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Not Just a Bystander by AC_rules
Chapter 19 : And then there are decisions to make...
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 20


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 Before I turned fourteen, I was actually quite short.  At least I wasn’t tall at any rate, but then suddenly I had this growth spurt and I kept growing up and up. I got thinner disproportionally – stretched – and I felt betrayed by these long limbs and bones fighting with my hips to have more space. Skin stretching over bones and clothes that wouldn’t fit… but the worst part was watching as the markers past: suddenly, I was much taller than Dom, my shoulders were meters above my mothers, the top of my head inching past my fathers, but the worst thing of all was overtaking April.

That was back before April left to go write a book, back when she was my protector at home. Feisty April who used too many punctuation marks in letters and reeked of determined personality. And one day, I was looking down on her instead of up, and I remembered wanting to snap myself in half to be smaller so that I could look up to her again.

Because she was supposed to be bigger than me and my problems.

April left for Egypt and I thought I might grow for ever and that by the time she got back I’d have been reclassified as a giant rather than a human (a repetitive nightmare that Dom had laughed at, not that I could really blame her for that).

I stopped suddenly an inch and a half after the six foot march (which I attributed to copious amounts of prayer). Then a little while later the guys had their growth spurts too and I was caught up and overtaken by some of the people I’d been squinting down at months previously. I felt better when I wasn’t the tallest person in the room. Felt less like everyone was looking at me and judging me.

But I could still remember how it had first felt, when April – who to me was the tallest person in the whole world, the biggest, and the most stagnant point – was dwarfed by this insane growth spurt. And I felt it again in that moment as April shrank through the doorway and tried to explain away a fiancé with a golden retriever licking my ankles and an Australian – Ethan –witnessing the whole messy scene. Except because it was us, she hadn’t said a word, and simply sent a few long glances in certain directions of the room and started chewing on her bottom lip.

“Autumn,” April said, breathing in a deep sigh, “what are you doing here?”

“It blew up,” I said, quietly, feeling too big for her new flat and her new life that she hadn’t even mentioned to me or Oliver (at least, I was presuming so).

“With James and Dom?”

I nodded.

“You’ve got to go back to Hogwarts, Autumn,” April said, reaching out and taping the kettle with her wand – still looking at me – “you can’t be here, it’s… it’s really late.”

“I can’t.”

“It’s just… teenage drama.”

“No,” I said, feeling my eyes fill up with tears slightly and looking away again, “it’s not teenage drama, April, because everyone has been lying to me. Dom’s been… and then James, and you – you’re engaged!”

“Look, Autumn,” April said, glancing at Ethan for a second and her expression slipping slightly, “Ethan will take you back to school now, and I’ll write to you in the morning.”

“No!” I said, “I’m fed up of sodding letters, you could have put all of this in a letter if you’d wanted to.”

“You -”

“You’re my sister,” I said, looking up at her and feeling my hands shaking slightly, “you’re supposed to be there for me if I need you and you just… you ran away to Egypt for years when I needed you and Oliver needed you and I don’t even count Mum and Dad as family, and Oliver’s just a kid so all I have is James and Dom and now they…” My throat tightened again.

“What happened?”

“I’ll write to you about it,” I said, staring straight at her at clamping my jaw shut.

April’s eyelids fluttered close for a minute. She touched her forehead with her fingers and looked at the ceiling for a few long seconds.

“Ethan’s been travelling with me for the past year,” April said, her tone back to refined and solid, with the Golden Retriever’s head now in her lap and her fingers caressing his forehead, “that’s sort of why I’ve been taking my time with the book, and why I… well, why I stopped writing so often, Autumn, and I’m so sorry. But I knew I had responsibilities here and as soon as the book was finished I had to go home and I wasn’t planning on coming back.”

“Course,” Ethan said, “I wasn’t about to let her say g’day and sod off back to England.”

Ethan placed a cup of tea down in front of me.

“No,” April said, smiling slightly before meeting my eye and flushing with something a little like guilt, “so, well, we went for dinner and then things just escalated and… well, when I said I was going to go back to England Ethan, well, proposed.”

My jaw still felt slightly slack. The thought of my flighty sister, who could barely keep a relationship with her siblings going, felt she had the capacity to commit to something as serious as a marriage was utterly mad.

“And you said yes,” I said, my mouth feeling dry despite the tea, “you’re getting married to a guy that you’ve never even… you’ve never even mentioned him.”

“I thought it might be complicated,” April said, her lips twisting into a downward curve – an expression that looked oddly jarring on my sister’s face – “it didn’t know how it was going to work out. I thought… I thought it might fall apart. But then, see, Ethan brought Neb – ”

“- Neb?”

“Nebuchadnezzar,” Ethan said. And unless you’ve ever heard someone with quite a strong Australian accent say Nebuchadnezzar, whilst looking fondly at a golden retriever than you probably haven’t lived – and if I wasn’t in a situation where I was fully intending on writing off my best friend and my boyfriend and had now discovered that my sister had an elicit engagement that she hadn’t told us about, I probably would have laughed.

“I think I’m lost,” I said, “what’s Neb got anything to do with anything?”

At hearing my name Neb came wondering over to my side of the table and set about trying to sniff my ankles.

“My dad used to say,” Ethan said, “the only way to make sure a relationship is concrete, is to have shared assets that neither of you want to lose.”

“That sounds…”

“Like bullshit,” April interrupted, “his dad was a bit like Mum, Autumn. Always full of shit like that. Treated fatherhood like a social experiment and his marriage like a business contract.”

“But, I thought that your sister couldn’t possibly run off and leave me if I had Neb.”

I glanced down at the dog, who’s doleful eyes stared right back at mine, and I had to admit that he was both cute and beautiful, but he hardly seemed like the basis of a very stable relationship: maybe I just didn’t like the idea of my sister’s change of plan – of coming home and buying a flat here – had nothing to do with me and everything to do with this Australian with a matching messed up childhood and a lot of faith in the canine race.

“Autumn,” April said, leaning forwards. I was struck by how little we talked about the serious issues we had and the fact that this conversation had probably been insanely hard for her, but that didn’t change the fact that my sister had been lying and I just didn’t understand why, “that’s the only reason I went to see Mum and Dad. I thought it might be nice to let them… well, to let them know I’m getting married.”

“Are they… invited to the wedding?”

“That’s up to you,” April said, “I only didn’t tell you because… well, I wanted things to be settled first. I was going to introduce this weekend, but you’ve had Dom and James and school going on, and I didn’t want you to be worrying about me eloping in Timbuktu or something.”

“That’s a rubbish reason,” I said, staring at my cup of tea and wishing very much to be smaller, “that’s crap. You didn’t tell me because you didn’t think it would work out.”

“Autumn,” April said, glancing back at the table, “please don’t.”

I wanted to ask why I shouldn’t, but even at this point I didn’t have it in me. I wanted to tell Ethan that my sister was no good at relationships; that she was no good at keeping up contact or being there when I honestly thought she would be, but I didn’t have that much family left to juggle with.

“I’m not…” I thought of Dom, “I’m not going back to Hogwarts tonight.”

“I’ll clear everything off the sofa.” Ethan said, tactfully side stepping out of the room and leaving us to our complete stretch of silence. Conversations with April were euphemistic at best, and existing in a state of denial most of the time, but we did usually manage some form of conversation. Not this silence.

“I didn’t think he’d follow me to England,” April said, fingers pressed against her forehead and a haunted expression flitting across her face, “I didn’t…realise.”

April was haunted too.

That had never stuck me before, that my sister wasn’t just flighty and absent, but running away from the fact that she’d chosen me over her parents and was still unable to make a real difference because she was simply too young. She thought she could neglect to answer a few letters and she’d be forgotten and free from any ties to anyone, thought that love had an expiry date and clauses attached, that it was something to escape from; my sister was just as emotionally messed up as I was, and she’d ran all the way to Egypt to prevent me from noticing.

“Are you okay?” I asked, feeling my height stretch upwards the renewed urge to cry prickling at the back of my eyelids.

“Yes,” April said, her voice turning crisp again as she looked up at her glass at tea. “Now, please tell me exactly what Dom did after she found out?”

*

Dom was right about me.

After one of the worst days of my life – and there’d been quite a few – the reason that I was unable to sleep was the fact that, in transit, my Arithmancy essay had gotten crumpled beyond acceptable levels. I had been sure that after running around the castle, being emotionally abused by everyone I considered important in the world (other than Oliver, of course) and making a late night trek to Hogsmeade I’d have been tired enough to sleep… but insomnia and alertness started creeping up on the minute April and Ethan had gone back to bed and I’d been left alone in her sitting room with Neb and too many conflicting thoughts to count.

It was the Arithmancy essay that cracked me.

I was rummaging through my bag as though some sleeping cure was about to appear in the depths of my school bag, but all that did appear was a piece of parchment that had been folded and scrunched up and all but destroyed by the nights events.  And I couldn’t hand in such a scruffy essay tomorrow… even if my sister was a screwed up liar and Dom was sure to have set fire to my bed and James was, well, not my boyfriend anymore (although I’d have to clarify that with him at some point, preferably through a gesture that involved me never having to look at him again), it was still well within my ability to write a decent essay.

I relit the gas lamps, feeling much better with Neb sitting next to me on the couch and occasionally licking my face, pulled out my quill and parchment and began transferring the creased essay onto the next piece of parchment.

Irritatingly – and it really did irritate me, to the point where I nearly started crying all over again although I suspected that was more to do with the extraneous emotional exploitation from the evening rather than the actual piece of parchment – the piece of parchment was a couple of inches too short to accommodate my whole essay.  Too short. Everything was too sodding short and I reached into the bottom of my bag to find another spare bit of parchment and –

The letter still said A.O. Pearce even though it had been weeks since I’d even looked at it. I’d barely thought about it, either. My mother’s handwriting didn’t usually invoke cheerful feelings and I’d had enough on my plate with April and James and Dom without worrying about whatever false birthday wishes she’d sent, but suddenly it seemed like the perfect distraction.

There was nothing that my mother could do to make the current evening any worse than it was already.  There’d been so much drama and shell shock that one measly letter couldn’t make me feel any worse… if anything, the letter only had the scope to make me feel… well, not better, but whenever I thought about how little my mother cared about me there was a certain sense of self-satisfaction about being right all this time. When she signed off her letters with her full name and no kisses or love it jerked up some self-righteous feeling in my gut – because it could be her fault that I was awkward and unwanted and too tall and lonely. I didn’t have to blame Dom or James, who I hadn’t stopped caring about yet, because I could blame her.

I needed that right about now.

I closed my eyes for a second before beginning to open it. I hadn’t realise that this was, technically, the last I ever had to do with my parents. I was seventeen. I was legally an adult. Maybe the letter was just a page of gloating poorly veiled insults or something of that calibre.

Money.

I didn’t know how the weight of the envelope hadn’t struck me before, but there were dozens of notes spilling out over my hands. Muggle ten pounds. My Mother had given me muggle money – easier to transport, I supposed, and the least amount of effort she could physically put in without giving me nothing (which I’d have preferred). The quantity was unexpected, though. One, two three… fifteen. A hundred and fifty pounds of muggle money.

There were two more pieces of paper in the envelope. I pulled the letter out, taking in my mother’s cursive before absorbing the actual words she’d written.

Autumn,

I knew I wouldn’t be able to get you what you want and deserve. Treat yourself. Happy Birthday. Hope to see you soon.

Hope was new. We rarely signed our letters due to the concentrated awkwardness of the thing: neither of us would ever write ‘love’ in relation to each other, sincerely was too cold, mother was laughable, she’d used her full name once or twice but that usually sparked up a whole host of awkward feelings and, after I’d called her up on it once, she’d stopped signing her letters off all together. Hope was foreign. Hope not something I was expecting to see in a letter from my mother.

Neither was the sudden acknowledgement that things weren’t okay between us, or the fact that apparently now I deserved things from her, so it seemed… that my mother was just as aware as I was that I could leave. Just as sure that I would go. And now, for reasons that I’d probably never know, she didn’t want me to. It might be because she didn’t want to be that failed mother whose children all left the second they could, or maybe somewhere in her empty heart she knew she was supposed to love me, or maybe that she did. She just resented me more.

It was selfish. Hope to see you soon. What you want and deserve. Treat yourself. Empty, stupid words that I could have expected. And it did make me feel stronger, somehow, to know that there was someone and something to blame and it wasn’t just teenager drama.

The last piece of paper was a cheque. An empty cheque. My mother’s named signed. And a post-it note: whatever you need.

Oh god.

And there, permission to leave. The opportunity to walk out and get my own flat in Hogsmeade or London or France or anywhere I wanted to go. The only thing that could possibly have made me feel worse, because wrapped up in those three words was the nicest thing my Mother had ever done for me – she’d given me a choice.

I stopped staring only when Neb tried to take a bite out of my Arithmancy essay, only because I was Autumn Olivia Pearce and when faced with a life crisis I transferred a lot of these issues onto being hyper aware about the state of my essay, and after everything else that had happened this term I really didn’t want to have to fall back on the excuse a dog ate my homework.

I thought, considering everything, that would be one humiliation too far.

*

An early morning letter to the headmistress about an imminent life crisis meant I wasn’t liable for multiple detentions (which I no doubt deserved, because leaving school premises in the middle of the night and sneaking to Hogsmeade was definitely worth of at least a week of cleaning toilets – then again, April was good at writing letters) and an excusal of classes the next day.

So April let me sleep until Neb licked my face awake well after noon (I had eventually fallen asleep at about five in the morning, so I still hadn’t gotten a reasonable amount of sleep), when we had an awkward breakfast involving my new favourite Australian and an unnecessary number of eggs considering the last thing I wanted to do was eat. Or think. Or be conscious. Or go back to Hogwarts ever again.

Apparently it wasn’t optional, though, but it turned out Ethan had been onto something about the addition of a dog to any social situation making it less awkward and more concrete, because the walk back to Hogwarts hadn’t seemed so bad when we could take it in turns to throw things for Neb or keeping hold of him straining against his lead respectively. In the end, apart from trying to eat my homework and giving me an unwanted and slightly animalistic facial in the morning, he’d been a nice companion for the worst night of my life and I was more than happy to let him continue sniffing my ankles and circle me until I was dizzy.

And then I was back in Hogwarts and it was absolutely and completely terrifying, and I had every intention of disappearing into the library and not meeting anyone’s eye for at least a week.

After I’d handed in my essay.

 I knocked on the door of Professor Vector’s office and let myself in, trying to offer my best apologetic smile and not slouching too much (I hadn’t stood up straight since the ultimatum was issued, and with every blow to my perspective on life I my posture was taking another hit).

“I’ve got my essay,” I said, digging out the piece of parchment from my bag, “sorry it’s a bit late.”

“I hear it went to Hogsmeade and back?”

“Yeah,” I nodded, shifting on my feet and forcing myself to stand up a little straighter.

“And that you’ve fallen out with James Potter and Dom Weasley.”

“I was offered an ultimatum,” I said, just because I didn’t much like the idea of her believing I’d cheated on James, or something like that, as apparently the whole of Hogwarts had been believing things about me that weren’t true for a very long time thanks to some rumours that no one had told me about. And still hadn’t, really, because I still didn’t know what the content of these rumours had been.

“And what did you chose?”

“Arithmancy,” I said, holding out the essay with a grim smile.

Professor Vector cracked a smile.

I forced another smile before turning round on my heel and planning to snuggle in the invisibility cloak till it was acceptable to go back to bed.

“Autumn,” she said, before I’d left the room. I paused and turned around to face her. “As much as I appreciate your rediscovered dedication to my classes, I think… I think this time you should chose yourself.”

And that didn’t seem like bad advice at all. 




This update was marginally longer than last time, but still not to bad given NaNo and everything! Two more chapters after this one. Oh, and thanks you guys for getting this story to 400 reviews! My original big goal for this story was 450, but that was back when I was planning more chapters so that's likely not gonna happen now, but after being so awful with updates I never thought I'd get to the 400! So thanks guys, you're wonderful! And I promise they'll be no more bombshells from now on ;)

Reviews are lovely as always, but I'm beyond glad just for you actually reading :)


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