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Chapter 19 : The Nightmare At Christmas*
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The Nightmare at Christmas
The Moment I Said It – Imogen Heap
And she finally stopped playing their song,
when she realized she was dancing alone.
Sylvia Blackthorn was not a cruel girl, per se. Being cruel would involve being concerned with someone other than herself, and that wasn’t anything she was ever likely to do.
She was, however, something nearly as dangerous – ruthless, in the way that only someone who was completely and utterly self-obsessed could achieve.
This ruthlessness was, in her mind, what separated her from the crowds of nameless and faceless girls throughout the school vying for attention. It was what made her stand out, stand apart.
It had, admittedly, led her to do some strange things, mostly in the pursuit of destroying her rivals. Occasionally, even she was surprised at the lengths that she would go to in order to get what she wanted, but that was of no matter.
And it wasn’t like anyone knew about any of it. Although, her twin brother, Theo, who had long since washed his hands of her, called her a crazy bint to anyone who asked. And he’d refused to speak to her in public since their third year, when she’d made a Gryffindor girl bald simply because he’d said the girl had nicer hair than her.
But whatever. Theo was in Hufflepuff, and everyone knew that Hufflepuffs didn’t have any worthwhile opinions, anyway.
It was this self-obsession-driven ruthlessness that had caused her to dye her blonde hair brown earlier in the year. All her minions – because girls like Sylvia didn’t have friends, just hangers-on, or followers, or minions – had bemoaned the loss of her ‘flaxen tresses’ as they’d called them (they were Ravenclaw minions, after all), but Sylvia had gone ahead with it anyway.
And now look at her – being asked out by the hottest catch in the school, James Potter himself.
Because Sylvia was no fool. Vain, yes, egotistical, definitely, but not a fool. She knew that James was rebounding, although she didn’t exactly know why. She knew that at least a small portion of his interest came from her resemblance to a certain Gryffindor Head Girl.
But…whatever. In this case, she wasn’t inclined to make a fuss.
No, indeed she wasn’t. What she was inclined to do was drape herself over her new boyfriend at the Gryffindor table the next morning at breakfast. The evil glares and death-stares of the girls around her, from all the houses, gave her a warm, almost comforting feeling.
‘Morning, handsome,’ she purred, brushing her lips across his cheek.
James, for his part, didn’t look like a man who has suddenly found a beautiful girl draped over his lap.
He looked like a man much annoyed.
‘Morning,’ he answered tersely in a clipped tone, ‘sitting with us, are you?’
Sylvia paused, but only for a moment. She was, after all, a Ravenclaw. Her mind worked at least at the speed of light, even first thing in the morning.
‘I thought I should. Since we’re…well, I don’t have tell you what we are.’
Across the table, a redheaded girl Sylvia vaguely recognised as being related to James pretended to gag. Sylvia ignored her.
‘But if you’d rather I left…’
She cast her eyes down and let out the slightest of sighs. The technique, which she’d been perfecting since second year, never failed. In fact, not only did it have a 100% success rate, but it delivered results in less than five seconds.
To her utter astonishment, James Potter waited a full ten seconds before inviting her to sit down.
‘No, no, stay. Come on, have a seat. Here, budge up, will you?’
This he issued to the boys sitting on either side of him. One of them, a dark skinned boy with dreadlocks met Sylvia’s eyes with a stony expression before moving over to make room.
Sylvia simpered sweetly as she took a seat. Once again, the girl across the table was staring at her, this time with an expression of disgust. Sylvia looked her up and down derisively, then smirked condescendingly.
‘James, I know it’s no affair of mine who you choose to have your flings with, but I won’t eat with a bint,’ the redhead said in a carrying tone, her eyes never leaving Sylvia’s.
Next to her on the seat, Sylvia felt James shift uncomfortably.
‘You’re right, Lils, it’s nothing to do with you. So leave it, okay?’
‘Except that when your new toy sits there judging me, then it becomes my problem too, yeah? So do us all a favour and get over your problems some other way.’
With that, the girl stood up from the table and strode out of the Hall. With a sigh, Rose got up to follow her.
‘I’ll get it,’ she announced to no one in particular as she left. The slightly darker-skinned boy who had been sitting next to her also got up.
‘I’ll come too,’ he offered, glancing quickly across the table and away, ‘I’ve suddenly lost my appetite.’
‘Funny, me too,’ replied a blonde girl a few places away, ‘there must be something going around.’
This didn’t bother Sylvia at all. In fact, she was quite glad they were leaving. Fred and Dominique Weasley were both in her year, but there was no love lost between any of them.
However, within a few minutes, James and Sylvia found themselves sitting alone, with large gaps on either side where the rest of James’ family and friends had been.
But a girl like Sylvia Blackthorn wasn’t about to let a little thing like family disapproval stop her. She saw James’ jaw tense and heard him take in a breath to speak. But before he could open his mouth, she leaned in close and whispered smoothly in his ear.
‘Forget them. Think about something else. Like that I have a free lesson first up. If you’re interested, there’s a…nice little place I know on the third floor. It doesn’t have much of a view, but it’s private…cosy…’
Taking his silence for an affirmative, she stood to her feet and started to walk out of the Hall. Before long, she heard footsteps following her.
She smirked. This whole…relationship thing was going to be a piece of cake.
Rose and Albus stood in a second floor corridor, watching the rapidly retreating backs of their assorted friends and family. Lily, almost incoherent with rage, had started to rant as soon as they’d left the Hall. More than a few of the younger students within earshot had run off in fright, and Rose had quite a difficult time in restraining her before the cavalry had arrived.
Eventually, a long-suffering Owen had graciously offered to escort her back to the tower. Familiar with his favourite cousin’s rages, Hugo had rolled his eyes and volunteered his moral support. Accompanying them was a scowling Dominique, who had Molly hanging off one arm and Josh holding firm to the other, as they tried to prevent her from going back and doing something she’d regret.
Or, at least, something she’d have to pretend to regret if any of the Professors caught her at it.
Sam and Jaya had repaired to the library to spend their free period together, in a similar fashion to Margie and Terry, and Fred had disappeared somewhere along the way.
‘Have you ever wondered if there’s just a little too much Pureblood in us?’ Albus asked absently, as the noise from down the corridor faded away.
Rose stared at him in confusion.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘It’s a legitimate concern. Inbreeding causes madness, after all, and do you know any families more mental than ours?’
They stared at each other, hazel eyes and green meeting in shared thought.
‘You may have a point…’ Rose conceded slowly.
Together in companionable silence, they headed towards the stairs to the third floor. On the last few steps, Albus drew breath and turned to face his cousin.
‘So, cut line – what’s going on?’
Rose raised one bemused brow.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Don’t play that with me, Rosie, you were born a liar. What’s up with you lately? You’re secretive,’ he revised, ‘well, more than usual, at least, and you’re always slipping off somewhere. So out with it. Extra coursework? Weird new hobby?’
‘Some guy we’re going to have to murder? What?’
‘Don’t you shush me, woman!’
‘Albus, you idiot, shut up!’
She raised one hand in the air in front of his face. Her head was cocked to the side, as if listening for something. Albus frowned, cocked his head to the side as well, and tried to hear…whatever it was.
From somewhere down the hallway, there was the faint, but clear and unmistakable sound of two students…getting better acquainted.
‘At this time of the morning?’ Rose murmured with an incredulous look, ‘How are they even awake enough?’
‘Never mind that,’ Albus sighed resignedly, ‘let’s just get this over with.’
Not really bothering to be quiet, he led the way towards the small door set in the wall. Pulling out his wand and checking that Rose had hers as well, he yanked open the door.
A young man fell backwards onto the ground, his shirt partially undone and his hair somewhat dishevelled. With a squeal, a brown-haired girl fell on top of him. Albus was amused to note that even when startled, she still took a moment to arrange herself to her best advantage.
Then he glanced at Rose’s face, and all traces of amusement fled.
‘James Sirius Potter!’ his cousin shrieked, her face nearly as red as her hair, ‘What the frick do you think you’re doing?’
‘Piss off, Rose! It’s none of your business what I’m doing.’
‘Or who you’re doing, it seems! You’re seriously going at it with a slag like her? In a cupboard, of all places!’
‘Oh, like nobody knows what little Rosy-Posy gets up to with her Slytherin boyfriend, hey?’
Sylvia’s pretty face was twisted into a nasty sneer. James opened his mouth to say something, who knew what, but Albus beat him to the punch.
‘Shut it, Blackthorn. You’re out of line.’
She threw him a dirty look over her shoulder.
‘Oh, bite me, bambi. Who’s going to stop me? You?’
Albus’ gaze narrowed.
‘Yeah, me. Prefect, remember? I just happen to outrank you. So that’ll be twenty points from Ravenclaw.’
‘And two weeks’ worth of detentions,’ Rose added darkly, taking one of the younger girl’s arms and pulling her roughly to her feet.
‘Two weeks!’ came the indignant shriek, but Rose ignored her.
‘And as for you,’ she continued, glaring down at her scowling cousin, ‘give me one good reason why I shouldn’t march you up to Neville right now.’
James got slowly to his feet, his eyes unreadable.
‘Because in the Weasley scheme of things, I outrank you.’
His cousin just shook her head, disgusted.
‘Detention. Two weeks. Different detentions,’ she added, glaring at Sylvia’s sulky face, ‘and so help me, James,’ she continued when he opened his mouth to argue, ‘if you try to worm your way out of it or anything like that, so help me, I’m owling your Mum.’
He glowered at her, but showed no sign of giving in.
‘And Grandma Molly.’
All the tension leeching from his frame, James bowed his head in defeat.
‘Get out of here,’ Albus told them disgustedly, ‘I don’t want to look at either of you.’
Without a backward glance, James started off down the corridor. Sylvia took one last look at Rose’s face and, very wisely, headed in the opposite direction.
Watching them go, Albus shook his head.
‘You’d think he’d have better taste,’ he started mildly, but Rose wasn’t listening.
‘Stupid, stupid, stupid boy!’ she ranted quietly, ‘After everything we’ve done. Everything we’ve gone through, all for him, and this is what he does in return? How can someone be that dumb and still breathe?’
She had unconsciously started pacing across the floor, and Albus had to reach out and snag her arm to get her to face him.
‘Alright, that’s enough – what the bloody hell is going on, Rose?’
Groaning, pinching the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, Rose avoided his gaze.
‘Al, I can’t tell you, okay? Even if I could, I couldn’t. Leave it alone. It’s just something I need to do.’
Glancing over his shoulder, she sighed.
‘Speaking of which, something you need to do is get out of here right now.’
Turning to follow her line of sight, Albus saw his best friend slowly making his way up the corridor behind them. Turning back to face her, he scowled.
‘Oh, so Scorp can know, but I can’t, is that it?’
If he’d been a dog, his hackles would have risen.
‘Albus, get your head out of your arse and get out of here.’
‘Look, I know for a fact that Daisy went back to the dorm to get her books and that she doesn’t have a date for the Ball. And that Laurence Burns is planning to ask her at lunch.’
Completely torn, Albus glared at his cousin.
‘That’s not fair. You’re playing dirty.’
Rose didn’t reply, just pushed him in the direction of the common room. With another glance behind him, Albus reluctantly left, breaking into a jog as he reached the stairs.
As Scorpius drew level with Rose, he raised one silver brow.
‘Do I want to know what occurred?’
‘James. Broom cupboard. Sylvia Blackthorn. Detention,’ came the terse reply.
‘And Albus? He’s catching on?’
‘Not to what’s actually happening,’ Rose sighed, ‘just that something is happening. And he’s not happy.’
‘Hopefully this won’t take too much longer. Nast’s father has shown how much he trusts me now.’
They’d met briefly the night before so that Scorpius could explain the new developments.
‘If things keep moving along this way, she should be able to get some freedom back soon. I hope.’
‘How is she?’ Rose enquired softly.
Scorpius’ pale gaze turned pained.
‘Not…well. Her father is a…hard man. The visit home wasn’t easy for her. hell, it wasn’t easy for me, and I didn’t have to see him alone. She’ll get over the fright and everything, but it might take awhile.’
‘Can you blame her? Discounting her father, if what happened to her the other night happened to me, I wouldn’t leave my room for weeks.’
‘If anyone tried to do that to you, the only place they’d be leaving would be this plane of existence,’ Scorpius muttered darkly, causing Rose’s cheeks to flush a gentle red.
Grinning up at him, she asked in an archly teasing voice.
‘So…do you have a date for the Ball?’
A surly Fred was prowling down the corridor towards them, his eyes narrowed into slits.
‘Come on,’ he commanded, grabbing hold of her arm, ‘we’re going.’
‘Fred! Let me go!’
‘I need your help with my Charms homework,’ was the sullen reply, and an exasperated Rose found herself being pulled, against her will, back to Gryffindor Tower.
Scorpius was watching them go, thoroughly bemused, when he became aware of another presence. Looking around, he saw Celeste standing by his side. She too was watching the two departing students.
‘Was that Fred Weasley?’ she queried. Her voice was soft and sounded odd.
‘Mmm,’ Scorpius replied easily, ‘why?’
‘Nothing,’ she sighed. A grin curved slowly across her face.
‘He’s certainly something else, though, isn’t he? Lovely muscles on him.’
‘Quoi? It doesn’t do one any harm to look.’
Her voice dropped lower.
‘And I do quite like what I see. Yes, I do indeed.’
‘Celeste. Is there something else you wanted to say?’
Straightening, the dark-haired girl snapped her attention back to the weary looking boy beside her.
‘Only that I’m going to see her Grace now. Is there anything you wish me to tell her?’
‘Perhaps not to tell her. But there’s something you might be interested in knowing. Actually, since it’ll probably be common knowledge soon, you may just want to…warn her.’
‘I’m intrigued,’ Celeste returned smoothly, ‘do tell.’
‘You know the broom cupboard down the way? Well…’
A short time later, Celeste nodded regally to the Guard stationed outside the Head Girl’s room and rapped smartly on the door. Then, without waiting for an answer, she opened the door and strode in.
‘Grace! Grace, are you awake?’
Groggily, Anastacia raised herself on her elbows and rubbed her eyes.
‘Well, I am now.’
Celeste clucked apologetically.
‘Sorry. Just checking. I arranged to have some breakfast brought up, if that’s any consolation.’
As she sat up, Anastacia caught sight of the sunlight streaming in through the open drapes. She frowned.
‘Shouldn’t you be at class by now?’
The other girl shook her head, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
‘Vem caught me in the Hall and said I could spend the day with you. That is, if you want me to,’ she clarified.
‘Please. In a way, I hate myself right now, so it would be good to have someone to talk to.’
‘Grace, don’t say that,’ Celeste soothed, brushing the older girl’s hair back from her face with a gentle hand.
‘Why not?’ Anastacia asked dully, ‘It’s true. I’ve made a complete mess of everything. This whole idea, everything I’ve done…’
She trailed off. They’d made the decision, Scorpius, Rose and herself, not to involve Celeste, at least, not directly. However, while they might not have told her their plans themselves, there wasn’t much going on at Hogwarts or in the Court that Celeste didn’t know about.
‘I respect your decision not to let me in on your plans, however…if I might offer some advice?’
Anastacia nodded, her eyes downcast.
‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing? Forgive me, but there seems to be a lot of unhappy people around these days. Very unhappy. Whatever you’ve chosen to do, are you sure it was the only way to proceed? Could nothing else be done?’
‘I don’t know!’ Anastacia groaned in an agonised tone, ‘I don’t know anything anymore!’
Throwing herself down, she buried her face in the pillows. Celeste made a face and patted her back soothingly.
‘I’m sorry, Grace, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sure that whatever path you’ve chosen will come right.’
‘Will it, though?’ Anastacia demanded, suddenly sitting up again. Her hair was in disarray and not for the first time Celeste was aware of the dark, bruise-like circles under her eyes.
‘I’ve hurt everyone I care for, I’ve lost the best friend I’ve ever known, I’ve backed myself into an impossible corner with my father, and I’ve destroyed the person I love most in the world. How can it possibly come right?’
Celeste frowned, at a loss.
‘Is there any way you can fix things?’ she asked finally, ‘Can you find a way to tell the others? Or even just James?’
‘I’ve taken things too far. We’re in too deep now, Scorpius and Rose and I.’
The older girl’s voice was strained and rough.
‘If I back out now and I choose to tell them everything, Rose and Scorpius will pay any price I do. Perhaps even more. And that’s not even considering the danger the others would be in if they knew.’
‘We never tell anyone,’ Celeste nodded in defeated agreement. What choice did they have? What choice had they ever had?
‘I don’t want to talk about it anymore,’ Anastacia declared, struggling to keep her lower lip from trembling. ‘There must be something else we can discuss?’
She made a vain attempt to smile.
‘You’ve been downstairs – any new gossip since breakfast?’
‘Hmm, well, Creeten is preening over his reinstatement, although he does glare at Scorpius when he thinks no one’s looking.’
Creeten had been given a formal reprimand by Anastacia’s father in front of the entire Court, but was then allowed to retake his position as Head of the Guard. Now, however, he shared the position with Scorpius, who had greatly impressed his Grace with his actions.
‘But gossip? Let’s see…apart from Sylvia Blackthorn being shunned by almost the entire Gryffindor table, a developing attraction between a first year Weasley and a certain Scamander twin, some sort of…agreement being worked out by Jaya Sarin and your friend with the strange, ‘dread’-something hair and Rose and Scorpius being madly in love with each other?’
She shrugged blithely.
‘No. Nothing new. Oh, wait,’ she continued, pausing for effect, ‘I think I might be too. In love, that is.’
Anastacia smiled and breathed a laugh.
‘And who is it this week?’
‘Less of a who and more of a what – the what being the muscles on Fred Weasley’s rather divine chest.’
That raised a chuckle, and Celeste, firming her resolve, decided to strike while the iron was hot.
So to speak.
‘Actually, there is something else.’
‘Scorpius thought you should be warned. So that you weren’t surprised.’
The good humour faded rapidly from Anastacia’s face. Her eyes grew blank, but she continued to meet Celeste’s gaze.
‘The Potters and Weasleys – they rejected Sylvia this morning because she’s…with James.’
The single word held a wealth of questions and a tone that twisted Celeste’s heart.
‘I’m afraid so. According to Scorpius, Rose and Albus found them together. From what I hear, Rose in particular was most…displeased.’
There was brief period of silence in which Celeste wondered if she had gone too far.
The words were firm, decisive. Sitting up straighter, Anastacia took in a breath and let it out before she spoke again.
‘It’s no more than I deserve. The way I’ve treated him…he has no way of knowing that it was all for his sake.’
Gone was the pain in her voice. Celeste sat and marvelled at her resolve, and wondered wildly what she was supposed to do now.
Good friends are those who can lift you up when the world is collapsing around you, who can set you back on the solid earth and set the world to rights again.
But sometimes, even good friends can do nothing. And this was clearly one of those times.
Accepting her defeat, Celeste squeezed her friend’s shoulder briefly, pasted on a smile, and did the best she could.
‘Well. Now. You have lots of planning to do, I’m sure. I can help with some of that at least.’
Anastacia inclined her head slowly. Celeste bounced off the bed, trying to fill the painfully empty room with her energy.
‘Wonderful! Now, then,’ she declared, clapping her hands, ‘breakfast!’
The next couple of weeks passed in a haze. Anastacia was so busy trying to single-handedly finalise the arrangements for the Christmas Ball that she almost didn’t have time to think about the sorry situation she now found herself in.
Scorpius had already volunteered, and received permission, to escort her to the ball. Celeste promised to take care of all primping and dressing requirements. Rose secretly dropped by every now and then to reassure her and bolster her resolve. They were all being so nice and kind to her that it was almost stifling.
Yet, every time she was alone, it wasn’t to those three good friends that her mind turned. Rather, it was to another group of friends entirely.
It was those particular friends who occupied her thoughts one afternoon in December as she sat in the Head’s common room, going over some final plans. Roger Farlow, standing unobtrusively by the door, nearly got bowled over as an ecstatic girl burst through.
Celeste’s eyes were shining, her whole face lit up from within.
‘Celeste? What’s happened?’
‘Pas ici,’ she breathed, shooting a look at Roger Farlow, ‘not here.’
Excusing them both, Anastacia led the way into her room. When the door was shut behind them and they were sitting on the bed, Celeste, nearly bursting with the weight of her news, clasped both of Anastacia’s hands in her own.
‘Duardo Marquez has run off with his sister’s maid,’ she announced with no preamble, ‘they’re currently holed up somewhere in Switzerland. It’s a huge scandal.’
‘What?’ Anastacia breathed.
Surely she couldn’t have heard right…
‘Of course, his father’s gone straight out to get him back, but they covered their tracks well. The search hasn’t been very successful.’
The older girl’s voice was flat with shock.
‘Oh, there’s more – it turns out the maid…is a Muggle-born!’
Celeste stopped, frowned, and corrected herself.
‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but it does present a rather interesting twist on the situation, non?’
‘Father will never accept him now!’
Anastacia started to laugh, stopped herself and looked up, her eyes wide.
‘I don’t know what to do! This is…amazing!’
‘Don’t do anything, for now,’ Celeste cautioned, ‘I don’t think you’re supposed to know yet. Wait until your parents write to tell you.’
‘If they tell me,’ Anastacia corrected, and the other girl nodded wryly.
‘If they tell you. But you’re right – there’s no way your father will accept him now, which takes your list of prospective husbands down to, oh, I don’t know, none, maybe!’
Both of them burst out laughing in sheer, giddy relief. Anastacia realised that the prospect of the betrothal had been hanging over her head like an axe. It felt so good to be rid of it.
‘Now will you let me dress you?’ Celeste pouted plaintively, and Anastacia had to laugh.
‘Fine, fine, yes,’ she gave in graciously.
They both nearly fell off the bed as Celeste squealed and threw her arms around her.
‘Finally! You have to see what I had sent over for you!’
Anastacia submitted to the younger girl’s ministrations with a smile, doing her best to focus on the night ahead. The dress Celeste gave her was beautiful, the work she did on her hair and makeup was pure magic, and Anastacia tried, she really did, to let it all distract her.
Too bad it wasn’t quite that simple.
To an outside observer, it would seem that Hogwarts had, for one strange afternoon, gone completely mad. Or that the students had vanished altogether. Either way, it was fairly clear that this was no ordinary evening.
All over the school, girls were vying for mirror and bathroom space. In some dormitories, friendships were forgotten as some females nearly came to blows in the pursuit of perfection.
Other rooms saw a slightly higher level of decorum.
‘Bloody hell! Where are my bloody heels?’
‘Who the frick took my goddamn mascara?’
‘That’s my sodding dress you’re sitting on, you cow! If it creases, you are so beyond dead!’
‘Yet another peaceful evening in Gryffindor Tower,’ Jaya smiled to herself as she put the finishing touches on her makeup, prudently using a compact instead of fighting her dorm-mates for the mirrors.
Margie, having found her shoes at last, tottered over to the bed and held on to one of the posts as she attempted to slip them on.
‘Not all of us find it easy to make the transformation from student into goddess, Jay. At least have some compassion for those less fortunate ones out there. Myself being exhibit A.’
Jaya examined the girl standing behind her in the small mirror, scoffed and returned her attention to her makeup.
‘Shut up. As if you are. Poor old Terry is going to have heart failure when he sees you. That’s if he manages to look higher than your legs.’
Margie blushed and muttered something, smoothing her dress nervously.
‘Know so. Stop fiddling, take a breath and push those two bints out of the way so that you can see for yourself.’
‘Oi! Who are you calling a bint, bint?’
Margie smiled and elbowed her way in front of the two other seventh years currently fighting over the long mirror. Jaya watched her start to gradually gain confidence by the second with a slight smile.
Margie wasn’t the kind of girl who usually dressed up, but for this, their final chance at a school ball, she’d let Jaya and the Weasley and Potter girls talk her around. The result was a stunning green dress that perfectly matched her eyes, hugged her every and ample curves, and turned her into an old-school movie siren. Coupled with generous amounts of hair lotion, a bit of help with makeup, and the highest heels Jaya had ever seen, and Terry wasn’t going to know what hit him.
Jaya closed the compact with a snap and got to her feet.
‘Well, that’s me done. Anyone ready to come down yet?’
‘Of course I’m bloody not done, not with you lot hogging the mirror!’
Margie sidestepped, wobbled on her insane heels, and backed away from the disaster zone as quickly as she could.
‘I’ll come. This is madness, it is.’
She took the other girl’s arm for support and they slowly began to make their way down the stairs.
‘By the by, Jay,’ Margie murmured softly as they neared the bottom and the common room, from which the sounds of male voices were rising, ‘thanks for everything tonight. And…you look stunning, love.’
‘Ta,’ Jaya grinned, stepping into the common room.
And receiving confirmation of Margie’s compliment from the look on Sam’s face.
‘Sh-shall we?’ he managed to choke out when his facility for speech finally returned.
Behind them, Terry didn’t seem to be faring much better. In fact, the grand majority of boys in the room wore expressions ranging from shock to awe.
Jaya’s smile got wider, and she held out her hands to Margie, Daisy and Rose, all standing around her.
‘Come on, girls,’ she called, linking arms with her friends and leading them out of the common room, ‘we done good.’
The Entrance hall was in chaos. It was a battle just to make headway, and eventually Anastacia gave up trying to force her way through the crush and simply followed in Scorpius’ wake.
She saw Margie, glowing under Terry’s admiring and hotly possessive eyes. Jaya was hard to miss, dressed as she was in bright orange. More than a few girls around her were looking on with envy – of all of them, she was the only one who could pull the colour off.
Rose was wearing dark green, severely and simply cut, and was attracting many admiring looks, as was Daisy, who was sweetly beautiful in pale pink. Albus was standing next to them both, meeting each admiring look with a challenging stare.
All things considered, it was probably a good thing that the ball was only open to those in fifth year and above. Otherwise, the Potter and Weasley boys might even run out of manpower jinxing every male that looked at the female members of their family.
All this passed in a rush as Anastacia and Scorpius cut through the crowd on their way to the Great Hall. They reached the doors, and, all of a sudden, there they were – Sylvia Blackthorn, in a dress that looked about six sizes too small, and James, coldly dashing in a black tux and dress robes.
The four of them came face to face very suddenly, and momentary surprise showed on James’ face before he schooled it back into his usual cold, hard expression. Sylvia just glared snottily at the other two students.
Anastacia and Scorpius’ faces didn’t change for a moment. Stac had worn her courtier’s mask so much recently that it was becoming her default facial expression.
‘Oh. My. Gawd. That’s what you’re wearing? I thought even you had better taste.’
Sylvia’s nasal tones floated across to Anastacia, who ignored her. James was looking right through them both, and that stung enough that she just had to try and get his attention, regardless of her resolution.
But for once, her perfect English failed her.
‘James. You look…charment.’
She waited for him to reply. But he didn’t. He continued to look past the two of them as if they were not even there. Sylvia gave a simpering little giggle and shot the older girl a triumphant smirk.
Scorpius felt Anastacia’s hand tighten on his arm as she realised that James wasn’t going to answer her. He was about to jump in and say something when James turned to smile brilliantly at Sylvia.
‘Why don’t we go inside?’ he suggested smoothly, ‘There doesn’t seem to be anyone worth our while out here.’
And they turned and left the other two standing, stunned, watching them go.
‘He’s never…ignored me before.’
Anastacia’s breathing was shallow, coming in quick gasps, and Scorpius pulled her in front of him, framing her face in his hands.
‘Nast, breathe. You’ve got to pull yourself together.’
She nodded, making an effort to calm herself down, and he dropped his hands from her face and took her hand in his. Gently, he placed it once again on his sleeve.
‘Remember what we agreed? You’ve got to go in there now and pretend like everything’s fine, okay? Otherwise all this work will have been for nothing.’
She nodded again, closed her eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and opened them again.
Scorpius squeezed her hand and nodded to Professor Vem, who beckoned them over to the door to the Great Hall. Inside, Professor Longbottom cleared his throat and stepped towards the lectern.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, invited guests, welcome to the Christmas Ball! And now, to open the evening with the first dance, I give you our wonderful organizer and Head Girl, Anastacia Sangraal!’
The entire Hall was cheering as Anastacia and Scorpius made their way down the long central aisle to the dance floor set up in the centre of the room. They halted in the middle, bowing and curtseying to the Professors and guests lining the staff table. Then Scorpius took Anastacia in his arms and, as the music swelled around them, they began to dance.
James watched furiously from the sidelines. He tried desperately not to look, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the blonde and brown heads, so close together. Polite clapping rose from the people surrounding them, and other couples began to take to the floor. Sylvia tugged at his arm, and he reluctantly led her out to dance.
Anastacia’s face was like a mask of pain, her eyes downcast. Scorpius nudged her forehead with his own and smiled at her when she looked up.
‘Smile;’ he reminded her, ‘everyone’s watching.’
She remembered and did so at once, her face settling into a travesty of her normal bright grin, but it was enough to fool her watchers, if no one else.
I can’t do this anymore, she thought brokenly, ready to give up. But a little voice in her head piped up with Rose’s constant words.
She squared her shoulders and let the dance sweep her away once more.
On the other side of the room, Rose sat on a chair against the wall, twisting her hands, trying to breathe deeply. Everything was coming to a head, and yet it wasn’t the conclusion of their plan that she was worried about. She’d barely thought about that at all.
For some bizarre reason, she was more upset that Scorpius was dancing with Anastacia, and that scared her. It scared her because she didn’t understand it; he was a friend, a very good one, yes, but just a friend, after all. It wasn’t like she had any claim on him. And yet every time she looked over to the dance floor and saw them together, a little pain shot through her chest.
She clenched her hands into fists and tried to endure.
Anastacia’s attention was caught by an annoying little nasal giggle behind her. She lost her concentration for a moment and stumbled. Scorpius instantly stopped dancing and steadied her.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked, his eyes concerned.
She tried to smile, barely managing.
‘Of course,’ she assured him softly.
Scorpius didn’t look convinced.
‘Perhaps we shouldn’t dance anymore,’ he suggested.
Anastacia nodded gratefully. Scorpius bowed and lifted her fingers to his lips, looking for all the world like he kissed her hand. They were the only two who knew his lips brushed his own thumb on top of her fingers, and did not touch her at all.
James saw Anastacia stumble, saw Scorpius right her, and cursed under his breath. What right had that...that, that boy, to hold her against himself? Then he saw Scorpius lift Anastacia’s hand and he swore again, louder this time. Sylvia looked at him in surprise. Barely even thinking, he grabbed for a boy who was standing alone nearby.
‘You two dance, okay? I have to go.’
He didn’t wait to hear their reply, but turned on his heel and strode out of the hall.
Anastacia sensed a disturbance behind her and turned in time to see James palm Sylvia off and exit angrily. A quick glance around showed that her watchers were all engaged in other activities and not looking at her. They had expected her partner to look after her all evening and had dropped their posts.
She faced Scorpius again, her eyes frantic.
‘I have to…I can’t just…’ she didn’t try to explain.
How could she explain? She herself didn’t really understand the compulsion that was already pulling her out of the Hall, forcing her to follow the rapidly retreating figure.
Scorpius nodded, worry mixed with understanding in his eyes.
‘Be careful. Be quick,’ was all he said.
She turned and hurried after James.
The boy in question didn’t slow, didn’t turn, didn’t give any indication of having heard. He kept walking, pushing through the crowd of people milling around the dance floor and heading towards the door. Everyone around him looked so happy, so completely different from how empty and broken he felt inside.
Still he did not turn. He had reached the door, had passed through it, back into the entrance hall. There were hardly any people here now – they were all in the Great Hall. He kept going, striving just to put one foot in front of the other until he could get upstairs to Gryffindor Tower and his room and lock the door behind him, lock the world out forever.
That did it. He turned furiously to face the small girl who had followed him out of the hall.
She blinked at him confusedly.
‘Don’t call me that.’
His face was hard, his eyes burning. Anastacia took an involuntary step backwards.
‘You lost the right to call me that the moment you started going out with that git.’
For a moment her mouth hung open in surprise, then she firmed her jaw and stepped towards him again, her voice a fierce whisper.
‘I am sorry that you’re confused, I’m sorry that you don’t understand what’s going on. I’m sorry you’re hurt, I am. I know you don’t trust me anymore, but once you did. Please…trust me now?’
It was a risk, saying that, even though there was no one around to hear it. But it didn’t seem to do any good. James glared balefully at her.
‘It’s not just that! It’s what you’ve chosen, all of it; you’ve…you’ve….betrayed…your house.’
‘I have not!’
He wasn’t even listening, wasn’t registering the anger and hurt in her eyes.
‘I get that you’re the Head Girl and you’re supposed to represent everyone, yeah, alright, but you’re a Gryffindor! Not a Slytherin! And yet you never come to Quidditch, you hang out with gits like Malfoy all the time, and as soon as you leave the tower, it’s like you’re a different person, someone just like them, someone I don’t even recognize. Just like now. For all I know, this could be the real you. The other you, the one I’m friends with, that could be the lie.’
His fists were clenched at his sides, the short nails biting painfully into his palms.
‘You’re so wrapped up in bloody secrets that you don’t even know who you are!’
‘Stop it!’ she cried forcefully, ‘Just stop!’
Unbeknownst to the two of them, the entrance hall had started to fill with people once more; the members of the Weasley and Potter families, finding their fearless leader missing, had gone looking for him, some dragging their friends along. Hot on their heels was a furious Sylvia, looking for her erstwhile date, and Scorpius, aristocratic features pinched with worry.
Scorpius moved to stand on the other side of the hall to the gathered Gryffindors. Rose hung back by the door with Daisy and Jaya. Albus came to stand next to her, his face confused.
‘What’s going on?’ he whispered, but Rose shrugged noncommittally and didn’t answer.
James was too angry to notice the small crowd they were attracting or to see the tight look Scorpius was sending his way.
‘Who’s the one who found you that night, hey? Me. Not him. Because you’re one of us, and we protect each other.’
His voice was pleading now, begging her to understand.
‘They weren’t there to look after you then, were they? What makes you think they’ll look after you now?’
‘James…not here…’ Her voice had dropped to a whisper. Anastacia bit her trembling lip in an attempt to hold back her uncustomary tears. Suddenly she was afraid. The contempt, the…dislike in his eyes wasn’t something she’d ever had to deal with before. She didn’t know what to do.
‘That’s enough,’ said Scorpius, stepping away from the wall and drawing the group’s attention. James’ eyes widened as he took in the small crowd for the first time. He looked back to where Anastacia still stood, unsure of what to do.
For a moment, no one moved. Conflicting emotions rose in his eyes. To the enthralled spectators, he seemed to be a man fighting to make a decision.
Finally, decision evidently reached, he took a small step forward. Then another. Then a third.
Which brought him very close to where Stac stood. Eyes locking with hers, he raised one hand and brought it up to almost touch the side of her face.
Anastacia couldn’t move, couldn’t tear her eyes away from the hazel ones above her. As James’ face drew ever closer, she took in a sudden, almost frightened breath.
James froze, his approach stopping suddenly. Changing tack, he dropped the hand he had brought up and instead took one of Stac’s hands in his own.
Keeping his eyes fastened on hers, he bent slightly from the waist, raised the hand to his lips and brushed a kiss across the top of her fingers.
In exactly the same place that Scorpius had, to all intents and purposes, kissed her earlier.
A shock like…lightning coursed through them both. Awareness blossomed in its wake.
Stac tried desperately to draw a breath, her lungs refusing to work properly. She had defeated the urge to let her eyes close when his lips had first brushed her fingers, but had been able to do nothing against the slight shudder that rocked her body, running from her head to her toes.
And James had seen it. That much was evident in his slight smile, in the almost smug expression in his eyes when he straightened once more. His voice, when he spoke, was almost normal – cocky, bright, assured that whatever he wished would happen.
‘Alright, then. Choose.’
‘Choose. Now. Them or us,’ and he pointed to the group of Gryffindors, including Rose and Albus, standing by the door. Then he jutted his jaw out at Scorpius, whose face was blankly impassive.
‘Him or me.’
Anastacia’s mouth fell open. She floundered for a moment, unable to say anything. The smug look slowly faded from James’ eyes. His face took on the same darkened, closed look that it had worn for the past weeks.
‘So that’s how it is.’
‘Ja-Potter, I…wait, I didn’t say–’
‘You didn’t have to. I should’ve…’
He shot her a disgusted look, his hands clenching into fists at his side.
‘Don’t bother coming back to Gryffindor Tower.’
He turned to leave and began to walk slowly, brokenly, towards the stairs.
Scorpius went to Anastacia’s side, but she shook him off angrily. He was throwing her out? After everything they’d been through together, he wanted her out?
Hurt, betrayal, anger – no, fury – pulsed through her. For one second, for one, brief moment, she couldn’t be who she usually was.
She couldn’t hold back the emotion behind a courtier’s façade and pretend everything was fine.
She didn’t have that strength anymore.
Somehow, somewhere inside, Anastacia found a tiny speck of willpower left. She carefully drew it out, bullying her clamouring wits into submission, and made herself her tight throat open enough to let words through.
‘I should have known not t-to trust a P-Potter,’ she managed to choke out.
Her voice was soft, but the entrance hall was so quiet that her words were as clear as if she had shouted. There were gasps and a collective intake of breath from those watching. James halted, and for a moment it seemed he would turn and speak…
But the moment passed, and he went on once more, walking faster now, running when he got to the stairs.
Anastacia waited until he was out of sight before allowing the rigid control that held her upright to drop. Once again Scorpius reached for her and once again she pushed him away.
‘No!’ she whispered furiously, her face twisting with pain, ‘No more. I’m done. With all of this. I won’t have any part of it.’
Turning on her heel and yanking up her long skirt, she stalked off in the direction of the Head’s corridor. Scorpius gave a muttered curse and hurried to follow in her wake.
The rest of the students stood rooted to the spot, dumbfounded at what they’d just witnessed. Sylvia and the few friends who had accompanied her out looked stunned. One by one, they started to whisper and then chatter to each other, drifting back into the Great Hall as they did.
Only the group of Gryffindors stayed, not sure what to make of the scene. When they were the only ones left in the hall, Albus let out a low whistle.
‘Well, not sure about you, but I certainly did not see that coming. Something else, perhaps, but not that.’
Daisy set her hands to her hips and was glaring in the direction of the departed Slytherins.
‘How dare she! After all he’s done for her!’ she burst out angrily, unconsciously echoing her friend’s earlier sentiments.
Jaya was shaking her head thoughtfully.
‘Well, if nothing else, it shows that Scorpius is a good guy, at least. I mean, James was manhandling his girlfriend and he barely reacted.’
‘Yeah, catch me letting some guy get away with that,’ Sam agreed in a low voice, ‘so don’t go getting any ideas, hey?’
He slung his arm around Jaya’s shoulders and started to lead her inside. Terry joined them, deep in conversation with Josh and Dominique.
‘I have to say, I agree with Jaya,’ Margie said in agreement, ‘they do make a good couple. They just sort of…fit, don’t they? What do you think, Rose?’
Rose didn’t look at them as she pushed away from the wall she’d been leaning on and headed for the stairs.
‘I think I’m going to go to bed.’
The three of them watched her go. She’d almost reached the top of the staircase before Daisy sighed and gave a resigned shrug of her shoulders.
‘I guess that means I should probably go after her.’
She bid the other two a good night and followed her friend, calling loudly for Rose to wait.
‘What a night,’ Margie breathed in amazement, ‘who knew this was going to happen when we got up this morning?’
‘Oh, I think some people had an inkling,’ Albus theorised softly. Margie looked at him questioningly.
‘I have a feeling it’s been brewing for awhile,’ he confided, ‘although I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea why the fireworks went off tonight, of all nights.’
But Margie had caught a glimpse of the two dancing couples earlier in the evening. She smiled wryly.
‘Now there’s where I might be able to shed some light on the situation. Why don’t we go back into the Hall and I’ll fill you in?’
Albus very gallantly offered his arm, which she took, and they rejoined the, now somewhat subdued, festivities.
Hello dearies! I'm back! And, to apologize for my most terrible absence, I bequeath to you a lovely long chapter. Am I forgiven?
And for those of you who are cranky at me for the shockingly depressing tenor of my last few chapters, I have three words for you;
Two To Go.
Make of that what you will. So, like? Dislike? Favourite bits? Parts that you hated? Let me know - I love your feedback. It is like manna from heaven, my dear ones.
So after that horrid long note, I bit you farwell for a short time and promise to return soon.
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