Chapter 15 : Fifteen: A Sudden Brightness
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“James and Lily,” echoes the crowd, and everybody drinks. Then the toast is over, and the dancing resumes. The music is slow and romantic, played by a band of heavily tattooed musicians, and the couples on the dance floor twirl hypnotically to the rhythm. James and Lily stand out from the crowd, tall and shining with their pride and their happiness. I've never seen a bride lovelier than Lily: her face is positively radiant, and in her wedding robes she looks like a statue of a goddess, come to life. James of course looks dashing, and the ear-to-ear grin never leaves his face as he sweeps Lily across the dance floor.
The dance floor is set up in the middle of a field of lavender in the rural countryside. A flat wooden square, it hovers just a few feet above the swaying purple flowers, connected to the ground by a few sets of stairs. Round white tables are arranged all around the field. I sit at one of the tables, tapping my feet in time to the music and enjoying a conversation with a couple of elderly strangers.
“I don’t see why they had to go and cancel it,” says the man next to me, speaking with a thick Dublin accent. His face is lined with deeply cut wrinkles, and his long black beard keeps trailing into his food. “It was good for the kids, you know. It made them strong.”
I sneak a glance at Sirius, who’s sitting at a table on the other side of the dance floor. He’s sitting at a very crowded table with Remus, Peter, Frank and Alice Longbottom, and several other Gryffindors from our time at Hogwarts. I got a closer look at him earlier, during the ceremony, and was surprised to see that he looked clean-shaven and well-rested for a change. Lily’s bridesmaid, Corinna Stebbins, has been hanging over his shoulder all evening, no doubt hoping that he’ll ask her to dance. Corinna is my least favorite sort of woman: tiny in stature, with a small button nose, childlike hands, and a voice high-pitched as a Banshee.
“Well, I don’t think it was right to throw children into the ring with monsters for entertainment,” says a snippy woman with a pinched face, who’s sitting on my other side. Her dress robes – pale pink, covered in lace – make her look like an oversized Victorian doll. “It was inhumane. That incident with the cockatrice in the last Tournament was completely out of hand. I read about it in Witch Weekly.”
“Actually, I was in my second year at Hogwarts that year,” I say. “I thought the media sort of over-dramatized the whole thing. Granted, all the judges were sent to St. Mungo’s, and it took a few days to put out the forest fire, but on the whole it wasn’t all that bad.”
The old woman sniffs, as if she can’t believe I’ve dared to discount her beloved Witch Weekly. I struggle not to roll my eyes. I’d very much like to track down the editor of that infernal magazine and put an arrow through his or her heart. It's appalling, the sheer amount of dung it funnels into the minds of middle-aged witches everywhere.
“Oho!” says the man with the black beard, reaching out to pat me fondly on the shoulder. He’s been arguing with the old woman for the last twenty minutes, and seems glad to have finally made an ally out of me. “There’s a good woman. What’s your name again?”
“Aislin O’Keefe,” I tell him for the tenth time, shaking his proffered hand. His gnarled grip is surprisingly strong, and when I look down at his hand it’s covered in swirling tattoos, faded with age.
Old Blackbeard blinks, and then his hooded eyes widen. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to be Ernest O’Keefe’s girl, would you?”
“I would,” I say, grinning. “Do you know my dad?”
“Ah, but of course, love,” he says, beckoning to one of the servers, who hurries over. Blackbeard takes a champagne flute off of the server’s silver tray, and motions for me to do the same. Then the server flits off to another table. “Ernest was cut out of fine cloth, that he was. And a finer Chaser Ravenclaw never saw. I’ll always say he could have played for the big leagues, if only he’d have gotten himself together a bit. Didn’t show up to a single match on time, and somehow we still won the Quidditch Cup three years running. Is he here?” Blackbeard straightens out his deeply curved neck to scan the crowd, looking hopeful.
“No, he and my mum went back to Ireland,” I tell him. “To Dublin.”
“Ah, Dublin,” says Blackbeard fondly, stroking his beard in reminiscence. “Good for him. You tell him Edwin Napier sends his regards.”
“I will,” I say, smiling. It’s funny to think of my dad in his Hogwarts days, showing up late to the Quidditch pitch and making up for it during the game. The bastard probably did it on purpose, just to keep everyone in suspense. “Nice meeting you, Mr. Napier.”
Blackbeard shakes my hand again. “Run along and dance, why don’t you.”
I stand up and take off between the tables, champagne flute in hand, wondering where to sit down next. I adore talking to strangers, jumping from one person to another without ever pausing to get to know one person too well. Looking around, I see Moody sitting alone at a table not far from Sirius’. I start off toward him, the long lavender brushing against my dress robes as I walk. I’m glad that I let Marlene talk me into buying the ocean-colored set: although I usually prefer plain black, this is a day that calls for brightness. Maybe it’s just the champagne, but everyone’s face seems to be glowing, and the music is so sweet as it drifts down from the dance floor. Today is the brightest day wizarding England has seen in some time.
“Hello, old chap,” I say, sitting down next to Moody. “I suppose you were just working up the courage to ask me to dance?”
“Never much of a dancer,” says Moody, who’s drinking out of a silver flask. I raise my eyebrows at him, and he grunts. “Lot of people out there who’d like the chance to slip something into my champagne.”
I stare at him. “You think somebody’s going to poison you at James and Lily’s bloody wedding?”
“Can’t be too careful,” says Moody taking another swig.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, you can be. Let me give you an example: If you bring a flask of liquor to somebody else’s wedding because you think you might be poisoned, then you’re being too careful.”
Oddly, Moody does not laugh. We fall into silence, drinking and looking around at the other tables. Over at Sirius’ table, they’re trying to see how many empty champagne flutes they can balance on top of each other. I suppose the beauty of it is that if they all fall down and break, they can simply be fixed with magic. Meanwhile, at the table I was sitting at earlier, Mr. Napier (or rather, Blackbeard) and the pinched old woman are heatedly arguing, doubtless about something deeply unimportant.
“Did you see what they wrote in the Prophet about the eighth killing?” says Moody after a while.
I look up at him. His face is expressionless, but I know how he must be feeling – that article was a vicious attack on the Ministry for allowing a full-grown Wizard to die at the hands of a Squib. “Yeah. It was a load of bullocks.”
Moody nods. “At least they didn’t mention North’s escape. I have you to thank for that, O’Keefe.”
“I do it all for you,” I say, grinning. “Wait, sorry, but is this you admitting I’ve actually done something right?”
“Don’t let it go to your head,” says Moody. To my further astonishment, he waves over a server, and grabs two flutes of champagne for each of us. I hadn’t even noticed that my glass was empty. I feel so light, like a balloon. “All right, we’ll do this your way, O’Keefe. If I die, it’ll be on your shoulders.”
“Fair enough,” I say brightly. “Cheers.”
Moody clinks his glass against mine, and we drink. Frankly, I’m surprised Moody showed up to the wedding at all. Between tracking down Death Eaters and trying to pick up Kevin North’s trail, this past week must have been hell for him. It wasn’t loads of fun for Remus and me, either: we spent most of it cooped up in the flat, reading over old case notes and shooting nonsensical theories back and forth. I managed to keep Barnabus from spreading the word about North escaping from the Ministry, but that’s about the only productive thing I’ve done.
Speaking of the devil, Barnabus seems to be doing quite well with a pretty brunette I’ve never seen before. She must be somebody’s distant relative. They’re up on the dance floor, Barnabus battering the girl with a ceaseless flow of conversation as they twirl across the wood boards. Marlene and Johnny are dancing too; I look up from time to time and spot them in the crowd, locked in such a tight embrace that it’s a miracle either of them can breathe.
I glance over at Sirius’ table again, and find it to be empty. I suppose Sirius must have finally given in and asked Corinna Stebbins to dance. The thought makes me feel vaguely ill.
I look down, smoothing my dress robes over my knees. “It’s so nice about James and Lily.”
Moody nods gruffly. “It’s damn nice.”
“What about you?” I ask. I’ve always been curious about Moody’s personal life, and now the champagne has made me brave enough to ask him about it. “Does all that crime-fighting leave you any time for romance?”
“That’s none of your concern,” says Moody pointedly. “But as it happens, no, it doesn’t. I’m married to my job, and I like it that way.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” I say, waving my champagne glass at him. “You can’t fool me – I can tell you’re a romantic at heart. Underneath that tough, rugged exterior you’re longing for a woman melt your cold heart. I’ll tell you what – no, listen!” I insist, as Moody (his expression stony) starts to interrupt. “I’ll tell you the secret to a woman’s heart. Okay?”
Moody glares at me.
“Okay,” I say happily. “The secret to a woman’s heart is–”
“Money,” interrupts Sirius, dropping into the seat next to mine. His cheeks are bright from the champagne, but his hair is, as always, impeccably neat. “Everybody knows that.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “I said heart, Sirius. You’re thinking of something else.”
“Ah,” says Sirius, shrugging and reaching for my champagne glass. “Well, you would know. So, is this the designated crime-fighters’ table, or are both of you just terrible at mingling?”
“Shove off, the both of you,” says Moody, finishing his champagne and switching back to his flask. “This is supposed to be my day off.”
“Don’t pretend you’re not fond of us,” I say, smiling amiably at Moody. “Don’t pretend you don’t put my Christmas cards up on your mantel every year.”
“He doesn’t,” Sirius tells me, taking another sip from my champagne glass. “There’s no room on his mantel because he won’t take down any of my Christmas cards. I keep telling him it’s rude to show such an obvious display of favoritism, but I s’pose he can’t help it if I send the best Christmas cards.”
Moody shakes his head, exasperated. “I’d be willing to bet a hundred Galleons neither of you have ever sent a Christmas card in your life.” With that, he stands up, nods to us, and marches through the lavender to sit down with Mr. Napier and his sour-faced companion. I feel a bit guilty that we’ve chased him away from his own table – but on the other hand, I’m pleased to have Sirius to myself, and away from that foul Corinna Stebbins.
“Now I feel guilty,” says Sirius, frowning. “I’ll have to start sending him Christmas cards.”
“Maybe we should send him a few dozen to make up for all the ones we’ve missed,” I suggest, snatching my champagne flute back from him, only to find that it’s empty. “The trouble would be thinking what to write.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” says Sirius, leaning lazily back in his chair, grinning a grin that’s at once wicked and fetching. “Dear Alastor–”
I burst into a fit of laughter at the use of Moody’s first name, which I’ve never heard spoken out loud before. It’s ridiculous in sort of the same way that a baby picture of Albus Dumbledore would be ridiculous.
“Dear Alastor,” continues Sirius, elegantly swiping two glasses of champagne off the tray of a passing server, and handing one to me. “I hope you’ll finally take some time off this holiday season and stop biting everybody’s head off whenever they try to smile at you. Love, Sirius.”
“Dear Alastor,” I say, “I’m thinking of you this holiday season because you’re exactly like the villain from every Christmas story, except more paranoid and belligerent. Might want to work on that. Love, Aislin.”
“That’s good,” says Sirius encouragingly. “That’ll earn you a spot on the mantelpiece, no doubt.”
“Are you sure he even has a mantelpiece?” I ask, giggling. “I’ve sort of always pictured him living in a cave somewhere. Oh, by the way, your toast was very nice. Very heartfelt, and all that. Brought a tear to my eye.”
“Thanks,” says Sirius, grinning. “I had Remus correct it for me about thirty times, I was dead scared.”
“Good thing you did,” says Remus, smiling good-naturedly over Sirius’ shoulder, Peter at his side. A small herd of Gryffindors is trailing behind them. “The grammar was atrocious.”
The Gryffindors sit down at the table (predictably, Corinna Stebbins manages to slip into the seat next to Sirius’), and become deeply entangled in several different conversations. Peter and Frank are talking about some new Silver Arrow broomstick on the market. The girls are exchanging notes on everybody’s dresses. Suddenly I feel very inclined to get up and find another table to sit at – maybe even return to Mr. Napier and have another chat about the good old days.
But then, underneath the table, a hand reaches out to cover mine. I blink and look up at Sirius, and suddenly we’re grinning at each other like a pair of madmen.
Many hours later, I find myself sitting fully-clothed in a large bathtub, with Alice and Remus squeezed in next to me on one side, and Lily, Corinna, and Peter on the other side. We’re all passing around a bottle of champagne and giggling at Peter’s impression of Professor McGonagall. James, Sirius, and Frank are standing around the sink, trying to get a wine stain out of Frank’s tie the Muggle way. It’s hard to tell because I’m so drunk and everybody’s laughing so loud, but they seem to be failing.
“What about her dress robes?” says Corinna snidely, her weird high-pitched voice echoing around the bathroom. “Absolutely shocking, all those frills. Somebody ought to tell her to stick to black.”
“Oh, Corinna,” says Lily, rolling her eyes but smiling. She seems to find her friend’s pettiness endearing, which perplexes me. But I suppose that if you know anybody for long enough, their negative traits start to grow on you.
“I thought she looked lovely,” says Alice, who’s just as sweet as she always was in school. “I kept telling Frank to go and ask her for a dance, it would have been such a laugh.”
“I was terrified I’d step on her foot by mistake,” says Frank, turning around at the sound of his name.
“Three weeks’ detentions!” says Peter in his McGonagall voice, and everyone bursts out laughing again.
“I didn’t see you dancing with anyone, Aislin,” says Corinna, leaning over to look at me as the laughter subsides. I wonder what it would feel like to smash the bottle of champagne over her head. Probably fairly satisfying, I decide.
“Oh, but you’ve got to dance!” says Alice, looking horrified. Her face is flushed drunkenly pink, and her mousy-brown curls are spilling out of their bun. “It’s a wedding! You’ve absolutely got to dance! Frank, won’t you dance with her?”
Suddenly, I’m being pulled out of the bathtub by Frank’s large, square hands, and twirled around the bathroom floor in a rather poorly-executed waltz. Alice and Lily cheer. Then Peter strikes up a chorus of the Hogwarts school song at the top of his voice.
“HOGWARTS, HOGWARTS, HOGGY WARTY HOGWARTS, TEACH US SOMETHING PLEEEEASE…”
We all join in, laughing and stumbling over the words we’ve forgotten. Frank leads me through an elaborate routine of twirls and dips, all of which he seems to be making up on the spot, and all of which are completely out of time. James and Sirius have their arms over each other’s shoulders and are swaying back and forth to the song.
“…AND LEARN UNTIL OUR BRAINS ALL ROT!”
Everybody bursts out laughing. Frank bows to me and I curtsy elaborately, and then Alice says, “Merlin, what time d’you s’pose it is?”
“Seven-hic-thirty,” says Remus, looking down at his watch. He giggles, sliding down farther into the bathtub. “Hey, why am I wearing three watches?”
“You’re a lovely drunk,” says Alice, patting Remus’ head. “You are. You are.”
Sirius glances at his own watch, and then grins up at James. “Where does the time go? Well, I s’pose you’d like us to leave you newlyweds to, ah, consummate your marriage?”
Everybody groans at him. “Don’t be disgusting,” says Alice, tossing the champagne bottle at his head. She misses, and the bottle clatters to the floor and rolls off into a corner. Laughing, Frank walks over to the bathtub and helps his wife to her feet.
“Well, we’re off,” he says. “Congratulations again, you two.”
Frank and Alice clear out, followed by Corinna, who seems to have finally received the message the Sirius won’t be inviting her back to his flat. After we say our goodbyes to James and Lily, Sirius and Peter heave the half-conscious Remus onto his feet, and the four of us return to the flat.
Sirius and Peter disappear to deposit Remus (who’s still humming along to the Hogwarts school song) in his bedroom, and I drift off to the kitchen for a glass of water. I feel cheerful but exhausted, and as I drink my water I think back to the feeling of Sirius’ hand on mine underneath the table. I wonder what I should do about that, if anything. It's always so hard to tell about these things with Sirius, and there's a good chance that it was just a passing thought, an idea that occurred to him briefly and then flitted away.
“Peter’s passed out on your sofa,” says Sirius’ voice, making me jump. He walks into the kitchen and leans back against the counter, glancing at me sideways. “He seems to be drooling a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”
“I’m used to it,” I say, putting my glass down on the counter. “Something to drink?”
Sirius shakes his head.
The kitchen is still and quiet and full of tension.
Then I take a step toward Sirius, and suddenly, his arm is warm and tight around my waist. He pulls me close and I lean into him, resting my head on his shoulder. I feel shivery all over, slow and tentative but eager. After a moment’s hesitation I allow myself to reach out one hand and stroke the short, soft hair at the nape of his neck. It strikes me as funny somehow, that all this time has passed and things are so different now, but the hair at the nape of his neck still feels the same on my fingertips.
“What is it?”
“It’s just that it’s funny,” I mumble into his shoulder. “Everything has changed, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah.” His voice is soft and a little sad. “Everything has changed.”
His arm curls more tightly around me, and his lips press into my hair. I stand leaning against him, wondering what he first thought about Remus moving into the flat with me, wondering if he might have felt just a little flicker of hope. I remember the soaring feeling of kissing him in sixth-year, and I remember the sinking feeling when he and James would sit behind me in seventh-year, muttering insults just loud enough for me to hear.
“I saw you once, in Flourish and Blott’s,” says Sirius after a while. “It was last autumn, a few months after we graduated from Hogwarts. I was walking down Diagon Alley and I saw you through the window and I wanted to go in and say something to you. But I couldn’t think what to say.”
“I s’pose Remus solved that problem for you,” I say.
Sirius laughs. “Yeah. Lucky for me, he’s good at detective work, or I’d have never gotten another chance.”
I take my head off his shoulder and look up at him. "Is that what this is?"
Sirius looks down into my eyes, and his face is solemn. I can almost imagine what he might have looked like as a little boy, finding flowers in the garden and bringing them in to his mum with that same grave chivalry.
"I don't know," he says.
I nod, and rest my head against his shoulder again. We stay like that for a while, breathing together.
*Disclaimer – the Hogwarts school song belongs to JKR, not me!
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