Chapter 15 : Fifteen
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And Fred, James and Toby had set up an ice-rink on the third floor corridor, complete with several penguins, carnival music, and a disco ball.
It had been a huge hit with all the students, once they realised what was happening, and transfigured their shoes into skates to cross the stretch of corridor, or just glide around for a little while. Hugo even suggested they make the stairs in the Astronomy Tower into a bobsleigh course, but he had voiced that idea a little too loudly, and Rose had gone ballistic. Sadly, Rose was not a talented ice-skater, and the three boys she wanted to scold simply glided away from her, performing sarcastic synchronised figure skating for the benefit of their audience.
To Fred’s immense surprise, Maria hadn’t been annoyed at all, instead, she had just rolled her eyes, almost-smiling, and taken a detour to her lesson. Fred had been grinning all day because of it.
Even Professor Flitwick was so charmed by the spellwork involved he decided not to dock points but instead stuck around to ensure nobody was injured by falling on the ice. Professor Longbottom had laughed and told Fred this was even better than the swamp his father and uncle had left behind in their last year of education.
Professor Slughorn was not to be persuaded to punish them after their earlier chat, and Professor Charleston had barricaded himself inside his office far from the festivities. And so without an authority figure to report them to in the castle, Rose decided instead to write to her mother (which Fred thought was a hedging towards overkill, considering Aunt Hermione was the current Minister for Magic). Fred and James received a set of very disappointed howlers within twenty-four hours. (They also received a congratulatory box of fireworks from Uncle George and Uncle Ron). James’s parents had yet to comment.
The first and second years were thrilled with the timing of the ice-rink’s arrival, as that weekend, the older students were all off to Hogsmeade for Christmas shopping, and, in the case of a certain few seventh years, scouting out Madam Rosmerta’s backroom brewery.
James, in his attempt to do the right and honourable thing and buy his siblings presents that wouldn’t blow up in their faces (not literally at least), had told the others to go on without him. He ended up leaving Gladrags with bags full of gift-wrapped presents at the same time that Rachel and Kelly stepped out onto the high street, carrying brown paper bags full of sweets and chocolate.
Tara had gone to buy her Christmas presents for her friends in solitude, and Grace had left them for lunch with her boyfriend, Zen, and without them it had taken considerable effort for the two girls to drag themselves away before they bought all the sugar quills and exploding strawberry bonbons Mr and Mrs Flume had in stock. Rachel was decked out in her Hufflepuff hat and scarf, still feeling smug from the winning match last month; Kelly was somehow more vibrant in the snow covered streets, wearing her rainbow hat and mittens with a black duffel coat.
An elderly witch was walking past with a Saint Bernard, and Rachel — friend of puppies and pensioners everywhere — was immediately entranced. Kelly rolled her eyes and grinned at James.
“Okay, I don’t mean any offence here,” James started, eyeing the pompom on her hat warily, “but isn’t that a tad conspicuous for you, Kelly the Chameleon?”
Kelly didn’t look offended, but amused, “It’s so overt, it’s covert. They remember the hat, but not the face.” She held one mittened hand over the other, “Sleight of hand.”
“Oh, yeah?” He grinned. “What’ve you got in the bag?”
It had taken him considerably longer than he had anticipated to buy sensible gifts, so his stomach was reciting the songs of the porlock species native to Ireland.
Smirking, Kelly peered inside the bag at her purchases, “Choco-balls, strawberry-bonbons, ice-mice, and some of the tester flavour fudge.”
“What flavours? If there’s blueberry, can I have a piece?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, “What’s the magic word?”
“Actually the magic word was hippopotamus, but I’ll accept your please for the sake of your stomach. Here,” She presented him with a large square of purple fudge, “Before you go into a diabetic coma.”
“Ha-bloody-ha.” He stuffed half the fudge slice into his face. “This is amazing.”
“For someone who’s supposed to be a smooth talker, you’re not very subtle with your christmas present hints, you know,” She mused, watching his jaw work as he chewed.
“I’m under extreme duress!” He complained, shaking the bags in his hands as proof.
“I can see that.” She popped a choco-ball in her mouth, “What’ve you got, so far?”
“I’ve bought three fragrance sets, a scarf, two hats, a shawl, and two autobiographies of people I had no idea existed before this morning. I could go into shock at any moment. Be prepared to sweep me off my feet. I may even require mouth to mouth resuscitation—”
“Or a bubble-head charm.” Kelly interjected slyly.
“Or a bubble head charm.” He repeated ruefully, rolling his eyes. He swallowed. “But the fudge helps. It helps a lot.”
Kelly tucked her hands into her pockets and counted the bags he was carrying. “So it’s just your extended family you’ve got to shop for now?”
As if to speak of the devil, James caught sight of a familiar head of bushy brown hair growing closer along the cobblestones, his Aunt Hermione, with a few of her trusted assistants. He was in so much trouble. He felt foolish to have leant Fred the invisibility cloak to scope out Madam Rosemerta’s backroom brewery with Nick, whilst Toby chatted her up at the bar. If there was ever a time he wanted to disappear, it was now.
Thankfully, he was stood next to an expert. “Hide me. Quick.”
Call it instinct, training, or good genetics, but Kelly didn’t waste time with questions. She just stepped forward, slipped her hands under the collar of James’s jacket and pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up around his ears. And without any further fanfare, she linked her arms around his neck, closed her eyes and kissed him.
James was going to ask her to hide him more often.
He kissed her back, his arms sliding around her waist. Her grip on his shoulders tightened as he deepened the kiss, leaning forward to tilt her head back further. It was all cold noses and warm lips, tasting of strawberry cream and blueberry fudge. And she smelled really good...
“Er… She’s gone now… If you two were wondering when it would be safe to come up for air…”
The old lady and the dog had moved on, leaving Rachel at something of a loss of what to do.
“Thank-you, Rachel, for your excellent look-out skills.” James tipped an imaginary hat at her.
Rachel gave him a mock salute. “Right, Kel, we’ve actually got stuff to do, so if you are quite finished snogging this young specimen, shall we continue about our business?”
The tips of Kelly’s hair had turned pink, and she didn’t say anything as she linked arms with Rachel and carried on down the high street as if nothing had happened.
Blushing slightly himself, James did a quick scan for his Aunt in the vicinity, and started the route over to the Three Broomsticks to check on the progress of the others.
“You’re avoiding me.”
Maria jumped as Fred’s face appeared through the gap in the bookshelf. She scowled at him before slamming the textbook back in place, blocking him out.
A book came off the shelf further down. “Admit it, Santiago.”
“I will not.” Maria snapped at the spine of Botany of Brunei and Borneo. “I have been doing no such thing.”
“You have." Fred retorted. "You’ve let me get away with everything in order to avoid conversation — because you’re a chicken.”
She stormed down the row to glare at him through the books again. “I am not.”
“I am not a chicken!” She hissed, her hands curling into fists.
Fred narrowed his eyes and leaned further into the bookcase, “So why are you hiding in the library when everyone else is down in Hogsmeade?”
“I might ask you the same question.” Maria shot back, indignant.
“I asked first.”
She rolled her eyes luxuriously. “Oh my God. Are you five?”
He smirked, “Do I look five?”
Maria raised her eyebrows, “You sound five.”
Fred gasped. Then, after a moment. “Why aren’t you in Hogsmeade?”
Maria stepped back from the bookcase and the conversation and walked away, exasperated. That boy was incorrigibly infuriating. This was supposed to be a quiet day. A homework day. An extra-credit reading kind of day. A Fred-Free kind of day. He wasn’t supposed to be in castle, let alone the library, and yet he decided to spend his free time annoying her. And when she was wearing her fat jeans, for goodness sake.
Why her? Yes she was clever, but she worked for it. Yes, she was pretty, but she had only mastered the art of liquid eyeliner and curl-taming potion last year. And sure, she was kind, but that was basic human nature. What was so special about her that he had to see it every single day? Was it because he could get a rise out of her? Because she was Head Girl? Because if you’re going to confront your problems with authority you might as well start at the top?
Whatever it was driving Fred’s fascination with her, she wanted it to stop. Soon. If he kept at it, he might just figure out what it was that set her apart from the rest of the girls in the year. And she wasn’t about to let that happen. Not now her applications had been sent off, with six letters of recommendation across the board of staff. Not when the freedom of a full-time job and a flat of her own were in reach. Not now she could see the light at the end of the tunnel. She wasn’t turning back. Not now. Not ever.
Fred was waiting at the end of the aisle, “Somewhere to be, Santiago? Other than Hogsmeade?”
She groaned out loud.
“I’m not in Hogsmeade because I didn’t want to go. Why is it any of your business?”
He stepped into her personal space. “Because I like you.”
She paused. He’d never come out right and said it before. It had been implied heavily over the last two years, but this was the first confession of his affection. She needed to think about this objectively. Analytically. She couldn’t be getting soft whilst he was giving her valuable information that could and would be used against him later.
“Do you have evidence to support that statement?”
“Oh, my God, Maria!” It was Fred’s turn to groan. His whole body responded with the noise, Shoulders slumped forward, his head rocking all the way back to expose his jugular. Maria watched how his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat.
Fred rolled his head forward again, frowning at her puzzled pretty features. “Have you not being paying any attention? How is it not blindingly obvious by now?”
“I’ve been paying attention.” She protested, taking a step back and tucking her hands into the pockets of her cardigan. “I just want to know why.”
Fred sighed and mirrored her stance, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jeans, slouching so to reduce their difference in height. “Because you’re brilliant. And you’re kind. And you have purpose, there are things you want in this life and you’re going to get them in spite of anyone who stands in your way… and you’ve got this… fire inside you you’re always scared to touch…” He shrugged, unable to explain it to himself, let alone her. But his gaze was unwavering on hers. “Now, you give me a reason… Give me a reason not to like you, and I’ll consider it.”
“So am I.” She set her shoulders. “I am serious, too. You need to stop. I need you to stop.”
She tilted her chin up, her eyes as cold as a grave.
“Like you said,” She swallowed the lump forming in her throat. “I can barely handle myself, let’s not add another person to the pileup.”
Then she rocked back on the heels of her brogues, turned, and walked away.
Fred sighed, banging his forehead against the side of the bookcase until he felt some of his sanity shake loose inside his skull. This was going to be harder than he thought. Why couldn’t she be happy? Why couldn't she let him try to make her happy? She deserved more smiles and laughter than every single one of the customers at Weasley Wizard Wheezes, but she was standing in the way of her own happiness. And now he was too.
This was supposed to have been a good day. Fuck.
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