The Sugar Quill
Author: Rhetor (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Quartet for Separated Voices  Chapter: Default
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Quartet for Separated Voices

Rowena paces the grassy hill several times over, making sure that the dimensions are what she needs. What they need, she corrects herself; this isn’t going to be a one-witch project, no matter how sure she is that she could handle the whole thing alone. Four of them, working together. Possibly working together, she corrects herself again. It hasn’t been decided yet. Or at least she hasn’t taken the final step. She’s about to; she said she was going to; she will, won’t she?

Godric’s absurd hat appears over the rise, and Godric appears underneath it a few moments later, huffing up the side of the hill and getting red in the face. The old campaigner is wearing his sword belt all the way up. A sword belt, a leather jerkin and a woolen cloak – in July. Can it get any hotter? Rowena wonders to herself. How hot must it be before he’ll dress sensibly? She wonders what there is, anywhere near here, that a sword would handle but a wand wouldn’t. At least he isn’t wearing mail; that thought makes her smile.

“I wish you’d let someone repair that hat,” Rowena calls over to him. “The brim’s beginning to tear.”

“The marks of time are always worth keeping,” he intones – pompously, she thinks.

“That’s the best excuse to wear shabby clothes I’ve heard a man make in, oh, four weeks,” she retorts.

Godric scowls at her, but not in an unfriendly way. Then he looks around the hill. “Is there room for the foundation?” he asks.

“Yes,” she answers. “We could probably even add a wing to the north; possibly a tower.”

He nods at this, then gestures to the horizon. “The forest is centaur country,” he informs her. “The lake is a mer-village and there’s at least one giant squid.”

“Have you any notion of how the centaurs will react?” she asks.

“I spoke to some of them. They’re not especially well-disposed towards wizards in general – heard some things from their cousins in the south, I gather – but they’re willing to ‘live and let live.’”

“A good beginning; if we do begin, that is,” Rowena says fretfully.

Godric looks at her steadily.

“Then you’ve decided?” he asks. “You’re going to go through with this?”

***

James finished dressing fifteen minutes ago, but he’s pacing back and forth in his dormitory room. Remus is watching him with a bemused, mildly sympathetic expression on his face, while Sirius is stretched out on his bed, a book on his stomach, pointedly ignoring both of them. James wishes he could stop pacing, wishes he could sit down and relax. James wishes he could stop wishing.

“I can’t stand it any longer,” he croaks, nearly running into the wall before turning on his heel and heading the other way again.

“Theoretically,” muses Remus, "if you pace long enough and hard enough, you’ll eventually exhaust yourself. That should relax you, the same way a rough Quidditch practice does. Then you will be acceptable company. Theoretically.”

“I think I’m going to be anything but acceptable company tonight,” mutters James, banging his fist on the wall in rhythm with his steps.

From behind his book, Sirius says, “Dates every girl in the castle with no more fuss ‘n bother than a chess game, then gets all wobbly about the one who’s been trying to hex him for six years.”

James stops in his tracks and faces the book. “You know, I think you’re nicer as a dog.”

“Anyone would be nicer as a dog,” says Sirius’s voice reasonably, still behind the book. James glares at him, but of course Sirius can’t see it.

“There are two possibilities,” Remus suggests. “Either he’s nervous because she’s been trying to hex him for six years – ”

“In which case,” says the voice behind the book, “the obvious solution would be to avoid the aforesaid volatile witch – ”

“And the other possibility,” continues Remus as if Sirius had not spoken, “is that this time it matters.”

James says nothing. He doesn’t resume pacing. He looks at his feet.

Sirius lowers the book and looks at James. “But you’re going to go through with this, aren’t you?”

***

Lily paces the floor of the cottage, holding Harry and hoping he’ll fall asleep. He never seems to get drowsy in his crib, nor on her lap if she’s not moving; only walking and holding him will do it. With James it’s different; the boy takes one look at his father and begins snoring. James has offered various explanations, from pedestrian to pedantic to salacious. Exasperating man.

In any case, Harry mustn’t be awake when the expected visitor arrives; the whole process is tricky and any distraction will ruin it.

“James!” she calls. “Come down and take your son.”

James trots downstairs in his stocking feet, grinning at her. He’s in a better mood than she is. “My son, is he? Then he’s less than idyllic at the moment, eh?” He reaches over to Lily, slides his hands under Harry’s armpits, waits for Lily to deposit the “burp-cloth” onto his shoulder, then settles Harry there.

The baby glances up at his father’s face, sniffs the air in two delicate whiffs, then closes his eyes with a contented expression on his face.

“How – do – you – do that?” she demands.

“Boring,” answers James simply. He’s said this before. Now he speaks into Harry’s hair. “Dads are inherently less interesting than mums. Mums are an endless source of fascination; mums are the sunrise and the sunset. They taste good, too.” He leers at her and, damn him, she feels a let-down reflex at the inference he’s making. She does not want to have to go up and change. Again.

“Just make sure he goes to sleep,” she says evenly. But it’s not necessary; Harry is already buzzing in that ridiculous, drunken purr that is his song of slumber.

“I’ll carry him up the stairs and rock for a few minutes before putting him down,” says James. He turns and begins to move up the stairs. Then he stops and turns around again.

“So you’re actually going to do this?” he asks.

***

Harry feels like pacing, but pacing with a cane would be foolish and unnecessarily difficult; besides, he isn’t sure he has the energy. And if he took the trouble to get up, he’d hurt in about ten different places. So he lets his mind do the pacing for him – passing up and down the room, thinking about the options. Not that there are very many options, he reminds himself. Mostly there are two.

Ironic, he thinks, that the power of magical potential should so outlast the vitality of the body. Here he is, seriously wondering whether he has the strength to get out of his armchair, and yet he’s also considering a very potent spell indeed, with a high degree of certainty that it will work. He wonders if this is typical of all wizards, or just another legacy of Tom’s. So many things about the wizarding world he still doesn’t understand, even after living as a wizard and with a witch for so many decades, even after having raised a wizard and a witch and watched them raise wizards and witches.

The door of his study opens, and a short form with long white hair comes in. He can’t see much at all anymore, even with his glasses, but he’s too familiar with that shape, those particular footsteps, that precise shade of white, not to know who it is.

She closes the door bind her and stands with her back against it – her back is still straight, her head still carried proudly. She’s standing very still. If she were closer, he’d be able to count the lines around her eyes and mouth, count her freckles – “age spots,” she calls them, but he knows they’re still freckles.

She looks at him for a long time – at least he’s pretty sure she’s looking at him. She standing, he sitting, no one else in the room. No one else in the house.

Finally she speaks. “You’re still going to do this, aren’t you?” Ginny asks quietly.

***

Godric frowns and looks at her more intently. “You’re willing to go along with his way of doing it?”

“It isn’t ‘his way,’” Rowena corrects him. “He didn’t want us to take any students at all except those of wizard descent. This way, he can have his group of ‘pure’ students, and he’ll be contented, and he won’t bother the rest of us.”

“And you’ll be able to have your group too,” Godric puts in.

“There’s no point in teaching students who can’t learn,” retorts Rowena.

“What difference does it make how well they learn if they won’t use it well?” demands Godric.

Rowena smiles. “Well, this is the old argument, isn’t it? Helga thinks there should be no restrictions at all, while you, Salazar and I disagree about which restrictions. This is a compromise that can work. If Helga can live with it, I think I can too.”

Godric considers her gravely. “Have you told him yet?”

“No,” she replies. “I think he’s been scouting the landscape for concealment potential. He wants the castle to be invisible to Muggles, and practically invisible to wizards unless we tell them how to find it.”

“Difficult to find apprentices if we don’t let them see or know anything about the castle first.”

Students, not apprentices,” she corrects him. “And it’s to be a school.”

“Castle, school, apprentices, students – how are they to get here if the place is concealed?”

“He plans to make it Apparition-proof, too.”

Godric snorts. “A bloody fortress. Rather than hiding the damned thing, it might be better for us actually to defend it.”

“‘We always have an escape plan.’ That’s what he says.”

That makes him scowl. “Perhaps he always has an escape plan.” He puts his hand to his sword-hilt. “That’s not my preferred way out.”

She regards him shrewdly. “I thought you’d already worked out these differences with him?”

Suddenly he grins. “Salazar’s my best friend,” he reminds her. “But all friends have disagreements. I don’t like a lot of plans based on the idea that you’re going to lose. He thinks expending energy unnecessarily is a waste.”

“He has a point.”

Now Godric is beaming at her. “So you have made up your mind,” he says.

Rowena chews her lip. “I – I foresee problems,” she says.

He raises his eyebrows. “Have you had a Sight?”

She starts pacing again. “I don’t think so; I’m usually not aware when they happen, anyway; someone else has to tell me about it. But logically – ” She begins to wring her hands, a habit she detests but can’t avoid in moments of stress. “Logically, if our three apprentice-groups –”

“Student groups,” he corrects her.

She clenches a fist. “Be silent for once. If the three groups were selected for three abilities, three skills, then they’d grow to admire one another and work off each other’s strengths. My scholars would combine with your warriors; if Salazar’s group were only based more on his strengths, that would work too. He’s the best maker of long-term plans I’ve ever met; he can calculate outcomes years in the future, and he knows how to cut his losses and achieve the optimum long-term result. He knows how to read people and is actually unusually sensitive to what they’re feeling; he’s extremely clear-sighted when it comes to anyone’s motivations, strengths and weaknesses, including his own. If he’d only select for those qualities, then his – students – would work in harmony with ours.”

“What about Helga’s? What skill do they have that will ‘harmonize’ with the rest?”

“Well, Helga’s students will develop their own ethic of goodwill, loyalty and hard work, based on the notion that effort makes up for an absence of other distinguishing qualities. They will become paragons of determination, dedication and honor. The four groups would be like the four faces of a pyramid, each complimenting and strengthening the others.

“But,” she continues, “if Salazar insists on using the purity of blood as his standard, then the ethic his followers will develop will be the opposite of Helga’s. They won’t cherish his inherent empathic strengths and his ability to work with people; they’ll think about how to exclude others, and how to perpetuate themselves at the expense of others. The form and structure of the school will be flawed from the start.”

Godric looks at his boots. Then he looks up. “But besides all this, you’re willing to accept this compromise?”

“Yes, because the alternative is that there will be no pyramid at all; you cannot have only three directions to your compass, and a mixture made with no water will turn to ash.”

“There speaks the alchemist,” he observes.

She ignores him. “And if Salazar were excluded, then he would still seek followers, and they would grow up to hate ours, who would hate them in turn. There would be war within two or three generations.”

Godric nods. “No good choices, eh?”

***

“It isn’t just a date,” says James.

“Looks like a date,” says Sirius. “Sounds like a date.” He leans forward and sniffs at James in a decidedly canine way. “Even smells like a date,” he concludes. “Nice cologne, by the way. Does Lily like cologne?”

“You don’t understand,” says James.

“You’re not trying very hard to make me understand,” says Sirius.

“I understand,” says Remus quietly. “And so do you.”

Sirius tosses his head. “Oh, I understand that he fancies her, that he’s fancied her for years, that he’s been frustrated by her constant refusals and rebukes. That I understand. So now he’s getting his way. He should be triumphant, not morose.”

“Spoken like a true dog,” says Remus.

“Look who’s talking,” says Sirius.

“Shut up, both of you,” commands James.

They’re silent, but they both look at him – Remus with a grave look, Sirius with an ironic one.

“I – can’t sleep,” admits James.

“We know,” says Sirius, rolling his eyes. “We share a bedroom, remember?”

“Shut up. I can’t get – I can’t get – ”

Remus interrupts too, still very quiet. “You can’t get her face out of her mind. Nor her voice, nor the way she walks, nor the way her hair looks when she’s walking away. Nor any part of her body you’ve ever seen. Nor the parts you’ve never seen but just imagine.”

James is about to snap and roar in protest, but Remus’s face isn’t taunting, as Sirius’s would’ve been if he’d spoken those words. Remus looks sad.

“And the fact that you became angry when I mentioned her body, even though you and Sirius have discussed girls’ bodies at such length I could write an anatomy textbook from your musings, says something too.”

James badly wants Remus to stop talking, but there’s no stopping this cascade of truth. It’s like listening to his own fears.

“James,” says Remus with a brother’s smile. “You’re in love with her, that’s all.”

***

“You’ve decided absolutely?” persists James.

“Why are you asking me that question?” Lily demands. “I thought you were fine with it.”

“Only because I trust Sirius’s judgment as a strategist,” he replies. “He’s usually pretty good at feints and deceptions. What I like about his plan is that it’s so completely unexpected.”

“Yes, it is that,” Lily says worriedly.

“What’s wrong?”

“Take the baby upstairs, then we’ll talk.”

He disappears up the stairs, crooning something that’s supposed to be a tune, but isn’t. She continues to pace, stopping near the kitchen and noticing that James hasn’t cleaned the dishes properly. Between growing up with rich parents and living with magic his whole life, her husband has no sense of using hard work and dedication to clean things. Having washed dishes by hand until she left for school – and during holidays too – she has a stronger sense of it. She scourgifies the dishes and makes a note to lecture him about it. Later.

James comes back down the stairs, not nearly so jauntily as before.

“Now let me hear it,” he says.

“James, honestly, how strong is Peter?” Lily asks immediately. This is a risky question, she knows; James is very loyal to his Marauders, and feels especially tender towards Peter, whom he has always thought of as a little brother.

“Strong enough,” says James with an edge in his voice.

She goes on, hoping he won’t explode. “You see, the strength in Sirius’s plan is also its weakness. The reason why nobody will think of Peter as our Secret Keeper is because they’d never choose him themselves. And why wouldn’t they choose him themselves? Because they expect he’d break under pressure – if they ever got hold of him, they’d be confident of getting the information out of him.”

“You don’t know that,” he retorts stubbornly.

“No, I don’t. But tell me, James: In all your many pranks and adventures and whatnot, did Peter ever stand up to the bullies or the Slytherins all by himself? Or was he always with you?”

There’s a pause while James looks out of the window. Then, still looking out, he says, “Mostly he was with us.” Then he turns back to her. “But he knows how to keep a secret. He never revealed any of our plans to anyone.”

Lily looks him in the eyes. “This isn’t just you and me,” she says. “It isn’t just this house. It’s Harry, and it’s the war. If I understood Dumbledore properly, then it may be everything that’s to be won or lost.”

He nods. “So, do you want me to call Sirius back, tell Peter to go home?”

***

“I don’t see how I have any choice,” says Harry.

“Bollocks,” says Ginny. “There’s always a choice. And the other choice here is obvious.”

Harry scowls. “Has my prognosis changed? Has the Healer’s art made tremendous strides in the last 48 hours?”

Ginny is silent, but he knows, oh he knows, that her eyes are filling with tears. “No, it hasn’t.”

He doesn’t want to be cruel, especially not to her. But she has to understand. “Eighteen months at the most, then?”

“Yes,” she says in a small voice.

“And the majority of that time bedridden? Unable to move? Incontinent before very long? Devoid of magical ability? Finally not even recognizing you?”

“I’ll recognize you,” she says fiercely.

“True, you would. You’d recognize the man who loved you for eighty years, descending into nothing. You’d see me without dignity, without use, even without love for you, Ginny. How can I live that way?”

“People do,” she says.

“I don’t want to,” he says.

“Harry, listen to me. I signed up to stay with you till death us do part. Not till illness us do part, not till bad smells or bad behavior us do part, not until lack of recognition or lack of use us do part – till death us do part.”

“You shouldn’t have to go through this,” he insists.

“But why shouldn’t that be my choice? Can’t I spend my life as I please? Can’t I spend a year and a half, or whatever it is, nursing the man I’ve cherished in his last illness? Won’t you let me be of use?”

He grinds his teeth. “Don’t you understand? I can’t stand the thought of being – nursed that way, babied, of being a little child…”

There’s a silence, then she says, “Being a little child wasn’t very good for you, was it?”

“No, not very much,” he admits.

“But your own children had it pretty good, didn’t they?”

“Yes, I hope so. Yes, they did,” he admits again.

“Being a little child is nothing shameful, Harry. When you have someone who loves you – ” Her voice almost breaks, but she continues doggedly. “When you have someone who loves you, being a little child is a time of great joy.”

He is stubbornly silent. He won’t budge. He’s made up his mind.

“Harry,” says Ginny. “You’re much more powerful than I am; I can’t stop you from casting this spell if you want to. But you’d better understand me: If you cast the spell, I’ll cast it on myself as soon as I find you’ve done it.”

He looks up at her, and sees that she’s now much closer to him. “You wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t I? And why not?”

“You’re healthy! You have ten, twenty, maybe thirty years ahead of you! Life to spend with your grandchildren and great-grandchildren! It would be such a waste!”

“That, too, is my decision to make. I can’t stop you from withdrawing from the world when it becomes too painful, but you can’t stop me either.”

***

Godric’s face turns suddenly to the left, as if he’s caught a familiar scent on the wind.

“Salazar’s coming,” he says.

Rowena nods. She looks north, towards the cold, clear air she has always loved best. She looks east, towards the hot, pure, rising sun that makes her think of Godric’s smile. She looks south, to the rich lands and fertile soil that Helga knows by instinct. And she looks west, to the winds that bring the rain, the element of which Salazar is the master. Without rain, the soil will perish. Without rain, the sun will burst its bounds. Without rain, the north is a beautiful, but sterile wasteland.

“Let him come,” she says.

***

“So you’re saying, what?” demands James.

“I’m saying this is the riskiest date you’ve ever taken, and I’m saying there’s no way to avoid it,” says Remus. “If you fail, your heart will break. If you succeed, your life will change forever.”

“There’s no way out?”

“None.”

***

Lily bites her lip. “If they catch Sirius –”

“If they catch Sirius,” says James quietly, “they’ll rip the information out of him. If he’s the Secret Keeper, they’ll rip out the secret. If he’s not, they’ll rip out who is. But I think he’ll kill himself first, and if the Secret Keeper is Peter, that gives him just a fraction more time.”

Lily smiles sadly. “It’s only a chance, no matter what we do, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” says James. “I think so.”

There is a knock at the door.

***

“I won’t live without you, Harry, if you flee from me. If you choose to leave me, I’ll be right behind you, in whatever afterlife there is. I’ll accept death as a termination if, and when, death is forced on us. Not otherwise.”

He’s crying now; he feels the tears running down his cheeks. “I’m afraid,” he says.

“Of course you are.” Ginny puts her arms around his neck, and now he can see her clearly, the tears running down her own face. “But I’m here, I won’t leave you. Don’t leave me either, Harry. Let me care for you; let me do you the honors you deserve. Let me mourn you after I’ve helped you on your journey. Please, Harry, I beg you.”

***

“Hello, Salazar. I have good news for you,” says Rowena.

***

“Good night, fellows. Wish me luck,” says James.

***

“Good evening, Peter. Are you ready?” asks Lily.

***

“All right,” says Harry. “You win.”

***

Author’s Note:

Of course I wish to thank my beta, Ilovecats. This story was originally written for the Anticipation Challenge on Phoenix Song. The idea for it came to me while reading Chapter 29 (“To Roost”) of Antosha’s story The Wisest Course (a.k.a. Back to the Garden); that chapter was deliberately designed to resemble the “Tonight Quintet” from West Side Story, and it made me think of attempting a musical (multi-part) anticipation story myself.

For those who are interested in the musical aspects, this is an a capella piece in four movements, for four voices; the parts are alto (Rowena), tenor (young James), soprano (Lily), and bass (old Harry). Actually it now occurs to me that you could think of this as an octet or even a nonet, because of the other characters who speak. In that case the other parts would be Godric (basso profundo), Remus and Sirus (baritone), older James (tenor) and Ginny (mezzo soprano). But then you’d have a male-heavy (bass-heavy) orchestration. Ah, well…

//
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