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Chapter 2: Two.
Author's Notes. This is most definitely the angstiest this story will get. Ever. I'm rotten at it, so yes. I promise this is the worst of it, period. Thanks so much for reading!
Christmas Day, 1961.
“Madeline! You’re drenched! Where on Earth have you been?”
“Nowhere, exactly-” Madeline offered an awkward smile, feeling rather out of place as her eyes darted around the orderly kitchen before stopping, finally, on the small lady who seemed entirely her opposite; dry, blonde and graceful. Madeline’s hand darted up to try and flatten her fringe against her forehead, though it seemed like a rather hopeless in comparison. “It’s raining again,” she explained hesitantly, wishing fervently that she had stayed away at the cafe a mite longer.
“Not to worry, we’ll just get you dried off-” Penny-for that was what she insisted on being called-hurried over to relieve Madeline of her wet coat. And once it seemed clear Madeline wasn’t going to co-operate, it was politely and forcibly pulled off and hung to dry beside the fire. “There you are then,” the blonde declared, satisfied, “dinner is almost ready, best you clean up.”
Madeline gave a small nod, wondering why anyone in their right mind would have dinner ready before the evening was properly dark. She hurried upstairs to her bedroom, keen to get away from the strange unsatisfying perfection that seemed to surround all things ‘Penny.’ She always left Madeline feeling uneasy, a small inkling of hollowness that settled in her stomach and refused to go away no matter how much she willed it to. She couldn’t help but feel uncertain; she had no idea what her father had told Penny about her. He didn’t know anything himself, in all truth, but it was hard to say if that was better or worse.
It was easy enough to imagine an uninformed Muggle telling a completely ignorant one that his illegitimate daughter would turn the whole town into toadstools if she half-fancied. Her father had made no effort to convince her that he thought otherwise, or indeed, that he thought anything when it came to her. It would have been nice though, if he had. Nice. But she didn’t need him; she had Hogwarts, and Alice. She had her own world. And once this holiday was over and done with, she would be able to go back to it, rather than trying to make sense of someone else’s world. His world.
She felt she was doing a horrible job of it. Nothing seemed to be a proper sort of real, it was filled with an irky Penny-ness; all cheery-like, but completely false and unbelievable. Everything seemed to be going on around her, and she was stuck in her own speed; watching wide-eyed as life went topsy-turvy. It was never clear what her speed was exactly; she was either outrunning everything, or watching it hurtle past while she chocked on her little cloud bubble. Which didn’t make any sense either, nothing did.
With a small sigh, Madeline slid off her bed and reluctantly left her room. The solid, lump of coldness laying snugly in her gut made the simple idea of food rather repulsive. As did the idea of attempting to sit calmly in the same vicinity of her ill-fitting, other-world family when all she ever wanted to do when it came to them was run in another direction. Any direction. She shook her head slightly, stopping in her tracks just outside the dining-room as she prepared herself to act undaunted. It proved hopeless, for as she had vaguely expected, she was the last to find her way there and her appearance alone seemed to drain the life from the happy family scene before her.
She sat as quickly as she could, ducking her head as she feigned interest in the meal she had no appetite for, hoping they might resume whatever it had been she had interrupted. The silence stretched on, however, and Madeline was yet to persuade herself to eat. Instead, she half-heartedly pushed a forkful of mashed potato towards her helping of peas, her eyes fixed wide and unblinking on the man sitting at the head of the table. As far from her as he could manage, although they both knew it wasn’t nearly enough. For Madeline, it was still unbearably close. Her insides cringed each time he raised his dark head, his eyes scanning over his family before they stopped, lingering on her plate without ever finding her face.
Madeline knew he probably never would, not willingly, and even, that it would be better if he didn’t; her mother had always provided the entire truth un-sweetened. Not that being privy to such things made them an ounce easier, and inwardly she fought desperately to stop herself from willing him to look. Because she wasn’t all that sure that she would be able to control herself it if he did.
“I wonder how she can bare being so damp!” Sarah-the elder of Penny’s daughters-exclaimed in muted tones to her sister, her nose wrinkled as though the idea in itself was specifically putrid.
“Maybe she can’t feel the cold,” Jeanie shrugged in answer, “Do you suppose she can?”
“How should I know! She doesn’t really eat either, does she? But there’s no way to tell if that’s just her, or all of them.”
“Oh don’t!” Jeanie protested, “She can’t help it, can you Madeline?” Madeline felt her cheeks darken, completely lost as to which of the two was worse. She wasn’t remotely sure of the question posed, but Jeanie didn’t seem to have meant it as a question at all, finishing with a rather decided, “She can’t help being a bit odd, obviously.”
Something swelled inside Madeline, and she head her fork hitting her plate with disjointed surprise, “Stop it. Just stop-”
“Quiet!” Her father demanded harshly, causing Madeline’s eyes to land on his face again.
“Scared I’ll say something?” she asked, hating herself for it the very moment it had been said. “How about ‘I loved her, and so did you.’?” She swallowed, “You can’t even look at me, because it’s like looking at her.”
“How about some pudding, then?” Penny interjected quickly, causing a shock of guilt to slam through Madeline’s insides. It seemed rhetorical, for the woman immediately began collecting their plates. Hurriedly. As though her pudding would drag peace in tow.
“It’s like admitting you were too scared then, that you’re too scared now-that you’ll always be too scared. And you know what? ‘Scared’ doesn’t really count for anything-” Madeline’s breath caught in her throat as he finally met her eyes with his own angry ones. She shook her head, persisting, “I love her. I love the way she didn’t need you, even though she wanted you. I love her for teaching me to do the same. But now I get it. I get it. I don’t need you. And I don’t even want you, so it isn’t half as hard for me.”
“If you weren’t just like her girl, you’d realise that what you are, your sort isn’t anything to be proud of,” he was still watching her, a strange, twisted expression on his features. But despite it being anything but kind, some small part of Madeline relished in it.
Her chin found the courage to assert itself, “I’m glad of who she was. I’m glad I am what I am. I hope I’m never pathetic enough to be so goddamn scared, I can’t do what’s right. She was a good person. I love her. I love Ma.”
“She’s gone, Madeline,” Penny spoke softly, “She’s-”
“She’s dead!” Her father interrupted, giving a bitter chuckle and rubbing his face with a large hand, “She always thought she was invincible. And now she’s nothing but dead.”
Madeline swallowed thickly, “I know she’s dead. I wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t.”
“If you have somewhere to go, then by all means. She failed to arrange anything for you, that’s why you are here. But go! If that’s what you want. I never asked for you, I never wanted any part of what she tricked me into with her 'magic'."
“Fine,” Madeline gave a small jerking nod of her head. She couldn’t remember standing, but she was glad of it. She couldn’t help but feel a little braver, “But don’t dare say Ma tricked you into anything, you tricked her. She thought you might love her enough not to care if she was a witch or not. And you just hated her instead. You tricked her.”
She tore her eyes from her father’s pale face and forced herself to look at Penny, who had long-since forgotten her remedial pudding. “I-I’m sorry, Penny,” it was barely distinguishable, Madeline knew, but it seemed the best she could manage. She made herself to walk from the room, despite the urge to run being almost unbearable. And the moment she was out of sight, she let the urge take her, absorbing most of her thoughts with the uncomfortable, bitter thrill that accompanied the rhythmic thud of her feet on the pavement. She had no idea why she hadn’t stopped herself. Stopped herself from ruining whatever it was she hadn’t managed to properly define, and yet dearly wished she had.
Trying to ignore the fact that there really wasn’t any place for her to run to, and that she hadn’t thought to take her coat with her, Madeline struggled to keep her focus away from all the dangerous thoughts now in her head. She wouldn’t delve any deeper than she already had, which was most definitely too far. She had just fought her mother’s fight, a fight her mother had chosen not to. It seemed ridiculous now. It was ridiculous.
Stupidstupidstupid, Madeline silently berated herself as she jogged through the fine drizzle. The street she found herself in was predictably familiar, she was honestly beginning to wonder if her feet knew any other destination. It wasn’t as though he could actually help her, but she knew he was the closest to Alice she could manage. And just now, Alice was what she needed.
She stopped outside the cafe, which she had left only a while earlier. Madeline couldn’t quite believe that so much had changed between then and now, even the cafe itself seemed gloomier. The wooden blinds were lowered, darkening the windows and hiding the homey interior. Figures. Madeline sighed, staring upwards as she tried to decide what it was she actually wanted. Before she realised she had come to a conclusion, she found herself knocking on the door. It was infuriating, she was sure the lights were on, even that she could hear him whistling. And yet, nothing, “El? El, please?”
“You can’t sodding well start treating me like everyone else now!” Madeline exclaimed suddenly, hating the fact she felt the need to. She pressed her forehead against the icy wall, trying to steady her breath and quell the pounding sensation that seemed to be consuming her insides completely. “I just want to pretend you’re different, just for a minute.” It was only whispered, but it was still too much; standing where she was, so horribly close to tears was rather like living a nightmare.
Madeline dearly wished she had thought to persuade her feet to take her to a different place-like the park. The park was a lovely Elliot-free kind of place. She bit down on her lip, closing her eyes as she considered the image that wriggled into her mind; the nice empty place she had wandered past before, with it’s swings blowing to and fro in the insistent breeze. The cold sort, that always went straight through a person, rather than around. The kind that always managed to coax unwanted thoughts away as it tugged at whatever lock of hair or stray clothing it managed to capture. And shadows. Madeline was sure there were shadows waiting for her at the park. Dark, shifting shapes to distract her from whatever tangents the wind couldn’t-or wouldn’t-steal. Suddenly, it seemed so obvious. So goddamn obvious!
Her palm pounded against the wall as she lifted her head, spinning away from the cafe with a new certainty; she would go to the park. She didn’t need to embarrass herself with Elliot. And he didn’t need to know she had almost been willing to communicate. Properly. With him. Especially with him, and his contant smile. What was she thinking?
Feeling a vague urge to laugh, Madeline quickly crossed the pavement. The need to flee swamping her the moment her foot collided with the road. Forget Elliot and his inability to answer doors, really, she was utterly glad he hadn’t. If he had, she wouldn’t be running across the road towards something close to freedom. Instead, she didn’t doubt she would be sitting somewhere...feeling ridiculous, trapped and patronised as she consumed a cup of coffee she barely even liked.
“Madeline? It is Madeline, right?”
Madeline stumbled slightly as she reached the far side of the narrow road, turning back as she tried to reorganise herself. A smiling woman-one she could only assume to be Elliot’s fondly mentioned ‘ma’-was watching her through the newly opened doorway, a pleasant dusting of flour gracing her forehead and dress. Madeline felt a surge of panic, her lovely clear frame of mind almost instantly forgotten. Her head managed a nod, “Yes. It’s Madeline.”
“Elliot, love?” A muted call answered, and Madeline watched on in silent horror as the lovely little thing continued, “Madeline’s here. Get her a spare coat, would you? He won’t be a minute, dear,” she assured Madeline, “and I’d best get back to my cake; this one's a fussy one.”
As Elliot’s mother disappeared, Madeline stared after her in shock. For a few prolonged seconds, she stood fidgeting, unable to manage anything else. And then she remembered a vague version of her plan, immediately turning on her heel and scurrying towards the park that seemed so enticing.
“Wait up Grey,” Elliot’s voice made her stumble yet again. He seemed to have magicked himself a miserably close distance to herself. Oh piss! The git had horrible timing! Half a moment longer and she wouldn’t have had to so much as admit she’d been in the vicinity, well, at least that she had been hoping to see him. Not that she had ever hoped to see him, not past her short lived moment of utter desperateness. As it was now, she didn’t feel she wanted to see him at all, so she kept running.
“I’m off to the park,” she called faintly, deciding it would be best if she didn’t take the time to explain.
Thankfully, her feet agreed to co-operate, taking her along the pavement as though the action was completely normal. It wasn’t really, Madeline was increasingly aware that she was jogging along with untied laces to a park, at half-light. The appearance of a long-limbed youth at her side certainly didn’t help with images of normality, so she tried to ignore it. But slow-motion seemed to take hold, and it wasn’t overly out of place for her to roll her eyes as she took note of Elliot’s apron accompanying him for the quaint spot of exercise they both seemed to be participating in.
“The park you say?” he asked casually, which was quite infuriating in itself-surely he had a few issues with how the scene was playing out. Madeline certainly did. She honestly couldn’t see the point of jogging all the way to the park to avoid Elliot if Elliot was merely going to jog alongside.
Finally with a reluctant sigh, she stopped. Turning to look at him, only to find herself glaring, “Yes. I like the park. It’s a nice park.”
“Were you coming to ask me if I wanted to come and play?” Elliot asked, his mouth adopting it’s crooked grin, “Because it’s getting dark out, which means some games are more suitable than others.”
Madeline felt her eyes widen with disbelief and was momentarily stuck with the unamusing idea that she probably looked like a bulging-eyed beetroot. She peered at him through the growing darkness, wondering if that was why he seemed to be so painfully close to laughing outright. She was a vegetable. And he was being suggestive. Merlin save her!
“Arms out,” he ordered cheerfully, catching Madeline with surprise as he smoothly slid a jacket over her soggy jumper. “Mum’s the word,” was all he offered her, untying his apron and slinging it over his shoulder. He fixed her with a triumphantly amused expression, indicating with his hand that she should lead the way, causing Madeline to feel more like a flustered beetroot than before. How on Earth was she meant to be rid of such an eager companion? It was daunting really, and her shoulders slumped a little with the realisation that her lovely, empty destination would now be otherwise occupied.
“You don’t need to come,” she exclaimed, “It’s awful cold out, and I sort of forgot what day it is. You and your mother, you're probably-"
"Nah," he shrugged, "She's famous for her Boxing Day feast, today is for last minute cooking."
"Oh, well, anyway, you know perfectly well that I won't be-"
“Wandering around on your own at night.” Elliot sighed, thrusting his hands into his pockets, “Am I allowed to ask why we’re wandering around at night?”
“Absolutely not,” Madeline answered firmly, feeling oddly amused as a small smile slipped onto her lips, “There’s no fun in that.”
“Some people seem to find mental stability fun, you could always give it a go.”
“Stop avoiding things.”
"I did! For a few minutes anyway, and now it's all much messier." She sighed. "I feel like might as well have run up and down the table tipping dinner on their heads."
"You're a lovely little nutter, Maddy Grey."
“Your compliments aren't exactly top-notch,” Madeline commented as they paused by the park, wrapping her arms around herself as she glanced skyward. The drizzle had stopped momentarily without her noticing, leaving the air deliciously fresh and untouched. She fancied she was lucky enough to be the very first to breathe it. Unable to feel anything but animated after such a thought, she threw Elliot an impish grin and darted across the shadow-strewn grass, allowing herself to fall gleefully onto the seat of her much-awaited swing. It was unavoidably wet, but Madeline only distantly acknowledged it. She didn’t mind being damp. Soggy was an entirely different thing, of course.
Elliot propped himself against the swing’s frame, his hands still buried in his pockets as he tilted his head upwards. Madeline watched him for a minute, trying to decide if the silence was a silence that mattered as she squeaked to and fro on rusty chains. He glanced at her, the corner of his mouth quirking. He winked easily and turned away again, humming the pleasantly familiar tune that always seemed to be on his lips. Madeline relaxed, absorbing herself in the wonderful soaring rush that filled her each time she sank towards the ground.
“Alice likes that song,” she said absentmindedly after a few minutes of silence, leaning backwards to watch the cloudy sky slide back and forth above her.
“She’s clearly got good taste,” said Elliot, his tone causing Madeline to glance over, slightly confused. He caught her look and sighed softly, a hand rising to mess his hair as he sat on the swing beside her. “Glad it’s nearly over, then?”
Madeline merely nodded, not knowing what to say to encourage a lighter tangent. She bit her lip, looking down at her feet as they skimmed across the ground. She was barely air-borne now, lacking the will to propel herself any higher. It was his fault. The last thing she wanted was a serious Elliot. Elliot wasn’t supposed to be serious. Not now. Not ever. But especially not now.
“I’d rather you didn’t say anything,” she stopped him, suddenly knowing with sinking dread what he meant. “Too late, too soon, I don’t know which one. But I’ll be gone tomorrow, and it won’t matter anyway.”
“How do you know it won’t?” he asked with his usual humoured lilt, to Madeline’s relief. He turned his head to glance across at her, his elbows still propped on his knees.
“You have some way of knowing it will?”
Elliot shrugged, his grin reappearing, “Life, Maddy. You go back to school assuming you’ll never see me again, and I’ll guarantee I’ll see you later.”