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The Long Game

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For a few drowsy seconds, Charissa Potter had absolutely no idea why she was awake. But she had the distinct feeling something had woken her up.

Maybe because her fringe was fluttering against her forehead. This didn't make any sense — why would her hair be doing that? She frowned in confusion, her sleepiness powerful enough the expression would hardly be visible from the outside.

After a few more moments, she figured it out. Someone was softly blowing on her face.

Well, that could only be one person.

With a groan, Charissa waved a clumsy arm in front of her, where she knew her cousin Dora must be. Her hand didn't hit anything, but the blowing did stop. Followed almost immediately by very familiar frantic giggling. 'Go away,' she moaned.

In a light, sweet voice, her cousin said, 'Did I interrupt your beauty sleep, young Miss Potter?' The voice didn't sound quite right, the timbre slightly unfamiliar, but from the cadence Charissa was still positive it was Dora. Dora didn't exactly look or sound consistent anyway.

She knew she was being teased. At the moment she didn't care. 'Yes.'

'Too bad. You slept in already. We came early, but other people are going to start showing up soon.'

Right. Charissa had almost forgotten. Today was her birthday. Like usual, there would be a big party with a bunch of family and friends. She wasn't sure if she should feel excited or not. Usually a birthday was something to be excited about, yes, and she wasn't so atypical of a ten year old — er, eleven year old — that she was unaffected by that giddiness. But she had things to be a bit reticent about. The guest list was enormous, for one thing, and she didn't really like being stuck in the middle of so many people so much. It didn't help that half of the guest list really didn't get along with the other half.

See, it all came down to two of the Noble Houses — House Black and House Longbottom. The two families were both extremely old, extremely wealthy, extremely famous, and had an extremely long history of extreme dislike. House Black was a very conservative family, with a rather bad reputation for dabbling in dark magic. The House had once been numerous, but had gradually shrunk through the years, until it was perfectly feasible for every single person legally a member of the House to show up at one place for her birthday — her great aunt Cassiopeia (the current Lady Black), her great aunt Druella, her aunt Bellatrix, her aunt Andi and cousin Dora, and her uncles Sirius and Regulus. She was pretty sure that was all of them, or at least all the ones who would actually turn up. Her aunt Narcissa had been born a Black — Aunt Bellatrix and Aunt Andi's sister — but she was a Malfoy now, and she usually didn't come anyway. Her husband hated the Longbottoms, so he refused to come to gatherings for this side of the family, but sometimes she'd show up with her son Draco, though not very often.

It used to confuse Charissa growing up, that Aunt Andi and Dora were part of House Black even though their last name was Tonks. It made sense to her now, though — Aunt Andi's husband Uncle Ted wasn't a member of a Noble House, and the House didn't technically consider them married at all, so she'd stayed a Black, passing it on to Dora. Though apparently the Lord Black at the time had had a fit about it.

And then there was House Longbottom. Despite being just as rich and pureblooded as the Blacks, the Longbottoms had been the most stridently progressive and reformist house in the Wizengamot since quite nearly its creation. Which, of course, meant they had a long history of very public disputes with the Blacks. There would be plenty of Longbottoms showing up, too — Augusta (the current Lady Longbottom), Algernon, Enid, her uncle Frank and aunt Alice and cousins Neville and Gwyneira (they weren't really that closely related but Charissa had always called them that anyway), Callidora, Cygnus and a number of his children and grandchildren (who showed up changed event to event). The Longbottoms were coming because the nearly extinct House Potter, though a Noble House on their own, had actually started as a cadet branch of the Longbottoms, so a lot of people considered them to be practically Longbottoms themselves. Though it did help that Mum and Aunt Alice had been attached at the hip since their school days.

So, there would be quite a lot of people, more people than she was comfortable being around for any span of time. And the Houses had a long, long history of not being very nice to each other. And a few bonus details made it extra awkward. Callidora Longbottom had been born Callidora Black — she was Lady Black's first cousin. The marriage had been very controversial when it'd first happened however long ago that was, and some of the older people in both Houses were still a little sore about it. Charissa's grandmother Dorea had also been born a Black, Lady Black's sister. That marriage was, if anything, even less popular. Must have been over fifty years now, and Grandma and Lady Black could still hardly talk to each other. Charissa herself had been named after a Black, Callidora's little sister, which also annoyed various people for reasons she didn't really understand. Add in the Weasley family (themselves descended from yet another unpopular Black marriage), Dad and Uncle Sirius's friends Uncle Remus (who was a werewolf) and Uncle Peter (whose longstanding illicit relationship with Uncle Sirius was kind of an open secret), Mum and Uncle Ted (who were both muggleborns), and Charissa would honestly be surprised if they didn't all end up cursing each other at some point.

Maybe she would find a way to sneak away, hide in her room, run off with Neville. Preferably as early as possible.

Oh, no, she'd gone on another genealogy rant in her head again. She'd been doing that a lot since Grandma had started tutoring her in the history of the family about a year ago. She just did it without thinking, if she was sleepy or distracted and kicked onto that particular train of thought by one thing or another. It was really quite—

Charissa let out a choking sigh, her lungs violently emptied, as something big and heavy fell on top of her stomach. Before she could collect herself, all light-headed from the pain and the breathlessness, she immediately started feeling confused again, because the thing on top of her was rather soft, and seemed to be moving, twisting a little, bouncing up and down. 'Get up!' came Dora's slightly unfamiliar voice. 'Get up, get up, get up!'

Oh. Dora had just gone ahead and jumped on top of her. She really shouldn't be surprised. 'Ow, Dora!' Charissa pushed herself up — or at least as much as she could with Dora on top of her, which wasn't very far. She shoved at the older girl with both hands, trying to dislodge the vortex of limitless energy and ceaseless giggles. While she was at it, she opened her eyes to see Dora didn't look at all like herself — tall and thin, the angular face of a complete stranger, short hair a vibrant purple — but then she never really looked like herself. To be completely honest, Charissa wasn't entirely sure what Dora was supposed to look like anymore. 'That hurt!'

'Get up, then!' Dora wiggled around, reorienting herself on top of Charissa, which would have been uncomfortable without the elbow she got in her shoulder. Eventually, Dora was settled, straddling Charissa's legs, hands on her shoulders. Dora was an exceptionally physical person, which she knew made a lot of people uncomfortable, but she was mostly used to it by now. 'If you don't get up, you'll be late to your own party at your own house, and that'd just be weird.'

Charissa stared at Dora for a moment. It was kinda hard to believe it with how she acted, but Dora was seventeen now, about to start her last year of school. But despite the age difference, Dora was probably the cousin Charissa saw the most of — Mum and Dora's dad were pretty much the only muggleborns in the family, so they made a point of getting along. Not that she really had all that many cousins she actually knew, but still. So Charissa was pretty sure she knew what was actually going on. 'I think you're just bored and you need someone to mess with.'

Dora made a face, and even though it wasn't a face she'd worn before, Charissa still knew what the expression meant. But really, she thought Dora trying to act all dignified had been a lost cause for some time by now. 'I am doing no such thing,' she said in a haughty voice, traces of her usual bouncing tone barely noticeable. 'But if I were, it would be solely because your brothers are so young, and that makes them boring.' Maybe she did have a point, or at least something not entirely dissimilar to one. Charissa's little brothers were eight and six — not exactly ages by which people are at all interesting. And messing with someone that young really just comes across as bullying.

Not that Charissa would ever admit Dora had a point, or was anything but a hyperactive loony. Not out loud, anyway.

'Fine,' she said, making her tone as long-suffering as possible. 'Get off me so I can change.' A crooked grin of victory on her face, Dora whipped away with a flourish, so smoothly Charissa was hardly even jostled. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she switched out her nightdress for a vest and trousers — she'd need to be better dressed for when guests started arriving but, despite Dora's earlier assertions, she had more than enough time. Dora didn't bother leaving the room, of course, just stood there babbling. But since Dora had had a lack of personal modesty and a vanishingly small respect for the privacy of others since early childhood, Charissa was also long used to that, too.

Though she did manage to make Charissa uncomfortable this particular time, that had less to do with just her being there and more to do with what she chose to talk about. Apparently, Dora had discovered at school last year that she could do unbalanced switching spells, swapping one target for a target of much lesser mass. With a little tweak involving some conjuration, she could perform a blank switching spell — swapping one target with absolutely nothing, sort of a short range teleportation spell for small objects. So, she'd gotten into the habit of stripping people of their clothes with a single wave of her wand during her, er, liaisons. To be completely fair, she'd come up with the tangent after offering to just do a switching spell to get Charissa dressed instantly, but still.

Charissa knew Dora had accrued an additional facet to her reputation — like she needed any more — for being... What was the euphemism Mum had used? Affectionate? Uncle Sirius once referred to her as an "obnoxious, flamboyant slag." Mum had been pretty annoyed with him when Charissa had announced her presence by asking what slag meant, annoyed enough she'd never actually gotten an answer, so she assumed she wasn't supposed to have heard that.

A short walk, Dora still babbling the whole way, and they walked into the kitchen. But, somewhat to Charissa's surprise, the simple, tile-covered room wasn't empty. In a chair at the small wooden table at the center was Uncle Sirius. He'd inherited all the physical traits extremely common among a number of Noble Houses, including the Blacks. Shining hair and eyes dark as midnight, even skin as pale as snow, tall and thin, sharp face with high, prominent cheekbones. Charissa had gotten most of the same features herself, actually — not all the Noble Houses were dark-haired and fair-skinned, but the Longbottoms and Potters were just as much as the Blacks — though she was pretty sure her face would turn out more like Mum's when she grew up. He was lounging in his chair all languid, a mug of something steaming in one hand and a folded newspaper in another. He glanced up at Dora's voice, gave Charissa his trademark lopsided grin. 'If it isn't the birthday girl. Are you ready for—'

'Before you start teasing me,' she interrupted, 'I'd like some food, if there's any.'

Sirius made an affronted expression, as though he couldn't believe Charissa thought he'd stoop so low as to mock her. But Charissa knew better and, by the giggling at her side, Dora did too. 'Peter brought Lily's favorite again. Oven,' he said, tilting his head in the proper direction.

Charissa couldn't help grinning, though she did feel a little bad about it. She couldn't help it because, well, Uncle Peter was an absurdly good cook for reasons she'd never been able to figure out. Mum's favourite was especially good — muggle-style breakfast rolls dotted with pecans and layered in cinnamon and drenched in caramel. (Uncle Peter's mother was muggleborn, and Charissa assumed he intentionally brought Mum muggle-style food for the nostalgia.) But she did feel a little bad about it, because she knew why Peter kept making food for everyone all the time. From the way he acted, and a few comments from Mum and Uncle Remus, Charissa was pretty sure Uncle Peter had a vanishingly low degree of self-confidence, and a perhaps unhealthy degree of admiration for most people around him. So, at some level, he wasn't entirely sure why his friends bothered putting up with him. So, he regularly bribed them with deliciousness.

It would almost make her feel guilty, she thought as she transferred a couple sticky rolls kept steaming by a warming charm from the pan to a plate, if he weren't so damn good at it.

While she searched out some cider, Sirius was asking Dora, 'Are Andi and Ted here?'

'Nah,' Dora said, collapsing into one of the chairs. 'I got bored, so I apparated over early.'

Knew it.

For a second, Sirius looked confused. Then, a wary look on his face, he said, 'Right, you're seventeen now.'

'Right,' she said, a positively feral look on hers. 'I can fight back now without having to worry about you narking on me.' It was technically illegal to use magic outside of school before the age of seventeen, but it was generally left in the hands of individual parents to deal with it. Dora had been using magic at home pretty much constantly since even her very first break her very first year of school, but mostly just when she thought Aunt Andi wasn't watching, since she had deigned to punish her a few times.

It was obvious exactly what Dora was talking about — Sirius was an infamously incurable prankster, and didn't consider beneath him using magic to irritate children too young to retaliate — so he didn't bother playing dumb. 'I still have you dreadfully outclassed in experience, my very young little cousin.'

'I'd like to see you try.' Even though Charissa had just sat down with her rolls and cider, she paused at Dora's challenge, not reaching for her food yet. She didn't want to end up with caramel or cider in her face if the magic went awry, or up her nose if it was amusing enough.

Luckily, the exchange ended up being rather tame. For a long while, Uncle Sirius didn't do anything, just giving Dora a heavy, hooded stare. Just before Charissa started reaching for a roll, Sirius's hand suddenly moved almost faster than her eyes could follow into the opposite sleeve of his light summer robes. Impossibly, Dora was even faster — by the time Sirius started slipping his hand back out, wand clutched in his fingers, Dora had already drawn her own, a brilliantly aimed flash of white striking Sirius directly in the wrist an instant later. He let out a sharp wince, his hand jerking in pain, wand clattering against the table before falling to the floor. Nothing seemed to be happening to his wrist, just turning a little pink under his rubbing fingers, so Charissa assumed it had been a simple stinging jinx. Dora was just making a point, she guessed.

'Damn, kid,' Sirius muttered, bending to pick up his wand. 'How did you do that so fast?'

'Little telekinesis trick.' Dora held up her right hand for a moment, wiggling her fingers to show it was empty. Then, with a flick of her wrist, she was suddenly holding her wand. Another little twist, and it vanished down the same sleeve. She did it back and forth a few times, the motion so smooth and quick Charissa could hardly even see it happening. 'Alastor taught it to me.'

'Alastor?' repeated Sirius with a slight frown. 'Oh, you mean Sir Moody?' Charissa knew that was an Auror — all Aurors were referred to with the title Sir or Dame, depending on gender, and unless they happened to have a different title considered greater — but she couldn't remember which one off the top of her head.

'Yeah, obviously.'

'Why should that be—' A chagrined look suddenly crossed his face. 'Right. You got into that summer internship thing for incoming seventh years, didn't you?'

'Yep.' Dora's grin was a bit pompous, but Charissa had to admit she had a right to be a little full of herself for that one. The Aurors had such incredibly high standards there were only a couple dozen of them in total. That summer internship was only offered to the most promising of sixth years, a head start in the training regiment that even most current Aurors hadn't been lucky enough to get. Mum had said a couple months ago that they'd gotten nearly fifty applications this year, but only Dora and a boy whose name Charissa couldn't remember had been accepted.

'I thought Sir Moody retired, though.'

'He was about to, but he likes me, so he's staying on so I can do my internship with him.'

Sirius's lips twisted into a crooked smirk. 'Please tell me you aren't sha—'

'For the love of all that's cute and cuddly, Siri, he's literally a hundred years older than me.'

'And?'

'So, it would be weird.'

'I don't believe you really think that. Not at all.'

'Such faith in my moral character you have. I am so offended, I think I might cry.'

Sirius didn't say anything, just stared at her with a doubtful expression, a single eyebrow raised high.

'Okay, it's possible he ordered me to keep my mind on what we were doing when I started flirting with him, said something about that being behavior unbecoming of an Auror, and possibly hexed me unconscious when I pointed out Frank and Alice got together when they were already both Aurors. I mean, it's possible.'

'That's what I thought.'

'It's also possible that, when I asked if anything, you know, happened while I was out, he hexed me again.'

'Dora...'

She just giggled at the aggravated expression on his face.

Dora was a rather strange girl, Charissa knew that. But on the whole, it didn't really bother her. Stranger people were less likely to be boring. Most of her family could be considered strange in one way or another, to be honest.

For the next few minutes, while Charissa tried to eat her rolls without getting her hands too messy, Dora and Sirius talked across her. Well, not exactly — Sirius was still trying to read the paper, but Dora was doing her very best to annoy him. Charissa didn't see or hear much of what was going on, but did notice her uncle's voice growing gradually more and more terse. Just as Charissa started worrying the air might be filled with spellfire any second now, the air suddenly exploded into raucous noise, a little device on the counter deafeningly grinding down coffee beans. Someone must have turned it on. Charissa looked toward the door leading further into the house.

And there was her mother. She didn't really look very well. Her deep red hair was all frizzy and tangled, her round face marred by deep bags under tired green eyes. Charissa assumed she hadn't gotten a whole lot of sleep, since by the time Charissa was in bed Mum hadn't gotten home yet. Mum was an Auror, so she was often late getting home or, if she were dealing with some emergency or something, just didn't get home at all.

Mum was maybe halfway over to Charissa at the table when she suddenly froze at Dora's voice. 'Good morning, Lady Potter.'

For a moment, the corner of Mum's lips just twitched, as though repressing a scowl. 'We're not at the Office, Dora. You are allowed to keep calling me Lily in private.' To Charissa's amazement, Dora actually looked embarrassed. Dora almost never looked embarrassed. A couple seconds later, Mum was standing behind Charissa, where she leaned over. Charissa was suddenly wrapped in familiar arms, her mother's hair scratching at her cheek and neck. 'Happy birthday, sweetheart.' Charissa never really knew what to say in response to things like this, so she just sat there and smiled. A couple seconds and a kiss on the cheek later — she would probably be getting a lot of those today, considering how many of the guests were nobility — and Mum was making her way to her coffee. 'Peter outside setting up with James?'

Mum's back was turned, so she didn't actually see Sirius nodding. 'Remus is out there, too. And I think I might have caught Laurie showing up early to help, but it's possible I imagined it.'

Mum had to think about that one for a second, blinking to herself. 'Oh, right. Laurus Longbottom.'

'That's the one.'

'Can never keep all those Longbottoms straight. Tall and noisy, graduated a year ago, right?'

'Nah,' Dora said, 'he graduated just last month. Is pretty tall, though, and noisy is right. Especially if you get him in the right mood.'

For a couple seconds, Charissa had no idea what Dora was talking about. Then she figured it out, and was then a little grossed out for a couple more seconds. That was one of their cousins Dora was talking about. But Charissa got over it pretty quickly. Mostly because she quickly brought up a family tree in her head, and realised that, yes, they were cousins, but they were fourth cousins. That didn't even really count. Dora was more closely related to Charissa than she was to Laurie, and even the two of them were distant enough that it would be perfectly legal for Charissa to marry Dora's brother, if she had one.

Though Charissa still thought it was kinda weird when second cousins got married to each other, even though it happened all the time. Uncle Sirius's parents, for example. But that wasn't really the point.

Hardly a couple minutes had passed — Sirius and Dora still sniping at each other, Mum too occupied with caramely goodness to really say anything — before someone else was walking into the room, this time from the door leading outside. Her father also looked very much like a Black, with the same dark hair and pale skin and thin tallness, though his eyes were significantly lighter, tinged much further toward hazel. He also wore glasses, and Charissa could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people she'd ever met who actually needed glasses. She honestly assumed it was a quidditch injury. 'Oh, hey,' he said, glancing between Charissa and Mum, 'my girls are finally awake.'

Mum gave him a slightly annoyed look. 'Finally? I didn't even get to bed until after you were already up for the morning.'

'Excuses. Happy birthday, love.' Charissa wasn't entirely sure what to say to that again, so she just smiled at him. Then, pacing slowly toward her, Dad turned again to say to Mum, 'We have to check the post redirection wards again. We missed an exception.'

'Who?'

Dad pulled from a chest pocket of his light summer robe a thick envelope of expensive-looking parchment. 'Department of Education. Here you go, love,' he said, setting the envelope down in front of Charissa. He kissed her on the top of the head quick, and then was rapidly engaged in a noisy conversation with Uncle Sirius about something she wasn't paying attention to.

She was a bit distracted, because she knew exactly what this letter was. On one side, the side facing up where her father dropped it, were her name and address, inscribed over a fainter image of the sigil for the Department of Education — a wand and quill crossed over a scroll embossed with roses and daffodils (a minor modification from the one for the Ministry at large, which used a sword instead of a quill). She flipped to the other side to check the imprint on the wax. It was actually in colour — the seal they'd used put a colour-change charm onto the wax, which she'd always thought was pretty clever, really. She recognised the impression instantly, of course. She'd know the official sigil used by Hogwarts anywhere.

There'd been absolutely no way Hogwarts wouldn't be accepting her, and absolutely no way she wouldn't be going when they did. But even so, she couldn't help the grin that spread on her face.


The whole birthday gathering business was, to be honest, completely tiring. But then, it always was. For one thing, Charissa had to be all properly dressed and tidily cleaned up, which she never liked doing. Mum had apparently found the time to go out and pick up a dress for her — a somewhat frilly white thing, just frilly enough to be annoying, and in what Charissa was surprised to notice was a muggle style — but since she hadn't been there, it didn't fit exactly properly. Which was why Dora was there to help her get ready. After her bath, all it took was a little transfiguration, and the aggravating dress was sitting on her just as it was supposed to, which didn't really make it any less aggravating. Charissa was a little surprised when Dora also did a quick colour-change charm to switch most of the frilliness to a green that matched her eyes, but she didn't bother commenting. Then she slipped a couple bracelets on each wrist — making very sure to include the one Lady Longbottom had given her a couple years ago, a strip of gold dotted with tiny bits of glittering red here and there — a ring on the middle finger of her right hand bearing the family sigil always worn by the heir to House Potter in public — which had had to be dramatically resized when she'd inherited the title from her father when she'd been four — and a very particular necklace — this one a gift from Lady Black, silver and blue gemstones shaped into a flower Charissa didn't recognise. She still thought it was a little weird to be gifting children jewelry, honestly, and she still felt really weird wearing it, but nobility could be pretty weird about things like this.

It was just when Charissa was done tying her sandals, completely ignoring Dora doing whatever she was doing to her hair with a few flicks of her wand, that she asked Dora if she shouldn't be off getting ready somewhere. Dora just grinned, and waved her wand.

Charissa was completely jealous of both Dora's inherent talent as a metamorphmaga and her incredible skill with pretty much any sort of magic — she was perfectly willing to admit that. Even as Charissa watched, Dora changed, her short purple hair deepening to black even as it extended to spill past her shoulders in elegant curls, her eyes changing colour to match, her face sharpening into a distinct familial similarity to the various Blacks Charissa had met. She shrunk in height a few inches, her chest and shoulders and hips shifting to a form a bit less androgynous than she'd decided to lounge around in. Even as all that happened, her clothes changed as well — the only part of this, Charissa knew, she actually needed a wand for. The conspicuously muggle jeans she'd been wearing changed into softer, thinner leggings a solid black, the little rope anklets she'd hardly noticed earlier expanded into sandals of black leather and silver accents, a similar band around her neck shortened and widened into a choker of deep red ribbon, her simple cotton shirt stretching and changing into a black and silver summer dress robe of what looked like silk, one of those ones that more draped lightly on the body than hugged it, falling just past the knees, in multiple light bands of fluttering cloth, sitting so low below the shoulders Charissa was pretty sure it was supported by a sticking charm. The whole carefully-coordinated process took maybe four seconds, finishing with Dora just smirking at her.

When Charissa finally found her words back, she just asked, 'Did you just transfigure yourself fancy clothes?'

'No,' her annoyingly talented cousin said with a shrug and even wider smile. 'This is what they're supposed to look like. I got dressed this morning, then transfigured it all into something more comfortable before coming here.'

Charissa just shook her head, trying not to let show how envious she was. She couldn't wait until she started learning magic proper.

Then guests were arriving, and while it might be a little mean or unappreciative or whatever, Charissa then spent the rest of the day being bored. The space her father and uncles had set up was pretty, she wasn't going to deny that. The several tables and dozens of chairs necessary to fit everyone surrounded and shadowed by greenery and flowers — anything in red or yellow carefully excluded, she guessed to reduce the likelihood of an argument. And the food was good. Apparently, Dad had borrowed a couple elves from House Longbottom to help with that part. And most people did come bearing gifts. Much of them were things she couldn't fathom ever needing — she honestly had no idea why people kept buying her jewelry, it was so weird — but the people who actually knew her a little bit brought her books, which was great. Could never have too many books. Could sometimes have better books, yes. The Weasleys, who were ignoring how much some of the family really didn't want them there rather admirably, had a perhaps unhealthy obsession with quidditch, and either didn't realise Charissa wasn't particularly interested or were simply trying to convert her, she wasn't sure which. Somewhat to her surprise, the Lovegoods showed up — she knew Luna a little, but she'd honestly thought the strange girl and her even stranger father would have had negative interest in coming for her birthday — with a book for her that was also useless, but only temporarily useless. The elder Lovegood said it was in Late Old English, and was even written in fuþorc — the alphabet, not the glyphs. Charissa could mostly read fuþorc, though slowly, but the words themselves were nonsense. But she'd be learning Old English for her Ancient Runes class when she got to third year, so she'd be able to read it eventually, just not now.

Though, actually, she thought it was a little odd it was written in Old English, and not Classical Brīþwn. But she guessed it didn't matter.

But Charissa had a number of reasons she didn't really enjoy the gathering. For one thing, there were way too many people. Being surrounded by too many people made her uncomfortable. She couldn't explain why, it just did. It didn't help that, well, several of the people here were powerful individuals. There were three people here who had seats on the Wizengamot. Just for her birthday party! Sure, one of them was her father, but still. When she'd presented herself to Lady Longbottom, the woman had been gracious enough not to do the manhandling so many adults seemed to make a habit of doing, but Lady Black wasn't nearly so nice. Grabbing her chin in weak, wrinkled hands, tilting her face up to give her a long look. She could tell her great aunt wasn't completely displeased with her — the old woman referred to Charissa as her niece, which she wouldn't have done if she was so unimpressed she was embarrassed to share blood with her — but the process still wasn't pleasant.

Before too long, she did manage to sneak off with some of the younger kids. Her brother Linden was the youngest of their group — her youngest brother Perry was hovering around Mum — the rest closer to her own age. Neville, Gwyneira, a couple of Longbottoms she didn't really know too well, Ginny, Luna, and, unfortunately, her cousin Draco. Aunt Narcissa had made it this time, bringing her son along, and Charissa wasn't sure she was too pleased about that. Draco was just fine to talk to alone, or play chess with. A little annoying, but not too bad. But this particular grouping just made him more annoying. The Longbottoms he was slightly snide to, though not too rude — Gwyneira was the future Lady Longbottom, after all. But the others weren't so lucky. Luna he was just mean to, and he seemed to be pretending Ginny didn't exist.

At least Lord Malfoy hadn't come too. It seemed half the times Draco's father and Uncle Sirius were in the same place at the same time they ended up with their wands drawn on each other.

By the time Charissa started to get really sleepy, the sky quickly darkening, most everyone had already left. It was really just her parents, her brothers — who were both asleep — Alice, Remus, Sirius, and Peter. Charissa had no idea what any of them were talking about. She was pretty much half-asleep already, and didn't really have much concentration in her left. But still, before she actually made it to bed, she got two surprises. And only one of them was good.

The first started with a crack of apparation, someone arriving even as the sun disappeared. Charissa looked around for the newcomer through sleepy, somewhat unfocused eyes, finally finding Mum's friend Severus just at the edge of the trees. She blinked at him for a few seconds. She really wouldn't have thought Severus would come. Severus, as far as Charissa knew, was the oldest friend Mum was still in contact with. But, for some reason that had never really been explained to her, Dad and Sirius completely despised Severus, a hate that was quite obviously mutual, so Severus had probably made a habit of keeping his distance for that reason. It probably didn't help that Severus was almost as busy as Mum was.

Charissa knew Severus was one of the foremost potioneers and alchemists in the world. In fact, Uncle Remus had once told her that Severus was widely known as the very best of their generation in his field in all of Britain, an intuitive talent that he'd had practically since their first day at school. Like many geniuses Charissa had heard or read about, it was very easy for Severus to get so wrapped up in his work that he completely lost track of time. It apparently wasn't at all uncommon for him to forget to sleep, forget to eat multiple meals in a row, just because he was so completely focused on whatever it was he was working on. It was rather obvious just looking at him too — his face seemed almost emaciated, the way his simple black robes sat on him implying the frame beneath was vanishingly thin.

One of the very few disciplines of magic Charissa had been allowed to play around with before school was potions, originally just with parental supervision but now whenever she wanted. So, pretty much every time she saw Severus, she'd asked for any professional tips or advice he had, a book he recommended, even a couple times to stay for an hour or two and teach her some stuff. He'd refused every time, though, a grimace of annoyance on his pallid face.

As Severus started walking toward their little group she watched everyone's reactions, still completely confused why no one liked each other. There was Sirius, who looked half ready to jump up and draw his wand on him, and might have if Peter hadn't grabbed his arm. There was Remus, who just watched Severus impassively for a couple seconds before giving a wary look toward Dad. Dad seemed completely furious, but doing his best to hide it. Alice straightened a little, but not with anger or anything like it — more like she thought there was about to be an interesting show, and didn't want to miss it.

But Mum, looking even more tired than Charissa felt, just smiled at him. 'Oh, hey, Sev. Didn't think you were coming.'

Severus completely ignored the glares he was getting from Dad and Sirius, and gave Mum something of a flat look. His voice just as flat, he said, 'I do believe I was told in no uncertain terms that I was going to come for at least five minutes regardless of my own wishes.'

With a grin, Mum said, 'That sounds like something I might have said, yes.'

He came to a stop a couple paces away from Mum, standing just off the table. 'I also believe I was told, with equal authority, that I would be coming with something for Charissa.' His eyes flicked to her for just an instant. 'I distinctly recall being threatened with violence if I didn't.'

'That also sounds like something I might have said.'

Severus just stared at Mum for a moment, his face pulled into something much like a long-suffering grimace. Then he turned to Charissa, held out to her the book folded under his arm with an air of carelessness. Charissa took it, really more confused than anything. The book was long, wide, and thick, easily several hundred pages, the cover one of those old, leather things. It had the distinct feeling of an old book that had been magically repaired — a combination of impressions, the most easily noticed being a weird thin smoothness to the cover, a lack of cracks in the spine, an unnaturally striking contrast between page and ink. The title on the cover was Þe Substance of Essence, but Charissa didn't recognise it. 'What is it?'

For a second, Charissa was sure he was about to say, A book, but a glare from Mum cut him off. 'It's a text on the theory of potions. It found it in my mother's library when I was a few years younger than you, and read the entirety perhaps five times before I even got to Hogwarts. It's a useful text. The author is very thorough.'

Charissa glanced back down at the book in her hands. On the one hand, she was thrilled — he'd finally made a reading recommendation like she'd asked so many times! On the other hand, she wasn't really sure how to feel about being given this particular book. Had it really been his mother's? She knew Severus's mother had died some years ago, before Charissa had even been born. Was it really a good idea to be accepting this? 'Erm, I'm not sure if I should—'

Voice suddenly a bit sharper, he said, 'Just keep it.' He winced at his own outburst, glancing around at the annoyed expressions on a few of the faces around him. 'I have the thing memorised by now, and it's just taking up space on my bookshelf. Don't restrain yourself on my account.' It looked like he'd been about to continue, but he suddenly broke off, glancing at Mum again. Charissa was pretty sure that meant he'd almost said something mean.

'Er...' She still felt a little weird about it, but, well, if Severus was really perfectly okay with her having it, she wasn't going to keep protesting for reasons he evidently didn't care about. 'Thank you, Master Snape.' She'd almost called him Severus, but decided to address him with the proper title and everything instead.

He didn't say anything in response, just sniffed lightly, looked away.

That was surprise number one. Surprise number two came maybe ten minutes later. Alice and Remus had just left a minute ago, Sirius and Peter and Severus on their way out. Charissa was half-asleep when she was suddenly woken up by a flash of red-orange light and a roar of wind, both emanating from a burst of flame which had suddenly appeared right in front of Mum. A couple seconds later, the fire vanished, depositing an envelope of thick, expensive-looking parchment right into Mum's hands. For a moment she just held it, glancing around at the variety of curious and wary expressions around her. Then she broke it open, unfolded the letter inside. For a moment, she read.

Then, with a heavy sigh, she collapsed against the table, head resting on arms folded over the surface. 'Dammit.'

'What's wrong?'

'Albus is sending me to Magyarland.'

'Albus?' asked Severus with the slightest of frowns.

Though it seemed to pain Dad greatly, he turned to answer the question. 'The High Enchanter.'

'I see. I was under the impression the High Enchanter didn't have the authority to order Aurors anywhere, much less so far outside the borders of Britain.'

Mum sighed. 'Meeting a request from the ICW. Rufus and Amelia will have to sign off on it, but that's really only a technicality.'

Sirius said, 'Why are you going to Magyarland anyway?'

For a second, Severus pinned Sirius with a disbelieving look, as though shocked Sirius couldn't answer that question himself. 'Éjbevissza.'

'What?'

'Dark Lord,' Mum muttered, hand waving dismissively over her head. 'Been making a big mess of things over there for a while.'

No one said anything for some moments, just sitting in silence. They were probably having thoughts much like Charissa was having. Her mother was being sent off to a foreign country to fight a dangerous dark wizard, dangerous enough the Magyars were asking other countries for help. The thought was really scary. She knew her mother had a hard, dangerous job, but she could usually go most of the time without thinking about it. She didn't know what would happen if Mum got sent away, and something bad happened, and she never came—

No. No, she wasn't going to think about that. She wasn't going to think about that at all.

Mum had raised her head, gazing at Charissa with eyes somehow even more exhausted than they'd been a minute ago. 'We'll go to get your school stuff tomorrow, before I have to leave. Okay, sweetheart?'

Charissa didn't think there was anything okay about her mother being sent off hundreds of miles away to fight a deadly dark wizard. She didn't think there was anything okay about that at all. But she knew there was absolutely nothing she could do to stop that. So she just said, 'Okay.'