Dragging herself through the bustling crowd outside Waterloo station, Molly feels her heart pounding ever louder with each passing moment. She catches sight of herself in one of the shop windows and tucks a curl of hair back behind her ear, her smile pencilled on in the finest Parisian cerise, a present from a man who she thought she could have loved. Once again, she has been proven wrong and strides with purpose out into a London evening just like any other, the air so thick that it is hard to breathe.
Her sister will be waiting and she slips into the comfort of a black cab, the very ordinary manner of travel giving her the time she needs to think. Time has flown; Lucy has left school, working and living each day so that she too can have her heart and soul crushed to nothing by reality. Molly smiles, chewing nervously on the edge of one false nail, and when the car pulls up outside the music shop that towers over The Leaky Cauldron, she pays the driver a little too much and slides out.
She feels almost elegant, twenty-three years old and grown up. She passes her hand back through her hair, shaking it into place, and realises that she is trembling. Around her, passers-by shoot her occasional looks from under their lashes, the tourists staring curiously at the girl who is looking at a brick wall as though it will consume everything about her. She takes one heavy breath and in three steps has pulled open the doors that only she can see and slips inside.
The world doesn’t stop; the people don’t quiet and barely a head turns to the woman who stands in the shadow of the door. In the corner, she sees her sister sipping gingerly at a bottle of Butterbeer and she slides into the seat opposite. They don’t hug. They don’t kiss. Lucy pushes a second bottle into Molly’s hands and in a silence common to them both, they drink.
“You look ill,” the younger sister says when enough time elapses for any pleasantries to be redundant. Molly smooths her hair down and crosses her arms across her chest. She has been working non-stop, barely setting foot in the outside world for long enough for the sun to have much effect on her pale complexion. She thought perhaps it would go unnoticed but then again, Lucy is the exception to every rule concerning observation. “I said that job wouldn’t be any good for you.”
“Right.” Her tone is short, like the crack of a whip, and Molly takes another long swig from her bottle. Over her sister’s head, she is sure she sees Hannah Longbottom watching them out of the corner of her eye. Their connection to the woman is distant but she recognises them, that much is certain, and perhaps the word will get out, that she is back. “She’s going to ask him to marry her next month.”
The words fall from her sister’s tongue lightly, so lightly that they take a moment to hover in the air around her ear before sinking into her mind like an anchor jamming into the sand. She stops tearing the label off her bottle and her eyes flicker so suddenly towards Lucy that it takes them a second to find their focus. Her throat runs dry, her hands still trembling and she tries to process the words that make no sense.
“February 29th, leap year,” her sister continues and for the first time in years, her stare is focused only on Molly. The older girl shakes her head. “They’ve been together for nearly seven years.”
“He doesn’t love her.”
“You’ve not been here for two and a half years,” Lucy murmurs, her voice tender now, the sister Molly feels she has never truly had showing through. She feels a shift of guilt in her stomach, the absence of almost thirty months a gaping hole between them. She turned her back on everything and now it is coming back to haunt her. Two and a half years in Moscow, Seattle, Brisbane and a thousand places in between, and she has only succeeded in losing more of herself.
“How do you know?”
“You know our family. Vic told Dominique and she told me. She thought you ought to know.”
Molly always thought it was amazing how all except the darkest of secrets came out in her family. Where almost everyone had known of Victoire and Teddy’s first kiss in a matter of days, there were some things that people knew were too much for the family to bear. Before she left, Molly had waited and waited for the angry letters to arrive, the stern telling offs, the cold shoulders but there had been nothing but a note from Dominique, saying that Victoire had told her and it was to stay between them and them alone.
“Mm,” Lucy replies, tilting her bottle between her hands and staring up under heavily made-up eyes at her sister. “You’ve brought it on yourself.”
The scathing honesty of a girl who has never been hurt rips through Molly like she is nothing more than a sheet of parchment, asking to be torn. It is the darkness of a child who never found her voice, now older and unable to find the line between the kind and the cruel. There are moments where she thinks they are alike but now, sitting across a table in the shadows of a room that buzzes around them, she feels herself hoping she shares nothing with this girl who does not understand the workings of a mind running on love.
“You don’t know anything about it.”
She tries her best to sound confident but there is something in Lucy’s smile that suggests it is quite the opposite. It is not a challenge but the younger sister makes it so and as a barmaid swoops past with a tray, Lucy hands her the two empty bottles. There are no barriers left now, nothing to hide behind, their only weapons their voices.
“You didn’t tell him you were leaving. He was worried.”
“So he went to you?”
There is disbelief rife in her voice and Lucy looks at her as though she is a child who is struggling to understand. Under her stare, Molly feels no different to how she always has with her sister, like she is missing the obvious, patronised and underestimated. A part of her doesn’t want to hear the words that are to come, the little voice in the back of her mind niggling at her to stand up and leave, to go back to Sofia and Brasilia and Nairobi and carry on pretending that everything at home is the same as when she left. But she knows she can’t. She has proved her cowardice once. She will not do so again.
“I knew,” Lucy says as though it explains everything. “I knew about you two so he asked me.”
“And just told you the entire story?”
“Well,” her sister says, twirling one of her rings on her fingers and smiling that unnerving smile that lights up her eyes with a brutal brightness. “It took a bit of work but he told me eventually.”
Molly wonders for a moment whether their parents ever anticipated their children turning out the way they have, the eldest an adulterer, the youngest a sadist and both as manipulative as each other when the moment strikes. Maybe they don’t even know. After her mother had caught her and Teddy, she had lectured her for weeks on rights and wrongs, on what is and what can never be. Molly had convinced her well of her understanding; she’d even believed it herself for a time but there are some things that hearts know how to deal with better than heads. Lying is easier when it comes from the heart.
“He told me about the kiss in the garden,” Lucy goes on when she gains no response from her sister. “And that time he came over after you left school. He told me how you flaunted half a dozen guys under his nose and that you didn’t even ask why he was crying before you shagged him.”
Molly winces at her sister’s words, spoken with the venom she relishes bringing out, and shakes her head. She cannot find the energy in her, the will to make her sister stop, and so she listens on as a girl who will one day do more damage with her words than Molly could ever do with a kiss continues her blind assessment.
“You’ve turned your back on him five times,” Lucy says, her voice gentler now that she is coming to her close and Molly searches for the words for her defence. “And still the idiot says he loves you.”
“He started it,” Molly murmurs and Lucy’s laugh is like the crack of breaking bones. The older girl shakes her head. “I did the right thing.”
“For everyone but you as per usual,” Lucy agrees. She stops fiddling with her ring now and picks up her handbag from the floor. She rifles through it until she finds a mirror and touches up her pale pink lipstick as her sister watches on. “You ran because you were scared.”
“Mm,” Lucy concedes, slipping the lid of the tube back on and dropping it into the depths of her bag. The clasp snaps shut but she keeps it on her lap, a cushion for her stomach as she leans so far across the table that Molly can smell the expensive shampoo on her hair. “Tell him.” Her words are almost silent, lost in the cracks in her lips, and Molly edges so close that her sister’s breath falls onto her cheek. “Tell him Victoire’s going to propose.”
Neither girl moves. They sit with their faces centimetres from each other and listen to the quickening of each other’s hearts; Molly from fear, Lucy from anticipation.
“I can’t,” Molly mutters, moving away first and looking away from the table for the first time. There is a man at the bar – four or five years older than her, perhaps – watching them as though they are a pair of circus performers and even when she gives him a hard glare, he merely smirks and tilts his glass towards her invitingly.
“Do you love him?”
Molly starts and looks back to her sister who is still watching her, eyes wide and eyebrows arching in two perfect lines above them. The words take a second to sink in and she gives a small sigh in which her answer hides, emphasised by the soft nod of her head.
“Yeah,” she repeats when Lucy looks none the wiser, “but I can’t. I can’t tell him.”
She has spent two years telling herself that she is not a bad person for falling in love. She has made her excuses to herself a thousand times and even though it never lasts long, sometimes she even believes them. She will not claim that she is over him because every week she finds him in her dreams, in the shadows of her reflection, in the corner of her eye, and it hurts when she sees it is merely a cruel trick of her mind. But she cannot expect him to sacrifice his happiness, if that is what he now has, for a girl he cannot trust, a girl who runs away from him every time he offers her his hand. It is not fair on him and everyone else who has found themselves caught up in the whirlwind of their idiocy.
“Molls.” A hand covers hers and she looks up to see her sister sitting next to her now, a genuine gentleness in her touch. “He doesn’t love her. Anyone can see it.”
These moments are rare, the tenderness of two so ordinarily opposed, and even though she knows she should treasure it, Molly finds herself doubting still her sister’s motives. It is not that they never do anything for each other. It is not that they do not love each other. It is that they are different and the same and it scares them both to death. She knows she should see the honesty in Lucy, the desire that she may genuinely have to see her older sister happy, but things cannot be that simple.
“Will you please, for once, put yourself ahead of us?”
It is the biggest demand she has ever been faced with and none but Teddy has ever proposed such a question before. Despite every bone in her body shaking with the fear of it, despite her head screaming no and her stomach spinning itself into knots, she nods. Her heart beats faster and her laugh is nervous, light on the air. Lucy smiles and wrapped up in the moment, they find themselves with their arms wrapped around each other in a manner that neither has felt for years now.
“Love you,” Lucy mutters in her ear and when she says it back, Molly feels like everything here, everything from now on, might just be okay.
Her confidence scares her as she knocks firmly on the door of Teddy Lupin’s rented house on the outskirts of Brighton. The sea is a fair distance away but the wind is still strong and the salt is heavy on the crisp air. The little terrace is nothing special, the paint on the door old and cracked, the windows old and fragile and the front door leading straight onto the pavement, along which a dozen or more cars sit in perfect alignment. Inside, she can hear the clatter of a pan and his footsteps. Even then, she doesn’t want to run.
It is only when the door creaks open, jamming on the carpet that has come loose around the frame, that the urge to take her wand and just Disapparate takes over. It is cold, looking like rain and her hand flexes around the thin wand in her pocket. He doesn’t look much like the Teddy she left behind but there is no doubting that it is him. His hair is a dirty blond, his eyes grey and build bulkier but it is him; his lips fall in the same thin line, his nose still somewhat prominent and even though they have lost the mystery of their colour, everything she needs to know is in his eyes.
“Hi,” she says but it sounds nervous, broken on the wind. He doesn’t reply. He scales his gaze up from the point of her shoes to the wave of her hair, hesitating slightly longer than necessary on the quiver of her lips. She runs her hands up and down her arms, covered by the heavy winter coat that mid-February in England requires and he silently turns his back on her, the door still open in his wake. She takes it as a cue to follow and wiping her feet on the mat, she crosses into the house.
He has returned to the kitchen and she stands awkwardly in the living room the door opens onto. Through the dining room door she can see his shadow dancing over the cupboards and she clutches her wand tighter. Her eyes skim across the room; she has only ever been here once or twice before. He has settled in now, it seems, the furniture scratched and sagging, the paintwork lighter in the places he has touched up over the years. On the mantelpiece, a battered carriage clock ticks loudly.
“You didn’t say goodbye.”
He leans against the door frame between the sitting room and dining room, and she starts at the sight of him. Feeding a tea towel through his hands, he doesn’t look at her and she finds herself just as incapable to cast her gaze towards him. She stares at the photo frame to his left, the faces waving down at her: James, Lily and Albus on a beach at least a decade ago, Andromeda smiling somewhat shyly, his parents – an old photograph that she knows he has replicated a dozen times for fear of losing it – with two solemn smiles, and in the centre of it all, Victoire. Her heart punches her ribcage and she swallows loudly to try and hide the frantic beating of worry against her chest.
“How could I?” she says eventually, not taking her eyes off her cousin’s smiling face, more beautiful than the skyline of Paris which she stands before. “I’d never have gone.”
“You didn’t have to,” he replies, and out of the corner of his eye she sees him looking up but refuses to break so quickly. The strength she thought she had gained in her absence has now dissipated in his presence and she shakes her head sadly.
“I couldn’t stay.” She crosses her arms protectively across her waist and watches him out of the corner of her eye. He pulls on a loose string of cotton on the towel in his hand, his sleeves rolled up above his elbow and his teeth tug on his lip as though he is trying to stop himself from talking. “It was an amazing opportunity.”
“But you’re back?”
“Just for a bit,” she says, the tremor in the back of her throat like the prick of a hundred needles. She grabs the fabric of her coat between her fingers and squeezes to try and calm herself. “Two more weeks and then I’m in Ottawa for three months.”
He nods as though he understands but she knows he cannot; she barely comprehends it all herself. When the opening had arisen for a promotion, to travel the world as a liaison between the British Ministry and the dozens of others across the globe, she had taken some persuasion to try for it. It was Lucy who had written and told her that this was her chance to get out before everything that had happened with Teddy ate her up completely. She had believed it would work but it has been little over two years since that day and standing in his living room, he still makes her feel like she could be a better person with him by her side.
“Sit down,” he says, putting the towel down on a cupboard and seating himself on the sofa. He has pushed himself up against the arm and gingerly, Molly shrugs off her coat and takes the other side, lying her bag down between them as a weak barrier
“V-Victoire’s not going to come round, is she?”
“No, she’s in France until Tuesday,” he says, his fingers circling patterns on the fabric of the settee. “Her grandmother’s birthday.” She nods softly, her eyes floating to the clock again. Time passes too slowly when there are unsaid things hanging in the air like stars in sunlight. “What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know.”
Even though he doesn’t move a muscle, doesn’t show any sign of doubt, she knows he does not believe her. She can keep her secrets, her silence but she knows he will break her down eventually.
“Have you found someone?”
“No.” It takes them both by surprise, the speed of her reply, and she shakes her head. “I’ve tried but no. I get moved about too much.”
It is a poor excuse. Heitor had offered to get her a job in a different department in Brazil’s Ministry, one where she could stay for as long as she wished. Paul had written from Brisbane every week for three months before she put him out of his misery. Théo had moved to Sofia with her for two months before she could find the courage to tell him that it wasn’t going to work. Each time, her leaving was merely a well-timed excuse to tell the man in question that she was never going to become Molly Staines or Molly Gauthier or Molly Fernández. With age, she has become no more mature than she was when it was Alistair she let slip from her grasp.
They sit in silence for a little longer. Where before it was never awkward, now the air between them weighs down with a dark intensity, the same cloudy chill that Molly has always imagined in horror stories of Dementors and their emptiness, and she feels her tongue wrapping around the words before her brain does.
“Victoire’s going to propose.” His head flicks towards her and she feels his gaze burning ever deeper into the side of her head. She does not look at him as she adds, “To you.”
“Where’ve you heard that?”
She fiddles with her tights, rearranging the way they sit across her knees, and tries her best to pretend she imagined the coldness in his voice. He has never directed anything at her with such ferocity, such anger and she thinks that maybe if she just leaves, he’ll pretend nothing happened. Yet, as cowardly as she feels she is, she knows her curiosity is stronger and she tells him of the path of whispers that have led her to this house on this day.
“Why are you telling me?”
“Because you’ve been with her for seven years,” she says and the words are as new to her as they are to him as they fall out of her subconscious and into the chill of the room, “and you’ve not asked her yourself.” She pauses, glancing around the room. “You haven’t even moved in together.”
“Do you want me to say no?”
“I want you to think about it,” she corrects and she turns to look at him properly. She manages a smile and shifts her bag so that it no longer blocks the space between them. His gaze moves downwards and he shakes his head as though trying to wrap his brain around it.
“You know, I really thought I was over this.”
“Don’t be,” he says after a moment’s pause. His tone has softened again and he turns so that he is facing her, his head leant against the back of the sofa as he pulls his legs up onto the seat. Tentatively, she mimics him and he gently covers one of her hands in his. She flinches but does not move it away and she lets him tickle the back of her hand lightly with his circling fingers. “I never thought you’d leave. Even when Vic told me, I thought it was a lie.”
“I thought it was best.”
“Bet you never kidded yourself you were over it.”
“Sometimes,” she says, nodding as though it confirms her honesty, although she knows full well that he will be able to tell merely by looking at her whether she is speaking truth or lies. “Sometimes I really thought that it might be The One, you know? The one that’d make it all better. Never was.”
“Never will be,” he adds in a quiet murmur that trembles in the air. “God, I wish you hadn’t come.” She laughs. She knows it is not meant as an insult because in that moment, she feels much the same. The confusion makes her head spin, the line between right and wrong an undulating wave in the forefront of her mind. “If I say no, will you stay?”
“I can’t.” It is one of the hardest things she has ever had to say and she turns his hand in hers so they are holding onto each other tightly. “I’ve got to go to Canada, if nothing else.”
“Just three months?”
“Just three months,” she affirms, her nod emphatic and her smile comforting. She lifts her free hand and brushes his hair out of his face. As if it is a cue, he scrunches it up and through her fingers fall gentle waves of dark brown, the eyes that have melted her heart now the colour of coffee. She smiles, trailing a hand down a chiselled cheek and the touch of his skin beneath her makes every worry disappear. He covers it in his own, moving his head so he can kiss her pale palm and she shudders. Freeing her other hand from his grasp, she holds his face tenderly and leaning forward, she kisses him gently on the lips that make her feel complete. It does not last long, the wrap of passion to be kept for a day when they are free from the guilt that always runs through these moments, and when they draw away, Teddy feeds his fingers through her hair.
“Promise?” he murmurs, his breath soft on her cheek and eyes closed in an attempt to retain a moment that will not be paralleled for months to come. She smiles even though he knows he cannot see it and presses a second kiss against his mouth.