you know-"
James sniggered loudly at this and Filch turned purple with rage. "Well, that's news to us," he said, nudging Sirius who stood next to him. "You look pretty stupid to me."
Filch spluttered as Mrs Norris wound around his ankles, glaring up at the boys. "How... how dare you!" he hissed, his eyes bulging. "I'll be reporting you to Dumbledore, I'll be stringing you up by your ankles, I'll be-"
"We haven't got all day to listen to your rants," said Sirius haughtily, folding his arms and shaking his head. "Excuse us, will you? We've got stuff to be getting on with."
"You- you-" Unable to find words to describe what Sirius was, the caretaker was reduced to muttering angrily under his breath. There was a few seconds of tension, where Filch's pouchy eyes flickered from James to Sirius and back again.
James and Sirius glared coldly back.
Then, as Filch finally realised he was defeated, he turned on his heels and hobbled towards the marble staircase, Mrs Norris at his heels.
"I loved that," said Sirius blissfully, closing his eyes as they walked away from Filch, towards the front doors. "Goading Filch is my new favourite hobby. Can we do it again?"
But Peter was shaking his head. "I don't think that's a good idea," he said. "Filch can hand out punishments if he really wants to... I think. Anyway, he knows all the secret passageways, so he'd probably just avoid us-"
James stopped dead in his tracks.
The other three looked at him worriedly.
"Um... James?" said Remus, his voice hesitant. "Are- are you all right?"
James slowly digested this question. "I'm fine..." he said, at last, turning to fix his gaze on Peter. "In fact, I'm more than fine. Peter, you're a genius!"
Peter blinked. "I'm a what?"
"A genius, Peter!" said James, grabbing his friend by the arm and looking delighted. "Filch does know all the secret passageways, doesn't he?"
"So?" said Sirius. "We can't exactly go up to him and ask him about them, can we? And I thought we were going to see the Whomping Willow?"
James waved a dismissive hand. "Stuff the Willow," he said.
Peter, Remus and Sirius stared at him.
"We can visit that another day. Let's follow Filch instead."
"Are you mad?" said Remus, shaking his head at James. "If we follow Filch around, he'll kill us!"
"Ah, but he won't," James held up a finger and put on a superior voice. "I think you're forgetting something, Remus. Something that will help us follow Filch without being seen."
Remus gaped at him for a moment. Then comprehension dawned on him. "Hang on... Of course! The invisibility cloak! We can... we can..."
Sirius, too, felt a rush of understanding. "We can use it to follow Filch and find out where the secret passageways are!" he cried, so loudly that Peter clapped his hands over his ears. "And he won't be able to see us!"
"Exactly!" said James, nodding. "Quick! One of us needs to chase down Filch and distract him, while I run upstairs and grab the cloak."
"Peter," said Sirius at once, turning to his friend. "Peter, you can do that."
Peter squeaked. "Why me?" he gasped, looking terrified at the very idea. "Why do I have to distract him? Why can't you do it? You're the one that liked insulting him earlier!"
"Because," said Sirius, with the air of explaining something very obvious to a small toddler, "I'm going to go and smash up a classroom. Remus can help me. And you, Peter, are going to find Filch and tell him that we're making a mess."
"Oh," said Peter, finally catching on. "Oh, okay. But won't you and Remus get into trouble?"
"That's what I was thinking," muttered Remus, casting a sideways glance at Sirius.
Sirius grinned broadly. "Yep," he said, as though this didn't perturb him at all. "But it'll be worth it, won't it, if we manage to find some passageways?"
"Um..." said Remus, who rather thought that getting detention wasn't a reasonable price to pay. "I guess so..."
"Great!" said James, already running up the marble staircase. "I'll get going then. We'll meet back here when you've made a diversion and slip under the cloak."
"Why do we even need a diversion?" asked Peter, staring after James' receding back.
"Because Filch needs to stay put for a bit," explained Sirius. "If we lose him, we won't be able to follow him, so we need to keep him in one place while we set up our plan. Come on, it won't take long." He set off in the direction Filch had gone, striding confidently along.
After exchanging anxious glances, Peter and Remus hurried after him.
Here's the second half of the double update! :)
Dedicated to PottyWeePotter for your amazing reviews.
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