"Tragic, just tragic. Perhaps not what one might call a handsome boy, but even in death, there is a certain rustic charm that is undeniable, and when matched with a farm boy's strong body and shoulders so broad they wouldn't look out of place on a Centaur, it isn't hard to imagine that he'd have had his pick of the girls. And yet here he lies, struck down in the full flower of youth. Tragic."
There was a strange chattiness to the woman's voice, but everything seemed strange now, such an unreal, impossible mix of victory and utter loss that this new oddity barely registered. Susan lifted her head slowly, heavily, letting her fingers remain laced in Ernie's blood-stiffened curls. It was no one she knew, a middle-aged woman in acid-green silk pajamas, her hair tightly wound in pink curlers. Painted toenails peeped from heeled and feathered slippers, and she reminded the young witch distastefully of someone's fussy, nosy Aunt, which, frankly, was probably exactly what she was.
There was also the firm insinuation of body language that she was not going away any time soon, and Susan looked down again, trying to push back any tremor that might spur comforting instincts in favor of a tone that she hoped conveyed go the hell away as icily as possible. "He was very handsome, actually."
"All in the eye of the beholder, I'm sure." The woman gave a dismissive, neither-here-nor-there flutter of her fingers, then crossed her legs as she took a seat on the cracked and scorched stone floor of the History of Magic classroom where the dead had been taken, her eyes glittering almost as brightly as the gaudy paste gems of her earrings. "I take it you fancied him? Girlfriend?"
Susan raised her left hand evenly, displaying the rings there as subtly as she believed this interfering biddy would grasp…in other words, about an inch from her obviously-transfigured nose. "Wife."
The change was sudden and truly startling. All trace of gossipy excitement vanished, and the woman clutched at Susan's arm with a gasp, her mouth dropping open in a perfect, horrified 'O'. "You poor dear," she simpered, then clapped her free hand to her chest. "I had no idea, really, I mean, by all accounts he's still – well, he was –" She cut herself off with a quick shake of her head, one curler flopping loose over her ear. "Not a word in the society columns."
"We eloped," she explained. "Over Christmas. Got married in the Muggle world so the Carrows wouldn't find out, because we knew we might not…might not…not…we might…."
To Susan's surprise, she felt her eyes beginning to well, and she swallowed hard. It didn't make sense. She'd been with the body for almost an hour, holding his hand, talking to him, stroking his face, offering thanks and begging questions she hoped he could hear but knew he could never answer. Neville had been and gone several times, as had Hannah, even her own parents and Ernie's, but amazingly, there hadn't been tears.
It hadn't been numb either, just…her friends had lost so much too, and she wanted her Mum and Dad to know she was all right, and Duncan and Fiona had just been shattered, and it wasn't that she had been holding back, but it hadn't been time to cry all the same. It had felt like it would be selfish somehow, selfish and so useless that it hadn't even threatened, and maybe it was just shock like Madam Pomfrey said it was, or maybe not, but now for this pushy, prissy witch who didn't even know her, she discovered that she was sobbing like a child.
Part of her wanted to push away the heavily lotion-scented hands that petted at her hair and clutched her face to the acid-green bosom, but more of her just needed to finally let it go, weep against someone who didn't know, who didn't already mourn, where she could spill out her own pain without adding to another's.
"A runaway marriage! Oh, how terribly romantic! A young war bride, a widow barely more than a child –" Her hands were moving down Susan's body in long, placating strokes, rather like petting a cat, and now they halted, her plucked eyebrows arching up sharply. "And going to have a child yourself, are you? All curled up like that, dear, I couldn't tell, but you're pretty far along, aren't you?"
She clucked her tongue sadly as Susan gulped for air, unable to do more than nod through the tears. "Such a pity, you know, some people are going to say that's more than coincidence."
Susan swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand, trying to compose herself enough to rebut the accusation that had seemed so much less important when she just knew it was being muttered as simple school rumor. "That's not why!" She sucked in a deep breath, unable to stop crying but managing to get the words out anyway. "I wasn't – it was after, I swear. We meant to be careful, but –"
"The passion of youth, I know," the woman agreed with a kind smile. "And it doesn't matter what others will say, of course. I'm sure your motives were nothing but love. But there'll be another heir to the Macmillan gold now, won't there? Going to name it after its Daddy? A little Eddie or Edwina, hmmm?"
"That's Ernie. E-R-N-I-E. Short for Ernest, but he hated that. And he didn't capitalize the second M in Macmillan. But names aren't your strong suit, are they? One of those pesky details that gets in the way of a good scandal, isn't that right, Rita?"
Hermione's voice was cold and sharp, and it slashed through Susan's grief, yanking her back with a hiss of sudden horror, as if she'd found herself clinging to a venomous serpent. She didn't look up to see the other girl she knew was standing only feet away, staring instead at the woman she now recognized even without the thick layers of cosmetics that had featured in every smirking photograph that had ever graced her bylines. "Rita Skeeter?"
The woman's thin mouth worked noiselessly, but Susan didn't need an answer. It was there in her nasty, guilty little eyes, and Hermione answered for her, circling around to crouch down next to the older witch with a viciously satisfied smile of her own. "Should have known you'd be here tonight, Rita. All this pain and suffering, plenty to exploit…but this is low, even for you. But so was going after Wally with the rumors about Katie, and that's how I knew you were here in the first place. You just don't learn, do you?"
"Oh, she will." The sound of Susan's own voice shocked her as she stood up. It was harder and more bitter than she ever had imagined herself capable of, and Ernie's wand was gripped so tightly in her hand that the carved handle grooved deep and painfully into her palm. It was too big for her, an awkward weapon, but she could feel that it recognized her, that it knew her, that it loved her even, as its master had, and there was no hesitation as she lashed out with all the pain that would never see newsprint.
Ernie's money hadn't mattered at all to her, but she found herself quite grateful for the sheer quantity of legal intimidation two hundred Galleons an hour could bring. Enough to plead emotional distress and hormonally-based medical inability to control her magical powers and thus to get the assault charges dropped, and the threat of a counter-suit for mental anguish besides.
But when that bitch had hit the floor, she had been sure she could feel Ernie's warm, proud smile again, and Hermione's arms had accepted her grief as a woman in pain, not a story to sell. Even when she was approached later by other, more reputable journalists, even when it was suggested by one of the most respected authors in the wizarding world that their romance would make a beautiful and inspiring book, she knew that everything the public needed to know, everything that needed to be said was already written in a mere three lines on smooth, eternal granite.
ERNEST "ERNIE" IAN MACMILLAN
Son. Husband. Father. Friend.