Chapter 35 : Chapter 35
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It all started out well enough, with Tonks and I arguing for space in front of the tiny mirror over our dressing table Some of her excitement had finally rubbed off on me and I was anxious to get everything just right.
My dress was white, with a high, empire waist and a matching cloak trimmed in faux fur. The lace around the waist had been a bit yellow so I'd removed it and replaced it with narrow silver ribbon which I also used to cover some fraying on the sleeves. To finish it off I had a new pair of long white gloves and a pair of white evening slippers. I arranged my hair in a French roll and tucked some baby's breath into it.
Tonks, of course, was pink from head to toe. She had turned her hair blonde with a streak of pink and piled it all on her head, secured with a pink ribbon. Her dress was a vibrant confection of hot pink satin, lace, and tulle, every bit as sparkly and flamboyant as she was. Pearls shone warmly on her throat and ears and she had a gold charm bracelet that had been a Christmas present from Gideon clasped to her wrist.
"I wish you'd have worn my pearls." she complained, looking at my reflection beside hers in the mirror. "Honestly. The guys around campus are calling you "the Ice Queen" now, and you're dressed in white so you look the part."
"My gold cross will be fine." I said, amused by the 'Ice Queen' moniker.
"I wish you and Remus would come with Gideon and I. Gideon hired a car."
"We'll be along as soon as Remus has gotten off work and changed clothes." I reminded her for what seemed like the hundredth time since Gideon had told Tonks that he had arranged for the car.
"I'm bringing the camera to get pictures."
"What is with you?" Tonks burst out in a frustrated tone. "You're just so weird. One minute you're up and the next you're down. He's just a friend. It isn't a real date so you don't have to impress him or anything. There's nothing to be nervous about."
"Of course....just a friend...no reason to be nervous." I repeated, and tried not to laugh at Tonks's puzzlement over my sarcasm.
There was a knock at the door and she gave an excited little leap. "That's Gideon -- I look wonderful, don't I? You do."
"You do look wonderful and you know it -- you don't need me to say so."
"But I still like to hear it. I'll see you in a bit, okay?"
"I'll be there."
Tonks flitted off, full skirts knocking her copy of "Witch Weekly" off of her night table as she passed. As I picked it up and casually flipped through the pages, my attention was captured by the all too familiar grin of Gilderoy Lockhart. It was an advert for pre-orders of his latest book, "Wanders with Werewolves" which was due out in March. Disgusted, I closed the magazine and stashed it in the nearest drawer.
About an hour later there was another knock on the door, and with my heart pounding madly, I went to answer. Remus was standing on the step wearing simple black robes, very basic and not unlike those my brother often wears. He'd pulled his shoulder length light brown hair back into a neat tail, and the effect of the streaks of gray against the black of his robe was very becoming.
"Kerri, you look absolutely beautiful." he told me, smiling. "I brought you this." From behind his back he brought out a perfect, long stemmed white rosebud. "I wish I could have afforded a dozen." he apologized.
"No. I love it ....no one has ever given me a rose before." I said, fighting an annoying, squishy sort of feeling that was washing over me. No one that mattered had ever given me a rose before at least --- Lockhart's hideous flowers didn't count. "I'd better put it in water before we go."
"She went ahead."
I took the filled vase and set it on my bedside table, the only surface in the house that I don't share with Tonks...although her things do have a habit of occasionally spilling over onto it. "Ready."
I retrieved my cloak and began putting it on, but he pointedly took it away and helped me into it. "I'm not used to this sort of thing." I said, flustered.
"Maybe it's time that you were." Remus answered, his lips very close to my ear. His breath ticked a bit. "If you don't mind my asking....have you ever been on an actual date before?"
"Tonks told you that I haven't, didn't she?" I asked, feeling the color in my cheeks deepen.
"You're putting so much pressure on me to make sure you have a good time." said Remus, avoiding my question.
I wondered what he meant by that and decided I'd better not ask. "I'd be perfectly happy just sitting by the fire over some cocoa." I suggested hopefully.
"Oh no. I intend to escort you to your first ball....if I don't, Tonks will be after my blood. Are you aware of those curses she's learning?"
"I've helped her study by letting her practice the non lethal ones on me. It isn't fun. She's more excited about me going to this ball than I am. I really don't see what the fuss is about."
"Exactly." said Remus firmly. "Shall we?"
We arrived in a paved courtyard cordoned off by thousands of fluttering fairies holding hands along the perimeter. They glowed pale gold beneath trees hung with real icicles that had been charmed into shades of red and pink. Remus offered his arm and we walked across the bare flagstones toward the banquet hall where warm light spilled from the tall, narrow windows of the ballroom. My stomach was fluttering just like the fairies.
It was a building I'd never had occasion to enter before. After we removed our cloaks in the entry, we paused for a moment between the gilded double doors of the grand ballroom. The floor was highly polished white marble and the walls featured a high relief frieze picturing scenes from the life of Merlin which ran around the length of the circular room. The high ceiling had a glass dome that opened to a frosty velvet sky hung with milk white stars.
I felt a bit intimidated by the other girls, dressed like Barbie dolls in bright reds, pinks, and assorted pastels. Skirts in rich fabrics rustled and crinkled as they swept past, while diamonds and gold tinkled and glittered in the light. My dress that had seemed so simple and elegant back home suddenly seemed rather plain. I shot a nervous, sideways glance at Remus who seemed perfectly calm and in his element, unruffled by the splendor.
He didn't even look uncomfortable when Tonks bustled over with Gideon who was resplendent in a navy blue waistcoat with lace at his throat and wrists. On his feet were a pair of shiny, costly, dragon hide boots. But then men don't pay attention to each other's clothing the way women do. Women use their clothing weapons sometimes, a way of establishing superiority over each other....which is probably why I prefer men. They're much more sensible.
Tonks threw both arms around me as though we hadn't seen each other in ages. "Oh Kerri --- relax will you? You feel so tense. You should have a drink."
"You've been nagging at me to 'experience a ball' and you want me to get drunk so I can't remember half of it?"
"Oh Kerri lighten up. There's just champagne and it takes a lot to get drunk on that, for me anyway. I can drink a whole bottle and it doesn't have the slightest effect."
Behind her, Gideon shook his head vehemently but quickly stopped when she turned to face him. "Gideon, take a picture of Kerri and I together."
Being around the ever effervescent Tonks is like being caught in a whirlwind -- there's simply no escape. Laughing, I allowed myself to be pulled over to the side for a photo. Putting our arms around each other and drawing our faces close together we smiled for the camera. "Beautiful." said Gideon.
"Now get one of me with Gideon." Tonks instructed. "Come here Gideon."
Gideon handed Remus the camera and dutifully took my place as I ducked out of view. He put an arm around Tonks who affectionately threw both around him, resting one flushed cheek on his shoulder. "Okay -- now one of you and Remus." she directed once the picture was taken. "Stand over here. Closer together....closer than that...put your arm around her. Kerri, will you please relax?"
Remus shot me an amused. 'well we don't have much choice' sort of look, and set one hand lightly on the small of my back. I felt a rush of heat that had nothing whatsoever to do with the temperature of the room.
It seemed to take forever for Tonks to snap the picture and once she had, she rushed over to throw both arms around me again. "Aren't you glad you came? I want you to have lots of fun."
"I am." I reassured her, squeezing her back.
"There's Priscilla!" she said suddenly, her eyes fixing on someone across the room. "Priscilla!"
Tonks started off across the floor, a whirl of pink lace and frills. Her skirt caught on the corner of a bench and ripped, leaving a modest sized snatch of pink tulle behind.
Laughing good naturedly, Gideon retrieved it and tucked it into an inner pocket. "See you two later." he said before following in Tonks's wake.
If nothing else, Tonks's exuberant cheerfulness had relaxed me, and put me in a better mood. I no longer felt quite so awkward and out of place.
"So...." said Remus, turning to me with a slight bow. "Would you like to dance?"
It was just like those old 'when I grow up' scenes that I imagined as a little girl. I had a pretty dress and a handsome partner and everything was more perfect than things are wont to be in real life. I should have known the evening would end in humiliation.
We stepped onto the dance floor and Remus wrapped one arm around my waist, pulling me close...much closer than he had while Tonks had been taking our picture earlier. His hand felt warm and steady in mine even through my glove and his touch made my hand tingle.
Remus proved to be a very good dancer. Being tall, I found that I was only a couple inches shorter than he is so our strides matched perfectly, eliminating any potential awkwardness on that score. With nothing else to worry about I was free to lose myself in a whirl of color, perfume and light. As I had that time at Scarlet Dawn, I gave myself up to the dance, only this time I was in the arms of the object of my affection. White stars whirled above and Remus held me steady and secure, hazel eyes fixedly gazing into mine. That ought to have been a warning sign right there, but I wasn't thinking with my head at the time.
There was a dinner at which Tonks found us and contrived to wrangle seats next to ours. She was wound up, breathless and flushed with a strand of hair hanging askew over one ear and the hem of her gown frayed where she'd stepped on it. Willow and Etta were there too with their dates, a couple of rowdy college boys who were half drunk and acting like compete idiots. I reflected that there is an advantage to older men, as I noted with pride the poised way that Remus carried himself.
The dinner was nice, certainly fancier than any I've ever attended before, even at Hogwarts. I tasted a little champagne, didn't like the carbonation, and stuck with water after that. I noticed that Tonks was drinking champagne, but nowhere near enough for it to have much affect. Her hyperness was completely natural, attributable to a sparkling personality and a very good mood.
"I like the fragrance you have on." Remus told me over dinner.
"Oh, thanks. My mother gave it to me for Christmas. It's magnolia."
"That doesn't grow here."
"It grows wild back there." I told him " The trees have great big white flowers that are so fragile that they fade if you touch them. They really stand out when they're growing among a bunch of plain old pines."
"They only grow in some places though, don't they? I remember reading about them once in an old book on magical trees."
"Just in the South -- where I was raised. That's why my accent is so horrendous, although it has improved with time. When I first came over here people used to tell me that they couldn't understand what I was saying --- mostly Slytherins though so I ain't sure I believe 'em." I said, purposely thickening the accent.
"Don't lose it. I like listening to accents and it's a part of who you are."
For some reason his words made me warm all over. It was like that all evening, a torture of warm blushes and cold chills, usually in conjunction with Remus's touch or voice.
After dinner I was approached by a very pretty blonde girl in a blue silk gown. She was vaguely familiar but I didn't know her name. I had the impression that she was someone important around campus but couldn't place why. I had a feeling she was about to tell me. "Good evening." she said in a formal tone. "My name is Aline Gardener. You are Cerridwyn Howard, are you not?"
"How do you do?" she asked, not waiting for a reply. I had the feeling that she didn't really care anyway. Briefly, her eyes gravitated toward Remus in an evaluating sort of way and she turned her body fractionally so as to exclude him from the conversation. "I'm the leader of the campus chapter of Merlin's Maidens, a nationally known group of accomplished, academically gifted young ladies. Membership in our group is a great honor and a lifetime benefit that can lead to a prestigious career in any field. I am aware that you turned down our written invitation, but would like to encourage you not to make such a mistake. We would welcome you with open arms and I am positive that you would benefit greatly from your association with us. We are, as I am sure you already know, the upper crust of Merlin University."
I've always been a good judge of character and I knew right away that I wanted nothing to do with Aline Gardener's type. She had snubbed Remus and that was unforgivable. Wickedly, I thickened my accent to the extreme and said, " Aw shucks, that sure is a nice thing fer ya t' say about me. I really do appreciate it but I ain't got the time t' join. I got me a lotta lessons t' learn an' I'm the lead female singer in a werewolf band called Hybrid, an' that just takes up more time. Hey -- the pay ain't good but the company is great. Anyway, full moon nights r' about th' only free time I got. It was real nice of yeh t' ask me though."
Aline held her poise, but her attitude became fractionally colder. She made a quick, huffy sort of motion that made the diamonds around her neck catch the light. I suppose it was supposed to be intimidating, but I was past that. Over her shoulder, I could see Remus looking at me with an expression of mixed horror and admiration, as though he wanted to laugh but felt he shouldn't.
"I see. Well have a nice night." said Aline coldly as she turned on her heel and floated off.
"I cannot believe you said that." said Remus, his voice thick with supressed mirth.
"She was a snob --- I didn't like her. I didn't say anything that wasn't true and I wasn't rude. I reckon meybe she don't like accents as good as you do. I've been getting invitations to every sorority and club on campus ever since it got out that I have the top grades in the school."
"You didn't tell me that. Congratulations."
"It's no big deal." I said dismissively, though inwardly thrilled with his praise. "I was top at Hogwarts too."
"But you weren't doing twice the work load."
"Strategy -- that's all it is. It's a matter of knowing how to balance the work load and do the work efficiently. Anyone could do it if they tried."
"You're frighteningly smart Kerri, and you don't even know it." he insisted, putting me in mind of my brother. "And very modest."
"Please. I'm just not a snot like that Elaine or Aline, or whatever her name was. Like I care what it was."
"Maybe we should go have another dance before you get into any more trouble." said Remus, offering me his arm again. "You know you remind me a great deal of an old friend I had at Hogwarts. He was never the type to mince words either. If he liked you he would do anything for you....if not....God help you. At least when we were young." he added, somewhat darkly.
So we went back to the ballroom and danced until midnight. By then I had long since given up ignoring my feelings for him and was just trying my best to keep him from noticing. Internally, I was moving closer to accepting it -- I loved him, and being in his arms made it impossible to deny.
"Let's walk home." I suggested, not being in any particular rush to let him go.
"Dressed like this?" he laughed.
"It isn't very far and you know the streets are not going to be busy in this little town at this hour of the night. I don't want to just apparate back...it's been such a nice night...let's walk home."
"In the cold?"
"It isn't snowing. It isn't far and we have cloaks."
"Alright." he gave in, looking hugely amused "Let's walk home."
Another mistake I suppose, but it was such a lovely, clear night that all common sense was over-ruled. The waning moon was beautiful, hanging in the sky like a curved icicle. I saw Remus glance up at it with a resentful glare.
"It's pretty." I told him, following his gaze.
"For you maybe. Moonlit walks lose their charm when you have what I have. Not that I'm not enjoying spending time with you." he added swiftly.
I felt another of those inexplicable surges of warmth that had been annoying me all night. "Same here." was all I could trust myself to say.
We were quiet as we walked up the lane, the only sound breaking the winter stillness being our shoes crunching on the drive. The yard was beautiful under it's blanket of snow, sparkling in the home lights like sugar on a cookie. Translucent spears of ice hung in fantastic patterns from the roof in the breathless winter air. "Come in for some cocoa." I said -- the most fatal mistake of all.
"It's late." he reminded me.
"It's the least I can do after making you walk home in the cold."
I saw hesitation flicker across his face...perhaps it was the last gasp of his own common sense. Then, quite clearly I saw the hesitation break as he made up his mind. "All right. Just for a while."
"Sit by the fire and get warm." I instructed as I headed for the kitchen.
"It's dying. I'll build it up for you." he answered, kneeling by the hearth.
I was back in all of two minutes -- I cheated and used magic. Remus was still sitting on the floor by the fire when I sank down beside him and offered him a mug. "With whipped cream and cinnamon."
"I prefer that to marshmallows. Marshmallows overpower the chocolate." He wrapped his hands around the mug to warm them and said, "So...did you enjoy your first ball?"
"Yes. I'm glad that everyone bullied me into going -- seriously. Thanks for taking me."
"It was my pleasure. You dance well."
We were quiet again for a while, sipping cocoa in companionable silence. Sitting there with Remus, just listening to the fire crackle and watching the light play in his silvering hair was a wonderful ending to the evening.
It was as I set my empty mug down on the hearth that he caught my hand in one of his. "Do you know..." he said in that husky voice of his. "....that you have exceptionally beautiful hands?"
"No I don't. They're rough and they snag everything. My fingertips are all chewed up from the guitar strings and the rest from working with animals."
"They have beautiful structure." he explained, tracing the back of the one he was holding with one of his fingers. Goosebumps rose at his touch and I prayed he wouldn't notice. "Long slender fingers...the kind of hands that are a pain and pleasure for any artist that tries to draw them." His eyes left my hand and focused suddenly on my face. "May I as you a very personal question?"
"Of course." I answered somewhat apprehensively. There was an unfamiliar expression in his eyes that was making cold chills trickle down my spine.
"Have you ever been kissed by a man?"
Whatever I'd been expecting him to say, it wasn't that. It felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. "I've never even been kissed by a boy." I said lightly, in a last ditch effort to avert disaster.
Remus's eyes never left mine. All the things I was feeling and had been feeling for months now were reflected back to me in their hazel depths. I suddenly knew with dead certainty that he'd been struggling with the exact same thing and had finally reached the end of his rope.
"Come here." he said quietly.
I should not have done it. I should have made a joke to diffuse the situation but didn't. I knew it was a bad idea and that I'd regret it later, but at the moment I didn't care. Like a lovesick idiot I leaned toward him.
Remus leaned forward to meet me and for a split second I felt a moment of panic, wondering what I was supposed to do. Then complete clarity washed over me, the tension rushed away like water from a glass, and I decided to just relax and let it happen.
It was like being outside of myself watching it unfold like a scene in a movie. Time seemed to stop as he cupped my cheek with one warm hand and his face drew close to mine. I could feel his breath on my skin. His mouth descended on mine and I just melted with this soft little sigh of desire. His lips were so sweet and gentle that I didn't want it to ever end when......
Remus and I separated with guilty starts at the sound of a key in the lock of the front door. My heart was pounding so fast that I could hardly breathe --- and when had he put his hand on my waist?
"Hot cocoa?" asked Tonks brightly as she swept into the room. "Any left for me?"
"No." I said a bit stupidly, staring in shock at Remus who looked equally stunned at what had just happened and slightly ashamed too. I watched him struggle to master himself.
"I need to be going." he said, his usual pleasant smile strained. "Good night. Tonks -- Kerri."
I nodded dully and didn't try to stand up. I was shaking so hard that I knew my legs would never support me. What would have happened had Tonks not walked in just then?
Tonks is no dummy. I saw her look shrewdly from Remus to me and back again as she saw him out. "I interrupted something didn't I?" she apologized once she had closed the door behind him.
But the night's humiliation was not over yet. To my great disgust I burst into tears, covering my face with my hands.
"Don't cry!" exclaimed Tonks, rushing over to throw her arms around me in a sisterly sort of way. "Why are you crying? Remus is a really great guy."
"It's impossible!" I gasped, furious with myself for this show of weakness. "It just is. I should have known better --- I should never have invited him in."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think I'm giving up men." said Tonks darkly.
"Why?" I sniffed, wiping my eyes and lifting my head to look at her. "Did you and Gideon have a fight?"
Tonks sighed deeply and smoothed out her bedraggled skirt. "No. He's just getting so serious. I mean --- I'm serious about him too, but he's talking about getting married."
"No. But he...hinted. He hinted that he wants to get married as soon as we graduate next year, but I have another year of specialized training with the Ministry to do. I like Gideon and I want to get married one day, but not right away. I want to be an Auror -- I've wanted it as long as I can remember. I don't know. Maybe I should aim for magical law enforcement instead."
"Not if you want to be an Auror." I said firmly. "You'd be throwing away all the hard work you've already done. You do exactly what's right for you and don't worry about anyone else."
"I wish I could be more like you. You're so responsible and serious and steady. I shouldn't have made you go to the ball."
"No. I wanted to go....with Remus. I've had a thing for him for a few months now."
"Well you did a good job hiding it." said Tonks, looking genuinely surprised.
"You know the person I spent the night with during your party?"
"Yes -- but I slept on the bed and he slept on the floor."
Tonks laughed. "I knew you weren't the type. I was just teasing. Me -- I like to kind of have a party girl reputation, but it's mostly for show. I really don't drink half as much as people think and Gideon and I have never...well, you know. I'm glad we didn't. I'm not so sure things are going to work out between us." Tonks sighed, looking very glum. "So -- why don't you and Remus get together? The age difference or his...um....illness?"
"The lycanthropy is part of it. He's pretty much made up his mind to swear off of women, you know."
"Ha. No man can do that. They're just made different from us. So he doesn't have that kind of relationship with women? From the color of your cheeks I'd say he was doing a pretty good job before I came in."
I couldn't help but laugh. "Maybe. What a night."
"I'm telling you. Hey, I hate to ask this but....you don't have any of that chocolate left from Christmas do you?"
"I've been saving it for a day like this. Tell you what, let's split it. Then let's use magic to enlarge the bathtub and do a water stirring charm on it to turn it into a jucuzzi."
"A what?" asked Tonks curiously.
"You'll see. Come on."
So at almost two in the morning, that's what we did, and it was immensely satisfying. Thank heaven for Tonks or I'd have been very depressed. It was pushing four a.m. before we went to bed, and afternoon when we got up. Right now I'm sitting here trying to collect my thoughts and come to terms with the choices I made last night.
In a couple hours I'll have to go pick Remus up to go to practice, so there's no point fretting. I have no idea what I'm going to say to him, but soon it will be over with for better or for worse. What happened last night cannot happen ever again and I'm hoping that it won't ruin our friendship.
What's horrible is that I don't think I've fully learned my lesson --- kissing him has only made me want him more. You'd think it would be out of my system now, wouldn't you? I hate romance.
Your first kiss is another of those milestones that you speculate about when you're a girl. It's a shame that mine had to be like this. It's a very confusing situation -- I wish I hadn't kissed him and yet I don't regret the actual kiss.
Author's Note : Thanks to all of my reviewers, but especially to morgana67 who read this chapter over for me prior to posting. Her encouragement went a long way to dispel my growing doubts about the quality of this chapter.
Next Chapter : Things are tense between Kerri and Remus as they try to go back to the way things were before the ball. Remus suggests the safe room idea to Royal and Kerri develops a grudge against the MacNair brothers. Snape comes up with a plan to protect Harry in the upcoming match and is keeping a close eye on Quirrel.
I have volunteered to referee the upcoming Quidditch match. I decided that was the best way to ensure I would be near enough to intervene swiftly should there be another attempt on Prince Potter. It is fortunate that I have no care for what people think about me because the entire staff thinks sabotage is my motive.
As if I need to sabotage Gryffindor -- my team has nothing to worry about from them.
Besides, this is a school, not a Quidditch camp. Too much emphasis is placed on sports around here.
I saw Quirrel lurking around outside again today. I had spare time on my hands so I thought I'd just take a little stroll around the grounds to see what he was up to. I'd love to know exactly what he's doing out there.
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