"This would … appear to be a satisfactory resolution to the problem."
The words came from Lord Domnall Greengrass, Head of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Greengrass. They were addressed to the two heads on the trestle table before him, both still slick with seawater.
Leaning on an eagle-headed cane, the old lord squinted at them over cut-diamond spectacles. One gnarled hand twisted off the cane's head and drew out a slim oak wand. "I shall test that appearance. Revelvera."
Both heads wouldn't technically have been required, but Judith believed in a belt-and-braces approach to claiming her just due. She hovered nearby, taking advantage of the roaring fireplace in Greengrass Manor's great chamber to dry off slightly. A charred log pressed beneath the weight of burning wood finally crumbled away; and a new log was spat in from empty air to replace it, raising a gust of heat and cloud of sparks.
"Finite." Lord Greengrass brought another counter-spell to bear, filling the room with a brief flash of light and rocking the heads slightly. Judith ignored him, and took stock of the manor's innards.
Statues had stood at attention in the long hallway outside alongside guttering torch brackets. Inside the great chamber itself, tapestries and paintings decked the high walls, all of them some illustrious ancestor of the Greengrass's. The figures within either moved according to their own painted motions, or had stopped for a moment to watch the delivery of the heads. More than a few of the latter were regarding Judith with distaste.
Judith recalled Lord Greengrass's son, Ioan Greengrass, as a prefect when she had first started at Hogwarts. This seemed exactly like the place that would have spawned him; rich, frivolous, and completely self-absorbed. She itched to get her reward and leave.
That, and all the counter-spells in the name of her assumed-crookedness were starting to grate.
However, Lord Greengrass seemed satisfied with three, and glanced around at Judith. "Genuine nuckelavee heads. I suppose Lady Prince's recommendation had some bearing behind it."
Lady Prince, Head of House Prince, had been bereft to the tune of an enchanted necklace, which Judith had been happy to seek out for her and happier to be rewarded for doing so. Adding another note to her reputation hadn't hurt either, and Judith bit back her annoyance and said "You're welcome."
"You're welcome, my lord," replied Lord Greengrass, sounding bored as he turned back to the heads. "An unpleasant business, when muggles start turning up dead and half-devoured on one's property. It attracts unwanted attention from interlopers. My commendations for your assistance. I suppose you'll be due a reward." His nose wrinkled ever-so imperceptibly while he spoke; Judith still had the distinct aroma of nuckelavee about her.
"Compensation to the sum of ten Galleons and fifteen Sickles was agreed upon, my lord. With additional monies for a speedy resolution." It was a good reward for the effort put in, and Judith had a good memory for those sorts of figures.
"Just so. Two additional Galleons seems fair." With a flick of his wrist, Lord Greengrass drew a small money purse out of nowhere and opened it up. Glancing inside, he began picking out and casually flicking aside coins.
She could have pressed him for more, Judith knew, but she wouldn't have been likely to get it. She was lucky that the agreed-upon extra was being remembered at all. Coming from this bastion of purebloodedness, she was probably lucky that she wasn't being expected to take the honour of having served her betters as payment.
"There," said Lord Greengrass, finishing his subtractions and tossing the purse over to Judith, who snatched it just in time to stop it sailing into the fireplace. "That should be adequate recompense. And that should conclude our business."
Judith slipped the pouch into her moleskin pouch, and went through the routine courtesies and fare-thee-wells as were appropriate from a retained commoner to a noble. She could probably have done them in her sleep; she'd taken jobs for entirely too many wizarding lords, and politeness was expected if you were to stand a chance of getting them in future.
Greengrass merely grunted his dismissal, and summoned a house elf to escort her out. It was a long trek down the long corridor again, under the eyes of dozens of dead lords and ladies; and when a night wind blew across her and the manor's door slammed shut behind her, she couldn't help but heave a sigh of relief.
Above her, the drizzling darkness was patched with stars, giving paltry illumination to the flat, grassy landscape before her. Beyond, a dark expanse of water that shimmered under the starlight, past sheer cliffs that fell straight down to the sea.
She was on Hoy, one of the more southerly of the Orkney Islands. Apparation from Westray to here had been relatively easy and approximately painless; Apparation from here to Hogsmeade would be another story altogether.
Still, the prospect of home, a bath and a bed had an appeal that outweighed any Splinching.
She gathered herself, focused on the main street leading into the village, imagined the point on the landscape from which you could see the lights from Hogwarts twinkling in the distance, and breathed in…
She re-appeared on the snow-dusted rise of rocky hill just to the left of Hogsmeade's main road, off target by a dozen feet and bereft of her left ear. Dittany and a moment's rest solved that latter problem, and she picked herself up and dusted herself off, glancing around as she did so.
The night sky was clear here, save for the shapes of a few passing owls. If Judith crooked her head, she could make the distant lights from the towers of Hogwarts insinuating themselves into the constellations. The distant shapes of dark mountains rose and fell all the way to the horizon, white shrouding the tops of each.
Above the snowline, the cold was a constant, biting companion. A customary "Calefacio," sent a small amount of warmth rising throughout her, and once some feeling was restored to her extremities, Judith began her stroll into the village.
A few outlying houses lined the road on which she trod down into the village proper, the homes of the village's poor and unskilled. Past them, the homes and shops grew richer and taller and ever-more jumbled together, thatch yielding to tiles and plaster-coated bricks yielding to wood and stone. The snow-laden roofs gleamed white against the dark night, and the few small glass windows were frosted over with delicate ferns.
Judith wasn't the only one still about at this hour. She saw a few other wizards and witches making their own way through the streets. They nodded politely to her as she passed, recoiling slightly as she came within breathing distance. Judith couldn't help but wryly wonder what Rebecca would make of the smell.
Guilt suddenly washed over Judith, and she made a sharp detour for a place that might help alleviate it, that might, just, just might, if there truly was a kindly God, still be open…
She turned a swift corner, and Judith sang a silent hosanna as she saw the lights were still on in Sprout's Select and Curious Floriculture, a wide and sprawling wooden building that took up the lion's share of a street. Smoke and steam rose gently from a few of the chimneys scattered across its roof, some plumes of which were tinged with magical colours.
Judith jogged up to the door at the building's front and knocked twice, to be greeted with a slightly breathless "Er…come in. Come in! Just a … arrgh!"
Drawing her wand out from a loop at her belt, Judith cautiously pushed the door open, to be greeted with what was only the second-most unusual thing she'd seen that day.
Past the shop front's usual veil of steam, she could make out the shape of what had to be Nathaniel Sprout, the young nephew of the shop's owner, trying to extricate themselves from the strangest plant Judith had yet seen in the floriculturists; something man-sized and with two great tendril-lined leaves wrapped tightly around Nathaniel's upper body. The plant crooned as it grappled with Nathaniel; a low, happy sound like some blend of whalesong and a contented cat.
Nathaniel for his part produced little save consternated blasphemies, and Judith sent a barked "Stupefy!" the plant's way in his defence. The red light flew into one of the great leaves, and the plant yawned open with a discontented murmur to release Nathaniel. He fell back, catching himself before he impacted with the wooden floor.
"Um," he said, pulling himself up and catching Judith's baffled stare. "Much obliged, Miss Fairweather. Otherwise, it'd have had me until it fell asleep or got bored."
"Pleasure to help, lad. I would insist on recompense, however, by way of you telling me what in God's green earth it is."
"It's a pain in the fundament, is what it is," he replied, drawing himself up to his full gangly height and shooting a glare at the plant, which was now producing a considerably more disgruntled croon than before. "A Mercurian Man-Hugger. Some poxy thing from the New World, and I'm not going to ask why Lord Torque's so keen on getting one. Auntie asked me to make looking after it a priority while she's in Brittany, and it's happy to help me with that."
"Well, you'll be glad to know my tastes are going to be much more pedestrian," Judith said, drawing out her purse from her moleskin pouch. "A two-Knut's-worth bouquet of roses and snapdragons. Bound with a decent ribbon, if you have one."
"One Stupefy'll get you our finest ribbon, Miss Fairweather. Just one moment." The lad turned to the rows of flowers that lined the counter and shelves behind him, and began carefully picking out a selection from the contingents of flush roses and eager snapdragons, humming vaguely as he worked. Judith recognised the tune as the closest approximation to the proper notes for the Hogwarts school song.
"You'll be in fifth year now, then?" asked Judith, making conversation while she waited.
"Just finished fourth year, going into fifth year after the summer's wound down," came the slightly distracted reply. "Auntie's had me earning my keep here in the meanwhile, which isn't too bad. And according to a few unreliable sources, I've been considered for the Gryffindor male prefect this year coming – which I can't foresee ending badly at all." He busied himself in silence for a moment, and then said "You were a Slytherin, weren't you, Miss Fairweather?"
"Aye," she said, after a moment's pause, finishing picking out two faded Knuts and jangling them in her hand.
"No disrespect to your past loyalties, but we'll see Slytherin House beaten again on the Quidditch grounds this year." Having picked out a large bouquet, Nathaniel deftly drew out a bright ribbon and bound the flower stems together, making sure to keep his fingers away from the eager jaws of the little snapdragons. He kept up his side of the conversation, happily oblivious to Judith's. "Our captain's got new ideas for this year, and he's got this notion where the players ride two brooms at once…"
"Tried that in third year. It landed me in the infirmary for a while and lost me ten House points," interjected Judith, jangling the Knuts slightly more forcefully in the hope that Nathaniel would take the hint.
Bringing up the incident was what Judith considered quite a charitable act. It might end up getting someone not killed, and she'd have been loath to bring it up or recall it normally. It hadn't been the sort of incident that had raised her stock in Slytherin much – which had been low enough to start with.
Nathaniel finished fussing over the bouquet, and turned to Judith, extending the flowers with one wobbling hand and holding out his other palm-up. "Here you go, Miss Fairweather – and I'll take the coins, thank you, and hope to see you again."
"Many thanks to you. Don't get into too much trouble before I see you next," replied Judith, swapping coins for flowers and taking her leave. As she stepped back out into the brisk evening, she knocked the door shut behind her with her foot, and stopped for a moment on the shop's stone step, gathering her breath and a reasonable explanation for the day's outing.
Once she had finished (or more accurately, when a node of her conscience had insisted loudly enough that she cease procrastinating), she made for home.
It was just a street away from Sprout's; past a row of small and cosy homes in the inner part of Hogsmeade, the lights from which twinkled invitingly. At the point where it faced down that street, there rose a larger building, wrought from plastered-over brick and brown-grey tiles. Long windows ran along its ground floor, displaying currently empty stands and trays, and a sign over the front door read Gryffindor's Fine Baked Goods, the letters formed from faintly luminescent wood.
Judith skirted around the building's right side, venturing to its back. She absently tapped a section of the wall as she went, and felt the familiar warmth of the huge ovens within. They would have been left alight, she knew, baking the bread and dishes that required long hours of cooking, and which could be sold cool the next day.
She rounded the last corner, and placed herself before the shop's back door. Clearing her throat, she held the flowers ready – taking a moment to prise a snapdragon's jaws free from a strand of her hair – and knocked on the door.
There came the sound of hurrying feet on a wooden surface from within, and after a brief moment, the door swung open, revealing the slightly breathless form of Rebecca Gryffindor.
She was a small, fine-featured witch, running to stout; with bright blue eyes and hair that fell in a curly red cascade around her shoulders and upper back. Brushing her floury, burn-scarred hands off on the apron hanging down her front, she looked Judith up and down, taking in the proffered bouquet, the missing hat, the dishevelled hair, the sodden robes and cloak, the slightly panicky and expectant expression, and the aroma of exploded sea monster.
"Oh, Judith," she said, in a tone that ended up somewhere between concern and disappointment. "Tell me you didn't."
"I … did. But, but, and I believe this deserves consideration," started Judith, rattling off words that might, just might, make Rebecca stop looking disappointed on her behalf, "I brought you flowers. And I'm still alive and very much unharmed. Not even scratched."
"Where did you go? What was it-?"
"Orkney, for Lord Greengrass. A nuckelavee. Nothing to be afra-"
"A nuckelavee? Stars, Judith, if-"
"Unharmed, I must reiterate. They're practically no harder than Doxies, if you know what you're doing-"
Rebecca lunged forward and seized at Judith, drawing her in quickly for a tight kiss and cutting her off mid-sentence. Judith, after a moment's pause, returned the kiss and wrapped her free arm around her partner's shoulders. The bouquet was squashed between them, the snapdragons issuing squeaking protests.
Rebecca broke it off first, but kept her hands on Judith's shoulders, as if worried she'd fly off.
"I … thank you for the flowers," Rebecca said, her voice rough, taking the bouquet. She stepped away, back inside. "Come in and get warmed. You're drenched."
She turned and rushed back inside, while Judith trudged in after her, feeling nowhere as triumphant about the victory and earned Galleons as she had been a few minutes ago.
Through the low corridor that led to the back door – once again nudged shut by Judith's foot – two branches led in turn off to the oven room and the living room. Judith made for the former, following Rebecca and desiring the warmth of the ovens.
She could feel their heat before she stepped through the carved wooden doorframe. They took up all of one side of the long room, great contraptions of brick and clay and brass, lit from within by a steady carmine blaze. The dark mounds of baking loaves could be glimpsed amidst the red-hot coals, and sweet cooking smells filtered out. Facing the ovens was the bakery's long worksurface, strewn with flour and utensils and small sacks of cereals and fruits and spices; more of which, Judith knew, would be crammed into the cupboards under the surface. A wooden pole ran along the room's low ceiling, draped over with gloves and cloths.
Rebecca paused briefly to draw out her wand, dim the magical red fire within to cool rose-coloured flames with a casual swish and flick, and moved away to the worksurface with the flowers. Judith made for the ovens, stopping a few steps from the open mouth of one. She tugged off her gloves, stuffing them into her belt, and stretched out her hands to catch the heat.
Greengrass's fire had done little to remove the cold and wetness, which by now felt as if it had seeped all the way down to her bones. Here, she felt herself begin to thaw.
She felt a hand gently reach around her shoulder and unclasp her sodden travelling cloak, which fell to the wooden floor with a damp thump. A warm and dry towel was draped around her as a substitute, and Judith clasped it around herself eagerly. Turning, she saw Rebecca absently picking up the cloak, with another hand proffering a small pasty. Behind her, the flowers rested in a clay jar full of water, the snapdragons crooning in contentment in the room's warmth.
"Thank you," said Judith, a smile coming to her lips as she accepted the warm pasty and bit into it, exulting in the hot beef and vegetables. "I could get used to this manner of reception."
Rebecca smiled as well, but her own was slightly more strained. "Next time, I'll have a larger one on hand. If nothing else, it'll be more like to keep you weighted down."
Judith bit and chewed again, some of the relish gone. The silence that stretched out started awkward and tense, and only grew more so.
"Judith," said Rebecca quietly, "We'd agreed."
"No. We didn't. We'd discussed. We hadn't actually come to any particular conclusion, save that you didn't like my occupation, and I for my part was quite comfortable with it-
"An occupation that nearly gets you killed on a basis that I wish I could deem to be anything – or preferably much - less than regular."
"Indeed. You can tell from the fact that I'm conducting my end of the conversation from within a funeral pyre, or a kirkyard."
"Today, it was a nuckelavee," said Rebecca, her tone controlled and brittle. "A few days ago, it was a thief on Lady Weasley's estate, who defended themself with curses. Last week, it was Horntail fledglings setting a warehouse in Bristol aflame-"
"-And recall for that particular case, that I subdued the fledglings, saved and Obliviated the dockworkers present, and got out to collect my fee from Lord Motley with nought but a scratch. I'm surprised that Healer Arborlun didn't tell me to bugger off and stop wasting his time when I went to get it treated-"
"Yes. A scratch across your throat. What if it had been a little deeper?" Rebecca's tone had all but been broken by the weight of emotion behind it. "When would you have been found and returned to me for burial? When Motley sent out another hunter when the warehouses were yet burning? Or when the muggles managed to douse the blaze themselves? Or never, when fire and falling wood consumed you?"
"Those … those aren't relevant," replied Judith, snappishly in spite of her attempt to temper herself here, in this place. "I don't think about 'what if', I don't need to-"
"I do. Is it too bloody hard to accept that I hate it when you throw yourself into fires without a thought for what'll happen if, for once, they actually burn? That every time I see you Apparating away to your work, you might not…not…"
Judith's own ground was being battered at waves of guilt and self-reproach at being the source of Rebecca's unhappiness, but she tried to hold it regardless. "Rebecca," she started, hesitantly, trying to hide the roughness that threatened to overwhelm her own voice as well, "It's my occupation. I hunt down and solve problems, whether beast or criminal. I'm good at it, I enjoy it, I get paid for it, which isn't an easily dismissed factor."
"I make enough for both of us-"
"You wouldn't want me to just … become vestigial to our household, and neither do I. I'd feel useless."
"The find something else, something that would let you use the same skills with less risk. Beast-wrangling and training-"
"-Is stuffed to the gills with the smaller sons of pureblood houses and families. I'd hardly be greeted with laurels, and there'd be few who'd hire me."
"Then what about retaining yourself to a Lord who likes you and knows how good you are, as a guard. Weasley, or Prince…"
"I'd be attaching a ball and chain to my ankle, but in a much more metaphorical and much less desirable form. I like choosing my jobs. I can't be a retained hound."
Rebecca's hands were clenched, and her lip was bit tightly. Judith reached out and took her hands in her own, and made eye contact as well.
"You could have proposed being a professional second for duels," Judith said, trying to inject a gently-teasing note. "But I doubt I'm really the polite duelling sort. And I doubt you'd have liked that much either."
"You're incorrigible," Rebecca said, a sniff and smile escaping her at the same time.
"You can't claim you didn't ken that since the beginning." Judith swung their entwined hands back and forth, leaning in towards Rebecca on the last swing. "A promise. I'll ask questions of whichever chinless marvel offers me a job right at the beginning. If it seems to involve a significant risk to my life and assorted limbs, I promise I'll return home here in the moment after discussions pause and talk it over with you."
"That would be good of you." Rebecca seemed mollified, and the smile that touched her blue eyes was genuine.
That was enough for Judith (and always would be), but couldn't be left entirely alone.
"Assuming you don't mind me intermittently warping into the living room, screaming and spraying blood from Splinched digits while yelling things like 'Aaaargh, Lord Something-or-Other wants me to find and smoke out a banshee nest, what do you think, aaaarghaaargh…'"
"I'll be by the ovens or manning the counter. I won't mind that at all," replied Rebecca with a chuckle, giving Judith a gentle swat to the head, and leaning in a little herself.
Judith leaned in the last crucial few inches; and this time, the kiss was less forced, less sudden, and went on for a little longer.
Judith wasn't normally one to let philosophy and the abstract distract from a perfectly decent tangible event, but she always couldn't help the near-complete study in opposites between Rebecca and herself.
Bright red versus dull black. A soft and appealing face versus one full of sharp and crooked angles. Gryffindor versus Slytherin. Baker versus mercenary. Pureblooded last scion of a Founding House, versus a Borders-raised muggleborn.
Judith wished to tighten their embrace, to go deeper, to take everything she loved about Rebecca into herself, to have something of the woman that could never be let go or taken out of sight.
When she broke off the kiss, after some reluctant moments, it was to ask "Bed? I mean, if you were finishing with work here…"
"I believe I'd like that very much," said Rebecca, her smile positively bright. "I'll first finish here and then be ready. And while I finish that, for yourself-" Her nose wrinkled, and Judith recalled the nuckelavee. "-Perchance a bath?"