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Chapter 12 : A Very Gryffindor Christmas
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“Well, I suppose this is where we part.”
Remus and Stephanie were only a few feet away from the Gryffindor portrait entrance, purposely so that they’d be out of earshot from the Fat Lady. It had always astounded him the speed at which the portraits could move in order to spread gossip. Not that he minded much. It was when such news reached human ears that he’d get frustrated.
“Strictly speaking, I should be the one sending you back to the Ravenclaw Tower.”
She threw back her head and laughed, unconcerned with the volume of such an act. One of the many perks of being Head Girl.
“I’m a big girl, I can take care of myself.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
They’d just finished patrolling the castle. It had been a peaceful round. With the rest of the Marauders on holiday, the castle was momentarily free from chaos, Peeves being the only source of any kind of disturbance.
As much as he loved it when his friends injected their own special brand of life into Hogwarts, the serene stillness of the castle was not without its appeal. It was only during his prefect rounds that he could fully appreciate it, when the castle (most of it anyway) was asleep. The solace it offered cleansed his soul in a way that only chocolate could.
Not that patrolling was boring. Stephanie had talked a mile a minute, from when they’d bumped into each other in the Entrance Hall before dinner up until her insisting that she dropped him off at the Gryffindor Tower.
“It was great catching up, Remus. I’ve missed you, you know.”
“It is a busy year for us both,” he replied, referring to her upcoming NEWTs and his own OWLS.
“I know. It isn’t just that.” She grinned. “Don’t take this the wrong way but you’ve been looking a bit worse for wear. More so than usual.”
He flushed. “Probably just stress.”
She raised a sceptical eyebrow. “Is anything the matter? Sharing is caring after all,” she chuckled but in a flash switched to a more sombre tone. “You can tell me anything. It’ll stay between us. Swear to Circe.”
Could it really be that easy? Could he really unload onto her the burden he’s been carrying around with him all this while? As he contemplated her earnest, eager face, he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. He’d be openly admitting that he was betraying one of his best friends, making the sin all the more real. Honesty may be the best policy but denial was the safest option.
Forcing a smile, he said in his most convincing tone, “I’m fine, Steff. Everything is fine.”
Her evident disappointment was masked by a nonchalant shrug. “If you say so. Hey,” she gave his thin shoulder an encouraging squeeze, “You know I’m always here for you right? If you ever need anything...”
“There’s nothing to worry about.”
He appreciated her good intentions, he really did. But her fierce maternal instinct, while it contributed to her popularity and effectiveness as Head Girl, was less than appreciated as a friend, more so in girlfriend terms. It had been one of the factors of their break-up, amicable as it was. He had been ill-equip to handle that kind of mollycoddling. In short, he had no real need or desire for a second mother.
Stephanie still looked unconvinced but decided not to interrogate him further. Instead, she embraced him and wished him well. “Take care of yourself.”
“Oh, I didn’t expect you to still be up.”
Remus had stayed outside a moment longer to watch Stephanie walk away, ensuring that she was safe as long as she was within his line of vision. Once she’d turned the corner, he had to tap the portrait awake, which was a task in itself judging by the many empty liquor bottles strewn about on her floor. It really was baffling how portraits managed to get themselves intoxicated when they were only paint on canvas. The wonders of magic, he supposed. Some things were just beyond common human comprehension.
He assumed that the common room would be empty given the hour so imagine his surprise when he was met by Dollie. At the sound of his voice, she gave a start and swivelled around.
“Merlin, you gave me a fright! Don’t ever do that again!” she snapped. She squinted through the dark, aided only by the roaring fire now behind her. “Oh, it’s you. Sorry.” Her voice was noticeably softer this time.
“You just startled me, that’s all.”
“A natural mistake, both mine and yours. It’s so late, I assumed you’d be in bed by now.” Well, he’d hoped anyway. Then he wouldn’t have had to see her and risk anything. Even now, he was keeping a safe distance from her, rooted to the spot in front of the portrait entrance.
She shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep. So I thought I’d come down here awhile. Hey,” she eyed him suspiciously, “What are you doing back so late anyway? Going solo with the ‘maraudering’?” She smirked at the last sentence.
He chuckled. “Quite the opposite, actually. I was doing rounds with Stephanie.”
A strange expression came over her face just then. “You were out with Shooting-Starr?” A pause. “She’s awfully nice. Pretty too.”
“She is,” he agreed.
“Must have been fun.”
“As fun as patrolling could ever be, I suppose.”
With the lull in the conversation, it was perhaps his cue to go upstairs. That would have been the best, the right, the smart thing to do. Yet, it wasn’t what he wanted. Not by a long shot. But he had to do something. He must look like ridiculous, standing there like some speechless moron. He wanted to say something further but he drew a blank. She wasn’t being helpful herself, fiddling with the interior of the sofa. It was then he made his first mistake.
With more confidence than he felt, he went and plopped himself on the couch, right next to Dollie. He turned and saw that she was staring him agog.
“Is something the matter?”
She didn’t answer, only shaking her head in a discomfited manner. He waited for her to say something more, it looked like she wanted to but no words came. Her attention went back to the fireplace, ablaze in its natural orange-red rather than artificial blue, the only source of light in the room.
“What were you doing before I came in?” he asked, in an effort to rid the silence.
Her mouth quirked. “Exactly what I’m doing now.”
“And here I was worrying about disturbing you.”
“Never.” A pause. “I was just wondering what to do,” she continued. “It’s quite dull, you know, with no one here. I thought I’d like it but...”
“It gets rather lonely.”
“Exactly.” She smiled just then, a rather sad smile had he been looking close enough. But it was too dark and too risky for him to do anything of that sort. Bad enough that the shadows mocked him as they accentuated every curve of her face. Every facial imperfection she may have had (though he never saw any) was hidden beneath a veil of darkness. Perhaps it was same in his case? He could only hope.
“So what do you do at times like these? You mentioned that you stay behind when everyone else has left for break.”
He shrugged. “Sleep usually.”
“Not an option for me, unfortunately.”
“I didn’t know you have insomnia.”
“Most people don’t. Pomfrey’s tried giving me a few potions to help but none have been particularly helpful. Some even have... unpleasant side-effects,” she frowned. “Anyway, in an odd way, I rather enjoy it.”
“So what do you do then? Instead of sleeping?”
A stray ray of firelight flickered across her lips, revealing a shrewd smirk. “I don’t know if I want to tell you that.”
“I might get in trouble.”
Did she not know to whom she was talking to? Anything she could possibly confess to was peanuts compared to what the Marauders did on a regular basis. Then again, perhaps he shouldn’t underestimate her trouble-making capabilities. The wiliness in her tone was hard to ignore. He was intrigued.
He held up one hand and placed the other on his chest, reciting sombrely, “I solemnly swear that whatever it is will stay between us.”
“Oh ha ha, very funny,” she rolled her eyes. Narrowing them, she regarded him suspiciously, “You really do swear?”
“Not just swear. Solemnly swear.”
“As if there’s a difference,” she laughed, a deep throaty laugh that reverberated off the stone walls. The suspicion evaporated. “Follow me.”
Follow her he did, off the couch and out the hall. Creeping past a snoozing Fat Lady and several other portraits, they manoeuvred their way through the shadowed labyrinth of the castle. Remus had no problem doing so, he’d made this trek a dozen and more times with the boys and on his patrolling. But somehow, he knew not to say so to Dollie as he didn’t want to offend her in any way. Although she didn’t say explicitly where they were headed, he had a good enough guess. The increasing elevation told him they were going up one of Hogwarts many towers though the darkness made it tricky to tell which one. After dodging a festively intoxicated Peeves, who seemed to have mistaken one of the gargoyles as a female poltergeist, they came upon a flight of stairs leading up to the tower.
Before they could ascend the stone steps, Dollie hesitated. She turned to him and asked almost anxiously, “You sure you’re up for this?”
“I’m game if you are.”
He was surprised by how much certainty he felt as he said it, certainty that only intensified as that mischievous grin returned. The anticipation was so exhilarating; he never wanted them to reach their destination. He even would have been perfectly content with never knowing what it was she wanted to show him, if it meant savouring her adorably childish glee. But reach it they did, in the form of a heavy door, one that she was able to open with surprising ease.
“Shouldn’t it be locked?”
She shook her head. “Only the ones used for classes are, like astronomy and divination. This one isn’t really used for anything.”
His guess had been correct. They were atop one of the castle’s towers, though which one he couldn’t be exactly sure. He was sure he’d never been here before. It certainly didn’t look familiar. The marauders never saw any reason, nor could muster enough initiative to climb up the countless stairs leading up to the tower for any other reason than class. The veranda was completely devoid of anything, no clue to suggest its purpose. In any event, it was a perfect spot for seclusion.
He went to the balustrade and hoisted himself on it. The scope of the view was broad, with the grounds stretching beneath his feet and ending at the lake, which acted as a somewhat incredibly large mirror, perfectly reflecting the night sky and speckled with the stars. To his left was the Forbidden Forest and to his right the Quidditch Pitch. One could only see the Forbidden Forest from the Astronomy Tower so this offered a spectacular alternative.
Remus had been so entranced by the view that for some time, it escaped his notice that he was sitting on the brick barrier alone. Twisting his neck, he saw that Dollie had only taken a few steps away from the door since they’d been here.
“What are you doing all the way over there? You’re missing an incredible view.”
“I’m fine where I am, thanks.”
“But you can’t possibly see any of this,” he gestured ahead of him, “from there.”
She firmly shook her head. “It’s alright. I usually don’t go that far.”
“Why not?” he asked, confused by her refusal.
“This is the safe zone.” She waved around her to demonstrate what she meant.
He still didn’t know what on earth she meant by that. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, ironically aided by the moonlight, he suddenly understood.
“Are – are you afraid?”
She ignored the question but he already knew the answer. The tremor in her body, the ragged breathing... These were all signs he was more than acquainted with. He got off and went to her. After much coaxing, he finally got her to follow him to the barrier. As best as he could, he guided her onto the ledge, wincing as her nails dug into his arm. Once they were both seated, she started to hyperventilate, shaking so hard she was in danger of falling off the ledge. In a moment of panic, he wrapped an arm around her in an effort to calm her down, giving her forearm a comforting squeeze. Once her breathing went back to being even, he made to release her from his grip.
“Please, don’t let go,” she begged, the fear still palpable.
She couldn’t possibly know what she was asking of him. On the other hand, he couldn’t deny her, not of anything. So he held on, in spite of his better judgement, a recurring theme for the evening it seemed. Although he couldn’t escape her touch, he ensured total control of his other senses.
“You’re right,” she said.
“It really is beautiful. Especially the sky. Look at all those stars.”
Indeed, the sky was clearer than he’d ever seen it in the past few months. It was almost impossible to tell that it’d been raining earlier in the day. The sheer effort of the earlier downpour must have exhausted the clouds, most of which had turned into mist that clung to the air.
“Isn’t that Ursa Major?”
He looks to where she’s pointing and watches as she traces the shape in the sky.
“You’re certain it isn’t Ursa Minor?” he teased.
She tilted her head to the side, her brow furrowed. “No, I’m pretty sure it’s the Great Bear.”
Impressed with her astronomy knowledge, he tested her further. “What about that one, over there?”
The distance of the stars forced her to squint. She took longer to answer this time, wanting to ensure she’d be correct. After a few minutes, with a hint of pride, she answered, “Pisces. My favourite.”
She hesitated before replying, “It’s a rather silly reason. It’s because I was born under the sign.”
“Yeah? Me too.”
They exchanged a beam. The game continued and when they inexplicably ran out of proper constellations, they made up their own. These ranged from the average to the absurd. One that Remus kept insisting looked like a sword-wielding Dumbledore riding a fire-breathing unicorn almost made Dollie fall off the ledge in hysterics. Her anxiety evaporated as the game progressed, her body no longer stiff with fear. She was actually enjoying herself, laughing and smiling more than he’d ever seen her, even with Sirius. The thought filled him with both guilt and triumph.
When their imaginations finally ran dry, they lapsed into a comfortable silence. Subconsciously, she rested her head on his shoulder, so easily that it might have been mistaken as something that occurred quite often. Of course, he played it cool although silently hoping that she couldn’t feel his neck throbbing with the racing of his pulse. Even then, he could easily blame it on the temperature, which was slowly dropping the longer they stayed out there. The wind was also picking up, relentlessly blowing her hair into his face, assaulting his senses with her scent (orchids?).
Averting his eyes downwards, he spotted her hand on her thigh, lying there as though... expectant of something. Was it meant for him? Was he supposed to just... grab it? That can’t be right. What if she let go? What if she recoiled? What if she laughed in his face? He grew dizzy with all the possibilities and before he could think his words through, they came tumbling out his mouth.
“We should go before we get caught by someone.”
She shot up to an upright position. Beneath his grip, he could feel her stiffen.
“Okay,” she said flatly but didn’t make the first move.
Making sure that he was still somewhat holding on to her, he slid off the ledge and was there to catch her when she had to come down as well. She was in his arms a few seconds too long when he finally let go, avoiding her eyes, those eyes that were too big, too blue, too... her. Eyes that were too translucent to contain stars, set in a face that glowed in the dark as eerily as the moon above them. But the moon and the stars stayed where they were as the two teenagers left the tower, helpless to either warn or protect them from what was to come.
“Dollie, wake up.”
“Five more minutes...”
“Normally, I’d comply readily but seeing as you’re practically on top of me, I have to respectfully decline the request.”
She mumbled some angry gibberish and buried her face deeper into the pillow, hoping to drown out the noise. Damn Viv, can’t she ever let a sleeping Kent lie? Even on holiday, Dollie wasn’t allowed one second of peace... hang on! Vivian was supposed to be sunning on a beach somewhere. She can’t be in two places at once and since she would never choose being in a chilly castle over sun and sand, Dollie’s muddled logic went to the obvious inference. That can’t be her friend’s voice demanding her to wake up but now that her head was clearing up, it didn’t feel like she was on her pillow either...
She meant to sit up but, in a moment of pure shock, fell off the couch instead. Remus was politely trying to stifle laughter but in her embarrassment, she perceived the gesture as being just as bad as if she did laugh.
“Don’t laugh at me!” she snapped and immediately regretted it when his face fell.
“Sorry,” he said and extended a hand to help her up.
Once they were at level, she noticed something decidedly unusual.
“Why are we wearing the same clothes from yesterday?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Am I supposed to?” she asked, stricken with momentary fear. What exactly happened last night?
“I should think so, seeing as alcohol was in no way involved.” He observed her continuing confusion and laughed in spite of himself. “Vivian wasn’t exaggerating when she said inferi were more alert than you are after a nightcap.”
Her responding glare wasn’t as menacing as she’d like it to be. It was more of a pouting squint, since she hadn’t rubbed the sleep from her eyes yet. Nevertheless, he surrendered readily enough.
“After we came back from the tower, you fell asleep. Since it wasn’t possible to carry you to your dorm, I stayed with you on the couch. Not that I had much choice in the matter since you were practically on top of me but you looked so peaceful, it would have been a shame to wake you. Even the drooling couldn’t deter me.”
“I don’t drool!”
“The saliva on my shirt begs to differ.”
Her face began to burn with mortification as he rotated his shoulder to relieve the stiffness. Noticing her expression, he smiled in an effort to put her at ease.
“Why are we still standing around? It’s Christmas morning!”
Only at his exclamation did she notice the decorations that hadn’t been there the night before. The room was bedecked in strings of tinsel and fairy lights. Shiny Christmas baubles floated in the air, red and gold baubles that conveniently served as both Christmas and Gryffindor colours. Wreaths hung on hooks while what looked like miles and miles of holly and garlands were draped all over the room. On the mantle of fireplace hung two red stockings. On closer inspection, each had hers and Remus’ names stitched on it and were overflowing with sweets she recognized from Honeydukes.
“I didn’t know Hogwarts put these out,” she said as she admired the stockings.
“Normally they don’t. I just happened to stir while the house elves were decorating last night. Thought it’d be a nice treat and since it was only the two of us in the tower, they were happy to oblige. And that’s not even the best part.”
“What could possibl -” she trailed off when she turned around.
Remus was standing beside what could possibly qualify as the most magnificent Christmas tree she had ever seen. Covered in every possible decoration conceived by mankind, it was truly a sight to behold. However, it ascended to the next level of brilliance by being topped with, instead of the customary gold star, a lion’s head wearing a Santa hat. Adorable, just like the teenager who at that moment more closely resembled a little boy on Christmas morning. Come to think of it...
He had waited patiently for her, sitting down only when she had. The first gifts to be open were the ones from families, the obligatory Christmas jumpers which they immediately put on, hers a bright sky-blue hue with a snowflake design, his a deep forest-green, its borders made up of what looked to be wands, books, brooms, etc.
“Where did yours come from?”
“Your jumper. Did you have it specially made? Such an unusual design.”
“You could say that.” He gave a long pause. Just when she thought he wasn’t going to answer, he replied, “My mum made it.”
“No kidding? My mum can’t sew on a button, much less knit an entire jumper. Must be nice, having a mother who can make clothes for you.”
She rummaged through the pile for Lily’s and Vivian’s gifts, barely noticing Remus’ unresponsiveness. Lily’s made a much louder noise than Vivian’s, which made it the obvious choice to be opened first. However, nothing could have prepared her for what was inside.
Remus looked up from his own half-opened gift. She met his questioning gaze with a bewildered one of her own.
“She gave me a rock.”
“Lily, incredibly enough. A rock. Of all things, a rock!”
“Not just any rock, a pedigreed rock.”
He drew her attention to the side of the cardboard box the rock came in. Printed on the side was ‘This box contains one genuine pedigreed Pet Rock’. There was even a manual, ‘The Care and Training of your Pet Rock’, which Remus was flipping through, unable to keep an amused smile off his face.
“Fascinating. There are instructions for how to train and care for the, ahem, ‘pet’, that are really quite clever. Muggles are much funnier than we give them credit for.”
Unable to keep the scowl off her face, she said tersely, “Anything in there about attacking?”
“As a matter of fact -”
“Good. I want to have it properly ‘trained’ to greet Lily when she comes back.”
“I’m sure she meant this as a joke...” he attempted to soothe her antagonism.
She sighed wearily, “I know. She does it every year, gives me and Vivian a muggle trinket for laughs. I guess I was just caught off-guard.” A memory flashed in her mind, “Two Christmases ago, she gave us each a ‘Magic 8-ball’ that answers any questions asked. Muggle magic, of course, but Vivian started using it for Divination exams. Best part was that she began getting top marks. Frustrated Lily to no ends, it did,” she chuckled appreciatively, her own anger fading.
“Sounds a lot like James. His parents collect dark detectors so he always gives us ‘pocket’ sized ones. Handy, considering the times we’re living in now.”
Determined to disallow what was happening in the outside world spoil what was supposed to be a joyous occasion, she ignored his last remark. Dollie moved on to Vivian’s gift, which as expected, contained sand and seashells, her own unique way of reminding everyone she was spending Christmas in the Caribbean rather than cold, rainy England. Nestled among sand and seashells however was an exquisite batik sundress with intricate beading, clearly the work of a skilled native.
As she admired the dress, she noticed Remus was reading a Christmas card, his forehead furrowed in thought. His manner struck as considerably odd for card-reading, which was why she asked him what was the matter. He replied that the card was from the marauders, saying that they would give him his present in person when they returned. Dollie nodded and turned her attention back to the presents she hadn’t gotten to yet. One happened to catch her eye, the name on the tag a bigger surprise than Lily’s gift.
“Potter got me a present.”
Even Remus appeared taken aback. She and James barely spoke and since he’d never given her anything before, she didn’t know why he should start now. Until Remus suggested that perhaps it was his way of making amends for the ‘flying date’ incident. This didn’t appease her as much as the niggling feeling that Sirius had somehow coerced James into it. She carefully unwrapped it, fearing the worst when she was pleasantly surprised. It was a pocket-sized sneakoscope.
“We had one of those once. Made constant noise, wouldn’t stop whistling until Sirius couldn’t stand it any longer and chucked it out the window. Pity, it was such an expensive model too,” Remus smiled fondly while nibbling on a chocolate frog from an opened box on his lap.
“Now why should it have made so much noise?” she asked, her eyebrow rose in mock suspicion.
“No idea. James reckoned it was faulty,” Remus replied, innocently.
“What is it?”
“Erm, no, nothing,” she blushed. “It’s just... there’s nothing from Black.” Try as she might, she couldn’t help feeling rather dejected. This reaction surprised her. It had crossed her mind once or twice (or more) what Sirius would give her. In fact, if she was being truly honest, she’d been rather looking forward to it. And now, nothing, not even a card. She wouldn’t see him until the first day of term.
“Cheer up, Dollie. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation.” When she didn’t reply, he cleared his throat, “If, umm, if it makes you feel any better, I, erm, I got you something.”
This revelation immediately drove Sirius out of her mind. Remus had gotten her a present? It was something she’d dearly hoped for but hadn’t dared expect. A Christmas miracle if there ever was such a thing. She couldn’t stop her heart from beating a little faster as he fumbled under the tree, emerging with her present. Modestly wrapped in green tissue paper and a red bow, she applied more care in unwrapping it than she had on the other presents. It was a leather-bound notebook with an attached purple ribbon as a bookmark.
“I thought it might prove useful, a place for you to jot down notes and spells and charms and... I could even draw diagrams and enchant them so that they move and you can see the wand positions and movements and practice better. If you want to refer to anything you already wrote down, just write it on the ribbon and it’ll find the page for you and mark it.” He said all this in a rush of words. He seemed to be waiting for her response and when she didn’t immediately give one, he almost apologetically mumbled, “I know it isn’t much but -”
She suddenly stood up. “Wait here.” She bolted up to her dormitory and headed straight to her trunk. Rummaging through the mess, she found what she was looking for, tucked underneath some dress robes for safe-keeping. She’d contemplated for weeks whether to give it to him or not, leaning towards the latter. But the notebook changed her mind. Apprehension tugged at her heart as she came down the stairs but her resolve was stronger.
With trembling hands, she presented him with the gift. Once it left her hands, they hurried to find comfort in raking through her locks, something she hadn’t done in awhile. He mirrored her previous removal of wrapping paper, delicate and precise. He seemed stunned as he held up her present, a pair of thick brown gloves.
“I noticed you didn’t have gloves so – so I got you a pair. I had my sister owl them from Italy. She chose them. Apparently, they’re the height of fashion there. At least, that’s what she assured me.” She began to fidget as he put them on, examining them with a scrutiny that made her anxious. “You don’t like it,” she said forlornly.
“No, no!” he hastily reassured her. “It’s not that, it’s.... It’s just that, and I mean this in the best way possible, you shouldn’t have, Dollie. You really needn’t have. It’s too good for me.”
“Are you mental? After all that you’ve done for me this term, this is hardly anything at all. I really do appreciate you, Remus. I may not say it a lot, or show it for that matter but I do. I hope you know that. I couldn’t ask for a better teacher.” Her head tilted to one side, regarding him warmly. She clutched the notebook to her chest. “This is the most thoughtful gift anyone’s ever given me. I don’t know how to thank you...”
“You just did.” He held up his glove hands. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
“Now I know you’re fibbing.”
“I’m hurt! Everyone knows you’re not supposed to tell fibs on Christmas.”
His comical mock horror was more than she could take and failing in suppressing it, she began roaring with laughter. He soon joined her. Their gaiety drowned out the whistling made by the sneakoscope, forgotten underneath discarded wrapping paper.
A/N: Happy belated Christmas and New Year! Leave me the best gift of all in the form of a review. ;)
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