Disclaimer:Anything you recognize isn't mine and I make no profit from this, it's just for fun!
A/N: As a bit of a reminder... Leia is Harry in Hermione's body; Sky is Hermione in Harry's body; they botched up a time travelling ritual around Christmas of their year on the run and have subsequently been living each other's lives since the summer of Harry's 11thbirthday. They have done their best to adapt to the situation, dealing with, among other things: their magic throwing tantrums, meeting people they saw die, facing puberty of the wrong gender, Sirius on the run, the Unspeakables' meddling and a Bloody Baron who enjoys being cryptic.
A… Switched Chance
15. Of House-elves and Children's Tales
For all that she was used to Nearly-Headless Nick's company during banquets, Leia reflected, sitting at a table with the Bloody Baron was rather… unnerving.
Especially when you were the centre of his focused attention.
Sky had been quite determined to Get Some Answers out of the mysterious ghost. It was time, he insisted, that they move against Voldemort's Horcruxes ("That's the entire point of being here- err… now!") and the hints the ghost had dropped made him their current best lead.
"We must confront him!" had said Sky warmly. "He'll have to help us. He'll just have to!"
In theory, Leia agreed wholeheartedly. In practice – here, now, with said ghost glaring out of silver eyes a mere table away from them (a table, moreover, that was no obstacle to him at all) – she wasn't feeling as sanguine about the endeavour.
They had practised this. They had discussed and argued and debated, what to tell and what to hide, what to stress and what to gloss over, what to admit to and what to ask for. Sky had practically written a script of the encounter for both of them. They'd been ready… or so they'd thought.
"Why don't you start over and, I don't know, try the truth this time?" asked the Bloody Baron in an all-too-reasonable tone.
They fidgeted and exchanged guilty glances. Evidently, their attempt at being vague but intriguing wasn't working.
Leia bit her lip. The truth… Could they risk it?
Forcing herself not to hem and hum, Leia braced herself and told him, trying for brightly and only managing flatly: "Because it's too absurd to be believed."
The ghost gave her a flat stare: "I've lived – so to speak – for a very long time, Miss Granger. I've seen a lot of absurd things."
A lingering silence protracted until the two students were thoroughly embarrassed. The Bloody Baron did not relent in his staring effort.
Finally, Sky blurted out: "We're from the future. The war was going badly and I found a ritual and we did it right – mostly – apart from a few details that got skewed – but on the whole – yeah – and now we're here to- to- stop V-Voldemort before..."
He ran out of steam and trailed off under a furious gaze. The Bloody Baron looked beyond angry.
"You. Did. What?!"
Leia straightened in her seat and tried to diffuse the situation. "Look. It's ok. We know what we're doing – mostly – err..."
She faltered under the Baron's blazing glare.
"Please," tired Sky a little desperately. "We just need your help with figuring out what Voldemort might have used to-"
"You tampered with time...!" exploded the ghost. "Of all the thoughtless, inconsiderate, dicey-"
"The war was going badly!" protested Sky desperately. "We needed…"
"Wars are always going badly, boy! If not for one side, then for the other!"
Leia gaped. Well, that was one way of looking at things she'd never considered...
The Bloody Baron was so furious he couldn't stay still anymore and jumped up to pace back and forth. The fact he was floating didn't diminish his angry, intimidatory air in the least.
"Messing with higher magics is chancy at best, but Merlin knows, students have done and will continue to do so for as long as Hogwarts exists, never mind that they have functional brains and should really know better. But this! This is a whole other level of dangerous!" he ranted at them, now and then pointing a ghostly wand at their heads threateningly. "What you've done is an awful abuse of Magic!"
Chagrined and indignant in equal measure, Sky objected: "It's not as bad as all that!"
The ghost sneered at him forbiddingly.
Sky sneered back, although it wasn't as impressive: "I know it can be dangerous to circumvent the natural laws governing time with magic and that it can only be done to some extent, because time-related magic is unstable and liable to result in catastrophic events, but I do have experience with a Time Turner, and I've studied the Eloise Mintumble incident thoroughly, and-"
The Baron threw him a thoroughly displeased look: "Study! Experience! Ha! You think you can understand Time from a book, child? And who was foolish enough to give you a Time Turner? Of all the idiotic things!" He shook his head, disgusted. "Manipulating things that are never meant to be touched by human hands, or magic..."
"Like souls?" bit out Leia grimly. "Because that's what Voldemort's done, if you weren't paying attention."
The ghost gave a her a pointed look: "Souls, yes. Or death. Or time."
"We're not as bad as Voldemort," she muttered sullenly.
"I know the ritual we used was not exactly Light," started Sky with great dignity, only to be interrupted.
"You think this is a matter of Light versus Dark? Foolish boy!" He paced some more, increasingly agitated. "Are you even prepared to pay the price? Time will always have its due. Foolish, misguided…! Argh! Do you not even know the Tale of the Hundred Journeys?"
"Huh?" was Leia's clever contribution.
"I… I've never heard of it," admitted Sky with a frown. "And I've read all of Beedle the Bard's Tales!" he said accusingly.
"Muggleborns!" snorted the ancient ghost in contempt. "Do you really believe Old Beedle to have been our only storyteller?"
Leia's mouth closed on her bristling retort, stumped by the surprising (yet kind of obvious) idea, but Sky never took being wrong (or misinformed) well.
"Well, unless you count Madam Bloxam?" he asked with sarcasm.
The Baron looked ill for a moment, before he shook it off: "Broaden your horizon, child. Look outside Britain!" he snapped. "Once upon a time, Hogwarts was the centre of culture for all of wizarding Europe, a shining beacon, a reference point for all European scholars. In many ways, it is still so; but many other places have grown into similar roles upon the centuries. Would you discount their contribution because they're not British?"
Sky sputtered: "Of course not! I just- I didn't think-"
"That is rather obvious!..."
Leia propped her chin on a hand and watched the two argue. She had no idea who Madam Bloxam was and only knew Beedle the Bard because of Dumbledore's legacy to Hermione, but she was rather used to having little clue about the wizarding world and its culture, so it didn't bother her. Nor did it upset her when Sky ended up apologizing to the Baron, rather humbled – as much as he loved Hermione, in any body, being wrong now and then kind of did her good.
Leia was, however, undeniably curious about this Tale of the Hundred Journeys.
"It is one of Wilhelmine Elsaesser's collected stories," told them the Bloody Baron in a haughty, displeased manner. "She was a preceptor and wrote for her charges, and her own children, with the explicit goal of teaching them, in an agreeable way, the limits of magic."
"Limits!" grumbled Sky in a huff, but he was subdued.
"Limits, yes." The ghost's eyes narrowed. "Magic itself might not have any, but its use surely does!"
Sky gave him a baffled look.
The spectre turned away. "The Cold Heart… The Story of the Haunted Ship… The Transfiguration of the Dwarf called Nose..." he listed. "Even Muggles know versions of those."
That surprised them. "Really?"
The Baron sat back, hovering and glaring. "Look it up," he said with intensity. "And may it teach you something before the price you'll have to pay rises too much!"
"Don't patronize us!" cried Sky, finding his lost indignation again in a rush. "We didn't do it lightly – we had no choice! We've been careful – we haven't changed anything major!"
The ghost stared in frank disbelief.
"Well," Leia felt the need to intervene. "Actually... we kind of have… but we've tried really hard not to!" she said earnestly.
"What!?" The Baron's voice was a lethal whisper of pure disbelief. "What!?"
"Look," she tried, forcing herself to sound calm and firm and in control (even if she felt anything but). "You think we shouldn't have done this. I get it."
"Most certainly not!" yelled the ghost.
"But Sky's right – we didn't change much!" Leia yelled right back, trying to make him believe her. "Okay, so things sort of got away from us in a few cases, but we've done our best! We've been very careful not to impact the timeline too much!"
"EVEN WORSE!" roared the Baron, wild-eyed and incensed.
Leia gaped. "Huh?!"
The ghost jumped up again, his silver face darkening with ire. "Travelling in time is extremely dangerous. To you, to the world, to magic- To do it without the intent of changing the past! For futile reasons! It is the height of foolishness!"
If a spiritual imprint of a departed soul could grind his teeth, he would be doing just that.
"What?… No, that's not..." Sky yelped, and proceded to flounder through a babbling and increasingly vehement defence of their, perhaps poor, choices.
Leia left him to it. She rather felt like she'd just received a heavy blow to the head.
The Bloody Baron's words kept echoing in her brain. To do it without the intent of changing the past is the height of foolishness.
The height of foolishness.
The height of foolishness.
They had been foolish, she suddenly realized. From start to finish.
And they'd been lying to themselves.
Oh, not intentionally, but what was all their useless agonizing about keeping things the same if not hypocrisy? Of course they'd wanted to change the past. Of course. That was the entire point, to not find themselves in the same future they'd left!
And they had changed things.
Wilfully, deliberately and with very little care for the tide of consequences they were giving the initial momentum to.
Hadn't they gone for Snape's throat from the start? How much would getting rid of him have changed – how much even the little they'd managed was going to change? What of everything they'd done for and with the muggleborn students? What of the Unspeakables, and that damn Prophecy, and all the changes they'd instigated or provoked without even meaning to?
They'd gone about changing things left and right, throwing entire rocks into the pond, not just little stones, and blithely pretending to ignore the ripples, or claiming to themselves it was just a play of the light on the water.
Why had they tried to hide behind righteousness and platitudes?
What of Sirius? She thought back with shame of how she'd been ready to leave him in Azkaban, in the name of a nebulous concept of preserving time, when she hadn't bothered to keep track in the least, of what kind of impact the rest of her life was having.
The Baron was right to despise them. They'd been blind, hypocritical and careless.
Sky was still protesting, in that way of Hermione's that had let her stubbornly insist on freeing House-elves that didn't want to be freed, but Leia couldn't just ignore the epiphany that had just hit her so strongly.
"You're right," she whispered to the ghost, abashed.
Sky's weak ire was derailed, Leia's murmur somehow louder than his warm protests; green eyes met hers and she saw shock, confusion, but also traces of her quiet chagrin reflected there. "We don't know what the hell we are about," she admitted with a slight grimace.
That, however, was sort of reassuring, Leia found when she voiced the thought.
True, they'd been changing so much, it was patently ridiculous to worry about changing more, because the world around them now, was essentially different from what it once had been. They had no way to control how their actions and foreknowledge had influenced the current present and the future they would live now. They had no way to control – no way to know- so... basically, they were like anyone else.
Except they still had the advantage over Voldemort, knowing about the Horcruxes so soon.
Sky and the Baron both stared at her in uncomprehending shock, making her realize she'd rambled her thought process aloud.
She shrugged. Maybe the slight triumph she was feeling wasn't entirely appropriate, but she couldn't help it.
"Well, we are better off than we were," she said with some defiance and a horribly weak attempt at a smile. "And I guess we can go on with our business now, without worrying too much anymore. We just know a little more of how life's like, is all."
The Baron just looked at her for a long time, and now his fury had abated and there was only sadness and weariness in his gaze.
"You're not supposed to have a second chance at life, hoping that you've finally figured out the rules and such," he said, and his voice was gentle now. "It's a one-time deal, then you die and that's that."
"But you...!" protested Sky feebly.
"Which is why I know what I'm talking about!" the ghost yelled back, and the boy shrunk in his seat. "Cheating at life is never a good idea. The price is always far higher than you expect."
Leia perched on her own chair, chin on her clasped hands, and let him rant, eyes distant. Her perception of herself and her world had shifted unsettlingly and she needed some time to figure it out.
Wishing she could just run away for a little while and think things through, she tried to focus on her companions instead. Sky was trying to make some point of his heard, somewhat less coherently than his usual, while the Bloody Baron was yelling at him a propos of something or other.
"You've abused your gift inexcusably!" Leia heard the ghost bellow. "...Magic should be used for others!"
"Well, that's what we're doing!" was Sky's swift reply. "We want to save people, to- to- fix things!"
"Fix! Hah! What do you think you can fix by just slinging magic about!" And now there was contempt in his voice. "Magic isn't the answer to everything!"
Leia kept silent, listening intently, thoughts churning over and over in her mind. She still didn't feel too bad about the whole situation, but now she had a lot to ponder.
She was used to the guilt mounting in her and she was used to the anxious feeling that she had to act, had to do something, had to save, but didn't know how. How was she to... fix things? Was the Baron right, was magic really not the answer? But then what?
...Being used to the feelings didn't make them any easier to cope with.
"...Do not think for one moment that you will eschew the consequences-" was ranting the ghost.
She tuned him out again. Mostly, she was desperately trying to decide what she should do. What she was going to do. Not in the grand scheme of things, but right now. Especially about Sirius. Because there- there she'd made a serious blunder. How had she been so stupid? So thoughtlessly selfish?
"But will you help us?" blurted out Sky after a while, looking desperate and confused and ashamed and hopeful.
Leia blinked out of her thoughts, waiting for the answer.
The ghost gave them a lengthy, inscrutable look. The sudden pregnant silent after all the yelling was thoroughly unnerving. He kept gazing at them for so long, it was impossible not to fidget – and wonder; what was going on beyond those milky greyish eyes?
At last, he heaved a sigh: "Yes," he said curtly. "But it will not spare you."
And with that ominous and cryptic warning, he left.
"Well." Sky visibly tried to compose himself. "Well. That… is good, right? I mean, it could have gone better, but… And he'll help, so – that's-" He faltered. "Leia?"
Leia's eyes were clouded and distant, her body rigid. Sure, having the aged ghost on their side was good, but there was a lot about this conversation that she hadn't come to terms with yet.
However one thing was clear to her.
She turned to Sky with a stony face: "I'll get Pettigrew. You go invite Sirius to the next Hogsmeade weekend."
And she marched off, berating herself all the way.
As it turned out, unfortunately, Ron didn't have Pettigrew anymore.
"He disappeared some time ago," the red-head explained without much concern to a horrified Leia. "Percy says maybe he was just too old and got caught by a cat or an owl. Or, you know. Just died somewhere. Why do you care, anyway? He was an old fat rat and totally useless. All he did was sleep."
Leia was rather shocked by his indifference. Ron had been inconsolable when Pettigrew had faked his death the First Time! But then she reflected that this time around, Scabbers had only been with Ron a scant few months, Ron had a lot more friends, and, as she found out from a gossipy Lavender, Percy had found him crying in a hidden corner and consoled him with the promise of a new pet for Christmas, which had been dutifully procured. Now Ron was the proud owner of a lovely tawny Owl with a white head, that he'd named Capablanca, after "one of the greatest chess players ever, my Grandfather told him all about him, he was awesome!"
Leia cringed because she hadn't even noticed any of this taking place, but she was still a bit uncomfortable around Ron, who for his part didn't seem to know what to do with her, and she'd been distracted anyway.
Besides, Ron's new owl didn't matter in the least if it meant Pettigrew had escaped! Aargh!
The slight delay in the plan cooled some of her burning shame and righteous determination and sent her straight into overwhelming worry.
What if the Baron's enlightening scolding had come too late? What if she'd missed her chance, what if the rat was already halfway to Voldemort and they ended up facing a reborn Dark Lord far too soon? This was exactly what they'd meant to avoid! How had everything slipped through their fingers so thoroughly?
The damn Unspeakables taking an interest when the First Time, she hadn't even known they existed until the Quidditch World Cup; Snape still skulking around like a potentially murderous, overgrown bat; no progress whatsoever on the Horcruxes front; and now this! They were supposed to have more time!
She fretted and worried and worked herself into anxiety until she remembered where Pettigrew had hid out the First Time and decided to check out Hagrid's cabin before despairing entirely.
Sure enough, she found him, stunned him, wasted ten minutes calling herself all sorts of names for her own idiocy, and secured him with a little help from the Room of Requirements, all before Sky heard back from Sirius.
The relief! Oh, she felt she could fly without a broom.
Maybe the Baron's ominous fears weren't too justified after all. They were doing some good. And they did have the advantage over their enemy. So really, things were going well! They had time, there was no point fretting, they just had to go on with their life.
There and then, she vowed she would do just that. No more dwelling on her own problems and forgetting to live! She would be better. She would do better. She wouldn't worry about nonsense anymore, she would change everything for the better! Starting with her relationship with Ron!
Her resolution lasted all of an afternoon.
It was, she admitted silently, perhaps unfair of her, but the Ron Weasley of this time just wasn't… enough. She wanted her Ron, the one that had stuck with her through peer ostracism and life-threatening stunts, baby dragons and giant snakes and spider-filled trips to the Forbidden Forest, thesrals and Death Eaters and variously insane adults, detentions with Snape and Divination homework; and yes, the one who'd been a jerk during the Triwizard Tournament and had abandoned them in the middle of a war, but he'd come back and would have again, it was the Horcrux' fault after all, extenuating circumstances if she ever saw any, and he was still her best friend and she missed him.
The kid-version here just wasn't the same.
She hid in her dorm room and curled up on herself and cried. She wanted her best friend back and she was suddenly realizing, it would never, ever happen, no matter what she did or didn't. Her Ron was as good as dead.
Lavender found her like this and at first she was all worried, fluttering about, asking what was wrong and such; but Leia couldn't explain. She just sobbed a little louder.
So, to her everlasting surprise, Lavender stopped questioning her, wrapped her arms around Leia and just held her, letting her cry.
"Oh, honey," Lavender said with sympathy. "I know. I know. Sometimes you just need a good cry, yeah?"
Did she? Leia wondered.
The blonde witch smiled and Leia tentatively smiled back. Oookaaay...
Girls were strange.
Ever since their disastrous talk with the Bloody Baron, Sky was virtually living in the Library.
This wasn't an unprecedented occurrence, either as 'Hermione Granger' or as 'Harry Potter': far from it; but it never meant anything good. Exams looming, a serious problem of the roaming-Basilisk or illegal-Animagus sort, the war intruding in their lives…
Or, as in the current case, all of the above.
No, it was never good when he felt the need to bury himself in paper and parchment.
On the other hand, having some experience with this sort of things meant he could handle it better than most. He knew how to eat quickly and fillingly so as not to waste time, how to sit to avoid cramps, how to keep the colour-coding of his notes straight for maximum efficiency and so on.
More importantly, he'd found out in her own third year that switching subjects every so often helped her keep her concentration up. Hence why he was, at the moment, with his head buried in Wilhelmine Elsaesser's "Maerchen" while on his left, a chair held a pile of books on the Founders, and another tomes on the nature of magic, while two neat stacks of reference books for the Transfiguration, Charms and Herbology homework that was due in the next few days framed the writing implements on the table before her.
The book wasn't particularly interesting, by his standards.
He had already read it once, of course, as soon as the Bloody Baron had mentioned it. Then he'd worked his way through Mathieu Raconte's "Little Magical Tales", Nadia Pedroso's "Folktales for Magical Folks", Fra' Tonio's "Charms Tales for Good Nights", Lal Behari's "Tales of Sprites" and Hans Christian Andersen's "Fairy Tales". He wasn't going to be caught unprepared again, nossir!
"Wait. Andersen. I know that one," came a voice from the other side of the table and his books were shuffled irritatingly until the one on the bottom could be held up by a pleased-looking Leia. "The Little Mermaid, right?"
The girl was smiling guilelessly and Sky fought down the irritation at having his reading time interrupted. Especially since Leia had been flittering about doing Merlin knows what recently, leaving all of the research burden to him. But fighting wouldn't get them anywhere.
He nodded: "Apparently his grandson was a Squib, and chose to publish his works in the muggle world. Was I muttering aloud again?"
"Uh-uh." Leia shrugged and plopped herself down on a chair, propping her chin on one hand. "Did you find it?" she asked lightly. "The Tale of the Hundred Journeys?"
Sky almost rolled his eyes: now she was taking an interest? But in the end he just nodded again.
Gingerly, he pushed the volume of "Maerchen" toward his best friend.
It was open to a beautiful, detailed drawing of a Witch in flowing robes, busy turning a huge clock backward, in the middle of an intricate, flowering garden that filled the page to every corner. As the clock moved, the garden went through the seasons in reverse, the Witch looking tense and desperate even in the black-and-white drawing. Then the brief moment restarted.
Curious, Leia turned to the text.
"Mysterious thing, time. Powerful, and when meddled with, dangerous," she intoned. "For, no matter what illusion of control over it one might have, time will always have its due.
"In years long past, there lived a young Witch of great power and beauty, for she was the living image of her mother, who had been the loveliest creature in the world, bringing joy to all who knew her. Alas! The mother passed away in childbirth, and left a great gaping hole in her husband's heart, that only her sweet baby could fill.
The young Witch grew happily, beloved by all in her village and by her father above all others; so much so that he could not bear to part with her, not even so that she might learn the ways of magic elsewhere. She remained instead by his side, resigning herself never to know the wider world, and poured all of herself into the garden her mother had left behind, growing all sorts of plants, for their usefulness or beauty, and teaching herself how to turn them into the most wondrous Potions.
There, in that very garden, she met, under the first spring rain of her seventeenth year, a Wizard as kind as he was handsome and as handsome as he was well-mannered, who was passing by and begged for shelter with a charming smile.
He was as enchanted with her as she with him, and one season went by, then another, without him thinking of continuing his journey: for he was taken with love for her and could not think of leaving her.
And she, in turn, grew to love him dearly indeed; and though she would not hear of giving up her father and her village, she thought with dread of the day she might lose his company.
But he stayed, and when another year rolled by, they were married in the splendor of a summer day, and she knew that greater happiness she could not find, were she even to walk all lands known to man in search of it.
Alas! Grief does not spare lovers, be they even young and magical and happy: and he died. For he was as brave and as chivalrous as he was kind, and when a fire sparked, and devoured the village, trapping a helpless family into a flaming death, he did not hesitate to save them at the cost of his own life.
Unbearable was her grief as she cried over his tomb, and none could comfort her; friend or kin alike she rejected: she could not bear the loss of her dear heart. And her father, who loved her so dearly, grieved with her, desolate to see her so wretched.
All too soon the young Witch, ravaged with grief, grew weary of her village and her friends, well-meaning though they were; and one day, unable to take it anymore, she begged her father, with tears in her eyes, to let her go and no longer force her to wander through the garden and home where she'd been so happy with her Love.
Unhappy, but consumed with worry for her, her father consented and gave her an Everlasting Box, that the fruits of her garden might never wilt and be ever ready for her to brew her wondrous Potions; his own wand, that she might not find herself defenseless on the path; and an enchanted watercan that had belonged to her mother, that all water she would find in the wilderness might be purified for both mundane and magical uses.
She took all three with loving thanks, and proceeded on her journey; but everywhere she found reminders of her lost love. Every stone made her think of the house he'd built for her, every pair of leaves dancing in the wind was his green eyes sparkling with mirth, every murmur of water from a merry stream was an echo of his soft laugh.
Ever on she went, speeding away from all that she knew, running from the reminders only to find more wherever she looked.
Through groves, woods, and valleys she went, till at length she saw an Old Man sitting on a stone at the mouth of a cave, who hailed her.
"Good morrow, fair maiden, whither away so fast?"
"Good morrow," said she, "I seek a place far enough that my grief will not follow me there. Doest thou know where it may be?"
The old man shook his head sadly, but asked only: "What hast thou there in your hand?"
"My mother's enchanted watercan, and my father's wand," she replied politely.
"Wand!" exclaimed the Old Man in wonder. "Are you a Witch then?"
"Yes," said she, "is there aught you need, that magic could give you?"
"Aye," he said, "I am in need of strength, for I can no longer find it in my arms: see here, this rock? It crumbled from the ceiling and my home is now trapped beyond it."
The young Witch looked and saw a massive rock indeed, blocking the path into the cave.
Quickly, she twirled her father's wand to turn wood and small rocks into what she needed to brew and rummaged in her Everlasting Box for ingredients; in no time at all, she prepared a Potion that would give them both untold strength for a while, and together they freed the path to the Old Man's cave.
The Old Man gave her many thanks, and said: "There is a thick thorny hedge a way before you, which normal folk cannot get through, but since you are a Witch, take your wand in your hand, strike it three times, and it will open immediately; then, a little further, you will find a pond; and if the legends are true, the spirit that dwells in those waters will give you the answer you seek, whatever it may be."
Promising she would, she took her leave of him.
She found the hedge, and struck it with her wand, and it divided and let her through: and there, as promised, she found a pond of murky waters.
Not knowing how to go about things, she thought to fill her mother's watercan and pour it onto a flat stone, as if to make a Seeing Mirror of sorts out of it; and into it she spoke her question.
"I seek a place far enough that my grief will not follow me there. Where might it be?"
"Not the right question, that is," spoke a thin, giggling voice. "Not the true question, that is."
The young Witch knew the voice spoky truly and blushed. When she tried again, she did not lie to herself or the bodiless voice.
"I seek what is not possible," she admitted with grief in her voice: "a way for my Love to not have died. But how could that be?"
At once the water-mirror burst up into a fountain, morphing into a water sprite: a transparently green-blue creature, with too long limbs and a small face, whose body broke and reformed like a stream falling upon rocks, changing shape with its every move.
It was giggling maliciously, but answered her question clearly: "It is possible, if you turn back the Clock of Time, which lies in the heart of your garden."
"Many hours and days have I spent in my garden, yet such a Clock I have never seen," she protested, wide-eyed and breathless. "Doest thou speak truth?"
Breaking and reforming in a strange dance around her, the sprite giggle malevolently and rained small, black seeds over her, that she was quick to gather.
"Take these seeds, plant them under a fir tree, water them with my water, pour your blood into their roots; when they bear fruit, boil it with fresh wormwood leaves and the ashes of marigolds, and when the moon is new, drink it all in one go!" chanted the sprite. "Then you will see it. Then you will use it!"
The creature stopped abruptly and watched her seriously: "Then you will know, that to erase what has been means erasing what could be."
Shocked and hopeful, the Witch looked at the seeds closely and ignored the warning. If she could save her Love, the price could not be too high!
She returned to her mother's garden, and embraced her joyful father, but did not tell him of her hope; she planted the precious seeds under a fir tree by herself, and watered them with the sprite's water that she had carried back in her mother's watercan; she tended them and grew them and dripped blood from her arm onto their roots; she brewed their fruit with wormwood leaves and marigold ashes; and when the moon was new again, she drank the Potion down without hesitation.
She blinked her eyes open, and she was in her past. 'Twas the day of her Love's coming to the village and hopeful joyfulness rose inside her in such a powerful wave she cried with it.
She was getting her wonderful future back.
But things are never that simple. Time will always have its due; when meddling with it, the only consequences you'll get are unforseen ones.
They were married quickly, for she no had no doubts to hinder her this time, and yet he did not seem as attached to her as he had been; they were settled in her village, and yet he spoke longingly of continuing his journey, when he never had before. Still, he was here, and he was alive, and he was with her; and she was happy enough.
But then came the day of his death, and she could not let it happen anew. It took her many tears and begging, but she managed to prevent him from going to help, when he wanted to; and he lived, and she thought she had succeeded.
He could not forgive himself, however. The lost family weighed on his mind and out of guilt, he turned sour and angry and ever more reckless: he swore he would never let anyone die on his watch again. Not a year went by before his life was forsaken in the rescue of a child from a ravine.
The Witch could not understand how this had come to pass: had she not turned back Time itself to prevent it? Where had she gone wrong?
Mad with grief, she ran back to the secret pond, running through groves and woods and valleys without pause, her Love's spiteful words still ringing in her ears; and through the hedge she went once more, and begged the water sprite for the seeds she needed to turn back time.
Again she woke in her past and she went about things more carefully. When the time came, she dosed her Love with a sleeping Potion, so that he would not bear guilt for the death of the family. Yet his rage, when he found out, was far worse than his guilt and no tearful explanations could placate him. She lost him, not to death but to hatred grown out of his outrage; and it was much worse.
Her only option was to seek the precious seeds once more.
And then again, when despite all her efforts she could not stop him from dying, not even by being at his side as they worked together against the fire: the family was, indeed, saved this time, but he was lost all the same; and she despaired, running back to the secret pond almost before his funeral was celebrated.
And again, after she maneuvered him into helping another part of the village during the fire and went to save the family herself, strong enough with the knowledge of what had been to prevent what would be, at least in part; only to be faced with unexpected hatred, for managing to save all but the youngest child. Saddened by the animosity, but knowing too well how far grief can push one, she didn't hold it against the ravaged mother; until her Love was killed in maddened revenge.
And she had to run along the familiar path of her grief once more.
And then again… and again… and again, trying all that she could think of to prevent the loss of her Love and yet finding herself desperate for the precious seeds each time.
Once she pushed herself to the breaking point of her powers to ensure that everyone was saved, only to see her Love turn from her, unable to live with a Squib; once she attempted to prevent the fire entirely, only to watch him die in a flood instead; once she tricked him into leaving the village, only for him to never come back.
Sometimes she chose to be honest with him; sometimes she chose to conceal her many lives. Sometimes she sought help from as many people as she could convince of her situation; sometimes she was careful to only act alone. Sometimes she focused on saving him alone; sometimes she attempted to protect everyone she knew.
Nothing changed the eventual outcome.
Time and time again she woke into her past, each time a little more wary perhaps, but still somewhat hopeful that her painstakingly accumulated foreknowledge could lead her to find the way to spare her Love's life.
Time and time again she coaxed the love between them into existence, each time finding it a little more difficult to ignore the bitter tinge of her fear.
Time and time again she ran back to the water sprite. "Time will have its due," it would chant in vicious glee, but she could not give up the devastated hope burning weakly in her chest.
A hudred times she tried and a hundred times she failed.
A hundred times she fixed the problems she had knowledge of, and a hundred times new problems arose in their place.
A hundred times she watched the Love of her lives die.
A hundred times she ran to the malicious sprite, begging for the seeds to undo what had been done. "Time is making a fool of you," cackled the sprite again and again, delighted by her pain.
A hundred journeys she braved, her hope dwindling with each failure, until in desperation, she changed her question to the sprite.
"Can the past truly not be changed?" she asked bleakly. "Must everything come to pass as it always has?"
"To erase what has been is to erase what would be," the sprite sing-songed.
And at long last, the Witch understood what she had to do.
And with a heavy heart, she turned the Clock back one last time.
And with a heavy heart, she waited under the rain for the Love of her many lives, knowing he would not love her again.
And with a heavy heart, she set about chasing him away, with insults and coldness and viciousness, that he might love elsewhere, and live, this time. Away from her.
For time will always have its due, and to erase what has been is to erase what would be.
And then her heavy heart broke, because she knew, there was no better option, but it did not make it easy, and she could not live without him. She lay down in her mother's garden, carrying her grief inside, knowing that no-one would ever know of her mistakes, and of her sacrifices.
It must often be so, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. Such is the price that is due, such is the price that will always be paid.
Leia closed the book.
They were silent for a long time, after.
"Seems like an acceptable price to me," said Leia simply.
Sky stared incredulously for a moment, then scowled fiercely. Well, that was typical of Harry! Honestly! Him and his saving-people thing… He had never thought of himself as more important than others. He was a foolish, self-sacrificial idiot, and she loved him very much. Clearly, being a girl made no difference whatsoever.
Sky opened his mouth to give his best friend a piece of his mind but never got the chance: a House-elf appeared right by their table with a soft pop.
She was standing straighter than the House-elves they were used to and had a much neater appearance; the Hogwarts crest on her spotless tea-towel toga looked almost shiny and the sparse hair between her bat-like ears was tidily tied back with a golden string.
"Young Master and Young Miss should talk to Fibby. Yes, yes," she proclaimed authoritatively and clasped her spindly hands in front of her. "Master Ghosty Baron is telling us all about your problem. We is knowing what you is needing."
Wide-eyed, the two timetravellers stared at the creature. Berating his best friend, Sky realized, would have to wait.
"What? What do you mean, you know what we need? How?" asked Leia.
"Elves be talking, Young Mistress," she said, almost reproachfully. "We hears things, we be going all over the castle or the manor or the house, to light the fires and mop the floors, and then we be talking with other Elves. And then the talking becomes Tales."
Sky could almost hear the capital letter in the last word and felt rather speechless.
"But what about the keeping secrets thing?" protested Leia.
The Elf shook her head primly: "Elves keep Masters' secrets from Wizards, not from Elves."
Sky felt his jaw go slack.
"Fibby knows the tale you is needing," the Elf went on. "Tale says that Hokey's Mistress is dead. Poison in Mistress' cocoa, Wizards say. Hokey be doing it, they say; Hokey be confused and be making mistake. Bah!" she sniffed disdainfully. "Wizards is stupid," she declared with great energy, making Sky and Leia gasp in shock.
Since when were House-elves so opinionated?
"Elves is not making mistakes with their Masters' drinks. We is knowing that Hokey is not doing it."
Leia dropped to her knees in front of Fibby, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I know," she sighed.
"And we is knowing that treasures be taken," added the House-elf. "Very precious, very old. Gone. Hokey's Mistress, she be very fond of them, she show to Bad Wizard. Bad, bad Wizard be taking them; he be doing the poisoning. Yes."
Leia nodded sadly. She'd heard the whole tale from Dumbledore. "I'm so sorry for Hokey. And for her mistress. A cup and a locket were taken, right?" she asked, needing to check that nothing had changed.
"Do you know what happened to them?"
The House-elf gave a positively shark-like grin: "Fibby can find out."
A/N: This has been in the works for literally ages. Alas, writing fairy tales is incredibly difficult! Hopefully the next part will be ready sooner. L.