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Winner Takes All by Violet Gryfindor
Chapter 9: Always Staying Low
chapter image by black magic.
Day Five & Six
No More Ace to Play
Rose stood outside the door of a block of flats, peering at the names and cursing herself that she could not remember the necessary floor number. Vinny lived in this building, she was sure... or she had been two years ago. There had been no mention of a move, but Rose had never bothered to read the remaining letters, making her six months behind the times. It was becoming a constant inhabitant to her sanity.
It was dark now, too. She’d wandered around through the Muggle streets a while, sorting out the things in her head, all the things that had gone wrong or were very close to going wrong. There were far more of the former than the latter.
Perhaps that was a good thing. It meant that there couldn’t be much more to go wrong.
Ah, there it was. Vinny’s name, clear as day. The lucky witch lived in a penthouse. That’s what happened when you came from money and made a good bit of it yourself.
Buzz. Buzz. It wasn’t that late at night. She should be–
Oh. Asleep. Now woken by the inconsiderate best friend.
“Hi Vinny. It’s Rose.”
“Rose? What? Everyone’s loo–”
“Meriln, no.” Rose put her head in her hands. “Just let me up. Please.”
The buzzer emitted a high-pitched wail and the lock clicked open. The elevator was impossibly slow, its gleaming brass failing to impress its single distracted occupant. What a family she had! She could not appreciate their efforts to constrain and smother her with their love. It was better when they were a continent apart.
There were a grand total of two flats on this floor, and since the door to one of these flats was already open, its owner bouncing from one leg to the other, Rose had no difficulty in finding the correct one.
“Rose! Albus was worried about you.” Vinny stepped back from the doorway.
Albus? He worried about most things, so worrying about her was nothing particularly special. Unless–
“But since you came here, I expect you don’t want me to tell anyone. The sofa is free, you know that already.” Vinny entered the kitchen, letting Rose trail in behind her. “Are you hungry? You usually are.”
Thank you for that.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” Vinny turned suddenly, a serious expression taking root. “Either way, I’m making tea. You still prefer red?”
Did she want to talk? She wasn’t sure herself. What would she say? Maybe I still love him, maybe I don’t, it’s hard to tell? The conversation following a statement like that was one she didn’t think she could handle at the moment. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the next day. Maybe never.
“Green now, if you have it. And I think it should wait.”
Vinny’s face crunched into a pitying smile. “Of course. You look like you need the rest.”
Now that was suspicious. Vinny being conciliatory. Agreeable. Not correcting every statement for grammar, punctuation, and literary potential. Albus would be stunned. Unless– But that wouldn’t happen. Rose laughed it off.
“What’s that?” Vinny stared as though Rose had gone mad.
Which she obviously had.
Rose straightened out her face, if not her sanity. “Yes, yes, fine. Where do I sleep?”
Vinny shoved her toward the sofa. “Where else?”
Three cups of tea and a slice of cake later, Rose lay staring at the ceiling, her stomach doing backward somersaults over that triple chocolate cheesecake (another poor life choice in a long string of them). The company had meant far more to her, though she was still unsure about the alterations in Vinny’s character. No more loud outbursts, talking over you at random moments, or staring off into space while you tried to tell her something important. The highly opinionated and severely stubborn individual remained, but all that politeness... Rose wasn’t sure if she could take it.
It was also very quiet in Vinny’s building, occupied mostly by young executives. Even in China there was always something making noise, little things that made one feel less alone, less isolated from the world.
Which is what Rose was. Isolated. Voluntarily.
She put her hands behind her head and continued to stare at the ceiling. Maybe the answers to her problem would magically appear, telling her exactly what she should do next, who she should trust and who she should cast off.
His name echoed in her mind.
What was she to do with him? Or rather, her feelings for him. What where they, to begin with? Love or hate? Pity or jealousy? If she could not resolve that, then she could never walk away from this without that lingering hint of despair, the possibility that she has made a mistake. It was the possibility that inflicted the deepest wound. Not certainty, possibility.
There was too much going on around her, so much that she did not understand and did not know the origin of, not completely. Not enough to satisfy her... no, it was not curiosity, but comfort. To know was to be in control.
Something she had learned from her mother. Perhaps the only thing.
There were only two days until the wedding. Scorpius’s wedding. To Lily.
Rose looked at the clock.
Tomorrow. One. Single. Day.
They must have already done the rehearsal. The clothing would all be in place, hanging on hangers, awaiting their bearers. Lily would be rushing about, whining about how nothing was just as she wanted it to be. She hadn’t lost enough weight. Her hair wasn’t the right texture. Her makeup simply wasn’t good enough. Her parents would be rolling their eyes and doing their best while her brothers also rolled their eyes and tried to pretend that they were not involved.
And Scorpius? What would he be doing?
Rose could picture him in Malfoy Manor, standing in the rose garden, staring down at the bench where he had proposed to Rose. Not to Lily, though, the place being too filled with Rose, the fragrant blooms at each moment reminding Lily of the footsteps she followed, of the cousin whom she was betraying.
No, no, Rose. Too strong a word.
She could not blame Lily for this. Even Scorpius... a lying, cheating bastard, but Rose had willingly let him go, walked away at his proposal, knowing deep in the brain that he would never wait for her. Why would he? He was a Malfoy, for Merlin’s sake! What else could she have expected? Certainly not a miracle.
Sitting up now, head in hands, Rose swallowed back a barrage of tears.
“What were you going to tell me? What were you going to say?”
The words came out of her unbidden. She had not even been thinking about that conversation earlier... no, yesterday it was. Oh the time passing....
But what had Scorpius been trying to tell her? Curse her father for appearing just at the critical moment. It was so like him. So like any one of her family members to barge in right when they were least wanted. They simply would not let her care for herself. She wasn’t a teenager anymore. Why couldn’t they see that?
“Rose? Where you talking?”
Vinny was in the doorway, tying the belt of her dressing gown. The vibrant red of its silk caught Rose’s eye even in the darkness of the room. Lightly stepping around the furniture with bare feet, Vinny plopped down on the couch next to Rose, who gave a glum smile.
“It was me. Talking to myself.”
“You used to do that a lot.” Vinny leaned back, one arm draped over the back of the sofa.
Rose stared down at her hands. “When?” She half-expected to receive laughter as her only reply, knowing full well when she used to talk to herself. Mostly at night. Only when she had begun to fall for Scorpius Malfoy.
“Fifth year. I had to put the silencing charm on you so that we could get some sleep.”
Scrunching her brow, Rose twisted to look at Vinny.
“That’s talking in your sleep. It’s an unconscious thing.”
“And talking to yourself isn’t?”
Rose leaned back in the opposite corner of the sofa, staring hard at Vinny. It was easy to fall into the old banter, the quick conversations that bounced back and forth like endless tennis matches, the ball never falling out of the court.
“No, definitely not.” She allowed herself a little grin.
Vinny did not allow herself such a luxury. “You’re entitled, actually, seeing how you’ve been treated lately. It’d make any reasonable person go mad.”
Rose shrugged carelessly. “Too bad I’m unreasonable.”
There was a long moment of silence before Vinny placed a hand on Rose’s shoulder.
“You never change, do you, Rose? Even with all this, you still laugh it off.” She leaned forward, looking into Rose’s face. “Or do you, inside?”
Fists clenching, Rose could only say, “Just like my mother, then, aren’t I?”
Now the silence lasted longer, the clock’s ticking pulling out the seconds, longer and longer. Rose’s mouth felt dry, so she did not speak. Her lips would stick together, her voice would fail her.
Vinny stared at the back of Rose’s head.
The seconds ticked past.
Rose at last let out a choking sigh.
“Are you ready to talk?” Vinny knew how to bide her time.
Rose started to nod, then remembering the darkness, whispered, “Yes.”
Rose was not expected to see the morning, the too-long day and too-late night crashing down on her consciousness. Indeed, she was in the deepest of slumbers (outside of death) when a merciless hand came down on the door, once, twice, then again and again, the sound echoing through her already-battered brain.
She sat up, glaring at the door, hand on her forehead, when Vinny whisked into the room to snatch up Rose’s pillow and blanket.
“Up, now.” She spoke under her breath as she bent over. “Out to the spare room, your clothes are there.”
Rose blinked once, then again.
“What?” She closed her mouth quickly, feeling the most disgusting taste on her tongue.
“Albus. He’s here.”
“Vinny? Are you naked or something?” Albus’s voice cut through the air like an unforgivable curse.
Turning back to the door, one hand gesturing Rose toward the spare room, Vinny called out in a sing-song voice, “Coming! You caught me in the loo.”
“Too much information,” came his reply, equally light.
Rose made herself scarce, shutting the door as quietly as she could behind her. Slipping on her robes, and rather wishing she’d brought her toothbrush, she tried to listen in on what was occurring on the other side of the door.
Vinny had opened the door to her flat, but that hadn’t stopped Albus from continuing his loud verbal complaints.
He entered the room with careful steps. “That took longer than usual. Are you feeling alright, or did you run out on the town without me?”
Rose could imagine his eyes wandering about the room, seeking clues. It was too bloody obvious why he was there. What she really wondered about was his treatment of Vinny. Since when had they been so... so... odd together? It was much easier when they glared at one another over Rose’s head.
She tip-toed to the mirror, smoothing down her hair with a shaking hand. Pulling the miscreant down to her eyeline, she screwed up her face. That scared, was she? Scared of her own cousin, one of her best friends? Or rather scared that he would take one look at her and see everything. Her eyes moved to her reflection. Talking to Vinny had been... helpful in its own way, but at the same time, speaking the words into being had made them all the more real. She could tell herself over and over again that she was well and truly over Scorpius, but late at night, after too long a time of silence, out had come all her uncertainty, pouring like a leaky faucet.
Rose put her head against the mirror and took in a deep breath.
Albus’s sixth (or was it seventh?) sense was at work.
“You don’t often keep that door closed? Any guests?” His voice had sharpened.
Rose moved toward the window and peeked out. Yes, yes, Vinny was a genius. Her building was one of those lovely refurbished warehouses, and to add to the historical appeal, the developers had constructed a wrought-iron fire escape. A little noisy, but it would give her enough time and distance to get her appartated before Albus could place a tracking charm on her.
Probably not legal, but her father was the persistent type.
“There was a noise coming from outside, so I closed it to block it out a bit.” Vinny wasn’t the best at lying, however clever and hard-to-get she played. She didn’t sound quite so convinced, and Rose knew that if Albus asked what that noise had been, Vinny would have shown the lie.
“It should be done now, though, don’t you think?”
So, that made it time to go. Rose wasn’t just going to walk out to her cousin, much as she hated running from him, because if there was one person worse at lying than anyone else she knew, it was Albus. As bad as his father, and nothing like his sister.
There were steps toward the door. Someone with shoes on, so definitely Albus.
Rose pushed open the window. Thankfully new, it made no sound.
“Do you prefer that bed, Albus?” Vinny’s bare feet joined him, slowly, delicately.
Yes, definitely time to go, Rose.
Never had she thought that they... Merlin, that her friends would.... She turned to look at the bed. That they would.... here. Ugh.
She slid out onto the window sill without trouble, but the moment she let go, the frame slammed down. Her eyes widened, the door to the room flung open, and she met Albus’s eyes. Vinny’s entrance to the room made (literally forced him) to look away. Only then could Rose move, but running down the fire escape, the iron clanging under her feet, the rail cold and sharp on her hands.
Gripping the rail with both hands, she turned her head to see him above, still at the window, staring down, his mouth twisted in too many emotions to name. Her feet continued beneath her, pulling her down, down, away.
“Ler her go.”
Vinny pulled him back into the room, his face screwing up in complaint.
Rose fell into the pavement, her hands scraping against the stone and tar, she cursing its existence – you’d think they’d put grass under these things – as she brought out her wand. A bit of parchment fell out with it, floating to the ground.
She stared at it, small, crumbled, yellowed, the ink bleeding through.
The window above slammed shut, reminding her that, if she didn’t move now, likely Albus would catch her up when he was on his way out... after he’d done whatever he needed to–
Ugh, Rose, stop making your brain go that way.
She grabbed it and ran, her eyes glancing across it as she went. An address, that was all, no name, nothing else, but Rose didn’t need anything else. She knew whose it was. She’d spent many days and nights under that roof, staying with the other cousin, the one who wasn’t a cousin at all and the aunt who was related so distantly that Rose too easily lost track.
Close eyes. Turn in a circle. Arrive in the back garden of an old farmhouse, thatched roof and all. This garden included a man pulling out weeds, his shirt plastered to his back, his hair dampened, making it a darker... red? Since when did he–?
Teddy looked up.
“You’re standing on a petunia.”
Rose flushed. “Oh, sorry.” She hopped off the offended flower.
“Still haven’t mastered the art of landing?” He’d bent down to retrieve his bucket of weeds. “Then again, this used to be the play area.”
A miniscule smile appeared on his face.
“My grandmother dreaded the days when the Weasley clan descended.”
Rose stepped onto the lawn. “Who can blame her? It must have been like having dragons invade her home.”
Teddy looked upwards, his brow furrowed. “I don’t know about dragons. Perhaps knarls would be a more appropriate comparison. They have about the same effect in a garden as you and your cousins did.”
She made a face and he laughed.
In revenge, she pointed to his hair. “Since when were you trying to become a Weasley?”
He tugged on the offending locks. “Hmm. Wonder how that happened.”
Maybe you were thinking about your wife, she thought, trying to maintain a neutral expression. She could also still see the ring on his finger, the silver band catching the sunlight.
He was staring at her now, halfway across the garden and wondering why she wasn’t following. He had probably said something to her too about getting a drink and why was she so red and out of breath?
“Um, yes, sure.”
As he stared at her, entirely unconvinced – well, there was really nothing to be convinced by in her behaviour – his hair darkened to its normal brown. Or was it that he dulled to its normal shade? Rose was losing track of too much in her head, leaving her with very little to grasp on to. She stumbled over to him, suddenly feeling the fatigue of sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, and having evaded capture by an Auror.
All in a day’s work.
Rose started when Teddy put his arm around her shoulders, having returned to save her from the mire of her existence.
“What you need, Rosie, is coffee. Its magical powers never fail.”
She nodded dumbly and mimicked his footsteps across the lawn and into the kitchen.
Two cups of espresso later, she blinked and sat back in her chair.
“Where’s your grandmother, anyway?”
Teddy had been in the midst of discussing some odd poetical theory. Although Rose had absolutely no clue what he was talking about, she did rather like the sound of his voice.
He raised his eyebrows, pausing mid-way with his cup to his mouth.
“She’s out with Aunt Narcissa.”
Now it was Rose’s turn to raise eyebrows. “What?!”
Teddy pressed his lips together, eyes glaring a warning.
Letting out a breath, Rose took another sip of coffee, pausing afterward to swish the liquid in her cup around and around.
“Because she refuses to believe her beloved grandson would marry a Potter or that she’s on a giant shopping trip for the new granddaughter.” She praised herself for the level voice and stone-like face. Totally unlike her, but what choice did she have? It was either be a rock or a puddle, and no one likes to be a puddle.
Teddy watched her, the ghost of a smile playing about his lips. His eyes were a little too sharp, their colour too deep. Rose felt a little mesmerised by them, unable to look away.
“Something like that,” he finally said, turning his gaze toward the window.
Rose continued with what remained in her cup, draining the last dregs and feeling her heart shudder in response. Such lovely strong stuff, making her brain finally move at a decent rate. Following Teddy’s gaze into the garden, she took in the various flowers, reciting their names under her breath.
Petunias. One slightly squished.
Daisies. Starting to unfurl.
Roses. Bloodied by their own thorns.
And the lilies.
orange and yellow blooms showing their faces to the sun, standing taller than all the other flowers, and only lasting for a day. Just one day.
It was a strange thing to think about, the short bloom of the lily.
“Albus was here this morning.”
Teddy’s voice shattered her thoughts and they were gone.
“Your friend Virginia owled soon after to tell me that you were coming.”
Rose pursed her lips, trying to reason out the connection between these statements and between Albus, Vinny, and Teddy, three people who shouldn’t have been so well-connected.
“What’s going on between you and them, Ted? I don’t understand it.”
He rose, clanging the cups together as he gathered them and walked to the sink, choosing water over wand for the washing. It made more noise, drowning out any answer he could have given and any additional questions she could have posed.
It was hopeless. Rose looked out the window some more, watching the plants move about in the breeze like people on a busy street.
“So do I stay here, then?” she asked once he’d finished his task.
Teddy did not turn around when he answered. “Yes, as long as you’d like.”
Rose tapped her fingers on the table in an uneven rhythm. “Really? I don’t think your grandmother would approve. There’s nothing worse than–”
He turned, still grasping a dish cloth. “– a Weasley on the run. Yes, I’ve heard that one.”
“Does anyone know that I’m here? Other than Vinny.” Her voice grew serious now that he’d taken the wind out of her sails with that old war joke.
He wiped the last droplets from a cup. “No. It’s better that way, don’t you agree?”
Rose frowned, the frown loosening into a pensive expression that further transformed into an acquiescent shrug. “It’s what everyone else has been trying to do, but maybe you’ll be successful at it.”
“Because I’m not related to you?”
She smiled, and that said it all.
The silence of the place was a softer one, not glaring with loneliness or heavy with gravity. It was just a plain old normal silence, the kind that one sought after at the end of a long, trying day, or in Rose’s case, a long trying week. So long, yet so short. She still had what Muggles called “jet lag” and hadn’t finished – started? – unpacking her things.
Well, that was because she’d be going away again soon, back to her work. There had been no owls from Zhang, requesting her return. There likely wouldn’t be for another week, or even two.
“After that time in the mountains, you need good rest,” he’d told her when she’d asked leave to return home.
Oh yes, great rest at home. Those six months had nothing on these last six days.
Teddy had gone outside to finish up in the garden, pulling out weeds and chasing the gnomes away with stunning spells. Scorpius also worked in the garden, but only to spend time with the roses, removing the dead flowers so that more would appear. It was a delicate task, perfectly suitable for him.
It was much more amusing to watch Teddy. The gnomes were stubborn little things, leaping into their holes as soon as his wand pointed in their direction. Sleeves rolled up, muscles visible under his clothes, he didn’t look like a poet. Not that she had ever known a poet before, but she’d seen them in her mother’s Muggle books. They always looked so bookish, like a butterfly could shove them aside.
Teddy did stop to watch a butterfly flutter past. It fluttered around his head, then made a beeline to the nearest flower, and he continued working.
Rose drifted away from the window, passing through the sitting room, only to pause before a collection of photographs. Teddy looked more like his father, except for the ability to smile, which Remus Lupin couldn’t even do in his own wedding picture no matter how often his bride threw her arms around him.
She wasn’t beautiful; he wasn’t handsome. But they looked right together. How odd.
Normality had its benefits, she supposed.
Scorpius and Lily would be anything but normal. Their smiles in the photos would be mildly forced, their pose stiff, their clothes the most fashionable, the most perfect ever made – neither Lily nor Mrs. Malfoy would demand any less – flowers draped about them as the sun shone happily upon their union....
Ugh. What an image.
Society weddings could be fun for no one.
She sighed and tore herself away from those thoughts. She wanted to avoid returning to her self-pitying mood, moping around everywhere whining about how horrible the two of them were. It really wasn’t worth it.
Scorpius wasn’t worth it.
Her future was worth too much, depending on what future that ended up being.
She walked into a stool, falling head over heals onto the floor with a crash. This was, a minute later, followed by another crash as the door was shoved open and shut.
Head spinning, she sat up and made an unintelligible noise. She stared past him, her lips shaping words without speaking them. He could guess at the words, the names that were trapped within her mind, the things that she would never say, even to those closest to her.
She only saw him when he moved to rise. To leave her. He disappeared from her vision, only to reappear some moments later with a cloth filled with ice in his hands. Instead of placing it within her hands, he held it to her head himself, his other arm around her shoulders.
“You make a very good show of it, pretending not to care.” He looked down at her, his voice not as steady as it should have been. “You can fool most people, but even they have to see why you returned to Britain.”
Beyond the stars in her eyes, Rose could not have seen how pale he was, how the skin around his eyes was puckered, and his jaw held stiffly shut. She felt him move, knowing that he was pondering the reason why she had fallen over an obviously visible piece of furniture, the stool he sat upon to write his poetry, hunched over the tiny desk.
Why would she have gotten that image of him? Didn’t poets sit beneath the stars, seeing the next line written in the sky above? Yet there was something in the roundness of his shoulders that made her imagine him like that, torturing over every word.
“My parents?” he mused. “I suppose anything referring to a wedding would make you think of Lily’s impending doom.”
Rose shifted beside him, stiffening in distaste, but she did not speak. Whether it was a would not or could not, even she could not decide which was true.
“It is a doom,” Teddy continued, his face relaxing. “And it would have been the same for you.” He let out a quiet laugh. “It must be an issue with marrying someone with blond hair, wouldn’t you agree?” His arm tightened around her as he laughed.
She turned her face upward to see his face.
He stopped laughing.
Their faces were too close, closer than either had expected. Rose still felt dazed, her head spinning more as her breath quickened, her heart beating too quickly, faster than she could remember it ever going before.
It was just from the fall. It had to be.
Except that he was experiencing the same problem.
There was no noise to snap them into consciousness, no interruption of nosy relatives, only the timing of this moment in the course of their lives.
It was not right, not now.
She blinked, and he was gone, the ice melting in her hand.