FIC: 'Underneath The North Star And The Sycamores' for atdelphi Recipient:atdelphi Author:femmequixotic Title: Underneath The North Star And The Sycamores Rating: NC-17 Pairings: Eileen Prince/Tobias Snape Word Count: 5,188 Warnings: none Summary: I'm restless, eager for something I'm not quite certain of, something I never thought I'd want. Author's Notes: Many, many, many thanks to my three betas for their suggestions and comments, and much love to bethbethbeth for this fest. And a huge debt of gratitude to atdelphi for a chance to write Eileen and Tobias.
"Six NEWTs," Mother says in that shrill, nearly hysterical voice she's taken to using with me since I'd come home from Hogwarts a month past. The teapot wisely scampers further down the breakfast table. It's been present at far too many of Mother's episodes, as Father'd liked to term them. I prefer calling them raging fits of melodrama--which had always made Father smile behind his teacup as he chastised my impertinence.
Merlin, I still miss him. It's only been eight months since we buried him, and none of us still quite know what to do with ourselves. Father was the one that held us together. Kept us from turning on each other.
This year's been difficult.
"Six," Mother says again, mouth tight, and she stabs a kipper with her fork, slashing angrily at it with her knife, "and you've taken a position in Yorkshire instead of the Ministry? Have you lost your mind, Eileen? Surely your sister could find you something better in London."
I butter my currant scone calmly and set the knife down on the side of my plate with a quiet clink. "As if I'd ask anything of Fins." The scone is crumbly sweet; the currants soft and tart. My older sister and I have a complicated relationship—at least in her opinion. Frankly, I can't stand the arrogant cow. We're nothing alike, Finola and I. She prefers boys and frocks and gossip, all of which bore me to tears. Give me a book and a quiet fire, I say.
My sister spends most of her life appalled by me.
"Finola has already expressed her concern over these ridiculous plans of yours, and she would be quite happy to arrange an interview with the Floo Network for you—"
"Mother." I frown at her over the scone. Honestly, I don't know how we've tolerated each other this long. I'm quite aware that I'm a disappointment to my family. Mother and Finola take great care to point that out to me at every opportunity.
Mother looks at me then, the tiny furrow in her brow deepening. "If you must work, Eileen, the Ministry is far more appropriate for a witch of your standing. You're a Prince, for Circe's sake. What on earth will my friends think when I tell them my daughter has decided to go wandering the moors for an apprenticeship?" Her lip curls at the word. "In potions, of all things!"
"I'm quite sure they'll be horrified at the notion that you've raised a swotty daughter." Mother's friends already despair of me--with the exception of my godmother, Lycoris Black, who prides herself on being--in her words--a wretched old bluestocking spinster. But then, she has the luxury of being a Black. Everyone knows they're entirely barking.
Mother sighs and presses her mouth together in that tight, thin line that expresses all too well her displeasure with me.
I'm unmoved. No matter what Mother thinks of the great Northern wasteland, this is a brilliant opportunity to study under Libatius Borage. He never takes on students, recluse that he is, and Professor Slughorn and Lycoris both called in favours owed to coax him into taking me on for the next year. I've no intention of letting them down.
Besides, if I don't escape from this damned house soon, I'll go out of my mind. Truly.
Or commit matricide.
At the moment, I'm not sure which is worse.
"Your mother always has been somewhat of a fool," Lycoris says as she pours tea for me in the library of her London townhouse. "Remarkably intent on remaining unenlightened." The room is filled with books; papers are scattered across her wide walnut desk. It's stout and heavy, with thick, elaborately carved legs. A man's desk, Mother always says with a curl of her lip.
I love it.
Lycoris levitates the teacup over to me; a few drops splatter across a parchment filled with scrawls and equations. "Blast," my godmother mutters, flicking her wand at the mess, and I barely catch the cup before it falls in my lap--not that I blame her. One must look after one's research, after all. Warm Earl Grey splashes across my thumb, and I lick it off. Lycoris doesn't scold my lack of decorum.
It's one of the things I love about her. I've often wondered if I'd be the same without her, if I'd be able to stand against the whirlwind that is Mother. It's a terrifying thought to me, that I might lose myself in the silly twaddle that occupies my mother and sister's world.
"Well, it's nearly 1958 now." I set my cup on an edge of the desk blotter that is relatively free of parchment. "The height of modernity! Things have changed, as much as she hates to admit it. You realise what she actually wants is for Fins to introduce me to a proper husband."
“And you don’t want that, I take it?” Lycoris asks dryly.
My mouth twists to one side in a grimace. "The last thing I want is a husband. They get in the way of far more interesting things and have a revolting habit of wanting you to stay home and tend to their every need. Thank you, but no. I want to work, Lycoris. I want to see the world, to make a mark on it, not just be some man's kept bird. Not that any of them would particularly care for my plumage."
Lycoris snorts. "Don't short-sell yourself, girl." Her thick iron-grey curls, twisted up in a near-tower over her high forehead, tremble. Her hair has always been her vanity, she'll cheerfully admit. Every woman should have one. Mine are my hands, smooth and pale, with perfectly oval nails. They're the only pretty things about me.
I see myself in the mirror each morning. Gangly, knobbly-kneed, with sharp cheekbones and an even sharper tongue. Not exactly what one would consider a catch. Boys never flocked to my side at school (especially not after I made good my threat to hex Mulciber's bollocks off when he sicked up on me after too much butterbeer on a Hogsmeade weekend). I've never minded all that much. Books are far more interesting than boys anyway, and far less likely to be enormous twats, I'm certain, given the tragic sobs that echoed through the Slytherin girls' dormitory every few weeks during school. You've no idea how absolutely idiotic some girls can be. "Really, I'd rather not have the drama."
Lycoris just hms. She knows what I'm thinking of course. It's one of the things we disagree on frequently; my godmother has far too high an opinion of me. Today, however, she chooses not to argue. I'm grateful. "I must say I do fear to think what that bubble-headed sister of yours would consider a good match."
"As do I." I sigh. "One would think she'd prefer to spend her time worrying about her own marriage prospects. She's turned down yet another one since I've been home. Mother's not best pleased at the moment. Between her sulks and her rages, even the elves are avoiding her unless necessary."
"I can imagine." Lycoris pets the teapot gently; it hums at her touch and lets out a burst of steam. "Honoria always was a horrible bint back in school when her plans were thwarted." She smiles, and her face softens, the creases at the corner of her mouth deepen. "I rather liked that about her. And judging from your father's reaction, so did he. Then again, no matter how they argued, she always did have Severus wrapped around her finger." The chair squeaks as I shift in it. It's still hard to think of him. I keep expecting him to stride into the room with that lanky, broad-shouldered grace. Lycoris looks up at me, her eyes sharp. "Enough about your mother. You're prepared for Libatius's workroom?"
I cross my legs. My robe falls open slightly; the hem's out in it again. I'm bollocks at household charms. I always have been. Yet another reason I'd make an awful wife. "Merlin, I hope so. I just finished his treatise on Felix Felicis. It took me nearly a week to get through."
"He does tend to wander." Lycoris lifts her teacup and blows across the surface. The faint scent of bergamot wafts towards me. "You'll learn a great deal from him. Brilliant mind. Don't take any of his shite, though."
"Difficult, is he?" I rub my thumb over my knuckle. I'm nervous, though I won't admit it to anyone. I lie awake at night, staring at the shadows flickering over the spiderweb in the corner of my ceiling and wondering if I'm good enough. Smart enough. Skilled enough. The last thing I want is to fail at this. I won't let myself. I'm not coming home again, tail between my legs like a chastised Crup. I won't. I'll die first.
Lycoris hesitates. "Temperamental, perhaps." She smiles faintly. "I wonder what he'll make of you."
Somehow, that doesn't make me feel better.
"So," Libatius Borage says, looking me up and down from behind smudged wire-rimmed spectacles, "you're the girl."
He's a tall, thin wizard with a messy mane of white hair and a bulbous, reddened nose that hints at too much whisky late at night. His frayed shirt cuffs are stained orange and blue and his collar is smeared with something slimy that gleams in the candlelight.
I've taken care to dress myself neatly, in my best grey robe and leather boots, twisting my hair into a neat chignon at my nape. Libatius does not appear impressed. I didn't expect him to be.
"Off with the robe," he says, turning, and I blink, my hand going to my throat reflexively. The jet buttons of my robe are smooth underneath my fingertips.
"I beg your pardon?"
He sighs and turns back around, frowning. "Well you can't brew in that kit, now can you?" He scowls as he flicks a finger at my sleeve. "Too loose; you'll drag it through the cauldron and then God only knows how you'll spoil the potion." A clap of his hands and an exhausted-looking elf appears with a bundle of black wool and white cotton. "This will do for today."
I take the heavy folds of fabric; he closes the sitting room door behind him with a sharp down the hall as soon as you're dressed.
This isn't quite what I expected.
I slip out of my robe, glancing around uncertainly. I'm not certain he won't bounce out of some corner, eager to see me in my knickers. Not that he'd have that much of a show. With my flat chest and narrow hips I might as well be a boy. The white shirt nearly fits; next trip home, I’ll have one of the elves nip the chest in a bit and widen the shoulders. Over it I pull the wool pinafore. It reminds me strangely of the robes the mediwitches wear in St Mungo's and my throat tightens. The last time I saw Father was in the Blenkinsop ward. The scrofungulus had taken him quickly.
My eyes sting; I press my palms to them, breathing out slowly, collecting myself. I wish it would stop hurting. Someday it might.
Libatius is waiting for me in the workroom. Cauldrons bubble behind him and the stench of rotten eggs and putrid cabbage fills the room. I don't blink; I don't gag.
His face falls.
"Draught of Living Death," I say instead, approaching the table. Sopophorus beans are spread across it, half-cut, and a dragon's eye rolls down the length, catching against a bowl of shredded lovage. Libatius holds it still and slices it with a sharp knife. Vitreous humor oozes over his fingers, slick and smooth.
He watches me intently, brows drawn together, as I pick up a sopophorus bean and look for a knife. He hands his to me; within seconds I have the bean crushed beneath the flat of the blade, the juice draining into a small bowl. I dry my hands on a nearby rag and look up at him. "More effective than chopping."
After a moment, Libatius nods. "You'll do." He still hasn't smiled.
The next six months are the best of my life.
Libatius shouts at me every day, calls me a fool, an idiot, an utter twat. He is certain that I'll manage to kill us both in one go with one of my many witless mistakes. But it's worth it for that rare moment when he nods at me, pleased, when he turns away silently and I know I've mastered a technique.
I rent a miniscule bed-sit just across the River Derwent from an old, crotchety Squib Libatius appears to be related to. There are Borages scattered across the village, mostly Muggle from what I can tell. Libatius doesn't speak of his family much beyond the necessities; I don't bother to ask. It's a comfortable arrangement for us both.
My flat's just above the chemist's on High Street and reachable only by a narrow, dark staircase lit by one bare lamp. But it's mine--a tiny, cosy room and bath that at last belongs only to me, and I fill it with bookshelves and a bed and a thin wardrobe crammed with black pinafores and serviceable white shirts that Mother loathes. When I go home for Christmas Day she makes pointedly caustic comments about my lack of style and grace.
As if I had either to begin with.
Her words don't sting this time, though, and neither do my sister's pursed mouth and disapproving stare. I'm surprised; Lycoris isn't. She pulls me aside during Mother's interminable New Year's dinner party and tells me she's pleased with my progress. Libatius, it seems, has informed her that I'm not a complete oaf. From him, I know, that's highest praise.
This is everything I've wanted from life, and a curious warmth twists heavy in my chest.
It takes me weeks to realise it's happiness.
Spring creeps in slowly, and the ice encasing the river begins to melt. With the rains of late March, wildflowers unfurl in a scattered pink-purple-yellow spread across the hills.
A rare sunny afternoon infects me; I spend it most of it staring out the diamond-paned window. Warm sunlight sparkles through the wavy glass and diffuses Libatius's front garden and the clear sky above into a blur of bright green and blue that reminds me of the Draught of Peace in a perfect roil, colours twisting and bubbling in a silver cauldron.
I've dropped my second tray of empty potions phials when Libatius barks out, out ,OUT at me, and if I wasn't as familiar with his gruff demeanour I might have been worried about my position. Instead, when he slams the door behind me with a tart and don't come back 'til morning, I toss my cloak over my arm and nearly fly down the riverstone walk.
My freedom is scented with the clean earthiness of fresh-turned dirt and cut grass; the speckled sunshine that falls through just-budding branches is warm-cool on my skin. I allow myself one quick skip at the end of the bridge, a momentary flight of fancy that sends my skirt swirling against my calves.
A whistle brings me up short; a Muggle boy a year or two older than me is straddling the wide stone railing, a fishing pole over his knee. He's odd-looking with a hooked nose and hair nearly as dark as mine hanging loose beneath a scruffy brown cap. A faint purple-yellow bruise is fading on his jaw. He grins and I can feel my cheeks heat. I stiffen my shoulders.
How very humiliating.
"You're the bird what lives up above Clayworth's store, aren't you?" he asks, and his pole jerks. He reels the line in without looking and a trout pops up over the stones, gills fluttering in the hope of one last watery breath. "I've seen you about some."
I don't answer, choosing instead to lift my chin higher as I pass him. Muggles. Honestly.
"Name's Toby." He tosses the trout into a basket and slides off the railing. His accent is thick Derbyshire, but not nearly as incomprehensible as most of the Muggles I've encountered in the village. "Tobias, really, but no one except me Mum calls me that and her only when she's got a right munk on."
Much to my chagrin, I can't stop myself from giving him a curious look. "A munk?"
He tucks the fishing pole over his shoulder and grins again. "Ah. London lass, you are." At my blank look, he takes pity on me. "What happens, say, when she catches me sneaking up the stairs after I've been out on a piss-up all night with the lads."
"Oh." I start walking again; he falls in beside me. The fishbasket bounces against his hip. "What are you doing?" I ask finally.
Tobias raises one eyebrow perfectly. I hate him just for that. I've practised in my mirror since I was nine to no effect. "Walking."
I frown at him crossly. "Well, stop."
"'Tis an open path."
"Well, I'm not an open girl," I say, crossing my arms over my chest. My cloak slaps against my knees.
He just smiles again, a sly twist of his mouth to one side. "Never said you was."
"Were." Really, does no one teach Muggles proper grammar these days?
Tobias shrugs. "So what might you be called, Miss Mardy?" It doesn't sound like a compliment. I consider hexing him; unfortunately it would only cause further problems. And he'd probably like it, the bastard. "Bit of a queer one, aren’t you?"
At my silence, he gives me a sideways look as he stops at the end of the bridge. "No matter." His bright blue eyes slide down my body in a manner that I'm entirely not accustomed to. My face burns. "I think I like it." With a tip of his hat, he turns down the opposite path without even a proper farewell.
Looking after him, I'm oddly annoyed.
I'm not certain why.
It rains the next evening.
I don't know why I choose to walk home again. I've a new book waiting for me, just delivered this morning from Flourish and Blotts, and tinned soup to be heated, and the pleasantness of a solitary evening curled in my warm bed with the covers to my chin as the soft misting drops gather force into a full-fledged storm that rattles my windows.
But when I see him there, leaning against the stone railing, my breath catches for just one moment. He's not handsome, not in the way Finola would approve of, but that doesn't seem to matter to my body. My stomach flops, and I stop myself before I do something incredibly ridiculous. Like smooth down my hair or pinch colour into my cheeks.
He looks up when I approach, and the bright smile on his face tightens my throat. "Eileen," he says proudly and I tilt my head.
"You've been asking about me."
Tobias pushes off the railing. "Might have done. Does it bother you?"
"It should." I shift my book from one arm to the other and walk past him. My fingers tighten on the new leather.
"That's not really an answer." Tobias hesitates, and he rocks back on his heels, his hands in his pockets. He looks young and uncertain, and it's that which makes my decision. Another bruise, fresh, mottles his cheekbone.
I look back at him and, for once, I smile. "Walk with me."
It becomes a habit. Each evening Tobias waits for me at the foot of the bridge and walks me to my street corner before deserting me for the pub down the road. He asks if I want to come with him; I nearly always refuse. I've no desire to be swarmed by his friends, all hard-drinking louts from what I can tell. He's different when they're about. Harder. Angrier almost. As if he's something to prove to himself, if not to the others.
We talk, intermittently at first. He tells me of his job in the cotton mill, standing over the looms, and how he was once hit between the eyes by a stray shuttle. He shows me the scar on his forehead proudly, as if it's a war wound. Perhaps in a way it is. I ask him if he worries the mill will shut down--even I've heard the whispers from the Muggles in the shops on High Street. Mills are being closed all over the North, after all. His eyes dull for a moment, then he shakes it off with a shrug and a 'twill be what 'twill be before he changes the subject. It's one best left alone.
Life is hard for him, I soon realise. Tobias's bright and too well-read for this dingy village; as a boy he'd secretly wished--despite knowing it would never occur--to go down for university. The few lingering remnants of that impossible dream died the day his father lost his position at the mill after coming in drunk one morning too many. "Millwork's too damned dangerous to be pissed," Tobias says. One wrong move on a loom and you could lose your hand, your arm, or worse. There's already been one funeral at the village church since I've been here. With his father home and drinking more, Tobias hadn't a choice. Whisky only fed his father's rage, which then turned on his mother. Tobias wasn't about to leave her alone with the bastard. Someone had to step in front of the fists. His voice takes on a bitter edge despite the matter-of-factness he speaks with; it's almost too faint to notice.
But I do. Losing hope can be dreadful, I know.
Soon I find myself telling him of Father's death, of how Mother disapproves of everything that makes me who I am. Tobias takes my hand then and squeezes it.
"I like who you are, Eileen-lass," he says softly, and for once, I believe him.
I dream about him.
About his mouth and his hands and his body pressing against mine. His whispers in my ear, the warm huff of his breath against my skin.
When I wake, flushed and with the sheets twisted around my hips, I'm restless, eager for something I'm not quite certain of, something I never thought I'd want.
I'm still not certain I do.
Early May brings warmer evenings and longer walks in the twilight along the river path.
The entire village is talking about us, we both know. Even Libatius has made a pointed comment or two, warning me that the Snapes have a certain reputation around town as drunkards and troublemakers. "That boy," he says over a steaming cauldron of Pepperup, "has been the cause of more than one inebriated kerfuffle down the pub."
I ignore him. None of that matters to me. Tobias and I are friends, nothing more. He's a Muggle. I'm not. I know both our places all too well. Still, I enjoy his company, I tell myself, our conversations, and instead of avoiding him, I look forward to our nightly walks. Part of me realises the danger. I don't particularly care.
We stop one evening by an open field, watching a group of village children play some game Tobias calls football. It's a dull sport, nothing like Quidditch at all, and there's part of me that wishes I could show Tobias the excitement of Bludgers and Snitches. I turn to say something to him, but he's leapt over the fence and joined the match. The boys shout their welcome, and I hop up on the crumbling stone wall and watch.
I pull my knees to my chest and smile.
He'll be a good father someday, I think, not like his own, and I catch myself in surprise. Children are something I've never considered.
Tobias races down the field with the ball, the boys at his heels and he kicks it over to one, glancing at me as he does. The breeze catches his hair, lifts it from his forehead, and carries his laugh my way.
Years later, I'll realise that perhaps it's then that I fell.
One evening, he's not at the bridge.
A half-hour wait turns into an hour, and suddenly I'm frightened. Something's wrong, I'm certain, and before I can think, my feet are carrying me down the path to Spinner's End and his parent's house.
The house is ablaze with light and it's then that I know something’s happened. My own memories are far too fresh.
Shaking, I knock on the door; after a moment Tobias opens it. His eyes are empty, his face drawn. He reeks of whisky.
"Toby," I say, relief making my voice crack, and he falls into my arms, pressing his face into my neck with a near-silent groan.
The stars shimmer in the black sky above us; rough grass presses through the cotton of my shirt, scraping my back. Tobias is curled against my side, his head on my shoulder. I trail my fingers through his hair, twisting a lock around my thumb.
"It was a lorry accident." Tobias's breath huffs against my throat. "He'd been drinking again..." He trails off and I smooth his hair back from his forehead. There's nothing to say and I know it. No words will make this better. "He might have been a shit, but he was my da."
He looks at me then. "I didn't hate him." He hesitates. "I could have."
"He thought I did."
Tobias presses his forehead against my shoulder and breathes out raggedly. "At least Mum won't have the shite knocked out of her now."
We lie silent for a moment. He rests his hand on my stomach. His palm is wide, his fingers are thick and callused. They move slowly over my shirt, tracing circles around the buttons. "Eileen," he says after a moment, and when I turn my head, he kisses me.
His mouth is soft and warm and wet, and it sends shivers of want through me. My first kiss, I think, barely able to breathe. He pulls back slightly, just enough to look down at me, and he drags his thumb over my bottom lip. "Eileen," he says again, and it's all I need.
I reach for him, pulling him to me, my mouth opening to his. I let him teach me, show me how to move with him, against him, and when my teeth bump his top lip, he just smiles into the kiss, rolling on top of me, heavy and warm. It's slow between us, careful almost, and when he trails his mouth over my jaw whispering lovely into my skin, my breath catches.
Tobias makes me feel pretty. No one has ever done that before. No one has ever wanted to. But when Tobias looks at me, when he touches me, I'm not the scrawny, gangly ugly duckling I've always thought myself to be.
I'm his Eileen.
"Please," he says against my mouth and I catch his hand, pulling it to my breast. It's the only comfort I can give him now.
Tobias groans and his fingers pull at my shirt buttons. It only takes a moment before his hand is inside, cupping my breast. I shiver.
I've read about this, of course. I've heard the other girls whisper about how it feels. They were wrong.
It's not as if I haven't been aroused before. Obviously. But this....
This is different.
His mouth trails down my throat; his fingers pull the cup of my brassiere down over my nipple, thumb brushing over it. I groan softly and he kisses me again. "You like that."
I nod and he pulls my shirt loose, spreads it open so that he can see his fingers move across my small breast. My cheeks burn, but I meet his gaze.
Tobias smiles. "You're beautiful," he whispers and for just a moment I can pretend he's telling the truth. And then he leans in and licks my nipple. I gasp, arch against him, my fingers twisting in his hair.
"Toby," I say breathlessly and he shifts over me, rucking my skirt up over my hips. His fingers slip over my knickers; I buck up against him.
"Can I--" he starts and I nod.
I want this. I want him.
It doesn't matter that he's a Muggle.
He tugs at my knickers, pulls them over my hips, down my thighs. I'm oddly terrified, nearly as much as I'm excited. I reach for him and pull him into a kiss; he's hard against me. His erection feels strange against my hip, and my fingertips brush the front of his trousers. My face heats again; he just laughs and presses my palm against him.
I curl my fingers in the heavy corduroy and Tobias groans as he lifts up, his hand fumbling between us. In a moment his trousers are open and he's in my hand, hard and hot and heavy against my palm.
It's the first prick I've seen outside of a book on anatomy and there's something about it that takes my breath.
Tobias curls his fingers around mine and shows me how to stroke him. I catch the rhythm quickly and his hand drops away. He leans in to kiss me, to bite my bottom lip. "I need you," he says, almost brokenly, and I want him to have me. Here, in this field beneath the stars.
When he pushes inside of me, I tense. It hurts, oh Circe, it hurts. But he stops, holds still, his mouth pressed to my temple. "Breathe," he says and it's only then I realise that I've been holding it.
I exhale slowly and he begins to move. It's still not comfortable. He's heavy on me and my legs are spread too wide. I wince with nearly every thrust.
But there's something intensely intimate about this, about our movements together. And when he tilts his hips just so, a frisson of sudden heat bursts through me. It's enough to make me forget the pain, and I arch and stretch beneath him, digging my feet into the grass. He gasps and his mouth catches mine, eager and rough.
Another two thrusts and Tobias throws his head back, his body shuddering as he jerks inside of me.
He collapses against me, breathing hard. I'm aching, sore, disturbingly damp, and yet a faintly pleasant, steady thrum and throb through my body makes me feel alive. Wanted. Needed.
Tobias is watching me, and when I turn my head, he brushes his knuckles against my cheek. "I'm sorry," he says and I know he means it.
"Don't be." I'm not. I like being here with him, in his arms, our legs tangled together. The zip of his trousers digs into my hip. I feel safe.
"Eileen," he murmurs, and I silence him with a kiss.
A star shoots across the sky above us, a bright arc of fading light. An omen, I think, with a smile on my lips.