Chapter 23 : In The Art Of Returning
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Has it ever occurred to you that saying 'Dear Diary' is just plain stupid. Come on, you're not a person. You're a piece of paper. Paper and ink. Nothing more.
My counsellor says that you're supposed to help me 'understand myself'. Whatever that means. I guess at this point I should stop calling you 'you'.
Maybe I should pretend you're someone I know. Someone I trust.
Lucas. Yes, Lucas, you're the one I want to talk to right now.
It's all so messed up, Luke. So messed up. And I think it might be my fault.
So after my injury…that's when it all started. When James and I somehow became friends. Just friends. Otherwise it's just…too complicated.
And then he started dating Faye, and it all went to crap.
I'm not blaming Faye here. I'm not even blaming James.
It just got so screwed up. Even after he dumped her.
I just…couldn't trust him anymore. He dated the girl he'd been secretly in love with for years, who just happened to be the girl I hated.
It was like he didn't even care. Like my feelings about Faye didn't matter a smidge. Not something I can forget just like that, you know?
Anyhow, in the meantime I'd been working on my walking every day. And every day I got better. I took one step, then another, until I was taking ten steps at a time. After ten steps came whole strides across a room. Until finally, there they were again. My legs, how I had missed them.
Physical therapy is crap, let me just say that here and now. It's absolute crap.
It hurts like a bitch, and even for hours afterwards. I grit my teeth at the very thought of it. But Healer Robbins has been doing everything she can to fix the pain.
The pain was the problem. My legs worked, no problem. But use the legs for too long and the familiar ache would spread from the base of my spine, all over my body. I would be full of hope, only for my crippled, lame body to push me back down again.
And then things with James kept getting more complicated. I guess you don't want to hear that much about this because, well, you're my older brother. You don't want to know about James. What he is, what he isn't. What he does, what he doesn't.
Well, tough, I'm going to tell you anyway.
So I show up at his grandparents house over the summer because he invited me, right? And it was all fine until Fred showed up with this new girlfriend. And I swear I caught her and James practically eye-fucking each other. Ok, maybe that's an exaggeration. James swore she was coming on to him.
This is where things get really messed up. So I did this whole makeover thing. I put on a dress, and their cousin, Molly I think her name was, cut my hair, and Max did my makeup. They even helped to wax my legs. It was brutal.
Anyway, moving on. So, again, I was just messed up, and hopeless, and James was flirting with Fiona, at least, I thought he was, and I wanted to walk again. I took pills, OK? Like, 5 pills. Maybe 6. I don't quite remember. I wanted a change. I wanted to look different. It might come as a shock to you, Lucas, but I wasn't born a boy like the rest of you. Maybe I like the idea of wearing makeup and pretty clothes once in a while.
But James didn't seem to think so. We got into this huge fight, and somehow I ended up drinking. Apparently too many painkillers and alcohol don't mix well, especially when combined with the fact that I caught James and Fiona kissing.
Yeah, and the douche made me feel like a complete idiot for thinking they were flirting. How stupid of me.
This is the part where I messed up. I was so confused, and upset, and sweaty, and tired, and in pain.
I kissed Owen, OK? Yeah, I know, I suck.
He was just…there. I know that sounds awful, but he was.
And he hasn't spoken to me since.
This is the last part of the story, I swear.
So, I collapsed. I like to think is was the combination of too many painkillers and alcohol. But it might have been more than that. A combination of things too numerous to count.
And when I woke up, I was in hospital.
Okay, so you know that part already. You came to visit.
I feel like I have to explain it better to you. I felt like you were embarrassed, or worried, or both. You thought it was your fault I ended up there, in a bed.
But I swear Luke, it isn't your fault. It's mine.
It's all mine.
* * *
I glanced over my shoulder at the trunk sitting on the end of the bed. It was small and even then it was only half full. "Ready as I'll ever be, I guess."
Dan stepped into my room and glanced around, "Good because its half past ten and it takes about twenty minutes to get to Kings Cross from here."
I stepped out of the bathroom, shouldering my bag. Dan raised an eyebrow, "Wow. You look even hotter than me."
I glanced down at the pale blue summer dress I was wearing, not really sure of what to say. "Um…thanks. It's Max's actually. She gave it to me before she left for Beauxbatons."
"Well, this just won't do!" Dan said clasping her hands at the sight of my half empty trunk, "This can't be all your stuff."
I shrugged, "I don't own a broom, and I don't have many of my own clothes. Most of it in there is textbooks and school uniform."
Dan shook her head and tut tutted. "Back in a sec."
She hurried out of the room, and I heard various banging noises coming from one end of the corridor.
I had been staying with Dan ever since I had gotten out of hospital. I had no desire to go and stay with my dad, Max was living in France and Dan had kindly offered the spare room she and her mum had in their London flat. I had been a little nervous at first, but sooner or later they both made me feel right at home.
I had also started going to a counsellor at St. Mungo's, ever since I had been in hospital there. It was part of the condition for me being allowed out. The counsellor specialised in 'troubled adolescents'. Even the sound of that annoyed me. I wasn't troubled, as I told her time and time again. Every week it was the same. I told her about my dad, and my step-mum, and my actual mum, and my brothers and James. Somehow whenever I spoke about my family, James would come up unexpectedly.
Dan came back into the room, carrying a whole armful of clothes.
"Here." She placed them gently into the trunk.
I stared at her, "You can't-"
"Trust me, I have too many clothes anyway," she grinned at me, "And now you've actually started to wear proper clothes I finally have someone to share it with! Now that Max is gone, and what with Alex being…Alex."
I nodded, "Well, if you're sure."
She waved me away, "Im sure. Now, come on. Mum's waiting for us downstairs and if we miss the train the school year won't be getting off to a very good start."
* * *
In the movies, when someone gets a makeover, they become a whole different person. The ugly girl who used to hide in the library with glasses and a mouth brace gets a makeover and suddenly, voila! Supermodel.
Another thing that happens in the movies is that automatically people stare at them, and even find them monumentally more attractive than they did before.
Neither of these things happened to me.
Sure, my hair was shorter, and I now wore clothing that showed exposed my legs and shoulders, but no one seemed to mind much. I even bothered wearing makeup now. I liked wearing makeup. But no one seemed to care.
And even though it might not seem like it from the way I'm talking about it, but the fact that they didn't care really didn't bother me at all.
This wasn't for them. This was for me.
I was finally a girl. A girl with boobs. And legs. And hair. Before I had always been a tall, gangly something in between. Something to be stared at, not admired or accepted.
I'm sure Alex would say I'd sold out. I'd done what everyone wanted, that I was no longer myself. But that was the thing, I felt more myself now than I had before.
As Dan and I pushed through the crowds at platform nine and three quarters, I noticed several people, students in particular glancing at me, and then whispering to one another. I lowered my head, embarrassed. It wasn't the new clothes they were looking at. They were whispering because they'd heard what I did over the summer.
I suddenly wondered if James was around here somewhere, but decided I didn't want to see him. Our last interaction hadn't been the most pleasant.
Max stood beside me. She was still in her silver evening dress, and even though her face revealed the make up stains where she'd been crying, she still looked stunning. She also looked furious, "Promise you'll never do something that stupid again, Charlie. I thought you were dead!"
I was lying in a hospital bed, my whole body aching, "I'm fine, Max."
"Don't tell me I'm overreacting!" she exclaimed, almost angrily, "This is bloody serious Charlie."
"I just…wanted to walk again," I said feebly, "I thought if I took more pills than usual, then maybe I could go one night without being the cripple in the wheelchair."
"You're not a cripple," Max snaps, "Stop thinking that you are. It's that sort of mind frame that got us into this mess. And what were you thinking, drinking that much? I mean, Merlin Charlie, what the fuck?"
Her voice reached a piercing climax, before she slumped into a chair at my bedside, breathing shakily, her head in her hands.
I reached out a hand, "Max-"
"Don't touch me," she said angrily, swatting me away, "I'm still furious with you."
I fell into silence, withdrawing my hand from her grasp. While Max sat, processing all that was going on around her, I took a moment to look at James.
He was in a fixed position, leaning back, arms folded, eyes burning. Was his gaze soft? Or was I imagining it?
I opened my mouth to say something to him, but my voice caught in my throat and I closed my mouth again.
Something struck me suddenly. Owen wasn't there. All of the others had come to visit me earlier, but there had been no sign of him.
"Owen isn't here," I said without thinking.
That was definitely the wrong thing to say. James' gaze darkened, "Sorry, your boyfriend had to leave," he muttered.
"Come on James, for once don't be so immature," Max said sharply. She glanced at me briefly, "He came for a bit. He didn't say much, but he was here. But somewhere in all the confusion, he just wandered off. Zach's still trying to get hold of him."
I felt terrible. Owen had been right. I had used him to get to James. And James still didn't know that.
"I have to get a drink," Max said, standing up, "Want anything?"
I shook my head. She nodded, glanced once between James and I, before leaving the room. Something told me that it wasn't her thirst that had made her leave the room.
There was a long silence. James didn't move an inch, I didn't look at him.
I could almost feel the tension. It was bubbling near the surface, untouchable, but it was there all the same.
Another hour passed. People came and went. But neither of us said anything.
"You'd better hop on," Marion, Dan's mum, said to us as she smiled kindly, "Train's going to leave soon."
Dan hugged her tightly, "I promise I'll write."
"I'll be much to busy having a wicked social life to write back," Marion grinned.
I kissed her on the cheek and smiled broadly at her. Marion had let me stay with her for three whole weeks before the beginning of school. She didn't ask questions and she didn't pry. I liked that about her.
"Bye Charlie," she said softly. As Dan gave her trunk to the porter, Marion leaned in a little closer and said in a lower voice just so I could hear, "Chin up. You have friends who care about you, and you're an intelligent, wonderful person. You'll go far this year if you let go of all those reservations and just enjoy yourself."
I couldn't say anything, so I nodded and smiled.
She gave the porter my trunk, and Dan and I climbed onto the train. Dan blew kisses to her from the window as she waved. The train drew out of the station, picking up speed.
"So…does your dad not come to these things then?" I asked her.
Dan looked at me for a moment, frowning, "My dad is currently living in Sardinia with his new wife and four kids. It's been so long since I've seen him that he doesn't even know these things exist."
I couldn't look at her, feeling incredibly stupid. Of course I wasn't the only one with a shitty parent situation. "Sorry. stupid question."
"Nah," she shrugged, "He was always a bit of a bastard. And besides, mum is more than enough." She said the last sentence with a smile.
"Shall we find a compartment?" I asked her, "Maybe we'll find Alex around here somewhere."
I felt a familiar twinge in my gut as I remembered yet again that Max wasn't here. She was sitting in some fancy Beauxbatons carriage, laughing away with her french chums.
"Yep," Dan grinned, "Lets go."
We made our way down through the train, checking each compartment as we went.
"Found her!" Dan cried, beckoning me over.
Alex was sitting next to the window and talking to someone. Looking through the glass I saw, to my horror, that it was Owen.
But my fear of speaking to Owen after what had happened was only diminished by the bizarre fact that he was sitting and talking to Alex. Alex, who he had called a know-it-all and a pris since we were eleven. And she had called him equally unflattering things in return.
And now they were sitting here. Together. Talking. Laughing.
It was the strangest sight.
Dan glanced at me quickly. Alex caught sight of us in the glass and beckoned us inside. I saw Owen freeze, his gaze darkening rapidly.
But I didn't want to cause unnecessary tension by refusing to go in, so I followed Dan into the compartment and sat down beside her, opposite Owen. Owen was now staring out of the window and frowning, clearly still not speaking to me.
"How are you doing Charlie?" Alex asked, peering curiously at me.
I felt myself tense a little. "Fine. Thanks, Alex."
"I heard we've got a new student in our year, now that Max has left," Dan said, eyeing me quickly.
"A new student?" Alex asked, "Does anyone know who it is?"
Everyone shook their heads.
"You guys ready for our sixth year?" Dan asked eagerly, although you could tell it was a desperate effort to diffuse the tension in the compartment.
Owen let out a slight scoff. I tensed again. He was still angry.
Alex glanced quickly at Owen before adding, "What Owen is trying to say, I believe, is that he wishes we only had one year left of school, not two."
"What do you guys think you'll do after we're finished?" Dan asked.
"I think I'd like to be a healer," Alex says, "I got good grades for my OWLS. I should have a decent shot."
I swallowed. My OWL grades hadn't gone nearly as well. I had passed everything except Herbology, and I only had an Exceeds Expectations in Potions. Everything else had gotten an Acceptable. And honestly, you have to be making an effort to almost fail Care of Magical Creatures.
"I'm thinking journalist," Dan said, "Or a writer of some sort. Professor Flitwick said my essay on Cheering Charms last year was outstanding."
"That's because you're his favourite," Owen said.
"Well, I wouldn't be his favourite if I didn't write good essays, would I?"
"No, you're his favourite because you make him a treacle tart for Christmas every year."
I suddenly noticed a bright badge pinned to Alex's chest that had the letter P on it, "Alex! You got made prefect!"
She glanced up, grinning slightly, "Sorry to disappoint you."
I glanced over at Owen, saw he had an identical badge, and before I could stop myself said lightly, "Oh, you got one too!"
He nodded stiffly, keeping his lips sealed together.
Dan chuckled, "Zach will be devastated. I'm sure he was banking on getting that this year."
"Well, you know me," Owen said, "Second best option."
He didn't even bother to throw me a dirty look. The words were venomous enough.
I couldn't stand any more of him hating me, so I got up and left the compartment hastily, shutting the door behind me as I mumbled something about going to the loo. I walked away, hearing Dan say reproachfully, "Come on, Owen."
I wondered how I would ever get Owen to forgive me. If he would ever forgive me.
For someone who spend most of his time smiling, Owen was thunderous.
I had come to see him the day I had been allowed to leave hospital. He lived in a house in Manchester, surrounded by other similar looking houses in a fairly suburban neighbourhood. A muggle neighbourhood.
"What are you doing here, Charlie?" he asked at the door.
I stood awkwardly on the doorstep, searching his face for any sign of kindness or sympathy. I didn't find any and instantly felt more nervous.
"I-I came to…to apologise."
He folded both his arms and lent on the doorframe, "Apologise away."
I swallowed, unsure and worried he would snap at me, "I-I'm sorry. I can't believe I did that, I mean it was totally ou-"
"Did what?" Owen asked, still angry. He was going to make me spell it out for him.
I paused, hesitating, "Kissing you."
"Right. So you regret doing it, do you?"
"Yes! Absolutely! God, Owen you have no idea how bad I've felt over the last week."
"Wow, how terrible for you."
I stared at him, my heart in my stomach, "OK. You're not ready to accept my apology yet."
"Oh, I accept your apology. But I'm not angry with you for kissing me."
That made me do a double take, "Wait, you're not?"
"Then why are you angry?"
"The fact that you don't even know is why I'm pissed."
"What? Just tell me!"
He unfolded his arms and lifted his arms to his head in a motion of extreme frustration, finally losing his cool. "You think that I'm angry because you kissed me to make someone else jealous? Sure. That's a shitty thing to do. You ran into that tent, all over the place, and thought, oh there's Owen and since he likes me so much I guess I could just kiss him."
"No, Owen, I swear-"
"You all think that I have some monumental crush on you! James! Zach! You!Believe me, any residual feelings I had went away the second you acted like the single most selfish person I've ever met!"
"I told you I was sorry-"
"You and James. Both of you think the whole bloody world revolves around you. Like you're the stars of the show, and everyone else are just background characters, there to fill out your life and make it more interesting. We're there to kiss you when you get jealous, and make you laugh when you get bored. We don't matter. Not really."
"You're all my friends. I care about all of you! And so does James."
"Do you care that Zach's father was made redundant, and they had to lose their house this summer? Or that I found Dan crying in the common room because her dad is having another baby with his new wife? No. And I guarantee James doesn't care either."
"You're being unfair," I replied angrily, although it sounded more like a whine.
"You're right. James at least takes our feelings into account. James didn't make out with one of his friends just so he could make the girl he's in love with jealous."
"Would you all stop acting like I'm in love with him?" I cried.
"Oh my Merlin, Charlie. No one cares. Get together or move on. We're bored of this back and forth. Either you're in love with him, or you're not, even though you clearly are, but please just decide."
"I-" I stopped, before uttering a pitiful whisper, "I can't."
"Well, then stop kissing me when you feel like it," he snapped, "I won't be your sloppy seconds."
He shut the door in my face.
I stood in the corridor between compartments. The Hogwarts express rattled along the tracks, and students hurried in and out of their compartments, chatting loudly and eating sweets from the trolley.
I couldn't go back. I wouldn't. Owen would just shoot daggers at me. But then, I wasn't sure where to go.
I supposed I could go and find James. But that was unlikely to have a good outcome.
Our encounters at the hospital had been brief, tense and hadn't involved much speaking. Neither of us had much to say.
He would be with Zach. It would be awkward. He probably wasn't even thinking about me right now.
* * *
I stuck my head out of the compartment.
"I don't see them," I called back to Zach, who was siting by the window.
"Owen's probably in the prefect compartment," Zach replied, and I detected a slight bitterness in his voice.
"Nah. He's probably off sulking somewhere."
"Sulking?" Zach asked, frowning slightly.
"He hasn't spoken to me since, you know, the party."
"Ah," Zach replied.
"I don't know why," I grumbled, "It's not as if I did anything."
"It's probably a bit humiliating," Zach said cautiously, "I bet he hasn't forgiven her either."
"Probably not," I admit.
I wondered where Charlie was. She was probably in a compartment somewhere with Dan and Alex. Probably talking about her summer, or quidditch, or something. Strange to think a month ago she'd been in hospital.
Looking at her there, in bed, all pale and worried, it frightened me. Not much frightened me. But that did.
She was so small and powerless. All the fire was gone from her.
I didn't know what to say, so I hadn't said anything. She probably hated me for it. I wasn't there, being a friend, when she most needed it.
There was too much there, left unsaid. But it was too late to say it now.
I had kissed Fiona. There was no taking that back. And Charlie had seen us. And then she'd kissed Owen. Whether the two events were connected remained unclear. A really horrible part of me secretly hoped they were. Owen's severe annoyance at both of us indicated as much.
Suddenly I saw her at the other end of the carriage, making way for a gaggle of excited second years.
She looked different. She looked nice. Her hair was loose, and she had on a blue summer dress. I stopped for a second and considered the fact that Charlie Walker was wearing a summer dress. It was weird.
Then I had to remind myself that things were different now. Charlie cared about how she looked. And I had to pretend like it didn't affect me.
She moved her head around and spotted me watching her. Shit, now there was no going back. I couldn't pretend I hadn't been looking at her.
I left the compartment and walked towards her, giving her an incredibly awkward wave.
She blinked, "Hi."
Now what? She was now busy examining her toes, so I cleared my throat.
"Um. How are you?"
"I'm OK. How are you?"
"Um, you're welcome."
Tension filled up the space between us like a vacuum, sucking out all of the good air. My throat was tight, my hands were sweaty.
"Did you enjoy the rest of your summer?" she asked me suddenly, clearly trying to make an effort.
I shrugged, trying to look casual, "Yeah. Didn't do much. I got good OWL marks though."
"That makes one of us," she said, and I detected her throaty laugh under her voice.
"I got a poor in Herbology," she said, "And acceptable in everything else."
"Who needs plants?" I shrugged. I had gotten an Exceeds Expectations in my Herbology OWL, but I had a feeling now wasn't the time to mention it.
She smiled a little, and I felt myself relax a bit.
"You look nice," I said to her suddenly, without even thinking.
Shit, I sounded creepy. I really sounded creepy.
She looked slightly taken aback. Then she composed herself. "Thank you."
"It's…um, nice dress."
Seriously, stop talking.
"And your hair. It's nice."
WHAT. THE. FUCK. ARE. YOU. DOING?
She quickly put a hand to the crown of her head, embarrassed, and I felt like an idiot.
"Sorry," I muttered quickly.
"Oh, no, I mean, thanks," she said, "Nice of you to say."
"And you're walking again, I see."
"Yeah," she nodded, glancing down at her bare legs, "While I was in hospital Healer Robbins gave me some extra intensive therapy. They're almost good as new."
"You can try out for quidditch!" I said, a little too eagerly.
"I don't think I'm quite ready for that," she said, her voice suddenly softer.
I felt stupid. Of course she wasn't going to try out for the team. Idiot.
Talking to her was a terrible idea. I wished I could turn around and run back to my compartment. I wished I could wind back the years to make sure I never met her. Then I wouldn't be in this much agonising awkwardness.
But she was a friend. My friend. I had to make things better between us, even if it meant I had to make the first move.
This was getting awkward.
We stood, facing each other, rocking on our heels. I needed an out. This small talk was becoming suffocating.
"Well, I'd better go and find the others!" I said, trying to brush over the tense silence, "Who knows where they are?"
I turned away and took a step, but I felt his hand reach out quickly and grasp my wrist.
Suddenly the train jolted, and my wrist jerked backwards, throwing me backwards. Luckily he didn't fall, but I did bump straight into him. He was holding my wrist to his chest. My breathing suddenly became much more shallow.
Before I could take a step away from him, and make another loud, awkward excuse, he said in a low voice, only loud enough for me to hear, "I'm sorry I was such an idiot this summer."
I stared at him, as my whole body froze. His large brown eyes looked back unapologetically, unafraid, "We're better when we're friends, Charlie. I'm better."
My voice was stuck in my throat, my whole body shaking and twitching. Of all the terrible moments...
It was those simple, terrible words that made me realise I was completely, irrationally, and ridiculously in love with him. It was as much a part of me as my own limbs, it felt like it had always been there. I couldn't imagine a time when I had been out of love with him. The whole realisation made me sick and overjoyed all at once.
Of course I was in love with him. Of course I loved his stupid face, and his stupid hair, and his stupid eyes, and his stupid ways of making me love him. I loved and hated all of it.
Oh god, I was lost. This was it. This was the end of life as I knew it. James Potter, once my enemy, once my friend, and now...
And now there was no going back.
His grip on my wrist loosened and he looked slightly nervous. "Are you going to say something?"
"I-" I had to clear my throat, and pray I wouldn't say anything embarrassing like 'I love you. Sorry it took me so long.' "You're absolutely forgiven."
He looked relieved, and I must have been smiling because he smiled too.
"And you're right," I replied, "We should be friends."
Before he could reply Dan came rushing up to us, "Charlie! I found you! Look, what Owen said. He's just getting over some issues. He didn't mean it."
I nodded at her, still finding it hard to string together coherent sentences, "I know that-"
But before I could finish, Dan glanced over my shoulder and gaped, "Ooh. Hot man alert."
I turned and looked in the direction she was staring in. My jaw dropped.
It was a voice I recognised. It had been a while, but I still remembered the sound.
Standing there I saw a tall figure, smiling with those perfect teeth and looking absolutely thrilled to see me.
Olive skin. Brown hair. Mediterranean good looks.
I gaped at him, "Elliot?"
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