‘Life is like a play: it’s not the length but the excellence of the acting that matters’ – Seneca
He watched them walking into the Great Hall, hand in hand. He’d been worried about them – when they’d hurried past a few minutes before, Eleanor had looked ready to kill someone, and given the unexpected appearance of her mother, he imagined that it would be Minister Buchardt whose life was on the line.
He was glad they’d sorted themselves out – although from what Wormy had been hinting, it had all been even more complicated than he’d thought. He looked forward to giving Moony a good grilling in the morning (well, afternoon). Padfoot too…
He glanced at his other best friend, who was talking to that Dorothy from Ravenclaw; after all the hell they’d gone through trying to figure out how to prevent the melt-down of the century, he’d only been protecting Eleanor as a friend. A slightly over-bearing friend, but a friend, nonetheless.
James sighed, and continued to lean against his pillar.
Sirius could be such a pillock sometimes, for all that he loved him. Dorothy wasn’t the type you’d expect to see him chatting up (although, he conceded, Sirius’s ‘type’ was mostly anything that walked past and had roughly two legs)… he thought back to that evening the year before when they’d discussed their ‘types’, and a smile spread across his handsome face. Sirius had said at the time that he liked Remus’s description, and Dorothy certainly fitted it.
The sly git. All this time, they’d got the signs right, and misread the direction. Dorothy Cottingley, eh? He’d have to ask Lily what she was like…
He looked over at where she was standing with her parents and her awful sister. She didn’t look comfortable. His mum and dad were still talking to Professor Sprout (not really a bad thing, as such, but he was still a little worried about what she might say)…
Perhaps it was time to introduce himself…
Her dad was looking around with obvious admiration; she had to hand it to her teachers, they really knew how to put on a show. He looked a little uncomfortable in his muggle suit, surrounded by all the dress robes, but he wasn’t the only one. He’d given her a big hug when she’d come out from backstage, and told her that he was proud of her, and he genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself. He was chatting with Professor Flitwick, and hadn’t even done a double take when he’d met the diminutive choir master.
She hadn’t seen him this happy since she’d started at Hogwarts – since her mother had left he’d been so quiet, and then with her going off to school in another country (well, sort of; it’s joined on, but it is another country), another world, even… She worried about him. But today he was ok, and that made her happy.
Peter was chatting with his parents over by the big fireplace, and she didn’t want to disturb them. He was beaming, exhilarated as they all were from the play, and Claire felt her heart melting. It was extraordinary, really, the power that boy had over her: able to reduce her to a blithering mess just by smiling, or make her feel like she could conquer the world just by giving her a hug. She shook her head, slightly. He really was one in a million.
He was also beckoning her over. Oh, Merlin, she was going to meet his parents…
She’d seen them, briefly, over the summer, of course, but hadn’t been properly introduced. They looked friendly enough… and anyway, she could wreak her revenge later on in the evening by introducing him to her Dad. She could practically hear the ‘I’m-not-trying-to-be-overbearing-but’ speech running through his mind.
She brushed herself down and smiled brightly.
Well, it was now or never…
He’d been happily chatting to Dorothy for a good half hour when he felt the eyes on him. He froze, and Dorothy moved away to get a drink. There were very few people who had a stare like that, and (thankfully) neither his parents nor his cousins were here tonight… They would probably have tried to hex him onstage, assuming they could think of a convenient excuse to diffuse any possible scandal.
No, it had to be Regulus.
He finally spotted him lurking by the doors to the Great Hall; he raised an eyebrow, coldly. Regulus indicated, with a jerk of his head, that he wanted to talk: outside.
Great, he was probably about to be murdered by his little brother and everyone else was too busy to notice…
He drew himself up, ignoring how much this coldness hurt, and followed Regulus out into the Entrance Hall.
“What?” he asked, with no preamble. To his surprise, Regulus looked nervous, almost edgy. He was fiddling with the hems of his sleeves.
“I just wanted to say,” said Regulus, in a small voice. “Good show.”
Sirius stared at him.
“I know you hate hearing it, but if our parents were less… well…” he glanced up at him. “They would say that you had done us proud.”
“They could go to hell,” said Sirius, though with much less force than he’d intended. He glanced around, suddenly worried that Bellatrix would spring out from nowhere and hex him.
“Very well then,” said Regulus, tersely. “Then I say that I’m proud of you.”
Sirius’s mouth fell open.
“Thanks,” he managed.
The two boys looked at one another – really looked.
“You look well,” said Regulus.
“You don’t,” said Sirius, with real concern. “You don’t look like you’ve slept in weeks.”
To his surprise, Regulus laughed, hollowly.
“Mother says that I’m ‘glowing with respectful ardour for the cause’,” he said.
“Well she always did have a few screws loose,” said Sirius, and then winced, expecting his brother to snarl at him, but Regulus nodded – actually nodded.
“She’s not the only one,” he said, quietly. “I was so proud of myself… getting to be a Death Eater – I thought I was doing the right thing – the best thing possible for the family, for me…” he looked up, miserably. “I was wrong.”
Sirius searched for something comforting and big-brotherly to say (that wasn’t ‘I bloody well told you so’).
“I should have listened to you,” said Regulus, in an exhausted rush. “But I thought I was being so clever… and now there’s no going back.”
“No way out?” Sirius asked, frowning.
“No,” said Regulus. “I’ve seen what happens to the people who try…”
Sirius had never seen his brother look younger, more vulnerable; something deep inside him clicked, and suddenly he knew what to do. He put an arm around his shoulders (in a manly way, of course).
“Is there anything I can do?”
Regulus smiled, weakly.
“Only if you can destroy the Dark Lord and all his supporters except me in one fell swoop,” he joked, and Sirius smiled. Their faces fell in unison. “Look,” said Regulus, quietly. “I know that what’s coming to me isn’t going to be pleasant, and is likely to be…” he met his brother’s eyes for a terrible moment. “… permanent, but I wanted you to know that you were right, and… I’m sorry… for not believing you…”
“It won’t come to that,” Sirius growled, taking his brother’s shoulders, and Regulus looked taken aback by his brothers’ ferocity. “I won’t let it!”
“I don’t think there’s much you can do… I don’t think there’s much anyone can do. So I’ve made a decision…”
Sirius waited as patiently as he could; was his brother really telling him that death was the only option?
“I’m more or less doomed either way,” he said, quietly. “So I want to go out doing the right thing. I’m not very high up in the ranks, but there is information that I can pass to Dumbledore…”
Sirius stared at him, open-mouthed.
“But I don’t think he’ll trust me. Will you go with me?” he asked, the last sentence coming out all in a rush, as if he didn’t really want to have to ask.
“Of course I will, but –”
“There’s no other way, Sirius,” Regulus sighed, looking horribly old and all-too-young all at the same time.
“I – we just – we shouldn’t be having to make plans like this,” said Sirius, hotly. “We should be talking about girls and sneaking Firewhiskey from the kitchens!”
“I know,” said Regulus. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” said Sirius. “Ok, you willingly became a Death Eater, but you are fifteen – and don’t give me any crap about being old enough to make that kind of decision, I know you are. I also know that when I was fifteen I nearly killed three of my best friends.” Regulus looked up, suddenly curious, but Sirius carried on. “And the fact you’re taking responsibility for your actions is brilliant, but it’s not your fault that the world’s gone stupid.” He paused, and sighed. “I’d give anything for you not to have to do this,” he said, quietly.
“I’ll do anything I can to help,” he said, firmly. “Friday lunchtime, we’ll start a fight so spectacular that we’ll have to go to Dumbledore.”
Regulus nodded, expression grim.
“Don’t mention it…” he looked at his brother. “You have no idea how proud I am of you,” he said.
They regarded one another soberly, for a moment.
“So,” said Sirius, with the air of someone who has absolutely no idea what to say. “You got a girlfriend yet?”
Regulus stared at him for a few moments before cracking a rare grin.
She forced everything she was feeling about her mother and ‘the gentleman’ out of her head as Remus led her towards the dance-floor; this time was just for them.
He whirled her around in a practiced manner, leading Eleanor to once more wonder whether the younger years of students were forced to attend some kind of secret dancing classes. She could feel several pairs of eyes on them, probably including their respective parents and guardians; but they (and their associated high levels of mortification) could wait.
She smiled up at him as they danced; they felt so right like this, their bodies fitting together perfectly as they swayed and waltzed to the music. His eyes were sparkling with laughter and delight as they completed their circuit of the room, revelling in the acceptable proximity the dance afforded.
When it ended, Remus kissed her hand gently and gave her a small bow, making her laugh. They moved out of the dance-floor and retreated to the drinks table.
“Here’s to many more,” Remus said, happily, and raised his goblet in a toast.
She lifted her own cup to meet it.
“Although hopefully in more comfortable shoes,” Eleanor remarked, and he chuckled. “Ow.”
“You could always take them off,” he said, his arm resting comfortably about her waist.
“I’d lose them,” she replied. “Or Sirius and James would make off with them and make them do something awful the next time I have to wear them.”
He presented a stung expression, though Eleanor could see the laughter just behind it.
“I’d stop them,” he said.
“And then do something less dangerous but equally annoying.”
“No you aren’t,” she said, giving him a playful shove. “You’re secretly pleased that somebody knows about your nefarious streak. You can’t let Sirius and James have all the credit for your evil genius, after all.”
Remus appeared to reflect for a moment.
“True,” he said. “And it’s fairly obvious I’ll never be able to hide anything from you.”
Abruptly, his face changed.
“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I…” He frowned, and looked around. “It doesn’t matter…”
“You’ll tell me later?”
“Yes,” he said. “Look, I’m going to nip to the bathroom…”
She watched him walk off, still looking around suspiciously. Boys, she thought, and went to join her guardians at the other side of the room.
“So, mon petit roitelet, you ‘ave a beau?” Estelle asked, as soon as she was within earshot; behind her, Severus was grinning evilly with a gleeful look that clearly said: ‘Your turn!’
He had watched them dancing, Eleanor and the young werewolf, and was still smiling from the image. He’d known that she had a paramour – there were always little tells, little tricks of behaviour to watch out for… Poppy and Violetta had been just the same. He’d tried to work out which one of them it was when he’d met them in the summer, somewhat unsuccessfully – although, once he’d dismissed the possibility of it being Severus he had wondered about that quiet, polite boy with the scars.
Even then he’d reminded him of Antoine, even in they way he moved…
He was happy for them. These young people, always having time to fall in love.
He looked over to where Estelle was teasing her young charge and smiled, warmly. They had been just the same, and had, in his opinion, chosen one another very wisely indeed. Growing old disgracefully with Estelle was excellent fun… he fervently hoped that Eleanor and the young werewolf would have just as much luck, wisdom and courage as they had needed…
And considerably more luck than Violetta had had.
Henrì frowned and glanced at the huge doors at the end of the Hall; she was still yet to appear, as was her awful husband. He hoped that she would be alright… something like this could shake her considerable fortifications…
Fortunately, he reflected, in place of luck she had been gifted an inordinate amount of cunning, which seemed to have set her in good stead thus far…
He ran his hand through his sparse, white hair.
He was getting too old for this. Perhaps, given that their charge was now of age, it was time to consider retirement…
A nice cottage on the south coast, perhaps… closer to Antoine and Monique, and their growing brood of hearty young children… somewhere warmer than the mountains in winter…
It would be sad to leave the chalet, of course, but it hadn’t really ever been theirs, as much as they had loved it… perhaps Eleanor would take it over… assuming she didn’t stay in Britain now.
He looked over at the young lady, now glowering at Severus, who was looking like he was thoroughly enjoying the conversation. He remembered when she had first arrived at the chalet: a tiny ball of blankets that seemed determined to scream the house down. He’d thought she was beautiful, even then…
His petit chou had grown up so quickly, and so gracefully…
He would miss her dearly.
It had, perhaps, been a little mean of him to spring a sudden meeting on Claire, but she was managing it beautifully – and he had no doubt that she’d repay him with an introduction to her father before the evening was out. His mum and dad liked her very much, which, as far as he was concerned, was a Very Good Thing. He watched her chattering with them, somewhere between elated and nervous, and remembered all over again why it was he had fallen for her in the first place.
He couldn’t help but smile at her, particularly when she looked so happy; he’d always had a bit of a thing for her, and he was infinitely grateful to Eleanor for talking him into asking her out. He’d never have done it without her gentle prodding, and he was sure now that he would have regretted that for the rest of his life.
Letting his eyes wander about the room, he glanced at each of his friends in turn, all of them talking with parents or dancing happily about the Great Hall. Who would have thought it?
If someone had told him a year ago that he would number Severus Snape among his closest friends, he probably would have laughed so hard he’d be sick, but now…
And two years ago, if someone had said he’d be with Claire, or James would be with Lily, or Remus with, well, anyone... or Sirius with Dorothy Cottingley, for Merlin’s sake (he really hadn’t seen that one coming, but it did kind of make sense in a Sirius sort of way).
He’d felt himself drifting away from Sirius and James, back then… even Remus and Frank had been a little distant at times, but he realised now that it was just a part of being stuck as a teenager, with so many thoughts and emotions rattling around your brain that you didn’t know what to do with any of it…
He looked around again, fondly.
Nothing would ever come between them again, he’d see to that.
She watched Sirius come back into the Great Hall, looking strangely closed off, like he was carrying an even heavier burden than before, and shook her head. He was a tricky one, that boy… he seemed determined to take the weight of the world upon his shoulders, even when there were people about to help share the load. She’d have to have a word with Eleanor about him.
She was glad that Eleanor and Remus had finally got together… she’d been watching them since the night the Tower had nearly exploded and they’d held hands by accident… Eleanor had always been nice to her, and from what she could tell about Remus, he was a nice, kind, boy…
She’d remembered the way his face had looked after Eleanor had been attacked back in May and smiled, grimly. There was a man who would never let her down. Their friends, too.
For all their horsing around, the strange family that had solidified around them would always be there when they were needed…
She glanced at her brother, who was stood looking bored by the buffet table, his friends having gone off to get themselves in trouble. He was trying to stay out of it this year, she knew… their mother had given him quite a severe talking-to at the end of the summer… He scuffed his shoes, sulkily.
She glanced around… it wasn’t really time yet to begin her campaign of mischief – the current troublemakers were still in residence, after all…
But Corin looked so lonely, over there on his own… and no one was paying attention to the punch bowl, which his friends had been trying to spike with something… She fingered the bubble potion in her pocket, thoughtfully, and came to a decision.
“Corin,” she greeted him, walking over.
They wouldn’t mind a bit of competition, just for one night…
She just couldn’t work him out. She’d been trying to understand him for the better part of two years, to no avail… for a boy whose emotions tended to be painted all over his expressive face, he had a knack for keeping parts of himself hidden. She didn’t blame him, really… he’d told her about his family, and she couldn’t imagine how much it must have hurt to have been so thoroughly cast out.
Perhaps she could help to make it better.
He’d been so angry lately, and she’d heard about his little ‘misunderstanding’ about his best friends. His loyalty was commendable, of course, but he really needed to think a little more before plunging so completely into situations he didn’t fully understand…
She smiled, wryly, at herself. But of course, that was the Ravenclaw in her talking, and he was, after all, one fourth of Gryffindor’s ‘golden boys’. Convincing him to take a steadying breath before throwing himself forward would take a long time… time that she was, she realised, more than willing to give him.
And then there was the question of her.
She’d had a crush on Sirius for years, and it still made her blush when he was around (though she felt she’d managed to keep a lid on it recently, which had taken some practice), and who really wants to be so obviously enamoured on someone with a well-earned reputation like his? She’d been so sure that he loved Trixie (he went off with her all the time, after all), and had had a horrible few weeks at the start of last year where she’d thought he’d fallen for the new girl, Eleanor, but she’d been wrong.
So she’d decided to just be a friend to him, if he needed her… and he’d started opening up to her at the strangest moments, and about the strangest things.
For example, she knew that he loved peanut butter and hated coffee; that in his old room at home there was shoe-box under his floorboards that he hadn’t been able to go back for; that his favourite colour was, against all outward signs, blue; that he hated that squeaky noise balloons made sometimes; that he and his brother had had a race with giant snails when he’d been six, and got snail goop all over their parents’ dining room… he hadn’t told her what their reaction had been, but from his expression she’d made an educated guess…
That he wanted kids one day.
She wondered why he’d told her these things at the time, but put it down to his generally open nature. It was only recently, having watched him become so guarded in the play, that she’d realised how little he let on to people these days. It bothered her.
Particularly as he seemed determined to tell her everything.
She’d nearly hit him when he’d asked her to Hogsmeade that afternoon. She’d been so sure he was playing a particularly cruel prank on her (and even now, she was a little uncertain), but he’d stayed close to her for most of the night, and even asked to dance with her later on…
It didn’t make any sense.
He was good looking (well, gorgeous, actually), boisterous, loud, brave, and generally considered to be one of those kids who would do well whatever, whereas she…
Whereas she was short, dumpy, quiet, miserable and had had to fight for everything she had. It hadn’t been easy, coming to Hogwarts as a muggle-born so shy that it took a whole year for her to work up the courage to even look at her class-mates. If Frank Longbottom hadn’t silently challenged her to a chess match at the end of the term, and then refused to accept ‘no’ for an answer, she wouldn’t have come back for second year…
It didn’t make any sense…
Across the room, Sirius glanced over at her and smiled – that wide, unstoppable grin that made her heart beat faster and louder than she thought it should.
No sense at all… and, she realised, for probably the first time in her life, she didn’t mind that.
Things were looking up, Frank decided. Alice was looking even more lovely than ever (despite the fact that every time he thought it, he marvelled at its impossibility), Sirius and Remus were friends again and Remus had apparently got his act together and kissed Eleanor. All around the Great Hall people were laughing, smiling, dancing… you could forget, for the moment, that the world was at war.
He watched James and Lily dancing together as if they’d always been together; Peter introducing Claire to his beaming parents; Sirius pulling a startled Dorothy out on to the dance-floor (well, and why not?); Severus and Eleanor poking fun at one another; Remus talking to one of the guests he didn’t recognise…
It was difficult to imagine life without them, which came as something of a surprise…
He looked at Alice, chattering animatedly with her parents and his mother. The world that they would be walking out into in a year’s time was every day a colder and crueller place, and yet, he could not bring himself to worry. Not here, not now.
Not with Alice smiling like that.
He fingered the small, square box in the pocket of his dress-robes. He had been carrying it around for weeks now, ever since he’d sneaked away from his mother in Diagon Alley in the summer. He’d been trying to think of an appropriate way of approaching her, an appropriate time.
They were of age now, after all, and less than a year away from ‘growing up’ and leaving school…
He watched her as she laughed and smiled, knowing with his whole being that his future was with her: by her side, in her arms, wherever she needed him to be. It made him feel humble and powerful and reckless all at the same time, and he smiled as she did (he loved the way she smiled).
Dimly, and although he thought that divination was about as useful as knickers on an avocado, he could see a future together: both of them Aurors, working with the Ministry to keep people safe. A homely cottage somewhere leafy, the smell of Alice’s cooking (which, he knew without having sampled it, would be mouth-watering)…
And perhaps, one day, a tiny wizard and witch, chasing one another around the garden.
He grinned at his vision, and left the box in his pocket.
Severus was laughing again, along with Eleanor.
Six months ago, had he seen Severus laugh, he would have suspected that he’d been the victim of one too many cheering charms, but it seemed that his quiet classmate had been hiding his sense of humour under thick layers of purposefully constructed fortification.
He was glad that he could laugh now.
It had come as no surprise whatsoever to Algernon to discover that he preferred men… it had come as a surprise that the man he preferred was his often sullen and bizarrely noble class-mate. He’d been more lively for a while (and Algernon now realised that this had a lot to do with Eleanor and Lily and their refusal to let him wallow), and they had been getting on together better than ever; Algernon had been protecting him from the worst of his housemates and Severus had been helping him the those subjects whose finer points escaped him.
And then Radogast Mulciber and Evan Rosier had played their little ‘prank’ (as they had been referring to it) on Eleanor, and Severus hadn’t come back. He’d felt a curious fury when he’d found out what they had done, and had even been moved to apologise to James, whom he had been industriously hexing as their friends had taken their revenge that morning.
He’d put the feeling down to house loyalty until he’d seen Severus in the Hospital Wing, looking so bruised and battered and small. Then he’d known…
And then, in the summer, when his letters had gone unanswered for so long…
He had almost talked himself into paying him an unexpected visit when Severus’s change of address reached him. He had found himself pouring out his heart onto the parchment that he sent, every other day, to the French Alps.
He hadn’t really expected Severus to feel the same way, but he had… he’d just pulled Algernon to one side, one September night, after an extended drinking session in the Slytherin Common Room, and snogged him.
He hadn’t thought Severus had had it in him.
He was rapidly discovering that Severus had a lot more going on behind his curtain of dark hair than everyone thought… and he was enjoying every sordid minute of it.
The young man had been watching him for a good ten minutes before he allowed himself to turn and face him.
He had known that he would seek him out eventually; his was a scent that he was unlikely to be able to ignore. He had probably never smelled another werewolf in his life, and his expression suggested as much. He was stood half in shadow a few feet away, watching him carefully, suspiciously; he had made sure that his face was hidden – or would have been, had he been fully human – but he wasn’t, and he could see him as clear as day.
He met the boy’s eyes, and for a moment they just looked at one another. He beckoned him over.
The boy walked forward, slowly, snaking through the chattering crowd. He was wary, stood before him. Uncertain. A question in his eyes.
“I could tell even before I saw you,” said Antoine, gently. “As you will ‘ave noticed, it is ‘ard to miss.”
The young man nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“I can smell ‘er on you,” Antoine remarked, and the tiniest of frowns crossed the boy’s face. “And you on ‘er.”
He regarded him closely for a moment before continuing.
“Do you know ‘oo I am, young cub?”
It was the boy’s turn to watch him closely, and he appeared to be thinking hard before he answered.
“I… I believe I have read your book, sir.”
“I believe you ‘ave… what did you think of it?”
“It was… useful,” the boy said, and this time there was a ghost of a smile. “I must have read it a hundred times… I never thought I’d have the chance to say – thank you, for writing it.”
“You are very welcome, young man,” he chuckled. “I ‘ave to say, I did wonder ‘oo it was for, when she asked me…”
Remus gave a small smile.
“I think she noticed that I had more or less stolen my copy from the library and didn’t approve,” he said. “I’m Remus Lupin.”
“Antoine Lévesque,” said the older werewolf, shaking his hand. “You were good – in the play.”
“It is unusual for… one of us… to be the centre of attention for a good reason.”
“I didn’t have much choice,” Remus chuckled.
“I suspected as much – Eleanor would not ‘ave put ‘erself forward for the part – ‘owever much she loves the play.”
“She was brilliant, though,” said Remus, and this time he really smiled.
“Oui,” Antoine agreed. “I am glad that she ‘as you… and that you ‘ave ‘er.”
“Antoine, please,” he said, waving his automatic submission away. “It is a difficult path to walk, alone.”
Remus nodded, frowning at the urge to lower his head at the melodious timbre of Antoine’s voice.
“It is a wolf thing,” said Antoine, in an undertone. “Your wolf ‘as decided that my wolf is the alpha… don’t worry about it, but don’t let ‘im control you.”
Remus appeared to struggle with himself for a few moments.
“I have… so many questions,” he said, purposefully drawing himself upright.
“You, cub, are going to be alright.”
Happy and exhausted, she excused herself from her enthusiastic relatives and Frank’s ferocious mother, and went to find her boyfriend. Knowing Frank, he’d be happily philosophising with his house-mates, or talking chess strategy with other club members.
Having completed one circuit of the Great Hall and still unable to find him, Alice bit her lip, concerned. It was odd for him to be so completely absent… perhaps he had absconded to the bathroom.
It was silly to worry, really.
Unbidden, images of the ruined houses and broken bodies from the pages of the Daily Prophet sprung to mind… The stories that they all read, quietly, at breakfast, and pretended that they weren’t worried about, came back to her. They were awful, certainly, but not something that would ever happen to them, they would reason, and move on to the sports section or the arts section…
It was one of the reasons that she wanted to be an Auror so badly, to stop things like that filling the newspapers…
But it couldn’t happen here, she assured herself, drawing her shawl around her; it was strange, she hadn’t realised that the Great Hall had become so cold…
He’d be back any second, and she’d feel so silly…
She backed against a pillar, feeling the need for solidity at her back, as if the world might shift beyond her grasp at any moment, and looked around carefully.
The people around her seemed suddenly over-bright, needlessly loud…
Feeling every inch the fearful wife, she bit her lip, ready to go out and look for him – but… yes! There he was, weaving determinedly through the crowd towards her.
All the warmth and joy and laughter in the room seemed to come back to her in a moment, and she hurried forward to kiss him on the cheek, feeling completely ridiculous.
“I was looking for you,” she said, fighting to keep the relief from her voice.
“I thought you might be hungry,” he said, waving a plate piled high with buffet food.
It smelled fantastic, and she took some of the proffered food, gratefully. She hadn’t realised how hungry she was.
He grinned at her and all the fears of a few minutes previously evaporated. Of course he had come back.
He always would.
Having fulfilled her obligations as guardian and been relentlessly cheery at her young charge, Estelle had positioned herself beside the long drinks table, selected a wine that was (despite no longer being in France) actually not that bad, and set her sights on the doors to the Entrance Hall. When Violetta emerged (and, knowing her, wild horses would not stop her), she would need to know that she was supported out here; Estelle would be easy to spot by the drinks table, and Violetta would be able to find her or not, whatever she felt was most appropriate.
She had seen dear Antoine draw Eleanor’s young man off to one side; she was glad that he had someone to take him under their wing. She knew from experience that life as a werewolf could be trying, and having someone to talk to about all of that sort of thing would be good for him.
And for his relationship with Eleanor.
She supposed that her unflinching acceptance of her ward falling in love with what was, essentially, a dark creature, would be considered unusual by most parents and guardians. But they hadn’t met him.
He was pleasant, quiet, polite – and quite obviously cared for Eleanor a great deal. She had been certain that he was the one that had stolen her little girl’s heart when they had met, very briefly, in the summer, though Henrì had not believed her…
There was something in the way that he walked that marked him out as a wolf, and Eleanor must have known what she was getting herself into – she had spent enough time loitering around Antoine’s barn when she was young.
No, whatever happened now, Eleanor would be well away from it – her mother would see to that; and well looked after – her young man would see to that.
Sadly, she shook her head. She didn’t really need them any more.
She actually came.
Ok, so she looks like she hates it, and she’s not been particularly friendly, but at least she’s here – and actually speaking to people!
She even said ‘hello’ to James, and she hates him!
He came over, being his usual charming self – I think he was trying to rescue me – and whirled me away across the dance-floor. Not that I’m complaining. But I’ve been dancing with him for a while now, and I should go back and see how she’s doing…
Even mum and dad have left her now, and she keeps shooting daggers at Severus. Oh dear.
“Petunia, do you want to get a drink, or something?”
“Will it have anything funny in it?” she asked, dubiously.
“No,” said Lily, and then hesitated. “Well… it depends on how busy Sirius has been…” she looked around, and saw him dancing with Dorothy Cottingley. “Good grief…”
“Nothing, just not a couple I’d have expected to happen…”
“I think it would probably be a good idea to avoid the punch… or anything that’s a funny colour.”
She rummaged through the bottles for an unopened one.
“Ok… looks like damson wine, pumpkin cider or gillywater…” she wrinkled up her nose. “Well, gillywater’s nasty… and the cider is probably highly alcoholic…”
“But we’re underage,” Petunia hissed – though Lily was sure that now there was note of excitement in her voice.
“Not here – it’s seventeen for us… here,” she handed her sister a goblet of damson wine. She sniffed it, experimentally. “It’s pretty good,” Lily encouraged. “And a lot easier to get used to than pumpkin.”
To her surprise, Petunia sipped the wine.
“It’s… odd,” she said, wrinkling her nose up and taking another sip. “But not unpleasant.”
Lily grinned, and was surprised that Petunia smiled back.
“How are you and Vernon?” she asked, and immediately wished that she hadn’t. Petunia looked like she’d just taken a bite from a lemon.
“He… well, we fell out,” said Petunia, tartly. “He was very rude about mum.”
“Oh… I’m sorry…”
“No you’re not,” said Petunia. “You hate him.”
“Well, yes,” said Lily. “But I like you, and you like him, and I like to see you happy.”
“Is that why you came?” asked Lily, quietly.
“Yes,” Petunia admitted. “I thought it would be the thing that would annoy him the most…” she looked at her sister’s face. “But now that I’m here… I’m glad I did.”
“Really?” asked Lily, hope rising in her heart.
“Really,” said Petunia, with a small smile. “This place is extraordinary… and not nearly as… well, as abnormal as I thought it would be.”
Petunia’s smile grew a little.
“And one of the young men asked me out,” she said.
“Really?” Lily asked, surprised and suddenly excited. “Who?”
“That cute one, from the watch,” Petunia whispered, eyes bright. “The one who was sort of in charge.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“And you said?”
“I said I’d think about it… I wasn’t sure…” she bit her lip. “I mean, I’ve only just broken up with Vernon, and I was thinking that that was more sort of temporary…”
“Until Crispin asked you to dance?”
“Until Crispin asked me to dance,” she nodded, and giggled. “I didn’t think anyone would.”
“Why?” Lily asked, surprised. “You look really pretty.”
“Do you think so?” Petunia asked, suddenly nervous; she patted her dark hair uncertainly. “Everyone else looks so… well, like you… like some fairytale princess.”
Lily blushed, and Petunia actually smiled.
“You look beautiful,” Lily assured her, a little pink. “Silver really suits, you – you look like you’re one of those wonderful movie stars in those black and white films mum loves watching.”
It was Petunia’s turn to blush, and she took a longer sip of her wine, embarrassed.
“So, what’s he like?” she asked, not meeting her sister’s eyes.
“He’s really nice,” said Lily. “He’s a Ravenclaw, too, which means that he’s very smart – and very sweet, according to Frank.”
“Oh…” Petunia gave a half-smile. “Thank you…”
“You’re welcome…” Lily took her hand, as gently as she dared. “I’ve missed you, Tuney.”
“I’ve missed you too…” she looked at her goblet. “You’re like this wine, Lily…”
Lily frowned at her and Petunia smiled.
“Odd, but not unpleasant.”
It had been a very long time indeed since she had seen Violetta so deeply upset and so gloriously triumphant simultaneously. She had always been much more reserved than her glamorous friend, which was part of the reason for her chosen profession, but whenever Violetta needed her she had been there, and visa versa.
She well remembered the evening when she had received that first, terrified, letter, telling her friend that she was pregnant – and that it wasn’t the Minister’s child, and that she didn’t know what to do.
She also remembered the night when she’d Apparated across England and France to help her friend give birth; it was not an experience that she would easily forget – the birth had not been an easy one, and there had been some long, terrible moments when she was afraid that she would lose one, or even both of them.
Seeing them both peacefully sleeping together in the morning had more than made up for the journey, and she had slept in Violetta’s private flats for nearly three days, completely exhausted.
It had been quite a shock to hear that young Eleanor would be joining the school, but no shock at all to see how much she looked like her old friend. She had always thought that being the matron to the school had made up for her own lack of children, but with Eleanor she felt particularly proprietorial.
It had nearly killed her to see what those brutes had done to her.
It had nearly killed them, too.
She glanced over at her, now a beautiful young woman in her own right, laughing along with Black and Cottingley.
They just grew up so damned fast.
He couldn’t remember having enjoyed a social event this much in his life.
He was usually the first to leave any party, even if it was taking place in his dormitory, and the one most likely to be found quietly reading in the library when the rest of his peers were off having fun and being sick – an association he had never been able to comprehend.
But this was… well, fun.
People were laughing along with him, enjoying his company, and he was enjoying himself. Even his mother looked like she was having fun, though to be fair she had occasionally told him that her time at Hogwarts had been the happiest she’d ever been. Being back here seemed to be good for her.
It had been good for him too, to see her so relaxed, so contentedly herself. After years of living with his father breathing down their necks he’d rarely seen her this peaceful. It made a very nice change.
He had even resisted the urge to go over and annoy Petunia Evans, largely because she looked unhappy and out of place, and while he didn’t like the girl one bit, he wasn’t going to make it worse. Quite apart from the fact that Lily would kill him.
She appeared to be dancing with Crispin Spinnet, now, and looked excited and content… vaguely, he wondered whether someone had slipped her a dodgy potion, and looked around for her sister in order to mention this possibility, but Lily was stood on the edge of the Hall, watching Petunia dance with an elated smile on her face. Apparently, Petunia could do ‘happy’. Who knew?
He watched Crispin lead her past him, towards the food, and Petunia was so giddily excited that she completely forgot to glare at him, instead giving him a startled smile. Severus smiled back, more out of habit than anything else (who’d have thought that he could develop a habit like smiling, even?), and reflected that she actually did look kind of attractive in the strange silver strappy gown she was wearing. Must be a muggle style…
He looked about the Great Hall. Members of his strange, voluntary and entirely dysfunctional family were cavorting about the place, dancing, or eating, or drinking, or laughing, or some bizarre and impractical combination of several of them… He felt a strange warm sensation in his chest that he’d experience once at the Chalet… he belonged here, it said…
How strange his life had become…
And then there was Algernon, whom he still couldn’t quite believe had kissed him back. In fact, he was still having a hard time believing that he’d kissed him in the first place… apparently that much Firewhiskey in one go wasn’t necessarily a good idea.
He blushed faintly, allowing his hair to hide his face.
Although, he had to admit it had its perks… perhaps he and Algernon should do some experimenting…
He was such a fool.
Really, had he expected this to work?
He had looked shocked and outraged when Minister Appleby and Professor Dumbledore had made it blatantly obvious that they weren’t on his side, storming out of the School like a petulant child.
She had watched him go, unimpressed.
Between his threats and accusations, she had become more determined than ever to survive this debacle, and had been playing the distressed-but-it-would-be-bad-manners-to-show-it-lady for the better part of an hour. Not that it required much acting.
She had been really quite worried that he might go straight out and seize her Eleanor, but Professor McGonagall assured her that if he had tried, the portraits would have told them by now, interminable gossips as they were.
She had expected the Gentleman to have slightly more patience and decorum, but apparently the satisfaction of having caught her red-handed, as it were, seemed to have temporarily overwhelmed his pomposity. He had gone from sneering triumph to righteous fury, before cascading to childish rage in the face of an entire lack of sympathy from his chosen audience. He had actually begun attacking them, their positions and their reputations, but he had reckoned against just how stubborn the British could be.
If he had handled the situation slightly better, Violetta could imagine that it would have gone better for him: he could have cast aspersions on her character from behind the mask of a grieving and cuckolded husband… But he had let his vicious streak get the better of him…
And now the people that could most hurt his reputation – being the people who now had pastoral care of her daughter – would do their best to protect her.
Minister Appleby had been very kind indeed, his sense of outrage at Huon’s behaviour greater than that at extra-marital affairs. After all, he had met the man, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how one might be tempted by anyone else who came along. Violetta had blinked back tears (mostly of relief) and told them how her one night of indiscretion had led to Eleanor’s birth (although, of course, she had remained faithful ever since), and therefore her greatest joy in life. She told them how she had always tried to keep Eleanor safe and away from the vagaries of political and society life.
Both Dumbledore and Appleby had kindly offered her a place to stay in until she could get things sorted out, in Hogwarts and London, respectively. She agreed to both of them, saying that she would like to spend a couple of days with her daughter before she began the divorce proceedings – which would be more easily managed from London.
She nodded to Estelle, who appeared to be maintaining a watch by the drinks table and glanced over at her daughter, who was laughing with some of her friends. She couldn’t help the small smile that played upon her lips. It would be good to spend a day in her daughter’s company – and as themselves, for a change. But after that – she did not intend to interfere in Eleanor’s school commitments, after all – she would beg an audience with the Headmaster…
There were things that she could tell him about her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s court… about the dark cloaked strangers with the skull masks, for example… about how her husband was welcoming them with open arms… about the hushed conversation that she had overheard, about the transfer of a particular locket from Huon’s vaults into their possession… about the whispers of shattered souls between Huon and the Dark Lord…
Her husband had presumed much, over the years, and the continued support of a public who could see the disadvantages of a madman who filed his teeth every month and welcomed the missives of the Dark Lord almost fervently were prime examples…
Huon had accrued many ancient texts on the Dark Arts over the years, and Violetta had, of late, taken to reading them through to see what he was up to…
Yes, she suspected that Dumbledore would be very interested in the book with the chapter entitled ‘Horcruxes’…
He recaptured Eleanor’s hand while she watched the swirling dancers, and she smiled up at him.
“Alright?” she asked, concerned at his earlier departure.
“Alright,” he nodded. “I just met your housekeeper’s nephew…”
“Antoine?” she gasped. “He’s here?”
“Yes, he said he’d come over and see you in a bit… said something about embarrassing his aunt…”
“He’s probably making her dance,” she said, peering into the crowd. “Yes – there they are!”
They watched Antoine deftly twirling his rather pink-cheeked aunt; Henrì was a few feet away from them, shaking with laughter. Remus grinned as he bowed to Eileen Snape and led her on to the dance-floor, as Severus looked on, astonished.
“That’s why you hurried off then?” Eleanor asked.
“Yes…” he scratched his neck distractedly. “I’ve never really smelled another… one of me, before. It was unsettling.” Eleanor’s fingers tightened around his momentarily, and he continued. “He seems to want to take me under his wing to some extent.”
“Good,” she said, firmly. “I’m glad. There’s so much about…” she lowered her voice. “… your condition that I just can’t help with. I mean, you know I’ll always be there for you, but…”
“But this way I have someone I can put the weirder questions to,” he finished, guessing her direction.
“Exactly,” she smiled at him, and he couldn’t resist kissing her on her slightly rosy cheek.
“It has other benefits too,” he said. “Antoine has a job – he said he’d help me look for work that doesn’t make my condition obvious.”
“Like something that you can do from home, maybe?”
“Yes, freelance writing, research, that sort of thing… and he has a family.”
“Did he show you the photographs?”
“Yes,” Remus chuckled. “He seems to be a very proud father.”
“So he should be,” said Eleanor. “Even if they are a veritable horde of pink-cheeked little monsters,” she continued, smiling at the memory. “Their favourite game, as far as I could tell from the last time I saw them, was ‘climb-all-over-tatie-Ellie-and-get-her-to-chase-us’.”
“You loved it, didn’t you?” he teased.
“Oh, absolutely,” she smiled, and Remus caught his breath. Something about the light in the Great Hall tonight amplified people’s beauty… Eleanor fairly took his breath away. “They have me wrapped around their tiny pudgy fingers,” she went on. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“The best part of it is, I know that this won’t – that I can’t – that any children… well that they wouldn’t inherit this…”
Eleanor kissed him gently on the cheek.
“They would have the best of you,” she said, softly.
“Eleanor,” Remus began, lifting her knuckles to his lips; the warm torchlight danced on the bracelet on her wrist. “Do you ever think about having children?”
To his surprise, she blushed a little, but he smile brightened, ever so slightly.
Remus beamed, as visions of their own brood of pink-cheeked little monsters swam through his mind.
Everything was going to be just fine.
It had been rather a good evening, he felt, until the odious Minister Buchardt had decided to commit social and political suicide. Even then, watching Madame Buchardt masterfully steer herself through the dilemma had been most entertaining, as had watching his friend Everard bluster about trying to help. He really wasn’t that bad, Albus mused, for a politician.
He and Poppy had left Minerva with the stunned Minister, since they were old friends, and had emerged into the Gala to see everybody enjoying themselves in a reasonably raucous fashion.
He had danced with Poppy, and then with Pomona, and was contentedly watching Filius attempt to chat her up. The diminutive Charms Professor wasn’t doing too badly, and Albus was looking forward to the materialisation of the usual Hogwarts’ staff betting pool, which took in everything from Quidditch results, to student and staff romances, to the first (or best) potentially deadly accident of the year…
Across the Great Hall, he saw Poppy talking quietly with Madame Buchardt. It hadn’t really surprised him that they were old friends, particularly as he knew more of his apparently prim and quiet matron’s history than many of his colleagues (except possibly Pomona, since the two of them had become firm friends). He would have to ask her about it… he would invite her up for an innocent cup of tea in the morning (or maybe the afternoon, since the mead was so delightful this year).
The opportunity to speak with Madame Buchardt during her stay would also have to be arranged, he mused, especially if the rumours of her husband’s loyalties were true… she might have overheard something… he would have to approach the subject very carefully, he thought.
Or, then again, perhaps not… the lady in question had looked, purposefully, in his direction and nodded; he returned the gesture. Giving it some consideration, Madame Buchardt would probably be the one to approach him… from what he had seen of her, she had a good handle on most situations… and he trusted Poppy’s judgement. If she trusted her, then so would he… to an extent, at least.
It really was such a shame that he should have to turn his thoughts to darker things during such a vibrant and joyful event as the Autumn Gala, but it was inevitable. Especially when a young and foolish boy with outdated ideals seemed determined to build a world of darkness and cruelty around him…
He frowned, deeply. Sometimes it seemed as though there was no hope for the future…
A roar of laughter pulled him from his miserable musings; he got to his feet.
In the middle of the crowd, and rapidly spreading outwards, was an epidemic of people who were producing vast quantities of bubbles, out of their mouths, ears and noses.
Immediately, and somewhat out of habit, he glanced towards James Potter and Sirius Black, but the boys were giving each other bewildered looks… someone else then… interesting. It had to be a potion, really… in the punch, perhaps. He eyed his goblet with mild suspicion.
He peered about the Hall… there – by the fireplace… two young students were huddled together, trying not to look smug…
Young Corin and Olivia Haversham, if he wasn’t mistaken… he had seen the boy moping around earlier in the evening, and it seemed that his sister had decided to cheer him up. Clearly, a pair to watch.
He looked about at the bubbling crowd. No one seemed to mind the bubbles, particularly, and many people were howling with laughter, spewing great torrents of coloured bubbles across the room.
He cleared his throat, managing, with that tiny sound, to quiet the entire room.
Making sure that everyone was paying attention, he lifted his own goblet to his lips and took a deep draught, before blowing a great stream of violet-coloured bubbles across the room. That concluded, he sat down as staff, students and parents alike erupted into gales of laughter.
He winked at the two children by the fireplace, and they both jumped in shock; he chuckled to himself.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Minerva giving him a tolerantly withering look, but she couldn’t deflect his good humour.
Happily, he reflected that even in the darkest of times, there would still be something to put a smile on a doddering old fool’s face, and was glad of it.