Chapter 24: Virtuoso

Several hours had passed.

Not quite enough for everything to be Back To Normal, but perhaps that was a blessing. There was something quite comfortable in that hovering bubble between the end of the world and business as usual.

Rowena woke up a few times.

This was strange, as she had absolutely no recollection of being asleep. But one moment she'd be remembering meetings in libraries and summer evenings and cupboards and conversations on a rooftop and throwing spoons at a sausage, and the next she was looking up at a different face: Helga, concerned and smiling; Anatole, anxious and hovering; Godric, awkward and sympathetic.

She opened her eyes now and saw Richard, tucked neatly into the bed opposite her. He waved weakly.

She said, 'Good god, you look awful.'

He said, 'You're no oil painting yourself, you horrid bitch.'

And then she must have fallen asleep again, because when she opened her eyes the sun was up and Richard was gone.

Salazar was there instead.

Automatically, she checked that her breasts were tucked in.

'Er,' she said, having confirmed their security, 'hello.'

He was sat - well, propped, really - in a chair by her bed, looking a little dopey and tired. He'd changed his attire, which was considerate, though splashes of browning blood dried across his face.

'Hello,' he said hoarsely - then, clearing his throat - 'hello. Morning.'

'Morning?' she said, uncertainly. She pulled the blanket a little further over her face. Hair, bad. Face, bad. Clothing, odorous. Situation, unideal. 'Where am I?'

'Such a cliche,' said Salazar, disapprovingly.

'Sorry.'

'It's the medical wing.'

'Oh?' She glanced around. 'Didn't know we had one.'

'We didn't. But needs must.' He poked her in the face.

Rowena winced. 'What did you do that for?'

'To stop you falling asleep.'

She rubbed the prodded cheek. 'Ow. Really wasn't necessary.'

'Do you want to see my scars?' he asked, brightly.

'Not really,' she said.

'Oh, come on,' he insisted, 'they're exciting.'

'Meugh.'

Then they looked at each other. It was an odd experience, Rowena thought. Maybe it was her horizontal angle, or the settling shell-shock, or the fact that, for the first time, there was nothing stopping her from grabbing his face and jubilantly licking it. (Not that she would, her brain added. We've established that men don't like it when you do that.)

But most likely, it was because he was smiling. Properly. A small one, yes, but it reached his eyes. And he was looking back, and he was covered in blood, and yes that was weird, but sometimes you just need to accept the best you can get.

'I don't get it,' she said, eventually. 'How is it you look better than me, and you died?'

'Twice,' he added, smugly.

'Don't boast.'

'Shush. Come on, let me show you my scars.'

'Don't really want to-'

'Yes you do.' After a moment of awkward manoeuvring, he pulled his shirt up to the neck, revealing two jagged white scars on the right side of his torso. They moved very slightly as he breathed and, to the naive eye, could have healed years ago.

Rowena stared.

'Well?' he asked, proudly. 'What do you think?'

She snapped out of it. 'Sorry. I was distracted by nipple.'

He pulled his shirt down a little, and muttered, 'Deviant.'

'Nice scars though,' she said, coughing to cover her embarrassment. 'Very...scarry.'

'That one's yours,' Salazar explained, pointing to the lower of the two. 'Shaped a bit like a lightning bolt.'

Rowena winced. 'Eugh. Put it away.'

He looked hopefully to her chest and said, 'Don't suppose you've got any scars...?'

'No,' she said, sternly, 'and I wouldn't show you if I did. It takes me forty minutes just to get my dress off.'

'I've got all day.'

'Shush.' She giggled. 'Another time.'

Salazar gawped. 'What?'

'Let's not be prudish,' she said, calmly countering his hysterical coughing fit, 'one we've been medically examined for possible cardiac issues, I'm having you.'

'Right,' he said, in a surprisingly high-pitched tone. He cleared his throat. 'Right. Right. OK.'

Rowena laughed then, hysterically. After a confused few seconds, Salazar nervously joined in.

Then she sobered up and said, 'I'm not kidding.'

'Right.' He coughed. 'No.'

She beamed. 'Glad we've got that all cleared up.'

0000

Several months passed.

Things were about as back to normal as ever, which wasn't really saying much. Especially considering the occasion of a very busy staff meeting.

'I'm not doing any more bloody cookery,' said Rowena, slamming her fist against the table to emphasise her point.

An elderly Beard winced, carefully raising his hand. 'If I may?'

Rowena growled. He took this as a positive cue.

'I think,' he said, delicately, 'that your particular talents might be better suited to another area of magical life.' The world held its breath. Behind Rowena, Salazar desperately signaled for him not to continue.

Her eyes narrowed. 'Go on?'

'Perhaps,' said the Beard, 'possibly, something in the realm of...needlework?'

There were thirty-five people in the staff room, Godric very quickly calculated, and four tables between Rowena and the offending Professor. If as little as six tutors intervened, there was a forty per cent chance that the Professor could leave the room with eighty per cent of his reproductive organs.

He braced himself.

Very quietly, with her head held high, Rowena said, 'I will be teaching transfiguration from now on.'

'Excellent idea,' said Anatole, quickly.

'Jolly good,' said Helga.

'Like it,' said Richard, nodding enthusiastically, 'can't think of anything better.'

The Beard assumed a fight-or-flight position. He concentrated very intently on holding Rowena's gaze. 'Erm,' he said, squeakily, 'are you, er...are you...you know...good at it?'

She pointed her wand at him, eyes narrowed, and said, 'I could check, if you like?'

Later, as the Beard was escorted from the room with wide, staring eyes, Salazar swung his legs happily over the table and said, 'I like it when she does that.'

Richard said, 'Don't make me smack you, in front of all these people.'

'Grr,' he continued, approvingly, 'feisty.'

0000

A few more months. A noticeable drop in burnt pastries.

'Oh,' said Helga, sitting heavily into her office chair, 'shat and buggery.'

Richard was currently half-way through marking an essay titled The Joy of Flan. As it transpired, he'd made a rather impressive replacement for Rowena in the cookery department.

He'd also worked very hard on growing a beard and cutting his hair, which Helga found most satisfactory.

He dragged his mind away from flan and said, 'Yes dear?'

'Shat and buggery,' said Helga, again.

'I see.' Tick, tick, double tick and a smiley face. Good effort! God, he was good at this. 'Anything in particular?'

'Babies,' said Helga, wearily.

'What about them?'

Then he looked up.

Helga sighed. 'At least one, anyway. About sixteen weeks.'

Richard said, '...Oh?'

She winced. 'Is that OK?'

Richard opened and closed his mouth a few times. Eventually he spluttered a laugh, and said, 'Absolutely! This is - yes. Good yes. Much very, I think it's good a very much. Jesus. Yes.'

Helga grinned. 'Lovely.'

0000

A year.

An entire bloody year.

Rowena rolled over in bed and said, 'Muffletassel.'

Salazar raised an eyebrow and said, 'What?'

'Mmpf.'

He poked her impatiently in the ear.

Rowena kicked about for a moment, punched her pillow and eventually opened her eyes. Salazar was sat up beside her, looking down at her in every sense of the word.

She blinked. 'Sorry?'

'Muffletassel,' he repeated, matter-of-factly. 'Care to explain?'

A wave of remembrance hit her at once. 'Oh god,' she groaned, pushing her hair from her face, 'it was awful. There was a man, but he was shaped like a horse.'

Salazar blinked. 'Sorry?'

'Like a horse in a man outfit,' she insisted, through a yawn. 'Really big neck. Big shoulders. Eugh.' She shook her head. 'Creepy.'

'And muffletassel?'

'Hm?' She shrugged. 'Dunno. I was probably trying to say nipple tassel.'

'Ah,' said Salazar, as if this explained everything. He returned to his book. 'Strange human being.'

'Mmpf,' said Rowena again, clinging to his waist so she was at eye level with his scars. 'Sleepy. Why are you still awake?'

'Because it's only half-past eleven,' he said, putting an arm around her, 'and I'm not ninety years old.'

'You're a vampire,' said Rowena, 'that's what it is.'

'Speaking of which, Anatole flew into another window.'

Rowena winced. 'Oh dear.'

'He's starting to scare the children. They think he's a flying pervert.'

'Bless him,' said Rowena. 'No pun intended. I thought that it'd be good for him, getting in touch with his vampyric heritage-'

'He landed on a fourth year,' said Salazar, closing his book. 'She thought he was going for an elaborate grope.'

'Ah.' She shrugged. 'OK, no more flying.'

'Thank you.'

'Go to sleep now,' she instructed, patting him vaguely in the chest. 'I like you better when you're unconscious.'

'Wench,' he muttered, obediently settling into a horizontal position. Rowena beamed, closing her eyes and appropriating his shoulder for a rather pointy pillow. He exhaled a laugh.

'Don't laugh,' said Rowena, firmly.

'Don't be laughable,' he retorted, pushing the hair from her eyes.

She yawned, and managed, 'Uv 'oo.'

Salazar closed his eyes. 'I love you too.'

0000

And then, suddenly, years had flown by.

Not flown by, exactly - some had dragged, some had sauntered, some had skipped. One or two of them had even swaggered. But twelve years had inarguably passed, and Rowena wasn't entirely sure how it had happened.

Time flies when you're having fun, Richard had reminded her, spoon-feeding baby number three. Baby number three kicked him in the eye.

Hogwarts had been a little wonky, for a year or two. Some parents snatched their children out of its dangerous grasp; others thought the excitement would be good for them. Then a midnight stealth attack on Sarah Summers School of Sorcery had rid the world of alternatives, and things started to pick up.

Children joined them at eleven and left at eighteen. Now that was bizarre.

More bizarre? Rowena aged along with them. She shuddered at the thought. She was thirty-one. That's very nearly grown up.

It was lunchtime. It was summer. This was a good combination.

Rowena sat on a small roll of hill, pastry in hand, sunbathing. True, her attempts to sunbathe inevitably lead to first an increase in freckles and then a nice smack of red in the cheeks, but every year she challenged the odds.

Her back was against Salazar's. There were a couple of very good and practical reasons for this. The first was the improvement of posture: Salazar was a boney man, and leaning against him was a little like sitting in a corrective chair. The second was that the position afforded them a very adequate three hundred and sixty degree view of the Sprogs.

Sprogs. Rowena shuddered again (causing Salazar to elbow her in the ribs). What a terrifying thought - indeed, what a terrifying reality.

First had come Helga (and Richard, how disgusting) - Rhinannon Hufflepuff, because they may have been married but no chance in hell was Helga going to call herself a Ravenclaw. Too creepy.

And then Godric, surprising everyone with the town's resident lusty wench and materialising twins. A boy and a girl, he announced proudly, with a grin that added and no puppies!

The boy seemed normal, Rowena decided, some time later. Not quite shaping up to be the muscle-bound hero Godric had wanted, but nice enough. The girl was a little wild, occasionally barked and hankered for raw meat, but aside from that she seemed basically acceptable. So overall, it could have been worse.

And then Helga again, this time a boy. Rowena put it down to attention-seeking.

And then again, which just confirmed it. Another boy. Still a baby at present, but definitely shifty-looking.

And that, thought Rowena, was it.

Or would have been.

'How did this happen?' Rowena asked, nudging the back of Salazar.

Salazar looked over to Helena: seven years old, zero front teeth and a giddy smile as she spun around on the spot.

He said, 'Vodka and the missionary position.'

She nudged him again. 'Language.'

'What?' he said, defensively. 'She's worse than me for swearing. Some really inventive stuff,' he added, with a touch of admiration.

Helena was small. That was to be expected, she supposed: seven year olds generally were. She was also something of a surprise, but nonetheless appreciated.

Rowena Ravenclaw, Rowena thought to herself, mother. That's some serious business, that is. Salazar Slytherin, father. Good god, the poor child! Helga Hufflepuff, official tutor of cleanliness, cookery, needlework and hunter-gathering, because someone had to teach her that stuff.

Little Helena.

She sighed. She really wished that that was the weird bit.

But the weird bit happened six years ago, when the ground was still frozen and the nights were endless. The weird bit was the tapping at the window, and the woman from the village with a bemused expression and a crumpled letter in her hand...

Dearest Salazar and his whore,

Success! I met the most delightful man, ever so rich, and fertile! Plus he's a lord or something noble like that. Had a child! I know, right? However, things are getting boring so if you don't mind...? Ta..

Sophia and Chuchi (the chihuahua!)

xxx

And then, the little pale-faced boy with dark brown eyes...

Cryil Slytherin. Now maybe eight years old; possibly nine. It was hard to carbon date him precisely.

His appearance had sent Salazar into a near-catatonic state for several days while Rowena and Helga poked and prodded the new baby for booby traps. Long, serious discussions had taken place.

Rowena resorted to poking Salazar's face to let him know the outcome.

What options did they have? Cyril became Helena's older brother, and as long as neither of them remembered differently, that was going to have to work.

Currently, Helena hit him with a rather sizable rock.

'Helena!' said Rowena, scoldingly. 'What have I told you?'

She looked to her parents apologetically. As she did, Cyril whacked her with a branch.

'Good lord,' said Salazar, through a sigh, 'they have no imagination.'

'The first time we met,' Rowena reminded him, 'you threw a potato at me.'

'Exactly! Potatoes are unexpected.'

Helena chased Cyril towards the lake.

'Do you think she'll catch him?' asked Rowena.

'They'll be fine.'

'I know. I'm just considering placing a small wager on her athletic abilities.'

Salazar sat up. 'Two sickles says he gets away.'

'Done.'

'Run faster!' Salazar shouted, moving to Rowena's side. 'No, don't look at me - eyes ahead! Run, Cyril!'

'Stop encouraging them,' said Rowena, sharply, 'it's cheating. And no magic!'

He put his wand away. 'He's going to fall over that rock.'

'Yep.'

Cyril fell over the rock.

Helena attempted to strangle him with a length of wool.

Salazar sighed. 'Two sickles?'

'Leave it,' she said, 'you can pay me back some other way.'

'Oh yes?' he said, lips curling.

'Not like that,' she said.

'Damn.'

'That would make you a prostitute.

'Well, I won't tell if you won't. Fight back, Cyril! She's got asthma!'

'It's so nice,' said Rowena, sighing happily, 'being able to place bets on our own children, instead of other people's. Isn't it?'

He smiled and patted her hand. 'To be honest, I think that was my main incentive in procreation.'

'Think we'll ever have another?'

'God no.'

'Good.' Cyril escaped and ran a short while. Helena tackled him to the ground. Rowena sighed. 'I worry about them sometimes, you know.'

'Hm? Why?'

'Well, you know...' She sighed again. 'Like I said, the first time we met, you threw a potato at me.'

Salazar looked at Rowena, and over to the children. He said, 'Please don't imply what I think you're implying.'

'OK,' said Rowena.

Having conceded defeat, Cyril joined Helena in the grass and began to thread daisy chains.

Salazar rested his head on Rowena's shoulder. 'Only bad things can come of this, Ro.'

'I'm probably wrong,' she assured him, quickly. 'He comes from noble blood. He'll much more likely grow old disgracefully and take up with a harem of Flemish princesses, or something.'

'Yeah?'

'Yes. I mean, he's a Baron.' She smiled. 'Come on. What harm could he ever do?'

Helena sat on him.

And life was basically perfect.