When Zinnia moved into her late great-aunt’s place at Ottery St Catchpole, it took less than three days before a knock came at the door and she was greeted by her neighbour.
“Zinnia Derwent, isn’t it? Hello dear,” said the woman carrying what looked to be a basket of scones. She looked to be about the same age as Zinnia’s mother, and couldn’t have looked more like the epitome of the farmer’s wife – plump with rosy cheeks, tired eyes and work-roughened hands – had she tried. “I just wanted to welcome you to the village.”
Zinnia blinked. Oh right, country manners. She’d been living so long in cities that she’d forgotten how it worked in smaller communities, where it was easy enough to guess the name of a new face through the power of rumours. She tried and failed to remember the last time one of her neighbours had introduced themselves to her, but blamed it on living in Sydney and London for the past 6 years. “Oh. Uh. Thank you?” she hazarded.
The woman passed over the basket, and Zinnia somehow managed to not fumble with it.
Zinnia raked one hand through her red and blue streaked hair and stepped back from the door. “I was just putting on some tea, did you want to have a cup? Sorry about the mess,” she said gesturing vaguely at the half-unpacked boxes and general detritus that her great aunt had left behind, “I haven’t really had time to unpack properly yet.”
“Oh, I don’t want to trouble you,” said the woman in a light tone that made Zinnia suspect she was being more polite than honest. “You must have much to do.”
“No, really, I insist,” said Zinnia, “I was just about to take a break anyway. Here, I’ve mostly got the sitting room to rights.” She stepped out of sight into the kitchen. “I’m afraid I don’t have any black teas, but I have a few herbal blends? My favourite is the lemongrass and ginger, but I have chamomile and lavender, or a three-mint blend too if you’d prefer, I mix most of it myself, so I pride myself on the quality.”
“Chamomile, please,” said the woman, settling herself on the couch. A hiss came from beside her, and the woman flinched hard.
“Ichabod! No!” Zinnia exclaimed exasperatedly, snatching up the mottled-brown tomcat who had blended in effortlessly with the dark suede of the couch before he could scratch at her houseguest. Zinnia raised him so she could look him in the eyes. “We are not rude to guests Ichabod. Now be nice, or I’ll put you in the shed to earn your keep.” Zinnia had only had time to peek into the shed for a moment, but there had been enough rustlings in dark corners that she was sure there must be mice, or even rats in there. Ichabod churred at her for a moment, and then struggled to get away. Zinnia sighed and put him down before he clawed her.
“Your familiar?” the woman asked, after Zinnia had finished chasing her cat away.
“You could say that. I’ve had him since I was eleven,” Zinnia replied. “He’s a bit cranky because of the move, but he’ll cheer up once he figures out that this place is fifty times bigger than the old flat.”
The woman looked as though Zinnia had said something revelatory, but changed the subject. “You said before – Ichabod was it – interrupted us that you make your own teas? Perhaps we should swap recipes sometime. I have an excellent one with dandelion that my mother taught me.”
Zinnia grinned. “That sounds great.” Most people were baffled by Zinnia’s amateur herbalism efforts, so it was nice to find a kindred spirit.
“So where did you go to school, dear?” the woman asked. “I can’t help but notice that you have a bit of an accent?”
Zinnia shrugged, leaning in the kitchen doorway. “I’m from London most recently, but I grew up mostly in the Australian Outback, then I was in Sydney. Mum and Dad weren’t fans of where they saw the country going in ’79, so they took my brother and moved to Australia, and well, it was easier to get teaching jobs if they didn’t mind living in the middle of Whoop Whoop, so they did, you know? They kept in touch with family through letters, but after all those years Australia was home to them. I got a job in London and I’d been living there about a year before I got the news that my Great Aunt Rosemary had decided to leave my mother this place, and she asked me to look it over and clean it up.” Zinnia sighed. “I’d been looking for an excuse to quit my latest job anyway – boss was a total apologist, if you know what I mean – so here I am.”
The kettle whistled, and Zinnia quickly moved it off the weirdly old-fashioned hob, quickly making the tea in a purple pot with unicorns on it that her brother had bought her as a joke for her birthday last year.
“There we go,” Zinnia said, putting the teapot down in the middle of the low coffee table in front of the couch. “Hold up, I’ll just grab some plates and we can test out those excellent looking scones you’ve brought.” Zinnia paused. “Whoops, manners. I don’t think I caught your name?”
“Never mind dear,” said the woman, smiling. “It’s Molly Weasley, but you can call me Molly, dear.”
Zinnia frowned for a moment, and then snapped her fingers as she recognised the name. “Oh of course! Aunty Rose mentioned your family a couple of times in her letters.” Mostly commenting on in mildly scandalized tones how very many red-headed children the Weasleys had, and what hellions half of them were, but Zinnia had more tact than to say as much. Though honestly Zinnia couldn’t imagine that they were that wild, seeing as from what she could recall the eldest worked for a bank, another was some sort of nature preservationist, a third worked in government and another two were small business owners, albeit for a joke shop, but there was nothing wrong with that. Zinnia was biased though – she had worked in a series of seedy bars during uni and done a little burlesque modelling, so she was hardly one to talk when it came to disreputable jobs.
Molly nodded. “We Weasleys tend to be in the thick of things,” she confirmed, with an oddly pained expression crossing her face.
Zinnia, not sure exactly what the undercurrents were there, just nodded solemnly and proceeded to sit down and pour tea for the two of them, before changing the subject.
“So,” she said, “is there anything you can tell me about the area? Anything I should know about my new neighbours?”
Molly winced. “Xenophilius Lovegood is your nearest neighbour, and he’s a little…” she shook her head. “You might see him about, but I wouldn’t expect him to be particularly social. He was always a bit eccentric, but the war hurt him, and then there was that stretch of wrongful imprisonment... I’m not quite sure about the details, but Xeno’s a changed man.”
Zinnia bit her lip, wondering which war exactly Molly was referring to. The Falklands? Vietnam? A few ex-servicemen had been regulars at her bar, so she had an inkling of what Molly might mean by ‘Xeno’ (what an odd name) being anti-social.
“Fair enough then,” Zinnia said a little awkwardly. “I’ll try not to disturb him with loud parties then,” she joked weakly.
Molly smiled sadly. “Oh I wouldn’t worry about that, dear. Sound doesn’t carry through your Great Aunt’s wards, she paid my Bill to set them up a few years ago when he came back from Egypt, and I never heard a complaint since.”
Zinnia was not entirely sure she understood what Molly was talking about, but was distracted by an important point. “Egypt? Your son’s been to Egypt?”
Molly blinked. “Yes, he worked there for a couple of years.”
Zinnia grinned. “You’ll have to put us in touch. I’ve always wanted to go, and I’d love to pick his brain about things to see and survival tips for the inevitable culture shock.”
Molly’s smile this time was a little more enthusiastic. “That would be very wise, to talk to him before you go – I know Arthur and I were a little startled by how different it is over there. I swear, I was finding sand in the washing for a solid month afterwards and we only stayed a few weeks,” she laughed, “though it was interesting to see the tombs. F-Fred,” her voice cracked a little, but then she rallied, “and- and George tried to shut Percy up in one of them, the wretches, oh, I shouted at those boys so much for that…”
To Zinnia’s complete horror, Molly started to tear up.
“Oh, uh,” she quickly looked around and spotted one of her Great Aunt’s handkerchiefs conveniently lying over the corner of one of the chairs. She checked discreetly if it was clean, and seeing that it was, passed it over to Molly. “Here?”
Molly took the handkerchief and blew her nose loudly.
“I’m so sorry dear, it’s just, it’s only been a few months since we lost Fred and I…” she trailed off.
“Oh goddess, don’t apologise,” Zinnia insisted, horrified. Great Aunt Rose’s last letter had somehow missed that detail. “And please, don’t think I need to know any details if it hurts to talk about. Here, sip some of your tea, it’ll help.”
Well, Zinnia hoped that it would help, because she had absolutely no idea what she was supposed to do otherwise.
Thankfully, the combination of Aunty Rose’s handkerchief and the chamomile and lavender tea was enough to help Molly regain her composure.
Zinnia decided that an abrupt subject change was in order.
“I don’t suppose you know where is best in the village to get a decent broom? Aunty Rose doesn’t seem to have owned one.” The back path could really use a bit of a sweep. It was an inane topic, but Zinnia was sure that it would also be innocuous.
“Oh, you don’t want to get a broom in the village,” Molly sniffed. “Oldman’s Antiques might have some second-hand, but you’re much better off mail ordering one from Quality Quidditch Supplies or something.”
What an odd name for a store, Zinnia thought. And – second hand brooms? Really? She knew Ottery St Catchpole was tiny, but she would have thought that at least the hardware store might carry a few. Ah well, she could check for herself when she did a grocery run that afternoon.
“Well, I’ll keep that in mind – Oh goddess!” Molly was tearing up again. What on earth? Did she just remember her son sweeping or something? Zinnia tried to not panic. She’d never seen her mother cry except at the movies, and she really didn’t know what she should be doing here with this near-perfect stranger bawling on her couch.
“I-I’m terribly sorry, it’s just that Fred…” Molly wailed, and whatever else she was about to say was lost in her sobbing.
Zinnia eyed the distraught woman uneasily, wondering what she should do.
“Uh, Molly? Is there anyone I can call for you? Or, should I drive you home? It’s just, I, oh goddess,” Zinnia wrung her hands. “Would you like a hug?”
Molly buried her face in her hands and took a few deep breaths. “Oh Merlin, I am so sorry, here we are, barely met, and I’m crying all over your couch.”
Zinnia grimaced. “Last I checked there wasn’t a Miss Manners editorial about Polite Grieving, honestly Molly, don’t even worry about me.” She took a fortifying sip of her tea. Goddess this was awkward, but she could hardly fault the woman, after all, her son was recently dead. “Would you like to try this again another day? Maybe you should go home and rest?”
Molly sniffled, blowing her nose again as she nodded a little weakly.
“Here,” Zinnia poured some more tea. “Drink some more of this, and I’ll, uh…” Zinnia cast about for a suitable excuse to walk away and give Molly a chance to compose herself, and then abruptly remembered a perfect one. “Oh! I think Aunty Rose left your family a few things. There was a box labelled ‘Weasleys’ somewhere…” she left the room and walked into her Great Aunt’s old study. Sure enough, there was a box sitting in the middle of the room with a label written in slightly shaky calligraphy. Odd. Zinnia could have sworn that the box had been over to one side before. No matter.
She braced herself to lift from her knees, but was surprised to find that the box was relatively light. She hadn’t looked inside, but she supposed it must be fairly empty.
Back in the sitting room, Molly was sipping her chamomile and lavender tea. “This is not bad for a mild Calming Draught, it certainly tastes better without the fluxweed.”
Zinnia shrugged a little awkwardly around the box she was carrying. “I usually keep that one for when I’m being bit insomniac. My mother always swore by chamomile, but I think the lavender gives it a little extra something.”
“Indeed,” replied Molly. “It’s a little slow-acting, but I really am feeling a little better having drunk some.”
Zinnia nodded, and placed the box next to Molly on the couch. “Seriously, I know you walked over, but I’m more than happy to drive you back to yours. Is there anyone else at home?”
“Not at the moment, but Arthur will be home in a few hours.” Molly sighed, and then brightened a little. “Though my son Charlie will be visiting soon, from Romania. He’ll be coming on Wednesday, oh! You must have dinner at ours on Thursday!”
“That sounds lovely Molly,” said Zinnia, too relieved that Molly was seeming chirpier to be too focussed on the details of the conversation.
“That’s agreed then! Dinner on Thursday, come at 6:00, I want to welcome you to the neighbourhood properly. Arthur and I will be leaving to catch Celestina Warbeck in concert – you know she’s started performing again since everything died down? I can’t believe Harry dear was able to get us tickets! – but I’m sure you and Charlie will be able to entertain yourselves.”
Zinnia blinked. Wait, what?
Molly stood up suddenly, seized the box, and walked out the door. “Don’t mind about driving me dear, I’ll see myself home. Thank you again for the lovely tea. I’ll see you on Thursday!”
A moment later, she was out the door, and there was a loud “crack!”
Zinnia rushed to see if Molly had dropped something, but the woman had vanished, as if into thin air.
What the hell? Where did she go?
Zinnia rubbed her eyes, but decided not to dwell on it.
More importantly, she had a sneaking suspicion she had just been set up.
Zinnia groaned. Set up with this Charlie, who apparently worked in Romania. Who probably was going to have no idea that his mother wanted to ambush him within two days of visiting.
This was going to be awkward.