I raced from McGonagall's office, not pausing to take a breath or allowing myself a well deserved moment of relief. I'd celebrate later—let Rose, Kit and Cecily marvel over my genius, my cunning and guile. But now, I had more pressing things to worry about. I skidded to a halt in front of the Hufflepuff common room, quickly tapping the barrels in the correct order. The entrance revealed itself without trouble.
I was about to head toward the girls dormitories but stopped short when I recognised a cloud of dark, golden brown curls.
'Kit?' I said, surprised.
She looked up at me, startled, and I internally winced. Her cheeks were cut with scrapes, scrapes that Madam Pomfrey had unreassuringly assured would disappear over time, and her left eye was black and purple and green. I had never seen such a sorry creature in my entire life, but it seemed like Kit wasn't even aware of it. For the first time, I wondered what she was doing out here, alone.
'You want the Hat,' she said, and it wasn't a question.
I tried to gauge her tone or something from her expression—fear? panic? mistrust? unease?—but couldn't.
She nodded and then reached into her sleeve to pull out the weathered, beaten thing. Torn and patched, frayed and singed, it looked like an old, ordinary wizarding hat. I took it from her slowly, feeling unsure.
'She didn't expel me,' I said impulsively. I didn't understand what had compelled me to speak at all. To read on her features that she wasn't disappointed in me, that she didn't think I was a bad person. It unsettled me … because I had only ever felt that compulsion around Potter. 'I do have detention for the rest of my life, though. And I can't go to Hogsmeade or any Quidditch matches.'
She smiled at me faintly. 'I figured.' Her gaze slid to the Hat, eyes blank and unreadable. 'Why did you take that.'
My heart picked up speed.
I didn't want to lie to her and it was baffling.
My impulse to deflect and hide, to reassure her that I knew what I was doing, that it wasn't her concern, withered away. Because I wasn't seeing just Kit anymore. I was seeing the girl who stood defiantly against an Obscurus; the girl who fought Cecily fiercely so that she would have a wand; the girl who took the Sorting Hat without question; the girl who had thrown herself in front of Rose, to protect her.
'I can't tell you,' I said. 'I … I …'
I looked down at the Hat in my hands, utterly lost and out of my depth. For so long I had felt superior to everyone around me—both in intellect and disposition. With Potter, I was undone, and nothing. Standing in front of Kit, I realised that she was my equal, and what that realisation was costing me, I had no idea.
So I told her what I could.
'I can't tell you. I swore an oath, Kit. I'm sorry.'
Her eyes flicked up to meet mine sharply.
I nodded once; there was something in her composure that unnerved me.
'You swore an oath …' She looked away, then got up. I watched her cautiously. When she turned to me, her expression was vacant and exhausted. 'I'm going to bed. I'll see you later, Jane.'
I opened my mouth to say something—anything—but I didn't know what.
So I watched her leave instead.
The next morning, I woke up early—earlier than I ever had in my life, except for Christmas mornings. Quietly, I got dressed and made my way to breakfast. I had just arrived at the Entrance Hall when James almost crashed into me. I blinked at him as he tried to catch his breath, eyes flickering all over my face as he registered it.
To Olive, Eve and Peter, I had explained my injuries away by telling them James and I had been taking a walk together when it had started to rain. In the darkness and our mad scramble to get back into the castle, I'd run into the Whomping Willow. It was a little disheartening that they believed me so easily. Either it honestly made sense for something like that to happen to me or I was becoming better at lying.
He pointed at me, eyes wide.
'Um,' he panted. 'What the fuck?'
'I got in a fight with Cecily,' I said. 'She punched me.'
'It only hurts a little,' I offered lightly.
He shut his eyes and exhaled sharply through his nose. 'I—I—it's—you're so—' he widened his hands to indicate something big '—and it's really hard to understand why—'
'I have a black eye to remind me what an idiot I am so you really don't have to.'
'Because she needed a fight,' I muttered. 'Now were you planning on interrogating me the whole day or are you going to walk me to breakfast?'
He stared at me for a moment—then rolled his eyes and took my hand, like a real boyfriend, like we were really falling in love. People stared shamelessly at us as usual but, for the first time, I was sure it wasn't because I was with James Potter and, rather, because I looked insane.
This was going to be a long day.
'What happened?' he demanded. 'You look …'
My heart hardened, felt it leak into my face, souring my features. I couldn't explain why, specifically, I was in such a bad mood. I couldn't tell if it was the constant, dull ache in my eye socket that made my skin itch with anger. I couldn't tell if it was Jane with the Sorting Hat. I couldn't tell if it was the fact that I would have to order a new wand this morning and tell my Professors that I didn’t have one.
'Kit?' he prompted again.
'Rose, Jane and I went to get Cecily. We went to see McGonagall, to get her re-admitted. Charlie was there, too, but he probably told you all of this himself.'
I hadn't answered his question and he knew it.
Suddenly, I knew exactly why I was so furious.
'I swore an oath,' I said, bitingly sarcastic, words dripping with venom. 'I can't tell you why but I can tell you I swore an oath! It's a loophole, see!'
'Ha ha,' James said dryly, but he seemed worried.
I seethed quietly, ignoring the look he shot me as we sat down opposite each other at the Gryffindor table.
'So did it work?'
'Is Cecily back in school?'
I bit my lip and was distracted by the way his gaze flicked down to them and back up.
'Is Cecily back in school,' James repeated.
'Yes.' Why was he looking at my lips? 'She is.' Then, whether I wanted piss him off or piss myself off, I said, 'So, have you seen Pauline today?'
'You mean since we argued about it last night?' James raised his eyebrows as my face went hot. 'No, I haven't. I told you, I won't do it in public again.'
Right … right.
He wasn't looking at my lips—I was being stupid.
'So you would still do it in private,' I said without thinking and I regretted it at once. What did it matter if he did it in private? He could do whatever he wanted! I knew I was ignoring the alarm system wailing in my head—knew I'd been ignoring it since last night when I realised that maybe—just maybe—I was hoping that he'd been the teensiest bit jealous about Dean Bealsey. 'I just mean—I mean, I don't want to keep talking about it but—'
'So stop bringing it up,' he muttered.
'What's the point, James?' I searched his face for an answer. I couldn't help myself from pressing the issue. I only knew that I needed an answer—a concrete statement from him that confirmed what he felt so I could stop the dangerous way I was feeling. 'How much closure do you need? I honestly don't think you're over her.'
'Okay—whatever—sure!' He seemed frustrated. 'Maybe I'm not! Is that what you want to hear?'
No it wasn't.
The thought settled uneasily on my heart, an oil slick in an ocean.
What are you DOING, Kit? The voice in my head sounded dangerously like Rose. Do you even want HIM? Or just the convenience of him?! You're such an idiot! He's already your boyfriend—your FAKE boyfriend—so you don't have to do any of the actual work to BE in a real relationship! You don't fucking like him! You just wish it was this easy!
I shrugged, flicking a breadcrumb off the table.
He studied me curiously. 'You're annoyed with me. Why?'
'I don't have to tell you anything.' I tried to sound unaffected—indifferent or cold—but I could barely control the tremble of rage that rippled like an undercurrent through my words. 'You keep plenty of secrets from me.'
'I knew it,' he said finally.
'Knew what?' I snarled.
'That you were annoyed with me,' he said simply. 'It bothers you that I'm not honest with you.'
Anger bristled under my skin.
'No,' I said. 'We don't owe each other anything.'
His brow furrowed.
'Not even as friends?'
I cut my gaze away, feeling hot all over.
I was interrupted by the all too familiar swoosh and hoots of the Owl post arriving. James and I looked up at the same time as two owls dropped us each something. Bewildered, I pulled my package towards me. I lifted the card attached to it and read:
I always knew you'd need another wand someday.
Alder wood, dragon heartstring core, 12 and three quarter inches, unyielding.
Astonished, I twisted in my seat to look down the Gryffindor table, searching for my brother. I didn't know how I knew this was his doing, only that it made the most sense. He must've gone to the Owlery after the four of us had departed to our respective common rooms last night. It lightened the weight on my shoulders. I hadn't realised how heavy it had been before, how I was struggling to compartmentalise the clash of confusing emotions inside of me.
'This is weird …'
I looked at James just as his gaze landed on my new wand.
'What is?' I asked the same time he demanded, 'Why do you have a new wand?'
He opened his mouth, but I cut across him.
'What's weird?' The Prophet was open in front of him. I slid the newspaper over before he could protest and scanned the articles. 'Which—'
James and I both turned to look as Rose ran over to us, the Prophet tucked under her arm, face white with worry and panic. I couldn't help the relief that washed over me, despite the look on her face. She was exactly the kind of distraction I needed. Maybe she'd give me a reason to get away from James completely.
'Rose! Join us!'
'No,' James said irritatedly. 'Don't.'
Rose shot him a pure look of disdain before facing me. 'I spoke to Jane last night—'
'Were you creeping around her common room entrance like a creep?' James muttered.
'For your information, I'm a prefect! I get to go wherever I want! And I wasn't creeping—'
'What happened?' I asked quickly, before they could start arguing in earnest.
'They're both allowed to stay!' she said. 'Jane said that she has detention everyday for the rest of the year and that she's banned from Hogsmeade but she's allowed to stay! It worked!'
'Oh,' I said, deflating. Then, at the looks on both of their faces, realising abruptly that it was probably a good idea to keep my conversation with Jane private (for now), I amended hastily, 'Oh my god! I can't believe it! This is amazing news! I had no idea!'
Rose regarded me suspiciously as I tried to make my face as blankly unassuming as possible. I looked at the Prophet tucked under her arm, to stop her from looking at me like that.
Rose paled and I didn't miss the furtive look she shot James. He didn't either but—clever boy that he was—said nothing. Her eyes slid to the Prophet already open in front of me, clearing her throat audibly, eyes widening significantly. Rose was good at a lot of things but acting casually was not one of them.
'Professor Creevey's in St. Mungo's. Isn't that—isn't that strange? They—they don't know why.'
I scanned for the article and found it in the bottom right hand corner. Hardly an article at all—just a brief note informing everyone that Hogwarts' Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor, Dennis Creevey, had been admitted to St. Mungo's on early Sunday morning. I went nearly blind with stress—I had to read the sparse sentences four times before they processed fully. The Prophet hadn't given the reason why he was in hospital, they hadn't mentioned whether the school or someone else had admitted him, and—most alarmingly—when the Prophet had reached out to Hogwarts for comment, Headmistress McGonagall had said, "We request that the Daily Prophet observe the privacy of both Hogwarts and Professor Creevey at this time".
I looked up at Rose, hoping it wasn't plain as day on my face how distressed I was.
'Didn't realise you two were such admirers of Creevey,' James said lightly.
We looked at him.
He was amused. 'What? I'm sure he'll pull through. There's no need to fret. You girls'd better get in line, though. There's probably already a queue forming for visitors. You girls are better off sending him a get well soon card.' He jerked his chin over to me. 'Kit does wonders with construction paper and glitter and she has such a talent with words.'
A dull flush rose up my neck, pooling into my cheeks.
He thought we were teenagers with a crush on teacher!
'Rose, I need to talk to you,' I said abruptly, tearing my eyes away from him. 'Like, right now.'
James shot me a look of disbelief. 'We haven't even eaten yet!'
I got up and hitched my school bag over my shoulder, ignoring him. Rose's gaze darted between us awkwardly but when I looked pointedly out the Great Hall doors, she surrendered, wheeling around and heading out.
'I was just kidding about Creevey,' James muttered darkly, as if he couldn't believe that I wasn't able to handle a bit of banter. He looked at me and I couldn't place his expression. 'Do you really need to talk to her or did you just need a reason not to hang out with me?'
In my head, I was going to answer his question equanimously, with no room for doubt or argument, and leave—but what came out was only the kind of hell that my mind could conspire to create.
'"Kit and James will not lie to each other and will always tell each other the truth, no matter what".' My body was trembling with an utterly foreign anxiety; it was dread—nervous, slick dread—and exploding fear; it was a thrilling terror; a pounding heart, slamming against my ribcage. 'You've been breaking that rule since day one, even though it was your rule. You asked me what we owe each other as friends?' My insides were glowing, writhing with my own boldness, as if my body knew before my mind did the significance of what I was saying and rebelled. 'We owe each other decency. The decency, at the very least, to treat me like a person and not a complete moron.'
With that, I whirled around and left, blood pounding in my ears.
'How does it feel?' Charlie murmured.
I watched him turn my hands over in his, tracing the blue veins that spidered from my wrist down the length of my arm. I shivered against the feeling, almost forgetting for a moment that he'd asked me a question. For a moment, my mind went blissfully blank as the echoes of his skin on mine billowed through me, the desperate, aching way we had kissed, how, when he'd slid inside me, we'd both tasted oblivion.
'I don't know … It's hard to explain.' At the look on Charlie's face, I tried. 'The two weeks I spent without a wand, knowing what I might be … they were like a dream. Like I was a shadow, walking through the past. None of it felt real until I saw the panic room with my own eyes …' Charlie cast his crystal blue eyes down, as though it hurt him for me speak the thing into existence. 'I blacked out twice after that with no memory of what had happened.'
Lost in my thoughts, I wondered what I had done in the alley way the first time I'd lost control.
'You didn't kill him.' Not like your parents. 'You know what the Prophet said.'
'It didn't say anything,' I murmured. 'We don't even know if he's conscious …' I looked away, heart tightening. 'I only remember what it felt like when Kit, Rose and Jane somehow … somehow managed to get me to come back to myself. I was nothing before—I was gone; nowhere—and then suddenly … it was like I remembered I existed and I was there again. "I think, therefore I am" …'
'I still can't believe it,' Charlie said quietly, after a beat. 'I don't know much about Obscuruses but you're so … you're so normal.' He searched face openly, not bothering to disguise his distress. 'I can't picture you losing control or being destructive or—or hurting anyone. And I know it's not really you but—' he shook his head once. 'There has to be a way to remove it.'
Slowly, I withdrew my hands from his, a chill steeling over me.
'There isn't,' I said softly.
'You don't know that, Cecily, you don't know what—'
I cut my gaze up to him.
'I do. I do know. You can't remove the Obscurus without killing me. The only way to kill it is if I'm in my Obscurial form and I—' I choked on the words, the memory of rage and power unleashing from inside of me. 'It would be too dangerous. And there's no way to tell if I'd survive that either. The only I option I have is to manage it. And I can. I've proven that, at the very least. With a wand, with you …' I brushed my knuckles against his cheek. 'With my friends.'
'What if something happens?' His voice was low, rough with barely concealed tension. 'What if something happens.'
It wasn't a thought that hadn't occurred to me.
'Then I'll have to be destroyed before I hurt anyone else.'
Charlie's eyes flashed, all the colour draining from his face. 'No.'
'I don't see any other way—'
'Then I'll find one,' he snarled, startling me with his intensity. 'You don't know everything, even if you think you've read all the right books! There has to be something—something out there that we can use—'
I laced my fingers through his, squeezing tight.
'Already I feel it fading,' I whispered, forcing him to look at me. 'With every hour that passes, I feel my heart turning red. I feel the blackness chipping away. It's not nothing, Charlie. And I'm not alone this time. I can do it. I can figure it out.'
'And Creevey?' he demanded desperately, shaking his head. 'It doesn't feel right—what he did. He shouldn't have taken you into your worst memory—he shouldn't have found you alone or taken you to the orphanage—not when he knew what you were—'
I bit my lip.
It was the only thing I had kept from him.
I didn't want him to know about Rose and Jane's suspicions of Professor Creevey because it would make it harder for me to stop going over it in my mind every hour of every day, trying to solve another mystery, to find the truth. If Charlie knew, he'd want to hunt him down and demand answers. And there was no point—Creevey would get better—he had to—and I would be safe at Hogwarts, no matter who he was or what his intentions were. I was protected and I would manage my Obscurus. There was no point.
'Charlie, he has nothing to do with this,' I said, almost pleadingly. 'Creevey was misguided. We both made mistakes—'
'You're just a kid! He's an adult! He should've known better!'
'It wasn't his fault.'
He scoffed. 'He could've killed you. You could've killed him.'
I buried my face in my hands, rubbing the heels of my palms into my eyes, watching galaxies and stars burst behind my eyelids. Sighing, I twisted my face away. We were in the Transfiguration Courtyard; it was usually Kit and James' favourite haunt, but they weren't here today. I was just about to look at Charlie again when something caught my eye. A bolt of terror shot through my heart.
I straightened up.
'What?' Charlie said at once.
I blinked, heart racing, and realised … it was the Grey Lady, the Ghost of Ravenclaw House.
'Is that …'
I dug my nails into Charlie's hand to shut up him.
The Grey Lady was well known to every Slytherin. None of us feared the Bloody Baron—well, not after first year anyway—and some of the older students, students of a different generation, had even been on speaking terms with him. Over the years, his story had filtered down in broken, thrilling pieces. Half horror, half love story. And we all grew to fear and respect the Grey Lady because of it.
She floated serenely toward us now, her shadowy, pearl like eyes never leaving mine.
She stopped a few feet away from us.
I was frozen to the bone in awe and slight fear, my heart pounding in my chest.
'You should have sought me out,' the Grey Lady said, her voice cold and brittle at the same time. She held herself proudly, her features haughty and arrogant. There was a bitterness in the twist of her mouth, a disdain glittering in her eyes. 'Instead, I have been made to come to you.'
I had no idea what to say—I could only stare in complete astonishment that she was speaking to me at all.
'My Lady,' I heard Charlie say, clearing his throat and adopting a charming, soothing tone. 'We apologise … we didn't know that we were looking for you.'
The Grey Lady raised her chin and peered at him through her ghostly lashes.
'What do you want?' I asked, and it sounded harsh and primitive even to my own ears. The way Charlie had spoken to her, you'd have thought he was some kind of medieval lord. I had no idea where he'd even learnt to sound like that. 'We haven't done anything wrong.'
Her gaze slid to me, cool and calculating.
'You haven't,' she said. 'Yet.'
'Jane stole the Sorting Hat,' Kit said in a hurried whisper as soon as we were outside.
I stared at her.
'Rose?' Kit said. 'Rose, she stole the Sorting Hat—'
'I heard you,' I said shortly.
'There's something else—'
'Or there is, is there?' I could hear the rising hysteria in my own voice and I ground my teeth together, trying to control the waves of anger, crashing over my edges, hot and lashing. You gave Jane an inch and that bitch took the whole fucking mile. In the midst of trying not to get her expelled she had stolen the FUCKING Sorting Hat! 'I can't wait to hear it.'
Kit set her mouth in a grim line. 'I think she and James are up to something.'
Whatever I had been bracing myself for, I had not expected that.
'What in the hell are you talking about?' I demanded. 'What in Merlin's blue fucking balls gave you that idea?'
She drew in a deep breath, dark chocolate eyes wide and tense. 'You remember the night of the Forest Fire?'
'Remember—remember I told you that I thought James was cheating on me?' Kit searched my face worriedly as I went completely still. I would eviscerate James if he was with Pauline. 'And I told you he'd said he'd gone somewhere? He told me had something to do—somewhere to be—and I knew it wasn't Quidditch practise because of Charlie and—and—he swore an oath, Rose!'
I'd almost forgotten how mind numbingly irritating it was to decipher Kit's blabbering.
'And oath to do what?'
'No, no—' Kit groaned. 'The next day, in the Hospital Wing, I asked him where he'd been last night—I thought maybe he'd been watching or—or I don't know—maybe he'd missed the whole thing but … he told me he couldn't tell me where he'd been because he'd sworn an oath not to.' Kit's eyes were wide, maybe even a little pleading, as though she just really needed me to understand what she was saying so she wouldn't have to actually say it. 'Then, last night, Jane came for the Sorting Hat—she'd given it to me to take when we left—and when I asked her why, she told me she couldn't tell me because she'd sworn an oath. Rose, we know Jane wasn't the only one who'd started the fire … and Cecily …'
I opened my mouth, then closed it.
Somehow, I'd forgotten that Cecily had been a part of the Forest fire. That Kit had given her the Fire Lilies and that she had been the one to concoct and create the false fire. If Jane was a part of whatever James was a part of … Cecily had known about it. She possibly knew, even now, what Jane was up to. Had she plotted with her to steal the Sorting Hat?
It made acid churn in my heart—and I shoved away the tide that I was too terrified to look at, the one that slipped in when I least expected and rendered me immobile with fear.
'They're in cahoots,' I blurted, so shocked that I'd used the word cahoots.
'I'm so stupid!' Kit smacked her forehead, twisting on the spot. 'Ugh! I didn't pry because I didn't want to know and even when all the answers were just so bloody obvious and in my face, I couldn't connect the dots! I'm such an idiot!'
'You're not an idiot …' I looked away, thoughts reeling. 'So James and Jane … and Cecily … they're in some kind of group … there were so many voices that night, shouting from the Forest, I remember that … it can't just be the three of them. They planned the Forest fire. And now they're planning something to do with the Hat.' Abruptly, I was furious. 'This is almost annoyingly on fucking brand.'
'What do you mean?'
'James,' I spat. 'He is so fucking dramatic.'
Kit bit her lip, casting her gaze towards the Great Hall. 'What are we going to do?'
'Do?' I repeated dementedly. 'It's bloody obvious, isn't it? As if we don't have enough shit on our plates to eat.'
Kit looked at me, dismayed.
'Oh no … oh no, Rose—'
'We have to stop them,' I snarled. 'And find a way for those pricks not to get expelled—again.'
I threw the Sorting Hat onto the middle of the table.
Lulu sat up straight, eyes wide with disbelief. Even Imogen and Rudolph were shocked. I could feel Potter fidgeting beside me—the only sign that he definitely didn't feel as sure as I did, no matter what he'd promised earlier. But I didn't care about any of their reactions. There was only one person who mattered right now.
James looked at it, lounging in his chair, utterly unruffled.
'Right under McGonagall's nose, too, I bet,' he said, pulling the dormant Hat towards him.
I wasn't surprised that he knew I'd been in her office—Kit obviously told him we'd all been there. And even though it was hard to tell, I could see on his face that he, too, was surprised. If you weren't a seasoned reader like me, decoding the expressions of the Potter boys was like trying to understand a dead language. But I'd had practise.
'Your girlfriend helped,' I said, mostly to rattle him.
Now he really didn't bother to hide his surprise. He even laughed.
'Of course she did …' His gaze cut up to meet mine and it was shrewd and calculating. 'My girlfriend's done a lot of fucking shit for you. Sparing Rose the Curse you shot her … helping you in your withdrawal … how are you managing that by the way? Oh—and not to mention—helping you stay in Hogwarts instead of getting expelled, like you deserve.'
'James,' Potter said.
It wasn't exactly a warning and not exactly an appeal. Either way, from the way James' eyes flashed, he got the message.
'Thanks for making our jobs easier,' he said. 'We appreciate it.'
I glanced at Potter, but he wasn't looking at me. His expression was impassive, eyes glittering and on his brother.
'Getting that Hat wasn't easy,' I began, but James interrupted.
'No … I imagine it was.' He looked at me, the corner of his mouth turning up in amusement. 'But you and I both know that was the easy part.'
I narrowed my eyes.
'You don't know how to destroy it,' I said, controlling the anger in every word. 'And you won't be able to destroy it without me.' I looked at Lulu, because this was for her. Her gaze was cold, icy with hatred. 'But I could teach you.'
Rudolph looked between James and Potter, frowning.
'Neither of you could offer that,' he said.
James clenched his jaw, silencing Rudolph with a single, cutting look.
Imogen cleared her throat. 'I know the theory. We don't need her—'
'She needs a real teacher,' I said. 'Theory will only get you so far. You need the real thing. I know how to destroy the Hat—not maim, not injure—but destroy. For good. Forever.' Again I faced Lulu, trying to bridge the divide between us. The one I couldn't help. 'This is such a worthy cause, Lulu. This Hat—our Founders—they had such good intentions—but you know as well as me that that those intentions have divided and conquered this school. It's created so much hate ... You can change that. You just need to let me help you.'
Lulu set her mouth stubbornly and looked away.
'We vote,' Potter said, voice clear and full of authority. 'We let the vote decide.'
James flicked his gaze up to me. 'Nay.'
'Aye,' Rudolph said, looking much more confident and at ease than the last time he'd voted for me. He flashed me a quick, sincere smile.
'Nay,' Imogen said, locking her gaze with mine, daring me to question her.
'Aye,' Potter said.
That left Lulu.
'This will break the tie,' James said, eyes on her. 'How do you vote, Bedivere?'
Lulu looked at me.
'You don't belong in Ravenclaw House,' she said coldly.
'No,' I said, even though she hadn't asked me a question. 'I don't.'
She raised her chin haughtily.
'I vote aye.'
I avoided James the whole day.
Or maybe he was avoiding me—the situation was unclear.
I hadn't returned to breakfast, thinking it was best to leave James with the drama and flair of my exit (not to mention I would have been supremely embarrassed to sit back down as if I'd said nothing important—besides, I didn't think I was actually prepared to have that conversation just yet) and was positively starving by lunch. I'd done a quick scan of the Gryffindor table to confirm that James wasn't there, and I felt both relief and dismay.
Despite my gnawing, ravenous hunger, my stomach was twisted in knots.
What had I done?
Did he know that I knew? What did he think I knew? Did he think I was just throwing words at him, maybe talking about Pauline … Pauline … A riotous, flare of green fire tore up inside me, tearing a living path from my heart to my throat, crystallising into shard-like spikes, needles in my flesh.
He had taken pity on me when he'd offered to fake date me. He had read my letter and rejected me. It hadn't woken up some slumbering desire to be with me. He'd read the letter and saw an opportunity. For him, to make Pauline jealous, to show her what she was missing. For me, to not die of embarrassment. The letter didn't make him see me differently. To assume anything else was psychotic.
He hadn't wanted to break up because it was working. He still needed me because I gave him the perfect disguise of disinterest whenever he spoke to Pauline. By dating me, he made it clear to her that he had moved on swiftly and decisively and had never loved Pauline in the first place, so that whenever he spoke to her about their relationship or anything else, she wouldn't think he was desperate and obsessed with her. As much as I was saving face with Jack, he had been saving face with her. I was his beard. I was hiding the fact that he still loved her.
And I couldn't even get started on the fact that I'd told my friends that I'd had sex with him.
It was all getting so muddled in my head.
How had I allowed these feelings to crawl their way back into my heart? I had been aware of them too! And I still did nothing about it! What was I thinking? Did I think they'd just magically disappear on their own? Was I waiting for him to hurt me just so I could be cruelly reminded that he would never, ever feel the same way about me? I was so bloody stupid!
And now I was trapped.
Trapped by my own childish feelings.
What were my options?
There was no bloody chance that James fancied me. He had made it clear—time and time again—that at worst, I was his best friend's little sister, and at best, his friend. He hadn't displayed a single romantic inclination towards me … harmless flirting aside and … and …
He almost kissed me.
I blinked at the half-wrought, muddied memory, pooled with oils of alcohol and sweat.
He had tried to kiss me, hadn't me? At the Valentine's Day party? Or was that just another trick my mind was playing?
But he was drunk—I'd heard stories where'd done worse than an attempted kiss for less.
I forced myself out of my own head, back into the heated conversation buzzing around me.
'It's so weird,' Olive was saying in a fervent hiss. 'She nearly kills Kit and McGonagall let's that maniac back in?'
'It obviously wasn't her fault if she did,' Eve said exasperatedly. 'McGonagall's not that stupid, Olive.'
'It definitely has something to do with Charlie,' Peter said importantly. He looked at me. 'Does it have something to do with Charlie? I can't believe that they're dating—that's the weirdest part about all of this! Like I get that she's unusual and that makes her interesting and she is actually rather beautiful but even the idea that she might have hurt Kit surely puts him off?'
'It wasn't her fault!' Eve argued hotly. 'Kit's already told us it was Jane! That she went berserk and started duelling Rose! It was all an accident and I don't understand why that isn't satisfying enough! I honestly hate this school sometimes! Why do we even need to talk about this?! Kit clearly doesn't!'
'Eve, you cannot be serious right now! This is the most controversial thing to happen at Hogwarts in decades! It's insane she was expelled in the first place if it wasn't her fault!'
No one could seem to stop talking about the fact that Cecily Waters had been re-admitted back to Hogwarts. Cecily herself didn't appear to notice the tripled attention that was focussed on her. She was in a bubble of love with Charlie, impervious to the disdainful looks, the nasty comments and disparaging remarks that followed her. That my brother and Cecily seemed to be everywhere together only fanned the flames of disgust more, making Cecily's sudden reappearance a hotly debated topic. It had completely overshadowed the fact that I was walking around looking like a bruised apple.
I looked up at the Slytherin table, trying to find her or my brother but they weren't there … a glance at the Ravenclaw and Gryffindor tables also told me that neither were Jane or Rose.
Consumed by my own problems, I hadn't spent a single second worrying about Cecily's Obscurus or the horrible gossip about her. I didn't think to check in on Jane and see if she was doing all right, especially after she'd admitted her issues with her mental illness. I didn't worry about Rose and how she was handling everything, with her miscarriage, break up with Scorpius and the crazy way she'd reacted to Cecily and Charlie's reunion.
I'd been ignoring it all. I'd only told Rose about the Sorting Hat to get away from James. And now she wanted to stopwhatever it was that they were all doing. The knots in my stomach tightened; Rose's ideas for intervention had proven to be impulsive, unthought-out and—by my count—I'd now nearly died twice in the effort.
What was James keeping from me? What was he doing with Jane and Cecily and the Sorting Hat? The idea of them all working together—even being in the same room—it was absurd. James didn't like Jane—had confirmed as much in the Hospital Wing when she'd come to apologise. And Cecily … I didn't know what he thought about Cecily. He'd helped Charlie, despite the terrible thing he'd done, cheating on Imogen—he'd helped him find a way to her, no matter how misguided his ideas were.
'Kit—can you pass the oat milk, please?' Olive said distractedly before launching into her next point regarding why it was a horrible idea to re-admit Cecily. 'The girl's strange—I know we've all felt it before, the weirdness of her magic …'
I looked at her, brow knitting, and I opened my mouth to say something when a blur of red, scarlet and gold skidded into view.
'Kit,' Rose said, cheeks flushed and out of breath. 'You have to come.'
The four of us gaped at her, but she only had eyes for me—wide eyes, blue and startlingly bright.
'What?' I practically choked out. I chanced a glance at my friends, who were looking between me and Rose with complete surprise. 'What's—'
'I'll explain on the way—but we have to go.'
I stood up at once and shot Eve, Olive and Peter an apologetic look. 'Sorry—I'll see you guys later—'
'Bye!' Rose said shrilly to my friends, grabbing me and forcing me away.
They barely had enough time to open their mouths.
Immediately outside, we ran into Cecily and Charlie.
Bewildered, I looked at Rose. 'What's going on?'
Rose was looking at Cecily, still flushed and breathless. 'She said she didn't know about the Sorting Hat or why Jane would want it but she knows what it's about.' Her gaze cut to Charlie. 'He does too.'
I stared at them. 'What?' Charlie grimaced apologetically. 'You know what—what James—'
'I don't,' he hedged, glancing at Cecily. 'Not really. He has this club …'
Rose and I looked at each other.
'The Wizarding Chess Club,' we blurted at the same time.
Rose's eyes were wide, and I could practically see her thoughts flying around in mad chaos.
'Albus is a part of it too.' She rounded on Cecily. 'Is he?'
Her mouth slanted in disdain. 'Yes.'
'So you—you didn't—' My cheeks were flaming with … with I didn't even know what. The feeling of being left behind. Of not being told secrets. Being trusted. Lied to. 'This oath—you didn't swear it?'
'I didn't even want to be in their stupid club,' Cecily said, bristling. 'Albus practically begged me and even then I only joined because I needed to—well—' We all knew what she'd needed to do in that Forest, so she didn't have to say it. 'I told them there was no fucking way I was swearing any oaths or tattooing myself—'
James had a tattoo?
'—and Albus trusted me.'
'Idiot,' Rose said gleefully. She turned me, features blazing with righteous purpose. 'Cecily got a message to meet in the Room of Requirement twenty minutes ago. So that's where we're going.'
'Their last idea was terrible,' Cecily said. 'A false fire and blood rain … The Wave wants to be important, but it takes so many stupid and unnecessary risks. I've always disliked the club—their pomp and purpose. James claims that he wants to change the world—to make a statement—one elaborate show at a time … but the Sorting Hat … I don't know what drugs they're on.'
The Wave? Change the world?
I didn't know what to say.
Steel resolve, cold and liquid stole its way into my veins, reinforcing the lead thing that was my heart.
I didn't fancy James.
I didn't even know who he was.
'Okay,' I said. 'Let's go.'
'Alright then,' James said, looking peeved. 'Three ayes to two nays. The votes have it—Jane is back.' He turned his simpering smile to me. 'Welcome back Modred.'
I ignored him and pulled out a seat, getting down to business. 'Fire will destroy the Hat. Not just any fire,' I said, raising my eyebrows when Rudolph opened his mouth to interrupt. 'Fiendfyre. The destroyer of Horcruxes.'
'One destroyer of Horcruxes,' James corrected.
I lanced an icy look at him.
'You don't open your mouth often to actually make a point, do you?'
James pretended to be affronted. 'I think you'll find I make several points many times.' He pointed at the Hat. 'It has the Sword of Gryffindor. There, another point.'
'I want to speak to it,' Lulu said quietly.
We all looked at her.
Her blue eyes were on the flaccid Hat, mouth curled with disgust. I knew it wasn't just the Hat she had such unrivalled, passionate hatred for. It was everything the Hat did—what it had allowed to fester in the castle for centuries, offering weak, rhyming platitudes of unity that fell woefully short of the divides it created. More than that, the Hat was a symbol of Hogwarts' archaic traditions.
'Because of that Hat,' she went on. 'This school is not a place of equal opportunity.'
I shoved the Hat towards her.
'So put it on.'
Her eyes cut to me, hard and unflinching.
She put the Sorting Hat on.
The minutes trickled by in silence as we all watched her. Lulu's face was unreadable, her lips pursed, twisted in distaste. Whatever conversation they were having, it didn't look like it was going well. Potter and I exchanged a look and I was sure he thought the same thing. When I faced Lulu again, the suggestion that she stop on the tip of my tongue, several things happened at once; Lulu let out a scream of frustration and wrenched the Hat from her head, throwing it aside like a rag-doll—Imogen shot to her feet, face draining of colour, wand in her hand—and the door behind me slammed shut.
'Oh!' said a familiar, small, squeaky voice. 'It really is a club!'
I grinned at the stupid, shocked looks on everyone's faces.
'You betrayed us,' Rudolph McKellen said incredulously. He was in Hufflepuff, the year below us. An odd guy with no friends—not that I'd actually know if he had friends. He just gave off that vibe. Lonely and superior. The kind of combination of misunderstood and assumed intelligence that made you think you could form a club like this and get away with it.
'I had nothing to betray,' Cecily replied, her voice cold and sweet at the same time. It jarred me slightly, remembering all the times she'd used that tone on me. To unsettle me, to make me think she wasn't entirely human. I looked at her, heart skipping a beat, blood suddenly burning—and forced myself to stop. 'I was never part of this … club.'
Albus was on his feet, jaw locked, the planes of face taut with barely controlled anger.
Cecily's gaze flicked up to him. 'Because this is over.'
'Get out!' Lulu Heap screamed, making me jump a little. Odder than Rudolph still, Lulu was the girl in my year that everyone avoided. Not for any one reason … she just repelled people. 'Leave!'
'Sure,' I said easily. 'Just as soon as you give us the Sorting Hat.'
Lulu heaved her furious expression to me.
'You bitch,' she snarled.
The moment I'd opened my mouth and James' chair had screeched back as he shot to his feet, he hadn't moved, hadn't looked at anyone but me. The weight of his eyes—and Jane's—sinking down on me was almost too much to bear. Their disbelief, their panic and hurt.
'I trusted you,' Jane said, violet-blue eyes wide. 'And you …'
'Kit,' James said, his voice strained. I tore my gaze away from Jane to look at him. 'Kit, you—'
'Give the Hat back,' I said breathlessly, like I'd just run a mile. 'And we'll go.'
He took a step forward and Charlie cleared his throat, not quite looking at his friend, my fake boyfriend.
'Just give it over mate,' he muttered.
He didn't acknowledge him. 'Kit …'
My face burned.
I didn't even care. I didn't care that he'd kept this stupid secret from me! I just wanted to get the Hat back and leave!
'Kit,' he said again, this time his voice more firm. 'I can explain—'
'I don't care,' I said loudly, hands balling into fists by my sides. 'It doesn't matter!'
I saw Charlie look at me out of the corner of my eye, weighing the words, the meaning. I saw James do the same, face paling.
I remembered the day I received my letter to Hogwarts vividly. I had spent years waiting and dreaming, steadfast and sure and excited, and finally, on the day I turned eleven, the owl post arrived. I'd fumbled for the letter, popping the wax seal, when suddenly all of my limbs had gone numb. Slick dread had slid into my stomach, palms clammy with sweat, heart pounding out of my chest. I knew I was going to Hogwarts with utter certainty and yet … an inexplicable fear gnawed at me: what if I didn't?
My entire future wiped blank, before I'd even read my letter.
A glimpse into a future I knew—knew—wasn't a possibility.
For the briefest moment I had seen myself with him. I'd seen myself falling in love and I'd seen it so clearly that nothing else made sense.
It was all me.
I was the one who had confused our fake relationship for something real.
It wasn't even a possibility.
I squeezed Charlie's hand and stepped forward.
'Enough,' I said coldly.
Imogen was simmering with white-hot hatred. She hadn't looked away from us once since Charlie and I had entered. I noted the wand in her hand, tightly clutched, ready for a fight, and the pain that twisted her beautiful features. She knew that he had cheated on her with me. Us, here together, was the last affront that she would take.
'The Wave is finished,' I said, addressing her, baiting her. 'This has no purpose anymore.'
'You bitch,' Imogen whispered, the two words laced with fury. 'You fucking bitch—'
'Imogen—' Charlie began.
'Don't you dare speak to me,' she snarled. 'Don't you dare even look at me you—you coward! You spineless, cheating, disgusting coward! You don't belong in Gryffindor! You don't belong in Gryffindor!' Her rage was demented, her pale face blazing with pure revulsion. She cut her eyes to Lulu. 'Destroy it.'
'No!' Rose shouted, panicked. 'No! Stupefy!'
Jane's Shield Charm blocked the Stunning Spell easily.
'No!' James roared. 'Wands away—'
'Fiendfyre!' Rudolph shouted hysterically, apparently losing his head at the first sight of magic. 'She's going to use Fiendfyre! We're all gonna die!'
Imogen flicked her wand with rage, silencing Rudolph. He choked on his vanished words, clutching his throat with wild eyes.
I gripped my new wand tightly in my hand.
Imogen sneered. 'Go ahead and try.'
I whipped my wand faster than Imogen's eyes could see and a jet of white light just missed her head by centimetres. Lips curling, she slashed her wand through the air, a non-verbal spell that shot a jet of purple light. I dove to the side, pushing Charlie out of the way, and yelled, 'Expelliarmus!' but she dodged it.
There wasn't enough time be surprised. Thick ropes flew out Jane's wand and thinking fast—or, really with no thought at all—I flicked my wand, throwing up a Shield Charm just in time, staggering back as Charlie caught and steadied me.
'Stop her!' Rose shrieked. 'Stop Lulu!'
All hell broke loose.
Jets of light flew in every direction; Charlie duelled Albus, Cecily duelled Imogen, I duelled Jane. But every moment, with every decision, those pairings changed and suddenly I was fighting my cousin, both of us holding back, startled and annoyed. It was total chaos, the heat of magic shimmering everywhere, singeing robes, hair and skin. The noise as the magic cracked the walls around us was deafening and it was improbable that no one had heard.
Albus' red jet of light collided with mine, meeting in the middle with sparks. Remembering how Uncle Harry had taught me how to redirect a spell, I arced my wand so the conjoined jets of light bent and broke, rebounding everywhere. Everyone dropped to the ground, covering their heads from the oncoming debris. Rudolph dove underneath the table, cowering.
My heart was beating wildly in my chest and a terrific sense of panic overcame me when I realised I hadn't seen Kit.
I got to my feet unsteadily and found James covering her body with his. She pushed him off her and got to her feet, pointing her wand at him. Even though she was no match for James, that there was no way she would ever win in a duel against him, in any fight against him, James lifted his hands up in surrender, backing away.
'Lulu!' Imogen roared, not taking her eyes off Cecily.
'I'm trying! I'm trying!'
Every nerve in my body was alight—half terror, half thrill. It didn't just hurt my heart. It hurt every atom that belonged to me. Some part of me knew it wasn't all James, that it also had to do with my gullible, bendable heart, but James was here now and he was going to feel my wrath.
James continued to back away from me until he was flush against a wall, hands still raised in mock surrender. His wide, chocolate brown eyes were round and glittered with amusement. In a flash, the tip of my wand was digging into his neck. The amusement flickered away.
'You,' I said, searching his eyes for something—for anything—anything that looked like remorse. 'Lied.'
Despite the wand at his throat, despite my fury, he still had it in him to make jokes: 'You know, this was all different in my head. It was you backed up against the wall, not me. Though I suppose this works too—'
'Shut up!' I said shrilly. He played too many jokes, flirted too carelessly; he made me feel wanted and it was all a lie. He was the reason—the fucking reason I didn't believe anyone could fancy me, let alone him! Weak at the knees at any good-looking boy who paid me any kind of attention, good or bad.
'I couldn't tell you, Murph,' he said, tone gentle, like velvet. 'I couldn't—'
I dug the tip of my wand further in and James winced.
'I thought we promised not to tell lies.'
'You can't blame me for something that happened before the contract.'
Ash and dust rained around us; James winced every time the walls reverberated or he heard a shout, cry, crack or scream. But it was all white noise to me. Because there was only this now. This revelation. The realisation that I'd never loved James—not even childishly or wilfully—because I had never known James. The part that he always kept hidden from me—from the world. I didn't know this stranger at all.
‘Although,’ he said lightly. ‘It sounds like this is all over anyway.’
'It is over,' I said softly, gaze flicking to his lips and back up. His entire expression changed, just like I knew it would; he didn't look amused or mischevious or charming. He looked like he didn't know what was going to happen next. Was I going to kiss him? Or kill him?
'Kit,' he began, eyes searching mine. 'I—'
'Go on then,' he goaded insolently, baring his neck for me.
I didn't move. I couldn't.
Our gazes locked; an exchange of multitudes.
'We're over,' I told him clearly. 'You and I are done.'
I couldn't see her!
Chunks of wall were flying, the suits of armor were clanging and clattering, the mirror had shattered, wooden shrapnel shot everywhere—and I couldn't see anything! I could hardly make out who was firing at who or what spells we were firing at each other. A cloud of dust drifted apart in front of me and I met Albus' eye.
Suddenly, my mind was torn apart. A presence assaulted it, remorseless and ruthless. I saw flashes of memories, flickering like a film reel—things I thought I'd forgotten: screaming in the panic room, pounding my splintered palms against the door; a sharp, cruel slap across my face when I'd made a flower bloom; my father, kneeling, his mouth forming the words that had sentenced me to a life shackled in fear; the Obscurus, ripping, tearing—
'Protego!' I screamed senselessly, stumbling backwards and hitting the wall behind me.
The whole room was spinning and I was going to be sick. Had Albus just read my mind?
He was gripping his wand tightly, features flickering with confusion.
'What—what did you just do?'
Before I could make a move or even think properly, my brain was cleaved in half again. I heard myself cry out and I fell to my knees. More memories—my body unravelling as I tore open, my parents watched in terror—Professor Creevey's eyes widening just a fraction, before I speared him with a shard of black sand—
'STOP!' I yelled, but Albus didn’t.
Like flipping through flashcards, memory after memory flickered—and I knew Albus could see them all. Private things— things not meant for anyone else to see—
'I SAID STOP!'
I did something then that I didn't realise I could do. I shoved back with my mind, using every ounce of sheer will and energy to fight the onslaught—and suddenly I was seeing something utterly unfamiliar. I felt like I'd left my body entirely … I was floating … Someone cried out, distantly …
Jane's body, smooth and warm and mine, wild, wrought, vivid fantasies of kissing Scorpius, running my fingers through his platinum hair, making him cry out, the Ministry in flames—
Walls slammed down around the thoughts that did not belong to me.
I wrenched my eyes open and pointed my wand at Albus, blinking rapidly.
His face was white with shock.
'Stop,' I panted, half begging. 'You saw enough.'
The fighting had stopped.
Lulu had slammed the Sword of Gryffindor's blade clean into the Sorting Hat.
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