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Chapter 19 : In Which Al Talks
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Al had some kind of hushed conversation with Katie above my head, using one hand to stroke my hair while they spoke. Usually I might have listened to what they were saying (given that it was almost certainly about me) but my head felt foggy and I thought I’d prefer to focus on how Al’s shoulder felt firm against my forehead. He was warm and steady, and his hold on me didn’t loosen even though it felt as if we’d been stood there for a long time.
“Okay,” Al said quietly, still stroking my hair. “Yeah, I’ll take her up.”
He shifted a little and I gripped onto him, not wanting him to leave me. Everything felt complicated and stressful and I felt like the whole chaotic trauma of it all would come rushing back as soon as he let go.
“It’s alright,” Al murmured into my hair. “I’m not going anywhere. Katie thought you might want to go upstairs so you can rest.”
I scrunched my hands up into the shirt he was wearing and burrowed my face further into his chest. I was vaguely aware that James and Jason were probably watching me fall apart, but in that moment the fact they were there didn’t matter to me.
“Come on. I’m coming with you,” Al said. He carefully manoeuvred me towards the kitchen door, managing to move us both despite my vice-like grasp.
“Let me know if I can do anything to help,” Katie said softly, despite sounding like she felt entirely helpless. She’s the kind of person that always feels obligated to try to make things better. A bit like Al.
When we left the room, Al prised my fingers from his shirt so he could hold onto my hand. I didn’t want him to stop hugging me but decided that the hand holding was probably okay too, so I let him gently tug me towards the stairs.
“Katie says there’s a guest room she keeps set up for you, in case you ever want to stay,” Al told me as we walked. “Do you know which room it is? I think she’s right. You should lie down for a bit. You hardly slept last night and this has all been a lot to take in. We can figure something out after you’ve had a bit of a sleep.”
I nodded. My brain seemed to have stopped working, and in the absence of clear thought I decided it was safest to just trust Al’s choices. He was possibly the best person in the world so it was definitely a sensible choice.
Al peered through several doors before obviously concluding that he’d found the right one and dragging me through it. It was the room I’d slept in on the few occasions my parents had successfully convinced me to spend the night at Katie and Oliver’s and it felt comfortingly familiar. The walls were painted a sunshine yellow and sky blue curtains concealed the french windows out to the balcony. It was probably the architectural equivalent of Aunt Katie’s personality.
“Here. Lie down,” Al said, nodding towards the bed.
I felt a bit stupid lying down in front of Al but couldn’t be bothered to disagree with him. I awkwardly perched on the edge of the bed and then leaned back into the fluffy pillows, my back still rigid. Al watched me for a moment with a thoughtful expression and then bounced down onto the bed next to me.
“You’re an invader of personal space,” I told him, my voice coming out in a jagged whisper.
“A personal space invader,” Al agreed with a grin. He pulled me into him so that his chest was pressed against my back, and then wrapped one arm under my neck and the other around my tummy.
I wriggled against him for a moment, feeling like I should at least put up some vague pretence of not wanting the physical contact, and then relaxed into his arms.
“Sleep,” Al instructed. “I’ll be here whenever you wake up.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” I yawned.
“Whatever,” Al laughed. His breath tickled the back of my neck and I squirmed, making him laugh harder.
I wasn’t sure when exactly I had stopped crying but my face was comfortingly dry. I rested my cheek against the crook at the inside of Al’s elbow and closed my eyes. I could feel his breathe in the movement of his chest more than in the air against my neck, and the even rhythm lulled me into a calm I hadn’t felt since leaving King’s Cross earlier in the day. I knew that at some point it would all come rushing back to me and I’d feel awful again, but for now I was happy to lie still with Albus Potter.
Sleep was disjointed but comforting. I woke several times, once to the sight of Katie standing in the doorway looking anxious with a mug of tea clasped between her hands, but every time I startled awake I was soothed again but Al’s warmth around me. It was easy not to think too deeply or worry too much, and over the course of the night I think I managed to gain back the sleep I’d lost. At some point I must have drifted into a deeper sleep because it was a complete surprise to me when I opened my eyes and found sunlight streaming into the room.
I screwed up my eyes, waiting for them to adjust to the light, and sleepily smiled when I noticed Al still beside me.
“You’re awake,” he told me.
“How are you feeling?”
He looked strangely concerned, and for a blissful moment I had no idea why. And then it all forced itself back into my head and my breath caught in my throat in a painful rasp. Some of the pain of feeling must have found its way onto my face because Al kept his worried eyes fixed on me as he reached out to stroke my cheek with his thumb. It was only when he touched my skin that I realised I was crying again.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
It was nice that he made it a question; much kinder than ploughing straight into the discussion. His kindness really should have stopped surprising me by now, but maybe it was just hard to get used to.
I shook my head and Al gave a small nod of understanding. Instead of speaking, he pressed both of his hands against the side of my head so he could use his thumbs to brush away the tears. I watched him watch me, and for a moment neither of us moved. It was an odd feeling, keeping eye contact for so long with somebody I was starting to feel I knew really well, but it didn’t feel uncomfortable.
I could feel my face rearranging itself into a small smile as I looked into his eyes, admiring the tiny flecks of gold and hazel that made him so interesting to draw. Keeping his eyes on mine, he tilted his head closer, so that our noses gently brushed against each other. I waited, wondering if he might come even closer. When he stayed still I decided to take the initiative and leaned further forward to touch my lips against his.
Al’s response was slow but confident. His arm wrapped more closely around my waist as his mouth moved against mine. I put a hand up into his hair and rolled further into him without letting go of the kiss. We’d never been like this before but it somehow still felt familiar. It was warm and tender and kind and I smiled against his lips as I wrapped one leg around his waist.
And then he pulled away from me. The movement was abrupt and unwelcome, and for a moment I tried to continue the kiss but then he turned his face away and I knew it was over.
Heat rushed to my face, boiling my cheeks from the inside, and I rolled onto my side so I could curl up into a ball without looking at him. It had been a stupid idea to kiss him. He’s too cheerful, too sweet, too good to want something like that with me. I bent my knees all the way up to my chin and clutched onto my legs as if making myself as small as possible would mean he couldn’t see me.
“Liv. Don’t hide.” Al’s voice came quietly, cautiously. “Talk to me.”
I screwed myself up into a tighter ball.
“Please,” Al said. “Don’t ignore me. How can I look after you if you’re not speaking to me?”
He rested a hand on my shoulder. I shook him off but slowly unfurled myself so I could look at him. He looked strangely worried. I wasn’t sure why.
“Are you angry with me?” Al propped himself up on one arm as he spoke.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Why are you sorry? You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“I’m embarrassed,” I muttered. “I should have realised you wouldn’t want that. I’m sorry.”
I tried to turn my face against my pillow but Al caught my chin and stopped me.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” he breathed.
I rolled my eyes and shifted backwards so that his hand dropped from my face. I knew he probably felt guilty for making me sad, but it wasn’t his job to try to fix it. He was too nice.
“Honestly, you have absolutely nothing to apologise for,” Al continued.
“But you didn’t want...to be like that with me. I shouldn’t have…”
“Be like what with you? Kiss you?” Al cut across me. “Liv, of course I want to be like that with you. I want it more than I’ve wanted anything for a long time.”
I frowned at him. “But then...why…”
Al sighed and slid an arm under my back to hug me again. “I’d love to keep kissing you. Really, I would, and it was bloody hard to stop. But I don’t want it to be like this.”
“Like what?” I could feel my cheeks starting to flush again.
“Liv, I’m here because you were so upset yesterday that you splinched yourself illegally apparating here. You’ve had a really traumatising time and right now what you need me to be is your friend. It’s not right for me to take advantage of you when you’re feeling like this.”
I stiffened. “What if I don’t want you to just be your friend? You’re not taking advantage of me if I want it too.”
“Do you want it too?” Al looked unsure. “Because this is the first time you’ve really acted like you do. Would you be feeling like this if you hadn’t had such a shock yesterday?”
I contemplated his words. I’d never really thought about what I wanted from Al, but now that we’d had the kiss I couldn’t imagine not wanting more.
“I want you,” I said. “Whether or not I’m sad. And my being sad shouldn’t make a difference to you anyway. You shouldn’t get to decide what’s best for me.”
He looked thoughtful. “That’s true. I don’t want to seem like I’m telling you how you should live your life. That isn’t what I meant to do at all. I just...if we’re going to do this I want it to be good, you know? I don’t want to risk losing what we have because we tried to take it further when you weren’t ready.”
“Why do you get to decide I’m not ready, though?”
“I don’t. I promise that’s not what I meant. But you’re sad, Liv. You’re sad and I want to help make that better for you, and I just would rather wait until you’re back to being happy before making a choice like this, just in case you feel differently when everything else is a bit happier.”
“Okay.” I snuggled back against him. “Okay, but I won’t feel any differently.”
“I hope you don’t,” he said. He kissed my forehead with a gentle, barely there sort of a kiss. I smiled.
Aunt Katie knocked at the door and then poked her head round to tell us that breakfast was ready if we wanted it. We were both still in our clothes from the previous day and had nothing to change into, so we got up straight away to join my family downstairs in the kitchen.
Oliver was standing by the hob with a flowery apron tied around his waist. He was cooking pancakes and then levitating them from the hob to the table. I wasn’t used to seeing him in a domestic role - he was usually at work when I was round, and christmas dinner was always Katie’s domain - but he looked like he was enjoying it.
James and Jason were sat next to each other at the table. James had his head against Jason’s shoulder and his eyes were closed but he was managing to eat his pancakes so obviously wasn’t actually asleep. Jason gave us a bleary eyed grin and a small wave as we entered the room. I decided that Katie had probably woken them both up. Neither of them looked at all ready to be awake.
“I thought you would have gone home,” Al said, sitting down opposite the other boys and leaning forward to poke his brother.
James opened his eyes and shrugged. “Jace promised he’d be big spoon if I stayed round. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Al laughed and took James’s plate, helping himself to the pancake he had been eating. James pulled a face but didn’t complain.
Katie pulled the chair next to Al out from the table and gestured to me to sit down.
“What would you like to eat? Pancakes? Oliver’s burning most of them but hopefully he’ll manage a good one soon,” Katie smiled. “Or there are yoghurts on the table.”
She didn’t wait for me to respond before carrying on talking. She obviously felt worried about what she was saying but thought it was important, and the breakfast offer must have been a flustered attempt to make it sound like normal everyday conversation.
“I got up early this morning and went round to Andrew’s, I mean, to your dad’s. I thought you’d want your things and might not be in a rush to go back there,” she said, looking nervous.
“Oh. Thank you.” I’d completely forgotten that I’d left my trunk and Dad’s, so it hadn’t occurred to me to worry about how to get it back. It was kind of her to think of it.
“It’s no problem. You could have borrowed clothes, I suppose, but I thought it would help you feel a little more comfortable here to have your own things,” Katie said. “Anyway, I’ll take them up to your room now. Just give me a call if you think of anything you need.”
She squeezed my shoulder as she walked past me and I felt unusually grateful for it. Everything about Katie was kind, and I was really relieved that I’d been able to stay with her.
I took the seat next to Al and picked up a yoghurt from the middle of the table. I wasn’t sure how I felt about eating but it seemed like a safe place to start. I peeled off the lid and then looked up to see James and Jason both looking at me, obviously concerned.
“I’m fine,” I told them. I picked up a spoon and ate a tentative mouthful of yoghurt. It was strawberry flavour, and reminded me of breakfast at Hogwarts.
“You’re fine?” Jason repeated.
“Okay,” he sighed. “We don’t need to talk about it if you don’t want to. Do you guys have plans today? James suggested playing some Quidditch if you’re free?”
I nodded. Quidditch with the Gryffindors sounded strangely appealing. James Potter was a fantastic chaser and I was kind of intrigued by the prospect of playing with him when we weren’t in competition.
“Great,” James said with a grin. “I can get some of my cousins round to make up the teams. Reckon we can get by with two chasers and one beater on each team?”
“Yeah. Dad will play keeper, won’t you Dad?” Jason called over to Oliver.
Oliver burned his hand in his rush to turn around and swore before nodding eagerly.
“Brilliant,” James said. “Liv, be on my team? You always fly so well, I want you on my team. And then Roxy will be up for it. And Lily. And then Freddie and Uncle George will be keen for beater if they’re around. Who plays seeker apart from Al? We need another one. I could ask Dad?”
Jason nodded. “Yeah, or Lysander might be around?”
“Nah, his parents have dragged him off on one of their weird expeditions. He’s never free in the holidays. Al, have you got any suggestions?” James turned to his brother.
“I don’t know,” Al said. “Liv, can we talk outside for a minute?”
I frowned at him. He looked confused and I wasn’t sure why, so I nodded and followed him out of the room.
“We can go in the garden, if you want?” I suggested. “It’s pretty out there.”
We walked outside and sat down on the swings near the broom shed. It was one of the few places I’d actually enjoyed spending time with Jason as kids, and it was nice to be back there.
“What’s up?” I asked, swinging gently but keeping my toes on the floor.
“Do you really want to play Quidditch today?” Al looked straight into my eyes.
“Sure. I love Quidditch.”
“But don’t you think you might want to be somewhere else?” He spoke quietly, obviously finding something about the discussion awkward.
“Like where? I’ve got nowhere to go.” I kicked off from the ground so I could swing a bit higher. A breeze brushed my hair back from my face and I tilted my head back to enjoy it. It felt like it was probably about to rain but for now it was wonderful.
“Okay, I’m just going to say it. I thought,” Al said, and then paused as if trying to work out how to say something. “...I thought you might want to go and visit your mum.”
I slammed my feet down onto the ground to stop the movement of my swing, and turned my body to face him.
“Well, she’s in hospital, isn’t she?” Al was looking down at the floor. “Do you not want to visit her?”
“Why would you think I’d want to do that?” The wind had picked up now, and my hair was blowing back even though i was staying still.
“I’m sorry,” Al said quietly. “I just...I couldn’t imagine not wanting to see my mum if she was in hospital. I didn’t mean to be telling you what to do again.”
He looked dejected and I found myself wanting to make him feel better. Something had changed inside me and it suddenly felt like I had a responsibility to keep other people happy. To keep Al happy. I didn’t like it when he wasn’t smiling.
“No, don’t be sorry,” I said. “You’re being kind. I, um, well, I can’t really imagine going to see her today. That’s all. I don’t know how I could do it.”
“Why’s that?” Al looked reassured by my honesty, and it made me feel like talking to him properly was the right thing to do.
“Because she overdosed, Al.”
“Yeah.” He managed not to look like the conversation was making him uncomfortable. “Yeah, she did. And I’m sure it’ll be hard for you. But I can come with you if that helps.”
“It looked like she did it on purpose,” I said, not sure he was understanding what I was saying.
Al didn’t say anything but he reached out and took my hand, waiting for me to keep talking.
“Al, what if she did it on purpose?” My voice cracked but I managed not to cry. “What if she wanted to die? What if she wanted to leave me?”
He squeezed my hand. I squeezed back.
“How can I go and visit her, knowing that she might have deliberately tried to leave me?” I whispered.
Al didn’t reply for a moment and I wondered whether I needed to repeat myself. It was windy now and it was possible that my quiet confession hadn’t been audible. But then Al sighed and I realised he had just been trying to determine his words.
“If she did do this on purpose then you have to understand that it doesn’t mean she wanted to leave you.” He wove his fingers through mine so that our hands were linked more tightly.
“How did you work that out?”
“Because it’s true,” he said. “People that hurt themselves...they’re ill, Liv, and they need support so that they can start to feel better. If she really did do it on purpose then yeah, maybe in that moment she might have felt like she wanted to end it all. But if that’s the case it’s because she’s really struggling at the moment. It doesn’t affect how much she loves you.”
“But if she loves me I don’t understand why she’d try to leave me alone,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense.” I tried to keep my mouth in a half smile but my lower lip wobbled dangerously and I had to bite down on it to make sure I didn’t cry. I felt like I’d probably done enough crying.
“No, it doesn’t make sense,” Al agreed. “But lots of things don’t make sense when people are struggling with their mental health. These kinds of problems just aren’t rational, and it might be that your mum’s finding it difficult to think clearly right now.”
“Maybe,” I said, unconvinced.
“And surely that’s a good reason to go and see her?” Al suggested. “Just for a little bit, so that you can be there for her while she tries to figure this out. And I promise I’ll be here for you while you do that.”
“Maybe,” I said again. “How do you know all these things?”
“About mental health,” I frowned. He seemed very sure of what he was saying, and I didn’t understand how he could have such a different outlook to my own.
“Oh,” he said, chewing the inside of his cheek. “Erm, I guess it’s something I’ve had some experience of.”
It was starting to rain but neither of us made any move to go inside.
“You’ve had mental health problems?” I was surprised. Al always seemed so...whole. And happy.
“No, not really. Not me,” he said, shaking his head. “No. But a good friend of mine has suffered a lot over the last few years. And it’s hard to watch her suffering.”
“Is she....like Mum?”
“Maybe. I don’t know your mum very well. This girl, my friend, she...it’s hard to explain. She used to be so full of joy all the time. Like, probably the first thing you’d say about her is that she was cheerful. And it meant she was kind and fun and everyone she knew just loved her. But something deep down obviously wasn’t quite right, and after a long time I started to realise that underneath all the smiles she was really tearing herself apart.”
I thought about Mum’s tendency to brush everything aside and try to pretend it was fine, to call my dad’s cheating on her a ‘situation’, and to keep putting on her horrible lipstick even though nobody was going to see it. But then other days she made it so obvious that everything was wrong and cried for no reason and made a huge fuss out of nothing. She didn’t really sound like the girl Al was describing.
“And it took me too long to realise it, but she was hurting herself, a lot,” Al continued. “And she started to get more and more anxious, and harder and harder to be around. Occasionally she’d be the same way she used to be, you know, all smiles and fun, and it would be great. But then suddenly she’d shift into this other person and curl up and cry and it would be impossible to get through to her. And she stopped eating properly, and started to be snappy and cross and sometimes kind of mean. And it was just really...difficult.”
He paused. There were tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. I stroked his hand and he gave me a small smile.
“I mean, at this point everyone had realised something was wrong, and lots of us were trying to help her. Her mum took her to all these specialist psychologists, but she didn’t want to talk to them so there was only so much they could do. And in the mean time she just kept getting worse. Until one day she decided she didn’t want to do it anymore...and, well, she was home alone and found some of her mum’s prescription medicine.”
“She killed herself?” I realised I sounded blunt and tactless, but I was somehow simultaneously horrified and enthralled by his story.
“She tried.” He swallowed. “Her mum got home and managed to get her to hospital in time. I visited her in there. It was awful. She was still so distressed, and it was horrible seeing how sad she was and not being able to change it. But I’m glad she at least knew that I was there for her if she wanted me, even though I couldn’t fix the problem. I still don’t think she’s really back to normal, even though she’s started to act a bit more like her old self. I really wish I could help her more.”
“But you wouldn’t be able to. Nobody could,” I said. “Lots of the time all you can do is try to support somebody. You can’t fix their problems for them.”
“I know. But it’s kind of hard to accept that sometimes.”
I nodded. “I know. But I’m sure she appreciates what you’ve done for her, even if she is still finding it all difficult.”
“I hope so.” Al gave me a smile that didn’t look very genuine.
“How do you know her? Is she at Hogwarts?” I asked, suddenly scared that he might be talking about somebody I knew: Rose, or maybe one of his other cousins.
He shook his head quickly. “No. My parents sent me to muggle primary school and I met her there. We still see each other lots in the holidays.”
It was raining more heavily now, and my hair was starting to feel heavy with water. We stayed out on the swings even though the ground at our feet was getting muddy. Raindrops landed on our clasped hands and I shifted my fingers to squash the water between our skins.
“Al?” I said after a contemplative silence.
“Mmm?” He still looked lost in thought.
“I think maybe tomorrow I’d like to go and see Mum. I would really appreciate it if you could come with me, if that would be okay.” I didn’t want to ask too much of him, but he had offered to come earlier on, and it didn’t feel like something I was able to face on my own.
“Of course.” Al turned to look at me again. He didn’t look happy, exactly, but I thought his expression could be described as hopeful.
“But maybe today we could play Quidditch with the others? When it stops raining, I mean. I don’t usually get to play much in the holidays.”
Al grinned and stood up, pulling my hand to bring me up with him. He put his arms around me and I wrapped my own arms around his waist. Our clothes were damp but neither of us minded, and we stood there for a long time, tangled up in each other while the rain poured down around us.
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