She didn't remember exactly what day it was — or what time, for that matter — just that it was before the sun had risen and that she only wanted to sleep. The night had been somewhat restless to start, but the sudden rapping on her bedroom window was what startled Emily Prince fully awake. When she glanced over at the window she saw a barn owl sitting there, perched on the sill outside. She dismissed its image as a figment of her imagination, remnants of a particularly vivid and bizarre dream. But then it grew louder, more distinct, and she wondered how her mother did not hear the noise from just a room away.
Against her better judgment, Emily got up in a daze and opened the window. The bird flew into the room and landed on her side table, holding a parchment letter in its beak. Emily circled it as he stood there, searching for any indication of where he came from, who — or what — had sent it. The owl dropped the envelope onto the floor and bowed its head. It let out a bellowing hoot and flapped its wings, preparing to leave through the same window from which it entered, and its wing brushed against the photograph on her nightstand, knocking it to the floor. The glass shattered from behind the frame. The owl flew off into the fresh sunrise, and Emily dove to pull the picture from the wreckage of shards that lined her floor.
She took the photo in her hands, careful not to tear it on the frame's freshly-sharpened edges. She was only a child in the picture, perched atop a man's knee with her mother on her left side. Though she had obviously known him at some point in time, her memory of the man in the photograph — her father — was fuzzy. That's sort of what happens when people die, she supposed; the image fades with time.
What little she knew of him was from the stories her mother told. "Your father loved you," she would say, as if that was all there was to say, and that had been enough for a while. But as she got older, she pushed for details that would complete the picture she had in her heard of the man in the photograph. Her father loved animals, and he excelled in school — a star athlete with excellent grades who went on to a successful government career. He used to perform silly magic tricks, like the one Emily remembered on her third birthday, where he waved his hand and the card disappeared before her eyes.
Emily set the picture back on her side table, scooping the glass into a rubbish bin next to it, and directed her attention toward the mysterious parchment letter. The green ink that emblazoned the front of it was peculiar, addressing the letter to her name and her house and her street, but there was no return address to be seen. On the back was a seal with a quarter-cut crest that read 'Hogwarts' in a capitalized font. Her fingers trembled with confused anticipation as she tore open the envelope.
Inside was a letter, just as she had imagined, but its contents were nonsensical. It talked about a school and enrolment, but she hadn't applied for anything. And her mother was more than content to keep her in school where she was. Had she not seen the address on the front, she would have surely dismissed the letter as a mistake, but it was clearly sent for her. Meant for her.
She pulled out the second piece of parchment and skimmed a list of supplies. A History of Magic, wand, cauldron? Where could she even find these things? Why would she even need them?
"Mum!" she called, the remnants of the letter still sitting on her lap, the envelope in her hand accentuating the tremble of her fingers. "Mum!"
The footsteps in the other room began as a slow, groggy shuffle, her mother digging around near the foot of her bed for a pair of slippers as she tended to in the morning. She knocked a hand against the doorway as she entered. "Is everything all right?"
Her hair was frizzed about the crown, and she yawned wide, just finally beginning to open her eyes. When she saw Emily, she snatched the parchment from where it rested on her lap without a word. She caught a glimpse of the broken seal on the envelope, and her face drained of all colour. "No," she whispered, breathlessly. "Merde, pas ça."
"What?" Emily asked, but her mother wasn't listening anymore.
"Severus," she murmured as she ran to the kitchen and left Emily alone in her room, more confused than before.
He arrived at the house later that day, dressed in all black, dark hair slicked back, exactly as she had remembered. He came in without even a single glance at her and followed her mother into the kitchen. They sat across from each other, her mother still in her nightgown, her chestnut hair wrapped tight in a long, braid, streaked with grey throughout, and he dressed as if he had come in from a funeral. Compared to him, she looked so full of life, even now when she just about looked paler and sicker than she ever had.
"Severus," she began, addressing the man directly, moving to take his hand from across the table. When he jerked his hand from her grasp, she continued hoarsely, "I don't know what to do. You're the only one I trust enough with something like this."
He didn't say a word, just held out his hand until her mother handed him the letter. He glanced at it for a moment, his eyes hardly even resting on the parchment before he set it down in front of him. He still did not speak but looked expectantly at the woman across from him.
"I swore I would never let her become involved." The more her mother spoke, the more upset she got, the more Emily could just barely make it out — the echo of her old accent, not quite as thick as it had been when she was younger, but still distinct. She had moved from Paris long ago, the accent having faded in time, but against her tears it sounded almost as if she had just been there.
"Surely you realized that this was a probability, Noelle," he replied. His face was uninflected, his stony features betraying no emotions.
His words were cryptic, hiding every answer Emily sought, and ignoring every question she asked. What was Hogwarts? Why did it contact her?
"Of course; I planned for it." Noelle pursed her lips into a thin line that cut her face. "I took care of the others, but this one… it came overnight. I did all I could!"
Emily glanced at the letter that sat on the table top. There were others?
Severus nodded with a solemn sense of understanding. "But the girl knows now…"
Noelle dropped her head into her hands before glancing back up at him with tear-filled eyes. "You must be able to do something, Severus." Emily hadn't ever heard anything like the desperation that coated her mother's voice. The words sounded like they cut through her throat on their way out of her mouth, and she shook against them. "Please."
He sighed. "I will be there. That's the most I can offer." He stood up from his seat and looked down at Noelle as she used her sleeve to wipe the tears from her face.
"Donc ça doit être." Noelle paused before calling her daughter into the room, as if unaware that Emily had overheard their entire conversation. Emily had never seen her mother look so old, her eyes sullen, sunken, a horrible mixture of black and blue and red. "Emily, ma cher, this is Severus."
Emily nodded. She already knew that, of course. His was not an easy face to forget, with his hooked nose and sallow skin, though she only remembered seeing him once before.
He had been introduced to her as Uncle Severus then, but she had long stopped calling him uncle. He was a stranger, at best.
"Severus was your father's cousin," Noelle said with a weak smile. "He will watch over you… there." She pursed her lips together before adding, "He's a good man."
"There where?" Emily asked.
"Congratulations, Miss Prince," he began, his voice throaty and low. "It seems you'll be attending Hogwarts this coming term."
She only moved to ask but couldn't even get her mouth the whole way around the question before Severus cut her off with an answer, his condescension almost a tangible fourth party in the conversation.
"It's a wizarding school," he said, matter-of-factly, as if she should have known that from the start and that it was a judgment on her for not having known already. Holding up the parchment paper from that morning, he continued, "And this — this letter means that you've been accepted to attend."
All Emily could do was stammer a response. "But… why?"
"You are a witch." The reply was short and very much to the point but it made her head spin, her ears ringing as she tried to focus on his words.
"Emily," her mother began, but he cut her off with a raise of his hand.
"It's time the girl knew the truth."
"The truth?" Emily parroted.
"Emily," Noelle started over, taking a deep breath. "There are some things I haven't quite been honest with you about…" She broke off from her own sentence, rubbing her thin nightgown material against her arms. She wouldn't look at her daughter.
"Like what?" Emily demanded. She could feel her body go cold beneath the mix of emotions that ignited within her.
"Your father is —" Severus stopped abruptly as Noelle looked at him with pleading eyes. He cleared his throat and started again. "There was an attack on the Ministry of Magic by the followers of a dark wizard." Severus's voice was measured and uninflected. "And your father…" Severus looked to her mother again. "That was the day you lost your father."
She knew her father was dead — her mother had told her that much when she was old enough to understand, not too long, in fact, after she last saw Severus — but the story had always been sparse of details. Perhaps this was why…
"The… Ministry of Magic?" Emily tried to piece the story together, but none of the words made sense — at least not together. "Dark wizard?" Emily spun around to her mother. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"You didn't need to know such things. This was easier."
"So you lied?" Emily's voice was harsher and louder than she had anticipated, and it startled her, roaring from her mouth. Her mother looked so small in her chair with Emily standing over her, with Severus casting a dark shadow over her petite figure.
Severus interjected, gently saying her mother's name as he placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Severus will take you to get everything you need, and then…" Noelle's voice trailed off with a sad smile as she stood up from her chair. Solemnly, she rested a hand on her daughter's shoulder before she left the room, crying under her breath, "Mon Dieu… Porquoi?"
Suddenly, with the void left by her mother's exit, the small kitchen felt so impossibly huge. Severus's voice added to its empty chill.
"I'll return in September," he said, and with that, he disappeared into thin air.