Chapter 16: Variations on a Theme by Longshaw
"You've got your potion?"
"Yep, it's right here."
"And you're absolutely sure that you've brewed it correctly?"
"Yes - and you already know I've checked the titration and it looks exactly how it should."
"Got your wand?"
"Got my - yes, Sirius, I have my wand. Want to take my pulse and blood pressure too?"
It's a well-known fact that parenthood changes people, Graham thought, but he still couldn't help but feel that Sirius was being a bit ridiculous. It didn't help that the man was doing him another huge favour by being there to supervise - but there was a fine line between coddling and caring, and Sirius was teetering right along it. Graham was mostly sure he was doing it for his own amusement, but it was always hard to tell whether Sirius was being, well, serious.
"And how about you, Jessica? Everything hunky-dory?"
Graham took some pleasure in the fact that he had an equally babied companion in Jessica, who'd taken Sirius's overattentiveness with even less grace. She was also trying to make sure he knew how thrilled she was by the fact he'd gifted her the animagus ritual as an engagement present, and was struggling to reconcile those competing urges.
Jessica took a deep, calming breath. "Yes, Sirius, and thank you for ensuring, again, that I have my potion - which is here, and properly brewed - and my raincoat, wellies, and wand, which I've polished just for the occasion. Can we go now?"
Remus had been perched on the stairs while Sirius fussed over his charges by the front door, but he decided, a little reluctantly, that Sirius' five minutes of fun at their expense was plenty for the time being.
"This storm's due to kick off in a little under ten minutes, and you want to be saying the magic words and downing your potions as soon as you hear the first crack of thunder;" he said, "unless something very unhelpful happens, we should be back here in about half an hour."
Graham, with a mostly inaudible sigh of relief, pulled a cord from his coat (he kept one handy for group travel these days), imbued it with a careful portkey charm, and beckoned his companions over; a few short moments later, it whisked them across the country.
They were jettisoned into an old-school British rainstorm, which was emptying itself over a darkened Yorkshire moor. The rain was already horizontal, its drops transformed by the wind into improvised missiles; but it was the weight of the air, which felt almost sickly with the pressure it was exerting, that most evinced the oncoming thunder bursts.
Impervious charms keeping their faces clear, Jessica and Remus transformed the heather they'd landed on into a shelter, guiding the undergrowth through an expedited growth into a makeshift gazebo while Graham and Sirius reinforced it against the elements. Finally, a few drying spells later, they were ready for the main event.
"Okay." said Sirius. "When you're both ready, get rid of any charms, spells, enchanted objects, and anything else of that ilk on you; while we don't think they interfere with the initial transformation, I don't want you two to be the people who prove we're horribly wrong about that."
"Then you just need to stand in the rain and wait for the thunder." Remus said. "All good?"
Jessica nodded, having nothing to remove, while Graham tugged off the trio of enchanted necklaces (two shields and an emergency portkey) which he'd begun wearing out of war-driven paranoia . He didn't really have the look to carry them off, but he felt that it was better to live a fashionless eccentric than die pretty. He thought for a moment, and passed Remus his portkey cord, as well: an excess of caution was no bad thing when the alternative was permanent magical mutilation.
Graham started tugging off his trousers, only to stop in confusion when the others looked at him, aghast.
"Um - were you planning on having to get naked every time you transform?" Sirius asked.
Graham didn't know how to respond to that - he'd been wearing quite a nice pair of corduroys, and had no intention of ripping them to shreds when he turned.
"It's morphological symbology, Gray." Jessica explained. "The initial transformation locks in the way future changes will work - if you're dressed, it locks in as human-to-animal, but if you're naked, it treats all future animagery as animal-to-animal. So…"
"Got it." Graham said. "Trousers not optional if I want to keep my clothes next time round."
While Sirius and Remus broke down laughing, Graham pulled them back on and straightened up, failing entirely to avoid a furious blush.
"Okay then." Jessica said, her voice terse with barely-suppressed excitement. "Shall we, Gray?"
He nodded, and they walked into the storm, wincing a little as it struck them full-force. Graham focused on the chill of the rain as it soaked through his clothes, and tried his best to concentrate: in theory, it wouldn't make a difference, but he held a healthy suspicion of the phrase "in theory" when it came to magic. Generally, once something worked once, it skipped the remaining stages of testing and was treated as established magical fact, which hardly filled him with confidence.
All of a sudden, the sky flashed a brilliant white - Graham and Jessica uncorked their vials, shouted, for the last time, "Amato animo animato animagus!", and, as the first peals of thunder rolled across the moorland, gulped down their potions.
For a moment, nothing happened, and Graham felt a tinge of worry that something had gone wrong. And then -
The world seemed to stretch around and outwards, as his eyes slid toward the sides of his head, something he'd have gasped at but for his sudden lack of a workable mouth. He became aware that he was shrinking, chest thrusting outwards and legs diminishing, while his arms seemed to creep into his shoulder-blades.
Graham was vaguely aware that he should have been screaming, or at least panicking - and yet the change seemed natural, almost like stretching a muscle he'd somehow managed not to notice before.
And then he was a backseat passenger in his own mind.
How to describe being a bird to a human?
In the hours which followed his transformation, Graham found himself struggling to put words to the whole of his experience. Strangely, it hadn't been the mechanical functions that confused his human mind. He'd only taken a short flight - it had, after all, been half-way to a hurricane when he'd turned and his avian self hadn't been enjoying itself - but the knowledge of how to fly had come instinctively, and the bird he'd become had very happily flapped its way into the foliage of their conjured shelter to get out of the rain.
The fact that his eyesight now let him look at most of the world at once had been pretty peculiar, of course. It had meant that he could keep an eye on the strange humans that were studying him from afar (not a threat, his human side had insisted, so he'd stayed put) while he watched the newly-minted red squirrel scampering around behind him. But what had him reeling was the way it had changed his brain.
He had known, academically, that birds had unihemispheric brains - but the ability to close one eye and be half-asleep while remaining awake with the other defied explanation. How it changed his thought process was a far more curious question - and was rather difficult to extract from the wider instinctive changes which drove his animal form. But, as he'd slowly come to his senses and regained human awareness, he had realised that the part of him that was doing the thinking was working apart from the part of him which was responsible for doing the... existing.
While he certainly wasn't a neurosurgeon, Graham had spent enough time studying anatomy to realise that the experience had done something quite transformative to the way his brain worked. He'd tried a series of cognitive tests before he'd transformed for the first time to see how the process changed him. For the most part, the results didn't show any deterioration, beyond a slightly increased tendency to distractibility: he was far more aware of his peripheral vision, and couldn't help but focus on any movement he noticed there. But his ability to multitask had shown a drastic improvement. He wasn't quite able to hold two separate trains of thought at the same time, but he'd managed to scribble down his observations on his mental state while reading a newspaper column without any issue, which he certainly wouldn't have been able to do before.
Graham wasn't sure how useful the improvement would be, but it was at least helping him compartmentalize the fact that his animagus form was a common cuckoo.
In theory, the animagus form was everything he could have hoped for. It was a relatively common bird in the UK, rarely predated upon and largely unremarkable - but it had sent Sirius and Remus into paroxysms of laughter when they'd worked out what he was. Graham wasn't sure whether he believed in a higher power - miracles tended to lose their sheen when you knew that all it took was a couple of second-year charms to walk on water - but he did wonder whether there was some cosmic sense of irony that had decided to make his form a bird which survived by laying its eggs in the nests of other birds.
Jessica had been quite pleased to be a squirrel, although she'd confessed that she had been hoping for something a little more intimidating. In a strange way, the point of the animagus transformation had been far more academic for her; although she would have been unhappy with an entirely non-functional form, like a sloth (or something unpleasant like a cockroach, though she hadn't said that out loud), she'd really just wanted to taste the forbidden fruit of a transfigurative art which had seemed closed off to muggleborns. Graham certainly understood the impulse - while it hadn't defined her career plans, he'd felt the same frustration when healing had been closed off to him.
It had already been well after dark when they'd set off, and Graham felt a wave of exhaustion cresting. He tidied his papers away and headed up to his bedroom - resolving, with a thrill of excitement, that he'd pass the mornings which had been taken up with meditation on the wing, the better to enjoy the privilege which animagery had granted him.
Graham was quickly swept back into the frenzied course of activity which had consumed his waking days. Studying for exams certainly wasn't a thrill - but, with more time to spend on his studies, he found himself far more contented than before. In fact, for the first time in months, he was entirely distracted from the consequences which his nascent revolution had wrought on the world - consequences which were being felt to an increasing degree across the muggle and magical worlds.
Excerpts from the memory journal of Victoria Smythe (born 7 February 1981)
12 February 1981
Our dearest Victoria,
It still seems hard to believe that Sarah and I have been granted the miracle that you are. Modern technology truly is a marvel: We would have been just as happy to have adopted, had we had the ability, but I cannot help but feel a thrill at the chance we have been given to have a child of our own.
I wonder if you're reading this journal because you want to know more about your parents. Sarah and I promised each other that we'd always be honest with you, even when writing for your eyes however many years in the future, so I'm sure you will already know that Rupert isn't actually your father, no matter what your birth certificate says. Your biological father, I'm sorry to say, is as much a mystery to us as he is to you. One of the terms BPAS was very firm about was limiting any contact between donors and recipients, and there was nothing we could do to budge their position.
Perhaps this will all change in the future, and I promise that you'll be told everything we find out. But for now, my dear, know that whatever you do, and wherever your future takes you, we will always love you: I just hope that the world will become a kinder place for us to do so.
3 November 1981
I'll be the first to admit it - I'm writing this entry more for me than for you. Maybe I should be keeping a diary instead, like Jeanie does - but hopefully this'll interest you as much as it did me!
It's been the strangest couple of days, you see - and nobody seems to have a clue why. It started on Sunday, after Halloween, with the owls. Now, I'm no bird fancier - you'll have to go to your mother if you want that kind of insight - but even I know that owls aren't meant to fly around in the daytime. And yet, there they were - all across the country, thousands of owls started flapping around like nothing you've ever seen! One of them actually flew straight past my office, a little while ago - I thought it was quite lovely, even though Jeanie - and the birdwatchers on the telly - have no idea what they're doing. Apparently, some of the owls people have seen shouldn't even live in the UK - it's all very odd.
Then there were the fireworks - well, those are still happening! I'm writing this at two in the morning - I know, I know, you're probably feeling upset about all the early-to-bed stuff I'm sure I bother you with, but it's hard to sleep when - for no reason, as far as anybody knows - people keep exploding things at all hours of the night!
Not that I'm complaining, though. The fireworks are bloody brilliant (sorry for the language!) - and enormous, to boot: Jeanie's sleeping with a pillow over her head, but I'm happy enough to watch them and keep an eye on you at the same time. You're being very good and sleeping well, by the way - I'm not sure if being mostly oblivious to explosions is a useful life skill, but it's saving me a lot of grief!
It does get a bit weird when you combine it with all those cult members people have been spotting, mind you. Strange people in cloaks talking nonsense on the streets - I heard that they were morris performers on the BBC, but that sounds like utter bobbins to me. Maybe you'll know all about this because it'll all have been explained by the time you've grown up - for now, it's just an odd thing that's keeping me up at night (literally).
Love you oodles, sweetheart.
18 January 1982
I've consulted with our GP and a very discreet Harley Street paediatrician, and nobody can explain quite how Victoria's hair has grown quite so rapidly. Apparently, we should have expected a maximum of an inch per month - not a headful overnight!
Sarah is taking Victoria for some further tests later this week. She seems quite healthy, but we all feel that we mustn't take any chances.
28 January 1982
All those tests told us very little, which I suppose we must take to be good news (Victoria, if you are reading this, please don't tease us for worrying over the smallest things). Darling, we loved you perfectly well when you looked like an egg - there really was no need to surprise us all with those adorable locks you've decided to sport!
3 April 1982
Jeanie calls it fruitful news, but I'm more than a bit befuddled by our latest lead on your more surprising developments, Victoria. The man we've just heard from is a consultant of some kind, apparently. We were led to him by a referral from another referral, but the important thing is that he's sure we have nothing to worry about.
That's good, because yesterday your hair went curly of its own accord, and, more to the point, blonde; and while your mother and I are definitely fashionistas, we haven't stooped to giving our baby girl a perm and a dye-job just yet!
I still don't know what to think about the man, Vicky. His name is Mr. Tonks, apparently - ridiculous, right? - but he took everything we told him in his stride.
Apparently, there are plenty of children like you - children with special gifts, a "quirk for the unusual": he said that the government will get in touch with us when you're a bit older to offer more guidance; like I say, it all seems bonkers to me, but the important thing is that you're alright.
Unfortunately, not everybody was as accommodating as Sarah and Jeanette.
Mary had stayed up in the kitchen for him, because she knew that he'd come through the back door on nights like these. She'd felt petrified, but it had been weeks since Gareth had even spent an evening at home, and she'd decided that she had to confront him about it - about the drinking, too, though she felt even more frightened of bringing that up.
She hadn't expected to be cast as the villain in his telling.
"You know what? I'm tired of this. Of you guilting me for having a life, for wanting to see my mates every now and then - you're sick, and I'm sick of you."
"I - Gareth, I'm sorry, I really am. But it's really not right for me to have to look after Nick all by myself - we're both working full-time, and he's your son too -"
"He's not my son!" Gareth roared. "I'm a god damned Englishman, and that… thing ain't no child of mine."
Mary thought she might throw up. She'd known that Gareth was a little bit right-wing - he read the Sun, after all, and he was all in on Thatcher - but this was new to her. To her surprise, she felt a icy calm settle over her.
"So he's not your son any more?" She asked, her mouth tightening.
"Damn right he ain't, not that he ever was in the first place." Her partner sneered. "Whoever his dad was, he weren't from round here, and his kid shouldn't be here either."
"Just because he doesn't look like you?" She asked. "You knew that the clinic wouldn't guarantee anything about who donors were, Gareth."
"God, you're thick." He said. "No, not just because he's black. All the rest of that freaky stuff, too - you can tell me that kids are meant to send stuff flying around the room if you want, but we both know that he's evil, like the rest of his kind. You'd realise that as well, if you had the brains for it, so don't you dare try and tell me I'm in the wrong. Get the hell out the way - I'm going to bed."
Mary didn't try to stop him as he staggered past her and up the stairs - she found that her ability to care about what he did with his life had evaporated into nothing in the space of a few sentences.
When Gareth awoke the next morning with a hangover that threatened to stove his head in, it was to an empty house, denuded of everything which Mary had put into it - which, it transpired, was most of the valuables and all of the decorations. By the time he was well enough to try and work out what had happened, she was a hundred and fifty miles down the motorway, car laden down with the remnants of her life.
She pulled into a service station to feed Nick, who'd woken up hungry and was bawling for attention.
"It's you and me against the world now, Nick." she murmured, after he'd quieted down and fallen asleep. "And we're going to be just fine, I promise."
Graham's actions, of course, hadn't only impacted muggles.
"Você serve cerveja aqui?"
Peter Pettigrew took a moment to mull over the words. He'd had a (cripplingly expensive) language vial stashed away in a bolthole in case of disaster, but the damn thing was taking its time to integrate; not for the first time, he rued the fact that he'd never been any good at memory magic, which might have helped speed along the learning process. It didn't help that it was just as spotty with simple Portuguese phrases as it was with complex ones - he was starting to worry that he'd get a reputation for being slow.
The man who'd asked him began to frown, but the proper translation finally filtered through to Peter before he could repeat himself: do you serve beer here?
"Sim, claro. Você quer Sagres ou Super Bock?" He replied, and got on with serving the man.
Peter knew that he wasn't the smartest wizard in the world, but he had always counted himself among the most cunning, which was why he was currently pulling pints for muggles in Ponta Delgada. He'd chosen his bolthole wisely; Salazar and his Estado Novo had purged most of the Portuguese wizardry in their half-century of authoritarian rule, and the Azores in particular had one of the lowest magical populations in Europe (and, more to the point, was hardly a mainstay of wizarding tourism). It didn't hurt that the weather was a damn sight better than England's, either.
When his shift was over, he made his way back to the down-at-heel apartment he'd made his home. He'd confunded the childless old widow who'd been trying to rent it into believing he was a long-lost son, and she was letting him stay for free; with any luck, she'd die of natural causes soon enough, and he'd ensured that she'd leave the apartment to him in her will.
Of course, Peter was a wizard, and not the stupid kind that lived in squalor for no reason, so he had made his new home perfectly comfortable with a little spellwork. He poured himself a glass of wine, and settled himself by the window to watch the sun set over the Atlantic.
Although Sirius being released had originally put a dent in his plans to get close to a wizarding family and prepare for the Dark Lord's return, he was realising how much better his life had become by being forced to flee the country. He'd only stayed there in the first place because he was frightened of Voldemort and wanted to play the long game to stay in his favour - but the longer he spent in the Azores, the more he realised how stupid that had been. He had given Voldemort everything that he could - namely, his friends on a platter - but Voldemort and the other death eaters had always despised him, and he had nothing to offer them. Peter had sent Malfoy the Dark Lord's wand - anonymously, of course - and, with that, he considered that his life in fealty had come to an end.
Yes, Peter thought, things were far better this way. He had traded in a life of rodent misery for easy hours under the sun, Sirius got a life outside Azkaban, and Harry got a father. And if Sirius spent some of that life paranoid that he was going to come back for revenge, well, that wasn't his problem, given that he hadn't the slightest intention of returning. In any case, Peter was a living monument to the value of paranoia, and he'd given Sirius an excellent lesson in it.
He took a sip of wine, and smirked a little.
"Really," he said, "Padfoot should be thanking me."
"No, Mr. Fudge, the pleasure was all mine. Please give Octavia my best regards - and do tell young Samuel that he'll have a friend in the Malfoys if he ever needs one in Slytherin."
Lucius Malfoy managed the pleasantries involved in getting Cornelius Fudge out of his study without an issue. He had, after all, been raised on seven hundred years of etiquette, and that sort of upbringing tended to stick, especially when you were working on choosing a new minister for magic.
It was only once the man had apparated away that he allowed himself a discomfited moue - and he'd thought that Fudge had such promise, too.
It had been an interesting year for the head of the Malfoy family. The uncomfortable scrutiny of his family which followed the end of the War had ultimately taken a few months to resolve, but he had come out of it relatively unscathed: not for the first time was he glad that his wife was clever enough not to have taken the Dark Mark, because it had made his case far more arguable when the aurors had investigated.
Lucius had not expected the fall of the Dark Lord, although he'd never been particularly enamoured with the man; Voldemort was, after all, a revolutionary, not a politician, and even if the man had been victorious, Lucius felt that governing was best left to people with the proper breeding for it - people like Lucius Malfoy.
He had initially thought that the wizarding world was entering a dark new age of progressivism as news of the Dark Lord's fall emerged. It was why he had started to groom Fudge to succeed Bagnold as minister. He would have been happy if the conservatively minded Harold Minchum had stayed in office - but, true to form, the Dark Lord had killed the man in 1980 to make a statement, when he'd have benefited so much more from leaving him alive. Which led him to Fudge.
The junior minister was not over-endowed with talent - he had been placed in the department of magical accidents and catastrophes because, ironically, it was difficult for him to do much in the way of harm there. But he had mastered two skills which Lucius had thought might make him indispensable to the pure-blood cause: he was good at talking to people, and he was excellent at not having any beliefs of his own.
Fudge had, in other words, been the perfect candidate for a rear-guard minister - someone who Lucius could have shepherded into preserving the status quo as much as possible in a time of reformist ascendancy. But, with the ground they'd gained from Black's exoneration…
Well, he didn't want to get ahead of himself. In the end, very little had come of the retrials which he'd hoped to secure for his former colleagues, thanks to Dumbledore's wording - Goyle's sentence had been commuted, and both Yaxley and Carrow were released for lack of evidence, a piddling few compared to the Death Eaters left in Azkaban. But Bagnold's embarrassment had put the kibosh on the reforms she'd been trying to put through - which meant that, for the foreseeable future, muggleborns still wouldn't be able to be healers, advocates, or anything higher than a junior undersecretary in the ministry. More importantly, there was suddenly room for a new kind of politician. Someone who was steady, grave, serious, who believed in doing things the right way.
There was room, in other words, for Bartholomew Gamp, senior prosecutor at the Ministry of Magic. The man was perfect. His very name implied order, continuity, and stability - as well it should, given that his ancestor had founded the magical legal system as minister. In person, he was measured and thoughtful; he was also, privately, a true believer in the cause of blood purity.
Even better, he was the kind of true believer who hadn't approved of the Dark Lord. He had reached out to Lucius in 1979 with a view to working out a skeleton structure for governance after Voldemort was victorious, but he'd been very keen to keep his nose clean and avoid any whiff of impropriety. Best of all, he had actually been a Ravenclaw at Hogwarts, which would help disperse any of the usual hogwash about over-ambitious Slytherins.
It would take a little more persuading - Gamp had proven amenable, if not enamoured, with his overtures on the subject - and, frankly, more than a little largesse - but Lucius would have his candidate in a few months. Then he only had to find someone else who was so unelectable that nobody would elect him in a thousand years, finance his candidacy, and then outspend everybody else until the choices left were a sane prosecutor or an utter lunatic; at that point, even the wizarding public could be trusted to make the right decision on election day.
How foolish people were, Lucius thought, to go about politics by voting, when you could achieve so much more by picking the people they voted for.
The clock chimed twelve in the corridor, and he refocused himself - after all, there'd be plenty of time to luxuriate in victory after he'd actually achieved it, and he had a surpassingly busy schedule in the meantime.
"Dobby!" he called. "Tell my next guest that I'm ready for him now."
AN: Trying a few new things and some good old-fashioned world-building!
Grateful as always for feedback - and particularly grateful to To Mockingbird, whose very generous review really brightened my day! Thank you all for reading.