Chapter 1 : Pity The Houses Are White
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(c) to the ingenious milominderbinder
Thin pale gold beams of light cut through wide green leaves. Tree trunks as thick as cars loomed above, slightly menacing, slightly magical. It was very hyperreal, like a fairytale. I could smell sunlight and fresh morning dew and my anger rising as the morning waxed.
'Do that again,' I heard Dom, my best friend, threaten.
My gaze flicked up from the map sprawled out in front of me. Dom was standing, back rigid, with her arms folded across her chest, glaring down her cousin and my friend, Freddie.
'I'm literally doing nothing,' he said, grinning maniacally. He spread his arms wide and took a step closer toward Dom.
I turned my back to them, squinting at the map again.
'Breathe, Dumbo,' I heard Freddie leer. 'Relax. Hee-hoo-hee-hoo.'
'Tell me,' Dom ground out through gritted teeth. 'To relax. One more time.'
Dom hit him. I knew this because I heard the thud of Dom's surprisingly strong fist landing on Freddie's surprisingly soft body. That and Freddie's squeal of pain.
I tilted the map a little to the right and pursed my lips. I believed we were somewhere in the greyish green blob, just with no discernible path out of it. I turned the map to a different angle, hoping this would somehow clarify things for me. I clenched my jaw in frustration. The greyish blob remained a greyish blob.
For the first time in my life, I was angry I couldn't perform magic. A simple location spell and bing bang boom, I'd know where we were and where to go. But no, I took this class in a haze of love, riding the rush of a pheromone ridden wave, only to find myself in the middle of a Scottish forest, with a map in my hands, banned from using magic and trapped with two imbeciles who were not helping me.
'Freddie, first off, really? Really? You really want to piss me off today? You want a black eye or something mate? Maybe you want to shit slugs for the next week?'
And who put me in charge of the bloody map? Do I look like a navigator to you? What about me screamed she's good with direction?
It was all just a jumble of random dotted lines and green and brown blobs! I couldn't make heads or tails of it and I was starting to think we were desperately lost. I swore we were going in the right direction when we started off. We found all the markers and everything. This was supposed to be it! We were supposed to be there already. Stomach sinking, I looked over my shoulder, biting my lip, wondering where the other two imbeciles were.
'I see nature really isn't agreeing with your temper. And let me just say Dominique, those are some ugly threats there. Shitting slugs? That's truly inspired.'
There was a scuffle and another thump.
I turned back again. Freddie was flat on his back with Dom's knee pressed against his sternum and her wand digging into his neck. Dom seethed, looking more like a crazed lunatic than a dainty Veela. She bared her teeth at her cousin, assuming a questionable middle point between a grin and a leer. Then she cocked her head to the side, shimmery red gold hair spilling over her shoulder in waves. You know, as I looked at her, it occurred to me that Dom's never really seen the advantage of beauty in the Veela arsenal. She usually went straight for the frightening bog witch thing.
'Would you like to see?'
Before Freddie could respond to that I cleared my throat in case, you know, he agreed. He had no impulse control and the kind of reckless confidence that got people killed. Or murdered.
'Guys, we're lost.'
Dom looked up at me, still on top of Freddie, who now had his hands up in surrender.
'Lost? Where are we?'
I pointed at a green blob on the map. 'Here?' I hoped.
'I thought we found all the markers,' Freddie said. 'We really lost? I don't like the woods. I know I talk a big game and all—'
'Oh there you two are,' said Dom suddenly, eyes flitting behind me. She got off Freddie, who hastily scrambled to his feet and dusted the dirt off his jeans. 'Jenelle doesn't know where we're going and we're lost—'
I scowled at her. 'I didn't—'
'We're lost?' said Luke, sharing a look with James, who emerged from behind. Luke walked over to me and took the map out of my hands, giving it a once over. He pursed his lips for a moment—and then flung the map in the air. We all watched it float to the ground. 'I have no idea where the fuck we are either.'
'Here,' Freddie cried. 'Let me have it.' I held my palms out in silent defeat and let the boys take over.
James and Freddie began to study it, pointing and rotating the map in what I imagined was the exact same way I'd gone about it.
'Where's Harry Hobart when you need him, eh?' Dom muttered under her breath, shooting Freddie a dirty look. 'He's supposed to be an expert on camping and stuff.'
'Fuck Harry Hobart.'
You see, Hobart was the whole crux of this whole situation. Rarely at Hogwarts did we ever get to choose our own partners for anything because teachers—in my opinion—got some sick pleasure out of messing with the social lives of the students by pairing them up with their crush or worst enemy. Strange, you might think? Paranoid, even? Ludicrous? No. Not at all. They knew exactly what was going on at school. They were the God-like omnipresent paparazzi of our lives. Which was very disturbing if you thought about it. So when we got to actually choose our house mates for this project—whatever that meant at the time—it came as a shock.
In fact, it was such a shock we weren't quite sure how to react to the mad rush of students surging toward the sign up sheet. Animals, clambering over one another, pulling hair, biting each other, all in the hopes of tearing that holy parchment out of Professor Newton's hand first. Dom had made a fair effort in the melee, and yet despite it all, we still ended up with them.
But I was not here by choice. I was not here with him by choice. This was NOT my idea and I made it clear to anyone who so much as looked at me a funny way.
In reality, I knew we had no other friends, no other options. In an even sadder reality, my friends made me miserable. In my private, worsening reality, there was only one person in my friend group who made me, personally, unhappy.
I picked up my duffle and slung it over my shoulder, feeling immeasurably exhausted. My gaze met Dom's and a flicker of understanding passed between us. We both realised that were in the same sinking ship and all we had was each other to depend on.
'This is your fault,' she declared.
Affronted, I stared at her a moment. 'My fault? How? In what world and just so you know, if it's anyone's fault here it's yours!'
'My fault? How is it my fault?'
'How isn't it?' I whisper-hissed. 'You wanted this to happen just so you could be close to Luke—'
'I didn't! I don't!' she interrupted shrilly, her eyes widening in panic. She looked around furtively at Luke. He was preoccupied with drawing pictures on the ground with a stick and didn't notice our conversation of slippery words and hushed anger. Her gaze snapped back to mine. 'Oh my god. Imagine if he'd heard. I am going to kill you—'
'Girls,' James interrupted, his voice all deep and … rich. Ugh. 'I think we figured it out.'
Luke jumped to his feet and threw an arm around Dom's shoulder, pulling her towards him, looking thoroughly relieved. 'Great, let's go. I'm starving.' He winked at Dom. 'You ready baby?'
Dom shrugged Luke's arm off with an amused noise. She tried to elbow him but he caught her arm just in time with a laugh. Dom would look like any indifferent girl messing around with her mate if it weren't for the lovely shade of scarlet her face had become.
'Don't try to hit me Dom. You hit like a girl—'
'I am a girl.'
Suddenly, I felt James' bomber jacket brush against my skin. The muscles around my mouth froze in the smile aimed at Luke and Dom. My stomach coiled, my abdomen tensed; it was my body's natural reaction to his touch these days. It was a relatively new kind of reaction (I was familiar with many, none as foreign as this) so I was still getting used to it. Other reactions were harder to control, however. Like the way my eyes followed his movements, devouring them like they were my last meal.
They followed him now as he wrapped his hand around his duffle and hoisted it over his shoulder. I loved his hands; the tendons that tautened with effort that appeared effortless; the calluses on his palms from playing two-aside Quidditch at the Burrow, no gloves; his fingers, at odds with athleticism, were long and musical; they belonged to an artist. I was still watching him as his eyes met mine. I couldn't help the way my chest instantly constricted. I couldn't breathe yet all at once my breathing was too loud, my heart hammered too fast and white noise rushed like a wave in my ears.
I blinked hard and looked away just as he said, 'I think we have to go through here.' He pointed.
I nodded once and angled my body away from him completely. It was hard talking to him, it was harder to look at him. I'm such a masochist, I thought with no feeling whatsoever. I have butterflies and it's pathetic.
I faced Luke, Freddie and Dom. 'Ready?' They all murmured assent, grabbing their respective duffles, sounding about as enthused as I felt. 'Let's hope this actually leads us to the Fire Pit.' I muttered this last part under my breath but he still heard anyway.
'It will,' James assured me from behind. His tone was light, compliant, but I'd touched a nerve. It always irritated him when people didn't trust him. He wasn't preternaturally brilliant but the front was everything. He strode forward with an easy grace that made me stare again. Luke flashed me a grin and followed after James, trailed by Freddie. Dom and I shared a mutually felt we're doomed look and trudged forward. As we pushed through the brambles and branches and the humidity, we fell into silence. Dom stopped trying to catch up to Luke, her cheeks still glowing pink. A burst of laughter trickled down—James.
'What?' I asked, because I knew from the look on Dom's face that that's what she wanted. Me to go first, that was.
Dom's eyes stayed firmly planted on her feet. She hoisted her duffle further up her shoulder. 'When he's touchy feely like that,' she muttered. 'I can't stop reading into things. I wish he would just stop confusing me, you know?'
My eyes flitted up to James's back, a few metres ahead. 'Yeah. I know.'
Dom looked at me, noticing something—perhaps the change in my tone. I glanced at her, stomach twisting. Serious Dom was always way worse than Upset Dom. Serious Dom was harder to convince.
'This must be so weird. I know this is so weird—'
'It's fine,' I cut across, unable to meet her eyes. 'It's been a week—'
'A week,' Dom scoffed lightly, her eyes flashing ahead. She shook her head in disbelief. 'A week and he's already dating Flora Morgan. You know it's a rebound …'
My heart split; the stitches I'd so carefully threaded into that wound, undone by a few words.
A rebound, I thought with desperation. God I hope she's a rebound.
'Hey Jenny …'
Dom stopped in front of me forcing me to stop with her. She really was so pretty, I thought with no envy at all. And she was pretty not in the same way her sister Tor was. Though drawing comparisons wasn't likely to lead to any truthful conclusions. Tor was stunning—with white-blonde hair that fell past her shoulders, high cheekbones and dark blue eyes. Dom had a softer, rounder face, skin that glowed with a peachy blush and eyes that were a clear blue-green that made her look other-worldly. Dom looked angelic and innocent which let her get away with almost anything. Tor was not Dom; Dom was herself, entirely.
Her eyes bored into mine. 'Are you ever going to tell me what happened?'
'I already did tell you,' I said automatically. I side stepped her and kept walking, mind scrambling to come up with something else to supplement that with. 'I went up to his room to do homework and he just—he ended it. He told me he was over it. That we'd—I don't know. We'd drifted apart I guess.' I shrugged to convince us both of the lie. 'Honestly, it wasn't a big deal.'
Dom didn't say anything. She knew I was lying and it was pathetic.
After what felt like centuries but was only, like, forty minutes, we fought our way out of thinning brambles into a gaping meadow. For a moment, we were all equally blinded as our eyes adjusted to the pure sunlight, unfiltered by greenery. I turned, disoriented, and found that my group and I were in a beaten, circular expanse. At one end, there were huge logs piled up on top of each other at the centre of stones as big as my head circling it.
I guessed that was the Fire Pit.
I took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
Everything about this project, the people around me, being away from Hogwarts, my brother, put me on edge. I hated the idea of solitude. I despised the premise of personal growth. I disdained the belief that even years after the Wizarding War we still felt the need to immerse in Muggle culture to relate to them. Years of coming to this site had decided this as the best way to achieve a higher level of understanding? It was ludicrous and spoke volumes of wizarding ignorance to this day.
But, I reminded myself, as I always did when I got worked up about this stupid class, I didn't choose to be here.
'Good morning everybody! Looks like the ASBO Five finally made it! Hello there Lucian. Come on in Freddie, James. Jenelle, darling. Dominique. Have a seat by the Fire Pit … any one will do … Will, dear, scooch down a bit …'
I looked around, noticing a makeshift stage. Professor Newton (Muggle Studies) and Professor Fig (Muggle Arts) strode up onto it. Everyone shushed up and faced them. I couldn't believe we were the last to arrive. I wondered if we would get points off for that. Then I remembered we weren't getting any marks for this at all. I gnashed my teeth and forced myself to focus on our pioneering Professors.
'Now,' said Professor Newton, clapping her hands together and beaming at all of us. 'To start with—'
I zoned out instantly.
Dom nudged my shoulder.
'I admit, it may have been my fault,' she whispered through a mouthful of peanuts. 'I know I got there first but what choice did I have? Trust me, we did not want to end up in a group with Tessa and Harry. I'm not stupid.'
'Could've fooled me.' I looked at her then at the bag in her hands. 'When did you get those?'
'What, these? Do you want one?' She waved the bag of salted peanuts in my face. 'They were giving out goodie-bags by the entrance, didn't you notice? I don't really think they were with the school but whatever, the Professors didn't seem to mind and Freddie even got brownies.'
I took some peanuts.
'Good luck everyone, have fun!' cried Newton cheerfully, seemingly wrapping things up. I glanced at my team members, hoping that at least one of them was paying attention. James was studying his tan arms with a good deal of seriousness; Luke's face was smashed against his palm, eyes unfocused and glazed; Fred was mucking about with Oliver Gamble; Dom was beaming at me. 'And see you tonight for dinner!'
Oh for God's sake.
'Good luck,' was all Professor Fig had to say to us before she and Newton swivelled around, disappearing behind the stage, presumably to their own cabin-house hybrid.
The groups broke out immediately into incoherent babble, no doubt supremely excited to waste a month of their lives here, in the middle of a forest, miles and miles away from the castle. Away from delicious food. Hagrid. Quidditch. Above everything else, I knew I was the most angry about missing weeks of essential Quidditch practise.
An entire month. It hurt my soul just to think about it.
We were in the final against Ravenclaw and instead of preparing James and I were here, playing house.
It still astonished me to this day how James was able to smoothly talk a mutinous team into acquiescence. He'd sounded almost reasonable, leaning against his locker, fixing his glove. We'll play Hufflepuff in March, win, then see Ravenclaw in May. He'd shrugged, smiled even. In between, Jenny and I have a Muggle Studies project and we'll be gone all of April, but not to worry, I've sorted out with Watson the plays I want you to practice. I'm not worried. We've played an excellent season. Jenny and I'll keep up whilst we're away.
Then he broke up with me.
'Let's go find out what house we're in,' Dom said, nodding at Tessa's group, who began to get up. 'Everyone's walking that way.'
We made our way over to a table where a pimply young man was passing out folders to the other two groups.
'Hi,' I said. 'We're, um, the ASBO Five.' I sounded so miserable. I perked up my voice. 'We're really excited to be here!'
Folder-Guy gave me a funny a look and picked up a folder with a bright number three on it. He handed it over to me. 'House Number Seven, down to the right.'
'Cheers.' I looked at Dom, then frowned. 'Where are the others? Where do they keep going?'
Dom wasn't paying attention: she was looking over the folder with an elegant mix of annoyance and disgust. 'I can't believe we let Luke name our group that.'
'Fitting though, innit?' his disembodied voice said. The both of us turned. Luke grinned devilishly at us. Freddie and James were behind him, both carefully eating a brownie.
'No,' I grumbled. I started walking ahead of everyone. I took the folder back from Dom and flipped through it, reading all the instructions and whatnot. There were directions to the local supermarket, a shabby old furniture and hardware store, and a laundrette. What on earth was a laundrette? I wondered. There was a picture of washing machine beside it, which offered some clarification, but I was still mystified.
'Good luck guys!' I looked up and watched as Ella's group went off into the first house in a row of identical white houses. She waved at us and I waved back. Like her and her house mates, I examined her house: the porch was broken, the windows were cracked, the door unhinged, and that was just it on the outside.
'Merlin, what shite,' Freddie commented lightly.
'They think we're actually going to be able to fix a thing without magic?' Luke wondered aloud.
'We'll never get out of here if we don't,' James said. 'Come on.'
For that was our purpose. The reason for us being here.
Task One: to rebuild a home.
Before I thought they were being rather generous by giving us an entire month, but it looked like maybe we'd need it. None of us—that I knew of—were terribly handy and being accustomed and all to magic, I doubted any of us ever thought we would ever need a reason to be.
'I can't breathe,' Dom complained from behind me. 'This oxygen is too pure.'
I flipped to the very last page of the folder. Something heavy fell out and I stopped to pick it up. It was an envelope. In it were five pairs of keys with the number seven engraved on it and, strangely enough, a piece of parchment with a quote.
We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.
- Oscar Wilde
Being half-blood (Papa's a Muggleborn and mum's a half-blood), I did know my fair share of Muggle authors. Besides, we'd studied him with Fig. But I hadn't a clue what it was supposed to mean. Why would Newton put quotes in our folders anyway? Actually, did the other groups even have quotes? If they did, did they get the same one?
'Oh son of a free elf—is that supposed to be our blooming house?'
I stopped and looked up.
'Shit,' said Freddie.
My jaw dropped.
'There's a hole in the porch!' Dom cried.
'How are we meant to fix that.'
Fifteen minutes later, after carefully sidestepping the gaping wound in our porch, and taking a quick survey of house (there was kitchen in an open plan living room—very modern if it weren't for the cobwebs and peeling paint—and two rooms, one with three twin beds for the boys and a large master room with a bay window, a king sized bed and a crumbling ensuite, for me and Dom), we dropped off our bags, spared five seconds to remember, with sorrow and fondness, our cosy four posters at Hogwarts, and returned outside.
'I think we need like … a long piece of wood. A floorboard,' Dom said as we all appraised the damage, sweeping her delicate hand across the porch. 'You know? Replace the whole thing.'
'Merlin's left tit,' Luke groaned. 'That's going to take ages.'
'I think that's the point …'
'Can I see that?' I startled and, after a moment's hesitation, handed James the folder I'd been clutching onto since I'd distributed the keys. 'What d'you make of the quote?'
It took every ounce of decency in me to respond.
It was the best I could do and James seemed to know it. He murmured something else that I didn't quite catch and turned away, leafing through the folder himself.
'Oi, look at this.' Freddie padded down the steps and picked something up off the grass. 'It's an invitation.'
'Out loud then,' Dom said. 'Go on.'
'Dear ASBO Five,' Freddie read. 'Before your month truly begins, come enjoy a relaxing night at the Fire Pit where you'll get a chance to unwind after a taxing day of trekking through the woods. Enjoy the company of your friends and some good food! Yours warmly, Professor Newton and Professor Fig.'
'Nice of them,' I muttered. I ambled down the porch steps and took the letter from Freddie. I scanned it. 'Says here that we'll get to do this at the end of every week.'
'Brilliant,' James said, his tone implying the opposite. He turned abruptly and disappeared into the house without another word.
I cocked my head to Freddie. 'Looks like he's not coming. Shall we?'
'Looks like he is,' Freddie countered, raising his eyebrows.
I looked back up the same time Dom shrieked and Luke cried out in joy. 'Ey! Jimmy's come through as always!' Luke practically bellowed. Dom lunged and grabbed the bottle of Coke from James' hand just as Luke flung his arm around James' shoulder, pulling him in. The idiot himself was grinning from ear to ear.
'How did you get that past the prison Aurors?' Freddie said in awe.
James snatched the Coke back from Dom and unscrewed the top. He took a massive swig and through a charming wince, said, 'The Cloak mate. Laughable, honestly, how easily it passed Figgy's test.' He popped the top back on and threw it at Freddie.
Freddie squealed and ducked. My hand shot out. I caught the bottle before it could break Freddie's nose. It was automatic, a reflex rooted in instinct that was deeper than biology: it was rooted in years of painstaking practise and hard work, in hours around the pitch, beating plays and manoeuvres to death.
Without a word, I unscrewed the top and took a long drink, eyes stinging and throating burning at the medicinal, smokey, sugary taste of whisky and Coke. God I despised alcohol. But I wanted the liquid courage.
I met Freddie's astonished eyes and shoved the bottle into his chest before stalking off, heading for the massive fire I could already see blazing.
I spared a look over my shoulder and the corner of my mouth tilted up. Luke caught up to me, flashing me his signature smile. The setting sun cast an odd, glowing light (Papa would call it l'heure bleu), bathing Luke in hues of blue and pink. It highlighted everything about him that was golden: his fair hair, his skin, his eyes.
'Perk up, ugly,' he said genially. Then, 'God you have long legs. I had to jog a bit to catch up. Now I'm out of breath.'
I snorted. 'You should've never introduced him to Muggle alcohol.'
'You really think I made any difference?' Luke said, surprised. 'You don't give him much credit do you?'
I didn't quite know how to respond that so I fell silent. It wasn't my idea to start talking about James with Luke. I searched around for something else to talk about.
'What d'you make of the quote?' I asked.
'Oscar Wilde one?' Luke dug around in his pocket and pulled out a carton of cigarettes. He stuck one in his mouth and lit it with the tip of his wand. Taking a drag, he said, 'No clue. We did him with Figgy didn't we? Don't remember that quote though.' He blew smoke out the corner of his mouth.
'Haven't you just disqualified us from being here by using magic just now?' I raised my eyebrows at his cigarette.
'Seventeen, remember? There's no trace they could put on me now. Though Newton did advise me strongly against using magic.' He grinned and took another drag. 'What do you think the quote's about?'
I folded my arms across my chest. 'Knowing this place, I'm sure we'll have to use it in some way.'
'Guys!' Dom raced up to us, clutching the Coke, eyes bright and cheeks already glowing pink. 'Here. We've got to finish it before we get there. Fig and Newton could be there.'
Luke and I both took a couple drinks each. 'Want one Dom?' Luke offered her a cigarette, which she took.
'Bit weird, isn't it?' she said. She took a long drag, a poster girl for the glamorisation of nicotine. Everyone else was filtering in and they glanced at us as they walked by. Luke gave Marisa Rahimi a sardonic wave. She rolled her eyes. James and Freddie caught up to us.
'Luke, d'you mind if I bum one off you?' Freddie let Luke light his cigarette with his wand. We stood a few metres away from the Fire Pit, just out of sight from any one coming from that direction, furitively finishing the Coke and whisky. James and I shared a look, almost without meaning to. I looked away quickly, a furious blush rising up to my cheeks.
We were used to being the only non-smokers as the only athletes in our friend group.
'Can I have some of that?' I took the bottle from Freddie before he could think twice. I polished off at least quarter of what was left, trying not to wince too much at the horrible taste. I turned to Dom, feeling suddenly dizzy. 'D'you want to talk to the rest of them?'
'Oh, I'm still—'
'I'll come with you,' Luke said, stomping out his cigarette.
I blinked at him. 'Okay. See you guys in a bit.'
'No, hold on!' Dom threw her cigarette down and grabbed my hand. She pulled me forward, away from Luke and the boys. There wasn't even a chance to shoot Luke a bewildered look. 'Merlin, you couldn't wait a minute, could you?'
'You didn't have to come with me.'
'Yeah, but you asked. Not going to leave my other half to the wild. And don't look so self-pitying,' she chastised, knocking her shoulder into mine lightly. 'You shouldn't let him think he's hurt you.'
'I'm not self-pitying and I am fine,' I snapped. It wasn't like I was hiding in the house because I couldn't face my ex-boyfriend and his girlfriend!
'No, but seriously,' said Dom, lowering her voice and looking around to see as we near the Fire Pit. 'Boys are so fucking incompetent. And James is practically handicapped. You know, I have this funny feeling about Freddie—oh shit.'
Not heeding her impending doom tone, I followed her gaze.
James roughly shouldered past me, sending shockwaves down my body and I barely caught a glimpse of him before he ran forward. He caught an unsuspecting Flora Morgan from behind and spun her around. She let out a peal of delighted laughter, tossing her head back.
I looked away as though the vision burned my eyes. I wasn't stupid, I knew this would happen. I knew there would be PDA and touching. I wasn't entirely unaware of social interactions, I knew what happened when couples got together around an ambient area. Atmosphere and whatnot. But a sick feeling churned in the pit of my stomach. I felt jealous, angry, upset. And I hated myself for it.
'Ah fuck. Ignore it,' Dom mumbled to me, pulling my arm over to where smell of barbecuing meat was coming from.
'I can't believe he broke up with me for her,' I said bitterly, almost without meaning to. Her presence was poison, insidious, dangerous. I never knew what I was around her. Second best? Not good enough? Uglier? Stupider? Less fun? Less interesting? I felt ashamed for feeling this hurt. For wanting to turn back. And I didn't even know who I was angrier at for making me feel this way—James or Morgan? James, for all the obvious reasons, or Morgan for thinking she could even look at him like that? There was a part of me that knew it wasn't entirely Morgan's fault for James breaking up with me, but it was very small.
'He's a dick.'
'No kidding.' I couldn't help but look at them one last time. 'I hate her.'
James tucked a piece of Morgan's hair behind her ear and she grinned, making him smile. The vision was so sickening, I almost projectile vomited. I kind of wish I would, then the sick taste in my mouth would be more bearable.
Dom raised her eyebrows and turned away from them, getting a bun and patty for her burger. 'You should just really make it clear you're over him.'
'I am,' I said indignantly. 'It's clear. I just don't like seeing them out in public. Call it a fit of vanity or stupidity or whatever—but I just feel like everyones judging me when they're together. And I don't like it. It's like everyone's waiting for me to crack, to go mental, to rip out Morgan's perfectly perfect hair or something—'
'No ones waiting for you to crack,' Dom said, looking troubled and far away at the same time. My stomach rolled uneasily. What was it about her tone that made me feel like she was lying? Dom's expression cleared, getting back to business. 'Anyway, I'm just saying based on past experiences. Lucian and I dated over two years ago, in fourth year—practically insignificant—and I haven't completely gotten over it and he's not even interested in me at all anymore—'
'Oh, don't be ridiculous,' I interrupted in disbelief. 'Everyone's always interested in you.'
Dom exhaled through her mouth, casting her eyes skywards.
The thing was, it wasn't even a lie or some excuse I'd made up to make her feel better. Being, like, a sixteenth Veela did have its benefits. One of them being totally overruling any awkward Weasley genes. Dom was the epitome of charm and grace.
'Not him,' Dom said finally. 'So what are you going to do about James?'
'What am I—what?' I said, thrown. I swore we were talking in circles.
'Oh please, don't give me that. You can say you're over it however many times you want but over what is still subject to debate. See, you might be over the fact Morgan and him are a couple but you still like him. Don't you?'
I opened my mouth to say no, of course not, but I couldn't. I mean, he broke up with me a week a go and we'd been going out for year, so even if I wasn't in love with him—was I really over him? But that wasn't even the problem. The problem was why did she keep bringing this up? How many times did I have to tell her that it didn't matter if I might still like him, I was done—
'I knew it,' sighed Dom. 'I always thought so. We need to start thinking about your own rebound—'
'Hold ... Hold on! Merlin!' I tried to gather my scattered thoughts. 'Rebound? I don't need that!'
Dom grimaced at me. 'Please.'
'I don't want to make him jealous,' I hissed. 'Because I don't care.'
'It's not about jealousy, it's about you,' she said, utterly calm. 'You're letting Morgan win.'
I stared at her for a moment—and then I started to laugh, and then laughed harder when she smiled in bewilderment. Once I sobered up, I grinned at her.
'Dom, come on.'
'This isn't a game. There aren't—winners.' I flapped a hand vaguely.
'I know but ... it's just not that easy! I know it feels like it's too soon—but if James can move on then so can you! I know you're in love with him or whatever …'
I blanched at love, mulling the word over wondrously. My gaze slid automatically over the large expanse to James. Over the distance, our eyes met. Suddenly, it was like there was no space between us at all. Pressed up against each other, I could almost feel his body, lean but muscled; a phantom longing. I should've been embarrassed, but I only felt emptiness. The way you might feel after realising you've forgotten your passport at home halfway to the airport. A queasy disappointment.
'Right,' I said. 'Right.' I took Dom's hand so she would look at me. 'Listen to me. I know I haven't been honest with you, and I know you know I haven't been. One day, I promise you, I will tell you what happened. I just—would you just believe me if I told you I can't right now? I can't think about—I can't talk about it. I feel like I'm going to die every time I even look at him.' Her eyes widened; the fire from the Pit flickered in the sea-glass green. 'I don't even understand it. I need time. I need a second. If it wasn't for this fucking shit storm—' I looked wildly around the wooded enclosure '—I'd be better at this. But he's here, we're in the same bloody house, barely feet apart from each other at all times. I'm never alone. So please, just for a moment, please don't mention a rebound and please let's not talk about James?'
Dom blinked and flicked her eyes away from mine. She cleared her throat, expression quite impassive.
'Sorry,' she said thoughtfully. 'Sorry, I didn't realise. This is going to be much worse than I thought it would be.'
I sighed deeply. 'One month,' I said, trying to sound stronger than I felt. 'If I can do this for one month …'
'Merlin Jenny,' Dom said suddenly. To my utter astonishment, her eyes welled up with tears, upper lip trembling. 'I am so sorry.
I let out an involuntary laugh—my instinctual response to anyone crying, as if it would somehow lighten the mood. 'Oh don't be silly! It's not your fault!' I smiled at her but she looked even more wretched than before. 'How drunk are you right now?'
'I'm not drunk at all!' she cried. 'I just feel—really, really bad that you're even in this situation! My cousin is such a fucking arsehole!'
'Hear, hear,' I agreed. 'But come on, you don't need to get so worked up about this.' I rubbed soothing circles on her back, marvelling internally at the sudden turn of events. Who knew breaking up with my boyfriend would be so hard on my best friend?
I rolled over on the bed, turning my back to Dom, who was sleeping soundly beside me. I was wide awake, fitful and couldn't get comfortable. I'd even punched my pillow in submission twice. We didn't have curtains so the moon's white light bleached our room. It was sort of peaceful, but I needed pitch darkness to actually fall asleep. After a minute more of struggling, I gave up. Impulsively, I got out of bed and padded quietly out. The door creaked as I shut it but I left an inch wide gap for when I came back.
I tip-toed to the kitchen, wincing every time I heard a floorboard creak. Out the kitchen window, I saw the row of white houses, like dominoes all waiting to fall. I leaned on the countertop, arms folded. I'd always been such a night owl. I loved looking up at the stars, knew the constellations by heart, I even how to navigate with them. Looking out the window now, I spotted a few I thought I recognised, though I couldn't be sure with all the trees in the way.
Besides, magic always seemed more real at night; under a cloak of darkness, unknowable, powerful. It made me feel important.
A sudden creak made my heart jump. I whirled around, breath caught in my throat, just as James moved out of the shadows and into the light. He ran a hand through his tousled hair, making it sick up every which way. His eyes were bloodshot, exhaustion mingled with drink. They blinked rapidly up at me, drinking me in, realising who I was.
All of my hairs stood on end as a chill crept through me. That voice, rough with sleep, yearning for a yawn, a stretch. In a crowd of screaming people, underwater, eyes closed, I knew that voice.
The dim, translucent light of the moon made James look bigger, and he looked feverish, like he was burning from the inside out. I tried not to wonder where Morgan might be. In her house? In mine?
James walked into the kitchenette area, ignoring our proximity to each other, and yanked the fridge door open. The artificial soft white light pooled at our feet. He was either tactfully ignoring the fact that I was frozen, lips sealed shut, or wasn't aware of it. The space wasn't entirely built for more than one person, and while it allowed for, at the most, two people, it guaranteed those two people would have to be comfortable brushing fingers and knocking elbows. I wanted to cringe away, but he was everywhere and I couldn't risk touching a single part of him.
I watched him warily as he took a bottle of water (cheers Newton and Fig) and took a long draught. He shut the fridge and leaned against it. As he drank, his eyes were firmly planted on mine the whole time. I traveled all over his face: His sharp nose, smooth skin, the smattering of freckles on the high planes of his cheekbones, his wide, full mouth, his dark, espresso eyes. His broad shoulders, the curve of his neck. He studied me just as intently under long, thick lashes.
'You're so pretty,' he murmured, and it was like he'd taken my thoughts and put them into words.
I was stunned. I didn't know what to do. Whether he was taking advantage of my stunned silence, I'd never know. He reached his hand over the short space between us and brushed his rough thumb across my bottom lip. I jerked back violently. My lower back hit the countertop painfully, but I barely acknowledged it. I raised both of my hands involuntarily. Was I surrendering? Was I vowing not to touch him?
'What the fuck James?'
He moved closer to me. He opened his mouth to say something but I cut him off bitingly cold. 'No. Shut up. Get away from me. Right now.' I felt the cold marble of the counter burning my back. I couldn't look at him—the best I could manage was his shoulder.
Obediently, James lifted both his hands up, palms out, and took a step back, mimicking, and mocking, my own stance. I dropped my arms, shoved them behind my back, and curled my fingers into fists. The smile that tilted his lips was crooked and heartbreakingly beautiful. And even now, even after everything, I wanted him. I ached to touch him, to have him near me again.
Jesus, Jesus, I was pathetic.
'Whatever you want, whenever you want.'
The words jolted a memory in me so strong, so vividly sharp, that it was all I could do not to slap him across the face.
'What's wrong with you?' I whispered instead, knowing that if I raised my voice any louder, I would shout or scream. Whichever tickled my fancy. 'Where is Morgan?'
At the mention of his girlfriend, James frowned, looking suddenly irritated with me. 'She left.' Then, with the air of somebody remembering something important, he added, 'She left because of you—'
'You're drunk,' I said disgustedly. 'You are so out of it's—'
Suddenly, his hands were on either side of me, clutching the counter. He locked me in, made a prison with his arms. My mind whirled, dizzy and spinning, but even then I noticed the care he took to make sure he didn't touch me again. I could feel his body vibrating. His face was inches away from mine, his eyes unnervingly bright and clear.
'Not that drunk, love.'
'You can't do this,' I said in a strangled voice. His expression shifted, and he seemed almost sad, as though I'd somehow disappointed him. 'You can't—I don't understand—'
'Don't you?' James said wearily. His voice dropped into a murmur, so gentle and soft it half scared me. 'Clarke, I wish you would just tell me …'
He was so terribly close to me my thoughts scattered at once; I could barely hear his words. Without realising what he was doing, he took one of my fists and laced his fingers through mine. His hands were slick with sweat. I tried to pull away but James' grip was iron hard. He didn't even seem to notice the effort.
'Tell you what?' I asked, licking my lips.
James said nothing, just looked at me through hooded eyes. I felt, all of sudden, a deep ache in my bones. I was so tired of this, of him. Emboldened by my sudden disdain, I met his gaze with a mixture of exasperation and contempt.
'Who are you trying to kid?' I said, voice calm and steady. I wrenched my fingers out of his. He bowed his head so I was looking at his electrocuted mess of hair. His abasing posture fuelled my scorn. 'I didn't say a word the last two times you did this but this is totally out of order. I don't know what's wrong with you. You have a girlfriend.' I paused to let that sink in. 'Cut the shit, James.'
I knocked his arm aside, meeting absolutely no resistance, and went back to my bedroom. It wasn't until I was in the corridor, a safe distance away from James, that I let my façade crumble. I inhaled sharply through my nose and screwed my eyes shut, thinking, quel est le fruit que les poisson détest le plus? My heart rate slowed down. Feeling somewhat calmer, I entered my bedroom quietly, shutting the door just as noiselessly, and crept back into bed.
It was only when, minutes later, after I heard the indisputable sound of James' door clicking shut that I began to doze off.
Credit goes to Oscar Wilde for one of my favourite quotes ("We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.") that I just had to include here ... if there's anything else that you recognise, chances are it doesn't belong to me. Also, the French here is a riddle which translates into What fruit do fish hate the most?
Other than that, feel free to drop a review! Let me know if you remember some of these characters when the story used to be called The Wild Youth. Tell me what you think of this slightly revamped version. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!
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