“What happens when people open their hearts?"

"They get better.”

― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

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.

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 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. Something about that irritated me. Why would you waste your parents’ money, and your professors’ time, and come to Hogwarts at all?

I tried to remember my feeling of distaste when he said, “Bet Peter’s angry he didn’t choose this seat. He’s more dreadful at Potions than I am.”

We glanced over our shoulders, but my eyes traveled past Peter and met Marlene’s piercing blue-gray stare. She was smiling mischievously. I looked away, awash with guilt. She was so kind to me, and here I was, sitting with her boyfriend. Perhaps Sirius would have even left me alone in the corridor that night, had she not been there. It wasn’t fair of me.

I began gathering my things, glancing at the door. It was worth missing one class. Next time, I could be sure to get here early, to have a seat beside someone other than Sirius or Emily.

The former raised an eyebrow and said, “Where are you going? You do know he’ll be here any second.”

“I forgot something in my dormitory.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, and I felt irritated again, because what could Sirius Black know about worry? Had he already forgotten the state he had found me in? And from what I heard, he and James Potter had done their fair share of tormenting students.

I had stopped packing to fix him with a stony gaze. Sensing my unease he went back to teasing. “Wouldn’t want your perfect attendance to be docked.”

I glanced at the hourglass on Professor Slughorn’s desk. He was late again. I would probably have to pass him in the corridor if I left, and he took skipping class as a personal offense.

“Plus Hufflepuff is so far behind in points, I doubt you could spare those either.” Sirius’s elbow nudged my arm in a friendly way, and I recoiled as if bitten.

“Merlin! Sorry,” he said, but 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 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:

This chapter was a bit slow, but I needed to do some character building here, particularly in the Chloe-Marlene and Chloe-Sirius department. Hopefully the interactions with all of them helped to keep the pace up? As always, I would love to hear thoughts on this story! It's quite different from what I've been writing for the last 3+ years, and any suggestions and critique are welcomed.

I also don't own the Haruki Murakami quotation, though I *do* have a love/hate relationship with him.

Lovely CI by page thirteen. at TDA ♥

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