It was strange to think that this time last year, when we were all celebrating Lucy's seventeenth birthday, that things were much simpler for us all. The assembled crowd of family members looked distinctly uncomfortable with each other as my Aunt Audrey presented the cake.
"Make a wish, Luce," Molly prompted as my mother poured copious amounts of champagne into her own glass when she thought no one was looking.
Lucy hesitated, tucking her hair behind her ears neatly as she considered her wish. What would any eighteen year old wish for? Looking back on my teenage years, I probably would have wished for a handsome boyfriend and a bigger bust if I had had the choice. Then again, Lucy and I weren't exactly all that alike. She was preparing to further her Muggle Studies at a muggle university, for God's sake. I couldn't imagine anything worse than prolonged education.
Eventually, Lucy screwed up her eyes and then blew the candles out in one very long, very wet effort. Deciding that I would pass on the cake now, I ducked outside of the overcrowded kitchen and found some space.
It was all too much to bear, sometimes. I felt like my mother still forced me to attend all family gatherings out of sheer spite, even though I was definitely old enough to not have to do what she said any more. I spent every single one of our parties looking over my shoulder and watching the door, half expecting that this would be the time they invited Teddy. It made for a very uncomfortable experience and I wasn't keen to see him again any time soon. I knew my relatives very well, though; once you were considered a part of the family, which he definitely was, they never let you out of it again.
"Penny for them?"
I blinked, realising that I'd let myself wander off into a daydream again. Turning, I saw Matthew peering at me from the doorway. I sighed, shaking my head and joining him on the porch.
He curled his arm around my waist and I leant my head against his chest. "I'm tired," I admitted as we watched my family tucking into cake through the window. "I am definitely never agreeing to babysit for Dom ever again."
Matthew laughed, turning his gaze towards my cousin Dominique, who sat in an armchair set back from the rest of the rabble, her baby cradled in her arms. "Don't be silly; I'm sure you'll get the knack of it before too long."
"He did nothing but cry from the time I got there until she returned," I said dubiously. "I'm just hopeless with children."
"They can smell your fear," he joked.
Having realised that Matthew and I had had at least two minutes to ourselves, Audrey bustled up to us and started asking questions. We generally liked to call this the Hoover Effect, because after talking to Audrey you always felt like you'd had your brain sucked out of you. Unfortunately, she'd stopped asking me my favourite question ("how's your love life?") ever since I got a boyfriend and now we were subject to even more awkward questions.
"Aren't you having some cake?" she asked, staring pointedly at my stomach. "Or has he finally got you on a diet, Rosie?"
I tried my best not to glare at her. "I'm not on a diet," I corrected her as quickly as I could. "I'm just full."
"Full of love?" she asked with a slight hint of hope, her eyes glazing over at the imagined romantic reference. "We always knew you'd find it eventually, Rose, even if you were a late bloomer. I can't deny that we were all a bit worried at one point, though."
I blushed. Why was it that my relatives felt it was their duty to embarrass me?
"Right," I said, lacking in any other adequate response.
"I'm sure it was worth the wait though," Aunt Angelina pitched in as she sidled over to our expanding group.
I was really quite mortified by the way this conversation was going. I couldn't even look at Matthew I was blushing so much. In order to stop myself snapping at either of them, I took a tactful sip of my drink.
"How's the sex?" Audrey blurted out rather too loudly for my liking, causing me to swallow the wrong way and start choking on my champagne.
My face, which was now a very healthy beetroot colour, really couldn't cope with any more embarrassment. I just took Matthew's hand and dragged him away from Audrey as fast as I could.
"I'm really sorry," I gasped, my throat feeling like it was burning. "She's so embarrassing."
Matthew shook his head. "Nothing surprises me anymore."
We slipped into the sitting room, where Scorpius and Lorcan were locked in a furious game of wizard chess.
"Stop cheating," Scorpius whined as Lorcan's queen commenced a rather vicious attack on his rook. "You always win."
Lorcan looked up as we shut the door behind us. "I'm not cheating," he clarified as Matthew inspected the board. "Scorpius is just really, really bad."
Pouting, Scorpius started to flick over his pieces. "I give up," he muttered. "I don't like playing with cheaters."
Lorcan just raised his eyebrows as Scorpius stormed across the room and left. He cleared up the board with a wave of his wand and swiftly followed Scorpius back into the rest of the Burrow.
Thinking that we finally had a quiet moment, Matthew joined me on the sofa and I curled myself against him. He was just so comfortable, even in the midst of this utter madhouse, surrounded by all my infuriating relatives. I relaxed, inhaling his scent as I considered the most polite way of leaving the party.
"Oh, there you are," Molly barked as she burst into the room and sat next to me on the sofa. "I thought the two of you had sneaked off upstairs or something else equally seedy."
I huffed, sitting up straight and unwrapping Matthew's arm from my waist. "Like we'd even get the chance."
"Whatever," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I need to steal you away from your other half, if you can bear to be parted with him for just two seconds."
I looked back up at Matthew who was watching her conversation with light amusement. He struggled to take Molly seriously, something which greatly irked her. "Go on," he said with a grin. "I'll just wait here and die of loneliness."
"Well, don't make a mess on the carpet," I responded, allowing Molly to drag me up by my hands and whisk me away from my boyfriend.
She pushed me upstairs, barely allowing me to find my footing before shoving me in the first room we could find (which happened to be the airing cupboard).
"It's all very well you being loved up," she said as I inspected our hiding place. "But I've been talking with Albus and he has given me some fresh news. Not that you're interested in that, you're far too busy..."
I glared at her so intensely that my head bobbed and I accidentally hit it on a shelf of towels. "Ow," I muttered. "Of course I'm interested. Tell."
Molly leaned forward in what she thought was probably an intimidating gesture but was actually quite creepy, her hair falling in front of her face. "What's in it for me?"
I frowned. "What are you talking about? You're the one who dragged me up here in the first place. Just tell me what Al has told you."
Admitting defeat, she sighed. "Fine. Well," she began. "So he said he's been a bit suspicious of your dear brother as well. He said he did a bit of following-"
"You mean stalking," I interrupted.
"Whatever," Molly continued. "So he followed Hugo around and concluded that he's not done anything illegal."
"Right," I said, not in the least bit surprised. My brother was a bit of a dick, but I hadn't for a moment thought he was a criminal. "Continue."
"That's it," Molly said with a frown. "That's all the news."
I rolled my eyes. "Well that's crap news, we already knew that."
For the last month or so, Molly and I had been trying to do a bit of digging on my brother. I hadn't really noticed anything unusual about him (he was the same annoying sod he'd always been), but apparently he'd said something very curious at the family Christmas gathering and ever since then Molly had been badgering me for more details. How was I supposed to know what was going on with my brother? Hugo barely even talked to me, let alone spilled his darkest secrets. As far as I was concerned, he was his usual self. But the thing was, once Molly got an idea into her head, there was no way she'd let it go.
"He's up to something," she reminded me as I started to lose interest. "Don't you find it strange that he never tells you anything?"
I shrugged. "Not really. He's still in his teenage male mentality. He'll grow out of it."
Molly shook her head sadly. “Well, I’ll look forward to saying ‘I told you so’ when Albus and I find out what it is.”
“Be my guest,” I retorted, barging past her and heading back downstairs.
The bottom stepped was blocked by a blonde-haired obstacle in the shape of Scorpius. “What were you talking about with Molly?” he asked, scrutinising my expression.
I sighed exasperatedly. “Can’t people just learn to mind their own business around here? It had nothing to do with you, don’t worry.”
“I thought…” he looked down at his feet. “I thought you might have noticed my new haircut.”
I looked at his hair, which was gelled down as usual. In all honesty it didn’t look any different at all to me, but I was pretty sure he’d cry if I told him that.
“It looks very nice,” I lied as he looked back up at me and beamed.
“I knew you’d like it!” he said, grinning. “I’m trying to look very tidy and handsome these days, you know. I need to be a good role model.” He puffed out his chest proudly.
“What are you talking about?” I sighed.
“For William,” he said slowly, as though I was thick. “He needs a father-figure; that could be me.”
I had to really forcibly hold back my snigger at the thought of Scorpius as a father-figure to anyone, let alone Dom’s baby, who surely had enough father-figures to set up a rota system.
“I’m not sure you’re exactly the right person for that job,” I responded, trying not to be too harsh. “And Teddy’s still around a bit anyway. He’s got a perfectly good role model already.”
Scorpius scoffed and shook his head manically. “He’s not a good role model. He’s a slag.”
“Scorpius!” I scolded. “You can’t say things like that around here.” I peered around the corner of the wall to check nobody else was around. “It’s a very touchy subject, you know that.”
He shrugged. “I should have known you’d defend him. You’re easily duped.”
“Oh shut up,” I snapped. “I am not easily duped and I’m not defending him either. I’m just saying, try not to upset anyone.”
He shrugged again. “Whatever. I suppose you don’t really need him now you’ve got your little friend anyway.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Don’t you insult Matthew, either. Be nice or else I’ll have to cancel this week’s Scrabble game.”
Scorpius’s mouth dropped. “You wouldn’t?”
“I would.” I nodded sagely.
The threat of going at least a week without beating me at a board game seemed to serious for him to try and argue with me, so he simply scowled and started to walk away.
“Scooorpius,” I called after him in a sing-song voice.
“What now?” he grumbled, halting his steps.
“If you even as much as offer Dom a cup of coffee with anything else in mind other than thirst I will see to it personally that you never wear hair gel again.”
He gulped audibly then scampered off before I could draw my wand.
“You don’t think he’d actually try anything with her, do you?” Molly said from behind me, making me jump.
“Stop that, creeping Jesus,” I scolded, moving aside so she could hop off the bottom step. “He probably won’t, but I really can’t see any other reason why he’s being all paternal with her. Maybe he thinks it’s alluring?”
“Who knows,” Molly said with a shrug. “Poor Dom, though. She’s in for a fright if he decides he’s going to seduce her.”
To be honest, I wasn’t really sure how I managed all those years through school with Scorpius trailing behind me like a little lost puppy. It was lucky my street cred had always been very low from the start. Dominique was far too sophisticated to enjoy any advances made by Scorpius, who seemed to lack both common decency and a sense of personal space.
“He’s out of practice, to be fair to him,” I argued. “He hasn’t flirted with me in months.”
“That’s not exactly classed as flirting, Rose.”
“Well, whatever. I haven’t had any nose prints on my window since November, so as far as I’m concerned he’s given up.” Knowing full well that Molly was about to start nagging at me about all things relating to Scorpius, I inspected my chipped nail varnish in the hope she’d get the impression I was already bored with the subject. She didn’t get the hint.
“He’s respecting the fact that you have a boyfriend,” she pointed out. “He’s being a real gentleman about the whole thing.”
I sighed. “I thought we’d agreed to drop this insane idea you have that we’d still make a good couple. I’ve told you already, we’re much better off as friends.”
Molly brushed her carrot-coloured hair from her face and shook her head disdainfully. This wasn’t going to be the last I heard of this. Much like the Hugo thing, Scorpius was one of those issues that she wasn’t ever going to let go, even if she had to stop eating biscuits for a month out of protest. She was definitely wrong about this one.
“Who’s better of as friends?” a voice said from the sitting room door.
“Now look what you’ve done,” I muttered. I cleared my throat as I ditched Molly and joined Matthew. “Hugo and his new tart,” I lied. “She’s no good for him.” This seemed to placate his curiosity; I didn’t think I could cope with him suspecting Scorpius as well as everyone else in the family, so it seemed. He really had nothing to worry about anyway.
“It’s funny you should mention Hugo,” Matthew said slowly as Molly sulked past us. “I was just chatting with your mum and she seems to think he’s at work today.”
“He is,” I said, reaching past him and pushing through to find a comfy seat before the rest of the family invaded my privacy. “He’s doing something for my dad at the Ministry. Why?”
“It’s just,” Matthew began, joining me on the sofa and pulling my legs over his knees. “It’s just that I was looking at your grandmother’s clock just before lunch, and Hugo’s hand wasn’t pointing to ‘work’.”
“Oh. Don’t worry about that - it’s been stuck on ‘mortal peril’ ever since he broke it last Christmas. Uncle Percy repaired it, but we think he’s probably going to lose his life when my grandma finds out it was him.”
“Oh.” He paused, directing his hand gently across my waist as I leaned into him. I could almost hear the cogs in his brain whirring away. “I thought you were worried about Hugo. It’s not just about his new girlfriend, is it?”
I frowned, though I knew he couldn’t see me. “I am worried about him,” I said cagily, realising that my guard was going up despite the fact I didn’t need or want it to. “Why?”
“I’m not stupid, you know,” he said. “Every time anyone here mentions Hugo, you all clam up or change the subject. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but maybe I can help.”
It wasn’t that I was keeping secrets from Matthew, as I’m sure he suspected, it was just that there were some things I really didn’t think he needed to know about. My family, though large and loud, did have matters I considered private. What was I supposed to tell him? He didn’t know Hugo, or understand that there were times when my brother disappeared from our lives for no reason other than to follow some individual need. I didn’t know why he was blocking us out, but this time I didn’t want to know. He was old enough to make his own wrong decisions. I didn’t think Matthew would understand; he was an only child. His family always knew where he was and what he was doing. They had no need for secrets.
“I’m not hiding anything, if that’s what you mean,” I answered after some battling inside my head. “It’s just not something you can help with.”
My frown deepened. How was I supposed to get him to drop it? “It doesn’t matter, trust me.”
“Rose,” he said slowly, his grip loosening on my waist. “Talk to me, it’s what I’m here for.”
He was making it so difficult. I hated talking about this sort of thing, I always had done. I squirmed out of his grip and turned to face him. He was looking at me, blue worried eyes fixed on mine and I could see he wasn’t going to let this go. Keen to avoid an argument, I sighed and let the tension leave my body.
“This is just what Hugo does,” I began, breaking his gaze on me and looking away. “He doesn’t have any commitment to the family. He’s off doing his own thing, not writing home and avoiding all contact. They’re all convinced he’s in trouble, but I don’t think he is. He’s just… wandering.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Matthew responded, finding my hand and pulling me closer to him again. “As long as he doesn’t get arrested, that is.”
I laughed, deciding now was not the time to mention that time I got arrested myself. “He’ll be fine.”
There was a knock on the door to interrupt our conversation, followed by a yell of, “are you naked? Can I come in?”
Naturally, Molly didn’t wait for an answer and instead barged her way in. “Rose, come with me.” She snatched my hand from Matthew’s without even apologising and dragged me out of the room.
“What the hell do you want now?” I asked, irritated that she was dragging me off for the second time that day.
“It’s Scorpius,” she snapped, shutting me up until we barged our way into the kitchen.
At first I thought little Will was crying, but instead of a baby we found Scorpius curled up on the floor wailing away. Molly shoved me towards him and quickly left me to it. Scowling and muttering something about how I always had to look after him, I knelt down beside him.
“What’s the matter?” I asked in a bored voice. The sooner this was over, the better.
“I’m all alone,” he sobbed.
“No you’re not, I’m here,” I grumbled resentfully.
Scorpius sniffed. “You don’t count.”
“Thanks,” I muttered. Finding my crouching position extremely painful, I gave up and sat cross-legged on the floor.
“We need to talk,” he mumbled after wiping away his tears.
I sighed heavily, wondering why the hell everyone was needing to chinwag with me all the time. What happened to the stiff upper lip and all that? I didn’t want to discuss my own feelings, let alone listen to other people talk about theirs.
“Go on, then.”
“Why don’t you love me?” He sat up to face me, crossing his legs as well and leaning forward far too close.
I rolled my eyes. “Have you been on the cider?”
“No,” he retorted. “I’m just lonely and unloved. I don’t understand.”
I sighed yet again. “We’ve been through this, Scorpius. You’re my friend.”
“Your best friend?” He attempted to flutter his eyes at me, but his eyelashes got stuck together with his tears.
“Close enough,” I replied, hoping Molly wasn’t listening in.
“And nothing else?” He looked so hopeful that I couldn’t help feel guilty.
“How many times do we have to go through this? I thought you understood.” I was getting grumpy very quickly. “I have a boyfriend.”
Suddenly, his tears dried up and he grinned. “Good. I was just testing you.”
I glared at him. “You’re a bastard,” I growled. He looked frightened for a moment before standing up and skipping off out of the room.
I wasn’t sure how long I could cope in this madhouse. All I wanted was an easy, normal life, not one plagued by a missing brother, an inquisitive boyfriend and sadistic friends. Perhaps I should join a convent.
AN: So here we go again! I've been wanting to post this chapter for ages but I struggled on the title. Thank you SO much to everyone I pestered about titles(Rachel, Fargle Schnog, Molly, Drue to name but a few). I'm very excited about the sequel already and I have so much planned. Welcome aboard and I hope you enjoy! If you have a moment, please review ;) -Marina