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There was a tradition in their house. Every year, when the summer's arrival was signaled by the wash of browning grassy patches spotting across the front lawn and the aromatic smell of burning meat on hot coals, Neville's grandmother would don her pink hair curlers, prop her blue veined feet up on the kitchen table and demand her pickled lettuce. They never had any in the house, of course. Her shouts would rouse Neville from his tangle of sweat soaked sheets and once he managed to stumble blurry-eyed into the garishly wallpapered room, she'd shove a handful of money into his hands, ordering him to get her some.
She said the same words every time. Go buy my pickled lettuce, boy, and make sure it hasn't rotted. Browning edges means the pickling has gone sour, y'hear? A whole jar, beeswax sealed and 5-pounds heavy, cost no more than ten knuts.
She usually gave him several galleons. Neville grinned happily to himself despite the stifling heat, glass jar tucked safely under his arm. Yellow brine and floating green bits sloshed around at each bounding step he took. He only needed to drop it off and then he would have the rest of the day to himself.
He breathed in deeply. He could smell sweat, smoke and frying dough, its sugary scent mixing with a multitude of other faint smells wafting towards him from a distance. Neville jogged the last few steps to the house and yanked the door open with a single jerky movement, impatient to be on his way.
The Faire had come to town.
Neville swerved to the side just in time to avoid crashing into a man carrying a tray laden with steaming sausage links. By the late afternoon, the crowd had swelled, sending him onto the edges of the trampled dirt path to avoid being stepped on. A sticky bun clutched protectively against his chest, Neville elbowed his way from one sweaty huddle to another, fighting for the chance to see at least some of what was being offered at various booths. Despite being more strenuous and potentially painful, it was still preferable to hopping up and down for a glimpse of nothing more than the backs of people's heads.
He swung his head as he heard a small yelp nearby. He rather thought that he might have treaded on the toes of a fellow Hogwarts student, but as it was not someone whose name he knew -- and he wasn't even sure if he had stepped on him -- Neville didn't do more than mutter a quick apology as he was swept away in whatever direction the heaving mass of bodies shoved him. After much wiggling, surreptitious ankle kicking, and a near eye poking by a passing wand, Neville was incredibly relieved when he was spat out in front of a long red tent.The large sign, ornately painted in glittery color-changing paint, proudly declared it to be "Destiny's Shoppe of Necessary".
Despite the hive-like quality the swarming mass of Faire goers exhibited in their pushing and shoving as they jostled for any available fingers-length of maneuvering space, there was a meter’s square of empty, almost untouched grass in front of the invitingly open flap. Perhaps it could have been a sort of modified repulsion charm, but that didn't explain why Neville was standing there, nervously fingering a partially squashed sticky bun.
Or why he was the only one standing there.
A small prickle of alarm tiptoed down his back. Everything seemed perfectly harmless save for this one minor, if rather ominous, detail which triggered his internal safety meter -- a meter that was well honed from sharing living space with some of the most trouble magnetic boys at Hogwarts.
Neville tossed a look behind him. Surely someone from that out of all those people would notice if something evil was afoot. He quickly shoved aside the niggling thought that perhaps he was the one that was supposed to notice and raise the alarm.
No. It was perfectly harmless, and he was going to break out with a nice show of Gryffindor will, and he was going to walk into the strange tent, perhaps even going so far as to buy something from whatever mysterious wares they were selling. Unless, of course, it did actually turn out to be a left over Death Eater revenge-type trap, in which case, he would run screaming for the hills.
Buoyed by a temporary burst of vigor inspired by twelve sticky buns and four sweetmeats-on-a-sticks, Neville brushed by the garishly shimmering sign and marched right on in.
No more than three paces into the tent, Neville found himself accosted by a pair of breasts. Backpedaling rapidly, Neville soon realized the breasts were attached to a young woman. Though, he thought, blinking rapidly, it certainly wasn't any sort of woman his grandmother would approve.
"Hello!" she trilled, waggling her jewel encrusted fingers at him.
Neville nodded back dumbly. While she was not someone who could be placed on the same level of -- say -- Fleur Delacour, she certainly made a strong impact on the senses. She wore an array of brightly colored scarves and wide, sweeping skirts held up underneath by mountainous layers of lace. And baubles. Many, many shining baubles of gold and silver dangly bits and semi-precious stones. Her embroidered, crimson bodice was laced so tightly that Neville had to wonder how she was able to breathe, but perhaps that was the effect she hoped to achieve. With each breath she managed to force, her more interesting parts quivered and shook, threatening the sort of eruption Neville's sixteen-year old mind couldn't help but wistfully hope for and hormonally approve.
In an expansive gesture eerily reminiscent of Gilderoy Lockhart, she tossed her riotous mass of blond curls over her bare shoulders and spread her arms out wide. "Welcome, Neville Longbottom, to your Destiny!" she exclaimed breathily.
Neville's mind helpfully pointed out a second Ominous Minor Detail: She knew his name and he hadn't said a thing.
Neville took a wary step back.
It was then that Neville noticed there were others in the tent with them. To the left, seated in a rickety rocking chair, was a shriveled prune of a woman who glared at him with rheumy eyes. Her thinning white hair was tied back messily with a bit of black ribbon.
"Oh, do let her have her fun. It isn't often she has the chance to play a bit."
Neville swung around and to the right, behind a table of raggedy stuffed crups, stood a plain, plump woman whose kind expression strongly reminded him of those matronly figures one could often find adorning the label on boxes of dish soap. The buxom woman standing before him sniffed haughtily as she tugged at her bodice, sending her flesh into another set of ripples.
"Well, Neville," she said, "I am Lady Fortuna--" She glared at the old woman who snorted."--And I will be your, shall I say, guide today."
"G-guide?" Neville short a look around the tent at the various overflowing tables around him and, to his relief, a few other wizards were picking their way through on the far end. "Guide for what?"
A clinging waft of spicy perfume wrapped around him as she slid near enough to place one finely manicured hand on his shoulder. "Why, to find what you most need to fulfill your destiny!" She spoke with studied flair. "That is why this is called Destiny's Shoppe of Necessary. I made-up the name." She winked.
Feeling something vaguely like intimidation, Neville leaned away as much as he could without being insulting. The hairs on the back of his neck rose forebodingly.
"Oh, Fortuna, you've just plain confused him," the matronly woman clucked disapprovingly. She had moved from behind her table and beamed a gentle, reassuring smile at him. "There is absolutely nothing to fear. And it costs so very little. Almost a formality, really. Once the choice is made, you will be free to go."
A silence fell, broken only by the creaking of the rocking chair and a faint tinkling of metal on metal as Fortuna brushed at her hair with an irritated flick of the wrist. Her bangles slid up and down her arm with each small movement.
Neville hadn’t remembered asking about money, but now that she mentioned it-- he wet his lips with his tongue and asked, "Cost? I don't have much money left, and--"
"Oh, none of that dear." The matron laughed, shaking her head. "You just go and have a look at the tables. We can't name a price if we don't know what you need." She gently gripped his shoulders and nudged him towards the nearest table. "Just pick what you want."
Thinking that what he really wanted was to get out of there as soon as possible, Neville blindly reached out for the first object at hand. Almost as if she could read his mind, the old woman in the rocking chair rasped out harshly, "It's not so easy boy. Unless you're sure you're destined to be a woman?"
He realized that he was moments away from latching onto a black, lacy brassiere. Neville gulped and shook his head, pulling his sweating hand back. "No? I-I'm sorry, I'm not sure I understand"
"Hmph. That much is obvious."
"Hildar!" the matronly woman said sharply. Neville decided that he liked her better than the other two. She turned to him. "Neville, the process is much like picking a wand. What is it that dear Mr. Ollivander says about that?"
"That... that it's not the person who chooses the wand--"
"It's the wand who chooses the person." finished Fortuna. She brushed at an invisible bit of dirt on her skirt. "Come with me, Neville. We’ll just have a look-around and you’ll know when you find what it is you need." She clamped a surprisingly strong hand onto his elbow and hauled him forwards.
Gulping, he shot one last look over his shoulder at the matron who made small encouraging gestures in his direction. With Fortuna pulling him, he stumbled along with a definite sense of unease; he half expected a clock to open up and suck him into some black vortex, or for one of the ragged looking stuffed bears to leap up and try to bite off his nose. (Thanks to Malfoy's constant inventiveness, it wouldn't be the first time.) When no such thing happened, Neville allowed himself to relax a little, taking a more active interest in the things littering the tent. Nearly everything was worn down or -- while not necessarily broken -- looked somehow used. A dog-eared book here, a rusty tea kettle there. A mid-sized cuckoo clock without the cuckoo. A cracked chair leg. He was sure it probably meant something, but it was the sort of thing that someone like Hermione would be able to figure out, most likely with enjoyment. For Neville, it only confused him further.
He paused in his inspection of a cracked mirror when Fortuna suddenly came up behind him and held something up against his back.
"Here, turn around."
When he did so, Neville saw that Fortuna was holding an extremely bright, and rather flashy looking jacket that had at one point been covered in sequins and beads (half had fallen off).
"Well? Any light-headedness? Feeling like you’ve been hit by lightening?" Neville shook his head and peered down at the jacket.
"What is it?"
"This? Oh, young muggle men wear them in Spain when they chase mad bulls around in a stadium." At the vaguely horrified expression on Neville’s face, she tossed it back onto the table behind her and wiggled her way to another one. A few moments later she held up a pair of scuffed, thigh-high boots with extremely tall heels. "These?"
"No," he said with assurance. She shrugged, dropped them, and began pawing her way through a pile of worn trousers.
It was in this way that they continued to meander through the lines of tables, with Fortuna occasionally holding up an object and Neville fervently rejecting it. As time passed at a crawl and each new item was brandished under his nose, Neville kept waiting, hoping for a giveaway flare of light, or perhaps a tinkle of bells, or even a chorus of heavenly voices. He was beginning to feel as if he would never find whatever it was the women said he needed and that he would be trapped in their tent indefinitely. In his growing frustration, and hunger, -- he was eating quite a lot since he started growing -- he tripped on his own left foot and knocked into the corner of the table, sending a bent fire poker, a pile of carry-cases and a box of warped silverware to the ground with an embarrassingly loud crash.
He immediately yelped out apologies and dropped to his hands and knees, fingers scrabbling at fallen items, hoping he hadn't damaged them any more than they had already been.
It was then that he saw it. Bundled up under the table, wedged between a wooden leg and one of the fallen carry cases, was a bit of brightly colored cloth. He thought it was a particularly interesting tea towel at first, the colors and garishly floral pattern reminding him of the kitchen wallpaper his grandmother refused to change, but when he pulled it free, he was relieved to discover that it was wrapped around something more substantial. He wouldn't have liked to discover that his destiny meant he was to become a house elf!
He hesitated a moment, then glanced around. Fortuna was wrestling with a large wheeled hook thing that had snarled on her hair, while the two other women were standing near the entrance, waving to a wizard he had seen rustling around one of the other tables. He stuffed his almost forgotten sticky bun into his front shirt pocket and wiped his hand on his pant leg before he cautiously peeled back the fraying cloth. In his hand, he held one of the most finely detailed and crafted dolls he had ever seen. He tilted it this way and that under the glow of one of the wizard lights floating nearby, running a finger over familiar sharp features and lank hair. Even the pasty, yellowed tones of the velvety material used to create its eerily true-to-life skin were identical to the somewhat unhealthy paleness in his memory. The doll was a perfect reproduction of the one man he feared almost as much as, and in some ways more than, Voldemort -- Severus Snape, Potions Master of Hogwarts.
Why anyone of obviously high skill would want to spend time creating something in the man's likeness was beyond him. He ran his finger through its hair, noting how he couldn't find where it was sewn on. He didn't think it was one of those hexing dolls. It was the only purpose he could conceive of for creating such a likeness -- but to stick it full of pins and set it on fire would be a terrible waste of craftsmanship. Unless that was the sort of thing those spells required. He frowned. Neville really didn't know much about Dark magics, but from the few misshapen looking figures in his textbook, there didn't seem to be any relation between those and this. He wiggled the doll around, testing the bend on its arms and legs. The articulation in the hidden joints was incredible. They moved exactly like the real thing.
The only imperfection was the smear of blue paint that ran along the side of the doll's face, down its jaw line and under its collar. He tried scraping at it with his fingernail when he suddenly frowned. He could have sworn... Yes. There it was again. He nearly dropped the doll as he felt it unmistakably shift in his hand. Almost as if it had moved. Without him moving it.
Then the doll opened its eyes.
An all too familiar glare.
And within them, was a depth that was close enough to alive that this time, Neville did drop it and unashamedly leapt back, shrieking long and hard like a girl. He scrabbled backwards onto another table, uncaring of how many objects he knocked over and broke as long as he could put distance between himself and that... that... thing.
The three women rushed towards him, the old woman frog-leaping an overturned cauldron with a surprising amount of athleticism.
"I-I-I..." He tried again. "It..." Nothing came out of his frantically flapping mouth so he settled for second best and pointed energetically at the floor, hoping that it was still lying there and it hadn't gotten up and followed him when he leaped for safety.
Frowning in confusion, the three women looked down at their feet. The matron broke out in a wide smile and bent down and scooped it up. Neville gained enough control over his tongue to yelp a muddled warning. Ignorant of her life threatening danger, she smiled benignly. "I see you've found your match."
"I... d-did?" Neville stuttered.Then froze. "No! Wait! That?" He gestured wildly at her hand.
She nodded and handed it to him. It took all his strength to not scream and throw it back at her. The old woman cackled.
"An interesting match, boy. And much better choice than before. You'd have made a hideous woman."
"But...but I don't have anything to pay with! I can't take this!" Neville said in desperation, fishing for an excuse to just drop the doll and leave.
The old woman grinned toothlessly at him and said uncooperatively, "I like sticky buns."
Neville turned a blank stare at her. She bobbed her head in what he assumed was a cheerful manner and, before he knew it, gnarled fingers were pulling a lint covered sticky bun from his pocket.
"Hildar has a bit of a sweet tooth. Even though she has no teeth," Fortuna said, stretching her toned arms over her head, thus thrusting her bosom out aggressively. Neville was in no state to appreciate.
"But..." he began.
"We said that you could go after you found your item."
"Contrary to some very, very vicious rumors, we do keep our promises."
"Have a good time with your new toy, boy-o!"
Before he could utter another protest, Neville found himself hustled off the table and out the open flap into the still crowded Faire grounds. When he regained his footing, he saw with a start that the sun was already beginning to set, the dimming light washing everything with a gentle orange glow. He hadn't realized he had been inside the tent for so long.
When he looked behind, over his shoulder, he wasn't surprised to find "Destiny's Shoppe of Necessary" vanished, a broken down wheelbarrow with an artful display of wildflowers taking its place.
--to be continued