I find Mrs. Barton to tell her that neither Hieronymous nor I would be sitting down to dinner this evening, and request that she have some sandwiches and tea taken to his study, and up to my room. When she acquiesces, I go upstairs to my Impossible Room, enjoying the reddening glow from the sunset streaming through the windows while I tidy the few things that are out of place. When everything has been put in order, I go into the dressing room, open my suitcase, and slip the photograph of Hieronymous and Violet out of the pocket in which I'd stashed it. I place the photo gently on the tea table.
When the sandwich tray arrives from downstairs, I sit on the sofa to enjoy my dinner, and my current book - an overview of the life and work of the British magician and architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Although I'd been entranced by the book this morning, I don't seem able to concentrate on it now, and I put it back down after a few pages. Instead of reading, I sit in the dimming light, finishing my dinner and going over and over what I ought to say to Hieronymous. Nothing seems right. I find my eyes straying to the photograph next to my plate, but it isn't very helpful. Those kids, having fun in London on a winter day so many years ago, don't seem to have any connection to me sitting on my own in this huge, nearly empty house.
It's getting late by the time I gather the courage to walk out of my room and down the stairs. I stop at the door to the study, but no one answers my knock, and when I open the door to go in, it's dark and empty. I turn and start searching the rooms on the first floor, finding most of them unoccupied.
When I open the doors to the drawing room, I see that it's partly lit, so I walk in. After a minute's search I find Hieronymous stretched out on one of the far sofas, lying on his side with his head propped on one arm. He isn't asleep, but his eyes are half-closed and unfocused. There's a small glass of yellow-colored wine on the table in front of him, but it looks as though he's barely touched it. A book - Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress - lies, open and face-down, beside the glass.
"Hi," I say, standing over Hieronymous, behind the sofa. He blinks, and fixes his eyes on mine. "Drinking by yourself again?"
He stretches a bit, turning toward me. "It's a Chateau d'Yquem 1997," he says, his voice thick with fatigue. "Greedy sot had an entire case of it in the cellar. I assume he was going to use my body to drink it, so I might as well comply with his last wishes." There's a bitter edge to this statement that I don't like at all, but then his tone lightens. "You can have some, if you like. It was an extraordinary year."
"No, thanks," I say. "I need to talk to you, actually."
"So talk," he says.
"To you, not at you," I respond. "Wake up, please."
"I'm awake," he says, with the peevish air of a child being woken for school. "Sit."
I look around for a place, but all of the sofas and chairs are far enough away that I'd have to drag one halfway across the room to speak comfortably. So instead I cross to the front of Hieronymous' sofa and sit down in the space where he's bent at the hip. He doesn't say anything but follows me with his eyes as I settle on the edge of the cushion.
"Okay, first off," I say, "I have something to give you that I should have given you a while ago. Your father left it for me to find because he thought it would upset me. And it did. Upset me, I mean. I should have told you about it, but I didn't. Actually, I lied to you." As I say this I feel sick with shame, but I have to finish. "And I'm really, really sorry. I shouldn't have done it. But the thing is, if this-" and here I wave my hand to indicate the pair of us- "whatever it is - is going to work, I need to be able to tell you things without getting scared that you'll lock me in some dungeon. Okay?"
He doesn't reply, but waits for me to finish.
"Well. Anyway," I say, unnerved by the silence. "Here." And I take the photograph out of the pocket of my dress and hold it out for him.
He takes it by the edges, carefully, just as I'd handled it on the day I found it. I watch as he stares at the image on the photograph, taking it in for a long time. I wait for his reaction, but the moment seems to stretch out I get more and more nervous. Will he be angry? Upset? Will he threaten to shut me in a dungeon?
Finally, he reaches out and places the photograph on the table next to his book and wine glass, no longer looking at it, and not looking at me, either. And my stomach drops a little - he's going to check out again, I think, just stare into space without registering anything else I say to him. I open my mouth, trying to think of what to say to try to bring him back, when he starts to speak.
"There are times," he says, "when I think I'd just dreamed her up."
For a second, the urge to tell him that I'm sorry, or that it wasn't his fault, is overwhelming, but I know that's the wrong thing. So instead, I say "she was really beautiful."
"Yes," he says, "she was."
I swallow, then plunge ahead. "So, second, I wanted to tell you that I'm going to go back home. And that I've decided I'm going back to Iris for next year."
He looks at me, consternated. "Why would you go back? Petunia used you."
"She saved me, too. And you. I guess saving you was kind of the point."
"I seem to require a lot of rescuing lately," he mutters, still frowning.
"I don't really mind," I say, trying to suppress a smile.
"Still, there are other schools. There's one in California. And one in London. If you wanted to stay in England, that is."
He's making such an effort to sound nonchalant that it's all I can do to keep from grinning outright. "Thanks. But I think I need to go back. I mean-" I stop, trying to figure out how to put what I've been pondering into words. "I'm glad your father - aunt - is dead and you're not. And maybe Professor Potsdam did what she had to do to save you from him. Even if I don't agree with it, or if I think she should have saved Mrs. Craft and the rest of the guests. But I don't know. I don't know enough about what she could have done - or what she should have done. So I need to learn the rest of what Professor Potsdam has to teach me, and figure it out for myself."
He considers this. "I don't like it," he says.
"You don't need to like it; it's my decision."
"That's fair," he admits.
"And anyway," I say, "it's probably not a good idea for me to stay here."
"Yeah, I mean - well, I guess I-" I stutter, as my words fail me. "I just-" I start again, but then give up. We both assess each other for a minute before I think to hell with it, lean over, and kiss him on the corner of his mouth.
He doesn't react at all - he doesn't move and keeps his eyes fixed on where I had been. I pull back a bit, and then kiss him again, briefly but full on the mouth. He still doesn't move an inch, so I try again, catching his lower lip between my teeth. But he still doesn't move.
Fine, I think, I take the hint, but I can't resist one last try, so I kiss him again. This time, just as I'm about to pull away, he sighs and opens his mouth under mine. And just like that, we're kissing each other.
We slowly wind together, my fingers lacing into his hair while his arm tightens around my waist. With his other hand, he pushes my hair away from my face, then strokes my cheek. The tips of his fingers track an electric current across my skin. There's a lingering apricot-sweetness in his mouth from the wine, and the taste seems to infuse through me, overcoming the last of my reservations and blotting out the bit of me that's still convinced that this is a bad decision.
I have to shift once to get a better purchase on the edge of the sofa, and as I brush against him he makes a low, urgent sound in the back of his throat. He tilts my head up to run his mouth along my jaw, reminding me of that strange first night in London, and causing my breath to come in short gasps.
But when I lean forward to kiss him again, Hieronymous' expression is troubled. He stops me, holding the tips of his fingers against my mouth. "Thank you," he says in a not-too-steady voice. "you've convinced me."
"I wasn't finished," I say, voice muffled against his fingers, my breathing still shallow but slowing.
"I'm finished," he says. "And I agree - your staying is a bad idea." He pushes my face with his hand, forcing me to sit up straight again. "So please go away, and don't come back until you're - I don't know. Twenty-six."
"Twenty-six?" I say, aware that whining about it makes me sound more childish, unable to help it. "That's ages away."
"It goes faster than you think," says Hieronymous with a faint smile.
"But-" I start, then stop when Hieronymous raises his hand to interrupt me.
"Look," he starts. "I suppose you've figured out by now that I've grown rather fond of you despite your age and status as a student-"
"Former student," I interrupt, but he ignores me.
"But I can't just dismiss the fact that you're only seventeen. It's too young and-" he cuts off, searching for whatever words he needs, but they seem to be failing him, too. "I can't," he finishes.
"You didn't seem to mind so much that night in London," I say, more out of pique than a desire to talk him out of his decision.
He shrugs. "I was-"
"Smashed," I finish.
He makes a face at me. "I was going to say 'engaging in poor decision-making' but if you're going to be uncharitable..." And then neither of us can keep a straight face. I start giggling, and he gives me an almost genuine smile, which he hides quickly, lifting his hands to his face to rub at his eyes.
"It was horrible of me," he admits. "I apol-"
"No," I interrupt. "I think I'm putting a moratorium on apologies for the evening. It was a rough enough week without having to figure out how to be married to each other on top of it."
Hieronymous stops rubbing his eyes. "In my admittedly limited experience," he says, "all that 'figuring out' just consists of people blindly bashing into each other. Sometimes it's a fit, but most of the time they just wreck themselves."
"It's not exactly Oscar Wilde, but that does sort of make sense," I say.
"But," he continues, and the tone in his voice makes my smile drop. "If you're going to wreck yourself on someone at seventeen, it can't be me. Not again." His eyes flick away from me, then, and he says in a half-whisper, "Not you."
I don't have the right words to describe the look on his face as he says this, but I can't stand to look at it for very long. So I look at my hands instead and ask, "and if it's a fit?"
"Then a few years isn't going to change that."
"Okay," I say, "I can live with that. But I'm not waiting until I'm twenty-six."
He doesn't say anything but raises his eyebrows when I look back at him.
"Your father told me something the other day," I say, trying to hoist the mood by putting some cheer into my voice. "If I want to study magical history, I ought to go to Oxford. Even if he did try to kill me, that's no reason why I shouldn't listen to his advice, so I'm going to apply."
Hieronymous's eyebrows knit. "You're serious?" I don't say anything, until he finally warns "You'll have to be performing at the top of your class to get in."
"I can do it," I reply, trying to sound more confident than I actually feel. There is Minnie Cochran to contend with, after all. But then, I think, it isn't going to work unless I want to go to Oxford for myself - not because I'll be closer to Hieronmyous, or even because I want to remember Mrs. Craft by studying her pet subject. I consider for a moment, asking myself what it is I really want.
"I can do it," I repeat, my trepidation suddenly gone, feeling the beginnings of a smile on my face.
"Very well - if you get in, you can ring me up," Hieronymous says, shifting and settling himself on the sofa. "But I won't guarantee I'll answer."
"You'll answer," I say. "We have too much in common now."
"Is that right?" he says.
"Mm-hmm. For example, if I brought you home to meet my parents, they'd probably try to kill you, too."
Hieronymous blinks at me twice, and then starts laughing. I grin at him, and after a moment, start snickering myself. I feel buoyed by seeing him smile for real.
"In that case," he says, "do me a favor and take care of yourself while you're over there. You can't always count on a Petunia ex machina to go about rescuing you all the time."
"That goes for you, too," I retort. "I thought it was you who was requiring all the rescuing lately."
"Don't remind me," he says, groaning a bit, but he's still smiling.
"Are you going to be okay?" I ask, impulsively.
I pause, nervous, but remember that I'm over him getting angry at me if I say something he doesn't like.
"It's - you've just been checking out, the past couple of days. One minute we're having a nice chat about dragons and the next you've got this thousand-yard stare. It's like having dinner with a zombie. I know you have a lot to think about, and I know you're tired, but I feel like one day I'm going to walk up to you and there's going to be nothing there." This is more than I'd meant to say, but all the worry that had been building up in me the past few days comes spilling out. And whatever the consequences are, I do feel better having said what I think.
He doesn't get angry or upset. He just looks at me thoughtfully for a minute before saying "I didn't mean to frighten you. I suppose I've just been trying to figure out what the hell I'm going to do now."
"Yeah?" I ask.
He looks pensive for another minute, then continues. "My father was always trying to sell me on the concept of keeping the family going; making sure I'd be able to take over when he passed. And I'd never wanted it, even when I thought he just meant me inheriting his estate and position - never mind him taking my body to continue his own life. And even though I managed to get out of the worst of it, what am I left with? In America I had a life - not much, and I didn't even like it most of the time, but at least it was mine. Now I'm taking over the family titles, seats and positions after all, and I have no idea what I'm going to do with them."
"Well," I say, "you could probably do whatever you want. I mean, what about setting up that school you were thinking about? No one's stopping you now, if that's what you want to do. Though you never seemed to like teaching all that much."
"Oh, I enjoyed teaching," he says. "It was the students I couldn't stand." He says this so dryly that I glare at him for a full minute before realizing he's joking. I smack him on the arm - not too hard, but he starts laughing again.
"Saying it out loud, I sound pretty awful, don't I?" he says.
"Yeah, honestly, if you want to start a new life I can think of worse things to do than inherit a whole estate. You don't have to go into Parliament though, do you? No offense, but I don't think you would make much of a politician."
"If I let it alone, I suppose that spell of his will ensure that they'll forget about the succession," he admits, "and the House of Lords will just hold a by-election to re-seat his position. I'm not sure how well the magical community will take not having a representative in the House of Lords, but I don't think I'd make much of a politician either. There's a few of us in the House of Commons, at least - that might have to hold us for now."
"Nothing to worry about, then," I say.
"I suppose not," he replies. "But then again-"
He cuts off and stays quiet for so long that I wonder if he hasn't checked out again after all. But then he starts speaking again, albeit much more slowly.
"I'm probably going to be spending the rest of my life trying to sort out what was real and what was some memory planted in my head. My mother for example - did she really leave? Did he kill her once he'd gotten me off her? Should I try to find her?" He shrugs. "I can't remember what she looked like." He pauses again. "I don't even know her first name."
That's a hard, horrible thought, and I don't have any idea what I could say - if anything - that could ease it. And then, for the first time since that day when I flew over the hedge during a game of tag, I begin to realize what it really means to live in a magical world. I had always thought that it would be a marvellous thing to be able to do spells, but I never took into account the fact that there would be people out there - cruel, possibly evil people - with the power to upend your life with a flick of their fingers. To make you forget the people who should be first in your mind, or to cover up their crimes or murders. And, unbidden, the voice of Lord Montague comes into my head. "I could make you forget it wasn't him in the first place."
No, he couldn't do that, I think. I'd know within five minutes if someone was trying to pose as Hieronymous Grabiner. But then, if Lord Grabiner had been skilled enough to make his son forget Violet's cannibalized soul-
I push the thought away, but even so, a tiny fissure of doubt has opened inside of me, and I can't close it again. When you know that any magician is potentially capable of changing your memories, who can you trust? How can you continue living your life without knowing what memories are real and what aren't? I press my hand to my sternum again feeling something - not physical pain, but a strange sensation of being slightly separated, as though I have to hold myself together.
Hieronymous interrupts my train of thought, saying "but it's no good whinging about it. I'll have to figure it out myself. But I'm not going anywhere, so please don't worry." He grants me another smile, but it's hollow. Still, I find it comforting in a way. Even if I don't have an answer to my doubts, Professor Potsdam was right about one thing - Lord Montague is gone, and here we two are.
"I'm going to miss you," I say. "Are you going to keep writing me?"
"If you write to me, it would be discourteous of me not to respond," he says.
"Good," I say lightly, trying not to indicate what a wrench it is to say good bye. "Keep writing, and then I'll see you if - when I get to Oxford. And then - well. We'll see."
"We'll see," he echoes. And there's nothing left to say.
I sit there for what feels like a long time, wondering if I should just get up and go to bed, but not wanting to leave just yet. And then I feel the slightest pressure against my cheek - he's reached out with the tips of his fingers, touching my face lightly as if to see if he'd dreamed me up too - as if I were as delicate as a soap bubble, something that would burst and vanish at the slightest touch. I catch his hand with mine as he pulls it away, lacing my fingers into his and squeezing them to show him that I'm really here - strong and whole. When I do it, he smiles at me, and the smile reaches his eyes.
So I sit there with him until his fingers go slack in mine, and his breathing slows. And only when I know he won't wake up at the movement, I extract my hand from his and put myself to bed.