"Family isn't about whose blood you have. It's about who you care about."
--Trey Parker and Matt Stone
Nicolas checked the small canvas one more time. The gesso was dry; the canvas was ready to paint on. He was just lucky that the Mortals had figured out how to create acrylic gesso; otherwise, he'd still be using the old-fashioned kind, which meant he'd still be painting on heavy boards or masonite. Oil paints and acrylics just didn't work well; the acrylic gesso didn't blend well enough with the paint to have any kind of longevity. The old, natural gesso was still best for use with oils. He'd prepared his own oil paint, of course. It was easier and more convenient to buy paint these days, but the colors were better if he made it himself. If he were holding down a Mortal job, he might have bought the paint, but as it was, he had time to make it, so he did. It had taken time to make sure that the colors were perfect, as well as time to obtain perfectly tailored dress robes for Henri that would adjust themselves in case of unexpected growth spurts.
Nicolas checked his finest, smallest, brushes; then settled them, handle side down, in a clean cup next to his jar of paint thinner. His pallet, which was enchanted so that the paint never dried out, sat on a small table near his easel, and a small chair, just the right size for Henri to sit in comfortably, was set up not far away. There was a pile of books on a small table next to the chair, and Bray was laid over one arm. At almost five, Henri didn't always hold still well, so a few things for him to do were in order, because he'd most likely need to stay there for a few hours a day for at least a week, if not two, as a model.
As Nicolas well knew, sitting for a portrait was tedious, and due to the age of the subject, was sure to stretch out over a good long while. That is, unless he painted fast. He supposed he could try for an impressionistic style. It had been a very long time since he'd painted anything like that. In fact, it had been a long time since he'd painted anything representational. He'd taken to the modern art movement and hadn't painted a portrait in decades.
Nicolas's studio was mostly bare. Had he been anything but a vampire, the large, stone room probably would have had skylights and large windows to catch the natural light. Instead, it was a large, windowless room, well-lit by artificial light that was diffused through shades, bathing the room in soft light. His sawhorse for drawing sat in one corner. It was currently empty, but still scattered with bits of charcoal. His easel sat on top of a dropcloth, with a small table beside it. There were a few stools and tables scattered around. Other than those, the only other furniture was an old Windsor rocking chair.
Henri bounced into the room. "Regarde-moi, Papa!" he said cheerfully. He spun around, his arms out, showing off the brand new, expensive, dark blue dress robes.
Janette had entered the room after him. "Henri!" she said.
Henri stopped spinning and contrived to look absolutely innocent. "Oui, Tante Janette?" he asked.
Nicolas hid a grin at the barrage of French that followed, scolding Henri for wrinkling his robes and admonishments that he must look his best for the portrait. "Assieds-toi!" he said.
Nicolas watched as Henri obeyed, immediately going to the chair and carefully sitting down. He picked up Bray and petted him. After afew minutes of sitting absolutely still he smiled. "Papa," he said, switching fluidly to English. "Why do I have to sit for a portrait?"
Nicolas knew he'd have to choose his words carefully. If he didn't, he could screw up the whole thing. "Your Aunt, Grandfather, and I have been trying to assure your future," he said. He picked up a pencil and began to rough in the outlines with a light hand. "Your Grandfather will take this painting and the offer to the girl's family." He smiled at Henri. "When you're grown-up, if you and the girl like each other, you'll get married."
Henri worried his lip. "Girls," he pronounced finally, "are icky."
Nicolas grinned. Little boys never changed; he could remember telling his mother the same thing. "But your Tante Janette is agirl," he said reasonably. "So is Mademoiselle Urs."
"No they're not," Henri said, shaking his head. "Tante Janette is almost my mother, and Urs isn't a girl, either. Mothers aren't girls, and neither are nannies."
Nicolas chuckled, but didn't try and change Henri's mind. He knew the futility of that course of action. "That is why we need the portrait," he said. "You'll appreciate girls more when you're older."
Henri made a disgusted face. "Uh uh," he said. "Girls are the most yucky thing ever," he said earnestly.
"Why?" Nicolas asked. He was curious as to why Henri thought that, as he had very little exposure to other children.
Henri seemed to be thinking it over. "They play with dolls and they cry a lot," he said finally. "And they like kissing people, and that's just dies-gus-ting."
"I think you mean 'disgusting', Henri," Nicolas said, highly amused.
"Yeah!" Henri said.
"How do you know that?" Nicolas asked. "There aren't any little girls for you to play with here."
"That's how they are on books and a lot of 'em are that way on the telly, too," Henri explained.
For a few moments, Nicolas was sorry that they'd ever let him watch educational programs on that infernal contraption for an hour or so every day. Okay, so maybe it wasn't from the pits of hell; he rather liked being able to get the news the moment it happened, but the television was one of the modern inventions that made life as a vampire more complicated. "Henri," he said carefully, "television and books aren't always exactly correct. They sometimes exaggerate things for entertainment."
"Okay." Henri was quiet for a few minutes.
Nicolas completed the rough outline and picked up his brush and pallet. He started painting his son, mindful of the way the light fell on the robes that Henri was wearing, and how the light picked up shadows from the deep, rich hue of the robes that looked almost black.
A few minutes later, Henri spoke up. "Papa?"
"Hm?" Nicolas answered absently.
"I love you."
Nicolas's head shot up. It wasn't often that Henri said something like that. "What brought this on, mon petit?" he asked.
"I had another one of those dreams last night, Papa,"Henri said. "The ones that show me what life would have been like if you hadn't found me."
"You should have come and found me," Nicolas scolded gently.
"You were tired, Papa," Henri said. It was a measure of the child's current insecurity that he was using Nicolas's title over and over."
"Henri Nicolas Lucien Andre de Brabant," Nicolas said sternly. He had a frown on his face and he looked at his son. "I am /never/too busy or too tired to help you, and I know those dreams are frightening."
"Yes," Henri said.
Nicolas put down his pallet, washed out his brush, put it with the others, wiped off his hands, and removed the smock he had on over his clothing. Once he was as clean as he could get, he walked over to his son, dropped to his knees, and held out his arms. Without a word, Henri barreled into them and hid his face in Nicolas's shirt. "Tell me about the dream, mon petit?"
Henri's voice started, hesitating a little. "The Dursleys were really mean to the other Harry," he said.
Nicolas kissed the top of Henri's head. Good. Since the dreams had begun, they'd tried to convince Henri that the Harry he saw in his dreams wasn't /him/; that the experiences he saw were someone else's entirely. It helped that Henri didn't look quite the same as the Harry of his dreams did. "What happened to him?" he asked.
Henri shivered and clung tighter to Nicolas. "They held his hand to the burner for burning their breakfast," he whispered. "Then they hit him, threw him in the cupboard, and told him that he was a worthless freak who should have died with his parents." He looked up at Nicolas, his blue-green eyes troubled. "Am I a worthless freak, Papa? Should I have died with my Mummy and Daddy?"
"No!" Nicolas said as he hugged Henri fiercely. "Harry is not to blame for what the Dursleys tell him. They're wrong, and so are our Dursleys. You are not /worthless. You are /not a freak. Neither is the other Harry."
Henri nodded, his face still partially buried in Nicolas's shirt. "The other Harry is always hungry," he said. "They don't feed him hardly at all, so he steals food out of bins to survive. He doesn't see as well as I do, either."
Nicolas carded a hand through Henri's hair. "That may be because of the adoption ritual," he said. "The vampire blood healed everything--including any problems you might have had with your eyes."
"Really?" Henri asked, obviously interested.
Nicolas nodded and kissed Henri's forehead. "You will never see a vampire wearing glasses that actually needs them. They are usually an affectation in order to fit in amongst the Mortals or the Wizards."
Henri frowned and looked up at him, a quizzical look on his small face. "If vampire blood heals, why isn't it an ingredient in healing potions?"
"Well," Nicolas started to tick off reasons. "First of all, it must be willingly given, and not only do our bodies not give up blood easily, but most of us prefer to stay apart from Wizards."
"And vampire blood is also a bit unpredictable," Nicolas explained. "The effects are usually temporary, and our blood can also cause very volatile mood swings."
"What's vol-la-til?" Henri asked.
Nicolas smiled. "It means unstable or unpredictable."
Henri leaned against him, still not relaxing the tight hold he had Nicolas's shirt. "Papa, how come I don't look like Harry?" he asked. "And if he's a different me, how come my name isn't Harry Potter?"
Nicolas took a couple deep breaths, stalling for time. "Henri, remember when your Grandfather and I performed the adoption ritual?"
Henri nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Mummy said it was okay to love you, and that she and Daddy loved me a lot."
Nicolas couldn't help but wonder if Henri had somehow gotten his penchant for dream-visions when he'd been adopted; there were documented Seers in the de Brabant line. "That's right. You used to have a Mummy and aDaddy, but they died. They're still your parents, mon petit. And you legally still have the right to use the name they gave you-Hadrian James Potter."
"Harry?" Henri asked.
"Yes," Nicolas said with a smile. "When I became your Papa, I named you Henri so you can still be called Harry if you like. I changed your name so that you could blend in here better. Because of what happened the night your first parents died, the people who followed the evil wizard might be looking for you." He hated to do it, but he, Janette, and LaCroix felt that it would be irresponsible to not give Henri the information he needed. One day, Henri knowing accurate information could be a matter of life and death.
"So I have two fathers?" Henri asked.
"That's right," Nicolas said with a sharp nod. "I adopted you and made it forever with the blood adoption ritual. It's why you heal so quickly, see in the dark so well, and can move as fast as you do. It's also why you remember absolutely everything."
"Okay," Henri said.
Before he could say anything further, LaCroix swept into the room. He was dressed in his usual black, with a folder under one arm. "What a... touching scene," he said, with just a hint of condensation.
Nicolas looked at his sire and raised an eyebrow. "Yes?" he said, giving Henri another short hug.
LaCroix put the folder on one of the small tables and opened it. "I have a list of possible candidates," he said. "At the top of out list is Ginevra Molly Weasley, she's only a year younger than Henri. She's the seventh child and the first girl in seven generations, so magical power shouldn't be a problem. The Weasleys also haven't intermarried with any of Henri's relations for ten generations or more. She fulfills every requirement, and is not currently contracted."
"As soon as I finish the portrait, I'll go and see the Weasleys about a betrothal contract," Nicolas said.
"Nicolas," LaCroix chided him with that one word. "As the only wizard in the... immediate family still here, it would be more... politic for me to handle the negotiations." He gave Nicolas a little smile. "I will even take your surname for the duration; it would not do if they thought that you were a bastard child."
Henri shifted restlessly in Nicolas's lap as Nicolas contemplated his Sire's words. Finally, he agreed. "Very well. Please, Father, would you do your best not to lose your temper when they irritate you and eat them?"
LaCroix snorted a little. "Please, Nicolas. I have survived for a very long time; I can control my impulses." With that, he turned around and left.
Nicolas rocked Henri a bit more. "Better?" he asked finally.
Henri nodded. "Uh huh," he said. He got off Nicolas's lap and allowed Nicolas to straighten his robes. Without being asked, the little boy headed straight for his chair and sat down.
Nicolas stood, walked over to his easel, picked up his tools, and started to paint. He just hoped that the Weasleys would be amiable to an alliance with the ancient and noble house of de Brabant. If they were, Henri's future partner would be set. He had a gut feeling that it would be fairly important in the future to have a betrothal contract with them. He wasn't sure why, but over the centuries he had learned not to ignore feelings like that.
Harry would be five years old. Remus held a picture and ran his finger over the figures. Harry, the only child of his old pack, was now five years old, and he had no idea where the cub had gone. Moony, the wolf side of himself, had known that something was wrong on that February full moon, which had occurred the Monday after Harry had been taken from the damnfool Dursleys. He'd spent his spare minutes in the four years since searching for the little boy, but Harry had disappeared without a trace.
Remus worked at a Muggle bookstore these days that dealt with alternative lifestyles. His need to have full moons off thanks to his little furry problem, as James had called it, was passed off as religious observance. It was an excuse that had served him well the past few years. Granted, he'd rather live in the Wizarding world, but the persecution made it virtually impossible. He was living like a Muggle, but at least he was living.
He sighed quietly as tucked the picture back in his pocket, grabbed a box of books, carried it over to the shelves, opened it, and started shelving the contents. Trying to find Harry was like looking for a needle in ahaystack. Without leads, Remus was reduced to going on day trips to various countries on his days off and poking around magical day schools for younger children. So far he'd been unsuccessful. Soon after Dumbledore had told him, somehow the Daily Prophet had discovered that Harry was missing. Remus grimaced. When he got home from work, he fully expected to find a copy of the Daily Prophet featuring another article bemoaning the loss of the Boy-Who-Lived-and-Disappeared.
It was a stupid title. As if the first title they'd given him wasn't idiotic enough. People still celebrated their liberation from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named on Halloween. As far as Remus was concerned, Halloween was nothing to celebrate. It was the day that both he and Harry had lost everything. Both of them had lost their family that night to death and Azkaban.
Remus finished shelving the books, cut the tape on the bottom of the box, folded it, and added it to the pile of disassembled boxes before going to fetch another. He took it to the travel section and began to repeat the process. Over the past four years, he'd visited every English speaking country in the world on weekends, holidays, and vacations. He unloaded the box quickly and put the books in the proper places. Once he finished he paused and took a world atlas off the shelves, and flipped through it. Perhaps he should try France next? It was right across the Channel, after all.
One thing was for sure, once he found Harry, hell would freeze over before he handed the child's location over to Dumbledore. Remus still wasn't convinced of Sirius's guilt, and the Headmaster, with all his influence, hadn't even tried to get him a trial. It was damn near unforgivable in Remus's eyes. Sirius and James had been the closest thing to brothers he'd ever had. Peter, well, Peter he wasn't so sure of anymore. If Sirius was innocent, which wasn't proven even with his serious doubts as to his guilt, that meant that it was Peter who betrayed James and Lily and blew up the street. And that meant that Peter was the one who was the betrayer and should be rotting in Azkaban. Without a trial, nothing had been proven, and he was unwilling to take a stance on his old friend's guilt or innocence without incontrovertible proof.
Remus didn't know much of anything for sure. What he did know is that he had to be sure that Harry was safe, happy, and cared for. He owed that much to the only child of the Marauders. He'd long since given up on the idea of a wife and children for himself; what woman would want to marry awerewolf?
LaCroix studied his map carefully. While he could have Apparated to the Weasleys' cottage once he returned to England, one could never tell what kind of wards they had, so it was safer to find the place by ordinary mortal methods. He knew that The Burrow, quaint name for a dwelling that didn't belong to a Hobbit, was located outside Ottery Saint Catchpole, in Devon. The problem was that he wasn't certain in which direction it lay. Stupid map. It wasn't as accurate as he required. He supposed he could call the Knight Bus, but the thought of arriving in such a plebeian method didn't appeal to him.
He missed the days when he had maps that were accurate down to the last detail, when all he had to worry about was which orders to give to his men. LaCroix missed the days when he had been the most feared and respected General in the Empire. True, he had much more power as a vampire than he ever had as a mortal Wizard, but there was a rush in defeating one's enemy and ordering the rape and murder of their women.
He hated the idea that he had become... soft. It wasn't so long ago when he had fed wherever he wished; when he had hunted mortals for sport and taught great generals how to wage war. Now, he was reduced to tutoring a child in hopes that the boy would grow up to make conditions he had lived with for millenia improve. True, he had grown fond of the child, but only forty years ago, he had brought a slightly older child across for less reasons. Since his visit to the Pythia, however, he dared not contemplate turning Henri.
LaCroix loved the darkness. The problem was, that if the world fell into darkness, while the vampires might survive it, the majority of their food would not. Unlike Nicolas, who seemed to thrive on anear-starvation diet, he didn't like going hungry. Nicolas's diet in the past few years, LaCroix reflected, was one benefit of having Henri. His son was also happier and smiled more often. Nicolas had always been a bit over emotional, he reflected. But the contentment and happiness that Nicolas was experiencing was much better than his usual moods and sulks.
LaCroix mentally shook himself out of his reverie and turned his attention back to the matter at hand--finding the Weasleys' residence. He sighed. He'd have to go to Ottery St. Catchpole and do something he'd always hated; ask for directions. He hated having to ask mainly because he had an extreme dislike of dealing with what he deemed lesser beings. As far as he was concerned, both Mortals and Wizards were food, nothing more and nothing less. Vampires were at the top of the food chain, and that was how he liked it.
However, sometimes necessity overcame such minor considerations such as preferences. While he would much rather keep to his own kind, he did know that prophecies turned out more often than not to be true, and it was essential that his grandson be seen as being aligned with a purely Light family. LaCroix knew that it was inevitable that Henri's birth name would eventually be discovered, and the sheep of the Wizarding world would attempt to slander the child, using the fact that he'd been raised by what they termed 'Dark Creatures' as ammunition. The betrothal contract would most likely become public knowledge as well, and would help young Henri appear to be completely Light, even if he turned out to be slightly Grey.
LaCroix knew politics; appearance was often more important than actuality. He had been doing his best to teach Henri how to navigate and survive them along with his other lessons in more martial fields and the arts. By the time Henri left for school, if they allowed him to, he would be more accomplished than any other child in his age group. At five, he was already well on his way to mastering the sword; he had begun to learn it at three. LaCroix hadn't taught his grandson only fancy tricks that fencing masters taught these days, he had taught him the hard fighting that was what real masters knew; he was the fighting that one only learned from surviving thousands, nay, millions of altercations with a sword alone.
Indeed, the child was a natural with a weapon in his hands. He could admit a certain amount of... pride at being the one to teach the young one. Unlike Nicolas, LaCroix had not amused himself with an unending stream of mortal 'jobs', though occasionally he had taken occupations. He, however, did not take them as seriously as Nicolas did. His amusements were almost always in the mortal world. With the Wizard's prejudice against his kind, and their intimate knowledge of how to destroy them, it simply was neither prudent nor safe to look for amusements among wizardkind.
However, he had once taught History of Magic for a brief time at Hogwarts. Headmistress Derwent had been taken with the idea of ahistory professor that in some cases, had actually been there. She had been even more delighted when he admitted to having known Salazar Slytherin after the quarrel with the other founders. Sometimes, the hero-worship that the Wizards lavished upon the founders amused LaCroix. The icon status that the four had achieved would have befuddled all of the very human people they truly were. Occasionally, he had considered debunking the mythos surrounding them, but why bother? It wasn't as if he would be believed; Dark Creatures were viewed as untrustworthy.
LaCroix sighed as he went to his bedroom to pack a bag. His plane would be leaving in a few hours and he would find a secluded place, most likely in a restroom, from which to Apparate to Ottery St. Catchpole. From there, he would ask directions, then make his way on foot to this "Burrow". He only hoped that, as purebloods, they weren't so inbred as to resemble Professor Tolkien's creations. He'd seen something of the like happen before. He had seen civilizations rise and fall, wars, famine; he survived all. He held no illusions about himself. He was a cruel, vindictive man. He could be kind when it suited him, as it did with Henri, but some of his past actions with his favorite son, Nicolas, proved that he was no always so. His rebellious child had felt his wrath on more than one occasion.
LaCroix was sure that the peaceful period he was having with Nicolas would soon end, as they always did. Peace between himself and his son rarely lasted for more than a decade. He had long since blamed his son's mortal upbringing and embarked upon a campaign to rid Nicolas of the hindrances of his mortal life. He hadn't been successful, but he refused to lose his child to the foolish boy's search for a cure. As far as he was concerned, they needed no cure. As vampires, they were next to gods! Why would any sane person want to give that up? He shook his head and finished his packing. He really wasn't looking forward to his coming interview. Who knew what would happen? Mortals, especially Wizards, were notoriously unpredictable.
LaCroix picked up his satchel, filled a flask with sun potion, which he tucked into an inside pocket, took a dose of said potion, and left the room. He found his family, and, after swift farewells, Apparated to the airport. While he supposed he could attempt an international apparation, he disliked the feel of it; Mortal travel, while it took longer, was much, much more comfortable than Wizarding travel. Security was easy enough to get past, so it wasn't long before he was settled in his First Class seat. The trip wasn't long, either, merely a few short hours, though it probably seemed long for anyone cursed with such a short existence as the lesser beings, and they were landing at the Heathrow Airport in London.
He exited the airplane and made a beeline to the nearest restroom. Once there, he shut himself in a stall and put formal robes on over his Mortal clothing. LaCroix drew his wand and disillusioned the robes so that only what the wizards would call 'Muggle' clothing would show and then reholstered his wand. With a quiet, almost unnoticeable "pop" he vanished from the restroom and reappeared at the end of a blind alley in the small, country village of Ottery St. Catchpole.
He made his way to the greengrocer's shop and went inside. Once inside, LaCroix went to the counter. "Excuse me," he said, as politely as he could manage. "You wouldn't happen to know where I might find the Weasley family would you?"
"Huh?" the man behind the counter said. "Weasley, you say? Bright red hair?" At LaCroix's nod, he continued, "they might live west of here, but I can't be sure. They always come from that way, anyway."
"Thank you," LaCroix said, then left the shop. He thought it should be easy to identify the Weasleys. Although at least two of the children should be away at Hogwarts, the de Brabant Foundation had offered them scholarships to offset the fees, finding a Wizarding dwelling with at least five red-haired children and two adults shouldn't be that difficult. He left the village, and once he was far enough away from it so as not to be seen, he drew his wand and removed the spell from his robes before tucking it away again.
After a short walk along the dusty road, he spotted aramshackle cottage that looked as if a stiff wind would blow it over. It was an impossible building by ordinary standards, and merely improbable by wizarding. It was obviously constructed and held up by magic, and he imagined that Mortals would see a burnt-out wreck or something similar, because without magic, the cottage was unlikely to stand up. As LaCroix grew closer, he observed from the stonework that the core of the house was most likely several centuries old; there were signs that it had once been plastered and whitewashed, though time had eroded both.
He was hard-put not to sneer at the exterior, though he had lodged in more humble places in his lifetime. He could see a vegetable garden to one side of the house, while chickens pecked in the yard. There was still alittle light outside so, paranoid about even a little bit of light, he pulled aflask from his pocket and took a long swallow of potion and adjusted his sunglasses. He screwed the cap back on tightly and put the potion away before approaching the door. He felt the tingle of wards that tested his intent as he reached it. They didn't cause him harm, so he knocked once and waited.
A red-haired woman answered the door, and LaCroix had to restrain himself from sneering. Her hair was pulled into an untidy bun, with strands falling out. She was dressed in outdated, old, but neatly patched robes with a bright, flowered apron covering them. The end of a worn, well-used wand was sticking out of the pocket of the apron. "May I help you?"she asked with a kind smile.
"Madame Weasley?" he asked with a slight French accent. He bowed. "Lucien de Brabant. I am here with an offer for your daughter."
Mrs. Weasley paled, then reddened. "Come in," she said, opening the door wider.
He followed her, closing the door behind him, into a formal sitting room. The room had an unused air, as if it was a room that the children were rarely allowed into. Antimacassars laid on the backs and arms of the sofas and chairs, none of which looked new. Bookshelves filled one wall and were stuffed to overflowing with books. Pictures covered the walls, with red-haired children flitting in and out of them. There were sconces on the walls with lit candles, while heavy drapes adorned the windows. "Have a seat please, Mr. de Brabant," she said, gesturing to one of the chairs. "I'll just go fetch my husband; he's putting the children to bed."
After examining the room for a while longer--his eyes lingering on the vase of preserved flowers on the mantle amongst more wooden-framed pictures of children--he deigned to sit down in one of the horsehair armchairs. A few minutes later, the older Weasleys entered and took a seat on the couch across from him. "Monsieur and Madame Weasley," he said, before they could speak. "I am here on behalf of my grandson, Henri de Brabant. He is of an age with your daughter, and I wish to tender an offer of betrothal." He took both the portrait, which he handed to them, and the paperwork, which he laid on the coffee table, out of his wizardspace extended pocket.
Wordlessly, the patriarch of the Weasleys accepted the portrait and examined it. "He's a personable young lad," he commented quietly, before passing the portrait to his wife.
"Yes," LaCroix acknowledged with a tilt of his head. "My son has asked me to act as his agent in this."
"Is this the same de Brabant of the de Brabant Foundation?"Mrs. Weasley asked.
"Yes," LaCroix said again. "It is my son's endeavor alone." He laid out the contract. "We wish an alliance between our two families. Nicolas has not said, but I suspect he is thinking of sending young Henri to school here in the UK, rather than Beauxbatons or a smaller school in Belgium." Privately, he thought that he would fight for Henri to be sent elsewhere. Durmstrang would be more appropriate than either Beauxbatons or Hogwarts if he couldn't convince Nicolas to send Henri to the Spartan Academy of Magic.
Mr. Weasley drew the contract towards him and started to read through it. "I am not certain we wish to arrange a marriage for our daughter, Mr. de Brabant," Mrs. Weasley said.
LaCroix inclined his head. "We do understand, but the contract does contain several clauses that permit a mutual dissolution of the contract if the two genuinely do not wish to marry," he said. "This will provide more of an alliance than anything. If young Henri comes here, it would be well that he had allies."
Both of the Weasleys looked as if they weren't sure they approved. There was a whispered discussion, which LaCroix didn't exert himself to overhear, and then they turned to face him. "This is a generous offer, Mr. De Brabant," Mr. Weasley said. "But we would like to have some time to think this over."
LaCroix essayed to smile. "I understand. You are..." He paused. "...wise to put some thought into your daughter's future." He rather thought that they would have no choice but to accept sooner or later. He would have preferred sooner, but Henri was only five, and they could afford to be patient. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a card that he had prepared specially for the occasion. He handed it to them. "I can be reached at the Leaky Cauldron for the next few days; I will be returning to Belgium within the week."
Mr. Weasley shared a long look with his wife. "We will have an answer for you by the end of tomorrow if that suits?"
LaCroix nodded, stood, and made his way to the door. He had few doubts that they would decide against the betrothal. It was too beneficial to them to accept, and with their lack of status, he imagined that they had not received many, if any, offers for their daughter's hand. He walked quickly outside the wards and Apparated away. He hated the idea of staying at the Leaky Cauldron, but it was what would be expected, and it was a way for the Weasleys to reach him. A few words with Tom secured him a room, and a few more coins ensured that he would be undisturbed until a Floo call came for him. He made his way to his hired home for the next few days and sat on the bed with asigh. Soon he would be home with his family, where he could keep company with his family, and his grandson's tutors. The Council itself had been making noises about coming to see young Henri, and perhaps teaching him themselves. He pulled a bottle of blood and a glass from his bag, poured a glass, and took a sip. He wouldn't have to put up with Wizards for long, and that suited him. Unfortunately, he still had a few days to get through before he could return home, hopefully with a signed betrothal contract in hand.
Nicolas sat on the piano bench next to five year old Henri, patiently showing him a new scale. He had started teaching his son when Henri had showed interest the year before. Considering his age and level of training, Henri was quite good. Nicolas was confident that his son would be able to at least play for his own amusement as he grew older. He had been taking the lessons slowly, partially because Henri's hands weren't yet big enough to reach the longer chord stretches. He'd also thought that it would be best if his son learned to read the music first, thus they'd only been learning basic scales and exercises for the past six months.
As with all his other lessons, Henri was serious about learning to play. Nicolas had been surprised, having taught a few lessons here and there over the centuries, when his son had insisted upon practicing every day, whether they had lessons or not. It was surprising to see a child his age put such effort into learning. After all, the art lessons hadn't lasted long--Henri was much more interested in making a mess than he was in drawing, painting, and sculpture. He had hopes that the child would develop and interest in art later, but for now, Henri had developed a fascination with music and anything that required physical activity, such as swordplay and the formal dances that Janette had been teaching him along with etiquette.
Nicolas spent much of his time sitting in on Henri's lessons--he refused to allow any vampire, other than himself, Urs, and Janette, to be alone with Henri, not even LaCroix. It wasn't that he didn't trust them... Well, okay, he didn't trust them. The beast inside them all was impossible to reason with or control when angered, hungry, or hurt, and few of his kind even bothered to try. He would be negligent if he allowed his son to be alone with other vampires, for without reason, they might hurt him before they knew what they were doing. In a few years, when Henri was old enough to carry the family's mark, it would be safer, but until then, his lessons would be supervised.
Henri played the scale perfectly and Nicolas smiled. "Very good, mon fils," he said.
Henri grinned at him, showing a missing front tooth. "Merci, Papa," he said.
Nicolas smiled again and showed Henri another scale. With his tongue poked between his teeth in concentration, Henri repeated it with only one minor fumble. The lesson continued, but was interrupted a few minutes later when Nicolas felt LaCroix's presence enter the room.
LaCroix clapped and praised Henri in the thirteenth century French of Nicolas's boyhood.
In a flash, Henri was off the piano bench and chattering amile a minute in the same language, telling his grandfather about everything he'd missed while he'd been away. He threw his arms around LaCroix's waist in a huge hug.
In a surprising fit of indulgence, LaCroix picked Henri up and hugged him before returning him to the ground. "It is almost time for your violin lesson," LaCroix said to the boy, changing both the subject and the language in which it was spoken. "Go and fetch the instrument and show me how well you have practiced while I've been gone," he said, swatting Henri's bottom to send him on his way.
"Yes, Grandfather," Henri said with a huge smile, then hurried out of the room.
As soon as Henri left, LaCroix pulled a roll of parchment out of his cloak pocket and threw it on top of the piano. "It is done," he said.
Nicolas unrolled the parchment and studied it; as expected, it was the betrothal contract. What was probably the most surprising thing was that it was with their first choice, rather than second or third, as they'd expected. They'd thought the Weasleys might refuse, so the Abbotts and the Patils had also been on their list. Neither family's daughters had quite fit the requirements as well as the Weasley girl, but an alliance with either family would have worked. "Did they give you much trouble?" he asked mildly.
"No," LaCroix said. "They did want a few days to think things over, but that was to be... expected."
Nicolas inclined his head, and then stood up to make his way over to the bookcase. It was, perhaps, a trifle early, but the end of August was fast approaching. It was, after all, a tradition to give tokens to family on their Conversion Day. He removed a small black velvet box from one of the shelves. It was unremarkable, really, just a simple black velvet box tied with a black silk ribbon, but he hoped the contents would please his father. He walked over to LaCroix and handed it to him with a bow. "Happy Conversion Day, Father," he said, and then kissed his father's ring. He held the position until he felt his father's hand on his head. He straightened up to find agentle smile on LaCroix's face.
"Thank you, mon fils," he said. LaCroix moved his hand and undid the ribbon, laying it aside on top of the grand piano. He opened the box. Nicolas knew what was in it, of course. It was a silver pin shaped like a sword and layered with protective charms against fire, sunlight, and garlic. One of his wizard-born brothers, Aleric, had done the charms work for him. He watched as his Sire freed the pin from the box and put it on. "My thanks, Nicolas," he said.
Nicolas simply inclined his head. As gifts went, it was fairly impersonal, and not the gift that he knew his sire truly desired. LaCroix had a box filled with personal tokens from each of his children... except Nicolas. If he had given his father something like the contents of the box, such as a lock of hair, it would mean that he had completely given up his quest for mortality, for forgiveness for his past crimes. He wasn't yet ready to do that. He might never be. "You are welcome, LaCroix," he said quietly.
LaCroix inclined his head. "Now, I must go listen to young Henri play... After two years of lessons, he is beginning to play quite... well." With that, the older vampire swept out of the room.
Nicolas watched him go before turning back to the piano, sitting down, and idly playing a simple tune. Urs would be with Henri as she always attended his violin lessons. Sometimes he wished he could trust LaCroix completely as he had when he was a fledgling, but he knew better. While his Sire had been tolerant of the child, he wasn't sure how long it would last. Frankly, he was surprised that the tolerance had lasted so long. He sighed and began playing something more complex. It wouldn't be long before Henri would be grown up and out on his own, and Nicolas wasn't looking forward to it.
Dumbledore clenched his fists tightly and did his best to reign in his tongue, but wasn't entirely successful. He almost started throwing things, and would have, except for the little voice in the back of his head that taunted him about being awfully childish for throwing a temper tantrum. It wasn't just that he'd been unable to become close to the Longbottom boy. It also wasn't that Severus was barely speaking to him, or that he was still unable to locate the Potter brat. No, the current object of his ire lay on his desk and had been delivered with his breakfast. He didn't know how a reporter had found out; he had done his best to repress the news.
"BOY-WHO-LIVED Vanishes! Adopted under our noses!," the article began.
"Five years ago today, our beloved Boy-Who-Lived was adopted by unknown parties. We were told that he was sent to his family. We were told that he was loved and cared for there. We were told lies. It has come to our attention here at the Daily Prophet that the poor boy was abused by his relatives until five years ago, when the then eighteen-month-old baby was rescued and adopted by a as of yet unknown good Samaritan.
"Apparently, this person or persons who is now unknown found the child, who had been tossed outside, bruised and naked and left overnight. This rescuer is to be commended, but will remain unknown as records of this event will remain sealed until Harry Potter's seventeenth birthday. We attempted to interview Petunia Dursley of Number Four, Privet Drive. She slammed the door in our faces after yelling, "Go away, freaks!" Baby Harry was left with her after the tragic death of her sister, Lily Potter née Evans.
“Investigation into Ministry records shows that she is a squib. Obviously bitter about her lack of magic, while her sister was a powerful witch, could she have been the one who mistreated our saviour? Further investigation shows that around the time of the Boy-Who-Lived's disappearance, both she and her husband, Vernon Dursley, accepted the Traitor's Payment. We must pity their son, Dudley, because he will pay for his parents' crimes.
“We here at the Daily Prophet must ask--what is being done to locate our Saviour? At the time of this article, the Ministry of Magic was unaware of his disappearance. When informed, they checked their own records and assured us that the adoption was perfectly legal and binding, and they were unable to say more. We would also like to know the fate of any other war orphans. Are they safe? Or are they being abused as Harry Potter obviously was. We call for full accountability for Harry and for other orphans like him. The lives of many families were cut short in the War--what became of the children who were left behind? Friends of the Potters have stated adamantly that baby Harry was never to even meet his aunt and uncle, because of the fear that they would treat him badly for being a magical child. Why were their wishes ignored, and more importantly, who placed him there?
“We here at the Daily Prophet wish the now six-year-old Harry Potter well, and hope he is happy with his new home and family. However, we wonder about the future of our world. What is in store for us when we allow an orphaned child to be placed in an abusive home and never even check on the welfare of one of our own precious children?”
The only people who had known of the brat's disappearance were himself, Lupin, and Snape. One of them was responsible, he knew it, but the article hadn't fingered either of them. He couldn't go diving into their minds to find out, either. Severus had very tight shields, due to his work spying on Voldemort, and Remus had naturally tight shields due to his status as a werewolf.
He would get no information from either of them. The only thing he had to be grateful for was that he hadn't been named as the one who'd overridden the Potters' will and placed the brat with the Dursleys. Dumbledore had been under no illusions at the time; he'd known of Petunia's rampant jealousy and spiteful nature. He'd also known that Vernon was likely to follow her lead and that the boy's life would most likely be miserable with them. He'd even rejoiced in the fact, thinking that it would make the brat more pliable to be moulded into the weapon he needed for when Voldemort returned.
Dumbledore had been ruing that decision for five years, ever since the man had absconded with his weapon! One day, he would catch up with the person who had kidnapped his weapon, and that person would pay dearly for obstructing his plans. He snatched the paper from his desk and threw it into the fire. Why couldn't anyone see? He, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, the leader of the Light, defeater of Grindelwald, Order of Merlin First Class, knew best. Only he could steer the Wizarding World in the right direction! Only he could discern the correct path and take the long view needed for their very survival!
What was the life of one child when compared to the wellbeing of an entire world? It had all been going so well before Harry had been stolen from them, from him! Why couldn't anyone see? He needed Harry Potter to be willing and able to die to save them all from Voldemort! Dimly, caught up in both his thoughts and his rage, he heard Fawkes's cries of disgust at the path his thoughts were taking. He dismissed the dumb bird from his mind and started trying to come up with a plan to put the Boy-Who-Lived and the rest of the British Wizards back under his thumb--where they belonged.
Six-year-old Henri blitzed through the corridors of the castle, looking for a place to hide from his tutors. He knew he'd be caught eventually, but the actual chase was fun! He didn't feel like doing lessons at the moment, but if he hid well enough, he wouldn't have to for a while. His papa would show up wherever he hid to take him back really soon. He knew it, but at least he'd have a few lesson-free moments.
He didn't mind the lessons with his Grandfather, Papa, or Tante, but he wasn't so happy about learning things like Maths. It was okay, he guessed, but he'd much rather be learning stuff about music and swords. Henri rounded a corner... straight into his current tutor's arms.
The vampire raised an eyebrow as he picked up the boy. “It's not your playtime yet, Henri,” he said.
Henri pouted. “You're no fun, Uncle Etienne,” he protested, looking up into the vampire's dark eyes.
Uncle Etienne grinned. “No, I'm not,” he agreed. “I'm just here to teach you history, and as your father's and Aunt's older brother, I know more of it than they do.”
Henri sighed. “But it's boooring!” he protested.
Uncle Etienne settled him on one hip. “We're not doing politics today, if that helps.” He brushed his longish dark hair over his shoulder and started walking towards the schoolroom.
Henri perked up. “Are we talking about battles again?” he asked. He loved battles; they were exciting! Talking about battles wasn't as fun as looking for secret passageways in the castle, but it was much, much better than learning about politics or math.
“Battles are not exciting, mon petit,” Uncle Etienne said sternly. “They're hard, confusing, bloody messes in which a lot of people, including vampires and wizards, who don't deserve it, die.”
“Have you been in one?” Henri asked.
“Several,” was the reply. “War is a waste, though it's also free meals for our kind.” Uncle Etienne smiled at him. “We ought to be carrion crows for the way we tend to follow them; nobody notices a few more bodies here and there. In centuries past, many of us took only the mortally wounded which, for many of them, was a mercy.”
His uncle's words sobered Henri. Every vampire he knew, even his papa and grandfather, were afraid of True Death. At six, he wasn't always sure what that was, but he knew that his Mummy and Daddy had experienced it. He also knew that there was no coming back from True Death, that is, unless you decided to return as a ghost, and that wasn't really living.
Henri, himself, wasn't afraid of True Death. His papa had taught him that he would see all the people who loved him that had died before when he died. He had asked once why, if that was true, his Papa was afraid, and was told that his Papa was afraid that because he'd hurt many, many people that he wouldn't be allowed to see people who loved him. Henri didn't think that was true; his Papa was really good at being a papa and a good person, too. He knew about not being allowed; he wasn't allowed to touch Papa's big swords because he might get hurt. It didn't make sense to him that Papa wouldn't be allowed to see his Maman and his sister. Mentally, the child shrugged.
“Uncle Etienne?” he asked finally.
“Yes, Snack?” the vampire answered absently.
Henri grimaced at the nickname. He didn't like it, but Grandfather's name for him had stuck. “Does it hurt to die? What's it like?” Even at six, perhaps because he was surrounded by immortals, he was very much aware of his own mortality.
Uncle Etienne was silent for a few minutes before he answered. “Sometimes,” he said. “It depends on how a person dies.” He seemed to hesitate for a moment. “For me, no, it did not hurt. There is a place between life and death, little one. When I was there, I was given a choice, because of your Grandfather, and I chose to come back.” There was a smile on his face as he looked at Henri. “I was not a wizard, or I imagine I would have had three choices--to go on, to come back as a ghost, or to return as a vampire. I think my choice would have been the same; I like what I am.”
Henri nodded. Most vampires he knew liked what they were. Some, however, were different and hated being vampires. His papa was one of those. Someday, he thought, as he was carried back to the schoolroom, he would become a great potions master and find a cure for the vampires who wanted to be human again. He thought it would be a great present for his papa, and it sounded like a wonderful idea to him.
Henri knew he'd have to study a lot, and maybe even become a healer and a doctor, too, in order to invent the cure. But he also knew that wizards could easily live two hundred years, so he'd have the time to do it. He wrapped his arms around his uncle's neck. Maybe lessons wouldn't be so bad, after all.
Nicolas watched as LaCroix drew the last rune, using a mixture of blood and a brand new, never used quill made from the feather of an augurey. Vampire families were odd things, he reflected. The mix of blood that his Sire was using came from everyone that LaCroix had intentionally turned who had not experienced True Death, so it contained blood from everyone in the immediate family. For this particular spell, it was necessary to put their claim on Henri. The blood magic, combined with the runes they would put over the child's jugular, would warn off all other vampires and even, in a limited fashion, other magical creatures.
While he knew it was a wise precaution, Nicolas wasn't so sure he liked the idea of putting another scar on his son. Realistically, he knew that Henri would not make it through life without scars, both physical and emotional, but he didn't like it at all. If it were up to him, he'd keep Henri safe forever, but some of LaCroix's sources swore that there was a prophecy concerning Harry Potter and that trumped-up excuse for a Dark Lord, Voldemort, and that it was still active.
Protection from some of the nastier magical creatures would be helpful, though it wouldn't work on some, such as dementors. Mostly, it would be protection from most vampires. Those that didn't see the lightning bolt scar would see the runes before Henri was bitten. It was magic of the oldest kind; invented by Ancient Ones, some of the first vampires, to protect the occasional child raised by vampires from their own kind. The runes that they would be using, as well as the incantation, was in a language so old that it was long forgotten, lost in time to everyone but the vampires themselves.
Long ago, vampires had been considered the keepers of history by the wizards, but that, too, had been forgotten. The language had no name any longer, but it was the language that they'd kept their records in for longer than the young ones could remember. At LaCroix's nod, Nicolas left the ritual room and went next door, where seven-year-old Henri was waiting, reading a book that looked much too thick and too big for a child his age and size to be reading.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Henri?” Nicolas asked.
Henri closed his book, looked up, and nodded. “Yes, Papa,” he said. “Grandfather is right; there isn't much risk with this, and the benefits more than make up for it.”
“If you're sure,” Nicolas said.
Henri got up and hugged him. “I'm sure,” he said. “Papa, I'm scared.”
Nicolas picked up his ritual robe clad son and hugged him. “So am I,” he admitted. “But that's what courage is, mon petit. It's doing the right thing whether you're afraid or not.” Henri leaned against him for a few minutes. Sometimes, he thought, it was hard to remember that Henri was only seven, and then he'd remind them. Nicolas supposed that Henri's sometimes oddly mature behavior was a by product of a lack of playmates his own age. In fact, the youngest person that Henri had met was at least a hundred and fifty years older than he was.
Nicolas picked his son up, hugged him, and headed back inside the ritual room. “It will be okay,” he promised, the steadiness of his voice belying his nerves. He carefully stepped into the center of the runes, put Henri down, and drew a silver knife. Ritual magic was, for the most part, all the same. While the rune markings and incantations differed, the ceremonial aspects were very similar. If you'd seen one such piece of magic, you'd pretty much seen all of them. In this case, the language was different as well. He didn't want to do this, not really. Nicolas felt that intentionally hurting Henri, even a little bit, was unforgivable, even though Henri had consented to it, knew exactly what would happen, and would most likely forgive him. He just didn't know if he could forgive himself.
While this would serve as additional protection for Henri, what it did was to permanently inscribe runes, both on the boy's physical body and magical core. Anyone who could read them would read what was basically a label of ownership. It sounded worse than it was. For any vampire who saw it, it would invoke both LaCroix's name and lineage, which were highly respected in the Community. Over the millennia, he had developed a reputation of both power and ruthlessness. Very few vampires would cross him, especially with his family backing him. While Nicolas's tendency to gravitate towards Mortals and Mortal occupations was much looked down upon, he, also, was respected as one of the few who would dare flout his Sire's authority. He sighed and stood in a comfortable position, waiting for the correct time in the ceremony.
As soon as Nicolas and Henri were settled, LaCroix began the chant. Nicolas only understood bits of it, for LaCroix's accent was a little on the heavy side, but he knew the meaning. He watched as his Sire used another silver dagger to slice his palms to drip blood in certain places during the ceremony. It seemed to stretch on forever, though it was probably only about ten minutes, before LaCroix nodded to him. His heart hurting with what was involved, Nicolas knelt next to his son and carefully cut the necessary runes into the skin over Henri's jugular. He cut carefully, just deep enough to leave a scar without actually hitting the vein. Henri, who had been prepared for exactly what would happen and had agreed to it beforehand, made not even a sound of protest, though his hand did tighten on Nicolas's robes.
Once Nicolas had finished, he motioned to LaCroix, who stepped over the runic markings on the floor. He cut his hand again and, still chanting, rubbed his own blood into Henri's cuts. As he ended the chant, the runes glowed white, before settling down to silver. Any blood disappeared, leaving silver runes embedded into Henri's skin. Once it was finally over, both father and son started to cry, red blood tears from Nicolas, and regular salt-water tears from Henri.
Nicolas scooped Henri up and cradled him to his chest, murmuring apologies over and over for having hurt his baby boy. At that moment, he hated himself once again for the pain he had caused. Only this time, he had hurt his child, the person he loved more than his own life. At the moment, it didn't matter that Henri was, for the most part, unharmed. All that mattered was that, even for a few moments, Henri had been hurt, and it was all his fault.
“Papa?” Henri's teary voice jarred him out of his guilt.
Nicolas hugged him and kissed his forehead. “Yes?” he said.
Henri looked up at him, absolute trust and love in his blue-green eyes. “I knew it would hurt,” he said. “But I knew that you didn't want to hurt me at all.” He smiled a little. “I love you.”
Nicolas just almost-smiled and held Henri more securely. He couldn't forgive himself--not yet, anyway. And sometimes telling his son that he loved him, like now, was hard as well. One thing he knew, though, was that if he had it his way, Voldemort would never get near his little boy. If he had to, he'd petition the Council for bodyguards to keep Dark Wizards far away from Henri. He would be willing to swear it by his own blood and magic.
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