Nora was dreaming that she was on her hands and knees, plowing through the drawing room for something. She had no idea what it was she was trying to find, but she knew that she must find it. She was certain that once she’d found this particular article, she would know that it was what she’d been looking for all along. She pulled open an old desk drawer and pawed through its contents, feeling all the while a frantic terror that she would not discover it in time, would lose it forever…
“Nora, wake up.”
Her eyes fluttered open. It was still dark, but her bedroom walls shimmered with a cerulean glow. Sirius was standing over her bedside, wearing a thick grey wool cloak and smiling.
“Sirius? What is it?”
“Here.” He handed Nora her own green coat. “Put this on, as well as some shoes.” She opened her mouth to respond, but he held a finger to her lips. “Don’t ask questions.”
Nora was instantly alert. She submissively slipped into her coat, socks, and musty old boots. When she’d finished fastening the buttons on her coat, he took her hand and silently led her down the dark stairs. “What time is it?” she whispered. Everyone else was evidently still asleep – the only sound was the wind whistling through the trees outside.
“Nearly five,” he told her, dropping his grasp when they reached the bottom of the stairs. “I’m going to cover your eyes now,” Sirius warned, and true to his word she felt his warm hands reaching from behind to press lightly on her face.
“What is all this about?” she wanted to know.
“Shh, you’ll wake the others,” he reproved quietly, and prompted her to step forward. “Keep going, I’ll guide you.”
Nora wasn’t fully awake enough for her head to be spinning with ideas yet, so she just did as he told her, reaching out with her arms to feel her way down the corridor. He turned her right, and then sharply left, and then straight. She knew where they were headed, but it wasn’t an area she was very familiar with. Why would Sirius be leading her onto the back porch?
His hand brushed her coat as he reached forward to turn the handle, and after pushing it open a gust of frigid wind rushed in to lap at Nora’s face. “I’m going to move my hands, but I want you to keep your eyes closed,” he ordered. “Agreed?” She nodded, and the warmth of his hands disappeared. He put one hand in the small of her back and gently prodded her forward outside into the back garden.
Nora could feel the moonlight on her face, white and icy. The air around her was freezing and she waited impatiently for him to speak. Finally he said, “Alright. You can open your eyes.”
Everything was a flurry of white.
All around her, snow was falling lightly, drifting down from the endless sky like teardrop-shaped diamonds. Fairy lights strung along the wooden porch railings behind them cast a rainbow sheen over the thick blanket of snow, lighting it up with reds, blues, greens, and purples. As the yard stretched on, the snow beyond was iridescent blue. The surface of it shimmered under pearly clouds, clouds lathered like moonlit smoke throughout the dark velvet sky. The boughs of trees that encircled Number Twelve’s garden were heavily laden with snow and ice, the tips of branches waving delicately. She loved the way tree limbs in winter twisted up into the night, like eerie claws, blending into the blackness.
“Oh,” Nora whispered, and a puff of frosty air escaped her lips, curling high overhead and then dissipating with the snowfall. She had been waiting for this, waiting to see the first snow of the year.
She turned to look at Sirius, who was a silent shadow behind her, awaiting her reaction. She beamed at him, and saw her smile reflected on his face. “It’s beautiful,” she told him. “Thank you for waking me.”
“I wanted you to see it before the sun could melt any away,” he replied, stepping forward. “Happy Christmas, Nora.”
She tilted her face heavenward, letting the lacy white snowflakes tickle her face. “I was ready to give up on any snow this year.”
“It’s been unseasonably warm,” he agreed. “But sometimes weather patterns change…when there has been a lot of Dark Magic in the vicinity. That’s what happened last time, too. I remember it snowed in May when I was in my final year at Hogwarts.”
“I imagine you wouldn’t have minded the glitch in monotony,” she guessed.
“Not at all.” He grinned and mimed hurling a snowball at an invisible victim. “I’m fantastic when it comes to weapons made from frozen water.”
“Oh, really?” Nora scooped up a wad of snow and packed it together in her fingers. The consistency was excellent – crunchy enough to make a great snowball, but not so hard that it’s basically a chunk of ice. She flung it at Sirius and hit him squarely in the chest.
He laughed. “Oh, you don’t want me as an enemy in a snowball fight, Nora. I would bury you.”
She tossed another one, this time splattering his shoulder.
He raised his eyebrows and swiftly piled together a collection of them, which he flung at her with brilliant speed and skill. Now that he was actually trying, he could dart her pathetic attempts with fluid ease, knocking her with another snowball every time she moved an inch. “Not fair!” she cried. “You must be using magic.”
“You just keep telling yourself that,” he shouted back, plying her with another one and ducking a wad of snow she’d directed at him. “You know, for a bird you’d think you’d have better aim. Extra senses and all that.”
“You’re a dog, but I don’t see you fetching any of my snowballs and bringing them back to me,” she teased. “I still think I might prefer you as a mutt, though.”
“Is that so?” he mused.
“Yeah, wet dog smell and all. You see, as an animal you can’t talk.” He was off his guard, and she managed to pelt him with a rather large one. It took her a second to notice the atmosphere shivering around him, and he exploded through the air into a long-haired black dog, bounding toward her at top speed. He flew like a tiger across the white lawn and she shrieked, laughing, as he knocked her over into the snow.
“Aagh!” she exclaimed, unable to move as he had her pinned. “Bad dog! Down!”
He responded by avidly licking her neck and face, to which she couldn’t stop laughing. Gasping for breath, she said, “Sirius, you’re impossible! If you wanted to kiss me, I’d rather you did it as a human.” As she realized what she’d said, blood flowed in hot torrents to her face and she turned to look fearfully at Sirius, who’d instantly stopped licking her. He had definitely heard Nora’s words.
He was a man again, his face hovering just inches away and with a hand on either side in the snow to support his weight. He was gazing wordlessly at her, his pupils expanded to make his eyes black like droplets of ink, and she felt delirious with its enigmatic power. His perfect lips were so close that she could taste his breath, his expression fathomless and so intense that she gave an involuntary tremble. Without really knowing what she was doing, Nora reached out and brushed his jaw with her fingertips, and he closed his eyes at her touch.
When he opened them again, he exhaled sharply with a gust of cool air, and there were sparks in his eyes, boring right through her. She felt his intensity like it was a fire; her skin blazed with it. They stared at each other for an infinitesimal pause and he nimbly rolled over to sit before her, pulling her to a sitting position as well. Sirius placed a hand behind Nora’s head and her heart beat wildly, feeling surreal, like an out of body experience. Surely he was not about to –
“Hey, you guys!” a voice rang out, shattering the heated tension between the two and actually making Nora’s heart skip two beats. “What are you doing out here, anyway?”
It was Ginny, wearing her striped green pajamas and watching them with a peculiar expression. “Oh, look! It’s snowing!” she turned to face someone inside the house. “Hey you lot, it’s snowing!”
An instant later, Fred and George were outside whooping and throwing snowballs, and Nora was struggling to breathe properly. How the hell did Ginny know we were out here? Sirius mentally cursed. Glaring, his eyes traveled up the dilapidated building of Number Twelve to a window he recognized as being on the second landing, and saw Molly Weasley’s face pressed against the glass for a fraction of a second before she had the shame to duck.
They quickly got to their feet, not looking at each other and thinking despairingly that they’d probably scared the other one off; that they’d gotten carried away with their own private feelings and would just be lucky if the other didn’t notice just how strongly they had behaved.
Sirius, terrified that Nora might want to move back with her Auntie Muriel now, covered his tracks by being ultra-indifferent to Nora herself and more friendly to everyone else in general, paying her no special attention. He sorely wished he had not bought Nora such an ostentatious present, but there wasn’t much he could do about that now.
He had gotten her the diamond and moonstone necklace she’d mentioned months ago, the one at Dervish and Banges that she threatened to sell him to the Ministry for. Everyone gasped when they saw the gorgeous sparkling gems around her throat, clamoring to know who had bought it for her. And both Sirius and Nora blushed repeatedly when Nora told then it was from Sirius. Tonks had thrown her so many insinuative winks that Remus eventually asked if she had a twitch.
“It’s beautiful,” Nora told Sirius, fingering the present that had to have cost more galleons than she cared to calculate. “You shouldn’t have, Sirius – I could spend every Christmas for the rest of my life buying you wonderful gifts and it would never match this – but it’s so lovely that I can’t really put my heart into admonishing you for it.” She then handed him a small package. “Now I really wish I’d gotten you something better. There’s no comparison.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he’d replied brusquely, ripping off the wrapping paper and trying to sound casual. “It looks amazing on you, and now you don’t have to rat me out to Fudge.” But when he saw what she’d gotten for him, in his opinion it was much, much better than diamonds or moonstones.
“Polyjuice Potion,” he marveled, allowing his eyes to meet hers.
She offered him a timid smile. “No one can lecture you about escaping this house and getting some fresh air every now and then if they don’t know it’s you,” she replied. “Just don’t tell Molly.”
“Are you kidding?” he said. “That woman would make me wear chains if she could. Easy for Molly to boss me around, when she has the luxury of freedom herself.” He weighed the bottle in his palm. “There’s enough in here for me to spend an entire day in disguise.” He paused, wanting desperately to throw his arms around her but restraining himself. “You bought me freedom.”
“Just a little,” she reminded him. “I wanted to get a much larger stock, but it would have cleared out my whole vault at Gringott’s. Use it wisely, eh?”
“Of course,” he murmured, eyeing its contents greedily.
Molly had knitted Nora a purple jumper with the letter ‘N’ stitched on the front, some mince pies, and Christmas cake; from Remus she received Chocoballs; from Ron and Ginny Peppermint Toads and Jelly Slugs; from Bill some nice stationary and a peacock feather quill; from Charlie a drinking glass that sings for you when you take a sip; and Tonks and the twins had pooled their resources to buy her a hamper of owl treats and a gilded birdcage.
Tonks had given herself tomato-red pin curls for the occasion, and wore a headband that flashed silver and gold. She gave Remus the Lunascope, and he seemed impressed – and relieved that she responded so positively to a charm bracelet with dolphins hanging from it. Tonks did not have a particular fondness for dolphins, and the bracelet appeared to have been second-hand, but obviously he was low on selection and it was the best he could do. Tonks couldn’t have been more thrilled if he’d given her an outrageously expensive piece of jewelry like Nora’s. In her eyes, anything from Remus was a priceless treasure.
Sirius and Remus entertained everyone by dueling with icicles, garnering much laughter and good spirits until Molly reminded the bystanders who were taking bets on a winner that she wanted to see her husband and sister-in-law. Nora was scarcely less eager to leave as well, wanting to get everything over with as soon as possible. Christmas, after all, was one of the only days she visited her mother in St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.
It was also the busiest day of the year.
Dozens of people were crammed just in the front waiting room, some of them with antlers, some with Christmas tree ornaments shoved up their noses, and some who had been jinxed to only speak the lyrics of “Jingle Bells”. One woman followed Nora to the reception desk, tinsel sprouting from her ears, booming, “Cousin Oliver is better at hexes than I will ever be! Cousin Oliver is better at hexes than I will ever be!” over and over again. Nora was thankful when the receptionist recognized her and waved her to go upstairs.
Petula Prewett’s permanent ward was located on the fourth floor. A sign on the door read SPELL DAMAGE, and Nora hesitantly pushed through it. She wished Sirius could have come along, but even with Polyjuice Potion Molly probably would have noticed something was amiss, and he’d glumly stayed behind.
Petula did not suffer spell damage herself, per se. After Gideon’s murder, something inside his wife’s brain just snapped. The Healers told Nora that they could mend broken bones and wounds, but there is no cure for what a broken heart can do to your psyche. And Mrs. Prewett’s psyche was badly, badly damaged. It used to be a nightmare for Nora to visit her mother because Petula relived her husband’s death every minute she was awake, and released blood-curdling screams at random moments, speaking to people who weren’t there and cradling an invisible child in her arms. The Healers were worried that she might suffer a heart attack during this prolonged emotional torture, and decided that the kindest course of action would be to Obliviate her memory. Usually this spell works well on sound minds, and simply erases what the caster intends to erase. However, Petula did not have a sound mind and after being Oblivated, was left as an empty shell who sat in a chair all day, staring blankly with drool on her chin.
Someone had decorated Petula’s ward for Christmas, but whoever had done so hadn’t put as much effort into it in comparison to other wards Nora passed, probably because they knew the patient did not notice these things and did not care. Nora found the small cluster of glass ornaments dangling from the ceiling and a single paper snowflake on the wall to be even more depressing than emptiness.
Petula’s hair was grey and lank, cut in a simple bob for easier maintenance. As though Nora was walking straight out of her memory of Christmas day last year, everything was exactly the same: her mother was positioned in her worn wooden chair with the burnt orange upholstery in one corner, angled slightly to the left with her knobbly knees close together. On her feet were thin slippers, and she was dressed in a red knitted jumper and green pants for an occasion she was oblivious to.
Her eyes were large and watery, the bags underneath them reminiscent of a basset hound, and her skin colorless. Petula’s face was void of any expression and her eyes glazed over, as though she had not seen light in fifteen years. It scared Nora how much older her mother looked, how lifeless. She avoided this room like the plague because for one, she knew her mother did not really register her presence. But she also avoided it because every time she looked into her mother’s face, she remembered the horrible screaming she used to do before the Healers Oblivated her, and it gave Nora goosebumps.
Nora placed a small present on the table next to all the other presents she’d given her in years past, all untouched except to be dusted by Maintenance. Just like every year prior, she gave her a snowglobe. Petula Prewett used to adore snowglobes, back when she was really alive.
She sat down in the chair opposite her mother. “Happy Christmas, Mum.”
Nora smiled wanly. “Otcher” was the only thing Petula ever said. At first, she had hoped her mother might be meaning to say ‘wotcher’, as in the greeting ‘what cheer’. As time passed, however, and Petula bellowed the word while ripping her hair out in chunks, sobbing it and just repeating it in her sleep until her voice went hoarse, she realized what it was. Gibberish. Petula Prewett’s brain was fried and she would never hold her daughter close to her again, never smile at her with those warm brown eyes, and say, “I love you, Leni.” Leni had always been Petula’s name for her.
It was a fate worse than her father’s.
“Sorry I haven’t been in to see you,” Nora replied. She felt no guilt, however. Her mother wasn’t really here; it was like rambling to a tombstone because Petula Prewett had died years and years ago. “I’m living with Sirius Black now, didn’t you know? Turns out he’s not a Death Eater after all, and he escaped from Azkaban. He’s got eyes like a stormy sea and sometimes I just want to push him up against a wall and snog him senseless.”
“Yes, and I’m part of the new Order of the Phoenix. Sort of took your place, didn’t I? Oh yeah, the war’s still on. We thought it was safe for awhile, that Voldemort was gone…”
Nora stopped. She could have sworn Petula had flinched at the mention of his name. Was it possible that in the depths of that woman’s empty mind, she could still make a conscious connection to the sinister tyrant who had caused such fear and panic? Enough fear and panic to ingrain his name in someone who was, for all purposes, brain-dead?
“Voldemort,” she repeated, watching her mother closely. But there was no response – Petula didn’t even blink.
Nora leaned back and sighed, impatiently checking her watch. “I don’t know if Molly’s been in to tell you, but Arthur’s here. Bit by a giant snake and almost died, but luckily for him Harry Potter’s got a psychic link to Voldemort and he was saved just in the nick of time.” She evaluated her mother for any signs of comprehension, but there was nothing. Petula’s mouth was hanging open, with some bubbles of saliva dribbling out one corner. “You must remember Harry; he was the baby everyone made such a fuss about. The boy who lived and all that.”
“Otcher!” Petula shrieked, her hands flying to her hair. “Otcher!”
“So I’d probably best be going to see my uncle, as he knows who I am and you don’t. Believe me, Mum, I forgave you a long time ago for mentally checking out, for allowing yourself to go insane while I was made a burden on every relative we have. Being alone at seven years old is a wretched cross to bear, but I forgave you…”
“Otcher.” Her mother’s voice was tame and subdued now, no longer yelling.
“Unless you ask me to stay,” Nora added resignedly. She always did this – gave Petula the option of overcoming her haze and finally speaking real words. She always hoped she’d be met by replies of, “Please stay, Leni!”, but as usual, there was only incoherent silence. She knew it was unfair to resent her mother, but she couldn’t change the way she felt. “Unless there’s anything you want from me…”
“Otcher.” Petula reached out with one bony, claw-like hand and grasped her daughter’s wrist. “Otcher!” She began to scream so loudly that two Healers had to rush in and calm her down. “Otcher! OTCHER! OTCHER!”
Nora couldn’t take it anymore. “See you later, Mum,” she replied in a shaky voice, and without a backwards glance, she got up and headed downstairs to Arthur’s room on the first floor, ducking into a loo for a few seconds on the way to mop up the tears that threatened to spill over. She couldn’t go see Frank and Alice today, couldn’t stand the thought of trying to make conversation with more living, breathing dead people. Nora stopped in the hallway and took out some tissue to blow her nose with.
Surprisingly, this was where she bumped into Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who were also on their way to the lift. All three were talking quietly and looking serious, throwing odd looks over their shoulders. “What are you up to?” Nora asked, and Hermione squeaked in surprise.
“Um…” Harry looked from Ron to Hermione, his eyes not meeting Nora’s.
“Quick, make something up before I get suspicious,” Nora replied in what was supposed to be a lighthearted, playful tone. It came out rather raspy, though.
Ron caved first. After all, Nora was his favorite cousin and he saw no reason not to confide in her. “We’ve just been wandering a bit, and…well, we found Professor Lockhart, who was our Defense Against the Dark Arts professor in second year. Bit of a git, really…”
Hermione pursed her lips, giving him a withering frown. “But we also saw Neville Longbottom.”
“Yes,” Nora said knowingly, nodding her head. “Yes, I imagine so. He’s always here at Christmas. Sometimes he even comes with me and says hello to my mum, just to be nice. I usually pop in to give my love to Frank and Alice, so he returns the favor, knows my mum doesn’t get many guests.”
Ron’s jaw dropped. “You know? You know about Neville’s parents?” He sounded utterly gobsmacked.
Nora stopped blowing her nose, perking up curiously. “Of course I know about Neville’s parents. My mum and dad were friends with them. Alice and my mum used to take me to the beach on weekends, and even baby Neville came after he was born. It was great. And Frank bought me tons of Strawberry Sickles from Honeydukes; always had a handful when I came round to his house.”
“How come no one ever told me that Death Eaters tortured them into insanity?” Ron cried indignantly. “All this time I thought…well I never really thought about it, but still…” he rambled off, looking pink in the face.
Nora shrugged. “You never asked.” She paused, mulling over his words. “You mean that Neville’s never told you about what happened to his parents?”
She eyed them all sternly. “Then don’t tell anyone else. We clear?”
Harry nodded. “Yeah, we know. Actually, I knew about it for awhile now but didn’t say anything to anyone because I knew Neville wasn’t ready to share it yet.”
Nora nodded. “Yes, let him take his time. I’ll bet Molly’s wondering where you got to – let’s get downstairs and say hi to your dad again, Ron, before we skip out.”
They all filed into the elevator, Nora listening and occasionally joining in with their chatter and trying to rid her mind of the sounds of her mother’s nonsensical shouting. When the doors opened, a woman holding a potted plant brushed past to enter the lift and it took Nora half a second to place her hands on the doors, keeping it open.
“Desdemona?” she exclaimed, her eyes popping wide.
The woman bristled, and sniffed as she looked Nora over, clutching the tangled green plant closely to her chest. “Yes?”
Nora’s mouth fell open, and she sensed the other three hesitating just on the other side, watching. Oh, but she looked so different! The Desdemona Nora knew as a small child was lovely, like pictures of Muggle film stars back in the days of silver screen glamour. She always had her fluffy platinum blonde hair rolled back in elegant twists, and wore thick red lipstick and false eyelashes. In winter times, she would let Nora play dress-up in her mink shawl and patent leather high heels.
This Desdemona resembled her younger self about as much as a potato resembles a dandelion. Her hair, like Petula’s, was heavily streaked with grey, and she hadn’t even bothered with trying to restore the youthful blonde mane she used to have. There was no white powder on her face, no rouge, no thick fringe of black lashes. The only likeness that gave Nora any reason to believe it was actually Petula’s doting friend Desdemona Rupnik was the memorable red lipstick. The effect wasn’t nearly as pretty, however, and it didn’t do much to enhance the cracked, thinning lips. If possible, it only made her look more old and alien.
Desdemona’s face drained of color. “Sorry, I don’t know you.”
Nora’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “But – what are you talking about, Desdemona? Are you here to visit my mum?”
“I’m not Desdemona,” she responded stiffly, and reached out to sever Nora’s grip on the elevator doors, causing them to close. Just before the woman disappeared from sight, Nora thought she saw something like dread dawning over the woman’s pinched features. Could she be frightened of being associated with families that fought against Voldemort? Was that why one of Petula’s closest friends did not ever check up on Nora, never once visited or sent a single card?
She must have known what the Death Eaters had done to the Prewetts, and decided by example to steer clear of anyone resisting Voldemort’s regime now that it was rising again. After all, people who open their mouths tend to end up as targets.
Nora studied the black-haired boy walking along before her, who was for many a symbol of hope and perseverance. She involuntarily edged closer to him, as if to protect him from the evil that was determined to penetrate from all sides; the suffocating darkness that wanted to claim Harry Potter and any hope the world had left.
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