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Defining Moments by eHPF
Format: Short story collection
Chapter 3: Charity Burbage: The Letter
Charity Burbage: The Letter
Charity Burbage stood in the doorway of her mother's dressing room, regarding her with amusement as she watched her twist back and forth, her long arms straining behind her back.
"Problems, mum?" she asked.
"I can't...reach...the zipper," she panted, her fingers searching fruitlessly for the small metal tab. She stopped struggling, letting her arms hang loose as she tried to catch her breath. "Are you sure this is necessary, Charity?"
"Absolutely. Now hold still." Charity drew the soft yellow fabric of her mother's dress together and raised the zipper slowly. After adjusting the material over her shoulders and waist, she turned her mother around slowly until she was facing the floor-length mirror in the corner of the room.
"This isn't too revealing?" her mother asked uncertainly, holding the edges of the skirt out at arm's length, her lower lip caught between her teeth. For a witch who was accustomed to ankle-length robes, even a modest Muggle dress must seem quite daring.
"You look smashing," Charity assured her, looking over her mother's shoulder at their shared reflection; and she meant it. Charity was a younger version of her mother right down to the unruly red hair, light blue eyes and petite frame, and she found herself wishing fervently that she would age as well as her mother had.
She squeezed her mother's shoulder and turned to lift a pair of delicate, heeled pumps from their nest of tissue paper in the box on the dresser. "Shall we try the shoes, then?"
Her mother considered them doubtfully. "I'm going to break an ankle in those."
"Not if you're careful," Charity told her. "Now sit." She knelt by the bed and lifted her mother's foot to her own knee, sliding the shoe on carefully and fastening the tiny buckle.
Her mother had brushed out her long hair this morning, and it was a soft cloud around her face as she extended her leg and turned her foot from side to side to admire the shoe. The sudden smile she directed at Charity was very girlish and quite becoming as she reached down to trace her fingers lightly over the delicate strap across the instep. "It does look rather nice, doesn't it?"
"Let's see you stand," Charity said after she had helped her into the other shoe, extending her hand towards her. Her mother stood and then grabbed Charity's arm tightly as she tried to find her balance.
"Take it slowly," she advised, as her mother began clomping about the the room awkwardly, a frown of concentration on her face. Charity hid her smile behind her hand. "And step down with your heel first, mum."
Her mother wobbled precariously as she reached the end of the room and turned slowly, stumbling as one ankle turned inward. They both looked up at a thud and a muffled oath from the next room.
"I'd best go check on dad," she said. "You keep practicing."
She opened the adjoining door and stared incredulously at her father who was looking quite smart in a dark blue suit that offset his blond hair nicely, save for the length of blue and red striped fabric wound about his neck and head.
"That's not how you wear a tie, you know," she said, gently untangling it from around his neck.
"I'm aware of that," he bit out impatiently, "But I think the damned thing tried to attack me."
"Here, let me," she said, standing behind him and reaching around to work the four-in-hand knot.
"I don't understand why we can't just wear our dress robes," he grumbled. "Sam knows who we are."
"Yes," Charity agreed. "Sam does know us. But the rest of his family does not." She walked around to face him, frowning at him in mock severity as she tightened the knot snugly against his collar. "And you wouldn't want to make a scene, would you? Not today of all days."
His eyes focused over her head and she saw his face soften. "I suppose not," he said.
She patted his cheek fondly before moving over to his dresser, where a worn and creased map of London was displayed. "Have you found us a place near the church?" She lowered her voice conspiratorially. "Just between us, I don't think mum will be able to walk very far."
"Not yet," he said, pulling uncomfortably at the knotted tie. He came to stand next to her, tapping the page here and there with his wand, bending low to study the information that appeared on the map. He straightened as a sudden thought seemed to occur to him.
"That's another thing," he said, brandishing his wand. "What exactly am I supposed to do with this?"
"Do you even have to bring it along?"
He raised an impatient eyebrow. "Really, Charity. With all that's been happening, how can you even ask such a thing?"
"Never mind, you're right," she said, raising her hands in surrender, knowing her father would rather leave the house starkers than go anywhere without his wand. "Your suit jacket has an inside pocket. It should fit in there, though it might be a bit uncomfortable."
With her parents squared away for the moment, Charity returned to her room, closing the door and flopping down ungracefully behind the desk. She ran her hands distractedly through her short hair and retrieved her quill from where she had tossed it aside. Nibbling the end thoughtfully, she read over what she had written earlier, nodding her head in approval. After struggling with the letter all morning, it was nearly finished, but now she was hesitant to post it. Charity knew she sometimes tended to act impetuously...perhaps she should wait a while.
She propped her chin in her hand and stared off into the room. She knew what Arthur would say. She could almost hear his voice urging caution and gradual change from within. But the mood was changing, with ugly rumors flying everywhere. Anti-Muggle sentiment was growing; borne of fear and ignorance and prejudice. It was intolerable and it was high time that someone took a stand; someone who understood both sides. Not speaking out was tantamount to approval. The time for caution had passed.
Charity pushed herself away from her desk, walking around the small room that she and her younger sister Faith had shared growing up. They had both moved out of the house years ago, Faith after her marriage to Samuel and Charity after securing a position at Hogwarts, but the room looked much the same as it had when they were girls. Faith was her only sibling and had been a bit of an "oops," or so her mother had said, arriving as she did less than a year after Charity's birth. They had been completely devoted to one another, as close as twins, until circumstances intervened.
Charity's gaze fell on her old teddy, still in its special spot atop the bookcase. It was threadbare, with one arm falling halfway off, and as she lifted it down, her thoughts turned back to the day when everything had started changing.
Faith and Charity had been arguing that day, for as devoted as they were to one another, they would still butt heads occasionally. She couldn't remember what had started the argument, but it had ended when Faith had thrown Charity's teddy to the floor and stomped on it. Charity, in retaliation and without conscious thought, had sent Faith's favorite doll flying around the room. Faith watched her doll hurtle about above their heads, ending by tossing itself out a window, and she had stared after it, her mouth gaping, before turning huge, frightened eyes on Charity.
"How did you do that?" she whispered.
"I don't know," Charity whispered back, equally horrified, and then they had both burst into tears, bringing their mother running from the other room.
Their mother took in the sight of her daughters draped over each other, shuddering in fright, and asked with some alarm, "Girls, what happened?"
In between huge, gasping sobs, Charity told her mother that she had killed Faith's doll, that she didn't mean to and she didn't know how it happened. Her mother laughed and gathered Charity into her lap, stroking her hair and murmuring softly to her.
"Accio Bessie," her mother called in a clear, calm voice, and the doll came flying back through the window, landing at Faith's feet, who promptly snatched her up and clutched her protectively to her chest.
"You see? No harm done, Faith. Charity didn't really mean to hurt her."
"But how did she do it, mum? And why do you look happy?"
"It happens to all witches and wizards when they're growing up. It's perfectly normal." She turned her attention to Charity and lifted her chin with two fingers, her eyes warm and loving on her oldest daughter's face. "You're getting close to the age where you'll start school and learn to control your magic. Until then, you'll have to be extra careful when you feel angry or upset, okay?"
Charity nodded and Faith looked puzzled. "Why hasn't it happened to me?"
Their mother frowned slightly and shook her head. "Perhaps you're not old enough yet, Faith."
Charity gently replaced her teddy on the bookcase and knelt to pull out an over-sized, dusty album from the shelf. Her old scrapbook. She turned it over in her hands and it fell open to the page where she had carefully, almost reverently, preserved her acceptance letter from Hogwarts. She could still remember the morning the post owl had arrived, bearing the letter with the Hogwarts seal; could remember the visceral thrill of opening the envelope and seeing her name on the page.
A few weeks later she had been completely overwhelmed by her trip to Diagon Alley and upon her return home, Faith had been right there, trying on Charity's new robes, even taking a turn with her wand. In imitation of Charity, and perhaps hoping to produce the same shower of sparks as she had, Faith waved the wand around gently at first and then, when nothing happened, a bit more vigorously.
"It's not doing anything," Faith said, a scowl of impatience on her face.
"The wand chooses the witch," Charity told her confidently. "At least that's what Mr. Ollivander said. It took me ages to find this one. Just wait until next year. You'll get to pick out your own wand then."
"Faith, put that down!" her mother said sharply from the doorway. "It's not a toy." They both turned, startled at her sudden appearance in their room and her uncharacteristic display of temper.
"It doesn't even work anyway," Faith said dismissively, dropping it on the bed before brushing roughly past her mother. "It's just a stupid old stick!" she called back over her shoulder.
Charity retrieved her wand from the bed, turning it carefully in her hands, excited and more than a little frightened at the pulse of energy she could feel flowing from the smooth wood to her fingertips. "It's not stupid," she whispered.
"Of course it isn't," her mother said soothingly, sitting on the bed and pulling her oldest daughter down next to her. "Faith is having a tough time right now."
"Just one more year, though, mum," Charity said, brightening at the thought. "Then Faith will be going to Hogwarts, too." She had been caught completely off guard when her mother's face had dissolved and she had wrapped her in a fierce embrace.
"Next year," her mother said, her voice breaking.
Charity had been too young at the time to understand why her mother had sounded so sad.
The next summer, when Charity returned home full of stories about her school and her new friends and all she had learned, the atmosphere in the house had changed. Her parents wore constantly pinched expressions when they looked at Faith. They discouraged Charity from speaking too often of Hogwarts. Faith remained silent, kept her eyes down in their company, and spent much of the time outside by herself. Finally, when Charity could no longer stand the tension, she had cornered Faith in their bedroom late one night, after the house had fallen silent.
"Will you please tell me what's going on around here?" she whispered, standing over her sister's bed, hands on her hips.
Faith rolled away from her, bunching her pillow up around her head. "I'm trying to sleep."
"Don't do this to me," Charity pleaded, crawling into bed beside her sister. "Everything's different. You know it, too."
Faith had sat up then, and face to face, their knees touching, they had talked.
Charity had tried to be reassuring. "It's going to be great, Faith. Later this summer you'll get your acceptance letter and we'll go to Diagon Alley together and then there will be the Sorting. Maybe we'll even be in the same House."
Faith looked away, unshed tears making her eyes shine brightly in the moonlight streaming through the window. "I...I don't think so, Charity."
"Don't be silly. Of course you will."
"No, listen to me," Faith said, in a low, urgent tone. "I've caught Mum crying a few times. And once I heard her and dad talking when they thought I wasn't listening and they said..." Her voice caught and she looked down, the shame evident on her face.
Charity waited for her to continue, her chest tight, unable to take a full breath.
"...they said I'm a Squib." She whispered the last word, unable to meet her sister's eyes. She hugged her knees tightly.
"You're not," Charity said, although in her mind, the words had the dreadful ring of truth. It would explain so much.
"I know I am. I'm not like you or Mum or Dad. I can't do magic, not even by accident." Her voice broke, and tears began to stream down her face. "I don't want to be different, Charity," she sobbed. "Why did this happen to me?"
Charity had no answers for her, not that night, and finally the two sisters had fallen into a troubled sleep, curled up together, needing each other's presence for comfort. The next morning, neither spoke about the previous night's conversation, and it was never mentioned between them again.
As the summer days passed, the mood in the house grew more and more strained. Every day the sisters would wait patiently for the post, and every day there were letters, but nothing from Hogwarts. Charity's firm belief that her sister would be joining her was beginning to waver until finally, a week before term was to begin, Faith pulled her aside after breakfast.
"Mum says I'm going to a different school," she said, her voice dull and flat. "A Muggle school. St. George's."
And there was nothing Charity could say in return, nothing that would take the defeated look from her sister's face; nothing that would ease the sudden hollow ache in her own chest at the knowledge their paths were diverging forever.
Charity settled herself against her old bed, the scrapbook resting on her upraised knees. She paged through it slowly, feeling overwhelmed at the bittersweet memories surging through her mind with each new discovery. Her fingers hesitated over a folded piece of drawing paper and she opened it carefully, smoothing it across her lap, her hands trembling slightly. The colors were beginning to fade now- it had been so many years - but her own blue eyes still stood out clearly in the portrait that Paul had drawn of her.
She could still picture him as he looked then, his dark hair falling in his face as he bent over his easel, glancing up occasionally to study her with his intense, piercing gaze before returning his attention to the paper, his fingers moving deftly and surely as he worked. She brought the creased paper close to her face, the scent of the pastels causing a nostalgic longing for the girl she had been and the boy who had helped her discover another side of herself.
Her memories of the night she met Paul were just as vivid.
It had been four years since Faith had been sent to a Muggle school, and she had grown from an uncertain and insecure little girl into a self-assured and confident teenager. Charity, on the other hand, was struggling. She was an average student at Hogwarts with nothing to distinguish her and always a bit out of step with her classmates. She missed having Faith to confide in, but with little in common, the sisters had gradually drifted apart. Falling in love with a Muggle boy was the farthest thing from Charity's mind the night she sat in their room, watching her sister preparing to go out for the evening.
Faith was standing in front of her dresser mirror, humming a song Charity didn't recognize as she twisted chunky strands of her newly-cut hair to frame her face. She caught Charity staring at her in the mirror and turned to face her, sighing in an exasperated manner.
"You're studying again?" she asked.
"I have to," Charity said, turning her attention back to her Charms textbook. "N.E.W.T.s are coming up this year. I can't bodge them like I did my O.W.L.s."
"Honestly, Charity." Her sister crossed her arms and regarded her bemusedly. "Newts? Owls? I have no idea what you're on about half the time."
"Never mind," she sighed, returning to her book, envying Faith her carefree attitude. It was easy for some people, she thought.
Faith approached her desk and closed the book emphatically under Charity's startled nose. "You sound as if you could do with a break," she said, striding to their closet where Charity's robes shared space with the Muggle-style outfits that Faith favored. She began sorting through the rack of clothing, looking at Charity appraisingly over her shoulder. "We're nearly the same size," she said, tossing her a dark green shift. "This'll do."
Charity stood from her desk and picked up the dress, the silken cloth sliding smoothly over her hands. It was so different from the coarse wool of her school robes and she suddenly wanted very much to feel the cool wash of the fabric against her body. "What's this for?"she asked quietly.
"You're going out with me tonight, of course."
She dropped the dress on the bed and sank back into the desk chair. "I can't, Faith. I don't know any of your friends."
"Doesn't matter. Now let's do something about that hair of yours, shall we?"
Her hand went unconsciously to her hair, which she wore long and pulled back, the normal style for her female classmates at Hogwarts. "What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing at all, if you're seventy years old," Faith snorted, pulling out the low bench at her dressing table, motioning for Charity to have a seat.
Charity left the house later that evening feeling like a little girl playing dress-up, her hair curled around her face, the fabric of the dress making her skin tingle, certain that Faith's friends would immediately see through her facade. She had been relieved when they had accepted her into their tight-knit group without question and she had quickly gravitated toward Paul, finding him easy to talk with and more than a little attractive.
He was tall and thin, with an unruly mop of black hair and dark, earnest eyes that seemed never to leave hers. The first time they had sat near each other and he had draped his arm casually around her shoulders, the resultant electrical surge she had felt had shaken her deeply. He had sensed it, too, turning to look at her, the expression on his face suddenly serious and searching.
The rest of that summer was glorious and Charity had found herself spending every spare moment at Paul's side, learning everything she could about his foreign and fascinating lifestyle. Her happiness had been shadowed only by her mother's growing concern over her obsession with the Muggle world until one night she had impulsively taken Charity by the arm as she was following her sister out the door.
"Faith has no choice in the matter," her mother had said in a low voice, "but you're a witch, Charity. Don't forget that."
"Maybe I'd like to forget it sometimes," she had snapped, jerking her arm free. She hadn't meant it, but was at a loss to explain the the elemental change she could feel taking place within her.
Charity stood and brushed off her knees, carefully sliding the scrapbook back into its place on the shelf. Her life had taken so many interesting turns since then. She had easily procured a job in Muggle Relations after leaving Hogwarts and had been pleasantly surprised a few years later when she was recruited for a newly-created professorial position at her old school. No one had quite known what to make of a pure-blood witch as the Muggle Studies professor, but it had been the perfect fit for her. She enjoyed teaching, and although she knew she was risking her position at Hogwarts, she found she no longer cared. There were more important things at stake now.
She returned to her desk and sat down heavily, her gaze falling on the newly-framed photograph on the desktop: Faith, looking pleased and a bit dazed, smiling happily at her husband, Samuel, who was holding a tiny bundle protectively in his arms. Charity reached out one finger, caressing her nephew's dear little face in the photo. In the midst of the fear and hatred was born this beautiful new life and with it, the hope for a peaceful future. He was an innocent little boy who might very well grow up to be a Muggle-born wizard, and he deserved to live in a world where he wouldn't be judged on the circumstances of his birth.
I will do whatever I can to make a difference for you, she promised him silently, and with renewed determination, she picked up her quill and added her final thoughts to the bottom of the page.
Our strength lies in our diversity and our willingness to learn from one another. Only then can we hope to build a future free of the prejudices of the past.
She signed her name to the bottom of the parchment, rolled it and sealed it tightly before she could change her mind.
"Ready, Charity?" Her mother peered into the room just as Charity was tucking the letter under her arm and gathering a brightly wrapped package from the floor. "It's nearly time for the baptism. Your father finally found a place where we can Apparate but we have to leave soon."
"Almost, mum," Charity said. "I just need to post this letter first. Go on ahead and I'll join you in a moment."
On the back porch, Charity lifted Heliotrope from her perch, fastened the letter to her leg and gave her a kiss on her feathery head. Heliotrope clucked softly and nibbled at a strand of Charity's hair. "Daily Prophet office, love," she said, tossing the owl into the air and watching her climb in flight until she was just a small dot against the blue sky.
Charity ran down the lawn towards her parents, overcome with exuberance and the sense that what she had just done was absolutely right. She took her place at their side and as they were preparing to Apparate, her mother asked suddenly, "What exactly are we supposed to do at the ceremony?"
"Stand there and look proud," she said. "I think you two can manage that."
Her parents glanced at each other, their faces suffused with the joyful anticipation of seeing their first grandchild, and they laughed and grabbed each other's hands before they Apparated away.
Charity threw her arms wide, lifting her face to the sky. The brilliant summer sun was warm on her face and she felt her heart lift from her chest, sharing in her parent's happiness and nurturing the private hope that her letter would somehow make a difference for her and for everyone she loved.
A/N: My gratitude to pookha, snapekat and protowilson, the beta readers who encouraged me and helped immeasurably in improving my story. Also, thanks to NevillesSoulmate for the amazing chapter image.