cxcvi. a witch is a witch
The snow barely crunched under Harriet's shoes as she and her friends walked the frozen path. Ahead, Hagrid's cabin waited at the forest's edge, a trail of smoke rising from the blackened chimney.
It had been a rough few days. According to the house-elves, Harriet's post continued to be flooded by nasty letters from Viktor Krum's jealous, utterly barmy fans, and her hands ached in the cold where the new skin and muscles were exposed to the weather. As a result, Harriet had taken to avoiding Viktor whenever she spotted him ahead in a corridor or sitting in the Great Hall. Her embarrassment kept her as far from the older boy as possible.
For Elara, most of the student body didn't care for Skeeter's revelations—except for a few notable arseholes. Most of the snide, nasty comments fizzled out on the first day after Harriet hexed Cormac McLaggen, a particularly ballsy fifth year Gryffindor, in the face. Her spell left him bald from the neck up—eyebrows, eyelashes, and nose hair included, and Pomfrey couldn't set him to rights yet. Harriet didn't even mind the scolding and detention McGonagall gave her.
Katherine Runcorn made her problem known in the dorm by saying she didn't want to sleep in a room with "someone like Elara," to which Elara replied, "You needn't worry. I'm not attracted to hags."
The resulting argument dragged half the girls in their House to their dormitory, and it was only the sharp words of the prefects that kept things from escalating until Slytherin got called. Most of the witches in their year told Katherine to shut up and resented the ridiculous drama. No one wanted Snape or Slytherin to come down on their heads.
Harriet exhaled a long plume of white steam before turning her head to ensure her friends hadn't fallen too far behind. She mounted the wooden steps to Hagrid's hut and rapped her knuckles against the door.
"Hagrid!" she called, voice echoing across the snow-covered grounds. "C'mon, Hagrid! Open up!"
Since the debut of Skeeter's article, no one had seen the groundskeeper about. Hagrid usually kept to himself and his business, but he'd been especially reclusive in the last days. Harriet was not about to let Rita Skeeter bully and make him feel inferior, so there she stood despite the rather cold temperature, bruising her knuckles on Hagrid's door.
He eventually let them in, looking less than put together, the usual clutter of his cabin now encroaching on unkempt. Hermione sat him down at the table while Harriet poked about to find the kettle, and Elara muttered a few quiet incantations to float the dirty dishes into the sink and set it to run.
"No one listens to anything she says," Hermione affirmed, patting the man's sizable hand before he reached for the tankard of tea Harriet managed to levitate in front of him. "She's a torpid muckraker looking to discredit anyone with even an ounce of suspected loyalty to Professor Dumbledore."
"Great man, Dumbledore," Hagrid said, voice mopey. Harriet gave her head a fond shake as she fussed with the kettle to make more tea.
"And he places a great deal of esteem in you," Hermione continued to console. "People value his opinion much more than Rita Skeeter's."
Elara made steady progress banishing tufts of dog hair into the hearth's belly until she reached Fang's bed. The boarhound gave her a small, plaintive woof, and Elara pursed her lips before moving on.
Eventually, Hagrid's mood lifted, and he set about making a batch of his favorite fudge, and the three witches snuck pieces off their plates into their pockets, lest they end up with their teeth glued together. The fire crackled, warm, and the laughter shared between them chased away the sharp rumors and rude remarks spurred by the tabloids. Hagrid's dark eyes crinkled, and Elara smiled at one point.
Harriet had just finished the last of her tea when a firm tap sounded on the window above the sink, and Hagrid stood to open it. Fawkes ducked inside, ruffling his glorious plumage, and hopped onto the counter's edge. He had a simple scroll clamped in his beak, and he cocked his head impatiently in Harriet's direction.
"'Lo," Harriet said, confused, as she stood and reached for the letter. In extending her arm, Fawkes took his chance for a new perch, carefully curling his talons around her skinny forearm as he dropped the scroll into Harriet's other hand. "Pushy."
The phoenix climbed onto her shoulder as she read the note. "It's from Professor Dumbledore. Obviously."
"What does he want?"
"A lesson," she said. A sudden burst of excitement co-mingled with dread in her middle. Excitement, because she was meant to have a lesson with Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of his age, and dread, because she all too clearly remembered the reason she needed extra lessons. Slytherin's next trial would be upon them before they knew it, and Harriet had no idea what to expect.
She folded the brief note and tucked it into her pocket before bidding her friends goodbye. She stepped outside with Fawkes on her shoulder, and the heat thrown by his feathered body fought the sudden sting of the wind. Harriet shivered before setting off.
"I have a feeling you could take me straight to the Headmaster, but you're having me walk the whole way for a reason," she grumbled. Fawkes clacked his beak, then set about searching Harriet's pockets, as was his wont. "Ah, I see."
He found Hagrid's fudge and chomped through it despite Harriet's warnings. The phoenix held a hunk in his beak until it melted just enough for him to gobble down, and Harriet shook her head, muttering about his inevitable stomach ache being his own doing.
By the time she reached the castle, her cheeks and nose had been chapped a rosy pink, and Fawkes had polished off the fudge hidden in her pockets. The castle hummed with a simple, chilled silence, the students and staff content to stay close to their chosen hearths for the afternoon. When Harriet climbed the main stair vault and reached the third floor, Fawkes gave her collar an abrupt tug and fluttered his feathers toward the left wing. Harriet followed his directions.
"There you are, Harriet," Professor Dumbledore said when Harriet stepped into the room Fawkes indicated. It was bare but sizable, long beams of cold winter sunlight slicing through the unshuttered windows. It had an air of disuse about it, though a house-elf must have gone through to pick up the worst of the dust. Harriet had never ventured into this room before, but that didn't surprise her; if there was one thing Hogwarts had, it was a wealth of empty rooms.
Professor Dumbledore lounged in a cushioned Adirondack chair with a magazine of knitting patterns propped against his knee. Harriet paused in the doorway, baffled by the bizarre scene, and Fawkes hopped off her shoulder to rejoin his master.
"Sir?" Harriet asked as she took a few awkward steps inside and the door quietly shut at her heels. "The note said something about a lesson?"
"Yes, yes." Professor Dumbledore gave her a close-lipped smile as he closed his magazine but failed to stand. A small flick of his wand conjured another Adirondack chair by his own, and Harriet sat, though she thought lounging in garden furniture an odd choice. "Today, I have an exercise to stretch your mind and your magic. Do you remember what I said I'd be teaching you?"
Harriet thought back to the meeting in his office, the memory colored by her anxiety and Snape's burning remark on Slytherin's proclivity to grow bored with his playthings. "Something about being flexible with my spells, sir?"
"Very good." Dumbledore incanted a brief spell, and Harriet felt magic ripple outward under her feet. A plinth appeared with a startling pop!, and atop the plinth rested the bust of a bloke Harriet should probably know but didn't. Another tidy flourish added a rather gaudy bow tie under the bust's carved chin.
Harriet frowned at the Headmaster.
"I would like for you to take our friend Barnabus' bow tie."
Harriet's frown only increased as she peered at the Headmaster. "Sir?"
"Many times in your life, you will come across obstacles that don't have readily apparent solutions. Unfortunately, it's often a failing of ours that we don't set ourselves to think critically about problems and discover different resolutions, mistaking our first impulse as the only one. Dealing with Professor Slytherin and his contemporaries will challenge you in inexplicable ways, my girl, and it is my hope to inspire you to assess the trials ahead with flexibility—both in your spells, and in your mind."
With that said, Professor Dumbledore waved his hand toward the bust—Barnabus, apparently. Harriet drew a breath to ask another question, then decided against it. As the Headmaster returned to his reading, Harriet sighed and faced her opponent.
She had expected something a bit more…exciting for a lesson, but she guessed Professor Dumbledore didn't need to be flashy to get his point across. Still, Harriet huffed a small breath, hoping it went unheard, and pulled her wand from its brace.
"Accio bow tie," she said, getting the obvious Charm out of the way. It did nothing, and Harriet tried it once more to be sure, then lowered her wand. She started toward it, a mite suspicious—and not a meter away, she ran into an invisible wall and had to swallow a curse when her face collided with it, the bridge of her spectacles pressing sharply into her nose.
Professor Dumbledore hummed as he continued to flip through his knitting book.
Harriet rubbed at her sore face as she took a step back and reassessed the situation. She tapped her wand against her thigh twice, then jabbed it toward the ward. "Finite Incantatem."
She hadn't expected Professor Dumbledore to give her an easy task, but she also hadn't expected to be stumped so easily. Harriet felt like an utter numpty and couldn't help the sudden flush rising in her face, knowing Dumbledore sat nearby and watched. It was embarrassing!
It wasn't a spell Harriet had ever used before, and so she didn't quite know the proper wand motion. It revealed a wispy impression of the Headmaster's ward, like sunlight through water, other colors Harriet couldn't interpret smeared about the bust. Regardless of her understanding, the colored light revealed the extent of the ward, which—much to her frustration—surrounded the plinth without a gap.
Harriet stepped back once, twice, then lunged forward into her spell casting. "Ventus!"
The blast of wind managed to actually pass the ward and touch the bust, but the bow tie barely wiggled.
She started to run the gamut of spells in her head, feeling at odds with the task set before her. Would Professor Dumbledore assign her an impossible assignment just to see her struggle and fail? She didn't think so; that smacked entirely of Professor Slytherin and his desire to be the cleverest bloke in the room. There was something here Dumbledore wanted her to realize, but Harriet didn't know what.
So far, Harriet knew nothing physical could get through the barrier; she'd Transfigured a Chocolate Frog wrapper into a long, hooked stick to no avail, and even inveigling Fawkes' assistance proved pointless. She tried various means of Summoning, adding runes and words to experiment, but the majority of her attempts did nothing at all, and some reacted violently, leaving Harriet bruised and sprawled on the floor more than once. Trying to destroy the bust or part of the bow tie to free it did nothing.
Time ticked on, the light sliding along the floor as the sun moved outside. The futility of the exercise built into raw frustration, and tears burned in the back of Harriet's eyes. It seemed such a silly thing to get worked up over, yet being thwarted by a single barrier and an Anti-Summoning jinx made her feel worthless. She could barely grasp her wand from the sweat building on her palm, and a stinging pain emanated from her knee, slammed one too many times into the stone floor when she stumbled.
She was meant to be cleverer than this—smarter, better. Someone capable of being Slytherin's apprentice wouldn't be stumped by a ward. She was wasting the Headmaster's time—wasting everyone's efforts. She had to do more—.
At length, Professor Dumbledore called a halt to her attempts and beckoned Harriet over to have a seat at her chair again. She'd almost forgotten the Headmaster was there and hadn't noticed he'd set aside his reading some time ago to watch her instead. Once Harriet sat, a house-elf popped by to give them refreshments.
"The best lesson I could possibly teach you is not to become frustrated when presented with a seemingly impossible task." Professor Dumbledore peered at her knowingly, and Harriet's face flushed. "Even wizards as old as myself are confounded from time to time. I always find it best to take a breath, have a seat, and get something good to drink."
Harriet sipped her lemonade, the ice clinking against the dewy glass. She hadn't thought of how hot she'd gotten, stomping and swearing and hurling magic at the Headmaster's ward. The drink helped her parched throat and empty stomach.
"Did you know, Harriet, when I was your age, my Transfiguration professor presented me with quite the challenge? I must admit I was rather stubborn in my youth, and I argued adamantly against the legitimacy of Gamp's Principal Exceptions, particularly the law stating food could not be created from nothing. My professor invited me to prove him and Gamp wrong."
"D'you manage to do it, Professor? D'you prove them wrong?"
"Oh, goodness no. I had to eat crumpets comprised of dust for a week because I was too proud to admit defeat."
Harriet snorted and choked on her drink. The laughter eased the tension in her neck and shoulders.
"What I took away from that lesson is that magic has indelible limitations." He smiled, eyes fond and far away. "But you can't forget magic is not simply a tool that exists in words or in your wand. It's part of you. It's instinct and intuition. When you were a child, magic still happened despite your lack of these things because a witch is always a witch, no matter her wand—." Here Professor Dumbledore peered at Harriet with intent, his blue eyes sharp and knowing. "And no matter the obstacles before her."
Well, that's vague, Harriet huffed in her own thoughts, but she didn't dismiss the Headmaster's words out of hand. Instead, she sipped her drink and prodded an idle finger against the new red bruises mottling her knees, though her eyes stayed fixed on Barnabus and his accursed bow tie.
Harriet recalled her incidents of accidental magic in her childhood with clarity, mostly because each instance usually preceded a nasty punishment—a hard cuff about the head, shouted abuse for an hour, stuck in the cupboard without food for far too long. What each burst of magic had in common was a sudden desperation or moment of intense stress—or anger. Sometimes she'd been frustrated, but those accidents usually resulted in the most inconsistent results.
Harriet leaned forward in her chair to prop her elbows on her knees and rest her chin on her folded hands. She'd seen people do wandless magic before—both on accident and on purpose. Dumbledore was the one she'd seen do it most often, but Snape did as well, the magic never as elegant as the Headmaster's, and McGonagall could light candles or move furniture as needed in class. Sometimes Hermione would be deep in a book and reach for her tea and the cup would inch itself closer unbidden, and Elara could perform half a dozen inadvertent spells in a day if she left her gloves off.
She didn't notice when Professor Dumbledore took his leave with Fawkes, his chair disappearing. She didn't notice when the door shut with a muffled whisper, nor that the sun had retreated farther from the window frames. She remained lost in her own thoughts, torn between flagging irritation and softer consideration as dozens of potential strategies blossomed half-formed in her head, and Harriet discarded them one by one. She didn't have a mind for scheming really, but she took the Headmaster's words to heart and followed her instincts.
Sighing, Harriet ran her fingers up under her spectacles to rub at her eyes and then passed them through her fringe, gripping the loose hair in her fists before letting go.
She stared at the bust, and it stared straight ahead, unflinching.
Slowly, as if unbidden, Harriet lifted her arm until she held her hand level with Barnabus, fingers loose, curled. No epiphany came upon her—no sudden inkling or realization, simply a feeling, the same fluttering warmth that glowed gentle as spring sunlight in her veins whenever she cast a spell. The feeling kept scattering, withering, and Harriet plucked at it again and again until her lungs pressed tightly to her ribs, and her arm was no longer limp, but stiff and trembling.
She caught the feeling again, ephemeral as a flame licking her fingertips, and Harriet pressed it outward with a single wish—.
Around Barnabus' neck, the bow tie's corner dipped lower.
The sensation collapsed with her harsh, jagged exhale, and Harriet's shoulders sagged under her sudden exhaustion. She breathed heavily for several moments, the nape of her neck sticky with sweat, her skin buzzing, before she looked again at Barnabus. The bow tie had moved as if invisible fingers had pinched the corner and tugged.
Harriet turned her hand over in her lap and stared at it, wide-eyed. Incredulous, she smiled.
Harriet: "This statue is ruining my life."
Harriet: "…we should put it in Slytherin's office."
Dumbledore: *nods vigorously*