Chapter 2 : Visitors and Midnight Wanderings
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“Filthy half-blood, soiling the house of my forebears!” Sirius’s mother screeched, the moth-eaten tapestry flying open and her face twisting with deranged revulsion. “How dare you walk the floors in the House of Black with your vulgar heritage!”
“Nasty half-blood, drinking from Master Regulus’s cup, eating from my mistress’s table,” Kreacher echoed, muttering in the dim upstairs corridor, his face sulky between the banisters. “If Mistress knew how the dirty half-blood lived in her house, how Mistress’s house was being used now, with the horrible Sirius Black who treated my Mistress abominably with his vile ways…”
“Shut it, you ugly, oversized bat,” Sirius spat at the stooped old house-elf, who bowed on his thin wobbly legs in a gesture of forced respect. The expression on his broad, snout-nosed face was of undeniable repugnance.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Nora replied mildly, trotting down the stairs. Kreacher shied away from her as though she were some very slimy, rotting creature that you might find crawling along the bottom of a dustbin, but she did not seem to notice. Sirius aimed his wand at his mother’s portrait and the tapestry swallowed her image again, the shrieks muffled now. “Although I think your mother should really vent her feelings. Keeping all that bottled up is so unhealthy.”
Sirius laughed, a bark-like sound, and shook his head in dismay at the throttling curtains over his mum’s face. “Maybe when I die people will put up a portrait of me on the wall across from her so that I can scream at her all day for eternity. It would serve her right.”
“No one will put up your portrait in the noble and most ancient House of Black,” a familiar oily voice jeered, a few portraits over from the one they had been looking at. Phineas Nigellus was looking odiously down at Nora and Sirius, clearly with the impression that both were nasty, inferior lower-life-forms and unfit for the grand dwelling of Number Twelve.
“Sod off, you old git,” Sirius responded harshly, his eyes burning with an acidic dislike. “Of course I wouldn’t want to be a portrait in this dungheap. I don’t even like being here while I’m alive; why the hell would I want to stick around after I’ve snuffed it?”
He followed Nora into the kitchen, his eyebrows knit together and looking irked. She pulled a few bowls out of the cupboards and lit the stove. Kreacher’s confections usually did not appear very edible, and with Molly gone it was up to Sirius and Nora to hone their cooking abilities. Since Nora was very wild and uncultivated and didn’t care for instructions and Sirius had been trapped so long in Azkaban, neither were too great at it. But cooking was usually an entertaining experience, anyway.
“Chop up those carrots, won’t you?” Nora asked him. Sirius pointed his wand at a knife on the counter, but she deftly lifted his wand from him and placed it on a spice rack. “Remember what I told you?”
Sirius gaped at her, exasperated. “Are you mad? This will take hours to do by hand.”
Nora rolled her eyes. “No, it won’t. There are two of us.”
“Yeah, but we’re cooking for the entire Order!” he reminded her. “They’re going to start tumbling in at six and we’ll still be in here working like house-elves. Let me use my wand.”
“Where's your sense of adventure?" Nora chimed, clucking her tongue and dancing around the kitchen searching for an egg whisk. “If we learn to do this manually first and get good at it, imagine how great our meals would taste once we’ve unleashed magic on them!” Her eyes sparkled and Sirius could not help but smile at her enthusiasm; obediently he set to chopping carrots with a knife.
Nora flicked on the old wireless; it was Witching Hour and the station was playing the Hobgoblins' newest single. She hummed along to the music, her good mood rubbing off on Sirius. He found her incessant cheerfulness hard to resist; it was contagious. And while he was not soon singing exuberantly like Nora was, Sirius found himself eagerly following her instructions with a spring in his step.
“Now we’re supposed to bake these for twenty minutes,” Nora was telling him, her eyes glittering with inspiration. She lifted the waterfall of coppery blonde hair into a messy ponytail and took a breath, sticking her hands into oven mitts while poring over a cook book as though this were the most complex task she’d ever put her mind to. “What should we start next? The rhubarb crumble, you think?”
“Whatever you like,” Sirius mused in a quiet tone, his head cocked slightly to one side.
Nora’s eyes flickered up from the cook book to meet his. “Docile, are we? Are you letting me boss you because you suddenly have faith in Muggle cooking or because you’re hoping the food will taste so bad I’ll be humiliated into using magic again?”
Sirius’s lips curved into an amused smirk, and he wiped a few strands of gleaming dark hair – so brown they were almost black, but not quite – out of his eyes, falling into the gentle waves that rested at his shoulders. “I don’t mind charred food, myself,” he said airily. “But I hear that Dumbledore is a very picky eater.” He held both palms up, the picture of unassuming innocence. “I will try to keep him from placing you under the Imperius Curse after he’s tasted your main course, but there’s only so much I can do against such a powerful wizard.”
Nora raised an eyebrow. “I’m not that bad."
Sirius merely smiled, which was more goading than words. “You know, I could use ten thousand galleons,” she informed him, looking him right in the eyes. “Isn’t that the reward for your head?”
Sirius looked taken aback, and then he laughed – a real laugh, not like the bark that imitated his Animagus form, the great shaggy black dog. “I suppose I better watch my manners, then,” he said with light in his pale grey eyes, grey flecked with blue like a storm.
“I suppose you’d better,” she breathed, slipping around him to retrieve a towel. “Or not, if you prefer. I’ve had my eye on a diamond and moonstone necklace at Dervish and Banges, so if you don’t like my food I might have to rat you out and buy it.”
Sirius brandished his wand and a little white flag made of silk burst through the tip. He waved it at her. “Peace offering? I vow to give you my eternal servitude in exchange for one thousand of your delectable, mouth-watering Shepherd’s Pies.”
Nora grinned at him, and he felt a fistful of breath catch in his lungs. Sirius managed to smooth out his expression by the time she glanced back at him, and he watched her attentively as she hummed along to The Weird Sisters. It was definitely something he would have to get used to, having a young woman living at Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place with him.
A very pretty young woman, at that.
Molly struggled not to laugh when she saw the food at that evening’s Order meeting, but it was against her nature not to brag about her own culinary abilities and couldn’t help saying, “Nora, dear, you should ask me over next time you’re intending to feed everyone. I could teach you how to make Shepherd’s Pie the right color. The potato crust is supposed to be golden brown, you see…and this is black…but I’m sure it’s lovely.”
“I think it looks divine,” Sirius mentioned, flashing his eyes meaningfully at Nora. She laughed.
“You’re safe from me,” she promised. “If you tell everyone that the tart changed your life forever, I’ll swear never to divulge your whereabouts to the Ministry even if Fudge himself has a wand at my throat.”
Sirius was an upbeat host, cracking jokes and serving everyone second helpings against their wills, until the plates were being cleared away and a tall man with a curtain of greasy raven-black hair, snappish black eyes, and a hooked nose entered the room. Nora saw Sirius swallow and the corners of his mouth turn down with heavy dislike, the abhorrence etched onto every inch of his face. The black-haired man’s eyes fell on Sirius with a sweeping glance of hatred, and then he focused directly on Dumbledore.
“I was held up,” he stated simply, and Nora noted that his voice was silky and hissing, like a snake. “There was a detention to be dealt with.”
“On a Sunday?” Dumbledore inquired, looking shrewdly curious. “Don’t tell me that you and our young friend have had more unpleasantness.”
“I’m afraid unpleasantness cannot be avoided, Headmaster, as the boy in question is too arrogant to keep his mouth shut in Potions class. He insists on getting the last word in, wants to look clever in front of his little friends.” His mouth twisted into a sneer. “Has about as much talent and intelligence as his father.”
Sirius Black jumped to his feet, hand rummaging inside his robes for a wand. “You better not be talking about Harry and James, Snape,” he warned, looking more livid and serious than Nora had ever seen him.
The man he addressed as Snape was about to reply when Nora spoke. “Excuse me,” she interceded serenly before he could say something. And by the way his eyes were narrowing into slits, the words on his tongue promised to be venomous. “I don’t think we’ve met. My name is Nora Prewett. Snape, is it?”
His eyes darted around until he found her, and she saw that his irises were as black as coal, indistinguishable from the pupils. “Hello,” he said icily, hand frozen in mid-reach for his own wand.
Nora glanced at Sirius, who was still looking incensed and ready to kill. “I wonder why I haven’t met you before?” Nora continued, purposefully making her voice catatonic to reduce tension in the room. “I’ve been introduced to everyone else in the Order. Pray tell, what is your first name?”
“This is Severus Snape,” Tonks responded, catching Nora’s drift. “He’s the Potions professor at Hogwarts. He was teaching at Durmstrang during our years at school, coincidentally. Sort of an exchange program.”
“Ah, yes,” Nora said, remembering the foreign Potions master who had filled in for the standing Hogwarts professor she never met, who was absent for her seven years at school. The exchange teacher could barely speak English and found it difficult to drop the habit of wearing a fur-collared coat even in summertime. “It’s lovely to meet you then, Severus. We've already eaten, and you're lucky you missed it because I botched the whole thing. But maybe you'd like something to drink?”
Severus looked as though Nora had just asked him whether he would like to go on holiday to Jupiter. When he did not answer, Nora cleared away the rest of the dinner things with her wand and brought him a cup of coffee and slice of plum cake. She then sort of forced him into a chair, where he sat staring dumbly with the color draining out of his face, and then had no choice but to drop the budding argument with Sirius. Sirius slumped into his chair as well, looking somewhat disappointed.
While Severus pretended there was not a plate of food in front of him and Mundungus Fletcher was making shifty eyes at Moody’s gold pocket Sneakoscope, Tonks was looking over Remus’s shoulder at a few maps he had drawn of what they believed was the rough layout of the Department of Mysteries. Eventually Molly coaxed them all into the drawing room to be more comfortable, even though there were fewer seats in that room. Dumbledore generously sprouted a few extra chairs from the tip of his wand.
“Any word on Hagrid?” Remus asked Dumbledore.
“I received an owl two days ago informing me that he and Madame Maxime were unsuccessful in their attempts, but he believes the message will still resonate with them. Hopefully the giants will remember Hagrid’s words when the Death Eaters come knocking.” Dumbledore waved his wand and a glass of Madam Rosmerta’s oak-matured mead appeared in thin air, which he offered to Moody and Nora, who were on either side of him. Nora declined but Moody avidly accepted and poured into his hip flask (which was already half-filled with Firewhisky).
“And what of the goblins?” Mad-Eye directed at Bill Weasley, who used to work for Gringotts in Egypt but recently took a job in Diagon Alley to be nearer and more useful to the Order.
Bill sighed. “Unlike many witches and wizards, goblins are not in denial that You-Know-Who has returned. Death Eaters aren’t worried about covering their tracks when it comes to killing off what they consider to be inferior creatures, and goblins notice the disappearances and unexplained deaths amongst their kind. However, they’re not going to go against You-Know-Who until he moves into the open, and their main concern at this point is having the strongest ally. They’re hoping that if they keep their mouths shut and hide out, no one will bother them.”
“The Dark Lord will make promises to goblins and giants,” Severus spoke, looking only at Dumbledore as though no one else in the room quite deserved to hear his information. “He will give promises of new freedoms and liberties that wizards have not granted before…he will tempt them with wandlore and knows they will choose the side which is more advantageous.”
Kingsley Shacklebolt checked his watch. “I’ve got to get moving soon,” he told everyone. “Heard about an unusual fog near Gloucester, and I’m suspecting loose dementors.”
“Alright, so it’s all agreed that I take watch tonight, and then Mad-Eye goes tomorrow night,” Remus piped up, looking more shabby and worn than the last time Nora had seen him. “And then on Tuesday, it’s Arthur’s turn.”
“Not Arthur for that night,” Molly interrupted sternly. “Not until next week at the very soonest. The Ministry’s keeping a keen eye on him and are watching him coming and going from work. If he sneaks in to go keep watch over the Department of Mysteries, I’m not sure if they’re going to buy his excuse about forgetting paperwork again.”
“Alright, alright, I’m free for Tuesday,” Tonks volunteered.
“Wednesday,” Kingsley said.
“Thursday." Everyone turned to stare at Sirius.
“The hell you are,” Mad-Eye grunted, taking a swig from his hip flask.
“And why not?” Sirius demanded hotly. “No one is supposed to be there and any of you could get caught and chucked into Azkaban. What’s the difference between whether it is you or me?”
“The difference is that while others may generate some sort of excuse and stall for time, you would most certainly be administered the Kiss if you were caught,” Dumbledore answered gently, looking at Sirius over the tips of his clasped fingers. Sirius looked away bitterly, his jaw tight.
“I would go,” Severus Snape cut in, his gaze resting viciously on Sirius. “But unlike others who so comfortably hide behind excuses and the protection of others, I have quite a few tasks on my plate besides teaching school. It is regrettable that I can’t sit at home all day, learning how to cook without wands…”
“You’d better watch what you say in my house, Snivellus,” Sirius hissed.
“Or what?” Severus countered in a soft, yet effectively menacing tone. “Going to chase me all the way to your doorstep before you tuck your tail between your legs and crawl back to your hidey-hole?”
Sirius’s eyes flashed dangerously, and Arthur, registering trouble, thought it best to keep on topic. “Charlie is going on Thursday, anyway, he already told me,” he mentioned. “Friday is the riskiest…there are two maintenance teams on duty that night and several people like to work late at the end of the week.”
“I’ll take that one,” Nora said cordially.
“Who is this?” Severus asked Dumbledore, obviously peeved because he was finally cornered into asking for more information about her.
“This is Nora, and as it turns out, she is an Animagus,” Dumbledore said, and Nora tried not to look sheepish. “Luckily for us, her form takes an owl. You can imagine the possibilities of such a wizarding-friendly animal; she can go anywhere, spy on anyone.”
“Where’s she been until now, then?” Snape’s voice was cold.
“In Scotland, recently,” Nora said evenly, her gaze steady and unflinching. “Five Death Eaters attacked my father when I was seven years old, as you may know. Four of them are in Azkaban – Bellatrix, Rabastan and Rodolphus Lestrange, and Antonin Dolohov. But Alecto Carrow has yet to be caught and I’ve been busy hunting. After I saw for myself all of the Death Eater and dementor activity, I decided it would be a wise move to come on home and be close to bases that are moving against Voldemort. I’ve been at Molly’s Auntie Muriel’s and Dedalus found me.”
An unusual light shone from Nora’s eyes when she mentioned the Lestranges, Dolohov, and Carrow. On the whole, she was gentle and good-humored, looking always at the brighter, more amusing sides of things. But when speaking of the Death Eaters, her eyes emitted a fiery sheen – a thirst for vengeance. She suddenly appeared somewhat dangerous. No one dared hold her gaze for long with such a furnace of deadly fury blazing from within. Sirius felt almost as though she were scorching him from inside-out, and absent-mindedly touched his exposed face and hands to ensure they weren’t singed.
Dedalus was sitting in the corner on a moldy-looking pouffe, looking grave. “Indeed, I did search her out at Muriel’s,” he confirmed, nodding his head. “We need more eyes in the skies, especially after what happened to Sturgis Podmore.” They all spent a moment thinking about Podmore, who had been caught while on duty for the Order, patrolling outside the Department of Mysteries. He'd refused to explain himself, and the Ministry sentenced him to six months in Azkaban. Judging by the way Sirius's features darkened whenever the wizard prison was mentioned, Nora did not take Podmore's sacrifice lightly.
“Fantastically put, my friend,” Dumbledore told him, his blue eyes twinkling. “Doge and Emmeline will take Saturday and Sunday, so that’s all taken care of.” And with that he stood up, very tall and strong-looking despite his ancient age, which was everyone’s cue for dismissal.
Severus rolled his stiff shoulders, his nose up in the air and his eyes roving disdainfully over the various guests. Nora could not suppress a laugh. He swiveled to look at her, his face stricken. “Is there a problem?” he asked.
“None whatsoever,” she replied with a wry smile. She wrapped up a few scones in a napkin and shoved the package into his hands. “You look peaky and you missed dinner. I'll forgive you once because it was so dreadful, but Molly's on kitchen duty next time." The glint extinguished from her eyes, and she added, "And detentions or not, I'm going to be offended if you ever walk in late again."
Severus’s pitch-black eyes ogled her, the expression of pure disbelief.
“Hope you enjoy them,” Nora said gaily. “Good luck at Hogwarts.”
He did not say anything – he looked quite speechless – but he jerked his head in an unnatural way, which was good enough for her. “Hope to see you again, Severus,” Nora sang. She turned to the others. “And the rest of you as well. Good luck with everything. Meet back here again next Sunday?” She proceeded to embrace Tonks and Mad-Eye and Diggle in turn without waiting for anyone’s response.
“Feel free to fly on over and see me sometime,” Tonks told her with a wave. And one by one, they stepped over the threshold onto the front step of Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, and disapparated.
“You’re wasting your time playing nice with Grease-Head,” Sirius said to her as soon as the door had closed and it was just the two of them standing in the entrance corridor. “He doesn’t have a heart. You can’t save him or make him nice or whatever it is you're trying to do by being polite.”
Nora brushed his arm with her feather-light fingers. His heart gave a leap, not used to physical human contact. “I get the impression that Severus only pretends he doesn’t have a heart because it’s so heavily armored with ice,” she said softly. “Maybe I can get that to melt a little; make everyone happier, yeah?”
Sirius shook his head slightly, a rueful smile playing at his lips as their eyes met. “Good luck with that, then,” he said, and then after a pause – “Thank you.”
They were climbing upstairs together to the main floor, where they would turn up a second set of stairs. From there, their bedrooms were on the third landing. “For what?” she questioned.
“Coming to live here with me,” he answered. Nora thought his cheeks looked a bit pink, but she couldn’t be sure in the dark house, falling into late evening shadows. “If you hadn’t, I would only have these little meetings with the Order once a week to look forward to, which don’t last long and more often than not involve Snape. I know you didn’t move in as a personal favor or for my company, but all the same I am grateful.”
“Of course I moved in for your company,” Nora corrected him as they walked. Sirius looked sideways at her, raising his eyebrows and appearing dubious. “It’s true,” she added thoughtfully. “I’ve been isolated for almost five years. That’s nothing compared to how long you’ve been alone, of course, but I think we can both mutually understand the need to have someone else to depend on. And Muriel was horrid, it’s impossible to get along with her. You inviting me to live here preserved my sanity.”
Sirius tried not to look too pleased. “I’m glad you’re happy,” he told her in a hushed voice, gazing at her sideways for the longest time until he caught her eye.
“If I ever get in your way, don’t hesitate to tell me,” she replied as they reached her bedroom door, just off to the right on the landing. “Sometimes I can be…a ball of energy, as my mum used to say. You’re probably used to things being pretty quiet around here.”
“Too quiet,” he added with a smile. “I beg you to liven things up with your energy.” He tipped an invisible hat. “Good night, Nora.”
She dropped into a mock curtsy. “Sleep well, Sirius.”
Sirius Black awoke to an abrupt noise at around 2:30 a.m. After sleeping in a silent house for months (with the exception of Harry, Hermione, and the Weasley’s visit), one becomes accustomed to being stirred by small creakings and groanings. This particular creak seemed to have come from the attic, and there was a succession of fainter creaks pattering across his ceiling and down the stairwell, past his door. It was unmistakably the sounds of a person up and about in the night.
He slid smoothly out from under the covers into the chilly darkness, long stretches of moonlight streaming in through his window and falling into protracted criss-crossed patterns on the wooden floor. It was a mild summer’s night, cooler than it had been for weeks. He seized his wand from the bedside table and twisted his silver doorknob, creeping onto the landing. Silent as death.
Sirius traipsed downstairs, checking into the spare rooms that had been occupied by the Weasley’s, Harry, and Hermione over the summer. Buckbeak the hippogriff was sound asleep in his mother’s room, and he shut the door with an inaudible click, continuing to the entrance hall and peeking into the tapestry room. Empty.
Down the hall he traveled, treading lightly on the balls of his feet and peering around corners into various rooms with his wand stuck out as a precaution, but all rooms yielded no signs of life. When he reached the downstairs kitchen, which could be the only place left Nora could be, he whispered, “Nora?” into the dusky atmosphere.
There was no answer except for a scraping sound from the linen cupboard, where the mad house-elf Kreacher slept. Furrowing his brow, Sirius returned to the third landing and noticed that Nora’s bedroom door was slightly ajar. Merely wanting to check and make sure she was alright, Sirius slowly pushed it open, careful to make no noise.
She was peacefully asleep, and did not appear to have been on any recent adventures throughout the house. Nora looked as pale as an angel in the luminous blue moonlight, swathed with a pearly glow. Forgetting himself, Sirius dropped his grip on the doorknob and moved closer, gazing down at the girl.
Her cinnamon-tinged blonde hair was splayed out on the pillow, her face tilted toward the moon. Sirius found himself mentally tracing the curve of her soft lips, a purple hue in this light. Nora’s fair eyelashes rested serenely on her cheeks and she seemed a bit older, a bit more serious perhaps because she was not dimpled and laughing as she always was during the day. One slender arm draped across the surface of her thick coverlet, the fingers closed delicately over her palm.
Sirius spent several minutes bewitched by her, studying her tranquil features and the twists in her long wavy hair. He resisted the temptation to touch her, and once he realized his hand had been reaching through the air, making to slip a lock of hair behind her ear, he jolted out of his trance and backed quickly out of the room, closing the door most of the way like it had been.
She was so beautiful. And he came so close to touching her. How would she have reacted if she had woken up and caught him standing at the side of her bed like a maniac? She would have thought him spying on her. And he sort of was, but he didn’t really set out to…
What are you doing? Sirius inwardly demanded himself, resting flat against the wall outside of Nora’s bedroom, which was right across from his own. The house was completely washed in darkness except for the narrow patch of moonlight escaping through the cracks around Nora’s doorway. Don’t go thinking things that will only cause you pain. His chest rose and fell rapidly, his breathing somewhat ragged.
Obviously, Nora would never look at him in that way. She was nearly half his age. What would she want with a tainted older man who’d lost most of his allure and beauty in Azkaban? Who was trapped inside this grimy, God-forsaken building and his death hungered for by the Ministry of Magic…it was preposterous to consider that anyone, much less the pretty, vivacious young Nora Prewett to turn her eyes on him in any sort of romantic way.
He knew this. And yet, he could not stop himself from feeling windswept whenever she entered the room, could not prevent his heart from plummeting in his chest when she stared directly into his eyes and smiled with those petal-pink lips. And when she had reached out and touched his arm with her hand, his senses reeled and his brain swirled in a haze of deliriousness.
Stop it, he ordered himself in the firmest mental tone he could muster. She isn’t going to look twice at you, so you might as well get it out of your head. She deserves someone young and free, a man who isn’t jaded. You’ll clear off if you know what’s good for you.
He cast his eyes on the strip of light curling out from under her door, feeling despair rising inside him, an empty vacuum of hopelessness. It could never be.
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