Chapter 21 : The Slug Club Party
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"You look great," Amaris informs me kindly. I twirl a little, laughing: I am wearing a red party dress that hits just above my knees, and my hair has been painstakingly curled to fall onto my shoulders in soft waves. I may not stop traffic, but I'll do.
"I hope you have a good time," she adds, a little wistfully. I raise my eyebrows.
"Honestly, I don't even know why Slughorn invited me and not you to this ridiculous soiree."
"It's fine," she laughs, "since I have plans, anyway."
"And what might those be, missy?" I ask, pretending to be scandalized. She merely smiles coyly and flips her long blond hair over her shoulder.
"I'll fill you in if things go smoothly."
"I guess I'll have to settle for that, at least for now." I return, folding my best friend into a little hug. She pulls away and swats my behind gently.
"Now scat! You have an absolutely, er, fabulous party to attend, and lots of high brow Slug Club members to impress. Maybe there will even be a handsome young Ministry official or two. And I can't wait for Theo to see you in that dress."
Theo, having also secured an invitation to the party, is my date and potential life raft from awkward schmoozing and stilted conversation. And he is waiting for me, sitting a bit uncomfortably on the sofa in his sharp black dress robes.
"Evening, Mr. Nott," I tell him, curtseying. "You're looking very trim tonight." Theo scrambles to his feet, turning a sweet little pink colour.
"Hey, Tor- I mean, Astoria-er.." I cross my arms and wait, tapping my high-heeled foot a little.
"You look very... tall," he fumbles, and the word is a talisman that releases this awkward Theo into the familiar boy I've grown up with. "Shall we go?"
Climbing the stairs in Hogwarts is a lot more effort in heels, and I rely heavily on Theo's arm for balance. By the time we get to Sluggy’s, I am panting a little from the effort.
"Stupid... mangy heels... bloody torture..."
"Please assert some decorum, Ms. Greengrass-Yaxley. The lady must be seen, and not heard, after all," Theo drawls in his best imitation of a Victorian gentleman. I resist the urge to show him how a real lady would react: by slyly stabbing him in the shined shoe with her deadly and uncomfortable stiletto.
"Never again," I say instead, and composing myself and flattening my hair a little we stroll into the party. Say what you like about Slughorn, but he has got a sense of style. The room has been magically enlarged, draped in graceful curtains and veils: small fairy lights drift about the party, and the starry ceiling appears to be snowing gentle, warm snow that evaporates when it touches the skin.
"Winter wonderland," Theo says drily.
Scanning the room, I take in Slughorn, chatting with two sharply dressed, bearded gentlemen with the uniform, proud stance of high-up Ministry officials; another wizard that I'm pretty sure my father once let slip by pointing him out in Diagon Alley that he was under the Imperius Curse; Blaise Zabini, without Daphne for once, looking like he's smelt something horrible next to the cakes table; Ginny Weasley speaking animatedly to another girl I don't recognize; and Professor Burbage chattering away to two witches.
And between those two witches is Terry Boot, and my pulse skips a tiny beat at how handsome he is: his soft, dark dress robes over trim boy trousers just an imperceptible inch too short, his hair neatly combed and his face animated as he speaks with the taller of the two witches, a stern looking woman wearing a monocle and long blue dress robes. From his keen, nearly frustrated expression I can tell that he is arguing with her: Salazar help her if Terry Boot is pleading the other side.
"Drat, there's Christiana," Theo mutters, and I look up to see his ex-girlfriend, looking rather pretty if not very pale and milky in a white dress, her hand tucked into a Ravenclaw fifth year's. I glance over to Theo: he's gone red, staring angrily at the happy couple.
"Er, mate, you ditched her," I remind him.
"And everyday I wonder why," he says, but it's mostly to himself. I wonder if this is one of those cliché cases of always wanting what you can't have. Scratch that last, it certainly is. Christiana seems to notice his gaze, and, tossing her hair back haughtily, turns to her date and links her arm through his, gazing up at him adoringly. Theo frowns.
"She's surely just doing this to upset you," I inform him, "and rightly so. You did break up with her with no warning, remember? There’s no need to be melodramatic."
Theo ignores me: his face looks like steel. I excuse myself and go to greet Slughorn, who, beaming, introduces me to his companions. Hand shakes are given and I think that I could not possibly remember all these names, even if I cared to.
"Do come and find me later, Ms. Greengrass," he bellows, "I must introduce you to Darrell here-he's head of the Britain International Potioneer Society, you do know!"
I express my thanks and narrowly miss colliding head on with Loony Lovegood from Ravenclaw, who appears to be deep in conversation with one of the fairy lights and is chirping quietly to it. Strange. Skillfully steering around her, I catch a glimpse of Blaise Zabini disdainfully placing a handful of orange peels on a wait wizard’s tray before biting into his fruit, juice from the orange spraying a little.
Then I notice who is standing a few paces behind Zabini: Professor Burbage, still speaking with Terry Boot. Burbage catches my eye and beckons me over, smiling warmly.
"Astoria, oh don't you look lovely," the Muggle Studies teacher exclaims, putting a soft hand on my arm and pulling me over to her small circle. Immediately I have a sparkling drink cold in my hand and Terry is beaming at me, amused. "Terry, doesn't Astoria just look stunning tonight?"
Terry says nothing, but raises his glass in a little salute to me. I blush a little, a color that probably doesn't complement my dress.
"Astoria, this is Margaret Macaulay, a friend and colleague from the Non-Profit Organization for the Assembly of Muggle Awareness and Rights," Burbage rattles off, gesturing to their other companion. The stern witch with the monocle is now across the room speaking with a man who I suspect might be a vampire. "Margaret, this is Astoria Greengrass,” Burbage continues, “who has been attending some of my N.E.W.T classes for her own interest. Terry's taken her under his wing as a sort of project, haven't you, dear?"
Terry smiles to himself. "Something like that, Professor."
Margaret Macauley is about my height, with soft, curling hair that frames her face in light ringlets and wide blue eyes. Her wide smile, revealing a little gap between her two front teeth. Her gaze is warm and intelligent, and her handshake strong.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Greengrass," she says. "Terry here has been blabbing on about Potions, but I'd love to hear about your studies."
"Er, well, I haven't sat my O.W.Ls yet," I tell her, "but I'm mostly interested in Ancient Runes, Transfiguration, and yes, a bit of Potions. Rubbish at Herbology, though." I grin at Terry. "Oh, and Muggle Studies is very interesting as well." I let my voice drop with this last statement. Being seen speaking with the Muggle Studies Professor is one thing, but being overheard saying I enjoyed the subject by someone like Zabini would be difficult to explain.
"I'm glad you're enjoying the lessons," Burbage says, her eyes twinkling at me. Or perhaps it's only the reflection of the fairy lights. "I must say, I was a little concerned when I heard you were a Slytherin: some of them have come to my classes to simply heckle me and the other students who actually want to learn."
Margaret Macauley pats her on the arm sympathetically.
"But, Astoria, I must say you're a pleasure to teach: so inquisitive and clever. Astoria is always questioning everything," she tells Macauley. "She has me on my toes half the lesson."
"Sounds about right," Terry says, chuckling and looking at his favorite teacher fondly.
Macauley looks at me with keen eyes. "And have you learned much from the classes, Astoria?"
"I guess you could say I've started seeing things in a different light," I say, slowly, wanting to be honest to this most curious of strangers. "When I was growing up, I never learned much about Muggle history or Muggle social issues. Now, I feel like there's this big void in my understanding of history that's slowly being filled."
"An interesting way of speaking of a class."
“Yes, and I feel like... with each class I attend, I'm getting closer to something. To some kind of whole truth that only certain people can understand from certain angles, and that I can only snatch at the bits and pieces." I feel my face flush a little. "Sorry. That surely made no sense at all."
Macauley's eyes crinkle at the edges, and I am reminded suddenly and inexplicably of the quiet wisdom of Professor Dumbledore. "Shall we drink to Astoria's whole truth?"
Terry and Burbage laugh and we clink our glasses together. I sip at mine: it's pumpkin juice with nothing added, thankfully. I eye Terry across the brim of my glass: and he winks at me, so quickly that only the person the wink was meant for could have noticed it.
"What kind of work do you do, Ms. Macauley?" I ask politely, after taking another quick sip of pumpkin juice. She straightens, while Burbage mock-groans a little.
"Well, since you asked..." Macauley launches into a long-winded explanation of her post at the head of the Assembly of Muggle Awareness and Rights. Apparently, while many departments at the Ministry are concerned with Muggle welfare, Muggle control and Muggle communications, there is no specific department that watches out for the protection of Muggle interests with regards to wizardry. Macauley's organization, which is a non-profit, holds seminars, events and produces a weekly newsletter to promote Muggles as a unique culture that should be accommodated and embraced by wizards.
"We are experiencing a great deal of backlash at the moment, what with the rise of You-Know-Who and his infiltration of Ministry, as well as a suspected moll on the Daily Prophet staff," she continues, speaking with emotion. "We suspect Death Eater involvement with the immense amounts of propaganda which are being circulated to wizarding homes, both by sympathizers and enemies of our cause. Muggle rights and issues are becoming a full-on ideological war."
"Poor Margie works herself to the bone," Burbage says, patting her companion on the shoulder sympathetically.
"It's important work," Terry adds, watching me as if waiting for my reaction.
"I'd be interested in subscribing to your newsletter," I tell Macauley, blurting out the words before considering what I’m asking for. She brightens.
"Oh, wonderful! I must say, I don't have many student subscribers, much less a mere fourth year!"
"But is there a way... I'm sorry... you could send it to me in guise of something else?" I ask, feeling a little uncomfortable and annoyed with myself for getting into this situation. "Just because, well if it came with the morning post, somebody at my table might tease me. I’m sorry."
Burbage frowns and looks as if she is about to put me in my place, but Macauley looks understanding. "I shall make a note of it," she declares. "Now, Charity, we simply must go speak with that tosser Dawlish before he bursts- he asked me out repeatedly while I was at Hogwarts, and keeps throwing me these pathetic looks -" she adds as an aside to Terry and I. "Astoria, Terry-it was lovely meeting you. Enjoy the party."
She shakes hands with each of us, and I smile at her.
"It was a pleasure to speak with you," I tell her, and mean it, as well. Despite her radical views, Macauley is the kind of person I'd like to listen to, the type of person I'd like to know.
"Guess it's just you and me, Feisty," Terry murmurs, stepping a fraction closer to me. Although we are in a crowded room, surrounded by potential rats, I can't help but draw closer to him as well. His blue eyes search mine, as if hoping for an answer I cannot afford to give.
"I missed you," I murmur to him. "I always miss you. How cruel is that?"
He laughs, and ruffles a hand through his own hair, sending the delicious smell of him towards me. "Do you realize that this is our first public appearance together?"
"I suppose it is," I say, amused. "Unless you count Halloween, but you were looked a little different then."
"I wish we could dance together," he breathes, and there is a familiar, hard look in his eyes. "I wish I could hold you like I'm supposed to be allowed to: to show everyone that I am yours and you are mine and we are happy."
"I don't need to show others that I'm happy," I whisper to him, lingering with my eyes on his eyelashes. "It's enough, to be happy in private. It's all that really matters. But... I do wish I could kiss you now."
Our mouths, faces, a foot apart, too far. The tension between us threatens to crack: I long to twitch my hand, press it against his own, to bridge that indomitable gap that lies between us, as un-crossable as the river where the Peverell brothers met Death. It hurts, this closeness and this distance, between myself and Terry Boot.
"Tor..." he begins, and suddenly he is tugging me behind one of the large velvet curtains covering the walls of Slughorn's office. I giggle, breathless in the excitement. It is very dark, in the small space between the hovering velvet and the cold stones.
"You're crazy," I laugh, and I seize him, kissing him furiously, putting into that kiss all the hope and love and fear I have ever felt. He tugs me closer, urgently.
"It's torture," he whispers, "not being able to touch you."
"I know." I run my fingers gently over the his collarbone, feeling the softness of his dress robes.
"But this probably isn't the best place to kiss."
"No." But neither of us can untangle our bodies from the other. Finally, I push him away gently.
"We should rejoin the party," I tell him. "Theo will be looking for me, and Michael for you. Plus, the dancing will probably start soon, and we certainly can’t afford to cause a scene."
Dejected, I feel him nod against my cheek: he kisses me again, swiftly. I stick my head out of the curtain then sidle out from behind. Fortunately, the majority of the room is staring at some fuss Draco Malfoy appears to be causing at the entrance. Only Ginny Weasley notices me, and stares at me suspiciously.
"And what exactly were you doing, er, behind a curtain?" She asks curiously. I notice that her boyfriend has vanished.
"Applying lipstick," I reply, cool as a cucumber and feeling unnaturally bold. "But listen, Weasley, I need to speak with you."
"Can it wait until after Malfoy gets detention?" she asks, craning her neck towards my fellow Slytherin.
I giggle. "No, but remind me to tell you about the hilarious trick some clever prankster played on him at Halloween. Now, can we talk?" Glancing around, I remark to myself that Theo is watching the action with a bemused expression on his face and Zabini has disappeared. The only other Slytherin of consequence is Christiana, but she's busy simpering at her date, which she does very well. "Let's sit over here."
I pull her over to a couple chairs set up in the far corner of the room. Out of the corner of my eye I spot Terry escaping our velvet haven and rejoining his friends, slapping a beefy Gryffindor on the back and swinging a brotherly arm around Michael Corner's shoulders.
"So I overheard... some people of consequence talking," I begin a little uncertainly.
"Typical," Ginny whispers, staring at the space where I swear Harry Potter had been standing thirty seconds ago. She startles at me. "What?"
"I said, I was listening to some important people talking," I say again, gritting my teeth a little. This is going to be hard enough to say without saying it twice.
She perks up a little. "Important from my point of view or yours?"
"Mine, I suppose. Now, can you please listen?"
"Sorry, I've just been a little distracted lately." She flicks her long, straight red hair absently.
"Okay, so from what I heard, there is going to be an attack," I tell her, uncertain of how to explain. "An attack, over the Christmas holidays."
"Go on," she says, listening attentively now, brown eyes fixed on my face like I'm a judge sealing her fate.
"An attack on your home," I tell her, feeling a little weak. "By the - well, you know. Them. The idea is to take Potter, and if that's unsuccessful, one of your family to hold over his head."
Ginny's brow is knit in concentration. "And, how exactly do you know this?"
"I overheard it," I say shortly, wary of giving too much away. "I'm sorry-I didn't know how to warn you, or even if I should. But I thought you deserved to know."
She is thinking fast, eyes narrowed a little at me, as if she fears a trick. "You know, I'm positive my parents will have already put up all the necessary precautions to ward off… your lot. I'm sure of it."
"Alright, well I just thought you should know," I say a little shortly.
"Greengrass... are you a spy?" She asks bluntly.
"A spy? You mean for the Death Eaters. Hardly. I’m barely fifteen."
"I meant for either side." She shrugs. "I don't know what I meant."
"I don't know, either," I reply frankly, weighing her words in my head. A spy-like Snape suggested I could be. A spy, but for whom? For whose purposes but my own? I'm not even sure who I am anymore, and there's nobody who understands.
"Well, now you know," I tell Weasley, and get to my feet. "Enjoy the rest of the party."
I turn away as she calls for me to wait. I feel more than see her run up behind me and press a scrap of parchment into my hand, tucking a quill back in her little purse.
"I know you think you're all alone," she tells me, brown eyes piercing. "But here's the name of someone who was once in a similar situation as you-someone who might understand. Astoria..." she lets go of my hand. "Sorry, that probably looked a little odd. But if you need someone to talk to, someone who won't judge you, consider sending her an owl. She's very kind: she'll do her best to help you."
She smiles at me, fleetingly, two school girls caught in a war beyond our imagining. "And thank you."
As she whirls away, searching through the crowd for someone, I unfurl the piece of parchment in my hands.
An hour later, I have exchanged my pumpkin juice for something stronger and located Theo, who has been skulking around the outskirts of the party like he does when he's in a mood. Since, we have been sharing a stolen bottle of Slughorn's fine mead and are passing it back and forth, although Theo has amusingly Transfigured the outside so it appears like a carton of milk.
"I hate milk," I comment, swirling the mead-turned white about the bottle.
"I hate mead," Theo groans, and we are both off again. I stare jealously as across the room Terry Boot laughs loudly at something that Leanne girl has said. The kind of laugh where he throws his head back and wrinkles up his eyes. For some reason my jealously is always ignited after drinking alcohol, and I remark to myself that Terry hasn't met my eyes for over half an hour, then scold myself for being so petty.
"Tori," Theo slurs, cradling the bottle like a child, "You look really pretty tonight. I know I didn't tell you earlier, like I should have. But I wanted to. And you look pretty."
I blush a little: the flush from drinking doesn't help.
"Thanks, Theodore. You look nice."
"Seriously, Tor, you've actually grown up to be really pretty," Theo tells me, and I convince myself it's just the mead talking. "You're one of my favorite people, you know that, right?"
"I know," I tell him, tilting my head against his shoulder. "You're one of my favorite people, too."
It's an anthem from when we were children. I remember sitting with Theo and Pyxis outside after their mother's funeral, the rain trickling down and staining their dark heads. You're my favorites, I told them, and they looked at me gratefully, eyes full of darkness, my two half-orphans.
It feels like we've been at the party for several hours: I have no idea what time it is, and no real desire to know. Telling Ginny what I overheard has lifted a great weight from my chest, and the piece of paper with the stranger's name on it is warm, tucked into the folds of my dress. Terry, from across the room, smiles with his real friends, the friends who exist in the same world as he, a world that I can never join. Many of the others are dancing: across the room, Charity Burbage and Margaret Macauley are still speaking passionately over a place of crackers and olives.
"Want to dance?" I ask Theo on impulse, and without waiting for an answer I am pulling him to his feet and towards me. He puts his hand on my waist with more grace than I would have expected and we start to sway, my head neatly tucked under his neck. It's more of an embrace than a dance, really, and some cruel part of me hopes that Terry Boot is watching, to see that I, too, have my own world that he is not a part of.
"You're not as drunk as you sound, are you," I say to Theo. It's a fact, not a question. He sags a little.
"No. I wish I was, though." I do not question the unhealthiness of this statement. "They look happy." He looks towards Christiana and her date, who are swaying blissfully to the music.
"Maybe they are." I look at my friend. "Are you happy? I want you to be."
Theo looks back at me, as if for the first time, and I see the beautiful boy I have always loved and something else, that young man plagued with more pain than he deserved before his time, the sins of the father, a motherless waif of a man. Someone who has no idea who he is.
"Thank you, Tor," he whispers, and in his gaze is something I haven't seen before. He is paying no mind to Christiana: his stare is mine alone. It should comfort me, but instead it worries me.
Over Theo's shoulder I spy Terry Boot looking at me, frowning for a fleeting instant. He looks hurt, or jealous, or something else. I want to pull away from Theo and run to him, but I cannot, so instead I shuffle from side to side in my best friend's arms, captive in this coffin of a winter wonderland.
A/N: Fun fact: I wrote the majority of this chapter a few weeks ago in the Elephant House Cafe where JKR supposedly wrote some of HP! Also, the name Margaret Macauley was borrowed from a gravestone in the Greyfriars Kirk cemetery just around the corner, where supposedly JKR also got inspiration for her character names. At any rate, there is a McGonagall in the graveyard. Please do review and let me know what you think of the chapter! Whose name was on the parchment that Ginny gave Tor? What’s going on with Theo? Anything you recognize, including the inspiration for the chapter title, belongs to the lovely JK Rowling.
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