The Raven and the Writing Desk
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The lunch trolley arrived at the compartment door about one o'clock, causing a brief, intense round of wand-quill-parchment among the Manor three. Ron thought with a wince of the dried-out corned beef sandwiches in his pocket and watched with some envy as Mal, the winner (or loser) of the game, regarded the contents of the trolley.
"Why don't we just say four of everything, and we can all swap to our heart's content later," the blond boy said finally, and the plump witch in charge of the trolley beamed and started handing over Cauldron Cakes and Chocolate Frogs.
It took Ron a moment to realize the significance of the number, and by then the trolley was gone and Henry was helping to sort out the pile of sweets heaped on the empty seat between him and Mal. "You didn't have to—" he began.
"He wanted to, and you'll never win that argument, so don't even start." Henry tossed a box of Bertie Bott's across the compartment. Automatically Ron snagged it out of the air. "Hey, look at that! Keeper's hands, you've got. Ever think about going out for your House team, once we have Houses?"
"Sometimes. Fred and George play Beater for Gryffindor already." Ron ripped the side of the box open, since it was there, and shook out the usual colorful confusion into his palm. "Either of you play?"
"Chaser by preference, Seeker at need," Mal answered. "Not half bad either way, if I do say so myself. Nothing to his Seeking, though. Or his flying." He nodded towards Henry, his hands being occupied with the opening and restraining of his Chocolate Frog. "He gets on a broom and you'd swear it was part of him, not a separate thing at all."
"I like to fly." Henry tore open a Cauldron Cake and broke it in half. "It feels…right. Like it's what I was meant to do, or one of the things anyway." He grinned, elbowing Jean in the side. "Like this one likes to read."
Jean closed her book with a finger to mark her place, swatted her cousin on the back of the head with her free hand, and appropriated the half-Cake he'd placed back into its wrapper. "'This one' has a name," she informed him. "And ears."
"And a temper." Mal bit a leg off his Frog and flipped over his card. "Oh, would you look at that. It's The Boy Who Lived."
Henry groaned. "Don't they ever get tired of talking about him?" he asked, catching his own Frog mid-jump with fingers only a shade or two lighter than what they held. "He was a baby, for Merlin's sake. He didn't have anything to do with whatever happened that night. I tell you who they ought to put on the Chocolate Frog cards, they ought to put his mum on there. Lily Potter. She was the one who did whatever was done, she's the reason he even became The Boy Who Lived in the first place—" He stopped, visibly restraining himself. "Sorry," he half-mumbled, and bit off his Frog's head. "It's just—it doesn't make any sense," he said thickly around his mouthful of chocolate. "And besides, he's probably dead now anyway, so who cares?"
"Do they have anything new on this card, Mal?" asked Jean, opening a bottle of spiced pumpkin juice to go with her Cauldron Cake. "Or just the same old everything?"
"New picture. What he'd look like today, or so they think." Mal held the card up to display its front side, where a sketch of a pale-skinned boy about their own age slicked back his sleek dark hair to reveal the lightning-bolt scar down the center of his forehead. His green eyes were bold, challenging, confident, reminding Ron unpleasantly of his thoughts as he'd walked down the corridor earlier. He would never have dared to make friends with Harry Potter as he had with Henry, or with Mal and Jean, he thought.
"Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived, is widely credited with ending the war against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named at the age of fifteen months," Mal read from the backside of the card. "Sadly, before his second birthday, young Harry went missing from the home of his only living relations, his mother's Muggle sister and her husband. As noted criminal Sirius Black, one of the aforementioned Dark wizard's most fanatic supporters, had broken free from prison a short time before, Harry's fate was likely a grim one. No trace of the boy hero has ever been found."
"And to match that…" Henry held up a card of his own, on which the photographic image of a dark-bearded man threw back his head and laughed, madness shining in his silver-gray eyes. "Sirius Black, one of the last scions of a noted wizarding House, murdered thirteen people with a single curse shortly after the end of the war against his master, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Six months afterwards, Black escaped from Azkaban prison by means unknown, a feat never duplicated before or since, and is widely assumed to have kidnapped Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived. As of this printing, some nine years later, Black remains at large."
"Relation of yours?" Ron asked Henry, half-joking. To his surprise, his friend flinched and looked away. "Wait, I didn't mean it like that—everyone magical's related to everyone else one way or another, I was just looking at the surnames—"
"We know," said Jean, setting aside her pumpkin juice. "Though Mal's the closest of any of us. His mum, our Aunt Cissy, she's very close to the direct line. Sirius Black's first cousin."
"Which is how the Aurors know he's not dead yet." Mal scowled down at the remains of his Frog. "If he'd died, the Blacks' house-elf would have known it, and come to her for new orders, since she's the closest member of the family still alive and not convicted of any crimes or formally disinherited, like they did to Aunt Andy—that's Andromeda, Tonks's mum," he added in a quick aside. "But we haven't had any unexpected bat-eared little visitors, so Sirius Black's still alive out there somewhere."
"I hope he's hidden well, wherever he is." Henry was gazing out the window, his voice quiet but intense. "Dug in so deep they'll never find him. Whatever he'd done, whatever he was, it doesn't begin to justify what they want to do to him."
Considering the stories he'd heard of Azkaban, Ron had to admit Henry had a point. "But why do they think he's connected with Harry Potter?" he asked, shaking his box of Bertie Bott's in Jean's direction, then pouring some into the hand she held out towards him. "I've never been able to work that out. Even if Sirius Black did work for You-Know-Who, why does everyone think he has to have been the one who took Potter?"
"Because there was history between them." Jean sorted through her palmful of beans and selected one red and one pale gold, popping both into her mouth. "Oh good, tomato and spaghetti." She sucked the beans thoughtfully for a moment. "And I don't mean between them, exactly, but between Sirius Black and James Potter, Harry's father."
"Our parents were at Hogwarts around the same time they were," said Henry, still looking out the window. "All except Jean's mum. She learned magic at home."
"But that's not important now." Jean waved a hand, dismissing such nonsense. "What's important is that James Potter and Sirius Black were friends. Best friends. They went everywhere together, Black was Potter's best man when he got married, Potter probably would have returned the favor if Black had ever stopped fighting with his girlfriend for longer than it took them to play Beater together for Gryffindor…"
"And it wasn't just them, either," Mal put in. "There were two other boys who stuck to them like Spellotape. Remus Lupin and Peter Pettigrew. Pettigrew's dead now—he was one of the people Black knocked off with that curse, the rest were Muggles—but no one knows what happened to Lupin. He hasn't been seen since pretty close to the time Black and Harry Potter disappeared."
"Weird." Ron shook his head. "Do they think Black killed him? Maybe so there wouldn't be anybody around who knew him too well, who could tell the Aurors where to look for him?"
"Maybe." Henry turned away from the window at last and snagged a Peppermint Toad from the rapidly diminishing pile of sweets. "Or maybe he took off on his own. Trying to find his former friend, bring him to justice, and save his real friends' little boy—not that there'd be much left to save at this point. Harry Potter's probably even worse than most of the pureblood-purity sorts by now. Cross between a stuck-up little ponce and a stone killer, trained to worship Voldemort—"
Ron flinched back. "You—you said—"
"I said a name," said Henry levelly. "Probably not his real name, either, I can't see anybody's mum deciding to slap that on her darling baby, no matter how round the twist she may have been. I won't say I wouldn't be afraid of him, if he were still up and about and killing people—I rather like being alive—but being afraid of his name is stupid at best and actively counterproductive at worst."
"You sound just like Uncle John when you do that," Mal remarked approvingly. "That's Jean's dad, John Gray," he added towards Ron. "He's a great sport, taught us all a few basic spells as soon as we got our wands over the summer. Anyone taught you any yet?"
"George said he had, but I bet he was lying." Ron seized on the new topic with gratitude. "Spells aren't meant to rhyme, are they? I know Muggles sometimes think they do, but that's just silly…"
John Gray, who like his closest friend had spent the past seven years training himself to respond to that name and that name only, slipped soundlessly into the spacious kitchen, trading smiles along the way with the clothed house-elf directing the dishes in the sink to do themselves. A glance at the door through which John had come gave Dobby the hint, and he took his leave, bobbing a bow to John before he vanished.
"Looking for me?" asked the other occupant of the kitchen, a woman who was just setting down a baking sheet filled with golden brown scones, and who turned to face John with a warm smile and an outstretched hand.
"Always." John caught the hand in his and drew its owner to his side for a kiss, weaving the fingers of his other hand into a wild cascade of brunette curls. "Who isn't looking for a lady of talent and beauty, not to mention wit and charm?"
"Flatterer." His wife sighed once, leaning her head against his shoulder. "Have we done the right thing, my love?" she asked quietly. "Sending our little ones off to school with so many secrets still to keep, and staying here, almost in public, where our enemies can see us at any time they choose?"
"If I knew that, I'd be a better Seer than you are, instead of a freelancer for Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures." John twined his arm around his lady's waist. "No dreams recently, I take it?"
"None at all. Unless…" Slender lips thinned further in concentration. "Hmm. Come to think, I may have had one the other night. But it was a quiet one, subtle. That's not usually how they come to me."
"No, usually they cause you to blurt out bizarre statements to strangers in parks. Though if that phase truly is over with, I'd be just as happy." John looked down with a quizzical arch of eyebrow, enjoying the flecks of his own eyes' blue speckled throughout his lady's brown, knowing she saw the same in reverse when she looked at him. "Unless there's someone else you married last night and you're keeping him hidden from me?"
"And just how would I be able to do that?" His lady laughed, flicking his nose lightly. "Even assuming I'd do that sort of thing, which I wouldn't, you'd smell out and run off any such usurper long before he could threaten your rights to your mate."
"So I would." Bending slightly, John slid his free hand under a slim pair of knees and lifted, his wife's arm coming easily around his shoulders to balance herself as he cradled her against him. "And so would you, should I ever seem to be sniffing about some other lady."
"As if you would." She lifted herself in his hold and nipped once at the lobe of his ear. "I know your kind. You mate for life."
"Only if we're lucky enough to find the right one." John looked down at his armful, turning his head first this way, then that. "You know, I do believe you're it. How lucky for me."
"How lucky for me, you mean—" The lady's words broke off in a laughing shriek as John turned briskly in place and the kitchen winked out of existence around them, to be replaced by the bedroom they'd taken as their own some seven years prior.
"We really need to talk about your dream, Danger of my life," he murmured, laying her on the broad, soft bed with its embroidered crimson duvet. "But…" With a grin, he climbed up beside her. "Later will do."
"Mmmm," his wife agreed, before they no longer had any need for words.
Severus stood in the warmth of the autumn sunlight and considered his options. He could still turn around and walk away, if he so chose. Or he could move forward, claim without words his willingness to listen, and hear Narcissa's reasoning for harboring her murderous cousin, the child he had stolen, and a crew of flunkies and fools gathered up along the way. Such a tale ought to be fascinating as a work of fiction, if nothing else.
"And what else should it be, given the man who stands at its center, and the new path he has chosen to pursue in his life?" Severus surprised himself with a genuine laugh. "Besides, I have enough wondering 'what if' in my life already. Forward it shall be."
Another laugh, or more accurately three of them, stopped him before he had moved more than a yard in the direction of his choice.
From the grove of trees into which Narcissa had disappeared came three other witches, two of about Narcissa's age or Severus's own, the other a child too young for Hogwarts, perhaps seven or eight. One of the adult witches was the slender brunette who had opened the door when Severus had arrived—Danger, he recalled after a moment, Narcissa had called her Danger. The other, dark-skinned, broad-shouldered, and beautiful, woke a faint chord of memory at the back of his mind, as did the little girl trotting beside her, by her face and her dancing movements Henry Black's sister, as the woman was his mother.
"Or so-called mother, at any rate," Severus muttered under his breath, before putting on a neutral expression to greet the three. He might not have struck a bell, but it seemed he was nevertheless bound to bide the danger.
"Professor," said the woman of that name, stopping at a conversational distance and nodding to him. "Will you forgive me if we don't stand on ceremony? The children have written so much about you, I feel like we know you already."
"Please." Severus inclined his head in return. "You must be Jean Gray's mother."
"I am, and my name is Gertrude, but everyone calls me Danger." She shook her head ruefully, but her eyes were dancing. "One foolish moment in my childhood, and a lifetime to remember it by. And this is Henry's mother, Carrie Black, and her daughter Meghan."
"Mrs. Black." Severus bowed slightly, and Carrie returned the favor as Meghan curtsied gracefully. "Your son is…quite remarkable."
"We've always found him so," responded Carrie, her voice clear and pure, as silver as her daughter's watchful eyes.
Severus managed at the last second to stifle a gasp as the indefinable threads of memory wove themselves into a cable. A dark woman who had once had some claim to the ignoble and most youthful scion of the House of Black, if only by dint of fighting with him more frequently and more bitterly than any other witch in the school would have dared—the first female Beater Hogwarts had seen in ten years, also possessed of a marvelous singing voice and the hands of a Healer—one of the few students, along with Lily Evans herself, who had ever been able to challenge Severus in the practical areas of the discipline of Potions—
"I once knew a witch named Aletha Freeman," he said as casually as he could manage. "Henry reminds me of her on occasion." He glanced down at the child Meghan, whose eyes—Sirius Black's eyes, he realized at last, with an upwelling of revulsion—had widened in shock and distress. "As does your daughter, Mrs. Black. Rather more strongly than her brother."
"Our little Pearl does take after me," Carrie acknowledged, laying a hand of comfort and caution on her daughter's shoulder. "Henry resembles his father. But you knew that."
"I did." Severus battled to remain calm, to keep his voice level, to stop himself from Apparating off these grounds now, this very instant, for surely, surely he had learned enough to bring the Ministry here in droves—
But if he were to do so, with equal surety Hesperus Manor would be deserted before he could ever return, and the three children of theirs currently entrusted to Hogwarts would vanish as well, before they could be freed from whatever spells or subtle brainwashing had warped them into believing these adults devoted to their welfare. Indeed, he might already have tipped his hand too far, telling Sirius Black's on-again-off-again girlfriend that he recognized her within the shell of devoted wife and mother she had built about herself. If he were to win this battle, he would have to fight with more subtlety.
All this while, little Meghan's silver eyes had been fixed upon Severus. Now she spoke up, those eyes narrowing in childish petulance. "I don't like you," she announced, and crossed her arms over her chest with a distinct hint of pout in her expression.
"Meghan," reproved Danger, giving the girl a stern look. "We are not rude to guests."
"But I don't like him." Meghan's pout intensified. "He's thinking bad things about us. About all of us, but my Dadfoot especially."
Severus thought he ought to have received a medal for not reacting outwardly to this casual child's nickname, which sealed his personal certainty as to whom he would find somewhere within this manor house or its grounds, actual father to this girl and acting as such to a boy—a boy on whom he should never have dared to lay his filthy, bloody hands…
"Meghan Lily Black." Carrie's voice was cool and firm, and her daughter wilted at the sound of it. "You cannot see inside Professor Snape's mind, so you cannot know what he is thinking. You will apologize for your rudeness."
"Now." The single word left no room around it for the possibility of being disobeyed.
Grudgingly, Meghan looked back at Severus. "I'm sorry I was rude, Professor," she said in the sing-song of a dutiful child, then glanced up at her mother once more. "Please may I be excused to go inside?" she asked in a rush.
"Yes. Go." Carrie kissed her fingertips and blew the kiss after her daughter's running form, smiling at Danger's indulgent chuckle. "It is possible," she said thoughtfully, "that having a mother, a godmother, and an honorary aunt all petting that child at once has spoiled her just the tiniest bit."
"And her father and godfather have nothing to do with it?" Danger tossed back lightly. "She's every bit the gem we call her, but she'll need to learn a few more manners—fit into her setting better, as it were—before we can send her off to school without the distinct possibility that she'll bite someone who insults the wrong person in front of her, or simply irritates her beyond what she thinks she can bear…"
The women's voices blurred in Severus's ears, as three words repeated themselves inside his mind.
Meghan Lily Black.
Without consent from his mind, his feet began to move, carrying him forward into the grove of trees.
Narcissa sat on a cunningly carved bench by the side of a shallow pond, tossing bits of bread to lazily swimming fish with scales of brilliant orange, her pale-gold hair dappled with light and shadow cast by the intersecting branches above her. "Not quite what you were expecting, are we, my friend?" she asked, rising and brushing off her hands as Severus approached.
"How could he—" Severus choked on the words. "How dare he—"
"Because he never did what he has been accused of doing." Narcissa's words fell calm and certain into the silence between them. "Because he grieves for Lily Evans almost as deeply as I know you do, and for some of the same reasons. But he chooses to honor her life and death, and that of her husband, by continuing the work for which they died. Come, Severus." She patted the back of the bench beside her. "Come and sit by me. I can explain everything." One pale eyebrow rose into a perfect arch. "Or will you run back to your dungeon instead, and hide there like a coward? Or flap off to the Ministry and croak your lies to them like a carrion crow?"
Stung, Severus crossed the small clearing in three strides to stand beside Narcissa. "Tell your tale," he said shortly, seating himself the instant after she did. "I am listening."
"Do you have any pets, Ron?" Jean asked as the train chugged steadily through a forest with mountains visible in the distance, the sky a blue so dark it was nearly purple. "We all have Hedwig to share—" She nodded upwards at the snowy owl drowsing in her cage. "—and my mum said if I got good marks this year, maybe next year I could have a cat."
"Just Scabbers." Ron reached into the interior pocket where the named creature was drowsing. "He's Percy's old rat and he's utterly useless, never wakes up unless he's eating—ow!" Shocked, he pulled his hand out and stared at his fingertip, where a bright bead of blood was welling up. "He bit me!"
"Guess he doesn't want to come out, then," said Mal as Jean pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and appropriated Ron's hand. "I can't really blame him. Owls are predators, after all."
"What's he look like?" Henry's voice was quiet, but intense, bringing Ron's eyes to him. "Your rat. Is he big, small, black, white?"
"He's gray, just gray all over, and not really big or small as rats go, I don't think." Ron cupped his free hand, indicating the size he meant. "Naked tail, twitchy nose, a little bit beat up…he's not that interesting, really."
"Beat up how?" Jean asked, giving the handkerchief a bit too vigorous a tug, making Ron hiss in pain. "Sorry. But does it show most on his ears, his tail, his paws…"
"Paws, I think." Ron tried to call up the image of his sulking pet. "Yeah, definitely paws. He's missing a toe on one of the front ones."
"And he was Percy's before he was yours?" Mal hadn't moved from his lounge across what was supposedly two seats, but his words sounded as brittle as the bit of Peppermint Toad he was sucking. "How long had Percy had him?"
"Longer than I can remember, I think he was about four or five when he found a rat in the garden and convinced Mum to let him keep it—why do you all care so much, anyway?" Ron demanded, baffled by this sudden spate of interest in his pet. "He's just a rat, there's nothing special about him."
Henry seemed to be about to fire back angrily, but changed his mind before the words could emerge. "You know what?" he said instead, shaking his head. "You're right. Stupid of us, to be worried about a rat. We were just curious." His grin made a return appearance. "And I promise we won't let Hedwig eat him."
"Thanks." Ron didn't miss the glances exchanged among the Manor three, but pushed out of his mind what they might mean. He had friends, real friends, for the first time in his life, and if they seemed a little weird on certain topics, well, everyone was entitled to a few quirks. He doubted Henry would ever lie awake in his Hogwarts bed listening for the moaning of the ghoul in the attic above him, or that Jean or Mal were practiced in the art of distracting their mothers from the hovering turquoise Ford Anglia above the roof of the back shed.
These stories, among others, occupied the rest of the train ride, to the point where the announcement of arrival in ten minutes came as a genuine surprise to everyone. Henry accompanied Ron back up the train to get his robes from his trunk, catching the twins' compartment at a fortunate moment, as everyone seemed to have felt the need to visit the lavatory simultaneously. Ron wondered why as he fastened the front of his robes with shaking fingers, one of which was still quite sore, though it had stopped bleeding. Surely his brothers had nothing to worry about—they didn't have to wrestle a troll, or make a song up on the spot, or whatever else was really involved in Sorting…
"Deep breaths," Henry said quietly as they returned to their own compartment. "You don't want to pass out before we even get there."
"I might." Ron managed a small smile. "That way I'd go straight up to the hospital wing, and I could get Sorted later on, all by myself, without everyone staring."
"It happens in front of everyone, then?" Henry shook his head before Ron could answer. "Never mind, of course it does, what am I thinking of? Opening Feast. My dad told me it always happens at the Opening Feast."
"Do me a favor?" Ron swallowed hard. "Don't talk about food."
They finished their walk in silence. Mal had his own robes on by now and was sweeping the rubbish from their extended lunch into a bag, while Jean was combing knots out of her hair with her fingers. She greeted them with a tense nod, her face set and lined.
"You've got this, Jeanie," said Henry, and Ron braced himself for the inevitable correction, but instead his friend only nodded once more and returned to the attention she was giving her brown curls. Ron wondered why she was bothering, since she'd looked just fine to him beforehand, but didn't bother to bring it up. Something told him she wouldn't take it well.
At last the train puffed up to its platform and stopped, and the foursome trooped out to the corridor to find a door, Ron with his hand protectively over Scabbers's pocket. He didn't want to take any chances with so many cats and owls around.
The stories his brothers told of Hagrid the enormously large gamekeeper, which Ron had dismissed as the twins' typical overblown silliness, took on a new light of seriousness as the impossibly tall, broad figure at one end of the platform bellowed out "Firs' years! Firs' years over here!" Ron started to shuffle in that direction, only to discover Henry and Mal were ahead of him, sliding between the streams of older students by some arcane art he'd never seen before. He stuck close to Henry's heels, Jean slipping in behind Mal, as they cut effortlessly across traffic and fetched up beside Hagrid.
"How did they do that?" he muttered to Jean under cover of Hagrid's next bellow.
"It's just a trick." Jean shrugged one shoulder. "My dad taught them how. He says it's all to do with how you think of yourself, and then how you make other people think of you. You can either make them think you're too important to get in your way, or you can make them think you're so unimportant that they shouldn't bother with you. Either way works."
Ron tried to parse this, but gave it up after a few moments, during which the remainder of the first years arrived at Hagrid's side. After a brief headcount, the gamekeeper pulled a large lantern from his pocket, lit it with a taper from one of the platform torches, and hung it on the end of a stick. "Foller me, then," he said gruffly, and led the way down a steep, twisting dirt path.
Halfway down, Jean's foot slipped, and she fell with a little cry of alarm. Hagrid was back by her side far more quickly than Ron would have believed such a big person could move, shoving his lantern into Ron's hands (Ron nearly dropped it but managed to hang on) and lifting Jean gently to her feet. "All righ' there, sweetheart?" he asked, brushing her off.
"I…I think so." Jean leaned heavily against Hagrid's shoulder, as if to find her balance again. Her lips continued to move for a moment after she'd finished speaking, but probably she was just catching her breath. And if Henry and Mal were watching her closely, well, who wouldn't watch their cousin after she'd fallen, to be sure she wasn't hurt? That was all that was happening, Ron told himself firmly. That was it.
He wished himself believed him.
Still, nothing else strange happened all the rest of the way down the path, around the corner from which they caught sight of Hogwarts castle (which was just as grand as he had always thought it would be, and filled him with equal parts exhilaration and dread), and onto the beach where a flotilla of small boats awaited. Henry steadied one while Mal helped Jean aboard, then stepped into the seat beside her. Ron took the one across from her and studied her briefly. "You're all right now?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm fine." Jean dipped her fingers in the water and watched the drops fall back into the lake, her eyes sparkling in the light of the lantern which hung from the boat's small mast. "Isn't this exciting?"
Ron could have thought of a few other words for it, but held his peace.
"FORWARD!" bellowed Hagrid from his own boat, and they were off.
Really awesome news, O readers! A Widow in Waiting, my first original novel, has been featured in Shelf Unbound e-magazine as a Notable Book for 2013! Shelf Unbound is totally free, so check it out today! Now here's hoping people aren't too confused because Widow is listed under "literary fiction"…
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