'Hey, Albus,' I said, throwing myself onto the couch beside him. 'You're a boy right?'
Al stared at me expressionlessly. Then he looked around the common room, twisting his head this way and that, pretending to be puzzled. When his gaze met mine, I could tell he was irritated.
'How the hell did you get in here?'
I rolled my eyes. 'I'm a prefect. So, about you being a boy.' Al returned to reading his book, flipping a page to make a point that I only had the barest minimum of his attention. 'You're with Jane.' He didn't say anything. Just kept reading. 'You're with Jane physically.'
'Rose, what do you want?'
I blew the air out of my cheeks, eyes flickering over the Slytherin common room. It was late at night so there were only a few stragglers still around, studying or murmuring to their friends. There was no one by the roaring fireplace but us. Most importantly, Scorpius wasn't here.
I lowered my gaze, picking at loose thread in my jumper. 'I need to talk to you about something. I don't really know how to … I mean, I don't even know what I'm saying.'
'You haven't said anything.'
Just spit it out, Rose.
'I've always known about … about Scor.' When Albus didn't react, I looked at him apologetically. But he was relaxed. Calm. I didn't know if it was a "calm before the storm" kind of calm or a normal calm, but I told myself not to lose my nerve. 'I'm not … I'm not bringing it up because I … I'm mad or whatever. I don't like Scor like that. I mean, I'll always love him but I don't … I'm not …'
'Is this about Cecily?' he asked quietly.
I opened my mouth, baffled, then closed it. About a million different cries of outrage ran through my head. An equal number of incredulous protests also stood ready to be unleashed. But one look at Albus made me realise how futile, how flat and untrue they would ring. Somehow, he already knew what I could hardly think about.
'How did you know?'
He hesitated—and I'd never seen him hesitate. 'I … I could tell.' He offered me a faint, wry smile. 'Takes one to know one right?'
My blood pounded to a steady beat.
'Takes one what,' I said, feeling winded. 'How is it even … How do I even know what's real and what's …' I looked away, burning with emotion. 'I don't understand it. I can't … I can't feel that way about her. I've only ever been with boys. I like boys. I've never—ever—thought about or looked at a girl in that way before—'
'If you're being honest with yourself,' Albus interrupted lightly, tone scarily gentle. Like he was telling a dying patient that they only had days to live. 'That probably isn't true.'
I looked at him in anguish. 'What was it like for you?'
Albus shut his book and propped one leg on the edge of the coffee table in front of us. He didn't look at me as he spoke. 'How does anyone explain attraction? Or desire? I don't think a single straight person has ever looked around and wondered if they were attracted to more than just the opposite sex.' He pretended to brush lint off his uniform trousers. 'It was confusing for me. It took me a long time to accept it was even real. I thought I was imaging things. That I was having these absurd thoughts that didn't mean anything. Least of all that I wanted to act on those feelings …'
'Did you? Act on them?'
He looked at me seriously. 'If you're asking if I ever tried anything with Scorpius, the answer is no. Not only because you were dating him, but because he has never, ever felt that way.'
'How do you know? Sometimes I thought maybe he … you know …'
Albus let out a laugh. 'No. He isn't.' He glanced at me, eyes dancing mischievously. 'You shouldn't be so quick to judge.' I blushed, chagrined. 'I have acted on what I felt, though. Not with Scor but with … someone else. Half because I wanted to and half because I was hoping I'd get it out of my system and realise what a mistake it was. But I liked it. A lot.'
'I like her,' he admitted with startling candour. It had been years since I'd heard such stark honesty from him. I felt touched that he trusted me with this. 'I'm bisexual. I've known I was the second I found out there was a word for it. And Jane was … a surprise. A good one.'
In another time, another world, this would have made me immeasurably happy. Albus hadn't always been such a serious and solemn boy. There was a time when he had been reckless with his emotions, as fierce as his mum, as quick to anger as his dad. But the day he'd sat on that stool and placed the Sorting Hat on his head ... that was beginning of the end.
I'd never truly known the full extent of his feelings for Scor (was it a crush? Infatuation? Real love?). I still didn't. And to be perfectly honest, it had bothered me. He was my best friend and he had feelings for my boyfriend ... but Albus never made it obvious—if I didn't know him the way I did, I would have never guessed—and that made it easier to ignore.
To know that there was a chance that Jane was occupying the space in his heart that had once belonged to Scorpius was objectively good news. Jane certainly would not have been my first choice for him. She didn't deserve him. But maybe ... just maybe he deserved her. And I should have felt happy for him, but I only felt terror for myself.
'Bisexual,' I echoed hollowly.
Al's eyes darkened. 'I'm not saying that's what you are, Rose. Or that you even have to put a label on how you feel to make it real. In the end, it doesn't matter. It took me a long time to realise that so I know it isn't going to be as easy as I'm making it seem. Whatever you feel … whether or not you decide to act on it … I'll always be here to talk about it with you.'
I knew he would. Albus kept his word—not out of pride, as I might have, but out of the sheer goodness of him. I drank him in, eyes flickering all over his pale, serious face. I wondered, for the first time, if perhaps the Sorting Hat made a mistake when it came to me and him. The thought made me uneasy.
I stared at him for a moment longer—then hugged him. I could feel Al's surprise melt away as he hugged me back, arms slowly going around me. I closed my eyes, breathing in his familiar scent of ink and cologne. I felt his heart beat in synch with mine and thanked every higher power in the universe for making him my cousin.
'Thank you, Albus.'
From up here, Charlie could see the pitch, his teammates floating beneath, and the whole castle sprawled before him. For a moment, he felt like the only person in the entire universe. It was like being perched on the edge of perfect clarity. He could see everything, feel everything, he was everything.
It gave him a moment of respite, as though the further he drove himself away from the castle, from everyone in it, the better he could think.
After what Jane had told him, he was certain now that Creevey was using Cecily somehow. Not that he could discuss that with her anymore. She'd made it perfectly clear that she believed Creevey was helping her. But it occurred to Charlie, now, that she could simply not care about his motivations at all. She didn't want to know or understand why Creevey had helped, why the Grey Lady was helping, or what any of it meant. All she wanted was to control her Obscurus.
And she'd gotten what she'd wanted.
He'd never forget the way she'd ran to him last night, cheeks flushed, eyes bright and sparkling with joy. He'd shared in it for a moment—just seeing her happy made him happy—before she'd told him what had happened. What Albus had been helping her to do.
It had taken every ounce of restraint in his body not to find him and punch him.
Then she'd shown him.
Seeing her Obscurus ... it had sent a chill down his spine.
Charlie couldn't pretend anymore like he hadn't been stupid and reckless. He'd convinced Cecily to listen to the Grey Lady because he'd been desperate and terrified. It made his heart race now, remembering the gentle way she'd said she'd have to be destroyed if she ever lost control again. At the time, he'd seen no other way out. Hadn't questioned for a moment the Grey Lady's intentions or the bizarre way she'd propositioned them.
'Oi!' James shouted from below. 'You waiting for an invitation to start this practise or what?'
Charlie looked at his friend.
He hadn't been complimenting James when he'd told Jane he was the smartest person he knew. It was a fact. One that James tucked away behind his careful control. That he only allowed to leak through his armour when it was convenient for him or his friends. And if there was anyone who could help him make sense of his doubts, it was James.
The headline lanced out at me; black, thick and bold.
EPIC YET BIZARRE DAVID AND GOLIATH BATTLE BETWEEN BLAST-ENDED SKREWT AND FLOBBERWORM
'You know,' I said mildly. 'Witch Weekly is losing its touch.'
Olive looked up from her copy of the magazine—a week old—and blinked slowly. 'What?'
I turned the magazine around to her and pointed at the headline. 'Losing. Touch.' Then I gave it a nanosecond more thought. 'I'm not saying Witch Weekly is the pinnacle of journalistic prowess or anything but at least they used to—'
'What is that?' She blinked again, rapidly this time. Her hand came away from her cheek, red and dented by half-moon crescents. She looked more awake and alert than she had in weeks. 'What the hell is this?'
'I know,' I said, equally affronted. 'Why do they think—'
'Flobberworms don't have fangs.' She pulled the magazine closer to her, ignoring my fingers on them protesting. 'Curved. Slight … ridges? This image is so unclear.' Her eyes flicked up to meet mine; they were demented. 'I need to write a letter.'
Before I could respond, she was abruptly on her feet, snatching her bag and racing toward the Ravenclaw table. I watched her yank Lorcan Scamander by the back neck of his robes, up and out of the Great Hall.
I turned to Peter. His eyes were on his flashcards, spoonful of porridge dangling in front of his closed mouth, forgotten.
'Why is she taking this Care project so seriously?' I waited for him to respond but he didn't. 'Peter!' I kicked his foot.
He startled; wide grey eyes flicking up to mine irritatedly. 'What?'
'I was asking why—'
Peter and I both looked over at the Gryffindor table. I spotted Rose waving her hand enthusiastically, gesturing me to come over. Cecily and Jane were sat with her, too. A quick scan of the table confirmed that James was nowhere in sight. I turned back to Peter but he was already waving an impatient hand at me. Grateful for his need to study, I joined the girls at the Gryffindor table.
'Hey,' I said, sliding in next to Rose. 'This is nice!'
'Yes, well,' Rose said rather shortly. 'Cecily apparently has something to tell us. We're not, like, having breakfast together for fun.'
Cecily looked at Rose with a half amused expression. 'We can have fun.'
Rose didn't respond to that, she only smiled at me manically.
Jane rolled her eyes. 'What is it then? Is this about you and Albus?'
I looked at Cecily with renewed attention. I so badly wanted to know what he was doing with her—was it the same thing as what I did? Had her Obscurus reappeared? And was that good or bad? If Cecily was about to tell us then maybe the rules had changed and she could tell us what our titles—
James and Vivian. Their heads bent closely together. Walking into the Great Hall. Arguing heatedly, waving their hands everywhere. Headed straight for the Gryffindor table.
I shot to my feet.
'Kit,' Rose said, startled. 'What—'
'I just remembered that I have an appointment!' I shouted. 'I need to go! Sorry—I need to go—'
'We're going on a date,' I told Jack abruptly. He looked up from the Quidditch magazine he was reading, startled. For a moment, I softened at the endearing way that he looked. His blonde hair all mussed and slept on, blue eyes tired from staying up late studying for his NEWTs. He was so bloody cute! It made me really regret what I had to make him do.
'I'm sorry. But you have to get ready. Like right now.'
Jack set his magazine aside and leant forward, propping his elbows on his knees as I sank down on the armchair opposite him.
'Is today an anniversary I don't know about?'
'First of all, you'd better remember all our anniversaries and never make a joke like that again unless you want me to burn all your clothes in a metal bin.' Jack's eyes widened in alarm. 'I'm joking! What kind of weirdo has a three week anniversary? Do you think I'm that weird? Like, seriously, I'm asking a serious question—do I give off that vibe?'
'Kit,' Jack said. 'You don't give off a weird vibe.' Then he muttered something under his breath I didn't quite catch.
'Nothing! Kit—what's going on? I thought we were going to spend the day just chilling.'
I sighed, feeling very guilty. It was clear that Jack was exhausted from Quidditch practise and school and I knew he'd been looking forward to a day of doing nothing with me. And truth be told, I had been so angry at James for so transparently trying to test my relationship with Jack—my very real and very strong feelings for him—that I'd actually forgotten what I'd agreed to do to prove him wrong. It was only after seeing him and Vivian that I'd even remembered.
'Okay,' I said, feeling slightly nervous now. 'Well. Don't be annoyed but … I kind of agreed to go on a double date with James and Vivian.'
I grimaced as Jack stared at me in open-mouthed horror. It took him a moment to find his voice.
'Kit,' he said, sounding strangled. 'Why!'
'Because it might be fun!' I lied horrendously. 'We have to Jack!'
Yes, really. I could hardly tell him that I'd agreed because I was totally and utterly convinced that James knew that I'd—possibly started to have feelings for him. And I certainly couldn't tell him that without explaining that James was clearly trying to prove a point about me not having feelings for him. The problem here was the implication that James might be right—which he absolutely wasn't.
And Vivian. How was James suddenly dating Vivian? A hundred different versions of their love story flurried wildly in my mind, each filling me with more dismay than the last. Their friendship had always flirted with something more. Maybe she'd always had a crush on him. She'd caught him single for the first time in years. Been there for him. Nursed his wounded ego. Kissed him in a moment of vulnerability—
'Kit,' Jack said impatiently. He was looking at me with a special kind of annoyance I knew he reserved for when I got lost in my thoughts and forgot to listen to him. 'Can't you just cancel? I really don't want to go on a date with your ex-boyfriend. It's going to be so awkward!'
'No it's not!' I insisted. 'Let's just get it over with, please?'
'Who's idea even was this?' He lanced a glare up at me. 'It better not have been your idea.'
'Oh my God! Ew! No! It was all James. We're still friends, Jack. Totally platonic, brother and sister type friends. Like, heeey, wassup guys, let's be totally normal and platonic friends! I think he's extending an olive branch, you know?'
Jack rose to his feet abruptly, presumably off to take a shower and get ready.
'Why would he need to give us an olive branch if we're not at war?' he demanded.
I opened my mouth, then closed it.
I did not know how to answer that.
Jack rolled his eyes and left.
After Kit had unceremoniously shot up and left at lunch, Rose had given some blatantly transparent excuse about meeting up with Scorpius and was gone before either of us could protest.
I didn't really think Rose would tell Cecily how she felt about her. Actually, it was only after our conversation all those weeks ago that I'd realised maybe she didn't even know what she felt. That she wasn't like Albus, who was sure of himself.
But that was besides the point.
Cecily had told me about her progress with Potter. I’d listened with careful curiosity, unalarmed by the fact that she seemed to think possessing control of her Obscurus meant projecting it out of her body consciously and wilfully. For some reason, it made sense to me. I wasn’t sure before what “control” meant but the idea of Cecily wielding her Obscurus with total awareness felt right. After all, Cecily’s Obscurus out of control was something I never wanted to witness again.
She'd been on the verge of telling me something about titles but Charlie had arrived, ending the conversation abruptly. I'd observed some slight tension between them so I didn't press the issue. Besides, he'd been right when he'd said we were being stupid by discussing these matters so publicly. In my interest, I'd forgotten to be careful.
Presently, I forced those thoughts out of my head as best I could and tried to focus on where—and who with—I was now.
I curled both my legs underneath me and bounced once on Potter's extremely bouncy bed. The bottle of Muggle whisky—that we'd polished a fifth of already—sloshed alarmingly. Potter grinned goofily at the other end. There was literally an abyss between us but that made it funnier. He was sitting cross-legged, but his knees didn't seem to want to bend so he had to hold onto them to keep them down. I giggled.
'I don't know why I assumed everything you owned was either black of grey.' Potter looked unreasonably hot and his voice was unreasonably hot, all deep and husky. His skin was flushed a dull pink, setting off the blackness of his hair against his pale skin. 'White looks … very good on you.'
I looked down at myself. It was flowy, with fluttering capped sleeves and a modest v-neckline. Right now the dress billowed out, covering my knees; I looked like a cake topper. It was completely inappropriate for the weather but Potter and I weren't going anywhere.
'I've never actually been on a date before,' Potter said. 'But I like this. A lot.'
It was my suggestion that we spend Saturday in his empty room and get drunk. I'd decided that I didn't care if Potter needed time or privacy or whatever it was he needed to process his emotions. I didn't care because all I wanted was to be with him. It was a ridiculous idea, to get drunk in the afternoon in his bedroom, but I was feeling reckless. Reckless and bored and like I wanted a distraction. Like I wanted him to distract me thoroughly.
'You took me on a date,' I reminded him. 'With three other people.'
Potter grinned that goofy grin again and his eyes traveled down the length of my body, lingering on my chest, before meeting my eyes again. Normally I hated when guys did that, but when it was Potter's eyes raking down my body, it was thrilling.
'You know,' Potter said crawling forward, settling down in the middle of the bed. 'You spend so much time perfecting the art of unhooking a bra at optimum speed—only to find out that some girls don't wear bras at all.'
I smirked. I didn't think he could tell. You couldn't really wear a bra with this dress, but I thought it wasn't noticeable. Then again, I was too drunk to notice anything but that wickedly mischevious look on his face. His eyes were smouldering, his mouth lilted up crookedly in that endearing way it did.
'Every once in a while, we like to throw a spanner in the works.'
Potter grinned, murmuring in agreement. He inched closer.
I took a swig of the whisky and shoved it toward him, effectively stopping his advances. Something flickered in his eyes: Disappointment? Resignation? He shrugged and reached for the bottle, deliberately wrapping his hand around mine. His fingers burnt like they were on fire. How was that possible? He was a greenhouse: shielded with glass walls, overgrowing with lush greens and pinks and yellows, with alien life, strange and unknowable. But he had the sun trapped inside him too.
I slipped my hand from underneath his and it fell limply onto my lap. He drank the whisky. Then he smiled—it wasn't a grin, it wasn't a smirk—and I couldn't help it, I smiled back. He'd honestly never smiled this much in the entire time I'd known him.
It filled me with an unnameable warmth to see him this way. Not in complete control, a little reckless. All his guards were down. He wasn't Albus Potter, Chosen Son. He wasn't an amalgamation of different, self-contained, contradictory personas that made the enigma enigmatic. He was just Al. He was maybe the kid he was with his mother, when he couldn't lie to her anymore because she would run her fingers through his hair and gather him up in arms. He was maybe who he wanted to be when he wasn't hiding.
How many people got to see him like this?
'So,' I said. 'What's your middle name?'
'I have it on good authority you own one.'
Potter sat up straight and frowned. 'Why?'
'I'm just curious.'
He considered this for a moment. 'I don't want to tell you if you don't already know.'
I laughed again; disbelief. 'Oh come on! You can't do that to me!'
'Why would I ruin my perfectly good chances with you by telling you?'
It sent a golden thrill up my spine to hear him say those words so casually, as if it were perfectly obvious to everyone, including me, that he fancied me. There were no consequences for him tonight. He was free. So why was I holding back so much? No one but us knew we were together this afternoon and no one would ever find out.
'Your chances will be nonexistent if you don't tell me.'
'Fine,' Potter acquiesced. 'But then I get a question in return.'
'Quid pro quo, Fox.'
I was incredulous. Was he really going to do this? He shrugged his shoulders: I don't make the rules. Except he did! I made a derisive noise and rolled my eyes.
'Fine. So what's your middle name?'
'Don't you want to know what my question is first?'
'No,' I replied stubbornly. 'What's your middle name?'
'I could literally ask you how to get into your Gringotts account.'
'Not that I would ever give it to you, but, would you?'
'No,' Potter said. 'But I could.'
I didn't respond.
Potter made an exaggerated display of being aggrieved. His heavy green gaze rolled to me. 'You have to promise me something first.'
'Promise you something and you to get to ask me a question?' I raised an eyebrow. 'This'd better be good …'
'Trust me, it is literally worth it.' Potter paused, gauging my expression. 'You can't make a dumb joke, okay?'
'Done,' I said. 'I never make dumb jokes.'
'So am I.'
Potter rolled his eyes. 'I really hate it, okay? It's a shitty name. Like of all the shitty names that exist on the list of Eugenes and Eustaces—'
'Okay. Jesus, just tell me. It honestly can't be—'
My mouth fell open. He tried to smile ironically but he just seemed uncomfortable, like he was fighting off a stomach ache.
'Severus? Albus Severus? Okay.' I paused, trying to think. 'Okay.'
'What?' he said warily.
'Do your parents hate you?'
'Even you know that one's not original.'
I laughed. 'Albus Severus.' I shook my head, grabbing the bottle, taking a swig and tossing it on the bed (the lid was screwed on I wasn't a delinquent). 'As in Severus Snape? The Slytherin traitor-turned-good guy?'
Potter watched me with careful eyes. 'Alleged good guy.'
'No wonder you're so tortured,' I grinned. 'Your name is a curse.'
He glared at me. 'My turn.'
'Alright. What do you want to know?'
'Tell me a secret,' he murmured, eyes turning liquid and molten.
He was looking at me so seriously, so carefully, like we had all the time in the world to be with each other, that nothing in the world would stop him from looking. It made me breathless.
'You already know my secrets.'
Potter made an astonishingly cute noise (half way between a giggle and snort) and leaned in, hand reaching to cup the back of my neck; our foreheads met and a blistering spark shot through my nerve endings when our lips accidentally skimmed against each others. I made an inhuman noise—I refused to call it a gasp—and pulled away but he held me tighter, wrapping his other hand around my neck, foreheads still touching. Our noses brushed; my lips parted. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of him—it was impossible not to; he was invading every atom in the air around me. I found myself reaching up to kiss him, but he moved away at the last minute and I could feel his sly grin.
God, I was losing it.
'I don't want a fact about your life,' he said in a perfectly normal, genial tone. His lips brushed across mine again, featherlight, just a graze of skin. I tried to catch his lips again, to kiss him back properly, but he chuckled. 'Hold on.'
'Albus,' I breathed. He was driving me insane.
'Tell me a secret, Jane,' he murmured against my lips. The words vibrated through every atom in my body. 'Tell me something.'
I dug my fingers into his shoulders—when did they get up there?—and looked at him. Potter's crooked grin widened as he leaned away. Then his green gaze flicked down and back up. I followed it and balked—I was straddling him.
'You are literally so drunk,' I said, and I hated the way I sounded so strangled.
'I'm drunk? Look at you!'
'Look at me? Look at you! You can't even touch me.'
I folded my arms over my chest, aware of how strange the position we were in was. Me straddling him. Him leaning back on his hands, legs stretched out, with an air of comfort that didn't particularly suit the situation.
'I can,' he said lazily. 'Just—not yet.'
I studied him for a minute. Potter looked electrified. His hair was sticking up in every direction, his skin was flushed and his eyes were a glittering India green. I noticed, suddenly, because I'd never been this close to his face to see it before, but his irises had rivers of blue and gold.
'You have very pretty eyes,' I said.
Potter smiled crookedly in obvious pleasure. 'Are you trying to distract me with flatteries?'
'No. You just have nice eyes. Have you ever been an artist's model before?'
'If you wanted to paint me naked Fox, all you had to do was ask.'
Ha. He reached up to tuck my hair behind my ear. Our eyes met and everything suddenly felt serious. It was strange how ingesting an entire bottle of whisky could make you feel like this was a perfectly normal thing to be doing. Then again, what else were you supposed to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon when everyone was in Hogsmeade and the universe felt like it had been created just for the two of us?
I leaned down to kiss him and this time he let me. His lips were soft when they crushed against mine, tasting of whisky and spearmint, cool and hot all at once. He deepened the kiss, exploring my mouth with his tongue. He was being slow and deliberate, as if he wanted to take the time to feel everything. But I wanted him to lose control. I wanted to press against him and get lost in him. He was the first to pull away; his glazed eyes flicked down to my lips.
He grinned wickedly. 'Tell me a secret.'
I hit him half-heartedly on the shoulder. 'It's my middle name.'
'Apple?' he repeated. 'Jane Apple Fox. That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.'
'Better than sounding like a fungal infection,' I shot back. Potter laughed; a loud burst, like I'd surprised it out of him. The infectiousness of it boggled me. He should really laugh more often.
'All right Apple,' he said, still grinning. He drank from the bottle again.
'Don't call me Apple.'
'I really like it. It suits you.'
'I like it,' he said decisively, as if that settled everything. 'But that's not a secret.'
I shrugged, feeling suddenly sober. Impulsively, to avoid him, I grabbed the whisky and drank too much. My head spun for a moment before I gathered my thoughts. I put on hand on his shoulder to steady myself and his hand automatically gripped my waist.
'Okay,' he said. 'Why do you say Jesus Christ and God all the time?'
I choked on my second gulp of whisky, tears burning my eyes. I laughed shakily. 'What? What do you mean?'
'I've never heard you swear by Merlin once. And I highly doubt you're religious because taking the Lord's name in vain … that's blasphemy isn't it? I don't know how serious Muggles are about religion. Maybe they don't care. Are you religious?'
Stunned, I simply stared at him. Then I was confused. First of all, it baffled me that he'd said the phrase "taking the Lord's name in vain" with the utmost sincerity. Secondly, how the hell did he know anything about Muggle religion, like at all? Lastly, was that what he noticed when he thought about me? When he saw me? I supposed it should flatter me—he paid attention to what I said even if it was the dumbest thing ever. But I couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed: I noticed everything about him.
'To annoy my father,' I said. The bottle was empty; I leaned over Potter and he leaned back with me as I dropped it over the edge. Our faces were inches apart. 'He doesn't believe in religion but above all that he hates Muggle things—like every Muggle thing. From Muggle clothes to Muggle sayings. I heard some lady say Jesus fucking Christ in Muggle London once and liked it so much I started saying it. As an added bonus, it seriously pissed him off. Now it's just genuinely a habit.'
'I like that too,' he said suddenly, as if the words had been tugged out of him, as if he had to get it out before I could go on, before he could stop himself. 'About you.' He sat up straight, both hands at my waist now.
God, he was out of his mind drunk, wasn't he?
Potter slid hands down my waist and hips and over my dress. It was really happening now — every touch was so deliberate and expert, like he knew exactly what he was doing but, at the same time, in awe of what he was seeing. Potter's hands slid underneath my dress and over my legs. His fingers found the edge of my knickers.
'What are we doing?' I whispered, and he knew I wasn't asking about right now.
Are you falling in love with me, Jane?
In true Potter fashion, he didn't answer. His hands moved up underneath my dress over my stomach, over my breasts, and ran back down again. My breathing became shallow. Oh God—his touch was electric. He knotted his fingers in my hair and I didn't know who moved first but suddenly our lips were crushing against each other's. Slowly at first, languorously slow, our bodies pressing together. My hands bunched around his shirt, kissing him back with desperation.
Potter shifted suddenly, practically throwing me onto the bed again except this time his was on top of me, propping himself up with his elbows. Almost instinctively my legs wrapped around his hips. My hands slid down his back to the hem of his shirt—and then he pulled it off over his head in one swift movement. Good, it was bothering him as much as it was bothering me. He bent over to kiss me again but I pushed him away, curious.
My fingers traced over his collarbones, down his chest, his stomach and lower. The muscles beneath his pale, smooth skin tensed; he sucked in a breath. I followed the ridges of his abs and discovered a faded Muggle tattoo I had never seen before. I traced the words burnt out on his hip bone. He shuddered when I touched him. God, he was so full of mysteries.
Potter wasn't letting me have all the fun though. He helped me out of my dress. He pulled away and looked down at me, eyes blazing. I moved—to do what, I wasn't sure—but he trapped my hands and pinned them over my head. We were both breathing hard. Then he kissed me again, eliciting a low moan from me. As if he needed the encouragement … his hand splayed between my thighs and I arched my back, pressing my bare stomach against his.
He mumured something in my ear that couldn't possibly be true and I knew it was just the alcohol and tomorrow when we woken up we'd forget. For now, I let him murmur it in my ear, I let him kiss me and I let myself believe him.
'Remind me again why you agreed to this?' Jack said grumpily as we trudged to the Three Broomsticks. It was a miserably cold day in March and the heavy grey clouds above us threatened to tear apart at any moment.
'Because I'm nice,' I huffed. 'I was being polite.'
'I wish you'd be rude,' he muttered. 'To him. For once.'
I shot him a sideways glance of surprise. 'What on earth is that supposed to mean? I've barely spoken to him since I broke up with him!'
'I know that! I just don't understand why we have to go on a bloody date with the guy!'
We both stopped outside of the Three Broomsticks just as I felt a splatter of rain on my numb face. I lifted my thickly gloved hand to wipe my wet mouth, trying not to glare at Jack.
'Why do you have such a problem with him?' I demanded. 'He's never done anything to you.'
'Apart from date you?' Jack said incredulously. 'Apart from being the guy you were totally in love with!'
I gasped—no, seriously, I actually gasped. He wasn't supposed to shout that I was in love with James right before we were supposed to walk inside and pretend to be in love!
Did I actually just think that? What was wrong with me?!
'I wasn't in love with him,' I said loudly. 'Also, I hinted very aggressively over a week ago that I wanted to be your girlfriend and you knew. You knew what I was asking and you didn't want to do anything about it!'
He took a sudden step towards me, eyes glowering. 'I didn't want to do anything about it because I'm still not sure if I'm a rebound! Sometimes Kit—sometimes I swear to Merlin I came along at exactly the right time to distract you from him.'
I gaped at him, speechless.
'How can you—that's not even—' I shook my head, feeling slightly hysterical. 'I've always liked you, Jack! I wrote you a bloody love letter for crying out loud! Have you ever thought that maybe James was a distraction from you!'
Jack stared at me in disbelief.
'I want to believe you,' he said finally, voice quiet and bitter. 'I really want to believe you but you make it hard, Kit. Agreeing to this fucking date with him.' His eyes flashed and I resisted the impulse to gulp. 'You know I look at you sometimes and think ... I look at you and I think I know what I see, that maybe with a bit of time, I'll get to know you better ... but you never open up. Not to me.' Without giving me a moment to even process what he'd said, he let himself into the pub.
I stood out there for a moment, heart still beating slightly too fast, and composed myself. All I needed to do was get through an hour of this and then make up an excuse to leave. I would prove to both James and Jack that I was extremely happy in my relationship. I would show James that I had gotten exactly what I'd wanted and more. I finally had a passionate and fulfilling relationship and it was just like what all the books and movies had promised me!
Steeling myself, I turned and entered the Three Broomsticks.
I was exhausted, hungry and on edge. With everything going on, I'd almost forgotten that I still had bloody coursework to get through. I'd been desperately taking notes in all my classes, but I'd still somehow fallen behind.
I shifted in my uncomfortable wooden chair and poised my quill when suddenly Cecily slid into the seat opposite me. I dropped my quill at once, stiffening in surprise. How had she found me?! I'd told her I was spending the day with Scorpius and now she could see that I'd lied!
'Why are you avoiding me?' Cecily's brow raised in amusement and for a moment, I was speechless. Her skin had a pearly sheen to it, glowing and healthy, her eyes sparkling, making that peculiar, hazel colour glitter. There were about a hundred different shades in her eyes; bark brown, amber, green and moss …
'A-avoiding you?' I hated how choked I sounded. 'I'm not—I was with Scor—'
'I'm just joking.' Cecily grinned. 'Are you free now? To talk? I told Jane about last night but there are things I need to tell you. Just you. Like last night, with Albus, I had a—'
'Wait,' I hissed. I looked around furtively; we were in an alcove surrounded by bookshelves, silence and no one else—still, it felt recklessly stupid to talk about these things in the Library where anyone could overhear. I got up and gestured for Cecily to follow me. 'I thought the Grey Lady said you couldn't tell anyone about what you were doing in private.'
Cecily lowered her voice to the same whisper as we speed walked. 'Well, that's the thing. I told Albus what he was helping me to do and it worked!' I looked at her in disbelief. 'Yes! I know! I think I'm finally beginning to understand how this is all helping me control my—problem.' Cecily looked around suddenly, puzzled. 'Where are we going?'
'My room. It's more private.'
'Oh! Right, well, so …' Cecily chattered all the way to my room and I struggled to pay attention to it all. My heart was pounding in my chest at the thought of being alone in my room together. Not like anything would happen or—or anything—because that was utterly ridiculous! What an absurd thing to even entertain! I mean, I could hardly control what I thought about but—but come on—it was just Cecily in my room—she'd been in there before—
'… so it just explodes out of me and I can feel it—like this shiver running down my spine! It was the craziest thing, Rose.' Cecily was flushed and breathless with excitement as she jumped onto Camilla Lane's bed. 'It was so … so amazing. And I don't know if that's wrong of me to say but—but it's like I was so scared of this thing inside of me when really—really it's power, Rose. It's my power. It was nothing to be afraid of. It's me.'
'I'm sorry—wait, what?' I had been smiling happily, nodding along, pretending like I'd been listening to whatever she'd been saying, but it suddenly occurred to me that she couldn't be saying what she was actually saying. 'Sorry—what exploded out of you?'
'My Obscurus!' She grinned and I was horrified. 'Albus finally broke into the memory of how I killed my parents—'
'He did what?! How?!'
Cecily looked at me exasperatedly. 'I've just told you how. He's a Legilimens.' He was a WHAT? Was that how he—was that how he'd known about Cecily? I couldn't even think about it before she was ploughing on. 'Anyway, like I was saying, the Grey Lady gave each of you roles that you were supposed to unwittingly perform but I told Albus that his title was the Rage and it didn't affect anything!'
'The—the Rage?' I was so hopelessly lost and terrorised by what she was saying I could hardly process any of it. 'Cecily—what the hell is going on? Your Obscurus wasn't supposed to be ex-exploding out of you! It was supposed to be suppressed! It wasn't supposed to show up at all!'
'Why? It's a part of me, isn't it? It comes from my anger—my past.'
'Cecily—What are you saying? That you—that you want this? You want your Obscurus to explode out of you in rage? How can that be what you want for yourself?'
'I don't want it to explode out of me in rage,' she protested, getting up and sitting beside me. My brain synapses seized up in panic. She took my hands in hers and I jerked in surprise, but she clutched on tighter. 'Rose, that's why I need your help.'
'I said each of you had a role,' she said. 'That you each had a title. Kit is the Soul. "The soul must know itself in order to be in control". That's what the Grey Lady said. Kit helped me … confront myself. And Albus is the Rage, the "bleeding heart of the Obscurus". And you, Rose … I think you're the Challenger.' She smiled at me encouragingly. 'You'll help me master my "soul, heart, reason and rage". It means you can help me control it at will. That way I can suppress it if I want …'
'If you want?' I whispered, horrified. 'Why wouldn't that be what you want?'
Irritation rippled across Cecily's features. 'I wasn't saying that. I was just saying that the Obscurus is a part of me. It's rooted in who I am. That's why it's impossible to destroy an Obscurus and spare the host. I can't suppress it anymore than I suppress my true nature.'
I looked down at our hands in anguish, body flushed with the confusing, conflicting emotions I felt colliding inside of me. I felt as though she was walking straight towards the edge of an abyss and I couldn't catch up to her.
Her expression faltered. 'No?'
'I … I can't, Cecily,' I whispered. 'I'm not your … I can't be your Challenger. I won't be able to do it. I can't … I can't see you like that. I can't be responsible for that … that thing coming out of you—'
'That thing?' Cecily searched my eyes, hurt. 'That thing is me, Rose.'
'No it's not,' I said despairingly. 'Why can't you see that?' Involuntarily, I reached out a hand to cup her cheek, thumb brushing her jaw. I wasn't in control of my body anymore. I only knew fear and desperation. 'You aren't your pain or your rage. Your past is a part of you but it isn't you. You're so much more than that. I don't know why that's so hard for you to believe.'
Cecily's eyes flickered with uncertainty.
'You should be trying to get rid of it,' I whispered. 'Not tame it. It's a parasite, Cecily ... it's not ...'
I couldn't look away. Our faces were inches apart. My heart was hammering in my chest and I was so sure she could hear it. That she could see on my face what I felt. That it was written in my eyes, my touch, that there was nothing I wanted to do more than to stop her. To stop what she was thinking. To stop what I was thinking.
So I kissed her.
I pressed my lips against hers, soft and parted with surprise, melting against her like snow on a hot surface—before she pushed me away, staggering up to her feet. I almost fell forward, as though something essential had been torn from me. I touched my lips, still humming and singing from the kiss, mortification settling on me like a layer of dust. I couldn't look at her.
'I have …' Cecily sounded breathless and stunned. 'I have a boyfriend.'
'I know.' I buried my head in my hands. 'I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry—'
'I didn't … I didn't know you—'
'Please,' I croaked, screwing my eyes shut. 'Please go away!'
There was silence. Then a creak as Cecily walked to the door. Then the lock clicking softly into place as she left.
The pub was busy and bustling with customers; glass clinking, conversation buzzing like a blanket of white noise. The atmosphere was warm and pleasant, the radio playing upbeat, popular music.
I'd been expecting to find a sour Jack inside and my nerves were shot with anxiety at the prospect of putting on a show for James and Vivian. However—to my complete surprise—I found Jack ordering four butterbeers at the bar, all smiles and friendliness, our earlier disagreement forgotten. What was even more bizarre was the way James was acting. He was being charming and polite. Like we really were friends and this was only just a double date.
The only thing that rooted me in reality was that Vivian looked as uncomfortable as I felt.
We kept catching each other's eye and looking away quickly. We'd barely exchanged a few words apart from the usual pleasantries and I wondered what James had told her to convince her that this was a totally normal, perfectly reasonable thing to do. Her obvious discomfort made me miserable. Instead of feeling jealous—like I'd expected to—I was wondering if she'd forced our friendship the whole time James and I had been "dating".
Presently, I jumped when Jack began to guffaw so hard butterbeer went up his nose. While he coughed violently beside me, I tried not to look as disgusted as I felt. Instead, I tried to make eye contract with Vivian to communicate that I didn't care that she was with James and that maybe we could still be friends. But her eyes were glued to the table.
'Farley couldn't walk for a week,' James said, wiping fake tears from his eyes. 'Oh man. It was so good. We got Henry's wand back in the end too …'
'How?' demanded Jack, sounding awestruck and stupid.
James tapped his nose conspiratorially. 'Ask no questions and I'll tell ye no lies.'
'People say that you guys are Animaguses. Like your grandad and his friends.'
'That's ridiculous,' I said out loud before James could reply. Colour flooded my face as all three of them looked at me. It was the first thing I'd said in a very long time. 'Everyone knows the law changed. There's a Trace on Animaguses now.' My eyes flicked up to Jack's. 'You should know that. You take History too.'
'I do know that,' Jack objected defiantly. 'I was just kidding.'
Sure he was. I rolled my eyes and turned away, hands circling around my mostly untouched butterbeer. With every second that passed, my annoyance grew more and more bitter, like caramelised sugar taken too far. I wished I'd just flat out said no to James! Jack and him were being overly nice to each other and it was infuriating! I hated this!
'Does anyone want another drink?' Vivian asked abruptly. 'I'm parched.'
'Yeah,' James said, eyes flicking to her at once. 'I could go for another butterbeer.' He turned to me and Jack. 'What about you guys?'
'Yeah, I'll have one,' Jack said, sliding out of the booth.
'Where're you going?' I demanded, alarmed.
Jack grinned. 'Toilet. I'll be right back. Don't miss me too much.' I tried not to stiffen when he kissed me swiftly on the lips. My wide-eyed gaze followed him all the way to the other end of the Three Broomsticks, apprehension blooming like a flower inside my chest. Vivian got up as well, flashing James a tight smile, and went off to the bar.
James whistled, gaze slowly returning to me.
'Finally,' he said, leaning back, visibly relaxed. 'Thought we'd never get rid of them.'
My eyes flashed to him. 'What?'
He laughed once, a bark-like laugh that sounded so ridiculously boyish that it made me blush.
'I'm just joking.' Then he considered me seriously. 'Actually, I'm not.'
James leaned forward, elbows resting on the table, clutching his butterbeer. He looked curiously up at me. I squirmed under the intensity of his gaze.
'If I ask you a question,' he said casually. 'Will you tell me the truth?'
I looked at him like he was crazy.
'Uh … sure?'
'Did you read the last two notes I sent you?'
'Huh?' I demanded. What was he … oh. 'No I didn't. Why? Was that how I was meant to find out that you got over Pauline and actually fancied Vivian?'
James leaned back, quickly composing his surprise and disbelief into a mask of cool amusement.
So, she hadn't read his notes.
She had no idea that he liked her … and she hadn't started dating Jack just to spite him—to make it clear that he never stood a chance, not even after she'd written him a bloody love letter.
Despite everything, he had never properly entertained the idea that Murphy was dating Jack because she actually fancied him. But to his credit, she had said on numerous occasions she didn't like Jack anymore.
And that was the crux of the thing, wasn't it?
How many times had she gone back and forth over him? Calling him a coward for being afraid of Charlie's barely threatening advice to stay away from her? She had to know that he was with her only because it was safe and convenient. After all, James had been the first to shatter the fragile ice over the terrifically awkward situation of dating a friend's sister.
Jack had only plucked up the courage to ask Murphy out because he knew Charlie couldn't have a problem with it.
Why was he even with Murphy? Did he even know about all the insane, courageous, crazy things she'd done? Saving Cecily—facing an Obscurus—breaking into his secret society—sticking a wand in his throat, eyes flaring, mouth curling—volunteering to be hit with an awful Curse to spare Rose?
And there was no way Murphy liked Jack … because Jack didn't know a thing about her and she knew everything she needed to know about him.
A slow, burning smirk twisted his lips.
'Why don't you read the notes and see for yourself?'
Annoyance flared inside of me.
'I'm good,' I said with a simpering smile, ignoring his infuriating smirk. 'Seeing you and Vivian together is all need to get the message loud and clear. You guys are so sweet together.'
James raised his hands in surrender. 'Sorry.' He didn't sound sorry—in fact, I registered with incredulity, he was enjoying himself. 'I hope we're not being too in your face. I know how you hate PDA.' He leaned back, taking a swig of his butterbeer, looking sympathetic to what he clearly thought was a flaw. 'Vivian loves PDA. I can't get her hands off me.'
'How nice.' The warrior cells roared in fury. They grabbed each other by the lapels and screamed something about getting their shit together. They were regrouping, issuing commands to launch a fierce and decisive counter-attack. 'I actually don't mind PDA, you know. I finally get the hype. With Jack, because it's real—' I widened my eyes innocently as he narrowed his '—I love it. I never knew touch was a language of love …'
'Hmm. It's a pity you're not actually attracted to him.'
'Yes, it's really—' I stopped abruptly, realising my mistake. The warrior cells cocked their loaded guns. I looked at him, beyond rage. 'You're an arsehole.'
James smirked, shrugging carelessly.
I opened my mouth (I had to say something better than he was an arsehole) but he gave me a pointed look.
'Save it. Your boyfriend's coming back.'
Disgruntled, I glanced over my shoulder and back, a caustic remark on the tip of my tongue (something, perhaps, about how insanely attracted I was to Jack wiping his still wet hands on his jeans, dodging customers), but it vanished as soon I met his eyes. They were truly the colour of milk chocolate; sweet and melty. My gaze traveled all over his face: up his straight nose, his sharp eyebrows, his high cheekbones and finally … his mouth, curved in a smile.
Why did he always look so amused, as if the world was just a mildly interesting book he was reading?
'Stop looking at me like that,' I snapped.
James seemed genuinely puzzled. 'Like what?'
'With that stupid smile on your face like you know something when you don't,' I said, flushing with heat. I pulled the sleeves of my jumper past my wrists, wishing I hadn't said anything at all. 'You don't know anything about me and Jack.'
'I'm pretty sure I know more than you're willing to admit.'
'Oh you'd like to believe that wouldn't you?'
James considered me for a moment, his amusement all but gone. 'It's not hard when it's written all over your face.'
Thankfully, I didn't have to come up with a response because Jack slid in next to me with a 'hey stranger.' I was about to reply when he casually threw his arm over my shoulders, pulling me into him. I glanced up at James, who's smile had turned a little plastic, and cursed myself for caring about his reaction. To make up for it, I clutched Jack's hand tightly in my own. James observed us blandly.
'Where to next then?' Jack asked, looking between the two of us, not appearing to have noticed the weird tension. I whipped my head around to look at him in disbelief. Was he seriously suggesting prolonging this torture?! Had he, against all odds, begun to enjoy himself?
'Maybe we should forget those butterbeers. I can get Vivian and we can go to Honeydukes or my uncle's …' James was half out of his seat when he sank back down again. 'Never mind, she's coming back.'
'Sorry! It took ages!' Vivian said, looking flustered.
When she slid in next to James with our drinks, he also threw his arm around her shoulders. When I looked at Vivian, she seemed startled by the contact. James fixed his gaze on me and, with deliberate slowness, kissed the corner of her mouth. Vivian jerked away—then looked up at him wildly, grinning like a maniac.
My brow furrowed.
'Thanks for getting the drinks, Vivi,' James said, hugging her close. He nuzzled his face in the crook of her neck, kissing her there. She seemed positively mortified. 'You're such a darling.'
Vivian gulped, eyes darting between me and Jack. 'Okay, James.' She struggled against his grip on her. 'You're welcome.'
I caught Jack's eye and for the first time that entire day, I knew that we were both on the same page.
This was officially weird.
'Murph,' James said suddenly, as if just realising something. 'You look really pretty today.' I fought the blush that raged up my face as he turned to Jack innocently. 'Doesn't she look pretty today, Jack?'
'No,' James said thoughtfully, mulling over his butterbeer. 'What a stupid question. You probably tell her that all the time. It's the least you could do, right? I mean, I had to let the Whomping Willow beat the shit out of me so I could take her out on a date but you—you just had to ask her to Hogsmeade after she told her brother to stop interfering in her life.'
Jack and I gaped at him in blank astonishment.
'Not that I'm complaining, of course,' he went on jovially. 'I'm actually really happy for you guys. I'm glad I could make it easier for you Jack. I wouldn't want you to struggle like we did.' He sighed dramatically. 'All the lies and secrets … It took a toll on us.' He looked at Jack heavily. 'I'm sure you know what I mean. Did you also think it was incredibly sexy that she nearly died the night of the Forest fire because she jumped in front of Rose?'
'James,' Vivian ground out warningly.
Jack turned to me uncomprehendingly.
'He's exaggerating—when he says nearly died he means I got a bad cold,' I choked out lamely. 'From the snow—he doesn't know what he's saying—'
'Oh come on, Murph,' James said incredulously. 'Why are you down playing one of the bravest things you've ever done? You saved Rose! I tell you what—you terrified me that night. Who knew Hufflepuffs were capable of such chivalry. Right, Jack?'
Jack was looking down at his hands, clenched into fists. 'Right.'
'Do you send her notes?' James asked abruptly, eyes sparkling with flippant curiosity. I squawked in protest. What was he doing! 'She never shut up about the notes I sent her. It was her favourite part of the day.'
'Actually, my favourite part of the day is breakfast because it's my favourite meal,' I cried. 'You can have sweet or savoury. It's really the best of both worlds!'
Jack's knuckles were white as he raised his bottle to take a drink.
'You know, I had no idea that Kit had any feelings for me at all. She never flirted with me or tried to kiss me at any New Year's Eve parties.' He looked at Vivian, like she might find that interesting, but she was staring stonily ahead, mouth set in a furious line. 'Until she sent me her love letter, of course.'
Jack spat out his butterbeer, spraying it all over Vivian's face. She shrieked in surprise and lanced a look of disbelief up at Jack, dripping and furious. Ignoring Jack's apologies, she wrenched herself away from James—who didn't appear to notice, who's eyes were fixed on me and Jack with a manic gleam—and started wiping her face with a napkin. I tore my gaze away from James to look at Jack.
'By love letter he means the Christmas card I sent him! It barely had anything in it!' I tried to fight off my rising panic at the lack of emotion on Jack’s face. 'I actually drew this rather brilliant Santa and one of his elves building a wooden toy! He should show it to you sometime!'
'But of course, when I got the love letter,' James said, raising his voice over mine. 'It hit me how strongly she felt about me and how deeply. Nothing, not even Charlie, could stop me from making her mine.'
'It was an extremely generic Christmas card!' I said even louder. 'I write them all in advance and put no thought behind it whatsoever!'
'I knew I wanted to be with her the second she told me how she felt,' James practically shouted. 'I didn't think about the consequences! I didn't care what Charlie had to say! He didn't even occur to me when I asked her out and she kissed me like a maniac!'
'I kissed him like a normal person!' I cried frantically. 'It was a very normal, bland, emotionless kiss between old friends!'
By this point, we'd both become so loud that people had begun to stare.
'It was a passionate kiss! Has she ever kissed you like that, Day?!'
'I kiss him passionately all the time!'
'But I bet you've never had sex with him!'
HOW DID HE FIND OUT ABOUT THAT.
'I'm planning on it!'
'Will you two just SHUT UP?!' Vivian shrieked.
The radio screeched into silence and no one in the pub seemed to breathe.
She looked between me and James dementedly, her makeup smeared and running.
'For Merlin's sake, Kit! Why can't you see that James forced me to pretend to be his girlfriend for this stupid fucking date so he could make you jealous! We are NOT DATING! And it was a STUPID fucking idea because he's in love with you and you're clearly still in love with him! WHY COULDN'T YOU TWO JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER LIKE NORMAL FUCKING PEOPLE!'
The pub held its silence for a beat—then resumed its normal activity, as though screaming matches between Hogwarts students happened here every other weekend. Vivian snatched her bag, slammed a few sickles on our table, and stormed out.
'I think,' Jack said quietly. 'That I'm going to go.'
'Wait,' I said desperately. 'Jack, I can explain—'
'There's really nothing to explain. I'll see you later Kit.'
But he got up and turned away, putting on his bomber jacket and stalking out of the pub. I sat there for a moment, staring after him, just breathing, in and out, in and out, in and out … and I slid my gaze to James.
'Murphy …' he began.
'I hate you,' I snarled. 'You're hateful and mean and spiteful and just horrible!' Without giving him a chance to defend himself, I gathered my things and fled, determined to find Jack and apologise.
I laid on Potter's chest, enjoying the way he brushed my hair back, trailing his fingers, feather light, across my shoulder and down my arm. I'd fallen into a trance and it took me a moment to realise what that insistent tapping at the window was. I twisted my head to look up at Potter.
'I think there's a letter for you.'
He groaned and I grinned. The tapping became more aggressive. With a massive effort, Potter got up and walked to the window, letting the owl in. I watched him, admiring his naked body, thinking that if he was up to it, we could go for round two. He padded over to me, mouth turned down in a frown.
'It's for you,' he said, coming back to bed.
Puzzled, I took it from him and sat up. It was addressed to me but there was no return sender. The last time I'd received a letter like this, it had been from a frantic, terrified Cecily …
I tore open the letter and read.
My blood ran cold.
'Who's it from?' Potter murmured sleepily, wrapping his arms around my waist, dragging me back down.
I quickly set the letter, face down, on his bedside table and turned to him. 'My father,' I lied with a smile, lifting a hand to brush back a raven curl. His eyes fluttered shut in contentment. 'He wants to me stay at Hogwarts for Easter.'
I really didn't know what to do now.
I unclenched my fist and black sand unfurled and spun in my open palm. I had really thought that Rose was the Challenger. If she'd refused to help me master my Obscurus, then who did that leave? I clenched my fist and the black sand vanished. And she'd kissed me. That was the most surprising part of our whole conversation. I opened my palm, letting the sand twirl around my fingers. Oddly, everything had made sense after that.
It stood to reason that Rose had taken out these … these feelings she had for me in different ways. For example, by bullying me. For pushing me out of the friend group and excommunicating me. All because I'd kissed Scorpius in a game of spin the bottle as a twelve year old. I'd always thought that it was an affront because she'd claimed Scorpius as hers to the whole friend group.
But now … now I wondered if it had to do with me.
Her rage against me, her disgust and pettiness … the cruel and unusual ways she'd found to punish me … was it her way of pretending like she wasn't attracted to me? It was ironic, really, and such a cliché …
'Will you stop that?' Charlie said abruptly.
I looked at him, coming out of my reverie. 'What?'
His eyes flicked down to my hand, where the Obscurus was still swirling lazily. I was surprised—I hadn't even realised that I'd been doing it. I willed the Obscurus back in and sat up, grimacing apologetically. 'Sorry. I wasn't thinking.'
'It's okay,' he said, sounding frustrated. 'But what are you going to do about it?'
'I thought Rose was the Challenger.' I'd already told him everything I'd told Rose—about the titles and roles and what I needed to do next. Charlie, to my astonishment, hadn't argued. He'd pressed his lips together and told me to find the Challenger. But everything that had happened today made me question who I thought had which role. Was Charlie my Challenger? And not my Heart? 'Maybe it's you.'
'No,' he said flatly. He thought he was the Heart, too, but …
'What if you're not the Heart?' I murmured and he looked at me sharply. 'Not because you don't love me, and not because I don't love you but … but what if it means someone else?'
'Like who?' Charlie demanded. 'James? Albus?'
'No,' I said quietly. I looked down at my hands. 'What if the Heart means … friendship? Like Jane or … or Rose?'
He snorted without amusement. 'That seems unlikely.'
Unbidden, Rose's face appeared in my mind's eye. The anguish that twisted her delicate features, her eyes wide and blue, like a glacier. The way her breath hitched before she pressed her lips to mine. You're so much more than that … You aren't your pain or your rage. The blank stare of horror when I pushed her away. The regret and shame. A Heart that loves in strife—it must itself know fear, pain and struggle.
'Then who is it?' I asked desperately.
Charlie looked at me for a moment, then sighed. He set his Transfiguration book aside and scooted up to me on his bed. His eyes were big and blue when they met mine, so serious and solemn it sent a pang down my heart.
'If you're asking for my opinion,' he said. 'Then I think it's James. It would make sense, wouldn't it? You barely get along with him on the best of days. He irritates you, makes you doubt yourself and forces you to fight back. Sounds like a Challenger, doesn't it? Someone who's already mastered his heart, his soul, his reason and rage?'
'You think so?'
Charlie shrugged. 'If there's anyone who's a master of his emotions, it's James.'
'Okay,' I said, resolved. 'I'll ask him tomorrow.'
'Jack?' I shouted, stumbling out of the Three Broomsticks and into the pouring rain. I looked around wildly for his lemon yellow jacket, but he wasn't anywhere. 'Jack!'
Dismayed, I looked up at the path to the castle. Surely he couldn't have made it there already? Unless he ran. Holding back a sob of wretchedness, I trudged up the muddy high street, getting soaked in seconds. I could hardly see through the rain pelting down so hard that it hurt.
I didn't even bother to look as I continued to trudge up the path. My warrior cells lay dead, dying and wounded on the battlefield, crying out for a medic. The sweet pink cells were nowhere to be found. They had all fled from the carnage.
'Murphy, stop!' James shouted. 'Let me explain!'
I let out a piercing scream of frustration, incandescent with rage and disbelief. 'I don't want you to explain! I want you to go away!'
But James had caught up to me. I didn't slow down so we walked together whilst I tried furiously to ignore him and his apologies.
'Murph,' he said desperately. 'Please—I'm sorry—'
'SORRY?!' I screeched. 'What are you sorry for, James! For pretending Vivian was your girlfriend so you could have your fun with me and Jack?! You told him everything! Private things! Things I trusted you with! And you threw it right back in my face! You ruined my relationship!'
'Kit, please, just hold on a second—' He tried to take my arm but I wrenched away from him with a snarl of hatred. 'I didn't mean to do that! I didn't mean to do any of it—'
'What did you mean for to happen then?' I screamed. God, he was so deluded if he thought there was a way he could charm and chat his way out of this one! 'What was the fucking point of this date, James?! You wanted to me and Jack together to prove that you were right and I was wrong! So job well done James! You were fucking right!'
'Murphy, what the hell are you talking about?' James shouted. In my fury, I shot him a sideways glance. His hair was plastered to his forehead, looking black, face pale and distraught. 'I—I wasn't trying to prove anything—I just needed you to see—'
'See what?' I yelled over the thundering rain. 'What could be so important that you would tell him about the love letters! About the night in the Forest! All I see is that despite everything—you can't even treat me like a friend! You can't treat me with decency and common courtesy—you just acted on impulse and your own fucked up emotions and ruined everything! Ugh, just get away from me!'
I marched up the Entrance Hall steps, out of the rain. Without the pressure of it, I could suddenly feel every muscle, bone and cell in my body, weighing me down, anchoring me to the ground. My gaze flicked to the stairs that led to the Hufflepuff basement.
'I'm sorry! Murphy, please—you have to believe that I didn't mean to hurt you—'
'But you did, James,' I croaked, whirling around to face him. James was devastated and I didn't care. 'You've hurt me over and over again and I can't—I can't take it anymore!'
'Murphy,' James said desperately. 'I did this—I did this whole thing wrong. It wasn't supposed to happen like that. Nothing was supposed to happen. I don't know why I act the way I do around you—I feel like I can't think straight—like I can't do anything right—'
'Are you kidding me?' I said in a deadly voice, taking a step towards him. 'How stupid do you think I am? You wanted to make a point. You think I'm only dating Jack because I don't like you. Not everything is about you, James. For once—for once—this has nothing to do with you!' I was so angry that I shoved him away. He staggered back, astonished. 'Why, James? Why couldn't you just leave us alone?'
He was looking at me blankly, like he had never seen me before.
'I hate that you're with him,' he said hollowly. 'He doesn't even know who you are. He doesn't know the first thing about you and he doesn't deserve you, Murph. And you can't—you can't—' he broke off, shaking his head, features twisting with wretched disbelief. 'You can't like him. Not like that.'
'That isn't for you to decide,' I whispered. 'You don't get to decide what I feel, James.'
'I'm not trying to tell you how to feel. You could see—you could feel it for yourself—I know you could. You're just tolerating him. He's just a distraction. And you're lying to me—lying to yourself if you don't think that he is. If you think that he could ever know you the way that—'
'The way that what?' My voice was as cold and as sharp as a blade. 'The way that you do?' James' eyes flicked up to meet mine, blazing. 'Maybe you're right. Maybe he's not the guy for me but that does not mean that you are. If he's a mistake then let me make it, James. Because it's my mistake to make.'
'He isn't just a mistake,' James said, taking a step forward, eyes searching mine. 'You're using him to push me away.'
Something inside of me cracked, broke in shattering despair, and the words began to pour out. 'What do you want me to say? That I stopped being able to tell what was real and what wasn't? That I started to have feelings for you? The truth is that I wanted to be with you, the real you, and I found out too late that it was all a lie! Because you do know me James! And I don't know anything about you!'
James stared at me, astonished, and I had the crushing realisation that he had never expected me to say that, not in a million years, no matter how far and how hard he pushed me.
'Wait—no—I didn't mean that—I'm sorry—'
'No you're not. You're not sorry.' James closed the gap between us, lifting his hands to cup my face. I knew I should've pushed him away, but I stood frozen, staring up at him. 'You don't get it. You weren't the only one who was confused.' My dead heart flickered in my ribcage, like wings caught in a trap. 'I don't think I've been more confused in my entire life—'
James pressed his forehead against mine, our noses grazing, and my heart nearly leapt out of my chest. 'Please just listen to me for once. I hate that I didn't understand it sooner. But when you went to that party with Dean—when you told me that you didn't want to hurt me, when you could have, when I'd have deserved it—' he let out a breathless, nervous sounding laugh. 'God, Murphy. I'd have been so fucking hurt. To see you with him. To see you with anyone. And you did it because you care. You care about me too.'
'As a—a friend.' My heart was beating wildly out of control. This was so wrong. I was still with Jack—or maybe him leaving meant that he'd broken up with me—but I couldn't—I couldn't. 'As just a friend.'
'I know,' he said, voice raw and torn. 'But I don't want to be your friend.'
How did anyone survive this? How did anyone have the willpower to fight the desperation that clawed up me now. The desperation to tell him it was okay, that I forgave him and that I didn't want to be his friend either. It was what I so badly wanted to do, so much that it made my heart shatter that I couldn't have it. Because I couldn't forgive him.
He shouldn't have said those things to Jack. He shouldn't have interfered—not matter what he felt. And I couldn't believe that this was what he felt. He could have any girl he wanted. And he wanted me?
He wanted what he couldn't have.
'Well ... I guess you'll just have to get used to not getting everything you want.'
We stood there for a moment, our bodies pressed tightly together, his hands gentle but firm on my face. I could feel his heart hammering in his chest and I'd never been more miserable by what it meant. Then, James pulled away, eyes glittering with regret.
'That's really too bad ... Because I've never wanted anything more in my life.'
I let out a breathless, heartbroken laugh. 'I don't believe that I'm the first girl you've ever said that to.'
'No.' James's mouth twisted ruefully. 'But it's the first time I've ever meant it.'
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