cxxxii. a happy thought
Passing by Harriet's nightstand, Elara came to a sudden halt.
"Hmm?" the shorter witch acknowledged.
"Why am I counting three snakes here?"
Harriet pulled her head out of her trunk to look at Elara and then at the three snakes curled around the magically heated stone now residing on the nightstand. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"About that." She pointed a finger at the banana-colored creature sitting between Kevin and Rick. It was bigger than the other two and appeared more like a small constrictor than a viper or a grass snake.
"I've always had three snakes."
"Yes, three snakes in total—and now you've four in total, including the monster you keep under your bed."
"Hmm, I don't know. I think you miscounted."
"You cheeky thing." Elara sighed, allowing the curious yellow snake to inspect her fingers, though she kept her hand well away from Kevin, the lousy little biter. "What's his name?"
"Let me guess; you sneaked him off the table at Yule?"
"How'd you manage that? I didn't see—and Snape didn't throw a fit, so I imagine he didn't see either."
Harriet found the shoe she sought and shoved her foot into it, rising to brush the dust from the seat of her trousers. "If I could sneak food off the table before Dudley's piggy little eyes spotted it, getting a snake past Snape is no problem." She fixed her hair back from her face in a lopsided knot, coming over to pet her growing menagerie of creepy critters. "D'you want to hold him? He's much friendlier than the others, I promise."
Elara didn't really wish to hold the snake, but she accepted it when Harriet gently tipped Howard into her cupped hands, surprised to find it pleasantly warm and pliant, his tiny pink tongue flicking in her direction.
"Hermione's going to have kittens," she said as they left the bedroom, the sound of the heavy door shutting echoing in the long, barren corridor. Elara held Howard close to her middle, and he didn't struggle, remaining still. "She already couldn't believe Mr. Flamel got you that dead crow pet last summer."
"First of all, Hugh's not a pet. I don't even have to feed him!"
"I've seen you give him treats before."
"Well, yes. Of course I have to give him treats. Don't be silly."
"Yes, pardon me for being silly. How preposterous; of course the dead crow needs treats."
They climbed the stairs, footsteps snapping against the bare stone, sunlight pouring in through the chateau's wide windows. The snow on the grounds had thinned somewhat, but the wind had picked up in its stead, and Elara knew even the best Warming Charms would be hard-pressed to keep out the chill.
There was a dueling hall on the third floor, or what had been a dueling hall in the past, now reduced to a simple, narrow room with a large hearth on either end, marks on the floor where a platform used to be, the walls mottled with old battle scars. It was a bit drafty and cool, but it warmed quickly when they moved wood from a rack and lit a fire. Mr. Flamel had shown it to them on their first afternoon there, a knowing tip to his smile as he watched Harriet inspect the room.
They chatted about nothing consequential, Elara sitting on the window sill nearest the hearth, legs stretched and crossed at the ankles, while Harriet rolled up the sleeves of her buttoned shirt. Elara had slept poorly the last two nights with the Flamels, and given the dark smudges under Harriet's green eyes, she assumed the other witch hadn't slept well either. There was a nervous, bothered energy about her that she tried very hard to cover up.
Harriet pursed her lips, tapping her wand against her open palm as she focused on the far wall. She moved her arm in a practiced motion and gave the wand a small, sharp flick at the end. "Expecto Patronum!"
Elara allowed Howard to fall through her hands to settle on her lap, the dozy snake content to coil up upon himself in the slight dip formed by her legs. He was rather cute, not that Elara would say so to Harriet. God forbid she encouraged her animal hoarding. "Is that the incantation for the Patronus, then?"
"Yeah, according to Snape." Harriet grimaced and closed her eyes, then tried the incantation again. Nothing occurred. "He said I need to have a 'happy thought.'"
Elara blinked—as it occurred to her that she'd seen Snape cast the Patronus at least twice, once in their first year, and again last summer, which meant the bleak, miserable wizard had happy thoughts. It was…odd to consider, but Snape was nothing if not odd. She'd been under the impression that Dark wizards could not cast the Patronus; Harriet had said as much after her run-in with Slytherin, and Snape's words at the end of their second year had intimated his own connection to the Dark Arts.
Maybe that wasn't a proper Patronus? Elara considered, running one finger over Howard's long back, tracing his meandering coils. Or he is not as Dark as Slytherin. Interesting.
Harriet sighed, then stretched, Elara grimacing at the loud popping of her spine. She dropped into a dueling stance, fired two hexes at the far wall, twisted, and threw a third. Elara had always admired Harriet's grace with spell-casting, but her ability truly shone in Defense, lacking the hesitancy Elara saw in others and in herself. Hermione usually mastered a spell first in their trio—but that was through research, studying, and compiled knowledge, whereas Harriet simply relied on instinct and the 'feel' of an incantation, as she put it. Elara knew it infuriated Hermione to no end.
Closing her eyes, Harriet took a deep breath, then another. In a softer voice, she said, "Expecto Patronum."
A silver mist warbled from the end of her wand, there and gone, fast a summer rain shower, and Harriet gasped when it vanished, shaking herself from head to foot. Color flushed her cheeks, and sweat began to build at her temples.
"That was something," Elara commented, petting Howard. He licked her finger. "What was your happy thought, then?"
"I—the first time I flew," Harriet responded. She cleared her throat and appeared somewhat disoriented, casting puzzled looks at the wand in her hand. "Back in first year. Seemed a happy enough moment to think about."
"You need something more substantial, apparently."
Harriet dragged a hand through her mussed fringe. "But that's the thing; I don't know how Snape—or anyone else, I guess—does it. I don't…understand what he meant by happy. Well, his exact words were 'the encapsulation of sheer, unfettered joy,'" Harriet made a passable attempt of mimicking Snape's deep, drawling baritone. "Every time I think I might know what he means, that I might have a good thought, I just—I remember shite attached to it, and nothing seems as happy as it did before."
"Maybe you need more than one thought, something like a compilation of those smaller instances running together to prolong the feeling."
"I'm not sure. I don't know if I can do it—and really, I'm more worried about what happens when we have to go back. Will I have to ride the carriage past that bloody Dementor again? That's a nightmare waiting to happen." Harriet exhaled through her nose, frustrated. "Bugger it. Wanna duel?"
"Aw, why not?"
"I don't want to get dirty."
"Why would you get dirty?"
"Because, you always end up cursing me off my feet when we practice."
"See, that just means you need more practice, not less."
Harriet got a mischievous look about her, and Elara pointed her wand at the other witch in warning. Huffing, Harriet finally turned to the wall again and commenced practicing on her own, which lasted until she grew bored and began experimenting. She kept on testing the elasticity of different spells on the stone until one bounced back right into her face, resulting in a pair of broken glasses and a spectacular bloody nose. Setting Howard aside, Elara rushed to get one of the adults from downstairs and returned with Mr. Flamel.
"There, now," the wizard said as he set Harriet's nose and siphoned the blood from her shirt. "No more of zat. We have somewhere to be this evening, and the black eyes might be a little much, oui?"
"Where are we going?" Elara asked as Mr. Flamel repaired Harriet's glasses and returned them to their perch on the girl's face. Despite fixing her nose, Harriet would definitely have black eyes later.
"Beauxbatons," Mr. Flamel replied, casual as could be. Both Elara and Harriet gawked.
"Wait—what, the school? Beauxbatons?"
"Yes. Perenelle and I have—well, you know, business with their Board, and so we have been invited to dinner." He patted Harriet's head. "Zer won't be much time for exploring, but it should be fun, yes?"
At precisely seven o'clock that evening, Elara drank half of an antiemetic potion and took the Floo with Perenelle to the Headmistress' office at Beauxbatons. The Headmistress herself—a towering woman named Madame Maxime who clearly had giant parentage—was there to greet them, vigorously shaking Mr. Flamel's hand as they spoke in rapid French.
"And 'ere we have Harriet—." Mr. Flamel touched Harriet's shoulder, the short witch doing an amiable job of not gawking at the woman's incredible height. Perenelle had spent an hour wrangling her hair into a neat French plait, but one curl had already managed to escape, standing up atop her head like a cowlick. "And this is Elara."
"Bonsoir, Madame Maxime." Elara didn't miss how Mr. Flamel had failed to give their surnames.
"Enchanté de faire votre connaissance," the Headmistress replied with a polite bow of her head. "Poudlard students, Nicolas? Où les avez-vous trouvés?"
Mr. Flamel chuckled, fond, and smiled. "Ah, it is a long story."
Both Elara and Harriet remained quiet as they followed Madame Maxime and the Flamels from her office through a portrait into the school beyond.
In some ways, Beauxbatons appeared a lot like Hogwarts. They hadn't seen the outside of the school, of course, but the halls and corridors looked to be made of the same ancient, dark stone, undoubtedly hewn from the mountains surrounding them, and magic hung thick as mist in the air, chasing a chill down Elara's spine. Even the view of the grounds appeared something like the highlands of northern Scotland if taken in at certain angles.
The similarities ended there. For want of a better word, Elara simply thought Beauxbatons looked rich. Hogwarts had a storied mien to it, an element of care and practicality carefully etched into the foundations—and that, too, existed here at the French academy, but it hid beneath a very, very thick veneer of gold and marble, crystal and delicate embellishments. Hogwarts had statues of notable alumni made of dark granite, while Beauxbatons had busts and immense, soaring scenes chiseled from limestone limned in silver or bronze or precious, glittering gemstones. Plants had a notable presence here, white-barked trees fashioned to grow in the middle of the wide corridors, baby's breath and angel's trumpets hanging from glass planters on the walls, the staircases made grand and sweeping into spirals like those of a nautilus shell. Where Hogwarts would use torches, Beauxbatons had quartz chandeliers and rune-lamps—and Elara would eat her hat if this place had anything comparable to the dark, damp dungeons back home.
She didn't like it.
Elara couldn't say why, exactly, and she wasn't usually at a loss for words. Beauxbatons did not lack for beauty or sheer, impressive drama, but something of its grandeur felt frivolous to her. The magic got lost somewhere in the pomp, and it didn't call to Elara, not the way Hogwarts did with its long, dusty corridors, brooding ghosts, and ancient mysteries, a rightness that resonated in her bones. Maybe she simply wasn't used to the magic here, out of tune like a violin with its strings drawn too tight. Elara felt quite out of place—which was ridiculous, and the idea almost had her laughing when she considered her own vast fortune interned in the vaults below London. Elara—and Harriet, for that matter—were probably two of the most well-off witches at Hogwarts or magical Britain, and still, they resembled paupers when confronted with the vastness of Beauxbatons' wealth.
The school's Dining Chamber continued the theme of garrulous glamour, the largest chandelier Elara had ever seen hanging from the gilded ceiling's middle. The students that remained for break sat dispersed among a few dozen circular tables draped in white cloth, their school uniforms colored a pale, sky-blue, all of them chatting over their suppers, snatches of French and Spanish and German reaching Elara's ears. Each table bore an ice sculpture, the frozen shapes gleaming like beings carved from pure diamond, and from somewhere in the room lilted an infernal melody that set Elara's teeth on edge, not liking the feeling of unseen eyes pressing against her back.
A soft snort dragged her attention back to earth, and Elara met Harriet's amused look. "What is it?"
"D'you remember when Hermione told us Flamel attended the Académie de Magie Beauxbâtons and said he was its biggest patron?"
"Yes, I believe so. Why?"
"It never occurred to me how big of a patron a man who could turn anything to gold actually was."
Ah, Elara thought, looking at the Dining Chamber in a new light, wondering what it had appeared like back when Mr. Flamel was a boy and the Philosopher's Stone was still a distant dream. Probably a lot less gaudy. One of their history books had made a passing remark on Nicolas Flamel once unbalancing the French economy some centuries ago, and Elara caught the wizard's almost sheepish look when he glanced in their direction.
Like at Hogwarts, the staff ate in the same room as their students, but instead of a dais, the staff table resided on an upper balcony, given an unrivaled view of the tables below and the mountains outside the tall, statuesque windows. The Flamels were well-liked, received with cheers, applause, and kissed cheeks once they cleared the top of the steps leading to the balcony, Elara and Harriet briefly introduced and then summarily dismissed as uninteresting English girls. That suited them just fine, as they couldn't make sense of anything being said among the adults. The Beauxbatons students had risen to their feet as soon as they entered the chamber, and only once Madame Maxime took her place at the long table's head did they drop into their chairs again.
Seated at the other end of the table between Perenelle and Mr. Flamel, Elara placed her gloved hands together in her lap, and Harriet fidgeted with her black dress robes, discomfited by the presence of so many strangers. New dishes appeared before them, some kind of garnished soup steaming in front of Elara, though her stomach flip-flopped about when she thought about having to Floo back to the chateau later in the evening.
"Nicolas, adopted some strays, have you?" a short, plump wizard with a black goatee and a Spanish accent asked Mr. Flamel.
"Non, non, Maxwell. 'Arriet and Elara are simply staying with us for their holiday before returning to their studies."
The wizard grunted in acknowledgment, inspecting the two witches. "Hogwarts students, are you?"
Elara nodded. "Yes, sir."
"How is old Albus doing? Haven't heard from him recently."
"Headmaster Dumbledore is well, as far as we know."
"We should be seeing 'im zis summer," Madame Maxime commented, having heard their brief conversation. "Pour les arrangements du Tournoi."
"Ah, of course…."
Elara's jaw ticked, finding their sudden switch out of English rather rude, all things considered. She did wonder what "Tourney arrangements" Professor Dumbledore would be assisting with and whether or not she and Harriet were meant to be privy to that information. Her face remained passive as she spooned soup into her mouth. It tasted of onions and cheese.
As dinner commenced, Elara moved food around on her plate without eating it, more interested in reading the dynamic in the room, which circulated around Mr. and Mrs. Flamel. There was respect in abundance and a certain sense of sycophancy, mainly from a witch and a wizard who sat nearest Mr. Flamel, the pair overly perfumed and wearing too much jewelry. Elara hadn't caught their names and didn't wish to know; she rightly assumed they must head Beauxbatons' Board of Governors, and if there was one person the Board wanted to keep happy, it would be the man who must have financed half of the school's renovations.
The meal wound down, the professors and staff either taking their leave or remaining to smoke or drink and chat. The smell began to agitate Elara's allergies, so their sudden polite dismissal from the table to go explore the garden couldn't have come at a better time. Besides, Harriet appeared dreadfully bored and was prone to the worst kind of mischief when bored. That Maxwell wizard might end up wearing his bouillabaisse as a hat if he wasn't careful.
They rose from their chairs, and Perenelle took Harriet gently by the wrist before she could dash off and tugged her closer.
"Do not wander too far," she said, fastening the silver clasp on Harriet's cloak shut. "Stay to ze jardin, and stay together, oui?"
Elara appreciated the motherly sentiment behind Perenelle's warning, and yet it also amused her, because Harriet might have only been thirteen, but she'd toured the English countryside on her own and had stood against a furious Basilisk larger than a bus; getting lost in Beauxbatons was minor in comparison.
The two Slytherin witches climbed down the stairs and departed through the wide double doors opening directly into what Elara gathered was loosely called "the garden." It was a garden, perfectly flat and manicured, enclosed in tidy, clipped hedges, though it extended far into the distance and around the building, seeming more and more like a park the longer Elara studied it in the moonlight. She and Harriet finally managed to get a glimpse of Beauxbatons itself, and it glittered like an open orange, bright and glistening with light, more like a palace than a castle.
Elara saw Harriet staring at the single, rounded tower at the palace's edge, the square windows hooded by stone gables and carved leaves. An outer colonnade stood silhouetted against the night, braziers blazing from atop their stone tops. Beyond that, the tip of a fountain could be seen over the rolling foliage, lit by magic illumination glinting off the golden spigot.
"It's hard to believe this is a school," Harriet commented, and Elara scoffed.
"It's very ostentatious."
"Oh, Hermione would love it. She goes on about the art museums her parents used to take her to when she was younger, and that's exactly what this place reminds me of. 'Course, I've never been to a museum. I was supposed to go for a school trip in primary, but Dudley tore up my homework, and I wasn't allowed after that." Harriet turned her speculative gaze to the distance again, the skin about her eyes slightly puffy and darkened from that morning. She frowned.
"Is something the matter?"
"No. Not really."
"You've been preoccupied. Is it about what happened at Hogwarts?"
"I—no. Not directly, anyway." Harriet shuffled her feet, and they came to a stop at the row's end, the gravel path splintering in a multitude of other directions across the flattened grounds. Faeries lived in the hedges and giggled when they got caught staring, whisking themselves off deeper into the leaves. "I overheard the Flamels say something the other night that's given me a bit to think about."
"Was it something bad?"
Harriet shook her head, opened her mouth, then shut it again, conflicting emotions warring on her tired face. "No. It was just—no, never mind."
They continued walking, Harriet forcing new enthusiasm for the garden that Elara did her best to mirror, thinking on what the Flamels could have possibly said to disquiet Harriet. Lost to her ruminations, Elara barely noted when they descended a set of wide steps bracketing a terrace until the moonlight faded in favor of torches, and Harriet made a soft, appreciative sound.
"It's a cave," she noted as they followed the steps down to a vast, echoing antechamber, stalagmites taller than Elara reaching for the rising ceiling. The stone was a pale, buttery yellow, shot through with darker veins of brown and black, and somewhere in the dark echoed the methodical dripping of running water. "Oh, hey, look. There's paintings."
Elara followed Harriet toward the paintings in question, the inner wall of the cave covered in ancient and, in some cases, very strange pictographs, a thick shield of magic laid over the space to prevent anyone from touching the surface. Their footsteps echoed as they moved deeper, studying the progression, Harriet commenting on the odd symbols that looked like runes.
"Well, it's not anything we've seen in Ancient Runes so far," she said, squinting. Elara shook her head.
"It could just be Muggle cave drawings. It's not necessarily magical."
"Yeah, but that'd make it even harder to know, wouldn't it? Everything Muggle and magical used to be a lot more entwined before the International Statute of Secrecy cut a line between the two. That's why we see the Elder Futhark in both Muggle and magical societies."
"True." They came to a narrower passage, and Elara took in the images on the opposing wall, a great herd of winged steeds flying over a forest. Or maybe they were bulls coming over short, spiked mountains, she wasn't sure. "You could probably ask Mr. Flamel what it used to be like, considering he was born long before the Statue came into place."
"I have actually asked him before. He said he used to teach Alchemy to the Muggles at Oxford." Harriet brought her nose closer to the stone. "Magic and the mundane used to work together, but Mr. Flamel says that even though they're separate now, they still come around to the same ideas eventually. He reckons we're just taking different roads to the same destinations."
Their wandering brought them through the passage down another flight of steps hinging in upon themselves at sharp, right angles, and Elara started to question whether or not they were allowed to be here. No signs had barred their entrance, and given the wards and railing, some form of visitation was expected here. They came unto an underground chamber—and Elara stopped when she realized the rectangular niches lining the outer walls held bare bones and sarcophagi. There were long benches and a small theatre where classes were undoubtedly conducted, though what courses could be taught here, Elara did not want to guess.
Harriet needed only glance once in Elara's direction to read her mood and turn them back toward the stairs. They did not speak for several minutes, not until the theatre and the dead were far behind them.
"D'you ever think about where magic came from?" Harriet asked as they climbed. "Or about the kind of stuff even magic can't explain?"
"How do you mean?"
Shrugging one shoulder, Harriet looked down, and Elara couldn't quite read her expression in the dark. "I'm not sure myself, to be honest. Magic can account for things that science can't, right? And there's also stuff science can explain that the Wizarding world doesn't recognize or think of."
"Yes, that's true."
"And then there's things that defy both."
Harriet stopped at the top of the steps and lifted her head, glancing at Elara, then away, the torchlight reflecting off her glasses. "Like where witches and wizards came from. Or how in the bloody hell Slytherin and Tom Riddle and Gaunt are the same, but not the same, person." She fidgeted. "Or, maybe, how a shadow could move on its own."
Elara's brows pulled together as she stared at her god-sister, wondering how the conversation had turned to such a peculiar topic. A shadow moving on its own? Elara hadn't heard of that before, but then she'd never seen cave paintings or a catacomb until this night, either. "Well, while we might not have an answer to those questions," she began slowly, working through her thoughts. "It doesn't negate the existence of the answers. You can never find your socks, and yet they always turn up."
"Usually in Livi's nest."
"Usually in Livi's nest, yes." She grinned. "There's a reason for all things, even if it isn't readily apparent."
Harriet made a thoughtful noise, seeming to agree. She studied the wall—and then pointed at one of the painted figures. "I like this one best," she announced with an air of finality. "Because he looks like he's flipping the bird to that bloke over there."
"What? Look, he's got way too many horses, and so this guy over here is proper brassed off about it."
Elara shook her head in exasperation, and Harriet laughed, the sound loud and unrestrained—which was undoubtedly the reason why they missed the approach of footsteps coming out of the darkness until the intruder lit their wand and startled a pair of yelps from the both of them.
Silver gleamed. The air in Elara's lungs caught and rushed up her throat and through her mouth, a dizziness so profound overcoming her, Elara could have sworn she'd been trapped spinning in a Floo. A witch dressed in the Beauxbatons uniform stood not a full meter from them, her unbound hair falling in artful silver curls past her shoulders—a light seeming to emit not only from her wand, but also from the girl herself, her dark blue eyes heavy with disdain. Elara couldn't move, couldn't—breathe really, heat crawling up from her robes' collar to paint her face bright red.
Unaffected, Harriet recovered from the surprise and said, "Erm, who're you?"
One blonde brow quirked. "I am Fleur, a Délégué 'ere at Beauxbatons," she sniffed, looking the pair of them up and down, gaze lingering overlong on the Black pin on Elara's robes. "Vous n'êtes pas autorisé à être ici."
"We, um, don't speak French," Harriet responded, wrong-footed by the witch's cool tone. "Er—nous ne p-parle? Parle pas français?"
Her muddled French earned her another haughty sniff, all while Elara tried and failed to dislodge her tongue from the roof of her mouth. "Hmph. I said you are not allowed to be 'ere," the witch—Fleur—repeated. "Ze catacombs are interdites. Madame et Monsieur Flamel are looking pour you."
"Oh, I hadn't realized we'd been gone that long—Elara, are you all right?"
"Yes," Elara coughed. "I—yes, perfectly fine."
Harriet didn't believe her and gave her a long, dubious look, but Fleur quickly grew impatient with them both and flipped her hair, striding back the way she'd come. "Se hâter, faire vite."
Dazed, Elara walked—and shook herself, sinking her teeth into the inside of her cheek with nearly enough force to draw blood. The smell of apricots muddled the wet, decrepit odor of the cave, and it loosened Elara's breath, though it did little to relieve the knot in her middle. She didn't much like apricots, but in that instant, she found she rather enjoyed them.
By the time they reached the Dining Chamber again, Elara had forgotten all about the catacombs, the stench of bone dust, or Harriet's rather cryptic comments about magic, Tom Riddle, or shadows that moved on their own. The strange, beautiful witch disappeared as quickly as she'd come, and Elara's attention lingered on the doorway, a delicate pink color in her normally pale face. Neither she nor the Flamels, now deep in their cups, saw the shadow that lingered too long to be natural, that clung too close and stretched too far from Harriet's small footsteps.
The younger witch noticed, sighed, and said nothing at all.
Elara: *Barry White intensifies*
Harriet: "Where in the hell is that music coming from?"