If anyone had bothered to look closely at the old woman sitting primly on the bench between platforms nine and ten at King's Cross Station, they might have noticed several peculiarities. They might have noticed that she was wearing mismatched socks, one blue and one red, or that she was wearing men's loafers. They might have noticed that she had been reading the same page of the paper for the past three quarters of an hour. They might even have noticed a curious hunted look in her eyes. But no one did bother to look closely at the old woman sitting alone on the bench. Most were too busy to even glance at her at all, and those that did merely deemed her a lonely old widow, perhaps an absent-minded grandmother waiting for her grandchildren.
Professor Minerva McGonagall's mind was indeed elsewhere at the moment, but she was not absent-minded. She was nervous. She was out of her element, and she was wise enough to know it. Only the gravity of the task set before her kept her from fleeing the station and returning to Hogwarts. She didn't belong here in the Muggle world. The few other times she had ventured into it, she had been safely concealed beneath the guise of an innocuous grey tabby cat. Here in her human form, she felt exposed, vulnerable. She shifted uncomfortably on the bench.
She stared down at the Muggle newspaper for the hundredth time. The same grainy picture of a narrow-faced man in a pinstriped suit stared back at her. She sniffed. Muggle papers were so boring. No one ever moved. Just the same old people in the same old poses hour after hour. She didn't see how they could stand it. She closed the paper with a slap, grimacing at the unsightly smudges of black ink on her thumbs. She wiped them on the hem of her conservative black skirt.
Not for the first time, she found herself wishing that Dumbledore had sent someone else instead. Hagrid, for instance, but the headmaster had insisted that she go. "You're her head of House, Minerva, you should be the one to collect her. Besides, someone like Hagrid would be a bit conspicuous trying to slip through the barrier, don't you think?" he had told her in his implacably cheery manner. He was right, of course, as always. So she had come.
Privately, she though that this was one of his worse ideas, but private was all that thought would ever be. She respected Albus Dumbledore, and she was not a person who gave respect easily. Under his tenure, Hogwarts had flourished, becoming the most respected wizarding school in the world. He, with the help of the famous Harry Potter, had repelled three attacks by Lord Voldemort before the fourth had finally succeeding in returning him to corporeal form. She was not about to question his judgment.
Still, she couldn't help but wonder. A transfer student in these dangerous times? One from the United States no less? Yes, her biographical information had all proven correct according to the inquires made by Dumbledore and their few remaining contacts at the Ministry of Magic, but that proved nothing. For all they knew, she could be a member of the burgeoning enclave of Death Eaters rumored to be in America.
Yet Dumbledore had insisted. He was adamant that the resurrection of Voldemort not hamper Hogwarts' efforts to provide students the finest wizarding education available. No doubt he was sincere about this, but she also suspected that he had other, less altruistic reasons for bringing in outside students. It was more than likely that he was hoping to gauge the preparedness of the American wizarding community should Voldemort decide to move against them. He was also hoping to marshal critical allies for the inevitable war that loomed like a poisonous fume on the horizon.
When pressed for information about this new student, the headmaster had been surprisingly secretive. He would say only that she was a fifth-year named Rebecca Stanhope, and that she was a student from the inauspicious and largely unknown Disabled American Institute for Magical Studies, or D.A.I.M.S. To this sparse information, he would euphemistically add only that she was a student with "special needs." When pressed about the exact nature of these "needs," he only smiled with a knowing twinkle in his blue eyes and said, "You shall see soon enough." No more could be gotten out of him on the subject.
Snape had responded to the news with his usual candor. "Not another bloody Harry Potter, I hope," he had muttered, and stalked from the room in his usual ill humor. No one else had commented at all.
McGonagall sighed and pushed her spectacles back onto the bridge of her nose. A glance at the clock on the wall told her to was 8:45a.m., well before the ten o'clock departure time of the Hogwarts Express. Albus had told her the extra time might be necessary to get the new student situated into her compartment without the unwanted gawking of the other students. That remark had prompted her to wonder how bad the new student's condition could possibly be, but she hadn't felt it proper to ask at the time, and the ensuing flurry of preparations for the return of the students had wiped the question from her mind.
To pass the time while awaiting the arrival of her newest charge, she watched the Muggles as they went about their daily lives. They never ceased to amaze her. Their ingenuity at surviving without magic was mind-boggling. In a way, she envied their independence from magic, their ability to improvise and adapt to any given situation. If by some bizarre happenstance, she were to lose her magical abilities, she would be hopelessly and utterly lost. She could no more have driven a car or used a telephone than a Muggle could have Apparated or learned how to use the Floo network. Magic was the only way of life she had ever known, and given a choice to remain in the magical world or live life as a Squib, she knew her choice would be made in a heartbeat. For all her envy of the versatility of Muggles, she loved being a witch.
She watched, face impassive, as a pudgy, ruddy-faced man wearing suspenders and a grey suit stopped a few feet in front of her, took out a small, wand-like device from the inside of his coat, and began pressing small buttons. He held the gadget up to his ear, his salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache twitching impatiently. He shifted his weight from foot to foot as he waited, the hand not holding the phone clutching a cheap vinyl briefcase. After a pause, the man clicked his tongue and began shouting into the small piece of black plastic.
"Weathers, goddammit, I told you to sell those ruddy stocks when they hit twenty-five and a quarter; now the blasted things have bottomed out at eleven. You've cost me a fortune! What in God's name were you doing, buggering your secretary?" The man's face had gone a deep, ugly plum.
The mention of stocks intrigued her. The only stocks she knew of were the wicked, cruel metal and wooden devices used to punish and torment unlucky witches and wizards. The Muggles had used them to great effect during the Great Persecutions. What would this fellow be wanting with those? They had long ago fallen into disuse, though she was fairly certain the Argus Filch, Hogwarts caretaker since time immemorial, had a few still tucked away in the labyrinthine basements that served as his storage rooms.
Some of her perplexity must have shown on her face, because the man snapped his head in her direction, his face rigid with a contemptuous sneer.
"And what might you be looking at, old mum?" he spat, clutching the black box in his hand so fiercely that the casing creaked.
McGonagall, unprepared for such a confrontation, blinked in surprise. "Mm? I'm sorry, I was doing a bit of woolgathering." She put on the pleasantest face possible when she spoke. No need to antagonize the Muggles. The last thing they needed was to have to call in the Ministry of Magic to Obliviate several hundred Muggles because she'd gotten in a row with an overwrought fellow with a cheap briefcase.
"Right," he snarled. "Got no life of your own, so you've taken to eavesdropping on the conversations of decent, hard-working folks like myself. Nosy old biddy. Well, you'll not be getting any juicy gossip out of me." He stopped, huffing, bright black eyes daring her to contradict him. Several heads had turned to watch the fracas brewing in their midst.
"I most certainly was not," she huffed, drawing up her narrow shoulders in indignation. "I'm simply waiting for my granddaughter." The steady blue eyes that had cowed a generation of unruly pupils never wavered as she stared back at the man.
The man looked her up and down, as though appraising a particularly decrepit nag. "I find it hard to believe a dotty old bird like you was ever that fortunate," he snapped. Then his roving eyes caught sight of her mismatched socks and incongruous shoes. "You're a bloody nutter, that's what you are," he said, derisive incredulity in his voice. "Escaped from the loony loft, have you?"
He began backing away from her, eyes darting warily to and fro. The communicating device in his hand was long forgotten. He gazed raptly at her, clearly expecting her to fling herself upon him at any moment. When she calmly reached down to scratch her knee, he gave voice to a hiccoughing screech of alarm and fled.
McGonagall gazed after him in shock, wondering what had caused such an outburst. Had she really dressed that inappropriately? She hadn't thought so; she'd even gone so far as to ask Hagrid, who had far more dealings with the non-magical world, if she looked all right. Though in retrospect, that might not have been so wise. Hagrid did, after all, wear a musty moleskin overcoat the size of a camping tent and sport hair more matted and tangled than the Devil's Snare vines in Professor Sprout's greenhouses. But she had specially ordered Muggle fashion magazines to help her prepare, and she had followed the picture models as best she could.
She cast a quick glance down at herself. Conservative, neatly pressed white blouse covering the upper torso. Everything was as it should be there. A look at her lower body told her she had not done something outlandish like putting the undergarments on the outside of her simple black skirt. Nothing about her appearance should have raised any alarm, and indeed, the other people in the station who had been watching the strange proceedings had gone back to their business as soon as the fan man had fled down the terminal.
Maybe he was the dangerous lunatic, she thought, and smiled. She returned to the same page of the paper that had held her attention all morning.
When nine-thirty came and went with no sign of the new student, she felt the first stirrings of unease. Things were not going according to plan. More than a month past, the student had been sent an owl informing her that she was to meet Professor McGonagall between platforms nine and ten at precisely nine o'clock on the first of September. The student had responded promptly, saying she would be prepared and ready as requested. Yet she was not here.
There was a myriad of reasons for the delay, many of them innocent, but she couldn't quite shake the feeling that something had gone amiss. She supposed her fears were a byproduct of Lord Voldemort's return in the spring. Since then, everything had changed. The fear that had lain dormant since his sudden disappearance thirteen years before had returned, washing over everything like a polluted river. Mundane mishaps that would otherwise have been laughed off or attributed to chance now took on ominous undertones. The fearful whisperings had begun again in poorly lit taverns, murmurings of the demon that returned to haunt their dreams. Free and easy movement was a thing of the past in their world. Now everyone looked over their shoulder if they ventured out after sunset.
The station began to fill rapidly with jostling bodies as commuters lined up to catch their respective trains. Several Hogwarts students had arrived, shooting her curious glances as they passed. A few called out a greeting, but when she did not acknowledge their raised hands or happy calls, they spared her a confused glance and trundled through the barrier, talking amongst themselves. Seeing a Hogwarts teacher outside the school grounds was a rare event indeed.
McGonagall's mind worked feverishly as she sorted through the various possibilities for the student's absence. She started with the most likely reasons. The student may have simply decided she no longer wanted to attend Hogwarts and canceled. But then why hadn't they received an owl telling them such? It was possible that she had decided not to go only this morning, in which case an owl wouldn't arrive for at least ten days. It was also within the realm of possibility that the unreliable forms of Muggle transportation had held her up.
Then she considered the darker possibility. What if Voldemort had somehow learned of her arrival and had managed to intercept her before she could get to King's Cross? At the apex of his power, Voldemort had allies in every tier of wizard society, from the barmaids all the way up to the pristine offices of the Ministry of Magic. Why shouldn't it be so now? If his underlings had infiltrated the Ministry, it would be a simple task to find out about the transfer student. It was hardly classified information.
But why would Voldemort want to get his hands on a single transfer student from the United States? Her last name doesn't ring any bells, doesn't speak to any of the great wizarding families, she thought rubbing her hands together slowly.
What was it Dumbledore had said? A student with special needs. Was that why Voldemort might be interested in her? What were these needs exactly? Did she possess some special, vital power that needed meticulous cultivation, the sort of which, only the fine minds assembled at Hogwarts could provide? Could it be possible that she was another special child, a child like Harry Potter who would help bring about the ruin of Voldemort? She doubted it. Even with the self-imposed isolation of the American wizarding population from the rest of the world, there would have been someone who would've passed the word along in the form of juicy rumor.
Special needs. The phrase lingered in her mind like the last remnant of a mostly forgotten poem. She had the distinct feeling that the strangely haunting phrase was the key to the entire mystery. She turned it over and over in her mind, nibbling at it with her formidable mind. It yielded nothing.
At nine forty-seven, just as she was about to forsake her post and return to Hogwarts, something caught her eye. What looked like a small tank was rolling through the crowds, its four rubber wheels cutting a swath through the bodies in its path as people parted to avoid being struck. Piloting this improbable contraption was a young girl of no more than fifteen. One hand curled around a bizarre walking stick that seemed to propel the craft forward. The other rested awkwardly on a pile of packages. The topmost package looked suspiciously like a robe. A Hogwarts robe. The girl's eyes were upraised, looking at the numbered platform signs, and McGonagall suddenly knew that this was her student.
All at once, the meaning of the mystical phrase "special needs" became clear, and she stifled a sigh of self-exasperation. Of course. She had been so stupid, wasting time and energy with her fanciful suppositions, when all the while the answer had been obvious right from the start. She was a student from Disabled American Institute for Magical Studies. It was only logical, therefore, that she suffer from some sort of catastrophic physical malady.
It was just that, well, she had expected something a bit less catastrophic.
The girl had spotted her and begun steering purposefully in her direction, and as she approached, McGonagall could see more clearly the extent of her condition. She was thin, hovering just about the point of emaciation, her thin shoulders rounded, as though they carried a great weight. The bones of her arms jutted at odd angles, her forearms slightly off-center. Long, thin fingers clutched jerkily around her parcels, flexing uncertainly, like blind worms. From the fierce concentration on the girl's face, it was apparent that it took a great effort of will just to control them. Two legs, thin as matchsticks poked out from beneath her skirt. McGonagall was sure that if she so much as wrapped her fingers around the bony ankles, they would shatter into powder.
Her legs are no more than kindling, dry sticks and twine. I could snap them with a flick of my wrist. The thought paralyzed her. The sight of those pitiful, twisted, wasted legs was stupefying.
"Professor McGonagall?" The girl and her odd, one-man tank sat in front of her, and one small hand was outstretched in greeting.
"Yes." It was all she could do to make that simple reply. Her mind was still reeling, her eyes still fixed on those improbable, gnarled legs. She was seized by the irrational thought that if she reached out to touch them, they would melt away like wisps of summer fog.
The girl smiled, seeming to take no notice of her new professor's preoccupation. "I'm Rebecca Stanhope. Sorry I'm late. It took me a while to find a cab large enough to accommodate my chair. It's a pleasure to meet you." Her hand remained outstretched.
Tearing her gaze away from the girl's withered limbs, McGonagall took the proffered hand. "Quite alright," she heard herself saying. "However, your delay has left us most pressed for time. We'll have to hurry to get you on board. Come along, now." She turned and strode briskly toward the barrier.
The girl, still smiling, followed suit. McGonagall watched her through half-lidded eyes, and against her will she found her gaze returning to those lifeless parodies of human limbs. They were pale, almost translucent, and so skeletal that her kneecaps bulged outward like hard tumors. They were the most unnatural legs she had ever seen. Looking at them made her want to laugh and scream, to harrow her face with her neatly trimmed nails and leave bright red weals of blood.
Get a hold on yourself, McGonagall, her mind chided. She took a deep, steadying breath. "Do you know how the barrier works?"
"It's quite simple. This is a magical barrier into our world. One just need walk through this wall. I'll go first. Wait until no one is watching, and then follow me. Don't hesitate. I'll be waiting for you on the other side." She gave the girl a tentative smile, took a furtive look around, and stepped nimbly through the brick wall.
Once on the other side of the barrier, she heaved a sigh of relief as a great weight lifted from her chest. Back in the wizarding world at last. She stood on platform nine and three-quarters, waiting for the student to appear. Before her, the scarlet Hogwarts Express idled lazily on the tracks, steam puffing from its stack, its enormous engine rumbling within its steel hull like the purr of a great red lion. Its power reverberated beneath her feet, sending distant shivers through her lower legs.
Students and parents scurried alongside the great, slumbering, red hulk, lugging bags and disgruntled pets to open compartments. Shrill laughter rang out as older students reunited with friends and classmates. First-years huddled close to their parents, reluctant to leave the security of the familiar. Some wept silently, hiding their red, blotched faces from the older, more experienced students.
From the bustle of the milling crowd came a cloud of red hair, and a moment later Mrs. Weasley emerged, followed by her twin sons, Fred and George, and her daughter, Ginny. Ron was nowhere to be seen; mostly likely he had already met up with Harry Potter. The two were inseparable.
"Hello, Minerva," she said, stepping up to wrap her in a hug. "Made it back from the Muggles, I see. But where is the student? Didn't she come?"
"Hello, Molly dear. It's wonderful to see you. Yes, she's here. I'm just waiting for her to pass through. She should be along any minute now. Hello, Fred; George; Ginny." She nodded in the direction of the three redheaded children.
"Hello, Professor. Did you have a good summer?" asked George.
"Indeed I did. The annual Animagus Conference in Prague was most enlightening. Now, if you three will excuse us, I'd like a word with your mother. Off to the train with you."
"Aw, but Professor, we want to see the new student," wheedled George.
"Yeah, we've been wondering about her since Dad mentioned her. I say she's going to be quite the beauty, but George says she'll look like something from the dregs of Knockturn Alley. We've got five pounds riding on it," said Fred.
I'm afraid George is about to be five pounds the richer, she thought, and the memory of those fragile, ruined legs welled up within her. "You'll have plenty of time to get to know the new student. She will be boarding the train momentarily. Until then, she will just have to remain a mystery. Off with you now."
George opened his mouth to protest, but she fixed him with her sternest glare, and he though the better of it. Shoulders slumped in defeat, he turned and muttered something to the other two, and they turned toward the train, casting furtive glances over their shoulders in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the mystery pupil when she materialized from the barrier.
"How bad is she?" asked Mrs. Weasley once the children were out of earshot.
McGonagall sighed, took off her glasses, and began to polish them on the sleeve of her blouse. "Much worse than I expected. Her legs-," she trailed off, groping for the adequate words to describe the profound horror of that child's legs. She could not. "Well, I just don't see how they could possibly be. Honestly, I don't understand why Dumbledore chose her."
"Maybe he thinks she can benefit from what Hogwarts can offer. I always thought he was of the mind that every wizarding child deserved a chance to learn."
"He is, and I agree. I just don't know how we're going to handle her. Hogwarts isn't equipped for her condition." McGonagall finished polishing her glasses and perched them astride her hawk-like nose again. "I'm not even sure if that…that thing she rides around in is capable of navigating stairs."
"I don't have any idea what it's actually called. It looks like a one-seater carriage, though. Four wheels. She drives it with this stick, and when it moves, it makes this odd, burring sound. It's some hellish nightmare the Muggles have cooked up. The things they invent to do without magic. They frighten me, Molly, they really do."
"Ah yes," Mrs. Weasley said brightly, "Arthur told me about those. I think it's called a wheeled chair, though I'm not certain. Some sort of rolling chair to take the place of legs. Runs on exceltricity."
Exceltricity. Something about that word set off warning bells inside her head. The Muggle Studies teacher had been talking about it one day in the staff room. He was constantly going on and on about the wonders of Muggle civilization. No one paid him much mind, not even his students. There was something important about this exceltricity, though she couldn't recall just what. And it hadn't exactly been called exceltricity, either, but something very close.
Excel-, Ekel-, elec-. That was it. Electricity. But what was so important about it? Then she remembered. Electricity interfered with magic. Magic rendered electricity useless. Merlin's beard.
A thousand vivid horrors paraded through her mind as she imagined the student trapped halfway between the worlds, in eternal limbo because magic had sapped the energy from her wheeled chair. She thought of the young girl's plaintive screams as she pounded on the solid brick walls and begged for release. Was she trapped there even now, alone and terrified in the dark? More than enough time had passed for her to come through the barrier.
She was just about to roll up her sleeves and go in after her when the girl emerged from the brick wall, one stick-like arm still clutching her parcels. She smiled when she saw them.
"Sorry it took so long, Professor McGonagall, but people have a tendency to stare at me. Those that don't usually try to help me. Right after you left, two porters tried to give me a hand. They thought I was trying to board the train bound for Essex. They would've put me on it, too, if some old lady hadn't started complaining of chest pains. I slipped away when they turned to check on her." She caught sight of Mrs. Weasley. "Hello! I didn't see you there. Are you a professor at Hogwarts, too? I'm Rebecca Stanhope."
Mrs. Weasley stepped forward with a smile. Like McGonagall, her eyes darted down to the girl's spindly legs, remaining there a moment before returning to her upturned face. "Hello, dear; I'm Mrs. Weasley. I'm sorry to say I don't teach at Hogwarts. I'm just bringing my four children. I'm sure you'll meet them soon enough. They're all in your House. I'm sure you'll have a wonderful time this year."
"Heavens," cried McGonagall, "we must be off. The train leaves in three minutes."
With a hurried goodbye to Mrs. Weasley, she led her charge toward the waiting steam engine. Most of the students had already boarded; the few remaining stragglers gazed at Rebecca with ill-concealed interest, as though she were a fascinating new exhibit at the zoo. McGonagall noted with a mixture of dismay and relief that they, too, seemed mesmerized by her odd, angular body and misshapen legs.
She stopped in front of an empty compartment. "I'm not certain how we're going to get you aboard. I'm afraid your wheeled chair is too large to fit inside." She stood awkwardly beside the compartment. It occurred to her that there was much they had not considered.
"That's alright, Professor. Professor Blosker said something like this might come up. He taught me several modified spells he thought might be useful."
She shifted uncomfortably in her chair, her face contorted and reddened with effort. One thin, bony hand shot out with slingshot suddenness and clawed toward her hip. She grappled with the fabric of her skirt and pulled a wand from its folds. It was short, no more than six inches, with a wide polished oak handle. She wrapped her stiff fingers around it and smiled.
"Here goes nothing," she said, and pointed the wand at her sunken chest. "Automus Wingardium leviosa."
She rose from the chair, her legs dangling bonelessly beneath her. Her tennis shoe-clad feet scraped the ground as she floated toward the compartment door. When she reached the threshold, a flick of her wrist sent her up and inside. Another flick pivoted her toward the seat and sat her gently down.
"It worked," she said, sounding surprised. Then she turned her attention to the chair sitting forlornly on the platform. She pointed her wand at it and murmured a Shrinking Charm. There was a flash, and the eight hundred pound chair shrank to size of a small handbag. Then, "Accio wheelchair." The chair streaked inside and came to rest on the seat at her side.
McGonagall watched Rebecca handle these tasks with keen interest. Despite her bent and twisted bones and reluctant muscles, she handled her wand and the performance of magic remarkably well. There had been no hesitation, no fumbling of wand, no stumbling over the incantations. She had performed the spells as well, if not better, than most of the students in her class. She appeared to be on pace with the rest of the fifth-years. There would be no need to waste valuable time playing catch up. Someone had trained her well, and clearly the staff at D.A.I.M.S. had given a great deal of thought regarding the obstacles she might have to face in her new environment. The gnawing worry that had roosted in her chest since realizing the extent of Rebecca's condition abated a bit.
"Well done, Miss Stanhope," she said crisply, and stepped onto the train.
It began to move before she had a chance to sit down. She rocked and swayed with its motion as it pulled out of the station with a grinding roar of steel and turning gears. The floor lurched softly beneath her feet. She reached out a hand to steady herself. Rebecca, sitting limply in her seat, pressed her thin fingers into the cushions to keep from toppling sideways.
When the lurching buck of the train had settled into its customary rocking trundle, McGonagall dropped her hand and crossed to her seat. She sat down, smoothing her skirt. The worst was over. She had survived the Muggle world and returned with both her charge and her sanity intact. Now she could relax and study the wan young girl across from her.
She saw at once that she could have been beautiful. Deep blue eyes the color of the sea looked out of a face with full, pouty lips. The spun gold of her hair fanned over small shoulders and tapered to her waist.
But her affliction had ravaged her, marred what could have been spectacular beauty. The pockets of deep sea gazed out of fragile, skeletal sockets. Gaunt, sharp cheekbones jutted harshly against her skin. An incongruously large bosom, two sandbags tied to a post, jutted from her narrow chest. The weight of them pulled her forward, rounding her shoulders, withering her. She was a boggart imitating a young girl.
And then there were the legs. Eyes stealing down to them like a surreptitious voyeur, she took in their unfathomable thinness. They seemed fashioned of pressed gossamer, but whoever had made them had not known what they were doing. The kneecaps, bulging from the flat plain of her legs, were higher than they had any right to be. Below them, the shins faded into eggshell, hollow-boned ankles. Her arches had fallen, and upon closer inspection, she saw that one leg was nearly an inch longer than the other. Her lower half was a poorly made child's toy. Looking at them was surreal; it made her head spin.
"Professor." The voice cut through her haze of concentration like a cold knife. She snapped out of her reverie with a start.
"Yes, Miss Stanhope?" She wished mightily for a steaming cup of tea.
If my legs are disturbing you, I can cover them, maybe use a Concealing Charm."
McGonagall sat back abruptly, mutely appalled. Had she really been so obvious? She supposed she had. Heaven only knows what the poor creature must think of me, she thought. "No, Miss Stanhope, that won't be necessary," she said weakly. "It's just that we at Hogwarts weren't sure what to expect. I'm afraid it's been a bit of a-,"
"Shock?" Rebecca finished, a sardonic smile creeping across her face.
McGonagall nodded. She waited for the girl to continue, perhaps to expound on her condition, but she made no sound. She looked at her a moment longer with that knowing, sardonic smile, and then turned to look out the window. The bitterness in that smile made her wince.
They sat in silence watching the hills and pastures rolling by in an endless vista of green. Here and there, white flecks of farmhouses sprouted from the rolling earth like mushrooms. Brown and black splashes, horses and cows grazing on the tender grasses, passed in a blur.
McGonagall heard footsteps in the corridor and groaned inwardly. Fred and George, no doubt, coming to settle their bet. She hoped that they at least had the good sense to mask their reaction. If that wry, bloodless smile was any indication, Rebecca was none to fond of discussing her malady. Heaven help them if she saw the exchange of money. Sure enough, the footsteps stopped outside the compartment, and a moment later two fiery heads appeared.
She tensed, waiting for the sharp intake of breath or the frozen, shocked stare, but nothing of the sort happened. Fred and George entered the room as though nothing were amiss.
"Hello, there! I'm Fred Weasley, and this is my brother George. We thought we'd come to say hello." He stuck out his hand.
Rebecca took the proffered hand. "I'm Rebecca. Pleased to meet you both." She smiled.
"Mind if we sit down?" He gestured at the empty space beside her.
"No, not at all."
"Professor, are we interrupting anything?" asked George.
McGonagall shook her head. "Certainly not. In fact, now that you boys are here, I think I'll go change out of these abominable clothes. If you'll excuse me." With a curt nod, she slipped from the room, closing the door softly behind her.
"Never seen her on the train before. You must be awfully important," said George.
Rebecca shrugged. "I don't think so. I'm just a transfer student from the States."
"The States, eh? Didn't even know they had a school of witchcraft there," said Fred, intrigued.
"It's not much of one. Only about forty students. I guess there aren't that many witches and wizards where I come from."
"Where do you come from exactly?" asked Fred.
"A small town in Florida called Whitting's Glen. Don't imagine you've heard of it."
The boys shook their heads. "'Fraid not. Are there other wizards there?" George rested his chin on the palm of his hand.
Rebecca snorted. "Not likely. The place is barely a town. Two streets, one stoplight, a barbershop, a general store, a church, and a gas station are all there is. The population is just over a hundred, all of them Muggles, even my parents. I'm the only one."
"Where is this school you went to?" asked Fred.
"D.A.I.M.S.? It's in Saint Augustine. Everyone thinks it's just a school for the deaf, blind, and disabled. Only the teachers and students know differently."
Before he could stop himself, Fred blurted out, "So are they all like you then?" It was the first mention either of them had made regarding her disability.
There was a long, painful pause, the room silent save for the rhythmic clacking of the train as it hurtled along the tracks. Fred looked down at his feet, blushing furiously. George sat frozen, unsure of how to proceed.
You stupid git, Fred thought. You're a bloody idiot. Very smooth, very compassionate.
Rebecca was not offended. She was, in fact, relieved. The white elephant everyone had been so studiously ignoring had at last been acknowledged. Yes, the question had been tactless, but it was honest. He hadn't goggled at her like McGonagall, hiding his curiosity under a veneer of cool acceptance. He had indirectly cut to the heart of the matter.
"Not exactly like me, but everyone there has a problem of one sort or another. Deaf. Blind. Thirteen in wheelchairs. Even the teachers have disabilities. It would look a bit odd for well people to be there."
"What, er, is wrong with you?" ventured Fred, aware that he was treading on dangerous ground.
Ah, the question comes at last, thought Rebecca. "I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a Muggle birth defect that damages part of the brain and often causes deformed bones. I can't walk."
"So how do you get around?" They looked at her and around the room, searching for her means of mobility.
"I use a wheelchair. That's it there." She pointed at the shrunken wheelchair sitting beside George.
"This? Bit small, isn't it?" George picked it up and turned it over in his hands.
"Don't be stupid! Can't you see it's been shrunk?" laughed Fred.
"Oh. Right. Dad says it runs on exceltricity. Is it true?"
"You mean electricity. Yes, it does. Professor Blosker says Hogwarts has hundreds of charms on it and my chair won't work on the grounds, though. He enchanted it with a modified levitation spell."
"Wow. D'you think my dad could have a look at it sometime? He's crazy about Muggle technology," said Fred.
"I don't see why not, as long as he doesn't try to take it apart. I'm helpless without it."
Fred and George exchanged glances. "Maybe you shouldn't let him near it, then," said George. "He tried to take an old radio apart once to see how it worked. The pieces are still scattered about his workshop." The boys laughed at the memory.
The pained scree of a warped cart wheel announced the arrival of the food cart. A plump, grey-haired witch stuck her head into the compartment. Her motherly smile faltered when she saw Rebecca perched on the seat like a badly made rag doll, then wrenched itself back onto her face like an unpleasant cramp.
"Would anyone like anything from the trolley?" she asked, never taking her eyes off Rebecca.
"I'll take half a dozen Chocolate Frogs and three pumpkin juices, please," said George, pulling out a sparse handful of Galleons, Sickles, and Knuts from the tattered pocket of his trousers.
"No, thank you," said Rebecca, her formerly light tone buried beneath a thin scrim of ice.
Rebecca looked at the woman and fought to keep from grinding her teeth. She had seen the look of surprise and loathing on the woman's face, if only for an instant. How could she not? It was a look she had seen ever since she had been old enough to look for it. It was a look of pity, a look of fear, a look of repulsion. It was a look that said, "Thank goodness I'm not you." It was the look that branded her freak.
She felt the bile of bitterness swell in her throat, choking her. She hated that look. It had marked and colored every facet of her life. It even invaded her dreams, searing itself onto the tender skin behind her eyes like a badge of shame. The mark of the outsider. The familiar hatred seethed in the pit of her stomach, coiling around her intestines like the grip of a strangling snake. It slithered up her throat to nest behind her eyes, simmering there, waiting to strike.
Some of what she felt must have shown on her face, because the trolley witch nearly dropped the three bottles of chilled pumpkin juice as she passed them to George, and she averted her gaze from Rebecca's eyes, as though even a casual glance into them would cause irrevocable blindness.
"Y-your juice and your change," the witch stammered, shoving the few Knuts into George's upturned palm. She grasped the cart and fled the room without a backward glance, the warped, wobbly wheel giving a terrified squeal as she departed.
"What's up with her?" puzzled George. "Looked like she'd seen a devil."
Rebecca said nothing. The twins did not know, had not seen, and that was fine. They would not understand. Only people like her, the broken and shunned, ever could have.
"Have a pumpkin juice," said Fred, offering her one of the bottles.
She took it. "Thanks." She wrapped her fingers around the top and twisted. It didn't budge. She tried again and only succeeded in scraping palm against the metal cap. "I'm sorry, but I can't seem to get it open. Could you help me, please?"
"Sure." George plucked it from her hand, opened it with a casual flick of the wrist, and handed it back to her.
"Thank you." She wrapped her fingers around the cool glass bottle and took a generous swig. It was cool and good on her parched throat.
They sat quietly for a spell, enjoying the chocolates and the drinks, and she watched them. She envied them their effortless, fluid grace, how they moved without thought. Their long, supple fingers did not wage war against the thin tin foil wrappers of the Chocolate Frogs as hers did, but rather caressed them like old friends, or perhaps lovers. She felt no hatred for them only a profound, stabbing longing to be as they were. She watched them and said nothing.
"Do you like Quidditch?" George asked, licking chocolate from his thumbs.
Rebecca took another appreciative swig of juice and nodded. "Don't get to see much of it, though. The only match I've ever seen was the Quidditch World Cup last year. The entire D.A.I.M.S. group went as a field trip. We had planned to stay a few days, tour Britain. The teachers thought it would be a good cultural experience. When things went south, it was decided that we should leave. So much for the field trip."
Fred and George both nodded. They knew exactly what "going south" meant. The chaos following the World Cup had been the harbinger of things to come. The Dark Mark glittering green against the night sky had been the herald of the calamitous events that would culminate in the murder of Cedric Diggory and the resurrection of He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named.
"Does your school have a Quidditch team?" George polished off the last of his pumpkin juice and set the empty bottle on the ground between his feet.
An image came to Rebecca's mind of Andrew Neuman, a boy at D.A.I.M.S. who suffered from Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that weakened the muscles little by little until they were too weak to even make his chest rise and fall, a disease that guaranteed death by suffocation. She imagined him perched on a broom, weak arms feebly clutching the handle, trying to steer it. She imagined Joey Laughton, a blind sixth-year, trying to steer through opponents and avoid Bludgers with only his ears to guide him.
She laughed, a guttural barking sound that surged from deep within her chest. She rocked back and forth, fists clenched. The muscles of her arms, agitated by her mirth, pulled her forearms back to her shoulders in a spastic jerk until she looked like an undernourished strongman trying to hoist a barbell. Her face had gone an alarming shade of red.
"D.A.I.M.S.? A Quidditch team? You can't be serious," she gasped, swiping her streaming eyes. "Oh, it would be a disaster! We wouldn't need Bludgers; we'd be falling off on our own. It would be a slaughter. Even if we could round up enough students healthy enough to keep a grip on their brooms through anything stronger than a light breeze, there aren't enough students to justify the effort. We wouldn't have an audience."
"It's worse than I thought."
The cool, arrogant voice came from the doorway, and Rebecca turned to see a tall, thin, pale boy with platinum blonde hair. His overcast grey eyes roved over her hunched form, his face a mask of disdain.
"What is that?" he asked George.
"Sod off, Malfoy," came the reply.
"I'm Rebecca Stanhope. Who are you?"
The boy ignored her completely. "A hidden, particularly rotten branch of the Weasley family tree?" he drawled, contempt dripping from every syllable.
"She's a transfer student from the States." George had stood up and was regarding Malfoy with sharpening rage.
"From the States? Dumbledore isn't content to open Hogwarts to the dregs of Great Britain; now he's bringing in foreign filth, too. Tell me, are your parents wizards?" For the first time, he addressed Rebecca directly.
"No," she answered.
"I thought not. No purebloods would ever end up with something like you. A MudBlood of the worst stock. Were your parents related?" He gave her a vicious, triumphant smile.
Rebecca studied him. It was obvious even now that this Malfoy was going to be stunningly handsome, likely possessing a beauty equal to his incredible hauteur. High, Slavic cheekbones pressed gently against an alabaster face. His grey eyes held an expression of calm superiority, one that she was quite certain was as natural to him as breathing.
She hesitated to rise to his challenge, not because she feared him, but because she almost admired his raw, undisguised prejudice. He was the sort of enemy she could understand, one that made no bones about his feelings or his motives. He made no excuses. He wore his hatred like a badge of honor. He hated her cleanly, with no misgivings or second thoughts.
All right, Malfoy, I accept your challenge, she thought. "Malfoy, was it?" she asked.
"That's right. Draco Malfoy." He drew himself up. Obviously the name was a source of great pride to him.
She looked him up and down, measuring him. "Nice robes. You must come from a family of great influence."
Draco nodded smugly. "One of the oldest wizarding families in Europe."
"And one of the richest?" she asked.
Another nod. He was reveling in her flattery.
"Your mother must be beautiful." She chose her words carefully, as though handling nitroglycerin.
"She is. More beautiful than anything you could imagine."
Behind her gaunt, impassive face, Rebecca smiled a poison fang smile. Already she could smell his weakness, like infected blood from an open wound. His vanity made him blind, leaving him open for the tearing plunge of a serrated knife.
"They must have been so happy before you came along." An innocent, syrupy smile flooded her face.
The satisfied smirk melted from his face. "What would you know about my parents, MudBlood? Your parents probably cursed God the moment they saw your face," he spat, lithe fingers curling into a tight fist.
She did not flinch from his words; she had heard them and countless others before. Besides, an accepted truth could do no harm. Behind the mask, the reptilian smile grew wider still. "True, but at least my parents don't have to pretend to give a damn." The smile never left her face.
The room was utterly still. Fred Weasley watched this escalating confrontation with profound unease. He didn't think it wise for Rebecca to be provoking Draco. If he decided to attack her with his wand, she would be helpless. She would never be able to dodge in time. And yet, it seemed that she was enjoying the proceedings. Her eyes danced, dappled with sparkling glimmers of energy, and in her usually wan cheeks were hectic rose blooms. She clearly thought the game was afoot, and he was worried. If it came down to wand-play, he wasn't sure he would be able to reach his own wand in time to intercept him. He slid his fingers toward the pocket of his trousers.
Draco whipped out his wand with a snarl. "You'll pay for that, MudBlood!"
"Will I?" She sounded amused.
Professor McGonagall, coming down the corridor to tell the Weasleys and Miss Stanhope to put on their robes, sensed immediately that something was going wrong. She saw the back of a platinum-blonde head in the doorway. Draco. He was certainly up to no good. As she drew closer, she heard Fred Weasley's voice, low and threatening.
"Put down the wand, Malfoy," he said.
She came upon them just in time to see Fred and Draco with wands aloft, glaring menacingly at each other. George stood behind Fred, his wand in one, white-knuckled hand. Rebecca sat silently on the seat, eyes darting between the two foes.
"Yes, put down your wands. Both of you," she snapped, stepping into the room and drawing out her own wand from the folds of her emerald robe. "Just what is going on in here?" Her stern eyes flickered back and forth, demanding an explanation.
"Professor, Malfoy came in here and started insulting Rebecca. He called her a MudBlood and threatened her with his wand," cried Fred, still waving his wand.
"Mr. Weasley, I said put your wand away NOW," she snapped. Then she rounded on Malfoy. "Is this true?"
He stared at her in sullen silence. She could see the fury still smoldering in his eyes, and behind that, his cunning mind searching for a feasible excuse.
Finally, he mumbled, "We were just talking."
"Honestly I'm appalled. Not even at Hogwarts and causing trouble. I'll be having a talk with your head of House when we arrive." She turned to the twins. "As for you two, it's time to get into your robes. We're nearly there."
"May I go, Professor?" asked Malfoy, shooting an ugly glance at the sedate Rebecca.
"I suggest you do," answered the professor, looking down her narrow nose at him.
He skulked away, followed by Fred and George, who departed with friendly waves.
"Miss Stanhope, that goes for you as well. Get into your robe. I have to leave now. I have to get to Hogwarts and prepare for the Sorting. If you need help, just look for Hagrid, a rather large man in a moleskin coat. He'll be happy to help you."
McGonagall gave Rebecca a last, searching look before she left the compartment. There was something different about her now. She looked more vital, less fragile. She looked energized. Well, it wasn't her concern. She had other matters to tend to. She left without a word.
When the professor had gone, Rebecca exhaled a shaky breath. The adrenaline still pounded in her veins. That had been close. If Malfoy had succeeded in getting off a spell, things would have gone badly for her. She was unprepared, and worse still, tired. All the same, she'd had no choice. If she had not risen to the occasion, he would have marked her as easy prey.
From deep within her mind, the thought surfaced- And you enjoy the fight.
Yes. It was true. She did revel in the art of confrontation. She loved the battle of wits and wills, the sour tang of adrenaline in her mouth, the vibrating thrum of it in her veins. She savored seeing dreadful realization dawn in an opponent's eyes when they realized they had underestimated her and were about to suffer the consequences. She loved these things and did not deny it.
But for all her love of confrontation and the feelings it brought, she was not a violent soul. She welcomed them when the need arose, but she did not look for them. She did not seek out battle, but she did not flee from it. She defended herself and those she loved without mercy. She would not be cowed.
She did not just put on her robe; she went to war with it. She writhed and struggled with it, beating it into submission over her thin, knotted form. The tie was not so easy to best. It slipped through her fingers like a greased eel, and she cursed it. By the time she had tied it into some semblance of proper form, she was red-faced and sweaty.
When the train ground to a halt a few minutes later, she disembarked the same way she had boarded. To her surprise, she saw no school, only a line of carriages. An enormous man was waiting beside one of them.
That must be Hagrid, she thought, and started toward him.
"H'lo," he rumbled as she approached. "I'm Hagrid. McGonagall tol' me you'd be along. "Will you be needing help gettin' into the carriage?" His black eyes glittered amiably beneath bushy black eyebrows.
"No, thank you. Pleased to meet you, though," she said, peering up at him.
"Same. Well then, I'll be getting along. Got to get the first years across the lake. If you need me, just send the word." He disappeared with a wave of his mammoth hand.
She levitated herself into the carriage, shrank her chair, brought it inside, and closed the door. She wrinkled her nose against the smell of must and age. Then the carriage began to move, swaying gently from side to side. It was difficult to see through the thick spumes of dust, and at first she could see nothing. Then she saw it.
Hogwarts, the ancient castle, of wizard-child dreams loomed up before her, piercing the dark, star-littered canopy of the sky with numberless stone turrets and spires. The warm glow of candlelight spilled from the windows like a beacon. It stood sentinel over a mirror-glass lake that had captured the moon in its liquid cage. As she looked closer, she could see tiny fireflies dancing on the moon-glazed surface. No, not fireflies. Torches. Squinting, she saw the outlines of a dozen small boats with the shadowy forms of people inside. A large, hulking bulk sat in the lead boat. Hagrid and the first years.
She stared at the scene before her in mute, gape-mouthed wonder. She had never expected anything like this. Was this really where she would spend the next three years? The very idea made her feel dizzy, and she closed her eyes.
Backing away from a challenge? she asked herself.
The blood in her veins began to race. Not on her life. Not for anything in the world would she have missed this. The wave of dizziness passed. She opened her eyes and went forward to the greatest challenge she would ever face, a challenge that would push her skills and her morals to their limits and call into question everything she had ever believed, a challenge that would help decide the fate of the magical world.
For Rebecca Stanhope, the greatest battle of wits and wills that she would ever know had begun.