Chapter 5 : Chapter Four
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“Everyone in me is a bird.
I am beating all my wings.”
― Anne Sexton
“It’s useless,” Marlene announced, slamming her textbook shut.
“It’s not, you just have to concentrate.”
Our Herbology exam was the following afternoon. For the past two hours we had been sat by Marlene’s favorite tree, a blanket spread to protect our bare legs from the itchy grass. She was lying on her back, more than likely using her textbook to shield her eyes from the sun, than to actually read. The afternoon light was turning her hair phosphorescent as she narrowed her eyes.
“All right. Just you remember this conversation when we get to DADA.”
I groaned, recalling the pathetic spittle of light that emanated from my wand earlier. Dueling was certainly not my forte. Marlene, however, could hex or shield anyone with her eyes closed.
She relocated to a cross-legged position. An entire fifteen seconds of uninterrupted studying passed before her book closed again. “Let’s go get ice cream! James showed me a way into the kitchens. He said the House Elves keep Florean Fortescue’s in there.”
My answer came in the form of a question. “Why does the Venomous Tentacula subsist on Chizpurflies?”
She opened her mouth but then her eyes glazed over. “Damn it, Chloe,” she conceded, flipping through the pages once more.
“Twenty more minutes of studying and you can have all the ice cream you want.”
“Yes, Mum,” she grumbled.
Truthfully, I was beyond prepared for tomorrow’s exam. Most of today’s study session was spent keeping Marlene on track. While she huffed and sighed, moving from sprawled on her back, to sitting cross-legged, to lying on her belly (and repeating the process twice), I spent the afternoon leaning comfortably against the tree. Though my textbook was open on my drawn knees, my gaze rested on the lake.
A lone owl was gliding low across the glassy water. It reminded me that I hadn’t written home at all over the last few months. Writing home meant discussing Emily; my mother had constantly been asking about her. So I simply hadn’t.
I remembered the night before, when I had been too careless—I hadn’t timed everything perfectly. There was a moment, right before bedtime, when I was alone in the dormitory and Emily had passed through the doorway. When she saw me, she stopped. Without a word I turned my back and ran a brush through my hair.
As I pulled back my covers Emily appeared, standing on the opposite side of the bed. “Semester’s almost over,” she said with careful lightness.
I didn't even glance up at her, yanking the sheets back with too much force.
“I’m excited for summer.” She leaned on a column of my four-poster and I felt my shoulders tense. “Remember the lake by my house? My brother and his mates have just built a tree swing, and now you can practically fly right into the water. Isn’t that exciting?”
I stopped, fixing her with a stony gaze. “No.”
She stared at me as if she were actually surprised, her slack jaw revealing those huge teeth. I hopped into my bed and, without a second glance, pulled the curtains tightly around me. Her presence remained on the other side of the partition. When she walked away, it was with a quiet huff of indignity.
The owl had cleared the expanse of the lake and was heading for us. Surely it was from my home; my seventeenth birthday was next week. At the sound of wings Marlene looked up curiously. The owl landed before us, and dropped onto the grass. It bore the telltale postage stamps of my confused Muggle parents.
Marlene snorted, “That is adorable. I’m surprised mine have never tried that.”
The owl seemed content to rest with us, allowing Marlene to pet its glossy feathers as I unwrapped the parcel. Inside was a small box and an accompanying letter.
“So, what’s new in the world of George and…” Marlene squinted, trying to recall my mother’s name. “Elaina? Anything interesting?”
I opened the box first, revealing a small wristwatch with a leather band. It was simple, but certainly more than my parents could have spared. Marlene clicked her tongue and I knew we were thinking the same thing.
“Are you going to tell them?” She smiled.
“Never,” I returned it. The watch had frozen halfway between the ticking of seconds. Probably at the precise moment the owl had passed into Hogwarts grounds, at twelve seventeen this afternoon. “They’d be heartbroken.”
I fastened the watch to my wrist, feeling guilty for some reason. Because Marelene was still looking I fought to keep my deep, steadying breath unnoticeable.
The letter was written on the stationery my Mum had bought from the crafting shop in our town. She had a large family—two brothers and three sisters—and wrote to all them religiously. In many ways, my parents acted like Magical folks, foregoing the telephone for handwritten post. My father still refused to buy a television. The ancient radio in our den “suited them just fine,” he often said stubbornly.
The stationery was folded into thirds. I lifted the top, revealing the first part of the letter.
May 7, 1976
I hope this finds you all right. I still don’t understand why we can’t just use the postman, but that’s probably something you’ve learned about in school. Do be a dear and write back this time. We haven’t heard from you in a while, and there’s no telling whether these silly birds are actually doing as they’ve been trained.
Happy seventeenth birthday, darling. (Hopefully this reaches you by the eleventh. I really just don’t trust those birds. I wrote the date so you would know we were thinking of you and didn’t forget.) We hope that you like the watch that your father picked out.
Things have been quiet around here, as usual. Monty is shaping up to be a fine herder indeed. He’s just had his third birthday this past weekend.
Here I couldn’t help but roll my eyes, smiling. My parents adopted a second herding dog several years after I began at Hogwarts. It was no secret that they hoped I would tire of being a witch, as if it were something I was just testing out. Each visit home for holidays meant a pamphlet for a local Muggle boarding school left on my bedside table. But by the time Third Year rolled around, they grudgingly accepted that I would remain at Hogwarts. Monty, a clumsy and energetic puppy, was adopted soon after. If my parents couldn’t raise me in their world, they needed a replacement.
Marlene had lost interest so I unfolded the rest of the letter. A newspaper clipping fluttered onto the grass. It was face-down, and dread crept over me at the oddly cropped section of the Daily Prophet on the reverse. My eyes closed. I wished I had remembered to cancel my subscription. Something bad must have happened—something that made them even more distrustful of magic.
I let the clipping lay quivering on the grass, reading the final lines of the letter. The language was abrupt, her writing messier. It was as if my Mum had decided to include it at the last minute. I could just see her, pacing nervously in our kitchen, before letting her paranoia win.
Isn’t that story awful? Thought you should know. We still get your newspapers when you’re not here.
Mum and Dad
The owl suddenly took to the air, the breeze from its wings nearly sending the clipping flying. I snatched it as Marlene said, “What’s that?”
“Muggle Rights Activist Attacked in Hyde Park,” I read the headline grimly. The article was short. I imagined it crammed between larger headlines in the Prophet’s usual clutter.
Marlene’s face was stony as I continued, “Ministry officials are investigating the attacks on a husband and wife that occurred in Hyde Park on Saturday evening. Therese and Reynard Durand, a Muggle and Wizard, respectively, were rushed to St. Mungo’s after sustaining life-threatening injuries. The couple was reportedly enjoying an evening stroll when three hooded figures Apparated and began to attack without warning. Mr. Durand claims they were unable to defend themselves when the attackers seized his wand. The assailants performed the Cruciatus Curse on both victims before they were sighted and fled. Ministry officials have confirmed that all Muggle witnesses have been Obliviated. The couple remains at St. Mungo’s in stable condition.
Mr. Durand received attention over the last year for his essays on bloodline equality. His public disproval of the “archaic tradition” of Pure-bloods marrying within their own families was heavily criticized by purist groups. Ministry officials have yet to comment on whether the attack is politically motivated.”
Marlene seemed to be staring through me. “And then there’s an address asking for information,” I said quietly.
“Well of course they’re politically motivated!” she growled. “The Cruciatus Curse on a marriage equality activist, in the middle of Hyde Park? He just published another collection of essays two months ago, for Merlin’s sake. All these stodgy old Pure-bloods are infuriated! How can they say that they don’t know?”
Truthfully, I had never even heard of Reynard Durand. But Marlene’s cheeks were flushed in fury. “That could have been you or me, Chloe.”
I didn’t know what to say. What I should have said was that it already was me. That I had already been attacked, for the same reasons, closer to where Marlene slept every night than anyone in Hyde Park. That the bandages had only come off a few weeks ago. That seeing the pearly pink scar tissue made my stomach turn. That she could be in danger, too.
But what I did say was, “Let’s go and get that ice cream.”
The weather turned sour for the afternoon of my birthday, a week later. I didn’t mind. The spring rain would help the plants, and soon I would be free to stroll along the edges of the forest, snipping leaves and berries and blossoms to press in my journal. Nobody knew that it was my birthday—even Emily had to be reminded every year—and I wasn’t particularly fond of celebrating.
I hadn’t told Marlene, the day before our Herbology exam, as she sulked in the kitchens over a bowl of Florean Fortescue’s Cherry and Chocolate Frog. The House Elves had been mostly gone during the odd hours between lunch and dinner. A tiny Elf named Wispy had been more than happy to show us the secret ice cream. All three of us leaned against the stone countertops—the much-shorter Wispy resting her back on the cabinets—as we ate. I had tried to make polite conversation with Wispy while Marlene jabbed at the ice cream sullenly with her spoon.
My birthday came on a Saturday, which was enough for me. The first round of exams were over and I could relax. DADA had gone terribly—at least in my opinion, though Marlene told me to “quit being such a Debbie Downer and accept the single A of my academic career.”
As I climbed back down the stairs from the owlery, I went over everything in the letter I had just sent to my parents. It covered all of the bases to satiate my mother’s worry. Classes were nearly over. The weather was nice. Thank you for the lovely watch. Bijou was getting along with the other pets. I made a friend.
Passing through a courtyard beneath Astronomy Tower, I heard the faint shattering of glass under the sound of the rain. The courtyard was small, and weeds grew between the cracks in the stone. A single bench was the only item saving it from the “completely pointless” category of castle areas, though I rarely saw students using it.
Another pop—like a spell being performed—followed by more glass. Casting an umbrella charm, I stepped out from beneath the awning and around the corner, and saw Sirius Black.
He was drenched to the bone, robes clinging to him. My breath caught. But then he whipped his wand overhead, and a yellow light shot out and burst one of the bottles lining a ledge on the wall. There was a shout of laughter and James appeared around the corner, a still-full bottle in hand.
Suddenly Sirius noticed me and his arm dropped. Just as I jolted myself back to reality, hurrying around the corner, he called, “Wait! Claire—I mean, Chloe!”
I faltered, considering pretending I never heard. But wouldn’t it be more suspicious to avoid him, and only him? Slowly I turned and Sirius waved me over. With a steadying breath I crossed the courtyard.
“What are you doing?” James said curiously.
My eyes moved from him, to his wand, to their target practice. “What am I doing?”
“Fair enough. We’re studying for our Defense Against the Dark Arts exam.”
“That was yesterday,” I said.
James shrugged a little lop-sidedly with drink. “We’re just really dedicated students.”
My eyes roved over to Sirius, who was being uncharacteristically quiet. He held his wand by both ends, rolling it between his fingers in thought. If the look on his face was a smile, then it was completely embittered. Raindrops coursed off the ends of his hair and into his eyes.
James clapped a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll have to pardon our friend Sirius. He’s not having his best day.”
“Oh,” I said quietly. I expected Sirius to show some kind of annoyance—I barely knew him, and maybe James shouldn’t be spreading that kind of information.
But he opened his arms wide as if making a grand announcement. “I can’t go home this summer.”
James hook his head, muttering something that sounded like “Complete bollocks.” As if he couldn’t stand to hear the story once more, he skulked away. The light from his wand smashed expertly through two bottles but he didn’t even react.
I swallowed. Sirius and I were left alone.
“What do you mean you can’t go home?” I tried not to watch the way the raindrops fell into his parted lips.
“I am officially banished from the Most Noble House of Black.” He said the words as if they soured on his tongue. “I am not allowed to return to my home. I am, as they say, cut off.”
There was a sinking feeling in me. I thought of the story from the Prophet, about the attacks on the Muggle rights activist. The Blacks were certainly one of the elitist pure-blooded families that Marlene had spoken of so venomously. How strange that she and Sirius were able to be friends.
Or whatever it is that they are.
Sirius was pulling a letter from his pocket, which was so rain-soaked that it looked like cloth. He shook the letter indicatively. “The latest installment in the Why-You-are-Such-an-Enormous-Disappointment saga. Because I finally told them just what they really are. Bigoted, elitist monsters—” He slashed his wand so suddenly that I jumped at the explosion of glass. “And they disinherited me.”
Though he gave a cavalier shrug, he was carefully folding the letter and returning it to his pocket. I wondered how long he would keep it. Rereading those awful words. Letting himself start to believe them.
“I’d expect my bedroom has been set on fire by now,” he said.
“You—told them you disagree?”
Sirius looked at me like I had just slapped him. “Of course I disagree!” When I could only stare in shock he barreled on, “What, did you think I was like them? Why does everyone think—”
“No, that’s not it!” I said quickly.
Seeing him like this felt like being on a boat in rough water. Everything had always seemed to roll off his shoulders. Relationships were flings. Bad grades were just a challenge to catch back up; he knew he was smart enough. Detentions didn’t matter because he did things like this—drinking in broad daylight on school grounds—and lived for it.
But something on his face looked different today. Desperate.
“I just…” I thought of my parents, who in comparison to the Blacks were harmless, and how I could never stand up to them. To tell them that I chose this life, in this world, and that I wasn’t made for theirs. “I could never be so brave.”
I said it and the raw honesty sent color to my cheeks. Sirius went very still. He watched me for a long time until I had to look away. Behind us, James’s spell missed a bottle spectacularly, and he cried out in dramatic dismay.
“Thanks,” Sirius murmured, wiping the water from his face, and I knew that I couldn’t keep talking with him. Not if I meant to keep my unspoken promise to Marlene—my friend. I couldn’t stay here with him, rain-soaked, and keep the cords wrenched tightly around my thoughts. My nod was to my feet.
“So, how are you?” He broke the silence, grinning again. The moment was already over. “Anything major going on in your life?”
“It’s my birthday,” I said as if just realizing it.
“Oh.” Sirius blinked with interest, rising to his full height. He jogged off towards James, reaching into an alcove of the courtyard and pulling out an unopened bottle. James watched with mild interest as Sirius tossed the bottle, caught it, and passed it to me.
“Well. Happy birthday, Chloe.”
It was some cheap beer I had never heard of, and I had no desire to drink it. But it still made me feel like a bird was trapped in my belly. I took the bottle, careful not to brush my fingers with his. “Oh. Thank you.”
Sirius smirked, turning back to the wall. “Looks like James is winning. Reckon I’d better catch up.”
I nodded, ducking my head. I didn’t even say goodbye, or look at James, because I needed to disappear. Sirius might have watched as I turned and rushed away; I wasn't sure. My feet carried me back under the archway, through the open doorway, into the castle, and up a short staircase. But I paused at a lone window, looking through the glass like a ghost, past the rain. The courtyard was barely visible from this angle. With my fingertips against the glass I watched Sirius as he stepped backwards into view, gauging his target. Once more his wand whipped through the air like a fencing pole. I could hear his victorious shout as the spell hit its mark.
Author's Note: Wow, this slow burn is killing me! Another chapter to lay the groundwork and set the stage. Truthfully I have a lot more written, but I wanted to keep this chapter short because of the amount of information. The attack on the Muggle rights activist, Chloe and Marlene having become friends, skipping ahead to the end of the term, and Sirius finding out he's been disowned. I'm excited to continue on, but as always would love to hear your thoughts, readers! Thank you
Another gorgeous CI, featuring Marlene and Sirius, by page thirteen. at TDA ♥
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