The four boys bounded into the Great Hall, flung themselves into chairs, and began shovelling down liberal amounts of sausages, bacon, egg and toast. Nearby, Lily Evans wrinkled her nose in distaste as she watched them eat. James looked up, reaching for his goblet of pumpkin juice, and caught her expression. He glared back at her.
“If you’d got here on time, you wouldn’t have to gobble your food like that.”
James did not feel that her snooty comment deserved a response and carried on eating, but Peter paused, his fork half-way to his mouth.
“We got lost.”
This admission of failure rankled with James.
“No need to look so smug,” he snapped, spraying Lily with crumbs. Lily’s cheeks flushed pink.
“I was just pointing out…”
“Well, don’t,” James cut in. He didn’t want his breakfast spoiled by this goody-goody little girl. Anyone could have got lost; most of the first-years had been late for breakfast, owing to the labyrinthine corridors and changing staircases.
“Fine. I hope you do get indigestion, then.” Lily pushed away her empty plate, and she left the table with Alice, who was related to James, and who seemed to be Lily’s friend. Alice shot James a cross look, and Lily was forcing her eyes wide open as if to keep a tear from spilling down her cheek. As they made to leave the Hall, they were knocked flying by a racing boy. He stopped short and bent down to help them up, a mortified expression on his face.
“Oh, no, I’m so sorry,” he gabbled. “Are you okay?”
Alice smiled at him kindly. “It’s all right; we’re fine,”
“If you’d got here on time…” Lily said, rather crossly.
The boy groaned. “I know, I did try, only I overslept, and I couldn’t find my socks. Then, on the way down from Gryffindor tower, I got stuck in a staircase when the step vanished, and I had to wait for a prefect to pull me out.” He grinned at his own helplessness.
Lily’s expression softened. “That sounds horrible. The bell’s about to go, you’ve just got time to grab some toast, and then we can find the way to Charms together.”
“Thanks.” The boy hurried to the Gryffindor table. As he arrived, James and his friends were leaving. They trooped out of the hall, James giving Lily a haughty look as he marched past her.
As he scrambled through the portrait hole after Remus, James wondered what to do next. They had just eaten a substantial supper and were now free for the rest of the day. Peter plonked himself down in a vacant armchair, and the others followed suit, glancing at each other expectantly.
“Well,” Remus began, looking as though he knew his suggestion would be unpopular. “We could get started on that homework McGonagall set.” Professor McGonagall was their Transfiguration teacher, and the Head of Gryffindor House. She had taken them all aback as she swept into the classroom and immediately launched into her subject, prompting a scrabbling for quills and parchment. She had also set them what was, in James’s opinion, an obscene amount of homework.
Sirius looked at Remus scathingly.
“We have seven years to do homework. Can’t we do something fun?”
“How about a game of chess?” was Peter’s enthusiastic suggestion.
Sirius looked at James in exasperation.
“You two have so much to learn!”
“I’d like to have a better look round the castle; I bet there’s loads of places to explore,” James said. Besides, he wanted to make sure he knew his way around better than any other first-year. Sirius considered James’s words, before leaning forward, his eyes gleaming.
“Why don’t we go tonight?”
“Tonight?” Peter said in a tremulous voice.
“Perfect,” said James briskly. “We could have as long as we liked, then.”
“Is it a good idea to break the rules on our first day?” Remus asked.
“Yes,” said James.
“Start as we mean to go on,” explained Sirius.
With the promise of excitement that evening, James was happy to while away time in the common room by playing chess with Peter. To James’s chagrin, Peter was a decent player, and James found himself wondering whether his father had let him win on the occasions that they had played at home. He was pondering his next move, with Sirius adding ‘helpful’ comments at his elbow, when a loud squeak distracted him. All four turned to see Alice Walker looking very shocked, as a massive, jet-black bird, which James thought could have been a crow or a raven, flew through the common room. It headed for Sirius, who groaned.
“I might have known,” he muttered, looking scared. “Mother,” he stated, in answer to the others’ querying looks.
The raven landed on the arm of Peter’s chair, making Peter shrink back. It gave a throaty caw and extended its leg to Sirius. James saw Sirius’ hands shake as he untied a dark green piece of parchment, from which pungent black smoke was wafting. Sirius braced himself, and opened it.
The effect was instantaneous and unexpected. The parchment exploded, and the image of a writhing snake appeared in the air. Faint words could just be heard, but the rest of the common room hadn’t noticed, as most had returned to their conversations. Straining his ears, James could make out the words, “shame on the family,” “abhorrent creature,” and, “bad example to Regulus.” He looked at the others, puzzled. Peter’s confusion mirrored his own, but Remus was frowning at Sirius, who was bent over, his hands on his ears. His chin was set, but his face was screwed up in pain, and his eyes were watering. Finally, the smoky snake disappeared, and Sirius straightened up. He met the worried expressions of James, Remus and Peter.
“I hate it when she does that,” he said, shrugging as if to shake off the experience.
“What was that?” Peter asked in an awed voice.
Sirius pulled a face.
“It’s like a Howler, except Mother wouldn’t want just anyone to hear her business. So it can only be heard by the person it’s sent to.” He was talking in a rather loud voice, as if slightly deafened. Suddenly, he grinned. “It seems Mother doesn’t like me being in Gryffindor.”
James, Sirius, Remus and Peter went to bed that night with barely concealed exuberance. Sirius and James’s enthusiasm for the evening expedition had transferred itself to Remus and Peter. They had briefly consulted as to whether the fifth member of their dormitory should be invited along. Frank Longbottom was a tall, friendly boy. James approved of the large Quidditch poster that Frank had pinned beside his bed, but Frank was extremely clumsy (he’d managed to knock over his goblet three times at supper), and they had felt that he would be too much of a liability. Besides, he had spent the day sitting with Lily Evans and Alice Walker, so there had to be something at least partially wrong with him. They were girls, for Merlin’s sake.
The night was a success. They found their way to the Great Hall on only their second attempt and ducked behind an old statue in order to avoid detection by Filch, the grizzly caretaker. Giddy with triumph, however, they didn’t notice that a stairway had moved, and found themselves creeping down an unknown corridor whose walls were lined with large suits of armour and gilt-framed pictures of people in odd wigs.
“I say, old chap,” said Sirius, lifting the visor of a suit of armour and peering inside. “You don’t know the way back to Gryffindor tower, do you?”
To their great surprise and delight, the armour shifted slowly, and with a good deal of clanking, until it pointed to the right. They thanked it and were about to head off in that direction, when Remus thought he saw something and pulled the others back into the shadows. There, they watched in awed silence as the Bloody Baron, resplendent in his pearly gore, floated past. After a few minutes, they dragged Peter from his hiding place and made their way back to the common room, blazing with the spirit of adventure.
“When shall we go again?” Sirius asked the others the next morning, and not even Peter had any objections.
It was a source of pride to James that he got himself a detention within a week of starting school, and the only lessons learnt from the four’s capture and punishment were to be cautious around Peeves, the school’s trouble-making, tale-telling Poltergeist, and that scraping stinksap from a dungeon wall wasn’t as fun as it sounded.
After a week at Hogwarts, Peter, Remus, Sirius and James each felt that they had known each other for years. Peter gloried in the friendship of three boys who were so much braver and cleverer than he was, and Sirius and James basked in his admiration. Remus felt that he was a normal boy for the first time and resolved to enjoy it while it lasted. Sirius was ecstatic to be away from his domineering mother and strict family, while James was pleased to find that Hogwarts had managed to surpass his expectations. James and Sirius quickly became a double act. They were like twins; both were mischievous, daring, and exceptionally bright.
The second week of school brought a pleasure that raised Hogwarts higher in Sirius and James’s esteem: Flying Lessons. It had been a great irritation to James that he was not allowed to bring his precious Cloud-duster 1000 with him to school. It had annoyed him even more that his parents weren’t prepared to flaunt the rules and let him bring it, anyway. The standard of flying in the first-year ranged from James, who had practically been born on a broom, to Muggle-born Lily Evans, who found it hard to suspend the belief she had held up to a few months before: that the sole function of a broom was to sweep up dirt. Therefore, the group that swarmed out of the school gates on the sunny September afternoon contained many excited, as well as several nervous, faces.
It was brilliant to be back in the air, even if he was riding an ancient Silver Arrow, and James realised how much he’d missed flying as he felt the breeze whoosh past his ears. Sirius sped up beside him, whooping in delight, and the pair played a game of one-on-one Quidditch with the tangerines they’d taken from lunch. Beneath them, they could see other students taking to the air. Remus was an indifferent flyer. His broom obeyed him, which was more than most students managed, yet James thought that his friend was flying very slowly. A fast-moving blur sped past, and James gaped. He’d imagined Frank to be as clumsy on a broom as he was on the ground, yet Frank was zooming across the Quidditch pitch. James gave chase.
“You’re not bad,” James finally conceded, panting for breath.
“Thanks,” Frank said, grinning. “I’m going to try out for the team next year.”
“What position do you play?” James already had his eye on the Chaser spot that would be vacated by the seventh-year Captain Rachel Estrey next year, and was prepared to fight for it.
“Seeker,” Frank replied, and James at once felt better disposed towards him.
James later discovered Sirius amusing himself by flying very close behind Snape’s broom, tweaking its tail occasionally to try and tip him off balance. James was just about to join in when the Flying Master, a burly Welshman named Lewis, roared at them to stop. They moved on, and James identified Marlene McKinnon as a new target. Marlene was a fellow Gryffindor, with dark hair, a slightly long nose and a superior expression. She was from a good wizarding family, and James had met her once or twice at parties. She was already friends with most of the second-year girls, and thought herself too mature to mix with the other first-years. She was daintily perched on her broom a little apart from the throng of flying students. James threw a tangerine at her. To his surprise, she spun and caught it with deft ease.
“You can’t get me that easily, Potter,” she said, laughing and, chucking the tangerine hard back at him, flew away. James looked after her with a slightly worried expression on his face.
“I hope she doesn’t want to play Quidditch next year,” he muttered.
“Ha! Beaten by a girl at Quidditch, now that would be funny,” Sirius snorted.
James fished in his pocket for another tangerine.
“UP!” Peter howled at his disobliging broomstick. He was disgusted that he still couldn’t get his broom to listen to him. His mother had never let him fly at home. Next to him, Lily Evans was in a similar position.
“Up!” she pleaded. James, diving low to duck Sirius, who was lobbing tangerines at him, smirked. Lily Evans was good at everything; having no magical background made her more determined to get things right. But she could not get the hang of flying.
“I think it twitched,” Alice Walker said, giving Lily an encouraging smile. Lily looked at her inert broom in despair.
“It’s your tone of voice,” Frank put in. He was hovering a foot off the ground, trying to stand up on his broom. “Talk to it like you do when you’re making me do my homework.”
“UP!” barked Lily. The broom whizzed into her outstretched hand. She stared at it, amazed. Frank fell off his broomstick.
At the end of the week, Remus announced that he was going home.
“What do you mean, you’re going home?” Sirius demanded.
Remus sighed, sounding tired. “My mother’s ill.”
James looked at Remus. His friend was paler even than usual and seemed worried.
“I hope she gets better soon,” he said, cutting off Sirius’s remark.
“Yes, well, there’s not much hope of that,” Remus said in an odd manner, before picking up his book, and burying his nose in it.
The others found this behaviour strange only because Remus had not talked of a sick mother before. Then again, he hadn’t told them much about his parents, or about himself. There was an elusive, mysterious quality about Remus that was infuriating, especially for Sirius. Whenever he was asked anything personal, he would get defensive and would quickly go to bed or read a book. James, Sirius and Peter realised that Remus disliked any allusions to his monthly disappearances, and as the term progressed, they avoided the subject, taking for granted that Remus would quietly leave every month and return a few days later after visiting his mother. It did not mean, however, that the matter was forgotten.
“Don’t they have house-elves to do this kind of thing?” grunted Sirius as he scrubbed at a particularly tarnished silver cup, finally producing a centimetre square of shiny metal, which he stared at gloomily.
“That would take away from the idea of a punishment,” James pointed out, as he grabbed yet another award for Services to the School and began rubbing it vigorously.
“I don’t know why you’re complaining, anyway,” Peter complained, petulantly chucking an old and intricately engraved spoon on to a pile of gleaming silverware. “You’re the one who got us this detention.”
“The look on Snape’s face was definitely worth it,” Sirius said, cheering up considerably. James nodded fervently in agreement.
“Priceless. It was a pity that Malfoy was coming around the corner, though.”
Malfoy had not been impressed to find the four Gryffindors clutching their sides in mirth, as the Slytherin first-year attempted to get up from his sprawled position on the floor, only to slip again and land spread eagled on his back, thanks to the “Banana Peel Powder” that had been sprinkled on that portion of the corridor. The culprits had been laughing too hard to distance themselves from the scene of the crime, and had been awarded detention by the Slytherin Head of House, Professor Asch.
“It’s not fair that Remus got out of it,” Peter grumbled.
“His mother’s ill! Personally, I’d rather have detention,” James said.
Sirius paused in his polishing. A frown appeared on his forehead. “I’m not sure he has gone home,” he said slowly.
“'Course he’s gone home, he’s gone home every month since we’ve been here,”
Sirius looked thoughtful.
“You know how Bellatrix hexed me after lunch and I had to go to the hospital wing to get the boils removed?”
As predicted, Bellatrix had not taken the shame of one of her family becoming a Gryffindor very well and, perhaps even on his own mother’s orders, had taken to hexing Sirius whenever she bumped into him in the corridors. Apparently, she’d also been rather annoyed when Andromeda became a Ravenclaw six years before, but as a second-year, she had known fewer nasty curses.
“Yes,” said James, wondering what Sirius was on about.
“Well, I’m sure I saw Remus in there.”
“He can’t be; he’s at home,” Peter remarked.
“Maybe he came back early,” countered Sirius.
“What was he doing in the hospital wing, then?”
James looked worried. “I hope he hasn’t caught whatever’s wrong with his mother. She’s been ill for ages.”
“I’m sure Hogwarts doesn’t need this many trophies,” Sirius said abruptly. James picked up a massive silver cup, engraved with dates, houses and lists of seven names underneath each year.
“The Quidditch Cup,” he breathed. “One day, I’m going to win this.”
The next day, Remus returned after lunch as usual, looking pale and exhausted.
“Are you all right?” James asked, concerned, as Remus walked into a Hufflepuff third-year walking the other way.
“I’m fine,” Remus snapped, causing the other three to stare at him in surprise. Remus closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I hate travelling by Floo powder, that’s all. It makes me really disorientated.”
“Oh, I can’t stand Flooing,” Peter said. “The ash always goes up my nose, and I can never say the names right. Once, when Mum and I were visiting my Uncle Bungo in Cardiff…”
As Peter talked, and Remus nodded with the air of one paying no attention whatsoever, Sirius caught James’s eye and gave him a meaningful glance. James shrugged. Sirius getting worked up about Remus only made Remus upset and Sirius annoyed.
“There’s nothing wrong.” James hissed, as he and Sirius bent over the beetles they were transfiguring into buttons.
“Floo powder doesn’t make you that woozy,” Sirius hissed back, glancing over at Remus. “And where did he get all those scratches?” For Remus’s hands were covered in red welts, and there was a thin red line on his neck, which disappeared down the collar of his robes.
“How am I supposed to know? Maybe he fell into a bramble bush, or got attacked by a baby hippogriff or something.”
Sirius gave a brief chuckle, but wasn’t distracted from Remus.
“You don’t get scratched visiting your sick mother.”
James glanced over at Remus, who was slumped on the desk he shared with Peter.
“Mr Potter, when you are quite finished, perhaps you would like to turn your attention to your work.”
Both James and Sirius sat bolt upright at the sound of Professor McGonagall’s sharp voice. Assuming an innocent expression, James flicked his wand over a little pile of wriggling beetles. They immediately changed into a pile of shiny black buttons. He grinned up at his Professor, who was exasperated to have no negative comment to offer. James’s effortless ability at Transfiguration had both surprised and delighted him, and scuppered McGonagall’s attempts to punish him for inattention.
Just then, an exclamation was heard from the desk in front. Frank Longbottom, who had been handing out beetles to the class from a large box, had sat down, and got up again very quickly, rubbing his backside. Beside him, Lily Evans suppressed a giggle. Professor McGonagall sighed, wearily.
“Mr Longbottom, I take it we will be requiring another set of beetles.”
James and Sirius joined the class in the ensuing uproarious laughter. For the moment, Remus was forgotten. However, Sirius was not about to let the matter rest. His next attempt came the next day, when they were heading down to the Quidditch pitch for flying lessons. The first-years had these every fortnight, and they were still James and Sirius’ favourite part of the timetable. Remus drifted about the pitch looking as though he’d much rather be reading, whereas Peter still found the whole experience rather terrifying.
“Remus, when did you leave to go and see your Mum?” Sirius asked suddenly. Remus stiffened. Both James and Peter looked at Sirius.
“The day before yesterday. Don’t you remember?” Generally, Remus was much more relaxed after these visits home; James supposed it was through relief at knowing that his mother was all right, but now he sounded guarded, although he was trying to remain casual.
“I was just wondering what time you left,” Sirius replied. Sirius was a master at sounding casual, but in the three months James had known him he had learnt to tell when Sirius was being serious about something.
“In the morning, why?” Remus asked. His hands were thrust deep into his pockets, his shoulders rigid.
“Oh, nothing, really. Just thought I saw you in the hospital wing after lunch.” Sirius’ tone was light, but his words were chosen carefully. “Must’ve been mistaken, mustn’t I?”
“It would seem so.”
“Last one to the pitch has to ride the Shooting Star,” James yelled, setting off at a sprint towards the Quidditch stadium. Sirius, never one to refuse a challenge, let alone be stuck with the worst of the school brooms, followed suit, with Peter at his heels. Remus carried on walking.
“Drop it, Sirius.” James and Sirius were sitting in the hospital wing, where Sirius had been sent yet again, after having crashed into a particularly violent tree. Undeterred by a swollen lip, Sirius had tried to raise the mystery of Remus’s scratches. Sirius tried his innocent expression, but by now James had seen it used too much to be fooled any longer.
“He obviously doesn’t want to talk about it. It must be hard enough with his Mother being sick without you questioning him.”
“So you think I’m lying?” Sirius tried to stand up in indignation, but Madame Pomfrey’s potion hadn’t quite taken effect, and he didn’t manage it.
James looked thoughtful. “No. I do think it’s odd, though. How sure are you that it was him you saw?”
Sirius frowned. “He was in the end bed, with the curtains drawn. Madame Pomfrey pulled them back to check on him, and, well, I could’ve sworn it was him, but…it just doesn’t make any sense.”
James was quiet.
“Y’know, I think maybe you’re right, maybe we should just leave it for a while,” Sirius said, resting his chin on his hand and focusing on the floral curtains of the neighbouring bed.
Just then, Peter and Remus burst into the room.
“Frank said he’d seen you crash into a tree,” Remus said, while Peter looked with interest at Sirius’s injuries.
Sirius felt the need to defend himself. “More like the tree crashed into me!”
“What, you mean the tree hit you?” Peter asked slowly, as though he thought that Sirius had been hit a little too hard on the head.
“No, he’s right,” put in James. “There’s this tree that whacks you, Madame Pomfrey said.”
Remus looked puzzled. “But what on earth were you doing by the Whomping Willow?” he asked. Sirius shrugged and there was an uneasy silence, until Remus spoke again in a firmly cheerful voice. “So. What is our follow-up going to be to the Banana Peel Powder?
James grinned and leant closer to the other three. “Well, I was thinking…”
That week, Professor McGonagall went around the common room with a list for students to sign if they wanted to remain at Hogwarts over the Christmas holidays. Sirius put his name down immediately.
“You’re staying at school?” Remus asked in surprise.
“Yep,” Sirius said with relish. “I don’t suppose Mother would have me at home, anyway, now that I’m a Gryffindor.”
“She can’t be that bad,” Peter said.
Sirius gave a bitter laugh. “My Mother makes Bellatrix look friendly.”
The other three all shuddered. All four of them laughed.
“Still, Christmas on your own isn’t going to be much fun,” Peter persisted.
“It’ll be more fun than at home, I can tell you,” Sirius answered.
“Besides,” James spoke up. “He’s not going to be on his own. I’m staying, too.”
All three of them turned to him.
“Yeah, I thought it’d be good to have Christmas here.”
“James, I’ll be all right on my own, honestly.” Sirius looked a little angry.
“Yeah, I know,” James said. “But Mum and Dad are always going on about how wonderful Christmas at Hogwarts is,” he said, his eyes lighting up, “and I’ve heard that Snape’s staying for the holidays, too.”
Sirius’ grin threatened to split his face in two. “Brilliant,” he crowed.
James smiled. It would be an interesting holiday. Almost as interesting as explaining to his mother why he would not be coming home for Christmas as planned.