The Sugar Quill
Author: Violet Azure (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy  Chapter: Chapter 2: I Lay my Trust in Others, Where it Lies the Ground is Thin
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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: I do not own the characters created by J

Disclaimer: I do not own the characters created by J.K. Rowling, nor am I making any money off of her wonderful creations.  It’s her universe; I’m just visiting.  All original characters are of my own invention and may not be used without permission of the author.

 

A/N: Thank you to the women in workshop for their comments and advice.  The title of this chapter comes from the Sarah McLachlan song Trust.

 

A/N: This chapter is dedicated to mdelaur for being such a committed reader and for helping me get my butt in gear to finish this story.  We could have really used her during the “three year summer”!  Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read and review.

 

 

Chapter 2:

I Lay my Trust in Others, Where it Lies the Ground is Thin

 

For the rest of the week Max didn’t say anything about the mystery voice on his answerphone—and Rosmerta didn’t ask.  It was easy to let the matter slide when they only saw each other a few hours in the evening and Rosmerta could barely muster the energy to kick off her shoes and change, let alone start a line of questioning she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answers to.  She had a feeling that those people who insisted on a hundred percent honesty in a relationship had found an even better form of torture than the Cruciatus Curse. 

 

Still, Rosmerta knew the odor of guilt; the way someone smelled when lies leaked out through their skin, covering a person in thin sheen of eau de deception.  Max smelled the way he always did, of fresh air, soap, cloves, and a touch of sweat, but there was an air hovering about him that was the slightest bit off, like a bottle of milk left out too long and beginning to sour. 

 

Rosmerta couldn’t dwell on the matter for any sufficient length of time thanks to her usual grueling schedule at the Three Broomsticks.  True, there was no Tri-Wizard Tournament keeping her hopping, but Rosmerta was amazed at how much time she had to put in to the tavern just to keep it functioning.  And the late nights were killing her. 

 

Saturday night was one such night.  At half past eight a party of several members of the Hogwarts staff came through the door of the tavern consisting of Madam Pomfrey, Ivy Sprout, Izzy Vector and a short, squat woman who looked vaguely familiar.  A tight-lipped Minerva McGonagall led the group of women to a table in the corner. 

 

That was odd, Rosmerta observed.  Other than Hagrid, who, Rosmerta thought with a frown, was still missing, the professors normally didn’t come to the tavern during the semester unless it was for a special occasion or if it was right before holiday.  Whatever the reason for them being there that night, Rosmerta was certain of one thing: Never had there been a person more in need of a drink than Minerva McGonagall.

 

“Evening, ladies,” Rosmerta said, coming over to their table.  “Term off to a rough start?”  She smiled at them but was met with grimaces.

 

“Oh no,” the squat woman said in a high-pitched, fluttery voice.  She giggled and out of the corner of her eye Rosmerta saw Professor McGonagall close her eyes as if taking a moment to offer up a silent plea to a higher power. 

 

“I thought a little girls night out would be a wonderful way to get to know my fellow professors!  Although,” the squat woman said with a long, drawn out sigh. “I have had to supervise detention all week, so it is lovely to finally have a night off.”  Her mouth stretched into a huge grin but her eyes darted to Professor McGonagall before focusing again on Rosmerta.  

 

Professor McGonagall’s already thin lips seemed to disappear and behind her spectacles Rosmerta could see her left eye twitching.  Izzy Vector made a face and slumped down in her seat like a child being punished at the dinner table.  Madam Pomfrey and Professor Sprout exchanged raised eyebrows.

 

“So you’re the new defense professor?”

 

“Yes.  I’m Professor Dolores Jane Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister of Magic and soon to be announced High Inquisitor of Hogwarts.  And you are…?”  She looked at Rosmerta with a slightly amused expression.

 

Rosmerta watched as the other professors exchanged confused, worried looks.  They appeared to want to ask questions, but were holding back.  “I’m Madam Rosmerta.  I own the Broomsticks now.”

 

“Oh.  I remember there was this sweet elderly couple who used to own this place when I was a student at Hogwarts.  Such charming people.  Whatever happened to them?”

 

“Well, the Pucks have been retired for a long time now.  Did you say you were High Inquisitor of Hogwarts?”  Professor Umbridge nodded with a smug grin on her face.  “Why on earth would Hogwarts need a High Inquisitor?  They have Albus Dumbledore.” Rosmerta looked around the table and apparently the professors shared the same opinion, although they seemed reluctant to voice it aloud.

 

“Well, Cornelius, I mean…the Minister,” Professor Umbridge gave a false, fluttery giggle, “decided that there needed to be some standards at Hogwarts.  What with all that’s happened there these past few years—and the death of that poor boy at the Tournament—it was high time for an independent evaluation.  The Ministry, as do I, feels it is in the best interest of the children, present and future, that a full inspection be made.  The official legislation should be passed tomorrow night.  I expect there’ll be a full write-up in Monday’s edition of the Daily Prophet,” she said, as if that settled the matter.

 

“I don’t read the Prophet anymore,” Rosmerta said, turning up her nose.  “The quality of it has gone completely down hill these past few months.  And I thought You-Know-Who was the one who killed Cedric Diggory.  If you want my opinion, the Ministry ought to spend its time investigating that.”

 

Professor Umbridge gritted her rather square teeth and tried to smile, but she wasn’t very good at hiding her annoyance.  “Well, we didn’t ask for your opinion,” she said in that same high-pitched, sickeningly sweet tone.  “Those who don’t know any better really shouldn’t listen to rumor mongering.  And I think the Ministry knows what’s it’s doing in regards to educational reform.  When it needs an opinion on Butterbeer standards, you’ll be the first to know.”

 

Rosmerta thought the top of her head was going to explode.  Before she could hex that little worm that passed for a human, Professor McGonagall cleared her throat.  “Yes, well…Rosmerta about those drinks.  I’ll have a small gillywater.”

 

“A small sherry,” Madam Pomfrey chimed in.  Ivy Sprout nodded to indicate the same for her.

 

“Goblin gin and tonic for me,” Professor Vector said.  “Small,” she hastened to add.

 

“Oooh, let’s see,” Professor Umbridge stalled.  Rosmerta waited one hand on her hip, quill poised over her pad of parchment while Professor Umbridge took her time deliberating.  “I’ll have a large Fairy Fizz, extra cherries and pineapples.  And does anyone want any snacks?”  She looked around the table. 

 

“I’m quite full from dinner,” Professor McGonagall replied.  The others nodded in agreement.

 

“And I can’t be away from the infirmary for too long,” Madam Pomfrey added.  

 

“Now, now ladies,” Professor Umbridge wagged her finger at the group.  “This is our night out.  We’ll see a menu,” she instructed Rosmerta.

 

Rosmerta nodded and headed toward the bar, fuming.  A few minutes later she returned with the drinks and several menus.  She turned to attend to other patrons, but Professor Umbridge made her stand at attention while she perused the menu and then spent time deciding whether to order a strawberry tart or a toffee trifle.  Rosmerta bit back a comment that from the looks of things, Professor Umbridge could do without either one.  She caught Professor McGonagall’s eye and it seemed as if she was thinking the same thing.  In the end, Professor Umbridge went with both and requested extra forks, “So everyone can share,” she said as if offering a great treat to the table.  Rosmerta thought this was a waste since it was highly doubtful that any of the faculty would eat from the same plate as her. 

 

Rosmerta kept an eye on the group while she worked off her anger, making her laps around the tavern, collecting empty tankards and replacing them with full ones.  Sometimes, she sighed to herself as she levitated a tray of glasses while setting down a plate of chips, I can really sympathize with that Sisyphus fellow—except Sisyphus didn’t have a bunch of warlocks trying to give his bum a squeeze while he was rolling that boulder up the hill. 

 

When she saw Professor McGonagall place her empty glass on the table and excuse herself, Rosmerta intercepted her while she was putting on her cloak. 

 

“Excuse me, Professor—”

 

Professor McGonagall shook her head.  “I apologize for Professor Umbridge’s behavior.  It was dreadful of her to speak to you like that.”

 

“Oh,” Rosmerta waved aside the comment to show that no harm had been done.  “I was going to ask about Hagrid.  Will he be back soon?  The first week of the term is already over.  I know I asked you about him last week, but I thought he might be back by now.”

 

Professor McGonagall pressed her lips together, her brow furrowed slightly.  She did the buttons up on her cloak, stalling for time.  When she slipped the last button through its loop, she fixed her sharp black eyes on Rosmerta.

 

“Hagrid is still delayed, Rosmerta.  I don’t know when he will return.  Have people been talking about his absence?” She narrowed her eyes at Rosmerta. 

 

Rosmerta had a sudden flash of profound admiration for the Weasley twins; anyone who could get up to as much mischief as they did under the eye of someone like Professor McGonagall deserved a modicum of respect.  Sweat was prickling Rosmerta’s armpits under Professor McGonagall’s gaze, even though Rosmerta knew on some level that there wasn’t anything Professor McGonagall could do to her.

 

“No, no one’s said anything about Hagrid not being around.  They know he’s a professor, so they assume he’s likely to be busy at the start of term.  It’s just that I’m taking care of Fang and…well, I don’t mind looking after Fang but I haven’t heard anything from Hagrid since the beginning of the summer.  You’d think he’d at least send an owl and tell me that he needs to extend his visit.  It’s not like Hagrid and I’m starting to get worried.”

 

“Well,” Professor McGonagall said, looking mollified with Rosmerta’s answer.  “I’m sure we would have heard if there was anything to worry about.  If Fang is becoming a burden, I’m sure we could find someone on staff to look after him.  I believe Filius is fond of dogs.”

 

Rosmerta tried to picture tiny Professor Flitwick taking Fang for a walk and a smile broke out on her face.  “That’s all right, Professor.  Max and I love having Fang around.  I just miss Hagrid.  I suppose this means he and Madam Maxime are getting along splendidly.”

 

A thin smile graced Professor McGonagall’s lips.  “I suppose so.  Good night, Rosmerta.” 

 

“Good night, Professor.  And,” Rosmerta glanced over at Professor Umbridge, “take care,” she added in a low voice.

 

A grim look came over Professor McGonagall’s face.  She nodded and then disappeared into the cool September night.

 

***

 

“I’m working late tonight,” Max said to Rosmerta’s bedroom mirror that Monday morning as he buttoned his shirt.

 

“You’re working today?” Rosmerta hoisted herself upon her elbows, struggling against the pillows.  She glanced over at him from the bed where she had been half dozing. 

 

“But you’ve stopped working Mondays; it’s our only day off together.” Rosmerta rubbed her hands over her eyes, trying to wake up.  Max looked particularly nice today and that sent a stab of worry through her heart. 

 

“You didn’t say anything last night about working today.  I thought we could go on a hike, enjoy the last of the warm weather.  I brought some of the left over roast beef home to make sandwiches…we could have ourselves a nice little picnic.”  She hugged her knees to her chest, clasping her hands around the comforter covering her lower half.

 

“I’m sorry, Ros.  We’re just incredibly swamped.”

 

“The launch?”

 

“Yes.  We want to get the new line out in time for Halloween.”

 

“That’s almost a whole two months away.”

 

“True,” Max replied, looping the ends of his tie one around the other, forming it into a knot.  

“But if the Fantastical Beast Brews are successful, we might be able to pay off our loan to Gringotts by the beginning of the year.  And since the deal with the Kestrel’s stadium fell through, we’ve had to make it up another way.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Rosmerta said in a quiet voice.  She knew she was to blame for the Kestrel deal not going through.  It had been a disaster last June; everything had come out about her past and it had caused quite the scene.

 

“It’s not your fault,” Max said over his shoulder as if he could read her thoughts.  “Our profit margin wouldn’t have been that great with them anyway.  We need to work on attracting a big client.  We have that restaurant chain in the States lined up but we’re still waiting for the importing license to go through.”

 

“But you are doing well.  So you pay off your loan a few months later than planned.  Why the rush?”

 

“Yes, but the sooner we pay it off, the sooner things will change for us.  And for the better.  I won’t have to travel so much, we can hire more employees.  The Dragon’s Breath line keeps us up and running but the new line will be the warts on the toad.  It’s all part of my master plan.  You know all this; we’ve talked about it several times.”  He checked his appearance one last time in the mirror before turning to her.

 

“Off you go, handsome!” the mirror cooed. 

 

Rosmerta glared at the mirror.  Ever since Max came along, her mirror’s compliments to her had begun dwindling and now it didn’t give her more than a perfunctionary, “You look fine, dear.  Step aside.”  Worse was that lately her mirror had taken to voicing vaguely insulting remarks, such as, “You don’t look nearly so tired after you put on a little eye makeup,” or “Blue really is your color; it makes you look young!”  Meanwhile it practically recited epic poetry in honor of Max’s earlobes. 

 

I cannot possibly be jealous of a mirror, Rosmerta told herself.  That’s ridiculous.  It’s probably grown bored after staring at me for so long.  Perhaps she should move that one to a different location.  Like the rubbish bin. 

 

“Don’t sulk,” Max cajoled, coming over to the side of the bed.  He sat down and moved a lock of hair behind her ear.  He thumb trailed down her cheek and he ran it lightly over her lips.  “Your mouth is too pretty to be all frowny like that.”  He leaned in for a kiss.

 

“It’s my mouth.  I’ll frown and sulk all I want to,” Rosmerta said in a rather petulant manner before consenting to a kiss.  She had glimpsed Max’s wrist.  He was wearing the cufflinks she had given him for his birthday last May.  Maybe he really did have to work late.

 

“Still,” she said when they broke apart, “it’s a wrench the both of us having to work so much.”

 

“Hazard of getting involved with a Slytherin,” Max gave her a crooked grin.  “You know, I bet you would have been a Slytherin if you’d gone to Hogwarts,” he said, surveying her.

 

“Ha.  Right now my only ambition is to get another hour of sleep.”  She slumped back against the pillows.

 

“All right, maybe a Hufflepuff then.  You’re hard-working, loyal—”

 

“If you’re calling me a duffer, I’m going back to bed.” Rosmerta tugged at the bedspread.

 

“You really aren’t a morning person.” Max tickled her ribs.

 

“No, I’m not,” Rosmerta half-heartedly tussled with him until she was smiling, if not exactly laughing.  If it had been a few weeks ago, her nightdress would be in a crumpled heap on the floor by now.  Instead, Max was standing up and was smoothing out the creases in his trousers.  Ever since that call on his answerphone, Max had been acting peculiar, all over her one minute, distracted the next.   Tomorrow, she told herself, I’ll ask him about it tomorrow.

 

“Come on,” Max said, dragging her out of bed.  “Let’s at least have breakfast together.  I’ll even cook.”  He took her hand and led her to the kitchen.

 

“So that means we’ll be having cornflakes?” Rosmerta said as she followed along at arm’s length.

 

“Better,” Max said over his shoulder.  “Quaffle Crunch!”

 

While Max got water for Fang and filled his food bowl, Rosmerta mixed an envelope of her daily contraception potion.  Not like I’ve needed this week, she thought at she gulped the grassy flavored potion down as quickly as possible.  Rosmerta washed out her goblet and went to the cabinet to get the bird food.

 

“Paper’s here,” Max said as the post owl tapped on the window.  “Looks like there’ve been some changes up at the school,” he said after glancing at the headline. 

 

“Mmmhmm,” Rosmerta said noncommittally from the living room as she scooped food into Queenie’s and Rosenkrantz’s trays.  “Yes, that new defense professor is doing some sort of inquiry into the educational standards at Hogwarts.  I met her Saturday night.  Pompous little gargoyle.”  Rosmerta wrinkled her nose as she came back into the kitchen where Max was pouring cereal into two bowls

 

“Yeah, Umbridge…I think I might have gone to school with her.  Breakfast is served,” he said with a flourish, placing the bowl in front of her and handing her a spoon as if it were a bouquet of flowers. 

 

“Thank you,” Rosmerta tilted her head up for a kiss.  “Pass me the Life and Leisure section, would you?”  The two of them settled behind their sections of the paper.

 

“‘Wizengamot elders Griselda Marchbanks and Tiberius Ogden have resigned in protest at the introduction of the post of Inquisitor to Hogwart’,” Max read aloud after a few minutes.  “Ogden…any relation to you?”

 

Rosmerta put the paper down and looked up, Max now having her full attention.  “That’s my uncle.  My great-uncle, actually.  He quit the Wizengamot?” 

 

“That’s what it says here.”

 

“Uncle Ty’s been on the Wizengamot for ages.  I can’t believe he quit.”

 

“Do you want to read it?” Max held the paper out to her and she took it.  While he ate his cereal and buried himself in the business section, she read the brief article about Professor Umbridge before turning to the article about Madam Marchbanks and her secret liaisons with the leaders of the last goblin rebellion.

 

“I wonder what he’s going to do now,” Rosmerta mused as she set down the paper.  “He was a barrister for years.  I know he has a house in the Bahamas; he spends a lot of time there.  Maybe he’s going to be completely retired now.”

 

“Why don’t we have him round for dinner?  I still haven’t met your family.  At least, not officially.”

 

“We’ll see,” Rosmerta said noncommittally.

 

Max shrugged and Banished his bowl to the sink.  “What are you going to do today?”

 

Rosmerta sighed.  “I don’t know.  I might try to catch the last day of that sale at Madame Malkin’s.  How about I pop by for lunch?” She smiled over at him.

 

“Can’t.  We have a meeting set during lunch.” He stood up and dropped a kiss on the top of her head.  “I’ll see you later tonight.” He rubbed Fang behind the ears and headed out.  Rosmerta stared at the door for a long time after he left.

 

***

 

“Max is working late tonight,” Rosmerta said while she and Maddie picked at custard tarts in Thyme and Honey, the teashop they frequented after their weekly banking trip to Gringotts.  “Do you want to come over for dinner?  I’ll make roast chicken and apple crumble and we can listen to The Warty and the Wicked on the WWN.” 

 

“Oh…” Maddie lifted her cup of tea, stalling for time.  “I’m sorry, love.  I have plans for tonight.” 

 

“That’s all right,” Rosmerta said with a smile, masking her disappointment.  Had she grown so used to the company of others that she didn’t know how to be alone anymore?  “New fellow?” Rosmerta asked with a grin. 

 

“You could say that,” Maddie said evenly. 

 

Rosmerta paused and glanced at Maddie over the rim of her teacup.  Usually when Maddie took up with a fellow she passed along the graphic details whether or not Rosmerta wanted to hear them.  She also hadn’t eaten more than two bites of her custard tart.  From all the years she had known Maddie, few things were able to interfere with her friend’s appetite and a new trysting partner wasn’t one of them.  Come to think of it, Maddie had been acting odd for the past month or so, as if she was afraid of being caught in some sort of compromising position.  Rosmerta knew Maddie had her secrets, but she couldn’t help but feel left out.  It seemed as if the two of them never spent any time together anymore and she wondered if Maddie was being obtuse on purpose as a way of getting back at her for spending so much time with Max.

 

“Well, whoever he is, I hope you have a good time tonight.” Rosmerta smiled brightly.  “Perhaps we can all go out some time.  Maybe brunch next Sunday or something.”

 

Maddie gave her a tight smile.  “Or something.”

 

***

 

After she and Rosmerta parted ways, Maddie stood in the parlor of Lorelei’s Layer at exactly quarter to seven.  Her posture was erect and she restrained herself from tapping a foot as she waited for the others to join her.  Smoothing down the skirts of her dark green velvet robes, she wondered for the hundredth time if she was overdressed.  She checked her appearance one last time in her compact’s mirror, wishing her lipstick didn’t look so red.  She took a deep breath and tried to gather her confidence as she blotted her make-up with a handkerchief. 

 

You know most of the folks that are going to be there, she told herself.  It’s not as if you’re off to meet the queen or Louis B. Mayer.  Not a reason in the world why you need to get yourself all fussed up over a little meeting. 

 

“About time,” she said, snapping the compact shut and tucking her handkerchief in her sleeve, as Isis, Selena, and Rose descended the staircase. 

 

Isis inclined her head in an apology but Rose barely contained a snort.  Selena’s vaguely aloof expression didn’t change much. 

 

Maddie bit her tongue as she checked over their outfits.  Isis looked appropriate in plain brown robes but Rose and Selena had either ignored her instructions to dress modestly or they just didn’t have anything fitting the description.  Rose was in violet robes with a plunging neckline, showing off her impressive cleavage.  Selena wore robes in shades of green, blue and white, artfully torn so that the sleeves and hem fluttered, giving the impression that she was rising from the ocean’s surf.  It was too late to send them back upstairs to change so Maddie resigned herself to the fact that there was no use fretting about it.

 

Maddie reached into her pouch and pulled out the piece of paper with Dumbledore’s loopy script.  She glanced at the instructions before folding it in half.  She looked over the small group, her expression dead serious.  “I just want to remind you one last time of the commitment you’re making by agreeing to go to this meeting.  Isis, Rose, you know how it was in the old days.”  Both women nodded, their mouths set in grim lines of remembrance of unpleasantries past. 

 

“But,” Maddie continued, “the stakes are even higher now that we’ve been asked to be full members.  Once we do this, there’s no backing out,” Maddie said in a low voice.  “And we must keep it absolutely secret.  I know that’s not easy to do around here but our lives and the lives of others are on the line.  Are we perfectly clear?”

 

Rose and Isis both answered with a determined, “Yes,” but there was a glint of excitement in Selena’s eyes as she concurred with the others.

 

“All right, ladies.  Take a look at this and memorize it.  We’ll Apparate to these coordinates in London and then…well, I guess we’ll see.”

 

“I don’t understand—” Rose began but Maddie cut her off.

 

“Think about the address and when we get outside, it’ll make sense.  I’ll go first.” 

 

Rose gave her a doubtful look, but then she shrugged and returned her gaze to the parchment.  She stared at it so hard her eyes were nearly crossed.

 

The four of them managed to Apparate into an alley and after a few minutes of searching they found Grimmauld Place.  They walked down the street, peering at numbers on the run down houses.

 

“Eight…ten… that should be it there,” Rose said, walking past number eleven where music was issuing at a loud volume.  “I don’t see it.  The next house is thirteen.  We’re lost, aren’t we?  Should we go ask someone?”

 

“No.  Let’s see,” Maddie said, fumbling for the parchment with the directions on it.  She called the others over to it.  They peered over her shoulder.  Maddie scanned the parchment and when she reached the part about number twelve Grimmauld Place, the space between numbers eleven and thirteen began to swell until a house stood there. 

 

“Well I’ll be a horny toad.  How ‘bout that?” Rose whistled.

 

“Let’s go.” Maddie marched up to the front door as the other three followed her.  She ignored the knocker in the shape of a silver serpent and tapped on the door with her wand.  They waited; the only sound was the thumping and booming of the music from number eleven.  There was a shout and then a glass beer bottle shattered on the street.  All four of them jumped and backed away from the door, which was now issuing a series of clicks.

 

“Come in, come in,” a young, gray haired man whispered urgently, waving them inside.  Maddie recognized him as the Defense professor from two years ago, but she couldn’t remember his name.

 

It was as if a bouquet of flowers had been brought into a funeral parlor as the four of them scurried into the house.  Maddie squinted, her eyes adjusting to the gloom.  Rose was looking around when she bumped into an umbrella stand, knocking it over.

 

“Smut!  Filthy whores!  Foul demons of lust and sin!  Be gone from this house!  How dare you pollute the halls of my illustrious ancestors?  Disease-ridden trollops!”  

 

Maddie looked wildly around the hall until she saw a portrait of a mad-looking old woman, pointing an accusing finger at the group.

 

“Madam,” Rose snarled, marching right up to the painting.  “With all due respect to you an’ all your illustrated ancestors. Up.  Yours.”  She held up two fingers directly in front of the portrait’s face.  

 

For the first time in her life, Vega Black was silenced.  She sat there with her mouth open, staring at Rose.  The man took advantage of the silence by seizing one end of the heavy drapes and trying to close them shut before the portrait regained her voice. 

 

From the top of the stairs, Sirius Black burst out laughing. 

 

“I think you’re the first person in the history of the world to get my mother to shut up.  You’re my type of girl,” Sirius said, bounding down the stairs and giving Remus a hand with the drapes.

 

“Sirius Black!” Rose wheeled around her wand pointed at Sirius.  “It’s a trap!  ExpellusExpelmus”

 

Expelliarmus,” Sirius replied in a bored voice, sounding like a teacher supplying the right answer for a struggling pupil who really ought to know the answer.  He caught her wand as Rose continued to stare open-mouthed at him.  “You really ought to practice your disarming spells if you’re going to be a member of the Order of the Phoenix.” He handed Rose back her wand while she gaped at him.

 

“I must apologize for Rose’s outburst,” Maddie said, a sinking feeling in her stomach that her first impression on the Order was going less than stellar.  “She shouldn’t have insulted your mother’s portrait like that.”  Maddie glanced over at Rose who was too busy eyeing Sirius.  “Rose,” Maddie urged in a low voice.  Rose continued to stare at Sirius, her wand pointed in a less than friendly manner.  “Apologize,” Maddie hissed.

 

“What?  No!  That dried up old harpy called us…” Rose trailed off when she saw that the expression on Maddie’s face was fiercer than a dragon with a bad case of scale rot.

 

“Um, sorry,” Rose muttered. 

 

“’S’alright.  Mum goes off every time someone comes in.  It’s like having the world’s most annoying guard dog.”  He shrugged and righted the overturned umbrella stand.

 

“Did’ya know ‘bout him?” Rose jerked her head in Sirius’s direction.

 

“Yes, Professor Dumbledore briefly explained Mr. Black’s case to me.  I wasn’t sure if he was going to be here, but I would have told you if you had given me a minute instead of insulting portraits and throwing spells around.”

 

“I’m always here,” Sirius replied with a twisted smile.  “I guess I don’t have to introduce myself,” he drawled.  Isis stepped closer to Maddie, her hand on the butt of her wand.  Selena was more interested in the man standing next to Sirius.

 

“I’m Remus Lupin.  I believe I’ve met most of you before,” Remus held out his hand.

 

“Oooh!  Yes!” Rose exclaimed.  “I remember you!”

 

“Oh really?” Sirius muttered out the side of his mouth, smirk on his face.  “Regular customer at Lorelei’s Lair, are you Moony?” Remus ignored Sirius and smiled at Rose.

 

“You’re that professors that gave us them lessons when all the Dementors were in the village.  You were with that short, cheerful fella.  Watch!  I can still do it!” Rose squeezed her face into a form of intense concentration.  Expectum—no.” She swore and screwed up her face.  “Ummmm—don’t tell me!” she snapped at Remus, who had started to open his mouth.  Expecto Patronus!”  A small cloud of silver vapor formed. 

 

“That’s very good,” Remus said, but Rose interrupted him.

 

“That was crap.  Hold your hippogriffs.  I can do it.”  She repeated the words a few more times and on the fourth try, a silver tarantula came out of her wand.  

 

“Well done!” Remus enthused.

 

“Yeah,” Rose said noncommittally as her Patronus crawled across the floor and then vanished.  “I just don’t understand why it has to be a great big ugly spider.  I’ve half a mind to try and flatten it with a newspaper.”  She put her hands on her hips and glared at the spot where her Patronus had been before tossing off a short laugh.  “How come you don’t teach at Hogwarts anymore?”

 

“It’s a long story,” Remus said in a tone that indicated he was in no mood to start telling the tale.

 

“Wait a minute,” Rose said, ignoring the warning look from Maddie.  “Were you the—”

“Thank you, Rose,” Maddie interjected.  “That’ll do.”

 

“Yes, he’s the werewolf that got fired.”  Everyone turned to looks at Selena, who had spoken for the first time, a slightly amused expression on her face.  Sirius glared at her and gripped his wand. 

 

“That is correct.”  Remus gave a restrained nod while maintaining an air of cool dignity.

 

“Pity,” Selena continued, her bemused expression strained as if she was trying to stay cheerful while fighting off a headache.  “You were obviously a good teacher if you got Rose to produce a Patronus.”

 

“Hey!  Watch your mouth you waterlogged slut!”

 

“Rose!” Maddie hissed.  “Language!  Gentlemen, I’m terribly sorry for all this.”

 

“What she means is that I’m a lorelei,” Selena continued, ignoring Rose’s insult and Maddie’s apology.  “We get all sorts at the Lair—and I don’t mean just the employees.  So you see, your being a werewolf is not something that will shock us.  And now that we’ve all been introduced to one another, may I have a word with Professor Lupin in private?”

 

Sirius looked like he was about to protest, but Remus nodded.  “We can talk in here,” he said, indicating a small room off of the entranceway.

 

Maddie and Sirius watched them go, neither one looking particularly happy. 

 

“Come on,” Sirius said gruffly after a minute, shoving his hair out of his eyes.  “I’ll show you where the meeting is going to be held.” He turned on his heel and stalked down the hallway.  Maddie, Rose and Isis followed.

 

“Look,” Selena said, dropping her blasé attitude when she and Remus were out of earshot.  Her voice was like waves crashing over rocks.  She looked as if she was restraining herself from committing either an act of violence or an act of passion.  “From what I’ve heard from Miss Maddie, we’re going to be working together but for right now I can barely stand to be in the same room with you.”

 

“Understood,” Remus said in a low voice.  “I suppose over time we’ll get used to each other.  Just like cats and dogs manage to get along, like Crookshanks and Padfoot.  It’s probably bad now because we’re close to a full moon.”

 

“That must be it.  I hear one of the Order members is a part veela,” she said, changing the subject.

 

“Yes, Fleur Delacor.  She’s from France, Beauxbatons.  Nice girl, talented.  Works for Gringotts now.”

 

“How lovely,” Selena cooed.  “I bet the two of us will get on famously.”

 

“Just stay away from Bill Weasley and I’m sure you and Fleur will become fast friends.”  Remus gave her a half-grin.

 

Selena smiled, showing teeth that were slightly smaller and more pointed than the average human’s.  “I’ll head your advice.  What are you going to do when the vampires start meeting with us?”

 

Remus shrugged and held up his hands.  “Work it out somehow.  Besides, it’s really only the very old vampires whose blood boils—pardon the expression—when they’re around werewolves.  One doesn’t encounter lorelei too often, at least not one who is nearly a full blood.”

 

“Yes,” she replied.  “Most of us have had several generations of dilution before we go out in the world.  It’s funny,” she mused, “so many of the girls at Miss Maddie’s have magical being or beast blood in them, and yet we all manage to get along.  No werewolves though, but I heard there used to be one a long time ago.” 

 

“Really?” Remus asked with interest.

 

“Yes.  She hung herself, though.  Pity,” Selena replied, not sounding particularly sympathetic.

 

Remus shifted uncomfortably, at a loss for words.

 

“It’s fascinating, isn’t it?” Selena mused.  “Werewolves are completely cast out by wizarding society and yet they’re one of the most powerful of the magical beasts in their transformed state.  Why, if I was bathing in a lake on the full moon, you’re the only one I’d be no match for.  You’d rip out my throat without a second thought.” She gave Remus one of her predatory smiles, as if she found the idea of being mauled by a werewolf strangely erotic. 

 

Remus stood rooted in place, the blood draining from his face.  “I don’t think this is an appropriate conversation.  We really ought to get seats for the meeting.”  He glanced toward the door, but appeared unable to move.

 

“There’s a room at the Lair with a giant tub,” Selena continued, inching closer, her voice lowering, the words tumbling out at an urgent pace.  “It’s not used very often but once in a while there’s a customer who wants the illicit thrill of going for a little swim with me.   Sometimes when I feel the water all cool and lovely on my skin, I just want to drag them under the surface, wrap my fingers around their necks and feel the muscles writhe and thrash under my hands until they are completely still.” 

 

Remus stared at her as if he was about to be sick.  “Why are you telling me this?” he whispered.

 

“No offence or anything.  I just want you to understand my nature—and I want you to know that I understand yours.”  Selena placed her hand on Remus’s arm but he shook it off immediately.

 

“You know nothing about me or my nature.”  Remus bristled with anger, his whole body like branch bent to a point where it was about to snap.

 

“You’ve never killed anyone, I can tell.  I haven’t either but I bet you know how it feels, that urge.  That itch that’s just begging to be scratched.  It’s very tempting to act on it, isn’t it?  Although, I hear you can drink something that crushes that compulsion.  Lucky you, eh?  It’s interesting how some of use can’t stop until we’ve made a kill.  I suppose it makes sense.  Can you imagine a vampire troll or a werewolf-goblin hybrid?  Wouldn’t that be peculiar?”  Selena laughed.  Remus stared at her as if she was quite mad.  She eased herself back so that there was some distance between them.

 

“You did very well,” Selena cooed.  “Much better than I would have.  I really thought you were going to strike me, but you have a lot of self-control.  I admire that.  If I’m going to work with you, I had to know how far I could push you.  I had to see if you’d be able to concentrate around me.  I bet I could have gone a little further, couldn’t I have?”

 

Remus rounded on her, no longer looking tired and haggard but full of righteous anger.  “Your behavior is deplorable.  I can tolerate a lot of rubbish, but I will not stand for these childish mind games.  There are too many things at stake, so if you are incapable of behaving like an adult or if you do something to jeopardize this assignment, I will not hesitate to take you out of commission.” He stared at her, unflinchingly.

 

Selena looked unconcerned.  “You’ll forgive me.” She rubbed her temples and grimaced, “I’d better move.  See you in the living room.” She took a deep, shuddering breath and then glided away, leaving Remus limp as a wrung out rag and as tense as a canary in a house full of cats.

 

Meanwhile, Sirius had started to usher Maddie, Isis and Rose into the living room when a tapping came on the door.  Sirius undid the series of complicated locks and Alastor Moody limped into the hallway.  Before Mrs. Black could start ranting, Moody Stunned the portrait and continued to limp along as if nothing had happened.

 

“Isis, Rose, go with Mr. Black and take your seats for the meeting.”  Maddie nudged them along and they trailed after Sirius.  “I’ll be there in a minute.”

 

“You can sit anywhere,” Sirius said, waving his hand around the room while the women glanced around.  He didn’t bother introducing them to anyone.

 

“Well, look who’s here,” Moody thumped over to Maddie.  He halted a few feet from her.  “How lovely to see a gentle lady of your fair disposition joining us.”  His magical eye whizzed up and down her body as his right hand inched toward his wand.

 

Maddie rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips.  “Alastor, drop the inquisition.  You know I’m no lady…but it is sweet of you to say so.  And stop trying to get a glimpse of my knickers with that thing.”

 

“Yeah, it’s definitely you,” Moody nodded approvingly.  “And don’t worry—I won’t tell anyone about those great big bloomers you’re wearing.”

 

Maddie laughed as Moody thumped a few steps closer.  He took her hand and clasped it briefly before he drew back and gave her an appraising look.  “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?  What’s it been, Maddie, fourteen years?  You haven’t changed a bit.”

 

“Oh, go on, Alastor,” Maddie purred.  “You’re the one who gets more handsome every time I see you.”

 

Moody let out a snort of laughter.  “Liar,” he muttered, his mouth twisting into what passed for a grin.

 

“How are you, really?”  Maddie asked in a low voice, placing her hand on Moody’s arm.  “I heard about what happened last year.  I could hex myself for not saying anything to Dumbledore.  I should have known something was wrong when you didn’t come for a drink at the Lair.  I thought it was because you were a professor and didn’t think it was appropriate to be seen there.  I’m so sorry, Alastor.”

 

“Don’t mention it,” Moody growled.  “Bastard even fooled Dumbledore.” Moody’s face darkened before it softened slightly.  “And I’m never too good for a visit at the Lair,” he added.  “‘Course I bring my own drink,” he patted the flask at his hip.

 

“Well, from the frequency of your visits I wouldn’t know it.”

 

“One can’t be too careful going out in public.  Besides, I’ve been enjoying a quiet retirement.  Been doing a bit of bird watching.”

 

“Really?” Maddie linked her arm through Moody’s arm that wasn’t on his cane.  “Do tell.  Have you spotted a Jabbernoll yet?” she asked as the two of them entered the living room where a pile of old clothes was emitting a stream of smoke.

 

“Mundungas Fletcher,” Maddie drawled, putting her free hand on her hip.  “Is the Order so hard up for member that they let the likes of you in it?” she teased.

 

“Miss Maddie!” Dung cried out.  He got to his feet and shuffled over, arms outstretched.

 

“It’s good ter see ya!” Dung cried, seizing her hand between his two and pumping it as if he was trying to get water out of a well.  “And may I add how lovely yer lookin’ this evenin’?”  Moody rolled his eyes.

 

“You can try charming me all you want, Dung, but until you make a dent in that tab of yours, you’re still banned.  And for the love of Merlin, stop selling Gloria’s hair.  At the rate she’s going she’ll be bald soon.  And by the way, she’s not really part banshee, so you can stop scamming whoever you’re selling it to.”  

 

“Well that is brand new information!” Dung cried.  “I thought she was pure banshee an’ I was jus’ helpin’ out a friend who dabbles a bit in potions, jus’ a hobby o’his...but never mind that.  We’re both members of the Order now!  Partners, you would say.  What’s a little gold between friends when we’re working for the greater good of wizarding kind?  Besides, I know of a shipment of fine silk robes that I’d sell to your girls for a hefty discount.”

 

Moody fixed his eyes at Dung, his stare boring into him.  “And just where would you be getting these ‘fine silk robes’, eh?”  His magical eye whizzed back and forth between Dung and Maddie.

 

“Dung!” Maddie exclaimed in a scandalized tone.  “How many times do I have to tell you that neither myself nor my employees are interested in your ill-gotten goods?  You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”  Maddie turned to Moody and placed a hand on his arm.  “Would you excuse us, Alastor?” 

 

“So you can discuss stolen robes?  I think I’d rather stay here and listen to that conversation, maybe see if Tonks and Shacklebolt want to join us,” Moody growled.

 

“We’re not discussing anything of the sort, Alastor,” Maddie purred.  “I need to have a word with Dung about some payment that is long overdue.  I don’t know if an Auror would be interested in hearing about the boring details of outstanding debts, but if you are, please stick around.  I could use a witness.  Or some help turning him upside down and shaking the gold out of him.”

 

“No, I’ll leave you to it then,” Moody said, although he looked reluctant to go. 

 

“Be a love and save me a seat next to you.” Maddie smiled at him and fluttered her eyelashes at him enough to give him pause but not enough to make Moody suspicious of why anyone would blatantly flirt with him.

 

Moody eyed them sternly one last time before he nodded and thumped off, throwing looks over his shoulder at Dung until he was on the other side of the room.

 

“I believe you owe me twenty-five Galleons.” Maddie crossed her arms over her ample bosom and cocked her head, the ostrich feathers on her hat fluttering.

“Aw, come on now, Miss Maddie.”  Dung gave her his best attempt to look bereft and puffed on his pipe like he was an infant sucking at a bottle.

 

“If you don’t like it, you can drink somewhere else.”

 

“You know Aberforth is still steamin’ after our disagreement.  An’ the Leaky Cauldron is no good for conducting business.”

 

“Why don’t you go to the Three Broomsticks?”

 

“‘Cause Madam Rosmerta makes me pay after each round,” Dung responded glumly.  “Worse than a goblin she is.”

 

Maddie laughed.  “Smart woman.”  She continued to stare at Dung.

 

“Fine,” Dung grumbled, pulling out a grubby little pouch and counting out five Galleons.  “Lucky I just had me a business deal go through.  Can’ believe you’d snatch the bread outta an old friend’s mouth.”  He cast his hangdog eyes at her.

 

Maddie snorted.  “By the looks of things, you’ve been eating just fine,” she said, poking his belly.  “And if you outfit my girls for free, I’ll forgive the rest of your tab,” she added in a hurried whisper.  “Thank you, Dung,” Maddie said a bit more loudly, dropping the coins into her pouch.  “You’re allowed back on the premises, but I suggest you settle your account in full with me as soon as possible.” She nodded at him and then sashayed off to a seat beside Moody.  A few people eyed her but made no motion to introduce themselves.

 

When every seat and spot on the sofa and loveseats had been occupied Dumbledore strode into the living room at the stroke of seven.  “Is everyone here?” he asked. 

 

“Yes,” Remus said.  “Hestia has a late meeting at St. Mungo’s but just about everyone else is here, except—”

 

“Minerva and Severus will not be joining us tonight.  I will inform them of the goings on of this meeting later.  Given the new changes at the school, it is not prudent to have too many staff members absent at one time.  And now I would like to welcome several new members of the Order.  This is Tiberius Ogden.  Some of you may have heard of him through his many years on the Wizengamot or through his reputation as a champion gobstone player.”  Dumbledore nodded to a man seated to his left. 

 

Ogden, Maddie thought, wonder if he’s related to Rosmerta?  Maddie leaned over a bit to get a better look at the man. 

 

Tiberius Ogden looked as if he was vying for Witch Weekly’s Best Dressed Wizard Award now that Gilderoy Lockhart was out of contention.  He wore a gray pinstriped suit with a pink handkerchief in his breast pocket and matching pink socks.  The pink was bright enough to be shocking but screeched short of garish.  Draped around his shoulders like an exquisite Persian cat was a thick gray cloak that looked as if it was begging to be stroked.  His bowler hat was trimmed with a band of lavender around the middle that somehow complimented the pink in his handkerchief.  He had a neatly trimmed white moustache and thick white hair that tumbled to his shoulders.  His skin was the healthy tanned color of the sort of person who used the words ‘winter’ and ‘summer’ as verbs.

 

“Delighted to meet everyone’s acquaintance,” Tiberius said in a pleasant tone as if they had all gathered for brandies and cigars.

 

“And may I also introduce Miss Madeline Harrison, proprietress of Lorelei’s Layer in Hogsmeade, and her employees, Rose, Isis and Selena.”  Dumbledore nodded to each woman in turn.  Maddie took a deep breath in through her nostrils and plastered a smile on her face.  There was a buzz around the living room.  A woman about her age with red hair similar to hers (although Maddie suspected the woman’s hair color was natural) scowled at her from across the room.  Dumbledore cleared his throat and continued talking.

 

“Miss Maddie, her employees and Remus, along with a colleague who will be arriving from the United States next week, will be working on recruiting vampires.  We’ll have a more detailed report in the weeks to come.  And,” Dumbledore said with a heavy sigh, “I’m sure we’ve all heard the sad news regarding Sturgis Podmore.”

 

“How did it happen?” someone asked.

 

“Lucius Malfoy was at the Ministry and put Sturgis under Imperius.  When the night guard discovered them, Lucius hid under the Invisibility Cloak and Sturgis was left to take the fall.  Rather than betray the Order, Sturgis agreed to take the six months in Azkaban.” 

 

“Death Eater scum,” Moody interrupted with a growl.  Mattie glanced out of the corner of her eye to see Moody was gripping his cane so hard that his knuckles had turned white.  She also noticed that a dark look settled over Sirius as well. 

 

Maddie felt as if her stomach had turned inside out.  Six months in Azkaban for trespassing at the Ministry of Magic?  Even though she knew that she was getting into something dangerous, it hadn’t seemed real until that very moment.  As if reading her thoughts, Dumbledore continued to speak.

 

“I want to impress on you all again the dangers we face and that our mission is not one to be entered into lightly.  At some time, all of you will be called upon to make great sacrifices for our cause.”  Dumbledore’s gaze traveled over the room as if he was seeing into the hearts and minds of everyone there. 

 

The rest of the meeting continued with a report from Bill Weasley about the goblins, details from the surveillances on the activities of known Death Eaters, and some debate about what to do now that they were down one Invisibility Cloak (Tiberius Ogden volunteered to buy one, so that matter was settled rather quickly).  By the time they got to a report written by Charlie Weasley about an update on the whereabouts of someone named Karkaroff, Maddie’s head was spinning.  She also noticed that most everyone was making notes on parchment, but she hadn’t brought any.  She made a mental note to bring some for the next time.

 

After nearly an hour and a half, Dumbledore called the meeting to a close.  “Anyone who wishes to stay for tea is welcome to do so and I highly encourage it.  From what I hear, Molly has made a splendid sponge cake,” Dumbledore smiled at the red-haired woman who gave him a tight smile in return and nodded.  “Those of you who are unable to stay, please stagger your exits so as not to arouse suspicion of the Muggles in the neighborhood, although I think those at number eleven are rather preoccupied with their music.” Dumbledore chuckled and then went over to speak to Tiberius Ogden.

 

Maddie watched Molly and a young girl with bright green hair head down to the hall, presumably to the kitchen.  “Excuse me, Alastor,” Maddie said, getting to her feet.  Moody nodded and turned to converse with Bill Weasley. 

 

“Ladies,” Maddie said briskly, crossing over to where the girls were sitting.  “Why don’t we go help Mrs. Weasley and introduce ourselves?”

 

“Do we hafta?” Rose whined. 

 

“Yes.  Mr. Black,” Maddie said, touching Sirius on the sleeve of his robe.

 

“Please, call me Sirius.”

 

“Sirius, dear, could you please point me in the direction of the kitchen?”

 

“Down the hall and to your left.  Follow the stairs to the basement.”  Sirius turned and continued his conversation with Remus.

 

“Thank you.  Come on.” Maddie marched down the hallway and headed down the stairs, the girls reluctantly following.  Loud, angry voices rang up from the kitchen and Maddie listened at the foot of the stairs. 

 

“I don’t know what Dumbledore is thinking,” Molly fumed, hacking at the cake and plopping pieces onto dessert plates.  “I don’t understand why he let that—that woman and her “girls” into the Order!  This is not a rest home for trollops!” 

 

“I dunno.  She helped out the Order last time You-Know-Who was around.  I heard from Mad-Eye that she’s quite brilliant at getting information,” the girl added.

 

“Oh, he would think so, wouldn’t he?”  There was some muttering Maddie couldn’t understand but she caught the words “men”, “wands” and “thinking” and then there was a loud clatter as the cake pan crashed into the sink.  “We don’t need those—those harlots in the Order.  I mean…convicts, Dung and his stolen cauldrons, giants, vampires, Sturgis going to Azkaban—it’s too much!  And now those hanky-panky girls?  It’s a disgrace.”

 

“The hanky-panky girls?  That sounds like a good name for a band.  I’ll have to run it by my piano player, but I do think it’s quite fitting.  I came to see if you need any help.”

 

Molly turned around to find Maddie in the kitchen’s doorway, her voice cool and her arms crossed over her chest.  Selena, Rose and Isis surrounded her, wearing their defiant expressions as if they were the finest strands of pearls. 

 

“I think we can manage,” Molly replied, the faintest kiss of red coloring her cheeks that indicated that she was embarrassed at having her comment overheard, but not embarrassed for having said what she did. 

 

“As you wish.”  Maddie nodded and the four of them turned to mount the staircase.

 

“I’m Tonks by the way,” the girl blurted out.  She took a few steps over to them, banging her hip on a chair as she did so.  “I’m an Auror.  I work with Kingsley.”  She held out her hand.  Maddie noticed that she was wearing bright pink nail varnish.

 

“Madeline Harrison, but everyone calls me Maddie.  This is Isis, Rose and Selena.”  Hands were shook.  They stood awkwardly in front of the staircase until Molly cleared her throat in a rather impatient manner.  She was levitating several trays.

 

“Tonks, please bring up the tray with the silverware and cups.  Excuse me,” Molly said in an icy voice as she maneuvered past Maddie and up the stairs.

 

Tonks followed behind with the tray.  She started to say something that might have been an apology, but instead she ducked her head as if embarrassed and clumped up the stairs.

 

Now can we go?”  Rose asked.  “We’re not wanted here,” she said in a lower voice.

 

“We can leave,” Maddie replied in a weary tone.  “I suspect people will warm up in their own time,” she said in a brighter tone.

 

Rose snorted.  “Fat chance,” she muttered slinking up the stairs.

 

Maddie ducked into the living room to give a brief wave of good-bye to Moody.  Just as they were about to open the front door, they heard a voice. 

 

“Ah, Maddie.  Just the person I wanted to talk to.”

 

“What can I do for you, Professor Dumbledore?”  Maddie lifted her chin up and tried to smile.

 

“Thank you all for coming tonight,” Dumbledore looked at the entire group.  “I know you all were rather thrown into the middle of things and there was not much time for social niceties.”

 

“We understand,” Maddie said politely. 

 

Dumbledore didn’t say anything for a minute.  It was as if he was taking a moment to assess her.  “Have you had a chance to talk with Remus Lupin?”

 

“Yes, we all spoke with him earlier.  He’s a lovely man,” Maddie replied.

 

“Good,” Dumbledore nodded approvingly.  “Diana Waxwaine will be arriving from the States on Sunday.  Selena, you will be working closely with her and Remus.  Diane’s a non-human rights barrister, specializes in vampire law.  Pioneered a lot of legislature in the States.  They have a rather large vampire population and, unfortunately, relations between vampires and wizards in the States are acrimonious at best.”  Dumbledore shook his head, a sad expression on his face.

 

“I understand,” Selena said with the tone of someone who just wasn’t paying lip service but who spoke from experience.  “How am I to help her?”

 

“Your role will mostly be that of a liaison, a representative if you will.  Your presence at talks will go a long way to ensuring our sincerity and our message of co-operation with all magical beings who wish to stand against Lord Voldemort.”  Dumbledore ignored the shudder that went through the group.

 

“Can you come again Sunday evening around six?  It’ll be a much smaller meeting.  We can begin mapping out our strategy.”

 

“We’ll be there,” Maddie said, fierce determination etched on her face. 

 

***

 

After Flooing the Lair one last time at eight to find that Maddie was still out for the evening, Rosmerta settled herself on the couch with the latest issue of Witch Weekly and the Wireless on in the background.  She was only half-listening to the plot of The Warty and the Wicked when she heard a small pop! outside her front door.  Instantly, muscles she didn’t know she had been clenching relaxed.  She set aside the magazine and rose from the couch, making her way to the front door as Max was stepping through it.  Fang twined around their knees, whining and competing with her for Max’s attention.

 

She embraced him as if he had been gone for a week.  He returned the hug half heartedly, barely gripping her shoulder.  He took off his cloak and hat and hung them up in the closet.

 

“Are you hungry?” Rosmerta asked his back.  “There’s some chicken and mash.  I can warm it up in a second.”

 

“I’m not that hungry.  I think I’m just going to wash up.” Max ran a hand through his hair and Rosmerta caught it.  The scent of dying flowers.  He sidestepped her and went into the bathroom, not meeting her eyes. 

 

“How was work?” Rosmerta asked from the couch when Max emerged from the bathroom, his hair still damp from the shower.  She observed the wet strands plastered to his head.  He needed a haircut.

 

He grunted like someone who had just found out he had been very, very wrong after insisting earlier that he had been right on some point of argument.  He stepped over the outstretched form of Fang on the floor and settled on the couch, putting his arm around her, drawing her to his chest.  His arm remained firmly across her torso, like he was afraid she’d slip away if his arm weren’t there to prevent it.

 

After deliberating on it in silence for nearly twenty minutes, he answered her question.  “I wasn’t at work tonight.”

 

“I know.”  Rosmerta was surprised at how calm she was.  She always thought that if she found herself in this position again she would explode like a box of fireworks.  For the first time Rosmerta understood why her mother put up with the things her father did.  Faced with a choice between losing Max and learning to compromise some part of herself, she was alarmed at how easily she was willing to bargain a piece of her soul if it meant keeping a part of him.  Ares hadn’t been worth it nor had Darren.  She hadn’t even swallowed her pride when faced with losing her family.  But now she was already rooting around in her heart, trying to find room for forgiveness.  Her head was shocked at this reaction.  It was as if she learned she was capable of doing something she never thought she could do.  And once she crossed that line she thought she’d never cross, what other ones would she be able to trespass? 

 

Rosmerta felt an uneasy kinship with the sort of people who did awful things in the name of some ideal.  Love, like pride, was just another abstract ideal and just as stubborn pride could be someone’s ruin, so it seemed that love would be her undoing.  Those people who used the Unforgivable Curses to achieve their ends—was this how it began, with a series of small barters with the devil?  Was the road to hell paved not with good intentions, but with selfish justifications?

 

“You knew?”  Max lifted his arm off of her.  She tilted her head to see him brushing back his wet hair with his hand.  A few droplets of water trickled down the side of his face.

 

“Mmmhmm.  You’re a terrible liar.  Smooth talker, yes.  You could charm the gold from a goblin’s hand.  But a terrible liar nonetheless.”  Rosmerta sighed and turned her gaze away from his, feeling the scratch of his cotton t-shirt against her cheek.  “So are you going to tell me where you went, or am I better off not knowing?” 

 

Max’s arm came down on her again, hugging her.  “I went to see Alice.  That was her on my answerphone last week.”

 

“I suspected as much.” Rosmerta tried to keep her voice from cracking.  “How was it?”

 

Max leaned his head back staring at the ceiling.  “I don’t want to talk about it.”  He was silent for a long time and looked deeply troubled. 

 

Rosmerta wasn’t sure if Max’s answer meant good news or bad.  That night in bed he reached for her but made no move other than to keep his arm firmly around her waist, anchoring her in place.  As the two of them lay quietly in the darkness, Rosmerta realized that for the first time in months, Max hadn’t kissed her goodnight.  With her free hand, Rosmerta gripped the star charm that he had given her a few months ago for her birthday.  A wishing star, he called it as he fastened the clasp at the nape of her neck.  She held onto it for a long time as she stared at the ceiling, but it wasn’t sleep that she wished for.

 

//
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