Chapter 8 : VIII
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“Alright, Hugs?” Paige twirled towards him, face lit up in a giddy smile. She was wearing a white leotard with a floaty silver sheer skirt, and looked a little bit like the angel his parents always placed on top of their christmas tree.
Hugo scowled at her. She carried on smiling.
“You’re not dancing,” Paige reprimanded him.
She took a seat beside him and slid off her shoes, pulling one foot up onto her lap so she could rub her heel and tipping her head back towards him, sending thick waves of glossy gold down over his arm.
“Didn’t feel like it,” Hugo said.
He looked around the room. It had been Lily’s idea to start using the Room of Requirement for parties. Until their fifth year, students had been aware of the room but, perhaps out of respect for the important part it had played in the war, had avoided using it. When Lily Potter came along and decided it was an ideal place for illicit activities, people had been happy enough to follow her.
Tonight, the room was softly lit by flickering lanterns. The dance floor was cool, green tile, with a golden bar across one end, and the surrounding spaces were dark and soft, with plush black couches and tall bar stalls. The party was quieter than some, just some of the sixth and seventh years, but the drinks were flowing and the potions were strong.
Lily was dancing near the bar, tangled up with one of Lysander’s friends and pointedly ignoring her ex-boyfriend’s withering scowls from across the room. Hugo wasn’t surprised that she’d managed to bounce back so quickly. Their break up had only been two days ago, and Lily looked like she’d never even been hurt. But he was worried about how she was feeling underneath the lipstick and laughter.
Paige was still standing next to him. He looked away from his cousin.
“One day I’ll get you dancing,” Paige laughed. “I promise.”
Paige ignored his hostility. She always did. She was used to people being desperate to be around her, and it had given her a kind of easy charm that made her immune to rudeness.
She turned to face him and swung her feet up onto his lap, nudging one of his legs with her toes. He didn’t bother pushing her away. She rested her head against his shoulder and tilted her face up towards his neck.
“Look at Iz and my brother,” Paige said, breath warm against Hugo’s skin. “They’re sickening.”
Hugo followed her gaze. Robin Parsons and Isidore Flint were dancing next to the fireplace. She was wrapped tightly in his arms and his lips were pressed against her forehead. One of her hands was tangled in his hair, skin dark against his gold, and they both looked blissfully happy.
“It’s not fair.” Paige’s head grew heavier against him.
“What’s not fair?” Hugo looked away from Robin and Isidore to glance down at Paige. Her face was crumpled into a confused pout that made him think of young children when they don’t get what they want.
“I think that one day I would like what they have,” Paige murmured sleepily. “I want someone to make me feel how they feel.”
It was a confession: Hugo knew that. Paige was renowned for flitting between guys, never happy with one person for long, always too good for whichever foolish idiot had caught her eye. She was lighthearted and fun, determined to squeeze every last bit of enjoyment out of every opportunity, and this rare show of vulnerability went against the face she showed to the world.
Hugo sighed and put an arm around her. He didn’t like being this close to people, but Paige had always resolutely ignored any barriers he erected, and he had known her for a long time. If she was feeling fragile he was okay with being there for her.
“Do you want it?” Paige asked, still watching her brother.
“Love,” she said.
“Oh.” Hugo shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t think about it much.”
Paige nodded against him.
“I do,” she whispered.
Hugo tightened his arm around her. In a minute she’d either pass out or get bored and go back to the dancefloor. For now, he didn’t mind holding onto her for a bit if it helped her get out of whatever mood she’d talked herself into.
Paige rearranged her puzzled expression into a smile, and lifted her face towards him, soft lips grazing against his.
Hugo pulled away.
“Why?” Paige moved closer again.
Her legs were still draped over his. She pulled herself up and onto his lap, and moved one leg to his other side so that she was straddling him.
“Stop it, Paige.”
In the past, Hugo would have just picked her up and moved her. Paige was often like this when she was drunk and she wouldn’t be offended. But he’d lost a lot of weight. She was tiny, but he still wasn’t sure he was strong enough to lift her. And he didn’t want to hurt her.
Paige’s lips were attached to him again, and she moved one hand between them, placing her fingers at the zip on his jeans.
“I mean it,” Hugo snapped, pushing her away from him.
He didn’t think he’d pushed her hard, but Paige slid off his lap and landed on the floor. She looked up at him, startled.
“Shit. I’m sorry.”
Hugo reached up a hand to help her stand up. Paige glared at it.
“Did I hurt you?” Hugo leaned forwards so he could speak more gently.
Paige shook her head. This time, she let him help her get to her feet.
“Why do you always do that?” She frowned at him.
“Push me away.”
Hugo felt exasperated. They’d had this conversation so many times before. But Paige was never sober so she never remembered.
“I just...I’m not interested,” he said. His head still hurt and he couldn’t be bothered to have yet another emotional discussion Paige would have no recollection of in the morning.
“You don’t think I’m pretty?”
“I didn’t say that.”
Hugo sighed, running one hand back through his hair. He understood why Paige felt worried. She wasn’t used to being rejected. And he was one of the few people that had never accepted her advances. Once, when she was in a particularly honest mood, she had confessed that she wanted to be with him because it seemed to make sense. She was Lily’s best friend, and he was Lily’s favourite relative, and Lily was queen. If they were together the whole group would be tighter, their statuses more secure. He wasn’t sure she remembered telling him that. They’d never spoken about it since.
“You know I don’t want it,” he said, rubbing his forehead.
“Any of it.”
Paige looked confused. It always confused her. In the morning, he’d ask Lily to have another conversation with her about it.
“I have to go,” Hugo said. “My head’s killing me.”
Paige shrugged and smiled, looping her arms around his shoulders to give him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek. It always surprised him, how quick she was to forgive. It was an impressive quality.
“Sleep tight,” she said in a sing-song voice.
“You need me to walk you back to Slytherin?”
He felt obliged to ask. Drunk Paige didn’t always manage to get back to the dungeons and had occasionally been discovered asleep in the Entrance Hall in the morning. The teachers all believed her story of sleepwalking, and Lily thought it was hilarious, but Hugo sometimes worried that she’d get hurt.
“Nope,” she beamed. “I’m going to do more dancing.”
She kissed his cheek again and then turned and fluttered over to a Ravenclaw seventh year, one of her brother’s friends. Hugo watched her go with a faint smile before making his exit, stopping to pick up another bottle of firewhiskey for the road.
Ravenclaw Tower was almost empty when he reached it. The fire was smouldering, almost out, and the only light was from the glowing stars adorning the ceiling. The seventh years were all either already in bed, still enjoying the party, or (most likely) had snuck out to the library to squeeze in some Friday night revision. But some of Hugo’s fellow sixth years were still up, scattered around the Common Room.
Tristan Gorgovitch was asleep by the window, still in his Quidditch robes, arms wrapped around a Quaffle. Collette McLaggen was squeezed into the window seat next to him, tucked under the same blanket. Her eyes were closed but one hand was lifted, presumably conducting the beat to one of the symphonies that constantly played through her head.
Abdi Karimi was sitting by the fireplace, surrounded by huge sheets of paper, covered in neatly drawn grids and cramped handwriting.
Hugo put down his empty firewhiskey bottle and stumbled over to Abdi, dropping down beside him.
“This looks very clever,” he told Abdi, lying down on his stomach to look at the hand drawn spreadsheets.
Abdi’s tiny handwriting swam across Hugo’s gaze. He struggled to make out what the words said. He wished he hadn’t had that last drink.
“It’s not,” Abdi informed him. “It’s for Herbology. I’m trying to work out the ideal conditions for the Shrivelfig. You wouldn’t need to do all this. It just doesn’t come naturally to me.”
“The Shrivelfig?” The word came out slurred. It wasn’t an easy thing to say in the middle of the night after consuming Lily Potter’s potions and vast quantities of alcohol.
“Yeah. For the project? Whenever we have plant-care projects they lower my average score. But it’s NEWTs now. I can’t let that happen.”
Abdi sounded a little bit panicked. Most Ravenclaws sounded a little bit panicked when they started talking about things they didn’t find easy.
Hugo thought about the project. It hadn’t even occurred to him to find it stressful. Looking after plants was simple.
“I’ll help you,” he said to Abdi. “We will have the very best shrivelivelfigs.”
Abdi laughed and shook his head. “Good use of your words, Hugo. You should go to bed.”
Hugo rolled over onto his back and blinked up at Abdi.
Abdi blushed. It wasn’t always obvious when he was blushing. His face stayed calm and his dark skin hid the colour, but Hugo had shared a dormitory with him long enough to notice the way his cheeks grew richer.
“What?” Hugo was confused.
“Um. Your zip’s undone.” Abdi nodded at Hugo’s jeans.
Hugo swore and sat up, doing up the zip as he moved.
“It wasn’t...I wasn’t with anyone,” Hugo said, for some reason feeling the need for Abdi to understand.
Abdi shrugged and looked back down at his spreadsheets.
“I really wasn’t,” Hugo said. “It just...it was...Paige always starts on me when she’s drunk. Even though I told her not to.”
A little part of him, deep down, felt like he was betraying Paige. She was a friend, and he was saying something that would embarrass her. But he was too drunk to really care.
Abdi looked concerned. “She did something you didn’t want?”
“No. Not really. She just...it’s fine. She knows. Nothing happened. But...my zip.”
Abdi sighed and folded up the spreadsheet he’d been working on, putting his sheets and books into a neat pile and then moving up to sit a little closer to Hugo.
“Are you okay?” He said gently.
Hugo frowned. He wasn’t sure what to say.
Abdi kept his voice calm. “Is there anything you want to talk about?”
“No. Yes. Maybe.”
Abdi waited patiently, his expression reassuring. Hugo took several deep breaths, working out what he wanted to say.
“I just don’t know why I don’t want it,” he eventually said. “Everyone else is always getting together and breaking up and trying…things. And Paige...other guys are always all over her. But I just don’t want her. It. Any of it.”
“I guess. Yeah. I don’t really get the appeal.”
They were silent for a moment. Hugo was drunk but still sober enough to realise he’d just confessed a very secret part of himself to somebody he didn’t actually know very well.
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’m not interested in sex either,” Abdi eventually said.
His voice was very quiet. Hugo thought he’d probably never had a conversation like this before.
“Yeah, but that’s your religion, isn’t it? I read about it once. Sex is a gift from Allah? I thought all muslims didn’t want sex before marriage,” Hugo said.
Abdi shrugged. “I’m not sure you can really make statements that start “all muslims”. I mean, yeah, technically I think that stuff’s meant to be true. But loads of my friends back in London have sex. I’m just not sure I want to be with anyone.”
“I used to think I just didn’t want to be with anyone,” Hugo said. “But I think it’s different now. I could love someone, I think. Just...not the other stuff.”
He felt a sudden need for Abdi to understand, to recognise the confusing jumble of feelings that kept surging through his chest and stomach.
“I like how I feel when I’m near you,” he told Abdi quietly. “I mean, I liked how I felt when I was near you the other day. After we found her. You made me feel safe.”
Abdi looked at him. His eyes were very dark, almost black, with heavy lids, and his eyelashes were unusually long.
“Sorry,” Hugo said. He lay back down on the ground, curling up into a ball near Abdi’s leg.
“Don’t be sorry.”
“I’m drunk and I’m saying all this nonsense that you don’t want to hear.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to hear it.”
Hugo bit his lip, waiting for Abdi to speak again. He felt dizzy and excited. The words kept escaping through his lips without him giving them permission to leave his throat.
His eyes suddenly felt very heavy. He hadn’t been sleeping well since Lyra’s death, and he was reminded how exhausted he felt.
Abdi shuffled a little bit closer to him and put a hand in his hair, stroking the back of his head. His touch was soothing.
“Yeah,” Abdi’s voice was very soft. “I think I like how I feel when I’m near you too.”
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