It was with trepidation that James sent off the letter informing his parents that he would be staying at school for the holiday. Nevertheless, Archimedes, his handsome brown owl, brought him back a cheery reply and a bag of mince pies. James's mother, always anxious to see the good in her son, commended him for nobly staying with his friend, and his father said that he hoped whatever mischief he had planned wouldn't be too dreadful, and had added that he'd wait until after Christmas to carry it out, "if you want an old timer's advice." Both had sent their love, and the love of Grandma, Grandpa, the family house-elves, and the cat.
Remus and Peter left for home, and the holidays stretched out before James and Sirius. The next few weeks were teeming with opportunities to explore the more interesting parts of the castle and to pay Snape a bit of attention.
"So, what are our main objectives?" Sirius asked James over breakfast. "I think we should see something of the forest. We haven't even been in it yet, and there's bound to be loads of unusual stuff in there. And then I think we ought to see if we can work out a quicker way to..."
But James wasn't listening. Instead, he was examining the sausage that was speared on his fork. "House-elf," he murmured.
"No, James, that's a sausage," said Sirius.
"Seriously, do you think there are house-elves at Hogwarts?" James demanded.
Sirius shuddered. "Hope not, nasty little things. They give me the creeps."
James gaped. "What can you possibly have against house-elves?"
"Don't get me started," Sirius said darkly.
James shrugged and decided to leave Sirius's house-elf phobia for another day. "What I mean is, how is all this food prepared?"
Sirius restarted on his breakfast, deciding that the excitement of a holiday had gone to James's head.
"Hogwarts must have a kitchen!" James concluded in triumph.
Sirius's expression remained blank. "Food prepared in kitchen. Gosh, James, you've really outdone yourself, and it's only breakfast time."
"Yes, but what if house-elves work in the kitchen? You know how obliging they are."
"Most of them, anyway," Sirius muttered, but he now appeared interested. "So, if we could find the kitchen..."
"We'd get free food," James said.
"Free food..." mused Sirius. "It's worth a shot. I mean, how hard can a whopping, great kitchen be to find?"
Three nighttime excursions later, Sirius was forced to admit that the Hogwarts kitchen was surprisingly well hidden. They had decided that it must be near the Great Hall, and James reckoned that it was likely to be in the direction of the Hufflepuff common room. However, they had walked down the corridors hundreds of times. They had examined every doorway, but nothing looked as though it would lead to a kitchen. What had started as an idle idea was now a mission. The Forbidden Forest was forgotten; James and Sirius were determined that when Remus and Peter returned to school they would be able to show them the Hogwarts kitchen.
It was Christmas Eve, and James and Sirius were strolling down the underground corridors, without much hope of stumbling across a kitchen, when James began looking very closely at the pictures along one stretch of wall.
"What are you doing?" Sirius asked when he grew tired of watching James stare at a portrait of a thick-armed girl kneading dough.
"All these pictures are of food," James said. "Look."
Sirius looked. He saw a man carving a large roast chicken in a big picture of a family having Sunday lunch. There was a small painting of a pink jelly, which wobbled in its frame. Grapes, bananas, apples, oranges and even a pear jostled each other in a giant fruit-bowl. A trio of turkeys were doing some kind of tap-dance against the backdrop of a polished kitchen table.
"This must be it," he exclaimed, "but how do we get in?"
"Maybe you go through one of the pictures," James said.
"But we don't know the password," Sirius pointed out. The fruit in a nearby painting giggled. Sirius scowled at it.
"It's nearly supper time now. Perhaps we'll see the food go to the Great Hall."
So they waited, much to the amusement of the laughing fruit, but to no avail. Disappointed, they finally sloped off to supper, feeling that the food would taste much nicer if they had known exactly where it had come from.
The next morning James awoke to find himself being attacked by a pillow. "Leave me alone," he said, groggily fending off Sirius's onslaught.
"Get up! It's Christmas!" Sirius said, breathless from repeated bashing.
James's sleepiness evaporated, and he sat up and viewed the pile of presents on the end of his bed with satisfaction. He seized the nearest gift and began tearing strips of wrapping paper from it. Next to him, Sirius was similarly attacking his own pile of presents.
Sirius's presents did not turn out to be as nearly as good as James's. While his family had obviously spent a lot of gold on him, the gifts were ugly, showy, and completely useless. Sirius looked in disgust at the solid silver, monogrammed quill-box in the shape of a snake that his Aunt and Uncle Black had sent him, and in it he shoved the thick, black crow-feather quill that was a present from some obscure relative. A lumpy-looking parcel contained a set of heavy green robes, emblazoned at the collar and cuffs with entwined snakes stitched onto the velvet with silver thread. Sirius scowled at the accompanying note, which stressed the importance of the robes as an ancient family heirloom to be passed to the oldest male of each generation. James noticed Sirius's face soften as he opened a box of chocolate frogs from his younger brother Regulus. Apart from that, the only other presents that had so far afforded Sirius any pleasure were a big bag of sugarquills from his cousin Andromeda, and a book entitled 'The Mischief Maker's Guide to Magical Mayhem' from his Great Uncle Alphard.
James, meanwhile, had unwrapped a set of chess figures from his grandfather, a large amount of Falmouth Falcons merchandise sent by various relatives, a limited edition copy of 'Quidditch Through the Ages', several pairs of socks, a scarf, a woolly hat and gloves all in Gryffindor colours from his grandmother, who was fond of knitting, and had just uncovered a substantial hamper containing all his favourite sweets and the latest Zonkos products, sent by his parents.
Both James and Sirius received jars of Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans from Peter. Wanting to prolong the present opening, they stopped for refreshments.
Sirius popped a bright-red bean into his mouth and chewed. James stopped his unwrapping and watched Shim with interest.
"Cherry," Sirius declared at last. "Not bad."
James picked up a brown bean and examined it. "Could be anything," he muttered, but it turned out to be chocolate.
They ate without serious mishap (although James had to spit out a Stilton-flavoured bean), until Sirius came across a sickly-green bean peppered with brown spots.
"That's going to be nasty," James said.
"As if I'm scared by a sweet," Sirius replied loftily. He began to eat the sweet with a determined air of indifference, but after a few bites, he froze. His cheeks puffed out, and his eyes bulged. He clapped his hands to his mouth and fled the room. The sound of retching was heard from the bathroom
James made an unsuccessful attempt not to laugh.
After a few minutes, Sirius reappeared, looking extremely shamefaced. "Toad," he said in a hoarse voice.
"Eurgh." James sympathised. "Why don't you have a Chocolate Frog to take away the taste?"
Sirius gave him a tragic look before turning his attention to his Christmas presents.
"James," said a much-recovered Sirius, holding up what appeared to be a blank piece of parchment a few minutes later. "Open your present from Remus."
Puzzled, James searched his diminished pile and came out with a flimsy, but well wrapped, present. He opened it with care. "It's the same as yours."
"Why on earth would he send us parchment?" Sirius said, poking at his parchment with his wand in disdain.
"Maybe he wants us to do our homework," James suggested.
But Sirius wasn't listening. Instead, he was looking down at his piece of parchment, a smile forming on his face. He scrabbled for his quill-box, brought out his raven-quill, and picked up a bottle of ink that was on his bedside table. He began to scribble on the parchment.
James had watched in bemusement, and had just turned his attention back to his presents, when he saw writing form on his blank piece of parchment. He grabbed it. Sirius's aristocratic scrawl read -
"Tap the parchment with your wand."
"Did it work?" Sirius asked.
James answered by reaching for his wand and tapping the parchment. Sirius's writing disappeared, and a neater hand took its place.
I hope this didn't take you too long to work out. My Dad put a Protean Charm on the parchment. All four of us have a piece. If one of us writes on it, then the other three get the message. You just have to activate the parchment with your wand before you write. I thought it'd be useful for staying in touch in the holidays and for notes in class.
"Good old Remus," said James. "Pass me your quill." He scribbled off a reply, which showed up on Sirius's parchment as he wrote.
Thanks, Remus, the parchment works perfectly. It's a brilliant idea- should make History of Magic a bit more fun! We've had a good time at school so far; we're trying to work out how to get into the kitchens. Hope you are having a good holiday.
Merry Christmas James and Sirius (Oh, and Peter, thanks for the sweets. Sirius got a toad flavoured one!)
When he saw Sirius picking up his next present, James grinned. "That one's from me," he said.
Sirius gleefully unwrapped a small metal tin. He looked at it closely. It had no discernable join or way of opening it. Sirius shook it. A soft sound like sifting sand came from within. He tapped it with his wand. Nothing happened. James watched, amused.
"Go on then, explain," Sirius said, sighing in resignation.
"Bless you," James answered, and the grey metal of the tin began to swirl in a whirlpool of many colours: blue, purple, and green. When the swirling had stopped, there was a little indent in the top of the tin, at the bottom of which was a small hole.
Sirius peered inside and made out some pink powder. He brought the tin to his nose.
"No!" James's shout made Sirius put the tin down. "Don't smell it. It's sneezing powder."
Sirius tried not to look disappointed. "Oh, thanks."
James's smile widened. "Wait till you try it out. I got my uncle Eric to sneeze for about a week."
Sirius looked down at the innocuous tin in his hands, and a wicked grin appeared on his face.
Sirius had finished opening his presents, and James had only one left, when he glanced down at Remus's parchment, and saw that writing had appeared on it.
Dear James and Sirius, it read. Glad you are having a good time. Sirius, I'm worried that you can identify 'toad' as a flavour.
"He's got a point," said James. "How come you know what toads taste like?"
As for finding the kitchens, I think they're somewhere near the Hufflepuff common room.
"Tell us something we don't know," Sirius said crossly. He was finding their failure extremely exasperating.
The easiest way to find them would be to follow a house-elf, if you can find one, that is. Thanks for the quills, James, they're fantastic. I'm not sure what it is you've sent me, Sirius. You seem to have forgotten to label the potion bottle. Peter, thank you very much for the sweets. Luckily, I've managed to avoid 'toad', but I did get a beetroot-flavoured one. Disgusting!"
Dear James, Sirius, and Remus.
Glad you like the sweets. Thanks for the book, James, maybe I'll be able to fly properly next term. Thanks for the dungbombs, Sirius. Only thing is I let one off in my room when I unwrapped them, and Mum's furious. This parchment is fantastic, Remus. Do you think we'll be able to take it into exams?
"I wonder why we didn't think of that," mused James.
Sirius scanned the two letters. "What? Cheating in exams? We don't need to."
"No," James said, waving his hand as if swatting a fly. "House-elves. Why don't we follow a house-elf.?"
Sirius frowned. "Well, we never see them, do we? And a house-elf isn't going to let us follow it around; they only come at night."
"S'pose not," said James, looking disheartened. He began to pull the paper off his final present without much spirit. "It's a pity, though." He stared gloomily at the present he had unwrapped. It was made of some weird, silky, silvery material, that shimmered and shone as the light fell on it...
James let out an ear-splitting whoop.
"What on earth," began Sirius, until he, too, realised what James's present was. "That's never an..."
"Yes, it is." crowed James. "Dad said he had one at school, and he promised he'd give it to me, but then he never did. I thought Mum wasn't going to let him or something." He leapt up and threw the cloak over his head, capering in front of his invisible reflection in the mirror.
"Well," said Sirius thoughtfully, when the two of them had calmed down and were making their way to breakfast. "That cloak's going to make life a lot easier."
The rest of the morning was spent in fierce discussion as to whether the sneezing powder should be used immediately or not. Both James and Sirius were impressed by the beauty of casually sprinkling a bit in Snape's Christmas dinner. It had been the thought that had first sprung to Sirius's mind, and he was loath to relinquish it. Yet if they could only hold on until they had found the Hogwarts kitchen, as they planned to that night, they might be able to spike the food of the entire Slytherin table.
At last, Sirius decided to use the sneezing powder as a treat for when all the other students got back. The temptation of a larger audience and an increased number of victims was too much. He and James resigned themselves for the present to watching what Snape ate, so that the foods he would eat a lot of would contain the most sneezing powder. They overcame the disappointment of delaying the prank by laying plans for setting up their masterpiece.
Their first action was to follow a house-elf. They huddled under the cloak in the Gryffindor common room that night until, at about two o'clock in the morning, a faint scurrying was heard, and two small heads peeked round the portrait-hole. James was impressed at how efficiently the room was cleared. Even the burn marks from the Exploding Snap game that he and Sirius had had that evening disappeared within seconds. Soon the whole room was in order and, with a satisfied nod apiece, the house-elves turned and left the room.
Sirius and James were quick to act. They crept through the portrait hole and shuffled after the elves. It was a long journey. The elves stopped off at several classrooms to clean up, and as they followed them, James and Sirius met many other elves scurrying in different directions. Each little creature, they felt, stared at the space they occupied in an odd fashion. Nevertheless, they finally found themselves in the corridor with pictures of food. They watched as the elves hurried up to the painting of a large fruitbowl. One elf reached up and did something to the picture, which made it swing back, allowing the elves to get through. James and Sirius moved as fast as they could to the tantalising opening, but the portrait swung back before they could scramble through. What had the elf done? They stared at the giggling fruit in desperation. However, luck was with them. About ten minutes later, another elf hurried up to the picture, and James and Sirius, practically breathing down its neck in their anxiety, saw how to access the kitchens. With the blood pounding in their ears, they leaned forward and tickled the pear.
This was how explorers felt when they discovered hidden temples. This was how archaeologists felt when they were the first to enter the tomb of a long-dead king. This was how he himself had felt when he had first walked into Zonko's joke shop. James looked around him in ecstasy. The kitchens were bright and spacious. There were four tables lined up exactly like the house tables in the Great Hall. And among them scampered dozens of house-elves. They were cleaning surfaces, sweeping the already spotless floor, examining various recipe books, and generally skipping about in a flurry of activity. That is, until James drew off the cloak, and the house-elves suddenly caught sight of James and Sirius. Each worker froze in shock and edged towards the others. En masse, they advanced towards the two boys, emitting indecipherable high-pitched squeaks. James and Sirius were both thinking the same thing. House-elves were friendly...weren't they? The group advanced, and James swallowed. He wasn't afraid, was he? How could he, James Potter, a Gryffindor, be scared by a bunch of house-elves?
"Hi," he said. "We were, um..."
"A bit peckish..." put in Sirius,
"Yes," James laboured on. "A bit peckish, and we were wondering if, um, if you had any, uh..."
"Food." Sirius finished.
For a second, they were unsure as to how the house-elves would respond, but then the face of each elf lit up, as though someone had lit a torch behind their eyes. The request for food displaced the fright they had received from seeing two boys appear from thin air.
"Of course, sirs," the elves chorused. One of them darted forward. "What is you wanting to eat?"
James and Sirius exchanged a rapturous glance. Sirius took a deep breath.
"Well," he began.
As soon as Sirius started his list, little elves detached themselves from the group, and whizzed to cupboards, pantries, and stoves in order to produce whatever was requested. Within seconds, the boys were surrounded by dish-bearing house-elves, who plied them with bowls of steaming treacle tart, plates piled high with crumpets, platters of warm gingerbread, bowls of ice cream, and mugs of frothy hot chocolate. Christmas lunch had been an enormous affair, and Sirius and James had acquitted themselves well at supper. Nevertheless, they managed to keep the house-elves who were waiting on them very busy for the next twenty minutes, as they devoured all that was put in front of them. When, finally, they could eat no more, they bade the elves goodnight, and returned to Gryffindor tower, occasionally munching on the food that they had been begged to take with them.
"That was well worth all the bother," Sirius said as he collapsed onto the sofa in the common room. "And did you see the tables they use to send the food up on. With the cloak it'll be a doddle to add the sneezing powder."
James's mouth was too full of crumpet to reply intelligibly, but he whole-heartedly agreed.