30 August 1927, Number 19 Strattondale Street, Poplar, London
The faintest of breezes made a feeble attempt at rustling the paper cranes that had been thickly stranded on the curtain rod of the window that overlooked Strattondale. The lilac, marigold, azure, and rose-colored cranes sailed lazily back and forth knocking into one another, creating the only sound in the flat, apart from the languid breathing of a napping boy on the settee underneath the window. Dark curls plastered to his sweaty forehead, eyelids closed but fluttering with activity in a subconscious adventure, Morty's chest gently rose and fell beneath a thin undershirt. Mary-Ellen Clerey's eyes moved from the boy's face to a hole near the right pocket of the navy short trousers he wore. She would have to mend this pair soon. There was a regular rotation of mending that came with the clothing of a twelve-year-old boy. Mending and critters, Mary-Ellen thought as her eyes traveled from the hole, down the right arm that had fallen from his side to the floor, where he had sleepily released a toad he had been clutching.
Mary-Ellen's eyes returned finally to the sheet of unfolded copy paper in her hands. Her eyes traced for, perhaps, the hundredth time the familiar scripted hand of her husband. Her eyes lovingly lingering on his signature, "All my love, Corbin".
She could recite the letter by heart:
17 June 1927.
My Darling M,
Arrived in Paris only moments ago. Stopped at a cafe for a coffee and to make a report. I think the hotel we stayed at that one time may only be a block from here. I can see that little bookstore you loved across the street and I am thinking of better days. Number 9 has made an important contact.
(Number 9 was a code name, a number on the back of Quidditch robes from bygone days when battling on the pitch for the Quidditch Cup seemed to be focus of Corbin's life)
and I am hopeful that this is the break that we've been looking for. I will write tomorrow or the next day perhaps. It depends really on whether the trail continues or dies. One day this will seem old hat to you, letters from your husband in the field that contain little information and even less certainty. But you are a trooper, my dear. I know you will never be the sort to mope around waiting for news. You are self-sufficient and will carry on. Knowing that you carry on makes my task somehow lighter and easier to shoulder.
Send word if it should happen while I'm away. I want to know the moment that I am a father. But you are looking after yourself, I hope? Don't do any lifting. Get Mrs. Beaty's oldest boy to carry things for you. How's Morty? How's his menagerie? I must remember to bring him something back from my travels. Write me with ideas. Must go.
All my love,
She rested her right hand, still grasping the letter on the great bulging mass that was her belly. The letter had become an extension of her limb. Her hand didn't know how to be without the page it clutched anymore.
How long had the knocking been going on? Another succinct rap, followed by a baritone laced with panic, or was it agitation? "Mary-Ellen? Are you in there? Open the door now!"
Mary-Ellen felt like the voice had doused her with cold water. Just the thing to jolt her from her time travels. Her eyes snapped back to the napping boy, no longer napping. Their eyes met in silent communication.
"May I be excused?" the boy's eyes asked. She nodded. As she hoisted herself from the rocker she was sitting in to answer the door, Morty snatched up his toad and quickly retreated to his bedroom, closing the door behind him.
Mary-Ellen drew in a breath and said, "Coming!" though it sounded both sharp and hoarse at the same time and nothing like the causal response she had intended.
"Merlin, Mary-Ellen! I was ready to blast the door from its hinges! Muggles be damned!"
A tall man ten years older than Mary-Ellen swept into the room, as he did when entering any space, as if he owned it. The resemblance to Mary-Ellen and Morty was apparent. The family characteristics were pronounced in the Rackharrow family. Dark hair, dark eyes, fair skin, self-possessed confidence that comes with money and influence. The last trait being the one that Mary-Ellen had devoted her life to most earnestly exorcising in herself. Dark fedora, dark suit and overcoat, umbrella hanging neatly from his arm. When her older brother deigned to visit the Muggle world he did it all the way. Posh native, slumming it to visit his sister. She had long since given up any attempt at correcting anything her older brother did. Otherwise, she would have pointed out the unnecessary, very heavy wool coat in August.
"Lysander," Mary-Ellen sighed in greeting, suddenly winded and exhausted from extracting herself from the rocking chair. "You scared me and Morty half to death!" She took the hat, coat, and umbrella that were dumped into her arms and placed them on the coat stand, shutting the door after sparing a glance at the hallway to check for bystanders. All clear.
"I scared you?" Lysander responded, a hint of indignation remaining in his voice, but lowered, suddenly remembering he was no longer in the wizarding parts of London. Might as well be a foreign country, he often remarked on his rare visits to this flat.
"I was knocking for five minutes!" Lysander continued, following Mary-Ellen into the kitchen.
"Tea?" Mary-Ellen asked, ignoring the melodrama. She paused with the kettle in one hand, stowing the letter in her apron pocket with the other. She returned the tense stare that her brother fixed her with.
"My mind played out terrible scenarios. You took an eternity to answer. What was I supposed to think?" He finished lamely, apparently ashamed of the scene he had caused in the hall.
"That I was busy and couldn't answer the door right away. I don't have servants to do things for me, you know."
She decided for him. Yes, he would have tea. She put the kettle under the tap to fill and flicked the dial on the stovetop. Placing the kettle on the burner, she gestured to the scrubbed kitchen table and took a seat across from Lysander.
As he sat, he became less self-possessed, less confident in this Muggle space.
"Where is Mortimer?" Lysander asked, taking in the swaying cranes, the crayon-and-paper-strewn rug, and the toy by-plane discarded on the settee where Morty had been fast asleep moments ago.
"In his room," Mary-Ellen answered with a note of finality. She fixed him with a look that said this particular line of questioning was over.
"How are you?" her brother asked tentatively, changing the subject. "How are you feeling? Due date is getting closer," he observed warily surveying her vast middle as she pushed away from the table, standing and pulling the screaming kettle off of the heat.
She busied herself with tea things for a few moments letting the question and the concern hang in the air. Returning to her seat, pouring tea into two mismatched cups, handing one to Lysander, blowing steam off of her own before sipping, she considered her response.
How was she feeling?
Frightened that her husband's months of silence confirmed what she had feared. That he was dead.
Frightened. That she was left to raise her kid brother and her own baby without Corbin.
Frightened. That she would be left with no support, save her rigid and cruel father and the cold sibling that, at this moment, covered the silence by carefully stirring sugar into his cup and avoiding her stare.
Frightened. That every time she felt a twinge or pain, she was reminded of the mother who had died nearly twelve years ago giving birth to her younger brother.
"I'm fine," she replied flatly in the rehearsed tone of one who has often been asked in the last few months how she was doing.
"I have news," Lysander said, barely registering his sister's rote response because it was expected.
"News of what?" Mary-Ellen asked blandly, sipping and staring at the man across from her. A creature so familiar in appearance and so alien in conviction.
There was a ringing in her ears at the sound of her husband's name. A name that her eyes had wandered over in the letter in her pocket a dozen times a day, for the past two months. A name that she had not heard spoken in what seemed like ages. The ringing grew louder.
Her brother was speaking. She was watching his mouth forming words, forming sentences. She did not hear them.
She heard Corbin's voice:
"I'm the youngest Auror on this assignment." Corbin stuffed a bunch of socks into a bag excitedly.
Mary-Ellen tentatively handed him a stack of folded dress shirts from the bureau. "Is there any danger?"
She felt the same foreboding now as she had then.
"No." He smiled reassuringly, grinning at her. "Just a small-time smuggler." He laid the dress shirts on top of the lot and smoothed them.
Small-time smuggler, or dangerous dark wizard? What's the difference? She wanted to be angry at this white lie. She wanted her past self to be forceful and demand the details. Yet she could not be angry at Corbin. She never could.
The look on her face must have communicated her fears plainly. Corbin crossed the room and took her hands in his.
"Not a chance for trouble in the least." He gave her hands a squeeze. "Dean Barrie and Shirley Travers are already in Paris. They just need a few more eyes and ears on the ground."
He placed a hand on her cheek.
Eyes and ears. More like boots on the ground. She had gone to the Ministry every week since she had heard about Paris. She demanded to speak with Corbin's superior. She only ever got the company line from Theseus Scamander's secretary: "Communication is limited, I cannot give details to unauthorized parties. Your husband will be in contact with you as soon as he can, I'm sure. Owl service to the continent is a bit irregular. You know how it is."
Demanding to speak to Scamander himself proved fruitless. "He's on assignment."
"Strictly routine, ma'am" Corbin had said in an affected radio detective voice. Disarming her of any protest she had been ready to make. His Muggle humor was her weakness.
"...that you gave me to follow up with." Lysander continued, oblivious to his sister's glazed eyes and the teacup suspended halfway to her lips.
"I was able to track down one woman. A Sonja Calvet with the Paris Ministry. She confirmed what we all assumed. He was there. He and his team were at Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise."
Mary-Ellen's eyes focused and she sipped her tea with what she hoped was a conversational, "Mm hmm."
Lysander's brow furrowed and he fixed his sister with a look that made her wonder if she'd accidentally said something unladylike.
"Mary-Ellen," her brother said slowly and quietly. "Did you hear what I just said?"
Shaking the memory from her mind she said, "No, sorry."
"I said your husband is dead."
The ringing in her ears became a rushing waterfall. Static and noise that drowned out her brother's voice altogether and swept her away in a tide.
She sat catatonic for a while before her eyes focused on her brother once more.
"Mary-Ellen!" Lysander demanded her attention as if talking to his toddler, Gemma. He snapped his fingers just in front of her eyes.
Mary-Ellen heaved a sigh. Blowing the realization that her brother's words carried out with her breath, sucking the pain it brought in with another breath.
Then she felt a powerful, tearing pain in her abdomen and wailed a frightening scream.
26 August, 1957 Diagon Alley, Lonodn
Dorcas Meadows stood beside a display window with every type of owl imaginable in brass cages big and small, clutching a list of course books in one gloved hand, bags of shopping hanging off of her elbow. In the other gloved hand was the hand of a small girl, contenting herself with dabbing the toe of her Mary-Jane shoe in a murky puddle and giggling to herself.
"Come along, Wren," Dorcas said, holding the hand clasping the girl's aloft so that she could help her jump the puddle.
She was grateful that her husband Caleb had suggested they divide and conquer (both the school list and the girls). She turned back briefly, making a quick wave at Cal and her oldest daughter, Ryann. They spared her a quick wave and returned to the perch of barn owls they had been perusing.
"Let's make a run for it," she said, looking down and smiling at her youngest. The rain had begun to fall more earnestly, causing the passersby to reach for wands and mutter incantations that repelled water and spells that blossomed umbrellas from the ends of their wands.
Wren returned her look with enthusiasm and skipped along faster, as her mother began to trot tentatively, negotiating the cobblestones in Chanel pumps. As they were in the wizarding part of London, Dorcas would not have hesitated to pull her wand from the inside pocket of her coat, were it not for the parcels and children and lists that she had also been negotiating.
Dorcas and her daughter were nearly to the safety of the Flourish and Blotts awning when she was stopped by a voice that she had not heard in over a decade.
"Birdie?" came the surprised but delighted voice of one of her closest schoolhood friends.
Dorcas was shocked by the sound of the name that she had not been called since her Hogwarts days. She released the squirming little hand that was tugging her toward the bookstore.
"Tom?" Dorcas whispered, stunned.
Two feelings warred within her: She was flooded with fond memories of their time together at school. At the same time, she was reminded that they did not part ways amicably. In fact, hearing his voice again gave her a distinct wave of panic. She did not want her husband and her older child to emerge from Eyelops until Tom had gone.
Turning, Dorcas fixed a smile to her face and concealed her foreboding. She waved at the man who walked toward her, wand in his hand shielding him from the rain. He returned her smile and extended his wand arm to include her under the umbrella's protection.
The bookstore's bell tinkled announcing that Wren had entered the shop. Tom gestured to the closing door and asked, "So you're a mother now, Birdie?"
Dorcas gave a little start inside at this comment, but kept her expression light and pleasant with some effort. Here was the one person who kept her darkest secrets. She had spent the last decade putting miles and oceans between them. Now there were only inches separating them.
With his other hand, Tom held the door for her and Dorcas muttered thanks and ducked out of the rain behind her daughter.
Dorcas shifted her shopping to her other hand and extended her right hand to him. "It's good to see you, Tom!" she lied, struggling to sound warm and friendly.
Tom muttered "Finite" and stowed his wand in the breast pocket of his coat. "Of all the gin joints," he laughed, quoting a film Dorcas had seen a lifetime ago.
She withdrew her hand, in what she hoped was a casual way. She was aware of his gaze and it made her uncomfortable.
Tom Riddle had not changed since the last time she had seen him. Dark hair, intense eyes, a cunning smile, he was the most handsome boy in school, she recalled. And he had been hers. She was overcome with a strange sensation of feeling her cheeks heat with a blush and at the same time feeling a chill creep down her spine. This was what it had been like, back at school. Caught between delight and dread every time she held his gaze.
Glancing at the list in her hand Tom asked, "A Hogwarts letter?"
"My oldest starts next month," she explained woodenly, stowing the list in her handbag. She took a calming breath and hoped that he hadn't noticed how her hand shook as she did up the clasp.
"What have you been doing since school, Tom?" Dorcas asked conversationally, turning her attention from Wren back to her old schoolmate. She did not feel threatened by Tom. Not exactly. But she could not help the sensation that two worlds were colliding, past and present. She could not help feeling as if this meeting could spell nothing good for her family.
Tom took his hat off and brushed hair off of his forehead with the back of his hand. The recollection came unbidden to her mind of the many times that she had run her fingers through his hair in the same way. Remembering how they were together was pleasant, but there was something else under the surface.
"I work around the corner," he said vaguely, pointing in the direction of Knockturn Alley.
Wren was cross-legged on the floor next to a bookshelf immersed in a book of fairytales, open to a page with an ink-and-watercolor knight battling a dragon. The movements on the page reminded Dorcas of a stop-motion film, like Gumby. She did not spare her daughter a long look, not wanting to draw Tom's attention to her child.
Dorcas noted, not for the first time, how strong the resemblance was between Wren and Cal. She had his sandy-colored hair, straight mostly, but falling into a gentle curl at the end. The wide and cheerful face and expressive blue eyes. In contrast, everyone always said that Ryann favored her: dark and wavy hair, dramatic features in a pale face. The only difference between Ryann's features and her own were Ryann's deep brown eyes, which contrasted Dorcas's own dark blue. "The perfect pair," Cal always called their daughters.
But, as Dorcas turned her attention back to Tom, she saw only too clearly, Ryann's features reflected in his face. "I must do something," Dorcas thought wildly, her heart racing. "Ryann must not come into this shop. Tom must not see her."
Instead, Dorcas settled on some light chat. Being careful to keep her face neutral and pleasant, to keep the alarm from reaching her eyes.
"Who are you seeing these days, Tom? Is there a Mrs. Riddle?" It sounded absurd to her the moment it came out of her mouth. Tom found affection for affection's sake tedious. He only ever acted out romantic feelings as a means to an end. Looking back on their years together as school sweethearts, as she found herself doing sometimes, this was the only logical conclusion she could come up with.
"Sadly no. I am a confirmed bachelor," he conceded charmingly. "I wish I could stay and chat," he added, placing his hat back on his head and reaching once again for his wand. "I have business that won't wait."
"What a shame," Dorcas said, her smile faltering. She recovered her composure by rummaging in her handbag for the shopping list. Tom leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek. She accepted the familiar token of affection with a squeeze of his arm. Was she a good actress? She hoped so.
"Goodbye, Birdie," Tom said with a wink and ducked back out of the shop. Hitching the collar of his coat up against the rain, he walked resolutely away, his expression inscrutable.
Dorcas watched him from the shop window. He was turning left toward the corner. She gave a relieved sigh.
Cal and Ryann had selected a tawny owl and were crossing the street to join them, both chattering and looking at the new pet.
Tom stopped for a moment, staring at the pair.
A sense of dread filled Dorcas. She willed him to keep walking, at the same time, willing Cal not to look in his direction. She could hear the chatter around her in the shop growing louder as she projected her consciousness out toward Tom. The voices and the thoughts that she could hear around her were indistinguishable from one another. But from the consciousness of the man that she was focusing all of her attention on, she could hear only silence. He had gotten much stronger, she noted.
She looked from Tom to Cal and Ryann and the feeling of dread grew stronger. "We should not have come here," her inner voice admonished.
"You're not naming your owl Howdy Doody," Cal was laughing at his daughter, pushing open the door to the bookshop. "Give it a good wizard's name like Merlin."
Wren was jumping up and down beside Dorcas with excitement at the owl. Her book discarded at her feet, forgotten.
"Everyone will have named their owl some boring old wizarding name," argued Ryann.
Dorcas looked at the corner of Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley where Tom had just been, but he was gone. The panicky sense of terror that had descended upon her lingered. She kept playing the last scene over and over: Tom stopping to stare at her husband and daughter. Did he see the resemblance in Ryann that was all too obvious to her?
"Let's finish the shopping and go home," Dorcas said, infusing her words with a calm tone that took every ounce of her composure to speak.
26 August, 1957 Watermead, Aylesbury
"And you're sure he saw her?" Cal asked for the third time that evening. He had paused with his knife's point resting on the cutting board, the valerian root he was working on momentarily forgotten.
Dorcas knew this afternoon's encounter with Tom had thrown him off balance. Cal was usually calm and methodical in the laboratory. The valerian root lay chopped haphazardly on the cutting board. She guessed he would have to start over again.
She felt off balance as well. She had put Tom and her years at Hogwarts behind her. With Ryann's letter to Hogwarts and the Diagon Alley shopping trip, memories had been coming back to her more frequently.
Not for the first time today, she wondered to herself if it was the right thing to do, moving back. She and Cal had spent eight years creating a wonderful life for themselves in America. On the one hand, Ryann would be able to attend the school where Dorcas had met Cal and had many happy memories. St. Mungo's had also offered Cal and Dorcas a research grant to begin development of neurological spell damage antidotes. On the other hand, coming back to the country of her birth also meant that it was not as easy to hold back the more unpleasant memories of her past. Tom appearing on the street today was the embodiment of those unpleasant past memories.
Their parting twelve years ago was painful to remember. For Dorcas, at least. Tom seemed completely at ease seeing her again. It was easier to make herself forget that Ryann was not Cal's child when the physical reminder of her daughter's paternity was not staring her in the face.
"I'm positive, Cal," Dorcas confirmed, stirring a cauldron full of firethorn, patiently waiting until it resembled a syrup-like reduction. "I didn't know what to do."
Cal resumed chopping for a minute more before he surveyed the damage and tipped the entire contents of the cutting board into the bin.
"Maybe he doesn't suspect that she is his. He couldn't have gotten a very good look at her. Anyway," Cal added, "she looks more like you than anyone else." His tone had been careful and hushed. Their basement laboratory offered some privacy to the couple, but their daughters were asleep just upstairs.
Cal was reliable for the comments that helped her to remain positive, to look on the brightside, to come down from the ledge.
"What's the worst that could happen even if he did suspect?" Cal shrugged.
He abandoned his chopping and came to stand next to her. Placing a reassuring hand over her own and a kiss on her temple. "We can avoid that part of London in future. You need never see Tom Riddle again, Clerey."