Rain rattled against the windows, drumming a lullaby that nearly put Charlie to sleep. But he was waiting for James, who still wasn't back even though it was abysmally dark outside and chucking down with rain. Surely he and Vivian had returned from Hogsmeade hours ago?
Freddie and Henry were both with their girlfriends so Charlie had allowed Louis to distract him with a few rounds of Exploding Snap before Louis'd announced his intention to see Winifred Catchpole. Charlie knew what that meant so he succumbed to his anxiety, stewing in his muddled thoughts by himself.
Part of him wanted to find Jane again and ask her to repeat her suspicions. Not because he needed to hear them—it had a become a mantra in his head, a chant that didn't soothe him: the memory, the orphanage, the tattoo, the memory, the orphanage, the tattoo—but because he needed her calm, matter-of-fact voice telling him to chill the fuck out.
Just then, the door flew open and Charlie scrambled to his feet, relief flooding through him as James lumbered in, looking like a drowned rat. His gaze flicked up to Charlie and he turned away wordlessly, stripping off his sopping clothes.
'Mate, I need to talk to you—'
'Yeah, well—' James reached past Charlie for his towel. 'I need a shower.'
Charlie stepped back. 'Oh right. Well, when you're done—'
The bathroom door slammed shut and Charlie sighed.
Potter was fast asleep.
His arm was thrown over my waist, his lips almost brushing my shoulder. For a moment, I lost all motor function. Albus Potter asleep was … something else. Everything about him was soft and gentle. The hard planes and angles of his face were buttery with sleep, his black lashes dusting his cheekbones, raven curls falling over his eyes. Feeling regretful, I peeled his arm off. He immediately turned over.
I slipped out of his bed and got dressed quickly and quietly, snatching the letter off his bedside table. My stomach rolled with nausea and my forehead pounded with a hangover as I fled up the stairs and into the common room. Turned out it wasn't a good idea to get day drunk. I had no idea what the time even was. I was just at the exit when—
'Jane?' Cecily called out, sounding surprised.
I winced—and turned, hiding the letter behind my back as I faced her with a smile.
'Cecily,' I said, voice hoarse and raspy. 'What—um—what time is it?'
Her hazel-green eyes flicked to the boys dormitory door and back. She grinned. 'It's nearly midnight.' She pressed her lips together, as if fighting off laughter. 'Are you hungover?'
I winced again at her piercing voice. 'Er … just a little … listen, I've got to go …'
Her gaze flickered over me curiously and I sighed inwardly—I wouldn't be going back any time soon, would I? She looked around the common room—as if to confirm it was empty—and walked up to me. My fingers tightened around the letter behind my back. She didn't seem to notice as she lowered her voice and said, 'Remember what I was saying about the titles this morning? Before Charlie interrupted?'
'Um … yeah.' God, why couldn't she just tell me this in the morning. 'What about it?'
'There are seven. Each one belongs to one of us—to everyone who's helping. The Soul, the Heart, the Reason, the Rage, the Challenger, the Sadness and the Executioner.' My eyes flashed up to meet hers. What did she just say? 'Kit is the Soul, Albus the Rage. I thought Charlie was the Heart and that Rose was the Challenger, and I couldn't figure out who was the Reason and the Executioner between you and James—'
'What—what are you talking about?' I demanded. My brain was lagging and she was speaking way too fast. My hangover pulsed behind my eyelids. 'Who—did the Grey Lady tell you this? Or are these codenames for fun?'
She shot me a withering look. Then became serious. 'It was the Grey Lady. Why?'
My eyes darted from side to side, thinking furiously. 'I—' I crumpled the letter in my hand, balling it into my fist '—I—was just—wondering. So—so these … titles. They indicate the role we have in—in controlling your Obscurus?'
'Yes.' Cecily bit her lip. 'I thought Rose was the Challenger, Jane. But she isn't. She said no.' A dull blush rose up Cecily's cheeks and impatience sweltered inside me.
'She kissed me.'
My draw dropped in genuine astonishment.
'So you didn't know?' Her eyes searched mine, and I knew she was really asking me if I'd known that Rose had feelings for her—but I was too stunned to do anything but gape. Cecily sighed. 'I guess it doesn't matter … But now I think—no, I'm sure she's the Heart.'
'"In order to tame the volatility of the Obscurus, it must have a Heart",' Cecily said, as though she was reciting something from memory. '"A Heart that loves in strife. It cannot be an easy love. It must itself know fear, pain and struggle".'
'You think … you think Rose loves you?'
I was really battling my hangover and my racing thoughts to understand what was happening.
Cecily shrugged. 'I don't know.' It didn't look like she cared much either. 'I think the words can be interpreted loosely. But it would make sense, wouldn't it? If she were my Heart? If she loves me—or likes me—whatever—and she's struggling with it because—you know—' she looked at me and I stared back. 'Anyway, if she's my Heart then Charlie isn't. Which means he's my Reason.'
'Which means … I'm your Challenger?'
'No,' she replied slowly. 'I'm pretty sure James is.'
I clenched my fist behind my back.
'Then I'm the Executioner.'
Cecily was watching me carefully, as though I might suddenly display some hitherto unheard of magical powers. But I just stood there, feeling like pure death. If she was expecting me to do something, then she could look forward to me being sick on her shoes.
'The Grey Lady never told me what the Executioner was supposed to do,' she said after a slight pause. 'She gave explanations for all the others but that title.'
We stared at each other.
'Okay,' I said. She was waiting for something—an eureka moment—and if I gave it to her ... well, I didn't know what would happen. I just knew I couldn't. 'So … is that it? Or did you just need me to think out loud in front of?'
'No. I just wanted to see if maybe you knew what it meant. I'd already worked out the titles in my head—you know, after Rose said no and Charlie suggested James as the Challenger. I thought … I don't know. Maybe hearing it would make something click into place for you?'
My blood started to pound in my veins, palms slick and clammy with sweat over the letter in my hand. She was looking at me much too perceptively—as though she already knew—knew what I was hiding—
'Nope,' I forced out. 'Nothing. Interesting title though. Very badass.' I plastered an apologetic smile on my face, gaze darting to the common room exit. 'I really should go. But we'll—we'll talk about this later? Maybe something will occur to me.'
'Yeah,' Cecily said softly, looking a little disappointed. 'Sure. Night Fox.'
I whirled around and practically ran out of the Slytherin common room, not slowing down until I'd reached the Grand Staircase. My heart was thundering in my chest, blood pulsing with dread. The Executioner? That couldn't be a coincidence. There was no such thing. I'd called myself that jokingly—and now it was my title? And—and the letter—
Hands trembling, I smoothened it out, trying to flatten the creases.
Meet me at the Hog's Head Inn tomorrow morning at 9am.
The words blared out at me, dancing around in a jumbled mess as my hands shook. I'd known it was from Creevey the second I'd read it. I'd been looking forward to it. I'd felt an absolute smugness in knowing he'd reached out to me. Because I would ask the right questions—because, finally, I would get answers. I'd get the chance to solve the mystery that was Cecily Waters.
But everything had changed.
Creevey needed something from me. It was as obvious to me now as the rain pouring down outside. Whatever he was doing, I was going to play more of a role in it than simply helping Cecily control her Obscurus.
Because I was the Executioner.
I turned and blinked as Scorpius jogged up to me, his features rippling with concern as his eyes raked over me. I looked around, for the first time, and saw that I was in the Entrance Hall. How had I gotten here? I couldn't remember …
'Rose,' Scor said again. 'What are you doing? It's nearly curfew.'
'I have … I have rounds.' I looked down at myself—I wasn't wearing my uniform robes and I'd forgotten my wand in my bedroom. 'I forgot my wand.'
I looked up at him. His features were hard, jaw locked, and I knew he was angry but not at me.
'What happened?' he demanded. 'What's wrong?'
'Nothing …' But that wasn't true. I had kissed Cecily. I'd kissed her and she'd pushed me away. My face crumpled, vision blurring with tears. 'I—I don't know what's wrong with me.'
Scorpius closed the gap between us, hands reaching to hold my face, forcing me to meet his eye. 'There's nothing wrong with you.' He softened, eyes searching mine. 'What happened? Talk to me.'
I could feel my throat closing up. The battle inside of me was lost and there was no victor. I wanted to die, for kissing her. I wanted to travel back in time and take it all back. My body was brimming, sloshing at the edges with hot, shameful regret. I wanted to block the memory out, to erase it from existence, but every time I tried, this one, blistering moment resurfaced: her horror.
'I don't want to talk,' I croaked. And I didn't hesitate—I didn't even think—as I kissed him. Scorpius jerked back in surprise, eyes widening in astonishment. My mouth twisted in despair. 'Please. Please don't reject me.'
'Rose, this isn't—'
'Please,' I begged. 'I need this. I need you.'
Scorpius looked like he had no idea what to do; he was shaking his head, cheeks flushed pink. So I made his decision for him. I reached up to wind my arms around his neck, moulding my lips against his. He kissed me back automatically—but it was just that. An instinct. There was no fire, no passion. There was nothing. Only emptiness. And though his heart was hammering, mine was steady.
I could taste his reluctance, so I kissed him harder, pressing my body against his. He put his hands on my waist—not out of sudden desire, but to steady me. He was kissing me back, but I could feel that he was humouring me, that he simply didn't want to hurt my feelings. Finally, I pulled away, defeated. There was something rueful in his eyes, and something sad. He brushed a tendril of my hair out of my face and my eyes fluttered shut.
'Stay with me tonight,' he murmured.
I inhaled evenly through my nose and exhaled.
James sat on his trunk, rubbing his hair with his towel, eyes fixed on Charlie as he paced the room.
'It could be nothing,' James said lightly.
'Very true.' Charlie's gaze slid to him. 'But even you don't believe that.' He stopped pacing and faced James. 'What does it mean, to have a tattoo of the Deathly Hallows?'
James shrugged, tossing his towel aside. 'The Creeveys were obsessed with dad. Maybe it's some weird fan tribute to him.'
'That's not what I asked.'
He looked at Charlie, rolling his dark eyes. James was good at deflecting when he was really calculating; weighing up the options before anyone knew them, telling people enough so they were satisfied but holding back to ensure he had the upper hand at all times. Charlie knew this about James even if he might not be aware of it. There was only so much you could hide from your best friend over the years.
'The tattoo,' he said. 'Is associated to Grindelwald. Like the Dark Mark was to Voldemort. Like the lightning bolt is to the Wave.' Charlie suppressed an eye roll of his own at that. He'd chosen to remain ignorant of James' little club. Maybe that was why he wasn't made Head Boy. He was all too willing to overlook his friends' questionable rule-breaking. 'But Grindelwald wasn't organised the way Voldemort was. He didn't have Death Eaters. He had followers and … fans.'
'And Creevey, he's a … fan?'
James got up. 'If you think the Grey Lady's working with him, he must have been speaking to her before Cecily left Hogwarts. It would mean that whatever he's doing, he's been planning it for a long time.' He looked away, and Charlie knew that he was thinking. Connecting dots that no one could see. 'And you said Jane suspects that Creevey might have come to Hogwarts because of her? Because he always known what she was?'
Charlie nodded, throat tight.
'There's no way of knowing whether or not that's true. But if it is, then you're right. He's using her for something. If he's always known about Cecily, if he came to this school for her …' His eyes became unfocused. 'Then he wants her for something—and he needs her to be ready for it.' James looked at Charlie suddenly. 'Which means that what we're doing—teaching her to control her Obscurus—that's part of her … training.'
A razor thin, ice-cold chill ran down Charlie's spine.
'And … what if he's actually trying to help her?'
'I think we're past that point.' His tone was not unkind. 'Cecily's Obscurus is showing up at will—she's controlling it, not getting rid of it. And if what you're telling me is true—if I'm the Challenger—if I'm meant to help her master the Heart and the Reason or whatever then … then we've got to stop bullshitting ourselves. The fact that Creevey didn't come back from the orphanage means that he can't. Not because he has to answer some awkward questions, but because he has bigger plans—and he's outgrown Hogwarts.'
'Everything Creevey did … even without the tattoo … he's been leading her somewhere. To something. And whatever it is, the Grey Lady is all for it. There's something in it for her.'
'Shouldn't we talk to her?' Charlie demanded.
'She's a ghost,' James muttered. 'If she doesn't want to be found, then we won't find her.' After a beat, he looked at Charlie curiously. 'Do you want me to sabotage her?'
'As the Challenger. I could … mess with her progress. Hinder Creevey's plan.'
Charlie stared at James.
He knew James was being completely serious. That he would do that for Charlie. Not because he cared about Cecily—but because he knew Charlie loved her. It wasn't like James wasn't empathetic or had no feelings ... he just kept the people he genuinely cared about to an absolute minimum. It wasn't a conscious fact that Charlie was aware of ... he just knew it in a vague, unprincipled way.
He'd never wondered why. There was sort of an unspoken rule between them that talking about family was completely off limits (something Charlie tended to forget when he babbled on about his incessantly), which tied in nicely with never talking about James' famous parents and the backlash he when public perception of the Ministry's policies and actions changed.
James would often make sarcastic or disparaging remarks about his parents—his tone always light and joking, always at the expense of himself. But he never spoke about Albus. James didn't even speak to him. At least, not publicly. Charlie wasn't sure what the story was behind that but he didn't dare to ask. It seemed like a private thing that didn't concern him anyway.
This was all to say that James made it difficult for people to understand him. Over the years, Charlie had mused that it was a curse of being devastatingly handsome and universally loved. James could be charming when he wanted—but he didn't need to be. People wanted his attention, his approval, regardless of the fact that—more often than not—he was rude, antisocial, cruelly sarcastic and a little bit of a prick. It was like he went out of his way to make people hate him because they blindly adored him for no reason.
It was just a shame, Charlie thought ruefully. Because he ended up burying all the good things about him in the process.
If James was Cecily's Challenger, he was the only one who could stop her from truly mastering her Obscurus ... if she didn't, she wouldn't be able to help Creevey and she'd ... she'd ... No. No, he knew why that wasn't possible.
'No.' Charlie shook his head once and bitterly, hating that he couldn't ask James to do that, knowing that it was an offer he had to refuse. 'She needs you to fix her control. It—her—it comes out of her without her even thinking about it. She needs you to help or she'll ... Fuck, James. I don't know what the fuck will happen but it's too late. It's too late for her to stop.'
'Okay, okay …' James was still watching Charlie. 'But it'll mean we're helping him.'
'It's too late for anything else,' Charlie said hollowly, sinking down on his bed, burying his hands in his raven hair. 'I fucked up.'
'Yeah, well …'
'What the hell is he training her for?' he asked, unable to hide the edge of desperation and fear in his voice. 'What the fuck does he want from her?'
'I don't know,' James said after a moment. 'What does anyone want with the most powerful weapon in the world?'
Sunday morning was just as depressing as Saturday. The rain fell relentlessly, like the whole world was in mourning. It was so dark and grey outside, it was as though the sun had never risen.
It was fitting—for the weather to match my bleak mood.
'I'm so sorry, Jack. I should have just been honest with you from the start,' I said miserably. 'Can you forgive me for not telling you? I don't know why I didn't, I just … I didn't want it to be a part of this. Of you and me. It happened before all of that and … and maybe I didn't want to scare you away. You already think I'm a crazy lunatic and—and—Merlin, Jack. I was embarrassed by all of it. I didn't want to bring it up and remember and relive it …'
'Kit,' he murmured, brushing a curl out of my face. He held my chin and forced me to meet his eye. 'I think you're a crazy lunatic in the most endearing way possible. Of course I wish you'd told me but I get now why you didn't. And of course I forgive you. You were with James—so of course he knew about it and … I don't know. I already felt fucking insecure about your relationship with him and for him to throw all this shit in my face—like I wasn't thinking all of it anyway—'
'Oh please don't,' I whispered, clutching his hands tighter in mine. 'Please don't say that. I don't care about the Whomping Willow or any of that nonsense. It means nothing to me.'
'So you don't think it's a noble, chivalrous act of passionate love?' he said dryly, though I could detect a hint self-doubt, as though some part of him kind of believed it was.
'No,' I said firmly. 'I think it's chauvinistic and insulting. I didn't find it romantic or … or whatever. I mean, that was the problem with James. He did all these things that he thought impressed me but it was the things he wasn't—' I stopped myself abruptly. Jack didn't need to know what James did to make me like him. 'Anyway, I'm sorry he even said it.'
'Whatever. I'm over it. Or I'll get over it. It just pisses me off that he thought getting fucked up by the Whomping Willow, or not caring about Charlie's reaction meant that—that I'm a—a coward.' He deflated, eyes locking with mine. 'Do you think I'm a coward?'
'No.' I held his gaze fiercely. 'It pisses me off that he tried to make you feel that way. He was being such a fucking prick and—urgh! I hate him! I hate that he did that. You are not a coward, Jack. It's not your fault Charlie was being a dick to you about liking me. I didn't want you to ruin your friendship with him just because of me anyway—'
'But I should have,' he murmured, eyes burning. He brushed his thumb against my jaw, curling his fingers in my hair. 'I would, Kit. I would ruin my friendship with him for you. I'd ruin everything to be with you.'
My cheeks burned, like two flat suns were pressed against it. I pressed my lips together to stop from cringing outwardly all together. Was it just me or was that super weird coming from Jack? I knew he was trying to be romantic and passionate but Merlin—I just got second hand embarrassment from that.
'That's …' I struggled to find the right response—so I changed the subject. 'The letters. I feel like I need to explain the letters.'
Jack sighed, letting his hand drop. 'I don't think I want you to.'
'I know but you need to know that I wrote my letter to James years ago,' I said desperately. 'I wrote yours at Christmas. I never meant to send them to anyone anyway—you know that—but James was sent his by Mallory and it was a mistake—'
'And I wasn't supposed to get mine either,' he said quietly, almost to himself. 'I guess that's why you and James started going out?'
My heart skipped a beat. 'What?'
'Your letter … I've never gotten anything like it before. I think the only reason I was upset that Potter got one was because … because it made me feel so …' Jack blew the air out of his cheeks, looking at our intertwined hands. 'I don't even know how to describe it. It was just crazy to me that you noticed all these things about me, that I made you feel the way you did—' My face was on fire; I'd been so dramatic in his letter '—that you were this real, whole person who … who just really fucking liked me. You had all these feelings and thoughts and I was just an idiot who thought you were pretty. This is embarrassing to admit but it made me feel special. One of the first things I liked about you was how much you liked me.'
That was ... good?
'So yeah, it sucks Potter got one too. And of course he wanted to be with you after reading his. But that's just my wounded ego—thinking I'd be lucky enough to be the only guy you fancied.' He smiled wryly. 'But I think I can forget the other stuff if … if I'm the only guy you fancy now.'
I realised a moment too late that he was actually asking me question.
'Oh! Yes!' I cried far too loudly. 'Yes, Jack! You are!'
He grinned broadly, sitting back and looking much lighter than he had when we'd sat down at the Hufflepuff table half an hour ago. 'So should we make this official then?'
'What do you mean—'
He kissed me, startling me, and looked me in the eye seriously.
'Will you be my girlfriend?'
I approached James in his common room. He was sitting alone, scrolling through his WizPhone. He looked up at me as I stopped in front of him and smiled like he had been expecting me.
'Charlie told you,' I said dryly.
'Hello to you too,' he replied genially, smiling that smile that went all the way up to his eyes, flashing his canines. Like a vampire. 'Where would you like me to challenge you?' He looked around the common room. 'This feels a little public.'
I rolled my eyes. 'The Room of Requirement.'
'Merlin, Waters …' James rose to his feet, tucking his phone in his pocket. 'I appreciate your lack of enthusiasm for Charlie's sake. But I know you've been dying to get me alone in a room with you.'
I smiled simperingly. 'Shame the only girl you want to be alone with would rather die than spend even a second with you.'
James' friendly pretence vanished instantly. He studied me for a moment, expression unreadable, cut from glass. Then his gaze flicked to the Portrait Hole, his features perfectly bored.
'Let's get this over with.'
I'd never agreed with him more.
'Show me,' he commanded.
I bristled at his tone. Everything about him infuriated me. His money, his privilege. The way everyone—even the fucking Professors—adored him. Harry Potter's first son—the son who could do no wrong. I hated that he wore a mask, that he was the one person I would never understand. Even the way he looked felt like a personal insult. His straight nose, full lips and dark eyes. Tall and lean, muscled but light—like a spear. He looked like the statue of David; the champion sent to slay Goliath.
I rolled my neck and shoulders, eyes never leaving his.
I hope I scared him.
Inhaling deeply through my nose and out my mouth, I closed my eyes and willed the Obscurus to reveal itself. The feeling was strange, like someone was pricking me with a million tiny needles. And the peeling—like peeling off sunburnt skin or a scab—slightly painful and immeasurably satisfying. When I opened my eyes, the black, sand-like mist was swirling around my arms.
'Impressive,' James said. He walked over to me, watching my Obscurus dance. I studied his face for what he was thinking—but he gave nothing away—not even that he was impressed, despite what he'd said. 'Can I touch you?'
I was startled. 'What?'
He looked at me seriously. 'Just your hand.'
I stared at him uncomprehendingly.
He shrugged; he wasn't going to tell me—not before he knew the answer himself. I hesitated—then lifted my arm out for him to take. James' eyes flicked up, a question in them, and I nodded once, giving him permission. He wrapped his hand around my upper arm and my hands automatically did the same. I felt an odd jerk at my navel—like the sudden, nauseating pull of a Portkey—and looked up at him wildly.
James was stunned.
'It's … cold,' he said, sounding slightly breathless. He seemed … awed. 'And I can … I can feel it. I thought it would feel like sand because of the way it looks but … it's like tiny shards of ice …'
My heart was thumping erratically. His grip on me was too tight. I tried to pull away but he didn't appear to notice.
'James,' I said.
'Is it cold to you?'
He sounded so genuinely curious that I actually answered.
'Fun.' He let go my arm and shook his, bending his wrist this way and that, as if he'd lost all feeling in it.
I eyed him warily. 'Are you alright?'
'Yeah …' He appraised me with new interest, like I was finally worth his time. I had to force myself not to gnash my teeth together in irritation. 'What can you do?'
'What do you mean?'
He waved a hand vaguely. 'With your Obscurus. Like, can you make it do anything besides swim around you? Can you push it any further than a few inches from your skin?'
Brow furrowing, I took a stance to steady myself—and pushed. I pushed with my mind—without Albus pushing back, it felt quite ridiculous—and strained every muscle in effort to make the Obscurus go further. But it stayed obstinately close to my skin, weaving serenely over my arms like it was following a current of energy that I couldn't see or feel. I gritted my teeth and shoved.
'Alright,' James said, sounding amused. 'Looks like you might shit yourself if you try any harder.'
I looked at him in outrage. 'You're disgusting.'
He grinned lazily, pulling his wand out of his pocket, twirling it expertly between his fingers. He saw me noticing it and his grin widened. He walked backwards until he was at least six feet away from me. I tried not to feel nervous—clutching at my hatred for him by the edge of its robes—but James was unpredictable and hard to read. I didn't want him to … but he made me nervous.
'I think,' James said, rolling up his sleeves, eyes flashing wickedly. 'That you need someone to fight.'
I ignored Scorpius as I pulled my boots on. I heard him sigh and push himself up, so I twisted my head to look at him, if only to stop him worrying. But whatever I was going to say withered away on the tip of my tongue. His platinum white hair—so like Cecily's—was tousled and slept on, his eyes weary and shadowed with sleep. They were a true grey; the grey of a storm cloud, thick and heavy with rain. They pierced me, reading my soul like it was laid bare before him.
'This was the part I hated most,' he said dryly. 'Watching you leave.'
My dull heart thudded.
I didn't know what to say to that.
He looked away, lowering his gaze as he picked at his sheets. 'I like being your friend. I think I might like it more than being your boyfriend.' His smile faded when I didn't return it. 'It's easier this way. I've given you my heart countless times. I let you do whatever you wanted with it. And I didn't care, because it was yours. But being your friend now … now I can guard it. Now I know that I need to protect it and I am. But …'
He looked at me a little curiously. 'But now I see that I should have never given it to you when you didn't deserve it.' A pit formed in my stomach; regret and shame. 'The world has always given you exactly what you wanted. It's like the universe compelled me to give you all of me when I wasn't sure I'd get anything in return. It sounds totally fucking unromantic but I should have made sure that I was getting what I was giving.'
I couldn't look at him anymore; Everything he was saying was right. I was horrible to him. I took him for granted. I took his love like I deserved it … but I'd never earned it. I never earned his kindness, his care or attention. And maybe that was why I felt so wretched now—because the one thing I wanted—the one thing I thought I wanted—didn't want me back. Maybe I'd been expecting the universe to offer me that boon, too. Without ever having earned it.
'And now,' he said quietly. 'Now you spend your days with me. You actually want my company.'
I closed my eyes, filled with such shame and hatred for myself.
'I'm so sorry, Scor. I'm so sorry that I—I took you for granted. I never deserved you. I'm sorry that I ever thought I did.' I turned to look at him and he met my gaze steadily, grey eyes serious. 'Before the miscarriage ... before I found out I was pregnant ... I thought I was perfect. It feels insane to even say it out loud. To know that that's how I saw myself. The whole thing just made me ...' My throat tightened with emotion. 'I never knew I was weak. I didn't know I was such a coward.'
'You're not a coward—'
'I don't mean about the miscarriage! Or—or wanting an abortion! I mean—my whole life, Scor!' I got to my feet, suddenly agitated. My heart was pounding in my chest, my anxiety screaming at me to stop talking. The more people knew your secrets, the weaker you'd become. 'I was a bully and I felt better than everyone else because I'm rich and my parents are famous. I felt untouchable. Like nothing could hurt me.' I thought of Cecily; her astonished, glazed eyes as she shot to her feet; her fingers at her lips. 'But I've always been weak and cowardly and I've always taken it out on people like you—and Cecily—people I—I care about—'
'Rose,' Scor interrupted, drawing his sheets aside and sliding out of bed. He put his hands on my shoulders lightly, forcing me to look at him. 'I don't think you're a bad person. Just because you did bad things in the past and treated people poorly ... you aren't your worst mistakes, okay? You're the person that you decide to be now.'
I searched his eyes desperately.
'I don't understand,' I whispered. 'How can you be so forgiving?'
Scorpius smiled wryly. 'I come from a family of fanatical, pureblood bigots. My legacy is rich, white, privileged criminals who never serve jail time. My family's still intact because of forgiving people.' He chucked my chin playfully, drawing a beaten, weathered smile out of me. 'I don't think anyone who earns forgiveness ever truly feels like they deserve it, Rose. It's a small mercy. You should accept it.'
I looked at James like he had gone officially insane. I actually wouldn't be surprised—he was grinning like a maniac.
Jesus, I thought, Charlie was right.
James was the only person who was crazy enough to be the Challenger.
'Come on, Cecy—' My eyes widened in disbelief '—let's have some fun.'
My eyes darted all over him, tracking his movements, like prey watching a predator about to attack. What the fuck was he going to do? Duel me? I hadn't brought my wand!
'James,' I said warningly, backing away from him. 'If you provoke me—'
'You'll what?' His eyes flicked up and down my body, and he'd managed to put so much effrontery in a single look that I was actually quite impressed. 'You couldn't even poke me with that thing if you tried.'
'You don't know what you're asking,' I said furiously. 'I petrified Creevey—'
'Bleh.' James shrugged carelessly. 'It'll take more than a little Obscurus to scare me.'
God, he was insane.
'That's not what I mean and—'
I shrieked and stumbled back. In my panic, I'd stepped on my robes—and went crashing to the ground, landing hard on my tailbone. Too winded to even groan, I shot a white-hot look of disbelief and hatred up at James. He was laughing. Laughing.
'I don't have my wand!' I shouted. I pushed myself up to my feet, feeling murderous. 'What the fuck is wrong with you!'
'I don't want you to use your wand,' he said breathlessly. 'Come on, Waters. Bite me.'
'I am not—'
I screamed as the sleeve of my robes caught fire. 'James!' I waved my arm around hysterically—and then tried to tamp it out with my other arm—but the flames caught—and the heat—it was burning me! It was burning me! 'JAMES!'
Abruptly, I was doused in a bucket of ice cold water. Gasping and sputtering for air, heart pounding, ready to race right out of my chest, I whirled around to face James, and I was beyond rage. He seemed disappointed.
'I really thought you'd put up more of a fight.'
'Are you fucking insane?!' I screamed. 'You set me on fire!'
'And your Obscurus didn't even bother to show up.' He sighed. 'Shall we go again?'
Panic rose up my chest—equal parts terror that he might actually do something that would end up killing me and incandescent hysteria that I might kill him. I was so wrong about him. I was so, so wrong. He wasn't unpredictable. He wasn't a mad genius who did crazy things for the hell of it.
James had a fucking death wish.
'James,' I gasped. My body was shivering from the water, my hair plastered to my face, my robes weighing me down and sticking to my body unpleasantly. 'James, please. You don't understand—you don't get it—'
His eyes flashed as they met mine—and there was nothing insane about him. He was utterly collected and in control. Jaw set, eyes narrowed and watchful. My panic tore through my body. He'd been playing with me before. He was going to unleash himself on me now. And either I was about to die in the Room of Requirement—or I was going to unleash on him.
'James,' I begged. 'James, please don't do this. I could kill you—'
'If you even get close,' he said lightly. 'Colour me impressed.'
Time slowed down; I saw the purple jet of magic flying towards me, cruising in the air, taking its own sweet time. I stood frozen, watching its approach, horror expanding in every cell of my body. There was nothing I could do to stop it. And I remembered the way Kit had screamed before she'd crumpled to the ground, her body razed to ribbons, blood pouring out of her like her body was brimming with it. Jane had been out of her mind. Her spell has been defensive and scared. It wasn't focused and full of intent. Like the one directed straight at my heart.
Cecily exploded in a scream of frustration and rage.
James couldn't have known how stupid he looked—his jaw dropped, his eyes wide with shock and awe—as he staggered back, a gust of magical wind nearly forcing him off his feet. The black sand flared out of her, thick and vicious—and it raced towards him—and he only felt a thrill of fascination—not even fear—before it drew back abruptly.
For a heart stopping moment, it enveloped her completely, encasing her and his curse in a solid black sphere, swirling and pulsing like the sun.
His back was flush against the wall, chest rising and falling rapidly. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the sphere and he wondered—he wondered if maybe he'd made a mistake—when—
The black sand trembled and shook—and there was a great rushing sound as it sucked back into Cecily. He watched, awestruck, as the particles tore back into her, like a magnet drawing metal shavings at inhuman speed. James heard her cry out and his heart skipped a beat when he saw her through the flickering sphere—arms spread wide, back arched, but still on her feet.
With a gasp, Cecily—human Cecily—fell forward to her hands and knees.
For a moment, neither of them said anything. James wasn't sure he was even breathing. From here, he could tell that she was shaking, like she was sobbing uncontrollably.
James felt slightly awkward.
He hadn't really planned on comforting Cecily. Aggravate her, sure. Piss her off, definitely. But soothe her? Yeah … no.
But when she tilted her head up to look at him, her eyes were dry and wide. So he said nothing as she pushed herself up to her feet for the second time that afternoon. She was breathing heavily, like she'd run a marathon. But her face was bone white, her lips bloodless. Her expression was stunned and glazed.
They held each other's gaze.
James felt his gut twist with an unfamiliar nervousness as she slowly walked up to him. She was looking at him like she'd never seen him before, or at least, never properly considered him. She was openly drinking him in with fascination. It was strangely … proprietary. The only thing he could compare it too was the way girls looked at him before they kissed him.
He felt fairly certain Cecily wasn't going to kiss him.
That would definitely be an awkward conversation with Charlie that he didn't want to have.
'Er … Cecily—?'
Her features contorted with rage—and she drew her arm back and punched him clean across the face.
I shrieked in pain, whirling away from him as I nursed my hand.
My vision was bleeding crimson. My body was shaking with rage and fury. It was a molten tide, sloshing over my edges, setting fire to every nerve, muscle and bone. It flared through my fingertips and up my spine and I welcomed it. It was numbing everything else—like the sharp pain my hand. I was pretty sure I'd broken something. James' skull was so fucking thick I wouldn't be fucking surprised.
'Okay,' I heard James huff. He sounded like he was stretching his jaw. 'That was a decent right hook.'
I gnashed my teeth together.
'Hey—where are you going—'
I stormed out of the Room of Requirement, James hot on my heels. He caught up to me easily and fell into step beside me, rubbing his jaw, wincing slightly. My fury roared in satisfaction. Stupid fucking prick. I hoped it fucking hurt.
'Cecily, come on,' James said. 'It worked!'
It took every ounce of self restraint not to punch him again.
'Okay,' he said baldly. 'Maybe I shouldn't have been so aggressive—'
'You're fucking psychotic,' I hissed. 'Get away from me.'
'Did you break your hand?'
'I said get away from me.'
James let out a noise of exasperation. 'You're the one who asked me to be your Challenger. What the hell did you think I was going to do? You didn't exactly give me a rule book.'
'Shut the fuck up.'
'I feel like you're more pissed off that my chiseled jaw broke your hand—'
I rounded on him furiously and he actually took a step back—but he wasn't alarmed. He was amused.
'I could have killed you,' I snarled viciously. 'I should have killed you!'
James grinned. 'Aw, you were worried about me.' I spun on my heel and walked away. 'I won't tell Charlie if you won't!' He caught up to me again, still grinning. 'You didn't kill me though. You were actually pretty contained.'
I didn't speak to him. Instead of taking the hint, he followed me to the Hospital Wing where Pomfrey—attending to two other students for chills—sat me down on a cot and snapped at James to do the same on the visitor's chair. It filled me with perverse pleasure when he did as he was told, frowning slightly. I decided to send Pomfrey chocolates for her birthday. After I found out when her birthday was.
'Won't you forgive me, Cecy darling? I feel like punching me in the face makes us even.'
'You set me on fire.'
'No you're not,' I snapped.
His lack of response was evidence enough. I wanted to scream at him until I burst his eardrums. I'd never wanted to hurt someone more in my life than I wanted to hurt James. It was truly inexplicable. Even when Albus had torn into my mind and hurt me … there was something about James that just … GOD. It infuriated me! There was something rotten about him. He played with people. He toyed with their emotions and would watch the world burn if he thought it was fun.
'You look like you really do wish you'd killed me,' he murmured.
'Yeah?' It was all I could manage.
He sat back, resting his arms on the chair, and studied me thoughtfully.
'Why do you hate me so much?'
Where the fuck was Pomfrey? What the fuck was taking her so long?
'Seriously,' James said. 'I know I've been a dick to you at times but … have I really done enough to be on your hit list?'
'It's not what you've done,' I spat, despite myself. 'It's who you are.'
He seemed genuinely surprised by that. 'You don't like my father?'
My gaze slid to his, narrowed and lit with hatred.
'No. I don't like you.'
'But why?' He sat forward, balancing his elbows on his knees, not bothering to hide his interest. 'I always thought you and I were a lot alike.' I scoffed in derision. 'No really. We both have secrets, with pretty good reasons to hide them. We both act one way to the world and another to the people we trust—' my eyes flashed up to his '—and we have a certain shared fondness for the Murphys.'
I stared at him. The raging fires in me were being doused, turning to wet kindle and smoke. I was still furious that he'd set me on fire and then cursed me to provoke my Obscurus out of me ... but I couldn't lie. I was confused by his candour. The logical part of me knew that this simply for my benefit. To lull me into a sense of comfort, to make me feel like I was in control when he had been the one rip to me from it so thoroughly.
I wondered if he knew how good a liar he was.
It was a miracle the boy was still alive with a face like that. Angelic and villainous all at once. How many people envied him? Coveted, desired, despised him? How many people thought they knew him just because he looked at them like that?
When he smiled, I imagined, time probably stood still and marvelled at such a creation. The world probably wept and rejoiced that such a beautiful creature was happy, that something in it had tugged his lips up, pulling the joy out of him and illuminating his face like God intended. I imagined his smile—his real one—was devastating. He wasn't smiling now, but he was still devastating.
'We're not alike,' I said finally. 'You're the kind of person who finds pleasure in other people's pain.'
James blinked—then drew back.
'No I don't.'
'Is that another one of your masks then?' I sneered. 'Because from where I'm sitting, you don't give a fuck about who you hurt—especially when you're trying to protect the people you care about. And you know what? Even then I don't think there's a single person on this planet you wouldn't sacrifice to get what you want. You'd probably shove your mum in front of a Killing Curse to save your own skin—' I broke off at the look he gave me, heart stuttering.
I'd gone too far.
'Right,' he said, expression unreadable. 'I think that we should call it a day.'
My heart thumped once in my chest.
'Wait, James—I didn't mean that—'
'Your hand should be fine,' he said.
Then he left.
You're the person that you decide to be now.
I lost something I never wanted. I lost it when I'd least expected it and I made so many fucking mistakes in the days and hours leading up to it. I'd treated Scor like shit. I'd told my mother to lie to dad and Hugo. And even though mum had visited me since the miscarriage and soothed me in all the right ways, I still felt like I'd let her down and betrayed her.
It was stupid, wasn't it? And such a fucking cliché that despite my privilege—my wealth and the colour of my skin—that I still felt the pressure to be perfect? Being pregnant—if only for a few, harrowing weeks—had been a shock to my system. In one single moment, every single mistake, every single, horrible, terrible thing I'd said or done, flashed in my mind.
I wasn't perfect.
I had never been perfect.
I let out a real, breathless laugh.
I was never perfect.
And if I was attracted to Cecily then so fucking what! If—if I wanted to kiss girls then who fucking cared! It shouldn't matter to anyone but me who I wanted. It should have never mattered. Because when it did, when I cared, when it mattered to me, I hurt Scorpius. I hurt people who did nothing wrong to me and I have just always been so fucking angry about it. I was angry because I hated myself.
I didn't want to hate myself anymore.
I am who I am.
James walked back to his common room, hands in his pockets, feeling slightly disgruntled. He felt like Cecily didn't really know him well enough to go around making those leaps and psychoanalysing him. In fact, he was kind of annoyed by it. He didn't take any pleasure in causing people pain. The comment about his mum had also bothered him. People took one look at him and assumed he was careless and selfish and unnecessarily cruel.
But Cecily didn't know him. She thought she did—he'd pissed her off enough to think that he enjoyed pissing people off. Normally, he wouldn't have given a shit about what she thought of him. But he was starting to give a shit. And he didn't know why.
Suddenly, he heard loud voices ricocheting off the stone walls. He tuned into them, smiling slightly.
'For fuck's sake, Farley,' someone snapped. 'Don't lose your fucking shit now.'
James' smile faded.
He recognised that voice.
'What the fuck are we even going to do?' Farley whinged. 'Potter and Murphy won't fall for this—'
'If you shut your fucking mouth and stick to the plan then it will!'
He was on first floor—having just left the Hospital Wing—when Slytherin's arsehole Beaters, Thomas Farley and Isaac Warrington turned the corner, muttering to each other with rather sour expressions on their bum ugly faces.
Warrington looked up at the same time James blurted, 'Oh shit.'
James whirled around and ran.
Get a grip, I told myself fiercely. Pince was a librarian. Sure, her ability to materialise out of nowhere, as if conjured by some infernal spell, only further proved that she was not human and, quite possibly, part boggart but … what was I saying again? Oh right. Like Jack said, Pince wasn't the enemy. All I needed to do was get one book from the Restricted section and my History essay would be perfect—
'MURPHY! GET OUT OF THE WAY!'
I turned around and briefly registered a flurry of dark brown hair, a red-gold tie, and flailing arms, before someone crashed into me. I staggered back, nose throbbing, and James—James?!—caught me, steadying me. I looked up at him wildly, breathless.
'James, what the hell—'
He wasn't looking at me but over his shoulder. 'Shit—fuck—'
'POTTER! YOU'RE GONNA PAY FOR WHAT YOU DID!'
James turned back to me, alarmed. I barely had time to open my mouth—to ask him what the fuck—when he wrapped his hand around my arm and ran. I squawked in surprise as we practically flew down the corridor.
'James! What's going on!'
'I'll explain—here—' I yelped as he yanked me around the corner. He was running flat out and I couldn't keep up. WHAT WAS EVEN GOING ON. James' grip on my arm tightened, pulling me behind him as he glanced over his shoulder. 'Come on, Murphy—'
'I—can't—run,' I wheezed.
'COME BACK HERE, POTTER!'
James skidded to a halt and I nearly tripped over my own feet, chest heaving, as he shoved a tapestry aside and shoved me inside of it.
My eyes widened as he pressed his body against mine, up against a wall, covering my mouth with his hand. I protested furiously, flushing with fiery heat. James looked at me, a slow grin burning up his face, like he knew exactly what I was thinking. You know, this was all different in my head. It was you backed up against the wall, not me. My heart hammered in my chest.
'Murph,' James murmured. I was too mortified to meet his eye. 'Don't be alarmed.'
I shot him a scathing look—which I assumed didn't convey the appropriate amount of disdain when he chuckled.
Eyes not leaving mine, he snaked his arm behind my back. I looked at him sharply, eyes wide, but he ignored it—and suddenly I was stumbling back—
I looked around wildly in the semi-darkness, trying to establish where I was, just as I heard a lock click shut. I whirled around to face James, mouth open—but he held a single finger up to his lips. I heard the distinct sound of the tapestry being wrenched aside.
'Where did they go?! I just saw them come around the corner!'
'Fuck! Did you see him grab Kit?! Do you think she was in on it?!'
'They're not dating anymore Isaac. She dumped him, remember?'
I caught James' eye and looked away quickly.
'Come on. Wherever this corridor leads—that's where they are.'
As their voices disappeared, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I realised that James and I were crammed in a very tight space with very little room to move. The horror of the situation dawned on me slowly. We were in a dimly lit broom closet. Oh God. I'd read enough Wattpad fics to know where this was going!
'Okay,' I blurted. 'I'm going to go now.'
James shook his head. 'It's a dead end. They'll figure that out in a few minutes.'
I tore my gaze away from him, trying not to lose my head completely. But I hadn't been planning on speaking to James for … years. A few years would probably be enough time to forget what had happened between us! Either way, it was way to soon for us to be trapped in a bloody broom closet together!
'Um …' I said, just to say something. 'Where are we?'
'The corridor behind tapestry of Toric the Tall. In a broom closet that likes its privacy.'
I couldn't help the traitorous blush that flooded my cheeks.
How many uses had James found for this broom closet, other than to hide in?
'Why are we in here?'
James grinned sheepishly. 'Charlie and I may have hexed some Slytherin beaters a few weeks ago and it's possible they're out for our blood.' I blinked at him, remembering suddenly that I'd heard about that. Isaac Warrington and Tom Farley had had allergic reactions to whatever they'd been hit with and were in hospital for a solid week. They'd missed the Slytherin-Ravenclaw match because of it. 'Honestly. You'd think they'd just take it on the chin.'
'They nearly died,' I said incredulously. 'Whatever they have planned, you and Charlie probably deserve it!'
'Probably,' James agreed. His eyes glinted mischievously. 'I'm sorry I dragged you with me.'
'No you're not.'
'No. I'm not.'
There was a look on his face—a look that told me he had always known how girls watched him, waiting for him to notice—cut with so much arrogance and self-satisfaction that I couldn't look away. The trouble with James Potter was that he was very aware that girls found him attractive. The only silver lining was that he probably didn't know why. It wouldn't make sense to him that girls were actually drawn to morally grey guys with low-key toxic tendencies. It might even offend him.
'You can't do this,' I said, clearing my throat. 'Jack—'
'Please don't say his name,' he murmured, closing the gap between us. I jerked back and was winded when my back hit the wall behind me. His eyes drifted lazily over my face … and down my body. My stomach burst with a kaleidoscope of butterflies. 'Have I told you how sorry I am for the way I acted yesterday? I know you're mad at me, Murph. You have every right to be mad ...'
He didn't seem to notice my rising alarm (was it alarm? Or was it the thrilling dread I always felt when he got too close?): he tucked a loose strand of my hair behind my ear, dark eyes sliding to lock with mine. We were so close now, I could smell him: that peppery, clean, intoxicating scent. He smiled faintly in the darkness and shadows as he trailed his fingers down to my neck.
'But if I haven't already made it clear,' he said, voice low and honeyed. 'I like you.'
His thumb brushed the skin at the hollow of my throat. My breathing was shallow, my heart thrumming like the strings of a violin.
'James,' I half gasped. 'I'm still with Jack!'
His hand froze.
James stared down at Murphy.
He did not just hear her say that she was still with Jack.
She was lying. Saying whatever she needed to say in order to push him away again because she hadn't forgiven him yet for yesterday.
'I'm serious,' he heard himself say; his mind was racing. There were so many things he wanted to express but he couldn't find the words. 'I know you're pissed. But I'm going to make it up to you. I promise.'
Murphy's chocolate brown eyes flickered away, her mouth twisting unhappily; she seemed so flustered and frazzled that his heart thumped loudly. Without realising it, he began committing to memory everything about her. Her wild, golden brown curls, framing her face like a lion's mane; her full, soft pink lips, her wide cheekbones and almond shaped eyes; her smooth skin ... God, she was beautiful.
'I know,' she said, still not meeting his eye. 'I know you'll find some elaborate way to make me feel sorry that I was ever mad at you but ...'
Finally, she met his gaze, and she looked wretchedly sorry in only the way Murphy could. Even though he'd fucked up, she still couldn't bring herself to hurt his feelings. 'But it won't change anything. I'm ... I'm still with Jack.' Despite the darkness, he could tell that she was blushing furiously. 'He asked me to be his girlfriend. I said yes.'
James' face was utterly blank.
'So ...' Murphy shrugged lamely. 'Yeah.'
For a moment, he didn't know what to say. Once again, he'd underestimated her. Or maybe he'd overvalued himself. He knew he'd fucked up yesterday. Telling Jack about the love letters—exposing the flaws in their relationship—being an overall dickhead to her and Jack but—but he liked her. Murphy admitted that she liked him. He'd thought, you know ... maybe give her the night ... she'll ... she'll ...
'You ...' James cleared his throat, furious with himself that his voice sounded so hoarse. 'I thought you said you wanted to be with me.'
Murphy looked up at him helplessly and his muscles tensed. It was insane, the way his body reacted around her. Things he'd never considered before were now a trigger to him. It made him want to ... want to ... Merlin. He'd never wanted to just—just touch someone so badly in his life. He couldn't stand it.
'I thought I wanted that,' she whispered. 'And it's not ... it's not even about all the ... the stupid things you kept from me because, like, whatever I guess. We weren't really dating and you were entitled to your secrets. It wasn't about that. I don't think I'm even angry about yesterday anymore. We talked it out, Jack and I ...'
James looked away, jaw locked, a muscle jumping in the corner of his mouth.
'He knows everything now. In a weird way, you kind of brought us closer together.' Blood pounded in his veins. 'So I forgive you. Because if Jack isn't mad then I'm not mad. And I ... I understand, I guess, where you were coming from. Or, at least, I'm trying to understand. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that ... yes. Yes, I think I did start having feelings for you. And it wasn't that you even kept the Wave a secret from me that made me feel ... the way I do now. It's the fact that I can't see you clearly. You're too good at pretending. I'm not.'
Abruptly, it occurred to him why Cecily's comments had bothered him so much.
'I don't want to pretend with you,' he said harshly. 'I want you to see me clearly.'
Her eyes flashed up to his and he couldn't read her expression. Was she angry? Or stunned? Emboldened that it was the latter, he pressed on.
'The person that everyone sees ... I can't help it. I don't know why I ... I don't know.' Frustration burned a slow path up his body. He didn't know how to explain himself. He had lied so often and for so long, he'd forgotten how to tell the truth. 'I know I'm not honest with people. I know they think I'm one way but ... but I want to show you that I'm not. I'm not who everyone thinks I am.'
'I don't think you're who everyone thinks you are,' she whispered, eyes wide and fixed on him. 'I know there's the real James and the ... the other one.'
'Then I want to show you the real James.'
Murphy hesitated—and this time he could read perfectly the uncertainty she felt. Resolve slowly steeled itself around him. If he didn't want to push her further away, he needed to accept the fact that she was Jack's girlfriend. He'd have to grin and bear it. Survive it with all the dignity and grace of a true friend. Something she'd consistently accused him of being very bad at.
He was only slightly mollified by the fact that she was only with Jack because it wouldn't hurt her. Because he knew she liked him, just as he liked her, and the only thing stopping her from ending it with Jack was her own fear.
Instead of trying to force her to realise it—like he'd done at the pub—James understood now that he'd have to prove himself. She was afraid of giving him her heart because she thought he'd break it. This was why she was scared of a real relationship. Not because she didn't know how to be in one—but because she knew that when she inevitably fell for him, there would be no way back up.
Stubborn and fiery as she was ... her heart was fragile.
And he wanted it.
'You're with Jack,' he said when I couldn't find the words to respond. 'And I respect that. I won't do anything anymore to interfere in your relationship with him.' He grinned crookedly. 'Like you said, he's your mistake to make.'
My brow furrowed.
Was he really giving up that easily?
'I won't drag you into anymore broom closets,' he went on. 'I won't touch you. I won't try to kiss you—' my heart fluttered pathetically '—and I won't trick you into anymore horrible double dates.' He looked at me seriously then. 'But I want to be your friend, Murph. So ... if you think you can manage that then ... that would be awesome.'
'My friend? Really?'
'Yes,' he said firmly. 'I'd really like to be your friend.'
He was being serious, wasn't he? Part of me knew that this couldn't be a good idea but ... but I wasn't sure what part of me was saying that.
I studied him nervously for a moment. His sharp cheekbones, stubborn jaw, and full, serious lips. He was utterly, maddeningly gorgeous. The idea of not having him in my life—for the trivial reason of having a boyfriend—had my brain screaming in protest. I wanted to reach out and take his hand in mine and press it against my wild heart. As if his touch would soothe the pain and his closeness would cool the heat. It was crazy, I knew, that I felt this way and so strongly.
It was a dangerous idea, being friends.
But I wanted it.
'Okay,' I said. 'Let's be friends.'
I walked into the Hog's Head Inn, pulling the hood of my cloak further down my face as the barman looked up at me. The pub was surprisingly busy. That was to say, there were more than three people inside. I guessed that the only figure resembling a human was Creevey. He was sitting in a secluded corner, away from the general bustle, with his back to me.
I took the moment to assess my situation.
I'd come alone, like he'd asked. I hadn't told anyone about his letter. Hadn't confided in Rose or Cecily … There was no particular reason for my doing that. It just … felt right. At first, I'd been alarmed by the fact that I was the Executioner. A silly nickname I'd made up for my inadvertent role in the Wave had inadvertently become my role in helping Cecily. But now I was curious.
I approached him, casting a shadow over his table. He made a sudden move, as if startled, but didn't turn to look.
'Professor,' I said.
'Jane,' Dennis Creevey said. 'Please. Sit.'
So I did, looking at him from under my hood. He was dressed similarly to me, though his cloak was worn and tattered, as if it had seen better days centuries ago. I couldn't help finding it weird seeing one of my teachers outside of school. Strangely, it felt weirder than having a drink with him after one of my friends petrified him, another one of them dumped him in St. Mungo's, and I suspected him of being a total and utter creep.
But Creevey looked oddly … normal. He wasn't the sinister looking creature I'd imagined. He had closely cropped, dark brown hair, even darker brown eyes and pale, unlined skin. The only thing different about him was that he had a beard now.
'I like your beard,' I said conversationally.
He smiled faintly, eyes flickering up to meet mine. 'It would be better to have this conversation somewhere more private. I've rented a room upstairs.'
I smiled at Creevey blandly. Sometimes I wondered if I was capable of being scared for my life. My inner flight or fight response didn't seem to exist. I wasn't at all worried about Creevey hurting me … it would just be extremely inconvenient for me if he did. And generally speaking, it didn't seem like a good idea to be alone in a room with him.
'That's okay,' I said, lowering my voice. 'I can whisper.'
Creevey looked at me for a long, hard moment—then sighed. He did seem to relax, however, as he leaned back in his chair, throwing an arm languidly over the back, appraising me. I raised my chin haughtily.
'I'm sure you have a lot of questions,' he said wearily.
'Sure I do.' A quick glance at the pub confirmed that no one was paying attention to us, especially the barman. Still, I fixed my gaze on him, watching him clean his pewter mugs as I addressed Creevey. 'Are you working with the Grey Lady?'
'Working with her? No. But she is helping me.'
'Helping you do what?'
'Help Cecily. I'm sure she's explained it to you herself—about Helena Ravenclaw being an Obscurial. How she discovered that wearing the diadem gave her the knowledge and clarity to control it, to wield it with intention …' My gaze flicked back to Creevey. His mouth turned down apologetically. 'There's a lot I have to tell you. There's so much you need to know.'
'Why?' I demanded. 'Why did you write to me and not any of the other girls? Why not write to Cecily? If you're trying to help her?'
'Please,' Creevey murmured. 'Lower your voice.'
'Why me?' I hissed. 'What the hell is going on, Professor? Did you always know about Cecily? Why did you take her to the orphanage? And why do you have a tattoo of the Hallows on your wrist?'
Creevey blinked and drew back.
'You saw my tattoo?' he said, surprised. I looked at him stonily in response. 'It's just a stupid tattoo. I got it when I was sixteen and … and looking for purpose, I suppose.' My eyes flashed up to him; too many coincidences. 'I admired Harry Potter for most of my life. He was the last master of the Hallows and … I was young. Young and reckless.'
'Doesn't sound very reckless to me,' I said coldly. 'It's Grindelwald's mark.'
'Grindelwald?' Creevey was bemused. 'You're right, as always. But no, my tattoo has nothing to do with Grindelwald.' At the look on my face, he added, 'I'm a Muggleborn, Jane. Why would I support a dead man who despised the people I came from?'
I wasn't deterred. 'You still haven't said why you wrote to me.'
'I think you already know the answer to that.'
'Humour me then.'
'Because,' he said softly, looking at me thoughtfully. 'You're the Executioner.'
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