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The man is wearing a cloak that whispers. It is barely audible, but the dark material floats around his ankles with an unfair grace. It is as though someone is breathing into it, but the man is alone, merely a silhouette against the glowing electric lights penetrating the two glass doors. He glances up, his hood falling back slightly, his eyes hungrily scanning the numerous windows, most of them extinguished, all stacked upon one another hurriedly as they climb into the sky.
With a lazy flick of his wand, the glass doors unlock, swinging forward as though a powerful wind has ripped them open. He walks through them swiftly, his whispering cloak trailing behind him, making ghostly ripples through the air. The delicate, stubbly man from behind the security desk jumps up in alarm, but with another effortless twitch, his skinny body is propelled backwards. It hits the floor with a quiet, coughing noise and lies still.
The man ascends with similar ease and reaches his destination quickly. Flat three hundred-four is bright for the hour it is, a humming television set illuminating the walls harshly. A middle-aged woman is seated before it, watching it with sleepy eyes, a tub of ice cream in her lap. As the door clicks open, her head turns abruptly, and she squints as the light from the corridor tumbles onto the carpet. But the sight of the hooded figure coming toward her tells her something is wrong. She backs away, the blankets tangling around her, until she is touching the arm of the couch.
“Hello?” she calls feebly.
The man doesn’t answer. Instead, he lifts what looks to her like a mangled twig and points it at her. “Avada Kedavra!”
There is a flash of green that drowns the stuttering blues of the tele, drowning the woman as it sweeps through the night.
“Oscar, stop!” I say hastily through my teeth, glancing quickly behind me as his lips peck at my neck. They are wet and cold, and I don’t like them. I shrug my shoulder up to my jaw in an attempt to shield the skin he is so desperately trying to nibble at. He feels this, and steps away, looking at me as though my face has spontaneously Transfigured into that of an oddly mutilated cat.
“Why?” he asks, frowning. “I thought you liked it.”
I curse myself silently. He’s going to whine now, as he always does, and throw a whole damn tantrum, and my patience is running low as it is.
“I do like it,” I insist cautiously, wishing he wasn’t so close.
He grins his stupid grin that reminds me of a circus clown and leans forward. I see his nose coming toward me, about to poke a hole in my face. I turn my head abruptly, so his lips come crashing onto my cheek instead. I press my hands against him, trying to push him away. At this he makes a guttural sound of disapproval, and my eyes dart quickly down the isle for any heads peeking out from around the shelves.
“You said you liked it!” he whines, his face looking dejected, and I can’t tell if he’s serious or not.
I sigh. My voice is strained. “Oscar, I do…” I look at him helplessly. “Just…not here, okay? It’s early, and my boss is roaming around here somewhere, and he’s been looking for an excuse to sack me for ages.” Mr. Drabbleblatt is an awful man, I’ve come to find, who has an atrociously large nose he likes to stick in the air as he prowls. His face is round and pink, and his eyes are beady, and he cannot walk without waddling, which makes him look something like a hybrid creature between a penguin and a pig. I like him just as much as he likes me. Surely he would hex me the hell out of Flourish and Blott’s in seconds if he caught me snogging, working or not.
Oscar seems defeated, but he backs away, and I let my breath out steadily through my nose, hoping he won’t hear it. I turn back to the shelf of dusty books Drabbleblatt has told me to arrange, the damn beast. He’s purposely given me the biting ones, I’m sure of it.
“Why does he hate you so much?” Oscar asks, his eyebrows drawn together. “I mean, you’re too beautiful…”
I try my best not to cringe, for I know Oscar is watching me carefully. “I dunno,” I say, my voice turning sour as the spine of Slithering Slugs and Spike-Tailed Snails hisses at me. “I exploded some books in his face the first week or something.”
Oscar’s mouth drops open, and I can tell it is forced because his mouth is open far too wide. “No!” he exclaims, his voice purposely giving away the already obvious fact that he is, in actuality, not surprised. He is joking, but it only bothers me. “Bellie, you couldn’t have!” For some reason, I want to shout at him. “You’re much too perfect.”
That horrible, silly grin on his mouth, he makes a move to grab my waist, but I slap his hand down, rounding on him, my eyes dangerous. Alarm flicks across his face, and he backs away, his arms raised near his head, his palms out in apology. The moment is tense suddenly, and I panic. The sadness on his face is far more sincere than it had been the last time. A dreadful pang of sympathy leaks into me, and I let the air out of my lungs. It rushes quickly from my lips, a few strands of blonde hair flying away in the gust.
“Sorry,” I say quietly, even though I don’t feel I should apologize. “Here, just…pretend you’re a customer asking me for help.” What I really wish is that he’d pretend not to be there at all, that he’d go away, but I hold those words inside of me.
His face lights up at the idea, but flickers the way a candle might. “All right,” he chirps. He clears his throat loudly, and I wince, praying the noise doesn’t carry to wherever Drabbleblatt is lurking. “Excuse me, lovely miss?”
I look over at him weakly. He grins.
“Where might I find a book on love potions? You see, my girlfriend doesn’t love me anymore.”
Something tightens inside of me. “For Merlin’s sake!” I snap. I am livid. “Just because I don’t want you to be trying to eat my neck right now doesn’t mean I don’t love you!”
At least it makes the grin go away.
“Whatever,” he says, his face emotionless now. He makes a move to go, brushing past me briskly.
“Oh, Oscar, don’t— ”
But he turns around before I can continue, saying, “Just meet me down at Fortescue’s later, then? I’m working late tonight.”
I don’t respond, but he is already leaving the maze of shelves encasing us, his hair bouncing on his shoulders in his stride. I watch him go, fighting to keep my anger from bursting out of my throat. Damn him.
He disappears, and I let out a groan. I lean against the bookshelf, my forehead against the wood, staring down at the grimy, scratched surface of the shelf below. As hard as I try not to feel it, guilt runs uncomfortably through my veins, which I know is what he wanted. I feel as though there is a rock in my chest.
There is a papery, snapping sound, and the book in my hand flaps about angrily. It’s covers open and shut rapidly, emitting a very awful growling noise, and it catches one of my fingers. A sharp pain runs through it as though the damn book has teeth. “Dammit!” I pull my hand away and push the covers together, stuffing the book onto the shelf, not caring if it hasn’t been alphabetized as Drabbleblatt has so meticulously insisted.
“Bastard,” I mutter, but I don’t know if I’m talking about the book or Oscar.
I finish stacking them slowly, fearful that Oscar is lingering around the front desk, waiting to pledge his damn love for me all over again. But when I emerge from the towers of shelves and dust, he is gone.
Flourish and Blott’s is empty, save for a small, screaming boy and his mother who is desperately trying to read to him The Happy Unicorn has Lost her Horn! by an author whose name is far too adorable for my liking. Gretchen is there, too, standing lazily behind the counter, her glasses so low on her nose that they look as though they’re trying to escape.
“Mirabelle,” she says quickly when she sees me. Her voice carries an uncomfortable urgency. It’s alarmingly different from its usual fake, bubbly tone that makes me wish she’d get sent to a nursing home already. “You’re in the Prophet.”
My eyebrows twist. “I am?”
She nods. “Your flat was attacked.”
I lunge for the paper and snatch it from her hands. I can feel her wrinkly eyes looking at me with disapproval.
“Well, not your flat, but a flat in your building,” she says. “Some Muggle woman. The Ministry reckons it was a Death Eater, naturally.” Her words are fast and excited, but they hardly reach my ears. I can barely hear over the tiny black words printed in blaring lines across the front page.
“I’ve got to go,” I tell her, dropping the paper back onto the counter. “Tell Drabbleblatt my uncle just died or something, will you?”
Before she can tell me otherwise, my bag is under my shoulder and I’m stepping out into the foggy, suffocating air of the morning. But the fog disappears before it can flood my lungs, and I am instead being squeezed and stretched through the sickening darkness of Apparition. The paleness of the flat flashes across my vision, and soon I am standing on the carpet, feeling like feathers.
There is a man on my couch.
He is sitting lazily in front of the telly, his neck bent backwards, his head resting against the wall. His spindly legs are stretched out, crossed at the ankle, and his naked feet are sitting very comfortably on the table. The face I remembered to be clean and sharp is now gaunt and grey. Dark bruises look as though they’ve been painted underneath his eyes, which have become ghostly wounds in his head. His hair is a pile of twigs and brambles. He looks dead.
But he is not, and he lets the remote drop from the spidery thing he has for a hand, and he stands, his face unsure as he looks at me, stuck and frozen in the place I’ve Apparated. Everything feels suddenly bare.
“Oh, you!” I move quickly, letting my bag drop on the floor, and I throw my arms around him. I feel him flinch, and I realize how frail his body is, but he is here. I let my eyes close, the empty white of the walls around me turning into a much warmer black, and I breathe against him. After a moment, his own arms snake around my waist, his hands locking at the small of my back. The side of his face digs into my scalp, and his head feels pleasantly heavy.
I stay silent, not knowing whether to yell at him or to fawn over him. I don’t know which he deserves more.
I wonder if he’s smiling.
“You remember me.” His voice is quiet and throaty, deteriorated like the rest of him. It sounds amused, the way it used to sound.
“Of course I do.”
His chest rises and falls as though it is shivering. Chuckles fall from his nose in airy gusts. They are soft, and they spill off the back of my neck. “Still pining for me, then?”
I think of a pine tree, a tall one, its needles sticking out like spears. “Certainly,” I reply, smirking. I move my cheek from his shoulder and shift to face him. “You didn’t expect anything less, I’m sure.”
He snorts. It sounds harsh, as though it’s hurt him.
I stand there for a moment, my lips burning, my eyes travelling rapidly over his haunted face. “What the hell are you doing here, Emory?”
He shrugs weakly. “I saw your name in the Prophet, which was convenient enough to describe where you live,” he explains as though it’s unimportant. “And I was looking for a place to stay, and seeing as you’re the only person on the damn planet who would do me such a favour, I decided I’d stop by for a little visit.”
My eyebrows raise. “You want to stay here?”
“I’m going to,” he affirms tersely, his gaze strong, as though he is trying to control me.
“Emory…” I let my hands fall from his shoulders, expecting him to move away, but he keeps his wrists locked firmly around my hips. “That’s hardly your decision…You can’t just arrive here and expect me to welcome—”
“But you don’t want me to go.” It is a statement. His voice is low. My words stop, and I look at him, my eyes flashing back and forth between his. He is dangerously close.
“No,” I answer at last, looking down. I feel like a skeleton.
His lips twitch. “Good.” He sounds content, and he drops his arms as though it’s finally safe to release me. I step away obediently.
“Where have you been?” I croak.
He hesitates, trapping air inside his mouth. The two dark holes in his head travel over me, considering me. The television groans in the background. “I’ve been about.”
My face screws up in an angry astonishment. “Rubbish. You’ve been gone for two damn years.”
Frustration bubbles to the surface of his skin, presenting itself on his withered face. “I’ve had things to do.” He turns from me, his hand reaching toward his pocket.
“I don’t believe you.”
I can see his jaw tense. “It’s none of your concern.” He draws his wand, and for a minute, I’m afraid he is going to hex me. He flicks it instead at a small bag he had left by the couch. It lifts into the air, hovering before him. It reminds me of a marionette. I feel like gagging.
I am beginning to grow as frustrated as he seems to be. He is ignoring me, which he isn’t supposed to be doing. He is supposed to be as excited to see me as I am to see him. He is not supposed to have harsh words and biting eyes that are already ripping chunks of my skin away.
“Emory, I thought you’d died.”
The bag falters in the air, as though it’s stumbled.
“Well, I’m here now, am I not?” he says lightly.
My voice raises. “Just admit you could have at least written me.”
He turns back to me again, his eyes red with annoyance. “I didn’t write, darling, because I didn’t have an owl,” he says caustically. “And I assure you even if I did, I was far too busy to write in the first place.”
Complete stupidity compels me to open my mouth again. “What the hell could you possibly have been doing that kept you so unbelievably busy you couldn’t even write something as simple as ‘Don’t worry, I’m alive,’ because frankly—”
“You ask a lot of damn questions, don’t you?” he fires, loud as me now. I stop, pushing my lips together firmly. His bag has lingered closer to me, and I realize how easily he could send it hurtling toward my head. “Now, should I send this straight to the bedroom, or do you have any place else you like you store luggage?” He breaks into an uneven, lingering grin, and I feel somewhat relieved.
“Well, I haven’t got another set of drawers…” I look at him weakly, but he ignores me and sends the bag tumbling past my face, shooting for the bedroom door. It lands on the bed with a puffy clunk.
“That’s all right,” he says pleasantly. I want to laugh. “I’ll use yours. I haven’t got much. It’ll fit.”
As much as I want to tell him off, I clench my teeth together, too afraid to fight him. I let him lope past me, and my eyes follow him as he disappears into the kitchen. I hear the door to the refrigerator open with a creaky protest. The noise that comes out of my mouth sounds like a balloon deflating, and I go after him. I come to a halt at the entrance and lean on the side of the doorframe. His head is gone, buried deep within the contents of my refrigerator, and his arms are flailing about, making bottles clink together as though he is conducting an orchestra.
“Damn, Tinkers…what the hell do you have in here besides milk?” he says, extracting his head. He turns to me, a frown smothered across his face the way jam is smeared on bread.
But I hardly see the frown. “You called me Tinkers,” I say, the corners of my mouth drawing up.
“I did…” he responds slowly, looking at me carefully. “Why, do you fancy I call you Tiger Lily?” he adds with a fluffy sarcasm that reminds me of some kind of french dessert.
I snicker, folding my arms across my chest. “No, Tinkers is fine. It’s wonderful, in fact,” I assure him, watching as he dips his head back into the refrigerator to hide a sly, triumphant grin. “I just haven’t heard it in a while…” And it is a relieving thing to hear. Emory’s version of my name is far more appealing than Oscar’s numerous ones, which never fail to make me think of unicorns and tea parties. At least Emory doesn’t say it as though he’s trying to hold a conversation with a newborn puppy.
“Aha!” he exclaims grandly, popping out of the refrigerator with a giddy look on his face. There is a small can in his hand, and he is holding it victoriously, as though it is a prize of some sort. My eyebrows rise considerably.
“You’re going to drink that? It’s eleven o’clock in the morning,” I say incredulously.
He shrugs, opening the can. “I haven’t had a beer in months.” He puts the metal to his lips and tips his head back, slurping and gulping at the liquid like it’s a fountain of youth. “Besides,” he says, slapping the can down on the counter, “it’s a celebration, isn’t it? I’m here now.” He spreads his arms as though he’s finished a brilliant performance and expects applause. “Haven’t you missed me?”
I don’t know why he doesn’t incense me. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Painfully.” He kicks the refrigerator door shut, slurps again at the ugly can of beer, and reaches up to open the cupboards. I try not to let it bother me.
“And you’ve missed me just as much, I’m sure?” I shoot at him playfully.
Boxes of food scrape around as he digs through them. “I haven’t had the time to miss anyone,” he explains simply. He pulls out a neat, red box of biscuits. “But if I had, you might have gotten a mention.” He looks at me now, seeming pleased.
“Right then.” I move my eyes to the floor and shift my weight to my feet. My arms swing down and hang awkwardly at my sides. “I’d best be off.” As much as I’d rather not leave, I don’t fancy the idea of Drabbleblatt deciding my head will be his next chew toy. “Just…try not to eat the walls, too…” I say, looking warily at the crumbs spewing out of his mouth.
He shrugs, swallowing the large mass in his mouth with noticeable difficulty.
“You promise you’ll be here when I get back?”
He looks at me, but out of reassurance or annoyance I can’t tell. “Just go, Tinkers.”
I do as he says, but I can’t help wondering if he wants to get rid of me. Perhaps there’s some woman he picked up earlier that morning hiding in my wardrobe, waiting until she hears the door shutting behind me to jump out and continue tickling him and purring at him. I leave hesitantly, too surprised by his sudden appearance to trust that he’ll stay, and shut the door as quietly as I can.
I follow the stairs to the lobby quickly, wary of the time I’ve been away from Flourish and Blotts, but hopeful for any bit of information about what the hell happened in the flat upstairs. The space is eerily silent, though the crowd is considerably larger. People are walking about nervously, not knowing exactly where to go, taking careful steps as though the floor will open up beneath them if they set their feet down too forcefully. Some faces hold a blankness that makes me want to look away, while others hold a sombre look of excitement that reaps around when something dramatic and mysterious occurs. The majority, however, carry a heavy devastation, their eyes downcast, huddled in small groups of heads buried in circles.
I walk past them awkwardly, feeling like I’ve been misplaced. The ceilings seem lower and the walls seem tighter, and yet there is an unbelievable amount of space between everyone, as though no one wants to touch the other.
“Some disease, I heard it was,” a woman says enthusiastically to her friends as I pass their small group. “Killed her and her little boy! Just like that!”
Others have similar ideas. The words ‘carbon monoxide’ and ‘poison’ float around, burrowing themselves in my ears. Of course, they aren’t the right words, just the ones the Muggle police had released. I turn around, moving instead toward the stairs, to flat one hundred seventy-two. The door is locked, but after knocking a few times, it opens. A face peeks out and a hurried hand beckons me in, and I slip through to the quiet space inside.
“I was waiting for you to show,” the face says, speaking quietly. “You’re all right, then?” Her voice is sincere and comforting.
“Yeah,” I reply, nodding, watching as she moves dark hair away from her eyes. I notice the dark circles that are never usually there. “Yeah, I’m fine. I didn’t have any idea anything had even happened. I Apparated straight to work. Didn’t hear anything until I got a hold of the paper…”
She shakes her head, looking over at a small girl sitting at a small table who is trying to eat a bowl of soup with her fingers. “We saw the Dark Mark,” she says abruptly.
My eyes widen. “You did?”
“Well, Bert did,” she says, lowering her voice so her daughter won’t hear. “Eliza had woken up, so Bert went to take her out in the pushchair to make her go back to sleep…And he came straight back yelling ‘Helen! Helen!’” She throws her arms in the air, waving them in a frantic imitation of her husband.
I stand quietly, waiting for her to continue. “We alerted the Ministry, and they told us not to worry, but I’ve been worried anyway…”
Pressure ripples through my shoulders like knots. “You reckon they were after one of us?” I ask nervously.
Helen’s eyebrows twist, her eyes becoming fearful. “I’ve been asking myself the same thing.” She takes a shaky breath, looking to Eliza again. “I just can’t imagine…” She shakes her head again, this time more violently, trying to make thoughts fall out of her mind. “It’s not like You-Know-Who to make a mistake, though, if it was supposed to be one of us. But I don’t know what he wants with all of these Muggles.”
She looks upset by this, and I wait for her to calm, and I can tell she feels as small as I feel. “D’you think you’re going to leave?” I inquire hesitantly, feeling like the light coming from the window is too bright.
She groans, her body tipping backwards until she rests against the wall. “I want to, but Bert doesn’t fancy us going to stay with his mother. And he says the Ministry can offer us full protection here, so we’d be safer if we didn’t go anywhere, but—”
There is a loud clattering, which is moulds into the bouncing shrieks of Eliza’s crying. I turn my head to see a messy, overturned bowl of soup and a beautiful orange painting across the girl’s shirt.
“Mummy!” she cries, holding her soup-stained hands in the air and kicking her feet in frustration.
Helen rolls her eyes and walks quickly to her child. She kneels down and grabs the girls flailing hands. “Shush, Lizey. Oooh, yes, that’s hot, I know. Look!” She pulls out her wand and waves it in front of Eliza’s face. “Look what Mummy has! Watch!” She moves it around in the air, and the girl calms as the liquid disappears. “See? All better!”
I use this as an excuse to leave. I catch Helen’s eye and gesture to the door. She nods, saying quickly, “Oh, Mirabelle, I’ve got a Sneakoscope by the door there, see?” She extends a large arm to a stubby table that looks to have been carved by an elephant. A fruit bowl sits upon it, which holds numerous clips and keys. I spot the Sneakoscope among the pile and grab it. “That one,” Helen affirms. “Take it. Bert’s bringing home twenty, he said. Good thing to have with everything happening.”
I thank her and slip outside as Eliza begins crying again. I put the odd top-like object in my handbag, and I think of Emory. My stomach lurches. He is like a new toy—a horrifying, beautiful, exciting one I cannot get out of my head. He is in my home. He is waiting for me. I wonder if it’s a trick.
And when I open the door to the dusty air of Flourish and Blotts and hear Drabbleblatt’s angry “Miss Carter!” said as though he’s an old woman trying to give me detention upon my obvious and illegal return, it only bothers me because staying late at work would give Emory more time to escape.
By the time Drabbleblatt releases me from the large, greedy shadow of his piggish snout, the sky is dark and the only person to have entered Flourish and Blotts in the past two hours had been his wife, who seemed to have recently discovered a beauty product to make her look more toad-like than ever before. She is a good deal taller than he is, and I escape quietly as he tries to beckon her down for a kiss.
Diagon Alley is quieter at than it had been during the day; most shoppers have retreated to bars. The sky is littered with bunchy, monotonous clouds, and there is a weak, sporadic breeze that makes the place seem abandoned. A parade of orange fliers tumbles around through the murkiness of the streets, and, on Gretchen’s orders due my recent circumstances, have organized themselves into clumps inside my bag. They are obnoxious pieces of paper the Ministry often decorates the entire wizarding world with whenever an attack occurs. They are adorned with large, black letters that spell the word “WARNING” as if no one has ever heard of You-Know-Who before.
As much as I would rather be Apparating home to see Emory, I step from the mild air outside to the cooler air of Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, a slow, sugary scent clogging up my nose. At the sound of the bell above the door, I see Oscar’s hair whip around from behind the counter. “Bellie!” he exclaims, his voice cracking.
“Hi,” I say, giving him a small smile.
He gallops over to me and binds me in his arms, kissing my cheek a few more times than necessary. “You okay?” he asks, pulling away and putting his hands on my arms.
“And your flat? Nothing’s happened to it?”
“No,” I tell him, shaking my head. “It’s fine.” I don’t tell him about Emory.
“You sure?” he asks again, drawing out the last word.
“Yes, Oscar.” I add a breathy laugh on the end of it so I don’t sound impatient. After what had happened between us in the morning, I feel I should be nice to him. There isn't any reason why he doesn't deserve it. “That’s why I didn’t get here earlier,” I continue. “I went to check on it after I heard of the attack, and Drabbleblatt discovered I’d left work without permission…” I let out an annoyed stream of air. “He made me work fourteen hours today and took away my break for the next week.”
Oscar frowns, his face drawing into a sincere look of sympathy. “Aww, Bellie,” he coos, stroking my face with the back of his finger. His skin is warm. The corners of my mouth lift up slightly. “I’m sorry.” And he is, which makes me feel better. “I could always just hex him for you, maybe so he can’t walk anymore?”
I smirk. “I thought I was the one who hexes people for you.”
He grins. “And so I owe you, My-Belle.”
I ignore the name he calls me. I try to laugh it off instead, but my throat is dry. “You couldn’t hex Drabbleblatt even if you had a whole team of Aurors behind you. He doesn’t even need magic. He’ll kill you with his teeth.” I look at him grimly.
He chuckles, pecking me on my nose. I let him, his lips not looking sharp and monstrous this time. He squeezes my arm gently, saying, “Florean told me to start closing up, and I was just about to do that. D’you want me to make you something, quickly?”
My eyes move to the counter where numerous tubs of are ice cream stacked next to each other like tombstones and wrinkle my nose. “I’m fine.” I don’t like ice cream, it feels weak and mushy in my mouth, but I’ll eat it occasionally for Oscar’s sake. “But thank you.”
When he’s finished tidying up the shop and locking various cupboards, he walks outside with me, his arm around my waist. His stride is bouncy. Emory’s is flat. Oscar’s hair is neat and parted. Emory’s is dirty.
“Fancy spending the night at my house?” he asks, his voice high and eager.
I cringe. I had been hoping he wouldn’t ask that. I don’t trust Emory to stay, and I need to be there to stop him from leaving. My words hanging on strings, I say, “Not tonight. I’ve got to check on my flat. Keep an eye on everything and get it straightened out.”
He looks away from me, his lips contorting into some kind of disappointed pout. I think it makes him look like a goblin.
“I’ll come with you, then,” he decides. My stomach lurches. “Got to protect you, I do, ” He pulls his shoulders back and puffs his chest out, his eyes sliding to me playfully.
“I’ll be all right,” I insist anxiously. “I’m spending the night with Helen and Bert. We’re going to talk about what to do next.” I feel like I’m wearing a mask.
He sighs, pursing his lips and letting his shoulders sag.
Guilt, like some hideous creature from beneath the ground, bites at me where his arm rests on my hip. I stop my feet and turn to him, my mouth opening. “Why don’t you come over for dinner tomorrow night?” I’m placing a trap around myself; Emory will want me to cook for him as well.
Oscar’s face brightens enormously, and I can’t help feeling relieved. I can find a way around the trap, maybe. I can give Emory a mask, too.
“Good,” I say, smiling. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You sure you don’t want me to stay with you?” He looks like a dog begging for food, his ears square and his head cocked.
“I’ll be fine. The Ministry will be watching all night, and I’ve got my wand.” I move my face to his, my lips thin and papery, his lips full and supple. “I love you.”
But when I Apparate away, I can only think about Emory. He is my shiny new toy, stuffed in a box and hidden under my bed. Oscar had been shiny and exciting once, but I hadn’t hidden him from anything.
But the damn bastard isn’t even there. The flat is empty and blank. He has instead left a ridiculously large note on the kitchen table, the words scribbled across it in his thin, spidery handwriting. It reads:
Before you throw a damn fit, I’m out for the night. I’ll be back whenever. And as comfortable as your sofa is, I prefer a bed, so set up a mattress on the floor for me, will you?
I slap the paper down, almost wanting to go to Oscar’s house to spend the night there. I glare at his damn writing furiously, the long, arrogant curls of the letters glaring at me like the holes in his head do, and I want to rip them apart. He’s out drinking, snogging the head’s off of women who are dressed as though their wardrobes have been stolen, and he’s at peace because he has a damn maid at home, fawning over him and willing to obey his every command. I want to lock him out.
My wand swinging violently, a ratty blanket and a stained pillow pull off of the sofa and crumple into a pile on the floor. It looks like a heap of bones, and I’m glad. I’ll tell Emory I have no extra mattress if he complains.
I leave him my own note, written in large, red letters, and leave it on top of the blanket.
My sweet Emory,
Here’s your bed! I made it especially for you. And the blanket was made in Germany, I remember, so it should remind you of home! Isn’t that nice? I thought you’d like it.
Sleep well, you bastard.
When I wake up, Emory is seated at my kitchen table. His head is trained at a copy of yesterday’s Prophet, and he is slurping at his cereal like a famished dog. The spoon clanks about the bowl noisily, his hand purposeful. He doesn’t look at me when the chair beside him scrapes across the floor, and his eyes remain focused on the paper in front of him when I sit down. His immaturity makes me want to laugh.
“Did you sleep well?” I ask casually, picking crumbs from the table and rolling them in my fingers.
“Didn’t sleep,” he answers, stuffing the spoon in his mouth.
“Why not?” I feel mischievous. I have control over him. “Was something wrong?”
He looks at me now, dropping the spoon into bowl and putting down the paper roughly. I expect him to yell at me, to explode with anger while I sit there quietly, smirking happily. Instead, he smiles. “Oh no! Nothing at all! Just suffered a pesky bout of insomnia.”
I frown. He looks at me pleasantly, and I want to stick his face in his cereal.
I sprinkle the crumbs back onto the table and sweep them away with the back of my hand. Seeking the more explosive reaction I’d been hoping for, I say, “My boyfriend’s coming over for dinner tonight.”
I can’t tell if he’s choked. It sounds like it. He coughs, looking at me, trying to hold back his laughter. I scowl at him, but his reaction is genuine, at least, which is what I’d wanted.
“Well, haven’t you been busy?” he says once he’s regained control of his throat. He moves closer to me. “Who’s the lucky man? Humptey Dumptey?”
I narrow my eyes. “No.” I pause, looking cautiously at him. Then, dangerously, I say, “Oscar Higgins. You remember him?”
He blinks. “You’re kidding.”
I cross my arms. “Yes,” I say, challengingly.
“Well, what’s wrong with him?”
A gurgling sound comes out of his throat that sounds like some kind of hacking laugh. “Everything.” He pushes the paper away, his face heated. “He looks like a troll, and he’s so damn stupid. I had to go a whole three years with him in Transfiguration and every time I had to talk to him it was like talking to a baboon.”
I look down. My stomach feels tight. It occurs to me that I should stand up for Oscar as Emory butchers him and stuffs him, but I keep my mouth shut.
I uncross my legs and push the chair back. “Regardless of what you think of him, he’s coming for dinner, so if you would like to go out into the streets and frolic about until morning, tonight’s a good night for that.” I stand up and walk to the refrigerator so that my back is turned to him.
“Don’t be so hopeful,” he says, laughing. “You really think I’d let you alone for an entire evening with a bloke like Higgins?”
I take the carton of eggs from the shelf, pulling them up to my nose to examine them. “It’s my flat, Emory.”
“I decide who I eat dinner with.” One of the eggs near the centre is cracked, its shell caving in at the top as though someone had tried to push a hole through it.
“You want to have dinner with me anyway,” he says quickly, and then I hear a loud clattering as the cereal dishes drop into the sink. Before I can interject my opinion, honest or not, he is moving toward the exit. “Now, seeing as there’s finally a bed available, I’m off to sleep, if you don’t mind. I’ll be up in a couple of hours.”
He shuts the door to my room loudly behind him, leaving me staring at empty white space. My feet advance forward to go after him, but I pause as darker space opens. Instead, I grab my jacket, turn on my heel, and disappear to Diagon Alley, where Oscar will be far more welcoming.
It is well past dinnertime when I walk through the door, Oscar following closely behind me. The flat smells like Emory’s cologne, which hasn’t changed since seventh year. He is sitting at the dining table, a small book in his hands. His hair is wet and combed, and his face looks groomed. He gives a small, royal wave to me, and I look back to Oscar, whose eyes are yellow in alarm.
“You remember Emory?” I say to him. He dips his head at this. “He needs a place to stay for a few days,” I explain steadily. I turn to him, moving closer to speak to him more privately. “I’m sorry. I tried to get him out of the here for tonight, but he wouldn’t have it.”
“It’s fine,” Oscar replies to my forehead, his voice only polite.
Emory has gotten up by this time, forcing Oscar and I apart with a presentation of his hand. “Higgins,” he says, his voice hardly enthusiastic.
Oscar takes his hand eagerly, replying with a pleasant, “Emory Kaiser, isn’t it?”
Emory nods, taking his hand back and sticking it in his pocket. His face is simply smitten with joy, and it makes me fold my arms and stare at Oscar's feet, which are hidden beneath large brown boots he'd wanted for Christmas.
"Good to see you, mate," Oscar continues.
"Same to you."
There is a silence, and I can feel Emory snorting in his head. Embarrassment fills me as though I am a sponge, and I expect Oscar to keep talking, to ramble on about how much he loves his job or how beautiful he thinks I am, but he keeps quiet, and I look up to see if Emory is giving him a death stare of sorts. But his face remains placid. His eyes switch to me, and mine dart away, focusing on the darkness of the window.
"I reckon I'll get started on dinner, then," I say. I grab onto Oscar's hand, glancing furtively toward Emory, and pull him with me toward the kitchen.
His hand rests loyally on my hip, his wand flicking at the pan of vegetables, and we speak in low tones. I don’t know where Emory is lurking, but Oscar is warm and his voice is marinating. I put my head on his shoulder, and he shifts, pulling my face into his neck and putting his arms around me. We stand like that in silence, rocking from side to side. He cradles me, the vegetables crackling behind us, and I wonder what the hell I am doing.
When we eat, Emory sits with us. A plate sits before him and he twirls his fork through the food gracefully, stabbing it and crunching it. I am, apparently, sitting too close to Oscar for his liking, which he announces with a very obvious glare of disapproval. I move only slightly away, throwing back at him an angry glance.
Coquettishly, I say, “This is marvellous, Oscar.”
He nods at me, food stuck behind his lips and stopping him from speaking. He snorts instead, air coming out of his nose in spurts as he laughs. He holds up his finger to pause the conversation as he finishes chewing. His throat bobs up and down as he swallows.
“How do you like it, Mr. Kaiser?” he says, making a bouncy gesture with his fork, speaking as though he’s a posh professor with a curly moustache and a comb-over.
Emory sets down his fork, and it clinks dully against the wood. “It’s fine. It doesn’t suit my particular taste, however.”
Oscar frowns. I snicker; Emory’s only taste is firewhiskey.
“Well, I think it’s lovely,” I say, popping another forkful into my mouth.
Oscar grins at this. “Thank you, Bellie.” He dips his head closer to me, and I scoot my chair closer to him. I hear Emory pick up his fork again, and I wonder for a moment if he’s aiming for Oscar’s head.
The next few minutes are draped with the soft mumbles of Oscar and I and the silent grinding of Emory’s food between his teeth. His eyes are trained upon us, and I can tell Oscar is uncomfortable. I set my knife down and push my chair back. “I suppose I’ll prepare dessert, then,” I say, hoping stupidly that if I leave them alone with each other they’ll become friends.
Really I want to see if they’ll say anything about me, or what Emory will say to Oscar if I’m not present. After I disappear behind the entrance to the kitchen, I stop, my ears prying for a voice.
“She doesn’t love you.” It’s the elegant rumble of Emory.
There is a coughing noise, and then Oscar says, “I’m sorry?”
“She doesn’t love you.”
“Erm—I don’t understand.”
“Don’t be daft, Higgins. She’s disgusted by you.”
I want to move. I want to storm in and shut him the hell up, but I stay where I am.
“Bellie loves me a lot,” he responds with a confusion that feels like stones.
“Belliey has told me the contrary.”
“Well—I don’t think that’s true.”
“I don’t blame her, really. It’s not that difficult to—”
“Erm—there’s no dessert.” They’re eyes stumble to me standing with my legs in a knot at the doorjamb. “Sorry.” I untie my legs and sit next to Oscar to finalize the idea and end the argument. He is wandering over me carefully, guardedly. Emory sits as though nothing has happened.
“Right, then,” he says. He throws his napkin on the table and gets up from his chair. “Thanks for the dinner, Oscar.” His wand twirls in the air like a dancer and he catches his coat as it lifts from the couch. The door clicks and he disappears. I stare at the plate he’d left behind, waiting for Oscar to do something. When he doesn’t, I send an imperturbable charm at the door, knowing Emory is listening, for he would have Apparated if he weren’t. When I look back at Oscar, his forehead is wrinkled and his lips are turned up, as mine are.
“I’m sorry.” I reach for his hand under the table. “Emory’s a bastard. Don’t listen to him.”
“Did you hear what he said?”
I tilt my head. “You weren’t talking very quietly.” His skin looks bruised. “You don’t believe him though?”
“Oh, no, no,” he dismisses, looking at me earnestly.
“Because I do love you, Oscar.” I squeeze his hand gently, the way I might squeeze water, and I am relieved to feel him squeeze mine back.
“I know.” He leans his head on top of mine. “But I should go.”
I move away from him warily. “Why?”
He gets up, releasing my hand. He adjusts his turtleneck as though the collar is choking him. “I just have lots of things to do tomorrow.”
I frown. Tomorrow’s his day off.
“I’m sorry, Bellie.” His face sags, but not apologetically. He believes Emory. “I’ll see you.”
He pops, leaving me seated at the table with two empty plates and one that’s hardly been touched.
Emory is a damn seamstress.
Bells chime airily over my head, and Oscar’s face pops up from behind the counter like a groundhog’s, his ears pricking up like a dog’s and his nose itching.
“Bellie!” he exclaims, leaping toward me.
“Hi,” I answer back softly. My mouth is charged and ready to splutter out to him a blundering apology, but his lips have stopped my voice, and it dies willingly halfway down my throat. He tucks me neatly into his measly arms, and his fingers dig into me tightly, pulling the fabric of my jumper. His short, skinny bones are hungry for me, and he grows as he laps at my skin. He holds me as though I’ve disappeared, and his fingers are too desperate to leave when his face does.
I fill myself with air and observe his warmth, which embraces me with a smile. His forehead against mine closes out the rest of the shop like a hospital curtain, and the privacy feels very safe.
“What was that for?” I ask, smiling back.
He grins. “You’re just so beautiful. I couldn’t help myself.”
“Come on, then!” he exclaims, pecking me quickly before grabbing my hand and pulling me toward the counter. His feet hop up and down off the ground.
“You’re rather chipper today,” I tell him as he flings me in many directions. I had expected him to sulk around with his hair in his face until I said something about it, the only point at which he could be sure I’d noticed his state of misery. But he is unbelievably happy after the disaster dinner last night, and the emotions seem genuine enough; Oscar is as good a liar as Drabbleblatt is a dressmaker.
“I’m just so glad you’re here!” he explains. “It’s been awfully slow today,” he continues very rapidly, looking over at a lone couple dressed in a matching set of fuchsia robes, “and I knew you’d come, I did. I don’t care what that Emory Kaiser bloke says, I knew you’d come!” He stares at me excitedly, the two green specks of his eyes glinting in concert with his voice.
“Of course I did,” I say, moving closer to him. “Got to make sure you keep yourself out of trouble, haven’t I?” But I wonder why he hasn’t offered me any ice cream yet, which is the first thing he does the second he sees me outside the door, and my eyes bore into his for a different reason than his bore into mine as I look for some reason as to why the hell he’s so perky.
After a few moments of listening to his bubbly little giggles, it comes.
“How’s your flat?” he asks.
“Did Emory Kaiser ever come back after I left?”
I shake my head, wishing he’d stop using Emory’s full name each time he mentioned the man.
“And you’re keeping your wand with you at all times?”
“Good.” He stops, the contentment on his lips turning into the excitement from before. “Because I was thinking all last night,” he continues, lowering his head and turning his back to the old couple by the window, “and—well, just listen to me for a minute, but I reckon Emory Kaiser killed that woman the other night.”
My eyes fire at him. “What?”
“Just listen for a moment,” he urges, grabbing my wrists before I can do anything with them. “If you think about it for just a moment, it makes sense! He appears without warning in your flat the day that woman was murdered—”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean he killed her!” I barge. Bits of me inside begin to smoulder, baring their teeth.
“But you have to agree that’s at least more than a coincidence,” he says, and his hands tighten around my wrists as every muscle in his face pleads at me. “Don’t you at least think so? He’s been gone for years—”
“—And he’s suddenly sitting on your sofa as if nothing happened!”
I twist my wrists in his hands, trying to get away. “Do you think I haven’t thought about that yet?” He quickly shushes me, and I realise how loud I’ve been speaking. I lower my head, and he releases me. “It’s a bit too much of a coincidence, yes,” I agree, and I see him relax in a slump of tight arms and air. “But just because Emory’s a right bastard doesn’t make him a killer!”
“I didn’t say—”
Somebody coughs behind us, and we both look over Oscar’s shoulder. A short girl has her chin resting on the counter, her face turned up so that I can see the insides of her nose. She asks in a pompous, wheedling little voice for a Shivering Somethingorother which, as Oscar doles it out, seems to be trying to escape the bowl, wanting to go anywhere but inside. The girl glares at me as though I’ve done something wrong as she snatches the bowl from Oscar and walks off.
He waits until the door slams behind her before he whips anxiously back to me and says, “And he wouldn’t show his arms, didn’t you notice that? He’s got the Dark Mark on one of them, I bet.”
My temper teeters dangerously on my teeth. “He was wearing sleeves, Oscar. That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Oscar!” I snap. His mouth closes instantly. I take a deep breath to steady myself. “I know Emory is arrogant and rude and whatever you may call him, but he would never kill someone. He’s not like that. I don’t care what you think about him, I know who he is, all right? Trust me, okay?”
“Excuse me.” Oscar turns around again, his response erased from his face. It’s the girl from before, whose nose seems larger now than it had before. “I gave you thirteen sickles for this, but you only gave me back three knuts.”
Oscar mumbles something as she continues to berate him for his idiocy and inability to count. She trots off after she’s received the proper amount of change, and I expect Oscar to continue at me with a louder tone, but he stands in his place, his palms pressed into the counter and his arms digging into his shoulders. His hair is in his face, and I can’t see what is going on underneath it.
It appears that our conversation is over.
“You’re coming with me tonight.”
I blink, dropping my purse on the table. Coins clink around inside. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t pretend like you don’t want to, Tinkers.”
My eyes search him warily. He is sitting on the sofa, a Daily Prophet at his feet, which are sprawled out across my coffee table. There is a thick book in his hands that looks much too expensive to have been bought with his own money. I linger over his arm, but it is covered by a tight fabric.
“I’m meant to meet Oscar at Florean’s before he gets off work.”
He snorts, his head bobbing back and forth. “Not tonight.”
I let air out of my mouth. I had expected something different from him, that he would have grown up on his magnificent journey or whatever the hell he’d been doing the past year. But he is still the same prat I’ve known since Potions the first day of school.
“You can’t do that, Emory.”
The book falls into his lap. “Wouldn’t you like to go to a nice restaurant?”
A restaurant sounded more appealing than an ice cream parlour filled with flavours I hated. But I couldn’t help the sinking feeling that Oscar was right, that I should stay away from him. But Emory couldn’t have killed anyone.
It was then that I heard the erratic whirring. It sounded like a small person breathing in a circle. It came from the study, trickling into my ears, buzzing around like a dying gnat.
“What’s that sound?”
He looked up from his book. “Hmm?”
“You hear it.”
He looked through the hallway toward the study. “Oh.” He switches back to his book. “That damn Sneakoscope has been going off all day.”
I deflate like a pierced balloon, adrenaline taking over the empty space. “Oh, Merlin.”
I run across the room, skidding through the hallway into the study. The first thing I notice is the large mattress slapped on the middle of the floor. The contents of Emory’s suitcase are spewed across the place, on the desk, the chair, and the shelf. He seemed to have made a home of the place, which relieved me despite the mess, because that meant he’d probably stay for a while longer.
“Accio Sneakoscope!” I yell. The damn thing comes flying out of his sock drawer, a drawer that had been for my desk the other day. “Godammit, Emory why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“Tinkers, shut up,” he says from the other room.
I walk heatedly out of the door and to the edge of the corridor. “When did this go off?”
He shrugs. “Dunno. I was buying some food for us so you could make a nice lunch for yourself, but you weren’t home in time…”
I narrow my eyes. Emory has never gone shopping. I go to the kitchen, my jaw set, and yank open the door of the refrigerator. Resting there on the top shelf is a glowing cake that looks as though it should be sitting in a gold throne with a red cape and an expensive crown. I slam the door shut.
He could very well be lying to me, the arse. I want to believe him. But he’s worn long sleeves, hiding from me the skin of his wrists. He’d shown up the day of the murder.
The damn Sneakoscope is whirring around in my fingers, all but having a damn seizure, but he is not a killer. It would have gone off the second he walked through the door. Except he had had time to hide it, to destroy it for all its worth before I walked through the door. He’d been sitting on the sofa waiting for me, and I’d jumped into his arms as though he were a pool of lush yellow daisies.
My mind shakes. He wouldn’t have stayed. He’d have run off and gone back into hiding. He would have killed me, too.
My brain is curled up and is rocking back and forth.
“Do you know why it went off, then?” I ask, walking back to him. My voice is unsteady.
“Maybe there’s a racoon in here,” he replies, looking at me sarcastically.
I scoff. “Emory, this is serious. Someone was killed the other night.”
He’s chuckling at me. “Tinkers, calm the hell down.” He flips the book casually across the coffee table. “Nothing’s going to happen. The Ministry is here, aren’t they?”
“You hate the Ministry.”
“I never said that.”
“Oh, yes you did. That’s all the hell you could talk about seventh year.”
He glares at me now. “I had my reasons.”
“Fuck that! You ran away from home and your poor mummy was a Muggle. That’s not their damn fault.”
“You haven’t told me a damn thing about yourself. I don’t even know your goddamn middle name!” My hand grips my wand more tightly. I walk threateningly toward him. “I’m the one damn thing you have even close to a friend, Emory. If you’re going to be living in my house, I of all people in this world have a right to know where the hell you’ve been and what the hell you’ve been doing, because I sure as hell was the one person who spent months worrying whether or not you were still living!” My wand is trembling now, brandished and aimed directly at his head.
He stands up slowly, his face smooth and his eyes commanding. His chest meets the tip of my wand. “Where I was,” he starts, his voice low, “is none of your business.”
“Really?” I say caustically. I hold up the Sneakoscope pointedly.
He sighs. “That went off when I took money out of your purse so I could get food and a new book because the ones you have around here might as well be about rainbow-coloured ponies.”
My teeth suddenly are stuck together. I feel compressed. Doubt fills me like vodka.
“I don’t believe you.”
He laughs. “You don’t have to.”
I don’t know whether to be terrified of him or to slap him across the face. “I don’t understand why you’re so calm about this.”
He pushes my wand down from his chest, and I let him, letting it fall limp at my side.
“Because you’re coming with me, and no one can kill us.” He walks to a bag sitting against the wall behind me, and my eyes follow him in time to catch the black ball of fabric flying at my face. “Put that on and stop talking.”
“No,” I growl. “I’m meeting Oscar tonight.”
Air comes out through his nostrils. “Then I’ll undress you myself.”
I have words ready in my mouth, but my eyes widen because he is coming toward me. He closes in greedily, hands outstretched until they latch on to the hem of my jumper. He gives it a tug upward, cocking his head to the side as he gages my reactions.
I stand still.
“You know,” he rumbles, moving closer, “I’d always imagined we’d be doing this in a much darker room, and you’d be clawing to get my shirt off, too, but we could do it this way, if you’d like.” He smirks, giving my shirt another tug. “Arms up, then, Tink.”
“Oh, get off!” I yell, throwing my arms out and pushing him away so that he staggers backward. “You’re absolutely filthy!”
He laughs. “Sorry, dear. I showered this morning. Now, I’m not one to go for a girl with unusual fetishes, but if you prefer me unnaturally hygienic, I suppose I can sacrifice a shower or two.”
Because he is staring at me so intently, I cannot bring up the courage to say anything back to him, and so I spin deliberately on my heel and stomp through the door of my room and slam it loudly behind me.
I hadn’t ever considered myself to be terribly pale until his damn dress is on me, the darkness of the fabric bringing out the darkness of the circles under my eyes. It stops before my knees and displays very well how odd they look, sticking out at different angles. I turn away from the mirror in disgust and return to the living room, where Emory looks me over with amusement. I cross my arms across my chest.
“I could have put that on much better than you did.”
I ignore his comment and instead say, eyebrows raised, “You own a suit?”
He scoffs at me, adjusting his tie. “It’s quite easy to get past Muggle security. Now, come on, we’re going to be late.” He grabs onto me, and I let him, for I’ve known all along I never really wanted to go meet Oscar, and he twists backward, pulling me into the darkness with him.
We land heavily, and he holds me tightly as if I can’t damn Apparate myself. His arms are like big, twiggy vines, wrapping around me and keeping me stationary.
“I don’t much appreciate,” I start, grabbing his wrist and twisting it off of me, “the fact that you think you can just take away my free will.” I turn and face him, my arms halting firmly at my side.
He puts his hands in the pockets of his coat. “I’m not doing anything with your free will.” He walks past me, his shoulders laughing. I stand there for a moment and watch as the street gets closer to him. I curse.
My feet break into a trot and my mind groans as the mouth of the alleyway spits me out. “What is that supposed to mean?”
He keeps walking. I follow him into the crosswalk.
“Hmm?” He doesn’t acknowledge me as he speaks. He looks ahead with his damn overconfident expression and his damn overbearingly elegant posture. I pull my shoulders back. Oscar has good posture, too.
“You’re not doing anything with my free will?” I repeat, my words accusatory.
He shakes his head. “Not a thing.”
I want to rip his voice out and tear it up with my hands. “Would you stop doing that?”
We’re at the sidewalk now, and I’ve caught up with him, but I can’t get past his shoulder.
“Doing what?” He slows now, cutting past me as he moves toward a glass door that’s orange with light.
“Being so cocky.”
“Hah.” He opens the door. “As you so wish it, Your Highness.”
The look I send at him as I walk through the door is prickly, and I make sure to clap my heels against the ground with extra force as I enter.
The place is warmly lit and the air smells like burning cinnamon. Candles hang from the ceiling in stained-glass baskets, fading onto the tables and walls in rich reds and browns. There is a collection of black and white photography around the place, featuring large, muscular women with heavy brows and big feet. They stare down at me in an oddly comforting way. But they remain where they are in their frames, their mouths turned down and their droll, flushed cheeks crowding their eyes. It’s a Muggle restaurant.
“Guten Abend! Haben Sie eine Vorbehalt?” says a man behind a red-ribboned counter who looks very much like the women in the photographs.
My head turns to Emory, who says back, “Ja. Unter Kaiser. Für zwei.”
My mouth opens unhappily. “You took me to Germany?”
He grins. “I told you we’d be safe, didn’t I?”
The bulky tomato-man approaches us with his hands out, talking in a language that sounds like a great angry mob throwing rocks at a wall. Emory responds easily, and the two laugh in a very informal way, as if they’ve known each other for a long time. I push my lips together and cross my arms as I follow them deeper into the restaurant. The words register in my ears as a jumble of guttural snorts, and I sit down with an exhausted frustration as the man pulls my chair out for me, smiling sloppily.
A few more minutes of jolly grunts and huffs pass before the man presents us with our menus and bids us goodbye with a dip of his head.
“Do you know him?” I ask when he leaves.
“No,” Emory answers over his menu. I don’t touch mine. I have no plans to eat. “He’s heard of me, though.”
“Heard of you?” I say sceptically. He thinks he’s a damn celebrity. For a moment I’d thought he’d made an effort to drop his ego.
“My father used to own this place.” He says it casually, his eyes making a circle around the ceiling ahead of him.
I blink, my irritated thoughts dissolving. A blank, curious space opens in my mind, and it bothers me that his expression says nothing but the possibility that he is hungry. The only other time Emory has mentioned his father to me had been in a broom cupboard sixth year when I’d asked him about his summer holidays, and even then the information had been brief. He’d said his father was a bastard and that he’d made the decision never to return home again. He’d never mentioned any of his other family, and I’d always assumed his mother had died before he’d gotten to school. But talking about his father now, it would seem that nothing had ever happened between the two of them.
My silence is disrupted by a shrill sound of “Emory!” My head snaps toward the back of the restaurant, where a woman is flying toward us. I narrow my eyes. Her hair is dark, and as she approaches, I see the gray underneath. She has a large bosom that collects at her navel, and her gut is firm. A gnarled scar runs across her cheek.
Emory turns his head as well, and his lips quirk into what appears to be a genuine smile. Something inside me knots. In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve only seen that smile twice.
The woman embraces him as he stands, and I can see him sway with the force of her. “Hallo, Sylvia.” His tone is warm, and he pats her on the back. It makes me wonder if this woman is his mother, but she bears no resemblance to him whatsoever.
Sylvia continues bantering to him like a hummingbird, throwing her hands into the air and putting them on his face with more affection than I thought possible to direct toward him. I sit politely and watch them, and the knot, the rock of pressure somewhere in my stomach, expands as Emory nods and laughs.
I hear him mention the name “Bellie” through all his gibberish, and he turns to me, his smile wry now. At this, Sylvia’s mouth opens, her eyes lighting up. She claps her hands together with an exuberant “Oh!” and lunges toward me.
“Oh! Glückwünsche! Du bist—”
Emory interrupts. “Sie spricht nur Englisch.”
Sylvia turns back to him and laughs, embarrassed, her face blushing up like a balloon.
“Es tut mi—” she begins, but stops, giggling and clearing her throat. “Em—I am sorry.” Her accent is thick, but her face is apologetic enough to understand. “He is so good. Be good, Bellie, to him, ja?”
I look over at Emory, whose face is simply tickled pink. I look back at Sylvia, whose hand is caressing my cheek as though I am some heavenly relic. I’m afraid she’s about to start crying. Emory has told her something, and I don’t like it much at all.
“Yes,” I agree hesitantly, putting an unrehearsed smile on my face and nodding my head. “Ja.”
She gives another exclamation at my German, and stands up. “Wine! Yes, I will go. You need wine!” She scurries off quickly, and Emory watches her go before he sits down, pulling up his sleeves and slumping in his chair as if he’s just come home from a long day’s work.
“What the hell did you tell her?” I ask, my fingers gripping the handles of my chair.
He snickers, sitting up and leaning forward. “I told her you’re my wife, and we’re on our honeymoon.”
My eyes widen, but as much of an instinct I have to be angry with him, I can’t help feeling completely elated. I lift my elbows and put them on the table, my forehead falling into my fingers to cover my eyes as I laugh. “Oh, Merlin.” I shake my head in disbelief. “Who is she, anyway, Sylvia?” I lift my fingers to see him.
He shrugs. “Old friend.”
I straighten up, grabbing my napkin for something to hold. “I suppose you’ll tell her I’m pregnant when she comes over next?”
He raises an eyebrow. “I don’t imagine we’ve been on our honeymoon that long, Tinkers.”
He surveys me, his face alight. “You’re having fun.”
I freeze, my muscles tightening. My chuckling expression drops. “No,” I answer quickly, remembering I’m mad at him for bringing me here. “I’m just—looking forward to being drunk and forgetting who you damn are.”
“Oh?” He readjusts his seat. “Rebellious, are you, Bellie?”
My eyes snap to him, a large, red mark whipping across his face. “No. You’re not to call me that.”
“You let Oscar, don’t you?” He puts his foot on his knee. “He special or something?”
My lungs harden, and I grab my menu so I don’t have to look at his wry little face. “I hate it when he calls me that, and I am in no need to hear it from you, too.” But the menu is in German, and I can’t read a word of it. “You tell Sylvia when she comes back my name is Mirabelle.”
“Of course, Bellie.”
The grip around my menu tightens, and I pretend to read it. I can tell Emory thinks this is funny, because he leans back in his chair and doesn’t move his head. I try to make sense of the words for a few vehement moments before Sylvia comes back, two bottles of red wine in her hands.
“The best!” she says, slapping them onto the table so that the stuff inside whips around as if in a sudden panic. She pours it in the same manner, and it cascades out of the bottle’s throat haphazardly, bubbling and foaming in the glasses she’s provided. It fills in dark red circles. “Food?” she asks then. “What will you have?”
He answers quickly, and I assume begrudgingly he’s ordered for me as Sylvia grabs for my menu. I give it up, but replace it immediately with the wine glass.
“Ah—Sylvia,” he calls, as she makes a move to scurry away. He speaks now in German, his voice lower, and I watch them as the glass pushes up against the bridge of my nose. Her face becomes suddenly grave, and she shakes her head, her eyes turned down mournfully. My ears strain. Emory is still. He responds to one word of her monologue—Rolf—with an arch of his brow. My breath echoes through the glass, and I put it down as Sylvia prances away again.
“What did you say?”
He regards me with a roll of his eyes and pushes himself from the table, his elbows jutting out like tired springs. “You’re a nosy little bitch, Tinkers, you know that?”
My mouth falls open as he glides away, his hand ripping at the tie around his neck, his shoulders burdened with some heavy force that’s contracting his spine as hard as it is pushing him forward. My fingers tighten around the neck of the wine glass, my teeth locking together and my breath coming fast.
“I don’t get it.”
“What don’t you get?”
“You and Higgins.”
The pot boils suddenly as my temper flares around my wand. “Well, there’s nothing there for you to get because it’s none of your goddamn business.”
He laughs darkly. “It’s plenty of my business.”
I turn to him sharply. “What is it with you?”
He raises his eyebrows, his hand rummaging ambitiously through his trouser pockets. “What?”
“You with your little act, coming in here and throwing me around like you own the place, like you’re my father or someone!”
He stares at me across the kitchen, his face twisted up as though he’s mortally confused. “I’m not your father, Tink.” He seizes what he’s searching for in his pockets and withdraws it. In a quick flash of fingers, he flips open the box, flicks out a cigarette, and puts it to his lips.
“Don’t you dare light that thing in my flat,” I warn, my voice deep.
His head tilted down, his eyes flash across to me as he tips the cigarette to his wand. It sparks.
But I’m faster. My arm shoots out, my wand whipping away from the two raw chicken breasts, which lie limply and wearily on the cutting board. I fire at him, and the cigarette bursts into flames that snap at his mouth. He jumps and throws the spitting cigarette on the ground.
“Tinkers!” he shouts. He stamps on the cigarette brutishly, and the flames die under his shoe. “What the hell was that for?”
“I told you not to light it!” I lower my wand to the skeleton of ash on the floor, and I let it disappear. “It’s a disgusting habit, and I don’t want any of it in my flat.”
“Well, get a new flat, then,” he mumbles.
I let out a growl of aggravation, and a hex goes flying out of my wand. He dodges it in a dog-like twirl, steadies himself, and looks at me as though I’ve slapped him.
“Merlin, you’re feisty tonight, aren’t you?” he says, his eyes scorching but his throat laughing.
I bite down on my lip and brandish my wand at the dead poultry on the cutting board. I can feel him approaching as it rips itself apart into neat, rectangular pieces.
“Come on, then, Tink.” He is behind me, his eyes prying around my head to try to see my face. “Why are you so defensive?”
“You know what?” I snap, throwing my wand down. “I’m not even going to do this. You make your own goddamn dinner.” I try to move away from him, toward the stove, but his hands stop me.
“Tinkers,” he calls, dangerously. He turns me to face him. I keep my eyes down. “Look at me.” I shut them. “No, look at me.”
I open them.
I can see the muscles in his head. They twitch as his eyes flicker between mine, back and forth, like a clock that is waiting for something to happen.
“You don’t love him.”
“Yes. I do.”
He shakes his head. “No, you don’t. I’ve seen the way you are around him. You can’t stand him.”
He can see my bones. I can feel the incision.
“How dare you.” My lips open up to the words as though they are solid shapes, sharp and heavy. “You don’t decide who I love, Emory.”
He doesn’t release me. “I’m not deciding anything, I’m doing you a favour. You know how miserable you are with him, but you’re not doing anything about it. I’m giving you a way out.”
His voice is red. It slithers at me.
“I never said I was miserable,” I say back. My voice is low. It is shaking. It is vulnerable.
I try to make myself panic as his face draws closer to mine. I try to make myself ashamed, but all I can hear is the ridiculous bouncing of Oscar’s hair on his shoulders as he walks and the crinkling of his eyes when he smiles too widely. I try to feel guilty as Emory’s mouth meets mine, but I feel relieved.
I fall into the breadth of him. My lips move slowly, and I try to keep myself steady. His hands move to the back of my neck, into my hair. His skin smells clean. My fingers move timidly to his shoulders. He pushes me against the counter, and I wrap around him, feeling engulfed.
He breaks away, and I breathe in steadily through my mouth, trembling.
“Well, look at that,” he says. His forehead is pressed against mine. “I was right.”
I close my eyes, because I don’t want to hear him.
“Yes,” I answer. “Of course you were.”
He hovers there, his face by mine, and he is digging a hole in me. Our fingers clutch one another, and he is warm.
“Emory,” I say, my voice drawling out like wisps. I let the word hang in the air, waiting for a response.
He grunts. He doesn’t even look at me.
I thought I would like it more. It's enjoyable, certainly, but after all these years I’d spent wanting him, I had expected something different. But it feels metallic. He’s not even kissing me. Oscar always kisses me.
It ends. I feel all of his weight on top of me now, and he feels like a boulder. He buries his face into the nape of my neck, and I can feel the air coming out of his nostrils as he pants into my skin. I don’t know what I should do. My fingers are still tangled in his hair. I am having trouble breathing.
I decide to stay silent. I hold my breath and wait, hoping he’ll do something. I’ve never seen him this way before. He’s so uncomfortably distant.
Finally, he lifts his head and pushes himself off of me, rolling over onto his side. His face is gone, and I can only see his back, bare and exposed the way trees are in winter. This is different. Oscar never ignores me. He never rolls over and pretends nothing happened. He presses his lips to my skin, telling me sweet, flowery things like how beautiful I am and how much he loves me. Emory just lies there like a lump.
“So that’s it, then?” I ask, staring at the ceiling.
“What?” It is said as he exhales, and I hear the sheets rustle as he pulls on them. I can feel his eyes are closed, and I can’t tell if his voice speaks sleepiness or annoyance.
“You’re not going to talk with me about it, or anything?”
He sighs through his nose quite loudly, and I wish I could hate him. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
I close my mouth, and it suddenly feels very dry. The air is prickly. I should have known better. There had been no connection between us. He had made sure of it.
“Just go to sleep, Tinkers.”
I let my hand, which had been clutching the railing of the bed, drop to my side, and it hits the sheets in a pathetic, puffing noise that sounds like a cough. I want to say something back to him, but I don’t know what to say. Instead, I roll onto my side, pulling on the sheets stubbornly in hopes I’ll annoy him, but I don’t fall asleep for a very long time.
The next night is the same. He doesn’t talk to me. He hardly looks at me. I should tell him to stop. That would be the mature, fair thing to do. But I like the feeling of him. Certainly more than Oscar. He is comforting, with his mouth on my neck.
When it’s over, he gets up this time and walks loudly to the bathroom, his feet making a scruffy noise against the carpet that makes me want to throw something at him. The sink gurgles as though it is choking, and I turn over.
When he returns, he lies back down beside me and throws an arm around my waist, pulling me into him.
I pretend to be asleep.