Disclaimer: Anything you recognise belongs to JKR.
The goblin at the front of Gringotts was writing diligently on a long scroll of parchment when I stopped in front of his desk, my heels clicking together as if for good luck.
“Cornelia Burke,” I said, clearly and confidently even though I had never been here alone before. “To visit my vault.”
The goblin glanced at me slowly, his glasses sliding down on his long nose. “Key?”
Without breaking eye contact, I set the gold object that my father had given me a couple days previous onto the counter.
The goblin clerk picked it up, examined it for a moment, and then handed it back to me while nodding to the goblin by the doors to the vaults, who stepped forward.
“This way, please,” the goblin said, her voice squeaky and her red and white uniform rather loose on her figure.
Without another word, the two of us rode through the cavernous underground passageways, our faces only illuminated by the light of the everlasting lamp in the trolley. I closed my eyes as the chills of the wind whipped my hair back and forth, taking deep even breaths because I had no bloody idea what to expect. This wasn’t in the family vault section the Burkes had had in Gringotts for centuries - this was an entirely new account, and there were almost limitless possibilities for what could lay inside.
After almost ten minutes of traveling in the rickety carts, we finally slowed to a stop.
“Vault 1093,” The goblin climbed out, holding the lamp up high. “Key, please.”
I handed it over to her and she pushed it inside the huge slot, dragging her fingernails on the surface in some unrepeatable pattern until the gears inside the vault twisted and turned and then shuttered to a stop.
The door creaked open, and trepidatiously I looked inside.
It was gold. More gold than I’d ever seen was piled from floor to ceiling in that one vault, and it wasn’t just Galleons - French Bezants were also mixed in with the British piles, their size slightly smaller than Galleons but just as insanely valuable.
“Will you be requiring a larger bag for withdrawal today?” the goblin spoke up behind me, and I jumped, having forgotten she was even there.
“No,” I told her distractedly. “No, I’m all set, thank you so much.”
I gathered what I needed for the upcoming school year into the moderate sized drawstring bag I had brought and then clambored back into the cart silently, because I understood more about the separate vault and the gold and even my father than I possibly ever had before.
Andrew Burke wanted the lineage and infamacy of the Burke Pureblood family to end with Adam and I as much as we wanted it to. He had given us my mother and his inheritances so that the moment I was cut off, Adam and I would still be taken care of for the rest of our lives - for the rest of our children's children’s lives.
He had been protecting me and my past with the Unspeakables, and he was protecting me and my future now. He was protecting us.
I arrived at the Leprechaun at around ten o’clock, just as it was starting to fill up. It had become somewhat of a tradition for the older students and younger alumni to gather at this club in Diagon Alley the Friday after graduation and tonight was no exception. Already the floor was packed with people, and I was just making my way over to where I had spotted my Sixth Year - well, now Seventh Year -friends when someone stepped in front of my path, her black hair trimmed and alabaster skin reacting oddly with the pulsing of the coloured lights.
“Nellie,” Calliope Yaxley simpered, and the fakeness of her tone was accentuated by the cold sweep of her eyes as she examined my jean skirt and black tube top. “Lovely to see you outside of Hogwarts.”
I had a reply on the tip of my tongue in my usual old-money forced English tones, but then I remembered that it wasn’t necessary anymore and I changed my mind. “You can give it up, you know,” I told her, and it wasn’t unfriendly although maybe she deserved it to be. “I’ve stopped playing along.”
Instead of becoming angry or resentful Calliope merely sighed, coming closer to me and shaking out her newly shoulder-length bob slightly. “I figured. I’d heard you had moved into your brother’s closet.”
How she knew that I had no idea, but I should’ve expected news such as that to travel as fast as wildfire - it always did when Purebloods were involved, especially when a few drunk Averys and chatty Parkinsons were thrown in the mix.
“And what do you think about it?” I asked her, and I we both knew I was really asking, What is the Sacred Twenty-Eight saying?
“Everyone expected it, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Calliope narrowed her eyes at me as if a bit put off I was speaking in the allusionary tongues and tricks we usually did, but then to my surprise kept talking. “But I think I envy you a bit, you know. Don't get me wrong - I think you're an absolute fool - but I envy the way you have the freedom to throw your entire life away without looking back. It must be so...artistic.”
She said that last word like it was garbage under her nose, but I didn’t care. “Maybe I’m not throwing away my life,” I told her, and it sounded painfully optimistic, almost childlike in away. “Maybe I’m just fully starting it.”
“Even so,” Calliope pursed her lips self-importantly, her frigid gaze always making the action resemble more of a sneer. “But anyways, now I’m to be married,” she continued. “And you won’t be invited to the wedding, I’m sure, but if you were you’d see that this is exactly what I want and what is right for me.”
I nodded with pretend thoughtfulness as two Hufflepuffs in the year below me noisily passed to my left. “Who are you engaged to?”
Calliope paused and then shot me a wry smile, the first real honest expression I had ever seen across her face. “Christian Flint.”
My heart dropped out of my chest.
“Calliope…” I said slowly, and we both automatically stepped farther away from the hub of the crowd, the mood between us instantly turned to something serious.
“Don’t pretend to care.” Her voice was steely but unbothered. “We’re a perfect match - attractive, in the same circle, equals. It’s what both of us always expected out of our potential partners.”
“But,” I swallowed down the feelings that always seemed to accompany me whenever Christian Flint was discussed. “He-”
“I know what he did.” Calliope’s voice cut through mine like a steak knife through butter. “And like I instructed Lyra to tell you, I handled it. It will never be a problem again, for anyone.”
I was shaking my head before she had finished. “You can’t possibly know that.”
“The mechanics of a well-cast Flaccidellium curse can,” she replied, and I gaped at her. I knew Calliope was smart - how could she not be with her cunning language and smooth menaces - but that magic was well beyond either of our years. The spell could last a lifetime or until the caster decided to lift it, and it caused unusually painful...problems for the receiver whenever they engaged in certain acts with anyone but the caster. “The alternative would have been much, much worse. And Christian agreed to it, of course, or else it would be illegal for me to do, but that’s all the insurance necessary.”
I bit my bottom lip, tugging on it slightly. “That still doesn’t protect you, Calliope.”
“And I don’t need it. Christian is more frightened of me than I him,” said Calliope dismissively, swirling the straw in the Moscow mule I had only just noticed in her hand. “You don’t know what it feels like to intimidate or incite fear, true potent fear. Terror is power is life, Nellie, and you’ve never understood that well enough to be successful.”
“Because I believe life should be much more than that,” I responded, and my mind couldn’t help but flash to the constant fright of the family curse that seemed to plague every one of my waking hours with its slow burn of the unknown.
Calliope smiled again; this time it was more of an ironic expression. “You pity me.” she said, as if it were a mere fact instead of an opinionated statement. “Just as I pity you. But none of that really matters, now, does it? Not when in reality we are both perfectly satisfied with the different lives we’ve chosen.”
“Even so, I hope you are content.” I told her, and after she nodded in a rather jerky motion we parted ways like that: no false pretenses of friendliness, no forced goodbyes, well wishes or threats. The first real conversation we’d ever had.
I found my group of friends at a standing table near the bar, already all with various glasses and speaking over one another in their usual exuberant fashion.
“Wotcher, Corn,” said Scorpius brightly when I made it over, slinging his arm around me in a manner that indicated he was already a few drinks ahead of me.
“Nellie! Thank Merlin,” Willow grinned at me, looking immaculate in a small tank top and flowery skirt with her wavy blond hair almost down to her waist. “We were a bit worried Calliope Yaxley was going to bite your head off over there.”
“It was actually a relatively civil conversation, actually,” I shrugged, and then I glanced around, seeing everyone with us except for one of our members - two if you counted Milo, who was banned from ever setting foot in this club after his wild sister Evie was arrested here a couple of years ago. “Where’s Mia?”
“There,” Albus pointed to the brown head bobbing towards us in the crowd. It was usually easy to find Mia Templeton; although she was quite short you just had to follow the looks of awe and blatant stares, but this time the crowd had nearly swallowed her up.
“Some guy just asked me if I have Veela in me,” sniffed Mia the moment she squeezed herself back around our table, Willow handing her an already half-empty plastic cup - rum and coke, a classic Mia drink. “I mean honestly, isn’t that just the worst pick up line you’ve ever heard?”
“You’re the fittest person in Europe, Mia, can you blame him?” Flynn rolled his eyes at her, and Mia’s mouth opened into a little O with surprise and said nothing further.
“How’s your holiday been so far, Nellie?” Al turned to me as Benjy sauntered over to our table, setting a bright pink drink in front of me and ruffling up my hair a bit like he always did.
“Can’t complain. Adam has three weeks off so he and Annabelle went to Greece,” I waggled my eyebrows, and Flynn made a face at me since he always said I looked stupid whenever I did that. “I live alone in the London flat.”
“What? Party at Nellie’s!” Benjy crowed, raising his glass in the air, and everyone else mirrored him while I stoutly told them again and again that that would never happen because I just know none of them would help clean up, and they stoutly told me that they would come over either bloody way so it was best I just got used to the idea now.
“God, do you see Diana Jerkins?” Mia jerked her head towards the wall by the opposite once we had all calmed down. “She’s been snogging David Werth any chance she can bloody get, it’s revolting, really-”
“More revolting than what you and Flynn keep doing?” asked Willow immediately, not innocently at all but instead a little coy, like our group had rubbed a bit off on her manners.
“At least I’m getting action,” Flynn quipped before Mia (who was rather offended as she usually was) could say anything. “When was the last time you got any, MacMillan?”
“Last night with your mum,” Willow shot back, and Albus high fived her with an almost awed look that resembled being stoned before he blinked suddenly and fixed his expression.
“How many times have you two snogged, anyways?” Rose spoke up, her hair already a bit frizzy from the humidity of the crowded venue.
“I think the real question,” Scorpius asked over the noise of us all trying to count how many times we’d seen them together, his hand resting casually on Rose’s waist, “is who snogged who first.”
“Well, that’s easy,” said Mia haughtily, flipping her long hair over her shoulder in a movement that made every guy within five metres of her stare. “Flynn did.”
“What?” Flynn exclaimed, and I vaguely remembered them having this row earlier in the year but arriving at no conclusion.
“I believe she said that you kissed her first,” Albus supplied unnecessarily, and Flynn glared at him before shooting a scowl at Mia.
“That is such a bold faced lie,” said Flynn, his look of displeasure deepening. “You know, you don’t have to be embarrassed you made the first move, Templeton. I know how irresistible I am.”
“Are you kidding me?” Mia hissed back, slamming her drained drink back onto the sticky surface of the small table. “I’m not embarrassed, it’s just not fucking true!”
“Let’s just settle this, then,” I said loudly. “Did you or did you not snog her first, Flynn?”
“I bloody well didn’t-”
“Did you?” Mia demanded again before any of us could respond.
“Did you? Did you? Did you snog me first?”
“Of course I bloody snogged you first!” Flynn roared, louder than the noise of the crowd and the blaring music. “I’ve been in love with you for this entire fucking year! There, is that what you wanted?”
“Yes, you berk!” Mia screamed, and everyone in the nearby vicinity was looking now but neither of them cared. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted, you dickhead!”
And then they were pulling one another close and kissing, but instead of the angry mashing it usually was it had now turned slow, emotional, lingering. Like perhaps they were finally agreeing on something.
“Well tickle my arse and call me a Dumbledore,” said Benjy as Mia and Flynn finally released each other, Scorpius with his mouth wide open beside them until Rose told him to close it.
“You too have totally slept together before, haven’t you?” I said accusingly, but I wasn’t angry - in fact, I was happy for them, so happy that things finally worked out the way I think we all had known they would for awhile.
Mia grimaced guiltily while Flynn shrugged proudly, his lips smirking in his characteristic self-important way. He hadn’t let go of her waist, and as Mia leaned her head against his shoulder, half burying her face into his neck Flynn grinned, his eyes closing for a moment as if he could hardly believe how happy he was.
“So you two are in love now?” said Kato, who had just slung an arm around Benjy and my shoulders while signalling the bartender.
“Looks that way,” said Flynn, who hadn’t let go of Mia yet, and Kato was about to reply with something else when we all became distracted by Willow's weird eyebrow flicks.
"Erm,” said Willow, and although it seemed like she was trying to be inconspicuous she shot an urgent look to Mia complete with more of her strange eyebrow movements, who looked back at her quizzically and then opened her eyes wide, gaze fixated on something over my shoulder.
“Nellie!” said Mia, trying to be squealing and excited but so failing. “Let’s go to the bathroom! Or maybe upstairs to dance for a bit!”
“He’s here, isn’t he.” I said flatly, and Flynn handed me a shot in affirmation, his mouth set in an almost concerned scowl as Benjy and Kato wandered away towards other Ravenclaws.
“We don’t have to interact with him at all,” Mia promised. “Or we could leave-”
I shook my head, that would be ridiculous, but still I felt my anxiety begin to climb and I knew I had to ask. “Is she here, too?”
“No,” Albus spoke, and although Willow shot him a death glare he continued. “She had to work.”
Mia tugged on the side of her lip like she normally did when she was concerned about something. “Nellie…”
“It’s fine,” I told her, taking Flynn’s shot and then waving to the bartender for another. “I’m completely fine.”
I was not fine. Over the hours I drank and I drank, and I danced with my friends and then I drank some more, perhaps more than I had maybe ever. And then Mia was with Flynn and Willow and Albus were deep in discussion and Scorpius and Rose were who knows where and before I knew it I was leaning against a wall, and I was just so utterly not fine. But maybe I never had been, in all honesty, because I could run and run and run but everything always seemed to catch up with me in the end, like my feelings and the future and my mother and James.
James. James Potter. I had run away from him the most. Over and over, I made up excuses to myself; I lied to him and blew him off and pushed him away and yet still he would push back at me, starting arguments or making me face him or worming his way back into my life even when he knew I was avoiding him.
But the last time I had run he hadn’t followed. He had given up just as I had on him, on both of us all the fucking time, and so in my hazy state against the wall when I saw him slipping out of the back exit without thinking I followed him.
He hadn’t gotten far down the sidewalk by the time I hard burst outside, and so I called his name, once, twice, until he turned around, walking back towards me slowly like he didn’t know what to expect.
I didn't know what to expect either, but I loved him and I needed him to know it - I love you, James, I love you, I love you, “I love you,” and I think I repeated it but I wasn’t confident I had, so I said it again just to make sure, and he just stood there so far away, a metre or a mile I couldn’t tell.
“You broke up with me,” he said quietly after what seemed like a full minute. “You had your chance to make it right.”
“I know but please, James - James!”
“Go home, Nellie.” he said, and at the use of my nickname I broke, because he always called me Cornelia or Burke or sweetheart or something, and when he didn’t it stung as much as he meant it to.
James Potter turned around and began walking away down the darkened street of Diagon Alley, and desperate for him to just stop - turn around, please please please - I opened my mouth when deep down I knew I shouldn’t.
“Did you ever?” I yelled, and I knew my eyes were red and my mascara was running down my cheeks but I didn’t care. “Did you ever even give a shit?”
I saw his shoulders tense slightly as if he had flinched, but maybe I only imagined it. Because he never slowed down or looked back, not even as I slid onto the cold cement of the sidewalk and dug my nails into the sides of my arm hard enough to draw blood but not caring because the pain of losing him was just so much more potent than any surface wound. I sat there slumped over and I cried and I cried and I broke, until warm hands grasped around my shoulders and lifted me up, murmuring my name and soothing epithets and carrying me to somewhere inside and warm, where I was safe.
The sunlight streaming in through the cracks in the blinds is what woke me up - not the seemingly premature bustle of traffic or the various bumps and voices from the apartment next door, and I rolled over in the smooth satin sheets, feeling for the glass of water I always had stationed on my bedside table, but as I felt around for anything solid I only could locate empty air.
For a minute I lay there with my arm outstretched, then my eyes flew open.
I was not in Adam’s guest room as I’d assumed, but instead in an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar bed, and as I struggled to remember anything that had happened the night before I realised one horrifying truth:
I was not alone in this bed.
For a split second of terror, I had no idea what to do - and then the body next to me moved, a head looking up at me through sleep-covered eyes.
“Kato,” I breathed, and all of a sudden I was so relieved that I felt almost dizzy. “Oh, thank God-”
And then I was nothing but panicked, because I had just slept with Kato Millican, my former teammate, my friend, the guy who James absolutely hated - and then it hit me that James Potter didn’t give a flying shit who I slept with any longer, so why should I? But I did, because I still didn’t feel the same way that I knew Kato did for me, and now I had led him on or confused him or quite possibly ruined our friendship.
“Morning,” Kato yawned, ruffling his beachy hair with his arm, and then in response to my confused expression looked at me quizzically, as if I had said something he hadn't heard.
“Kato,” I whispered. “Did-did we-?”
“What?” asked Kato, and then a look of horror overtook him. “Oh, my God - no. No. You were so drunk that you passed out and I didn’t want to leave you alone. Of course we didn’t - no.”
My heart rate decelerated as I slowly took his words in as the truth. Apart from my shoes I was still fully clothed, and suddenly it all came rushing back to me - James walking away, me sobbing on the ground, Kato picking me up and murmuring comforting words and making me drink water.
“Bloody hell. God, I was a fucking mess last night,” I groaned, and I swung my legs out of the bed just as Kato stood up. “I am so sorry. Jesus.”
“No, no,” Kato insisted as I put my head in my hands. “It’s okay. We’ve all been there.”
“Right,” I snorted just as Kato patted my shoulder and then opened the door to his bedroom and walked out, heading for the red plastic cups he had on the counter.
“Nice place you’ve got,” I told him after I was done freaking out, peering out into the main room. There were boxes everywhere and knowing Kato he hadn’t unpacked anything yet, but it was still a pretty flat, high up in the city with large windows on three out of the four walls I could see.
“Working for the Quidditch League has its perks,” Kato raised his eyebrows at me as he filled the cups with tap water. “Haven’t gotten any furniture though; if I had I would’ve slept on the couch.”
I waved my hand to show him I didn’t really care about us sharing the queen sized bed, which I truly didn’t - all of us on the team had done it more than once, anyways. “Moose living here, too?”
Kato nodded as I walked towards to where he was by the kitchen to claim my beverage. “He moves in in a week or so.”
“That’ll be fun,” I commented, and Kato shot me a look as if to say “cut the bullshit.” He always did that so well, saw through my thin attempts at small talk or otherwise, and I realised I had missed spending comfortable time with him like we had before he had kissed me this spring.
“Who’s he dating?” He didn’t have to say the name for us to know who he was talking about.
I fidgeted with the fringe on the bottom of the skirt I was wearing, taking a sip of water before I answered. “Ana Clearwater.”
“Ah. She’s too nice for him,” Kato assured me, as if he thought that would make me feel better. “He’s an arse, and he needs someone to be an even bigger one right back.”
I managed to flash Kato a quick smile in response to his attempts of comfort, but for some reason the action made the edges of Kato’s mouth quirk down into more of a frown than ever.
“You really miss him,” said Kato softly, setting down his cup on the kitchen counter.
“Yeah,” I whispered, miserably.
Kato looked down at the tiled floor beneath our bare feet, rubbing his toe against his leg as he spoke. "Look, he loves you, Nellie. I hate to say it, but I know he does."
I set down my empty cup too, the hollow echo of the plastic rattling around on the counter as I remembered James Potter walking away from me last night. "Not anymore."
"Just because you can't be with someone doesn't mean you love them any less." said Kato, and we both knew that he wasn't just talking about James.
"I know," I replied softly, and I felt some sort of emotion welling up deep inside of me so I turned away slightly, looking out the bay windows to the street below. When I turned back towards him Kato was nodding slowly, more to himself than me, but then he looked up, his blue eyes brighter than normal.
“I really hope it works out for you, Nellie.” he told me finally, and even though I could see the pain in his gaze that I had inadvertently caused, I still knew that he meant it.
It was only a couple hours after I had gotten back to Adam’s flat when Mia Templeton Apparated into the sitting room with a crack loud enough to scare me into dropping the bag of crisps I was holding onto the hardwood of the floors.
“We’re getting out of the country,” Mia announced, no preface whatsoever.
I glanced over from the couch where I was sprawled on, reaching down to pick up my fallen snack. “What?”
“We need a change of scenery, Nellie,” Mia pressed. “I need a change. So let’s just go somewhere and fuck around. Drink on the beach. Enjoy ourselves for once. Because you need it, babe,” Mia added before I could protest. “You need this so badly.”
I considered this.
“Invite Willow,” I said finally. “I’m sure she could use a break from her siblings.”
“Yes!” Mia squealed and her excitement was infectious so I broke out into a grin, too. “Where should we go?”
“Marseille?” I suggested much too quickly, but Mia just beamed, oblivious.
“France? Perfect,” she said, and then again. “Perfect.”
We left on a Wednesday, our international Portkey in the form of an old lantern, much like the kind we had used when we had camped in the Forbidden Forest a couple of months before.
In only a matter of hours after our arrival Mia had turned the most envious shade of gold and in a couple of days I had browned as well, the natural streaks in my hair lightening to be more blonde. Willow even tanned a bit, the rare kind of girl to be blessed with white blond hair and freckled Mediterranean skin, and so we spent the first few days like that, just lounging around and sipping daiquiris and in my case, reading old books and plays that were now so familiar to me the words felt like a kind of home.
But as Mia and Willow slept peacefully in the moonlit darkness of our fourth night, I crept out of the little villa we were renting, walking down the paved paths to a hidden place where I was able to Apparate to a place that had been on my mind for months - 425 Rue d’Allaste.
After I felt my feet on solid ground again I opened my eyes to find myself in front of a a small but beautiful cottage, the structure a clear indicator of wealth but also modesty; a rare pairing. But before I could even raise my hand to knock, the door was swinging open - and there she was, the woman I had seen more times than I could count: at the Amesbury Gala, at the Ministry of Magic; in my dreams, my subconscious intuitions.
“Cornelia,” the woman said, spreading her arms out, palms up to the night sky like a prayer. “I ‘ave been waiting for you.”
The inside of the house was open and bright even in the dark of the night hour, painted with light yellows and deep blues - the unofficial colours of Provence.
I sat at the dark wood table across from the strange woman, my hands resting on the surface clasped together. Only trust those you see, my father had said, and I had seen her - in person, in dreams, in the vacant wanderings my mind all of the time.
“Who are you?” I spoke finally, my voice almost subdued by the wide acoustics in the room.
The woman inclined her head slightly, the ends of her mouth curving up not unkindly. “You know who I am.”
“You’re a Seer.” Perhaps that was why I had felt such a powerful connection to her from the moment we had first interacted.
She nodded slowly, her dark eyes never leaving mine. “I am Celeste. And you are Cornelia Burke, daughter to Veronique Lavoiande of the Arielle bloodline.”
Unlike with the two twins a couple of weeks prior, I had no reservations about speaking on the topic of my family, especially because of her soft and practiced English that had just a hint of Marseillais in it.
“Did you know her?” I asked. “My mother.”
Celeste smiled, her skin crinkling beautifully around the warmth of her eyes. “Oh, yes. And her mother, and her mother’s mother.”
“And you know my Grandmother.” I remembered aloud, thinking back the way Esmeralda had greeted her at the Amesbury Gala almost a year ago.
Celeste inclined her head in concurrence. “I, too, am of pure blood. But while your grand-mère is aware of what I am, she knows not what talents you possess. Only that I was very familiar with your mother.”
“And when my mother died,” I continued on with my sudden realisations. “You were at her funeral. I remember you there.”
“You were such a small girl.” The wrinkles on Celeste’s hands did not match the aged perfection of her skin, and briefly I wondered how old she was - 100? 150? “So quiet. You did not speak at all.”
“How do you know my whole family?” I inched my chair more towards her. “And why was your name in that old book?”
In response to my intensity Celeste leaned forwards. She had beautifully large rings on every finger, and when she set her hands down on the table the metal clinked slightly where the two surfaces made contact.
“Many centuries ago, one of my ancestors - a wicked Seer poisoned by jealousy and spite - cursed the bloodline that runs through your veins. The first female born in the surviving Arielle line inherits the mark of the curse, and she alone passes it along to her children.
“It is a curse that garners its energy from nature, making it much too powerful to overcome with any magic, although we ‘ave tried. This is why in order to change the after, you must make an equal sacrifice. A selfless yet selfish act.”
“You have to die,” I said softly, nodding slowly at her words.
Celeste didn’t agree or disagree, instead set her teacup down and stared at me unwaveringly. “That is how your ancestors interpreted it.”
“Is that how you interpret it?” I asked her intently after a moment's pause. The book I had been given was written from accounts of the women before me and from what I now assumed were the generations before Celeste. What if there was another answer?
Celeste continued to hold my gaze, and then rose gently from her seat. “I ‘ave some things for you,” she told, and then she disappeared into the other room before reappearing with a large metal box and set it down on the table in front of me, handing me first an ancient scroll of parchment from its depths.
“This is the original text describing the curse in full,” Celeste explained in her deep and calming voice. “My relative was a wicked woman, overcome with envy and enmity for your ancestor. This is why every woman blessed with Sight since her has vowed to aid your women who ‘ave been cursed with this cruel shadow of it.”
I looked at her, and then slowly unrolled it the scroll. The writing was made up of strange symbols and texts - Runes - but they looked completely unfamiliar to me and I knew they weren’t the kind ever taught at Hogwarts.
“It is important to keep this in a safe place,” she continued. “To make sure it is always safe and will not fall ever into faulty hands.”
I nodded as Celeste reached into the box and pulled the next item, something with a long silver-linked chain. She held it out, and suddenly I was taken back to memories of my childhood.
“My mother wore that,” I said softly, reaching out to touch the stone lightly with my finger before letting it fall back onto the table with a thump.
“It is the pendant that binds the curse,” Celeste nodded. “Once the curse is broken, the stone will be ruined. But do not try to destroy the pendant in order to stop the curse - it cannot be damaged until the curse is.”
She fastened it around my neck and stepped away, both of us admiring the way it set in the base of my throat before Celeste held out one more thing to me: a corked vial no bigger than my pinkie finger filled to the brim with clear liquid.
“The curse will end with you, Cornelia Anneliese.”
I knew what exactly she meant because I understood immediately what the glass of the small bottle contained. I would be just like my mother in the decision I would inevitably make to save someone else, and if it was before I would have a chance to pass on my blood to a potential daughter, that time would be sooner rather than later.
“Take it when you must,” Celeste told me, and she switched into French so naturally that I almost didn’t even register it. “It will be fast and without pain. Just like falling asleep.”
“I’m afraid,” I told her, and it echoed around my mind as a raw confession - J’ai peur, j’ai peur, j’ai peur.
“When the time is right, you will not be. Il y aura toujours un place pour vous parmi les étoiles.”
There will always be a place for you amongst the stars.
I slept into the early afternoon the next day, only awakened by the smell of frying bacon and chipper chatter of Mia Templeton. I had tucked away the materials Celeste had given me deep away into my luggage except for the silver chain that still hung around my neck, and after only mentioning that I had briefly wandered the night markets we all journeyed out in the sun for the fifth day in a row with our bikinis and dark sunglasses, a perfect picture of holiday.
“Where did you get that?” Mia asked me suddenly a couple hours into tanning, and I looked down at the pendant on my chest just as she reached out and ran her fingers over the smooth stone much like I had done last night.
“Found a flea market when I was wandering around,” I told her, and she let it fall from her grasp gently after a moment, still hungrily staring at it.
“Well, I love it,” said Willow from the lounge chair on the other side of mine. “Very you.”
“Thanks,” I said, and then after a moment I sighed with contentment as a light breeze washed over me, relaxing the muscles in my shoulders. “You know, I’m really so glad the boys aren’t here right now.”
“I know,” Mia groaned. “It would be Flynn complaining and Milo chatting and Albus going on about you and Scorpius going on about Rose - really, it’s better that they’re-”
“Albus going on about who?” Willow interrupted, and Mia froze, her eyes bugging out wide.
“Er...” she said. “About Nellie. Because of the James thing.”
“Right,” I nodded up and down. “Anyways-”
“But you said it like you said Scorpius talking about Rose, his girlfriend,” Willow frowned, and then gasped. “Oh, my God - Nellie, does-does Albus have feelings for you?”
“Er, yes!” Mia said hastily, just as I cried, “Merlin, no!”
“What is it, then?” Willow glanced from Mia back to me, and after I glanced at Mia and she glanced from Willow to me again we both finally faced our confused friend.
I took a deep breath. ”Okay,” I began. “This is a big secret, so you can’t tell anyone.”
“Yeah, of course,” Willow nodded, her waves bouncing up and down as she did.
I bit my lip, sending Mia another look before saying slowly, “Albus...fancies you.”
Willow froze for a moment and then sat up straight, her face flushed and sunglasses sliding off her nose. “Oh my God,” she said. “What?”
“He sort of has for awhile now,” Mia admitted. “But please don’t tell him we told you, he’d kill us-”
“But-but I fancy him,” Willow interjected rather breathily. “I have for awhile-"
Mia’s mouth dropped open. “Holy shit...”
“That was why I had out it with Katria once and for all, because she knew I liked him and was still going to use him-"
“Holy shit!” I leapt up from the lounge chair with my hands on my head with uncontrolled excitement.
“And I’ve been playing darts since I was eight! I didn’t need Albus to teach me at the Cup party; I just wanted an excuse to get closer to him-”
“Oh my fucking God!” Mia jumped up and down on her chair while Willow laid back down, as if she needed to rest while she processed this newfound piece of information.
“You two have to get together,” I announced, Mia nodding exuberantly next to me. “Like, right fucking now.”
“Ohmigod, okay. We can go back home today and just Apparate to where he is, and then you’ll just walk over and snog him, okay? Okay? Perfect!” Mia jabbered on to Willow as if it were the easiest plan in the world, but Willow paled instantly.
“What? I can’t just snog him!” she exclaimed, springing up straight again. “I could never just do that to someone!”
“Well, neither can Albus,” Mia retorted, and we both sat back down on my lounge chair with our legs criss crossed so we were facing Willow. “Or else he would’ve months ago.”
“What if you just tell him you sort of like him?” I suggested, and then gasped. “Wait - or better yet, ask him if he likes you, and then when he’s all Albus and stammering and freaking out you can tell him you fancy him!”
“That’s way better than just snogging him,” Willow admitted finally after considering the possibilities, and Mia clapped her hands together.
“Then it’s decided.” said Mia even though it really wasn’t, and after Willow had finally sighed and nodded in agreement Mia was already grabbing a spare quill and walking back inside the villa in order to request an earlier Portkey.
We arrived back to the English countryside at around eleven and had all showered, changed, and reconvened in Adam’s apartment by midnight. I Apparated us all to where I knew all the boys were staying for the night thanks to a casual mention in a letter Scorpius had sent me the day before, and we all linked arms as we were swallowed into the suffocating darkness, Willow clutching onto me more tightly than she usually would.
“Look who’s back early,” Flynn remarked with his trademark smirk the moment we appeared in his own personal basement hangout space (or Bachelor Pad, as he annoyingly liked to call it) but he only had eyes for Mia as she catapulted herself into the armchair he was in and burrowed into his chest.
“Clearly we couldn’t stay away,” I rolled my eyes at him as I sat on the leather couch with my feet sprawled out onto Scorpius who pushed them away with an air of disgust as he always used to do when we were young children.
“How was your trip?” Albus inquired politely but he was really only looking at Willow, who opened her mouth to respond and then stopped halfway through.
“Can I talk to you?” she asked him abruptly, and Albus frowned but nodded, jerking his head towards the spare bedroom that had its home a room over down the hall.
The second the door to Flynn’s space shut behind them I leapt up from my seat, accidentally kicking Scorpius in the process.
“Oi! Willow likes Al and Al likes Willow and she’s about to tell him so everyone shut the fuck up!” I hissed in a voice very unlike my own, and after the boys were still for a moment everyone jumped into action.
“I’ll get the snacks!” Flynn whipped out his wand and sent four bags of popcorn zooming in down the stairs, handing them out to the rest of us.
“Muffliato!” Mia cast on the wall separating us from the pair of them just as Milo tossed me an ear to his multi corded Extendable Ear set that Scorpius had gotten him for Christmas, and I quickly put the receiver by the wall as we all huddled around it.
“So, erm, listen,” Willow was saying, and it was a far cry from her usual calm and confident speech. “I’ve actually been meaning to tell you something-"
“Wait,” said Albus, and he hesitated, as if he were going to say something else but then didn’t. “I’m sorry to interrupt - you just have an eyelash on your cheek.”
“Oh,” I could almost hear the frown of concentration in Willow’s voice as she presumably looked down, and suddenly I was jolted back to when Kato had said the same thing to me at the beginning of Sixth Year. “I can’t see it - could you -“
“Yeah,” said Albus, his voice lower and more gravelly than normal. There was a pause. And then -
“Eurgh!” Flynn shot away from the wall as the unmistakable sound of two lips meeting played at unnaturally high levels through the Ears, and the rest of us did nothing but shush him so we could keep listening.
“Erm,” said Albus after they’d snogged for a minute or so. “What is it that you wanted to tell me?”
“That,” Willow whispered, and then the two of them sort of giggled and then really laughed, the sound of it muffled as if they were still in some sort of an embrace.
“You know, I’ve fancied you for a really long time,” Albus told her, and I was suddenly so proud of him for taking that step even when I knew it was out of his comfort zone. He deserved happiness and love and everything the world could ever offer, and I was so glad that the universe had put Willow right in front of him, where I knew she would stay for a long time.
“Well I’ve fancied you, too,” replied Willow, and then the two of them resumed their non-verbal activities, from the sound of it stepping away from the wall slightly, perhaps more towards the bed.
“Well, we might as well start a game of Exploding Snap, or something,” Flynn shrugged, catapulting himself back onto the leather couch and shoveling a handful of popcorn in his mouth. “I ‘spect they’ll be at it for another-”
“They’re coming!” Mia hissed, and before any of us had time to do anything but scramble back into our respective seats the door had already opened and Albus and Willow were walking through, so casually you’d never know anything had happened.
For a moment, we all stared at them while they stared back at us, all of us sort of frozen in our expressions.
“Well,” said Albus finally, ruffling the back of his head lightly. “You lot just heard everything, didn’t you?”
“Thin walls, mate,” Scorpius grimaced, and he would’ve gotten away with it if Willow hadn’t been standing on the Extendable Ear cord when Milo tried to pull it back in order to shove it out of sight.
“We wanted to know!” Milo said feebly in explanation, holding the damning evidence in his arms as Albus and Willow both stared - but then they looked at each other and laughed, bumping their shoulders together in a sort of pattern that was new but just seemed so easy for them.
“You know, it’s a really good thing Mia can’t keep her bloody mouth shut,” Flynn commented as the two of them sat down, and Mia elbowed him with faux agitation but he didn’t even flinch. “Or else we wouldn’t have just heard you too smashing in there.”
“We were not smashing,” Albus rolled his eyes just as Mia sat up straighter in protest, always the star of the show.
“Hey!” she argued. “Nellie is the one with the big mouth, I was just going to make up some stupid story but then she spilled the beans before I really could-”
“Well, thank you, then, Nellie,” Albus interrupted diplomatically, and then Willow grinned which made him grin which made Scorpius make some joke and the rest of us explode into our normal bantering conversation. Within just a week four in our midsts had coupled off into two pairs, but it didn’t seem unusual or weird; in fact, it was just right, like everything was falling into place exactly where it was supposed to.
After that, we played Exploding Snap Truth or Dare version (when whoever fucked up had to answer a probing question or commit to some embarrassing challenge), but as if it were exhaling itself up from my wind pipe and into my brain, I felt the beginnings of a curse headache coming on. This one was different, too; it was faster, more intense as if warning me that I somehow had less time before it would build completely, and I was only able to last another hour before I knew I had to go home.
It wasn’t hard to excuse myself; Flynn and Scorpius were playing chess while Al and Willow spoke in the corner and Mia and Milo argued about something or other, so merely telling everyone I was tired from our journey home I Apparated back to Adam’s apartment alone, my anxiety and fear levels creeping higher and higher with every minute passed by.
Soon I felt the tingling up my spine so I laid down on the couch and stared at the darkened white of the ceiling until the peak of the pain erupted in my skull and any worldly stimuli was lost to the buzzing in my skull. As it did, I took a deep breath - slow, steady, as I had learned worked best for the flashes - and then the spinning colours and light slowed down around me, taking shape into images.
The pastel colours of early morning, the slow creeping of sleepy sun rays. The frenzied bustle of traffic awakening. A man with messy dark hair, running across the street without looking, and then the red flash of a double decker bus colliding into his figure. Death staining the pavement.
When I opened my eyes, gasping, I could only think of one thing.
Author’s note: The next chapter is the last one of the story, for obvious curse-related reasons. What do you think of the upcoming choice that Nellie must make? What about Calliope and Celeste? Mia and Flynn?
Thank you all once again for reading and reviewing this story so passionately and diligently - it makes all the difference in how fast I write and even sometimes what little details I add into the plot! I’m absolutely so excited (and hugely nervous) to publish the final chapter of The After Before, and I hope each and every one of you will at least appreciate where I end the story. Please let me know your individual thoughts/feelings/theories in the meantime! (And if you haven’t read Romeo and Juliet, I would read a quick synopsis of it now.) Thank you again and please review!
Up next...A story of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, lilacs, and electromagnets.
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