MIRROR MIRRORPART III: ESTRANGED
Both Stephen and Septimia had come to consider the Hogwarts Sorting Ceremony as a kind of parentage test. The DeQuincey family had produced generation upon generation of Ravenclaws, without exception; Stephen’s family had mainly brought forth Gryffindors, with here and there a Hufflepuff. Septimia was sure her boy would be in Ravenclaw: he was so clever. Stephen maintained that his son belonged in Gryffindor: he was so plucky. On the first of September 1971, they were, for once, peaceably sitting together at the kitchen table, the window open to let in the eagerly awaited owl carrying a letter from their offspring. When it arrived, a few minutes before eleven, there was a short tussle from which Septimia emerged victorious, having cast an Eyebrow-Growing Hex on her husband that hampered his sight. While he struggled with the excess facial hair, she broke the seal on the envelope and excitedly pulled out the letter. When she remained silent, Stephen assumed he had won. Brushing back his eyebrows, he tugged the letter from her hand and read it. Then all hell broke loose, as each held the other responsible for what had happened. Stephen had to do his wife that credit: Septimia did not like the sound of Slytherin either.
Their first opportunity for questioning their son face to face was the Christmas holidays. The boy would have preferred to stay over at Hogwarts, but his parents were, for a change, unanimous in their insistence that he come home. There, they asked him whether he had realised he could work on the Sorting Hat to place him where he really wanted to be; why he had not demanded that Dumbledore have him re-sorted; whether he could still switch Houses at the beginning of next term; and which he thought preferable, Gryffindor or Ravenclaw?
The child, black eyes large in his thin face, had told them he was very happy where he was and wouldn’t change Houses for anything in the world.
“But your family are Gryffindors,” Stephen had exclaimed, “or Hufflepuffs. That’s fine, too,” he had added somewhat lamely.
“And why not Ravenclaw?” Septimia had contributed. “All of us are Ravenclaws.”
“Exactly,” the boy had answered quietly.
His parents had just stared, and so he explained, in the tone a patient teacher takes with a particularly slow pupil:
“Slytherin is mine. Mine alone. I’m not like you. I’m different.” He had smiled with dignified pride and would not be moved.
Young Stephen was to spend seven years in the House that churned out more Dark wizards than any other, and that was a fact. Even Septimia’s depraved parents had not been in it. It boded no good for the boy, to be written off at age eleven. His mother, of course, was quick to come to terms with the Sorting. By the time the child was to return to school, she seemed to think the pros far outweighed the cons, as well she would. She pointed out that not all Slytherins turned bad, and that there was a good deal to be said for most of the qualities associated with the House. She told the boy that she trusted him to make the best of the opportunities he would be offered and to use his head. At this, mother and son exchanged glances that Stephen could only describe to himself as conspiratorial, and he saw the boy’s hand move towards his chest, where it very briefly touched something he must be wearing under his clothes. Stephen did not like the look of it all.
When the boy had left on the Hogwarts Express, he interrogated Septimia as he would a crime suspect. She confirmed his worst fears, telling him very calmly that she had been teaching the child Dark magic. He positively howled with rage. What on earth had she been thinking? The child could not even have grasped what he was meddling in. Children have such blurry conceptions of right and wrong, and she had been encouraging the boy in the wrong direction! Small wonder he had ended up in Slytherin. But Septimia had slowly shaken her head in the face of his fury and said that she had been doing their boy a service. “You don’t understand,” she had sighed. “It is in him. He is a natural Dark wizard; he would have experimented no matter what anyone said. I know Dark magic is dangerous – all magic is. I thought the best thing to do would be to tutor him, to give him some guidance in order to prevent accidents. I taught him the rules and told him what to beware of. Those who know how to play with fire don’t even get singed. You will have to trust him, as I do.”
“Trust him playing with fire? I’ll be surprised if you haven’t turned him into a bloody pyromaniac!” Stephen had bellowed. He felt an overpowering urge to smack her serene face. She might as well have stowed explosives in the child’s belt, but she sat there, calmly saying she had done the right thing. Red-hot rage had built up behind his eyes, his large nostrils flared and his muscles tensed at the thought of what had been done to his young son. He could not restrain himself for long; he could find no motivation for doing so. In the end he demeaned himself to, as Septimia wryly formulated it, putting the hit back into Hit Wizard.
That night he had not slept. He had just lain in his bed, his face buried in his pillow, trembling all over his body, unable to ignore the images etched onto his retina. Yes, it had been him; yes, he had done it. He loathed what she had turned him into.
She had made him feel so impotent, confronted as he was with accomplished facts and her sly little smiles and her subterfuge and guile – he had known he was no match for her. He had no influence over her. He could not break her of her despicable habits, though Merlin knew he had tried. He could not subdue her by magic because he was, well, a failed Auror for a reason and she an experienced Dark sorceress. Like an animal driven into a corner, he had struck out. She hadn’t expected it, and he had, for once, got the better of her. He wished he could be proud of it. But she had made him into someone he did not want to be. He hated her for it.
Stephen was not violent by nature. He disapproved of displays of brute force, also in his work for the Squad; he believed that justice should not be used as a bludgeon. He thought he had a decent amount of self-control. Only – there were certain buttons that had better not be pushed, and his wife knew where they were. She knew how to get at him, and she used her knowledge to great effect. He had reached a point at which he could simply take no more and just charged. She drove him mad and then whined when she got bruised.
When Stephen arrived home one spring day and found a strange wizard stowing Septimia’s things in a magically enhanced Rolls Royce, he felt, in view of the state of their recent life together, a great deal of relief mixed with the natural indignation and hurt pride of a cuckolded husband. The other wizard had looked honestly embarrassed on seeing him approach and did not know what pose to strike. Stephen had taken advantage of his insecurity.
“And you are?” he had barked.
“I – ah – Rabastan Lestrange.” The healthy blush on the wizard’s round cheeks had deepened. He was, Stephen noted, a very young man, and he looked singularly out of place in the modest part of town where he now found himself. He had the airs and physique of a benevolent country gentleman and, strangely enough, none of the haughty attitude one would have expected in an old-fashioned pureblood. His features were thick-set, but not unhandsomely so; he had an open face, an abundance of long, black curls and a pair of very clear blue eyes. Stephen suspected that this was a man who could tell no lies.
“We hadn’t – ah – expected you back so soon,” Lestrange said clumsily, the blush now spreading to the roots of his hair. “I mean…”
Stephen had actually felt sorry for him.
“How old are you, Master Lestrange?” he had asked in a severe tone.
“T-twenty-four, sir,” the young man had stammered.
“She could almost be your mother. I can’t imagine your parents approve of this.”
“They don’t.” Lestrange had coughed nervously and thrown a quick glance at the door, clearly hoping fervently for Septimia to come out and rescue him from the sticky situation, but she was still busy in the house. He had turned back to Stephen and said, “I’m really sorry about this, sir. About taking her away, I mean. I had no intention of… I just…”
“That’s all right,” Stephen had said curtly. “You’re welcome to her.” He had meant it.
And so Septimia had been led out of his life by the heir to the Lestrange estate. They had apparently met at the library, where the young man had been doing research into wizard genealogy. Well, birds of a feather will flock together, Stephen had snorted; everyone knew the rumours about Rabastan’s family. He made no objections when his wife pleaded for a divorce, having been assured by his solicitor that he would be given custody over his son; now that Septimia had gone to raise a litter of Dark purebloods (this was a surety, young Lestrange had a duty in life), she could afford to part with her half-blood child, he thought nastily.
With Septimia gone, Stephen had breathed freely again and decided to make a new start. The house and its contents were put up for sale – the divorce proceedings had to be paid for – and Stephen had found himself a small furnished flat in Chinatown, which had the advantage of being close to the Ministry. He would no longer be a commuter and would have more time to spend with his child. When he picked up young Stephen at King’s Cross Station late in June, therefore, he felt inordinately happy and pleased with himself, keenly enjoying the feeling of the boy’s small hand in his own as they walked the streets of London. At the new flat, he had shown him into a neat little bedroom containing his toys and books, purged of unwholesome items. Later, his father had taken him out to buy new clothes and shoes, as the boy had grown out of his old things, and he had also finally had his hair cut short. The boy had not voiced a single objection to any of the proceedings, though he did seem a bit dazed and quieter than usual. Stephen felt confident that, far removed now from his mother’s clutches, the child could yet be saved.
Despite his efforts to make the child at home in his new environment, things had not run as smoothly as he had hoped. For the first few days the boy had kept asking for his precious Mama, and when he had realised she would never be part of this new existence, he had shed some silent tears. His father had told him, in his characteristically blunt way, that his mother was not worth his sorrow: she could not have cared for him much; she had left him behind. This reasoning had stopped his tears, and Stephen had thought that yes, they would manage together.
As if to sanction the turn his life had taken, it was around this time that Stephen’s career finally took off. Hector Bones, with whom Stephen had always been on good terms despite the eventual debacle of his marriage, succeeded in hauling him out of his archives when a mad wizard who styled himself Lord Voldemort began to terrorise Muggles, and the Squad needed all the staff it could get to apprehend him. Bones had argued that Stephen’s efficiency and competence, paired with his understanding of and affiliation with the Muggle mindset, made him an excellent candidate to lead an operation which involved non-wizards; and because the situation was so serious and no-one really wanted the job, Stephen had suddenly found himself promoted. At last he was given a responsible position in the field, and he lived up to it through unfailing dedication and efficiency. But it was not an easy life, and performing his tasks with thoroughness demanded much time and energy.
He could not be there for the boy as much as he would have wanted, and when he was at home he was often abrupt in his manner because he was worn out. His son, however, took it all with remarkable stoicism. He spent much time outside, picking up a smattering of Chinese and returning with exotic recipes like Szechuan snake with dwarf coconuts, or deep fried durian, which smelt perfectly disgusting and caused the other tenants in the building to complain. Stephen did not mind about the cookery; it was extremely useful and quite tasty. What did worry him was that, when he came home late and passed the boy’s bedroom door, he could sometimes hear him chant incomprehensible things that to his suspicious mind might just be Asian spells, and though he was by no means an expert, he knew enough about Eastern wizardry to feel that there was a lot in it he did not want his son to know.
On one such occasion – September was drawing near - he had dived into the boy’s room with the intention of catching him red-handed. Young Stephen had been sitting crouched under the bed sheets, reading by the light of a torch, and at his father’s entrance had uttered a small gasp and tried to stash his reading material away.
“Give me that book!” Stephen had barked, tearing at the sheet, and the child had quickly stuffed the offensive item under his pillow and thrown himself down on it.
“It’s nothing, Papa,” he had squeaked. “Really!” But while he said it he looked awfully guilty and flushed scarlet.
“Give. Here!” Stephen had snapped, grabbing the boy hard by his upper left arm; and the boy, ears glowing, had finally reached under the pillow and handed over the book with his eyes averted.
It was a copy of the Tales of 1001 Nights, Uncensored and Unabridged – Volume Five, to be precise. There were six or seven page markers in it, and several passages were highlighted. Young Stephen was never one for superficial reading.
Stephen had stared at the book in his hand for what might well have been a full minute, his son whimpering by his side. Then he had started to laugh, thrown his arms around the boy and hugged him tightly with uncharacteristic warmth of feeling.
“I’m sorry,” he had said, holding the child close. “I’m sorry I was so angry. I thought… I can’t tell you what I thought.”
“You’re not mad at me then?” the boy had piped up, fixing him with anxious black eyes.
“No.” Stephen had shaken his head. “Well, I suppose that I ought to chide you or something, but… Oh son, this is just schoolboy naughtiness. It’s natural. It’s human. It’s all right.” And he had kissed the boy’s pale forehead, his heart at rest.
The usual disclaimers apply; the 'playing with fire' thingy is a loose quotation from Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, I think).
Next: ‘Young Stephen’ outsmarts his father, proving he has a right to his own name.