Chapter 4: Adults
"What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare."
- "Leisure" by William Henry Davies
There was nothing Oliver loved more than flying, they said; if he didn't have Quidditch, the poor lad would lose his mind.
But Oliver would have gladly exchanged his broom for a chance to see Madeline's bright hazel eyes and hear her voice.
He would see her again in less than twenty-four hours, he knew, but that didn't dampen the yearning fire burning in his chest. He'd not been right since the first few hours after her departure. He visited Nicolas right away, and the two friends spent five long days together. Nicolas tried to keep Oliver occupied, but it proved difficult.
He tried everything—Quidditch, window shopping for brooms, visiting training pitches, practicing cooking, reading about the playing conditions of different areas of the country, catching up on the World Cup news, and talking about their parents. Nicolas tried his best not to bring up Madeline, Margaret, Claire, Elaine, or any other woman who could be connected to Madeline in some way, but the topic was unavoidable.
It seemed odd to Nicolas that this time last year, he was the one who was heartsick because he'd gone weeks without seeing her. Weeks! And here Oliver was moping because he'd have to go six whole days. The thought unsettled his stomach. His discussion with Claire had served only to remind him that somewhere in the depth of his mind, he still associated Madeline with happiness. His relationship with Margaret was only still intact because his father expected him to have a dignified relationship with a woman of good repute.
And so, with Oliver being his best mate and all, he tried to avoid thinking and talking about her, but it was impossible. Oliver found a way to relate anything and everything back to Madeline, and on Thursday morning, when they had decided to take a swim rather than fly, Nicolas snapped. They weren't far from Oliver's home, and the water was still chilly.
"Madeline and I usually come here after a long flight—"
"Would you shut up about Maddie! Please? I've been quiet all week, but I really need you to try to think about something else!"
Oliver stared at Nicolas, his expression blank, and Nicolas sighed, shaking his head.
"It's just gotten old—hearing you talk about her."
"Have you anything else to tell me?" Oliver asked, assuming and inferring things that Nicolas hadn't intended. While he'd been contemplating talking to Oliver all week, he'd kept his mouth shut because he knew it wouldn't be an easy discussion.
"Claire and I… well, we—"
"You and Claire what?"
"We just had a chat, mate, relax! But we talked about Madeline. Naturally. We all seem incapable of speaking about anyone else."
Oliver was unfazed. He crossed his burly arms, his eyes set on Nicolas.
"How to explain? You've probably already gathered this, but… I've really only stayed with Margaret because that's what I should be doing. When I was with Madeline… I thought I might finally have a different path. A different life. And... I know you two were always meant to be together. That's why I broke things off: I could see it but she couldn't."
Oliver nodded. He knew all of this.
"You'll never be the only man who cares about her. I'll... leave it at that."
"Is that what you and Claire talked about? Claire convinced you that you're still in love with her?"
"She was just trying to help me figure things out, since it's damn near impossible to talk to you or Madeline about it. You both usually become angry."
"I'm not angry."
"No? So if I said that I'm still in love with her, you wouldn't be angry?" asked Nicolas.
"Are you, Nick? Do you honestly love her more than anything—more than your own bloody skin? Would you give your life if it meant saving hers? Would you choose her happiness over yours every minute of every day, for the rest of your life? Would you endure absolutely anything for her?"
Nicolas balked. He knew that Oliver had met with a boggart in his exam and that he had likely seen Madeline being tortured. Nicolas wasn't sure what he would see if he met a boggart, and he hadn't realised the impact the exam had had on Oliver.
"Nick, you're my best mate. You are." Nicolas didn't respond. He knew where this was going. "Madeline… she's my other half. I can't picture my life without her in it. You say that you know we were always meant to be together. That's a fine thing to say, but you can't keep thinking of her as an escape from your reality if you truly understand how she and I feel."
"No, I'm not quite done," he said, standing. They had been sitting on the pier from which Oliver and Madeline had made many jumps into the loch. Nicolas stood as well.
"If you're unhappy with Margaret, end it. We've all told you that before. If the consequences from your father frighten you so much that you'd force yourself into constant misery, then perhaps you and I need to talk about some alternatives to your current living situation. I'd happily have that conversation with you."
As Oliver continued, he pictured Nicolas forcing himself on Madeline, kissing her against her will. He imagined Nicolas holding her and touching her, and he felt his blood boil.
"Even Margaret can see through you. I'm done with the awkward tension. I'm done with the slight hints at your feelings for her. The looks you give her. The way you talk to her. Visiting her in the middle of the bloody night. The kiss. It all ends now. You need to remove Madeline from any thoughts that result in her marrying you or bearing your children."
"I never said I wanted that," said Nicolas, his voice low and jaw clenched.
"You never needed to," said Oliver. Though he was shorter than him by a few inches, he had never been scared of getting into a fight with Nicolas, and if it meant ending the tension surrounding Madeline, he'd happily engage. "I know that's what you're thinking when you see any woman. 'Hm. Is she fit enough to keep me satisfied and can she provide me with pureblood offspring?'"
It was then that Nicolas lost control of his anger and sent a fist flying at Oliver's face; but, Oliver was anticipating such an attack, and his Quidditch reflexes proved quite useful—he dodged the punch and simply pushed Nicolas off the pier.
There was a huge splash. Oliver took a deep breath—he'd never really forgiven Nicolas for kissing Madeline. He knew now that he needed to.
The cold water hit Nicolas like a hex, and it woke him up to his own stupidity. He took his time in climbing onto the pier, wondering why Oliver still thought of Nicolas as his best friend. Oliver waited to see how Nicolas would respond, but he just sat quietly, drip-drying. Oliver eventually apologised for his last statement, and Nicolas waved his hand as though it hadn't mattered.
"I don't know what to do," said Nicolas after a while.
"Take a holiday. Clear your head."
"This was supposed to be my holiday."
"How long has it been since you've seen Margaret?" asked Oliver.
"A week or so."
Oliver nodded as though that explained everything.
"I would," said Nicolas quietly. "I would… risk everything to save her, if that's what it took. But I'd do that for you too, you know. Or Claire. And Margaret. Maybe even Richard."
"Madeline would hex you for risking your life for Richard," said Oliver. They both laughed.
"So would Claire."
"How is she?"
"Better, I suppose. Sick of being at home already."
"Aren't we all?"
"Sadly, I think so. We should all just pitch in for a huge flat in London or something."
"Let's picture that for a moment—Madeline, Claire, and Margaret living together with you and I. Just… think about that for a minute."
"Sounds like an adventure to me, mate," said Nicolas, who grinned and winked.
"Claire would never agree to move in if Margaret was there."
"Too right. That's a pity, that is."
"A pity? Why is that?"
"Because I'm sure the three of them could rule the world if they so chose," said Nicolas, laughing at how dumb his thought sounded aloud.
Oliver contemplated the thought but didn't respond. He couldn't quite understand what Nicolas meant by that—they would make a great team if they could manage to get along? Sure. Rather than contemplating or starting a conversation, Oliver dove into the water and went for a swim.
Swimming did not come as naturally to Oliver as flying, but his father had always been fond of it as a form of exercise and had forced Oliver to learn at an early age. He'd tried to convince Madeline to form a fondness for it, but she preferred running on solid ground.
Once back on the pier, Nicolas attempted another conversation.
"You're right," he said, his jaw set and his tone resolved.
"Yes. It's over. Madeline's not even that attractive—"
"Oi, watch it," said Oliver, who was not amused.
Nicolas raised his eyebrows and smile broke over his face. Oliver shook his head.
"You're a git."
"I am. Truly, I am," said Nicolas. "But you're a git in love."
There was no arguing that point.
After lunch, Oliver grew more quiet and contemplative. Nicolas tried to get conversations out of him, but he rarely replied with more than one sentence. By dinner, he was so withdrawn that Nicolas contemplated leaving, but he stayed, because what else are friends for?
"Let's go fly for a bit," said Nicolas. He knew that this evening would be the worst.
The sun was slowly settling in for another evening below the mountains, and Nicolas set the book he'd been reading aside.
"I don't much feel like flying," mumbled Oliver in reply. Nicolas could have pretended to be surprised since his best mate was so renowned for his passion for Quidditch, but he knew better. Madeline meant more to him than that, and this week was the longest he'd ever gone without seeing her. Oliver was properly disturbed, and Nicolas understood, but they needed to fly. It would help clear Oliver's head, which would be the only way he would get some sleep.
"Well I don't much feel like watching you mope any longer, even if you are pretending to read. Get up and grab your broom."
Oliver tossed him a miffed glare and grudgingly stood from his bed. He's absolutely no fight in him, thought Nicolas sadly as he watched. Oliver then walked over to his broom and picked it up.
"C'mon, let's go clear your head. She'll be back tomorrow. Stop thinking about it."
"I can't," he said, his jaw clenched.
"You're the most miserable git I've ever set eyes on. Get it together, man! She'll be back in less than—"
"—Less than a second, apparently," said Nicolas quietly.
They both stared at the woman standing before them, almost as if they didn't recognise her. She had lighter (but still messy) hair, tanner skin, and a tangible glow about her. Nicolas was surprised to see Madeline looking so healthy, especially since it seemed like she'd been unconsciously losing weight for the past few months. Oliver was simply drinking in her presence, soaking it up like a sponge.
For three whole heartbeats, the room was completely still, and the three friends stared at each other in surprise—Madeline spared a glance for Nicolas, but then her eyes were glued to Oliver. The next second, Oliver dropped his broom, Madeline grinned, and the distance between them became nothing.
"You're back," said Oliver, his voice thick with emotion.
"I'll leave you two to it then," said Nicolas, who gathered his things and left the room. It wasn't apparent to Madeline whether he had gone downstairs or home, but she didn't care. Oliver was holding her again and nothing else really mattered.
"I'm here," she said, pulling away from his embrace just enough to look him in the eyes. "I'm here."
Oliver felt tears in his eyes and tried to dam them, but Madeline's smile and gaze softened, giving him no other care in the world. She touched his cheek and he felt her presence like the calming, healing salve that it was.
After her holiday, time passed incredibly slowly for Madeline. Even though she was happy to be spending time with Oliver again, she felt listless and lazy; not having a schedule or responsibility was more difficult, more taxing, than her busy Hogwarts schedule. Some days she'd exercise with Oliver and play Quidditch in the forest not far from their homes, but often she had nothing to do for hours at a time. She read through her old Transfiguration textbooks again, reread her notes, and spent some time practicing transfiguring things around the house. When she turned her mother's favourite wardrobe into a sheepdog, her parents finally intervened.
"You can turn it back, can't you?" her mother begged, looking at the poor dog in horror.
"It was supposed to be a bearded collie, not an old English sheepdog…" said Madeline through the hand that covered her mouth. Her mother glared at her.
"Maddie, change my wardrobe back at once!"
"Alright—could you hold him still? It's going to take a moment. This isn't exactly simple magic..."
Madeline rushed off to her room to find her notes, but they weren't there, so she went to the kitchen in search. When she finally found them and returned to her parents' room, her father was on the floor playing with the sheepdog. She hadn't seen him that animated since he took her to a Montrose Magpies match as a child.
Henry begged to keep the dog, swearing he would buy Olivia a new wardrobe.
"How about we get you a proper dog so that I can have my mother's wardrobe back?" asked Olivia, who was still incensed. Thankfully, Madeline had thought to take all of her belongings out before transfiguring it.
"I'm sorry, alright? I was going to change it back," said Madeline for the fourth time.
Her parents agreed and she took her time in transfiguring the dog back into a wardrobe. Once done, Madeline was satisfied with her work, but her mother was still quite upset.
"You're no longer allowed to transfigure any of our things, alright?"
"Alright," she said, nodding. Though penitent, Madeline was upset that she couldn't keep practicing—at least, not in the house.
The next day, Madeline was in the kitchen with her father when he thanked her.
"For what?" asked Madeline.
"I've… well, I've always wanted a dog. Your mother isn't fond of them, as you know."
"I'd noticed," said Madeline, smiling sadly.
"She's agreed to let me pick one out this afternoon. I contacted a Muggle breeder yesterday. She'll be alright, Maddie."
"I know. I still feel awful."
"Don't. She has her wardrobe back."
Oliver arrived a few moments later and was soon briefed on the incident.
"I don't visit for one day, and this is what happens?"
"Well…" said Madeline, rubbing her arm guiltily, "if you call my practising trouble, then yes."
"Any owls?" he asked, knowing that this was why Madeline was so intent on practising.
Madeline shook her head and sighed.
"I'm beginning to think she's forgotten about me."
"You know that's not true," said Oliver. "Let's go for a walk."
They left the house and Oliver took her hand. Once they were a fair distance away, he pulled his free hand through his short brown hair and looked at Madeline.
"I need to tell you something. I should've told you sooner, but, well—here goes," he said.
"Is it about Nick?"
"How'd you know?"
"Because you spent a lot of time together last week?"
"Well, we did talk about you," said Oliver, whose tone and manner relaxed a little. "I told him that he couldn't keep harbouring feelings for you... that it had to end."
Madeline nodded, but she knew better than to interrupt.
"I don't like him visiting you in the middle of the night. I don't like the way he looks at you. I… I honestly don't know that I've ever forgiven him for kissing you."
Madeline squeezed his hand.
"I made him so angry that he tried to hit me."
"Tried?" said Madeline, smiling and raising an eyebrow.
Oliver chuckled for a moment then stopped walking and looked at her with a serious expression.
"I hope that's alright."
Madeline wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him briefly.
"Of course. I would be furious if Claire or Margaret even tried to kiss you."
"Never," he said, his voice low, his arms holding her close.
"So what happened when he 'tried' to hit you?"
"I ducked and pushed him into the water," said Oliver, who chuckled.
"I bet his expression was priceless."
"It was. So if we don't see Nick for a while, that's probably why. Apparently Claire had him convinced that he still had feelings for you."
"Claire? Why would she convince him of that?"
"I dunno, Maddie. That's what he said."
Madeline sighed. She had no idea why her best friend would do something like that, but she was sure to find out when Claire visited.
"I'll ask her tomorrow. I'm sure there was a misunderstanding."
"I'm glad you had a good time with Elaine," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen you so tan."
Madeline had been more selective than usual when telling her parents and Oliver stories about her trip. Elaine explicitly asked her not to tell anyone about Andrew, so she skirted around the details and made it seem like she did more relaxing than anything—which is exactly what they wanted to hear.
She did, however, divulge the story of the swimsuit and lingerie shopping to Claire and Oliver when Claire visited for lunch.
"And she said, 'Claire would agree with me—you know she would!' Like I've never said no to you before," Madeline was saying to Claire. Oliver laughed into the cup of water he had been emptying, and he nearly choked.
"I don't remember Elaine Ellison being so… sassy," said Claire, who was also laughing.
"Well, she was, and I definitely went into a lingerie store and was completely mortified," said Madeline, whose cheeks were growing pink.
"Maddie, you and I can go one day… whenever you're ready," said Claire, who smiled and winked.
"We'll see," she replied, opting to look at the mug of tea rather than Oliver or Claire. "The swimsuit lady measured me all over... so embarrassing."
"They took your measurements? How posh."
"It was, come to think of it. Most of the shops were."
This could have been the perfect tie-in to talking about her engagement to the wealthy Andrew, but Madeline was true to her word and said nothing of the couple. Neither Claire nor Oliver knew very much about Elaine, as she was never close to them.
"So will we be seeing that swimsuit anytime soon?" Oliver asked in an attempt to sound both nonchalant and charming. It was a very Nick-esque move. Claire rolled her eyes.
"Can't even ask politely, can you?" said Madeline, narrowing her eyes at him.
"I want to hear more about Elaine's friends," said Claire, who was bouncing in her seat. "I've been so bored. I want to hear everything."
"Then let's talk about your tea time with Nick," said Oliver, who sat up straighter, as though he was bracing for an argument. His tone remained light and playful, but Claire's eyes darkened as though he'd accused her of something. But after a few glances at Madeline (who smiled and tried to keep her expression mildly delighted) and Oliver, Claire conceded.
"He invited me to tea and lunch, so I visited him at his house," she said, not sounding at all defensive. "I know he's been having a rough time of it, or, at least, hasn't been feeling too well."
"Is everything alright?" asked Madeline. She hadn't spoken to Nicolas in a while and was truly curious.
"He's just… struggling, you know. The thing with Margaret is only going at all because they're both in denial," she said, shrugging. "So that's been rough."
"Nick told me that you two spoke about Madeline," said Oliver, trying to sound casual. It didn't work.
"Is that what this is about?" she asked, throwing her hands up in the air. "Yes, we talked about Maddie. Don't we always?"
"Pardon?" asked Madeline. She was ignored.
"What did you tell Nick?" Oliver continued.
"I made him confront his feelings, because he'd never move on if he didn't," said Claire, her voice growing louder.
"What feelings?" cried Madeline. Despite a glance from Claire, she was again ignored.
"Oliver, you know just as well as I that he needs to get his shit together—and that he needs to do it away from her."
"I know," said Oliver.
"And that he needs his relationship with Margaret to work out!" Claire continued.
"There are alternatives to his being miserable," said Oliver, looking up at her. "There are better ways for him to confront—"
"His father? Better ways for him to estrange himself? Are you serious?"
"I didn't say estrangement," said Oliver. "I just feel like he's building this stuff up with his father to be more serious than it is!"
Claire stared at Oliver with her jaw slackened.
"If he broke things off with Margaret, his father wouldn't care; he'd simply tell him to find another pureblood woman! His father probably has a list ready. There's nothing tying him to her except habit, stubbornness, and some degree of stupidity," said Oliver.
Madeline hadn't considered this, and by the expression on Claire's face, she hadn't either.
"It does feel like they're together out of habit," said Madeline, nodding. She finally had their attention. Perhaps the shouting and arguing was over.
"They won't last the rest of the year," said Oliver quietly.
"Oh, sure, Oliver, go on—act like you know everything," said Claire.
"I'm acting like I know my best mate because I do," he said, standing. He glared at Claire. "You're the one strolling in here thinking you know what's best for him. He might have confided in you once, but that doesn't mean you know him."
Oliver was on the verge of leaving the room when Madeline stood.
"We've all seen different sides of Nick," she said, looking between Oliver and Claire. "We all care about him, so please—"
"Maddie, for Christ's sake, we don't need you to play peacemaker. We're adults, alright? You don't have to treat us like sodding toddlers," said Claire.
"Adults?" Madeline asked, staring at Claire with a curt, mock-surprised expression. "You think we're adults just because we've left school?"
Claire didn't respond.
"We've all got a lot of growing up to do," she continued, still looking straight at Claire.
"What're you saying?"
"That this drama, this pot-stirring and gossiping about Nick and Margo is childish. It's fourth-year shit. If they break up, they break up and we deal with it. If they stay together, we should be supportive. What's difficult about that? The era of meddling with other people's feelings or relationships has got to end. We're not in school anymore. If you want to be an adult, you should start acting like one."
Perhaps Claire understood that Madeline was specifically referencing Claire's constant interference in her love life while in school, perhaps not. She mostly hoped that Claire would stay out of Nicolas' and Margaret's relationship from now on.
Claire stood and left without a word. A moment later, Madeline heard a door slam shut.
Madeline fell onto the sofa, her heart heavy. She hadn't intended the conversation to be so negative, nor had she meant to sound so harsh. Oliver tried convincing her that she'd said and done the right thing, but Madeline still felt guilty. So he instead convinced her to go for a run with him.
On Sunday, Madeline found her father outside playing fetch with his new sheepdog, Hugh. The scene made her smile. The sky was dull and cloudy, and the wind was in the east. They hadn't gotten too much rain this summer, and many people across the country had been complaining.
"Maddie, dear," he said as she approached him. Panting and wagging his tail, Hugh made his way to Madeline. She scratched behind his ears and let him lick her hands.
"He's really sweet. I'm glad she let you get him."
"I think she'll come to like him," said her father, tossing the stick again. Hugh took off after it.
"Well," he said, grinning, "I wanted to name him Argyll, but your mother refused."
At this, Madeline burst with laughter, and her father joined her. They continued laughing until Hugh started barking—he hadn't barked once since they had brought him home. They also hadn't heard anyone approaching them, and by the time Madeline looked around and saw who was there, it was too late—the tabby cat at which Hugh had been barking was swiftly changing from feline to a bespectacled older woman clad in tartan robes. The true dog, both scared and confused, ran behind Madeline's father.
"Professor," said Madeline and Henry simultaneously. The corners of McGonagall's lips twitched and Madeline couldn't help but laugh.
"Henry Palmer," said McGonagall, walking towards them. "I trust you're well?"
"Same as always. Shall I find Olivia, or would you like to come in?" he asked, patting Hugh on the head.
"Indoors, please. We have much to discuss."
Henry nodded and turned on his heel. Olivia was reading the Sunday edition of the Daily Prophet in their small sitting room when Madeline found her.
"McGonagall's here," she said, poking her head around the corner. Her mother nodded, and as Madeline wound her way back to the kitchen, Olivia followed.
"Olivia," said McGonagall, smiling. "It's been many years since I've seen you or Henry."
"Yes, it has," agreed Olivia. "Madeline, please go to the Woods' and invite them over. I'm sure they would love to see you as well, Minerva."
"Walk over? But they live—"
Before Madeline could finish her sentence, her mother shot her an arresting glare. Henry placed a hand on her shoulder and led her to the front door.
"Be quick," he whispered.
"Shall I just apparate?"
"No, run. If you're back too quickly she'll know—"
"I don't care! I shouldn't be leaving in the first place—they're in there talking about my future!"
"Yes. That is why you should run."
With that, he shut the door. Madeline turned, unclenched her fists, and took off running.
Breathless and flushed, Madeline arrived at the Woods' front door and burst in without knocking. The three of them were sitting in the kitchen eating breakfast.
"Maddie?" said Oliver with a mouthful of tattie scone, dropping beans from his fork. Alarmed at Madeline's initial expression (for she smiled and began laughing when she saw Oliver), he stood and hurried around the table. He swallowed his food. "What's the matter?"
"McGonagall's visiting. Please come."
Oliver's parents stood, Paul grudgingly leaving his full plate, and they all followed her out. She ran again and waited patiently for them to apparate to the door. Once they were all inside, Madeline found her parents and McGonagall laughing hysterically over their cups of tea.
"And then—" said Olivia, hardly breathing, "Paul—"
At that moment, Paul and Gwen walked in, Oliver behind them, and the laughter erupted more fiercely.
"Paul—d'you remember when you were dueling Amos Diggory in sixth year and you wound up vanishing his trousers?" asked Henry, who was breathing more evenly than his wife and McGonagall.
"Poor Diggory! He took off running, but I clearly remember—"
"Those awful Wimbourne undies?" choked Olivia, whose face was red from laughing so hard. Paul and Gwen joined her, and Oliver quietly slid over to Madeline and slipped his arms around her waist. He kissed her cheek and said in a low, groggy voice a quick "g'mornin'." Trying to ignore the reaction he was igniting, Madeline smiled and turned to pour some tea.
While Madeline and Oliver stood aside, their parents began reliving memories of their time in McGonagall's noble House of Gryffindor. She tried not to think of Cedric's father running around in Wimbourne Wasp boxers; rather, her mind's eye conjured more pleasurable images of the man standing next to her, which caused her neck and cheeks to flush. Thankfully she'd been running, so the damage wasn't noticeable to anyone except Oliver, who was on the receiving end of a few meaningful glances. Once the tension between them became palpable, Oliver had to keep both hands on his mug and walk to the other side of the kitchen, but he winked at her as he moved away. Madeline rolled her eyes and tried to smother a grin.
Despite spending copious amounts of time with Oliver, she never grew tired of looking at him, and every day she found something new to appreciate about him. Yesterday afternoon it was the softness of his hair, today it was the wink that sent heat waves coursing through her. She tried to shake off those feelings and remind herself of the importance of this meeting.
"Madeline," said McGonagall after a long while, looking at her with a searching gaze. "Would you be prepared to move to St Andrews?"
"Move? Why? What's the matter with my living here?" she asked, immediately glancing at her parents.
"Nothing is the matter," said McGonagall tartly. "Olivia and I have come to an agreement that we believe will satisfy all parties. If you agree to move to St Andrews and train as a Healer there for six months, you will also train as my apprentice. Auror training would not begin until December, so you have just enough time to train as a Healer before pursuing other training."
"I'm confused... I can do both? How? Why?"
"In the event that you do not pass Auror training," said Olivia, frowning. "Or do not like it. This way, you will have a backup career. If you excel during your first few months at St Andrews, as I know you will, they can certify you and even transfer you to St Mungos, if you want."
Madeline was silent for many moments, and she felt the eyes of everyone on her. She gazed her nearly-empty mug, thinking as quickly as possible. Moving to St Andrews and training day and night would leave little time for visiting or visitors. She'd be studying nonstop, especially while training with both McGonagall and the hospital. She tried to find comfort with Oliver, but his eyes were directed to his feet and his jaw was set, as though someone was removing barbs from his side.
"Why can't I stay here?"
"St Andrews requires their trainees to board with them," said Olivia. "If you accept their offer, you will be one of three trainees this summer."
Madeline knew that Healer training would be invaluable, especially if she was an Auror, but she had not been officially offered either training, had she? If so, the proposals had not been directly to her.
"No one will hear from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement until October or November. They do not move quickly in that department," said Paul. "Percy Weasley was just hired, but he will be working for Barty Crouch, who desperately needed an assistant."
"Oh, I bet ol' Barty has his hands full, alright," said Henry, looking at Paul with an odd gaze. Madeline ignored it and focused on the issue at hand.
"Can I sleep on it?" asked Madeline, looking between her mother and McGonagall.
"I'll need an answer before I leave for work in the morning," said Olivia.
"I'm afraid I'll need an answer before I depart," said McGonagall, looking as serious as ever. "We are not forcing your hand, Madeline. There isn't much to decide—we've successfully combined all of your expressed wishes into one plan. There are very few recently-graduated students as fortunate as you, Miss Palmer. You'd be a fool—"
"Fool, I know. A fool not to accept this 'perfect proposal'," said Madeline. She sighed and shook her head as though her parents and McGonagall would never understand. "But every offer has a price, so you'll have to excuse me for taking that into account."
When she found the courage to look at Oliver again, she noticed that he wasn't on the other side of the kitchen; no, he was steadily walking towards her and soon holding her. Their parents watched as Madeline began crying and Oliver led her into the yard where they had once kissed in the snow.
"Maddie, this is everything," he said, smiling sadly at her. "I'll not let you walk away from this offer."
"We—we might not see each other for weeks at a time," she said, nearly choking on her tears.
"Well, it's a good thing we tested our resolve when you went to Elaine's," he said, wiping her cheeks. Madeline laughed in a short, hiccupy fashion.
"This will be different," she said as she calmed herself. "This—this won't exactly have an expiration date. This won't just be six days—it'll be more like six months."
"I know," Oliver replied. Tears swam in her large, bloodshot hazel eyes, and Oliver felt his chest ache. "And this is, by all accounts, your decision."
"I'm not—not turning it down. This is what I want. But I also want you."
"You have me," said Oliver with absolutely no hesitation. "You know that."
He spent a moment wiping her cheeks with his thumbs and then kissed her slowly.
"We're stronger than this. It's us, Maddie. We'll make it work."
Madeline had less than a week to pack, say her goodbyes, and prepare for her new life in St Andrews. Once her mother had given and received confirmation of Madeline's acceptance, the preparation began.
First, she wrote letters to Claire, Nicolas, and Elaine. This took most of Sunday afternoon, despite how fast she could write: Claire's letter had threads of guilt and sincere admissions of remorse, and Elaine's letter was short but included an appreciation for her time in Cornwall. Nicolas' letter took multiple drafts. She had originally wanted to say something about his fight with Oliver, but soon she realised that this course of action would only cause more useless fighting; instead, she thanked him for staying with Oliver and told him, in brief, of her future plans. In each of the three letters, she invited her friends over for lunch on Friday, the day before she was to leave.
By Thursday she was all packed. That evening, she received her final reply from Nicolas, who indicated that he would be bringing Margaret. Madeline groaned and flopped onto her bed while Oliver read the letter.
"I told you this would happen," said Madeline, her words muffled by a blanket.
"It'll be fine," was his light-hearted reply.
"Will it?" she asked, sitting up and looking at him. "Claire hates Margaret, now more than ever. Nicolas secretly hates her too, it seems. Yet he still feels the need to include her in our goings-on. Why? I should have told you, but Elaine is bringing someone too. I can't tell you who—just that you don't know him."
"Yes, which means that Claire is going to be the only one without a significant other."
Though Oliver was visibly confused by the information about Elaine, he shook his head and focused on the greater issue.
"So… what are we to do? Tell Nicolas and Elaine to come alone?"
"No, no," said Madeline, sighing and shaking her head. "But I suppose I should warn Claire and give her the option of not coming."
"Claire's tough. She's going to be alright."
"I know that! I still have to warn her."
Soon it was Friday, and Madeline was sitting at the kitchen table wondering where the time had gone. Oliver was out in the yard with Hugh when Claire arrived. She was wearing a beautiful floral dress, and Madeline smiled when she saw her.
"You never replied—I wasn't sure if you would come," said Madeline quietly.
"I'm sorry," said Claire, her fists clenched. She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry for trying to help Nicolas. It's not my fault that he still has feelings for you."
"I know. I'm sorry about our fight. We all have a lot of growing to do, myself included."
"You were right. I was—have been—fairly immature. I thought experiencing heartbreak, leaving school, and cutting my hair made me an adult. The truth is… I'm terrified," said Claire, her voice nearing a whisper. Tears sprung to her eyes, and the two women embraced.
"We all are," said Madeline, holding her friend.
"I'm so proud of you, though," she Claire. She stepped away. "You're really doing it. I think you're the first of all of us to actually hear some good news."
A moment later, Oliver walked in with Hugh, Nicolas, and Margaret. Hugh excitedly ran through the kitchen and into the sitting room, and Nicolas was grinning at the sight of him.
"Madeline, I'd no idea you'd gotten a good ol' fashioned English sheepdog."
"Well, it was sort of an accident..."
After explaining the story of the wardrobe, Madeline was sufficiently flushed with embarrassment. Nicolas thought it was hilarious, but Margaret, who was more tan than usual, seemed politely bored. She pulled two large bottles of champagne from her purse and set them on the kitchen counter.
"So who's this person Elaine is bringing?" asked Claire.
"Yeah, Maddie, we're all curious," said Oliver.
"You haven't told anyone?" asked Margaret. "Oh, this will be good."
"It's not my secret to tell, Margo," said Madeline. "And you'll all find out soon enough."
"What about you, Margo? What have you been up to? Tell us about Italy," said Claire, who was, at the very least, attempting to sound sincere. "Or about your career plans."
At this, Margaret laughed.
"You're so cute—both of you. 'Career plans.' Ha!"
Claire bristled, but Madeline laughed too.
"We are, aren't we? Ha, ha! Looking forward to supporting ourselves. How adorable of us!"
Oliver and Nicolas exchanged a glance, and Margaret rolled her eyes.
"All I'm saying is that I don't have to plan. I have a job anytime I want one."
"Doing what?" asked Nicolas, as if this was the first he'd heard of any such offer.
"Working with my family. You would know if you'd gone home with me."
"You know I can't leave," he said, putting an arm around her.
"But you could stay in Scotland for a week?"
"We're not having this discussion again," said Nicolas with a falsely bright grin. Margaret pulled away from him and walked over to the kitchen counter, where Madeline had set the food.
"May I?" she asked, not looking at anyone.
"Sure," said Madeline, nodding.
After taking a bite of one of the sandwiches Madeline had prepared, Margaret turned and faced Claire. She chewed, staring thoughtfully at Claire, and swallowed her food.
"Oh, I nearly forgot. Richard says hello, and that he misses you an awful lot."
Madeline couldn't tell for sure, but it looked as though Claire's heart dropped into her stomach. Madeline had the urge to hold Claire back against attacking Margaret, but she didn't need to. Margaret continued eating.
"I wish I could say the same," replied Claire, looking away.
"He looked terrible, if it's any consolation. Thin. I'm pretty sure he'd been smoking something," she said, scrunching her nose up in disgust.
"When did you see Richard?" asked Nicolas. He and Oliver both had furrowed eyebrows and crossed arms.
"I don't remember. A few weeks ago. He asked me to meet him—he wanted to 'talk' about something. Of course it wasn't anything interesting. Just the whole, 'I messed up,' 'Claire hates me and I ruined my life' and such. Pitiful, really."
"He asked to meet you?" said Oliver. "Why?"
"Because I didn't ostracize him from my life," said Margaret, looking at Oliver as though he'd asked the stupidest question possible. "And... because he thought I might be willing to shag him."
The silence following this admission was broken by Claire bursting with sincere laughter. Eventually Madeline and the others joined her in laughing.
"You're joking!" said Claire between gasps of breath.
"Right? I was like, 'Listen, mate, you're nice and all, buuuut you smell like cat piss.'"
The laughter rang so loudly that no one took notice of the popping sound down the hall, so that Elaine and Andrew walked into the kitchen, and Oliver was the first to notice them.
"Elaine!" he said happily. "Good to see you."
After all of the hugs and pleasantries, Elaine introduced everyone to Andrew.
"This is Andrew Biscoe, my... fiancé," she said, grinning and showing off a yellow-gold ring that had not been present on her left hand the last Madeline saw her.
"Oh my God," said Claire, whose eyes had grown wide.
"That ring," cried Margaret, who looked as though she might faint.
Oliver and Nicolas introduced themselves to Andrew while the girls fawned over Elaine's prenuptial glow and overlarge engagement ring. The three men gathered around the food and ate while the ladies continued to talk.
"I personally like white gold," said Margaret, "but the setting of this is absolutely gorgeous. It looks... French, I'd say."
"C'est vrai," said Andrew. "It's Pyrene. My mother is French."
"Does the idea of marriage not terrify you out of your wits?" Nicolas asked Andrew quietly.
"I'll be honest: the terrifying part is knowing that at any minute, something terrible could happen to either of us, and I wouldn't have made the most of my time on this earth with her. Elaine is the only woman I've ever wanted. I'll waste none of my time or hers trying to make perfect our circumstances."
Nicolas stared at Andrew with wide, horrified eyes, while Oliver's gaze was on Madeline.
"I do not know these other women," began Andrew, speaking slowly and deliberately, "but I came to know Madeline quite well during her brief time with us. I admire her greatly. She has given her heart to you, correct?"
He was looking directly at Oliver, who nodded. Andrew smiled and nodded knowingly.
"You are wasting your time and hers."
Oliver shook his head in disagreement.
"If our love couldn't survive without marriage, I wouldn't call it love. Time is precious, yes, but I don't feel that we are wasting our time in being unmarried."
"Well said!" cried Andrew. "Truly an excellent match you will make. I see now why she was so anxious to return to you. But mistake me not: she will be pursued by other men. Strength seeks strength, and passion seeks passion. She will continue to attract strong and passionate men."
"What're you saying?" asked Oliver.
"Simply that you have no real claim on her until she is bound by—"
"Claim? I need no claim," said Oliver, his fists clenched and his voice raised. "She isn't some—some bloody trophy."
His voice had attracted the attention of the women, and Madeline approached them. She placed a hand on Oliver's burly arm, but he didn't respond, as his gaze was on Andrew.
"I meant only that she will be more vulnerable to the designs of other men until she is married," said Andrew, raising his hands defensively. Simultaneously, Claire and Madeline crossed their arms and scoffed. "I didn't mean to..."
"What d'you mean by 'vulnerable,' then? D'you really think I couldn't defend myself or my feelings?" asked Madeline.
"Madeline," said Andrew, almost in a chastising manner. "You know my regard for you."
"As a woman," said Claire. "You value her as a female, not as an independent human. Otherwise you would believe, as we all do, that she is perfectly capable of protecting herself against the designs of other men."
Perhaps he had realised his mistake, or perhaps he knew only that he had stumbled into a corner—either way, Andrew retreated.
"I'm sorry," he said, nodding at Madeline. She nodded in return, silently accepted his apology. Oliver was not as quick to forgive and found himself still wary of Andrew.
"If someone wanted to hurt her, or any of us, a wedding ring wouldn't stop them," said Nicolas. He was reliving the memory of Madeline being attacked at Hogwarts, and fear struck his heart. She hadn't been fully capable of defending herself that day. While he knew that Madeline capable of great strength of spirit, he inwardly feared that Elaine's well-intentioned future husband was right—she would be vulnerable, but only until she learned how to duel efficiently. They all would. A light slap on the arm from Margaret brought Nicolas back to the party.
"Well, aren't we a happy bunch?" asked Margaret, smiling ironically. She was trying to break down some of the tension, but it wouldn't be that easy. She grew frustrated—this was supposed to be a party, wasn't it?
"Oh, cheer the bloody hell up!" she cried, looking around. "Elaine is engaged to a handsome man from wherever, Madeline has her career or whatever figured out, and the rest of us are supposed to be celebrating with them. Why haven't we opened the champagne?"
While they began pouring champagne into the only glasses Madeline's family owned, Oliver took her hand and led her to the sitting room. Once there, he kissed her.
"I love you," he said, holding her close. "You mean more to me than anything. He said that I wouldn't have a claim on you until we're married. It made me angry."
"We won't be legally recognised as one unit until we are married," she said, meeting his brown eyes with ease. "But my heart is yours. Nothing can change that."
Oliver nodded, smiling, when Madeline had another thought.
"Eventually, we'll share everything, including... y'know..."
Madeline placed her hand on his chest and watched him breathe for a few moments. Did she need to finish her thought? Surely he knew what she meant.
"I… I've been meaning to ask you about that," he said quietly, just as Nicolas walked in, his hands playfully covering his eyes.
"Now is not the time for performing deeds sexual in nature," he exclaimed, nearly walking into the wall. He bumped painfully into the coffee table and cursed in response, looking up to see Madeline and Oliver still fully clothed and standing no closer than normal.
"He's convinced that he's going to walk in on us one day," said Oliver, shaking his head. "It's not going to happen, mate. Move on."
"The presence of the hosts of this party is quite required," he said, rubbing his knee and grimacing. "You two can talk dirty later, not that you would know how."
Chapter 5: St Andrews
"You're just as beautiful as your mother, you know. I'm quite fond of her."
"She's been a great role model for me," replied Madeline, who smiled to hide her discomfort.