Author's Note: Written for inkstay's Dare to Write Challenge over on Tumblr. The prompt used was "once in a red moon." Reviews appreciated!
Warnings: Swearing, cancer mentions, suicide mentions.
Once in a Red Moon
Theodore found her lying in the damp grass, her wide, dazed eyes staring upwards at something unfathomable. He considered returning to the castle, but this was his spot, and he wouldn't let Loony Lovegood drive him out of the only place that brought him solace at this damn school.
He sat on the ground and leaned against an exposed root of his favorite tree, ignoring Lovegood sprawled in the grass several feet away as he withdrew two cigarettes from his pocket. One he put behind his ear for safekeeping, the other he set against his lips. He used his wand tip as a light and took a deep drag, though not deep enough. Never deep enough. One day he would inhale so hard, his lungs would fill with the drugs and chemicals stuffed inside the cigarette, expand until his lungs nearly burst. Worst case scenario, he'd pop like a balloon. Best case, he'd get cancer and rot from the inside out.
He'd learned about cancer in Muggle Studies third year, and he'd held a morbid fascination for the disease since then. Wizards rarely—mostly never—got cancer, but Muggles had the misfortune of lacking magic in their cells, and sometimes their bodies tried to kill them without provocation. Sure, they could protect their skin from the sun, refrain from smoking, avoid certain beverages, but sometimes cells didn't need a pollutant to trigger metastasis. Sometimes they just decided to do their job too well, replicating over and over again while refusing to die like they were supposed to. Theodore wondered if cancer patients could feel their tumors growing inside them and welcomed the chance to find out.
He had only taken Muggle Studies for one year. His father had made sure the course never appeared on his schedule again.
Lovegood remained motionless and quiet, and even though Theodore was relieved to smoke in peace, something about her stillness unnerved him.
"Lovegood, are you alive?"
Her reply came quickly enough that he no longer worried she had died out here all alone, though if she had, the only emotion he would have been capable of feeling was envy.
Theodore didn't necessarily want to die, not enough to walk into the lake or get pummeled by the Whomping Willow or jump off the Astronomy Tower. But his sense of self-preservation had eroded over the last year or so, and now preventing his own death seemed like a wasted effort. He didn't actively want to die, but he wanted to die just enough not to stop it from happening.
To his disapproval, Lovegood propped her body up with her elbows and turned those wide, oceanic eyes in his direction. To his surprise, her eyebrows were slanted over the bridge of her nose and a frown adorned her lips, her displeasure more than apparent in the darkness.
"You are too loud!"
Theodore looked around, but it was nearly curfew and they were alone. He blew a cloud of smoke at her face, but it spread out and vanished before it could reach her.
"I'm not doing anything," he said, wondering why he thought it was a good idea to argue with Hogwarts's resident lunatic.
"Your huffing and puffing is disturbing my concentration."
"Fuck off, then." This is my spot, he didn't add.
"No, I'm not leaving. I was here first, so you can leave." Now she was sitting up, and she crossed her arms over her chest as if that made her immovable.
Theodore considered levitating her across the lake where she would be least troublesome to him but couldn't muster the willpower to follow through with the idea. The backbone she displayed, however, intrigued him more than it irked him. He hadn't known Lovegood to fight back before; honestly, he'd never paid much attention to her at all.
Then the war came to Hogwarts and he'd seen her commit all sorts of idiotic, rebellious acts against the administration. Five years of taking the shit everyone threw at her with a smile on her face and suddenly she was throwing it back, Weasley and Longbottom at her side. It seemed her spine was permanently stiff now, now that the war was over.
"I wasn't making any noise, and you're not even doing anything. What the fuck's your problem?"
"If you must know, once in a red moon, the atmosphere thins and you can hear the stars whispering. But it's very quiet, so you have to concentrate really hard to understand them."
He looked to the sky where the moon hung heavy and full but very, very white and then took another drag on his cigarette.
"See? It's starting," Lovegood said as she laid back down, her fingers interlocked over her stomach and her eyes shining.
Unable to help himself, he watched her, his gaze so intense he was surprised she didn't flinch from the pressure of it. But Lovegood didn't crack under pressure, did she? He'd seen her tortured a time or two during the Carrows' reign the previous year, and she'd endured the Cruciatus Curse with more dignity than some Gryffindors.
He just wished he could understand what made her tick. People were easy to read. They all wanted the same things, they all had the same insecurities and fears. But Luna Lovegood was a contrarian, and not out of spite, either. She clearly walked through a different world than everyone else, absorbed information in offbeat ways, reacted with her heart and her mind, which always seemed to coincide. She didn't hide anything because she honestly didn't care what other people thought, and that was a strange and unique quality. Theodore had never seen it before. People always had a weakness. They always cracked.
She lifted her arm in silence and pointed upwards at a forty-five degree angle. Theodore followed the line of her arm to the sky, and his cigarette fell out of his mouth. As he watched the moon rise, the color began to change from white to orange. He observed the lunar eclipse happening before them in silence, his cigarette burning forgotten on the ground. Every time he blinked, the moon seemed to rise higher, grow redder in color.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed when the blood moon finally appeared, but it took his breath away in a pleasant way that he hadn't experienced since learning about cancer in Muggle Studies when he was thirteen. He was reminded once again that the world could be a wondrously mysterious place, full of the kind of magic he couldn't control.
After his father had died at the Battle of Hogwarts, Theodore had been at a loss for what to do with the rest of his life. He had no other family to speak of, none here in the United Kingdom anyway. So he'd returned to Hogwarts for lack of any better options, and he'd smoked cigarettes while hoping for a disease to slowly wipe his useless existence off the face of the planet. But maybe there was another world out there for him. Not here at Hogwarts, not in the UK, not in the wizarding community at all. Maybe he could go out and look for Muggle magic. What else did he have to do?
"Do you hear that?" Lovegood whispered.
Her eyes were closed now, and her face was filled with an expression of bliss, her lips curling upwards in an awed smile.
Theodore closed his own eyes and catalogued the sounds he heard so he could identify them and filter them out. An owl hooted in his tree, the wind rustled the leaves, the lake lapped against the shore. He listened beyond those for a sound he'd never heard before, and when he found it, his whole body froze.
The whispers were nothing like human whispers, sibilant and soft, the words rounded instead of sharp as they'd be if spoken aloud. No, the whispers of the stars were more like emotions. They pierced him to his heart, and he felt them burrow there, growing like a tumor, filling his ribcage with something useless and frightening and miraculous all at once.
He sat there as long as he could stand the stars bombarding him with their opinions and feelings, and then he lurched to his feet.
"I'm going in."
Lovegood opened her eyes, propped herself on her elbows again. "But it's not over yet. They still have more to say."
"I've heard enough." He stomped on the cigarette he'd dropped earlier and then he stomped away from the lake, back up to the castle.
He shouldn't have been surprised when Lovegood followed him.
"Overwhelming isn't it?"
"Have you heard them before?" Theodore asked, more curious than he cared to admit, even to himself.
Lovegood shook her head. "Sort of. Not exactly like that. My mother told me about the stars once, though. She told me what to expect."
"My mother's dead." He hadn't meant to say those words, but he felt raw and cancerous and they fell out of his mouth without meaning to.
"Mine, too," she replied, almost cheerfully.
Theodore stared at her as he walked, wondering how she could smile while talking about her dead mother. His had been dead for twelve years, and he still felt the sting of her absence.
She seemed to understand his confusion because her eyes widened even further—an astonishing feat for her. "I know I'll see her again, see. And I heard her just now. Everyone I've ever lost whispering to me and to the other stars. You heard your mum, too, didn't you?"
He refused to react because he couldn't fathom a world in which he could still feel his mother's presence, and he didn't want to give Lovegood the satisfaction of his hope. But under his ribs, between his lungs, the tumor where the stars' whispers had embedded themselves and grown twitched in acknowledgement, and for a moment Theodore believed her.
They reached the castle doors, but before he pulled them open, Theodore turned to her, scrutinizing her again for what felt like the hundredth time. He came to the realization that he had always been fascinated by her, too, ever since the height of the war, when the Carrows began to target her for the mischief she and her friends had made. Until now, he hadn't recognized how much he had watched her over the last year, until she'd disappeared from Hogwarts entirely, taken from the Hogwarts Express by Death Eaters. Even then, he'd asked Draco about her from time to time. How had he not seen the fascination sooner?
"How do you know these things?" he asked her. "How do you move through the world as if it's not entirely made of shit?"
She shrugged and considered him. "The stars told me there are too many wondrous things to see, and I've seen enough of them to believe them. If you won't believe them, maybe you'll believe me."
She pulled the door open and skipped across the entrance hall, like a little girl, all wide-eyed and optimistic and naive. She certainly was wide-eyed, and she did harbor some optimism, that was for sure. But naive? No. He could never call her naive.
A smile lifted the corners of Theodore's lips, and he followed her into the castle wondering what more of the world she could show him.