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for merlin's sake how long has this been going on

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It had seemed natural that there would be a great spectacle of some kind for the third task; instead everyone in the castle was gathered into the Great Hall, where a corner near the High Table had been partitioned off into a little room of its own. Hilary, who had spent the morning outdoors as far away from the castle as possible, cast a wistful glance up at the cloudless blue of the ceiling; then she joined Wimsey, Katerina and the other judges at the High Table. Louis arrived a few minutes later, in a well-padded wooden chair charmed to hover a few inches above the ground. He was looking a little less pale--whatever Horrell had been trying on her hapless patients, it must have been working--and gave Hilary a sheepish little smile as he maneuvered it up to her side. There wasn’t time for conversation, but she touched his shoulder by way of greeting.

“Mr. Renard,” greeted Wimsey, “Miss Thorpe, Miss Chernikova--I’m afraid that under the circumstances this task may not be as much of a thrill as any of us might have hoped. In fact, I don’t expect you’ll even need your wands. My apologies,” he added over their heads, with a bit of a grin to the very interested Hogwarts population assembled in the Hall behind them. “But what you will face today is a test of character--and that, of course, is what makes a great wizard, more than whatever number of hexes and tricks you may know.”

Hilary slipped her wand down her sleeve, no matter what he said; it gave her something to fidget with.

The new Head of Durmstrang was fidgeting too, she noticed. His name was Petrinovich, a small balding man, and he had been the Deputy Headmaster for some time, but he had only recently arrived to take Fedorov’s place among the judges. He had brought with him a large and somewhat rickety-looking camera, and had been fiddling with it behind Wimsey’s back. Hilary felt rather sorry for him; there were few worse ways to become Head of a school, surely.

“Andrei,” said Wimsey patiently, “if you please, I don’t believe it’s the time for photography just now,” and Petrinovich stilled. “As I was saying--you all have the objects you retrieved in the second task, I hope?”

Hilary produced her ink bottle, which she had never been able to determine the use of besides the obvious, and Louis his pocket watch; Katerina’s turned out to be a china teacup, which she had understandably been keeping in a small wooden box.

Wimsey himself produced a monocle and screwed it firmly into his eye, where it made his face look even more ridiculous than it was naturally inclined to. “Each of these objects has been enchanted with quite powerful Divinatory abilities, but they will only work for this one afternoon. You will each in turn go in there alone with your object, and whatever it may show you--your task is simply to judge whether it is true or false. This little job--” he tapped the lens in his eye-- “will let us know whether you’ve judged correctly.”

“Then how is the task to be scored?” asked Louis, still hoarse.

“Zero points, or fifty,” said Wimsey. “You need answer only yes or no--which is rather unsubtle, I admit. Miss Chernikova will go first, being first in points; then Mr. Renard; and then Miss Thorpe.”

Hilary, who was not very good at waiting and suspected Wimsey knew it, swallowed and nodded. She wished there were a way to take advantage of the time to prepare herself, but she couldn’t imagine how.

Katerina wasn’t gone long; she came back pale and hollow-eyed, and for some reason the handle had been snapped off the teacup in her hand. “Well done,” said Wimsey brightly, but she barely looked at him as she reclaimed her seat. Hilary glanced over sympathetically, but Katerina was staring down at her own folded hands.

Louis went next, and this time Hilary kept herself occupied by watching Wimsey narrowly while they waited. The wait was longer--it was difficult, as her nerves mounted, to say how long--but this time she was able to catch sight of the bright red sparkle that danced around Wimsey’s monocle moments before Louis emerged from the room. This time Wimsey offered a quieter, more conciliatory “Good show, I’m sure,” but Louis looked unexpectedly delighted. “I was wrong,” he whispered, as he slipped his chair back into place at Hilary’s other side. “I don’t care about the points. I guessed wrong. It isn’t true.”

Which was not especially comforting.

“Miss Thorpe,” said Wimsey again; Hilary rose to her feet, smoothing her skirt, and went on into the little room.

The space was quite bare: just a few feet square, with walls thick enough that no one in the Great Hall could hear what happened within. Once inside, she took the bottle out of her pocket and waited a moment; nothing happened, until it occurred to her to uncork it. Immediately the cork flew up into the air above the bottle and hung there. The ink swiftly followed, churning up out of the bottle to hover in a grey cloud in midair.

There was silence for a moment, during which Hilary determinedly gathered her composure, and then the cloud shuddered once more and took more definite form.

“I can’t tell her,” said Jerry, “I can’t ever tell her, not now,” and although his face and voice were roughly reproduced at best, his unhappiness was so acutely apparent that Hilary’s heart plummeted.

It wasn’t difficult to guess what was forthcoming, but she swallowed all the protests she wanted to make; they would have been fruitless, and anyway she didn’t dare take the chance that the bottle would interpret denial as her final response to the challenge.

“God knows the very first time we met I thought--here’s a girl who thinks she’s all alone in the world and should never, ever have to be.” If he had been there in person, Hilary knew beyond a doubt that his hands would have been clenched into fists in his trouser pockets. “I ought to have promised her then, when I still thought I’d be able to keep a promise like that. Knowing her, I’m not sure how well she’d take to outright declarations, but if nothing else she ought to know I always want to be at her back. She deserves that much--at the very least.”

Hilary blinked, stricken. In the midst of her shock she was suddenly sick with fury: at the gross invasiveness of the entire procedure, and at her inability to respond to what she was hearing.

“But there’s the rub, isn’t it?” Jerry’s gaze was appealing to some empty point in space over Hilary’s shoulder. “She deserves better than me. Far better, surely, than whatever future I’ve got to offer her, which is frankly uncertain at best. My father’s bound to peg out sooner or later, and then no more carefree magical frolic for the young heir. She’d have to choose, then, between me and magic, and I can’t help thinking it’d be so much simpler if the problem never presented itself at all.”

“Oh,” said Hilary faintly, though she’d been trying to keep quiet. “You bastard.”

“I could just--go,” Jerry went on. He made it sound so simple. “I’m sure I wouldn’t be completely alone. There must be other wizards at Oxford, after all. I expect they have dining clubs or something. And Hilary--well, Hilary’s going to do something really magnificent with her life, and perhaps it’d be better if I weren’t there to complicate things for her.”

The image froze; Hilary assumed at first that he was hesitating again, but after a long moment of still silence she realized that she had in fact been shown all she was going to see. There was no way to reason her way out of this--but the churning in her gut left no room for genuine doubt over her answer.

“Congratulations,” said Wimsey levelly when she emerged. “Full marks.”

Hilary eyed him sidelong. “Do you see what happens in there?”

“Nothing at all.” He touched the lens in his eye. “Only whether your answer was right or wrong.”

“Well, I think you’re a cruel little man,” said Hilary bitterly, and shoved the empty bottle at him. “You’d have to be, to have thought this up, and you can take it out of my score if you like.”

She didn’t wait to see his reaction before taking her seat next to Katerina, but she could see Dippet’s face slackened with shock, and that at least was worth a few shreds of satisfaction.

-------

There was a presentation ceremony of some kind, but Hilary didn’t really process most of it; in fact, she very nearly forgot to be disappointed at having lost the tournament. She was only dimly aware of Wimsey presenting Katerina with the Triwizard Cup and her prize money, and that Katerina seemed very nearly as stunned as she felt. Even getting to eat dinner at the High Table afterwards, which she had always thought would be rather a thrill, felt more lonely than anything. She wanted, for once, to get out from under the eye of the entire school and be alone somewhere, and Merlin only knew when she’d have the opportunity for that.

There was one small mercy, and that was that Jerry wasn’t due to be released from the infirmary until the next day and had missed seeing the entire debacle. Hilary was grateful for that, at least; it would give her a little breathing room to decide how to deal with him.

Unfortunately, she still hadn’t decided by Sunday afternoon, when he caught up to her in the hallway on her way up to the Owlery. “Hilary,” he called after her, and then when she hesitated, “I say, hang on a moment, won’t you?”

Hilary sighed and tucked her letter in her pocket--she was, admittedly, in no particular hurry to be in touch with her uncle either. In the mood she’d been in all day, she would quite happily have cut off contact with every other human being in the world. “What do you want, Wimsey?”

He looked a little stung; it was a long time, probably, since she’d addressed him thus. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you’ve been avoiding me. You swore up and down you’d send Otto or something last night to let me know how it went.”

“I think you know me too well,” said Hilary dully. “That might be the problem, actually.”

“Hilary,” he said again, more uncertainly, and touched her shoulder; she shook him off. “If there’s something wrong--I mean, I know it’s rotten you not winning and all, but I really think you--”

“Oh, shut up,” said Hilary. She thought of him saying I’m not sure how well she’d take to outright declarations, and bile rose in her throat again; she had to swallow it back down, hard.

He removed his hand, but not entirely; it hovered irritatingly in Hilary’s peripheral vision. “Look, are you angry at me?

“Congratulations.” Hilary scrubbed her hand over her face. “Full marks, Wimsey.”

Jerry threw up his hands. “I can’t believe I’m the one who’s got to ask this, but are you going to be the adult here and tell me just what I’ve missed?”

“Fine,” said Hilary, who was not naturally inclined to any kind of long-term manipulation, and momentarily regretted that fact. “After the end of this week I’ll never see you again anyway; what difference does it make?”

They located, as they were accustomed to doing, the nearest abandoned classroom; Hilary sat down on a desk, head in her hands, and after a moment’s uncertain fluttering in her periphery Jerry took the nearest chair.

Hilary made the mistake of looking up at him; he was watching her with unaccustomed wariness. She remembered, abruptly and unwillingly, that she was in love with him and that that was the reason she felt so utterly wretched. “Are--” He paused. “Is it--are you pregnant?”

“Of course not,” said Hilary scornfully. “I’ve been more careful than that. I didn’t want to be this kind of girl,” she blurted suddenly. “I never--I thought I was better than this, I thought I was smarter, I really did.”

“What kind of girl?” asked Jerry; there was nothing else to say.

“The kind of girl,” said Hilary hopelessly, addressing herself to her own knees, “who goes in for a bit of fun with a young man--no, it isn’t that, that on its own would have been all right, it’s the bit where I was stupid enough to go and fall for him and expect anything good to ever come of it.”

There was a mutually mortified silence for a few moments.

“This isn’t what I expected at all,” she went on, before he could start trying to reassure her of things she already knew and didn’t want to hear again. “I got into bed with you because I wanted to know what it was like, and because I trusted you better than anyone, and then it was so much fun and we kept on doing it and I--I’ve been so very happy with you the past six months, just the way things were, and I kept telling myself everything was perfect, that I didn’t want it to be anything more, and I lied, all right? It’s not enough and it’s never going to be, not now.”

Jerry produced a noise like a blow to the gut-- whether to his own or to hers, Hilary couldn't decide. "Me. I've made you happy?"

"You did," Hilary admitted; she hadn't meant to, and she was beginning to feel thoroughly ill. "I thought I was so lucky to be with you, damn it. Even if you were never going to love me back, or even be serious about me--I thought I ought to count myself lucky to have had this much time with someone I liked. Someone who understood me. What a load of rot that's turned out to be."

"That's what I thought too," said Jerry, nearly frantic. "But if something's gone wrong we can still sort it out, can't we? Just tell me what it is. You’ve no idea what it’d be worth to me, to be sure you’re all right." He sounded so bewildered, and Hilary resented him more than ever for it, if only because the alternative was to soften; what right did he have to be hurt by any of this? He'd gotten everything he wanted, after all.

"Oh, I know.” Hilary was scrabbling to express herself coherently; she had just enough clear thought left in her to realize that this was all pointless if she never explained at all. "The inkpot your uncle gave me for the third task--it was enchanted to tell the truth, the absolute truth, and it told me that you are in love with me after all. Except you were never going to tell me, were you? You thought you knew better. You were going to go off to Oxford and spare me whatever the hell you thought I needed sparing from, and get to feel very noble and tragic forever after about having broken my heart for my own good. And Merlin knows I haven’t any right to judge about not telling me how you felt, but thinking you knew better than me what I’d want--I can’t bear that, Jerry, I don’t think you could have thought of anything worse if you’d tried."

Jerry had gone parchment-white as her explanation progressed. "Would you listen," he began again. "If you'd just be reasonable for a moment and let me explain--"

Hilary shook her head, burying her face in her knees. "I can't, Jerry. I've been being reasonable nearly all year and it hurts far too much. I'm sick of it. I'm not going to be reasonable any more." She was beginning to shake all over, and hated it. “I would have said yes, you know,” she went on, because it was the most hurtful possible thing she could think of to say. “If you had only asked me to my face, if you had said, Hilary, do you want to be with me knowing you might have to make that choice someday, I wouldn’t have even hesitated.”

Jerry reached out to touch her. "Hilary--"

"Don't!" she almost screamed, clenching her fingers around the edge of the desk. "Look, don't--don't touch me, don't talk to me, don't look at me, I shan't be able to stay angry, just please, please, go away."

The backs of his fingers settled lightly against her cheek; Hilary knew full well he was doing it on purpose for the sake of being contrary, but seeing as this might well be the last time he ever touched her, she thought maybe she'd better permit it. "And here I thought I'd been a good influence on you." It was a thing he usually said in jest, but he seemed to have forgotten to joke about it this time; his voice was tight and shaking. Hilary had never been sure Jerry possessed even a shred of a temper, but if he did this was the closest she'd ever heard him come to showing it. "It's bad enough you've got the wrong end of the stick, but I wish you'd at least take a look at what the stick is before you start waving it about. I love you, Hilary; even--especially, Merlin help me, when you're being a stubborn idiot. Any other girl in the world would be glad to find their feelings returned, but since I've had the rotten luck to be stuck with you and you find it so damned inconvenient, I suppose I'd better just keep out of your way."

How typical of him, Hilary thought, doubled over and miserable; she should have guessed he'd manage an eloquent exit despite everything.