They say London was one of the best cities in the world to visit at Christmastime, and they were right. It was magical, and living in the heart of the city proved to be quite the experience. Twinkle lights were everywhere you walked, and wreathes hung off lampposts, store windows glittering with tinsel and brightly wrapped presents. If only we could get a real dusting of snow, then it'd be perfect.
The Quidditch season had taken a break for the later half of December so everyone could spend time with family, which meant James was home. Hogwarts had let out for their holiday break, so Harper was also around all the time. As Ginny and Harry were still working, Lily and Al now showed up at my house in the mornings and when they actually went home, it was late in the evening. My mostly quiet world had gotten turned upside down, but I actually quite loved the constant sound of talking and laughing.
Dom had two more days of work, and then she’d be here until just after Christmas too, which she was very much looking forward to. I didn’t know if that was because she was happy to spend time more time with me, or because Nate often showed up during the day, but either way, my house was stuffed full, and the trick James and I had learned about conjuring mattresses out of thin air was coming in handy.
Everyone in my house was happy, except for one. Ava had left Ridgeview, against her wishes, and was returning to Hogwarts in January. Headmisstress Helem had told me that as much as they wished that Ava could stay, their job as a school was to get them sober and stable enough for them to go start practicing what they’d learned at the school as far as living without their vices. Ava had been set up with a therapist, that she’d meet at Hogsmeade twice a month once she was at school. I was also looking for a family therapist for the three of us, because there was no way I was going to do this in the summer.
Harper and Ava were super frosty with each other, arranging their schedules to mostly avoid each other. The only time they couldn’t was at dinnertime. Professor Harwing has suggested setting simple rules and requirements for Ava’s return to my house- to keep her accountable. Aside from making her help with chores, and sitting down with all of us for dinner, I didn’t make her participate if she didn’t want to. I'd tried to make a rule that everyone had to take over cooking dinner one night of the week- but had quickly backtracked on that when James and Nate had almost burned the kitchen down attempting to make jerk chicken.
I’d tried to talk to Ava a few days after she’d gotten back, and had been shut out, so I hadn’t tried again. It was agonizing to me, and her attitude towards me was making things harder with everyone. Harper, Dom, and James were all getting protective of me. I wanted to find a way to help her feel included, but as it was her own behavior causing the issues, I couldn’t fix it.
Tonight, I was throwing a holiday party at the townhouse, and was out shopping with Dom, for food and Christmas gifts. It wasn’t going to be massive, but Nate would be there, along with some of James’s teammates. His parents had promised to stop by for a bit to say hi, and Freddy was already over playing Mario Kart with James. Lily, Harper, and Al had been left in charge of cleaning and decorating while Dom and I were gone.
After a few hours, and a long break at my favorite coffeeshop for gingerbread lattes, we headed back home. I smiled when we walked in, because I had always loved the sight of a fully decorated Christmas tree near a roaring fireplace, with stockings above the mantle. Presents were already stuffed under the tree, and the whole house smelled like pine and cinnamon, with a hint of orange and clove. I also smiled because Nate had arrived while we were gone, and I would never tire of seeing Dom actually blush.
I’d never tell James, but he was a very attractive guy. He looked like a modern Viking- pale blonde hair and deep blue eyes, with a neatly trimmed beard. The moment he saw Dom, he grinned.
“There she is.” He called, and Dom melted a bit at that Scottish lilt of his.
I stared at her, and bit back my laugh. He was the only guy that I’d ever seen get under her skin like this. Since I knew she wouldn't respond, I spoke. “Hello Nate. I’m glad you could come tonight.”
“I wouldn’t miss it, thanks for inviting me. I brought loads of whiskey.”
“Let me guess, Freddy is already drinking some?” I asked, depositing bags of food in the kitchen. Dom had taken the gifts to hide in her room until we could wrap them another night.
“I object!” He said, but held up the bottle next to him with a grin. “How did I never know how good Scotch could be? ”
“Cause you always liked girly liquor before.” Dom said, walking into the room. She’d somehow managed to fix her already perfect appearance, her hair curled into perfect waves, and a new low-cut sweater on. It was the color of a holly berry, and kept slipping down her shoulder, showing off that she wasn’t wearing a bra anymore. Paired with bare feet- she ended up looking like a modern Aphrodite. Nate was practically drooling as he made a beeline for her, and then they were gone to us, their conversation with each other would no doubt exclude the rest of us for a while.
James winked at me when I looked to him, and I smiled, throwing on an apron to begin cooking. Harper and Lily thundered down the stairs a moment later, initially doing nothing but getting in my way while they rooted around for snacks, but eventually they helped me make food. Two hours later, everything was prepped. Ham was roasting in one oven, while bread baked in the other. Veggies had been chopped, dips made, and things set out on the counter for pouring into bowls when it got closer to dinnertime — chips, crackers, candied nuts and dried fruits, along with a mix of olives.
When I took stock of the room, I was surprised to see Ava sitting on the stairs watching everyone gathered around the TV while a game of Mario Party was being played, everyone working together to river raft. I took off the apron and washed my hands, before joining her.
“Hey.” I said quietly.
“Hi.” She responded, staring at me.
“How are you today? I’m sorry I haven’t seen you much.”
“You’re busy with your party, it’s okay.”
I didn’t want to fall into that potential bait. It wasn’t okay to ignore her, but since she usually just snapped at me or ignored me, I also didn’t seek her out. “I thought it would be a nice thing to do, but keep it kind of casual. Remember the parties Father always used to host — black tie affairs with elegant food, and we had to wear white gloves that needed to stay clean or else we’d get in trouble?”
“I hated those gloves. And most of those dresses.”
I smiled, tightly. “You and I agree on something. I hope you’ll join in tonight. Some of James’s teammates will be here, you haven’t met them yet. And Dom is brining a friend from work- she’s a big personality though, I warn you.”
Ava shrugged. “I’ll think about it. If I don’t join in socializing, can I still have the food you made?”
“Of course. But I do hope you’ll have fun tonight Ava, it’s almost Christmas. Besides, you know what Professor Harwing told you, that it’ll be important for you to get back to doing what normal people do.”
“Normal people?” She snapped.
I sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that, just that you’ve been removed from a lot lately. This could be a good thing- meet some new people, eat good food. You don’t have to play games, if you don’t want, but please come downstairs later.”
“Do I have to wear a fancy dress and heels? Put on makeup? Look presentable for you?” She bit back, her anger bubbling to the surface.
“Wear jeans and a t-shirt for all I care. This isn’t formal, it’s just friends getting together to celebrate the season.” I stood up, daring to lay my hand on her shoulder. “Think about it, that’s all I ask.”
“I’ll think about it.” She said, looking down with a sad gaze as everyone laughed and talked loudly.
I left her there and went straight for my bathtub. It was time for a very long soak in hot water and bubbles before I got ready tonight. I was going to wear a dress, because it was a party, and I’d bought something new for the occasion. Strapless and short, it was a rich red color that reminded me of poinsettias, with a corded silver belt. I’d probably looked like a Christmas ornament, but it was a holiday party, so whatever.
I let my mind drift as I stepped into the bathtub, and just relaxed. As much as was possible with an angry sister, and a half dozen people yelling loudly downstairs.
The party had started a few hours ago, and it was exactly what I’d wanted. Mostly casual, with friends hanging out, eating tons of food and drinking whatever they grabbed. Music played in the background, and everyone was happy and having fun, which helped me relax. This was the first real event I’d thrown in my house, and I was now able to enjoy it, keeping my wine glass filled while I sat on the edge of the sofa.
I’d had a very interesting conversation with James’s Aunt Hermione, who had stopped by with Ginny, Harry, and Ron. She was very curious about all that I was learning with my schooling, and was pretty much the only person outside of my classmates that listened to me speaking about all things medical without their eyes glazing over. It was kind of an honor to just sit near her, because her skill set went above most magical people alive. They all left as soon as James’s other teammates arrived, and Dom's work friend, plus a few others. Rose showed up with Scorpius, and I was grateful the Wotter clan had accepted that pairing. Roxie came too. Neither of Dom's siblings could make it- Louis in France with their mother's family, and Victorie in Australia for something or another.
All in all, there were about sixteen people here. Any more and the house would feel cramped. Everyone was having fun though, and that was all I cared about. Watching Dom and Nate avoid being under the mistletoe together had turned into a drinking game, and James was about ready to cast a spell to physically bind them together until they kissed and broke their sexual tension, but I told him not to. Dom knew Nate was boyfriend material, and when she was ready to make that commitment, she’d be all over him. It was just a matter of time.
Harper was currently destroying Nate, Lily, and Al at a game of Monopoly. I laughed when the board was “accidentally” flipped, ending the game. To my surprise, Ava had come down and asked to join in the next game, which ended up being Scrabble. Lily, smartly, backed out to get food for herself. Scrabble in my family was vicious. It used to be the only game we every really did as a family, and our parents taught us to take no prisioners. The victor was usually myself or my mother.
This might be a good thing for my sisters- a way to spend time together. Knowing how these games usually went, it would also be a good way for them to get some anger out in the form of competitiveness. Or, they’d ruin the party with a fistfight.
I still couldn’t believe the world I’d fallen into sometimes.
Halfway through the game, when it was very clear the winner was going to be one of my sisters, Nate gracefully backed out and made a beeline for me after he’d filled his glass with whiskey.
“Hullo Charlotte. Thanks again for having me tonight.”
“Of course, you’re practically family now, as often as you’re here.”
“If your best friend would ever let down that delightful wall she keeps up to pretend she doesn’t like me, I’d be here even more often.” He grinned, his attention on me, but his eyes on Dom. She’d changed yet again into a long, Grecian looking dark green dress with gold bangles running up and down her arms.
I laughed. “You seem quite sure of her interest in you.”
“An unfortunate side effect of my heritage- stubbornness and blind confidence. Plus, she can’t stop staring at me.” He wiggled his fingers towards her in a wave, laughing deeply when she grinned, then caught herself and shifted her features into a glare.
“I’m very tempted to let James loose, and have him lock you two in a room together.” I muttered, smiling into my glass.
“Oh no. I’m going to win her affections all on my own.” He said proudly. “I hope she didn’t see me get my ass handed to me from your sisters. She is a Ravenclaw, I imagine intelligence is important.”
“Dom is more about the wit than the intelligence, but I think you’re safe, she was busy during your game. I hope my sisters warned you about how competitive we get with that game. All games, really. It’s an awful family trait.”
“Speaking of warning, your sisters are very different people. All three of you are. Harper, she’s a spitfire and a doll, I quite like her. But Ava … she’s uh …”
I laughed again. “Be honest, it’s alright. She’s an acquired taste.”
“You can say that again. Is she always like that?”
“Yes. I struggle to remember if she ever had a soft side, but no, she’s always been fierce and intense. Harper is the same, but it’s different. Harper doesn’t want to maim with words, Ava does. It’s an awful thing to say about my sister.”
“She’s a bitch, if you don’t mind me saying. Might explain all her issues. James has told me a bit about all of it, I hope that’s alright.”
I looked at James, on the other side of the room with some of his other teammates. He caught me looking and winked. “It’s alright. It’s funny, except not, how all three of us had the same hand dealt to us, but we all manage it so differently.”
“Let me guess,” Ava said, interrupting us, “you're telling him all about your screwed up sister.”
I hadn’t realized the game had ended, and looked over to see Harper with a shit eating grin on her face, letters scattered on the floor as if someone had swept their arm across the board. I really needed to lock that game away somewhere.
Ava was still staring down at me, Al coming up behind her. “Ava, not tonight. Don’t make me out to be the bad guy, tonight of all nights.”
“How dare everyone see that precious Charlotte doesn’t have a perfect life.” She stalked off, shoving past James to head up the stairs, her door slamming behind her.
“I’m sorry Nate, I should go.”
“No, Charlotte. Let me. I’ve been meaning to talk to her anyway, alone.” Al said, laying his hand on my shoulder to keep me down. James was staring at us from across the room, worry scrunching his features together. He left and went upstairs.
I tried to shift my attention to something else, but couldn’t shake the need to go talk to Ava, and apologize. We sort of had been talking about her, but not in the way my sister seemed to assume. James held out his hand for me when I neared, and I trailed my fingers on his arm, but walked past him to climb the stairs. I was aware that everyone was watching me, but couldn’t care too much about that now.
Her door was open a crack, and I meant to knock, I really did. My hand hovered in a fist above the door, but I heard them talking, and froze. My brain screamed at me to either leave and give them privacy, or knock, and interrupt. Apologize.
I didn’t neither, lowering my hand, and shifting to the side a bit to listen in, feeling awful.
“If I demand absolute honesty will you give it to me?”
“Yes. I can do it with you, but not anyone else in this house.” Ava said, sitting on her bed, shoulders slumped.
“How are you doing, really?” Al asked.
"I was wondering when this inquiry was coming. Finally checking in on your former friend that's shown how fucked up she is?"
“You’re not …”
“Fucked up? Yeah, I am. I spent six months at a school getting sober and learning to own the feelings that led to becoming a drug addict, and sex addict, let’s be honest. I enjoyed being clean, but it’s taking every bit of everything that I learned at that school to keep me from sneaking out and seeking out Avery for a hit of something. Whether that’s a line of morsque or a hard fuck, I don’t know.”
I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear the frustrated scowl that came out of his mouth. “What the hell Ava, why would you say that?”
She sighed. “I get that you still see me as that put together but very independent friend you used to have, and you can’t for the life of you understand why I all of a sudden, with no warning, started doing hardcore drugs and hanging out with a loser like Avery. That’s not me Al, and the reason I always felt most comfortable with you is because I thought you could see through that mask, and just never pushed me on it.”
“You’ve never told me … about any of it. How you started, when you started, why you started … why keep up something you know could kill you?”
“Have you ever done drugs Al? Don’t answer that. I know the answer is no. You’re too pure.”
“I’m not pure.”
“You are, in more ways than one, but where I’m sitting- that’s not a bad thing Al. I lost my virginity when I was fourteen, and started doing drugs when I was thirteen. No one knows that though.”
I sucked in a breath, putting my hand over my mouth to avoid giving me away. She’d been doing things for that long?
“Because I’m broken and the drugs made it all go away, even if it was only temporary. I’m worthless Albus, there’s nothing anyone really loves about me. My parents don't even want me, and there’s no way you can ever understand how much that shatters a person. It’s permanent, that feeling of not being wanted. It alters everything inside of you. I’m the worst of both of them- and so I’m the least important.”
“You’re important to me. And Charlotte, and Harper. You do have people that care.”
“Charlotte and I will never be close, ever. I stay here because I have nowhere else to go, but she will never know me, or understand me. Every time she looks at me she’s just going to see her broken little sister, the drug addict.”
“You don’t give her enough credit.”
“I know you two have become closer, and I don’t want to bash her. Hell, I wanted to be her, growing up. Before our parents got divorced, they fought all the time, and when they didn’t, we might as well have lived in the polar ice caps for all the warmth they showed to each other, or us. I always envied Charlotte, and her ability to get caught up in other things. She was always so contained, in her own world, especially with books. Even as an eight year old, she spoke better than teenagers, and was always reading. It was her escape. I guess somewhere along the line, I looked to find my own, and found drugs.”
“But why take that step? You know they’re bad for you.”
“You’re never going to understand the why because you’re whole Al. You’re not broken inside, unwanted and unloved. I wanted to feel good, at first, that’s all it was about. Weed made me laugh, and forget. And when I realized that it helped me forget, I fell all in. Who wants to remember that they hate themselves and that they feel worthless. Drugs, especially the hard core ones, had a way of making me feel good. I needed that feeling. I needed, desperately needed, to feel like I belonged to some part of myself. It was an escape from the demons in my head, and in my soul.”
“You always seemed so confident Ava, like nothing could touch you, and you were as strong as a goddess.”
She snorted, a bitter laugh following. “Mental battles aren’t ever seen on the outside, Al. None of you have any idea about how hard I fought the thoughts in my head, and how hard I tried to seem normal, to seem okay. I was never okay. I’m not okay now, but I’m trying.”
“I wish you’d talked to me.”
“And been pitied? No thank you.”
“Can I trust you to stay inside tonight and not seek out that escape?”
“You’re going to have to, so is Charlotte. The ever present big sister.”
“Do you even know how much she worries about you, how much it hurt her that you decided to turn all your lifelong anger onto her?”
“Look, I know you two are close now. That’s not a good look for you- boyfriends younger brother filling in while James is away.”
“Don’t fucking be like that with me Ava. Don’t sit there and act like I don’t care, or turn all those twisted feelings into something they’re not. I’m sure you’re having a hard time adjusting to being here, in your sisters house, and preparing to go back to a school that knows you got kicked out for all kinds of bad things. That’s not an excuse. You said you wanted to come back because all that you learned at Ridgeview would mean nothing if you didn’t face anything. You say you’ve fought mental battles I’ll never understand- you’re right. My parents are tough sometimes, but they love me, and Lily, and James. I’m sorry you have the parents you do- but you don’t see either of your sisters making the choices you made.”
Ava snorted, and I heard her feet hit the floor as she started pacing. “Charlotte is so far from perfect it’s not even funny.”
“Stop attacking her. I’m over it. Stop using anger as a defense mechanism Ava.”
She snapped back at him, hissing her words. “It’s what I’m good at.”
“If you don’t try to be better, for yourself, or for anyone else, you’re going to fail at sobriety. I don’t have any experience with this kind of thing except for you, and I can see that coming a mile away. You don’t get to put any of this on anyone else. So, for the last time, stop blaming her.”
This moment could be everything. Ava would either back down and apologize, or hold onto that anger like it was a lifeline and wield it freely, and often. I was so broken hearted when she chose the latter.
“I think you’re in love with her Al. Waiting for James to screw up and fuck some two bit floozy, so you can swoop in? You two are far more compatible anyway. I’ll never understand why James picked her when he could have anyone.”
I could hear the sadness in his sigh, his voice quiet but edged with steel. “Don’t ever come to me and say I never tried. You had a choice, now and all those times before, to let that anger you carry win, or to rise above it. I’m done. Be angry, and go end up in a ditch some night because you let that be more important than anything. Find fucking anything Ava to be better than that anger, so that you can live.”
I barely stepped back in time, flattening against the wall to avoid Al crashing in to me as he barreled out of the room. He tuned and saw me, his face a mask of contained fury, before he stalked downstairs, turning towards Dom’s room and the back door. I heard it slam shut a moment later.
“I know you’re out there.” Ava said, and I stepped inside.
“Why do you hate me?” I asked bluntly.
“It’s easy, you’re everything I’m not.”
“That’s not a reason to hate me.” I said back. "I'm doing the best I can here Ava."
“All of us were born to be fucked up, but you’ve sailed clear through it. Steady as a child, star student at Hogwarts, top of her class in your post Hogwarts education plan, and happily dating one of the most sought after men in the Wizarding community. James could literally have anyone he wanted, and he only has eyes for you. How are you so perfect?”
No one else in my life could get me to snap like Ava could. I was tired of defending myself against my own sister, and was saved from replying by my best friend, who slammed into the room like a tornado, rushing past me to back Ava into a wall. The fury that could explode from the two of them might level this entire block of apartments, and my mind whirled with ways to separate them.
“That’s. Fucking. It. Get out of my fucking house if all you are going to do is attack the only fucking grown up person in your life that’s trying to help you! Do you see your loser parents here, trying to help you navigate anything? No, because they’re fucking losers. You know who has been there for you, worrying about you and wondering every gods damned day what she can do to make things better- for you and between you? You guessed it- your big sister. I would’t have let you back in my house after half the things you’ve said to Charlie. But here you are- in a newly decorated room exactly to your taste. She bought food that you love, and ordered you fucking Hawaiian pizza, and let me tell you girl, pineapple has no place on a pizza. It should be a banned item, but she got it for you, because you like it. Gods, I can’t even stand to look at you.”
Ava was boiling with anger, and it was such a familiar look. It was too hard to see, because I knew she hadn’t grown enough to contain it, and worried about what would happen with her once we all left her room. That new bedroom set might end up as sawdust on the brand new rug.
“You’re one to talk.” Ava spat back. “You’re taking advantage of my sisters hospitality, because you’re the second daughter that your parents don’t quite love as much as their first. Victorie has already bought her own house, and is engaged to the love of her life, right? What are you but a minor tech in a salon that’s probably slept through half of London by now. Are you pregnant yet, any plans to fully throw your life away?”
“Ava!” I shouted. “That’s enough. You don’t get to come into this house and talk to anyone that way, especially my best friend.”
“There it is, you pick her over me.”
“You’re so fucked up Ava, that’s not what this is.” Dom shouted.
“She just said, and I quote, especially my best friend. You can say whatever you want to me, but I can’t tell you the truth.”
“You’re lashing out. I know it well Ava, one bitch to another. You don’t get to dictate how I live my life, and guess what sister, I’m happy. I’m content, and I sure as hell know who the fuck I am. I’ll own that goddamn salon in a few years, and you’ll see my name plastered on magical beauty products shortly after that. As for attacking me for sleeping around- you don’t get to judge on that, you slept with Avery. I, at least, have standards for who I let into my body. You have none. So shut the fuck up Ava, and look around. This could be pretty good for you, if you let it.”
She ignored Dom completely, fixing her gaze on me. “Send me away, I dare you. Let me get out of here. I don’t belong here, and you don’t want me. Let me go.” She begged, and it finally snapped into place then. We’d never be close, and I could never save her. She’d never let me, not until she let go of all that anger that masqueraded as intense pain.
“You have nowhere else to go, so for now, you can stay here, in this room.”
“You’re not my parent, you can’t ground me.”
Dom started to speak, but I held up my hand, silencing her. “Actually, I can. Our mother disappeared two years ago, and Dad is more than happy to shell out money when we need it but that’s about it. Which means that I have become your legal guardian, and I get to make the decisions about you. Your return to school, any school, is conditional upon you being connected to me — the responsible older sibling. You and I are just going to have to figure out how to be cordial until you turn seventeen and can live your own life. Until then, you’re stuck here.”
I turned around, and walked downstairs, straight into James, who waited at the bottom of the stairs with his arms held out. I’d never wanted to have our own place more than I did in that moment. I didn’t want this anymore- being her guardian. There was no one else though, and as much as her being here caused me massive panic attacks- I wasn’t going to abandon her like everyone else.
“I change my mind. I want to go to Illvermorny, and go live with Aunt Diana in New York.”
“The Aunt that hasn’t seen any of us in over ten years.” I said, more as a statement than a question.
I pinched the bridge of my nose, taking in a breath so deep it hurt my lungs. It came out as a single word. “No.”
Ava shrieked, and stomped her foot. I’d have found it comedic, if not for the juvenileness of it all. “I hate you.”
This was a phrase I’d been warned about. Every parent of every difficult, or strong willed child heard it at some point. My mind flashed back to last Christmas, when Ava had seemed to be opening up to me, when I’d had hope that we could be okay, as sisters. Seeing her gaze now burst that tiny dream into pieces.
“Fine. You had a choice when you left Ridgeivew, and that was Hogwarts or Illvermorny. You chose to come back, and there is no time left to change your mind. Get through this semester, and if you still really want to live back in New York, we can try to set that in motion before the summer. But you’re going to have to think long and hard if you really want to spend your very last year of school in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people.”
Ava shrieked again, and slammed her bedroom door behind her. Dom looked ready to charge in there, but a firm gaze from James and myself stopped her. She didn’t need any more attention, any more chances to yell about the injustice being done to her.
Everyone had watched us fighting on the stairs, and I was tired of it all with her, but I couldn’t give up. Couldn’t send her away, because that would just solidify her belief that her family didn’t care, and wouldn’t try. The times when panic attacks woke me up, I wonder if my drive to prove my loyalty to her was worth all that it was causing in me. There had to be something to fight for with her, someone had to fight for her, because she certainly wasn’t doing it herself right now.
By all accounts, she was the outwardly strong willed one, but even she admitted she was weak inside, for giving in all those times even though she knew what she was doing was bad. Me, everyone thought I was meek and quiet, but inside, I found, I was just as strong willed as her. I hadn’t quite known it existed until the past year or so- but it was there. I was strong too.
Could I be strong enough though?
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