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Chapter Seventeen

 

Lily and James’s flat was in a Muggle area of the city, bathed in April sunlight and teeming with plants.  On my first visit I had spent a good ten minutes roving through her collection of flora, magical and not.  On the wall were Lily’s signature polaroid photos, which displayed jeering Marauders, James bestowing a sloppy kiss on her cheek, and even one of myself, tucked under Marlene’s arm as she howled with laughter.  Relics from a happier time.

 

I made a point not to look at them as I called, “Hello, sorry I’m late!”

 

I had been up studying well past two o’clock in the morning and awoke at my desk, a stiff neck and a parchment stuck to my cheek.

 

“Hiya.”  I was clearing up the Floo Powder from my arrival when Lily rounded the corner.  She was wearing an apron that looked as though it was barely tied around her belly.  She was six months along, now.  And James had been right: they were having a boy.

 

“Merlin, Lily,” I couldn’t help the huge smile. “You look amazing.”

 

“Oh, you’re quite the actor, aren’t you?” Her hair was knotted messily over her head, and she seemed exhausted but in good spirits as I followed her into the kitchen.

 

I almost didn’t notice Professor Dumbledore sitting at the breakfast table. “Oh.  Hello,” I said uneasily.

 

“Albus was just stopping by.”  Lily’s familiarity—the use of his first name—felt strange. I hadn’t seen Dumbledore since Hogwarts, aside from a brief glimpse at Lily and James’s wedding.  As a student I never once spoke with him, even after that night with Michael Flint and the Black Adders. For all our interactions, Dumbledore may as well have been another ghost that roamed the castle.  Yet he certainly had his favorites.

 

“Good afternoon, Miss Fairchild.”  I was surprised that he remembered my name. “If my memory serves me well, you were quite the Herbologist.”

 

“Yes, sir, thank you. I’m finishing my last year at Elwood now,” I stammered like a schoolchild.

 

But his bright, robin’s egg eyes moved from me to Lily, and I had the distinct impression that he didn’t entirely approve of my presence. I remembered James’s visit to the farmhouse, and his hesitation to send an owl.  He hadn’t wanted anyone to hear that Lily was pregnant; to leave a paper trail.  Why?

 

“Chloe’s been kind enough to brew prenatal potions and tinctures.”  Even Lily felt she had to explain.

 

“Yes, that is quite thoughtful, indeed.”  A beat of silence, and Dumbledore rose to his feet. “I fear that I must cut our visit short.  Miss Evans—” he caught himself, a glimmer in his eye, “Pardon me—Mrs. Potter, it’s been a pleasure as always. I hope that you’ll take my offer into consideration.”

                                                          

Lily seemed to be purposefully not looking at me. “Of course, I’ll do that.”

 

“Miss Fairchild,” he nodded.  Then with a whoosh-CRACK he Apparated, and Lily and I were left alone, smiling awkwardly.  To break the silence, she gestured at two baking sheets that lay on the bright orange countertops.

 

“Do you want a biscuit, or twenty?  I can’t stop craving sweets.”

 

I had skipped breakfast to finish the last of her prenatal potions—they required a rhythmically precise, counter-clockwise stirring—and was starving.  Through a mouthful of lemon shortbread, I thanked her, as a teapot levitated itself to pour me a cup.

 

I wanted desperately to ask about Dumbledore, and his offer. It had seemed less than cheerful.  But instead I said, “Where’s James?”

 

“I told him to get out of the flat, go do something fun.”

 

“That’s kind of you.”

 

“Not really,” she snorted.  “I wanted to gorge myself on biscuits without judgment.  He’s off with Sirius.”

 

At the sound of his name, I set down the teacup so quickly that it nearly cracked.

 

Lily glanced at the cup but said nothing, and I thought of that midnight in the Hogwarts corridors, years ago, when she woke me and brought me to McGonagall’s office. After the attack on the Goblin family, when there had been worry about my own family’s safety.

 

Just give it time, she’d said. He’s not quite ready.

 

But that was three years ago, and nothing had changed. I never even spoke to Sirius anymore.

 

Decidedly, I reached into my pocket enchanted to carry a small suitcase the size of a purse.  The clasps popped open to reveal vials of varying shapes and sizes inlaid in velvet. Their contents ranged from clear and watery to something with a phosphorescent sheen.

 

I set them individually on the countertop, explaining, “This will eliminate morning sickness.  This is your prenatal potion—be sure to take it with a meal. This is to help you sleep, and is safe for the baby, unlike Dreamless Sleep Draught.  I’ve written everything down on this parchment, including the ingredients, but they don’t contain any of your allergens, so…”

 

Thank you, Chloe.  You’re a lifesaver, really, I can’t keep up with my own body right now. I spent an hour making all these biscuits, and now the smell’s making me sick.”

 

“Here,” I extracted the anti-nausea potion. “Just two drops.  The taste’s awful, but if you add it to your tea, it helps.”

 

She waved her wand at the teakettle to pour a fresh cup. Was this silence only uncomfortable on my end, with my flurrying nerves?  I recalled Dumbledore and the constant feeling, like an undercurrent, that I simply wasn’t supposed to be anywhere.

 

“Well, I should be on my way.”

 

She looked genuinely disappointed.  “Are you sure? James and Sirius should be back any moment, and there’s a chippy just down the street.”

 

“Oh…”

 

The realization of how desperately I wanted that nearly floored me. A simple, easy afternoon of laughter and greasy food; a tattered booth in the window, sitting across from Lily and James with my shoulder brushing against Sirius. I wanted to know what baby names they were considering.  Whether Sirius would be allowed to take their son on his motorcycle.  I wanted to feel like a normal university student.

 

“‘Course, Sirius would probably bring this new girl.” Lily made a face and my heart plummeted.

 

“New girl?”

 

“Some leather-clad barmaid, nose piercing and all.” But she realized that my expression wasn’t only surprise and flushed.  “But maybe she won’t be there, who knows.  You should come get food with us.”

 

“I couldn’t,” I whispered. “Exams next week.”

 

“Oh, Chloe,” she clicked her tongue sadly, and I realized that there were tears in my eyes.

 

“Sorry,” I forced a laugh. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

 

She studied me before saying, carefully, “It’s okay to want normal things, you know.”

 

“Not right now, it isn’t.”

 

“Yes, it is.  People are dying.  People who I’ve fought next to, and who we knew in school…  Everything feels so grim right now.  There has to be some sense of normalcy.”  Her hand moved absently to her belly.

 

“Marlene may not agree with you,” I changed the subject.

 

A dark look crossed her.  “Marlene is…not well.  And that’s exactly what I’m talking about.  Her whole world is the Order of the Phoenix, and the war, and You-Know-Who.  She doesn’t care about anything else.”

 

“I’m worried for her.  I don’t think she’s eating.”

 

“I’m worried too.  She doesn’t trust anyone anymore, including the Order members.  She’s convinced there’s a rat.  Mary moved out because it’s all getting to be too much.”

 

“She’s alone?”  The thought of Marlene, drifting sleeplessly through her dark and cobwebbed flat, stung. 

 

“Trust me, she wants it that way.  She was pushing Mary out.  Last I heard, she’s changed the password to her flat and won’t tell anyone what it is.  I doubt even my owls have been reaching her.”

 

I thought of the few letters I had written over the past months, all unanswered.  “But…what is she afraid of?”

 

Lily cast a grave look that I could read as clearly the handwriting in Peter’s letter: Order business.

 

“If she would just let me take care of her…”

 

“You can’t take care of everyone, Chloe.  You’re hardly leaving space for yourself, and what you want.” She studied me before asking gently, “You still have feelings for him, don’t you?”

 

I opened my mouth to say, I don’t know what you mean; to keep the illusion alive, as I had tried to for years.  For the first time, I couldn’t.

 

“Oh, god.”  A hand clamped over my mouth to stop it, but the tears were falling, hot against my cheeks. And with them came the confession that I had never admitted: that I was still in love with Sirius, after all this time.

 

“It’s not supposed to be like this!” I gasped though the sobs.  “It’s been years, and he’s in love with Marlene, and he should be. And Peter—”

 

Lily pulled me close against her, murmuring hushing sounds. I had never felt more alone than these past desolate months, without Peter or Marlene, all along trying to forget the boy whose name was enough to render me a mess.  Everything was escaping me at once.  I was humiliated.

 

But Lily’s voice was comforting in my ear, “You’re allowed to feel this way.  We’re all just doing the best we can.”

 

Allowed.

 

“But Marlene.  She’s the whole reason I know any of you.  I owe her so much—”

 

“No, you don’t.”  She held me at arm’s length.  “She wouldn’t want you to feel that way.  Trust me, she doesn’t love him, Chloe.  Not like this.”

 

“I wish I didn’t.”

 

“It would make life easier for you, I’m sure.”  There was the ghost of a teasing grin on her lips.  “You do know he’s a complete prima donna, right?  Merlin, the hair...”

 

I smiled weakly, “The jacket.”

 

“Oh, don’t get me started on that bloody thing.”

 

I laughed and she pressed a tissue into my hand.  The room seemed to have miraculously grown brighter.  “You’re welcome for the crash-course in mothering.”

 

She laughed at this, deeply, but stopped short.  Her eyes were alight as if she’d just realized something. 

 

“Give me your hand,” she said, and placed it over her belly.  We stood, two women in the midst of a war, our heads bowed toward the little life that grew.  The light in the dark. When the baby kicked again, I smiled incredulously.

 

“That’s Harry,” she said.  “We picked a name.”

 

“Harry Potter.  I like it.”

 

We shared a smile that was punctuated by the front door unlatching, followed by Sirius’s voice: “Best album of the year.  Hands down.”

 

The response was a woman’s, husky and low, “You just want to get in Chrissie Hynde’s trousers.”

 

Brass in Pocket is a goddamn treasure!  And don’t I already have access to a certain set of trousers?”

                                                                        

“Steady on, mate,” James grumbled.  And then suddenly they were all in the kitchen.

 

I wished that I had not frozen in shock; that I had Apparated.  Instead the room was far too small, and they were trying not to stare at my reddened cheeks and puffy eyes, the glaring beacons that I had been crying.  Hard.  Sirius’s arm was slung around a woman’s shoulders.  She was nearly as tall as he, with Joan Jett hair and a leather jacket to match.  I felt matronly and stupid in my long wool skirt.

 

“Hey, Chloe!” James’s voice was too cheerful.  I caught the faint smell of beer and wondered if they had visited this barmaid at work; if she had slid them a few pints on the house, catching Sirius’s long looks every so often.

 

“She popped by with more potions.”  Lily looked at me questioningly, “And was…just leaving?”

 

She understood how brittle and crumbling everything inside me felt.  I nodded, smiling neurotically to compensate for the tears still drying on my cheeks.  “Yeah, I need to go study.  Final exams and all!”

 

“Where are you studying?” the barmaid asked frankly; she was trying to break the tension.  Of course, she was nice; of course I couldn’t hate her.

 

“Canterbury.”

 

“Ah, right, my brother lives there.  Bill Dunham?  Works the door at the Black Widow.”

 

It was a trendy rock music venue that I had never stepped foot inside, and never would.  “Oh, right.”

 

“Do you live in town, then?”

 

“On campus.  Valerian Honors Dormitory.”

 

I said it and felt even more foolish than before, somehow.  The girl raised her brows as if to say, Oh, so you’re smart, then.

 

Sirius still hadn’t introduced her, and I hadn’t asked.  I could feel his eyes boring into me and chastised myself for being caught crying by him again.  True, there was so much to be upset about these days—and maybe that’s why he was dating this girl, now.  Because she didn’t cry.  She made things easier to forget. 

 

But the war followed me everywhere I went, like smoke to a fire.

 

“Anyway,” I gathered the small suitcase, addressing Lily as if she were the only one in the room.  “I’ll be back in a few weeks.  Let me know how everything goes or if you want changes.”

 

“Thank you, Chloe,” she squeezed my arm, and I knew what it meant.

 

“See you later, then.”  With a tight smile to the barmaid, I murmured a nice to meet you, and they parted to let me pass.  I took special care to avoid Sirius, and the brushing of our shoulders that I had so desperately wanted only minutes ago.

 

 

The pages of my book were blurring together, a forest of botanical illustrations.  I rubbed my tired eyes.  How long ago had the sun gone down?  The window showed an April sky tinged purple with dusk.  I had spent the days after Lily and James’s flat buried in my heaviest textbooks, until the events were eclipsed by the daunting task of identifying the magical properties of the Heliconia leaf on a molecular level.

 

“Take a breather, why don’t you?”  Anna was on her bed, flipping through a magazine.  Bijou rested in her lap.  The fairy lights around her bed twinkled in a distracting way that cast uneven light over my textbook.

 

“I still have one last exam,” I reminded her, more irritably than intended.  Her exams were over, as were many students’, and she rode out the last days before our graduation ceremony with ease.

 

“And at this point, you’re not doing yourself any favors.  You haven’t even stood up in three hours.”

 

Anna was the kind of student who rarely studied and still made good marks.  Not as good as mine, I bitterly reminded myself.  For Anna, the academia of Elwood was secondary to its parties and social circles.  Then again, she was the one with friends.

 

“Just go get some fresh air,” she said.  “Your books will be here when you get back.”

 

Before I could retort there was a TICK at our window.  It sounded like hail, but the skies were clear.  Anna and I shared a look of confusion just before the second one came.

 

“Someone’s throwing acorns,” Anna said.  Many of the trees at Elwood were bewitched to produce year-round for research purposes, and the oaks near our dormitory were one example.  We moved to the window.

 

“Who is that,” Anna purred.

 

Amidst the cardigan-clad students weaving along the cobblestone paths, Sirius Black stood out like an ink blot.  The trademark jacket was thrown over one shoulder and he wore a ratty, sleeveless shirt.  I thought of Lily’s word from earlier that week, Prima donna, and nearly laughed.  A dazed, bewildered laugh.

 

“Sirius.”  I didn’t know if I was answering Anna’s question or if the name spilled off my tongue.

 

“You know him?”  I couldn’t fault her shock; Sirius looked entirely too cool for me.

 

“He’s a friend of Peter’s.”

 

“And you’re blushing.”

 

I swatted her hand away and called, my voice audibly trembling, “One minute.”

 

As I turned to walk out the door I stopped, knotting my fingers with worry, but the words wouldn’t come.  Please don’t tell Peter.  If there’s anything left there at all.  It would hurt him, surely, whatever this was.  The guilt was already creeping in like overgrown vines.

 

But Anna read my expression.  With a wink, she said, “Our little secret.”

 

I had never been more grateful to her than in that moment.

 

It was a warm evening.  As I crossed the cobblestones over to Sirius, I shoved my trembling hands into the pockets of my skirt.  How long had it been since one of us had reached out to the other?  Every one of our interactions over the last three years had been by chance.  Whatever tethered us together had grown thin, nearly invisible until it caught in the correct light, like the silk of a spiderweb.

 

When I reached him, I stood a safe distance away.

 

“Valerian Honors Dormitory.”  Sirius looked at its façade in reverence.  “Nice digs.”

 

“It’s free,” I shrugged, and he grinned.

 

“Still earning top marks, then.  Nothing’s changed.”

 

“Actually, quite a bit has changed.”  He caught my meaning and I almost saw the memory play out for him: the night of Lily and James’s wedding, in the garden.  When we were alone; another chance encounter.

 

I wasn’t going to wait in the wings until Marlene shot you down again.  I really liked you, Sirius.

 

I was being colder than intended.  And of course, it was a lie.  Nothing had changed.  I could still feel my heart fluttering behind my breastbone, even now.  I was still trying not to stare at the stubble along his perfect jaw; the bared shoulders that now had slight muscles.  We weren’t children anymore.  This was no longer a schoolgirl crush.  And now he had someone else—again.

 

“Did you… need something?”  I tried to melt the frost from my voice, but I couldn’t forget the unnamed barmaid from earlier.

 

He shrugged.  “Anywhere to get food around here?”

 

Date recommendations.  She was probably already here, visiting her brother.  “Not really, actually.  There’s a half-decent diner in Pendragon Lane, near where her brother works.”

 

“Whose brother?”

 

”Your girlfriend’s.”

 

“What?  No, I meant… with you.”  I must have been staring, because he prompted, “Are you hungry?”

 

Again, I saw the image from this morning, the one that I had wanted so badly: an afternoon of light and laughter, in the middle of this war, a happy refuge in a tattered diner booth.  Except now it was just the two of us.  My instinct to say no—to deny and withhold from myself—surfaced like a wave.  Exams.  Peter.  Marlene.

 

And then, Lily’s voice: You’re allowed to want normal things.

 

I wet my lips and nodded.  “I could use a study break, actually.”

 

Sirius shrugged on his jacket in the cooling air.  “C’mon, then.  Let’s see this half-decent diner.”

 


Author's Note: Hello!  I usually keep pretty quiet here, but wanted to say thank you for reading.  I don't believe I've mentioned this, but I'm getting married in a few months (ahh!) and so I appreciate you guys sticking with this story when I haven't been able to devote as much time as I'd like to it.  <3

 

This chapter took some work, trying to balance the darkness and bleak landscape of the First War with the lighthearted scenes.  Chloe is finally admitting to herself that it's normal to have feelings for someone, while also balancing her guilt over her deteriorating relationships with Peter and Marlene.

 

Thank you for reading!  Please let me know what you think in a review!

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