Chapter 5 : To Find Your Place
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The journey up to Hogwarts passed in a flurry of confusion and excitement. The first years were herded onto boats, charmed to man themselves, after stepping off the Express, their nervous murmuring carrying clearly in the chilly evening air. One could almost reach out and feel the magic pulsing through the air as the children embarked on their traditional lake voyage to the castle.
“Firs’ years! Firs’ years, come this way!” a giant, bearded man bellowed, waving his arms and shouting hurried directions to the school’s newest students.
In the confusion caused by the torrent of young witches and wizards, Barabelle lost sight of the three boys she spent the trip with. Waves of panic washed over her as she felt herself being jostled this way and that like a discarded rag doll in the crowd.
When have I felt like this before?, she thought blankly as her blood rushed in her ears, drowning out all other noise.
She was struck by a childhood memory so hard her knees buckled. She was eight years old, returning home on a Muggle train after visiting relatives in Scotland and was supposed to make contact with her mother at the station. The metallic taste of anxiety in her mouth, she scanned the crowd for a familiar face as the weight of her suitcase steadily made her small arms ache.
Adrenalin surging through her veins, she drowned in the sea of bodies, moving and undulating on the overcrowded platform. Rain fell in sheets outside the shelter of the platform waiting area as the hours ticked on.
It was later that she found out her mother had an unexpected social call from an old school friend and was entertaining her when she happened to glance at the grandfather clock in the main sitting room. Victoria Parkinson was serving tea while her only daughter sat on a cold, wet bench twenty miles away.
Barabelle could feel her insides turn to ice as hot tears built behind her eyes and threatened to spill out, betraying her juvenile weakness.
A sharp tug on the wrist jerked Barabelle out of her reverie. She looked up to find herself gazing into the face of Remus. He looked as frazzled as she felt, his hair mussed and a harassed look about him. He gave her a small smile and her cheeks reddened, acutely aware of the tears still lingering at the corners of her eyes.
“Follow me!” He shouted over the dull roar of the crowd. Turning abruptly, he secured her slender wrist in his grip. They cut a swath through the crowd, Remus leading her like a forlorn ship in a sea of busy wizards. He somehow managed to navigate his way through the crowd as he pulled her along in the right direction. She exhaled a breath she didn’t know she had been holding in relief and chuckled nervously to herself.
You just saved me.
He remained with her, always within glancing distance. When they were jostled about by overzealous Prefects or pushed unwillingly in different directions by the crowd, his hand stayed buried in the arm of her robes, his roughened fist hanging on tight. Every once in a while he would look back and offer her a reassuring grin to comfort her jangling nerves, his striking eyes soft.
It felt nice to be protected.
Before Barabelle and Remus knew it, they were thrown into a rickety old row boat with a smattering of their peers, all as wide-eyed and apprehensive as they. The vessel came to life in the water with a churning noise and set off across the misty lake, the glowing outline of Hogwarts in all its majesty in view of the young passengers.
The journey took longer than seemed possible. A spontaneous silence lowered over the eleven year olds like a dark scrim as each of the boats made their leisurely way across the surface of the lake. Peering curiously over the edge of the vessel, Barabelle could have sworn she saw a pale tentacle drift and sway lazily just beneath the surface. She hastily withdrew herself from the brink and sat back down in the boat. In an effort to keep herself busy, she took in the appearance of the unfamiliar passenger seated near her.
Sitting across from Barabelle and Remus was a young witch nervously tugging at her hair and scratching herself periodically. Her eyes, however, were anything but anxious. They scanned over her surroundings appraisingly, resting a tad more intensely on the forms of her fellow students. She was pretty in a rough sort of way: her pale, china-doll complexion contrasted harshly with the tangled ebony hair thrown carelessly over her back. Spectral arms stretched out from the folds of her cloak and her hands clutched the edge of the rowboat, knuckles white with the strain.
“What?” the girl barked at Barabelle, who too late realized she had been staring.
“Oh! Er…nothing,” she blurted, willing to say anything to keep the girl’s ferocious gaze off of her. There was something in the young witch’s eyes that made her look as if she was either going to spring into the air and attack or burst into tears. Like a cornered animal.
The girl’s eyes narrowed at Barabelle and she turned away, chewing her lip furiously. The level of the unfamiliar witch’s dismay at a mere glance in her direction was abnormal, even for a green first year. Unsettled by the encounter, Barabelle turned to Remus, hoping to strike up a conversation to ease the tense atmosphere.
Remus, however, was otherwise occupied. Eyes turned up to the sky above them, he gritted his teeth, scanning the heavens as if wary of an air raid. Confused at her friend’s behavior, Barabelle glanced upwards, seeing only the royal blue of the night and a few fluffy clouds lined with the silver light of the moon behind them.
For a moment, Barabelle imagined herself placing her hand on Remus’ shoulder, a question in her eyes; comforting him without saying a word. He would crack that quiet little smile of his and everything would be normal. But something told her the source of Remus Lupin’s anxiety was far beyond what she, or most people, could possibly soothe.
And something else told her she would try.
After a long, strained boat ride, they finally found harbor, the guide lights of the first years’ rowboats gathering in the misty darkness like summer fireflies. Children disembarked from their vessels in every direction, running and laughing in anticipation of the Sorting once they reached the castle.
As she settled herself on the dock, smoothing imaginary wrinkles from her robe, she caught sight a few feet away of Sirius and waved to him, but he did not respond. His gaze was fixed over Barabelle’s shoulder, and, curious, she turned to look.
The strange girl from the boat stood frozen, her legs still straddling the boat and the dock as she dismounted. Her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates as she caught sight of Sirius. Barabelle was powerfully reminded of a rabbit trembling in panic: she began to twitch frantically, eyes darting this and way and that, as if searching for an escape route.
“Bellatrix?” Sirius inquired, his voice edged with concern and apprehension. A sudden brush of wind in the cool September night ruffled the black strands of his hair and threw the tangled mess of the girl’s tresses across her face, giving her an even wilder look.
At the sound of her name, the girl took off like a shot, darting past Barabelle and Sirius, her robes billowing. After watching Bellatrix sprint her way up to the castle gates, Barabelle turned to Sirius, her eyebrows arched.
“What was that all about?” she asked, searching her comrade’s face for an explanation of the bizarre charade they had just witnessed.
“I’ll tell you later,” he offered, his expression pained as he took her arm and lead her up the pathway. Although she was certainly unsatisfied with his feeble reply, Barabelle decided against pushing him for details until they were safely within the walls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Later that night, four newly named Gryffindors shuffled into their common room, faces aglow with excitement and pride. Barabelle could not believe her good fortune at being sorted into the same house as her new friends, especially when she sneaked a glance at the Slytherin table, home to many of her relatives including Conan and his slavishly adoring girlfriend, Patricia.
For all of her previous bravado, she could not help but breathe a sigh of relief when her name was called as Barabelle Smallwick and not the name she shared with many of Hogwarts’ most malicious bullies and cheats.
Throwing themselves on a monstrously large couch in front of the fire, the quartet chatted and laughed as they took in their surroundings, admiring the common room with a wide-eyed eagerness reserved for first years. James and Sirius busily discussed alcoves and broom closets ideal for mischief making, even stopping at times to whip out parchment and quills to map out elaborate plans (all of which Barabelle was very much looking forward to seeing in action). Remus looked on good naturedly, offering advice on the most bizarre spells and incantations for James’ and Sirius’ schemes and taking out his dog-eared Transformation book for reference.
Barabelle regretfully interrupted the boys’ little project with a question that had been gnawing at her since that afternoon.
“Sirius, who was the girl you saw at the dock on the way here? You seemed to know her,” Barabelle asked breezily, trying not to seem too interested. Gather as much information as you can, but do anything to keep from appearing nosy, she recalled one of her mother’s many etiquette maxims.
Sirius’ previously cheerful countenance dropped at Barabelle’s question and the light in his eyes dulled. Ah, Barabelle realized with a twinge of regret, she must be a family member.
“Oh, that was my cousin, Bellatrix Black,” he said flatly, “I was a bit shocked she was here. I didn’t think she was even coming to school. Bella’s always been a little…odd.”
At the question in Barabelle’s eyes, he continued grudgingly, “I was at a family gathering a few years ago at her parents’ estate, I’m sure you what that’s like,” he added, rolling his eyes, “and my cousins and I found a baby rabbit in the woods with a broken leg. We all wanted to keep it, and as one of us went back inside to fetch an adult to heal the poor thing, Bella asked me if she could hold it. I figured it was fine since she was so shy and almost never spoke a word, so I gave it to her and then went off to join the others. I don’t know for sure what really happened, but when the rest of the kids and I came back to see to the rabbit, Bella was gone and the wretched animal’s body was found floating in a little creek nearby. Its neck was snapped. We couldn’t find Bella anywhere for two days afterward, until one day she was at breakfast, eating her toast and jam as if nothing had happened. We were all terrified to ask her about it and no one has since,” he concluded, glancing eagerly back at his and James’ blueprint spread out on the floor.
“Well, maybe her magic got out of control and the death of the rabbit was an accident,” Remus offered. “With young kids, magic can run wild with your emotions until you know how to use it.”
Barabelle chewed her lower lip, glancing away from her comrades for a moment. To be honest, she was surprised Conan has recovered so quickly from their little encounter the night she escaped Parkinson manor. No doubt he was planning a suitable method of punishment her for her disobedience at that very moment.
“I don’t know,” Sirius said, cocking an eyebrow doubtfully. “Something’s just not right with that girl. She’s actually two years older than us, but her parents kept her home up ‘til now. I thought she wasn’t coming to school because she was mental or something,” he finished lamely.
A silence fell over the four friends.
“Maybe being mental runs in the family, Black,” James chortled, prodding Sirius roughly in the back with the sharp end of his quill.
“Well, being mental might help – in a pillow fight!” Sirius yelled, launching a throw pillow from the couch directly at James’ unsuspecting face.
“Oh, bloody hell – You’re not going to get away with that!” James squawked, prostrate on the oriental rug of the common room from the force of Sirius’ throw.
“Watch me, Potter!”
Just as Remus and Barabelle were about to exchange a good-humored look and ignore the two boys scuffling on floor, Remus found himself helpless in the iron grip of Sirius’ headlock.
“You didn’t think we’d let you just miss out of the fun, eh, Lupin?” Sirius growled into Remus’ ear as he attempted to pin the skinnier boy to the floor. After the initial few seconds of shock, Remus found himself caught in the fray, knobby knees and limbs pushing and pillows flying everywhere as James and Sirius battled each other and him. The moment of hesitation soon passed and an expertly catapulted pillow socked Sirius square in the mouth.
Letting a knowing chuckle escape her lips, Barabelle stood from the couch, tucking a strand of wavy charcoal hair behind her ear. It had been a long day, and as much as she wanted to see who would win the pillow-throwing blitzkrieg, the girl needed sleep before her first day of class. “Good night, boys,” she called back to her mates as she made her way up the stone steps to the girls’ dormitory.
“Good night, Barabelle,” she heard the boys chorus from the common room, followed by an UMPH! as an unsuspecting boy was caught full in the stomach by a couch cushion. The last sounds she detected as she closed the dormitory door behind her were the spirited cries of boys at play.
As much as she loathed admitting it to herself, a coiling, undulating knot of unease built in the pit of Barabelle’s stomach as she settled herself underneath the covers of her four-poster bed. The ruby-colored curtains draped around her shut out what little twilight there was left, enveloping her completely in darkness. It pressed down on her like a great ocean depth, shooting icicles of raw, secret fear up her spine. All the solace James, Sirius and Remus had built around her vanished in a moment, leaving her utterly exposed and gasping for air.
No matter how much she was neglected, unloved and objectified in the House of Parkinson, it was still the place she had grown up. It was still where those who had given her life called home. The young girl realized with a jolt that no matter how many times she called herself Smallwick, a piece of her would always love her parents and even her brother. The cold fact drove into her like a train.
The tears poured out of her cheeks without her consent, and she gasped and sobbed into her pillow case, weeping as if on impulse. Her chest felt as if it had been ripped open, laid bare, a black hole where her identity had once been. Mama, she called deep in the recesses of her mind, Mama…
A tap on the stained glass window nearest Barabelle’s bed made her sneak a glance out of the over of the pillow she had buried her head in. Wiping her eyes hastily, not even wanting the dark of the night to see her weakness, she threw a curtain aside and slipped out of bed to investigate the source of the noise.
Outside her window, a tower spire curled into the heavens. Perched sideways on the spire was a raven, its claws digging into the roof of the tower for support. Turning its beaked head towards the girl framed in the window, it hopped to the sill again to tap the glass briefly. The light of the pale half moon looming in the distance glanced off the raven’s glazed feathers, giving them an almost purple sheen that reminded Barabelle of a pot of violets her mother personally tended to everyday in the parlor of their manor. As a child, she often found herself envious of the plant.
Intrigued by the animal’s strange behavior, Barabelle pressed her hand against the glass, a greeting. Seeing her offered hand, the bird positioned itself so its glossy black body pressed up against the glass on the opposite side of the girl’s hand.
Barabelle’s mouth opened slightly in amazement, but somehow she got the distinct impression the raven wasn’t simply behaving oddly. It’s alright, the bird seemed to say as it looked up again and tapped the glass lightly. Everything’s going to be alright.
The girl had no idea if it was the magic in the school that caused the bird to behave this way or just her fatigue bringing her a bizarre hallucination, but did not care. She needed comfort all the same, even if it was just a mangy bird outside her window.
All she could do was laugh softly with her new friend as the remains of her tears dripped onto her pale white nightgown.
A/N: Sorry for the long wait, but the new formatting and some editing had to be done. Reviews are always great to read! Chapter image by FairyQueen at TDA.
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