Chapter 23 : Chapter 22
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December 25th 2019: Seb
Sometimes, she was so honest that it made me feel like I was a dreadful person for doing what I was doing. In her exhausted, sickly state on Christmas Day, I felt a twinge of guilt myself for forcing the same feeling onto her. She looked so small against me, and when she fell asleep with her head against me, I couldn’t bring myself to even move the slightest muscle for fear of waking her. Still, she felt responsible for Tierney, for those friends who were still trying to turn her away from me, for her cousin even though it was nothing to do with her, and it was the way she didn’t once even consider throwing an accusation at me that made my heart sink into the pool of culpability that was beginning to form inside me.
Her stack of Christmas presents – possibly more than I’d received in the past five years – was still sat on the sofa next to us. A few tags were turned up and in the firelight, I could see occasional familiar names: Teddy and Victoire, Max, Mum and Dad, Nanna and Grandpa. There were a few I didn’t know: Katie and Jess, Darren and Margot, Auntie Rhiannon. From the shoddy wrapping, I could guess they were her Muggle relatives and the scope of exactly how family-orientated she was hit me like a punch to the stomach.
I must have jerked because Molly stirred and then sat up a little. I knew she was embarrassed about opening the presents in front of me, but once she’d come around, I pressed her into starting. I wanted to dig deeper into this, into every single relationship she had and perhaps most importantly, of any weak branches of the sprawling family tree.
She sat primly on the edge of the sofa, me on the arm again, my feet behind her and my head peering over her shoulder and she meticulously removed the wrapping paper off every individual present.
I discovered that Victoire was probably her best friend in the family, that Katie and Jess were old neighbours, that Darren was an uncle, Margot his wife and that Auntie Rhiannon was her mother’s twin sister, the one her parents were on holiday with. She faltered when her hands fell on the present I later saw was addressed from Uncle George, Aunt Angelina, Fred and Roxanne, and she made no comment on the deep purple scarf that fell out of the packaging, putting it neatly on top of the rest of her presents and moving on.
Eventually, she reached the end and surrounded by countless Galleons, a few books and a surprising number of scarves, she relaxed back, starting when she came into contact with me. I laughed under my breath and ran a hand down her arm.
She frowned and looked around her slowly. From inside my cloak, I pulled the unwrapped box that had been digging into me for a while. She bit her lip but her smile still shone in her eyes and she looked at me as though asking permission to open it. I nodded and when she popped it open, she gently traced the outline of the very fine silver chain. She didn’t say anything, but stood up, smiled with slightly watery eyes and kissed me so gently that if I’d been made of the thinnest glass, I wouldn’t have broken at the touch.
Even when she hurried away to find the gift she had for me, I could still feel the tickle of her hair on my cheek, the faint smell of her perfume on the air and I wondered whether happiness was something I ought to dabble in more often.
The week between Christmas and New Year would usually drag, the days building up to nothing but the turn of another day into another year, no real difference between the two. Now, it felt like both of us were trying to make every day last twice as long, every moment stretching so much further than normal. She took me to places in the grounds that I would never have known existed, and I to places in the castle that embodied the quietness that we both cherished.
There was a completeness to it all that made me feel, just occasionally, that if anything was meant to be, it was this. I glanced down to her, reading on the floor at my feet, and scoffed to myself. She’d made me soft.
“What’s amused you so much?” she asked, shifting so that she could see me. I gently moved a strand of misplaced hair on her head and shook my head.
“Nothing. Just thinking.”
“About?” she said, her eyes darting across my face like the shadow of a moth around a flame.
“You,” I said, sticking my tongue out when she grinned at me. “Shut up.”
“I’ve made you into a right daft sod, haven’t I?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” I said quickly, meaning every word and she couldn’t stop her face falling a little. As I drifted my hand across another curl of hair, I could see an image of myself, not even twelve months ago, vomiting at the very words I had been speaking. My stomach churned a little bit and I swallowed back the rest of my sentence. I could see Tierney in my head, my words coming out in his voice and all his feelings etched on his simpering features. I wanted to shudder.
At my feet, she had edged away from me a bit, looking at her book but not reading. When she read, I learned that she followed the lines with her finger, like a beginner. Now she was staring blankly, not even pausing to take in the occasional awkwardly worded phrase, and turning the page when she felt it was right to do so. I sighed, letting my hand drop from her hair and pulled my legs up onto the settee.
One of these days, I’d be able to say what I meant, regardless of what I thought of myself. But for now, my own self-appreciation was still more important than what pleased everyone else. For the rest of the night, Molly didn’t take her eyes off her book and mine didn’t leave the fire. When she left to go to sleep, she didn’t say a word and when I followed, thirty minutes later, she had closed the hangings around my bed.
I climbed into one of the others and made a note to myself to teach her how to cast a decent Silencing charm. I couldn’t sleep through her tears.
As ever, the disagreement between us didn’t even last a few hours, and on the morning of New Year’s Eve, we both woke up with the same aim in mind. Still in her pyjamas, she was standing against the foot of her bed, fiddling with the strap of her watch when I drew back my hangings. Although I had fully intended to make my apology, despite really having done little wrong aside from embarrass myself, she made the first move as soon as I had placed myself on the end of my own bed.
“I was a bit oversensitive, wasn’t I?”
“Don’t be so stupid,” I said, though she knew as well as I did that the answer was very much ‘yes’. “And I need to learn how to treat people I care about better.” She nodded slowly, glancing up from her wrist to me. She tilted her head to one side, crossing the room and sitting herself less gently than she had intended to on my lap. I clasped one arm around her and with my free hand, lifted some stray strands of hair away from her mouth before kissing her softly. I drew back as though the word had been transferred onto my lips by her, and said under my breath, so that it tickled against her chin, “Sorry.”
“Me too. We’re a right pair,” she said, giving me the slightest peck on the lips. “We’d best get dressed. It’s already nine and I wanted to take you out by the lake.”
“It’s raining,” I said, glancing to the window where the rain was indeed streaming down.
“Wimp,” she said, her lips twisting into a wry smile. I raised my eyebrows, pulling her even closer to me before rolling us over so that we were lying flat on the bed, her body trapped under mine. Just for a moment, her eyes flew wide before softening again, and perhaps not every part of who I was had been lost. One hand slipped around my neck and she pulled me in for a kiss. “Be at breakfast in half an hour.”
I nodded and somehow, she wriggled out from under me, disappearing out of the door, the only trace of her being there the tickle of a single strand of deep red hair against my hand.
The rain was the worst kind, soaking us both through to the skin. She was huddled up against me on a rug that I’d charmed to keep dry and an umbrella hovering above us, as we sat nestled against the trunk of a tree on the far side of the lake. Her teeth were chattering a little whenever she stopped speaking and each hard drop of rain that fell from a branch above our heads made her jump. I tapped the ash off the end of my cigarette and took another drag.
“You can’t deny it’s beautiful,” she said, looking out to where, against the grey cast sky, the castle sat shrouded in cold mist. It looked like nothing special to me and I told her. She didn’t try and convince me, but shrugged her shoulders as if it wasn’t worth her breath and lifted her hand to her mouth, biting on her thumbnail. I batted her hand away with my free one and stubbed out the cigarette on the ground. “Sorry.”
“’s alright,” I said, shifting so that I was closer to her. I could taste the staleness of my own bad habit on the tip of my tongue and swallowed hard. She never complained; I wondered if it really didn’t bother her or if it was something else. Perhaps she was scared, still, after so long. “I’m freezing. Can we go back in?”
She didn’t seem especially happy about it but gave a small sigh, as though she’d expected it, and sat up. Rubbing her eyes, she nodded and grabbed the stalk of the umbrella, lifting it up to allow me to stand without doing my head some serious damage. She took the blanket and the little bits of food we had left over and pushed them into her bag, handing me the umbrella, and together we walked back to the castle.
The mist moved in a dozen directions at once as we stepped into it, curling like a stream of smoke. I’d not noticed it from the distance but the rain streaking through it made the air look damp, look like it was there. I squeezed Molly tighter to me and she glanced up. For a moment, she just stared like I was just anyone, and then her lips broke into a grin and one soft laugh broke through her slightly crooked front teeth.
People said too often that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ I always thought it was the polite way to call something ugly but perhaps, just possibly, it was something more. Maybe it was talking of enlightenment, of change, of how something old can become something new; everything around me was beginning to lose one meaning and gain another and in the greyness of the deep Scottish winter, there was only one consistency: the small, redheaded girl under my arm.
When midnight came, we gathered with the others in the Great Hall. Most of the teachers had gone home, to spend time with their family to see the New Year in, and those who stayed were sipping mulled wine and laughing as though they’d never known of the concept before. They had charmed the clock hovering over us to chime in sync with Big Ben, hundreds of miles away in London, and when the twelfth gong hit, the room erupted with far more noise than anyone might have thought possible for so few people.
Molly clung to my hand and stepped in front of me. Her lips were trying to make her smile but the way her forehead was furrowing told me that she wanted to keep a straight face.
“Happy New Year,” she said, quietly yet it seemed to lift over the hubbub. I took her other hand in mine too and dipped my head just enough to catch her lips in a fleeting kiss.
“Happy New Year.”
“I don’t want this to be the end.”
New Year’s Day had led to a feast almost as large as on Christmas Day itself, and once we’d collapsed in the Slytherin common room, having eaten far more than either of us really intended, we had sat in a comfortable silence until she spoke those words. I shifted, grimacing as my stomach groaned in protest, and looked down at her.
“Who says it has to be?”
She fiddled with the clasp of her watch and I put a hand softly on her wrist to stop her. She let her hand flop down onto her leg and ran a hand back through her hair, curling finely through each short finger.
“My family will be back tomorrow, and as soon as they find out –”
“Do you care?” I interrupted, knowing that the more she spoke, the more she’d convince herself that she was right. I caught her hand in mine and kissed it softly.
“Not for me, for you. They’ll tear you apart.” I smirked at the image of little Lily Potter and her clumsy, awkward teenage brothers trying to even make a mark on me. I shook my head.
“I’d love to see them try.”
“Seb –” she began wearily, trying to release my hand but I held it tighter and moved again so that we were looking directly at each other.
“Listen, you like me?” She nodded as though I was stating the obvious. “And I like you so where’s the harm in it?” She thought about it for a while, and I could see her thought process unfolding before me. “I know you love your family but you should do what you think is right by you not them.”
“I suppose.” She chewed on her lip and tapped her free hand awkwardly against the cushion of the sofa. I lifted mine up to swipe her hair out of her face.
“It’ll get out eventually anyway. People have already seen and the rumours will fly as soon as the first person steps off the train. Pretending nothing is going on is just a way of prolonging the inevitable.”
I didn’t say anything else, but my agreement hung ghostly in the air between us and she merely smiled a little in reply, rocking up onto her tiptoes to kiss me, the worries melting with it.