There is an owl on Chandra's front porch.
In the morning light, its eyes glow like embers, gold, scalding to the touch. Its feathers are every shade of brown Chandra has ever seen, and pinched between its beak is a cream-colored envelope.
London isn't awake yet, but Chandra is, and the light of dawn is just rising over the suburb she calls home. Not quite morning yet, but certainly light enough that some other early riser would see if they looked out their window. Too light, surely, for an owl of all things to be awake. And yet, the owl is awake, perched on the railing on her porch, and it's staring at her like she's wasting its time.
Chandra looks at the things in her hands: letters from her penpal in Norway, bills, birthday cards for her school friends decorated in sparkly stickers. They feel real, but how can she truly know? She glances back at the owl, which, yeah, still there, and then, with as much strength as she can muster into her fingers, pinches her upper arm.
This is not, as the pain so clearly demonstrates, a dream.
The owl flutters its wings, irritation showing in the narrowing of its pupils, and so Chandra does the only reasonable thing, really, and takes the letter from its beak, careful not to rip it from the owl's grasp. It hoots at her as if to admonish her for taking so long, and then, without much further ado, it flies off into the morning sky. She watches it until it becomes little more of a speck flying due north, and then, quickly, she goes inside.
The front door shuts behind her with a creak of the hinges. The sound would be earsplitting, if not for the thrum of her heart.
Today, there was an owl on Chandra's porch, and with it, a letter.
It is May 1st, 2005, and today, Chandra Barnes is eleven years old.
Once inside Chandra tosses everything but the owl's letter on the family dining table without much thought in her rush to the stairs, and she flies up them, skipping the second and fourth step, which always creak the loudest. Her kitten, a tiny little thing named Sphinx, is waiting for her at her open bedroom door, and his meow is plaintive when she passes him without much ado; he curls around her ankles when she sits, out of breath.
"Sorry, sorry," she murmurs, glancing down at the ball of fur. He glares balefully at her, eyes wide and green. "It was only a for a few moments, you needy thing." Chandra shifts her eyes from Sphinx and to the envelope in her hands, slightly crumpled from how tightly she'd gripped it on her way to her bedroom, and sets it on her desk amidst the rest of the clutter. On top of her coloring books and amongst her homework and colored crayons, the envelope sticks out like a sore thumb, so much more adult than anything that one of her friends would send her. And that green ink, too--it shifts, almost, from shimmering emerald green to teal. When she runs her finger over it, there's a depression where the writing is, as if something sharp and hard had been used to write it. No stamp, either.
"What on earth is this?" She breathes, turning it over to once again look at the seal. In the fluorescent lighting of her bedroom it's even redder than it had been in the morning light and when she brings it to her face to get a closer look at it, the wax smells faintly of apples and roses. Carefully so as not to rip the paper, Chandra peels it up and sets it aside; Sphinx leaps to the desk and sniffs it delicately, tail flicking. "Nice, right?" She says, scratching behind the cat's ears. "Like a scratch N sniff or something."
The envelope is open. Chandra stares, shivers crawling up her spine, electric, like when John Laughlin from second year gave her a handful of daisies he'd picked himself and told her that her curls were pretty. Delicately, she reaches inside and pulls out two pieces of paper folded together, made of the same thick, heavy paper as the envelope. Nothing like her school's newsletters printed on the cheapest printer paper available and often sent four or five weeks after whatever event they're meant to be introducing. Chandra unfolds them and reads through the contents of the first page with wide, suspicious eyes.
The crest stamped into the wax seal is proud and large at the top; a large, pretty 'h' set in front of a snake, lion, honey badger, and an eagle. Beneath are words Chandra knows are Latin, though she has no idea what they mean, reading draco dormiens nunquam titillandus. Sphinx, now peering at the letter with her, meows, just as confused as she is.
The rest reads as follows:
HOGWARTS SCHOOL of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY
Headmistress: Minevera McGonagall (Order of Merlin, First Class, Animagus, International Confederation of Wizards)
Dear Ms. C. M. Barnes,
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.
Term begins on the 1st of September. We await your owl by no later than the 31st of May.
Deputy Headmaster Filius Flitwick
For clarity, Chandra reads through it once more, and then another time. Then, with her favorite, sparkly pink glitter pen, she circles the words that confuse her: animagus, which sounds like more Latin gibberish, the name Filius Flitwick, which sounds like something Terry Pratchett would come up with on his worst writing day, and the entirety of the name beneath the crest.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
She underlines it twice and then circles it again. She has multiple questions about this, in particular, but chiefly, this: what on God's good green Earth is a Hogwarts?
Reggie lands smoothly, cheeks pink and stinging from the biting wind, and right there at the kitchen door stands Timley, her large ears quivering in her fury. He can barely find it in himself to care, mind and heart still full of the rolling hills and vast forest he'd flown through in the hour he'd been gone, even as she marches up to him with the look she gets when Kipsy mixes the light clothing with the darks.
"Young Master," she says, frostily, "so glad you could join us, truly." Without another word, she snags the firebolt out of his pink, sore hands and marches back inside, little shoulders tense.
Reggie follows inside, brow furrowed. "Timley, calm do-"
She whips around, beady blue eyes gone wide. "Calm down?" She repeats, squeaky. From across the kitchen, he can hear the other house elves, Kipsy and Tabry, gasp in unison. Reggie swallows, looking anywhere but the tiny house elf in front of him. Dirty pans in the sink, the scent of roast duck in the air, the last dregs of heat coming from the cooling oven...
Oh, bloody hell.
Timley watches Reggie's face drain of what little color it possessed and breaks out in an almost manic grin. "Realised it, haven't you?" She says, a little giggle at the end of her question. He can feel Kipsy and Tabry's pitying stares on him as the reality of what has happened sets in.
"... Just how late am I?" His voice is barely a whisper.
Reggie stares at his loafers, scuffed from repeated wear. Later, the tears will come, but now, all he feels is intense guilt. "What happened?"
Tabry speaks up. "Just a light stinging hex, Master Reggie," he says, voice hoarse from tears. "I'm quite alright, really."
Reggie can't believe him, and as he opens his mouth, Timley cuts him off. "Now's not the time to apologize, Young Master," she says, softer than before. She places one of her small, callused hands on his arm. "Plenty of time for that later, sir, there is." Reggie bites his lip, and she tsks. Pulling him by the arm, she leads him out of the kitchen and down the halls, their feet soundless against the plush fabric. Not for the first time, he feels grateful that he can't be heard coming.
She stops him just before the dining hall, right in front of the oldest painting in the whole manor: a portrait of the first Reginald Sinclair, sat proudly, adorned with jewels and petting a hippogriff. Timley's hands find his face, and she forced him to look at her. "Now listen to me, Young Master of mine," she says, quiet and just for him. "This isn't the time for guilt, nor cowardess." She stares at him, expectant, and when Reggie nods, she continues. "You go in there, and you eat your lunch, and it will be alright."
"But..." Reggie falters, swallows, and tries again. "But because I'm late, Tabry-"
"Tabry," Timley says, cutting him off, "was punished for spilling boiling hot tea all over your dear old Grannie. It isn't your fault that Mistress realized you weren't in the manor while she was punishing him, it's not." She brushes her thumbs over the freckles on his cheeks. "You hear?"
"I'll hear no more of it." Her word is final. Sometimes, Reggie wonders whether or not she's really a house elf, as she acts so much more like a strict governess. "Now go in there, and eat. I could hear your stomach grumbling even with you up in the sky as you were." And with a shove, she pushes him away and toward the heavy door to the dining room.
Standing beneath the portrait of the man Reggie's named for, Timley looks smaller than ever. With a grin, she shoos him, and as he opens the door, he hears that distinct snap of apparition.
The door shuts behind him, and Reginald Alaistar Sinclair the Third turns toward the people he'd kept waiting, stomach full of lead, and meets his mother's eyes.
Draco domiens nunquam titillandus.
Never tickle a sleeping dragon.
The Latin teacher at Saint Georgia's Secondary had laughed when she'd asked him what it meant, right in her face, even though he was standing in front of her in a fluffy robe and pinstripe pajamas at 7:00 am. "Why, pray tell, would you be asking me about a phrase like that?" Her neighbor had asked, astounded. "You've never shown any interest in Latin before, though, I must say, I'm rather pleased you came to me for this."
Chandra hadn't had an answer. How, exactly, does one tell a person that you've received a letter from an owl that contained an acceptance letter to a wizarding boarding school and a list of magical supplies required without getting tossed in the loony bin?
You don't, so she leaves him puzzled, sleep-deprived, and possibly out of coffee.
All day, even as she got presents from friends and shared store-bought cookies with her class, through tests and during recess, the phrase swirled around in her mind, twisting and turning and tying itself up in knots.
Draco domiens nunquam titillandus.
Never tickle a sleeping dragon.
These, when she presents her father with the letter and envelope and carefully peeled-off stamp, are the first words out of his mouth. No quip about report cards, no worried question about what sort of trouble she got into this time, no.
"Draco domiens nunquam titillandus," her father says, reverentially, like some kind of mantra. His light eyes are wide, and slowly, a smile spreads across his face. "Draco domiens nunquam titillandus," he says again, full-out grinning, dimples and all, as he turns that gaze to her.
"... Are you okay, Dad?" Chandra asks because this hadn't been what she expected.
He sets the letter down, laughing, and sweeps her into a hug. "I'm better than okay, darling," he laughs, and she feels the rumble of it in his chest, face pressed against it as it is. Her father squeezes her once, then pulls back, taking in her worried face. "I'm wonderful. My daughter's a witch, how could I be anything less than that, hmm?"
Never tickle a sleeping dragon.
"There's much I didn't tell you, and I'm sorry for it." Dinner has gone cold by the time he's done explaining. Her father is a squib, and she-Chandra Madelyn Barnes-is a witch. The word twists on her tongue the way Sphinx twists around her ankles.
Draco domiens nunquam titillandus.
"I should've told you, but... I wasn't sure."
Her paternal grandparents disowned him, her father, her rock, when he was only eleven years old. When he was Chandra's age, they left him, because he wasn't like them.
When Chandra was four, she made her pet fish float in water above her head, goldfish and betas suspended in the air. When she was seven, a boy pushed her into the mud and called her a very nasty name. The next moment he was on the ground, covered in boils and sobbing.
"I'd forgotten that," she whispers. Never tickle a sleeping dragon.
Her father smiles. "We'll go shopping for your school supplies in the summer, what do you say? There's so much I want to show you, so much I've wanted to show you..."
Latin haunts Chandra's dreams that night, whispered in her ear while fish fly and children run from her.
The sky over the Scottish highlands is clear tonight. The stars blink far in the distance, and the moon illuminates the Sinclair Estate and all its glory; sprawling, manicured, controlled. Somewhere out there, Reggie's pet owl, Flap, hunts, golden eyes all-seeing in the darkness. Free of all restrictions, Flap flies farther than Reggie has ever dared, he's sure, swooping and darting through the trees without restriction.
Reggie wishes he was a bird.
Surrounding him are his books; spellcasting, transfiguration, potions brewing, charms, and with it rolls upon rolls of parchment scribbled on in Reggie's messy, left-handed scrawl. They are the same books his brothers, Marshall and Arthur had used, the same tomes his father's father's father had poured over before attending Hogwarts, and even after generations of use and so many different hands flipping their pages, the books are pristine.
Reggie hates them.
Tap-tap-tap. Knuckles against his bedroom door. Tap-tap-tap-tap.
Reggie sighs, shoving his books away and onto the floor. "Come in, Grannie."
This is a system they'd come up with four years ago, after his father had dangled him over the second-story balcony in the middle of the night and shaken him in an attempt to pull out magic, any hint of magic at all, from his youngest, dumbest son. Three knocks, a few seconds pause, and then four more. To make sure Reggie always knew that it was her coming in.
She appears in his doorway holding two mugs, wearing knit sweaters and deep dimples. "The bird?" She asks, flicking her pinky as she enters; the door shuts tightly behind her, obeying her wordless command.
Another flick of Grannie's pinky and the books float up, going back to their places on his shelves. "Good. Damn thing always uses my shoulder as his restroom," she laughs, sitting at the foot of the bed. She holds out Reggie's favorite mug, a large, novelty mug he'd picked up from a gift shop when the family went to America for Arthur's wedding, brown eyes twinkling. "Hot cocoa, dear?"
He takes it, and when he sips, the flavor spreads over his tongue and coats the back of his throat pleasantly, cinnamon and chocolate and nutmeg. It shouldn't be anything special, but even when Timley tries, she can never make it the way Grannie does. "Thank you."
Grannie rolls her eyes, waving her free hand at him. "It's no problem, really. My pleasure, in fact."
Halfway through his cocoa, Reggie speaks. "Is she still mad?"
Grannie sighs, long-suffering. "I think it's her constant state, frankly. Don't worry your pretty head too much about it."
Reggie stares at his cocoa, deep brown against the white of his mug. It swirls, slow, even as he holds it completely still. "She never treated Marshall like this. Nor Arthur."
She rests a small, wrinkled hand on his knee. "Your brothers..." She squeezes, trailing off, and looks up at Reggie's ceiling. "Your brothers, sweet boys though they are, are very much like your mother. They like everything in neat little lines and do best when all their ducks are in a row, so to speak. Your father is that way too, you know, Merlin only knows where he gets it!" Grannie shakes her head, rueful, and goes quiet.
"And me?" Reggie asks, small. "Who am I like?"
When she looks at him, her eyes are soft. "Who else, dear?" Reggie furrows his brow, and she smiles. "You're like me."
She leaves when their mugs are empty and before Flap finds his way back home, stomach full and wings tired from a long night. Reggie falls asleep with him on his stomach beneath the open window.
The next morning, of course, he has a cold.