|Beth H (bethbethbeth) wrote in hp_beholder,|
@ 2010-04-17 13:55:00
|Entry tags:||aunt muriel, beholder_2010, het, ollivander, ollivander/muriel|
FIC: "An Interesting and Difficult Woman" for inspired_ideas
Title: An Interesting and Difficult Woman
Rating: NC-17 (ish)
Word Count: 10,000
Warnings: Brief mentions of past torture/captivity
Summary: After his rescue from the Malfoy dungeon and his stay at Shell Cottage, Ollivander finds himself waiting out the war with five of the Weasley clan at their Aunt Muriel’s. Their hostess is a difficult woman, but as he learns more about her, Ollivander begins to find her interesting as well.
Author's/Artist's Notes: Many thanks to (tetleythesecond) for the beta, and (miss_bowtruckle) for the encouragement. Inspire, you asked for romantic comedy, and this is my attempt. I hope it pleases! :)
She tells him to call her Muriel the day he arrives, as soon as he introduces himself as Ollivander.
“Ollivander who?” she asks, arching an eyebrow at him as she flicks back the handkerchief sleeves of her lavender robe so they won’t drape into the tea she sets about pouring.
“Just Ollivander,” he replies. “I had another name, once, but each apprentice becomes Ollivander himself when his master retires.”
“And what,” she asks, “happens if a woman becomes Ollivander’s apprentice?”
He stares at her, scratches his head. “Er...”
She doesn’t give him any longer to respond. “Well then. If you have no other name, you’ll call me Muriel.” It isn’t a question, or an offer.
She is the matriarch in a family of formidable women.
They set him up in a small bedroom on the east side of the house. He has a bag, but it only contains two changes of clothes – a pair of pyjamas left behind by Fleur’s father after her wedding and not yet returned, and a shirt and trousers transfigured to size from some of Bill’s things. Even so, he folds them neatly and tucks them into the chest of drawers that sits against one wall, then arranges his few toiletries across the top of it.
He is sharing this house with Molly and Arthur, Fred and George, Ginny, and their hostess, Muriel. No one but Arthur is allowed to leave, and even he only floos back and forth to Order meetings. Ollivander is grateful for the kindness of these people who are little more than strangers, surprised by how ordered the resistance is, and sorry he is unable to help them.
Ollivander has lost his magic. He knows it will come back – these things don’t just disappear – but he was too long in the Malfoys’ cellar and has been too long away from the lathe and the smell of wood curing. For now, at least, his magic is quite gone.
And so he slots quietly in to the workings of the house and observes its inhabitants. It doesn’t take him long to notice the tension that comes from being shut up together.
“Let me make you some tea,” Molly says when she finds out about his problem, levitating the pot over before he can answer. There is a house-elf – Muriel is certainly wealthier and less domestic than her niece – but Molly has bullied her away at least enough to make tea. At mealtimes she grumbles and frets about her children’s nutrition, about how much everyone would enjoy her homemade blueberry pie. Fred and George tell him that she tried to get into the kitchen the first two nights, so the elf sealed the door up tight with magic. Ollivander suspects she would bake seven cakes a day if she was able. Instead, she knits. Knits and mothers.
“Here, sit down,” she tells him, plumping up the chair’s cushion before ushering him into it. “Home comforts, that’s what you need. There’s nothing home comforts can’t cure.”
Ollivander doesn’t mind the home comforts, he has to admit. Having a bed to sleep in, windows to open. He used to rise early for work, keeping to a schedule that got him up before dawn. Now, he sleeps until the sun is slanting in underneath the curtains. He suspects it has something to do with the tightness in his chest when he wakes up in a dark room.
There is a chair on the back porch with a blanket for his knees. From it, he can look out over the Otter River and watch the birds swooping low over the water. He can smell the air. He has always loved nature, always been in tune with the trees and the animals. Part of his work. He pretends it is the same as it always was, but he knows that fresh air will always taste sweeter now.
Some days, Arthur joins him.
“And how do they bond?” he asks, the last in more than a dozen questions about wandmaking. “The cores and the wood, I mean?”
“It’s a complex process,” Ollivander tells him. “Everything has to be just so. The magic is performed wandlessly, but it isn’t simple. It takes a good deal of time to learn it correctly. Most of a wandmaking apprenticeship, actually.”
“Hm,” Arthur responds. He is staring out across the river. It is a similar response to the one Ollivander received from every other answer. He suspects that if he asked Arthur what he’d just said, the man would start like a frightened crow.
Ollivander can hardly blame him. Only three of Arthur’s seven children are here in this house with him, and one of the remaining four is out fighting battles with Potter. Ollivander has seen first-hand what the Dark Lord is capable of (it is habit, now, thinking of him with that name), and if they were his children, he would be worried, too.
Perhaps, if he were a younger man, he would even be restless to be out there fighting with them.
He learns every detail of the house. It isn’t a small house – not huge, by any means, especially not with seven people living in it – but large enough in comparison to the flat above his shop (and larger still than a basement cell) that it feels like a palace to explore. Even so, he learns its quirks quickly – a creaking floorboard here, a shaft of sunlight in the afternoon there – and allows the objects scattered about the place to tell him a little about its inhabitants.
Muriel is a woman of interesting taste. Meaningful, perhaps. Her furniture is solid, elegant but practical, and unlike many women her age, she hasn’t littered her home with knick-knacks and trinkets – not turning into a magpie in her last quarter-century. She does have things, but they are interesting. Molly’s remarkable clock is hung on one wall – one of the first things she grabbed from the Burrow, Ollivander suspects – but on the mantle is Muriel’s own clock, just as remarkable in its own right, if somewhat more ordinary in that it only tells time. It is carved with intricate designs: phoenixes and dragons and vine leaves around the clock face. Whoever made it had been a skilled craftsman. There are two watercolours on one wall – lakes with boats bobbing on them – and a silver plaque propped atop a cupboard with Muriel’s name on it, in appreciation for fifty years of service on the Hogwarts Board of Governors. A coloured glass peacock sits on the windowsill of the dining room, and a few other bits and pieces are scattered here and there, each more different than the last. Definitely not a magpie, but a woman who keeps tokens of meaning, indicators of a life well lived.
He asks her about the plaque after lunch one day.
“Yes, well,” she says, pursing her lips. “I didn’t make seventy-five, did I? Quit three years ago, didn’t I? Saw three headmasters while I was on the board, helped with the damage control when that girl died in the forties, stayed when Lucius Malfoy threatened and bribed everyone into removing Dumbledore for a few months, but I drew the line at the Umbridge woman. Cornelius Fudge himself addressing the Board, and that bunch of idiots couldn’t read between the lines to see that the Ministry wanted to control Hogwarts. Couldn’t see it or didn’t want to, anyway. Bunch of cowards.”
Ollivander looks at her face, examines the hard set of her jaw and the fire of opinion in her eyes. A proud woman, a prickly woman, but what is life without a little debate? He weighs his words carefully though, tasting their tone before he speaks.
“You think not standing up to the Ministry is cowardly, but allowing themselves – and yourself – to be bribed or threatened by Lucius Malfoy not so?”
He expects bristles, perhaps even a defensive flinch, but instead she barks a laugh.
“Not afraid to disagree with your hostess. I like that in a guest. No, I don’t think allowing ourselves to be bullied by Malfoy was cowardice. Sense, I’d call it. Malfoy is a Death Eater, he was even then. No one with half a brain believed that tosh about the Imperius Curse. Malfoy is dangerous. I chose to be bribed rather than have my family threatened, which is what would have happened had I openly opposed him, and to what end, with the rest of them in his pocket? Making yourself a target on principle is a Gryffindor thing to do. I’m a Slytherin, Ollivander; we pick our battles carefully. Malfoy wasn’t going to get rid of Dumbledore permanently; he had no grounds. Better to take his gold and funnel it to the resistance. The Ministry, however, was just a bureaucracy under Fudge – a lot of hot air and no real power. Hogwarts had its own politics, but it had autonomy from the Ministry, hundreds of years of it. They gave all that away, and for what? Worries about their social positions? Pah. If someone can’t rebuild their social position, they don’t deserve it in the first place.”
She meets his gaze levelly, almost a challenge. He says nothing, studying her, thumb stroking his chin. He is a keen studier of people, an observer of social currents and the tides of power. He doesn’t usually get involved; that isn’t his place. He is a firm believer in the need for both light and dark in the world, and his role as a wandmaker is to facilitate the use of magic, whether for good or evil. To deny either side would be to alter the balance of things and meddle in affairs much larger than himself, but he does like to watch how people cope, react and use their magic. Muriel, though, might be an even keener observer than him.
“Remarkable,” is all he says.
The next morning he finds Ginny in his chair on the patio, staring at the sky. Her fingers are gripped hard around the armrests, and she leans forward as though wishing the chair would take off and fly. He stands silently for a few moments, waiting for her to become aware of him. When she does, colour floods her cheeks and she all but leaps out of the chair.
“I’m sorry, Mr Ollivander, you can sit down. Really,” she adds when he doesn’t move immediately.
He smiles at her, uttering thanks as he moves to take the chair. There is another he could have used quite as easily, but he has become accustomed to this one, and everyone seems to treat it as though he has carved his name in it. Ginny stands pensively, still staring out into nothing.
“I imagine it’s hard,” he says, “being stuck here.”
“I want to fly,” she answers. “I feel like an owl in a cage.”
Silence, then. They both listen to the morning, feel the sun. Silence until the back door opens again and Fred and George come tumbling out.
“Good morning, little sister,” says George (the one without the ear), grinning. “Want to see our latest?”
Fred flourishes, producing a small blue ball from his pocket. “Guess what it does,” he says. Ginny peers at it.
“Go on, guess,” prods George. Ginny arches an eyebrow.
“It’s a vanishing Snitch!” Fred, again. “Or at least it will be, once we can get the gold for it. Disappears as soon as you grab it. Go on, catch.” He swings his arm back to throw, and Ginny explodes.
“Are you both idiots?! Vanishing toys, explosions in the back room. There’s a war on! We should be out there fighting it!” Her arm swings wildly, gesturing toward the river, the expanse of sky. “Not...not...” And here her eyes swivel toward Ollivander for a moment, as if marking his presence. “Not...pissing about with jokes!”
With that, she storms inside, the door slamming in her wake. Fred and George are left standing there, identical expressions of shock on their identical faces. After a moment the shock fades into scowls, equally as identical.
“Well, excuse us for trying to make things bearable,” they say simultaneously.
Muriel seems to think they are idiots, too. For sleep and everything else, they have taken over her back room. They are running their business out of it, mail order. Throughout the day, owls arrive, departing heavily laden with parcels each night, and at random intervals bursts of laughter can be heard from the room, often preceding or following sounds of explosion.
Muriel beats on the door. “Are you two destroying my house? If you’re staining the carpet, I swear by Merlin’s name you’ll be scrubbing the stains out on hands and knees, without your wands!”
The laughter comes even louder from behind the door.
Muriel turns on her heel, eyes flashing, and Ollivander steps back through the doorway he was just about to leave, removing himself from the line of fire.
“Don’t know where they’re getting the ingredients,” she mutters, stalking past him. “Going to have to have words with that elf.”
He watches her disappear down the hall. Fred and George’s laughter fades to a self-conscious murmur, and Ollivander hears boxes being dragged around. He misses his life and his craft, too, but he can’t begrudge the twins their own.
He has been here about a week, now. They have their first Sunday brunch. It is a mismatched affair of bacon and pancakes, asparagus and waffles. The house-elf, when left to her own devices (as she is these days, since none of them are allowed to leave the house for something as trivial as shopping), buys everything and anything and serves all of it together. Lunch and dinner are more conventional, but the elf seems to delight in the whimsy of making breakfast and supper culinary minefields.
“Dad, can you pass the butter?” asks Ginny.
“George, dear, hand this down to your father, will you?” says Molly, turning the teapot handle to face him.
“Fred, must you insist on levitating milk jugs over my plate?” Arthur mutters, poking at a rather soggy waffle with his fork.
Ollivander begs and beckons with the rest of them, catching each plate as it goes past and managing to secure himself a little bit of everything, but feeling rather like he’s run a marathon by the time his plate is full. The teapot makes its way down the table to him eventually, but by then only the dregs are left and his cup ends up half empty. Muriel is at the head of the table, beside him, and he peers at the neat, generous portions on her plate in confusion. He didn’t even see her reach for anything.
“There is a trick to it,” she tells him, lifting her cup to take a sip of some steaming dark brew that is certainly not tea and smirking around its rim. “Get here while Molly is still trying to round up the others and you get first pickings.”
Ollivander smiles and files the thought away for future reference.
After breakfast, he moves to his chair on the patio, and they come out one by one and lay their wands before him. It is an experiment, a vague hope, but perhaps he will be able to feel one of them, and through it, his magic.
He recognises all of them: pine and dragon heartstring (Arthur), birch and unicorn hair (Molly), alder and dragon heartstring - almost identical, whittled from the same branch (Fred and George), blackthorn and dragon heartstring (Ginny), and, interestingly, reed and phoenix feather. Muriel’s. He remembers selling it to her sometime in the 1940s, but he has no idea what made her need the replacement.
They are all his creations. All came to him as chunks of wood and bundles of cores, and all eventually spoke to him, told him the kinds of wands they wanted to be. Molly’s unicorn tail practically demanded that particular piece of birch, and he remembers the two dragon heartstrings that became Fred and George’s wands being completely tangled and inseparable until he decided to use the same branch of alder to make both. The wand chooses the wizard. Perhaps the wand knew who would come to own it before the wizard was even born.
The sun is warm but the air crisp. He spends a few moments contemplating the scenery, watching a bird as it lights upon a branch with a grub in its mouth, but he is really just putting off the inevitable.
All of the wands feel like sticks in his hands. He picks them up, one after another, and doesn’t feel even a stir. Wherever it is, his magic is buried deep. Hiding from the trauma of torture that his body remembers in every strain, in the scar beneath his collarbone and the ache in his right leg as night falls. Ollivander stares at the wands lined up along the table and he wants to shout at them all.
The door behind him creaks open. He doesn’t look round.
“No luck, then?” It is Muriel’s voice.
“Nothing,” he tells her.
“Hm.” A grunt in the back of her throat. “I’d thought... Would you like to try another?”
He does turn to look at her then. She is holding a wand box in her hand. “I thought maybe it would work for you, if you felt something from the others.” She hands him the box. He opens it.
The wood is honey-coloured and has a very distinct aroma; the handle is worked with a leaf design. He looks up at her. “Apple and...”
“Unicorn hair,” she says. “It was my first wand. When I was about fifty, it started misbehaving. No fault with the wand; it just didn’t resonate with me anymore. I kept it because it reminded me of my youth. But if you can make use of it, you’re welcome to have it.”
“Made by my predecessor,” he says, studying it. He recognises the style of embellishment. The wand itself is curvaceous – rather feminine, really – but if he can feel his magic through it, he will use it gladly.
With a heavy breath, he wraps his fingers around the handle.
“I suppose I am too old for unicorn hair,” he tells her, sighing. This wand feels no more magical than any of the others.
“You’re never too old for anything,” Muriel says. Ollivander can’t help but chuckle.
“A hike in the mountains?” he asks her. “Running into town?”
She sniffs. “You’re never too old for anything worth doing.”
“I agree with you, mostly,” he says. “But I fear unicorn hair wands are something I’m too old for.”
She arches a brow at him, sits down in the free chair. “How so?”
“Unicorn hairs are the most common wand core for eleven year-olds – a good thing, too, since they’re also the easiest to obtain.” She looks curious, so he continues. “They generally resonate with innocence, and they are less powerful than phoenix feather or dragon heartstring. That’s not to say that a powerful witch or wizard can’t wield one – quite the opposite; unicorn magic is subtle, and mastering it takes considerable time and energy – but the core itself is usually quite receptive to the young. Some people,” he says, indicating Molly’s wand, “can use a unicorn wand all their lives. Others lose their innocence in some way, and the wand stops responding. It can happen with other cores – dragon heartstring doesn’t respond well when the spirit is broken, phoenix feather when the caster becomes too resistant to change – but it happens most with unicorn hairs, perhaps because innocence is so hard to maintain.”
“That... would make sense,” she says quietly, and this time it is her who stares out at the scenery. He studies her in profile. In the sunlight, her red hair is ablaze – there is only minimal grey in it, whatever her age, and her mouth is set in a thoughtful line. She doesn’t seem to want to talk about whatever it is on her mind, though, so he changes the subject.
“This is a beautiful spot,” he says, following her gaze out toward the river. “Did you grow up here?”
She glances at him, chuckles. “No. I grew up in Cumbria, in the Lake District. I bought this place after my divorce. Wanted to be closer to my youngest brother. Molly’s grandfather. I never really knew Jon, he was only a year old when I went off to Hogwarts, and by the time he finished I was married and only a year off having a child of my own. We had very different lives. But after the divorce, and with neither of us speaking to our middle brother much – Ignatius married Lucretia Black, went to live with her family and was more of a supremacist every time I saw him – it seemed important to get to know Jon.”
Ollivander nods, watching her. Had the laugh been because he’d read her mind? The changes that divorce brought could very well have been part of the reason her wand stopped responding.
“I thought maybe this was the family home,” he says. “You have a lot of space.”
“I don’t like small spaces,” she tells him, with a tiny shudder. “And I entertain a lot. Well. When there isn’t a war on, anyway.”
“Aren’t you entertaining now?” he asks, smiling.
She smiles back. “Not the way I would choose to. But I don’t mind the company.”
He thinks of a cell, of damp and the stink of a chamber pot, and then he looks at the sky, and at her hair flashing copper and gold in the sun. “Nor do I.”
He still has the apple and unicorn wand in his hand. The carvings are very feminine, after all. He tucks it back into its box, thinking again about innocence, the people who keep it and the people who lose it. There is one, he thinks, who won’t lose her innocence no matter what happens in her life. Months in the Malfoy dungeon hadn’t even begun to dampen it. He doesn’t speak, because Muriel has fallen into a comfortable silence and it rests well on his shoulders as well, but later, with her permission, he will send Luna Lovegood a new wand.
Company. At dinnertime he studies the faces of the family he has become a temporary part of, maps their similarities and differences. Ginny looks like Molly – he sees in the mother the future of the daughter, a rounding of angles that will do nothing to dampen her fiery spirit. Arthur has no mirror here, but Ollivander recalls the long limbs and face of Ronald and the older son who came to buy a wand with his father, matching almost perfectly in looks if not demeanour, right down to the glasses. Fred and George, however, look like Muriel. He can see the similarity in their noses and the shapes of eyes, and also, though she tries to hide hers, the sparkle in the eyes themselves and the tiny quirks of smile. He can’t help but wonder what she was like as a girl.
“Do you play chess, Ollivander?” she asks him after the night’s meal, as the house-elf serves coffee and Ginny and the twins disappear to their respective rooms. Molly has settled into one of the armchairs with her knitting, and Arthur is poring over something called an ‘electronics catalogue’ that he spotted discarded on the next-door neighbour’s front lawn.
“I do indeed,” he answers. “Shall we?”
She sets up the board, and he examines the chess pieces. They are old and carved beautifully, but they could do with polishing. Ollivander knows he will be at a disadvantage here – these pieces are certainly old enough to have developed considerable loyalty to Muriel – but he supposes that will make an interesting challenge. He places the pieces on the board as she brings the coffee. He notices that she has put milk in both cups. She sits down at the table with a flourish of sleeves.
“I thought you drank black,” he says, nodding toward the coffee sitting by her hand.
A small smile curves her lips and she leans close to whisper. “Only the best stuff. If this lot knew it existed, I’d have none left. Maybe I’ll share it with you, if you’re good.” She winks.
He smiles and they begin play. He is white, so he moves first. The pieces respond to him, but he has no idea what they will do as soon as he starts to implement strategy.
“It’s good to find someone new who plays,” she says. “Ron is the only one who can give me a challenge, in this family. Ordinarily, I have a game with a friend every week, but we know each other’s strategies so well it’s almost like breathing. When did you learn?”
“Oh, when I was a boy,” he says, picking up his coffee cup for a sip. “You?”
“Likewise,” she answers, then corrects herself: “When I was young. I learned all the proper skills a lady was supposed to possess. I can play the piano, too, though my mother would have fainted if she knew half the songs I’d learned.”
He glances up her. There is a glint of amusement in her eyes as she peers at him from beneath her lashes.
“Somehow,” he murmurs, reaching for his rook, “That doesn’t surprise me at all.”
She wipes the floor with him. He wishes he could blame it squarely on the pieces, but the truth is they were rather cooperative. Perhaps because they knew how badly he was doing, that his skills as a strategist were vastly inferior to hers.
She laughs as she packs up the set. “Nothing like a good conquest to enliven a dull evening under house arrest, hm?”
He looks at her, but if there is a double meaning to that phrase, she shows no sign of it at all.
There is no sign the next morning, either. Arthur and Molly are down for breakfast, while Ginny and the twins are sleeping late. As they sit to eat, Muriel sets a cup of steaming black coffee by his hand, but doesn’t say a word to him.
“Is there any news?” Ollivander asks Arthur, who just returned from visiting Bill.
“Not really,” Arthur says, pouring himself a cup of tea. “More of the same. Beggars in Diagon Alley, snatchers terrorising the countryside. Bill is concerned about Harry, though. He thinks he might be trying to trick Griphook into something.”
Muriel makes a noise in the back of her throat. Ollivander glances at her. “For someone who’s supposed to be the saviour of our world, he’s not very bright, is he?”
Molly’s face takes on a sour expression; Arthur’s attention is suddenly all on his plate. Ollivander lifts the cup of coffee Muriel poured him and takes a sip. It is smooth, rich and very strong. He ventures a reply when Molly and Arthur don’t. “You know something of goblins?” he asks.
“Some, yes,” Muriel replies. “In a different way than Bill does. My father-in-law was a pioneer for goblin rights. He taught me a little of their culture. Suffice to say that trying to short-change a goblin is a very foolish thing, indeed.”
Ollivander remembers an exchange between Griphook and Bill at Shell Cottage. Apparently goblins considered the maker of an object the owner, rather than the person who bought it. He wonders how Muriel’s strong opinion squares with her own possessions.
“Griphook seemed less than impressed by Fleur borrowing your tiara,” he says.
Muriel snorts. “Did he, now? Well, I wish he’d come here and told me that. I’d have given him the what-for. That tiara was one of my wedding gifts, and since I’m not dead yet, it’s mine to do with as I like. They can have it back when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”
From the look of determination on her face, that won’t be happening any time soon.
They play chess again that evening.
“What sort of coffee was that, at breakfast?” he asks.
“Columbian,” she replies in a murmur, studying the board. “Divine, isn’t it?”
“It certainly woke me up.”
She chuckles. “I’ve been waking up that way forever. My ex-husband wasn’t fond of it. ‘Only you,’ he used to say to me, ‘could enjoy something that bitter first thing in the morning’. I enjoyed it even more after I divorced him.”
Ollivander smiles, but the comment reminds him. “You mentioned something a few days ago. About a child...?”
Muriel stops smiling. “My son, yes, though he’s hardly a child any more. I don’t see much of him. He’s an accountant.” The last is spoken with a particularly vehement grimace.
Ollivander pauses a moment with two fingers on his bishop. “What is that, exactly?”
Muriel waves a hand, as if this entire conversation puts a bad smell up her nose. “Something with numbers, in the Muggle world. He likes numbers. He was always far too much like his father.”
“Is he a Squib?” Ollivander asks. He remembers every wand he ever sold, but not without a face to go with it.
“Certainly not. He just...chooses...to live...as a Muggle.” Spoken between sips of coffee, as if she needed to fortify herself before each new word.
He moves his bishop to the chosen square. It glares at him, but it picks up Muriel’s piece and tosses it off the board. “You disapprove,” he says to her. He sees no point in phrasing it as a question, but he is curious about the why.
She purses her lips, peering at the chessboard, then looks up at him. “Yes, I do. Abandoning one’s heritage and upbringing entirely is disgraceful. I don’t disapprove of Muggles in general. They can do whatever they like, and they should be left to it. I don’t dislike Muggleborns, though I do dislike some of their ideas. Disrespectful of their elders, for the most part, and with very little real understanding of the world they’ve become a part of. Take the Granger girl, for example. I heard her bleating on about house-elves at Bill and Fleur’s wedding, about how they should be free and she was making that her personal mission. Freeing house-elves. Never mind what they want, they’re oppressed and don’t know what they want. As if she has the right to make that decision for them. When I challenged her, she told me she wouldn’t expect someone of my generation to agree with her views, as if I was a senile old bat. Do you know what Muggles do to people your age? They shut them away in group homes, pretend they don’t exist. When they get to my age, they’re almost certainly dead. Probably of boredom. And why would a man give up a magical heritage to live in a world where he’ll be considered an obsolete old fool by the time he’s eighty? It disgusts me.”
Ollivander thinks about her words as they fall silent to play the game. An interesting opinion, certainly, and clearly a vehement one. He’s not sure he agrees, though. Certainly, ignoring the wisdom that comes with age is a loss to any society, but she seems to be simultaneously disparaging of her son for giving up his heritage and expecting Muggleborns to give up theirs. He doesn’t mention it, though. She is a much better strategist than him – she beats him again, easily – but he has at least some skill at diplomacy, and he doesn’t think that is an argument he would win.
Molly and Arthur have retired to bed by the time they finish their game, and if the others are not asleep, they are at least ensconced in their rooms.
“It’s almost like being alone,” Muriel says as they pack up the chess set. The candles have burned low, and night hangs heavily in the air.
“Almost,” Ollivander agrees, and reaches for the queen at the same moment she does. Their fingers freeze, hers on one side of the piece and his on the other. Their eyes meet, and then he smiles, withdrawing his hand so she can take the piece. “Your queen,” he says.
“Yes,” she replies, twisting it between her fingers. She settles it into its place in the box, snaps the lid shut, slides her chair out from the table.
She leans across and places a kiss on his cheek, eyelashes brushing his skin and his nostrils suddenly full of the spicy scent of her perfume. “Goodnight, Ollivander,” she whispers, taking the box with her as she departs.
He watches her go, reaches up after a moment to touch his cheek in wonder. “Goodnight,” he murmurs in her wake.
The house-elf has brought Ollivander a set of wood-carving tools. He asked her two days ago, gave her a list, and she has come through spectacularly. He asks the twins for help casting charms on the outdoor table so he will not damage it, then settles down with his bundle of tools and bag of wood.
There is a carving knife and a gouge, a chisel and a veiner, along with a few variants in different sizes and shapes. A leather strop is wrapped around a stone for sharpening, sandpapers of several different grains are curled together like a scroll, and a brush and cloth are tied to a jar of linseed oil for polishing. The bag contains off-cuts of various sizes, a number of different woods. He mentioned the possibility of carving himself a chess set of his own, so none of the pieces are particularly large.
He breathes deeply of the scent of wood, feeling it right down to his toes. He doesn’t know why he didn’t ask the elf for this sooner. He may have lost touch with his magic for now, and have no access to wand cores, but he still knows how to work with wood.
Each chunk he removes from the bag is different. Shape, smell, texture, grain. He runs his fingers over them, listening to what they have to say, feeling what they want to be. He touches a rectangular piece of mahogany, larger than the rest, and thinks of Muriel. The chess set can wait.
Woodcarving clears his head, helps him think. He is surprised by that because he’s had plenty of time to think lately – hasn’t been able to do much else – but there is a different quality to this thinking. It’s the kind of thinking that happens when one’s hands are busy, the kind that flows underneath concentration.
He is thinking about Muriel, Slytherin and cunning strategist, blunt and opinionated, subtle and coy. Perhaps, he thinks, someone her age is allowed to be completely contradictory, or perhaps the latter two fit quite well into the first. He knows she is interested in him, that much is clear enough from her talk of conquest and that kiss goodnight, but he’s not sure what her motivations are, or how he feels about them.
He turns the wood in his hand, chiselling it into a blunt, rounded shape, working with the grain, taking his time. Trying to let it tell him what it wants to be.
Ollivander has been a bachelor all his life. Certainly he has had relationships, been in love, but never anything serious enough to change his status as a single man set in his ways. And it has been a long time since even the most casual of flings. Being a wandmaker brings him into contact with a large number of people, but most of his customers are eleven years old and most of his suppliers are men. Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank is the notable exception – she has been his source of unicorn tail hairs for a great many years – but she has no interest in men as anything other than drinking partners. He has little chance to meet women in whom he might be interested. He is surprised, perhaps even a little unnerved, that he has done so here.
A duck; that is what it wants to be, a thing of soft curves and clean lines. Something that will sit comfortably on a mantelpiece amid a disparate collection of objects from a life well lived. He changes tools, begins honing the rough shape toward something more defined.
Interested. He certainly is that, in Muriel. She is an interesting person. A difficult person, some of the time, but each new thing he learns about her surprises him more than the last. He thinks he knows what she is doing with her suggestions and whispers, though. Trying to make her interest known, but expecting him to make the first move. Her age and her upbringing is explanation enough for that.
When the duck is finished, it will have no legs. It will sit flat on the bottom with its head curved around to face its back, as if in sleep. Its eyes will be open, though. Relaxed but alert. He picks up a finer tool to hone the detail.
What Muriel expects is impossible, however. At least, as a guest in her home, it would make Ollivander very uncomfortable indeed. No. He is interested, and he intends to let her know that as clearly as he can, but whatever it is she wants, she will have to initiate it. He won’t presume to know, and run the risk of making a woman uncomfortable in her own home.
He carves in details, carefully etching lines of feather and beak and eye, sanding, oiling and polishing. The thoughts flow underneath, and when he is finished he is satisfied.
Muriel is reading, bathed in the glow of sunlight coming through the open window. It softens her features and sets her hair ablaze. She laughs at something, then reaches out and lifts a goblet of wine off the side table, taking a sip and setting it down again without taking her eyes from the page. Ollivander approaches, sets the duck down beside her hand.
“For you,” he says, and she looks up. Confusion for just a moment, then her eyes fall on the carving, and she flips the book over on her knee as she picks it up. Turns it in her hands, trailing a finger over the curve of head then tracing the detail on one wing.
“It’s lovely,” she says, and her voice is softer than he has ever heard it, not in volume but tone. “You... I... Thank you.” He doesn’t think he has heard her tongue-tied before, either.
He smiles, and the expression feels smug on his face. “You’re welcome.”
No more words from her; she is still turning the duck over in her hands. He reaches down and slides the book from her lap. That earns him a look. “Don’t you lose my page.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he says, sliding his finger in between the pages and letting the cover fall closed against it. “The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore?” he asks, arching a brow.
Muriel arches one right back. “What of it? I happen to find Rita Skeeter vastly amusing.”
Ollivander can’t keep the smile off his face. “Really.”
“Yes, really.” She peers at him. “In the last chapter, she freely admitted to using Veritaserum on Bathilda Bagshot. A Ministry-controlled substance. Admitted it! What other writer has the audacity to admit something like that? You tell me. What’s so.... Are you laughing at my literary tastes, Ollivander? Don’t you dare laugh at me!”
But he does, and he is, and he can’t stop. He hasn’t laughed so hard in a long time – long before a dungeon in the basement, long before the war. And he is laughing at her, because she is perfect.
The duck is sitting on the dining room window sill, sharing space with the glass peacock. As they sit down to dinner, Ollivander sees Molly glance at it. She smiles and leans over to whisper something to Arthur, whose eyes widen as his cheeks turn pink. Muriel, for her part, ignores it completely. Ignores him, too, mostly, but she wears a tiny smile all through the meal that he’s sure no one else can see.
He joins in the game. He’s not sure what the object is – teasing, or discretion, or both – but he feels more alive than he has for months, so he is all too happy to play. He asks Molly how her knitting project is going, asks Arthur what ‘batteries’ are. Muriel has a quiet conversation with Ginny and even laughs at a story the twins tell. They all but ignore each other completely, but when dinner is finished and the plates have been cleared away, Muriel says ‘Chess?’ and Ollivander agrees.
He is starting to know her better. She is a clever player, but he is beginning to see how she thinks. The sharp twists that characterise her personality reflect in her game play, at one moment aligning pieces in careful defence, and the next launching vicious attacks. He begins to see the patterns and arranges his pieces to thwart them, and when she finds herself blocked and unable to make the moves she has planned, she gets flustered. Her cheeks colour up like Arthur’s did at dinner, and Ollivander takes a moment to ponder redheads and how telling those inadvertent flushes might be in different situations. Then, when she’s good and frustrated, he moves in for the attack, wiping her pieces off the board and manoeuvring into place before she can see what he’s doing.
“I believe that’s checkmate,” he says, smiling.
“So it is,” she replies, leaning back in her chair and lifting her coffee cup to her lips. She is not flustered now. Her face is smooth and her movements are calm. Her eyes, watching him over the rim of her cup, are distinctly amused.
“Well then,” she murmurs. “To the victor go the spoils.”
And somehow – some clever Slytherin trick of tone and smile, probably – he suddenly feels like he has not been playing whatever game they began at dinner, but is instead a piece in it, and she has just manoeuvred him into exactly the position she wanted.
There is a single candle burning in Ollivander’s room. It’s a Never Fade, an object of the twins’ invention. By some trick in the making, the wax that melts as it burns reforms at the bottom and the wick never runs out. The flame doesn’t gutter in the breeze, either, though that is a house-elf trick to prevent accidents rather than any magic contained in the candle. It is the only one of its kind in the house. Devilishly tricky to make, according to the twins, and the materials hard to come by and expensive besides, but they let him have it because he leaves it burning all night. George brought it to him one morning after he heard the house-elf muttering about wax on the carpet and using up all of Mistress’ candles, and thankfully did not make Ollivander explain about the pain in his chest and the difficulty breathing when he woke in the middle of the night in the dark.
He undresses for bed slowly, thoughtfully, folding his trousers and hanging them over the back of the chair by the bed, and dropping his dirty things into a hamper beside the door so the elf won’t have to touch them. It interests him, the ease with which he does it, folding by hand and turning the bed covers back. He has been just over a month without magic but already these routines feel normal. There were a few moments today, though – deep in concentration while working the wood, and again when he was laughing – that he thought he could almost feel it, a sensation of something large just slightly out of reach.
He tugs the drawstring of his pyjama pants tight and buttons his shirt, then slips into bed, lifting his book from the bedside table and opening it on his knee. He hasn’t even read three pages when there is a gentle tap on the door. Muriel slips into the room without waiting for him to answer.
He smiles, slipping the ribbon between the pages of his book and setting it aside. “Hello,” he says.
“Hello.” She doesn’t look Slytherin and amused now. In fact, she seems almost surprised to be there in his room. Her eyes are wide and one hand is clutched tightly around the knot in the cord holding her purple bathrobe closed. It hangs to her knees and he can see more of her legs than he’s ever glimpsed before, given her fondness for long, floaty robes. Her toes are bare against the carpet.
“Come in,” he invites her, even though she already is. The words seem to help. The startled look fades from her eyes, and she moves over to perch on the edge of his bed, though she spends a few moments adjusting the sleeves of her robe once she’s seated. She says nothing, so Ollivander prompts her again. “To the victor...?” he asks.
She smiles, glances up at him, a hint of that twinkle in her eyes again. “I’m sorry,” she says, giving herself a tiny shake. “It’s funny, the things that stay with you as you get older. When I was a girl, letting myself into a man’s room would have been...very presumptuous.”
Ollivander chuckles. “It still is,” he says, and that earns him a sharp look, “but far less so than a guest pressing himself on his hostess when he may have been misreading her invitation.”
She nods in understanding, then barks a laugh. “It’s a good thing I didn’t pussyfoot around, then. We could have been dancing around each other for months before we worked that out.”
Ollivander isn’t sure they have worked it out. He isn’t sure they aren’t still dancing. She is here, of course, and so is he, but they are talking in careful circles around a central point, and though he is fairly certain what it is – why would she be here, if it wasn’t? – they still haven’t laid out clearly what they both want. Still, she seems to want him to take some initiative, so he does.
“I’m glad we did work it out,” he says, and reaches out for her, cupping her cheek in one palm as he leans forward to kiss her. It’s a soft kiss, gentle, but she responds, and he caresses her cheek with his thumb as it deepens. Her skin is very soft.
He spends a few moments looking at her once he has opened his eyes again. His hand drops to her shoulder and he strokes her throat instead of her cheek, but he can’t help but feel as unsure of himself as he had as a teenager. He remembers that Slytherin smile from earlier.
“It’s been a long time since I did anything like this,” he tells her. “I’m not sure I remember the rules. What do you...? Is this a way of passing the time, shut up in this place, or do you want more? Because I’m quite happy to take things as they come and enjoy your company, but I’d rather not be anyone’s pastime.” Something sharp flickers in her eyes again, but it fades quickly. She doesn’t pull away from him. A moment later, she smiles again. Merlin. Quicksilver, this one.
“I’m a hundred and eight years old, Ollivander. I don’t think much about the long term. But I don’t believe in casual sex, either. I wouldn’t be in here if I wasn’t interested in you.”
Ollivander takes a deep breath, hopes it sounds steadier than he feels. “It sounds like we’re on the same page, then.”
He’s glad she said it, finally. Sex. He does want that. Wants to hold her, wants to feel her, wants to enjoy the simple physical pleasure of something. He was sure that was her reason for sneaking into his room, he had been thinking of it himself, but now that she’s said it... well.
It is like being a teenager again. Not that he doesn’t know what to do – that is one place he’s glad he’ll never be again – but in the awkward awareness of his own body and the knowledge that it may not do what he wants, and the unknowing of hers and its age-induced idiosyncrasies. He thinks to ask her. How else can they navigate something so important? Sacrificing some of the mystery involved in learning another’s body is just the price they will have to pay. But then he can’t ask her anything because she is kissing him again: sidling up close to slip one knee over his and straddle his lap, hands cupping his face, tipping his head back and kissing him.
Ollivander can’t think. He can barely even breathe. His hands have slipped about her waist, he is aware of that much, but his eyes are closed and her mouth is soft and insistent, her fingertips curling in the ends of his hair. She smells of something spicy and oriental, rich and strong-willed, very definitely her, and it twists him up along with her fingers and her mouth and he is absolutely helpless.
He is breathing hard when their lips part again, and so is she. Right there in front of him and the air seems full of her, the entire room seems full of her. She is that sort of woman. He slides his hands along her waist, finding the knot holding her silky bathrobe closed, and begins to work at it with his fingers.
“You will tell me, won’t you,” he asks her, “What is the most comfortable for you? We’re neither of us young, and I know what my body can’t do, but I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”
Muriel arches an incredulous eyebrow at him. “Does anything about my appearance or demeanour suggest that I’m going to let you manhandle me, Ollivander?”
The knot comes loose in his hands and her robe falls open. To his surprise, she doesn’t seem to be wearing anything underneath.
“Maybe one thing,” he tells her with a smile.
She snorts. “I could hardly go wandering up the hallway naked, even if it is my hallway. But the rest is just useless frippery for someone my age. Young women might be able to entice with a pretty nightgown, but it’s all false advertising once you’ve been wearing your skin for a century. You’ll have to take me as I am, or not at all.”
“Oh, I wasn’t complaining.” To emphasise his words, he slips his hand inside the robe and grazes his fingers over the curve of breast. “As you are is perfectly all right with me.”
“Good.” Her own smile is feline. She plucks at the buttons of his pyjama shirt.
Very like being a teenager. He shrugs out of his shirt as soon as she has it open, but it tangles behind his arms, and the corner of it is trapped under her thigh so they both have to shift to get it off him. He is excruciatingly aware of his body once it is exposed in the light (and how is that she has nothing under her robe but is somehow still more clothed than he?), aware of the gauntness of frame and the slackness of skin where he hasn’t managed to put on weight after his captivity. Aware also of the scar under his collarbone like a ring of round burns, the questions it might evoke and the stories it might tell that he does not want to remember (it was not Bellatrix, that is all he will allow himself to recall; she took pride in not leaving scars at all). Muriel’s fingers brush over it, but only that. Notice and dismissal, as if she is cataloguing his pains only in the hope of easing them.
He wants to see her. Tugs the robe down off one shoulder and slides his fingers along bare skin, leaning in to press his lips against her throat and breathe in the smell of her as he slips the fabric off her other shoulder as well. Her skin is soft, far softer than his, pale and whisper thin. She is steel inside, with enough fire to bend when she wants to, but in his hands she feels fragile. He mouths down the side of her throat to the crease at her shoulder with gentle kisses, wondering how little suction it would take to mar her skin with a bruise. He might like that, seeing her throat mottled with blemishes given in pleasure rather than pain, but he doubts she would appreciate the advertisement to her family, so he refrains.
Things blur a little, then. The robe slides off her and her fingers are tugging at the drawstring on his pants, then somehow they are gone. They slip under the covers because the room isn’t particularly warm, but Ollivander feels them slide down his back when he has her stretched out beneath him, and doesn’t bother to right them because he likes the sight of her skin in the candlelight. She is not young – her breasts are heavy, weighted down with age, and there are fine webs of lines crisscrossing her chest and belly – but she has her own beauty. He can see the network of bluish veins spread out under all that pale skin, can trail his fingers along lines of freckles that have appeared where it has seen sun, and she flushes beautifully. He palms a breast, flicking his thumb over the nipple, trails his fingers over her skin, tracing the lines of age and vein and reading the story of her, and as her breath becomes shallow pink blooms on her skin, blushing first like starbursts and then all over, every reaction painted there for him to see.
She is not shy. He should never have even thought she might be. She doesn’t exactly instruct him, merely encourages his touches with noises and words of approval, but when he slips a hand under her thigh to spread her wide she tells him she needs a pillow under her back, and when he tries to slip a finger inside her, she makes a grunt that tells him very definitely that she is not ready yet.
“I’m afraid I’m going to need a little help, here. No magic, remember?” He doubts she needs the reminder, but he is embarrassed by the lack, so it is as much an apology as anything else.
“Of course I remember,” she breathes in what seems to be an attempt to sound sharp but comes out rather ragged. She slips a hand down over herself, breathing a word, and then there is dampness glistening between her fingers and dripping down her thighs. He slides his hand over hers, slicking his own fingers as she pulls her hand away, then spreading the conjured slickness over her with thumb and fingers. She flushes pinker in the cheeks and chest and everywhere, and he pulls his hand away then brings it down on her sex in a slap that makes her cry out, just so he can see the bloom of colour that follows.
Her damp hand works its way between them to curl around him, squeezing and giving him a firm stroke that makes the blood rush from his brain. Should have known she’d have a counter-attack for that move. Still, he has a few of his own. Slips a finger inside her and follows it with a second, spreading the moisture and curling his fingers until she gasps. She doesn’t give up her hold on him, strokes again with another careful squeeze that makes stars bloom before his eyes. Back and forth with grunts and gasps and purrs of pleasure until he gives in; she wins again. He feels harder than he has felt in a long time, his erection aching, but he knows it may not last as long as it should, and he will not leave either of them unsatisfied.
“Now,” he murmurs, moving over her. “Need you now.”
She murmurs her assent, but slips an arm around him and rolls so they are both on their sides, lifting her free leg to curl around him as he guides himself into her. He closes his eyes a moment, struggling to breathe against the wave of pleasure that envelopes him as she fits snugly around him. A moment of stillness while they adjust – the tightness of her tells him it’s been a while for her, too – then they begin to move, rocking into each other and finding a rhythm, building slow.
It’s very easy in this position, very comfortable. He can’t remember ever trying it before, but it obviously suits her, and he has a wonderful view of her flushing skin and all the way down to where they are joined. He palms a breast, leans in and lathes his tongue over her throat. She whimpers.
Heat building, he slips his hand under her thigh, edging her leg up over his hip to give himself more leverage, sinking deep and kissing her, tongue seeking hers as his body is swallowed up by her. Noises from her, urging and appreciative noises, and he pulls her leg a little higher. His fingers grip tightly around her thigh. He’s sure she would tell him if he was hurting her.
She squeezes herself around him and he growls, burying his face against her shoulder and pressing harder, faster, responding to her urging. Comfortable this might be, but it is not quite enough. He presses her back, feels her under him, burying himself in her softness and maybe his mouth is rough on her skin this time, maybe he is marking her but it is her shoulder not her throat and she can’t blame him for that. Fire building and maybe something more, something large and beautiful like magic thrumming in his veins, yes, magic, building with the fire and twisting them both up into raptures. Neither the fire nor the magic are as beautiful as her, though, when she throws her head back and comes with a wild hitch of breath and her cheeks flooding crimson. He only has a moment to notice, then she is clenching and shaking around him and he follows, blinded white by the spasm in his abdomen and the rush of release that chases it. Magic twists in the air, wild, and snuffs the candle out before it fades.
In the dark their bodies come back to them and their breathing slows. He touches her face in the darkness, runs his fingers over her cheek and brushes a lock of hair from it. He makes to move off her but her hand tightens around his arm.
“Stay a moment. I like the feel of you here.”
He obliges. In truth he is quite comfortable with her warmth beneath him, but he thought perhaps she would not be. He trails his fingers through her hair again, brushes his lips against her cheek. They are silent until she begins to find his weight uncomfortable, shifts and urges him off her. He rolls to the side, wrapping an arm around her waist and tugging her up against him.
“Did your magic come back, then?” she asks.
“Yes,” he replies, but realises as soon as he says it that it’s not that simple. “For a moment, anyway. It’s gone again now.” He feels the residue of it, still seeping away, but he can’t fathom how to hold on to the edges. Disappointment makes him sigh.
Muriel elbows him in the ribs. “Don’t get like that,” she says. “Self-pity isn’t attractive in anyone, least of all a man who just had an orgasm.” Ollivander chuckles, pressing his lips against her shoulder to keep from shaking his head. Even now, she doesn’t miss anything and allows even less. “Besides,” she continues, “whoever heard of someone being cured from the first dose?”
He’s heard it plenty of times, but doesn’t dispute her words. Instead, he brushes his thumb against her stomach and smiles. “You’re right,” he says after a moment. “I suppose one pleasurable experience was hardly going to fix everything. My body remembers the...other...too well.”
She threads her fingers through his and squeezes his hand. “Pain always takes a long time to fade.” She says it like someone with experience, but he doesn’t ask her what it is any more than she asked him how he came by that scar, or what it is his body remembers so well.
A moment later, the sympathy is gone. “At least the burst put that ridiculous candle out. You’re far too old to be afraid of the dark.”
“I’m not afraid,” he replies, laughing again and pulling her even closer. “Not tonight. You are fierce enough to keep everything at bay.”