He wasn’t fast enough.
The curse caught him square in the chest, sending him head over heels and smashing him into the pock-marked stone wall. By the time he hit the floor, his wand had been snatched from his hand and his opponent was astride him, the tip of her wand tilting his chin up that he might better see her triumphant grin.
“Had enough?” Miranda purred, her gray eyes sparkling over him.
“Not nearly,” Severus growled back. “But you have.”
“I don’t know.” She playfully twirled her wand between her fingers, considering. “You won the last round and I won this one. Why don’t we say best two out of three?”
He put one long finger on the end of her wand and deliberately pushed it away from his throat. “Healer A’isha ordered you to limit yourself to one duel per day until your next appointment. We’ve already had two. It’s enough.”
“Spoilsport,” she murmured, rolling smoothly to her feet and tossing his wand back to him.
He caught it and got to his feet while she started her tedious routine of post-duel stretches. The simple dueling platform and the opposing banners emblazoned with the Slytherin and Thunderbird crests vanished, leaving a narrow, waist-high table behind. With an audible groan, Miranda climbed onto the table, lifting her arm for Severus to manipulate according to the Healer’s stern specifications.
“I’m still not sure which is worse; the physical exercises or the magical ones,” she grumbled, wincing as he held her arm in place a few seconds longer than the day pervious.
“Your spellwork seemed marginally less pedantic tonight,” he said, the encouragement clumsy in his mouth.
“How nice of you to say so.”
“Healer A’isha did order me to bolster your precarious spirits with regular doses of praise,” he said wryly, leaning on her leg until she stifled a groan. Healer A’isha had also warned him that he would come to hate these exercises more than Miranda did herself. It was one thing to endure pain—and yet another to inflict it on the person whose well-being was unfortunately bound up with one’s own sentimental affections.
“I was thinking I would move back to the cabin this weekend,” she said casually when he released the stretch.
“Were you?” Why was it that no matter how many times one rehearsed receiving disappointing news, it never dulled the pain when the blow actually fell?
“Yes.” She sucked in her breath as he leaned on her other leg.
“All the better for you to neglect your recovery.”
“With you and Rachel dogging me, how could I dare? Aaron’s going to help me move.”
“I see.” He released her leg and offered her a hand to help her sit up. It was shameful how pleased he was when she actually took it; he was like a dog slavering after its master for affection.
Part of the floor sunk away, melting into a clear blue pool of steaming water, and Miranda used her wand to painstakingly transfigure her clothing into a trim bathing suit. Spells that were once instantaneous now required her strictest attention and labor, but the fact that she was able to perform them at all was enough to hope that she would, in time, recover her powers completely. He stooped to pull off her boots—vanished footwear was so notoriously difficult to retrieve from nonbeing that it was rarely worth the risk of sending it thither. She gave a deep sigh as she slid into the water, and she laid her head back on the tiled floor, letting her eyes close and her arms drift.
“You can come in if you like,” she suggested without opening her eyes.
“I think not. You would only distract me from completing your exercises.” A chair materialized on the opposite side of the pool, and he settled himself into it. “Tell me when you are ready.”
“Are you angry with me?”
He was. “Of course not. Why would I be angry?”
“I wouldn’t have asked Aaron for help, but I didn’t want to impose on you any more than I already have.”
“You haven’t been imposing.” Although what else he wished to call her extended sojourn in his rooms he refused to admit.
She opened one eye and smiled at him. “Yes I have, don’t lie to me. But feel free to join in the fun. Rachel and Maggie are coming along to make dinner.”
“I fail to see how a baby would be of any use at making dinner.”
“Rachel can do anything with Maggie strapped to her back. Aaron says it’s a sight to behold.” She lifted her head off the tile and raised one hand out of the water, wordlessly summoning her wand. “I’m ready now.”
Severus conjured a golden ball the size of an orange and sent it spinning towards Miranda with a smooth wandstroke. She watched it, her brow furrowed in concentration. The ball flew towards her, unchecked until it was less than an arms-length away from her nose, when she managed to wordlessly send it back towards him. He lazily batted it with his magic, and this time she used hers to catch it in mid-air and stretch it into a length of rope, which she dropped into the water. With a flick of his wand, the rope shot out of the pool, transfigured now into a fish that splashed back under the water and swam towards Miranda, tickling her toes. She laughed and drew her wand through the air, causing the water to surge out of the pool and toss the fish up with it. Before it could land back in the water, she waved her wand again, and the fish transformed into a mangled half-avian, half-ichthyoid horror. It hit the tile next to the pool and flopped helplessly, until Severus waved his hand to vanish the mess.
“Well, that was better than yesterday,” Miranda said half-heartedly.
“It was. Most of the fish-bird’s organs were on the inside today rather than haphazardly arranged on its scales,” Severus remarked.
“I guess that’s true.”
Her frustration was palpable, and he went around the pool to sit on the cushion that appeared on the tile at her side. While his attempts at verbal encouragement tended to be as mangled as some of her recent transfiguration attempts, he had discovered that a well timed kiss served just as well, if not better. Her lips were a firm line of irritation when he captured them, but they quickly softened under his patient insistence, and when he pulled away to draw breath, she was smiling.
“So, will you come?” she asked.
Disappointment cut through the fog of tenderness that had gathered in his chest, but though he felt his jaw clench at the idea of her leaving, he heard himself saying, “It would seem there is nothing left for me to do but acquiesce.”
She caught his face between her warm, wet hands, and drew him down for another lingering kiss that fed both his anger and his tendre for her.
“Don’t be cross, Severus. I know we’ve both been looking forward to finally being on the same island at the same time, but we’ll drive each other crazy if we keep living in the same two rooms together. I really am so grateful to you for everything you’ve done, and I don’t know how I’m going to repay you, but…”
“That’s quite enough,” he interrupted. He did not care to listen to her thanks. “Will Saturday serve the purpose?”
“Saturday’s perfect. I’ll write to Aaron tonight and let him know.”
He helped her out of the water and hovered near her elbow while she arduously cast a drying charm on herself, and transfigured her bathing suit back into her trousers and tunic. She gave a jaw-splitting yawn when she finished and sat down on the table, allowing him to put her socks and boots back on her feet for the trek down to the dungeon. As usual, he exited the Room of Requirement first and, finding the hall empty, he rapped on the wall and started down to the dungeon. He was entering the stairwell when he heard Horace Slughorn’s voice in the hallway behind him.
“Why if it isn’t Miranda Rose!” Horace said pleasantly.
“Hello Horace,” Miranda replied in a bright, but weary tone. “Fancy finding you here. Are you visiting?”
“No, I’ve come out of retirement, I’m sorry to say. But someone has to teach these youngsters Potions, and Albus Dumbledore is a difficult man to say no to. To what do I owe the happy accident of seeing you this evening?”
“Albus Dumbledore, who else?”
“Who else indeed. Then you must know what I am talking about. Come into my office and have a nightcap with me. I can’t tell you how serendipitous this is! I was about to owl you with regards to a project…”
The door closed, shutting off the rest of Horace’s monologue. Severus briefly considered eavesdropping, but decided it wasn’t worth the bother. He had plenty of work waiting for him in his own office, and Miranda would likely tell him anything interesting that the crafty potions master said.
Or she wouldn’t. And there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.
“And it ended with me having to accept an invitation to his Christmas party,” Miranda said, suppressing a grunt as she flicked her wand at a book-filled crate. It crashed into the floor harder than she meant it to, but she kept the wand flicks coming lest Severus notice her tiring and order her to take a break. The books leapt jerkily out of the crate and floated to the shelves, lining up like weary soldiers returning home.
“Did you?” Aaron replied as he attempted to wrestle her turntable back into its desk drawer. “Woman, how did you get this blessed thing in here in the first place?”
“You have to talk nice to it.”
“I s’pose.” He swore under his breath as yet another corner refused to fit. “But a party’s not so bad. And I’ve heard Horace Slughorn knows how to throw ‘em.”
“I’ve heard that too; but a student party full of hormonal teenagers? What am I supposed to do, wilt along the wall with the chaperones?”
“Are you still complaining about Horace’s party?” Severus asked irritably, emerging from the newly cleaned potions closet. “I had thought you would not have minded keeping me company there.”
“I wouldn’t mind if I was allowed to act as though I knew you, especially considering how hard it is to get you to go out at all. But at least when we go to Prospero’s, you hold my hand.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever held your hand,” he muttered, gathering the crate of her prescribed potions.
“A convenient lapse of memory.”
She didn’t hear whatever he shot back at her, as he covered his grumbling with returning to the potions closet and spending an inordinately long time unpacking and arranging it.
“Do you ever give that man a break?” Rachel chided from the stove where she was busily sautéing a rainbow of vegetables while Maggie tugged on her sleek black ponytail.
“If he can dish it, he can take it,” Miranda retorted, starting on another crate. “How are things at the Embassy?”
“Busy,” Aaron replied, “and complicated. Scrimgeour’s discouraging anyone from coming into or leaving the country. He’s trying to play it off like he’s got the whole Voldemort situation under control, and I do believe that he doesn’t want to look a fool by having all the foreigners high tailing it home. But I also think he’s scared shitless that if he keeps the borders open, he’s going to have a mess of Death Eaters and Death Eater sympathizers coming in to play. So he hasn’t exactly shut them down, but they ain’t exactly open either.”
“What does Robert think about that?”
“He’ll play along if he gets what he wants out of it. Take that you demon-spawn!” Aaron whooped, slapping the turntable as it finally snapped into place.
“What does he want?”
Aaron started flipping through Miranda’s records in search of some appropriate victory music.
“For now what he wants is permission to run his own Aurors to protect the Americans in the country.”
“Really? That’s never happened before. And Scrimgeour allowed it?”
“He did. And Robert’s champing at the bit to get ahold of you. I reckon he wants you on the team.”
The book that Miranda was directing onto the shelf clattered to the floor, and she groaned inwardly as she recast the charm to send it back to its place.
“That’s flattering. I don’t know that I want to be an Auror, but I would at least consider it.”
“Not at the current moment,” Severus snapped, returning to the room to glare at her. “And I believe that it is time for you to sit down.”
“I will when I finish this crate.” His glare darkened and she protested, “I’m fine! I can finish a crate, it won’t kill me.”
“Your left shoulder is high,” he said in that quiet, angry tone of his.
“Your left shoulder. It rides high when you are tired and forcing your magic. It’s your tell.”
She grinned in spite of herself. “I didn’t realize you knew about tells.”
“One of the few useful things my father bothered himself to teach me.”
The set of his jaw told her that arguing the point would be neither useful nor entertaining and—to her chagrin—he was right; she was forcing her magic. She threw up her hands in defeat and said, “Fine, you win. I’ll hold the baby.”
He continued to watch her sternly until she had liberated Maggie from the flower-patterned baby-carrier on Rachel’s back and was settled on the new leather sofa in front of the fire as if he expected her to covertly thwart his orders the instant he looked away. She sank into the comfortable cushions and contented herself with bouncing the fine, plump child and replying to her happy babbling as though it were intelligible conversation. The old sofa had gotten lost somewhere in the shuffle of chaos at St. Mungo’s, and the Lees had insisted on replacing it. Miranda had attempted to decline the generosity at first, but she had to admit that her friends had a talent for selecting furniture that was as functional as it was beautiful.
She was glad when Severus finally took over her unpacking and ceased to watch her with his piercing eyes. She doubted that her friends had noticed it, but the sorrow flickering in those inky depths was all too apparent to her.
After the ramen had been eaten, the tea all drunk, and the baby nursed, the Lees were making ready to leave in a flurry of cloaks, scarves, and mittens.
“When’s your next appointment?” Rachel asked while she deftly wrapped the sleeping baby on her chest and settled her cloak snugly around them both.
“Monday morning,” Miranda replied. “If it goes well, I won’t have to go back until after Christmas.”
“Come by after you’re done. We can have lunch.”
“That sounds wonderful. I’ll see you then.”
She kissed her friends’ cheeks and waved them away. Severus kept to the background, still arranging books and bottles on their shelves; but he did trouble himself to return Rachel’s good-bye and shake Aaron’s hand. The Lees turned back to wave when they reached the end of the lane before disappearing with a loud pop. Miranda closed the door after them, and was surprised to see Severus shrugging into his cloak.
“Oh, were you going home?” she asked, trying to keep the disappointment she felt from showing.
His brow furrowed, but his eyes were blank. “I…had thought so.”
She smiled quickly and reassured him, “Of course. You must be dying to have some peace and quiet.”
He ran a long finger lightly over her cheekbone and jawline. The contrast of the roughness of his calloused finger and the gentleness of the touch made her shiver.
“I can stay if you would prefer it,” he offered quietly.
“No,” she said, a little too quickly. “I’ll be fine. I can’t wait to have a few minutes to myself.”
“As you like.” He withdrew his hand and reached for the doorknob, but not before she saw that flash of sorrow again.
Guilt prompted her to put her hand over his and soften the blow. “You know, I doubt I’ll feel much like cooking dinner tomorrow, after being spoiled by the house elves and Rachel for the last six weeks. There’s a little pub in Shoreditch that serves our kind. The Queen Mab, say eight o’clock?”
He smiled wryly at her and he kissed her brow before replying, “That would be agreeable. I shall have time to finish my Koestler while I wait for you.”
“I’ll be early, just to spite you.”
“I suppose there is a first time for everything. Until then.”
He left before the silence that fell between them could turn awkward, and disappeared at the end of the lane without looking back. She shut the door and wished that she could shut out the confusing web of emotions tangled up with her dour Englishman as easily. With a sigh, she wandered through her cabin, running her fingers over the roll-top desk; the books and the barware; the pictures on the mantel. When she came to a window, she threw it open, welcoming the chill of the night air as it blew in off the Channel. Soon there was a delicious cross breeze, and she perched herself on her bed, leaning on the window-frame and gazing out over the blackness of the water. The air in her cabin had been stagnant, like the air in neglected places. It had been far too long since she had been home.
Home? She pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a snap of her fingers, wondering when she had come to think of this place as home. While it was true that she had a habit of referring to wherever she laid her head for the night as home; it was also true that at some point during her Romanian adventure, she’d caught herself thinking of Britain as home in the way that she usually thought of her parent’s farm in Edgewood as home.
She blew out a line of smoke, watching the winter wind send it dancing through the moonlight, and refused to ponder the reasons why.
“How did it go?” Rachel asked on Monday as she, with Maggie strapped to her chest, and Miranda queued up behind a long line of hungry Embassy workers.
“I feel like I was hit by a truck, so pretty well,” Miranda replied, grimacing as she rolled her shoulders in a fruitless attempt to relieve their soreness.
“Did Healer A’isha say you would be alright at home? That you’ll be able to do all of your exercises?”
“Yes mother. She said it was just fine, signed me a note and everything. Besides, Severus will come by often enough to bother me about it, and he’s sterner than any of the Healers about training.”
“That’s good to know. Maybe between the two of us, we can keep you on track. You know you’re a terrible patient.”
“That’s fair. But I also know when I have to buckle down and work. Going into the Iele’s realm drained me more than I could have imagined possible.”
“Was it their realm, or their guards?”
“I think it was both—and rather than either—or. It’s been almost two months and I’m still not where I want to be.”
Rachel gave her arm a reassuring squeeze, and Maggie imitated her mother, catching hold of a lock of Miranda’s silver hair. “You’ll get there. It just takes time.”
She was absolutely sick of hearing that. “So everyone keeps telling me. What do you feel like having today?”
The creeping queue finally inched under the sloping, art deco doorways, and the cafeteria opened out before them, a gleaming, stainless steel cornucopia of choices. The shining walls were etched with enchanted scenes of vaudeville routines for the entertainment of the diners eating at the long farmhouse tables. Squeezed into the cavernous space was a dizzying array of American delicacies; from fried chicken and waffles, to jambalaya, to Boston cream pie and everything in between.
“I usually get the meatloaf and apple pie here. I’m boring,” Rachel said. “You?”
“It’s been forever since I’ve had some real pizza, and after that hellish check-up this morning I think it’s been long enough.”
“Good choice! New York style, right?” Rachel stuck her tongue out at her friend in anticipation of her answer.
Miranda stuck out her tongue in response before gasping, “Blasphemy! Chicago style is the only thing that qualifies as pizza in my book. Meet you at the usual spot?”
The ladies parted to join the queues at their chosen kitchens, and Miranda soon lost Rachel and Maggie in the crowd. By the time she was close enough to see the handsome brick wood-burning oven, the morning tasks were beginning to make their effects known. She leaned heavily on the shining countertop, tapping her bright yellow tray with shaking fingers. Food would help—the sooner the better—and then maybe she’d ask Rachel to let her come down to the Lees’ flat for a nap. A long nap.
“Here y’go,” said a round-faced youth who seemed far too young to have a job.
“Thanks,” she murmured, taking the red hot plate and quickly setting it on the tray next to her lemonade. Scooping the whole thing up, she turned and swayed dangerously as a wave of dizziness hit her. She wanted to growl with frustration as she fell back against the counter. This whole recovering from almost dying business was not entertaining at all.
“May I help you, Miss?” A smooth, polite voice and a pair of firm hands steadied Miranda and her tray before either of them went toppling to the floor. “I know I’m always a mess when I need to eat.”
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” Miranda protested halfheartedly, looking down into his pleasant face.
He would not be deterred. “Let me do it so I can tell my Mama I helped a nice lady. Where to?”
“I…well, thank you. This way.”
It was all she could do to keep herself steady as they crossed the crowded room. Her stomach was churning and she was starting to see spots on the edge of her vision. Clearly, she would be of no use to anyone until she put some food in her stomach. The noise of dishes crashing, people chattering, and the squeaking of the moving pictures on the walls coalesced into an cacophonous whirlpool that threatened to suck her under.
By the time they reached the table in the corner, Miranda’s last nerve was hanging by a single, fraying thread. Her knight errant set down the tray and pulled out a chair for her; which she all but collapsed into. The duo on the wall behind her yammered about the eternal question (Who’s playing first? That’s right.) and she started shoveling steaming pizza into her mouth so quickly that it burned.
Half a slice and a few gulps of lemonade later, she was capable of behaving as though she had not been born in a barn. She wiped her hands and face with her checked napkin and said ruefully, “Thank you for your help. I had a rough time at magical therapy this morning.”
He took the hand she extended and shook it firmly. “It was my good deed for the day. I hear that those Healers at St. Mungo’s are the devil when they’ve got hold of you.”
“You’ve heard right.”
She took a daintier bite of her pizza and studied her good Samaritan. He had a handsome face, complimented by a close-cut mustache and goatee. His kinky black hair was peppered through with silver, although his warm, copper-colored skin was unlined. His hands were large for his height and his suit was smartly cut and fitted closely to his muscular body. It lacked the sort of flamboyant accents of color that Aaron favored—this was clearly a man who preferred to advertise his taste by its subtle excellence.
She swallowed the last bite of her first slice and decided she really ought to introduce herself. “I’m Miranda Rose, by the way.”
His golden eyes lit up like Christmas had come early. “Are you? I’ve been itching to meet you! Robert Walker, at your service.”
Miranda blinked once before laughing with surprise. “Likewise. I’m only sorry to have met you when I’m in such a state. You must think me weak as a kitten.”
“No, Aaron’s told me all about what happened. You’re a regular danger girl.”
“Robert! It’s good to see you,” Rachel said, balancing a tray on her hip while Maggie attempted to overturn it from her perch.
“How’s my second favorite Mama?” Robert stood to give Rachel a peck on the cheek and deftly remove her tray from Maggie’s flailing arms. He deposited it on the table, and flicked his wand towards an alcove, which brought a high chair floating towards them. There was a small fuss over getting Maggie settled and providing her with food to taste and throw on the floor before conversation could continue.
“Aaron will be sorry he missed the pleasure of formally introducing you to each other,” Rachel commented after her first bite of meatloaf.
“I’ll be sure to give him a hard time about it then,” Robert replied. “What year were you at Ilvermorny Miranda? I may call you Miranda, yes?”
“Sure, if I can call you Robert,” Miranda agreed easily.
“I wish that you would. You graduated in ’83, same as Aaron, if I remember right.”
“I did. Same house too.”
“That’s right. You were a little too old and a little too young to know any of my siblings then.”
“How many do you have?”
“I have four older brothers myself. All No-Majs though.”
“My, you are special! The only girl, the only witch, and the baby. Your brothers must’ve given you hell.”
“They did.” Maggie had finished gumming her crumbs of pizza, and Miranda gamely cut up a few more for her.
“Was Professor Rodriguez still stiff as a board when you were there?”
Miranda arched an eyebrow. “He was my head of House and my favorite teacher. I thought he was very personable. Did you not find him so?”
Robert shrugged, his attention apparently half on the game he was playing with the baby. Maggie was tossing her spoon on the floor and laughing delightedly when he sent it floating back up to her tray with a lazy wand flick. “He and I crossed wands from time to time. How’s motherhood treating you, Rachel?”
“It’s good! I’m exhausted and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s good. I’ve even been able to find time to get back to translating lately.”
“Your captive audience will be happy to hear that,” Miranda observed.
“Feel free to tell him that I’m starting with the potions text.” Rachel said before digging back into the meatloaf.
“If I may be so rude as to pry into something that’s probably not my business, how is your bill of health?” Robert asked, his attention still on the spoon-throwing baby.
“It’s getting there,” Miranda replied carefully. “Still not a hundred percent, but I think I’ll be cleared for light duty after Christmas.”
“You must be raring to go. How long have you been off?”
“Long recoveries are the worst.” He charmed the spoon to twirl on its handle on Maggie’s highchair tray and turned the full force of his gaze back to Miranda. “I’m going to stop beating around the bush, since I’m sure that Aaron’s already tipped you off to the fact that I want to hire you.”
“He has mentioned it. What exactly do you want to hire me for?”
The glint in his eyes now reminded her more of a dragon than of Christmas. “I want a team of MACUSA Aurors, and I want you to be one of them. I’ll be partnering you with Aaron—I hear tell that the two of you are unstoppable.”
“Nobody’s unstoppable,” Miranda said lightly. “And I’ve never actually been an Auror. That was Aaron’s old line of work.”
“I’m aware of that, but you’ve got the experience. All I have to do is pull a few strings and we’ll have you vetted in no time.”
“What’s the assignment?”
“Primarily, you’ll be keeping an eye on our people in the UK. There’s all sorts of nasty things afoot these days, as I’m sure a smart lady like you is well aware. We’ll also be assisting Scrimegeour on a case-by-case basis.”
She finished her slice and studied Robert’s relaxed posture, finally understanding what Aaron meant when he said that the ambassador was ‘hard to read.’
“I’m going to be honest, I refuse to be deputized as an Auror. It’s a matter of principle.”
Robert let out a rumbling laugh and reassured her, “I expect we can work around that with a little creative thinking. May I send you a contract to look over?”
“Sure. Never hurts to look.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
“Are you always this accommodating?”
“Only when it’s for someone worth having. And I anticipate that you will be well worth having.”
She couldn’t contain her smile. “Such flattery! No wonder you’re the ambassador.”
“You’ve found out my secret.” He stood and bowed to each of the ladies in turn. “Rachel, Miranda, Magdalene, thank you for your time and I hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon. Look for an owl later this week, Miranda.”
“I will. Nice to meet you, Robert.”
He strolled off, meandering through the cafeteria and pausing to talk with various people. Miranda watched him until he was out of sight, turning his proposal over in her mind.
“What do you think of him?” Rachel asked, pulling Maggie out of the highchair and settling her down to nurse.
“He’s interesting, that’s for certain.”
“Are you going to take his offer?”
“I’ll think about it. I’m surprised that you let Aaron go back to the Auror life. I thought it was too dangerous for your liking.”
Rachel gave Maggie a finger to hold, and snuggled her a little closer. “I don’t really like it, but it’s true that these are dangerous times. We all have to do what we can to help. And I’d feel better knowing you were out there with him.”
“I meant what I said about not taking the Auror’s oath. Too many strings.”
“Sometimes strings aren’t a bad thing,” Rachel observed mildly. “The right ones can hold you up.”
“That may be true,” Miranda agreed, absently running a finger around the rim of her lemonade glass. “But the wrong ones can strangle you.”
Severus is reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.
The vaudeville routine behind Miranda’s table is Bud Abbot and Lou Costello’s “Who’s on First?”
The snow was already deep enough to leave tracks in when Miranda appeared outside the wards late in the evening the Friday before Christmas. The impervious charm she’d cast on her silver shoes kept her feet dry, but did nothing to keep out the cold. She hurried over the grounds, holding her rich purple robes out of the damp. For some reason, whenever she cast the charm on fabric, it tended to make the colors bleed. Someday she would trouble herself to perfect the spell, but there were many other spells higher up on her to-learn list.
The wrought-iron gates were locked and deserted, and she shook the tangled chains as well as she could, sending a mournful clanging echoing through night. A large man with a thick beard and an ambling gait lumbered out of the shadows with a huge black dog at his heels. The canine’s teeth were clenched on one end of a bone, the other end of which was gripped in the huge wizard’s enormous fist.
“Good evenin’ to you Miss,” he said gruffly. “I take it yer here for Professor Slughorn’s party?”
“I am,” Miranda replied, producing the thick cardstock bearing her name and a border of embossed snakes that slithered and hissed in response to the night air.
The man peered at the invitation, tapping the gordian knot of chains with the end of a pink umbrella when he was satisfied with its veracity. The chains clanked open and Miranda had barely enough time to slip through them before they slammed shut behind her. Her guard finally wrenched the bone out of the dog’s mouth and hurled it out into the night. The dog sprinted after it, leaving the watchman’s hands free to wrestle the chains back into place.
“I know the way, and I’d be happy to see myself in. I’m sure you have better things to do than wait out in the snow,” she offered, her feet slowly turning to ice.
“I’ll be takin’ yeh just the same,” he grunted as he twisted the final lock closed. “Can’ be too careful.”
“I understand.” Best not to mention that she still had access to one of the secret entrances. Albus had never rescinded that permission, and neither she nor Severus had seen the point of troubling him about it.
They made quick progress over the grounds, with Miranda all but running to keep pace with the wizard’s long strides. When they reached the stairs, his hound caught up with them, dropping its prize at their feet and leaping excitedly. He was a beautiful, and evidently good tempered creature, and Miranda liked him immediately.
“Down Fang!” her escort ordered.
Miranda laughed. “It’s fine. Sit, boy, and I’ll pet you.”
Her voice was confident enough that it captured the beast’s instant obedience, and she scratched the brute behind its ears until its tail was thumping happily.
“Yer alright, Miss,” Fang’s owner said gamely. “Fang means well, but I didn’ want him to be ruinin’ yer fancy dress.”
“He’s a good boy, aren’t you Fang? Do you want another go?” She scooped up the bone and Fang leapt to his feet, watching her aim into the distance and throw. He bounded off after it and she said, “Offer him my apologies will you?”
“Yes’m. You’d best be gettin’ inside before he gets back, or ye’ll be out here all night.”
She was up the stairs and through the doors before Fang returned, and a house elf wearing mismatched socks and an orange cabled sweater was waiting for her.
“Miss is here for the party, Dobby expects?” the elf asked.
“I am,” Miranda said, reaching for the invitation again, but Dobby waved it away.
“There’s no need, Miss, just follow Dobby.”
They wound their way up to the seventh floor and Miranda was more than happy to hand over her cloak when they reached Slughorn’s office. She smoothed the skirts of her robes and ran a hand over her hair, tucking a stray lock into place as she stood on the threshold.
“Call for Dobby when you wish your cloak returned,” Dobby said cheerfully. “And would Miss like a glass of mead, butterbeer, or elfwine?”
“Mead would be lovely,” she replied.
A jeweled goblet filled with dark amber liquid appeared in Dobby’s hand, and he passed it to her. “Miss made a good choice. The mead is from Headmaster’s private stores, it is.”
“Thank you.” Miranda took a bracing sip, savoring the sweet burn on her tongue. The house elf disappeared with a quiet pop, and with a final shake of her skirts, she went in to the party.
It was an out and out crush. Miranda had a hard time telling the students from the adults at first as she stepped underneath the golden canopy. The din of the conversation was pitched at a dull roar, punctuated by the clinking of glasses and raucous laughter, and accompanied by a tipsy amateur quartet in one of the back corners. Horace was happily ensconced in the center of a group of rapt listeners, and Miranda decided there was no rush to greet him. She let herself drift through the crowd, sipping her mead and running her eyes over the guests in search of one, dour face.
She felt him before she saw him. As she skirted around a house elf burdened with a heavy tray of Niçoise tidbits, the sensation of being watched troubled her to the point that she turned over her shoulder to find Severus half a room away. His inscrutable eyes were fixed on her, and his lips twitched briefly into a smile which she did not fail to return. She let the crowd rush between them, and held onto his gaze as she slipped into a quiet corner, shielded partly by the heavy damask overhang of the canopy. He did not disappoint her; appearing a few moments later and taking a position adjacent to her along the wall.
“So tardy,” he murmured, his silken tone at odds with his bored expression as he pretended to chaperone the party swirling around them. “I should give you detention.”
“I’d like to see you try,” she replied, enjoying the warmth of his gaze when he let his eyes slide sideways to meet hers. “Besides, I was late because I was finishing all those damned exercises like a good girl.”
“Were you? I shall have to see you are suitably rewarded.” He ran a long finger over the back of her hand and asked, “Am I correct in assuming that you are still planning to stay tonight?”
She felt her cheeks heat up as the warmth from his words and his touch worked their magic. “Yes, I think that’s a safe assumption.”
He let their fingers lace together for a moment, and she was weighing out the risks of pulling him firmly behind the damask overhang for a kiss, when one of Horace’s fat arms snaked out of nowhere and wrapped itself around Severus.
“Stop skulking and come and join us, Severus!” hiccuped the old potions master, the tassel on his hat helicoptering as he jerked Severus into the center of the action.
The consternation on Severus’s face was priceless, and Miranda gave him a jaunty wave before allowing the current of the party to separate them. She helped herself to some of the strawberry tarts and another glass of mead found its way into her hand to replace the empty one. Donaghan Tremlett in his ripped denim and shaggy coat gave her a friendly nod, and she was making her way towards him to pay her respects, when another guest demanded her attention.
“Miss Rose, it has been far too long.” Miranda repressed a shiver at the faintly sibilant voice and turned to its emaciated owner.
“Signore Sanguini,” she said, noting that his hands were empty and his tailoring outdated. “Fancy meeting you here.”
He gracefully snatched the hand she had not extended to him and brushed his cold lips against it. Even after years of practice, she still could not completely repress a shiver as the chill of the undead chased away all the warmth in her.
The vampire smirked at her discomfort and let his icy breath tickle her hand as he commented, “What an unexpected surprise. I did not expect ever to have the pleasure of seeing you again.”
“Yes, our last meeting was rather fraught, wasn’t it?” She slowly, but firmly, extracted her hand.
“Fraught is one term for it.” He let his eyes travel the length of her like he were appraising a side of beef. “Passionate would also suit the purpose. Enraging might describe it better still.”
She took a long sip from her glass and forced her shoulders to relax as she started to ease her pistol out of its holster. If things got ugly, silver would work better than a wand. Pity she’d left her stakes at home.
“I met your cousin last summer,” she said nonchalantly.
“I know.” His smirk was sharp enough to cut glass. “The family is not at all pleased with you, Miss Rose; I hope you are aware of that.”
She shrugged. “Your cousin should have stayed on the right side of the law.”
He let out a bark of laughter and leaned down to close the space between them. “What do you know about the right side of the law?”
The edge of her mind blurred as his eyes did their work on her, and she had to turn her head away for an instant to break the spell. Unfortunately, that instant was enough for him to slip beside her, and his lips were far too close to her neck when he whispered, “Topolina, this game would be far more amusing if we continued it in private, non se d’accordo?”
His breath was cloying, and it made her head swim nearly as badly as his eye trick had. She gripped her pistol in the folds of her skirts and said sweetly, “I’m not joining your harem, Sanguini. And if I go anywhere with you, it’ll be for the sole pleasure of reuniting you with your dear cousin.”
“Sanguini!” blustered a marshmallow of a man who toddled forward and thrust himself between them. “I’m so sorry, Miss, I can’t seem to leave him alone for a second.”
Miranda put her pistol back in its holster and resisted the urge to laugh in the vampire’s stricken face. “Not at all. We were just renewing our acquaintance.” She looked over the little man’s head and asked incredulously, “Really, Sanguini? A babysitter? I had no idea you were so domesticated. You used to be the scourge of the Continent.”
She thought he was going to strike her and she was tensing in preparation to dodge it—knowing she would have to leap before he launched if she hoped to outmaneuver his preternatural speed—when he threw back his head and laughed melodiously.
“Si, si, I am getting old, aren’t I? Pace topolina, let us have peace between us. What are you drinking?”
“Mead, but my glass is almost empty. And I’d rather be at peace with you any day. How long are you in town?”
“I do not keep track of such details, that is what this one is for,” he replied, indicating the marshmallow man with an indifferent wave.
“Have him send me an owl and I’ll meet you for dinner.”
“I would rather hear Verdi with you and remember old times.”
“That sounds marvelous. But now you can get me another drink.”
“Your wish is my command.”
He took her empty glass and gave her a sweeping bow before disappearing into the crowd in search of an appropriate house elf. Miranda turned her attention to Sanguini’s diminutive babysitter and began distractedly exchanging the necessary information with him, but most of her attention was captured by a fracas between a spindly old man and a sulky boy with shockingly blond hair that suddenly tumbled into the party. Miranda was too far from the door to hear any of the business, but she could see the rage etched on Severus’s face as he dragged the boy out of the party by the scruff of his neck.
The vampire-sitter finished taking her direction and scurried off in search of his charge, and Miranda slid her hands into the pockets of her skirt and reflected, not for the first time, that she would have detested having Severus for a teacher.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll be back soon,” said a dreamy voice beside her.
Miranda looked down to see the sweet blond girl from the Potions class she’d sat in on the year before. “I beg your pardon?”
“Our dates. They’ll be back soon. I’m Luna Lovegood, by the way. We weren’t really introduced last time. Are you enjoying your subscription?”
“I am, thank you. Nice to meet you officially, Luna. I’m Miranda Rose.” She held out her hand and the girl shook it with a surprisingly firm grip for a young lady who seemed to have her head in the clouds. “How are the thestrals these days?”
“Very well. They had an attack of sneezles when the weather changed, but they’re all much better now.”
“I’m happy to hear that.”
The urge to ask whether or not Severus had been out to see the thestrals lately was nearly overpowering, and only Sanguini’s arrival with Miranda’s fresh glass of mead prevented her from giving into it. The vampire pecked her cheek and laughed once more at her goosebumps before melting into the crowd, and by the time Miranda’s attention was back on the moonstruck girl next to her, the topic had passed.
“Are you having a nice time?” Luna asked, bouncing on her heels in time to the music.
“I am. Horace throws a lovely party. And you?”
“Oh, yes. Harry asked me to come, as friends of course. But no one ever asks me to go anywhere, so it’s a great treat.”
“Hardly ever.” Luna giggled at her joke and Miranda laughed with her.
“It’s their loss. Thank you for loaning me those books by the way. I enjoyed them very much. Sherlock Holmes was one of my favorite characters as a girl, but I hadn’t read the stories in a long time.”
“Do you like Mr Holmes?” Luna asked, suddenly grave. “He can be so ungentle sometimes.”
“That’s true. The brilliance that makes him so interesting also seems to get in the way of his noticing that other people have things like feelings. They way he lets Watson believe that he’s dead after the Reichenbach Falls incident—I can understand why Watson is furious with him later. I would have been too.”
“And I don’t think that he means to hurt Dr Watson’s feelings. That’s what makes it all so sad.”
“But it’s worse because Watson understands Holmes better than Holmes understands himself,” Luna spun in a circle. “It’s like being angry with a child.”
Severus stormed back into the room and, even from this distance, Miranda could tell that he was still furious. He did not spare a glance for her as he took up his post by the wall again, arms crossed and black eyes glaring.
Luna smiled serenely as the mandolin in the corner started strumming a spirited Foggy Dew, and said, “Ginny said she would dance with me if I wanted, and this song is so springy. I think I’ll go find her now.”
“It was nice talking with you, Luna.”
“You, too. Good night.”
Luna floated away, spinning and skipping, and Miranda started weaving through the knots of people back to Severus’s side of the room. Something about his manner warned her that the trouble outside had been more than the usual student mischief. She was nearly through the throng, and she had just caught his eye, when Horace wrapped an arm around her shoulder, snatching her into his inner circle.
“There you are Miss Rose!” Horace beamed. “I was beginning to lose hope of seeing you. Allow me to present Octavius Pepper. Octavius, Miranda Rose is just the woman you’ve been looking for.”
Octavius Pepper peered through his wire-rimmed glasses and shook back his unruly white hair as he bowed to her in the formal way that wizards of a certain age were in the habit of doing. His robes were antique, but well maintained, and he had a nervous energy flowing out of him in the form of restless finger twitches. He launched into a winding explanation of what it was he wanted from her in a nasally wheeze, and she groaned inwardly, setting a plastic smile on her face as she tried to pull her awareness away from Severus, whose eyes she could still feel boring into the back of her skull.
Octavius took no notice of any of this as he meandered through his story, obviously one of those kinds of customers. It was going to be a long night.
Severus fell into bed at half past two, his head pounding with a headache that blurred his vision, and his temper frayed to match. Although the students were all finally confined to their dormitories, the party in Horace’s office was still raging full tilt—if anything, the removal of the minors had increased the fury of the revelers. Severus had left Miranda ensconced in a tight group of admirers that she had shown no sign of jilting. He had taken a circuitous route to bed to ensure that the students were all in order, and give her the chance to extract herself before he decided to vent his temper on her. But, even after all his dallying—in the hallways, over a cup of tea, and removing all evidence of the wretched evening from his person—she still had not deigned to grace him with her presence, and he felt fully justified in transferring some of his fury at Draco to her.
He had no hope of actually falling asleep with his head feeling as though it were being split like an overripe melon, but he was beginning to drift in and out of lucid dreaming when he heard the door open. His wayward lover flounced into the sitting room, singing some godforsaken Muggle song and (he was certain of it) strewing her shoes and other belongings heedlessly on every available surface. She called his name once, and he turned his back to the door--which increased the pressure on his temples mightily--squeezing his eyes stubbornly closed.
The bedroom door creaked open, and the light in the sitting room extinguished almost as soon as it fell on him. He heard her pad over to his bed and felt the mattress dip as she slipped over to sit next to him. Her hand was pleasantly cool when she laid it on his cheek and brushed his hair away from his face.
“I know you’re not asleep,” she said quietly. “Do you have one of those migraines again?”
Curse her. Why did she have to be so damned nice to him when he was angry? “Yes,” he answered without opening his eyes.
“Did you take a Headache Potion?”
The mattress dipped again as she slid off the bed and padded into the next room for supplies. She made as little noise as possible as she made ready for bed, and Severus rolled onto his back as some of the anger in his chest began to unkink. He rarely let himself dwell on how much he regretted Miranda’s removing herself from his rooms; but this matter-of-fact interest that she took in his well-being was what he missed most of all. By the time she came to bed, a cup of tea in one hand and a vial of Headache Potion in the other, his anger had softened enough that he took the vial without protest while she settled herself next to him, her back against the ebony headboard.
“Here, lay your head down and I’ll see what I can do while we wait for the potion to kick in,” she said, patting her lap.
“I’d given up waiting for you,” he said, his voice coming out all the harsher for his attempt to keep the plea for reassurance out of it.
“I figured that out.” She started running her fingers lightly over his face and his hair, tugging on his ear lobes and working some sort of strange magic that unwound his headache as surely as her presence soothed his temper. “It took a while for me to get away from Horace’s friend.”
“Ah, yes. Octavius Pepper, was it?”
“You know him?”
“I don’t. What did he want?” Merlin it was good to have a head that didn’t pound.
“He wants me to retrieve something for him. But not until March. What happened with the party-crasher? You were so angry when you came back.”
His first instinct was to refuse to answer her question, which he suspected she was asking to divert him from pressing her for more information about Mr Pepper’s likely dangerous commission; but her fingers were so delicious on his temples, and her lap was so very comfortable, and her concern was one of those priceless pearls that he coveted; and so he wet his lips and let his interrogation lie for the time being.
“The boy in question was Draco Malfoy.”
“Malfoy? Lucius’s son?” The surprise in her voice was evident.
“He’s one of yours, isn’t he?”
“He is, and he had no business being out of bounds tonight.”
“He certainly had no business being caught out of bounds, in any case.” Her fingers moved in small, slow circles over his cheeks and down the side of his neck, and every muscle loosened under their touch. “It must be hard on him, though, with his father in Azkaban. Even if his father is a prick like Lucius.”
“It is hard on him. Particularly since the Dark Lord has decided to express his displeasure with Lucius by punishing the rest of his family.”
“Fuck. What’s he done?”
He should stop talking now, but her fingers were on his shoulders and his restraint was nonexistent. “He gave Draco the mark over the summer.”
“Good Lord. He’s a child! His poor mother.”
Draco’s poor mother, indeed. “He’s also given him a task to perform that the boy is not expected to survive.”
“Are you helping him?”
How in the name of Merlin was he supposed to keep his secrets when she was drawing every modicum of pain and tension out of his body? Those fingers should be registered as lethal weapons. “I’m trying to help him. He is resisting.”
“He’s how old? Fifteen?”
“Sixteen-year-old boys are the worst. They think they know everything. You have to help him without his realizing that’s what is happening—or make him think it was his idea in the first place.”
“That sounds like an abominable waste of time.”
“I don’t know. It works with you.” She kissed his forehead and asked, “Is your migraine better? Do you think you’ll be able to sleep?”
“Yes on both counts.”
He shifted off of her lap, and she scooted over to lay her head on his shoulder. When his arms were wrapped around her and his chin was resting on the top of her head, he was astonished at how far away the Dark Lord and all the troubles of the world seemed. The fatal words were on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed them, and held her tighter.
He was still perched on a knife’s edge, after all. There was no use in upsetting his precarious balance with unwanted declarations. Not when what he had was close enough to what he wanted, as long as he squinted when he contemplated it.
“The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, London,” Miranda thought as she boldly approached the crack between numbers Eleven and Thirteen the following evening. The once-handsome townhouse unfolded before her, looking like a worn-out matron clinging to the memories of her storied youth. For all her shabbiness, she held her self with the air of one who knows she has fallen in with bad company, but has the gumption to hope for better days. Miranda flicked her wand at the handleless front door, pleased to find that Albus had given her the correct charms to gain entry, and stepped into the gaslit hallway as the door swung shut behind her.
“What is this? Yet more Mudblood filth to sully my house?!” shrieked a woman from her curtained portrait.
“Nice to meet you too,” Miranda replied pleasantly, noting that the dowager in the painting matched the exterior of the manor in both form and temper.
“You dare address me? Of all the impertinence…”
Miranda strode past the flurry of insults through the crumbling ruin of Victorian opulence in search of the door that would lead her down to the meeting in the kitchen. Schedules being what they were, she had been forced to make this first official contact with the Order of the Phoenix without a physical guide to vouch for her. She had Albus’s word as her letter of safe conduct; but the disapproving silence of the ghostly house made her wish that she’d been able to secure Arthur or Molly Weasley as an escort.
A humble door at the end of the long entryway was all but hidden from view, like a scullery maid embarrassed to be caught upstairs lighting the fires. Miranda made sure that her hands were empty, but that her wand was ready to slide into fighting position at an instant’s notice, before rapping on the door and entering the crumbling stone stairwell. A dull, blood-red glow illuminated the bottom of the stairs, and she let her footsteps fall heavily to alert those below of her approach. She made it all the way down to the final step before a pair of wizards blocked her entrance, wands drawn and all but growling at her.
“I come in peace,” she said, holding her hands up, palms wide, to prove the point. “Albus Dumbledore sent me. He says he’s fond of lemon drops.”
“Means nothin’. The whole bloody world knows that,” spat the shorter wizard. It was hard to know what part of him looked the oddest—his mane of wiry hair that stood up in all directions, his claw-footed peg-leg, or his ice-blue mechanical eye that whirled wildly in its socket.
“Easy Mad-eye,” said the other in a slow, deep voice. He held himself with the ease of a jungle cat, and though the expression on his dark brown face was unconcerned, she knew better than to assume that he would fail to strike if provoked. “If Albus didn’t send her, how else did she get in? I’m Kingsley Shacklebolt, and this here is Alastor Moody, at your service.”
“I’m Miranda Rose, and I’m delighted to meet you both. I’ve been working for Albus for just over a year now, and he thought it was time to introduce me to the rest of the team,” she explained, modulating her voice to a calm pitch and an unhurried speed. “Do you mind if I come down into the kitchen? I was taught that it’s rude to lurk in doorways.”
“Not to mention inconvenient and dangerous,” a voice like a knife’s edge put in behind her.
She started involuntarily, chiding herself for allowing Severus to sneak up on her while she was distracted by his comrades. Alastor seemed to accept her request as reasonable, and he retreated enough to allow her and Severus to enter the neglected space. Kingsley withdrew to lean against a worn counter, and Severus swept past her, positioning himself at Alastor’s shoulder. Neither Kingsley nor Alastor put down their wands, although Kingsley let his dangle negligently between his fingers, while Alastor kept his trained threateningly on her heart.
“And who might you be?” demanded Severus in a dangerously low voice that betrayed no hint that they had spent most of the day lounging in his bed together.
“Miranda Rose,” she confidently replied, sticking out her hand to him.
He eyed it as though it were a rotted newt’s tongue and replied, “That tells me nothing. Why are you here?”
She lowered her hand and raised her eyebrows. “As I already told your friends, Albus Dumbledore sent me. According to him, there’s a Professor McGonagall who was supposed to be in charge tonight. She’ll be expecting me.”
“Have you heard anything about this, Snape?” asked Alastor, his eye still swiveling about with a sickly whine.
“No,” Severus replied coldly.
“Do you believe her?”
If Miranda did not know her lover as well as she did, she would have missed the glint of humor that sparked briefly in his eyes. “I do not like that she is here. Perhaps we should search her person.”
“It seems to me that Mr Moody has already done an excellent job of searching my person with that enchanted eye of his,” Miranda said, allowing a hint of irritation to color her tone. “I’m going to have to decline anything more intimate. There’s no need to go rifling through my unmentionables.”
“No, but there’s every need to go rifling through that cache of weapons you’ve got strapped to them,” Alastor countered.
“Weapons?” Severus’s voice was dangerous indeed.
“I’m working.” Miranda put her hands on her hips and let some of her magic vibrate out into the room.
“Miss Rose, I find it difficult to believe that Albus would neglect to inform me of a new recruit, particularly one of such…singularity. And where are you from? That accent is appalling.”
She lifted her chin and replied proudly, “I’m from Edgewood, Kansas.”
“Where?” Kingsley asked, interest piqued.
“It’s in America.” Miranda leveled a glare at Severus that rivaled any he could produce. “Look, I don’t know who you think you are, but I was told that Professor McGonagall was in charge, and I’m assuming you don’t answer to that name.”
“Down, Snape,” Kingsley said, pocketing his wand at last. He pulled a chair out from the splintery table and continued, “Miss Rose, any friend of Albus’s is a friend of ours. You’ll have to excuse Professor Snape and Mr Moody—distrusting people is their job. Would you like anything to drink while we wait for the others?”
“Thank you, and no, I don’t need anything,” Miranda said, taking the seat he offered.
He settled himself into the chair at her right hand, and Alastor limped over to sit down across from her. Severus glided over to the spot at the counter that Kingsley had vacated, tapping his fingers irritably on the sagging wood and studying the lot of them disapprovingly.
“I have a good friend who transferred to New York a few years ago,” Kingsley said conversationally. “That’s not anywhere near Kansas, is it?”
“Depends on how you’re traveling,” Miranda replied. “By portkey, everywhere is close. But as the crow flies, it’s about a thousand miles.”
“Shouldn’t we be asking her more useful questions?” Severus snapped.
“Minerva will be here any minute,” Kingsley countered. “May as well be polite until then.”
“Begging your pardon, Professor Snape, but do you honestly think that if I were clever enough to circumvent the Fidelius Charm in the first place, that I would then be stupid enough to attempt a frontal attack at a meeting comprised of a coven of well-trained and well-armed witches and wizards?” Miranda asked pointedly.
“It remains to be seen how stupid you may be,” Severus replied.
“I see that the rumors of the English having good manners are greatly exaggerated,” Miranda shot back.
“Nobody ever accused Snape of having good manners,” Alastor commented jovially.
Severus opened his mouth to retort, but his wit was to be deferred to another occasion as a ragged man, a glum-faced young woman, and a brusque matron with a tartan pinned over her neat robes entered the kitchen.
“Good evening gentlemen,” the matron said crisply, a hint of a burr kissing the consonants that marched off her tongue. “And Miss Rose, I presume. Albus told me to expect you.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Miranda replied, rising from her seat to shake the older woman’s hand, and shooting an I-told-you-so smirk Severus’s way. He was pointedly looking in the opposite direction.
“You’ve already met these three, I take it,” Minerva continued as she and the newcomers joined the group gathered at the table. “This is Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks.”
“It’s just Tonks,” the melancholy woman half-heartedly corrected.
“Nice to meet you both,” Miranda said, and any further pleasantries were swallowed up by Minerva’s quick launch into the evening’s business.
“I’m going to keep this brief, as I expect we all have places we’d rather be tonight. Tonks, when are the new wards around the school going to be finished?”
“We’ll have them done before the students return from the Holidays,” Tonks replied, her voice firmer.
“I suppose that will have to do. Kingsley, Alastor, any news from the Ministry?”
Kingsley and Alastor started talking at once, and a verbal scuffle ensued that Kingsley allowed Alastor to win. As the strange old man launched into a paranoid narrative full of names that Miranda neither recognized, nor cared about, she took a moment to study the motley army that Albus hoped would bring down the greatest Dark Wizard since Gellert Grindelwald’s ignominious reign of terror. Alastor himself seemed to have a tenuous grip on reality, but his reflexes were sharp. She would rather have him in her corner than in the enemy’s. Kingsley struck her as confident and capable—a man who had nothing to prove. Remus’s sickly appearance meant he was either a werewolf, or possessed of a weak constitution; she hoped for the sake of the Order that it was the former. Tonks was a mystery; she was suffering from some sort of melancholia, but when questioned she seemed certain of her business. Minerva was everything one could hope for in a leader, and Miranda found that she preferred the witch’s brisk efficiency to Albus’s cerebral machinations. Severus…well, Severus’s act was adorable, and she would be sure to tell him so at the earliest possible moment.
“It’s not much better than when Cornelius Fudge was there, in my opinion,” Kingsley offered, the familiar name drawing Miranda’s attention. “Scrimgeour might be a better fighter, but his behavior is as out of place at times as Fudge’s was—only in different ways.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Do you think he’s been compromised?”
“Hard to say, Minerva,” Alastor said, his magical eye still fixed on Miranda. “He’s not acting like he’s been Imperioed, and he’s got no love for Voldemort nor the rest of that lot, but he’s acting dodgy all the same. I’ll be keeping my eye on him, you can be sure of that.”
“See that you do. Severus, do you have anything for us?”
Severus ran a finger over his thin lips and let silence fall before reporting, “I suggest that the areas of London that our kind is known to frequent be patrolled more heavily over the the next few weeks. The Dark Lord expects there to be a lack of caution as those who should know better expect the Holidays to protect them from harm, and he intends to take full advantage of it.”
“That’s a lot of ground for the Aurors to cover, Snape. Can’t you be more specific than that?” Alastor grumbled.
“No.” The finality of the single syllable prevented any further questioning from Alastor, although he did make a rude gesture under the table in Severus’s direction.
“If I understand correctly, the MACUSA Aurors will be around to help,” Miranda offered cautiously.
“Yes, I’ve met with Ambassador Walker, and he’s agreed to provide us with a list of the MACUSA patrols,” Minerva replied.
“How nice of him,” Alastor said sarcastically.
“At least it’ll keep us from duplicating our efforts,” Kingsley commented.
“It’ll have to do for now,” Minerva said, ending the debate. “If none of you have anything else to report, I’ll bid you good night. Remus, Miss Rose, if you would both stay for a few minutes longer, I would appreciate it.”
Effectively dismissed, the others didn’t linger. Kingsley, Alastor, and Tonks left together, with the men both making unsuccessful attempts to draw the moody witch into conversation. Miranda saw the solemn woman cast a furtive glance in Remus’s direction, but he did not acknowledge it—that explained the source of the melancholia. Severus dropped a quiet word in Minerva’s ear and strode out of the room without further acknowledging anyone.
Once the others were gone, Minerva heaved a sigh, and the years suddenly seemed to weigh heavier on her shoulders. “Miss Rose, under ordinary circumstances, I would ease you in but, as we’re in the middle of a war, there’s no time to be gentle.”
“I understand,” Miranda replied. “Why don’t you call me Miranda then, and just tell me what you need.”
“I hope you won’t regret that offer, but I will be taking you at your word. Remus has been making inroads into the local werewolf packs, in the hopes that we might win some of them over to our side.”
“I see. I take it you speak their language.” Good, a werewolf was better than a dying man.
An expression of mirthless amusement twisted Remus’s drawn face. “That’s one way of putting it. But if you’re asking me if I’m one of them, the answer is yes.” His dull green eyes sharpened and his nostrils flared like a wolf testing the air. “I can see that you are not.”
“No, but I’ve tangled with a werewolf or two in my day.”
He frowned and turned to Minerva. “Things are delicate enough with the packs without attempting a frontal assault.”
“Nobody’s talking about any assaulting,” Minerva replied. “I thought you told Albus that you needed a non-wolf that the packs might respect.”
“I did.” His eyes slid out of focus as he studied Miranda, and she suspected he was testing her by smell as much as by sight.
“Look, I don’t expect you to trust me right off, that’d be stupid,” Miranda said. “But I can hold my own against the loups-garous, and I’ll venture to say that I respect them more than most witches on this island.”
“Respect? That’s a word that is rarely offered to my kind by yours.”
“Mr Lupin, in case you missed it, I’m not from around these parts. Back home, a loup-garou who is in control of himself is a being to be respected, not shunned.”
His eyes came into focus, and she could see the wolf lurking in their depths. She willed herself not to blink, like they were a pair of children on the playground playing a game of chicken.
At last he asked, “Miss Rose, are you an animagus?”
“Not yet, but I could learn.”
The hair on the back of Miranda’s neck stood on end as he stared at her, unblinking, for a few moments more. Then he released her from their game, and his shoulders slumped back into the unassuming posture he adopted when the wolf wasn’t riled.
“She may well do, Minerva. Can you teach her?” he asked.
“I can teach anyone who’s willing to learn, and most that aren’t.” Minerva replied.
“Wonderful,” Miranda said, mindful of the warning still tingling at the base of her neck. “When do I start?”
Later that evening, Severus was picking through the novels on Miranda’s shelves, waiting for her to finish her last minute packing. Although her trip home to Kansas would last less than a week, she was fretting over the best charms with which to protect the plethora of carved toys she had made for her army of nieces and nephews during her convalescence. Severus knew better than to make suggestions to her when she was agitated, and had contented himself with tidying the dinner dishes and packing her potions for her.
Nothing on the bookshelf seemed enticing tonight, and he wandered over to the sofa, picking up the Dosteovsky volume sitting on the coffee table. He flipped it open, meandering through the pages until a letter that was marking Miranda’s place fell onto his lap. He was halfway through the missive before it struck him that he was reading something that perhaps she had not intended for his eyes.
And I hope that Severus will be able to come with you, although I understand if his work won’t allow him the time. In any case, give him our love. Everyone is so excited to see you.
He quickly scanned the rest of the sheet, and shoved it back into the book, replacing the whole damned thing on the coffee table and staring into the fireplace without seeing anything. Miranda’s trip home had been set for weeks, but she had never once bothered to mention that he had been invited to be one of the party. The fry up he’d made for dinner sat like lead in his stomach, and his thoughts spiraled into a whirlwind barbed with unpleasant realization.
Of course she would not want him to meet the son that she was hiding from him. Nor would she want to introduce him to the rest of her family as though he were going to be some sort of permanent fixture in her life. She was simply biding her time, amusing herself with him for some godforsaken reason, until she tired of this game and moved on to greener pastures.
His hands were shaking, and he got up, pacing before the fire without being aware of what he was doing. After a moment of this unproductive movement, he went to the door and took his cloak off the hook, wrapping it around his shoulders. Miranda emerged from her bedroom, and the tired smile fell from her face as she saw him making ready to depart.
“I thought you were staying,” she said worriedly. “Did the Dark Lord call?”
“No,” Severus replied, feeling like a heel and hating her for it. “I simply do not see the point of distracting you from making ready for tomorrow. I will see you when you return, I’m sure.”
She crossed the room to him, biting her lower lip in an unusual show of discomfort. The sight was oddly endearing, as was the impulsive way that she threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. His arms went around her instinctively, as though he might stanch the wounds her careless claws had rendered with the feel of her lithe body.
“I’ll miss you,” she said.
“I doubt that,” he replied.
She stepped away, sliding her hands down his arms and catching hold of his hands when she found them.
“Come with me,” she blurted suddenly.
“I beg your pardon?”
“To Edgewood. Come with me. There’s a portkey in Mr Clarke’s store, so you could come back in no time if you had to; and Mama and Papa would love to see you. So would everyone else, for that matter. Except for Susan, but she doesn’t like to meet anybody. I mean, they are loud, but they’re honest. There’s a little hunting lodge out by the river that we can stay in, so you’d have a quiet place whenever you wanted a break. And there’ll be blind man’s bluff, and Christmas carols, and a pudding too.”
He laid a finger over her lips to stop her outburst, and the way this eleventh hour invitation made his heart leap disgusted him to the core of his being. Not since he’d been a schoolboy, panting after Lily like a whipped puppy, had he felt so pathetic.
“I thank you, no. Perhaps if I had had more notice, I might have arranged something. I’m sure you understand that it is too late now.” She wilted under his words and he felt every inch the bastard that he was.
“I would have told you sooner,” she said quietly, her cheeks flushed. “I just thought you wouldn’t want to come.”
“Now we’ll never know, will we? Good night, Miranda. A pleasant journey to you.”
“Good night, Severus. Merry Christmas.”
She closed the door softly after him, not waiting to see him vanish. As he reached the edge of her wards, the urge to go back and tell her that he would accompany her after all rushed over him like a wave. He choked it down ruthlessly and disappeared.
He might be at her mercy, but there was no reason for her to be made aware of the fact.
Horace’s first line in the party scene is quoted from page 319 of the 2005 paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling.
Topolina: little mouse
Non se d’accordo: Don’t you agree?
The Dubliners have a wonderful version of Foggy Dew.
The Muggle song Miranda is singing is Que Sera Sera in the style of Sly and the Family Stone.