September 23rd 2019: Molly
I was mildly surprised when I walked into the library the day after to find him sat at the table, his quill scratching quickly across a roll of parchment. I'd ran from the dungeons to get there on time, worried that being late might give him a reason to leave. It hadn't been difficult to get the measure of him from one or two meetings and the stony expression he'd had on his face the night before was evidence enough that he wasn't keen on following the teachers' demands.
"Hi," I said, sliding tentatively into the seat opposite him. He glanced up from his work and began to tidy it up, sliding everything into his bag. A part of me wondered whether he might try and get away but he just leant back in his seat and looked at me expectantly, as though I was about to tell him a highly interesting story. I felt a blush creeping up my cheeks and looked away, picking at the edge of the table with the tips of my nails.
"So what do they expect us to do?" Seb asked when the silence between us became almost stifling. He crossed his arms firmly over his stomach in two almost parallel lines and I nodded slowly.
"They want us to work together to get him on the right track," I said, keeping a watch on him out of the corner of my eye. Professor Elkins had been a little cryptic in the way he'd phrased it all but there was something that nobody was telling me. "They said you ought to be able to relate to him."
I paused, waiting on a reaction that didn't come. He straightened himself a little but kept the same disinterested gaze as earlier, his dark eyes still boring through me.
"Where do you come into this?" It was abrasively put and his lips barely made the effort to move as he spoke. There was a coldness in him, everything so stoic, lifeless. The light danced menacingly above us, candles burning long and short and casting brutal shadows in the hollows of his cheeks. "Why you?"
I'd posed an almost identical question to Professor Elkins when he had first approached me about Stephen. Of all the Hufflepuffs he might have picked, why me? He hadn't given me an answer as such, merely rambled a little about not wanting to disrupt the Prefects and feeling I was mature and intelligent enough to handle it tactfully. Of course, he hadn't mentioned my patience and somehow I felt, as Seb sat in front of me looking like I'd just set fire to his owl, that that would be the most important quality for anyone who was to deal with this family.
"It's just…" he said when I made no reply, leaning forward and now he was out of the flickering light, he seemed a lot softer. "It doesn't matter."
He slouched back again, his hands retreating onto his lap and though I wanted to take my eyes from him, something was pinning my gaze onto him. His hair wasn't quite as dark as I'd first thought, the little streams of light shining through the window catching it and making it shimmer a soft chestnut against his pale face. It took the edge off the high scrape of his cheekbones and I shivered, my eyes falling away again.
"I think they just wanted someone with some free time," I said softly, picking at the corner of the desk again. The wood crumbled under my touch, the top layer of dirt sticking to my fingertips, and though I could feel Seb looking at me, I refused to meet his eye. "I think we should be talking about your brother, not why they chose us."
He said nothing. He didn't even move a muscle and I stopped playing with the desk to look up at him, feeling the shift in the atmosphere yet again. He had picked a book off the shelf behind him and was idly flicking through it as though there was nothing I could say that would be even remotely as interesting as what he had in his hand.
"Seb?" He glanced up fleetingly and nodded for me to continue, turning another page with a flick of his index finger. "You don't seem overly keen on helping him."
In a way, I felt I should have expected it but it still took me by surprise. Lucy flashed into my mind, small and mild and constantly in need of reassurance, of knowing someone was there. Through her first year, I had spent countless hours at all sorts of times sitting and helping her, making sure she was okay. I could barely imagine turning my back on her when she needed me.
"If you weren't concerned, you wouldn't be here," I said, feeling the shake in my voice and I thought for a moment that he was going to close his book and listen to what I was saying but he slid it onto the desk and leant his head on his hand, not even looking up. "You must care."
"You don't know me."
"I don't need to," I said, the tremble in my tone having spread throughout my body now but I could feel the confidence surging up within me, steadying me as I spoke. "Maybe you don't know what he's going through. Maybe you've not been there but it happens all the time and someone, somewhere must have some faith in you being able to understand that. You must love him."
I stopped as his head flew up. His hands were no longer tapping on the cover of the book, but scrunched into fists either side of it. He pushed himself up and out of his chair, leaning so far over the table that his nose was centimetres from mine and each heavy breath he took I could feel brushing against my lips. I flinched away, my hair tumbling into a barrier against his hard glare, but he didn't move.
A part of me wanted to leave, to turn away and give up but the image of his brother, small and terrified and in need of help, kept flickering in front of me and as much as I didn't want to set foot near Seb again, I would not condemn that boy to seven years of hell in the most magical place I'd ever come across. Taking a deep breath, I turned to meet Seb's glare again. My hands shook under the table and my mouth had dried but I pushed my chair back and held his gaze firmly.
"Problem?" I said, my voice a low growl that I didn't know was in me. It scorched the back of my throat but to see his face glow a dark crimson made the bitter taste on my tongue worth it. He leaned back a little, as though trying to assess me, and I closed the gap again.
"You don't know me," he repeated and though he kept his voice steady, it was hesitant, quieter. I bit my lip, a nagging voice in the back of my mind still telling me to give it up, but now my heart was beating faster against my chest and I wanted an answer, I wanted to understand.
My voice was calmer now but I kept my pose, unwilling to give in first. His face softened again, the glare melting into a boyish confusion that I was sure he wasn't aware he was capable of. In another circumstance, on another day, it might have made my heart go out to him but I could still feel the spurt of anger throbbing inside me and I raised an eyebrow encouragingly. For a moment, he looked as though he was considering it but he wrenched his eyes from mine and stood upright.
I didn't have time to argue back. He had grabbed his bag and was pushing his chair under the table before I could find the words to form a protest. I stepped into the corridor and stuck a hand out, grabbing his wrist in my hand and he stared blankly at it before pulling it away.
"Can you meet me in the Entrance Hall at eight? I told Stephen we'd meet up."
He didn't say anything and I hadn't expected him to. Readjusting his bag on his shoulder, he turned around and walked away. He didn't look back and when he'd disappeared from view, I could feel my body juddering. I dropped back into my chair, every part of me shaking, and I glanced to the empty seat in front of me. It was like his eyes were still hanging there, dark and cold, before melting into the background. I picked up my bag in a shivering hand and hurried out of the library.
The tears that followed were hidden behind the curtain of red that swung in front of my face. I would not show to anyone that he had gotten to me. I was not going to cave that easily.
By the time that the bell rang for tea, I had lost any appetite I'd had earlier in the day. My stomach felt numb and sore, my throat dry. It had taken me twenty minutes to calm down enough to face anyone after I left the library and I felt tired and sick. I watched the Slytherin table almost obsessively but there was no sign of Seb. Every now and then, I'd glance to where Stephen was sat, picking at his food a little further down the table, hunched over and looking so horribly dejected that any second thoughts that I'd had that day were quickly washed away.
We settled back down in the common room not long later, my head resting against Max's chest with Anna at our feet as we attempted to make sense of our Charms homework. As the clock grew closer to eight, I watched Stephen emerge from the boys' dormitory and ungracefully got to my feet, a hand still resting on my churning stomach.
"We'll meet him in the Entrance Hall," I said, guiding him slowly out of the common room amidst the stares of the younger students who were somewhat aware of what was going on, and the encouraging glances of Max and Anna. I hadn't found it in me to tell them of the argument between me and Seb, instead blaming a bug that must be going around for my illness. In silence, Stephen and I sank down onto the staircase in the Entrance Hall, my head lolling against the banister.
After five minutes of no-one except the Bloody Baron and Professor Rackharrow passing us on the steps, Stephen cleared his throat. "You did tell him eight?" His accent was heavy, like his brother's, but his voice was minute. I glanced down and nodded my head a little, the crown grinding against the marble.
"Of course," I said quietly, sitting upright and shifting so we were facing each other. There was little resemblance between the two siblings, Stephen short and round to Seb's tall and lithe frame. "We had a bit of a disagreement before. He might not show."
Stephen nodded, glancing through the gap in the bannister to the entrance to the dungeons. His hair was far paler than Seb's, a light ash, and his skin was marked with dark freckles. He held himself with far less confidence than his brother, less composure. His nails picked nervously at his elbow, scratching absent-mindedly at nothing in particular.
"He could strop for Scotland," he said after another five minutes had passed and there was a lightness in his tone that I hadn't heard from him before. "He sends Mum up the wall."
"She's not alone," I said with a gentle laugh and Stephen grinned as though I was putting on a good show for him. "He knows how to aggravate, doesn't he?"
"Dad says he takes after Mum," he said without hesitation, his voice growing stronger with every word and I laughed, leaning back against the stairs.
"Well, I don't know how you've lived with him without killing him, quite frankly."
"Me neither," he said, his smile bright and reaching his eyes, the same dark brown as Seb's. I laughed with him again but his smile faltered a little and he stammered, "Not that we would, even if he wanted to."
He seemed more cautious, like he was testing me, and I cocked my head to the side as if to push him but he wasn't looking at me. Seb emerged from around the banister, his jaw set and eyes fixed on Stephen. My smile fell as he said in a quiet, low voice, "Enough."
I stood up, playing the middle man, and looked at them both. Stephen offered me a shy smile but his brother looked at me as though I wasn't even there.
"Elkins has given us his classrom," I said, aiming everything I said at Stephen and he stood up, walking up the steps in time with me. Every now and then he glanced behind us, as though to check Seb was still there but the soft pad of his footsteps gave him away. I could feel his glower on the back of my neck and the urge to shiver was unbearable, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end with the force I was putting into keeping still.
The room was unlocked as we’d been told it would be, and once Seb’s footsteps trundled in after us, I locked the door with a flick of my wand and sat down on a chair. Stephen quietly sat beside me, looking down at the floor.
“Sit down,” I muttered to Seb, who was leaning against the window behind us. I watched the reflection of him in the mirrored ball that rested on Elkins’ desk. I'd never found out what it did but for now, it allowed me to see Seb trudge forward and lounge on top of the desk to my left. Aware that it was better than nothing, I cleared my throat.
The conversation was painfully slow. Seb refused to involve himself and equally, Stephen refused to say anything that might leave him exposed to his brother’s biting response. After twenty minutes of no progress except shrugs and scowls, I turned to Stephen and as kindly as possible, suggested he go back to the common room. I unlocked the door and listened to him shuffle out of the room. Grabbing my bag, I turned to follow.
I thought for a moment that I might have invented it but the rustle of Seb’s robes told me that it was not a figment of my imagination. Quenching the need to smile broadly even at the sound of my name rolling off his tongue, I set my scowl back on my face and turned.
“Just try and remember and I’ll cooperate.”
He said nothing more. He didn’t even look at me, just walked straight past as though I was merely one of the desks: nothing worth thinking of. I stared after him, after this cryptic figure that was making me question every single element of who I was, what I was doing there, why I was feeling so attached to a boy that was virtually a complete stranger.
I tried to ignore my racing heart as I followed in his footsteps.