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Background Noise by teh tarik
Chapter 3 : A Gentle Snow of Pianofortes
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 4

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A/N: So I think this is a saner chapter than the previous two? But I dunno. THANK YOU for the reviews, everyone!

THREE: A Gentle Snow of Pianofortes

The morning after that nightmarish circus of a birthday, I wake up in a bed that isn’t mine. The sunlight is how I know. In my flat, I’ve had the bed moved into an awkward diagonal, cutting across the room, pushing as far away as possible from the window. And my window is plastered with old newspapers and layered over with Muggle rubbish bags and old black robes, so whatever sunlight that worms through the coverings is hued with dirt and reasonably dull.

Right now, the too-bright morning is stabbing through my eyelids, and the bed I’m on is clean and yellow-patterned and smelling of an alien laundry soap, not something you’d ever find in this dimension.

“Yes, indeed,” Nora says sourly. She’s sitting next to me in bed rubbing her eyes. “You are occupying half my bed.”

“How the hell did I end up here?”

“A good question. I wish I knew. I only know that your dead weight exceeds the maximum load I am able to lift, therefore it is unlikely that I carried you to my bed.”

“I don’t believe I’m that heavy.”

“You are,” Nora assures me. “You possess a great amount of muscle mass. Your biceps ripple every time you move your arms. You must have a rather gruelling exercise regime.”

I don’t even remember falling asleep, though I do remember Nora dripping with pie. Chunks of beef sliding down the sides of her face, her hair sticky and brown with gravy, pastry flaking off her eyelids.

Nora jumps off the bed and is nearly swallowed up by her flat, which is a live, pulsing, pastelled creature, all doilied curtains and lace-trimmed cushions and buttercup-coloured rugs and tea towels. On the walls are hand-crocheted hangings embroidered with slogans in CAPITAL LETTERS: DUST IS THE PIT OF HUMAN DIGNITY. DUST IS THE MESS-IAH OF DARKNESS. DUST BUNNIES ARE THE TRUE MONSTERS BENEATH THE BED. DUST IS NO PIXIE DUST.

I’ve never been into Nora’s apartment before, despite it being just two steps away from my own. I suppose I always suspected it would be something like this. A towering bookshelf is filled with books arranged in alphabetical order – mostly DIY and self-help and other instructional manuals, and there are a sizable number of titles from the For Dummies series. Cupcake-making For Dummies. Running a Kingdom for Dummies. Drinking Firewhiskey for Dummies. Transmogrification of Pet Cats for Dummies. Inhalation for Dummies. Exhalation for Dummies. Nora lives by the textbook. Religiously.

Nora emerges from the bathroom, foaming at the mouth, a toothbrush handle gripped between her teeth. She’s clutching her head and groaning.

“Had too much to drink last night?” I ask.

“Nothing as simple as that,” she murmurs, flecks of lather flying. “I’ve just had a vision. Another glimpse of my past life.”

“The life of the drunkard?”

She scowls. “Do be careful about how you phrase your words, Joanna. This is me we’re talking about. My pre-reincarnated self.”

“Okay. So what’s new?”

“The old man – and by the old man, I mean me – had a cat.”

“Well, that’s helpful.” I yawn and vault off her bed. “Thanks for the, uh, bed. But I’ve got to go. New job and all.”

“As personal bodyguard to one James Potter?”

“As personal bodyguard to one seer thickwit whose satanic sister blackmailed me into taking the job. I’ve never met him, but I just know that I won’t care very much for him.” I open the door of Nora’s flat and step outside to the grimy landing. “See? I can predict the future as well.”

Before the door shuts, Nora yells after me, dribbling more lather onto her chest. “Its name was Mrs. Norris! The cat belonging to the old man who is my past self!”

* * *

After a bitter dispute with The Mould in my bathroom, half of which took place within my head, I meet Nora downstairs who’s sitting at the bar. With Lizzy Scamander, who’s still in yesterday’s sunflower robes, though these are now splotched with spilt drink and dried gravy stains.

“Still here, are you?” I say to him.

“Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow. Heigh-ho, it’s Jo, hello, hello!” His usual shark-toothed snark sounds rubbed. He’s glaring at me. “New job, huh? Lucky you. Me and Nora on the other hand have got to go and face the wrath of Butts.”

“I’d take the wrath of Butts over this new job.”

Someone clears their throat very loudly. It’s Sputum the Clown, who’s on barkeep duty, pouring himself a shot. The Uxorious Horseshoe looks spotless. The floor is gleaming and the windows are clear, and there isn’t a vestige of last night’s clownfest extravaganza. Lizzy signals to Sputum for a drink, and in response, the clown, who is wearing a pair of grubby overalls, a yolk-orange wig and greasy makeup clumping on his face, emits a furious gargling noise from the depths of his throat.

“Forget it,” Lizzy snarls, rising and kicking the barstool away. We head outside into yellow sunshine, which resembles an overkill of happiness. “This is one shitty bar. The whole neighbourhood’s gone to seed.”

“You think?” I say, blearily. “Everyone’s dead or dying.”

We’re not gone ten paces from the Horseshoe when suddenly, there comes a loud whistling from above, crescendo-ing rapidly, and Nora, who is the quickest out of us three to grasp the nature of events, leaps aside and shrieks, “Watch out!”

I grab Lizzy and slam us both into the recessed doorway of a boarded-up former antiques shop, just as a Steinway & Sons D-274 concert grand smashes down onto the spot we’d been standing on two seconds earlier.

“Oh, wow,” Lizzy swears. “What the fuck, wow.”

Nora comes running toward us, skirting the pile of pulverised grand piano and leaping over shards of lacquered wood and splintered metal. She grasps me and Lizzy by our arms and yanks us both to our feet.

“I’m afraid this is entirely Jo’s fault,” Nora explains to Lizzy, who swings round to glower at me.

“It’s that curse of yours, isn’t it? So that means anybody who hangs around you is going to get offed like that?”

“Stop hanging around me and then the death threat will go away for you,” I snap. “Thank all your gods that you aren’t lucky me.”

“I think that you’re the diametrical opposite of lucky,” Nora says, seriously.

So this is it, then. I’m going to get knocked off Looney Tunes style. It’s going to rain anvils wherever I go. It’s going to snow pianos. Above me, the sky is an innocuous shade of blue. Cloudless, guileless. What a fucking liar of a sky.

“I don’t deserve this!”

“Death really wants to get a hold of you,” Lizzy scowls. “And yelling to the heavens won’t help.”

I glare right back at him. “Let’s just get out of here before it starts hailing taxis.”

“Oh, Joanna, you witty devil, you.”

☯ ☯ ☯

After parting ways with Lizzy and Nora, I meet Lily-Lou outside the Potters’ house. It’s…a very big house. A mansion, in fact. Iron-wrought gates, towering white pillars, fountains, beds of expensive roses crossbred to genetic and aesthetic perfection, albino peacocks prowling the lawn, statues in togas, statues of togas, bay laurels and privets cut and trimmed into shapes of sharks and Gringotts’ goblins. A thick maze of box-like hedges stands in the centre of the grounds.

“Oh, the place didn’t always belong to us,” Lily-Lou tries out a bored tone with her voice, decides she likes it, and sticks with it. “This was actually Malfoy Manor once. You remember the famous Malfoys?”

Everyone knows the famous Malfoys. Their family name was tarnished after their suspected involvement in Death Eater activity during the war. In order to salvage the precious family name, they invented a scapegoat, a fictitious family member to take the blame for all the family’s war crimes. Hence, MacGyver Malfoy, younger adopted brother of Lucius Malfoy, supposedly eight feet tall and devilishly handsome but crafty as a Sphinx, and who had been a surly hermit all his life. When the second war struck, MacGyver Malfoy emerged from exile, declared support for the Dark Lord, and basically coerced the entire Malfoy household into complying with Voldemort’s wishes. For example, the conversion of their innocuous wine cellar into a dungeon conducive for the torture of countless Muggle-borns. Everything was pretty much MacGyver’s fault. When the war was over, MacGyver Malfoy was disinherited and officially removed from the Malfoy family tree in a grand and joyous and very public ceremony, and thenceforth, the Malfoys were absolved of their crimes.

“So, why did you Potters move in here? I didn’t think you lot got on well with the Malfoys, despite them being cleared of all charges?”

“Oh, we mostly avoided them.” Lily-Lou’s heels tick against the long and winding road up to the front door. “Until the day Rose Weasley, one of ours, eloped with Scorpius Malfoy a few years back. Those two fruitcakes left us a long, melodramatic note, boo-fucking-hoo, and then disappeared off the face of the map, leaving behind the rest of the Montagues and Capulets to wage war on each other. And my mum led the charge.”

I can’t help shuddering at the mention of Ginny Weasley Potter. That woman has a reputation for cannibalism. And slow-roasting her opponents before consumption.

“Relax, she’s not that bad,” Lily-Lou offers.

Really, what would the devil know?

When we finally make it through the front door, through several expansive entrance halls, up several flights of carpeted stairways, through several dining rooms with miles of tables and high-backed dining chairs, Ginny Weasley Potter is waiting for us in her study. She’s sitting behind a colossal desk but even this is dwarfed by her commanding stature and her grim stare, and the coiffured red hair, stacked precariously on her scalp and urged into shape by an array of glittering pins. Lipstick gives her mouth a hard edge. This is the woman who destroyed the Malfoys and evicted them from their own mansion, forcing them onto the streets.

“Strap on your best steel and amp up your charm,” Lily-Lou whispers, her breath curling in my ear. There are hot coals in her breath, and I feel a blush raging across my cheeks. It’s the coals. She’s the Devil Incarnate. Nothing else.

She stalks on ahead of me towards Ginny and proceeds to hoist herself onto the desk and gesture extravagantly toward me. “I’ve found the perfect person for the job, mum.”

Ginny frowns. “And this would be Joanna Mannering?”

“Right you are, Mother,” Lily-Lou cuts in before I can speak for myself.

I approach the desk and sit down before Ginny, staring her in the eye and trying to make myself appear as aloof and as professional as possible. Lily-Lou goes behind me, folds her arms on the back of the chair, against the nape of my neck and rests her chin on top of my head. I can practically feel her smirk sitting on my head. Ginny says nothing about her daughter.

“Well, Miss Mannering,” Ginny says, crisply. “Your CV is very impressive.”

I’m fairly sure that I never gave this woman a copy of my non-existent CV. This must be Lily-Lou’s work.

“This is your curriculum vitae, isn’t it?” Ginny’s eyebrow is hitched high up her forehead, as she hands me a roll of crisp, starched parchment. Lily-Lou nods, her chin digging into my hair.

“Yeah, of course it is,” I say.

“It appears that you have Muggle military training as well.”

“I – most certainly do.”

“With the Bahraini Special Intelligence Service.”

“The Bahrainis are the best in what they do.”

“I made a call to BASIS. They swear by you. Said you’re the best thing to have ever come out of the agency.”

“…I believe in being the very best.”

“And you’ve worked as the personal bodyguard for the Crown Prince of Singapore, saving him from a grand total of seventeen assassination attempts.”

“That was indeed a very demanding position. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, of course.”

“But you failed to save him from colon cancer.”

“I wish I could have done better.”

Lily-Lou is practically sniggering into my hair. Amazingly, her mother doesn’t seem to be the least bit perturbed by her daughter’s behaviour. Or even notice much.

Ginny rolls up the parchment and nods. She tucks away the CV, which I didn’t write, into a drawer. “James has been very picky about bodyguards; he refused every single Auror in my husband’s department.”

“A wise choice on his part, Mrs Potter,” I nod, sagely. “Otherwise, how could I ever offer him my rigorous and infallible protection?”

Ginny picks up a quill, bends it backward and lets it snap back into its crisp, upright position. “You’re hired, Mannering. Lily-Lou will provide you with the details of your remuneration.”

“You won’t regret it, Mrs Potter,” I tell her through grated teeth. Lily-Lou has pretty much given me the details of my remuneration already: her very cheap silence on my Redirectionistic activities. What shittier thing can there be in the world than a rubbish bargain that you’re forced to accept?

Lily-Lou threads her arm through mine and pulls me out of the room in a rather undignified manner. Ginny doesn’t even bat an eye.

“Let’s go, Mojo Jojo!”

♅ ♅ ♅

I suppose I can count myself as being in the presence of a celebrity.

Specifically, the sacred presence of The James Sirius Potter, Golden Idol of the Prophet, Divorcer of Wives, Firstborn Fuck-up of the Famous Family. Hitter of theThreeBroomsticks. Renowned Mystic and Discoverer of the Secret of Oneness with the Universe.

The James Potter is sitting in the centre of the maze in the grounds, where sunlight falls in a concentrated column, so he’s constantly illuminated by a tractor beam of the divine. We hadn’t bothered navigating through the whole maze; Lily-Lou had merely sent a streak of blue sulphurous flames through the greenery and burned her way right to the clearing in the centre. We strolled down the pathway flanked by the crisp edges of charred bushes, still steaming.

I don’t know what I was expecting about The James, but it was hardly this: a scruffy, rank-haired, barefooted bloke smelling of onions and ale and incense, slouching on a gilded garden bench. Wearing a trenchcoat, of all things. He lifts a hand to scratch his stubble.

“My darling brother,” Lily-Lou exclaims. The James looks up, blinking and trying to focus on her.

“Ah, Lily-Lou.” He blearily waggles a finger at us. “I foresaw your coming.”

I honestly wonder why people even bother with assassinating him.

“So this is the new girl on the job, the one that you asked for – foresaw, whatever.” Lily-Lou shoves me forward. I shove her back. In fact, I do a half-turn and stop so suddenly that she walks straight into me, her face pancaking into my shoulder and leaving a cosmetic smear on my sleeve.

“That’s not how you want to treat me, Joanna,” Lily-Lou hisses dangerously.

“No, I want to do a lot of worse things to you,” I snarl. “I want to exorcise you, for instance. Send you screaming back to the depths of Hell.”

She goes back to being bored. “Okay, Constantine. Maybe another day.”

“Sexual tension,” The James has hobbled up to us, leaning heavily and rather artificially on a black sandalwood cane.

Excuse me?”

“The hate-at-first-sight formula. Which is really just sexual tension. Between you and my sister,” The James repeats, thickly. He lifts his cane and prods Lily-Lou, and then me, on the calves. “This is – strange. I most certainly did foresee sexual tension, but I anticipated it to be between you and me, Joanna.”

“Don’t be an idiot. I’m a –,” I grit my teeth, “bodyguard, not your bloody Implied Love Interest.”

“Guard my body, my bodyguard.” The James swoons and then breaks into a fit of laughter. He shakes his trenchcoat, and from the inner pockets tumble a whole lot of turnips and several tarot cards. He groans and sinks onto his haunches and attempts to gather them up, but achieves greater success in grabbing handfuls of dirt and gravel.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“I told you he was a useless fool,” Lily-Lou answers. “Also, he’s been unfogging the future.”

“The Future,” The James cries, dramatically, “The Future is fogged. A fog. The Fog. How do we speak to the future? How do we communicate with it? You know what we seers say? To know The Fog, you must be The Fog.”

I suppose that explains it.

The James reaches into his trenchcoat and draws out a large jar of pickling onions and offers it to me. I decline by staring hard at him.

“I must be The Fog,” he declares solemnly, and uncaps the jar and pops a dripping onion into his mouth. Onion breath steams from his chewing mouth. Both Lily-Lou and I step back.

“That’s it,” I tell her. “I can’t do this. I’d rather go to jail. Whatever, I don’t care. I resign. I’m going to die anyway.”

“You wouldn’t.” She raises a hook of an eyebrow.

“Look, what am I supposed to do with him? You lied to your mother about all those achievements of mine. I’ve never done anything remotely like this job before.”

“But James wants you. So, follow him twenty-four seven. Make sure he doesn’t get killed.”

“Joanna!” The James bleats. “Please don’t go! Look, I saved your life, Joanna! You’re standing here, whole and well, because of me.”

“And pray, do tell me how you managed to do that without me noticing a thing.”

The James whips up a handful of tarot cards. “The Future is in these cards. I only need look into them to see how things end up for some people. I looked into your future this morning, Joanna, and I saw that you were destined to die by falling grand piano. So I shuffled all my cards, changing the mind of Fate itself, and now Fate has decided that you won’t die by falling grand piano.”

“Wait, how did you know about the grand piano?” My head starts to pound. Then, “You can really change the future by shuffling those cards of yours?”

“I can, and I saved yours,” The James nods, a mixture of excitement and hope as he shoves the cards back into his pockets. Lily-Lou wanders off, bored, to the gilded garden bench vacated by her brother.

“Enjoy your bonding session, both of you,” she drawls.

“Well, what does my future say now? Does it say when I’m going to die?”

The James shrugs. “Pick a card.”

He’s not holding any cards.

“You’re not holding any cards.”

“They’re in my pocket.”

“I’m not fumbling around your pockets.”

“You have to,” he protests. “Every time I stick my hands into them, something unexpected turns up. And it’s different each time. See?”

With that, he sticks his hand into his pockets and brings out a toy giraffe. He puts his hand into his pockets again and draws out a packet of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Pita Bread (Bertie Bott’s are now branching out into pita bread). He does it again and this time pulls out a stack of One Dimension CDs. Another time, and he pulls out a live Kneazle. Things start piling up around us: ten pairs of socks, a Persian rug, a chandelier complete with burning candles and all, a pair of lacy knickers, three Ming vases, a baby unicorn, the latest model of the iPhone (iPhone 6), a kitchen sink, a box of Ansell extra-thin condoms, and an original manuscript of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

“So you’re a magician as well as a seer. Whatever.”

“Sorry, Joanna. I can’t find my cards.”

I glare at him. “Accio tarot cards.”

The cards zoom out of his trenchcoat effortlessly. The James looks sheepish. I catch the whole deck, then pull one out from the middle. It has a picture of a rather fluffy barn owl, with an expression of adorable oblivion in its round eyes. I thrust the card toward The James. “Here.”

He looks at it. “It says that you’re going to die of a virulent case of avian flu. Which you’ll contract when you come into contact with a postage owl.”

“Fuck.” I shove the whole deck at him. “Shuffle it!”

He does, and I snatch another card. This time it’s a picture of the Hogwarts Express.

“I suppose I’m going to get run over by a train,” I say, scowling as he peruses the card, knitting his eyebrows in a semblance of pensiveness.

“Not quite. It says that you’re going to be a victim of murder on the Hogwarts Express, and your death will lead to an elaborate Cluedo-style whodunit. I can’t foresee who did it, but I can narrow down the murder weapons to either the lead piping or the spanner.”

“Shuffle again!”

Lily-Lou makes snoring sounds from where she’s sitting on the bench. “Might as well accept it, Mojo Jojo.”

The next card I pull out has the picture of an AK-47 on it.

“Right, I don’t want to know what that says. Shuffle. Again.”

The James groans and clumsily shuffles the deck. The next card has a can of baked beans on it.

“Let me guess. I develop a sudden severe allergy to baked beans. That or it’s a deadly case of botulism, which I perish from.”

“Actually, this card says you’ll die of malnutrition. Quite possibly an insufficiency of baked beans in your diet.”

“Give it up, Jo,” Lily-Lou calls again, stretching in the sunlight with one eye open.

“Give what up? Nobody’s giving up, surely?” says a new voice. Coming through the pathway, which Lily-Lou had burnt, is a tall strapping bloke in white Calvin Klein briefs and nothing else. His body has been bronzed until gleaming with spray-on fake tan. He’s shaking a glass tumbler filled with a liquid that looks milky and vaguely proteinaceous.

Lily-Lou gets off her chair and strolls toward us. “My other brother,” she tells me. “Albus Potter.”

I’ve heard of him, sort of. “The bodybuilder?”

“The knight,” Albus Potter answers, clicking his tongue, winking, and wagging a finger at me.

“It’s true,” The James says. “He’s been knighted by the Muggle king for services to bodybuilding.”

“The Muggle king? I heard he was knighted by his trainer with a kettlebell to the skull,” Lily-Lou scoffs. She makes a violent swinging motion with her arm. “I dub thee knight, so rise, Sir Loinsteak!”

“That’s a good name for my bodybuilding alter-ego.” Albus turns to face me, sizing me up. “Jo, is it? We should do some arm-wrasslin’ sometime. You look like a good match.”

“Yeah, thanks, and no.”

“Sexual tension!” moans The James unhappily. “Between you and my brother now. I didn’t expect this to occur either.”

Albus only grins, uncaps the tumbler of grainy protein slime and raises it in a toast. “All of you should drink this. This stuff will make you a goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus. Just like me.”

He drains the tumbler and wipes his lips. Then, he falls to the ground and does a round of crunches at breakneck speed. His pectorals and abdominals are so level and firm and divided into such even squares that you can probably play checkers on them. The rest of his body is mostly gathered into tight florets and bouquets. Bouquets of triceps, thigh muscles, gluteus maximus, etc. I’ve heard vague rumours that Albus is so successful in the Muggle art of bodybuilding only because he performs simple Engorgement Charms on his musculature and drinks Strength Solutions every night. He passes all the Muggle drug tests and he’s clean in the steroids department.

After meeting the Potters face to face, I’ve come to the realisation that I don’t really miss my family. Not my mother who vanished when I was three years old. Car crash, they said. Not my father who disappeared in a sheep farm in Loch Lomond. Not my brothers and sisters who never existed because they were never conceived. The Potters are demented. Narcissistic, ruthless, scheming, and demented. And somehow, I’ve been sucked into the midst of all their dementedness.

I notice something unusual. I didn’t see it before; maybe it’s because all of a sudden there’s a tree which has sprouted out of nowhere behind The James. It didn’t exactly sprout. Sprouting indicates a gradual process: it wasn’t there at first, and then I blinked, and suddenly all of us are standing in the shade of a giant sixty-metre sequoia, which shouldn’t even exist in this part of the world.

We look up and blink stupidly at the massive tree and the tree seems to look back at us rather politely, and tries to bow before us, bringing down its arms and thick leaves to wave hello, perhaps initiating a friendly handshake.

Friendly handshake be damned – the fucking tree is uprooting itself so it can fall and crush us.

I grab the body nearest to me, which happens to be The James, and haul him away, as far as I can from the slanting tree. The tree seems to pause, and then it swerves, roots squeaking through the gravel and topsoil, until its angle of fall is once again aligned with The James.

“Run!” I holler at The James, but he continues to stare, open-mouthed.

Evanesco!” Albus Potter yells at the tree, whipping out his wand from his white Calvin Klein briefs. A chunk of the massive trunk disappears. A very small chunk, like a chipmunk bite of wood.

I’m running, pulling The James with me, zig-zagging, and the tree keeps turning on the hinge of its roots, catching us with its enormous shadow. The smell of sulphur pierces through the chaos; Lily-Lou is probably working her hellfire against the thing, and for once, I’m almost glad for the reek of Hell.

“I did not,” The James pants, obviously unused to running for his life, “foresee this.”

Albus is still yelling ineffective spells, Vanishing the tree chunk by chunk, and Lily-Lou has lit a fire in its roots.

“Got the roots!” she screams, and the tree doesn’t veer about anymore.

Instead, it falls.

With one last burst of effort, I send The James flying as far away as possible and I roll after him, the ground punching into my stomach and lungs. The tree hits the ground, sixty metres of it obliterating the maze and flattening the hedges, sending a cloud of dust into the air. The ground shudders with the impact of its descent, and several albino peacocks take flight, shrieking.

I drag myself to my feet. “What the actual fuck.”

I actually can’t tell if the tree was after me, or if it was after The James. Someone is darting through the ruined hedges, someone dressed in black, top to toe with a black cloth tied over the head and face, cold eyes glaring through a band of space. I’m guessing that the tree was after The James then, and this intruder is the assassin who’s after him. The reason I got roped into the whole Potter family mess in the first place, when I myself am barely managing to stay alive. I leave The James behind and scramble after the ninja.

Tarantallegra!” The ninja does a dance that appears to be full of Kyokushin karate moves. It doesn’t last long and pretty soon, they’re on the run again.

Lily-Lou and Albus pop up in front of the ninja. For such a discordant bunch, the Potters work remarkably well together. With the exception of The James, who doesn’t seem to be of much use at all.

“Gotcha!” Albus grins, pointing his wand at the ninja. He smirks at Lily-Lou and then at me. “Toldja that stuff works. I am a goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus, I am.”

The ninja whirls around, seeking an escape route.

“Save yourself the trouble,” Lily-Lou drawls. “Anti-Apparition wards are up.”

And then the ninja ninjas into thin air. As in, thin air. A ripple of air, like a visible seam in a transparent wall, and they’re gone. Lily-Lou screams in rage.

“I thought you said anti-Apparition wards are up?”

“That wasn’t Apparition!”

There is something on the ground where the ninja had been a moment ago: a black pearl with a swirl of darkness trapped in its gleam, strung on a piece of piece of string. I pick it up and dangle it in front of both Albus and Lily-Lou, as if to ask if it belongs to them. They look blank, shrugging.

The James has slipped back into our midst, looking very upset. “I swear I haven’t done anything wrong to incur all their wrath. I haven’t!”

“You know who they are?”

“They’re not from around here.”

“We get that, big brother,” Albus says, patiently.

“No, I mean, here. As in this dimension. This universe.”

Lily-Lou turns to me, frowning. “Don’t you have an inter-dimensional friend somewhere?”

♘ ♘ ♘

Nora Patil-Brown is in a foul tight-lipped mood when we all cram into her personal space at the Horseshoe.

“Where’s Lizzy?” I ask her.

“In hell,” she spits.

“No, he isn’t,” Lily-Lou cuts in, lazily. She taps her temples. “He’s not in the visitors’ register. And he hasn’t obtained permanent residency yet.”

Nora looks even more furious. Clearly, she hasn’t forgiven Lily-Lou for dumping her inert body on the road during her trip to Gotchump-Altruissia. Or for being slobbered over with broken pies during last night’s madcap party that Lily-Lou had brought to the Horseshoe.

“What did Butts say?” I say, as amiably as I can.

“Bernie Buttons is not at all pleased with any of us,” she snaps. “We’ve been assigned another job, which will take place in three days’ time.” Before I can protest, she holds up a hand. “You’re not excused, Joanna. Especially not you, Butts said. You’re just going to have to find your balance between jobs.”

“Can we get to the point?” Lily-Lou says, irritably. “I really don’t give a shit about Joanna’s shitty life at the moment.”

“A round of drinks for everybody,” The James announces to Sputnik the Clown, who’s wearing a blue bathrobe and guzzling beer straight from the tap.

“Not for me, I brought my own,” Albus says, shaking yet another tumbler of that protein mucus. At least he’s wearing clothes now.

“I do not imbibe any sort of liquor,” Nora sniffs. She isn’t impressed with any of the Potters.

I hold up the black pearl pendant for her to see, explaining the whole crazed sequence of events at the Potters’ manor. She takes the pearl and rolls it between her thumb and finger, looking thoughtful.

“You’re right,” she says at last. “If that assassin had this, there is a good chance that they originate from a different dimension. This is a Medal of Voidism.”

“A what?”

“I believe you heard me perfectly, Joanna. You just need to trust your ears and ask the right questions. The correct question to ask is, what is Voidism?” Nora says in a most patronising manner, before proceeding to answer the question that she thought I ought to have asked. “Voidism is the most widespread religion in all the dimensions that exist. It’s a multiversal religion, though it doesn’t seem to be a major belief in this world. A significant proportion of Gotchump-Altruists are Voidists.”

“Are you a Voidist?”

“I am a recent convert to Catholicism.” She pulls a brown scapular from around her neck, along with a crucifix. Lily-Lou balks and glares at Nora, who looks triumphant. The James begins shuffling his deck of tarot cards, and offers one to Sputnik the Clown who declines.

“What do these Voidists believe in?” I snap my fingers in front of Nora and Lily-Lou’s faces.

“The Void, of course,” Nora replies. “At the centre of the Multiverse is The Void that once birthed all light and life and the multitude of universes, and now devours all light and life and universes. Followers of The Void constantly pray to The Void, so they may be eaten by The Void, and thus become one with The Void.”

“Well! Doesn’t sound like a very vigorous club!” Albus exclaims. “I was never really one for religion. Unlike my dear sister over here.”

“So what do we do? Do we even do anything? I suggest we don’t do anything to endanger our lives,” I say, cheerfully. “How about we hide The James in an underground bunker for the rest of his life? After all, the Voidist assassin wants him, not the rest of us.”

The James looks miserable. “It’s not my fate to be buried in an underground bunker for the rest of my life.”

“I do know someone in this dimension who’s a follower of the Voidist faith,” Nora says. She speaks only to me. “I suppose you could ask him more about Voidism and if he was aware if anyone of the Voidist faith recently visited this dimension.”

“Spit it out, Patil-Brown,” Lily-Lou says, sweetly.

Nora continues to ignore the Potters. “He’s the one who lives in Hollywood.”

I understand. “The Quidditch player?”

“The Shark-Man.”

I turn to the Potters and tell them. “His name is Viktor Krum.”

Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow - from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Chapter 6
The Looney Tunes series belongs to Warner Brothers.
The Montagues and the Capulets are borrowed from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
A goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus – quote from the movie Predator (1987), directed by John McTiernan.
Constantine is a character from DC Comics, created by Alan Moore.

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