The Sugar Quill
Author: Thessaly  Story: A Model of Decorum and Tranquility  Chapter: 4. The Perils of Reading Newspapers
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She was awakened by the sizzling of something frying. She sat up, blinking, the smell of eggs and hot bacon winding about her nose and making her feel slightly ill. Narcissa Black pushed her hair out her eyes and admitted, first to a state of existence, and second to a strong desire for black coffee. She was sitting on Helen Fitzgerald’s floor in a flat in London where she had spent the night. No self-respecting Black would have let themselves be caught dead in such a situation. I should, she thought a little tiredly, have gone to Grimmauld Place like Mr. Malfoy told me to. But the house elves were the only ones in residence right now, and she disliked her aunt’s heavy, formal home. It was lonely and the lure of the music had been too strong… The owner of the flat came around the door.

“Morning,” Helen said cheerfully, tossing Narcissa a fuzzy yellow bathrobe. “Here. Francis says you didn’t have any luggage, so I thought you’d need something to wear.”

Wordlessly, Narcissa took the bathrobe; terrycloth was not her natural element, but it was warm and the rub of fabric on her arms made her feel a bit more alive. For lack of anything better to do, she followed Helen into the kitchen. It appeared she hadn’t been the only one to stay the night; where had they all slept? Surely the flat wasn’t that big? Alice was standing by the stove, humming, while her brother, shaved and wide-awake, read the paper. Longbottom chatted, in a rather strained manner, with both MacIntyres and nursed a mug. “Tea or coffee?” Helen asked, prodding the kettle with her wand.

“Coffee, please.” Narcissa sat down at the table and, because she needed something to occupy herself with, picked up the part of the paper MacIntyre wasn’t reading.

“Toast?” asked Alice. “Eggs? Sausage? I know there’s marmite and chocolate spread around here somewhere, if you’ll just give me a minute to find it - ”

“Why not just offer us a three-layer cake?” said her brother dryly.

“Oh, did you want cake?” Helen came back into the room again in time to rescue to kettle, which was threatening to boil over. “I’ve got some, somewhere.”

“Gah,” said MacIntyre. “It was a joke. Who eats cake for breakfast?”

“I do,” answered Longbottom mildly. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Cake actually works really well as breakfast food,” said Alice. “You know, the squashy, fruity ones. Like, uh, spice cakes, or those ones with oranges on the top…” she trailed off. “No one knows what I’m talking about, do they?”

“It’s all right, love,” said her brother. “We don’t, usually.”

“Shut it, you. She agrees with me, so I’m at least justified.” Longbottom looked at Alice and they both blushed.

“Here’s your coffee,” said Helen. Narcissa sipped it and winced. “No good?”

“Helen,” said Longbottom, “I love you dearly, but your coffee is absolutely revolting. What do you think, Narcissa?”

“I’m afraid - ”

“See, an independent opinion.” Longbottom held his arms out wide like a master of ceremonies. He turned a grin on Narcissa. “You fancy making the coffee?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Do us a favour and save us from Helen’s coffee. Please?”

Narcissa smiled without realizing it. Longbottom punched the air. “Oh ho! I made her smile,” he announced to his invisible audience. To Narcissa, “You’re being spontaneous. Brill.”

Something about his phrasing was familiar. She put the newspaper down and walked to the counter where various coffee-making implements lay scattered. She said, over her shoulder, “Have you been talking to Fitzgerald?”

Longbottom smiled guiltily and nodded. “He said you didn’t have enough fun. And – well, and other stuff.”

Narcissa poured ground coffee into the coffee-maker, curious in spite of herself. Although, she thought a moment later, there was was absolutely no reason why she should care what Constantine Fitzgerald thought of her. “What else did he say?”

He shrugged. “Things.”

“What things?” Narcissa leaned on the counter and crossed her arms, giving the seated man one of her sweeter smiles.

“You know...we were just talking.”

Narcissa shrugged coyly. “Are you sure you won’t tell me?” No answer. “Who wanted coffee?

“Me,” said Cameron MacIntyre. “And one for Alice.”

“Me please,” said Longbottom. Narcissa ignored him and handed mugs to MacIntyre and Alice.

“I could threaten not to give it to you until you told me what you were saying about me,” said Narcissa peaceably, “but that would be childish.”

“Well threaten in vain,” said Longbottom laughing. “You don’t stand a chance,” he added, diving towards her.

“What you forgot to take into account,” said Helen conversationally, “is that Francis is extremely childish.” Narcissa ducked out of the way almost too late and fended off Longbottom as he tried to grab her around the waist. She was aware of giggles welling up inside her. It was childish, but, sweet Merlin, it was fun. She twisted neatly under his arm and pushed him backwards, coffeepot poised above his head. “Well. Tell me, or I’ll pour.”

Longbottom looked up. “I’d never have expected that from her,” he said to no one. “He just said that if we insisted on having you here we might as well take advantage of it and see if we could teach you to laugh.”

Narcissa backed away. “I know how to laugh,” she said, shaken. Then louder, she added, “it’s none of your business.” She put the coffee pot down and returned to the table, retrieving the paper. Around her, people shrugged and Helen asked what they thought about the Warbeck girl who’d come third at Eurovision. Narcissa flipped through the paper, scanning the headlines, and was caught by one.

MANOR HOUSE DEATH
Kids, don’t try this at home! Former Beauxbatons student Julia Desmoulins, 18, was discovered dead in posh Surrey manor yesterday. Desmoulins, niece and adopted daughter of leading member of the Wizarding community Abraxas Malfoy, was staying with her uncle at his summer retreat when, Sunday, she suffered a fatal accident in her private laboratory. “It is a great tragedy,” says Madame Carlotta Lescaut, a professor at Beauxbatons Academy. Desmoulins had already made a name for herself in potions research and had, according to Lescaut, “extraordinary talent for her age.”

Narcissa put the paper down. She felt sick. A small mystery had been tidily solved and she now knew the reason why she was here and not home. Because – she couldn’t even think properly; she didn’t even want to say it in her head, because then it would be true and she would have to deal with it. Julia. Dizzily, she realized that of course mother didn’t want her back at the manor; Mother would view the presence of journalists and police as an unpleasant necessity. Her youngest daughter would never be tangled in that kind of thing. She placed her hands flat on the table, staring at her nails, quelling rage. A childish rage at being left out of something important. Her place was at the manor. It was where she was meant to be, offering support and comfort; being reliable. It was habit, she thought, still dizzy. Habit for a family to pull together when something went wrong. And the habit ran deep; she should be there.

But she wasn’t at the manor. She was here, wearing a terry-cloth bathrobe and sitting in this airy flat full of carefree people bantering amiably over breakfast. She drew a deep breath and forced herself to focus. Hands flat on the print tablecloth. Maybe the world would stop spinning if she could just keep her hands clear. “Um, Narcissa?” said Longbottom from somewhere far away. “Is she all right? I - ”

“Here, I’m a mediwizard,” said another voice.

“Well, almost,” said someone else.

“Shut up,” said the first voice abstractly. “Miss Black? Narcissa, can you hear me?” The voices seemed to be coming from even farther away now. Her range of vision narrowed to a pinpoint of light and then the patchy darkness slid over her eyes. She felt hands on her shoulders, and then nothing at all.

“Narcissa? Narcissa?” Someone was shaking her, just a little, and she was awkwardly sprawled across someone’s lap and chest. She could feel his voice buzzing a little by her ear. She wondered, briefly, what was happening, and where she was. Then, in a sort of instinctual twitch, she remembered. She was in London because Mother wouldn’t allow her to come home, because Julia – Julia was dead. “Please,” she murmured vaguely, “Lucius will be frantic. Please, let me go.”

“If this is Lucius Malfoy,” said the voice gently, “I doubt he’ll be anything of the sort. At least not in public. Can you sit up?” Hands gripped her shoulders and helped her to sit. Finally she opened her eyes, since it appeared she was definitely conscious, and focused into the mildly quizzical grey eyes of Constantine Fitzgerald. “What happened?”

Distressed, she could only choke, “Julia – I must get back. I’m so sorry, I can’t - ”

“Mademoiselle Desmoulins?” said Fitzgerald. “I saw the paper, but I don’t think they did. Would you like me to tell them, or – ?”

“Please, don’t,” she said and slumped a little into his supporting hands.

He nodded, then said, rather more loudly, “There, you’ll be all right. Can you stand?”

“Yes,” said Narcissa, and did. Then, carefully, she sat down at her place at the table. Fitzgerald, with a disingenuous grin, spilled tea on the newspaper.

“Goodness! Are you all right?” said Helen. She looked a bit shocked.

“Yes, are you?” echoed Alice who looked more nervous than anything else.

Narcissa looked at the girls’ open faces, and the equally concerned faces of the boys and felt - flattered that they bothered to ask. After all, she didn’t mean anything to them. “Yes, thank you,” she said. “A little shaky.”

“I imagine it’s because no one has given her any breakfast yet,” said Fitzgerald. “And she didn’t eat much last night either. Lack of food has that effect on some people.”

“And how would you know that?” said MacIntyre.

“Experience,” said Fitzgerald. “I’m very delicate.” MacIntyre laughed. “No, I’m serious. I have,” he leaned in his chair in a way not unlike Narcissa was doing now, and fell back in it, one hand on his forehead, “a delicate constitution.” He covered his mouth and coughed weakly.

“Does that mean we have to feed you or you’ll faint too?” said Alice.

“Yes,” he said cheerfully, sitting up again. “Especially if those are hot sausages I smell.”

“There you go,” said Helen. “Problem solved: don’t feed him and then we won’t have to worry about him.”

Narcissa, numb, managed through the rest of breakfast by trying to think of nothing at all. She had, after all, weathered worse, and Fitzgerald kept the attention away from her, for which she was grateful. Eventually people began to drift off towards the bathroom and getting the day started. As he passed, Fitzgerald touched her shoulder. She looked up. “I didn’t say so earlier, but I’m very sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

Take me home where I belong, she almost said, engulfed in a wave of homesickness so strong she nearly began to cry. “No, thank you,” her calm voice answered, looking out at him through a composed face with perhaps slightly agitated eyes. “I’d just like to be alone for a bit.”

He nodded quietly and rubbed her shoulder. “I think I could arrange that. I’ll explain to Helen if you want to go somewhere else tonight, but I think they’d all like it if you stayed.”

“They would?” She was surprised again.

“Oh, yes.” His mouth quirked. “They like you, though Merlin knows why. Certainly isn’t your debating skills, anyway.”

Narcissa’s mouth dropped open. “Excuse me?” she said, automatically, helplessly. Then she noticed the grin and found herself, well, perhaps not grinning, exactly, but certainly smiling, in response. “Now, wait just a minute!” She said. “Don’t try and get rid of me just because I know what’s happening in Russia.”

Fitzgerald laughed, his eyes crinkling and a dimple appearing in his left cheek. “Oh, all right then. Helen would probably kick me downstairs if I frightened you away.” He paused. “No, but seriously...”

“No, really Mr. Fitzgerald, I - ”

He held up a hand. “Costos, please. It’s got fewer syllables.”

“I – Thank you,” said Narcissa.

“You’re certainly welcome, but I’m really just doing my job,” said Fitzgerald – Costos – and moved away.

---

Helen and that lot had to go to work and Narcissa got her day to herself after all. She went back into Diagon Alley again. Hard to believe it was just yesterday she had left Drama here and met Longbottom in the shop. Hard to believe that yesterday morning everything had been, more or less, normal. She spent several hours in the bookstore, hidden in the stacks reading. She was searching for a touch of effervescent peace among the shelves and found it for a little.

Emerging into the sunshine with a sort of resigned calm, she passed Florian Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour and saw, on the deck, Drama with a group of friends. She paused, eyed them from under the brim of her hat, picked up her skirts – drat, she’d have to buy a new dress today as well; Madam Malkin’s ready-mades weren’t completely horrible, were they? – and moved on. A moment later, Drama caught up with her. “Are you all right?” she asked. Narcissa looked at her older sister.

“Yes, I’m fine.”

“Well, I read in the paper this morning and – I guess that’s why you’re still in London, right?”

“Yes.”

“Look , Cis. I’m sorry.” Drama darted forward and awkwardly hugged Narcissa. “It’s this bloody political mess. I wish – Hell. I wish this were easier.”

“Drama,” said Narcissa carefully, “What are you talking about?”

“It’s just – you’re spoiled, Cis. Cause you’re the little one. And, well, I’m not happy all the time and I just – look, Cis. I don’t get it, but there’s something about you that’s madly damsel-in-distress. People want to make you happy.” Drama grinned, her nose wrinkling. “And that includes me.”

“Thank you,” said Narcissa because she couldn’t think of anything else to say. However home made Drama feel, she looked happy at the moment. She was almost glowing.

“Where are you staying?” her sister asked.

“Um,” said Narcissa, caught off guard. “With Helen Fitzgerald and some of her friends.”

Drama’s mouth dropped open and then she laughed. “No way,” she said. “You do know Mother would hit the roof if she knew that’s where you were staying? Anyway, I’ve got to run. Look after yourself; I think both of the dreadfully dashing Malfoys are in London.” She grinned again. “Oh, and Cis,”

“Yes?”

“Have fun.”

(A/N) Thank you to my reviewers. Corvidae - glad you liked, and thrilled you reviewed; I love your artwork. Clytymnystra, I am now deeming you my unofficial beta. There is a reason Narcissa isn’t at Grimmauld Place and Frank chose to go to the Cauldron, not Narcissa. She was just reacting. As for it being common, well, yes. But there’s a real lure to slumming and acting out of character when you’re in a different environment; it’s quite intoxicating, really. I think that the dislocation of her surroundings makes Narcissa relax the way she thinks about things to a great degree. PQ and Amick, thanks a million. Hope you like this one, and please do keep reading (grin).

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