There had been no note. No detailed explanation as to why she was suddenly gone. She wasn't anywhere in Britain, I checked, leaving no stone or muggle settlement unturned, no wizarding spell unscanned for any trace of my wife. Ex-wife? We hadn't technically been divorced, she had just disappeared. Had she been kidnapped? I wished that was the answer because then I would have someone other than myself to blame. Whether it had been three hours or three weeks since I'd returned to find the estate void of my dearest one, I could no longer be sure. Whether Regulus had left of his own accord or dodged out after I'd thrown a sofa at him, I couldn't say. I do know that at some point Kipsy had point-blank refused to give me another bottle of firewhiskey, and that is why I was sitting at an obnoxiously loud pub. The barwoman tentatively glanced at my glass as I clicked my fingers over it. She was going to cut me off, I could hear it buzzing at the forefront of her mind. Just as she opened her mouth I snapped, "If you don't fill this glass with the only liquid that has given me any amount of feeling in the last however long I've been sitting here I shall burn this place to the ground!"
"Kitten!" I found myself in a headlock a moment later, at the mercy of whoever had neglected their daily hygiene. "Wondered where you'd got to!" I blinked around to see at least three James Potters smiling innocently at the barwoman. "Sorry about him, he's only pissed we're late."
"And pissed drunk by the smell of him," growled Sirius from somewhere behind me.
"He'll have a gilly water," Remus declared calmly, placing a few sickles upon the bar, the three of them effectively surrounding me.
James tossed several galleons down as he pulled me off my stool. "Belay that love, he needs a walk. If that doesn't cover his bill we'll make him come back on a better day. C'mon Kitten…"
I remember pushing them off and telling them off and at one point I was pretty sure I punched James in his stupid face. Despite my clear memory of this happening, it was a short while later I came into focus at a cottage of sorts. I blinked at the sideways fireplace, and it was a long time before I realized I was on my side, rather than the whole room. Hands pulled my arm until I sort of rolled into a sitting position. My bones felt like jelly, and I pictured myself a sluggish man moving as one, indistinguishable blob.
A woman's voice broke my imaginings. "How much did he drink?"
"By the time we'd arrived," Sirius barked. "He'd polished off all the fire whiskey in the place, and that poor barmaid was about to tell him so when he aggressively started to slur."
"If James hadn't stepped in it would have turned ugly, fast." Remus agreed. "Better give him some coffee, Lily. It'll wake him up."
"M'wake," I grunted, before someone, I assume Lily, pressed a cup full of some hot, strong-smelling liquid to my lips. "No!"
"Plug his nose," Lily commanded, and someone pinched my nostrils closed. I opened my mouth to protest, and that's when the coffee poured its way into my mouth and the back of my throat. It's acrid taste and scent made me gag, but another hand had closed my jaw. "Hold!" Lily said, already moving away to grab something I couldn't see. My eyes had snapped open and I saw Sirius and James as my attackers. If I was to be poisoned like my father it wasn't going to be without a—I swallowed. I pushed both of them away, coughing, spluttering, and cursing the four of them.
"Now this," Lily handed her husband a vial that was giving off vapor scented like peppermint. "Quick, before he finds his wand." My wand! I reached into my robes for it, exactly as Sirius pinched my nose again and James poured the potion down the hatch. The peppermint chased away the horrible taste of coffee, and it did something else as well…it left me feeling considerably more cheerful than two seconds ago. I paused, smacking my lips before saying in a nasally voice, Sirius's fingers still pinching: "Pepper-up potion I take it? Well done."
Lily and the other three visibly relaxed, Remus and James releasing great sighs in relief.
"Would you care to explain why my boys found you at the Hollow's Call, drinking yourself into a stupor?" Lily asked briskly, taking a seat beside me.
Where I normally would have declined to answer in a rather haughty fashion, under the effects of the potion I replied, "Hollow's Call? What a thing—! I could've sworn I was in the Hogs Head. Where the devil is Hollow's Call?" I proceeded to speak without waiting for an answer. "Ah well, you see I came back from traveling abroad, if you will, and found that my dearest wife had abandoned our life together for no reason. I tried looking for her of course, but with her parents murdered five months ago and extended family living in other countries—a bit difficult to find any solid leads. It doesn't help that my Italian is absolute rubbish. Makes me wish my sister were here."
Everyone in the sitting room visibly stiffened. It was Sirius who spoke first. "Your sister?"
Remus, who was sensitive, "You got married?"
I belched peppermint. "Yep. And I didn't invite anyone, so at least now no one can ask how I'm doing or what went wrong which is fucking brilliant because I don't know the answers to either question." I heard my voice as though it spouted from a foreign entity. It sounded giddy almost, defying how I really just wanted to curl into a ball and waste away. "Well, I mean Regulus was a witness but he knows better than to ask. He was there when I found out she'd left y'know. Drinking jumpkin puice because after what I did to Burgie he doesn't much fancy tea anymore."
James asked, "So many questions but—who were you married to?"
Lily answered for me. "Isn't it obvious? Allura was always mooning after him at school—a bit like you, Prongs."
I shook my head. "No, no—he's Moony," I pointed at Remus. "Allura was…sh-she was…" my eyes itched as my face grew warm and a tear fell down my cheek. But due to the potion, I still sounded quite happy. I felt happy too, despite my body's reaction to the things I was saying and thinking. Maybe I was just broken. "She was beautiful and smart, and probably realized she'd be much better off, safer, without me in her life."
Lily rubbed my back comfortingly, and I thought she was on the brink of refuting my self-doubts but Sirius interrupted. "What exactly did you do to my mother?"
I met his eyes, feeling a genuinely wicked grin split my face. "Pushed her over the edge."
"Of a cliff?" he said hopefully before Remus swatted the back of his head. "What? You weren't raised by her you don't know what a she-demon she was-is?" He glanced back at me.
"Oh she's alive," I nodded, dipping my head lower than necessary each time. "She's nuts, but alive."
"Yes, but what did you do to her?" Sirius demanded.
"I gave her Veritaserum with her tea." My words had little impact. I tried again. "Sorry, she drank about six cups of Veritaserum, flavored with tea."
"Roman, you didn't!" Lily was absolutely scandalized. She was the best potioneer present, after all, she would understand the issue with what I'd admitted. "Do you have any idea what-what did that do to her?"
"What's the problem?" James asked blankly, though his brow was furrowed. "Veritaserum wears off after a while."
"When it's taken as directed," Remus explained, his eyes trained on my face. "A few drops, if memory serves…"
Sirius's grey eyes widened. "So several cups…but, why did you need her to tell you the truth?"
"Oh, I wanted to know how she killed Alphard, Sylvia, and-" I actually managed to stop myself from blurting out 'their son.' As an alternate I merely shrugged. "-anyway, after I pulled the facts from her she started to unravel, mentally-at least the rest of the way. She wouldn't stop shrieking, even after we left. Judging on the way I'm speaking so candidly with you all I would wonder whether your coffee had some Veritaserum in it but I think I'm just venting." I shrugged again. "Maybe I'm still drunk. Or maybe there's just too much to hold on my shoulders with no one to support me anymore…Won't be long now though…"
"What do you mean?" James asked. "And did you say you had a sister?"
I waved a hand lazily. If I said anything else I might as well include the thrilling tale of Kronos, Lord of Time trapped in an hourglass while his consciousness invaded my thoughts. Who knows, the way I was feeling just then I might even tell them all I was in fact an American half-blood from the future. Part of me really wanted to drop that bomb on James. He'd give me the reaction I had always secretly hoped for, not the anger of Allura or the calm acceptance, even foreknowledge of Regulus. But as much as I wanted to blame my loose lips on the liquor, I knew the truth. It wasn't a loss of my inhibitions, I just wanted to be heard, be seen, to feel something…I was being reckless. Perhaps the blood magic had made me take on a few of Sirius's traits after all. "I meant Alice…at school she was more like a sister than my friend. I just miss her reliability these days."
Lily actually pulled me into a hug, then. Given that I dwarfed her in height, I would've thought this action to feel awkward but somehow she made it feel like the safest place to be. But she could never compare to the woman I had lost, whom I had let slip away. I didn't deserve her love. I didn't even deserve this hug, I knew it. If she or any of my friends knew what was burned into my forearm…I'd be a deadman…
Oh! And where were you when I needed you? Hmm?!
Look, my bedside manner is tepid at best, so—
So shut up. I'm thinking.
I don't like where your head's at, Kid.
I think I've finally reached a point where I no longer care what you think.
Be that as it may, I really should point out that your thought process is kinda—
Good. If you disagree, I'm doing it.
I stood abruptly, clearing my throat. "I can't."
Sirius had risen with me like he'd been waiting for something to change. "Can't what?"
"I've tried to distance myself from all of you to avoid this, but I can't accept your kindness, not after all I've done." I think my new level of sobriety spooked them all more than my pepped-up-and-tear-stained self.
"And what have you done, Roman?" Remus asked steadily.
Don't do it.
"Well, to start," I'm telling ya it's a bad plan, Kid! I rolled up my left sleeve to reveal the dark mark. Several things happened at once. James and Remus jumped to their feet, wands at the ready. Lily stood between her husband and myself crying, "Wait!" Sirius just turned into a dog and lunged for the jugular. I transformed seamlessly into my panther form and wrestled him to the ground. Remus, probably, used a counterspell that forced us both to change back into men. Sirius had me pinned and used his fists to rearrange my face when there was a perfectly decent wand in his jacket lining. "Sirius! Stop, let him finish!" Lily yelled, and I was vaguely aware that she was trying to pull him off.
"Finish what, Lily!?" He screamed back. "He's one of them! He's—"
"He's still your family!"
Sirius paused his pulverizing of my jaw and nose to sneer up at her. I, meanwhile, could taste nothing but iron as blood filled my mouth and nostrils. I missed the flavor of peppermint. "Family? Who are you to preach to me about family! When did you last have a conversation with your shrill sis—"
"Padfoot!" James said warningly. Sirius clenched his teeth and turned back to glare at me.
"You realize this means we'll have to turn you over to the dementors, or worse."
"Maybe that's what he wanted," Remus said. "He's given up."
I thought about the deity who would never let me give up no matter my choice and gave a grunt of bitter amusement. Then I said, "You know it's kind of funny…or is it ironic? Either way—Sirius wants to kill me for being a death eater, and I only joined up to save him from that very same fate."
"What." Sirius stared down at me, lowering his fist slightly.
I spit out a tooth. "Yeah. That night you ran off to the Potters. You probably don't remember the details of how they tortured you, but I do. I stopped them. I traded my life and allegiance for yours." I then found Lily's face and grimaced. "Sorry about blood on the carpet. Bad form from we Black family heathens."
While Sirius digested that information, James asked, his tone full of curiosity. "Are you one of Dumbledore's informants, then?"
I rolled my eyes. It was something I had, until that very moment, never done in the eyes of others. Alphard had instilled the replacement cough of derision but he was gone and I was feeling rebellious. "Dumbledore," I growled. "I'd sooner declare myself incompetent than side with him."
Sirius punched me again. "Shut up! Albus Dumbledore is the greatest wizard alive! Your Dark Lord is a far cry from-"
"I never said Voldemort was any better," I snapped. "As previously mentioned, I only signed up with him because the alternative was a dead cousin on my conscious, along with the mark on my arm. Either way, I did what I thought was best, given that I was seventeen and terrified." I looked from Sirius to James, Lily and finally Remus. "Sorry to ask but would it be terribly rude if I could continue this discussion whilst standing upright? I'll even surrender my wand if it puts you all at ease."
They exchanged cautious, wary expressions, but to my knowledge, none of them were practiced Legilimens so I briefly wondered just how they were communicating. A moment later, however, Sirius had removed himself from my torso and had stood back. His bloodied fists were still clenched, and Remus and James still had their wands trained on my every move, even as I rose to my feet. I withdrew my wand and took a moment to clean the carpet of my blood, fixing my teeth in the same movement. Then I surrendered it to Lily, who had her misgivings written all over her face as she took my wand and stepped out of my reach.
James cleared his throat. "You were telling us how Dumbledore…" he trailed off, realizing I hadn't actually declared anything about the man, yet. "Well, go on then."
"Try anything and you're dead," Sirius growled. I could practically see his proverbial hackles raised.
"Clearly," I replied, wagging my eyebrows. "I find it hard to believe that despite you three-" I gestured at James, Remus and Sirius, "who found out more secrets about the depths of Hogwarts castle than anyone in living memory and you-" I nodded at Lily, "being the cleverest witch of the age; none of you realize the truth about the man you've all decided to put your trust in."
"What truth?" Remus asked, frowning at me over his wand.
I looked between Lily and James, imagining their future son standing in the gap between them. He'd be the missing step in height between them, nearly identical to James except for the eyes…I didn't know the particulars but I had seen him, spoken with him. He was going to be used as a tool by Dumbledore one day; maybe a tool that he polished and looked after more than the rest of his tools but a tool nonetheless. And he'd be an orphan. James and Lily didn't strike me as the type to abandon their son, no matter how hard things got. So, they'd have to be…
I allowed myself a deep breath before launching my thoughts at them. "It's as if Dumbledore thinks himself to be a great strategizer, the only one capable of winning this war." I glanced around the room and spotted a chessboard on the coffee table. "Imagine Dumbledore and Voldemort are playing chess if you will." I saw their expressions and raised my hands placatingly. "Stay with me. Dumbledore directs the white knights-that'd be your lot and the rest of your order, and-oh come on, I'm allowed to know things." Judging by the flare of Sirius's nostrils and the shock in everyone else's eyes, I was not meant to know the term 'order'. "Anyway, your lot are the white knights, Voldemort's followers are the red."
"Why not black?" Remus asked.
"Seems a bit on the nose if you ask me," I replied with a shrug. "And anyway the set I've always used is red. So: you'll notice the problem with this analogy is that neither side has their leader on the board. Dumbledore directs his pawns straight into strategic sacrifices, believing them to be necessary. Who cares if a single pawn represents a single soul or an entire family, they played their part to clear the way for the bishops and rooks and what have you. Voldemort is playing the same game, obviously, sending in his troops and sure he cuts corners and breaks the rules but the point is: war is not a game. It shouldn't depend on one man to win or lose. If Dumbledore is worthy of so great a trust don't you think he'd at least share his vision for victory? Has he actually told anyone how he plans to win?" Their faces spoke louder than any vocalized reply. "Well. There you go, then. So don't depend on Dumbledore to get you through this war, lest he begins-if not already-to view each of you as a pawn." I sighed heavily, seriously considering warning Lily and James about their son's fate, at least what I knew or surmised. I really wanted to tell them to pack up and flee, the town, country, hell even the continent. I knew of a place in America they could hide-roughly. What a treat, to have the Potters grow up with my family. Harry and Jacob could be friends.
"Aren't you one of Voldemort's pawns, just by being a Death Eater?" Sirius challenged, completely missing the point.
"Actually I'm pretty sure I'm the queen," I said thoughtlessly, except it was nearly true. Voldemort didn't ask me to do grunt work so much as participate in the heavy stuff, like converting Pettigrew. Oh no. I had given the Dark Lord a spy, a direct sight into Dumbledore's commands and-into the lives of my friends. "At the very least a rook…" I cleared my throat. "But the point isn't what piece we all are, the point is we all need to leave the board before either side can sacrifice us. It's not worth dying for, don't you see that? Dumbledore faced Grindelwald only after every other move had been made. Do you really want to wait until he's ready to face Voldemort? Mark my words, no one will be alive to see that showdown."
I hung my head, realizing what had to be done next. "If you won't listen, there's nothing I can do about that. I'm getting out, though. I can't be rid of this mark and Merlin knows I'll be wanted dead by both sides if I desert but I can't stay another moment when I have literally nothing left to fight for." My eyes itched again. And here I thought I had no tears left.
Lily had moved back into my reach, my personal space. She wiped the tear away with her thumb. "Stay and fight with us. We can protect each other, I know we can."
"Do you think I'd let you run with your tail between your legs?" Sirius growled. "If you want to survive, do the brave thing and stand with your friends. Stand with me. I can think of at least a hundred spells I'd love to send Voldemort's way."
"Running is not the answer, and it won't stop the war," Remus said, his wand already lowered.
"Lily's right, mate," James was nodding encouragingly. "Stay and we'll protect you like you protected Sirius."
I couldn't tell them I knew the future, that at least half the people in this room would die in the next few years. I couldn't tell them that, despite being moved by their words, I couldn't stay. I was about 8 weeks out from being born, from being kicked into the future. Either I left on my own terms or simply disappeared one day. Guess which I preferred.
"That's all very noble, but you have to understand-" I felt a familiar frozen sensation wash over the room as everyone around me seemed to stop breathing.
You. Can't. Tell. Them. Crow growled in my mind.
They're going to die fighting in this war! I snapped back, gazing at Lily and James.
They are not your responsibility, their fates are out of our control. Telling them won't save them. Just like Pettigrew would join the Death Eaters whether or not you were there, some things you can't change!
Then what's the point in having you?! I knew the point I just didn't want to admit it then. This was a rare moment where I felt absolutely powerless, and I hated it. What's wrong with just taking them to Australia, rewriting their memories, and letting them live out the rest of their days in relative peace?
Other than the undertones of kidnapping in that plan?
I gave a grunt of frustration. I have to warn them, at the very least!
Why? So you can feel better about their inevitable fates?
You wouldn't let me stop Allura from leaving, you at least owe me the chance to save somebody!
I owe you? I owe YOU? Do you have ANY IDEA-
I DON'T CARE. UNFREEZE THEM ALL NOW. As soon as the thought lashed itself like a whip across my mind, I regretted it instantly. A cold stole over my body, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The icy feeling was in my flesh, no…in my veins.
Fine. Crow's voice was without emotion, and it gave me shivers all over. We'll do this the hard way.
My friends began to breathe again but I couldn't move. I couldn't even open my mouth to warn them-not that it would do any good, as I had little to no idea what was going to happen next. But I knew it was going to be bad.
"Understand what?" Sirius prompted.
I blinked at him, wondering if my face could communicate the absolute terror stealing through my very soul, or if it was only evident in my eyes. Nothing about my body was responding to the signals my brain was sending it. I wanted to run out of there. To scream at them to stun me. Remus and James had lowered their wands and Sirius was almost relaxed. And Lily…she had my wand still…and she was still too close… I wasn't in control of myself. Somehow, I had surrendered my body to Crow. And he had seized the reins without hesitation. My arm moved faster than I predicted, shoving Lily against the wall, my hand clutched around her throat, while the other wrested and won my wand back, stowing it in my robes as if to show that I-that is to say, Crow-wouldn't need it for the next part. Lily kicked and scratched at my hand, her breathing shallow as my hand closed tighter around her neck. I heard Sirius and James shout, and felt Remus hit me in the back with a hex. I waited for the effects to make me stop but nothing happened. Lily was getting paler all the time. I glanced at the window and my heart nearly stopped beating when I caught sight of my face. My expression was carved into a look of fury, while my silver eyes, the eyes I'd received when I'd been adopted into the Black family, now they were solid, glowing, gold. James, Remus, and Sirius all were firing jets of light at my seemingly unprotected back, but just before they hit the spells seemed to freeze mid-air.
Stop! Please, don't hurt them!
I am not at your command! You are at mine!
Suddenly the icy feeling receded and I saw the room and my friends move backward in time until they were simply frozen in place again, none the wiser about the damage nearly caused by the mad Titan that had taken residence in my brain. I could feel tears falling freely down my face as I received control of my body once again. While they were held in place I took my wand back from Lily. I remembered thinking I could leave on my own terms and gave a bitter laugh. My friends and the world still frozen, I disapparated.
"I can't keep this thing anymore."
Regulus blinked calmly up at me, eying the hourglass I was holding at arm's length. I dropped it on the table before he replied, knowing at least that would cut off Crow's reach, however temporary the reprieve would be. "What happened?"
"He possessed me." I spat, glaring at the deceptively harmless hourglass with its stupid bloodied sands and its stupid needlepoint. "He's been taking my blood as a sacrifice all this time and when I was at my most vulnerable he took over my body."
Regulus closed his book at that, leaning forward to examine the time-turner. "And what did he do with your body?"
"He…" I cleared my throat. "He tried to kill Lily Potter, or I don't know, just showed me that he could do it with his, I mean my, bare hands and no spell would be able to stop him."
"Your body tried to kill Lily Potter and you're still in one piece?" Regulus replied skeptically.
"Well, he turned back time to the moment before he possessed me and they don't remember a thing. I think he just wanted to prove that he could if he wanted to. I can't keep it. What if he does it again, and doesn't stop? He could make me worse than Voldemort!"
My cousin quirked an eyebrow ever so slightly. "I don't know about that, even Kronos doesn't sound the type to split himself eight different ways."
I dimly recalled telling him all about Horcruxes one drunken afternoon, about two weeks ago. The book he'd been reading when I entered the kitchen had in fact been about soul magic and the darkest of spells used with it. "You know what I mean. Anything in your books tell you how to kill an ancient Greek titan long thought myth?"
Regulus blinked at me. "You want to kill him? Now?"
"Are you going deaf? Yes, now!"
"Okay. Say you can kill him. What happens? You have no way to return to the future and you implode because two of you exist in the same year?"
I hated that he'd actually paid attention to my situation. "Actually it'd create a paradox…"
"Right. And then your sister wouldn't have anything to travel through time because you give this one to her when she's 17, and then she won't be able to return to the '70s to remove the false memories from your head and you won't be able to save her as a kid and this timeline will probably cease to exist, right?"
I slumped into the chair, hardly noticing as Kipsy served the pair of us breakfast. "Did you not hear the part where he tried to kill one of my oldest friends?"
"Did you forget the part about the war threatening to kill all of your friends, past, present, and future?" Regulus replied simply, reaching over and handing me a large envelope. "Mail for you."
"How can you be so blasé about this? He's evil!" I remembered who I was talking to and that we were both technically sworn to serve another evil while quietly doing the opposite. "Are you…you think I can deceive him as easily as we deceive Voldemort?"
Regulus shrugged as he chewed his toast, and didn't speak. I sighed heavily and opened the heavy envelope, feeling my heart sink as I realized they were divorce papers. And they'd already been signed by Allura. There was no return address anywhere. So, she was alive, she was coherent, and she no longer wanted to be my wife. I was living with the most unsympathetic teenager I knew, about to be divorced, and there was an angry deity who could apparently take control whenever he so pleased. Brilliant.
June 18th, 1979
I'd signed and sent off the papers, making the split official. If she didn't want me anymore I was not exactly in a position to force her to stay. I'd schemed and studied with Regulus, trying to prepare him more than anything. His task ahead was daunting, but he was prepared to take it. I had my affairs in order, a will written out, and had Kipsy ready and willing to work with Kreacher to help my cousin after I'd gone. I kept the hourglass in a little box until June. On my person but never against my flesh. I found it was rather like putting on earmuffs; Crow could talk all he liked but it was soft and distant. He never tried to take over my body again, but I would never forget the fact that he could.
I wanted to fake my death in some big, dramatic gesture but when the time came, there was only one place I wanted to be. Manhattan heat was something else-with the unforgiving sun and the invasive humidity I rather felt like I was going to melt right into my shoes. I followed the couple from their little house to the hospital, a wizarding one, rather than the expected muggle one. Only one healer bothered me and after I assured her I was family she let me in. I paused outside the delivery room, listening to my mother and father and the healer inside. I smiled slightly, hearing my mother yell curses at the healer who told her he didn't know what an 'epidural' was and that she'd simply have to push. Her Australian accent was thick as it echoed down the corridor. I dared to peek into the room and only caught a glimpse of my father grimacing in pain as my little mother seemed determined to break every bone in his hands. Her face glistened with sweat, she pushed and screamed and told my father it was all his doing with fire and death in her eyes. This was it. I was moments from being born.
I withdrew, unable to watch further. I know it was mine and Julianne's birth but watching it felt invasive in ways I couldn't describe. Whether it was seconds, minutes, hours or days later, soon enough I heard a baby cry out. I waited for the tugging sensation, for that jolt forward through time that had been promised to me for four years now…but nothing happened. Did I need to take Crow out of the box for it to work? That seemed rather petty, but then I heard the healer inside delivery: "Congratulations! You have a beautiful baby girl. Her brother is coming along, get ready to push Mrs. Kowalski…"
I bit my tongue to keep from laughing aloud. Jules had lied to me. Of course, she was the oldest. A minute or two passed, and then the tug at my navel came, and just like that. I was gone.
"Anita, send in the next applicant if you would," she leaned back into her chair for a brief moment, steadying herself for the interview about to take place. Her current assistant was about to take maternity leave and she'd spent the past week interviewing potential replacements. She had no great hopes for the next applicant, she'd heard him approach the front desk twenty minutes ago on a water break. ("I need to see Mrs. Kowalski." To which Anita had replied: "Are you here to interview for the office assistant job?" Followed by the hesitant, "…Yes.") When the young man entered her office, Amaya took in not only his striking features but also the way he carried himself from the threshold to the hard-backed chair opposite her desk. He was tall, with dark hair he'd combed and styled away from his face, which allowed her to get a full view of his steel-grey eyes, his cheekbones that could cut glass, and strong jawline. If he'd been blond, and had softer features, he could've been her husband's younger brother. He moved with purpose, even in the few steps between the chair and the door, his back straight, head held high, eyes fixed on hers as he extended a hand in greeting. It was his smile that made her pause. He looked like he was restraining himself, though, from what, she couldn't fathom. They'd only just met, after all.
She shook his hand briskly, "Amaya Strother-Kowalski, good to meet you Mr.-" she glanced at the resume on her desk. "-Black." She did a double-take at the paperwork as her brain registered the first name scribed there. "Paul-ox?"
"Pollux," he supplied, and this time his smile was genuine.
"Like the star?"
He nodded once. "Yes, exactly. Few people recognize that. Also, I wanted to thank you for seeing me last minute—I'm sure you've already decided on your assistant by now, but I appreciate your lending me some time."
Amaya sat a little straighter as he took a seat. That had been a rather shrewd observation, and he wasn't wrong. She'd been rather intrigued by Mr. Hapley a few days previously and was looking forward to working with him. "Well, it's too soon to say. You might be the one to change my mind. Tell me about yourself, Pollux."
"I was born here in New York," he began after a moment's pause, apparently gathering his thoughts. "But as you might've noticed by the accent I was raised in England."
Amaya nodded to show her interest. "So you attended Hogwarts?"
"Yes, I was in a house called Ravenclaw. Graduated with honors a few years ago."
"Oh," Amaya couldn't help but voice her disappointment. "My daughter transferred there last year, so you probably wouldn't have met her."
His smile struck her as pleasant, but odd as if he somehow did know her eldest. "Probably not."
"Well, I'm divorced, and I've moved to America recently as a way to…find myself, I suppose."
"I'm sorry to hear that; you're far too young to be divorced. Tell me about your family." Amaya had noticed he still wore the silver ring on his left hand, even as he claimed to be unmarried. It had been a recent split, then. He also wore a signet ring on his right hand which told her he came from a prominent wizarding family back in England.
"There's very little to tell in that department," Pollux replied, surprising her slightly. Most purebloods liked to talk about how their lineage had been traced all the way back to good witch Morrigan herself. "My mother passed away when I was a child, and my father followed her nearly two years ago. I'm an only child, the closest person in my life other than my ex-wife of course-was my younger cousin."
Amaya heard the past tense but decided it was best to move into a happier territory before getting to the business aspect of the interview. "What are your passions? What inspires and motivates you?"
These were her favorite questions to ask, mainly because they revealed more about the person she was speaking to than even they realized.
"Professionally or personally?" Pollux asked, and she watched with interest as for the first time his eyes dimmed from cool steel to storm grey.
"Whatever you are so inclined to share. What would you like me, as your potential employer, to know about you?"
"Ah." He nodded, his eyes coming alight once again. She made a mental note of this as he went on, "This may sound a bit strange but I have always felt strongly about the truth. If there was ever a need for me to lie it absolutely killed me inside until I could reconcile the matter. My entire life I was never interested in sycophants, I sought out genuine connections with people, despite being difficult to approach to begin with," he amended with a shrug. "I've never been one to bow to the pressures of others; some call it headstrong others see it as strength of character-I'll let you decide on your own how to perceive my actions."
Amaya nodded, simplifying his explanation in her mind to Truth Seeker. "Tell me something very few people know about you."
He answered quickly, a little too quickly. "I'm a pianist. Any chance I get to play I can hardly resist."
"I studied Alchemy. Didn't take quite as well as Defense Against the Dark Arts but-"
Amaya cut him off, seizing her chance at spontaneity. "How long have you been a practiced Legilimens?"
Pollux Black paused, looking amazed, and then sheepish at being caught. "Was I that obvious..?"
She smirked. "To the casual observer, no. I bet most people wouldn't be able to tell just from talking to you, however, I am raising two Legilimens at the moment, and I know the signs."
"Two?" No, it wasn't the fact that she was raising born-Legilimens that startled him, but that there was more than one. Though admittedly, that wasn't a common occurrence, not even in the wizarding world. A statement Amaya had heard over and over again from her mother-in-law.
"Yes, my daughter whom I mentioned before and then my youngest who is starting her second year at Ilvermorny this fall." Amaya couldn't be certain why she felt comfortable enough to speak so candidly with him. It was like…rather than being strangers, they had known one another in a past life or something. "You said you were born here, in New York?"
"I did. I think my parents must've been on vacation or something when I arrived unexpectedly."
She narrowed her eyes at his explanation but otherwise kept her expression neutral. He was lying. She didn't have to be a Legilimens to know that, she only had to be a mother of four. Five, counting David. Still, if he didn't want to talk about the circumstances surrounding his birth it was none of her business. She was only curious if they had possibly…but it was impossible, surely. He was too young, although his eyes displayed a maturity that gave her chills.
"And what qualifies you to work as my assistant?" she asked, steering them back into interview territory. He automatically launched into the usual speech she'd heard a dozen times this week: about how he was diligent and hard-working and task-oriented and managed his time well-he actually gave a short laugh at that part but didn't say why. The difference between his speech and the rest she'd heard this week was that she believed his. She took a moment to look down at his resume, under the presumption that she was fact-checking all that he'd told her. It looked rather hastily put together, and she suspected he'd spent minutes leading up to this interview filling out the form in the rather uncomfortable chairs outside her office. Still, there was something…trustworthy, about this one. Apologies, Mr. Hapley…
"I think I've heard all I need, for now, Mr. Black," she said with a sigh, rising to her feet and walking him to her door. She shook his hand, appreciating that it was a firm grip and not a dead fish one. "Expect to hear from me in the next few days. If not, thank you for coming in."
He bowed his head to her, although he could've easily just been trying to re-establish eye contact-he towered over her, despite the fact that she'd worn heels that day. "Thank you, Mrs. Strother-Kowalski. It was a pleasure meeting with you today."
A final smile and Pollux Black was gone. A few minutes passed before Anita knocked on her office door. "Come in."
The stomach leading the way for the rest of her body, her current assistant was quite ready to pop any day now. "Normally I keep thoughts like this to myself but oh my gawd if you don't hire him I will, as a nanny or pool boy or something he is gorgeous!"
Amaya laughed aloud. "You are happily married, or you were this morning."
Anita glanced at her wedding band and engagement ring with a disappointed expression. "Oh yeah. Well, what Marcus doesn't know won't hurt him, right?"
Amaya rolled her eyes. "What's next?"
"Well, of course, I'd have to snap back to my normal figure after this baby decides to come out-"
"The schedule, Anita!" Amaya said loudly, preventing her from planning anything else.
"Riiiight." She blushed. "Please don't fire me."
The little bell jingled merrily from the front door, signaling to him that he had at least one customer upfront. He brushed the excess flour off of his apron, or at least tried to, and headed to the front. He recognized the boy at once, as he'd made a lasting impression not only a few months prior but recently in his own house as well. He was studying the pastries in the display case so intently, David knew that he hadn't even realized he was no longer alone in the shop. Rather than watch him quietly, he put on his best baker's smile. "Theodore! Welcome! Where's your sulky friend?"
The boy raised his head in slight surprise, digesting his words. "Just me today. Got a bit lost in the city."
Leaning against the glass, David said, "Julie says you're staying somewhere in SoHo, that right?"
He chuckled softly. "If you know where you're going, that's only a 20-minute walk from here." He let the words settle on the poor boy before adding, "Want a pierniczki?" He slid open the case and withdrew a large plate piled high with cookies shaped like nifflers.
"Are those…nifflers?" asked Theodore hesitantly, selecting one and taking a small bite. He opted for the side, David noticed. His daughter would have gone for the head-something she started doing at an early age just to see the shocked expression on Uncle Newt's face.
"Every month I have a different theme, and Fi picked nifflers, billywigs, centaurs, diricrawls, and mooncalves." He gestured at the more creatively shaped baked goods as he spoke, smiling. "Everything she calls cute, basically."
Theodore nodded, a look of bliss crossing his face as the taste of ginger took hold; David was familiar with the expression by now. But then, "Wait, centaurs?"
David wrinkled his nose. "I ain't gonna lie to ya, I'm more than a little concerned about that one." He put the cookies back on display before running a hand through his hair. "She won't stop talking about boys. I wish she'd be more like her sister."
Theodore took the bait. "What was Lian like at that age?"
David squinted for effect. "Oh, twelve wasn't a good age for my Julie…for a while there it was like she'd lost all sense of self. She was quiet and docile, but then she got back to school and had some sense slapped into her by one of her long-distant friends…what was his name…"
David liked Theodore well enough, but he got the impression that he was in over his head. Before he could go into too much detail about the boy he was thinking of however, Theodore burst out, "She has female friends, right?"
"Of course. When she got to school she made loads of friends, most of them have passed through our house like you and Drake. When she was younger though…it was her and-" he caught himself. He couldn't talk about Oliver, if Julie hadn't told him then it was probably for good reason. "…Matt against the world. Around ten years old they found Jason and were as thick as thieves." As Theodore contemplated this new information, the bell jingled again as Julie and Jason entered, sweaty from their workout. "Speaking of thieves!"
Theodore turned to look, unconsciously brushing crumbs away from the corners of his mouth. David hid an exasperated smile. For her part, Julie sized him up in about two seconds before holding her palm out to Jason, who was already digging around in his pockets. "Pay up."
Jason dropped 5 sickles into her hand, frowning at Theodore. "C'mon man, you couldn't have waited just four more days?"
Theodore's reply was indignant, "I didn't come to see her, I was just wandering about."
"Oh really?" Jason swiped at Julie, attempting to reclaim his money, but she dodged around Theodore then jumped the glass counter to join David. "Hey!"
"The bet was whether he'd turn up in a week or a few days," said Julie in a matter-of-fact tone. "He turned up. I win." She then winked broadly at Theodore. "Good to see you, Nott. How badly is Malfoy pouting?"
"I actually haven't seen him since you gave him those books." Theodore admitted, still looking hurt at being used.
David watched as his daughters expression displayed how impressed, rather than concerned, she felt. "Sounds about right. I couldn't put the damn things down the first time I read through them."
Jason sniggered. "I remember that," he moved forward to examine the pastries beneath the glass. "She was walking the hallways blindly with her nose buried in those pages. Do you know how many times we had to grab the back of her robes to prevent her from falling down the stairs?"
David gave a hearty laugh at that. "I can imagine."
"You were in the same house at…" Theodore trailed off, apparently unable to recall the name he was looking for.
"Ilvermorny?" Jason finished for him with a smile. "Nah. I'm in Horned Serpent: too many questions buzzing around in my head, I guess."
Theodore turned a curious gaze on David, then. "What house were you in?"
David was wondering when the question would arise, as it usually did with Julie's new friends at some point or another. "Heh, I wasn't offered a place in any of the houses." He said with a shrug. "That was an awkward moment for everyone involved."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I couldn't very well attend Ilvermorny and carry a wand being a Squib and all." He allowed a rueful smile to cross his face. "My ma was so happy to send me'n my sister off to her alma mater, it didn't really register that I hadn't displayed any signs of magic and all…" He could still picture quite clearly that front hall of Ilvermorny, the four wooden statues of the magical creatures glaring silently down at him; a small eleven-year-old boy standing on that gold, Gordian knot, waiting for an offer that would never come.
Theodore was quiet a moment, probably trying to choose a correct response, one that wouldn't set Julie's calm mode to hellfire and brimstone. As much as she loved her friends, David knew well that her loyalty to her family always came first. "Huh. I suppose you can't blame her for hoping."
David nodded. "That's what I've always said. In any case, Dad was happy to have someone to teach all the family secrets." He spread his arms, gesturing at the shop in which they all stood. "Long story short, I run the baking business now."
"…So." Jason broke the silence that followed. "What brings you to this neck of the woods?"
"I was trying to get a feel of the city," Theodore answered honestly.
"How'd you do?"
David beat him to the punchline. "He got lost."
Julie squinted at him in disbelief. "Isn't SoHo like twenty-"
Julie and Jason both raised their hands in a placating gesture. "Okay, chill dude," Jason said. "We're only here for the mooncalf-pies."
"That'll be 5 bucks," David stated, already punching the charges into the cash register.
"Nuh-uh," his daughter pouted. "Last week they were only $2.50!"
"It's a buy two get one free special, honey," he explained, glancing over at Theodore pointedly. "What's the plan for the afternoon, then? You two finished with boxing-"
"Kickboxing, Dad," Julie corrected.
"Right. What's next?"
She handed him a crisp five-dollar bill before replying, "Well I smell like a troll's armpit, so probably go home and shower before meeting up with the gang tonight."
David began to distribute the pies, and Jason took his with a grin before taking a huge bite. He then spoke with his mouth full. "Mebbe Feeoh duly'k taclom."
David maybe understood half of that, but Julie, ever observant and the mind-reader, was on his wavelength. "Mm. I'd hate to interfere with his city wanderings. Would you like to come with us tonight, Nott?"
"Where are you going?" Theodore asked cautiously.
Jason swallowed his treat. "Karaoke night."
Jason and Julie exchanged identical, wicked grins. "Oho," his daughter cackled. "This is gonna be good."
"Hang on," Theodore held up his mooncalf-pie in defense. "I still haven't agreed to anything."
"Yeah, but you were about to," Jason slung an arm around his neck, subjecting the poor boy to his sweat-stink. "Come with us, you'll get less lost that way."
Julie hugged David, getting flour on her exercise clothes. "See you later!"
"Wait a moment," he caught her hand before she had a chance to hop over the display case and follow her friends out of the shop. "Before you go dragging that poor boy all over the mid-west, I need to have my say."
"We'll try to be back before midnight, I promise," she said quickly, eager to leave.
"Colorado is two hours behind us, that's a very hollow promise," David remarked, but didn't let her go just yet. "But I'm talking about Theodore." Julianne met his eyes, patiently waiting for him to complete his thought before replying. In that respect, she had grown quite a bit. He almost missed the days where she would just chat away in response to his forethoughts. "He's a nice young man, and he likes you. But I know how you are. Please, don't lead him on."
She looked down at his hand on her arm, then back up into his unwavering stare. "I'm not leading him anywhere. Nor am I in control of his emotions. I can only hope that his kindness and friendship will not waiver on whether or not his affections are returned." She shrugged. "And if that turns out to be the case, it'll only prove he wasn't worthy of them to begin with."
David sighed heavily. "No more Oprah for you, young lady."
"Actually, that was all mom," she said with a small smile. "I made you both a promise I wouldn't have a boyfriend until I was 18, and I intend to keep that. So trust me, and don't worry."
"When?" he demanded, having no recollection of any such oath. "Can you make Seraphina swear to the same promise?"
"Oh, must've been just mom then; you were implied though. As for Sera-" she'd slipped out of his grip and rose on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. "-You're on your own!" Then she hopped the counter and fled the shop with a rushed, "Love you!"
David barely had a minute in the back before the bell jingled again. He moved at his own pace to the front of the shop again, this time his eyes landing on a young man with striking features. He had long dark hair that had been pushed back from his face, silver eyes that stared curiously around the shop, his gaze lingering on the display of billywig chocolate croissants. His features were sharp, aristocratic, though his cheekbones made David think absently of his wife's.
He put on his best baker's smile again. "Welcome to Kowalski's Quality Baked Goods! How can I make your day sweeter?"
The silver eyes rose to meet his and David felt a sudden chill. "That's a bit of a mouthful. 'Kowalski's Quality' doesn't exactly roll off the tongue." He was British.
David shrugged magnanimously. "You can thank my father for that. You try opening a successful business around World War II-that Quality probably saved his livelihood."
"Does the Quality continue through the next generation?" the customer asked, a wry expression barely making itself known.
David offered him a niffler-cookie. "You tell me. Pierniczki?"
The young man raised his eyebrows a fraction before slowly accepting one. "Bless you."
"It's Polish," David laughed. "They're my samplers today, g'head, try it." His customer bit off the head, chewing slowly to allow himself to explore the taste before swallowing. "Well?"
The young man nodded approvingly. "Is everything made here?"
"With my own two hands and from scratch, yes."
"Plans to keep the business in the family, I should think?" His tone was curious and light but it put David on guard. What if he had been sent to try and buy him out? It wouldn't be the first time… "I only ask because you mentioned your father and your left fourth finger has a tan-line where a wedding band would rest—presumably you've removed it to avoid dirtying it." The young man added as an afterthought. David recognized it as more.
"What did you say your name was again?"
"I didn't. I'm Pollux Black, I've recently moved into town."
"Ah. Well, Mr. Black, as it happens I've got three children who have all served their fair share working here at one time or another. Getting one of them to run the business, well, that's another matter. My son might be the best choice, but it's upto them. I'm not the sort to force my children to do anything they don't want to…unless it's good for them," he added with a chuckle. "I call that Father's privilege."
Black gave a little grin in response, as though David's answer pleased him in some way. "Well, you sound like a marvelous father, they're lucky to have you…"
David had not expected the compliment, but took it all the same. "Now! What can I get ya—?"
"I think I'll require a sack of these croissants," Black said, pointing at the billywigs. "And possibly another pierniczki or three."
David felt a moment of pleasure mixed with pride as the stranger spoke the Polish word with perfect pronunciation after only hearing it once. He began filling out the order, talking all the while. "Can do—and will you be paying galleons or dollars?"
Black cleared his throat. "Galleons, if you don't mind."
"Sure, I get magic and non in here all the time." He smiled at his customer through the display case as he reached over the centaur-tarts, (or centarts as Fi had dubbed them.) "I couldn't be sure which you were until you practically read my mind. How long you been studying Legilimency?" He straightened and placed the perfectly packed bag on the counter. "That'll be 5 galleons and 3 sickles."
"Quality indeed," Black muttered as he withdrew the gold and silver. "About four years, now."
David squinted at him as he placed the money in the drawer. "Ain't you a little young to be practicing mind-reading magic?"
Black squinted right back at him. "Are you sure I'm the one deserving of your scrutiny? You're the one with two daughters born with the ability."
David sighed. "Yeah, that don't mean I endorse it. Legilimency nearly ruined my parents marriage."
Black grunted, his eyes distant as he held his purchases. "Wish that was my excuse…"
Black snapped to the present looking a little sheepish. "Don't mind me. Thank you for the treats."
"Of course! I hope to see you here again soon—here at Kowalski's Quality Baked Goods we treat our regular customers very well!"
Pollux grinned as he opened the door, a genuine expression as the bell chimed happily. "I'll keep that in mind."
I'd hidden just inside wizarding SoHo for only about five minutes before Jules and Theo had appeared.
"There," my sister had said. "Can't have you getting lost in my city twice in one day. That would make me a bad host."
"Right…thank you for letting me come tonight," her "ally" had replied.
"Did you have fun? Sometimes its hard to tell…"
"You're the mind reader, you tell me."
"Hah," Jules had placed her hands in her back pockets then, glancing around the seemingly empty street. "This place gets spooky at night. Like a ghost town…" Nice subject change, sis. Subtle.
Theo looked around as well, though I noticed how he'd stepped a little closer to her in the same movement. "I suppose… You're not scared of the dark are you?"
Jules looked up at him with a sardonic expression. "Do I look scared?"
Nott smirked. "A little." He moved closer, crossing one too many lines in my book. I withdrew my wand and sent a gentle hex his way. His shoelaces knotted together and his zipper came undone. Upon his next step he stumbled and his pants fell round his ankles right before he collapsed on the cobblestone.
Jules doubled over laughing, releasing an unladylike snort in the process. Nott scrambled upright, fixing his trousers first before fumbling with his laces, his complexion a bright pink. Without looking my sister in the eye he gave a hasty, "Goodnight," before marching down the street towards the Malfoy estate. The moment Jules vanished back into the No-Maj street I stalked after Nott, placed a handkerchief soaked in a sleeping draught against his mouth and nose. It wasn't strong enough to make him sleep indefinitely, but he would be unconscious for a good ten hours or so. The second he was down I stole one of his hairs, placed it in a phial of polyjuice potion and watched as it changed from its resting mud mix to a midnight blue. Theodore Nott tasted like licorice root. But he'd never hear it from me.
One more job, Kid. You just have to convince him to trust your sister. Then all the pieces will fall where they're meant.
Conjuring the stretcher and then hiding it and the unconscious boy with the Disillusionment charm wasn't difficult. It was making sure they floated along in my wake but high enough to not disturb anything else.
I took a deep breath before entering the estate. I wasn't careful to keep my entrance quiet, but I was still surprised to find that the first person to confront me was the young master of the house, not one of the house-elves. Draco Malfoy glared down at me from the first landing of the spiral staircase, which would have been intimidating had he not been adorned in a bathrobe and slippers. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing aloud, and I coughed into my arm to hide the smile creeping across my mouth.
"Where the blazes have you been?" Draco demanded as I scaled the stairs. "Mother said you'd left early yesterday morning!"
"I wasn't aware of a curfew," I replied smartly, hoping that sounded normal.
Draco cocked his head back as he scowled. "Yes you were, or weren't you listening to Mothers list delivered via Kipsy?"
My heart paused at the name of my house-elf. "I guess not," I replied, moving past him only to have my upper arm seized in a vice grip. "Problem, Draco?"
"You've yet to answer my inquiry. Where have you been?" I could practically hear him grinding his teeth, and resisted the urge to comment on his dental health.
"I was out with Lian and several of her American friends," I answered plainly. "I apologize for the lateness," a small smirk played across my mouth as I added, "but in my defense, we were in a different time zone."
Draco squinted at me, grey eyes raking my face and posture. "You sound funny." I squinted back, quirking a single eyebrow, wondering if it was obvious I was holding my breath. "…It's decided. You're not allowed to hang around those Americans on your own."
"Whatever you say," I replied dryly, giving him a sarcastic little bow.
He let me march a few steps past him before speaking again. "We're leaving tomorrow."
I paused and turned my head. "What?"
"I made a mistake in coming here. I don't need her help, neither of us do. We'll drop by, modify her memory and leave…"
I kept my back to him as I responded, keeping my voice steady and light. "If you think that's what's best…"
"That's it? No argument or rebuttal?" Draco scoffed in disbelief. "Who are you and what have you done with Theo?"
I gave a soft chuckle. "What's the point in arguing? You've clearly made up your mind and nothing I say will change it. My trusted and intelligent friend Draco would never make a bold announcement without first planning out every step and predicting each upcoming obstacle." No wait, that's me. "You say go, I guess we'll go."
His silence spoke volumes. I allowed it to stretch for as long as he needed to suffer it. "…well, maybe not every step…"
I gave a gasp of surprise, even though I'd fully expected as much. "If you're not fully decided, why raise the issue at all?" And then I turned on the stair to gaze dramatically down Theo's nose at him. "Unless you were counting on me to refuse?"
Draco shrugged his shoulders, though clearly exasperated. "Shouldn't you?"
Leaning on the banister I glanced towards the unlit chandelier. "Well, I suppose I could ask why you'd want such a sudden departure, after all you haven't learned proper Occlumency from Kowalski just yet." Draco opened his mouth to speak but I cut him off. "And I suppose I could conclude that you've decided that it's not worth the risk. After all—allowing her to dive into your thoughts and emotions would render you vulnerable and your pride won't allow for that." He coughed uncomfortably and tried to interrupt but I was on a roll. "Because of course when all is said and all is done the ancient and noble Malfoy pride will save you from the Dark Lord's wrath, right? Learning proper defensive mental magic is a waste. You're right. We should just pack up and be on our high and mighty way."
By this juncture Draco was looking quite cross with me. "Will you shut it?"
"You're the one who wanted me to speak," I reminded him, before promptly shutting my mouth.
"You realize that we're betraying everything we've been taught our entire lives, don't you?" I raised both eyebrows and tilted my head at him as if to say, Duh. "I mean, are you sure we'd rather choose to side with Saint Potter over the man who has been fighting to liberate wizards from under the oppressive and barbaric Muggles?"
Knowing it was a risk, but unable to help myself, I laughed aloud. Draco jumped in alarm, wondering if I'd completely lost my mind. "Oppressive?! Barbaric, perhaps, but oppressive? Has being literally surrounded by their kind shown you nothing?"
"I've seen how a wizarding family such as Lian's is prevented from living to standard because they're petrified of being discovered by their Muggle neighbors."
"Draco, they choose to live the way they do because it befits their family. Mr. Kowalski's a Squib, after all."
"He's a what?!"
"They live in balance with magic and non. It's as natural as breathing for them." I shook my head. "But that's not the point: the Muggles aren't oppressive or aggressive. They're ignorant, and happier that way. If wizards came into the light, they would be the oppressive ones. D'you realize Muggles outnumber us a hundred to one? The world can't function without them."
"Why not?" Draco demanded, though I could see shades of doubt in his eyes now. He was stubbornly resisting his own logic now. "It'd be a better world with all wizards."
"It would be chaos out there if we only had to worry about wizards! Can't you see that the secrecy from the Muggles protects wizards from bringing about our own destruction? Sure, we're better, wiser and more powerful—isn't that a good enough reason to protect them?"
"But what use are they?"
"I defy you to spend a day in the Muggle world and still be able to say they're useless. Without them we'd still be riding around on horseback. Without them—" Draco was shaking his head at me. "What?"
"These are Kowalski's words, not yours," he said.
If only you knew the half of it, I thought. "So what? Is she wrong? Allow me to answer that for us both: no. Is she planning to use the information she gleans from our memories against us? Again: no."
"How can you take her at her word? What power does she hold over you?" Draco ran a hand through his blond locks, revealing just how stressed he was. "It must be some potent magic, as she's convinced you to pick Dumbledore's side."
My eye twitched at the mention of the old man. "She's a truth seeker. She saw the truth of Slytherin in three seconds, and she's been rebuking the rest of us ever since. She sees the world for what it could be, and would fight tooth and nail to make it so. I don't choose Voldemort," I relished Draco's wince. "I don't choose Dumbledore and Puppet-Potter. I choose the one person who will definitely survive this war, whatever the outcome. I choose Lian Kowalski." I waited for the impact of those words to wash over him before driving it home. "And if you had any amount of sense, so would you."
I left him standing on the stair, utterly speechless. I made my way to the guest bedroom and shut and locked the door behind me, releasing a long sigh. Then, I withdrew my teak wand and waved it at the bed, where Theodore Nott's body materialized immediately. Already I could tell the effects of the polyjuice potion were wearing off as his short, neatly groomed hair extended into my wild and unkept locks, falling against my shoulder blades now. As I crossed the room and returned to my normal height, only a few inches difference really, Nott snored a little, giving me to know that he was alive.
I took a moment to implement my memory of what just happened into his subconscious. Being disguised as him, he could easily adopt it into his own identity, and it would prevent any after-conversing's. Although I wasn't too concerned; Draco Malfoy did not seem to be the type to bring up times where he was unable to argue.
Nice, kid. I sometimes forget what a good actor you've become.
Part of the job, I thought in reply. Opening the window and summoning my ride, I was almost out clean when there was a CRACK right behind me.
"M-Master Roman?" A small voice wailed.
I glanced down at my old house elf, Kipsy. So, she had been passed over to Narcissa after I left. Briefly I wondered about the fate of Regulus, and his hunt for the horcruxes, but still, given the choices of whom my elf could've been passed off to-Narcissa wasn't bad. "Hey. It's good to see you again."
The old she elf's eyes grew wet and she hugged my calf, sobbing quietly into the fabric. "M-Master! Kipsy knew you wasn't dead! Kipsy knew it!"
I reached down at patted the top of her head. "You've got to keep pretending I am, Kipsy. I'm sorry but I need you to keep me a secret."
She stepped away to gaze up at me, unaware of the sizable snot-bubble she'd created. "Anything for you, Master," she whispered, though she was still shaking with emotion.
Nodding once, I climbed out the window and onto the carpet waiting for me. I had one final stop before the night's end, anyway…
For reasons known only to himself, Crow sent me back about an hour, landing me in a large room I'd never seen before. The floor was hardwood and practically bare, aside from a desk near the only door and a tall wardrobe in the corner. One wall was entirely made up of ceiling-floor-length mirrors, just one reflective surface, and the opposite appeared to be a window. But I knew that couldn't be the case because there was no way my sister had the New York City skyline as her view. The tall building with all the lights was especially in focus, so I figured the glass had been enchanted somehow to show a better view, depending on the day in question. I noticed a shelf built into the upper wall, that circumferenced the entire loft, filled to bursting with books. But why would she need all this space?
Taking out the box that I'd kept Crow in for the better part of our last month or so, I stepped toward the desk, placing amid the notes, books, quills and pens scattered here and there. Then I figured I ought to leave a note or something, in the case that she did not wake. Using a spare bit of parchment and one of the pens, I scribed, "Good luck" and placed it a little behind the box. Then, as I reached for the chain the Blood-turner had hung to for these many years, I spotted something moving in my peripheral and turned to watch my sister fly through the air straight at me. Her legs clamped around my neck and with a sudden and awful twist she had slammed me face-down into the floor, somehow sitting on my back.
"What are you doing in my house?" she demanded. "Who sent you?"
It was only then I realized she had no idea it was me, Roman, her estranged brother from the past come to haunt her. I couldn't help but chuckle. "Paranoid, much?"
My voice triggered her memories of me, and she hopped to her feet, grabbing her wand off the desk and turned the light on with a flick. I rolled to my back and got to my feet, keeping an eye on both her wand and her face. She looked as close to the version that had come to find me back at Hogwarts as I'd ever seen, I guessed she was probably 17 here. She examined me with her eyes, that fire alight in them, some unknown fury at my presence.
"Roman," she growled. "What do you want?"
I raised my hands placatingly. "Nothing. I only came to-" as I went to point at the box, I realized she was ready to jinx me and last I'd checked the only thing I'd ever done was help her. What had I done to piss her off? "Why are you upset?"
Her nostrils flared as she grit her teeth, wishing me death with every fiber of her being. If not death, at least a painful day. "If you've come to save my neck again you're too late," she snapped, raising her right arm up. I winced inwardly at the sight of the steel prosthetic, remembering vividly how she'd lost it. How I'd begged Crow to let me go back and save her… "I thought for certain this latest venture would be the death of me."
I couldn't let her see the softer side of me. She still saw me as a stranger. I wasn't her brother in her eyes yet. I still had a role to play. In my best imitation of a bored aristocrat I said, "But it wasn't. You're a survivor, Lian. More than you know."
She nearly curled her lip at this. "Yeah, right. If I was such a survivor, what've you been doing all these years you've followed me?"
I shrugged. "Making sure nothing went wrong." And to see my big sister you dummy.
"Well something went wrong in June! Where were you then, huh?!" I briefly wondered why nobody downstairs could hear her shouting at me, but then I recognized the stiffness of the air and the all too quiet world around us. Crow had frozen time for us. Or, because of us. "It's your fault I've become so reckless, you know! Because for four years every time something went wrong and I was in deep shit, there you were to pull me back! But you weren't there in June and I had to make a decision! I saved a man's life, almost costing my own in the process! Do you know what it's like to lose, build and reattach an arm, Roman?! Do you?!"
I slowly lowered my hands, watching her face as tears rolled down from those stubborn eyes. I wanted to tell her everything. How I had been there, but unable to do anything. I wanted to hold her, comfort her and tell her how it would all work out in the end. That there was a better end for the both of us, if she could just hold on… But I couldn't. "It's okay. You can take out all your fear on me, I know you hate feeling vulnerable and lost."
"Then why," she was fighting to keep her composure, trying not to break down completely and cry as she remembered flashes of that battle in the Ministry. Of Bella cursing her. "Why would you abandon me?"
I sighed deeply, keeping my face neutral. "Because you don't need my help anymore. It's your turn now…"
She stiffened and sniffed. "What are you talking about?"
I tapped the black box on her desk, drawing her attention to it. "It's time you had this. Everything will be clear soon, I promise." As I withdrew my hand and reached for the hourglass, her wand came up and fired a hex.
Time stopped. I dispelled the jet of light in a shower of sparks, gathered Jules up in my arms and placed her back in bed. I closed her eyes, so when time started up again she'd think she was just waking up. Then I took a moment to wipe her face clean with my sleeve, slipping her wand out from her fingers and placing it under her pillow.
Ready, Kid? This is the end of the line for you and me.
And she'll be safe?
I'll miss you too.
I scoffed, turning back to the desk and taking the chain off, holding the cursed hourglass up to the light. No, you won't. You've wanted to work with her since the beginning.
Do you remember the terms?
You swear to live by them?
I hesitated. Crow had told me I could go anywhere I wanted, now that I had been restored to my proper time. I had selected New York because it was my birthplace, near my family who I wanted to know again. But, I couldn't exactly return out of the blue, because if I returned then Jules would have no reason to utilize the hourglass and time would be thrown off. I had to wait a year to reveal myself to my family, wait until Jules traveled back to 1975. I swear.
Then yes, she'll be safe.
I placed the Blood-turner in the box, closing it with a snap. Realizing that I could no longer jump through time at will or whim, I opened the door and marched through my parent's house. As I walked down the stairs into the hall, I glanced up at the family portrait. The subjects were all asleep, except for the painted image of my younger self. The version of me that had been lost all those years ago. If time hadn't been frozen, I wondered if he'd grow overnight to mirror the way I was now. Perhaps, the next time I walked into this house, he would.
Taking a deep breath to steady my resolve, I exited the house. I felt time resume the second I turned the corner, and the Kowalski house was out of sight.
Roman, Crow, and Lian will return in The Harbinger…