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Brains & Brawn by soliloquy
Chapter 16 : A Disappearing Act Done Poorly
Rating: 15+Chapter Reviews: 4

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Chapter Sixteen: A Disappearing Act Done Poorly

The few weeks had passed uneventfully. It was dreary. But it had been continuously dreary since late November. Alex had stared at me sadly when I levitated my trunk out of the common room. She couldn’t believe that I was going to be spending the holidays with Claudia.

It was too surreal for her. After all, how many times had Alex complained to me about Claudia? Uncountable. It had been her sport.

I was waiting for the train to begin moving. Rain streamed angrily down the glass panes of the window. Claudia sat across from me, soaked, but still perfect. Her brown hair fell gracefully around her face, framing it. Her skin would have been flawless if it weren’t for the single mole on her right cheek. It sat underneath her right eye, a blemish in a sea of creamy white.

“The week passed quickly, didn’t it?” she asked, her clear eyes fixed on me.

“Freakishly quick.” I agreed.

Exams had been taken. Conversations were held. I flitted through those everyday activities as though on auto-pilot. I briefly conversed with Piper about Ritchie, and how she had never felt her heart pound so quickly before. I recalled Claudia sneaking through the library.

I mostly kept to myself these past weeks. It was easier, that way.

To be honest, there was a lot of tension between Alex and I. We had a brief moment of peace that disappeared when I told Claudia that I was spending the holidays with her. Alex looked betrayed, and the more I tried to bring it up, the more she insisted that it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Except, to her, it was.

“What are our plans once we reach King’s Cross?” I inquired. “How far are you from Diagon Alley?”

“Usually, we travel by Floo.” Claudia shrugged her shoulders, not really answering my question. “And usually, the House Elf wants to pick me up, but it ends up being someone else that picks me up...I don’t know about today.” A breath escaped her lips. A slight puff of air that fogged the window. “Mum says she’s going to pick us up, though -- I really hope that doesn’t happen. I’d like to put you off meeting mummy dearest for as long as I can.”

I wanted to ask why, but I felt like that it might have been too personal. I didn’t want to intrude where I wasn’t invited.

“I hope you don’t mind if it’s usually just the two of us,” she turned towards me, a genuine smile on her face. Her tone was worried. “Mum goes off and does her charity rubbish. She thinks she’s a grand person because she helps the ‘less fortunate.’ And Father probably won’t be home until around dinner or maybe after it. He’s frequently out on business.”

“I don’t mind,” I reassured her. “It’s much better than hearing my parents bicker with each other and pry into my life constantly.” I laughed. “It’s ridiculous. My mum is always trying to force me to become something I don’t know if I can become. It’s always, ‘Study hard, Charlotte! Good fortune doesn’t fall from the heavens, you know...’” I rolled my eyes, and leaned heavily against the side of the compartment.

“It’s a wonder you’re not a Ravenclaw,” Claudia mused. “With brains like yours.”

“I always thought I’d be a ‘Claw.” I told her honestly. “But the sorting hat had other ideas. Told me some rubbish about having an inner Gryffindor within me and that I wouldn’t realize until I fully embraced my destiny. What sort of destiny does a girl like me have?”

It took me a second to realize that I had revealed more about my inner thoughts to Claudia than I had ever told Alex. I clammed up, my mouth shutting hastily.

Claudia laughed at me. I felt as though her blue eyes were piercing me. Literally. A chill shot down my spine.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Charlotte,” she said softly. “We all have our destinies. We all have our opinions. It’s about time that you’ve stated yours.”

“What about you?” I ventured bravely. “You keep to yourself an awful lot, too. Shouldn’t you state your own thoughts, too?”

Her eyes misted over. They looked almost dead, but her lips twitched in amusement.

“You want to know what the sorting hat told me?” Claudia leaned closer, her pale face close to mine. “He told me that I’m not what I fear I’ll become. That I’m a Gryffindor because loyalty will help me pull through my troubles.” She pulled back, “I’ve yet to experience what he’s said. And I really doubt that I ever will. I mean, what does a dusty old hat know?”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “What is all this stuff about destiny? I’m not Harry Potter. I don’t have a destiny.”

Claudia nodded.

“You’re an only child, right?” I picked at the skin surrounding my elbow.

“Yes,” Claudia’s tone was strange. Something didn’t seem right about it. “You are too, correct?”

“It’s weird, sometimes.” I confessed. “When I was younger, I longed for another sibling.”

“Mm,” was all that came from Claudia’s lips.

“Mum put all this pressure on me. She’s already counting galleons I don’t have and plotting how well off she and Dad will be once I’ve established myself within the Ministry.”

“Are you alright with that?” Her voice was gentle. It was prodding, but it was a gentle prodding that didn’t annoy me as much as Oliver’s prodding had.

“What’s not to be liked?” I gave a shaky laugh. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m out of Hogwarts, anyway. I have no other ambitions.”

Claudia let out a laugh. A real laugh. “Me either.”

The rest of the train-ride passed in silence.

The rain had ceased when we reached King’s Cross station. It was just very foggy, and the fact that the scarlet Hogwarts Express kept spewing out steam didn’t help matters, either.

Claudia was silent as she levitated both of our trunks down from the train and flew them to an awaiting trolley. I followed, nearly tripping on the bottom of my pants. They were a tad too long, and looked shabby next to Claudia’s designer skirt.

We pushed out of the passageway between platforms 9 and 10. I turned and saw that Oliver was following. We both waved.

“I hope you two have a pleasant holiday,” Oliver smiled before he pushed his cart away from us and towards the young woman standing near one of the benches. Her hair was a mixture of red and brown, and she looked expectantly at him. Oliver swept her up in his arms, swung her around, kissed her on the cheek and set her down on the ground.

“Who’s that?” I couldn’t help but ask out-loud as I watched the scene. They walked away, arm-in-arm.

“Dunno,” Claudia said, her eyes scanning the busy platform. “What the Bloody Baron...” she mumbled the last bit and I barely had any time to register anything she had said when a particularly strong smell nearly smothered us.

Darling!” I was nearly knocked out of the way by a graceful arm as it enveloped Claudia in a tight hug. “Darling! I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to find me in this mess of people.” Claudia’s mother looked around at the crowds before her eyes settled on me. “Laudi, why don’t you ever introduce me to your friends?”

Claudia’s mother’s eyes sparkled. They shone. They twinkled. They danced. They were also viciously blue, like two clear lakes. Her lips were a vibrant red, contrasting greatly with her pale skin and blonde, nearly white hair.

I never thought anyone would be able to give the Malfoy’s a run for their money when it came to blondeness...until I met Missus Gray.

“Mum,” Claudia’s tone was tense. All humor was drained from her face. “This is my friend and roommate, Charlotte Murray.” She began pushing her cart away, but not before tossing me a sympathetic and truly apologetic look.

“How very nice to meet you!” Missus Gray exclaimed, her lips widening into a very white and sparkling grin. “I rarely ever get the opportunity to meet ‘Laudi’s friends. She’s so stingy! Always hiding them from me.” She briefly pouted before gathering me up in her arms.

Missus Gray was decked in soft furs. I nearly suffocated in them.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Missus Gray,” I began politely.

“Tish-tosh,” she waved me off with a single toss of her gloved hand. “Don’t call me Missus Gray. It sounds so drab and old. Please, darling, call me Scarlett.”

With that, Scarlett Gray, Claudia’s mum, flounced after her daughter and left me following at a ridiculous pace of walking.

Claudia’s posture was stiff. She appeared annoyed and embarrassed. Several times, I caught her side-ways glance and several times, I fought the urge to laugh.

We bustled into a black car. Our trunks were majicked to fit and I found myself sitting next to Claudia and across from Scarlett Gray.

The car had no driver. It was fairly new and the inside smelt of leather.

“We’ll Floo home from The Pampered Dragon.” Announced my starlet of a hostess. She reapplied her lipstick and leaned back comfortably against the chair. Sitting across from her, I examined her face.

I drew out several of Claudia’s own features in the face of her mother. The way her mouth curved when she was thinking, the curve of her nose and the rise of her cheekbones. Her coloring was definitely her mothers, except for the hair. Claudia was striking, but while her mother was blonde and bold, Claudia’s glossy mahogany mane fell classically against her white face.

“The Leaky Cauldron is much simpler,” Claudia argued. Her tone was not one’s normal tone used during disagreement. It was quieter, almost careless.

“I hate the Leaky Cauldron.” Was the reply that we received from her mother. “It smells and the people are absolutely filthy.” At this, she brushed off invisible dirt from her skirt. “The owner hardly keeps up the fire well enough for us to Floo. The Pampered Dragon is much nicer, and right across from Gringotts. I can pop in and take some Galleons out.”

I had never been to The Pampered Dragon, but I had seen it numerous times. It was a posh hotel located across from Gringotts Wizarding Bank. Whenever the doors opened, an expensive perfume smell would waft out into the street. The name of the hotel was carved in pink cursive, and the lettering was surrounded by a giant white dragon sitting atop a pink cloud.

Pampered Dragon, indeed.

The car stopped and Claudia led me towards the hotel.

“Can you believe her?” she asked me as soon as her mother had disappeared within Gringotts. “The Pampered Dragon? Absurd.”

“I’ve never been here before.” I said honestly.

We walked into the lobby and sat in one of the many comfortable sofas. Many of the clerks and patrons waved and recognized Claudia. She awkwardly returned their salutations with half-hearted response.

“Are you here frequently?”

“Too frequently.” Claudia admitted, the apples of her cheeks flaring up with color.

When Missus Gray returned, she insisted that we all must have a cup of tea before returning to their house.

Claudia protested this, claiming that I was tired and needed rest. I did not appreciate being used as a scapegoat for her troubles, but didn’t say anything. I didn’t feel that it was my place to say anything.

“Come, come, darlings,” Missus Scarlett Gray pushed us into the sitting room and ordered us to sit down with a wave of her wand. She waved down a waiter and charmed him into bringing us a pot of tea and some biscuits.

By the time the waiter had returned, Missus Gray had extracted all by my shoe-size from our conversation. I was a half-blood, and my dad was a Muggle. My mum worked numerous jobs and even I could not answer what exactly she did.

Scarlett Gray’s laugh was like a tinkle of soft bells. She was absolutely fascinated with me and kept putting a gloved hand on my arm.

“Your parents are alright with you spending the holidays with us, I hope.” She held the china teacup to her lips, blew softly and sipped. Claudia and I did the same.

“I hope you’re not too inconvenienced...” I said slowly, my hands starting to tremble as I set down the teacup clumsily.

“Not at all!” She replied cheerily.

“Thanks for coming to meet us at the station. Thank you for tea, too and for allowing me --”

My pleasantries were cut off by a dismissive wave of her hand. It was quite decisive.

“No, no, darling,” the way she threw out darling was strange. “It’s nothing, truly. Usually, the house-elves all want to come retrieve our precious ‘Laudi, but of course, you can’t trust such things with those creatures.” Claudia’s mother turned towards one of the giant mirrors in the sitting room and brushed aside some stray hairs before continuing to speak. “You won’t mind having your own room, will you? I know you girls are all so used to sharing one! My, Hogwarts hasn’t changed a bit!”

“No..whatever is fine...” I managed, awkwardly.

When Scarlett Gray was satiated, she paid the waiter, gave him a wink and bustled us towards the fireplace. “Now, now, this is no time for tardiness. Just follow me, darlings.” She picked up a handful of green dust before tossing it into the flames, her clear, sparkling voice calling out “Gray House!” Before she stepped into the crackling green flames.

Claudia followed, tugging her trunk and monotonously shouting the name of her home before disappearing into the flames.

I took a breath, my grip tightening on my trunk. The porter had brought it as soon as we had started talking. My hand shook as I grabbed a handful of Floo powder before tossing it. I echoed their words and followed after.

The familiar feeling of falling descended upon me as I spiralled. Various fireplaces flew past me as I steadied myself and my trunk and stepped out of the flames into a regal looking dining room. I immediately felt embarrassed and very out of place.

Looking up as I dusted ash off my pants and shoulders, I realized that I was gazing at the family portrait. It was large, and its occupants looked impressive. Missus Gray smiled coyly out of the fame, her gloved hand resting on the shoulder of her husband. She kept beaming and tightening the grip on his shoulder; her lips kept curling back when she smiled, flashing her white teeth at me. She was much younger than the gentleman, who had steel gray hair and laugh-lines around his eyes.

There was something in his face that caught my attention. I had seen that look somewhere before -- it was familiar, but I couldn’t tell you why it triggered my brain to start whizzing. It wasn’t just his face, or the furrow of his strong eyebrows, but his eyes. They were dark, obsidian colored that looked blank, dead.

And Claudia stood on the other side of her father. She did not have a hand on her father’s shoulder, and she did not lean towards her mother. In fact, she looked as she always did -- icily distant from everything. Her face was a strange mix of both parents. Her cool, almost-clear blue eyes had her father’s blank look and when she saw me, she gave them a roll.

In the portrait, Claudia was too striking to be considered beautiful. Her nose was sharp, upturned and proud like her mothers. Her lips curved in the same way; the same shape. Her rising cheekbones made her look angular; she was all sharp, harsh angles.

Her brows were her fathers. When drawn together, she looked thoughtful. Dark colored hair matching that of the gentleman’s, it curled elegantly around her head like a halo. She looked out of place, as though someone had pasted her within an already-existing image.

“I’m sorry about my mother.” Claudia’s voice snapped me out of my daze as she approached me, hands clasped together. “She’s overbearing, I know.” She sounded genuinely sincere. “I’ll show you your room, okay? The house-elves have prepared it ahead of time. They’ve already moved our things.”

I turned to disagree and show her my trunk, but when I only saw the hearth of the fireplace, Claudia gave me a smile.

I wish I could say that I had seen a larger dining room than the one that the Gray’s had, but I would be lying. Compared to my own home, Claudia’s was the total opposite. I was sure that I could fit my entire house into just the dining space.

Rich, brown and gold tapestries lined the stone walls. They outlined brilliantly silver and gold picture frames that housed snoozing portraits of past ancestors.

I could feel heat radiating from the stones underneath my feet -- through my shoes, even! The entire house, though, seemed cold and entirely too large for such a small family.

“You’ve got a wonderful home.” I commented as we past a portrait of sparring relatives.

Claudia stopped, watched the portrait thoughtfully and shrugged. “Oh, thank you,” her tone was embarrassed. “Only Piper’s really seen it, you know. It’s a bit strange to have people around.” She tapped the frame. “Stop it, won’t you?”

The occupants growled, waved fists and continued their fight.

My friend rolled her eyes. “Thomas and Victor Gray. They’re my great-great-great-great-great grandfather and similarly great-Uncle.” She sighed. “They never got along and continue to bicker to this day.”

We filed up a large spiral staircase that wound its way through the middle of the house. “It’s a bit strange to have people around. It’s mainly just me and the House-Elves.” She motioned to the extravagant furniture and hangings that adorned the hallowed out hall. “My mum’s extremely...materialistic.” She said in an apologetic tone, even though I didn’t know what she was trying to apologize for.

I wanted to agree, but was tactful enough to stay silent. The look on her mother’s face, particularly in the portrait, and the way she held herself on a day-to-day basis was not exactly the most attractive. But it was strange, because her mother was beautiful. Absolutely radiant. Her mother glowed with beauty, but something about her was odd.

Exactly as Oliver had described Claudia’s family. Odd.

“My room is just down the hall from yours,” we stopped in front of a large door that was twice my height. “I hope it’s to your taste. If it isn’t, just give a snap and the House-Elves will change it.” Claudia gave me a small, almost shy smile before throwing open the large oak doors. “I’ll see you later, after you’re settled.” She backed out of the room.

I could scarcely breathe when I saw the room. The walls were a mint green, flowered in an old Victorian style. It was accented with white crown-molding and white furniture. The large bed was seemingly twice the size of my four-poster at Hogwarts with sheets made of Egyptian cotton that were a soft cream color. I ran my finger along them and smelt the light scent of jasmine.

And I had my own fireplace. I could Floo my family if I wanted and talk to them. A crackling fire was already merrily eating away at a new log. I turned and saw my own writing desk in the corner; beside it was a giant bureau.

I pulled the bureau open and saw my clothes were already packed away, neatly folded within the dressers and such. My empty trunk was placed at the foot of the bed, and its shabby surface contrasted violently with the elegant furniture.

My shoes came off as I leapt onto the bed, my eyes closing in surprise. The bed was warm and the scent of jasmine became stronger. It was inviting and the scent made me drowsy. It felt like I was slowly sinking into the mattress with every breath I took. I had never seen such luxury in my entire life.

I thought of the small home that I had grown up in. There was a large, if cramped kitchen that always seemed to radiate the most heat. Our living room was adjacent, with a large telly situated against the wall for my father’s viewing-pleasure. Our coffee table was battered and missing a leg; it only managed to stay balanced through the use of a strategically placed dictionary. My father would come home late and flop down on the worn green sofa, throw his feet upon the ancient coffee table and allow his body to sink into the musty fabric.

When I was younger, I would crawl out of my room, dart towards him and join him, situated warmly against the corner of the sofa and the crook of his arm.

My parent’s room was next to the dining room, and seemed barely a fourth the size of my current room.

There was also a shared bathroom, large enough for all three of us to use. The dining room was not even a quarter of Claudia’s, but was still snug; it was always inviting during the winter months. My mum would fuss over the mismatched chairs and the cold weather, complaining of aches and worrying that I would catch sick. She’d make me some warm milk and honey and hit the overhead light with her wand whenever it flickered.

My room in the attic was nothing compared to this room. It was old, filled with useless knick-knacks that had collected over time. My furniture was mismatched and missing drawers and knobs and the like. My bed creaked. I had laid awake so many summer nights, listening to chirping crickets and watching as stars danced across the ink black sky.

The moon was often my only companion, and I had always longed for my Grandmother’s old cottage along the sea.

I must have fallen asleep because the soft rap of Claudia outside my door caused me to sit up in bed, blearily rub my eyes and turn towards the door.

“It’s time for dinner, Charlotte,” Claudia let herself in. “You were gone for awhile, so I assumed that you fell asleep.” She smiled. “I see that I was right.” Claudia looked like a princess. She had changed into a white blouse with a bright yellow skirt; her long, brown hair fell in smooth ringlets around her pale face. For once, her bright blue eyes focused on me rather than through me. “Is the room all to your taste?”

“More!” I said awkwardly, worried that I sounded too excited. I pulled away from the bed and almost fell off of it. Claudia came closer to me and clutched my arm. “It’s very comfortable! I really do thank you.”

“Good.” She said shyly, “I’m glad you came, Charlotte.” Her voice was so sincere that I couldn’t help but believe it. “I didn’t know if I could last this entire holiday without murdering something. My mum drives me insane. But, now you know my secret -- I’m ridiculously rich. I’ve been exposed.”

“It isn’t that terrible of a secret,” I reassured her. “My home can’t be but a third of the size of yours.”

Claudia had that look on her face, again. The look that said she wished to say what was on her mind, but as usual, she refrained. The openness we briefly shared on the train was gone. Replaced with stiff formality between guest and hostess. “Dinner’s supposed to be a formal affair, but don’t worry too much. Just wear whatever you think is nicest and it ought to be good enough.”

At these words, I didn’t know whether to be relieved or bothered.

“My father will be home soon.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. She didn’t seem enthused about this. To be honest, Claudia didn’t seem enthused about being home at all. “I wish I could stay at Hogwarts for the holidays, Charlotte.” She admitted, before catching herself, and swallowing the lump in her throat. She coughed. “Let’s help you get ready, then.”

Claudia had been right. Dinner was more than formal, and I had dressed the best I could. My friend had deemed all my clothes too casual and went to her own closet to find something. Of course, I was much bigger than Claudia, and her dress wouldn’t fit...but with some quick altering by the House-Elf, it fit me perfectly.

The dress was white, with a red sash that matched my hair.

The family sat at a ridiculously long table. Mister Gray was an impressive man. He was tall, muscular with gray hair and a tan complexion. I supposed that when he was young, Mister Gray would have been considered very handsome. He wore spectacles, now, and had a very studied air about him. He sat at the head of the table, and when he found out that my passion was potions, he inquired deeply into my knowledge of a few concoctions.

Claudia remained silent the entire meal. Her place was to the left of her father and across from her mother. She did not even answer when her father addressed her lovingly and asked her what she wanted for Christmas.

However cold Claudia seemed to be, I noticed that all her mannerisms were from her father. They both spoke the same way, direct but not direct at the same time. They both curled their lips when they wanted to laugh, but knew that they shouldn’t. Mister Gray sat with his right hand on top of the table, and the left one on top of that hand. Claudia sat the same way, but with her face turned away from her family. It was true that she had her mother’s light blue eyes, but while her mother’s eyes danced when she spoke, Claudia’s eyes froze over like a pond during winter.

Mister Gray’s eyes were not obsidian, as I had thought from the portrait, but a deep chocolate brown. And like his daughter’s, they held no hidden emotion. I avoided his eyes when I spoke. They frightened me, even though they were shielded by rounded glasses.

Claudia’s family was more than peculiar. I couldn’t figure them out. Scarlett Gray prattled on and on as though everything were normal and fine, and Mister Gray let her. Claudia stubbornly and openly shunned them, showing her mother her disapproval with a curl of her upper lip.

I was caught awkwardly in-between all of this, especially since I was sitting next to Claudia and close to the tension; when dinner was finished, Claudia nearly sprinted back up the stairs.

“Good night, Charlotte,” Scarlett Gray said to me, maybe five minutes later after an awkward pause in the conversation, her eyes were fixed on my face. She twitched her lips into a smile. “Sleep well, darling.”

As soon as I left the dining room, I heard the smashing of plates and someone snarl. I tried not to think about it as I found my way up the staircase and down the long hallway.

The closer I got to my room, the more clearly I heard an old gramophone cranking out music and a loud voice singing along to the words.

Claudia’s door was slightly ajar, and I heard her voice, garbled with emotion, joining in with the singer’s:

Mais le ciel de Paris n’est pas longtemps cruel...Hmmm...Hmm...Pour se fair pardonner, il offre un arc en ciel...”*

*Taken from Juliette Gréco's Sous le ciel de Paris that was featured in Sony Picture Classic's An Education. No copyright infringement was intended.

{Roughly, the translation is: But the sky of Paris is not long cruel...Hmmm...Hmmm...and to apologize, it offers a rainbow.}

Author's Note: I dedicate this chapter to Annie (ellerina) & everyone (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!!) who listened to me complain and complain about writing this paricular chapter. Ugh. Couldn't have done it without you guys!

Anyways, I'm dreadfully sorry for the delay. Seriously. What can I say? Real life sucks...but hey, AT LEAST I'VE UPDATED! And I've come with good news. I'm participating in JulNoWriMo! This means that my goal is to completely finish this story by the end of July! It also means you'll probably be bombarded with updates for this story!

This chapter might seem filler, but there are many important bits that I've scattered throughout. :D I just want to say that I'm forever grateful for the people who read and review! I read every review and try to respond to as many as possible. I think I've caught up. :)

You guys rock. Thanks for the support!

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