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.
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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?”
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! ♥
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