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Living with Danger
Chapter 13: What It Would Now Be
By Anne B. Walsh
Chapter 13: What It Would Now Be
"How are we going to get in touch with him?" Aletha asked over dinner. "I mean, you’re free to use my owl, but he’s eventually going to figure out who she belongs to..."
"No, no need to use Maya. We can send him what he wants by 3M," Remus said.
"Stands for Muggle-to-Magical Mail, Sirius. You never had Muggle relatives, so you wouldn’t know about it. It’s how Muggles can send mail to their children at Hogwarts, or to a wizarding friend, if they don’t have an owl of their own."
"How’s it work?" Danger asked.
"You double-envelope whatever it is you’re mailing. Inner envelope you address as usual, outer envelope you address to Box 313 at one of the London post offices — they have several so the mail doesn’t pile up. Someone from the Diagon Alley office comes around every day to get the mail from the Muggle boxes and send it out via owl post."
"That’s pretty smart," Sirius said. "I always did wonder how the Muggle-born kids got their parents’ letters."
"Well, lots of them had their own owls they could send home," Aletha pointed out. "But the ones who didn’t, had this. And now we can use it to give Professor Dumbledore what he wants."
"Edited carefully for content, of course," Danger said. "You and Harry for sure, Sirius, and possibly me and Neenie, but nothing with Remus or Letha in it. Not yet."
Remus nodded. "Safety first, after all."
On Friday, the Daily Prophet carried the news of Bartemius Crouch’s relocation to the Department of International Magical Cooperation. Lars Vilias had been promoted to Head of Magical Law Enforcement, and Amelia Bones had moved up to Assistant Head.
An hour or so later, a pair of owls arrived for Aletha.
"What’s up?" Sirius asked, looking up from the picture Harry was drawing for him.
"Well, you remember my boss was promoted?"
"I wasn’t promoted with her. I’ve been relocated to the Bureau of Magical Education."
"I didn’t even know there was a Bureau of Magical Education," Remus said, entering the room in time to hear this.
"Neither did I." Aletha looked down at the paper. "Ah, it’s newly formed. Says here they want me to be the â€˜Hogwarts/Ministry Liaison’, whatever that means."
"The interfering busybody who tells Dumbledore how to run his school," Sirius translated.
Aletha shrugged. "That’s fine with me. They’ll give me the messages, but who says they’ll get delivered? I’ll have a nice cup of tea with the Headmaster, I’ll tell him what’s going on at the Ministry, I’ll give him all the pretty official parchments, and everyone will be happy. Better than doing paperwork until my eyes cross, that’s for sure."
Remus took a seat at the table. "Who’s the other one from?"
"Dumbledore," Aletha said, perusing the letter again. "Says he’ll be happy to have me around again, and he’ll be stopping by on Monday, to give me something..." She stopped, frowning, and reread a portion of the letter. " â€˜Something that should by rights have been yours,’ " she quoted.
"Huh. Wonder what that is," Sirius said curiously. Harry tugged at his arm, and he turned back to the paper. "Harry, that’s a wonderful... whatever it is. What is it?"
"You!" Harry said brightly. "Pa-foot! Doggie!"
"Of course it is. What a nice picture of me, Harry. I really like it."
Remus leaned over to have a look. "Oh, that’s you all right, Padfoot," he agreed with a straight face. "Lots of hair and eight legs. You sure you don’t want an acromantula instead, Letha? I think there’s some in the Forest at Hogwarts, you can get yourself one and feed this great ugly bloke to it..."
Sirius threw a crayon at Remus.
Saturday was the day Harry and Neenie got into the pantry and discovered the joys of throwing flour at one another. Sunday was uneventful except for Sirius almost exploding the toilet while trying to clean up a mess in the bathroom. And on Monday, Aletha went back to work.
Someone was able to direct her to her new office, which was small but comfortable. Even has a window. No secretary, but I didn’t expect one... not for someone who was a secretary herself on Wednesday!
What she did have was a number of owls. We have got to find a better way of sending interoffice memos, she thought as she took the letters from the birds. My desk is already a mess and I haven’t even been here five minutes.
Most of them were simple letters of welcome and congratulations on her new job. One, though, was a little odd. She had to read it twice before she realized exactly what the writer was getting at, and once she did figure it out, she hissed in anger and dropped it on her desk as if it were a poisonous snake.
How dare he. How dare that... that... pure-blood patronize me! Offer me his "protection" in return for favors! How dare he!
Quickly, she made a copy of the letter to take home with her. Everyone’ll get a laugh out of this. The day a Death Eater offers help to a Muggle-born!
Someone knocked on her door. "Come in," she called.
Albus Dumbledore entered her office.
My office. That does sound nice.
"Professor, welcome," she said, standing up with a genuine smile to receive him.
"Thank you, Ms. Freeman. I am glad to see you in good spirits, after the troubling news of Wednesday."
Troubling news... oh, right. Don’t be stupider than you have to be, Aletha. Get your public face on. "A few days off worked wonders, sir. Not to mention a new position, a new office, and a very nice salary increase. Oh, I’m sorry, please sit down, sir." As they sat down, she thought out how to ask her biggest question. "I have been wondering, sir. Why does the Ministry suddenly feel it necessary to have an official presence at Hogwarts, even if it’s only a Liaison?"
"Perceptive as always, Aletha... if I may call you such?" She inclined her head, and Dumbledore continued. "Recent events have reminded Cornelius that his grasp over a great deal of magical life in Britain is tenuous at best. Since he cannot strengthen it where it truly needs strengthening, he has decided to tighten up where it does not. In my opinion, not the wisest of moves, which is why I asked for you to be placed in this position."
"You asked for me, sir? Thank you, but why?"
"Because I know you to be intelligent, perceptive, and independent. I could use your opinions about some aspects of running Hogwarts," he laid delicate stress on the second-person pronoun, "and you will not hesitate to give them to me if I ask for them, and perhaps even if I do not."
Aletha laughed. "Only if I think you really need the advice, sir, and somehow I doubt that will happen any time soon."
"When the time comes, Aletha, please do speak out. Ah, and that reminds me of the other reason for my visit. Something I have recently realized must belong to you."
"May I bring up what might be a painful subject, Aletha?"
"Then, Sirius Black. You seem to be handling the news of his escape quite well."
Oh, very well. It was only the best news of my life. "Thank you, sir."
"If I may ask, what were your feelings towards him?"
Utter devotion. "I cared about him, sir. We were friends. We could have been more, I think, if he had been the man I thought he was."
Dumbledore nodded gravely. "He betrayed us all — but, perhaps, you a bit less than most."
He betrayed no one, but he was betrayed. And I wish I could tell you that, but with no proof but a dream, even you wouldn’t believe me... Aletha settled for looking politely quizzical.
"I was there when his apartment was searched, and we found one item that baffled us, until, on Friday, I remembered that you and Sirius had been romantically attached. I did some research and found it was almost certainly meant for you."
An item, meant for me, something with romantic meaning... oh my God, I think I know...
Albus Dumbledore pulled a small velvet box from his pocket.
Aletha told her tears to go away and stay away, and smiled flirtatiously. "Professor, I’m flattered, but aren’t I a little young for you?"
Dumbledore chuckled. "It is yours, to do with as you wish," he said, putting the box on her desk. "I suggest you look at it before you decide, though."
Aletha flipped the box open and pressed her hand to her lips, stunned. "Oh my."
Sirius had either chosen exceptionally carefully, or he had had the ring custom-made. It was made of gold, with a star sapphire set in its top, framed by tiny pearls.
It’s so beautiful...
Suddenly realizing what her face must look like, she snapped the box shut again.
Dumbledore was watching her carefully, his face unreadable. "Is there anything you wish to tell me, Aletha?" he asked quietly.
No. Not yet. I can’t take the risk yet. I can’t risk losing it all, just when I’ve finally found it. I will, someday, but not today.
She shook her head. "No, sir. Nothing at all."
"Very well." Dumbledore rose. "I believe I have overstayed my time, I will be needed at the school..."
Aletha nodded. "Have a good day, Headmaster."
"You as well, Ms. Freeman."
Dumbledore had reviewed his conversation with Petunia Dursley several times through the medium of his Pensieve. On his first listening, all he got from the conversation was the fact that Petunia was alarmingly self-centered and able to rationalize her bad decisions, and on his second listening, he had realized that Gertrude Granger’s parents had almost certainly been killed by Death Eaters.
But on his third, he had caught a fragment of a sentence Petunia had spoken, mentioning a black woman who had come with Gertrude and Remus, and whom Harry had known. He had immediately thought of Aletha Freeman, of her steady friendship with the Potters, and of her tumultuous, on-again, off-again romance with Sirius Black. Adding that to his dream of the wedding, he had seen if the ring found in Black’s apartment was Aletha’s size. It was.
While we talked about him, her words and the tenor of her thoughts were almost entirely opposite. And when she saw the ring, her face was joyous...
For one of the only times in his life, Albus Dumbledore was unsure what to believe.
It was an uncomfortable feeling.
An owl soared through his open window and landed on his desk, dropping a letter in front of him. It was addressed to him in an unfamiliar feminine handwriting, which he would have described as neat if it hadn’t occasionally been sprawling. Across the corner was written "Photographs: DO NOT BEND."
I wonder if this is what I have been waiting for...
He unsealed the envelope. A small piece of paper fell out, and he set it aside for later. He was more interested in the five enclosed photographs — one look at them assured him that they were, most certainly, what he had been waiting for.
He double-checked that his door was locked and instructed the portraits that he did not wish to be disturbed. The last thing I need is for Minerva to see one of these. Or worse, Severus.
The first photograph was of Sirius and Harry at a dinner table. They appeared to be feeding one another carrot sticks, exchanging bite for bite. Sirius occasionally turned away from Harry to say something to, Dumbledore assumed, someone else at the table. I wonder who else was there?
Next was a picture of Sirius sitting next to Gertrude Granger — no, she likes to be called Danger — at a table with an electric typewriter on it. She had her fingers curved as if to type, and was explaining something to Sirius, who had his hands on the keys and was listening to her intently. On the floor beside them, Harry built a block tower with a little girl his own age, whose hair resembled Danger’s. Her sister. I don’t think she, or Petunia, ever told me the girl’s name...
On a whim, he turned the picture over. There, on the back in black ballpoint, was written "Padfoot, Danger, Harry, and Hermione, Spring 1982." It was the same handwriting which had addressed the letter.
How helpful of Danger. It must be her writing, I would recognize Aletha’s...
He shook his head. That’s an assumption, Albus. You have no proof Aletha is involved.
He put the photograph at the back of the group to look at the next one. This showed Harry and Sirius standing in a pantry, laughing and throwing handfuls of flour at Danger and Hermione, who were retaliating in kind. The overall impression was that a blizzard had hit the kitchen.
The fourth picture showed Harry and Sirius playing some kind of crawling chase game under a table...
No, a piano. Tables have no pedals.
And someone is playing the instrument, or at least sitting on the bench.
Harry crawled over and sat down on one of the feet on the pedals, wrapping his arms around the dark-skinned leg it was attached to. White, diagonal lines marred the smooth, dark skin.
Certainly a black woman, then, and one with scars on her leg from something...
A memory flitted just out of reach. Dumbledore retrieved his Pensieve, added the thought of the photograph to it, and poked it with his wand.
The miniature likeness of a woman rose out of the basin. "I know Madame Pomfrey could have healed it right up, Professor," her silvery image said in the echoing voice of memory. "But I wanted a reminder of why it’s not a good idea to keep playing with a broken bat. Besides, all good Quidditch players have scars, and it’s down there on my leg, so it’s not as if people are going to be seeing it every day. Right?"
Aletha Freeman sank back into the swirling mass of thoughts.
Well, that answers that question.
Dumbledore remembered vividly the Quidditch match where Aletha’s bat had broken after three hours of hard play. She had been careless with the splintered edge and scratched her leg severely, but she had hidden it until the end of the match. There were disadvantages to the red Gryffindor Quidditch robes, Dumbledore reflected ruefully, one of them being that it was harder to see if the players were bleeding — and Gryffindors were exactly the types to play injured, denying that a little hurt could slow them down.
So wherever Sirius and Harry are, Aletha is either with them or coming to see them.
Somehow, I expected nothing else.
He turned over the last photograph. It was an overhead angle of Sirius, asleep in his usual disorder of pillows and blankets, with Harry nestled by his side, secure in the protective curve of his godfather’s arm. As he watched, Sirius shifted slightly, and Harry snuggled closer to him.
Harry looks well and happy. Thank God.
And no child sleeps like that beside someone who frightens him.
Of course, this could all be a ruse, an elaborate deception to put me off guard...
But Aletha and Remus are part of this, and of their loyalty I have no doubts. I would never have doubted Sirius, were it not for the evidence against him.
Still, to make entirely certain...
He tapped the side of the photograph with his wand and spoke three words.
The picture went black for a moment, then filled with static, much as a Muggle TV did when set to a channel which was not transmitting. Frowning, Dumbledore repeated the spell, consciously focusing on putting more power into it.
The static cleared; the picture revealed was illuminating.
Sirius was sitting at a kitchen table, chatting animatedly with Danger, who was kneading bread dough on the other side of the table. Harry and the little girl, Hermione, were playing under the table, zooming model broomsticks around and crashing them into each other, laughing.
The photographs might have been posed and prepared, but this, they would have no way of knowing about. They probably have anti-scrying spells on the house — my first attempt did not fail, it was blocked — so they consider themselves safe.
What people do in their own homes, when they feel they are safe from prying eyes, is the best test of their character.
And these people... are simply living their lives.
He watched, oddly loath to let the sight go, as Danger finished kneading her bread and shaped it into loaves, as Harry bumped his head on the table and began to cry, as Sirius picked him up and comforted him, as Hermione trotted out of the room only to return with a book and demand imperiously (if silently, to him) that Sirius read to her and Harry immediately...
There was a letter with these. I should read it.
Unwillingly, he returned the photograph to its original state and picked up the folded piece of paper (not parchment).
As promised, some tangible evidence about what we discussed. We would be grateful if you were careful where you kept these. Expect another package around the time of a certain second birthday, and again at Christmas.
With best wishes for a good Easter,
Folding the paper again, Dumbledore smiled.
A wise woman, to put nothing more on paper than she must. So I too will be wise.
Harry is in no danger — he chuckled at the unintended pun — of being spoiled with a child like Hermione in the house. She seems both strong-willed and strong-minded. The right kind of girl to be his friend, his sister. And perhaps more, later.
Or perhaps not. That is still a long way off. First he needs to survive his childhood.
And my contribution to his survival will be to say nothing, but watch and listen, and misdirect as needed...
In other words, business as usual.
Business as usual also applied to a ramshackle house in Devon, where everything was in shambles, the children were shrieking at the top of their lungs (and seven sets of lungs created a lot of shrieking), and that man was working late again.
But, Molly Weasley had to admit to herself, she loved him anyway.
She scooped up Ginevra and began to bounce her gently, checking her diaper (dry) and cooing to her. The twins were probably tormenting poor Ronald again, that boy never seemed to be able to get out of the way in time...
In a huge, luxurious country house, a man’s face creased with anger. He crumpled a sheet of parchment in his hand.
"She dares," he growled. "She dares turn me down. I am miles above her, she should be kissing my feet and thanking me for deigning to notice her, and she has the audacity to turn me down..."
The house-elf, entering with a bottle of wine and a glass, noticed the look on his master’s face and winced. This was going to be a painful night, he could tell already...
Later, the house-elf tried, without success, to soothe the weeping child in the crib. "Sshh, sshh, little master," he whispered. "Ssshh, do not cry. If your father is hearing, he is being angry, and that is bad, that is very bad..."
The door crashed open. "Out," the master snapped at the house-elf. "This brat needs some discipline."
The house-elf scurried away, thankful that he had avoided punishment himself but wretched that his little master was getting it instead...
My poor little master, the house-elf thought as he curled up in his secret nest. He is always getting hit, and only for crying at his nightmares. And why is he having nightmares? Because Master is always hitting him...
"Bad Dobby, to think such terrible things about Master," he muttered, and punched himself hard in the eye.
A woman sang a lullaby to her infant daughter.
Moonlight, moonlight, show my baby dear,
How to see what people say is never really here...
Sitting on the front stoop of her house, a huge black dog stretched out at her feet, Aletha admired the sapphire on her finger as the waning moon struck glints from it. "Tomorrow, lunchtime," she said with a smile. "No sense putting it off any longer."
The dog nodded solemnly.
A little boy walked carefully besides his grandmother, lugging an immense and heavy metal watering can, very proud to be helping with such an important job as watering the plants before he went to bed.
The world turned slowly on its axis, and just as slowly, reshaped itself from what it would have been into what it would now be.