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Periphery by my_voice_rising

Format: Novel
Chapters: 25
Word Count: 91,658
Status: WIP

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Contains profanity, Strong violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Drama, Romance, AU
Characters: Lupin, James, Lily, Sirius, Pettigrew, OC
Pairings:

First Published: 06/23/2016
Last Chapter: 01/09/2020
Last Updated: 01/09/2020

Summary:


(c) golden.

 

Chloe is content with her quiet life amid her Muggle parents' fear of magic.  But after suffering a brutal attack at the hands of would-be Death Eaters, Chloe is thrust into a world both exhilarating and terrifying.  Marlene McKinnon and her friends, the Marauders, are rule-breakers.  They leave laughter and chaos in their wake.  They are everything that Chloe thought she never wanted, least of all Sirius Black: cavalier, reckless and so strangely alluring.  As the years pass, Chloe's infatuation with Marlene and Sirius forces her to question where her loyalties lie in the shadow of a rising war.

 

Golden Chalice Awards - Best Drama, Best Original Character



Chapter 1: Introduction
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“I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.” ― Sylvia Plath

 

Prologue

 

1981

 

The kitchen window was left open last night.  Mum, in another of her sleepless ambles.  Shivering, I pulled the windows in and tightened the latch; there was a dusting of snow on the sill and I pressed my fingers into it absently.  Through the glass and crisscrossed iron, I could see the far-away river, already frozen along its banks.  Past that, in the village, the church steeple punctured the bellies of fat granite clouds.  Only several people were braving the cold.  From here they were small black dots like crows.

 

I glanced at my watch.  It was eight o’clock and Mum and Dad would be up soon.  With bare feet padding over the chilly stone, I set to making their breakfast.  A quiet prayer that she remembered things today escaped me.  It was easier when she remembered; it made Dad happier.

 

“Incendio.” 

 

The ancient gas stove burst to life.  With the teakettle brewing I heated Mum’s cast iron skillet.  Their hens’ eggs were scattered in odd places around the refrigerator, not where they should be.  I at last found the butter in with the silverware.  My jaw tightened; it wasn’t a good sign. 

 

While the pan grew hot my eyes traveled back out the window.  It would snow again today, surely.  Maybe I would Apparate to Godric’s Hollow, rather than deal with the late trains.

 

My fingers gripped the counter.  I hadn’t been back to the village since Lily and James’s murders.  Dozens of vials, full of priceless herbs and tonics, remained there from her pregnancy.  I couldn’t bring myself to reclaim them, but now I had no choice: my supply for my mother’s memory elixir was running low.

 

I cracked an egg in the pan, but the iron had grown too hot over the flame.  The whites seared with a horrible sound like molten flesh and I saw it, the scene I’d imagined over and over for weeks: James’s glasses cracked on the floor, Lily’s hair twisted around her face, almost suffocating her, their bodies hard and pale. 

 

And Harry.  Poor baby Harry…

 

I threw the pan in the sink and opened the window again to release the smell.  With the cold air rushing over my feverish skin I stared at my shaking hands.  Through the gaps in my fingers, I saw that an egg was splattered onto the floor.

 

“Chloe?”

 

“Mum.”  I jumped.  “Sorry, did I wake you?” 

 

She hugged a wooly cardigan tightly around her nightgown.  “It’s freezing, darling.  Did you forget to turn on the heat?”

 

I flushed because in truth I had only thought to perform a Heating Charm for myself.  Old habits die hard.  Before I could answer she said, “You’ve gone all pink.  Sit down and let me finish.”

 

“All right.”  Normally I would have protested, but it meant she was feeling herself today. 

 

“Your father is still lazing in bed, that man.  But I’m sure as soon as he smells bacon…”

 

Reaching past me, she latched the window once more while I poured the tea.  We stepped around one another with the familiarity of having spent decades in the same kitchen together, doing just this. 

 

Before she could set out three pieces of toast I said, “Just enough for you and Dad.  I’ve been called into the cafe.”

 

It took less than five minutes to tell the first lie.

 

Mum gave me the familiar glance-over and managed to control her insistence that I eat more.  In truth I hadn’t been eating, but I couldn’t even begin to explain why. 

 

“Leaving so soon?”  Her disappointment was audible.

 

I pulled the sleeves of my jumper over my knuckles, clutching tightly.  “Someone called out sick from the café.”
 

Two lies.

 

“But I can come and visit you over the weekend,” I added upon her silent nod.  “Dad said the fence needs rebuilding.  It’d be better to finish before the next big snow.”

 

“Chloe, I hardly think you’re the man for the job,” she tutted, waving her spatula at my stature.

 

“Well, Mum, I do have one advantage…”  At her silence I continued gently, “Only a few levitating spells, I promise.  It wouldn’t take five minutes and it would save Dad a lot of back pain, and you wouldn’t have to hire one of the neighbors.”

 

“We’ll see.” 

 

The room was silent other than the crackling of eggs and bacon.  The smell would normally send my stomach rumbling, but I could barely manage to swallow my tea these days.  I tried another sip, but it tasted like iron.

 

She would barely meet my eyes.  “Speaking of that… One of your owls came by very late last night.  I didn’t want to wake you.”

 

“Oh.”  I tried to even my voice, but my throat was already filling with bile.  The Order of the Phoenix knew not to send owls to the farmhouse.

 

I swallowed thickly.  “Where is it?”

 

“On the little table near the sofa.  I didn’t read it, you know.”

 

Despite the feeling of a frightened bird trapped in my chest, I stood behind her and squeezed her arms.  “I know you didn’t, Mum.”  I pressed my trembling lips to her grey hair.

 

The doorway to the darkened den was a gaping mouth ready to swallow me whole.  The curtains were drawn as usual and I fought the urge to use a Lumos spell.  I flicked on the lamp and spotted a parchment envelope on the stack of unopened post.  It was out of place amid grocery store coupons and unmoving photos, and only bore a plain seal.  Quickly I tore it open.

 

It was Sirius’s handwriting; I would recognize the scrawl anywhere.  I swallowed the knot in my throat.  Now wasn’t the time for such things.  The letter contained only two sentences.

 

Marlene is dead.

Come here as soon as you read this.

 

It wasn’t how it was with the news of Lily and James.  The room wasn’t spinning; I didn’t have to run and be sick in the bin.  It felt like the walls were expanding around me, or like I was growing smaller.  The silence was becoming a sound itself, a kind of pressure in my eardrums.

 

Dead.

 

Marlene McKinnon, my best friend, was dead.  More than likely murdered by Voldemort’s fanatics.  And we hadn’t been speaking for months.

 

“Anything important?”

 

My Mum peered into the dimness as if afraid to come in.  She might as well have been staring into the portal to another world: mine.  No matter what I told her, she could never possibly understand the contents of the letter.  And she wouldn’t want to.

 

“Just an old friend.”  My voice was surprisingly strong.

 

The third lie—almost.

 

“I’ve got to catch the bus.  The café will be opening soon, and Penny doesn’t know how to use the register properly.  We really have to train her better.”  I was speaking faster and faster, trying to remember where I’d left my bloody coat and suitcase and wishing I could just use a Summoning Spell.  My Mum watched, unconvinced and unwilling to ask more.

 

With my wool coat and scarf thrown on haphazardly, I pressed another kiss to her cheek.  “Tell Dad that I’m sorry I missed him, and that I’ll be back on Friday.  Call you tomorrow!”

 

Her uneasily murmured “Alright, dear,” barely reached my ears before I was out the door.  The cold stung my face, my heaving breath billowing before me.  I pulled my body from the steadfastness of the door, forcing myself not to run—I knew she was watching from behind the curtains.

 

My heart was thrumming; as soon as I passed the curve in our long dirt drive, I collapsed into the snow.  The sheep watched me with their black watery eyes, uninterested, and in my wildness, I envied them.  I couldn’t breathe. 

 

My lungs had collapsed and wouldn’t open again; the sobs were too heavy, and only when I thought I would faint did the first breath come sweeping into the vacuum of my lungs.  With my cheek pressed into the snow I cried and thought of Marlene, and the last time I saw her: the way her white-blonde hair whipped through space as she Apparated, with a thunderous CRACK! away from Sirius’s Cruciatus Curse.

 

 


 

Author's Note: Hello, and welcome!

I struggled a lot with the concept of this story, and whether or not to pursue a canonical retelling of the Marauders' time from Hogwarts til their death. But I decided that this has been done often
and welland that I wanted to explore the idea of cause-and-effect, and how something as insignificant as forgetting a book in a classroom, or a train being late, could change history. So a lot of this fic will be AU. The first instance is here in the introduction: Marlene dies after Lily and James.

Please let me know what you think! An AU fic is a new concept for me; typically I write timelines or areas of JKR's world that haven't yet been explored.

Also I do not own the Sylvia Plath quotations.

 

 

 

 

 



Chapter 2: Chapter One
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TW: This chapter contains fairly graphic depictions of violence and might be uncomfortable for some readers. Gorgeous chapter image, featuring Emily and Michael, by foggy at TDA.

 

 


 

“I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.”
― Sylvia Plath




 
PART ONE
 
1977

 


“See? He’s staring at me again, I told you.” Emily, my elder cousin, was flushed pink as she leaned across the Hufflepuff table. “Look!”

Over the rim of my brass goblet I had a clear view of Michael Flint, the most recent object of Emily’s affection. He was indeed staring at the back of her head from his place amidst the other Slytherins.

I took a drink of pumpkin juice. Michael Flint was rumored to be in the Black Adder Society, a secret club for Hogwarts elite. Personally I found the name a bit far-fetched—how dangerous could a group of seventeen year-old socialites be? As far as everyone knew, all they did was sit in their nice robes and grumble about the number of Muggleborn students admitted each year.

Emily was waiting for congratulations, so I settled with, “Bit sudden, isn’t it? You two have barely spoken over the last seven years.”

“Not true! He asked to borrow my quill last week, but I saw one in his backpack. He just wanted an excuse to talk to me.” She giggled behind her hand, a trademark gesture born from a mother who didn’t like toothy girls. Emily did have large teeth, but telling that to a twelve year-old was one of my aunt’s less kind moments.

“Well, good for you.”

“I reckon those wonder bras are working after all,” she added. Another of Annabeth Brighton’s habits: owling her teenage daughter figure-shaping lingerie. Even I had received some over the years, but I was as flat-chested as a boy. If my Mum, her sister, even imagined that I saw my body as anything other than something to remain covered, she would have estranged Annabeth.

“I reckon,” I said, my gaze already sliding to my Herbology textbook on the table. It appeared to be full of confetti, I had bookmarked so many pages.

I opened my mouth to explain that Professor Sprout would be expecting me in the greenhouses, but just then a parchment, folded into a bird shape, came soaring over us and landed on Emily’s plate.

She gasped and I blinked. Gingerly extracting the note from a pool of gravy, she held it up to the light as if it were a relic form Tutankhamen’s tomb. “It’s from him,” she said very seriously.

This time I blatantly stared at Michael Flint. He certainly was one of the more handsome Seventh-Years, and his smirk wasn’t helping matters. Our eyes met and the heat rose to my throat. Blinking furiously I looked down at the table. “What does it say?”

“Oh my god.” Her hand was to her chest. “There’s a party tonight. He’s invited me—but of course you’ll come.”

“Sorry, what?” But she only read the note over and over. “You know I have my apprenticeship on Fridays. I should already be at the greenhouses—”

Her hand shot across the table, clenching mine fiercely. “Chloe, please. Tell Sprout that you’re ill. Come with me tonight and I promise, I will never ask you for anything ever again.”

“I dunno.” I again glanced at my textbook. Tonight we were supposed to plant the Fanged Geranium bulbs that the rest of our class would tend during the semester. Being able to examine the plants’ behavior from the beginning would give me a leg up on my coursework…

Emily squared her shoulders indignantly, her face changing to haughtiness as she sniffed, “Fine. I’ll go by myself. But don’t blame me when you spend the rest of your Fifth Year without any friends.”

She was impossible when she got like this. Ever since we were children, when I didn’t want to do something—climb a too-tall tree, or walk past a group of snickering boys—she would turn nasty, the way her mother did to her.

I would like to say that they didn’t, but tonight her words stung. For the most part I didn’t mind that my sole companions at Hogwarts were my cousin and my pet cat. “I have friends, they just graduated last year,” I reminded her sullenly.

“Of course, how could I forget? Chloe’s too smart to spend time with people in her own year.”

I didn’t dignify it with a response. In a flurry of robes, she gathered her things, leaving her plate. “I’m not hungry anymore. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Emily, wait,” I sighed and she froze, a hopeful look on her face. She knew what she was doing and I fell for it every time. “I’ll come with you.”

“Oh, thank you Chloe!” she clapped her hands together, all smiles again. “You won’t regret it.”

She snatched the quill resting on my Herbology book, reading out loud as she scribbled, “Sounds brilliant… See you then… Chloe will be joining us.” When she tapped the parchment with her wand it went sailing across the Great Hall to the Slytherin table. We watched Michael as he unfolded the note; the two girls on either side of him read it over his shoulders. I didn’t like the way he was looking at us.

 

 

 


It took three cups of strong tea to keep me awake until midnight. I never stayed up late unless distracted by homework. Emily was completely wired, her leg jiggling anxiously as we sat before the common room fireplace. As the hours waned the other students meandered to the dormitories, one by one. When the House Prefect, Melinda Abbott, finally retired it was with a wary eye in our direction.

My heart was hammering. I’d never so much as had a sip of alcohol in my time at Hogwarts, or cut class, and had certainly never snuck out. I hadn’t even bothered to change out of my uniform, unlike Emily, who was overdressed in blue taffeta.

The whole “party scene” at Hogwarts just didn’t make sense. I’d heard stories of a group of Gryffindor boys—James Potter and some others—that wreaked havoc in the corridors after nightfall, but never saw how anyone could get away with such things. Filch and Mrs. Norris were always patrolling, not to mention the ghosts, and the Head Boy and Girl. Emily and I didn’t even have a plan; we were just hoping to not get caught.

I waited until Melinda’s bedroom door clicked shut. “If I lose my apprenticeship because of this—”

“Come on,” Emily whispered. “Let’s go now.”

The corridors were eerie in the quiet dark. At times Hogwarts felt as much a comforting home as it did unsettlingly creepy. The flickering torches cast moving shadows on the sculptures, bringing them to life. Emily’s dress shoes were clacking too loudly on the floors and we quickly cast a Silencing Charm.

“I can’t believe you’re actually wearing your uniform to a party, honestly,” she whispered.

Each turn brought my heart pounding up into my throat, for fear of someone waiting with a week’s worth of detentions. Halfway through our journey we were nearly caught in the silvery light of the Fat Friar, on his way to the kitchens, where I’d heard he liked to look at the food he could no longer eat.

Just when I thought we’d been tiptoeing for ages, we stopped. We were in the middle of nowhere, near the dungeons. Before us hung an enormous painting: three waterfalls cascading into a blue lake, where mermaids dove or lazed about.

“This can’t be right,” I said. “There’s no one here.”

Emily scowled and examined Michael’s note again. “I don’t understand…”

We’ve been tricked, you idiot.

Not only had I missed my apprenticeship, but I’d be dead tired for early morning Potions. But I was also relieved. I wouldn’t be spending tonight listening to thinly-veiled prejudice about my heritage.

Then, voices were suddenly bouncing off the stone. Around the corner came Michael Flint, chatting loudly with two other Slytherins: the girls from the Great Hall. Michael opened his arms toward us. “Ah, you made it!”

Shhh!” I hissed. I could practically hear Emily cringe with embarrassment.

Michael laughed. “No need to worry, ladies. We’ve rigged this entire wing with Silencing Charms. Nobody can hear us, unless they’ve been invited tonight.”

Somehow I doubted that the magical prowess of three seventeen year-olds could in any way stand up that of Hogwarts staff. But I held my tongue. With a wink Michael approached the painting and said, to one of the mermaids, “Gonna let us in then, darling?”

I glanced at Emily, but she was completely starstruck. The mermaid giggled but an older, heavier one eyed us disapprovingly. I wasn’t entirely sure that she wouldn’t rat on us.

The young mermaid’s voice sounded like a three-part singing harmony. “One last time, I suppose.”

Then, with a loud creak, the painting swung open and revealed what appeared to be an old bathhouse. Steam billowed out into the corridor, dampening my face. I could see the outline of another student through the mugginess—odd that someone had been waiting alone in such a place. The baths were lit by a single torch, its orange haze contrasting with the blue moonlight streaming through the glass ceiling.

Emily clenched fistfuls of her now apparently useless party dress. Certainly if we were heading into the baths it wouldn’t be to keep our clothes on.

“It’s not too late to leave,” I whispered to her.

But the others were watching us expectantly, waiting.

“Um, Michael,” she said. “Not to be a drag, but exactly what kind of party…?”

His perfect teeth glinted in the torchlight. “What, don’t fancy a swim? You can leave your knickers on, we won’t tell.”

Then he reached over and tucked a lock of curly hair behind her ear, and I knew that we would be joining them, no matter what. Behind him the two girls were watching with hard smirks. I felt sick but Emily took my hand, pulling me—she knew I would run if I could—through the entrance.

Moments later everyone had shed down to their undergarments, and I remained glued to my spot against the wall. When Michael helped Emily unzip her dress I looked away sharply, but she only laughed in delighted shock.

“C’mon then, Chloe, is it?” said one of the girls. Until now they had only been murmuring with one another. I didn’t know her name but had noticed her short black haircut in the corridors. “Don’t be a prude. We won’t even be able to see you.”

“Her nickers probably go past her knees anyway,” murmured her friend, and they shrieked with laughter.

I searched for Emily, but she was already following Michael into the water, hopping in with a little yelp.

“Here, does this help?” The black-haired girl waved her wand. To my complete mortification I realized she was naked, right before she murmured, “Nox.”

The single burning torch was extinguished. Whoops and shouts bounced off the walls as we were blanketed in darkness. While I stood blinking, someone shoved me into the warm waters, uniform and all. I came up sputtering, not the strongest of swimmers, and the cackling that echoed off the walls made my eyes sting with embarrassment.

“We told your clothes would get wet,” taunted the boy who had been waiting for us. His drawling Liverpool accent was familiar.

Michael said haughtily, “So, what do you think of our little hangout?”

I only clenched my teeth, trying to find the edge of the pool. Emily sighed, “Brilliant,” but I heard nervousness in her voice.

The painting had been left open. If I pulled myself out of the water right now, I would have a clear shot to run away. It would be humiliating, and wouldn’t help the friendlessness that Emily was so keen to point out. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread in my stomach. Surely this was some kind of a meeting for the Black Adder Society. And they despised people like Emily and me.

The girls were whispering again. I didn’t like the way they were looking at Emily, or that they were the only ones whose wands were resting on the edge of the pool.

Why did they need their wands?

Emily herself was oblivious, leaning against the concrete beside Michael, their shoulders almost touching. I wouldn’t leave without her.

“Oh no, Emily!” I whined, “I forgot the Firewhiskey.”

She looked at me, confused. “You don’t have Firewhiskey.”

“I do! It’s under my bed.” I hoped they couldn’t hear the shaking in my voice. “I was saving it for Halloween, but why not tonight? Will you come with me to get it?”

She only stared and I prayed that, for once in her life, she would just listen to me. “I just feel like we should really have some,” I pressed.

“Seems like a long walk for some Firewhiskey,” murmured the gangly boy. He had moved startlingly closer and I recognized him: a Seventh-Year with stringy black hair, who I sometimes caught scowling at me for no apparent reason. His name was Walden Macnair.

“Not at all!” I reached for the pool’s ledge. I’d have to find a Prefect and come back for Emily. “I’ll be right back—”

One of the girls slashed her wand in the air, and the painting banged shut. My heart stopped. Nobody spoke. The trickling of water and my heavy, nervous breath were the only sounds.

Michael’s voice cut cheerfully through the darkness. “Well Emily, I’ll admit we had a special reason to ask you here tonight. You see, our parents—” he gestured amongst his housemates “—they’re all good friends. And they have one particular friend in common.”

Her brow was knit in confusion, but I knew which “friend” he meant. His name was once whispered fearfully by professors; by people huddled in the rain around damp newspapers; over the crackling airwaves of the Wizarding Wireless Network. But nobody spoke his true name anymore.

Followers of him hadn’t permeated the walls of Hogwarts yet. But there was a first time for everything.

I swallowed loudly and several of them laughed. “She’s caught on,” said Macnair with his yellow-toothed grin.

“I don’t understand,” whimpered Emily.

I splashed wildly towards her. “We need to—”

But I was grabbed, on either side, by the girls. Emily made a low whining noise in her throat, and I wished she would move, or do something. But Michael seized her shoulders, his knuckles white, fingers digging into her skin.

“We heard that your Mum’s not like my friends and me, Emily. And that makes you not like us. Isn’t that right?”

Annabeth Brighton was a Muggle. She married a Wizard, my uncle, but that wasn’t enough for them. Emily still wasn’t a Pureblood.

“Emily, get out!” I tried to escape their hold, but I’d always been slight, not very strong; right now I was cursing myself for it. Their tugging sent my head underwater and my shout was garbled.

Michael was murmuring a spell I couldn’t hear. The tip of his wand was glowing like a cigarette. Not with sparks or light: it was smoldering, fire-hot, burnishing orange. It reflected off of his water-slick skin; glinted in his eyes. Our shouts ricocheted for nobody to hear as I fought against my captors, only to be pushed underwater again—this time held there, the breath billowing from me.

When I resurfaced, coughing, throat burning, something had changed. Emily was still shouting but her tone was different. There was accusation in her voice.

Blinking the water from my eyes, I realized she was jabbing a finger at me. Her voice was unlike I had ever heard before. “It’s true! She’s the Mudblood! Both of her parents are Muggles!”

It felt like my bones had fallen out of my body.

“No,” I murmured, but Michael had already abandoned her, fighting through the water towards me. His wand was held high over his head, brandished like a sword, showering sparks that burst into steam when they reached water. A large hand—Macnair’s—was around my throat. The last thing I saw before he pulled me under was Emily, scrambling from the pool, running for the exit. She was leaving me.

I thought I was going to die.

And maybe it was worse that I didn’t; that I felt the girls’ sharp fingernails dragging my skin as they pulled my shirt over my ribs; that I heard them say, “Do it somewhere nobody will see!” I was choking on my own sobs and on the water, twisting my body wildly as my schoolmates bore the soft white flesh of my belly.

I sucked in a breath but my words turned into a long howl. Michael, the boy who had smiled at me in the Great Hall only hours before, bore the point of his wand down on my skin, and oh God I could hear the flesh searing. My legs thrashed and I kicked him; he cursed, spraying me with his saliva as he dragged the trail of fire over my abdomen.

And then as if I’d imagined it all, suddenly it was over. Their grips released. It was like being let go in midair and I was left falling, floating. The splashing was deafening as they hurried out of the waters. I remained on my back, staring at the dark sky through the glass as they hastily gathered their clothing, snapping at one another.

“What if she tells somebody?”

“She won’t.”

“How d’you—”

“Look at her. She won’t.”

“Well let’s hurry the fuck up before somebody finds her, then.”

And then there was silence.

 

 

 


The walls were cool under my palm as I staggered, soaked to my bones, through the corridors. My free hand was trembling where it hovered above my wound. As if cradling it would help. Sweat was sticking my fringe to my forehead and I pushed it from my eyes. How long could I last, wandering like this? I couldn’t remember how the way to the Hufflepuff basement.

But I couldn’t go back, I realized. Emily would be there.

In fact I could probably never look her in the eye again.

I had waited for her, floating in the waters for ages, then dragging myself to lie on the floor, until I finally accepted that Emily was not coming back. She had fed me to the wolves.

Shaking the thought, I glanced up to the path before me. “Dammit.”

The only way to continue was up long flight of stairs. I gripped the banister and took several steadying breaths. But just the first step sent my wound searing and I cried out, slumping against the wall. Panting, I felt the hot tears spilling and angrily smeared them away. When I opened my eyes, there were two shadows at the top of the staircase.

I froze, nearly sick with fear. But it wasn’t Michael or the others. It was a girl and boy, the latter folding up a large parchment and stowing it in his robes. They looked just as nervous be caught exploring after hours.

When he realized I was no threat, the boy called, “Gone for a swim, love?”

“Shut up, I think she’s hurt,” his companion said in her Irish accent. “Are you all right?”

“F-fine,” I said, sounding anything but. My throat was scratchy with the water I’d inhaled.

But she was already hurrying down the staircase with light footsteps, and he trailed after, looking trepidatious. When they neared I recognized his face: he was one of James Potter’s friends. Their little group was notorious for sneaking out after hours. Fearing another encounter with a secret club, I recoiled, and the girl furrowed her brow.

“What happened?”

“Nothing.”

I wanted to push past them but could barely move. She shook her head of white-blond hair. “No, you’re hurt. Who did this to you?”

My breath caught in my throat.

“What if she tells somebody?”

“Look at her. She won’t.”


“It was too dark, I couldn’t tell,” I lied. “It was just someone playing a prank. They pushed me in the water.”

“In the baths?” the boy said, his voice low with recognition. Apparently my face held the answer. They exchanged a long glance and she nodded.

“Right. Well if this was who I think it was, then you’re going to the hospital wing.” She held her arm out for me. “C’mon then, you won’t be in trouble.”

“We think,” the boy muttered. But under her withering look he offered an arm. Glancing helplessly between the two, I realized that there was no other feasible option.

“Okay, but I’m really fine—agh!” They lifted me up to the next step; I bit my lip hard to silence the cry. Another dark look was cast above my head and mercifully they chose not to speak. We climbed tediously, my panting breath the only sound. After what felt like ages we arrived at the bottom of the stairs to the hospital wing.

The girl ordered, “Stay here. I’ll get Pomfrey to levitate a bed down.” And then she disappeared up the staircase, leaving me leaned against James Potter’s friend. My head was spinning. But even teetering on the edge of unconsciousness I couldn’t be so close to a boy. I stepped away, leaning heavily against the wall and holding my side.

He nodded at the wound. “What’s that?”

I jerked my hand away, but it revealed in the torchlight what I hadn’t seen before: blood seeping through my uniform. His eyes widened and I drew my still-wet cloak around me, swaying.

“You should sit down.”

“‘M fine.”

“No, you’re bloody well not… Careful!” He was suddenly moving; in fact, the whole corridor was. The ceiling was where the floor should be.

My vision dissolved to black and for a moment I saw nothing. When I blinked the darkness away I had apparently fallen over, and he had hooked his arms under mine to stop me. As he gently lowered me to the floor, whispering, “Merlin,” the strain sent fire across my skin again. I dropped to the marble and curled into a ball.

I dully registered him kneel beside me, a hand on my shoulder. “Hey,” he said anxiously. “You alright?”

“Fantastic,” I grumbled, cheek against the floor.

I think I heard him chuckle. His hand remained on my shoulder.

Then two pairs of feet were hurrying down the staircase, and the young girl called, “Here she is!” I opened my eyes and saw Madame Pomfrey, her hair in rollers, levitating a comfortable looking bed.

“I’ll skip the questions of why you were out after hours, Miss McKinnon,” she said tersely. “But don’t be surprised if you hear from the Deputy Headmistress tomorrow.”

The boy groaned. “Come on, can’t you cut us some slack? We’re your best patrons.”

All three of them helped to gingerly lift me off the floor. Holding my heels, Pomfrey said, “I highly doubt depleting my store of Bone-Regrowing Potions and Sober-Up Draughts qualifies you as being the ‘best,’ Black.

“Now,” she looked at me squarely, pressing the back of her hand to my forehead. “Let’s get you looked at, shall we?”

I nodded, feeling self-conscious as they all stood over me, but the corners of my vision were going dark again. With eyelids drooping I tried to focus on McKinnon, to thank her for helping me, but my body was so heavy…

 

 

 


I awoke in a bed of white linen, a partition pulled shut around me. The hospital wing was dead silent. Through the gap in the curtain I saw that the sky still dark; a clock on the bedside table revealed it was four in the morning. With a flush I realized I no longer wearing my own clothes. Someone, hopefully Madame Pomfrey, had changed me into a thin blue hospital gown. She must have given me a potion as well; the burning in my side had become a dull ache.

I waited, but heard no movement. Pomfrey must have been asleep. Morbid curiosity finally got the best of me, and I pulled my dressing gown over my ribs. A thick white bandage the size of my palm was Spellotaped to my side. It bore a faint pink stain, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped. Cautiously I peeled back the tape and gasped.

The burn was a deep, furious red—almost black. It wasn’t in the hurried shape of someone trying to leave a random scar. It had purpose. The mark was a giant, clearly-written “M.”

For Mudblood.

 


Author's Note: Okay, so this chapter definitely took a turn, especially from the introduction, with the addition of many other characters, and a traumatic action scene. The lovely poetry found at the beginning of the chapter was written by Allen Ginsberg and doesn't belong to me. Please let me know what you think about this fledgling of a story! And thank you for reading ♥



Chapter 3: Chapter Two
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Chapter Two
 
 

 


The morning was grey and windy. The hours crept by and I scarcely moved, save for turning my head to the rain-beaten window. Through the rippling glass I could see the stone archway at the edge of the courtyard. Students hurried under Rain-Repellant Charms; the odd First-Year hid beneath a Muggle umbrella. They seemed to be eons away from the silence of the Hospital Wing. I was missing Potions, my second most-valued class after Herbology, and I couldn’t bring myself to worry.

 

I felt nothing.

Eventually Pomfrey came to stand over me, eyeing the untouched jam and toast on the bedside table. “It’s time for your tonic, dear.”

I took the proffered cup gingerly, peering inside the pewter vessel. “Shrivelfig and knotgrass.”

Her eyebrows lifted. “Yes, that’s right. You knew that only by its scent?”

As I sipped from the cup I think I nodded; at least I meant to. Though anticipated the bitterness made my nose crinkle. Madame Pomfrey was looking at me with such pity that my face flushed in embarrassment.

“Now, about your injury…” she began uneasily. “A fair amount of spells and potions will help reduce the scarring, but unless you really keep up with them—and I mean really—I’m afraid it will leave a mark.”

The cup nearly slipped from my hands. There must have been some dark magic in Michael’s spell; a tarry blackness that couldn’t be reversed. And now, every time I changed my uniform in the morning, or bathed, or reached for a tall shelf in the greenhouse, there it would be. My brand.

“Miss Fairchild, I’ve spoken with the Deputy Headmistress. She’d like to talk with you about what happened.”

“Oh.” I sank into the pillows, wishing they would swallow me. “But I don’t remember.”

The words had been said so many times that even I was starting to believe them.

Despite her obvious doubt, Pomfrey’s voice was gentle. “Of course. She just wants to help you. We all do.”

I nodded numbly, holding the warm cup close: a simple mistake. The steam dampened my face and suddenly I was pulled into the memory behind my eyelids. The painting swinging open, mist billowing into the corridor, settling onto my cheeks. The echoing zzzzt! of dress zippers. The torch extinguishing. Cold hard moon. Hands shoving; falling into water chest-deep; same hands gripping my arms; fingers around my throat; the wand burning like a cigarette—

“Did you hear me, dear?” Madame Pomfrey was saying, her brow furrowed. “You have a visitor.”

I resurfaced from the memory like it were miles underwater, back into the still grey morning of the Hospital Wing, but it was too late. I murmured an unheard, “No—” my involuntary flinch sending my side aching.

But Emily had already appeared from behind the partition, walking like a death row victim. A stringy bouquet of flowers—some small white blossoms and one large, orange lily—was in her hand.

“Hi, Chloe,” she said quietly.

I looked away.

“Well. I’ll just find a vase for those,” Pomfrey said before quickly disappearing.

Emily’s chin was lowered and I felt her gaze boring into me; I knew that her lips were parted around her teeth. Until now they had been just another of her traits, but today they were infuriating in their largeness. I wanted to hurl the bedside clock into them. But I only looked pointedly out the window with my stomach in knots.

“I brought you some flowers,” she said—stupidly, I thought, as they’d already been mentioned. At my silence she lowered her voice. “I had to go into the Forbidden Forest to get them. I’ve fed Bijou too. She was clawing on the bedsheets this morning, so I reckoned…”

I wished the cat had clawed her instead.

“What, are you going to ignore me forever?”

Nothing.

“Look, I’m sorry—”

I finally cut my gaze to her. “Why didn’t you come back for me?”

For once in her life, Emily was silent.

“I know that you couldn’t have fought them all. We were outnumbered. But you could have at least tried, like I did. You didn’t even come back to help me! You left me there!”

“I was going to come back—”

“No you weren’t! Don’t lie to me!”

Pomfrey looked up sharply from her desk. I swallowed against the rush of curses on my tongue as she returned to place a glass vase on the nightstand. Under her pointed gaze Emily placed the flowers in the vessel, her head down. The seconds ticked by.

“Please, Chloe,” Emily whispered when Pomfrey left us. Fat tears were falling down her cheeks. “I said I’m sorry.”

The worst part was that I could have showed her—cinched up my hospital gown, pulled away the bandage and made her see the mark I was given; the one meant for her. My brand. Like I was one of the cattle my father raised. But I didn’t want Emily to know my secret, or to grant her some kind of catharsis. I didn't want her guilt, her tears, or her apologies.

“Please leave.” I turned my face to the window again.

I heard her sniffling and blubbering with what might have been real emotion. But I didn’t care. When her figure slumped away from the corner of my vision I called, “You should wash your hands. Those lilies are poisonous.”

As her footsteps faded I stared at the large bloom in the vase, its orange hue so violent that it seemed to be humming.

 

 

 


“Well, you’ve done a real number on yourself this time.”

“Yeah, you look like shit, mate.”

A tired chuckle. “Thank you for the kind words, as always, James.”

Though the voices were lowered, I could hear them clearly amidst the quiet. Lying on my side I could see through a tiny opening in the partition: another bed, across the room, was occupied. I wondered how long he had been there. Did he hear my exchange with Emily, or worse, with McGonagall?

After a very uncomfortable, fruitless conversation, I had promptly pretended to fall asleep. It had worked: the questioning stopped. Nobody seemed to want to say the words, “Who did this to you?” but their gentle side-stepping and furrowed brows and shared glances of concern made it clear. Nobody believed that this was an accident, or that I couldn’t remember what happened. But unless they gave me Veritaserum, they would never know.

I didn’t want anyone to ever know.

The rain had stopped, the heavy winds pushing away fat clouds so that the sun was nearly able to break through. My curtain blocked the other patient from view, but I could glimpse fragments of several others, standing at the foot of his bed.

“Need us to bring you any notes?” another voice came eagerly.

“He doesn’t want your notes, Wormtail. They’ve always got crumbs on them.”

There was a shuffling, as if someone had been pushed. “Stop being such a child, Sirius.”

“Sorry.”

My heart quickened. I recognized his name, and her lilting Irish accent. It was my rescuers from last night.

Facing them in the corridors had been somewhere in the back of my mind, behind all the fog and clouds of the past twelve hours. But it hadn’t sent my heart hammering before now. How was I supposed to continue after this? Every time we passed in the corridors I would shrivel away. Not to mention seeing Michael Flint—

I swallowed against the bile in my throat.

“Hello?”

The call came from just beyond my partition. It was McKinnon. I froze, my damp palms clenching the bedsheets, my heart beating in my eardrums. And then, to my regret, I said, “Yes?”

“It’s Marlene,” she said. Marlene McKinnon. I had heard her name before. “Can I come in?”

I swallowed. “Okay.”

A hand appeared and gently parted the curtain. In the light of day, without the threat of losing consciousness, I did recognize her from classes. She had a slight build, and was only a bit taller than myself, with unruly white-blonde hair and a long nose. I knew why I remembered her: she was beautiful in a cunning way.

“How’re you feeling? I’ve brought you some notes from today.”

I spotted the bundle of parchment in her arms and something welled up in my throat. “Thank you,” I croaked.

The bed shifted under her weight. “I hope they’re alright. Professor Sprout said that Herbology and Potions are your best subjects.”

I nodded. I couldn’t read the expression in her eyes, pale blue and ringed in smoky black. But the seconds ticked by and she only said, “Is there anything else you need?”

A Timeturner.

“No, this is perfect, thank you. I should be leaving in a few hours to catch History of Magic.”

Her smile was dimpled and revealed a row of small straight teeth. Not like Emily’s at all. “All right. Hey, maybe you could help me with Herbology sometime. I’m dreadful, but I hear you’re quite the prodigy.”

It wasn’t a request for help: she was offering.

She wasn’t a person who would ask questions. She was someone to spend time with, away from whoever landed me in the Hospital Wing. I could feel my cheeks tinging with pink again under her straightforward gaze, but I was grateful.

“Of course. I’d love to.”

She clapped a hand on my ankle in a friendly way, giving it a little shake. “Brilliant!”

Marlene’s smile was infectious. I returned it, the crinkling of my cheeks an almost unfamiliar feeling at this point. None of the others even seemed to notice me, chatting with their friend across the room. It made me feel relieved and lonely all at once.

“You must be knackered,” she said. “Sorry to pester you, I just needed a moment of sane conversation. This lot can be a bit much.”

She tipped her head behind her, in the direction of the boys, who were now managing to cause a ruckus in the Hospital Wing. James Potter was making a show of noisily trying to kiss the bedridden boy better, as he weakly fought him off through fits of laughter.

“Stop fighting it, Remus!”

Of course it was Remus Lupin who was in the hospital. He’d always been sickly. Once I witnessed him topple over in the corridor between classes. But he must have gotten into a fight this time: his head, arm, and hands were heavily bandaged.

“I would imagine they are,” I agreed.

Laughing alongside James and Remus was Peter Pettigrew, who had been my Potions partner on more than one occasion. He was quite unskilled and Professor Slughorn often paired us together in the hopes that Peter would learn something. They were an odd group, I always thought. They seemed to think they had run of the school, when really it was people like Michael Flint and the Black Adder Society who got away with whatever they wanted.

An involuntary shiver shook me. Marlene’s brow wrinkled but then we were distracted again by James, who was on all fours over Remus’s bed. He withstood only a moment before Pomfrey was rushing over.

“I ask that you don’t terrorize my patients, Potter!” She swatted him with a rolled-up parchment. “Out, the lot of you! Mister Lupin needs to rest.”

“And I was just trying to kiss him goodnight!”

But clearly this kind of ridiculousness was exactly what Remus needed. He looked better than he had only moments ago, a flush returned to his cheeks as he laughed behind Pomfrey’s back.

Marlene snorted, “Reckon we’re off, then.”

“I think that was record time for being kicked out of the Hospital Wing,” I said.

“Oh, you’d be surprised.”

It was beginning to feel like there were two parts of me: a fledgeling one, weak but sunny, here in this room with these strangers, and another that was buried within the thoughts pushed into the back of my skull. They were like two plants growing from the same seed; borne of the same source and fighting to survive over the other.

“Marlene!” cried James theatrically, hand extended as if summoning a spirit from the dead. Our eyes met briefly but there was no recognition.

She rolled her eyes grandiosely and said, “Idiots.” But she was beaming.

When she shifted her weight I suddenly noticed the tall frame of Sirius Black, leaned against the wall. He had been hidden before. His uniform barely met dress code, tie untied and shirtsleeves pushed past his elbows. He must have recognized me—or something—because his grey eyes were glimmering in the shadows, boring into me. It felt like he had caught me naked.

No boy had ever looked at me that way before.

I looked away and back again, but he was still staring. Then his face broke into a bright grin as if he had no control over himself. Something stirred in my ribcage and I swallowed thickly.

But, with a wave of embarrassment, I realized that Sirius wasn't looking at me—not at all. He was looking at Marlene, eyes following her as she stood up to place her notes on my nightstand.

Of course. The way he was so willing to help me last night, because she had insisted. And just now he had stopped teasing Peter about his notes—because she had scolded him. I had only seen the two of them together twice, and it was clear: Sirius Black was smitten.

She was oblivious, her back to him. I dully registered her saying, “Just send me an owl when you’ve got the time to study. I could use all the help I can get.”

I hoped she didn’t notice the color in my cheeks. “Alright.” Sirius had strode away to rejoin James and Peter. His absence made it so that I could find my words again, “Thank you, Marlene. Really.”

The sun had broken from behind a cloud, for only a moment, but it sent her whole person glowing like a Patronus. She really was beautiful.

“Any time,” she said.

 

 

 


I chose to return to my dormitory when most students would be in classes. I didn’t want to encounter anyone on the walk through the corridors; not even Marlene. Pomfrey had given me another strong potion, and she was anxious for me to return on my own, but at last agreed that I could manage.

I changed back into the uniform I wore the night before. The bloodstains had been Tergio’d but a faint pink remained. With a tight-lipped smile Pomfrey gave me a week’s worth of potions and released me. The question was still in her eyes:

Who did this, Chloe?

The walk was tedious. The portraits watched me with interest, but even they were ignored. By then, the Potion had worn off enough to elicit pain, and all I wanted to do was run to the safety of my four-poster. With tiny steps I trekked throughout the castle, taking a longer route to avoid nearing the Slytherin dungeons.

The Hufflepuff common room was not completely empty, to my dismay, but its sparse occupants barely raised a head at me. Word must not have gotten out. I hoped that by some miracle it would stay that way.

The door to the Sixth-Year girls’ dormitory creaked open and I stood on its threshold until I was sure it was empty. Emily was in Divination, I knew, and that was what mattered most.

Bijou was on my bed, and stood and stretched at the sound of the door. An owl would have been much more practical for a First-Year, but my Muggle parents assumed that all witches had cats. When our neighbor’s cat had its litter, I chose the only calico amidst the spots and solids.

Bijou hopped down and curled around my feet, purring, but I only stood motionless. I couldn’t lift her into my arms or bend to scratch her head.

And I couldn’t go to my lessons today, I realized. Part of me had believed that I would attend Defense Against the Dark Arts, but I couldn’t be around hexes and curses. I didn’t know when I could ever be. Pushing the thought away, I moved to my four-poster and tugged the curtains shut. I didn’t disrobe until I was cocooned in darkness. I didn’t want to see what had become of my bare skin.

With Bijou curling in circles at the foot of my bed I drew the covers back. I wasn’t tired. But all I wanted was to be asleep. As I slid into bed my arm brushed against something leafy—I could tell by its texture that it was a flower. Another apology from Emily, surely.

Lumos.”

With my shrouded four-poster illuminated in white light, I froze. The flower was a single black rhododendron. In floriography, or the cryptic communication using flowers, a rhododendron meant danger. Beware. I’m watching. But surely I was being paranoid. These secret messages had died out after the Victorian period. Nobody used the language anymore.

 

Unless they knew that I would understand.

My last remaining hope that I was wrong—that it was another pathetic attempt at an apology from Emily—was destroyed when I spotted the note. It was tied around the stem with a crimson ribbon. With a trembling hand I gingerly lifted the flower in the wandlight. It wilted in my hand, petals falling like ashes. The note was only three letters; a signature, I realized. Neat, looping script on a torn scrap of parchment: B.A.S.

Black Adder Society.



Author's Note: I was so excited to get to use floriography in this chapter--It was (is?) a real code used to convey secret messages, and is worth reading up on!

This chapter hopefully set the tone for the relationship between Chloe and the Marauders (particularly Marlene and Sirius), and the role they played within the school as opposed to other groups, like the Black Adder Society. Chloe's PTSD will be more apparent as the story continues. Right now she's feeling shocked and numbed from it all, but as you can guess, she won't be kept away from Michael Flint and the others.

Thanks for reading! Please let me know what you think in a review ♥

This beautiful chapter image, featuring Sirius and Marlene, was created by arietty. at The Dark Arts.



Chapter 4: Chapter Three
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Chapter Three
 

 


The itchy scarf around my neck—a multicolored wool monstrosity, gifted by my Grandmum—was the only thing capable of keeping the dungeons’ chill at bay. It wasn’t the Potions classroom that set students’ teeth to chattering. Professor Slughorn liked to sit in comfortable warmth and eat his crystallized pineapple while we sweated over our cauldrons. It was the dampened corridors that were so unbearable.

On gray mornings like today, my breath appeared in ghostly puffs, distorting my view of my own feet. A new habit. These days I passed through the dungeons with my head ducked, hurrying through the turns I had memorized.

Left, left, down the staircase, then right…

It was silly, but the scarf felt like some kind of talisman. Sweet old things like my Muggle grandmother Margery, and the gifts she painstakingly learned to owl, were still in the world. Not everyone was a monster.

Only some. Like Michael Flint.

My saddle shoes clicked faster on the stone. He was a year above me, and it was my sole consolation—albeit a flimsy one—after what happened weeks ago. We never had classes together, and he would graduate in only a few months. Off to continue his father’s business of trade with the Magical Empires in the far east, no doubt. He’d probably marry one day. Some poor girl—who, given the Flints’ affluence, would of course be anything but poor—would be subject to his fits of malice.

“Sorry,” I murmured to the Ravenclaw whose shoe I scuffed with mine.

My fingers landed on the cool banister of the spiral staircase with relief. Almost there. The familiar inertia of my body winding further downward was oddly comforting.

Like Michael, Walden Macnair was in his Seventh Year. I had managed to avoid him all but once. It was during the usual midday sea of students, when I was too small for his tall, skeletal frame to notice. Despite myself I had glanced down at those hands—onion-white, with knuckles like marbles—and somehow felt them around my throat again.

Now that I had nearly reached Potions, I allowed my eyes to lift, spotting the back of Peter Pettigrew’s head. Class was with Gryffindor today. Surely we would be paired together again. I quite liked Peter for his shyness, and the way that he made even myself feel outgoing and charismatic. His hair was sticking up in its two usual tufts, almost as if he had a pair of ears.

“I mean, honestly, what did he expect?” came a familiar voice that made my shoulders seize. She was ahead of me, approaching. I could see her—both of them—and their identical fringe that parted in the middle like two wings, framing their pretty, mean faces.

Coraline Avery and Artemisia Ward. After that night in the baths, and in the daylight of classrooms, their features had materialized into familiarity. Maybe that was the most disturbing of all; that it had simply been too dark to recognize those who had known and sought me out. Hunted. Coraline and Artemisia had always been there, in my classes. Always snickering at something. Their school robes were finer, their dragonskin shoes shinier, little nods to their wealth dispersed into their uniforms: earrings made of unicorn horn here, an heirloom lapel pin there.

I ducked into an alcove and crouched beside its decorative suit of armor. Pretending to search for something in my bag, I turned my back from the flow of students.

“Pathetic,” Coraline—or maybe Artemisia—agreed. I knew they weren’t talking about me, but they might as well have been. My shoulders remained hunched, a pathetic shield, until the sound of their matching strides faded.

I would be late for Potions if I didn’t hurry. Still, I waited longer than I should have, until the suit of armor shifted uncomfortably at my close proximity. With a deep breath I plunged back into the bustling corridor like a fish in a stream.

Again I felt grateful to have the day’s classes with Gryffindor. Each time my house shared a classroom with Slytherin, I sat rigid in my seat and lessons fell on deaf ears. My assigned seats were usually, by sheer awful coincidence, to be sat in front of Artemisia and Coraline. Nothing had happened yet—nothing that I noticed. But while I listened for whispers my marks dropped.

Some professors took note of my uneasiness. One evening in the greenhouses, I had hastily shoved my belongings back into my bag. It was nearly nightfall and I didn’t want to be out on the grounds, or in the corridors, by myself.

Professor Sprout had asked gently, “Are you well, Chloe?”

I caught my reflection in the darkened window. My eyes were ringed with violet, my face sallow. “Exams,” I had said lightly, though they were months away.

At last I felt the warmth emanating through the open door of the Potions classroom. Loosening my scarf, I glanced up just in time to stop from colliding with Emily. Her nose was buried in her textbook; no doubt she was finishing last night’s homework. But when she spotted me her face flushed crimson. We were both stopped.

Emily’s lip trembled as if she were about to say something, and I pushed past her.

As I searched for an empty seat, my heart sputtered. I was late. In the dimness I saw Peter sitting beside Remus, leaving only two empty chairs side-by-side. Marlene smiled at me from across the room, where she sat with Lily Evans, but I was too panicked to return it. I couldn’t share a table with Emily for a double class—I couldn’t.

Suddenly I spotted one remaining seat and my feet carried me across the room before my mind had caught up. I threw my things down, rattling the pewter cauldron and vials of herbs. The occupant beside me glanced up. My stomach dropped.

“Oh.” I was already beginning to regather my things. “Sorry.”

But Sirius shrugged. “Don’t be sorry. It’s your seat.” After glancing around for Slughorn he said conspiratorially, “James is skiving off anyway.”

I felt the back of my neck prickle with everyone’s gaze. Sirius Black wasn’t popular so much as notorious. He certainly wasn’t as universally liked, by both students and professors, as Lily Evans. Still, he had caught the eye of the majority of our year. And though he rarely put his wide selection of available girls—and boys—to use, watching him speak to them was a spectator sport.

And now, suddenly, I was playing the game.

“No, it’s fine, really, I don’t mind…” But I was glancing with dread to Emily—whose wide eyes were on us—and the empty chair beside her.

“What, do you not want to work with me?” he said teasingly and, to my humiliation, loud enough for the room to hear.

“N-no, I mean, I do.”

“Well then.” Sirius gently put his hand on the textbook I clutched and, after a pause, as if he were dealing with a wild animal, gently set it back on the table.

My cheeks flushed, the realization of which only made it worse. Guiltily I glanced over to Marlene, remembering her kindness, and the magnetic tug she seemed to have over him. It felt wrong to somehow be standing in between their magnetic poles, like the two of them would snap together and crush me.

But Marlene's white-blonde head was turned to Lily. They were laughing scandalously at something in their textbook, and I had the feeling that Marlene had just written something inappropriate. When I glanced back to Sirius, he tore his eyes away from her.

  

 

Of course.  He was trying to make her jealous.  He was sitting in a way completely not conducive to being at a desk: knee bent, foot resting on the edge of the table, arm dangling.  He probably would have been lighting a cigarette in a very practiced manner, if he could have.

 

In that moment, I actually felt sorry for him.

 

Nodding, I sank into the empty chair.  “Sure.”

 

“There we are, love.  Plus you're a genius at this stuff, right?  I could use the help.”  He gestured to the half-written parchment.  It was last night’s assignment, but he didn’t seem too rushed to complete it.

 

I cleared my throat.  “Well, first off, writing twice as large as normal won’t count towards the fifteen inches.”

 

He clicked his tongue at his enormous scrawl.  “That obvious, eh?”

 

“Pretty much, yeah.” 

 

The crinkling in my eyes as I grinned was like using an old and unfamiliar muscle, and I toyed with the frayed edges of my textbook.  The last time Sirius saw me, I had actually fainted.  His first impression of me was as though he’d come across a stupid bird that had smacked into a window and injured itself.  And wasn’t that exactly what I’d done, agreeing to meet with the Black Adders, knowing what they were like?

 

Suddenly my hands looked ridiculously small and fragile.  I put them in my lap.  “You could talk about Helena Vandergeissen,” I suggested.  “She was the first to discover that howlet’s wing had medicinal properties.”

 

It was the most basic knowledge from the assigned reading, but I had the impression that Sirius hadn’t so much as cracked a book.

 

“That’s brilliant.  Thanks, Claire.”

 

“Chloe,” I corrected with a slight sting.

 

“Chloe.  Right, sorry.”  He nudged me with his elbow in a friendly way, and I recoiled as if bitten.

 

“Merlin!”  There was hidden laughter in his voice.  I looked ahead but could feel him studying me with that same irritating glimmer in his eyes, like he knew something about me that even I didn’t.  “You don’t like me much, do you?”

 

At that moment the classroom door slammed shut and Slughorn’s booming voice ended the conversation.  “Afternoon, students!”

 

“Good afternoon, Professor!” Sirius shouted jovially, forgetting everything, but I barely whispered it.  The place on my arm where he had touched me was humming.

 

 

 


That evening during dinner, I found myself in a familiar setting: the mostly vacant library, with the chatter of students echoing from the Great Hall, my stomach grumbling. The chocolate frog I’d found in the depths of my bag had long since been devoured, hidden behind an upturned copy of The Master Book of Herbalism.

True to pattern, I would stay here until the kitchens were nearly closing and the students had all left the Great Hall, before hurrying in and shoving whatever I could find into a napkin. Then, I would eat in the Hufflepuff common room. Or if I was particularly desperate, in my bed with the curtains drawn. Earlier that week, I had eaten lunch in the first floor girls’ lavatory, ignoring Moaning Myrtle’s sniffs that I would grow “quite fat” if I kept shoving chicken in my face. But I couldn’t help it. I was always ravenous by the time I finally allowed myself to eat.

On cue, my stomach growled. The enormous pendulum clock mounted on the wall said that dinner would be ending in twenty minutes, with curfew beginning in another forty. Though impossible, I swore I could smell the roast potatoes. Another monstrous growl from my belly.

I slumped face-down on the table, dramatically, but with only Madame Pince there to witness I didn’t care. She seemed to tolerate me more than others. And this table, situated in plain view of her desk, felt safe.

Sometimes I thought I was being ridiculous, avoiding Emily like this. And Michael Flint. And Walden Macnair, and Artemisia Ward, and Coraline Avery. But I knew too well that they enjoyed their little game of whispering from the Slytherin table, casting long dark looks. They were quite proud of themselves. I had tried sitting with my back to them, but it felt like the mark on my side was burning beneath its bandages. Like they were breathing hot breath onto it.

What if she tells somebody?

Look at her. She won't.


“Well, look at you.”

I actually cried out in surprise and Marlene’s hand shot out to my shoulder. “Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you!”

My chest felt full of nails but I managed something like a smile. “It’s alright. I fell asleep.”

She studied me knowingly but, as seemed to be her way, didn’t press further. The feeling of gratefulness that accompanied each of our interactions returned. It seemed that her every single act of kindness became something I could physically hold on to; like they were each a tiny, smooth stone. Soon I could use them to build a wall, separating me from everything that happened that night.

“Thought I’d find you in here.” She didn’t bother to keep her voice down, though Pince scowled from across the room. “You’ve missed every bloody meal this week.”

“I’ve just been so busy,” I said automatically, the same way I had told anyone else who had commented. As if I was incredulous at my own inability to make it to the Great Hall in time. My lie hadn’t seemed to work on Sprout or Pomfrey or my housemates, either.

“Well, I figured you could use some brain food, for that giant brain of yours.” She revealed a tied-up napkin in her hands. It looked like a little rucksack, bulging with something that smelled amazing.

“Oh, bless you,” I breathed, actually salivating.

“C’mon,” Marlene said, leading us out of Pince’s view.

Soon we were seated on the floor in the Divination section, facing each other. Marlene was wearing her uniform trousers and sat with her knees drawn. I feverishly untied the napkin, shoving handfuls of pheasant and treacle fudge into my mouth at once. Marlene watched with an amused smirk. Too hungry to be embarrassed, I leaned back against the stacks, half-lidded as if she had given me lifeblood. My stocking-clad legs splayed before me.

“Too bad you can’t sit with us at meals,” she said. “It’s a stupid rule.”

I eyed her carefully and chose not to say anything. We were treading on dangerous territory. Luckily my mouth was still full of pheasant.

Marlene took a deep breath. “Whatever it is that you’re avoiding—or whoever—I want you to know that, well, y’know—” She shrugged uneasily. “I’ve got your back. And clearly you don’t want to talk about it, and that’s fine, but…”

She reached over to grab my free wrist, giving it a little shake. Just the way she had done with my ankle in the Hospital Wing. Marlene was emotionally stunted enough to struggle with these conversations, but Gryffindor-brave enough to have them in the first place.

I was looking at her chipped nail varnish when she said, “I think we should be friends.”

I stopped chewing, forcing myself to swallow the huge amount of food.

At my silence her head dropped into the crook of her arm. She said through embarrassed laughter, “C’mon, Chloe, don’t make me feel like an idiot. I’m just saying you seem nice. Y’know. Cool. And if you’re in a bind—”

“No, friends is good,” I said quickly. “Are good. Friends…are…good.”

Marlene’s infectious smile grew wider. “Good.”

She gave my wrist another little squeeze before releasing me with a sharp inhale. The kind of awkwardness that descends after a lovely moment—the kind that isn’t really that awkward, because you're still living in that peace—settled over us. I silently broke off a piece of fudge and offered it.

She accepted but suddenly remembered, talking with her mouth full, “Oh. Sirius wanted to tell you that he’s sorry for earlier.”

I froze and prayed that she couldn’t see the color rising to my cheeks; prayed that I was just imagining it. What was wrong with me? He was condescending and irritating and, most of all, Marlene’s boyfriend. Everything I was feeling had extended from one moment, in the morning of the Hospital Wing, when I’d thought he was watching me.

But he’d been looking at her.

“Well, he didn’t say sorry exactly, but it was about as close as he comes to it. He said he annoyed you during Potions, which we all know isn’t difficult for him to do.”

“Oh, right. Tell him it’s nothing.” She nodded, already forgetting the matter, but I took the plunge. “So you two are boyfriend and girlfriend, then.”

But the words didn’t sound casual at all. They sounded like I was struggling to speak a foreign language, and oh God, she could tell. Marlene could tell that I thought her boyfriend was—was I-don’t-know-exactly-what—but that I was trying to ignore him, to keep him on the other side of the line I had drawn, before he became something that I-did-know-what. Somehow she knew that I was trying to keep him away like an invasive plant to a carefully tended garden.

But Marlene was laughing, and loudly. She laughed for so long that even I started tittering. From faraway, Madame Pince hissed, “SHHH!!”

This time she did lower her voice, shooing the idea away with her hand. “Oh, Sirius is definitely not my boyfriend. Did someone actually say that?”

“No,” I said with a half-smile, “I just thought.”

But the way that she laughed, and kept laughing until it was just a sound with no glimmer in her blue eyes, did nothing to convince me.

Still, we nattered on, about Potions and today’s difficult lesson and the Slughorn mustache Marlene had apparently drawn on every illustration in her textbook. When it was time to return to the common room we parted outside the library with self-conscious smiles. I watched her white-blonde hair swaying as she strolled off, arms swinging as if everything in the world was easy. And I decided that I would just have to keep Sirius as I-don’t-know-what. Because it seemed that even Marlene wasn’t quite sure herself.


Author's Note: Lovely chapter image by page thirteen. at TDA ♥



Chapter 5: Chapter Four
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Chapter Four
 


 

“It’s useless,” Marlene announced, slamming her textbook shut.

“It’s not, you just have to concentrate.”

Our Herbology exam was the following afternoon. For the past two hours we had been sat by Marlene’s favorite tree, a blanket spread to protect our bare legs from the itchy grass. She was lying on her back, more than likely using her textbook to shield her eyes from the sun, than to actually read. The afternoon light was turning her hair phosphorescent as she narrowed her eyes.

“All right. Just you remember this conversation when we get to DADA.”

I groaned, recalling the pathetic spittle of light that emanated from my wand earlier. Dueling was certainly not my forte. Marlene, however, could hex or shield anyone with her eyes closed.

She relocated to a cross-legged position. An entire fifteen seconds of uninterrupted studying passed before her book closed again. “Let’s go get ice cream! James showed me a way into the kitchens. He said the House Elves keep Florean Fortescue’s in there.”

My answer came in the form of a question. “Why does the Venomous Tentacula subsist on Chizpurflies?”

She opened her mouth but then her eyes glazed over. “Damn it, Chloe,” she conceded, flipping through the pages once more.

“Twenty more minutes of studying and you can have all the ice cream you want.”

“Yes, Mum,” she grumbled.

Truthfully, I was beyond prepared for tomorrow’s exam. Most of today’s study session was spent keeping Marlene on track. While she huffed and sighed, moving from sprawled on her back, to sitting cross-legged, to lying on her belly (and repeating the process twice), I spent the afternoon leaning comfortably against the tree. Though my textbook was open on my drawn knees, my gaze rested on the lake.

A lone owl was gliding low across the glassy water. It reminded me that I hadn’t written home at all over the last few months. Writing home meant discussing Emily; my mother had constantly been asking about her. So I simply hadn’t.

I remembered the night before, when I had been too careless—I hadn’t timed everything perfectly. There was a moment, right before bedtime, when I was alone in the dormitory and Emily had passed through the doorway. When she saw me, she stopped. Without a word I turned my back and ran a brush through my hair.

As I pulled back my covers Emily appeared, standing on the opposite side of the bed. “Semester’s almost over,” she said with careful lightness.

I didn't even glance up at her, yanking the sheets back with too much force.

“I’m excited for summer.” She leaned on a column of my four-poster and I felt my shoulders tense. “Remember the lake by my house? My brother and his mates have just built a tree swing, and now you can practically fly right into the water. Isn’t that exciting?”

I stopped, fixing her with a stony gaze. “No.”

She stared at me as if she were actually surprised, her slack jaw revealing those huge teeth. I hopped into my bed and, without a second glance, pulled the curtains tightly around me. Her presence remained on the other side of the partition. When she walked away, it was with a quiet huff of indignity.

The owl had cleared the expanse of the lake and was heading for us. Surely it was from my home; my seventeenth birthday was next week. At the sound of wings Marlene looked up curiously. The owl landed before us, and dropped onto the grass. It bore the telltale postage stamps of my confused Muggle parents.

Marlene snorted, “That is adorable. I’m surprised mine have never tried that.”

The owl seemed content to rest with us, allowing Marlene to pet its glossy feathers as I unwrapped the parcel. Inside was a small box and an accompanying letter.

“So, what’s new in the world of George and…” Marlene squinted, trying to recall my mother’s name. “Elaina? Anything interesting?”

I opened the box first, revealing a small wristwatch with a leather band. It was simple, but certainly more than my parents could have spared. Marlene clicked her tongue and I knew we were thinking the same thing.

“Are you going to tell them?” She smiled.

“Never,” I returned it. The watch had frozen halfway between the ticking of seconds. Probably at the precise moment the owl had passed into Hogwarts grounds, at twelve seventeen this afternoon. “They’d be heartbroken.”

I fastened the watch to my wrist, feeling guilty for some reason. Because Marelene was still looking I fought to keep my deep, steadying breath unnoticeable.

The letter was written on the stationery my Mum had bought from the crafting shop in our town. She had a large family—two brothers and three sisters—and wrote to all them religiously. In many ways, my parents acted like Magical folks, foregoing the telephone for handwritten post. My father still refused to buy a television. The ancient radio in our den “suited them just fine,” he often said stubbornly.

The stationery was folded into thirds. I lifted the top, revealing the first part of the letter.

May 7, 1976

Dear Chloe,

I hope this finds you all right. I still don’t understand why we can’t just use the postman, but that’s probably something you’ve learned about in school. Do be a dear and write back this time. We haven’t heard from you in a while, and there’s no telling whether these silly birds are actually doing as they’ve been trained.

Happy seventeenth birthday, darling. (Hopefully this reaches you by the eleventh. I really just don’t trust those birds. I wrote the date so you would know we were thinking of you and didn’t forget.) We hope that you like the watch that your father picked out.

Things have been quiet around here, as usual. Monty is shaping up to be a fine herder indeed. He’s just had his third birthday this past weekend.


Here I couldn’t help but roll my eyes, smiling. My parents adopted a second herding dog several years after I began at Hogwarts. It was no secret that they hoped I would tire of being a witch, as if it were something I was just testing out. Each visit home for holidays meant a pamphlet for a local Muggle boarding school left on my bedside table. But by the time Third Year rolled around, they grudgingly accepted that I would remain at Hogwarts. Monty, a clumsy and energetic puppy, was adopted soon after. If my parents couldn’t raise me in their world, they needed a replacement.

Marlene had lost interest so I unfolded the rest of the letter. A newspaper clipping fluttered onto the grass. It was face-down, and dread crept over me at the oddly cropped section of the Daily Prophet on the reverse. My eyes closed. I wished I had remembered to cancel my subscription. Something bad must have happened—something that made them even more distrustful of magic.

I let the clipping lay quivering on the grass, reading the final lines of the letter. The language was abrupt, her writing messier. It was as if my Mum had decided to include it at the last minute. I could just see her, pacing nervously in our kitchen, before letting her paranoia win.

Isn’t that story awful? Thought you should know. We still get your newspapers when you’re not here.

Love,
Mum and Dad


The owl suddenly took to the air, the breeze from its wings nearly sending the clipping flying. I snatched it as Marlene said, “What’s that?”

“Muggle Rights Activist Attacked in Hyde Park,” I read the headline grimly. The article was short. I imagined it crammed between larger headlines in the Prophet’s usual clutter.

Marlene’s face was stony as I continued, “Ministry officials are investigating the attacks on a husband and wife that occurred in Hyde Park on Saturday evening. Therese and Reynard Durand, a Muggle and Wizard, respectively, were rushed to St. Mungo’s after sustaining life-threatening injuries. The couple was reportedly enjoying an evening stroll when three hooded figures Apparated and began to attack without warning. Mr. Durand claims they were unable to defend themselves when the attackers seized his wand. The assailants performed the Cruciatus Curse on both victims before they were sighted and fled. Ministry officials have confirmed that all Muggle witnesses have been Obliviated. The couple remains at St. Mungo’s in stable condition.

Mr. Durand received attention over the last year for his essays on bloodline equality. His public disproval of the “archaic tradition” of Pure-bloods marrying within their own families was heavily criticized by purist groups. Ministry officials have yet to comment on whether the attack is politically motivated.”


Marlene seemed to be staring through me. “And then there’s an address asking for information,” I said quietly.

“Well of course they’re politically motivated!” she growled. “The Cruciatus Curse on a marriage equality activist, in the middle of Hyde Park? He just published another collection of essays two months ago, for Merlin’s sake. All these stodgy old Pure-bloods are infuriated! How can they say that they don’t know?”

Truthfully, I had never even heard of Reynard Durand. But Marlene’s cheeks were flushed in fury. “That could have been you or me, Chloe.”

I didn’t know what to say. What I should have said was that it already was me. That I had already been attacked, for the same reasons, closer to where Marlene slept every night than anyone in Hyde Park. That the bandages had only come off a few weeks ago. That seeing the pearly pink scar tissue made my stomach turn. That she could be in danger, too.

But what I did say was, “Let’s go and get that ice cream.”

 

 

 


The weather turned sour for the afternoon of my birthday, a week later. I didn’t mind. The spring rain would help the plants, and soon I would be free to stroll along the edges of the forest, snipping leaves and berries and blossoms to press in my journal. Nobody knew that it was my birthday—even Emily had to be reminded every year—and I wasn’t particularly fond of celebrating.

I hadn’t told Marlene, the day before our Herbology exam, as she sulked in the kitchens over a bowl of Florean Fortescue’s Cherry and Chocolate Frog. The House Elves had been mostly gone during the odd hours between lunch and dinner. A tiny Elf named Wispy had been more than happy to show us the secret ice cream. All three of us leaned against the stone countertops—the much-shorter Wispy resting her back on the cabinets—as we ate. I had tried to make polite conversation with Wispy while Marlene jabbed at the ice cream sullenly with her spoon.

My birthday came on a Saturday, which was enough for me. The first round of exams were over and I could relax. DADA had gone terribly—at least in my opinion, though Marlene told me to “quit being such a Debbie Downer and accept the single A of my academic career.”

As I climbed back down the stairs from the owlery, I went over everything in the letter I had just sent to my parents. It covered all of the bases to satiate my mother’s worry. Classes were nearly over. The weather was nice. Thank you for the lovely watch. Bijou was getting along with the other pets. I made a friend.

Passing through a courtyard beneath Astronomy Tower, I heard the faint shattering of glass under the sound of the rain. The courtyard was small, and weeds grew between the cracks in the stone. A single bench was the only item saving it from the “completely pointless” category of castle areas, though I rarely saw students using it.

Another pop—like a spell being performed—followed by more glass. Casting an umbrella charm, I stepped out from beneath the awning and around the corner, and saw Sirius Black.

He was drenched to the bone, robes clinging to him. My breath caught. But then he whipped his wand overhead, and a yellow light shot out and burst one of the bottles lining a ledge on the wall. There was a shout of laughter and James appeared around the corner, a still-full bottle in hand.

Suddenly Sirius noticed me and his arm dropped. Just as I jolted myself back to reality, hurrying around the corner, James called, “Oi! Claire—I mean, Chloe!”

I faltered, considering pretending I never heard. But wouldn’t it be more suspicious to avoid Sirius, and only Sirius? Slowly I turned and they waved me over. With a steadying breath I crossed the courtyard.

“What are you doing?” James said curiously.

My eyes moved from him, to his wand, to their target practice. “What am I doing?”

“Fair enough. We’re studying for our Defense Against the Dark Arts exam.”

“That was yesterday,” I said.

James shrugged a little lop-sidedly with drink. “We’re just really dedicated students.”

My eyes roved over to Sirius, who was being uncharacteristically quiet. He held his wand by both ends, rolling it between his fingers in thought. If the look on his face was a smile, then it was completely embittered. Raindrops coursed off the ends of his hair and into his eyes.

James clapped a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll have to pardon our friend Sirius. He’s not having his best day.”

“Oh,” I said quietly. I expected Sirius to show some kind of annoyance—I barely knew him, and maybe James shouldn’t be spreading that kind of information.

But he opened his arms wide as if making a grand announcement. “I can’t go home this summer.”

James hook his head, muttering something that sounded like “Complete bollocks.” As if he couldn’t stand to hear the story once more, he skulked away. The light from his wand smashed expertly through two bottles but he didn’t even react.

I swallowed. Sirius and I were left alone.

“What do you mean you can’t go home?” I tried not to watch the way the raindrops fell into his parted lips.

“I am officially banished from the Most Noble House of Black.” He said the words as if they soured on his tongue. “I am not allowed to return to my home. I am, as they say, cut off.”

There was a sinking feeling in me. I thought of the story from the Prophet, about the attacks on the Muggle rights activist. The Blacks were certainly one of the elitist pure-blooded families that Marlene had spoken of so venomously. How strange that she and Sirius were able to be friends.

Or whatever it is that they are.

Sirius was pulling a letter from his pocket, which was so rain-soaked that it looked like cloth. He shook the letter indicatively. “The latest installment in the Why-You-are-Such-an-Enormous-Disappointment saga. Because I finally told them just what they really are. Bigoted, elitist monsters—” He slashed his wand so suddenly that I jumped at the explosion of glass. “And they disinherited me.”

Though he gave a cavalier shrug, he was carefully folding the letter and returning it to his pocket. I wondered how long he would keep it. Rereading those awful words. Letting himself start to believe them.

“I’d expect my bedroom has been set on fire by now,” he said.

“You—told them you disagree?”

Sirius looked at me like I had just slapped him. “Of course I disagree!” When I could only stare in shock he barreled on, “What, did you think I was like them? Why does everyone think—”

“No, that’s not it!” I said quickly.

Seeing him like this felt like being on a boat in rough water. Everything had always seemed to roll off his shoulders. Relationships were flings. Bad grades were just a challenge to catch back up; he knew he was smart enough. Detentions didn’t matter because he did things like this—drinking in broad daylight on school grounds—and lived for it.

But something on his face looked different today. Desperate.

“I just…” I thought of my parents, who in comparison to the Blacks were harmless, and how I could never stand up to them. To tell them that I chose this life, in this world, and that I wasn’t made for theirs. “I could never be so brave.”

I said it and the raw honesty sent color to my cheeks. Sirius went very still. He watched me for a long time until I had to look away. Behind us, James’s spell missed a bottle spectacularly, and he cried out in dramatic dismay.

“Thanks,” Sirius murmured, wiping the water from his face, and I knew that I couldn’t keep talking with him. Not if I meant to keep my unspoken promise to Marlene—my friend. I couldn’t stay here with him, rain-soaked, and keep the cords wrenched tightly around my thoughts. My nod was to my feet.

“So, how are you?” He broke the silence, grinning again. The moment was already over. “Anything major going on in your life?”

“It’s my birthday,” I said as if just realizing it.

“Oh.” Sirius blinked with interest, rising to his full height. He jogged off towards James, reaching into an alcove of the courtyard and pulling out an unopened bottle. James watched with mild interest as Sirius tossed the bottle, caught it, and passed it to me.

“Well. Happy birthday, Chloe.”

It was some cheap beer I had never heard of, and I had no desire to drink it. But it still made me feel like a bird was trapped in my belly. I took the bottle, careful not to brush my fingers with his. “Oh. Thank you.”

Sirius smirked, turning back to the wall. “Looks like James is winning. Reckon I’d better catch up.”

I nodded, ducking my head. I didn’t even say goodbye, or look at James, because I needed to disappear. Sirius might have watched as I turned and rushed away; I wasn't sure. My feet carried me back under the archway, through the open doorway, into the castle, and up a short staircase. But I paused at a lone window, looking through the glass like a ghost, past the rain. The courtyard was barely visible from this angle. With my fingertips against the glass I watched Sirius as he stepped backwards into view, gauging his target. Once more his wand whipped through the air like a fencing pole. I could hear his victorious shout as the spell hit its mark.

 

 


Author's Note: Wow, this slow burn is killing me! Another chapter to lay the groundwork and set the stage. Truthfully I have a lot more written, but I wanted to keep this chapter short because of the amount of information. The attack on the Muggle rights activist, Chloe and Marlene having become friends, skipping ahead to the end of the term, and Sirius finding out he's been disowned. I'm excited to continue on, but as always would love to hear your thoughts, readers! Thank you ♥



Chapter 6: Chapter Five
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Chapter Five
 

 


The chatter of students swelled to an indistinguishable hum as we walked amongst the trees. Snippets of conversation leapt out: warm visits to the seaside, not cracking a single book all summer, and who would eat the most banoffee pie. It all sounded nice enough.

I glanced at Bijou for the hundredth time. She was as restless as the day I first took her home, small enough to fit in one hand. Today her curious head poked from my shoulder-bag. If she got away I would never find her here, in the woods outside of Hogsmeade Station. My dragging trunk caught on a stone, jostling the cat, and I covered her head protectively.

The crowd was moving slowly but a young girl sprinted past, cartwheeling in the dirt, whipping her hair to laugh with her friends. Our gazes met and skittered away and I felt myself smiling despite myself.

Perhaps I was sulking. But returning to my home for the summer holiday wasn’t so joyful. It meant no magic. It meant tending a garden of vegetables and herbs with no magical properties. It meant singing along, off-key, to quiet hymns in dusty churches; shearing sheep and churning butter and making smalltalk with my father about the market price of wool. Even receiving owls made my Mum nervous.

In the warm evenings I could read outside, on the lone hill of our property, from the books I bought in Hogsmeade about dragons and magical fungi. But they always felt like fiction. Like I had made up their world in my head. As if Hogwarts didn’t actually exist, and neither did the feeling of magic as it coursed, like an electrical current, through my wand. Neither did quiet evenings in the greenhouse, or broomsticks, or Marlene.

I had no idea where she was right now. The past week was spent distancing myself, as if preparing for a fast. Most evenings I spent in the Hufflepuff common room, rather than seeking her out on the castle grounds, drinking in the warm air with Lily Evans. I had evaded her questions about the train ride home. Somehow, it felt easier to find a lone compartment, or to share one with quiet strangers, than face my last hours with her.

In my trunk her mailing address was scrawled on a scrap of parchment, pressed between the pages of a book. I could write to her, at least. Maybe.

Several fat raindrops splattered onto the path. A collective groan: so much for nice weather. Springtime rain always smelled metallic to me, and I breathed in the curious scent. When we reached Hogsmeade Station at last the train, billowing steam, made my heart sink. I glanced down once more to Bijou before stepping aboard.

Students raced for the best seating with their friends, as frantic as a beehive. Bijou and I pushed our way through the chaos. As we passed from car to car the crowds grew sparser; usually the train’s end held an empty compartment or two. My newest book, lent by Professor Sprout, was burning a hole in my robe. A quiet ride and the autobiography of Britain’s first female herbologist awaited.

I reached for the doorknob to the next car, but a glance through the window stopped me stone-still.

Michael Flint. His back was to me, but I would recognize the razor-sharp precision of his haircut anywhere. As if he’d known I was coming, he fixed me with a cold glance over his shoulder. The lips of Coraline Avery and Artemisia Ward were parted mid-sentence, curling into wicked smiles. Their triad stood like centurions. They were so terribly proud of what they’d done.

In the glass I saw my own reflection, moon eyed. I took a staggering step backwards, and then another, until I turned and ran—right into Peter Pettigrew.

Miraculously, he managed not to drop the pile of sweets in his arms. “Oh! Hi, Chloe. Cauldron Cake?”

Bijou hissed loudly, which was unlike her, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I could hardly unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth. “No, thank you.”

A glance revealed that the Slytherins had disappeared. Somehow, that was more unsettling.

“I’m a bit lost, actually,” Peter was saying. “James sent me to find sweets, and, well, the compartments all look the same…”

At that moment a door slid open and Remus Lupin’s head poked out. “Peter! How could you possibly have gotten lost?” He spotted me and smiled politely. “Hello.”

“Who’s that?” came Marlene’s voice. “Better not be someone after my Licorice Wands, I told Peter to buy her out—Chloe!” She nearly elbowed Remus in waving me over. “Get in here!”

The compartment looked like a clown car. Peter struggled back to his window seat, tripping over the tangle of legs. Overhead, the storage area bulged with suitcases and two owl cages. Marlene was practically sitting on Lily Evans, and across from them James struggled not to do the same to Peter. Mary MacDonald, a Gryffindor who had always seemed friendly, was pancaked between the wall and Remus. Her frizzy black hair was tied back with a bandana.

“We’re having a bit of trouble with the enlargement charms,” she explained as I stood in the threshold.

“Reckon we never have to worry about them, do we?” James winked and Mary snorted with laughter. (Lily audibly scoffed, “Oh, please.”)

A shadow moved beside me and I jumped—but it was Sirius who was standing so close. An expensive dragonskin jacket adorned him. He was leaning in the doorway as if constantly waiting for someone to take his photograph.

He eyed the tangle of limbs appreciatively. “Well this is impressive.”

“Even more than the Hogsmeade Carriage Debacle of ’74?” James asked.

“I would say so.” Remus nodded thoughtfully.

“More space per person,” agreed Peter.

“Oh my God, just give me the bloody Licorice Wands!” Marlene bellowed. Looking frightened, Peter released the pile of sweets and they descended like vultures.

Mouth full, Marlene quirked an eyebrow at Sirius. “Gonna stand there posing all day, James Dean?”

He rolled his eyes but came to sit beside her and, after a pause, draped her legs across his lap. She didn’t even seem to notice, already tearing in to her next pack of Licorice Wands, but I felt my chest tighten.

“Have a seat,” Lily said. “If you can find one.”

“I have a lap available,” offered James.

My cheeks burned but I said, looking squarely at Marlene, “It’s alright, I was going to have a kip. Plus Bijou isn’t very friendly.” It wasn’t entirely a lie, as she didn’t seem to like Peter. “Find me on the platform so we can say goodbye?”

Marlene gave an upside-down little smile. “Aw, don’t say it like that! You’re breaking my heart. Are you sure you won’t stay?”

She was oblivious as Sirius rested his hands on her shins, casting a downward smile. I remembered that afternoon in the courtyard; the hammer of the rain and the way it fell into his parted lips.

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

Turning the opposite direction of the Black Adders, I walked briskly. I heard Marlene murmur defensively, “Oh, come off it, she’s just shy.” Chatter and laughter from their compartment, and others’, followed in my wake.

Near the front of the train was an unoccupied compartment—an unpopular spot near the Professors’ car. My still-shaking hands placed my luggage overhead and the train slowly rolled into motion. Out the rain-pattered window, Hogsmeade Station gave way to forest, and finally the strange domelike hills of the Scottish highlands. I only halfway watched the scene while Bijou kneaded my lap. The book remained in my robe, unopened. I never slept.

 

 

 


While the train pulled into Platform 9¾ I stood, still and straight as a tree, at the exit. The moment the train stopped—the second I heard the click of the door magically unlocking—I threw it open and rushed into the throngs, trunk dragging. Hopefully the Black Adders were far behind. I imagined they would rise languidly from their seats, slowly collecting their designer luggage, like their every move was heralded.

My parents weren’t in the first row. I was relieved and pushed through the crowd like breaking into water. Amid the bodies, I felt sheltered. Walking more slowly I searched for them: my father, tall and thin, with his trademark derby cap, and my mother’s rosy cheeks and flyaway bun. She was small like me and barely came to his shoulder. They would look nervous, as always. Uncomfortable to be around so many strange folks.

A woman, standing a short distance from the others, caught my attention like a flickering lightbulb. Something about her reminded me of a bird of prey. She was beautiful, and must have been somebody’s mother or aunt, but nothing about her was maternal. Her high-collared emerald green dress robes were of the finest silk, and left only her bone-white hands exposed, clasped tightly before her.

She must have felt my stare. Suddenly her inky eyes were on me, as if I were a beetle, pinned inside a glass case. It felt like she was pulling something from inside of me until it wasn’t there anymore.

“Chloe, over here.”

My parents. I had walked close enough to touch them and hadn’t even realized. Blinking myself back to reality, I forced a smile.

“Mum.” I pressed a kiss to her cheek. “It’s good to see you.”

My Dad smiled down at me, uncertain whether to hug me as always, and I closed the space between us. Certainly they were happy to see their daughter. But beneath the rosy cheeks and shining eyes, I knew they were uneasy.

“Hi, Dad. Have you been waiting long?”

“Not at all!” he said, and I knew he would have said it even if they’d been there all week. He took my suitcase for me. “Good trip?”

“I read a lot,” I lied.

“Our smart girl,” my mother beamed, for a moment forgetting where she was, and the kind of people that surrounded her. She bent to scratch Bijou under her chin, where she was replaced in the satchel. “And hello to you, little one. Where’s Emily?”

I fought to keep my voice light. “Off with some friends, I’m sure. I said goodbye to her already.”

My Mum nodded. “Well, shall we go then?”

I knew I had been lying, when I had told Marlene I would find her and say goodbye. So I nodded, releasing a breath. “Yeah, let’s go.”

“Chloe!”

Sirius’s voice came from just over my shoulder, where I felt a persistent tap of his finger. My parents’ expressions were unreadable as they took him in: a tall, handsome young Wizard, who clearly came from money, touching their daughter.

I turned to face not only Sirius, but the woman. My breath caught as realization materialized: she was his mother. Now, as she stood at a distance behind him, I noticed their same olive skin and dark hair. But it was their eyes—hers black and fathomless, his grey and glimmering—that set them apart.

Her hand was clamped on the shoulder of a young boy. He was standing so timidly that he all but blended into her robes. Sirius’s brother, Regulus.

“Hi,” I finally managed. I stood like a barricade between him and my parents, whose nervous looks I could feel burning into the back of my skull.

James, Remus and Peter stood behind Sirius, in a half-circle. And Marlene, I realized with a skipped beat. Her white-blonde hair seemed be standing on end, as if an electrical current were pulsing through her. They all glowered at Mrs. Black.

She banished her own son.

“I want you to meet my dear mother,” Sirius said to me. James clenched his fists at his side, shifting his weight. What, was he going to punch the woman?

Mrs. Black ignored him. “Regulus, say goodbye to your…”

She couldn’t even say the word “brother.”

“That’s right,” Sirius was speaking in a theatrical tone, to me, to everyone. “Old Walburga here hasn’t come to collect me. As you’ll recall, I’m not allowed to return to my home this year. But Regulus, the ideal heir to the Black family fortune—now, he’s a different story.”

Regulus’s head hung in utter mortification and, in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to hex Sirius. The former’s porcelain cheeks were pock-marked with acne, his nose too big for his face, as he cast me a low glance.

“Hello,” I tried to smile.

Walburga’s hand flew to the boy’s chest, pulling him against her as if I were an unclean rodent in their path. “That’s enough from you,” she snapped, and I wasn’t sure if she meant Sirius or myself.

But the former, unable to admit defeat, threw an arm around me so violently that I nearly tripped. A gasp escaped that I prayed it was unheard. Sirius pulled me, stumbling, into his side and pinned me there. He smelled like clove cigarettes and pine.

“Chloe here is a Muggle-born,” he said proudly. He looked down at me like my father looked at our dog, Monty, when he won the herding prize. “Isn’t that right?”

My throat closed in anger, shame, fear—to be ousted in front of another elitist Pure-blood. But I didn’t have to respond, because Walburga spat, “Well that much is perfectly obvious!”

The scar tissue along my belly seemed to constrict like a snake. Her black eyes raked over me in disgust, landing on the Muggle wristwatch with a sneer. I felt it again, the sensation of being sapped of whatever kept me standing.

Sirius discarded me unceremoniously as Walburga said, “Is this supposed to impress me? Do you think you’ve somehow won here? You can keep your filthy little playthings! As far as I’m concerned, you’re dead to us!”

Her voice ended in a shriek, and the crowd’s voices fell to a hush. Students dropped their summer holiday smiles. And Sirius, with his feet planted in defiance, looked for one moment—one, nearly imperceptible moment—as if he might cry.

But then the silent vacuum swelled once more, the passers-by continued on their way, and the world righted itself. Back to its ugly, awful self. I felt sick. Regulus and Mrs. Black turned on the spot, pushing angrily through the crowds.

Sirius remained staring, the ghost of that expression still on his face, until he deftly molded a new one around it. He spun on one foot, shrugging widely to his friends. “What do you reckon? Should I start planning the next family barbecue?”

Remus, Peter and Marlene could barely conceal their grim looks under attempted smiles. But James was ready with the assist.

“Absolutely. I’d say you two will take the mother-son bakeoff.” He clapped Sirius on the back. But I saw the dark look he cast over his shoulder.

Something tugged at the corner of my vision: Peter. He was giving me the most pitying look I could imagine. Coming from him, who—for all intents and purposes—was the tagalong of their little group, it was all the more crushing. I felt like a piece of parchment somebody had crumpled up.

“Chloe?” came my mother’s eggshell voice. My eyes fluttered shut. Of course fate had allowed them to be present for this. With her tiny fist pressed to her mouth, she looked like a child who needed consoling.

“It’s alright,” I lied.

And I waited for Sirius to prove that it was. For some kind of an apology; a second glance; anything. But they were all muttering together, attempting smiles, changing subjects. Remus’s voice drifted over, “You should come stay at mine.” I waited, stupid and forgotten, until I couldn’t anymore.

It looked as if the color was only now returning to my parents’ cheeks. They each took my arm, like I were an athlete who had lost the medal, and needed to be walked from the field.

“It’s alright,” I said again. “Let’s go home.” And in that moment, a summer without magic sounded exactly right. No Michael Flint, no Walburga Black, no Sirius. But then something was crashing into me from behind, stopping me—

It was Marlene, grabbing me in a fierce hug. She smelled like licorice wands. I limply returned her embrace and she said in my ear, “I’m so sorry, Chloe.” A peck was pressed to my cheek and she held me at arm’s length, studying me closely. Her mouth pressed into a sad smile.

“Write to me, okay?”

And then she was gone.

 

 

 


The sun beat down mercilessly, where I kneeled in the soil. It was a record summer. Sweat beaded on the back of my exposed neck, and I pressed a dirty cloth to the skin, careful not to remove the sunscreen. My wide-brimmed hat was too heavy to wear, too hot. It lay discarded several feet away. But the strawberries were perfect, fat, ruby-red jewels. They had to be picked in time for tomorrow’s farmers’ market.

My basket was already brimming with berries. It seemed like there were still thousands to go. I dragged myself to my feet, wishing I could Levitate the basket to the shady spot, instead of hauling it. I was seventeen, and it was legal. But my mother was just across the field and would surely notice.

“Mum!” I called, struggling with the weight. She raised her head from tending the zucchini. I mimed drinking a glass of water and staggered to place the basket with the others.

Several small birds had gathered eagerly around the pile. I shooed them with my hands. They flew away in a loop, immediately settling back in their places. Cheeky things. With a quick glance over my shoulder, I pulled my wand from the waistband of my skirt.

“Protego,” I murmured, and a faint light vanished around the baskets. I fixed the birds with a smug look before heading into the cool dimness of our home.

The house was quiet. Dad was in town at my aunt and uncle’s—Emily’s house. He was helping them build a raised flowerbed. They lived in a nice home, with neighbors on either side, and a television, and a paved driveway. Dad had offered me a day off, if I wanted to tag along and spend time with Emily. By now her name only elicited a dull nothingness; a distinct lack of emotion, as if she registered as a blank parchment in my mind.

“No, that’s okay,” I had said easily over my plate of fried eggs. “I know Mum needs help with the strawberries.”

Now discarding my shoes at the door, I thought, If he was suspicious, he didn’t show it.

The stone floor of the entryway was cool on the soles of my feet. I stilled, letting my body temperature lower. The calendar beside me bore an unremarkable oil painting—a field of wildflowers, some mountains—at which I had glanced countless times. It was turned to August.

Less than one month until I was back at school.

It was the same as last summer, and the summer before that: nearly impossible to believe that Hogwarts existed. That somewhere, painted portraits spoke, and Elves prepared delicious feasts, and staircases swung temperamentally, and professors turned into cats. That there was a whole other world I inhabited, a whole different version of myself.

I turned on the faucet and let the water run. The pipes were old, like the rest of the house, and the first half-glass always tasted metallic. I leaned against the counter and drank heartily. Then I filled another glass, and drank that. A jar of jam was left open on the cutting board. I stuck a finger inside to taste the sugary fruit. Boysenberry. Made from last year’s harvest.

In the stillness of the kitchen, the calendar seemed to be physically looming. In just over three weeks, I needed to have my entire summer coursework finished for my Herbology apprenticeship. I had, in the first weeks of holiday, done the research in my bedroom after my parents fell asleep. But as the temperature climbed, and the farm work grew more demanding, the project had taken a back seat.

Part of me wondered if it was on purpose. One afternoon, my Mum had caught me experimenting with Screechsnap clippings (the entire crux of my project) brought from the Hogwarts greenhouse. The leaves constantly swayed as if in a breeze; it was impossible to hide as anything but a magical plant. Over the next weeks there was a sudden rise in the tasks I needed to complete. Floor scrubbing, weed pulling, errand running, market booth tending.

I reached for the jam once more, freezing halfway. The Screechsnap! I hadn’t given it any water over the last few days.

Cursing under my breath, I sprinted up the stairs to my room. Without the plant to study, there was no way I could finish my summer coursework.

My room was the same as when I was little. The same small bed was pushed against the wall, my Grandmum’s quilt spread over the mattress. A chair by the window doubled as a spot to read or, if I pulled it to my heirloom desk, a comfortable place to study. The desk itself was my great-grandmother’s, on my father’s side. It was old, and smelled it, in a pleasant way. The drawers had keyholes but my Mum had never given me the key, so they remained unlocked.

I pulled the top left drawer open and gingerly extracted the Screechsnap. They thrived in the dark, which was why it had lived in the drawer—unfortunately, it was also why I had forgotten it. Professor Sprout had given me two tissue-thin papers, enchanted to retain moisture. The Screechsnap was kept between them. Carefully I lifted the stem with two fingers…

The faintest twitch of a leaf returned my heartbeat in whooshing relief. It was salvageable.

With a surgeon’s precision, I used the eye-dropper to release two beads of fresh water on the base of the stem. It would need more, in a few hours, but I didn’t want to oversaturate it. Relieved, I gently replaced it in the drawer.

I paused when I spotted the opened envelopes, kept in the drawer beneath the Screechsnap. There were three of them, and they were all from Marlene. The letters detailed her summertime adventures with Lily and her four siblings; as the only witch, she spent her holidays reveling in the Muggle activities missed at school. She’d mentioned several new films she’d gone to see at the cinema, and new music records she’d bought. I hadn’t heard of any of the films, or the records.

She never asked why I didn’t write back. In fact, she seemed the only schoolmate aware that the events at Platform 9¾ had left me shaken. For the first month of summer, in the spare moments I had alone (riding in the back of my father’s lorry, looking for escaped sheep; walking into town for groceries) I had hoped for a letter from Sirius. I wanted some kind of apology.

Of course, it never came. It was foolish of me to wait for it.

I was grateful, as always, for Marlene’s kindness. But each letter sent a fresh wave of shame, like the pins-and-needles of a limb falling asleep, through my whole body. Because as I read her messy script, I remembered that Sirius could have chosen her to single out. Marlene was a Muggle-born. And she actually was his friend, and somebody he was infatuated with. Somebody who would drive his mother insane. But he had wanted to spare Marlene the pain and humiliation.

He hadn’t minded humiliating me.

“There you are!”

I jumped at my mother’s voice, a hand flying to my chest. She stood in the doorway, smiling, but I saw her eye the open drawer. “We’ve got to hurry up with those strawberries, dear,” she said. “We still have to clean them, and then there’s the zucchini and the eggs…”

So many things to do, here and now. No time for whatever is in that drawer.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll be right down.”

But she stood in the doorway, smiling expectantly, so I closed the drawer and followed after her.

 


Author's note: This was certainly a longer chapter! So Chloe is starting to realize that bigotry doesn't stop with Hogwarts and the Black Adders. Meeting Walburga--and Sirius throwing her under the bus--was important for this story in a lot of ways, and I was excited to get to it! Does anybody hate Sirius yet? Do we feel like Chloe is leading a double life, between the magical and Muggle worlds? ♥



Chapter 7: Chapter Six
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Chapter Six
 

 


The Great Hall looked like a royal court for the Sorting Ceremony. House banners billowed as if in a breeze; professors sat at the head table like nobility. I half expected a procession of trumpets and court jesters. It was silly and dull to most older students, as we impatiently awaited the First-Years and, more importantly, the feast. But I liked it. It reminded me of my first time stepping inside Hogwarts, scrawny and pigtailed, clinging to Emily’s arm.

My parents were sad to see me board the Hogwarts Express, earlier today. It was my seventh and final time, and as I waved from the window, I wished their anxieties hadn’t clouded such an important moment. They stood watching like they’d never see me again.

But by the time the train pulled to a stop at Hogsmeade Station, and my Muggle watch froze mid-tic, the fog of guilt lifted. There was a change in the air; a distinct autumnal snap. I stepped off the Hogwarts Express with my chin lifted a degree higher than usual.

Chatter ricocheted off the Great Hall’s vaulted ceiling. The Gryffindor table was filling with students, but Marlene had not yet arrived. I smiled at Quill Hopkins, a Sixth-Year seated beside me, and we murmured politely about our summers. Emily’s long looks, cast from down the table, had become surprisingly easy to ignore.

A napkin, folded into a paper airplane, suddenly landed on the table. It was like deja vu. For a moment I was back in the year before, sitting across from Emily, when Michael had sent her the note that had sparked everything. Everything from the attack to my friendship with Marlene.

But Michael was graduated, now. Gone. Things were different.

A smile lit up my face: Marlene was waving ecstatically from the Gryffindor table. Her hair had somehow grown even more white-blonde in the sun. Seeing her sent a little skittering in my heart, like a stone skipping over water, and I suddenly felt so, so incredibly stupid for avoiding her.

Across from her James, Sirius, Peter and Remus lined the bench. They were talking animatedly to anyone and everyone. I recognized the back of Sirius’s head. His black hair had grown even longer and more and unruly over the months. He must have noticed Marlene’s waving; he turned and offered me a little smile over his shoulder.

The corner of my mouth twitched and I quickly turned to Marlene’s note.

YOU JERK, I MISSED YOU, COME FIND US AT THE LAKE TONIGHT OR I SWEAR TO GOD

Biting my lip to keep from smiling too hard, and fully conscious of Emily's shocked stare, I wrote, I will. I promise.

And this time, I meant it.

 

 

 


The air had cooled considerably as I walked to the Black Lake. The low sun was turning the bellies of fat clouds orange. In the far distance the hills of the Scottish highlands, bare and round, cast behemoth shadows. It was the strange time—unique to the mountains—when it was both day and night, depending on where you were standing.

I had missed this. Our family farm was worthy of a generic oil painting, maybe. But it was the wild hills and untamed forests that really tugged at something inside of me.

Students clustered in groups around the lake. It was an unspoken beginning-of-term tradition to gather along the glassy water, some of them testing camouflaging charms on cheap alcohol. Filch always came skulking around. But unless you were particularly ungifted with charms, nobody seemed to ever get caught.

I had almost completely rounded the lake before I heard Marlene’s distinctive laugh. A clump of students wearing their day clothes gathered around a fallen tree. I caught a flash of long, fire-red hair. Lily Evans. Which meant James Potter, which meant Sirius Black. I swallowed. Spending time with Marlene, while trying to avoid the boy glued to her side, was proving difficult.

“Chloe!” Marlene called.

I stumbled down the hill where the dirt met with stony beach. Marlene met me halfway. She was wearing some sort of enormous sack meant to be a dress and combat boots—black, of course, like the smokey pencil around her eyes.

“I missed you,” she said, crushing me in a hug.

Her physical affection, and the ease with which she gifted it, still caught me off guard. But I returned the embrace after a stunned moment. “Missed you too.”

She smiled her wide smile, and called to the others, “Look who I found!”

A slew of Gryffindors greeted me, some enthusiastically, others with a quiet nod. Among the mumblings came Peter’s usual “Hi, Chloe,” as he blushed down at his shoes. Remus lifted his chin with a polite smile.

Mary MacDonald retrieved the bottle behind her crossed ankles and winked, “Evening.”

I nodded at James’s badge. “Head Boy. Erm, impressive.”

He threw his hands in the air. “Why is everyone so bloody incredulous?”

“Probably because you brought the bottle,” Lily said, hugging her chest to cover her own badge.

Marlene slung an arm around my shoulders. As she guided me away from the group I mentally congratulated myself for not so much as glancing Sirius’s way. Still, his presence tugged at the corner of my vision like a blot of ink. I knew he was sitting next to James on the fallen tree.

Alcohol laced Marlene’s breath. “We got here ages ago. Where were you?”

“Well…” I searched for the answer that would make me seem the least like a complete loser.

She clicked her tongue. “Chloe! The greenhouses, already? It’s not even the first day of term yet!”

“I could say the same to you, lush. You smell like Filch at Christmas.”

“Oi!” She pulled me into a near-headlock. “I’m just getting it out of my system. This year I’ll have top marks, even better than yours.”

I nodded in a way that said, Doubt it.

A scandalized look came over her. Holding me at arm’s length, she scoffed, “You’re so brown, you little minx! What, were you at the seaside all summer without us?”

I wiped at my face as if it would remove the new freckles. “Nothing half as glamorous. I was put to work all summer on the farm. I actually helped birth a calf.”

Marlene made a face but then her voice dropped. “Hey, how’s things with your Mum? Alright?”

It felt like a chord in my chest was plucked. “She’s… still adjusting, somehow. Sorry I was so quiet this summer, I just, well, you know.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “Next year, eh? You’ve got to come round to mine. God, I was so bored. I had to resort to hanging out with Sirius.”

I plastered on a smile, imagining the two of them lazing in the heat, or doubled over with their contagious laughter. “I promise, I was more bored.”

“Your Mum shouldn’t even be able to stop you, technically. You are a legal adult.”

“In our world. Not hers. Try explaining to a God-fearing Muggle that not only do we fly on broomsticks and speak in secret languages, but we can start legally misbehaving a year earlier.”

“She’ll come ‘round,” said Marlene resolutely.

I pressed my mouth into a smile. Headstrong, determined Marlene couldn’t even imagine. Maybe she was the black sheep of her family, but it was in a loving way. She was a novelty to them. Oh, our little Marlene, always off at her weird school learning weird things.

The watch my Mum gifted me seemed to constrict around my wrist.

“Definitely,” I said.

Marlene steered us back to the group. Pretending to rub my chin on my shoulder, I finally allowed myself a glance at Sirius. He was starting the fire. A cigarette—hopefully bewitched to leave no telltale scent—dangled from his lips.

Sirius glanced up and I tore my eyes away.

“Oi, got any of those to spare?” James said.

“…the bloody Head Boy…” Lily rubbed her temples. “We do have to meet with McGonagall in one hour, you know.”


“Not to worry, love, not to worry.”

James had already fished a cigarette from Sirius’s dragonskin jacket, which was oh-so-carefully draped over the tree trunk. He tossed another to Remus and a hesitant Peter. They were idiots. Surely Filch would be here any minute, but they didn't seem to care. The concept was so unnervingly strange to me.

I had slaved for six years—soon to be seven—to earn top marks, and stay out of trouble, and keep my head down. Then Marlene came into the picture with these friends of hers. It seemed that Lily and I—and Mary MacDonald, for all I knew—were being pulled into their little world, where detentions didn’t matter and memories made were more important than their consequences.

These thoughts culminated in the usual irritation as I stole another glance at Sirius. He was taking a long drag on the cigarette. To my surprise, the feelings of frustration were overcome by another: I’d never had the faintest desire to smoke a cigarette in my life, but I suddenly wanted to take it from his lips and put it to my own.

The fire burst to life. Mary’s squeal of delight echoed over the lake and Sirius sheathed his wand, looking proud of himself. Embers lifted into the breeze and vanished into the purple sky. We shared an oddly silent moment before it was abruptly ended.

“We’ve got a regular Phoenix Scout over here!” James nudged Sirius with his foot, who swatted him away.

Mary and Remus were sitting rather close, hoarding the bottle, and as Marlene had taken to standing over Sirius to critique his kindling, I turned to the remaining space beside Peter. Getting between Lily and James—while her grudging look slowly turned into stolen glances—felt like treason.

“Good summer?” I asked Peter.

He ruffled his hair. “I reckon, yeah. You?”

“Glad to be back.”

“Me too.”

That exhausted our topics of conversation; I stared into the fire instead. Marlene was using her wand to enlarge the blaze to her liking, while Sirius watched with annoyance and the usual admiration. Across the lake, other fires had sprung up, flickering orange like cat’s eyes.

“Oi, Chloe,” called Marlene. “Stay a while. Ditch the uniform.”

I glanced down self-consciously while the others tittered. Professor Sprout probably wouldn’t have minded, had I arrived out of uniform, but it felt unnatural. Somehow disrespectful. I had thrown my robes on on at the last minute, over my dress.

“Well, since you asked so very nicely…” I mumbled and shrugged the fabric away. Baring my shoulders on school grounds felt like walking into a church naked. And even though Mary’s shorts flaunted her muscular Quidditch legs, and Marlene’s porcelain collarbones were glowing in the firelight, I hoped the conversation had changed—

“Ow-owww!” Marlene spiraled into a fit of wolf-whistles and catcalls. The others erupted into laughter. “Look at those farmworker’s arms!”

“Get the girl a drink!” James said and Mary thrust the bottle towards me.

“You’re an infant,” Remus chided, though his own voice lagged with alcohol. “Chloe, it’s disgusting. You don’t have to drink it.”

“Hey! It’s all I could find,” Peter said.

“Yeah, it’s doing the trick, isn’t it?” Mary nudged Remus and his face glowed.

I took the bottle from her hand, which she seemed to have forgotten was outstretched. An overpowering smell, like my Mum’s floor cleaner, assaulted my nostrils. I tried not to gag.

Marlene cast a look of solidarity. “Chloe doesn’t care. She’s got this.”

But as I brought the bottle to my lips, my eyes roved across the fire and met, for the first time, with Sirius’s. His face wavered in the heat. Still, I saw clearly as his gaze raked over my bare shoulders, and he gently thumbed his lips. I nearly dropped the bottle. He had never—not once—looked at me that way.

I turned my eyes to something, anything else that wouldn’t send terrible little thrills through my body. Lily’s hair. It was the same color as the fire. But she was watching me in an unsettlingly knowing way. Her gaze flicked to Sirius, and then back to me.

No.

I thrust the bottle to Peter so quickly that it sloshed on his cornflower shirt. Suddenly I was on my feet. “I have to go.”

James spread his arms theatrically. “Aw, what? Are we that boring?”

“Chloe, c’mon,” Marlene implored. “We were just teasing. You don’t have to drink.”

“I really wouldn’t recommend it, actually,” said Remus tipsily and Peter sulked.

The lack of commentary from Sirius meant he was still staring. “No, it’s okay. I forgot—I told Professor Sprout I would drop off my assignment tonight. You lot have fun!”

I was already covering myself with the cloak, walking backwards so quickly that I tripped on an exposed root. Regaining my balance, I offered an odd little wave and turned around just in time to avoid smacking into a tree.

Marlene struggled to hide her laughter. “Alright, then, see you tomorrow!”

Somehow I managed not to sprint all the way to the castle.

 

 

 


The library was deserted, of course. I had no reason to be there, having dropped off my assignment with Sprout hours before going to the lake, but it was the first place that came to mind. The rows and rows of books were labyrinthine and I needed somewhere to lose myself. Hide.

Madame Pince had raised her head at my footsteps. But her scowl disappeared when she recognized one of her tolerated students. The library would be closing soon, surely; the chandeliers were smoking, having just been snuffed. Probably for Pince to create as unwelcoming an environment as possible and savor her last remaining hours of silence.

Soon, the familiar scent of the Herbology section filled my lungs. Many of the books were enchanted and the area smelled like a forest. If I closed my eyes, it almost felt like I were outside, somewhere deep in the trees and rain-dampened ferns.

Spare torches cast just enough light to read the book spines as my fingers trailed along the cracked surfaces. Absently I unsheathed and turned through the pages of a book, but I wasn’t actually reading. Instead, I went over the list again. The one I had practiced over the summer.

He acts like a child.

His family is worse than the Black Adder Society.


And finally, the most hauntingly convincing reason:

Marlene.

“Bit early on for studying, don’t you think?”

His voice was low but I still jumped. Sirius was standing on the other side of the aisle.

It was a moment before the words would come. “I-I wanted a head start.”

“‘Course you did.”

He must have been directly in front of me. Through the empty spaces among the books I caught a glimpse of black dragonskin leather—he shifted and our eyes nearly met. Stifling a gasp, I took a step backwards.

I tried not to focus on the obvious fact: Sirius had followed me here. He had left the fire, and Marlene, and sought me out.

“You’re very brown, you know,” he said slyly.

“So I’ve heard.” I was grateful he couldn’t see my blush. “What are you doing here?”

“Just looking.” But something in his tone said that he didn’t mean at the books. A feeling like a breeze ran up the backs of my legs.

“Pince could help you with that.”

He snorted quietly and said the words from last year, in Slughorn’s classroom, “You really don’t like me, do you Chloe?”

“It doesn’t matter what I like.”

Too late I realized what I had done. And now it was out in the universe, and I could never take it back. I was no good at this. Being practiced, and guarded, every single word premeditated and designed to keep him at bay—I would always slip up. Even after what had happened at Platform 9¾ last year, and after stewing in my anger and confusion all summer, I was helpless.

I faced the opposite wall, toying with the frayed edges of a book. But I could feel him looking at the hair pulled hastily onto the crown of my head; the exposed nape of my neck. So this was how he looked at other girls. The ones he distracted a shadowy version of himself with, while the real Sirius waited for Marlene.

And waited.

“That’s funny,” he said thoughtfully, “It almost sounded like you do like me.”

In frustration, I turned and nearly shouted, “Oh, come on, Sirius!” It echoed in the silence and I expected—even prayed for—Pince to come storming over. But nothing came to save me from the moment, and so I said more quietly, “I would never… get in the way.”

His voice was a shade darker this time. “Marlene could have me if she wanted.”

“You’re smitten, though. It’s obvious. And where is this all coming from? You’ve never been even remotely…interested…”

“Merlin, Chloe.” His voice was behind me now and I spun around. It must have been the reaction he wanted: I could hear his grin. “I’m not asking you to bear my children.”

The words hung in the air: I’m asking for something else.

“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t.”

I imagined him shrugging one shoulder, the way he often did. “No need to be sorry.”

The absence of disappointment was like a weight. Because somewhere, didn’t I know that all of this was my own making? That withholding something from myself—something that I wanted—was the pattern I had always followed? No alcohol. No late nights. No distracting friendships.

No Sirius.


I pushed off, continuing down the row of books. “I should finish.”

But I felt his presence shift from the other side, following. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just find some reading.”

Sirius continued to trail, silently, alongside me. I felt him like a shadow. A thrill shot up my spine at each glimpse of movement through our partition, or when I unsheathed a book and felt it tug, teasingly, from the other side. Surely he could hear my breath catching. For one wild moment, I didn’t care. It was a game and I let myself go on playing.

Tomorrow, I could be ashamed. Right now I was the kind of person who delighted in this.

We reached the end of the aisle.  Holding my breath, I stepped out—and there he was, waiting, dangerous and beautiful. I had never been alone with him before. His face was startlingly symmetrical, save for one brow that rested lower than the other. I wondered if the sly look that I had written off as practiced was really authentic; just the unique makeup of his expression.

Actually, I didn’t know much about Sirius at all. I hadn't let myself.

“I should go,” I said automatically.

But even as he nodded, Sirius was slowly, deliberately closing the space between us, his hands clasped behind his back. I didn’t realize I was moving until I backed into a shelf so quickly that the contents rattled. All the while he came closer, eyes trained on mine, and when he was so near that I could smell the woodsmoke again I was suddenly lifting my chin, chest expanding, fingers gripped white onto the shelf.

“Don’t,” I breathed as my eyes fluttered shut.

“Ah. Here we are.”

My eyes snapped open and he plucked a book from over my shoulder. I sank back down from my tiptoes, blinking, as he clapped a hand on the cover. “Merpeople: A Comprehensive Guide to Learning their Language and Customs. This should do nicely.”

His eyes glimmered in the torchlight and I couldn’t speak. It had been a game. And he had won.

“Goodnight, Chloe.”

The breath didn’t come rushing from my lungs until his footsteps faded completely. And then I burst from my spot like a wild animal, sprinting through the library. Madame Pince’s shriek came as an echo behind me; I was already gone. I hurried down the empty corridors, the smell of woodsmoke and pine lingering. It seemed ingrained in the fabric of my clothes, in my hair—a permanent mark that no amount of magic could remove.

 


Author's Note: Of course, I'd actually had this chapter written ages ago because ~sexual tension~ I'm interested to see what everyone thinks at this point about Sirius and Chloe, and where their relationship is or isn't going..

Thank you to MalfoysAngel for helping me come up with Phoenix Scouts, which you've probably guessed is the magical equivalent of Eagle Scouts :)

Please leave a review! ♥



Chapter 8: Chapter Seven
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Chapter Seven
 

 


Waking the next morning was like being pulled from another time and place. Another galaxy. I blinked the sleep from my eyes as the canopy of my four-poster materialized into familiarity. Below, in the common room, tin-can jazz played from a gramophone. There were the other familiar, early-morning sounds of Hufflepuff as well: quiet chatter of early rises, chairs scraping the stone floors. But the dormitory was silent.

I felt different. Some new part of me, someplace both physical and somewhere deeper, was aching—and for a moment I didn’t know why. Then I remembered woodsmoke and pine. How close Sirius had been as he reached over my shoulder; the breath that had grazed my cheek.

He had won, somehow. Maybe last night was insignificant to him—another girl, another attempt at something carnal—but it had said everything I’d been trying not to. And surely he would remember it for as long as we knew each other. There would always be that unspoken truth: that I had wanted him to kiss me. I had wanted him to press me against the bookshelf, and to feel his hands in the very places I was aching, right now.

A sudden, horrible thought struck me. Would he tell Marlene?

Groaning, I rolled over, wishing the swath of covers would swallow me whole. But the grandfather clock struck seven, a sadistic reminder that life would keep moving. It was the first day of classes; the other sleeping girls stirred into wakefulness. I swung my legs over the side of the bed. In the standing mirror against the wall I saw myself reflected amidst spotted gray light. Slowly I approached the glass.

Maybe I did look different this year. There was nothing particularly striking about my appearance, as always. But whatever childishness had remained seemed to have vanished overnight. In its place was something indecipherable.

I had never paid much attention to appearances before now. I knew that my cheekbones were strong, but only because my mother often pointed them out, as if she’d chiseled them by hand. My wide eyes were somewhere between gray and blue. They had the irritating habit of making me appear constantly awestruck. But I had been called pretty before, mostly by older relatives. At the time the word had meant nothing.

I turned my head side to side as if something would reveal itself; some tangible proof of what Sirius had seen in me, suddenly, from across the fire. Why he had followed me to the library. Why he left Marlene at the lake.

“Better quit preening and get a move-on!” The mirror’s quip broke the silence and I jumped.

There was more stirring from behind me. I darted into the loo before the others could wake.

 

 

 

 


The first week of classes went smoothly and uneventfully. I fell into the familiar rhythm with ease, watching my free time dissipate into this last year of academia. I was overloaded with coursework, as usual, on top of the Herbology apprenticeship. There had once been rumblings of making me Head Girl, due to my marks and pathetically clean record, but the professors seemed to agree that I didn’t offer much in the way of leadership. This was more than fine by me. I couldn’t imagine balancing other duties on top of it all.

By the end of the first week, it was clear that my evenings would be devoted solely to schoolwork. But it was more than welcomed. I hadn't so much as said hello to Sirius in the days following the library incident.

“Chloe! You in there?”

Marlene rapped on my head as if it were a door. I sat upright so quickly that my vision blackened, but then she materialized where she stood over me, the branches of her favorite tree blotting the sun. It was still unseasonably warm and we had decided to meet outside to do our homework.

“I’ve been saying your name for about five minutes,” she laughed. “Focused much?”

“You could say that.” I looked helplessly at the pile of schoolwork. There were so many open books on the blanket that the flower-pattern fabric was barely visible. “I don’t know how I’ve got this busy already.”

“Maybe because you’re a huge nerd who took on too many classes?” She winked, dropping her heavy bag unceremoniously.

I laughed, glad for her easy nature. “That could have something to do with it.”

“Whatever, at least you’re a good influence on me.” Marlene pointed to her cheek. “You’ve got ink on you, though, right here.”

I rubbed the area with my hand. “Better?”

She snorted in a way that said it most definitely was not. “Yeah, totally.”

I was frowning and rubbing my cheek more hastily when she glanced over her shoulder. “Oh, there he is—Sirius, over here!”

I froze. She hadn't mentioned him at all when we’d set up our study date. Professor Binns had been droning on about the witch trials in Germany, oblivious to no less than a dozen sleeping students, let alone our note-passing. (Tomorrow, 3:00, tree?)

But now Sirius was striding casually across the grass towards us, a textbook under his arm. By the time he reached us the color in my cheeks had hopefully subsided.

“Alright,” he said in his usual loud voice. “Let’s get this over with. Quidditch tryouts this afternoon.”

Marlene furrowed her brow but the ever-present grin remained. “No one’s forcing you, mate.”

“Better have top marks to stay on the team, though. Chloe.” He nodded a hello to me without pause.

My quill betrayed the tremble in my hands and I let it drop to the ground. While he and Marlene bickered (“I suspect you’re boycotting the matches again, Marlene?” “Of course I am, it’s completely barbaric!”) I forced myself to look up from my lap—to search for a second glance, a smirk, anything to hint that the other night had actually happened.

Nothing.

“Oh, shit,” Marlene said from where she now crouched, fishing through her bag. “I left my notes on my bed.”

“I’ll get them for you,” Sirius offered without hesitation. How she couldn’t see that he was in love with her was beyond me. But it seemed at that moment even she was struck by his offer, looking at him oddly.

She laughed, “What, and somehow manage to get inside the girls’ dormitory? I’m sure you’ve tried it before, so you know it’s impossible. I’ll be right back.”

I sat up straighter. “I’ll go with you.”

My desperation was too obvious. She stood with her hands on her hips, eyeing the two of us conspiratorially. Why didn’t we want to be alone together?

“No, it’s fine,” she said again, slower this time, “I’ll be right back.”

As she strode away, she cast a strange look over her shoulder. She was halfway to the castle when I finally dared to say, “That was close.”

But Sirius wasn’t listening. He was lying in the grass, propped on one elbow and watching a passing group of Ravenclaw girls. They broke into smiles and whispers—which turned to looks of interest as they noticed me. I pressed into the tree as if it would absorb me.

Grinning to himself, he said, “Sorry, what was close?”

“Marlene.” When he only raised an eyebrow I said, flushing, “I meant—after the other night, in the library. She can’t find out.”

“Don’t worry, there’s nothing to find out.” He stopped, laughing quietly, and gestured for me to lean closer. “C’mere, you’ve got some…”

Sirius reached over and rubbed his thumb on my cheek, where the ink must have remained. My throat nearly closed up. But he only nodded, murmuring, “There,” before returning to people-watching.

I wanted to put a hand to my cheek, as if it would trap the feeling of his touch; I clenched my fist to stop myself. “But you… I mean, something almost happened. I’m not making this up.”

Am I?

“No, you’re not,” he said easily. “But don’t fret, I’m not going to come on to you again. As far as I’m concerned it never happened.”

He was trying to be comforting: to say that I shouldn’t feel guilty, and that I didn’t hurt him in any way. No harm done. He couldn’t possibly know the fathomless pit that his words opened inside of me. Maybe he had already forgotten the details of that night, but I could scarcely breathe without smelling woodsmoke, or seeing the way his eyes glimmered in the torchlight.

“Well, that’s a relief,” I said sarcastically. He plucked a clover flower, wrapping the green stem around his finger, and gave me a long look.

“I’m just saying that it’s not going to change anything. You’re Marlene’s friend. And I reckon that means you’re mine, too, whether you like it or not.”

He grinned, nudging my leg with his fist and I smiled despite myself, a hollow contraction of facial muscles. The touch he gave today—little nudges; a brotherly rub on the cheek—felt nothing like what I had anticipated the other night. It seemed there had been one chance and I had missed it. Sirius had moved on.

And why wouldn’t he? I thought bitterly, watching him open his Potions textbook. I’m not Marlene.

I hoisted my mammoth Ancient Runes book into my lap and stared at the pages, absorbing nothing. The chirping of birds and warm breeze could have made this a picturesque moment. But it wasn’t between the right people.

When Marlene returned minutes later, Sirius smiled up at her, his hair mussed into a funny cowlick by the wind.

“Ridiculous,” she snorted, fixing his locks, and I tried to feel nothing.

 

 

 

 

 


“Wake up.”

The whisper came sharply in the middle of the night. Michael Flint was standing over my bed. He was holding a candle, shining its light in my eyes, rendering him nothing more than a blurry outline of a human.

I lay still, immobilized with fear, until the voice said again, “Chloe, wake up.”

But it wasn’t Michael Flint. It was a girl. Her voice was familiar, but in my stupor I didn’t recognize Lily Evans until she lowered the candle from my eyes, revealing herself in its glow. Her robes appeared to have been thrown on hastily over her pajamas. Behind her, Emily stood, blinking the sleep from her eyes and hugging herself.

“What’s going on?” I whispered as I sat up, still not sure that it wasn’t a dream.

“Professor McGonagall wants to see you in her office,” Lily said gently. She was trying to not to alarm me, but nothing good ever came of being woken in the dead of night by the Head Girl and Deputy Headmistress.

“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely, “I wish I had more information.”

I numbly pushed the covers aside and rose to my feet. I had barely found my slippers in the darkness before Lily was rushing us out the round doorway, through the common room, and into the corridors.

We hurried through the blackened castle. The only sounds were the portraits rousing grumpily from sleep as we glided past. But they could have been screaming and I wouldn’t have heard over the thrumming that seemed to pass through my entire body. My eyes bore into the beacon of Lily’s candle, tearing away only when we reached McGonagall’s office at last.

I turned to Emily. What passed between us was our first, actual shared look since that night in the baths. Her brow was knit with worry, teeth protruding from her downturned lips. For almost a year I had avoided her, and now, blinking in the sudden light that spilled from McGonagall’s opening door, we huddled together like frightened sheep.

Lily cast a sympathetic look over her shoulder before stepping inside. My hand nearly reached for Emily’s as we trailed after, but I stopped myself.

Professor McGonagall stood beside her desk as if she had just stopped pacing. She wore a nightcap and a long flannel robe was tied around her waist.

“Girls,” she greeted in a strangely familiar manner. Something about these situations called for honesty, I supposed. “Miss Evans, would you…?”

“Of course, Professor,” said Lily, casting me another pathetic smile. She returned to the corridors where she would await us. The door gently closed behind her and I wondered if she would be scared, alone in the darkness.

A loud POP! from the fireplace jolted me back into the moment. McGonagall’s lips were pursed. “Miss Fairchild, Miss Brighton, I’m afraid I must be quite frank. There’s been an incident near your homes.”

It felt like my ears were stuffed with cotton. My parents were dead. That had to be it. McGonagall’s next words sounded as if they were coming from another room, and I tried to force the sound back into my consciousness. “…no cause for alarm, but we want to be certain that the news came to you first. Would you like to speak with them?”

“What?” I said stupidly. Beside me, Emily was visibly trembling.

The professor repeated gently, “There was an attack in Newark-on-Trent tonight. It appears to have been an isolated incident, and the Ministry is making sure that everyone is safe, but we wanted to offer you the chance to speak to your families.”

We. She and the elusive Headmaster Dumbledore, who for some reason was not here tonight with his strange, twinkling eyes. Nor had he been there in the Hospital Wing after I was attacked. There had always been a feeling of him watching over all of Hogwarts like some deity, but where was he when needed?

But these thoughts were the wrong ones. Irrelevant. In my dream-state Emily said, “That’s only thirty minutes from my house.”

Twenty from mine.

McGonagall said again, “We don’t believe there is cause for alarm.”

But why would she have woken us in the dead of night if there was nothing to be afraid of?

I still hadn’t been able to speak, so Emily said worriedly, “Yes, please, let me talk to them.”

“Of course.” McGonagall gestured to the fireplace. “Go on, dear. It’s all right.”

My heart was still pounding in my ears. I vaguely registered Emily’s blurry shape as she crossed over to the crackling flames, throwing in a fistful of Floo Powder. After McGonagall’s reassuring nod, she leaned forward and called, “Mum? Dad?”

There was a worrisome beat of silence, and then:

“Emily, is that you?” Aunt Annabeth’s familiar voice was gravelly with sleep. It sounded like my Mum’s, but less lilting, as if she were plucking out each syllable with precision.

“Mum, you’re all right!” Emily was crying fat tears, and for a moment I felt nothing but relief for her.

Placatingly, McGonagall explained the situation to Aunt Annabeth, who had been married to a wizard for twenty years and understood the world of magic. A family of Goblins had been attacked. There was no cause for alarm, though they should remain inside, and the Ministry had sent Aurors to watch over the surrounding areas. They were in good hands.

But then, despite myself, I was thinking about that night in the baths and how I had never so much as pointed a finger. I had been so stupid to think it was isolated. Maybe Michael Flint had left Hogwarts, but the scar would remain, and there would be others. The Black Adders were just one root of the tree. Something terrible was happening, inside these walls and out in the world, and we were powerless to stop it.

I wished Marlene was here.

Suddenly I realized that McGonagall and Emily were watching me, and I knew it was my turn. My Aunt’s face had disappeared from the smoldering embers.

“Go ahead, Miss Fairchild,” said the Headmistress. It was strange to hear her using her gentlest voice.

I nodded, swallowing the pebble that seemed to have lodged in my throat, and crossed to the fireplace. McGongall’s outstretched hand contained a pewter vessel of Floo powder. I tossed the ashy substance onto the flames, which roared up several feet, turning a violent green. Bracing myself on the hearth I leaned into them, feeling the sensation of air brushing against my face.

My home address came as a breathy whisper. “Fourteen Moorhouse Road, Laxton.”

Suddenly my vision shifted and I saw, ringed by the green flames, the blackened den of my home. I could smell the lingering scent of my father’s pipe smoke, and the food that had been cooked hours before. The house was quiet, the fire casting green light and eerie shadows around the room.

At last my dry lips parted and I called, tremblingly, “Hello?”

Two seconds, five seconds, ten seconds. Nothing.

My heart quickened. My parents were light sleepers. They were always afraid of somebody breaking into the house despite Laxton being safe and remote. If they were here, surely they would have heard me.

“Mum, Dad?” I called more frantically, “It’s Chloe. Come downstairs.”

Turning my head, I was pulled dizzyingly back into the candle-glow of McGonagall’s office, and gave her a frightened look. “There’s no one.”

“Try again.” She spoke reassuringly but her mouth was pressed into a thin line.

“Mum! Dad!” I shouted this time. “Are you there? Hello?”

But there was no response, and I couldn’t waste any more time. I whirled around, grabbing another fistful of Floo Powder—Professor McGonagall rushed forward, crying, “Chloe, wait!” But I had already curled my arm overhead. Just before I released my grip, my parents’ faces crowded my vision as they crouched, staring awestruck into the flames.

“Chloe? What’s happening? How are you—Are you here?”

I nearly collapsed into the fireplace with relief; even McGonagall released a breath she had been holding. I felt her tight grip disappear from my arm.

“No, I’m at Hogwarts,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. There was no point in frightening them more than they were inevitably going to be. “There’s just… Something happened, and we—”

“What’s happened?” fired my father. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” I assured, not actually certain if that was the truth.

“It’s because of that school, isn’t it,” said my Mum, her voice trembling. It wasn’t a question.

I struggled to find the right words; to be firm but consoling. “Mum, please, it would have happened whether or not I had come to Hogwarts. It’s something else. Something bigger.”

I hadn’t meant to say the last words, but it was as if the realization came as they left my lips. My parents stared fearfully.

“If you please,” said McGonagall gently and I looked over my shoulder, again feeling the dizzying sensation of being in two places at once. “I can speak to them, if you’d like.”


“Who’s that?” My mother’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“It’s the school headmistress, Mum. She wants to talk with you about something.”

Their faces darkened. My father at last said, uneasily, “All right…” It was the tone he had used once, right before I had confessed that Emily and I had broken the kitchen window, as children.

“Okay,” I murmured, and perhaps I should have given a more final goodbye, but I couldn’t stand the way they were looking at me. Like I had done something wrong. Like I had invited this darkness into their world simply by being born the way that I was.

Stepping backwards, I pulled myself away from the scene and cast a downward glance to Professor McGonagall. “Thank you,” I said stupidly. “I’m very tired, though.”

And then I walked out of the office. McGonagall didn’t protest; something in the way I carried myself must have told her not to. But I felt her sympathetic gaze on my retreating back. When the door closed behind me, with Emily still inside, I was left in the darkness of the corridor.

Lily had been seated on the stone floor, asleep against the wall. But at the sound of the door she jolted awake.

“Sorry,” I whispered, not sure why.

“It’s alright,” she said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “Everything okay?”

I smiled down at her despite myself. She really was so nice. It was how she managed to defend a person like Severus Snape, I figured. He was probably dying to become a Black Adder. He had cast me his fair share of dark glances, never actually speaking, but Lily had always defended him to others.

“Yeah, everything’s okay,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Walk you back?” Though it was only an offer she was already standing up, tugging her robes around her pajamas.

“It’s alright, you’ll just have to come back for Emily. I’ll be okay.”

She nodded, her green eyes staring through me. I had the feeling she had wanted to use the walk as a means to tell me something. But it seemed the conversation was over. With a polite smile I said, “‘Night, then.”

“Chloe?”

I stopped. The look was still on her face, as if the words were right on the edge of her tongue. It was the most time I’d spent around Lily outside of a classroom; certainly the first time we’d been alone together.

She said, as if struggling to find the words, “He’s… not quite ready yet.”

My brow furrowed. “Who?”

I could see her cheeks flush even in the low torchlight. “Sirius.”

But if she was blushing then I was positively luminescent. It felt like my whole body was on fire. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

She wet her lips, running her fingers through her hair. It seemed that this wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have, so much as needed to have. “Just… don’t take it personally if he isn’t where you are, right now. There’s everything with his family and, y’know, there’s Marlene…”

I couldn’t believe this was happening.

“Just give it time,” she shrugged, but her voice was kind. Reassuring.

And then, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say—and because I knew she had seen me watching him, across the fire that night—I mumbled, “Thanks.”

She smiled. “Okay. Well, see you in Arithmancy tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Tomorrow.”

The sun was starting to rise as I walked briskly through the corridors. The night still felt like a dream; I dreaded the next conversation with my parents. It felt like there were hundreds of eyes watching me and I wanted to run all the way back to the Hufflepuff common room. But I forced myself to walk, as a punishment for my slip-up with Lily.

 

 

 

 


Author's Note: Another chapter with quite a bit going on! The scene in McGonagall's office was a struggle to write, so hopefully it turned out okay. I wanted to convey a sense of danger, but also showcase the relationship Chloe has with her parents, while not being too overpowering so that Lily's conversation could have impact as well. (Wow so much going on.)

Please let me know your thoughts in a review! ♥

 

 



Chapter 9: Chapter Eight
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Chapter Eight
 

 


The cold air bit at my cheeks and flushed them berry-red. Frost crunched beneath my every step across and my eyes watered, a combination of the chill and my sleeplessness. It was nearly seven o’clock on a Saturday morning. The grounds were silent, save for the cawing of crows. Hearing them made it impossible to ignore: November was here and the warm months were over.

Fog curled around my ankles as I trekked further down the hill. Its cloudy presence hung, phantom-like, over the lake. For a moment I considered stopping to watch its barely perceptible shifting. But there was too much to do.

Because Professor Sprout was overwhelmed with work I had volunteered to tend the plants on weekends. Now, more than ever, it was important to make a lasting impression with her. Her reference letter would be integral in being accepted into Herbology school after graduation—and if I weren’t, it would mean moving back home with my parents. There was no doubt that, given the events of this year, they would try to dissuade me from a magical life entirely.

There was no point in lying to them about the attacks that night. Photos of the poor Goblin family were all over the papers, robbing them of any privacy. It was awful: four of them, murdered in their beds as they slept, simply because they were non-human. The man they were calling You-Know-Who was suspected. It felt superstitious, the way thousands were incapable of saying his name, as if by not summoning the evil spirit, it would move on.

My parents had been inconsolable for weeks. But how could I possibly have comforted them? This man and his followers were targeting Muggles, sympathizers, and families with impure blood. That was us. So I told them nothing of the rumblings I heard in the corridors, or the fog of uneasiness that seemed to settle over Hogwarts. Even Marlene was rarely spotted these days without her nose in a newspaper and its awful stories.

I ignored the casual mentioning in their letters—between updates on their sheep and dogs—of how blackened the world was growing around us, like a bowl of fruit gone to rot. My father started sleeping with his old shotgun by the bed. I didn't tell them that it wouldn’t do any good.

As I reached greenhouse seven, these thoughts were pushed back into the tiny corner I had reserved in my mind, like forcing clothing into an overstuffed trunk. Be here now, Chloe. It was easier to ignore what was happening in the world with my responsibilities. Maybe that was why I had volunteered my weekend mornings to watering and sunning the plants. It was better than lying in my four-poster, worrying about my parents’ growing paranoia.

Or trying to stamp out thoughts of Sirius.

Shaking my head as if scattering the images, I fumbled for my wand. The sun was just starting to rise over the hills and caught my fogged breath in its light. I still hadn’t found my wand when I heard a loud rustling over my shoulder; the Whomping Willow, half a Quidditch pitch away, was twisting and turning as if in a great storm. But that wasn’t what surprised me. It was the figures near the tree. They were running towards the greenhouses as if to escape the tree’s wrath, but their hoots of laughter were a stone through the silence.

It took a moment to realize, through my still-blurred vision, that despite the cold they were naked. Three of them darted behind a blackberry thicket where they had apparently stashed their clothes. The last figure was running in circles, arms flapping like a great bird as he cawed loudly, mimicking the crows that scattered at the sudden ruckus. And it was another moment of shameless staring before I recognized them.

Of course.

“Prongs, put your pants on!” Remus laughed tiredly. He looked worse for wear as he rested on the frosty ground, as if he had barely managed to pull his clothes back on. One arm remained inside his jumper rather than in its sleeve.

“Never!” James was now doing cartwheels, completely starkers. As a flush crept up my neck their cries of laugher and disgust echoed across the lake. “And I didn’t hear you telling Padfoot to cover up!”

“That would be fine, too…” Peter’s head poked out from the blackberry thicket.

“This frigid air isn’t doing you any favors, mate!” Sirius called to James as he emerged from the brush, buttoning a shirt over his bare chest. There was a kind of happy exhaustion hanging over them, like the fog, as if they’d been awake the entire night.

When their laughter was silenced, I realized a beat too late that it was because I had been spotted. Even James froze and someone’s voice drifted over, “Oh, shit.”

I jumped like I’d been electrocuted, searching feverishly for my wand in the pockets that now seemed ten times their size. “Come on, come on, come on, come on…”

“Relax, it’s just Fairchild.”

“Oi, Chloe!” James was unabashedly tugged his trousers on. “Enjoy the show?”

Having at last retrieved my wand, I feverishly unlocked the greenhouse and rushed inside without response. The door closed on their laughter (“You’ve probably scarred her for life!”) and I leaned against it to bury my face in my cool hands.

I’d never laid eyes on a naked boy before. Not even when Emily would try to embarrass me with dirty pictures, found shoved in a drawer with her Mum’s pantyhose. I had always screwed my eyes shut to her shrieking laughter.

At least it wasn’t Sirius. I forced myself not to recall the swatch of olive skin, framed by the stark white of his unbuttoned shirt.

There was a knock behind me and I leapt away. But hiding would only make things worse. I groaned, “Come in.”

Peter’s head poked through the door and he smiled sheepishly. At least he was as beetroot as me. Instead of entering the greenhouse, like anyone else would have, he remained in his silly pose.

“Sorry about that.” Before I could even speak—and probably to say something idiotic—he passed a small envelope through the opening. “Anyway, we wanted to give you this.”

Timidly I took the envelope. It was addressed to me in what looked like a boy’s poor attempt at calligraphy. Then Peter said, in one long rush as he struggled to make eye-contact, “Well, okay, bye then Chloe, sorry again!”

The door closed. He paused on the threshold for a moment as if collecting his breath; I could see his blurry figure through the fogged glass walls.

“How’d it go, you silver-tongued devil?” James’s voice came from just outside. They must have all been huddled there, listening.

“Shut up, mate,” Peter murmured. He was probably ruffling his hair with embarrassment, the way he often did.

Their banter grew quieter as they headed off, hopefully to the castle and their dormitory, rather than some other stupid escapade. The greenhouse was thick with silence and humidity. I felt incredibly stupid. But, as usual, they hadn’t seemed to mind anything that had just occurred. I couldn’t even imagine what I would have done, had they stumbled across me naked.

When I blinked I saw it again: the darkened library, the flickering torchlight, Sirius’s advancing figure. But this time the memory had changed, and my skin was bare and awaiting, covered in goosebumps.

Suddenly the letter leapt from my hands, startling me. The envelope tore itself open like a Howler, the folds in the enclosed parchment moving like a mouth as James’s voice boomed in an affected, posh accent:

“You are cordially invited to the second annual Marauders’ Ball. Bully for you! If you accept—and honestly, you’d be an idiot not to—then meet us at the One-Eyed Witch at ten o’clock next Saturday. Don’t be caught. And wear your dancing shoes!”

And with that, the letter returned to its inanimate self, fluttering to the stone floor. The greenhouse was silent again. But I squinted in confusion. Who in the world were the Marauders, and why were they throwing a ball?

 

 

 


“Peter gave you the invitation?”

I nodded and Marlene threw her head back, laughing throatily, until I smiled despite myself. “What?”

“Oh, he’s completely besotted with you, is all.”

My face was already blotchy with the chill, but her comment certainly didn’t help. “No he isn’t, he was just being nice.”

“If you say so,” she said in a sing-song, taking a long drink from her cider.

Her arm was linked through mine as we strolled through the bustling streets of Hogsmeade. Two enormous cups of cider warmed our hands; my throat tingled with the drink’s syrupy-sweetness. Despite the cold there was no snow on the ground. The sky had threatened as much, in the days since I received the strange invitation, but Hogwarts had yet to see a single flake.

“Don’t get me wrong, even if Peter hadn’t invited you then I would have. You have to come.”

“I just… What is it?”

She smiled at me, wide-eyed, like she was watching a spectacular memory playing out on a screen. “It’s absolutely brilliant, you’ll see. Wear a ton of makeup and look hot.”

I didn’t own makeup, or clothes that didn’t look like something from The Sound of Music, but chose not to comment. Whatever this ball was, it surely wasn’t school-compliant by the very fact that James, Sirius, Peter and Remus had created it.

The fact that they had a nickname for their group made me uneasy. It was more ridiculous than anything, really: four legal adults taking the time to create little code names for themselves. But something about secret clubs with monikers put me on edge. The Marauders. The Black Adders.

Two young girls shoved past us, nearly bowling Marlene over, and she bellowed, “Oi, watch it!”

“Sorry!” they whimpered (I offered an apologetic smile on her behalf) before continuing towards the Three Broomsticks. It was notorious for being the place where the popular boys congregated—boys like Sirius Black and James Potter.

Hogsmeade weekends were always more hype than their worth. Everyone around us behaved as if they’d never stepped foot outside the castle in their lives. True, these weekends were the best thing to come out of being a Third-Year. But you can only buy your weight in Honeydukes so many times.

We stopped at a bench across from the Three Broomsticks. By now we were killing time; the carriages bound for the castle wouldn’t return for another hour. We hadn’t intended to come at all, but Marlene had been struck by a craving for Honeydukes’ cider, which the Hogwarts House Elves apparently couldn’t even begin to replicate.

It was freezing outside. I was dying to be in the warmth of the pub across the street, but apparently the Three Broomsticks was now on Marlene’s list of protested establishments. The vanilla bean used in their Butterbeer recipe was harvested using elf labor, apparently.

I wasn’t sure where she heard this information. And I didn’t mention that half of the sugar in Honeydukes’s candy—and the cider we were drinking—probably followed the same practice. But I wasn’t about to spend an entire Hogsmeade trip out in the cold, when Honeydukes had four perfectly warm fireplaces roaring.

As I tugged my hat over my cold ears, Marlene released something between a scoff and a snort of laughter. I followed her eyes to the window of the pub, where James and Sirius were pressing their faces to the glass, crossing their eyes and puffing out their cheeks. I grimaced—there was no telling how long it had been since those windows had seen a good washing.

“Wow,” I managed.

Marlene quirked an eyebrow at Sirius, who had stopped to fix a wide grin on her. “Is he really going to crash Lily and James’s first, actual date?”

“Wouldn’t doubt it.”

The fact that he was gazing in the way Shakespearean heroes did their lovers was, of course, lost on her. She returned to her cider without a second thought. But I must have been staring because she turned a smirk on me.

“What?”

My intention was to shake my head; to murmur never mind, as always. But I heard myself saying, as if they were somebody else’s words entirely, “It’s just—well—you say that Peter fancies me, but you haven’t even noticed…” I trailed off, eyes returning to the window where Sirius had disappeared with James.

I expected an eye-roll; a sarcastic grin; a shake of her head. But the look on Marlene’s face was one I’d never seen before, and it stilled me mid-sip from my cider. She looked at a complete loss. As if she were presented with an Arithmancy problem that she couldn’t solve. Like she knew what she was supposed to do, but couldn’t grasp how.

Marlene mumbled, as if struggling to find the words, “It’s not that I don’t know…”

I waited, but she only gazed sullenly at the cup in her lap, and we fell into silence. When at last the first snowflakes of winter began to fall, it was several moments before she snapped from her reverie to notice them, blinking in surprise.

I nudged her gently with my shoulder. “So, who’s going to this ball thing?”

She seemed grateful for the change in subject. “You, me, Lily… Oh, and we’ve invited Mary. She’s in a rough spot, but you already know that, obviously.”

“No, what’s wrong? Did she and Remus stop talking?” I knew they had been skirting around the edge of dating, he too shy to pursue her, but they had seemed fine at the lake.

Marlene blinked in surprise. “You haven’t…? Honestly, Chloe, you’re taking on way too much if you haven’t heard. It’s all over school.”

I only waited expectantly so she said, “She was attacked the other night. A couple of Slytherins tried to use some really nasty magic. She got away without being hurt, and they’re going to be expelled, obviously, but it’s terrible.”

It was as if a bomb had gone off and in the aftershock my ears were ringing. Marlene was giving me a sad look, but she couldn’t possibly have known what I was thinking. “Wh-who was it?”

She sneered. “Alex Mulciber did it, but he had help from those bitches, Artemisa and Coraline. They let him into the girls’ loo. It’s absolutely insane. We all knew he was a posh brat, but nobody could’ve guessed he’d do something like this.”

Except for me.

I could have stopped this. If I had just told McGonagall about what had happened last year, then maybe he wouldn’t have attacked Mary. At least Artemisia and Coraline would have been expelled. I remembered the way their bare skin glinted in the poor torchlight, slick with water, and almost as hard as their smiles.

Or maybe Alex Mucliber was as rotten as the rest. Maybe he would have attacked Mary without their help. The poison ran deeper than those who had been in the baths, that night.

Marlene said, “You okay? It’s awful news.”

And there it was: another moment when I could have said something. I could have pointed out that Artemisia and Coraline were part of the group calling themselves the Black Adders; that there were others. That in expelling them, they had only cut off one of the Hydra’s heads.

But how many were there, still within the castle walls, watching me?

So I only nodded and took a drink from my cider. It had gone cold.

 

 

 


The feelings of safety disappeared after the Hogsmeade trip. The following week I took extra precautions to avoid being alone, meaning no more early morning walks to the greenhouses, or late nights in the library. If the Black Adders had dared to attack another student, they were more drunk with self-righteousness than I’d thought.

Mary was brave in ways that I couldn’t have been. Despite the attempts not to, my eyes roved to her during meals, lessons, and in the corridors. It seemed that Marlene and the others—the Marauders, I supposed—were with her at all times. Mary laughed, then, her pretty face shining like a lantern.

But in the rare moments she was alone, her facade was made of granite. Whether it was a talisman to ward off others, or a new inability to smile, I wasn’t sure.

The Black Adders were livid. Expelling three of their own—ruining chances of succeeding family businesses; acceptance into law school; trust funds—put Mary in the crosshairs. But they were like household ghosts, never seen save for evidence of their discontent: the cupboards opened in the night, the book falling suddenly from the shelf.

One morning, during breakfast, Mary’s scream had split through the quiet chatter of the Great Hall. A dead mouse was in her oatmeal. But she had only stilled herself, the look of granite returning, and gathered her books. Lily Evans was by her side straightaway. Her dark look smoldered across the hall to the Slytherin table. But in the end, she couldn’t prove who had done it, and nobody was punished.

For this I felt justified in my silence. It was awful, the cross that Mary had to bear, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the same. If nothing was going to be done to prevent another attack—again, where was Albus Dumbledore?—then I had to remain quiet.

This was how I quelled my guilt as I sat by the crackling fire in Hufflepuff basement. Winter had arrived, abruptly and unapologetically, since the Hogsmeade trip. Nearly a foot of snow had covered the grounds over the last three days. The common room was full of people studying, reluctant to forego the cheery warmth for the library.

My Ancient Runes assignment was sprawled across the table: fourteen inches on Norse runes in the second century and how they influenced myth. With a start I realized that one of my library books, Reading the Past, was missing from my bag. I must have left it at in the Great Hall during dinner.

A groan escaped me. More than half of my citations were within that book; I couldn’t even begin the assignment without it. But the skies had long since darkened, the castle corridors with them, and I didn’t want to venture out.

Quill Hopkins was at the next table over. Maybe she could walk with me; we were almost friends. But an enormous book was propped before her like a child’s fort. Her frazzled bun looked like a pincushion for quills as she scrawled furiously on a parchment.

I decided not to ask her.

When the rounded door creaked open, the dark and flickering corridor appeared a hundred times longer than usual. There was no telling who else would be roaming the halls. But if I didn’t turn in this assignment, my marks would suffer, and so would my chances at Herbology school. Squaring my shoulders and sucking in a deep breath, I stepped out, only to immediately cry out in alarm.

Sirius was leaning against the wall, just to the left of the doorway. “Didn’t mean to scare you,” he said in a way that suggested he most certainly did.

As he walked towards me, with his hands in his pockets, I instinctually took a step back. My mouth twitched in an attempt at a smile. This was how things were now: casual friends. If you could even call us friends.

“How long have you been standing here?”

“Not long.” But then he grinned. “Alright, thirty minutes. But I swear, there was nobody coming in or out! Are you lot performing some sort of group suicide in there?”

I couldn’t help my snort of laughter. “Exams studying, so, basically. But—erm—what are you doing here?”

“Can’t I just say hello to my favorite Hufflepuff?”

I stared blankly before gesturing behind me. “Oh, do you want me to go and get Joanna?” It was no secret that he and Joanna McCoy had their fair share of carnal activity during the previous fall.

But he rolled his eyes. “I meant you, you nerd.”

Naturally his comment sent my cheeks smoldering. He gave something between a smile and a nervous grimace, before with a little bounce of his feet he confessed, “Okay, actually, I have a huge favor to ask of you. We have a favor.”

“We?”


“My mates and I.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, you mean the Maraud—”

“Shhh!”
he hissed with laugher, actually covering my mouth with his hand.

I felt my body stiffen, but he was looking past me. The door to the common room was still open. Several heads had turned towards the scene: Sirius Black and his latest conquest. I locked eyes with Emily, where she sat with a textbook on the sofa, her lips parted in shock.

“Come on.” Sirius had already taken several steps backwards. “Let’s go for a walk, and you can hear my proposition.”

And maybe it was the warmth from his hand that lingered on my lips. Or the satisfaction of showing Emily that I didn’t need her—that I was getting on just fine without her friendship—that made my decision for me. I followed after Sirius into the dimness, the ancient runes book forgotten altogether.

As I caught up to him I tugged my grandmother-worthy cardigan tighter. Despite the chill, he of course was playing the part, wearing only wearing a tee-shirt with some Muggle band I’d never head of.

“Can I ask you something?”

He merely looked down at me, eyebrows raised expectantly over his glimmering eyes.

“How do you do it? All of this—this sneaking about, and drinking alcohol, and—”

“Marauding?” His teeth glinted in the torchlight.

“Merlin,” I muttered to his satisfied laughter. “It’s like you lot don’t worry about getting into trouble at all.”

“Ooh, that’s right, trooouble.” He wiggled his fingers menacingly.

“I’m serious! Half of the things you do could get you expelled, never mind the lesser stuff. Don’t you worry about being caught? Or do you just spend your life in detention?”

We reached the top of a staircase that descended into more darkness. We stopped and I noticed he was smiling at me. “What?”

“Well…this is the most I’ve ever heard you talk.”

He was probably right. But I was too busy looking at the stairs, warily, to respond. Somehow, in all of my years in the Hufflepuff basement, I’d never encountered them. And if someone had asked me to find them again in the morning I probably wouldn’t be able to. But none of this was as unsettling as the fact that the stairs led to someplace even deeper below the castle.

“I just don’t understand how you do it,” I said at last, knotting my arms before my stomach.

“Don’t worry, you will.” Sirius was rummaging in his trouser pockets. There was the sound of crinkling paper as he performed a nonverbal Lumos spell. My impressed look disappeared at the sight of a folded parchment, now illuminated in his grasp. “Besides, it helps to have the proper tools.”

I looked up at him skeptically and he intoned, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

 


 

Author's Note: Quite a lot happened in this chapter! Mary's attack, and Marlene's confusion about Sirius, and the Marauders asking Chloe for a favor. Their time at Hogwarts is dwindling, meaning we'll be moving on to the bulk of the story soon, when the characters have graduated. I would love to hear your thoughts and theories, especially about Marlene's confusion, as it's quite a large part of the story.

Thank you for reading ♥

(Also, I don't own The Sound of Music!)



Chapter 10: Chapter Nine
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Chapter Nine
 
 

 


The map was a feat of magic. It nearly drowned out every alarm going off in my rule-abiding body: You’ll get in trouble! Go back to your common room! Don’t follow him! My hand moved to the parchment of its own accord, running over its textured surface. A pair of footprints labeled “Argus Filch” traveled a corridor outside the library. I laughed in delighted shock at the cat’s paws trailing after him.

“Where did you find this?”

“Find it? We created the bloody thing.”

That four students had created such a device was astounding—especially the four most disobedient students in the entire school. Sirius watched in an attempt to appear smug, but it was like trying to hide a lightbulb behind tissue paper: he was positively glowing with childlike pride.

I could retain a textbook’s contents to a tee, bring a Mandrake back to life with only a bit of water, and brew potions that rivaled those of Professor Slughorn. But this was something else. This was ingenuity.

Sirius said, “We don’t show this to just anyone, you know.”

“I should hope not, if you intend on keeping it.” Regardless of his feat, Sirius needed a favor. Flattery, right now, could only mean so much.

He eyed me curiously. “Coming, then?”

My eyes landed on two pairs of footprints in the map’s corner. Their names were emblazoned in ink: Sirius Black and Chloe Fairchild. Alone in the dark once more.

I nodded. “Yes.”

As we descended the staircase, the air grew damp. It was no surprise: the staircase ended somewhere below the dungeons, in a low tunnel with a worn, dirt path. Harsh wandlight bleached the stone walls that were slick with moisture. It wasn’t until I felt the change in the air—from stale to cold, fresh, living air—that I realized Sirius was leading us outside.

The tunnel dead-ended at a small door. It must have once been for the House Elves, no more than a decade ago, when they weren’t allowed to use the same entrance as humans. Frigid air seeped through the cracks of its warped wood.

“Wait.”

Sirius’s eyes flashed with uneasiness. But I only unsheathed my wand; a murmur, and the tingling warmth of a Heating Charm draped around us like a blanket. I gave a small nod and, with satisfaction, Sirius unlatched the door.

I nearly gasped. The grounds were positively covered in snow, glittering like a great, frosted cake. There was a stillness to the air I had never witnessed before. It was beautiful.

“Where are we going?” I finally asked the burning question, puffs of breath disappearing into the night. My slippers had already soaked through.

Sirius extinguished the Lumos spell and said, without meeting my eyes, “Your favorite. The greenhouses.”

There was the first unsettling pang. But I was too preoccupied with wondering how he became a different version of himself—how he could look at me like he did Marlene—when we were alone in the night. When he wanted something.

Breaking our gaze, I used my wand to blast a jet of heat that melted the snow from our path. “This way.”

The journey was short, and when we arrived, the greenhouses looked like they were made from ice themselves. Sirius said carefully, “If my memory serves correctly, greenhouse one should do the trick.”

I should have realized then what he was looking for; what he was asking me to do. But I didn’t, and at my whispering of the password the door creaked open. The humid air was like a damp cloth pressed to our cheeks. But even this familiar scene felt eerie in the dark. Though I knew it were impossible, I swore I felt the gazes of creatures that were hiding among the plants.

“Well?” I broke the silence.

Sirius bit his lip, considering. “Well… We were hoping that you could help us find some… Pasithea mushrooms.”

My own lips parted in shock. Pasithea mushrooms. “You want me to give you hallucinogens?”

Now that the secret was out he couldn’t stop talking. “It’s for all of us, you included! At the ball,” he said, as if this inclusion would pacify me. “And we wouldn’t ask you if we didn’t have to.”

“They’re still highly illegal.”

“Yeah, because the Ministry is a bunch of fascist pigs who want to control everything.”

I snorted at this ill-formed statement, hugging my chest. “You sound like Marlene.”

“Mushrooms are harmless, really! We’ve done them loads of times, and look how we turned out!”

“Exactly.”

He ignored the jibe. “Remus usually goes foraging, but he was sick. Something about there being no time to dry them now. And trust me, you don’t want the lot of us trying to suss them out. We’d all be dead.”

At my silence he prodded gently, “Doesn’t Sprout keep some in here?”

“I don’t know,” I lied.

He grinned. “Yes you do.”

I forced myself not to look at the potted fern against the far wall. It was unremarkable next to the other, more magical plants. But when its fronds were tickled a floorboard popped open, beneath which Sprout kept a locked chest. Barely larger than my two hands, it contained vials of plants and herbs that possessed hallucinogenic or highly poisonous properties. When Sprout showed it to me the previous year, she forbade me from ever telling another student. How the Marauders had this information was beyond me.

“Everything like that is kept under careful inventory,” I said. “She’d notice if something went missing.”

“Don’t you do her inventory?”

The familiar irritation was resurfacing. Didn’t he care what could happen to his friends, or what he was asking of me? “I could lose my apprenticeship, Sirius.”

And be expelled, and face a criminal record, and ruin my chances at Herbology school.

“Then we won’t get caught,” he shrugged easily. Sensing my exasperation he switched gears, taking a step closer. “We like you, Chloe. And I promise that we won’t let anything bad happen to you, or your job with Sprout.”

How could he be so certain? How was he so sure that the entire world had laid itself out for the taking by Sirius Black? Most unsettlingly, why I was standing here, entertaining the idea in the first place? Last year’s Chloe would have never even followed him down the corridor.

I glanced to the potted fern. Truthfully, Professor Sprout didn’t keep a close watch over her inventory. It all fell to me. And Remus was right: Pasithea mushrooms were surely in the Forbidden Forest, right now. What we used could easily be replaced.

Sirius reached over to touch a lock of my hair. With a gentle tug, he said, his breath tickling my face, “C’mon, Chloe. Let us show you some real fun.”

 

 

 

 


I don’t look like myself.

It was my first answer to Marlene’s question as stepped away from me, her look of intense concentration giving way to one of pride: “So, what do you think?”

“I think…”

I turned my head in the mirror, inspecting my face like it were a stranger’s. It may as well have been. The Seventh-Year girls’ dormitory was empty, but Marlene and I had locked ourselves in the loo. Anyone who knew me at all would have been suspicious to see me like this.

Perhaps that was the point of this Marauders’ ball, though: to be someone else for an evening. Someone dangerous. Someone who snuck out of the castle with boys in the dead of night, and who unlocked the tiny chest hidden beneath the floorboards to extract four dried Pasithea mushroom caps.

Four was surely enough, Sirius had said. My hand had been shaking as I passed them over. They were practically weightless and looked more like dried berries: ruby red and impossibly small for their properties.

Sirius had positively beamed at me over his hand. “You’re the best, Chloe.”

The best.

Marlene’s prodding tone jarred me. “You think…?” She gestured impatiently.

I laughed with embarrassment, turning on the faucet to run cold water over my wrists. “I think we’re going to be late.”

She shoved me, a thin strap of her black dress slipping off her shoulder. “Oh, come off it, you’re going to love it. And you look great. I’ve truly outdone myself.”

When she turned away to collect her items—powder brushes, tubes of expensive lipstick, cans of hair spray—I cast a cursory glance in the mirror. A blur of dark red fabric, thighs bare over tall stockings, tousled hair. My mother would have locked me in my bedroom for the rest of my life.

Suddenly the doorknob rattled from the other side. There came a muffled groan, “Oh, come on…”

Hurriedly we gathered the rest, throwing our cloaks hastily over our shoulders and trying to quiet our laughter. The knocking came persistently now. “Hello? You know we aren’t supposed to lock the—”

The door swung open to reveal Emily. She stared, awestruck, her hair frazzled and uniform tie unknotted. Over her shoulder I spotted a pile of textbooks tossed onto her bed. She looked like she had spent the last straight week in the library and it only made our costumes all the more obvious.

Swallowing, I tried to appear nonchalant, but the fact that I was wearing makeup for the first time was not lost on her. She said with an uncertain glance at Marlene, “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere.” I slinked past her and the audible clicking of my heeled shoes, also borrowed, was a foreign sound on the dormitory floor. Marlene followed silently, offering a tight smile in Emily’s direction.

“We’re going to study,” I said pathetically.

Emily’s arms were folded across her chest, her eyebrow quirked and cheeks sucked in. She looked just like her mother. They had a way of making you feel like your every word was the wrong one.

“Studying.”

A wave of hot anger, as sudden as a flood; I couldn’t stop myself from snapping, “Why don’t you just mind your own business?”

It wasn’t the most eloquent of comebacks, but it wasn’t in my character to defend myself, and she was stunned. I used the silence to grab Marlene’s arm and hurry from the dormitory, but Emily was hot on our heels, tailing us through the common room.

When the door closed behind us, her shout cut through the corridor. “It is my business!”

Marlene, who was being uncharacteristically silent, signaled me to stop. Grudgingly I obliged, crossing my arms tightly and refusing to meet my cousin’s stare.

Marlene shrugged defeatedly. “Look, honestly, we’re just out for a bit of fun. Nothing life-threatening, I promise.” When there was no response she added, “You should come!”

I gawked at her though she was just trying to mediate. Emily was clearly uncomfortable around Marlene—a girl who drank, and broke the rules, and spent time with James Potter. She didn’t acknowledge the invitation.

“Chloe, I feel like I don’t even know who you are anymore,” she said. “Since when do you sneak around?”

Her words stung, but I didn’t have time to retort. Maybe her words were coming from a place of jealousy, and that’s why she scoffed, “And the other night, leaving the dormitory with Sirius Black? What, are you sleeping with him?”

My cheeks flared scarlet but Marlene snapped, “Oi, steady on!”

“Oh, who do you think you are?” Emily turned on Marlene now. “I’m supposed to be the one looking out for her, and you lot—”

“LOOKING OUT FOR ME?!” The worst burst out at a volume I had never used, splitting through the air. Though my cousin was nearly a head taller than me, it felt like I was towering above her. “You’ve never tried to look out for me—you abandoned me! And I will never forget that! So go ahead and tell the Prefects that we’re sneaking out, and I’ll tell them what you did.”

I might as well have performed a petrifying spell on Emily; she froze, a look of pained guilt on her face.

Marlene said gently, as if I might detonate, “C’mon, Chloe. Let’s go.”

Ducking my head in embarrassment, I hurried away with the blood rushing in my ears, not certain where I was heading. With Marlene trailing close behind I imagined Emily left standing, slack-jawed, her eyes welling with fat tears.

It wasn’t until after we had put several turned corners between us that Marlene said, “So…what was that?”

“Nothing,” I murmured stupidly.

Her hand found my wrist again, slowing me. “Chloe. Come on.”

Despite my best efforts, the images resurfaced from the back of my mind, like dead fish rising in water. The painting of the mermaids swinging open; Michael’s glinting smile; the steam, smothering.

What if she tells somebody?

Look at her. She won’t.


“I, um… I was…” I swallowed the words back down, but they were pushing up through my throat and, between shaky breaths, they emerged. “Last year I was attacked, like Mary was, and Emily was there—don’t, Marlene.”

She had positively bristled and already turned on the spot, forgetting the ridiculous ball entirely, no doubt to barrel down to the Slytherin common room. But I wouldn’t release her arm.

“Please, I am begging you, don’t. McGonagall already knows, and all I want is to forget that it ever happened. And I know that you can’t understand that, because you’re a fighter, but… this isn’t your battle.”

Clearly Marlene wanted to argue. I could see her pulse hammering in the dip in her throat. But she must have believed me, because she pulled me into a long embrace. Her voice was muffled by my hair, “Fine. But you’re wrong, your battles are my battles.”

 

 

 

 

 


When we reached the statue of the One-Eyed Witch, my rattling nerves had not so much subsided as been redirected; whatever this Marauder’s Ball was, it was certainly enough to land us in expulsion—let alone jail—and it was about to begin.

We were the last to arrive. The group stood carelessly in the middle of the corridor, despite the fact that they were dressed for an evening out. But of course they knew they were safe: the map was open in Remus’s hands. His hair was coiffed to show more of his handsome, albeit scarred, face.

As we neared, James called in his posh voice, “About time, ladies!” To fit the role, he wore a smart tweed jacket; an unlit pipe was between his teeth.

“Come off it, we’re not that late.” Marlene cast me a corroborating glance. “We couldn’t find a way to sneak out of Hufflepuff.”

“Well, we all aren’t Ravenclaws for a reason,” conceded Mary, her short golden dress glimmering by some enchantment. I felt Marlene’s stare slide from Mary to me, and ignored it.

Beside James, Lily stood touching the place where her Head Girl badge would have been, had she not been wearing a fashionable dress. My face must have betrayed my thoughts because she suddenly wailed, “I know, I’m a terrible Head Girl, leave it be!”

“Oh…” I began, but realized that Peter, in a vastly oversized jacket, was staring at me as if I were a unicorn. It suddenly became apparent that everyone was watching us.

Peter garbled, “Chloe, you, erm.”

The silence stretched painfully, ending only with the slap of James’s hand on Peter’s back. “Well said, mate. Brilliant work.”

I was grateful for Sirius’s impatient cry: “Let’s go already! We have a long walk.” His hair contained even more product than usual, swept back from his face. I had the impression that they had all borrowed James’s pomade and spent hours in front of a mirror together.

“Fussy, are we?” Remus grinned, but he stood and extracted a small brown bag from his jacket pocket.

With this smallest of movements the air around us seemed to change, crackling with excitement and the knowledge that we were about to do something against the rules. He pulled out an unwrapped bar of chocolate, breaking off a piece before handing the bag to Mary. It wasn’t until it was already in my hand that I realized the chocolate contained the Pasithea mushrooms.

James was working his shoulders like a boxer about to enter the ring. The clenching of my jaw was in rhythm to Sirius’s words from the other night, repeating in my mind: Oh, that’s right, trouble

“Bottoms up,” said Marlene. I broke off a bit with my teeth, glancing across the circle to Sirius as he licked the chocolate off his fingers.

 

 

 

 

 


The shouts and wandlight ricocheted off the walls of the tunnel; we had started walking but soon something took over us and we were running, multiplied by our hundred shadows. Lily’s red hair whipped from her face, and I stared in awe as her tresses grew longer and longer, until she was miles ahead of the ends that hung in the air.

Then suddenly we were there, wherever there was—a trap door overhead was pushed open, and we were climbing out of the tunnel and into a drafty room. The smell of licorice filled my senses and I may have never realized exactly where we were, if Mary hadn’t said, dreamily, “Oh, brilliant, I could really go for some sweets.”

The basement of Honeydukes, I thought, and wondering how or why we were here seemed very unimportant. All around us, the shelves were stacked high; they seemed to go forever, rising into the darkened ceiling but never to meet it.

“Cauldron Cake?” Peter offered from very close beside me.

“My favorite,” I said, suddenly ravenous, and greatly unconcerned that we were stealing.

Peter smiled serenely. “I know.”

And I smiled back at him, remembering that he was the one who had invited me, and now it didn’t seem so terrible—Lily with James, Mary with Remus, Marlene with Sirius. Maybe there was no attraction but it just made such perfect sense, the symmetry of our even numbers.

“Better load up,” said Sirius, who wore a look of concentration, as if he were reading small print. He began piling sweets into the pockets of his dragonskin jacket.

“Keep it together, Padfoot!” Lily used a strange name. Her green eyes were more vibrant than usual as she turned them on James, unable to hide her slow smile, now that they were what they were. Then everyone was huddling together, touching hands and arms and shoulders, as Lily was saying “Don’t you dare let go,” and “Please, Merlin, don’t let me Splinch them.”

When we Apparated it felt like somebody was rolling my lungs up like a tube of toothpaste, squeezing all of the air out. I had only Apparated once before, with my uncle—where did we go, in that blackness? When we reemerged, it was the sounds that first crept into my conscience: murmuring voices, far-away music, the shuffling of a crowd. I shivered. We were somewhere in a dark alleyway that smelled faintly of rubbish.

“London, you look ravishing!” Sirius was at the mouth of the alleyway, silhouetted by the orange glow of lampposts, his arms spread wide.

London!

My eyes met with Marlene’s, nearly black with the dilation of her pupils, but then we were rushing off once more on the seemingly endless excursion to nowhere. We followed Sirius like a beacon. He lit a cigarette with his wand—a small part of me gaped at his using magic—but the throngs of passers-by seemed not to notice. Movement from above caught my eye: someone was flying overhead on a broomstick, and my heart leapt, because we were in the real world of magical London, the last place my parents would have wanted me to be.

Someone was gently taking me by the shoulder—Remus. I had walked straight past the open door, wedged between two shops, where the others disappeared. Grainy electric music was barreling onto the streets. From outside it looked like Pandora’s box. I followed Remus through the door, where the sounds of bass pummeled my ears; candy-colored lights refracted like stars, and they could have been moving, or I could have willed it; the air was warm with the heat of the crowd. From the stage, a band of leather-clad boys were playing some sort of punk music that I would never be cool enough to know, but in that moment, I felt different. Like a girl who lived in London, and came to shows on the weekends, and tasted like cigarettes and the lips of lovers.

“Like it?” Remus shouted over the feedback from the amps.

We had barely spoken, just the two of us, but some sort of change had taken place only hours ago and I felt ingrained in their world. Maybe it would wash away in the morning. I must have been nodding as fiercely as imagined, because Remus was smiling hugely, and then Mary appeared to pull him further into the throngs. Behind them Lily had slung an arm around James’s neck, laughing at something he said.

I stood, slack-jawed and smiling, at the play unfolding before me, feeling fuller than I ever had. Someone was taking my hands: Marlene, leading me into the sea of people, where Peter and Sirius waited. We were all here. Overdressed, underage, but here.

Marlene’s arms wound through the air as she danced, her eyes closed, as carefree as if she were alone. I felt in that moment such complete adoration for her, and everything that she was, and I didn’t realize I was staring until she took my hands, braiding them through mine. Everywhere that our skin touched seemed to be made of stars. It was actually glimmering.

“Do you see that?” I asked.

Marlene shook her head, laughing, “It’s all you, Chloe.”

She turned to face Sirius, joining her hands with his now, and he twirled her around and around until I was sure she would disappear. At last she stumbled, leaning back against his chest for stability as she laughed.

And then I watched through the kaleidoscope of lights as Sirius leaned over her shoulder, turning her face towards him, and kissed her on the mouth. And somehow in the moment it was right; it was supposed to happen and so it did. Maybe tomorrow I would play the scene hundreds of times until it burned inside my chest, but not tonight.

Marlene broke away with a smile. Sirius looked as if he had just emerged from another time and place, and when he moved to kiss her again she slipped easily away. As if it were a pass-it-on secret, she turned and, placing her hands on my shoulders, pressed her lips softly against mine. They were warm and tasted like chocolate, and when it was over Peter was staring as if he had witnessed an act of God.

But all that I could say was, “That was my first kiss.”

And then we were all laughing, uncontrollably, because it was so ridiculous but it was true. My eyes met with Sirius’s and there was a flicker of something less than ecstasy, as if he weren’t truly laughing. It made me uneasy, somehow.

We were still smiling when there came the loud BOOM!, somehow audible over the clangor of music, and the lights flickered and went out.

 

 

 

 



Author's Note: Quite a bit happened in this chapter! These were some of the scenes that snuck into my mind when I first began to plot this story, particularly Sirius asking Chloe for mushrooms, the kiss, and the confrontation with Emily--not to mention what happens in the next chapter! Please let me know what you think in a review ♥

 

 



Chapter 11: Chapter Ten
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Chapter Ten
 
 

 


Everything that had existed before—the taste of chocolate, the colors floating in our eyes, Marlene’s palms against mine—was suddenly gone. Was it thunder? A Muggle car accident? But somehow I knew it couldn’t be; why else would my veins have turned to lead? The music was left hanging on a jagged note of electric feedback. With one last flickering of the lights, the basement was plunged into darkness. Shrieks rose into the air.

Amidst the confusion, wandlight came bobbing towards us and shone in our eyes: Lily and James. “We need to leave. Now.”

“What’s going on?” Peter asked.

Ignoring him, Lily searched through the crowd. More wands were casting ghostly lights across strange faces. “Remus! Mary!”

“Lil, it’s probably nothing,” said Marlene gently.

No sooner had she spoken than a second boom, louder this time, rattled the building once more. It was all it took. Before the dust sifting from the rafters had even touched the floor, we were all rushing towards the exit. More loud crashes, like hundreds of glasses shattering, sounded from above as we fought our way. A part of me couldn’t help but think that we were heading towards the danger.

At last we broke through the door, up a short flight of stairs, and spilled onto the cobblestones. The building above us, some sort of small factory, was dark and still. But it was the only building on the whole street that had been cast in blackness.

“An electrical thing, maybe?” said Marlene.

“We’re in the magical district,” Remus reminded.

Mary’s voice came softly, “Look… the windows.”

Every single one had been shattered as if by explosion. Their glass lay flickering in the streetlight. Something was wrong; my eyes darted to meet with Marlene’s.

Suddenly the large first-floor doors burst open, as if by a great storm, slamming into the brick like a clap of thunder. Gasps went up into the air. Inside was impossibly back and we all stepped away, shifting like nervous beasts ready to run.

“Maybe we should leave,” I murmured pointlessly.

Just then a large object catapulted from the blackness, as unceremoniously as a pile of laundry. I heard the flapping of cloth, like a sail, in the odd silence, before it landed on the cobblestones before us with a wet thud. More shrieks. Moments passed before I understood that it was a person—a body. Their face was covered in blood, indistinguishable.

“GO!” James’s shout broke the silence.

The crowds broke around us like a sea. I was tossed helplessly, regaining my balance just as they emerged from the darkened doorway: three figures in long black cloaks. Their faces were obscured by strange masks, like skulls, that glinted in the streetlights. They were drawing their wands…

I ran. The people around me were blurs of terror, nothing more than a herd of frightened animals, each trying to outrun the other. Their shouts were deafening. In the confusion, I spotted a flash of Lily’s red hair as she sprinted ahead with James. The alleyway. We had to Apparate.

I tried to keep her in sight as I ran. And then a great force, like a battery ram, crashed into me and I was thrown violently to the ground.

A blast of light and I cried out—but it was only from my head hitting the cobblestones. Stunned, I vaguely registered the man who had shoved me as he picked himself up without a second glance. But then he was grabbed roughly by the collar and hurled to the ground.

“Watch where you’re bloody going!” somebody shouted down at him.

I tried to glimpse them through the spots. “Sirius.”

But he was already pulling me to my feet. “Come on!”

When we at last reached the alleyway, everyone awaited with pale faces. Marlene nearly collapsed with relief. “Get over here!”

Somehow, our trembling hands found one another’s. Frightened tears glazed Lily’s eyes as she shouted, “Everyone, hold on!” and with a great lurch, we were pulled into the vacuum, where the rush of blackness silenced everything.

The Shrieking Shack, in the moments before our arrival, must have been ghostly silent. Dust-ridden. Cobwebbed. But in the blink of an eye, the figures of eight battered students appeared, their gasps for air breaking the silence. We staggered apart, falling to the raw wooden floors or clutching one another.

Lily pressed her hands to her forehead, on the verge of sobs. “Is everyone okay?”

In response, James, with his face set in a graveness I had never seen, crossed over to her. Without a second thought he took her face in his hands and kissed her, hard. As I looked away in a distant feeling of embarrassment, he took her firmly in his embrace.

“That was awful back there,” Lily said, voice muffled by James’s shoulder.

Nobody else could speak. A grim silence had settled over us. Mary’s face was screwed up tightly, buried in her shoulder to hide the tears; Marlene wrapped an arm tightly around her friend. A white-faced Remus and Peter offered silent nods that they were unharmed, but seemed incapable of much else. Only Sirius stood alone, gazing darkly at the floor.

Marlene suddenly gasped, “Chloe, you’re hurt!”

It must have been the adrenaline that kept the pain at bay. When I pulled my hand from my forehead, my fingers were slick with blood.

Lily cried, “Oh my God, I Splinched you!”

“No, I just fell back in the crowds. I’m alright.” My eyes darted to Sirius, but he remained glowering at the floorboards.

Remus sat near his sullen friend’s feet, elbows resting on drawn knees, though the color hadn’t quite returned to his face. “D’you reckon that was him?”

Peter’s voice was shaky. “Who?”

“Voldemort.”

The name was mostly unspoken; given odd little nicknames as if it somehow made him less terrible. To hear it—to think that person could have been there, standing before us—brought the bile into my throat.

But James shook his head. “I don’t reckon he’d put himself in the position to be caught. If there had been any Aurors around, or someone had done something—”

At this, Sirius suddenly released a growl so animalistic that I jumped. Spinning on his foot, for a moment it appeared he would punch the threadbare walls. But his fist only dropped helplessly back to his side. Marlene watched him with a knit brow, her free arm still comforting Mary, and I wondered how all of her empathy could fit inside one person.

“They were his followers, though,” she said. “Did you see the mark?”

Lily frowned. “Mark?”

“In the sky. Those men performed some kind of spell and then there was this huge, green skull and snake above the building. It was spotted at the Goblin murders, too.”

“Jesus Christ,” Remus breathed. “It’s really happening.”

It was. My eyes dropped down to my feet; I couldn’t bear to look at the others. It felt like somebody had taken the marrow from my bones.

At last James nodded decisively. “We should get back, then.”

But nobody moved, and it said everything we couldn’t. That leaving the Shrieking Shack now would force us to face reality: that there were people in the world who wanted to hurt us. To kill us. That a war was beginning and we were just children.

“The news is going to get out,” Peter said. “What do we tell everyone?”

Nobody had an answer for that.

 

 

 

 


The walk back was endless and a blur all at once—a series of disjointed images. The tunnel leading from the shack. Crawling on hands and knees from beneath an eerily still Whomping Willow, onto the snowy grounds. The hidden door below the owlry.

We found ourselves at last standing in a circle, at the base of the swinging staircases, unspeaking. Though Remus held the map he only glanced at it half-heartedly, as if being caught carried no weight. Not after tonight.

Marlene broke the silence. “Chloe needs to get back to Hufflepuff.”

“I’ll be okay,” I said. But the thought of my shoes clicking down the empty corridors sent a tremble through me.

“I am not letting you walk there by yourself.”

Sirius’s voice came for the first time since leaving London, “I’ll take her.”

She gave him a long look, as if verging on an offer to accompany us, but only nodded. Still, I knew that she would wait in the Gryffindor common room until he had returned safely.

Marlene hugged me tightly and I felt my eyes pinprick with tears, but blinked against the sensation. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Okay” was a strange word to describe it, but I nodded. “You too.” And with a last half-hearted glance around the circle, we departed.

The castle seemed foreign, as if we had been gone for much longer. An open mouth, poised in stillness, its only sounds were the fires from the torches. As we passed, they whooshed with the slightest breeze, sounding exactly like the scene earlier: the split-second that the body sailed through the air, cloak flapping.

“We should have done something.”

I nearly jumped. Somehow, impossibly, we had reached the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room. “What?”

Sirius’s face remained as dark as when we had arrived in the Shrieking Shack. There was a large rip in his dragonskin jacket, along the seam of its collar. “We should have helped.”

I couldn’t imagine having done anything but what we did: run. Every fiber in my body had told me to.

He shook his head in irritation. “We don’t even know how to fight them!”

“Fight them?” I echoed in disbelief. “Sirius, what could we have done? We’re kids.”

He shot me a look, and I understood the flimsiness of the excuse. We weren’t too young to take hallucinogens, or to break out of school grounds, or to travel to another country.

His gaze flicked up to my bloodied forehead. “You should put something on that.”


It would be swollen, surely, and others would ask how it had happened. But none of that seemed to matter right now. Sirius ran a hand through his tangled hair, taking a step back.

“See you tomorrow.”

Tomorrow. So the world would just continue on as it had been. “Will you be…okay?” I asked, feeling stupid somehow, after everything.

“I could use the walk.”

I nodded, but Sirius had already turned away.

Later, in my four-poster, with a salve of honey and chamomile on my forehead, I imagined him returning to the Gryffindor common room. Would Marlene have rose solemnly to her feet? Did he kiss her again?

Swallowing, I turned onto my side, staring at the barely visible wall. But sleep wouldn't come. I kept replaying the image of the body landing on the cobblestones; the horrible wet thump. Each time it landed closer and closer to my feet, until I was standing in blood.

 

 

 

 

 


I didn’t speak to Marlene or her friends for the next week. During meals and lessons I could feel her long, imploring looks from across the room, but she conceded to give me space. I wasn’t certain if the others even noticed my distance. Winter holiday was fast approaching, the days full of welcome distractions. Studying for end-of-term exams took up the most of my time, and I rarely left the fire lit common room save for classes, or to visit the library.

Late the next Sunday evening, I sat cross-legged on my bed, amidst a sea of heavy books and empty teacups. I had scarcely left the position all weekend, leaving me with a crick in my neck and a hungry stomach.

As I rubbed my neck, a scratching came at the window; a sleek brown owl was perched on its ledge. With a gust of cold wind, I opened the window and the bird dropped a parcel into my waiting hand. Alighting on the end of my bed, the owl shook its feathers, seeming grateful for the warmth.

I unwrapped the brown paper parcel to reveal a bar of my favorite Honeyduke’s chocolate and hazelnuts. There was a note, in Marlene’s handwriting, as well.

 

 

 

 

Just chocolate this time, I promise.
Let me know how you are? xo

 


My stomach rumbled. I had scarcely eaten a full meal since the events in London. Whether this was due to a busy schedule or the creeping nausea that hung over me like a fog, I couldn’t say.

Maybe it was wrong to abandon her after such a terrible night. But being around all of them together made it worse. I had even been avoiding mirrors, where the cut on my forehead was not quite healed: a physical reminder that it had been very, terribly real.

The news of the attack had broken quickly—the morning after—but I had refused to pay attention. The hushed murmurs of students were blotted out, and I told myself their grim faces were from exams stress. Like my mother, when the world became too dark around me, I simply feigned ignorance.

Shaking myself from the creeping thoughts, I broke off a piece of the chocolate, and scribbled a quick lie on the back of Marlene’s note: I’m alright, thank you. See you soon. With the letter clutched in the owl’s talons, I opened the window once more, and watched it disappear into the darkness.

 

 

 

 

 


But by the next morning, I could ignore it no longer. As I took meager bites of toast, under the chilly morning light of the Great Hall, I glanced up to the person sitting across from me. And there it was, emblazoned on the front page of their newspaper: LONDON ATTACK VICTIM IDENTIFIED AS REYNARD DURAND.

My toast dropped onto the plate. Reynard Durand, the Muggle and non-Pureblood activist who was attacked in Hyde Park during the previous year—it was his impossibly bloodied face that I had stared into.

I thought of Marlene’s reaction that day, last spring, upon hearing the news of the first attack. How visceral it had felt; how inconsolable she had been all afternoon. And the other night, outside the Hufflepuff basement, with Sirius: his anger that we hadn’t done anything to stop the attackers.

They were so brave, and so passionate, and so eager to help. A burning shame that I did not share in this belief, at all, was spreading throughout me. All I felt was nauseating fear: for them, for myself, for my family.

Across the Great Hall, the crimson and gold banners of their house seemed to be glaring. Marlene and the others hadn’t yet arrived, but even without them a realization was taking shape. I could feel its sharpness in the chilly air. They were going to find a way to fight this war, and if I remained close, I would be pulled in.

I shivered, a feeble lamb amongst lions.

 

 

 

 



Author's Note: A shorter chapter, but definitely a heavier one, too. It's becoming clearer and clearer that Chloe has surrounded herself with people much more brave and ambitious than herself. Their time at Hogwarts is nearing an end, meaning she'll have to decide whether or nto she wants to be truly ingrained in this world of the First Order.

Thank you very much for reading, and the staff for making this one of July's featured stories!

Please leave a review ♥

 

 



Chapter 12: Chapter Eleven
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Chapter Eleven

 

 

 

The wrapping paper was glossy beneath my hands, a garish red-and-green plaid, and as my parents looked down upon me it almost worked.  It almost felt like life had continued normally.  And perhaps, if I hadn’t been standing before the body of a murdered man only weeks ago, I would have truly believed it.

 

But this year the holidays felt synthetic; brittle, like the icicles hanging from our roof.  My mouth was coated with the syrup of prepackaged hot chocolate, the marshmallows that looked like baby teeth.  Strings of plastic fairy lights blinked with factory-made precision.  Even the carols that drifted from our record player—the same that had played for the last seventeen Christmases—sounded wrong.

 

“Well, go on!”

 

I forced a smile where I knelt beside the tree.  It was a spruce, cut from our farm, and the only thing in the room that felt alive.  “Alright.”

 

The paper tore easily.  Usually I tried to savor the moment, for my own anticipation as much as theirs—our pile of gifts was never large, each one something special.  But this year, I only wanted to quickly thank them for whatever book I was surely given, and be excused to bury myself in its pages.

 

Instead, the cardboard box displayed a picture of a girl smiling into a plastic receiver, her eyes twinkling as if she knew something I didn’t.

 

Mustering my excitement, I tried, “A telephone!”

 

My mother clasped her hands.  “Oh, we were hoping you’d like it!  They’re saying all young girls should have one now.  Emily’s got one too, you know.”

 

“Thank you.”  But I would never have reason to use such a thing.  “It—it won’t work at Hogwarts, because of the magic, but I can use it when I come home to visit!”

 

Their looks of elation flickered like the lights on the tree and my father said, carefully, “That brings us to your other gift.  Your mother and I found a local contractor to help with the planning, but... we’re converting the old storage room above the garage.”

 

“Into what?”

 

“Your own place!”  My mother’s voice was shrill.

 

My hands felt like lead.  Here it was, now, the idea we had skirted around for years: that I would have to choose between my life and theirs. 

 

My father said, “It makes the most sense for us, financially.  We just can’t afford to rent you a flat right now.  It’s only temporary.”

 

“Well, maybe not temporary,” my mother added.  “We can talk about that.”

 

Where was this coming from?  When had my leaving home become a possibility, and not something inevitable?  I felt like a child, looking up at them in their age-old power play.  It had always been two against one. 

 

My father was always the mediator.  “Of course you’ll have your own schedule, and can come and go as you please.  But you’ll be able to save money by working for us until you can afford uni.”

 

“Uni!” I breathed.

 

“Or horticulture school, or whatever you decide to do!”

 

There wasn’t even a discussion.  They had decided for me, and it became nauseatingly apparent that entire years of my life had been aligning for this very moment.  It had ben premeditated.  They had kept me working on the farm over the holidays for little to no pay, and now I had no money to call my own.  I was trapped.

 

My fingers dug into the cardboard box.  “But I want to go to herbology school.  I want to keep learning magic.  And they have dormitories, I wouldn’t need a flat.”

 

Sensing my anger, my mother said in a voice usually reserved for children, “Darling, you’ll be able to do all the same things in horticulture school, and you’ll be safer.  We’ve been reading that awful newspaper of yours.  We know what’s happening, and with that family of…of…”

 

“Goblins.  They were Goblins, Mum, you can say it.”

 

She settled into a displeased stillness and my father said, “We’re sorry, but your safety is what’s most important.”

 

“Safety!”  A laugh burst from me, hard and bitter.  “You think that hiding in a Muggle university is going to keep me safe?”

 

“Well, yes!  There are resources, and protection by the law—”

 

“Oh, please.  You have no idea what this man Voldemort is capable of.  He could appear right here, in this room, and we'd all be dead.”  I snapped my fingers.  “Instantaneously.  And there’s nothing that a locked door, or a handgun, or a bloody Muggle university could do—”

 

“Chloe, that’s enough!” my mother wailed, her eyes suddenly full of tears.  “I can’t bear it!”

 

The sight of my mother crying was enough to silence me.  Guilt contstricted my throat and pinpricked in my own eyes.  But still, a part of me was familiar with this tactic of hers.  My father had gone quite still, part two of the trick: I had upset her and disappointed him.

 

“Oh, Mum.”  I rose to place her in a limp hug.

 

“I don’t know what we’d do if something happened to you,” she sniffled.

 

It felt like I was wading through a pool of guilt—one that had risen to my chest—and I knew that the anger was at its bottom, somewhere, in the deepest parts.  Unreachable.  Was it really so important that I leave them now, during such tumultuous times?  I was their only child.  And herbology school would still be there, when things calmed down…

 

I swallowed hard, saying the words I least wanted.  “I’ll… figure something else out.”

 

My father nodded his head in stoic approaval; I had made the right decision.  Their right decision.  And though the sleeve of my jumper was wet with my mother’s tears, her cries stopped as soon as I’d said the words.

 

 

 

 

Later, after picking at an overwhelming breakfast of sausages and pancakes, I retreated to my bedroom.  Just as predicted, my parents had also gifted me a book: Jane Eyre.  It was one I surely would have read by now had I attended a Muggle school.  The message was unsubtle.  But the story had always intrigued me, and so I focused on this as I closed the bedroom door quietly behind me.  There had never been a lock.

 

But something stopped me and I stood at my writing desk, a mammoth in the corner.  I chewed on my finger, staring at the top drawer, until at last I pulled it open.  The letter rested atop a stack of old post.  I had re-sealed it in a new envelope as a sort of gift.  Now, though, I was grateful that I had not to placed it under the tree.

 

The wax seal broke with a quiet pop.  Sinking onto my bed I unfolded the familiar parchment, already creased from a dozen reads.  It bore a crest of two laurel wreaths surrounding a large letter “E,” and a banner beneath it which read, Floreat Scientia.  “Let knowledge flourish.”  I had looked up the meaning in the Hogwarts library, bursting with a giddiness that was no longer there. 

 

The letter was hand-written in a neat script:

 

Chloe Fairchild

Hufflepuff House

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

 

December 14, 1977

 

Dear Miss Fairchild,

 

It is with pleasure that we inform you of your acceptance to the Elwood Institute of Herbology, with a full academic scholarship.  Please complete the attached form to accept enrollment and to confirm your on-campus housing.  Forms must be owled no later February 1st, 1978.

 

Sincerely,

 

Matilda Rosencrantz

Director of Admissions

 

The owl had arrived at the breakfast table during last-minute studying for my Potions exam.  I hadn’t told anyone; not Professor Sprout, not even Marlene.  I had wanted my parents to be the first to know. 

 

Now, though, there was no reason to tell them at all.  There would be no congratulations; no tight hugs; no celebratory hot mulled wine.  Swallowing, I folded the letter and neatly returned it to the envelope.

 

Next year, I thought, catching my ghostlike reflection in the window.  Things will be better, then.

 

But it felt like all the doors inside of me were closing.

 

 

 

 

When spring arrived at Hogwarts it did so slowly and grudgingly.  The snow gave way to freezing rains that lashed, for weeks, at the windows.  The world outside appeared to be completely underwater.  For all I cared, it could have been.

 

The final exams of my academic career were approaching fast.  But instead of studying, I spent evenings in my dormitory, reading Jane Eyre, until it wasn't just during the evening but mornings; afternoonsWith the curtains of my four-poster drawn, I devoured Jane’s journey from her vicious aunt’s house, to the bleakness of Lowood School, to the darkened, ember-lit chambers of Thornfield. 

 

Skiving class was shockingly easy.  As long as I hovered above academic probation, the school would not contact my parents.  First, it was a Herbology lesson here and there, as I could afford it.  Then I was missing entire days’ worth of lessons.  But sitting through them was a bitter reminder of the life that I was preparing to leave, by no volition of my own. 

 

No easier were lessons with Marlene and the Marauders, where we tried to conjure up smiles, as if we hadn’t seen what we had.  It had been months, but I still woke in the night, certain that Reynard Durand’s corpse was standing over my bed.

 

When the nightmares didn't leave, the solution seemed obvious: I slept through the afternoons and stayed up reading most nights, with candles floating in my four-poster, and Bijou curled at my feet.  With Jane Eyre finished, I owled my parents for another book.  Delighted, they sent Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter.  By the time the trees were budding, I had completed what my mother called “a solid year of literature classes.”

 

On occasion I borrowed Marlene's notes from lectures I missed.  I saw her only in the classroom or in the presence of the others; never alone, never when she could ask questions.  Despite my disappearance, she was determined to keep me rooted in their lives.  Her notes said things in their margins like, Severus looks extra greasy today.  Or James and Sirius charmed Flitwick’s hat to dance around.  Detention for a week.  Idiots.

 

One morning, at the bottom of her Transfiguration notes, there was a new set of handwriting.  REMUS TOOK CARE OF YOU-KNOW-WHAT.  It was Sirius’s handwriting, I finally realized.  The Pasithea mushrooms had been replaced.

 

Truthfully, I had scarcely given them thought.  What did being expelled matter, now that I was destined to work on our farm until my back ached and my hands grew calloused?

 

Still, I studied the parchment, memorizing his handwriting; the all-capital letters and hurried messiness.

 

My new habits became a little joke within the group; that I had turned over a new leaf, that they were a bad influence on me, that I had finally decided to not be such a nerd.  I smiled on cue, but all the while I thought, How can you have you forgotten?

 

I remembered Lily and James, and the look on his face in the Shrieking Shack.  The way Sirius had nearly punched a hole through the wall.  Mary's trembling shoulders as she tried to hide her sobs.  Had all of it suddenly, by some accident, become easier?

 

And perhaps that was the most surprising part of all: that one day, it just did.

 

One afternoon in late-April, with the unfamiliar and wonderful sensation of the sun in our eyes, Marlene and I made our way back to the castle.  I had attended a Herbology lesson, avoiding Sprout’s worried looks, breathing in the dense air that smelled of dirt and plant life.  Marlene was mid explanation that she had decided to go vegan for political reasons, when James streaked past us, pinwheeling into a seamless cartwheel.  Encouraged by Marlene's applause he tried again, but his cloak caught under his feet, and suddenly he was splayed flat on his back, his laughter echoing into the cloudless skies.

 

"Oh, fuck me," he wheezed, hand to his chest, and Professor Sprout screeched, "Potter, that is QUITE ENOUGH!"

 

Nearly toppling, Marlene clutched my arm helplessly and for the first time in ages, booming laughter sprang from me, a foreign language on my lips.  A glance over my shoulder and my eyes skittered over the smiling faces of my classmates—of Peter, Remus, Mary, Lily and Sirius.  My ribs no longer felt made of stone.  Everything that had lingered in my head for weeks seemed to be behind a pane of glass; one that the daylight was hitting in a precise way.  In that moment, I couldn’t see through to what had been weighing on me.

 

When we parted in the corridor, with the pleasant fuzzy-headedness of having been in the sun, Marlene said, "You know, Chloe, you are a legal adult.  You don't have to live with your parents."

 

I furrowed my brow.  "Well, I don't exactly have the money to live on my own."

 

"But you already have a free ride to Elwood, don't you?  I'm only saying, how difficult could it be to forge a Muggle university acceptance letter?"



Chapter 13: Chapter Twelve
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Chapter Twelve

 

 

 

 

I ran all the way to the Astronomy Tower, the light of my wand bobbing.  The sun had only just set.  Each passing window revealed an evening sky tinged with pink at its edges, like the rings of a coffee cup.  It was a cloudless night, perfect for watching the stars, and soon I would be out of the darkened corridors and sitting with Marlene in the warm breeze.  Her Astronomy marks were dreadful, she said, and this extra credit assignment would bring her above failing.  I had volunteered to sit with her.

 

Hogwarts curfew had been moved to eight o’clock after the attacks in London and on Mary.  Students had to receive special permission to visit the Astronomy Tower in the darkness, and Professor Sinistra was always nearby.

 

Heaving for breath, I crested the endless spiraling staircase and extinguished my wand, feeling cool air on my sweat-dampened cheeks.  The roof was enchanted, like the Great Hall, and on clear nights such as this it was invisible.  I craned my neck, looking into the skies where pinpricks of stars had already appeared.  Beyond the waist-high walls was the infinite sweep of the mountains that bruised purple in the dimness.  But it seemed that I was alone.

 

Then I heard Marlene’s voice, “Oh, no, I definitely got your letters.”

 

And there they were, a stone’s throw away, silhouetted against the sky.  She was peering through a telescope; Sirius’s arms were crossed so tightly that I could feel his anxiousness.

 

“Right, reckon I was a bit, uh, eager.”

 

His tone always changed with her.  The swagger and smugness disappeared.  There was no acting.  She knew an entirely different Sirius than the rest of the world.

 

She sounded like her usual self, amused and wry.  “Seven letters in three days is eager, yeah, I'll agree with you there.”

 

“Well?”

 

“Well what?”

 

“I just thought we needed to, you know, talk.  About everything that happened.”

 

She laughed incredulously, straightening to meet his eye.  “Sirius, nothing happened.”

 

“You were there!  We—I kissed you!”

 

She threw her arms in the air.  “We were on mushrooms, for Merlin’s sake!  I kissed Chloe too!”

 

He shifted his weight uncertainly, his voice still raised.  “Do you seriously not get it?”

 

“Get what?”

 

“I love you, Marlene!” he shouted, as if by accident, and I wished I had never heard.

 

She was stunned into silence, if only for a moment, before a laugh burst from her.  She was always laughing at him.  But this time it was brittle at the edges.  “Oh, please.”

 

Of course he was in love with her; the whole world was.  I remembered that day in Hogsmeade, and how I had tried to tell her how he felt, and the look on her face. 

 

"It's not that I don't know..."

 

Her arms were crossed but she looked up at him, white-blonde hair lifting in the breeze, and it was clear: he was going to kiss her again.  But when he reached out, she turned her head away, taking a step back.

 

And then suddenly he was brushing past her, his hands jammed into his trouser pockets, and before I could move, he had nearly run into me.  Our eyes met for the briefest of moments.  But then he pushed past, and I heard footsteps hurrying down the spiral staircase.

 

The words etched themselves into my mind, over and over, as I crossed the turret.  I love you, Marlene.  I love you.  When I reached her she seemed almost relieved, as if she had thought I were Sirius returning.

 

“Reckon you heard all that.”  It wasn’t a question.

 

I nodded.

 

She dropped her head back, sighing dramatically, but her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.  “I don’t know what’s gotten in to him lately.  Spring fever or mating season or something.”

 

“I think he meant it.”

 

“Yeah, well…”  She thumbed a dial on the telescope.  “I wish he didn’t.”

 

Anger flared in me towards her, for the first time, and it felt so foreign and wrong that I took a steadying step backwards.  “Why not?  Sirius is nice, and he cares about you, and he’s—”

 

I had said too much; she was looking at me with new interest.  “It doesn’t matter, let’s get to work.  Have you found the first constellation?”

 

“Not yet…”  She seemed reluctant to change the subject, but when I refused to meet her sideways glance, gave up.  “You know I’m rubbish at this.  Doesn’t matter, though, it’s not like I’ll be going to uni anyway.”

 

“What do your parents think?”

 

“They don’t quite get how this whole Witch thing works.  I’m not sure if they even know what expectations to have.”  She managed a grin.  “Did your parents buy the acceptance letter?”

 

I nodded.  I told them that I hadn’t been accepted to Herbology school; that I had reconsidered and chosen to attend my backup school.  It was shocking how easily the lies came.  Their suspicion had slowly—grudgingly—given way to pride.  In the fall, I would move to Canterbury and attend Elwood, and they would be none the wiser.  Marlene would let a flat in London with Mary.  Though it was childish, I was jealous of their shared life; the threadbare rug, the warm beer, the music that woke the neighbors.

 

And now I was jealous that Sirius’s love for her was out, hanging over me in the night air.  Marlene had always been the person I wanted to be—and the person I wanted all to myself—and I had been too ashamed to admit it.  But the bitter salt-sting was undeniable.

 

“Speaking of which…” She cast a low glance and said, “I know I haven’t told you exactly what I’ll be doing in London.  But there's a sort of organization we’re going to join.”

 

“We?”  Again, the nettling feeling.  I knew nothing about this.

 

“Remus, James, Lily, Mary, Peter, Sirius—everyone.  Even Frank and Alice.  It's part of the movement.  The movement, fighting You-Know-Who."

 

My stomach dropped.  “You mean like Aurors?”

 

“Not Aurors.  These people don’t work for the government.”  Was she growing impatient with me?  “They call themselves the Order of the Phoenix.  A bit cheesy, if you asked me, but they're actually doing something.”

 

“So… vigilantes.”


She shrugged one shoulder.  “Call it what you want.  We’re all going to swear in after we graduate.”

 

A tiny breath huffed from me.  “Wow.  Marlene, this is… this is real.”

 

“I know that.”

 

“People have died getting in that man's way.  You could die.”

 

“We were hoping you'd take the oath, too.”

 

I stared at her, horrified.  How could she ask that of me?  How could she ask that of anyone?  I didn’t want to fight.  I had no interest in being a hero or seeing anyone else die—and this would mean walking head-on into a war.

 

She said, carefully, “What happened in London was…terrible.  But this is an opportunity for us to actually do something about it.  And if we don’t, then more people are going to die, Chloe.  And they’re going to come after you, and after me, and Mary, and everyone else who isn’t a so-called ‘Pureblood.’  They’ll come after our families.  And they won’t stop until everyone who isn’t like them is gone.”

 

I felt sick.  Maybe I was a pacifist, or a coward, and maybe there was no difference.  But I didn’t possess this savior complex; a compulsion to do “right” that the others bore on their chest like a badge.  It was more shadowy than that.  I tried to imagine myself holding another human at wandpoint.  Who was I to decide who lived and who died?

 

“I just think you're being a little impulsive.  There are other ways to help.”

 

“Oh, what, like going to Herbology school?”

 

It felt like I had been punched in the stomach.  We had never argued before.

 

At my stunned silence she groaned, “Sorry, Chloe.  There's a lot on my mind with exams next week, and Sirius—”

 

She stopped and I knew that I had truly said too much.  Marlene knew how I felt about Sirius, and now she knew that I was a coward.  What use could she possibly see in me now?  A lurching rose in my chest, and I feared that I would be sick, until I realized that it was the threat of tears.

 

“I think I’ll go back to my dormitory,” I said, blinking hard.  “I have some reading to do before tomorrow.  You’ll be okay with your assignment, right?”

 

She nodded, but our eyes didn’t meet as we said goodbye, and as I turned and ran down the spiral staircase I was sure that the walls were constricting.

 

 

 

 

The evening sun set the whole greenhouse aglow like a lightbulb.  Past the frosted glass, the trees had exploded with flowers, as if overnight, and the grounds were full of students enjoying the first truly warm day of spring.  Even I had dug a cotton dress from the depths of my trunk, though it did little in the stifling heat of the greenhouses. 

 

I felt a strange disconnect from the others outside where their shouts echoed across the lake. So many of them would return to the castle in the fall, and my very last Hogwarts exam was tomorrow. It was surreal. Not for the first time, I wondered how Marlene’s exams had gone. We hadn’t spoken very much since the night on the Astronomy Tower, and while I tried to chalk it up to busyness, I knew that wasn’t the case.

 

In all our brief-yet-turbulent friendship I had never been upset with her. And wasn’t most of this weight in my chest, when it came down to it, only jealousy? Ugly and brambled jealousy?

 

I waved my wand and several windows opened soundlessly. As I lifted my hair to welcome the breeze, my eyes grazed over the familiar worktable with its terracotta pots, shears and gardening gloves, all coated in a dusting of soil. The scene made me feel at ease and I inhaled the fresh air. I would find Marlene after this, I decided. It wasn’t right to not be speaking.

 

With my hands buried in soil I began to feel more like myself. I never wore gloves and liked the feel of the damp earth between my fingers. Now that it was springtime the plants bore their lavender-colored blooms, quivering and flitting, as if about to take flight. They were quite beautiful, really, and docile in the heat.

 

The door creaked behind me and I shot to my feet as Sirius strode in, his dragonskin jacket slung over a shoulder, even though it was entirely too warm outside.

“Thought I’d find you here,” he said.  “Christ, what are those things?”

I flexed my hands to keep them from trembling.  “Flutterby bushes.  I’m transplanting them for Professor Sprout.  Do you…need something?”

He shrugged.  “Maybe I’ll help out.  Reckon I owe you one, seeing as I nearly lost you this apprenticeship, got you expelled, disowned by your parents…”  He meant the Pasithea mushrooms. 

“You want to help me?”

“Unless you think Sprout will have my head.”

A smile, despite myself.  “Not if you do a half-decent job.” 

He tossed his jacket on the worktable and joined me.  Sirius had never so much as mentioned my apprenticeship other than that night, when he wanted hallucinogens from me.  But here we stood, over my neat rows of flutterby bushes and terra-cotta pots.  I was careful to keep my distance.  We hadn’t spoken since I had overheard his conversation with Marlene.

I kneeled, and he followed suit.  But after only a moment we fell into a wordless rhythm: I packed the pots with soil, leaving ample space, pressing my hands into the damp earth.  Then Sirius then placed the root bundle into pot and together we packed the soil in tightly.

He broke the silence.  “So, how are exams going?  Acing everything, I assume?”

“Decent enough.”  I didn’t mention that, despite my absences, I was doing quite well.  “What about you?”

“Terrible, actually.  Reckon I won’t be heading straight into the Ministry after graduation.”

“Well, then you’d be making your mother happy, so unless you want to give her a heart attack…”

His laughter filled the greenhouse.  “In that case, maybe I should consider Ministry work.” 

He pushed his hair from his eyes again.  I proffered a black hairband, and he messily pulled back his locks.

He said, “I’m just ready to be done with this place.  We’re looking for a flat in London, Remus and Peter and me.  James and Lily are already moving in together—”

“Really!”

“Yeah, reckon they’re getting pretty serious.”

“They’ve been together for a while now.  Six months?”

“Not counting James’s seven-year mating ritual.”  He furrowed his brow, struggling with a particularly fluttery bush.  Its leaves rustled in what would be anger, if a plant could feel such a thing, as he set it into the new soil.  We both pressed the dirt down. 

I smiled at the thought of Lily and James's shared flat; her many potted plants and his shoe collection.  “They’ve been a long time coming.”

As I said it, our fingers touched in the soil, and I sat back quickly.  “It’ll work best if only one of us does this part.”

Clearly, he didn’t believe me, but gave a placating nod.  As he passed me another bushel he asked, “What’ll you do after graduation?”

“I’m going to Herbology school, actually.”  Despite myself I smiled.  “My parents think I’m going to Muggle uni, but I forged the documents, so…”

He was looking at me like he’d never seen me before.  “Wow, we really have been a bad influence on you!  I’m impressed!”

I bit back a smile, ducking my head.  “Well, it was either that or go back home, so the choice was fairly obvious.”

“I would kill myself if I had to go back home.”

So, he still called it his home, even after everything they had done to him.  I glanced at the threadbare tee-shirt stretched across his shoulders, so holey that the collar was nearly separating in places.  Every little thing that he did was to further separate himself from his family.

“Everyone is heading to London, it sounds like.”  I tried to keep the self-pity from my voice as I thought of them all, spending their evenings together.  But they would be walking into a battlefield, I reminded myself, and the thought turned my stomach.

“Ah, don’t fret, you’ll come visit.  You and Marlene—”

He stopped and there was silence. 

I bit my lip.  “About Marlene…”

“Yeah.”

I sat back, my soiled hands resting on my knees.  No doubt we were quite the picture: me with my rodlike posture and Sirius, who could sprawl comfortably in a phone booth.  My eyes couldn't meet his, so I said to my dirty hands, “I just wanted you to know that—that I didn’t mean to hear what you said to her, about... you know.  It should have been private.”

Maybe he was waiting for me to say something else, so I sputtered, “I’m sorry.”

“Christ, Chloe, you don’t have to be sorry.  Marlene is…”

When he couldn’t find the words, I shrugged with a helpless smile.  “She’s Marlene.”

He laughed.  “Yeah, she is.”

“I really don’t think she meant any harm.  She just doesn’t seem to want what other people want.”

Too late I realized my mistake.  I turned quickly to the blurred windows, but he was already piecing it together.  “And what do these other people want?”

My hands gripped my knees as I glanced at the hair falling from its tie, curving in toward his jaw.  The short distance between us was electric; I distinctly saw him glance at my lips.

And damn Marlene, because even though I knew that she didn’t love Sirius, I said, “I didn’t mean me.”

A look of surprise, but then he was laughing the idea off.  “Right.  ‘Course you didn’t, that’s not what…” 

But it was clear: my words stung.  Somehow, I had wounded his pride.  With that he rose to his feet, wiping his hands on his trousers as if nothing had happened at all.

“Well, thanks for the Herbology lesson.”

I nodded mutely. 

“See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah.  Tomorrow.” 

I shut my eyes to hear his footsteps crossing over the stone floor.  There was a creak as the door opened, and then it closed—because why wouldn’t it?  Why would he have turned back?  All was silent and I was left alone, by my own doing, again.

I punched my fist into the dirt, working faster and faster, as if I could bury my thoughts in the soil.  Like you always do, Chloe.

It was only moments before I noticed the dragonskin jacket on the table.  Sirius couldn’t be far.  I leapt to my feet.

I was folding the jacket into a neat square when he threw open the door and I stopped short.  “Oh!”

But something in his face had changed.  And before I could place what it was, his lips were crashing into mine, all at once, like an ember on my tongue.  Sirius drove me backwards until I bumped clumsily against the wall.

Kissing, and the mechanics of it, was foreign to me.  But Sirius kissed with deft lips; with his jaw; with his tongue.  His hands.  They curved my waist into his like an archer pulling a bowstring.  And then, abruptly, they moved between my thighs and pressed against a place that sent bolts of lightning through me.

I broke away, moon eyed.  But Sirius must have heard the eagerness in my shaky breath.  Slowly, through a half-lidded gaze, he cinched my skirt as if lifting a curtain.  Inch by inch it rose above my knee.  His fingertips grazed the skin over my hipbone, over the unseen scar, tugging my knickers.  And then those same fingers traveled between my thighs, further and further, until at last they found what they sought.

Hungrily I kissed him, but Sirius broke away, murmuring, “Look at me, Chloe.”

And as I dug my fingers into his arms, I thought, of course Sirius Black needed validation.  Even now.  Even with his fingers inside me he needed proof that my very core was becoming molten.  That he was wonderful; that he could render me all knee-trembled and lip-bitten; that Marlene was mistaken in rejecting him.

With his forehead pressed to mine we shared the same heaving breath until I couldn’t stop the fluttering of my eyelids, or the tension in my muscles, and a shower of sparks burst and coursed through every inch of me.  Sirius’s lips bruised mine once more as I quaked, clutching a nearby shelf.

With my head craned backwards I stared through the glass roof, drawing in gasps of heavy air.  Sirius placed a kiss on my neck, the corner of my mouth, my ear.  And then his stifling heat disappeared as he stepped away.  His white shirt was wrinkled, stained with potting soil from my hands.

I swallowed, my breath steadying.  “I’ve never…”

He grabbed his leather jacket from the floor and his look said, plainly, I know.

As I self-consciously tugged my knickers back up, a thought struck me.  “Don’t tell Marlene.”

“Of course not,” he said, his voice surprisingly gentle.

With a pause he reached over to kiss my cheek.  We could have been acquaintances departing after tea.  Taking two slow steps backward, he seemed to remember it all over again, and a grin spread over his face.  With an incredulous shake of his head, he said, “See you around.”

And he left once more.



Chapter 14: Chapter Thirteen
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“I never dreamed the sea so deep,

The earth so dark; so long my sleep,

I have become another child.

I wake to see the world go wild.”

— Allen Ginsberg

 


 
PART TWO
 
1979

 

The wedding fell on a rainy Saturday afternoon in April.  Beneath the awning of an empty apothecary I watched as a woman hurried through the downpour that drenched the narrow cobblestone street.  She paused at the gate of James’s childhood home, an unassuming brick two-story.  To anyone else it appeared dark and empty.  But as I watched, the woman murmured a password, passing through the closed gate like a ghost.  It was a complicated invisibility spell cast by Albus Dumbledore himself.

 

I pulled my trench coat tighter, waiting as more members of the Order arrived, minutes apart as to not raise suspicion.  Just as instructed.  This was supposed to be a joyous occasion.  Even the flurry of Lily and James’s engagement meant something—they’d only been dating a year, and I couldn’t convince myself that it was young love that had them this way.  It was the feeling of not knowing what the next day might bring. 

 

I stiffened.  Alastor Moody was stalking down the slickened cobblestones.  I pressed my back against the locked door, hiding from his suspicious glance, until he passed through the gate as well.

 

I knew he didn’t want me there.

 

Despite Marlene’s imploring, I had yet to join the Order of the Phoenix.  I was there if needed in small ways: Polyjuice for missions I wasn’t allowed to understand, healing tonics for the wounded, Veritaserum in case they took a hostage.  I didn’t like to think about the last one.

 

Events such as this wedding, cloaked in secrecy, were for family and trusted individuals only.  To Alastor Moody I was neither.  But Lily and James had put their foot down, and I was “Of course invited to their wedding, don’t be mental.”  It was a small consolation after nearly a year of separation from their group.  Marlene and I had remained in touch, me visiting her flat on the weekends or vice-versa, but the visits became fewer and fewer.

 

“Chloe?”

 

Peter was behind me, dwarfed under a large umbrella and looking surprised—I hadn’t seen him since Hogwarts, nearly a year ago.  He had finally grown into his ears and stood a little straighter.

 

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,” the words flew from my mouth. 

 

“I’m glad you’re here too.”  Peter still flushed like he used to, but his eyes stayed trained on my face.

 

Perhaps I shouldn’t have said it.  But it was true; he had been the only person to understand my refusal to join the Order of the Phoenix, all those months ago.  The others pretended—Lily and Marlene especially—but I knew what was thought of me.

 

Coward.

 

“Ready, then?” 

 

“Sure.”  With a grateful smile I ducked beneath the umbrella.  We were instructed to use them rather than rain-repellant charms; to arrive via the designated Portkey; to keep our heads down.

 

“Reckon Moody will kill us for arriving in twos?” I murmured, and Peter grinned.

 

“Constant vigilance.”

 

We reached the wrought iron gate and shared a glance, before intoning, “Amor luminaria in tenebris.”  Love lights up the darkness.  We were told to memorize it, burn the parchment, and to share it with no one.  It made me think that love wasn’t doing much of anything these days.

 

But when we passed through the gate my throat constricted with joy.  It was like entering another world.  The sun was out by enchantment, drenching the garden in a late-afternoon glow and catching in the droplets that clung to our umbrella.  Bright swing music played from a gramophone.  But most of all it was the people.  Overcoats were discarded, and they dressed in their finest clothes, chatting happily with champagne in hand.  It had been so long since I’d seen this many smiling faces. 

 

Mr. Potter, the spitting image of James himself, passed out bubbly.  His face was aglow with pride.  When he reached us, he clapped a firm hand on Peter’s shoulder.

 

“Wonderful to see you, Peter.  Is this your date?”

 

He glanced at me sideways and sputtered, “Oh, well, erm…”

 

“Chloe Fairchild,” I interjected.  “Congratulations.”

 

We shook hands, his grip firm and warm, but he was immediately distracted by another guest and disappeared.  I saw where James got his attention span from.  Peter and I shared an embarrassed smile over our champagne flutes.  But then I heard a familiar voice and my heart leapt into my throat. 

 

“There you are, it’s about bloody time!”

 

Marlene looked otherworldly.  With a crown of flowers woven through her hair, the long cape sleeves of her lavender dress lifted in her wake.  She looked nonplussed to be dressed so beautifully—embarrassed, even—and it was so wonderfully her.  Before I could even speak, I was crushing her in a hug. 

 

“Whoa!” she laughed, returning the embrace.

 

“I missed you.”  Again, I felt the embarrassing threat of happy tears. 

 

Marlene held me at arm’s length, saying, “Herbology school suits you well.  I love this.”  She tugged on my new chin-length hair.  “Very collegiate.”

 

“My Mum asked if I was turning into a ‘modern woman.’”  She had meant if I were a lesbian.

 

“Come on, she should know you’re knee-deep in uni boys!”  It wasn’t true, but I laughed anyway, and then the sunlight of her attention was turned to Peter.  “Oi Petey, how’s it going?  You look fancy!

 

She pulled him stumbling into a crushing hug.  It felt just like it used to, at Hogwarts.  I couldn’t believe that the cold and granite world existed outside the Potters’ garden.  I never wanted to leave.

 

She touched my arm, saying quietly, just for me, “We’ll catch up.  Find me later.  But right now, I’d better go make sure Lily doesn’t bolt.  Maid of honor and all.”  With a wink, she disappeared.

 

I was staring after her when Peter asked, “Wanna go find the others?  I’m sure they’ve broken into the cigars by now.”

 

I knew who he meant.  Despite my desire to see Remus and James, I said, “Go ahead.  I need to wash up.”

 

It was a flimsy excuse, but he nodded.  “Wish me luck.”

 

I smiled.  Of course he was nervous to be a groomsman, even if it only meant standing before thirty people.  “You’ll do great.”

 

He paused, and I had the distinct impression that were he braver, he would have leaned in to kiss my cheek.  I didn’t know how that made me feel.  But Peter only offered a quiet, “See you,” and disappeared around the side of the house, into the back garden, where I could smell the faint hint of cigar smoke.  The world seemed to slow around me.

 

He would be there, I knew, smoking a cigarette.  I could hear the quiet breath and see the curling of the smoke, dangerous and reckless.  The dragonskin jacket.  Every teenage girl’s dream.

 

But I wasn’t a girl anymore; not really.

 

I looked around the garden, hugging myself.  Frank and Alice, the only other guests I would know, had not yet arrived.  Mary was surely upstairs with Lily and Marlene.  I wished, not for the first time, that I had a date to bring—but my time at Elwood had been fruitless.  There was a clumsy, stumbling kiss, from a bespectacled boy at a cramped party, but I never learned his name or saw him again.

 

With a last glance around the unfamiliar faces, I ducked inside the house.

 

From the kitchen came a flurry of voices: Mrs. Potter and some other witches, along with a house elf, were using magic to cover a giant cake in fresh daisies.  A sour-looking girl stood in the corner, arms knotted tightly, and it was a moment before I recognized her as Lily’s sister.  Despite their rocky relationship, a photo of Petunia was spell-o-taped to the wall of Lily and James’s flat.

 

I smiled when we made eye contact.  “Washroom?”

 

But she looked away, and Mrs. Potter answered politely, “Just upstairs, dear.”

 

I nodded a thank you, glancing again at Petunia, who was pulling the petals off a daisy.

 

The rest of the house was surprisingly quiet as I passed through.  The den was brimming with brass knickknacks, ornate lamps, and decorative pillows.  A bookshelf was stuffed with books and dozens of board games.  But the clutter felt intentional; it was a cheery and lived-in room.  Every available surface held a family photograph.  Most of them were magical, and their subjects smiled and waved at me.

 

It was so different from my own family home.  Bare-bones and utilitarian, the farmhouse—its stone floors and white walls—was subtly uninviting, like an old painting.  A study in quiet light.

 

 

 

In the bathroom mirror, I stared at my reflection, wondering how I must look to my friends now.  My face was bare, like it had been at Hogwarts.  Makeup continued to mystify me more than any Arithmancy class ever had.  My mother had hated my short hair, preferring the stick-straight sheet that hung past my shoulders since childhood.  She had felt betrayed, somehow.  I ruffled the straight-across fringe, damp with raindrops, and thought that this was the least of my betrayals to her.

 

Was this evidenced in my face?  Did the lying age me, etching fine creases into the skin?  I felt older than the amount of time that had passed—less prone to fits of delusional romance. 

 

It had been almost one year since I last saw Sirius Black.

 

After what happened in the Hogwarts greenhouses, we had scarcely spoken, and each brief encounter left my hands trembling.  His gaze had scarcely landed on me; it was as if I wasn’t even in the room.  But I hadn’t been able to do the same, during those last weeks of our Seventh Year.  Behind every blink was the split-second impact of his lips crushing mine, demanding attention. 

 

Look at me, Chloe.

 

For our final night at Hogwarts, our group spent a blurry evening at the Three Broomsticks.  It was crowded, and the windows were open to the warm night’s breeze.  Like a child, I had worn the same blue cotton dress from my encounter with Sirius.  As if it were just his memory that needed jogging.  

 

The hours passed.  I managed to choke down half a pint, but the others made up for my sobriety.  Peter was so drunk he could barely hold his head up, and Marlene kept nudging him awake so that we wouldn’t be kicked out. 

 

After Lily and James’s third, lingering kiss at the table, Sirius had cried, “Alright, we get it!  You’re young and in love!”

 

“Don’t be jealous,” she brought her drink to her lips.  “We all know I could never take your place.”

 

James lifted a strand of red hair, pursing it between his nose and lips like a mustache, and we were all still laughing when Sirius suddenly grabbed Mary’s face and kissed her.  It was a joke; the kind of kiss you say out loud; a smacking “Mwah!”

 

But it was enough, and on the walk back to Hogwarts, we all pretended not to notice that they had disappeared into the trees.  Mary was mortified the next day.  Remus didn’t speak to him for a week.  And to me, the ground had opened—it had been only days since the greenhouse.  My expendability left me like a dried husk during a time that should have been spent in happy nostalgia.

 

I hadn’t seen Sirius since.

 

He was here, of course; he was the best man.  But that didn’t mean we had to speak.  Cold tap water ran over my wrists and solidified my resolve.  I would spend the evening with Marlene and Peter, and at my first chance, I would go back to the security of Elwood and its libraries, the anonymity and the rigor.

 

And then, who knew when we’d see each other again.

 

As I passed down the hallway a flash of movement caught my eye, from a room with its door ajar.  It was a poster of the Haileybury Hammers, decorating the wall of what was unmistakably James’s childhood bedroom.  I paused in the doorway.  Like the den below, it was cluttered, but bore the quietness of a child who had left the nest.  More posters, of Quidditch teams and John Lennon, covered the walls.  A dresser with all its drawers still ajar was lined with books, and I moved inside to read the titles: Slaughterhouse Five, Catcher in the Rye and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  I smiled.  The books were so very James.

 

There was a sudden CRACK from behind me and I jumped.  For a moment, even Sirius was frozen in shock where he had Apparated.  Devastatingly, he was even more gorgeous than I remembered; his wavy hair had grown past his jaw, now shadowed with stubble.

 

“Chloe.”

 

But only a second later there was another crack, and Remus spotted me, smiling. 

 

“Hey!  You made it!”

 

We embraced.  “Hi, Remus.”

 

Sirius hung back, keeping his head down as he searched along the dresser for something.

 

Remus explained, “James forgot his cufflinks.  Can’t get married without them, apparently.”  He seemed a little buzzed, which meant he would be chatty enough to fill the silence. 

 

I focused all my attention on him.  “Yeah, how is he doing?”

 

“He’s an absolute wreck, of course.  But in the right way.”

 

“He’s going to cry so much.”

 

“Oh, Merlin, loads.  I can’t wait.”  He seemed to realize, then, that Sirius was being uncharacteristically silent.  We hadn’t seen each other in a year, and it was as if I weren’t even there.  My gaze dropped to the floor. 

 

Remus asked brightly, “So, how is Herbology school?”

 

“It’s good, yeah, thanks.  My parents still think I’m going to Muggle uni, so that’s been interesting.  But I love it, actually.”

 

“That’s brilliant.”  He lowered his voice conspiratorially, “Hey, you’re not here with Peter, are you?  Like… as a date?”

 

“Found them,” Sirius interrupted.  His gaze never even turned to me.  “Ready?”

 

Remus, thoroughly confused, said, “Uh, yeah, sure!  See you out there, Chloe.”

 

“Yeah, see you.”

 

With two more echoing CRACKs they disappeared.  I swallowed against the hard lump in my throat.  The cufflinks had been in Sirius’s hand the whole time; I saw them.  He had found them on the dresser as soon as he arrived.  He was just refusing to look at me.

 

 

 

 

The sun—or the enchantment of it—dipped into the perfect golden hour in time for the ceremony.  I slipped into the back and pressed against the tall wooden fence, where greenery draped onto my shoulders like a comforting hand.  Before the wooden arch hung with flower garlands was a row of happy faces: Marlene, Mary and Alice stood opposite Sirius, Remus and Peter. 

 

Peter caught my eye and offered a tiny smile, and I felt the corner of my lips twitch, despite my still-hammering heart.  Sirius was reveling in the spotlight, nudging Remus and laughing at something.  When the music began, and James took his place, his eyes were already misting, and I felt the tight fight loosening around my heart.

 

And when Lily appeared, her hair smoldering against the snow of her dress, all was forgotten.

 

James did in fact cry, his face still and slick with tears, eyes burning with intensity as Lily read her vows.  I had never seen anyone look at another person like that.  He had always played the clown, and the show-off, but he had never pretended to hide how he felt about her.  Not for years.  Frank officiated, wearing a tuxedo tee-shirt that made Lily’s mother’s toes curl, but they all laughed delightedly upon seeing it.

 

When Frank shouted, “Lily, you may kiss the groom!” everyone erupted into cheers and applause; a standing ovation.  Even Alastor Moody thumped his walking staff on the ground.

 

Hundreds of enchanted daisies fell from the sky, and Wouldn’t It Be Nice was blasting from the gramophone.  I realized my own cheeks were wet with tears and smeared them hastily as Lily, James and the others hurried down the aisle, deliriously happy.  We showered them with white sparks from our wands, wrapping them in a tunnel of light.  It felt like protection.

 

Then a gentle hand was on my wrist: Marlene, all smiles and sunlight, linking our arms like delicate loops in the chain of a necklace.  And despite the gray that hung outside the garden I was tugged gently, time again, to some bright place I hadn’t intended.

 

 

 

 

I had drunk far too much champagne.  The sun had long since set, the guests filing out with exhausted smiles and congratulations, until it was just us.  Like it had been in school.  Mr. and Mrs. Potter watched from the doorway, amused, as we shouted the words to Muggle songs blaring from the gramophone, dancing like fools.  My feet were bare in the grass, my voice hoarse.  The fairy lights that bobbed over us were spinning when Mary handed me another glass and I took it without a second thought.  Every time I spun around Peter was there, smiling and laughing, and I realized it was his hand that was holding mine over my head, twirling me around and around.

 

“I need air!” I shouted to everyone and no one; the heat of our bodies was stifling.

 

Passing along the side of the house to the front garden, I sat heavily in the grass.  My dress would be filthy, and it made me laugh.  With my legs splayed out before me I stared up at the sky; at the stars that I knew weren’t real, but in that moment, it didn’t matter.

 

It was several moments before I realized that Sirius was in the garden, too.  He had been standing beneath a tree, smoking another cigarette.  When our eyes met he emerged from the shadows and came to stand over me. 

 

The silence stretched, and then he said, “If I never listen to Fleetwood Mac again, I’ll die happy.”

 

“They’re Lily’s favorite.”

 

It was a stupid thing to say but my head felt full of stars.  He nodded, scratching his cheek, and after a moment of hesitation sat beside me.  I could feel the heat radiating from his body in the cool night.  He offered his cigarette and I shook my head.  The music continued to blare from the back garden, but it sounded farther and farther away.

 

“Having fun?” he asked.

 

“Yeah, of course.”

 

“With Peter?”

 

My head snapped in his direction and I said hotly, “Yes, with Peter.  And with Marlene, and Remus, and Mary, and Frank—”

 

Sirius shrugged, dragging on the cigarette.  “You two seemed friendly back there, is all.”

 

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

 

A smirk was playing on his lips.  “Merlin, you’re feisty these days.”

 

I didn’t respond, drawing my knees to my chest and hugging them.  I could leave.  I should leave and go back to the warmth of Marlene and the others, instead of remaining in the dampened grass with Sirius Black.

 

But I wet my lips and said, the anger still in my voice, “You stopped talking to me.”

 

He looked at me, waiting, and I swore there was nervousness on his face.

 

“After the greenhouses.  You completely ignored me—and you ignored me earlier today!”

 

“You said you didn’t want anybody to know.”

 

“I didn’t.”

 

“So, what was I supposed to do, then?” 

 

“We could have… I don’t know.  We could have figured something out.”

 

He laughed quietly; it almost sounded bitter.  “If my memory serves me correctly, I came on to you.  Twice.”

 

Heat flashed across my cheeks.  “That’s not…”  I couldn’t form the words I wanted to, the alcohol tripping my tongue.  “I didn’t mean something physical.  I wasn’t going to wait in the wings until Marlene shot you down again.  I really liked you, Sirius.  I would have—”

 

I stopped myself.  He had gone still, watching me, expression unreadable.  Could it have truly been surprise?  A part of him must have known all along; he must have seen the downcast glances, the shivers when he passed too close, the lip-bitten catching of my breath.  He must have known.  But now his silence was lasting too long, and I was tired. 

 

“Forget it.”

 

I staggered to my feet and snatched the champagne flute from the ground.  It had tipped over, its contents spilled onto the grass.  Sirius still hadn’t responded as I stalked away, but I didn’t expect him to, and he was left sitting alone.  As I said, I was no longer prone to delusions of romance.

 

When I returned to the others, they had procured an enormous blanket, and were sitting or lying down in a tangle of happy, drunken exhaustion.  I came to sit beside Peter, and when he cautiously laid his head on my lap I let him.  With my hand resting on the crown of his head, I absentmindedly fingered the tufts of unruly hair, listening to the others’ quiet chatter.  If Sirius ever came to join us, I didn’t know.



Chapter 15: Chapter Fourteen
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Chapter Fourteen

 

 

 

 

My roommate, Anna, liked Peter.  She said he was sweet and not to mention “a total fox.”  Anna was American; a graduate of Ilvermorny, chatty and flirtatious—and likely relieved to see me not holing away in the dormitory.  To our mortification, she always made a show of leaving when he arrived.  “She’s all yours.  But hang a sock on the door handle this time, eh?”

 

And she was right about Peter—about how it felt to catch someone staring at you, and holding hands in Muggle cinemas, and flowers picked from strangers’ gardens, which he listened to me explain as if I were reciting Shakespeare.  The first time we lay naked in my bedsheets, shy in the morning light, he murmured self-consciously into my arm, “I just think you’re so beautiful.”

 

It wasn’t where I had expected the pieces to fall, and I couldn’t bring myself to think about permanence and longevity.  But Peter was kind; he made me feel seen.  He was everything that Sirius wasn’t.

 

I had expected word from Marlene: shock, or scandal that I hadn’t told her first.  But none came.  My letters remained unanswered in her preoccupation with the Order of the Phoenix, and Peter filled the empty space that Marlene couldn’t.  Or wouldn’t.

 

For this, it was easy to slip into our little existence.

 

There were still secrets, of course.  I was careful to never leave the lights on; to sleep with the bedsheets just so, never revealing the scar across my pelvis.  The brutal M that marked me for who I was.  Impure.

 

It was a chilly afternoon in October when I left the girls’ dormitory and zipped my jacket against the breeze, feeling the strange new giddiness that lay dormant in my chest and fluttered when I spotted a certain, slight figure.  Peter was waiting at the bottom of the long cobblestone staircase.  He smiled hugely when I appeared in my corduroy skirt.  From the last step I took a running leap and my clumsy landing nearly toppled us both.  As his small arms encircled my waist I thought, do the others—Marlene, James and Lily—even know this Peter?  Had they ever taken the time?  He wasn’t the same person he had been, once, in their shadow.

 

“Eye crinkles.”  I touched the creases of his smile, and he bumped his forehead gently against mine.

 

 


 

 

Pendragon Lane was bustling, its entrance marked by a wrought iron gate and a rapid increase in drunk students.  Though Canterbury itself was populated by Muggles and magical folks alike, this borough was ours alone.  It wasn’t much: of note were a few pubs, one decent falafel place, and an apothecary known to be lenient in doling out pain potions.  But it was the place to be on the weekends.  It was away from the prying eyes of Elwood professors who, despite our legal age, watched us like Hippogriffs.

 

As Peter and I passed through the gate, his fingers found mine, clutching tightly.  It always surprised me how he almost needed to be touched, especially in crowded places.  A bedraggled wizard without shoes asked us for change as we passed, and we shyly averted our gaze, each murmuring quiet, “No, sorry.”

 

Due to Pendragon Lane’s size, it was impossible to avoid certain areas.  The Wall was no exception.  Truthfully, it was a long stretch of wooden fence that separated the back of a pub from the rest of the street.  Once a place for flyers of upcoming concerts, rare magical items for sale and services offered, the Wall was now plastered with photographs of missing persons.

 

I remembered seeing the first one, last year, after exams: a scrawl of ink directly over a perfectly average-looking photograph.  It was an old witch, with long silver hair, sat by a sunlit window and laughing pleasantly.  She didn’t look how I imagined a war victim.  She could have been anyone’s grandmother.  The ink read, in all capitals, HELP FIND.  There was no contact information, as if the person realized there wouldn’t be any news of her.

 

As Peter and I passed the Wall, I pushed my hair behind my ear, casting a sideways glance.  After months the old woman’s photograph had been bleached white by the sun and crinkled with rain.  Dozens of others now surrounded it in a sea of ghostly faces.  They were the lost; the feared dead; those with blood now seen as impure.

 

Those with blood like mine.

 

Maybe they went into hiding, I thought, a comfortable lie to myself.  Peter and I shared a tight smile, and our silent agreement—to pretend that we hadn’t seen—was upheld.  We continued along without comment.

 

We stopped on a small bridge over the canal, adjacent to a park.  Below, the dark shapes of fish sliced through the flowing water.  Our reflections were muddled as I asked, “How is everyone?”

 

Peter’s hands were clasped over the railing as if in prayer.  “They’re good, yeah.  James and Lily are trying to have a kid.”

 

My jaw dropped.  “Whoa!  Zero to a hundred!” 

 

It seemed like only last week that they had accepted their feelings for one another.  But the pace of their relationship somehow made sense, now.  It would have all felt much too fast—we were still so young—but there was no time to put life’s big plans on hold.  Not now, when anything could happen to us.

 

“I know, it’s mental.”  Peter paused a moment too long, and I knew what he was wondering: if our future would look the same, some day.

 

“And Remus?  Are he and Mary still…?”

 

“Nah, Mary’s dating some bloke from the pub.  Remus is alright.  Busy.  He’s just gotten a job at a bookshop—he’s way overqualified, ‘course, but it pays the rent and all.”

 

Remus, Peter and Sirius were all letting a tiny flat in London above a butcher.  I had visited only once.  Our meetings were always here, in Canterbury, far away from the rest of the world and its mounting horrors.  And here there were no unexpected run-ins with Peter’s roommates.

 

As always, I didn’t ask about Sirius, and Peter didn’t offer any information.  How embarrassingly transparent it must have been, I thought, with a flash of heat across my cheeks even now.  They must have known—all of them—about the feelings I once had.  I must have looked like some frightened creature, stone-still and heart-pattering, every time Sirius had appeared.  And had he told anyone about our encounter in the greenhouse?

 

Look at me, Chloe.

 

“What about Marlene?” I asked, blinking hard.

 

“She’s… good.”

 

“Good?”

 

“I dunno, I worry about her sometimes.  She’s getting really caught up in all of this.”  He gestured vaguely.  “Not sleeping.  It’s practically all she talks about now.”

 

The idea of Marlene losing any part of herself to this cause—this greater good­—was difficult to accept.  Surely it was why I hadn’t heard from her; because even after all this time I had not joined her Order of the Phoenix.  Instead I remained on its edge, never willing to drag the blade across the palm of my fate and seal it with theirs.

 

Though the park was nearly empty I lowered my voice.  These conversations were delicate.  Peter’s desire to please his friends had always eclipsed his own judgment—it wasn’t something that he liked about himself, or something that I was meant to be aware of. 

 

“Peter, if you ever feel unsafe…” 

 

Already his shoulders were tense, so I wet my lips and tried another approach.  “You don’t have to be on the frontlines.  There are other ways to help.  And your friends will support your decision.”

 

It wasn’t the first time I had said it.  He never became angry at my mention of this, of course, but his reassuring smile wavered.  “I know that.”

 

But as we turned back, his arm wrapped tightly around my shoulders, I thought, Do you?

 

 

 

 

It was late fall when Quill Hopkins died.  The leaves had long been drying on the ground, skittering in the chilly wind, across the cobblestones and the stack of morning newspapers.  I could have Accio’d the paper into the dormitory, but I needed the fresh air after my all-night studying session.  Bleary eyed, I crouched to brush the leaves from the headline: YOU-KNOW-WHO CLAIMS YOUNGEST VICTIM.

 

Quill was one year below me.  We had shared a Hogwarts house for six years, and countless hours studying in our common room in amiable silence.  Her photograph looked just as I remembered: a bright-faced girl with a mane of hair that she pulled back tightly.  She had never cared to fix the gap in her front teeth; it was unique to her.

 

And Quill was Muggle-born.

 

I didn’t want to read the rest of the story.  The details of what was undoubtedly a horrific death didn’t matter.  Quill—a girl who had never expressed cruelty to anyone; who often brought Bijou scraps of roast chicken from the Great Hall—had been murdered, and there was nothing that could be done to bring her back.

 

I hurried into the girls’ dormitory.  The building was mercifully quiet; Anna herself was in class.  I locked the door behind me, pacing back and forth across the wooden floors and shaking my wrists out.  A fire crackled merrily in the hearth, but the air felt too cold.  My heart was in my throat.

 

Quill is dead.

 

There was a sudden whoosh, as if the fire had nearly blown out, and then a voice, “Hello?”

 

To my surprise, Mary Macdonald’s face peered out from the flames.  I hadn’t seen or spoken to her in ages; we had never been particularly close.  I dropped to my knees.

 

“What is it?  What’s wrong?”

 

“Hi, Chloe,” she studied my face and somehow, she knew.  “You must have heard about Quill.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I know she was your housemate.”

 

The knot in my throat tightened.  “Thanks.”

 

“Listen, I hate to ask a favor of you right now, but Marlene isn’t taking this well.  At all.  I know she didn’t really know Quill, but… well, she was in a real state when I left.  My manager will sack me if I miss another shift—would you mind going to check on her?  I don’t want her to be alone.”

 

I didn’t even pause to think.  “Of course.  I’ll leave right now.”

 

 

 

 

Marlene and Mary lived in one of many identical buildings that lined a quiet street in London’s Magical East End.  From the outside it appeared empty.  The curtains were drawn tightly against the unusually bright fall day.  At the murmur of the password—Marlene always made sure to keep me updated—the doorknob turned, and I stepped into a silent flat.

 

It was messier than I remembered.  She had always been surprisingly neat, for someone who refused to brush her hair for a month in protest of McGonagall’s beauty expectations.  I could hear movement from one of the bedrooms down the hallway, but it was separated by a cloth partition.

 

“Hello?”

 

When there was no response I flicked my wand and the curtains flew open.  The room was drowned in light, revealing clutter and the constellations of dust motes in the air.  The coffee table was covered in parchments with more stacked on the floor nearby.  They appeared to be photographs Spell-o-Taped to pages of Marlene’s own illegible handwriting.  With a cautious glance toward the partition, I took a step closer, flipping carefully through the stack.

 

It wasn’t until I reached the photograph of the old woman—the one from the Wall, PLEASE HELP FIND—that I understood.  It was everyone who had gone missing.

 

“Chloe.”

 

Marlene had drawn back the partition.  Behind her tear-blurred eyes there was a hint of something I had never seen before—accusation?  I dropped the parchment back onto the table.

 

“Hey.”  When I embraced her, I felt how thin she was beneath the clothes.  She was rigid for a moment too long until I felt her hands resting limply on my shoulder blades.  “How are you doing?”

 

“How do you reckon?” she muttered, and her eyes threatened to brim over once more.  “This is all so fucked.”

 

I nodded, trying to ignore the sting of her anger, but all I could offer was, “Quill was such a kind person.”

 

Her eyes darted back to the coffee table, and the parchments, and I felt so despicable for searching through her things.  No doubt it was Order business, and certainly none of my own.

 

Marlene must have read my expression, because the hard façade dissipated the smallest amount.  “I’m sorry, Chloe,” she murmured.  “Thank you for coming by.  I don’t mean to be a prat, it’s just so…”

 

When she trailed off I nodded and gave her wrist a squeeze.  “I’ll make us some tea.”

 

She smiled thinly, “Milk in the fridge.”

 

But the milk had gone rancid and there was no tea, just the empty cardboard box.  Her sink was piled with dishes.  As I charmed them to wash themselves, Marlene disappeared into the back once more, behind the curtain, to whatever task she had been working on when I arrived. 

 

To fight the feeling of uselessness I called out, “I’m just going to run to the shop.  Back in a minute.”

 

I closed the door behind me just as Sirius reached the base of the steps. It was abrupt and unceremonious; to any outsider it would have appeared entirely unremarkable.  But my hand seized the railing so tightly I feared that the iron would snap. For once in his life Sirius looked uneasy.

 

“Hi,” he said.

 

“Hi.”

 

“Peter here?”

 

I shook my head.  It hadn’t even occurred to me to seek out Peter during all of this, a fact I wasn’t ready to consider.

 

Sirius nodded, and his eyes moved to the door behind me.  “So, is she alright, then?”

 

“No, not really.  But I’m sure she wants to see you.”

 

I didn’t mean to say it that way, the you like the pinprick of a needle, but it slipped off my tongue.  I couldn’t help the gnawing feeling that Marlene was becoming someone else; someone that I wasn’t privy to.

 

The wind tousled his dark hair, unruly and longer than ever.  “And how are you doing?”

 

I blinked in shock.  Nobody had asked me that, yet; even I hadn’t asked myself.

 

“You and Quill were friends.”

 

I thought of her studying in the Hufflepuff common room—barricaded in a fort of textbooks, her bun a pincushion for quills as she scrawled furiously—and smiled fondly.  “Yeah, I reckon we were.”  And then whatever I had been holding like a clenched fist came undone.

 

As my shoulders racked with silent cries, I dropped my head in embarrassment, willing it to stop.  Sirius’s feet appeared on the step below mine; the crown of my head must have been nearly touching his chest.  When he tensed as if to bring me into an embrace, I stepped back, dragging a sleeve across my eyes.

 

“We need milk.”

 

It seemed like the most trivial thing in the world, now. But he only nodded and moved aside, allowing me to pass by him like a breeze. I never returned inside with the milk; I left it with a box of tea on the front steps, knocking on the door and Apparating before it was answered.



Chapter 16: Chapter Fifteen
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Chapter Fifteen

 

 

The holidays were over.  Ratty tinsel and torn window-hangings of elves and reindeer were piled along London’s streets, awaiting rubbish pick-up.  It had snowed earlier in the week but had since turned to dirty slush that splattered beneath my boots.  The day was bitterly cold, and my lungs ached as Peter and I hurried down the sidewalks.  He was tense.  Beneath the furrowed brows, his gaze seemed all at once miles away and intensely focused.

 

“What’s wrong?” I had asked earlier, in the quiet light of my dormitory.  Peter was in front of the mirror, layering jumpers against the chill, and my head came to rest on his shoulder.  “You look like you haven’t been sleeping.”

 

But he had only smiled tiredly.  To his credit, whatever had been gnawing at him the past few weeks always melted in my presence.

 

“Nothing’s wrong,” he had said.  “Ready?”

 

And now, as we hurried in the damp and freezing air, he spoke little.  It was the Order, I knew it.  Why else would he not tell me?  Peter had hinted that discord was spreading throughout the ranks—and here we were, running late to meet them.  Remus, ever the peacemaker, had suggested an afternoon pub meetup.  The location in a Muggle area of London wasn’t subtle: there would be no talk of official Order business, and it was the only reason I was invited, I was sure. 

 

I felt sorry for Peter, and wished that he wasn’t so uneasy, but he had to know that it was them.  Things always smoothed over for the Marauders.

 

A space between the cars, buses and taxis opened, and Peter snapped, “Let’s go!”  He snatched my hand and we ran across the street.  When we reached the other side he murmured, “Sorry.”

 

“It’s alright.  Same boat.”

 

I would much rather we had spent another Saturday afternoon in Canterbury, shopping for records or wandering the streets with a Firewhiskey hidden in our pockets.  This entire reunion felt too forced.  An afternoon nip into the pub, so we could all reasonably make excuses about having to run errands, were it too uncomfortable. 

 

But this was Remus’s attempt to patch things over; a fresh start in the new decade.  1980.

 

“This is it,” Peter’s breath rose in quick, nervous puffs as we came to a stop.  It looked like every other corner pub in London and the black wooden façade bore its moniker: The Black Slug.

 

“Charming,” I said.

 

But just as I made for the door, he grabbed my wrist and, after struggling to find the words murmured, “You know I love you.”

 

It wasn’t the first time Peter had said it, but I understood all too well his timing.  Sirius, the thing we never spoke about—or one of several things—was inside, somewhere.  And even now Peter feared he would never live up to his friend. 

 

His cheeks were flushed with embarrassment as I leaned in to kiss him.  “I know, Peter.”

 

It was the other thing we didn’t talk about: that I had yet to say it back.  But he smiled, and I opened the door.

 

The pub was unsurprisingly empty at this early hour, save for a large booth in the corner where the others sat.  When we entered, it was to a chorus of loud greetings, though something about it felt forced, as if it were to fill what had been an uncomfortable silence.

 

“We saw that lip action out there!” James’s arms were slung over the booth, one around Lily and the other around Remus.

 

Lily rolled her eyes when she smiled, “Ignore him.”

 

“What?  I’m an old married man now.  Can’t blame my interest in the sexy new romances.”

 

I was surprised to see that everyone had made it out.  Marlene was tucked away in the corner, between Mary and Sirius, and too far away for our customary embrace.  We shared a tight smile across the table and I remembered the last time I saw her; the accusation in her eyes to catch me sifting through her things.  The feeling of her bones as we hugged.

 

As Peter and I drew up some chairs, it almost seemed that everything was just as it had used to be, at Hogwarts.  We were putting up a good façade.  James bought us all a round and heavy pint glasses of amber ale were doled out.  To any outsider, our group of cheerful friends looked like a department store advert.

 

But things weren’t just as they had been.  I could feel Marlene’s lack of interest in me like a lightbulb that had burned out.  And there were other things that had been broken, things that time hadn’t completely healed: what happened between Mary and Sirius on our final night at Hogwarts, and the betrayal Remus must have felt.  Peter’s leg bouncing anxiously beneath the table.  That Marlene was no longer playing the ringleader, throwing her head back in laughter or gently teasing us, and instead sipped darkly from her beer.  The fact that I wasn’t really supposed to have been at Lily and James’s wedding, and possibly not even here, at this gathering.

 

Maybe I was the only one to feel it, but the wedge had been driven into the fissure, and I was breaking away from them.  Or maybe we were all coming apart.

 

“What’s happened to your eye, Sirius?” Lily suddenly asked.

 

He was directly to my left, and I had yet to acknowledge him with more than a tight smile.  But I looked at him now, just in time to see he and James exchange a nervous look.  Indeed, there was a cut on his left eyebrow—small, but deep—and the skin around it had bruised purple.  It looked fresh.

 

“Well, it’s…” Sirius began.

 

James assisted, “Bit of a funny story, actually.”

 

“Classic.”

 

“What,” Lily demanded lowly. 

 

Everyone was watching now, and James opened and closed his mouth several times until Sirius came to his rescue, “It was nothing, really, we were being daft.  Having some fun with the Muggle police on my motorcycle.  They were being typical cops, trying to pull us over ‘cause we’re kids.  But we knew we could lose them, so we took off, and then ran into some…unsavory types.”

 

“Unsavory?” Mary furrowed her brow while Remus took a long gulp of beer; clearly the boys were already in on the secret.

 

“Death Eaters.”

 

“Oh my god,” Lily covered her face with her hands.

 

Peter’s face was as white as the overcast sky, but seeing my confused look, he explained, “You-Know-Who’s followers.”

 

So, they had a name for people like Michael Flint.  Once more I remembered the tendons in my arms stretching as Artemisia and Coraline held me down, a frightened animal awaiting the smoldering brand.  I blinked, hard, until the faces around the table reappeared.

 

Sirius was saying, “…levitated the police car and the idiots crashed into it.  They disappeared, we Obliviated the officers, and went along our merry way.  Easy.”  He was playing it down for Lily’s sake, but something behind his eyes said that he had been having the time of his life.

 

“We were fine, Lil,” James said gently.  She was still covering her face.

 

“No, you bloody well weren’t.  You’re just as bad as them!”  

 

I glanced nervously to the barkeep, but he didn’t seem to have heard the outburst.  They already performed a silencing charm.  Apparently, this wasn’t as casual a meetup as advertised. 

 

“Those Muggles aren’t playthings,” Lily said.  “They’re people, and they could have been hurt.”

 

“We used a shield charm around the car,” James said earnestly.  “They were completely safe.  Lily, come on, you know we would never…”

 

Then Marlene said darkly, “Well I for one think it was a job well done.  Give them a taste of their own bloody medicine for once.”

 

I cast her an uneasy look and Lily said, as if practicing great restraint, “It sounds like you don’t care about the welfare of those police officers.”

 

“I’m just saying that maybe it’s time that we start acting more radically.”

 

“Oh, we haven’t forgotten that you feel that way, trust us.”

 

“Us?”  Marlene looked at James challengingly.  “You sure your husband agrees with you there?”

 

My eyes bore into my half-empty pint as if it were the most interesting thing in the world.  The two had never had so much as a disagreement before.  Why was Marlene trying to pit James against her?

 

Sirius laughed uneasily, “Marlene, c’mon…”

 

“We can’t just start attacking people in the streets,” Remus’s head hung back in exhaustion.  Clearly, they had discussed this before, many times.  “Especially around Muggles.  James and Sirius did the right thing.”

 

“So, we’ll just politely wait around for them to attack us again?  We knew going into this that we were putting ourselves in danger, but that’s the risk you take—”

 

“There’s a difference between taking risks and throwing yourself onto the fire,” Mary interjected.  The small space between them was electric.  “We have to be tactical, we’ve talked about this.”

 

“And where has talking gotten us?”

 

“We’re beyond outnumbered.  We can’t just rush in with wands blazing—”

 

“That’s exactly what we need to do.  Fabian and Gideon are dead.  And you’re fooling yourself if you believe that Caradoc is going to turn back up alive.  Who’s next, then?  Sirius and James should have killed those monsters when they had the chance—”

 

“But you can’t ask that of people, Marlene!”  The words escaped me before I could think, and then all heads were turned towards the only non-member of the Order of the Phoenix.  “I just… don’t think we should be encouraging our friends to put their lives at risk.”

 

“Interesting that you should have an opinion all of the sudden,” she said.  “Why don’t you go tend your plants.”

 

It felt as if the air were being sucked from my lungs.  Marlene was notorious for snapping when upset, saying things that she didn’t mean and overcompensating just to win an argument—and she always apologized afterwards.  But I had never experienced the venom firsthand.  Then again, I had always made myself small around her, and of the same opinion.  I felt the fissure cracking, deepening.

 

“Christ, Marlene,” Remus said.  “She was invited.  This wasn’t supposed to be an Order meeting.”

 

“As if there’s anything else to talk about right now.  What exactly did you think we’d do, share a pint and have some laughs?  People are dying.”

 

Peter suddenly rose to his feet, looking as if he may be sick.  “We should go.  Thanks for the beer, James.”  

 

He was rubbing his eyes and said, tiredly, “’Course, mate.”

 

I wasted no time, gathering my scarf and hat with trembling hands.  But to my surprise, when I next glanced up Peter had already headed for the door.

 

The table had gone silent.  Despite myself, my eyes roved to him; Sirius was studying Marlene as if he had never truly seen her before.  As if he didn’t know if he liked what he saw.  He touched the cut on his brow absently and I wondered if it would scar.  How close had he been to danger, really?  Or to death?  And how far would he go to please Marlene the next time?

 

Perhaps it was from the adrenaline that made me say it, as if I were addressing everyone, while my eyes bore into his, “Just… take care of yourself.”

 

Please.  And in more ways than one.

 

There were no further goodbyes, nor a glance around the circle, before I rushed out the door after Peter.  I was still buttoning my coat when the frigid air hit me. 

 

Peter was leaning against the wall so heavily that he looked to be in physical pain.  But he began walking as soon as he saw me, our breath hanging in the air where the words weren’t.  He looked terrible.  I now wondered if he had slept at all last night.  When I had woken before the sun, he was already awake, staring at the ceiling and anxiously twisting the bedsheets around a finger.

 

“I didn’t know that Order members were dying,” I broke the silence.  Whoever Fabian and Gideon had been, Peter had never even let their names slip.  “You never told me it was that bad.”

 

“I know I didn’t tell you.”  He took a deep, steadying breath and said, “But they are dying.  And no matter what we do, it’s like we can’t keep up, and You-Know-Who is fucking terrifying, and he’s—” Suddenly, Peter was sobbing. 

 

“Peter!”

 

“I’m sorry,” he said helplessly, and I pulled him into a nearby alleyway.  Uncertain of what else to do, I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and squeezed as tightly as I could, feeling the hot tears on my cheek.

 

“You don’t have to do this,” I said.  “They can’t make you fight.”

 

“I do,” he moaned.  “I can’t escape it, I don’t have a choice.  He won’t let me go.”

 

“Who are you talking about?  James?  Moody?” 

 

But Peter didn’t answer, and so I said, “This isn’t right.  It shouldn’t be like this.  Please, let’s get out of England, go somewhere until this all calms down—”

 

“It’s not going to calm down, Chloe.”

 

I had never seen him like this and, truthfully, it was terrifying me.  When I pulled back to study his face, the sobs had ceased, but his eyes were hollow—and so tired—behind their glossy tears.  He took a step back and rubbed them with his palms, embarrassed.

 

“Just tell me what to do,” I said.

 

“The best thing you can do is just… keep being like this.  Exactly like we are right now.  No matter what.”

 

“Of course,” I said, wondering what he could possibly mean.  Did Peter have plans to kill on behalf of the Order?  He was always secretive about their missions, and I had never asked.  It was one of the many things we simply didn’t talk about.

 

The uneasiness didn’t disappear even as I kissed him.  Nor as he timidly threaded his fingers through mine, offering a weak smile.  And when we apparated back to Canterbury and the familiar safety of my dormitory—empty, with Anna home for the holidays—I tried to forget about the Peter that I saw in the alleyway: terrified, anguished, and most certainly hiding something.



Chapter 17: Chapter Sixteen
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Chapter Sixteen

 

 

 

 

Dark came early at the farmhouse. By late afternoon the snow clouds had turned a dusky purple-gray, releasing fat flakes that drifted lazily past the kitchen window, or flurried with the gusting wind.  I could hear it whistling now and then through unseen places of our home, worn apart by time.  I sat in the kitchen with a cooling cup of tea in my hands.

 

It felt wrong to be there.  The days and weeks of my final term at Elwood were passing as quickly as the snowflakes, a blur of rushing across campus to lectures and late nights fighting off sleep in the library. There was so much to be done. But during our last payphone conversation, where I huddled in the chilly air, my parents had laid their familiar guilt trip. And here I was.

 

How many more hours were left in the weekend? There were multiple assignments to be finished: ones that required the use of magic and that were too risky to attempt. My parents still believed that I was studying botany at the University of Kent.  For once I was grateful for their fear of travel; they had never expressed interest in seeing my false school, nor would they appear for a surprise visit. And the last two years of lying had been easier than I wanted to admit.

 

My tea had gone cold.  I stepped over our dog Monty, who snored at my feet, and nearly pulled out my wand before remembering. Instead I switched on the electric kettle.  As it charged to a boiling point, I examined the kitchen around me.  On its surface many things appeared magical, among them the mortar and pestle on the windowsill, and the drying bundles of herbs and flowers that hung, upside down, from the ceiling. The home had always been antiquated.  Were my parents so different from the world that they feared?

 

With a loud, mechanical TICK the kettle switched off, and I poured searing water over a store-bought bag of tea. Through the doorway, in the yellow glow of electric lightbulbs, my mother read on the sofa. Across from her, my father sat at the table cleaning his rabbit-hunting rifle.  The staticky voice of a newscaster drifted from our ancient radio; Margaret Thatcher had announced that state benefits to strikers were to be halved. My father tutted at this, but to me, the goings-on of their world felt miles and miles away.

 

Graduation from Elwood was in only three months, at the end of May—and then what? Despite everything that happened with Marlene, the Order, and Peter, my marks had not suffered, and I was all but guaranteed a research position at the Poplar Institute for Herbological Medicine. My 20th birthday was next month, and I had long since left childhood.  But I couldn’t imagine telling my parents the truth.  They were already paranoid about my safety to the point of losing sleep.  I couldn’t possibly tell them that I would be letting a flat in dangerous London, alone.

 

Alone. The word bit harder than anticipated. In the past, Peter had hinted that he wanted to move in together. I skirted around the issue, unwilling to answer my own uncomfortable question: why not? But over the past weeks, he had simply stopped bringing the matter up, and the possibility grew cold. Even his weekend visits became fewer and fewer, and while I was grateful for a reprieve in the needling guilt, I missed his company.

 

There had been an unseen shift, that afternoon in the dimly-lit London pub, after Marlene had snapped at me and Peter had broken down. It felt colossal, almost on a geological scale, and I couldn’t shake the idea of a fissure that deepened beneath us—and somehow Peter and I were standing on opposite sides of the break.

 

Maybe Peter had written to me.  As I carried my tea upstairs, I ignored my mother’s half-worried, half-suspicious gaze. With my bedroom door shut I whispered a locking spell, and the smooth wood of my wand and the coursing of magic felt unfamiliar, even after only two days without it. I flexed my hand.

 

The book rested atop my dresser, unremarkable amidst the other volumes such as Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter. Those had been my sole companions in the weeks after the attack we witnessed in London, when I shrouded myself in the solitude of my four-poster. When everything had started to change.

 

In the middle of the stack was a green cloth-covered volume. Its spine bore the title, in ornate gold leaf, Through the Looking Glass. Peter carried the book’s identical twin, and if one of us slipped a note in the pages it was enchanted to reappeared inside the other’s copy. The books were our sole method of communication during my visits home.  The magic was much faster than Muggle post and more discreet than an owl, even the sight of which put my mother on edge.

 

When Peter presented it to me on my birthday last March, on a miraculously dry and breezy afternoon, I learned that he had performed the difficult spell himself. A fallen oak leaf served as our first test.  The magic worked flawlessly.

 

“Peter, this is genius.” We were sitting on a wall outside my dormitory, our legs dangling over the side. I recalled the map that the Marauders had created—its intricacies and enchantment—and wondered if Peter had played a larger role than I thought.

 

He had scratched the back of his head, grinning, “Nah…”

 

“Yes, it is.” My arm wrapped around his neck, tugging him closer into my side. “Thank you.”

 

It was the most thoughtful gift I had ever received.  Something about that made me feel rotten now.

 

My breath was as tight as a clenched fist and, with decisiveness, I flipped the book open.  A piece of parchment tucked in its pages sent my heart skittering with relief.  I unfolded it quickly.

 

Hi Chloe, I hope the trip home is going alright. I’m really sorry, but I can’t come see you this weekend either. Order business.  Soon though, I promise.  Miss you.  Love, Peter

 

Order business. It was as specific as he ever dared to be, even in our own private communications, and that put me on edge. As if there were a possibility of the message being intercepted; a possibility that we were being watched.  Who would want to read our private letters?

 

I knew that Peter was smart, and careful, but the things he did on behalf of the Order of the Phoenix were so cloaked in secrecy that I couldn’t help but imagine the worst. The note was the first I had heard from him in nearly a week.  Before, he wrote every night; a parchment pressed within these pages, or a tawny owl on my dormitory windowsill. But now the hours crept by like frost over a lake.  I was in the strange position of being terrified for his safety whilst convincing myself that world was not as bad as everyone said.  I read the note again.

 

Love, Peter.

 

There it was: the word he had said a dozen times, in timid murmurs as we lay in bed sheets, or blurted tipsily while roaming Canterbury and sipping flasks of Firewhiskey. The word I had yet to say back.  Still, something inside me crushed, like a thin layer of snow underfoot, to know that another weekend would pass without his company. But I knew that I didn’t deserve to feel that way.  And maybe I didn’t deserve his affection at all.

 

 

 

 

The library of Elwood was vacant—but of course it would be, at this hour. It was enormous, all stone floors and towering shelves that teemed with books, and in the darkness, it seemed to stretch for ages.  An unseen fire, somewhere far ahead, cast a faint orange glow as I passed the dozens of aisles.  Shafts of moonlight poured through the windows. Everything was eerily still. 

 

Perhaps I would be in trouble, if I was caught. But no, of course I wouldn’t be, because I had the Marauders’ map. My own footprints blotted on the parchment like fresh ink droplets, trailing along with each new step. I noticed that I was wearing my old Hufflepuff uniform.  My tie was knotted tightly at my throat.

 

Suddenly, a second set of footprints on the map: Peter Pettigrew. They were moving towards me and I saw his shape in the darkness ahead, until at last he stepped into a beam of moonlight. I had missed him—maybe not in the way I should have, but I missed him, and when we met soundlessly Peter kissed me. It was soft and uncertain, as always, but then he was kissing hard, harder than he normally would have.  His tongue swept into my mouth and then suddenly it was not a kiss but a bite; something was wrong because his teeth were sinking into the flesh of my lips.  I tasted blood as his fingers dug into my waist.  And as I wrenched free, I saw that it wasn’t Peter anymore.  It was Michael Flint. 

 

“Chloe, what’s wrong?” 

 

But it was Peter’s voice that came, and for a moment his visage flickered over Michael’s, like the skipping frames of a grainy Muggle film.  I didn’t have my wand.

 

And then Michael was drawing back the sleeve of his robe, revealing his forearm, where a serpent was tattooed so violently that the blood dripped down to his open palm.  The creature was writhing, coiling through the empty eye sockets and mouth of a skull, and when I tried to scream no sound came, and I could feel the serpent in my own throat, choking me—

 

“Chloe?”

 

I shot up in bed. There was rapping on my door; the voice belonged to my mother. “Wake up, dear.”

 

Impulsively my hands shot to my throat—but of course it was only a dream.  Despite the cold of my room, my body was covered in sweat and the covers were thrown onto the floor.

 

“I’m up,” I called, and my voice was hoarse as if something truly had been choking me. The door handle jiggled.  I had forgotten that I locked it last night.  My mother would remember this, adding it to the stack of her suspicions.  I closed my eyes and rested my throbbing head in my hands.


Her voice was uneasy, “Come downstairs. You have a… visitor.”

 

 

 

 

My wand was concealed in the pocket of my housecoat as I crept down the stairs.  I gripped it with white knuckles and a sweaty palm.  Murmured voices were coming from the kitchen.  Images of the library and Michael Flint punctuated my thoughts, and with my heart hammering in my throat I rounded the corner, thinking, Disarm first, body-bind second—

 

“James!”

 

I nearly pinched myself. James Potter was at my kitchen table, nursing a cup of black coffee. Had I fully unsheathed my wand it would have clattered to the floor.  My mother, who stood askance, was oblivious. But as a seasoned Order member James noticed the relaxing of my right arm. 

 

“Hey, Chloe.” He rose to embrace me even though I must have looked a fright.  When he tried to let go, I gripped him harder and he stumbled. My mother was frowning.  I didn’t care.

 

“Oh,” he laughed, tightening his grip. “Alright then.”

 

“It’s good to see you,” I swallowed against the threat of tears. In fact, after weeks of feeling that everything was falling apart, coupled with the nightmare, I could have kissed him.


“Sorry to surprise you.  Thought you would’ve been at Elwood.”

“My dormitory?  No, I came home for the weekend.”  It sounded ridiculous and theatrical and as I glanced at my mother, James realized his mistake.  But I barreled on,  “Let’s go for a walk.  I’ll just grab my coat.”

“Thanks for the coffee, Mrs. Fairchild,” he murmured in a very polite and un-James voice.  If she responded at all, I didn’t hear it, and returned quickly with my pajamas stuffed into snow boots.

“Back in a bit, Mum.”

When the door closed behind us we shared an audible exhale.

“Frosty, that one,” James cast a glance over his shoulder.  I half-expected her to be pressed against the window.  “Decent coffee.”

“Sorry about that.  She’s… suspicious of magic and everything that comes with it.”

Our property was blanketed with snow, stark white beside thick dove-gray clouds.  We set off aimlessly in the direction of the main road, our footsteps crunching in unison, and I pulled my coat tighter.  There were no tracks other than the deer—did my mother see James Apparate, or could I pass him off as a Muggle university friend?

When we were a safe distance from the house, James lit a cigarette with his wand.  “So, you’re probably wondering why I’m here, nearly blowing your cover and whatnot.”

My mouth twitched; a smile.  “Honestly, I’m so glad to see anyone that I don’t care why you’re here.”  It couldn’t have been bad news—he was too lighthearted, though a bit nervous, a trait I had never seen in him.

“Well,” he sighed out a cloud of smoke, amplified by the chill in the air.  “Lily’s knocked up.”

My jaw dropped.  Now that the news had broken, he gave an enormous, if not bewildered, James Potter grin.  “Three months, now.”

“James, that’s wonderful!  Congratulations!”  A thought struck me.  “You’re going to be such an embarrassing dad.”

“Oh, he’ll hate me come First Year.”

“And what makes you so sure that it’ll be a boy?”

He shrugged, “Got a feeling.  Fatherly instincts.”

It was like not realizing how parched I was until that first sip of water, and then suddenly I wanted glass after glass.  The feeling hadn’t fully materialized, in the month since the pub in London, that I missed them all so much.  It was our age-old story, of course: something goes awry, I hole away convincing myself I don’t need my friends, and then when we’re reunited, I’m so happy I could cry.

That means something bad is supposed to happen next, I thought, and pretended that I hadn’t.

“How is she doing?”  I wished that Lily was here, too, with her calming and warm presence.  I wished that they all were.

“Sick as hell, actually,” he said.  “That’s why I’m here—we were hoping that you could mix something up for the nausea and back pain and all of that.  She’s trying to be tough, of course, but…”  He was suddenly incredulous, “Do you know what happens to a woman’s body when she’s pregnant?”

I snorted.  “Mental, huh?”

“How do you lot do this?  I mean, her organs are migrating around, for Merlin’s sake!”  He shook his head.  “That woman is incredible.”

As he smiled in reverie of his wife, it struck me that Lily and James had something that Peter and I simply didn’t, and likely never would. 

I pushed the thought away, “Of course I’ll help.  Just tell me what she needs and I’ll owl you some tinctures and potions.”

“That’s brilliant.  Thanks, Chloe, we owe you one.”

I smiled, “Not at all.”

A comfortable silence passed.  We reached the road, empty on a snowy Sunday morning, and turned back towards the house.  I asked, uncertainly, “How are…things?  I haven’t heard from Marlene much lately.”

Or Peter.  Or Sirius.  Or anyone.

Something flickered over his face, and I wondered if the news of Lily’s pregnancy was merely a light shining in otherwise bleak times.  “They’re alright.  It’s… hard.  Feels like you can’t talk to just anyone, anymore.  Always watching your back and whatnot.”

I thought of the notes Peter sent in the enchanted book; the vagueness and secrecy even in our private conversations.  “Is that why you came here, instead of writing?”

He gave a meaningful look and a long breath escaped me, disappearing into the cold air.  Who could possibly want to harm a pregnant woman?  “Merlin.”

“How’s things with Petey?”  James tried to change the subject, to make it light again.  “You two still madly in love?”

Something wrenched in my gut.  “He’s good.  I think.  Things have been quiet for us, lately, but I understand that the Order comes first.”  I wondered if he could hear the bitterness in my voice, over what Moody and the others were asking of Peter, and James, and everyone so young.

His brow furrowed.  “Actually, we haven’t seen him much, either.  He’s been quiet these days.”

We shared a long look but didn’t say anything else.  A crow cawed in the distance. 



Chapter 18: Chapter Seventeen
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Chapter Seventeen
 

 

 

Lily and James’s flat was in a Muggle area of the city, bathed in April sunlight and teeming with plants.  On my first visit I had spent a good ten minutes roving through her collection of flora, magical and not.  On the wall were Lily’s signature polaroid photos, which displayed jeering Marauders, James bestowing a sloppy kiss on her cheek, and even one of myself, tucked under Marlene’s arm as she howled with laughter.  Relics from a happier time.

 

I made a point not to look at them as I called, “Hello, sorry I’m late!”

 

I had been up studying well past two o’clock in the morning and awoke at my desk, a stiff neck and a parchment stuck to my cheek.

 

“Hiya.”  I was clearing up the Floo Powder from my arrival when Lily rounded the corner.  She was wearing an apron that looked as though it was barely tied around her belly.  She was six months along, now.  And James had been right: they were having a boy.

 

“Merlin, Lily,” I couldn’t help the huge smile. “You look amazing.”

 

“Oh, you’re quite the actor, aren’t you?” Her hair was knotted messily over her head, and she seemed exhausted but in good spirits as I followed her into the kitchen.

 

I almost didn’t notice Professor Dumbledore sitting at the breakfast table. “Oh.  Hello,” I said uneasily.

 

“Albus was just stopping by.”  Lily’s familiarity—the use of his first name—felt strange. I hadn’t seen Dumbledore since Hogwarts, aside from a brief glimpse at Lily and James’s wedding.  As a student I never once spoke with him, even after that night with Michael Flint and the Black Adders. For all our interactions, Dumbledore may as well have been another ghost that roamed the castle.  Yet he certainly had his favorites.

 

“Good afternoon, Miss Fairchild.”  I was surprised that he remembered my name. “If my memory serves me well, you were quite the Herbologist.”

 

“Yes, sir, thank you. I’m finishing my last year at Elwood now,” I stammered like a schoolchild.

 

But his bright, robin’s egg eyes moved from me to Lily, and I had the distinct impression that he didn’t entirely approve of my presence. I remembered James’s visit to the farmhouse, and his hesitation to send an owl.  He hadn’t wanted anyone to hear that Lily was pregnant; to leave a paper trail.  Why?

 

“Chloe’s been kind enough to brew prenatal potions and tinctures.”  Even Lily felt she had to explain.

 

“Yes, that is quite thoughtful, indeed.”  A beat of silence, and Dumbledore rose to his feet. “I fear that I must cut our visit short.  Miss Evans—” he caught himself, a glimmer in his eye, “Pardon me—Mrs. Potter, it’s been a pleasure as always. I hope that you’ll take my offer into consideration.”

                                                          

Lily seemed to be purposefully not looking at me. “Of course, I’ll do that.”

 

“Miss Fairchild,” he nodded.  Then with a whoosh-CRACK he Apparated, and Lily and I were left alone, smiling awkwardly.  To break the silence, she gestured at two baking sheets that lay on the bright orange countertops.

 

“Do you want a biscuit, or twenty?  I can’t stop craving sweets.”

 

I had skipped breakfast to finish the last of her prenatal potions—they required a rhythmically precise, counter-clockwise stirring—and was starving.  Through a mouthful of lemon shortbread, I thanked her, as a teapot levitated itself to pour me a cup.

 

I wanted desperately to ask about Dumbledore, and his offer. It had seemed less than cheerful.  But instead I said, “Where’s James?”

 

“I told him to get out of the flat, go do something fun.”

 

“That’s kind of you.”

 

“Not really,” she snorted.  “I wanted to gorge myself on biscuits without judgment.  He’s off with Sirius.”

 

At the sound of his name, I set down the teacup so quickly that it nearly cracked.

 

Lily glanced at the cup but said nothing, and I thought of that midnight in the Hogwarts corridors, years ago, when she woke me and brought me to McGonagall’s office. After the attack on the Goblin family, when there had been worry about my own family’s safety.

 

Just give it time, she’d said. He’s not quite ready.

 

But that was three years ago, and nothing had changed. I never even spoke to Sirius anymore.

 

Decidedly, I reached into my pocket enchanted to carry a small suitcase the size of a purse.  The clasps popped open to reveal vials of varying shapes and sizes inlaid in velvet. Their contents ranged from clear and watery to something with a phosphorescent sheen.

 

I set them individually on the countertop, explaining, “This will eliminate morning sickness.  This is your prenatal potion—be sure to take it with a meal. This is to help you sleep, and is safe for the baby, unlike Dreamless Sleep Draught.  I’ve written everything down on this parchment, including the ingredients, but they don’t contain any of your allergens, so…”

 

Thank you, Chloe.  You’re a lifesaver, really, I can’t keep up with my own body right now. I spent an hour making all these biscuits, and now the smell’s making me sick.”

 

“Here,” I extracted the anti-nausea potion. “Just two drops.  The taste’s awful, but if you add it to your tea, it helps.”

 

She waved her wand at the teakettle to pour a fresh cup. Was this silence only uncomfortable on my end, with my flurrying nerves?  I recalled Dumbledore and the constant feeling, like an undercurrent, that I simply wasn’t supposed to be anywhere.

 

“Well, I should be on my way.”

 

She looked genuinely disappointed.  “Are you sure? James and Sirius should be back any moment, and there’s a chippy just down the street.”

 

“Oh…”

 

The realization of how desperately I wanted that nearly floored me. A simple, easy afternoon of laughter and greasy food; a tattered booth in the window, sitting across from Lily and James with my shoulder brushing against Sirius. I wanted to know what baby names they were considering.  Whether Sirius would be allowed to take their son on his motorcycle.  I wanted to feel like a normal university student.

 

“‘Course, Sirius would probably bring this new girl.” Lily made a face and my heart plummeted.

 

“New girl?”

 

“Some leather-clad barmaid, nose piercing and all.” But she realized that my expression wasn’t only surprise and flushed.  “But maybe she won’t be there, who knows.  You should come get food with us.”

 

“I couldn’t,” I whispered. “Exams next week.”

 

“Oh, Chloe,” she clicked her tongue sadly, and I realized that there were tears in my eyes.

 

“Sorry,” I forced a laugh. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

 

She studied me before saying, carefully, “It’s okay to want normal things, you know.”

 

“Not right now, it isn’t.”

 

“Yes, it is.  People are dying.  People who I’ve fought next to, and who we knew in school…  Everything feels so grim right now.  There has to be some sense of normalcy.”  Her hand moved absently to her belly.

 

“Marlene may not agree with you,” I changed the subject.

 

A dark look crossed her.  “Marlene is…not well.  And that’s exactly what I’m talking about.  Her whole world is the Order of the Phoenix, and the war, and You-Know-Who.  She doesn’t care about anything else.”

 

“I’m worried for her.  I don’t think she’s eating.”

 

“I’m worried too.  She doesn’t trust anyone anymore, including the Order members.  She’s convinced there’s a rat.  Mary moved out because it’s all getting to be too much.”

 

“She’s alone?”  The thought of Marlene, drifting sleeplessly through her dark and cobwebbed flat, stung. 

 

“Trust me, she wants it that way.  She was pushing Mary out.  Last I heard, she’s changed the password to her flat and won’t tell anyone what it is.  I doubt even my owls have been reaching her.”

 

I thought of the few letters I had written over the past months, all unanswered.  “But…what is she afraid of?”

 

Lily cast a grave look that I could read as clearly the handwriting in Peter’s letter: Order business.

 

“If she would just let me take care of her…”

 

“You can’t take care of everyone, Chloe.  You’re hardly leaving space for yourself, and what you want.” She studied me before asking gently, “You still have feelings for him, don’t you?”

 

I opened my mouth to say, I don’t know what you mean; to keep the illusion alive, as I had tried to for years.  For the first time, I couldn’t.

 

“Oh, god.”  A hand clamped over my mouth to stop it, but the tears were falling, hot against my cheeks. And with them came the confession that I had never admitted: that I was still in love with Sirius, after all this time.

 

“It’s not supposed to be like this!” I gasped though the sobs.  “It’s been years, and he’s in love with Marlene, and he should be. And Peter—”

 

Lily pulled me close against her, murmuring hushing sounds. I had never felt more alone than these past desolate months, without Peter or Marlene, all along trying to forget the boy whose name was enough to render me a mess.  Everything was escaping me at once.  I was humiliated.

 

But Lily’s voice was comforting in my ear, “You’re allowed to feel this way.  We’re all just doing the best we can.”

 

Allowed.

 

“But Marlene.  She’s the whole reason I know any of you.  I owe her so much—”

 

“No, you don’t.”  She held me at arm’s length.  “She wouldn’t want you to feel that way.  Trust me, she doesn’t love him, Chloe.  Not like this.”

 

“I wish I didn’t.”

 

“It would make life easier for you, I’m sure.”  There was the ghost of a teasing grin on her lips.  “You do know he’s a complete prima donna, right?  Merlin, the hair...”

 

I smiled weakly, “The jacket.”

 

“Oh, don’t get me started on that bloody thing.”

 

I laughed and she pressed a tissue into my hand.  The room seemed to have miraculously grown brighter.  “You’re welcome for the crash-course in mothering.”

 

She laughed at this, deeply, but stopped short.  Her eyes were alight as if she’d just realized something. 

 

“Give me your hand,” she said, and placed it over her belly.  We stood, two women in the midst of a war, our heads bowed toward the little life that grew.  The light in the dark. When the baby kicked again, I smiled incredulously.

 

“That’s Harry,” she said.  “We picked a name.”

 

“Harry Potter.  I like it.”

 

We shared a smile that was punctuated by the front door unlatching, followed by Sirius’s voice: “Best album of the year.  Hands down.”

 

The response was a woman’s, husky and low, “You just want to get in Chrissie Hynde’s trousers.”

 

Brass in Pocket is a goddamn treasure!  And don’t I already have access to a certain set of trousers?”

                                                                        

“Steady on, mate,” James grumbled.  And then suddenly they were all in the kitchen.

 

I wished that I had not frozen in shock; that I had Apparated.  Instead the room was far too small, and they were trying not to stare at my reddened cheeks and puffy eyes, the glaring beacons that I had been crying.  Hard.  Sirius’s arm was slung around a woman’s shoulders.  She was nearly as tall as he, with Joan Jett hair and a leather jacket to match.  I felt matronly and stupid in my long wool skirt.

 

“Hey, Chloe!” James’s voice was too cheerful.  I caught the faint smell of beer and wondered if they had visited this barmaid at work; if she had slid them a few pints on the house, catching Sirius’s long looks every so often.

 

“She popped by with more potions.”  Lily looked at me questioningly, “And was…just leaving?”

 

She understood how brittle and crumbling everything inside me felt.  I nodded, smiling neurotically to compensate for the tears still drying on my cheeks.  “Yeah, I need to go study.  Final exams and all!”

 

“Where are you studying?” the barmaid asked frankly; she was trying to break the tension.  Of course, she was nice; of course I couldn’t hate her.

 

“Canterbury.”

 

“Ah, right, my brother lives there.  Bill Dunham?  Works the door at the Black Widow.”

 

It was a trendy rock music venue that I had never stepped foot inside, and never would.  “Oh, right.”

 

“Do you live in town, then?”

 

“On campus.  Valerian Honors Dormitory.”

 

I said it and felt even more foolish than before, somehow.  The girl raised her brows as if to say, Oh, so you’re smart, then.

 

Sirius still hadn’t introduced her, and I hadn’t asked.  I could feel his eyes boring into me and chastised myself for being caught crying by him again.  True, there was so much to be upset about these days—and maybe that’s why he was dating this girl, now.  Because she didn’t cry.  She made things easier to forget. 

 

But the war followed me everywhere I went, like smoke to a fire.

 

“Anyway,” I gathered the small suitcase, addressing Lily as if she were the only one in the room.  “I’ll be back in a few weeks.  Let me know how everything goes or if you want changes.”

 

“Thank you, Chloe,” she squeezed my arm, and I knew what it meant.

 

“See you later, then.”  With a tight smile to the barmaid, I murmured a nice to meet you, and they parted to let me pass.  I took special care to avoid Sirius, and the brushing of our shoulders that I had so desperately wanted only minutes ago.

 

 

 

 

The pages of my book were blurring together, a forest of botanical illustrations.  I rubbed my tired eyes.  How long ago had the sun gone down?  The window showed an April sky tinged purple with dusk.  I had spent the days after Lily and James’s flat buried in my heaviest textbooks, until the events were eclipsed by the daunting task of identifying the magical properties of the Heliconia leaf on a molecular level.

 

“Take a breather, why don’t you?”  Anna was on her bed, flipping through a magazine.  Bijou rested in her lap.  The fairy lights around her bed twinkled in a distracting way that cast uneven light over my textbook.

 

“I still have one last exam,” I reminded her, more irritably than intended.  Her exams were over, as were many students’, and she rode out the last days before our graduation ceremony with ease.

 

“And at this point, you’re not doing yourself any favors.  You haven’t even stood up in three hours.”

 

Anna was the kind of student who rarely studied and still made good marks.  Not as good as mine, I bitterly reminded myself.  For Anna, the academia of Elwood was secondary to its parties and social circles.  Then again, she was the one with friends.

 

“Just go get some fresh air,” she said.  “Your books will be here when you get back.”

 

Before I could retort there was a TICK at our window.  It sounded like hail, but the skies were clear.  Anna and I shared a look of confusion just before the second one came.

 

“Someone’s throwing acorns,” Anna said.  Many of the trees at Elwood were bewitched to produce year-round for research purposes, and the oaks near our dormitory were one example.  We moved to the window.

 

“Who is that,” Anna purred.

 

Amidst the cardigan-clad students weaving along the cobblestone paths, Sirius Black stood out like an ink blot.  The trademark jacket was thrown over one shoulder and he wore a ratty, sleeveless shirt.  I thought of Lily’s word from earlier that week, Prima donna, and nearly laughed.  A dazed, bewildered laugh.

 

“Sirius.”  I didn’t know if I was answering Anna’s question or if the name spilled off my tongue.

 

“You know him?”  I couldn’t fault her shock; Sirius looked entirely too cool for me.

 

“He’s a friend of Peter’s.”

 

“And you’re blushing.”

 

I swatted her hand away and called, my voice audibly trembling, “One minute.”

 

As I turned to walk out the door I stopped, knotting my fingers with worry, but the words wouldn’t come.  Please don’t tell Peter.  If there’s anything left there at all.  It would hurt him, surely, whatever this was.  The guilt was already creeping in like overgrown vines.

 

But Anna read my expression.  With a wink, she said, “Our little secret.”

 

I had never been more grateful to her than in that moment.

 

It was a warm evening.  As I crossed the cobblestones over to Sirius, I shoved my trembling hands into the pockets of my skirt.  How long had it been since one of us had reached out to the other?  Every one of our interactions over the last three years had been by chance.  Whatever tethered us together had grown thin, nearly invisible until it caught in the correct light, like the silk of a spiderweb.

 

When I reached him, I stood a safe distance away.

 

“Valerian Honors Dormitory.”  Sirius looked at its façade in reverence.  “Nice digs.”

 

“It’s free,” I shrugged, and he grinned.

 

“Still earning top marks, then.  Nothing’s changed.”

 

“Actually, quite a bit has changed.”  He caught my meaning and I almost saw the memory play out for him: the night of Lily and James’s wedding, in the garden.  When we were alone; another chance encounter.

 

I wasn’t going to wait in the wings until Marlene shot you down again.  I really liked you, Sirius.

 

I was being colder than intended.  And of course, it was a lie.  Nothing had changed.  I could still feel my heart fluttering behind my breastbone, even now.  I was still trying not to stare at the stubble along his perfect jaw; the bared shoulders that now had slight muscles.  We weren’t children anymore.  This was no longer a schoolgirl crush.  And now he had someone else—again.

 

“Did you… need something?”  I tried to melt the frost from my voice, but I couldn’t forget the unnamed barmaid from earlier.

 

He shrugged.  “Anywhere to get food around here?”

 

Date recommendations.  She was probably already here, visiting her brother.  “Not really, actually.  There’s a half-decent diner in Pendragon Lane, near where her brother works.”

 

“Whose brother?”

 

”Your girlfriend’s.”

 

“What?  No, I meant… with you.”  I must have been staring, because he prompted, “Are you hungry?”

 

Again, I saw the image from days ago in Lily's kitchen, the one that I had wanted so badly: an afternoon of light and laughter, in the middle of this war, a happy refuge in a tattered diner booth.  Except now it was just the two of us.  My instinct to say no—to deny and withhold from myself—surfaced like a wave.  Exams.  Peter.  Marlene.

 

And then, Lily’s voice: You’re allowed to want normal things.

 

I wet my lips and nodded.  “I could use a study break, actually.”

 

Sirius shrugged on his jacket in the cooling air.  “C’mon, then.  Let’s see this half-decent diner.”

 


Author's Note: Hello!  I usually keep pretty quiet here, but wanted to say thank you for reading.  I don't believe I've mentioned this, but I'm getting married in a few months (ahh!) and so I appreciate you guys sticking with this story when I haven't been able to devote as much time as I'd like to it.  <3

 

This chapter took some work, trying to balance the darkness and bleak landscape of the First War with the lighthearted scenes.  Chloe is finally admitting to herself that it's normal to have feelings for someone, while also balancing her guilt over her deteriorating relationships with Peter and Marlene.

 

Thank you for reading!  Please let me know what you think in a review!



Chapter 19: Chapter Eighteen
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Chapter Eighteen

 

 

 

 

The diner was the on the cusp of the Muggle streets just before Pendragon Lane. Sirius and I could see through the gates and into the bustling cobblestone streets.  But to Muggles, the diner appeared to be pressed against a weathered brick wall. It was a kitschy place, a popular spot for Elwood students to people-watch.  Pretend we were normal.  Ignore the knowledge that hung over us like a cloud: these were the ones that You-Know-Who wanted dead.

 

The door opened with a jingle and we were met with the smell of fryer grease. A neon jukebox played a song from two decades ago about a runaround girl. The whole place was bubblegum pink and Creamsicle orange, cast in an unfamiliar light by the florescent bulbs.  I wondered what Pureblooded Sirius would think of the place. 

 

As we moved to an empty booth, a waitress passed on roller skates.  “Be right with you, loves.”

 

She glided away and Sirius nodded approvingly.  “Walburga would die.”

 

Still morbid, then.  I slid across the vinyl seat and passed him a greasy menu. “Wait until you see the food.”

 

Sirius ordered nearly one of everything. American foods that even I had scarcely eaten as a Muggle-born: double-decker hamburgers, corn dogs, chips smothered in radioactive orange cheese. When our waitress set down two enormous milkshakes in frosted glasses, I raised my eyebrows skeptically.

 

“Cheers, Debbie, you’re an angel,” he winked, and she flushed. 

 

He leaned easily against the wall with a dirty, boot-clad foot kicked up beside him.

 

“Bit extravagant.”

 

“There’s lettuce on the burgers,” Sirius defended. “And what good is an inheritance if you can’t use it?”

 

“Inheritance? I thought you were…”

 

“Oh, I’m cut off. Thoroughly.  But my cousin Andie has been skimming from my parents’ account. Trust me, they’ll never notice.  They have more money than they know what to do with.”  He raised his chocolate milkshake, teeming with whipped cream and a precarious maraschino cherry. “Also, fuck them.”

 

I laughed deeply and it felt like speaking a foreign language. Our glasses clinked.  “Cheers.”

 

With the taste of artificial strawberries on my tongue, Sirius watched me, unabashed as ever. I felt the color rising to my cheeks and realized that I had to re-learn his unapologetic nature.  It was so different from Peter’s.  There were no shy glances here; no murmured words lost in the sound.  It was the same behavior that got Sirius into trouble.  The same that made him sound like a fool or arrogant or thoughtless.  Once, I had only seen that side of him, and maybe things had been easier, then.

 

 

“You’re pink, too,” he said.  Then he leaned over and took my glass, our fingers brushing, and brought it to his own lips.

 

How could it be this way? The last months—years, even—had felt so brittle, as though with the slightest pressure everything would break. And hadn’t it broken, over and over?  Quill Hopkins’s death; the decay of my and Peter’s relationship; Marlene’s light dimming. Nothing was easy anymore; it was the rule.  Why was this the exception?

 

I struggled to find the words. “Why are you… Why did you come to Canterbury? I mean, besides your girlfriend.

 

He thumbed his lip. “Holly’s just a mate.”

 

“A mate.” I couldn’t help my snort. “I think we have different definitions of the word.”

 

“It’s a nice distraction. And we’re on the same page, she and I, so don’t give me that look.”

 

“A distraction from what?”

 

But something in his face changed, and for the first time that evening I realized that beneath it all, Sirius was tired. He rubbed his eyes and said, as if admitting a truth that he had been withholding, “I don’t know, Chloe.  Sometimes I think you’re the only one with a brain for staying out of it.  The war.”

 

I swallowed. “I’m surprised you feel that way.”

 

“Why?”

 

“You’re all so brave,” I stared at him, because it was the most obvious thing in the world to me. Bravery was a part of their biological nature; it was what you did to survive, as easy as breathing. “You always have been. Ever since that night in London, something changed. I could feel it.  And it feels like I’m not paying my dues.  Or like I’m not...”

 

One of you. The words hung in the air.

 

“It’s hard to explain,” Sirius murmured. “I know we’re doing what we have to, and we’re on the right side, or however you want to phrase it. But it’s not all glory and heroism.  Some of it is… terrible.”


“That’s the nature of war,” I said sadly.  “Merlin, I can’t even imagine what you’ve seen.”

 

His gaze clouded over. I wondered what event he was recalling; to which terrible moment he had been taken back. But just then our waitress returned with an armful of plates. Sirius thanked her flirtatiously and tucked into a plate of greasy chips, and I tried to imagine the person before me as a killer.

 

Had he taken a life—or lives?  They would have been people with mothers and fathers, friends, maybe even children of their own. Everything that they had ever been or known was blown out, quick as a candle.

 

Sirius squirted an obscene amount of ketchup onto his chips and changed the subject, “Speaking of relationships. How’s our boy Petey doing?”

 

“Good,” I said automatically. “Very good.  He’s—erm—doing well.”

 

The last time I had been here it was Peter sitting across from me. As if he would materialize, I glanced out the window but of course, he wasn’t there. And he hadn’t been for weeks.  Only his letters.  Really sorry.  Order business.

 

Sirius raised an eyebrow until I at last conceded, “I haven’t seen him much, lately. He’s been busy.”

 

“Busy?” his tone was too casual now, an act. “With what?”

 

“With the Order,” I said firmly. “What else?”

 

“Well, it’s just that we haven’t seen him much, either.”

 

Heat flashed in my chest.  “What are you saying, Sirius?  He’s scared.  We all are.”

 

Despite everything, I was defensive of Peter.  The others had no idea how frightened he was; I knew that he wouldn’t open himself up about his hesitations with them.  He was a follower.  He would do whatever they asked.

 

“Like you said, it’s not all glory and heroism.  Not everyone is going to just blindly follow orders.  I mean, you’re asking him to lay down his life for this.”

 

“You’re right,” Sirius said, looking almost frightened.  Perhaps he still remembered the mouse-like schoolgirl he’d first met.  “I’m sorry.” 

 

I had never once heard Sirius apologize.  Especially not to me. 

 

“You know he was besotted with you for ages.  Even at Hogwarts.”

 

I ran my thumbnail along the table’s edge.  The defensiveness was melting away into the familiar guilt.  But somewhere, there was a parallel between defending my friend and the knowledge that he had abandoned me, too.  I could never blame him for wanting to hide from the war—whatever terrible things that Sirius had seen, Peter had. 

 

But who did I have during these past weeks?  Everything happening with my parents, and the pressures of school, and this damned horrible war.  It was selfish to want Peter’s time, and I didn’t deserve it, but the pressure was building like steam in a kettle—

 

“I think he’s going to break up with me,” I blurted.

 

Sirius stopped chewing. “Fuck.”  To his credit, he didn’t seem to have expected this.  “Are you...okay?”

 

I shrugged, picking up a chip and dropping it back onto the plate.  I shouldn’t have said it.  What had Peter ever done but genuinely love me?  And here I was, on what could arguably be called a date, with someone else.

 

“I miss his company. He’s such a thoughtful and kind person.  And he’s so bright, much more than he gives himself credit for.  But…”  I stopped, staring at a smudge on the window.

 

“You don’t love him.”

 

Our gazes locked.  Sirius’s eyes were unreadable, but was there hopefulness?  Nearly imperceptibly I shook my head.

 

A flash of blonde hair across the street.  I whirled around and pressed my fingers to the glass.

 

“Is that… Was that Marlene?”

 

“Um, I don’t—”

 

But it was, I knew it.  I would recognize that gait anywhere; those combat boots.  She was already walking briskly away as I leapt to my feet.  Sirius, for some unknown reason, reached out to stop me.  But I was gone as he struggled to enchant his Galleons into banknotes for the waitress. If I hadn’t been lost in panicked confusion, I would have admired him for this—but I was pushing through the people, shouting after her burnished blonde hair, “Marlene!”


Why wasn’t she turning back?

 

At last there was a space in the crowd and I broke into a run, my fingers closing around her forearm. I could feel the bones beneath the tissue of her skin. 

 

“Wait,” I said, and she whipped around to meet my eyes.  A hand shot to my mouth.

 

Marlene looked like a phantom. The violet circles beneath her eyes stood out against the ash of her skin.  Her cheekbones were starved sharp.

 

“I’m fine,” she said in her familiar tone, as if I were fretting over a slight temperature.  But this was something else.

 

Footsteps pounding the cobblestones: Sirius came to a halt beside me.  “Jesus, Marlene,” he panted.  “You don’t trust anyone.”

 

I regained myself from the sting of her anger. “I don’t understand, what’s going on?”

 

But they were avoiding one another’s gaze.  Suddenly it clicked into place.  “You sent him to spy on me, didn’t you?”

 

They were silent.

 

I should have known Sirius needed a motive to spend time with me.  History repeats itself.  But I looked at Marlene imploringly.  Something of her old self glinted in her eyes, far below; a coin at the bottom of a well. 

 

“We just wanted to know if you could help us find Peter, that’s all.”  She was using her familiar, consoling voice.  The one she had used countless times over the years, while I tallied up each and every kindness as a debt to be repaid.  And perhaps this was my atonement.

 

“Then you should have asked me.”

 

“Don’t lump me in to this, Marlene,” Sirius said.

 

“Well you agreed, didn’t you?” she muttered.

 

“Oh, of course he did,” I whirled on Sirius.  “You tease Peter for having feelings for me since we were kids—but look at you.  You’re her pet.  You’ll do anything she says.”

 

“No, I—” His voice was desperate, but the accusation rendered him beetroot.  Marlene seemed to not have even heard.  “Chloe, you don’t know what it’s like.  You-Know-Who has done terrible things.  He’ll threaten anyone to get what he wants.  We can’t trust each other anymore—”

 

“Yes, you can, he’s your friend.  Don’t you see what the Order is doing to you?  You’re all turning on each other!”

 

“Quiet!” Marlene hissed. 

 

If I were lying to myself, I would think that she feared being overheard.  But I knew it was my ill sentiment of the Order that brought out her venom.  As I stared in wide-eyed realization, it was finally brought into unforgiving clarity: the Order of the Phoenix was more important to Marlene than anything else in this world, and not even her friends or loved ones would stand in its way.  I waited for her to soften her gaze; to ask if I was okay; to reveal some semblance of my friend.

 

Three, two, one.

 

But the Marlene I once knew was gone.

 

“It’s a fucking cult,” I spat.  Then I turned on the spot and Apparated.

 

 

 

 

Anna was just leaving our room when I returned; the door swung open and we nearly ran into each other.  She was dressed for a party and wearing one of my scarves.  I couldn’t even bring myself to care.

 

“Hiya!” she said brightly, and I forced a smile.  The last thing that I could stand to do was speak.  “How was your…?”

 

“It was good, thanks.”

 

“Great.”  I could tell that she didn’t believe me but chose not to press the matter.  “Drama club party.  I’ll be back late.”

 

“Sounds good,” I shrugged off my cardigan and let it fall to the floor.  “Have fun.”

 

“Thanks.  Lover-boy sent you a flower,” she winked, and the door shut behind her.

 

She was right: a single yellow flower lay on my pillow with a note tucked beneath.  I sighed guiltily.  Peter must have Floo traveled in while Anna and I were both out—he had done it before.  How long had he waited for me as I sat at that diner, stupid and fooled?  The fact that I had missed him after weeks—after everything—nearly made me dissolve.

 

I’m so sorry, Peter, I thought as I picked up the flower.  I twirled it in my fingers, but almost immediately it began to change, and the yellow faded to brown, darker and darker, until it was ebony.  I dropped it as if I’d been bitten.  A black rhododendron.

 

I didn’t touch the note.  It lay on my pillow, impossibly simple, the kind of cardstock bought from a florist and hastily jotted on.  I love you.  Happy birthday.  Condolences for your loss.  The handwriting was familiar, even after all these years.  But of course it was—I carried that scrawl with me.  I wore it on my skin. 

 

The note contained only five words: Beware the company you keep.

 

Michael Flint had found me again.

 


Author's Note: Thank you for reading.  This chapter dealt with a lot, and it was more difficult to write than the last few had been.  I'd love to hear what you think in a review!

 

The song playing on the jukebox at the diner is Runaround Sue by Dion, which I don't own.  Also, this probably goes without saying, but Sirius's cousin Andie is Andromeda.



Chapter 20: Chapter Nineteen
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Chapter Nineteen

 

 

 

 

Mrs. Pettigrew answered on the third knock. She was a slight woman with sandy hair, like her son’s, and I was surprised how the reminder of him made my chest tighten. Even now, with my blood humming in a panic.  Mrs. Pettigrew hugged her dressing gown around herself, wary of the late-night visitor.

 

“Is Peter here? I’m Chloe, his—girlfriend,” I choked on the word.

 

How many times had he suggested that I meet his parents? I had always found ways to avoid it, like so many things.  And now I stood beneath their awning, breathless and wild-eyed.

 

“I’m sorry, dear, he isn’t at home.”

 

“He’s not at his flat, though, I was just there.” I must have sounded like a madwoman.  But there was no time; the brittle eggshell of protective magic would flicker out before long. Defense had never been my forte.  And if Michael was watching me, I couldn’t lead him here.

 

“I’m not quite sure when he’ll be back.”

 

“Please, it’s urgent, couldn’t I wait inside?”

 

“I’m afraid it’s quite late. You’ll have to come back another time.”

 

“But—”

 

“I’ll tell him you stopped by.” Her brittle smile gave no promise. “Goodbye, then.”

 

The door shut quietly, but she may as well have slammed it. There came the clicking of the lock and I shut my eyes—I’d terrified the poor woman.

 

What now?

 

Trying to organize my thoughts, to think of the next step, was like looking through a prism. Everything was refracted and multiplied, a kaleidoscope under the thrumming of my pulse.  Suddenly a thought rose to the surface: my parents. I couldn’t lead Michael to them, either, but I had to make sure they were safe.

 

As I stepped out from the awning, the rain pattering my hair, I spotted movement in an upstairs window. A curtain falling back into place.

 

“Peter?” I called, but there was no answer, and the window remained dark.

 

 

 

 

I had phoned my parents from Pendragon Lane many times before; spoken countless lies through the receiver. Over the years I had watched the guilt fade from my reflection on its warped surface, where it peered out from beneath the graffiti. Lying had become a second language.  My parents never knew what city I was calling from, the school I was attending, or that the world was turning to rot around them. The evils their daughter had brought to their doorstep.

 

With trembling hands, I extracted the pence I kept with my Sickles and Galleons. My parents always answered quickly late at night, their voices thick with sleep and poorly concealed worry. But the phone rang and rang.

 

Maybe they’re at church, I thought, knowing that service would have ended hours ago.

 

Our answering machine clicked on. “Hello, you’ve reached the Fairchilds. We aren’t home right now...”

 

My father had resisted the new technology, and his impatience and frustration were evident in the recording. While he had grumbled and flipped through the user manual, I looked on with vague interest and a cup of tea between my hands. It was an insignificant granule of memory that now, as I stood at the payphone in the cooling air, seemed so precious.

 

I dialed again, trying to quell the panic. Please, please, pick up.

 

No answer.

 

I waited for the beep and took a shaky breath, “Mum, Dad, it’s me. I’m—everything’s fine, but could you please call me when you get this? It’s urgent.  I’m okay.  But just, um, call me please?”

 

I recited the callback number and hung up. They were never out this late, and if they were asleep the telephone on the nightstand would have woken them. I saw the uninvited and terrible possibilities in my mind’s eye: a silhouette outside the kitchen window, a blast of violent green light.

 

But I couldn’t go home. Michael Flint knew where my dormitory was, and even in which bed I slept. What was to say that he wasn’t watching me even now?  I couldn’t lead the wolf to their door.

 

I sank onto the dirty ground and hugged my knees to my chest. I would just have to wait.  I would sit here all night if I had to, alone, calling again and again, until there was an answer. Because there had to be an answer.  The passers-by, mostly university students out celebrating the end of exams, watched me with mild interest. But they were blurred faces in the dark.  My eyes were trained on the payphone, willing it to burst into shrill sound.

 

 

 

 

“Oi, you can’t sleep here—Jesus Christ!”

 

My wand was out before my eyes had opened. The man jumped back from where he nudged me with a boot, his hands in the air. “Calm down, will you?”

 

But it wasn’t Michael Flint. I blinked hard until I could see his bearded face in the orange flicker of the streetlamp. Slowly the scene materialized around me: the rough brick against my back, dew collecting on my jumper. What was I doing there?  My head churned with the inertia of a sudden wake-up.

 

The payphone.

 

My wand clattered to the ground as I pulled out more coins, “No, no, no…”

 

It was after two o’clock. The bars were closing, patrons were stumbling out onto the streets, and my parents had not called back.

 

“Is she alright?” came a woman’s husky voice.

 

“I dunno. Oi, girl, you alright?”

 

At last I was pushing the coins through the slot with trembling fingers, listening to the hard chink of metal and the dial tone opening in my ear like a pit.

 

“Merlin, I think I know her.”

 

But I was listening to the phone ring out, across space, the inane and maddening sound that I wished would give way to my mother’s voice.

 

“No, no, no, no, no.”

 

Hello, you’ve reached the Fairchilds—”

 

Try again.

 

I punched the numbers, clenched the dirty receiver so the plastic creaked. How stupid could I have been to fall asleep?

 

“Hello, you’ve reached—”

 

“God damn it!” I slammed it down and clutched fistfuls of my hair, pulling, pulling.

 

I barely heard the twin CRACKs behind me; felt the disturbance in the air. But somehow, I knew whose hands were gently taking me by the wrists, turning me around. Sirius.  Holly had reappeared with him, her arms knotted with concern.

 

“She keeps trying to call someone,” she explained. Dully, I remembered that the payphone was only a short walk down the street from the Black Widow. This man must have been Holly’s brother, Bill, who worked the door.

 

“I’ve got her,” Sirius murmured, “Thanks.”

 

“Are you sure?” Holly sounded reluctant to go. They murmured back and forth for a moment, sounds falling on deaf ears, before turning and disappearing into the foggy streets.

 

“Chloe, what’s?”

 

“I don’t know what to do,” the words tumbled out. “They’re watching me, Death Eaters, they left a note on my bed, and my parents aren’t answering their phone, and what if they’ve done something to them—”

 

I stopped, putting a steadying hand on the rough brick, but it was no use. My lungs felt like crumpled parchment.

 

“I can’t breathe.”

 

He gently lowered me down to sit, “Put your head between your knees.”

 

The sparse passers-by were staring, and I couldn’t bring myself to care. Sirius crouched with me on the filthy ground as I tried to even my sharp, stabbing gasps.

 

“Breathe, Chloe,” he said in my ear, “You’re alright.”

 

I don’t know how long we stayed like that, with his warm, steadying hands on my shoulders. At last the breaths evened, cool air filled my lungs, and the quiet of the streets enveloped us once more.

 

“I have to make sure they’re safe,” I managed.

 

“I’ll take you.”

 

It wasn’t even a question. Despite our argument from only hours ago—it seemed impossible now—Sirius was here, and he was ready to risk his own safety for me, without hesitation.

 

I nodded. “Thank you.”

 

 

 

 

The motorbike roared along the darkened country roads. We had flown high above Canterbury and its sprawling web of lights, but as we grew closer to my family home, Sirius alighted under the cover of a thick fog. He didn’t have to say it: we were riding straight into danger.

 

“They use traces,” he had said as we climbed on the motorbike. It was enchanted with cloaking spells; even Apparating was impossible now. “If you use magic, it’s like setting off a flare.”

 

And so, it was his Patronus that was sent to the Order of the Phoenix only moments before we left Pendragon Lane: a silvery hound conjured with a nonverbal spell. Magic that was nearly impossible to do.

 

“Fourteen Moorhouse Road in Laxton. Possible Death Eaters.  Secure the premises.”

 

His voice had been oddly formal and militaristic, and one fragment kept playing over and over as we rode, like the sound of the telephone ringing out. Possible death. Possible death.  Possible death.

 

The roads were eerie and without lights or houses. They had always frightened me as a child, riding home in my parents’ car and imagining what monsters hid in the blackness. Even now as the wind whipped at my face, I couldn’t help scanning the dark matte around us.

 

This time, though, there was something to be afraid of.

 

I called over the roar, “Turn here,” and Sirius banked left at our mailbox.

 

We passed quickly through the row of trees that lined the road. I had never noticed the vulnerability of our property before, with its wide pastures, nor felt a sense of foreboding while bumping up the long dirt road. Suddenly the farmhouse came into view, a foggy shadow atop the hill.  There were no lights.  I strained my eyes to search for my parents’ vehicles—the old lorry and a smaller passenger car—but it was too dark.

 

Sirius slowed to a halt halfway up the drive, engine rumbling. We waited.

 

Then another Patronus appeared: a wolf, its silver light casting long shadows. Remus’s voice came, calm and reassuring.  We’ve secured the house and grounds. It’s safe.

 

“You alright?” Sirius looked over his shoulder.

 

“I think so.”

 

He kicked off. I could hear Monty, our herding dog, barking. There was a sudden orange glow in a window of the den, the hearth bursting to life, and the barking stopped. A slender figure bent over to scratch the dog’s ears.  Remus.  As the headlight shone on the window, he and raised a hand in greeting. Sirius killed the engine and I jumped off.

 

If my legs hadn’t been trembling, maybe I would have thought how odd it was to have them here; to see Remus—jarring proof of magic’s existence—opening the door of my non-magical childhood home. We hadn’t seen one another since January, at the pub in London, but there was no time for greetings.

 

I ran the rest of the way, “Where are—?”

 

“They’re safe, Chloe.”

 

“But… Are you sure?”

 

He handed me a postcard with the refrigerator magnet still attached. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Brighton request the pleasure of your company at the wedding of Emily Brighton and Reginald Corner, on Saturday, April Twelfth…

 

“We’ve already sent someone to confirm. They’re alright.”

 

“They weren’t even here,” I breathed the words and wanted to collapse. I hadn’t been invited to my cousin’s wedding, and they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. So, I wasn’t the only one lying.

 

“We’re keeping an eye on them until they return on Sunday. You were right to send us here.”

 

Sirius eyed me levelly, repeating, “They’re safe.”

 

For now.

 

Remus said, “The trace will have faded by the morning. Alice and Moody are casting Disillusionment Charms.  Nobody is getting through them.”

 

“Alastor Moody?” I looked out the window as if I would see his scowl. “But he doesn’t like me.”

 

Sirius grinned, “He doesn’t like anyone.”

 

Of course, it was the Order of the Phoenix who was here, now. With a twisting feeling of guilt, I recalled the ugly malice in my words earlier. It’s a fucking cult. And now I was under their protection.

 

I stared into the fire and asked, though I already knew, “Is Marlene here?”

 

They were silent, and only when I looked at Remus did he shake his head. No.

 

“You should get some rest,” Sirius said.

 

“What about you? It’s after three.”

 

“Don’t worry about us.” He nudged Remus, “We’re night owls, aren’t we Moony?”

 

I had heard the nickname before, at Hogwarts. And even though I had never known what it meant, I was suddenly pulled back to a time, years ago, when all that mattered was keeping good marks, and the time spent with Marlene. Before everything that had ended between Peter and me had even begun.  Before Quill’s death.  Suddenly I wanted to cry, and for many, many reasons.

 

 

 

 

Sleep would not come. And if it did, it was only in lucid dreams: shadow-ringed images as though peering through a keyhole. Black dahlias that stung to the touch, writhing into coiling serpents that spoke a language I couldn’t understand. Peter, huddled in the corner of my bedroom, weeping as he had in the alleyway.  Marlene’s eyes and their violet circles.

 

It was nearly five o’clock when I threw back my quilt. The fire was still going downstairs, and with the cool stone floors familiar beneath my feet I fell easily into the rhythm of home. A chipped mug from the cabinet; the kettle switching on.  The coffee was in the same tin as always, for whatever reason the one with strawberries on its surface. As the water heated, I looked out across the fields, at the faraway town and the first light of dawn, a chilly blue-gray behind the church spire.  They were out there, somewhere: the Order of the Phoenix, keeping silent watch over the misty grounds.

 

Why was Michael even concerned with me? I had done everything I could to stay out of the war. But I was the easy target.  A known Order affiliate.  Had Michael branded me again, as someone to be hunted? My parents had been safe, true, but I may never be again.

 

With a click the kettle switched off and I poured hot water over the coffee grounds, when I noticed a figure outside in the growing light. Sirius was sitting on our low wooden fence, facing the town.  His back was to me; I could go back upstairs without him ever noticing.

 

I started a second cup of coffee.

 

The grass was damp under my bare feet. Sirius turned at the sound of my approach, but I said, “It’s me.”

 

I passed him a coffee, which he accepted with a murmured, if not surprised, thank-you. When he stood to help me climb over the fence, I grasped the wood and hopped over with the ease of someone who had done it a hundred times.

 

“So, this is where you grew up,” he said.

 

“This is the place.”

 

Early morning swallows darted through the sky; by now it was a pale purple with the last remaining stars. A low fog rested on the ground.  It was strange to feel Sirius’s presence amongst the familiar tang of wild grass and damp earth, the faraway bleating of sheep.

 

“I feel like I’m in one of those landscape paintings,” he said. “What’s that bloke’s name?”

 

“J.M.W. Turner.” He looked impressed and I added, ignoring the blush on my cheeks, “Not much else to do out here, besides learn useless trivia.”

 

“And you somehow managed to stay out of trouble. I would be in Azkaban by now.”

 

“I don’t doubt it,” I said. “What was it like, where you grew up?”

 

He blew a whoosh of air from his cheeks. “Big.  Dark.  Lots of weird family heirlooms, fathers pawing at maids... Oh, and a poorly disguised opioid addiction.”  I winced and he clicked his tongue, “That last one was all Walburga.”

 

“That sounds awful.”

 

“Wasn’t great.”

 

“How did you turn out so…?”

 

“Handsome?”

 

I rolled my eyes. “I was going to say, ‘emotionally undamaged.’”

 

“Yeah, best take that one back.”

 

He grinned into his coffee as a silence settled over us. I took a deep breath, seizing the opportunity, “I really wanted to thank you.”

 

Sirius raised his eyebrows inquisitively, and I continued, “What you and Remus did—and Alice and Moody—was so selfless. Especially after the terrible things I said about the Order of the Phoenix, about all of you.  It wasn’t fair.  Nobody deserves your help less than I do, but you didn’t even hesitate, and it was all a stupid misunderstanding anyway…” I stopped, huffing quietly. “Thank you.”

 

“Don’t mention it, this is the fun part.” But when I only looked at him imploringly his grin grew serious. “You’re welcome, Chloe.”

 

His grey eyes locked with mine until I had to turn back to the misty field.

 

“Can’t blame you for being angry,” he said. “That was… it wasn’t supposed to happen like that. With Marlene and everything.”

 

“How was it supposed to happen?” It was an honest question.

 

“I was going to Canterbury anyway, and Marlene found out somehow. She told me to ask you about Peter because he’s been so quiet.  I reckon you’re right, and he’s just scared, but she’s on this whole tirade…” He shook his head.  “Should’ve told her to piss off.”

 

“It’s hard to say no to her. And you have a history.”  I wondered, again, if he still loved her.

 

“She’s different now,” Sirius murmured.

 

“Yeah, she is.” A smile found its way to my face. “Remember when she tried to make everyone go vegan? Because her brothers showed her that documentary?”

 

“Ugh, Christ. If I ever hear the words ‘lentil loaf’ again… Didn’t she petition Hogwarts to stop serving meat?”

 

“Yes! She was so angry that we wouldn’t do it too. And then she couldn’t stick it out. I think she ate an entire turkey at Christmas.”

 

“Well that’s completely different.”

 

“Obviously.”

 

Somewhere, across the fields, the others were listening to the strange sounds of our laughter. I wiped the tears away and Sirius said, amused, “I’ve never seen you laugh that hard.”

 

“I’m delirious. Don’t know if you heard, but I had a pretty mental night. Aren’t you tired?”

 

“Dead tired,” he admitted.

 

“We should get some sleep.”

 

“Probably.”

 

But neither of us moved, and our sideways glances revealed the same thought: This is much better than sleep. Sirius shifted, cautiously, and I felt the warmth of his knee resting against mine. I pressed my cup to my lips to keep from smiling.  Across the fields, above the faraway town, the sky was bright with pinks and oranges.

 

“It really is like a goddamn painting,” he said.

 

 

 

 

The dormitory was silent, students having fled for summer holiday—all but one.  I sat on the edge of my bare mattress and watched the dust motes that hung in a shaft of sunlight.  The last three years of my life at Elwood were packed neatly away into one trunk and one suitcase.  Gone were Anna’s fairy lights and the botanical drawings I had Spell-o-Taped to the walls.  Bijou rested on the windowsill, lazily eyeing a bird on the oak tree.  All that was left to do was leave.

 

The morning’s graduation ceremony ended hours ago, as had the tearful hugs from Anna and her sun-leathered parents, who promised that I was always welcome in California. My own family had been absent, of course.  I had mentioned car trouble and Anna’s parents didn’t pushed the matter.  And there I was: Chloe Fairchild, overachiever supreme, summa cum laude, and recipient of a competitive research position at the Poplar Institute in London.

 

My tongue tasted like the room temperature champagne that Anna and I had passed back and forth; its bubbliness had risen into my chest and I was filled with an odd contentedness.  An overwhelming part of me knew that I was leaving the safety and tameness of academia for the real world, and all its terrors.  But it was strange how quickly one adapted to the crises surrounding them; how life continued to run its course. 

 

Something had happened that morning at the farmhouse, nearly a week ago now, after the sun came up and we had lived through the night.  A switch had occurred in me. 

 

We had all gathered at the kitchen table: Remus, Sirius, Alice, even a grudging Alastor Moody. I had made an enormous breakfast—eggs from our chickens, homemade bread with jam, and thick bacon.  Monty was curled up at Sirius’s feet, oddly affectionate with him over everyone else.  Multiple pots of coffee did little to stave off the exhaustion, but a kind of happy peacefulness had settled over us.

 

It was the only gift I could give; one of the fleeting, bright moments that Lily had spoken of in her kitchen, a hand to her belly. There has to be some sense of normalcy. And I supposed this was the new normal.

 

Afterward, we shared our goodbyes in the doorway.  To no one’s surprise Moody was the first to leave. As he donned his heavy black cloak, he managed to grunt a heartfelt, “Keep an eye out, Fairchild.”

 

When he was gone, Alice said to the room, “Really, no eye jokes?”

 

Remus snorted, “You’re terrible.” 

 

She departed with a wink and a gentle bump of her shoulder on mine.  “Constant vigilance.” 

 

As we hugged, Remus said, “Take care, Chloe.  We’re here if you need anything.  I mean it.”

 

And then Sirius was standing with his hands in his jacket pockets, and before I knew what I was doing—surely it was sleeplessness and the strange relief to have seen another sunrise—I was crossing to him and wrapping my arms tightly around his waist.  We had never touched like this before.  I had made a point not to over all these years, avoiding his fingers as he passed me quills or cans of cheap beer.  And now I was breathing in the smell of his shirt.  I felt his hand on my hair; his chin on the crown of my head.

 

“Thank you,” I murmured into his shoulder.  “I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

 

We stepped back.  Remus’s eyebrows had shot up with interest, a wide grin on his face, and I added clumsily, “…Without all of you.”

 

Sirius's cheeks were flushed; though his hands had moved to me automatically he seemed unsure what to do when them.  Remus had cleared his throat, “Alright then.  Shall we?”

 

Sirius and I hadn’t spoken in the week since.  But I had played the memory over and over in my mind of the misty field and the warmth of his knee on mine.

 

With a quiet breath of resolution, I stood and crossed over to the writing desk.  I was still wearing my graduation robes, long and forest green, and they trailed on the floor.  On the desk was a scrap of parchment, a quill and a blue jumper folded neatly atop a sheet of brown paper.   

 

I paused to lay a hand on the garment, rubbing my thumb on the soft material.  It probably still smelled like him even though he had last worn it months ago.  But it was too late now.  With the wave of my wand, the paper wrapped itself neatly around the jumper.  I picked up the quill, taking a long, steadying breath.

 

Peter –

I know you’re scared of the war.  But I was scared too, and you weren’t there.  I really hope you find happiness.

 

Moments later the owl flew away carrying the small parcel, and I watched it disappear over the rooftops.  Then I picked up my suitcases, whistled for Bijou, and left my dormitory and Elwood for the last time.

 


Author's Note: Hello all!  Thank you again for taking the time to read this story.  This chapter took a lot of time and work, with trying to find the balance between Chloe's initial terror and panic, and the ultimate feeling of peace and her resolution to end things with Peter.  Plus all the Chloe/Sirius fluff.  (I must have written and deleted four different scenes before finally settling on this because they were *too* cute.)  Please let me know what you think!  I can't thank you enough for reading and would love to hear your thoughts in a review.  

 

Also, did anyone catch that Monty the dog was being strangely affectionate with Sirius? Chloe still has no idea they are Animagi. I forgot to ask the same question in an earlier chapter, when James came to visit the farmhouse and Chloe saw the deer tracks in the snow. 



Chapter 21: Chapter Twenty
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Chapter Twenty

 

 

 

 

The greenhouse made what was already a humid afternoon unbearable. Though the summer of 1981 was the hottest on London’s record, the Poplar Institute made no concessions for cooling charms, and a balmy rainforest climate was maintained. My linen dress stuck to me like a second skin.  I had long since abandoned feeling self-conscious for the sweat on the small of my back; that my thighs were slick where they touched my work stool.  My colleagues around the room were no better off. Even my herbascope—an intricate, brass-knobbed device for studying plants’ magical properties—was warm to the touch.

 

The room was completely quiet. We had somehow established an unspoken rule of silent work when we began weeks ago and were all too afraid to break it now. The only sounds were quills scratching on parchment and the occasional muffled cough.

 

I straightened and rubbed my neck, sore from peering into the herbascope. My time at Poplar had been conflicting.  I was constantly busy—more than imagined—but busy standing still for hours reexamining the same subjects over and over. My old roommate Anna had romanticized my life in London, one rainy night at Elwood spent cooped up with boardgames.  A gorgeous flat (“West-facing windows are a must.”) and excelling at my work.  Even a dating life. 

 

In reality, I struggled to keep my head above water.  In the two months since moving to London, I had scarcely been anywhere aside from the Poplar campus, my unpacked flat (without west-facing windows), and a Thai restaurant located conveniently between the two.

 

“Pardon me.”  The man to my right was holding my quill, which I had apparently dropped.

 

“Oh,” I returned his smile.  “Thank you.”

 

His name was Amir Malik, I had learned via a smattering of small talk.  He was a year older than me and had a nice smile.  Once, he had invited me for a pint with his mates after work, and I had declined.  I hadn’t even understood why until that evening when I reached my flat and flipped anxiously through my mail.  I was hoping for word from a certain somebody with long hair and a Dragonskin jacket.

 

Amir returned to his herbascope, and I studied him from the corner of my eye.  He was handsome and polite, and as far as I knew, stayed far away from the war.  What was wrong with me?  Why did I keep torturing myself with the memory of that morning, at the farmhouse, and the feeling of Sirius’s lean waist under my arms?

 

There came sound of wings; an owl was drifting into the greenhouse.  A folded scrap of parchment fluttered onto my workstation, but it wasn’t that of Poplar’s crisp memo stationery.  The script was nearly illegible.

 

It’s happening holy shit it’s happening can you bring the potions now please love James

 

“Oh!”  I stood so quickly that the stool toppled, a thunderous sound.  Amir jumped.  Other heads swiveled as I whispered hushed apologies, gathering my things with trembling fingers.  Lily had gone into labor a week early.

 

 

 

 

The birth would take place at the midwife’s house in a small village I had never heard of, far from London.  When Lily shared this plan months ago, I told myself that it was innocuous; that she didn’t want her baby born under the sterile, gray light of St. Mungo’s.  But as I hurried down the remote village’s streets, the sun beat down with the harsh truth: this was a safety precaution.

 

Originally, the plan was to head for a fountain in the center of town.  There would be a loose stone that, once removed, revealed a small hole enchanted with two-way magic.  The case would be transported to the midwife’s house from there.  But now the plans were thrown off course and I struggled to decipher James’s poorly drawn map to the midwife’s house.

 

I couldn’t help it.  An enormous part of me wondered at the idea of bringing a child into the world, now.  Lily and James had been trying to have a baby.  They were on the frontlines of a terrible war; known enemies of You-Know-Who.  Had there been even the slightest moment’s hesitation, when the skies blackened and they watched another friend die, that a termination was considered?  They were so in love, yes—but what good was love alone, now?

 

Somewhere over the last nine months, I had reached a resolution: that I would never bring a child into this war.  No matter what.

 

At last I arrived at the house number matching that on James’s note.  It was small and unassuming, and looked exactly like its neighbors.  The only telltale sign that this was no ordinary home was the person leaning against the gate.  I nearly didn’t recognize Alastor Moody wearing Muggle clothes, his magical eye replaced with a plain black patch.

 

As I passed, Moody returned my nod, solemnly.  There was no use in making conversation.  I had tried to thank him for all that he did, that morning at the farmhouse, but he seemed unwilling.  And here I was again, a thorn in his side.

 

I reached the door.  Before I even finished knocking it swung open and, suddenly, there she was.  Marlene.

 

“H-hi,” I stammered in shock.  She had never been mentioned when discussing the day’s plans.  But of course she was here, I thought.  It was a wonder she hadn’t bulldozed her way into the delivery room.

 

“Hi, Chloe.”  No smile; a civil tone.

 

I held up the suitcase stupidly.  “I have the potions.”

 

“Great.  Come in.”

 

The midwife’s house was sparser than I would have imagined.  It looked as if she had just moved in.

 

Or moved out, I thought.  No furniture covered the old floorboards aside from a tall, austere armchair that felt out of place.  In the corner was a stack of wooden crates.  A fine layer of dust had settled on the mantle.  I had imagined a bustling scene; Mrs. Potter and Mrs. Evans and maybe even—embarrassingly—Sirius, out smoking in the garden.  A bewildered smile upon my arrival as if to say, can you believe?  But the house was quiet.

 

Marlene took the case and said formally, “Thanks for accommodating the change in plans.  Frank and Alice were supposed to enchant the fountain tomorrow.  Haven’t heard from them.”

 

I changed the subject, as if I could shield them from her disappointment. “How is Lily doing?”

 

A flicker of the old light in her eyes; her mouth twitched.  “Brilliant.  James is more worked up than she is, actually.”

 

“Of course he is,” I snorted quietly and for a fleeting moment, things felt like they used to. 

 

“And your family?  They’re alright?”

 

“Yeah.  They’re safe.”  I paused, wetting my lips anxiously.  “Marlene, I’m sorry for what I said. About the Order. I was upset and confused and hurt, but it was… I shouldn’t have said it like that. What everyone did to help me that night was incredible.”

 

The words felt clumsy and useless.  She nodded thoughtfully, and asked as if she hadn’t even heard, “Was it Michael Flint?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You should have reported him to Dumbledore,” she murmured disconnectedly, as if making a note to herself.  Something to improve upon next time.  I stared at her, the hurt welling up inside my chest.

 

I was terrified of them, I should have said.  But I didn’t.  Instead the eerie silence pressed in.  My eyes roved back to the dusty mantle and cobwebs in the windowsill, past Marlene’s shoulder and into the dark hallway.  There wasn’t even the sound of the midwife’s footsteps.  And if James was beside himself with worry, then he was deathly silent about itSomething was wrong. 

 

I asked uneasily, “Where are Lily and James?”

 

She studied me for a long time.  “I can’t say.  This is an Order of the Phoenix safehouse.”

 

I didn’t know which was worse: the implication that Lily, James and the baby’s safety was at risk, or that Marlene hadn’t trusted me to know.  Somehow, I had believed that I was as ingrained in their lives as they were in mine.

 

She took me gently by the shoulder.  “I know this is a lot to take in, but it’s the way things are now.  We all have a part to play.  And I need you to swear you won’t give away the location of this house.”

 

“What?” I blinked, but she was drawing her wand, and her other hand moved to grip my forearm.

 

It was as if she didn’t even hear me.  She was murmuring something, her wand jammed into the soft flesh of my arm.  It couldn’t have been an Unbreakable Vow—we needed a third party—but the glowing light sent ice through my veins.

 

With all my strength I wrenched free, causing her to stumble and break her intense concentration.  She stared as if just realizing it was me—her once-best friend—who had been in the room the entire time.

 

“Who would I tell, Marlene?” I said, and what I meant was you and Lily and James and Peter Sirius Remus were the only ones I had.  But now it felt like they weren’t there anymore; not really.

 

Before she could answer, I pulled open the door and passed quickly into the unforgiving sunlight.  But my skin remained cold where her magic had been.

 

 

 

 

The Portkey was inside an old, nearly deserted inn. When switched on, a bedside lamp in room 22 would teleport me back to a nearly identical inn in London. They were a front; a secret backchannel for Order of the Phoenix members to travel freely.

 

The inn was across town and by the time I arrived, my dress was damp.  I climbed the stairs and wiped perspiration from my brow, when sudden movement behind the window gave way to a familiar face.  My heart dropped.  Peter was inside.

 

There had been no word from either of us following the breakup. He hadn’t fought me, and I had never reached back out. It truly felt as though I had dreamed it all. But it was too late, and the handle was turning, and I stepped inside. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I heard his voice for the first time in months: “Hi, Chloe.”

 

When the clouds dissipated from my vision I gasped.  A bruise purpled his cheekbone, darkening into a black and swollen eye.  My face must have betrayed my shock and pity, because he said automatically, “I’m okay.”

 

But he was skittish; when a cleaning witch appeared around a corner, he visibly jumped. We moved out of earshot, into the nearby den, and I noticed a bouquet of daisies in his hand wrapped in brown paper. They looked to be in desperate need of water.

 

We sat on a musty old sofa, keeping a new space between us.  It barely sagged under his weight.  I studied the wraithlike person I had once known.

 

“Peter, who did this to you?”  He didn’t respond and I whispered, “Let me guess, Order business.”

 

He nodded, casting a sideways glance.  “I’m sorry.  I wish I could tell you more.”

 

But Marlene hadn’t seemed hurt at all.  Were her bruises hiding beneath the clothes?  I stared at him gravely and he instead turned to the small bouquet.  “These are for Lily.  Think she’ll like them?”

 

What else could I do?  He wasn’t mine anymore.  I couldn’t make him tell me anything, ever, and especially not now.

 

“Of course,” I said.  “They’re lovely.”

 

It was more painful to see him than I had imagined.  Writing the letter that ended things had taken courage, but it had been after months of not even laying eyes on him.  Now, with Peter here in front of me, I felt my resolve crumbling.

 

“How was graduation?” he asked.  “Did you make summa cum laude?”

 

I nodded.

 

“I knew you would.” A genuine, fleeting smile like the sun from behind a cloud. “You’re so smart.”

 

“No, I’m not,” I said, because it was what you were supposed to.

 

The housekeeping witch returned with a laundry cart.  We sat in agonizing silence as she unlocked a broom closet and rifled through it.  Peter stared down at his feet, and I looked from him, to the stupidly cheerful daisies, back to him again, knowing everything couldn’t possibly remain unasked.  At last she wheeled the laundry cart around the corner—

 

“Peter, where were you?” I whispered, nearly bursting into tears, and he closed his eyes in shame. “You shut me out for weeks. I had no idea if you were even safe.”

 

“I know,” he groaned, moving as if to cover his face, then crossing his arms tightly. It was as if he didn’t know what to do with himself.  But he still didn’t answer.

 

“If you wanted to end things, you could have just—”

 

“That was not it, Chloe,” he nearly growled, suddenly emphatic. I nodded, stunned.  But his anger was not directed at me and he deflated once more, dropping his head into his hands.

 

It felt like I was being torn in half, unable to comfort him. But the boy in front of me was not the one I used to know; the one who picked me flowers from gardens and kissed the nape of my neck as I studied. Something in him had broken, and after months, I was tired of fighting to learn what it was.

 

“I’m so sorry, Chloe,” he choked. “I don’t know how to… I wish I could tell you how sorry I am.”

 

I took a deep breath and said, shakily, “I know.”

 

“No, you don’t. You’ll never know.”

 

It felt so strange not to take his hand; to rest my head on his shoulder. Two years of our lives, gone.  One of the daisies had slipped from the bouquet and fallen to the floor.

 

Peter said, “We had a good run of it, didn’t we?  For a little while.”

 

“Yeah, we did,” I smiled weakly.

 

He nodded at his lap. As another silence passed, it became more and more apparent: it was done, and there was nothing left to say.

 

“I should go,” he murmured.

 

We stood and I pulled him into a quick, tight embrace, smelling his familiar detergent. He stepped back and murmured, embarrassed, “Do you remember the address of the safehouse?”

 

I glanced at the front desk, but it was empty.  “For the Order?”

 

He flushed.  “I lost James’s note again.  He’s going to kill me if I’m late.”

 

I wasn’t sure if the spell that Marlene had cast had taken hold, or if it was just the gravity of her words, but I heard myself saying, “No, sorry. I was told to just leave Lily’s potions at the fountain. I never saw the house.”

 

Peter nodded and I wondered if he knew I was lying. James’s note with the address was burning in the pocket of my dress.

 

 

 

 

Harry Potter was born on July 31st.  According to a thank-you note from Lily, in which she said the painkilling potions were working marvelously (perhaps a bit too marvelously), I learned that the baby was a healthy weight.  He had his father’s hair, his mother’s eyes, “and his godfather’s impeccable flair for drama.”

 

I snorted into my glass. Though Lily seemed in good spirits, the envelope bore no return address. When I tried to send a response, the owl came back an hour later with my letter still in its talons. The Potters truly had gone into hiding.

 

This was one of the many facts I ignored as I sat at my small table. It was a mild evening, the heat dissipated at last, and I was finally caught up on my workload. The kitchen was tidied and the clawfoot tub was gleaming. On the rooftop, laundry dried in the warm air. It was the first day in nearly three months wherein I hadn’t made the trek to Poplar, and I was celebrating this fact with a glass of Firewhiskey.

 

Amir had gifted me the bottle in celebration. Our research team, which he and I co-led, would soon be published in a prestigious Herbological journal. The news came the same day that I saw Marlene and Peter. This, and the Firewhiskey, helped to cloud over the residual ache.

 

As I sipped the drink my mind grew fuzzier, and I thought of Amir’s wide smile and full lips. The longest lashes I had ever seen on a man. Things would be so much easier if I could just return what was obviously his crush.

 

But if the last five years had taught me anything, it was that I was a glutton for romantic punishment.

 

Bijou sat on the back of the sofa and peered out the window, flicking her tail and making quiet noises. Probably a bird that she was too fat to catch these days. I scratched her ears and received a grumpy mewl for breaking her focus, spotting the source of her interest.

 

A black dog was in the alleyway below. It was a common sight; the Muggle deli below took out their trash in the evenings, and strays appeared like clockwork. As I leaned in to see if the animal had tags, it spotted me in the yellow lantern light. Its tail wagged faintly.

 

The dog disappeared down the alley and I murmured to Bijou, “You showed him, didn’t you, little beast?”

 

A sudden knock at the door startled me. Before my mind could spin too wildly, a muffled voice came, “It’s Sirius.”

 

I nearly dropped the glass. But as if to prove a point to myself—that Sirius hadn’t truly come to my flat—I quickly crossed to the door. Surely, this was a Firewhiskey-fueled daydream. But there he was, as dangerous and beautiful as ever, shadowed by the dim hallway lighting. Stubble darkened his jaw, and his hair was pushed behind one ear along with a rolled cigarette. Sirius Black and his iconic showiness.

 

My grip tightened on the door. “How did you know I live here?”

 

“I saw you from the street,” he said as if it were obvious.

 

“Oh.” This didn’t make sense, and I clumsily stepped aside. “Please, come in.”

 

He glanced around the small space and I was grateful I had cleaned. But a furtive glance down reminded me that I was wearing an enormous, ratty tee-shirt and shorts. I hadn’t even put on a bra and crossed my arms self-consciously.

 

Only then did I see past the haze of my nerves: something was wrong. Sirius shifted constantly, his eyes never fully coming to rest on me. “What is it?” I asked.

 

“Um…” He passed a hand over his face and said tiredly, bewilderedly, “They found my brother’s body.”

 

A thunderstruck silence. Regulus, the estranged brother Sirius never spoke about. “Oh my God.”

 

More silence; the heaviest kind.

 

“Can we get some air?” he said.

 

“Yes, of course. There’s a rooftop.” After a pause, I grabbed the Firewhiskey and another glass, catching his faintest smile of gratitude.

 

The rooftop of my building was nothing special: a clothesline and some long-forgotten plants gone to seed, but the view made all the difference. On any other night it would have been spectacular. Tonight, it made me feel small and insignificant. How could Sirius possibly be so calm?  I stood askance as he sat heavily on a brick ledge, his expression unreadable. Because there was nothing else to do, I poured a second glass of amber liquor and handed it to him.

 

“Thanks,” he muttered, taking a gulp. But the glass trembled in his hand.  He pushed his hair back for the umpteeth time.

 

“I’m so sorry, Sirius. It’s horrible.” I recalled the little boy from years ago, on Platform 9¾, when I had met Walburga for the first time. He had been so ashamed, so uncertain of himself.

 

“First I’d heard of him in years.  He was one of You-Know-Who’s followers.  Just like the rest of them.”

 

“That doesn’t mean it’s any less difficult for you.” He shrugged one shoulder and I asked, “How are you doing?”

 

“As best as I can, I reckon. Don’t really know what to feel right now.” He finally met my gaze. “Sorry to show up like this. Things are weird with Remus and Peter lately, and Lily and James are…”

 

He trailed off, but all I said was, “Don’t be sorry.”

 

“I don’t really want to talk about it right now. Just didn’t want to be in the flat by myself.”

 

“Of course.”

 

I sat beside him. The city lights were growing brighter in the approaching darkness. His leg bounced anxiously and I wanted to touch him; to offer some sort of comfort. Surely, he was playing the hero as he always did. Who knew what raging storm was billowing in his ribcage. Even after everything that had happened between Emily and I, if her body were found, I would be absolutely beside myself.

 

Sirius said, incredulously, “Lily and James have a baby.”

 

It was a surprising change in subject. But if this is how he chose to heal, then so be it. “I heard that they’ve made you the godfather?”

 

“Yeah, they did.” He was unable to conceal his pride, smiling down at his hands. Something about this was incredibly humbling. After everything he had been through, from childhood until the death of his brother only days ago, it was clear: this meant the world to him.

 

“You’re going to make a wonderful godfather, Sirius.”

 

He held my gaze, then. My own face was flushed, hidden beneath the harsh yellow light of Muggle streetlamps. I took a sip of Firewhiskey and turned back to the scene before us.

 

“So,” Sirius began with difficulty, “That morning, at your house. When you…”

 

He stopped and I said uncertainly, “Made scrambled eggs?”

 

“No, not that. The other bit, when I was leaving, when you... No one has ever—” He smeared a hand over his face. “Christ, that sounds so fucking cheesy. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

 

My heart was rising through my throat. Yes, of course I did. Closing the space between us, my face buried in his chest, his hand in my hair. The overwhelming gratitude for my family's safety; for him.

 

“Sirius, you don’t have to—”

 

“I mean, there have been plenty of girls over the years, don’t get me wrong.” He saw my expression and said quickly, “That’s not the point. Or maybe it is.  Either way, it’s taking me a long time to process, because—Merlin, the shit I could tell you. Let’s just say that Walburga was not a hugger.”

 

“I would imagine not.”

 

“And everything that’s happening right now, and with my brother—” He wet his lips. “What I’m trying to say is that I’m sorting it all out. And I hope… you don’t go anywhere.”

 

A feeling, as though I drank the entire bottle of Firewhiskey. Dizzy, seeing stars, warmth in my chest. “I won’t.”

 

He studied me for a long time, and we weren’t exactly smiling, but he nodded and said, “Good.” And a moment later, when my head came to rest tentatively on his shoulder, he didn’t move. We kept the small space between us. The breeze was catching in our hair, the night city coming alive below.

 

“Good,” Sirius murmured again.

 


Author's Note: Hopefully this isn't too fluffy?  The thing about a slow burn is, once it gets rolling, you just want to make up for the last 19 chapters of withholding and angst and PINING.


Thank you all for your patience--I'm back, and I'm married!  This was the first weekend I have been at home in three weeks, and I was so grateful to have time to write today that I churned out pretty much this entire chapter.  As usual, things came up that weren't in the plot outline, because they struck me.  So I'd love to hear what you think.  Thank you again for reading, and please leave a review!



Chapter 22: Chapter Twenty-One
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Chapter Twenty-One

 

 

 

 

My feet clipped briskly over the London sidewalks.  By now, the route from Poplar to my flat was committed to memory and I scarcely glanced up from a parchment notebook, nose buried in the draft of our next publication.  My cardigan slid down my shoulder and I hastily adjusted it for the umpteenth time.  The summer had long since fled and I had pulled the jumper, wrinkled, from the depths of my trunk.  Above, the highest leaves were tinged with orange and yellow.

 

I glanced up just in time to avoid colliding with a woman, offering a breathless, “Sorry!”

 

The words had scarcely left my lips before I was reading again, dashing my quill through an entire paragraph.  Amir would be irritated, accusing me of cutting his writing, but the language was too wordy.

 

(“It’s not a paperback novel,” I said testily one afternoon, notes and coffee mugs splayed over our workstations.

 

His brows shot up and he laughed, “Merlin, fame has changed you.”)

 

At a crosswalk I awaited the signal, fighting a grin.  Two publications in obscure Herbological journals was hardly fame, but there was some truth to his words.  Change. As the summer faded, I had gained my footing at Poplar, along with a smattering of friends: him, Sanjay and Lena.  My evenings were devoted to research or raucous dinners at Thai restaurants, where debate, gossip and bottles of wine were passed freely.  The one thing we never spoke of was the war.

 

We had created a nice little world out of smoke and mirrors.  A parallel version of London—one that didn’t exist in the papers—where nothing could touch us. When dire news sounded over the radio, attacks and casualties, we tuned through the static as if we could leave it behind.

 

Poplar was its own ecosystem; protected.  There was no time for anything but our work, and life simply continued.

 

But there was one thing that rooted me to the Magical goings-on, despite my Muggle neighborhood and football matches in pubs.  Every few weeks, I awoke to a parcel resting against my door.  They were always delivered in the middle of the night; no return address, no note.  But I knew who sent them.

 

A stack of Sirius’s music records had accumulated on my coffee table, amongst potted plants and coffee cups.  Some that he sent I had heard of, like The Rolling Stones and Queen, and some were obscure names I had only seen on his holey tee-shirts.  The records were well-loved, paper sleeves nearly worn through.  They were the words he didn’t have.

 

I’m still here.  I’m safe.  Don’t go anywhere.

 

The walk sign signaled at last, just as I circled Lena’s paragraphs and scrawled GOOD.  I ducked below a stepladder (“Bad luck, you know!” called the man on its rungs) and, with a final flourish, turned onto my street.

 

A willowy figure stood outside my flat. It was a moment before I could place him amidst the familiar setting. My father wore his trademark derby cap and muddied farm boots, as if he’d stepped directly from the pastures; our ancient lorry was parked next to the other, more modern vehicles.

 

“Hi, Dad.”  I carefully tucked the notebook away.  “Did we have plans—”

 

“Where have you been, Chloe?” he fired, so unlike his usual placid self. He towered over me and my shoulders seized defensively; suddenly I was a child again. “I’ve been phoning the florist’s shop all morning.”

 

“I was running deliveries,” I lied.

 

“The receptionist said she didn’t even know a Chloe Fairchild.”

 

“She’s new. She must have been confused.” The words slipped out with surprising ease. I knew the shame would come later.  “Dad, what’s going on?”

 

“It’s your mother.  She’s… She had a bit of a fall.  She’s at the hospital now.”

 

A feeling, like taking the final step in a staircase to find only empty air.  Something was wrong.  If it was just a fall, he wouldn’t have driven all the way to London. “Is she okay?”

 

But he only said, “Gather your things. I’ll take you to see her.”

 

I nodded, numb.

 

 

 

 

The last time I had been inside a Muggle hospital was over a decade ago. It was a time before I knew—really knew—that I was a witch.  Before the lightbulbs shattered during temper-tantrums, or little starlings from the farmyard came to rest on my shoulder. 

 

But now the automatic doors glided open before me.  I smelled burned coffee and stale, trapped air.

 

I imagined the scene my father had alluded to on the drive: Mum climbing the tall, rickety ladder in the barn, up to the loft.  The climb was too high and we didn’t store anything useful in the loft for that very reason.  What could she possibly have been doing?

 

Something was missing; a piece to my father’s story.

 

As he murmured with the doctor, her hair pinned tightly back, I stared blindly down the corridor.  A fluorescent bulb was flickering, casting the people in its greenish light: patients in wheelchairs and staff walking briskly.

 

“You can see her now, miss.” The nurse at the front desk said, for what didn’t sound like the first time. “Room 317.  Just down the hall.”

 

The door to my mother’s room was open and I stood askance, peering in. She was asleep beneath the dimmed lights and periodic beeps of the heart monitor. I had expected a gray-faced shell of her, but she looked perfectly normal.  Maybe that was the most jarring: seeing my mother, who never even took Aspirin, strapped to foreign machines that pumped chemicals into her body.  The blankets were pulled back over her left foot, which was wrapped heavily and elevated on a pillow.

 

My father appeared behind me, his face set in a grimace. “She broke her ankle when she fell.  She’ll be off it for a few weeks.”

 

“What about…” I swallowed. “She’s just concussed, right?”

 

We were still in the hallway, neither of us equipped to step inside and confront the ugly truth. My father shook his head.  “They don’t see any evidence of brain damage.”

 

“Thank Merlin,” I muttered, and he scowled at the unfamiliar expression. “What was she doing, climbing up to the loft?  She’s scared to be in the barn by herself.”

 

He stalled.  But I was already putting the pieces together.

 

“Dad.”

 

He said, slowly, “We’ve been…noticing some of the behaviors we saw before, with—”  

 

“With Grandmum,” I finished, feeling the weight of it.

 

My grandmother, Margery, who knitted me scarves and kept green glass bottles of orange juice in her refrigerator.  She and I had been close, when I was a child.

 

It was little things, at first: repeating the same stories again and again.  Forgetting whether she’d already gone outside to get the paper. Over time she began introducing my mother as Daphne—her own late sister’s name—and was convinced the mailman was casing her house.  Then, late in the middle of one night, she came to with the car running on an unfamiliar street, 30 miles from home, with no memory of how she got there.  We placed her under special care shortly after.  She passed away in my Third Year.

 

My Mum was only 60 years old, and she was already showing the signs.

 

I fought down the tears stinging behind my eyes.  “You weren’t going to tell me?”

 

“Would we have been able to reach you, if we wanted?” my father said, so lowly that my stomach turned.  It had been years since I lived under his roof, but I remembered that he was like a lake: stoic on the surface, cold and dark below.  “Don’t think you’ve fooled us just yet.”

 

“Is that Chloe?” my mother’s voice came weakly. 

 

I broke his steely gaze and passed into the room, leaving him in the hallway.  “It’s me, Mum.  I’m here.”

 

 

 

 

She was released later that day.  I left the hospital only long enough to pack a suitcase and send an owl.  No address, just a name on the envelope.  I wondered if the magic would work, or if Sirius had gone into hiding as well.  Mum’s sick.  Heading home for a few days.

 

The ride home from the hospital was long and arduous.  Three of us crammed in the bench seat of the lorry, careful not to jostle my mother’s ankle.  Apparating would have made much more sense, but I knew better.

 

My father never mentioned his concerns of my mother’s memory to the doctor—if we ignored the problem, it would go away.  But before we left, I nicked a pamphlet from a rack near the vending machine.  Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease ticked off Mum’s behaviors one by one, warning signs I had written off over the years.  Her timidity and reclusiveness.  Her hands fluttering as she struggled to recall words.  Terror of the unknown.

 

Guilt was welling up, heavy and terrible like thick concrete in a delicate glass.  What was I doing when my mother fell?  Which of my lies was I living—the ones I told her, or the ones I was telling myself?

 

When we reached the farmhouse I stood, uselessly clutching my Mum’s purse as my father helped her from the lorry.  As they murmured irritably the front door opened and my Aunt Annabeth appeared with her hands on her hips.

 

“Mind her ankle, George.”  Her eyes landed on me and she blinked in surprise.  “Chloe!”

 

“Hello,” I murmured, trailing after my mother as she tottered up the stairs.  It had been years since I’d seen her.  After graduating from Hogwarts, Emily had moved to Surrey and shortly after, my aunt and uncle followed.  They all lived on the same street, I heard.

 

“Your hair.”  She touched the chin-length locks as if they would disappear.  “Well, not to worry, it’ll grow back.  Good to see you, dear.”

 

“You too.”  My hand limply patted her back.

 

We passed into the dim house.  It smelled of biscuits in the oven, a warm and comforting scent like the Hogwarts kitchens, and incongruent with the dark haze that had settled over me.  In the den, a bespectacled young man was sitting on the sofa, wearing a collared shirt and pressed pants.

 

He leapt to his feet, jutting a hand to me.  “Reggie Corner, pleasure to meet you.”

 

“Oh, you’re Emily’s husband.”  No wonder he was so nervous.  I wondered how much of our past she’d omitted in her retelling.  “Congratulations.”

 

“Thanks, cheers.  Terribly sorry to not have invited you to the wedding.”

 

The uncomfortable silence hung in the air until my father asked, “Chloe, why don’t you start the kettle?”

 

By the time I returned with the tray, Emily was coming through the front door with a paper bag of groceries.  Our eyes met and skittered away.  She had changed in the last three years—a  woman now, wire-thin, wearing the same lipstick as her mother.  I could imagine it clearly: my aunt in the car ride over, passing Emily her lipstick with a meaningful look.  Freshen up, Dear.

 

“Hi, Chloe,” Emily said quietly.

 

“Hello.”  I kept my eyes low as I doled out mugs of tea.  Emily lingered uncertainly with the bag heavy in her hands.  Reggie the Labrador jumped to his feet.

 

“Help you with the groceries, love?”

 

“Actually—Chloe, would you help me?  I’m not sure where everything goes.”

 

I nearly laughed.  Emily had been visiting our house for two decades and knew exactly where each spoon and saucer went.  Gingerly I passed a cup of tea to my mother, pressing her hands around its warmth, before straightening with an obliging smile.

 

“Sure thing, Em.”

 

I followed her.

 

“How have you been?” she asked, quietly, once we were alone.

 

“Well, my Mum just had a concussion, so…”

 

“Right.”  She shook her head.  “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying.”

 

Emily hesitantly drew tinned vegetables from the bag—carrots, beets, things my Mum had growing fresh in her garden or canned in the cellar.  My Mum made a point to never buy these things.  She took pride in farming; on being self-sufficient and supplying for her family.

 

My gaze flicked to Emily and back to the tins amassing on the counter.  The sugary smell of biscuits was nauseating.

 

“That was my husband.  In the other room,” she tried again.  I was struck, suddenly, by how little she had changed.  Maybe her appearance was different, but she was still the same girl who failed to understand others, and when to leave things be.

 

“Yeah, we met.  He seems…nice.”  I said it airily—and truthfully it was all I could say about Reggie—but she fixed me with a long, stony look.

 

“Don’t.”

 

“Don’t what?”  I scowled.  “He’s polite.”

 

“Is this because we didn’t invite you to the wedding?”

 

This time, a bark of a laugh did escape me.  “What?”

 

“I didn’t know if you would have even come.  And we kept the guest list small.”

 

“How economical.”

 

“You know, you could be happy for me that I found someone.”  She sounded just like her old self.  Husband found.  Life ambition complete.  Clearly my lack of congratulations over the months was a sore spot.

 

“Emily, this has nothing to do with that, and you know it.”

 

With my back to her, I shoved the tins into a cupboard, more and more aggressively.  If we hadn’t been having this conversation, I wouldn’t have even noticed it—but the scar tissue along my waist stretched as I reached overhead.  The egg timer for the biscuits was ticking loudly, counting down the seconds.

 

“Reggie says I need to forgive myself.”

 

I stopped.

 

“He says it isn’t healthy to carry this guilt around, for all these years…”  Her voice broke.  She was actually crying.  “I don’t know what else I can do, Chloe.  I’ve apologized a dozen times.”

 

“Once.”  I whirled on her.  She was always taller than me—even more so in her shiny heels—but I jutted my chin defiantly.  “You apologized to me once.  And you ran away so fast you probably don’t even realize what you’re apologizing for—what they did to me.”

 

She blinked, a fat tear trailing mascara down her cheek.

 

“I don’t think I’ll ever forgive you.  But I’ve moved on.  And I think it’s best that you do too.”

 

The egg timer burst into sound and we jumped.  A second passed before Emily whirled around, reaching for the oven mitt.  As I passed through the doorway she murmured tearfully, “Oh, they’ve burned.”

 

My aunt was on the other side.  She stepped back quickly to fix me with one of her looks, but I knew she had been listening.  I held her judgmental gaze before continuing into the den, to be with my mother.

 

 

 

 

The afternoon dragged slowly into evening.  We gathered in the den with books and tea, newspapers and knitting, while classical music hummed from the radio.  My Mum went to bed early, squirming under all the attention, and Emily and Reggie disappeared shortly after our argument.  But Aunt Annabeth announced that she would be taking the guest room for the evening. 

 

My father and I shared a wry glance at this, to which he only said, “Stay as long as you’d like.”

 

I retreated to my bedroom at the earliest moment.  As the sun set, I curled up under my grandmother’s quilt with an old Herbology textbook.  My father hadn’t mentioned my florist’s shop lie again—not yet.  As I flipped through the pages, I tried to forget the ice in his voice, or that the quilt swathing me was one of my grandmother’s last gifts before her memory became too tattered.

 

The guest room shared a wall with mine, and I could hear my aunt’s voice through the thin walls.  She was on the telephone with my uncle—to my dismay, informing him that she’d be staying with us for several days.

 

“Of course, the Joneses will be wondering why I’m not at church.  That dreadful Maryanne will surely be spreading gossip all over town…”

 

I flicked my wand, muting the sound of her voice, just as there came a tapping at the window.  My heart leapt—my letter must have reached him, somehow, with whatever magic that kept us tethered. 

 

Sirius was crouched on the roof, pushing the hood of his jacket away from his face.  Quickly I crossed to the window.  The panes opened inward, like small doors, and I felt the chilly evening air on my cheeks.

 

“Hi.”

 

“Hey,” he said, nearly a whisper.  My eyes must have mirrored his: grave and, somewhere in their depths, a spark.

 

“Is she alright?”

 

“Concussed.”  I hesitated before adding, the idea far away and strange, “My Dad thinks her memory is going.  Alzheimer’s.”

 

“Jesus, Chloe.  I’m sorry.”  He released a long breath and shook his head.  “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

 

A sad smile found its way to my lips, but it was true: our encounters were always fringed by one loss or another.  Quill.  Regulus.  My mother.

 

“Have you talked with your family?”

 

“My cousin Andie, a bit, but nobody’s talking much these days.  She’s worried about her daughter.  Thinking of going into hiding, too.”

 

“Sirius, that’s awful.”  I rested my temple on the window.  “How are you doing?”

 

He shrugged and instead of answering, said carefully, “Listen, we’ve been hearing things from our informants.  London isn’t safe right now.  Frank and Alice…”  Sirius trailed off, swallowing hard.

 

“What?”  There was a sinking in the pit of my stomach.  I thought of Alice bumping me gently with her shoulder.  Her mischievous wink.  Constant vigilance.

 

“Just…hang out here for a few weeks.  Spend time with your Mum.”

 

“But I have my work—”

 

“Poplar won’t keep you safe either, now.”  He read my expression and said, more gently, “You and your parents will be okay.  Moody’s Disillusionment magic is about the best you could ask for.  Trust me, I tried to return his hat once and it took me a bloody week and a half to find him.”

 

I returned his smile, but goosebumps had risen over my flesh.  Something bad was coming.

 

“Oh,” he said.  “Brought you this to help with the cabin fever.”

 

He pulled something from the depths of his cloak—another record.  Patti Smith stared defiantly with her chin raised, a jacket slung over her shoulder.  The paper sleeve was nearly worn through with use and a note was spell-o-taped to its front: From one tough bird to another.  I exhaled a quiet laugh.

 

“Not sure how tough I am these days.”  My fingers gripped the record tightly and I added, forcing myself to say over my pounding heart, “Thank you.  You have…”

 

I stopped, the words failing me once more.  You have no idea how much it means.

 

In response he reached over and, after the slightest hesitation, pushed a lock of hair behind my ear.  His touch left a trail of fire along my cheekbone.  “Never told you I like the haircut,” he murmured.

 

His gaze moved to the warmth of the room, coming to rest on my bed.  My throat flushed with heat.  And maybe if this were another time and place entirely, we could have made something of the thought that flickered like a faraway torch in the dark.

 

But then he spotted something, and his face changed entirely.  Before I could even react, Sirius’s wand was slashing through the air, the nonverbal spell sending white-hot sparks over my head.  The door burst open behind me—

 

My aunt cried out in shock, stumbling from where she was leaned against the door.  Eavesdropping.  She gathered herself and, as though we had somehow intruded on her, snapped, “Sneaking boys in, on a day like today.”

 

Anger welled in my chest, but shock kept the words at bay, and then she disappeared down the hall.  I gritted my teeth, but when I turned, Sirius was as white as a sheet.  “Merlin, are you alright?”

 

“Y-yeah.  Refreshing to see someone else’s fucked-up family.”

 

But the color was only now returning to his cheeks.  Who had he thought was lurking behind the door?  “I’d better go, then.  Just swear you’ll be careful.”

 

I nodded, shaken.  Sirius leaned through the window to wrap an arm around my neck, pressing his mouth to the crown of my head.  But too quickly it was over and he Apparated, the loud crack echoing across the darkness.  It felt different from the last time; his lean waist beneath my arms.  I stared down at the record and ran my thumbs over its surface. 

 

I was nearly asleep before I could finally place what felt different.  It was as though Sirius wasn’t certain he would see me again.

 

 

 

 

The next morning, I came downstairs to find everyone at the table—my aunt, mother and father.  They were all crowded together, reading something.  The newspaper?  But when I passed into the room, they fixed me with grave looks.

 

“Chloe, what is this?” my mother asked, trying to keep her voice light.  My heart plummeted when I saw the notebook, with all my research from Poplar, open on the table.

 

“Where did you…?”  It had been tucked in my bag.  They would have had to go looking though it to find the notebook.

 

My aunt said, “Doesn’t look like a florist’s notes to me.  Anything you want to share?”

 

“Annabeth, that’s enough,” my father muttered.  But he was awaiting my answer too.

 

When I didn’t answer, my mother changed direction.  “Did you have a… boy come over, last night?”


I tucked my hair behind my ear in embarrassment.  “Mum, please.  I’m twenty.  And he just brought over a record, he didn’t even stay.”  As if the entire scene would disappear, I reached into a cupboard for a bowl.

 

“You were talking about that man,” Annabeth said, and I stopped.  “The one they’re calling You-Know-Who.  I could tell—”

 

“Annabeth, would you give us a moment?” my Mum interrupted.  I kept my back to them, enduring the tense silence, and at last heard her heels clicking over the floors.


“She’s just listening from the other room,” I muttered.

 

“Answer us.”  My father’s stern voice was back, and I found myself turning with childlike obedience.  “Are you really working at the florist’s?”

 

My lips moved soundlessly until I managed, “No.”

 

They visibly crumpled.  The guilt welled up again, and I said desperately, “But I’m not doing anything dangerous.  It has nothing to do with the war or You-Know-Who.  I’m researching plants, for Merlin’s sake.  It’s like what you do, Mum, but with magic—”

 

“Did you even go to university at Kent, then?”  Her voice wavered and I looked around, as if someone could save me, but of course there was no one.  When I didn’t answer, she put a hand to her chest.  “All of these years, you were lying to us?”

 

“You gave me no choice!  This is what I was meant to do.  I worked for years to become a Herbologist, and I finally am, and I’m—I’m good at it.  But I couldn’t have gotten here without continuing my education in magic, and that meant I had to…leave some things out.”

 

“All we wanted was to keep you safe,” my father said.  “That was always our top priority.”

 

“You wanted to keep me from living.”  I tried desperately to make him see.  “I wasn’t born like you.  I have different opportunities and I had to take them.  And I am safe.”

 

“That’s not what your friend was saying.  Annabeth heard him.”

 

I wanted to throw something; to scream.  The silence stretched. 

 

“I don’t know what to say,” my mother managed, before the tears were too much and she left the room.  I watched after her, hobbling away on her crutches, but she didn’t look back.  It was just my father and me.

 

“After all that she’s been though…” he started, and I closed my eyes in shame.  Though his voice was quiet he breathed sharply through his nose, trying to quell the anger.  “You’ll stay here tonight, and the next night, and the next, until it’s safe.”

 

I opened my mouth to protest, and he cut through, “We can’t do this to her, Chloe.  Not in her condition.  It’s not good.”

 

“Okay,” I whispered at last, defeated.  “I’m sorry.”

 

I had barely said the words before he left, and I stood alone in our kitchen.

 



Chapter 23: Chapter Twenty-Two
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Trigger warning: violence, death, very brief hints at suicide.

 

Before we get started, a few things.  I fully miscalculated the timeline of the last chapter, and if you read the earliest versions, you may be confused.  The only thing that changed is the last scene.  It now ends on the morning that Chloe found her aunt and parents looking through her notebook, and the short scene that took place after that has been removed.  Apologies for the confusion!  Writing is hard. ;)

 


 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

 

 

 

The house was far too crowded.  Grainy music rattled from broken speakers and reverberated in my ribcage.  From the sofa, musky smoke rose from a gaggle of partygoers huddled around an elaborate brass contraption.  They were cast in a strange, grotesque light from the purple and orange fairy lights that floated overhead. 

 

I sipped hot cider and Firewhiskey from a party-goblet—golden, but thin enough to dent with a finger—and counted down the minutes.  Everything was so overwhelming; too loud.

 

Or maybe this is just the way people are, I thought, watching the Boschian scene.  When was the last time I’d even ventured from the boarding house, other than to visit my parents?

 

Cheers and laughter erupted from the table, where a battle of Drunk Exploding Snap was raging.  Under the cacophony I clutched the drink to my chest and searched for a quieter space. 

 

Amir and Lena’s house was bigger than expected.  I turned the corner into the kitchen.  But there were more people in there; strangers I probably would have come to know at Poplar, had I stayed.

 

“Wotcher,” said a tall man with dark makeup around his eyes.

 

His gaze roved over me, and I said quietly, “Toilet?”

 

“Second door on the left.”  A girl wearing a pointy witch’s hat, perhaps ironically, stepped on his foot.  Her face said Ignore him, and I thanked her before disappearing down the adjoining hallway.

 

In keeping with the night’s theme, a tunnel of flickering, floating candles lined the hall.  Conjured mist twirled around my ankles.  Through the glow, I spotted a picture frame that hung on the far wall and my breath caught.

 

The magazine cover was beyond familiar and still, somehow, elicited a pang of shame. This copy was enlarged to twice the original size.  There was the solid red background; the slightly stylized white hemlock bloom.  Herbologists aren’t exactly known for their design capabilities.  I had my own copy, stained with rings from coffee mugs, shoved purposefully beneath my dresser as if forgotten.

 

The Poplar Institute Journal of Herbology, Volume 78, chapter 11.  January 1981.  The rows of text below that were too far away to read, but I knew that it was the credited researchers: Amir, Sanjay and Lena.  The journal had put up a fuss over re-printing at the last minute to remove my name.  Or so I’d heard.

 

Suddenly, I heard voices approaching from behind.  Though I hadn’t spoken to anyone yet, that evening, I darted into the bathroom and shut the door behind me.

 

A low voice, muffled, “God, just tell me when it’s over.”

 

Lena.  I recognized her wry tone. 

 

“That terrible, huh?”  Amir sounded amused. 

 

For reasons I couldn’t explain, I gently leaned my forehead against the door and listened.  How few inches were separating us now, instead of the hundreds of miles?  Their voices were the sounds of my old life: greasy Thai noodles, endless debate, the feeling of mattering.

 

“I just need one bloody moment to myself.  My sister is driving me mental.”

 

“She’s a bit north of sloshed,” he agreed.

 

“As usual.”

 

I wished I had been there, when they realized there was more to their friendship than snappy banter and stolen glances.  But would it be so terrible to swallow my pride—and shame and jealousy—and say hello?  I took in a long, steadying breath, but my hands remained limp at my side.

 

“Did Chloe ever show?”

 

I stepped back as if they could sense me through the door.

 

“Don’t think so,” Lena said tiredly.  “She probably doesn’t even know anyone.  It’s been almost a year.”

 

“Yeah, but…”  Amir never could give up, once he’d sunk his teeth into something.  “You’d think she would want the chance to get back into things, you know?”

 

“Her Mum’s sick.  She’s probably dealing with that.”

 

“I reckon,” he conceded.  “Moore just told me he was going to make her Head Researcher, if she’d stuck around.” 

 

Something inside my chest, like glass crunching.

 

“Speaking of sloshed.  He can barely keep his mouth shut after two Firewhiskeys.”

 

Lena’s smile was audible.  “Yes, but you’re next, if you can get him on your side.”

 

“Ugh,” Amir groaned as she laughed.  “That’s enough Poplar talk for tonight.  No more.”

 

“Alright, you win.  But only because it’s your favorite night of the year.”

 

They murmured flirtatiously together as I stared at my reflection; at the person I had become over time, void of ambition or significance.

 

“Merlin, this person’s taking forever.  Oi!”  Lena rapped on the door and I jumped. 

 

It had been a mistake to come here.  This was no place for me; this life.  As the sounds of the party filtered in—gleeful shouts and catchy songs of monsters mashing—Lena pounded on the door again, sending Amir into fits of laughter.

 

Before I turned to Apparate, I took off the stupid cat ears headband and threw it into the bin.  I was too old to celebrate Halloween, anyway.

 

 

 

 

I reappeared in my darkened bedroom, catching the lamp just before it fell.  Seconds passed as I froze, staring at the ceiling, but there were no sounds from Mrs. Atkinson.  A quiet breath of relief—the woman was practically a direct landline to my mother.  Chloe came home after midnight, you know, she’d say too casually, as she purchased her preserves at the farmers market.

 

In the darkness, I removed my coat and threw it onto the floor.  Meaningless.  The familiar word resurfaced in my mind.

 

Then the light switched on and I screamed.

 

Or, I would have, if Marlene’s nonverbal spell hadn’t stolen it from my throat.  Instead I stumbled, mutely, and the lamp crashed the floor after all.  Only then did I notice Remus, standing behind her where she sat at my table, so completely still he had blended in with the darkness.

 

Mrs. Atkinson’s voice carried through the ceiling.  “Everything alright, Chloe?”

 

I stared at Marlene meaningfully—or tried to, in my panic—and she conceded to wave her wand. 

 

“Y-yes,” I called, my voice hoarse.  “I tripped.”

 

There was no response and as the silence stretched, I stared at the two of them.  “What’s going on?”

 

Remus looked more wan than ever and said, carefully, “We wanted to talk to you about something.”

 

“About what?”  The terrible possibilities flashed through my mind; thoughts of who was absent.  “Did something happen to Sirius?”

 

They shared a long look at the mention of his name.  “Have you seen him recently?”

 

“No,” I said, swallowing.  “Not for a few months now.”

 

“Aren’t those his records?” Marlene accused, looking pointedly to the stack gathering dust near the record player.  Her once phosphorescent hair was dull under the electric lamplight.

 

Remus cajoled, “We just need to find out where he is.  You didn’t see or hear from him at the party tonight?”

 

“No.”  I stared at his trembling hands before realizing, “How did you know that I went to a party?”

 

“Moody’s been casing your flat,” Marlene said, as if it were nothing.

 

“Casing me.  Jesus, I’m not even—” 

 

Why would the Order of the Phoenix monitor someone who was living the life of a Muggle?

 

“Tell me what’s going on, now,” I said, surprising myself.

 

Marlene studied me carefully as she chewed on her lip, weighing her options.  But then Remus’s face suddenly crumpled, and he turned sharply away.  That single moment seemed to change everything, and whatever façade they had been fronting dissolved.

 

“Chloe,” Marlene tried to keep her voice even, “Something really bad has happened.”

 

The rest came like a black wave, towering over me as I stood helplessly on the shore.

 

 

 

 

The cottage sat on a hilltop, over a sea the color of iron. Cold, salty air whipped my hair from its bun and stung my cheeks, damp from crying or the mist, I wasn’t sure. The wind was cacophonous after being in the graveyard, as quiet and still as the stone angels that had surrounded us.  While Harry mewled in Marlene’s arms, two caskets were lowered into the hard ground.  Words were said, dirt was sprayed over the polished wood, and then a Portkey tore us away to the cottage. 

 

Lily and her sister had spent their summers here as children. It was where she and James had honeymooned; their special place.  Besides, the reception had to be moved elsewhere.  Godric’s Hollow was still crawling with Aurors.

 

I cast a sideways glance to Marlene. She had tolerated my presence so far, but her gaze was constantly elsewhere, roving the guests with suspicion or faraway in thought.

 

“The service was lovely,” I said to break the silence.

 

“Nothing about this is lovely, Chloe. They’re dead.”

 

She was right, and I quieted once more.

 

But to my left, Mary gently linked her arm through mine, “It was.”

 

We passed into the warmth of the cottage and I wondered if Lily could have fathomed that Petunia would be the one to arrange her funeral. Throughout the service her face remained sullen, unblinking, the closest she could come to public grief.  I spotted her now on the sofa, limply holding her orphaned nephew and staring into space.

 

Now that Voldemort was gone, people were coming out of hiding.  I realized, bitterly, that there were twice as many guests here than had been at their wedding. A long table was lined with silver trays of finger sandwiches and devilled eggs, and my stomach turned.  An elderly woman pushed a mug of hot cranberry punch into my hand.

 

Marlene, Mary and I stood tiredly, watching the strange scene before us; the fond memories of the deceased being passed around like a collection plate.

 

Mary asked politely, through puffy eyes, “When do you return to Poplar?”

 

Somehow, I felt the pang of shame again.

 

“I resigned last year, actually. My Mum’s health isn’t doing well, so I’m letting a room near her.” I glanced at Marlene, but she was miles away.

 

Mary nodded, looking surprised, and I quickly changed the subject. “How have you been?”

 

It was such a stupid thing to ask, but she said obligingly, “Alright, considering.  It’s hard, with everything that’s happened over the last few months.”

 

Had Michael Flint come for her again too? 

 

But instead I offered, “I’m so sorry to hear about Frank and Alice.  I’d like to visit them sometime, if you think that would be alright.”

 

Her eyes darkened. “I don’t know, Chloe. They aren’t themselves anymore.”

 

“N-no, of course they aren’t.  I’m sorry, I don’t—”

 

“Would you excuse me, please?”  Her shaky smile didn’t reach her eyes.  “Just going to run to the loo.”

 

I watched helplessly as she wove through the crowd.  Why did we insist on filling the silence? It only stirred up the awful, tarry filth at the bottom of the lake.

 

As if on cue, the room around me seemed to constrict, darkening at its edges until I saw it again: the scene that plagued my imagination. Lily, on the floor, her irises turning as hard as opals.  James’s mouth in a grimace; a claw-like hand curled around his wand.  They couldn’t hear the baby’s shrieks.

 

I felt the lurch of nausea again. The mug slipped from my hand and its bright red contents splattered onto the white carpet.

 

“Sorry,” I whispered, dropping to my knees. “I’m so sorry.”

 

Marlene was kneeling beside me and waved her wand, until the sugary drink—not blood, I forced myself to remember—vanished.  She pulled me to my feet, and I wanted nothing more than to embrace her; to take back everything.  Something in the darkened woods of her eyes had changed again, a flickering torch in the distance.

 

“He came to my house,” I blurted, surprising myself. 

 

But Marlene waited and so I said, “James.  When Lily was first pregnant, he showed up at my parents’ house to ask for help with tinctures.  He told me she was ‘knocked up.’”

 

A quiet exhale through the nose; the closest she could come to laughter.  “Sounds like him.”

 

“And she was so kind,” I tried.  Marlene had to remember them—as people, as our friends, before the Order.  I remembered Lily in her kitchen, that morning: You still have feelings for him, don’t you?  I had never told anyone else about Sirius.  And now my secret had died with her. 

 

“She always made me feel like a part of things, even in school.  Part of the fun.”

 

“Fun,” Marlene repeated, as if it were a foreign word.

 

“I didn’t know it then, and I should have.”  My voice quavered and broke, “It’s not supposed to be like this.  We’re supposed to be living normal lives.  You shouldn’t have to fight, and we shouldn’t be losing our friends.  But everything is—”

 

“It’s shit,” she finished for me.  “Everything is shit.”

 

Something between a laugh and a sob escaped me.  It was the closest we had ever come to agreeing about the war.  “Yeah.  It really is.”

 

Marlene closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall, her white throat so thin and fragile.  She looked like she could sleep for days.  “God, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this terrible before.”

 

I watched her, silently, as if it would somehow help her to rest.  But her eyes opened at the gentle tinkling of a spoon on glass: Albus Dumbledore stood before the hearth, holding a crystal goblet.  His charcoal colored robes seemed to be made from the night itself.

 

“Greetings,” he said, and the room hushed like students under his quiet authority.  But even his eyes appeared glassy.

 

“It is difficult,” he began, “to both celebrate the downfall of a tyrant and mourn the immeasurable loss he created.  Lily and James Potter were beloved by many.  They were kind and courageous, resilient and selfless.  I had the honor and privilege of knowing them well.  They were bright students who grew into even brighter partners in life.  But above all else, Lily and James loved.  They loved their friends and their family, and their son Harry, dearly.”

 

Our eyes moved to the boy in Petunia’s arms.  A kind of reverence settled over us—for Harry’s smallness and the power that smallness contained, like a far-off star; a pinprick burning with light.

 

“It is this fierce love for their son to which we owe our deepest gratitude.  Lily and James made the ultimate sacrifice, and they did so without hesitation.  We may never know the lives they saved.”

 

Dumbledore seemed to go somewhere else entirely, then.  It was the first time I had seen him fail to find the right words.  I could feel the hot tears on my cheeks; tasted their salt.

 

“We’ll get them, Albus,” Alastor Moody broke the silence like a brick.  “Whoever did this, we’ll find them.”

 

“Hear, hear!”

 

And suddenly it was all wrong: a murmur of agreement coiled around the room, grotesque and vengeful, a simmering anger.  A murmured, “Justice will be served” rose above the rest.  My eyes met with that of a woman I didn’t know, who appeared to feel as I did: shocked and disturbed.  This wasn’t the place to be rallying.

 

But Albus Dumbledore did nothing to silence the anger that seeped under our feet like black pitch.  Instead he sealed it, raising his crystal goblet into the air.  “To Lily and James.”

 

“To Lily and James,” the room echoed him, and Marlene’s voice carried darkly into my ear.  I hadn’t moved even to raise my cup.  As Dumbledore recused himself, the murmurs and gentle piano music rose into the air once more, but the room felt colder.

 

We looked at each other then—Marlene and I—knowing that we stood on the edge of something.

 

“We are going to find who did this,” she said.  “I hope it’s me.  I want the killing blow for myself.”

 

I stared at her, horror struck, unable to say the words she wanted to hear.  The divide had opened once more and neither of us was willing to step across.  Instead she wordlessly pushed off from the wall and left me standing alone. 

 

Grief manifests differently in everyone.  My mother’s in-home nurse had said it once, after my father stormed out of an emotionally draining appointment.  But a chill ran from my crown to tailbone.

 

A change in the light—the front door was opening to the frigid gray world.  And then Sirius appeared. Somehow, through the sea of people, our gazes locked and instinctively I took a half-step forward.  His hair was unwashed and, beneath sallow skin, his jaw clenched.

 

But Sirius tore his eyes away. Behind him, Remus and Peter trailed inside, looking just as weary.

 

I had watched him during the funeral. His dark look was trained on the ground as he, Remus, Peter, and Moody labored beneath James’s casket.  I couldn’t blame him for being angry with me. That warm summer night on the rooftop of my old flat had been over a year ago, but I could still hear the Muggle traffic; see his hair rustling in the breeze.

 

“I hope you don’t… go anywhere.”

 

“I won’t.”

 

But we had both struggled to keep that promise.

 

 

 

 

I found him in a bedroom upstairs.  His back was to me and he rifled through a wardrobe, haphazardly throwing its contents onto the floor.  I leaned against the door frame as though it was the only thing keeping me standing.  The brightly stitched double-As of James’s Appleby Arrows jumper landed at my feet; I scanned the room for more evidence of them, but the white walls were sterile.

 

At last Sirius extracted a bottle of Firewhiskey.  He turned and only a brief pause revealed he hadn’t known I was there.  “Don’t know why he was so goddamn secretive about it,” he said.

 

Sirius bit down on the cork and pulled until it opened with a THUNK.  He sat heavily on the bed, taking a long drink that should have made him gag.  He was on something.  His legs were bouncing anxiously and his jaw clenched and unclenched.

 

“Can I sit?” I asked.

 

“Free country.” 

 

I settled on the edge of the bed and he passed the bottle.  For a moment I hesitated, but there was no point.

 

“And do you know why it’s a free country?” Sirius prompted as I sipped the burning liquid.  “Because my best friends died.  And then Voldemort died.  So now we’re free.”

 

He opened his arms as if to say, Ta-da! 

 

I said gently, “You should eat something.  Let me get you a plate.”

 

But his hand clamping onto my wrist stopped me, and beneath it all I could see the burning in his eyes.  Please don’t leave.  I sat back down, and his head dropped heavily onto my lap.  On any other day it would have sent my heart skittering like a stone over water.  Today it felt numb.

 

“They think I had something to do with it,” he said.  “Moony and Marlene.  I can tell.”

 

I recalled their late-night visit; the accusatory tones.  But I said, gently, “No, they don’t.”

 

“She’s driving me mental.  All those goddamn suspicious looks and secret meetings.”

 

“Grief manifests differently in everyone,” I recited uselessly.  He took a gulp from the bottle and when he finished, I took it.  “When was the last time you slept?”

 

He sat back up and reached for the bottle, but I held it away from him.  “Anyone ever tell you that you should be a nurse?” he countered.

 

His nose was inches from my own, and his heavy-lidded gaze came to rest on my mouth.  I set the bottle down just as Sirius leaned forward, pausing with his lips brushing against mine, waiting for permission, and I could smell the alcohol lacing his breath.  It was all wrong.  Despite everything wavering and bursting within me I turned my head a degree.  His forehead rested against my temple instead.

 

I closed my eyes until it materialized again: my rooftop, city lights, a warm breeze.

 

“I wish—”

 

“I know,” he said.

 

We stayed that way until a creaking floorboard broke us apart.  Peter was in the doorway, looking stricken.

 

“Petunia is asking for us,” he stammered.  “I thought—I’m sorry—”

 

I stared at the floor, hard, as Sirius took a final drink.  “Brilliant.”

 

They left together then, but I never once looked up.

 

 

 

 

Somehow, a circle had formed. It started with Remus and Sirius, smoking cigarettes in the chilly air, until we grudgingly amassed in a ring. We were once-friends, now strangers, and more willing to withstand a sullen reunion than the scene inside.

 

“This is bullshit,” Marlene held out a hand and Remus passed a cigarette without looking up.

 

Across the circle, Peter was staring at me and trembling from the cold or something more.  I pretended not to notice him and wished that the day would just end.

 

“We don’t know anything yet.” Mary would do anything to avoid conflict.  “The Aurors are still investigating.”

 

“They were in hiding,” Marlene retorted. “Someone gave them up.”

 

“You-Know-Who had followers everywhere,” Remus murmured. “It could have been anyone.  If it was anyone.”

 

“He’s gone, you can say his name now.”

 

“Well his followers certainly aren’t.”

 

“Did they have a Secret Keeper?” I asked.

 

It looked as though Sirius was about to pinch his cigarette in half; his hand was trembling.  “No,” he said.

 

“Interesting,” Marlene quipped. “I thought they did.”

 

“The hell are you implying, Marlene?”

 

“Can we not do this?” Mary interrupted, tearful. “Please, not today. Lily and James wouldn’t have wanted—”

 

She broke down and I helplessly pressed against her like a pup. Everyone grew quiet, listening to her sobs that disappeared into the cold wind. The light had almost completely vanished from the granite sky and I hugged my pea coat tighter around myself.  It felt like the night in the Shrieking Shack, after the attack in London—the night that had started everything.  Except now our circle was broken.  A piece was missing, and they would never come back.

 

Marlene’s voice came darkly, “We could use this.”

 

We stared at her, thunderstruck.

 

“Marlene,” I half-laughed in disbelief, because we must have misunderstood.

 

“What are you on about?” Sirius growled, jaw working.

 

“Lily and James.”

 

“Jesus Christ.”

 

But she only grew more fervent.  “You said it yourself. Voldemort’s followers aren’t gone.  And Lily and James believed in our cause as much as anyone.”

 

“Stop talking,” Sirius warned. “Right now.”

 

“Sirius, come on,” Remus murmured.  “We’re all just upset—”

 

“Yeah, you could say I’m a little fucking upset, Remus.”

 

Marlene was unrelenting.  “They wouldn’t have wanted their deaths to be in vain!”

 

He rounded on her, “Don’t you dare tell me what James would have wanted! They weren’t martyr pawns for the Order, they were my best friends!”

 

The door to the cottage opened behind us.  I saw the silhouette of Albus Dumbledore in the firelight, silent, watching.  Sirius’s hand was moving to his pocket as though he didn’t even realize.

 

“I lost my friends too, you know!” Marlene shouted.

 

“I’m warning you, Marlene—”

 

Remus realized aloud, “He’s out of his mind on pills again.”

 

But Marlene didn’t stop.  “We have to think about this logically! If you think they’re not going to come after Harry now—”

 

“Leave Harry the fuck OUT OF THIS!” To our horror, Sirius’s wand stabbed the air.  A split-second, when even he seemed surprised, and then:

 

“CRUCIO!”

 

The word tore through the night, silencing the chaos.  But the light at the end of his wand was only a dim strobe that disappeared. His spell carried no weight; there was no true intention to harm. It didn’t matter.  The damage had been done.

 

“Expelliarmus!”

 

My spell ripped the wand from his hand and sent is sailing into the darkness.  Marlene stared at Sirius, wide-eyed. I had had never seen her afraid before—not of the Black Adders, not even during the attack in London.  She said nothing before she disappeared with a loud crack.

 

“I-I didn’t…” Sirius clutched a fistful of his hair in disbelief.  Nobody spoke; nobody moved.  When the silence lasted too long, he took a step backwards before turning and running into the night.

 

“Oh my God,” Mary whimpered into her palm, but I had already gone, sprinting after him.

 

The cottage’s light vanished as I ran and I tripped, but there was no time to conjure light.  My lungs ached with the cold.  At last I spotted him, standing at the cliff’s edge and staring into the violent waters that churned hundreds of feet below.  He took a step closer.

 

“Sirius!” I cried, and he startled.  Did he think no one would come after him?

 

It seemed to take him a moment to recognize me.  Then his voice carried through the wind, raw and wounded.

 

“I don’t understand anything anymore.”

 

And then his feet gave out and he collapsed onto the ground. I ran to him and Sirius clenched fistfuls of my coat, pressing his forehead into my waist, against the hidden scar.

 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he sobbed over and over, his shoulders racking, until I didn’t know if he was apologizing to me or to Marlene or to Lily and James, and I dropped onto my knees and wrapped my arms tightly around him, as if I could swallow him whole.

 



Chapter 24: Chapter Twenty-Three
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Chapter Twenty-Three

 

 


The ladder creaked as I climbed in the early morning light, amid the smells of hay and animal musk.  Three ewes had just given birth, late in the season, and the lambs bleated softly on the floor below.  My weak arms strained with effort; these days, jumpers hung from my bony shoulders and all food tasted like bitter soil.  I scarcely had the energy to leave the boarding house, let alone help on the farm.

I reached the loft, where a rough cutout in the steel served as a window. It looked directly into the rising sun’s eye and I shielded myself from the hard light.  The loft was an odd choice for my refuge, considering its role in my mother’s accident—but it was also the only place on the farm my parents avoided.

With my legs dangling over the ledge I pulled a parchment envelope from my pocket.  It was worn with use and contained Polaroid photographs taken from Lily’s camera, a gift from her Muggle parents.  Pureblooded Sirius had been fascinated with the device, depleting the expensive film, much to her annoyance.  Happier times.

A steadying breath and I opened the envelope.

Remus and Sirius sat on a sofa with their trademark familiarity—knees nudging, shoulders touching, the latter holding a tiny bundle in his Dragonskin-clad arms.  Sirius’s expression was somewhere between incredulity and bewilderment.  On the photo’s reverse was the familiar hodgepodge of cursive and print: Harry did a wee on my leg but Lil says it’s baby for ‘I like you.’

Next was Lily and James in their kitchen. James wore an apron and oven mitts, proudly presenting what was probably a turkey, had it not been burnt to charcoal. Lily laughed with tears in her eyes and a Santa Claus hat perched on her head.  She bounced baby Harry on her hip.

On the reverse: Happy Christmas.

Now that their lives were a media spectacle, I learned that the Potters at first hid from everyone but “trusted individuals.”  The papers didn’t know the Order of the Phoenix by name, but everyone had their suspicions. They wrote that, eventually, Lily and James hid even from their closest friends.  Even from Sirius.

These photos were some of the last remaining evidence of their lives in hiding.  Somehow, they had become my secret.

More bright moments shining in in the muck: Remus and James grinning over pints.  Lily, cross-legged on the floor with a bowl of crisps, laughing at something Sirius said behind the camera.  Harry toddling through the garden, the puffs of dandelions nearly as tall as him. 

Sirius had visited them often; until the very end.  They were probably going mad being in hiding—and what had it all been for, in the end?

I flipped to the next photo; the one I had been searching for. The stone beach must have been warm despite the gray skies.  Sirius wore short sleeves, frozen in the middle of trying to skip rocks in the crashing waves—an impossible feat.  He laughed, almost embarrassed, at the person behind the camera.  How many times had I pretended it was me?

The beach was the same from Lily’s family cottage, I knew it.  But how different the circumstances were between then and now.  The other night on the cliff, with the wind tearing through our coats, Sirius had sobbed until his voice was hoarse.

“Is she okay?  Did I hurt her?”

“You didn’t hurt her.”

“I don’t know what to do.  It feels like there’s a fucking hole in me.”

“It’s okay.  Everything is going to be okay.”

But I didn’t know that.  Not really.

I tucked the photos back inside the envelope and climbed down the ladder, past the sleeping ewes.  A lamb rose to its wobbly legs, tail flicking with interest, and I wrapped it in my coat. Its mother opened a suspicious eye and I scratched behind her ear until she relaxed. The sheep were always docile with me; obeyed more than they did my father.  We never discussed how it was because of magic.

“Come along, then,” I said to the lamb against my chest.  Its innocence was almost absurd.

Clouds were gathering in the sky; the sun had risen and disappeared behind the gray blanket.  It was only a matter of days before the first snow.

Along the dirt path, I spotted them again: dog tracks in the mud.  They were too large for Monty and none of the neighbors had dogs.  They had appeared occasionally, over the months, but none of the hens or sheep had been attacked.  I aligned my boot with the print and pressed against it softly.

“Friend of yours?” I asked the lamb.

Suddenly I noticed a lone figure walking up the dirt drive. I stopped.  My mother’s nurse wasn’t scheduled to visit, and we didn’t receive visitors otherwise.  At last I recognized the robes: an Auror.  Without a second thought I ran the rest of the way, cutting them off before they reached the house.

“Good morning,” the woman said pleasantly, though my sprint had obviously surprised her. She wore her black hair sheared close to her heard.  “Are you Chloe Fairchild?”

“Yes,” I panted.

She spotted the lamb and smiled, revealing a small gap in her front teeth. “Oh, what a little dear.” 

“How can I help you?”

A flash of annoyance in her eyes.  Then she pulled a slate-colored business card from her pocket which, in small gold-leaf letters, bore the name Aura Shacklebolt. Aura the Auror.

“I was wondering if you had a moment to speak with me.”

“Of course,” I said over my pounding heart.  “Let’s go for a walk.  My parents are still asleep.”

Aura nodded but cast a long look at the farmhouse.  We headed back down the drive, my mind whirring over and over, get her away, get her away, get her away.

“Looks like rain again after all,” she remarked.  “Maybe even snow.  I was hoping for a clear afternoon to garden.”

“It does.”  I knew what she was doing; trying to make herself relatable.  She obviously knew that we farmed.

“Right,” she said.  “You aren’t much for small talk, so I’ll get to it, then.  I was hoping you could help me with an investigation I’m working on, about the Potters’ deaths.  I understand that they were friends of yours.”

I nodded, numb.  She said more somberly, “My condolences.  It truly is a tragic loss.”

“Thank you.”

“Could you tell me a bit about them?  Who they were, who their friends were, what they were like?”

I swallowed.  “Well, they were both so kind.  James was…a bit of a troublemaker.  But Lily always reigned him in.  They were quite kind, as people.  And they were friends for years before they got together, but they were both…”

“Kind?” The gap in her teeth flashed again.  “You can relax, Miss Fairchild, this is just a casual chat to lay some groundwork.”

Groundwork for what?

“Sorry, I’m not very good on the spot.”  It wasn’t exactly a lie.

“I understand.  Well, I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about the Potters.  They seemed like they were quite special people indeed.  Could you tell me about Sirius Black, then?”

I stumbled.  “Sirius?  Why?”

A nearly imperceptible glint in her eye.  “Let’s try for another word than ‘kind,’ this time.”

I thought of the photographs burning in my coat pocket; the boy skipping rocks in the ocean even though it was futile.  He’s dangerous and ridiculous and beautiful and made of a thousand moving parts.  How could I possibly describe him to you?

“He’s one of their best friends—was,” I caught myself.  “James especially.  He would have taken a bullet for them.”

“You’ve never seen him behaving violently, have you?”

The question was pointed, and I said defensively, “I’ve seen him act out in the moment, yes.  But he would never have done anything to hurt Lily or James, if that’s what you’re after.”

“Just Marlene McKinnon, then.”  When I didn’t answer, she said, “We already know about his attempted Cruciatus Curse.”

“That’s not—” I started.  “There was no intention to harm her.  The spell didn’t even fully manifest, and he’s a talented Wizard.  He was just upset.”

It sounded incredibly rehearsed.  Aura asked slowly, “And your relationship with Sirius?”

“Acquaintance.”

“Close one?”

Grudgingly, I nodded, and she seemed satisfied.  We had reached the end of the drive.  “Well, I won’t keep you.  Thank you for your time, Miss Fairchild—I’m sure we’ll meet again soon.  And again, my condolences for your loss.”

“Thank you,” I murmured, feeling tricked.

The lamb bleated, surely anxious to stretch its legs.  As I set it on the ground and performed a Tethering Charm, Aura smiled, “Best be careful, little one.  Lots of monsters out there who’d love to eat you up.”

 

“We keep a good watch.”

 

But she said knowingly, “I wasn’t talking to him.”

 

Then she turned and strolled down the empty dirt road, black-cloaked as a crow and framed by empty pastures.  I watched until she disappeared with a crack, just to be sure.

 

 

 

 

The door opened on the third knock, but it was Peter who answered.

 

“Oh,” I said, unable to hide my discomfort.  He hadn’t been living at the flat for several months, as far as I knew.  There was a heavy pause in which he seemed to realize that I hadn’t come to see him and his face darkened.

 

We spoke at the same time.

 

“Is Siri—?”

 

“He’s out.”

 

I stood uncertainly, hugging my coat against the chill.  Maybe even just days ago, he would have invited me inside.  I remembered the way he found us at the cottage, with Sirius’s forehead pressed against my temple.

 

“Listen, Peter, about what you saw…”  He waited, but I couldn’t find the right words and said, uselessly, “I’m sorry.”

 

“You don’t have to apologize,” he murmured to his feet.

 

Another silence passed.  I knew I should just leave and save him the pain, but even that felt like a betrayal, somehow.

 

But then my brow furrowed.  “Are you…going somewhere?”

 

Over his shoulder, the flat looked ransacked.  From what I remembered it was never particularly tidy, but now clothes and books and music records were strewn over the floors as if the shelves had been turned inside out.  Through the hallway the kitchen cabinets were  standing open.

 

My question seemed to throw him.  “Oh, um.  Yes.”

 

But he didn’t offer any more information, so I tried a lighthearted, “Where to?”

 

“Dunno.  I might try backpacking in Greece, or Thailand, or who knows,” he said dismissively.  “I just can’t stay here.  Not after…everything.”

 

It sounded nothing like the Peter that I once knew, but I chose not to point that out.  Grief manifests differently.  Maybe travel would do him good.  Return the color to his cheeks that even now were sallow; allow the memories of Lily and James to stop haunting him.  Maybe he would meet someone.

 

“Well, I’m glad I got to say goodbye, then.”  I was surprised that I meant it.  Peter pressed his mouth into a thin line, because it wasn’t enough, but it was all that was left.  “I want to hear all about it when you get back.”

 

He nodded, but we both knew that it would never happen.  We raised a hand in a silent farewell and I turned away. 

 

“It was always him, wasn’t it?”

 

I stopped, but before I could answer he blurted, “Aren’t you going to ask where he is?”

 

“I think I have an idea,” I said, and what I meant was, Yes, it’s always been him.

 

 

 

 

The sun was out in the graveyard by contrast, just as it had been for the funeral.  I wondered if it was enchanted; a small kindness for mourners.  It was quiet.  By now the reporters had stopped camping outside, trying to siphon information from Lily and James’s loved ones.

 

The iron gate squeaked as I latched it behind me, passing through the rows of marble angels, winged horses and phoenixes.  Amid the ornate sculptures Lily and James’s headstone was unassuming.  In loving memory.  The only thing separating it from the others were dozens of candles and flowers surrounding it, nearly obstructing the etching.  But they were the words we didn’t want to remember anyway: October 31, 1981.

 

Sirius didn’t move when I came to stand beside him.  A new Polaroid photo rested against the flowers: him, James and Lily in the Gryffindor common room.  They couldn’t have been more than sixteen, all grins.  Kids.

 

I kneeled to place the bouquet of white peonies amid the others.  Sirius sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve, but I waited for him to speak first.

 

“James said once that he wanted to be buried with a fifth of Firewhiskey and two cartons of cigarettes.  So that he’d look cool showing up to the afterlife.”

 

“He always looked cool.  Except when he wore the derby cap.”

 

He grinned, still gazing at the photograph.  A moment passed before I said, more gravely, “An Auror just came to my parents’ house.  She was asking about you.”

 

“Yeah, that sounds about right.  Shacklebolt, ominously jovial?”

 

“She came to you already?”

 

He took a deep breath and said, with difficulty, “They’re refusing to grant me guardianship of Harry.  He’s with Petunia and her husband.”

 

“No,” I gasped.  “For how long?”

 

He still wouldn’t look at me.  “Indefinitely.”

 

James and Lily’s son meant more to him than anything on the earth.  “They can’t do that, you’re his godfather.

 

“Dumbledore is concerned about Harry’s safety, after what happened.”

 

Heat flashed in my chest.  Albus Dumbledore, the shadowy figure who somehow had stepped on Lily and James’s wishes.  “That’s ridiculous, you were willing to lay down your life for the Order.  He knows that.”

 

“That’s the funny thing about an Unforgiveable Curse,” he said, darkly.  “They don’t tend to forgive you so easily.”

 

“But you didn’t mean it,” I countered.  “Surely that matters for something.”

 

“I could have hurt Marlene.”  He finally looked at me.  “Really hurt her.  I was out of my mind.  I might as well have pointed a gun at her and hoped it wasn’t loaded.”

 

“That’s not really a fair analogy,” my voice rose.  But I had never seen this side of him, a defeated shell of himself.  “And you didn’t.”

 

“Come on, Chloe…”

 

“I mean it.”

 

“I could never see Harry again!” he shouted.  “Don’t you get it?”

 

Sirius had never raised his voice to me, nor I to him.  The silence that followed felt thunderous.  With a shaking hand he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and murmured, “Could you light me?”

 

“Where’s your wand?” I asked, but obliged.

 

He took a long drag.  “It’s gone.  Dunno if the Aurors somehow got ahold of it, but it’s been missing since the funeral.”

 

I remembered my Expelliarmus spell that ripped it from his hand, before we went running into the darkness.  Had Dumbledore found it?

 

“They can’t just seize your wand and not tell you.  That’s illegal.”

 

“Yeah, well, the world’s gone to shit.  They don’t seem to care about what is and isn’t legal.”

 

Like denying deceased parents’ wishes for legal guardianship.

 

Sirius returned the cigarette pack to his pocket and something fell onto the grass between us.  I glimpsed it just before he snatched it back up: a brown glass vial full of small white capsules. 

 

I took a steadying breath, but he cut me off.

 

“Chloe,” his voice was grave but gentle.  “Please.  I’m just trying to get by.”

 

I stared at him, heartbroken, as he dragged sullenly on the cigarette.  He looked so tired.  But I knew the longer I stood here, the worse things would become.

 

“I’d better go, then,” I said at last.  “My Mum.”

 

“Right.”  It was as if he wanted to ask about her health, but there just wasn’t room for any more bleakness.  He was already carrying everything he could.

 

“If you ever…”  My eyes brimmed with tears and I blinked them away.  “I know you can’t see it right now, but you don’t have to do this alone.  You can’t.  And I really, really need you.”

 

He only watched me, helpless, and I wondered how many hours he would stand sentry at their grave.  When neither of us could say anything else I nodded and walked away.  The gate latched behind me, sealing him inside.

 

 

 

 

A week later I awoke to the first snowfall of the year.  The sun had just risen, but I sensed its presence with a change in the light.  Outside my window the grounds of the farmhouse and the surrounding hills were blanketed.  A storm must have come during the night.

 

Groggily, I pushed the quilt back despite the chill.  We hadn’t prepared and the garden beds were left uncovered.  If I could get to them before my parents woke up, I could charm the frozen plants back to life.  They’d never have to know. 

 

Minutes later, I headed outside in my boots and work coat, treading through snow that, in places, rose to my shins.  Surely the buses wouldn’t be running, which meant I’d have to stay until the roads were cleared or find a way to Apparate without them noticing.

 

Remus had found my tinctures at Lily and James’s home in Godric’s Hollow.  After months, Aurors had given him the clear, and today he would be clearing everything out.  Without truly understanding the toll, I volunteered to help pack away their books and records and clothes.  Erase them.

 

I released the breath I’d been holding.  It hovered like a ghost before disappearing.

 

The raised beds were blanketed, but the crops were salvageable.  They were winter hardy: onions, spinach, garlic and brussels sprouts.  With my wand I gently melted the snow from every leaf until they steamed in the cold morning air.  By the time I finished the garden was glistening with dew. 

 

I dug my hand into the earth oil to feel the richness and warmth that hid there—and suddenly I was back in the Hogwarts greenhouse, on that sweltering day, with my soil-covered hands clenching Sirius’s tee-shirt.

 

Look at me, Chloe.

 

Quickly I covered the plants; I tried not to think of how the white cloth felt like pulling the sheet over a body.

 

Inside, I kicked the snow off my boots and rested them in the mudroom beside my parents’.  As I shrugged off my coat, I caught the sight of my protruding collarbone in the mirror and looked away.

 

A pause, listening, but my parents were still asleep.  With silent gratitude I moved into the kitchen, where the air was sharp with cold.  The window above the sink had been left open.  Mum, in another bout of insomnia.  My jaw tightened, thinking of her wandering the house like a ghost as I slept.

 

As the cast iron skillet heated, I pressed my fingers into the snow that had collected on the window ledge.  It felt off, somehow.  The storm had brought with it a feeling of silence and stillness; of smothering.

 

When I cracked an egg, the white bubbled and seared like flesh, the orange yolk an unblinking eye.  A feeling like falling.  The pan dropped into the sink with a thunderous CLANG.  I stared at my shaking hands.

 

When my mother woke, she came to stand beside me in the kitchen.  An owl had come in the night.  The uneasiness rose to my chest like the snow, until I was walking under its icy weight.  They knew not to send owls to the farmhouse.

 

The doorway into the den was a gaping black mouth.  A stack of unopened post on the table; an unmarked envelope like a dried leaf that trembled in my hands.  Impossibly light for what it contained, words that felt like lead.

 

Marlene is dead.

Come here as soon as you read this.

 

 



Chapter 25: Chapter Twenty-Four
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Trigger warning: violence, death.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

 

 

 

A wet snow fell on the crowd as we awaited entry to the church.  Over two hundred mourners had come to the McKinnon funeral on a gloomy Dublin morning.  Because the whole family was wiped out, I tried to fight the morbid thought.  Five more people to mourn.  The church was monstrous, looming above with spires that pierced the heavy snow clouds.  Around me, the unfamiliar sounds of the city: cars driving over slush-covered streets, the flapping of pigeons’ wings.

 

Despite the crowd, I waited entry to the church alone.  The feeling was still there, like a block of ice had lodged itself in my throat, as I searched for a familiar face.  They appeared to be mostly Muggles; I would have recognized younger magical crowd, and older witches and wizards tended to stand out even when in disguise, like the kind of velvet-clad people who used wooden walking sticks and ran an odd apothecary or pagan bookshop. 

 

Maybe Remus and Mary were already inside.  Peter was probably still out of the country—had my owl even reached him?  To hear such terrible news in the papers first…

 

The past week had been a long, tedious drudge where day was indistinguishable from night.  I scarcely moved from under my grandmother’s quilt, let alone the boarding house.  The crying hadn’t stopped, whether in fat, hot tears or a mist that blurred the entire world into nothing. 

 

Just as well.  I didn’t want to see it.

 

Above all else was the snow.  I had been right, that morning at the farmhouse: the storm was an omen.  It smothered Marlene’s light, sudden and violent, and hadn’t stopped coming down since.

 

I took a slow, steadying breath.  I felt like a poorly made doll, loose at the seams.  One tug and all the white nothingness would spill out.

 

A shift in the crowd revealed a head of shoulder-length dark hair.  Somewhere, within the frozen lake that I harbored inside, a stirring.  But he must have felt my stare and turned to look back—and it wasn’t Sirius.  But I should have known better.

 

I can’t go, he’d written just the day before.  They all think I did it.  I’m sorry.

 

I couldn’t even tell him that he was wrong.  The Aurors were constantly watching him, standing outside his flat or trailing behind his listless wandering through the freezing London streets.  They never approached him; they just wanted him to know he was being watched.  When his letter arrived yesterday, it was with a broken seal. 

 

But it wasn’t just their suspicion that kept him at bay—it was Remus’s.  What was once a dim suspicion, suppressed to keep things from totally falling apart, had mutated into a terrible being whose sharp teeth severed a decade-long friendship.

 

James was dead.  Peter had left the country.  Without Remus, Sirius had no one.  I imagined him in his flat with the lights turned off, a bottle of Firewhiskey and the vial of pills his only companions.

 

At last I passed into the church where the air was a fraction warmer.  Immediately inside was a large photograph resting on an easel.  Marlene and her family—three older brothers, Mum and Dad—were on holiday in the Canary Islands the summer after Seventh Year.  They were all smiles, Marlene herself booming with laughter.  But the wild force inside her had been flattened into two-dimensionality.  The photograph’s matte surface reflected the electric light from the ceiling, distorting it.  I could have scratched her away with a fingernail.

 

My eyes squeezed shut and I saw everything; every moment passing in a flurry of light.  Marlene’s arm linking through mine, unapologetic and unashamed.  Her head dropping back when she laughed and how it felt to be the cause of that joy.  Her kindness and certainty; her chaos and her anger.  The fierce, unwavering loyalty.

 

Your battles are my battles, she’d said.  And I hadn’t the courage to make hers my own.

 

“Out, you!” 

 

An altar boy rushed past in billowing white cloth.  He was too young to understand the gravity of why we were all here and bore a hint of excitement on his face.  I turned to spot a large, black dog—wolfhound, maybe—in the doorway, peering inside with its head hung low.  A stray?  Strangely, it appeared to be staring at the photograph. 

 

As the boy neared, the hound turned and ambled down the stairs, into the snow.    

 

 

 

 

The snow was still falling when the service ended that afternoon, from skies tinged with city smog.  I stood in the small graveyard behind the church, wishing for the first time in my life that I had a cigarette.  Lost and bewildered, it seemed the only thing to do, gleaned from films.  Around me, hundreds-year-old crumbling tombstones peeked from the snow like strange flowers.  It was freezing cold, but I couldn’t bear to be inside, where mourners were wishing safe travels, sharing sad embraces.

 

From the last row of pews, I had listened to the priest’s words, knowing exactly how Marlene would have felt about his talk of God’s will and trusting in his divine plan.  She would have been rolling her eyes and scoffing. I could see it so clearly that I had almost smiled—but Marlene was dead.  Her body was pumped full of chemicals in one of the five caskets at the front of the room.

 

As soon as the service ended, I stood quickly to my feet, stopping short when I noticed Aura Shacklebolt leaning against the wall with her hands in her pockets.  She had been right behind me the whole time.  Wordlessly, I pressed past her, ignoring her solemn nod. 

 

That had been thirty minutes ago, and I still couldn’t bring myself to leave.  It felt like a betrayal to Marlene, even though her body was being loaded into the back of a hearse.  Only immediate family would be allowed at the gravesite.  The thought of her being carried away—that she was just gone—sent a tremor through my spine.

 

Footsteps crunching in the snow and I said, in quiet shock, “Remus.”

 

“Hey, Chloe.”  His mouth was pressed into a half-hearted smile and he carried two mugs of coffee.  It had the same charred smell as the coffee at my parents’ tiny church.  “Was wondering where you were.”

 

“I couldn’t stay in there,” I admitted.  “It’s…too much.”

 

“Yeah, I hear you.”

 

There wasn’t much else to say, so he passed me a mug.  I was wary of caffeine this late in the afternoon—it could lead to another sleepless night, trapped in tormenting thoughts of Marlene—but it was a thoughtful gesture.

 

“Thank you,” I said, pressing my hands around the cup for warmth.  “Did you ever go to clear out Lily and James’s?”

 

He shook his head.  “I heard about Marlene and things changed.”

 

I remembered that day; after receiving Sirius’s note: Come here as soon as you read this.  Apparating to the Order safehouse and hearing the terrible news.  Her entire family, murdered.  A fire in the hearth but the room so cold.  I thought the war was over.  The grudging looks at my presence, especially from Alastor Moody.  Sirius’s shoulder nearly touching mine, a small defense.  She has a right to be here.  Marlene was her friend too.  But did they even want him there?

 

An uneasy silence passed, and I took a sip. He must have enchanted it to stay hot and the liquid burned as it traveled down my throat.

 

“I mean it,” I said, “I want to help you with that…”

 

But something was happening.  My fingers and toes were going numb, and not from the cold.  I flexed my hand, confused, but then it was my entire body.  Suddenly it felt like I was sinking backwards, watching Remus grow farther and farther away where he stood on the precipice.  My mug dropped into the snow, disappearing.

 

Remus caught me by grabbing my biceps, his face full of anguish.  “I’m sorry, Chloe,” he murmured.

 

But the words wouldn’t come.  For one wild moment, I thought he had poisoned me.  Then through the haze I registered his steadying breath and he whispered, as if it pained him greatly, “Did Sirius kill Marlene?”

 

I blinked heavily in confusion, but instead of the burning questions, my lips said, “I don’t know.”

 

“Has he told you about any plans to kidnap Harry?”

 

“No.”  My voice was low and faraway.

 

“Does he have any affiliation with Death Eaters?”

 

“His family.”

 

“And does he still speak to them?”

 

“No.  They’ve disowned him.”

 

Remus stopped, staring at something at the graveyard’s entrance.  The black dog was back.  But then it wasn’t a dog, it was changing, moving—I stumbled in fear as the creature reared onto its hind legs, the morphing grotesquely, and then suddenly it wasn’t a dog anymore.

 

Sirius’s gray eyes sparked like flint.  “What the hell is this?”

 

I heard myself say, “I think I’ve been slipped Veritaserum.”

 

“Jesus Christ, Remus.  What the hell is wrong with you?  After today?”

 

“It’s killing me,” his voice wavered between shame and defiance.  “I have to find out who did this.”

 

“And you think it was me,” Sirius said, quietly.

 

They shared a long look, two men who once fought the same battle, and everything inside me broke.  At last Sirius looped my arm over his shoulders.  “Come on.  We shouldn’t be here.”

 

Remus stared after us, his shoulders slumped, as Sirius guided me through the snow.  He was much taller than me and I teetered drunkenly as we passed the church’s entrance, where a few guests remained in the lighted doorway.  An elderly woman was clutching the priest’s hands tightly and murmuring something through tears.

 

“Sirius.”  The Veritaserum laced my words.  He met my gaze and I said, “I’m so sad.”

 

Through the haze of stars, I saw him swallow thickly.  “Me too.”

 

 

 

 

In the eerie, blood-red candlelight our gazes met and skittered away.  There were no words.  The music that crackled from a cobwebbed gramophone was exactly what I would have expected for a bar like this.  A sad, grainy voice singing to lonely people, heads bent heavily over their pints.  The ice settled in Sirius’s whiskey.

 

After he Apparated us to Diagon Alley, with the inertia of the Veritaserum still in my body, I was sick on the cobblestones.  But it removed the potion from my system, and I was able to walk again as Sirius directed us into the bar, a quiet hole in the wall, and solemnly ordered two Firewhiskeys.

 

“They think I did it, then,” he said.

 

It was the first either of us had spoken and he waited until I nodded.  Remus had been pained to ask, but he still had.  It was so awful.


“And do you?”

 

My brow furrowed, “Sirius, of course not.”

 

“Couldn’t blame you if you did.”

 

“Hey.”  I grabbed his forearm and he stared at my hand.  “I don’t.  Please believe me.”

 

At last he nodded, and I removed my hand.  I was so tired.  Though the effects of the potion had subsided, my brain was in a fog.  We hadn’t even acknowledged, yet, that Sirius was an Animagus.  Had he always been?  My eyes shut for only a moment too long and somehow, impossibly, I thought that when I opened them again Marlene would be sitting with us.

 

I missed her, so much.  And I hated myself for the jealousy I had harbored for years over her and Sirius; for the way things had gone before she died.  If it would bring her back, I would disappear everything that I ever carried in my heart for him, a thousand times over.

 

Or, at least, I could try.

 

But when my eyes opened, she wasn’t there, and her absence brought a stinging to my throat.

 

I lifted my glass, barely, as if it weighed a thousand stone.  “To Marlene,” I murmured.  “And Lily, and James, and Frank and Alice—everyone.”

 

Sirius released a breath as if his lungs had been closed around it, like a fist.

 

“To everyone.”  Our glasses flickered as they clinked.  I took another sip, but he had nothing left.

 

Even now, months after they had died, I sometimes found myself idly wondering about Lily and James.  Then the terrible weight of it all pressed down like a stone.  I hadn’t really known them—not in the way that Sirius had, and it still felt like my chest were made of lead.  There was no telling when I would come to accept that Marlene was gone.  Probably not for ages.  Not really.  Whatever she had become, in the end, she had still been our Marlene. 

 

And now she wasn’t anything.

 

Sirius waved his finger at the House Elf behind the bar.  I blinked hard, wiping my nose on my sleeve.  A bottle of cheap Firewhiskey levitated over, pouring amber liquid into his glass.  Afterwards Sirius snatched the bottle. 

 

Under the House Elf’s sour gaze, he muttered, “Paying for it, aren’t I?”

 

He topped off my drink even though I’d barely had any, and the music stopped.  I watched, lacking the energy to even move my eyes, as the record floated back to its spot on the dusty shelf and another took its place. 

 

Tom Waits.  I clicked my tongue in disbelief, blinking harder at the threat of new tears.  Marlene had introduced me to this album—his first—one lazy afternoon, lying in her bed with our feet propped up on the sun-spotted wall.  It was just after we had graduated Hogwarts, when things were still easy. 

 

“Did you still love her?” I asked.

 

Sirius paused only a moment too long, the glass perched on his lips.  “I don’t know.”  His voice was abraded with the Firewhiskey or something else. 

 

“I think that anyone who ever met her loved her, in some way.  She was…”  I shook my head, searching for the right words.

 

Tumultuous.  Wild.  Beautiful.  Ablaze.

 

“Marlene,” we finished at the same time.

 

Our eyes locked and I knew that we were both remembering it.  She’s Marlene.  We had said the same words then, too.  Years ago.  The stifling air of the greenhouse, Sirius’s hand sliding up my thigh, his breath fogging my lips.

 

Look at me, Chloe.

 

My body ached from restraint as I forced my hand not to touch his wrist, his shoulder, his hair.  The space between us was electric.  Tangible.

 

Not now.  Not while we were grieving; not while the name of the woman he had once loved was still warm on his lips.  But the words were brimming inside of me like water overflowing from a glass.  If his time wasting away meant something, then so did mine—all four years of it.

 

Sirius hadn't looked away; he was waiting.  My lips parted to say the words I shouldn't.

 

And then the door behind him was creaking open, and my voice died in shock or sickness or panic—

 

I wish I hadn’t recognized him.  That his slim figure had somehow left the corners of my mind, rather than clinging like a wind-tattered cloth.  But he had never stopped haunting me, Michael Flint.  And now he was stepping through the doorway, cloaked in black so that his face stood out like a stone.

 

“Chloe, what—?” Sirius turned but my hand shot out, clutching him fiercely.

 

Don’t look.” 

 

Michael reappeared over Sirius’s opposite shoulder with two others, settling into a table in the dim corner.  He didn’t seem to have noticed.  As they murmured with the House Elf, I whispered, “We need to leave.”

 

“What, are we in danger?”  But he didn’t sound the way I would have, trembling and afraid.

 

What was Michael doing there?  The last I had heard he was living on his family estate in Wales.  In fact, the more I tried to rationalize, the less sense it made… which meant he wasn’t there by chance. 

 

Sirius didn’t know my entire history with Michael; what happened in the baths.  But he would remember that fearful night, riding on his motorbike to the farmhouse.

 

“The Death Eaters—the ones who threatened me,” I said.  “They’re here.”

 

He bristled and I said, before he could respond, “Please, I know you want to fight, but I’ve seen what he can do, and I can’t bear to have another—”

 

I broke off, thinking of Marlene.

 

And maybe if it hadn’t been for her, Sirius would have stayed and fought, just the way that Lily and James and Remus—and of course Marlene—would have.  But tonight, he nodded and agreed to run, like me.  The coward.

 

“We can’t Apparate.”  He nodded to the tattered sign behind the bar.  They had adopted the safety precaution many establishments had, during the war, to prevent surprise attacks. 

 

Slowly I rose from my seat, knees trembling.  “We’ll have to be quick.”

 

Sirius must have paid for my drink; I surely didn’t.  In my dazed state, I barely registered his hand pulling me close, hiding me from view.  “Where are they?”

 

“Left.  Back table.”

 

I knew it was killing him not to look.  Though I had barely touched my glass it felt like I was drunk; the floor kept coming to meet each footstep in ways I wasn’t prepared for.  My hand closed around the wand in my pocket.  But these days, surely, I wouldn't be any good.

 

We reached the door.  Just as I touched the cool handle a voice called, “Weren’t you going to say hello?”

 

A frightened glance confirmed what I dreaded: Michael and the two others were standing.  Their wands were drawn.

 

“Chloe, isn’t it?”

 

I glanced fearfully around the room.  The only other customer had long since passed out over her table, hand extended towards a half-empty glass.  I prayed that she would wake and somehow save herself.  The House Elf was nowhere to be seen.

 

“You’re actually shaking,” Michael laughed.  “Still the frightened creature you once were.”

 

Sirius’s put on an air of amusement—his armor.  “Bit dramatic, don’t you think?”  His hand inched towards his pocket, where there must have been a replacement wand.  But could he wield it enough to fight?

 

Michael’s eyes never left me.  “Your friend, now, she was the brave one.  Remind me, what was her name?”

 

The blood was pounding in my ears so hard that I almost didn’t hear it.  But I could have read his lips in the stillness.

 

“Marlene?”

 

Several things happened at once.  Both of my hands shot out; one for the sleeve of Sirius’s jacket, the other for the door.  But Michael gave a wordless flick of his wand and when I touched the handle it was so hot that I heard the flesh sear.

 

My cry of pain cut through Sirius’s, “Stupefy!”

 

The two wizards surrounding Michael swished their wands and it absorbed into their Shield Charm like rain into sand.  I clutched my wrist, watching helplessly as Sirius tried again, and again, in a fury I had never seen before.

 

“Stupefy!  Reducto!”

 

They had killed Marlene.  Whether these men had delivered the final blow themselves, or only served the same master, they had killed her. 

 

Sirius took in a gasp for air.  In that split-second, Michael slashed his wand so quickly that I nearly missed it.  Sirius’s own wand went clattering somewhere in the dimness. 

 

“What do you want?” I cried.

 

“Three guesses.”  A second wizard spoke, closing the space between us.  He was broad and tall like a mountain; he could have snapped me in two.  Each of his footsteps sent a tremble through my bones.

 

The third man was much older, stringy white hair clinging to a large forehead.  “Don’t play with your food, Fenrir.”

 

At the sound of the name a low growl, almost inhuman, came from Sirius's throat.

 

Fenrir ignored him.  “Go on then, let’s have a game: Why are we here?  You get three guesses, except even if you do win, we kill you.”

 

He flicked his wrist and an electric jolt went through me; Sirius cried out in pain.  But then it was over and we were sucking in breath, struggling to stay on our feet.

 

“One,” he counted. 

 

Another step towards us, another thud in my chest.  In a fit of nerves, I groped for my wand pocket, but my movements were clumsy and obvious.  Fenrir boomed with laughter, impressed by my stupidity, and suddenly I was ripped from the ground.

 

“Two, then!”

 

With a terrible lurch I was sucked into the air, twisting higher and higher until I dangled upside down with my bound feet brushing the ceiling.  If he dropped me, I would break my skull.

 

“PUT HER THE FUCK DOWN!” Sirius bellowed, pacing like a caged animal.

 

“Down, you said?”

 

I plummeted, shrieking, before the spell caught me again and I was jerked to a halt.  More sadistic laughter.  My wrists, pinned behind my back, threatened to pull my shoulders from their sockets.  I searched desperately for anything that could help.  But even the unconscious woman had disappeared.

 

There was no one.  We were going to die here.

 

And then with a great whooshing noise, everything around us was suddenly ablaze.  The fire’s hot embers spit at my face.  With my eyes slit against the smoke, I realized in horror that the ring of fire was tightening around Sirius like a boa constrictor. 

 

I could barely hear my own voice.  “Please don’t hurt him!”

 

“Fine,” called Michael, almost bored.  “He can watch you die first.”

 

Fenrir could barely contain himself.  “Sorry love, that’s three!”

 

“NO!” shouted Sirius.

 

And then the magical tether snapped, and I plummeted, shrieking, to the floor below—

 

But then it was as if I had broken through the surface of a swimming pool and sank gently through water.  I landed easily on my feet and the binds disappeared.  The House Elf was crawling out from the cabinet where he had been hiding, arms raised overhead, casting magic.  He had chosen to help us. 

 

He was unseen by the Death Eaters, who thought the spell was from Sirius.  Curses flung at us once more, but with the wave of the Elf’s skinny arm we were engulfed in a globe of light.  Their attacks bounced back, ricocheting into the wall of liquor bottles.  Glass shattered and rained down.

 

Despite the pain in my hand, I grabbed the wand that had miraculously not fallen from my pocket.  

 

“Accio!”  From somewhere in the darkness, Sirius’s wand sped into my awaiting hand.

 

I tossed it to him, and his nonverbal spell paralyzed the old man.  He hit the floor like a plank.  Quickly I set to extinguishing the flames, but no spells I could think of would vanish them.  They coiled closer around us.  By then, Michael and Fenrir had caught on and turned their wands onto the House Elf.

 

“Avada Kedavera!” I distinctly heard Michael yell.  The Elf was struggling under the weight of their curses. 

 

“Sirius, help him!” I cried, unable to turn my energy from the flames.

 

With the swipe of the Elf’s hand, an enormous iron chandelier came crashing down over Michael.  Fenrir remained unscathed but was overwhelmed by the barrage of Sirius’s spells.  The House Elf continued the avalanche, burying Michael in beams and plaster and brick from his own ceiling.  But then, a curse broke through the Shield Charm and knocked Sirius off his feet.  The Elf was weakening. 

 

“I’m fine!” Sirius grunted, holding his arm.

 

Fenrir took this distraction to turn on the House Elf once more.  Kill him first, then kill us.  My blood ran cold.

 

“Stupefy!”  Light only sputtered from my wand.  “Fuck!”

 

All the while the blaze grew tighter around us, so unbearably hot.  Clutching his arm in pain, Sirius helped to bring the ceiling down over Michael and the older Death Eater, who had begun trying to levitate the debris off themselves.  A flame licked at Sirius’s leg and he cursed, but we were already pressed shoulder to shoulder.  We were running out of room.

 

A strange, faraway part of me suddenly realized—fully realized—that this was a real battle.  I was watching people kill each other.  People who had ended Marlene’s life, and probably countless others.  People who wanted Sirius and me dead.

 

And for what?

 

“CHLOE, COME ON!” Sirius bellowed.

 

I was ripped from my stupor just as Fenrir’s hex slammed the Elf into the wall.  I heard the sickening crack.  The Elf fell to the floor and didn’t move again; our protective charm flickered out.  Sirius faltered and I knew that he had seen too.

 

I jammed my wand into the air like twisting a knife.  “REDUCTO!”

 

The blue light that erupted was unlike any spell I had ever cast.  It collided with Fenrir, a tidal wave of magic that hurled him through the air, crashing through tables and chairs before disappearing behind the mountain of debris.  The flames sputtered and disappeared, leaving a charred ring on the floor. 

 

There was little time.

 

The Elf was still lying in a heap.  I moved toward him, but they had taken down too much of the ceiling: the building was starting to come down.  A beam the size of a tree trunk crashed into my path. 

 

“Levicorpus!”  But the falling rubble disrupted the flow of magic and the Elf remained, unmoving, all the way across the room.

 

“Chloe, we have to get out!”

 

“No, we can’t just leave him!”

 

But even as I spoke, the two buried Death Eaters were catapulting the debris across the room.  A section of brick and mortar sped past me and punched a hole in the wall. 

 

Then, to my horror, Michael staggered from the heap like a marionette.  His left arm was dangling in a sickening way that looked beyond broken.  The first curse missed us, but he wouldn’t be disoriented for long.  Michael placed himself between us and the House Elf.

 

“Levicorpus!” I tried again, to no avail.

 

“Levicorpus!  Accio!” Sirius was shouting, between shielding us from the artillery of debris.  A second curse sped past, close enough that I felt its heat on my cheek.  All around us the building was crashing down.

 

And then I felt Sirius grab my shoulder and knew he was trying to escape.  I writhed violently as he pulled me towards the door.  My eyes were locked on the unmoving House Elf who had saved us: two complete strangers, to whom he owed nothing.

 

Sirius slashed his wand and the door blew open as if by dynamite.  We sprinted onto the streets where a crowd of spectators had gathered, their terrified shouts echoing off the cobblestones.  We had barely cleared the threshold when the building released a bellowing CREEAAK, like hundreds of trees in a windstorm.  We staggered back as the roof finally caved in, and dust and smoke billowed onto the streets.  It whipped my hair from my face and stung my eyes. 

 

The Elf was still inside.

 

We stared helplessly into the chaos until at last Sirius and Apparated us away.

 

When we emerged from the vacuum the silence was ringing.  Through my tear-blurred vision, the sea of colorful lights materialized.  They were hundreds of Christmas bulbs, strung along the shops and lampposts, so terribly discordant.  We were still in London, somewhere, in an empty Muggle district.  A fresh snow was falling.  We were alone.

 

I leaned heavily against the rough brick while Sirius stood askance, rubbing his face with sooty palms.  They were shaking.  Ghostly voices of a televised choir drifted from a window somewhere, singing eerily, In the Bleak Midwinter.

 

Sirius turned his eyes to me; his head shook gravely.  I held my breath.

 

“Chloe.”

 

He said my name and my knees gave.  Before I could fall, he closed the space between us, pulling me into him and clutching my ash-covered jumper.

 

He said into my hair, “I thought you were gone…  Jesus Christ, I thought I’d lost you too.”

 

Then he was gripping my face and, even though my cheeks were soot-black and slick with tears, Sirius kissed me fiercely.  The sobs died in my throat.  He kissed me again and again, as if it were the only thing that made sense; as if he were angry at the world that had left us there.  When he broke away it was to wrap his arms heavily around my shoulders.  Our bodies pressed together, his chest rising as mine fell, helping each other to breathe.



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