As I was now long in the habit of doing, I sat dear Mary on my four-poster and expertly tied her coarse and mousy hair back with an elegant silver ribbon. (Green clashed horribly with poor Mary’s skin tone.) Then, once I had looked over her robes one final time and deemed her to be presentable, we ascended to the Great Hall.
I waved a good morning to various nameless acquaintances and scanned the Slytherin table. As usual, luck was on my side: one little, insignificant person would be my only obstacle today.
‘Good morning, Rita,’ I greeted the bottle-blonde with a kind smile.
‘Good morning, girls,’ she replied sweetly.
She was so painfully fake. I nevertheless sat beside her and helped myself to some porridge before resuming the conversation I had been having with Mary.
Or, at least, the conversation I could very plausibly have been having with her.
‘Can you believe those people out there, Mary?’ I asked incredulously. ‘Breaking up in such a public place? And doing it so loudly, too!’
Dear Mary looked somewhat confused, as she so often did, but then seemed to understand when sugar-sweet Rita transparently left the table, muttering something about over-due library books. I looked up in mild curiosity as she exited and shifted inconspicuously to my right as I reached for the orange juice, excusing myself to my neighbour.
As was her custom, Bellatrix Black completely ignored me. Mary and I exchanged brief conspiratorial glances – one of the only sorts of glances Mary had ever really been any good at, having had much time to work at it with her older, trouble-making brother – and ate in silence.
The usual morning slew of owls soon wreaked its havoc on the breakfast spread. My hand went reflexively to my hair and to the expensive green barrette I had used to pull half of it back; it was still perfectly in place. And so I prepared myself for what might possibly become my most impressive bit of acting yet.
A thin envelope very nearly dropped into my half-eaten porridge and I feigned surprise. Across from me, Mary appeared to be fighting back an excited squeal; I silenced her with a kind but firm shake of my head. I slowly peeled off the elaborate seal and, upon pulling out the letter it encased, let my face fall suddenly.
‘Oh, my God,’ I whispered.
Surely there had been a mistake. This had to be a mistake.
‘Susie?’ Mary asked. ‘What’s wrong?’
I had distinctly told her to speak. But no matter.
I took a shaky hold of the table to try to steady myself, but it was no use: my breathing was now coming in harsh – but silent, naturally – sobs and tears steadily streamed down my cheeks.
‘Give me that.’
The sneering Bellatrix Black pulled the letter effortlessly from my limp hands, eliciting interest from those sitting around her. Had I been any less talented, I may very well have cracked a triumphant smile.
‘Dear Miss White,’ she started with a drawl.
‘It is with sincere regret that I must be the one to inform you of the death of both Elliot and Janet White on 7 September, 1967. Your parents bravely fought an unexpected battle but were sadly outnumbered by a band of revolutionists. Know that their efforts have never and will never go unnoticed and that, thanks to their relentless dedication to our cause, the magical youth of today will know the many rights nature intended it to have.
While I am aware of your desirable financial status, I must insist on compensating you for your terrible loss. Please find enclosed, ...’
The entire group that had formed around Bellatrix was now gaping openly – even the stony Rabastan Lestrange was showing some sort of interest – as she quickly read the generous amount I was to be given.
‘Signed: AX, President of the Society of Ireland for the Protection of Wizarding Rights.’
Feeling a good half a dozen pairs of eyes on me, I sobbed with renewed vigour into my hands and then, unable to face my House mates any longer, left the Great Hall at a run.
I was half-way through the Entrance Hall and about ready to turn into the nearest closet to clean myself up when I heard it: the dreadful sound of persistence.
‘Susie! Susie – wait!’
It was dear Daniel Newton, and his footsteps were drawing ever closer.
I gave an inaudible groan and then, smoothly regaining my tearful act, let myself collapse heartbreakingly onto the floor. I buried my face in my hands; my entire body shook with violent sobs.
‘Susie, what happened?’ Daniel asked with much concern, kneeling down beside me and (transparently) putting his hand on my shoulder.
So overcome with sobs was I that I hadn’t the strength to answer. We stayed this way, one big heap in the middle of the Entrance Hall, until students started to pour out after their breakfasts.
Fortunately, I was a pretty crier. Which was more than could be said of most.
‘Here,’ Daniel said. ‘I’ll walk you to your Common Room.’
I tearfully agreed, only half-aware, and he slowly helped me to my feet and down the staircase leading to the dungeons.
‘Th-thank you, Daniel,’ I managed stutteringly.
‘I’ll take notes for you in Transfiguration this morning,’ he promised, and then, with one final look of concern, he was hurrying back up the stairs so as to not be late for first period.
I didn’t go into the Common Room; there wasn’t the time. Instead I wiped the tears from my face, splashed myself with some cold water in the nearest lavatory, and was soon eagerly knocking on the Potion Master’s door.
‘Good morning, Professor,’ I greeted him with a cheery smile. ‘I just came by to ask you about Monday’s assignment.’
As usual, Slughorn was delighted. He invited me in and retreated to his old and dusty shelves, where he rummaged through various vials in search of –
‘What was it we brewed, Susan?’
I vividly remembered the Bulbadox Powder as I answered and forced a pleasant expression on my face despite my disgust.
My dedication impressed even myself.
‘Ah, here it is,’ Slughorn exclaimed with enthusiasm, brandishing a vial filled with the familiar, dark red substance; my stomach sank slightly. ‘Now what did you need help with?’
Pushing past my apprehension, I carefully took the vial between two fingers and examined it closely, frowning as I did.
‘You see,’ I started, puzzled, ‘I’m not sure what caused the liquid to crystallize ... Was it a specific ingredient?’
As I had predicted, dear Slughorn went to loosen the cork on the vial so as to better demonstrate to me the Powder’s properties ... and his thick fingers weren’t quite fast enough to catch the glass as I let go, assuming he had a hold on it. The powder stung at my hands and arms and this time the tears that welled up in my eyes were real.
‘Oh, Merlin, Susan – I’m sorry – I’m so clumsy!’ silly Slughorn groaned. ‘I’ve got the antidote right ...’
But he didn’t have the antidote. Because dear Mary had kindly agreed to remove it from his office after Monday’s class. Dear Mary could be quite useful on occasion.
The bewildered Potions Master was soon hurriedly escorting me to the Infirmary, wondering aloud what on Earth had happened to his antidote as I winced and covered both my face and the boils appearing by the dozens on my arms. The new nurse settled me onto a bed, drew the curtains around me and, upon my embarrassed request, promised me the utmost secrecy. I was then, once she had managed to make the pain cease with a particularly foul-smelling ointment, free to peruse through various old copies of Witch Weekly and marvel at my ingenuity.
And hope that dear Mary would be able to accurately tell the story of the exploits of my pureblood parents to those who would inevitably ask: of their run-ins with the Ministry concerning the separation of the rights of wizards from those of Muggles; of their opposition to the admission of Muggle-borns at Hogwarts; of their decidedly old-fashioned attitudes and of the trouble they had been in because of them.
The antidote would take five days to brew. About the amount of time it would take me to attend my parents’ funeral and have a good cry.
I was so dedicated.
I wore a dark ribbon in my hair and a look of deep despair when I finally returned to my classes the following Tuesday. Condolences brushed past my ears, coming from various classmates as well as from – as I had naturally predicted – some of dear Bellatrix Black’s less prominent friends. The day passed by in a bit of a blur, and I opted out of dinner so as to be alone with my grief.
Mary joined me; we sat in our empty dormitory and took the opportunity to chat freely while the rest of the girls were up in the Great Hall. I had pulled out my comb and was determinedly running it through her hair, which had been rather less than acceptably maintained during my absence, as she told me of the uneventful days I had missed.
There had been no questioning of the validity of the letter, of course. Bellatrix Black’s snotty friend Druella Locke had done the inevitable inquiring about the Society of Ireland for the Protection of Wizarding Rights and about my parents. And dear Mary had, she promised, recited her answers accurately and believably.
‘So now what?’ she asked me.
Dear, dear Mary. Useful little thing when properly instructed – and subtly blackmailed – but tragically incompetent when left to fend for herself.
‘I guess we wait,’ I answered with an innocent shrug.
I didn’t guess it, of course. I knew it. I had it planned out like I did my jewellery box.
That was to say: perfectly.
‘And what happens if someone finds out you’re Muggle-born?’
Poor Mary gave a pained shriek as I raked my comb against her ear. Accidentally.
‘I’m not,’ I replied, affronted. ‘What happens if Bellatrix Black finds out you’ve been eyeing her dear Alexei Dolohov?’
We fell still and silent and the dormitory door soon opened as Sacharissa Roman entered, her hands tucking her long, black locks into an elegant bun as she angrily reached her four-poster. I automatically regained my expression of mourning and combed dear Mary’s coarse hair in slow, languid motions.
‘Your brother – Selwynn – is a bloody git.’
Mary looked up in surprise; Sacharissa was positively fuming.
‘What did he do this time?’
‘I’ve got – food – on my robes, haven’t I?’ Sacharissa replied mutinously. ‘Bloody – filthy – half-blood – git!’
She picked off various items from her perfectly pressed school robes as she spoke and finally tore them off in a fury before locking herself in the lavatory, shrieking:
‘Keep your – repugnant – family – away from me!’
My hand slipped again, and a rather worrisome amount of hair tore out of silly Mary’s scalp. The mousy brunette pulled away in pain.
‘Sorry, Mary,’ I apologized earnestly. ‘I’m just a bit rattled, you see: dear Rupert could really get in the way of our plans.’
More truthfully in the way of Mary’s. I could continue the operation on my own, of course – it was just more convenient to have someone so easily manipulated on whom I could somewhat rely.
And I would have been lying if I’d told myself I wasn’t at all fond of her.
‘What am I supposed to do?’ the dear asked me hotly. ‘He’s a seventh-year and an idiot and he’s never listened to me in my life.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of implying this is your fault, Mary. We’ll just need to think of something, won’t we?’
I put down my comb, firmly indicating to her that the topic was closed for the time being, and then, ignoring dear Mary’s inquiries, I left the dormitory. No sooner had I begun to make my way down the winding girls’ corridor than my path crossed dark, pumpkin juice-covered Bellatrix’s. Though I expertly maintained my sorrowed expression, I smiled inwardly as she addressed me the slightest nod in acknowledgement.
I had succeeded. Unsurprisingly.
But now wasn’t the time to cheer about it. I had important matters to take care of.
I made my way out onto the grounds and predictably spotted the Slytherin Quidditch team out holding its annual try-outs; I smirked and took a seat under the nearest tree so as to watch the boys go through their drills. When they finally retreated to the change rooms, I cried a few, expert tears (I was, after all, in mourning) and waited for the lot to ascend back to the castle.
As I knew he would be, seventh-year and captain Alexei Dolohov was the last. He puffed at one of his disgusting cigarettes and walked slowly, brandishing his broomstick in one hand and a carton in the other. I knew what I was about to do was ambitious, but I had much ambition to begin with, and I had never really been all that patient.
I got dazedly to my feet and walked unsteadily in his direction, headed toward the Quidditch pitch.
‘Bloody Selwynn,’ I muttered, wiping at a stray tear and nearly walking straight into the tall and burly figure. ‘Oh – sorry,’ I apologized vaguely.
I made to keep walking, but Dolohov intercepted me:
‘What about Selwynn?’ he asked lazily.
‘What? Oh – nothing. I’ve just had a rough day.’
My tone was perfect: cool but uncollected.
Dolohov snorted, but did not ask any further questions. Instead, he surveyed me as he smoked, his dark eyes squinting against the fumes he exhaled. I had to admit to myself that Mary had been quite right: captain Alexei Dolohov was undoubtedly one of the most handsome boys in Slytherin.
Of course, we hadn’t many to choose from. Dear Bellatrix Black was wiser than I’d previously cared to think.
‘Want one?’ the boy offered, extending his carton toward me.
I politely declined and turned back on my heels, smirking at his predictability, and then, pretending not to hear him when he asked where I was going, I continued my path down to the pitch.
‘Poor Bellatrix,’ I said, only barely audibly. ‘The nerve of that boy ...’
The next morning found foolish Rupert Selwynn cornered against a dungeon wall by the two enormous Slytherin beaters. Dear Mary threw me a confused glance, and I raised my shoulders innocently. We ate our breakfasts in silence, in close proximity to a smug-looking Sacharissa Roman and her usual gang, which included a darkly smiling Bellatrix Black looking rather cosy next to the handsome Alexei Dolohov.
How terribly surprising.
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