Chapter 21 : In The Art of Metamorphosis
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Take me to your best friend's house
I loved you then and I love you now
-Tongue Tied - Grouplove
I folded up the letter and stuck it in my pocket. I already knew it's contents by heart.
I know you said you wanted to spend the summer with your dad. And while I'm sure your dad is awesome (it's difficult to convey sarcasm in a letter), I'm pretty sure I could beat him in an awesomeness contest. So what do you say you ditch him and come and spend the summer with Freddie, Owen, Zach and I? Unless you'd rather spend the next two months stuck at your step mum's sunday luncheons, it's your call.
Your (awesome) pal, James.
Of course it had been a no brainer. My dad and Angela spent the first week of the holidays dragging me off the posh dinners with my dad's work clients, while Angela made continuous remarks about my unimproved appearance, made worse by the fact that I could no longer stand up without taking a painkiller. She also seemed to disapprove of the fact that she had to walk around with a cripple, the cause of which was apparently my own fault.
My only friend in that house, Martha, the Polish maid, had upped stakes and gone to London. And not alone.
Angela had told me Martha's story with a sour face and pursed lips. Apparently her precious son Michael (a pretty decent bloke despite his horrible parentage) had been mysteriously bewitched by the foreign maid, and as a result they had just bought an apartment together in Soho. Angela spoke of Martha as though she was an evil witch, the devil incarnate come to steal her son away and lead him to his doom. Then she'd sniffed that Soho wasn't really the stylish part of London. As if that was Martha's plan. To have Michael living in a neighborhood that would destroy his vital sense of style.
Angela had been tight lipped and walked around looking as though she had just swallowed a lemon. She seemed to take most of her frustration with Michael and Martha's romance out on me. And I was getting pretty sick of it.
So when James made another invitation to the burrow for the summer, I hadn't wasted a second. I had packed my stuff, left a rushed note for dad and Angela, and caught the first bus to Ottery St. Catchpole.
And here I was. Outside the burrow. It hadn't changed since the last time I had been here, lying on their couch after falling out of a tree and into Teddy Lupin's arms. How long ago that seemed.
It was the height of summer, and the house seemed to gleam in the late afternoon light. I held my duffle bag on my lap, and wheeled my chair over the uneven, dusty path towards the tall house.
As I got closer to the house itself, I noticed an enormous white marquee outside. That must have been for James' Grandma Molly and Grandpa Arthur's wedding anniversary.
I swallowed hard at the thought. It hadn't occurred to me that I would need to attend such a important occasion, and so I hadn't thought to get them a gift, or anything to wear. But now I was here it seemed inevitable.
So, gritting my teeth, I rang the doorbell.
It was answered in almost a second by a tiny girl with bright blue hair. She was so small that at first I didn't even see her.
"MUUUUUUM!" she cried inside, "SOMEONE'S HERE!"
I was beginning to feel very alarmed. The girl looked at me with piercing blue eyes that matched her bright hair, scrutinizing me carefully.
"Who are you?" she asked in a precocious voice.
"Who are you?" I asked. I was beginning to wonder if this was the right house.
The little girl folded her arms, "I asked you first."
"Well…" Damn, I had been outwitted by a three year old.
I was speechless for a moment, before someone appeared behind the little girl.
To my relief I saw it was an adult. It was a tall man, still in his late 20's, with identical blue hair to the little girl. I recognized Teddy Lupin, the one who had saved me from falling out of a tree, after I had been spying on their quidditch match. He was tall and thin, and, as I had remembered, very good looking.
"It's okay Andie," he said to the little girl, gathering her up in his arms, "This is Charlie, James' best friend."
Andie frowned, "I thought Freddie was James' best friend."
"I'm not James' best friend," I protested, slightly embarrassed that anyone would consider me as such.
"See? She's not," Andie said, turning back to Teddy, "So who is she?"
Teddy sighed, beginning to look a little exasperated, "Why don't you go and see if Mummy needs help with your baby brother?"
"Fine," Andie sighed, jumping down and running off into the house.
Teddy grinned at me, "Sorry about that, pretty intimidating that one, even for a three year old."
"Is she your kid then?" I asked, finding it hard to believe that a guy as gentle and friendly could have procreated to produce that.
"How many people actually have blue hair and aren't related?" Teddy raised an eyebrow, "The chances are tending towards the slim."
We stood in the doorway for a moment, before a yell from inside the house came to our ears, "Hey, Ted! Aren't you going to invite our guest inside?"
And there was James. He was flanked by Owen and Zach, who both grinned at me.
"Right, of course," Teddy grinned, "Come on in, Charlie. I'm-"
"Teddy, I remember," I finished for him.
Once my chair was inside I pushed myself through the front corridor I was astounded at how many people could move through an enclosed space at such a rapid pace.
"Hmm, let's see," James scrutinized the always moving crowd of people, "Oh, Mum! Dad! Come and meet Charlie!"
A tall, pretty woman with dark red hair looked in from outside, where she had charmed several hydrangea bushes to grow. A thin man with black hair looked in from the kitchen, where he was helping an ageing woman butter what looked like a hundred scones.
They both stepped forward eagerly. I shook both their hands, his covered in flour from the scones, hers covered in soot from the plants.
"It's so nice to finally meet you," Ginny smiled kindly at me.
"James has told us so much about you!" Harry said.
"Most of it terrible I imagine," I chuckled nervously.
"No!" Ginny said, "Most of them were pretty glowing reports! In fact, one time-"
"Okay, bye Mum and Dad," James waved to them, pushing my wheelchair over to where Rose and Albus were sitting chatting to a tall, dark haired girl of about nineteen.
"This is my cousin Molly," he said, "And of course, you know Rose and Albus." He began to point around the room, "And there's Molly's sister Lucy playing Wizard chess with Rose's brother Hugo. And over by the fireplace is Dom talking to Lily. And there's my aunt Hermione, my uncle Charlie, my aunt Fleur, my aunt Audrey, my cousin Victoire, her kids Andie and Remus-"
Owen crouched down and whispered, "Don't worry. I've known them for five years, and I still have no idea who they all are."
"That's comforting," I smirked, "Thanks Owen."
"Okay, okay," James said, "I know, I have a big family. Ha. ha. Why don't you come outside? I've got a surprise for you."
He led me outside into the sunshine. I asked him, "What if I had decided not to come?"
"Yeah, but your dad's a prick and I'm pretty cool. I gave you the benefit of the doubt."
I smiled genuinely for what felt like the first time in ages. He led me around the side of the huge marquee. Inside there were hundreds of small tables with white table cloths, all surrounding the dance floor. Waiters in black jackets were laying the tables with beautiful silverware and crystal.
"This is for my grandparents anniversary party tonight," he said, "You'll love my grandparents, they're great."
"I didn't get them a gift," I said meekly.
"Doesn't matter," James said, leading us through the tables, "No one's getting them anything. They didn't want presents."
"Oh," I said, "So where's this surprise then?"
"Right here," James stopped abruptly in the middle of the dance floor.
I didn't get it, "Oh God, your surprise isn't that you learned how to dance the macarena, is it?" I asked with dread.
He rolled his eyes, "Give it a second."
We waited in silence.
Suddenly there was a pop, and someone materialized into thin air. It took me about a second to realize who it was.
"MAX!" I shrieked.
For there was my best friend, grasping what looked like a crumpled beer can for a portkey.
She grinned at me and we hugged tightly.
"What are you doing here?" I asked breathlessly.
"Well, James asked me if I fancied missing out on my fabulous holiday in the French Riviera, to come and see my old chum Charlie Walker back in good old England. So, of course, I picked you!"
I gave James a light punch on the arm, to show my appreciation, "Who else is going to drop in today then?"
"Well, Professor McGonagall is due to make an appearance tonight," he laughed when he saw the look of horror on my face, "I'm actually serious."
Well, wasn't this going to be fun.
A yell brought all of our attention to the entrance of the marquee.
"Hey! James!" It was Albus, "George, Angelina, Roxy and Fred are here, back from their holiday in London!"
The mood seemed to become tense almost instantly. Max's hand went instantly to her collar bone, and I noticed that the necklace Fred had given her for her birthday was around her neck.
Somehow, I sensed that the prospect of hanging out with me, her old chum, hadn't been the only thing that had tempted Max away from her fancy French Riviera holiday.
"Shall we go?" James asked, and I could tell he was asking Max, and not the rest of us.
"Yeah," she said, slightly short of breath.
I felt excited. It was about time that Fred and Max reconciled. Sure, she wasn't coming back to Hogwarts for our 6th year, but there was always long distance, and a Fred and Max that were dating one another was far more bearable than a Fred and Max who were single.
We made our way towards the back door. Max seemed very tense.
Once we were inside we saw a group of people moving around the room, saying hello and shaking hands.
"Charlie, you remember my Uncle George," James grinned.
He smiled and held out a hand, "I hear you've been giving James a real run for his money."
"Beating him would be more accurate," I said cheekily.
George laughed, while James rolled his eyes.
"There's Fred!" Owen said, spotting Fred across the room.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Max breath in sharply.
Fred grinned as he saw Owen, then upon seeing Max, he froze.
"Max," he said.
"Hey Fred," she smiled, her voice filled with a blissful apprehension, "How was London?"
He opened his mouth to reply, but someone else answered for him.
"Oh, London was just so much fun, wasn't it Freddie?"
And in through the front door came Fiona Allen.
Fiona Allen was one of those girls who took a particular fancy to those who already had girlfriends. Max had often been irritated by the fact that Fred had been paired with her for Potions.
And here she was, giggling eagerly, hanging off Freddie's arm as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
The mood quickly went from tense to sour.
No one spoke. Fred actually blushed. Max's gaze turned stony. James' jaw set.
"Hi everyone!" Fiona said eagerly.
She was met with unimpressed stares.
She elbowed Fred, "Aren't you going to tell them how we met up, Freddie?"
"Yeah, Freddie," I said cooly, "Tell us how you and Fiona met up."
Fred coughed, clearly very embarrassed, before stammering, "Well, i-it was a funny st-tory actually."
"Hilarious, I'm sure," James said bitterly.
"We just bumped into each other at Fortesque's ice cream parlor!" Fiona finished for him, "And it's just been, amazing ever since."
"And he invited you to our grandparents anniversary," James said. The tension was tangible now.
"Yes, so sweet of him," she grinned.
Fred finally piped up, "I-I didn't know…"
He trailed off, gazing at Max in a way that was almost painful, who no longer wanted to look him in the eye.
All of a sudden Ginny appeared amongst us, ending our awkward conversation.
"I think I'll show Charlie and Max up to their room, James," she said kindly, "They must be tired after the trip."
Max and I followed her gratefully out of the living room and up the stairs.
"You'll find it's a bit crazy around here today," Ginny chatted, "But I guess that's normal when we've got a hundred people coming over for the party tonight. Have both of you two got a dress?"
"Yes," Max said. I shook my head worriedly.
Ginny smiled at me calmly, however, and said, "Don't worry about it. I'm sure someone can lend you something."
We climbed and climbed, in a house that never seemed to stop having floors. Finally we reached a landing with only one door that was visible. Ginny pushed it open, revealing a small, but very cosy room with two single beds.
"It's lovely!" Max exclaimed, "Thank you, Ginny."
Ginny beamed, "There's an ensuite bathroom through there, and I left all the essentials that you might need to get ready. See you both tonight. Charlie, if you need something to wear, ask around. I'm sure people will be more than happy to oblige."
Somehow, judging by the mad panic which every Weasley was in to prepare for the evening, I doubted it.
"Now, I'd better go. I have to figure out where Fred's new girlfriend is sleeping." She let out a sigh of aggravation before shutting the door.
Once the door was closed, Max sank onto the bed, looking very tired.
"Is that it then?" she muttered, "Fiona Allen is his girlfriend?"
I sat down beside her and patted her back gently, "You know it'll never last. It's probably just a fling."
"He brought her back to meet his family after a going on holiday with her to London," Max moaned hopelessly.
"Maybe he wants them to think he's happy."
"Maybe he is."
She lay down flat on her back, pulled a pillow over her face and screamed a muffled scream of frustration.
I decided to leave her to it. I went into the ensuite bathroom. There was a shower, a hairdryer, a nail kit, followed by two sinks that were surrounded by numerous expensive-looking hair and skin products.
Merlin, I was completely out of my league.
I began to feel suffocated, so I went back into the bedroom, where Max was still yelling into her pillow. I looked at the clock on the wall, and to my horror saw it was already half past five in the afternoon.
"I'm just going to see who can lend me something," I shouted over the noise.
She gave me the thumbs up.
I left the room, and began to make my way downstairs, wondering how the hell I was going to go about asking someone to lend me something. I didn't even know my own proper dress size, let alone what style or shape or color would suit me best.
Maybe I could hide under the bed, and James and the others would forget that I had come in the first place.
On my way down the third flight of stairs I bumped into Fred. He looked extremely sheepish.
"Charlie!" he exclaimed nervously, "Is…Max up there? I was thinking of just going and-"
"I don't think that's the best idea right now," I said coolly.
Fred looked flushed and annoyed, "Look, I had no idea she was coming, okay?"
I shrugged, "Still...it's been a month, and you're already bringing home girlfriends to meet the family."
"I didn't invite her, okay?" Fred hissed, "I mentioned my grandparents anniversary, and all of a sudden she was talking about coming and meeting the whole family! I didn't plan any of this."
I smirked. Fred was completely out of his depth.
"Well, have fun keeping her under control," I said, "And don't talk to Max just yet. I don't think she'll buy any of what you just said."
Fred glared, "It's true!"
"How many times did you take Max home to meet your family?"
Fred scowled even more darkly, "I could hardly whisk her away while we were at Hogwarts, and before we dated, we hated each other! I wasn't going to introduce the 'rents to the girl who once threatened to put the cruciatus curse on me when I gate crashed her birthday party!"
I sighed, "Okay Fred, I get it. Just, wait a bit. Go and talk to Fiona. Where is she anyway?"
Fred shrugged, "How the hell should I know?"
I smirked, "Wow, you're an even crappier boyfriend than you are an ex-boyfriend."
Fred glared, "Don't you have some cats to kick?" he asked in frustration, before storming off angrily.
Now all that was left was to find a dress.
"Typical of those two," Owen sighed, "They both argue. Then Fred wants her but she doesn't want him. Then she does. Then she moves to France. Then she comes back, but he's already found someone else. It makes my head ache."
We were sitting on the steps outside the burrow in the late afternoon sun. Fred was off dealing with the issue of having both his girlfriend and his ex-girlfriend in the same house.
"I should have warned him," I said.
"Why?" Zach chuckled, "Then we wouldn't have the chance to watch him squirm." That made us all laugh.
We had long since gotten over our fight about Faye. Once I apologized, and made it clear that I knew what an arse I had made of myself, it hadn't been difficult for things to go back to normal.
I still occasionally shuddered to remember what a complete prick I had been, but the others were clearly prepared to forget it, and get on with our lives.
Owen had also forgiven and forgotten my comments about his suppressed feelings for Charlie. I decided that I had made up the whole thing in my head. Yes, Owen had tried to kiss her, but a lot had changed since then, including, I was sure, his feelings.
Lily suddenly approached us, looking very disgruntled.
"Mum is making me and Rose share a room with that girl Fiona!" she said angrily.
"So she's staying then," I muttered, "Poor Fred."
Lily frowned, "Poor Fred?! He's not the one who has to share a room with her."
"Come on Lil, she can't be that bad," I said.
Lily scoffed, folding her arms indignantly, "She keeps asking when she can meet dad. She's clearly just here to meet famous wizards."
"You can't blame her for being curious," I said.
Lily glared, "Ugh, you're useless." And with that she stormed off, looking thoroughly annoyed.
Suddenly mum leaned out of the kitchen window, "James!" she called.
"Can you go a try on your tux for tonight? Make sure it fits?"
"Really? Did you try it on yet?"
"Go and try it on, or I'll personally make sure it's small enough for a five year old to wear."
Unfortunately, this was no empty threat. My mother had gone through with many of her previous warnings, and something told me this time was no exception.
"Fine," I muttered, getting up, "You two'll be alright?"
"Oh sure, mate," Owen grinned, "In fact, I think I see your veela cousin Dominique sitting alone over there. Maybe I'll go and keep her company."
"Go ahead," I said, shrugging nonchalantly, "My Uncle Bill is part Werewolf."
I went inside, smirking at the look of horror on Owen's face.
After I had reached the landing on the third floor, I promptly bumped headlong into someone. It was Rose, looking very annoyed.
"What's up, Rose?" I asked.
She didn't answer, and from the door behind her Fiona appeared.
"And I'm going to need at least three hours to get ready, so you and Lily will probably have to find another room to get dressed in," she said.
"Drop dead," Rose said, low under her breath.
"What, sorry?" Fiona asked.
"Sounds fine," Rose said, before adding darkly, "As long as I'm away from you."
Fiona remained completely oblivious to Rose's annoyed expression, and noticed me standing there awkwardly.
"Oh, hi James," she said, batting her eyelashes, "Looking for something...or someone?"
"Er…no," I said stupidly.
Rose slipped away under my arm, mouthing, "She's your problem now."
I was left helplessly facing Fiona, who was getting closer and closer by the second.
"You know," she said, her voice low and husky, "Of all Fred's cousin's, you were the one I most wanted to meet."
"That's great," I said awkwardly.
She laughed and put a hand on my upper arm, "You're so funny!" She let out a high cackle.
I stared. What the hell was she doing?
"You know who's also funny? Fred!" I exclaimed.
"Who?" she asked, leaning in closer. By now I could smell the overwhelming scent of her flowery perfume.
"Fred?" I asked, beginning to get a bit worried, "Your boyfriend?"
"Oh, Fred's not my boyfriend," she said, "Not really."
I frowned, "What do you mean?"
"Well, we're not serious," she said.
"Yet you wanted to come and meet his family," I said.
She shrugged and giggled. It was a giggle that set my teeth on edge.
"Well, see you tonight," she said, waggling her fingers at me, "Nice to meet you, James Potter."
She moved off me and walked away, swinging her hips as she went.
I stood frozen there for a moment, completely baffled as to what had just happened.
My heart thudded in my chest, my teeth on edge and my fingers trembling with anger.
I stood frozen on the steps, watching as Fiona Allen drew closer and closer to James, who wasn't doing anything to stop her.
I was too far away to hear what was being said, but judging by the way she was drawing closer every second, putting her hand on his arm and laughing, they weren't making mundane comments about the weather.
I was no expert on flirting, but even this was so obvious it made me want to be sick. My heart was in my mouth, All the blood drained out of my face.
Fiona let out a high pitched giggle. Unable to stand it, I went back up the stairs to my room.
I wheeled my chair quickly inside, shutting the bedroom door firmly behind me. Max was gone. The room was empty.
I leaned against the closed door, swinging backwards and forwards on the tops of my wheels. Why did I feel like this? This nauseous, swirling, dizzying feeling in the pit of my stomach. Anger seemed to burn red hot at my finger tips. I felt furious and wretched all at the same time. My whole body seemed to itch with an idea. I had to do something.
I went into the bathroom and splashed my face with ice cold water. It didn't take any of the anger away, but I stopped feeling so nauseous.
How could James do that to Fred? Sure, Fred had no real desire to date Fiona, but James didn't know that. Had he learned nothing from Faye? Beautiful Faye, who managed to bewitch him in a way that no one else could. Did he not understand that pretty girls like to flirt with rich, well connected boys? No, he was flattered. It seemed to work on him every time.
And here was Fiona, pretty and confident, with her chestnut brown hair, and her long dark eyelashes that she liked to flutter at everyone. Even James had admitted in the past he thought she was horrible for the way she flirted shamelessly with other girl's boyfriends as though they were toys that she wanted now that someone had picked them up. Now that she was flirting with him none of that seemed to matter.
It was Faye Hamel all over again. I shuddered.
I looked up into the mirror, and stared at my own reflection. My cold, wet face, dripping water over the sink. My hair stuck to my forehead.
It was too long. By now it reached my waist, long, black and pin straight. Dan had begged me to let her cut it, but I had always refused.
Maybe I should try being a little more adventurous.
My fingers fumbled around for a pair of scissors. There was a small pair lying in the nail kit that Ginny had laid out for us.
I picked up the scissors quickly, screwed up my eyes and began to cut.
The long strands of hair came free in my hand, falling lightly to the floor, no longer joined to my head. I opened my eyes, to see that I had cut a good section of my hair just below my shoulders. It looked incredibly uneven, next to the rest of it.
I gritted my teeth with determination. I had started this, now I had to finish it.
I scissored some more, trying to keep along the same length as the short bit, but it was hard with the tiny scissors. Something in my mind told me to stop, wait for someone to help me, but it was too invigorating. So I kept on cutting.
The hair fell to the floor in bigger and bigger chunks. By now I had given up on having a perfect, even length, and settled for a more jagged look. The pile on the floor got bigger and bigger.
When I had got all the way around I stopped. My head felt lighter, freer. I stared in the mirror with anticipation.
It was horrible. I looked like a right mess. At some point during my mad episode, the haircut had stopped being jagged, and started being shaggy.
I stared for about five minutes at my reflection, examining the shorter strands next to the long ones. The whole thing was a complete and utter disaster.
It was then that I started to panic.
Oh god, what the hell had I done? What had possessed me to do this? Had I actually gone insane? And on the night of a big party? I might as well have shaved my own head!
I rolled my chair out of the bathroom, staring wildly around for something that could fix this now, before anyone saw me.
I would have to stay locked up in this room, until my hair grew out. How could I go out there now, after doing this? I would be a laughing stock.
To my horror those fears were soon realized. The bedroom door swung open, with Max standing under the frame. She was carrying two large clothes hangers, covered in some kind of plastic.
"Surprise!" she exclaimed, waving the bags at me, "I've found you a dress! It's James' cousin Victoire's but I'm sure-"
She stopped mid sentence, staring at me in horror. My words stood frozen on my lips, all I could do was stare back with unequivocal terror.
Max's mouth opened and closed a few times as she stared. Then she seemed to find her voice as she hissed, "Oh my god, what did you do?"
I groaned, covering my head my both my hands, "I have no idea! i just picked up the scissors and started cutting!"
I began to wail hopelessly, tugging uselessly at the crooked strands.
Max quickly dropped the dresses onto the bed and sat down beside me, examining the haircut with a mixture of horror and awe, "I can't believe you did this," she whispered reverently.
"Neither can I," I said, "I just…I saw her, with him, and I just got so angry. I had to do something."
Max frowned, "Wait, you saw who with who?"
I swallowed, "Fiona. She was flirting with James. And he was flirting back."
Max nodded with understanding, and I was grateful that she didn't ask me to elaborate on my feelings. I didn't even understand them myself.
"OK," Max said, surveying the damage with a critical eye, "We're going to have to do some damage control here."
I looked up at her, bleary eyed, "Oh, it's past repair!"
Max rolled her eyes, "Save the waterworks, drama queen. All it needs is some straightening out."
It was a glimmer of hope. Max seemed beyond hopeful. She seemed certain, murmuring over and over again, "We can fix this. We can fix this."
I sniffed, "How? You don't know how to cut hair."
Max raised an eyebrow, "Neither do you, but that didn't stop you, now did it?"
"No," I muttered.
"I wasn't talking about me anyway," Max said, "I was talking about James' cousin Molly. She's got a job at a hairdressing salon."
I immediately ducked under the covers, feeling extremely vulnerable.
"No!" I cried, "No one can see this!"
"Merlin's beard," Max sighed exasperatedly, pulling the covers off me, "Keep your head on. I'm sure she's seen worse. It's really not that bad."
I stared at her for a moment. We both bit our lips, before busting out laughing.
"OK, fine," Max said, "It's pretty bad. But I'm proud of you for doing it. It needed a cut, anyway."
I smiled achingly, "Fine, Molly can know, but no one else. Do you promise?"
Max put her hand over her chest, before saluting me, "Scout's honor."
* * *
Approximately half an hour later I sat in the bathroom, staring at my horrific haircut, surrounded by no less than seven girls.
Max didn't seem to remember her promise. She was running about, fetching things that Molly needed to save my dignity. Every time she returned with a new piece of equipment, she was always accompanied by someone else, come to look at the train wreck that was now my head.
Rose stood chatting to Fred's sister Roxanne and James' sister Lily. Dominique was hovering over Molly's shoulder while Lily sat by the sink, painting her nails with extreme scrutiny.
How the fuck had I gotten myself into this? Oh right, because I'm an idiot.
Molly had now carefully inspected my hair from every angle. Dominique kept asking her questions.
"How are you going to fix that? Ooh, that looks difficult to change! Maybe you should shave it all off, and just use some of your dad's hair regrowth potion. It'll only take a week or so."
I squeaked at the thought. Molly shook her head. She was almost unfairly pretty, with wavy, nut brown hair, perfectly applied makeup, wearing elegant clothes. She looked like she belonged in a fashion magazine. She murmured to Dominique as she surveyed the damage. "No, my dad would go bezerk. Besides, I can fix this."
Then she looked at me in the mirror, and asked the dreaded question, "Why did you do it?"
Only Max would understand. But I couldn't think of a decent excuse, "I…I saw F-fiona flirting with James. And I just...felt angry."
In an instant, all seven of them were gathered around me, their outraged faces visible in the wide mirror. All of them were clamoring to be heard, all shouting indignantly.
"I knew it," Lily muttered, "He didn't believe me. I warned him, and he didn't believe me."
Roxanne was shaking her head angrily, "I knew that bitch was up to something when she begged to come here."
"Poor Fred," Max murmured quietly, so softly only I could hear her.
"I can't believe James!" Dominique exclaimed, "Fiona is Fred's girlfriend!"
"I bet it wasn't even his fault," Rose said, "She's been dying to meet him ever since he became captain. Besides, she has a history of flirting with boys who are already taken."
"James isn't taken," I reminded her, but she ignored me as though my comment was merely inconsequential.
"We have to put her in her place," Lily said, gritting her teeth, "And we have to knock James off his feet."
I chuckled nervously, "And how are we going to do that?"
There was silence. They all stared at me intently. Molly's eyes flickered around the bathroom, from the makeup, to the nail polish still in Lucy's hand, to the wand in her own hand. A slow smile crept over Max's lips. It was a devious, cunning smile, and I didn't like it one bit.
Feeling scared, I laughed anxiously before asking, "Guys?"
Max looked at the others, "I think we're talking full out makeover."
To my horror the others nodded in agreement.
I began to shake my head in terror, "No! No! Max, seriously! Please, Merlin, no."
But it was too late. They all stood, gathered around me, grinning from ear to ear.
Max was at the center. She put both hands on my shoulders, probably to comfort me, but it felt closer to a way of trapping me in my chair.
"Charlie," she said slowly, "If you let us do this, you will not regret it."
I shook my head desperately, "No, I'm pretty sure I will."
Max shrugged, "We're going to do it either way, so you might as well give in. I don't fancy putting duct tape over your mouth, but if I must, I must."
"Come on Max, you don't have to do this," I pleaded.
She shook her head, and my fate was decided, "It's about time we show James Potter what he's been missing."
I swallowed. The others nodded.
Oh Merlin, this was horrible.
And the worst part of this whole arrangement?
That last statement sounded pretty damn appealing.
* * *
Over the next two hours they got to work. Molly worked on my hair, snipping away at the uneven ends with care, occasionally looking up at me with a small smile, letting me know it was going well.
The smiles did nothing to calm my feelings of terror. I was paralyzed with fear, in my chair, so tense I couldn't even move.
Lucy was giving my right hand a manicure, while Roxanne was doing the same to my left. Lily and Rose were busy with placing waxing strips over my legs.
"Is that really necessary?" I asked weakly, as they smoothed the strips over my calve.
"Yes," Rose said simply, not even giving a reason.
I swallowed nervously. I had heard that wax strips weren't exactly a walk in the park.
Dom was painting my toenails. It had already taken her over and hour to properly clean my feet. I had always thought cleaning feet meant running them under hot water. But no, apparently in girl word it meant smothering the feet in countless oils and creams, after turning them raw by rubbing them with a rough grey stone, getting rid of any possible loose skin.
Max was the only one not working, perched on the edge of the sink, flicking through a copy of witch weekly. Occasionally she checked the work of the others, before nodding in approval. I glared at her.
"I'm going to get you back for this Max," I said.
"Oh no, are you going to give me a makeover too?" She grinned, "Please, have mercy! Maybe we should give you an attitude makeover."
I could only imagine what that would entail, so from then on I kept my mouth shut.
Why did girls like this so much? It wasn't relaxing. If anything, it was the opposite. And didn't you look more or less the same at the end anyway?
My thoughts were interrupted by an almighty roar of pain, "ARGHHHHHHHH!!"
Apparently it had come from my own mouth. Rose sat grinning, holding a long wax strip in her hand.
I gasped, "What the hell?"
Rose just laughed, before ripping off another strip. I bit down on my lip hard. Too hard, and tears began to prick in my eyes.
A few minutes later my right leg was raw and pink, and I was beginning to sweat with the pain.
"Can't you be a little more gentle?" I wheezed.
"There is no gentle with waxing," Lily said knowingly.
That didn't sound too good. But I bit my lip to stop myself from crying out even more.
After what seemed like an age my legs were shiny and pink, feeling sore as Dom painted my toenails.
Finally Molly put down her scissors and began to curl my hair with her wand, dragging out the strands to make them loose and easy. I was starting to feel like a barbie doll, all squeaky clean with perfectly trimmed hair.
And I liked it.
Was I turning into one of those girls? All I knew was I really liked the smoothness of my legs, and the way my hair framed my face. It was all me, but so different. Good different.
Everyone was finally finished, drawing away to observe each of their own handiwork.
Max surveyed their work with a very satisfied look on her face.
"Right," she said, "Now, makeup."
And the familiar feeling of dread began to build up again.
* * *
"I'm telling you, it's not too much."
"It feels like you're painting my face!"
"Well, that's essentially what make up is."
"Well done, genius. Don't you think it's enough?"
"You can't even see it."
I felt the sweep of eyeshadow across my lid, the smear of cream on my face, all the while feeling rather intimidated. Make up had always been beyond my area of expertise. I had watched Dan and Max put it on, marveling at how they managed to apply the eyeliner so perfectly, and look so understated but so noticeable at the same time.
"I'm going to look like a clown," I whined.
"Oh, shut it," Max chuckled, whisking out a mascara wand, "Almost done, then you'll be free from the torture."
I sensed the annoyed tone behind the laughter.
"Thanks," I muttered, "I guess."
Max shrugged, "It'll all be worth it once you knock James' socks off."
"I don't think I will."
"I have six girls out there who disagree. Look up at the ceiling."
I did, and she began to trace the wand over my lashes, "Well, this was nice of you. Even if it was completely unnecessary."
Max scoffed, "Trust me. This was completely necessary. You'll see." She placed the mascara back into the case, and looked me over with a broad grin, "Time for the dress."
She pushed my chair out into the bedroom. It was empty, now that all the girls had realized how little time they had left to get ready, and had scurried off to their various bedrooms.
Max helped me into the silk ball gown. Even my own unexperienced eye could tell it was exquisite. It was midnight blue silk, tight in all the right places. No ruffles or frills. It flowed to the floor, revealing a long slit up the side. I swallowed.
"I can't wear this," I said to Max, "It's too beautiful."
"Oh of course!" Max cried, "I completely forgot about the person to object attractiveness proportionality law. And you wouldn't be breaking any law anyway, look."
She helps me up from my chair and spins me around to face the mirror.
I smiled shyly at my reflection, a deep blush creeping up my cheeks. Max grinned, "You're welcome," she said gleefully.
She motioned for me to get back into my chair, but I stopped her, grinning from ear to ear, "I've been practicing."
Max looked at me doubtfully, "There's no way you can last the whole night."
"Probably not," I said, "But I wanted to surprise James anyway, and a dress like this…well, it deserves to be worn standing up."
Max offered me a genuine, but all the while nervous, smile, "Alright. I'm going to put on my dress now."
She left the room. I felt steady now on my two legs. Neither of them shook like they used to. They had grown strong again, perfectly capable of keeping me upright.
The question was, would the pain stop me from keeping upright? Even now, my limbs ached, however slightly. And I knew from experience that that pain would only grow with time.
There was no way I was going down to that party, where Fiona and James would be all over each other, sitting in my wheelchair looking up at all of them, feeling so helpless. I had to do what it took to stand on my own two feet.
I reached into my suitcase and withdrew the capsule of painkillers that I took only when I was practicing. Now I only needed one every hour, but this party was going to go on for Merlin knew how long.
Maybe it was dangerous. Maybe it was a bad idea. I didn't know what would happen if I took more than one.
Suddenly an image floated in front of me. Fiona and James closer than ever, while I watched from the staircase, getting closer and closer, until I could barely stand to breathe.
Without thinking, without feeling, I shoved the image out of my mind, took off the lid of the capsule and took five of the pills, all at once.
* * *
Fred was struggling with his cufflinks.
"Damn it," he muttered, as the pin fell to the floor from his shaking fingers.
"Nervous?" I asked. Normally I would have been smirking, taking a certain amount of pleasure in watching Fred squirm. But now I just felt uncomfortable. How was I supposed to tell Fred that Fiona had most definitely hit on me exactly three hours ago, and that we were about to go to a party which I was now dreading beyond belief?
Everyone was already down at the marquee, welcoming the guests. The sun had set a long time ago, and I knew that my mum was going to pissed if we didn't come down soon.
I drummed my fingers on the table. "Bloody hell, they're taking their time," I said.
"Girls, mate," Owen said, as if that explained it.
"Usually Charlie doesn't care about this stuff. I take longer than her get ready," I said.
"That's not hard," Zach snorted, "Judging by how long you take to arrange your hair."
I elbowed him, but looked up as I saw figures coming down the stairs. It was Molly, Rose and the others, all looking excited to be dressed up and going to a party.
"Where's Max?" Fred blurted out, unable to take much more waiting.
"She's still getting ready," Roxanne said, eyeing him with disapproval, "And so is Fiona. Your girlfriend."
"Right," Fred muttered, ignoring Roxanne's piercing glare.
Roxanne passed me, but to my surprise she grabbed my sleeve and pulled me into another room, out of earshot.
"Fred's girlfriend," she hissed, "AKA, not someone you should be flirting with!"
I stared, "I-I wasn't! Wait, did you see us?"
"No," she snapped, "But Charlie did. Bloody hell James, we all thought you were stupid for dating that she-devil, Faye, but I thought you would have learnt by now."
Now it was my turn to be angry, "I wasn't flirting, alright? She came on to me."
"Whatever," Roxanne said, "I won't let someone as insignificant as Fiona Allen come between you and Fred."
"You're not going to tell him, are you?" My eyes widened
"Of course not," she snapped, "Not that it would matter. He seems a bit preoccupied with Max. Just promise me nothing will happen tonight. My brother's heart has been broken enough."
"That's something you need to take up with Max," I said, "I have no interest in Fiona Allen, OK?"
"If you say so," she said, visibly much calmer, "Ah, speak of the devil."
Fiona had come down the stairs in a inappropriately short dress. It was black and left little to the imagination. She hung onto Fred's arm, who continued to look very distracted. She turned around to look at me, and winked. I averted my gaze.
"Are we going then Fred?" she asked impatiently.
Fred opened his mouth to answer, but stopped as he saw Max coming down the stairs.
Man, being in love with a part-veela had to suck. They never looked bad. Ever.
Max looked almost statuesque in her silver gown that fell to the floor like water. Fred seemed momentarily speechless. Fiona didn't seem to mind, she was too busy trying to catch my eye.
"Charlie's just coming," Max said. She approached Zach, "Care to escort me?"
Zach gave Fred an apologetic look, as Fred shot daggers at him, and took Max's arm more than willingly.
What was taking Charlie so long? I remembered with a horrible jolt that it was Charlie who had told Roxanne about Fiona and I. And apparently she had not portrayed me as the victim. Would she be angry? I felt a lump in my throat form and I began to feel nervous.
Suddenly she was there at the top of the stairs. Standing. She was standing. Her wheelchair was no where in sight.
She took careful steps down the stairs, her hand on the bannister, calm and steady.
The others whistled, grinning and eyeing her up and down. My stomach had dropped, my voice had failed me.
It wasn't Charlie who stood in front of me. This wasn't the same person. Where was the messy hair, the baggy clothes, the angry expression? It had all magically disappeared, and she had been replaced by this…girl.
God, she was perfect.
It hit me like a wave, choking me, overwhelming me. Her dress was midnight blue, and it seemed to shine against her pale skin. It pulled in at her waist, skimmed over her curves. I didn't even know she had any of those.
The dress had a slit. Her long calve, and then a knee, and then a thigh was visible beneath the folds of fabric. I had to swallow very hard to forget, but it was still emblazoned on my brain long after. As if I could forget an image like that.
Her hair was shorter. It was also curled a bit, lifting up her face. She was smiling shyly. I'd thought she didn't have a shy bone in her body.
Her eyes, even bluer now with the dress, were lit up with a weird sort of happiness. She was so incredibly…incredibly beautiful.
And it was making me really angry.
What did she think she was doing, messing with me like this? It couldn't be good for my health. One minute she was a tom boy, not interested in being in the least bit attractive. Then she put on a dress at Max's sister's wedding and made me confused. Then she went back to how she'd been. And now she was back, only this time it was worse. This time she wanted it. Last time she'd been uncomfortable in her own skin, unsure of herself, wishing she could go back to how she'd been before. Now she seemed happy, happy that this had happened, happy with the way she looked. It was confusing, and, more importantly, it was bloody annoying.
She stepped down the final stairs and did a little twirl, laughing at everyone who was whistling at her.
Owen grinned cheekily at her, "Where have you been all my life?"
"Oh just waiting for a guy like you to notice me," she said mockingly.
"How are you walking?" Fred asked her, staring bemusedly.
"I've been practicing all summer," she said happily, spinning around once more to show of the power of her limbs.
Thinking of said limbs made my throat feel suddenly constricted, so I concentrated on the ceiling lamp shade instead.
"Are you sure you're OK?" Max asked her gently.
Charlie let off a raucous laugh, a laugh which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, "I'm fine, Max, really. After all this physical therapy and practice, don't you think I would know my limits?"
Max still looked nervous, "OK, but promise you'll take it easy."
"Only after she's danced with me," Owen grinned, offering her his arm.
I stood behind everyone, partially in the shadow of the doorframe, watching her. Why hadn't she looked for me yet? Wasn't she angry that Fiona had flirted with me? Didn't she care? Suddenly I wasn't worried that she knew, it was that she knew and didn't mind about it. Bloody hell, I wanted her to mind.
Charlie took Owen's arm. I felt the knuckles on my fist tighten over the doorframe. My jaw clenched. What was happening to me? I felt furious at the sight of her and Owen. Owen had said he didn't like her like that. He'd said.
I wasn't supposed to like her like that either. She was just good old Charlie, used to be my enemy, then my friend. Yes, I had snogged her once, but neither of us were thinking. Both of us had regretted it straight after. Now some crazy part of me was wishing that I'd carried on snogging her, because then it might be me escorting her down to the marquee, and not Owen.
It was probably the worst wish I'd ever had.
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