Another day had passed, and Harry knew they weren’t any closer to finding the rest of the Horcruxes. What was worse, a sense of despair was beginning to touch everything around them, infusing the old tent with an almost palpable feeling of futility. Ron gazed blandly at the kitchen table in front of him, staring at the empty plate that had held only a few undercooked scraps to begin with. Hermione, on the other hand, was pacing again. She seemed desperate to move, to find answers, but her repetitive steps from bunks to table to door and back again were not only purposeless but becoming annoying, even to herself.
Harry fished about for a topic of conversation, but after months stranded in the wilderness with no one but each other, he couldn’t come up with a single thing that hadn’t been discussed three times over from his Aunt Marge’s bulldogs to Hermione’s parents’ rules for flossing to Ron’s earliest memories of Percy being a prat. Silence was straining them to the breaking point. If they had to discuss the possible locations of the remaining Horcruxes one more time, Harry was sure there was going to be a very nasty fight.
Finally, Ron sighed.
“Hermione,” Ron said, getting her to stop her caged pacing, “tell us a story.”
“What?” she asked, looking at him as though he’d grown an extra head. “You mean you want to hear Beedle again?”
“No, that’s the last thing I want to hear,” Ron said with a shudder. “If I have to listen again to Babbity Rabbity, I think I’ll go mad.”
“Then, what…?” she asked again, deeply confused.
“Didn’t you say that Muggles had other stories they told their kids, like that White Snow and the Six Gnomes and that disease thing?” Ron asked.
Hermione smiled, and Harry realized it was the first time she’d really smiled in weeks.
“It’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the ‘disease thing’ was Cinderella,” she said, sitting down.
“Yeah, that one,” Ron said. “Harry, did you hear those growing up?”
“Not really,” he replied. “The Dursleys sort of censored anything that had magic in it.”
“There’s magic in them?” Ron asked, curious.
“In some of them,” Hermione said. “There are witches in quite a few, but all of them seem to wind up being evil.”
“What about the disease thing?” Ron asked.
“Cinderella,” Hermione repeated, slightly exasperated. “And she’s not a disease. That’s her name.”
“Bloody hell, Hermione, and I thought your name was cruel,” Ron said, laughing. “Who’d go and name their kid that?”
“Well, it wasn’t her real name, originally,” Hermione said. “The way my mum always told it, her name was Ella, but because she always sat in the cinders, everyone called her Cinderella.”
“What’d she want to do that for?” Ron asked.
Harry found himself settling back in his chair and listening with amusement. He could almost pretend they were back in Gryffindor Tower, sitting in front of the fire in the common room and chatting away in that time that seemed so long ago, back when they were just students and the worst thing they had to fear was a surprise test from Snape.
“If you want to hear the story properly, I have to begin at the beginning,” Hermione said, and the tone in her voice suggested she was having a bit of fun as well for once. “Once upon a time…”
“What?” Ron asked.
“What do you mean ‘what’?” Hermione said.
“What’s ‘once upon a time’?” he asked.
Hermione scrunched up her nose at this, then said, “Well, it’s how all Muggle fairy stories begin, really. It’s like saying ‘This happened a long time ago’ but not saying quite when.”
“Then why don’t they just say that?” Ron asked, genuinely bemused.
“Because it’s not as poetic and it’s not how it’s done,” Hermione said firmly. “Anyway, once upon a time, in a kingdom far away there lived a rich nobleman and his little daughter.”
“That’d be Ella,” Ron said helpfully.
“Yes,” Hermione said, giving him a look that was a cross between fond tolerance and impatience.
“Where’s her mum?” Ron asked.
“She died,” Hermione said.
“Of what?” Ron asked.
“It’s not really important. Come to think of it, mothers tend to have a very high mortality rate in most Muggle fairy stories,” Hermione said, her expression going back to the days when she had sat in class and made a connection between two ideas a professor had been discussing. “That’s actually quite interesting, now I think of it.”
“So, anyway, this bloke and his daughter are rich,” Ron said, drawing her back to the story.
“Right,” Hermione said, returning to her role as Scheherazade for the night. “Anyway, the man thought that his daughter should have a mother’s influence, so he married again. The woman he married was very beautiful.”
“Well done, then,” Ron said, grinning widely.
“But she was also cruel and cold-hearted,” Hermione said, annoyed. “Pretty isn’t always as nice on the inside as the outside, you know.”
“Oh,” Ron said, sneaking an ashamed look at Harry. “Not so well done, then.”
“She’d also been married before and had two daughters of her own who were around Ella’s age,” Hermione told him. “But they were both spoiled rotten and very mean.”
“Were they pretty, too?” Ron asked carefully.
“Ehm, no,” Hermione admitted. “They were ugly step-sisters.”
“So sometimes ugly on the outside means ugly on the inside too, then,” Ron said triumphantly.
“It just means, Ronald,” Hermione said testily, “that you can’t tell what someone’s like from the outside! The ugly step-sisters might have been very nice people, you know!”
“Except they weren’t,” he pointed out.
“In this particular case,” she admitted, “no, they weren’t. But just because someone’s got a nose that’s not perfectly centered or-or buck teeth that doesn’t mean it’s a personal moral failing!”
“We get the point, Hermione,” Harry said, fighting back a smile. “From what I remember, fairy tales aren’t always the most… feminist friendly things out there.”
“True,” she said. “Anyway, shortly after the father married the step-mother, he died.”
“Did she kill him?” Ron asked with interest.
“No!” Hermione said immediately, then paused. “You know, now that you mention it, that really does seem sort of suspicious, doesn’t it?”
“Marries him, gets her name on all the money and such, then bumps him off,” Ron said sagely, nodding his head.
Harry stared at the pair of them, Hermione’s brow furrowed in thought and Ron picking in an almost playful manner at the few bits left stuck to his plate. He wondered if the wizarding world would ever guess what their last and best hope was doing tonight.
“At any rate,” Hermione said, getting her train of thought back, “the second the father was dead, the step-mother really showed her character. She made Ella into a servant in her own house, dressing her in rags.”
“So… they turned her into a House-elf?” Ron said, very carefully.
Harry winced. Perhaps getting Hermione going on the subject of house-elves wasn’t the wisest thing to do.
“Actually, when you put it that way, they sort of did,” Hermione agreed. “She had to work from morning to night, ate next to nothing, got no wages, no benefits, no sick days, no rights…”
“Okay, we get the idea, Hermione,” Harry interrupted, stopping her as her voice began to rise in indignation. “She was having a very bad time of it.”
“She was indeed,” Hermione said firmly.
“But she didn’t actually look like a house-elf, right?” Ron said.
“No,” Hermione said. “She was beautiful in spite of her rags. I think the step-mother wanted to make her own daughters look better by comparison.”
“But it backfired,” Ron said.
“Pretty much,” Hermione agreed. “They were still mean, rotten, awful girls.”
“Remind me of female Dudleys,” Harry chimed in.
“You know, your life story does sound a bit like Cinderella’s, actually,” Hermione said thoughtfully.
“Yeah, ‘cept instead of sleeping in the cinders, you had to sleep in a cupboard with the spiders. Say, would that make you Spiderharry?” Ron asked, and the laugh that accompanied it felt good.
“I guess it would at that,” Harry said. “Go on with the story, Hermione.”
“Nothing much happened for several years, and then one day the king of land decided that his son needed to find a wife, so he decided to hold a ball and invite all the unmarried young ladies in the whole country to it so the prince could choose one of them to be his bride.”
Ron stared open-mouthed for a second, then said, “Okay, let me see if I’ve got this straight. He’s going to invite every single girl in the whole kingdom to a ball?”
“Yes,” Hermione said.
“He’s either got a really big ballroom or a really tiny country,” Ron said, wrinkling his nose. “Not only that, but the prince is going to pick a girl on what? How she does the mambo? Now there’s a great sign that they’ll be compatible.”
“I know it’s silly, but I guess it was really like one big beauty contest with the prince as a judge,” Hermione said with a shrug, then paused. “Wizards do the mambo?”
“Nah,” Ron said. “It’s the only Muggle dance I know. Fred and George nicked a copy of some movie a few years ago thinking it was a blue film and rigged up a Muggle VCR back home to watch it while Mum and Dad were out to dinner one night, and I snuck down to watch a bit of it. I don’t think it was what they were expecting, though. Something about not putting a baby in a corner.”
Hermione’s face crinkled as she broke out into a laugh that got louder with each passing moment.
“Are you telling me that your entire understanding of Muggle culture is based on Dirty Dancing?” she got out between giggles.
“Pretty much, yeah,” Ron admitted sheepishly.
Harry couldn’t help feeling this explained a lot, including his rather glaringly overly enthusiastic snogging with Lavender last year.
“Anyway,” Hermione said after she stopped laughing, though her cheeks remained a bright shade of cherry pink, “the invitation to the ball came on the same day the ball was to be held, and the step-mother of course wanted her daughters to go but not Cinderella because she was prettier than either of them. But when Cinderella asked if she could go, the step-mother agreed on the conditions that she finish all her work first, make her own dress, and find her own carriage to get there, all in one day.”
“So, basically, she said no,” Ron said.
“Pretty much, but Cinderella took her at her word, but by the time she finished all the extra work the step-mother gave her to keep her busy, there was no time left to do anything else. The step-mother and step-sisters rode away in their carriage to the ball, but Cinderella sat down to cry in the cinders,” Hermione said.
“Why in the cinders?” Ron asked.
“What?” Hermione said.
“I mean, why didn’t she run out in the garden or go pout in a corner or something? Stupid, that, sitting in the cinders and sobbing,” Ron said.
“It makes the story more pathetic, I suppose,” Hermione said. “Just then, though, who should appear but her fairy godmother.”
“Her what?” Ron said in disbelief.
“Her fairy godmother,” Hermione repeated.
“Who in their right mind would pick a fairy as a godmother? Don’t they know how dangerous those things are?” Ron said. “I mean, really, why not just give her a banshee godmother; they’re about as deadly.”
“Muggles think of fairies differently,” Hermione explained. “They don’t really understand them.”
“Yeah,” Harry chimed in. “They think they sneak into the house in the middle of the night and swap kids’ fallen-out teeth with money.”
“Now there’s a comforting image: one of the fae walking in and stealing body parts. Don’t they know how much trouble giving a magical being a body part can lead to?” Ron said, still flabbergasted. “Everyone knows that!”
“Well, Muggles don’t,” Hermione said. “Besides, the Tooth Fairy is something only children believe in. Mostly Muggles just think of fairies as tiny, cute, pudgy things with wings to put on greeting cards with flowers and bunnies.”
“There really ought to be a public service campaign for them, then,” Ron said pityingly. “So how’d Cinderella’s Muggle mum and dad even know a fairy to make a godmother to begin with?”
“Well, I… I don’t know. They never really explain how she wound up with a fairy as a godmother,” Hermione said, tilting her head to one side in consideration. “It is sort of an odd loose end to leave, isn’t it?”
“No kidding,” Ron agreed. “Hermione, no offense, but this is a really weird story.”
“I’m realizing that myself,” she said. “At any rate, the fairy godmother said that she’d come to help Cinderella go to the ball.”
“Why didn’t she help her before?” Ron asked.
“If you mean why didn’t the fairy godmother show up and stop the step-mother treating Cinderella horribly or taking away her inheritance or being all-around abusive to her, I don’t really know,” Hermione said. “She just… didn’t.”
“Blimey, that’s a slouch of a godmother,” Ron said, glancing over at Harry. “At least Sirius had the excuse that he was in Azkaban for not stepping in.”
Harry had a brief image of Sirius as his fairy godfather, sweeping in to save the day and keep Harry safe from the Dursleys, and the picture brought a wistful smile to his face. It would have been nice had that happened, he thought sadly. Still, a rather silly mental picture of Sirius suddenly having pink, sparkly wings sprang to mind, and he did have to chuckle a little at that, particularly when he imagined what his very cool godfather would have had to say about the costume.
“Well, at least she did do her best though for Cinderella that particular night, and she transformed Cinderella’s drab dress into a beautiful gown, a bunch of mice into horses, a pumpkin into a carriage, and a dog into a footman for her,” Hermione said.
“So, Transfiguration,” Ron said, grinning that there was finally something in this story he could understand. “Hey, for a Muggle story, that’s actually pretty accurate, isn’t it?”
“It is, really,” Hermione agreed. “It makes me wonder if there wasn’t a witch or wizard who wrote at least part of it. Oh, then she gave her the most important thing: a pair of glass slippers.”
“Glass… slippers…,” Ron said slowly. “What the hell was she thinking of?!”
“Oh, come on, it’s not that strange!” Hermione said.
“Yes it is! Seriously, was she trying to kill her or what? Who dances in glass slippers? Wouldn’t they shatter and cut up her feet?”
“Well, I guess the point is that she’d have to be really graceful to dance in them, and Cinderella had no trouble at all,” Hermione said.
“Lethal footwear, of all things,” Ron said, shaking his head. “Muggles are mental, I’m telling ya.”
“The fairy godmother told Cinderella that she had to be home before the last stroke of midnight because that’s when the enchantment would end, and Cinderella took off for the ball,” Hermione went on, leaving the problem of the glass slippers behind.
“Midnight? Bit of an early curfew for her, wasn’t it?” Ron threw in.
“Oh, I suppose so,” Hermione said in frustration.
Harry couldn’t help grinning as his two friends continuously bickered about something as pointless as an old fairy story. It was refreshing not to be the one directing things or making plans, pleasant not to be arguing about life and death matters but just shoes.
“Cinderella arrived at the ball, and the prince immediately stopped dancing with all the other girls and fell head over heels in love with her at first sight, and she did with him as well, and they danced and danced until Cinderella completely forgot to check what time it was,” Hermione said, and Harry noticed a bit of a romantic sigh in her voice, though he was sure she’d never admit to it.
“What about the step-mother and step-sisters? Didn’t they have a fit when they saw her?” Ron asked.
“No,” Hermione said. “They didn’t recognize her.”
Ron squinted at her.
“You’re telling me that they couldn’t tell who she was just because of a dress?” Ron said.
“She was usually pretty dirty too from the cinders too, I’d guess,” Hermione said.
“Yeah, but how dirty was she?” Ron said, raising his eyebrows. “I mean, come on, a pretty dress and washing a girl’s face can’t make that big a difference, can it?”
“I don’t know,” Harry said, gauging Ron’s reaction carefully. “You seemed pretty unsure whether that was Hermione on Viktor Krum’s arm at the Yule Ball for a minute.”
Ron blushed brightly, clashing horribly with his hair, and muttered, “I knew it was you, just… didn’t want it to be was all.”
Hermione waited a moment, a blush staining her cheeks as well, before continuing as though nothing had happened.
“Finally, the castle clock began to strike midnight, and Cinderella, shocked that so much time had passed, ran down the front steps, the prince following close behind her because he hadn’t learned her name,” Hermione said.
“For Merlin’s sake, what were they doing all that time that they didn’t get a chance to exchange names,” Ron said, then the blush returned. “That didn’t come out quite right.”
“Ahem,” Hermione said delicately. “This is a children’s story, Ron. We can assume they were dancing.”
“From what I remember of that film, that’s pretty close to what I was thinking of anyway,” Ron mumbled, and Harry laughed again.
“As she was running down the steps, Cinderella tripped, and one of her glass slippers came off,” Hermione said.
“And it shattered, right?” Ron said.
“No. The prince picked it up, and by the time he looked up, the last stroke of midnight had tolled and his princess was nowhere to be seen, only a scullery maid who was in rags and running off into the night.”
“Who he of course didn’t recognize as his one true love,” Ron said, making the last three words into the most melodramatic sigh he could muster. “Right?”
“Yes, right,” Hermione agreed. “Cinderella had only one tangible memory of that night.”
“A collection of hickeys?” Ron asked teasingly.
“No,” Hermione replied coldly. “The other slipper remained behind, and she kept it as a memento, sleeping with it under her pillow.”
“Weird,” Ron said, shaking his head. “Leaving aside the shoe breaking into a million razor sharp pieces in the middle of night, that’d have to be pretty lumpy.”
“The next day, the step-mother and step-daughters talked at breakfast about the mysterious, beautiful princess who had won the prince’s heart and wondered who she could be while Cinderella waited on them,” Hermione said.
“A bright lot, obviously,” Ron said.
“Meanwhile, the prince decided to search the land for the girl so he could marry her,” Hermione went on.
“That was pretty fast,” Ron said, grimacing. “Shouldn’t they find out a bit about each other before they get married, like, say, their first names?”
“I tend to agree with you,” Hermione said, “but it’s a fairy tale. Go with it. Since the only clue to the girl’s identity was her shoe, the prince sent his footman throughout the kingdom with it, and he decreed that any girl whose foot fit the slipper would be his bride.”
“You’re joking,” Ron said, staring at her slack-jawed. “He’s picking his wife from her shoe size?”
“Apparently she had really tiny feet,” Hermione said, shrugging again.
“I don’t care how tiny her feet are, there’s got to be a lot of people in the kingdom with the same size feet! And ever if they’re really, really tiny, couldn’t he end up marry a ten-year-old or something? And what’s he doing sending his footman out! Why isn’t he looking! I mean, doesn’t he think he’d recognize her?” Ron said indignantly. “I think I preferred it when I thought Cinderella was a disease. Still might be: some form of shoe-induced madness.”
“No one ever recognizes anyone in this story,” Hermione said, her voice rising slightly. “It’s just part of the narrative! Pretend they’re all really near-sighted or something!”
Harry burst out laughing again, and the other two joined in sheepishly.
“Eventually, the prince’s footman arrived at the home of the step-mother, but she got wise pretty fast and locked Cinderella in an upstairs room,” Hermione said.
“Now, there’s one person with a brain! She marries rich, knocks off her husband, and figures out what’s going on. Well done, evil step-mum!” Ron said, enjoying himself immensely.
“She wasn’t so wonderful next, though. You see, she knew both of her daughters had simply enormous feet, so she went to the first step-daughter and whacked off her toes with a knife,” Hermione said, her face screwing up in disgust. “That way, the shoe would fit.”
Ron blinked slowly.
“This is a kids’ story?” Ron said, grimacing.
“Yes,” Hermione said simply. “When the footman said the shoe fit, everyone was thrilled, but in the carriage on the way back to the castle, the step-daughter’s feet began bleeding, and everyone realized what had really happened, and they took her back to her step-mother.”
“And arrested the step-mother for mutilation and child abuse, I do hope,” Ron said.
“Well, no,” Hermione said. “They just had the next step-daughter try on the shoe.”
“Kingdom full of crazy people,” Ron said, shaking his head. “I suppose she hacked this one’s toes off as well?”
“No. She figured they’d catch on if she did it again.”
“Oh, well, bully for her,” Ron said sarcastically. “Obviously the brains in the family.”
“Instead she cut off the younger step-daughter’s heel,” Hermione said.
“How…?” Ron began, then made a despairing gesture with his hands. “Never mind. I was going to ask how she was going to walk without a heel, but at this point, I officially give up on trying to have this story make any sense at all.”
“You’ll probably be happier that way,” Hermione agreed. “So once again everyone said they’d found the Prince’s true love—“
“—because no one bothered to check for any other foot mutilations,” Ron provided.
“—and again her feet started bleeding in the carriage, and again they drove her straight back home,” Hermione continued as though he hadn’t spoken. “Meanwhile, Cinderella had broken out of the upstairs room.”
“And just how did she do that?” Ron asked.
“The mice let her out. She’d always been nice to them, so they unlocked the door,” Hermione explained.
“Mice,” Ron said. “Right. Oh, or were they horse-mice?”
“I think they were the same mice who’d been the carriage horses, yes” Hermione said.
“Lovely,” Ron said. “So she was freed by mice who sometimes whinnied. Then what, she raced downstairs, tried on the now very bloody glass slipper and squelched her way down the aisle, eh?”
“Actually no, and I’d never realized before just how disgusting an image that makes,” Hermione said with a shudder. “The step-mother tripped the footman and the shoe shattered.”
“Finally! That shoe could have withstood one of Neville’s Potions explosions, but the step-mum actually managed to break it. Good on old Toe Chopper,” Ron said.
“But Cinderella still had her glass slipper, and she showed it to the footman, who tried put it on her foot, and it fit,” Hermione said.
“Well, why wouldn’t it fit? It was her slipper, after all. She could’ve gone out and had it made to fit when she heard the prince’s stupid plan,” Ron said reasonably.
“Yes, I suppose she could have,” Hermione said through gritted teeth, “but she didn’t, and that’s the way the story goes!”
“If you ask me, the footman just didn’t want to get in trouble with the prince for breaking the poxy glass slipper and took an easy way out,” Ron said.
“Believe what you like. No sooner was the slipper back on her foot than Cinderella’s fairy godmother appeared again—“
“Because she couldn’t possibly have shown up any earlier to let Cinderella out without the aid of plague-infested mice or stop the step-mother and her foot alterations or maybe just give her a ten minute extension on her curfew—“
“—and Cinderella reappeared in her gown again.”
“And of course everybody was confused and confounded and wondered what had happened to Cinderella because it couldn’t possibly be the same girl with a different dress on, now could it,” Ron said.
“Then she rode off to the castle—“
“The footman checking for bleeding appendages along the way, no doubt,” Ron said in a loud aside to Harry.
“—and married the prince, and they lived happily ever after,” Hermione finished.
“So what happened to the step-mum and step-sisters?” Ron asked.
“Oh, um, a flock of birds swooped down and pecked their eyes out, I think,” Hermione said.
“One girl had no toes on one foot and no eyes, the other had no heel and no eyes, and the step-mother wanders around blind,” Ron said seriously. “Pretty. What about the mice?”
“They were mice, Ron,” Hermione said. “They just… ran about and squeaked, I suppose.”
Ron sat back on his chair and stared at the ceiling for a long several minutes, his mouth drawn up in frown.
“You know what I think?” Ron said.
“Yes,” Hermione said. “You think it’s silly.”
“No,” Ron said. “I think it’d make a brilliant horror story to frighten first-years with. Fred and George would love it. Got any more like that?”
Hermione chuckled quietly, and Harry began to gather up the dishes. The Horcrux still lay around a bedpost, glowing dimly in the evening light, but its pull seemed much diminished in the aftermath of the first normal conversation they’d had in weeks, if discussing the oddities of Cinderella could really be considered normal. Harry looked over his shoulder at his two friends, realizing not for the first time that they made a perfectly suited pair. He thought of Ginny for the thousandth time it seemed, wondering what she’d have to say about all this. Perhaps someday, months or years from now, he’d have the chance to tell her about it.