Part 17 - Tough

My first day of classes at Hogwarts ended in the Hospital Wing, with Bill getting his ear reattached after having it nearly mauled off by a vicious phoenix. The incident was pretty much entirely Judy's fault; she'd been harassing Dumbledore's pet under the impression that getting a hold of some feathers would grant her the power to cast spells. It did not, which led to the question of where the pink ribbons in Dumbledore's hair and beard had come from...

Searching an answer to this mystery, the man showed up in the Hospital Wing a few hours after Bill and I had gone down there. Dumbledore seemed to have been successful in restoring his general person to its respectable pre-twin state; I wondered if he knew just how very close he came to losing that ridiculous beard (Judy having been about to lop the thing off when I walked in (or at least that's what she claimed and I hoped she was doing standing over him with a knife...)).

"Good evening, all," Dumbledore greeted quietly, surveying the calm room.

Most of the victims of the duel that had broken out during Sirius's fifth-year Rav-Slyth class had either been released or knocked out for further repair.

Bill and I were waiting for our various gashes to finish being dealt with. My friend's face and neck and back and arm were slathered in pale green salve. My clawed up wrist was not quite as severe, but, since I my body was generally resistant to being healed by magical medication, the same salve was taking a lot longer to work on my injured limb.

Despite the fact that he'd been mauled a lot worse than I had, Bill was further along on the way to a full recovery, slightly loopy on pain potion and staring at the ceiling in delighted wonder. Judy was playing with a roll of gauze on the floor, and Noah was asleep tucked beneath my uninjured right arm, having exhausted himself with hysterical talk of mean phoenixes and giant beards trying to eat him; the incident would evolve into a quite unusual set of phobias surrounding large birds and excessive facial hair.

I was, understandably, a little peeved with the headmaster.

"Albus," Sirius muttered, haggard and wrecked after a long, stressful day, "Glad to see you're none the worse for wear."

The old man nodded, still a bit bashful as he explained, "I just wanted to make sure Mr. Weasley and Miss Sennen were being looked after. And to apologize once again for my own negligence and Fawkes's strange behavior."

I nudged Judy with my foot.

She heaved a great sigh, rather halfhearted sing-songing, "I'm sorry, Albie, for making your bird mad. I took his feathers cuz I wanted to do magic, but if you'd just let me have a wand-"

"Judy," I scolded firmly, "It's supposed to be an apology, not an excuse."

Frowning, the girl huffed, "Fine. I'm sorry. It won't never happen again."

"Won't ever," I corrected, because I didn't quite trust her not to being playing dumb.

Whether I was right about her purposeful misuse of the double negative or whether she just didn't like being corrected, Judy only answered with a heated scowl.

"That does explain some things," Dumbledore muttered, "Ah, well. Apology accepted. I'm sure you've learned your lesson, and Fawkes will recover from his trauma."

"His trauma?" Bill asked, still kind of goofy and sleepy from whatever Madam Mary had given him. On the plus side, his ear was looking less like something out of a horrific slasher movie.

Dumbledore cleared his throat, producing a handful of mangled pink ribbons from his pocket as way of a subject change. "I was wondering, Judy," the old man declared, "If you might tell me where you found these. I don't recall having ever come across pink ribbon inside my office before."

Judy shrugged, shifty-eyed and obviously lying as she insisted, "I don't remember."

"Just tell him, Judy," I prompted. My arm still hurt, and nothing was helping; the green salve just made it sting and ache even more, and I didn't want to deal with a lying sister on top of everything else.

Huffing again, the girl stubbornly repeated, "I don't remember!"

"I only ask," Dumbledore interrupted, "Because they do not seem to be normal ribbons. They seem to have been enchanted. They were quite reluctant to release my hair."

"Judy, where did you get the ribbons?" I demanded. She was either stealing (which I could deal with) or someone had given them to her (which was what really worried me about the situation since our psycho relatives had been known to try to slip us dangerous cursed objects, like my music box).

"Nowhere!" she said peevishly, "I don't remember!"

My stomach started to growl, and I realized that we'd missed dinner. Staring sternly down at my sister, I did my best to remain calm and rational and announced, "You won't get in trouble if you just tell me now. Did someone give them to you?"

Judy made a face that was somewhere between a pout and a glare, finally muttering, "No."

"Did you find them in the headmaster's office?" I went on.

"No," Judy insisted.

God, she was infuriating sometimes. I took a deep, calming breath, not wanting to go off on her again. I'd already made the poor thing cry once that night and did not desire a repeat performance. No matter how obnoxious she was. "Judy," I sighed, "Please, just tell me."

She remained stubbornly silent.

"You're totally grounded," I proclaimed, "No sweets and no flying."

"That's not fair!" Judy screeched, "I didn't do anything!"

I glared at my sister, answering, "Tough."

xxXxx

We were out of the Hospital Wing in time for breakfast the next morning. Bill had been completely healed, but my arm was still slowly mending and wrapped in a clean bandage; I was supposed to go back during lunch to get it checked, but I wasn't sure it would be worth the effort. Madam Mary was just going to put on more of that stinging salve that was still making it feel like it was on fire. Besides, what was one more set of scars?

Bill absolutely refused to allow me to carry my own bag, citing my injury. Though I thought it was very sweet of him, I couldn't help being slightly annoyed by how easily he managed my overstuffed satchel as well as his own.

We had only just sat down at the Gryffindor table when we were rushed by the rest of our yearmates, all the boys and girls crowding around us hurriedly

"Are you two alright?" asked Kat O'Keefe, a rather sensitive, wide-eyed brunette with a soft spot for cuddly and injured beings.

Nodding, chubby, frizzy-haired Hannah Benjamin peered owlishly from behind her thick square glasses and piped up, "Marcy Turner told me that Patrick Ingram told her that Jasmine Bishop told him that Alex Ferris told her that you were hurt fighting the headmaster's phoenix!" The string of names, while difficult to follow, didn't really surprise me. Hannah was very sociable. She might've even been considered nosy and gossipy, although not really in any malicious sort of way; the bespectacled Irish girl just had a natural and insatiable curiosity about what was going on in the lives of the people around her. Even after only one day at the school, she was already firmly tapped into the social pipeline.

Since he was the one who'd sat on my left side, Noel Dwyer noticed the wrap on my arm. He gave it a light poke, black mop of curls hanging in his bright blue eyes as the boy pried, "Why would you want to fight the phoenix? And what were you even doing in the headmaster's office? Did you two get in trouble on the first day? I didn't even get in any trouble on the first day!" Since Noel had a tendency to pick fights and never, ever back down from them (unless his Ravenclaw twin, Leon, was there to physically drag him away) that was quite impressive for the boy.

"We weren't in trouble," Bill insisted, grasping my free hand underneath the table, "We went to get Ivy's brother and sister. Dumbledore was babysitting, but he fell asleep, and Judy was bothering the bird because she wanted its magic, and it got mad and came after her, so I saved her, and then Ivy saved me. But we're alright now. Madam Mary healed us. She was very nice."

The other first-year Gryffindors stared, seemingly trying to puzzle out how serious Bill was. And, perhaps more importantly, what to make of the pair of us.

"Um," I finally spoke up, uncomfortably reaching for a subject change and a piece of toast, "What classes do we have today?"

"Double Potions first," Tracy Haas supplied. The dark-haired boy shoveled an impossible amount of scrambled eggs into his mouth and didn't let struggling to chew it stop him from continuing, "Wif de Rav'nclaws."

Flicking bright purple bangs away from her dark eyes, Freya Wolf glared disgustedly across the table at the blonde boy and launched a grape at his forehead before complaining, "It's going to be horrible, but then we get to have Transfiguration after lunch. I heard that's one of the best classes." Freya was the most... um... outspoken first year Gryffindor. She either had problems filtering her thoughts or just really didn't care not to say everything that popped into her mind, good or bad. However, she was still a great friend, crass but funny, combative but loyal. Unflinchingly honest: she was the one who would tell you what you didn't necessarily want to hear but needed to, and she never let anyone get away with anything they shouldn't.

"Professor McGonogall does seem interesting," Marco Garza commented. The handsome Mexican boy was absurdly intelligent but also extremely quiet, content to blend into the background even though he wasn't particularly shy and probably could've been winning us more House points than we knew what to do with. Talking to him later, I found out that his family was rather well off and that he'd had private tutoring since he was practically an infant in just about every subject imaginable. It was why he spoke perfect English (as well as French and Mandarin) and why he pretty much never needed to study to get top grades.

And it's not like he never spoke ever, not like Arista. She tagged along with the other girls sometimes, but getting her to participate in a conversation was almost impossible. Like that day at breakfast, she usually just hovered stoically on the fringes of any gathering, maybe listening or maybe not as she stared off into space. In fact, I was pretty much the only person who ever got more than a sentence out of her at a time.

"McGonogall's a babe," Connie Kerry insisted, reaching across Kat and managing to dip the sleeve of his robe into a dish of oatmeal in the process.

Kat prevented the ash-blonde from dripping all over her and himself, manhandling him back into his seat and cautioning, "Careful!"

Frowning at the mess, the eccentric muggle-born continued, "She came to my house to explain all this magic stuff to my parents! Cor, if I were thirty years older..."

"Das kin'a sick, mate," Tracy commented, his mouth still stuffed to bursting. And he'd somehow gotten toast crumbs in his dark hair...

"It is not," insisted Connie, "She's seriously hot! Bill, back me up."

Bill snorted into his own breakfast, chuckling, "She's, uh, not my type. But good luck." He shot me an amused sideways glance, squeezing my hand under the table.

I couldn't help giggling a little myself as I discretely spelled the oatmeal off Connie's sleeve. The ash-blonde muggleborn was a weird kid, always saying odd things like that.

"You're all just jealous! We're going to make beautiful tartan babies together!"

Or that...

xxXxx

As Freya predicted and Sirius had earlier warned, Potions was pretty horrible. I found the subject itself fascinating, but Professor Snape was a complete tool and had already decided to hate every last Gryffindor, me especially.

On Sirius's recommendation, I kept my head down and my mouth shut, listening attentively to a speech that I'm sure was supposed to be intimidating but that I found more ridiculous than anything else. I mean, I'm not easily intimidated, and I'm not really afraid of just being threatened. Snape was a jerk, but as far as my enemies list goes, he never managed to rank above a minor nuisance.

But everything is relative, and, to the rest of the first-year pride, Snape was the devil incarnate. He took points from Freya, Connie, and Noel, all for some form of backtalk or speaking out of turn. All three were guilty of doing exactly that but still seemed indignant over the punishments. Between their glaring at Snape and Snape's glaring at me (apparently he and Sirius were mortal foes), the two-and-a-half hour class dragged on and on.

When it finally did end, we were all too glad to get out of the dungeon, wandering back toward the Great Hall. We hadn't escaped without a half ton of homework, and between that and the class itself, just about everyone was bitching.

So I was almost relieved when Bill reminded me that I was supposed to go to the Hospital Wing to get my arm tended to. As much as I wasn't looking forward to more of the salve, being spared the complaint storm really was a blessing.

As usual, Bill chattered while we walked, a little bit about Snape but mostly just random things that popped into his mind, how good the food was and how cool the castle was and how much he liked all the people, prospective plans for the weekend. The sound of his voice was kind of soothing, and I lost myself in it as we wandered down the hallways.

Having my arm re-salved and re-wrapped was simple enough, not painless but bearable. When it was through, Madam Mary asked me to sit for a moment while a potion she wanted to try on me finished brewing. As we waited, Bill had me help him with a letter to his family. It was already quite long, pretty much a second-by-second recount of everything that had happened since the boy boarded the train, but he wanted to be sure that he didn't leave anything out.

Maybe ten minutes later, another person entered the otherwise deserted room. It was Nikolai Ivanov, a tall, very pretty Slytherin boy in our year. I'd talked with him in Sirius's class the day before, and, although the boy was soft spoken, he was also very nice.

"Hello," he greeted, smiling warmly as he loosened his green tie and came to sit on the cot across from the one on which Bill and I were huddled. "Your arm," the black-haired boy asked in his slightly broken English, "Is ok?"

"Ya, it's fine, thanks," I reported brightly, "Just some cuts. They're almost healed."

"Good," he answered. Offering his hand out to Bill, the boy stated, "I am Nikolai."

"Bill," Bill chirped brightly, pretty much always thrilled to meet someone new, "You were in the group with Ivy in Defense yesterday, right? You guys were great answering all of Professor Black's questions like that. So what're you here for anyways? You don't look hurt or sick."

Blinking and seemingly struggling to interpret my friend's rapid speech, the Russian slowly, carefully answered, "I have disease called diabetes. I take potion every veek for to control my blood sugar. Madam Mary, she vill brew it for me."

"Oh," Bill said, "That's interesting. I've never known anybody who had diabetes, but I've read about it before. Muggles who have it have to take shots all the time! With needles! Sometimes even a bunch of times every day! Is it rare for a wizard to have diabetes? Have you ever met anybody else with it?"

Nikolai thought about the question for a few moments, his face visibly brightening when he'd fully understood what was being asked. "My mother," he answered, "She had also. She vas vith group of researchers who made the potion ve take much more better."

With an impressed nod, Bill commented, "Wicked. So your mum's good at potions then? I bet that'll make Snape's class a lot easier. You can probably ask her all sorts of questions."

Sadly, Nikolai reported, "She died vhen I vas small."

Bill's face turned red as the boy muttered, "Sorry." From his somewhat shifty eyed glance at me, I assumed that he remembered that I had also lost a parent (technically two, but only one to death at that point). And he was probably trying to tell whether or not the insensitivity had angered me in some way.

But it really was an honest mistake. There was no way Bill could've known, and I wasn't about to fault him for his chatterbox ways. He was my best friend, after all, and I found his inability to stop talking rather adorable and endearing.

"Is ok," Nikolai proclaimed, offering a brave smile.

Madam Mary bustled back into the room, shoving a vial into my hands and declaring, "You drink that, and then make sure to eat a good lunch and dinner. Come back after dinner so that I can see if it's done any good." Smiling contentedly while I choked the concoction down, the nurse then turned to Nikolai and proclaimed, "I'll have your potion done in just a few minutes, Mr. Ivanov. I trust that before lunch on Tuesdays will be the regular time?"

"Da," the tall boy answered quickly. He blushed a bit and quietly corrected, "Yes. Ma'am. Thank you."

"No trouble at all, my dear," Madam Mary beamed before heading back into her office.

"Do you want us to wait for you?" Bill offered brightly, bouncing a bit on the cot as he gathered his bag and then took mine again before I could protest, "We can walk to lunch together."

Nikolai smiled pleasantly, flicking shimmery black fringe off his forehead. "No, thank you," he answered, "I drink potion very slow or else my stomach is made... eh... unpleasant."

"Oh," said Bill, "Ok. Well, good luck. And nice meeting you."

"You as vell," Nikolai answered, shaking hands with the redhead once more. The Russian turned to me next, his handsome smile and dark, heavy-lashed eyes growing slightly soft as he offered his hand out to me, too. "Goodbye, Ivy," he murmured, "I vill see you tomorrow."

Returning the smile and handshake, I replied, "See ya."

xxXxx

Instead of going straight to lunch, I wanted to go see the twins, and a quick mirror-call to Sirius revealed that they were in his quarters and being supervised by a house-elf named Pryn. Billy was excited to meet the creature, claiming to have never seen one in person before.

I expected to find my brother and sister terrorizing the poor thing, but instead Noah and Judy were actually, blessedly behaving themselves. They seemed to view the wispy little gray-green house-elf as a playmate rather than a babysitter, which made sense seeing as Pryn was only a few inches taller than they were. Pryn also seemed to be rather young. I really had no basis for judging house-elf age, but I just got that impression since she was so lively and unwrinkled.

The twins and Pryn had been finger-painting all afternoon, which I didn't believe at first since there were no tiny handprints on the walls. However, my brother and sister presented me with a still-wet stack of colorful drawings, and the evidence was impossible to ignore.

"These are gorgeous," I gushed, happily cuddling the twins as they showed off their artwork.

"We'we gonna decowate Siwius's woom!" Noah proclaimed with an excited bounce, "Will you help?"

With a laugh, I corrected, "Of course, little guy, but Bill and I are supposed to go to lunch right now. I'll come back right after my next class, ok?"

Pouting, squirming guiltily, Noah softly asked, "Are you mad at us?"

"Why would I be?" I soothed, petting his messy hair and pressing a kiss to his forehead.

"Cuz of the wibbons in Albie's hair," he answered, sending a sad glance toward his sister, "It's not Judy's fault. I made the wibbons. I didn't want them to fall out."

I pieced the situation together rather quickly, unsure of whether to be proud or worried that my brought had performed magic at such a young age, apparently without even really trying. "It's ok, No," I soothed, "I'm not mad." Looking at Judy, sighing, I added, "Guess you're off the hook." I tried not to penalize the twins for not tattling on each other, no matter how annoying and inconvenient it sometimes was. After all, I wouldn't sell out either of them, no matter who asked or what they threatened.

Judy sneered, complaining, "You never play with us anymore!"

"Judy," I sighed, "It's only been two days. We talked about this. I have to go to school."

"No, you don't!" my sister spat, "You're just mean! You don't like us!"

Noah whimpered. His bottom lip wobbled pitifully, and then he started to cry.

xxXxx

Knowing that I would be spending all lunch consoling and reassuring the twins, I sent Bill on his way, told him to save me a seat in Transfiguration. I just barely made it there in time, the front of my robes still damp and snotty from having Noah wail into them for nearly half an hour.

I couldn't concentrate, felt guilty and awful because I loved my brother and sister; they were the most important people in the world to me, and I didn't want them to ever doubt that for a second. But I liked going to school, having friends.

Skipping lunch was a bad idea, but I didn't even think of Madam Mary's warning at the time, had completely forgotten her instruction to eat a solid meal in the wake of Noah's meltdown. By the time dinner came around, I was lightheaded and sick to my stomach, but I didn't make the connection, attributed the shaky, dizzy sensation to my guilt over the situation with the twins.

"Are you alright?" Bill asked, carrying my book bag again as we walked together toward the Great Hall.

I was trying to concentrate on what Bill was saying, but he sounded kind of... wavy. Like I was hearing him from underwater. "I'm fine," I insisted, trying to shake it off, "Just worried about Noah and Judy."

"They'll be ok," my friend soothed, "Charlie was really upset about me going away to school, but I talked to him a lot about it, and he eventually realized that it didn't mean I didn't love him. And it's not even like you're away from your brother and sister that long. You've been seeing them every day."

"I know," I murmured, "But they're little. And they're used to me always being there. Taking care of them every second. They just... they don't understand."

Freya chose that moment to interrupt our quiet conversation, shoving between us and loudly inquiring, "Are you two smarties up for the library after dinner? A bunch of us are getting together to start on the Potions homework."

Rubbing my temple, I replied, "No thanks, I promised my brother and sister I'd play with them before they go to bed."

"Lame," Freya declared, elbowing Bill, "How about you? One out of two of the Gryffindor brains won't be so bad."

Bill looked at me, apparently trying to gauge my opinion on the matter.

"Go ahead," I said, not wanting to hold him back, "The twins'll probably appreciate having me to themselves."

Still seeming reluctant, Bill quietly agreed, "Ok."

"Awesome!" chirped Freya, bouncing out ahead of us and walking backwards (making my head spin). She quirked a thin eyebrow at me and declared, "You look like crap."

She always was honest to a fault.

"Thanks," I snapped, in no mood for such bluntness.

Dinner was a blur. I picked at my meal but don't actually remember eating any of it. Probably didn't since I didn't feel at all better afterward. Amidst many concerned frowns, Bill eventually scampered off to the library. I wandered back toward Sirius's quarters, intent on ignoring my obvious aches and nausea.

Somehow, I got lost, completely turned around and so woozy I eventually slid down a wall and sat for some indeterminate interval with my head between my knees.

I must've fallen asleep (or passed out, if you want to get all technical), because the next thing I remember is someone shaking me and calling my name. Slowly opening my eyes, I peered blearily upward and found Nikolai standing over me, eerily beautiful features twisted with concern.

"Ivy?" he questioned softly, "You are ok? You are hurt?"

"Give her some air, Kolya," one of the two pretty, dark-haired girls behind him instructed. She wore stacks of silver bangles on both slim wrists and silver barrettes holding back her neat bangs. The other wore no jewelry at all, her dark hair cut short and messy like mine.

I blinked at all three of them, vaguely registering that I felt worse, that my arm was throbbing again as I hoarsely asked, "What's goin on?"

"You tell us," the taller, short-haired girl quipped, arms folded over her flat chest and her bored gaze elsewhere, "We just found you."

"Oh," I said, quickly piecing together the last of my hazy memories. I fought my way to my feet, Nikolai hovering nervously. "I was lost and must've dozed off," I reported, "Thanks for waking me. I... where are we?"

Nikolai blushed and answered, "Eh, ve are lost also, trying to find owlery so ve could write to our father."

"We're not lost," the bored girl insisted. She had the same dark, thick-lashed eyes as Nikolai. And as I looked closer, I realized that the bangles girl did, too.

My sluggish brain catching up with the information that had been provided, I declared, "You two must be Nikolai's sisters."

"Da," the bangles girl chirped with a sweet smile, offering a dainty, well-manicured hand, "Tatiana Ivanova. Pleased to make your acquaintance." She did have a slight Eastern-European accent, but, like Nikolai had mentioned earlier, she spoke perfect English.

"Nice to meet you," I replied, reaching out to shake, "I'm Ivy Sennen."

"I'm Yelena," the bored girl cut in, giving my hand a rather fierce pump. Her accent was almost completely unnoticeable, her palm rough with obvious quidditch callouses. "Now, can we get out of here, please?" she added, "I sort of had plans."

"Trying to break into the broom shed is not plans," Tatiana argued as we began to walk.

To give myself something to focus on while the world swayed violently, I inquired, "Why are you breaking in? Can't you just ask someone to open it for you?"

Yelena rolled her eyes at me and snapped, "First years aren't allowed, but there's no way I'm going months without getting on a broom. That's just sick!"

We kept wandering; we kept talking. All three of the Ivanovs had the same father and different mothers. Nikolai was the only one who was full Russian. Tatiana was half Romanian, and Yelena was half Bulgarian. Nikolai's mother was dead, so he lived with their father most of the year, but he also spent many months with his sisters' families. Tatiana and her mother lived on a dragon reserve in Romania, and Yelena and her mother split their time between Bulgaria and New York City. Tatiana's mother was a dragon tamer, and Yelena's was a dancer.

Eventually, we reached a familiar landmark and managed to find our way back to the front door. I was stumbling and shaky, so Nikolai told his sisters to go ahead to the owlery while he took me to the infirmary.

"You don't have to," I argued most of the way there, "I-I'm fine. I'll be fine. It's not that far."

Watching me skeptically, towering and keeping a steady hand between my shoulder blades, Nikolai argued, "You are not vell. I make sure you get there." A few more steps and he asked, "You eat like Madame Mary told?"

I had to think about it for a few moments but eventually shook my head, murmuring, "I forgot. My brother was upset. He was crying. And I felt sick at dinner, so... no."

"Should alvays do vhat the healer says," Nikolai instructed, "Especially vith taking potions. Some vill not vork properly othervise."

I just nodded.

xxXxx

I was fine after a few hours in Madame Mary's care, after a hearty meal and another couple potions. My arm even healed almost completely, leaving only some very faint, thin scars. Sirius came down to fuss and scold, but ultimately escorted me back to Gryffindor Tower around midnight.

Bill was still up.

"Ivy!" he cried, rushing to trap me in a hug, "Where were you? I looked everywhere! And nobody knew where you were, and I looked all over right up until curfew, and then Filch chased me back here, but I still couldn't find you, and the girls said you weren't in the dorm, and I'm so glad you're alright!"

"Easy, Casanova," Sirius interrupted, ruffling my hair, "Ivy is fine, but she needs to go to bed."

I nodded tiredly against my guardian's side.

Frowning sadly and kicking at the carpet, Bill sighed, "Oh. Ya. That's a good idea... I'll meet you down here tomorrow before breakfast, ok?"

"Uh huh," I yawned, giving out sleepy hugs before stumbling off to my dorm. I barely even remember collapsing into bed.

xxXxx

In a rare role reversal, I ended up talking most of the way to breakfast while Billy just listened intently. I told him all about what had happened the day before, from the time we parted to meeting up again in the common room. He scolded me just like Sirius and Nikolai had, but I was feeling a lot better, so I didn't even mind.

Since none of the first years had lessons until ten-thirty, the majority of the class hung out in the Great Hall, chatting and laughing and occasionally working on some homework. Since I'd have his lesson next, Sirius dropped the twins off with me before heading off to teach. Most of my classmates were absolutely smitten with the pair in seconds. Noah and Judy got to be fussed and cooed over, got to be the center of attention; Noah showed off how he could count to any number anybody wanted, and Judy told all about her daring exploits defeating the headmaster's phoenix...

"Well, that's an interesting interpretation of events," Billy commented with a quiet laugh, tugging on his previously mangled ear.

I chuckled and agreed, "Judy has been known to rewrite history as it suits her."

We both shuffled through our Charms notes for a few moments before Billy sat up and chirped, "Oh! I almost forgot! Marcy Turner said she'd get us some brooms if we wanted to go flying with her tomorrow morning."

"Cool," I replied. Thinking of Yelena and her quest to break into the equipment shed, I asked, "Do you think we could bring Nikolai's sister with us? She really wants to go flying."

Billy shrugged and said, "I'll ask, but it'll probably be fine. Marcy's really nice."

"Awesome," I beamed.

xxXxx

Marcy was fine with having an extra first-year tagalong; well, she seemed a little wary when we showed up with an excited Slytherin in tow, but the older girl didn't say anything and warmed to Lena quickly. They were both hardcore quidditch junkies and had a lot in common.

I wasn't anywhere near as talented as the others, but we did manage a two-on-two scrimmage. We got so caught up that we almost missed breakfast and barely had time to scramble into the Charms classroom before the lesson began. Again, Bill and I couldn't find seats together, and, again, I ended up next to Arista Ness.

"How's your arm?" she murmured, almost too quiet to hear.

Kind of startled that the normally silent girl was trying to start a conversation (we'd been in the same group in Sirius's class the day before for a lesson on cursed objects, and she hadn't said a single word), I answered, "Oh. Um. It's alright. Thanks... how's your... homework? Did you get number three? Billy and I took forever to find the answer."

"I got it," she replied.

That was the extent of our chat. Flitwick's arrival a few minutes later was a blessed end to the interminable awkwardness.

xxXxx

The remainder of my first week actually passed without any more injuries or excitement. On Friday morning, Bill thought that his owl egg might be hatching and dragged me down to Hagrid's at an obscenely early hour, but it turned out that the "crack" was actually just a bit of dark hair (likely Tracy's) that had stuck to the shell.

I was glad for the weekend and planned on spending yet more time with my brother and sister, reassuring them that they were still loved and wanted. Sirius had other ideas.

"I heard the Gryffindor firsties are all hanging out near the lake today," he declared as we ate breakfast together in his quarters that Saturday, "Don't you want to go?"

Shaking my head and wiping syrup off Noah's chin, I answered, "I'd rather stay here."

Sirius sighed. "You know we love spending time with you," he declared gently, "But we also want you to make friends. Just go for a few hours. The twins and I will head into Hogsmeade or something. Take Scarlet out for a drive."

Apparently he'd actually been reading some of the many parenting books that Remus had given him, and those books all said that socialization was important for kids.

"Really," he continued, "I think it'll be good for you to make more friends your own age. And then we can all have dinner together and you can tell us about your day. I'll even get us some pizza."

"Yay!" Judy crowed, "Pizza!"

Noah ecstatically agreed, "Pizza!"

I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the twins briefly forgot they even had an older sister.

So much for abandonment issues.

And that was how I ended up walking down toward the lake with Bill and the other Gryffindor first-years. Wearing a bathing suit wasn't very easy with the scars on my back, but luckily Sirius had found one for me that covered the majority of them. And I'd already claimed to have very sensitive skin, hence the t-shirt over the suit to prevent sun damage. Even though I still hadn't told him the origin of the scars, Bill very graciously backed up the story.

"I hope we get to see the Giant Squid!" Bill proclaimed, excitedly bouncing around in circles while everyone else set up.

"I saw it on the boat ride," declared Noel, "Touched my face. Seriously." He stuck to his story despite vigorous eye-rolling from Tracy, who had been seated next to the boy during the journey and claimed that it had only been a bit of algae stirred up by the oars.

Kat and Hannah and Connie had seen fit to secure a generous array of snacks, and Freya had a fanged Frisbee, so the first several hours passed pleasantly enough with games and food and relaxed conversation. I really was making friends, and as weird as that was, it was also kind of cool.

It wasn't until someone brought up the subject of Sirius that the day become anything but enjoyable.

"I like him," said Marco, shirtless and cross-legged, dark face blissfully turned toward the sunshine, "He's funny. It's too bad about the curse."

"Curse?" I demanded warily, "What curse?"

All the kids who already knew had guilt flash across their expressions. The rest of us just waited anxiously for explanation.

"It's silly," Hannah declared, "Just a coincidence, really."

Of course I wasn't satisfied with that and waited insistently for more.

Freya finally piped up, unflinching as she announced, "No Defense teacher has lasted more than a year since... forever. Usually they end up dying or going mad or getting hurt. Why did you think the position was open? Only people with balls of steel will even risk it anymore."

I could feel the color draining out of my cheeks, my stomach churning with panic. Of course Sirius would have to go and accept a cursed position. And of course it was all my fault. If I hadn't been such a hopeless coward, such a selfish brat, then he would've been safe at home and enjoying his life.

"Don't worry, Ivy," Billy soothed, slinging an arm around my shoulders. He already looked sunburned behind all his darkening freckles but still had a comforting smile, "Not all the Defense professors go out badly. And I'm sure Sirius is way too smart to let something happen to him. Maybe he'll even be the one to break it."

Billy's ridiculous optimism always did make me feel a little better. But it was hardly enough to push the fear completely from my mind, even when Kat facilitated a surprisingly tactful subject change. We all managed to spend the rest of the day with no more talk of curses, only swimming and wrestling and several unsubstantiated Giant Squid sightings.

Later, eating pizza in Sirius's quarters, I asked if he'd heard about the curse.

I knew he had just from the way he stopped with his slice dangling above his open mouth.

"Oh, kiddo," he sighed, "There's no curse."

"There's a new professor every year," I argued, picking at my own meal with little interest, "Since forever."

Sirius deftly wiped his hands and then tugged me against his side. He offered a reassuring smile and insisted, "There are a lot of different reasons for that. Dumbledore's hired a rash of explorers and duelers and such. Their leaving has had more to do with short attention spans and willingness to take foolish risks than any curse. Besides, the rate of dying and going mad is not as bad as everyone says. Five out of seven of my Defense professors left safe and sane. Three got better jobs, one got pregnant, and one decided to move back home to Morocco to look after his parents. So you see? You've got nothing to worry about."

After a moment of thought, I hesitantly asked, "What about the other two?"

"Well," Sirius said, coughing uncomfortably, "One had a heart attack and died, but he was really, really old. That probably would've happened anyways. The other... uh... developed an... allergy."

I raised an eyebrow and waited for more information.

Finally, fighting a guilty smirk, my delightful guardian declared, "She developed an allergy to teenage hormones."

Because it sounded ridiculous, I waited again for more information.

"She had it out for us, alright?" he hurriedly defended, "She made our whole third year completely awful. And she was dumb as dung, too, so it wasn't hard to convince her. Last I heard, the old bat holed herself up in Florida in some retirement community to avoid risk of contamination, but she's alive and kicking."

Sniggering at Sirius's youthful antics, I snuggled into his embrace and stated, "At least you don't have to worry about being tricked like that. Everyone I've talked to thinks that you're a great teacher."

"Tell that to the fifth-years," he grumbled, "I'm still afraid to turn my back on my Ravenclaw-Slytherin class. I just know that they're going to start dueling again as soon as I do."

I was relaxed. I wasn't really thinking about anything more than making conversation when I asked, "What are they fighting about?"

Sirius, too, didn't seem to have fully thought out what the subject would bring up. "Er..." he began slowly, "One of the Ravenclaws, Alex Ferris, he was... I guess he was good friends with Dimitri. A Slytherin said something nasty about your cousin. Ferris didn't take too kindly to the comment."

"Oh," I whispered. For awhile, I just tried not to think about my murdered cousin, just watched Noah and Judy playing happily, obliviously in front of the fire.

"You alright, kiddo?" Sirius finally inquired.

I nodded absently.

xxXxx

The plan began brewing in my mind that night but didn't solidify until much later: I wanted to talk to Alex Ferris. He'd been Dimitri's friend, a good one if his willingness to defend Dimitri's memory was any indication. And I hadn't gotten to know my cousin that well; speaking with someone who had seemed... right.

Bill, Yelena, and I spent every morning that week flying with Marcy Turner, who was also a fifth year and casually acquainted with Alex Ferris. She described him as "your typical Ravenclaw stereotype, quiet but pleasant, witty when he wants to be but generally lacking social skills, smart almost to the point of being bloody obnoxious. Never been in trouble before, so I was surprised that he had anything to do with that fight in Defense. Why do you ask?"

"He was friends with my cousin," I answered softly. After a beat, I added, "My cousin was Dimitri Dolohov. He would've been a fourth-year, but he was killed over the summer."

Marcy's face fell, her hand shooting out to give my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "I'm so sorry," said the slim blonde, "I heard about that. It's a shame. He seemed like a nice kid. Definitely not your typical Slytherin." She turned briefly to Yelena and added, "No offense. I just always figured he was one of the ones who asked to be sorted that way so his family wouldn't disown him or something stupid."

Nodding, I agreed, "Ya, that's probably exactly what happened. His mother is a total psycho."

"Antonin Dolohov was his father?" Yelena asked quietly, glancing around for any prying eyes or ears. After I confirmed the suspicion, she stated, "Antonin Dolohov is a Death Eater."

"Don't accuse people without proof," hissed Marcy, also glancing around in case anyone was around listening to our discussion, "Even when you have proof, it's not safe to say shit like that out loud."

Yelena shrugged. She didn't seem particularly concerned. There were rumors surrounding her own father's dark dealings, so of course I couldn't help wondering about how she had come across her information.

Bill, who had thus far been uncharacteristically silent, chirped, "Well, my Uncle Gideon and Uncle Fabian are aurors. They're going to catch all the Death Eaters and the Dark Lord and make sure that none of them hurts anybody ever again."

Marcy and Yelena both rolled their eyes at the boy's naiveté.

Though I knew I shouldn't, I just really wanted to believe him.

xxXxx

I had no idea what Alex Ferris looked like, so I was rather startled when he emerged seamlessly from the shadows as Bill and I were walking back from Astronomy in the very early hours of Friday morning.

"You wanted to talk to me," said the gangly teen, suddenly falling into step.

I jumped back far enough to get a good look at him, his wiry, almost petite body and neat brown hair and thick black glasses, faded Rolling Stones t-shirt and tattered jeans hanging loose from his scrawny frame. It took a moment, but I pieced together his likely identity before Bill had a chance to get all chivalrous. "Alex Ferris?" I asked softly.

He blushed. "Ya," said the young man, giving the back of his skinny neck a nervous squeeze, "Sorry. Alex Ferris." He offered his free hand. "Nice to meet you. Ivy, right? Marcy said you wanted to talk to me. About Dimitri."

With a hesitant smile, I replied, "If you don't mind." The bones in his hand felt especially fragile, hollow like a bird's. He had other bird-like features as well: a sharp nose and chin, a skittish gaze and hunched shoulders, stick-thin legs.

He returned a sad, crooked grin. "Of course," the teen agreed. After shooting Bill a nervous glance, Alex suggested, "You probably have to get back to your dorm, but I, uh, usually eat lunch outside the library. So, you know, whenever. Ok?"

"Sounds good," I confirmed, "I'll see you later today then."

Nodding, slightly shocked that I'd actually accepted the offer, Alex said, "Right. Ya. See you."

And then he was gone.

"Kind of a... twitchy bloke," Bill commented, no real judgment in his voice.

I agreed, "A bit. But I only ever got a few hours with Dimitri. I just want to know more about what he was like."

Bill stated, "I understand. Do you want me to go with you, or would you rather do it on your own?"

I thought about his offer, and about how sweet my best friend was. Finally, I decided, "Thanks, but I'll go alone. It'll probably be easier that way."

xxXxx

Not that it would've been much better had Bill tagged along, but nothing about my meeting with Alex Ferris could be described as "easy."

Nearly everyone at Hogwarts normally ate their meals, particularly lunch, in the Great Hall. Those who didn't were a very small minority of lone wolves, social outcasts, and hardcore nerds.

Alex Ferris could be easily classified under all three headings. While generally polite, he was cynical bordering on misanthropic. He was also uncomfortable in crowds and overachieved like a madman.

And all these facts were relatively well known to much of the school's population. Also well known was exactly where to find the lad during lunch. This was not good news for a person who'd just managed to piss off almost an entire house.

I turned the corner and spotted Alex, waving and receiving no acknowledgement from the skinny figured jackknifed tightly into a stony window nook. The lack of response wasn't surprising; most of his face was buried inside a thick book.

So he didn't see me or the pack of Slytherins advancing from the other end of the hallway.

There were nearly a dozen all together, but I only recognized two: Rigel Emmett, a slimy brunette from my own year, and Mortimer Travers, an ashy blonde fourth-year to whom my mother's family had attempted to sell me. Betrothal they called it, like the quaint old euphemism in any way disguises slavery.

The rest of the boys, and one girl, were older, mostly probably fifth-years but perhaps even a few sixths and sevenths. They all had their wands out and looked pretty damn pissed, excited that their masterplan was about to go into effect.

Before I could think of much of a strategy, I found myself shouting, "Alex! Look out!"

Stupidly, Alex turned toward me, leaving his back completely exposed to the Petrificus Totalus already jetting in his direction. The spell hit, and Alex toppled hard directly onto his face, smashing his glasses and nose against the floor.

"Get her!" someone ordered as the crowd fell upon Alex with a flurry of kicks. Mortimer and Rigel, clearly the youngest and lowest ranked, both broke away from the group and advanced on me.

I'm sure that they expected me to run, but I didn't. In the past, all I'd had with which to hold off bullies was my daddy's old pocket knife. Now that I had a wand and, courtesy of Sirius, knowledge of quite a few defensive and offensive spells, the situation didn't seem particularly frightening.

"Hello again, love," Travers cooed as he and Rigel circled, "I was hoping I'd get a chance to pay you back for punching me over the summer."

Still, I held my ground, coolly murmuring, "Now's your chance, shit-for-brains. If you think you can."

Both boys laughed, Rigel commenting, "Bravery is one thing, but you've got to be a complete idiot to think you can fight us. You're completely outnumbered."

I grinned, teasing, "Sure about that?"

To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure that my sudden stroke of inspiration would work. But there were few other viable options for rescuing myself or Alex. Certainly none that were half as amusing to imagine. Stealthily, I pointed my wand against my thigh and began whispering duplicating charms as rapidly as I could manage.

The copies were flimsy but effective, rushing forward and startling Rigel and Mortimer so badly that they didn't manage to react right away, that they didn't manage to keep track of which one of the hallway full of Ivys was the original.

So when they finally gathered their limited wits and started firing off curses, the two young Slytherins only managed to hit a few of the chaotic mob of wispy doubles. I stunned both before either seemed to fully realize what was happening.

And with all the older Slytherins busy kicking Alex while he was down, I remained unnoticed for long enough to advance on the mob and fire off yet more stunners.

The odds still weren't good, but they were getting a bit more even. Soon it was just me against two of the older boys and the older girl. They also seemed startled by my presence, by the fact that I had already dispatched with so many of their little crew.

Of course, that probably would've been the moment when the fight stopped going in my favor. I really didn't have another move. My spell knowledge was good for a first-year but still basic, certainly no match for a pack of vicious Slytherins. And Shield Charms would've only saved me for so long.

Fortunately, Peeves had arrived. And while he generally didn't care much for student squabbles (unless he was instigating them), the outlandish poltergeist had been previously enlisted by Sirius to both spare me from pranks and to keep an eye on my wellbeing.

Their mutually respectful relationship dated back to the Marauders' own school days and certainly came in handy.

"Sneaky Snakes make Ferris's poor head ache!" sang Peeves as he darted about overhead, gleefully pelting my squeamish enemies with handfuls of something unidentifiable and incredibly foul, "Good thing the wee girl is here to save his behind! For without his behind, then where would he store his clever little mind?"

"UGH!" the girl shrieked, stumbling away with her cronies as they all tried to shield themselves with their arms, "You're dead, Peeves!"

"More alive than you, Miss Rina with the Weina!" the garishly bow-tied Poltergeist cackled in reply. In only moments, he and all my conscious attackers had fled from sight. The threats and swears continued to echo down the hallway for quite some time.

I released Alex, who groaned feebly, curling into a ball and coughing up blood. "Should I get the nurse?" I questioned softly, afraid that even a casual touch might cause him yet more agony.

Impressively alert for one so injured, Alex shook his head. "Be fine," he rasped, gingerly pulling a shard of glass out of his cheek, "Can walk." After a very painful looking struggle, he finally did manage to stand.

He still had to be mostly carried to the Hospital Wing. Madame Mary was out to lunch, but a peppy trainee quickly fixed the lad up almost as good as new. Unfortunately, she also insisted that he needed to stay and rest, alone, so the conversation that I'd sought would have to wait for another day.

Disturbed and disheartened, I took advantage of being done with classes for the week and wandered off to spend some time with my brother and sister. They were of course thrilled to see me, babbling excitedly about everything that had happened to them since I'd last visited. Even though I'd visited just that morning, each had a novel worth of goings-on to list in great detail.

Sirius mirror-called me, reporting that he was needed at an Order meeting that night. "I probably won't be home until late," he said, trying to hide nervousness about the unexpected summons, "Prynn will stay with Noah and Judy if you want to go to bed before I'm back."

"I'll be fine," I insisted. Really, sometimes he acted like I hadn't been their primary caregiver since they were born.

With a laugh, Sirius agreed, "I don't doubt it, kiddo. Just letting you know that you have options."

Almost as soon as we hung up, I got yet another mirror-call, this time from a frantic Bill demanding to know where I was, if I was alright. Even repeated assurance of my safety didn't satisfy the boy, and he arrived very quickly, still upset.

"Hannah said that you fought a bunch of Slytherins!" he announced, throwing his arms around me and squeezing hard so hard that I could barely breathe, "And that Alex Ferris was in the Hospital Wing! What happened?"

I told him. His green eyes just kept getting huger and huger until they were nearly twice their normal diameter. Then he laughed, "No way that happened."

Shrugging, I replied, "It's not like I planned it."

My friend sprawled across the fluffy black rug in front of the hearth and snickered, "Well, at least no one's ever going to doubt that you're in the right house."

I stretched out beside him, momentarily closing my eyes.

We shared a rare moment of silence before Billy began chattering. "I'm just glad you're ok," he reported, sitting up again, fidgeting restlessly before sending out a nervous, "It would be terrible if anything bad happened to you. Uncle Gid and Uncle Fabe said that a lot of the Slytherins are future Death Eaters. Some of them have even already joined."

"How can you decide to devote your life to evil when you aren't even out of school yet?" I questioned bluntly, only really half paying attention as I listened to Noah and Judy spouting off gibberish in their bedroom.

The comment made Bill chuckle as he replied, "A time-honored tradition of inbreeding and brainwashing seems to do the trick." Bill spent the next few minutes squirming and fidgeting in a futile attempt to find a comfortable position.

Finally, his discomfort spread to me, and I sat up, folding my legs and smirking across at my restless friend. I inquired, "Something on your mind?"

He barely waited for me to finish the question before blurting, "You said you would tell me about your scars. Someday. It's ok if you still don't want to. But I just... I was wondering."

I shrugged, gazing off into the fire as I explained, "Before I lived with Sirius, I lived with my aunt in California. The scars are from her. She really hated me."

"Bloody awful," Bill said with an outraged frown, "And stupid! How could anyone hate you? You're smart, and nice, and brave, and tough, and funny, and pretty-" He cut himself off, his whole face turning beet red. Then, before I could properly appreciate the implications of his slipup, Billy leaned forward and kissed me.

It was definitely one of those awkward "first kiss" kisses, a slightly off-target bump of lips, over in a split second. Bill's blush somehow managed to darken impossibly further as he blurted, "Sorry."

I felt my own cheeks get hot, unable to meet my friend's gaze as I murmured, "That's ok." The jittery, knotted feeling made yet another appearance in the pit of my stomach, but it wasn't entirely unpleasant. And I found myself fighting a grin.

Unfortunately, Bill was so flustered that he immediately jumped to his feet, shuffling a bit and stammering, "Well, I... uh... I should get back to... dorm. I mean... sleep. Tomorrow. Breakfast. You and me? Ok? Ok. Bye."

And then he was gone.

And I was left to contemplate the mystery of the male of the species.

xxxxxxxxxx

I wish there were a Miss Awkward Sunburn pageant. Because I would enter and win that sweet, sweet scholarship moneys.

Anyways, reviews are awesome like aloe with lidocaine: I would probably trade my firstborn for a vat of it to soak in right about now :)