Chapter 23 : And then I have a merry Christmas...
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In actual fact, I fully abuse my non-ability to dance on a semi-regular basis. One of my favourite feelings in the world is that feeling you get when you’re dancing around in your underwear: you’re not worrying about how your elbows are too pointy, or your boobs are lopsided, or your hips stick out at a weird angle, and how the skin on your legs looks horrid after you’ve shaved... it’s like an acceptance that you know you look ridiculous, but you’re going to dance in your underwear anyway. You know if you were to see yourself, you wouldn’t think that you were too fat or too skinny, you’d think that girl knows who she is and she knows what she looks like and she’s dancing anyway. To me, that’s always been the ultimate feeling of self security. Even though I only ever danced around in my underwear in the dorm bathroom, when Felicity or Dom were playing their music much too loudly in the next room, it always felt a little like contentment.
I’d been feeling like that all the time for the past few days. It wasn’t going to last forever, I knew that, because there was still a whole host of things that I was insecure about... and, anyway, I felt seventeen was a little too young to know everything about myself. I wanted to keep discovering and learning who I was and what I was capable of, but – temporarily – I seem to have fallen into a giddy, blissful period of contentment.
I wanted to freeze it and live in it forever. I felt solid and permanent and so blindingly real. I felt like, no matter what life had in store, and no matter whom the people I loved grew to be, I would always be able to look back on these few moments and know with all certainty that I was happy in the here and now. These were the sort of moments that would last forever. When I had children, which I definitely planned to do, this is what I’d want from my kids – some blissful, iridescent, infinite moments of feeling secure in who you are.
I was so, honestly and truly blessed. I’d never felt so touched by God.
“Three twos,” April said, placing the two cards down on the top of the pack.
“Cheat,” Oliver interjected, flipping over the two cards and grimacing when they were, in fact, both twos.
“You never trust me,” April grinned, pushing the pack over in his direction with a flip of her hair, “Ethan, why don’t they ever believe me?”
“It’s because you’re a dirty cheat,” Ethan said, his Australian accent still sounding slightly odd in our tiny dining room. I glanced over to the kitchen, where Mum was tight lipped and making cups of tea for everyone, silent.
“That’s the name of the game,” April said.
“I only cheat when I have to,” I smiled, distractedly stroking Neb’s head. He pressed his wet nose into my arms and sniffed contentedly.
April had said she’d only return home if Neb was welcome. I’d had to remind her to rally for her fiancé’s invite too. Mum had been so excited about the prospect of her prodigal daughter even thinking about spending Christmas Eve with us that neither of the events had really been battles. We’d settled on an ongoing war largely taking place in subtext, but it was better... things were better. They were bearable.
They say one of the things you’re supposed to do before you’re twenty five is to make peace with your parents and except that they’re human too: I’m not sure I’m quite ready to forgive my Mum for not being the presence to build me up when I needed her, but I might be able to accept that it happened and there’s nothing that can be done to change that.
Families screw each other up in the most remarkable ways. I think that’s what makes each family unique.
“That’s the problem with playing with you bloody Christians,” Dad said, trying a little too hard but trying all the same, “so moral.”
“Milk, no sugar,” Mum said, placing down the cup of tea in front of me. She seemed to be going to extreme lengths as not to brush my shoulder as she did so, as if neither of us were quite ready for any sort of physical contact. She knew my tea preference though. She tried to smile at me.
We hadn’t talked. Given it was my family and we barely communicated as it was, let alone the fact that they only time I’d really talked to my Mum since leaving for Hogwarts were tense, loaded conversations which both of us resented... I wasn’t surprised that we weren’t in a position to sit down and have a conversation about what had happened and what we wanted to happen.
We’d been watching each other. I’d been trying to work her out. There was a lot of my Mum in April; I half wondered whether my Mother was too convinced that love was a fleeting concept too, or whether there was something innate within her that made talking about her feelings difficult. I thought a lot about post-natal depression. I thought maybe she did love me, but the residue of her failure to love me in those first few months still clung to the corners of her brain. I thought that maybe she didn’t realise she treated me different until I left for Hogwarts. I thought, perhaps, that summer when I came home with a little more confidence and a little more sense of worth that she realised what she’d done and then had to face it, continually, until she could barely look at me anymore.
I decided that even if she didn’t love me, she should. And I had every right to demand that love from her.
She said that she ‘hoped to see me soon’ and that was most definitely enough. For now.
“Thanks,” I said, catching her eye for a split second.
Eye contact was new.
“No one’s called April moral for years,” Oliver said, “look, she’s drinking.”
“It’s Christmas Eve.”
“We’re going to church in a few hours,” Oliver grinned, “four twos.”
“Two fives,” I said, “and I’m sure it won’t make much difference. Most people think April’s drunk most of the time.”
“Cheat,” Ethan interjected, turning over the top two cards, grinning and passing the deck over to me.
“You dirty cheat, Oliver,” I said, inspecting my new hand, “three twos.”
“I can’t handle any more number twos. I’m losing track,” April grinned, “who’s idea was this game anyway?”
“Yours,” Oliver said, dropping his sizable pack of cards onto the table, “but I’m definitely bored.”
“Don’t, Oliver! I can see your cards!”
“And I’ve been looking over your shoulder for half the game, Autumn, and you’re not going to win any time soon.”
“So much for morality,” April grinned, setting down her cards, “I vote we play another game of MagiCluedo.”
“It was Merlin with a draft of Everlasting death in Hogwarts,” Oliver said, “dull.”
“And your preoccupation of death is worrying.”
“I’m a historian,” April said, “it’s not interesting unless the participants are dead. Did you read my book, Dad?”
“I’ve started it,” Dad said, glancing at Mum for a second before frowning slightly.
“Yeah? What did you think of the first page then?” April asked, a touch of frostiness about her voice. I glanced down at my own hand of cards before, too, setting them down on the table with the others. These uncomfortable silences hadn’t been too far away from the past two weeks, but there were more gaping holes in conversation now April was home too – April expected more and still harboured the tendency to push others away.
Me and Oliver had been more used to putting up with this over the years.
“When are your friends getting here?” Mum asked, one hand curled around her cup of tea as she held it to her chest, as if to protect herself.
“Just after eleven,” I said, “they’re apparating here then we’re walking to church.”
“And you’re staying with Dom after Christmas?”
I wasn’t going to tell her that I was spending a night or two staying at James’s house, because I wasn’t yet ready to allow her access to those parts of my life: Dom was safe ground as she’d been mentioned in sparse letters and tense conversations over the years, but James was a whole different kettle of fish. Mum did not need to know about James Potter.
Oliver winked at me.
“Her sister’s getting married,” I said, “she needs sanctuary from the mad wedding planning.”
“I need sanctuary from the mad wedding planning,” April said.
“All you’ve decided on is autumn colours,” Oliver said, rolling his eyes and flicking the ace of spades in her direction.
“Inspired by my lovely sister,” April drawled, “an autumn wedding too.”
“April,” I said, “I know you like me, but your whole wedding doesn’t need to be an Autumn-shrine.”
“It’s just cheaper to book out the church,” April said, sticking out her tongue (which, really, she was much too old to do), “although I need to talk to our favourite vicar about that.”
“Not tonight,” I said, “he has enough on his plate with midnight mass.”
“So it’s not exactly at midnight, is it? Because it’s only 11:30.”
“The Eucharist is at midnight,” April said, wrapping her green coat around her tightly.
“It’s still a misnomer,”
“Using big words isn’t going to sound your more intelligent, James.” Dom said crisply, shoving her hands into the pockets of her thick grey trench coat with a prim expression. I closed my eyes briefly and tried to remember that I cared deeply about both parties involved in the exchange, and that the fact that they were voluntarily spending time together was great progress.
“Don’t listen to these Ravencalws, James, you’re a genius.” Oliver grinned, his own hand stuffed into thick woolly mittens that I’d brought for him a couple of years ago – with the amount he’d grown and beefed out I was amazed they still fit him. Perhaps he’d enlarged them. The thought made me smile.
“You bet I am,” James said, wrapping an arm around my waist, the material of his leather jacket brushing against my own arm. James look strangely good dressed muggle. I’d expected that odd wizardingly look of wearing clothes that didn’t quite match, but he seemed to have put together an outfit fairly expertly. I was going to have to ask him about that some point.
He grinned at me. I wondered if James felt that strange sense of infinity inside his chest. Everything felt so utterly glorious. There was nowhere else I’d rather be and no one else I’d rather be sharing these moments with – just me, my siblings, my boyfriend and my best friend walking to midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
“Stop deluding yourself,” I said, taking hold of his hand tucked away in his pocket. Inside the leather was warmer than I expected it to be.
“I’m clever for a Gryffindor.”
“For a Gryffindor, yes,” I agreed.
“That isn’t saying much,” Dom said, but there was the tiniest trace of humour in her voice – a definite step in the right direction. I smiled at the pavement – watching as the five of us walked through the darkness together.
“Hey,” Oliver said. “There’s just as many Gryffindor’s as Claws here, so you might want to watch what you say,”
“It depends how you count.” Dom muttered darkly.
“By brain cells,” I added.
“Or by muscles,” James said, making a point of clenching his muscles obviously. I poked his arm, laughing and rested my head against his shoulder. He kissed my forehead. He was too cute.
Thankfully, Dom was walking slightly ahead so she didn’t see. I suspected that was why she’d opted to walk there.
“You’re forgetting the representative of the third house,” April grinned.
“I tried telling her Hufflepuffs were boring, but she didn’t listen.”
“Well,” Oliver smirked, “She is a published historian. That’s hardly exciting.”
“But her work is filled with stimulating new theories,” Dom added, sharing a shy smile with April – who seemed taken aback but smiled anyway. “You are getting married though.”
“Married,” April laughed. “God, isn’t it crazy how much things can change in a year!” She declared – her voice filling up the space in the empty street. Dom glanced at me at that point, a solemn expression in her eyes – as if I’d forgotten her somehow.
“Or even in a couple of months,” James said into my ear, his voice tickling my skin softly. I smiled at him but pulled backwards.
“Hmm,” I returned, pulling my hand out of his and falling into step with Dom for a second. Her face lit up into her normal smile – highlighted and made all the more beautiful by the gold light of the street lamp.
I was quickly becoming a near professional juggler. Given my clumsiness and inherent tendency towards back luck, I suspected the whole business was liable to end up quite messy... but, for now, things were okay, and as long as they both knew I was trying I had a feeling it would be all right.
“Where is your fabled fiancé?” James asked.
“He had to take Neb back to our flat,” April said, “dogs apparently aren’t allowed in churches.”
“I’m actually quite excited,” Dom said, hooking her elbow through mine – not in a possessive way (or maybe just a little bit), but in a nice friendly way – and smiling in that nervous real way of Dom’s which I rarely saw. “I’ve never been to church before.”
“Never?” April questioned from just behind us. Dom shook her head.
“Me neither,” James added. “Well, once – for a funeral, but I don’t think that counts.”
“It doesn’t,” April said. “We probably should have eased you in – started with a Sunday morning service, rather than the deep end with midnight mass.”
“What do you mean?” James asked.
“Well,” I said – exchanging a backward glance with April – “Our vicar, Ben, is great – really he is – but he’s not so brilliant with midnight mass services.” Dom raised an enquiring eyebrow. “Loads of people turn up for Christmas services, you see, and he always feels the pressure of getting people to come back.”
“So he alternates,” April grinned, “From yayJesusisborn to -”
“You’re all condemned to hell,” Oliver finished. “Personally I find the burning lake of sulphur talks pretty funny.”
“I know,” I said. “You wouldn’t stop laughing last time. It was very embarrassing.”
“But that was last year... so hopefully we’re in for another beautiful celebratory talk this time,” April said.
“Are you allowed to laugh in a church?” James asked.
“No,” Oliver said seriously. “You’ll get hit by God’s lightening if you so much as smile.”
“Unless Ben’s trying to be funny – then you’re obliged to laugh at his joke or snap, you’re eternally condemned.”
“They’re not serious,” I told Dom and James hastily, who seemed to be beginning to look apprehensive. “They’ll be no eternal condemning.”
“Unless you’re possessed by the devil,”
“Cut it out, April,” I laughed. “The service will be fine,” I told the other two. “We’ll sing a couple of songs, carols probably, they’ll be a bible reading, a talk – then there’s communion, another song and we’re good to go.”
“Does it finish at midnight then?” James asked. Dom rolled her eyes. Oliver laughed.
“If only Ben’s talks would be that short.” April laughed.
“No James,” I said, squeezing his fingers.
“Then why the bloody hell is it called midnight mass?”
“No swearing either,” Oliver said cheerily. “Or they’ll chuck you onto the pavement. If you’re lucky.”
“Sometimes they make a human sacrifice at Christmas.”
“Even I know they’re joking this time.” James grinned.
“Oh good, it does learn.” I said.
“Shouldn’t your mum be here?” Dom asked, looking up at me expectantly.
“Oh, well,” I said. “If ever someone was going to burst into flames due to stepping in a church then it would be my mother.”
“Now Autumn, that does sound like behaviour in accordance to the contract.”
“There’s no contract,” I said, shaking my head, “you can’t have contracts for relationships. Or point scoring systems. Forgive and forget guys, it’s Christmas.”
“Save the preaching for Ben,” April grinned, nudging me, “although I’ve got to say it’s nice to be home for Christmas for once. And by that I didn’t mean that awkward affair back at Mum and Dad’s, but you know... with you two.”
“No one stopped you from coming home the past two years,” Oliver said, but he was smiling too. Everyone was smiling.
I guessed that wasn’t overly surprising, considering those utterly depressed by the concept of Christmas usually didn’t drag themselves out for midnight mass, but it seemed like everyone was truly content.
Vicar Ben often used to say that happy was temporary but joy was deep contentment rooted in your soul. He said that you could be sad but still no joy, because it wasn’t fleeting or dependent on circumstance, but an undercurrent... a state of mind. I never really believed that it was possible, and it certainly wasn’t probably, but maybe... maybe there was something like that out there.
More likely, it was Christmas and all the people I loved most were making an actual contrived effort to get along and love each other. Still, it never hurt to be optimistic.
James glanced at his watch just after twelve and whispered “It’s Christmas.”
Of course, being James his whisper was loud enough that it sent a ripple around the pew in front and behind. Dom pointedly rolled her eyes, gripped my wrist for a second and mouthed “happy Christmas.” James sent me a dazzling grin. Oliver caught my eye and gave me the thumbs up. April had her hands clasped together, eyes upturned and mouth set in an unconscious smile.
I closed my eyes.
Happy Christmas, I thought. God, thank you for this. Thank you that people can forgive each other and love each other even though we’re damn near unlovable most of the time.
And bring them Joy.
And many Christmases like this one.
And thank you for making me just the way I am, and for the first time, that I’m glad and don’t think I’m too tall or not funny enough and too awkward and not special enough to be loved or listened to. Thank you for that.
(Which means, so be it. Or, as Father Ben used to say I really mean it).
OKAY HAI GUYS. I can’t believe that I’ve just finished this story. Can you believe I’ve just finished this story? I’m on like a novel finishing ROLL at the minute... but, honestly, this story has been written on sudden bursts of inspiration and long dry spells in-between. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time apologising to you guys for taking an age to update and then... well, I swear last time I looked this story was on about three hundred reviews. WHERE DID THOSE LAST TWO HUNDRED COME FROM? So just, thank you very much for sticking with this story to the end, hello to the new readers who have appeared very recently (your reviews have made my day), and it’s been a pleasure sharing this with you. BUT DON’T BE AGHAST at this story ending! I am a perpetual-WIP-addict. This is one of ten WIPS (now nine, I guess... wow) and maybe you’ll find something else of mine you might like? And you can always come talk to me on my MTA and what not. And, Wisty has requested an alternative ending in which... well, it’s very different to this one that’s for sure. So that’s going to happen too.
You guys are awesome and I hope you liked the ending :)