Chasing Shadows

Ethel spent a year in Azakaban for a crime she (sort of, mostly, basically) didn't commit, and now the entire world has taken it upon itself to either gawk at her or try to fix her. More so than anyone, apart from her mother (ugh), the Weasley family are pulling out the big guns to try and plonk her back on track, but she's happy being sad, not that anyone can understand how much that makes sense, and she's not eager to let anyone meddle in her life again.

But then one of the Weasley boys stumbles into her life, and it's all she can do to maintain her customary hatred of the world and everything in it.

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3. Ice Cream

The sunlight woke her and she jolted awake, reminded of the way the light used to filter through the bars on those days when the sea was calm, and the stench that hung in the humid air. She struggled from beneath the sheets piled with abandon atop the bed. Ethel liked to be warm these days, now that she could manage it, with a bit of meat on her bones. She remembered looking in the mirror at her mother’s house after waking up from the sleep of the dead. It had been long and dreamless, the best she’d had in years.

“Ugh”, she remarked, wending through tottering piles of books to her closet, which was bulging at the seams with worn jeans, ratty Weird Sisters shirts and all her failed experiments in clothing design. She’d been wearing a particularly gnarled creation last night, and it lay discarded just inside the door, bolted firmly shut with a hex hanging moodily around it. She dug out her most comfortable jeans and a t-shirt that was big on her even before Azkaban. She threw on one of Mrs Weasley’s jumpers and dug around for her purse, locating it pulled halfway into a mouse hole.

Ethel disarmed her door and glanced briefly in the mirror on the way out and found her vocabulary unfit to articulate just how bad her bed-head was. She looked like a cross between Severus Snape and a Hag on steroids, but that was about as good as her hair could manage, so she yanked open the door and stomped into the hall. As usual, the collection of ragged and unwashed misfits who spent their days smoking and staring at each other in the gloomy hall shot her their best glares.

She waggled her wand vaguely at them as she shuffled past, sticking her purse in her pocket. It was freezing outside, in the dark and mouldy depths of Knockturn Alley, where the indecent (in every sense of the word) members of magical society spent their days having intense conversations with walls and attempting to sell fingernails (though they had come in useful once or twice). It had a general air of squalor and abandonment, though the people never left, or otherwise had the good sense to pack up and leave. They hardly ever moved.

Once in Diagon Alley, the air brightened considerably. It was still a week before the new term at Hogwarts would begin, but there were a few families dragging children from shop to shop. She found herself drawn to the Apothecary, with its mouldering jars of frogspawn and pails full of gleaming black beetles. The shopkeeper knew her. Well, everyone in the wizarding world knew her, but this witch smiled as she wandered in, shaking her head drowsily. She moved ponderously over to the rare ingredients display. There was Chimera hair, actual dragon heartstring, burning bright in a magical containment field, and even a crystal phial of Demiguise hair, which is used to spin invisibility cloaks.

“Wow”, Ethel said, her nose inches from the glass.

“Aren’t they”, the witch said, a hint of pride in her voice. Ethel raised her head slowly, trying to hide her surprise that the shopkeeper was talking to her. She wasn’t entirely sure, but she had a feeling that it wasn’t a particularly popular activity, locally. Most people looked right through her or spoke in monosyllables when they were forced to speak to her.

“Oh yes!” Ethel continued, as though nothing especially significant was happening, “But unfortunately I’ve come for far more basic ingredients. I’m experimenting with Ageing potions again”.

The witch nodded enthusiastically, “I was telling my husband last night about your project. There’s a huge market out there for a potion like that!” Ethel had been working on a potion to make people look younger, not just temporarily. In theory, her potion would gradually reduce wrinkles, lesions, livers spots, until they faded entirely, and permanently. She hadn’t, however, known that the apothecary knew about any of it.

“It’s nice to be busy again”, Ethel said, moving away from the rare ingredients and over toward the more commonplace magical plants: gillyweed and bowtruckle trimmings and lemongrass.

“Yes, yes, of course”, the witch said enthusiastically, then she stopped, and there was a silence. Ethel prodded at the ingredients slowly. “I didn’t mean it like…” the witch began, “It’s just, I see you around quite a bit, and you always look so sad, but when you walk in here, caught up in your work, your face just shines”.

Ethel smiled at her, trying to communicate that she was fine. People made assumptions, and the witch was quite correct in any case. Everything Ethel did was just running away. It was all she could do after all this time. “Thanks”, she said quietly, “I didn’t think anyone noticed me like that”. People stared at her all the time, though it was becoming less pronounced, as they forgot, but there were scarce few who actually cared.

She collected the ingredients she needed and paid for them, pretending not to notice that she’d been given a discount. The street was properly bright now, and there was a steady stream of traffic heading towards Gringotts as it opened its doors. She joined the crowds, pulling away as she reached Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour. Florean knew her, and he was another one of the decent people in Diagon Alley. He prepared her morning ice cream without bothering to take her order, and passed it to her with an extra flake. She mouthed a thank you as she passed him her money and he waved his hand, ‘think nothing of it’.

She turned, her mind on a long morning sitting on the roof of her flat, reading a book in that little deck chair, catching the few rays of sunlight that made it onto the freezing terrace, but something stopped her in her tracks. He sat with his leg stretched out in front of him, staring furiously at his raspberry mint ice-cream, but one mechanical eye was fixed on her, and his mouth was turned up into a smile. It was Mad-Eye Moody, her captor and reluctant confidant.

Though her stomach twisted, it didn’t take her long to make up her mind. Sighing, she ducked past a waiter carrying a tray of sundaes to a family exhausted from their early morning shopping, noticing persistent heat on the back of her next as the summer heat set in properly, and sat down opposite him. She licked her ice-cream, regarding him speculatively.

“What brings you here, old enemy?” she asked.

She grunted, massaging his leg aggressively, “Boredom, mostly”, he growled.

Ethel raised her eyebrows, “I didn’t think retirement would suit you, but this isn’t an outing. You don’t go on outings, so what’s wrong? Are they trying to send me back to the Dementors again?”

“No”, he wheezed, “Not yet, anyway, though Lucius is kicking up a fuss, as usual”.

“Well, being an annoying, muggle-hating dick is a full-time occupation”, Ethel shrugged, “What is it then?”

He hesitated, “The Potter boy is going to Hogwarts this year. Dumbledore doesn’t think much of my advice, but precautions must be taken”.

“Oh, Mad-Eye!” Ethel began.

“It’s not a serious threat”, he said gruffly, “But I can’t cover the train myself, not with Dumbledore’s express instructions not to go within 100 metres of Platform 9 ¾ , and he isn’t one to mince his words”.

“I know”, Ethel reminded him. She gave Mad-Eye a pleading look, “What makes you think that people won’t recognise me?”

He shrugged, “Wear a cloak, you’ll be invisible. I can’t walk down the street without making children cry”.

“Why don’t you talk to Nymphadora?”

Mad-Eye scowled, “She told me I was being stupid”.

“Quite correctly”, Ethel added, but she knew she owed it to Mad-Eye to skulk around the Hogwarts Express for half an hour. It wasn’t as though she was busy. “Fine”, she groaned, “But you owe me a Butterbeer, or something stronger”.

He raised a bushy eyebrow, “I owe you more than that”.

“No you don’t”, she insisted. Mad-Eye said nothing. He stared around at the families, a few students were sat around desperately trying to get through their summer homework. Everyone was taking advantage of the sun while it lasted.

“This bloody heat”, Mad-Eye grumbled, shifting in his layers of gear. He looked like a villain out of a steampunk novel. She’d always liked that.

Ethel licked her ice cream, “It’s better than the cold”. Mad-Eye sobered immediately, even more so than was his general state of being, and she regretted saying it immediately, but his thoughts were liable to jump to their colourful history at the slightest reference to her time in Azkaban. “I don’t blame you”, she said seriously.

“I should hope not. If we both blamed me it might be too much to handle”, and he ducked his head in a distinctly uncharacteristic fashion and his eye stared up at her, like a child watching to see what their parents would do upon finding the kitchen flooded, or the radiators drawn upon.

“I know who to blame”, Ethel said darkly.

Mad-Eye reached across the table and took her hand, squeezing it the way he used to, through the bars on Sunday afternoons, “We’ll get him”, he told her, “I may be retired, but I’m not idle”.

Thinking of her ‘mission’, Ethel chuckled, “No, clearly you haven’t managed to get the hang of that”.

“One day”, he promised insincerely, “By the sea, maybe”.

“You hate sand”, Ethel reminded him.

“Oh, with a fury”, he grinned, his scarred face creasing like an old leather boot. Mad-Eye wasn’t so old, but the war had aged him. She’d seen what it had done to Sirius Black, on the few occasions she’d had reason to be led past his cell, with the Dementors looming in the passage outside.

But it softened then, into a mask of tenderness that was so alien it made her tongue pause on its way to slurp the dregs of ice cream from the soggy cone, “You’re a good girl, you know”, he said.

She laughed, “Well don’t go asking the rest of the world”.

“Damn the rest of the world!” he bellowed, loud enough to make their fellow customers stare.

Ethel nodded enthusiastically, “Who needs them?”

“Not me”, said Mad-Eye, glaring at the still-gawking patrons.

Ethel smiled at him. He was, perhaps, the only good person left in her life. She dropped her cone onto the table and it collapsed upon itself, attracting a wasp which had been buzzing lazily about an old witch’s head.

“Nor me”, Ethel said, watching as life moved around her. They didn’t realise how lucky they were, these people, but neither had she. She was far past blaming the world for her mistakes, but all the same she couldn’t help but feel jealous, watching a boy with wild, curly hair bent over his textbook, wearing a blue and white tie over a sky-blue shirt.

He was scrawling equations in a spidery script, predicting the effectiveness of some spell or other. Arithmancy had been fun, back in the day. She sat back and looked up at the gorgeous buildings lining either side of the street, and for the first time in a long time, she felt content. Mad-Eye smiled at her, scratching the intact side of his nose. She was still beautiful, with that raven black hair and those blue eyes.

They sat there for most of the day, talking, arguing, howling with laughter, sometimes sitting in silence, and it was good, for once, and nice, to try and forget.

 

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