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She is so naked and singular
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.

 

— Anne Sexton, For My Lover, Returning to his Wife

 

 

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 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.

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