Dust and magic settled, floating back to the ground, shimmering like a mirage, blurring the room, the faces, the hilt of the Sword of the Gryffindor, its blade sunk deep into the stone floor. The silence was profound, ringing in my ears like static, though I supposed that could've also been an aftereffect of the spells that had hit me.
'You did it,' Imogen breathed.
'What have you done.' My voice cracked, splintering into a million shards. 'What have you done.'
Lulu let go of the hilt, her face ashen, dark eyes wide and horrified.
The Sorting Hat had dulled—whatever magic that let it live—that pale imitation of life, of consciousness and aware intelligence—died. It was just a normal wizarding hat, torn, patched, frayed and beaten. No longer would students take that wobbly walk to the stool, no longer would they place that hat on their heads, terrified, determined, brave, cunning, smart, loyal … Who would sort them now? What would happen to the Houses?
'What next?' Kit snarled. I tore my eyes away from the hat, the bleeding absence of it, only because I had never heard Kit speak with such rage. It astonished me that she was even capable of it. She had drawn up to her full height, and I realised I'd never truly understood how tall she was. Her face was a mask of livid fury. 'What was your plan?'
James was the one who answered, his eyes on her with something like wonder and … desire. Gross. 'We didn't have time to make one before you came.'
Kit didn't acknowledge that he'd spoken. She walked up to Imogen, body shaking with barely suppressed anger. Imogen looked at her, her eyes slightly shellshocked, as if she couldn't quite believe what she had done.
I wanted to slap her.
The word was flat, a cold command.
'To send a message,' Imogen whispered. 'The hat couldn't see what you'd become. Only what you valued, what you admired, coveted … It's the one who chooses who deserves a letter.' Kit flinched as though Imogen had hit her. 'It chooses, Kit … it's not a person … it can't tell the difference between a Muggleborn or a pureblood …'
'When Gryffindor enchanted the hat,' Albus said quietly, forcing Kit to look at him. 'It searched for wizards and witches and back then … there were only a few Muggleborns. But the hat wasn't made to tell the difference between a Muggle threat and Muggleborn. It chose those with strong blood ties to magic, those it deemed worthy because they wouldn't be a danger to our secrecy. That impulse never faded, Kit.'
That couldn't be true … that wasn't possible—
'Muggleborns aren't rare,' Jane said, tone unyielding, unapologetic. 'They're everywhere but here, at Hogwarts.'
'That's not true,' I said, finally finding my voice again. They couldn't justify what they'd done just because they felt the need to live out their anarchist, revolutionary fantasies. 'That just isn't true—'
Jane raised her chin to me haughtily, violet-blue eyes cutting. 'How many Muggleborns do you know in your House? Your year?'
My gaze slid slowly to Lulu Heap.
Our eyes locked.
I knew only one.
'It told me to destroy it,' Lulu whispered, her expression glazed, vacant. 'It—it gave me the Sword …'
'That's impossible,' Cecily breathed. Her face was stained with dust and I could see clearly where tears had ran down her face. She was looking at Lulu with ashen disbelief. 'I thought …'
'The Sword is presented to any worthy Gryffindor,' James said. His voice was fierce with pride but Lulu cast her gaze down, as though she was ashamed. 'If it told you to destroy it, then you did the right thing Lulu.'
'It said it wouldn't change anything,' she said, voice trembling. 'It said we needed to force the change.'
I couldn't understand what I was hearing. I couldn't believe any of this had happened. I couldn't believe that the Sorting Hat had told Lulu to destroy itself—that it had given her the Sword of Gryffindor—I couldn't—
She shrugged off James' hand roughly, looking at him with something so pure I had no name for it.
'You're going to be expelled,' she said, her voice strangled with emotion.
He smiled a ghost of smile. 'Only if we get caught.' He looked around the torn apart meeting room, assessing the damage grimly. 'Will you help us?'
I was about to open my mouth to ask him whom, exactly, did he think he was speaking to when—
The walls shook, shaking dust from the ceiling.
'I'll take that as a yes?'
There was another rumble of … of agreement?
I couldn't even fathom it.
What the hell was even going on.
'Are the walls talking to you,' Kit asked faintly.
'I wouldn't try to understand the specifics of it but … yes? In a way? I think it's really the castle.' James smiled at Kit. 'It agrees with us, too.'
She shot him a wary look.
'No, honey,' he murmured, eyes flickering over her face, as though echoing an inside joke they shared. 'You're the crazy one in this relationship, remember?'
'Oh Jesus,' Jane muttered, rolling her eyes.
Bright pink, Kit turned away from him and locked eyes with me.
I shook my head once.
'What are the walls going to do to help?' Cecily asked, allowing Charlie to help her to her feet. When had she fallen to her knees? 'How are they going to help us not get caught?'
As if to answer her question, a door appeared from one of the walls. The brick quite literally melting away into a dimly lit, cavernous corridor. That went down.
'Where does it go?' Imogen asked, her voice hoarse.
James looked at her. 'The Kitchens.'
She slid her gaze to lock with his.
'I won't be a part of this with them.' She jerked her chin up to Charlie and Cecily. 'Either they leave or I do.'
'Then feel free to do it via the normal exit,' James said without missing a beat. He looked away from Imogen as though he couldn't care less. The shock and hurt on Imogen's face made even me feel bad for her. The easy dismissal, as though she was never vital, never important, cracked her marble armour. Kit was staring at James as though he'd never seen him before in her life. 'If there are any other interesting ultimatums, please leave them for later. We should go. The Room of Requirement will want to clean up this mess.'
I had never listened to one of James' bossy, annoying orders a day in my life.
Today, I did.
Imogen and Rudolph did not.
The eight us were a sorry sight. The house-elves had squeaked and cried out in anxiety when we'd arrived, taking in our haggard, practically battle worn appearances. Only James and I had come out of the Room or Requirement relatively unscathed. I mean, I knew I looked pretty beaten up—but that had nothing to do with the duel that had just happened. Still, a house-elf who called herself Marmie forced a bag of frozen peas onto my black eye.
So I sat there while the others talked, pressing the bag of peas to my throbbing eye.
'The Sorting Hat maybe couldn't see what we'd become—but no one ever said it could predict the future,' Rose was saying, her voice low and harsh. She'd allowed a house-elf to bandage her, having been cut by flying debris in the crook of her neck, but not without apologising and thanking them profusely, looking anguished. 'But it saw the potential in all of us. It was wrong—so wrong what you did.'
Lulu's face was buried in her hands and I saw her knot her fingers into her hair, as though Rose's words had cut her deep.
'It made mistakes,' Albus said quietly.
'I make mistakes,' Rose said harshly. 'Does that justify a knife in my heart?'
'It told Lulu to destroy it,' Jane said. She had a frozen steak on her jaw but looked otherwise fine. In fact, she seemed to be humming with brilliance, like the fight had woken up something inside her. 'What more justification do you need?'
'You forced its hand,' Cecily rasped. She wasn't physically harmed—not from what I could tell—but she looked dreadful. There were purple shadows beneath her eyes, her milk pale skin waxy and tight, hazel-green eye hollow and empty. The house-elves had given her a mug of tea, which she now clutched tightly. 'You took it from the McGonagall's office. What choice did it have? You'd have destroyed it with Fiendfyre. Fucking Fiendfyre, Jane.' She swept her gaze across Albus, James and Lulu. 'What the fuck were you all thinking? You could have destroyed the castle. You could've hurt people.'
'We would've done it safely,' Albus said. 'You didn't give us a chance.'
'Do you want us to be sorry we didn't give you a moment to safely use Fiendfyre?' Rose snarled. 'We're so fucking sorry then. Sorry we didn't give you the bloody chance to destroy a Hogwarts relic with an uncontrollable force of fiery rage.'
'That's precisely what it is,' Jane snapped back. 'A fucking relic. Why should it get to decide who gets a letter and who doesn't? Why does it get to choose which life it benefits? Do you even know how many Muggleborns don't get a place at Hogwarts because there isn't enough space? Because the Sorting Hat has always favoured purebloods or half-bloods for their stronger ties to magic?'
Rose said nothing; she pressed her lips together and threw herself back in the armchair, turning her face away from Jane, furious.
I could feel James' eyes on me. I hadn't missed the way he'd found a seat next to me. But I was so angry and sad that all I wanted was for him to go away.
'Kit,' he murmured to me, so quietly that the others couldn't hear over their heated discussion. 'Kit, come on.'
I pressed my lips together tightly, focusing my attention on the others with renewed fevor.
'We could have petitioned McGonagall to amend the enchantment on it,' Cecily said. 'We could've asked anyone to alter its decision making ability—you didn't have to destroy it! What are we even going to do now? What's going to happen when McGonagall goes to consult the fake you replicated? You didn't even think this through!'
'You didn't give us enough time,' Jane hissed.
'None of this would have fucking happened if it wasn't for Imogen,' Rose said, enraged. 'And you listened to her!'
Lulu hunched over herself. 'I'm sorry.'
'Fuck your sorry.'
'Oh shut the fuck up, Rose,' Albus said, sounding exhausted. Rose whipped her head around, livid. 'What's done is done.'
'What did it say?'
Everyone looked at me and they all betrayed varying degrees of surprise that I'd spoken at all.
Lulu lifted her head out of her hands, eyes locking with mine.
'It looked into my mind,' she whispered. 'It knew what we were … what I wanted to do. It was … resigned. It told me it knew this day would come and that … that it was time for it go. It told me … it spent over a thousand years finding students … sorting them … it told me only—' her breath hitched, as though she couldn't believe herself. 'Only Gryffindor could undo what he had done.' Her gaze slid to Jane. 'The Fiendfyre wouldn't have worked.'
'Neither would have petitioning McGonagall,' Jane said quietly, and no one missed her glance at Cecily.
Lulu looked back at me and she looked so sorry that I forgave her at once.
'It … it showed me …' Her eyes were faraway, lost in a memory, an image that wasn't hers. 'The wars … calls for unity … It wasn't the hat, it was … it was always Albus Dumbledore. We were right about the blood ties to magic … it filled a quota for Muggleborns and moved on. If you were a true Muggleborn, with no trace of magical ancestry whatsoever, the hat disregarded that person. It said … it said destroying it wouldn't change anything. The damage was done. That we … that we need to find a better way to choose.'
No one knew what to say to that. From the look on everyone's faces, it was clear that no one doubted Lulu—not even Rose. More and more it mattered less to me that the hat had been destroyed. Instead, the thought of getting expelled—of anyone getting expelled—filled me with anxiety. We were all quiet for a long time, contemplating our own worries.
Eventually, Charlie spoke.
'So … what are you going to do with that.'
His gaze slid to the table between the two armchairs.
The Sword of Gryffindor's blade glittered in the flickering amber flames of the fireplace. The Sorting Hat lay beneath it and never again would it hide the sword, appearing for a worthy Gryffindor when it needed it most …
'We leave it for everyone to find,' James said, and it took every effort not to look at him. It was the first time he'd addressed everyone since he'd dismissed Imogen, casting her aside like a worthless piece of rubbish. 'The Professors won't be able to conclude anything other than the fact that the Sword appeared for a Gryffindor. It'll occur to them that the hat asked for this.'
'That leaves every Gryffindor vulnerable to suspicion,' Albus murmured, verdant green eyes flickering to Lulu. 'Why risk that.'
'What other choice do we have?'
Was this the real James? I wondered, finally lifting my gaze up to him. A calculating, cold, merciless leader? Had I always seen this in him—in the way he held himself back in his friend group, on the fringes but in control, in the way his friends looked to him for approval before any decision was made, in his easy charm, his smile that was equal parts reckless and a challenge. Or was I discovering it only just now?
He could be cruel, I knew that. He knew which words would cut the deepest. He observed so much and spoke as though he'd seen nothing. He made you feel defenceless, utterly at ease, relaxed. He made you think you were his equal, when he knew you weren't even a consideration. But he hid that all with silliness, with an easy brightness. Like the sun, he was a star, beautiful, glittering—but he was also destructive fire. He could wreck you in seconds.
'We should wait to see if it disappears,' Jane said.
'It doesn't have anywhere to disappear to,' Rose hissed. 'If anyone keeps it, Professor McGonagall will be able to find it and you. But go ahead, make yourselves the easiest fucking target on earth.'
Jane cast her gaze skywards, as if praying for patience.
'Rose is right,' James said. He looked at his brother, then Charlie. 'The hat goes with the Sword. We'll wipe it for fingerprints. If everyone in Gryffindor is suspected, that makes no one a suspect. There are too many of us.'
'There are ways to narrow it down,' Charlie said. I looked at him, burning with the desire to know what he was thinking. He'd known that James had some kind of club, had possibly known James was responsible for the Forest fire ... Was he as unsettled as I was with this James? Or did he know exactly who his friend was? 'The first thing McGonagall will do is suspect every student who walked in her office … then every Gryffindor.'
James considered. 'Then we erase Jane's wand—have her re-perform whatever she would've used in class and for homework. We do it for you and everyone who duelled.'
'We've all missed class,' Albus said quietly. 'It'll draw attention.'
It was baffling—utterly incomprehensible, the way Albus, Charlie and Jane were looking at James, seeking his council. Like he held all the answers. Like he always knew what the right thing to do was. The decision maker, their elected official. Like they'd all gladly fall on a sword for him.
I couldn't reconcile it with the James I thought I knew.
'Then we're each other's alibis,' James said after a beat. 'We sort out our wands—erase the duel magic, erase Jane's replicating spell—we get our stories straight and head to our next class like nothing happened.' He paused, cocking his head to the side, a sudden grin spreading across his face. 'It's us, Al. We're Harry Potter's sons. Why the hell would we destroy the Sorting Hat?'
Albus rolled his eyes.
Jane sat forward, dropping the frozen steak from her face, and began erasing the spells she'd performed from her wand. Slowly, everyone who had duelled began to do the same; the air was thick with magic, from spells erased to spells redone, to give the illusion that all we'd done was our homework and in-class magic. Over the hum and murmur, I looked at James—and found him looking right back, expression unreadable.
'You wanted to fix the system,' I said. 'But all you did was break it.'
His chocolate brown eyes flickered with—unease?
'We would've come up with something to replace the hat,' he said. 'And now we don't have time.'
But I was learning—learning from the way this new James hid the truth from me, deceived me, dazzled me.
'You're lying,' I breathed. 'Again.'
He stared at me.
'The Forest fire and this … you never had any solutions to the problems you were shouting about, did you?' I felt almost incredulous that I had found the chink in his armour. 'You just wanted to make enough noise to … to … I can't figure that part out yet. But I will.'
'Did you really break up with me?' he asked abruptly, ignoring everything else I'd said.
I was suddenly all too aware of how quiet everyone had become, their eyes suddenly looking everywhere but us. The discomfort was palpable. I went bright pink, heat flooding every inch of my face.
'Yes. I did.'
'Because I lied about this?' James said, watching me with such intensity I almost faltered.
'You're the liar,' I said angrily, desperately mortified that we were doing this in front of my brother.
But James didn't care.
'This was before you and me,' he argued. 'It had nothing to do with us.'
How badly did he need to prove to Pauline that he was above her? Was I just another pawn in whatever war he was waging? Would I be as easily dismissed, as quickly and remorselessly cast aside, as Imogen when I had served his purpose?
I was done being used—done using him.
'I'm tired of it. I don't want …' I cast my gaze down, unable to look at him. 'I don't want to do this anymore.'
James didn't say anything—he didn't speak for such a long time that Albus cleared his throat uncomfortably just to break the painful, awkward silence.
'What?' James snapped.
'The next class is in half an hour.'
'Merlin—okay. Jane, Albus, you were together. Charlie, Cecily—the same. Rose and Lulu, you were skipping together to—I don't know—do each other's make up or something. Figure it out.' They both looked at each other in horror. 'Kit was with me.' He turned his beatific expression on me, his eyes unforgiving. 'Breaking up with me.'
We all left separately, staggering our exits so it wouldn't look as though we'd all been in the same place together. My nerves were a bundle of anxiety; every time a Professor so much as glanced at me, my palms began to sweat, thinking that they knew. Knew where I'd been and what the Wave had done. I didn't know how everyone assumed that I could keep it together.
James hadn't said a word during our walk to my class.
He had a free period now and—to keep up appearances—he walked me to class, but his hands were firmly in his trouser pockets. Acceptance that we weren't fake dating anymore. I didn't want to know what he felt about it. If he was worried how it would look to Pauline that we'd only dated for a month. No doubt to her, it would confirm her suspicions that I was just a rebound.
Stop, Rose snarled. Stop thinking about him. He's not thinking about you.
We stopped in front of the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom and he turned to me.
'So this is it.'
'It was fun while it lasted,' I said, unable to mask the bitterness in my tone. I had tried to sound light and jokey. 'Thanks.'
James stared at me. 'Thanks?'
'For … pretending. For helping me not look an idiot in front of Jack and pissing Mallory off.'
'My pleasure,' he said bitingly. He was still looking at me intently, his eyes searching my face, a muscle in his jaw working. 'I'm a little surprised you haven't fallen in love with me. I was so sure you would have by now.'
I tried not to flinch.
This was a game to him—a fun experiment, an exercise of his own ability to make girls fall at their feet for him.
'Sorry to disappoint.' I opted for sarcasm since churlishness seemed to come more easily than humour. 'You're not really my type.'
I didn't know what to make of the disbelief that flickered in his eyes. Was it real or mocking?
'I'm everyone's type.' Then, 'I'm sorry I lied to you. I didn't mean to … I didn't want to make you feel stupid and I don't think you're a moron, Kit. I wasn't trying to … to condescend to you. I was just trying to protect the Wave. I physically couldn't tell you what we were doing … when I told you, the day of the Forest fire, that I had somewhere to be, I thought you'd ask but you never did. Pauline always did and maybe … maybe I pushed her away because of it.'
I swallowed, hard.
'Turns out I don't know how to be in a relationship either,' he said, the corner of his mouth lifting in wry amusement. 'Don't know why you ever thought I could teach you anything.'
'Me neither,' was all I could manage to say.
His expression softened.
'It's really hard to look at you right now.'
I felt my face redden.
'More than usual?'
'I meant the black eye. You were never hard to look at, Murphy.'
My gaze flicked up to meet his.
He was flirting with me. James Potter was definitely flirting with me, and it wasn't the mocking kind that meant absolutely nothing and was all for show, but actual, genuine flirting. Right? How was I even supposed to know what was real and what wasn't? It felt like I was the only one who didn't know the difference.
'I forgot to write you a note yesterday,' he said suddenly. 'And Sunday. I owe you two notes.'
My mouth twisted. 'You really don't need—'
'We had a contract.'
We had broken so many rules that this hardly seemed to matter—but I didn't protest.
I loved his notes.
I wanted them.
They made me feel … feel … They made me feel.
'I think you're a great guy,' I blabbered suddenly. 'I know it's not my place to say anything about what you do with Pauline because that is your business. It's, like, totally okay if you still have feelings for her even after she cheated on you—I know you don't need me to say that it's okay but I'm just saying, it's okay. No one can tell you how you feel you know? So you don't have to say you're over her or that you don't like her anymore because you think that's what you're supposed to say.'
There was a beat of silence. Then—
'You're going to be late to class, Murphy.'
'There were eight of us,' Charlie murmured under his breath to me. He held my hand as we walked to class—we were both headed toward the dungeons. 'The Grey Lady said seven.'
My stomach twisted.
I didn't know what to make of what the Grey Lady had said. She'd spoken half in riddles and half in condescending derision. Still, what she'd offered was tempting. I didn't know if I needed it but … Charlie did. He thought it was a sign from a greater power that she knew what I was, that she could help. She's Ravenclaw's daughter, Charlie had said. She wore the diadem.
'I don't even know what I'd be convincing them to help me with,' I murmured back. 'She didn't make any sense.'
'She told you there was a way to control your Obscurus,' Charlie said, dropping his voice even lower. 'Control it properly.'
'I'm doing it just fine on my own,' I argued. 'I've been in plenty of stressful situations since I've come back and haven't felt—it once.'
'You don't know what your own triggers are.'
'I don't trust James.'
Charlie groaned. 'He's probably the only one you can trust.'
'What enchantment does he have on you that you think he's so amazing?' I demanded, rounding on him, stopping in the middle of the corridor. 'He has everyone fooled but me, it seems. Did you know that he knew I was looking for the Stone? He knew. He knew where it was and he never told me!'
'Has it ever occurred to you that he was trying to protect you?' Charlie said furiously. 'That looking for the Stone, using it, breaks a person? He knows better than anyone what it does—that it's a last resort for the hopeless. His father only used the Stone when he was certain he was going to die, Cecily. It's not a gift—it's a curse and he knows it.'
No … that had never occurred to me.
'He told me to stay away from you,' I said, not giving up that easily. James was calculating—he only ever played his hand when it served him. He wasn't some knight in shining armour. He was a Trojan horse, biding his time for the kill. 'The day I left, he basically told me I was poison to you.'
Then tension in Charlie's body vanished. He exhaled through his nose, raking his fingers through his black hair.
'Maybe he was trying to protect me,' he said. 'You were breaking my heart.'
I opened my mouth, then closed it.
'He … he … but …'
Charlie sighed. 'He can be an arsehole. But he's … he's loyal—to a fault. You can trust him.'
'They Grey Lady said that it would take seven of us to help me learn how to control my Obscurus. She never said how. She told me to trust them, sure, which I do—I guess—but I'm sure they don't know any more about Obscuruses than you or I do?'
'I don't know.' He shrugged. 'We should talk to them tonight … it's worth a shot.'
To him, I could see that it was.
The Grey Lady had appeared when he'd needed it most—offered him a solution to the problem of ending me if I ever lost control.
Helena Ravenclaw had shown us the path to me never losing control ever again.
Albus arrived a few minutes late, Jane strolling in behind him. No one in the class noticed but me and Slughorn, since we had all already started working on our potions, hunched over, sweating and miserable, cursing Slughorn under our breaths at the level of difficulty he had set us. Our eyes locked and he didn't have to read my mind to know what I was asking.
He sat down on my bench, ignoring the look Scorpius shot him from the other side of the classroom.
'What did I see,' he said, barely moving his lips.
'How did you see it,' I demanded.
'Stupid question.' He began pulling out his cauldron and his textbook. 'Ask another.'
'Fine,' I huffed. 'When did you become a Legilimens?'
'I'd say I mastered it about a year ago.'
'What did I see, Cecily.' Not a question, a command.
'Stupid question. Ask another.'
He shot me a look. 'It's not possible.'
My mouth twisted in a grimace.
'I need your help,' I said. 'I need everyone to meet in the Kitchens tonight—for dinner. Everyone except Lulu.'
Albus only stared at me, his features composed into a granite mask.
My body sagged in relief—I hadn't realised how tightly I'd been wound until he'd agreed to help.
'And …' He looked at me, green eyes liquid and almost black in the dim dungeon light. 'You'll forget what you saw.'
Not a question.
I had to see it myself.
None of the others wanted to risk coming to the Great Hall for dinner, not when we were supposed to be meeting Cecily and Charlie for whatever secret reason. From my understanding, they hadn't extended an invite to Lulu, but she wasn't here to admire her work either.
Each and every one of them was rattled by what happened just this afternoon—even Potter was uneasy. It was the lack of preparation that bothered him. If James was the idea guy, the theatre and flair—Potter was the brains, the planner. None of it was supposed to happen that way—so fast, so impulsively. Imogen had lost her head—come undone at the sight of her ex-boyfriend and the girl he'd ruined their relationship for.
I didn't blame her.
But it had put everyone on edge.
We could've dealt with Kit telling Rose, with them connecting the dots, and Cecily's betrayal. If I had still been a part of the Wave, I would've told the others to strip Cecily of the tool we used to organise meetings after she'd been expelled. But they'd forgotten. Because I had been … what had I been?
James had dealt with our most immediate problems … but that still left Imogen and Rudolph, bound by their oaths and present at the Room of Requirement. Would that be enough for Imogen to keep her mouth shut? Or would revenge be more important?
I would keep my eye on them.
Because … if James was the drama, Potter the brains … I was the executioner.
A stool appeared out of nowhere, beneath the dais for the Heads Table.
People at the front noticed it first, and because I had positioned myself close enough to notice when it happened but not close enough to arouse suspicion, I had a front row seat. Roxy was in the middle of talking about something—I hadn't been listening—when she broke off, gaze cutting to the stool. Murmurs went up, confusion and surprise. Everyone could see the Sorting Hat and laying atop it … the gleaming Sword of Gryffindor.
Roxy and I pushed through the crowd that had gathered, until we were stood in front of the stool.
The rip in the hat was brutal, savage, a mortal flesh wound that should have bled.
Balanced on the blade of the Sword of Gryffindor was a note with neat handwriting.
Find a better way.
'What the hell,' Roxy breathed.
I said nothing.
I felt Roxy turn to look at me.
'Fox, did you …'
'I have to go.'
I left—but not before I saw the hurt that crumpled her features.
By the time I had to meet up with Cecily and Charlie in the Kitchens, I was heartsick and nauseous.
The rest of the afternoon had been a blur. I couldn't remember anything specific about it. There was an absence inside of me … a void. I had never felt so low in my entire life. There was no letter I could write to make the darkness in my heart vanish. Maybe James had been right … maybe I'd only ever chosen people who were taken or out of reach to fall in love with. That each rejection and heartbreak was pre-planned and prepared for. Because if I'd known that this was what … I couldn't have done anything to prepare for this.
As I made my way to the Hufflepuff basement, I heard my name being called.
I turned—and started.
'Kit,' Dean Beasley said casually, shaking his dark blonde curls out his eyes, a heart stuttering smile playing at his lips. 'Hey.'
'Good evening,' I said stupidly.
'What happened to your face?' he asked, voice low and musical.
He was unfairly beautiful; six foot, darling dark gold curls, a face that wars were fought for. How did he expect me to look at him and speak words at the same time? He was asking for too much.
He gestured to my eye, his finger accidentally brushing against my cheek, setting it ablaze with ice-cold fire. It took every ounce of restraint in me not to flinch. What was happening?! Why was he talking to me?! I was rooted to the spot, unable to move.
'Oh,' I breathed. Blood rushed up to my face, pooling in my cheeks. I looked nervously down the stairs to the Hufflepuff basement. 'I, um, fell down the stairs.'
'Oh shit,' he said with real concern. He leaned against the wall, folding his arms over his chest. 'You're rather clumsy, aren't you?'
'No.' I really wasn't. 'Things just … happen to me.'
He laughed and my heart nearly stopped.
'Listen, I've got to go meet my friends for dinner,' he said, looking over his shoulder to the Slytherin dungeons. 'But we'll talk soon, yeah?' He squeezed my arm, making me jump, and flashed me a devilish smile. 'The Slytherins are actually throwing a victory party this weekend—will you come?'
Was he … was he asking me … just me … to come to his party?
'There was a Quidditch match?'
It was the best I could do since I couldn't articulate anything else.
'Yeah, Slytherin against Hufflepuff …' His gaze slid to the Hufflepuff crest on my uniform robes, which—conveniently—were where my boobs were, and lingered there. The blood in my body burst, dousing it in white-hot flames. 'Sorry you lost.'
'I don't care.'
He laughed, eyes glinting mischievously. 'So … will you come?'
James wasn't over Pauline.
He still loved her.
'Yes,' I said.
'Cool—Friday at nine. Slytherin common room—see you there!'
'Okay bye!' I called after him as he turned away, grinning.
In a daze, I walked to the Kitchens. I tickled the pear in the painting of the fruit bowl and didn't even crack a smile as it giggled. Watching that pear giggle used to be one of my life's greatest joys … and now look at me … I was a confused, black-eyed, heartless soul who couldn't smile at a giggling pear … Dean Beasley had asked me to his party …
My eyes immediately went to the large brick fireplace at the other end of the hall.
James was sitting on one of the armchairs, scrolling through his WizPhone. Since no one was around to catch me staring, I did it openly and with abandon. I was tired of reckless, fleeting glances that never did him any justice. I surveyed his profile, his almond eyes framed by dark lashes; his stubborn jaw that I felt the strange urge to sketch even though I couldn't draw; his straight, sharp nose; his bowstring lips, pink and tempting.
Just then, he looked up at me and smiled broadly.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and went over.
'Hey,' I said, sitting down opposite him.
'Hey,' he smiled.
'So we're the first to arrive?' I looked around; normally, by now, about a dozen different house-elves would've crowded around us asking us if we needed anything. 'I'm starving.'
'Good,' he said happily. 'We're getting a four course meal.'
'Because I asked politely.'
I shifted under his unfaltering gaze. 'Do you know what this is about?'
'Nope. I thought you would.'
I stared at him.
'Why won't you just say it?'
James' brow furrowed. 'What?'
'I mean, it took me a while to figure it out but I get it now. This all actually makes sense. I just wish you could've been honest with me.' A part of me couldn't believe I was being so bold and blunt. But Dean Beasley asking me to his party had revitalised something inside of me. Boys were interested in me—just because James wasn't didn't mean anything. 'You know practically everything about me and I've had to guess everything I know about you.'
'Murphy, I truly have no idea what you're talking about.'
'You still love her,' I said. 'Except you don't want her to know that you love her so that's where I came in. This wasn't about making Pauline jealous … not really. I'm sure it helped but you just didn't want to look pathetic every time you hung out with her because you can't stay away and because you love someone who cheated on you.'
James' face was like granite.
'Just admit it. You still like her.'
'Why do I feel like there's an answer you want to hear and the answer I've already given you like a thousand times? I actually don't have to explain how I feel to you—'
'That's not fair,' I protested. 'You asked me how I felt about Jack all the time!'
'That's because you tell me! If you didn't want to then you don't have to!'
'I thought we were helping each other, James. It sounds like you think I'm the only one who needed it!'
He shot me a look of pure disbelief.
'I don't need you to tell me how to get over Pauline. You don't know anything about love or relationships so you don't have any leg to stand on. And you know what? You don't actually know anything about Pauline either so—'
'But I don't need to,' I said hotly. 'Even your friends think that your relationship is unhealthy! How can you go from saying she doesn't deserve you—knowing that it's not healthy for someone to try to change you or fix you—to acting like you never meant any of it in the first place! Why did you even say it!'
'Because I'm confused!' he shouted, throwing his hands up in the air. 'Okay?! I'm confused! I can't stop wanting to be around Pauline but I like someone else too!'
My heart thudded in my chest. Blood rushed to my ears. I blinked rapidly.
'Who is she?'
Who's the lucky girl, I thought miserably. And I watched his lips move, words that I couldn't understand, but the feel and taste that I could if I just pressed my lips against his … I'd done it before … I'd liked it a lot and … and I was pretty sure that I liked him a lot—
'James, I …' I began. It was important that I had to speak first—that whatever it was, whatever taboo I was about to shatter, whatever my head and my heart had conspired to reveal, I wouldn't get another chance. Everything was in sync for once in my life and I had to. 'James, I …'
'Oh good! You're here!' Rose marched up to us and plonked herself down on a stool. 'Where's Cecily?'
James tore his eyes away from me to look at her. 'Not here.'
'Oh, well …' Rose seemed to pick up the tense atmosphere, blue eyes lingering on me. 'Oh.'
James threw himself back into his armchair, folding his arms so tightly across his chest I wouldn't be surprised if he was planning on turning to stone.
'I guess we'll just wait in silence then,' Rose said lamely.
After around fifteen minutes, everyone that Cecily had asked to come had gathered by the fireplace. For almost an hour we ate the delicious food the house-elves brought us, the boys drinking firewhisky, the girls looking to each other to collectively decide that maybe it would be nice to have a glass of wine. Or a bottle. Or three.
We went over again what had happened this afternoon, talking about the miserable end of the Sorting Hat, the castle's reaction to it appearing beneath the Sword of Gryffindor at the beginning of dinner. There was dismay, shock, disbelief. Everyone was devastated—from Muggleborns to purebloods—that their cherished Sorting Hat that sung songs and brought them to their Houses was gone for good. The Professors were besides themselves and McGonagall had been the one to usher everyone away, bringing the Sword and Hat to her office to do … Merlin knew what.
The mood of the castle had darkened. From what I'd heard in class and throughout the day, it seemed like there was pressure from parents, students and other teachers to apprehend those responsible for the Forest fire, especially since the person who'd confessed culpability was now back at Hogwarts with her name cleared. People were gossiping about who was responsible for destroying the hat and many of them linked those responsible for the fire to this.
One student had said, it's like they're trying to bring Hogwarts down from the inside.
Was that what my cousin's stupid club was trying to do? Bring down Hogwarts? To what end?
If this Muggleborn issue was important to them, then surely they'd want the castle upright and opened up to more of them? I wasn't angry anymore about the Sorting Hat because … well, it was exhausting being angry about it. Like Al had said—what's done is done. But what were they going to suggest on how to choose? What solution did they have?
'So,' Cecily said finally, after we had eaten our dinners and finished our drinks. She looked at everyone nervously. 'You're probably wondering why you're all here.'
'I definitely am,' James said. 'I'm glad you thought I was fit to be in your … inner circle.'
She rolled her eyes. 'I didn't. Charlie convinced me.'
Cecily drew in a deep, steadying breath, and looked at James. He smiled genially back.
'You're the only one who doesn't know.'
'I'm an Obscurial,' she blurted.
James' amiable expression didn't falter.
'An Obscurial,' she said quickly, cheeks becoming pink. 'I … I found out before I left Hogwarts. I've—I've turned three times since then. Once when I was alone, once with Creevey and once with the girls—'
'With what?' James snarled. Oooo, I loved it when he got like this. It was so fun to see him bite someone else's head off for a change. 'What girls.'
'Shut up, Charlie.' He lanced his furious gaze to Kit, who shrank back, her delicate features twisting apologetically. 'You didn't tell me.'
'I—you—' Colour rose up her face, her cheeks bright pink, eyes darting between him and Charlie. 'You were angry with me and I didn't want to—'
'Leave her alone, James,' Charlie said exasperatedly. 'She clearly lived to tell the tale.'
Jane and I caught each other's eye and we looked away quickly.
'Are you telling me you're not fucking furious that Kit faced an Obscurus?'
'She was drunk,' James spat. He dragged his palms down the legs of his trousers, flexing his fingers as though it was all he could do not take out his frustration by punching a wall.
The colour drained from Charlie's face as he faced Kit. 'What? You said—you—'
'Enough,' I said, rolling my eyes. 'She threw up a couple of times and was fine. Like you said, she lived to tell the tale. Stop bleeding testosterone for a minute and listen to what Cecily has to say.'
Cecily shot me a grateful smile that made my heart stumble.
'I've been managing it,' she said. 'But … but I don't know how I've been managing it. I've got a wand—' I didn't miss the way James' eyes widened, flicking from the wand to Kit to the wand and to her black eye '—but I don't know how that's helped, exactly. Professor Creevey said—'
'Wait,' James interrupted, pressing his fingers to his temples. 'I'm sorry—is it common knowledge that you're the reason he's in St Mungo's right now?'
Cecily blushed. 'Yes.'
'Jesus fucking Christ—'
'Go on,' Albus said loudly over James.
'Right. Professor Creevey said that the lore on Obscurials is … incomplete. There's not a lot known about it, not a lot studied and it's rare and … and I wonder if it's because there are people like me out there. People who are Obscurials but somehow control it. It's nearly impossible to destroy one without … without killing the host.'
Charlie's face hardened, his jaw clenching.
Something flickered in my heart. A green, molten flame. I was … no. No, I wasn't.
You're jealous, a voice whispered gleefully in my head. You're jealous of him.
'But earlier today, at lunch, before we … you know.' She waved a vague hand indicate the demise of the Sorting Hat. 'Charlie and I were approached by the Grey Lady.'
Jane's expression flickered with interest. 'The Grey Lady approached you?'
Cecily looked up at her. 'Yes. In fact, she was surprised we hadn't come to her.'
'It would've been a smart idea,' Jane said. 'She was an Obscurial herself.'
'She was a what?' I was shocked. 'How do you—when did you—why didn't you tell us?'
'It didn't seem important.' She shrugged. 'Honestly, after what happened at the orphanage, my main focus was Creevey.'
'Why?' Charlie asked, brow furrowing.
'I haven't finished!' Cecily cried shrilly. 'Let me finish!' When she was sure we were paying attention again, she went on, 'She told us that she hadn't taken her mother's diadem just because she was jealous, but because she thought it would control her Obscurus. She had tried everything—her whole life—to manage it and the diadem was the last option she had. And it worked—for a long time it worked. But then the Bloody Baron came for her. She refused to come because she knew her mother would take the diadem from her, the only thing leashing her Obscurus. Then he killed her and … well, the rest is history.'
'I thought she hid the diadem in a tree,' I said doubtfully.
Cecily sighed. 'Rose, can you just please try not to pick everything apart for once?'
I went bright red.
By accident, I met James' gaze and burned as it lit up with curiosity. He looked between me and Cecily thoughtfully and I thought I might be sick.
'You don't have a diadem,' James pointed out.
'I know.' Cecily blew the air out of her cheeks. 'She learned a lot, wearing the diadem. She told me there was a way to learn, without it, how to manage my Obscurus and not just … muddle through it. There's a way to be in control of it instead of it controlling me and … and I need your help to do it. All of your help.'
Albus and Jane were the first to say yes. Kit hesitated but said yes, features set with worry. Cecily turned her gaze to me and my heart faltered, my stomach flipped. She was so … so beautiful. Her shorn white hair, shades of cream and starlight catching and flickering in the firelight; her heart shaped face, pale and freckled; her sloping nose, her full lips; her hazel green eyes, earth and forest green.
'Of course,' I mumbled, face hot. 'You'll always have me.'
Cecily's gaze flicked up to James.
'Will you help me?'
The boys left, Charlie kissing Cecily goodnight, Potter sparing me a glance over his shoulder, a smile flickering on the lips I loved to kiss, and James storming out without looking at Kit once. It wasn't a spoken thing that the girls had stayed behind. It was almost like we all just needed a moment for us. We hadn't been together since we'd rescued Cecily from the orphanage.
'He hates me,' Kit moaned, dragging her hands down her face, tipping her wineglass and spilling most of it. Cecily shrieked and scrambled out of the way. 'Did you see his face?'
Rose thrust her wineglass towards her, lips pursed. 'He's just sad you broke up with him.'
'Merlin I wish I could tell you just how stupidly untrue that is!'
'So tell me!'
'I love him,' Kit said gravely, cheeks squished in her palms, eyes glazed. 'I love him.'
'But the question is …' Cecily said importantly, nearly falling over even though she was sitting with her legs tucked behind her. 'Does he love you?'
'Er why're you asking her that?!' Rose shrieked. 'Of course he doesn't!'
Cecily smacked Rose on the shoulder, her jaw dropping in outrage.
They were pissed.
'And you, Rose?' I asked, the only sober one of them all. 'Who do you love?'
She looked at me, eyes narrowing, but they were unfocussed. 'What a weird question. You're such a weirdo, Fox. Sly as a fox. Weird little, sniffing little fox.'
Kit shot me a worried look, as if to check whether that had offended me.
I tried not roll my eyes.
Cecily crawled on all fours over to Kit, who was still watching me, and tackled her. Kit shrieked in surprise whilst Cecily laughed manically and they went rolling around, knocking over their fourth, empty bottle of wine.
'Remember when we fought!'
'I still have a black eye, Cecily!'
'Want another one?!'
I slid my gaze to Rose, who was grinning at them.
'You haven't stopped moving the day you walked out of that Forest, bleeding,' I said. She looked at me, her expression faltering. 'You broke up with Scorpius, haven't spoken to him or any of your friends—'
'I've made new friends,' Rose said.
'You haven't talked about it,' I ploughed on. 'Not once. You don't talk about it, Rose. The place you went, what you've been trying to do to not think about it.'
'I didn't go anywhere.' She seemed suddenly sober. 'And you're hardly one to talk about … not talking about things.'
'I've been an open book.' I spread my palms out to emphasise the point. 'You know I was addicted to the Draught of Peace. You know I struggled with my withdrawal. You know I have OCD.'
She cocked her head to the side thoughtfully. 'What happened to that by the way? Is McGonagall getting a therapist for the school or something?'
'Don't change the subject.'
'Don't avoid the question,' she shot back. She laid herself down, flat on her back, staring up at the ceiling. 'Just fuck off and let me be drunk.'
I glanced at Cecily and Kit. They had somehow rolled all the way to "Gryffindor" table. They were laying down together, heads bent towards each other, whispering and giggling.
'McGonagall's working on it,' I said shortly. 'But I think she's going to be preoccupied with the Sorting Hat.'
'What's going on with you and Albus? You guys still fuck buddies or whatever? You know he's been in love with Scorpius since like … forever right?'
She noticed and her head lolled towards me, eyes clear and wide with mock concern. 'Oh … don't tell me you didn't know …'
I fought the urge to throttle her.
'I did, actually,' I said coldly. 'He's not in love with him.'
'Oh.' She propped herself onto her elbows. 'Because he's in love with you?'
'He's not in love with anyone,' I snapped. God, how was it possible for someone to get under my skin like this? 'I was just surprised you knew.'
Rose snorted and laid back down again, folding her hands over her stomach. 'He couldn't be more obvious.'
'Really,' I muttered. 'Seems like he hid it pretty well.'
'You forget I grew up with him. I knew him before he became an … ice queen.'
I studied her. 'You saw what his bullies did to him and yet you treated Cecily the same way.'
She went utterly still. 'I'm trying to make up for it.'
My gaze flicked up to Cecily—she was mid laugh, head thrown back and back arched, tears of mirth running down the corners of her eyes—and back. Rose was looking at her, too. Didn't look away.
'Is that what you're telling yourself?'
'I miscarried, Jane,' Rose said after a long pause. 'I'm sixteen and I got pregnant and my boyfriend broke up with me before I could tell him. I was going to get an abortion but Kit nearly dying spared me a trip to the hospital. I'm not wallowing. I … I love Scorpius but he … he was right. We needed space. I thought I missed him but … I figured out I'm just not built to be alone. I'm terrified of it. So I'm facing my fears, sly Fox.'
Her words settled above my heart, fell in comfortably, like missing pieces of a puzzle.
'I'll always love Scor,' she murmured. 'But after I got pregnant, I forgot he existed. Forgot I was in a relationship with someone I loved. I was angry he broke up with me not because he broke my heart but because … he was leaving me alone. It irritated me. I'll admit to you now—after I miscarried, I was looking for any reason to break up with him. And facing him now … when he hates me …'
'He doesn't hate you.'
She shot me a withering look. 'Forgive me if I don't believe you.'
'I'm relieved, Jane,' she said with passion, eyes burning. 'I'm so fucking happy I miscarried and that makes me evil. I'm not fucking sad about it. I'm relieved. I'm grateful. Happy. Overjoyed. And it makes me a monster.'
'No, it doesn't,' I said quietly. 'It makes you a kid.'
She snorted again. 'Kit's a kid. She wouldn't be happy if she miscarried.'
'That's because she's not like you or me.'
Her eyes flashed up to me.
'I would be relieved, too,' I offered.
'But we already know you're a monster,' Rose said so matter-of-factly that I had to laugh. Then she was laughing too. 'Sorry.'
'Stop feeling guilty for something you wanted,' I said. 'For something you couldn't help.'
'Okay, thanks. I'll try,' she said dryly.
'You should tell her how you feel, you know.'
Rose looked at me sharply, the humour vanishing from her eyes. 'What the hell are you talking about.'
I looked up at Cecily again.
'It's not my place, I know, but … you should tell her how you feel about her.'
Instead of ripping my head off, Rose stared at me. Like I’d spoken Mermish.
'She’s with Charlie.'
I shrugged. 'Whatever. But it's not like she doesn't deserve all the love she can get.'
Rose's cheeks flushed with colour at the word love.
'I don't … You don’t …'
I met her gaze steadily.
'And you're not alone, Rose. You'll always have us.'
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