'What does that mean?' I demanded harshly. 'What do you want from me?'
Creevey sighed. 'First, I need to tell you about Cecily. About why I … care about her.'
Uneasiness prickled over my skin; I was right, wasn't I? He was a total and utter creep. If he was about to tell me he was in love with her—I would kill him right here, right now. Creevey appeared to notice the sudden shift in my posture as I tightened the grip on my wand. His eyes widened.
'God, no—not like that! I've known Cecily since she was a child—I was the one who discovered her after she had killed her parents—I was the one who brought her to the orphanage. I knew her before her parents even knew she was a witch.'
I stared at him in disbelief.
'As you know, I'm Muggleborn. It's extremely rare, for a Muggle family to have two children display magical abilities, but my brother and I …' Creevey lowered his gaze, his features tightening with sudden grief. It took a moment before he could speak again. 'My brother was everything to me. We were very close and I lost him … young. He died in the Battle of Hogwarts. Like a true Gryffindor, he didn't follow the others—those not of age—out of the castle before the battle. He stayed, fought and died in that castle. He died for Harry Potter.'
Was it just me, or was I detecting a hint of bitterness in his tone?
'I voted for Granger in every election. I voted for the candidates Potter endorsed. All of this because I believed they would bring the change the Wizarding World needed. I trusted them, their vision … I trusted that they would avenge those like my brother, honour him and every Muggleborn—every Muggle—who died because of Voldemort. But what did they do instead? They didn't revolutionise the world—they repressed the revolution. They put plasters over wounds that couldn't stop bleeding and thought they'd fixed the problem. Granger—the first Muggleborn Minister of Magic—appeased those Muggleborns who had fought in the wars, who had lived through decades of hatred and discrimination … she was just another plaster on another wound.'
'What does this have to do with Cecily?' I was a little confused by his speech; I knew all of this. Had read the essays and op eds and articles. 'Because she's a Muggleborn?'
Creevey smiled faintly. 'Yes. Her parents were extremely religious—salt and brimstone religious. For years before she was even born, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Be the change I wanted to see in the world and all that … I began looking for Muggleborns who Hogwarts and the Ministry overlooked. I did what I could for them, teaching them about the wizarding world and about magic. But I met enough resistance to become resentful with the Ministry for forgetting these children. There was no Ministerial outreach—nothing to help Muggle parents and their magical children transition into a world they could hardly hope to understand. I tried to fill that void as best I could. Until I discovered the Obscurials.'
'There … are more?'
'More than you'd believe,' he said, voice hardening with an edge. He looked away again, but not before I registered a flash of real fury in his eyes. 'You have to understand that I tried, Jane. I tried everything. I threw myself into the research, found out everything I could about witches and wizards who repress their abilities. Do you know disgustingly common it is? For Muggleborns to repress their magic? Hogwarts makes you think that there are only a handful of Muggleborns in the country and that they take them all in. It's a lie.'
I stared at Creevey.
The Sorting Hat. The Muggleborn quota. The countless witches and wizards denied a chance at magical education …
'The lore is incomplete. Obscurials don't simply exist because of psychological or physical abuse—to reduce the complexity of magical repression to that is yet another symptom of the narrow mindedness of the wizarding world. For some Muggleborns, I managed to help them beyond what I'd initially dared to hope. For those with supportive parents, Hedge schools were the only choice—you know what Hedge schools are?'
I nodded tightly, lips pressed together.
Hedge schools operated on the fringes of the wizarding world. Hedge wizards and witches—Hedges—were essentially self taught. They weren't classically or formally trained, like we were. They had no idea what they were doing and oftentimes fell foul of the Ministry for accidentally killing someone or violating the Statute of Secrecy. When they occasionally appeared on the radar, they were disdained and ridiculed for being so deluded as to think they could perform magic. Most of the time, they didn't even have wands. They had worse reputations than Squibs.
'Most of the Muggleborns I encountered,' Creevey went on, 'weren't so lucky. By the time I found them, they had repressed their magic to the point of destruction. They posed a threat to the Ministry, of course, and were dealt with swiftly. But the Ministry never offered them the resources to rehabilitate. To heal and grow and become a part of the world they were born into. They were punished. They certainly never lived to be Cecily's age. The Obscurus problem is the Ministry's greatest secret, you see. They have blood on their hands, Jane. Innocent children they never helped.'
This couldn't be true.
He was lying. There was no way the Ministry could keep such a thing a secret … If there really were Muggleborn Obscurials out there … and in the numbers he described … the Ministry would have done something about it …
Abruptly, I remembered something Albus once said to me: It's time the Ministry heard us, Jane.
Did he know? How could he possibly know?
'I found Cecily when she was very young,' Creevey said softly, tearing me out of my racing thoughts. 'She wasn't even three years old yet. I was getting better at anticipating those whom the Ministry would turn a blind eye to. I thought I'd perfected my approach. Parents could seem perfectly reasonable before they turned on you. So I became the Keats' friend, even joined their church so that they would trust me. When I thought the time was right, I told them about the magical world and about their daughter. Of all the mistakes I'd made … this was my worst.'
I knew he was going to get to the point eventually, that this backstory would lead to Cecily and what his involvement in all of this was. I also knew that he was trying to paint a picture for me—one of discord and discontent, a dark landscape where the Ministry allowed children to die—so that when he eventually revealed his machinations, I couldn't argue against whatever he was doing. But I couldn't deny that I was intrigued.
When it became clear that Warrington and Farley had given up their search for us and left, James and I exited the hidden broom cupboard and—James pushing me behind him, peering out from behind the tapestry to check the coast was clear—stepped into the corridor. For a moment, I hovered nervously, unsure if I was waiting to be dismissed or hoping I wouldn't be.
'Where were you going?' James asked, sparing me the internal conflict. 'Before I ran into you.'
'Oh. Um, the Library. I have a History essay …'
'Do you want to start being friends today?' His tone was light and cheeky, but I could tell that underneath it he was being serious. 'I've realised my schedule is depressingly free without a girlfriend to entertain.'
My nervous energy returned. Normally, James would have just attached himself to me wordlessly. But he really meant what he said, about being friends, about leaving me and Jack alone. He was letting me decide the terms and conditions of our "friendship". The parameters of our new and revised contract. How far it could go. What I allowed. What was strictly forbidden.
This was even stranger than pretending to date each other.
By comparison, our fake relationship had been a breeze to navigate. But being friends? When he said he liked me—that he wanted me more than anything else—and when I'd all but spoken the words myself? Just as when Jack had expressed strong emotion of any kind, I wanted to run away. My first instinct was to believe James was lying. That he would get bored of his fascination with me and change his mind. Whatever he wanted, it wasn't really me. It was something else. I just didn't know what.
But the really pathetic thing was that I didn't think I had the wherewithal to care. He could be confused and motivated by all the wrong reasons and I still wouldn't care. There was one thing I'd learnt for certain in our fake relationship and it was that I liked being around him.
'I really do have to work,' I said, finding my tone pitifully reluctant. I didn't want to give him a concrete answer—to let him know the truth, which was that I would love his company. I was aware that I was setting myself up for a world of hurt when he finally came to his senses. 'You'd just be sitting there … or maybe you have homework, too?'
'Haven't you noticed I'm a model student?' James pretended to be offended. Somehow, without touching me, he began leading us to the Library. 'I finish my homework well in advance of the new week.'
My brow furrowed. 'That's not true at all. I've never seen you do any homework. Ever.' He shot me a sly, sideways look. 'You just sat on your phone the whole time I did my homework.'
'Or helped you.'
'Or helped me,' I acquiesced. 'Still—and I can't believe I've never asked before but—how is it that you haven't gotten in trouble for that? Do you really just walk into class without doing any work?'
'No. I do the work.' For a moment, I thought that was all he was going to say on the matter but he went on. 'I don't quite have Jane's memory, but I've never had much trouble with school.' He looked at me gravely, as if that might be too much information for me to process. Which was puzzling. 'I don't know if you know this but … I'm a genius.'
I snorted and rolled my eyes. 'Of course I've noticed.'
'Really?' He sounded pleased. I pressed my lips together to stop from smiling. James wasn't predictable—in fact, I think he thrived on being as chaotic as possible—but there was an inescapable, unchangeable part of his personality that he'd never been able to hide. He loved flattery. 'What else have you noticed?'
'That you could've been a prefect,' I said. 'Or Head Boy.'
'Ah, but none of those things interest me in the slightest.'
I narrowed my eyes at him—but without malice. It was more a curious suspicion. He returned my gaze with a little too much innocence.
'Charlie always said you're the smartest person he's ever known,' I said. 'He said once that you might be even smarter than Dumbledore.' I watched for the slightest tells in his reaction to gauge what he was thinking. I got nothing. 'But that you're lazy or unmotivated.'
'Charlie is incredibly rude,' he said. 'Would a lazy and unmotivated person start a fake forest fire and make it rain blood on everyone? I don't think so.'
'Why don't you want anyone to know how smart you are?' I asked, unamused by his evasive humour.
James shot me a bewildered look before looking straight ahead, the corner of his mouth turned down in a frown. I seriously wondered what he was thinking. Was he working out an answer that would satisfy me? Or calculating the risk versus the benefit of telling me the truth? What did it matter, anyway, if he answered? Why did he hate talking about himself so much?
'What's the point?' he said eventually. The usual humour and lightness that marked his speech was gone. He dropped the pretence and was using his real voice. The one I rarely heard him use. 'What's the point of doing well in school or being part of the competition to be a prefect or Head Boy. I'm going to get whatever job I want anyway. Even without my astonishing intellect, I have no competition.' By the end of his answer, he had returned to sounding amused.
'Does that bother you?'
Luckily for James, we were in the Library now. He held up a finger to his lips and led us in. It was relatively busy—it was Sunday and everyone had been at Hogsmeade yesterday—but James managed to find an empty alcove in the back. The thick, sturdy shelves and the barrier of books offered us some privacy, but James used Muffilato for good measure, like he had to make sure no one was eavesdropping. I was suspicious—and, okay, let's not lie, on edge—until he said, 'People always forget they can do that and speak normally so Pince doesn't rise up from hell to kill you for making noise.'
I sat down and rummaged in my bag for my pot of ink and quill, setting them neatly aside. Then I pulled out my mostly finished essay and my History of Magic textbook, turning to a specific chapter for reference, before I remembered that I needed to go to the Restricted Section. When I looked up at James, about to apologise, I found him watching me so intently that I lost my train of thought.
'It doesn't bother me,' he said. For reasons I would never comprehend, I blushed furiously. 'Whatever I decide to do with my life, I have the full support of my parents. I could walk out of Hogwarts right now and join a circus and they would be cheering from the stands.'
It took me a moment to find my voice again—and another moment to remember that I didn't have to be quiet.
'Don't—don't you want to prove it to yourself then? That you could be the next Minister of Magic if you wanted?'
'Why the hell would I want that?' He seemed genuinely disgusted by the suggestion. 'As if that's what the world needs—a Potter in charge.'
I was confused. Both by the way he practically spat out his own name and by the fact that this would be somehow abhorrent.
'A lot of people would love that,' I said slowly. 'Mum and dad always said they wanted your dad to run …'
James didn't respond. Just stared at me. Then, abruptly—
'What makes you think I'm qualified?' His eyes searched mine, burning with so much intensity that I had to blink, like I'd accidentally looked into the sun. 'Because I'm supposedly smarter than Dumbledore? Dumbledore was the most powerful wizard that ever lived and he never wanted the office.'
'That doesn't mean he wasn't qualified.'
'That's not—' James broke off, frustrated. He threw himself back in his chair and ran both hands through his hair, shoving it back from his forehead, eyes flicking away. 'I'm asking what makes you think I could be the next Minister of Magic. I don't care about Dumbledore or what he wanted or whether he was qualified.'
'Then why did you even mention it?' I said, raising my voice to match the angry edge in his.
It surprised me every time I reacted to him this way. I was the least confrontational person in the world. When someone clearly expressed displeasure or anger, I barely had the time to process my own emotions, barely any time to assess what I'd done to set the other person off, before they'd moved on. And it was always far too late when I finally knew what to say. But with James, I was pure impulse. I didn't think at all.
'I don't know. Just forget it.'
Feeling furious with myself, like I'd done something wrong when I knew I hadn't, I grabbed my quill and slid my essay towards me, glaring at it, mind wiped completely blank except for an inexplicable, bubbling humiliation. Then I remembered again that I couldn't write this stupid essay without the book I needed in the Restricted Section!
I got up. James looked at me sharply and the expression on his face unsteadied me. I was on the deck of a ship, the waves shifting the very world from underneath me.
'Don't leave,' he said, getting up as well, as if he thought he might block me from going anywhere. 'I'm sorry. I don't like talking about that stuff. I don't know why I brought it up.' The words came out in a rush, almost pleading.
It was rare enough to hear James apologise but it was the undercurrent of panic, the sudden bolt of fear in his words that stilled me. He said he wanted to show me the real James and yet I could almost see the hard, adamantine shield around him resisting it. I sighed inwardly; he was trying. Regardless, there was no way to stay annoyed with him for long. In fact, it might be impossible.
'I'm not leaving,' I said. 'Well, not really. I need to go to the Restricted Section. It's the reason I came to the Library instead of writing my essay in my common room.' James' face brightened in relief instantly and I couldn't say why but it troubled me. 'I'll be back.'
'I'll come with you,' James said firmly. Then he caught himself. 'If you want, that is. Not to brag but Pince is partial to me.'
Of course she was.
I rolled my eyes, grabbing my essay and my quill case. James took my lack of objection as permission to accompany me. At Pince's desk, the old woman barely acknowledged our arrival. She continued scribbling away at some massive tome, occasionally checking the numerous cards littered on her desk.
'Irma,' James began, adopting a smooth, charming voice.
'Potter,' she said tersely. 'Tell me what you want.'
'We're looking for a book in the Restricted Section—'
Pince's eyes shot up. She noticed me for the first time and her eyes narrowed in thinly veiled suspicion. Her gaze flicked back to James. 'What book?'
James looked at me. 'Kit?'
I cleared my throat and addressed Pince directly. 'A Brief History of Magical Maladies.' I ignored the sudden way James straightened up, his gaze boring into me, and focused on Pince, who had raised her eyebrows. 'It's for Professor Binns' NEWT class. I'm writing my dissertation—I have it with me—'
Pince waved away my proof. Normally a student needed a signed note from a Professor to enter the Restricted Section, and even then you weren't allowed to take any of the books out, but NEWT students had special privileges. Because our coursework required a lot of academic research, we just needed the name of the book we wanted. Still, that hadn't stopped me from stressing over whether Pince would let me in or not.
As she led us behind the rope into the Restricted Section, I realised that James was right. Despite Irma's flinty tone and direct lack of warmth, it shouldn't have been that easy. Eve told me that she had to go through her entire essay with Pince, highlighting all the reasons why she needed a specific book in the Restricted Section, arguing why none of the books in the Library could suffice, before Pince let her in. She told me to expect Pince to hover because she never left anyone alone in here.
But she did.
'She trusts you,' I said, stunned.
'Like I said, I don't like to brag ...' In the dark, gaslit room, I watched James turn beneath the amber glow, eyes flickering over the volumes and volumes of books. His gaze fell to meet mine. 'Can I guess what your dissertation's on?'
I pulled out a seat and got comfortable. Pince had kindly retrieved A Brief History of Magical Maladies for me—accio didn't work in here like in the rest of the Library—so I went about finding the necessary chapter. History of Magic was easily my favourite subject, easily my best, too, and I really liked Professor Binns. Even though my dissertation was just the first draft—we only submitted it in our final year—I wanted to dazzle him.
'Sure,' I said distractedly.
'Obscuruses?' James leaned against a bookshelf, arms crossed over his chest. 'I've read this book, you know. There's all kinds of fascinating stuff on werewolves, vampires, demon pox …'
'There's no such thing as demon pox.'
'The author makes a strong argument for its existence.' Before I could protest, James barrelled on. 'He has some interesting things to stay about Obscurials, too. Although, at this point we may know more about them than he ever did. He never mentions anything about controlling an Obscurus.'
'That's not why I need this book.'
'We set our essay questions in the first half of the year. Did Binns change that?'
Oh. That was right. James took History of Magic, too. I looked up at him. 'No. I'm not writing about Obscuruses. I was originally writing about the passive and aggressive forms of resistance to the International Statute of Secrecy from the seventeenth to the twentieth century.' James raised his eyebrows. 'But then I changed it. It took Professor Binns a lot of convincing but he let me, eventually.'
'What's your question now?'
'It's not that different actually. I was reading this book, right, and there was this section about the witch-hunts in the early fifteenth century. I was researching wizard-Muggle relations, like the major events that led to the Statute of Secrecy, but there was this whole section about the persecution of wizarding children. They had no wands, the couldn't control their magic—they were vulnerable and noticeable to Muggle witch-hunters. It was so sad. So many died and … I don't know. It made me think of Cecily. Her parents. I'm still writing about resistance to the Statute of Secrecy, but I've reworded my question slightly so I can discuss the necessity of secrecy in the modern world.'
James sat down and leaned forward on his elbows. 'Ah, I see. I assume there were Muggleborns that were hunted back then, too? Muggle families that turned over their own children?'
I frowned unhappily. Even though this all happened centuries ago, it still made my heart ache. Atrocity was still atrocity—human suffering was a different kind of magic, the kind that lived on in blood and memories.
'Yes. It wasn't a fair thought, but it did make me think of Cecily and her parents. Only they didn't burn her at the stake …'
'They just locked her up,' he said dryly. 'So what about the resistance? Do you think our secrecy is a necessity?'
I pursed my lips, weighing the questions. Was he really interested in my dissertation? Or was this some kind of test? I knew I was typically the last person to connect the dots, but our Statute of Secrecy felt like the kind of thing the Wave would've wanted to destroy. Was he examining my views for his own purposes? Or was he just having a discussion with me? I hated that I distrusted him so much.
'Are you asking me? Or is the Wave asking.'
James' mouth twisted in wry amusement. 'Me. I'm asking.' He leaned further over the table, resting his chin over his folded arms, and smiled crookedly. My haughty resolve faltered; my breath hitched. His smile was devastatingly sweet. 'I like your topic. You know my dissertation's on the creation of the Ministry of Magic? I did a whole section on the Statute of Secrecy. I didn't go into that much depth—not as much as you obviously are—so I feel like there's a lot you could teach me.'
My whole body suffused with an indescribable emotion.
Me? Teach him something?
'Are you kidding me?'
James grinned. 'I don't know everything, Murph. But it's nice that you think I do.'
I blushed and averted my eyes. It was hard looking at him when he smiled so disarmingly. It was so unlike his other smiles. They always had a kind of saccharine bitterness to them, something calculated. Like an act—but not. It was hard to explain … but it was like he was pretending at being … at being himself.
'Okay,' I said, the word huffed out in a breath. 'I mean, it's complicated. Our secrecy was the only option we had besides all out war with the Muggles. Some people wanted that, of course, but almost everyone else just wanted to co-exist in peace. Secrecy was necessary at the time because … because of the children. There were other catalysts, too, of course, but the children were paramount. They couldn't always be protected. But what happened to Cecily … it made me think … and the Sorting Hat … the Muggleborn quota … it just made me think, how many others like her are out there? Does our secrecy protect Muggleborns in families that don't know about magic? If Cecily's parents just knew about the wizarding world, about magic, would they have reacted differently? I needed this book—' I patted A Brief History of Magical Maladies '—because I wanted to know more about the cause and effect of secrecy on magical repression. If any exists. I'm not sure what I want to say about it exactly—I won't until I read it but …'
I rambled on, making disconnected points about living in secrecy and how it might have affected wizard-Muggle relations. I babbled about Cecily for a while, how her parents' fear, bolstered by their religious fevor, made them think witchcraft was evil and demonic. I wasn't sure if I was being clear or just plain confusing, but I made reference to the fact this was medieval thinking and it shouldn't have had a place in modern society, but did our secrecy only foster that kind of view? Then I doubled back to Muggleborns who lived centuries earlier—did they repress their magic out of fear that they would be turned in and persecuted by their Muggle families?
James didn't interrupt once.
He just listened.
'They took her away,' Creevey said. 'Or they tried to. They left that night. The night of a terrible storm. The whole family nearly drowned … but Cecily saved them. They realised that everything I'd said was true. The things they overlooked because they loved her, the small oddities and the strange, inexplicable things that happened around her … it became real. They were already worried about her—the strain and tension in their young faces, the way they secluded themselves from everyone in the community but the church … And it was my fault.' I was completely fascinated by his genuine anguish. 'I couldn't go near her family again. I watched in horror as they locked her away. And I was a coward, Jane. I should have intervened sooner—I should've stopped them—I should've gone to the Ministry I distrusted—I should have done something.'
When he looked at me, his face seemed suddenly very old and lined with age.
'I take full responsibility for what happened to Cecily and her parents. I was there, the night they died—I never left Freshwater, you see. I never stopped worrying and watching. I couldn't bring myself to leave when they'd run away with her and I felt duty bound—no. No, I felt …' He trailed off, searching for the right words. 'I felt immeasurable guilt. And I was the one who tampered with her memory so that she wouldn't … so that she wouldn't grow up remembering that awful …' He shook his head. 'It was my fault. Not hers. So I took her to the only magical orphanage in England—they didn't take Muggleborns, but I got her in. It was selfish. I saw my brother in every child I met—but none so much as Cecily. I was driven by the guilt and shame of my own ignorance and wilfulness. I revealed Cecily's secret too soon and she suffered the consequences in more ways than I could have imagined.'
The truth of what he was saying, the truth of his burning emotion, was obvious and hard to ignore. I felt myself being drawn under the riptide of his passion. The knowledge that there were more Obscurials than I had ever cared to think about—that they seemed to be as common as sheep—was so abstract and horrifying that it was hard for me to fully process. And Creevey had been trying to help them—save them—for years …
'I don't believe you.' He looked at me in some surprise. 'About the Ministry. About them ignoring these Muggleborns and … and leaving them to this fate.'
'Do you really have that much faith in them?' He searched my eyes and he was truly incredulous, as though this was the last sentiment he'd expected from me. 'This is the same Ministry that denied Voldemort's rise to power in the fifties … the same Ministry that cowered before they fought back against a tyrant … the same Ministry that chose to destroy the reputation of a boy who was only telling the truth about Voldemort's return.'
'It's not the same.'
'Because of Granger? Because of Harry Potter?'
'Yes,' I said simply.
'I never took you for an optimistic fool, Jane.' I recoiled from the words, startled by the disappointment in his tone. 'You're too smart—too observant and distrustful to think that our brave new world is being led by independent minds. The Ministry is what it has always been. An institution far too powerful to reckon with. The Golden Trio,' he spat. 'Have only ever had good intentions. They fought Voldemort because it was the right thing to do—the only thing to do. And I give credit to Granger for seeing the true tears in the fabric of our society but she has become worse than a puppet. She's become a politician.'
'So … what are you saying? The Ministry is corrupt no matter who we choose to lead us? That we shouldn't have any trust in our freely elected Government?'
Creevey held my gaze for a long moment.
‘It’s not wrong to trust your government. But they make mistakes. And they should be held accountable for those mistakes. Don’t you agree?’
I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it. The question was rhetorical. Of course people should be held accountable for their mistakes. Especially if the mistakes they make affect millions of people. Unbidden, I thought of the Sorting Hat. Did the Wave not follow exactly the same line of thinking when we decided it should be destroyed?
'How long has Granger been in power?' Creevey asked quite randomly.
'Eleven years,' I answered automatically. It was reflexive; I was still thinking about the hat. 'Since 2009.'
'There is no cap to a Minister's term in office. Can you truly say that we are free to choose? The Wizengamot decide when to hold the next election based on public opinion—you know this. When a Muggleborn Minister has been in charge for so long … who would dare to choose another? Who would want to? Better to have a symbol for change rather than any tangible change at all.'
'That—' I blustered for a moment; he had confused me so thoroughly that I had no idea how the course of conversation had changed to drastically. I couldn't remember what I was talking about—what point of his I was trying to refute—and that unnerved me more than anything. 'That still doesn't mean that the Ministry would ignore the Muggleborns. There are other schools—other schools besides Hedge schools—'
'And they're even more exclusive than Hogwarts! Just think for a moment, Jane. You think the Ministry could never ignore such a horrible problem but what choice do they have? They let Hedge schools thrive because it's the only solution to the growing number of Muggleborns that they can't control! They deal with those that cannot be controlled and the Obscurials never live long enough to pose a real threat. The problem takes care of itself in the bloodiest way possible. When will you realise that the Ministry is powerless to influence institutions that were built on sanguinism? If it were, I'd be as optimistic as you are that they would have offered a better solution!'
A profound, deafening silence followed as the last word rang out. Creevey's cheeks were flushed with colour, more passion burning in his dark eyes than before. But I was emptied of all thought, all feeling. Hollow as a bone sucked dry.
'I don't understand,' I said finally.
'What's there to understand,' he said harshly. 'Muggleborns have always been the least of the Ministry's concerns. So I chose to make it my concern. I'm unhappy with our current government; I don't trust Harry Potter or Hermione Granger to do the right thing anymore; I'm angry that they took the mantle of power and instead have been ensconced in the fragile game of politics. But what do I accomplish? Sometimes I help children. Mostly they die.' He looked away, lines of unhappiness deepening around his mouth. 'Cecily should have died. But she didn't.'
I blinked again. His voice was so raw with hopelessness and misery, it was hard to remember why I was wary of him. Why I needed to remind myself that Creevey couldn't be just a humble servant to Muggleborns, disillusioned by our leaders and the state of our world … but perhaps there really was no ulterior motive … no plan or trap … there was just his guilt … and the wrongs he was trying to right …
'I still don't understand.' The words were ground out through gritted teeth; it pained me to admit it a second time, but I truly couldn't settle my thoughts for long enough to figure Creevey out. 'If you're just trying to help Cecily … but why did you come to Hogwarts?' The question came out in a burst—it wasn't what I'd intended to say—but I didn't know what questions to ask anymore.
'Again, out of guilt and shame. I applied to teach because I knew it would give me the perfect disguise to enter the castle and Confund the Sorting Hat. Cecily was unofficially under the Ministry's radar—and therefore Hogwarts'—but she wasn't a legacy, had no connections with the school or the wizarding world, no money … the Sorting Hat could choose any Muggleborn at all for Hogwarts' quota. I couldn't leave its decision up to chance.'
I shook my head once, a jerk of my chin. It wasn't a denial of what I was hearing, but a reaction to the flurry of thoughts, impressions and memories that flooded me: Lulu rising up, the golden Galleon smacking against the wood—I don't need it. I don't need the Wave—how did he know about the Muggleborn quota?—of course he knew about the quota—where had Lulu come up with the idea to destroy the Hat?—And, if I wanted, I could rip you right out of it—
'How did no one find out she was an Obscurial?' I dug my nails into my palms, as though the physical pain would temper my mind into submission. 'She killed two Muggles. How did that not fall under the Ministry's radar instantly?'
'Confunding is tiresome,' Creevey explained with a light shrug. 'But easy and an often under utilised and undervalued tool of deception.' He sounded so much like a teacher again that I was disoriented. 'The education you receive would make you think that the Ministry is our highest order—that there is absolutely nothing and no magic that they cannot discover and overcome. That to defy them is useless and futile. It's an interesting piece of propaganda that requires no magic at all. The Ministry allows us to think that we are powerful—but that our power has limits.'
'So you Confunded the Ministry? You Confunded Cecily's entire town?' A headache began to throb behind my temples as I fought to stay focused. 'What you're saying doesn't make any sense!'
Confusion flickered across his features. 'Doesn't it? You know as well as I do that no one has discovered the wreckage of the orphanage—' I quickly mastered my surprise that he knew about that; of course he knew about that '—Thanks to the powerful enchantments you put over it, no one—no Ministry official or Muggle—has discovered anything about what happened that night, least of all that an Obscurus may have caused such damage. What I did was no different, even if—and I say this without any criticism on your part—I didn't resort to theatrics. There are more elegant ways to achieve what you did.' He considered me for a moment and I clenched my jaw. 'Hiding what Cecily did—what she is—was easy. Bringing her into our world was not.'
I am who I am.
What was I supposed to do with that revelation?
I couldn't work that out yet, but there were other things weighing down on me that took priority. For starters, I needed to apologise to Cecily for kissing her. Whatever I was feeling—whatever she was saying—there was no excuse for it. I wasn't the kind of person who did that kind of thing without consent—whatever people said about me being a bitch. I assumed she was with Charlie, which meant they would most likely be in the Gryffindor common room. I set off to find her.
Perhaps I didn't deserve her forgiveness, but I had to find a way to earn it.
There was another thing, a nagging thought, bumping against the back of my mind. It took a minute to formulate what it was—and then it hit me very suddenly.
Albus was a Legilimens.
He had read my mind. Had been searching, tearing through Cecily's to find the source of her rage.
For a moment, I was breathless with the horror of it; I actually stopped walking.
I hadn't even felt it.
No invading presence, no sound or taste or whatever to his mind in mine.
I turned, looking back at the empty dungeon corridor. Albus was still in bed. He'd been fast asleep when Scor had snuck me inside—not that we hadn't been noticed by his other dorm mates. For a split second, I was torn. Then I made a decision.
Cecily could wait.
Albus could not.
I doubled back to the Slytherin common room, flying down the stairs to the landing reserved for sixth year boys. I threw open the door I knew so well. Scorpius—freshly clean from a shower—was in the middle of putting on a shirt when he looked at me, no doubt startled that I'd returned. He pulled the shirt over his head hastily.
'Did you forget something?'
'Yeah,' I said, abruptly furious. I shouldered past Scorpius and marched over to Albus' bed, wrenching the hangings aside. Albus was fast asleep, his lips slightly parted, his raven curls falling over his eyes. He looked very peaceful and so young. Like he was eleven years old again.
I walked into the boys' bathroom and filled a cup with ice cold water. When I returned to Albus' bed, Scorpius was in my way, a reproachful look in his eyes as they flicked to the glass of water and to his slumbering friend.
'Did he really do something that bad?'
'Yes. Get out of my way.' Scorpius held my gaze a for a moment—then sighed and stepped aside.
'Before you do this,' he said. 'Do I get to know why?'
I looked at him. What had Albus said to me the other day? About Scorpius not fancying boys? Oh. Yes. "He has never, ever felt that way". I guess it didn't have to take a literal mind reader to figure out that Scor—despite his lack of toxic masculinity and his preference for having girl friends rather than hanging out with the "lads"—was as straight as an arrow. But, still, I wondered how he would feel if Albus had read his mind.
'It's a cousin thing,' I answered in clipped tone. 'He did something to piss me off. Now I'm going to piss him off.'
Scor rolled his eyes. 'Right. I'll leave you to it then.' Shaking his head, he grabbed his backpack, but he stopped at the door, looking back at me. 'Feel free to shout as loud as you want. The others aren't in.' Then he left.
I threw the water straight into Albus' face. The effect was instantaneous. Albus' eyes flew open and he gasped, spluttering for air. His gaze flew around wildly before they registered me. His pupils dilated in rage as he scrambled up, yanking his blanket up to his chin. It occurred to me, for the first time, that he might be completely naked. With a shiver of revulsion, I took a step back.
'What the fuck,' Albus snarled. 'Is wrong with you?'
'You're a Legilimens,' I spat back. 'And you read my mind. That's what the fuck is wrong with me.'
His eyes widened and he looked around wildly—
'No one's here but you and me, Albus.'
His gaze cut back to mine. 'Rose, I didn't mean—'
'Don't you give me that fucking bullshit!' I hissed. 'Don't tell me that you didn't mean to read my mind! You did! That's how you knew about Cecily! What the fuck, Albus! That's a total invasion of my fucking privacy! It's disgusting and awful and how could you—'
'I didn't do it on purpose!'
'HOW DID YOU NOT DO IT ON PURPOSE!'
'I don't know!' he shouted and there was something in his tone, a kind of desperation, that made me falter. He looked at me, green eyes wide and almost panicked. 'I really don't. I've never been able to do that before. I can't just—read minds. That's not how it even works! You have to actually invoke the magic—verbally or non-verbally—and I promise you I didn't.'
I stared at him.
'How, Albus? How?'
He knew I wasn't asking about how he'd slipped into my mind unwittingly. I wanted to know that—of course I did—but that was the thing about me and Albus. We were so unalike and yet … and yet we knew each other, like a pair of perfectly matched twin blades. I could read him—his moods, his likes and dislikes, the things that make him happy and the things that sent him into a rage. And he could read me just as perfectly. No Legilimency necessary.
He looked at me, his features perfectly composed and unreadable.
‘Albus,’ I said, my heart thumping against my ribcage. ‘How did you learn to be a Legilimens?’
His eyes flickered away, darkening into two flat emeralds. He seemed to be deciding something, something that would cost everything to reveal.
My stomach twisted up in knots; I had been expecting that answer but it still unsettled me. He sat up, burying his fingers in his curls, hunching over himself.
'He's been teaching James and I for years. Basically from the day we said our first words.'
My lips parted slightly in astonishment.
'Yes. Of course.'
My mind reeled with this new information. This aspect of my cousins lives that I had no inkling of, no way of knowing. It was true—what they said about what happens behind closed doors. Mum and dad have never even hinted that Harry or Ginny were concerned about this kind of thing. But would they even tell me if they knew? Did they even know? Maybe it was a secret from them too.
'Why do you think,' Albus said bitterly.
'But … but …' I sank down on Scor's bed, opposite Albus. 'There's nothing … there's no …'
'You think he'd really take that chance? He makes a good show of it, doesn't he? Pretending like he's completely fucking normal. Like he isn't totally fucked up. But he's nice and traumatised. Perfectly paranoid. Did you really not know?' I met Albus' gaze, unsurprised to find his eyes burning with emotion. 'Really, Rose?'
He sounded so tired, as though he had been waiting years to unburden himself of this weight on his shoulders.
I wanted to say that he couldn't blame me. But he could. Uncle Harry was … a complicated person. He was always loving and kind to us—to his children—and I'd never seen or experienced anything contrary to that but … he was distant in a way that dad wasn't. No one went to Harry to joke around with, though you could always rely on him to play two-aside Quidditch. He was more reserved and seemed to live in his head. But I'd never even seen him angry—
That wasn't true.
I had seen him angry. Once, long ago. At mum. I was too young to remember about what but … I remembered being frightened.
'We can produce Patronuses as well,' Albus said, tearing me out of reverie. I looked at him. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes overly bright. The weight on his shoulders was gone, but now the gates were open, too. The words tore out in a flood. 'Both us. Before we were thirteen—corporeal Patronuses. James' is better than mine—but I'm better at Legilimens. He makes up for it by being strong—stronger than dad even—at Occlumency. Dad taught us—everything. Everything he knows about Dark Magic and defending against it. He wants us to be prepared. And James is so good—'
'Prepared for what?' I interrupted suddenly, trying not to let my horror seep through. What was Harry doing? Training his children like soldiers—like Aurors?
Albus laughed harshly, like I'd surprised the sound out of him, like he was surprised that he was still capable of laughing.
'For what?' he repeated dementedly. 'For what? For nothing, Rose! I told you—he's paranoid! Everyone knows what happened to him! The faster we learn the faster he leaves us alone. All of this—all of this is natural for James. He can throw off the strongest Imperius curse in twenty two seconds—that's his personal best—better than dad—he can be Crucio'd for three minutes before he starts screaming—'
It took a second to realise that I was on my feet, knuckles white around my wand. I was ramrod straight, my entire body as cold as a shard of ice.
Albus' eyes were hollow, his face pale and bloodless, when they met mine.
I was almost too scared to ask, but I had to know.
'We don't let him touch her,' he said flatly.
My heart thumped in my chest.
What could I even say? That, shit man, that's really fucked up and awful, but it could be worse? How could it be worse? Whatever Harry's intentions were—how could he justify using the Unforgivable Curses on his own children? The Imperius curse—fine—but Crucio? I wanted to fight the accusation but I couldn't. Albus wasn't lying. He rarely ever lied.
'When will he stop.’
'When he thinks we're good enough.' Albus' features had hardened after I'd mentioned Lily, as if he remembered again why this was a secret. I wondered why he was still telling me anything at all. 'James excels at everything. He thinks I don't know what he's doing ... pretending to fail. He just doesn't want me to be alone. James doesn't need to be instructed on spells or charms or whatever—he's better than dad at it all.' His eyes flicked up to mine. 'Remember when I said I was better at Legilimens than him?'
'Yes,' I whispered.
'That means I'm a master,' Albus said. 'And that James is excellent.'
'I don't know how or why I read your mind, Rose. I didn't mean to. And it doesn't work the way you think. I didn't … I didn't read your thoughts like a book … I just got an … an impression. A feeling, when you were around Cecily.' He looked at me pleadingly and it shattered my heart. 'Do you believe me? I would never … I wouldn't do that to you …'
'I believe you.' Each word was tightly controlled, devoid of the rushing, clashing, warring emotions inside of me, my lips barely moving. The panic. The fear. Fear for James and Albus. And Uncle Harry. 'I know you didn't mean to do it. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I—' I stopped myself before he could hear it. The pity, the fear. He didn't need that from me.
'Please don't tell him you know,' Albus sighed. 'He thinks we have it under control.'
I sat down at the end of Albus' bed and looked away so he couldn't see my face. I knew he wasn't talking about Harry.
He was talking about James.
'You—but—' the words struggled against my lips, warring against the tumult and chaos of my mind. My control was slipping. I thought after I'd recovered from my withdrawal that some part of me accepted the overwhelming crescendo of my thoughts. But here it was again, the surging rush—the need to scream for it to stop—
'I can see you trying to work it all out.' My eyes tore up from the table to meet his; his expression was not unkind. 'I will make it simple for you: the government has failed Muggleborns for centuries, I decided to help and inadvertently discovered Obscurials—of varying strengths—and tried to help them by rehabilitating them, and Cecily was my first bloody failure. The first Obscurial who was both strong enough to kill—at such a young age—and the first who didn't accidentally kill herself with her own magic.' He paused, letting this sink in. 'I didn't think I stood a chance in hell at becoming a Professor when I applied—I was an average student, hardly remarkable. But by some event of fate, I did.'
'You watched over her.' My headache was now pounding behind my eyes, pulsing like a second heart. 'You …'
'I am responsible for her, Jane. No one may agree with that but—that's how I feel. I am responsible for what happens to her. Her life is my mistake. Her agony and sorrow was wrought by my hand. Nothing in the world can change that.' He sighed, dragging a weary hand down his face. 'I promised myself I would not interfere in her life. So I stayed away and watched her grow up … Everything I did for her did not bring her happiness. She was a lonely, defensive and bitter child. I watched and studied her to see if her Obscurus would appear again—but it never did. Not for years until—'
'The Stone,' I blurted without thinking.
The orphanage, Hogwarts, having a wand … it had worked. It had controlled and subdued her Obscurus—but it hadn't vanquished it. But after the Resurrection Stone, after finding out what happened to her parents—old wounds were shred open. It came back.
Creevey's brow met quizzically. 'The stone? What stone?'
I looked at him blankly, half in another world, half in this. 'The Resurrection Stone. Cecily found it.' Creevey's eyes flared with disbelief and something else—an emotion so powerful that I had to make a conscious effort not to look away—before it was gone. 'I don't know how.' Had I imagined his sudden fevor? 'She spoke to her parents and figured out that she had killed them. And then …'
'She came to me,' he breathed; his eyes darted away and I could tell he was thinking quickly. 'That explains quite a bit. When she told me she killed her parents … I told you I tampered with her memory. I put a powerful block on it—distorted and shattered it—so that she couldn't return to it and remember what had happened. I'd done it to protect her … It didn't make sense that she'd found out … but now …'
A charged, static silence fell between us as we both raced to sort out our thoughts.
'You really were trying to help her,' I said suddenly. He looked at me. 'This whole time.'
'Yes, Jane. My only wish was to see her live a peaceful life.'
'But,' I protested weakly; I had completely lost my footing. I hadn't expected anything to turn out the way it had. I was so sure—so confident—that Creevey was up to something. That he was using Cecily in some way … 'But why did you take her into the memory that you'd tampered with? If you were keeping it from her to protect her …'
'I didn't know she was going to get herself expelled,' Creevey said. 'I thought we would have time to discuss the memory and … and everything. I didn't want to interfere but she came to me. It was time to tell her the truth—and she disappeared. You know I went looking for her. You couldn't imagine my relief when I found her. She was so frantic and panicked—her heart so ill at ease and troubled—that, in that moment, taking her to the orphanage was the only choice I thought I had to help her.'
'I don't understand,' I repeated flatly.
'Think, Jane.' Creevey leaned forward, eyes glittering. 'The orphanage was a place where Cecily learnt to appreciate and love magic as an extension of herself. It was the first time she learnt not to fear it. She was young enough—her memories of her past muddied enough—to forget that she had ever tried to repress it. She was unhappy, yes, because she lost her parents. But she never knew the true depth of my deception.'
'But—but what about the Grey Lady? What does she want? Why is she helping you? And what does it mean, Professor? What does it mean to be the Executioner?'
'The Grey Lady knew what she was. I didn't seek her out. Helena Ravenclaw kept her secret hidden well. I had no idea an Obscurial like her even existed. Someone who controlled it and used it like … She used it like we use magic, Jane. Like it was simply an extension of herself. The only difference is that Helena repressed her magic to spite her mother and stole her diadem to correct the mistake—'
'She made herself an Obscurial?' I was shocked.
Creevey let out a humourless laugh. 'Yes, she did. The Grey Lady is …' He searched for the right word. 'Resourceful. The only explanation I was ever given was that she hated her mother. Hated her deeply and thoroughly. I've speculated, of course, about why …' He shot me a questioning look; he wanted to know if this was of interest to me. I was beyond expressing anything besides utter confusion. 'Rowena Ravenclaw was a hard and harsh woman. She expected too much from Helena, who was not preternaturally disposed to intelligence and wit like her mother. Naturally, Helena rebelled.'
Creevey shrugged. 'Like I said, the lore is incomplete. Repression isn't something that just … happens to you. You do it to yourself—consciously or not. Helena was not as intelligent as her mother, but she was still quite clever. When she became an Obscurial, she told me she regretted it. She had no idea how to control it and for that reason alone, she obtained a wand and attended Hogwarts. The Obscurial was subdued but it wasn't until she stole the diadem that she learnt how to control the … the energy she had bubbling under her skin at all times.'
'But if it was subdued with a wand …'
'Subdued,' Creevey said lightly. 'But not in control. She wanted to get rid of it and she thought the diadem might give her insight into how. Instead, she discovered a way to control it … to wield it with intent.'
Wield it with intent.
'Why did she come to you?' I asked, thinking there had to be some greater meaning in those words. 'That is, what were you doing that piqued her interest?'
'My research,' Creevey explained. 'Hogwarts turned out to be the perfect place to operate in disguise. I had full access to the Restricted section in the Library, I had access to Dumbledore's writings on the issue—I could travel to libraries and archives all over the world and, as a Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor, I had full access to all of it. The ghosts and the paintings … they gossip. She heard what I was doing and she came to speak to me.'
'She knew about Cecily. Said that she could … sense the Obscurus the day she walked into the castle. She was curious and I was surprised—but interested. I thought she could help me and her. So I told her about Cecily. I told her everything I've told you. And she offered me a gift. She told me that if Cecily ever lost control, there was a way to teach her to control it. In all my years of research, I have never discovered a way to remove an Obscurus without even the slightest bit of risk to the host. And I would never do anything that would risk Cecily's life.'
'This can't be it,' I hissed, and I hated how desperate I sounded. 'What am I supposed to do? What does the Executioner do?' I shook my head; this couldn't be everything. This couldn't. 'The Ministry is at fault. They—they—they have been weighed in the balance and have been found wanting.' I looked at Creevey wildly. 'He—he said so himself—he said the Ministry has to know before—before it's too late to cooperate—'
'Jane. Calm down.'
'This can't be it.'
'What were you hoping for?' Creevey suddenly demanded. 'That your title meant more than it is? A simple way to distinguish your roles?'
'That can't be it.'
'It means nothing,' he said with cruel indifference.
Madam Pomfrey healed my hand in about two minutes. It wasn't broken or fractured like I'd thought—though it definitely felt like it was—but strained. I sat in silence, tortured with guilt and regret, barely hearing Pomfrey's mutterings about reckless and impulsive students and their flagrant disregard for rules about physical violence.
'Did he deserve it?' Pomfrey suddenly demanded.
I looked at her, blinking.
'He's like his mother, that one,' said Pomfrey, tutting. I wanted to ask her in what way but she dismissed me and left.
I walked out of the Hospital Wing, wondering what to do, where to go. Thinking back on it, I began to understand James' tactics. He was right—he didn't have a rule book, he didn't know what he was doing any more than I did—he just knew what being the Challenger supposedly meant and was following his own curiosities. But hadn't it worked? Hadn't my Obscurus torn out of me—further than it had ever gone before with my physical body still intact?
And he was right, too, that it had been contained. Contained because I had contained it. It wasn't an accident—it wasn't my Obscurus doing something I didn't want—it was all me. I wanted to crush that stupid, awful curse. I wanted to destroy it utterly—rip the magic right out of it. That was what I wanted—but I wasn't sure what exactly had happened. I remembered my Obscurus ballooning out of me like an elastic shield, becoming a perfect black sphere that raged with black sand on the inside. I remembered tendrils of sand wrapped around the jet of purple light, arresting it in place, right in front of me.
Then I remembered wrenching it apart, shattering it into a million tiny pieces.
I had done that.
Impulsively, I doubled back to an empty classroom I had passed. Making sure that no one had seen me go in, I shut the door behind me and willed my Obscurus into existence. The pinpricks, the peeling—these were now easily ignored—as the black sand rippled out of me. It hovered on the surface of my skin and I concentrated it to just my hands. Then my palms.
I tried to recall what it felt like to have Albus' head in mine; the subtle, almost intangible pressure of it—but it wasn't even that. It was like smoke, like a fog creeping in until it hardened into a sharp point. I knew, vaguely, that none of those sensations were technically real. The brain didn't feel. The body did. The brain just perceived it … but then what was it that I'd felt?
I needed to know so that I could recreate it.
When I'd burst out at James, it wasn't just my body that reacted—it was my mind. That was why it was so important to have my Heart, Soul, Reason and Rage in control … because all of those things were in my head. They were mental snares and nets. I was so broken that they were designed to trap me, to keep me locked up in a panic room I thought was meant to keep others safe. Slowly, I had begun to take them apart. And I was learning to skirt around them when I couldn't. That was why the Obscurus felt so much lighter, so free in my body.
I was the Sadness—the anchor—but with the others helping me … I wasn't burdened by it. I could feel the edges and the apex of my Obscurus now, the sheer magical energy of it, molten like liquid steel in my veins. I could push it out of me on purpose because I wasn't fighting against my mental traps anymore. I was out manoeuvring them.
I searched my own head—again, a ridiculous thing because it was like sweeping an empty, dusty, pitch black room—trying to imagine the indescribable sensation of Albus in my head. My body could only take me so far. I needed my mind to push as well and …
James was right.
I needed someone to fight.
With a sigh, I left the classroom. There was no way around it now—I couldn't do it myself. I didn't know why I thought I could. The Grey Lady would have just said if it were possible. Either way, I had to make things right with James. Not only because I was out of line, but because I needed him.
I needed to fight him.
But it wasn't cruel, not really, because he had no way of knowing the depth of my dismay. My face burned with humiliation—humiliation over my own thoughts, my beliefs about myself and the grandeur I had imagined when I embraced the role of Executioner. Because why deny it? Why pretend like I didn't want something more? Why pretend like I had been drawn to Potter for any reason other than the potential of danger and the excitement and adrenaline it brought? The rebel son of Harry Potter. The promise of anything but a dull, uninteresting life.
I had long since given up on understanding where this desire had come from. The drumming need to just do something. To shatter the world, crush its delicate shell and watch the yolk bleed out. Had I been born with it? Or had there been a trigger? Regardless, it lay dormant, burning and bubbling under my skin, always searching for a reason to lash out at something. There was absolutely no way I could explain it—the urge to scream and destroy.
And all the lies that had been told to reign in the pandemonium of my soul … like the Draught of Peace ... what would my friends say if they knew the truth ... the real purpose of why I needed to take that potion ... what would they think of the lie ...
Now that I was off it, now that my blood no longer cried out for that oblivion, now that I had finally—finally—fought off that addiction … now I could finally think like myself again. My thoughts—maddened, cacophonous, gibbering—were finally bright and clear. No longer dulled and lazy and drugged. For the first time in a very long time, I was in control of what I felt.
And I was enraged.
Enraged that Cecily was being taught to control her Obscurus for nothing, enraged that it was so obvious that if she could wield it with intent, she would be utterly unstoppable. There was no force in the world that could hope to contain her—to defeat her. She was the deadliest weapon in the world. And Creevey wanted to do nothing with it besides give her peace and happiness?
None of it made sense ... unless he was lying.
Unless his plan was to make me think that my title was meaningless? But to what end? Why wouldn't he just tell me what he intended? Why would he ask me here just to explain his actions? Surely he knew the risk he was taking by coming to Hogsmeade at all? And for what? Was he really so naive and soft?
'If Cecily has the ability to wield her Obscurus with intention,' I said slowly. 'She would be able to achieve anything.' Creevey's eyes flicked up to meet mine and they betrayed nothing. 'Where you failed … she might succeed.'
'I gave up after Cecily,' Creevey said carefully, evasively. He knew what I was saying, but he wanted me to understand something first, before he addressed it. 'I was worse than useless. I thought my time would be better spent searching for a cure for Obscurials. I wasn't helping anyone who couldn't already be helped with some intervention. I had to pick which battle to fight.'
'Obscurials versus Hedges,' I simplified. He had chosen the Obscurials.
'What if you didn't have to chose?' I asked lightly.
I was dancing a delicate, dangerous dance. Speaking without saying anything. Committing to a radical ideas without any conviction.
A reluctant smile broke out on Creevey's face, as if he had been waiting for me to say that and he was grimly pleased to have his suspicions confirmed. Then he became serious. 'Your title truly doesn't mean anything, Jane. All of the titles … they're just … the Grey Lady's theatrics. An echo of a bygone era. You shouldn't take them so seriously.'
‘That’s extremely unhelpful, Professor.’
Creevey smiled again. ‘Sorry. But it’s true. The titles aren’t important. When the Grey Lady explained the complicated theory of controlling an Obscurus to me, I quickly realised this if Cecily was to ever need this ... method ... I would have to make it easier for her to understand. I had a different idea in mind but Helena came up with the titles and, I assume, spoke in riddles in terms of what they meant. She enjoys riddles ... enjoys manipulating her words to direct people one way when she really means something else entirely ... do you understand what I’m saying?’
I blew the air out of my cheeks and nodded once; yes, I understood.
‘The titles mean nothing,’ I said, working the words through my mouth, getting the full bodied flavour of them so they would digest more easily. ‘Cecily didn’t even need seven people did she?’ Before Creevey could respond, another thought occurred to me. ‘Oh. She didn’t need anyone at all.’
Creevey’s mouth twisted wryly. ‘No. I had planned to guide Cecily myself when the time came. Things fell apart rather quickly. I had foolishly misunderstood Cecily’s emotional instability when I found her in Diagon Alley. Despite what she’d said about turning, I didn’t think that she would lose control in the orphanage. When I finally came to in St Mungo’s, I knew things had gone terribly wrong. I meant to take her back to Hogwarts, to Helena, but only after she’d settled her heart and her soul. Anyway, it’s clear that when Cecily came back—thanks to you—’
Thanks to me? Did he not know Rose and Kit were with me? That, without them, Cecily would have probably destroyed half of London and never been stable enough to return to Hogwarts?
‘—Helena took it upon herself to approach Cecily. I only found out a few days ago, when she ... got in touch with me. She was quite delighted that she’d gotten her own way.’
‘Why would she do that?’ I demanded.
‘Don’t underestimate the cruelty of a ghost, Jane. They are temperamental, tortured creatures. Too cowardly to move on, doomed to roam the earth forever. They envy humans their heart beats, their blood and flesh and bone. Helena is that and more. She likes to play games with humans, just as she did when she was alive.’
‘So she’s not trying to help Cecily?’
‘I think she doesn’t care if it helps her either way. She won’t be disappointed if it does and it won’t bring her any satisfaction if it doesn’t. She’s enjoying the show, for lack of a better word.’
‘This whole thing is a game to her,’ I said thoughtfully. My eyes flashed to him. ‘But not to you. Is that why you wrote me? Did Helena tell you I was the Executioner? If it really doesn’t mean anything, then what was the point of all the confusing bullshit? How do I know you’re not playing a game with me?’
‘Haven't I already made it clear that Cecily is important to me? That I would like her to succeed?’ Creevey sounded genuinely angry now and I flushed with chagrin. But I kept my expression steely. ‘This is no game to me, Jane. I don’t know who else is helping Cecily besides you, because yes, yours was the only name Helena thought to give me.'
'I believe she thought it would frighten me.’
‘Frighten you how?’
Creevey’s features flattened. ‘The Executioner? Don’t tell me you don’t have ideas about what that might mean.’
I held completely still and just stared at Creevey.
‘I had to meet with you to tell you that it means nothing. It’s one of Helena’s little tricks that she’s hoping you’re too human and too stupid to understand. It will work, don’t you see? Without your interference, Cecily will master her Obscurus. But she’s hoping that your title, the seed of doubt she planted in you, will make you think you have the power and the right to destroy Cecily if you think she’s losing control or failing. I can see on your face that this has already occurred to you. That you’ve embraced it.’ Creevey smiled with no mirth. ‘For a ghost, she has remembered human folly remarkably well.’
I ground my teeth together, feeling just as foolish as Creevey painted me out to be. I hated being made to feel stupid. I hated even more that this stupid fucking ghost who didn’t know me understood my weaknesses better than I did.
‘How did she know I would think that?’ I snarled, abandoning all pretences. Creevey wasn’t believing my deceptions anyway. He seemed to know what I was thinking—that I was engaged in two fronts of the battle. This conversation and the one raging in my mind.
‘Haven’t you been listening? It didn’t matter who Cecily chose to be the Executioner—or any of the titles. Helena was playing on the fact that all humans are predictable. Give them any semblance of power and they will use it for their own purposes. Create any justification—if they need it—to think their intentions are pure and unimpeachable.’
'So,' I said after a beat. 'You brought me here, explained all of this, so that you could convince me to do nothing. To not let the power—the seed of doubt—go to my head.'
Creevey's face was taut, his body rigidly held with tension.
'It really means nothing. The Grey Lady is playing a game with Cecily's life. To amuse herself of the boredom of being a ghost.'
'But you're sure this will work?' I asked, not really needing an answer. I believed it when he said it would. I was just buying myself time. Time to think this through clearly. 'Cecily will master her Obscurus?'
'Everyone else helping her will be compelled to make sure she succeeds,' Creevey confirmed. 'Everyone but you.'
'Because mine is the only title designed to imply that she might fail.'
I paused. 'Don't you want to know who else is helping her?'
Creevey shrugged lightly. 'Would you tell me if I asked?'
I smiled, genuinely amused.
'I suppose not ... still ...'
'You doubt me?'
I considered the question thoughtfully. Did I doubt him? I examined myself objectively for the truth. But I knew the answer. I didn't doubt Creevey. I probably should, but I didn't. Everything he said made more sense than him lying. What would he be achieving with this lie? I couldn't see what was in it for him. He still wanted to Cecily to follow the Grey Lady's advice—he just didn't want me to. So I posed the same question again.
'What if you didn't have to chose? Which battle to fight. What if it's not Obscurials versus Hedges? What if there was a way to help both?'
Creevey looked at me for a such a long time that I was sure I'd made a serious error. I gripped my wand tighter, unsure if I should be anticipating an attack, even out in the open like this, in public and in view of an audience. Would the threat of my thinking be worth the risk of exposing himself? He wasn't a wanted man ... but would he risk becoming one?
I attempted another appeal.
'If Cecily can ... wield her Obscurus with intent ... there might be a way to hold the Ministry accountable for its mistakes.' We were both utterly still, like statutes, watching each other. 'You said the Grey Lady likes riddles ... what if the Executioner doesn't mean ending Cecily but ... executing a task? A purpose?'
Just like I had done for the Wave. No one wanted to get their hands dirty and upset anyone when it came to keeping our club a secret—I was the only one willing to do it. To threaten Imogen, Lulu and Rudolph. To make sure those threats were understood clearly.
'I told you it means nothing,' Creevey said finally, each word carefully controlled and even. 'There is no plot to execute. No person. Helena is hoping you'll think this way. That you'll make a mistake that will only make everyone suffer more. That's the kind of cruel delight she enjoys.'
I pressed my lips together, thinking hard.
Creevey didn't seem to think Cecily's life was worth risking for the greater good. But he was letting his fear stop him from seeing that no threat of that existed. If I abandoned the idea of killing Cecily if she lost control, she would master her Obscurus and be untouchable. Nothing and no one could end her life. Which left the other obvious option to be considered.
I didn't understand why it wasn't as clear to him as it was to me. Did he not realise that with Cecily in his arsenal, he wouldn't have to keep fighting the Ministry in the trenches? He could openly demand recourse and policies to protect Muggleborns who weren't accepted into any established schools. He could demand better funding for Hedge schools so that those with no other choice could actually be part of our world. With Cecily's power, the Ministry would never again be able to allow Muggleborns to turn into Obscurials.
'Do you not think,' Creevey said, his voice strained and harsh, tearing me out of my thoughts. 'That my mind hasn't wandered down the same path as yours? That it hasn't occurred to me the power Cecily possesses is greater than the Ministry's might?' He paused to let me respond, but I didn't. 'She isn't a weapon or a tool, Jane. She's a child. Just like you. This isn't her war to fight.'
Ah, but that's where he was wrong.
This was the only war to fight. Cecily would see that. Had she not been powerful—had Creevey not intervened—who knows what would've happened to her? She may have accidentally killed herself. She may have killed countless others. This was still the potential future of Muggleborns all over the country.
The Ministry either sighed a breath of relief when Muggleborns went to Hedge schools or held their breath and waited for Obscurials to kill themselves. The remaining few went to Hogwarts or other established schools. How was this not her fight? Creevey was blinded by his love for Cecily. He was repressing the revolution now. He refused to acknowledge that she could lead it out of the rubble and ashes.
'Okay,' I said softly. 'I understand.'
'Do you?' Creevey lost the edge of control in his voice; raw anxiety and tension broke through. 'There's nothing she can do, Jane. She can't help anyone. She can only help herself. If she doesn't, she will die. If she over exerts herself, she could die. Do you understand that, Jane? Do you truly understand that?'
But his body didn't relax. In fact, his face tightened.
'I'll need your word.'
A small breath escaped me; a laugh of disbelief.
'An Unbreakable Vow.'
My face fell.
'No,' I said harshly. 'I won't do that.'
Creevey's eyes hardened. 'I don't have a choice here, Jane. I can't trust you to do the right thing. I don't think you'll kill Cecily, but that's about as much as I can allow myself to believe.'
My eyes flicked up, quickly scanning the pub. No one was looking at us. No one had so much as given us a second glance, despite our heated discussion. I couldn't resist looking at the barman, but whatever he had heard or was pretending not to hear ... well, it was too late to do anything about it now. Still, would he help me if I needed it? Did Creevey know who the barman was?
'You can't make me,' I hissed. I prepared myself to leave. Creevey didn't miss that. 'You have no Bonder.'
'I do,' he said evenly. 'So if you don't want to make a scene, you'll accompany me to my room.'
I laughed—a harsh, cutting sound. It didn't betray the bolt of fear that ripped into me. For the first time, I was truly afraid for my life. It never crossed my mind that Creevey would try to bind me this way. If it hadn't come out of his mouth, I wouldn't have believed he'd ever consider doing something like this. My life was expendable when it was weighed in the balance with Cecily's.
'I don't care about making a scene.' My eyes darted around the pub, searching for an escape—trying to catch the barman's eye—anything. 'I'll scream. I'll duel you. I'll tear this whole pub apart before I make an Unbreakable Vow. I have nothing to lose, Professor. I don't care if people find out I spoke to you. You have nothing on me.'
Creevey looked almost sad as he heard this. I couldn't help the way my heart fluttered, as if it was warning me, telling me to run now, because somehow it knew I would not get another chance like this. My chair screeched against the wooden floor as I shot to my feet.
'Oh Jane,' he said wretchedly. 'That wasn't the kind of scene I meant.'
'What?' Run! Go! But I was rooted to the spot, suddenly unable to move. 'What—' I tried to move my legs, but they were stuck. I looked at Creevey wildly, terror washing over me. 'Professor—'
Abruptly, and far too late, I realised the gravity of my mistake.
I had let my guard down, I had lowered the iron shields of suspicion around me and spoke far too freely. He didn't know what I was thinking—I had assumed. Stupidly, foolishly! If I had kept my mouth shut, kept my thoughts to myself, acted like I had no ideas about what the Executioner might mean, I wouldn't be trapped.
'I would have preferred to stagger our exits,' he was saying miserably, like this was truly the last thing he'd wanted to happen. He met my gaze, lines of unhappiness deepening around his mouth as he took in my terrified, frozen expression. 'So as not to arouse any suspicion. It was a good thing you disguised yourself so well. Perhaps no one will think anything but the usual when they see us walking to a room together.'
'Professor,' I said, struggling to keep my tone calm and reasonable as panic tore through me like acid flames. 'You have my word. I won't go anywhere near her. I won't—I won't even speak to her. I promise. I promise. Please—please don't—'
'The Grey Lady doesn't know you,' he said quietly. 'But I've taught you for years. I know what you're like, Jane. I know that Cecily couldn't have chosen a worse, more unstable person to be her Executioner. I simply cannot trust you. You have to know that I don't want this. That I will regret this until the day I die. But you understand why I have no choice?'
Despite everything, I did.
I opened my mouth to scream—but nothing came out. My hands shot up to my throat, eyes wide and horrified as they lanced back to Creevey. His expression was grim. What had he done to me! I hadn't even seen his wand! Another mistake! I should have screamed sooner! I tried to move my arms—to wave them wildly, signal that I was in distress—but they were frozen, hands around my neck.
Creevey sighed. 'Helena got one thing right. Humans are far too predictable.' He looked at me. 'You can speak, but you'll find you won't be able to make a sound above a whisper.'
As soon as he said it, I found it to be true
'I won't come willingly,' I half-gasped. 'The second you unbind me, I will scream.'
'I know,' said Creevey, sounding suddenly exhausted. 'But I don't need you willing.'
I was, then, truly fucked.
I had read descriptions of what it was like to be Imperiused. Some described a pleasant, floating sensation. Others, who were more seriously affected, spoke of the weightless void of nothingness. Creevey's curse was strong, tightly controlled and impossible to fight off ... fight off? I didn't want to do that ... I was nothing ... there was nothing ... I became vaguely aware of Creevey speaking ...
'It would've been useless, Jane. She would have never believed you. She wouldn't trust you, don't you see that? If you tried to tell her that your job wasn't to end her, you would have made her more suspicious. She may have lost control completely in fear of what you might do to her. No matter what your intentions are, Cecily will feel threatened by you. This is the only way.'
Just to clear up any confusion - if there is any - all of Jane's scenes take place the previous day (Saturday) and the rest of the girls' scenes take place in the present, the next day (Sunday).
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