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Noble and Most Ancient

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Manny was used to various species of wildlife attempting to make their home in the bookshop, no doubt mistaking its dank, dark, mouldering atmosphere for the comforting depths of the forest.

An owl was a little extreme, though, even by Bernard's standards.

Manny was returning from a well-deserved lunch break when he walked in to discover the bird pecking impatiently at Bernard's hair. Bernard remained face down on his desk, mumbling incoherently and making occasional pathetic little pawing motions, like a dog distracted in the middle of going for a scratch. His other hand maintained a death grip on his empty wine glass.

"Aagh!" said Manny, not immediately grasping the nature of the situation. "Vulture!" He grabbed a broom and tried to beat it away from Bernard. "Get away from him! He's not dead, he just smells that way!"

The bird fluttered away from the desk to roost on the upper bookshelves, hooting disapprovingly. That puzzled him. "Do vultures hoot?" he pondered. He raised a finger as the possible source of an answer dawned. "Ornithology!" He scurried over to the bird books, currently filed under P for 'pointless crap'.

Several minutes and a nasty papercut later, Manny had determined that their visitor was, in fact, a tawny owl, native bird of the British Isles and not typically known for its propensity to eat dead or nearly-dead bookshop owners, even pickled ones.

Also, it had a piece of paper tied to its leg. He hoped Bernard wasn't going through another of his periodic sessions of attempting to get the books out of the shop by any means other than selling them. The week where he'd attempted to flush sixteen copies of Tempocalypse II: This Time It's Personnel down the toilet had not been fun for anybody.

"Bernard!" Manny attempted to poke him awake. "Bernard, there's an owl."

Bernard rocked upright into a sitting position, doing a fairly good impression of an owl himself. He swivelled to face Manny and blinked several times without losing the wide eyes. Then he sank into a slouch and resumed his usual irritable squint, refilling the wine glass without needing to look to locate the bottle.

"What time do you call this?" he barked. "Is this how you repay me? I take you into my own home, furnish you with, with furniture, and you run roughshod over me, stopping out at all hours..."

"It's only one oh three, Bernard," Manny pointed out.

"Oh three? Oh three?" Bernard raised an accusing finger. "You stole those minutes! Stole them from the company accounts! I should turn you upside down and shake you until the time falls out of your pockets. Sticky little seconds covered in trouser-fluff, all over the floor." He swept his arms dramatically, knocking a pile of books off the end of the desk, and looked down at them with bland indifference.

"I only went to lunch at quarter to one," Manny said, folding his arms and raising his gaze to the ceiling. Which reminded him. "Bernard, why is there an owl in the shop?"

Bernard looked around blankly, then yelped and jumped up as he spotted the bird. "It's them! They've found me!" He picked up the nearest book and pitched it at the owl, fortunately falling short by an order of magnitude. That didn't stop him throwing another. "No! I won't go back, I won't! You can't make me, I don't care what the hat says! Take your brooms and your potions and your... transbology against the dark creatures. I won't!"

This was impressively incoherent, even by Bernard's standards. Manny didn't get a chance to question him, however, as Fran came in at that point, posing for a moment to show off something about her outfit and then pouting when neither of them reacted. "What's going on?" she said.

Manny cocked his head towards their avian visitor. "Bernard's abusing an owl."

Fran lit up at the sight of the bird. "Oh, isn't he beautiful?" she said, stepping towards it. Bernard preened and puffed his chest. She reached out to stroke the bird's wing. "Such lovely plumage."

"Well, I have been told," Bernard said, brushing imaginary dust off the front of his suit jacket. The actual grime was too ground in to be removable by hand or indeed flamethrower. He snapped out of it as Fran reached for the rolled-up paper tied to the bird's leg.

"No, don't take it!" He flailed wildly. "They'll know I'm here!" He dived down behind the end of his desk, immediately negating its dubious value as a hiding place by leaning out to peer around the side. He and the owl eyeballed each other with matching looks of derision.

Fran, wise to the ways of Bernard Black, sensibly ignored this and continued unrolling the paper. "Oh, look," she said, still in the gooey 'oh, it's so cute' voice she got when she was around babies while too drunk to remember she hated them. "It's got a little letter!" She held it up to display to them as if the owl might have written the note itself.

Bernard leapt across the room with a speed that would have astonished anyone who hadn't seen him go after the last bottle of wine. "Espionage!" he shouted, tearing the letter from Fran's hand. "Information essential to the nation's defence! Mustn't be allowed to fall into the wrong hands." He stuffed the paper in his mouth and attempted to eat it.

Fran matter-of-factly seized his arm and twisted it up behind his back. "Spit," she commanded. Bernard immediately spat the paper out onto the floor and sank down beside it, whimpering.

Fran retrieved and unfolded the paper with a pair of eyebrow tweezers from her handbag.

"Dear Mr Black," she read aloud. "As you may be aware, due to the recent court action brought by Mr Harry Potter on behalf of T.R. Lupin, it has been ruled illegal for the House of Black to discriminate against heirs on the basis of blood status. Therefore you are invited to meet with us and Mr Potter at one p.m. tomorrow to discuss your proportion of..." She looked up with a bright smile. "Ooh, Bernard, looks like you're in the money!"

"Yes, because owls are particularly known for their financial acumen," he said sourly, working his shoulder in the apparent conviction he was grievously injured.

"No, come on, look, it's from a proper firm of solicitors," Fran said. She squinted at the smeared ink at the bottom of the paper. "Cuthbert, Maugrim, Squibble and... Blotch?"

"Well, that certainly sounds authentic," Manny agreed, nodding. He tilted his head in admiring contemplation. "Wow. They must be really posh to send all their letters by owl."

The owl hooted rather pointedly, as if to remind them of its presence. Bernard threw another book at it. "Begone, foul creature!" he bellowed, and it flapped out of the shop indignantly.

Manny smiled. "Huh, that's quite funny, actually," he said. "Fowl creature?" He raised his hands as if framing the word. "See, because a fowl is a-" Bernard was giving him the death glare again. "Never mind," he said, lowering his hands.

Then he had another quiet little chortle to himself, because really, it was funny.

Fran nudged Bernard in the side. "Well?" she said, lighting up a cigarette. "Don't you want to know what your inheritance is?"

"No," he said grumpily, snatching the cigarettes from her and stuffing one into his mouth. He wiggled his fingers impatiently for the lighter. "Heirlooms are just other people's tat that they couldn't find anybody stupid enough to buy while they were alive. It's all a scam to make you cart away the stuff that even the removal company didn't want to steal."

"Oh, come on, Bernard," she said, sagging at the knees and raising her hands in a gesture of pleading. "It could be money! You know you're struggling to stay afloat with Goliath Books still next door."

"I am entirely afloat," he said, with stiffly wounded dignity. "If I was any more afloat, I'd be flying! Free as a helium balloon, drifting up into the sky while small children cry helplessly below." He took a self-satisfied puff on his cigarette.

"Yesterday you tried to pay me this month's wages in cheese," Manny reminded him.

Bernard raised his eyebrows archly above his cloud of smoke. "It was perfectly good cheese," he said. "Are you too good for the cheese exchange rate suddenly? I know people who'd give their right arm to be paid in good quality Stilton. I know people who'd give your right arm for it."

Manny raised his hands. "Oh, no, it was lovely cheese," he said hastily. "Had myself a nice ploughman's. Although, you know, it would have been nicer if someone hadn't left razor blades floating in the pickled onion jar."

"Keeps them sterile!" Bernard barked.

"Bernard," Fran interjected sternly. "Are you going to meet with this solicitor and find out about your inheritance?"

"No!" he snapped. She let out an exasperated sigh.

"Fine. Come on, Manny." She towed him out of the shop with her. "We're going to lunch."

Manny considered pointing out that he'd just come back from lunch, but decided not to bother.

"All these lunches are coming out of your cheese budget!" Bernard shouted after him.

*

'Lunch', it turned out, was Fran's euphemism for plotting over coffee and chocolate cake.

"We have to get Bernard to go to this meeting and find out about his inheritance," she said, pointing a crumb-covered fork at him. "Who knows what it might be worth? It could be anything."

Manny had to admit, it really could. "Has Bernard ever said anything about his family?" he asked. It was a little alarming to contemplate what sort of family cradle could produce a Bernard Black.

"Not much." Fran frowned over her cigarette. "He did mutter something once about too much Latin and being forced to wear a dress, I assumed they were Catholic. Don't know what that stuff about discrimination against heirs was, though. Maybe he got disowned for some reason."

It was easy to come up with any number of reasons why Bernard might have been disowned, but nonetheless, Manny couldn't prevent his mind from going to the image of sad pathetic little orphan Bernard, complete with ragged clothes, a smudged face and unkempt hair. It looked a lot like current Bernard, really, only smaller.

"He could have a Tragic Past!" Manny said with a sympathetic sigh. Oh, yes, it explained so much. Poor little innocent Bernard, spurned by the ones who should have loved him, too wounded to trust again, retreating to the safety of his comforting cave of books...

Fran made a rude squelching noise. "He has a tragic present," she said, leaning forward across the table. "And it's getting more tragic by the moment! Where am I going to hang around all day if Bernard loses the bookshop?"

"Where would Bernard go if he didn't have his bookshop?" It was impossible to picture. Bernard was like one of those rare aquarium creatures that couldn't live outside a specialised environment.

"Gutter," Fran said authoritatively. She shrugged at his look. "Trust me. I knew him when I was at university."

"Bernard went to university?" Manny supposed Bernard was an intellectual, or at least had the superiority complex and enough books to pass for one, but it was hard to imagine him actually studying anything.

"We all thought he did," Fran explained. "Turned out he was just turning up at all the parties and convincing drunk people that they'd promised he could sleep on their sofa. Any time they got suspicious, he just started shouting at them about their horrible ingratitude after everything he'd done for them." She tilted her head nostalgically. "Good times."

"How did he get the money to buy the bookshop?" Manny wondered.

"You don't buy this kind of bookshop, Manny. A new owner crawls in when the old one dies. It's like hermit crabs."

Manny gasped and clutched his hands to his chest. "We can't allow Bernard to be cast out into the wild like a naked hermit crab!"

"Exactly!" Fran said, giving him a slap on the shoulder. "Now, come on. We've got to convince Bernard to come out of the shop before he ends up with a case of crabs."

*

They returned to the shop to find it suspiciously silent. "Bernard?" Manny shouted. There was no answer, and he tried not to imagine he was going to find Bernard slumped in a heap somewhere, although really, it was an unusual day when he didn't.

He pulled the curtain aside to look through into the kitchen.

A small, green-skinned creature with bat ears and enormous eyes, wearing a potato sack, stared back at him.

Manny shrieked. So did the creature.

"What is it, Manny?" Fran said irritably, joining him in the doorway. He turned to look again, but the creature was gone.

He could only point at the space where it had been. "A buh- a muh-"

"Oh, what?" She rolled her eyes. "Another wasp? They won't sting you, Manny. You know the fumes from Bernard's sock pile stun them into submission."

"No, it was a- a thing! A green thing!" He pulled his hair out into a rough approximation of the ears.

"Oh, was it that suspiciously active plant living under the cooker?" She bent down to try and peer under it. "That thing still has my earrings - I liked those."

Bernard appeared at the foot of the stairs, bearing a cloud of grump with him. "What's all this noise?" he demanded.

Manny pointed at the patch of empty space again. "Bernard! Bernard! A hideously misshapen monstrous creature in your kitchen!"

"Really?" Bernard said, with suspicious suavity. "I'll take care of this." He disappeared into the bookshelves, and returned a moment later with a heavy tome titled the Encyclopaedia of Magical Creatures.

Then he started to beat Manny about the head with it. "Out of the kitchen! Out! Out, out!"

Manny scuttled for cover, protecting his head. "Ow! Bernard!"

"There," Bernard said, tossing the book onto the precarious pile of food-encrusted dishes on the draining board. "Problem solved." He dusted off his hands and strode out, ignoring the clattering cascade behind him as the dishes crashed to the ground. Fran followed him out, grabbing a bottle of wine on the way.

"Bernard, you have to find out about this inheritance," she said. "What if it's something important? It could be a valuable piece of your family heritage."

"Oh, yes?" He gave her a knowing look across the table. "And I suppose your sudden new concern for my heritage is entirely unmotivated by thoughts of personal gain."

"Of course," she said, in injured tones, uncorking the wine. "You know I always put my friends' feelings ahead of my own needs." She snapped her fingers imperiously. "Manny! Wine glasses, now!"

"Oh! Right." Manny jumped up and looked around. Finding wine glasses dotted around the shop was never a problem; it was locating three that could be chiselled clean in under an hour that was the real challenge.

Then he turned back towards the desk, and saw that three clean glasses had appeared there. Gleaming, dishwasher ad clean, the kind of clean that ought to make a sound effect like ting when the light glinted off it. He was surprised Bernard wasn't recoiling from the sight like a vampire faced with the sun.

He recoiled himself. "Aagh!" he said, pointing.

"Now that's weird," Fran said, cocking her head, though she didn't let it stop her from pouring the wine.

Bernard flapped a dismissive hand. "Oh, that's just Pibbly," he said. "Peanuts, Pibbly!" he barked at the empty air.

A small neat pyramid of peanuts appeared, piled up in one of the saucers Bernard habitually used as ashtrays and occasionally spittoons, now also polished up to a beautiful shine. Manny pointed and jumped back again. "Aagh!"

Fran narrowed her eyes. "Bernard," she said sternly. "What's going on?"

Bernard immediately dropped his chin to his chest to avoid eye-contact, staring down at his own shirt buttons like a naughty five-year-old.

"Bernard..." she repeated.

"Mgk," he mumbled, suddenly preoccupied by playing with his own fingers.

"Louder?" she said, with the encouraging brightness of an infant school teacher.

"I said it's magic," he said, flicking his gaze up to the two of them, and just as quickly wrenching his head sideways to stare down at the floor.

Fran dipped her head to try and meet his eyes. "Now, it can't be magic, can it, Bernard?" she said, in the same tone.

"Is!" he retorted, then gasped as he realised he'd looked up and hastily covered his turned face with a hand. He peered at them sideways through his fingers.

Fran sat back and lit up a cigarette, patience exhausted. "You talk to him, Manny," she said, waving her hand.

Manny had reached his own conclusions. "It's the housework pixies!" he said with a gasp. "Moo-Ma and Moo-Pa always told me that if I was a good boy they would come and clean the house while I was out, and I could pay them with saucers of milk and acorns for them to carve their little tiny clogs out of!"

He and Fran both looked at Bernard. It was quite hard to imagine any form of definition that would result in Bernard being classed as a good boy.

Forgetting his former coyness, Bernard gave them both a disdainful look. "Don't be ridiculous, Manny. Of course it's not pixies," he said, voice dripping disgust.

Manny sagged a bit. "Oh. Yeah. Suppose that was a bit silly," he admitted with a smile. "Pixies," he said, rolling his eyes.

"It's a house-elf," Bernard said. "It came with the inheritance. Pibbly!" he shouted.

The bat-eared creature appeared beside him with a sound like the crack of a whip.

"Aagh!" Manny pointed and jumped back a third time.

Fran gave him a quelling look. "Seriously, Manny, that's getting annoying," she said.

The creature's ears wiggled nervously and it wrung its hands as it spoke in a high-pitched voice. "Is Master Bernard wanting Pibbly to clean the kitchen yet?" it said, almost pleadingly. "Or the bathroom? Pibbly could be cleaning the bathroom-"

"No!" Bernard roared, thumping the table. "That's my filth! Don't touch it! I'm cultivating it! Now, fetch me a whole roast boar," he said, snapping his fingers. "And some caviar. And a bucket of champagne. And then iron yourself."

The house-elf disappeared with another sharp crack. Manny gaped at Bernard, wide-eyed. Bernard calmly picked up a peanut and tossed it at his open mouth. It missed and rolled away to disappear under a bookshelf.

"Bernard." Fran folded her arms. "I think it's time you told us about this inheritance."

*

The story that Bernard eventually told was rambling, peppered with nonsense words, and utterly unbelievable even when accompanied by large doses of alcohol.

So, distinguished from Bernard's usual stories mainly by the fact that that it might actually be true.

"You really went to wizard school?" Manny said, amazed.

"For a year," Bernard said. He studied his lit cigarette. "The truth was, the wizarding world wasn't ready for my brand of genius."

"You got expelled," Fran translated.

"Expelled is such a nasty word," he said, sneering and shaking his head at her.

"Heh. Expelled," Manny said. "Ex-spelled. Wizarding school." They were both looking at him. "Sorry, carry on," he said, rearranging his face into a studious expression. "What did they kick you out for?"

"Drinking," Bernard said, with mild indifference.

Manny frowned. "You were expelled for underage drinking? That seems a trifle harsh."

"On the train. All the way there. When I was twelve. Then I remember really needing the toilet and... something involving a hat." He flapped a hand dismissively. "After that it's all nothing but screams."

Fran sat back, folding her arms. "If you went to wizard school, then where are all your wizard school friends?" she demanded.

"I was only there for a year," he said with a casual shrug. "I doubt any of them remember me." He cocked his head. "Well. Not after the Ministry of Magic came in and modified all their memories, anyway."

"I don't believe you," Fran said, screwing her face up in a drunken squint. She waved a finger at him, with less than perfect aim. "If you're a wizard," she broke off to belch, "show us your magic wand." She cackled and elbowed Manny, a bit too hard. "Hah! That sounds filthy. Show us your magic wand!" she heckled.

Bernard shoved his chair back to stand up, the gesture slightly spoiled by the fact that he had to grab the edge of the table for balance. "I have a wand," he said stiffly. "I have a robe. I have all my wizard stuff."

Manny frowned. "Where?" he had to ask. "I've never seen it, and I do everything around the house."

"It is," Bernard said dramatically, "under my bed."

They contemplated that for a moment.

"Oh, well," Fran said. "Never mind, then." She topped up her glass with a slosh.

*

Two more bottles of wine later, and they did eventually make their way upstairs to Bernard's room. Manny was armed with a bunch of bananas on a stick to distract the Thing, while Bernard wore the oven glove for protection. Fran dubiously claimed to be the cheering section.

"Now, remember," Bernard said, holding up his padded hands. "It's more frightened of us than we are of it."

"Is it?" Manny said in surprise.

Bernard shook his head, his mop of hair flying like a wet dog. "No." He suddenly raised a hand inside the glove. "Quickly, Manny! I hear it growling!"

Manny ran to the end of the bed and shoved the bunch of bananas under, leaning back both from wariness and the smell of Bernard's covers. There was a deep, feral rrrrr from beneath, and he yelped as he was pulled forward to smack into the footboard by something yanking on the end of the stick. "It's taken the bait!" he shouted.

Bernard lunged under the bed at the other end. There were several thumps, scraping sounds, a wholly mysterious squeak... Bernard's legs started to disappear under the bed.

"Fran, Fran, it's got him!" Manny said. He pulled the bait stick out, and saw that the end had been gnawed right through. Together he and Fran grabbed Bernard's legs and wrestled him out from under the bed. He emerged with a rigidly frozen expression, clutching a small wooden chest.

They turned Bernard over onto his back and revived him by pouring in alcohol. After swallowing a good half a bottle, he sat up with a splutter, still tightly clutching the chest.

"I hope that whatever's in there was worth it," Fran said.

They trooped downstairs with the box, none of them comfortable staying in close proximity with the Thing, which was making contented little snuffling grunting sounds. Bernard flipped open the chest and carelessly tossed out its contents.

They comprised a crumpled black robe, which had clearly been shoved in there unwashed and screwed up in a ball; a sadly empty, though still sticky, bottle of something called Ogden's Old Firewhisky; an equally empty, equally sticky sweet packet labelled 'Jelly Slugs'; a nasty sludgy thing that had probably been a Jelly Slug; several ink-stained feathers; and, at the very bottom, a broken length of wood that had been inexpertly taped together.

"My wand," Bernard said, his voice cracking slightly. Manny was prepared to pat him on the shoulder in recognition of the emotional moment, but then he proceeded to cough for two minutes as if he was hacking up a lung. "My wand," he repeated, more normally. He gave it an experimental swish, and the taped-together end wobbled dangerously.

"Well, go on, then," Fran said, sitting back with a sceptical smile. "Do some magic."

"Of course," he said, tossing his head. He picked up one of the inky feathers and studied it intently for a few moments before setting it down and aiming the wand at it. "Wingardium Levi...whoosit." He made a dramatic downward swipe with the wand. It hit the edge of the desk and the end flew off and landed in his wine glass.

"Was that supposed to happen?" Manny asked.

"Obviously," he said, raising his chin.

"You can't do magic," Fran said, shaking her head and cackling.

Bernard hunched his shoulders sulkily. "It's schoolwork," he said defensively. "Who remembers schoolwork after school?" He snapped his fingers and pointed at Fran. "Let's see you do long division! Come on, at the blackboard! Twelves into five hundred and forty-eight! And don't forget to do that-" he dabbed at the air vaguely as if drawing out a vertical dotted line, "dit dit dit... carry down thing. Go on! Divide!"

Fran just laughed and stood up, collecting her bag and the latest bottle of wine. "I'm going home," she said. "Bernard can't do maaa-gic," she sang out in a playground style taunt, and did a few boogie steps on her way out.

Bernard ran to the door to shout after her. "Yes, well, when I get my inheritance tomorrow, then you'll see!" He came back in, shaking his head at Manny. "Feh. Crazy woman. Trying to stop me collecting my inheritance. She's just trying to hold me back because of how brilliant I am, you know."

"Mmm," Manny said wisely, and tipped back the last of his glass of wine.

*

"So what are your family like, Bernard?" Manny asked, over breakfast. "Are they all wizards?"

"They're all bastards," Bernard said sourly, hunched over his bacon. Extra smoky, since he'd just stubbed his cigarette out on it. "With their pumpkin juice and their rules of pureblood etiquette and their homicidal insanity."

Manny blinked. "Well, that sounds a bit disturbing," he said.

"Yes!" Bernard threw up his hands. "Pumpkin juice! What kind of madman juices a pumpkin? It's a vegetable!"

"Actually, I think it's a fruit," Manny corrected helpfully.

"Is it?" Bernard gave a squinting frown. "Well, who drinks fruit juice before it turns into wine? It's unsanitary!" He finished his ash-covered bacon and tossed the fork over his shoulder, where it stuck tines-first in the wall. "Don't touch it, Pibbly," he snapped warningly. There was a forlorn whimper from the direction of the kitchen.

Manny folded his arms. "You know, if you have a house-elf, you could actually let it clean up," he said.

Bernard frowned at him. "But then what would you do?" he asked, in apparent honest confusion.

"My job!"

Bernard harrumphed. "When I want you to do your job, I'll pay you!"

Manny knew better than to start down that conversational avenue. He shook his head to clear it. "We were talking about your family," he reminded Bernard, and himself.

"You were talking about my family," Bernard said. "I don't want to talk about my family. If you want to know about my family, you can look it up. It's all in there." He grabbed a book off the end of a shelf and threw it down on the floor.

Manny retrieved it and looked at the cover. "This is a star atlas, Bernard," he said patiently.

"Yes! That's them!" he said. "Orion, and, and, Cassiopeia, and Cygnus and... Red Dwarf."

Manny frowned. "You have a relative named Red Dwarf?"

"Yes. Complete bastard. Always pulling my toys and stealing my hair."

Their mutually blank staring had just about reached an impasse when the shop door opened and Fran came bounding in. "Right! Ready to leave for this meeting, Bernard?" she said brightly.

"Of course not," Bernard said sharply. "It's still an ungodly hour of the morning."

"It's eleven fifty-nine, Bernard."

"Exactly! Morning!"

Eventually, Bernard was cajoled into going upstairs to change into the old robes from his trunk. Much to Manny's surprise, aside from the fact the sleeves were inches too short, the look actually rather suited him. Bernard could make any outfit he owned look like a dustbin bag soon enough; this one just cut out a few of the interim stages.

Then he insisted the two of them had to be in robes as well if they wanted to come with him. After some gratuitous hair-pulling Fran got him to concede that the long coat she was wearing was "very robe-like, really", but somehow Manny still ended up in his fuzzy white dressing gown.

"Does this really make me look like a wizard?" he said dubiously as he tied the front.

"Like Gandalf getting out of the bath," Bernard said. "Come on, chop chop!" He ushered them out to the waiting taxi as if they'd been the ones keeping him waiting.

The cabbie greeted them with a rather knowing, "Afternoon, ladies," as they got in. Fran and Bernard both took glee in undermining Manny's blushing attempts to explain the misunderstanding, especially once it emerged that the cabbie was a subscriber to Big and Beardy International.

"Obviously, this is a complete case of mistaken identity," he said after they'd got out of the cab, and gave a light and carefree laugh. "A-ha-ha-ha-ha!" Fran just smirked at him. He cleared his throat. "So, er, where's this pub then?" he said hastily.

"It's called the Leaky Cauldron," Bernard said, apparently quite at home stalking around a busy street in central London in a robe. "Of course, it's only visible to those of us who are part of the wizarding community-"

"I can see it," Fran said.

"So can I," said Manny. He pointed helpfully at the sign across the street. "It's over there."

"It's also visible to those who are sufficiently determined to get pissed," Bernard added.

They entered the pub. It was tiny, very dim and grubby; a bit of a dive by most people's standards, but a good solid seven on the scale of places Bernard Black was prepared to get drunk in. There was a bald bloke behind the bar, and a small crowd of people who looked like pub regulars anywhere, except with a few more eccentric fashion choices. There were a cluster of mighty beards at the back that made Manny want to cover his own in case it got self-esteem problems.

The moment the three of them walked in, all conversation stopped dead and everyone stared.

Bernard, who got this reaction from pretty much everyone who'd ever met or heard of him, was unfazed as he led the march to the bar. The bartender recovered from his shock and gave an apologetic smile as he wiped the counter down with a cloth.

"My word, you didn't half give me a start," he said. "For a moment in the doorway there I could have sworn you were Sirius Black."

Manny had no idea who that was, but from the way the conversation was only tentatively recovering the resemblance was not necessarily a good thing. He tittered nervously. "Oh, no, er, he's Bernard," he corrected.

The effect was electric.

"Bernard Black!" somebody yelped, and someone else stifled a scream. There was a frantic scuffle as three old ladies tried to dive under the same table. A small man smoking a big pipe choked and coughed up three green smoke rings.

"Well, they definitely know him," Fran said to Manny.

Bernard ignored the chaos behind him. "Barkeep!" he said imperiously. "Three shots of Winthropp's Old Highly Peculiar." He glanced sideways at the others as if only just remembering their presence. "And a Redcurrant Rum for the lady," he added.

"Hey, what about me?" Manny said.

"And a Butterbeer for the troll," Bernard said grudgingly.

"Oi," Manny said, but not too loudly, since he was actually quite excited to get the chance to try wizard booze.

Although he was pretty sure when he got it that Butterbeer was slightly less alcoholic than a shandy. It was still delicious - sort of like a hot fizzy Werther's Original - and anyway, somebody needed to be sober enough to steer when the three of them finally left the pub through the back entrance.

"A Galleon!" Bernard was still muttering as he wound his unsteady way across the scrubby little courtyard. "One Galleon! It's robbery!"

"No, Bernard," Fran said patiently, "robbery was the part when you tried to challenge the bartender to a duel to get out of paying."

"He should have accepted! Coward. I'll bet you a Knut he was in Hufflepuff."

"A what?" Manny said, alarmed.

"It's wizard money, Manny," Fran reassured him. She turned back to Bernard. "And it's not like you haven't got enough," she said, shoving his arm. "Where have you been keeping all those gold coins? The shop's been robbed at least three times."

"Where any self-respecting person keeps large quantities of money," Bernard said. "In my underwear drawer."

"Ah," said Manny. Not even the most desperate would-be thief would look in there. Not even wearing a gas mask.

Bernard stopped in front of the wall at the end of the courtyard, his hands on his hips. Attempting to stand still caused him to sway slightly. Manny had to wonder what had been in those shots he'd ordered that could affect even Bernard's constitution. Bernard had been known to swig mouthfuls of white spirit.

"Why are we out here, Bernard?" Fran said, sagging wearily.

"Shh!" Bernard said sternly. "I am... deliberating." His lips moved as he studied the wall for a long time and then, with great ceremony, reached out and jabbed one of the bricks with the tip of his wand.

The wand bent in the middle where Manny had dutifully taped it back together, but nothing else appeared to happen. Bernard prodded the next brick along, and then the one below, and then flailed at the wall with the wand in impotent rage. This achieved nothing.

"Is there a magic word?" Fran suggested with a smirk.

"Yes!" Bernard bent down and put his face very close to the wall. "Open," he said, "or I will reenact a game I used to play when I was a tiny carefree child gambolling with my delightful little chubby-cheeked friends, called 'let's see who can pee the highest up a wall'."

The wall visibly shuddered, and then rapidly peeled open to reveal an archway onto a twisty cobbled street. Manny jumped back in surprise. "Aagh! The gateway to a magical kingdom of unearthly delights!" he said.

"Shops..." Fran moaned like a zombie, leaning forward as if under the pull of some strange gravity.

"No shoes!" Bernard snapped at her.

"Oh, just one pair?" she pleaded. "I need shoes for visiting the wizard solicitors! I can't just wear my normal visiting-the-solicitors shoes! And what if we get invited to a party? Or an impromptu jazz recital? Or we have to rescue a goat stuck in mud? I need boots, Bernard! Just let me get a pair of smart shoes and some sandals and some party shoes and some sports shoes and-"

Bernard slapped her. "Calm yourself!" he commanded. "You're hysterical!"

"Ow! Bernard!" Fran slapped him back. He reeled away, clutching the side of his face with the shocked, bewildered air of a wounded child.

Manny was bouncing up and down with impatience. "Can we go and see the wizard shops now, Bernard? Can we?"

"Yes," Bernard said, recovering his customary sardonic poise. "Maybe if you're very good I'll buy you a balloon." He led the way.

Manny stared at all the shops in open-mouthed wonder. It was as if all the stories Moo-Ma had read him when he was a child had been brought to life. There were shops selling cauldrons, racing brooms, underwear... okay, maybe that one wasn't so impressive. But some of the socks had pictures on that moved! He was tempted to beg for a pair with little dragons on, until it occurred to him what a cruel fate it was to introduce something so beautiful to a house containing Bernard.

Bernard himself strode past all the wonders with his usual thunderous scowl, except for the bookshop, Flourish and Blotts, which he graced with a frothing rant.

"Look at this! Window displays! Advertising! Is nowhere safe from its infection? I see colours! Psychedelic colours! Nobody wants colours in a bookshop. It upsets the digestion!"

"I think it looks quite nice," Fran said mildly.

"I'd buy books in there," Manny agreed with a nod.

"Exactly!" Bernard said, looking horrified. "It attracts riff-raff like you!" He covered Manny's eyes and dragged him onwards. "Don't look! It's a trap!"

Manny still managed to pick up the general theme of the display. "Hey, these are all about Harry Potter," he realised. The image of a perpetually startled-looking young man with spectacles and a jagged scar was splashed all over everything, usually looking like he was trying to hide from the camera. Often literally; the photographs were animated, and the images of Potter kept ducking out of the frame or hiding behind other people.

"You didn't tell us we were going to be meeting a celebrity, Bernard," Fran said.

Bernard sniffed. "Famous for staying alive as a baby, not very impressive, I could have done it," he said.

"It says here he also defeated the Dark Lard." Manny took a closer look. "Dark Lord," he corrected. "He's the Chosen One and the saviour of the wizarding world. And he plays a mean game of Quidditch." Whatever that was.

"Yes, but what has he done to end world poverty, I ask you?" Bernard said.

"If he's that famous, there could be paparazzi there," Fran said, whipping out a mirror and tweaking her hair into a new arrangement that looked suspiciously like the old one. "We should get you some new robes." She tried to steer them in the direction of a shop called Madam Malkin's.

"What's wrong with these?" Bernard said indignantly, looking down at the frayed hemline and sleeves that barely passed his elbow.

Bernard might not know self-consciousness about his clothes if it bit him on the arse - in fact, his low standards when it came to clothing hygiene probably explained his general insensitivity to things biting him on the arse - but Manny was definitely feeling a tad exposed wandering the streets in his bathrobe. As they turned right onto Provision Alley, the people that they passed were starting to look better dressed. Well, for values of better that involved money rather than good taste, anyway.

The firm of solicitors they'd come to see was on the middle floor of a tall narrow building, between a business that promised 'Magical Music Lessons - Learn to Play in Five Minutes!' and one that sold holiday packages. ('Pre-Made Portkeys Available to Over a Thousand Destinations!')

"Oh, it's Cuthbert, Maugrim, Squibble and Blatch!" Fran said, smacking her forehead as she saw the sign. "Oh, well, now I feel stupid."

They entered the lobby, where a young blonde woman hot pink robes ignored them in favour of talking into a hand-held mirror. "I know! And Magdalena Merrythought told me she was going with Jordan, but Lisa's sister's cousin saw her coming out of Madam Puddifoot's with Amanda Swift's brother - you remember him, he was on the Ravenclaw Quidditch team - yes, I know!"

After several attempts to get her attention that started verging on interpretive dance, they gave up and headed for the rickety lift in the corner. As soon as they were all inside, the cage doors rattled closed and it started to ascend. "How does it know we're all in? How does it know where we're going?" Manny said worriedly, clutching the sides.

"S'magic," Bernard said, without concern.

Manny gripped on tighter. "But what if it decides to kill all the squishy humans?"

"Oh, no, I wouldn't do that, dear," a mumsy voice spoke from out of the air.

"Aagh!" He cowered to the floor.

He was still cowering moments later when the lift doors opened to disgorge them in front of a motley assortment of people. One was clearly the famous Harry Potter, not much older than he'd looked in the school photos on display in the bookshop. Beside him was a stern-faced older woman with long greying brown hair, holding a baby that inexplicably had a matching hairstyle, and eyes that kept changing colour from crimson to green. Completing the group was a tiny shrivelled little man with very dark eyes and inhumanly long fingers, and the pained look of a solicitor forced to actually interact face-to-face with his clients.

Harry's eyes fixed immediately on Bernard. "You must be Sirius's cousin," he said.

The baby's eyes, on the other hand, fixated on Manny, and it promptly began to grow a spontaneous beard. The woman holding it didn't seem perturbed by this alarming case of accelerated puberty, reserving a frigid look for Bernard instead.

He scowled back with equal venom. "Cousin Andie," he said, with the level of disgust he usually reserved for people who asked if they had a graphic novel section.

"Bernie," she retorted, with vicious friendliness. Fran quivered quietly in the corner, on the verge of wetting herself with mirth.

The wizened little man harrumphed impatiently. "Now that all parties are present," he said in a thin, reedy voice, "perhaps we could begin?"

He led the way into a nearby office, which proved to be disappointingly boring. Apparently the dullness of lawyers transcended even the existence of a magical world of wonders; all the room contained was an imposing desk and rows of books that looked so dry even Bernard would have let a customer have them.

Harry followed Manny and Fran into the room. "And you two must be Bernard's... friends?" he hazarded, after a pause to contemplate his options.

"Housemate," Manny clarified.

"Minder," said Fran.

"Ingrates," said Bernard. It was difficult to tell if this was his own contribution to the list or just a general insult.

The solicitor gave a dry, dusty cough and unrolled a scroll of parchment. "Now," he said. "In the matter of the disposition of the assets of Mr Sirius Black, it has been ruled that the previous conditions stipulated by the House of Black regarding eligible heirs were unenforceable, and so, in accordance with the statutes of wizarding law..."

Manny promptly fell asleep with his eyes open.

He woke up again when Fran jabbed a vicious elbow into his side. "Here it comes!" she said excitedly. Manny turned to see a large crate float majestically into the room under its own power and land on the desk. He jumped back in surprise.

The solicitor gave an impatient cough. "Regarding the matter of Mr Black's inheritance," he said pointedly, giving a very clear impression of someone charging them extra for repeating himself, "this box constitutes the bequest that would originally have gone to Mr Black had the will in question not been judged invalid, and as such, satisfies the full extent of the obligation that the estate of Sirius Black bears towards him."

"Come on, Bernard, open it, open it!" Fran said eagerly.

"Of course," Bernard said, and then employed his usual method for opening bottles of wine and shop deliveries, namely staring at it intently until someone else did it for him.

Usually that was Manny's job, but Harry stepped forward before he could. "Let me do it," he said. "Just in case there are any nasty little surprises." He waved a wand that, Manny had to admit, looked much more impressive than Bernard's drooping example. Not that he made a business of studying other people's wands. "Alohomora!" The lid of the crate popped up, and he guided it away to land neatly against the wall with a sweep of the wand. Manny entertained a brief fantasy if what life at the shop could be like if Bernard recovered his ability to do magic.

Then he entertained a brief, more realistic nightmare of what it would be like. All right, maybe not.

They peered into the box.

It turned out to contain books. Well, possibly books. These particular examples had been variously tied, chained, clamped and in one case soldered shut - none of which was beyond Bernard's usual treatment of books that in some way offended him by existing - but in this case they were actively resisting the confinement. Pages rustled, cracked spines strained, covers rose and fell in restless effort at escape. There was an air of brooding menace about the collection that suggested anyone reaching into the box would be lucky to get their hand back.

"My childhood library!" Bernard said, leaning in to study them with glee. "The Poisonous Book of Poisons! Violent Words! Chompy!" He ran his fingers down the spine of one particularly well-restrained tome, which quivered like a muzzled puppy itching to chew something. "Reunited at last! Oh, what fun we'll have together, playing with the happy little children who come into the shop."

"Er," said Harry uncertainly.

"Oh, don't worry," Manny hurried to reassure him. "He's never actually seriously maimed anyone."

"That we know of," Fran said.

"That we know of. And I'm sure that the fact Mr Harrison walks with a limp now and screams when he passes the shop is just a coincidence!"

"Most people scream when they pass the shop," she said, nodding earnestly.

"And some of them run." They gave their most innocent smiles.

*

Despite the smiles, they were eventually allowed to leave the solicitors' with the crate of books, which Bernard made Manny carry. "Can't your house-elf do this?" he grumbled.

"I thought you were against the enslavement of innocent creatures to handle menial tasks?" Fran said.

"I am, which is why I don't see why I should have to carry them!"

They arrived back at the bookshop to find the place looked like a bomb had gone off. "Ah, excellent," said Bernard, unlocking the door to let them in and then pointedly locking it again in front of the potential customers gathered outside. "Nothing's been touched." He immediately located a bottle of wine, stashed behind a set of self-help guides to overcoming alcohol addiction. "Pibbly! Open!" he commanded, holding it up.

There was no answer except for a sad and distant squeak. "Perhaps it's his day off," Manny said.

Bernard glowered. "A day off? A day off? Are you mad? You can't go giving house-elves days off willy-nilly! Next you'll be suggesting that we pay them."

Actually, that explained quite a lot about his employment conditions, when he thought about it.

They eventually located Pibbly during their efforts to track down more wine glasses. The house-elf was squeezed into a corner of the cupboard under the sink, wrapped up in a J-cloth and rocking back and forth beside a collection of cleaning solutions that had started to sprout mushrooms. "The filth is good," he was gibbering to himself, "Pibbly must not clean. The filth is good. Pibbly must not clean." He gave a cracked little giggle that meandered in pitch.

"See?" Bernard said around his cigarette, and gave a shrug. "He's perfectly fine." He reached past the quivering house-elf to retrieve a glass that was catching the drips from the pipes, and then slammed the cupboard door shut again.

"So is that it?" Fran said with a depressed huff as they returned to the front of the shop. "We visited a world of magical wonders, and all we got out of it was a traumatised house-elf and some homicidal books?"

"Of course not," Bernard said.

"Quite right," Manny said, nodding earnestly. "We still have the glorious awe of the experience, the untarnished joy of knowing that something truly marvellous exists beyond our humdrum, mundane lives."

"That, and the bottle of Firewhisky I swiped from the Leaky Cauldron on our way out," Bernard said, producing it from somewhere under his robes with a rustle. He uncapped it and took a nostalgic whiff of something that smelled like paint thinner with added sulphur. "Ah, but it's a wonderful thing to revisit your youth." He raised the bottle to his mouth to drink.

End