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“You are an incorrigible ass!“ You threw aside his bedroom door – a murderous glint in your eyes – goose bumps rising on the fair skin of your torso and legs – sheathed to the thigh in thin silk. “Nana Pettry…”

Soren smirked.

“I…” Pigment pooled in your cheeks as you stammered but Soren’s grandmother only smiled more widely.

”It is so good to have you back in the manor. Come along, dear. We’ll find you something suitable.”

Soren’s family been nothing if not welcoming for all of they years you had known them. Now, in presently unclothed condition, that familiar sense of belonging washed over you – making it all the more difficult to smile sweetly and press words from your lips.

“It’s lovely to see you as well, Nana and I thank you for the warm welcome, circumstances and all. However, I need to speak with your darling…” your tone dropped. “…grandson alone for a moment.”

“Oh! Do go on then! I shant interrupt you. I suspect you two have a bit more ‘catching up’ to do.” Her aging face seemed to sparkle. “In any case, the house elves need checking in on.” Soren helped her gingerly to her feet and escorted her to the kitchens.

With a soft click, the heavy wooden door closed, sealing you in this room, once more, alone with Soren.

He was walking toward you across this very same room. His face and form looked the same – only his eyes betrayed that this was a memory. They were young, smiling, and the deepest blue.

Like pinpricks of electricity against the blackness of the evening, they drew and held your attention as he crossed to you, pressing your back hard to the cold stone wall – your legs wrapped tightly around his waist as he meticulously drew the familiar lace robes from your shoulders. You were 20 – 21 on Tuesday – and only two days away from completing the last of your Auror Training exams.

In keeping with the tradition, your mother threw a gala of celebration for your pending graduation and, in keeping with tradition, Soren stole you away to this very room and proceeded to test the very limits of your flexibility and will power.

You shivered, wondering why these memories always seemed to surface at the most inopportune moments.

”I thought you wanted to talk, Lexi.” Soren raised his eyebrows as you jumped out of your skin. “Not that I wouldn’t love desperately to recall that night in the more literal sense. I imagine you’d like to continue your interrupted tirade.” Like a slap in the face, he grazed a finger across your shoulder and to your elbow. It took everything you had to fight shivering visibly as he crossed the room, lounging on the leather couch. “Now, would you like to get dressed first, or would that interrupt your train of thought?”

Back home and in the bar, you rewove the tale to Paige for what must have been the thousandth time.

“So have you seen him since?” She asked eagerly.

”Paige – for the seven hundredth time – Soren hasn’t been around. Nothing has changed since the last time you asked me that – last night.” It cost you something to admit that he had left you alone and it cost you even more to admit that it bothered you. Can’t handle the truth, can you, Alexis?

“Well, I just figured. Jesus mentioned that you’ve been coming home alone a lot lately – I just assumed you were waiting for him.” She was baiting you and you knew it – expecting an angry and offended response – but nothing in you could summon an argument. You had been expecting him. Mercifully, she saved her ‘i-told-you-so’ looks for another time and pressed on in her questioning. “So, you never told me how you got there.”

“And wouldn’t I love to explain it.” You replied, latching on to the topic of conversation that didn’t directly involve your feelings for Soren. “If I knew how myself.” Paige looked quizzically at you. “Soren claimed it had something to do with my Grandfather’s watch. He started to explain it to me but Nana Pettry came back upstairs to call for breakfast.”

Paige smirked again. Doubtlessly, she was silently noting the fact that you still called Soren’s Grandmother ‘Nana.’ “And you just left?”

“What was I supposed to do? Stay for breakfast?” She raised her eyebrows at you again. You groaned in return and got to your feet, seizing a drink tray. “I’m going to go do another round. Want me to catch your tables?”

“Alexis!” A voice boomed from the kitchens.

“How about I get your tables.” Paige said smiling.

John had been your boss since you moved away from home. For the first few months, you worked, secretly, helping Paige clean up after closing. She gave you half of her tips and a place to stay until John caught you sneaking in the backdoor one night and gave you a job. (That’s not exactly how it happened, is it, Alexis? But you’d probably prefer to forget the two phone calls to Scotland Yard and 45 minutes of persuasion.)

Taking a deep breath, you pressed open the door and assumed the sweetest tone you could muster. “Yeah, John?”

“Have a seat, Alexis.” The way he was using your name made you slightly nervous, more so when you coupled it with his foreboding tone.

“Wh….” You’d started to speak but he cut you off, pacing around his desk, file folder in hand.

“Alexis, did you know the dish boy quit?”

“Yea…” He cut you off again.

“And do you know why he quit?” This time, you didn’t even try. It didn’t seem to faze him as he pressed on in his prefab speech. “He quit, Alexis, because you made him cry.” Secretly, you chuckled. “This is the 15th dish boy this month. I am rapidly running out of expendable workforce here.”

“Aww, come on now! Jimmy would be more than happy to take the job!”

Wrong thing to say. John ran his hands along his neck, tipping back his head, his eyes held tight.

“I’ve tried. I’ve given you the benefit of the doubt. I can afford this anymore. You have to go. Get your stuff and go home.”

Rolling your eyes, you left his office and retrieved your purse from under the bar.

The patrons watched you – the regulars were smiling. Paige stopped, frothy mug midway to the table and rolled her eyes. “Again?!”

You nodded, smiling and left the bar.

“No. No, I’ll have it to you be the end of the week…” Your cell phone was pressed against your ear, collar drawn up against the wind. “Thanks for your patience.”

It had been three weeks since John fired you and, for the first time, you were starting to get worried. He fired you, it seemed, at least once every three or four months – sometimes more often for good measure. Last time, it had been over one of the first shift cooks. You had a tendency, maybe, to get…irritated with some of the newer staff members but your charms always won him over in the end.

Hanging up with your rental office, you took a deep breath and started down the wrought iron stairwell. It was time to swallow your pride and make your appearance. If he wouldn’t call you - you’d have to call on him.

“Hi, can I take your coat?” A bubbly, no more than 19-year old girl bounced to meet you at the doorway, tray tucked under her arm.

“I…No, thanks.” You said, possessively. “Is the owner in?” You asked, pushing past her toward the bar.

“Mr. Frank went out for a few moments for a vendor meeting. He should be back within the next 20 minutes. Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll get you something to drink while you wait.” She said sweetly, eliciting only a glare in return from you.

“Yeah. Sure.” You glanced around the bar. The regulars were all there, occupying their usual seats but they all seemed to be deliberately avoiding your gaze. “Cranberry juice – no ice.” She smiled warmly and floated back to the bar, returning moments later with your juice.

You watched for a solid 15 minutes before getting to your feet and leaving the pub. Behind you, you left a five pound note on the scrubbed table and any hope of returning. Face it, Alexis. You’ve been replaced.

Pulling your jacket tight and wrapping your arms close to your chest, you pressed against the bitter chill and toward the park. You wand dug uncomfortably into your body from your jacket pocket, serving as a sharp reminder.

“Alexis!” You heard your name echoing in the cold streets. The bone-chilling wind was playing tricks on your ears.

There were people everywhere. Tourists, mostly. People darted in and out of shop fronts, arms laden with parcels. They all seemed to share a similar appearance – they looked rushed and unpleasant. Their faces were sharp and angular, almost cruel. Then, maybe that was the persistent cold as well.

“Alexis!” This time, you turned round. Paige was rushing down the street, coatless and gripping a stitch in her side. She caught up with you, nearly collapsing on the pavement, hands on her knees.
“Where’ve you –“ wheeze “- been and why –“ wheeze “- haven’t you returned any of my phone calls?”

“I’ve been busy.” You lied. She looked up at you – through you, rather.

“Come on –“ wheeze “- let’s go grab a cup of tea. I’m freezing.”

As you left the icy streets, you looked around to see a world as cold as the one you’d grown up in.

This place no longer felt like your safety net, like your escape. Somehow, it had been poisoned.

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