If the old popular wisdom that dictated that pets were much like their owners in personality was correct, there was no point arguing with Miss Black, Severus thought to himself. Much in the same way her cat simply did as it pleased, it was quite obvious Miss Black wouldn´t take no for an answer. Just as well, if anything her impromptu hospitality fit would provide him with an excellent opportunity to gather information. Just the day before Evelyn Black had knocked on his door, telling a most bizarre story that apparently involved his mother´s family and could just as well touch the Wizarding World. According to her she had just inherited her house from her late grandfather, who was, if she was to be believed, somehow related to the Prince family. Stranger still, Evelyn Black was in possession of a strange house deed, a document of a type most common in wizarding transactions. Inadvertently her bothersome black cat had provided him with a perfect opportunity to look into that matter.
But carrying shopping bags was not his idea of investigating. Nevermind, a little common courtesy would go a long way in helping his plans.
"Can you put those on the kitchen table, please" She told him, while clumsily taking bag after bag from the trunk. It was quite evident a lot of those were not just groceries and obviously too heavy to for her to carry unaided. He balanced the two relatively small grocery bags she had just given him on his left hand, doing his best to hold on to them with his still fully functioning fingers and walked over to where she stood. Silently, and without as much as looking at her, Severus picked up the heavier bags, balancing them on both hands to the best of his ability and marched into the house. A little startled, Evelyn picked up the other bags and closed the trunk, following him.
"Oh, wait..." she called out, coming after him, her heels briskly click-clacking onto the pavement. "It´s too heavy, you don´t have to carry all of them at the same ti..."
"I can manage" he spat out. If there was one thing Severus couldn´t stand was pity disguised as politeness.
They made their way into the living room just as Ciarán was climbing onto the peach colored damask couch, stretching lazily before settling for a nap. Severus scoffed at him as he walked by. Finally catching up to him, Evelyn walked past both of them and prompted Severus to follow her into the kitchen.
"Could you put those here, please" She told him softly, gesturing a cabinet next to the door. Then she washed her hands and started to move around, busy like a hyperactive bee, sorting groceries and putting them away and filling up a kettle with water. "Have a seat...tea will be ready in a minute...I have green tea and Lady Grey, what do you..."
"I´ll just have whatever you´re having..." He answered distractedly, walking back into the living room. There was a strong smell of cleaning products in the air, and the furniture was moved around and cardboard boxes were scattered about.
"Don´t mind the mess," she told him from the kitchen, her voice dancing over the clatter of porcelain and silverware. "I still haven´t had to time to finish cleaning..."
He didn´t answer and just kept walking around. There was no way Miss Black had brought all these objects with her and had them brought inside in less than twenty-four hours. The living room was fully decorated in a sumptuous Art Déco style, with lots of delicate and ornate pieces and works of art, with a soothing abundance of muted greens and pale pinks. Draperies, upholstering, rugs, everything looked vivid and fresh...as if the house had just been decorated. The sheer amount of stained glass letting the light pour inside, the scattered boxes, apparently filled with books and personal objects, and the smell of lime from the recent, yet unfinished, cleaning only added to the fresh, comfortable feel of a house ready to start a new life.
Severus walked over to the boxes, all already opened, but still unpacked. The personal objects didn´t interest him, and he would feel outright ashamed looking at them, so instead he directed his attention to the books. The absolute majority of the boxes were filled with them, making up for a personal library of rather respectable size. Letting his curiosity get the best of him he opened one and picked up the first book his eyes fell upon. It was a rather new and elegant hard cover edition with a very high quality dark green dust jacket. On it there was a very simple black design of a Celtic cross and a title in a sleek and elegant black lettering "Witch trials in Ireland: the untold history" He read the index and saw the book was divided on groups of specific trials by dates, spawning all the way from the XIV century to, much to his surprise, 1911. The last pages had an exhaustive compilation of references and bibliography. Looked like a book worth reading, he thought, looking for the name of the author on the cover.
"Author...Evelyn Black?" Severus did a bit of a double take and opened the book again, looking for the flap. There it was. A rather elegant black and white portrait of Evelyn black, looking positively scholarly in a dark blouse, her hair pulled away from her face in a neat braid. The seriousness of her face seemed to belie an inner sunnier disposition that could be seen from the brightness of her eyes, that the dull shades of grey chosen for the photo did nothing to diminish, and the hint of an impending smile that her tightly sealed lips did a poor job of hiding.
Severus looked over his shoulder to where she stood, distractedly setting the table. He followed her swift and agile movements, as her long fingers busied themselves with cups and plates, knives, forks and the most colourful array of breads, cheeses and muffins. She was completely relaxed, her red sweater laying abandoned on the back of a chair and her immaculate white t-shirt reflecting the light in a way rather unusual for the dull and dark Spinner´s End, forming a striking contrast with her dark hair, in such a way that her face looked far softer and more radiant than he remembered it from the previous day. Hard to imagine that sweet tea-and-muffins, happy go lucky model-home-maker prototype busily arranging muffins on a glass tray was a witchcraft expert. But then again, considering their previous conversation, Severus wouldn´t be at all surprised to find a higher than average intelligence in her. More than intelligence, if the whole story about her grandfather and her adamant pursuit of answers was anything to go by, Miss Black didn´t only have brains, but she might just as well have the officiousness to match. Brains and curiosity, the mark of an outstanding scholar. Still, he had to laugh at the notion that a muggle would actually study witchcraft... as if they could do anything other than scratch the surface.
"Tea is ready" she called out softly. He put the book back in the box and went into the kitchen. There he found a simple but nicely arranged table set, cups and plates of refined powder blue porcelain, cold cuts and cheese, some croissants arranged in a little basket and the famous muffins, apparently in variety flavours. He wondered if it was just because she had a guest or if Evelyn Black actually made a ritual out of every meal.
"Sit down, please..." She poured him some tea. "Lady Grey.... I´m sorry I didn't have Assam..."
"Once again forgive me about Ciarán..." She took his plate and proceeded to put some slices of cheese on it, without as much as asking him if he wanted it.
"Miss Black, please. Just the tea is quite enough"
"Oh, but you must try this. You know, I walked all over the neighbourhood looking for some place that sold good Irish cheese, but alas there doesn´t seem to be a wide variety of products avaible around here. Such luck I found this Burren Gold. It´s produced in Clare, you must try it..."
"No, really, please, don´t bother..." He was starting to get slightly alarmed as she served him a croissant and a muffin.
"Chocolate or blueberry?"
"I don´t really like swe..." he breathed in trying not to get angry "...blueberry"
"I wish I had something fresher to serve, but I was so busy with the cleaning that baking was out of question. I hope those are good. I heated them up a bit. Would you like some butter?"
"No, thank you. It´s all perfectly fine like this..." Severus studied her jovial expression as she sat down and proceeded to fill her own plate. She was simply "at home", in every sense of the expression. Whomever was to walk in at that exactly moment and saw them having tea and discussing Irish cheese and muffin flavours might actually mistake them for old friends, instead of neighbours that had met just the day before. The familiarity was completely disturbing to him, this little chit chat over afternoon tea was simply too surreal...He felt like he had just walked into one of those obnoxious domestic-bliss-selling margarine commercials. He wondered if the woman sitting across the table was actually this genuinely nice and welcoming or if she was just plain crazy.
"As I was saying...I´m really sorry about Ciarán. He´s not used to being left alone. My last boyfriend worked from home, so Ciarán really misses having someone around...I do think I´ve been babying the little fellow a bit too much lately. I hope he hasn´t disturbed you too much..." Her brogue was more evident than ever now.
"Not too much, no..." He lied. "Your...uhm...decoration is quite interesting."
"It´s not mine, actually. Everything was already here when I arrived. But I´m thinking about keeping it just the way it is. It´s absolutely lovely. But it was the most bizarre thing to find everything untouched like that. Except for all the dust it looks as if it was decorated yesterday, doesn´t it?"
"I´d say so..." he cocked an eyebrow, looking around.
"But the most bizarre thing is not even that..."
"Yes?..." He offered, amazed at how little it took to get her talking.
"There was no sign of bugs anywhere..."
"Indeed? That´s funny...this house has been closed for so long...One would imagine it was crawling with bugs."
"I know, right? And yet not a single one...I´m telling you, it´s the most amazing thing. This house is in such perfect condition is actually scary. I was fully expecting to have to spend some nights at a hotel while arranging everything to move in, and it wasn´t even necessary. Yesterday all I had to do was change the covers and I had a perfect night of sleep in one of the bedrooms upstairs...I do admit it was a little creepy sleeping in this bed that once belonged to God only knows who..."
"Well, if you intend to live in Spinner´s End, 'creepy' is something you might want to get used to..." he smirked
"I guess so..." she laughed softly
"I do imagine that for someone in your line of work, stumbling upon this house must be fascinating..."
"My line of work?..."
"You´re a historian, right? I just happened to see one of your books in the living room."
"Oh, you did..." she smiled and for a second he could have sworn she was a little embarrassed
"Yes...Witch trials in Ireland...Sounds interesting..."
"I did notice the subject seems to interest you...I mean, once again sorry for snooping around but..."
"Don´t worry...I suppose we can call that one even"
"Well, and judging from your library I´d guess we share the same line of work..."
"You´d guess incorrectly.."
"So, not a historian?"
"Potions." he let out with a straight face, savouring her utterly puzzled expression.
"Potions?....Oh, you mean chemistry." She laughed quietly.
"Yes." he smirked again.
"Then my guess was only partially incorrect..."
"We´re both teachers...just different subjects"
"Where do you teach?"
"A boarding school in Scotland." he shifted uncomfortably in his chair "I´m currently on leave of absence due to injury, tough."
"I see..." She said in an almost apologetic tone. He followed her eyes as they looked down at the bandages on his neck and his crippled left hand. He removed his hand from the table, resting it on his lap, and shifted again. She immediately noticed his discomfort and looked down at her tea, silent.
"You?" He asked, trying to pull her back into the conversation.
"Oh, here and there....I graduated from Trinity College, got my Ph.D. there as well, then worked there for most of my life. I went back to Doolin after my grandfather passed away. I lived in Ennis for a while before that and worked at the National school, but I preferred to go back to Doolin...My father was teacher in a local school there. An all girl school I attended, so that´s where I was working past few years..."
"How long has it been since he passed away? Your grandfather I mean..."
"Two years...My father followed him just this year..." All the brightness of her voice was gone.
"I´m sorry to hear that"
Suddenly all her chattiness disappeared and the only sound filling the air was that of the tea cups clattering and the chilly wind blowing the leaves outside. For the first time in months Severus felt bothered by the silence he usually welcomed with such joy. He looked down at his partially eaten croissant, sipping his tea and calculating his next words. But before he could open his mouth Evelyn herself broke the tension.
"It was only when father died that I got those papers I was telling you about yesterday....I knew they existed before that, but for whatever reason, dad never let anybody near them. They just spend two years locked up inside this box in the attic..."
"Yes, you mentioned it....As a matter of fact, I probably should apologize for our last conversation, we seem to have started on the wrong foot..." Severus was pleasantly surprised that he didn´t have to bring up the subject himself. In fact Miss Black seemed all too eager to talk about it. He modulated his voice to the gentlest tone he could muster "I was really taken by surprise. You will certainly understand, a person I´ve never seen before standing at my doorstep, telling this convoluted story about an abandoned house..."
"Oh, of course I completely understand...I suppose I was a little too eager, knocking on your door like that and just spilling everything..." Her tone was at once mellow and serious, and Severus wondered if she was genuinely opening up to him, or just trying to charm him into helping her. Either way it suited his purposes. "It´s just that...It´s all so strange, this house, these papers, this whole part of my grandfather´s life we had no idea about..."
"As I said before, I don´t think you´ll discover all that much...You said it yourself, it has been a long time, and with both your father and grandfather dead, I don´t think..."
"You do understand why I have to try, don´t you?" Her eyes bore straight into his to the point of discomfort. It was obvious there was much more to this than a simple curiosity about her family´s history. But whatever her reasons were they were of no interest to him at the moment and he surely wasn´t about to use legilimency on a defenceless muggle to find out.
"I do...Would you mind if I took a look at those papers? Maybe something there might help..."
"Well, of course you can...I´ll go get them..."
She left the kitchen and walked towards a sleek wooden cabinet in the living room. Severus followed her with his eyes, watching attentively as she removed a small wooden correspondence box from it. On the peach-coloured couch, her cat was getting fussy, probably upset at not having their attention for more than half of an hour, and started to mewl softly. After quickly petting the little beast, she came back into the kitchen, pulled a chair and sat down besides him, putting the box on her lap. As she pulled her chair a little too close to him, Severus almost pushed his back, but forced himself to stay where he was and act naturally. Even if she didn´t seem to have much of a clue about what "personal space" was, Severus was thankful that at the very least she had the ability of choosing a decent perfume. There was this very subtle lavender scent about her, certainly not one of those rammish blends of pretentious fragrances that muggle women seemed to fancy and were willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money for, but a very pure, unadulterated fragrance, as if she had just walked through a lavender field on her way back home.
Meanwhile the cat lay at her feet, pretty much demanding her attention. As she put the box on the table and bent down to pet him once again, and Severus took the opportunity to examine the object. But just as he looked at it, it became suddenly obvious to him that this was no common box. It took him a couple of seconds to actually convince himself his eyes weren´t playing a trick on him. He reached over and ran his fingers over the delicately carved crest that adorned the bid of the box.
"Miss Black..." He called her hesitantly "This crest...what do you make of it?..."
"Oh, this crest...don´t even get me started on it...I´ve been looking for it everywhere...I even contacted this colleague who´s a heraldry expert and asked him to try to locate it´s origin, but no luck...And this motto Toujours Pur, 'always pure', doesn´t appear anywhere in the documentation we consulted. We even contacted people in Ireland, North Ireland, Scotland, mind you even France and every specialist we consulted came up empty handed..."
"And the papers?" It took Severus some effort to look unaffected.
"Oh, sure", she opened the box and very carefully retrieved a bunch of yellowing letters tied by a black satin ribbon, so old they looked like they could fall apart just from being handled. "These letters I haven´t had the opportunity to read in detail. I´m even scared to handle them too much, to be honest, and I don´t believe they can actually be read, not without some extensive restoration...but this..." She laid the letter on the lid of the box and retrieved another piece of old yellowing paper, but this time in remarkably better condition and folded up like a map. She stood up and moved away some of the plates from the table, opening the paper on it. "This is the family tree I was telling you about..."
Severus stood up beside her and looked at it, completely at a loss of words. This wasn´t just a simple family tree...
"Here, you see?" She continued to talk, and pointed out one of the names scribbled in a tiny and barely readable calligraphy. "Marius Black... That´s my grandfather...His name is crossed out, like many others but you can still read it clearly... And this family tree connects to many others family trees it seems. That includes the Princes, as you can see here...And here´s what has brought me to you...Eileen Prince... Her name is also crossed out for whatever reason... Do you have any idea as to why this might be?"
"No...no idea..." He lied "I have to agree with you tough...It´s most certainly...remarkable. Do you still have that house deed?"
"Yes, right here..." she handed it to him. Severus re-read the document. Marius Black. There was little doubt in his mind, in fact it was pretty obvious, and Severus was about to kick himself for not realizing it sooner.
"Oh...It´s almost six..." He let out, pretending to be alarmed "I was supposed do meet a friend across town at eight, I have to get going..."
"Ah, of course I don´t want to keep you."
"Would you mind if I borrowed this?" he gestured the family tree "I might find something to compare it with among my mother´s belongings..."
"Oh, sure you can take it...and here..." she took a piece of paper form her purse and folded it along with the family tree "It´s a copy of the house deed, I have to hold on to the original, but you can take this..."
"Thank you, Miss Black...Now, I really should go..."
"Sure, I´ll walk you to the door..."
Resisting the urge to step on Ciarán tail along the way, Severus let himself be guided to front door, his mind still shrouded in contemplation of what had just been shown to him. Evelyn opened the door and he turned to her, putting on a mask of normalcy.
"Thank you for the tea..."
"Don´t mention it...Oh, by the way..." She walked over to one of the book boxes and came back with the book he had been browsing just a while before. "Here. I hope you enjoy it. But feel free to tell me if you don´t."
It was past ten when Minerva MacGonagall finally managed to have a moment of much needed peace in her private office. Being a deputy headmistress for nearly two decades surely hadn´t prepared her for the herculean task of being the headmistress of a post-War Hogwarts. There was still so much to do, so much to fix... They had bravely managed to start the school year, trying to make things run as smoothly as possible considering the circumstances but... Hogwarts was not the same, and she prayed one day it would return to what it once was....Minerva knew, however that the road leading up to that day seemed too long and rocky...So many were missing, teachers, students....And those who remained would forever have to cope with the terrible events they had witnessed and the losses they had suffered... But Hogwarts still stood...and it would remain standing as far as she was concerned.
She sat on her favourite armchair, removing her glasses and closing her eyes, enjoying the cool breeze that entered through the window and listening to the soothing sounds of the night outside, when the abrupt sound of flapping wings caught her attention. She looked up to see a raven perched on her windowsill, looking at her. Minerva smiled and observed the bird, a fine specimen with lustrous black feathers that reflected the moonlight in dark blueish tones.
"Well, it´s awfully kind of you to keep me company for a while, but it´s far too late for visits...." She stood up to shoo the bird away, when she heard a low raucous sound coming from the animal, almost as if it was chuckling.
She took a step back as the bird graciously flew into the room. In a split second, the sleek black silhouette grew and changed into that of a man, before her startled eyes. He amazement, however, faded away immediately as she recognised an all-too familiar face.
"As I was saying my friend...it´s a little too late for visits" She smiled warmly "But it´s nice to see you nevertheless..."
"I do apologize for stopping by so late and unannounced...But I have something to discuss with you. Something that can´t wait until tomorrow..."