Chapter 9 : The Big Thing
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EMILY sat alone at the Hufflepuff table, which had been happening a lot more over the last week. The frosty December sun blazed out of the enchanted ceiling into the Great Hall. It was the first Saturday after Laurel had been taken from the castle, and the day of their second Hogsmeade trip. Emily thought how sad it was that Laurel would miss it. The gloom cast by her absence would surely put a damper on their day in the village. Tristan slumped down next to Emily at half ten, bleary eyed, and they didn’t bother to make much conversation.
Emily wondered what they would even do in Hogsmeade. It was snowing more heavily now, and she was sure none of them would feel much like Cheering. They had originally planned to take some Peruvian potion Isobel had nicked from her father’s office. According to his notes, it was used by Shamans along the Amazon to amplify psychic energy. Since Isobel didn’t put much stock by Divination, she’d concluded that it was probably “just trippy as all hell.”
Right as Emily was thinking that their plans for the potion were likely dashed, Isobel emerged. And for the first time in nearly two years, she wasn’t wearing any makeup. Her usually crimson lips were pale, chapped, and foreign looking. Emily marveled at how young Isobel appeared. At just over five feet, with youthfully over-large lips, and a smaller bosom than she’d started term with, the young Ravenclaw looked no more than her fifteen years.
“Have fun,” Isobel said blandly, plopping a crystal phial on the table. “I’m skipping Hogsmeade today,” was all she said before turning around and slouching back up to Ravenclaw tower.
Tristan looked at Emily, phrasing his silent question. She shrugged, and stowed the phial in her pocket.
Emily and Tristan trudged through the gently falling snowflakes up to Hogsmeade in silence. The little village glittered in the distance, its pointed roofs snug under white blankets of snow like a mugle Christmas card. Hogsmeade remained ostentatiously pure and quaint, untouched by the horror of Laurel’s hex-out down in the castle. It was the first time Emily had ever made the trip without her Ravenclaw friends.
They reached the familiar spot just north of the Shrieking Shack, and busied themselves melting a clearing in the snow and drying the frozen ground. Tristan summoned a protective bubble of insulation to defend them from the frigid wind, and Emily retrieved the phial from Isobel. Take no more than half between the two of you, read the parchment note affixed to the potion.
They took delicate sips in turn, sure not to exceed a quarter phial each, before Tristan rummaged through his tapes.
“Can we listen to Blur?” asked Emily.
“Yes we can,” Tristan responded, glad that she had taken to the group.
The two lay back as they heard the first strums of guitar. Emily started to feel a floating sensation caused by more than just the music, and determined that the potion must be taking effect. Damon Albarn began singing from inside Tristan’s stereo, and Emily drifted, feeling the universe stretch out around her. A meadow in the north of an island in the sea of a planet rotating gently through space.
Emily closed her eyes to an explosion of geometry writ in violent pink and acid green. Intricate images shifting and rearranging, complex molecules becoming cave paintings becoming solar systems. And she saw, just beyond the morphing, melting patterns, the shape of reality itself—infinite and perfect.
“She’s so high, she’s so high, she’s so high,” sang Damon Albarn, and Emily wondered whether he’d written the song for her, meant for that precise moment. After all, time wasn’t a straight line—looking at it, it was more of a fractal. Sometimes moments that seemed to be separated by years were in fact pushed up right next to one another. Surely, she thought, little pieces must bleed across the membrane every so often.
Emily opened her eyes again, but the undulating patterns stayed in place, like a veil over everything she looked at. The vivid, complex colours brought the white expanses of the Scottish countryside to riotous life around her.
Emily noticed, also, that she knew things.
Looking at Tristan, she saw the patterned screen whisper over his visage. But it was the boy himself, beyond the intricate veil, that screamed out his secrets. Emily marveled at how easy it was to see into him, the truth about Tristan etched into the way he reclined on the frozen ground, or adjusted his shoulders.
Emily also saw the Big Thing. She’d never called it that before, but that’s what it had always been. The thing that, in its secrecy, had always defined who he was. But she caught only glimpses; it was too big for to see all at once.
“Why don’t you like being a wizard?” Emily asked. The question felt like it had always been there hiding in plain sight, disguised by its simplicity. Tristan wasn’t surprised by it.
“Wizards don’t have souls,” he said, without sidestepping or attempting to confuse, as he did so often when asked about the Big Thing. “Wizards still dress like it’s the Dark Ages, and we only really have any progress because of muggle borns. We only have the Hogwarts Express because we nicked it. Muggles have creativity, and innovation, and literature, and art. They’ve done more than wizards ever have, and without magic," he explained. "They have souls.” Tristan's voice was more mild than it ever was when he talked about this stuff, like a sleeptalker. It felt like he hadn’t meant to tell her, but couldn’t prevent the deluge.
Tristan went on about the virtues of muggles and faults of wizards, but he wasn’t ranting or reasoning this time, he was telling the truth. It wasn’t Emily’s truth, since she appreciated the whimsy of the wizard world against the sterility of the muggle one. But she didn’t care to argue the point, there were a lot of truths, and they all existed at once.
Tristan’s father was a muggle, and his mother born to muggles; that was his story. But it refused to settle. He wore it like a mask.
Over the years Tristan had tried to recruit Emily into his resentment of the magical world, and invite her to share his angst against wizarding superiority. Privately, Emily understood, a bit, some of the prejudices against non-purebloods. More progressive families were less likely to uphold wizarding traditions, and carry on the culture through generations. They named their children Fred or George, rather than Draco or Belvina. Changing attitudes about blood purity were, Emily recognized, resulting in the loss of wizarding culture. She also knew that change wasn’t bad, and the driver of the ‘progress’ Tristan celebrated in muggles. She could, however, sympathize with the fear of change.
Draco and Belvina, the names had come to Emily, but she wasn’t sure from where.
“Do you know a Draco or a Belvina?” Emily asked, and Tristan opened his eyes, surprised.
“Yeah,” he said, looking genuinely shocked. “They’re both Slytherins, why? Have you heard of them?”
“I dunno,” Emily replied.
Emily knew that Tristan liked her because she was muggle born. But it wasn’t, as it might appear, the kind of liking that came from being similar. He liked her because she was different from him. A proper muggle-born, and a Hufflepuff, rather than a Slytherin uncomfortably straddling two imperfect societies.
Emily felt Tristan close his eyes again, and how he was threatening to be carried off into oblivion by the tide of the music.
“You can change the song,” she said, and he didn’t ask how she knew he was fading.
Tristan fumbled with the cassette she’d given him for his birthday, with the naked baby in a swimming pool on its cover, and slid it in the stereo. The guitar began gently enough, before roaring into vicious life. Emily felt it consume him. When the handsome American lead singer joined in, his voice sounded like the inside of Tristan.
Tristan groaned, almost inaudibly, with appreciation. The chorus had given words to the riot inside his mind. Emily laid back and joined him there. His nerves were electric—the song was channeling all of Tristan's loathing and violence and wrath into something that didn’t feel bad anymore.
Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt. Emily heard the words drift to the surface of Tristan’s psyche, and she knew it was a quote from Slaughterhouse 5--even though Emily hadn’t read that book yet.
“I don’t think you’re contagious… or stupid,” Emily gently offered in the brief pause after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ended. Tristan’s mind had been woven into the lyrics of the song, and while they listened to it, it was really the inside of Tristan that had been singing.
The stereo came to life again as the second song began, and the two friends finally surrendered to being carried off on its wave.
It was a little while after they’d turned the tape over to the B side when Emily knew what was about to happen. They were listening to a song about junkie love, and about two minutes in, it fell into a foreboding and persistent instrumental, giving Emily the space to feel what was coming.
She sat bolt upright.
“S’matter Sunshine,” asked Tristan. He was still lying back, oblivious.
“They’re coming,” she said. She knew they were there before she saw them appear in the distance.
“Who?” asked Tristan without opening his eyes.
“Slytherins,” she whispered.
Terence and Marcus were shouting jeers at them just as soon as they got close enough to Emily and Tristan’s bubble. She had a hard time discerning what they were actually saying aloud; the words they left unspoken added their own deafening clamor to the din. It was all fear and hatred and confusion. In no time at all, the Slytherins were upon them, bursting their magical insulation.
Tristan staggered to his feet, far too blasted for a duel, and Terence pushed him back to the ground. Marcus tugged Emily back, and his hand touched her arm with an explosion of hot rage. She understood, for the first time, how much he hated her.
She’d known, obviously, about the prejudice. She’d learned that on her first train ride to Hogwarts. But she’d never fully grasped its depth. Marcus thought, he really thought, that muggles and mudbloods were stealing magic. It was because of her that he didn’t get better marks, and it was her fault his family wasn’t as rich as it had once been. That formerly aristocratic families huddled in crumbling manors with only a few galleons to their ancient names. Emily was a mudblood and a slag—seducing students from noble lineages in order to dilute the bloodline and foster her half-breed children. Wet hair at breakfast—a reminder that she’d just showered, just been naked. Marcus found it erotic, and he hated her for it.
Emily was already screaming before she realized it, and Marcus let go of her arm as if shocked by static.
She saw it happen a second before it did, and Emily lunged to stop it, but was too late: Terence stomped on Tristan’s stereo. Once, twice, thrice, crushing the metal and plastic beneath his boot. The muggle device issued a warped death rattle, and went silent.
The air itself was ringing, screaming, deafening. Emily took hold of Tristan and yanked him to his feet, grabbing the bag of tapes with her other hand. Once he was up, she brandished her wand.
“Locomotor mortis! Locomotor mortis!” Emily jinxed the two Slytherins, and dragged Tristan away from the scene.
They were speeding through Hogsmeade when Tristan began shaking violently. The experience had made the potion to turn on them, and the world revealed itself, threatening and strange. Emily wrapped one arm around Tristan’s shoulders, and steered him out of the village, down the path, and through the Hogwarts gates to safety.
Without stopping once or taking off their heavy cloaks, they made it into castle and began climbing the many shifting stairwells. Compared to the icy grounds, the castle was sweltering. They got to the Corridor, which felt safe and protected, as if haunted by the benevolent ghosts of their own younger selves. Tristan tore off his gloves and cloak, throwing them against the wall. Emily removed her excess layers with less fury, gathered Tristan in her arms, and pulled him with her onto the flagstone floor. His head in her lap, his fingers tightly wound with hers, he felt like he should be crying but he wasn't. A million confessions wordlessly tumbled out of him as Emily stroked his hair. In his mind, he allowed the Big Thing take form and narrative.
“It’s ok, I don’t care,” Emily assured him. “It doesn’t make me think any less of you.”
“How are you doing that?” he asked. “Reading my mind?”
“The potion. I guess it does the clairvoyant thing after all,” she said. “But really, it don’t think that makes you a bad person.”
“How can it not?” he pleaded.
“It wasn’t your choice, Tristan,” she insisted. “You have to stop blaming yourself, you were only little.”
“Please don’t tell,” he moaned.
“I won’t, but I think you should tell the others,” she didn’t mention that, maybe, it was a good idea to continue keeping it secret from the school at large. “It’s a big thing to keep all to yourself.”
Oh no, love, you’re not alone, Emily tried to sing to him inside her own head. No matter what or who you’ve been. No matter when or where you’ve seen... You’re not alone.
It was several hours before Emily started closing herself against Tristan R. Bryce’s interior, where nothing was beautiful and everything hurt.
The following Monday Professor McGonagall began taking down the names of the students who’d be remaining at Hogwarts through the winter holidays. Emily thought how sad it was that some students wouldn’t be returning home for Christmas, and noted, with some curiosity, that the famous Harry Potter was among them.
She hadn’t seen Tristan since the day of the Hogsmeade trip; neither he nor Isobel had shown up in the Corridor on Sunday, and he hadn’t turned up to breakfast. Emily was glad when Isobel arrived at the Hufflepuff table, even if it was only for a few minutes before the start of their lessons. Emily had been carrying the crystal phial around with her in case she might see Isobel to return it.
“How was it?” Isobel asked, taking the phial under the table, and pouring herself a coffee.
“Pretty intense, kinda like magic mushrooms, I guess,” said Emily.
Isobel looked confused by the words ‘magic mushrooms.’
“They’re a muggle thing. They aren’t actually magic. I don’t think.”
“So no psychic stuff?” asked Isobel, having already assumed not.
“Nope, not that I could tell,” lied Emily.
“Where’s Tristan?” Isobel asked, just realizing he wasn’t at the table.
Emily explained about what had happened with Higgs and Flint, leaving out about the Corridor afterward and everything she’d learned. Isobel’s expression grew dark; she’d been feeling like everything had been turning to shit (Emily was still feeling aftershocks of the potion).
Emily had noticed that Isobel was barely eating. Her cheeks had hollowed out dramatically, and she’d developed dark circles around her eyes, which she tried to cover with foundation. Emily saw how thin Isobel’s wrists were when she reached for the coffee, and wondered how much she’d withered under those flowing Hogwarts robes. Laurel’s hex-out must be especially hard for Isobel, Emily reasoned; the two had grown up together.
Emily remembered the first time she’d met Laurel. It had been on the Hogwarts Express, so many years ago. Emily had been trying to read through puffy eyes in one of the two stalls of the girls’ toilets. She remembered lifting her feet out of view at the sound of the door, but Laurel must have heard Emily’s sniffling.
“Hello?” Laurel had called out. “Say something if you’re indecent,” she’d commanded, and Emily had remained silent, hoping she’d just go away.
Instead, Laurel’s head popped under the door.
“Hiya, I’m Laurel,” she’d said brightly. “Why are you hiding in here?” she asked, climbing in under the door.
Emily had explained to her about the mean boy who’d made her cry, leaving out the name he’d called her, in case Laurel had similar feelings about Emily’s family.
“What a load of shite,” Laurel had responded, startling Emily with her swear. “He sounds like a right Slytherin. Evil slimy gits to the last.”
At Laurel’s insistence, Emily had followed her to the compartment she’d been sharing with Isobel, and sat with them for the remainder of the train ride. As shy as she was, Emily had been mostly quiet, but was glad for the company nonetheless.
Emily had met Tristan in History of Magic during her second week. Marcus Flint had knocked over Tristan’s books on purpose, and Tristan had jinxed him in return.
Emily had cornered him after class.
“Hi, I’m Emily, I’m in Hufflepuff. I saw you jinx that boy. I don’t like him either. Would you like to be friends?” the words had rushed out ungracefully and all at once, as they tended to when she was eleven and still so timid.
Tristan had looked delighted, which put her at ease.
“You’d really want to be friends with a Slytherin?” he asked.
“Why not?” she responded, honestly still unclear why she shouldn’t.
“Hufflepuffs don’t usually like Slytherins,” he said.
“Why?” she probed.
“Are you muggle born?” he asked.
“Does that matter to you?” she responded a little sharply and straightened her posture, remembering what Tonks had said.
“No, just asking,” he said. “My dad’s a muggle,” he added hastily.
“So why shouldn’t I like a Slytherin?” she asked again. “Someone told me your lot were all ‘evil slimy gits.’”
Tristan laughed. “They were right,” he said.
“You don't seem like an evil, slimy git.”
“I try,” he said. “I don’t really like other Slytherins.”
“Then let’s be friends,” she concluded.
“The enemy of my enemy,” he agreed, offering her his hand. “I’m Tristan.”
“Emily,” she said again, shaking his hand. “So why are you in Slytherin, if you don’t like them?”
“Stupid reasons,” he mumbled. “It tends to go in families.”
The next day, Emily had been invited by Isobel and Laurel to meet them by the lake. Her new friends had promised to tell her all about Hogwarts. She brought Tristan with her, since he didn’t have any other friends. When the two Ravenclaws saw the Slytherin approach, they grew wary.
“This is Tristan,” announced Emily. “He’s in Slytherin, but that’s not his fault, and he doesn’t like other Slytherins.”
“Is that true?” inquired Isobel of Tristan.
“Uh-huh,” he confirmed, nervously.
“He even jinxed the boy who upset me on the train, but for a different reason,” added Emily.
“Sounds like a Slytherin,” Laurel rolled her eyes.
“What if I jinx all the Slytherins you don’t like,” Tristan negotiated, half jokingly.
This seemed to work on Isobel and Laurel though, and Tristan became their friend.
Sitting at breakfast with Isobel, remembering being eleven by the lake, Emily was startled that she’d managed to overlook what Tristan had said during their first ever talk. It was such a big clue--like he'd wanted her to figure it out some day.
Emily parted ways with Isobel, leaving her to set off to Transfiguration alone, while Emily headed down to the dungeons. She took their usual table, and after a few minutes, determined that Tristan was probably skiving again. She wished he wouldn’t, since they’d be starting their Strenghthening Solutions, which needed to be left to mature until Wednesday. If she couldn’t get her potion to the proper stage by the end of the double lesson, it would be ruined. Then again, if she managed to get it right, Snape would be forced to give her the credit instead of Tristan.
“And where, pray tell, is Mr. Bryce,” asked Snape, stopping his terrifying gliding beside Emily’s table.
“Oh he’s been ill,” lied Emily, in too bright a voice. “Caught cold in Hogsmeade.”
“Hungover, I reckon,” Marcus told Reece Pritchard in a carrying whisper. “Was hexed out of his mind on Saturday.”
“Be sure to relay today’s assignments to him,” said Snape, pretending not to hear. “And tell him I urge him to visit Madam Pomfrey for a Pepper-Up potion to clear up his, ah, ‘cold.’”
Emily hung her head, blushing furiously, and got to work measuring out the proper amounts of ingredients, sure to distinguish the salamander blood from the pomegranate juice.
End Note 1: Harry confused pomegranate juice with salamander blood while making his own Strengthening Solution.
End Note 2: The psychedelia in this chapter was inspired, in part, by some real-world phenomena. The stuff about time, fractals, and the shape of the universe is based on actual physics that I can barely understand (also some Doctor Who), and the “peruvian potion” is based on a real potion traditionally used by shamans in that region for for divination and psychic healing. Apparently, while under the influence, shamans draw out complex patterns, some of which have looked like images of molecular compounds (some being the psychoactive ingredient in the potion itself), which scientists find freaky-deaky.
End Note 3:
a) “She’s So High” is the first track off Leisure, by Blur (Damon Albarn is their singer).
b) “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the first track off of Nevermind, by Nirvana, and contains the lyrics “I feel stupid and contagious.”
c) The B side track about “junkie love” is called “Drain You.”
d) “Oh no, love, you’re not alone, no matter what or who you’ve been. No matter when or where you’ve seen… You’re not alone” are lyrics from David Bowie’s “Rock n Roll Suicide” off the Spiders from Mars album.
e) “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” is a line from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.
f) “Haunted by younger selves” is an idea I nicked off Rowling, from Casual Vacancy, when she wrote of parents being haunted by the ghosts of their living children.
End Note 4: According to Pottermore, the Hogwarts Express was stolen from muggles.
A/N: This story is almost a generalized JK Rowling fanfic. I took a lot from Casual Vacancy and Cuckoos Calling--not any characters or anything specific, but I definitely tried to emulate her prose, pacing, and penchant for social criticism. (Also, alliteration is her jam.)
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