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.
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!”
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 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.”
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.
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.
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
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