(Follows Christmas Vacation)
Friday, March 19, 1999
As soon as they had gone back to class following the long Christmas break, Vin's teachers had started talking to them about the EYEs – End of Year Exams – which they would be taking in mid-April.
All of the year-end exams were important, and served to place students in the appropriate level of class they needed the following year, but the very thought of taking such an important test terrified the boy. He had never done well in school before, but this time it had been different – so far.
What he if didn't do well on the exams?
Professor Conklin was already convinced that none of Vin's class would pass the Potions section of their EYEs this year, and Vin was sure that if the old sourpuss was the one grading the exams, none of them would. But all the exams, from every class, were graded by the Headmaster, so there was some hope for him and the others in his Potions class. At least, he hoped there was.
He wasn't at all sure how Headmaster Travis would get all that grading done, but it must be through the use of magic somehow.
But, as a result of the continuous stress placed on the exams by all of his teachers, Vin had really been concentrating hard on his studies. He was determined he wouldn't let Chris down by getting a C in any of his classes, but he was really, really worried about Potions, and so was Buck.
The two of them were getting extra tutoring in Potions from JD and Nathan, but Vin wasn't sure that was going to be enough, and that had his belly in a constant state of upset. Yesterday had been Josiah's birthday, and seeing him open his presents had allowed Vin to forget about the exams for a day. Nathan's had been on January 22nd, and Vin could still remember the excitement the boy had shown where he got a rare kind of cactus from Professor Ko-Jay.
Chris' birthday was coming up on March 23rd, but he'd told all of them that he didn't want anything. And given what he was facing, they all agreed that they would wait until the good-bye ritual was over before they celebrated. If they weren't too obsessed with exams.
At least he wasn't too worried about the rest of his classes, although he was pretty sure he might end up with a B in Herbology. It had been really hard for him to remember all the names of the plants they used, and what each one was used for. But when he'd mentioned his concern to Professor Ko-Jay the older man had showed him how he could remember the names better by using rhymes and funny sayings that helped him recall each plant, and its purpose.
Vin had been reciting them over and over, every day, as he ran from class to class, and while he was out working at the barns on the weekends. Maybe if he memorized all of them, he could get an A like JD and the others.
He thought seriously about giving up his clubs, so he would have more time to study, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. He was still attending all four, although he probably didn't need to when it came to broom handling. Professor Chanu had said he was a 'natural' on a broom, and he was already much better than all the other kids in the club, even JD.
And he was 'indispensable' in Critter Club, or so he'd been told by Mr. Tiny. He wasn't exactly sure what that meant, but he knew Mr. Tiny relied on him to handle even some of the larger magical animals around the other kids. He was rather proud of the fact that Mr. Tiny trusted him with all the animals in the barns, and he loved being around them – especially Lightwing and Miriam.
All in all, Vin decided that maybe – just maybe – he had a couple of gifts and talents like the other boys had. He might not be as smart as JD, or have Nathan's healing touch, or Josiah's ability to think philosophically, but he was really good on his broom, like Chris and Buck were, and he was better with animals than any of the others. In that, he was actually more like Mr. Tiny.
He could hear and see magic, too, but that seemed more like a distraction than a gift right now, although Chris kept telling him that it would definitely be a gift one day. He just hoped the older boy was right.
If he could just get through the Herbology part of the exam with a B, he would be happy. And if he could get a C or a B in Potions… well, then he'd be about as happy as he was when he was flying with Lightwing.
The thought made Vin pause. He was happy a lot of the time now, he realized. Even working on the goodbye ritual was kind of fun, now that Chris wasn't mad at him anymore.
But, he had to admit, besides flying it was in Transfiguration Club that he had the most fun. He really liked watching while the animagus students practiced turning themselves into animals. Chris was almost as good at it as Josiah was, and Josiah was a year ahead of Chris.
Chris' animal was a mountain lion, and Josiah's was a bear. And Nathan had managed to shift as well – twice! – into a black mustang. But so far Buck had only been able to pop out a thick, bushy wolf tail that had all the girls in the club giggling when it appeared. Buck wasn't happy about that, and he was working really hard to make his first full transfiguration before the end of the school year. If he did, he would be able to do his vision quest over the summer like Nathan and Chris were.
Every time Vin saw someone change into their animal form he felt his whole body begin to tingle, but it quickly fizzled and faded away, leaving him feeling kind of odd and itchy all over – especially his shoulder blades. He wasn't sure it was something he was supposed to tell Ms. Nettie about, since it didn't last very long, so he told Mr. Tiny about it instead.
The big man said that it was a "normal" reaction, and he didn't need to tell Ms. Nettie unless the feeling didn't fade. It was all kind of confusing, so Vin tried to forget about it and concentrate on his studies, but he knew something was happening to him, he just wasn't sure what it was, or what it meant.
He might have dwelled on that too much, but Spring Break was coming up quickly now, and Vin knew it would be a hard time for Chris. They would be doing the goodbye ritual on the first day of the break, a Thursday, then they were all going to Aunt Kathy's and Uncle Daniel's for the rest of the long weekend. There they would be resting up and studying hard in preparation for the exams the following month.
Vin was looking forward to the ritual, because the last visit they had made to see Chris' family at the end of February had been really scary, and he wanted to make sure they did it soon, before they became Shades.
He shivered as he thought about that last visit…
Friday, February 26, 1999
Chris and Vin arrived at the Defense of the Dark Arts building and headed straight to Professor Martinez's office, just like they had in January. When they arrived they saw that the other professors were already there, waiting for them.
"You boys ready?" Raphael asked.
They both nodded.
"All right, this will be just like the last time," the professor said.
Chris and Vin both lay down on the big, thick pillows that were waiting for them. They were arranged side by side, so Vin and Chris could hold hands while they were lying down.
Once they were comfortable, Nettie, Raphael, and Ko-Jay went to work, whispering an incantation. Headmaster Travis worked over a small cauldron, and several other teachers moved around in the background, preparing things that went into the cauldron at precise intervals.
After a few seconds a dancing silver filament escaped from the cauldron and twisted and snaked its way over to the two boys, wrapping itself around their legs and then swirling up over their bodies and arms, stopping when it finally wrapped itself around their heads.
It didn't hurt. In fact, it felt rather soft and warm, and it made Vin feel safe and relaxed.
"All right," Nettie said, "now, close your eyes and go ahead."
Chris and Vin exchanged a quick glance, then they closed their eyes and Vin concentrated on the purple path. But when they arrived there, it wasn't really purple anymore. The whole forest looked dead, and the trees had turned an ugly purple-black. They were also barren of any leaves or needles, and the branches were twisted and broken.
Dark, gray fog swirled through the dead trees, and beyond that was only a pitched darkness that frightened both boys. They hurried along the trail, which was barely a foot wide now, all the way to the house.
There they stopped, staring. The house, which had been beautiful, was now crumbling, falling sadly in on itself. The windows were all dark and broken, and Vin thought it looked just like the haunted house that had been erected on the campus for Halloween. But that had been safe, and fun, and Chris' old house was just scary.
They walked slowly to the door. Chris knocked.
Rachael opened the door, her expression pinched and pain-filled. Her hair hung in greasy strings and her eyes were rimmed with dark circles. Matthew Larabee looked just as bad as his wife.
Sarah smiled at the two boys as they entered. She still had her youthful good looks, but her eyes were starting to pick up the same dark circles as her parents, and her long blonde hair lacked its usual luster.
"Hi, Chris," the girl greeted. "Vin."
"Hi," Chris replied, glancing around at the inside of the house, which looked even worse than the outside – something he wouldn't have thought possible. "Where's Adam?"
The three family members exchanged worried glances and Sarah said, "Uh, he's upstairs in his room."
Chris took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "I, uh… I came to say goodbye."
"Oh, thank God," Rachael said, stepping over to Chris and falling to her knees in front of him. "I knew you'd do the right thing, honey," she said, then gave him a quick hug. Her touch as icy cold and Chris shivered, wanting to pull away, but he couldn't.
"Good job, son," Matthew said, running his hand over Chris' hair and making him shiver again.
"When?" Sarah asked.
"The professors are helping me make a ritual," Chris said. "We're gonna do it on your birthday, because it's at the start of Spring Break," he told the girl.
Sarah nodded with a smile. "That's a good plan."
"Yes, it is," Matthew agreed. "And you know you can't come back here again; it'll be too dangerous."
Chris nodded, but his lower lip started to tremble and tears filled his eyes.
"We're all gonna say goodbye," Vin added quietly. "Me an' Buck an' the others, too – even JD."
"JD?" Sarah asked.
"He's the last member of my team," Chris explained. "He started this year, like Vin."
The three Larabees nodded.
"I'm so proud of you, son," Matthew said. "I know how hard this is. After all, we have to say goodbye to you, too… and Buck and Vin."
Chris nodded, a few of the tears tracking down his cheeks.
"Chris, honey, we love you so much," Rachael said. "And we'll be watching over you, I promise. But we can't do it from here – not anymore."
The boy nodded.
"You probably shouldn't stay today, either," Sarah added. Then she stepped over and gave Chris a hug and said, "You're the best little brother in the whole world."
Chris hugged her back, crying openly now. "I love you," he managed to say.
"I love you, too, Scooter," Sarah replied, squeezing him and then stepping back. She looked over at Vin and said, "You and the other boys take good care of my little brother, okay?"
"We will," Vin told her. "I promise."
Rachael hugged her son to her and kissed the top of his head. "I love you, sweetheart. We'll be fine; and we'll be waiting for you when it's your time; I promise."
"Okay," Chris managed to say as he clung to her.
She kissed him on the top of the head again, then eased him back so she could look at him. "You're growing up so fast," she said, forcing a smile. "I know you'll be a good man, Chris Larabee."
He nodded, the lump in his throat too big for words to escape.
Then Rachael stood and walked over to join her daughter, the two of them clinging to each other as they cried.
Matthew stepped up to his son, then reached down and gave Chris a hug. "I love you, son," he said. "And I want you to remember that we are all very proud of you, very proud. You'll be the living legacy of this family; do good things and our memories will live on."
"I will, sir," Chris managed to whisper. "I promise."
Matthew kissed Chris on the cheek. "I know you will, kiddo."
Chris looked up into his father's eyes when he straightened and asked, "Can I say goodbye to Adam?"
Matthew looked away. "I don't think so, son."
"Why?" Chris asked.
"He's… not really himself anymore."
Chris shivered, knowing that his father meant he was already turning into a Shade, or maybe he already was one. He swallowed hard and nodded. "Can you tell him I love him, and he's the best little brother ever?"
"We will," Matthew promised, then he looked over at Vin and said, "It's time for you to take Chris back. You're a good friend, Vin Tanner. You and all the other boys are a part of this family, don't ever forget that."
"I won't," Vin said, then added, "Buck wanted me t' ask ya t' tell his mama he loves her, if y' see her."
Rachael smiled sadly, "We will, Vin."
"Could y' tell my mama, too?" he asked a little shyly.
"What's her name?" Sarah asked.
"Katherine Olivia Tanner," Vin said. "An' m' grandpa's James Wilson Tanner."
"If we see them, we'd be happy to tell them," Rachael said. "But they already know, Vin. Love always finds its way to the one you love, even when they're on the other side."
That made Vin smile, glad that his mama knew he still loved her.
"All right, son, it's time for you to go," Matthew said giving Chris another quick hug.
The two boys walked to the front door, now hanging from one rusted hinge. They pushed past it and stepped out onto the front porch. Behind them they could hear the sounds of the house falling in on itself.
"We love you! Never forget that, son," Matthew called out to them.
"Always!" Rachael called after them as well.
"Be a great wizard, Chris!" Sarah added.
Chris didn't look back, he just took Vin's hand and squeezed it hard as they started off back down the path. He tried to think about the Academy, but he couldn't, his thoughts stuck on his little brother.
Suddenly, something flew out of the trees and knocked both boys down so hard they lie on the path, gasping, trying and fill their lungs with air. When they could they scrambled up only to see Adam blocking their path. His skin was a sickly grey, his hair oily, and his eyes ringed with black. His fingernails were too long, too, and slightly curled.
But it was his eyes, black and full of hate that scared both boys the most.
"You can't leave me!" he screamed at Chris.
"I have to, Adam," the older boy told him.
Adam swung and peered at Vin, his eyes narrowing. "You stole my brother!"
"No, I—" Vin started to say, but Adam flew at him, fingers held out in front of him like claws.
"Vin!" Chris yelled.
"You can't have my brother!" the child screeched.
Just before Adam reached the first year, Chris saw the silvery rope appear, wrapped around Vin and, a moment later, they both gasped as they sat up on the thick pads in Professor Martinez's office.
"That was your last visit," Raphael told the two boys.
Chris nodded. "Adam… he's…"
"He's a Shade," Vin said sadly.
"I was afraid of that," Nettie said. "It's harder for younger children to understand what's happening, and why."
"He thought I stole Chris from 'im," Vin told her.
"He just wants to be alive, and everything to be as it was before," Ko-Jay told them.
The boys both nodded, still a little unnerved by what had happened.
Headmaster Travis came over and handed each of them a cup of hot liquid that smelled a lot like coffee.
"What is it?" Vin asked him after he'd said, "Thank you, sir."
"That is Wizards coffee," he told them.
Vin took a sip, then moaned in appreciation. "That's good."
Chris took a swallow as well, the heat from the drink chasing off the chill that had clung to him since his mother's first touch.
"I want you both to stay here and finish your drinks," the Headmaster told them. "Then Professors Wells and Ko-Jay will take you back to the Aerie."
The boys nodded, sipping on their coffee. Vin thought it was the best drink he'd ever had, and he wondered if it was something he could get at meals. He glanced over at Chris, who looked sad, and a little scared.
Vin carefully crawled over and sat next to him, their knees and shoulders touching. "You okay?" he asked.
Chris shook his head.
Vin reached out and slipped his arm around Chris' shoulders, leaving it there while they finished their Wizards coffee.
"Are you ready?" Ms. Nettie asked when she took the empty cups from the boys.
Vin nodded, but Chris just stared down at the thick pillow.
"All right, let's go then," she said, offering them each a hand. The boy's each took one and she kept a tight hold on them as they walked back to the Aerie. In the distance they could hear a faint wailing.
"What's that noise?" Vin asked her.
She looked sad as she said, "That's just a lost soul."
"A lost soul?" Vin asked.
Ms. Nettie hesitated for a moment, then explained, "When we cross from this side of life to the other—"
"To death?" Chris asked.
"No, we can never go where the true dead are, but when we travel to places like where your family is, it thins the veil between here and those places… Sometimes that draws other lost souls, and they wail like that when they can't find what they're looking for."
"What're they lookin' for?" Vin asked.
"I don't know, son," she told him.
They walked the rest of the way to the dorm in silence. The other boys were getting ready for bed, so Chris and Vin joined them.
As soon as the lights went out, Vin slipped out of his bed, going over to Chris'. He hesitated for a moment, afraid that Chris might not want to see him, but then he took a deep breath and pulled the curtain aside. "Chris?" he said.
"Y' want me t' stay with y' t'night?"
There was a long pause, then a softly whispered, "Yeah."
Vin climbed in and closed the curtains, then he slipped under the covers. The two boys settled in silence, both of them quickly drifting off to sleep, Vin recalling just how much he hated the enchanted pillows everyone else used. It would be days before that blasted song was out of his head.
Saturday, March 20, 1999
Vin was glad it was the weekend. He planned to spend most of his time at the barns, doing his chores and studying. Mr. Tiny was helping him review all the animals there, and when they finished, he'd promised to help Vin review his Herbology. Tomorrow he'd said he would to help Vin review his Spells, Charms, and Curses class material.
It was really rather scary how fast the school year was passing by, and Vin found that the closer the EYEs got, the more nervous he got. Or maybe it was the fact that the goodbye ritual was next week… It was hard for him to tell – they both made his tummy hurt.
He had just finished washing the griffin cubs when he heard Mr. Tiny bellow his name.
Vin quickly tossed in some meat for the cubs, then locked their paddock and raced across to the small barn.
"Mr. Tiny?" he said as he entered.
"Shh," the big man replied, gesturing for Vin to come in.
Vin walked silently to the man, then glanced into Miriam's stall. The thestral was lying in the soft hay, a baby thestral lying next to her. It blinked its huge, white eyes at Vin and clicked its beak, making a soft peeping sound.
Vin gasped with delight. "She had her baby!" he said in a whisper.
"Yep, she sure did," Mr. Tiny replied, grinning like he was a proud new papa himself.
"He looks just like her."
"They do tend to favor their mamas," Mr. Tiny agreed, nodding.
The tiny foal pushed up onto its feet, wobbling unsteadily for a moment, then stretched out its still-damp wings. After shaking its head, it walked over to where the pair stood, thrusting its head between the boards and sniffing at Vin's shirt.
The boy giggled. "Is it a boy or a girl?"
"Boy," Mr. Tiny said proudly.
"Y' got a baby boy, Miriam," Vin said, reaching out to stroke the baby thestral's face. It cooed at him.
Miriam nodded her head and pushed to her feet as well. She made a soft chirping sound and the baby immediately pulled back and returned to her. A few moments later he was happily nursing.
"Looks like he's got a healthy appetite, too," Mr. Tiny said. "Why don't you stay here and I'll go get Mama-M some rats."
"Okay," Vin replied, caught up in watching the baby.
"Oh, and think of a good name for him while I'm gone," Mr. Tiny added.
"Me?" Vin asked, coming up onto his toes in surprise.
"Yes, you," he told the boy. "Who's been taking care of Miriam all this time?"
Vin watched the man go, his mouth open in surprise. He looked back at the baby, then at Miriam. "Don'tcha already got a name for him, Miriam?"
She just blinked at him, apparently more than happy to allow him to name her son. Vin took a deep breath and started thinking.
He could name the baby after one of his friends, but then the others might get jealous… It was a boy, so he couldn't name it after his mama, and he didn't think his grandfather would appreciate having a thestral named after him… And if he named it after one of the professors, the professor might not like it, either. Mr. Tiny had said lots of people didn't care much for thestrals…
Vin was at a loss, so he started casting about, thinking about the things that made him happy – flying, Lightwing, Ms. Nettie, Transfiguration Club, being with Chris and the others out on the patio…
Miriam snorted and shook her head at him.
Vin blushed a little and kept thinking. Defense class, Broom handling, watching Chris and Buck playing hoops…
Vin sighed, his forehead wrinkling in concentration. Going to Wizards Peak, and the Village, and Four Corners… the flying taxi, Wizards coffee, spending time with Chris and the others at Aunt's Kathy's and Uncle Daniel's house in Durango…
Miriam stared at him for a moment, then she blinked and nodded her head.
Vin broke into a huge grin just as Mr. Tiny returned with a pail of thawed rats.
"That looks promising," he commented. "You find one she liked?"
"Well, what is it?" the big man asked.
Mr. Tiny considered that for a moment. "Durango… Durango… Yeah, I like that, too."
"Well, Mama-M, you eat up so you can make lots of mike for little Durango here," he said, going in to the stall set the pail down for Miriam.
She started eating immediately. Durango paused just long enough to stiff at the rats before he went back to nursing.
"Durango…" Mr. Tiny said again. "You did good, son."
Vin blushed, but the shadows in the barn effectively hid the fact.
"So, you ready to go over some Herbology?" the big man asked.
The boy nodded.
Wednesday, March 24, 1999
While it was a regular school day for the rest of the students, for Chris and his team it was an unusual day. They were standing together as a group near the barns, waiting.
They watched as what looked to Vin like an old fashioned buckboard wagon was rolled out of one of the storage sheds. His grandfather had had one similar to this one, setting out near the barn, but it had been weathered and falling apart. This one was in much better condition.
Professor Ko-Jay used his wand to fill the wagon bed full of sweet-smelling hay, then covered it with a big Diné blanket. All seven of the boys were then magically popped from where they were standing to sitting on the blanket – "no muss, no fuss," as Ms. Nettie put it.
Tomorrow was the goodbye ritual and Professor Ko-Jay was taking them to the Village. There, they were supposed to pick up something that reminded them of Chris' family, or represented their connection to the family. During the ritual they would each talk about what they picked as part of them saying goodbye.
Vin just hoped he could find something. His relationship with Chris' family was a lot more complicated than he'd expected, once he'd started thinking about it.
Two of the four Sugarbush Draft horses that lived on campus were hitched to the wagon and the trip to the Village was begun. The boys eventually lay down on the blanket, most of them falling asleep. But Vin and Chris remained awake, and eventually they joined Ko-Jay on the wagon seat.
The older man allowed each of the boys an opportunity to drive the team as they rolled steadily toward the Village.
"Professor, why are we going this way?" Chris asked. "We could've just used the Hearth Network."
"I thought you might enjoy it," he replied. "It is my favorite method."
Vin grinned. "Mine, too – unless I get t' fly with Lightwing."
It only took a little under an hour to reach the community, then Ko-Jay roused the boys. They agreed to meet back at Opa Locka's Soda Shop for lunch at noon, then they all headed off to look for their item.
Vin wasn't at all sure where he should start looking, so he just headed up the main street of the small community, ducking into each shop he reached and waiting for something to inspire him. As it neared noon, he sighed and stepped back out onto the wooden boardwalk that ran the length of Main Street. He still hadn't found anything, and he'd been to all the shops but one. At the very end of the street was Chauncey's Gem and Rock Emporium.
Taking a deep breath Vin walked in and started to look around. The shop reminded him of the one where he'd found Kane's Christmas present last year. There were all kinds of interesting rocks, geodes, crystals, and gems. But it was a small tree made from amethyst crystals that eventually caught his attention. When he stared at the design it reminded him of some of the trees along the purple path he and Chris had taken to reach Chris' family… Back before all the trees had died… But it felt like the path had in the beginning…
Smiling, Vin looked up at the older man standing behind the counter and asked, "Can I have this one?"
The old man nodded. "I know who you are, Vin Tanner, and why you're here. I'll wrap that right up for you, and send the bill to the Academy."
"Thank you, sir," Vin replied, suddenly feeling more than a little self-conscious. Did everybody in the Village know about the ritual?
Then, with his gift in a box, and the box in his bag of holding – which he shoved back into his pocket – Vin raced off down the boardwalk to the Soda Shop, where the others had already gathered. He ordered a cheeseburger, fries, and a vanilla shake, digging into his meal vigorously when it arrived; shopping was hungry work.
Everyone except Chris had found something for the ritual, so Professor Ko-Jay left Chris with Chanu – so he could continue looking – and took the others back to the Academy. This time even Vin fell asleep in the back of the wagon, his belly full, and his goodbye gift found.
Thursday, March 25, 1999
The following morning, after breakfast, most of the students headed off to spend their spring break at home, or with friends. But Chris and the others remained at their usual table, waiting for someone to come and get them, taking them to the site for the goodbye ritual. None of them knew where that was going to be.
Vin was feeling all fluttery inside, and he guessed that meant he was nervous. Chris and Buck were both looking sad, which put a damper on everyone else, so the seven boys waited in silence until Ms. Nettie finally came to get them.
"Does everyone have their gift?" she asked.
Seven heads nodded in reply.
"All right then, it's time to get started." She reached out her hand and Vin took it. Then he held out his free hand to Chris, and after a moment's hesitation, the older boy took it. The three of them led the way for the others.
Vin had thought the ritual might take place in the Defense of the Dark Arts building, just like the trips he had Chris had taken to visit the Larabee family, but instead, Ms. Nettie led them to an open grassy area in which a medicine wheel had been built from stones. There was a thick stick at the center of the circle with four beautiful red roses growing from the top.
Ms. Nettie positioned Josiah at the northwest quadrant and Ezra at the northeast. Nathan was placed at the southwest and JD in the southeast. The four boys were told to set their gifts in the center of the open grass in their quadrant, then return to their positions outside the circle.
Close by, the same professors who had helped protect the boys while they travelled to Chris' old home were moving about, some monitoring pots of burning sage and sweet grass while others formed a protective shield around the medicine wheel.
Ms. Nettie had Vin stand in front of the line of rocks that pointed north. Buck was placed at the east point, and Chris at the south, directly across the circle from Vin. The west position was left open.
Softly, Ko-Jay, Chanu, Imala, and Tastanagi began to beat the drums they held. Ko-Jay and Tastanagi chanted softly as well.
Headmaster Travis said something to everyone in a language that Vin couldn't comprehend, but all the adults seemed to understand him just fine. He noticed that Josiah seemed to understand a little of it, too, but he knew he had to remain silent until he was called upon to speak, so he didn't ask the older boy what the Headmaster was saying.
When Travis finally stopped speaking a strange blue-violet flame shot up the wooden stick in the center of the medicine wheel, but it didn't seem to be burning the wood, or the roses. It was then Vin saw Chris' bracelet, dangling from the very tip of the stick.
Several of the professors spoke in the language Travis had been using, and then it was time for the boys to speak. Josiah was first, explaining his gift in a single sentence. Ms. Nettie had asked them to make their comments brief, and Josiah had obviously taken her at her word. She nodded approvingly.
Ezra was next, then JD, and finally Nathan. Vin hadn't really realized that none of the four of them had actually met Chris' parents. They all knew them through Chris and Buck.
"Vin, it's your turn," Ms. Nettie said, nodding to the boy.
Vin swallowed and blew out the breath he felt like holding. "I didn't know y' all that well," he said softly, speaking to the bracelet and hoping the family could hear him, "but yer son's m' big brother now, and y' said me an' all 'a us are a part 'a yer family… That means a lot t' me, since I ain't got a family no more. I found this tree an' it reminded me 'a the way the purple path looked when we first found it. I know it was supposed t' be fer Buck, but y' sure made me feel welcome when I come instead. I promised t' take care 'a Chris, an' I will – I swear. I hope y'all find a nice new home now."
Vin finished with a long sigh, grateful his part in the ritual was over. He'd said more than the other four put together, but he felt like he'd said what needed saying.
Buck went next, thanking Chris' family for taking him in when his mama died. He talked about how he loved Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel like a mom and dad, and how he'd watch out for Chris and them, too. His gift was a small replica of the broom he'd been riding the day he and Chris had found the Larabee home destroyed. He even admitted that he'd had a crush on Sarah. He finished with, "You were my second family, and Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel are my third… I'm a real lucky boy. I love all of you as much as I love my ma and my family today. I hope you're happy, and that I can see you again one day. Please tell my mama hello and I love her, if you see her. She and Aunt Rachael and Aunt Kathy were best friends. And Chris is my brother and my best friend… I'm gonna miss you."
There was more chanting and Headmaster Travis said more strange-sounding words. Then Ms. Nettie nodded to Chris.
The blond squared his shoulders and recited something in the same language Headmaster Travis was using. Then he took his gift from his bag of holding and set it down. It was a sculpture of two adult mountain lion heads facing to the front and the back, and around the base, three cubs, two on one side and one on the other.
Chris talked quietly about how the animal ran in the family, and how he was proud to carry that legacy on. He talked about how much he admired Sarah, and how great Adam was was a little brother. His voice fell to a soft whisper as he said his final goodbyes, and Vin was glad that he couldn't hear what the boy was saying. It was a private thing between Chris and his family.
When Chris finished speaking and wiped the tears from his eyes, Headmaster Travis said something in a commanding voice and a purple mist began to form over the rocks that marked the west side of the medicine wheel. The flames along the stick began to glow more yellow-orange and one of the roses was consumed in a flash of white sparks. A moment later, Matthew Larabee was standing in the medicine wheel, in the northwest quadrant. Another rose disappeared in a flash of white sparks and Rachael Larabee appeared in the southwest quadrant. The third rose disappeared and Sarah appeared in the northeast quadrant. And when the final rose was consumed Adam was standing in the southeast quadrant. They were smiling and looked almost normal, except that the boys could almost see right through them.
Matthew nodded at Vin and Buck, then smiled at his son. He walked to the purple mist and stepped through, disappearing. Rachael gave all seven boys a kiss on the forehead and followed after her husband.
Sarah smiled at Vin, socked Buck on the arm, and hugged her brother before waving at the others and following after her parents.
And Adam gave each boy a high-five, and Chris a tight hug, before he galloped after his family.
As soon as Adam disappeared the purple mist and the strange fire on the stick both popped out of existence. The stick was untouched, but the roses were gone, as were all the gifts. Only Chris' bracelet remained.
The blond walked into the medicine wheel and got the bracelet, putting it back on.
"It is done," Ms. Nettie said.
A moment later everything and everyone else was also gone, except the seven boys and Ms. Nettie. Kathy and Daniel walked over to join them.
"It was a beautiful ritual," Kathy said, pulling Buck and Chris to her and giving them a hug.
"It was," Daniel agreed. Then he looked around at the boys and asked, "You guys ready to come home with us?"
They all nodded.
"All right then, let's go."
Friday, March 26, 1999
They used a portkey to reach the Larabee home.
Once there, all of the boys except Chris headed straight to the basement to see if their suitcases were there – they were – and to unpack. They each took the same bed they had been using on and off since Thanksgiving.
And when everything was in place, they headed back upstairs as a group.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris watched the other boys heading down to the basement and wished he could go with them, but he knew his aunt and uncle wanted to speak to him so he held back and waited.
"How are you doing, son?" Daniel asked him, resting his hand on Chris' shoulder.
Chris nodded and shrugged. "Okay, I guess."
"You know you did the right thing, don't you?" Kathy asked him.
"But the right thing is sometimes the hardest thing to do," Daniel said, giving Chris' shoulder a supportive squeeze. "And that's why we're so proud of you."
Chris nodded again, not trusting himself not to start crying if he said anything.
"We wanted to check and see how you felt about this long weekend," Kathy said. "If you're not up to having the boys here we can—"
"No," Chris said quickly. "I want them here."
"Are you sure?" Daniel asked.
"Yes," Chris said with conviction. "We need to study, and they're all looking forward to going to Wizards Peak."
"Well, all right, but if you need some time alone, just let us know, okay?" Kathy said.
"I will," Chris said, but he knew he wouldn't. He actually felt better than he had in a while. He'd said his goodbyes, and he knew his family was in a better place now. He had helped take care of them, and that made him feel better inside. And it felt better to have his team with him.
Kathy pulled him into a hug and kissed the top of his head. "It really was a beautiful ritual."
Chris nodded. "They liked it – I could tell."
The sound of footsteps coming up from the basement stopped the conversation and Chris pulled out of the hug. Kathy and Daniel exchanged amused glances; boys, they hated looking weak in front of their friends.
When the others joined them, Kathy said, "So, who's ready for lunch?"
"Me!" the boys all replied in unison.
"All right then, let's go outside and eat," Daniel said, leading the way.
A few minutes later the boys were all sitting at two picnic tables in the backyard, eating hamburgers that had been grilled, along with veggie sticks and apple slices. When they were done, they pulled out the Knights and Wizards game board and grabbed their characters for a game that lasted until dinner time.
After they ate, it was time to study until they were sent off to bed.
Vin waited until the others were asleep, then leaned over the edge of his bed and called, "Chris?"
"Yeah?" the older boy replied in the darkness.
"Yeah," he replied.
"They looked real happy."
"Yeah, they did."
"Adam told me he's glad I'm gonna be your little brother now. He said ya need one."
Chris grinned. "He did, huh?"
"Yep. He was lots better."
"Mom said they'd all be watching out for us."
"We're all real lucky t' be part 'a yer family."
"Yeah," he said smiling and feeling proud, "you all are."
Vin giggled. "Good-night, Chris."
"Good-night… little brother."
Saturday, March 27, 1999
The boys were up early on Saturday, and after a big breakfast they settled in to study for their exams and do their homework. There were more than a few grumbles about the fact they had to study, but a hard look from Chris had all of them burying their noses in their books.
Daniel even spent some time with Vin and Buck, helping them work on Potions – at Chris' request.
After lunch they used the Hearth Network to go to Wizard's Peak, where they spent the rest of the day on the rides, even eating dinner and watching some of the magical fireworks displays before coming home late.
Once back, the boys fell into their beds, and were asleep almost immediately. They were exhausted.
Kathy and Daniel smiled when they checked in on the boys before heading off to bed themselves a couple of hours later.
"Hard to imagine that they might grow up to become Magical Law Enforcement officers," Kathy said, looking over the sleeping faces.
"Oh, I don't know," Daniel replied.
"They just look so young and innocent right now," she whispered.
Daniel nodded his agreement, but he saw something more than his wife did – a group of boys who were dedicated to each other, and who had a specific plan for their future. It was actually a little disconcerting when he thought about it too deeply. They were all far too 'adult' in some ways – as far as he was concerned – but then they had all faced significant loss or hard times, some of them both, and that had made a difference.
"They'll be fine as long as they have each other," he told her, then turned out the last small light and took his wife's hand as they climbed the stairs together.
Sunday, March 28, 1999
The following morning the boys rose relatively early again, and after eating breakfast they went back to work on preparing for their exams. Vin was starting to feel pretty good about the Herbology test, but he and Buck were still worried about Potions – no matter how hard they studied, they couldn't seem to remember all the ingredients that went into all the potions…
Vin frowned as he reviewed the ingredients for a simple healing potion. Without thinking about it, he rearranged the list in alphabetical over, then created a silly saying. He giggled.
Then it hit him – he and Buck could use the same approach Ko-Jay had taught him for Herbology in Potions!
"Hey, Buck," he called, "come look at this…"
They ate a light lunch while they continued to study, not stopping until Kathy shooed them outside in the afternoon.
Daniel was grilling burgers for dinner, and the boys managed to get in a quick game of Hoops before it was time to eat. Buck and Vin kept singing several ditties that they had created for some of the potions. The other boys just shook their heads and tried to ignore them.
After dinner they decided to play another game of Knights and Wizards until it was time for them to return to the Academy.
Another portkey sent them back with just enough time to unpack and get ready for bed before lights out.
Daniel and Kathy sent them off feeling that Chris was quickly getting back to normal, and for that they were very grateful.
Monday, March 29, 1999
Vin wasn't all that excited about going back to class on Monday, but he knew they only had a couple of weeks left before the EYEs, and he needed all the time he could find to study – well, to make up more jingles for Potions, anyway.
The professors all shifted from their regular homework assignments to a series of pre-tests, which would continue right up to Monday, April 12th, when they would begin to take their EYEs. There would be several of the exams each day, although individual students would only be taking two a day, at most.
Vin decided that it was the clubs and his chores that would keep him going until the EYEs were over, especially Durango. At least when he was in a club, or at the barns, he wasn't worrying so much about the tests…
Still, it was going to be a long two weeks.
Saturday, April 17, 1999
Vin woke Saturday morning and smiled. The EYEs were over!
Then his smile dipped into a frown. But he wouldn't know how he'd done for another whole week!
He groaned, and with a heavy sigh forced himself out of bed. A whole week not knowing if he'd passed Potions…
He briefly considered going back to bed, and staying right there until next Saturday, but he knew Ms. Nettie wouldn't allow him to do that.
Too bad, though…
Before long the general cheerfulness that surrounded him helped lift Vin's spirits. Everyone was delighted to be past the exams. So, by the time he'd finished breakfast, he was smiling again, just like the rest of his friends.
He ran to the barns to start his chores, checking first on Miriam and Durango, who both looked quite content as they napped together in their stall.
After Vin finished his lunch later, he completed his chores, then sat down on a stack of hay bales to watch the griffin cubs playing. They had gotten a lot bigger recently, and now had an entire corral all to themselves. Mr. Tiny had said they would be flying soon, too.
Hearing the beat of wings, Vin looked up. Then, smiling and waving, he called, "Hi, Lightwing!"
The flying horse touched down and walked over to join him as Mr. Tiny came out of the tool shed to join them.
Good afternoon, Vin, Lightwing said. I understand you have finished your exams.
Vin nodded, saying, "Yep, we finished yesterday. I'm really glad they're over, too."
Well then, I would say you are due a victory flight.
Vin's eyes rounded. "Really? But I don't know how I did."
I am very sure you did well, the Pegasus replied, bowing down so Vin could climb up onto his back with a little boost from Tiny.
Vin got settled, making sure he didn't bend any of the flying horse's feathers the wrong direction. Then Lightwing bunched his hindquarters and leapt into the air, his wings beating, quickly carrying them up into the clear blue sky.
Vin held on with his legs, like Mr. Tiny had taught him, as they circled around the Academy grounds. The sun was shining down on them, and the sky was a deep blue as spring made itself known once more. Wind rushed past Vin's face and he closed his eyes and held his arms out, flapping them in time with Lightwing's wing-beats. In his mind's eye he could see the grass getting greener and some of the bushes were starting to leaf…
The Pegasus dipped and soared and Vin laughed with pure enjoyment, loving the feeling it created inside him.
Then Vin felt the familiar tingle race across his body, just like it did in Transfiguration Club. It settled across his back, and a moment later he felt something pop free from his shoulder blades.
He yelped and tried to look back over his shoulders, but he couldn't. There were feathers in the way, poking up from the collar of his T-shirt.
He felt his heart begin to race.
Easy, little one, Lightwing said inside Vin's head, it is perfectly normal.
Of, course. You just experienced your first partial transfiguration.
Vin's mouth fell open. "But I'm a first year!"
Yes, well, you are a little precocious perhaps, but Tiny was even more so. He had undergone a full transfiguration before his EYEs.
"He did? Wow," Vin breathed, then gasped when his partial transfiguration popped back out of existence. It didn't really hurt, but it sure felt… weird.
Lightwing dipped back toward the barns and landed. Mr. Tiny looked up from shoeing a hippogriffin. "Back already?"
Vin experienced a partial transfiguration, Lightwing explained.
"There was lots of feathers," Vin said, sliding off Lightwing's back.
"Ah, I see," the big man replied, grinning. "Well, then, I guess we'd better go talk to Ms. Nettie."
Vin looked a little leery about the suggestion.
"It's time she and I told you a little more about yourself, Vin," Mr. Tiny explained.
"Oh boy," Vin muttered to himself, then looked back at the flying horse and said, "Thanks, Lightwing!"
You are very welcome, little one. And with that he leaped back into the air and headed off.
"Come on, Vin," Mr. Tiny said, leading the way to Ms. Nettie's office.
Tiny let her know they were there using one of the crystal balls, and a few moment later she joined them. She looked at Tiny, who said, "Partial transfiguration."
She smiled and patted Vin on the back. "Well, it's about time."
Vin grinned a little self-consciously, surprised to discover that his back was a little tender.
"Oh, sorry, dear," she replied, sitting down at her desk. Tiny took one of the chairs on the other side and Vin slid into the second one, hoping he wasn't in trouble.
"We've had our eye on you for a while now, you know," Tiny said.
"W-Why?" Vin asked.
"Me and Lightwing knew you were going to undergo the change quicker than most," Tiny replied.
"You did?" Vin asked.
Tiny smiled. "Because, Vin, just like me, you're not just going to be an animagus, you're going to be an animagi."
Vin frowned. He was pretty sure they hadn't talked about an animagi in his Transfiguration class, or in the club for that matter. "What's that?" he asked hesitantly.
"You know that an animagus is someone who can take an animal form," Ms. Nettie said. "Well, an animagi is someone who can take multiple animal forms."
"Really?" Vin asked. It sounded wonderful, but how could he do that?
"Animagi usually change into their primary animal in their first year," Nettie said. "Other shapes will take a little longer."
"I acquired one additional shape each year, 'til I was in my fifth year, then it was several new shapes a year after that, 'til I was about twenty or so and I stopped gettin' new ones," Mr. Tiny explained.
"How many can you do?" Vin asked, looking at the man in awe.
"Oh, twenty-eight or so," he replied, his cheeks turning a little red from embarrassment. "Some are easier than others, though."
"And I'll be able to do that, too?" Vin asked.
Mr. Tiny nodded. "Yep. The hardest ones to do will be the magical animal forms – non-magical forms will be a lot easier. In fact, you might not be able to take a magical animal form at all, we'll just have to wait and see."
Vin trembled with excitement. "What's m' primary one?"
"Well, some kind of bird, it seems," Tiny said. "Since you said there were feathers."
"Let's find out, shall we?" Ms. Nettie opened her desk and took out a small crystal wand and ran it from Vin's left shoulder, up and over his head to his right shoulder. She and Tiny could easily see the hawk's head.
"Red-tailed hawk," Mr. Tiny said, nodding approvingly.
"A hawk?" Vin echoed. Then he smiled broadly. "Y' mean I'll be able to fly, all by myself?"
"You will indeed," Tiny told him.
"Cool," Vin breathed. He couldn't wait to tell the others.
Saturday, April 24, 1999
Vin woke the following Saturday morning and smiled. He'd done better on his EYEs than he'd expected! In fact, he'd gotten all As, except for Potions, where he'd gotten a B – he couldn't believe it! He'd gotten a B in Potions!
Professor Conklin hadn't seemed too happy about that, but Vin didn't care. He'd gotten a B… in Potions!
Buck had gotten a B in Potions as well, which had made Chris very happy. That, of course, had made Buck even happier.
And the end of the school year was rapidly approaching as well – it was only a little more than a month away.
Vin wasn't quite sure where he would be staying over the summer months, but he wasn't worried about it. There were several wards of the Academy who would be staying at Horsefeathers all summer, and he knew Josiah, Nathan, and JD would be on campus most of the time.
Buck and Chris would be going home to Durango, but the other boys would be visiting them at least one weekend each month, and maybe more.
And Nathan would be going on his vision quest with Chris and Buck, and a few other third years from other Gilds, so Vin knew he'd be seeing everyone on and off all summer.
Well, except for Ezra. The second year would be spending a big chunk of his summer with his mother. Ezra hadn't seemed too happy to hear that, but he'd just hunched his shoulders and nodded when Ms. Nettie had told him at breakfast a few days ago.
At least Ezra wouldn't be leaving until the school year was over, and for that Vin was grateful. He was going to miss the boy over the summer.
Vin shook his head to clear away the jumbled thoughts and turned his attention to what was happening today. Today was a big day on campus. Today was the Hoops final, to determine the best team for the whole year.
Hawks Gild would be playing Salmon Gild for the top honor, and it was already getting boisterous in the dorm as the boys rose and started getting ready for the day.
After breakfast everyone would go out to the eastern Hoops field, where the professors had magically constructed tall bleachers that would hold everyone. After the game, there would be a big barbecue and lots of booths where the students could play games and win prizes, and there would be rides, too – like the carnival his grandfather had taken him to once.
Vin was looking forward to the whole day. And there wasn't even any homework to worry about this weekend!
In fact, there wouldn't be any more weekend homework, which was great news as far as Vin was concerned. All he really had to worry about now was deciding who to go to the end-of-year-dance with.
He made a face. He didn't really care much for girls, so he couldn't imagine taking one to a dance. Besides, he didn't know how to dance anyway.
Still, everyone was going, so he guessed he would have to find someone to take – if he could.
Josiah had already asked Mary Travis, and she had agreed.
Nathan was taking Rain, and JD was taking Casey. No surprises there.
Ling Po had asked Ezra to go with her, and he'd been so surprised he'd said yes on the spot.
And Buck was taking Amanda Lynne, of course.
Chris had asked some girl named Ella, another third year from Spiders Gild.
Hannah had looked really sad when Buck had asked Amanda Lynne, but she'd congratulated the girl anyway. As far as Vin knew, no one had asked Hannah to go with them, so maybe he could ask her. He liked Josiah's sister, and he knew she thought of him as a friend, but she was a second year, and he was just a first year, so he doubted she'd agree to go with him.
He wouldn't have minded asking Inez, either, her being such a good Hoops player, but she was a second year, too, so it wasn't likely that she'd say yes, either.
It all just seemed so… uninteresting. Why couldn't they just go as a group and let the girls amuse themselves?
JD rushed past, grabbing Vin and dragging him off to shower, so Vin set aside his worries over the dance, and concentrated on trying to follow all the things JD was telling him they had to do in order to ensure Hawks Gild won the Hoops championship today.
Vin wasn't sure how JD knew all this stuff, but he was the smartest student in their class – except maybe for Casey – so he tried to do everything the younger boy told him to do, even managing to cross his eyes while he tied both his shoes.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The game started slowly, both teams attempting to score several times and failing. Then Buck caught a break and slammed one through a hoop for the first score. A few moments later, he got a second one.
The students watching cheered wildly.
Chasers sped around the field, Chris managing to steal the Quaffle and score a moment before he was nearly unseated by a Bludger, but he kept control of his broom and sped off after the Quaffle once more.
Salmon Gild scored twice, then tied the score, but Hawks Gild rallied and scored again.
For the next forty-five minutes the score flip-flopped back and forth between the two teams, neither able to get more than one score ahead of the other. Then, suddenly, the two Seekers were in motion, dipping and soaring as they pursued the Golden Snitch. The rest of the two teams continued their game, Chris bringing the score even once more.
But Vin wasn't watching his big brother this time, he was watching Inez as she raced after the Snitch, her hand out, ready to grab it as soon as she was close enough. It was mesmerizing to watch. He could just see the tiny ball ahead of her, then he saw the Bludger streaking toward her as well.
He gasped, but a Hawks Gild Beater knocked it away just before it struck her.
A moment later the audience erupted into wild applause when Inez held up the Snitch and whooped in triumph.
The rest of the Hawks Gild team rushed to her, clapping her on the back and giving her high-fives. As a group they took a victory lap to the cheers of the onlookers.
Hawks Gild was the Hoops Champions for the 1998-1999 school year!
A large celebration followed, with a massive picnic, games and rides. The Headmaster awarded Hawks Gild the Hoops trophy for the year – a single silver hoop atop a large Golden Snitch. The names of each of the team members had been engraved on the circular body of the snitch, as well as the year. Buck held it up over his head and Amanda Lynne ran up and kissed him right on the lips. He nearly dropped the trophy, but Chris and Inez grabbed it just in time.
Vin watched it all, feeling so happy inside he felt like he might just burst. He finally ran over and pounded Chris on the back, then turned to Inez and said, "You were amazing!"
She smiled. "Thanks," she replied. "For a minute there I didn't think I was going to catch it."
"Really?" Vin asked.
He blushed as he said, "Do you want to go to the dance with me?"
She smiled. "Sure, but I already told Hannah I'd go with her. Can she come with us?"
"Yeah, sure," Vin replied. "She's my friend, too."
"Cool," Inez replied, then gave him a hug and hurried off to find Hannah.
"See, I told you!" JD yelled as he ran up to join Vin. "We did all the right things and we won!"
"Those are just superstitions," Josiah told the youngest boy.
"Not-ah," JD retorted. "They worked!"
Josiah just shook his head.
Professor Chanu took the trophy so Chris was able to join Vin and the others as they settled in to eat. Inez came back with Hannah, who gave Vin a quick hug to thank him for taking them to the dance, then the two girls sat down with them to eat.
Vin smiled, realizing that he was going to make Buck jealous, taking two girls to the dance.
Once they finished eating the seven boys and five girls headed to the games and rides for more fun.
Tuesday May 11, 1999
Vin was admiring Buck in his full wolf form when he felt the strange tingling sensation wash over him, only this time it didn't fizzle out like it usually did. This time it made him gasp, feeling like there was live electricity racing over his skin. Then, a moment later, he was staring out at the class, but seeing them in a totally new way. It was… weird.
Some of the students gasped, others clapped. And Chris was staring at him, looking proud for some reason.
Vin opened his mouth to speak, but a screech came out instead of words. He quickly shut his mouth and heard a sharp clicking sound.
Then Ms. Nettie was there, and he realized he had somehow hopped onto her arm. He looked down at himself, but all he saw were feathers…
He was a hawk!
He'd made his first full transfiguration!
He screeched again and unfurled his wings part way, flapping them a few times, trying to fly.
"Settle down, young man," Ms. Nettie told him. "You're still a little too young to actually fly. You'll need to do a little growing first."
Vin clacked his beak a couple of times in frustration, but he knew somehow that she was right. He was still a juvenile bird, and his feathers were not quite fully developed.
Ms. Nettie said a word Vin didn't quite catch and, suddenly, he was a normal boy again. He looked up at the older woman.
"Congratulations, son," she told him, her eyes twinkling with a little pride as well.
Vin smiled and threw his arms around her. She returned his hug.
A moment later the rest of the team were congratulating him as well.
"Looks like there will be four of you going on your vision quests this summer," Josiah told them.
Vin looked from the older boy to Ms. Nettie. "I will?"
"Probably," she said with a nod.
"Probably?" Chris echoed.
"That decision will be made by the Transfiguration Oversight Committee as a whole, but I'm guessing that Vin will probably be going."
"Cool!" Nathan said.
"Yeah!" Buck agreed.
Ezra and JD didn't look as happy, but they knew their time would come as well – in a year or so.
"All right," Ms. Nettie said, clapping her hands to get everyone's attention. "That is all for Transfiguration Club today," she said. "And this is the last club meeting this year. I expect to see everyone back again next year."
Friday May 21, 1999
"All right, Nettie, who do we have from Hawks Guild?" Tastanagi asked, reaching the last of the Gilds.
"We will have eight – Mary Travis, Rain Eban, Garth Nichols, Rebee Ortiz, Chris Larabee, Nathan Jackson, Buck Wilmington, and Vin Tanner."
"Vin? But he's just a first year," Imala said.
"True, but he's an animagi," Tiny explained, his chest puffing out a little as he looked proud.
"And he's experienced his first full transfiguration," Nettie added. "With the majority of his friends able to take an animal form now, he's not going to wait."
"Ah, then it is best if he finds his guide sooner rather than later," Tastanagi agreed. He looked at Tiny, a twinkle in his eye as he said, "It is about time we had another animagi around here."
Tiny grinned. "I was starting to wonder," he admitted, having been one of the last animagi to pass through the school. There had only been four since him, and they had all graduated. He suspected there would be one more next year, if Hannah Sanchez could get past her shyness and just let her first transfiguration happen.
Tastanagi looked at Tiny and Nettie and asked, "Do you think the boys should go as a group?"
Nettie shook her head. "I think if they do they'll be too easily distracted. Tiny and I have talked, we think Buck and Nathan should be one pairing, and Chris and Vin the other. The girls can go as a group, and Garth's older brother wants to accompany him."
"Aren't Chris and Vin too close not to be a distraction for each other?" Imala asked.
"We considered that," Tiny acknowledged, leaning back in his chair. The Transfiguration Committee met at one of the smaller restaurants in the Village, so they were able to enjoy a nice meal and chat about the children who were able to develop their animagus talents comfortably. "But Vin's a quiet child, and so is Chris. They're close, but not chatty all the time, you know what I mean?"
The others on the committee considered that, nodding that they did.
"Then that is how they shall be sent," Tastanagi concluded. He cocked his head at Tiny and asked, "What else aren't you telling us, my friend?"
Tiny grinned. "Well, you know Lightwing and me can spot an animagi pretty easily…"
"Yes, and?" Imala asked.
"And Lightwing, well, sometimes he can see what or who a student's guide will be. It's one of his gifts."
"And who or what will Vin's be?" Ko-Jay asked with a chuckle.
"Forza," Tiny replied, then grinned and lifted his eyebrows.
"Oh my," Nettie said, shaking her head.
"That does not bode well, a child needing such a powerful guide," Tastanagi added, looking more than a little worried.
Tiny nodded, his expression turning more serious. "I agree, my friend, but Lightwing seems to think it has more to do with his adulthood than his childhood."
"Still, with this and what we're hearing coming from Hogwarts…" Ko-Jay said, trailing off in case they were overheard.
"Dark forces are awakening. It is only a matter of time before they are here at the Academy, and in our communities," Tastanagi concluded, saying what all of them were thinking.
"We knew it would happen eventually," Headmaster Travis said sadly. "Voldemort is but a symptom of a larger problem that has infected the wizarding world since our beginnings. We were naïve to think that we could hold it at bay."
The others nodded their agreement.
"And it appears that Chris and this team of his will be playing a role in how that works itself out here," Nettie said. "I wish we could spare them that."
"I do as well, but this is their path to walk," Tastanagi told her.
"I know," she replied, "but I don't want them to get hurt, or worse, before they've even graduated."
"We'll keep an eye on our soon-to-be Magical Law Enforcement officers," Travis told the committee members. "But, like young Harry Potter, once you have been touched by darkness, it will find you again, whether we will it or no."
"All these boys have been touched by it," Nettie stated. "Some more than others."
"Indeed," Travis replied. "All we can do is train them the best we can, and instill in them a strong sense of right and wrong, and see where fate takes them. Send all of the children going this year in pairs or small groups."
"We will see what the Spirits tell us by the choices they make," Tastanagi said.
"It really is all we can do," Imala added.
"Well, me and Lightwing have an idea or two about that," Tiny added, then leaned forward and cast a spell of silence so no one would hear what he had to tell the committee members.
Friday May 28, 1999
Vin stood at the end-of-year prom and watched as Chris and the others took turns dancing with their partners. Luckily, neither Inez nor Hannah had forced him out onto the dance floor yet, but he knew his luck couldn't last forever. Maybe he should have borrowed some of Buck's liquid luck…
Still, he was about as happy as he could ever remember being. He'd passed all his EYEs – with good grades, too. Hawks Gild had won the Hoops championship. He'd transfigured, and he was going on his vision quest over the summer with Chris!
He'd be spending some time over the summer on campus, and some in Durango, too. That meant he'd be seeing Mr. Tiny, Mrs. Potter, and Ms. Nettie over the summer, as well several of his other professors. And he'd be spending ten days around the Fourth of July in Durango, and the week before the vision quest as well. Chris had promised to come to campus some weekends, and most of August, so he and Josiah could help Vin start deciphering some of the magical signs and symbols he could see.
All in all, it was going to be a great summer, and he was ready for it to begin.
He knew that the students who stayed on campus over the summer still had to follow the rules, and they would have chores to do and some study time, but they would also have more free time than during the school year.
He was sorry that first and second year students were required to remain on the Academy grounds over the summer, unless they were accompanied by an adult. He had hoped to go to the Village on his own, to find JD a birthday present, but maybe Mr. Tiny could take him.
Vin had several new books he wanted to read, too, and Durango and the griffin cubs to play with. Kane was planning to spend the summer in Romania with some cousins. He hadn't really seen much of the tiny dragon recently, but then it had probably would have been pretty boring for the dragon, watching him studying for the EYES…
Vin also planned to spend a good deal of time flying on Peso, and working on his ability to fly as a hawk. Maybe if he ate lots of extra food all summer he'd be able to fly on his own before classes started again. That would be so cool…
"Hey, Vin, you want to dance with me?" Hannah asked him quietly, her face turning bright red as she did.
She looked like she was sure he'd say no, which made Vin feel sad, so he told her, "Sure, but do ya have a spell that can make me a good dancer?"
She thought for a moment, then took out her wand and pointed it at him and said, "Praesul presul bene." She stuck her wand back in her robes, then took his hand and led him onto the dance floor.
A moment later he and Hannah were dancing, and he realized that he was good at it, too. He smiled. "Thanks!"
"You're welcome," she said, then smiled. "You look nice in your robes."
It was Vin's turn to blush. He thought they were kind of weird, being like a dress and all, but all of the students were wearing them, so he'd put his on as well. They were a deep orange color, like the sunrise and sunset in the desert, with gold trim. Spiders Gild had red robes with gold trim, Salmon Gild blue robes with silver trim, and Buffalo Gild had black robes with silver trim. Vin thought he might like Turtles Gild robes the best, though, they had green ones with copper trim. The professors wore white robes with copper trim, and Headmaster Travis wore a purple robe with gold, silver, and copper trim.
The next number he danced with Inez.
"Wow, you're good!" she told him.
"Hannah cast a dancing spell on me," he admitted. "I don't know how t' dance."
"Well, that's what magic's for, right?" the older girl replied.
And so it went for the rest of the party. Vin danced with his two dates, and they danced with each other sometimes, too. And in between the songs they ate and drank punch, or played games and went on rides.
Toward the end of the evening some of the boys had once more gathered together. Vin glanced around and asked Chris, "Where's Buck? I ain't hardly seen him at the party."
Chris shook his head and looked like he was keeping a secret. "He's, uh, making use of that liquid luck you gave him for Christmas."
"He is?" Vin asked. "For what? He don't need any luck to get Amanda Lynne on the dance floor."
Chris grinned. "I'll, uh, explain it to you over the summer."
The blond considered that for a moment, then grinned wider and said, "In the summer of your third year."
"What?" Vin replied, confused and a little annoyed.
"What he's trying not to say is that Buck used the liquid luck to get Amanda Lynne to agree to have sex with him," Ezra stated drolly, then rolled his eyes. "He need not have wasted such a generous gift on that pursuit. She's been waiting for him to ask her all year."
Vin's cheeks turned bright red, and he suddenly realized why Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel had looked so worried about the gift. "Ewww," he said, wrinkling his nose.
Chris shrugged. "Wait a couple of years, see what you think then," he told the younger boy, realizing that there really was a difference between being almost fourteen and still being eleven. He glanced over at Ella, who was at one of the food tables, and she smiled at him, a promise in her eyes that had his belly turning flips. "Uh, me and Ella's gonna go get some air," he said.
"Oh, okay," Vin replied, he and Ezra watching the pair leave.
"Apparently Buck shared some of his luck," Ezra commented quietly.
Vin looked more than a little surprised. "Y' mean, Chris an' that Ella girl…?"
"So I assume," Ezra replied, watching as Ling Po, Hannah, and Inez started over to them from one of the food tables. He had to admit, he was a little curious himself, but he didn't tell Vin that.
He and Vin ate some of the goodies the girls had brought back, then they were dragged back out to dance some more.
Vin was more than a little grateful when the dance finally came to an end and he could go back to the Aerie. His feet were sore and he'd had more than enough time with girls. He found Chris and Buck already back, both of them looking smug and grinning.
Vin shook his head, he just couldn't understanding why they were so interested in girls. Buck especially couldn't seem to get enough of them. But then, that was just Buck…
Still, Vin didn't care much for Amanda Lynne or Ella, so he hoped if Chris was going to have a girlfriend now he'd pick somebody else. That Ella girl gave him chills sometimes. Sometimes he saw Mary Travis looking at Chris, but she seemed happier around Josiah. She and Chris got into lots of arguments.
As he climbed into bed, Vin thought once more about how much his life had changed. He had a new family, and a place he could call home. It was a good feeling. And if he had to put up with a few girls hanging around, he decided that wasn't too big a price to pay. Still, he hoped he didn't have to spend the whole summer listening to Buck talk about his "Lucky night with Amanda Lynne."
He grinned. Maybe he could find a potion that would reverse that kind of luck when he went to the Village to get JD's birthday present. That would serve Buck right. Yep, he'd definitely see what he could find over the summer…
"Hey, Vin, you awake?"
The boy sat up in bed. "Yep, 'm awake."
"You want to come to Durango with me and Buck on Monday?"
Vin frowned. "I thought I wasn't goin' t' Durango 'til it was time for the vision quest on June fifteenth."
"Yeah, I know, but we've only got two weeks before we leave for the vision quest. If you don't want to—"
"No, I want t' go with ya," Vin interrupted.
"'A course I do, but what if Aunt—"
"I already asked Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel about it, and they said it'd be fine."
"Cool. Goodnight, Vin."
"'Night, Chris," he said, lying down, smiling as he fell asleep. It was going to be an epic summer.
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