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It took me less than five minutes to tell the first lie.
Then he reached over and tucked a lock of curly hair behind her ear, and I knew that we would be joining them, no matter what. Behind him the two girls were watching with hard smirks. I felt sick but Emily took my hand, pulling me—she knew I would run if I could—through the entrance.
It was beginning to feel like there were two parts of me: a fledgeling one, weak but sunny, here in this room with these strangers, and another that was buried within the thoughts pushed into the back of my skull. They were like two plants growing from the same seed; borne of the same source and fighting to survive over the other.
The crinkling in my eyes as I grinned was like using an old and unfamiliar muscle, and I toyed with the frayed edges of my textbook. The last time Sirius saw me, I had actually fainted. His first impression of me was as though he’d come across a stupid bird that had smacked into a window and injured itself. And wasn’t that exactly what I’d done, agreeing to meet with the Black Adders, knowing what they were like?
Seeing him like this felt like being on a boat in rough water. Everything had always seemed to roll off his shoulders. Relationships were flings. Bad grades were just a challenge to catch back up; he knew he was smart enough. Detentions didn’t matter because he did things like this—drinking in broad daylight on school grounds—and lived for it.
Regulus’s head hung in utter mortification and, in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to hex Sirius. The former’s porcelain cheeks were pock-marked with acne, his nose too big for his face, as he glanced at me from beneath his eyelashes.
These thoughts culminated in the usual irritation as I stole another glance at Sirius. He was taking a long drag on the cigarette. To my surprise, the feelings of frustration were overcome by another: I’d never had the faintest desire to smoke a cigarette in my life, but I suddenly wanted to take it from his lips and put it to my own.
It felt like my ears were stuffed with cotton. My parents were dead. That had to be it. McGonagall’s next words sounded as if they were coming from another room, and I tried to force the sound back into my consciousness. “…no cause for alarm, but we want to be certain that the news came to you first.”
“You are cordially invited to the second annual Marauders’ Ball. Bully for you! If you accept—and honestly, you’d be an idiot not to—then meet us at the One-Eyed Witch at ten o’clock next Saturday. Don’t be caught. And wear your dancing shoes!”
How could he be so certain? How was he so sure that the entire world had laid itself out for the taking by Sirius Black? Most unsettlingly, why I was standing here, entertaining the idea in the first place? Last year’s Chloe would have never even followed him down the corridor.
A realization was taking shape; I could feel its sharpness in the chilly air. They were going to find a way to fight this war, and if I remained close, I would be pulled in.
My hands felt like lead. Here it was, now, the idea we had skirted around for years: that I would have to choose between my life and theirs.
“Do you seriously not understand?”
“I love you, Marlene!” he shouted, as if by accident, and I wished I had never heard.
He would be there, I knew, smoking a cigarette. I could hear the quiet breath and see the curling of the smoke, dangerous and reckless. The dragonskin jacket. Every teenage girl’s dream.
But I wasn’t a girl anymore; not really.
It wasn’t where I had expected the pieces to fall, and I couldn’t bring myself to think about permanence and longevity. But Peter was kind; he made me feel seen. He was everything that Sirius wasn’t.
It felt as if the air were being sucked from my lungs. Marlene was notorious for snapping when upset, saying things that she didn’t mean and overcompensating just to win an argument—and she always apologized afterwards. But I had never experienced the venom firsthand. Then again, I had always made myself small around her, and of the same opinion. I felt the fissure cracking, deepening.
My wand was concealed in the pocket of my housecoat as I crept down the stairs, and I gripped it with white knuckles. There were murmured voices coming from the kitchen. With my heart hammering in my throat I rounded the corner, thinking, Disarm first, body-bind second—
Lily studied me before saying, carefully, “It’s okay to want normal things, you know.”
“Not right now, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is. People are dying. People who I’ve fought next to, and who we knew in school… Everything feels so grim right now. There has to be some sense of normalcy.” Her hand moved absently to her belly.
With the taste of artificial strawberries on my tongue, Sirius watched me, unabashed as ever. I felt the color rising to my cheeks and realized that I had to re-learn his unapologetic nature. It was so different from Peter’s. There were no shy glances here; no murmured words lost in the sound. It was the same nature that got Sirius into trouble. The same that made him sound like a fool or arrogant or thoughtless. Once, I had only seen that side of him, and maybe things had been easier then.
“I don’t know what to do. They’re watching me, Death Eaters, they left a note on my bed, and my parents aren’t answering their phone, and what if they’ve done something to them—”
I stopped, putting a steadying hand on the rough brick, but it was no use. My lungs felt like crumpled parchment.
“I can’t breathe.”
“Peter, where were you?” I whispered, nearly bursting into tears, and he closed his eyes in shame. “You shut me out for weeks. I had no idea if you were even safe.”
“I know,” he groaned, moving as if to cover his face, then crossing his arms tightly. It was as if he didn’t know what to do with himself.
“If you wanted to end things, you could have just—”
“That was not it, Chloe,” he nearly growled, suddenly emphatic.
“Chloe, what is this?” my mother asked, trying to keep her voice light. My heart plummeted when I saw the notebook, with all my research from Poplar, open on the table.
“Where did you…?” It had been tucked in my bag. They would have had to go looking though it to find the notebook.
But my aunt said, “Doesn’t look like a florist’s notes to me. Anything you want to share?”
In the darkness, I removed my coat and threw it onto the floor. Meaningless. The familiar word resurfaced in my mind.
“They're refusing to grant me guardianship of Harry. He’s with Petunia and her husband.”
Heat flashed in my chest. Albus Dumbledore, the shadowy figure who somehow had stepped on Lily and James’s wishes. “That’s ridiculous, you were willing to lay down your life for the Order. He knows that.”
“That’s the funny thing about an Unforgiveable Curse,” he said, darkly. “They don’t tend to forgive you so easily.”
Our eyes locked and I knew that we were both remembering it. The stifling air of the greenhouse, Sirius’s hand sliding up my thigh, his breath fogging my lips.
Look at me, Chloe.
My body ached from restraint as I forced my hand not to touch his wrist, his shoulder, his hair. The space between us was electric. Tangible.
“Why did Michael Flint come after you like that?” He said it and my heart dropped; I barely heard the rest through the ringing in my ears. “I mean, yeah, we kind of know him from school. But why is he so fixated on you, after all this time?”
On the front page of the Daily Prophet, my own face stared back at me. They’d gotten ahold of my Poplar identification card, apparently. I smiled at the camera giddily, oblivious to what would come.
BONNIE AND CLYDE? MYSTERY WOMAN DISCOVERED WITH SIRIUS BLACK
Her eyes said what they all thought of me. Murderer’s girlfriend.
I was accustomed to solitude. Small talk at the pub and the garden shop sustained me, about the weather and the planting season, or whose nieces were visiting for the holiday. I no longer felt lonely when I was alone.
And then, suddenly, there was Jack.
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