A/N: You are all magnificent. Thank you so much for reading and commenting—you all brighten my day so much. I'm not sure when the next chapter will be posted, but please be assured I'm still writing, albeit slowly.
Chapter 14: Moonlight
That unplanned first date on the beach was deceptively easy.
It was partly because it had come up so suddenly that I had no time to worry about it, but there was also something about Fred's easy smile that made it all seem very simple. We mostly talked—not about the War, but about smaller, happier things: the misadventures of the dogs I'd grown up with. Fred's collection of assorted childhood calamities. My dad's ongoing strategic initiatives against the neighborhood cat that insisted on using the roof as a toilet. His dad's current fascination with a Muggle treadmill. How he was liking the book I'd loaned him earlier in the week.
The conversation felt natural, like we'd been doing this for ages. Breakfast turned into lunch, lunch turned into an afternoon stroll along the shore, my hand clasped in his.
When we weren't talking, we were kissing.
It felt like a bit of an understatement to say that kissing Fred was wonderful—he had a way of making me feel like I'd never really been properly kissed before. It was magical in the way that Muggles usually use the word: something incredible that defied all logical understanding. I'd never experienced something so totally consuming that made me want and feel so much. He was so sweet and careful, but there were little moments that hinted at something more—a nibble at my bottom lip, a sigh, a firm grip on my hips, a sidelong glance and a sly smile, his hand stroking my cheek.
It was easy when it was just the two of us out on the beach. It was easy to the point that I almost forgot to be nervous for our planned date that evening. Out in the sunshine with my hand in his, it was easy to forget my demons.
Unfortunately, that peaceful easy feeling vanished the moment I returned to my hotel room to get ready for dinner.
I fluctuated between lying perfectly still on my bed and pacing about my room. If I'd been at home, I might've thrown myself into some meaningless task—reorganizing the kitchen cupboards or cleaning out my closet, something like that. I'd been known to deep clean a bathroom the Muggle way just to give my hands and mind something else to do.
But here in my empty hotel room, those same distractions didn't really exist and so I was left alone with my thoughts.
And my thoughts were not helpful.
Dinner was so much more complicated than an impromptu breakfast and lunch and a walk on the beach. Dinner required dressing up. Dinner was in the evening and it would be late when we got back to the hotel, which introduced all sorts of intimate possibilities.
Would he be expecting sex?
The thought scared me. Not because I didn't want to have sex with Fred—I did. I was extremely attracted to him. I wanted him. On a purely objective level, sex with Fred seemed like an excellent way to spend my time. And had I still been that other version of Maggie—the Maggie without scars—I probably would have been trying to work out how to best ensure that outcome.
But I wasn't that version of Maggie. Not anymore. And when I imagined what it might be like to have sex with Fred as I currently was, all I could see were two outcomes: Fred flinching and trying to hide it or Fred overcompensating and becoming hyper focused on my scars like that was the only thing he could see about me. Both of those options scared me because neither one of them was what I wanted.
I didn't even know what I wanted, if I was being honest. It was entirely possible that the option that I was seeking didn't even exist. That thought filled me with a profound sense of despair. Maybe everything that had been lovely about today was just a mirage, a perfect facsimile of a happiness that I could never have in any permanent or meaningful way. Maybe I wasn't ever going to find that perfect outcome, maybe I was just destined to settle for the least terrible of those two options, maybe—
There was a soft knock at my door.
I frowned, pausing in my pacing for a moment. I wasn't expecting anyone, and I had two hours before I was due to meet Fred in the hotel lobby.
But when I opened my door a moment later, I found Alicia waiting with a wry smile and kind eyes.
"I'd a feeling you'd be spiraling," she said. "Am I right?"
I was immediately flooded with a relief so profound I could have wept. As much as I hated the idea of burdening anyone else with my anxiety, I wasn't always good at navigating it on my own. I didn't know how to ask for help without feeling guilty, but it always felt like a miracle when it was offered.
"Yeah," I said, exhaling heavily. "A bit."
She gave me a sad smile and tugged on my hand. "Come on," she said. "Let's go to my room. I'll help you get ready and we can talk through it."
Relieved as I was by the offer, I couldn't simply dismiss the fact that she was on her honeymoon, and I would be intruding in an even more profound way than I had at their brunch that morning. "I don't want to intrude—"
She gave me a look. "Maggie. You're not."
"Alicia, really, I—"
"I'm newly married, not a recluse," she said firmly. "Our dinner reservations aren't until seven and we had no plans, so it's not like you're keeping me from anything. Besides, the wild post marital sex doesn't start until after dinner—"
I made a face. "It's still your honeymoon, though—"
"It's—what, two hours of my honeymoon, not the entire holiday," she said. "Not to mention the fact that you're my family and I want to help because I love you."
We stared at each other for a moment, and I could feel my resolve wavering.
"Come on," she said finally. "Go grab whatever you're planning on wearing and let's go."
I sighed, my shoulders sagging. "I don't even know what I'm planning on wearing."
"All the more reason to come with me," she said, her tone matter of fact. "You can borrow something of mine. I've got a blue sundress that I think will really make your eyes pop." She tugged at my wrist again. "Come on, let's go."
I felt even guiltier when we walked into her honeymoon suite—it was stunning, the exact sort of place that invited a lazy day in bed with your new husband and not an awkward intrusion from your basket case of a cousin.
"Spiraling?" asked Lee, looking up as we walked in the room. He was sprawled on the couch in the sitting area, paging through a magazine.
"Right on schedule," said Alicia cheerily. "Should've put money on it."
"Lee, I'm really sorry to intrude, I—" I began.
To my surprise, Lee responded by cutting me off and giving me a stern look. "Maggie," he said seriously, "I say this with all the love in my heart, but kindly stuff it, you absolute ninny."
"You're on your sodding honeymoon and—"
Lee ignored me and looked at Alicia. "You told her that our madly passionate post marital sex won't be until after dinner, right?"
"I tried," said Alicia with a shrug. "She didn't seem to find that particularly reassuring."
"Vivid descriptions of a family member's sex life rarely are," I said, flopping down on the couch with as much drama as I could muster.
"Pfft, that's hardly vivid," said Lee. "I didn't even say anything about throbbing loins or turgid members."
I groaned, burying my face in my hands. "I'm just going to end up regretting absolutely everything about today, aren't I?"
"Oh, go on, that's not even the worst thing you've ever heard me say," said Lee.
"That's not even the worst thing you've heard him say this week," added Alicia.
I lifted my head. "Oddly, that doesn't make me feel any less regretful about today."
Alicia raised an eyebrow, folding her arms across her chest. "I sincerely doubt you'll regret everything about today. We all saw you on the beach with Fred."
"We did," confirmed Lee. "Giggling, holding hands, kissing in broad daylight." He shook his head and gave me a solemn look. "It was sickeningly adorable."
I made a big show of rolling my eyes. Lee returned the gesture, clutching the magazine to his chest as he fell back against the couch in an exaggerated swoon.
"So, it seems to me that you can stop catastrophizing tonight's date," continued Alicia, "seeing as you've spent most of the day with him already and nothing's gone wrong."
"Yet," I said.
Alicia sighed and looked at Lee. "I told you I wasn't exaggerating how difficult she's been about this."
"I stand corrected," said Lee, straightening up and leaning forward, his elbows propped up on his knees as he gave me a thoughtful look. "What are you worried about, Mags?"
It was a question I wasn't expecting, at least not from Lee.
"I mean, how much time do you have?" I gave him a sad smile. "I'm a bit of a mess—I think it's reasonable to be a little concerned."
"Right, but here's the thing, though: everyone is a bit of a mess. Some people are just better at pretending they're not." His expression turned serious, a little bittersweet. "And honestly, I think Fred understands that better than most."
This took me aback slightly and I paused, at a loss for words. The corner of Lee's mouth quirked upward into a grin. "I solved it, haven't I?"
He'd given me something to think about, but I wasn't ready to admit to that. "Five years of trauma? Hardly."
Lee grinned like he didn't believe me. "Admit it, Mags: my wisdom was the answer to your problems all along."
Alicia patted him on the shoulder. "Think it's time you made your exit, my love."
"And miss the chance to solve more problems? Never."
Alicia answered him with a swat on the arm.
"Though on second thought," he said, standing, "I do think I might fancy a bit of a walk."
"That would be wise," said Alicia, eyeing him skeptically.
Lee shook his head. "Not even twenty-four hours of marriage and you're already ordering mee around."
"I was doing that before we were married."
Lee leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. "I reckoned it might be wise to keep that observation to myself. Contrary to all appearances, I do have some sense of self-preservation." He turned to me and leaned down to hug me tightly. "You're gonna be fine, Mags," he said. "You could fall into an open manhole and emerge smelling of raw sewage and he'd be absolutely charmed."
It was a surprising moment of sweetness from Lee, the sort of thing that made me glad Alicia had ended up with him.
"Thanks, Lee," I said, my voice a little rough from the lump in my throat.
He squeezed my shoulders once and released me. "Anytime, love."
"All right," said Alicia once Lee had left the room, "what's this really about?"
I sighed, leaning back into the couch. "I mean, it's pretty much what I've said it is. It's not as though I've had great luck in this area since the War. I'm fairly certain I'm going to muck it up and that terrifies me."
She took a seat next to me on the couch. "I think the end of those relationships is more of a reflection on the men in question than it is on you, though."
"I think it's more likely to be me," I said, my hands twisting in my lap, "I'm the common factor in both instances."
"The common factor is also that both Anthony and Thomas were absolute wankers," said Alicia. "I never liked either one of them."
"You're just saying that."
"I'm not," she said. "You can ask Lee. I was very much in favor of you dumping them for someone more to my standards."
I raised an eyebrow. "And does Fred meet your standards?"
"Of course, why do you think I resorted to subterfuge yesterday?"
"So you admit it was subterfuge."
She waved her hands. "What it was is beside the point."
"The point," she said, elbowing me, "is that Fred's a good man who's worthy of my dear and darling cousin and this date is going to go swimmingly."
"Don't sigh," she said sternly. "You can only sigh if you're dreamily thinking about Fred."
"It's just…it's complicated."
I pressed my lips together. "I mean…it's a long list. Sometimes it feels like everything."
Her eyes softened a bit at this. "I mean this sincerely, but have you considered just—talking to him about this?"
I shrugged, picking at my cuticles. "Seems rather heavy for a first date, don't you think?"
"First off, I think it's technically your second, given your beach escapades this morning," she said. "And second, the number of times I've seen the two of you looking all serious and moon-eyed with your heads together suggests to me that you've already talked about a lot of heavy things." She raised her eyebrows. "So why does it being a date make any difference?"
I exhaled slowly. She had a point. I hated it when she had a point. "There were no moon eyes," I grumbled.
"There absolutely were and the fact that you're focusing on that tells me that you know I'm right." She draped an arm around my shoulders. "So, here's how we solve this: you talk to him about this tonight. Just say 'this is where I'm at right now, some things are still a little messy, take it or leave it.'"
I chewed on my lower lip. "I don't know if it's that simple."
Alicia shrugged. "Then it's not. But honestly, Maggie, I don't think this is as dismal as you've made it out to be. I've seen the way he looks at you. We all have."
I pressed my lips together and swallowed hard.
Alicia squeezed my shoulders. "So, let's make sure you look absolutely stunning tonight, all right?"
I looked at her. I was, by all counts, still completely fucking terrified, but there was something about Alicia's breezy confidence and straightforward solutions that made it just a little easier to hang on to that fluttery feeling of hope in my chest. I took a deep breath.
I met Fred in the hotel lobby at half past six and promptly felt as though my legs were going to give out. It should not be allowable to look that good in a button-down shirt and khakis. It was a public health hazard. And you certainly shouldn't be allowed to look at a woman and smile like that. It was enough to melt my bones and give me palpitations.
"Hey," he said as I approached him.
"Hi." My heart felt as though it was going to pound right out of my chest.
"You look nice," he said.
"Thanks. Borrowed the dress from Alicia."
He gave me a warm smile. "Well, it's not just the dress."
I was going to burst into flames on the spot.
"Flirt," I said, cheeks burning.
"Guilty." He grinned. "Come on, the restaurant's just up the block."
I fell into step beside him and he took my hand like it was easy, his fingers lacing with mine. I felt simultaneously grounded in the moment and absolutely giddy, like I might blow away in a particularly strong breeze.
The restaurant was tucked in between an apothecary and a leasing office and I knew the moment that I walked in the door that it was not the sort of place for me. It was the sort of place that was more concerned about food as an abstract concept than it was about actually feeding you and they were quite prepared to judge you if you didn't get it. The menu was a cypher—there were no prices and every meal was just a list of ingredients: Tortilla Española: Potato. Onion. Alioli.
I swallowed, trying to tamp down a rising sense of panic as I tried to make sense of the menu. I didn't want to unintentionally order the most expensive item on the menu, but how was I supposed to tell? I wasn't even sure what half of this stuff was. And why had he chosen this sort of place? Was this the sort of place that he liked? Did we really have all that much in common if that was true?
If I felt so awkward and panicked by the fucking restaurant, how on earth was I supposed to talk to him like Alicia had suggested? How on earth did I have any reasonable hope of being in a relationship?
God, I was a mess. This was a mistake, why did I—
He was looking at me with an expression that I couldn't quite read. I forced a smile, like I was a normal, well-adjusted person who would never dream of having a nervous breakdown over a fucking restaurant. "Yes?"
He leaned forward slightly. "Can I be honest with you?"
My heartbeat kicked up a notch. I'd probably fucked up already. He was probably cancelling the date and we hadn't even ordered yet. "Sure."
"I asked the concierge for a recommendation for a nice restaurant to take a date and this is not exactly the sort of place I had in mind."
The relief was instant and giddying, forcing a laugh from my lips before I could stop myself. "Oh, thank god."
He grinned. "Do you want to get out of here?"
It was just a restaurant, but I felt a lightness in my chest like it was evidence of some greater compatibility, like I might actually be able to get through tonight without completely putting him off, like maybe he and I had a real chance.
Not that I was getting my hopes up.
We found a street cart that sold tacos not far from the entrance to a small park. After some spirited negotiation, Fred grudgingly let me pay for dinner and we found a picnic table where we sat and ate.
Though I felt better eating in the park than I did in that restaurant, my anxiety was starting to get the better of me. I let Fred do most of the talking while I listened and tried to quietly contemplate my next steps.
I thought I was being very clever and sneaky about this, but he seemed to notice anyway.
"You all right? You've been a bit quiet," he said after we finished eating.
I put on my most convincing smile. "Yeah, I'm fine."
He raised an eyebrow like he didn't quite believe that was the whole truth.
"It's just nerves," I amended.
He propped his chin up in his hands, his expression skeptical. "Am I really that intimidating?"
"Don't sound so surprised, I'm almost certain you've noticed that you have that effect on me."
He gave me a crooked grin. "Yeah, but I reckoned that snogging you on the beach for a couple of hours might've clarified my intentions."
"Listen, Fred, you're a very good kisser, but there's a limit to the sorts of problems that can solve."
He steepled his fingers together and regarded me carefully. "I'd like to hear more about how I'm a very good kisser, but I suspect that's a distraction."
"I thought for certain you'd take that bait."
"Nope." He hooked an ankle around mine underneath the table. "What's bothering you?"
I worried my lower lip for a moment before speaking. "I'm not bothered, I just…I mean, I told you I'm a bit of a mess, so…there are just a lot of things I'm nervous about, even though I'm having a nice time."
He looked at me carefully for a minute. "Would it help if I told you what I'm nervous about?"
I raised an eyebrow. "I didn't expect you to be nervous."
"I'm on a date with a pretty girl, I'd be a little nervous regardless."
My cheeks burned. "You're awfully good at playing the part of an incorrigible flirt."
He grinned. "Well, I'm still an incorrigible flirt, I'm just a little more nervous than I let on."
He was so wildly disarming that it was hard not to smile. "All right, then."
He ran a hand through his hair. "So." He exhaled, and I couldn't help but feel like there was some sort of bad thing coming. "I know we're meant to be doing this delicate sort of dance where we're both being a bit coy about the whole thing but…I'd rather not do that."
There was a second where my stomach dropped out completely, where I felt sick and awful and the small and mean and awful voice inside of me was telling me that of course it was too good to be true, I was so stupid for hoping.
"I like you, Maggie."
Those words could not be coming out of Fred's mouth and yet they were.
"I had a nice time tonight. And earlier today. I'd like to keep seeing you. I don't want to wait three days to owl you with some sort of vague oh, we should do that again sometime."
I took a deep breath. "Oh."
Fred's mouth curled into a smile. "Well, that isn't particularly reassuring."
"Sorry, I—" I paused for a beat as I tried to sort out my thoughts. "I just—I wasn't expecting that."
His eyes danced with mischief. "Does that mean that you're agreeing to another date?"
A fresh wave of nerves swept over me, that same sort of giddying and terrifying combination of feelings that had been bombarding me since he'd kissed me on the terrace last night. There were still so many things about me that he didn't know about, so many ways he might be underestimating how broken and strange I still was, even five years later.
"Maggie." His voice was soft and his eyes were gentle, like he knew. His hand covered mine. "I can guarantee this isn't as complicated as you've made it out to be."
I managed a small smile, though it felt half-hearted. "I dunno, I might surprise you."
"Tell me about it, then. If you want."
I worried my lower lip between my teeth. Fred was quiet, waiting.
I took a deep breath, my gaze dropping to my hand clasped in his. "I—erm. I…I like you. A lot. And today was lovely. Tonight was lovely." I could feel my face growing warmer and warmer. "And…I imagine…well, I don't know for sure. We haven't…and maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, but—"
Just say it, Maggie. You're an adult.
"I…erm. I imagine…I imagine that if we keep at this…having dates and…kissing and such…I—I imagine sex will be on the table at some point."
There was a brief pause and then: "Well, I'm certainly amenable to the table, but d'you think we might try a bed first? Mine is quite comfortable."
I looked up. He looked completely at ease, his eyes dancing with mirth, the corner of his mouth curling up into a wry sort of half-grin, the way it always did when he was waiting for someone to react to something that he knew was funny.
And oddly enough, that particular expression put me a little more at ease. Not entirely, but enough to make that queasy tension in my stomach retreat just a little.
I gave him a look, but I couldn't quite stop myself from smiling. "You know I didn't mean it that way."
He wiggled his eyebrows. "You might've."
"I have a hard time believing that you're not familiar with turn of phrase."
He shrugged. "You know the saying: one person's turn of phrase is another person's kinky sex thing."
I was laughing now. "That is not a saying."
He grinned. "It could be."
"It absolutely is not and you know it."
There was a pause then as our laughter faded, the mood turning back to something more somber. He took my hand in his and squeezed once.
"Go on," he said gently.
I cleared my throat, my gaze dropping away from him. "So I…I brought it up because—" My breath caught in my throat for a moment, my heart pounding hard. "When I said that I'm a bit damaged from the War…" One long, shuddering breath. "I…I've got some fairly substantial scarring on my stomach. From the curse."
I paused for a moment, a lump rising in my throat. I couldn't quite bring myself to look at Fred—I needed to be able to say what I needed to say.
"It, erm, it became a bit of an issue in previous relationships." I swallowed hard. "It wasn't something that anyone ever said to me directly…they just…they didn't look at me quite right." I took a deep breath. "And it just…blossomed into this huge uncomfortable thing that we didn't talk about and that went about as well as you'd expect."
I took another deep breath. Fred's thumb traced a slow circle on the palm of my hand.
"I'd be lying if I said that I was over that or that it didn't bother me or that I wasn't afraid of it happening again." I swallowed hard. "And this was one of the things I was talking about when I said I'm a mess. And the thing is…I don't really know how to fix it. It might be a little while before I…before I feel comfortable with sex." I pressed my lips together, trying to steel myself against the emotion that was rising in my throat. "And…it's not a comment on you, it doesn't mean that I don't want you it's just—" My voice wobbled a bit and I had to pause, taking slow, deep breaths before continuing. "It's just how I am right now. And I want to be honest about that because I know it could be a dealbreaker and I understand if it is. And it's fucking terrifying because I really enjoyed tonight."
What I left unsaid was that while I would understand, it didn't mean that I wouldn't be hurt. But there was no reason to bring that up.
He dropped my hand and a moment later, he was sitting down next to me.
"Maggie." His voice was soft and gentle. "Look at me, love."
I took one shaky breath and looked up at him. He was looking at me with a kind of thoughtfulness and care that I hadn't expected—that, on a deeper level, I didn't think I deserved.
"I meant it when I said I'm not scared off that easily." He brushed a lock of hair behind my ear. "And I meant it when I said I'm not in any hurry and that we can take things at your pace." His lips tilted up in a slight smile. "And when we have sex—on a table or otherwise—I want you to be completely comfortable and completely naked." He gave me a slow grin that made my toes curl. "I've a feeling it's a good look on you."
I gave a shaky laugh, one small tear escaping and running down my cheek. Fred brushed it away, his hand lingering on my cheek like he was maybe going to kiss me again.
"So," he said, his expression serious and a little hopeful, "can I take you on another date this weekend? Maybe on Friday?"
I found myself nodding before he finished the question. "Friday's good."
"Good," he said and for the second night in a row, he kissed me in the moonlight while my heart hammered against my ribs, uncertain and wonderstruck.