Chapter 10 : X
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She sat and chewed on a quill, muddy boots draped across the blue velvet sofa. The Transfiguration textbook was heavy and its corner was digging through her jeans and into the fleshy side of her left thigh where she’d propped it up. She stabbed the book with her quill and glared at Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. The letters were swimming up and over each other and no matter how many times she tilted her head, they refused to stay still.
“Stop jiggling,” Abdi said, looking up from the desk in the corner of the room. “You’re distracting me.”
“Sorry,” Mei said.
She tried to sit still and read. But after a few minutes Abdi looked at her again and she realised she’d been kicking the arm of the sofa in an angry, rhythmic tap.
He sighed and stood up. He walked over to her and pushed her feet off the sofa so he could sit down beside her.
“Let me take that,” he said, reaching for the book.
Mei let him prise the textbook out of her fingers and watched him put it down on the floor.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she whispered.
Abdi shook his head. “Nothing’s wrong with you. It’s...everything’s wrong at the moment.”
“Don’t say that. Some things are good.”
Abdi looked over her shoulder and his eyes softened. “Yeah. Some things are good.”
Mei followed his gaze and smiled. Hugo was making his way down the stairs from the dormitories.
“You guys are getting pretty close.” She nudged him.
Abdi shrugged and turned away. “I don’t know.”
Mei bit her lip, still smiling, and lifted a hand to wave Hugo over.
“Where are you off to?” She said. “You’re looking very smart.”
Hugo looked down at himself, seemingly surprised. He was wearing a white T-shirt and his usual black leather jacket. He did look smart. He had a grace about him that made any outfit look dressy.
“It’s Paige’s birthday. I’m meant to go to her party. Don’t really fancy it to be honest.”
He sat down in Abdi’s recently vacated chair, crossing his legs and leaning back. He looked tired.
“What are you working on?” He glanced at Mei’s discarded textbooks.
Mei shrugged. “Transfiguration, supposedly. But I can’t focus at all.”
Hugo leaned forwards to pick up the textbook. “I know the feeling.”
He flicked through the pages, frowning. His hands were trembling. He looked fragile.
“Is there anything I can help with?” He asked.
Mei shook her head. “I’ll be alright. It’s just...everything with Lyra. I can’t stop thinking about it. And her fathers visiting at the weekend brought it all back. I’ve never seen them so sad. Michael used to come for dinner sometimes, when I was little. He’s usually so together.”
Abdi and Hugo were both watching her as she spoke. Now that the words were coming out, Mei found she couldn’t stop them.
“And he couldn’t stop talking about how Lyra wanted to be a lawyer. A lawyer. How am I meant to explain to him that she did want a life fighting crime but decided to throw it all away by overdosing on aconite.”
Mei had tears in her eyes now and brushed them away, feeling cross with herself.
Hugo had suddenly gone very pale.
“Aconite?” He asked. “That’s what killed her?”
Mei shrugged. “Maybe. That’s what the aurors think. Robin told all the prefects, so they could look out for any signs of other students taking it. It either killed her or it made her so out of it that she couldn’t swim when she fell into the lake.”
Hugo stood up. “I’m sorry, Mei. Let me know if I can help with any of the study stuff. I should get going. I’m late.”
“Why go?” Abdi said, sounding frustrated. “You said you didn’t want to.”
Hugo looked at him. Mei watched the two boys stare at each other, both looking irritated and confused.
And then Hugo shrugged and turned away.
“I don’t know. It’s just what I do.”
He walked away without saying anything else.
Abdi let out a long, slow breath and pressed his fists against his eyes.
“Are you okay?” Mei said tentatively, unsure if she was the right person to be asking.
Abdi shook his head. “I don’t know. Feels stupid to be upset when there’s all this other rubbish going on. I have no right to complain when you’ve just lost your best friend.”
Mei sighed and rested a hand on his shoulder.
“The fact I’m having a hard time doesn’t make your problems any less legitimate. Talk to me.”
“I just...I don’t like feeling like this.”
Mei waited for him to expand.
“I’ve never felt like this about anyone before,” Abdi confessed.
“You’re talking about Hugo?”
“Of course. I’m always…I can’t stop thinking about him.”
“And...does he feel the same way?”
Abdi shrugged. He was obviously trying to look casual, like this didn’t matter too much, but his hands were clenched into tight fists.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter anyway. It’s not like anything could ever happen.”
“Of course it matters. Who says nothing could ever happen? Hugo?”
Abdi shook his head. “No...no, sometimes he makes me feel like...I don’t know. Sometimes he says things that make me think maybe he feels the same way.”
Mei thought back to the way Hugo had looked at Abdi before leaving for Paige’s party. Maybe there had been something there. She’d never been very good at reading people’s expressions.
“But...if you think he might feel the same way,” she murmured. “I don’t get it. Why couldn’t it ever happen?”
Abdi laughed. It was a harsh, bitter, bark of a laugh.
“What would that even look like? Can you imagine me taking him home to meet my family? Bringing him back to my place in Brixton?”
“Your parents wouldn’t like him? Why?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
Mei chewed her lip. “Because he’s a guy? Abdi…”
“No,” Abdi cut across her. “No. I mean, maybe. Some of the extended family are pretty conservative muslims and maybe wouldn’t like it much. But my parents wouldn’t mind, I think.”
“So what’s the problem?”
He sighed, smiling in a way that was obviously forced.
“It’s everything. The refugee community at home...they pretty much stick together. Mum thinks I’ll meet a nice Somali girl, you know? Someone who understands where we’ve come from. Hugo’s...Hugo’s just so far from what they’d want for me. He’s this rich, British, wizarding celebrity. They’ve already turned their lives upside down once for me. They left their homes behind to bring me to London. I can’t force them to change everything again by bringing someone like that into their home.”
Mei squeezed his hand. She didn’t think she’d be able to find the right words to respond. Abdi’s life and experiences were so far from her own. So she just stayed beside him, watching the flickering fireplace and holding onto the warmth of his fingers.
After a while, when the Common Room was nearly empty and Mei’s hand was cramped around Abdi’s, he pulled away and stood up.
“Right,” he said. “Time for me to stop feeling sorry for myself. I’m going to try to get some sleep. Thanks for listening.”
Mei blinked up at him. “Any time.”
Abdi started to walk up the steps, but turned back to her very quickly.
“Mei…” he said. “I’m glad we’re friends.”
“I don’t understand why we never talked this much before.”
Mei didn’t reply. She knew exactly why they’d never talked this much before. She’d been so in awe of Lyra that she’d never looked any further for companionship. And while Lyra’s death had left her shaky and terrified, the absence of her best friend had also forced her out of her comfort zone and into new friendships with people that made her smile.
She didn’t say any of this out loud. She couldn’t. It felt like too much of a betrayal.
Instead, she wished Abdi goodnight and stood up herself.
She didn’t want to go to the dormitory yet, so she made her way out of the Common Room instead. It was part curfew but Tristan was the prefect on patrol tonight and he wouldn’t stop her.
She wandered down the corridor with vague ideas of maybe going to the Owlery. Lyra’s parents had left her owl behind, thinking Mei would like to use it. Mei didn’t particularly like the bird. She was a snooty creature, always preening her feathers, and Lyra had jokingly named her Vanity. But she was the only part of Lyra that Mei really had left, and she wandered whether visiting the Owlery might ease some of the emptiness she’d been struggling with all day.
She didn’t make it very far. At the end of the corridor, she found a crumpled Robin Parsons, clutching his knees and leaning against the wall.
Mei nudged him with her toe, checking he was conscious. Paige Parsons’s birthday parties were notorious for leaving the beautiful people of Hogwarts completely incapacitated, and from what Mei could gather, passing out at or after a party brought glory rather than ridicule within their exclusive few. But Robin Parsons was Head Boy. It would do anyone any good if he was caught unconscious in a corridor.
Luckily for Robin, he opened his eyes. They were red and swollen.
“Chang?” His voice was hoarse. “Where’m I?”
“Safe,” Mei told him.
She leaned down and Robin looped an arm around her shoulders. She pulled him to his feet and he slumped against her.
The short walk back to Ravenclaw Tower took an unreasonably long time and seemed unbearably loud in the quiet of nighttime Hogwarts. Robin’s legs seemed to have melted into some kind of dough, and his knees kept collapsing. Mei was tall, but Robin was taller, and every time he fell it was a struggle for her to keep him on his feet.
When they finally got back into the Common Room, Mei shoved Robin down onto a sofa. He didn’t let go of her shoulders, so she found herself pulled down on top of him.
As soon as his back touched the cushions, Robin’s eyes closed again. He curled his arms more tightly around Mei, holding her close.
“You’re going to have to let me go,” Mei said.
“No.” Robin held her tighter. “You’re comfy.”
“Come on, Robin. I need to go to bed.”
“Please stay,” he whispered. “Just for a bit. Nobody else understands.”
Mei frowned and looked up at him. His eyes were still closed but she was close enough to see the tears that clung to his golden eyelashes. He smelt like alcohol and some kind of floral smokiness, but the sadness in his expression seemed genuine.
Mei didn’t know whether to ask what was wrong. She still felt a little bit emotionally overwhelmed from her conversation with Abdi, and she didn’t really know Robin all that well. He might regret talking to her in the morning.
She was saved the trouble of asking, because Robin continued to talk without being prompted.
“They all just...just keep partying. It’s like nothing ever happened. They pretend it’s all okay. But it’s not. It’s not okay. I felt her. I carried her. I’d never seen a dead person before her.”
Mei drew in a sharp breath. She hadn’t felt prepared to talk about Lyra. But now that Robin had brought her up, she felt a little bit relieved. Robin hadn’t had anything like her own relationship with Lyra, but at least he was another person that felt her absence.
Robin shook his head very quickly, as if he was trying to shake the unhappy memories out.
“I can’t dance with them and laugh and drink and pretend everything’s good. Every time I go out I come back and remember she’s still gone and just...just hate myself. Why should I go and have fun when she never can again?”
Mei rested her chin on his chest.
“That’s how I feel every day,” she whispered. Her own eyes were stinging now. She blinked, trying not to cry. One rebellious tear rolled over her cheek and onto Robin’s T-shirt.
Robin tilted his head up to look at her, bright eyes wet with tears. His arms were warm around her.
Mei tipped her head to one side, suddenly very conscious of how close they were to each other.
When Robin drew her closer, close enough that she could feel his breath, she didn’t pull away.
And when he kissed her, and she could taste the alcohol on his tongue, she kissed him back.
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