The Sugar Quill
Author: Calanthe (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Vignettes 3: Endurance  Chapter: II.
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The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Disclaimer: All of the major characters in this story are the inventions of J

Disclaimer:  All of the major characters in this story are the inventions of J.K. Rowling and belong to her.  I do not have authorisation to use them and I am not making any money from doing so.  Damn.

Author’s Note: Many thanks to Ozma, bmiller699, Elphaba and Amanda for their very encouraging reviews of chapter 1—sorry the next bit took so long to get done!  And to Kanna, who listened very patiently to my whinging when it wasn’t going well, and gave me some lovely feedback.  And, as always, to Jedi B, for putting up with my shilly-shallying over the pacing issue…

II.

‘Well?’

For a moment Remus only sat there on the edge of the mattress.  Then, slowly, under the Headmistress’ sharp look, he reached into his shadow, picked up Percy’s forearm and drew it forward, easing the sleeve back.  The light that slanted across from the open scullery door warmed brown stone to gold, but barely called the Mark out of the bared skin.  Minerva bent forward, face drawn into a tight frown.

After a long silence, she nodded, and straightened, hands clasped tightly at her waist.  Thin lines carved themselves at the corners of her mouth.  ‘I suppose,’ she said at last, ‘if any one of that family was going to turn, we should have expected it to be him.’

Remus halted in the act of smoothing Percy’s sleeve down over his forearm, tilted his face up to the tall witch and raised an eyebrow. 

Minerva’s mouth stretched wryly.  ‘Too rigid,’ she said; Remus looked at her for a moment, turned away and finished smoothing the rumpled sleeve, and folded Percy’s arm across his ribs.  At the edge of his sight, Minerva’s finger rapped sharply against her knuckle, stilled, twitched again.  Remus propped his forearms across his knees, and looked thoughtfully at Percy’s lax hand.

‘But you think he can be saved.’

Remus hunched a shoulder briefly.  ‘He was running away from something.’

‘Well,’ said Minerva into the quiet.  ‘Albus trusted you in these matters, Remus, and I am prepared to do the same.  But I must tell you that your efforts so far do not inspire my confidence.’

Remus tipped his head to one side, put out a hand.  Stiff hair pricked at his fingertips as he tilted Percy’s face toward the light and watched it ease the pinched creases from forehead and eyes, fade the spreading purple stains to faint shadows.

‘The Christmas siege nearly ended in disaster.  For all your promises, you never have managed to find out how Albus died.  You couldn’t even warn us about the assault in March—if it hadn’t been for the blood bond, well—’

‘I did my best,’ Remus said.  He let go of Percy’s chin and folded his arm around his knees again, tucked his fingers into the crook of his elbow.

‘Children died, Remus.  Severus nearly died—’

‘I know.  I was there, if you remember, which is why he’s still alive.’

‘H’m.’  Minerva looked at him narrowly.  Her finger rapped against her knuckle again.  ‘Do you think you can do this for me, Remus?’

He closed his eyes, and turned his face away.  ‘I can try,’ he said into darkness, heard his voice harsh in the quiet.   Heavy skirts rustled suddenly against uneven stone.  His breath slipped from his throat; he shook his head and turned to look at the Headmistress, but his eyes dropped before he met her eyes. 

‘It’s been so long…I hoped—I thought I’d never have to do this again, Headmistress,’ he said.  ‘I don’t know if I can.’

Minerva snorted.  ‘Well, we have something in common, then,’ she said tartly.  His mouth twitched; he inclined his head to the truth, but slack grey features caught at the edge of his sight, and his smile faded.  He looked down at Percy’s face.  His fingernails caught against his palms.

‘What will you do with him if I fail?’

He looked up into silence.  A breath of cool air shook out Minerva’s skirts, tousled his hair against his shoulder blade and settled it again before the Headmistress lifted her shoulders tersely.  ‘Hand him over to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement for trial.’

There was a snort, a rustle of straw and wool; Remus looked down to see Percy twitch and mutter, and roll his face to the wall.  He reached down, pulled the blanket straight over Percy’s chest.  His hand moved like a ghost’s hand against the dark wool.

‘It’s the only choice, Remus,’ Minerva said. 

‘Yes.’  He wrapped his hand around his right elbow, felt the shape of bone through cloth and skin.  ‘But—’

‘Bring him back to us, Remus,’ she said.  ‘He was a good boy, in his own way.  I don’t wish to lose him.’

‘I’ll do my best.’  Remus unfolded his arms, gathered his feet under him and rose neatly; Minerva stepped back, and he slipped past her to the fireplace, stirred the small heap of coals gently.  Small flames leapt and flared around the tip of the poker.  He propped the iron against the hearthstone and turned back to Minerva. 

A sharp black look caught his eyes; a thin eyebrow lifted.

‘Is there anything you need, Remus?’

He straightened, dug his hands into his pockets and shook loose strands of hair out of his face.  ‘No, thank you, Headmistress,’ he said.  Minerva’s eyebrow arched higher; her look flicked past his shoulders, lingered and came back to him severely. 

‘If you find there is, let me know.’

‘I will.  Thank you, Headmistress,’ he said evenly.  Minerva lifted her chin for a moment, then stretched out her hand to the fire.  Glittering dust spilled from her fingers; the fire shuddered, flared, swirled and leapt green-edged toward the chimney. 

‘Good night, Remus.  Hogwarts, the Headmistress’ Office!’ said Minerva to the fire.  She hitched her robes up over her ankles, stooped awkwardly and stepped into the flame.  ‘Good night, Headmistress,’ said Remus.  The flames whirled around her, and the Headmistress was gone…

For a moment Remus stood, the smile easing from his mouth as he watched the flames shiver and sink, drain to small tongues of orange and gold.  Then he stooped to pick up the poker, and slowly, quietly, riddled kindling and coals apart in the grate until there was nothing but embers glowing against the red ash.  He raked the coals forward into the hearth.

‘Well,’ he said softly.  ‘That’s that, I suppose.’  He slipped the poker back into its rack and straightened his back, and stretched out a hand to brush his fingertips against uneven brown stone.  ‘Contineum,’ he murmured, and the word slipped through cracks into the stones of the walls and through them, bound them around him into one stone, solid as truth.  The last light sank from the walls, pooled and faded around his feet, but he stood still with his palm pressed against the wall.  His mouth drew slowly into a thin line; he bowed his head, and closed his eyes.

*

At the heart of the candle-flame, something snapped.  He started, and looked up; a thread of smoke wove toward him, and he wrinkled his nose against it, and bent his head again.  The flame slowly sank, from tower to unsteady bead around the curled wick.  Remus sighed.  The bright dot danced on his breath; he lifted his hands close to it, and the needle between his fingers wavered and splintered into a dozen brilliant spars.  He shook his head, closed his eyes; blind, he set the stitch and pulled the thread through, tucked his needle into the cloth and dropped the half-darned stocking onto the table.  Then he bowed his head and pushed the heels of his hands hard against his eyes—

A catch of breath, the rustle of shifting straw and wool: Remus dropped his hands and sat up, blinked hard.  At the edge of the flame’s rising glow a hand shifted, lifted, brushed shakily over closed eyelids.  A thin line creased between rusty brows.  Eyelids struggled against sleep, forced themselves open; Percy blinked heavily at the shadows above him, and his fingers curled on the edge of the blanket.

‘They’re on the floor—to your left,’ said Remus.

The line between Percy’s brows deepened sharply, but he shifted his head against the mattress, found his battered glasses and fumbled them onto his nose.  Remus pushed himself to his feet; Percy’s eyes shifted, followed him as he picked up the candlestick and the mug beside it, and came around the table to settle carefully on the edge of the makeshift bed.

‘Here.’  He set the candlestick on the hearthstone and slipped a hand behind Percy’s head, tilted the mug until water swelled against pinched lips.  After a moment, Percy opened his mouth and gulped.  A thin trail spilled from the corner of his mouth.  He lifted a shaking hand to wipe it away; his fingers brushed beard, flinched and fell.  Remus tipped the mug again, and Percy tilted his head forward—

‘No—slowly, you’ll make yourself sick.’  Remus drew the mug back.  Percy’s eyes closed, and his head sagged against Remus’ hand, but he swallowed obediently as Remus poured sips of water into his mouth, until the mug was empty. 

Enamel clattered dully against stone as Remus set the mug down and eased Percy’s head back onto the mattress.  The pale eyes opened again at the sound.  Remus sat back and folded his arms around his knees.

‘…Professor Lupin?’ 

Remus tilted his head, smiled a little.  ‘You young idiot,’ he said.  ‘You would have to be the last person I ever thought I’d see splinch himself in the middle of Chalmers green—’  Against the blankets Percy’s hands shook suddenly, curled into loose fists, and his eyelids fell shut.  Remus let his smile fade.  ‘What happened?’

‘Uh—’  Percy licked his lips, pushed his eyes open; after a moment, he wedged his elbows against the mattress and pushed himself up.  ‘How long—’  His teeth closed on his lip as he heaved himself upright, propped his weight on shaking wrists.

‘Careful now,’ said Remus mildly.  ‘It’s just past two in the morning—you’ve been asleep nearly ten hours, if that’s what you wanted to know—’

‘Where’s—’  Pale eyes narrowed, reached urgently past Remus into the shadows; then colour swept suddenly over thin cheekbones, and Percy scrambled down the length of his bed and snatched up the satchel and wand propped at his feet—

And vanished. 

Remus lifted his eyebrows.  ‘Well,’ he murmured.  ‘That’s interesting.’  And the candlelight flickered, and the shadows swirled, and Percy spilled back onto the mattress.

For a moment he lay motionless, robe twisted around his knees, wand and satchel clutched tight against his ribcage.   In the silence, each pained breath was loud as a curse.  Light caught in wet gold streaks on waxy skin.

Remus leaned forward.  ‘Percy, what’s the matter?  What are you running away from?  Percy—’

Weasley…

Remus came to his feet, swung toward the sound and pulled his wand from his belt in one smooth turn. 

Lumos!’

Light leapt through shadow; his eyes shocked wide as he glimpsed the planes of broad cheekbones, full lips that strained against a distorted jaw, the cleft of a square chin.  Powerful shoulders bunched and flexed.  In the dark something moved, rose and stretched like leathery wings; sharp fingers tensed and reached toward him…

Percy’s voice rang in his memory.  The shadows are alive—they’re hunting me—

Remus’ lips tightened.  He swept his wand out in a sharp Command.

Eiurate!’ 

The light flared.  He saw the blunt muzzle gape, fangs glint briefly between drawn-back lips.  There was an airless hiss…and then the shape was gone, and the light faded, drifted and sank in the cracks and corners of stone.

Remus drew a slow breath; his lips pressed together hard as he pushed his wand back into his belt.  He brushed his hair back from his face with aching fingers, tipped his head back.  ‘Domus spurnobsessor,’ he said to the dark beams bracing paler plaster above him.  His voice caught; he took another breath, slow and careful, and then another before he turned back to Percy.

The young wizard had not moved.  His eyes were screwed tight shut, ragged fingernails clawing into the satchel.  Remus sank to his knees, stretched a hand towards bone-white knuckles; he checked the movement before the touch could fall and instead said softly, ‘Percy.  It’s all right.  It’s gone.’

A tremor ran through the set face; then Percy twisted and rolled toward the wall, curled around the satchel in his arms.  ‘It comes back.  It comes back…’

‘If it comes back, I’ll send it away again—It’s all right.  It’s all right, you’re safe now.  You’re safe.’  He waited, fingers pressed over his mouth.  Slowly, hoarse breath eased into an even shallow rhythm, long fingers lost their grip on leather.  Remus reached down, slipped the glasses off Percy’s nose and folded them neatly.  There was a faint mutter, a sigh; Percy uncurled a little, pressed his face into the blanket.  Remus’ lips twitched sideways, almost a smile.  He set the glasses on the hearthstone, picked up the candle and rose to his feet, shielding the flame with one hand.

Warm gold shifted and poured against his palm as he wove past hearthstone and table to the far corner of the room.  The moment he dropped his hand, the Ministry seal gleamed at him, gilt-bright in darkness; he propped the candlestick on a shelf, pulled the book down and flipped it open.

The print danced in his eyes for a moment; he lifted the page to the light, and read: The Shadow Hunter, or servus umbrae.  Charm permitting caster to endow their shadow with a portion of their own substance and intelligence, and send it out to hunt down a person who has broken faith with them.  Once it has found its quarry the Shadow Hunter carries that person back to its creator to face punishment.  First record of use 1372.  Interdicted 1764… 

He leaned the gilt-stamped spine against the shelf for a moment, and closed his eyes.  ‘Well,’ he murmured, heard the word fade wryly in the night silence.  ‘A good sign, or a bad?’

Then he straightened, and closed the Catalogue of Interdictions with a snap, and reached for the candlestick.

*

His fingers were stiff and hot, scored with red lines from the bucket handle.  He bent and slipped his hand into the water, eyed the tub wearily.  Three-quarters full: that would do.  He straightened, wiped his cooled fingers on the skirt of his robes and turned away, stepped out of the bathroom and into the half-light of the scullery.  He pulled the door shut behind him with one hand, leant into shadow and swung the bucket into its place at the foot of his ancient wash-copper with the other.  As he straightened, cool fingers of breeze ruffled his hair against his shoulder, fluttered his sleeves around his forearms; he checked the hand that reached for the scullery door, and turned after a moment toward the touch of air. 

Somewhere behind the sun-gilded leaves of apple-tree or yew-tree a bird trilled, fell silent, chirped again.  Remus’ mouth eased into a smile; he sank down to sit on the scullery step, folded his arms across his ribs and leaned his head against cool brown stone.  The breeze lifted stray strands of hair off his face, wound lavender’s breath around him, and the faint drone of bees’ wings.  Remus turned his head toward the sound.  Tall dusty-purple spires and grey-green leaves made soft shapes against the wall; beyond the lavender bush and a ridge of uneven stones, tomato plants rustled quietly, gleams of dull red showing through shifting leaves.  Remus sighed and closed his eyes, brushed his hands over his face and breathed the tang of water and iron from his skin.  From behind the shadow of his fingers he heard a sparrow’s chirp, the flutter of wings, the quiet shift of breeze through leaves…a far-off lamb’s bleat and the deeper voice of a sheep…the creak of the windlass-rope over the well…

He started, blinked, swore under his breath and pushed himself upright, and listened closer.  In the distance, wood rapped urgently on wood.

Remus dropped his face into his hands.  ‘Ah, well,’ he muttered after a moment, and pushed himself to his feet; his lips quirked wryly as he turned, brushed his hair off his face and stepped forward, and let the world slip a little around him—

Dry gravel scraped slightly under his weight; sunlight pressed against his face, heated stone close behind his shoulders.  He took a step forward and sighed: Percy was crouched between the rose-bushes, jabbing his wand at the garden gate and muttering tensely.  ‘AlohomoraAperePraetermitteme.  Uh—finite incantatem—’

‘Good morning, Percy,’ said Remus, and the stream of spells choked.  There was a whirl of elbows and skirts and outstretched wand—then the wand dropped back against the satchel Percy had clutched against his chest, and the young wizard put back his shoulders and lifted his chin.  Eyes made big by heavy lenses fixed on Remus’ face.  He tipped his head to one side and waited.

‘P-professor Lupin,’ said Percy.  The scrubby beard twitched into what might have been a smile.  ‘I thought I remembered—Thank you so much for your assistance yesterday.  It was extremely good of you—I don’t know what can have come over me, I’ve never had the slightest trouble Apparating before!  But I really mustn’t impose on your kindness any longer, I have a great deal of work to do and I should have been at the office hours ago—’

The flood of words dried slowly under Remus’ raised eyebrow; colour crept over the top of Percy’s ears.  ‘No, I’m not going to open the gate for you, no matter how fast you talk,’ said Remus dryly, and watched the young wizard’s cheeks burn.  ‘We have some things we need to talk about, you and I, and you won’t be able to leave until we’ve done so.’

Percy licked his lips, and produced a shakily dismissive, ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand what you’re talking about, Professor.  And I—’

Remus gave him a quick, cool smile.  ‘It’s simple enough,’ he said.  ‘I want to know how and why Lord Voldemort’s mark got onto your arm, and what happened afterwards to make you run away from him, and why he has taken the enormous risk of conjuring a Shadow Hunter to get you back.’

Percy’s eyes closed sharply; against the dark leather of the satchel his knuckles showed suddenly, starkly white.  ‘…What are you going to do to me?’

Remus shrugged.  ‘My job.  Ask you questions, listen to your answers, ask more questions—’  Percy’s head jolted up; for a moment Remus saw not grey eyes widening in sunlight but a black glare across a torch-lit room.   A low voice hissed at him: Secretary, my foot!  You’re his damned interrogator—

And his own voice, matter-of-fact in reply: Well done, Severus.  Most of your fellow repentant Death Eaters never even realise.  Though of course, I don’t have as long as this to work on most…

A furious sneer.  So the werewolf’s turned watchdog.  Heaven help the sheep!

He blinked the acid glare away, and saw Percy swallow and push his chin up desperately.  ‘Well, I don’t have anything to tell you.  Just—leave me alone!’

He shook his head.  ‘I’m sorry.  I can’t do that.  Minerva McGonagall expressly asked me to keep you here, you see…’

The colour vanished from the narrow face; Percy’s knees buckled, and Remus stepped forward quickly and caught him by the shoulders, and braced him until he was steady on his feet again.  Bone pressed against his fingers through folds of cloth.  ‘Percy, be sensible,’ he said.  Sharp furrows creased the sweat-streaked forehead.  Remus eased his grip a little.  ‘You’re exhausted and filthy, you look half-starved; if you try to fight your way past my wards in this condition you’ll drive yourself into a collapse.  I know you’re in trouble.  I think I can help, if you’ll let me…’  Percy’s breath caught sourly, almost a laugh.  After a moment, Remus let go of his shoulders, and dug his hands into his pockets.  ‘Go back inside,’ he said tiredly.  ‘Make yourself some breakfast, have a bath—’  Percy flinched; the beard twitched, and Remus fought a sudden quirk of his lips still, and went on, ‘I’ve filled the tub for you—all you’ll need to do is heat the water.  I found you some clean clothes too…And then, just rest.  I’ll talk to you again this evening.’

Percy looked up again; his fingers clutched uncertainly at the satchel, and his eyes narrowed.  ‘What are you going to do?’ 

‘Me?  I’m going to bed.’  He met Percy’s startled frown with a bland look.  ‘What with one thing and another, I’ve been awake for nearly twenty-four hours, and I’m extremely tired.’

‘Oh.’

His mouth twitched again.  ‘Until this evening, then,’ he said, and turned away, toward the house.  The front door was half-open, jammed against a scraped flagstone; Remus stepped up to the threshold—

Behind him, leaves rattled and snapped; there was a rustle, a dull thump, a stifled whimper.  Remus stopped on the threshold, and listened.  A faint sound, like a caught breath; then silence…

He turned back, brushed a hand briefly over his forehead, looked down.  It was a moment before his eyes sorted the tangle of rusty hair and dust-coated cloth slumped against his front gate into Percy again. 

‘Percy—’

The huddle of limbs tightened; Remus saw a crust of old blood on a torn stocking, a gaping rent in the sole of a shoe before Percy’s feet vanished under the hem of his robes.  He took a breath, stepped back down onto the gravel and bent to grasp Percy’s shoulders again.

‘Can you stand?  Come on.’

Cloth-muffled bones wrenched under his hands.  ‘I’m perfectly all right, thank you,’ snapped Percy, and dragged his feet under him and pushed himself upright.  He swayed; Remus closed his eyes briefly, set a hand to the dust-coated back and steered Percy carefully into the house.

‘Bath first, I think,’ he murmured.  Percy’s head swung toward the table as they passed it; he squinted warily at the litter of open books, and stumbled as Remus turned him toward the scullery door.  ‘You’ll feel better once you’re clean…’

Percy stopped on the threshold of the bathroom; Remus left him leaning on the doorjamb, and went forward, through the fall of cool light from the one, high window, to dip his fingers in the tub.  With his free hand he drew his wand, held it out over the water. 

Calefaci…’  The water stirred; warmth gathered around his fingers, pressed against his skin like sunlight.  A fine trail of steam lifted from the surface, rose and blurred into the light.  Behind him, he heard a quiet thud, a thin clatter of metal.  Wood tapped and rolled against stone; steps shuffled slowly forward.  ‘Desiste,’ said Remus to the water, and turned back to Percy.

The satchel and wand were on the floor; Percy stood with his shoulders hunched, arms pressed tight over his ribs.  Remus pushed his wand through his belt, reached out and touched one shoulder, and Percy started.  For a moment his eyes grew wide behind the filthy lenses.  Then his mouth pinched, and he turned his face away.

‘Come on,’ said Remus gently, and Percy’s face eased; after a moment, he reached up, and began to pick at the throat of his robes.  His fingers tangled on the buttons.  Remus shook his head, pushed Percy’s hands aside, unbuckled his belt and unbuttoned his robes briskly, and held his breath as he dragged the heavy cloth off over his head.  He bundled it against the wall, turned back and bent to the battered shoes and stockings.  He peeled blood-crusted cloth carefully away from one ankle; a bead of blood welled up, bright against black, and he winced.  ‘That will sting, I’m sorry,’ he said, and felt Percy flinch.  He straightened, waited; when Percy only slumped further, he shrugged and dealt briskly with the sweat-stiffened shirt and drawers as well, then set a hand between Percy’s shoulders.  Bone shifted starkly under his palm as he steered Percy into the tub.

He took his hand away. For a moment the young wizard stood calf-deep in water, a wax-pale shape against stone; then his legs trembled, and he folded into a knot of knees and elbows and sharp shoulderblades, and Remus heard a distinct sniff.  He turned aside, lifted the ewer from the cabinet top more slowly than he needed to.  The porcelain curved cool under his fingers as he turned back to the tub.

‘If you take your glasses off, I’ll scrub your hair for you.’  Percy’s head jerked up; Remus caught a bewildered glance over one shoulder, and shrugged.  ‘It’s always the hardest thing to do when you’re tired, in my experience.’

After a moment Percy turned away again.  His hands came up out of the water, pulled the battered horn frames slowly away from his face.  For a moment Remus looked down at sweat-greased skin, angry red acne scars, the stark outline of spine and ribs.  His lips tightened.  ‘When was the last time you ate properly,’ he said softly, then added ‘—March?’

Percy’s fingers closed suddenly around his glasses, and his shoulders hunched.  Remus’ brows lifted; he dipped up an ewerful of water from behind Percy’s back, and emptied it over his head—

Percy jerked upright, sputtering; he shook his head hard, indignantly, swiped at his face with one dripping hand.  Remus leaned over and snagged a flannel from the cabinet, pushed it over Percy’s shoulder.  ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.  ‘I should have warned you—’

do it myself, he heard from behind the flannel.  He bent set the ewer down on the flagstones, and reached for the soap.

‘Don’t be silly.’  As suds began to lather over his fingers, he settled himself carefully on the edge of the tub.  Breath pressed against the back of his throat; he turned his head, stifled a yawn against his shoulder. ‘You know,’ he said, and heard his voice blur wearily over the words, ‘I never thought I’d get the chance to find out how things went for any of my old students, after I—had to leave Hogwarts.’  There was a snort, muffled by flannel.  ‘Did you do as well as you hoped to, in your exams?’

After a moment, Percy came out from behind the flannel and said, ‘I got twelve NEWTs.  I came top of the year.’  The words rang thin and stiff against tin.

Remus nodded.  ‘I thought you probably would.  Well done.  Sit up—’  Water lapped around Percy’s spine as he straightened; Remus’ eyes caught on the pattern of grime-edges bones, held there as his hands began to plaster soap-suds over water-flattened hair.  ‘You wanted to go into the Ministry, didn’t you?’ he went on.  ‘Any luck there?’

Silence.  Carefully, Remus began to work the suds through Percy’s hair. 

‘I started as a clerk in the Department of International Magical Co-operation, a month after I left school.’

Remus’ breath stopped; after a moment, he raised an eyebrow.  ‘…Very good,’ he said, and scrubbed harder.  Short curls wound and clung around his fingers; he grimaced, pulled his hands free and rinsed them clean, and went back to scrubbing at soapy hair.  ‘So, you must have been working under Bartemius Crouch, until he—disappeared.  That was a bad business…did you get caught up in it at all?’

The thin shoulders hunched again, and a wave of sullen pink pushed up the bent neck.  Remus kept scrubbing, until Percy said peevishly,

‘How was I supposed to know anything was wrong?  The letters were in his handwriting, and all of his instructions made sense.  I just did my job.  From the way the investigating officials talked, you’d have thought I was responsible for the whole thing…’

Remus tilted his head.  ‘Well, you obviously convinced them otherwise eventually.  Better cover your eyes…’  He bent and snagged the ewer with one hand, filled it and carefully poured water in a thin stream over Percy’s head.  Suds trailed down the ridge of his spine to pool on top of the water, drift and pile against the wall of the tub…After a moment Percy lifted the flannel and swiped at his face, and snapped,

‘If you must know, they were going to dismiss me.’

Porcelain struck a sour note against tin; Remus winced, braced the ewer against his knee and examined its belly for cracks.  ‘That seems a little—extreme,’ he said dryly.

There was a sound like a choke.  ‘That’s—what Mr Lackey said,’ said Percy.  ‘When he came to take over the Department.  So they let me stay on—as a clerk again.  And on probation, of course.  I was very grateful—’  The prim words cracked against tin; Percy buried his face against his knees.  Remus hoisted the ewer again, tilted it over the bowed head.

‘That was kind of Mr Lackey.  Eyes,’ he murmured, and began to work the last suds out of Percy’s hair.  ‘I knew Bartemius Crouch, a little—’  The old drawl echoed against stone; he stopped, put the ewer down and pulled a towel from the cabinet before he went on.  ‘But I’ve never met this Morton Lackey.  What’s he like?’

He shook out the towel, rubbed it gently around the bent head.

‘He certainly seems to be fonder of publicity than Crouch.  I must have seen him in the Daily Prophet a score of times this year—’

There was a faint splash; the flannel floated toward the foot of the tub, a dark stain in the half-light, and thin fingers jerked the towel out of his grasp. 

‘He’s not as good a Head of Department as Mr Crouch was.  And he likes having an audience.  Thank you—’  Percy scrubbed awkwardly at his head.  Remus’ brows lifted; he sat back and stretched his shoulders, caught the towel as it slipped toward the water.

‘Can you manage from here?’

‘I’ll be fine.  Thank you.’

‘Towels and clean clothes are on the cabinet, there.  Shout if you need a hand.’  Remus pushed himself to his feet, straightened his robes and wiped his hands dry on his skirts as he headed for the door.  ‘I’ll leave breakfast on the table for you—don’t bother trying to wash up, you’d need to fetch water up from the well and you’re not up to that yet.  Oh—’  He stooped, picked up Percy’s wand and turned back.  ‘Here.  You’ll need this.’

Percy emerged from the towel with his eyes screwed into a squint, but he did not reach for the wand.

‘What?’

‘Well…’ Remus shrugged.  ‘I assumed you’d want to shave.’ 

The pale shoulders lifted sharply; Percy dragged the towel over his head again.  Then after a moment, Remus heard a stifled mutter:

‘Do you have a razor, please?’

He blinked, passed a hand briefly over his eyes.  ‘…I beg your pardon?’

Percy pulled the towel off his head, shot Remus a goaded glare.  ‘I can’t use shaving spells,’ he said stiffly.  ‘They don’t feel safe.’

‘…Oh.’  Remus dropped his hand to his mouth, waited until his lips were steady before he set Percy’s wand down on the cabinet-top, and drew his own.  ‘I see.  Ah—hold still a moment—

Abrade,’ he said, and traced the tip of his wand quickly over narrow jaw, sharp chin and upper lip.  Stiff hair riffled and fell away to tangle darkly with the floating soap-suds.  ‘There.’ 

Thin lips twitched; Percy’s hand flinched toward his face, dropped again.  ‘Thank you,’ he said tightly.

‘You’re welcome.’  Remus tucked his wand back into his belt, and turned away.  Behind him, something scraped.  Water splashed faintly, stilled; he felt a narrow stare catch between his shoulder-blades, fall away.  His mouth eased into a ghost of a smile.  He brushed strands of hair off his forehead with a damp palm, and went out without looking back, and pulled the door shut behind him.  His hand dropped to his lips; he breathed iron and the musty scent of soap, and his breath stilled in his lungs.

‘Well,’ he murmured into the scullery shadows.  ‘I wonder…My god.  Now where did I see that?’  He swung sharply around, pushed the scullery door open. 

Three steps took him to the table and its litter of books.  In the half-light print thickened to a dark scrawl; his mouth thinned, and he bent closer, shoved sliding hair quickly behind his ear.  His eye caught on a clear line; his teeth pressed against his lip, and he reached out, dragged the book out from under the Catalogue of Interdictions and tilted the page to the light.

It was a woodcut: an angular witch in a cap and long apron, mouth gaping in an unconvincing O, and above her a dark shape like an ape with wings and clutching talons, a devil out of a medieval misericorde.  His breath slipped out in a slow sigh; he nodded slowly, and the tangle of black-letter type on the facing page began to unravel under his eyes:

…the people tell of a yong Witch thatt was prentice to an old Mistris and broke from hir Indentures for thatt she was ill us’d, and thatt Flitt’d about the Contry pursu’d by a dark Creture like to hir Mistris but monstrous withal having Clawes for Fingers and an Ape’s muzzle for Mouth, and Winges like to a Batte’s, thatt design’d to carry Maid back to Mistris and service.  The Creture coming upon hir in the Night did seize hir in itts Clawes and fly’d away with hir, and return’d to the Witch itt was foule copy of, and no report of the Maid was ever heard more.

‘That’s it.’  The words whispered back to him from stone and light and parchment.  For a moment he stood, looking down at the page; then he set the book carefully back on the table and turned away to the kitchen-cupboard, looming in its dark corner.  His skirts billowed about him as he pulled the door open and crouched, and reached in to the bottom shelf.

His fingertips brushed newspaper, thin and dry; he closed his hands around the stack, and pulled it out into his lap.

//
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