Chapter 1 : One for Sorrow
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Beautiful CI by Jayce @ TDA.
March 1996, Knockturn Alley
The London day is grey, and my best friend is dead.
Sebastian pulls my forehead against his, and his tears slither down my cheeks. I am numb. I cannot cry, I cannot mourn this great impossibility, this horror of horrors.
Dead. On what was once an ordinary grey day in London, alone among the grizzled trophies and collected tokens of the shop. I was curled up with a book as Sebastian burst in, his face damp with the fog outside. He smelt of smoke and excitement.
They found Penelope’s body in her flat. She was still in her nightgown, she had the article she was writing clutched in her hands. I’m so sorry, Verity. She’s dead. It’s the truth.
Somehow, it is impossible for me to fathom a London without Penelope Clearwater, the sharp, sarcastic companion of my girlhood and Hogwarts years, her quick wit and kind smile and wicked moods not even the devil himself could breach. I am numb, without expression. Sebastian pulls back and moves his hands to my shoulders, concerned. He tries to kiss me: an uncomfortable, wet thing-but I am cold, don’t even bother pushing him away.
“Ver…” He is perplexed, beautiful face carved into a grieving mask. Behind his blond head, the dust particles in the air seem to freeze. “Verity, please say something, babe.”
Something about this juvenile endearment pulls at me, reminds me of who I am, what has happened, and what I have lost. It is spring, London, 1997. My name is Verity Burke, halfblood, orphan of nearly three years. Daughter of Caractus and Willa Burke, former Ravenclaw, girlfriend of Sebastian Deleau. Best friend of Penelope Clearwater. Penelope is dead…
“Please watch the shop,” I say formally to Sebastian, and sliding my body away from his like rainwater on glass I walk outside into the Alley. It begins to rain, angry pellets that slice through the fog like knives and I lift my face to the sky, hoping that the wretched English weather, this wicked, wicked place that is England will cleanse me of my makeup and my clothes and my adulthood and will renew a second rising of innocence inside of me. Oh, Penny.
Inside me I feel her absence beginning to stretch and take its bearings, flexing within the small space reserved, in the left cavity of my chest. Penelope’s absence explores its newly discovered emptiness, ruffles it’s wings contentedly. I never knew that tiny pieces of my body were waiting to separate into the ether. I never knew until today, this grey day.
A shuffling, ragged figure approaches me, placing a wrinkled, brown hand on my wrist. I realize I am shivering from the cold, goosebumps rising and prickling up and down my exposed forearms. I look down at the withered face: Old Wendy, who sells her contraband, gruesome wares, disconcerts many, but I have spent enough time dealing with her that I see her for what she is: mad, ugly, and lonely.
“’Ye alright, lassie?” she rasps in her usual whisper, a brown tooth peeking out. “It is’ne trouble with that ‘andsome lad of yers?”
“Everything is fine, thank you,” I tell Old Wendy, forcing a grim smile onto my face. The baring of my teeth feels like the motion of a corpse. I can sense Sebastian, peering out of the shop behind me, ready to rush in and rescue me at the slightest sign of trouble. He likes to play the hero, Sebastian. “Thank you, Wendy. I’d best be getting back in the shop now.”
Old Wendy nods respectfully and releases me, hobbling her slow way down the street, her tray of snake’s tongues balancing precariously in her shriveled hands. Behind her trail the ghosts of her history. The young lover, dead from a Muggle disease, the long weeks of coughing up blood and her hands, her hands wiping his face with a handkerchief and her hands in his blood. The men who refused her work after her mother died, leaving her to care for two sickly young siblings. The day she was caught stealing from the fish market in Diagon Alley and brought to Azkaban. The madness which flooded the void, dark waters which churn still.
I re-enter the shop, soaking water onto the dark wood floors, wincing at the familiar loud creak in the floorboards. I clutch my wand in my wand and give it a wave, muttering a spell for drying under my breath. A few pitiful sparks float out from the tip, but nothing else happens. Frustrated, I try again. Clearly, magic doesn’t want to work for me today.
Looking concerned, Sebastian takes out his own wand and makes quick work of my wet clothes, casting a quick spell so that warm air blasts out of his wand. This, more than anything, awakens me from the blissful state of numbness.
“Can we talk?” He says anxiously, not wanting to waste any time. “I loved her too, Verity.”
“I know,” I say, putting absolutely no blame or guilt, no accusation or knowing into those two words.
He sighs. “Look, I took the day of work as soon as I found out. I came straight to tell you: I wanted you to hear from me, not from The Prophet, or from her parents three days too late, or from the Ministry. I’m here for you. Can’t we close the shop and go somewhere to talk?”
I shake my head, the return to thinking about business and customers and presentation strangely comforting. “Not yet. Mr. Bor-there’s a special customer coming in, one that I’m not allowed to deal with. Borgin is coming in himself, any minute now. Then we can… talk.” I feel the scorn lingering on the last word, and know that talking to Sebastian, his anxious, earnest expressions of grief and support, is the last thing I need. “And after, I want to see my friend, please.”
Like my father, like my grandfather, I am a collector. I am a collector of memories and ghosts, of thoughts and passions and regrets. I gather them like trinkets, hidden in nightmares that nobody hears and discarded like clothing or the shedding of skin. They come to me in haste, in desperation, clutching an old traveler’s cloak said to have belonged to the Peverells, with wooden spinning wheels that spin on their own accord and wedding rings, never worn. In trinkets I find a mass of souls, of stories, and in telling their stories and counting the Galleons they recall a lifetime of fears and things too precious to regret.
An old man, white beard poking out beneath his cloak, whispered to me the tale of his lost love, a beautiful Muggle boy of seventeen. When his father found out he beat the boy senseless. The boy married a girl from across the way, and never for a fleeting moment could he love her in return. For his old pocket watch I gave the old man three Galleons; for his story, a smile that promised anonymity and understanding. I stored his story in my head, where it joins bunched catalogues of tall truths and the blurred faces of babies born dead.
Penelope Clearwater told me her story our first night in the Ravenclaw dormitory, perched excitedly on the edges of our new four poster beds, pajama-wrapped legs tucked under us as we bounced in excitement. The youngest in a large family of people who strived to be perfect, she had never heard of magic until the wonderful letter came with a Hogwarts crest. Her parents were shocked but thrilled, her siblings uncertain how to integrate a young witch into their own particular brand of human-hood.
From that day on, I lived Penny’s story with her: long hours spent bent over books at the library, practicing beauty charms and enchantments as she grew tall and lovely. Lines of poetry, scribbled and re-written until her quills were worn down to stubs, the words and rhythms she loved so that they seemed to pulse behind her eyes. The night she first slept with him she ran back to the dormitory to waken me, eyes shining in the wandlight, hair tussled about her round, pale face like a gentle halo. The long months of silence when she was Petrified, when I took flowers and things she loved to smell and lay them by her quiet bed, and spoke to her about the fears I could never tell her when she was waking. I need you. I miss you. Things are getting worse. When she woke, we flew into each other’s arms, giggling like the children we were. The world was simple, and then it was not, and then nothing made sense as we were plunged towards adulthood.
The morning Penelope Clearwater was murdered was a grey London day. She died with her words in her hands. Walking to work early that morning, my hands in my pockets and head tucked into a hood, a small black and white bird had flown across my path. It settled itself on the stone wall, hopped along after me, then sang a small ode to the whistling wind. A magpie. I remembered an old nursery rhyme:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy.
Even then, I should have known something was wrong that could never be right. Death is unchangeable, can never be mastered. The magpie did not mock me, but for the rest of the day I swore he was always just out of eyesight, the funeral tune humming across the gray day. One for sorrow. Two for joy. Three for a girl, four for a boy.
My name is Verity Burke, witch, blond, serious, sales associate, Hogwarts graduate, collector of stories, orphan, Ravenclaw, girlfriend of Sebastian. Superstitious, quiet, frightened. Frightened of the hole in my chest where my best friend’s feathers stick together, her heartbeat fast and empty, her song trapped within the walls close to my heartbeat, it’s steady rhythm just out of tune. Her story forever stored within me, it’s ending an open question mark.
My own story began with the ending of Penelope’s. It is a story of sorrow and joy, of boys and girls, of heaven and hell, of the devil himself. That year was one of transition, in which the lines of good and evil, of morality and selfishness would become jumbled and impossible to distinguish.
For people like me, for the common people who loved and lost and inflicted pain as shamelessly as we always had. Wizarding Britain sat on the edge of a precipice and though you already know how it ends, you need to know how it happened.
So this is the story of how I fell in love for the second time, and while that love hurt many people, it helped many as well. This is the story of the unlikely love that, instead of showing me everything I had done wrong in the past, reminded me to be better in the future. This is the story of hypocrisy, of self-awareness and self-loathing, of finding a voice in an uncertain new order. Of regret and healing and fear and every human thing in between.
March 1996, A Little Church in Oxfordshire
At the funeral, Sebastian tells me that I have too many words. Somebody asks me how I am, in the kind, sympathetic way of those speaking to the bereaved, and I launch into a description of contraband goblin-made knives and how the trade has been declining. He has to drag me away when I start telling the waiter about the time Penelope and I went skinny dipping in the Black Lake on a warm May morning.
“Can’t you see you’re embarrassing yourself?” He hisses. From that moment on I am uncomfortably silent, fearing Sebastian’s embarrassment as if I could take his emotions upon my own self. His face, which flushes so easily, lends its betrayal of emotions to my own. I turn a light pink, a medium red, my eyes fixed on Sebastian’s face until I can focus no more.
“You’re not acting like you,” he warns, pulling me aside. “Please, Verity, I’m sorry, but can you please just be cool?”
It’s my best friend’s funeral, I want to scream at him, to beat my fists against his chest until he restrains me, or kisses me, or screams back at me. But this is the cold, new Sebastian, sharply built into his tailored suits from Madam Malkin’s and his crisp talk of money, of foreign capital and goblin investment, of individualism and meritocracy and many other things I wish I didn’t understand. I fade out during Professor McGonagall’s speech of what a wonderful Head Girl and strong, promising student Penelope Clearwater had been, and find myself fantasizing about the Sebastian of our Hogwarts years, the thin, bookish boy with thick glasses and hair a bit too long, who used to pick me up over his shoulder like it was nothing, whose laugh boomed a little too loudly through the common room, who spoke of statistics and investment as passionately as Penny talked about Muggleborn rights, a serious, comically intense look on his slim, fine-boned face. He was always pretty to me, a starveling, something to be watched and gently handled.
“…her commitment to upholding the traditions of Hogwarts and dedication to being a leader within the school will be fondly remembered-” McGonagall continues, and a rush of guilt flows through me as I realize I’ve forgotten Penelope for a full minute as I thought about Sebastian.
A few rows in front of me, one of Penny’s dark-headed sisters sobs into her father’s shoulder. He doesn’t look at her: his gaze is fixed at the casket at the front of the small church. The web of his story is tangled: he cannot understand why someone from the wonderful world of magic, the world to which his daughter escaped to each year and returned home from in the summers, her face glowing with tales of dragons and Charms and flying- would want to hurt his brilliant, kind-hearted little daughter, who argued fiercely and stayed up late writing poetry by wandlight, quill scratching under the blankets so as not to disturb her dorm mates.
I should be crying, I suppose. But the tears do not come, not when McGonagall finishes her elegy and bows her head, blowing a most out of character kiss in the direction of the dead girl. Awkwardly, someone begins to clap before realizing that this is a funeral and one must not clap at funerals: it might rouse the dead from their quiet solitude, or disturb the awaiting angels who hover in the wings of the little church, waiting to escort the solitary soul up to heaven. The clapping stops, abruptly, and still I do not cry.
Instead of making a speech and causing everyone there to squirm with awkwardness at my lack of eloquence, I have opted to read a poem, one of Penny’s favorites.
“And neither the angels in heaven above, nor the demons down under the sea…Can ever dissever my soul from the soul...”
I stumble over the word “dissever” and keep myself from rolling my eyes at the invisible tension that ripples through the room, at these people cringing for me. I can nearly hear their jumbled thoughts: Poor Verity, so torn up…Can’t even get through a poem… Is she drunk?... They were best friends, you know…
I recover and finish the poem, suddenly hotly aware of how morbid and sad it sounds, echoing through the ears of these people who may or may not have know Penelope, who may or may not have loved her. I remember Penny excitedly poring over the book of poems and reading this one to me aloud, marveling over the simplicity of the syllables and the sounds of the words rolling off her tongue. Chilling and killing… I read the poem because Penny adored it, consumed it like the water of life. I look out over the assembled crowd, each one a judge. Only Professor Dumbledore soothes me, his blue eyes watery and kind as I walk by him with my head bowed.
Sebastian says nothing as I rejoin him in the pew, merely squeezes my hand in a small gesture of apology and solidarity. I squeeze back, relieved to have the moment over with. Nobody tries to clap this time.
Twenty minutes later, Sebastian and I hold each other tightly, relieved to have found some use for each other in this unfamiliar terrain. If Penelope could see us now she would have rolled her eyes, dragged me aside, and told me to stop acting like an awkward twat and go remedy my relationship with a good snog in the church loo. Tears prick at my eyes, and I let them trickle out for the first time since that awful day when I saw the magpie and heard its strange greeting.
“What am I supposed to do without a best friend?” I sob quietly to Sebastian, and he grips me tighter as the wizards in the group lift their wands, the tips lit in the dusk. The Muggles among us bow their heads: I notice in a detached way that Penny’s Mum is supported by her two sons, the three faces to alike and so unlike the girl being lowered into the ground.
Walking slowly, Sebastian’s arm wrapped around me, we wave and exchange brief hellos and hugs with old schoolmates: Archie Macmillian, who pumps Sebastian’s hand enthusiastically and murmurs “terrible, terrible.” Victoria and Celine, my former dormmates, approach me and wrap their thin arms around me, smelling of flowery perfumes and peppermint chewing gum. They have both been crying, dark smudges on the creases beneath their eyes. Percy Weasley, Penny’s ex-boyfriend, nods to us, looking very thin and rigid in his black Ministry attire. Yet another person who’s changed so much in the two years since we left Hogwarts.
I notice that Dumbledore disappears right after the service, but not before presenting his condolences once more to the grieving family. He smiles kindly, long fingers twirling, spectacles glinting in the coming darkness. I remember absently that it was Dumbledore himself who informed the Clearwaters of their daughter’s status as a witch. I can see the grieving parents clinging to each other, helplessly, desperate to know what force motivated someone to seek out their daughter and kill her, this confusion which pounds a mournful drum within me. I hope Dumbledore reassured them that they were safe, that the killers would be caught and punished. They don’t fully grasp the situation in the wizarding world, and perhaps it is best that they hide their family and fly beneath the radar, in case whoever slaughtered Penelope want to come back for more.
I heard Dumbledore got sacked this year from Hogwarts. Upsetting, that. Sebastian tells me that the Prophet has been printing all kinds of stories disclaiming Dumbledore and his insistence that You-Know-Who is back. Faced with my wise former Headmaster again, who appears perfectly sane, I wonder blindly if perhaps he’s not an old fraud after all. But I cannot spare even a few moments to ponder something beyond this quieting churchyard.
The dusk is growing, and I feel the stories of the mourners swirling within their skulls, begging to be released in this most vulnerable of moments.
Later that night, Sebastian’s flat
“Do you know what’s horrible?” I say to Sebastian later. We’re sitting in the front room of his flat, shuffling chess pieces across the board given to him by his granddad. I am losing spectacularly.
Seb looks at me steadily, hand poised on a pawn.
“What’s horrible, Ver? What could it possibly be?”
“There’s no real possibility for revenge, or justice. We can’t know who it was who killed her, who pointed his or her wand at her... I wish she could be avenged properly, Seb.”
He sighs. “Because she was a Muggleborn. Because she was vocally and publically involved in the Muggle Rights Movement. Because her anti-pureblood poetry was being circulated to too many people. Maybe she knew something she wasn’t supposed to. There are still those who hate Muggleborns. Perhaps Penny had more enemies than we knew.” Sebastian recites, eyes flashing for a moment.
“But, hate enough to kill?” I press on. “I don’t understand why someone would murder her. It’s come from nowhere.” I look around a little anxiously. “You did put up the protective charms, right?”
Sebastian stretches his arms over his head wearily. “Of course I did, but we don’t have anything to worry about, do we? Neither of us are Muggleborn. You work in a shop that caters to the Dark Arts-no, don’t deny it, who do you think most of your customers mostly are? I’m a banker, and everyone knows capitalists are safe when it comes to politics and ideals. As long as no former Death Eaters owe me money, I’ll be fine.” He smirks a little at this, but it only irritates me further.
“I can’t believe you can kid about these things, today of all days,” I snap at him, sending a bishop to certain death with an angry shove. “Somebody killed one of our closest friends, Seb. How do we know they won’t come after the set?”
Sebastian sighs. “Babe, Penelope put herself in their path. She put herself out there, in the public eye, with those bloody poems of hers. She should have just lied low, she should have done like we do.”
“But now she’s dead.”
“And we’re alive.”
“Babe, aren’t you worried that perhaps… the rumors are true? That Potter and Dumbledore are telling the truth?”
Sebastian ignores my question and shoots back, urging his rook across the board. The pieces shriek with their little marble glee. “Checkmate.” Excitedly, Sebastian’s chess pieces descend upon my king, who shields his face with his hands in terror. Annoyed, I scoop him up out of harm’s way, getting stabbed by a fierce white pawn in the process.
“Ouch! Your blasted piece cut me!”
“Maybe you should have been more careful,” Seb retorts, but he takes my hand in his own and heals over the small slice with a quick spell. The acknowledgement goes unspoken that I haven’t been able to perform magic since the day Penelope… the day I saw the magpie. He taps the chessboard authoritatively and his chess pieces scamper obediently into the little velvet bag he’s holding out. Sensing safety, the little chess king squirms in my hands. I am reminded of how helpless the king is: relying on those around him to protect him, only able to move one square at a weary time to escape the ruthless hunters.
That night, curled on the other side of the bed from my boyfriend’s heavy breathing, I think about Sebastian’s story.
A sickly baby and a sickly child, Sebastian was carelessly bullied by the Muggle children at his primary school where he learned to read and write. Precocious and unusually articulate for a child, people learned quickly that strange things happened around the small boy with glasses. His parents, a witch and wizard in their own right, kept away from the neighbors, fearful that someday a Muggle would wander in and spy a child hanging from a broomstick, or a cauldron bubbling and being absently stirred as Sebastian’s parents prepared dinner. Seb, an only child, never had friends over and never had any real friends besides the few wizard children of his parents’ friends.
By the time he arrived at Hogwarts, Sebastian had begun the growth spurt that would put him heads above the other boys in our year. He lost the stutter, got cooler glasses, and never hinted at his lonely childhood, although the words freak and loser would instantly cause him to freeze before realizing they no longer had to apply to him. A typical earnest Ravenclaw, Sebastian and I getting together in our sixth year seemed to be the natural progression from the friendship we had always nurtured.
“I like you because you’re interesting,” he told me once. “You have background, a story, you know?” I knew all about stories but had never thought much about my own. For me, Sebastian was the comfort of a pair of arms and thoughtful words, the sharp ambition and drive that could whip my scatterbrained intelligence into shape and direction.
Sebastian battled with Penelope and Percy Weasley for top spot in our class, having the bad luck to be born into a year of particularly competitive Ravenclaws. In the end, I’m quite sure he finished second, although I never did find out who was the highest. Immediately out of Hogwarts he secured a job with Gringotts, his mechanical mind, calculated politeness and intolerable drive scoring him first a paid internship, then a four-year contract as a Junior Banker. Sebastian was finally flying high, and he made sure everyone knew it. And I, Verity Burke, his longtime girlfriend, found myself choking on his dust, confused at where the sweet, clever boy I’d committed myself to had disappeared to.
I exhale, deeply, wondering if the sound of my breath will rouse him, if he will roll over an wrap his arms around me, and try to make me laugh, and remind me that we are here, breathing and alive, and in love like Penelope would have wanted us to be. But selfishly, he sleeps on, and selfishly, I lie awake, feeling sorry for myself.
A/N: The magpie poem is an old English nursery rhyme. The lines from the poem Verity reads at the funeral are from Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe. Let me know what you think of my newest WIP in a review!