A/N: Winner of the Melting A Winter Heart contest on Mugglenet Fan-Fiction.
I hover at the bottom of the staircase leading up to Ravenclaw Tower, then move towards a nearby window. Snow has just begun to fall. My eyes travel the path of one flake at a time, caressing its slow progression downward until I cannot see it any longer, and then I watch another's descent. I used to love when it snowed, but its appeal to me was lost long ago, after two-hundred years or so of my witnessing the white matter fall to the ground.
"Please, Julie, can't I wear your necklace?"
"No! God, how many times do I have to say that?"
"It's not as though you're wearing it – "
"And you won't be either, so I guess we're even."
I recognize these voices: they are two Ravenclaw second years. Their volumes become louder as they descend the spiral staircase leading to Ravenclaw Tower behind me.
"But you don't want to wear it, and I do! I'm not going to break it, you know."
"That necklace was given to me by Aunt Patty – "
" – whom you don't even like – "
" – and she'd kill me if she found so much as a dust speck on it!"
I spare a brief glance over my shoulder: the pair of them is standing at the bottom of the stairs, clad in their fancy dresses and make-up for the ball. They face one another, each with their hands on their hips, faces flushed deep reds.
It is with difficulty that I refrain from scoffing. This is why having balls at Hogwarts is always such a terrible idea – I, who have seen so many throughout the years, would know. All they ever lead to is disputes between those of all age, gender, status, and House. But every few decades, some new staff member comes along and decides to host a ball, most often around Christmastime (for, after all, what could be more romantic than finding love in the cold, cheek-biting snow, or kissing under mistletoe filled with lice?). 'It will be fun for the students,' 'it will be an enjoyable social gathering,' 'it will be the exact change of pace that we all need during this busy time of year' . . . the reasons behind the balls are always similar no matter whom suggests it.
This year, the idea came from the Headmistress. It was to be expected, I suppose: she is brand new this year. Young and idealistic, she has all the qualities that add up to one who is naïve enough to believe that having a Christmas ball at Hogwarts is an excellent idea. Several of the elder staff members tried to object, but most agreed to the notion. Perhaps they think things will be different this year, that things will change.
I do not understand how anyone can cling to such a thought. Things never change. At least, they never change in any way that really matters. I would know, having been on this Earth more than a millennium. Everything around me cycles as it always has at Hogwarts. The teachers teach, the students learn, and both sets seem to find time for plenty of drama between each other in the midst of those tasks. I witness little adjustments to this pattern now and then: new spells are developed, a war takes place, the clothing styles or the music preferences change. Apart from that, there is really no difference in this school from the time of its beginning to now.
The girls are still bickering.
"Necklaces are meant to be worn, not stuffed at the bottom of a trunk for years on end."
"For the last time, you're not going to wear it! I don't care what you say, I'm not loaning it to you."
"I thought we were friends."
"We are, Kate – though if you keep whining, I'm not sure how long that's going to last."
"You had promised to let me wear it!"
"I had promised to let you wear it eventually; I said nothing about tonight!"
"Why not tonight? Tonight's as good as tomorrow, or the next day, or a few months from now! You've been saying that I could wear it 'eventually' since last year!"
My hands clench; their arguing is becoming tiresome. I whirl around to face them.
"You do not need to wear her necklace," I snap at the girl called Kate, who gawks at me; it is rare that I speak directly to the students. "You are functioning in life fine without it, and even if you were not, it does not belong to you. Let it be."
Julie tries to hide a triumphant smirk. This only serves to make me angrier; I focus on her next.
"But that's no reason for you to selfishly horde your possessions either. Those who covet what is not theirs are just as guilty as those who are narcissistic enough to never let anyone near what they own."
The smirk is gone from Julie's face now. Both girls stand there with gaping, wide-eyed expressions, looking much more like the twelve-year-old girls that they are and less like the women they were pretending to be by smattering all that make-up onto their faces. Then, after sharing a look with each other, they walk off, their high-heels clicking quickly across the floor in their effort to move away from me as fast as humanly possible. I watch them leave with narrow eyes; had I still been in possession of a pulse, it would have been beating quickly in my impassioned fury.
"And I thought that I was the ghost with the reputation for being frightening."
I turn, though I have already recognized the owner of the voice. The Bloody Baron floats nearer, and stops to drift when he reaches the spot the two girls had been occupying.
"You – witnessed all of that?" I ask cautiously.
"Every word," he returns with a smile.
It is unusual that I converse with the Baron outside of the ghostly council meetings. He moves around the castle as I do, drifting vaguely, interacting with few except when needed. It is not that he actively avoids others – if he crosses paths with someone, he will surely give them a nod or a word – it is just that he does not try to associate with them (them being the collective humans and ghosts at Hogwarts). And thus, they do not try to associate with him.
"You were quite intimidating, I must say," he offers now. "I am shocked those ladies did not run out of here sooner."
"You're mocking me," I accuse coolly.
"No, not at all," says the Baron, seeming surprised at this suggestion. "Your fury is very menacing. More so than a bunch of jangling chains" – and here he lifts his arms for demonstration purposes, causing much clanking of his shackles – "could ever hope to be, if you ask me."
"Well, do not spread the news that I am scarier than you too far," I say in pretend solemnity. "I do not want to lose my reputation of being quiet and proper."
He inclines his head, playing along. "As you wish. I'll be sure not to mention it to any fellow ghosts or – "
Loud giggles drown him out as three teenage girls rush past.
"C'mon, we're going to be late!"
"Don't push me, I'll fall and break these heels!"
As quickly as they came, they are gone, running for the staircases, their high-pitched laughter still echoing through the corridors' wide berth. In the ensuing silence between the Baron and I, it settles on me again how strange it is that we are conversing in such a casual manner. I cannot recall one instance in the past one thousand years when that has happened. Why now?
"And will you be attending the Christmas Eve Ball?" the Baron questions me, nodding in the direction the girls disappeared.
I shake my head. "I don't see why I should bother. It is the same every time this school hosts a ball."
"Yes," I say simply.
At first, I think he is mocking me again – how can he possibly not see the unending similarities year after year, the never changing patterns? – but his gaze on me is sincere. He truly wants to hear what I have to say.
"The people may change," I respond slowly, "but the roles never do. The staff will layer the Great Hall with winter decorations until it is almost unrecognizable. A band that is currently popular will be hired to play music throughout the night. Food will be heaped in tables along the sides. People will dance, eat, sing, argue, and struggle their way through the evening, hoping that by the end of it all they will have created at least one golden memory to cling to forever, even if the rest of the evening was filled with quarrels and sweat."
I smile then, but not out of joy. "I do not need to watch the proceedings. I know what has always happened, and I know what will always happen."
The Baron's gaze on me has not wavered during my entire speech. "Is that really what you think about all this?" he asks finally.
I tilt my head pensively. "You disagree with me?"
"Well . . . yes, I do."
I am stunned. "How can – I – you have wandered the Earth as long as I have. You have seen just as much as I."
"Indeed I have," he agrees in a low tone, clanking his chains with an unconscious shift of his arms. "And I will still be attending the ball tonight."
This, I think to myself with a bitter humor that does not amuse me, is a logic problem that I doubt even my brilliant mother could solve.
"But . . . I do not understand . . ." I falter.
He considers his imprisoned wrists for a moment. "It is really just what you said, Helena." I shiver; it has been so long since anyone has spoken my given name. Most, when addressing me, refer to me by my ghostly title, the Gray Lady.
"What I said?" I echo.
"Yes. It is just what you said." He looks up from his hands and meets my eyes. "The roles might never change . . . but the people do. It's the same story over and over, played out with different people every time in the timeless story of life. That's what makes it different – that's what makes it worth watching."
I do not know what to say. My mind, which normally never stops flowing in a steady river of thoughts and musings and analysis, has become devoid, dry.
"I shall be off now." He bows. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight," I call out vaguely as he drifts away. My gaze lingers on his retreating back as he glides down the corridor, and I can hear his shackles long after my eyes have lost sight of him. I think about what he said – about how he was able to repeat back exactly what I had said – and yet, by rearranging the emphasis of the words, he spun an entirely different meaning.
The roles might never change, but the people do.
Yes, the people did change, but that didn't make it any different than before. I still cannot understand what is new about watching the same moments play out in a million various lives. One dance between a couple is no more distinct than another from ten years ago. There are only so many ways two people can move their feet.
I have not become a complete cynic during my years of death: I know that each human life is different in some way, each interaction between them unique in even just one manner. It would be impossible for me, who saw such complex relationships unfold before my childhood eyes, not to recognize how varied and different human relationships are, be they between enemies, friends, lovers, or acquaintances. That still does not mean I feel the need to watch how others who still live behave, how their subtleties differ from one another. But why does he?
I do not understand. And when I do not understand, I must find a way to understand. Mother was this way, and she passed the trait onto me. If only she had passed some of her other traits to me, such as not desiring what was not mine . . . but that is neither here nor there. I have a puzzle that requires solving, and the only way to go about solving it is to query the Baron himself over the matter.
It looks as though I will be in attendance at the Christmas Eve Ball after all. With a complacent sweep of my cloak, I descend the staircases and blow into the Great Hall.
Either the new Headmistress is extremely lovesick over some fellow, or she just takes enjoyment in showing off her wealth, for the Hall is decorated even more lavishly than usual. Ice coats the floor, walls, and windows, with icicles hanging stylistically from the ceiling. Silver tinsel lines the length of the room; wreaths and mistletoe are sprinkled here and there. The four House tables are pushed to the sides, heaped with foods that waft tantalizing steam. Captured fairies weave through the air, trapped in colorful bubbles that glitter and glow.
Some of the students are dancing, but most stand off to the sides, eyeing one another and giggling with nervous airs. All look very different without their normal school robes, dressed in their finest, though most still appear to me as though they are children dressing in their parents' clothes. Only some of the older teenagers look more at ease in their fancy apparel, but even most of them seem tense.
It is, in short, the typical winter ball at Hogwarts, hardly any different from the very first.
I cast my eyes around for the Baron, but do not see him. Several other of the Hogwarts ghosts are in attendance though, drifting around as they converse with one another; the Fat Friar is even in the middle of the dance floor, doing a jovial waltz by himself. It is such a familiar yet endearing sight that I smile.
He catches me looking at him and grins.
"Care to join me, my dear?" he asks, maneuvering his dancing feet in my direction.
"No, thank you," I say politely.
"But I am terribly lonely. Please, accompany me?"
"I always say no, Friar; I do not know why you continue to ask each time."
"Because you always concede in the end," he returns, doing a dramatic spin on his toes to close the distance between us as he throws out his arm, offering me his hand.
I sigh, unable to debate this point, and place my hand in his. "You should know that the only reason I always concede is because you look quite deplorable prancing around by yourself."
"Ah, well. So long as you eventually become my partner." He puts one hand on my waist, and we begin to step and twirl to the music. "Dancing by oneself is enjoyable, but, well, it does take two to tango."
"You do not even know how to tango."
He lifts our entwined hands, spins me to him quickly, and then dips me backwards with a dramatic sweep. "Don't I?" he asks as he whips me upright again.
Moving, holding, stepping, grasping, dancing – all of these are strange pursuits when you are a ghost. We can walk and run around, but we cannot feel the floor beneath our feet. We can move physical objects, but not with physical strength, instead with our ghostly powers; residue, if you will, from when we were a living witch or wizard. We can hold onto something that is also of a ghostly material, carry it within our hands, but we can feel neither its texture nor its weight. I do not know how to explain it any better than this; it is a difficult thing to comprehend unless one has experienced it.
The Friar and I continue to banter, our faces never wavering from solemn apathy, though all of our words are pleasant and said in fun. If an outsider were to witness this brief exchange between the Friar and I, they would very likely deem us friends. And I suppose if you define friends as being two individuals who are on good terms with one another and occasionally share a dance, then yes, we are. If you define friends as being two individuals who share more than just the occasional dance, the every-now-and-then attempted synchronization of footwork, then no, we are not. I do not know what the real definition of friends is; certainly, I have read dictionaries, but I have found that many things simply cannot be described in factual words. Though that's not to say I haven't tried. It is one of the many things not even Mother's vast collection of books could tell me.
"Might I cut in?"
I freeze for a moment at the voice's smooth intrusion into the conversation the Friar and I had been having, then give a lithe turn of my head to lock eyes with the new arrival. He meets my even gaze but says no more.
The Friar lets go of me and bows deeply. "Thank you for the lovely dance, dear lady."
I break my gaze from the other and look towards my former dance partner, curtseying. "You as well, Friar." He makes his exit then, smiling in a way that unsettles me, but I am distracted from the matter before I have much time to consider it.
"May I have this dance?" the Baron inquires, inclining his head as he presents his open palm, an invitation for mine to join it.
Our eyes are steady on each other. All around us people are diving and spinning and gliding in dance; the musical group is playing a jumble of notes that are building rapidly as the climax of the song nears. The scene is so familiar, all of it, from the dancers surrounding us, to the swelling music, to the Baron offering me his hand right in the middle of it all; for a moment my mind transports me back to when it took place over one thousand years ago.
"My lady?" the Baron asks, for I still have not replied nor moved.
I remember the last time this happened nearly as vividly as it plays out in front of me this time. Last time, I refused his request for a dance. Last time, I walked away and retreated to the wall. Last time, it was only at my mother's insistence that I ventured back to the dance floor for a dance with him.
But my mother is not here to pressure me to dance this time; I can turn down his request, and no one will force me to do otherwise.
I curtsey, drop my eyes respectfully to the floor for a moment to avoid staring, and then reconnect our gazes.
"Yes," I say, and take his hand.
He pulls me towards him, and places his remaining hand upon my waist, holding my hand more securely with his other. These adjustments are done far less smoothly than the Friar had managed to do them, due to the Baron's shackles restraining his movements, but we arrange ourselves eventually, and then we sweep across the floor. His movements are graceful, smooth. I don't know why I'm surprised at this. They never were anything but.
It is as we dance that I come to a decision not to act upon my earlier incentives and question the Baron over how he and I can view human interactions and connections so differently. For there would be no point in questioning him. People, regardless of their features and upbringing and situations, are very likely to see things differently from one another. Why should I be shocked that he and I do not view the same things in a similar lighting? It is most certainly not the first thing we have had differing opinions over.
I am still, however, befuddled by his sudden change in attitude towards me. A thousand years have passed without incident between us, and I would have been perfectly fine to spend another in the same manner. And yet, tonight, he approached me. Not once, but twice. The obvious question – why? – circles in my mind again and again, as endless and repetitive and frustrating as the drum beat one of the musicians is creating as part of the song.
"That is very annoying."
"Pardon?" I say, mentally scolding myself for not paying attention to my dance partner.
"This song that is playing. I do not know how anyone can call a scrambling of loud, discordant notes – accompanied by a steady, ear-bleeding rhythm – music."
I smile; were we not ghosts, I would have thought he'd read my mind. "I truly do not either. I suppose we are just out touch with modern music styles. Then again, our sense of hearing is altered as a ghost – you do not find many humans who like the sound of musical saws, you know. Perhaps the song playing right now is really a masterpiece, and we are too tone-deaf to know."
"Perhaps," he agrees, "though I do not think that theory likely." He nods at something over my shoulder, leading us around in a half-spin so I can see what he is looking at. Two or three teachers sit at a table pushed off to the side, cringing, eating their Christmas meals with expressions upon their faces akin to ones about to become human sacrifices. Amusement burbles up inside me, and a low laugh is drawn from my lips.
His eyes catch on mine, deep and trenchant and enraptured, pensively taking me in; I believe the living would describe a look such as this as 'seeing right through someone, far into their soul.' But I am a ghost. I am transparent. My soul can be seen by anyone. To see through me is no accomplishment. No, this is a look that doesn't see through me – this is a look that sees me.
"I have not heard you laugh in a long time," he murmurs.
I haven't either, to be honest.
I am silent, staring back at him, trying to see him as well as he seems to be seeing me, trying to understand him, understand all this.
Then his eyes drop – his hands fall away from my body – he takes a step back and bows. I stop dancing as he does, though my head keeps twirling in rapid footwork.
"The song is over," he says, "you have partnered with me for one number, as per my request. Thank you for the dance."
I pull up my long skirts in a curtsey. "Thank you for requesting it. I . . . I appreciate it."
A nod of his head, a jangle of his chains, and then he weaves away. A strange feeling settles in my stomach as a thought occurs to me: despite that our one dance is over, it seems as though it has only just begun.
As perplexed as before, cursing as always my lack of intellect even after my many years of gathering wisdom, I drift over to the High Table, hovering, musing, as the endless refrain of my thoughts continues to pound in my mind, off-time to the beat of the song the band is now playing:
Why? Why? Why? Why?
Yes, the Baron has loved me very deeply, in a way that I could never comprehend nor reciprocate towards him, for nearly as long as I have known him. This love is what drove him to pursue me even after I turned him away each and every time. This love is what drove him to once do whatever he could to win my favor. It is what drove him to come and find me when Mother was so ill; it is what drove him and him alone to try yet again to persuade me to do something even though he had never managed to do so before; it is what drove him to madness great enough to kill the both of us with his sword. It is what drove him to return as a ghost, hating himself for what he had done to me. It is what drove him to remain in near-constant silence through all these years, until now.
What has changed?
And why now?
I have initiated no change in our relationship. I have initiated no change at all in the way I conduct myself towards anyone. And he? I try to recall. No, until tonight, he has not been any different either.
Except . . .
He has. He has been different. The difference, though, has been so subtle that I have told myself repeatedly to put it out of my mind: that I am both a woman and a Ravenclaw, which means I continually overanalyze matters that do not even exist. But perhaps, for once, I have not been overanalyzing.
His mannerisms, his movement, all of this has been the same. Just his eyes have recently altered. Or, I should say, his eyes on me have altered.
He has been looking at me longer, and more often. Moreover, the look is different. His dark eyes used to skim over me the same as any other he might glance at, with only the slightest infliction of sorrowful shame as they passed in my direction. Lately, there is a new intensity behind the lingering gazes. I cannot read the emotion behind them. There is a concentration there, a piercing vigilance, one that has caused me to inwardly quiver, from both its foreignness and its sudden arrival.
I have told myself that it means nothing. Now I wonder if I have been mistaken. It would not be the first time. Maybe something has changed within him.
"I have startled a ghost," the Baron chuckles. "That is not an easy feat."
"You did not startle me," I say, regarding him with haughty eyes as I wonder why he has sought me out yet again. "I was lost in my ruminations."
"I see," he says, though he is still smirking a little.
"And what of you? Why have you come over here to see me?" I return sharply, deciding that a touch of forwardness is perhaps what is needed in order to get an answer.
But my direct approach does not have its desired effect: he does not lose his composure in the slightest. "I merely wondered if you had noticed the snow outside."
I cast my eyes to the window; the snowfall I observed earlier this evening continues to twirl to the ground. "I had noticed it, yes. Why do you inquire?"
"I thought I should point it out to you, if you hadn't yet seen it."
My eyes crinkle at the corners. He came over here to make sure that I was aware . . . of the current weather?
"Why?" I ask before I can help it.
He regards me for a long moment before replying: "Because I know that you love snow."
"I . . . once, yes. Not any longer. It happens too many times for me to appreciate every time it snows."
"I see," he says softly.
We hover there for a moment, he with his eyes on the pivoting students, I with my eyes on him.
"Well, I'll be on my way," he says then, meeting my gaze again briefly before dropping it to the floor as he bends over at the middle. For all his Slytherin qualities, the Baron has always been exceedingly polite. "Pleasant evening to you, my lady."
"You also," I say as he glides through the wall to the outdoors of the castle.
It is only after he has left that I realize I forgot to curtsey in return. I wish I could say honestly that it is this fact alone that prompts me to fly after him. But it would not be honest at all. And I have ceased to deceit and lie ever since my death.
I soar through the wall and reappear outside, near the path leading to the Quidditch field, but do not see him lingering about. I shoot forward, searching; he can't have gone far.
Why? Why? Why?
Three times he has sought me out. Three times in a night – one single night. Night: a usually meaningless word to a ghost. It is a word that gives meaning to those who are living, provides them a frame of time, for those whom time matters to. Strange how suddenly the word has meaning for me as well.
I have never loved him. He knows that. He has always known that. In life, this feeling towards me caused him to pursue me; in death, it was the opposite, for he was ashamed to look into my face knowing what he had done to me. And then I think – perhaps he doesn't love me anymore. Being free of his love would mean he could treat me as merely another acquaintance, merely another ghost.
But this does not make complete sense either, for it is not just me who he is normally stoic with, it is everyone within the castle. He is the one with the reputation for being the quiet, brooding ghost (thus making him the most intimidating to the students).
Of course, who am I to make judgments on the concept that is love? The word love – as with the words friend – was one that no books could ever detail to me in a manner I found satisfactory. Sometimes it was described as a sense of deep commitment to another; other times it was said to be tender affection shared between two; too, some declared it to be an unselfish, benevolent concern towards someone.
Why? Why? Why?
If love is any – or all – of those things, then I do not think I have ever experienced it. Commitment implies staying with someone when they need you, being there for them; when alive, I ran away from everything I had ever known, and didn't return until it was too late. Tender affection: a kiss on the cheek, a pat on the shoulder, a hug just to show you care; I rarely initiated any of these actions. . . . Indeed when I did, I always felt awkward and strange, drawing away quickly. And the last: to be concerned about someone, to offer yourself to them, expecting nothing in return; I had always wanted something in return.
I come to the front of the castle and my eyes discern him at once. He hovers at the walkway to the school, facing the forest; the snow whirls in its fitful dance around him, some of the flakes flowing right through him. I dash to his side.
He turns to face me, regarding me with impassive eyes. "And now you come to see me," he says without expression, throwing my previous words back at me.
I flush silver at the memory of how aggressively I had snapped the question of why he was coming to me yet again, but put it aside, having other matters I wish to talk to him about. Time may be infinite for me, but that does not mean I enjoy to waste it.
"You stand out here," I say, my eyes tracing the pattern of a snowflake as it flies straight between his eyes, "but you do not like snow."
"I cannot feel it against me," he replies.
"Yes, but – "
"It was the texture of snow I objected to in life, not any of its other characteristics. And now that I don't feel it . . ." He lifts his eyes to the skies. "I find it pleasant. Beautiful, sometimes."
I, too, raise my gaze to far above, and for reasons I cannot understand, I find myself willing to see what he sees, willing myself to find again the beauty of the snow I once saw. But I cannot. As I cast my eyes back down, I mutter, "Dying changes everything, doesn't it?"
"No," he says slowly, lowering his eyes to mine, "not everything. Some things, yes. I think what dying mostly changes – that is, existing on the earth even after you have died – is how you view things . . . that what you actually see isn't altered, only how you perceive it. Seeing what. . . ." He trails off, then begins a new idea. "There is more beauty around, I have found – beauty that was always there, but you have to be willing to look for it . . . and be willing to possibly scrape off what is hiding the allure."
Without seeming entirely aware of what he is doing (for his eyes are still on mine), he waves one of his hands, magically brushing a small bit of snow to the side to reveal a patch of frozen grass and flowers. He plucks up one of the flowers: a piteous, frost-bitten red rose, the not-yet-bloomed bud small and shrunken, the petals crinkled. Our gazes never breaking, he moves the flower nearer, only dropping his eyes to it when it hovers before his chest.
The silence is beginning to make me uncomfortable, so I speak. "That flower is long past its time."
He places his hands on either side of the flower, miming holding the item: the icy surface begins to melt, the sealed bud parting, the petals unfolding, and within a minute there is a rose in full bloom between his hands. His eyes rest on my own again – and absurdly, I suddenly remember how dark his eyes used to be before they glossed over to silver, dark brown like ebony wood.
"See? It is still beautiful," he whispers, and, cradling the flower in hands, he brings it nearer and tucks it behind my ear, brushing my hair to the side very softly. I cannot feel the flower resting against my ear, nor his hands against my skin, but that does not prevent a shiver from flitting down my spine.
"Why?" I breathe.
He draws his hand away from my hair. "Why – what?"
"Why – why – " I struggle. "Why are you doing this? Why are you breaking the routine that we have had during all our years wandering the halls of Hogwarts? Why are you so different? And why now?"
There. The questions I have been twisting over and over in my mind all evening, broken free from their dam, finally spoken aloud. I stare up at him, waiting, for he does not answer immediately.
"We have spent over a thousand years avoiding one another, out of our mingled regret, hate, and shame," he finally responds, the words careful, yet completely genuine. "Why spend the next thousand in the same manner?"
"But," I persist, "so long has gone by – what inspired you all of a sudden to seek me out so? Why now?"
"Why not now?" he asks me in return.
And I do not know what to say to that, so I shake my head, stalling, before stammering, "I – you realize that – Baron, I still – "
"Please," he interrupts, "Baron is not my name. It is my title – a title I no longer truly hold."
I swallow. "Very well. Francois – " his given name sounds so strange as it hits the air; it has been so long since I have heard anyone say it, least of all myself " – I still do not – I'm not in – "
"I know you'll never feel as I do towards you. That's not what I'm asking for. . . . All I want is to break this monotonous existence that my life as a ghost has become. Every day is much like the next . . . and despite the enjoyment I can find in watching the living go about their existence. . . I want to find enjoyment in my existence as well."
"I do too," I say, realizing only as I say it how true the words are: I do not want to spend the rest of eternity as I have spent the many previous years. Life may never be mine again, but that doesn't mean that I cannot live.
I smile softly, and stretch out my arm to take his hand – but he twitches away, cringing. The warmth of new understanding – and perhaps even friendship – that has been flowing between us is severed cleanly away as with a blade of the sharpest steel.
I keep my arm out, but curl my fingers away from him, timorous. "I – "
"Foolish of me," he mumbles, seemingly to himself, still wincing away from me. "How can I ask you to – I am a disgusting – " He begins to stumble backwards. "Just forget what I've said – "
I hurry after him, my arm still outstretched. "Please – I agree with all that you have said – don't leave – "
"NO!" he roars. The temper I have not seen him lose control of in so long, not since that winter night so many years ago when he stabbed the both of us, flares to its high point almost instantly. His arms lash out in a wild gesture of fury, his eyes burning. "How can I ask you to befriend me? How can I be such a beast?"
"I do not think that you are – "
"I am the reason you are here, Helena!" he shouts. "I am the reason you are dead!"
I dismiss this. "I would be dead by now anyway – "
He points a wild finger at me; I take an instinctive step back. "That is because of me, and were I less of a rat, you would not have that wound."
I glance down to where he points: my midriff, where a dark silver spot of blood lays. The blood that he shed. My blood.
That, I comprehend, is why he recoiled when I held out my arm – stretching out my arm caused my cloak to shift to the side, revealing my usually concealed wound. He hates himself for having brought about my end, hates himself for ending the life that he lived for. I have hated him these many years for this fact too.
But, I now grasp, I do not anymore. I do not resent him for bringing about my death. As he had said himself, we have spent the past thousand years avoiding each other out of a combination of loathing and contrition. There comes a time when that has to be let go of. Certainly, I can never accept what he did – to accept one's murder is an unachievable task. But I can forgive him. No, not just can. I have forgiven him.
"Please, listen to me – " I try again.
He waves me off, the chains jangling loudly. "Do not attempt to lie to me."
"You are being – "
"I am being reasonable, so don't say that I'm not – "
His given name – the name I have so rarely called him in life or death – calms him. He is still alight with anger, body trembling, face contorted, but he is silent now, allowing me to be heard.
I take a tentative step towards him, then pause. When he does not move or flinch away as he did before, I move closer, closing the distance between us until I have to tilt my head up slightly in order to still look into his eyes. I reach out again to take his hand, and this time I succeed, closing my fingers around his.
"I forgive you."
He quails, shuts his eyes. "Don't say that."
"But it is truthful."
"No, it isn't. I killed you. It isn't possible for you to forgive me."
I pull his hand, squeezing it tight, causing his chains to jingle. "Believe me when I say that I speak nothing but the truth. I loathed you once for it, yes, but no longer." I wait until he opens his eyes again before echoing with firm sincerity: "I forgive you."
The Adam's apple in his throat bobs as he swallows. "I . . . believe you," he tells me huskily. "But forgiveness comes in two parts – the person you have wronged forgiving you, and forgiving yourself. I cannot forgive myself for what I did to you, Helena."
"I wish you would," I say softly. "There is no reason to cling to our past laments any longer – not when we have an infinite future in front of us."
"You cannot believe it is as easy as you make it sound," he reciprocates, a bit reproachfully. "You, after all, are in the same position as I am. You have not let go of your regret either."
For a moment, I am tempted to deny this, tempted to say I do not hold onto my past as he does, that I have been living in the present (despite my lack of enthusiasm for it) for many years now. But these denials never make their way out of my throat, for they would be lies, and he would know it as well as I.
"How can I let go of it?" I ask brokenly. "I killed my mother."
His brow crinkles. "Is that what you think?"
"What I think? Certainly not. It's – it's what I know."
"You did not make her sick, Helena – "
"I did. I broke her heart. I hurt her when she was already in a fragile state. I was the reason she fell so ill, and the reason she passed on."
He is silent for a very long time, watching the snow fall behind me.
"Well?" I finally say. "Do you deny it?"
He does not seem to hear me; rather, he seems on the verge of an epiphany triggered by my former words. His eyes are far away, and when he speaks, his tone is slow and methodic.
"Those of us who are ghosts . . . it is not necessarily a fear of death, of moving on, that binds us to this earth, as Nick has always proclaimed. The – it's the fear of leaving behind what we haven't yet finished. Not the fear of death, but the fear of not completing something within our life. All who come back as ghosts still have something on earth they cannot let go of, something that binds them, even if it is not something they can change.
"Nick is upset that his head was never completely severed . . . he wants acceptance. He never received acceptance in life, being persecuted for magic . . . and he still has not been accepted in death, what with always yammering about joining the Headless Hunt."
I listen in silence, gazing at him, letting his words wash over me. He stares at the flower in my hair, but not in a way that seems as though he is actually seeing it.
"Moaning Myrtle . . . she, too, wants acceptance. She was the misfit schoolgirl who wanted a friend more than anything – not that she was ever very kind to most people – and even now she cleaves to anyone she feels is similarly 'lost' like her.
"And the Fat Friar . . . his is the opposite want of theirs. He does not desire acceptance – he wants to be needed, not to just be welcomed into the arms of someone who only wants to take advantage of him, as did the woman he once loved."
His eyes turn to mine now.
"And you and I . . . we are perhaps more alike than you would like to think . . . we both want forgiveness. I from you, the one I wronged, and from myself . . . and you from yourself, and your mother. We could not be forgiven in life, and we cannot be forgiven in death."
I quiver where I stand; were I human, I could blame such an action on the cold winter air. This involuntary movement of mine seems to draw him from his trance: his eyes on me become more focused, caring.
"Your mother never despised you for what you did, Helena," he tells me quietly. "You do not need her forgiveness, for she never felt ill towards you."
"How can that be true?" I cry. "I killed her. She could not have possibly ever forgiven me for leaving her, for causing her pain enough to die."
He takes both of my hands, encloses them in his. "You forgave me, didn't you?"
"Of course, yes, I would not lie to you, but this is – "
"This is different?" he finishes my sentence for me. "How so?"
"It merely – it just is," I insist, tearing away my pained gaze from his own.
Out of the corners of my eyes, I see him shake his head deploringly. "Please, listen to me. You were Rowena's only daughter. She always loved you, and nothing could ever change that. Certainly, your running away upset her, but she was never angry with you – she could never stay angry with you. When she asked me to return you to Hogwarts, it was not so she could rage and storm at you – it was to make sure you knew how much she cared for you."
Not replying, shaking all over, I watch the snow continue to fall.
His fingers grasp my chin, gently tilting my face to look at his once more. "Helena," he says softly, honestly, his tone flat with the need to communicate with me genuine truth, "your mother forgave you."
And it is these words that act as a catalyst within me: a crackling explosion like a firecracker bursts in my stomach; heat spreads through my body that has nothing to do with the true temperature. I feel warm, light, free; these are the words I have longed to hear, however subconsciously, since the time I was a young girl, constantly fouling and creating mistakes under my infallible mother's watch, never able to be as wonderful as she, never able to be forgiven for being a failure of a daughter.
But she had forgiven me. She had always forgiven me, had always accepted and cherished me for who I was: I had just never been able to recognize it. She had never abhorred me for my faults, not even for the greatest of them all: my pushing her to the ends of her life. She should have deplored me for that, should have loathed me with every sinew in her body – but one cannot cling to such emotions forever. Whether it takes a day, or a millennium, they must eventually be let go of.
I pull my hands away from his, touch them both to my heart, marveling at everything and nothing. "I . . . this is all happening so fast."
He nods; he knows.
Could I have still contained oxygen in my lungs, could I have still breathed, the air would have been coming sharp and quick from my chest. My eyes travel the lines of his face, imprinting the already well-known yet never before truly observed curves and angles of his features, then slowly weave my gaze downward to his neck, his shoulders, his chest, his arms . . . his chains.
Struck with overwhelming clarity, I say, "Take off your shackles, Francois."
His eyes go wide. "I-I can't do that – "
"I want you to," I reply simply. "You have shown me that my mother forgave me, you have done what no one has ever been able to, given me a gift greater than is imaginable . . . I have told you that I forgive you, but have yet to prove it. I want you to remove your chains. You are forgiven. There is no need to continue to repent."
Now he is the one who trembles. Fingers quaking, eyes dilated, he reaches his right hand for his left wrist and begins to fumble with the locks, but then he stops, his head shaking along with his whole body.
"I cannot do it, Helena," he quavers. "I haven't forgiven myself – I can't do this."
"Then let me help you," I whisper, reaching for him once again. I place my right hand over his, interlocking our fingers, and together we begin to unfasten the shackles from his left wrist. My eyes focus on the bolts and locks as I undo them, but I can feel his eyes centered on me.
I know in reality that it does not take a long time for the locks to be undone, but it feels a long time, so very long. The weight of the situation, of what we are doing, presses down on my shoulders like the gravity that all humans feel combined and slammed upon only us. We are not just removing his shackles – we are removing our past, our hatred, our regret, all the things that have simultaneously bonded us together and pushed us apart throughout these many years. We are finding forgiveness, the forgiveness we have always yearned for, in others and in ourselves.
"There," I intone softly as the shackle falls away completely, "that's one removed. Now for the other."
I untangle our fingers, then reach out for his other hand – and for one quick, wild, flitting moment, as my fingertips brush the back of his extremity – I can nearly swear that I feel. I feel his skin against mine, feel us touch. It is so unexpected that I draw back immediately. I know, of course, that it is merely my imagination playing games with me, that it is only a delusion of mine, but I am still startled by this contrivance: it has been so long since I have truly felt, or even imagined feeling.
"I'm sorry," I amend hastily, giving myself a shake, "I – never mind that, it was nothing, my mind was tricking me – "
"I felt it, too," he lets out in a low voice, one that is hardly audible above the whistling wind.
I laugh, though it is an uneasy sound. "Our minds must be playing simultaneous tricks on us."
"Yes," he says subduedly, though he does not seem to entirely agree.
I stretch my hand out for his, chastising myself for feeling afraid as I do so, telling myself there is nothing to fear from delusions. My fingers close over his hand again –
And that is when I realize that this is not a delusion.
I really do feel a shape beneath my hand. I do not know if it feels as a hand should – it having been so long since I have last touched anything – but it is definitely something. It is definitely there.
And I can feel it.
Our gazes collide. Fear, elation, confusion, all of what I am experiencing is mirrored back at me in his silver orbs.
"You?" I inquire lowly.
"Me," he confirms, just as quietly. "You?"
"Me," I affirm in one quick breath, wide-eyed.
He slowly rotates his hand beneath mine so that our palms touch, and folds his fingers with mine. I gasp at the sensation; he grips me tighter as though fearful he might lose me.
Not letting go of my hand, he stoops over, bending to the ground, and reaches out his free hand to the ground. It takes me less than a second to understand what he is doing – he wants to see if he can feel other things as well. If anything else is real to us now.
His fingers land and spread upon the snow-covered ground.
"Anything?" I whisper.
He shakes his head. "No." He straightens again, and takes my other hand, running his fingers over both of them with slow precision. "What does this mean?" he wonders, though not in a tone as though he expects an answer.
"I don't know," I respond anyway, staring down at our entwined grip. "I don't know."
We stand, pondering, speculating, trying to comprehend.
After a long moment, I reach for his left wrist and pull it to me. "You still have one more shackle to be cast off."
He does not reply, so I resume the task of removing the manacle. At last it falls away, and the ghostly bondages fall to the ground before melting straight into the earth, disappearing without a trace. I stare at the spot where they vanished, and hold his hands tighter. "They're gone," I tell him, though of course I know he is already well aware of this fact.
I chance a look at him, but his eyes are focused where mine had been, upon the place where his chains disappeared. I take the moment to study him, wondering what is going through his mind, wondering what he feels now that he is no longer shackled.
I have found my definition of love, I perceive suddenly as I look at him. This is the definition. This is love. It's this feeling that is all encompassing; that makes you feel completely weightless and yet heavier than a million pounds; that stirs a strange desire to laugh and cry and you do not know which to do first; that you would give anything to make the other happy; that you would do anything to remain by their side; that smothers you as much as it embraces you. I also perceive that it is not that I have just found love – I have loved others before – I could just never recognize it at the time, too determined to find a set definition for the word.
But I recognize it now.
A single word parting from his mouth distracts my musings.
I follow his gaze. The ground beneath our hovering feet is alight, sparkling golden yellow as though the sunrays were hitting it directly from above. But it is the middle of winter; the sun would certainly not shine now.
Despite this logic, I find myself glancing upward, and nearly gasp. This same shimmering gold light has lit a patch of the sky, glittering for all to see, directly above where we are. It is not the sun, the sun has never looked like that. I do not know what it is. Perhaps one who is more religious than I would describe it as heaven's light. Though this, of course, makes no more sense than the sun theory.
What's more, the light from above seems to be getting . . . closer. The rays are extending, the sparkles descending. Beneath our feet, the light there, too, is widening.
"What is happening?" I query, a touch of frantic desperation seeping into my tone: I have never seen magic such as this. Almost able to feel a heart hammering in my chest, I turn my fearful eyes to Francois, and am surprised to see him smiling, a look of tranquil joy upon his features.
"Don't you understand, Helena?" he asks me, eyes shinning. "Think back on all the many stories you know, on all the knowledge you have amassed over the years . . . on the theories, the rumors of what some ghosts – though very few – have achieved . . ."
My throat clutches as understanding hits me like a thousand bricks: we are done here. There is no reason for us to remain with the living any longer. We have obtained what we have always desired. After a collective time period of more than a thousand years, we have found forgiveness.
I hold his hands tighter in mine as emotion overwhelms me, pressing our entwined grips to my heart.
"We are free," he whispers to me as the light engulfs us.
A/N: The name Helena means light, and the name Francois means free.
Now, I know that Jo Rowling has stated that those who choose the path of becoming a ghost remain as ghosts for eternity, trapped between the world of the living and the world of the dead. But in my mind – as the Baron said – all those who are ghosts have something that they cannot let go of, something that ties them to the earth even after their time there has expired. If they can secure what they desire, then their purpose on earth has been fulfilled. They will have nothing further tying them down, and are free to move on and travel the next great adventure, whatever that might be.
Because, as it is so aptly put in Peter Pan, forever is an awfully long time.
Thank you for reading, and I would love to know your thoughts on the story.