Secret's Ghost

September 12, 1998, Near Durango, CO

large wood-frame house surrounded by woodsowl memo magnetChris set his broom in an empty broom stall, wiped his feet, and headed into the house, shoving his too-long blond hair off his forehead with his hand.  "Aunt Kathy?  Uncle Daniel?" he called, but there was no response.

He frowned and headed to the kitchen to see if there was anything to eat.  As he approached the refrigerator a memo magnet blinked its large, owlish eyes open and peered at him, announcing, "Christopher Larabee, your aunt and uncle are out picking up the last of your school supplies.  You are to clean your room and pack your trunk before dinner.  They will be home shortly."

The magnet's eyes peered at him intently until he said, "Yeah, okay."  Then the eyes closed.

Well, one of them did, the other was still open a crack, watching him as he grabbed an apple and then headed for his room.  Once he was out of sight, the second eye dropped fully closed as well.

In his room, Chris dropped onto his bed with a loud sigh.  He took a bite out of the apple, then set it down on his nightstand and stared at his trunk.  There was a part of him that was looking forward to going back to school, but another part was sad, because it was almost the anniversary of the day he'd lost his family.

He hated the fact that they were so close together, but it had been the day before he'd started school at the Academy that he'd come home to find his house a smoldering ruin, and a Death's Head rising into the sky above it.

He shuddered, remembering the awful sight.  Luckily, Buck had been with him at the time – had, in fact, been living with his aunt and uncle for the past year, after his own mother had been killed under suspicious circumstances.

The two best friends had raced into the still-hot ruins, searching frantically for Chris' parents, his older sister, and his younger brother.  But there had been nothing left to find.

He glanced down at the bracelet he wore around his wrist; well, nothing except the bracelet with the rainbow-colored stones, that is.  Buck had been the one who'd found it, and he'd held it out to Chris, his bright blue eyes full of tears.  It had probably been Sarah's, and Chris had put it on right then, and he hadn't taken it off since.

He had idolized his older sister.  Sarah was six years older than him, but just seventeen the year she'd died, just ready to begin her last year at the Academy.  She was an outstanding witch, with loads of honors and awards, and grades of outstanding on all of her exams.  Chris had been determined that he would follow in her footsteps.

He frowned slightly and rubbed a tear off his cheek.

Feeling about his sister as he had, he'd also understood his younger brother's adoration for him.  Adam had only been six when he'd been killed in the attack, and still sulking over the fact that his 'big brother' was going to be going off to school and leaving him home alone.

Chris wasn't sure, but he thought he might just miss Adam most of all.

With a huff, he tried to force the memories aside as he pushed to his feet and marched over to his trunk.  He opened it and looked down at his stuff.  This year he would be starting his third year at the Academy.  He was thirteen years old, and he would take the Beginning Magical Aptitude Exam before the school year was done this year.  That would help determine the level of classes he would take his last five years.  This was an important year for him.

He already knew what he wanted to do, but he would have to continue to work hard and get the kinds of grades that would allow him to pursue his dream.  But he would do it.  He had to.

He scanned the contents of his trunk – cauldron, robes for special occasions, wand, his books from years one and two, his Hoops gear, some games, scrolls, pens, inks, some of Buck's stuff… and his memory book.  He reached in and pulled it out, opening it and thumbing through a few pages, looking at pictures of his family, including one of himself, Sarah, and Adam taken a few days before they had been killed.  Sarah was waving at him, smiling, and Adam was jumping up and down, making faces at him and sticking out his tongue.  And he was in the middle, grinning, his green eyes sparkling as he looked between his brother and sister…  He'd been so happy that day.  They had just gotten back from buying all his school supplies…

He smiled sadly and closed the book, putting it back in the trunk.  Then, glancing around his room, he grabbed a few more clothes, some other toys, and his backpack, tossing them in as well.  With that done, he closed the trunk lid, then picked up his things and made his bed while he finished off the apple.  He'd just completed the clean up when he heard his aunt and uncle returning, and it sounded like Buck was with them.

He tossed the apple core into the small trash can, the object's mouth gaping open to receive it, then munching happily.  It issued a loud burp as Chris left the room.

"Hey, Chris!" Buck called, running up to join him.  "We got all our stuff for this year.  There's lots of new books, and they're all thick, too!" he groaned.

Chris grinned slightly.  Buck wasn't much of a scholar, but he'd gotten decent grades.  He knew he had to if he wanted to be on Chris' team in the future.

Chris hoped he might find another member of his future team this year, maybe two.  He already had four of them, plus himself, but he knew that there was going to be two more.  Maybe one of them would arrive this year.  He hoped so.  He was more than ready to start looking for all the dark wizards out there.  And when he found them, he was going to make sure they never hurt anybody else's family ever again.

The rest of his budding team would be coming over to his aunt and uncle's house tomorrow, and the following day they would board the bus-train and head back to school for another year.  He wondered if his teachers would be easier on them this year, but knew they wouldn't, and what his chore assignment would be.  Last year he'd been assigned to help with the landscape maintenance, and he'd actually enjoyed it.  He just hoped it wasn't working in the kitchen again.  That had been his first year assignment, and he'd hated it.

"You wanna go play some hoops?" Buck asked hopefully.  "I saw Amanda Lynn outside with her cousin…"  He grinned even more hopefully.

"Is your trunk packed and your room cleaned up?" his Aunt Kathy asked him.

Chris nodded.

"Go ahead then.  I'll call you in when supper's ready," she told the two boys.

"Cool!  Thanks, Aunt Kathy!" Buck yelled, loping out the back door to grab his broom from the broom stalls.

Chris followed him at a more sedate pace.

Daniel Larabee walked into the kitchen just in time to see the boys leave.  He smiled and shook his head.  "So, how's he doing?"

Katherine Larabee turned and smiled at her husband.  "I can see he's sad, but at least he isn't holed up in his room like last year.  I think the other boys have really made a difference.  I'll be glad when they're all here tomorrow."

Daniel watched the two boys as they raced around the three small rings set up in the backyard to mimic a Quidditch field, on a much reduced scale.  Chris and Buck were throwing balls through the rings, practicing.  "Yeah, I think you're right, but we still haven't actually seen him really smile, and this will be three years."

"One day," Katherine said, patting her husband's arm.  "When he's ready, or when he meets the right friend."

Daniel nodded and sighed softly.  It had been hard to lose his brother and his family, but sometimes the hardest thing of all was watching the stoic pain Chris endured.  He wanted so badly for his nephew to find happiness again, but he wasn't convinced it would ever really happen.  Looking away from the boys he asked, "So, what's for supper?" as he wrapped his arms around his wife's waist.

She giggled and leaned back into his embrace.  "I was thinking a pot roast."

"I was thinking something else entirely," Daniel teased, nibbling on her ear lobe.

"I know what you were thinking, Mr. Larabee."

"Glad to hear it, Mrs. Larabee."

Sunday, September 13, 1998

By suppertime the following day, the Larabee household was full of boys.

Josiah Sanchez had arrived first.  A year older than Chris, Josiah would be starting his fourth year, and he was eagerly looking forward to his classes.  His younger sister, Hannah, would be a second year, but the small band of girlfriends were all meeting at the Travis home, where Mary had asked them to gather so they could travel to school together.

Josiah's father was a staunch – mundane – missionary who had married his wife in part to save her from the evils of magic.  She had been a talented witch, but had voluntarily taken potions that had suppressed her talents.  However, after several years that had sent her into a deep depression, and she had taken her own life a couple of years before Josiah had started school at the Academy.  Their father had abandoned the two children when he'd discovered that they were like his wife, so they were now both wards of the Academy.

Nathan Jackson was the next to arrive.  Like Chris and Buck, Nathan was a third year student, and like Josiah, he was also a ward of the Academy.  Nathan's mother was dead, and his father was in Morollo Prison for Wizards and Witches.  Mrs. Jackson had been killed while clearing out a coven of Dark Wizards, and Mr. Jackson had gone after one of the Dark Wizards who had been responsible for her death.  In a confrontation with the man Mr. Jackson had used an Unforgivable Curse, and he had been sent to prison as a result.

The last to arrive was Ezra Standish.  He was ready to start his second year, and was already worrying about the Preliminary Magical Aptitude Exam he would have to pass at the end of the year.  His mother was a full-blood witch, but she spent her time among mundanes, grifting mostly, which was how Ezra had ended up a ward of the Academy; she had been found unfit in Wizard Court.

Buck's mother, Ellowyn, had also lived mostly among mundanes, making a living as a 'psychic,' who offered tarot readings and other kinds of divination.  But she was the real thing, and she had many clients who came back to her again and again for her advice.  Kathy was sure it was her close association with the mundane world that had led to her death.  She'd met and married one – William Wilmington – but he'd been killed three months into her pregnancy.

Ellowyn had been one of Kathy's best friends, and she and Daniel were Buck's godparents.  So when Ellowyn had been killed, they had taken Buck in when he was almost ten.  Given that the boy was also Chris' best friend, it had been an easy decision.  Still, Buck had spent more time at Chris' home than theirs until, less than a year later, Chris had come to live with them when his family was killed as well.

Dinner was a boisterous affair, all of the boys exchanging stories about what they'd been doing, except for Chris and Ezra, both of whom remained rather quiet.  That wasn't too surprising when it came to Chris.  And Buck made up for Chris' silence, filling the others in on everything the two of them had done all summer.

Given the kinds of things Maude Standish got herself involved in, it was no surprise that Ezra kept his mouth shut.  Kathy leaned over and ran her hand down the back of Ezra's head, then leaned in and kissed him on the top of his head.

"Did you have any fun this summer?" she asked him.

He gave her a small shrug and said, "I was able to get a good amount of studying done."

She smiled sadly.  "Why don't you ask your mother if you can come stay with us next summer?"

He looked up at her, his green eyes going wide with hope.  "I wouldn't want to be a bother to you or Mr. Larabee," he said.

"You wouldn't be a bother, Ezra," Kathy promised him.  "Think about it, okay?  We'd love to have you here."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, still looking hopeful, and a little perplexed, too.  It was hard for him to imagine anyone really wanted him around.

After supper Daniel and Kathy watched the boys playing Hoops for a while, then called them in to make sure that they all had everything packed, and were ready to go the following morning.  Once that task was accomplished, they were all given snacks and then sent off to bed, but it took several hours before they calmed down enough to fall off to sleep, and until then there was a lot of talking and giggling.

Monday, September 14, 1998

Kathy woke the five boys early the following morning, then fixed them a huge breakfast to send them off.  Right at eight o'clock, a large blue school bus arrived to pick them up.

Daniel helped the boys carry out their trunks and load them onto the bus, then he shook hands with each of them, while Kathy gave them each a hug and a kiss on the forehead.  The boys climbed on board, grabbing seats at the back so they could all talk.  They waved at the Larabees as they headed off down the street, on their way to the bus-train station.

On the outskirts of Amarillo, TX

Vin pressed back into the corner of the closet where his foster father had tossed him after he'd finished hitting and kicking him.  The boy had no idea what had upset the man so much this time.  He'd done all his chores, hadn't left any of his things lying around the house, and he hadn't snitched anything from the kitchen, even though he was really, really hungry.

He listened as Mr. Madden stomped back and forth, yelling at Mrs. Madden.  Then he heard the doorbell ring, and the yelling stopped.

large brick ranch-style houseMr. Madden trod heavily to the front door. "Whatdaya want?" he bellowed at whoever was there.

Vin couldn't hear the reply, but he did hear Mr. Madden growling things at whoever had come to visit.  He shivered, hoping whoever it was would go away.  He didn't want his foster father getting any angrier than he already was.

The growling went on for what seemed like a long time, complete with a couple of bellows, and Vin buried his face in his arms and tried to disappear.  Maybe he'd done something bad again, but he couldn't think of anything.  Sometimes things just seemed to happen around him, even though he wasn't doing anything himself.  He didn't want to be in trouble.  It wasn't any fun when he was in trouble.  He didn't want his foster father to hit him, or kick him, or whip him with his belt like he had a few days earlier, and he still didn't know what that had been about, either.

His heart started to race when he heard Mr. Madden storming down the hallway toward the closet.  Then the door was yanked open, hard, and it flew back, banging against the wall so loudly it sounded like a shot had been fired.

Mr. Madden stepped inside and grabbed Vin by the arm, jerking him up onto his feet.  "You listen to me, boy," the man snarled.  "I don't know how they managed this, but if ya say one word 'bout the missus, or me, I'll find ya, 'n' I'll whip ya 'til yer dead, ya understand?"

Vin nodded vigorously.  "Yes, sir, I understand, sir.  I won't say nothin', sir."

Mr. Madden kept a tight hold on Vin's arm as he marched him down the hallway and out the front door to where an older woman stood on the porch, alongside Vin's social worker, who he'd only seen twice since he'd been placed with the Maddens nearly a year ago.

"Here he is, 'n' good riddance to 'im, too.  He's been nothin' but trouble since the day he got here," Mr. Madden said, shoving Vin forward, then stepping back and slamming the front door shut in the two women's faces.

Vin nearly stumbled and fell, but the older woman caught him and set him back on his feet.  "Vincent Michael Tanner?" she asked.

He nodded, starting to shake.  What had he done this time?  It must be something really bad…

His social worker gazed down and him and said, "Vin, you're being given a great opportunity.  You've won a scholarship to a wonderful school.  It's a boarding school, so you'll be living there.  Ms. Wells is going to take you there."  She exchanged some paperwork with the older woman, then squatted down and said, "I think you're really going to like it at the school, Vin.  This is an important opportunity for you, so I want you to make the most of it, okay?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, completely confused.  He watched as the social worker stood and left.  Then the older woman reached out her hand, offering it to him.

Vin looked up at her.  She was smiling down at him in a sad kind of way, and he got the feeling that he could trust her.

"My name's Nettie Wells," she said.  "I'm pleased to meet you, Vin Tanner."

"Thank you, ma'am," he said, looking down and rubbing his toe in the rough material of the doormat.

"Ma'am?" she replied, her face pulling up a little as she seemed to try that on for size.  "I don't know, son, that makes me feel a trifle old."

Vin grinned a little at that.  "Sorry… Ms… Nettie," he said, unable to remember her last name.

She smiled.  "Ms. Nettie it is then," she said, then checked her watch.  "Oh, dear, we'd better be going.  I wouldn't want you and JD to miss the bus."

"JD?" Vin echoed.

"Come with me and I'll introduce you," Nettie said, taking his hand and leading him to a waiting car.  Inside was another boy, maybe a year younger than Vin.  He was grinning happily and swinging his feet in his booster seat.  He waved at Vin.

"In you go," Ms. Nettie said, opening the back passenger door.

Vin climbed into the waiting booster seat and buckled himself in.

"Hi!  I'm JD!" the other boy said happily.  "Are you going to school, too?  That's cool, 'cause we're gonna have lots of fun at school.  We're gonna learn lots of cool stuff…"

Vin quickly tuned out the boy's prattle, watching the neighborhood disappear as they drove away from his neighborhood.  Before long he saw a big warehouse getting closer and closer.  It was in a part of town he wouldn't want to live in, and it made him a little scared to be there.

Ms. Nettie turned the car and Vin gasped and jerked.  It looked like she'd driven right through the side of the building!  But he knew that couldn't be true.  It must have just looked that way.

He glanced around and saw a large blue bus parked inside the warehouse, and several other cars as well.  Children were climbing onto the bus, and large trunks were being loaded inside as well.

"Is that our bus, Professor Wells?" JD asked.

"Yes, JD, it is," she replied as she parked.

blue school busShe quickly climbed out while JD and Vin unbuckled their belts and got out.  She took them each by the hand and led them over to the bus.

"Just in time, Professor," a tall, skinny man said.  "We'll be leaving in five minutes.  And who do we have here?"

"JD Dunne and Vin Tanner," Ms. Nettie told him.

"Yep, got 'em right here," the man said, checking their names off on his list.  "That's the last two for this bus!" he yelled to another, rounder, man, who was wrestling a trunk into the back.  "All aboard!" he cried in a high-pitched, bird-like screech that didn't seem to match his looks at all.  JD giggled.

"All right, boys," Ms. Nettie said, "you get on board, and I'll see you at the Academy.  I have to go pick up one more student for another bus."

Vin looked a little worried, but Ms. Nettie rested her hand lightly on the top of his head and said, "It'll be just fine, son.  I'll see you in a few hours – when you get to the Academy.  Okay?"

Vin nodded and followed JD onto the bus.  There was only one seat left open, and that was right behind the driver's seat.  JD jumped up and took the position next to the window, leaving Vin to sit beside him.  As soon as they were seated, the driver slid into his seat and closed the door.

"Okay, kiddos, buckle up, 'cause here we go!"

A cheer went up from some of the children on the bus, along with a few moans and groans mixing in from others.  Then the bus lurched forward, and the next thing Vin knew, they were speeding down a long dirt road somewhere.  He craned his neck, trying to see where the warehouse had gone, but there were too many children filling the seats, obstructing his view.

JD was talking nonstop, but Vin wasn't really listening to anything the boy was saying.  He was watching the passing countryside, trying to figure out where he was.  Several minutes later, he saw a huge plume of dust in the near distance and he stared at it, and before long he saw that the dust was caused by lots and lots of other blue buses, all of them lining up in a straight row.

The bus they were in joined the line, and then the driver jumped up and turned to the children saying, "Okay, kiddos, we'll be on our way in a couple of minutes.  Everyone stay in their seats until the train is moving."

Train?  What train?  What was the man talking about, Vin wondered.  But then he felt a strange lurch and a metallic clicking sound came from the front and the back of the bus at the same time.  A moment later, they were moving once again.

Vin's mouth dropped open.  The line of buses had become a train!  But how had they done that?

JD continued to talk, slipping from topic to topic so fast Vin had no chance to catch up.  Besides, he was tired and hungry, and his body hurt all over.  After several minutes, his eyes began to droop and, before he knew it, he had dropped off to sleep.

Sitting beside him, JD continued to carry on his one-sided conversation.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin slept soundly until he felt the train coming to a stop, then he blinked groggily and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.  Before he knew it, he was being shuffled off the bus and into a large bathroom with lots of other boys, then onto another bus – or maybe it was the same one, he couldn't really tell, but many of the faces were new to him.  JD was still beside him, though, and that made him feel a little better.  Then the buses left what looked like a train station, heading off into some foothills.

Not having any idea where he was, Vin felt his tummy flutter.  But he remembered what Ms. Nettie had said, and he drew in a long, deep breath and tried not to be afraid.  He dozed a little, but when JD started jumping up and down in his seat, squealing in delight, Vin jerked awake, looking around a little frantically to see what was the matter.  Nothing seemed to be happening.

Then he saw two huge pillars on either side of the road they were on, which supported a large wood and metal sign with writing on it.  All Vin was able to make out was 'Horsefeathers Academy' before they passed under the sign, and it disappeared from view.

view of Horsefeathers campusVin frowned, knowing he must have read that wrong, since 'horsefeathers' didn't seem like a real word to him.

"We're here!  We're here!" JD trumpeted.

"Where?" Vin asked him.


Vin groaned inwardly.  He wasn't very good at school, so they probably wouldn't let him stay here very long.  As soon as they knew he was stupid, they would send him back, and he'd end up in another foster home, or worse, back with Mr. Madden.  He sighed, and told himself he wouldn't cry, but it was hard not to.

The buses came to a stop and the children scrambled from them, most of them running off in various different directions.  Vin and JD stood next to their bus, both of them glancing around, their eyes wide with wonder.  They were up in the foothills somewhere, because Vin could see some mountains in the far distance, but it had looked like they had been driving through the desert on their way here, so it was all kind of confusing for the boy, who had grown up only knowing the panhandle area of Texas and Oklahoma.

Vin counted thirteen buildings scattered across a large area with grassy hills, sidewalk paths, ponds, and trees.  It was a pretty campus, and it kind of looked like a summer camp, but before they could go anywhere to explore it Ms. Nettie came hurrying up to join them.

She smiled down at Vin and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze before she said loudly, "All right, children, all first year students will come with me!"  She reached out and took Vin's hand.

He looked up at her and asked quietly, "Am I a first year, Ms. Nettie?"

straw hat decorated with Native American designs"Yes, son, you are," she replied.  "Now, come along, children!"  She started off, leading Vin and JD along as she made her way toward the largest of the buildings on campus.  It was a three-story building, and they had to climb a short flight of thirteen stairs to enter.  On the ground floor was a huge open room that was filled with round tables that could seat up to eight people.  At one end of the space was a raised stage where several long tables stood, currently empty.  There was also a stool sitting out in front of the tables, on which rested a hat that kind of looked like a basket to Vin.  It had a strange face woven into it, and he was sure he could see the thing moving, like it was alive.  He glanced around at the other children, but they didn't seem to think that anything was strange.

Ms. Nettie led them all over to the left side of the stage, then said, "Please form a single line."

The children quickly formed a line, JD and Vin at the very front, since Vin was still holding tightly to the older woman's hand.  Then, as they watched, more kids entered, taking seats at the round tables scattered throughout the space.

It was then that Vin noticed the floor of the large room was painted in different colors.  There were four big squares – yellow, red, blue, and white – and in the center of the space, a large black circle.

As soon as the children were all seated, they quickly fell silent, waiting, although for what Vin wasn't sure.  He glanced around again, trying to see if there was something or someone coming, but he didn't see anything.

Then Ms. Nettie patted his shoulder and released his hand, saying, "Stay right here, Vin."  She walked up the steps onto the stage and then made her way over so she was standing next to the stool.  The hat looked up at her and they exchanged softly spoken words.

Vin wasn't sure what to make of that.  Hats weren't supposed to be alive, and they certainly weren't supposed to talk.  He looked out at all the other children, seeing that there were boys and girls of all colors and ages.  They all seemed to be studying them, too, and waiting.

As his gaze swept over the assembly, it caught on a young blond boy's green eyes.  He was sitting at a table in the yellow section, along with four other boys.  There was something in the boy's gaze that made Vin feel better, and he saw the boy smile slightly, then give him a slight nod.  He gestured to the empty chairs at his table, as if inviting Vin to come over and join him.

Vin offered him a small, tentative smile in return, then nodded, letting the blond know that he would like that.

"Your attention," Ms. Nettie said and what noise there was in the great hall fell away to silence.  "Welcome back, everyone," she said as a line of adults came out from behind the stage and took seats at the long tables on the stage.

Ms. Nettie turned to look at the children at the edge of the stage and said, "Boys and girls, welcome to Horsefeathers Academy.  Today you begin your formal training, and it is with our utmost pleasure that we welcome you."  She looked back out at the other children and continued, "As you know, each school has their own internal structure.  Here at Horsefeathers we don't have Houses like they do in Boston and Salem – and in England – and we don't have covens like they do in New Orleans, or serviteurs in Jamacia.  Here at Horsefeathers we have the five Gilds.

"This system emerged out of our collaboration with the indigenous tribes our ancestors met here in the new world.  Each Gild represents a part of the animal world, reminding us of the interconnection between the worlds of humankind and naturekind.

"The Sorting Hat will determine which of the Gilds you are most likely to flourish in, reaching your full potential as future members of our community.  Listen closely to the words the Hat says to you, as the Hat's wisdom is legendary.  No one else will hear what the Hat says to you, except for your name, and the proclamation of your Gild.  Now, let us begin," she stated, picking up the hat and gesturing for Vin to come and take a seat on the stool.

He was shaking a little as he climbed the stairs and shuffled over, sliding onto the edge of the stool, and cringing slightly as Ms. Nettie settled the strange Hat onto his head.

"Welcome, Vin Tanner," the Hat said inside his head and to the assembly.

Vin sucked in a breath and froze, waiting to see what was going to happen next.

A lost child will find his calling here, the Hat continued.  You have already seen your destiny.  Pure of heart, your vision will lead you to danger and to glory, but with a circle of love built around you.  Beware Shades of the past.  Lovers torn apart still cry for reunion.  You will go where your strength lies, my boy…

"Hawks Gild!" the Hat announced, and the children sitting in the yellow section cheered wildly.

Ms. Nettie lifted the hat from Vin's head and said, "You can go join the children sitting in the yellow section."

Vin nodded, his gaze shooting back to the table where the blond boy sat.  He was smiling slightly, and he reached out and pulled an empty chair back in invitation.

Vin shot off the stage, heading straight for the blond, and the empty chair next to him.  He slid onto it, looking shyly up at the older boy.

"I'm Chris," the blond said, "and you're part of my team now."

"I am?" Vin asked, still confused by everything that was happening.

Chris nodded.  "I'll tell you all about it later."

"Okay," Vin said as he heard the Hat say, "Welcome, JD Dunne…"

Vin looked back at the stage, watching as JD sat, looking delighted as the Hat spoke to him, then it announced, "Hawks Gild!"

JD slid off the seat as soon as Ms. Nettie lifted the hat off his head.  He looked around at the children cheering for him, then hurried over to where Vin sat and climbed into the empty seat next him.  "Look, Vin, we're in the same Gild!"

Vin nodded, then glanced at Chris, hoping he didn't mind that JD had joined them.

Chris frowned for a moment, then rolled his eyes and leaned closer to Buck, who was sitting on his other side, and said, "That one's your little brother."

Buck grinned.  "Okay," he said.  "Hey, JD, I'm Buck," he said, then patted the empty seat next to him.  "Why don't you come sit next to me?"

"Okay!" JD said, hurrying over to slide into the chair.

That just left one empty chair at the table and Chris caught Josiah's eyes and said, "We're seven."

Josiah nodded and pulled the last empty chair back away from the table so there were no more empty spots at their table.

When the Hat had finished sorting all of the new arrivals into their Gilds – Hawks Gild, Spiders Gild, Salmons Gild, Buffalo Gild, and Turtles Gild – the kids began to talk, and before Vin knew it, there was lots and lots of food sitting on the table, along with plates, silverware, and cups.  He wasn't sure how it had all gotten there and he stared at it, his mouth open.

"Go on," Chris said, leaning over and giving Vin's shoulder a little nudge with his own.

"I can have some?" Vin asked, astounded.

"Sure," Chris said as he nodded, reaching for some of the grilled chicken.

Vin only hesitated for a moment, then he reached out and helped himself to some of the chicken as well, adding mashed potatoes, Jell-o with fruit in it, and a biscuit, on which he put lots of butter and honey.  He closed his eyes as he bit into it, some of the honey running down his chin.  After he'd eaten most of his food, he glanced over at Chris and asked, "What kind 'a team are we?"

"We're gonna be a magical law enforcement team," Chris told him matter-of-factly.  "We're gonna find all the bad wizards and stop 'em from hurting people."

Vin thought about that for a moment.  He had no idea what Chris was talking about, but it sounded like a good thing to do, so he nodded and said, "Okay."

Chris pointed to the oldest boy at the table, saying, "That's Josiah, he's a fourth year."

"Hi, Vin.  Hi, JD," Josiah said, then pointed to one of the girls sitting at the table next to theirs.  "That's my sister, Hannah, she's a second year."

"Hi, Hannah!" JD called.

The petite little blond turned to see who was calling her name.  She smiled at JD, then waved at her older brother.

Chris pointed to the Black boy at the table and said, "That's Nathan."

"Hi," Nathan said to them, "I'm a third year, and I want to be a doctor."

"Cool," JD replied.

"I'm Buck," the dark-haired boy said.  "Me and Chris are kind 'a like brothers, 'cause his aunt and uncle let me come live with 'em when my mom died."

"My mommy died, too," JD said sadly, reaching for another hot fudge sundae.

"Well, I guess that makes you my little brother," Buck said.

"Really?" JD said, bouncing with excitement in his seat.

Buck nodded.

"Coolest!" JD replied.

Chris nodded to the quiet brown-haired boy at the table and said, "And that's Ezra, he's a second year.  He's smart, and he uses lots of big words all the time."

Ezra blushed slightly as he said, "While I might be intelligent for my age, I do not incessantly use excessively long words," in a soft southern drawl that indicated he had lived farther south than Vin had with his Texas twang.

"See what I mean," Chris whispered to Vin, who giggled.

Vin grinned at Ezra, and the boy blinked in surprise and smiled back.

Then the seven boys chatted as they cleaned their plates, then helped themselves to dessert, although JD had only eaten desserts.

Chris and Buck exchanged knowing glances.

As the children settled back in their chairs, their bellies full, an older man sitting on the stage stood and walked out to stand next to the stool, saying, "Children, welcome to another year at Horsefeathers Academy.  I'm sure you're all tired from your travels, so I suggest that you follow your Gild prefects back to your dormitories.  Your trunks have already been delivered.  Your classes start tomorrow, and I know this will be a wonderful year for all of us."

"Who is he?" Vin asked quietly as he leaned in toward Chris.

"That's Headmaster Travis, he's in charge here," Chris told him, then he pointed to Ms. Nettie and added, "Professor Wells is our Gild matron."  He pointed to one of the older men sitting on the stage and added, "And Professor Ko-Jay is our dorm elder."

"Ms. Nettie's ours?" Vin said, smiling slightly.

"Ms. Net—?"  Chris stopped and shook his head, looking at Vin in awe.  "Is that what you call her?"

Vin nodded.

"Well, Professor Wells won't let anybody else do that, trust me," Chris told him.  "Guess you're special to her."

"Why?" Vin asked.

Chris shrugged.  "I don't know; you'll have to ask her.  Come on, I'll show you the way to the Aerie – that's our dorm; our prefect's an ass."  He and the others stood and headed out.

"What's a prefect?" Vin asked.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The next hour passed in a confused blur.  Vin followed Chris and the others along a long sidewalk to another building.  This one was only two stories tall, but very large, with what looked like a veranda that stretched all around the outside of the building.  Chris pointed to it and said, "That's where we can sit outside and do our homework."

"And we have lots of homework, too," Buck groaned.

"Yippie!" JD responded, jumping up and down.  "I like homework!"

"Kid, you're crazy!" Buck said.  "I'd rather be playin' Hoops."

"Hoops?" JD asked.

"Quidditch," Josiah translated, "but here in the US we call it Hoops."

"Cool!" JD responded.  "Can I play?"

"Maybe next year," Nathan told him.  "You can't tryout until you're a second year."

Inside, Vin saw that the building was mostly open space, with lots and lots of beds scattered around, most of them arranged in small groups, but there were a few set off by themselves.

"The boys all sleep on this floor," Josiah told Vin, "and the girls in Hawks Gild sleep on the second floor.  No boys are allowed on the second floor, and if you try to go up there, an alarm goes off."  The fourth year looked pointedly at Buck, adding, "So stay off the second floor."

four-poster bed with wooden footlocerBuck grinned and headed off with his arm around JD's shoulder.

"I will," Vin promised, unsure why he'd ever want to go up to the girl's floor anyway.

The others peeled off as well, but Josiah and Chris took Vin around, pointing out several bathrooms, lots of small study rooms, and the huge day room that ran the entire length of one side of the building that they said was called "the nest."  It was filled with tables, sofas, chairs, and three fireplaces.

At one end of their floor was the dorm elder's apartment, and at the other far end of the building was a semi-circular alcove in which seven beds had been arranged in an inward facing circle.  Next to each bed was a nightstand with a lamp.  The beds were all four-posters, with thin, black bed curtains.  At the foot of each bed, above a big trunk, was a wooden carving of a hawk, resting on the top of a tree.  And at the head of each bed was a round mirror set inside a frame that looked like a sun with eight rays.

"This'll be your bed," Chris told Vin, pointing to one, then he nodded to the one on the right of that one and added, "That one's mine," then to the one on the left and said, "And that one's Josiah's."

"Okay," Vin said, watching as the boys headed to their beds.  Josiah's was at the twelve o'clock position, his between one and two, Chris at three, Buck between four and five, JD between seven and eight, Nathan at nine, and Ezra between ten and eleven.

Vin watched as other the boys took toothbrushes and other items from their nightstands.  Chris pointed to Vin's and he opened it to find a drawer caddy holding a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, some floss, and a comb and a brush.  He grabbed the toothpaste and toothbrush, and followed Chris to one of the communal bathrooms.  They brushed their teeth and used the facilities, then returned to their beds.

Chris opened the second drawer of his nightstand and tossed Vin a large T-shirt with "Horsefeathers Academy" on the front.  "You can use that to sleep in until you get your own," he said.

"Thanks," Vin replied, realizing that he hadn't brought anything with him.  Mr. Madden hadn't given him any time to go get any of his clothes, or other things, not that he had much, or really wanted any of it anyway.

"Just leave your clothes on top of your trunk," Chris said, changing into his pajamas.

Vin undressed, but he stopped in mid-motion when he heard Chris gasp.  He turned, quickly pulling on the T-shirt.

"Are you okay?" Chris asked him.

Vin looked confused.  "Huh?"

"All those bruises…"

Vin's cheeks colored and he dipped his head.  "M' foster father… he, uh, he got mad at me."

"He hit you?" Chris asked, green eyes narrowing to angry slits.

Vin nodded without looking at the older boy.

"Turn around," Chris said, and Vin did so.  The older boy lifted the T-shirt, finding more bruises on Vin's back, one of them, right in the middle, was shaped like a shoe.  He reached out and touched it and Vin flinched away.

"You need to go to the infirmary tomorrow," Chris said.

"'M okay," Vin said, shaking his head.  "Really.  He hits us all the time.  I've had lots worse."

"Vin, you need to let the doctor see.  They can fix everything," Chris told him.

"I don't wanna get in no trouble," Vin said, his tone and eyes pleading.

"You won't, I promise," Chris said.  "I'll even see if I can go with you, okay?"

Vin wasn't happy about it, but he did hurt all over still, so he nodded.  "Okay… I guess."

Chris offered him a small smile.  "It's almost time for lights out, you'd better get in bed."

Vin climbed up onto the bed between the filmy curtains, then folded his dirty clothes and crawled down and stuck them on the top of the trunk sitting at the foot of his bed.  When he climbed back up to his pillow he peered out through his open curtains and saw Chris climbing into his bed, too.  The blond boy waved at him, and he waved back, but he wished they weren't going to bed so soon. He wanted to ask the other boy some more questions.  But Chris pulled his curtains closed and Vin suddenly felt like he was all alone.  He started to do the same, but a soft chiming sound filled the room and, a few moments later, the lights started to dim and the bed curtains drew closed all by themselves.  Then the lights went off and the chime fell silent.

Lying down, Vin stared into the darkness.  Slowly, strange designs seemed to emerge from the fabric of the curtains in a soft shade of orange.  He reached out and tried to touch them, but they swirled apart like he was stirring fog, then returned to the same pattern.

Frowning, Vin stared at the design for a little while longer, then cocked his head slightly as he heard the faint sounds of a song beginning to play.

Someone must have a radio on.

He shivered slightly, feeling cold, so he crawled down to where he'd left his clothes.  His hand groped over the top of the trunk, but his clothes were gone.  Someone had taken them!

Feeling confused and alone, he crawled back up and burrowed under the covers, closing his eyes as he felt the tears welling up in his eyes.  His belly jumped, and even though he tried to stop it, he started crying.  He wasn't even sure why he was crying, but he was.


He jumped and yelped softly, scrambling back away from the voice as he knuckled his eyes, trying to erase the evidence of his tears.

"Vin's it's me, Chris."

A moment later, Vin felt the bed dip as Chris climbed onto it, and Vin heard him draw the curtains closed.

"Vin, are you crying?"

"No," he whispered, but it was clear from his voice that he had been.

"What's wrong?" Chris asked quietly.

Vin thought for a moment, wishing he knew.  "I… I don't know," he said, not sure he wanted to tell the boy that someone had taken his clothes.  What if Chris laughed at him?

"Really?" Chris asked.

Vin sucked in a deep breath and held it for a moment, thinking.  "I…  Is this an orphanage?"

"A what?" Chris asked, then quickly added, "No, of course not.  This is Horsefeathers Academy for the Magical Arts.  Sometimes we call it HAMA."

"Why am I here?" Vin asked.  "I'm real stupid in school, and—"

"Vin, you're a wizard, just like me and Buck, and all the other kids here."

"A what?"

"A wizard," Chris repeated, climbing under the covers.  Vin scooted over so he could lie down, too.  "Didn't you read your letter?"

"I don't read so good, an' I've never got a letter, not ever," Vin told him.

Chris frowned.  "Well, you must've gotten a letter.  Maybe your foster father lost it."

"If I got a letter, he probably threw it away," Vin replied sadly.  "He don't like me none."

"How did you get here?" Chris asked.

"Ms. Nettie come to m' house an' took me t' a bus.  She told me t' sit with JD.  Then the bus was a train.  How'd it do that?"

Chris laughed.  "Magic," he stated matter-of-factly.

"But there's no such thing," Vin countered.

"Sure there is," Chris told him.  "That's why you're here, to learn how to use magic."

"But I can't do no tricks," Vin said, sounding a little panicked.

"Not tricks, Vin, real magic," Chris said.  "Do you have a wand?"

"What's that?"

Chris was momentarily shocked into silence.  "Uh, I guess you'll get one tomorrow, unless it's in your trunk."

"I don't got a trunk."

"Sure you do – the one at the end of your bed."

"I think it's somebody else's trunk… an' they took m' clothes," Vin whispered, then started to cry again.

"No, Vin, the dorm elves took your clothes.  They'll clean 'em, and fix 'em if they need fixing, and they'll be back in the morning.  I promise."


Chris grinned.  "Yeah.  There's lots of magical creatures on campus.  You'll have to take classes on how to take care of them, and how to use them in spells and charms and potions and stuff."

Vin was quiet for a few seconds.  "Magic's really real?"

"Yep," Chris told him.  "But it's not all good."

"There's bad magic, too?"

"Yes," Chris said, his voice turning sad.  "Dark magic is bad, and dark wizards are evil.  They hurt people – wizards and witches, and mundanes, too, sometimes."


"People who don't have magic, and who don't know about us," Chris explained.

"Maybe I'm a mundane."

"No," Chris told him, "if you were, Ms. Net— uh, Professor Wells wouldn't have come and got you.  This is where you belong.  Besides, you're on my team, so I know you're a wizard."

"T' fight bad wizards an' stop 'em from hurtin' people?"

"That's right," Chris told him.  "Dark wizards killed my parents… and my older sister and my little brother."

"M' mama is dead, too.  M' grandpa, too.  That's why I got sent t' a foster father.  He's real mean.  Are the grown-ups here mean?"

"No," Chris said.  "Well, some of the professors can be kind 'a mean, like Professor Conklin, but they don't hit us, they just give us lots and lots of homework."

"They never hit you?"

"Never," Chris repeated.

"Do they ever… watch y' in the shower?"

"What?" Chris yelped.  "Of course not!"

"That's good," Vin said, sounding relieved.  "Do ya have a foster father, too?"

"No," Chris said, still distracted by Vin's question.  "When my family got killed I went to live with my aunt and uncle.  They had Buck come live with them when his mom got killed, too."

"Doesn't Buck have a daddy?"

"Well, yeah," Chris said, "but his dad's dead, too.  He was a mundane, and some of the dark wizards don't think witches and wizards should marry mundanes.  They killed him."

"I ain't got a daddy," Vin said with a sigh.

"Yes, you do.  You got one someplace."

Vin shook his head.  "If'n I had a daddy, why didn't he come get me when Mama an' Grandpa died?"

"I don't know," Chris said sadly.  "Maybe he was already dead, too."

"I guess so," Vin said, rolling onto his side and snuggling closer to Chris, resting his head on the older boy's shoulder.  It made him feel safe for the first time in a long time.  "I can really do magic?"  Vin could feel Chris smile.

"Well, maybe not quite yet, but you'll learn.  And you'll have to work hard, and get good grades, okay?  You have to have good grades to get into magical law enforcement."

"I'll try," Vin promised, "but I do real bad in school.  One 'a m' teachers said I's stupid an' lazy."

"Well, I don't think you're stupid, or lazy, and we'll help you," Chris told him, "but I bet your teacher was just stupid herself."

That made Vin giggle, which put an honest smile on Chris' face, the first in three years.

"I wanna do good," Vin said.  "I wanna be on your team."

"You are on my team," Chris said, then yawned.  "Now, you'd better get some sleep.  We'll have lots of classes tomorrow, and homework, too.  You and JD will be in the same classes."

"Okay," Vin said sleepily as Chris slipped from the bed.  "Chris?"


"Ya promise t' take me t' the doctor?"

"I'll try.  I'll tell Josiah, and he'll talk to Ms. Net— Professor Wells.  And if she says it's okay, I'll take you."

"Okay," Vin said, sounding dangerously close to tears again.

Chris climbed back into the bed beside the boy.  "It's going to be okay," he told him.  "Look, I don't have a little brother anymore, so you're going to be my little brother from now on, okay?"

"Really?" Vin asked, his voice small and full of awe.

"Yeah.  JD's gonna be Buck's little brother, and you're gonna be mine."  He settled down next to Vin and wrapped his arm around him.  "The seven of us stick together.  We take care of each other, too."



"Will ya stay here?"

"Sure," he said, feeling his eyes getting really heavy.

"'M glad yer gonna be m' brother," Vin said quietly, his own eyes getting too heavy to hold open.

And a few moments later they were both fast asleep.

Tuesday, September 15, 1998

"Chris," Josiah called, reaching out to shake the boy's shoulder.

The blond came instantly awake.  "What's going on?" he asked, glancing around.

Josiah grinned.  "Alarm's gonna go off in a couple of minutes.  I figured you'd want to be in your own bed when it did," he said quietly.

Vin rolled over and yawned.  "What's wrong?" he asked.

Chris climbed out of the bed, saying, "Alarm's gonna go off.  The other boys will tease you if they know I slept in your bed all night."

Vin's cheeks turned bright red.  "Sorry.  Y' didn't have to."

"No, it's okay," Chris told him, giving him a reassuring smile.

"Did m' clothes come back?" Vin asked hopefully.

Chris glanced to the end of the bed, and on the trunk was a small stack of clothes.  "Yep, they're right there on your trunk."

A soft chiming started to sound throughout the large room, the lights coming up slowly as the chime grew louder.  The bed curtains on each bed slowly opened as well, collecting themselves at the four bedposts of each bed, and tying themselves up.

"Get dressed.  We'll go to breakfast together," Chris told Vin, who nodded.

Turning, Chris reached out, taking hold of Josiah's arm and leading him back toward his own bed.  "Vin's foster father hit him," he said quietly so they weren't overheard.  "I need a pass for the infirmary.  I promised him I'd take him."

Josiah nodded, glancing back at Vin and catching sight of some of the bruises as the boy changed into his own clothes.  "I'll talk to Professor Wells at breakfast."

"Thanks, Josiah; she likes you better," Chris told him.

"No, she doesn't," he said, "you're just more scared of her than I am."

Chris snorted softly, but he knew it was probably true.

Once the boys were dressed, they made their beds, Professor Wells watching each them from the small round mirrors set at the head of each bed.  From time to time she gave a struggling boy advice.

With that chore done, they hurried to the bathrooms, making sure to wash their hands before heading outside.  The seven boys caught up with each other on the path leading to the great hall.

"I don't think these are mine," Vin said, pinching his T-shirt between his thumb and index finger and pulling it away from his chest.  "These are new."

Chris grinned.  "If our clothes get too old, or if they get torn real bad, the dorm elves make 'em new again."

Vin's eyes rounded.  "Really?"

Chris nodded.

"Wow," Vin breathed, then smiled.  "This place is cool."

That put another honest smile on Chris' face.  "Yeah, I guess it is."

Buck saw the blond's expression and frowned slightly.  He wasn't used to seeing Chris smile anymore, even when he tried really hard to make it happen.

"What's wrong, Buck?" JD asked, then added, "Boy, am I hungry!"

Buck looked down at the youngster and grinned.  "Ya are, huh?"

"Really hungry!  I'm so hungry I could eat a whole… supermarket!"

"That would just make you sick," Nathan told the boy sagely.

"Nuh-uh," JD argued.  "I'm really, really, really hungry!"

They entered the great hall and headed to the yellow section, taking seats around the same table that they had used the night before.  Vin remained quiet, while JD chattered away until Headmaster Travis stood, and the room fell quiet.

"Good morning, students, I hope you all slept well.  As you begin another year, remember that your studies should always come first.  Next week the extra-curricular activities will begin, as well as your chore assignments.  And Hoops tryouts will be held the following week.  Let me also remind all students that, if you have any kind of problem whatsoever, please, talk to your year leader, Gild prefect, dorm matron or elder, or to a professor or staff member.  My door is also open, all day, if you want or need to speak to me.  I wish all of you the best of luck this year."

The children cheered, and the food appeared on their tables.

Vin stared at the feast laid out for them.  There was scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, stacks of pancakes, bowls of fruit, and stacks of different kinds of donuts.  There were even glasses of milk and orange juice for each of them.  He took some eggs, bacon, and fruit, but quickly finished that off.  He hesitated slightly, then leaned closer to Chris and asked quietly, "Can we take as much as we want?"

Chris nodded, still chewing.  "Sure."

"Wow," Vin breathed as he reached for a couple of the pancakes and some sausage, polishing that off in record time as well.  He finished with a glazed donut and the remainder of his milk, then sat back and sighed contentedly.  Watching the others as they finished, he caught sight of Buck and Chris grinning at each other as they watched JD finishing off his fifth donut.

Josiah finished the last of his meal, then wiped his mouth with his napkin and slid out of his chair, walking over to the raised stage and going up and talking to Professor Wells, who glanced over at their table, frowning.  That made Vin's stomach clench, and he sank down lower in his chair, remembering that he'd promised Chris he'd go to the infirmary this morning.

Josiah came back a couple of minutes later and handed Chris a folded note.  "She said you can take him, but not to miss the entire first period," he told the boy.

Chris sighed.  He had Potions first period this year, and he'd hoped he might skip it today, but no such luck.  At least she was letting him take Vin.

"Am I in trouble?" Vin asked.

"No," Chris said.  "Professor Wells said I can take you to the infirmary, but I have to go to my class after I drop you off."

"You can't stay with me?" Vin asked, feeling a little panicky.

"I'll stay for a little while," Chris promised him.  "Don't worry.  Mrs. Potter is really nice, and so is Dr. Kringle."

Vin saw JD grab another donut, quickly eating it and then licking the powdered sugar off his fingers.  Buck was sitting next to him, laughing to himself.

The boys finished off the last of their meals, then Chris stood and said, "Okay, c'mon, Vin, I'll show you the way."  He looked over at Buck and asked, "Can you grab my stuff?  I'll see you in Potions.  I'm gonna take Vin to the infirmary first."

"Sure, no problem," Buck agreed, reaching out to ruffle JD's hair.

"Hey!" the little boy chirped.

"C'mon, kid, let's go get your books and I'll show you how to get to the hot houses and garden beds for Herbology," Buck said.  "Feel better, Vin."

"Thanks," he said, standing and following Chris as the blond led the way out of the great hall.  Outside, Chris turned in the direction of the Aerie.

"Chris," Vin said as they walked along side by side, "if we call our dorm the Aerie, what're the names 'a the other dorms?"

Chris smiled slightly, realizing that Vin was as curious as Adam had been.  "Well, let's see… the Buffalos Gild dorm is called the Wallow, and the Salmons Gild dorm is the Pool."

Vin giggled at the names.  "Which buildings are they?"

Chris pointed them out, adding, "The Spiders Gild dorm is the Web, and the Turtles Gild dorm is the Pond."  He pointed those out as well.

Vin nodded.  "I like our name best."

infirmary building"Me, too," Chris agreed, veering off onto another path that took them toward another building.  It was made of stone on the bottom fourth, then dark wood, with lots of windows on three sides.

"That's the infirmary," Chris told him.  "Mrs. Potter is the school nurse, and Dr. Kringle is our doctor.  They're really nice.  They won't hurt you."  He opened the door and held it open for Vin to enter.

Vin stepped inside, glancing around nervously.  There was a row of eight beds along one wall, a small desk to one side of each bed, and a cushioned rocking chair on the other side.  At the center of the space was a large U-shaped desk where an older woman was sitting.  She had brown hair, peppered with grey, and was rather round and plump, but Vin liked her immediately.

Seeing the pair, she stood and walked over to them.  "Well, good morning, boys," she greeted them with a smile.  "I'm Nurse Potter," she said, quickly adding, "no relation."

"Huh?" Vin asked.

She smiled.  "No relation to Harry Potter, dear," she said, "although I think my Great Aunt Matilda might be Harry's Grandmother's cousin, but that's neither here nor there.  What bring you boys to the infirmary on the first day of class, upset tummies?"

"No, ma'am," Chris said, handing her the note.  "This is Vin; he's a first year.  He has some bad bruises, Mrs. Potter."

Vin blushed and his head dipped so he was staring at the flagstone floor.

"Well, we'll get that taken care of," she said, after having read the note.  "Vin, why don't you come with me and we'll use of one of the exam rooms."

She led him over to one of five closed doors on the wall opposite the beds.  Opening the first, she ushered him in.

Inside the small room were an exam table, two chairs, and a sink with some cabinets above and below it.  Mrs. Potter reached into a drawer built into the exam table and handed Vin a small green gown.  "You'll need to get undressed down to your underwear, and put this on," she told Vin.  "Just open the door again when you're ready, okay?"

Vin nodded, waiting for her to leave before he undressed and pulled on the gown.  Chris walked over and opened the door as Vin climbed up onto the exam table.  Leaning out, he called, "He's ready, Mrs. Potter."

She came back in, spotting the bruises on Vin's arms and legs.  She tsked under her breath, then gently checked his back and chest.  "Who did this?" she asked, her gaze going to Chris.

"His foster father," the blond answered for Vin.

She muttered something under her breath as she helped Vin scoot up on the table, then had him lie down.  "Well, don't you worry, Vin," she told him, tenderly stroking his hair out of his eyes, "Dr. Kringle and I will take care of this."  Then she glanced over at Chris and said, "You'd better be off to class, young man."

"Can I come visit Vin at lunch?" Chris asked her.

"I don't see why not," she replied.  "Why don't you bring him a tray?  You probably know what he'd like."

"Okay," Chris said, then turned to Vin and said, "I have to go, but I'll bring you some lunch later, okay?"

Vin didn't look happy about it, but he nodded and said, "Okay."

"You'll be fine," Chris assured him.

Vin nodded, watching as Chris left.  A few moments later an older man with a white beard, rosy cheeks, and a round belly stepped into the room.  Vin's eyes rounded with surprise.  The man's snowy white hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and he looked just like every picture of Santa Claus he'd ever seen.

Dr. Kringle "Well, well, well, what do we have here?" the doctor asked with a friendly smile as he held out his hand for Vin to shake.  "I'm Dr. Kringle, my boy, but you can call me 'Doc,' everyone around here does."

"Vin Tanner," the boy replied in a quiet voice.

"Vin Tanner, huh?  Well, I'm pleased to meet you, Vin."

"Bruises, Doctor," Mrs. Potter said.  "His foster father did it."

The doctor's smile faded and he sighed sadly.  "I'm very sorry to hear that, Vin.  Adults should never hurt children," he said, checking the boy's arms, legs, chest, and back.  "Well, we should be able to clear these up for you.  And we might as well give you a quick physical while you're here, too."

Vin sighed softly, but didn't say anything.

"Don't you worry, you'll be finished by dinnertime, and Mr. Frueuff will come by after lunch so you can get your wand," Mrs. Potter told him.

"My wand?"

"Indeed, son, every wizard and witch needs one," Dr. Kringle said, chuckling.  He had his back turned to Vin and when he swung around to face him again he was holding one.  "I'm going to use mine, right now, to see if there are any other issues we need to address."

Vin stared at the foot-long wooden wand that had a winged snake carved into the wood.  The doctor lifted it and pointed it at him saying, "Diagignōskein."

On the countertop an ink pen levitated into the air and began to write on a piece of paper in a file folder, all by itself.

Vin gasped, watching the pen with his mouth open until it dropped to the countertop a couple of minutes later.

The doctor chuckled at the boy's look of wonderment, then stepped over and picked up the page, reading it over before he turned back to Vin.  "Well, nothing too serious," he said.  "You're a little underweight, so I want you be sure to eat plenty at mealtimes.  And I'll let Professor Wells know that you should be taking a snack along with you to eat between breakfast and lunch, and another one between lunch and dinner, until your weight is where it ought to be."

"Snacks?" Vin asked.  His foster father never let them have snacks.

"Oh, an apple and some string cheese in the morning, maybe a half-sandwich in the afternoon," the doctor told him, writing on the paper with the same pen, which appeared completely ordinary now.  "Let's see… contusions, which we'll take care of, two bruised ribs… Does it hurt a little when you take a deep breath, Vin?"

He nodded.  "Yes, sir."

"That's the bruised ribs," the doctor told him.  "Those will feel better in a day or so.  We'll give you some pills to take at suppertime for that.  And I want to you to have a glass of milk with every meal, okay?"

"Okay," Vin agreed.  "I like milk."

"Good!  We want your bones to get a little stronger, and drinking your milk will help."  His ho-ho-ho chuckle made his belly jiggle.  "Ah, and it looks like you're a little dyslexic, too."

"What's that?" Vin asked, a little worried by the odd-sounding word.

"Do the letters of words jump around when you try to read them?" he asked.

Vin's expression brightened.  "Yeah!" he said, then dipped his head and mumbled, "I'm not a very good reader…"

"Well, it's hard to read when the letters won't stay put!" the doctor said, opening the cabinet door and rummaging in it for a bit before he said, "Ah-ha!  Here it is."  He pulled a small case out and opened it.  Inside was a pair of glasses.  "Try these on," he instructed.

Vin took them and put them on, but everything looked exactly the same.  They were, however, too large for him and they slowly slipped down his nose.

The doctor chuckled again and pointed his wand at them, saying, "Amplitudo Emendo."

The frames and lenses twisted and shivered and suddenly they fit him perfectly.  Vin smiled.  "That's awesome!"

"I want you to use those when you have to read," the doctor told him, then reached over and grabbed a magazine and handed it to him.  "Give it a try."

Vin swallowed hard, but he opened the pages and glanced down.  The letters all stayed put as he read, "The best place t' find fall fes… fest-ta-vals—"

"Festivals," the doctor corrected.

"…fall festivals in Colorado is—"  He looked up.  "I can read!"

"Of course you can!  And you only need to wear those when you're reading," the doctor repeated.  "You have exceptionally good eyesight, young man."

Vin looked back down at the words, marveling at how they remained the same.  "Wow," he breathed, his fingers running lightly over the line of print.

"Now, let's get you out onto a bed so Mrs. Potter can put some bruise erase cream on you."

"Okay," Vin said, keeping hold of the magazine.

The doctor took him out where Mrs. Potter had already set up a small cauldron and was brewing up the cream.  She patted the bed and Vin climbed up and sat.

"I'll be back to check on you later, Vin," the doctor told him, then gently patted his shoulder and headed off to his office.

Mrs. Potter took the magazine and set it aside, saying, "I'll give that back to you just as soon as we get you coated."

"Okay," Vin said, watching as she dipped out a pale green substance that she smeared over his back.  It was warm and creamy, and it felt good.

Before long he was coated from the neck down.  The cream clung to him like a second skin, turning slightly hard on the outside so it stuck to him, and it didn't hurt at all.

"Now, you have to leave this on for several hours, so you can lie down, or you can sit in the rocking chair."

"Rocking chair," Vin said.

She helped him get settled, a light blanket wrapped around him to keep him warm.  Then she came back with a couple of books and an orange.  "Here you go, Vin," she said, giving them to him.  "I'll be right over there at my desk if you need anything.  If you need to use the restroom, it's the middle door."

"Thank you, Miz Potter."

"You're very welcome, Vin."

He watched her go over and sit down, returning to her work, then turned his attention to one of the books she'd given him.  He thought the beautiful black horse on the cover of one looked amazing, so he opened it and started to read.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin was still reading Black Beauty when Chris came back to the infirmary carrying a tray with a glass of milk, a cheeseburger, French fries, salad, applesauce, and some peach cobbler for dessert.

"Chris!" Vin greeted him when he looked up and saw the older boy.

"How are you feeling?" Chris asked, holding out the tray.

"I can read!" Vin said, bouncing in his seat as he tossed off the blanket.

"I can see that," Chris said, gesturing to the book in Vin's lap, but he was much more interested in the stuff that coated Vin's body.

"No, I can read!  The letters don't jump around no more!"

Chris grinned.  "Well, I'm glad.  Is that what the glasses are for?"

Vin nodded, taking them off and reaching over and putting them and the book on the bed.  Then he took the tray from Chris.

"You look, uh… a little green," Chris said.

"It's gonna erase all m' bruises," Vin said around a bite of his burger.

Mrs. Potter came over and smiled at the two boys.  "Chris, did you eat?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied.

"All right then," she said, going back to her desk where her own lunch had been delivered by two of the kitchen elves.

Chris jumped up and sat on the edge of the bed, listening to Vin tell him about everything that had happened that morning.  And he was just finishing when Mrs. Potter came back over to join them.

"Chris, dear, you'd better be going or you'll be late for class."

Chris sighed, then looked at Vin.  "I have to go."

"Okay," Vin said, looking and sounding disappointed.

"Chris, why don't you come get Vin after your last class, so he can go to dinner with everyone," she added.  "He'll be ready to go by then."

"Okay," Chris said, both he and Vin looking happier about that.

"See ya soon!" Chris called as he headed for the door.

"'Bye!" Vin called after him.

Mrs. Potter smiled.  "You need to finish your lunch before Mr. Frueuff comes."

"Okay," Vin said, making quick work of it.

Mrs. Potter had just taken his tray away when an older man came in, pulling a cart with what looked like a huge trunk on it, one Vin was sure he could stretch out in and sleep.  The man was stooped, and his wiry grey hair poked out from under his hat like he had two long rabbit ears.

"Ah, Mr. Frueuff, so nice to see you!"

"Mrs. Potter, delighted," he said in an unusual accent Vin had never heard before.  Then he glanced over at Vin and said, "So, who do we have here?"

"Vin Tanner, sir," the boy replied.

"Tanner…  Tanner…  Ah, yes, I remember… such a lovely girl."

"Ain't a girl," Vin said, sounding rather affronted.

Mr. Frueuff laughed.  "I meant your mother, young man," he said.

Blue eyes went very wide.  "Y' knew m' mama?"

The old man nodded.  "I helped her pick out her wand when she started school here at the Academy… yew, I believe it was, nine inches, with the tail hair of a unicorn… such a lovely girl…"

"Yes, she was," Mrs. Potter agreed, although she sounded rather sad.  "I always thought she might end up a nurse."

Vin wasn't sure what to think about that.  His mother had gone to Horsefeathers Academy?  His mother had been a witch?  Why hadn't his grandpa told him?

"But, that was… sixteen years ago now," Mr. Frueuff said.  "Whatever happened to Miss Tanner?"

"She died when I's six," Vin said quietly.  "'Round Christmas."

The wand maker looked sincerely sad when he said, "I am very sorry to hear that, Master Tanner, she was such a lovely girl…"  Then he shook himself and smiled down at Vin.  "But now you're here, following in her footsteps.  I'm sure she would be very proud.  So, what say we find you a wand, hmm?"

Vin watched as the old man stepped over to the trunk, then pulled out a wand of his own, and touched the lock, saying, "Patefacio."

The trunk suddenly unfolded itself, creating a long wall that ran most of the length of the infirmary, and reaching nearly to the ceiling.  Shelves covered the wall, each full of small, long boxes.

"I think we ought to start with a yew wand," the old man said, scurrying down the wall, then bending over, searching the stacks.  "Ah, here we are.  Ten inches, with a dewdrop from an enchanted toadstool as its core…"

He opened the box and handed Vin the wand, but as soon as he touched it, sparks began to fly from the end, and the windows shook ominously in their frames.

"Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh dear, definitely not yew!" Mr. Frueuff said, snatching the wand from Vin's hand.  He frowned, scratching his chin with his fingernails as he thought for a moment.  Then he grunted and shook his head.  "Well, come along boy, over here," he said, pointing to the edge of the wall.

Vin slid out of his chair and walked over to where the man pointed.  "What do I do?"

"Do?" he echoed.  "Why nothing, young man, just walk along the wall of wands.  Stop when you feel you should, or when boxes start jumping off the shelves."

Vin looked up at the man, a little confused by that, but he took a deep breath and started down the wall.  As he reached a spot just beyond the middle of the length he felt an odd tingling sensation on his palms and he stopped.

Mr. Frueuff hurried over and squinted at the boxes.  "Here, huh?  Hmm, but is it poplar, or hazelnut?"  He reached out and tugged another box out of the stacks and opened it.  "Twelve inches, poplar, toenail clipping from a pixie."

He handed it to Vin, who took it, wrapping his fingers around the hilt.  Immediately every window in the direction the wand was pointing exploded into tiny fragments.  Vin yelped and dropped the wand, jumping back at the same time.  "I didn't mean t' do that!"

Mrs. Potter's hands had flown to her mouth when the windows exploded, but now she laughed heartily.  "My goodness, he's going to need a strong one!"

"Yes, indeed.  Indeed he is!" Mr. Frueuff said, picking up the wand and pointing it at the windows, saying, "Restituo."  A moment later the windows were once again whole.

"Wow," Vin breathed, blue eyes rounded in amazement.

The wand maker looked down at the box as he put the poplar wand up, muttering, "Mmm, that was an eleven – strong, but not strong enough… maybe a twelve?"  He squinted at the boxes, then reached out and tugged Vin closer to where he stood, then gave him a little push.  Vin took two steps forward and stopped again.  He and the wand maker both ducked as a single box shot out from the stacks, landing on the bed next to Vin's book.  "Ah-ha!"

Mr. Frueuff hurried over to the bed and snatched up the box.  "Hazelnut, eleven and half inches, a thirteen!  Oh my goodness, that means there are two here this year.  And, this is a twin to the other!  Unprecedented!  My boy, do you happen to know a Chris Larabee?"

Vin nodded, shaking with nervousness.  "He's m' friend… m' big brother."

"You don't say!"  The wand maker threw back his head and laughed.  "Well, I'm not sure what this means, but it is unusual, most unusual!"

"What is?" Vin asked.

"Well, my boy, here in the States careful records are kept on the power of the wand a new wizard or witch is chosen for.  Each wand is unique, you see, and there is a formula – the length, the wood type, the magical core – which gives us the power of the wand on a scale from one to sixteen.  You and Master Larabee have the only thirteen's at the Academy presently.  Strong, very strong, and rare; there are only a few thirteen level wands, or stronger.  And it's all the more rare that they are twins!  Twins!"

"Whadaya mean 'twins'?" Vin asked, confused and a little scared.

"Christopher Larabee, walnut, twelve inches, a happy tear from a dragon's left eye at the core.  Happy dragon tears are one of the rarest of cores imaginable.  Why, dragons rarely laugh, you know!  And Vin Tanner, hazelnut, eleven and a half inches, happy tear from the same dragon's right eye!  Twins!  Extraordinary!  I will have to tell the headmaster, at once."

Mr. Frueuff opened the box and carefully removed the wand inside.  He handed it to Vin, who hesitated, but then he felt the same tingle in the palm of his hand and the wand seemed to leap the distance between then, landing right in Vin's open hand.  His fingers closed around the handle and a rush of wind passed through the room, leaving behind a sweet, pleasant scent and a feeling of peace and contentment.

"Ah, yes, that is definitely the wand for you, Master Tanner," Mr. Frueuff said, nodding and clapping his hands delightedly.

Mrs. Potter nodded, sniffing the air and sighing contentedly.

"I must go speak to the headmaster," the old man said, then drew his own wand and tapped the wall of wands, and it quickly re-folded itself back into the trunk.  "Good luck, Master Tanner!  If that wand is any indication, you may need it."

And with that he was off.

Vin watched him go, still holding the wand in his hand.

"Why don't you put that back in the box for now, dear," Mrs. Potter said.

Vin nodded and did as she'd asked, setting the lid back on the box as well.  He looked up at the woman.  "Am I in trouble?"

She smiled down at him as she squatted down and pulled him into a hug.  "Oh, no, not at all, dear.  Picking a wand is always a bit of a hazardous thing.  But the windows were easily fixed."

"That was… cool," he said softly, his eyes alight with excitement.  "I wish I could see that again."

"You do, do you?" she asked, then laughed and drew her own wand from her pocket.  She pointed it at the windows and said, "Quasso," and the glass shattered into a billion tiny pieces.

"Whoa!" Vin breathed, a huge smile on his face.  He looked up at the nurse, convinced that she could do anything.

"Restituo," she said, and the windows returned to normal in the blink of an eye.

"You're awesome!" he told her, but eyes shining bright with admiration.

She laughed.  "You'll learn how to do that, too," she promised him.


She nodded.  "Absolutely, but be sure to ask permission before you blow out any windows on campus."

He nodded, his body thrumming with anticipation and excitement.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin spent the rest of the afternoon in the rocking chair, his wand in its box, but on his lap as he read his book.  As it neared five-thirty, Mrs. Potter came over and asked, "So, are you ready to see how we did on the bruises?"

Vin nodded, then frowned.

"What is it, dear?"

"I guess I have to leave the book here, huh?" he asked.

She smiled.  "Of course not!  You take that with you, and when you're finished, you can bring it back, okay?"

Vin smiled and nodded.  "Thank you, Mrs. Potter!"

"All right, let's go back to the exam room, shall we?"

He followed her back to the room, climbing up onto the table as Dr. Kringle came in as well.

"All done, are we?" he asked Mrs. Potter.

She nodded.

"Well, then, let's see how well it worked," Dr. Kringle said, pulling out his wand and pointing it at Vin, saying, "A vexi Avectum."

The green cream disappeared.  Vin looked down at his arms and legs, and all the bruises were gone.  "Wow, it worked!"

"It certainly did," Dr. Kringle said, checking his back and chest as well.  "Nice work, Mrs. Potter."

"Thank you, Doctor," she replied, blushing slightly.

The doctor reached into his pockets and pulled out a small bottle and handed it to Vin.  "I want you to take one of these jelly beans every night after supper until they're all gone, but just one, okay?"

Vin nodded.  "I will, sir."

"Good boy," the man replied, patting Vin's head.  "Well, I think you can get dressed now."

"Okay," Vin said, knowing Chris would be there soon to get him.

As soon as the adults were out of the room Vin pulled off the gown and got dressed.  When he stepped back out into the infirmary, Chris was standing at Mrs. Potter's desk, waiting for him.

"Chris!" he called, hurrying over to the bed to grab his wand and book, then joined his friend.  "They're all gone!"

"Told you," Chris said.

Vin looked at Mrs. Potter again, saying, "Thank you!  I'll bring the book back as soon as I finish it."

"I look forward to seeing you when you do, Vin," she said, coming out to give him a hug.  "Now, you go get supper, and remember to take your jelly bean afterwards."

"I will," Vin said, giving her a big hug back.

The two boys left the infirmary, Chris racing Vin to the great hall where they joined the others at their table.

"I see you got your wand," Josiah said, nodding to the box.

Vin nodded excitedly.  "It was cool!  The windows got blown up!"

The others laughed, Buck saying, "You should 'a seen it when Chris got his wand, he blew the whole roof right off the wand store!  It was totally awesome!"

Chris scowled at his friend, but it didn't last long – the look of awe Vin gave him made him kind of proud of the feat.

"Really?" Vin asked him.

Chris nodded.  "It was… kind of fun.  Dad fixed the roof for Mr. Frueuff, which was kind 'a cool, too."

"Vin!" JD yelled.  "I have all your homework assignments for our classes!  It was cool!  They're really fun!  We did magic today!  I'll help you do your homework tonight, okay?"

"Okay," Vin agreed, hoping there wasn't too much to get caught up on.

After announcements from the Gild Prefects, the food appeared and the boys all dug in, filling their plates and eating heartily.

Once again Vin noticed that JD opted to only eat desserts, and that Buck and Chris were both laughing about it, but they didn't say anything to anyone.  Then he noticed that Nathan and Josiah were watching JD as well.  Only Ezra seemed to be trying not to watch the boy as he stuffed himself with the sweets.

Conversations popped up one after another, each of the boys talking about their classes and teachers.  JD thought all of his teachers were nice, except Mr. Conklin, who he described as a "sourpuss."  The others agreed that he was right.

When Vin finished eating, he pulled the pill bottle out of his pocket and took one of the jellybeans.  It was liquorish-flavored and he moaned his pleasure as he chewed it.

"Come on, Vin!" JD said, grabbing his hand.  "Let's go do our homework!"

"You really like homework, don't you?" Buck asked, shaking his head.

"Yep!" JD replied, dragging Vin off with him.

"There's something wrong with that boy," Buck said, watching them go.

Chris socked his friend on the arm.  "You have to stop watching Amanda Lynn and pay attention to the professors."

Buck moaned and rolled his head.  "But Amanda Lynn's a lot more interesting!"

"You have to get As or Bs in every subject," Chris told him seriously.

Buck groaned and shook his head.  "But—"

"No excuses," Chris told him.  "Now, c'mon, we gotta go do our homework, too."

"But Ama—"

"Now," Chris told him.

Buck whined, but he knew he wasn't going to be spending time with Amanda Lynn this evening, at least not until his blasted homework was done."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

patio of the AerieJD didn't let go of Vin until they were back at the Aerie.  And, after a stop in the sleeping bay so they could pick up Vin's books –all of which were in his trunk, he discovered, along with lots of other stuff – they went out to the outside patio area and took two seats next to each other.  A few minutes later Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah joined them, and finally Buck and Chris, who huddled up with Nathan to work.  Josiah moved closer to Ezra and the two first years, saying, "If you have any questions, you can ask me, okay?"

"Thanks," Vin said.

"Yes, we appreciate your offer," Ezra agreed.

Vin liked the patio.  It was made with red terracotta tiles, with a table that came out from the wall that ran all along three sides of the building.  What looked to Vin like big tree trunks held up a wooden-pole roof over the space, and from their seats they could see the campus spread out before them.  It was then that Vin realized the Aerie sat on the tallest hill on campus.  There were some mountains in the distance, and he thought he saw what might be a small town in the distance, too, and he wondered if that was where the teachers, Mrs. Potter, and Dr. Kringle might live.

He spotted several potted plants sitting on the long table, too.  JD pulled the closest one over and said, "This is for our Herbology class homework."

"How many classes do we have?" Vin asked him.

"Seven!" JD chirped.  "Three in the morning, then lunch, and then four more classes!  It's eight periods, but only seven classes, since lunch don't count as a class."

Vin groaned softly.  Seven classes sounded like a lot of classes.

JD started grabbing books.  "This is the order of our classes," he announced, dropping a book on the table – 1001 Magical Herbs and Fungi.  "Herbology – it's all about plants!  There's hothouses and gardens, and we gets to dig in the dirt, and it's really cool.  Then Spells, Charms, and Curses," he said, dropping a second book on top of the first – The Standard Book of Spells, Charms and Curses, Level I.  "It's in the Main Classroom Building.  Today we just worked on how to move our wands right.  I'll show you.

"Third period is Transfiguration."  JD dropped a third book onto the pile – A Beginners Guide to Transfiguration.  "It's in the Main Classroom Building, too.  Professor Wells is really good.  She can change herself into a badger!"

"Really?" Vin asked, his eyes going wide.

"Uh-huh," JD replied, nodding excitedly.  "Then we gets lunch, so we don't need a book for that, 'cause everybody knows how to eat!  But we calls it fourth period.

"Fifth period is Potions.  It's in the basement of the Main Classroom Building.  Professor Conklin's mean!" JD added, making a face as he added a fourth book – Magical Drafts and Potions, Level I.  "Sixth period is Defense Against the Dark Arts," he told Vin, adding yet another book – Dark Forces:  A Beginners Guide to Self-Protection.  "That's in the Defense Against the Dark Arts Building, but they just call it the Defense building.  It's a really neat building, too.  I like Professor Martinez, he's way cool."

Vin nodded, hoping he could remember everything JD was telling him.

"Seventh period is the funest!" JD said, adding another book – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  "It's Magical Creatures, Level One.  Tiny and Yosemite teach it.  They're twins, but they got different last names, and we don't gots to call them 'professor,' even though they are."

"Real magical animals?" Vin asked.

"Uh-huh!" JD replied, grinning happily.  "That's gonna be so cool!"

"What's our last class?" Vin asked with a sigh, the thought of so many already making him tired.

"Broom Handling for Beginners!" JD replied, hopping up and down on his seat.  "Tomorrow Professor Chanu is gonna give us our first flying lesson!  He said he's the Hoops coach for Hawks Gild, too."

Vin's eyes widened at the news.  "Flying?  For real?"

"Uh-huh, for real!"

Then Vin frowned.  "But I don't got a broom."

JD looked surprised by that.  "You don't?"

Vin shook his head.

Josiah leaned over and said quietly, "Don't worry, Vin, the school will give you a broom if you don't have one.  I didn't have one when I got here, either."

Vin sighed, relieved by the news.  He looked at JD.  "Do we have a book for that class, too?"

JD shook his head.  "Nope, we just have to do what Professor Chanu tells us to do."

"How much homework d' we have t' do t'night?" Vin asked.

"Not that much," JD told him.  "Come on, let's get started.  I'll help you."

The two boys settled down, JD actually doing a good job of telling Vin everything he missed in class, and helping him with his hand and wrist movements.  They both filled out their worksheets for each class, except Broom Handling, and were finished before nine, when their study period ended.  The next half hour was filled with packing backpacks with books for the next day, laying out clothes, showering, brushing teeth, and goofing off.

At nine-thirty the chime sounded, the lights began to dim and the bed curtains drew themselves closed around each bed.

Vin lay in the darkness, wide awake.  He was excited about tomorrow, and worried about his homework, hoping that he'd done it all correctly.


He rolled onto his side.  "Chris?"

The blond climbed into Vin's bed and scooted over to the younger boy.  "Are you okay tonight?"

Vin nodded, saying, "I think so."

"Good," Chris told him.  "I just wanted to make sure.  You're my little brother, after all."

Vin grinned and gave Chris a hug.  "Hey!" he said, then dropped his voice to a whisper, continuing, "Did y' know our wands is twins?"

"What?  Really?"

"Uh-huh," Vin said, then told him about getting his wand.

"Wow," Chris breathed.  "That's cool.  And a thirteen wand is pretty rare.  They only go up to sixteen, and there's only one sixteen wand in the whole United States."

"Just one?"




"Does that mean there's really dragons?"

"You bet there are.  People even learn how to work with them, and some study 'em.  Aunt Kathy's cousin does that."


Vin glanced around him as he saw the design swirling on the bed curtains, and the same song as the night before started to play.  "Chris, what's all the glowie-stuff on the curtains?"

"The what?"

"The colors and stuff on the curtains," Vin repeated, pointing.

"Uh, Vin, I don't see anything on the curtains."

"Y' don't?"


"Do ya hear that song?"

"Uh, no, I don't hear any music," Chris said.


"No.  What's it saying?"

Vin listened for a minute, then said, "Somethin' like… lullaby an' ga'night, yer a mother's delight… singin' angels are somethin'… soft bed… close yer eyes…"  he trailed off, his eyes getting heavy and a yawn interrupting.

"Are you sure?" Chris asked.  "I don't hear anything."

"I can hear it," Vin defended, but he was quickly losing the battle to remain awake.

Chris yawned.  "Maybe we should ask Josiah…"

"In the mornin'," Vin said, slipping off, Chris right behind him.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Gloria Potter looked up to see Nettie Wells coming into the infirmary.  "Nettie!" she exclaimed.  "Are you all right?"

"I am," she replied, walking over to join Gloria at her desk.  "I just wanted to drop in and see how Vin Tanner was."

"Chris came for him before dinner.  He did just fine," Gloria told her.  "Would you like some tea?"

"I'd love some," Nettie replied, coming in to take a seat inside the large work space Gloria had.  She waited while the woman prepared the tea, then settled into a chair next to her.  "So, will Vin be all right?"

"He will," Gloria said.  "I can't believe his foster father could do such a thing," she said, shaking her head.  "Nettie, what if there are other children under his care?  Vin was clearly underfed and abused."

"I'll see to it that the appropriate mundane authorities are notified," she assured the woman.

"There are times I wish we could use magic on them," Gloria replied, still clearly upset, "but I know that wouldn't be fair."

Nettie nodded her agreement.  "I just wish I'd seen it when I'd picked him up."

"You were in a hurry, dear, picking up three children," Gloria said, reaching out to pat Nettie's arm.  "He's a sweet little thing, though, isn't he?"

Nettie nodded, her expression somewhat rueful.  "He is.  I just hope he never realizes the power those blue eyes and long lashes have."

Gloria giggled.  "I know just what you mean."  She reached over and grabbed a file and handed it to Nettie saying, "Here's what we discovered."

Nettie scanned the notes.  "Dyslexic, I see."

"Yes, but the doctor gave him some corrective lenses, and he spent the majority of the day reading," Gloria told her.  "I think he likes it."

Nettie nodded.  "Well, that's good news.  Mr. Frueuff dropped by to let me and Headmaster Travis know about his wand."

Gloria giggled again.  "He was so adorable.  The look on his face when the windows exploded…  I even made them do it again, so he would watch them fix themselves a second time."

Nettie shook her head.  "You indulge them too much, Gloria," she said, but she was smiling.

"I know, but they're so sweet sometimes.  I just hope he keeps that sweetness, what with him getting a thirteen wand, and Harry Potter starting school at Hogwarts this year…"  She trailed off, looking worried.

"I know what you're thinking," Nettie said, nodding.  "If Voldemort rears his head again in England, we're sure to be in for some rough times again as well."

Gloria tsked and shook her head.  "Oh, Nettie, it's never really stopped here, has it?  I mean, just two years ago the Larabee family was killed, and…"  She dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.  "It was so nice to see Chris today.  He seems to have taken Vin under his wing."

Nettie nodded.  "Yes, I think he has, and it's a good thing, too.  About time that boy learned to smile again."

"Well, between the two of them, I'm not sure what might happen."  Gloria laughed and Nettie smiled.

"They look to be a handful, that's for sure, not to mention that little team Chris has pulled together.  I have a hunch that, one day, they're going to be a force to be reckoned with."

"A force for good," Gloria said.

"I believe so, yes," Nettie agreed.  "Now, I need to get back to the Aerie, and you, my dear, need to go home and get some rest as well."

"I will," Gloria promised.  "I just needed to brew a few more cures so we'll have then on hand."

"I've always said you work too hard."

Gloria laughed.  "Like you don't as well?"

"Guilty as charged, I'm afraid."

Nettie stood and the two old friends hugged each other before Nettie headed back to the Aerie.

Wednesday, September 16, 1998

The next morning Vin was up as soon as the alarm began to sound, making his bed and getting a shower before he and the others headed to the great hall for breakfast.  As they walked along, JD running ahead of them, Buck right on his heels, he asked Chris, "What's goin' on with JD an' the food?"

"What do you mean?" Chris asked him.

"You an' Buck keep laughin' at JD when he's eatin'."

Chris grinned.  "Have you noticed how he's only eating the sweet stuff?"

Vin nodded.

"It's not real," Josiah, who was walking right behind them, said.

"What do y' mean?" Vin asked.

"The sweets and desserts aren't really food," Nathan explained.  "It tastes like real food, but it's really just magic.  So when you eat it, it's not really there.  That's why JD's so hungry all the time."

Vin's eyes narrowed at the older boys.  "That's mean!  Y' should 'a told 'im."

"Do you honestly believe that JD would have listened to our warnings?" Ezra asked him.

Vin thought for a moment, then shook his head.  "No… probably not."

"Vin, it's a lesson many of us had to learn – the hard way," Josiah said sagely.  "But I did tell Buck that he'd better tell him before breakfast this morning," he added.  "Professor Wells would be mad at us if JD passed out in class because he hadn't eaten."

"Besides, we take care of our own," Chris told Vin.  "We're a team, remember?  But that don't mean we can't have a little fun, too."

Vin thought about that for a moment, then grinned.  "Glad I didn't do that," he said, and the others laughed.

They reached the great hall and took their regular seats.  And this time, when the food appeared, JD went straight for the eggs and oatmeal, shooting Buck and the others evil looks the whole time he was eating.

Professor Wells came by their table, and all the boys instantly fell silent.  She handed Vin a small sack, saying, "Be sure to eat your snack in second period.  I told Professor Corcoran that you'd have it, so there won't be a problem."

He nodded.  "Yes, ma'am, I will," he said, taking the bag from her.

She patted his shoulder and headed off.

There was a collective sigh of relief once she was gone and the boys went back to eating and talking until it was time to grab their backpacks and head off to their classes.

Vin waited until he and JD were alone, then said, "I didn't know about the food 'til this mornin'.  Are y' still hungry?"

JD blushed and shook his head.

"Are y' mad at 'em?"

"Some," JD admitted, but he didn't really look all that upset any more.

"Me, too."

JD's eyes rounded.  "Really?"

"It was kind 'a mean."

JD nodded, then grinned.  "But next year it'll be fun when someone else does it, won't it!"

Vin laughed.  "I guess so."  He glanced around as they reached the hothouses and gardens.  It was all very pretty, with lots of plants growing in the beds and in pots, some of them oddly colored.  Professor Ko-Jay greeted them with a nod and a small smile as they arrived, and he made a point of coming over and introducing himself to Vin and asking if he'd had been able to complete his homework.

"Yes, sir," Vin said, pulling it out of his book and handing it to the older Native American man.

Ko-Jay quickly checked the boy's work and nodded, smiling.  "Well done, Vin.  I'm glad you were able to catch up so quickly.  I'm sure you'll do very well in this class."

Vin smiled, his expression grateful.  He'd never had a teacher tell him they thought he could do well before.  He settled in beside JD at one of the long bench tables, then took out his book, pen, paper, and his glasses.  He put them on, in case he had to read anything.

He heard snickering and glanced over at the table next to him.  There were four boys standing there he didn't recognize.  They were looking at him, talking quietly and laughing – at him, he knew.  He'd gotten used to that in school.

"Ignore them," JD said, tugging on the sleeve of Vin's shirt.  "That's Eli Joe and Nicky Yates, and their friends – they're stupid."

Vin looked away as he heard them begin to chant, "Four eyes… four eyes…"  He sighed and shook his head.  Since he'd always gotten picked on at school, he guessed there was no reason that this school should be any different.  Still, he had kind of hoped it would be.

Other than the annoying boys – from Spiders Gild, he learned – Vin enjoyed the class, and was excited to hear that Mrs. Potter would also be teaching the class with Ko-jay on some days.

When the period was over, they hurried off to the Main Classroom Building, which was the largest building on campus.  It was seven stories tall, with a huge basement as well.  Being first year students, all of their classes were on the first floor.  They waved at the other boys as they headed up the stairs to the second (Ezra), third (Chris, Buck and Nathan), and fourth (Josiah) floors for their classes, but they didn't have time to stop and talk.

JD took a seat in the first row of the Spells, Charms and Curses classroom, and Vin glanced anxiously around, not sure he wanted to sit in the front row.  But Eli Joe and Nicky Yates had taken over one corner of the back row, so Vin opted for a seat on the other side of the room from Eli Joe, and halfway between the front and the back, then took a seat.

JD turned around in his chair and frowned.  "Vin, come down here!" he called.

"Yeah, go sit with the little geek," Eli Joe called out to Vin, he and the other boys around him laughing.

Vin sighed and gathered up his stuff, moving down to take the seat next to JD's.

"Don't ya like the first row?" JD asked him.

"Uh, no, not really," Vin admitted.

"Oh," JD replied.  "I guess we could move…"

"No, that's okay," Vin said, deciding he didn't want to make JD unhappy, especially not after the others had teased him about the food.

A tall, dark-haired man came in and glanced around, the students all falling quiet.  He met Vin's eyes and smiled, saying, "I'm Professor Francis Corcoran, Vin, welcome to class."

"Thank you, sir," Vin said, dipping his head self-consciously.

The professor lowered his voice and added, "You can eat your snack whenever you want to, Vin," before going to the front of the class and saying, "All right, everyone, let's go over the wand motions we practiced yesterday."

Vin tried to sneak his snack in as the class progressed, but he knew some of the students saw him eating, and he felt guilty.  But he'd promised the doctor and Ms. Nettie that he'd eat it, so he did.

The hand and wrist movements they practiced seemed to come naturally to Vin, and he was able to keep up, even with JD, who seemed to understand things really fast, and could do them right almost immediately.  JD was really smart, but Vin had never thought of himself as smart.

Before he knew it, he was on his way to Transfiguration, which was down the hall from Professor Corcoran's classroom.  Vin was glad when he saw Eli Joe and Nicky Yates turn and enter a different classroom.

Walking in to his own third period room, Vin saw the badger standing on the large desk at the front of the room.  He followed JD to the front row again and sat down next to him.  He smiled at the animal close by and said quietly, "Mornin', Ms. Nettie."

The badger curled its lips up in a badger smile, and Vin recognized it for what it was, although to some it might have looked like a snarl.  He smiled back.

When everyone was seated, Professor Wells changed back to her usual self and said, "Good morning, children, today we're going to talk about the differences between transfiguration and shape-shifting…"

Vin enjoyed the class, but he occasionally found himself distracted by the odd symbols he saw on the walls, doors, and other objects scattered around the room, but he didn't have time to really dwell on it, since Professor Wells was always calling on someone to answer her questions, even though JD had his hand up every time she asked one.  Of course, JD was like that in every class.

Lunch, when it came, was something of a relief for Vin.  Being back in the great hall, with Chris and the others, he was able to relax and just enjoy spending time with the other boys.  He ate his fill, and Professor Wells came by again to give him a sack with his afternoon snack.  Then it was back to the Main Classroom Building, but this time they descended into the basement.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin wrinkled his nose as they entered the big classroom, disliking the smell of the place.  Rows of glass jars lined the walls, and there were small cauldrons and other things scattered across the many tables that filled the room.

basement classroomHe followed JD to yet another 'front row' seat, but this time the room was full of tables, not desks, each of which was big enough for three or four students.  Front meant they were close to the table the professor used.  They were joined a short time later by a petite Asian girl who introduced herself as Li-Pong Xie, who was in Salmon's Gild.

"We're in Hawks Gild," JD told her.

She nodded.  "We have Defense Against the Dark Arts together, too."

Vin's eyes lit up.  "So they put two Gilds together for two classes each?"

She nodded.

Vin sighed with relief.  "So I only got Eli Joe in two classes…"

Professor Conklin sweeping into the room, scowling at all of the students.

"Sourpuss," JD muttered under his breath.

"All right, homework out," the older man snapped, clapping his hands sharply.  "Pass it to your left, and then toward me."

The children complied, which meant that they all ended up in Vin's hands.  Professor Conklin walked up to him and peered down at him.  "You weren't here yesterday," he said brusquely.  "Why not?"

"No, sir," Vin replied.  "I's in the infirmary."

"I was in the infirmary," the professor corrected tartly.  "Did you turn in your homework?" the man demanded.

Vin swallowed and nodded.  "Yes, sir."

The man's eyes narrowed.  "And how were you able to do your homework when you weren't even here, hmm, boy?"

"I told him what the homework was, and what we did in class," JD said, coming to his friend's defense.

Professor Conklin's scowl deepened as he peered down at JD.  "So, are you telling me that you allowed him to copy your work?"

"No!" JD said indignantly.  "I told Vin what we did, and what we had to read.  He answered his own homework."

"We'll see, won't we," Professor Conklin said, snatching the papers from Vin's hands and stalking to his table at the head of the class.  "Open your books to page eight," he said.

There were lots of sighs, but the books were dutifully opened.

"Miss Xie, would you begin reading, please," Professor Conklin said.

Vin was very happy when Potions class ended, and he followed JD as they made their way out and over to the Defense Building.  It was kind of like the gym at Vin's old school, with a big classroom inside as well.  He didn't even blink when JD headed straight for the front row of that classroom.

Professor Martinez immediately won Vin over, giving them a talk about the difference between magic and the dark arts.  Vin decided that he didn't like the dark arts, at all, or anyone who used them, but it was clear to him that not everyone in class would agree with him, and he could just imagine Eli Joe and Nicky Yates rolling their eyes about the 'dangers of the dark arts' if they had been there.

winged deerVin noticed that this classroom also had lots of the strange symbols on the walls, and on boxes, doors, and lots of other things.  He had no idea what they where, or what they meant, and when he asked JD, in a whisper, he just got a weird look from the younger boy, so he decided he'd wait and ask Chris about it later.

Professor Martinez made sure to ask Vin if he'd eaten his snack, and the boy blushed and quickly ate the half sandwich, grateful that Miss Nettie had also included a box of apple juice in his sack as well.

When the class ended they hurried from the building, heading off to the main barns where the twins met them, greeting every student by name.

Vin instantly felt at home in the huge barns, and he liked Tiny and Yosemite, too, but all the animals he could see looked "normal" as far as he could tell.  But then the two huge men brought out a small herd of tiny winged deer that were very docile.  The students petted them and fed them fresh baby corn ears, which they nibbled daintily.

Vin knew immediately that this was going to be his favorite class, although he really liked Defense Against the Dark Arts, too.  He scratched the tiny deer he was feeding under the chin and she lifted her head and licked his nose.  He giggled.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin and JD's last class of the day was Broom Handling for Beginners, which was held on the Western Hoops Field.  They had the class with Buffalos Gild, just like for Magical Creatures.  The children all left their backpacks at the edge of the field and ran out to where several portable broom stalls with their brooms were positioned in the middle of the field, each grabbing their own broom and then forming a long line across the length of the field.

Professor Chanu walked along the line until he reached JD and Vin, who were at the far end.  "Hi, Vin," he greeted the boy.  "Glad you could join us today."

"Hi, Professor," he replied.  "I, uh, I don't got a broom."

"Well, we'll take care of that," he said, then called, "Hank!"

Hank Connolly jogged over to join them.

"Vin, Hank is the Prefect of Hawks Gild, and he's going to take you to the Broom Shed so you can pick out a broom, okay?"

"Yes, sir, but, uh, how do I pick one?" Vin asked.

Chanu smiled down at him.  "That is a very good question, young man," he said, "but most children don't think to ask it.  You should walk around the room with your mind open.  Invite the right broom for you to make itself known, and then watch.  It might take a few minutes."

"Okay," Vin said, nodding, but he wasn't at all sure he understood what the man was asking him to do.

"Come on, Vin, I'll show you the way," Hank said, putting his hand on his shoulder and guiding him off.

After a few steps Vin trailed after the young man, remembering that Chris had said Hank was "an ass," but he seemed nice enough to him.  He'd have to ask Chris what he meant by that tonight.

They crossed the field to a small building and Hank opened the door and gestured for Vin to enter.  "Hope you find a good one," he said.

Vin took a deep breath and stepped inside, glancing around.  The walls were lined with brooms, all hanging in their stalls, which were mounted on the walls.  In the center of the room were rows of more brooms in taller stall-stands.

He walked up and down all of the rows, trying to open his mind, but he wasn't really sure how he was supposed to do that.

"If there's a broom in here fer me, could ya let me know, please?" he said quietly, then started around the walls of the building.  In a far corner he spotted a door.  When he reached it, he opened it, finding a small closet.

He stepped in and saw three brooms hanging in stalls on the wall.  The one in the middle had a handle so dark it looked almost black, although there was a white knot near the end of the handle.  The head was made from Tampico, and it was definitely black.  The broom jiggled and jumped in its stall.

Vin smiled and stepped closer, reaching out and running his fingertips over the broom head.  The broom pressed up against his hand in response to his touch.  "Are ya mine?" Vin asked, and the broom danced in its stall.

The boy laughed and pulled it free, carrying it back outside to where Hank still waited for him.  The Prefect laughed when he saw Vin's choice.

"Oh, Vin, that ol' thing isn't worth a plug peso.  Are you sure you don't want another one?"

Vin shook his head.  "Nope, I want this one."

"Well, all right then," he said.  "Come on, let's get you back to class so you can pick up with your lessons.  If you need help, just put your hand up and I'll come help you."

The two walked back to the line of students, who all stood, their brooms lying on the ground next to them.  They were all looking down at their brooms and saying, "Up!"  Some of the brooms were leaping from the ground into their hands.  Other brooms just continued to lie there on the ground.

Vin took his place at the end of the line, next to JD, and laid his broom on the ground, then watched JD as he held his hand over his broom and said, "Up!"  The broom jumped up right into his palm.

Vin grinned and tried it himself, surprised when his broom jumped right into his hand.  "Cool," he breathed.

"Vin, did that broom come from the closet?" Chanu asked, frowning.

"Yes, sir," he replied, getting a scary buzz in his belly.  "But it picked me.  Did I do it wrong?"

"No, I don't think so."  The young man still looked a little dubious.  "It picked you, huh?"

"Yes, sir," Vin said and nodded, grinning happily.  "It was the only one that jiggled around.  I like it.  It's a great broom."

"Well, maybe it was just waiting for you," Chanu said with a chuckle.  He looked off down the line, watching the students as they gained control over their brooms.

Once everyone was able to call their broom to hand, Chanu said, "All right, we're going to mount our brooms now.  Everyone watch me first."  He demonstrated what he wanted them to do three times to make sure everyone could see him.

Vin thought it looked a lot like swinging onto a horse, so he did that, and his broom immediately levitated a couple of feet higher than where Vin had held it.  He sucked in a breath.

"Careful, Vin," Chanu said, "that broom's been cooped up for awhile, and it's ready to fly."

"Yes, sir," he said, holding on tightly.  He could feel the broom vibrating with anticipation under his hands.  "I can tell."

"Now, everybody, I want you to lean forward slightly – just slightly," Chanu told them.

Vin watched and did just what his professor did, but Chanu was right, his broom was ready to fly, and it took off, soaring almost straight up into the sky.  Some of the students gasped, and a few of the girls squealed.

For his part, Vin just hung on, enjoying the incredible feeling of flying through the air.  He laughed, relishing it thoroughly.  The next thing he knew, Chanu was flying next to him, grinning as well.

"I think we need to give your broom a chance to really fly," he said.  "See if you can follow me, and yell if you get scared, or you can't control the broom."  He leaned to the right, sailing off in a graceful arc.

Vin just desired to follow him, and he did, his broom quickly catching up to the professor's.

Chanu then performed several maneuvers, Vin copying all of them with ease.  He laughed with pure joy, and his broom sailed up, executing a complicated triple loop.

Finally, they headed back toward the others and landed.  The professor looked down at Vin and smiled.  "Well, young man, next year I expect to see you come out for the Hawks Gild Hoops Team."

"I will, sir," Vin said a little breathlessly.  This was going to be his other favorite class, and he wondered if he could have three favorite classes.

At the end of period the children were allowed to take their brooms back to their dorms, putting them up in the one of the seven broom closets, organized by year.  Vin took a moment to stroke the handle of his broom, saying softly, "You're the best broom ever.  'M glad y' picked me.  'M gonna call y' Peso, is that okay?"

The broom jiggled and jumped a little in its stall.

"Good, 'm glad y' like it.  I'll see y' tomorrow, Peso."

Then Vin and JD headed out to the patio to work on their homework.  Before too long the rest of the boys had joined them, but they all had homework, too, so there wasn't much talking while everyone worked over their books.

They were all finished by the time came for them to head to dinner.

Vin told Chris about his day on the walk to the great hall, and they spent dinner talking and laughing with the others.  Having already finished their homework, the boys had two hours after dinner to play.

They ran around for the first hour, but then it was too dark to really see, so they headed back to the Aerie and found seats on the patio.  Vin brought his book along and spent the hour reading.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

As he got ready for bed that night, Vin decided that he'd had a good day.  He liked all his teachers – except Professor Conklin – and he was actually looking forward to the next day, even if it did mean seeing Eli Joe and Nicky Yates in first and second period.

He climbed into bed a few minutes before lights out, reading a little more until the lights started to dim, then he slipped out just long enough to put his book back in his trunk.  He got back into bed and waited, knowing that Chris would be coming soon.  And, before long, the blond boy slid in next to him.

"Hi," Chris said.


"You looked like you wanted to ask me something this afternoon," he said.  "Sorry I couldn't talk, but I had a lot of homework to get done."

"That's okay," Vin said.  "I did want t' ask ya something… well, two things."

"Okay, go ahead and ask."

"I met the prefect today – Hank," Vin said.  "Y' said he's an ass, but he seemed kind 'a nice t' me."

Chris huffed out a sigh and said, "Hank was a year behind my sister Sarah in school, but he had to repeat a year when he failed three of his end of year exams.  He had a crush on Sarah, and she was nice to him…  She was pretty much nice to everybody.  When she got killed…"  He huffed out a big sigh, determined that he wouldn't cry.  "My first year here, Hank kind 'a said he thought her getting killed was my fault…"

"Weren't yer fault," Vin broke in to defend Chris to the absent prefect.

"I know," Chris said, but Vin wasn't sure he really meant it.  "He was pretty mean to me all year.  Then, by my second year, he was all nice to me, tried to be like a big brother."

"Maybe he was sorry fer how he acted."

"Maybe, but I don't like him."

Vin nodded.  "Okay."

"What else did you want to ask me?"

"What're all them weird designs on the walls an' doors an' cabinets an' things?"

"Designs?" Chris asked.

Vin sighed.  "Yeah.  They're all over, even on the walls in the Main Classroom Building."

Chris was quiet for a moment, then he said, "Vin, look around right now and tell me what you see."

The boy glanced around, then pointed and said, "There's the one on the curtains.  It's like a picture, but not of a thing, just a… design, an' there's a different one on the bed, an' another one on the pillow… an' another one on the mirror…"  Vin glanced around once more, then looked down at the bracelet Chris was wearing.  "And them stones on yer bracelet is kind 'a glowin', too."

Chris looked down at the piece of jewelry, but he couldn't see any glow.  He thought for a moment, then asked, "Can you tell what the glowing is for, or what the design means?"

"No," Vin said, shaking his head.  "Y' can't see none 'a that, can ya?"

"No," Chris admitted.  "You must have some kind of gift."

"Gift?" Vin asked.  "I didn't get no presents fer nothin'."

Chris giggled.  "No, I mean a…"  he paused, thinking.  "Maybe it's a talent, I guess.  I have a talent," he told Vin.  "I can work my wand really fast; faster than all the other kids in my class, maybe even as fast as Professor Martinez, and he's really fast."

"Wow," Vin said, impressed, even if he didn't know why using one's wand really fast would be a gift, or a talent.

"So maybe what you see is some kind 'a talent."

"But if I don't know what it is, then how can it be a gift, or a talent?" Vin asked, still confused.

"I'm not sure.  I'll see what I can find out at the library," Chris promised.

"You gots a library here?" Vin asked.

"Yep," Chris replied.  "You don't use it much your first year, but after that you do – a lot."  He yawned.

Vin frowned.  "That stupid song's playin' again.  I woke up last night an' I heard it then, too."

"I wish I did," Chris said around another yawn.

"No, ya don't.  It just keeps playin' the same thing over an' over an' over.  It's startin' t' keep me awake."

"Maybe you should ask Ms— Professor Wells about it."

"Maybe," Vin agreed, yawning again.  He felt his eyes falling closed and he whispered, "'Night, Chris."

"'Night, Vin…" the older boy replied, both of them slipping off to sleep.

Friday, September 18, 1998

The remainder of the week passed quickly, all of the boys settling into the rhythm of classes, play, and homework.  On Friday the list of extra-curricular activities was available and the boys all huddled over it at their table in the great hall at lunch.

"We all have to do Defense Club," Chris said matter-of-factly.

"What's that?" JD asked.

"A club for anyone who's interested in learning more defenses against the dark arts," Nathan explained.

"Cool," JD chirped.

"I do that, too?" Vin asked.

"Yep," Chris replied.  "You'll learn a lot, too, 'cause there's kids in there who're in year five, six, and even seven, and you can watch and see what they're doing and then practice it, too."

"What else is there?" JD asked, trying to see what was on the paper.

"You can do up to six clubs," Buck told Vin.  "They all meet once a week, from four to six, or on Saturday at the same time."

"As long as you can get all your homework done after dinner," Chris told the two first years.  "Remember, you have to do good in all your classes – A's and B's only."

"I always get A's," JD said, still trying to read the list of clubs.  It looked like there was one for each class he was taking, as well as ones for classes he didn't recognize, but he'd heard the words as older kids headed up the stairs in the Main Classroom Building.

Josiah took out his wand and pointed it at the paper and said, "Multi sex."

JD giggled over the word 'sex,' but then laughed in delight at the list suddenly multiplied into six additional copies.  "Cool!"

Josiah handed them out so each of them had a copy.  "All you have to do is put your name at the top of the page, and put a checkmark by any of the clubs you want to join.  If you give them to me, I'll turn them all in when I get to the Main Classroom Building.  The Club Office is right next door to my Transfiguration classroom."

"Thank ya, Josiah," Vin said, then looked at Chris and asked, "What clubs are ya in, Chris?"

"Transfiguration and Defense," he said.  "Me and Buck are going out for the Hoops team again this year.  That'll take three afternoons, two during the week, and Saturday."  He looked at Ezra and asked, "Are you going out for the team this year?"

The younger boy shook his head.  "Far too much time is required for practice," he stated.

Buck rolled his eyes.  "That's the fun part, Ezra!"

"You might call it fun, however, I call it extra work I would prefer to avoid," Ezra explained.

Buck rolled his eyes again.

Chris pointed to one of the clubs, saying to Vin, "If you think you might like to try out for the Hoops team next year, you should join the Flying Club.  It's mostly first years who want to play next year.  Professor Chanu runs it, and he can show you all kinds of really cool moves.  He's the best Hoops coach at the school."

Vin smiled, deciding he'd give that one a try, along with Defense Club and the Critter Club – which was for anyone "with a love for animals, magical or not."  He nodded.  "I'll do Flyin' Club.  I really like flyin'."

"Me, too!" JD chirped, putting a check mark by that one.

Vin put his list on the table and wrote his name on the top, then put a checkmark next to Defense Club, Critter Club, and Flying Club.  He handed it to Josiah, who looked it over and grinned.

"Since you won't have a full week of clubs, you can go watch Chris and Buck when they practice.  Nathan, too; he's on the backup team for Hawks Gild."

Vin turned to Nathan, his eyes rounded with awe.  "You are?"

Nathan nodded.  "I like Hoops, but I want t' be a doctor, too, so I do Herbology Club and Potion Club.  I can't be on the first team, because I can't make all the required practices.  But I fill in when Buck or Chris or somebody else gets hurt, except the Seeker.  My broom's not fast enough to play that position."

Vin nodded.  He understood Nathan wanting to be a doctor.  That was a good thing to be.  But he wasn't sure what a Seeker was.  He was about to ask, but was interrupted when JD finished with his paper and handed it to Josiah, whose eyes rounded at what he saw.  "JD, are you sure about this?" he asked.

The youngest of them nodded.  "I like my classes," he said, having opted to take all of the clubs for them as well.  "Only wait, does ol' Sourpuss do the Potion Club?"

Josiah shook his head.  "No, it's the professor for the advanced class, Professor Kang Chen, who does the club," he explained.  "Professor Conklin did it one year, a long time ago, but no one joined, so they asked Professor Chen to do it instead."

"I wouldn't do it either if it was ol' Sourpuss," JD said, making a face.

"I'm gonna do Critter Club," Buck said, grinning.  "All the girls like that club."

"No, you're not," Chris told him.  "You have to study.  If you don't get B's in all your classes, you won't be able to do magical law enforcement, and you know you always come close to getting a C in Potions.  You want to get stuck in Conklin's class for four more years?"

Buck paled.  "No!"

"We have him the whole time?" JD nearly wailed, looking like he might get sick on the spot.

Chris shook his head.  "No, not if you get A's or B's on your Potions end of year exams, for three years in a row.  If you do that, then you get to take Professor Chen the rest of the time.  Almost nobody gets less than a B, so Conklin only teaches Potions to first, second, and third year students.  But he has a remedial class for anyone who doesn't get into Professor Chen's class."

Buck sighed.  "But, Chris, Amanda Lynn—"

"No," the blond said emphatically.

Buck sighed.  "It'd just be one—"

Chris shot the boy a hard glare.

"Oh, all right," Buck moaned, then brightened as he said, "'Course when I make the Hoops team, Amanda Lynn can come watch me practice…"

"Which clubs are y' doin', Ezra?" Vin asked.

"I'll do Defense Club and Transfiguration Club," he said.

"Why Transfiguration?" Vin asked.

"Professor Wells allows students in the club to work on finding their animagus," he said.

"What's that?" Vin asked.

Ezra looked at Josiah, something a little like hero worship showing in his green eyes.  "Perhaps you could explain that better than I."

Josiah reached out and ruffled Ezra's hair – which he immediately smoothed back into place.  "All right, little brother," Josiah said, JD and Vin leaning closer to listen.  "In some parts of the country, and in places like England, wizards and witches who can take an animal shape are thought to be… well, dangerous, I guess.  It's looked down on.  But here they teach us that all of us have a Spirit Guide, usually an animal, and that's our animagnus – an animal whose form we can take.  Taking the form, and listening to our Spirit Guides can teach us important things about ourselves.  It takes a while to find it, but you get to work on that in Transfiguration Club."

"Do ya got one, J'siah?" Vin asked.

He nodded.  "I did my Spirit Quest this summer, and my Spirit Guide is Bear."

"Wow," Vin breathed.  "So y' can turn int' a bear?"

"No, not yet," Josiah said, "but I hope I can get the hang of it this year."

"That's so cool!" JD said.  "I wanna do that!"

"Well, if you work at it, maybe you'll get to do a quest in a couple of summers," Josiah told him.  "We all do Transfiguration Club, so we can get an animagus."

"It might be useful when we're law enforcement officers," Chris added.

"I wanna do that, too," Vin said softly.  "Can I have m' paper back?"

Josiah gave it to him and Vin added a checkmark next to Transfiguration Club.

"Hey, it's getting close to class time," Nathan told them, handing Josiah his list.  He had marked Herbology Club, Potion Club, Defense Club, and Transfiguration Club.  Chris had marked Defense Club and Transfiguration Club, and Buck dutifully copied him.

"Josiah, what are y' doin'?" Vin asked as they grabbed their backpacks and headed out.

He smiled.  "I'm doing Transfiguration, Defense, Scripts Club, Culture Geeks, and I think Stargazers this year.  You'll find out what those other ones are later," he said, giving Vin a pat on the back.  "You'll be pretty busy with four clubs," he told the boy.  "They meet after classes, and run to dinnertime, so you'll have to get all your homework done after dinner, before lights out."

Vin nodded, his expression serious.  "I'll do good.  If I can't, I'll stop going t' the clubs, 'cept Defense."

Chris smiled at him and nodded his approval, which made Vin feel warm inside.

"C'mon," JD said, grabbing Buck's hand.  "I'll race ya!"

"I'm comin'," he said, laughing.  "Ya gonna give me a head start?"

"No!" JD yelled at him, then stuck his tongue out and bolted off.  Buck immediately gave chase.

Saturday, September 19, 1998

Weekends at the Academy were a little different than during the week.  They slept in an hour later, then headed off to breakfast.  After eating, they had a study period, where they worked on their homework.  Twenty minutes before the end of the study period Professor Wells posted their chore assignments, which scattered the boys in six different directions.  Josiah was delighted to find his assignment was back at the library once again; he really liked the Librarian.  Nathan's, unsurprisingly, was back at the infirmary.  Chris and Buck were both on the grounds team for a second year.  And Ezra, much to his horror, found that he'd been assigned to the kitchens this year.

JD did a happy dance when he saw he was assigned to the gardens and hothouses.  He liked playing in the dirt, and he liked Professor Ko-Jay, too.

Vin approached the list with more than a little trepidation, looking for his name, and then glancing over to see that he had been assigned to the barns.  He smiled, then turned and ran all the way to them.

"Good morning, Vin," Tiny greeted him when he arrived, a little breathless.

"Good Morning, Profess—"

"Just 'Tiny,' Vin," he told the boy.

"Yes, sir, Mr. Tiny," he said, following the man as he showed him around and explained that he would be helping to groom, feed, turn out, and clean up after the animals.  Later, he would also help train some of the animals.

Vin listened carefully to everything the big man said, only asking a few questions if he was confused.  He didn't want to make any mistakes.  When Tiny was finished, he left Vin to get started in one barn while he went to the second to start there.

The boy carefully fed all the animals that stayed in their stalls and pens, then he took feed out to the two big corrals, scattering it around before he let out some of the others.  While they were eating, he went back to clean out their stalls like Tiny had showed him, being careful to put the droppings in the right places.

Who knew poop could be used for magic?

He'd been at work for a little over an hour and a half when Tiny arrived with lunch for them both.  They sat in the shade of a tree, watching a pair of unicorns grazing nearby while they ate their meals.  Tiny gave Vin a whole lecture on unicorns, and the boy sat, taking it all in like a happy little sponge.

"I'm really glad 'm workin' here," Vin said when the man was through, his cheeks going a little red.

"You like animals, huh?" Tiny said with a smile.

Vin nodded.

"You gonna join the Critter Club?" Tiny asked him.

Vin nodded again.

The big man smiled.  "Glad to hear it," he said.  "What with you working out here, you'll get to know the creatures better 'n most.  I hope I can count on you to help me out with the club."

"Yes, sir," Vin said, eyes bright with excitement.  It was nice to have an adult who trusted him, and he liked Mr. Tiny, a lot.  "Is Pro— uh, Mr. Yosemite gonna help with the club, too?"

Tiny chuckled.  "Naw, he's in charge of the grounds, so he'll be doing grounds crew over the weekends."

Vin nodded.  "Chris an' Buck are on the grounds crew."

Tiny nodded.  "Those two like being outside, and they work hard, so Yo asked for them to be put back on the crew again this year."

Vin nodded, knowing he was going to work hard and do everything he could to make sure than Mr. Tiny wanted him to come back and work in the barns again next year, too.

After they finished their lunch they went back to work, getting a lot done before three.  And, since Vin didn't have a club on Saturday, and Hoops practice wasn't going on yet, he stayed out at the barns, helping Tiny groom some of the animals and asking questions about all of them, learning their names and species, especially for the magical ones.

A little after four-thirty Tiny sent him back to the Aerie, so he could shower before Study Hall at five.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Clean and carrying his books, Vin found the others and settled in to finish more of his homework.  Then, at six-thirty, they raced off to dinner, listening to Ezra complain about his chores in the kitchen.

The others teased him a little, but they stopped when it looked like he might start to cry.  Everyone else was happy with their chore assignments, so they felt a little sorry for the boy.  Vin noticed that Josiah made sure to give the younger boy a supportive hug, and that seemed to help.

Vin frowned slightly.  "Nathan," he said.

"Yeah?" the boy replied.

"Um," Vin hedged, unsure how to ask the question he wanted to ask.  "Um, Chris made me his little brother, an' JD's Buck's little brother…"  He looked over at Josiah and Ezra.  "An' Ezra's Josiah's little brother…"

"Yeah?" Nathan replied.

"Don't y' got a little brother?"

Nathan laughed.  "Yeah," he said, "I've got six of 'em, so I'm way too busy for another one!"

Buck gave Nathan a shove and everyone laughed, but Vin felt better knowing Nathan didn't feel left out.

Since they all had the homework for four of their seven classes finished, except for Buck, who only had three classes finished, they spent the time after supper in the huge day room the students called 'the nest.'  It was clear Chris and the others had already made one end of the room theirs, pulling chairs into an alcove created with hanging curtains so they could gather near one of the small fireplaces and talk and play without the others bothering them, although some of the girls came over to say hello.

Mary Travis, a pretty blonde girl, smiled at Josiah and asked him about something Vin didn't understand.  And Rain came over and sat down next to Nathan, asking him about some kind of potion they had been working on at the infirmary.  He didn't seem to mind talking to her about it, either.

Hannah also came by, giving her brother a hug before she and Inez hurried off to work on their Potions homework with Li-Pong.

Vin glanced around, realizing then that some of the students were from other Gilds, like Li-Pong.  He looked again, making sure that Eli Joe and Nicky Yates weren't there, then he watched as Chris set up a board game and started to play with Ezra.

He glanced over at Josiah and asked, "How come Li-Pong is with Hannah and Inez, her bein' a first year?"

"Hannah and Li-Pong knew each other before they started school here," Josiah replied.  "Li-Pong's mother and mine knew each other."

Vin quickly got lost in the game, which he learned was called 'Wizards Chess.'  It was cool, especially watching the pieces come to life and move, the little figures doing battle with each other on the board.  He decided right away that he wouldn't want to be a pawn!

chess boardProfessor Wells came in at ten minutes to nine, telling everyone to get their things put up.  The kids from other Gilds left, and Chris and Ezra quickly finished their game, Ezra just managing to eke out a victory.  The others all congratulated him, slapping his back and laughing at Chris.  Then they headed back to their beds and putting things up and getting ready for sleep.

The lights went out at the usual time, and Vin closed his eyes, sighing when he heard the song start up once again.


He sat up, grinning as Chris climbed into his bed.  The blond hadn't stayed the night for several days, and he'd missed the company.  "Hi, Chris," he greeted.

"I talked Yosemite into letting me go to the library today," he said quietly.  "I told Josiah about what you said, too – about seeing and hearing things nobody else does – and he was able to find a reference in one of the books in the restricted section."

"What's that?"

"It's where they put the books they don't want us to see until we're older," Chris explained.

"What'd it say?" Vin asked, feeling his tummy do a flip.

"We think you can see and hear magic," Chris said.  "It's a really rare gift," he added quickly when he heard Vin gasp.  "Most people with that gift only see a really specific kind of magic, but we think maybe you can just see and hear magic in general."

"Is that bad?" Vin asked, feeling more than a little afraid.

"No," Chris said.  "No, it's good.  It's really good."

"It is?"

"Yeah.  I mean, if we're gonna be in magical law enforcement, being able to see and hear magic should be a good thing, right?"


Chris thought for a moment.  "I'm not sure yet, but I think it'll be a good thing anyway."

Vin considered that for a moment, then nodded.  "Okay."  If Chris thought it was a good thing, then he would, too.

"But, Vin," Chris said, "don't tell anybody, okay?"


"I don't know, just don't.  Not until we can find out more.  Promise?"

"I promise," Vin said.

"Good," Chris said, sounding relieved.

"What should I do when I see some or hear some?"

"Just pretend like it's not there.  No one else can see it or hear it, so you shouldn't let 'em know that you can.  Josiah's gonna see if he can find out anything more.  If it's a gift, then it'll probably mean you have some kind of talent, too."


Chris grinned in the darkness.  "Remember?  Like I told you before, everybody has a gift, or a couple of 'em.  Aunt Kathy says my gifts are fast reflexes and good focus.  That's why I'm really fast and accurate with my wand, and playing Hoops, too.  You have the gift of seeing and hearing magic.  Maybe Josiah can find out what kind of talent that's good for."

"Oh… okay," Vin agreed, not completely sure he understood, but he was willing to wait and see what Josiah found out.  He was really smart.  He reached out and took Chris' hand.  "It's kind 'a scary sometimes, when I see somethin' no one else does."

"I guess it would be," Chris agreed, settling down next to Vin in the bed.  "Is it all over?"

Vin nodded, saying, "Yeah, but mostly it's just designs an' colors… an' some of the magical animals have a kind 'a glow to 'em, too."

"Cool," Chris said.

Vin smiled.  "Yeah, that's not really scary."

"You're lucky," Chris told him.

"How come?"

"Everybody wants to do their chores out at the barns.  Well, most everybody.  Ezra would have a cow if he got that assignment.  But only a couple of kids get that assignment every year, and Tiny has to request 'em."

"He does?"

"Yeah.  It's usually an upper classmen, too – year five, or better."

"How come I'm doin' it?" Vin asked.  "And it's just me, too."

"I don't know," Chris said.  "I guess he thought you'd be good with the animals."

Vin smiled.  "I like 'em all, a lot."

"See," Chris said, then he yawned, "that's probably why."

"Yeah," Vin replied, yawning as well.  He groaned as he heard the song start playing again, then his eyes rounded and he said, "That's it!"

"What?" Chris asked.

"That stupid song!  It's puttin' us t' sleep!"

Chris thought for a moment, then asked, "What else has magic on it in here?"

"The bed curtains," Vin said, "an'—"

Chris snapped his fingers.  "They keep noise out," he said.  "I never hear Josiah snore when the curtains are shut, but he does if he falls asleep in the nest."

"An' on the bed," Vin said.

Chris thought for a moment, then shrugged.  "I don't know what that is."

"An' the mirror?"

"So Professor Wells can watch us in the morning, make sure we make our beds right."

Vin smiled.  Knowing what the things he saw meant made it a little easier to deal with.  He just wished knowing would make the song shut up.

They both yawned.

"Darn pillow," Vin mumbled, slipping off to sleep.

"Yeah," Chris agreed, succumbing a moment later.

Sunday, September 20, 1998

Sunday was much like Saturday.  They slept in an hour again, Josiah up just in time to get Chris back into his own bed before the alarm started to chime and the lights came up.

They all made their beds and got ready for the day, then went to breakfast, which was real pancakes and waffles, along with sausage and fruit.

After they ate, they went back to the Aerie for a study period, then, at eleven-thirty, they headed off to their chore assignments, where they worked until one-thirty, when it was off to lunch at the great hall for everyone.

From two to four they had another study period, Chris making sure that Buck was finally caught up with the rest of them.  Buck did fine in most of his classes, but Potions were a chore for him, and he sometimes had problems with Transfiguration, but that was almost always because he was trying to talk to Amanda Lynn instead of paying attention to Professor Wells.

Once the hoops season started in a couple of weeks, there would be a game every Sunday between four and six, but since the season hadn't started yet, they ran outside to play, working off their excess energy.

Vin took them to the barns and showed them a new arrival, a baby miniature unicorn, who was one of his favorites.  The others watched as the tiny creature played in the grass for a while, then they ran off to get their brooms and go flying until six-thirty, and dinnertime.

baby miniature unicorn From seven to nine they all finished off the last of their homework, then played Wizards Chess, Josiah playing against Nathan, who taught Vin what all the pieces were and how they moved, and even let him make a few moves in the game, too.  Chris and Ezra were also playing again, but Buck and JD opted for a different game, one with lots of colored stones that they moved around a wooden board.

Like on Saturday, Professor Wells came in at ten 'til nine, telling them to put their things up and get ready for bed.

Vin noticed that the seventh year students were allowed to stay up for another hour, but he was tired and more than ready for bed.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

By the time Vin climbed into bed, he was already dreading the start of the song that would send him to sleep.  Now that he knew what the pillow song did, it was keeping him awake.  So, once he had climbed in, he took the pillow and, leaning over the edge, stuck it under his bed, then grabbed his robe from his trunk and wadded that up to use as a pillow instead.

But as soon as the lights were off, the pillow reappeared under his head, and his robe was sent back to his trunk.  The song started, and Vin sighed heavily.

It wouldn't be so bad if the magic worked the way he and Chris thought it should, putting him to sleep and giving him a good-night's sleep, but for Vin it seemed more a deterrent to sleep than an aid.  However, after a short while the song worked its magic and Vin fell asleep, but he woke up several times during the night, tossing and turning for a while each time before he finally fell back to sleep.

Monday, September 21, 1998

Monday morning dawned bright and cloud-free.  The sky was a deep turquoise as they walked toward the great hall, and there was a crispness to the air that let them all know that fall would soon arrive.

Vin and JD were both excited about starting their club activities today.  Monday would be Flying Club for them, then Transfiguration Club on Tuesday afternoons, Defense Club on Wednesdays, and Critter Club on Thursdays.  Friday and Saturday Vin planned to go watch Buck and Chris practicing Hoops, but the two boys would also have practices on Monday afternoons.  Vin wondered if he might be able to see some of it while he was on his broom.

After breakfast Vin and JD headed off toward the gardens, Vin lagging a little behind.

"C'mon, we're gonna be late!" JD said, going back and grabbing the boy's arm to hurry him along.

"I'm comin'," Vin said, then yawned.

JD looked at the older boy and asked, "Don't you like Herbology?"

"It's okay," Vin said with a shrug.

"And Professor Ko-Jay?"

"I like him lots."

"What don't you like?"

"Eli Joe and Nicky Yates," Vin sighed.

JD nodded.  "They're not very nice, are they?"

Vin shook his head, but he hurried along, feeling better now that he'd at least told JD what he was feeling.  When they arrived at class they found that the benches had been rearranged, and their names were on fiery notes that hovered above each table.  Vin was delighted to see that he and JD were still together, and they were now all the way across the shed from Eli and Nicky.  Eli Joe stuck out his tongue at Vin, then made a gesture that Vin guessed was rude, but he was able to ignore both boys, being so far away from them now.

Vin opened his backpack and pulled out his book and reading glasses, putting them on.

Professor Ko-Jay walked past, collecting their homework.  He gave Vin a light pat on his back as he passed by, and Vin knew the older man had rearranged the seating to put a stop to Eli's bullying tactics.  He let out a soft sigh of relief, then opened his book.  He smiled.  Herbology really was a lot of fun when he thought about it.

The rest of their classes flew by, even Spells, Charms and Curses going well since Eli and Nicky had stayed in the far upper row, while Vin and JD were in the front row, and as far away from the two boys as possible there, too.  And since everyone had now claimed the seats they would be using for the year, Eli and Nicky wouldn't be able to move any closer, either.  If Vin kept his back turned to the two boys, it was like they weren't even in the room, and that made it easier for him to concentrate on what Professor Corcoran was telling them.

Vin and JD stayed at the Western Hoops Field after their Broom Handling class, waiting for the other Flying Club members to arrive and get their brooms from the broom sheds.

Vin looked up at Professor Chanu and asked, "Sir, how do our brooms get from the broom closet at the dorms t' the shed here?"

Chanu grinned.  "Magic."

Vin grinned back.  "Cool."

Chanu ruffled his hair and walked off a little ways before saying, "All right, let's gather around, everybody!"

A few minutes later Vin and the others were streaking through the sky, following the professor as he began to show them everything a broom could do, one maneuver at a time.  By the time the club meeting ended, Vin and JD were both breathless, tired, and very happy.

They picked up their brooms and grabbed their backpacks, running all the way to the great hall to join the others for dinner.  The conversations were loud and excited as each of the boys shared the highlights of his day.  Then it was off to the Aerie to work on the next day's homework.  JD was done in no time, but Vin was slower.  Luckily, a little help from Ezra allowed him to finish everything before it was time for bed.

Tuesay, September 22, 1998

The following day Vin discovered that the students in his Magical Creatures class were going to be collecting unicorn hairs while Tiny talked about the creatures and their magical properties, something he'd already told Vin all about over the weekend.

"Mr. Tiny," Vin said quietly as the other students began scouring the ground for dropped hairs.

"Yes, Vin?"

"Uh, would it be all right if I took the book I borrowed from Mrs. Potter back t' the infirmary?"

Tiny thought for a moment, then smiled.  "I don't see why not.  You already know a lot about unicorns, and I'll tell you anything I might've forgotten this past weekend when I see you this weekend.  But come back before the end of class so you won't miss your homework assignment."

"Thanks, Mr. Tiny," Vin said, grabbing his backpack and heading off at a run.  He took the shortcut to the infirmary that Buck had showed them, one that took him past the Defense Against the Dark Arts Building.

As he was walking along a trail near the outside wall at the rear of the building, which had no windows, Vin noticed a large number of designs on the wall, from top to bottom, but one in particular apprehended his attention.  It looked like it was his name, spelled out twice.

Vin frowned and veered off the path, walking over and staring at the design that included 'Tanner' spelled vertically and horizontally, joined together at the first 'N.'

He took out his glasses and put them on to make sure that what he thought he saw he really did.  Curious, he reached out and touched the 'T' of the horizontal name, then dragged his finger over the name, and then the vertical one as well.  There was a brief flare of light that burst from the letters, and then Vin found himself peering through what looked like a small, barred window that looked in on a tiny stone cell.  Inside the small space was what looked like a student, but he was nothing but a pale, grey shade that Vin could see through.  "H-Hello?" he said a little nervously.

The boy turned, his eyes rounding.  "You can see me?"

His accent sounded odd to Vin, until he realized that the boy sounded like the exchange student they had from Hogwarts, in England.  "Yeah," he said, nodding.

The boy shot to his feet, but he floated over to window.  Vin jumped back, unsure if the boy had used magic to move like that.  He guessed the boy was older than Josiah, so a sixth year, or maybe even a seventh.

"Who are you?" the boy demanded, his pale blue eyes narrowing as he studied Vin intently.

"Vin Tanner," he replied.  "Who are you?"

The boy laughed a little hysterically.  "Finally!  Have you come to let me out, Vin Tanner?"

"I don't know how," Vin replied, studying the boy and wondering why he could see though him like that.  "What's wrong with you?"

The boy's brows pinched together over a long, hawkish nose.  "You sound just like her."


"Katherine Olivia Tanner, of course," he snapped.  When Vin still looked confused, he added sharply, "Your mother, cur."

"Ya know m' mama?" Vin asked, surprised.

The boy snorted and waved his hand dismissively.  "She's not worth the words I use to speak of her."

Vin's anger flared.  "She is too!  She's lots better 'n you!"  And with that he turned and stomped off.  Glancing back over his shoulder, he could still see the two Tanners spelled out on the wall, but the barred window was gone.

He continued on, still fuming, but then realized he'd actually met someone who knew his mother.  Stopping, he pulled off his glasses and stuck them in his pocket, then looked back at the building, wanting to go back and ask the boy about her, but he still too mad.  He didn't remember much about his mama any more…  Maybe the boy could tell him about her.  Maybe he knew her when she went to school here…

But he didn't like the boy.  He acted mean, and he talked like Vin and his mother were something nasty stuck to the bottom of his shoe.  That wasn't nice.  And he knew his mother was nice.  He could sometimes still remember what it had felt like she she'd held him and rocked him in her lap…

Turning away from the building, he shouldered his backpack and continued on to the infirmary, trying not to think about the boy, or his mother – both of them making him feel sad inside.

Opening the door, he walked in and glanced around to see if anyone was there, but the beds were all empty.  Mrs. Potter stood and came out from behind her desk.

"Vin!  It's good to see you," she said, giving him a hug.  "Are you hurt?  Feeling sick?"

"'M fine.  I just brought back yer book," he told her, fishing it out of his backpack and handing it to her.

"Did you finish it?"

He nodded excitedly.  "It was good!  D'ya have another one like that I can borrow?"

She smiled.  "Well, let's go take a look…"

She led Vin to one of the doors across from the beds and opened it, stepping inside.  Vin followed her and suddenly found himself standing in the living room of a small house.  He gasped and looked around, his eyes wide with surprise.

Mrs. Potter laughed.  "Welcome to my home," she said.  "Now, let's see what we can find…" she said, looking at the books on one of three bookcases in the living room.  "Ah, I think you'll like this one," she said, handing him another book, this one with the drawing of two black-spotted white dogs on the cover.

Vin opened it and tried to read the first sentence, then took out his glasses out of his pocket and put them on before he tried again.  After the first two pages, he looked up, smiling.  "I think I'll like this one, too."

"Good!" she replied.  "You keep that until you're finished, sweetheart, then just bring it back and we'll find you another one."

"Okay!" he said happily, putting the book into his backpack.

She glanced at the clock on her fireplace mantle.  "Shouldn't you be in class?"

Vin nodded, saying, "Magical Creatures, but Mr. Tiny said I could come.  I do chores in the barns, an' he already told me all about them unicorns."

"Well, all right then," she said.  "Come with me."

She led Vin to her kitchen, then pulled her wand from her apron pocket and pointed it at her tea pot and said, "Fervens."  The pot immediately began to whistle.

She poured them tea, then went over and took two molasses cookies from her cookie jar and put them on a plate, which she carried to the table.  They sat and ate the cookies and drank the tea.

"Mrs. Potter," Vin said.

"Yes, dear?"

"Did ya know m' mama?"

She smiled.  "Yes, dear, I did.  She was a beautiful young lady."

"How'd ya know her?"

"She was interested in being a nurse, and she did her chores here in the infirmary, like Nathan and Rain do now."

Vin chewed on his cookie, which was very good, then asked, "Was she nice?"

Mrs. Potter smiled a little sadly.  "Oh, yes, sweetheart, she was a very sweet, kind girl.  Why do you ask?"

Vin shrugged and looked down into his teacup.  "I don't remember her so good no more."

Mrs. Potter reached out and stroked his hair for a moment.  "I'm very sorry to hear that," she said, then glanced over at the clock on her wall.  "I'm afraid we should both get back to Horsefeathers."

Vin nodded.

She took the cups and plate and sat them in the sink, then pointed her wand again and said "Elavo," and the water began to run, bubbling with soap, while a cloth began to wash the dishes for her.

She took Vin's hand and led him though her front door, but he stepped out into the infirmary.  "How'd ya do that, Mrs. Potter?"

"Magic, dear," she told him.  "Now, you'd better get back to class before you miss your homework assignment."

"Okay.  Thank ya, Mrs. Potter," he said, daring to reach out and give her a hug.

"You are very welcome, sweetie," she said, hugging him back, then she watched him dart out the door and sighed.  "Another hug like that, and I might just take him home myself," she muttered to herself as she went back to her desk and the potions she was brewing.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The rest of Vin's day was busy with classes, then Transfiguration Club, where he saw some of the older students changing themselves into their animagus.  It was the most amazing thing he'd seen so far at the school, and he felt himself tingle all over as he watched them, hoping that, one day, he would be able to do that, too.

JD kept trying to turn himself into an elephant as they walked to the great hall for dinner with the other boys.

"Give it up, pipsqueak," Buck told him, giving JD a light shove.

"Who're you callin' a pipsqueak!" JD countered, shoving Buck back.

"You!" Buck said, using the edge of his foot to kick JD in the butt.

JD socked his 'big brother' on the arm and took off running, Buck in hot pursuit.

"What animal d'ya think you'll be?" Vin asked Chris.

The blond shrugged.  "I don't know.  Professor Ko-Jay wants me t' do my Vision Quest this summer…"

"Don't y' want to?" Vin asked.

"I guess," Chris replied, but he didn't sound so sure.

"Can I go with ya?" Vin asked.

"He'll have to go alone," Josiah told the younger boy.  "That's the way it works.  You go by yourself, and you wait to see if your Spirit Guide comes to you."

"Where d'ya go?" Vin asked.

"Out into the desert," Josiah told him.

"Where d'ya stay?"

"You have to make yourself a shelter, and a fire.  And you don't eat anything for three days.  Some people don't drink anything, either, but they want us to drink water."

"Wow," Vin said, a whole new respect for Josiah showing in his eyes.  Then he glanced around and asked, "Where are we, anyway?"

Chris and Buck grinned, but it was Josiah who said, "Well, nobody is exactly sure.  But we're in what they call the 'Four Corners area,' where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah all meet.  There's mountains close in Colorado, and the rest is kind of desert, but it's awfully pretty."

"So, which state are we in?" Vin asked.

"Colorado, we think," Nathan said, "because there's trees and mountains here, but I'm not sure anyone really knows for sure."

The boys ate, then went back to their usual seats on the Aerie patio to do their homework.  They all finished, Buck and Vin the last two to get their work done, then they went inside to get ready for bed.

Vin had about fifteen minutes to read his new book before the chimes began.  Then he slid his book under his pillow and lay down.  When he was sure Chris wasn't going to come see him, he reached down and took the toilet paper he'd brought to bed with him out of his pocket, stuffing it into his ears before trying to go to sleep.

Wednesday, September 23, 1998

After another restless night, Vin got up and started another day, which seemed to drag for the first time.  But he knew it was because he was so excited about going to Defense Club with Chris and the others that afternoon.  He'd really liked being with all of them in Transfiguration Club the day before, and he couldn't wait to do it again today.

By the time he reached the barns, he was nearly vibrating with excitement, but he forced himself to concentrate while Mr. Tiny told them about griffins.  They had two females and a male, and one of the females had recently given birth to two cubs, which the children were allowed to meet, but one of them managed to slip out of the pen.

"Vin, can you go collect Lambert for me?" Tiny called.

"Okay!" Vin replied, heading out after the wayward cub.  He was still too young to fly yet, but he used his wings to help him scrabble along, making better time than Vin had expected.  Then he lost the creature in a clump of brush.  When he finally caught up to the cub again, Lambert was close to the back of the Defense building.

Glancing around to see if anyone was watching him, Vin walked over to the wall and ran his finger over the double Tanner symbol and the cell window appeared again.

"Come back, have you, after stomping off in a snit?" the boy said, folding his nearly transparent arms over his almost transparent chest.

"M' mama was nice!  Mrs. Potter said so!" Vin told him.

The boy rolled his eyes and huffed, "Fine, she was nice.  Now, get me the bloody hell out of here!"

"I can't," Vin said.  "I don't know how.  An' I have t' take Lambert back t' class.

"I have been in here for almost thirteen years, you little chit!" the boy shouted.

"But I don't know how t' let y' out," Vin said again.  "Not sure I should, neither," he added in a mumble.

"Of course you should," the boy said in a nicer, friendlier tone.  "It was a cruel trick they played on me, locking me in here… making me die so slowly…"

"D-die?"  Vin shook with surprise and goose bumps popped up all over his body.  "Someone locked y' up an' ya… died?"

"Not someone, boy, your mother, and your bloody father."

Vin's mouth dropped open, and his fear over meeting a ghost was replaced by surprise.  "M' father?"

"Well, you do know that you had one, don't you?" the ghost-boy snapped.

"Who— Who was he?"

The ghost boy shook his head.  "Oh no, I won't tell you another bloody thing, not until you let me out of here.  You owe me that much.  It was your parents who killed me!"

Vin wasn't sure he believed that, but he wasn't sure he didn't, either.  "I— I can't," he stuttered.

"Fine," the boy snapped and turned his back on Vin, adding, "Then I guess you'll never know who your father was, will you…"

Vin scowled at the ghost.  "Maybe I don't care!"

The ghost turned, his eyes narrowing as he sneered at Vin, "Yes, you do."

Vin hugged Lambert closer to his chest, his fear reasserting itself, and he ran away from the building, fighting the tears in his eyes.  He did want to know.  He'd always wanted to know who his father was.  He'd asked his grandpa, lots of times, but the older man had always said he didn't know, but that it had to be someone his mama knew at school.  And if she went to school here… well, then maybe his father had as well!  Maybe Mrs. Potter or Miss Nettie knew his father!

He ran all the way back to the barns, Tiny giving him a relieved look when he saw Lambert clutched tightly against his chest.

"Nice job, Vin, thank you," he said, taking the cub by the scruff of the neck and returning him to his mother, who went to work, preening his wings.

Vin found it hard to concentrate during the rest of the class, but he forgot about the conversation with the ghost as soon as he was on Peso, flying through the air as he followed Professor Chanu around an obstacle course that he had set for them.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Returning to the Defense building for Defense Club that afternoon brought his encounter with the strange boy all back to Vin, and he had a hard time concentrating there, too.  Professor Martinez let them pair up to practice defensive spells and counter-curses, so Vin grabbed Chris' arm and led him outside.

"Vin, what're you doing?"

"I gotta show y' somethin'."

"What?" Chris asked as Vin dragged him around to the back side of the building.

"Can y' see that?"

"I don't see anything but a wall," Chris replied, frowning.

"M' name, it's spelled out on the wall, twice – here and here," he said dragging his finger over the letters horizontally and vertically, but not touching them.  "They cross at the first 'N.'"

"It's some kind of magic."

Vin nodded.  "When I touch it, I can—"  He reached out and traced them again, this time touching them, and the cell window appeared.  Chris gasped.

"Y' can see it too?" Vin asked, surprised

Chris nodded, looking inside.

"Back again, are we?" the ghost boy sneered, then turned and saw Chris standing there.  "Well, well, what have we here… one of Vin's little friends?"

"Chris Larabee," the blond said, his eye narrowing as he recognized that the boy was a ghost.

"Larabee… Larabee… I remember that name…  Professor Matthew Larabee's son?"

Chris nodded.

"Well, maybe you're smarter than this little prat," the ghost boy said, waving his hand dismissively at Vin.  "Have him release me."

Chris shook his head, then grabbed Vin by the arm and dragged him away.  "That's a ghost," he said.

Vin shivered.  "He said m' mama an' daddy locked 'im in there… an' he d-died."

That had Chris frowning more.  "Let's go back in before Professor Martinez misses us."

The boys returned to the large hall, where pairs of students were still practicing.  Professor Martinez saw them and came over, asking, "Something wrong, boys?"

"No, sir, we just had to use the restroom," Chris lied smoothly.

"All right," Raphael replied, studying them for a moment, then he smiled and nodded, heading off to see how everyone else was doing.

Chris and Vin went to work, practicing the defensive spells Chris knew.  But they drifted over to one corner of the room, so they wouldn't be overheard.

"I didn't think ghosts was real," Vin told him.  "They are?"

Chris nodded.  "Most of 'em move over to the other side."

"What other side?" Vin asked.

Chris didn't look real comfortable talking about the topic, but he forced himself to explain, "When someone dies, they usually see a bright light, and they go into that light.  I've heard some grown-ups say that's Heaven, and others say that it's just a place where souls hang out 'til they come back to earth as a new baby."

"Are the babies ghosts?" Vin wanted to know.

Chris shook his head.  "No, they're people.  If the soul of a dead person can't find the light, or if they don't see it, then their spirits are stuck here on earth, and those spirits are ghosts."

Vin's forehead wrinkled.  "Maybe the ghost can't see that light in that room.  Maybe we have t' let him out so he can go t' Heaven."

"Ghosts can be dangerous," Chris warned him.

Vin moved closer to Chris and whispered, "But what if m' mama an' daddy killed him?"

"I don't believe that," Chris said, shaking his head.  "It would take some really powerful magic to lock up a ghost like that.  I think a professor would have to do that."

"They'd lock up a student an' let 'im die?" Vin asked, not feeling as safe as he once had.

Chris shook his head again.  "Not unless that student did something really terrible… like kill someone.  Maybe he was a dark wizard."

"Kids can be dark wizards?"

"I think so," Chris said, "if their families are."

"'M scared," Vin said, his voice sounding small.

Chris stepped up and gave his shoulder a quick hug.  "Don't worry.  He can't get out.  If he could, he wouldn't have stayed in there so long."

"Are you sure?" Vin asked.

Chris nodded.  "C'mon, I'll show you a new spell, okay?"

"I guess," Vin replied, but he was still worried about the ghost.  What if he was telling the truth?  What if his parents had killed him?  Did that make them dark wizards?  Was he a dark wizard, too?

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

After dinner the boys returned to the Aerie and settled in to do their homework.  Leaving Vin and JD hard at work, Chris carefully gathered up the rest of the Seven – as he thought of them – a little distance apart, then told them about the ghost, and what he'd said about Vin's parents.

"I find that difficult to believe," Ezra stated, glancing over at Vin.

"Me, too," Josiah agreed.  "Locking up a person, or a ghost, like that… that's really advanced magic, year six, or maybe even seven.  But it sounds more like what the professors could do, not students."

"That's what I thought," Chris agreed.

"Maybe we better find out more about Vin's parents," Nathan said, glancing over at the boy.

"I'll see what I can find in the library this weekend," Josiah offered.  "Between the yearbooks and the newspaper archive, there should be something about both of them."

"You think maybe Vin's a dark wizard?" Buck asked Chris.

The blond shook his head.  "No.  If he was a dark wizard, I don't think I'd know he's gonna be on the team with us.  We're gonna hunt down dark wizards, so he can't be one and work with us."

Buck considered that for a moment, then he nodded.  "Okay.  I kind 'a like the kid.  He don't seem bad to me, either."

"You should probably tell Vin to stay away from the ghost," Josiah added.

"Okay," Chris agreed, nodding.  "I'll do that tonight.  And this stays with us, okay?  Nobody else can know – no grown-ups, either."

Nathan and Josiah didn't look like they were completely convinced about the wisdom of that decision, but Buck and Ezra nodded their agreement.

"Maybe we should just tell Professor Wells," Nathan suggested, and Josiah nodded.

Chris shook his head.  "The ghost is locked up; he can't hurt anybody.  And if he's right about Vin's parents…"

Josiah scowled for a moment, but then he nodded and said, "If Vin's parents did do that, they might not want Vin here at the Academy."

"Even if that's so, what they did doesn't have anything to do with Vin," Nathan argued.

"Let's just find out what we can first," Chris suggested.  "We can always tell Professor Wells later, if we think we need to."

Josiah nodded and looked at Nathan, who thought for a moment, and nodded his willingness to go along with the plan. "Yeah, that sounds okay to me."

They went back to their homework, working alongside Vin and JD right up until they were all told to get ready for bed.

As soon as the lights went out, Chris slipped out of his bed and tiptoed over to Vin's, climbing in and making sure the curtains were closed so they couldn't be overheard.

"Vin," Chris called, wanting to make sure the boy was awake, and he couldn't really see him in the darkness.

"'M awake."

"I want you to promise me that you won't go see the ghost anymore.  Not 'til we can figure out who he is, and what really happened.  Okay?"

"Okay," Vin agreed.  He didn't want to go see him anyway.  He was still feeling pretty afraid of him, knowing that he was a ghost.

"Thanks," Chris said.  "Josiah's gonna see what he can find out in the library this weekend."

"Okay," Vin agreed again, feeling better.  He knew Chris and the others on the team would help him, and take care of him.  He scooted closer and gave Chris a hug.  "'M glad yer m' big brother," he whispered.

"Me, too.  I'm gonna go back to my bed," Chris said, then quickly added, "unless you want me to stay?"

"You don't got to go," Vin replied, hoping that Chris would stay.

Chris seemed to sense that, too, and he settled down beside Vin.

"Josiah really likes the library, huh?" Vin said.

Chris grinned.  "Yeah, he does.  He likes books and ideas and things.  He likes the librarian, too."

Vin giggled.  "A girl?"

"A lady," Chris corrected.

The two of them talked quietly for a few minutes before the pillow worked its magic, sending both boys off to sleep.

Thursday, September 24, 1998

Vin woke to the soft chime of the alarm.  Chris slipped back to his bed, but Vin lay in his, stretching, as he watched the filmy black curtains gather themselves up at the four corners of his bed, then he threw back the covers and climbed out.

He set to work immediately, making his bed, then he grabbed his clothes – he had several outfits in his trunk now, new ones occasionally appearing, which was pretty cool as far as he was concerned – comb, tooth brush, and toothpaste, then heading to the bathroom to shower, dress, brush his teeth, and comb his hair – in that order.

When he returned to his bed to toss his pajamas back into his trunk, he saw a small box sitting on his bed, a bright blue bow on the top of it.

Vin frowned, but he reached out and picked up the box.  There was a small card attached.  He opened it and saw writing, so he grabbed his glasses and put them on, then read:  Happy Birthday, Vin.  Sorry this is late.  Enjoy, Ko-Jay.

Vin smiled.  He'd completely forgotten about his birthday on the 7th!

Opening the box, Vin pulled out a tiny woven rug no bigger than an inch square.  The next moment, however, the rug was taller and wider than he was, and he was somehow sitting on it as it flew around the huge dorm.

Navajo style rugSome boys ducked out of the way, and others tried to jump up and grab one of the four tassels that hung from the four corners of the rug, which was grey, with an interesting pattern in red, white, and black.  It had a black border, too, but the tassels were grey.

After a couple of quick trips around the big room, the rug delivered Vin back to his bed, coming to rest on the floor alongside it.  Vin, was standing on the rug, looking surprised, but delighted.  Something else that flew!  How cool was that?

"Coolest!" Buck said, coming over to join him on the rug.  "Somebody gave ya a flying carpet, Vin!"

"Professor Ko-Jay did," Vin said.

"Why?" JD wanted to know.

"It's m' birthday," Vin told them, smiling.  "Well, it was on the seventh!"

"Mine is tomorrow," Ezra stated.

"Really?" Vin asked?

Ezra nodded.  "September 25th.  Yours was probably late because your birthday is so close to the start of the school year."

"And ll of the wards of the Academy get a birthday gift from their dorm elder and matron on their birthday," Josiah explained.  "Happy birthday, Vin."

"Happy birthday!" they all cheered.

"I wonder what Professor Wells will give you," Nathan said.  "She gave me a really cool magical medical bag last year."

Vin grinned.  "I don't know.  Are ya sure she'll give me somethin'?"

"Yep," Josiah said.  "I got a cool book on the philosophy of magic last year from her."

"A book is cool?" Buck asked, shaking his head.  "Josiah, you're a geek."

"Very cool," Josiah told him.

"We'll get you and Ezra something, too.  When we go to the village in October," Chris promised him.

"Ya don't gots to," Vin said.

"We want to," Josiah assured him.

"Do we get to go to the village in October, too?" JD asked.

"Not until you're a third year," Buck said, puffing out his chest.

"That's not fair!" JD cried.

"We will find our own way to celebrate Vin's birthday that Saturday," Ezra told JD.

"You can't go, either?" JD asked him.

Ezra shook his head.  "No, I am but a lowly second year…"

"And I still have your list of 'required necessities' from last year," Josiah told the dark-haired boy.  "I'll pick them all up for you, I promise."

"My deepest appreciation, Josiah," Ezra replied, giving the older boy a quick hug.

"And I'll pick you up some things, too," Buck promised JD.

"Cool!" the JD replied, giving his 'big brother' a hug before he tried to jump up on his back like a monkey.

Chris and Vin exchanged looks, and Vin knew that he would get some fun things when they all got back.  Still, he wished he could go with Chris and the others.

They finished getting ready, then grabbed their books and backpacks and headed off to breakfast.

When the food appeared at the table, there was a small cupcake on Vin's plate, a tiny candle burning on it.  Vin made a wish – "I want to stay here forever!" – and blew it out, then gobbled up his cupcake before JD could talk him out of some.

Just before breakfast ended, Ms. Nettie came by, handing Vin another small box.  Vin opened it and pulled out a tiny book that immediately got bigger in his hands.

"Cool!" Nathan said.  "It's a memory book!"

Vin opened it and saw a picture of him on the day he'd arrived at the Academy.  On the page opposite it was a picture of him at the table, just after he'd joined Chris, but before JD had been sorted into Hawks Gild.

Turning the pages he saw other pictures of the things that had happened to him at the Academy.

"The book will create pictures from your fondest memories," Ms. Nettie told him.  "Just put it in your trunk, and check it every once in a while to see what else has appeared."

Vin stood and gave her a big hug.  "Thanks, Ms. Nettie, it's great!"

"You're welcome, son," she replied.  "Now, it's time for you to get to class."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, carefully putting his memory book in his backpack before they all headed sprinted off to their classes.  This was definitely one of his best birthdays ever, and he couldn't wait to see what Ezra got tomorrow.

Saturday, September 26,1998

The rest of the week passed quickly, Vin happy to find that he was able to keep up with his homework and do all four clubs with relative ease.  The glasses Dr. Kringle had given him really made a difference, and he was now reading as well and as fast as the other students – so long as he had them on.

He thought about the ghost each day when he went to Defense class, but he made sure to stay away from the rear of the building, so he wouldn't be tempted to talk to him about his parents.

The only thing he was still having trouble with was his blasted pillow.  He was waking up more and more often in the night, and one way or another, he knew he had to get rid of it.  So, when Saturday rolled around, and he was ready to head off to do his chores, he went back to his bed and took out his wand, pointing it at his pillow and saying, "Creo parvus," which he'd seen Nathan do almost every morning, since he wanted to make all their books smaller – so they weren't as heavy to carry around in their backpacks.

The pillow immediately shrunk down to something about the size of a man's palm.  Vin grinned.  He'd done real magic, and outside of class!

After sticking his wand back in his backpack, he grabbed the pillow and shoved it inside as well, then zipped it up and raced off to the barns.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Good morning, Vin," Tiny greeted him.

"Mornin', Mr. Tiny," Vin replied, running straight up to the man and giving him a hug.

Tiny chuckled, the sound a deep rumble like thunder in his broad chest.  "And what is this for?"

Vin blushed as he said, "Just wanted t' say thanks fer lettin' me work in the barns.  This is the best place t' do chores."

That put a smile on the man's face as well.  "I certainly think so," he agreed.  "Why don't you come with me and I'll show you our newest resident."

"Okay!" Vin agreed happily, hanging his backpack on a hook.

He followed the big man to the second barn, going inside, then out the back to the second set of corrals.  Vin's mouth dropped open.  Inside one of the corrals was a beautiful dapple grey horse, with wings!

"Wow," Vin breathed.  "Is that a pegasus?"

"It is," Tiny replied, nodding.  "He'll be with us for a couple of weeks – for class and Critter Club."

Pegasus"What's his name?" Vin wanted to know.

"I'm afraid I can't tell you that, but if he likes you, he'll tell you himself."

Vin eyes rounded.  "He can talk?"

Tiny chuckled again.  "No, not like you and me, but you'll be able to hear him inside your head."

The winged-horse tossed his head and leapt forward, galloping around the corral, his wings unfurling but not beating as he made a couple of circles around the enclosed space before coming to a stop close to Tiny and Vin.  He dipped his head, and pawed the ground with one front hoof.  Greetings, Tiny, Vin heard inside his mind.  This must be the boy, yes?

"Introduce yourself, Vin," Tiny told him, reaching out to rest his hand on Vin's shoulder.

Vin swallowed and said, "Hello.  M' name's Vin Tanner."

Greetings, Vin Tanner, he heard in reply.  You may call me Ailč Lumičre… ah, Tiny, how do you say it in English?

"Lightwing," the man translated.

"Lightwing," Vin repeated in a whisper.

Would you like to go for a ride, Vin?

"A ride?" Vin asked.

Tiny grinned.  "Climb up on his back and hold on," he instructed.

"Really?" Vin asked Tiny, then looked at Lightwing and said, "Y' don't mind?"

Not in the slightest, the pegasus replied.  Come along, now.  I need to stretch my wings.

Vin slipped through the fence and approached the horse, who bowed down low so he could climb onto his back, and Tiny instructed him on where to position himself – with his knees just behind the powerful muscles that controlled the horse's wings.

Then, reaching out, Vin wrapped his fingers into the animal's mane and Lightwing gathered himself and leapt into the air, his wings beating as he soared up into the sky.

"Wow!" Vin said, holding on his with his legs and his hands.

Before long they were flying above the campus and Vin got his first good look at the other dorms.  He spotted Chris and Buck, working on the grounds.  "Those are my friends," he told the horse.

Then we should say hello, yes? Lightwing replied, dipping and then diving down to sail past just above their heads.

"Hi, Chris!  Hi, Buck!" Vin called as they went by, grinning madly and waving.

Both of the older boys stared after him, their mouths open with surprise.

Vin continued to wave with one hand, and they finally waved back.  Then he and Lightwing were sailing away, out and over the foothills.  "Where are we goin'?" he asked.

Just making a circle of the Academy grounds, Lightwing assured him.

Vin was surprised to see just how large the campus actually was.  When he spotted more buildings in the near distance he asked, "What's that?"

That is Horsefeathers University, Lightwing told him.  After you graduate from the Academy, you will continue your studies there.  And there, to the left, is the village.


Where the majority of the professors and staff live, he told the boy.  When you are a third year student, you will be able to go to the village one weekend each month.  He dipped and then rose higher into the air.  And there, off to the right, is the community of Four Corners.

"Is that like the village?" Vin asked.

It is larger than the village, with many stores.  Did you not go there to buy your school supplies?

"No, Ms. Nettie come an' got me…  I's livin' in Amarillo, with a foster family."

I see, Lightwing said, and he did.  He was able to see the images that raced through Vin's mind as he remembered the horrible man, and what he'd done to the boy.  Well, you are free of that monster now, yes?

"Yeah," he replied, feeling tears well up in his eyes.  He never thought anything like this would happen to him.

Do not worry, little one, the spirit of Forza watches over you, Lightwing told him.

"Who's Forza?"

He was the greatest of my kind – a huge war stallion, with hair and wings so black they looked blue in the sunlight.  He was the mightiest of the warhorses, with two long horns, which he used to kill evil dragons and other foul creatures…


All of us attempt to follow the trail he forged for us, but each of us falls short of his majesty…

"Are there lots of…?"

Pegasi, Lightwing supplied.

"Are there lots of pegasi?" Vin asked.

Not as many as in the past, sadly, but we are slowly growing in numbers once again.

"What happened?" Vin wanted to know.

Many of my kind were killed in skirmishes with dark wizards and witches, years back, then the Dark Lord rose in England, and his ideas took root here and on the Continent.

Vin thought about that for a moment, then asked, "Lightwing, how d'ya know if someone's a dark wizard?"

It is sometimes difficult to tell, little one, but usually their actions give them away.  Evil does evil, and good does good.

Vin didn't think he'd done anything bad or evil, so far, so maybe he wasn't a dark wizard after all.

Are you ready to return?

"I guess so," Vin replied a little sadly, deciding that flying was the best thing ever, be it on a broom, or on a pegasus.

Hold on then… Lightwing said, then veered off to the right, turning into a tight spiral as they sailed toward the ground.

Vin watched the ground racing up to meet them, but he wasn't afraid.  He knew Lightwing wouldn't hurt him.  A few moments later, he felt the winged-horse's hooves hit the ground, and he galloped toward the corral fence, then leapt over it, landing back in the corral.  He walked over to the fence where Tiny waited, so Vin could climb onto it.

"That was the best thing ever!" Vin said, climbing down off the fence and walking over to give Lightwing's neck a hug.  "Thank you, Mr. Lightwing."

You are most welcome, little one.

"Okay, Vin, why don't you get started on your chores," Tiny told him.

"Okay, Mr. Tiny!" Vin said, running his hand up and down Lightwing's neck once more before he scrambled off to get started.  "'Bye, Mr. Lightwing!" he called back.

Good-bye, little one, I will see you again.

"Well?" Tiny asked.

You were right, he has had a difficult time in his short life, but his heart is pure, and he does have the gift.  I foresee great things for him, and the little band of warriors who has adopted him.

"What I thought," Tiny said with a nod.  "I'll have a talk with Professor Wells.  Maybe he and Chris Larabee can do their Vision Quests together this summer.  If he's an animagi there'll be no holding him back anyway."

Lightwing, nodded his head in agreement.  The gift is strong in him.  He will make a fine animagi.

"He'll be the first in many years with the gift," Tiny said.

The first since you, my friend.  Ah, but there is need of it now, Lightwing reminded him.

"Are things as bad as I've heard over there?"

Lightwing tossed his head.  He-who-must-not-be-named has returned.  Many of the sentient creatures know this, but most of the humans will not listen to us.  Dumbledore knows as well, but there are many who thwart his attempts to convince the Ministry.  Voldemort will wake his sleepers once again to spread his poison among your people, and other infiltrators will come to encourage those ideas.

"Headmaster Travis has said as much in our faculty meetings," Tiny said with a nod.  "He and Dumbledore are staying in touch.  I suppose you heard Harry Potter started at Hogwarts this year."

The news has spread far and wide.

"I'd hoped the worst of the troubles here were over…"

The trouble will not be over until Harry Potter destroys Voldemort, and even then there are many here who would travel the trail the Dark Lord leaves for them.

Tiny nodded again.

Be careful, my friend, even the innocent can be dangerous.

"I know, my friend, I know," the man said sadly.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin completed his chores, then ate lunch with Tiny and Lightwing.  He brushed the winged-horse thoroughly before running to grab his backpack and heading off to the Western Hoops Field where the Hoops tryouts would be held.  But before he left the barn, he opened his pack and took out his pillow, sticking it as far inside one of the many piles of hay that sat scattered around the barns as he could reach.

Satisfied that he'd gotten rid of the darn thing, he closed his pack, drew it over his shoulders, and headed out to the field at a run.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

As Vin got closer to the field, he slowed to a fast walk, surprised by all the people who were there from Hawks Gild.  Professor Chanu was walking among them, calling out instructions that quickly had the students bunched up by the positions they wanted to try out for.

"Ah, I see they haven't really gotten started yet.  Good."

Vin jumped slightly at the sound of the voice, but he smiled when he saw it was Ezra, and behind him was Josiah and Mary, Nathan, then JD and Casey – another first year who had started a year earlier than normal, but she was as smart as JD, and they had become friends while doing their chores at the gardens together.  Someone had told him she was Ms. Nettie's 'grand niece,' but he wasn't sure what that meant.  Behind them was Hannah, and Vin smiled at her and she walked over to join him and Ezra.

"Where's Rain and Inez?" Vin asked the second year girl.

"They're both trying out for the team this year," Hannah replied.  "Can I sit with you?"

"Cool," Vin said, then nodded.  "Sure, you can sit with us."

They all got comfortable on the grass, watching as the tryouts began.

The first round was to find a Keeper, who, Nathan explained, protected the hoops so the opposing team didn't score.  All of the kids vying for the position were older, which, they all agreed, was a good thing, since they were therefore taller and had a better reach than the younger students.

Vin smiled when Hank Connolly was eventually awarded the first string position, another one of the Hawks Gild girls getting the backup position.

The next position to be filled was the two Beaters, who would protect their team members from the bludgers – hard balls that tried to unseat players.  The students who wanted the position wielded bats as they were bombarded with bludgers.  The last two still on their brooms were given the two first string positions.  They were also older students, and among the most muscular of the Hawks Gild boys.

With the Keeper and Beaters chosen, the students who wanted to be Chasers took to the field.  The remaining Seven, and the girls with them, cheered for Chris and Buck.  A short distance away, another girl squealed and called out Buck's name as well.

Hannah rolled her eyes at the sound and Vin shook his head.  "That Amanda Lynn sounds like a cat gettin' its throat cut," he grumbled.

Hannah looked at him, her eyes round.  "You've heard a cat getting its throat cut?"

Vin blushed.  "Uh, no… it's just somethin' m' grandpa said."

Hannah looked very much relieved to hear that.  "Oh…"  Then she giggled.  "I guess maybe she does, when you stop and listen."

Vin grinned, too.  He knew Hannah had a crush on Buck, but she never said or did anything to attract the boy's attention.  He wasn't sure why, but then he wasn't really sure about anything girls did.

The competition for the Chasers position was intense, and those trying out raced up and down the field, trying to get their quaffle balls through a hoop, each of which was guarded by a Keeper.  It took almost an hour, but then Professor Chanu announced the three players who had been chosen – Chris, Buck, and Rain.

Nathan cheered louder than anyone, and Rain glanced over and waved at him, smiling.

"That just leaves the Seeker position," Josiah said.  "It's the most important position on the team."

The students who took the field to try out for the position were the smallest Vin had seen so far, and Inez was among them.  Ezra and Hannah both hooted and clapped when they saw her.

Vin saw Professor Chanu release a small, winged ball that shot up into the air.  The candidates for Seeker all took off after it, racing through the sky at top speed, and doing maneuvers that made Vin's head spin.  He was quickly both in awe, and wishing he was out there with them.  If he tried out next year, he knew he would try out for the Seeker position.

It only took a few minutes, and then Inez was streaking down from the sky, clutching the Golden Snitch in her hand.  And the team had its new Seeker for the year.

The dorm elves arrived with a special picnic dinner for all the students who had tried out, as well as those watching.  Those who had their homework done were able to stay at the field and watch Professor Chanu magically put the entire team – first and second string – in their uniforms, while everyone else cheered.  Then the team was sent back to the Aerie, where they received another round of cheers and applause before they headed off to remove their uniforms and get ready for bed.

Buck and Chris were still celebrating their victories, and Vin climbed into bed and opened his book to read for a while.  He hoped Pongo and Missis were able to find their puppies before it was too late…

Sunday, September 27, 1998

Sunday morning was grey and overcast, the smell of rain hanging in the air as the boys walked to the great hall for breakfast.  Vin's tummy was upset, and he kept shooting glances at Josiah, who was several feet behind them, talking to Chris.  Vin knew it must have something to do with what the older boy had found out about his parents, and he wanted to know, too, but he was also kind of scared to know.  What if the ghost boy was right?

When they were settled at their table, and the food appeared, he glanced over at Chris and asked sadly, "Did they kill 'im?"

Chris, in turn, glanced at Josiah.

The fourth year boy drew his wand and said quietly, "Silentium," casting a protective circle around their table that would keep anyone from overhearing what they said.  Vin immediately recognized the design circling their table as the same one that was on their bed curtains.

"Okay," Josiah said, "I was able to find out that three boys were killed at the Academy, about thirteen years ago.  One of them was Michael Vincent Tanner, an exchange student from Hogwarts, in England."

Vin's mouth dropped open.  His father had been a wizard, too?

"That same year, Katherine Olivia Tanner, from Texas, dropped out of school at the end of her fifth year."

"Hey, that's cool!" JD said.  When he saw the stunned looks his comment had caused, he quickly added, "That Vin's mom and dad had the same last names!"

"Were they married?" Chris asked, a little confused by that as well.

Vin shrugged; he had no idea.

"No, but they might have been distantly related," Josiah said.  "And they were in the same year.  Michael Tanner was a fifth year student, a Griffindor, assigned to Spiders Gild when he came here as part of the student exchange program.  Katherine Tanner was a fifth year in Salmons Gild."

"Who were the other two boys who died?" Nathan wanted to know.

"Benley Gaunt, a seventh year Slytherin at Hogwarts, was assigned to Hawks Gild.  He disappeared from campus a day or two after the deaths of his two classmates.  At first they thought he'd killed them, but when he never turned up, he was presumed dead as well.  The third boy was George Madison, a sixth year Ravensclaw at Hogwarts.  He was placed in Turtles Gild here.  He was found dead on October thirtieth, 1987.  Michael was found dead on the thirty-first, and Benley disappeared on either the thirty-first, or November first – no one knows for sure which one.  At the end of the term that year, Katherine left to go home, and she never came back to the Academy.  The newspaper report I read said that she had disappeared, too."

Vin frowned.  "Mama had me when she's sixteen.  I heard Grandpa say so.  He said she ran away from home the summer before I was born.  We lived in Dalhart 'til she died when I's six."

"She would have only been what then… twenty-one, or twenty-two?" Josiah calculated.

"How'd she die, Vin?" Nathan asked.

He shrugged again.  "She got real, real sick… then she died…  It was right before Christmas that year."

Buck slid out of his chair and went over to give Vin a hug, then asked him, "What happened to you when she died?"

"Grandpa come an' took me t' Amarillo," Vin replied.  "I lived in the same house Mama did when she was a little girl.  Grandpa got in a car accident an' died just before Thanksgivin'.  I's ten, an' that's when they gave me t' my foster father.  He was mean."

Buck nodded.  He and the others had heard about Vin's bruises, and where they had come from.  "My mom died when I was ten," he told Vin.  "Chris' Aunt Kathy and my mom was friends when they were in school here.  Aunt Kathy was my godmother, so I went to live with her and Uncle Daniel when my mom died."

Vin nodded, then he looked at Josiah and asked, "Did m' mama an' daddy kill them other kids?"

Josiah frowned.  "I don't think so, Vin.  They were only fifth year students."

"Who do you suppose the ghost is?" Ezra asked.  "Benley, George… or Michael Tanner?"

Vin spun to look at the boy, his eyes wide with surprise.  Could the ghost really be his father?

"Guess we'll have to ask him," Chris said, but he didn't sound like he thought much of the idea.

"I— I'll ask him," Vin said, his mind racing with the possibility that the ghost boy might be his father.

"You want me to come with you?" Chris asked.

Vin shook his head.

"We'll have a game," Buck reminded Chris, who sighed and nodded.

"I would be happy to accompany you, Vin," Ezra offered.

Vin wanted to say no, but he had a hunch that at least one of them was going to come along, like it or not.  He nodded.  "Okay."

"You should be able ta do it while we're playing on Sunday," Buck told them.

Josiah nodded.  "Just wait until the first score, everyone will be into the game then, and you'll be less likely to be noticed."

The two boys nodded.

"We better get back for study period," Nathan told them, and Josiah released the spell.

Vin saw the design wink out of existence, but he didn't say anything, since Chris had asked him not to.  They walked back to the Aerie and settled in their usual location on the patio.  Glancing out at the lightly falling rain, Vin realized that there was a magical bubble over the building, keeping them dry and warm.  He watched the rain hitting it for a moment, then opened his Herbology book and got to work, finishing off three more of his classes before he headed out to the barns for his chores.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

When Vin arrived at the barns everything was quiet, but he could swear he could hear the faint strains of his pillow, singing that same lullaby, over and over.

He found Tiny standing inside one of the barns, glancing around worriedly, all of the animals inside still fast asleep.

Vin gulped.  "Uh, Mr. Tiny?"

The big man swung around and looked down at the boy saying, "I just don't understand it.  I wake them up, and they go right back to sleep.  They're not eating, or playing, or… anything… except sleeping.  It doesn't make any sense."

Vin's cheeks turned a deep shade of red and he looked down at his shoes.  "Uh, I, uh…"

"Vin, do you know what's going on here?"

The boy nodded, but he didn't look up as he tried to think of something to tell the big man.  He hated lying to Tiny, but Chris had made him promise not to tell anyone about him hearing and seeing magic, and he wouldn't break his promise to his big brother.

Tiny squatted down next to Vin and lightly rested his hand on the boy's shoulder.  "Can you tell me?"

"I, uh…" Vin hedged, "I was sleepy yesterday… an' I brung m' pillow with me… so I could take a nap in the hay.  I left it here."  He looked up, hoping Mr. Tiny wouldn't see through his lie, and added, "Maybe they ate it and got sick?"

"Where did you leave it, Vin?" Tiny asked, a small grin stretching the corners of his mouth.

sleeping pygmy goatsVin led Tiny over to the haystack where they found two of the pigmy goats fast asleep, an odd bulge showing in one of their bellies.

Tiny reached into a pocket of his overalls and pulled out his wand.  He pointed it at the bloated goat's belly and said, "Avexi avectum."

A moment later, the shrunken pillow was lying on the ground under the goat's head, coated in slimy mucus.  Tiny reached down and pulled it free, then used his wand again, saying, "Comburo," and the pillow was immediately consumed by a bright red-orange flame that winked out as soon as the pillow was completely gone.

"I didn't think you'd want it back in that condition," he told Vin, who shook his head.

A few moments later the animals began to wake up and demand to be fed.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Tiny," Vin said.  "Did it make 'em sick?"

"Well, no harm done," Tiny said, sidestepping the question by saying, "just be sure to leave your pillow on your bed from now on, okay?"

Vin nodded and hurried off to feed the animals, grateful that his secret was still safe, and so were the goats.  A new pillow hadn't appeared on his bed last night, so Josiah had made him a new one by transfiguring a tissue box, and it smelled good and was soft and comfortable – and blessedly silent.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin left the barns as soon as he could, running back to the great hall for lunch.  Josiah cast another circle of silence and told them, "I thought it might be a good idea to look up more about the three visiting students."

"What did ya find?" Buck asked him.

"Yeah!" JD echoed.

"Well, as it turns out, the Tanner family in England is a long-standing member of the Order of the Phoenix," Josiah told them, giving Vin a smile.

"What's that?" Vin asked, glancing over at Chris.

"They're a group who fought back against Lord Voldemort and the other dark wizards and witches," Josiah told them.

Vin's eyes rounded.  "Like we're gonna do here?"

"Exactly like we are," Chris told him, nodding.

Vin smiled at that.

"And the other two boys?" Ezra asked.

"I couldn't really find anything on George Madison," Josiah said.  "I think he was just a student.  Maybe he was Mundane-born.  But I can't find anything that would tell us if he was good or bad."

"What about Benley?" Ezra wanted to know.

"Well, here's where it gets interesting," Josiah said, glancing around at the others.  "The Gaunt family is the last known descendents of Salazar Slytherin.  They're all purebloods, and most of 'em can speak Parseltongue."

"What's that?" JD asked.

"It means they can talk to snakes," Chris said, his pinched expression making it clear what he thought about that particular gift.

"Eww," JD agreed, making a face of his own.

"The Gaunt line is thought to be dead now.  I guess Benley was one of the last ones," Josiah told them.

"Very little of any worth comes out of Slytherin House," Ezra stated.  "I would be willing to wager that the ghost is Benley Gaunt."

"I'm thinking it must be Benley, or George," Josiah agreed, nodding.

"Guess we'll just have to wait and see what he says," Nathan commented.

The boys dropped the circle of silence and finished their lunches, Vin just picking at his food.  His tummy was too upset for him to eat too much.  If the ghost boy wasn't his father, had he killed his father?

Then it was off to study again, Vin forcing himself to finish off his homework so he could go to the first Hoops game of the season.  Chris and Buck both left for the field at 3:30.

At exactly four o'clock, the rest of them closed their books and dropped them off in their trunks before racing off to the Western Hoops Field, where Hawks Gild would be playing Turtles Gild in the first game of the season.  Across the campus, Buffalo Gild was playing Spiders Gild in the other game being played that day.  Salmons Gild, the winner of last year's Hoops Cup, wouldn't play until next week.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin and Ezra waited until Buck had scored the first goal for Hawks Gild, and Chris was streaking toward one of the hoops, about to score the second, before they slipped away from the stands.

Vin was sorry he couldn't stay and watch Chris get his first goal of the season, but he wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible.  They ran to the defense building, the roar of the crowd at the game growing fainter as they got closer.  Vin took them straight around to the back, and up to the wall.  He glanced over his shoulder at Ezra and asked, "Can ya see m' name?"

"Your name?" Ezra repeated, moving closer to peer intently at the wall.  "I'm afraid I don't see anything but a wall."

Vin ran his finger over the horizontal 'Tanner,' and then the vertical one, and the cell window appeared.  The ghost boy immediately flew to the opening, yelling, "It's about bloody time!"

Ezra, still at Vin's shoulder, yelped in surprise and lunged away, bumping into Vin, who fell forward, but he managed to catch himself on his fingertips against the wall, one hand right in the middle of the magical lock, but he didn't fall down.

"Stop yer yellin'!" Vin snapped at the ghost, his heart racing as he righted himself.  It had felt as if he was falling right into the cell!

The boy peered out at Ezra with a sneer on his lips.  "So, you brought another one of your little friends, did you?  Who are you?"

"We only came to ascertain your name," Ezra replied, drawing himself up and trying not to look afraid as he glared back at the haughty ghost.

"You want my name?"

"Yes," Ezra stated, "so if you would simply provide that infor—"

"Why should I?" the boy interrupted.

"Because we may be able to secure your freedom, but that won't happen unless you prove to be more cooperative."

"Just tell us who ya are," Vin added.

The boy glanced to his right at something they couldn't see and smiled broadly, then he looked back at the pair and stated, "I am Benley Gaunt."

"Thank you.  And now we must go," Ezra said, reaching out and grabbing Vin's arm, pulling him away.  Behind them they could hear the ghost boy laughing as they hurried back toward the field.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Inside his tiny prison, Benley Gaunt stood, staring at the cell door, which had popped open just slightly when Vin Tanner caught himself on the wall.  He wasn't sure how it had happened, or why, but the Tanner boy must have triggered it somehow.  He laughed.

Freedom… at long last…

He floated to the door and pulled it open, then floated through, finding himself outside his cell for the first time in nearly thirteen years.  Above him was a sunlit sky and, in the distance, he could hear the cheers of the students watching the on-going Quidditch games.

Benley laughed again, spinning around in circles, then flying off in the direction of the cheers.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin and Ezra got back to the hoops field just in time to see Buck pass Chris the quaffle, which the blond used to score another ten points, making the current score seventy to thirty.  Josiah let them know that Buck had scored twice, as had Rain, and Chris had managed three.

Then they all saw Inez, streaking down out of the sky.  She made a tight turn, then double-looped, losing the Turtles Gild seeker with the maneuver.  A moment later she had captured the snitch.  The students watching cheered madly and the game ended, Hawks Gild the victor.

Vin and Ezra waited until they were back at the great hall, eating dinner inside a circle of silence, before they told the others that the ghost was Benley Gaunt.

"At least you know it's not your dad," Buck told Vin, who nodded.  He was relieved about that.

"Don't you think we should tell Professor Wells now?" Nathan asked Chris.

The blond shook his head.  "I want to see if we can find out who locked him up first."

"Maybe she could tell us," Josiah suggested.

"Maybe Benley can, too," Chris said.

"And if he doesn't?" Buck asked.

Chris thought for a moment.  "If everyone back then thought he was dead because they never found him, and it was the teachers who put him in there – because that was some pretty strong magic – then they must've had a good reason for doing it.  I don't think they'll be too happy about us finding him, do you?"

"Probably not," Nathan agreed.  "But what if it was Vin's parents who did it?"

Chris shrugged.  "They had to have had a good reason, too.  I just don't want all the professors thinking Vin's bad if they did."

Ezra looked at Vin.  "How did you find him in the first place?" he wanted to know.  "How did you see the names?"

Chris glanced at Vin, then said, "Vin has a gift."

"He can see ghosts?" JD asked.

The blond shook his head.  "Better…  He can see magic."

"Hear it, too," Vin grumbled.

The others looked very surprised.  "I've never heard of that," Ezra said.

"Me, either," Josiah said and the others shook their heads as well.

"I saw m' name written on the wall, like this an' this," he said, drawing his finger in the air horizontally and vertically.  "They cross at the first 'N.'"

Josiah frowned.

"What is it?" Chris asked him.

"In my Ancient Runes and Other Forms of Magical Writing class, we were talking about how magical writing is sometimes used as a lock to seal things like a chest, or—"

"—a cell door!" JD cried.

Josiah nodded.  "But the writing is specific to the one who's casting the spell, or writing it out…"

"What do you mean?" Nathan wanted to know.

"Well," Josiah said, leaning forward over the table, "if Vin saw his name written twice on the wall, and that's the lock to Benley's cell, then they were probably written by his mom and dad," he said.  "Why else would it be Tanner and Tanner?  If the teachers did it, it should be their names."

Vin felt his stomach drop.  "Y' mean they did kill 'im?"

Josiah shrugged.  "I don't know, Vin, but it sounds to me like they were the ones who locked him in there.  Maybe he was already dead, and they locked up his ghost.  Ghosts can be really dangerous."

"That sounds like what someone in the Order of the Phoenix would do," Chris stated, nodding.  He reached out to squeeze the back of Vin's neck.

"So why aren't we telling Professor Wells about this?" Nathan asked, still thinking that might be a good idea.

Chris looked the boy in the eye and said, "I don't want everybody to know about Vin's gift.  It might come in real handy."

Nathan frowned, but he couldn't argue with Chris' logic.  A gift like that might come in handy, and every student on campus ended up trying to outwit the rules, or the professors, at some point.  The Seven were no exception.

"There's more research I can do," Josiah said.  "I need to get into the official school records, but I'll have to wait until I have something that I need to add to them before I can do that.  I don't think Professor Dubonnet will let me in there otherwise."

The tone the older boy used when he said the woman's name had them all grinning slightly.  They were all well aware of his crush on the older woman.

Chris nodded and thought for a moment.  "Okay, here's what we'll do.  We'll wait to see what Josiah can find," he said, then he glanced around at the others.  "Until then, no one goes to see the ghost."  He met Vin's eyes.  "Especially you, Vin.  If your parents locked him up, he might try to hurt you."

"Okay," Vin agreed.  "I don't like 'im much anyway."

Chris glanced at the others adding, "And we keep Vin's gift a secret, agreed?"

They all nodded in agreement; they had a secret weapon.

"Good," Chris said.  "Once we get this figured out, we'll go tell Professor Wells."

Nathan smiled.  "Thanks."

Chris nodded.  "That ghost's been in there for a while, it won't hurt to leave him there a little longer."

Monday, September 28, 1998

By the time the accident happened in his Broom Handling class, Vin knew something was wrong.  All day things had been happening, bad things, and he wasn't sure why.

Some of the plants they had been working on in Herbology had withered and died.  And spells they were practicing in second period had ended up firing off in weird directions.  It got so bad for a while that Vin had thought Eli and Nicky were trying to attack him, but it was like everyone's wands were acting up, even his own.

Things had been relatively quiet in Transfiguration, but Oscar Medina accidentally turned Maya Apple's backpack into a river toad.  And no one's potions turned out right in Potions class.  Professor Conklin had threatened to fail all of them all if they didn't do better the next day.

Defense was his only class where nothing out of the ordinary had happened.  And even the magical creatures at the barn had seemed on edge during class.  Vin wished Lightwing had been there.  He was sure the pegasus would have been able to determine what was going on.

But it was the accident in Broom Handling that had left a lot of students on edge.  Hioshi Sako had been practicing loops when his broom had stalled and he'd fallen to the ground, breaking an arm and a leg.  Professor Chanu had immediately rushed him off to the infirmary, and Hank had wrapped up the class for him.

As a result of the unusual events of the day, Vin was subdued at club, and even dinner was a quieter affair than usual.

When they all settled in to do their homework, Vin quickly finished and then glanced around at the others before asking, "Did it seem like today was… strange t' ya?" he asked.

"There were a lot of accidents in my classes," Ezra agreed, nodding.  "Usually near me, I might add, and it did seem odd, to say the least."

"In ours, too," Buck said, then grinned and wagged his eyebrows.  "Amanda Lynn's bra ended up on the outside of her sweater."

Josiah shook his head.  "I'd say it was normal as far as I could tell.  What else happened?"

The younger boys starting listing off stuff and Josiah's eyes rounded.  "Wow, that definitely sounds strange all right."

"Maybe it's a full moon," Buck offered.

Nathan pulled out a moon chart and checked it.  "Nope, not for another eight days."

"I guess it could just be a fluke.  Hopefully tomorrow everything will be back to normal," Josiah offered.

The younger boys all nodded, but Chris didn't look all that convinced.  Like Ezra and Vin, he'd felt that some of the strangeness had been directed at him.

Closing their books, the boys headed off to get ready for bed.  Vin lagged back and Chris dropped back to join him.

Vin looked at Chris and whispered, "Did y' feel like it was after ya?"

"Not at the time, but now I am."

Vin nodded.  "You, Ezra, an' me…"

"The three of us Benley saw," Chris said and nodded.  "Maybe he's doing some magic."

"Can we stop 'im?"

"I don't think so.  If it is him.  He's locked up.  If he could do magic, he probably would have before now.  Josiah's probably right.  It's just a fluke."

"I hope so," Vin replied, but he wasn't really convinced.  He just hoped the older boy was right.

Thursday, October 1, 1998

By the time Thursday rolled around, it was clear that everyone at the Academy knew something was afoot, even the professors and the staff.  Headmaster Travis even made an announcement stating that if the students responsible for the recent pranks and accidents were caught, they could be expelled.

That had Vin sliding lower in his seat, and he knew he couldn't keep his worry to himself any longer.  Leaning over closer to Chris he said quietly, "What if it is the ghost?"

Chris frowned.  "But he's locked up.  He couldn't do all this stuff."

It was Vin's turn to frown.  "Maybe we better go check an' see."

The blond thought for a moment, then he nodded.  "Okay.  I'll tell Josiah; he can meet you there right before club, okay?"

Vin nodded, looking a little relieved.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The day passed like the rest of the week had, with accidents and weird reactions in most of his classes, except Defense Against the Dark Arts.  As soon as his last class was over, he raced to the Defense building and waited for Josiah, who arrived just a couple of minutes after Vin had.

Vin walked straight over to the lock and ran his finger over the two Tanners, and the cell window appeared.  He and Josiah both peered into the tiny space, but there was nothing there.

"Oh-oh," Josiah said quietly.

"Yeah," Vin agreed.  "Now what d' we do, J'siah?"

The older boy thought for a moment.  "Well, if Benley managed to escape, he could probably do all the stuff that's been happening…  I guess we need to find him, and put him back in his cell."


"There's a defensive spell to help locate ghosts," he replied, thinking.  "We'll tell the others at dinner, maybe brainstorm a plan.  Now, get to club so you won't be missed.  We don't need the professors thinking we're involved in these pranks."

"But we are, aren't we?"

Josiah looked a little sheepish as he replied, "In a way, I guess.  But you didn't let him out, so it's not your fault if he freed himself."

Vin sighed softly, unconvinced, but he nodded and hurried off to Critter Club.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

After the club meeting Vin helped Tiny get the two griffin cubs back into their stall.  As they closed the stall door, the big man suddenly froze.  Vin looked up at him and saw the man's face pale.

"Mr. Tiny?" he asked nervously.

"Vin, just stay completely still, okay?"

The small boy froze where he was, too afraid to look around for whatever had frightened the burly man.  He tried not to breathe, too, but he couldn't stop himself from jumping slightly when he felt something land on his shoulder.  Squeezing his eyes shut, he stood as still as stone as he felt whatever it was crawling down his arm to his wrist.  He trembled.

"Well, I'll be…" Tiny breathed.  "Uh, Vin, you can open your eyes."

Vin did so, peering at his wrist.  "Is that—?"

"It sure is," Tiny replied, then chuckled.  "I haven't seen him since—"

Vin looked up and met the man's eyes.  "What, Mr. Tiny?"

"Since your mother was a student," he said quietly.  "I haven't seen him since the last day of her fifth year…"

tiny dragon perched on fingertipsVin stared at the tiny dragon that was now sitting on the tips of his fingers, staring back at him, tiny trails of smoke rising from his nostrils.

"Vin, in our world wizards and witches often have what we call a familiar – an animal companion, who can enhance our magic.  Ol' Kaneonuskatew there, he was your mother's familiar."

"Kaw-nay-what?" Vin asked.

"Kaw-nay-on-oo-ska-tew," Tiny pronounced carefully.  "She called him Kane for short, and so did everyone else.  His name's Cree, which is one of the Indian Tribes.  It means 'one that walks on four claws.'"

"Cool," Vin said a little breathily.  He studied the tiny dragon and asked, "Can we call you Kane, too?"

The dragon nodded and smiled slightly, then lifted up off Vin's fingers, flying back to his shoulder and settling there.

Tiny chuckled.  "Well, it looks like he's back.  You don't have to worry about feeding him, or keeping track of him.  Once he's adopted you as a familiar, he'll come and go as he pleases, but if you ever have need of him, just call his name, okay?"

Vin nodded, looking down at the dragon, who was stretched out on his shoulder, looking like he was ready for a nap.

"Oh, but keep an eye on his nest when he picks one, okay?" Tiny told him.  "He has a tendency to accumulate small, shiny things… and not all of them will belong to him, if you catch my meaning."

Vin nodded.  "I'll keep watch."

Kane snorted tiny smoke rings, looking slightly annoyed that Tiny had revealed one of his secrets, but Vin was glad.  He didn't want to end up in trouble because his familiar was stealing things from other students.

"Can I take him to class?" Vin asked.

"A student's familiar can accompany a student anywhere he or she goes," Tiny explained.

"Cool," Vin replied.

"Now, you better get going or you'll be late for dinner," Tiny told him.

"Okay!  Hold on, Kane," Vin said, then headed out of the barn at a run.  He couldn't wait to show the others his new familiar.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin ran all the way to the great hall, then walked to their usual table as normally as possible.  He sat down and glanced around, but everyone was already staring at his shoulder.  He grinned.

"Is that—?" Nathan started to ask.

"Yep," Vin replied, still grinning.

"Where'd—?" Buck started.

"At the barn," Vin told him.  "Mr. Tiny says he was m' mama's familiar, an' now he's mine!"

"What's his—?" JD tried.

"Kaw-nay-on-oo-ska-tew," Vin said.  "It's Cree.  It means 'one that walks on four claws.'  Isn't that cool?"

"Kaw-nay-what?" Ezra asked.

"It's okay to just call him Kane," Vin replied, then repeated it, "Kaw-nay."

The others practiced their pronunciations until Vin had decided they were saying it correctly, then he grinned.  "He's a real dragon."

"A really small dragon," Buck clarified, and Kane huffed out a pair of smoke rings at him.

"I don't think he liked that," Nathan warned the younger boy.

"Well, it's true," Buck defended.  "He is kind 'a small for a dragon, but he's still pretty cool."

That put a slant-eyed, self-satisfied expression on the tiny dragon's face.

"My mom had a black cat as a familiar," Buck added.

"Mine, too!" JD chirped.  "When will I get one?"

"They come to you when they're ready," Josiah told them.  "It often happens in your fourth or fifth year."

Vin frowned.  "How come Kane came to me now, then?"

Josiah shrugged.  "I don't know.  Ask Professor Wells; she can speak Dragon-tongue, and she can ask him."

Vin's eyes rounded.  "She can talk t' dragons?"

Josiah nodded.

"Wow," was all the younger boy replied, then Josiah cast a circle of silence and he and Vin told the others about Benley having escaped his cell.

Chris' face went slightly pale.  "Damn," he breathed.

"Yeah," Buck agreed.

Nathan looked at Josiah and asked, "Do you think that's why all these things have been happening on campus?"

Josiah thought for a moment, then nodded.  "Nothing else makes a lot of sense."

"We better tell Professor Wells, or Ko-Jay," JD said.

"Let's make sure it's Benley," Chris said, "and if it is, then we'll have to tell them."

The others nodded their agreement.

Chris looked at Josiah.  "Can you make us all ghost-detectors?"

He nodded.  "I just need to get some of the magnifying glasses from the Magical Writing classroom.  I'll do that during study period."

"Why can't we see 'im?" Vin asked.  "We could see 'im in his cell."

"That's probably a property of the cell," Josiah explained.  "If you put someone, or something in a cell, you want to be able to see that he's there.  But once he's free, a ghost can decide to make himself visible, but they're normally pretty much invisible.  That why we need the ghost detectors."

"And if any one sees Benley doing anything, we'll report him," Chris said, then added, "And hope they don't get too mad at us for not telling them about him sooner."

"If it's the ghost," JD said.

"What else could it be?" Ezra asked.  "The timing is highly suspicious, don't you think?"

There wasn't a good answer to that, so no one said anything.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Josiah left the others in their usual spot on the patio and headed off to the Main Classroom Building.  He was back in less than half an hour.

He laid seven small magnifying glasses out in a row, then drew his wand and pointed it at them, saying, "Aperio Inferi."  The circular glasses all glowed for a moment, then looked just the same as they had before the spell had been cast.

Josiah handed one of the magnifying glasses to each of the others, keeping one for himself.

"How does it work?" JD asked, looking through his, one eye squeezed tightly shut.

"They won't make things look bigger now," Josiah told him, "but if you're looking through it and a ghost is there, you'll see the outline of the ghost."

"Might I suggest you transfigure these into eye glasses?" Ezra suggested.  "They won't affect our vision, but it will be easier to scan for the ghost – without looking like we're doing an imitation of Sherlock Holmes."

"Won't everybody wonder why we're all suddenly wearin' glasses?" Buck asked.

"We tell them we're doing it to make Vin feel better about needing to wear his in class," Ezra said, looking rather pleased with himself for coming up with the story.

"That's a good idea," Buck said, nodding.

Josiah had them lay their magnifying glasses down, except for Vin, who needed his eye glasses to read.  He pointed his wand at them and said, "Visum Emendo."

The six magnifying glasses changed into six pairs of eye glasses, and the boys put them on.  Vin used his magnifying glass.  Ezra had been right, they had no effect on their vision, but now they would be able to see if a ghost was around.

"There!" JD said, pointing.

The others looked just in time to see Benley tip over one of the potted plants, which crashed to the floor of the patio and shattered.

Another student who was sitting close by pointed his wand at the broken container and said, "Restituo," and it repaired itself on the spot.

"Well, at least we know they work," Nathan said with a sigh.

"And we also know Benley is behind the pranks," Josiah said.

"When do we tell 'em?" Buck moaned.

"Tomorrow, at breakfast," Chris decided, shaking his head.  "Nothing's been happening at night, so we can wait 'til then."  Besides, he had a bad feeling about how the teachers were going to take the news, and he wasn't in any hurry to tell them.  But he also knew they couldn't let anyone else get hurt.  Still, he had a bad feeling detention was in their futures.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin hurried through his nightly bedtime rituals, wanting a chance to read another chapter in his borrowed book.  He and Ezra were sharing one sink, both of them brushing their teeth

Vin shot Ezra a grin when he finished and spat into the sink first, then watched in shocked horror as the older boy pitched forward, striking his face on the edge of the sink.  Blood exploded from his nose and Ezra slipped to the bathroom floor, unconscious.

Kane, who was still on Vin's shoulder, unfurled his wings and hissed, peering at something Vin couldn't see.

Benley, Vin knew.

A moment later chaos erupted as some boys crowded around to see Ezra, while others fled the room.  Before a minute had passed Hank Connolly was there, picking Ezra up and carrying him out.

"Put me down at once!" Ezra exclaimed.  "I slipped!"

"Where y' takin' 'im!" Vin demanded.

"The infirmary," Hank replied.  "Everyone else, stay here!" he commanded.  "Year leaders, see that everyone is in bed on time!"

Chris was at Vin's side when he looked, the blond frowning after Hank and Ezra.  "What happened?"

"I think Benley pushed Ezra an' he hit his face on the sink.  There was lots 'a blood," Vin told him.

"Think he broke his nose," Nathan offered.  "But Dr. Kringle will be able to fix that right up."

"He'll be okay?" Vin asked the older boy.

Nathan nodded.  "Good as new by morning, you'll see."

"Everyone get finished and get in bed," Josiah called, the boys' year four leader.

"You heard him!" Chris added.  He was the year three leader.

The boys began to disperse.

Vin followed Chris out into the sleeping bay, trailing him over to their beds.  He glanced guiltily at Ezra's empty bed as he climbed into his own.  Looking down at Kane, he said, "Thanks.  I think ya scared Benley away."

The tiny dragon's chest puffed out and spirals of smoke drifted up from his nostrils.

"Where are ya gonna sleep, Kane?" Vin asked him.

The tiny dragon glanced around, then leaped off Vin's shoulder and flew up to one of the bed posts at the foot of Vin's bed.  He landed on the wooden circle that topped the post and settled there, his tail wrapped around him, his wings folded carefully.  He looked back down at Vin.

"G'night, Kane," Vin said.

The tiny dragon dipped its head in a reply.

Once the lights went off Vin lay in the darkness for several minutes, then he sighed softly and silently climbed out of bed.  He made his way down the bay to the opposite end, where Ko-Jay had a small apartment.  As the dorm elder he spent most of his nights at the Aerie, as did Ms. Nettie, but her apartment was on the second floor.

Vin hesitated for a long moment, then knocked softly on the door.  A moment later it opened and Ko-Jay looked down at him and smiled.  "A little late for a visit, isn't it?"

Vin nodded.  "'M sorry, but I need t' talk t' ya… an' Ms. Nettie, too."

Ko-Jay nodded, seeing the seriousness of the boy's expression.  "Come in, Vin."

Vin entered the apartment, which was small, but it felt comfortable and safe and he relaxed a little.

The older man led him over to a sofa, which was positioned near a small fireplace, and he climbed up onto it and settled in the corner.  Ko-Jay wrapped a light blanket around him, then set a teapot on to boil before he picked up what looked like a grapefruit-sized crystal ball and said to it, "Sorry to disturb you, Nettie, but can you come down here for a bit?  Vin Tanner needs to speak to us."

"I'll be there momentarily," Vin heard her reply.

Ko-Jay set the round crystal back into its holder and poured three cups of tea.

A moment later, Ms. Nettie appeared out of thin air in the apartment.  "Evening, Ko-Jay, Vin," she greeted, then walked over to sit down on the sofa as well.

Ko-Jay picked the comfortable chair next to the fire once he had handed Nettie and Vin their teacups.

Vin sipped on his and tried not to look at either of the two professors.  He just knew this was going to get him expelled, but he really didn't want any of the others getting in trouble, too.

"Vin?" Nettie said gently.

The boy sighed heavily and reached out to set his teacup on the small coffee table in front of the sofa.  Settling back into the corner, he pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders and said, "I think I did somethin' bad."

"And what would that be?" Ms. Nettie asked him, her tone and expression neutral.

"I think I let a bad ghost out 'a his jail."

Nettie and Ko-Jay exchanged looks, but they didn't say anything more until it appeared that Vin was finished talking.

"Why don't you start at the beginning?" Ko-Jay suggested.  "That's usually the best place."

Vin nodded and told them everything – how he had seen his name on the wall of the Defense building…  How he'd seen the ghost, and what the ghost had said about his parents…  How he'd gone back to talk to the ghost other times, and that he was sure the ghost was responsible for all the weird things that had been happening, including the students getting hurt, like Ezra.  But he didn't tell them anything about the others, or their involvement, hoping that they might be spared any punishment.

"I'm sorry," Vin finished.  "I don't know how he got out…  I just wanted t' know about m' mama an' daddy."  He sniffled and wiped his eyes.

"Vin, tell us again how you saw your name on the Defense building," Ko-Jay said.

"I's just walkin', an' I saw m' name written there like this…"  He drew his finger in the air, horizontal to the floor.  "…an' this…"  He drew his finger vertically.  "They touch at the first 'N.'"

"And you can see this?" Ms. Nettie asked, peering at him.

Vin nodded.

"Vin, can you see other things the rest of the students can't?" Ko-Jay asked.

Vin hated to admit it – he'd promised Chris he wouldn't – but he just couldn't lie to Ms. Nettie and Professor Ko-Jay.  He nodded.  "Can hear things, too… like music from m' pillow."

Nettie reached up and wiped her mouth with a napkin to hide her smile.  "Ah… and that was why you took your pillow out to the barn and left it there?"

Vin's eyes rounded with surprise.  "Y' know about that?"

She nodded.

He quickly looked away.  "It was wakin' me up at night, an' I's gettin' really, really tired…  I didn't mean t' make any 'a the animals sick!"

"We know, Vin," Ko-Jay said with a small smile.  "And the animals are all fine."

The two adults exchanged looks again, and Ko-Jay leaned back in his chair as Nettie leaned toward Vin, saying, "You have a very special gift, son.  You can hear and see magic."

"Is that bad?" he asked, his breath catching in his lungs.

"No," Nettie replied, "but it does make things more… complicated for you, and for us."

Vin's heart began to race and he held his breath, waiting for her to tell him he was going to have to leave the Academy.  Tears began to well up in his eyes at the thought of leaving Chris and the others behind.

"Your mother had a similar gift," Ms. Nettie told him.

"She did?" Vin asked.  That wasn't at all what he'd expected to hear.

Nettie nodded.  "She was able to see curses, but just curses."

"The other members of your… team, they know about this, too, don't they," Ko-Jay stated rather than asked.

Vin opened his mouth to deny it, but he couldn't.  He sighed heavily and nodded, staring down into his lap.

Ko-Jay looked over at Nettie, who nodded.  They might as well bring in the other boys in on this meeting, because, one way or another, they were going to hear about what they needed to tell Vin.

Ko-Jay stood and left, returning a couple minutes later with the other five boys, all of whom looked as nervous as Vin felt.

Chris shot Vin a quick glare – upset that Vin had gone to the professors without him – but Vin's fearful expression immediately softened the blond's reaction and he nodded, looking sorry for his initial angry reaction.

"Have a seat, boys," Ko-Jay instructed and they all sat down on the floor in front of the fireplace, except for Chris, who sat down next to Vin on the sofa.

Kane, who had flown in behind the boys, settled on the back of the sofa near Vin's shoulder.

Nettie looked the boys over and told them, "What you hear in this room must stay in this room, understood?"

They all nodded.

She leaned back, deciding to let Ko-Jay tell the story; his deep, rich voice would pull them all in immediately.

He nodded that he understood and leaned forward in his chair, saying, "Katherine Olivia Tanner came from a long line of talented witches on her mother's side of the family.  In fact, one of her ancestors helped found the Salem Witches Institute.  But her mother fell in love with a Mundane, and they eventually married.

"Katie-O, as they called her, was their only child, and she quickly demonstrated that she was going to be a powerful witch, just like her mother.

"So, when she was eleven, Katie came to school here.  She was a very good student, too, who loved being around the plants and animals, and helping in the infirmary.  Potions was her favorite class."

JD wrinkled his nose at that news, and Vin looked a little horrified, but neither of them said anything.

The older man leaned forward a little more and smiled at Vin.  "You have many of her best qualities, Vin."

The boy blushed and snuggled closer to Chris, who wrapped his arm around his 'little brother.'

"In her fourth year, when she and the other students started to learn about the more dangerous curses, Katie realized that she could see things the other students could not.  She didn't tell anyone about it, but she also discovered that she was able to do counter-curses better than anyone else in her class."

"She was a very talented young witch," Ms. Nettie added, nodding.

"Then, in her fifth year, three exchange students arrived from Hogwarts, in England.  Michael Tanner, your father," Ko-Jay said to Vin, "George Madison, and Benley Gaunt."

"That's the ghost," Vin said quietly.

Ko-Jay nodded.  "We know.  Whenever odd things begin to happen around here, the professors immediately look into it.  Several professors saw the ghost, and some of us recognized him."

"I'm guessing that you all know some of this story as well," Ms. Nettie said, glancing around at the boys.

Josiah nodded, looking a little guilty.  "I found out a lot at the library…"

"Well, I'll wager that you didn't find out that Katie could see that Michael and George were both cursed with one of the Unforgiveable Curses – the Imperius Curse, which places the cursed individual under the will of the curse-caster," Nettie told them.

Josiah and the others shook their heads.

"Voldemort had decided to use the three boys to sow the seeds of dissention here at Horsefeathers," Ko-Jay told them.  "Benley had volunteered, his family being supporters of the Dark Lord, but Michael and George had to be cursed in order to ensure that they carried out Voldemort's orders."

"What's 'dissention'?" JD asked.

"They were supposed to bring the Dark Lord's ideas to our campus.  He believed many things that we do not agree with," Ko-Jay clarified.  "But Katie recognized the curse from her Defense Against the Dark Arts class, and being a skilled counter-curse caster, she lifted the curse from both Michael and George.

"She, Michael, and George then secretly tried to keep Benley from spreading Voldemort's ideas to the other students.  And they were successful.  Benley eventually realized that the curse had been lifted."

"And he killed 'em!" JD cut in excitedly, caught up in the story.

"Mr. Dunne, you will sit quietly and listen, do you understand?" Professor Wells scolded him.

"Yes, ma'am," JD whispered, looking properly chastised.

"Benley planned to re-curse both of his classmates, and he did manage to put George under the Imperius Curse once more.  And when he did, he ordered George to kill Michael."

"Benley's a bad boy!" JD stated emphatically, earning himself another glower from Professor Wells.  "Sorry," he squeaked.

"But Katie's gift allowed her to see that George had been cursed again.  She lifted the curse a second time, but this time Benley was hiding nearby, and he saw her do it.  Realizing that his mission was lost, and knowing what Voldemort did to those who failed him, Benley panicked and cast the Killing Curse at Katie and Michael."

JD gasped and the other boys' eyes rounded.  They had all heard about the Killing Curse, and they all knew that Nathan's father was in prison for having used it against the dark wizard who had killed his mother.

"George, freed of the curse once more, leaped in front of Katie and Michael, and was killed instantly," Ko-Jay told them.  "Michael and Katie ran for their lives, but they had the wherewithal to set a trap for Benley."

"The cell in the wall," Chris said, knowing he was right.

"Yes," Ko-Jay replied, nodding.  Chris was a natural strategist.  "Michael, as it turned out, was a very advanced fifth year student.  His family had been fighting against Voldemort in England, and he had learned a number of advanced spells, charms, and curses from them.  He was also rather quick with a wand, and accurate – like you are, Chris."

The blond nodded, thinking that he would have probably liked Michael Tanner a great deal.

"They lured Benley to the back of the Defense building, where they had prepared the cell for him, but he sensed it was a trap, and he once again tried to use the Killing Curse, this time against Katie, whom he blamed for his mission failing.  This time it was Michael who took the blow, because he was in love with her, and because he knew that she was already pregnant with his child.

"But, being as fast as he was with his wand, Michael unleashed a Killing Curse of his own before Benley's reached him.  They both died right there."

"Then how'd his ghost end up in the cell?" Buck asked, then shot Professor Wells an apologetic look.  "Sorry.  Listening."

Ko-Jay shook his head sadly.  "We don't know how Katie managed to trap Benley's ghost, but somehow she did.  And that cell could not have been opened by anyone on campus… except Vin."

"Why?" JD asked, then slapped his hands over his mouth.

"How?" Vin nearly wailed.  He didn't want to think that everything that had gone wrong had been his fault.

"Because, Vin, you carry part of Katie and part of Michael inside you as their son.  You are the only one who could activate the lock to let Benley out, or lock him back in again."

"But he's just a first year!" Chris argued, suddenly feeling very afraid for Vin.  "He can't trap a ghost!"

"Now that we know what's happening, we'll be able to use a variety of magic to find and capture Benley Gaunt," Ms. Nettie told them.  "Vin won't be in any danger."

"Yes, he will," Chris challenged, no apology in his eyes.  "Benley knows who killed him, and he knows who locked him up, too.  He'll want to kill Vin.  I would, if I was him."

Nettie hesitated for a moment, looking as if she might scold Chris for his attitude, but then she nodded.  "You could be right," she replied.  "But we won't let anything happen to him."

"Why didn't m' mama come back t' school?" Vin asked the two adults.

"We don't know," Ms. Nettie told him.  "Later that year she told me what had happened, and that she was pregnant.  We talked about her coming back anyway, but by the time she left at the end of that year, her mother had been killed fighting dark wizards, and her father didn't want anything more to do with magic.  I have a hunch that they fought over the summer, and she ran away, but I'm surprised she didn't come back here.  She knew she could've stayed with me, or with Gloria Potter," Ms. Nettie said sadly.  "I looked for her, but she was smart, and she didn't want to be found."

"Grandpa never said nothin' 'bout magic," Vin told her.

She nodded.  "I'm not surprised.  He knew magic was responsible for his wife's death, and his daughter had gotten pregnant while at a school for wizards and witches.  I'm just glad you were sent your letter, or we might never have found you."

Vin crawled over Chris' lap and into Ms. Nettie's arms.  She gave him a tight hug, saying, "I'm so sorry this happened so soon, Vin, but given your gift I suppose it was inevitable.  But we will protect you, all of the professors and staff, I promise you that."

Vin nodded.  "Okay," he said, knowing that he could trust her.

"We will, too," Chris stated.

And both adults knew better than to tell him otherwise.

Kane, who had listened to the whole story looked sad as well, missing the young girl he had befriended so many years ago.  He turned his gaze on Vin and sighed, sending tiny heart-shaped smoke rings into the air.  He would protect her son for her, and when the time was right, he would act, just as he had that cold Halloween night, years ago.

As the boys stood, Chris glanced over at Professor Wells and asked, "How much detention will we have to do?"

She glanced at Ko-Jay, then replied, "I don't believe detention is called for… this time.  However, if any of you run into something unusual in the future, and fail to tell a teacher, then there will be detention.  Understood?"

"Yes, ma'am," they call chorused.

She nodded.  "I trust you will remember that.  Now, all of you, back to bed."

"Yes, ma'am," they said again, quickly leaving, except for Vin, who hung back until they were all gone, then said, "They was just tryin' t' help me."

"We know, Vin," Jo-Jay told him.  "We just want to be sure everyone here is safe."

Vin nodded that he understood.  Then he gave each of the adults a quick hug and hurried off to bed.

Nettie and Ko-Jay watched him go.

"They are going to be a handful," Ko-Jay said sagely.

"They already are," Nettie told him.  "But when I see them together like that, I know our future is in good hands."

Ko-Jay nodded and chuckled softly.

Friday, October 2, 1998

The weekly staff meeting started out with a bang.  "Vin Tanner can hear and see magic," Nettie announced matter-of-factly.

Her words were met with stunned silence for a long moment, then everyone seemed to be talking at the same time.

Headmaster Travis loudly cleared his throat and the rest of the teachers and staff members quickly fell silent.  "While this is an unusual talent, and one this Academy hasn't seen in many, many years, it does not come as a huge surprise, given his mother's gift of seeing curses."

"It gives him an unfair advantage over the other students, that's what it does," Conklin grumbled, his expression pinched with dislike for the boy.

"Over time that might prove to be true," Travis agreed, "but it will be several years before that might be the case."

"The real question is what are we going to do about the ghost," Raphael stated.

"Yes, that is the primary question," Travis replied, nodding.  "A new cell will have to be created."  He looked at the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and added, "I trust you will be able to have that ready today?"

Raphael nodded.

Travis nodded.  "Good.  Dorm elders and matrons will need to place wards on all dorm buildings, to keep the ghost out.  Francis, would you please do the same for the Main Classroom Building and the great hall?"

"Of course," the man replied.

"The rest of you will ward your work and chore areas as well," Travis said.  "I have already made it impossible for the ghost to leave the grounds of the Academy so the village and Four Corners will be safe."

"Trapping him on the grounds isn't going to stop the attacks," Conklin whined.  "In fact, it might make him more likely to attack."

"No, it won't stop the attacks, but it will limit the damage he can do until he's caught," Travis replied.

"My summary of transfigurations on campus told me that Josiah Sanchez had created eye glasses that will allow Chris' gang to see the ghost as well," Travis' assistant, Opa Locka Begay, stated.  "It was rather an ingenious plan, if I do say so myself."

"Isn't there any way we can keep them from hunting this ghost?" Emma Dubonnet asked.  "I'd hate to see any of them get hurt…"

"I doubt you'll get them to play it safe," Chanu said, glancing over at his father.

Ko-Jay shook his head.  "No, they will not play it safe.  Vin is feeling responsible, and Chris is determined to protect Vin.  They will find the ghost, or the ghost will find them – and Vin in particular."

"Then we'll just have to keep a careful eye on all of them," Francis stated.

"Yes, we will," Travis agreed.

"Now that Kane has returned, that should help," Tiny added.  "He won't allow anything to happen to Vin, you can be sure of that."

"That little sneak-thief is nothing but trouble himself," Conklin grumbled.

"Tastanagi," Travis said, addressing the Divination professor, "do you have anything to tell us?"

The older Native American man shook his head.  "Events are too much in flux at the moment.  But the danger posed by the ghost is real, and it is on the rise."

"The sooner this ghost is apprehended, the better," Walter Brice, the Arithmancy professor stated emphatically.

"I couldn't agree more," Travis told him.  "Eban, Imala, do either of you have something to add?"

"Only that the ghost's power will be at its greatest at Halloween, therefore, we must capture it before the new moon on the nineteenth, and it would be best if we could do so during the full Hunter's Moon, when our magic will be at its peak," Imala replied.  He was the professor of the Astronomy, Astrology & Magic classes.

"When is the full moon?" David Nichols, professor for the History and Theory of Magic classes, asked.

"Tuesday, so Monday through Wednesday of next week is our best time," Imala told him.

"That doesn't leave us much time," Yosemite said worriedly.

"No, it doesn't," Travis agreed.  "I suggest we make this a short meeting and we all get to work catching this ghost."

The others murmured their agreement as they stood, each heading off to cast the wards they needed to before dinner.

Sunday, October 4, 1998

Ghostly activity fell off to nearly nothing over the course of Friday and Saturday, so Travis and the professors decided to go ahead with the two Hoops games planned for Sunday.

The boys, determined to keep Vin safe, made sure that he was ringed by the rest of the Seven who weren't playing, as well as several of the girls, as they sat in the stands to watch the game.  Josiah and Mary were at Vin's back, JD and Casey sitting to his left, and Ezra and Li-Pong to his right.  Nathan and Hannah were positioned right in front of him.  All of the boys had their ghost-detection glasses on, and Vin had his magnifying glass.

Ezra looked normal once again, his broken nose already healed before he'd gone to class on Friday morning, but there had been a some residual bruising and puffiness that had lasted to Saturday evening.

Hawks Gild was playing Salmons Gild this week, and Ezra found himself a little torn over who to root for.  Li-Pong was in Salmons Gild, and he didn't want to insult her by cheering on his friends, but she didn't seem to mind when they all rooted for Hawks Gild; she cheered on her own team, too.

Friday evening Josiah had made sure that Ezra was brought up to speed on what they had learned from Ko-Jay and Ms. Nettie on Thursday night, and the second year had been grateful to be included.  It also gave them a chance to talk over what they'd heard, even though it hadn't really helped them to come up with a plan to recapture the ghost.

The first twenty minutes of the Hoops game was a low-scoring affair, then Buck managed to get the quaffle past the Salmons Gild Keeper, scoring the first ten points of the game.  Chris passed him the quaffle again, and Buck pulled off a loop with a half twist and scored a second time almost immediately.

The Hawks Gild students went wild, cheering and clapping.  Buck gave them a jaunty wave, then streaked off to continued the game.  Salmons Gild scored twice, then Rain scored, followed by Chris, putting them ahead by twenty points.

Vin glanced up into the sky, watching Inez as she searched for the snitch.  He saw one of the Hawks Gild Beaters chasing a bludger, and realized that the small, hard ball seemed to be acting rather oddly.  He lifted his enchanted magnifying glass to check it out.

"Look!" he yelled, pointing at the bludger as it suddenly circled the Beater, then dove, heading straight for Chris.  Benley was sitting on the ball, his legs spread wide, his arms out for balance, and apparently laughing hysterically.

Vin knew Chris couldn't see the bludger coming, because he was racing along, passing the ball between Rain and Buck as they bore down on the Salmons Gild hoops for another score.

"Chris!" Vin yelled, but there was no way the blond could hear him over the roar of the crowd.

Chris passed the ball to Rain, who passed it to Buck.  Buck passed it back to Rain, who passed it back to Chris as he streaked past Buck.  The dark-haired boy did a tight roll, drawing the Keeper's attention and allowing Chris to race past an unguarded hoop and score.

Chris started to turn to go after one of the Salmons Gild chasers, but the bludger with Benley onboard struck him square in the back, Benley apparently sailing right through the blond's body at the same time.  The force of the ball, the ghost, or both, knocked Chris right off his broom.  He fell to the ground and lay unmoving.

Benley was nowhere to be seen.

Whistles sounded and Chanu and Opa Locka, the Salmons Gild Hoops coach – as well as Headmaster Travis' administrative assistant – ran out onto the field to check on Chris.  A moment later, Chanu pulled out his wand and cast a spell on Chris, then he picked the boy up, jumped onto his broom, and streaked off toward the infirmary.

"Oh boy, I hope Chris is okay," Nathan said.  "I have to go fill in!"  He scrambled out to the aisle and hurried down the stairs.  When he reached the field he took Chris' broom from Buck, who was looking more than a little worried.  Hank used his wand to put Nathan in a Hawks Gild uniform, then the boy mounted the broom and they were off again with the game.

"I'm goin' t' the infirmary," Vin said, standing.

"Vin, wait; we'll go with you," Josiah called, then looked down at the girls and said, "You guys stay here and watch the game."

Vin was already to the stairs and headed down when Josiah, Ezra, and JD hurried after him, but they never quite caught up to him until they reached the infirmary, where Vin burst through the door, looking wildly around for his 'big brother.'

"Chris!" he cried when he saw the older boy lying on one of the beds.  He bolted over, but Chanu caught him before he jumped up onto the bed.  "Whoa, Vin, you need to let the doctor help Chris, okay?"

"Is he okay?  It was the ghost!  He was ridin' the bludger!  He made it hit Chris!  He went right through 'im!"

Dr. Kringle looked up, frowning.  "Well now, that might explain it…"

"Explain what?" Ezra asked; he and the other boys were standing near the foot of Chris' bed.

"Why he isn't waking up," Gloria Potter told them.

"Why isn't he waking up?" JD demanded, looking like he might start to cry at any moment.  Ezra stepped closer and rested his hand on the younger boy's shoulder and JD gave him a grateful look.

"Ghost sickness," Chanu told them.

"Is he gonna be okay?" Vin asked, looking up at Chanu, his expression desperate.

"I hope so," the young man replied.

Vin started shaking, but he pulled out of Chanu's grasp and made it to the side of the bed.  Reaching out, he took one of Chris' hands in his and gave it a hard squeeze.  "Chris," he said, "ya gotta wake up… please."

Then, looking down at the hand he was holding, Vin realized that the stones in the blond's bracelet were ablaze with color.  He glanced around at the others, but no one else seemed to notice it, so he knew it was some kind of magic.

Vin studied the stones.  They looked like a tiny, bright rainbow of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple, and Vin quickly found himself staring into those colors, mesmerized by them.  After a few seconds he was sure he could see faces whirling in the colors as well.  He wanted to talk to them, wanted to know what was going on.  And, a moment later, he slumped to the floor, unconscious, just like Chris was.

Gloria Potter gasped and Chanu cursed as Kane, who had been riding on Vin's shoulder beat his wings to keep from falling to the floor with the boy.  He made his way over and settled on the pillow near Chris' head while Chanu lifted Vin up and laid him down next to Chris.

"Vin!" JD cried.

"What happened?" Josiah asked the adults.

"I have no idea," Dr. Kringle replied, looking as stunned as the boys.

Ezra stared at the tiny dragon, who didn't look particularly upset by what had just happened.  He cocked his head slightly as he said, "I think Vin might be with Chris… somewhere."

Chanu looked at the second year student.  "Ezra, do you know something?"

The dark-haired boy shook his head.  "No, but Kane doesn't look upset."

The dragon regarded the humans staring at him, a calm expression on his face.  Spirals of smoke lifted up into the air from his nostrils.

"See what I mean?" Ezra said.

"He definitely doesn't look upset," Josiah agreed.

"Well then, I guess we wait," Chanu said.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

large house surrounded by woodsVin suddenly found himself falling through what looked like a rainbow-colored whirlpool.  When he reached the bottom, he landed softly on a dirt path leading through a tall pine forest, but the dirt under his feet was a strange purple color.

He frowned, but started down the trail, following it until it ended in the front yard of a two-story house that was surrounded by pine trees.  Chris was standing on the front porch of the house, waiting for him.  He waved and called, "Vin!"

"Chris!" Vin cried, running over to him and wrapping the blond in a hug.  "Are y' okay?"

"He will be," a man's voice stated.

Vin looked up to find a man who looked a lot like Chris standing in the doorway to the house.

"That's my dad, Matthew Larabee," Chris said.

Vin frowned.  "But y' said yer family got killed by dark wizards…"

"We were," the man replied, his tone more than a little sad.

Blue eyes quickly met green.  "Then they're ghosts, too?" Vin asked.

"No, not exactly," a woman said, coming up behind her husband.

"That's my mom," Chris explained.

"Rachael McNabb Larabee," she told Vin.  "Why don't you two come inside so we can have a family powwow."

"C'mon," Chris said, taking Vin's hand and leading him into his old house.

Inside, in the living room, sitting on the sofa, was a young woman with long, strawberry-blonde hair and green eyes, and a young boy with honey blond hair like Chris', and the same hazel eyes.

"Sarah, Adam, this is Vin," Chris said, "my, uh… my 'little brother' at school."

"Hi, Vin," Sarah greeted him, smiling in welcome as she stood and gave him a warm hug.

Adam, however, folded his arms over his chest and refused to even look at Vin.

"Where are we?" Vin asked Chris, his voice soft and a little scared.

"This is my old house," Chris told him.  "We lived close to Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel… uh, where I live now."

"But this is gone, right?"

"Yes, this house was destroyed in the attack that killed us," Matthew said.  "Rachael, Sarah, and I were able to create this place just before we were killed."

Vin thought for a moment, then realized what was going on and nodded.  "So each one 'a ya is one 'a the stones on Chris' bracelet?"

Rachael nodded and smiled.  "Very good, Vin.  How did you figure that out?"

"He can see magic," Chris told them, going over to sit down next to his mom and leaning against her when she wrapped her arm around him to snuggle him closer.

Vin took a seat on the floor next to Chris.

"We added an extra path," Sarah added.  "We thought it would be for Buck, but you found it instead."

"I don't understand," Vin said, looking up at Chris for an explanation.

"They've been watching over me," Chris told him.  "When I got hurt, I came here.  What happened, anyway?"

Vin quickly explained about the bludger, and Benley.

"Oh dear," Rachael said, hugging Chris closer.  "You might have ghost sickness."

"We told Dr. Kringle," Vin said.  "That's what he said, too."

Rachael looked relieved.  "Then you'll be fine, sweetheart," she said to Chris, kissing the top of his head.  "Doc just has to brew up a potion for you.  We won't have much time."

"Vin came the way we expected you to come, son," Matthew told Chris, reaching over to ruffle his hair.

"I hope you'll be able to help Chris find his way back using the blue or purple trail," Rachael said to Vin.

"Uh, yes, ma'am, I'll try…" Vin said, but he wasn't at all sure how he'd gotten there, how to get back, or how to even find the trail again.

"The important thing right now is for us to tell you how to put that bratty ghost back in his cell," Sarah said.

"You know about the ghost?" Vin asked, surprised.

"We see some of what's going on in Chris' life," Rachael told him.

Vin gave a slight shiver at that.  It was a strange feeling to think that dead people were watching you.  But then, maybe his mama and daddy were watching him as well?  That thought was oddly comforting.

"How do we trap him?" Chris asked his sister, his admiration for her clear in his eyes and his voice.

She smiled at him and said, "I think I know a way.  It's a spell I discovered when I was working on my senior thesis over the summer – Little Known Spells from the early Colonial Period."

"But you weren't a senior yet," Chris said, confused.

Sarah smiled.  "I know, but I started the thesis for my senior History of Magic class that summer.  I wanted to be sure I got an A on it."

"You always got As," Chris told her.

"What did y' find?" Vin asked her.

"Sequor Sequi Secutus Dux Ducis," she said, then grinned and translated, "Follow the Leader.  It'll allow you to draw on the power of all the wands in your group, and direct it all at the ghost.  That should be enough to force Benley back into his cell, if you can lure him close enough to it that you can see it when you cast the spell."

"Chris, listen carefully, son.  You'll have to combine the power of the wands first," Chris' father explained, "then use the spell Laqueum Phasma Phasmatis to actually capture the ghost and force him back into his cell.  Vin will have to hold the cell open, and then close it as soon as the ghost is back inside."

"How?" Vin asked.

Matthew smiled down at the boy.  "Put your hand on the center of the lock and keep it there.  That will open the door.  As soon as the ghost is inside, will the cell to lock and remove your hand."

Chris grinned, looking down at Vin.  "We'll get 'im, you'll see."

"Just be careful!" his mother said.

"We will," Chris promised her.

"Good," Rachael said.  "Now, we'd better help you both go back."

"But—" Chris started.

"You need to go, son," Matthew told him.  "You can only stay here for short periods of time, or you'll be trapped here forever."

"But I can come back?" Chris asked, his tone both hopeful and scared.

"Once a month, for an hour," Rachael told him, then kissed his forehead.

"Come on, I'll show you how to get back," Sarah said, standing and taking Chris by the hand and leading him away.

Vin scrambled to his feet and started to follow, but he was stopped by Adam, who stepped directly into his path.  He looked down at the little boy a little nervously.

"I'm Chris' little brother," he pouted, glaring up at Vin.

Vin nodded.  "I know," he said, "he talks about you all the time, but I ain't got a brother, or a sister, older or younger…"

Adam thought about that for a moment, then he nodded a little reluctantly.  "Okay… I guess you can borrow 'im, but just for a little while."

"Thanks," Vin said, sticking his hand out.  Adam shook it.

"You better be a good little brother, too," the boy warned him.

"I will, I promise," Vin said, then he slipped around the boy and ran to catch up with Chris and Sarah.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin caught up with the pair just as they stepped off the front porch.  Together they walked across the yard to the start of the trail, which was still purple.

"This is as far as I can go," Sarah told them.  "Just follow the trail and think about Horsefeathers, and it'll take you back."

"Okay," Chris replied, then gave her a hug.  "I miss you," he said.

"We miss you, too.  Be careful, okay?"

"We will," Chris promised her, then he took Vin's hand and they started down the trail, the purple dirt and bits of pinecone and pine needle crunching under their feet as they walked.

"How far do we have t' go?" Vin asked, glancing around.

"I don't know," Chris replied.  "I guess we'd better think about the Academy, though.  Where was I, on the Hoops field?"

"No, in the infirmary.  Professor Chanu did a spell on y' an' took y' there on his broom.  Me an' J'siah, an' Ezra, an' JD followed 'im.  Dr. Kringle and Mrs. Potter was tryin' t' help ya."

Chris nodded, thinking about the game and his friends.  He wondered if Nathan had taken his place, and if they were winning…  Then, suddenly, it felt like the ground under their feet disappeared and their stomachs each gave a lurch.

Both boys blinked their eyes open at the same time.

"Look!" Josiah called.

Vin sat up, glancing around at the others, and at the inside of the infirmary.  It had worked!

Chris lay where he was, though, and moaned, "I don't feel so good…"

"You have a mild case of ghost sickness, young man," Dr. Kringle told him.  "I'm afraid you're going to be here for a day or so."

That made Chris moan again, but this time because he was thinking about all the homework he was going to have to make up.

"Buck and Nathan can bring you your homework assignments," Josiah told him, having guessed what the second groan was about.

Chris nodded his thanks.  He really didn't feel very good.  He closed his eyes.

"Here, dear, sip some of this," Mrs. Potter said, gently lifting his head.

Chris opened his eyes when he caught a sniff of the medicine.  It smelled like hot, spiced cider.  He took a couple of sips, grateful to discover that it tasted just like hot, spiced cider, too.

"Can you drink a little more?" the nurse asked him.

Chris nodded and managed half the cup before he was too tired to drink any more.

"You get some rest now, sweetheart," Mrs. Potter told him, lying his head back down and covering him with a blanket.

Chris forced his eyes open and looked over at Vin, who was standing beside his bed.  "You better tell Professor Wells and Professor Ko-Jay what happened."

Vin nodded.  "Okay, I will."

"All right, boys, Chris needs to rest so he can get better," Dr. Kringle said.  "You can come back and see him tomorrow, okay?"

The boys nodded, but they didn't look happy about leaving Chris there alone.  Vin would have refused to go, but he knew Chris had been right about him telling Ms. Nettie and Professor Ko-Jay.  He looked up at Mrs. Potter and asked, "Can I come see 'im after supper?"

She glanced over at the doctor, who nodded.  "All right, dear, but just you, okay?"

Vin nodded.  "Thank you," he said, giving her a quick hug before running after the others.

Chris watched Vin go, then looked down at the bracelet on his wrist and smiled, no longer feeling so alone in the world.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The boys got back to the Western Hoops Field just in time to see Inez capture the snitch and end the game.  For the second week in a row Hawks Gild was the victor.

As soon as Buck saw them, he slapped Nathan's arm and they ran over to join them, the Black boy a few steps behind Buck.

"How's Chris?" Buck demanded.

"He'll be okay," Josiah told him.  "They said he's got ghost sickness."

"Ghost sickness?" Buck echoed.

"Benley was ridin' that bludger that hit 'im," Vin explained.

"When will he be back?" Buck wanted to know.

"The doctor said a day, maybe two," Ezra replied.

Nathan was nodding.  "Sounds about right for ghost sickness.  They caught it real quick, though."

"C'mon," Vin said, "we gotta go eat so we can talk t' Ms. Nettie an' Professor Ko-Jay."

"Why?" Buck wanted to know.  He could see Amanda Lynn jumping up and down nearby, waving and calling his name.

"Me an' Chris saw his family.  They knew how t' trap Benley," Vin said, turning and heading off toward the great hall.

"What?" Buck yelped.  He shot one last look in Amanda Lynn's direction, then chased after Vin.  "Wait up!  Say that again!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Dinner was a hurried affair, then Vin, Buck, and Nathan headed back to the infirmary, while Josiah went to tell Professors Wells and Ko-Jay that Vin needed to speak to them again.

Mrs. Potter didn't look too surprised to see more than one boy arrive a little after seven.  However, Chris was sound asleep, so they just stood at his bedside for a few minutes, watching him.  He looked a little grey, and he had dark circles under his eyes, but other than that he seemed okay.

"It's best if he sleeps," Mrs. Potter told them quietly.  "Ghost sickness makes you ache all over, so he'll feel best when he's sleeping."

The boys nodded, but none of them looked like they were inclined to leave.

"I think it would be best if you all headed back to finish your homework," she told them, adding, "The potion I gave him earlier will help him sleep all night."

"Can we see 'im in the morning?" Buck asked her.

"Why don't you all stop by at lunch?  I'll have trays delivered here for you, so you can eat while you visit."

"Thanks, Mrs. Potter," Vin said, wrapping his arms around her middle and giving her another hug.

"You're welcome, Vin," she replied, giving him a hug back.  "Now, hurry back and finish your homework; you don't want to get behind."

They nodded and left, running all the way back to the Aerie where they found the others in their usual corner of the patio.

"Professor Wells said to meet her and Professor Ko-Jay in his room right before lights out," Josiah told the three boys, then they all settled down to finish off their assignments for the weekend.

When Professor Wells announced that they all needed to get ready for bed, the six boys hurried off to do just that.

Then, in their pajamas – showered and their teeth brushed – the six boys walked to Ko-Jay's door.  Vin knocked.

The door opened and the older man smiled down at them and said, "Welcome back, boys, come inside."

This time Josiah, Ezra, Buck, and JD took seats on the sofa, and Nathan and Vin sat together in one of the comfortable chairs.  Ko-Jay took the other chair, and Nettie an old rocking chair that was pulled over close to the fireplace.

She looked at Vin and said, "You have something you need to tell us, Vin?"

Vin nodded.  "Yes, ma'am."  He looked down at his lap, trying to decide where to start.

"At the beginning," Ko-Jay reminded him.

Vin nodded and looked up, a small smile on his face.  "At the game I saw one 'a the bludgers actin' kind 'a strange," he said, then told them everything that had happened to him since he saw the ghost.

Ko-Jay and Nettie exchanged looks when Vin described Chris' bracelet, the faces in the colors, then falling into it and meeting Chris' family.

"Sarah said she knew a spell that would help us catch the ghost…"  Vin thought for a moment, trying to remember exactly what she's said.  "…Sea-core… seaweed… see ducks something," he said, his forehead wrinkled in concentration.

Once again Nettie and Ko-Jay exchanged looks, then Ko-Jay got up and used his crystal ball to request Professor David Nichols join them.  The handsome man arrived a few moments later, and Nettie summarized what Vin had shared so far.

"Vin, tell Professor Nichols the spell Sarah said to use," she instructed Vin.

"It sounded like sea-core seaweed see ducks something," Vin told the man.

Nichols thought for a long moment, then snapped his fingers.  "I've got it!  Sequor Sequi Secutus Dux Ducis."

Both Nettie and Ko-Jay simply stared at him.

"It's an old spell…  I was a newly hired teacher when Sarah Larabee started taking her history and theory classes, and she was a brilliant student.  She contacted me the summer she and her family were killed and said she wanted to get started on her senior thesis early.  She was researching spells from the early Colonial period, and that one was relatively common at the time."

"Follow the leader," Nettie translated.

Nichols nodded.  "As you know, the hysteria that gripped Europe following the Ogre Uprising of 1670 led to increased persecution of wizards and witches.  Here in the early colonies that persecution reached its height with the Salem witch trials in 1692.  Before that, pockets of wizards and witches used that spell as a way to enhance the power of a variety of disillusionment spells so the mundanes couldn't find them.  As a result, unfortunately, the mundanes turned on themselves, and many were hung for being witches or wizards, although none of them actually were."

"Sarah said the spell would link our wands," Vin said.

Professor Nichols nodded.  "Yes, that's what it does.  Sequor Sequi Secutus Dux Ducis links the wands of a group who are undertaking a common endeavor, so that the next spell cast by the lead wand has the power of all the wands in the group behind it.  It's extremely powerful.  Did Sarah tell you which spell you should use afterward?"

Vin shook his head, and David looked a little disappointed.  "Chris' daddy did."

"What did he say?" Ko-Jay asked him.  Matthew Larabee, the Spells, Charms and Curses teacher, had been a well-liked, talented professor at the Academy until he'd been killed and they had hired Francis Corcoran to take up the position.

"Uh," Vin said, trying hard to remember what Matthew had said.  "Uh… La… Q…M… fast—"

"Laqueum Phasma Phasmatis?" David interrupted.

Vin nodded.

"That would make sense," Nettie said thoughtfully.

"Yes, it would," Ko-Jay agreed.

David nodded his agreement.  He looked at the boys and asked, "How many of you actually saw the ghost in his cell?"

"Me an' Chris an' Ezra," Vin answered.

"I only saw the empty cell," Josiah added.

Nichols thought for a moment, then continued, "Chris would be the logical one to wield the lead wand, but with ghost sickness, he might not be strong enough to pull it off."  Glancing over at Ezra, he shook his head.  "He isn't old enough… and Vin has to hold the cell open and then close it…"  His gaze fell on the fourth year student.  "You'll have to do it, Josiah."

"But I didn't see—"

"You saw the cell, so you have a mental image of where Benley needs to be placed," Professor Nichols interrupted him.  "That's the primary image you need, not that of the ghost himself, although that would be a boon to the spell."

"But Chris is our leader," Buck argued, then glanced over at Josiah and said, "I don't mean nothin'—"

"I know," Josiah replied, then looked at the adults and said, "And Buck's right.  It needs to be Chris."

The three professors looked more than a little uncertain about the wisdom of that, but Nettie nodded.  "We'll see what Dr. Kringle has to say about that.  The sickness was caught very early, and we can wait until Tuesday.  That way, if we have to try again, we can do so on Wednesday."

"Don't you think we should make the first try on Monday?" David asked.  "If we only have until Wednesday—"

"I doubt Chris will be in any shape to try this on Monday," Nettie told the younger man.

David nodded.  "We could try with Josiah on Monday—"

"No," Ko-Jay said, "the boys know who their leader is.  We will wait for Chris to recover some of his strength, and try on Tuesday night."

"Agreed," David and Nettie said at the same time.

"We get to help, too, right?" JD asked.

"Yes, JD," Ko-Jay said.  "It will need to be all of you, and a few of us, as well."

Vin had watched the discussion among the adults, getting more and more worried.  What if Chris was too sick?  What if it didn't work?

"Now, we need to talk about what each of you will do," David said.

Monday October 5, 1998

On Monday Chris was still too weak to try capturing Benley, but he was deemed to be well enough to return to the Aerie that evening, where he was able to get caught up on his homework.  As it neared bedtime, Ko-Jay stopped by their corner in the Nest and told them to come to his apartment right before lights out.

When they arrived, they saw that several of the professors were also waiting for them, including Professors Martinez, Corcoran, Nichols, and Chanu, as well as Dr. Kringle.  Nettie had the boys sit on the floor close to the fire so they stayed warm.

Ko-Jay distributed cups of hot cider to the boys, and coffee for the adults.  Then he said, "Boys, we have a plan for trapping the ghost."

"Are we still gonna help?" JD wanted to know.

"Yes," Nettie replied, "but we're going to be there was well, in case you need any help."

"How?" Chris asked.  "He's not gonna come around if he sees all of you, or all of us."

"Not to worry," Professor Corcoran replied, "he won't see any of us."

"An invisibility spell?" Josiah asked.  He had just read about them in class.

Professor Corcoran nodded.  "Yes, but coupled with a disillusionment charm, just to be sure."

"What's that?" JD asked.

"It makes you a kind of human chameleon," Josiah explained.  "You look like whatever it is you're standing next to."

"Cool!" JD chirped.

"What do we have t' do?" Vin asked, looking at Ms. Nettie.

"We want you to return the book you borrowed from Mrs. Potter tomorrow," she told him.  "And take the shortcut from the barns to the infirmary."

"But 'm not finished yet," Vin said, looking rather distraught.  The dogs were on their way home, with the puppies, and he wanted to know they'd be okay.

Ms. Nettie smiled.  "You just need to say you are, you can keep it."

"So he'll go by the Defense building," Chris guessed.

"Yes," Nettie replied.  "And when you do, you can check his cell again.  We hope Benley won't be able to resist coming after him if he thinks Vin's alone."

"But he won't be alone, right?" Chris asked.

"No," Nettie said.  "We'll already be there, waiting, and so will you boys."

Chris nodded.  "And we'll join our wands before?"

"Yes," Ko-Jay replied, "just before we make you invisible and you go take up your positions."

"But won't the ghost notice that all of Vin's friends have disappeared?" Ezra asked.

Chanu grinned.  "He might, if he thought you had."

"But we will if we're invisible," Buck said, confused.

"We have volunteers from the village lined up who will be taking your places," Ko-Jay replied, "and ours as well."

"Polyjuice Potion!" Josiah said, grinning.

Ko-Jay nodded.  "There are apothecaries in Four Corners who keep a supply on hand, and we have acquired some."

"All we need is a drop of blood from each of you," Dr. Kringle said.  "And don't worry, it won't hurt."

The doctor stood and collected the blood samples using a small lancet device that caused a single drop of blood to appear on the tip of each boy's finger.  The drop was them captured in a tiny glass bubble and set into a collection tray with each of their names next to their sample.  The adults had already given their samples as well, and their bubbles were already in the tray.

"All done!" Dr. Kringle announced when he had them all.

Josiah frowned.  "I thought you used hair for that potion."

"We could, but hair, nail clippings, and surface skin samples aren't really good, living samples.  The use of living tissue or blood makes the illusion all the more real," Professor Corcoran explained.

"Just before your last class tomorrow each of you will stop by the restroom closest to your final classroom," Nettie told them.  "JD you will use the one in the barn.  You will all use the stall farthest from the door.  Inside the stall next to that one, the volunteer who will be taking your place will be waiting.  You will go in, they will come out.  You will wait until everyone is back in class, then meet us in the Astronomy Tower.  Understand?"

The boys nodded.

Nettie looked at Vin and said, "You, of course, won't need to do that, Vin.  You will just go to your classes as usual.  In Transfiguration Club there will be a slight mishap, and I will dismiss all of you early.  At that time you will tell JD what you plan to do, then go to the infirmary to return your book.  Do you understand?"

"Yes, Ms. Nettie," Vin replied.  "An' I take the shortcut Buck showed me an' stop t' open the cell."

"Exactly," Nettie replied.  She glanced around at the other boys.  "In the Astronomy Tower you will join wands, and then we'll make you all invisible.  Then we will all go to the Defense building and take up our positions and wait for Vin to arrive."

"And hopefully Benley Gaunt as well," Ezra said.

"Exactly," Nettie said.

"Are you making doubles of all of you, too?" JD wanted to know.

"Yes," Professor Wells replied.

"Chris," Professor Martinez said, "you should practice the words Laqueum Phasma Phasmatis in your head all day tomorrow.  Do it until they feel natural to you."

"Yes, sir, I will," he replied.

"When you cast that spell, a ball of light will snare the ghost," Raphael continued.  "You must see in your mind the cell where he belongs, and will him back to that place."

Chris nodded.  "I can do that."

"All right then," Ko-Jay said, "all of you go on to bed.  Tomorrow will be a difficult day."

The boys climbed to their feet and headed off to their beds, their pillows – except for Vin's – ensuring that they each got a good night's sleep, despite their nervousness.  Vin, however, lay awake in the darkness, hoping that everything would go as planned.  He really didn't want to see any more of his friends getting hurt because of him; he felt bad enough about that as it was.

Tuesday October 6, 1998

Vin had a difficult time concentrating in his classes all day, but he managed to get through everything.  Given the way Professor Conklin yelled at him in Potions, he was sure if Benley was watching, he'd think everything was perfectly normal.

At the end of their Magical Creatures class, JD hurried off to the restroom, returning a short time later, he and Vin then running off to their Broom Handling class together.  And except for the fact that JD's broom seemed to respond quicker to his commands, Vin couldn't really tell that JD wasn't really JD any more.

When the class ended, Vin and the new JD hurried back to the Main Classroom Building for Transfiguration Club.  Ms. Nettie had them do a visualization exercise, to see if a particular animal came to them during the exercise, and one of the third year girls yelped as she turned into half an otter.  She squealed in panic when she looked down at her otter legs and tail.

Professor Wells dismissed the rest of the club early and started talking the girl through a transformation back to her usual self.

Vin looked at JD and said, "I need t' take back the book I borrowed from Mrs. Potter.  I'll see at the great hall for supper, okay?"

"Okay!" JD said, acting like his usual bouncy self.  "I'm gonna go start my homework!"

They each turned and headed off in different directions.  Vin shook his head.  That was exactly what JD would do.  That boy liked homework way too much.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The sun was dipping lower in the sky when Vin reached the Defense building.  He slowed and glanced around, making sure that no one was around to see him, and looking for the others, but he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary.

Hoping he wasn't really alone, he walked over to the wall and looked at the two Tanners written there.  It was a little hard to believe that his mother and father had actually written them.  He wished he could see them like Chris could see his parents.  He ran his finger along the horizontal name, then the vertical one, and the cell appeared.  It was still quite empty.

Vin stared into the small space and tried to imagine what it would be like to be trapped there for so long.  He wouldn't have liked it, but then he wouldn't have killed another student, either.

Benley Gaunt had killed his father…

"I wondered if you'd come back," Vin heard the ghost say.

"Why'd y' kill m' daddy?" he asked, turning around slowly to face the sneering ghost, who hovered a few feet off the ground not far away.

"Because he was interfering with the wishes of the Dark Lord," Benley replied haughtily.  "And all because of that little chit of a girl, too."

"M' mama?" Vin asked.

"Yes, boy, your mother."

"But m' daddy killed you, didn't he."

Benley made a face.  "Yes, he did."

"So he was better 'n you, wasn't he."

Benley drew himself up as anger ignited inside him.  "He was an arrogant, interfering—"

"He was better 'n you!"

"He was a weak do-gooder!  He fell in love with that girl…  How she managed to lift the curse—"

"They were both lots better 'n you," Vin said angrily.

"They were nothing!" Benley yelled, drawing himself up in preparation to attack Vin.

"Laqueum Phasma Phasmatis!" Vin heard Chris say loudly, and Benley was instantly caught inside a glowing bubble of white light.  And once inside the circle of light, everyone could see him, not just those who had seen him inside his cell.

"No!" the ghost howled.

As he watched, Vin saw the other boys slowly becoming visible.  They ringed the ghost, their wands all out and pointed at Benley.  Streams of bright light shot from the tips of each of their wands, but the light streams bent around the outside of the bubble, creating a circle that ended at Chris' wand, from which the brightest stream of light blasted forth, creating the bubble that had Benley snared.

Chris looked like he was concentrating hard, his forehead wrinkled, and there was sweat breaking out on his face.

Vin slapped his hand down on the N where the two names crossed, the center of the lock, and kept it there as the bubble containing the ghost floated closer and closer to the wall.

"No!" Benley yelled again, his hands coming up, his palms pointed at Chris, who shuddered as if hit by something, and the bubble slowed its pace.  "I will not go back!"

Chris' wand arm began to shake and he grabbed his wrist with his other hand to help keep it steady.  His face drained of blood, but he kept staring at Benley, willing the ghost back into his cell, but Vin could see Chris was getting weaker and weaker by the second.

The professors who had met with them the night before were suddenly there was well, but they were waiting, unable to do anything unless Chris had failed.

Sweat dripped down Chris' face and his arm trembled harder.

"I will kill you!  All of you!" Benley roared, then he screamed the worst of the Unforgivable Curses, the Killing Curse, "Avada Kedavra!"

Vin gasped when he saw what looked like two skull-creatures flying from the palms of the ghost's hands, lightning bolts shooting from their hollow eye sockets, their mouths opening into gross parodies of smiles as they shot toward the blond boy.  Each one of them was holding a blade, ready to cut Chris down when they reached him.

"No!" Vin cried, but he knew he couldn't move.  He had to keep the cell open.  The bubble of light was still inching Benley closer and closer to his cell.

Then it happened.  Something no one had expected.

Kane, who had been sitting on Vin's shoulder – curled up snug under his shirt collar – shot forward, growing in size from the tiny creature he usually was to a full-sized dragon in the blink of an eye.

Vin's eyes went wide at the sight and he sucked in a sharp breath.

The dragon roared, breathing out a large ball of flame at the same time the creatures nearly reached Chris.  They disappeared in a flash of orange flame.

Then the fire wrapped around the rapidly-fading bubble of light and drove Benley to the wall of the building where he screeched as though he was in unbearable pain.

"Avada Kedavra!  Avada Kedavra!" he screamed at them again and again, but this time there were no skull monsters, just wisps of black smoke that curled from his fingertips.

Chris' eyes narrowed, and despite the fact that his body was starting to fail him, he focused every ounce of his concentration into a single thought – Benley, trapped in his cell for all eternity.

"No!" the ghost shrieked.

But it was too late.  The power of the boys' combined wands, and the addition of the dragon's magic, was too much when focused by Chris' mind.  Benley was forced back into his cell.

Vin could clearly see the cell door slamming shut once the ghost was pushed inside his cell, and a feral snarl curled his lips as he heard the metal clang inside his head, followed by the sounds of an unseen key turning inside the door lock.  He pulled his hand away from the wall, sealing the ghost in once more.

"I will kill you!  All of you!  I will kill you!" Benley wailed as he flew to the cell window, his bony fingers curling around the bars.  "I will rip your still-beating hearts from your chests!"

"Ya ain't gonna hurt nobody else!" Vin yelled at the ghost.  "Not ever!"  He turned away and the window faded, swallowing up Benley's curses.

Vin immediately looked for Chris, who was lying on the ground, unconscious once again.  "Chris!" he cried, bolting forward toward the boy.

But Chanu had reached Chris first and gathered him into his arms.

"Chris!" Vin cried as he reached the man.  "Is he okay?"

"I think so," the Hoops coach said.  "But we need to get him to the infirmary so the doctor can check him over, just in case."

The adults and the boys hurried to the infirmary where Dr. Kringle and Mrs. Potter were already waiting for them.  Chris was taken to the same bed he'd used before, the two adults immediately going to work.

The other professors quickly got the rest of the boys sitting on two beds, three of them on each, then handed them cups of a steaming Wizards Coffee, that helped to restore the energy that they had expended in their fight with Benley Gaunt.

"What's wrong with Chris?" Nathan wanted to know.

"He's just exhausted," Dr. Kringle told them.  "He hadn't really regained his strength, and this took all of what had."

"Did you see what Kane did?" JD said, his eyes still round with excitement.

Vin glanced around, then realized that the tiny dragon was back on his shoulder, his usually tiny self, and looking very pleased with his actions.  "Thank you," he said quietly.

Kane nodded his head and puffed out a pair of twin smoke spirals.

"Kane must have helped your mother in the same way," Ms. Nettie said, reaching out to rest her hand on Vin's other shoulder.  Then she leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on the dragon's head and spoke to him in a language no one else could understand.  Kane replied in kind.

"You can talk to dragons!" Vin said.  Even though he knew she could, actually seeing it happen was pretty amazing.

"Yes," she replied, but it was clear she wasn't going to tell them what they had said to each other.

"'M just glad that ghost is back where he belongs," Vin breathed.

"We all are, Vin," Chanu replied.

Vin looked up at Ms. Nettie and asked, "Is Chris gonna be okay?"

She nodded.  "Yes, son, he'll be just fine."

"You boys all need to go eat," Mrs. Potter said, and they all erupted into arguments about why they should stay instead.

"All right, all right," she said, holding up her hands.  "I'll have your dinners brought here."

The professors congratulated them on a job well done, then headed off to the great hall, and their other responsibilities.  Nettie gave Vin a quick kiss on the top of his head, then left herself.

The other boys stared at Vin, their eyes wide and their mouths open.

"What?" he asked them.

Wednesday, October 7, 1998

Mrs. Potter had not only let them eat dinner at the infirmary, she had let them sleep there overnight as well.

Chris woke up on Wednesday morning, surprised to find his team still there, but feeling much better than he had the night before.

After a quick check by the doctor, he was allowed to return to his usual routine, although he had a potion he had to take before each meal, to help him finish his recovery from the ghost sickness.

The day sped by, all of them glad to get back to 'normal.'  Vin didn't even mind the teasing he got from Eli Joe and Nicky Yates.

As Vin climbed into bed later that night, he saw Chris glance over at him, then nod.  He nodded back, knowing that the blond boy would be coming to see him once the lights were out.  And, sure enough, a couple of minutes after it was dark Chris climbed into his bed.

"Something wrong?" Vin asked him.

"No, not exactly," Chris said, his voice sounding a little strange.

"What's wrong?" Vin asked.

There was a short pause, then Chris said, "I was kind 'a hoping you could take me to see my family.  I want to tell 'em how we did."

Vin felt his breath catch and his heart started to race.  "But I—"


"I don't know how," Vin moaned sorrowfully.

"Sure you do," Chris said.  "How'd you do it before?"

"The stones were all shinin'," Vin said.  He reached out and found Chris' arm, then the bracelet.  He fingered the stones and felt his skin begin to tingle.

Closing his eyes, Vin let himself concentrate on that tingle, then he started to see the colors again.  He gasped when Sarah's face appeared.

That's it, Vin, just concentrate on the purple path, he heard her say inside his mind, and he did as she instructed.

A moment later, he and Chris were both standing on the purple trail that ran through the trees.

"See!" Chris said.  "I knew you could do it!"  He started running down the path toward the house.

"Hey, wait for me!" Vin called, hurrying after him.

When they reached the house they found Sarah was on the porch, waiting for them.  "You did it!" she said, giving her brother and then Vin a hug.

"Well, we had a lot of help," Chris told her.

"You were supposed to," Matthew Larabee said.  "That's what your teachers are there for."

"I know, Dad," Chris said, "but it wasn't just them, it was Vin's familiar – a dragon!"

"A dragon?" Matthew said, looking down at Vin.  "Well, that's quite a powerful familiar for a first year student, Vin."

"He was m' mama's," Vin replied, feeling more than a little embarrassed.

Rachael nodded.  "Well, that would explain it.  Long-lived familiars often pass down through families.  It's a great honor, really."

"We did it, Dad!  We got the ghost!" Chris said, immediately launching into the whole story as they went inside and settled in the living room.

When Chris was done with the story, his sister and parents congratulated them again.

"We're very proud of all of you," Rachael said, smiling.

"We're all gonna go into magical law enforcement, and I'm gonna find who killed you.  I promise," Chris vowed.

"Well," Matthew said, "if you change your mind, that'll be fine, too, son."

"I won't," Chris stated emphatically, and it was clear to all of them that his life-path was set.

"We'll be a good team," Vin added, not wanting them to worry about Chris too much.

"Yes, you will," Rachael agreed.

"I wanna help, too!" Adam wailed.

Chris stood and went over to his little brother, kneeling down in front of him so they were eye to eye.  "You are gonna help, Adam."

"I am?"

"Yep," Chris said, nodding.  "You're gonna be here to watch out for Sarah and Mom and Dad.  I won't have to worry about them, because I know you'll take good care of them for me."

Adam smiled.  "I will!"  Then he looked over at Vin and asked Chris, "Does that mean Vin's gonna be my older brother, too?"

Chris also looked over at Vin, then nodded.  "Yes, it does."

Vin's eyes rounded with surprise and he watched as Adam ran over to him and threw his arms around his waist.  "You're my big brother, too, Vin!" he announced.

Vin nodded.  "Okay," he said.  "I've never been a big brother before, but I'll try an' be a good one."

Rachel reached out and rested her hand on his back.  "You'll be just fine.  You're a part of our family now, Vin," she added.  "Just like Buck and Josiah and Nathan and Ezra and JD.  You're all honorary Larabees.  And you be sure to tell Kathy that, too."

Vin smiled, as happy as he'd ever been in that moment.  He met Chris eyes and his smile widened.  The blond was smiling, too, really smiling.

"We're all gonna be there for Thanksgiving," Chris said.  "Can they come visit, too?"

Rachael looked sad as she said, "No, Chris, just you and Vin can make the trip here.  You because the red bead is yours.  We made the purple bead for Buck."

"Then how come I was able t' use it?" Vin asked.

Rachael shook her head.  "I'm not sure, Vin.  Maybe because you see magic and some part of you recognized that the purple bead is really a path here.  But now that you've used it, you'll be able to keep using it."

"And Buck can come too?" Chris asked.

"I don't think so," Rachael said.  "But you can try."

"And none of you can stay very long," Matthew reminded Chris.  "Remember, just once a month, for an hour, so you'll have to wait until November to come again, and you'd better head back now."

"Thanks for telling us what happened," Sarah added.

"Can we come at Thanksgiving?" Chris asked.

"If you want to," Rachael said, then gave both boys a hug.  "Now, you two get back."

Sunday, November 22, 1998

Vin couldn't hardly believe that it had only been a little over three months since he'd arrived at Horsefeathers Academy.  So much had happened since that first day that it felt like he'd been there for years!

Once Benley was locked up again, everything had returned to normal.  And while Vin could still see the lock his parents had built, he had no inclination to touch it again.  He didn't want to see the ghost ever again.

Chris was healed from the ghost sickness in less than a week, and their classes rolled along – sometimes slowly, sometimes so fast Vin wasn't sure he could keep up.

At the end of October there had been a big Halloween Party, and they had celebrated that along with The Day of the Dead and All Souls, too.  Lots of ghosts appeared for the three-day period, but they had all been friendly.

Vin had hoped that, maybe, his mama and daddy might be among the ghosts of former students who appeared, but that hadn't happened.

He'd been sad for a few days afterwards, but then their pre-midterm exams started to loom over them and he'd thrown himself into studying.  And he'd gotten all As, too, except for Potions, where he got a B-.

He knew he was going to have to work extra hard in the class to bring that up to an A, but he really didn't like Professor Conklin, and it was hard to study for his class.  But he and Buck would just have to do it anyway.  Neither of them wanted to be stuck with Sourpuss Conklin the whole time they were at the Academy.

Hawks Gild was still undefeated in Hoops, too, and students were starting to say that Inez was one of the best Seekers the Gild had ever had.  That made Vin a little nervous about trying out for the position the following year, but then Chris told him that Professor Chanu sometimes had more than one extra-good player at a position, and when he did, he rotated them so they played every other week.  Knowing that, Vin decided he would try out for the position next year after all.

On the 11th of November Buck had celebrated his birthday, getting presents from Professor Ko-Jay and Miss Nettie.  The other boys had also picked up gifts for him when they had visited the village.

Now they were rapidly coming up on the four-day Thanksgiving Break, which would happen at the end of next week.  The whole team was going to go to Chris' house – his second house – for the long weekend.  Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel had agreed to take them all, and they were planning a huge feast, with turkey and all the trimmings.  A few of the professors would be dropping in as well – Ms. Nettie, who would be bringing Casey with her, and Professors Ko-Jay and Chanu.

Daniel Larabee had promised that he would also take them all to the village, and to Four Corners, so the boys could do some Christmas shopping with the small stipend all the Academy wards received for that purpose.  Vin was looking forward to seeing the two communities Lightwing had told him about, especially the village, where so many of the professors and Dr. Kringle lived.

He already had a list of what he wanted to get for each of his friends, as well as ones for Ms. Nettie and Mrs. Potter, who had recently given him the sequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians to read after he'd really finished the first book.[1]   He was enjoying the sequel as much as the first one, too, but he wished that they could use magic to swoosh like the dogs did in the book.  It would sure make getting from class to class a lot faster!

As he continued with his chores, Vin grinned happily.  Lightwing was back, and had promised to take Vin for another flight once he was done.

Vin knew he had a place now where he belonged.  He also had a new family, and lots of friends, too.  And he had a best friend and big brother, and a little brother, too – who was a kind of a ghost.  He even had a dragon!

It was all still a little overwhelming, but he was glad that Ms. Nettie had come and got him.  There wasn't anywhere he'd rather be right now than right here at Horsefeathers.

One day, he and the others would be magical law enforcement officers, and they would find all the dark wizards and witches and send them to prison.  But, for right now, he just wanted to get his presents for Christmas, and make sure he brought his grades up in Potions when it came to his midterm exams in January.

Looking down at Kane, who was sitting on his shoulder, as usual, he said, "Don't worry, Kane, I'll get you something for Christmas, too.  I promise."

The tiny dragon's eyes narrowed happily and he blew tiny diamond-shaped smoke rings at Vin.

"Yeah, yeah, I know, y' want somethin' shiny," Vin said, giggling.

Kane nodded eagerly, looking forward to the holiday as much as the boy was.

Thanksgiving in Durango

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[1] For those of you who might not be familiar with Dodie Smith's sequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians, it's called The Starlight Barking, and it's a great story!