Chapter 5 : December 1994
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“Happy Christmas!” I sprang through the air like a flying squirrel, landing on top of Delphine. Ripping the quilt away from her face, I bounced around until she produced some proof that she was alive. “Come on, wake up!”
“Worst Christmas ever,” she sniffed sleepily, poking her eyes open. “No date to the Yule Ball for tonight. I’m almost certain I’ve caught Black-Speckled Fever. And to top it all off, we’ve still got The Cows with us.”
Orchid snorted from her own bed, knowing exactly who Delphine was referring to. Alice and Matilda made no noise from behind their closed hangings – they were still asleep.
“Cheer up,” I encouraged, handing her a pair of glasses that had chilled nearly to ice on the nightstand. “And only dragons get Black-Speckled Fever. Besides, I’ve got fantastic news on the Ball dates front.”
She sat up so quickly that her head wobbled with dizziness. “Did Harry ask me?”
I patted her shoulder. “Sorry, love, but no. I’ve just been down to breakfast, and there was a bunch of people there who still didn’t have dates. So we put our names on a list and shuffled them up, and now we’ve all been sorted into pairs! Well, except for this poor Slytherin girl – the numbers weren’t completely even. But you and I are saved!”
Delphine beamed at me. “Who’s mine?”
I dug a napkin out of my pocket and unfolded it. “Eddie Carmichael. He’s a Ravenclaw in our year.”
She wrinkled up her nose. “Isn’t he the one who likes to hide in the alcove outside the girls’ toilet and try to trip people?”
“Err – I’m sure he’s grown out of that. Anyway, I’ve got Adrian Pucey from Slytherin, who’s a shade worse than yours, so no complaining. Now open up your presents and meet me down at Hagrid’s,” I instructed, sliding off the bed. “I’ve been up for hours – I’ve already opened mine. Thanks for the gloves, by the way! I’m off to try them out right now.”
Delphine mumbled something incoherent, her mouth already stuffed with Chocoballs, and I left her there to scowl at Orchid from across the room, arms wrapped protectively around her hoard of Christmas sweets.
I floated up the circling dungeon stairs and headed outside into a soft blizzard. The sky was white and heavy, weighed down in fog, and tiny fibers of snow dusted my coat and black gloves like powdered sugar. Hagrid was outside, dumping out a tankard of brown liquid I could only assume was also responsible for his blotchy, red complexion. My eyes traveled up to his hair, which was snarled and matted in places; bits of broken teeth from a comb were hidden throughout his hair and beard. Since when had Hagrid ever tried to comb his hair?
“Well, don’t you look spiffed up?” I mentioned slyly, sliding past him into his hut.
“Ah, it’s nothin’,” he grunted, waving an enormous hand. I saw him glance at the Beauxbatons carriage, his eyes as dreamy and swirling as memories in a Pensieve. I bit down on my tongue so that I wouldn’t laugh. “What’re you doin’?”
“I’m checking on Ingrid.”
I kneeled on the floor next to Hagrid’s huge bed. The gap between mattress and floor was high enough off the ground that I didn’t have to tilt my head to peer underneath. I pulled out a long white shoebox, the lid dented in the middle from where Fang had once stepped on it. “There we are.”
“What, you don’ trust me?” Hagrid asked testily from the doorway. “I jus’ checked on her not two hours ago.”
I swept off the lid, smiling brightly at a furry ball curled up in the middle of a nest of rags. I scooped her into my hands, inspecting her eyes and ears and blunt snout. Ingrid was the product of something very much banned by the Ministry, and certainly not allowed on Hogwarts grounds. The law had never stopped Hagrid and me from cross-breeding animals, though. In Ingrid’s case, we had paired a niffler with a murtlap. So far, she resembled a niffler much more than a murtlap, although something rough and purplish that prickled like barnacles was beginning to sprout from her back.
“And how is Ingrid today?” I cooed. She twitched her nose, beady eyes staring anxiously up at me. She had come to associate me with poking and prodding, and occasionally being dangled upside-down so that I could study how her muscles wriggled. She was, however, one of my most cooperative subjects for sketching.
There was a notebook stowed in my trunk that held about sixty-seven sketches and basic information on all of the animals we had ever examined. Not all of them were mixed-breeds; most were normal animals we had found in the forest and taken in, studying them and training them to act differently from the rest of their species to see how they would adapt. I had taught a jarvey how to sing and a gnome how to eat with a fork.
My eyes narrowed on a patch of brown crumbs in one corner of the box. “Hagrid, have you been feeding her your rock cakes again?”
“She loves ‘em! Eats ‘em right up.”
“Hagrid,” I groaned for the millionth time. “Just because she will eat them doesn’t mean that she should.”
“Nifflers eat cakes and murtlaps eat rocks,” he responded hotly. “Put two an’ two together, why don’t you? I’ve been aroun’ fer years before you were livin’, Hollis. I know what I’m doin’.”
I rolled my eyes. Hagrid and I frequently bickered over methods of raising these experimental creatures, but out of a necessity for a partner in crime, we put up with each other as best as possible. If we rubbed each other the wrong way too much, I would hide Ingrid’s box under my own bed for a few days until he realized how beneficial my help was, and then he always relented and promised that we could try my ideas, too. He was too soft on these creatures, and hated not being able to see them. This worked out for me, since Alice had a nose like a bloodhound and was going to discover my illicit activities someday. And if that happened, I would get expelled and would probably live out the rest of my days in Hagrid’s bathtub, assistant to the gamekeeper.
“Does she drink pumpkin juice?” I asked curiously, massaging the creature behind her ears. Her fur was splashes of cinnamon and brick-red – it was utterly fascinating. I couldn’t wait to see what she would look like when she was fully grown, and whether or not she could produce Essence of Murtlap or if she could locate treasure like her niffler mother.
“Sure, but she likes ale better.”
My neck snapped around so fast that I thought I could feel a bone fissure. “Jus’ jokin’,” he added with a broad grin. He ambled out the front door with Fang at his heels. “I’m goin’ out here for a mo’ to take a look at Maxime’s horses. I reckon you can let yerself out when yer done.” I waved without looking up, going about my business. We had a professional relationship, Hagrid and me.
I had just finished changing Ingrid’s bedding and nudging several fat pink berries up to her paws when Delphine entered, armed to the teeth in scarves, hats, and coats. It was amazing that she could move at all with such bulk. Yellow rubber gloves had been stuffed over at least two pairs of normal gloves, and they reached all the way up to her elbows.
“Precautionary,” she informed me, clapping them together. “I haven’t forgotten those Skrewts.”
“Don’t worry, it’s just Ingrid; although you might need them for the graphorns.”
Her eyes bugged out. “Those monsters that you keep penned up in the Forbidden Forest! They’re still alive? Merlin, I thought they would have all killed each other by now!”
I laughed. “Kidding. Hagrid sold them. And I’m done here, so we can go back to the castle if you want.”
The grounds were currently engaged in warfare, with snowballs arcing from one snow-fort to another. “Don’t you dare!” Delphine shouted at Ron Weasley, who had reeled his arm back and looked ready to fire. Harry Potter was crouching in the snow beside him, eagerly shaping a snowball. Behind them, Hermione Granger rested against a tree with her arms crossed.
“Ugh, it’s her,” Delphine whispered mulishly.
“Don’t get your wand in a knot,” I advised. “I hear that she’s got a thing for Viktor Krum.”
Delphine huffed, still looking surly. “Everyone’s got a thing for Krum. I don’t really see the appeal.”
I didn’t remind her that she had instantly formed an attachment to Krum the second we got wind that he was part of the Durmstrang lot; she’d asked for his autograph and he’d told her, “Maybe later,” and she had been so insulted that she was now determined to hate him.
We carefully picked our way around the flurry of white ammunition whizzing back and forth. The Weasley twins were exuberant, catapulting snowballs with magic. We had gotten as far as to the door when an enormous wet mass splattered all over the back of my coat, sliding down inside my boots like sludge.
“Hey!” I cried, hopping up and down. “Cold! Cold!”
Delphine whirled abruptly around, shaking her fist in Hermione’s direction. “You cowards! You’re not supposed to attack an opponent when their back is turned!”
“It’s only snow,” George laughed. He did a little dance. “How ‘bout that aim, Fred?”
“Corking job, George. I feel honored to have witnessed it.”
Delphine squinted in anger, curling her hands into fists. “I’ve got this,” she assured me. And although I tried to stop her, because it really was just a snowball and I wasn’t bothered by it, Delphine doubled over and ran like a madwoman down the path toward two very shocked-looking Weasleys. Roaring like a savage warrior, Delphine bowled George right over into the snow and then forced him to swallow a mouthful of it.
Fred was clutching at a stitch in his side from above them, pink with laughter, because he was actually the one who had thrown it.
Matilda Clark smiled sweetly at her reflection in the mirror, petting one of her glistening mahogany ringlets. We were queuing up behind her in the loo, waiting for a turn. All four of us were repulsively plain in comparison to Matilda, who was dressed in a rich green gown that accentuated her willowy frame. The buttons were made from rosewood and carved into the shape of tiger lilies.
The rest of us looked awkward standing next to her, with Alice’s pointy shoes and Orchid’s potion-fried hair and Delphine’s crinkled silver dress. I had hoped for something blue to wear, to bring out my eyes; or perhaps gold because it usually set my strawberry blonde hair in the best light.
Tonight, I looked more like a bird than anything else, because my mother had sent me a dress decorated with fuzzy lavender feathers. They were long around my neck and shoulders, bouncing when I walked. The middle was composed of a shiny garish pink color, and then the hem of my sleeves and dress were once again consumed with fuzzy purple strands. I couldn’t get the ones around my neck to lie flat – several stuck up from static, tickling my throat like jellyfish tentacles.
When Matilda decided that she was just as perfect as she already knew that she was, she sauntered back into the Yule Ball. She worked a different social circle than the rest of us, spinning around with her glamorous head in the clouds and everlastingly oblivious to the four other girls who shared her dormitory. We all spent a few minutes silently cursing Matilda’s parents for conceiving her.
“Hag,” Alice muttered when she was gone, standing aside as Orchid dusted her nose with an oversized powder puff.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m having fun,” Delphine chirped happily, jabbing one of her dangly earrings to make it jiggle. “Eddie’s such a gentleman. I asked him to get us drinks and he actually did it! And he didn’t forget mine!” She sighed contentedly. “I should ask Professor Dumbledore if we can have a ball every year.”
“It’s just because of the Triwizard Tournament,” I said. “And I think it would be a nightmare to have balls every single year. My bottom’s stiff from sitting in a chair all night.”
“Why haven’t you been dancing?” Her forehead crinkled in concern. “Where’s Adrian?”
I shrugged lamely. “Last I knew, he was sneaking out onto the grounds with that Patricia girl from Slytherin.”
“You can borrow Eddie for a few songs, if you like,” Delphine offered generously. “I don’t mind sitting down for a while. Or we could all sit down together at a table and talk about O.W.L.s or something…”
“I’m fine,” I told her, opening up the door. We followed Alice and Orchid, who were walking with linked arms in front of us (neither of them had snagged dates, so they went with each other), back into the festivities. I paused at the open entrance, looking on at George and Angelina. The latter had spent the better half of the ball with Fred, and seemed to have switched partners.
Cho Chang and Cedric Diggory rotated under a bough of mistletoe, smiling at each other in a way that would be sure to make steam curl out of Delphine’s ears. Cho looked much less reserved than usual, and Cedric’s cheeks were flushed, dimples stretching all around his mouth. I found his teeth to be a bit mesmerizing, as there were so many of them and they were so dazzlingly white; and it was only when I heard Delphine muttering jinxes at Cho that I snapped to attention.
Fred was sipping from a goblet with his tie loosened as far as he could yank it, gazing around the room with a devious expression that I had come to recognize and be wary of, with good reason. His gleaming eyes caught mine and I quite literally envisioned Gran’s face in my mind, telling me to make a run for it. Delphine was pestering Archibald now, trying to introduce him to Eddie (who looked very much like he would rather be anywhere else), and I resolved to sneak off to bed.
I got as far as three steps before a finger tapped my shoulder.
My eyes closed for a moment before I turned around, already worried. “If you’ve got water balloons, they’d better at least be lukewarm.”
“Water balloons?” a voice repeated. I opened my eyes, and sure enough, it was Fred. “So suspicious,” he mused, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet with both hands shoved inside his pockets. He was always stuffing his hands in his pockets, which just made me more suspicious. It led me to believe that he had stolen goods tucked away in there, or something equally seedy.
My guard immediately flew up. There are two facts that I never forget: Don’t eat anything you find in Snape’s storeroom, and never trust a Weasley twin if you can’t see what he’s doing with his hands.
“This offends me deeply,” he said. “It’s Hornby’s influence, isn’t it? Her paranoia has finally spread to your brain.”
I surveyed him. “Fair enough. Show me what you’ve got in your pockets and I’ll apologize for the skepticism.”
He grinned and withdrew his hands. His palms were loaded with Dungbombs.
“Good Godric,” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Why have you got Dungbombs in your dress robes? Who takes Dungbombs to a ball?”
“I do,” he said, tipping them back into his pockets. He brushed the residue onto his robes and gestured to the boisterous crowd in the Great Hall. “So much opportunity! Doesn’t anyone else realize…?”
“Look in there, Hollis. Who do you see?”
I humored him by scouring the room. There was Delphine, who was tagging along after Eddie, who didn’t seem to be aware of her presence. I saw Harry Potter and Ron Weasley skulking in chairs off to the side, neither of them appearing too chuffed. Cho was talking to Marietta and Cedric was wandering over to one of the Christmas trees, following Rachel Alexander with his eyes. Roger Davies was looking pretty fit…
“I see everyone,” I told him finally, giving up on the riddle.
“Exactly! Everyone’s in there. And if everyone’s in there...” He pointed at the Great Hall, his eyes leveling meaningfully on mine. “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? The rest of the castle is empty. Deserted. There are so many rooms just waiting for Dungbombs and no one will ever know who did it. Even Filch is busy in there twisting about like he’s having a seizure; he’s been practicing with his mop all week.”
I perked up, intrigued. “So you’re going to go drop Dungbombs everywhere?”
“It always helps to have an accomplice,” he remarked with an encouraging smile. “As I remember it, you and Pucey weren’t exactly having a party of things. So if you’re not busy with anything else…”
“What’re we chatting about?” George inquired, scuttling over to poke Fred’s neck with his wand. Fred’s mouth dropped open in surprise, and he looked around as though he’d already forgotten what he was saying.
“Dungbombs,” I supplied. “Fred’s got some in his pockets.”
“Do you?” George smiled approvingly, dragging Angelina over by the arm. “Excellent. Want to take part in a childish prank for a bit, Johnson?”
“What sort of prank?”
She wrinkled up her nose. “That explains the smell.”
George wasn’t listening to her. “What’s the plan, then, Fred? Are we going to leave the fine students of Beauxbatons a lovely surprise in their carriage? I reckon it’d be –” He suddenly stopped talking, and the twins just stood there for a quiet moment, staring at each other. “Angelina, did you say that you wanted some Christmas cake?”
“I already had some.”
“Well, let’s get some more.” He seized her arm once again and they went back into the Great Hall, Angelina fussing noisily the whole way about being jerked all over the place against her will.
“Well, then.” Fred examined his wristwatch, grappling for something to say. “Are you up for it?”
“Sure,” I replied confidently. I had already begun plotting taking a few Dungbombs for myself to use against Matilda.
We began to ascend staircases at random, tossing Dungbombs through portrait holes and gleefully watching them explode before continuing onward. Other ones we placed very gently on the ground; unsuspecting students and staff would inevitably step on them later, and when they did, it would make a terrific squelching noise followed by a cloud of putrid gas. When we reached a portrait that led to the seventh floor, Fred opened it up and stuck one foot inside to hold it in place. “After you.”
“What are we doing?” I whispered, keeping my voice down even though no one besides portrait people could hear us. He only grinned. We zigzagged through corridors, passing a tapestry of Barnabus the Barmy. He didn’t even hesitate outside Flitwick’s office, or the Divination classroom. When I realized what Fred’s real goal was, I laughed derisively. “Are you kidding? We’re not going to be able to get in there.”
Fred approached the gargoyle flanking Dumbledore’s office. “Pumpkin pasties,” he declared firmly. The gargoyle didn’t move.
“Peppermint humbugs. Licorice Wands. Crystallized mangoes. Toffee tarts.”
I leaned against the wall. “We’re not going to get in. And even if we did, what would you do? Put Dungbombs in Dumbledore’s nightcap?”
“Of course. And besides that, don’t you want to have a look around? You’re not curious to see what our brilliant Headmaster does with all the time he spends shut up in there?” He swerved his attention back to the gargoyle, determined. “Sugared violets. Chocolate éclairs. Cockroach Clusters.”
“Fred,” I said, my voice colored with warning. He glanced up and followed my line of vision. Mrs. Norris was slinking around the corner, her bulbous yellow eyes unblinking as they watched us. I could practically hear Filch screaming already, running in circles like an idiot. Students sneaking around on the seventh floor! Students out of bounds at night! Mrs. Norris’s tail switched evilly, eyes glinting like torches. Fred swore.
“I’d love to punt her through one of the Quidditch goal hoops,” I murmured.
“Come on,” he ordered, and grasped me by the elbow.
“You Weasleys,” I grumbled as he pulled me a bit faster than I could physically move down a hallway. “You’re so pushy. Your legs are a lot longer than mine, I can’t keep up.”
“You’re going to have to, unless you want Filch to find the trail of Dungbombs we left in all the corridors and empty classrooms.”
“I’ll tell him that I was Imperiused. Filch will have no trouble believing that you were the only criminal at fault here.”
“You’ve been paying too much attention in Defense Against the Dark Arts.” He glanced over his shoulder several times, still walking speedily, and twisted my body right into a tapestry. I braced for a broken nose, and the impact of slamming into concrete.
Nothing happened. I emerged in a space roughly the size of a broom cupboard, with moss on the slick walls. A narrow black stairway wound down through the levels below, dark as a tunnel.
“See that?” he asked, pointing at the stairs. “Leads straight to the dungeons. It’s best not to light your wand, though, so as not to attract any special attention. You never know who’ll pop up.”
I gaped at the hole in the floor. “How did you know about this?”
His mouth twitched and he pressed his lips together, stifling a very provoking smile. I blew a strand of hair out of my eyes, irritated. “Well, if you’re going to be all secretive, then I won’t give you the satisfaction of being curious.”
The journey down was steep and damp, and the eternal spiraling in circles gave me a horrible headache. Although I could hear the soft metal pings of Fred’s shoes clanging off the metal steps, I was distrustfully beginning to wonder if we weren’t going into the dungeons at all, but into a secret chamber full of bats and lizards as some sort of horrible joke. “Fred?” I called out.
“Right here.” He was much closer than his echoing footsteps had indicated.
When we reached the dungeons, I saw with a flood of relief that there were no bats or slithering reptiles in sight. It was the same section of the dungeons I navigated every single day. Fred’s first instinct was to find Professor Snape’s classroom and toss Dungbombs into his cauldron, but I successfully changed tack and suggested looting the kitchens. Professor Snape was scarier than a three-headed-dog, and I did not want to make him angry.
Fred was easy to persuade – easier, I guessed, than it would have been had George been present. Fred and George lived to entertain each other, each of them always trying to outdo the other. If one of them made the other smile, it was a satisfaction; if they laughed, it was a victory. But in George’s absence, the mischief was somewhat diluted and Fred became slightly more tame.
“I haven’t seen Dobby in a while,” he said thoughtfully, and conceded to visiting the kitchens. “Too bad about not getting back at Snape, though. He took ten points from Gryffindor at breakfast this morning because I made strips of bacon dance along the staff table. Docking points on Christmas! Bacon should be allowed to express some holiday cheer through doing the salsa without fear of oppression. It’s prejudice against pork, that’s what it is.”
He tickled a pear in a painted bowl of fruit on the kitchen door, and it swung open at his touch. I got the feeling that Fred and George probably came down here often. It was astonishing that Filch hadn’t managed to get Dumbledore to expel them yet.
“Treacle tart?” Fred asked. A sea of elves milled around us, carrying mountains of dirty plates so high that they wobbled unsteadily, their chins jutting out over top of cooking bowls and goblets still sloshing with remnants of pumpkin juice. “Chocolate?” Fred went on, unfazed by the elves’ activity. “What do you like?”
I was about to say that I fancied something with strawberries when a voice carried through the corridor on the other side of the door.
“Filch,” I hissed, just as Fred whispered, “Mad-Eye!” We crept over to the door and pressed our ears against it, straining to listen. A high soprano pitch wafted along, growing quiet as the portrait leading to the Hufflepuff common room opened and closed after them.
“Oh, it’s just that horrid Matilda Clark,” I informed him, my tone vicious.
“Horrid, is she?”
“She sings constantly,” I began to rave. “She wakes me up every morning because she showers at ungodly hours and sings the whole bloody time. It makes me want to ram a broomstick through my ears.”
“Who exactly is Matilda Clark, anyway?”
I studied him, wondering if he could possibly be genuine. It was a ridiculous thought – someone not knowing who Matilda was. All of the boys knew who Matilda was. Or at least all of the girls thought that the boys knew… My train of thought grew fuzzy. “Don’t you know anything about Hufflepuffs?”
He smirked. “I know that some of the younger ones can be easily persuaded to lick a chalkboard if they’re told that it makes them immune to Peeves.”
The door cracked open from beneath our hands, shoving us backward. We stood against the wall like shadows, waiting. The infiltrator shut the door behind them and turned around –
“Delphine!” I leapt over, clamping a hand over her mouth. “Damn it, Delphine! Shhh!”
She staggered back, pointing wildly. “Hiding behind the door! What – what’re you –” She shut up, running a tongue over her bottom lip. She puckered up her mouth, tasting a flavor that I would certainly never want to sample myself. Fred and I both winced, waiting for her to realize…
“Holy Helga,” she whispered, white as milk and looking ready to faint. She swayed on the spot. “You’re trying to poison me. You’ve gone evil!”
“It’s Dungbombs,” I laughed. “Don't worry, stink pellets are harmless.”
“Dungbombs?” she shrieked, spitting on the floor. She pawed at her lips, trying to wipe it all off while still blowing raspberries, sending spittle flying everywhere. Fred made a face, shielding himself with one arm. “You got that filth – on – my – face. It’s in my mouth. Oh my god, it’s probably in my stomach by now, creating diseases…”
“Bloody hell,” Fred muttered absently. “I thought you were Moody. He always finds me out whenever I’m trying to have some fun.” He rubbed his forehead with the back of one hand and then twirled his finger in a circular motion over one eye. “It’s that magical eye of his. He can see everything.”
Delphine’s eyes narrowed to slits, darting from our caught-in-the-act expressions to our dirty hands. “What are you two doing in here?” Her voice was peppered with suspicion. “I thought that maybe you had gone to bed, Hollis. I was just about to make Archibald dance with you, and I looked around and you were gone.”
“You’re exactly right, I was on my way to bed.” I whipped the door open, sidling past her. “I just got a bit lost. I think I’ll be going now.”
“Don’t you want something to eat?” she asked, puzzled. “I was just about to get some pudding…”
“Nope. Not hungry. Tired. Dead tired. See you later!” Before I shut the door, I caught a glimpse of Fred standing utterly still, his expression confused. I found my nerves speeding along even faster than my feet as I ran to the Hufflepuff Common Room. My heart was beating against my chest in sharp, quick bursts.
Stupid Yule Ball. Stupid Dungbombs. Stupid fuzzy feather dress. I threw myself under the quilt in my four-poster bed without knowing exactly why I felt so nervous and jumpy, and it took ages for me to fall asleep. By the time the other girls trickled into our dormitory, my bed hangings were pulled tightly shut and I was still staring at my eyelids, thinking about Delphine’s irritating appetite.
When I woke up the next morning, it finally dawned on me that I had developed a crush on Fred Weasley.
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