The End of the Beginning

by Marina

Chapter 3

The next day's headlines screamed of a "Mystery Massacre in West London!" There was a report on BBC News, too. It confirmed the bare bones of James Potter's story: five people, including three children, tortured and killed by gruesome yet mysteriously unspecified means. There were interviews with grim-faced policemen and a number of terrified neighbors who hadn't heard a thing. If anyone had noticed a glowing green skull hovering in the sky above the scene of the crime, they didn't mention it.

For a few minutes, Giles contemplated the possibility that Potter and Moody had committed the murders themselves, as part of some elaborate charade designed to recruit him and Ethan to the wrong side of the conflict. Not very likely, he decided; the coincidence of the two of them being outside in that particular neighborhood at that particular time would've been too difficult to either predict or arrange in advance. Unless, of course, the strange magic these people did allowed them to see the future, too...

His collection of magical texts made no mention of wizard schools, wands, Ministries of Magic, or spells that enabled the caster to produce a tea service for five out of thin air. In a way, Giles found this reassuring. He would've considered himself an irredeemable idiot if the information had actually been available somewhere and he'd managed to go all this time without ever coming across it.

Giles tried phoning Ethan three times, but got no answer. He tried to think of somebody else he could call, and came to the depressing conclusion that there wasn't a single other person whom he could consult for advice about being recruited by total strangers into a secret magical civil war. There were people he could trust, and people who could be expected to hear the news without packing him off for psychiatric evaluation, but the two sets did not overlap.

He went to bed without having decided anything, and was awakened at an ungodly hour of the morning by a persistent tapping above his head. His sleep-fogged brain took a minute to recognize that the noise was coming from outside his window, still longer to realize that this was cause for concern, since he lived on the fourth floor. Giles clambered out of bed in a hurry and stood staring at the window, trying to figure out what might be going on behind the lowered blind. He could hear scratching and tapping against the glass, a muted scraping that sounded like sharp claws on wood, and then a rather irritated… hooting? Giles hesitated, then edged forward and carefully lifted the blind by one corner.

There was a large and obviously impatient tawny owl fidgeting on his windowsill. It glared at Giles from under the shade, gave a loud, high-pitched hoot, and drummed its beak against the glass again. There was something odd about the way it was perched, tilted slightly to one side. Giles retrieved his glasses from the bedside table, put them on, and saw that the bird had a small paper-wrapped package attached by string to one leg.

Giles opened the window. The owl hopped inside, looked around critically, then flapped across the room to settle on top of his dresser.

"Hoo-woo!" it said.

"Good morning to you too." Giles approached it cautiously. "Uhm… is that for me? Did Dumbledore send you? Or is this some new example of Ethan's sense of humor?"

"Hoo-woo," the owl repeated with a trace of impatience. Giles sighed.

"All right, all right, I get the idea. You don't speak English, you just make the deliveries."

The owl graciously held still while Giles untied the string and retrieved the package from its leg. It was a flat, square box about the size of his hand, with a folded note attached to the lid. The note was addressed to "Mr. Rupert Giles, 145 Tottenham Court Rd., fourth floor, second window from the East." Giles opened it first.

Mr. Giles,

As you can see, we are keeping our promise to be in touch. If you have decided to join us, please open the enclosed package at exactly 5:30 this evening. The contents will transport you to a safe meeting place. If you are not interested, simply burn the box unopened. There is nothing I can say in a letter that would be more persuasive than what I've already said in person, so I will not attempt to influence you further. I hope that you will work with us, but we will not trouble you or your friend again should you refuse.

Albus Dumbledore

P.S. The owl's name is Abernathy. He likes bacon, smoked turkey, and parmesan rinds.

Giles looked at the box. The box just sat there.

"If I open you before 5:30," he said, "are you going to explode?"

Silence. Magical packages, apparently, spoke no more English than the owls that delivered them. Giles shook his head, feeling extremely foolish, and went to see if his fridge contained any bacon, smoked turkey, or parmesan rinds.

It was one of the longest Saturdays in Giles' life. Dumbledore's package sat on his dresser like a little silent time bomb. He couldn't be in the room without staring at it, couldn't be out of the room without thinking about it. In an effort to keep himself distracted he cleaned his flat from top to bottom, did his shopping, did his washing, re-shelved his books to a new, more efficient system, and tried to call Ethan two more times. None of it helped a bit. By mid-afternoon he was pacing, jumping at small noises, and eyeing his drinks cabinet with unhealthy longing.

At 3:45 he stormed into the bedroom, grabbed the package from the dresser and tore the wrapping paper from it. He stood there for a long while, staring at the plain brown cardboard lid, then put the box down again and retreated back to the living room.

At 4:37 he surrendered to the drinks cabinet's call and had two fingers of Scotch.

At 5:29 he stood in front of the dresser again, watching the second hand on his watch crawl toward 12. With five seconds to spare, he snatched up the box and tore off the lid.

Inside, nestled on a little pillow of cotton wool, was a chewed-looking pencil stub with the point broken off.

Giles had spent the day imagining hundreds of increasingly outrageous possibilities for what he might find in the box, but this particular one had never entered his mind. He wondered if this was one of Ethan's elaborate jokes after all. But Ethan, surely, would've come up with something more impressive for the punch line… At a loss as to what else to do, Giles reached into the box and picked the pencil stub up for closer look.

As soon as his fingers touched the wood, his whole body jerked forward, as if an invisible hand had grabbed his belt buckle and pulled. The floor disappeared, and the walls and furnishings of Giles' flat dissolved into a rushing blur of color. Giles cried out, but couldn't hear his own voice in the rush of wind that swirled around him, carrying him aloft. Like Dorothy flying to Oz, he thought, and wondered half-hysterically if he was supposed to win Dumbledore's war by crushing Lord Voldemort on his landing.

The wind gave one final, deafening howl and abruptly died. There was a dizzying moment of free fall, then Giles' feet hit the ground. He stumbled forward a step, sucked in a lungful of cool air, then gagged and doubled over as his stomach attempted to turn itself inside-out. It felt as if he was sick for hours, but it was probably only a minute or so. Eventually it ended, as these things usually do. Giles straightened up, pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his mouth, and slowly turned in a circle to survey his surroundings.

He was standing at the edge of a perfectly ordinary country road. There were some farm buildings in the distance, and some drowsy-looking cows grazing behind low fences. Giles could hear bird song, and a dog barking somewhere out of sight. None of it seemed even remotely magical. He scratched his head, wondering if there was some sort of puzzle he needed to solve or some illusion he had to penetrate before he could be allowed to go on.

"Mr. Giles!" James Potter was walking across the road toward him, smiling and waving. He had not been there a second ago; Giles was sure of it. He was wearing dark blue robes with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows and the collar open, much more casual than the red uniform Giles had last seen him in. "You've decided to come after all. I'm glad."

"You could've warned me about the mode of transportation," Giles said. "I don't believe I've ever traveled by pencil stub before. It makes me travel sick"

Potter looked startled. "Dumbledore didn't tell you? He said he was going to write a letter--"

"He did write, yes. It was a somewhat incomplete explanation." Giles shoved the pencil in his back pocket. "I'm starting to get the feeling that your Dumbledore is... a little eccentric, perhaps?"

"Nutty as a fruitcake," Potter said cheerfully. "When I'm one hundred and forty years old and the most powerful wizard in the world, I'm going to be nutty too, and no one will tell me nay, either. I can't wait." He stopped in the center of the road and looked from side to side. "I don't see Mr. Rayne. He didn't come with you?"

Giles shook his head. "I haven't been able to reach him. Did Dumbledore send him an owl and a pencil, too?"

"An owl and something, anyway." Potter looked slightly crestfallen. "Let's wait a few minutes. Maybe he'll turn up."

Giles sincerely doubted it, but decided a short wait wouldn't hurt. If nothing else, it would give him some time to ask questions.

"Mr. Potter... or is it Officer Potter? Wizard Potter?"

"Ugh. Technically, it's Auror Potter, but I'd rather stick with James, if you don't mind. Titles make me feel absolutely ancient."

Giles carefully kept a straight face. James Potter looked barely old enough to drink. "James, then -- provided you drop the Mr. and call me Giles -- would you mind telling me where we are? Or will that be a security breach of some sort?"

"Not at all. We're in Chilham. Or just south of Chilham, anyway. If you go about two miles up the road that way," James pointed to his left, "you'll hit the Muggle train station."

"Ah." Well, at least he knew how to get back without having to resort to the pencil stub again. "So what's so special about Chilham?"

"Nothing in particular." James shrugged. "Dumbledore has a safe house near here -- he's got them all over the country. It's reasonably comfortable and *very* well warded, so we thought it would be a good place for a first meeting. You've drawn quite a crowd, you know."

"A crowd?" Giles felt a sudden impulse to start backing toward the train station. "I didn't expect--that is… I hope you didn't expect a formal lecture or anything, because I really didn't prepare--"

"No worries," James said firmly. "Believe me, most of the folks that are coming would never speak to me again if I dragged them out here to listen to a lecture." He grinned and clapped Giles on the shoulder. "Relax. I know we didn't get off on the right foot the last time, but we're really not Trolls, you know. Well, most of us aren't, anyway. It'll be all right."

"I'm not worried." Giles leaned against the fence that separated the cow pasture from the road, and tried to look casual. He wished Ethan had come. It would've been reassuring to have someone capable to back him up in case this turned out to be a bad mistake, and Ethan, for all his flaws, was certainly capable. Unfortunately, it seemed that he had decided not to get involved.

"Your friend's not going to come, is he?" James said ruefully.

Giles sighed. "I'm afraid not. Ethan doesn't like to involve himself in other people's troubles." Unless he's causing them...

"I suppose we might as well go, then." James walked out into the road. "Come on; it's a short walk."

They followed the road for about half a mile, then turned onto a dirt path that led to a dilapidated thatch-roofed shack hidden behind a small copse of trees. They'd just come within view of it when James stopped and put one hand on Giles' arm.

"Hold on," he said and drew his wand. "I'm going to tell the wards to recognize you."

Giles held very still while James ran the wand from the top of his head down to his feet, first in front, then in back, muttering to himself all the while. He felt nothing -- no hint of a supernatural presence, no trace of power being channeled. It was unnerving.

"What would happen if you didn't do this?" he asked.

"Oh, nothing terrible." James squatted to trace a circle on the ground around Giles' feet. "The anti-Muggle charms are harmless. You'd go a few more yards, suddenly remember an urgent appointment back in London, rush off and forget you've ever been here. The wards against unauthorized wizards are another story, but you don't have to worry about those." He tucked the wand back into his sleeve and stood. "There. You should be all right now."

"Thanks. Uhm… so is that the safe house?" Giles looked at the shack dubiously. It was tiny and ancient. The roof had holes in it and the single window was cracked and coated with grime. "Let me guess -- it's bigger on the inside than on the outside?"

"Damn." James looked disappointed. "I was hoping to surprise you."

They walked around to the entrance, which faced away from the road. There was a black motorcycle parked by the door. It looked sleek and shiny and completely out of place. A red helmet with a tinted full-face visor dangled from one handlebar.

"Oh, good," said James. "Sirius is here already. You can meet him and Lily and Harry first." He held the door open.

Giles stepped inside and found himself in a wide, carpeted hallway that stretched at least thirty feet ahead of him. The walls were paneled in oak at the bottom, papered in cream-colored wallpaper at the top. A curved staircase with an elaborately carved banister led to a second story that had not been visible from outside. Somehow, the entire space was brightly illuminated by a single candle suspended from the ceiling in a cut glass lantern. There was a low wooden bench, a wall-mounted coat rack, and a slotted wooden contraption that looked like an oversized umbrella stand, except instead of umbrellas it held a pair of old-fashioned twig brooms. A pair of robes hung on the coat rack: one silver-gray, one pale green with embroidered flower trim on the cuffs and collar.

"All right, I'm impressed." Giles ran his hand over the snarling lion's head that crowned the bottom of the banister. "I don't suppose I could persuade you to work the same trick on my flat?"

"You'll have to speak to Dumbledore. This is way beyond what most wizards can do." James pulled his robes off over his head, revealing perfectly ordinary black trousers and a red rugby shirt. "Space-warping charms are *hard*. Lily and I took a week adding the nursery to our house before Harry was born, and Lily is better than most at this stuff."

"James?" a woman's voice called out. "Is that you, and if it is, why are you hanging about in the hallway?"

The grin with which James Potter greeted this rather prosaic question was the unmistakable symptom of a man gone silly with love.

"Just a sec!" he yelled, hastily tossing his robes onto the coat rack. "Come on, Giles. Meet the missus."

The safe house living room was nearly as big as Giles' entire flat, and decorated in warm shades of amber, brown and burgundy. There was an oversized sofa piled with tapestry-covered cushions, two plush matching armchairs in front of a marble fireplace, a floor-to-ceiling bookcase taking up one entire wall, a low table with a chess board on it, and a deep bay window with more cushions strewn on the sill. A portable playpen and a scattering of brightly colored baby toys occupied one corner, but there was no baby in sight.

A young woman sat curled up in the window seat with a book in her lap. She looked perfectly unremarkable, dressed in jeans and a white peasant blouse, with dark red hair clipped into an untidy ponytail. When she saw James and Giles, she put the book aside and stood up.

"You must be Mr. Giles." She held out her hand, and Giles shook it. Her eyes were a vivid emerald green, the only striking feature in an otherwise ordinary face. "I'm Lily. I understand my husband has been horribly mistreating you."

"Have not!" James assumed an entirely unconvincing expression of injured innocence.. "All I did was Stupefy him, abduct him, chain him in a dungeon, rifle his wallet and leave him alone with Alastor Moody. I was positively *angelic* -- tell her, Giles."

"It was the most charming interrogation I've ever had," Giles assured her solemnly.

"Oh, now you're just encouraging him." Lily's attempt to look stern was about on par with her husband's attempt to look innocent. "And speaking of people who shouldn't be encouraged, Sirius is in the parlor with our child. I take no responsibility for any material damages that may incur."

"We're doomed." James planted a quick kiss on the back of Lily's neck, walked back to the door, and stuck his head into the hallway. "Hey, Sirius, company's here! Whatever you're doing, stop it, bury the evidence, and bring Harry out here."

An explosion of boisterous barking greeted this pronouncement, followed by a gleeful cry of "Dada!" James jumped back from the door just in time to avoid being bowled over by the largest, blackest Irish wolfhound Giles had ever seen. Scurrying behind the dog on all fours was a black-haired, green-eyed toddler in yellow dungarees and a red t-shirt.

James hoisted the toddler up onto his shoulder with a grunt. "Giles, this is Harry. And this mangy brute--" he aimed a half-hearted kick at the dog, which pranced aside. "--is Padfoot, who has obviously mislaid his manners. Say hello, Padfoot."

The dog barked once, sat down on the rug in front of Giles, and lifted its front right paw. Giles didn't even have to bend down to take it.

"Nice to meet you." The paw was almost too big to grip, and endowed with gleaming black claws that looked as if they would punch through steel. Giles shook it gingerly, looking sideways at James and Lily, who were looking simultaneously amused and exasperated. "He's very well trained, isn't he?"

"No, he's not," said James.

"Though God knows we keep trying," said Lily. "Sirius, are you going to behave, or do I have to find a newspaper to smack you with?"

The dog gave a deep, long-suffering sigh. The air around it shimmered a little. The lines of its body blurred, stretching upwards, and then the dog was gone. In its place stood a tall young man with shaggy black hair and a smile that boded no good.

"They never let me have any fun," he said plaintively. "I'm Sirius Black. Nice to meet you."

Giles would've liked to sit Sirius Black down and question him -- he had never seen an animal transformation that incorporated the shape-shifter's clothing -- but little Harry chose this opportune moment to throw his father's glasses into the fireplace. They were promptly retrieved by Sirius, repaired by Lily and restored to their rightful place by James, but by then Giles had been thoroughly distracted, and by the time he remembered what he'd meant to ask, more company had arrived.

For the next two hours, people continued to trickle in at a steady rate. Some carried brooms and groused about flying conditions; others appeared with no visible means of transportation. Everyone seemed to know each other. Giles found himself shaking an endless succession of hands and trying, rather desperately, to memorize an endless succession of names. Remus Lupin. Circe Culpepper. Anita and Tobias McKinnon. Arabella Figg. Peter Pettigrew. Amos Diggory. Phil Brocklehurst. Some were as young as James and Lily, some looked closer in age to Giles' parents. Their clothes ranged from Sirius' jeans and cotton shirt to Amos Diggory's stately Edwardian frock coat. And just about everyone greeted Giles with some version of "So you're Dumbledore's Muggle wizard, are you? Can't wait to see you do your stuff." Giles began to entertain wistful thoughts of sneaking out the back door and making a run for the train station.

"Giles?" Lily Potter was at his side, smiling sympathetically. "Would you mind giving me a hand?"

He followed her into the kitchen -- the blessedly empty, quiet kitchen -- and arranged canapés on platters while Lily cast spells to warm them up.

"A little overwhelming, isn't it?" she said. "I remember when I first came to Hogwarts… I was the only Muggle-born witch in my year, and I didn't know anybody. All the other kids were running around in funny clothes and writing with quill pens... I thought, oh God, I could never live in this world, these people are all insane. And then James turned my backpack into a cocker spaniel, and I had to chase it down in the Great Hall and get the Transfigurations teacher to change it back." She leaned her elbows on the counter and gazed dreamily into space.

"Sounds like love at first sight." Giles laid out a row of miniature quiches on a silver tray. "So you didn't grow up with all this, then?"

"No." Lily straightened up abruptly, the dreamy nostalgia fading from her eyes. "My family's as non-magical as they come. But I learned. I do live in this world now." She held out one hand and tapped it with her wand. "Papilio."

An iridescent red butterfly appeared in her cupped palm. Its wings were the size of saucers. Lily waved the wand over it and it turned yellow, then blue, then purple. She blew on it, and it disappeared.

"It's a good world. Or it can be." A stray lock of hair fell across Lily's cheek. She tucked it back behind her ear, momentarily hiding her face from Giles' view. "I've never actually seen it at peace, you know. James and the others -- they remember what it was like before Voldemort. Me, I just want to see what it will be like once he's gone. The way things are now… sometime I wonder what the hell James and I were thinking, bringing a baby into this mess."

Giles resisted the urge to offer futile reassurances. Everything he'd heard so far suggested that Lily had good cause to wonder. "I'll help in any way I can, you know."

"I know." She patted his hand lightly. "We're strangers to you, Rupert Giles, and our war is not your war, yet here you are. I'm grateful. We're all grateful."

Giles considered telling her about his Watcher oath, and decided it would be too complicated. "If ordinary people are being killed in their homes," he said, "then I'd say it is my war."

"Most people don't seem to see it that way."

"Most people don't know it's happening," Giles pointed out. He was feeling extremely awkward. The conversation had taken an unnervingly dark turn, and he was pretty sure Lily had not intended this when she recruited him to help with the canapés. Perhaps it was time for a diplomatic change of subject. "How common is it for us, uhm, Muggles to learn about wizards?"

"More common than you might think." Lily pounced on the new topic with visible relief. "There's Muggle families with wizard children, and Muggles who marry wizards… happens all the time." Her smile broadened as she warmed to her subject. "Tobias McKinnon is a barrister in London. Nobody knows how he managed to hook up with Anita; if you ask him, he'll just smile enigmatically and say something about client confidentiality."

Giles craned his neck to look out the kitchen door. From where he stood he could just barely catch a glimpse of the living room. McKinnon, a bearded man the size of a small grizzly bear, was sprawled on the couch with his petite wife curled up in his lap like a contented cat. James had introduced Anita as a fellow Auror, and hinted jokingly that Giles had been lucky to be picked up by him and Moody rather than her.

He turned back to Lily to find her watching him expectantly. "I'm sorry, you were saying..."

"I was saying, Sirius' mum is Theresa Shanahan." She clearly expected Giles to recognize the name.

It took him a few seconds to make the connection. "I'm sorry, I don't--oh. You mean as in Shanahan Breweries? Shanahan's Extra Stout? ‘Brewed from our secret family recipe since 1694?'"

"That's the one. Sirius has a scrapbook with all the newspaper clippings. It was a great big scandal at the time."

"I think I remember." Giles scratched the back of his neck. "I was just a kid, of course, but... wasn't she engaged to an earl or something?"

"And she ran off three days before the wedding and eloped with Orion Black. Disgustingly romantic, isn't it? Her parents wouldn't speak to her for three years, then melted and coughed up a trust fund when she presented them with a grandchild." Lily shook her head. "Apparently, the Sirius Black charm worked right from the cradle."

"Hey, Lily." A short, round young man shuffled his feet in the doorway. Giles vaguely recalled being introduced to him a few minutes before, but the name had already vanished from his mind. "Do you want a hand with all this stuff?"

"Thanks, Peter." Lily levitated a stack of small plates off the counter and sailed them across the kitchen. They rattled ominously when Peter caught them, but none actually fell. "Here, why don't you take these in, and Giles and I will bring the food."

Back in the living room, someone had either brought in or conjured more chairs and arranged them in a semicircle around the fireplace. The crowd had broken up into smaller groups, the way large gatherings normally do, people chatting among themselves as if it was any ordinary party. Giles caught random snatches of conversation as he maneuvered his platter toward the table.

"...Crouch looks like a sure bet, but frankly, I'm not sure if I want him in charge of..."

"...Can substitute dried gillyweed for fresh if you soak it in salt water for twelve hours, but the results won't be..."

"...Know you're overqualified for it, Remus, but it'll tide you over until something better..."

"He can say Padfoot now. Say Padfoot, Harry." "Pafoo!" "Good boy!"

"Food is here!" Lily announced loudly. There was a lull in the conversations as everyone helped themselves.

"Giles!" James made his way through the crowd, accompanied by a slight, faded-looking young man still dressed in his robes. "Have you met Remus yet? He's all agog to speak with you.. Or as agog as Remus ever gets, anyway. Tell him what you've been reading, Moony."

Remus Lupin had light brown hair, light brown eyes, and a thin, tired face with sharply etched lines around his mouth. Despite the extra layer of clothing, he looked as if he was cold. The sleeves of his robe were frayed at the edges and his boots were scuffed. He was the first wizard Giles had met who didn't look healthy and prosperous. But he did seem, if not exactly agog, then at least genuinely pleased as he and Giles claimed two chairs close to the fire.

"Mr. Giles. James has been telling me all sorts of interesting things about you. I've done a bit of research and I was just wondering -- have you ever heard of Flavius Belby?"

"I'm afraid not," Giles said. Remus looked disappointed.

"Oh. I had hoped... he was a well-known wizard about two hundred years ago. Traveled a great deal in his youth, and published his journals later. One of the entries mentions an old man he met in China, who apparently performed magic without a wand. Belby doesn't actually call him a Muggle, and most scholars have assumed he was a particularly old and powerful wizard who'd outgrown the need for a wand, but now I'm wondering if it's true. The descriptions of the spells have always seemed odd to me. Maybe you'd be familiar..."

Before he knew what hit him, Giles found himself fielding a series of detailed, persistent and highly specialized questions about Chinese magical tradition, a subject he had never studied in great depth. It didn't help that Remus' own knowledge appeared to be both extensive and completely at odds with everything Giles had ever learned. Giles was desperately trying to recall anything he might've read about demon summoning spells from the early Qing dynasty when he was rescued by Sirius Black bearing a plate of food in each hand.

"Stop hogging the guest of honor, Moony, and eat something." Sirius handed one plate to Remus and one to Giles. "Hey, did you hear Harry? He can say Padfoot now."

Remus gave an amused snort. "He probably learned just so you'd stop pestering him. Me, I'm going to teach him how to say useful things. Like, 'Shut up, Sirius' and 'Go away, Sirius,' and 'Yes, Sirius, I'm still eating that.'"

"Yeah, like any of those ever did you any good." Sirius pulled over a chair and sat down, and conversation turned into an enthusiastic recital of everything Harry could say and do. This, too, was a topic Giles was mostly ignorant about, but at least no one expected him to do anything but smile and nod. It was very relaxing, and he had time to finish most of his food before James came up to interrupt them.

"All right, I think everyone's here now, time to get down to business. Are you ready, Giles?"

"I suppose so." Giles noticed for the first time that the room had fallen mostly silent, and all the chairs were occupied by witches and wizards who were watching him with varying degrees of skepticism, expectation and curiosity. He put his plate down and surreptitiously wiped his hands on his trousers. Public speaking in front of strangers had never been his forte. "Right. Uhm. I assume James… or somebody… has told you all what this is all about?"

"Muggle magic," Amos Diggory said gruffly. He was one of the skeptical contingent. "A bit of a contradiction in terms, if you ask me."

"It is," Giles admitted, "if you're talking about the sort of magic you do. As far as I can tell, yours is an… an internal power, so to speak. You draw on some replenishable reservoir of magic within yourselves to cast your spells, is that correct?" There were thoughtful nods all around. "Well, we Muggles…" Giles tried not to wince at the word, which sounded rather insulting to him but was obviously commonplace to everyone else. "We don't have such a reserve. We must draw on external sources to power our spells. This can be done either by channeling the magic inherent in the Earth and everything connected with it, or by bargaining with various classes of supernatural beings: gods, demons and, for some forms of magic, spirits of the dead."

This raised a few eyebrows even among the non-skeptics; Diggory muttered something about fairy tales under his breath, and was kicked in the ankle by Arabella Figg. Giles decided to pretend he hadn't noticed. This was basic material, stuff he'd learned at his grandmother's knee, and he found that the explanation came easily enough once he got started.

"The second method requires the least skill, but is more dangerous and less reliable. Gods prefer to command rather than bargain, while demons and spirits can be dishonest, mischievous or actively malicious. The first method requires a fair amount of study and effort, but is much less likely to get you possessed or eaten."

"Where's the fun in that?" Sirius Black drawled, and was kicked in the ankle by Lily.

James and Remus had taken out notebooks and quill pens and were scribbling notes as Giles spoke. A few of the others were starting to follow their example. Giles hoped it meant they were taking him seriously.

"There is a fair amount of overlap between the two methods," he went on. "You have to channel at least some magical energy in order to invoke whatever being you intend to bargain with, and if you channel enough of it you may find that you've attracted their attention even without meaning to. It's up to you to decide how to use the techniques I will teach. Do keep in mind, though, that supernatural entities don't have the same morals and priorities as humans do. Once you bring your war to their attention, they may very well decide that they like your enemies better than they like you." Giles paused to let that idea sink in. "Am I making myself clear? Good. Let's move on, then."

There was no need to spend a lot of time on fundamentals. They were all familiar with the magical properties of most common plants and minerals; they understood the value of incantation and ritual for focusing magical energy. But it had apparently never occurred to them to wonder why a specific sequence of runes painted on the floor could serve to strengthen a spell, or what made some materials inherently magical. They chanted doggerel Latin for their spells, but only Lily, Remus and Circe Culpeper actually knew the language. Wizarding education, it seemed, was thorough and rigorous on practice but appallingly thin on theory.

After an hour of talking, they broke for dinner. By then Giles was blasé enough to not even bother wondering where the roast leg of lamb, the peas or the mashed potatoes had come from. He just concentrated on enjoying his food and answering the rapid-fire barrage of questions from Remus Lupin and Circe Culpeper, who were seated on either side of him. Remus was still obsessing over Chinese magical history. Circe -- a plump, gray-haired woman in a high-waisted gown that made her look like the mother of a Jane Austen heroine -- turned out to be an expert potion maker. She had supplied the materials for Giles' magical demonstration two days before, and was now determined to press him for details. Giles felt almost guilty at having to tell her that his spell had not, in fact, involved a potion.

After the meal, Giles herded everyone back into the living room and guided them through a number of simple meditation exercises, leading up to a group attempt to levitate their quill pens. The results were somewhat disappointing. The only unqualified success was Lily, who got her quill to hover a foot above the floor for almost thirty seconds before her concentration faltered. Peter Pettigrew's quill made a few short, fluttery hops but never quite took off. Tobias McKinnon made his twitch a little, much to his delight ("See, honey, I'll be magicking rings around you in no time!"). Everyone else's quills remained stubbornly motionless, no matter how long their owners glared at them with furrowed brows and stubbornly set jaws.

"It's like being in first-year Charms all over again," Sirius complained. "Can't we just swish and flick like normal people?"

"I don't understand," said Remus. "If the magic for this spell is really external, shouldn't anyone be able to do it?"

"Well," said Giles, "magic is a bit like electricity; some people are conductors, and some are insulators." Everyone except Lily, Sirius and Tobias looked at him as if he'd just spoken in ancient Sumerian. Giles took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "No, Remus. Not everyone can do it."

Still, he would've expected a higher rate of success. The Watchers Council estimated that nearly a third of the normal human population should be able to perform basic spells if given appropriate training, and the percentage was even higher in magically-charged places like Stonehenge and Little Sark. Then again, wizards could not be counted among the normal human population, could they? Giles shook his head and wondered what Amos Diggory would say if Giles tried to tell him that he couldn't do magic because he was a wizard.

By the time Giles finally called a halt to the night's lesson, everyone was tired and grumpy and complaining of headaches. There was a shuffling, weary procession into the hallway, where people gathered their robes and brooms and said their good-byes. Some of them promised to practice further at home, but they sounded pretty half-hearted about it. Giles wondered how many of them would come back.

Eventually everyone cleared out except Giles, James and Lily, Sirius, Remus, Peter, and little Harry peacefully asleep in his playpen. Giles looked at his watch and was startled to discover it was after midnight.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I've kept you up all night without much to show for it, haven't I? I'm sure you were hoping for more dramatic results."

"Hmm." James scratched his head. "I admit we would've liked it much better if you had handed us the key to Voldemort's defeat in one evening, but no one was really expecting it. It takes seven years for Hogwarts to turn out a decently trained wizard. I suppose your magic doesn't come overnight, either. Besides…" He caught Lily's hand as she wandered past the couch and pulled her into his lap. "You were brilliant, Lil."

"So was Peter," Lily said. Peter's chubby face blushed a brilliant shade of pink and he ducked his head.

"I really didn't think I'd be able to do it," he muttered.

"That's your problem, Wormtail." Sirius slapped him on the back. "You always think you can't do it, and then you always find out you can. When are going to get over this inferiority complex of yours and become vain and overconfident like the rest of us?"

"By 'rest of us,'" Remus said, "I presume you mean yourself."

"Naturally." Sirius stifled a yawn. "We want Peter to aspire to perfection, after all."

"Right," said James. "And on that note of insanity, I think we should all go home and get some sleep. Giles, do you still have your Portkey?"

"The pencil stub, you mean? I believe so." Giles patted his pocket. "But I really don't think I care to travel that way again. How far did you say it was to the train station?"

"You're going to take the train this time of night?" James looked shocked. "It will take forever!"

"No more than a few hours, I'm sure--"

"And besides, I think it's starting to rain." James waved his hand toward the window. "There's got to be a better way to get you home."

"Can I give him a ride?" Sirius asked hopefully. James gave him a repressive glare.


"We can put him on the Knight Bus," said Remus. "That's should be quick and comfortable enough. And dry. One of us will just have to go out with him to flag it down."

"I'll go," said Peter. "I was planning to take the Knight Bus home myself. I don't like to Apparate when I'm sleepy."

Everyone except Sirius seemed to think this was a great idea, and ten minutes later Giles found himself clutching a hot water bottle and a mug of hot cocoa as he sprawled on an oversized brass bed inside a mammoth triple-decker bus. On the next bed over, Peter was carefully tucking a blanket around his legs.

"Isn't this nice? I've had my Apparating license for almost a year now, but this is still my favorite way to travel. Oh, it takes a bit longer, but it's warm and comfy, the cocoa is excellent, and you don't have to worry about splinching yourself."

"Splinching?" Giles had received a cursory explanation of Apparating during the course of the evening, but no one had mentioned splinching as a possible side effect.

"Leaving bits of yourself behind." Peter shuddered dramatically. "Ugh. Not nice at all."

"That's putting it mildly." Giles looked at the other man through narrowed eyes, but Peter appeared to be perfectly serious. "Does it happen a lot?"

"Not really, no. Not to people who know what they're doing, anyhow. Though Sirius did leave his left arm behind at a party in Glasgow once, but he was really plastered when it happened." Peter's eyes sparkled. "James and Remus and I didn't let him live that one down for months."

Giles sipped his cocoa -- which really was excellent -- while he processed this information. In the end, he decided to address the one point he was actually clear on.

"You four are really close, aren't you?"

"Yeah." Peter nodded enthusiastically. "We were all in Gryffindor together, of course, and it's hard not to make friends when you're sharing a dorm for seven years straight, but a lot of people drift apart after they leave school, and we never did. We've stuck together. The guys -- they're family to me, they really are."

Giles felt a brief pang of jealousy, quickly dismissed as unworthy. He himself had chosen his boyhood friends first to please their parents, then to spite them. It was his own damn fault if neither option turned out well. "You're lucky," he said.

"And don't I know it." Peter hugged a pillow to his chest. "I know I'm not brilliant like Remus, or fun like Sirius or a big Quidditch star like James. I could've been that stupid fat kid everybody picks on if they hadn't decided to be friends with me. Believe me, I don't ever forget how lucky I am."

"I meant, all four of you are lucky," Giles said gently. Peter flashed him a shy, fleeting smile.


There was a loud metallic bang as the bus jerked to a stop.

"Muggle London!" the driver called out. "Tott'nam Court Road!"

"I believe that's my stop." Giles climbed off the bed. "It was a pleasure to meet you Peter. I hope to see you next time."

"I'll be there." Peter smiled and waved.

The bus had dropped him off right at his front door. Giles staggered wearily up the stairs and down the hall, and was reaching to insert his key into the lock when he noticed the pale line of light at the bottom of the door. He clearly remembered leaving the lights off.

Giles took a step back and checked the number on the door. It was the right flat. He crouched down to check the lock. No sign of tampering. The hallway was empty and absolutely quiet. Giles checked his watch. It was one in the morning. He wondered how his neighbors would react if he knocked them up at this hour and asked to use their phone to report an intruder. Assuming the intruder was still there… Giles pressed his ear against the door. He could hear something -- voices, or laughter, he wasn't sure.

"Oh, for God's sake, Ripper, just come in!" a slurred voice called from the inside. "You think I can't hear you shuffling around out there? You're losing your touch."

"Ethan." Giles took a moment to wrestle his temper into submission before going in. "What are you doing here?"

"Sitting on your couch," Ethan said smugly. He had his feet up on the coffee table, next to an open bottle and an empty glass. "Drinking your Scotch. Watching your telly." He clicked the remote and the sound of canned laughter cut off abruptly. "You're out late."

"You know perfectly well where I've been." Giles leaned his back against the door and yawned. He was too tired to spar with Ethan, too tired to even get properly worked up about this invasion of his privacy. "I've called you a thousand times."

"I know. I've been ignoring you." Ethan poured the last of the Scotch into his glass and took a sip. "Your flat is much nicer than mine, by the way. I've just been thinking how I might take over the lease if you didn't come back."

"If I didn't--" Giles blinked in sleepy amazement. Suddenly, Ethan's tipsy presence in his living room at one in the morning began to make a kind of sense. "Ethan. Were you worried about me?"

Ethan snorted loudly into his drink. "You're delusional. Or maybe senile. Turning thirty can do that to you, I hear."

"You're thirty-two," Giles pointed out equably. "And there was no reason for you to worry. You really should've come, you know. You might've liked these people. They're nice."

Ethan's inebriated grin did not quite reach his eyes. "I don't like nice people, Ripper."

"You're drunk." Giles took the empty bottle from the table, carried it into the kitchenette and dropped it into the bin. "Do you want to sleep on the sofa? I've got extra blankets."

"No, thanks." Ethan stood, wobbling only a little. "If I can't have your flat, I'm going back to mine." He walked to the door, opened it, and jumped back with a curse. "Shit! Did you know you have rats in your hallway, Ripper?"

"I'm sure we have nothing of the sort." Giles came over and peered over Ethan's shoulder. "This is a very clean building. You'll be seeing pink elephants next, Ethan. Are you sure you don't want to stay here? You can have the bed, and I'll take the couch."

"Well, aren't you the generous one?" Ethan's sneer looked fit to corrode the paint off the walls. "Thanks, but no thanks. You can have your bed all to yourself. Give my regards to the nice people."

"Ethan…" Giles began, and got the door slammed in his face for a response. "Well. That was a constructive conversation."

Ethan's glass still had a bit of Scotch left at the bottom. Giles picked it up and drained it, left the glass in the kitchen sink, and staggered off to bed.

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