Chapter 13 : XIII
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The more she tried to remain in control of her emotions, the more panicky she started feeling. She’d spent the weekend hiding in her dormitory, not wanting anyone to see her with dark, bruise-like shadows under her eyes and unwashed hair. She’d always relied on Lyra to shave the back of her head down to the length she liked, and now she was sure it looked ridiculous. But now it was Monday morning and she couldn’t keep hiding.
Robin Parsons slid into the seat opposite her and poured himself a cup of coffee. He looked similarly tired. Mei looked down at the book she had open on the table, more as a prop than out of any interest, and hoped that he didn’t want to talk to her.
“Erm, Chang?” He sounded nervous, which was very unlike a Parsons sibling.
Mei screwed her eyes up tight and then looked at him, hoping he wouldn’t comment on the fact she looked awful.
She needn’t have worried. Robin’s own pale face and dark circles suggested he hadn’t been finding sleep very easy either.
“Do you think we can talk some time?” He asked quietly, eyes shifting from side to side to check whether anyone was listening.
Mei raised her eyebrows.
“Do we need to?” She would usually be more polite, but she couldn’t summon the energy for manners.
“I feel awful,” Robin confessed.
Mei shrugged. “Join the club.”
“I don’t…” He sighed. “I don’t properly remember what happened.”
Mei let out a short, harsh laugh. Robin could pretend to have forgotten what happened if it made him feel better.
“No,” Robin said. “I don’t mean it in a nasty way. I do remember. I’m just not clear on how we...got into that situation. Anyway, I wanted to speak to you. I mean, you know, it’s complicated, with Isidore...and we were both in a fragile state.”
“I’m not in love with you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Mei said, looking straight up at him. “I am completely uninterested in being with you. Or any guy.”
“I...oh.” Robin frowned, then looked worried. “Did I...I didn’t pressurise you? You weren’t uncomfortable?”
Mei shook her head, finally relaxing her fingers and setting down her coffee cup.
“No. Of course not,” she said gently. “I don’t know why I did it. I guess, for that little bit of time, it felt like you were somebody that understood.”
Robin absentmindedly reached for a cinnamon swirl and peeled it apart, pausing every so often to lick sugar from his fingers. He was looking more relaxed again, settling back into his usual persona of being completely at ease and in charge of the school.
“You know I’m here, right?” He said. “If you ever do need any help. You can come to me.”
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” Mei said.
Mei watched him methodically continue to destroy his pastry, then reached for her own croissant. The conversation had somehow given her back her appetite.
“I won’t tell anyone about it, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Mei told him.
Robin looked faintly surprised. “Oh. Thanks.”
“I guess your girlfriend wouldn’t be that thrilled?”
“She’s completely furious,” Robin said. “But it meant I had to explain how I was feeling about everything, you know, tell her what I was feeling about Goldstein. So I suppose that’s a good thing. Communication and transparency and all that.”
“You told her about it?” Mei hadn’t expected this.
Robin looked confused.
“Of course I did. I love her.”
“Well, that’s very admirable,” Mei admitted.
Robin shook his head. “Not really. It was a shitty thing to do in the first place. But I think, hopefully, we can work through it. And she says she won’t come after you.”
“Well, that’s reassuring.”
“It should be. She’s absolutely terrifying.”
“And you love her?”
“With my whole heart. Except for the bit that’s saved for Transfiguration.”
Mei laughed. The sound surprised her. “Well. Lucky you.”
They sat in silence for a moment, both fiddling with their breakfast rather than eating it. Then Robin stood up and reached out a hand in an awkward offer of a handshake.
Mei took his hand, not wanting to reject a peace offering, but she gave him her best attempt at a withering glare as she did it.
Robin gave her a sort of half shrug, then turned away.
“I am sorry, Mei,” he said quietly before leaving. “I wish I could be a better friend to you.”
Mei watched him as he made his way across the hall and joined his sister and girlfriend at the Slytherin table. Isidore tossed her hair back and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Mei worried that she would turn and see her watching, but Isidore Flint plainly didn’t feel threatened. Paige Parsons beamed and chattered to her brother. Lily Potter, bizarrely, was nowhere to be seen.
Abdi joined her after a few minutes and she watched him wolf down his own breakfast before getting up with him to head over to the Greenhouses for Herbology.
Hugo joined them for the walk across the grounds. None of them mentioned his ongoing absence from school meals, even though Mei was starting to worry. Since forging this slightly uneasy friendship, she wasn’t sure she’d actually seen him eat.
“Where’ve you been?” Abdi said, nudging Hugo’s shoulder. “Haven’t seen you much this weekend.”
Hugo shook his head and mumbled something about Lily.
Mei caught Abdi’s eye and shrugged.
As they came closer to the greenhouses, a large crowd came into sight outside. Nobody from their class seemed to be going inside and people looked confused.
Abdi glanced at his watch. “What’s going on? Bell’s about to go. Where’s Longbottom?”
They slowed down as they got nearer and joined the back of the crowd.
Paige Parsons was standing in front of them, fiddling with her fingernails. She was her usual put together self and looked bored by the wait. She turned and smiled at Hugo. He didn’t smile back.
Mei stood up on tiptoes to see what was going on. A large chain was holding the greenhouse doors shut, fastened with a huge, glowing padlock. The students at the front of the crowd were halfheartedly trying to move it, but didn’t seem to hold much hope for success. They had presumably been trying for some time now.
Mei was about to ask the boys what they thought they should do when they were joined by Professor Longbottom.
He looked flustered and was red-faced. He must have rushed to meet them, despite his lateness. He cleared his throat to draw attention from the rest of the crowd. Slowly, the muttering stopped and the students looked at him, waiting for an explanation.
“Right,” he said, looking faintly surprised to find himself surrounded by his NEWT class. “Well, I gather you’ve noticed that the greenhouses have been sealed.”
Paige Parsons laughed. “Yes, Professor. We noticed.”
Hugo glared at her. Longbottom seemed unphased.
“I’m afraid our lessons have been...temporarily suspended,” he continued.
This statement resulted in uproar. The Hufflepuffs nearest the greenhouse were all calling out questions and Abdi, next to Mei, looked at her with panicked eyes. There wasn’t much that could be more scary for a group of Ravenclaws than having lessons for one of their NEWT subjects suspended.
“I do apologise,” Longbottom said, biting his lip. “I tried to find a way for us to continue. But the Governors were determined. And really, given recent circumstances, I’m not surprised.”
“What recent circumstances?” Hugo asked quietly. “Lyra?”
Not everyone was listening to Longbottom’s response to his godson. The Gryffindors were talking in stage whispers about all the extra lie-ins they’d get without one of their subjects, and other students were still trying to process the news. But those nearest Mei and her fellow Ravenclaws were listening attentively.
Longbottom nodded. “Someone’s been stealing aconite from the greenhouses. Our stocks are massively depleted. We didn’t pick up on it until her medical examination came back. But we can’t have students in there until we know who did it. We can’t risk the same thing happening to someone else. And if students are going to get involved with magical substances, Hogwarts can’t be responsible for giving them access to them.”
“But that’s not fair!” Lily Potter had suddenly materialised by Hugo’s side, linking her arm through his as though she’d been there all along. “Herbology is Hugo’s best subject! If he wants to go into medical research he’ll need the highest NEWT grade possible! How’s he going to get that if he’s not having lessons?”
Mei didn’t like Lily much, but she couldn’t fault her dedication to her cousin.
Longbottom looked tired. He had always refrained from making it obvious how some of his students were close family friends outside school, even though the Potter/Weasley/Longbottom friendship was recorded in all modern History books and frequently reported in gossip magazines. But now, watching him try to respond to Lily’s complaint, Mei could see how hard it must be for him to deprive his best friends’ children of an opportunity.
“I know, Lily,” he said. “But it’ll have to be independent research for now. And you two know you can come and see me for any extra help if you need it.”
He raised his voice and repeated this last statement for the benefit of the whole class, urging them to come to him in what were now their extra free periods to make sure they could remain on top of their studies.
“Come on,” Abdi said quietly. “We can go to the library. Get started on independent research.”
Hugo nodded. “I’ll help you out. This is bullshit.”
Lily was still holding onto Hugo’s arm and looked up at him, frowning. But she didn’t try telling him not to go.
“Come too, Lils,” Hugo said, seeming to feel her questioning glance without breaking away from Abdi’s gaze.
Lily shook her hair back and pouted. “Okay. If you’re going.”
Mei walked with the other three as they headed back to the castle, Hugo and Abdi chatting idly about what the best strategy would be for making sure this didn’t affect their NEWT results. Her head was spinning and she couldn’t join in with the conversation.
Somebody had been stealing aconite from the greenhouses. And Lyra had died after an aconite overdose. Had Lyra been stealing the aconite? Surely not. Surely she would have known. But if somebody else had been stealing it, why did she have no idea who it was?
The idea that somebody had been responsible for illegally acquiring such a dangerous drug to her friend, causing her death, and was now going about Hogwarts life as usual without facing any consequence was...well, it was unbearable.
Mei was vaguely aware that the conversation had lulled. Abdi was looking back at her and she thought she had probably been asked a question. But it seemed impossible to frame the right words to explain that she hadn’t heard them.
“I have to go,” she told them.
Abdi opened his mouth, probably to ask what she could possibly need to do with this hour that should surely be devoted to the study of Herbology, but she hurried past him before he had the chance to speak.
She felt agitated and panicky and wasn’t sure how to calm herself down, so she knew she had to find someone who would be able to help her deal with these feelings.
She hadn’t really thought about how she’d get into Hufflepuff Common Room, but luckily a few late third years were scurrying out through the circular door as she arrived. Mei stepped forwards to hold the door for them and then clambered through it herself.
It hadn’t occurred to her to worry about what she’d do if Lucy wasn’t there or, worse, if Lucy was there but had company. But again, she hadn’t needed to worry.
Lucy was seated in her wheelchair at a desk in the corner of the room, writing furiously at the bottom of a piece of parchment. Her tongue was sticking out a little as she concentrated. A large Ancient Runes book was open in front of her.
Mei stepped forwards and cleared her throat.
Lucy turned and her focussed expression warmed into a smile.
“Mei,” she said affectionately. “How are you?”
Mei shook her head, tears already burning her eyes.
Lucy held out her arms and Mei rushed over to her, crouching beside her and letting Lucy wrap her up in a hug.
“I’m here, lovely,” Lucy said, kissing the top of Mei’s head.
Mei reached up to put her arms around Lucy’s neck and buried her face in her narrow shoulder.
Lucy stroked the back of Mei’s hair, where the shaved section was growing out at an awkward length.
“Is this about the Greenhouses?” Lucy murmured.
Mei looked up at her, confused.
“McGonagall told Robin and I this morning after breakfast,” Lucy explained. “I looked for you to let you know. I thought it might come as a shock. But you must have already left for lessons.”
Mei nodded, starting to cry again.
“I know,” Lucy whispered. “It’s rubbish. I’m so sorry.”
Mei reached out for a hug again and Lucy held her. This time, their cheeks were pressed against each other. Lucy’s warm skin clung to Mei’s tears and the damp heat made it feel like they were stuck together.
“I’m glad you came to me,” Lucy said quietly. “You know you always can.”
Mei didn’t know what made her do it. It definitely hadn’t been her intention when she’d come to find Lucy. But something in the older girl’s warmth and calm acceptance of the situation made her irresistible.
She turned her face and gave Lucy a quick peck on the lips before doubting herself and pulling away.
Lucy looked startled but not cross. She lifted one hand to her lips and touched the spot Mei had kissed.
Mei stayed frozen for a moment, waiting for her friend’s reaction.
Lucy lowered her hand as if in slow motion, still looking surprised, but then leant forward and returned the kiss, touching her lips against Mei’s for a few seconds before pulling away.
They stared at each other, both trying to understand this new dynamic between them. Mei’s heart was beating conspicuously loudly and her head was whirring through apologies and rushed explanations that could be offered if Lucy required them. But her lips felt warm and tingly and the kisses had somehow quashed the panic she’d been wrestling with all day.
“So…” Lucy said.
“I’m sorry,” Mei blurted out. “I shouldn’t have done that without checking if you wanted to first. I don’t...I mean, I haven’t really had a lot of experience with this stuff. And…”
“Stop it,” Lucy said. “Don’t be silly. I’m not angry. Kind of the opposite, in fact.”
“Oh.” Mei couldn’t help smiling a little.
Lucy sat up a bit straighter.
“I think we should talk about this another time, though,” she said, then must have noticed the distress in Mei’s expression because she immediately went on to explain herself. “Not because it’s not what I want. It is, at least, I think it is. But you came here because you were upset and I think for today we should focus on tackling that. We have all year to think about us.”
Mei nodded. Everything about Lucy was reasonable and kind and reassuring. Her voice soothed her. She was glad she’d come here instead of the Library.
“You can tell me what’s making things difficult,” Lucy said. “I’m a good listener. And if it’s making you feel like this, it’s worth talking about it.”
“It’s confusing,” Mei said. “So much has been happening.”
“I’ve got time,” Lucy shrugged. “Talk to me.”
So Mei did.
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