Chapter Three, In Which I Find Myself in Strange Places
I snuck out of my "You're still alive" party at the Tower and, of all things, headed down to the dungeons. I was early for my detention, but there's something to be said for menial labour. I don't have to think when I wash dishes or cauldrons or cook. I can fall into the numb stupor that helped me to survive the ten years and three summers I've spent in Azkaban South. It helps me not to think, to forget my life and all that seemed to go wrong in it.
When I was younger, I had a recurring dream that someone would come and whisk me away to a happier place, one where I would not have to cook and clean and hide away in a closet when I was not wanted or needed. I did not know much, not then, only that most families weren't like the Dursleys, that most children weren't like me. It wasn't the second star on the right, or any coherent dream that anyone else would recognize, only that someone, for some reason, would come and take me away and…
When I got older, and Hagrid had told me of Hogwarts, and I was only there for the summers, my dreams became clearer, stranger, more magical. Strange dreams of strange magical laws that would allow me to live with the Weasleys, or Sirius, or anyone else, for any reason.
Sometimes I would feel as if I'd do anything to live my own life, away from them, where I can leave my school books out and see my friends over the summer and actually talk to them on the phone if they could figure out how to operate one. Is that so much to ask? A home where I'm not a slave, where I don't have to put up with my leering cousin or my walrus uncle or the aunt I swear I can't be related to.
The Weasleys were so nice to me, taking me in most summers after I've escaped prison. Ron was my first friend, and Ginny a great gal-pal. The Twins are always great for a laugh, and Bill is so cool in a way that almost makes me want him to ask me out so I can be part of that family, and Charlie is great, even if he's mad for liking dragons so much, and Percy is Percy. And then Mr. and Mrs. Weasley…
But, I ask you, can I really, really be expected to forgive Ron so easily for thinking I lied to him about entering the tournament, when even Snape believed me. I mean, I was in detention, and never wanted a blink of attention in my life…
So, even after the first task, when I was sitting inside the tent they'd set up for us with Fleur, waiting my turn to face the dragon and retrieve the golden egg, I was trying to figure out if there was a way that I could just not compete. The thing is, though, the more I thought about not wanting to compete, the more I felt I had to, like there was no way out, that I couldn't.
So I competed. There was no way I couldn't, however much I didn't want to. I summoned my Firebolt like it was my life's blood, and out flew the thing.
Really though, is a party necessary? I survived, yes, but it's a stupid contest. Not like anyone ever threw a party after I saved the stone, or killed a Basilisk. Killing a Basilisk is a lot harder than out-flying a dragon, mostly because you can't look at the thing until you destroy its eyes.
That's why I went to the dungeon early. I wanted to not think about dragons or Basilisks or anything that reminded me that I was not a normal fourteen-year-old witch. It was at parties, most especially, that I felt so very old. I couldn't stand feeling that old, especially when I had a golden egg to figure out and whatever that meant to deal with, in hopes I would not die again in February.
Not die again. What a very odd phrase that defines my life so utterly in its nonsensicalness.
There were fewer cauldrons then usual for me, and I made my way through them quickly, moving on to the knives, the stirring rods, the glass phials – anything that might keep my hands busy and my thoughts empty.
I couldn't stop thinking though: Who would want me dead enough to enter me in this tournament besides Voldemort? But then one of his servants would have to know that he wasn't as dead as people thought, and have a plan… What would the next task be? Where was Sirius, and was he okay? And what about Remus? Why hadn't I heard from him?
I was interrupted from my thoughts this time by Snape entering. I've got to learn to pay better attention to the world around me. Or think less. That's what I'd been trying to do now, and was failing miserably.
"Hello, sir," I called out sullenly.
"I'd thought you'd be at your victory party."
"I'd rather be here." It's sad when you admit something like that to one of your professors. I mean, most people don't like detentions, with the possible exception of The Twins, but I have helped make all the food at the Head Table taste like tapioca pudding. I don't just open up to professors. McGonagall has tried, once or twice, to get me to talk – I think Madam Pomprey saw a bruise treating me after the Dementors at the first of last year – and Dumbledore has to know something is up, but I've never actually talked about how I feel about my prison sentence with anyone, even Hermione or Ron. Especially those two.
He raised an eyebrow at me. It's hard to equate this man with the vitriolic professor I see in class. I think he, like me, dislikes crowds. Or children. Not to say that I don't like children, but I bet it can get annoying teaching the same things every year to a bunch of students who think you're either A) evil, B) a Death Eater, C) a former Death Eater, or D) a git out to ruin their lives. I always got the feeling that Snape just knew what he was doing with Potions (nobody can keep such an eye on a class and know what everyone, especially Neville, has done wrong, to the stir) and was not a natural teacher. If it wasn't for the fact that, yes, once he'd tortured, raped, and/or murdered people like my mother and her parents, he probably could get any potions job he wanted.
But the fact was he had, for what reasons I don't know, and for that reason he's stuck being an educator, something that's obviously hard for him, and dealing with eleven- to eighteen-year-olds on a regular basis. I really don't care that he can brew the Wolfsbane Potion for Remus or not, but I would like him to be better than learning from a book.
You're stuck with the people you get, though, and so I'm trying to do better by Snape and the rest of the professors – and the rest of humanity, for that matter. I shouldn't just discount them out of hand because they believe the tripe that Rita Skeeter manages to get printed. If I didn't know any better, I'd assume most of what I read in newspapers to be true too.
Ron thinks I'm a liar. I can handle that. Not well, but I can handle it. After all, I did leave the House Elves to cleaning up the mess I made of the common room, and they didn't deserve that. We both reacted out of hand. And so what if he apologized? I shouldn't have to accept something so rude from my best friend in the first place.
Hermione thinks I'm turning into another Fleur, and betrayed her or something for caring that I look like I didn't just roll out of bed. So what? I can have other girl friends. And Fleur is nice, if pushy at times. We actually talk, sometimes, about her family (I've learned her mother's half-Veela, and that it's very rare for such a union to result in sons or even grandsons) and the sister she misses so much. She talks about her twenty-odd cousins, who range between the ages of seven and twenty-three, on her dad's side, and the few times she's met her grandmother's people. She tells me what it's like to have a real family. I tell her about my misadventures here, all the detentions I've gotten, and how I've earned them.
I told her about Azkaban South, though still doing my best to keep it light and without much detail. I told her about how, last year, I spent ages in the library looking through dry magical law books, looking for something to help me. How I'm waiting until I'm sixteen, when I can be a legally emancipated minor, and how I've already written up my petition (it's sitting in my trunk, a rolled up scroll that is currently my fifth draft of the thing) and am more than willing to grease a few palms if necessary to get out of that house. How I'd almost considered finding someone to marry, now that I'm fourteen (bless the prosaic, parochial wizarding laws) to speed things up, but haven't since getting a divorce is annoyingly difficult le by those same rules, and it's not like anyone at Hogwarts is someone I'd want to be with the rest of my life. I've even told her of how I worry about the day I become an adult too, because I might just jinx them all to oblivion.
Is it wrong to have someone I can talk to about such things?
She's already said that I can spend the summer with her family if I want, causing me to have to explain the situation where I'm not in charge of my own life even to that extent. She got righteously angry on my behalf, rather than saying, "Dumbledore knows best," like Hermione would or a, "Too bad, mate," like Ron. It was nice.
But, back to the point, where I'm finding myself telling the Head of Slytherin that I'd rather be cleaning his classroom then at a party celebrating my survival.
He raised an eyebrow at me, and then did the most surprising thing I think has ever happened to me, which includes living when, by all means, I should have died long ago: he took the clean knife from me and dried it while I continued on another one. A moment later, "I find that surprising, Miss Potter."
"I just survived; there's nothing special in that." There really wasn't. The other choice was dying, and I was not ready for that yet. My life was but the leavings of my parents' deaths, but it was mine and I would not let it go without good reason. My own child, one day, perhaps, or all the children of the world.
"Sometimes the ones that survive do so for a reason."
They were strange words, especially coming from his lips, but true. There had to be a reason I survived when Mum and Dad didn't. There had to be a reason why I was sent to Azkaban South and forced through what I, only indignantly, call life there, and why I have cheated death so often since. There has to be a reason. Or else I don't think I could live with the world, Fate or God or Merlin be damned.
Snape had to have survived for a reason. Remus had to have gone on, thinking two friends dead and the third their betrayer, for some reason. Sirius had to have escaped Azkaban proper for a reason. Mum and Dad had to die for a reason. I've not the slightest idea what, but I have to believe that, or else I might go mad.
"Have you started on the clue for the next task yet?"
"It's not until the 24th of February. I figure I can stand one night without anxiety about my certain demise before starting on it." I'm aware I'm sounding negative in the extreme, but I cannot help it. Any endorphins I might have had from surviving have long since been crushed beneath the weight of the knowledge that somebody didn't want me to live, and is bound to try all the harder next time.
"As loathe as I am to say it, Miss Potter, I doubt any of the tasks they've assigned here will kill you."
It's possibly the nicest thing an adult has said to me all year. "Thanks, sir," I respond, the confusion I was feeling seeping into my voice.
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"The Yule Ball is approaching – a traditional part of the Triwizard Tournament and an opportunity for us to socialize with our foreign guests," McGonagall said a few weeks after my detentions had ended, at the end of class one day. "Now, the Ball will be open only to fourth years and above – although you may invite a younger student if you wish. Dress robes will be worn, and the ball will start at eight o'clock on Christmas night, finishing at midnight in the Great Hall."
A dance. Great. Fleur would surely see this as an excuse to take me shopping again. It'd only been what? Two-and-a-half weeks?
The professor continued, while I dutifully 'paid attention' as I started planning on ways to say I wasn't going, let alone with them, to my admirers. I'd have to ask Fleur for tips – it was the kind of thing I knew, instinctively, she was good at.
I kind of figured that McGonagall had found a way to read minds when I was called forward as the class was leaving – some of my thoughts had not been entirely kind – when another piece of painful information hit me face on. "Potter, the champions and their partners traditionally open the Ball, so I-"
I blinked once at her as this sunk in, and then held up my hand. "Stop, rewind, and freeze. I'm not going, so-"
In a long-suffering tone, she started right back in, "Miss Potter-"
My death glare was broken again, so I was forced to listen to exactly why I had to attend, and why she'd be personally making sure that I was, in fact, in attendance throughout the whole thing, with a smile plastered on my face.
It was very Slytherin of her. I should've applauded.
I clung to Fleur for the next week, half-hoping her presence would be enough to deter any who might want to, Merlin forbid, ask me to the dance. I knew I needed a partner, one to go with the gold-coloured dress she'd seen to it that I'd purchased, and that, after that one opening dance, I had every intention of bolting, but I really didn't care. I was making no progress on figuring out what the screeching of the egg might mean, and nothing else really seemed important. Fleur and I, by unspoken agreement, never talked about the upcoming task.
The unexpected task before us, that we talked about a lot.
"I don't know," I told her the last day of term at lunch, facing a double DADA after and almost sickly curious as to what age-inappropriate curses we'd be starting on today. Moody might've given me the creeps, but his classes were bloody interesting. "It's just none of the boys here seem… I don't know, mature enough, I guess."
Fleur and the three S's nodded solemnly, as though I'd just offered them the secret of life itself. "Zat ez all boys," one of them offered – I think it was the dark-haired Sophie, but I cannot be sure. "By ze time zey are worth paying attention to, ze suddenly are 'too old' for you."
From the other's reactions, I gathered this was a personal experience sort of thing.
"You shouldn't 'ave said no to zat seventh year," Fleur began, but I shook my head.
"I said 'mature,' not 'wanting to get into my pants'." This appeared to be an idiom that didn't translate well into French, but I was running late for class. To make it worse, I was stopped on the way by a Ravenclaw third year and a beefy looking sixth year, both of whom I was a bit too rude to as I told them, "No," and was still late to class.
Ron was chattering about something after DADA, Hermione walking quietly beside us. I related my tales of woe, but neither of them seemed to take it properly – Ron laughing that I should just pick the best of the lot and be done with it, and Hermione saying that I shouldn't be so mean to the poor boys.
My, "What makes you think they were all boys?" comment didn't go over well as I'd hoped either, Ron turning Vernon-purple as he coughed and Hermione just glaring at me. Some people have no sense of humour, I swear.
Ron muttered something about finding a date and ran off quickly after that, leaving me to forced girl talk with Hermione in the common room where, I'm happy to report, I am still the subject of stares and whispers, just of a different variety. I'm less happy to relate that their rumours were of my illicit relationship with one Severus E. Snape. Even if there was such a relationship, I doubt the Headmaster would let us flaunt it by opening a ball together at an international function.
My life is so special.
"So, Hermione," I ask, sitting in my favourite chair by the fire, "I take it Ron's not asked you to the Ball yet?"
It was her turn to look at me as if I'd grown a second head. "Ron!" she all but exclaimed, in a tone I couldn't figure out as, "Oh, please," or, "That's the most disgusting thing I've heard all day." As I was trying, she continued, "No. I do have a date, though." I get a little too excited for Hermione as I ask who. "Krum."
I'm happy for her, but whooping for joy isn't something Hermione goes for. So we analyse his intentions for a bit, then she goes off to read ahead for sixth year and leaves me all by my lonesome. Krum. Well, doesn't that take it all?
Neville comes up to me while I'm musing, asking how I've been, all of that. I've not exactly been seen much around the common room, what with my detentions and all, and so I suppose it's a valid question. One thing leads to another, and suddenly I find myself agreeing, strictly as friends, to go to the Ball with him. I mean, I need a date, and he's nice enough. Not the sort I would want to marry or anything, even to get away from Azkaban South, but still, nice. Nice is good. I suppose.
I mean – and I'm not saying Neville's anything like this – but I've got the feeling my aunt only married Vernon to one up Mum, or get out of the family, or something along those lines. And, on the outside, Vernon is a perfect candidate for one-upmanship. I mean, middle-management, private school, Anglican altar boy; solidly middle-class. I don't think she married for love, though, and settled for her own version of nice.
What I want is someone who… well, isn't not nice, but is willing to argue with me when I get stupid, and help me when I decide to do it anyway, and who'll let me get in my moods without taking it personally. And I think if I ever yelled at Neville like I do when I'm in a state I just might break the poor boy.
He does help me with my Herbology homework, though, while I'm waiting for dinner. It's better than thinking on the egg up in my room and the screeches it makes every time I open it.
I should have seen trouble coming when Ginny came into the common room leading an ashen looking Ron.
"What's wrong with him?" I asked, afraid it was dragon pox or something from how sick he looked.
"He – er – just asked Fleur Delacour to go to the Ball with him."
I struggled to contain a laugh. She was going with Roger Davies, and, even if she wasn't, she'd not have gone with Ron, for many of the same reasons I'd not go with him, even if I was desperate for a date. He was just… well, fourteen he might have been, but in many ways he was years younger.
Ginny and I tried our best to console him, but it was a lost cause by the time Hermione came in, and he looked at her with a light I could see was going to get smashed all too quickly. "Hermione, you are a girl…"
"Oh, well spotted," she said acidly, the sympathy that had begun to take hold of her quickly vanishing with our friend's words.
"Well, I still need a partner-"
"I can't come with you," she began herself, trying to explain; "I'm already going with someone."
Pity Ron didn't believe her. It was the best argument I've seen from either in a while.
My pity didn't last long either, because, looking extremely put out I'm happy to point out, he turned his desperate eye towards me. "Right, this is getting stupid. I know you don't have a date Harry, so I guess I'll just go with you-"
I backed up, oh so glad to be last choice here, "Don't look at me, I'm going with Neville." That caused him to baulk. "It's not like I'm dating him or anything, not that it's any of your business, but I mean, he's nice, and, if I have to go, I think the two of us will have some fun."
"Good for you," his sister encouraged, shaking her head at her brother as she did so.
"But, I mean, it's only Neville-"
And so I found myself not talking to my best friend for the second time that year.
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Seeing as how my life seems to be one big serious of unpleasant things, I'm seriously beginning to consider a career as a dishwasher. Things are so much simpler when you clean. Things are dirty, you scrub, and then they're clean. Very simple. Very practical. No grey areas with scrubbing: the dirt, quite clearly, doesn't belong.
It's not so simple, life. I mean, I suppose I could just give up and let Voldemort kill me the next time I see him and let that be that, but, no matter how messy and annoying and terrifying fighting him is, I really want to live. I suppose I could have just turned down Neville too, or rescinded my yes and gone with Ron, because he is the first friend I've ever made, and it is getting tiring fighting with him all the time. I could have also said yes to the first person who asked me, but whatever.
I imagine (as I sit in the Beauxbaton's carriage, one of the S's doing my hair while Fleur does another's, and the last is slipping into her baby pink number) that, if my mother was still alive, she'd tell me something like, "Do what you think is right." Dad, after giving me a lecture on having an agreeable conversation with Snape, would tell me, "The only thing you can do wrong is not follow your heart."
There are only two problems with this that I can see. One, that Dad apparently knew from the moment he set eyes on Mum that he was meant to marry her, and so he's clearly never dealt with fuzzy areas like who to take to a school dance. And, most obviously at two, the only things I can remember of my parents are their dying words, which aren't exactly conducive to healthy interpersonal relationships.
The third thing I should also mention is that my heart, like my head, is also fuzzy. I mean, I relate more to people my parents' age then my own, considering how I've had more civil conversations with Snape this term then I've Ron. Maybe I should have asked Sirius to the ball. He could have come as a dog if he wanted, but either way I'd at least have better conversation than I would with half the population of Hogwarts.
That's not giving Neville enough credit. I mean, he is nice, but nice only gets you so far…
Not that I forgive him for stepping on my toes during the opening dance. Granted, as neither of us can dance, we must have looked a sight, but my toes will never forgive me. Still, after a few dances, my partner and I parted ways, him to torture more innocent bystanders, I to rest my surely bleeding feet. Ron made his way over, petulant after having discovered Hermione wasn't lying about already having a partner, and when Hermione herself dropped by, it was sexual tension I could have cut with a knife if I'd had one handy. I tried with my butterbeer, but finishing it quickly and leaving them to their own devices didn't seem to help, I noticed, as I hobbled out of the Hall and into the makeshift rose garden.
It was nice to get some fresh air, even if walking was a task I wasn't up for quite yet. The heady smell of roses carried me out of the present, and took my thoughts to a future where things were simpler, easier.
Voldemort was truly gone in that vision, I could tell just by the feel of it. Sirius was free at last, and he and Remus were finally able to get on with their lives. Ron and Hermione finally got a clue, and the Weasleys were my big surrogate family still, always welcoming me over for holidays and Sunday dinners. I had the deep and pervasive feeling of being loved, content with my lot in life, whatever that was, and content with what life would bring.
It was foreign to me, that feeling. Blindly, I tried to hold onto it.
I opened my eyes as the sound of couples being ousted from bushes caught up with my daydreaming ears. I tried to hobble back inside but Snape, who was doing the ousting, caught up to me easily.
"Essence of Murlap," he told me, indicating my feet, swelling in my borrowed shoes.
"Thanks, sir. I'll go to the hospital wing-"
"Don't bother. She'll be at the Ball still. Come with me."
Now, one can't help but not follow Snape's commands when he issues them, but even I, with my bizarrely functioning mind, would never have guessed until we arrived that he would take me to his office off his classroom and, indicating I should sit on the small couch therein, get said Essence of Murlap for me himself.
"Thanks, sir," I mumbled, unsure what had come over him.
"You're the idiot who decided Longbottom would make a fine dancing partner; I'm just doing my civic duty to see that the Girl-Who-Lived doesn't wind up permanently disabled from her own mistakes."
Absent-mindedly, I mumble, "I wish people wouldn't call me that," not thinking he'd hear me. I wonder what Dad would say if he knew that I was not only having a civil conversation with his childhood nemesis, but that I'd accepted the Murlap essence he'd provided me without checking it for poison or prank. It's probably the same was what my godfather would say, which is something that makes even my imagination blush.
"What would you prefer they call you? Alexandrie-Margaux?" he asks wryly, sitting down backwards in one of the straight-backed chairs. I suppose he wants to make sure I don't defile his office, though I can't go far, unable to feel my toes as I am. Murlap, while slightly slippery feeling, is making them pulse with life again, though. I wonder how long I can stay awake, because already I'm having trouble keeping upright, my feet in the basin. "I doubt anyone but our Beauxbatons delegates could pronounce it."
"It's better than Harry," I mumble even more quietly, and with a nod he concedes. Here we are, agreeing on something, the Potions Master and me. Hell is frozen over for sure now, and all its inhabitants are clawing their way out now that the way is cleared. My eyes are getting heavy now, shutters that must close as midnight draws near.
He says something I don't catch, possibly asking how a girl could wind up with a name that sounds only vaguely like any of the many she was given, or an explanation of why I, a Brit as far as I know (which is less than I can throw myself with Neville-impaired feet), have decidedly French names. Already I can feel myself falling into dreamless sleep.
"I think I like the name Éléonore," I think I say as my head droops onto the arm of the couch, wondering why balls can't be at more reasonable hours of the day.