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In a Manner of Speaking

Chapter Text

~ the mystery of Euphemia Rowle

 

 In April of 1999, the widow Euphemia Rowle had a sudden heart attack and died at the age of 77 years old. Trusting solely in the supposed superiority of one’s natural “pureblood” magic and the spiritual properties of cursed rocks to see oneself healthy, it turned out, was a terrible replacement for actual medicine and regular check-ups.

 The few people who had experienced Euphemia Rowle – for Euphemia Rowle had been an experience, something to endure rather than enjoy, unless of a precisely matching temperament – didn’t do a very good job of pretending her death was some sort of great loss or unexpected event.

 Her only close living relative was her son, Thorfinn Rowle, whom she had hated with every spiteful bone in her embittered body with the same determination she had put towards being unpleasant, judgemental, and condescending to everyone she had ever met. It could be presumed that upon receiving news of his mother’s death, Death Eater Thorfinn Rowle had spat upon the floor of his prison cell and declared good riddance.

 Good riddance to a puritanical woman who had decided long ago to be terribly unhappy and to blame the rest of the world for making her unhappy by not conforming to her ideas of what was proper.

 The rest of the Rowle family was a gallery of distant cousins, who all were not pleasant people either but concerned enough about appearances to make a relatively decent showing at being as “demurringly and not openly purist, just able to see all sides of the issue” and “of course we hated the Dark Lord but we were afraid of defying him” as possible. Great-Aunt Euphemia Rowle had chased the most of them off decades ago. She had been the sort of obvious zealot that made a respectable family of purebloods look bad, especially considering the result of the war.

 The Rowle Family put a notice in the Daily Prophet of Euphemia’s death and organized a brief memorial service to make appearances at before her will was read, as was expected of them. Besides that, the Rowles neither felt nor were prepared to accept that there might be any other interruption to their own lives. Not beyond, of course, any desirable bequeathing dictated in the will.

 Therefore, none of them were quite sure what to do when the lawyer in charge of Euphemia Rowle’s affairs, serving as required the memorial and reading of the will, turned up with three unexpected items.

 The first: an extraordinarily bewildered expression pointed towards…

 The second: a nervous house elf acting as nanny to…

 The third: a toddler who couldn’t be more than two years old.

 

~ Mister Merritt Small

 

 To say that there proceeded much shouting and demands to know what sort of nonsense was happening here… would be an understatement of tragic proportions. It was perhaps suffice to say: if indignant, misplaced, privileged outrage were a sport, the Rowle Family would have long ago won the gold medal had they not been disqualified for violence.

 Mr. Merritt Small had inherited charge of Euphemia Rowle’s affairs from his late mentor, much against his will and to his great unhappiness. He was not a brave man. He was a short and unremarkable man, whose drawn face and dull suit blended well into wallpapers, and who had early in his life made the terrible mistake of being very good at very boring things and not developing a healthy habit of refusing requests. In the face of the Rowles and their outrage, he might as well have transfigured himself into a doormat for all the help he was in controlling the shouting.

 Eventually, what was essentially a very snobby mob calmed when it realized it didn’t have a good amount of room and all its members were in their most formal vulture-ous attire. The mob calmed enough to have it be understood by all its members – and one very unfortunate, invertebrate-inclined lawyer – that none of them had the foggiest idea as to where the child came from or why Euphemia’s lawyer deemed the child a necessary presence.

 Mr. Small was unfortunately forced to reveal that the child, who was indeed only slightly less than two years old, had been found as a resident of Euphemia Rowle’s estate.

 A bit more shouting quickly confirmed that no one had the foggiest idea where Euphemia Rowle might have gotten a child or what she might have been doing with one. This revelation, of course, quickly set off a chain of echoing squawks and passing-arounds of “The Scandal!” and “Why I Never!”

 The house elf was named Thea and, after some stuttering encouragement from Mr. Small, revealed that she didn’t know where the baby had come from either. She had been caring for the child, a beautiful little girl, since her Mistress Euphemia first brought the child home just under two years ago as a week-old baby. Euphemia Rowle had ordered Thea to keep the baby secret and safe, in that order exactly, and had said little else on the matter or bothered not at all with the baby since.

 The Rowles all but threw yet another physical fit, nearly tearing at their fancy mourning black, practically ripping at their fur shawls and stuffed mink scarves, and all but scratching at their heavy, ornate jewellery. They wailed and screeched about how crazy Great-Aunt Euphemia had been to have stolen a baby, while poor Mr. Small, at Thea’s request, shuffled the house elf and her whimpering toddler charge off to a quieter side office.

 It took another fifteen minutes before one of the Rowles realized that the toddler could belong to Euphemia’s son Thorfinn. None of them bothered to consider that the child might be Euphemia’s. Euphemia Rowle had been too old and had hated all small and young human beings besides. However, the child could be Thorfinn’s.

 This would be, however, despite the Rowles’ embarrassingly imprisoned relative never having been married. The Rowles knew what bastards were, as much as they heatedly pretended otherwise, and magic could do just about anything. The child could indeed be Thorfinn’s daughter.

 This, unfortunately, sparked even more unhappiness. If the child was a Rowle, then one of the Rowle cousins’ families would be obligated to take her in and raise her.

 It took another fifteen minutes before Mr. Small could make himself heard over the howls and bellowed arguments of “Not it!” and “I can’t afford another mouth to feed, my jewels are wasting away with my lavish lifestyle busyness as it is!”

 The late will of Euphemia Rowle, unfortunately, said nothing about children of any kind. The child was not mentioned even once, not even peripherally, as though Euphemia Rowle had not-so-much ignored the child so much as forgotten the child existed at all. Or perhaps done both. 

 All of Euphemia’s properties, from her fortune to her estate, went to her son Thorfinn. If only because his mother had hated him marginally less than she had hated her distant cousins and couldn’t have stood to see pureblood money and estate potentially reach non-pureblood hands. That none of the attending mob got a single pearl or square foot of Euphemia’s fortune… concerned and upset the Rowle cousins far more than the fact that there had been a baby found in Euphemia’s house with unknown origins and nowhere to now go.

 None of the Rowles, of course, were willing to take the child. They shuffled hurriedly out of the building as though someone might dump a baby in their embroidered silk gloves if they didn’t leave fast enough. They complained and plotted the whole way, of course, threatening lawyers and curses, but Mr. Small opened the door of the side office and a young wail wafted in, and the remaining Rowles clutched their pearls and their hippogriff-feathered shawls and scampered.

 Mr. Small felt relief that was far more powerful than any he had felt since his family had needed to cancel a holiday dinner. He deeply regretted that his life had led him to having anything to do with the Rowle family. He had never wanted anything to do with children, but he was a decent enough man to prefer not to put a small person in the care of the Rowles unless he ran out of all other options.

 Even if the child was Thorfinn’s, the man couldn’t take her. He was in prison. There turned out not to be any specific rules against it, but Mr. Small felt that giving the child to Thorfinn because of a ridiculous loophole was rather against the spirit of both childcare and prison. Mr. Small decided to pretend that there were rules explicitly forbidding what was obviously awful, because there ought to have been.

 Mr. Small ended up bringing Thea the house elf and the toddler home with him to his modest apartment just off Diurn Alley, one of the larger alleys in the Diagon District. He figured it must have been alright because none of his colleagues or their assistants stopped him, even when he stood at their desks and repeated it with increasing desperation, they did not Call The Alarm and prevent him from taking them fully into his charge. They simply, much against his wishes, wished him luck.

 Once home, Mr. Small gave Thea and the toddler his bedroom and slept on the sofa. Though he was not and had never been a very imaginative man, he wondered what the hell he was supposed to do now.

 

~ the great detective

 

 Contracting Thorfinn Rowle in prison brought about no answers. The child wasn’t Thorfinn’s, couldn’t possibly be Thorfinn’s, and the man hadn’t the foggiest fuck why his despised and despicable mother had taken a child into her house or how. He wanted nothing to do with this illegitimate child from nowhere, who hadn’t any papers to her name and barely a name besides.

 Thorfinn Rowle was, however, moderately pleased at inheriting his mother’s fortune and estate, and to hear that she had suddenly died. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the old bat hadn’t managed to live to a century and a half out of spite, he said, before pointing out where the door was.

 Once or twice, as a young boy, Mr. Merritt Small had given in to the fantasy of being a great detective. As an adult, he still sometimes had the same fantasy, but his more frequently had fantasies had become much more common and ordinary, now consisting mostly of naps and peaceful days off. Mr. Small now daydreamed fiercely of naps on couches and peaceful days off in his pyjamas, as he was forced to hit the pavement in search of where the mystery baby of Euphemia Rowle had come from and where she was to go.

 Much like the barrenness of her will, no papers in Euphemia Rowle’s house mentioned the child. There wasn’t a letter or certificate of any sort. Not even a receipt or a card.

 Euphemia Rowle’s neighbours only ceased badly pretending not to be pleased to be rid of her only to gawk at the idea that the ghastly old woman had kept a child in the house. They hadn’t heard a thing! They’d never seen any sign of a child living in that dreary old mansion! How outrageous!

 Euphemia Rowle hadn’t had friends, of course, not when the closest she had seemed to be able to get were enemies that were still alive. Well, no, this wasn’t true, as the woman had kept a circle of friends.

 The issue was that these dowagers of the old pureblood families were either dead, utterly unwilling to talk to Mr. Merritt Small, or hadn’t any idea why Euphemia had been keeping a baby. One of them had slyly asked if Euphemia had been trying that old, forbidden French youth potion and Mr. Small, realizing the sort of circles he had intruded upon, had immediately excused himself by claiming that he had been desperately late to a meeting with his late mentor. He left before anyone could eat his heart.

 Saint Mungo’s hadn’t seen Euphemia Rowle step through their doors in decades, save once or twice, with great reluctance and awfulness in spades for the staff, when she had visited dying friends such as Druella Rosier, who had been the mother of Euphemia’s goddaughter. Saint Mungo’s was – frankly, but strictly off-record – very glad to have seen the last of Euphemia Rowle, her ideas of what constituted “health”, and her coven of bosom bigots.

 Saint Mungo’s had, unfortunately, also never seen the child before. None of the midwives that Saint Mungo’s Hospital referred Mr. Small to recognized the child or Euphemia Rowle.

 Well, one of them had recognized Euphemia Rowle. A kindly grandmother who had been a beloved midwife for over half a century, who had tapped her cane and narrowed her eyes at the portrait and said, “Oh, that fuckin’ bitch.” Apparently, they had been yearmates back in their Hogwarts days.

 Unfortunately, the midwife hadn’t the foggiest fuck either where the child had come from, but she gave the girl a check-up and blessedly clean bill of health, much of Mr. Small’s relief and Thea the house elf’s joy. Thea and the midwife had a long conversation while the child played with blocks, and while Mr. Small sat in the corner… and tried to figure out what to do next and also not to cry.

 Smacking into so many dead ends was leaving Mr. Small somewhat dizzy. He would even wonder if Euphemia Rowle had, for some unknown reason, taken a Muggle child if not for how Thea the house elf insisted that her baby girl was magical. He did wonder if the child was a Muggle.

 After all, the magical world had no record of the child. And who could trust the word of a house elf who was clearly enamoured of her charge?

 The dizzied Mr. Small gawked later that night, as a bashful but determined Thea stopped her efforts at keeping the child’s magic from bothering the wizard. Mr. Small bore astounded witness to an unhappy girl, not even two years old, summoning a plush bird toy to her from across the room. Mr. Small was forced to conclude that Thea was right and the girl was indeed a witch – a powerful witch for a girl not even two years old. Maybe a Muggleborn, then? But what a witch!

 However, this still didn’t conclude where the girl came from. The only difference that seemed to matter between the girl being a Muggle or a Muggleborn was whether she would become a problem of the Muggle authorities or a ward of the Ministry of Magic, if Mr. Small continued to fail to solve the mystery.

 A month had passed since Euphemia Rowle’s death and he was running out of time.

 

~ an unwanted visitor  

 

 A dizzied Mr. Small opened his battered door the next morning to a furious Rowle cousin.

 Which Rowle cousin, he didn’t know, as they all looked the same underneath their feathered hats and ornate jewellery – like they had just smelled something disgusting. And this one has changed since the reading of the will. He couldn’t even have identified them as “the one who had been wearing a whole stuffed fox on their hat” or “the one who had thrown their diamonds on the floor and repeatedly threatened to stomp on them if they were not given sufficient attention”.

 Fortunately for Mr. Small, it didn’t seem to matter as, unfortunately for Mr. Small, the indistinguishable Rowle had a bone to pick with him. His indiscretion with asking questions as to where Euphemia Rowle might have acquired a baby and why she might have been keeping a baby? It had turned into gossip.

 This would be horrifying and unacceptable enough, except Mr. Small had also made the mistake of asking his scandalous questions in the hearing of the “worthless insects” of the Daily Prophet. The Rowles were now not only the gossip around town, but they were quickly becoming news. This could not stand. It had apparently taken a wretched amount of money to keep the Daily Prophet from printing an awful piece by that “horrid, hideously dressed woman Rudy Scooter”.

 What followed, on Mr. Small’s doorstep, was a great and terrible tirade on the importance of reputation for a family of the “Sacred Twenty-Eight”. The “Sacred Twenty-Eight” were apparently the sole remaining truly “pureblood” families in Britain. As decided by some obscure pureblood not all that long ago, whose hateful book was surely filled with objective fact.

 That tirade by the Rowle cousin, once finished, was swiftly followed by another. This high-pitched and largely incoherent tirade, which thankfully yet horrifyingly seemed to require no participation by Mr. Small, was on the foul scenting abilities of the disgusting free press.

 Several of Mr. Small’s neighbours peeked their heads out the door or around the stairs to discover the source of the terrible noise. At the sight of the Rowle cousin’s impressive hat – which seemed to contain an entire, unmatching assortment of uncommon fruit – and Mr. Small’s pleading face, each of Mr. Small’s neighbours quickly and silently scurried away before they could be spotted. They left him to this fate without hesitation.

 Mr. Small was sure, however, that some of them were still listening through the doors and floorboards.

 The Rowle cousin finally seemed to finish their toxic tirades, which Mr. Small may have been listening to with only one half of half-an-ear. Their bosom heaved mightily with the effort of exacting righteous justice by talking at other people. Or, at least, Mr. Small presumed a bosom heaved beneath that garish sea of broches attached to it. Mr. Small saw his own desperate expression in the reflection off one of these broches, and he desperately wished, as the Rowle cousin took deep breaths as though preparing for more, that he hadn’t gotten up today.

 “This simply cannot continue!” the Rowle cousin declared loftily, when they had finally seized their breath back by the throat.

 Mr. Small agreed with the statement.

 “Oh, yes,” he even said aloud. “I absolutely agree, madam.”

 Unfortunately, as he said this, Mr. Small had not been thinking about the child-related crisis at hand. He had been thinking solely about how he didn’t want to be standing on his doorstep, being berated by a snob in a hat thrice the size of their head, for the rest of his miserable life.

 This was a mistake.

 As Mr. Small was, immediately, with a great deal of shouting and shoving, whisked away by the Rowle cousin, who declared that they would have their problem properly dealt with, once and for all.

 

~ balls of crystal

 

 That was how Mr. Small ended up, much against his will and without truly knowing how, being shuffled into a dimly lit and ominous-looking shop on the equally dimly lit and ominous Knockturn Alley. The only relief was that it was the obscene and most secret hour of eight in the morning, when Knockturn Alley and all its inhabitants and regulars were respectably unconscious. Or at least indoors.

 This was not a perfect relief, however, as Mr. Small realized this meant there were no witnesses.

 The front of the shop that he had been dragged to consisted of a door (this was notable because not all shops could be counted on to have them, especially magical shops, and especially-especially magical shops that were in some way illicit) and one small window display. Both the door and the window display had thick iron bars and were decorated with peeling black paint. The glass of both appeared permanently smudged, in keeping with the shop’s immoveable grubbiness. Unknowable and frightening runes and symbols were carved unevenly into the dark wood and solid metal.

 From the outside, this shop of questionable repute looked a strange combination of abandoned and cursed. Like a storage closet and a shoebox of a shop had had a child, and that child was haunted and on the constant edge of foreclosure. Mr. Small did not want to go inside. Just looking at it, he would have paid the shop good money to never have to step inside their premises.  

 The only thing in the window display was a shakily painted sign that said CLOSED, and anything beyond that was obscured by dark and artfully shabby curtains.

 The Rowle cousin ignored the sign and Mr. Small’s objections both.

 The shop’s insides were absolutely nothing like its exterior. Past the storage closet of a front hallway and a front bell that jingled hauntingly, the shop opened into a cosy parlour that had never in its life heard of “too much”. There was an alarming amount of dark velvet, blue stain, and black lace, with an equally alarming amount of silver and gold accents and glitter.

 Mr. Small – who by his closet it could only be assumed had a particularly dull beige as his favour colour (it was not, but nor was it too far off) – was very alarmed.

 Skulls and ornate, cursed-looking objects were everywhere. A mysteriously high number of curtains, each with the depth of a night sky, hung from places that objectively should not have had or needed curtains. Every single piece of furniture had been covered in a blackish gilt. Lanterns and sparkling bulbs hung from nothing, and bobbed mystically in the air, while other celestial-like ornaments orbited about the room, glinting with threatening enchantment.

 And, in the centre of it all, was a table with the largest crystal ball that Mr. Small had ever seen – it was the size of a beach ball and the swirling clouds inside sparkled like someone had bought glitter at discount and poured the whole tub inside. 

 Turning around even slightly risked bumping into some puzzle piece of what appeared to be the lovechild of an astronomer’s haunted dreams and a sexy necromancer’s boudoir. Mr. Small felt as though, at any moment, he would be offered a tour or charged several galleons per hour. The air reeked of a dizzyingly thick, rosy incense.

 Thea and the child were standing directly behind Mr. Small, as he gasped and gaped, holding hands. The little girl, who had just turned two years old, had an expression that said quite clearly that everything she did not rub her tiny hands all over was going directly in her mouth.

 Thea’s expression was one of wide-eyed horror – which, in a house elf, was very wide-eyed indeed – and this expression said quite clearly that whatever everyone else thought would be happening here would not be happening.

 “Weeelcooome,” drawled a husky, feminine voice, from somewhere within the impenetrable and uncountable curtains, “to my maaarvelous sanctuary of Sight… to my refuge for the mystical minds seeking the truth among the lies.”

 And then the curtains snapped back in the hands of a fat woman, posed suggestively and dressed not unlike this very room concentrated into the outfit of a Seer nearly fit the burlesque. She was a pale woman with sleek raven hair, swathed in midnight colours, wearing such heavy and smudged makeup that if her eyeliner were any darker, it might have been literally smoking. She clicked and jingled with every step; her wrists and neck, her ears and hair, were decked with blackening gold and tarnished silver. Her fingers were practically dripping with rings.

 “Mistress Rowle,” the woman said, as she approached a table in the centre of the room, studying them all through heavily lidded eyes. “Greetings yet again. I Saw you to be a woman always in search of the truth among the lies.”

 The Rowle cousin sniffed, but with a very pleased sort of expression.

 “I need you to tell me whose brat my great-aunt was hiding in his attic, so we can be rid of it accordingly,” the Rowle cousin said, with all the grace and patience of a rampaging dragon, and gestured impatiently towards Mr. Small, Thea, and the child. Then the Rowle cousin jingled their purse with the subtlety of a thrown brick. “As quickly and quietly as possible, Madam Pythia.”

 Madam Pythia inclined her head. “Of course, Mistress Rowle,” she cast an arm towards the table with the beach ball of a crystal ball. “If you would deign to be seated, I shall be more than happy to gaze into the abyss for your answers.”

 The Rowle cousin swept towards the table with the grace of a bobbing goose, then threw themselves down in almost dainty disgust. Mr. Small waited for Madam Pythia to seat herself as well, before he gingerly let himself sit on the very edge of a very luscious-looking chair. He would not have thought he would ever describe a chair as luscious before, or anything as luscious, but there was very little about Madam Pythia and her “refuge for mystical minds” that wasn’t luscious – despite sitting very carefully on it, Mr. Small still managed to sink several inches into it.

 Thea herded her charge into a chair, the little girl distracted enough to go along.

 “For the most linear course of answers, I will, of course, require some of the young one’s blood,” Madam Pythia drawled. “Just a drop, to lay bare the truth.”

 If Mr. Merritt Small had been a cleverer man, he might have noted that firstly, this was indeed a very direct course of action, and secondly, framing blood as a gateway to the truth was likely a very good way to appeal to the mildly delusional sensibilities of a Rowle. However, Mr. Small was too greatly distracted by all the bright lights and the way Thea’s eyes had gone wide and gleaming with horror.

 “No, misses!” Thea squeaked. “There must be being another way!”

 “I’m not paying for another way,” the Rowle cousin snapped, glaring at the elf, before Mr. Small could try to mediate the situation or even get his thoughts together. “We’ll spill as much of that brat’s blood as we must to get our answers. Madam Pythia, get on with it. Shut up and stay out of the way elf, or I’ll have your hands in an iron.”

 Mr. Small thought they must have meant in irons, but he thought wrongly.

 “Hey now,” he said. “There’s no-”

 “And you! You’ve made enough of a mess of this, you muddling moron,” the Rowle cousin said viciously, then sniffed very loudly. “I should have better things to be doing than getting rid of this brat.”

 Mr. Small’s spine should have folded in like wet paper, as it had many times before. Instead, his weak spine did something it had never really done before: it stayed tall and stiffened. It was such an unfamiliar and fearful feeling that Mr. Small thought he was being possessed for a moment.

 “There’s no need to speak to them like that,” he murmured.

 Then the Rowle cousin shot him such a loathsome scowl that Mr. Small’s spine went meep. It immediately folded, with no indication that it would be getting up again during the tirade that was surely coming to obliterate every good thought he had ever had about himself.

 “It will only be a drop of blood, I assure you,” Madam Pythia interrupted, before the Rowle cousin could rain down their outrage. Madam Pythia herself sounded breathless with outrage, a hand on her heaving bosom like she was quelling a mighty beast there. “Mistress Rowle, you are a woman of importance and I would not ask you to lower yourself any longer than needs must. We shall, of course, get on with it.”

 The Rowle cousin deflated, something in Mr. Small’s chest whimpered in relief, and Madam Pythia produced a needle from somewhere on her person. Thea looked very upset, but Madam Pythia prickled the child’s finger in just a second and had a wand in hand to spell the drop into the air in the next. Thea was already comforting the child before the girl seemed to react at all.

 Mr. Small hoped that would be that, but inevitably, belatedly, several seconds later, the child seemed to realize that something had happened and began wailing loudly.

 “That will be all,” Madam Pythia announced, and she gestured towards a particular section of dark curtain, which swished open to reveal another, more shadowy room. “You may take the child and I shall call upon you if more is needed to divine the truth.”

 Thea quickly hustled her charge from the room, and the child’s screaming shut off into silence as soon as the curtains fell again. Mr. Small chanced a glance at the Rowle cousin, but they only seemed to look even more displeased than ever before. Mr. Small might have found this impressive, in a vile sort of way, if the Rowles didn’t make Mr. Small’s weak spine quibble in fear.

 The drop of the child’s blood was still floating in the air, at the tip of Madam Pythia’s long wand, which was pitch black and covered in gilt at the handle. Carefully, Madam Pythia’s wand lowered and the red blood plipped against the glittering surface of the great crystal ball.

 Then, the blood sank through the glass in long swirling streams. It spread wildly through the glittering clouds, until the great crystal ball was glowing a terrible red. It was only then that Mr. Small noticed that most of the lights had gone out. All other lights in the room were reflections of that terrible red glow, in all the gilt edges and glass ornaments of the shrouded refuge.

 Mr. Small then noticed, with a jolt, that Madam Pythia’s eyes had gone all red as well.

 “WE CALL UPON THE DARK SPIRITS,” the woman said slowly, in a voice that was now twice as rasping and thrice as deep, as her fingers moved about the crystal ball in wild patterns. “SHARE YOUR GREAT POWER WITH US NOW.”

 Glittering mist was seeping in from all the curtains, curling around the legs of the room.

 “SHARE YOUR DARK SIGHT WITH OUR MORTAL EYES, SO THAT WE MAY KNOW THE TRUTHS THAT THE DEAD HAVE TAKEN TO THEIR GRAVES. WITH BLOOD THEY RISE.”

 The terrible red glow of the crystal ball had become brilliant and now some dark shadow had crept inside, as though living black ink were battling with the blood. All the ornaments and gilt gleamed brighter and brighter, but in the struggle for power, they were also winking as though if stars were eyes.

 “BLOOD WILL TELL,” Madam Pythia intoned. “BLOOD WILL ALWAYS TELL.”

 And then, suddenly, the dark clouds consumed the crystal ball and a great wind burst out from nowhere. It was as cold as ice. All the lights in the room flushed out in an instant.  

 Mr. Small screamed.

 He stopped screaming as he realized that the lights had come back on, all golden and dim and ordinary, and that both the Rowle Cousin and Madam Pythia were staring at him. The crystal ball was still glittering black, but hints of white were now clouding through again. The mist that had so suddenly appeared was seeping out through the corners of the room.

 Mr. Small pulled out a handkerchief and coughed into it embarrassedly. “Sorry.”

 Madam Pythia, whose eyes had returned to the non-demonic in appearance, looked towards the Rowle cousin. “You were correct in your suspicions, Mistress Rowle. This is a child of Muggle blood, though for what purpose your great-aunt was keeping them, I do not yet know. I have seen its parents, one of whom is indeed still alive, but if you wish me to divine further answers for you…”

 “No,” the Rowle cousin said, lifting their chin firmly, now looking so far down their nose at everyone that they were almost looking at the ceiling. “I’ve heard more than enough, Madam Pythia. Give this rabbit-faced lump of a man the details.”

 They dropped her entire clinking purse onto the table and stood so abruptly that they nearly toppled over, whirling on Mr. Small. Mr. Small meeped in fear accordingly.

 “Get rid of it,” the Rowle cousin hissed. “I never want to see that filthy thing near my family again. Should you attempt to stain us with a mudblood again, I will have it and you killed immediately. We have ways of making you not talk, you fumbling lump.”

 Mr. Small nodded desperately to show that he understood and the Rowle cousin straightened with vicious satisfaction. They nodded towards Madam Pythia, but repeatedly, so it looked more goose-like than graceful. Madam Pythia nodded back in a jingle of accessories, keeping the purse of coins clamped close to her breast. It could have gotten lost there, among the jewellery and low neckline.

 “You shall have my silence, of course, Mistress Rowle.”

 “Good,” the Rowle cousin sniffed.

 Then they turned to sweep out of the room, but their nose was turned so far upwards that they stumbled over a very unnecessary ottoman. The Rowle cousin unfortunately caught themselves on a table before they could fall face first into the floor; they pulled themselves up and snapped the curtains aside to exit. The front door of the shop, as it slammed behind the Rowle cousin’s bustle, was very loud and left the front bell jingling.

 

 ~ one for the money

 

 Mr. Small looked back towards Madam Pythia and startled as he realized the woman had pulled out a cigarette and a lighter. Once she noticed he was looking at her, she offered the cigarette to him.

 “Fancy one?” she said, in voice that was nothing like that low drawl of earlier. Her voice was still hoarse, but not nearly so breathy. “Dealing with those inbred arseholes always makes me desperate for a bloody smoke. Might be a good thing that I might lose their business if I don’t play this right.”

 Mr. Small shook his head.

 “Suit yourself, mate, but you might not be coming out of this with a job either.”

 Mr. Small stared at her, bewildered, until she gave up clicking at her lighter and put the cigarette down so she could start stripped off her gaudy rings with a sigh. “Can’t fucking do anything with these,” she said conversationally, and started pulling off some of her bracelets, earrings, necklaces as well. “These fuck up my neck something wicked, you know; they weigh as much as a bloody cow.”

 Mr. Small did not know. He didn’t know what was going on.

 “I don’t know what’s going on here either,” Madam Pythia said conversationally, as she slouched back in her seat. “All I know is that Rowles shouldn’t have a bloody thing to do with children. Have you ever had the miserable misfortunate of meeting one of their children? Horrid, whinging, snot-faced little creatures that take after their parents perfectly.”

 Mr. Small had never had the displeasure. He had always been under the mild assumption that Rowles simply spawned into being fully grown, in gaudy and overlayered expensive clothing, titanic hats, and with the ghostly complexions of the extremely over-powdered.   

 “I once had this one Rowle in here demanding to know whose children his brats were, after he found out his wife’d been screwing his gentleman club mates for years, and I wanted to tell him, look, mate, I don’t need an inner eye for this one. That little fuckhead pulling down all my curtains has your sneer. Checked anyway, of course, because he was paying and I didn’t know his story – maybe he married his cousin and familial resemblance wasn’t enough to go on.”

 “…What,” Mr. Small croaked finally.

 “Or maybe his mates she’d been screwing were his cousins too. ‘Pureblood’ wankers, you know?”

 “…What,” Mr. Small said again.

 Madam Pythia looked at him strangely, in the middle of trying to light her cigarette again. “Fucking hell, mate,” she said. “Keep up. Rowles shouldn’t have children. You know why? Of course you damn well know why, you’ve got eyes. Blood doesn’t matter for a bloody thing. They raise more Rowles and the world doesn’t need one of those, much less more of the whole extended squabble.”

 “The… Is… Is the child a Rowle?” Mr. Small asked, aghast. Had this woman just lied to his clients?

 “Oh, no. Not even a little bit. Lucky tot, yeah?”

 “Then... a Muggleborn?”

 Madam Pythia threw back her head and laughed. “Yeah, no. Unlucky tot, there.”

 “But… but… you said-”

 “I said the child had Muggle blood, it’s not the same bloody thing.”

 Mr. Small wasn’t any less confused and sank back into his chair, hoping in the back of his boggled mind that the luscious piece of furniture would swallow him alive already. What was the truth? Did this woman really know the answer he’d been searching for what felt like a short forever?

 “You… you called upon the dark spirits to tell you the truth…”

 “Yeah, not my best bit, I know,” Madam Pythia sighed, and finally threw the lighter away and picked up her wand again. With a flick, there was a flame at the end and she lit her cigarette on that. When she noticed Mr. Small’s desperately confused expression, she waved the flame out and explained, “I keep the lighter for when I’m out and about in Muggle areas and it’s beside my pack, so it’s habit.”

 “Bit?”

 Madam Pythia took a long drag of the cigarette and raised her eyebrows at him. “You having a… Oh, you’re straight about this, mate, alright. All this?” She waved a lazy hand around her sparkly boudoir. “It’s a stage, mate, and a stage needs a show. People need to think they’re getting their money’s worth. They’re not nearly as impressed as telling it all from a glance as they ought to be. They want curtains and fancy dim lighting and crystal balls bigger than their bloody heads. They want dark spirits! Blood! Cold winds and smoke pouring out of the walls!”

 Mr. Small blinked at her. “The blood… the blood wasn’t necessary?”

 “Oh, no, I did need the blood. It was everything else that was extra rubbish. You don’t give ‘em a performance and they start saying shit like, ‘Ten galleons? Ten galleons? You want me to pay you ten galleons for looking at my grandfather’s dog? It took you ten seconds to figure out that it was his third wife who was poisoning it! I’m not paying ten galleons for ten seconds of work! No matter that you just saved me my inheritance and my husband from going to Azkaban!’”

 The mocking imitation Madam Pythia was doing did, unfortunately, sound very familiar to Mr. Small. The situation was not, but the tone of it sent a reflexive shudder down his spine.

 “Never mind that it took me more than twenty years or that I sold my bloody soul to a demon to get as good as I am,” Madam Pythia muttered, taking another drag of her cigarette. “Cheap bastards.”

 Mr. Small nodded sympathetically, then said, “Wait, what?”

 “People like those Rowle wankers want to think that they’re having a brush with the real Malevolent and Deep magics here. Like they can pay to have these ‘Dark Spirits’ called at their leisure. They love it, the dumb arseholes. They want the glowing! The eyes! The spoo-ooky voice! The lady of the night telling ‘em everything they want to hear, yeah? You know I had one of ‘em in here once because she’d lost her favourite necklace? Her daughter stole it, turned out. Now that was one of my better shows.”

 “Sorry, what was that about demons-?”

 “This one? Not my best work. Bit short and sloppy, really, but I’m not really awake yet. Was up until three in the morning, you know. Then it takes me ‘bout an hour to wake up every day anyway. I haven’t even eaten yet and a bit of divining always makes me peckish.” Madam Pythia sighed. “I could murder a curry about now, but the good place on Vock won’t be open until lunch.”

 “No, really, madam, you said something about your soul-”

 “What inconsiderate, privilege arsehole barges in to do business on Knockturn this early in the morning? What fuckhead barges onto Knockturn in the morning? Twilight to dawn are the decent hours for indecent people, and midnight’s a classic. A classic. You don’t fuck with the classics, yeah?”

 Mr. Small was taken aback as it appeared the woman actually wanted an answer from him now. She was looking at him expectantly, taking the occasional drag of her cigarette. He had been about to ask her something, but now the question had fled him.

 “Midnight is rather… traditional…” Mr. Small managed weakly.

 Madam Pythia nodded. “The changing of the days! Arbitrary societal marker, really, but it’s made an imprint on us now and a bloody powerful one. Twilight or midnight. It’s all on what you’re trying to do really. Not that I’d expect that sort of consideration a Rowle… or any kind of consideration from a Rowle. They wouldn’t know real magic if it danced starkers in their faces.” 

 “Madam,” Mr. Small said, aghast.

 “Sir… You know, I never caught your name,” Madam Pythia said.

 Mr. Small drew himself to the fullest of his unimpressive height. “I am Mr. Merritt Small of the office of Feasance and Wobbler. The late Mr. Mallory Feasance the First was my mentor and I inherited charge of Euphemia Rowle’s affairs after-”

 Madam Pythia snorted. “You poor idiot.”

 “What?”

 “The world became a much better place when that stuffy old bastard died, no offense, mate. How’d you end up with anything like a conscience while playing gopher for hateful ol’ Mally?” She took another drag of her cigarette and reached across the table to offer him her hand. “Judy Honeycutt – my clients know me as Madam Pythia Olenerius – how do you do, Mr. Small? Badly, I should think, if that’s the crowd you’re playing doormat for.”

 “…What?”

 “You should get a different job. You’ll be much happier. You’ll get some bark and some bite, too.”

 Mr. Small didn’t want to think about his time with his late mentor. He preferred to remember the man as a very charming old fellow, if very conservative, and not think too strongly about how his late mentor’s clients had most often run towards Euphemia Rowle’s sort. At worst, Mallory Feasance the First had been a consultant to some very foul people. An advisor. Perhaps, at worse, an… accessory.

 “The child’s not a Rowle, but they’re not Muggleborn either,” Judy Honeycutt said, and Vanished her cigarette with a flick of her wand. “I didn’t not tell that Rowle the truth just because I think the Rowles shouldn’t have children, but because they shouldn’t have this one. Call it my 'fuck you' to You-Know-Who, if you will. I’ll tell you the truth about that little girl on one condition, Mr. Small. Two, if you count not giving the child back to the Rowles for anything, but I figured that one went unspoken at this point, yeah?”

 Mr. Small swallowed nervously, not knowing which You-Know-Who she meant. “What’s your condition, Ms. Honeycutt?”

 “No one learns I helped you. No one learns where the child went in the end. If the Rowles ever ask, you gave that child back to its Muggle parents and didn’t look back, alright? And you tell whoever you give that girl to not to breathe a word about me or the Rowles, alright? Not a bloody word.”

 “I… I’ll have to report back to my bosses…”

 “Then you lie to their fucking jowls, Mr. Small. Tell ‘em the same thing you tell the Rowles if they ask, and only if they ask, if you want to keep your miserable job. This could bugger my reputation and my business. Inbred idiots are not, those Rowles pay well, and I don’t want a henchhag on my arse because we screwed ‘em over on getting their hands on that child and doing what they’d do if they knew.”

 “If… if they knew what?”

 “If they knew what I knew,” Judy Honeycutt said flatly. She looked drawn now, underneath her heavy makeup, and when she looked off into an unknown horizon, he saw crowfeet around her eyes and at least forty hard years in them. “Two things, Mr. Small, you need to know before I tell you. The first is that I’m never wrong.” 

 Mr. Small nodded worriedly.

 “The second is that if I were ever going to be wrong, it’d be about this.”

 Mr. Small frowned.

 “Are you ready, Mr. Small?”

 He nodded again, still worriedly, and only getting even more worried. He regretted everything he had ever done in his life, since all of it seemed to have conspired to push him towards this moment. He shouldn’t have gotten up this morning. He shouldn’t have involved himself in this at all.

 “No, you’re not,” Judy Honeycutt said knowingly, “but I’ll tell you anyway.”

 

~ the father of the child

 

 Mr. Small walked through Hogsmeade in a daze. Judy Honeycutt, better known as Madam Pythia Olenerius, had given him an address and a letter in case he wasn’t able to blurt out the terrible thing that he now knew. He wanted to go hide under his blankets, perhaps even under his bed for good measure, and have some time to prepare for this, but Madam Honeycutt’s address included a time as well as a place for the person he so desperately needed to see.

 As the father of the child was a relatively well known individual, arranging a private meeting with him might be extraordinarily difficult. Mr. Small’s best chance was a chance meeting – though he didn’t know if he could call it chance, when it had been arranged by a seer – here in Hogsmeade.

 With shaking hands, Mr. Small let himself into the Hog’s Head pub. He was not the sort of person to frequent pubs and it showed in the neatness of his suit and the pinch of his face. He nearly folded on the spot, as a couple shabby patrons of the shabbier pub turned their gaze towards him through the gloom, but the thought of how very soon he would get to throw this entire problem on someone else gave him strength like he had never known before.

 He fumbled for the address crumpled in his pocket.

 The Third Barstool, The Hog’s Head, Hogsmeade, Scotland.

 Five o’clock, Tuesday, May 4th.

 Mr. Small looked towards the bar and there, on the third barstool, was the person he so desperately needed to see. It was a young man, slumped exhaustedly over the bar, playing idly with a half-empty pint. He was wearing a very nice set of black robes, the suit-like sort that wouldn’t have been out of place at a very nice funeral, but in the dishevelled way of someone who had ripped open the restricting collar and rolled up the sleeves as soon as socially acceptable.

 Mr. Small walked up to this young man, with a stride that he probably thought looked like that of determined and Very Important Person, and pointedly cleared his throat to catch the young man’s attention. He was about to change this young man’s life forever.

 “Bless you,” the young man said, and didn’t look up.

 No one, it seemed, had only told Mr. Small that he sounded like a dying bird while clearing his throat.

 “What can I get fer you?”

 Mr. Small barely repressed a shriek as the barkeep lurched from seemingly nowhere. He was an old man with deep wrinkles and snow-white hair, wearing a grubby apron and an unhappy glare so fierce that it seemed fixed on his face, and that glare was currently fixed on Mr. Small.

 It said very clearly, “You get a drink or you get a boot to the arse right out the door.”

 Or perhaps it said, “You talk to that bloke again and I’ll give you a boot to the arse right out the door.”

 It was a very verbose glare. The ferocity of it left no room for doubt that it meant everything it said, even if its wizened owner must have been over a hundred years old at the least.

 “Sir! I must protest! I have Very Important Business here,” Mr. Small wanted to say.

 Instead, Mr. Small said, “Meep.”

 The gangly old barkeep’s glare narrowed and he began to roll up his sleeves, baring very wrinkled, spotty, white-haired arms that did not look nearly as frail as Mr. Small might have hoped. Even if he were not a wizard, Mr. Small would have considered himself allergic to any and all physical altercations.

 The young man at the bar sighed. “Look, mate,” he said in Mr. Small’s general direction, though he still didn’t look up. “I have been attending funerals and memorials and deathday celebrations for the past three bloody weeks, and on and off before that. I am done being a person for the next month. I’d appreciate being left alone for a bit, alright?”

 Mr. Small cleared his throat again, nervously, in preparation to speak. “Si-”

 “Bless you,” the young man said again, and finally looked up. “You alright there, mate?”

 Once he laid eyes on the unimpressive figure that Mr. Small struck, the young man looked him up and down several times, very sceptically. The young man mostly seemed confused by Mr. Small’s neat suit and neater shoes in a place like this, unlike the barkeep’s hostile scowl.

 “…Well?” the young man said. “Aren’t you going to tell me what you’re selling?”

 “I am not selling anything, sir,” Mr. Small managed desperately. “My name is Mr. Merritt Small, of the offices of Feasance and Wobbler, and I need to speak to you in private about a very important matter.”

 “Oh, fuck,” the young man said, and sat up straight. “What now?” He jabbed a steady finger at Mr. Small and warned, “I don’t know if you and whoever you’re working for have heard about Hermione Granger before, but you’re gonna learn and you’re gonna live to regret it.”

 “What? No, sir, my client is dead.”

 The young man’s face screwed up in confusion. “Am… am I being taken to court by a ghost?”

 “…What?”

 “Shit, that’s new. I didn’t know that could happen.”

 “No! No, you’ve got it all wrong. My client is dead and you’ve… ah… inherited something they left behind. It’s… it’s quite a delicate matter, so if we could speak in private…”

 “Oh.” The young man squinted at Mr. Small. “Alright, first up, if this is another scheme to try to get me to marry someone, I’ll break your nose, got it? If I hear a single bloody word about an arranged marriage made when I was a year old or any other con, I’m telling you now that know a mean Bat-Bogey Hex too and I’m told that hurts like hell through a broken nose. Just so we’re clear on this.”

 “…What,” Mr. Small said, horrified.

 “Good enough. I’ve said my bit. Hit me with it.”

 “Here?” Mr. Small squeaked. “Now? With people listening? This is a very private matter-”

 The young man turned a tired look on the barkeep. “How about it, Aberforth? You gonna sell this story the Daily Prophet and get rich quick? Yeah, didn’t think so.” Then he turned around to look at the other two patrons in the pub. “How about you lot? I hear they’ll pay extra for photographs. What do you say?”

 “Yer a bigheaded tit, that’s what I say,” one of them grumbled.

 “Cheers,” the young man said merrily, and lifted his pint. He then look at Mr. Small again and lowered his pint without drinking. “You look like you’re about to keel over. Fine. Give us a mo’.” Suddenly the young man had a wand in hand and then a faint buzzing had settled over the both of them. “That should keep out even Extendable Ears. You can say your bit now.”

 Mr. Small glanced nervously at the barkeep, who was still only a couple feet away and still glaring fiercely. “Er, how about-?”

 “It’s fine,” the young man said. “Can we just get on with this?”

 “Right,” Mr. Small said. “Right.” He nodded. “Right.” He cleared his throat and began the speech he had been rehearsing since he left Judy Honeycutt’s shop. “My name is Mr. Merritt Small of the offices of Feasance and Wobbler-”

 “We did this bit already.”

 “Ah… um… ah! My mentor was the late Mr. Mallory Feasance the First and through him I inherited the business of the now late Euphemia Rowle, who passed away last month. While handling her estate, we happened upon something that… was not… strictly speaking… supposed to be there… ah…” Mr. Small stood firm and dreamed of problems no longer being his problems. “A child. We found a child in the late Mrs. Rowle’s home, two years old, and no one could tell us where they had come from.”

 The young man and the barkeep both had gone very, very still. In some hysterically optimistic part of Mr. Small’s mind, he hoped that this was a good sign. It meant that they were listening.

 “With some very intensive research, we eventually learned the child’s parentage,” Mr. Small said, as confidently as a very cowardly man could manage. He held Judy Honeycutt’s letter out to the young man, as though it was the physical manifestation of all his problems. “The results of the tests were… extremely unexpected… but I have been assured that they were completely correct.”

 Mr. Small, upon being told the truth, had insisted on as many tests as Judy Honeycutt and Thea had been willing to perform and put up with. It had not been a very high tolerance, so tests had only ended up being run twice in total, but the answers hadn’t changed the second time. Mr. Small had hoped very dearly that they would, but they hadn’t.

 “Congratulations, Mr. Potter,” he said meekly. “It’s a beautiful little girl.”

 Harry Potter – the Boy-Who-Lived, the Chosen One who had defeated the Dark Lord Voldemort – stared at Mr. Small for a very long time. The barkeep stared as well. Neither of them blinked for an uncomfortably long period of time, leaving Mr. Small to fidget nervously.

 “Alright,” Harry Potter said finally. “You got me. That’s a new one.”

 “Never heard that one before,” the barkeep grumbled.

 Harry Potter snorted and picked up his pint again. “Dunno why I’m surprised. This was probably bound to come up sooner or later. Ron’s gonna love this.” He shot Mr. Small a mocking look as he prepared to take a swig. “A kid, huh? And who’s the mum supposed to be?”

 Mr. Small shuffled nervously. “Bellatrix Lestrange.”

 Harry Potter’s eyes bugged out and he immediately choked on his drink, then folded over into a sputtering mess. Mr. Small was very alarmed, because if Harry Potter died, then he’d have no one to give this problem while he did a runner. The barkeep on the other hand, looked very unimpressed with the both of them, but especially the eighteen-year-old boy curled and coughing over his bar top.

 “For fuck’s sake,” the barkeep said. “Pull yourself together, lad.”

 “Did you hear him, you old goat?” Harry Potter demanded hoarsely. “Did you hear that? What the fuck is that supposed to be?” He whirled on Mr. Small. “Bellatrix Lestrange? Is this a joke? Bellatrix Lestrange? Who put you up to this? Bellatrix. Lestrange. Because it’s honestly the worst fucking joke I’ve ever heard in my life. Congrats, mate.”

 “…It’s true,” Mr. Small said weakly.

 “Yeah, no. Someone’s having you on. Sorry.”

 Mr. Small noticed that he was still holding Judy Honeycutt’s letter and desperately held it out farther. “This is the letter from the woman who confirmed the identities of the child’s parents,” he said urgently, and waved the letter in the young man’s face, prepared to get on his knees and beg for mercy. “I assure you: it’s true. You’re a father, Harry Potter.”

 Harry Potter snatched the letter out of Mr. Small’s hands. “Stop it,” he snapped. “Fine, I’ll read the bloody letter. You’re still wrong, though.” He tore open the envelope and yanked the letter out. “There’s no way I have a kid, much less a kid with Bellatrix Lestrange. Merlin, that sounds wrong. You’ve got a sick sense of humour, you know that?”

 Mr. Small had actually never been told that he had a sense of humour before. It was a novel experience, even if it wasn’t a joke and he wasn’t anything but the very, very unfortunate messenger.

 Mr. Small watched as Harry Potter read the letter, his scowl disappearing in favour of wide-eyed horror. The Boy-Who-Lived was looking very gaunt when he finally set the letter down on the bar top. He didn’t object as the barkeep snatched the letter up and began reading over it himself. Harry Potter only put his elbows on the bar top and then his head in his hands, like a man who had just received the worst news of his life and was still trying to understand how it had all gone wrong.

 “…What’s her name?” Harry Potter said finally.

 “What?”

 “Her name,” Harry Potter repeated. “What’s the child’s name?”

 “Delphini,” Mr. Small answered, a little bewildered. No one had asked that question of him since this whole terrible adventure had started. “But I understand that her caretaker calls her Delphi.”