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    Chapter One

    Once she had brought him a dying swallow from the garden. She couldn’t have been more than nine at the time, filled with all the hopes of life eternal and a world entirely lacking of death and despair. The bird had not struggled in her hands. It must have flown into one of the windows and broken its neck, but it had not yet died when she found it with twisted neck and twitching wings. She had picked it up in shaking hands – she had never seen any creature so injured before. Nor had she seen anything so close to death. She had taken it to Grimm, who, in her young eyes, knew everything.

    “You cannot bring something back from the dead, child.”

    “Why not?” She had looked down at the swallow, meeting its hazing eye.

    His voice had not been steady when he replied, “There are some things that magic cannot heal.”

    At that moment, something had changed. The world, especially the magical one, was not a place of miracles and wonder; it was as cold and unfair as the way her aunts and her grandparents had treated both her and her mother. Outcasts. Not fit for proper society. That’s the only reason why her mother had been desperate enough to seek out Grimm for help. The disgraceful half-blood who’d never done a proper thing in his life ended up saving them, saving Vivien. Yet even he could not put a stopper on death. You could heal a wound, regrow bones, cure illnesses, but once that thread of life had been cut, nothing could be done.

    It was a disappointment, but also an opportunity.

    She had looked back down at the bird in her hands, the life now gone from its veins, and had not been disgusted by the death, the decay. She would never forget the swallow, just as she would never forget the many things Grimm would teach her.

    But still, nothing could prevent the death of her mother, no magic, no potion, nothing.

    Vivien had watched her mother die, the sickness eating her mother’s body from the inside out, slowly stealing away all the things her mother had loved most: her beauty, her voice, and her perfect figure. Even as Vivien sat at her mother’s beside during that endless last moment of life, no word of motherly affection poured out of her mother’s lips. She hadn’t expected any.

    The grave now loomed open before Vivien as she stood between Grimm and Professor McGonagall, clutching a dry handkerchief in her hand more for propriety’s sake than anything. Sandwiched between the professors, she wished her school robes – the best black set she had – were not so thick and woolen. It suited for a winter in Hogwarts, but not for the summer sun that flooded the graveyard with light and heat. The juxtaposition of the warm air and cold casket were not lost upon her, but it was not an amusing image. Even Grimm’s face, often the first to betray amusement in any situation, was plastered in stern austerity.

    The three of them stood across from the rest of Vivien’s family: the two aunts, one starved and one overfed. They glared back at her while she stared down at the casket containing her mother’s wasted body. She had refused treatment, Grimm told her, had even refused to believe that she was dying, that anything bad like that could ever happen to one of such pure and noble blood. Yet the blood which had stained her handkerchief after every cough had been of no different in colour than anyone else’s Vivien had seen, including her own.

    The service concluded, the reverend closing his book with a snap and signalling to the gravediggers to do their duty. Professor McGonagall, as Vivien had been forced to call her these past four years at Hogwarts, placed a hand on her shoulder.

    “It’s over now.” As though she knew Vivien hadn’t been paying attention.

    “Yeah, over.” She stuffed her hands in her pockets.

    Grimm took McGonagall’s free arm, his fingers wrapping around her wrist. “We’d better go.” His eyes warily sized up the two women across the grave.

    Letting out a breath she hadn’t recalled holding in, Vivien kicked a clump of dirt into the hole and turned to follow the two professors out of the graveyard. She watched them walking together, demonstrating greater closeness than they usually did. Maybe funerals were a weakness of theirs; McGonagall’s voice had been a bit shaky. Their footsteps were evenly matched, like they’d walked like this a million times. She did envy them, in a way. With her father having left so soon after her birth, she’d never seen a witch and wizard so close as the two professors. If it weren’t for the little things she observed, she’d have been like everyone else, believing that they were just friends.

    They were passing through the gate, their steps carrying them faster than Vivien cared to walk.

    “So you’re the girl, eh?” The voice from behind her was decidedly unpleasant. “Be a hard one to marry off, scrawny as she is.”

    “She’s a little pretty, Fulvia. Like her mother.” The wheezy voice drifted towards Vivien; it was weak even in the still air.

    She quickened her steps, praying under her breath that the women wouldn’t catch up to her. It may have been years since she’d last seen her aunts, but she wasn’t looking forward to a family reunion. The footsteps behind her were too close to avoid. There was no time to call for Grimm; he was too far ahead.

    “Stop, girl! It’d be just like that useless mother of yours to not bother teaching you manners!” It was Fulvia, the big one, a nightmare on wobbly legs.

    Vivien stopped and whirled around, her face set with a blank expression. “You shouldn’t speak poorly of my mother over her grave, ma’am.” She paused, gazing down at her aunt’s flabby face. “It’s bad manners. Whatever would Grandmamma say?”

    The other aunt, weedy Cloeia, shuddered in fear, glancing about as though her mother would pop out from behind a gravestone for revenge. But Fulvia bristled, her dull eyes glaring. “Just as I thought. One who can’t keep her mouth shut. You must get that from your father’s side of the family.”

    It took Vivien a moment to recall that her father was not Grimm. Mortimer Horne had not been much of anything, true, but he had not been a particularly bad person. At least, that was what she had been told of him. He’d been gone for years, run off to America with a failing actress. Not a glorious parentage, but his name was helpful enough in certain social circles.

    “I wouldn’t know, ma’am,” she replied, crossing her arms. “Never knew him. Now if you’ll excuse me.” She began to sidle away, worried at the pity she felt for these two witches, stuck with each other until death. Too ugly to marry, too beastly to spend time with anyone but each other. Not a pleasant fate for either of them.

    Fulvia was in the midst of replying when Vivien turned and stomped off.

    “Be glad that you’re not coming home with me, girl,” Fulvia’s voice was the type that carried well. Too well. “I’d do some work to tame that tongue of yours. Insolent child.” Her anger was enough to make the blubber ripple across her stomach.

    Vivien felt her muscles stiffen, her hand itching to reach for her wand. Oh, how she wanted to hex the skin off that fat bitch – the sun would probably melt all the blubber in her veins. Her face was in full view of Grimm and McGonagall, but she didn’t care if they saw. Grimm, at least, would understand; perhaps even McGonagall would praise her for not giving into the temptation of rage.

    “It wouldn’t be hard to get custody of you, girl. Don’t you forget that! What a disgrace, with the way that impure wizard consorts with that filthy tart of his! My mother would never have allowed it. Never allowed a brat like you to ever imagine decent society much less enter it!”

    The words echoed over the hillside, meant to be heard by all there. The first tears she’d shed that entire funeral now burned in Vivien’s eyes. Through blurred vision she saw Grimm turn at the words, his hand reaching for his wand. But he wasn’t coming, why? Did she have to learn to deal with those aunts on her own, even at her own mother’s funeral? She wanted him there beside her, fighting off the evils of the world. In spite of the moment, Vivien would have smiled at the thought of Grimm as her white knight, sword flashing in the blinding sunlight – it was so unlike him, but somehow that he how he’d always been: the one who had rescued her from these dragons masquerading as relatives.

    As she approached, she noticed the tight grip McGonagall had on Grimm’s arm. Holding him back, Vivien mused, some different kind of anger twinging in her mind. It was really for the best that he didn’t come into contact with his cousins, she thought, blaming the anger on the meeting with her aunts. What else could it be? She was fourteen, she had to handle things on her own, even at the worst of times.

    “I can’t believe I’m related to them.” Her flat voice seemed to amuse Grimm, whose tense shoulders relaxed while his eyes still glowered at the two witches.

    “Me neither.” There was a tiny flicker of muscle at the corner of his mouth.

    McGonagall made a show of rolling her eyes, something she never would have done at Hogwarts. The dramatic motion was, perhaps, more to disguise the paleness on her face. She too had heard Fulvia’s insults.

    “With the way you treat them, it’s not a wonder.”

    Grimm snorted, but his eyes were searching McGonagall’s face with a trace of concern. “Their very presence demands such treatment.”

    While McGonagall gave him the look that froze schoolboys to their chairs, Grimm tried to give Vivien a reassuring smile. The moment had passed for now, but no one could ever make the truth disappear forever. He managed to look guilty, if nothing more. The weight of Fulvia’s words had hit him in the most sensitive place of all.

    “You won’t be going with her anytime soon.” His voice was low and tense. “The Ministry would never allow it.”

    Vivien looked down. “I’m not afraid of that. I could live with it.” Sometimes it did well to sound tough.

    But not all the time.

    “There’s a damn good reason Cloeia is the doormat she is. You don’t want to become like her.” He glanced back to where the aunts had vanished. “Poor girl, but it was her choice.”

    “Tiberius.” Minerva’s hand tightened on his arm. His eyes rose to meet hers and something passed between them; unspoken words which Vivien would never know, never understand. She watched them, feeling entirely out of place. How could they look as though there was no one in the world but themselves?

    Grimm was the first to break the connection. He took in a breath. “Vivien, they may be your aunts, but you and your mother are... were not at all like them, you most of all.” Letting out that breath, he ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Purebloods like them are the worst of the lot. Bitterness and interbreeding make them terrible specimens of humanity.”

    Vivien looked at him, wanting to believe him. Some people were just terrible, their blood or their family had nothing to do with it. People could be bad with pure blood or with mixed blood; it didn’t matter. Grimm was too quick to judge her aunts on their bloodline, rather than the fact that Fulvia was innately a cruel person. Her mother hadn’t been much better, with her beliefs of blood purity and perfection. It wasn’t that far removed from Fulvia’s mantra.

    Not that she’d say any of these things aloud. There was boundaries, even with Grimm, that could not be crossed. He had his own deep-rooted beliefs of how the wizarding creeds should and did exist. In many ways, he was not far removed from a pureblood.

    She looked away from him, unable to control the rumble of thoughts and emotions which shook through her mind and body, shaking down the stability her sheltered life had so far provided. The world and its people were so harsh and unforgiving, just like death.

    They went down the pavement on their way home, now silent. Vivien watched various things on the street or in the graveyard. For the most part, it was a very boring part of London; it seemed that nothing was on display for the wandering and curious eye to see. She brought her gaze back to the graveyard, trying to ignore the whisperings of Grimm and McGongall beside her. Something in the distance caught Vivien’s eye: a half-familiar boy, her age, dressed all in black. He was watching them from the next gate, hands shoved deep in his pockets. Another spectator to the family drama in the graveyard?

    “There is Regulus Black,” McGonagall said with narrowed eyes. “Do you know him, Vivien?”

    Surely she would have noticed if she knew him; Vivien had Transfiguration with the Slytherins.

    “Not really. Why is he here, you think?” She stared back at the boy; his face was so impassive, like no emotion had ever passed over its features.

    “Why do you think he is here, you mean.” The correction came automatically. Leave it McGonagall the perfectionist. How did Grimm put up with it? She was correcting him all the time. “Perhaps his mother sent him to represent the family.”

    “Old fashioned biddy,” Grimm was grumbling again. He had an opinion about everyone. “You should say something to him, just a greeting or something like that. Stupid propriety.” He looked towards the spot where Regulus Black stood and frowned. “Don’t be long. I’ve got experiments running at home.”

    Vivien thought of resisting, but her curiosity was piqued by the Slytherin’s presence. He was the snobbiest of snobs, the highest of the high – he was called the Black Prince for a damn good reason. She couldn’t recall ever having spoken to him before. He had his own friends, the group of Slytherins who called from all the years and all the best families. Vivien had watched them, like she watched a great many people at school, but none of what she’d seen in the past accounted for his presence at her mother’s funeral.

    He stepped forward to meet her, as though unable to wait for her hesitant steps to ever come close enough to him on their own. There was a certain impatience about him, something all the Blacks had. It must have come from being born with a silver spoon in the mouth.

    At first, he opened his mouth, then closed it again, tasting the words. Vivien blinked, watching his face for sincerity or hypocrisy.

    “I’m very sorry about your mother, Horne.” He had quiet eyes and a quiet voice, very much unlike his brother, whose voice constantly echoed down the corridors at school.

    “Thank you, Black.” She stopped, biting at her lip in hesitation. “It was nice of you to come.”

    The emptiness of her words was bothersome. They were so unreal and there was nothing behind them. She always wanted her words to mean something, no matter the cost.

    He shrugged, a jerky gesture of his left shoulder. “Mother would have come, but she didn’t hear of it until this morning.”

    The corner of Vivien’s mouth twitched. “Not one for short notice?”

    Perhaps if they’d known each other better, he would have laughed. “Pretty much.”

    She had no idea what to say to him. They stood there, awkwardly, waiting for the other to speak. It was not a surprise on Vivien’s part, remembering how little the Black Prince spoke, even among his friends. The importance which Vivien herself placed on words often prevented her from saying anything at all. Better to listen, and learn, then say something which may give part of oneself away.

    “I’m sorry I was late, that I missed the actual funeral,” he said, bowing his head to her. It was a formal gesture that Vivien had not seen outside of old pictures of Victorians.

    With a shrug, she replied, “No bother to me. The importance is in that you bothered to come at all. Mum wasn’t exactly the most revered of pureblooded ladies.” She could not stop the distain from leaking into her voice. “Sorry, but I’m actually surprised that Mrs. Black sent you at all.”

    He was looking at her with a curious expression in his eyes. It was as though he’d never quite met someone like her, and didn’t at all know what to do with her now that he had.

    “Mother knows all that goes on among our kind, Horne.” He paused with a frown, rehearsing the words before they emerged from his lips. “Your mother’s... predicament was... improper for a witch of her station and bearing.”

    Vivien tilted her head back to get a better look at his impassive face. “A better word would be ‘unfortunate’, don’t you think, Black?”

    His frown deepened. “It would be appropriate, yes.”

    “Good,” she said with a satisfied nod. “Well, I’d better be off. Grimm’s waiting for me, and he’s not known to be a patient one.” She swore that she could feel Grimm’s impatience being carried towards her on the stale breeze.

    But the Black Prince wasn’t ready to let her go just yet. He stared over her shoulder at the gate where Grimm and Professor McGonagall waited.

    “You know, Horne, it’s not really proper for you to be living in such a situation–”

    Vivien threw her chin up, eyes suddenly sparking with temper. Was everyone coming to the funeral just to cause a ruckus? It seemed that all the purebloods in the world never thought of anything other than keeping up appearances and how they could manage to cause grief to anyone who wasn’t like them, who wasn’t like them.

    “And why not, Mr. Hoity-Toity Black? Because he’s a half-blood and not married to her? Well, first of all, it’s not any of your business where or how my family chooses to live.” She emphasised the word ‘family’ with great pride. “And, furthermore, I had enough of your kind. My mother did nothing to raise me or teach me any of the old ways, and I do not regret it.” Her accent soared straight to the top of the hierarchy, though she did not notice the change. “She was nothing other than a lazy, brainless piece of fluff that should never have been allowed to have a child, much less keep her.”

    Black staggered back a step, his dark eyes widely staring down upon Vivien’s reddened face.

    “What?” Vivien continued, fighting to maintain a level voice. “Does that bother your pathetic propriety that I should speak ill of the dead while still standing by her grave? She won’t hear me. She’s dead, gone. It doesn’t matter now.”

    She whipped around and was many steps away before she stopped.

    “Oh, I forgot. Good day to you, Black. See you at school.”

    Even once she had reached the gate and rejoined her guardians, Vivien felt the eyes of Regulus Black watching her from afar. She turned once to see, and noticed that he had not yet moved from the place he had been while she had spoken to him. It seemed, perhaps, that his pure-as-all blood had been stilled by her words and that he had frozen in place among the gravestones.

    “I hope you gave him some words of kindness, Vivien.” McGonagall poked her nose around Grimm’s form. “It was decent of him to come, even if it was his mother than sent him.”

    Vivien smiled, hoping that she did not appear too pleased with herself.

    “It was with pleasure that I did so, Professor.”

    Her prim words caused Grimm to interfere. “By that we can guess that she told him off.” He looked over at Vivien, while McGonagall sighed, probably wondering if she should give up on them both. “Did it make up for having to deal with your aunts today?”

    The bus pulled up beside them and they boarded, preventing Vivien from answering until they were settled on the upper storey. As London streets passed them by on both sides, she thought over the two graveside battles she had fought.

    “Somewhat. He wasn’t like I expected.”

    Grimm raised an eyebrow. “In what way?”

    Thinking, Vivien twirled a lock of hair around her fingers. “I don’t know. He was just very... quiet.”

    “Hmmm. Probably anyone would seem that way after hearing Fulvia’s bellow. Honestly, that woman sounds like–”

    McGonagall reached up and placed her hand across Grimm’s mouth. “Don’t you dare, Tiberius.” It was not until he nodded innocently and she’d taken away her hand that she added, “We’ve had enough insults for today, don’t you think?” She was not scolding him. Vivien could hear the plaintive tone in the older witch’s mellow voice.

    “Of course.” Grimm avoided her eyes and looked out the window, watching the city flash by.

    None of them spoke for the remainder of the journey, not even when they entered the door and went their separate ways within the house – Grimm to his cellar laboratory, McGonagall to the library, and Vivien to the garden. It was the place where, throughout the day, she was completely alone. Grimm would only come here in the dawn or at twilight, when he could best collect he various herbs and strange plants which sprouted where vegetables had once grown. McGonagall was not the gardening type, and forsook the place completely. It became, in consequence, Vivien’s sanctuary, particularly among the wild vines that covered the wall and tumbled down in monstrous thickets.

    It was unlike any garden she had ever seen, certainly unlike those of the neighbours, all of which were the perfect English gardens pictured on the glossy pages of Country Life. Something about Grimm’s garden was alive in a way that meant more than just plants which existed and bloomed each year. No, this place seemed to take breath, to feed off the land in a way that no garden should.

    And it was here where Vivien came to think.

    Things in her head were quieter, easier to rationalise. They just made sense. They weren’t like the crazed relatives and impossible purebloods who had haunted her mother’s funeral. She laughed to herself at that thought; if there had been but one ghost missing from the funeral, it had been her mother’s own. It was strange to wonder just where her mother’s spirit had gone, once the body had decayed to a state of death. There were the ghosts at school, yet she had never seen a recent ghost, one that had just been created. Myrtle was the youngest ghost at Hogwarts, yet neither Grimm nor Professor McGonagall could attest to just when she’d first appeared, and they’d been there at Myrtle’s death.

    Her mind drifted back to the events of the funeral. The sudden paleness of McGonagall’s face had been a surprise, since nothing seemed to upset the professor, not even Grimm’s eccentricities or the worst pranks of the Marauders could not affect her in that way. It was like Fulvia’s words had struck her in the heart, hitting a still-bleeding wound of long ago.

    Vivien glanced towards the house. They would not be looking for her yet. Grimm might, once his experiments were seen to, timidly tap on the library door and enter the room, unable to meet McGonagall’s eyes just in case they held tears.... No, that didn’t sound right. McGonagall would never cry. Vivien wanted to be that way, masking emotion and passion with an impassive face. Such a barrier would have made it easier to confront Regulus Black, though it never would have helped with Aunt Fulvia. Her insults could not even be deflected by the most impenetrable wall.

    Black. Yes, Black. What did he want? There had seemed more to his purpose than a simple acknowledgement of the proprieties. Her mother had broken them by knocking on Grimm’s door. All the purebloods would know that, yet Mrs. Black had, according to Regulus, sent her son to the funeral of a witch who had long-ago fallen from the gaze of proper Wizarding society. The way he had looked at her, Vivien couldn’t understand it. She had surprised him, somehow, given him a shock.

    A swallow’s song drifted through the shrubbery.

    “Who is the real Regulus Black?” she asked herself, aloud. The answer was made no clearer by putting sounds to the words. It was something she would have to find out in his presence.

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