Chapter 7 : Chapter Six
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“I don't do anything with my life except romanticize and decay with indecision.” ― Allen Ginsberg
The Great Hall looked like a royal court for the Sorting Ceremony. House banners billowed as if in a breeze; professors sat at the head table like nobility. I half expected a procession of trumpets and court jesters. It was silly and dull to most older students, as we impatiently awaited the First-Years and, more importantly, the feast. But I liked it. It reminded me of my first time stepping inside Hogwarts, scrawny and pigtailed, clinging to Emily’s arm.
My parents were sad to see me board the Hogwarts Express, earlier today. It was my seventh and final time, and as I waved from the window, I wished their anxieties hadn’t clouded such an important moment. They stood watching like they’d never see me again.
But by the time the train pulled to a stop at Hogsmeade Station, and my Muggle watch froze mid-tic, the fog of guilt lifted. There was a change in the air; a distinct autumnal snap. I stepped off the Hogwarts Express with my chin lifted a degree higher than usual.
Chatter ricocheted off the Great Hall’s vaulted ceiling. The Gryffindor table was filling with students, but Marlene had not yet arrived. I smiled at Quill Hopkins, a Sixth-Year seated beside me, and we murmured politely about our summers. Emily’s long looks, cast from down the table, had become surprisingly easy to ignore.
A napkin, folded into a paper airplane, suddenly landed on the table. It was like deja vu. For a moment I was back in the year before, sitting across from Emily, when Michael had sent her the note that had sparked everything. Everything from the attack to my friendship with Marlene.
But Michael was graduated, now. Gone. Things were different.
A smile lit up my face: Marlene was waving ecstatically from the Gryffindor table. Her hair had somehow grown even more white-blonde in the sun. Seeing her sent a little skittering in my heart, like a stone skipping over water, and I suddenly felt so, so incredibly stupid for avoiding her.
Across from her James, Sirius, Peter and Remus lined the bench. They were talking animatedly to anyone and everyone. I recognized the back of Sirius’s head. His black hair had grown even longer and more and unruly over the months. He must have noticed Marlene’s waving; he turned and offered me a little smile over his shoulder.
The corner of my mouth twitched and I quickly turned to Marlene’s note.
YOU JERK, I MISSED YOU, COME FIND US AT THE LAKE TONIGHT OR I SWEAR TO GOD
Biting my lip to keep from smiling too hard, and fully conscious of Emily's shocked stare, I wrote, I will. I promise.
And this time, I meant it.
The air had cooled considerably as I walked to the Black Lake. The low sun was turning the bellies of fat clouds orange. In the far distance the hills of the Scottish highlands, bare and round, cast behemoth shadows. It was the strange time—unique to the mountains—when it was both day and night, depending on where you were standing.
I had missed this. Our family farm was worthy of a generic oil painting, maybe. But it was the wild hills and untamed forests that really tugged at something inside of me.
Students clustered in groups around the lake. It was an unspoken beginning-of-term tradition to gather along the glassy water, some of them testing camouflaging charms on cheap alcohol. Filch always came skulking around. But unless you were particularly ungifted with charms, nobody seemed to ever get caught.
I had almost completely rounded the lake before I heard Marlene’s distinctive laugh. A clump of students wearing their day clothes gathered around a fallen tree. I caught a flash of long, fire-red hair. Lily Evans. Which meant James Potter, which meant Sirius Black. I swallowed. Spending time with Marlene, while trying to avoid the boy glued to her side, was proving difficult.
“Chloe!” Marlene called.
I stumbled down the hill where the dirt met with stony beach. Marlene met me halfway. She was wearing some sort of enormous sack meant to be a dress and combat boots—black, of course, like the smokey pencil around her eyes.
“I missed you,” she said, crushing me in a hug.
Her physical affection, and the ease with which she gifted it, still caught me off guard. But I returned the embrace after a stunned moment. “Missed you too.”
She smiled her wide smile, and called to the others, “Look who I found!”
A slew of Gryffindors greeted me, some enthusiastically, others with a quiet nod. Among the mumblings came Peter’s usual “Hi, Chloe,” as he blushed down at his shoes. Remus lifted his chin with a polite smile.
Mary MacDonald retrieved the bottle behind her crossed ankles and winked, “Evening.”
I nodded at James’s badge. “Head Boy. Erm, impressive.”
He threw his hands in the air. “Why is everyone so bloody incredulous?”
“Probably because you brought the bottle,” Lily said, hugging her chest to cover her own badge.
Marlene slung an arm around my shoulders. As she guided me away from the group I mentally congratulated myself for not so much as glancing Sirius’s way. Still, his presence tugged at the corner of my vision like a blot of ink. I knew he was sitting next to James on the fallen tree.
Alcohol laced Marlene’s breath. “We got here ages ago. Where were you?”
“Well…” I searched for the answer that would make me seem the least like a complete loser.
She clicked her tongue. “Chloe! The greenhouses, already? It’s not even the first day of term yet!”
“I could say the same to you, lush. You smell like Filch at Christmas.”
“Oi!” She pulled me into a near-headlock. “I’m just getting it out of my system. This year I’ll have top marks, even better than yours.”
I nodded in a way that said, Doubt it.
A scandalized look came over her. Holding me at arm’s length, she scoffed, “You’re so brown, you little minx! What, were you at the seaside all summer without us?”
I wiped at my face as if it would remove the new freckles. “Nothing half as glamorous. I was put to work all summer on the farm. I actually helped birth a calf.”
Marlene made a face but then her voice dropped. “Hey, how’s things with your Mum? Alright?”
It felt like a chord in my chest was plucked. “She’s… still adjusting, somehow. Sorry I was so quiet this summer, I just, well, you know.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Next year, eh? You’ve got to come round to mine. God, I was so bored. I had to resort to hanging out with Sirius.”
I plastered on a smile, imagining the two of them lazing in the heat, or doubled over with their contagious laughter. “I promise, I was more bored.”
“Your Mum shouldn’t even be able to stop you, technically. You are a legal adult.”
“In our world. Not hers. Try explaining to a God-fearing Muggle that not only do we fly on broomsticks and speak in secret languages, but we can start legally misbehaving a year earlier.”
“She’ll come ‘round,” said Marlene resolutely.
I pressed my mouth into a smile. Headstrong, determined Marlene couldn’t even imagine. Maybe she was the black sheep of her family, but it was in a loving way. She was a novelty to them. Oh, our little Marlene, always off at her weird school learning weird things.
The watch my Mum gifted me seemed to constrict around my wrist.
“Definitely,” I said.
Marlene steered us back to the group. Pretending to rub my chin on my shoulder, I finally allowed myself a glance at Sirius. He was starting the fire. A cigarette—hopefully bewitched to leave no telltale scent—dangled from his lips.
Sirius glanced up and I tore my eyes away.
“Oi, got any of those to spare?” James said.
“…the bloody Head Boy…” Lily rubbed her temples. “We do have to meet with McGonagall in one hour, you know.”
“Not to worry, love, not to worry.”
James had already fished a cigarette from Sirius’s dragonskin jacket, which was oh-so-carefully draped over the tree trunk. He tossed another to Remus and a hesitant Peter. They were idiots. Surely Filch would be here any minute, but they didn't seem to care. The concept was so unnervingly strange to me.
I had slaved for six years—soon to be seven—to earn top marks, and stay out of trouble, and keep my head down. Then Marlene came into the picture with these friends of hers. It seemed that Lily and I—and Mary MacDonald, for all I knew—were being pulled into their little world, where detentions didn’t matter and memories made were more important than their consequences.
These thoughts culminated in the usual irritation as I stole another glance at Sirius. He was taking a long drag on the cigarette. To my surprise, the feelings of frustration were overcome by another: I’d never had the faintest desire to smoke a cigarette in my life, but I suddenly wanted to take it from his lips and put it to my own.
The fire burst to life. Mary’s squeal of delight echoed over the lake and Sirius sheathed his wand, looking proud of himself. Embers lifted into the breeze and vanished into the purple sky. We shared an oddly silent moment before it was abruptly ended.
“We’ve got a regular Phoenix Scout over here!” James nudged Sirius with his foot, who swatted him away.
Mary and Remus were sitting rather close, hoarding the bottle, and as Marlene had taken to standing over Sirius to critique his kindling, I turned to the remaining space beside Peter. Getting between Lily and James—while her grudging look slowly turned into stolen glances—felt like treason.
“Good summer?” I asked Peter.
He ruffled his hair. “I reckon, yeah. You?”
“Glad to be back.”
That exhausted our topics of conversation; I stared into the fire instead. Marlene was using her wand to enlarge the blaze to her liking, while Sirius watched with annoyance and the usual admiration. Across the lake, other fires had sprung up, flickering orange like cat’s eyes.
“Oi, Chloe,” called Marlene. “Stay a while. Ditch the uniform.”
I glanced down self-consciously while the others tittered. Professor Sprout probably wouldn’t have minded, had I arrived out of uniform, but it felt unnatural. Somehow disrespectful. I had thrown my robes on on at the last minute, over my dress.
“Well, since you asked so very nicely…” I mumbled and shrugged the fabric away. Baring my shoulders on school grounds felt like walking into a church naked. And even though Mary’s shorts flaunted her muscular Quidditch legs, and Marlene’s porcelain collarbones were glowing in the firelight, I hoped the conversation had changed—
“Ow-owww!” Marlene spiraled into a fit of wolf-whistles and catcalls. The others erupted into laughter. “Look at those farmworker’s arms!”
“Get the girl a drink!” James said and Mary thrust the bottle towards me.
“You’re an infant,” Remus chided, though his own voice lagged with alcohol. “Chloe, it’s disgusting. You don’t have to drink it.”
“Hey! It’s all I could find,” Peter said.
“Yeah, it’s doing the trick, isn’t it?” Mary nudged Remus and his face glowed.
I took the bottle from her hand, which she seemed to have forgotten was outstretched. An overpowering smell, like my Mum’s floor cleaner, assaulted my nostrils. I tried not to gag.
Marlene cast a look of solidarity. “Chloe doesn’t care. She’s got this.”
But as I brought the bottle to my lips, my eyes roved across the fire and met, for the first time, with Sirius’s. His face wavered in the heat. Still, I saw clearly as his gaze raked over my bare shoulders, and he gently thumbed his lips. I nearly dropped the bottle. He had never—not once—looked at me that way.
I turned my eyes to something, anything else that wouldn’t send terrible little thrills through my body. Lily’s hair. It was the same color as the fire. But she was watching me in an unsettlingly knowing way. Her gaze flicked to Sirius, and then back to me.
I thrust the bottle to Peter so quickly that it sloshed on his cornflower shirt. Suddenly I was on my feet. “I have to go.”
James spread his arms theatrically. “Aw, what? Are we that boring?”
“Chloe, c’mon,” Marlene implored. “We were just teasing. You don’t have to drink.”
“I really wouldn’t recommend it, actually,” said Remus tipsily and Peter sulked.
The lack of commentary from Sirius meant he was still staring. “No, it’s okay. I forgot—I told Professor Sprout I would drop off my assignment tonight. You lot have fun!”
I was already covering myself with the cloak, walking backwards so quickly that I tripped on an exposed root. Regaining my balance, I offered an odd little wave and turned around just in time to avoid smacking into a tree.
Marlene struggled to hide her laughter. “Alright, then, see you tomorrow!”
Somehow I managed not to sprint all the way to the castle.
The library was deserted, of course. I had no reason to be there, having dropped off my assignment with Sprout hours before going to the lake, but it was the first place that came to mind. The rows and rows of books were labyrinthine and I needed somewhere to lose myself. Hide.
Madame Pince had raised her head at my footsteps. But her scowl disappeared when she recognized one of her tolerated students. The library would be closing soon, surely; the chandeliers were smoking, having just been snuffed. Probably for Pince to create as unwelcoming an environment as possible and savor her last remaining hours of silence.
Soon, the familiar scent of the Herbology section filled my lungs. Many of the books were enchanted and the area smelled like a forest. If I closed my eyes, it almost felt like I were outside, somewhere deep in the trees and rain-dampened ferns.
Spare torches cast just enough light to read the book spines as my fingers trailed along the cracked surfaces. Absently I unsheathed and turned through the pages of a book, but I wasn’t actually reading. Instead, I went over the list again. The one I had practiced over the summer.
He acts like a child.
His family is worse than the Black Adder Society.
And finally, the most hauntingly convincing reason:
“Bit early on for studying, don’t you think?”
His voice was low but I still jumped. Sirius was standing on the other side of the aisle.
It was a moment before the words would come. “I-I wanted a head start.”
“‘Course you did.”
He must have been directly in front of me. Through the empty spaces among the books I caught a glimpse of black dragonskin leather—he shifted and our eyes nearly met. Stifling a gasp, I took a step backwards.
I tried not to focus on the obvious fact: Sirius had followed me here. He had left the fire, and Marlene, and sought me out.
“You’re very brown, you know,” he said slyly.
“So I’ve heard.” I was grateful he couldn’t see my blush. “What are you doing here?”
“Just looking.” But something in his tone said that he didn’t mean at the books. A feeling like a breeze ran up the backs of my legs.
“Pince could help you with that.”
He snorted quietly and said the words from last year, in Slughorn’s classroom, “You really don’t like me, do you Chloe?”
“It doesn’t matter what I like.”
Too late I realized what I had done. And now it was out in the universe, and I could never take it back. I was no good at this. Being practiced, and guarded, every single word premeditated and designed to keep him at bay—I would always slip up. Even after what had happened at Platform 9¾ last year, and after stewing in my anger and confusion all summer, I was helpless.
I faced the opposite wall, toying with the frayed edges of a book. But I could feel him looking at the hair pulled hastily onto the crown of my head; the exposed nape of my neck. So this was how he looked at other girls. The ones he distracted a shadowy version of himself with, while the real Sirius waited for Marlene.
“That’s funny,” he said thoughtfully, “It almost sounded like you do like me.”
In frustration, I turned and nearly shouted, “Oh, come on, Sirius!” It echoed in the silence and I expected—even prayed for—Pince to come storming over. But nothing came to save me from the moment, and so I said more quietly, “I would never… get in the way.”
His voice was a shade darker this time. “Marlene could have me if she wanted.”
“You’re smitten, though. It’s obvious. And where is this all coming from? You’ve never been even remotely…interested…”
“Merlin, Chloe.” His voice was behind me now and I spun around. It must have been the reaction he wanted: I could hear his grin. “I’m not asking you to bear my children.”
The words hung in the air: I’m asking for something else.
“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t.”
I imagined him shrugging one shoulder, the way he often did. “No need to be sorry.”
The absence of disappointment was like a weight. Because somewhere, didn’t I know that all of this was my own making? That withholding something from myself—something that I wanted—was the pattern I had always followed? No alcohol. No late nights. No distracting friendships.
I pushed off, continuing down the row of books. “I should finish.”
But I felt his presence shift from the other side, following. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just find some reading.”
Sirius continued to trail, silently, alongside me. I felt him like a shadow. A thrill shot up my spine at each glimpse of movement through our partition, or when I unsheathed a book and felt it tug, teasingly, from the other side. Surely he could hear my breath catching. For one wild moment, I didn’t care. It was a game and I let myself go on playing.
Tomorrow, I could be ashamed. Right now I was the kind of person who delighted in this.
We reached the end of the aisle and I stepped out—but there was only empty air. The breath crushed from my lungs. He’d already gone.
But I turned and there he was, waiting, dangerous and beautiful. I had never been alone with him before. His face was startlingly symmetrical, save for one brow that rested lower than the other. I wondered if the sly look that I had written off as practiced was really authentic; just the unique makeup of his expression.
Actually, I didn’t know much about Sirius at all. I hadn't let myself.
“I should go,” I said automatically.
But even as he nodded, Sirius was slowly, deliberately closing the space between us, his hands clasped behind his back. I didn’t realize I was moving until I backed into a shelf so quickly that the contents rattled. All the while he came closer, eyes trained on mine, and when he was so near that I could smell the woodsmoke again I was suddenly lifting my chin, chest expanding, fingers gripped white onto the shelf.
“Don’t,” I breathed as my eyes fluttered shut.
“Ah. Here we are.”
My eyes snapped open and he plucked a book from over my shoulder. I sank back down from my tiptoes, blinking, as he clapped a hand on the cover. “Merpeople: A Comprehensive Guide to Learning their Language and Customs. This should do nicely.”
His eyes glimmered in the torchlight and I couldn’t speak. It had been a game. And he had won.
The breath didn’t come rushing from my lungs until his footsteps faded completely. And then I burst from my spot like a wild animal, sprinting through the library. Madame Pince’s shriek came as an echo behind me; I was already gone. I hurried down the empty corridors, the smell of woodsmoke and pine lingering. It seemed ingrained in the fabric of my clothes, in my hair—a permanent mark that no amount of magic could remove.
Author's Note: Of course, I'd actually had this chapter written ages ago because ~sexual tension~ I'm interested to see what everyone thinks at this point about Sirius and Chloe, and where their relationship is or isn't going. The next chapter will be more conclusive but right now I think I'll leave you wondering ;)
And the Marauders! They're so fun to write. I love the idea of sassy!Lily with a grumpy running commentary of everything James does. Thoughts on these characterizations? I tried to do something a little different.
Thank you to MalfoysAngel for helping me come up with Phoenix Scouts, which you've probably guessed is the magical equivalent of Eagle Scouts :)
Please leave a review! I'm open to any and all thoughts. Lovely CI by kairos @ TDA ♥
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