The Celtic Cross
By Nyx Fixx
"Master is an infamous blot on the glorious history of his house and makes poor Kreacher physically ill..."
"Kreacher is welcome to shove off and go vomit elsewhere, then."
"Kreacher is used to Master hurting his feelings. Kreacher knows Master has always been a cruel, heartless brute and knows that no one can stand his evil ways any more than poor Kreacher can and that's why he's always alone in this house and has no one but poor Kreacher to mistreat and-"
"Kreacher is going to be hurting plenty if he doesn't stop his infernal muttering at once!"
Sirius had half risen from his seat as he'd made this last remark and Kreacher had glared daggers at the moth-eaten feather duster in his hands for a long moment, a mutinous gleam in his eyes. The two of them were in the study on the ground floor of Grimmauld Place on a warm, sunny Wednesday afternoon, and Sirius had been going through the many drawers of an old rosewood desk, tossing out the various bits of accumulated rubbish that he'd found.
"Kreacher obeys," the house-elf finally said aloud, raising his eyes from his feather duster. "Kreacher only tries to help. It is not fitting that Master should be cleaning at all, but Kreacher doesn't expect Master to care about civilized standards of conduct and so he must at least assist Master if he cannot convince Master to comport himself like a proper wizard and leave the cleaning to the house-elves."
Sirius sighed and looked at the small, jewel-encrusted mongoose skull he held in the palm of his hand. This skull could be used in the casting of several powerful hypnosis charms, he knew, and could also be steeped in cobra venom to brew a discord potion that would make even the closest friends want to quarrel. But just now, Sirius was considering the weight and balance of the thing, vis-à-vis how it could most effectively be used for pegging smartly at Kreacher's head. He closed his fist around the skull tightly for a moment, then sighed once more and tossed it into the sack he'd set by the desk for refuse. He sat back down in his chair behind the desk.
"The 'house-elves' haven't been doing much cleaning at all, so far as I can see," Sirius said to Kreacher. "Some of the junk I've found in this desk is over twenty years old. So much for standards of comportment."
"Junk!" wailed Kreacher in stridently self-righteous tones. "My mistress kept heirlooms and treasures of the House of Black! But Kreacher doesn't expect Master to understand such things, not with Master's slovenly habits and disordered brain."
"Sticks and stones," Sirius retorted quietly, determined not to let the ugly little house-elf make him lose his temper again. He pulled a moldering blob out of the same small desk drawer that had yielded the mongoose skull and examined it for a moment. "Ah," he said to Kreacher. "This appears to be a mummified corned beef sandwich. A place for everything and everything in its place. I must say, I admire your organizational skills."
Kreacher took a sullen swipe at one of the bookcases with his duster and made a face.
"Kreacher is sure he doesn't know how such a thing could have got in there," he said aloud and shook out his duster. "Master probably hid it in the desk himself when he was a young, ungrateful brat. Master always was a filthy little beast, and made his mother cry when he used this noble desk for his schoolwork," he added in an undertone.
Sirius had to admit to himself, there had been a time, many years ago, when he would hide out in this study with his schoolbooks for hours. He'd try to immerse himself in homework enough to forget how much he hated being home and how very much he missed Hogwarts during the summer hols. Kreacher's recollection was all too accurate. And he never had much liked corned beef sandwiches; that too was true enough.
"I'm touched you remember, you nasty little thing," Sirius said to Kreacher. "Good times, hmm? Remember that time you stole my Potions essay on the uses of bat's gall and baked it in a pie?"
"Master wronged Kreacher, that time. Kreacher was never assigned to kitchen duty, as Master very well knew," Kreacher said. He ducked his head and grinned maliciously and muttered an addition. "But Kreacher was good friends with Blinky, and Blinky didn't like Master much either but Blinky was a fine baker. Kreacher thought Master might actually burst into tears when he found his precious essay in the pie dish, vile little brat that he was …"
As lukewarm as he'd always felt about corned beef sandwiches, Sirius thought to himself, he had far preferred them to Potions-essay pie. He'd worked a week on that essay, when he'd been about twelve.
An uneasy silence reigned for a few minutes as Sirius continued to pull various objects out of the desk drawers, narrowly observed by Kreacher all the while. There was a small box of lacewing flies, an untidy stack of Potions notes from Sirius' fifth year, a rabbit's foot, several broken quills and a small bottle of dried-up ink, one mate-less silver earring in the shape of a tiny serpent, a half dozen Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans, a small copper hand-sickle and a cracked chalcedony pestle, one crackly dead husk of a cockroach, four hairpins, and a stained roll of parchment that turned out to be a dance diagram for the Runespoor Rhumba, a complicated tango-like dance for groups of three. Sirius tossed the lot and started to open a new drawer, but found that it was jammed somehow, and could not be pulled more than a third of the way open.
He slid his fingers inside the narrow drawer and felt around to see if he could find the obstruction. He felt velvet, and something rigid underneath the fabric, and tried working the object, whatever it was, this way and that way to free the drawer. After a bit of fiddling, he'd managed to get the object loose and pulled the drawer all the way out.
The obstructing object had been a small velvet pouch with a fraying silk drawstring, the original scarlet color of the velvet faded and covered with dust. Sirius pulled it out of the drawer and held it up toward the summery, filtered light of one of the study windows.
"Well, I'll be," he said softly.
Kreacher paused in his cursory dusting and glanced at him sidelong, curiosity piqued.
Sirius carefully worked the rotting silk drawstring loose and opened the pouch. He slid a deck of cards out of it.
"Imagine that. This is my old Tarot deck, from sixth-year Divination," Sirius said. "It's been yonks since I've seen it."
Once upon a time, he and James had elected to take Divination in sixth year, not because they'd felt they had any special aptitude for the art, or even because they'd thought much of the idea of prognostication at all. They'd actually done it because the Divination Professor, Monsieur Cagliostro Rider-Waite, had been a Tarot-obsessed, wildly unobservant, colossal idiot, and they could easily work on more important things like the Map in his class without any fear of detection. Peter and Remus had refused to waste their time with the class at all, and had opted for Muggle Studies and Care of Magical Creatures respectively instead, so it had just been Sirius and James in the class, doing the final fine spellwork on the Map when they could, making scathing jokes to one another about Monsieur Rider-Waite's rather ludicrous toupee, and trying to outdo each other in devising the most bizarre and absurd Tarot-readings imaginable.
It had been with the deepest embarrassment that Sirius had discovered, after about the fourth week of class, that he was actually pretty good at reading the cards, and the various meanings and symbols and interrelationships of the Major Arcana and so forth, once learned, tended to stick like glue in his memory, never to be expelled. He'd kept his humiliating new-found affinity for Tarot such a dark secret from James that it had taken his best friend a full two weeks to discover it and to start teasing him mercilessly about it.
Sirius took the cards and shuffled them once, smiling as he remembered James' subsequent campaign of ridicule, and how often they'd laugh together in Divination class, heads bent low over their desks and hands pressed over their mouths, laughing so hard, sometimes, that their faces would hurt.
Sirius shuffled once more, and then looked over toward the bookcases, where Kreacher was frankly gaping at him, while dreamily swiping the same shelf of the bookcase over and over again with his duster.
"C'mere, Kreacher, old sod," he said. "I'll tell you your fortune."
The ugly little house-elf could not quite suppress the quick spark of interest that crossed his features before making a horrible face.
"Tarot cards!" Kreacher hissed. "Kreacher is glad his beloved mistress is dead so she cannot see such Muggle rubbish infecting her home! Oh, what would she have said, if she could see? Cards! Divination!"
Sirius grinned, a little thinly. Many purebloods, he knew, despised all the Divination-related arts, not so much because they thought it wasn't possible to foretell the future, but because Divination wasn't really magic, per se, and it was said that sometimes, Muggles could do it too. His own mother had been no different; he could recall many occasions when she would become very critical indeed if she happened to catch him doing his Divination homework.
Sirius had even once seen a Muggle fortune-teller, in fact, years back, when he had been - oh, eighteen or nineteen - and though he still could not say, definitively, whether Muggles were truly capable of prophecy or not, the experience had made a lasting impression on him just the same.
"But what does Kreacher, say, eh?" Sirius asked. "'Muggle rubbish' or no – don't you want to know what your future holds? Maybe I'll be attacked by a Lethifold, and there'll be no trace left of me to besmirch these hallowed halls, eh? Maybe the dustbin collectors will be so disgusted with all the horrible stuff we've been throwing out lately that they'll return it all and leave it on the front doorstep with a nasty note, eh? You never know, Kreacher. It's all in the cards."
"Couldn't find the front door to leave it, could they, the filthy, smelly Muggle grubbers of refuse?" Kreacher commented sullenly. But he came a few steps closer to Sirius and the desk in spite of himself. "Kreacher's mistress always said the wretched cards were worthless, and Kreacher believes his mistress." His voice was defiant, but he took yet another step closer.
"Oh, yes? Worthless? Do you think so? Have a seat, old son." Sirius waved his wand at a straight-backed chair near the window and it slid across the floor to stand on the other side of the desk, across from Sirius. "You know you really want to, I can see you do."
Kreacher tried to puff himself up as best he could. "Master is wrong to keep Kreacher from cleaning and being about his duties and shouldn't make Kreacher waste his time with Master's Muggle fortune-telling rot."
"You could take a break," Sirius suggested, once again shuffling the Tarot deck, slowly and tantalizingly.
Kreacher, now only a few feet away from the desk and the cards, stood still for a final moment of indecision, and then clambered up into the chair Sirius had set at the desk for him. "Master orders, and so poor Kreacher has no choice but to obey," he grumbled to himself as he wriggled about in the chair and kicked at the carved wooden legs. Once seated, his feet did not quite reach the floor, and only the top half of his face was visible above the surface of the desk. He peered at Sirius owlishly.
"What foolishness must Kreacher perform now to satisfy his demented Master?"
"How do we start, do you mean? How does it work?" Sirius asked, once again smiling.
"Kreacher has … Kreacher has never had his fortune told before," Kreacher answered softly, eyes a bit wide, a bit bright. Then he remembered to make another horrible face and added "Not that Kreacher has ever had any interest in any of this filthy and debased Divination twaddle, oh, no, none at all …"
"No, of course not," Sirius agreed dryly. "Perish the thought. Here. First thing you have to do is cut the cards."
He pushed the deck of cards across the desk toward the house-elf. Kreacher took them into his hands and divided the deck in two.
"Good," said Sirius. "Now turn one half in the other direction and put them back into the deck. All right, that's good, now shuffle them."
Kreacher shuffled the deck awkwardly, the cards a bit large for his small hands. He carefully laid them back on the desk-top when he was done and looked up at Sirius.
"Good. Now cut them one more time and then tap the deck," Sirius said. Once Kreacher had done this, he reached across the desk and took the cards into his own hands.
"Now," he said, dealing cards off the top of the desk and laying them out. "Think of a question."
"A question?" Kreacher asked, a bit confused.
"This is the Celtic Cross layout," Sirius was saying as he continued to place the cards he'd dealt in a roughly cruciform pattern, face down. "The Querant – that's you – thinks of a question about the future he wishes to learn the answer to. The cards sort of … discuss … the issue as the Reader – that's me – turns them up. What would you like to know about the future, Kreacher?"
"Nothing but moonbeams..." Kreacher said, though not with his usual degree of opinionated assurance. "Master can't see the future."
Sirius smiled, remembering how the Muggle fortuneteller he'd seen when he'd been young had used the very same Celtic Cross layout they'd spent six weeks learning in Divination class at Hogwarts. He remembered how Peter too had scoffed at the cards, grumbling almost the exact same words Kreacher had just used. But Sirius had rather suspected that Peter was scoffing more to impress his date, a plump and pretty blond witch called Amaryllis, than out of any real disbelief.
James had thought the whole thing was the most hilarious lark, and perhaps that was only because he'd had Lily on his arm that night, young and beautiful and so in love. But Remus … Remus had been quiet and thoughtful as they'd entered the fortune-teller's tent, and when Sirius, out of the six of them, had moved toward the Querant's seat, he'd suddenly gripped Sirius' forearm tightly and said "No, Sirius. Don't."
"But why?" Sirius had asked him, half-smiling. "It's just a Mugg - just a carnival and a deck of cards, isn't it? Should be fun."
Remus had passed his hand over his eyes and blinked slowly for a moment. "I don't know why, really," he'd finally answered. "I don't know why I said that. But maybe - maybe we're not meant to look too closely at the future. I wish I'd never thought of this stupid idea!"
"We're not meant to be afraid to look, either, Moony. It'll be fine." He'd smiled at Remus once more and sat down at the table, across from the Muggle man with the Tarot deck, a small, ginger-haired man with a cast in one eye. "Don't worry," Sirius had added under his breath. "It's all bunk anyway. Ask Peter."
Sirius looked now at Kreacher before him, the faces and voices in his memory fading temporarily to make room for the present. He was a bit amused by the way Kreacher's reluctant interest in the cards and in his own future had made him forget to maintain his usual impenetrable Mad House-Elf manner. He was almost normal.
"Well, perhaps I can't see the future, Kreacher, old boy," he said. "But some say these cards can. And we're not afraid to look, now are we?"
Kreacher shifted stiffly in his chair. "Kreacher is not afraid of a pack of pasteboard comics, no he isn't," he snapped, offended. "Kreacher is not some gullible pantywaist, to be frightened by Mudblood trinkets."
Sirius laughed out loud. He could not remember the last time he had heard the term "pantywaist" used in conversation. "No, indeed, you're not. So, think of a question, then."
"Why is Master such a freakish, traitorous abomination?" Kreacher asked promptly, a malicious little smirk on his face. It seemed he was still a bit miffed about the suggestion that he might be a tad leery of the cards.
Sirius held on to his temper tightly. "A question about the future, you awful little pain in the arse," he explained through gritted teeth.
Kreacher thought about it. Sirius could almost see the wizened house-elf put his proverbial thinking-cap on. He waited to hear what his odd Querant would ask, half anticipating some intensely unpleasant and insulting bit of wankery, half curious as to what Kreacher might find meaningful enough about the future to want to know.
In time, Kreacher cleared his throat wetly and looked up over the desk-top. He gazed directly into his Master's eyes, and this struck Sirius strongly; Kreacher rarely met anyone's eyes, least of all his.
"Kreacher's question is this: what will happen to the lost glory of the House of Black?"
Sirius felt as though the house-elf had lunged across the desk and tried to bite him. He gripped the Tarot deck in his hands tightly, bending the topmost cards a bit. Yet there was no sign of the usual petty malice in Kreacher's expression. And he was still holding his direct gaze into Sirius' eyes, almost as though entreating him for an answer.
"Are you quite sure there was ever any glory to begin with?" Sirius asked him, meeting his unusually direct gaze steadily.
"Master has never understood anything," Kreacher responded wearily. Again, without much of the usual malice, and more with genuine regret. "This is his House. This is his blood and his home and his charge. When there's nothing else left, this is all there is. For Kreacher and for Master too. And where is Kreacher to go, what is Kreacher to do, when even that last is gone?"
Sirius stared at the house-elf. "Are you saying you're afraid something will happen to me, Kreacher?"
"Master is the last," Kreacher answered simply.
The two gazed at one another for an indefinable space of time, both contemplating the one thing they still had in common, whether they willed it or no, the last, indissoluble bond between them: mutual recognition that they were the final two remnants of a dying House.
"Not quite the last," Sirius finally said, breaking the silence. "There's you."
It was a bitter compliment for Kreacher to accept, Sirius could see, but he could also see that the house-elf did take some cold comfort and some honor from it, just the same. But he also shook his old head from side to side once.
"Kreacher and Kreacher's family served the House of Black since before Kreacher's mistress' grandmother was a baby, but Kreacher is not of the blood. Only Master is left, and after him there are none to carry on, not really, not in the way that the House of Black should be preserved. Kreacher fears for the future of all that was once so great and so good. This House was meant to endure forever. That's what Master has never understood."
"And you, Kreacher, have similarly never understood that nothing lasts forever, nor should it," Sirius said. "Not a one of the family has ever understood that. The blood you speak of so highly has been too old and too unchanged and too poisonous to last for generations, we've all been dying off for years. You know this, Kreacher; you've seen the way one after another of us has died long before his time – our blood is just too old and too used up. I didn't cause this dwindling you fear so much; I'm just the final result. But if it helps any, I promise you that when the time comes, I'll make provision for you at the end. You won't be abandoned or forgotten."
Kreacher snorted in hateful derision. "Oh, yes, kind Master will bequeath Kreacher to some one of his filthy Mudblood friends – perhaps to the half-blood werewolf Master loves so well, to wash the cheap crockery in his kitchen and to darn his ragged robes – or perhaps to Master's godson, the doomed Potter brat, who has so little breeding, and no future at all, or-"
"BE QUIET!" Sirius interrupted in a shout, half rising from his seat. "SHUT YOUR VICIOUS MOUTH, YOU MISERABLE LITTLE MONSTER!"
Kreacher shrank down into his chair and his head submerged out of sight beneath the desk-top. A tense moment passed slowly.
"Now it is Master who is afraid to look into the future," Kreacher muttered venomously, from underneath the desk.
Sirius dropped back down into his chair abruptly, and tried to get his breathing under control. After some concentrated effort, he was able to gain some measure of control over his anger and promised himself that he would begin to draw up his will that very night. It would be tricky, getting around some of the charms and spells his father had no doubt woven around the estate and the question of inheritance; he would have to build some very complex counter-spells into the wording of his own will…
Thinking about the ins-and-outs of complicated spells helped to calm Sirius down a bit more. In time, he was able to look toward what little was visible of Kreacher without feeling quite such an intense desire to strangle the wretched, pitiful old thing.
"Well, shall we take a peek together, then, Kreacher? Just us last two? The Courage of the House, eh? The cards are still laid out, after all."
More of Kreacher's head became visible above the desk-top. "Master will – Master will still tell Kreacher's fortune?"
"Why not? We haven't got anything better to do, have we? Neither of us. Come on out from under the desk, you know perfectly well I'd never really harm you."
"Master isn't shy about threatening, though," Kreacher pointed out.
"Kreacher is quite right, empty threats really are rather stupid and pathetic. I really must try to stop making them. Very pithy of you to point that out. Come on out, you know I'm not really going to hex you or anything. When have I ever?"
"There's always a first time," Kreacher retorted darkly. But he sat up in his seat a bit more and looked with interest at the cards lying face down on the desk again.
"What's this second one?" he asked Sirius, pointing at the card that was lying, lengthwise, over the central card in the layout. "Why is it lying across this other?"
"That's the Obstacle card," Sirius answered. "It represents whatever must be overcome before your hopes and wishes can be fulfilled. So it's placed across, or athwart."
Sirius was reminded of how the ginger-haired Muggle fortune-teller had laid out Sirius' cards, on that night when he and his friends had gone to a Muggle traveling carnival on a whim so long ago.
"This surrounds him," the man had said, surprising them all with a marked American accent as he'd placed a card face down in the center of the growing pattern. Then he'd laid a second card over the first, across its length. "And this crosses him."
It was an exotic enough pastime for a party of young wizards and witches to spend a summer evening larking about at a Muggle carnival. James especially had been very taken with the Ferris wheel. It had seemed even more exotic, then, to test the abilities of a Muggle seer, and once Remus had pointed out the fortune-teller's tent, all of them had been wild to give the idea a try. They'd all been a bit surprised, once crammed inside the small canvas tent, when the Muggle had brought out a Tarot deck and begun to deal the cards out onto the small table between himself and Sirius. Curiously, the Tarot deck, with its ageless and evocative images, was one of the very few things that were exactly the same in both the Muggle and Wizarding worlds. So, when they'd realized that they were not only seeing a Muggle Tarot-reader at a Muggle carnival, but an American Muggle Tarot-reader at that, the young British wizards and witches had been unanimously enthralled.
"Why, you're an American!" Amaryllis had squealed, thrilled.
"Yes, ma'am," the man had answered, still concentrating on his cards. "Born in Doddridge County in West Virginia, up in the hills, to folks with a long history of the sight. My own father was the best dowser in all those parts, when I was growing up, and still would be today if he was alive. John Fiddler's the name."
"Lily Evans," Lily had said politely, and offered her hand to Fiddler. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Fiddler. Aren't you an awful long way from home?"
"Yes," put in Peter. "What's a Mug – I mean what's an American fortune-teller doing at a traveling carnival in Surrey?"
"Just reading the cards, sonny, Surrey or Smithburg. Hitched up with this carnival when it was touring the States five summers back. This is behind him." Fiddler turned a card up on the table.
"The Hierophant, reversed," Sirius said without thinking.
"Know the cards, do you?" Fiddler asked him, with a quick, astute glance. "Well, you can keep me honest then, make sure I tell you true. What's your name, boy?"
"Sirius, sir. Sirius Black."
Fiddler raised his reddish eyebrows a bit at that. "That right? Named for the Dog Star, are you? Well, ain't that an oddity. Your folks don't set much store by portents, do they?"
"I suppose you could say they don't think much of Divination," Sirius answered truthfully. "How did you know?"
"The Dog Star ain't considered entirely fortunate, where I come from, is all," Fiddler had answered, and turned up another card.
Sirius shook this memory off as well as he could and returned his attention to Kreacher and the Tarot-reading he was currently undertaking.
"Are we ready to begin, then?" he said to Kreacher. "Courage screwed to the sticking point? Lips stiff? Peckers up and all that? Let's see…"
He turned the first card up, the one that signified the atmosphere surrounding the central issue.
"The Eight of Swords," Sirius said. "Interference. Criticism, censure, and the imposition of external restrictions. Confusion leading to powerlessness. Hmm, not an auspicious beginning, is it?"
Kreacher said nothing, but stared intently at the cards, clearly too fascinated to keep up his usual steady stream of hostile muttering.
"All right, then, here's the one you asked about earlier, the Obstacle," Sirius said, and turned up the card that had been athwart the Atmosphere card. "The Fool, reversed."
"Is this Master's fortune, or Kreacher's?" the house-elf could not quite resist asking. Sirius supposed it would be impossible for Kreacher to hear the word "fool" spoken aloud without thinking of his hated Master.
"More sticks and stones, old friend? Do you want to know what it means, or would you prefer to sling insults all day?"
"Kreacher is quite sure he doesn't have any idea what Master is talking about," Kreacher said sniffily. Then he lowered his voice to a reluctant whisper, and added "What does it mean?"
"Reversed, the Fool signifies apathy, negligence, and dangerous carelessness. Unquenchable wanderlust. Obsession with someone or something. Losing all sense of proportion. Dear me, perhaps you were right to ask which of us these cards are talking to, eh? Vanity, delirium, folly, and oblivion. Seems like one of us will have to look sharp to avoid causing himself a spot of bother. Shall we go on?"
"Yes, please …" Kreacher answered, still fascinated.
Sirius turned up the card just above the Obstacle, the one in the Goal position.
"Ah, this is more like it," Sirius said. "Providing we can overcome the Reversed Fool, Judgment can be found. It suggests the resolution of a matter long unanswered, a swift and conclusive decision."
"Is that … good?" Kreacher asked.
"From whose point of view?" Sirius answered. "Now me, I hate waffling about forever over a decision, I'd much rather settle things quickly, whatever the resolution. But this card suggests a marked and rapid change from the status quo, and that might not be entirely to your taste."
Kreacher looked up at Sirius. "Master has it in his power to put the riffraff he's opened his House to out on the street this very night. That could be the marked and rapid change Master sees in the cards."
Sirius smiled, a bit unpleasantly. "Not at all a likely interpretation, I'm afraid, old boy. For one thing, the Judgment card also signifies a final balancing of karma, and that idea doesn't quite fit in with your view. For another thing, it'll never happen, and the sooner you get that through your stubborn old skull, the happier you'll be."
"Kreacher can never be happy as long as his home is filled with mutants and Mudbloods," Kreacher muttered darkly.
Sirius thought for a moment of "mutants and Mudbloods," and the youthful faces of Remus and Lily in the Muggle fortune-teller's tent appeared once more before his mind's eye. Oh, how he'd loved them both. He'd been so happy, that night, he remembered, so happy to be with his dearest friends, so happy to be among them, to be one of them, so lucky to be considered a part of them.
John Fiddler had turned up another card.
"You got a strange fortune going here, you know it?" Fiddler had said to him. "Got a lot of doubling showing up in your cards. Seems like you're leading a double life, but you're also a mite young to be cheatin' on your wife and kiddies, I'd say."
James and Peter, no doubt thinking of Padfoot, had both chuckled quietly. Remus had started to gaze at Fiddler with an odd kind of wary respect. Remus, Sirius knew, never had much cared for anyone who seemed a little too alert.
Another card went face up, and Fiddler stared at it for a moment. Then he'd looked up at Sirius, and then at the others, briefly.
"A great conflict," he'd said. "And more of this doubling. When it looks like you're losing, that's just when you won't be. It'll be damned hard to knock you off your feet for good, boy. You'll always have too much of a cussed streak to stay down. You're gonna be full of surprises all your life."
"Confusion to the enemy," James had remarked softly.
"Amen to that," Remus and Lily had both murmured in unexpected unison.
Fiddler had again glanced at each of the six young people in turn, curious.
Sirius smiled once again at Kreacher. It was so good to have access to his best memories again, so long out of his reach in Azkaban. It was a little like being brought back from the dead, in a way. It was hard to stay angry with the unhappy old house-elf for long, really, no matter how unpleasant he might be. Not when so much of what Sirius most remembered as the very marrow of his life was available to him once more.
"Well, let's move on to the Foundation, then, shall we Kreacher?" He tapped the card just below the central cross. "Maybe we'll be able to agree on that one."
Sirius turned the card face-up. It was the Ten of Cups.
"Ahhh," Sirius breathed, a bit surprised. "This is a very good card. It signifies fulfillment and joy in life and love. Taking delight in one's own good fortune."
Kreacher looked disgruntled to hear this interpretation. "Master is making fun. Kreacher has never thought he was lucky."
Sirius recalled the many things in his life that once had, or now did, give him joy. He thought of Remus, sweet Remus, both then and now. A fixed and unchanging body of wonder in Sirius' personal firmament. Kreacher, he thought, the pitiful little thing, might never have considered himself fortunate, that much was true.
But I have, Sirius affirmed to himself, smiling again.
"Well, let's have a look at the Passing Influence, then, Kreacher. This one to the left of the cross. Maybe this one'll be morose enough to suit you."
He turned the card over and remarked "Ah, yes, morose indeed. The Five of Cups. Disappointment. A past tragedy. The nagging feeling that you've made the wrong choice and everything is all your fault. Satisfied? Gloomy enough for you?"
Kreacher just glowered, looking decidedly ill-tempered. And Sirius had to admit, he himself was no stranger to the idea that everything was all one's fault.
"But it's only a passing influence," Sirius added quickly, not quite sure whether he was addressing Kreacher or himself. "There's still more to see. Here's the Approaching Influence."
The King of Wands turned up.
"Oh, so sorry, Kreacher old boot, this one isn't very gloomy either. The King of Wands is the essence of fire, acting as air, as in lightning. It signifies a daring leader who inspires others to rise to challenges alongside him. A dashing and magnetic personality. Think the cards mean you?"
"Master always liked his little joke," Kreacher muttered, an ugly look on his face. It was one of his very favorite things to say. He never had thought Sirius' jokes were funny, not even when Sirius had been a child and the vast majority of his jokes had been of the knock-knock variety.
"Dumbledore, maybe …" Sirius was musing to himself, a faint frown line between his brows. "What else have we got here ..? This card at the base of the staff is the Querant's Attitude. Let's see what your attitude is, eh?"
Sirius turned the Base card up.
"Uh-oh," he said. "The Three of Wands, reversed. A great act of betrayal set in motion. Not cooking up a spot of mischief, are you, Kreacher? A nefarious scheme to purloin my socks? Planning to put salt in the sugar-bowl?"
"Kreacher is a faithful house-elf and would never betray the House he serves," Kreacher snapped in response and folded his arms across his chest. But he was looking at the cards with a visible bit of wariness. "If these cards really speak of betrayal, perhaps it is Master who should look to his own attitude. Kreacher never broke his mother's heart or filled her house with blood-traitors."
Sirius stared at the house-elf a moment more, thinking that it was often said that the best defense was a good offense. Kreacher did look like he might just be feeling a bit caught out by the cards. Was it possible that the demented old thing might really be capable of some serious deviltry?
Surely not. What real harm could possibly be in him, as sad and pitiful as he was, however malignant?
Surely not …
Sirius glanced at the next card in the layout, the one second from the bottom of the staff, and then touched it with his index finger.
"Ah, well," he said. "I expect the meaning of that last card will come clear in time, one way or another. Shall we look at this next one? It's the Environment – the people and things you interact with now. What do you think?"
Kreacher said nothing, but looked at the face-down card under Sirius' fingertip with a mixture of caution and curiosity. Finally, he glanced up at Sirius and nodded. Sirius turned the card over.
"Oh, dear," Sirius said. "Another gloomy card. The Six of Pentacles, which signifies Success, but reversed, which is quite another matter. Overconfidence, bad material decisions, contempt for those less fortunate. Deception and petty disputes driven by greed and envy. Perhaps you'd better think twice about whatever schemes you may be brewing, mate, and better take a good hard look at any confederates you might have, too. It appears you may be in danger of getting exactly what you wish for, and you must have heard how badly that can turn out, hmm?"
Kreacher glowered. "Master is most wrong," he said, stubbornly. "Master's foolish Muggle cards cannot see anything bad, because Kreacher has never wished for anything but good for the noble House he serves, and there could never be anything bad in that."
"Are you sure?" Sirius retorted. "Surely you've noticed, in your long life, how often it turns out that the very best intentions are just the ones that cause the most harm? And you've never been a very fortunate soul, have you?"
"But Master's precious cards have had their say, haven't they?" the house-elf remarked, furtively darting a malicious and strangely sly glance at his Master. "Perhaps Kreacher's luck is about to change."
Luck. Sirius put his hands on the desk-top; felt the wood beneath the pads of his fingers. On that long-ago night when Sirius and his friends had visited the carnival, he and Fiddler had sat across a wooden surface from one another too, a Celtic Cross layout of cards between them, just as he and Kreacher did now. It had been a summer's eve, Sirius recalled, and John Fiddler, a Muggle with unexpectedly clear vision, had also spoken of luck.
"There's things you're not saying," Fiddler had remarked idly to Sirius as he'd turned up another of Sirius' cards. "Things all of you ain't saying. And that's fine, no skin off my nose if you young folks got some almighty big secrets you don't care to discuss with just anyone." Here he stopped and waved his hand over the cards on the table before him, before gazing once more at Sirius.
"But these cards of yours, they're talking up a storm. So - I'm thinking maybe you might not want to hear much more of what the cards got to say - or maybe you just don't want to hear it while old John Fiddler's listening in. I could stop telling your fortune right now if you want, boy - hell, I'll even refund your money. My deck don't keep secrets too well."
James and Lily both stared at Fiddler intently, and Peter looked a bit surprised, while Amaryllis just looked mystified and entertained. Remus closed his hand around Sirius' shoulder and squeezed lightly. Sirius looked up at him and could just barely see the almost imperceptible shaking of Remus head. Sirius looked back toward Fiddler, trying to see anything he could of the man's heart.
After an awkward, silent moment, Fiddler laughed.
"Just like gawking at a specimen in a zoo, ain't it? Don't you folks beat all. Well, what's it gonna be, young Sirius? Yes or no?"
Amaryllis breathed an excited "Yes." In the exact same moment, Remus breathed an emphatic "No." Sirius glanced toward James, who shrugged slightly, which Sirius instantly understood to mean whatever you think, mate in nonverbal best-friend code. Lily subtly inclined her head toward Fiddler, and then gave a minute nod of approval. Peter made a show of putting his arm around Amaryllis' waist and made a silent appeal to Sirius with his eyes. Sirius returned his gaze to the fortune-teller. His friends had each cast their vote.
"What do you think, Mr. Fiddler?" Sirius suddenly asked the man. "Do you want to go on reading?"
Fiddler laughed again. "Well, you're something of a specimen yourself, young fella. I ain't never seen a fortune quite like this one. I'd be lyin' if I said I wasn't a mite curious to see how it'll all come out."
Sirius grinned at Fiddler. "You know, I'm getting a distinct impression you're not a great one for lying, Mr. Fiddler."
"Well, no, sonny, I guess I ain't. My old ma used to say I was about as blunt as a shovel, back in the day. I ain't much for lyin', that's right. And my deck don't lie neither. So, what do you say? Pack 'em up or lay 'em out?"
Sirius grinned again. People weren't meant to be afraid to look; young as he was, he was still certain of that. "Lay 'em out, sir," he said to Fiddler. "I'll make the venture."
Fiddler nodded and quickly turned the last three cards in the spread face-up. "Cards kinda thought you would," he remarked softly, bending his head over them in a gesture of intense concentration.
After a time, Fiddler raised his eyes from the cards and gazed at Sirius. "A great conflict, coming up again. And that's a little strange, sonny, seeing as how there ain't no great war on just now that I know of, but you're in one just the same. And this war-that-ain't-there – well, it's gonna define your life, all the way through. You won't never see the end of it, but-"
Remus had interrupted the reading with an involuntary murmur of dismay. Fiddler glanced quickly up at him, and then back at Sirius. A faint, gentle smile curved his lips and he spoke directly to Remus. "But in another way, I was about to say, he will see the end of it. Still a lot of doubling going on in these cards. It's like his fate is moving along two different tracks as it plays out, all at the same time. Folks who love him sure are going to see a lot of heartache, that's true. But there's always going to be a little hope mixed in, too."
"'Hope is the thing with feathers'," Remus quoted in a low, rather cynical voice.
Lily frowned, and then reached across James and very lightly smacked Remus on the back of his head. "Shush, Remus …" she'd said, softly.
Fiddler hadn't been paying much attention to this by-play. He'd been staring at the last card in the layout, The Outcome card. Sirius gazed at the Muggle man, waiting for him to make his conclusions. Eventually, Fiddler looked up and into Sirius' eyes.
"Well, Mr. Fiddler?" Sirius asked him. "What's your last word on the matter?"
Fiddler continued to gaze at him for a time, and then glanced once more at his cards.
Finally he spoke to Sirius. "Well, you got a lot going for you, that much is plain to see. You got gifts, a whole crowd of 'em."
"Well, who doesn't know that?" Peter interrupted. "Anyone can see that, just by looking at him."
Lily looked like she might want to smack Peter too for a moment, and James gave him a quick, sharp hand-signal to keep quiet.
Fiddler ignored the interruption, just as though he hadn't heard it. "Born with a lot of gifts, you were, boy," Fiddler repeated. "And you'll find a use for 'em all, in this mysterious conflict you all got going. You do have a lot. But …"
Fiddler had paused, and was gazing at Sirius with a strange expression on his face, an expression that was, perhaps, a mixture of admiration and … pity.
"But what?" Sirius asked, gazing directly back at Fiddler, unafraid.
"But you ain't lucky, boy." Fiddler answered, softly. "You ain't never gonna be lucky."
Sirius left this memory behind again as he looked up and into Kreacher's eyes. Kreacher too, Sirius recalled, did not consider himself particularly lucky.
But it didn't do to cower in the face of fate. Sirius had believed this when he was only seventeen or eighteen and had his fortune told, and he was relieved to discover that he still believed it today, a lifetime of cares and woes later.
"We're getting to the end of your reading, Kreacher," Sirius said to the house-elf. "This card – this one second from the top of the Staff – it represents the Unexpected Element. It could also be read as the Querant's hopes, or as his fears. Or perhaps all three at once, since sometimes our deepest fears, and our deepest hopes too, can be unexpected. It's a powerful position in the layout, and whatever card turns up in this position should be considered particularly significant. Shall I turn it up, Kreacher? Do you want to see?"
After a pause, Kreacher nodded silently. Sirius flipped the card to a face-up position. It showed an image of a regal woman with a staff in her hand, her head pointing downward.
"The Queen of Wands, reversed," Sirius said, quietly. "Not at all a good card. This Queen is also the essence of fire, just like the King of Wands we saw earlier, and, in some ways, she's like him. But upside-down like this, she's a dark essence, and she's acting as water, as in steam."
"She's like the King?" Kreacher asked, once again fascinated.
"She is and she isn't," Sirius answered. "She's magnetic and charismatic, to be sure, but she's a seducer who only dons the guise of what others desire. A domineering person, who pushes anyone or anything aside to get what she wants. One who is vengeful and quick to take offense without good cause. Cruel and unforgiving."
"Who is she?" Kreacher asked, a bit worried.
"I … I don't know, Kreacher," Sirius responded, a bit troubled himself. "It appears she's someone you fear, someone you don't expect, and someone you also hope for. But you mustn't pin your hopes on her, old boy. She's an evil Queen, and she'll destroy them all in the end. Beware."
Kreacher looked, by turns, hopeful and fearful, skeptical and accepting. A portentous silence seemed to gather in the air all around them, gathered and perhaps, began to take some vaguely familiar shape. Kreacher cleared his throat loudly, breaking the moment.
"Am I certain to see her, then, this Queen?" Kreacher asked.
Sirius shook himself and shook his own nascent sense of foreboding off. He had never believed that fate should go unchallenged.
"You may not see her, but it does seem as though she will play some role in your future," Sirius answered. "These cards, they're strange. Sometimes it does seem as though they can tell us something about what our fate has in store for us."
Sirius stopped, and touched the last facedown card left in the layout, the Ultimate Outcome. He looked toward Kreacher.
"But remember, Kreacher, the future is also what we make it. I believe that too. You don't have to take what the cards say as ironclad predictions. You can always choose. And the cards never have been able to see ahead to that. There are just too many potential choices available to each of us to ever predict them all."
On the summer night when Sirius had seen the fortune-teller, he had been very young, and a whole world of potential choices had still been open to him. He and his friends had thanked John Fiddler for a very interesting session, and each of them had been polite to the man. Amaryllis had been especially enthusiastic, and had squeezed Peter's arm excitedly as she and Peter had left the tent. It had occurred to Sirius that Peter especially had much to thank Fiddler for already, and might have still more before the evening was over.
Remus had been the last to leave, aside from Sirius, and his steps had dragged a bit as he'd walked toward the flap of the tent that led out, as though he was reluctant to leave Sirius alone with the man. Sirius had nodded to him and smiled brightly; his best I'll be fine smile, and Remus had stepped outside at last. Sirius was certain that he wouldn't have gone far, though. Moony in overprotective mode was singularly difficult to reassure or dissuade.
"That was quite a reading, Mr. Fiddler," Sirius had said. "Thank you." He'd handed Fiddler the few extra Muggle pound notes he'd stayed behind to give him.
Fiddler took the bonus payment with a dignified nod of acceptance. "Thank you, yourself, young Sirius. Much appreciated. Sorry if I put a little damper on your evening." He grinned at Sirius and shook his hand. "But I got to call 'em as I see 'em. You're a reader too, sonny, I also seen that in the cards as clear as day. I know you know what I'm talking about."
"Maybe someday, we'll meet again," Sirius said, also grinning.
Fiddler laughed. "Well, if we do, maybe next time you'll read for me."
"That would be my pleasure, sir. Good night."
"I won't say good luck, boy, but I will say Godspeed. And confusion to your enemies."
"Amen to that," Sirius quoted with a smile.
John Fiddler smiled too. "Good night, boy," he said.
Sirius left the tent, and, just as he'd imagined, found Remus waiting for him just outside, looking fretful. Sirius had thrown a friendly arm around Remus' shoulders.
"Everything … all right?" Remus asked him, still a bit apprehensive.
"Everything's fine," Sirius answered firmly, and then, because James and Peter and the girls had moved off ahead a bit and weren't looking, he'd added a quick kiss to Remus' cheek. "You worry too much."
"But that's why you love me," Remus had said, trying for a light tone.
"One of a million reasons," Sirius agreed. "Shall we catch up with the others?"
"For now, maybe," Remus said, and put his own arm around Sirius for just a moment, there and then gone. "And then later, maybe we might want to wander off on our own for a bit…"
"Maybe we might at that," Sirius said, smiling that especially lovely smile he reserved only for Remus. He waved a hand at the night around them. "All on a summer's eve, hey, Moony? C'mon."
He'd grabbed Remus' hand and the two young men had galloped off to join their friends, Sirius pulling Remus along with him.
Though the six young people did spend another half an hour or so afterward enjoying the carnival together as a group, it didn't take long for each of the three couples to want to wander off on their own for a bit. The combination of youth, a novel setting, and a warm summer night wove a special sort of magic of their own, a common enchantment equally accessible to every young person out for an evening with his or her best date, magic or Muggle.
Some little time later, as Sirius was doing all he could to assure Remus that all was well between them and no looming shadow in their futures could ever darken the night and the passion and magic they shared now, he suddenly laughed out loud and held Remus even more tightly to him. He nuzzled playfully at the tender spot on Remus' throat, just under his chin, tickling him.
Remus had laughed too, at that, and Remus' laughter was ever a gift that Sirius would always consider more precious than pearls, more real than daylight, far more rare and valuable than any uncertain promises or warnings of a future yet to come.
"Not lucky!" Sirius had cried, and kissed Remus again, still laughing. "The cards really don't know everything, do they? Not lucky indeed!"
He'd bent his head to Remus once more and kissed him again and again, burying him in kisses until Remus could scarcely breathe for pleasure.
"What rubbish!" Sirius had whispered at last in Remus' ear. "Why, I'm the luckiest bloke in the world!"
In Grimmauld Place, almost twenty years later, a much older Sirius turned the final card in Kreacher's fortune face up without hesitation. It was good to know, he thought to himself, that even after all that had happened, all that he had seen, he still believed that it was possible to look into the eye of the future without flinching.
"And here's your Final Outcome, Kreacher," he said to the house-elf. "For what it's worth."
Kreacher was gazing attentively at the cards. He looked up into Sirius' eyes once again.
"The Two of Swords," Sirius said. "Reversed, again. Indecision due to contradictory characteristics brought together. A quarrel that has never been resolved. Scheming, abuse of trust, and agreements made in bad faith. Allowing the mind to block off the emotions. Self deception as a means of justifying cruel acts."
"That … that doesn't sound very good," Kreacher remarked. "Oh, no, not at all."
"Well, no, I suppose it doesn't. I'd suggest, again, that you reevaluate any plans you may have made, and any decisions you may have come to. You might just have more to lose than you think you do. And less to gain."
Kreacher looked hard at the cards once more, and then shrugged his skinny shoulders nervously. "But it's all Muggle rubbish anyway," he said, and Sirius could not tell whether he was addressing his Master, or talking to himself. "Kreacher has nothing left to lose. And no luck at all."
"But luck's a funny sort of thing, isn't it?" Sirius countered. "One of those eye-of-the-beholder sorts of things. Many a bad decision has been made because someone thought they were lucky, or because they thought they weren't."
"Kreacher isn't lucky," Kreacher repeated, stubbornly. He raised his chin in defiance, but stared down at the desktop, unwilling, or unable, to meet Sirius' eyes again.
Sirius let the silence spin out between them for a time. But Kreacher never looked up from his determined gaze at a random spot on the desk.
That's what he truly thinks, then, Sirius understood. And no amount of argument will ever convince him otherwise. Luck is a funny thing.
And me? What do I think? What do I think now?
Sirius asked this of himself as he gazed at the troubled house-elf, with the Tarot cards telling what stories they could on the flat wooden surface that separated the two of them. Many years had passed since that warm and lovely moonstruck night when a younger Sirius had held his love in his arms and, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, had counted himself lucky.
Many years had passed and a great deal more evidence to the contrary had accrued since. The case for Sirius' luck had certainly sustained damages; had John Fiddler been right after all, all those years ago?
Sirius thought of himself as Padfoot, dog-paddling through the icy North Sea with the dark bulk of Azkaban Fortress diminishing in the distance behind him. He had been cold and weak and starving and soaked through, fur and skin alike. He'd been so certain he would drown, completely convinced that the dawn would find him on the bottom of ocean, all struggles done. But he had never before in his life felt so transcendently alive as he had in that moment, with all the shadows of Azkaban falling away like cobwebs and all the best memories of his life crowding back in, all at once. It had been a kind of ecstasy that, even today, Sirius had no words to describe; a benediction, as miraculous a resurrection as any told of in legend or faith.
And at the end of that undreamed-of journey, there had still been more; a return to life, yes, and a return to love and joy as well, in the Shrieking Shack, and after it. There had been Remus, ready to put aside twelve years of sorrow and suspicion at once, all on the simple strength of a boys' magical map and the shared history behind it. And there had been Harry, young and strong and blazing to Sirius' eyes, bright with the natural magic of a heart somehow still whole and unbroken.
And there had been more after all of that too, even more. From the ones he loved most, Sirius had received love beyond reason in return, acceptance beyond doubt, forgiveness beyond hope; the most precious gifts there were, given freely and without question. He had been welcomed home again, after so long and so distant an absence that he himself had imagined that surely there could be no home left, and no Sirius left to return.
I once believed I was the luckiest man in the world, Sirius told himself, thinking of all these things.
And then he laughed, the joyful, barking laughter that all those who had ever loved him had each learned to treasure in his or her turn.
And I still do.
By all the graces, I still do.
Sirius smiled at Kreacher before him, a beautiful smile, and found that he was too delighted to have made this discovery in himself - or to have rediscovered it - to retain much of his usual resentment toward the unhappy old house-elf, at least for the moment.
"Tarot cards!" he suddenly cried to Kreacher with another laugh, and carelessly swept the Celtic Cross layout off the desk before him, ancient images and symbols and portents jumbling meaninglessly together in his hands. "Just a deck of cards. Perhaps you were right in the first place, old friend. I actually don't think there's all that much in them myself."
"But … but Master did say that the cards … that they did have some truth in them. Didn't he?"
Sirius smiled again, and put the Tarot deck back inside the faded velvet pouch it had come from. And then he put the pouch back inside the small desk drawer where he'd first found it.
"There are other truths," he answered, simply. "And better places to find them."
That night, Sirius did indeed begin drawing up his will, just as he'd promised himself he would. Less than two weeks later, that will became a current document.
Only a month or two after that, Kreacher discovered, to his rage and to his shame, that Sirius' last promise to him had been faithfully fulfilled, and he had neither been abandoned nor forgotten.
Shortly after that, while the memory was still fresh and razor-sharp in his heart, young Harry Potter said to Remus Lupin that it was horribly unfair that so much of the bright promise of Sirius' life had come to nothing but a veil and an ancient passage that only worked one way, and a maddening mystery in the end. Remus agreed readily enough with that, but when Harry added, sadly, that Sirius hadn't had much luck, Remus, who knew best how mistaken Harry was, disagreed with him.
"Sirius would have told you differently, Harry, you know," Remus said. "He'd always believed that he was a lucky man. And I think he remembered it, too, before he – before he left us."
"But he was so miserable at that horrible old house," Harry had argued. "He was miserable and unhappy and one terrible thing after another happened to him and then it was just … over. All over, just like that. How could he have thought he was lucky?"
"Sirius didn't think the bad things were all there was to it, though, Harry. He didn't think it was that simple. He didn't think luck was just a matter of avoiding all the pitfalls in life. He thought it was more a matter of finding all the joys. And he didn't think the end was the point, really. He believed that getting there was."
"But he …" Harry began, and then didn't finish because he couldn't think what to say.
"Sirius believed he was lucky," Remus had gone on, a sad and gently amused smile on his careworn face. "And that's because he was. You mustn't give up hope, you know, Harry. Surely you can imagine what he'd say to you if he ever found out?"
Harry could hear the rougher side of Sirius' tongue clearly, sounding in some previously unknown place inside him, somewhere close to his heart. He smiled too, amused now himself.
"You see?" Remus asked, still smiling. "He's with us. Can't you feel it? Still with us. And, the strange thing is, Harry …"
Remus had trailed off for a moment, silent as he too listened to the echoes in that same unknown place inside him.
"The strange thing is?" Harry prompted.
Remus smiled again. "The strange thing is, that makes us lucky too. He's left you more than just a grotty old house and a dotty old house-elf, you know. He had enough luck for us all, and he's left some of that to you as well."
"And to you," Harry said.
Remus nodded. "Oh, yes. And to me."
"Like a special sort of charm or talisman…" Harry said, almost as if he were musing to himself. He was thinking that times might soon be coming when he might greatly need a uniquely powerful lucky charm. "One you can't see …"
Remus looked into Harry's face. "I can see it," he assured Harry gravely.
Harry grinned, an expression that, for a fleeting moment, reminded Remus vividly of Sirius.
"Luck's a funny sort of thing, isn't it?" Harry asked.
Remus reached out and put his hand on Harry's shoulder, and then squeezed lightly.
"Yes, Harry. It is."