My flat was in the Old Town, about half a mile from the castle. It was a tall tenement of weathered stone, and I lived on the top floor. I stepped out into the Edinburgh air and walked around the side of the tenement to the sheltered little alcove where the bins are stored. It was the spot I use as a safe Disapparation point. After nervously checking my watch, I Disapparated.
It was ten to eleven in the morning when I left Edinburgh, and the day was bright and dry, but rather chilly. When I arrived at my destination, almost two hundred miles to the south, I was confronted by an instantaneous change in the weather. I hoped that I had arrived in an April shower, and that it would quickly pass, but as I looked around, it seemed unlikely.
The copse of trees behind York Crown Court, where I'd arrived, were providing some protection. But a glance to my right, to the River Foss, showed a surface jumping with the falling rain and patterned with ever-expanding and intertwining ripples. As I looked through the spring leaves above me, a raindrop splashed onto my face. When I cast my eyes upward I could find no break in the gloom. From horizon to horizon the sky was the grey of wet slate.
Fastening my duffle coat and pulling up the hood, I walked out from beneath the sheltering green canopy. We had arranged to meet at eleven, at the bottom of the steps up to Clifford Tower. As usual, I was a few minutes early. As I approached the corner of the Court building, I looked gloomily up at the sky; it seemed my first impressions were correct, and the rain would not be ending any time soon.
I expected to have a long, wet wait for Lavender. Astonishingly, I was wrong.
For the first time ever, she had arrived at our rendezvous before me. Upon seeing me, Lavender smiled and waved. She was wearing a pale trench coat with the collar turned up, and was sheltering from the rain under a bright pink, daisy-patterned umbrella. There was no one else around, the weather had seen to that.
Lavender was moving with the short-stepped, heel-flicking gait of someone who was afraid that they were about to fall off their shoes. I watched in consternation as she scampered across the street to meet me. Concerned for her safety, I lengthened my stride and walked rapidly towards her.
As we approached each other, I critically examined her latest choice of footwear. I might have called them brown brogues, were it not for the shiny black spike elevating her heel by over four inches. Sighing inwardly, I tried not to show my despair at the sight of sensible shoes rendered senseless by the bizarre Muggle fashion requirements she followed. I knew that even though they looked like brogues, I could never call them such in front of Lavender. I also knew that, whatever colour they were, they certainly wouldn't be brown. Criticising her choice of footwear was not an option. Lavender had a good sense of humour, but fashion was always a risky topic to joke about.
As she approached, the shower was beginning to blow over, and the rain had begun to ease. Perhaps we would be lucky with the weather after all. If not, we could always Apparate back to Edinburgh. Lavender slowed to a walk and put down her umbrella; it was a wise precaution, as it was at my eye-height. When we met, in the centre of the car park access road, she reached up to my face, pulled back my hood and pulled me down to her level. Because of the heels, I didn't have to bend quite as far as usual.
We kissed, and it was on the lips. After six months of being "just friends" and only a week of being "a couple", a kiss on the lips, even the light, friendly, breathy brush she gave me, was thrilling. I savoured it. It was our fourth public kiss of greeting, and I wondered how many more it would take before I finally stopped counting.
'Hello, Mark,' she said, her cheeks dimpling as she smiled at me.
'Good morning, Lavender,' I replied, smiling back.
Lavender looked up at the still dark sky. 'What's good about it?' she asked.
'You're here,' I told her with a grin. That got me another kiss. 'It was your idea to meet here, Lavender. After yesterday's interrupted evening, I thought that you'd be coming up to my place again. I did invite you for Sunday lunch today, remember?'
Once, I'd have been happy to meet her anywhere. Now, however, her choice of a neutral venue was worrying me.
'I know, Mark, but I wanted to be somewhere different, and this is where we met for our first date,' she told me. 'At least, for our first sort-of-date,' she corrected herself.
I realised that despite our discussions, she, like me, was having difficulty deciding when, exactly our relationship had begun. Was it six months ago, our first night out together, or was it a week ago, when she finally decided that we were a couple, not simply friends?
'So, what do you have planned for us today?' I asked.
'I thought that we could walk along the river, and then go along to that restaurant on Coppergate for Sunday lunch,' she suggested.
'Sounds good to me.' I nodded, not wanting to disagree with her, although I wondered whether I could afford yet another meal at an expensive Muggle restaurant. I knew the place she meant, we'd been there once, just before Christmas. I also wondered whether they would let me in. On our previous visit I'd known where we were going, and had dressed accordingly. I looked doubtfully down at my corduroy trousers and duffle coat.
Lavender didn't appear to notice my worries she simply smiled, took my hand, and led me past the conical mound on which the quatrefoil keep perched. As we walked towards Tower Street, the park, and the River Ouse she told me about the "triple-A" – the All Auror Alert which had dragged her from my flat the previous evening.
I'd thought that the previous night was going to be the night, but duty had called her away. A triple-A is a call for help; it meant that one or more of Lavender's fellow Aurors were in trouble. She'd still been holding the Auror Identity Card which doubled as her emergency Portcard between her teeth when it automatically activated, thirty seconds after the alarm had sounded. The alert had interrupted our progressively passionate evening.
Lavender wasn't on standby, so she didn't have to answer the alarm, but most Aurors answered anyway. After all, one day it might be them calling for help. She'd had the card between her teeth because, when she vanished, she had been holding her wand while still trying to refasten her blouse. At least she'd managed to fasten her bra before she left.
After the Portcard had snatched her from my living room, to send her into unknown danger in a flash of bright blue light, I'd begun to worry about her. Some of my concern was my natural, "she's on a mission" worry, but mostly I'd been concerned about the expression on her face when she'd left. It almost seemed she'd been relieved to be leaving me. I worried that she was having second thoughts about us.
In a way, it was understandable. I had my own concerns about my, quite literally in my case, fumbling relationship with her. Although I hadn't wanted her to go, if I was being truly honest, I'd actually been a little relieved myself when she left. Since the sudden change in our relationship a week ago I'd known that the inevitable would happen, that one day we'd end up in bed together. The previous evening I'd been certain that it was, in fact, about to happen. But I was worried. Would I be any good? Would I embarrass myself in front of her? What should I do? What would she like?
I brought myself back to the present. She was chattering happily, and I needed to listen.
'It was Blundell, McLoughlin and Pepperell who called the alert,' she told me. I nodded knowledgeably. The names meant nothing, but she expected me to know the name of every Auror. 'They'd cornered Boris Bulstrode. He was wanted for using the Imperious Curse on a keeper at the Fafnerfell Dragon Sanctuary. But he had some Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder, and in the confusion he brought the ceiling down on them, trapping Trudi Pepperell. Blundell called the alert when that bloody idiot McLoughlin cast a Reducto in the darkness. He missed Bulstrode and blew out a wall instead. Bulstrode almost got away, but Fanny Upjohn, old "Spider" Webb, and I managed to stun the git as he tried to escape on a broom. At least Bulstrode had a soft landing. He landed in the dragon dung he'd stolen. You know how much that stuff stinks, Mark! I don't still smell of it, do I?' Lavender finally paused for breath.
'You smell wonderful,' I assured her. She stopped long enough to hug me.
'Thanks, Mark. Anyway, by the time I'd got rid of the smell and done the paperwork, it was one o'clock in the morning, Sorry.'
'It's okay,' I assured her. She lapsed into silence, and I continued my contemplations.
Lavender was only twenty-four, three years younger than me. She was five foot four of glamorous, curvaceous femininity. But her reputation preceded her like an angry dragon. She was Lavender Brown: werewolf, Auror, and man-eater; a woman who had a different man every night. At least that's what the papers said. When I'd met her six months earlier, I had simply thought that she was lonely and a little lost.
My mother disagreed. One day, very soon probably, I'd have to take Lavender to meet my Ma. I wasn't looking forward to it. Last weekend, the day after Lavender and I had agreed that we were in a relationship, I finally told Ma the name of the wee lassie I was seeing. Ma didn't use her usual polite understatement. Lavender wasn't merely "an interesting choice, Mark", her usual term of disapproval; no, my girl was a "gallus wee besom". My mother wasn't the only one to let me know that I was going out with, to use the polite translation, an unmanageable hussy. Many of my friends and work colleagues agreed.
It was true that Lavender had been in a lot of intense, and short, relationships. But I'd lasted six months, a record. I'd been the "and guest" at the Ministry functions she'd attended for months. But I'd never been entirely sure what else I was.
For months, I was simply the bloke who listened to her, but didn't try it on with her. But that ended last week. Now we had moved from friends to—to what, exactly? We were going out together; she'd finally agreed that's what we'd been doing. But I still hadn't pushed things. Did she expect me too?
I was crazy, I told myself. We'd been in a comfortable, if celibate, relationship for months. I'd wanted our relationship to change and it had changed, with remarkable suddenness. I'd moved from being "friend" to "boyfriend" and that would inevitably lead to…
That was the trouble. Part of me wanted to tear off her clothes and jump on her, but a greater part of me was terrified that if I was no good, if I failed to satisfy her, then it would be over before it had really begun. I wanted to keep her, but I wasn't certain how. Her remark on my sofa the previous night hadn't helped. "Take it easy, Mark, you kiss like an over-enthusiastic teen," she'd told me not long before the alert sounded.
I hadn't had a girlfriend, or a girl, since Cara finished with me on the fourth anniversary of the battle. She had accused me of lacking ambition, of grieving too much and of being fixated on the death of my little sister, Lillith. The seventh anniversary was now approaching; the seventh anniversary of my sister's murder and now, for the first time since Cara, I had a girl.
Unfortunately, according to everyone I knew, it was a girl who would be bad for me. I had thought that Rhianna Wrigglesworth was my friend; we'd worked together in York for a year, sat in adjacent desks and shared a lot of confidences. I'd confided in her when she'd visited me in the Scottish Office. I've been back in Edinburgh for some time. Rhianna didn't beat about the bush. She was as blunt as you'd expect a Yorkshire lass to be. "You're going out with a lass who has a reputation as a tart, who was in your sister's year at school, and who was attacked and scarred by the man who killed your sister. Do you /ireallyi think that's a good thing?" she had asked.
I told Rhianna that I had a girl I didn't deserve. I told her that I was in love with Lavender, and she laughed at me. "I'll be here to pick up the pieces," she'd told me. "You're hopeless, Mark. You really know nothing about girls, do you?"
Perhaps I was doomed to be a failure.
'You're hurting my hand, Mark,' Lavender said. She looked up at me in concern.
'Sorry.' I released her hand, realising that I'd been unconsciously transmitting my worries. We had reached the river and we automatically turned right. 'Are we going to call into the King's Arms?' I asked, hoping to divert her from asking me what was wrong.
She'd again fallen silent, which was very unusual for her. 'The King's Arms?' she asked.
We were walking upstream with the river on our left, heading towards King's Staith. It was a part of the city I was very familiar with. Woodsmill Quay, the huge brick former warehouse where I'd lived briefly during my year-long secondment to the Yorkshire Law Office stood on the opposite bank. We were slowly strolling towards the King's Arms, the pub where we'd met the first time we'd gone out together.
'The King's Arms, remember?' I said.
'Of course I remember. It was our first not-a-date,' she said.
She stopped suddenly next to the river boats. When I, too, stopped, she turned around to face me. She looked up, and I stared into her violet eyes. 'Why did you ask me out? Why did you agree to my conditions?' she asked.
I stared down into her face. As I thought about my answer I looked at eyeliner, mascara and eye shadow and wondered how long it took her to prepare herself. Did she do it for me, or for herself? Did it matter?
'I didn't think,' I admitted.
She arched an epilated and pencil enhanced eyebrow and I realised what I'd said.
'I mean,' I added hastily, 'the opportunity presented itself, and I took it. I knew that if I didn't ask you then, I'd never get another chance. If I'd stopped to think, even for a second, you'd have left the Yorkshire Law Office. You'd have been gone. As for the conditions, you said "just friends," and I was happy to accept it.' I gave her a rather sheepish smile. 'But I sort of hoped for more,' I admitted.
'But why me?' she asked. 'You must have heard about me, about what the papers said.'
'Of course I had heard about you. I read the papers, but I don't believe them. I wanted to get to know you better, I wanted to get to know the brave and beautiful girl I first saw five years ago,' I told her. 'Why did you say yes, Lavender, and why did you impose the conditions?'
She sighed. 'Please don't think badly of me, Mark,' she began. I tried to look neutral. Unfortunately, her words were never going to be a good opening. 'I intended to say no,' she admitted. 'But I had second thoughts. I decided that I owed you at least that much, that you deserved at least one date.' Her eyes flicked across my face, trying to read my expression.
'Merlin, Mark, you must know why,' she said quietly. 'You're stupidly modest, you know. "First saw five years ago" sounds like you passed me on a street or something. You didn't just "see me"; you pulled me out of a burning building and took me to St Mungo's! I was barely conscious and you got me to the hospital. And Seamus arrived and chased you away before I even found out who you were. When I met you in York last year I didn't recognise you, and I wasn't very nice to you, and you helped me despite that. And you looked so pathetic and forlorn when you asked me.' She stared sadly up at me. 'That's why I said yes.'
She'd felt sorry for me. Great! I again lost myself in memories trying to persuade myself that there was more to it than that.
Six months earlier, we had met at the bottom of the steps to Clifford Tower. It was the day before Halloween, a Saturday, and the previous day she'd made the headlines of the Daily Prophet, for all the right reasons. I still had the cutting. "Werewolf Auror Despatches Killer Vampire" the headlines had said. The report was completely inaccurate, I knew that. Neither Auror Bones, nor Detective Inspector Beadle were even mentioned in the newspaper report, despite the fact that they'd both been there. I knew what had really happened, because I'd been there, too.
I got to know her on that first day. We talked and ate and drank. She did most of the talking, of course, but I didn't mind, because I could watch her, listen to her, for hours. When she got excited, Lavender talked with her whole body; hands, arms and even eyebrows and nose. I was enthralled as I watched her expressions, and I'd come to recognise a lot of them. Her nose twitched and wrinkled as though there was a bad smell under it whenever she mentioned someone she didn't like. Usually, that was one of her many ex-boyfriends.
If that ever happened when she mentioned me, I would know it was over. It hadn't happened, I told myself hopefully, as I found my lifeline and clung to it like a drowning man.
On that overcast October day, on our first not-date, I learned quickly. It was fascinating to watch and listen to her as she talked about her job in the Auror Office, and about her friends. She had complained about the Daily Prophet's report, but admitted that her parents would be pleased that, for once, she wasn't in the gossip columns for her wild, or even "abandoned" behaviour. I told her that I didn't know what, exactly, she was supposed to have abandoned. She admitted that she'd certainly abandoned her common sense on several occasions, and her dad had told her that she'd abandoned her morals.
'A Knut for your thoughts,' she said.
'I was just thinking about us, now, and about our first date … or, at least, our first not-date,' I told her.
'Going on that ghost-walk was an inspired idea of yours!' she told me. 'It was so funny, all of that "spooky" Muggle nonsense. You gave me a fit of the giggles, and I thought that the guide was going to explode!' She looked up at me thoughtfully. 'You know I was going to make excuses, don't you? Before we'd even met I'd decided that it would be our only date. I knew when we met at Clifford Tower that if you asked me out a second time I was going to put you off, tell you that I was busy. But you cheated, Mark. You asked me while I was still laughing.'
'I thought that it would be my only chance, Lavender,' I said. I looked down into her eyes and decided to take a chance.
'You aren't who you pretend to be, Lavender,' I said. 'You put up a good front, but…'
'Good!' she interrupted. 'They're two of my most impressive weapons.' She looked down at her chest.
'I'm trying to be serious, Lavender,' I said. 'If we're serious about us, we need to be serious with each other, sometimes.'
She didn't speak.
'Why here?' I asked. 'Why did you choose to meet in York? I offered to make Sunday lunch for us. We could have met at my place, or at yours. Why here?'
'Because I don't know what I'm doing, Mark,' she said. 'Because this morning, my parents invited me round to Sunday lunch today too, and they told me that I should bring Mary, that it was about time that they met her.'
'Mary, who's Mary?' I asked in confusion.
'Mum and Dad noticed that I haven't been in the gossip columns for a while,' said Lavender. 'No photographs of me with a bloke on my arm. At Christmas Mum asked if I was restricting "my activities" to Muggle men. I told her that I had a new friend. I told her all about you.'
She shook her head. 'Not exactly, Mark. I didn't tell her everything. Because you weren't my boyfriend, and I didn't want her to think that you were. I told her where we'd gone, and what we'd been doing, and she thinks you're a good influence on me.'
'She also thinks you're a girl called Mary Moon.'