Part the First: The Stone Speaks
These walls stand silent. They have seen so much, from the beginning of an era to its chaotic end. They have seen the triumphs of dear friends, and friendships' dissolutions. They have seen wars and births and deaths, the tumbling of towers and the erecting of statues. All of it beautiful and strange in the way of people, human beings who grow and change and die. So malleable, humans. So impermanent.
Yet, for these walls, for me, everything is impermanent.
Every year, these walls open themselves to a new class, and generations have flowed through this place on their way to greatness, or infamy, or mediocrity. Many are the minds who have graced these halls, not all of whom became well known later, for with greatness sometimes comes humility. Sometimes. Not always. Living so long as we do—if one may call what we do living—we see how greatness so often and so easily leads to arrogance. More often than not, humility is preceded by arrogance, and the fall between the two is long. Bones are broken, so are prides. Sometimes the losses are more than can be borne on a single set of shoulders.
Oh, the stories these walls could tell, if they could speak what they've seen. They are only walls, however.
But I have a voice. I speak for them, sometimes.
There was once a man who spoke to snakes and built a secret chamber.
Once a woman and her mother parted lost in anger.
Once two friends from separate lives made oaths in stone rough hewn.
Once four friends built towers high, still standing though They are ruined.
There was once a boy who spoke to snakes and found the secret chamber.
To hide his deeds he chose to lie and to others slander.
Once four friends roamed the halls and loved to joke and prank.
Once grown they found their lives forfeit to cowardice and hate.
There was once a boy who spoke to snakes and set one upon his cousin.
A fright to some although his years had not yet reached a dozen.
Once with friends as bright as stars and loyal to his failings,
He set on paths and conquered death in deeds that need retelling.
Proud Gryffindor, wise Ravenclaw, fair Hufflepuff and Slytherin.
Of these four I tell the tales over and again.
These are tales of friendship, of courage, love and hate.
There are stories more to tell, dark, but now too late.
Listen now, listen fast, listen though it is done.
The deeds are past, the lives are shed, no one's pride has won.
But listen, children, hear my song and maybe you will learn
How past and present don't mix well, and how the future burns.
II. Girl on the Tower
Seen only by the wind and the sky and the standing stone:
She stands on the top of the Astronomy Tower, close to the edge, looking down on the place where a great man once lie broken. Broken, but not defeated. Her expression is far weightier than it should be for a girl of only fifteen years, suggesting that she understands what it means to be broken, but not how to be simultaneously undefeated.
The night is cold, but she has no cloak.
Down through the space and night below she stares, as though looking through time, through death, as though asking the man how did you do it, how did you win even after everything?
This tower is a place of death, of choices. Does she know? Does she know that before she was born, a boy only a year older than she is now stood on this very tower with a terrible choice imposed on him by others?
What is it she thinks as her hands grip the stone of the crenelle?
Breathing in, the girl on the tower gives a shiver before taking two steps back from the battlement. With an exhalation, she takes two more steps, then turns away from the edge and the night.
But it was close.
III. The Idea
It begins in innocence, and, as so much does, in the past.
Not everyone forgets, you see, not everyone learns to let live, to let bygones be, to watch the water flow under the bridge and no further. Even those who think they do only think so, unable to see the dam for the trickle that leaks through.
Overheard by the painting of Babbling Bathsheba in the teacher's lounge, here is how it begins, then:
"You have some time, Neville?"
"Sure, Harry, what's on your mind?"
Let me fill in some gaps, because later what is on his mind will become clear. I speculate: the father has listened to his children talk about their peers, who are the children of his peers, and wonders where they've adopted the ideas they have, wonders if he's said anything without knowing they overheard, to his wife, or to his friends. Harry Potter remembers the boy Draco Malfoy, and while he remembers the taunts and cruelty, he also remembers the stark play of shadow and light on Malfoy's features on the top of the Astronomy Tower, when asked to perform murder and unable to carry through. He remembers the boy who cried in the girl's bathroom for the sake of his family, and the boy who lied to everyone when he said he didn't recognize a swollen-faced Harry. If he has ever said anything negative about Draco Malfoy, it has been in a moment of frustration, and never meant to engender such hatred in his children.
But then, this is how these things begin. Lucius Malfoy had his own opinions, and was, shall we say, less careful of how much his son heard.
Also on his mind, Potter remembers a man named Severus Snape, who performed heroic acts even as he stubbornly clung to the hatred of a younger time. Snape was never a happy man. To think of any of his children, or those of his friends, growing into another man like him… it is not a pleasant thought.
Yes, I speculate, but you must remember, I knew Harry Potter as a boy. I have known many of the players in this game as children, I have been inside their heads and seen their fragile hopes and fears. Where I speculate, you may be fairly certain I do so from a place of knowledge. So be still, and be quiet, and I will continue.
"Listen, I have this idea."
Neville Longbottom, known now as Professor Longbottom, listens as Potter lays out everything. The kids need to know what it's really like, he says, and they need to know it isn't that easy to judge what's going on inside a person's head.
Listening, Longbottom frowns. He is a man who has come such a very long way from the eleven year old who sat on a stool in the Great Hall, seemingly timid, seemingly weak. What he has never quite realized is that the strength he found many years later was not the result of his friends, but waited inside him while his family talked and schemed, while his grandmother didn't know what to do with him and uncles plotted to drop him out of windows.
Now, he has a daughter who is the same age as Potter's youngest, eight years old, two years yet from Hogwarts. While he understands what Potter says, he also isn't certain he wants his Elaine participating in something with such violent potential. Especially because Potter has not yet been able to articulate exactly how such a thing will work.
"We'd have to get the Headmistress involved," he finally says slowly. He isn't ready yet to tell his friend yes without reservations, but he isn't ready to turn him down, either, because he sees the potential.
Nodding, eyes unfocused and thoughtful, Potter agrees. "Of course, especially if we want to do this on Hogwarts grounds. We'll have to, I think. The kids will need a lot of room to move around in, and Hogwarts is the safest place for anything like this."
"Yes, it is," is Longbottom's response, and a flickering memory burns and dies in the back of his mind, of times when Hogwarts was not safe, times he tries not to think about.
There is a growing part of him that has latched onto this idea of Potter's, dangerous though it may be. These are children they're talking about, still in training, and lacking fine control over their magic. Accidents happen. But if someone were to be involved who keeps these things in mind, who works from a place of thoughtfulness instead of pure inspiration, perhaps it could turn into something manageable. Every contingency must be thought through.
Over the next year, he and Potter debate and discuss, and fine-tune the thing until it is suitable for presentation to the Headmistress.
After that, there is no turning back.
Overheard by the Fat Lady, on the other side of her portrait:
A boy and a girl, their voices muffled, but breathless. It isn't hard to guess what they're up to; it is quite late, past midnight, so all the others must be in bed. The Fat Lady is supposed to report these things, for there is a certain amount of decorum that's expected to be upheld—as though these things do not happen at all, with children of a certain age—however, she's enjoyed a good romp in her day with a handsome gentleman in a painting on the second floor, and she sees nothing wrong with the students doing so. If she hears anything to insinuate one of them is not there by choice, she will raise the alarm, but otherwise she is content to be a silent conspirator.
"Wait," she hears, and listens harder. It's the girl. "Wait, I don't—"
Perhaps she should recognize the voices, but there are too many children, and new ones every year, for many more years than they can imagine. The Fat Lady can't tell who they are, only that the girl seems reluctant.
"What is it?" the boy asks again, and at least he sounds concerned.
The girl doesn't reply immediately, and in a moment there are breathless sounds again, and a low, wanting moan from the girl. Apparently, whatever she wanted to wait for was not all that important after all. Frustrating, to hear but not able to see. Most students make certain they're far away from any paintings, though, so she will take what she can get.
What she gets soon enough is flesh on flesh, and rising gasps muffled quickly, presumably by lips as they press together in a desperate kiss. The Fat Lady cannot see, but she can imagine, and it's all very romantic. She's just thinking she might decide to nip on down a couple of floors when one of the lovers within gives a cry, and the other follows suit until she can't tell which is which, only that their adventure is over for the night.
Panting, he asks, "Do you love me?"
A few heavy breaths and a pause.
Insistent, "Do you love me?"
"Yes, I love you. James, I love you."
So very romantic.
V. The Plan
Overheard and seen by several former Hogwarts Headmasters and Headmistresses, as well as myself:
The Headmistress sits at her desk, her glasses slid down most of the length of her nose, and she stares at Auror Potter.
It isn't that his plan hasn't been well thought out, because by now it has been; the plan, or the "social exercise," as he calls it, is loosely based on an Auror trust-building exercise wherein groups of Aurors and trainees are split into groups representing Aurors, Dark wizards, and civilians, and then are given a battle scenario. There are almost no rules in the Auror exercise, but Potter has conceded the necessity of adding several to this particular form of the exercise. They are, after all, dealing with half-trained children, who tend to become rowdy and excited and forget themselves.
Minerva McGonagall is a singular woman. She has chosen a singular life, much like her predecessor, though for very different reasons. There are many hearts in the wake of her; she looks back on them with unfailing pragmatism and never regrets a one.
For the most part, she approaches the rest of her life with the same mindset.
"Forgive me if I have some reservations about the practicality of such an exercise, Mr. Potter," she finally says to him. The fingers of her hands are as long and strong as ever, threaded through each other and rested on the desk. Albus' desk. She never did replace it. "And you, Longbottom. There are a great many considerations, the logistics of such a thing will be difficult."
"I understand, Headmistress." Longbottom sits beside Potter, his hands in his lap. He's helped Potter with the initial plans, and he believes they have the beginnings of a viable project. His concern is and will always be the safety of the children involved. "We're already working on ways to keep it under control. We want to limit the number of members for each team, and section off an area of Hogwarts for the exercise."
"Hmm. How many students on each team?"
"We think seven should be a good number. Large enough to really make the kids work at teamwork, but small enough to be manageable." Potter is the one who answers, his voice strong, confident. They have been planning for more than a year now, and this is his pet project, no matter how involved Longbottom has become; it's Longbottom's job merely to keep the project controllable, and safe. Potter isn't always as concerned with control as he is with results, but then he's never been one to control himself much. It isn't that he doesn't care. He does care, that's why he's doing this, but his care is currently narrowed in focus, and has no room for any other considerations.
On the other side of the desk, the Headmistress presses her lips together in a tight line. "Longbottom," she finally says, "you will be the staff in charge of this project on school grounds." When Potter tries to interrupt, she plows right through him. "Potter will be allowed to help you on an advisory basis due to his experience, but as this is suggested as an exercise for the students, this is now officially a Hogwarts project." Her eyes spear Potter through the lenses of her glasses, eyes capable of reminding anyone of why she was and remains such a formidable teacher.
Potter hesitates, but nods.
"Good. All portions of the plans will have to go through me for approval, and only when I've approved a final plan will this go forward." A hesitation. Then, "you are both dismissed."
Potter and Longbottom leave the Headmistress' office, and McGonagall looks up at the portrait hanging closest to her desk. "I suppose they have a point," she tells the man who peers down at her, all oils and dark pigments. "Forgetting is how these things happen over and over."
"I hope you know what you're doing, Minerva."
She smirks. There is a rueful bent to it. "I remember once saying the same to you, Severus."
This is happening in the Headmistress' office. It happens right now:
"Tell me why you did it."
"I don't know."
"You don't know?" The Auror is large, angry, and makes his reputation through intimidation. He is also old enough to have been in service the last time a battle took place on these grounds. His name is Thaddeus, and of the fifty or so people killed at that battle, his nephew was one. To the girl in front of him, he must seem terrifying. "You tortured a boy, used an Unforgivable Curse on him, and you're telling me you don't know why?"
She wraps her arms around herself and cries.
"I don't know."
He bends down over her from behind, his shadow weighing her down, pinning hers to the desk. "Tell me why you did it."
Her voice is a whisper.
"I don't know."
They will tell you portraits are a distillation of their subject's personality, that in the end they are not particularly sophisticated.
I tell you now, wizards do not always know their own power.