"Welcome to another year at Hogwarts," said Dumbledore, his silver beard and half-moon spectacles gleaming in the candlelight. "However, your stomachs are waiting to be fed and I mustn't talk for now. All I can say is... dig in!"
There was a collective gasp among the first-years. All around them, the empty gold platters had suddenly filled with food.
Pork chops were piled high on plates, carrots steamed in their tureens... There were potatoes of every description: boiled, fried, mashed, baked... Huge bowls of peas and other kinds of vegetable lay on the tables every couple of feet, while a wide array of pies sat waiting to be eaten.
None of the first-years had ever seen so much food, not even James, whose mother's cooking was excellent.
"Food!" cried Sirius, diving on a plate of chicken drumsticks and piling four onto his plate.
"You can't be hungry again, surely?" asked James, who felt much better now his nerves had passed. "You ate more than a plateful of food on the train."
"Nah, it was two platefuls," grinned Sirius, now shovelling peas and potatoes onto his plate. "And I'm always up for more food."
Remus, meanwhile, was busy with the parsnips. "Could you pass the gravy boat, Peter?" he asked, setting down the parsnip tureen and gesturing at the gravy.
Peter stopped spooning pie onto his plate and reached over to help, spilling some gravy on the table in the process.
"Thanks," said Remus gratefully, pouring some onto his potatoes before offering the boat to James.
"Nah. I've already got some, Remus. Thanks, though." James picked up his knife and fork, and began on his steak-and-kidney pie.
It was delicious.
The tide of talk, however, soon turned to their families.
"Well, I'm pure-blood, obviously," Sirius was saying to the others. "My family hate blood-traitors. And half-bloods. And muggles..." he added, in a bored voice. "And muggleborns. Oh, and half-breeds."
Remus choked on his Yorkshire pudding.
Peter thumped him on the back.
"W-wow," Remus gasped, his eyes streaming as he coughed. There was a funny metal taste in his mouth that had nothing to do with the Yorkshire pudding. "Your family hates a- a lot of people."
"Yeah," said Sirius, shrugging, spooning peas into his mouth and looking unconcerned. "They hate most people. Bit stupid, really."
"I'm pure-blood, too," said James. "Most of my ancestors have been. But the Potters aren't concerned about muggles and stuff. I mean, half-breeds are obviously a bit dangerous, but everyone else is fine."
"Yeah, but everyone's cautious about half-breeds, aren't they?" said Sirius, nodding. "Like there are vampires and hags and werewolves and stuff... And they're all kind of... well... vicious."
Remus flinched very visibly.
Sirius turned to him in concern. "Are you okay, Remus?"
"What? Er... Yeah. Yes. Yes, I'm fine. I just... burned my tongue, that's all," lied Remus, hoping very much that his face wasn't red. "So... What about you, Peter? Are you half-blood or pure-blood or what?"
"I'm pure-blood," said Peter, taking a gulp from his goblet of pumpkin juice, then wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "The same as James and Sirius."
"Looks like I'm the only half-blood, then," said Remus cheerfully, glad to have steered the conversation out of dangerous waters. "My mother's a muggle. She's Welsh. Dad met her in a forest in Wales. Over a boggart, actually."
James looked up mid-way through a mouthful of pastry. "What? Really? Your parents met because of a boggart?"
"Yep. My mother saw this scary man in the woods and screamed, and my dad heard her from nearby. He ran to her aid, whipped out his wand and turned the boggart - that's what the man really was - into a field mushroom. He hates mushrooms..."
"What happened then?" asked Sirius, finishing the last chicken leg and laying the bare bone on his plate. "She was a muggle, right? So if he did magic in front of her..."
"She didn't see," Remus assured them hastily. "But she knew my father had somehow made the man go away. So she told him he was brave and let him take her home-"
James smirked at Sirius. "Take her home. Ooooh!"
"-To look after her," finished Remus, going slightly pink. "Not because he wanted to do... well... anything else. Anyway, they fell in love and mum spent ages thinking dad was really brave for fighting off that man..."
Peter chuckled. "When really it was just a boggart."
Remus smiled at him. "Exactly. And one day, my father decided he couldn't pretend any longer. So he told her what really happened, told her he was a wizard and everything, and proposed. And, of course, she said yes. She soaked up the news really easily, loved the fact that her husband was magical... They ended up married, with a statue of a boggart on top of their wedding cake."
James whistled. "Wow. Are you serious?"
Sirius snickered. "No, James, honestly. He's Remus, remember? I'm Sirius."
James rolled his eyes and fought the urge to kick Sirius in the shins. "Oh, whatever. That was a terrible joke, Sirius." He turned back to Remus. "Are you kidding me, though? Your parents had a boggart on top of their wedding cake?"
James whistled again. "Damn. Your mother sounds awesome."
Blushing slightly, Remus smiled. "She is quite awesome, actually."
Sirius laid down his knife and fork, and sighed, looking down at his empty plate. "My mother definitely isn't awesome," he said gloomily. "In fact, she's actually an old cow."
Peter looked very shocked. "You can't say that!" he whispered.
"Oh, believe me, I can," muttered Sirius darkly. "She's a nasty piece of work. It doesn't matter that I'm her son. She doesn't exactly love me."
Remus, too, laid down his cutlery. "Sirius, I'm sure that's not true."
"It is," Sirius pressed, resting his chin on his hand. "She thinks I'm a disappointment. Because I'm her eldest son and all that."
"Yes," said Remus patiently. "But I'm sure she still loves you."
This time, Sirius laughed, but it was bitter and humourless. "I don't think she does. The way she looks at me... The disgust is etched in every line of her face. And I know she's good at showing her emotions," he added, as Remus opened his mouth again. "Because I have a younger brother, Regulus. My mother adores him. Just as she adores my cousins, Bellatrix, Narcissa and Andromeda."
There was silence. None of the others seemed to know what to say.
James spent the time chewing his last mouthful and swigging the rest of his pumpkin juice. Once he had finished, however, the silence grew even more awkward.
Remus nudged Peter under the table and tried to get him to speak.
James noticed what Remus was doing and joined in, staring at Peter pointedly.
Peter nervously scuffed his toes against the flagstone floor. "Um... Er..." He glanced helplessly from Remus to James, silently pleading for one of them to speak instead, but neither boy opened his mouth.
Fixing his gaze on Sirius' left shoulder, Peter broke the silence. "Um... How- How old is your younger brother, Sirius?"
Sirius looked at him in surprise, sighed and shook his head. "He's two years younger than me. And an idiot. He idolises Bellatrix and Narcissa."
"Do you...? Er... Do you get on?"
"Get on?" For a moment, Sirius stared at Peter. Then his shoulders sagged. "Uh, yeah, I guess. He's not too bad."
"I don't have any siblings," said James brightly, feeling that it was safer to join in the conversation now. "I always wanted one, though."
"Same here," added Remus, who also felt safer. "And I don't have any cousins, either."
Sirius snorted. "Lucky you. Although, to be fair, Andromeda could turn out all right. As long as my parents don't manage to influence her."
There was another pause.
"Hey, look!" exclaimed James suddenly. "Pudding!"
They all looked. Now that everyone had finished eating, the food plates had been cleared and replaced by the dessert.
This was, if possible, even more impressive than the main course. Towers of profiteroles and meringue rose three feet high; there was a large army of sponge cakes in all shapes and sizes; there were platters of treacle tart (Lily helped herself to some of this)... And heaps of eclairs oozing cram and chocolate.
Sirius, feeling a lot more cheerful, lifted a slice of meringue and let it fall onto his plate. Peter went straight for the Victoria sponge, James found himself drawn to an interesting sort of apple pie and Remus didn't hesitate before going for a slice of chocolate tart.
"Mmm, this is good!" said Sirius, appreciatively licking meringue crumbs off his fingers. "Much better than Keacher's cooking, anyway."
"Who's Kreacher?" asked James, his mouth full of apple, accidentally spraying food over the table. "Oops. Sorry..." He brushed the table clean.
"He's my family's house elf," said Sirius. "I mean, his cooking is great when he's on form, but he's usually too busy snogging my mother's feet to do much."
"My mother cooks the meals most of the time," said Remus thoughtfully, swallowing his mouthful and taking another bite. "Although my father's actually quite good at household stuff."
"My father's terrible," laughed James. "It's always mum who does the cooking. I think if you left my dad to make toast, he'd set the whole house on fire."
"My parents take it in turn to cook," said Peter shyly, looking up at them all. "But sometimes they argue over what they're supposed to be cooking. Dad's say that he's going to make lamb stew and then mum'll say that she was going to make it on Tuesday."
"Don't they write, like, a weekly menu or something?" asked Remus interestedly. "My mum usually writes the week's meals on a piece of paper and sticks it to the fridge."
"What's a fridge?" asked Sirius.
"Oh," said Remus, realising the others wouldn't know. "It's like a big, cold cupboard that you put food in to keep it fresh."
"Hey, we have one of those at home," said Sirius excitedly. "In the kitchen. Except it's literally just a box of charmed ice."
"Well, the one at my house has electric."
"I've never seen an eclecktic fridge before." James grinned at Remus through the last spoonful of his apple pie. "How does it work?"
"Um... There's this thing called a plug..." began Remus, not quite knowing how to explain. "And it connects the fridge to a kind of power-booster in the wall..."
The boys carried on talking until the puddings, too, had disappeared and Dumbledore had stood up.
Everyone in the hall instantly fell silent.
"I hope you are all as full as I am," said Dumbledore, his blue eyes twinkling. "And I also hope that you aren't too tired. I have a couple of announcements to make. First of all, I am pleased to welcome you back to a brand-new school year and, secondly, I must add that the Forbidden Forest is strictly out of bounds to all students. Mr Filch has, meanwhile, asked me to remind you that fanged frisbees, ever-bashing boomerangs, dungbombs and screaming yo-yos are just as banned as they were last year-"
At the word 'dungbombs', James and Sirius exchanged grins.
"And I also need to tell you that a new tree, a very valuable Whomping Willow, has been planted in the school grounds. I must warn you, however, that the tree is not one to tolerate... human contact. It will attempt to wallop any student who happens to stray into its shadow."
There was an odd muttering among the students.
Remus felt the metallic taste creeping back into his mouth, but James, Sirius and Peter did not notice his expression. They were all too busy whispering excitedly.
"A Whomping Willow - never heard of a tree like that before," hissed James.
Sirius glanced up at Dumbledore. "I wonder why they planted it. I mean, if it's dangerous..."
Peter looked very anxious. "Is it really dangerous?" he asked.
"Well, it could probably take a good chunk out of you if you get too close... Eh, James?"
James nodded, "Probably," and Peter was left gnawing his lip.
"You'll be fine, Peter," Sirius assured him calmly, drumming his fingers on the table. "We won't let the tree hurt you. I mean, it's a tree. It's not like it can walk or anything..."
"It might be able to walk," protested Peter anxiously. "Dumbledore didn't say that it couldn't, did he?"
"Don't be silly, Peter. It can't wallop and walk. That would be too dangerous. They wouldn't let something like that roam in the grounds."
"Yeah," James added, "they wouldn't." He turned to Remus who had gone oddly quiet since the mention of the Whomping Willow. "Would they, Remus?"
Remus, too engrossed in his own thoughts, did not answer.
James leaned over to poke him. "Oi! Remus? Are you awake?"
"Hmm?" As though pulled from a dream, Remus blinked and looked around at the others.
Sirius stopped drumming his fingers. "Are you sure you're all right, mate?" he asked, leaning forwards like James. He frowned slightly with concern. "You know, I asked you earlier if you were fine and you said that you just burned your tongue, but..." He trailed off.
Remus' eyes went very wide. "Oh, no. No. I'm fine, honestly. Absolutely fine... I'm great, really. Totally brilliant..." he gabbled, hardly able to convince himself, let alone the others.
Then, however, he was struck by a brainwave. "I'm just tired," he said firmly, pretending he hadn't noticed the glance Sirius had thrown at James.
Oh, no. Now they thought he was crazy... His very first friends already didn't like him. Well, at least they didn't know the truth...
"Yeah," said James, deciding it was best to leave Remus alone. Maybe he really was tired. Maybe they were worried over nothing. "I'm tired, too. It's been a long day..."
Even as he finished speaking, the rest of the school had stood up.
It was time to go. It was time to go to bed. At last. The four boys couldn't help being grateful. They really were exhausted.
Full of food and nerves and excitement, none of them could wait to get into their beds and sleep... Wherever those beds were, that is.
Hello, all! I've had to split a chapter in two again, so the next part will be coming soon :) Thanks for reading and please stay safe.