"D'you got it yet," the smaller of the two boys currently huddled against a large oak door asked nervously. His eyes kept darting from the staircase at the end of the hall (that didn't usually look so far away and foreboding) back to his brother.
"Al, honestly," hissed James through gritted teeth, "if you don't shut your hole I'll box your ears!" Trying to unlock a door with nothing but a hairpin was proving to be a much harder task than their uncle had let on.
"Sorry," Albus blushed. He didn't have quite the same affinity for breaking rules that his brother did. His thin, slightly freckled face was twisted with worry and visions of the terrible things his mother would do should she come up the stairs were playing on repeat in his mind.
Below Albus, the kneeling James swore under his breath as the pin slipped again out of his sweaty hand. His slightly broader, more freckled face held none of Albus's foreboding as he bit at his lip in concentration. Trying to get a better look at what he was doing, James leaned in even further to the door, nearly squashing his long nose into the polished oak wood as he did so.
"I think I've almost…," there was a click and the door eased open a few inches. "Yes!" James looked up at Al, grinning ear to ear. "We did it!"
This made Al split into a wide grin as well; it wasn't often that James included him in his antics. Al suddenly felt a lot braver, cool even. "I'll keep a look out," his voice had a more confident edge to it as he stepped inside their father's large study with James.
It was a place of wonder for both boys who were seldom allowed inside. As young children, their father had told them along with their little sister, Lily, he had put a curse on the office that would turn any underage witches or wizards into toads if they were to touch anything inside. Lily still swore by his warning, but Albus and James (especially) were ready to test their luck.
Along the walls were high selves full of books covering everything from the children's stories their parents used to read them to the darkest, most unspeakable magic. Once, on a rare occasion when James was aloud in the room, he had sworn he heard some of the books whispering to him in shallow, cold voices. Also on the shelves were instruments their father sometimes used at work and gifts from his friends, including an old Snitch in a glass box Albus had always enjoyed looking at.
James zeroed in on the grand old desk in the center of the room. It's top was cluttered with paper work and some of the many drawers were bulging open. One even had a small tentacle snaking its way back and forth out of the cracked opening, as if greeting the new comers to the room.
"I guess it's in the desk," James said running a hand threw his already untidy black hair. He hadn't actually considered what to do once they got inside the office.
"It would be a little obvious, don't you think?" The two boys looked around office for any other clues or hiding places. On the walls the faces of their father's friends beamed happily at the brothers from their frames and waved greetings while others frowned and shook their heads scoldingly. Albus's stomach lurched unpleasantly as he noticed a golden box sitting on a shelf near his head was looking back at him with two, bloodshot eyes. He suddenly felt very exposed, as if his soul was being laid bare, but he couldn't tear his eyes from the box and in fact it was starting to feel as if there was no need to focus on anything but those two eyes for the rest of his life. Why are you here, the thought flashed in his mind, but wasn't his own.
"Hey, Al," James's voice was hushed with awe. Albus jerked as he was suddenly thrown back into reality.
"I think that box knows," he said weakly, but James wasn't paying attention. He was looking between two pictures, eyes shining as he turned and focused once again on the desk.
"The pictures are telling us where it is!"
Sure enough, when Albus looked at the pictures behind James he could make out people pointing adamantly at the desk. Stepping closer, Albus saw one photo was of his paternal grandparents on their wedding day, surrounded by their friends. James's namesakes were pointing to the desk and holding up two fingers. Albus enjoyed that even his grandmother had the ghost of an approving smile playing on her lips.
The other photo was one of his younger and surprisingly encouraging mother with her twin brothers, Fred and George who were also pointing and holding up fingers. The twins were sporting identical smiles that were eerily similar to the one being worn by the young wizard currently standing in front of the desk giddily.
"They are so cool," Albus commented looking between the two photos, highly amused.
"Go make sure no one's coming! It'd be just our luck that Mum would show up now." Albus dutifully took his potion at the door as James grasped the knob of the first drawer eagerly. In his peripheral vision he noticed his uncles becoming more animated and turned to face them once more. Now, even his mother was holding up two fingers and as James slid his hand down to the second knob everyone in the frame started nodding. With a smirk of gratitude, James wrenched open the drawer with the same enthusiasm usually only reserved for Christmas or birthdays.
"JAMES POTTER!" James leapt back with a cry of horror almost as loud as Albus's. There in the drawer was a painting of his father's face looking more furious than James had ever seen. "You are in BIG trouble, young man!"
"Dad, I just –"
"Shut this drawer right now and go to your room!"
At this point Albus abandoned his post and ran to his brother's aid. "Dad, it's not his –"
"We're going to have a long talk when I get home and if you think I'm going to get you your own broom now –"
"DAD! No," James was on the brink of tears.
"—you have another thing coming! Now, go!"
"Dad," Albus tried again, "I told him to do it!"
"What," James cried angrily. Out of his three siblings, James took after both sides the most evenly in everything right down to temper.
"You are in BIG trouble, young man!"
"Hang on," Albus slammed the drawer shut and immediately the shouting stopped. "It was just a decoy!"
"Oh," James breathed with relief. A split second later he startled Albus by straightening up, extremely indignant. "Hey! That thing only yelled at me! What's the bloody idea?"
"Well, I mean...it wasn't wrong, though, was it," Albus was openly giggling as James gave him a kick.
"You're here too!"
"I'm the good one."
"Go back over to the door, prat," James hesitantly hovered his hand over the drawer knob once more.
"I saw it under the picture. Dad just put the picture there to try and stop us."
"To try and stop you."
"Shut up, Albus! I'll use my wand!"
"You can't use magic outside of school!"
"You can if it's on annoying little brothers!" From downstairs the two red faced boys heard a door open and suddenly breathing was no longer a possibility.
"Al," came a questioning voice from the floor below.
"Mum," Albus's already tiny voice squeaked, his eyes as wide as Galleons.
"W-what," James managed to call out. Being cornered was a new feeling for James Potter, who had seen his fair share of tight spots over the last two years at school. No brilliant plans of escape and cover up came to him as he awaited his mother's reply deep inside his father's off limits office. It didn't help matters that his brother looked like a miniature Harry Potter standing in the doorway, face fearful and shocked, begging James for help. The whole scene felt a little surreal.
"Do either of you know where my dragon hide gloves are? Lily needs them."
James threw a look at Albus who answered, "Uh – have you looked over by the Gnome nest?"
"Why would you leave them there," Mrs. Potter sounded a little annoyed, but mostly weary. They're probably gone by now!"
"Yeah, well get down here and take care of the living room like I told you to an hour ago! Everyone'll be here in an hour and James?"
Albus noticed James looked slightly paler as he answered. "Yeah?"
"Have you made sure you've packed all of your underwear? We don't want a repeat of last year."
James's face shifted instantly from petrified to highly annoyed and even slightly embarrassed."Yes, Mum! God!"
"Help Albus make sure he's ready, then!"
"Fine," neither boy was particularly pleased with the request. Soon the sounds of their mother exiting the house once more were punctuated with the shutting of the back door.
"Hurry," hissed Albus.
Not needing to be told twice, James yanked open the drawer once again. "JAMES POTTER!" Ignoring the yells, James pulled out the light, almost liquid like cloak out of the drawer.
"I've got it," James yelled as he held up his father's prized Invisibility Cloak triumphantly. As he lifted the cloak a piece of folded parchment fell out. James looked at it intently and was about to grab it when Albus reminded him of the situation.
"Shut the drawer!"
Once the drawer had been closed and the pictures thanked James and Albus went sprinting out of the room, slamming the door behind them. James wasn't sure their feet touch the ground until they reached his room where they stood planted to the spot half expecting the picture to have followed them.
After a few moments of silence James let out a yelp of joy as he threw the cloak around himself and disappeared. Albus was sure his jaw hit the floor as he stared at the spot where his brother should have been. "Woah, James!"
"Did it work?"
"Yeah," Albus circled around James, stunned.
"This is going to be the best year ever!"
Albus mirrored his brother's happiness, patting Jame where he assumed his back was and adding, "We can go anywhere we want!"
Suddenly, James's frowning head was floating in the middle of the room. "We?"
"Yeah...," Albus started to feel the bravery and cool being sucked out of him. "I just… I just thought…."
"I'm not going to go gallivanting 'round the castle with my baby brother." Albus's face fell and tears started to sting his eyes, but there was no way he would cry in front of James.
"Well, at least let me have a go with it on my own," Albus felt the heat rise on the back of his neck and ears as James burst into laughter.
"Fat chance! You'd probably lose it," an arm appeared to pat Albus on the head rather harder than needed. "Ickle Alby is too scared anyways."
"This isn't fair! I deserve a turn with the Cloak, James."
"Go whine to Mum, then," James waited a moment before continuing. "That's what I thought." Albus stood, seething for a moment, before turning abruptly on his heels and leaving without a word. Panicking, James rushed forward, nearly tripping on the cloak to stop his brother. "Wait Al, don't be a baby!"
"I'm not going to tell Mum," Albus spat fiercely as he turned to face James once again. After collecting himself for a moment he added sulkily, "I'm just going to go do my chores is all," before continuing out the door and down the stairs.
James felt relief at first as he watched Albus disappear down the steps, but as he approached his trunk moments later, still half invisible, he started to feel guilty. Albus had, after all, jumped in ready to take the blame before they had realized the picture was a decoy. If James was honest with himself (something new he was trying out), Albus did deserve some quality time with the Cloak. This thought certainly didn't change his feelings on Albus actually tagging along with James and his friends on any excursions, but Al needed something to get the other kids like him.
Carefully, James cleared out some of his trunk to make a hiding place for the Cloak. After having properly repacked, the thirteen-year-old made his way down to the newly tidied living room where Albus was reading his Defense Against the Dark Arts textbook. His face became stony as he was made aware of James's presence, but he made no effort to acknowledge it.
"So," James began, "I reckon you should have a go with the Cloak."
Albus looked up suspiciously from his book. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. But, I get first dibs and I'll look up the nastiest jinx imaginable if you get it taken away," James felt the need to make the threat very clear. "I don't care if I get expelled – you'll be a marked man, Al! I swear!"
Albus finally smiled, "Okay, deal."
James smiled a bit as well and they stayed this way for a moment before there was a loud crack outside followed by the front door swinging open. Standing in the doorway was a fairly short, thin wizard holding a cake box in one hand and a leather brief case in the other. His messy black hair matched the boys' and as his thin face and green eyes, that were so much like Albus's , turned to face them he let out a small laugh. "You guys look like you've just been on the wrong side of a Stunning Spell," their father, Harry, took a step into the house and kicked the door shut behind him. "Everything okay?"
"Yes," James and Albus said simultaneously.
"Uh-huh," Harry said looking thoroughly suspicious.
"We just thought you were going to be everyone coming early," James said quickly.
"And we still have stuff Mum wants us to do," Albus added.
"Oh," Harry gave the cake to James sounding slightly relieved. "Well, better get on it then. You know how your mum gets with this stuff. Take that to the kitchen first though, James. Please?"
"Sure, Dad," James turned and quickly went to the kitchen with the cake, giving Albus an approving look as their father continued up the stairs to put away his brief case. Albus smirked, very pleased with himself as he closed his book and stood to go and put it with the rest of his things.
"Ready for tomorrow," his father asked, coming out of his office as Albus reached his room.
"I think," Albus felt the nerves that had been steadily building over the last few weeks prickle up again inside his stomach. He felt comfortable admitting stuff like this to his father, but dropped his voice as he did so all the same.
As usual, Harry just gently smiled in understanding. Stepping over to his youngest son, he put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed comfortingly. "You're going to have a blast, I promise. Hogwarts was my first home and I loved every second of it."
"Really," Albus asked, smiling up at his father in slight disbelief.
"Well… almost every second," he chuckled. "History of Magic won't be a cauldron of laughs, I promise you that."
Albus laughed and started to open his door when his father made his grip on his shoulder firmer. Albus felt ice fill his veins as he put his father's recent departure from his office and his current very tight grip together. Turning he found to his relief, though, that Harry's expression remained affectionate.
"Just so you know," Harry whispered, leaning in close, "I'm not thrilled that you two broke into my office," Albus started to apologize, but Harry held up a hand for silence. "But, I can't say you didn't come by rule breaking honestly, can I?" Albus felt like he was looking his grandfather's wedding picture again as Harry dawned the same mischievous smile. He thought about attempting the smile himself, but didn't want to push his luck, so he settled for mild bewilderment.
His father reached into his robes and removed what appeared to be the folded piece of parchment that had fallen out of the Invisibility Cloak and handed it to Albus. "I really shouldn't encourage you, but I dunno," Harry seemed wistful for a moment, "doesn't seem right for a Potter to not be running around Hogwarts making a little bit of trouble." Albus took note of his father's emphasis on "little."
"Just be sure not to leave Lily out when she comes around, okay," Harry requested knowing Albus wouldn't.
Sensing the specialness of what he was holding and trying not to be rude, Albus nodded solemnly and then asked, "What is this?" He opened the parchment only to have another, smaller bit fall into his hand.
"All you need to know, Al, is written on that bit of parchment. See you at dinner," his father kissed the top of his head as he passed – a gesture Albus felt entirely too old for, but one he also never stopped his father from doing.
Hurrying into his room, Albus spread out the blank parchment and then opened the smaller bit with writing. "I solemnly swear I'm up to no good?" Albus looked at the parchment expectantly and gasped in surprise to find a message written in fading ink.
You'll have to do better than that, Mr. Potter.
"Al," came his sister's voice from outside his door almost causing Albus to scream, he had been so intent on the nearly gone message.
"Yeah, Lily," he hastily stuffed the parchment into his trunk before opening the door to find his little sister looking a lot like how their mother looked when she was highly annoyed.
"Mum wants you to come set the table."
"Alright… you okay?" They started down the stairs.
"James won't stop teasing me about not going to school," her little fists were clenched. "Keeps saying you two have a secret when Mum isn't around, but he won't tell me!"
Albus smiled remembering what his father had just said, "Just wait, Lily. You and me'll have loads of fun when you get there!" This didn't seem to cheer his sister up at all as she split from him in a huff when they had reached the last stair.
Later that night, after lots of laughter and eating and a particularly interesting moment when Uncle George put one of his and Uncle Ron's new Rapid Expanding Giant Balloons under a dozing Uncle Percy's chair, sending him flying several dozens of feet in the air ("We're trying to think of a better name," said Uncle George lazily to Albus as he made several cushions appear under Percy just before he hit the ground.), Albus lay wide awake in his bed. He couldn't stop looking across the hall, into his brother's room where his school robes hung on the door, the scarlet and gold colors of his brother's house, Gryffindor, shining brightly despite the darkness.
Albus looked at his own robes – they were nothing more than a blob in the corner, no bright colors adorning them yet. His thoughts kept drifting between wonder at which House dorm he'd be lying in tomorrow and his brother's animated and rowdy monologue about each of the Houses and how important they were at Hogwarts.
From what Albus had gathered Ravenclaws were "a bit up their own arse," and Hufflepuffs were, "nice and all," don't get James wrong, "but they're also a little…," James made an odd gesture that Albus wasn't sure exactly how to take, but he assumed it was bad. "And Slytherins," James had exclaimed with disgust. He then launched into a long speech filled with words Albus was sure their mother would disapprove of, especially around their younger cousins, but James loved the attention too much to care. The more Albus and his cousins reacted to what James was saying, the more James would pepper his speech with disturbing imagery of the deeds of Slytherins. "Only pricks go into that house," Albus didn't like how James's eyes had lingered on him for a moment.
Of course, Gryffindor was "the best." "It's for the best of the best," he said with a noble air, "The house for everything a witch or wizard should be. That's why all of our family has been in it! I mean, can you imagine if one of us didn't get in? I bet we'd get disowned or something!"
All of the smaller children looked sickly as they shifted nervously at the idea. Albus tried to stay looking nonplussed, but he was sure that to his dismay James had caught a flash of fear cross his face.
Would his dad still give him understanding smiles if he got sorted into Slytherin? I mean that was Voldemort's house, Albus thought miserably. He couldn't bear to think about his father's disappointment (much less his whole family's) if he were to be sorted into any House other than Gryffindor. Reaching into the trunk next to his bed, Albus pulled out the parchment in an attempt to take his mind off tomorrow.
"I solemnly swear I'm up to no good," he tried saying with more confidence than before. Slowly a message started to form:
Honestly, you puny git – you call yourself a wizard?
With a small cry of frustration, Albus opened the box on his dresser and pulled out his new wand. He would either make this thing do whatever it was really supposed to do or blast it way trying. Poking the tip of the wand threateningly into the paper, Albus repeated the words defiantly.
As he caught on to what was happening, he lowered his wand in amazement. Before his very eyes the blank piece of parchment started filling with intricate lines forming what appeared to be a map, but of what Albus was unsure, though he had a pretty good guess. His suspicions were confirmed as the last touch was added to the bottom of the map:
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Albus was so shocked that he almost missed the fact that there were several dots moving around on the map with names underneath each one them. Someone by the name of Kilgore Lyles was doing what looked like a fairly involved dance on the 3rd floor with an Eve McCarty and in the greenhouses dad's old friend, Neville Longbottom was going up and down the rows of plants pausing every now and then.
All at once the worries of Houses were washed from Albus's mind by the tsunami of possibilities this map brought along with it. He could clearly see at least one passage out of Hogwarts and into Hogsmeade. He could go to Hogsmeade! The image of James's face as Albus strolled into Honeydukes, a puny first year, was priceless.
Suddenly the appeal of rule breaking had reached Albus and, for the time being at least, he was becoming all too eager to start.