Chapter 11 : (11)
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Never again was he going to make use of the seventh year privilege of being allowed to go to Hogsmeade every Saturday if desired. He'd made use of it a couple of times since September, both times to meet up with his mother and his siblings, which had been great, but if it meant opening a wider window of opportunity for his father to meet with him, he'd gladly sacrifice his few hours outside of Hogwarts. What had the bastard been thinking?
He tried to take a few deep breaths but with his broken ribs, the endeavour was more painful than productive. Pomfrey claimed the worst of the pain would be gone by morning, thanks to Skele-Gro – the taste of the damn thing may have been vile and the sensation of bones re-knitting themselves together awful, but it, at least, had the merit of being an efficient remedy. Cormac would know, because this wasn't the first time he'd found his way to the Hospital Wing in abysmal shape. Statistically, it was probably not the last either.
At least this time his father had stuck to fists, he thought grimly. He knew, from the way Eloise's hands had felt at his skull, that she'd found the fracture from the time he'd resorted to magic – that one had been a tough one, earning him a ticket straight to Saint Mungo's. It had also been one of the most difficult ones to explain. Eloise finding it, on top of the state he was in, had probably made the Sickle drop; the girl was far from dim, and though this was something Cormac tended to be greatly appreciative of, he really hoped she wouldn't go investigating. Lord only knew the lengths Nero McLaggen would go to in order to maintain the façade of closely-knit family that he'd been holding up against winds and tides for over fifteen years.
This was why he'd attempted to keep Eloise at arm's length – his waspish demeanour usually sufficed, yet she had remained mostly unphased. Within the safety of Hogwarts, letting down his guard was acceptable, but when she'd showed up at the Ministry party, heartbreakingly stunning in her red dress, with his father and uncle watching him like hawks? There had been no other option but to bring out the big guns and update his attitude from cold to downright shitty. It had worked, but not as well as he'd wished it had – her causing a bigger scene would have been better, would have driven the point home once and for all: she wasn't interested, and therefore was of little interest.
Oh, she'd made her lack of interest quite obvious since school had begun again. There'd been no more tutoring sessions in the library, something he'd been informed of via a third party (and boy was Sprout's disapproval tangible when she wanted it to be); no more accidental glances exchanged over meals in the Great Hall. She consistently sat with her back to the Gryffindor table, next to a tall Hufflepuff towards whom she was unnervingly tactile. A small, snarly part of Cormac's mind couldn't help but note that it was mutual. Why, then, had she submitted him to the same sort of treatment? He wasn't an idiot – the physical examination she'd submitted him to earlier was the furthest thing from professional. Even if it hadn't been glaringly obvious right off the bat, her reaction would have been a tip-off. False cheer, tomato cheeks and babbling did not a good cover make; something he might have teased her for had the circumstances been different... or had he not equally been battling embarrassment and attraction. Thank god not all of his blood had fled south, or the situation would have been made exponentially more awkward than it had already been.
Now was not the moment to let his thoughts go down that path, not in the too-silent infirmary. It might've helped him fall asleep, but the clean-up and risk of being overheard by the Matron was not worth it. Thinking of Pomfrey effectively killed any arousal anyway. Breathing still hurt, too – so Cormac merely shut his eyes and once again willed sleep to come.
The weather stayed dull and dreary all throughout February. Sleet cut at students unfortunate enough to need to be outside for weeks on end, freezing everyone to the bone. The cold seemed to seep into the very heart of the castle, to the exasperation of everyone. Eloise made it through five days of uttering hourly heating charms before it pissed her off enough for her to cast it directly on her clothes. It was slightly less warm, but held up for much longer; if the price to pay was wearing more layers, so be it; she'd rather impersonate an onion than constantly have to recast the same spell. Henry, whose Charms prowess no longer required comment, enchanted enough jars for all Hufflepuffs to be able to carry flames with them: the glass was charmed to be unbreakable, a fortunate feat – more than one student dropped theirs when the cold made their hands shake too much to hold anything. It also made it possible to use the jars as bed-warmers without fear of immolation; that had been Eloise and Ernie's primary concern when Henry had mentioned his project.
Eloise and Susan's dorm felt particularly cold with its two lone beds. The cold made Hannah's absence ache like a missing limb; for the first time in months, Eloise was struck with the full force of the gaping hole her friend had left in the group. Group activities that had previously help dissipate her absence suddenly made it all the more obvious, and Eloise's already sombre mood took a turn for the worse. She was unusually short-tempered, prone to bouts of tears or shouting. When her bark turned to bite, Susan decided it was high time to intervene.
Slamming the door to the dorm behind her, she dropped her bag to the ground and made a beeline for her best friend's four poster bed. The drapes were pulled half-shut in a clear stay away signal that Susan ignored when she vaulted onto the mattress next to Eloise.
The latter looked up from – whatever it was she was doing, Susan didn't really care right now – with a murderous glare. "Was the meaning behind the closed curtains not clear enough?"
"Oh, it was, I just decided to pay it no mind. You practically chewed off Tiny Rose's head, El, Henry is with her right now comforting her. It's unacceptable behaviour from anyone, but from you it's out of character, so. What's going on?"
"Nothing. I'm fine."
"Oh, bull. You're my best friend." Susan grabbed Eloise's hands in hers. "I know these kinds of – what the hell did you to your hands?"
Eloise's nails were bitten down to ugly stumps, three of which were bleeding. She pulled away from Susan angrily, crossing her arms and tucking her hands under her armpits to hide the offensive nails. Susan seized the opportunity to examine her friend critically. Other than the nails, Eloise looked pale, drawn. In the muted light filtering through the bed's drapes, the dark circles under her eyes looked almost like bruises. The half-hearted pony-tail did nothing to hide how lanky her hair was. Susan let out an anxious tut – it was unspoken knowledge that no one looked their best on Fridays, with a long week behind them (hell, she probably looked about as bad as Eloise did), but this? Eloise didn't just look tired, she looked haunted.
Susan sighed and reached forward to pull her friend into a hug. "Come here, you fucking idiot." Eloise just about melted into her arms, and she tutted again. "Talk to me. What is it?"
And everything came pouring out: how she was overwhelmed by classes, by homework, by how there never seemed to be enough time to do anything properly - postponing Arithmancy homework to do Transfiguration but then having to move Herbology back to work on the Arithmancy she hadn't been able to do before and the spiral just went on and on and Eloise felt like she was falling through it. Volunteering was eating her from the inside when she compared it with what the papers were saying, because how was she ever going to be ready, Susan, how? Her parents, though they meant well, were adding extra pressure by concluding each letter with a reminder to focus on her studies and do her homework on time, and Vincent had been fired from the WWN despite his condition improving, which wasn't fair, and Henry had been spending more time in the Hospital Wing which, shit, he'd asked her not to mention, and she was just so – fucking – tired.
Concluding her tirade, Eloise buried her face in her hands and let out a long groan while Susan rubbed circles across her shoulders.
"Alright, game plan. You're going to go take a bath –"
"A shower, fine, and wash your hair, because you look like a mess. A hot mess, but still a mess. In the meantime, I'm going to go and get food from the kitchens. After you've apologised to Rose – and Henry too, for your shitty attitude towards his sister – we're going to have a girls' night in, fix your hands and then we're going to go to bed early, alright? Tomorrow's March 1st, spring is upon us, we're going to go work outside if the weather allows it and kick your homework in the nuts. Yes? Yes. You're not volunteering with Pomfrey this weekend, are you?"
"I'm not, no."
"Excellent! Go bathe, Midgeon, you reek."
When Susan came back from the kitchens, Eloise was fast asleep, hair wet and on top of the covers. Susan cast a quick drying spell to avoid her catching pneumonia, flicked her wand towards the closet for a blanket to cover her up, then decided to follow her friend's example and hauled herself to bed.
" – oisoned, so they say."
"Poisoned? Ron Weasley?"
"So I've heard; Padma Patil from Ravenclaw said as much and her sister shares a dorm with the Granger girl who's friends with both Weasley and Harry Potter, so."
It was a bright Sunday and everyone had flocked to the grounds by the Black Lake. The air wasn't warm per se, but thick sweaters and sunshine compensated for it. The gaggle of sixth year Hufflepuffs had laid claim to an isolated table under a budding willow tree; there weren't enough branches yet to isolate them from the view of all the other students, but they were outside hearing distance, which would have to do. If Ernie was the one bringing gossip from Padma to the table, however, it was likely that secrecy wasn't necessary: it meant the news had cycled through the Prefects' grapevine, hence that most of the elder students knew.
"That's probably why Pomfrey didn't want me volunteering in the Hospital Wing today," Eloise mused. The Matron had sent a house elf to inform her of this last night and Eloise, while surprised, hadn't questioned her further. "I did wonder... She doesn't ask me to keep away very often; it hasn't happened since October, I think –" Her voice trailed off.
Ernie looked at her in askance. "Eloise?"
"Last time Pomfrey requested I not volunteer, it was when Katie Bell was brought in for touching that cursed necklace."
Zacharias caught on immediately. "D'you think both events are related?"
"That's absurd." Wayne shook his head. "Why would anyone target both Katie Bell and Ron Weasley? They've nothing in common."
"That's not true," Henry pointed out. "They're both on the Gryffindor Quidditch team."
"Fair. Still, no one would target them for that reason, would they? Who'd want to do that?"
Zacharias cast a glance over his shoulder to where Garrett Urquhart, Adrian Pucey and Everard Vaisey were tossing a Quaffle to one another and attempting to get it past Miles Bletchley under the appreciative shouts of a crowd of Slytherins. The other members of the Quidditch team were nowhere to be seen. "They might."
Susan rolled her eyes. "You don't attempt to kill people over Quidditch."
"What if the target was someone else?" Justin asked. "Weasley and Bell may just have been collateral damage."
Susan and Zach, who had been about to get into a very heated argument over the importance of Quidditch, abruptly shut up as Justin's suggestion sunk in. "But... who?"
"Dumbledore." When all eyes turned to Susan, she nodded. "It's just a thought, yes? Who else could possibly be important enough for someone to try attacking them directly in Hogwarts? You'd have to be stupid or desperate to attempt something in Hogwarts itself, so the target must be big. Other than Dumbledore, I can't think of anyone."
"Harry Potter," Wayne said. "You-Know-Who's back, after all; maybe he's aiming for Potter."
"In that case, he's an idiot," Zach proclaimed. "Trying for Potter in Hogwarts under Dumbledore's watch is even dumber than going for him in the Ministry's Atrium."
"How do you know about that?" Susan questioned sharply.
Haughty Zacharias suddenly lost some of his composure under her withering stare. "I, uh, my father?"
"Wait, that was true? Potter is who You-Know-Who was after last year and he's the reason the Atrium blew?"
Susan might as well have turned to stone, given how expressionless her face had gone. "I cannot discuss this with you." There were multiple cries of "Sue, come on!" and she relented, ever so slightly. "You haven't heard this from me, in fact you haven't heard it at all, but yes." Her voice rose in warning. "And that's all I'm going to say about it!"
Unsurprisingly, the pestering continued unheeding of Susan's disclaimer, so much so that she eventually stood up and left, retreating to the castle in a huff. Eloise, who had stayed quiet, turned to the boys, mostly Zach and Ernie, who'd been loudest and most adamant.
"Chase after her and apologise." They began to protest and Eloise cut them off. "Go on then. And remember to be sincere about it," she hollered at their shrinking forms as they hurried along after Susan. Her shouting attracted the gaze of a few of the Slytherins watching their Chasers wrestle the ball away from one another, so she turned back to her book with flaming ears. That seemed to shut down any and all discussion of poison, attempted murder and conspiracy theories, at least until everyone began to depart the grounds when the setting sun led to a drop in temperature. As they began the trek upwards, Henry sidled over to Eloise and asked in a low voice, "Is Sue really planning on single-handedly shouldering Ministry secrets and is it something we should worry about?"
She let Justin, Wayne, and a gaggle of small Ravenclaws pass them before she replied in the same tone. "Yes to both. I think turning the Ministry's cloak pockets inside out was her way of coping with her aunt's death originally – trying to give it meaning, you know? But now I'm worried that she's gotten addicted to the thrill of digging and piecing the puzzle together. And I think she likes the thrill of skirting the edges of legality as well, which, well..."
"Yeah. She's still on the right side of the law, but for how long. Is there anything I – we – can do?"
"You can try talking to her about it; she doesn't want to hear it from me and after the row we had last time, I'm not interested in trying again." The effects of Susan's tongue-tying charm had taken nearly an hour to dissipate.
Henry opened his mouth to say something else, but they'd arrived at the castle doors. They saluted the care-taker with a quiet "Evening, Mr. Filch" and once inside, there were far too many people milling about for either of them to be comfortable bringing the topic up again.
A/N: nothing much to say this time. The chapter feels kind of filler-y, for which I apologise profusely. Let me know if you liked it despite that? Thank you and see you soon!
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