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Chapter 25 : Epilogue
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. EPILOGUE .
Monday morning, I sleep in.
I wake in my own bed for the first time in weeks, smelling of salt and smoke and Pickett's old jacket. The girls have gone. Chatter trickles in from the common room.
Stepping outside, I stare over the eyes that turn to me like spotlights. I take Pickett's jacket back to his room, drape it over his bed, and leave my murmuring housemates for the din of the halls.
Crowds take bets. They can taste the ash on my skin as I walk past. If the mighty fall and no one is around to hear them, all the more reason to make a racket.
I saw her there. Set the fire herself, who else?
Words may never hurt, but their carelessness—they know so little yet talk so much. Wouldn't that frighten anyone? Wouldn't you try to control it if you could?
I breathe slowly, shutting my eyes. The noise ebbs. I could lose myself in here. Alone in my thoughts, I'm a monster in my own maze. Alone, I can conquer anything; I knew this.
But I'd go mad. Alone, I'm safe from everyone but the monster.
"There you are, sleepyhead!"
I open my eyes. Neither dream nor nightmare, a voluminously dressed Appy barges through the gawking throngs to reach me, grinning like her Q.G.A. days. She waves around a velvet-ribboned card. "I meant to give it to you yesterday but, well, Albus came between us again."
She presses a personal invitation for the next Girls for Girls meeting into my hand.
"We've had a very—very passionate month, but I want to tell you that I forgive you. For everything. I wouldn't be doing this without you. Gosh, to think I was in love with someone trying to overthrow me." She shakes her head. "I was so young… so naive back then."
It was three Saturdays ago.
"Can we let bygones be bygones?"
Still half in daze, I must have done something like an affirmation, because Appy squeezes me around the shoulders. "Yay! See you there!" Brushing a spot of ash from my cheek, she flounces off, fingers waving.
It's arguable whether a minimally-informed girl power club is better than no club, but the thought of mobs coming after Potter for reparations instead of his shirt cracks a wistful smile out of me.
I toss the invitation into the rubbish.
Appy's gust of an appearance dispersed much of the crowd. Only scattered mentions of my name follow me down the hall, spoken in hushed tones like they still fear me. It's as if nothing changed at all—and nothing ever does.
Scandals become myth and wars become nostalgia. Whoever I was will be lost to sentiment. I was a mercenary, not a queen—a pawn who crossed the board and crowned herself. I became who I needed to be to survive, and today, I will take the rubble inside of me, forge a new self, and do it again.
But I'll remember.
I thought I was done with five-thirty A.M. wake-up calls after losing Witchy Business, but Dom insists I continue being her bloody chaperone for Quidditch practice because Harriet wakes too early for her.
At quarter to six, a newsletter slides underneath our dorm door. Dom, swinging her Beater's bat far too close to the glass windows between us and the lake, picks it up first.
I drop the coat I'm pulling from my wardrobe when I catch sight of THE PHOENIX gleaming in gold letters across the top of the page. As Dom unfolds the paper, I snatch it out of her hand. The inaugural main headline reads, 'A DEMOCRATIC HOGWARTS: ELECTIONS ANNOUNCED FOR HEAD GIRL AND BOY.' By Janey Summerby.
I spit out the hairpins between my teeth. "I can't believe this."
"Yeah, Slughorn had too much punch. We're gonna end up with the Giant Squid. And putting nominations in the Goblet of Fire? That's so tacky."
"No, I mean, what the fuck is The Phoenix?" I hiss, shaking the crumpled paper. There are at least five different bylines between the front-page articles, including Blondie's for some cheesy Around Hogwarts column. There are captioned photos. Sources. Horoscopes.
"I thought you knew Janey's been rounding up a staff. You were practically pushing her into this position."
I would if she hadn't been avoiding me. "That was before! The ashes are still warm and she's moved in!"
Dom rolls her eyes at me as if she wouldn't be just as petty if someone tried to take her place. I suppose after practice, I'll go… congratulate Janey.
Practice is mercifully short, and I make it to the newsroom as the last of the staff is cleaning up. The tapestry covering the door is gone, burned away, but a Janey-run publication won't need to hide. Whether it'll garner enough readership for anyone to care is a different matter.
The Phoenix's newsroom is… just a room. Same stone walls; same fixtures, though tarnished; new furniture but still ones stolen from the school. The two metal printing presses survived the fire without so much as a smolder; they probably thought it was a good cleaning.
It is as close to the old newsroom as it could practically be and utterly foreign at the same time.
Scorpius waves from a wobbly long table set up on the side of the room. Ol' Bessie and her dependable oak were well-mourned. Janey, sorting the wooden type blocks into the printing press drawers, hasn't noticed me in front of her yet.
"Well, well, Summerby. Rising in the ranks."
Janey jolts up. Her smile stutters to start. "Rising from the ashes, you mean?"
I try not to look withering. I pick up a block, and by chance, it's an apostrophe. I hunt for the other two. "In all seriousness: congratulations on the debut paper. You'll never sleep again."
"I hope so." She beams. The shadows under her eyes aren't poor lighting; they're about half a day behind sleep. "Hogwarts is ready for this. I really think so. It'll be slow but we've got a lot of talent—and I took your advice on horoscopes, just in case. There's space for you here, of course, if you want to join. I don't want to seem like a usurper—"
"You don't seem like a usurper; did I say you were a usurper?" I say sharply, pushing a hyphen and colon block next to the apostrophe. Appy's name makes a kissing face, as if she couldn't get more ridiculous.
"Thanks for the offer, but I'm taking a break from the headlines. In all senses of the term." And I'd like to have some pride left.
Newsletters flutter from their stacks as the two other girls, her fellow Ravenclaws, exit the room together.
Janey lifts her cup from its coaster but it's empty. Her glasses are opaque white as they catch the light. "Um, what are you up to, then? If you're retiring?"
"Oh, you know. Cataloging staircases. Actually paying attention in class."
Keeping enemies in line.
Scorpius slings his messenger bag over his shoulder, waves, and ducks out of the room. I pick up another wooden type block and juggle it between my fingers.
"I have to say, it's a miracle these didn't burn."
Janey's cup clatters back on its coaster and both tumble over into the pit of the printing press.
I flick her a cool glance. "You saved these before you lit the place up."
"No, I suppose I can't prove you did it."
But her drained color betrays her. You could hear a heart drop in this room.
Tossing the wood block into its drawer, I spin on my heel. "Congratulations on the paper, usurper."
"You wouldn't have given up Witchy Business on your own." Her whisper is barely audible, almost desperate. When I'm two strides to the door, courage finally hurtles her feet forward and the words that led her to this room with a wand full of fire press through her teeth: "I just did what you would've done."
I don't even turn my head. "I'm sorry you of all people think I'm that cruel."
Meanwhile, Albus Potter gives the Daily Prophet a rare interview, in which he calls me "smart, beautiful, and a force to be reckoned with."
I stare at the paper, hidden behind my History of Magic textbook. We did break up, right?
The night we split fueled weeks of shouty, speculative headlines from the moment I stormed out of Gryffindor tower: ALBUS POTTER REUNITES WITH VALENTINE'S DAY FLAME, HOURS BEFORE FLAMES ERUPT! POTTER'S GIRLFRIEND'S LAKESIDE RENDEZVOUS WITH MYSTERY MAN!
Albus squashes both rumors the next question down: "No one cheated. It wasn't anything like that. It was me. If I were being honest, I just wasn't enough."
The clock tower tolls. I'm first out of the classroom.
I find him out sitting in the courtyard with Rose, who suddenly has other commitments when I arrive. She draws away two girls spying beyond from the hedges as well, admonishing them with a pinch of their shoulders.
I've seen little of Albus except for in the distance as he evaded the hallways I walked, a mirror opposite to the Albus before; here, he glances up at me for but a blink and no more, as if he only can't help himself.
"You didn't have to tell them that," I say.
His cheek dimples. He is gaunt and paler than I remember—both my fault. "You'll have to live up to it now."
Wind howls by, nearly carrying The Prophet off with it. It flaps fitfully in my hand, crunching onto itself. We always find ourselves pretending to be stoic at the center of storms, but his bowed frame sways like a frayed weed and for the first time, I let my heart break.
I want him to look at me again. I want to see that he can. The apology repeats behind my tongue—I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Pride corrals it—I told you so.
The day I won him, Albus spoke my name in the rain like something precious and I loved him, if only for a moment. It didn't matter in any practical way—it was madness still, born from jealousy and bitterness—but I felt. I wavered. He made it possible.
Maybe love isn't the right word, but love, like history, is written by the victors. I don't trust them to tell all the stories. We were inevitable, as was our demise. We made no illusions and yet, we hoped.
I had a heart after all. Just not for him.
The first drops of rain fall. Albus never turns to me.
Hogwarts' walls grow ten inches thicker entering its first Head Girl and Head Boy election season as posters upon posters of posing fifth and sixth years deck the hallways. Booths proffer chocolate frogs wearing rosettes. Colored shirts make their comeback when Rose Weasley drops her bid into the Goblet of Fire and a swath of the audience applauds in red. The Phoenix keeps the running tab of candidates—the only good thing about it, as it gives us a list of people we ought to prosecute for this eyesore.
I veer a hard right to avoid the flyering brigades between me and study hall, only to run into a former follower who wants to know if I'm running for Head Girl. I laugh to their face like I did to the last four people who asked.
"It's really not the worst idea," I hear Pickett say behind me, and when I turn around, the grinning idiot is holding a bouquet of sunflowers. "Terrible slippery slope, innit? First you start caring about friends, then you start caring about total strangers and then, god forbid, the state of the world."
My eyes are frozen on the sunflowers, which are unmistakably tipped toward me. A flush creeps up my neck. "What are you doing?"
"Ah—you should take these." He holds them out.
"I thought we talked about this," I hiss. I mean, barely; we sort of avoided the feelings topic when they came up again—all right, we didn't talk about them at all.
"Love, you don't talk about anything. You speak in roundabout metaphors and surround yourself with people crazy enough to interpret them. Take them."
"I'm not dignifying this."
"Yet I see a smile."
I snarl and grab the flowers. They clink.
They're transfigured cider bottles.
His eyebrows dance. "Lake?"
So we circle around the castle and head down the hill to the Black Lake. On the way, he hands me another bouquet.
"What are these?"
"Those are just flowers."
At the docks, we roll up our trousers and swing our legs over the water, untransfigured bottles at our side, and when the drinks are gone, I rest my head against his shoulder. Whatever our relationship is, it doesn't need saying; this is all we need.
"I wish I wasn't always right." I draw a line in the water with my foot and the black patch of minnows part. "Everyone around me gets hurt in the end, while I come out fine. They never believe me when I warn them."
Pickett doesn't respond for awhile. "You weren't fine that night."
"That was one night. Albus still can't even look at me."
"Different people, different coping methods. Doesn't mean you weren't affected." His cheek presses against the crown of my head. "It was terrifying, just so you know; I hadn't seen you cry before."
I still don't like thinking about it.
"You're not fucked up," he says quietly. "You care more than most people do."
"That's sad if it's true."
But I do smile. When I reigned Hogwarts unchecked, I did so alone and I was invulnerable, unknowable. In reality, I had ties whether I wanted them or not: to him, Dom, Blondie, even the followers who idolized me. I hadn't known until I started losing them.
I chew on my lip. "Henry—"
Someone shouts from the castle; overhead, upset starlings take flight. We turn toward the sound and atop the hill, a tall blonde is waving, with another taller blonde behind her.
"It's done!" she hollers.
Pickett clears his throat and is suddenly very red. "Ah… right. Dom asked Scorpius to ask me to distract you while they stuff the Head Girl nominations with your name."
"What." Then I remember: earlier, I was going to meet Dom at study hall, but Pickett intercepted me with flowers—oh, I am so going to kill—
I've only just pushed myself to my feet when Pickett grabs my legs and charges us both into the lake. Dom shrieks; I sputter as I plunge into the cold underneath him.
I swallow water and surface thrashing, and he's laughing and apologizing as he drags me up and I spit the water back out in his face. "Sorry, love, everyone wants you to run—"
"I'll run you all into the ground!" I try to push him over but my wet coat weighs me down.
"You're the expert at giving the people what they want! The people have spoken—they've spoken and—"
And we're too close and we stumble closer as we find footing on the lakebed, and I like his stammer as he drops my hands but the moment is already dangerous; some accidents are too convenient to be coincidence.
There's a look in his eye that can't wait and I don't remember if my heartbeat was pounding in my ears before. The hand I mean to steady myself with brings his head down to mine.
"Everyone's watching," he murmurs.
I give the barest of shrugs and kiss him.
Final author's note: What a wild, wild ride. When I started etc. etc, I allowed myself to go nuts with whatever I wanted to write, be it fangirl mobs or gratuitous kiss scenes, and as the story grew more serious, I allowed Clemence to explore the contradicting parts of herself that frighten her and put into words all the things that I myself struggle to explain to others. I've been as surprised as readers as to where that's finally led me—to the very end no less, as I mentally swore to never end in any story in a kiss scene and I resisted until literally yesterday.
I have lots of plans for my future writing, one being an original version of etc. etc.; that and an original fantasy story will be my next major projects and won't be posted online, but I won't be leaving fandom in the meantime. The fanfictions I'll write will just be shorter. I probably won't come back to the world of Harry Potter-flavored etc., but feel free to try to spark my muse :)
Thank you to Gubby/GubraithianFire for an enormous amount of starry-eyed everything and being there for every word; to Julia/peppersweet for the shipping and music and internet tea; to Celeste/Celestie for the flailing and eyerolling over the Albus of it all; to all the three of them for being responsible authors and finishing their Albus/OC-with-a-twist years faster than I did; to my sister for gunning for this to be published; to Diya for championing the queen and her knight no matter what canon might be; to Dianne/naughtforreal for the lovely surprises; to Annie for knowing all the right moments; to jkrowlingstone who made the story an incredible fan trailer.
Thank you to everyone who has made fanwork or spread the word or left a review or messaged me. The story's meant so many different things to me over the five years I've been writing it and as reader responses have come in. It wouldn't mean the same without each of you.
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