A procession of houses popped into focus in front of the carolers throughout the next two hours, and with each, the distance grew between everything else Victoire had left behind. She didn't even mind singing over the pair of Jack Russell terriers, yipping importantly at the edge of the dry-stone wall bordering Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermoine's yard.
She'd regain the Christmas spirit if it killed her and her voice.
Her siblings and cousins, ecstatic to be crossing the country and getting treats at every stop, worked wonders for her mood. Victoire allowed herself to get swept away in their contagious enthusiasm. At the joke shop, everyone gave their voices a break. More shopping than singing took place, including some enchanted mistletoe which began following the group. Dominique was certainly behind the plot, and Victoire was amused to find Grant the recipient of the charm. He was a good sport, leaning down to kiss the cheek of each adolescent girl giggling her way by him when the mistletoe intermittently appeared above his head.
The last page in the songbook brought them to Uncle Percy and Aunt Audrey’s half-timber stucco cottage. The night fell windless, invigorating rather than punishing, with a clear sky full of bright stars. With the group in high spirits after an entire tray of Audrey's warm biscuits, no one appeared ready to quit. They had time for another stop before Lily, the youngest, needed to be home. Victoire believed Phineas’ house was near the same village and asked whether the house-elves knew ‘The Hedge’, as he called it.
“Yes, Miss.” A plump old elf spoke up. “All the elves are familiar with Hedgewick Estate. We can take you.”
As if on cue, house-elves grasped everyone in the group, who then found themselves standing in a large circular courtyard in front of a mansion, lit up spectacularly with white lights and draped with holly garland and red velvet bows. The windows framed a party inside, filled with witches and wizards in elegant dress robes. The grounds surrounding the house were equally impressive; the trees twinkled and ice globes glowed along the paths.
“This is what he calls ‘The Hedge’?” Micah whispered from beside Victoire. “I was expecting something like your grandparent’s ‘Burrow’.”
Hedgewick Estate was no Burrow and nothing Victoire had expected. With a live band playing inside, the house wasn't lacking music. Victoire wanted to suggest they tip-toe away before anyone noticed the carolers, but the front doors swung open to reveal a stately couple, each with a welcoming smile.
The elves started singing and the group followed their lead. Phineas, Amelia, and another tall wizard that, by the looks of him, had to be Phineas’ older brother Reginald, joined their parents at the front door. Other guests stepped out of several grand glass doors running along the courtyard to hear the singing.
The carolers received an enthusiastic round of applause after which the Colburns invited them inside. The group stayed in the spacious main foyer, while Phineas made all the introductions he could. “I never imagined seeing you lot this break,” he finished.
Micah spoke up. “Good thing, though. I’ve something for you.” She produced a small package and handed the present to him.
Phineas frowned. “We agreed no presents.”
“Relax, it’s not from me. It’s from Diogy. A little thanks for all the treats you two think I don’t know about.”
He struggled for a moment before good manners forced him to accept the gift. “Thank you.”
Reginald stepped forward examining Micah with renewed interest. “Micah, is it?” He extended his hand to her. “Reginald. Might I ask, who is Diogy?”
Micah, a pixie amid the tall Colburns, accepted the hand, which engulfed hers and said, “Diogy’s my dog.”
“Are you roommates?” Reginald inquired, looking back at a very uncomfortable Phineas.
Obviously, Phineas had been a little vague with his family regarding his current living situation. Amelia had visited, but no other members of his family had ventured to the immersion house. Now, Phineas had his parents waiting for the answer to that loaded question.
“Floor mate, actually.” Micah supplied the response without missing a beat. She turned to Victoire. “Vic, here, is also in our house. She lives one floor above.”
“Lucky Phineas,” Reginald said, his eyes twinkling at the sight of his brother’s distress, but he dropped the current line of questioning.
Amelia silently stepped up behind Victoire. “She’s good. I see definite Ministry potential in one who can spin so effortlessly.”
“Well, she’s correct in a literal sense, since they did move her bed into the study room of the suite,” Victoire replied in a similar hushed tone over her shoulder. “The argument could be made that they don’t actually share the room.”
“Of course,” Amelia agreed with a nod of her head, “but the genius lies in completely sidestepping the need to make the argument in the first place.”
Andy approached the girls. “What are you two whispering about?”
“Oh, nothing.” Amelia winked at Victoire. “I’m quite glad you lot showed up.”
Victoire looked around. “We really didn’t mean to crash the party.”
“Nonsense,” Amelia countered. “Mum’s a sucker for all things seasonal, as you might have picked up from the overabundance of decorations. I wouldn’t be surprised if she hires
carolers next year.”
“Not your scene?” Andy asked.
“Today’s Mum’s birthday. Every year Dad throws her this huge holiday bash.” She nodded to her brothers, Reginald still talking with Micah under the wary gaze of Phineas. “It’s not any of our scenes, especially mine.” She glanced into the adjoining room at the throngs of guests milling about. “They all know I’m a squib so they have no idea what to actually say to me. Everyone’s too well-bred to be rude so they settle for ridiculously uncomfortable instead.”
She sighed. “Makes these little soirées quite tiring."
Andy perked up. “You want to go with us?”
“Tempting.” She shook her head with a wry smile. “It’s fine. Phineas and I generally amuse ourselves. He’s always so busy with school; it’s been nice to have the time to spend.” She cocked her head at Victoire. “He asked for more help cooking. I thought you lot had cracked that.”
Victoire shrugged. They had, to most of their satisfaction, but she wasn't surprised Phineas still worked to make everything exactly right. How you did things was as important to him as the end result.
Her attention diverted to the group of younger carolers, gathered around the door and loudly debating which reindeer each would be. She began herding the group outside before anyone burst into any impromptu reindeer games in the elegant house. Phineas and Amelia walked them to the front door where Micah turned to Phineas again.
“Oh, I almost forgot. Last thing, I promise!” She added in response to his frustrated stare. “You know that cute potion’s lab assistant?” She started padding her pockets.
“Yes…” Phineas’ expression turned suspicious.
“It’s her calling card,” Micah declared as she produced a piece of parchment from her cloak.
“Relax,” she coached.
Victoire wondered how often Phineas heard that word from Micah in any given day.
“I took the information of a girl who’s interested in you.” Micah defended herself from his incredulous, far-from-relaxed, glare. “I did not offer
her your information. I did not promise
you would contact her. You are in no way obligated here. All I present to you is an opportunity on parchment.” She tapped the paper on his nose before he snatched it quickly away.
“What you do with it is your call.” Micah shrugged amid Reginald’s booming laugh from behind his siblings. Amelia appeared to be stifling a chuckle. Phineas turned a bright shade of Christmas red.
Time to get everyone home.
They gathered at the Leaky to floo the kids to their respective homes. The pub overflowed with last minute shoppers and early revelers, but they managed to safely return the minors. Andy and Micah fought their way to the bar, but Victoire begged off, so full of treats she felt a little like Santa. She followed the path Grant, leaving because he’d committed to a double shift for the holiday, cut through the crowd. Out the door and to the side of the building, the pair found some room to Apparate.
“Mmm, I can breathe and hear again,” Victoire said, vanishing her Santa bag into her pocket.
Grant exhaled a small vapor cloud into the chilly air. “Thanks for kidnapping me. I had more fun than I thought possible.” He chuckled. “I never considered I might be a Comet if I were a reindeer.”
“Thanks for not being too grown up to try it.” Victoire felt herself smiling. Grant had been so much fun she might have to write Sara for an official fangirl badge.
“You should never be too grown up for Christmas.” His warm breath carried the scent of peppermint.
“Exactly!” Victoire agreed, looking up and thinking she’d also have to tell Sara how good he smelled. “Though,” she said through a giggle, “I will be grown up enough to remind you: you still have mistletoe periodically appearing above your head.”
If she knew Uncle George, the charm wouldn’t wear off until Boxing Day. “You might consider a counter spell before work tomorrow.”
Grant’s eyes rolled upward before he waved his wand. The enchanted mistletoe transformed to a Christmas cracker and dropped to his hand with the added weight. “That could be bad. I'm filling in for rounds at Mungo’s tomorrow, first time back to patients since I took the Ministry Liaison position.”
Victoire pulled the end he extended to her, blinking as she always did at the popping sound when the cracker split. “Maybe I shouldn’t have told you. Lots of nice nurses in the halls.” She winked at him. “You could get lucky.”
“I’d rather not take my chances, and best not to mix business and personal.”
Victoire suspected Grant’s reluctance to mix bordered on sacrifice of a personal life. His Hogwarts girlfriend parted ways with him midway through his first year at Mungo’s. Rumor had it she resented the hours he kept. Last year, Victoire had benefited directly from that level of commitment, never questioning, at the time, the toll his dedication took.
Not good on her part.
“Hmmm.” She cocked an eyebrow, challenging his statement and the wisdom of the no-mix policy for workaholics. “You keep office hours at Mungo’s and
the Ministry. If you bank at Gringott’s, that leaves you -what- one single waitress at the Leaky?”
She patted his shoulder in consolation. “Sorry to say, but she has her own girlfriend.”
He glanced at the hand resting on him, crooked grin emerging before he placed the cracker's purple paper crown on her head. “My options are as limited as my time, then.” His fingers lingered on a lock of hair he brushed behind her ear with the motion. “I suppose that only leaves me … opportunity.”
His lips grazed hers, and she closed her eyes, not questioning how much she enjoyed the touch and the warmth. When she opened them, she searched clear brown eyes, rimmed with dark lashes which barely curved at the ends. For a moment, she was lost in their depth.
The kiss was new, yet she sensed the pull of déjà vu.
“I'm not business?” Her voice was faint and breathy as her mind backtracked, slightly awed over the fact that she’d invited the kiss. She never considered any kind of opportunity
with Grant. In the proximity of the alley, the idea presented itself as a surprise, although appealing enough to wonder why she hadn’t thought about the possibility before.
"Not for a long time.” He continued to stroke her jaw. “You haven’t had an episode since you turned of age.”
Age was her answer. Her age shifted when she left Hogwarts. The gap widened between her and those she left at school while the same span of time shortened between herself and the adults she used to see as so far removed.
She was an adult. That was how he looked at her, through the mists of their breath and with those beautiful chocolate eyes. Not a specimen and no longer a patient or a child. The realization brought on a different temptation. She wanted to tell him about the nightmares and the nights they transformed her without will. Personally, not professionally.
She frowned, wondering how-
“The fire and even the dive don’t count,” he said, misinterpreting her expression. “Under attack, transforming is normal.”
He thought she was fine. She wanted to be fine, and she wanted to continue enjoying the sheer brilliance of his touch on her face.
The moment passed.
“Generous of you,” she said, instead. “Most would count at least one of those.”
“I’m not most, and you don’t give yourself enough credit. Iska threw you, but that was harmless. You took it well.”
She pulled back. Her thoughts stumbled over his words before she realized he was referring to the Animagus registry and not the…Teddy.
She’d gone several hours without the thought of him. She’d be an idiot to slip now, and she’d be damned if she was going to. Not with the opportunity that was Grant Hayes standing in front of her. This time she kissed him, and neither stopped until a boisterous group of revelers stumbled into the alley with them.
He stood straight, taking a deep breath and watching her, one hand still resting behind her neck. Their companions didn’t seem to notice them, but it was time to go, neither needed to say it. Grant stepped aside so she could Apparate.
So much to be worried about in this chapter, and yet, my biggest fear is that I didn't get the Christmas cracker thing correct. Not sure what that says about me.
Thanks for reading!