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Hopscotch by Ernie_the_Dino
Chapter 18 : Eighteen
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 4


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Over the last two years, Maria Santiago had spent many a morning in Gryffindor Tower watching her roommate Eliza Warren’s practiced and perfected, though not yet patented, technique of covering up some of the most horrendous hickeys Hogwarts had ever seen.

However, as she looked in the mirror that morning, she knew very well that no amount of peach and canary colour-correcting potions were going to cover up the swirling deep purple bruise that had blossomed across her left cheekbone, or the swollen red cut in her eyebrow. Her jaw ached from where she had landed hard, too hard, on the kitchen floor, not for the first time; she could still taste blood in her mouth from when she bit into her cheek on the way down; and her left peripheral vision was blank due to the swelling around her eye. Not her best look… 

Not her worst. 

She had slept in the bathroom, where she had barricaded herself the night before, the door locked magically. Even when the banging on the door had quieted and the screaming had stopped, she hadn’t dared come out. She wouldn’t have felt safe in her own bed anyway. And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t done it before. That’s why spare blankets and pillows were kept in the airing cupboard, after all.

Her hands trembled as she fixed her hair to cover the damaged side of her face, but she didn’t cry. She didn’t dare. She couldn’t cry in this house. It wasn’t her place.

“Maria? Maria, are you here?”

The voice belonged to the home carer. Margery.  

She had left late last night for a family emergency, and with Maria being home for the holidays, Maria had offered to step into her shoes for the night. She didn’t know her mother was on a different regime of potions now, she didn’t know just how neurotic they made her, she wasn’t to know that the change in caregiver could have such catastrophic consequences. She didn’t know her mother anymore. She didn’t know anything.  

Wand drawn, Maria eased the bathroom door open a crack. “I’m here.”

Margery stepped up to the door, “Are you alright?” 

Maria lied, “Yes.” 

But she didn’t show her face. Margery knew what this meant.

“Christ, I’m sorry…” Margery touched the doorframe with her forehead and her fingertips. “I’m going to go and check on your mother. Stay here.” 

“Okay.”

Susannah Fox-Santiago had a strain of schizophrenia that had only been isolated in recent years to the magical community. It was difficult to treat, and the magical gene caused the nature of the episodes of psychosis to be heightened and, in several documented cases, violent. Maria’s memory of her mother’s deterioration into the disease wasn’t perfect, as the traumatic events of the episodes all blurred together so that she could no longer distinguish one from the other, when she felt her mother’s hands strike her she always seemed to be eight-years-old, rather than eighteen. 

Maria knew enough about the condition to know that after an episode her mother usually withdrew within herself for several hours, sometimes days, and had to be reminded to wash and feed herself and take her prescription regularly. There was nobody there to take care of Maria, to pick her up and kiss her better, so she had learned to take care of herself — ice-packs and bandaids always on hand, a tube of both burn-healing and bruise-removal paste in the bathroom — she had learnt to look after herself since a young age. But she was out of bruise-removal paste, and her ice-pack had leaked its contents out into the freezer when she’d checked it yesterday. She was going to have to find another fix.

When Susannah was medicated, she was almost ordinary. She wrote letters to Maria that spoke of books she had read and flowers she had grown and the best way to handle the Fox family mane in the summertime. It was almost okay, when her mother was present inside Susannah’s fragile body. But those times were becoming fewer and farther between as the months went on. Maria didn’t know if she was dreading or secretly awaiting the day her mother looked at her only daughter and didn’t have a clue who she was. She asked herself every night whether or not the latter option made her a bad person, for wishing for a life untethered from her mother. Maybe. Maybe not. She would find out soon enough.

Margery knocked on the door again. Maria opened it a fraction of an inch. 

“She’s sedated, and she’s on a shock-counter-cocktail… I’ve cleaned up the mess in the kitchen, and I’ve fixed the door… Are you sure you’re not hurt, Maria?”

“I’m fine.” Maria lied again.

“Do you have a friends house you can go to for the night? I’m sorry, Maria, but I don’t think it will be good for either of you if you’re here when she wakes up.” 

“Yeah, I’ve… I’ve got somewhere I can go.” 

She could stay at the Leaky Cauldron for the rest of the holidays, she had the money from her father’s life insurance account transferred into her own separate Gringotts vault since she had come of age last year, the gold in her mother’s was to pay for Margery and maintenance of the house. They had moved here from Madrid when Maria’s father had died in a hit-and-run stabbing, so Susannah could be closer to Maria’s maternal grandparents, but they had since passed, and it was just the two of them left standing, if only just. Hogwarts was the best home she had ever known, and she hated leaving it, though she hated herself for staying away from her debilitated mother just as fiercely.   

“Alright. I’m going to make her some soup for when she wakes up…” She tapped her nails on the doorframe again, they were painted a bright pink with green tips to look like watermelon slices. “Come out when you’re ready, sweetheart.”

Maria waited until she heard the sounds of Margery chopping vegetables in the kitchen before she slipped down the hall to her bedroom. It was small, with a field of sunflowers painted on the walls — a mural her mother had painted for her when she was still healthy — a twin-sized bed, a wardrobe, and a dressing table she had made double as a desk. It was tidy since she had only been back three days, and she only really unpacked her belongings in the summers. 

She tucked her pyjamas back into her trunk, along with her hairbrush and toiletry bag, then she reached inside and pulled out the rectangular packages wrapped in gold wrapping paper. She had bought presents even though she was a devout atheist and her mother had raised her in her agnostic beliefs, therefore Christmas was not celebrated in their house; though as Maria had gotten older she suspected it had something more to do with the timing of her father’s death than anything to do with the Christian faith. Margery had started to bring festivities into the house in the past year, and so Maria snuck back down the hall with presents for her mother and for Margery to tuck under the tiny fiberoptic tree in the living room.  

“Happy Christmas.” She whispered to herself, shrugging on her coat. 

She picked up her wand, shrunk her trunk down to fit inside her handbag, and disapparated. 


***

 
The Apothecary where she usually bought bruise-removal paste was closed for the day, which threw a spanner into the works of her plan. There was no way she could get a room at the Leaky Cauldron with Madam Longbottom back behind the counter for the holidays, and not get questioned by the school matron and her Head of House about the shiner she was sporting.
 
There was only one other place she knew that sold it — otherwise she would have to go to St Mungo’s Hospital, and she really didn’t want this on record.

She turned around and headed back down Diagon Alley until she reached the obnoxiously orange and purple joke shop with the huge sign reading WEASLEY WIZARD WHEEZES. Of course, it had to be here. It had to. 

Deep breath in. Hold. Exhale slowly. In and out. No receipt necessary. She could do this.

Maria pulled the door open and headed for the section that sold the Boxing Telescopes (which Fred had replaced everyone’s with during the last Astronomy lesson for the majority of the class in fifth year — all except hers, funnily enough). It was mayhem inside, being this close to Christmas, every creative child and exhausted parent, every adult with their childish sense of humour lasting long into adulthood, every girl who knew anything about decent beauty potions that didn’t break their bank accounts, seemed to be inside. 

With another deep breath in, Maria moved carefully through the crowds, so not to draw attention to herself and keep her eye from coming into contact with anyone or anything. The fireworks overhead were going to give her a migraine if she didn’t get out within the next ten minutes. She looked at the line for the tills, it was horrendous.

She wondered if she could open the tin now, apply it, and then pay for it after. She checked the label… Apply thick layer of paste to affected area, bruises should disappear in an hour. Rinse skin with warm water. Use caution with application of product near the delicate eye area. Do not leave on skin for longer than ninety minutes. For external use only.

No use. And she was not shoplifting.

“Can this day get any worse?” she muttered to herself, pressing the cool tin against her cheek for some temporary relief.

“I thought you’d never ask."

“Oh, dear God!” Maria jumped at the sound of Fred’s voice so close in all the kerfuffle. 

He was standing at the top of one of the rolling stepladders, right above her, wearing a set of luminous magenta shop robes, and an infuriating smile. Maria had always been jealous of Fred’s smile, it was the ghost of a good joke, so obvious that he and laughter were old friends. It was glitter in a snow-globe, hot-chocolate and brownies for breakfast, and spinning around so fast with the music blaring until you forgot which way was up. It was pure joy, written all over his face. Sometimes she wanted to kiss him just to know what that feeling tasted like.

Fred gripped the ladder rails through his sleeves and slid down to her level.
 
“Santiago,” He gave her his best customer service smile (which was three shades more devious than his regular one). “What brings you into our ever-so-troublesome-emporium today?”

Maria didn’t look at him. She didn’t turn her head; she continued staring resolutely at the price sticker on the shelf in front of her. She could be brave about a lot of things, but not about this. She was an excellent public speaker. She could stand up to bullies. She could handle authority figures in the wrong. But not Fred Weasley. Not like this, not even when he was voluntarily wearing bright-pink robes. He was the one person she counted on to constantly believe she had her ducks in a row, but her appearance today was going to blow all her ducks out of the bloody water.  

Fred tilted his head, trying to make eye contact. “Maria?”

Maria could feel a lump building in her throat. You will not cry. You will not cry. You will not cry

Fred touched her hair, his fingers skimming the edge of her bruised cheek, and she flinched. She flinched badly.

“Maria!” His voice rose in urgency but not volume as he saw the extent of the damage. “Who did this to you?” 

Maria sniffed. “Nice robes.”

“I’m serious, Maria.” He spun her gently to tuck her between him and the shelves. “Just give me a name, and I’ll kill them.”

“It’s not like that…”

“It looks like that. I’ve seen enough black eyes from both bludgers and fists to know the difference. Who hit you?” 

“I’m fine, Fred.”

“You’re fine? Maria, you’ve got an expanding nebula on your face. Tell me who did this to you.”

She bristled. That was rude.

“It’s none of your business.”

“You made it my business when you intended to”—Fred lifted her wrist holding the tin of bruise paste—“make me business.”  

Maria was close to tears now, “Look, can I just have the paste, please? This is embarrassing enough as it is without having this huge freak show of a facial feature going on as well.”

Though frustrated, Fred sighed, giving in. He took the tin from her and slotted it back on the shelf, then eased his arm around her shoulders, shielding her shiner from the view of the other customers, “Come with me.”

He lead her through the crowds of customers to a curtain at the back of the shop, through the shelves of the Dark Detector range, and through the door that opened up into the workshop leading to the residence. It was all wood stripped back to the original panels, smooth but unvarnished, there were coats and scarves piled on the banister post, shoes on every stair up to the flat, and mismatched picture frames containing memories of Fred and Roxanne’s childhood, his parents’ wedding, and group family photos taken at christmas with countless redheaded cousins wearing their initialed hand-knitted jumpers.  

As he ushered her up the next round of stairs, Maria caught a glimpse of a white kitchen with multi-coloured crockery on the counter, old and new cook books on the shelves, and a clock made with a tea cup and saucer at every digit, the hands made of teaspoons. The kitchen table was cluttered with magazines and sweets in separate baggies and labelled UNTESTED. There was a candy-floss machine on the counter, the kettle was whistling a festive tune to itself, and there was a faint burning smell in the air. 

Roxanne was on the sofa in the living room with her back to them, headphones on, her Herbology textbook open on her lap, a pink pygmy-puff on her shoulder, and she was attempting to knit something, terribly. There was a cactus rigged up with fairy lights and baubles, and there was actual snow falling from the ceiling. 

This was so different from her house.   

Fred’s room was made of nooks and crannies left over from the rest of the rooms slotted together, the walls were stripped back to the bare brickwork, with navy curtains and bed sheets. His trunk peaked out from under his bed, which was pressed up against the wall with the window view of Diagon Alley. He had one of those huge desks with a hundred tiny drawers set into the back of it. It was covered in textbooks and schools supplies, a dimension sketchbook, and several half-finished and de-constructed joke products she hadn’t remembered seeing downstairs. The cork board above it was pinned with photographs, concert tickets, important school letters, and such. He had framed posters of The Bent-Winged Snitches and the Holyhead Harpies on his walls. It seemed so normal, and so neutral, compared to the rest of the house, which surprised her, considering his personality. 

He opened a door and pulled her into the Jack-and-Jill bathroom, sliding the door to Roxanne’s room closed and locking it from the inside.  

“Sit.” 

He was still furious, both with the person who hit her and Maria herself for not giving away their identity. The emotion was rolling off him in waves, his shoulders bunched with tension and the urge to swing his club at a ball of solid steel for an hour until he calmed down.

She perched on the rim of the bathtub, studying his methodical hands as he retrieved various potions from the cupboards. He handed her a cup with an inch of pale blue liquid in the bottom.  

“Pain-killer.”

He watched her swallow it all, then took the cup back, turning back to the counter once more. He squeezed a little of the bruise-removal paste into the cup, added a few drops of tea-tree oil, and a spoonful of aloe gel. Then with one of Roxanne’s make-up sponges she had donated to him after he started getting bad bruising from quidditch games and needed an adequate applicator, he crouched in front of Maria to apply it.

“Can you move your hair, please?” 

There was no flirt in his eyes, no teasing in his voice when he spoke to her, and without it she could understand why some people found Fred intimidating. She bundled it back with the hair-tie on her wrist. 

Fred sighed softly at the entirety of the damage done to her face. “Christ.” 

He was quiet as he applied the paste, his fingers gentle and his mouth set. This was a sharpened version of the expression he wore when he was doing his Charms homework, studious, determined and controlled. This was how he looked at something he actually cared about. 

Her breath hitched in her throat as she let that sink in, and he paused, eyes narrowing.

“It’s cold.” She blurted. “It’s fine. Keep going.” 

He took a second to decide if she was telling him the truth, then concluded she was and continued. 

The silence between them was painful, she hadn’t realised how much she appreciated Fred’s interest in talking to her before, ignoring him was a whole lot easier when he was happy. He was usually chatty, the silent treatment was her thing, not his. Maybe it had taken her showing up like this to take the words she’d told him in the library to heart. She was so used to him doing the opposite of what she said, it had taken her until now to realise that she didn’t actually want him to take her seriously.

She took a breath. She could do this. She could be chatty.

“You’ve had a haircut.”
 
His glaze flicked to hers and back to the bruise. “Yes.”

“It looks good.”

His eyebrows twitched together marginally, “Thanks.”

She touched the collar of his robes.

“Pink really doesn’t suit you.”

“No? I’ve been told I look rather dashing in this particular shade.”

He still wasn’t smiling, but his eyes glimmered with his old humour once again.

“Red looks better… goes with your hair.” 

“It does, does it?” 

She smiled softly, rolling her eyes, she whispered, “Shut up.”

He dropped the sponge in the empty cup and stood up, “It should set pretty quickly, it’ll turn spongy, but not sticky—” 

“I know.” 

Fred looked at her sharply.

Maria screwed her eyes shut when she realised her mistake. “Damn.”

“Because this isn’t the first time you’ve used it…” Fred ground out. “Because this isn’t the first time they’ve hurt you.”

Her fingers curled around the edge of the bathtub, nails scratching against the porcelain. “Yeah.” 

“Maria…” He sighed, “How long has this been going on?”

She swallowed. “A while.”  

“That means it’s bad, then.” He muttered, scrubbing his palm against his jaw. “It happens at home?” 

She nodded.

“Are you going back there?”

“No, I’m going to stay at the Leaky Cauldron for the rest of the holidays.”

Fred paused, not entirely happy with her answer, but then nodded, knowing it was better than nothing, and it was all he was going to get from her.

“I just… I couldn’t go in there with my face…”

“Because then Professor Longbottom would know.” Fred murmured. “He should know.” 

She shot to her feet. “He can’t!”

Fred threw his hands up. “Why not?!”

“He can’t know… not now… I’m too close. I’m this close, Fred,”—she held her thumb and index finger up half an inch apart—“I’m this close to getting out. I’m this close to my internships, and my career, and my life… I can’t do that if I’m not Head Girl, if I’m in counselling, if I’m the girl whose only home is Hogwarts… That’s what is going to happen if Longbottom knows. I’m eighteen so they can’t take me away and put me in foster care, but they don’t want someone with such an unstable home life as a Senior Prefect, that would be reckless and just plain stupid. It’ll get out. It’ll affect my future. I won’t let it! I won’t let you!”

She was trembling with the weight of her world on her shoulders and the tears spilling down her cheeks, but she wouldn’t stumble, she wouldn’t fall. 

Fred was looking at her differently now, but not in the way she had expected him to. He was looking at her in sheer amazement and disbelief; she shouldn’t have survived in her harsh environment for as long as she had, especially not all alone. She was a desert flower in full bloom.
 
He strode forward and folded her into his arms. One of her arms draped over his shoulder, the other wrapped around his ribs. He was so much taller than her. He cradled her head to his chest and stroked her hair, letting her sob into his collar unapologetically.

“It’s okay… It’ll all be okay…”

 
***

Maria pretended to be asleep for several minutes after she woke up, curled against Fred’s chest as he sat, slouched against his pillows, reading a handbook on Chinese Fireworks and Fuse-Wiring, his arm resting across her shoulder blades. He had taken off his work robes and the sweater underneath was charcoal and silver and soft as sheep. He was very warm.
 
They had sat and played chess for forty minutes as they waited for the paste to work and she could wash it off. Fred had an excellent way of playing distracting moves, but his strategies didn’t plan all that far ahead, so she had won two out of the three games, the last one ending in a stalemate. He insisted it was because she was using Roxanne’s set which only responded to a female player, and the pieces were platting against him. She admitted she had been in the chess club up to fourth year and told him exactly where he could shove his misandristic chess pieces.

Then with the bruise gone and the idea of moving out six months early setting in, Fred had scooted to the side, and she’s crawled up the mattress beside him to sleep it all away for a few hours. She wished she could stay there forever.

She studied the freckle pattern on his exposed wrist through her lashes. They might have resembled some sort of constellation, but she had never had much of a mind for Astronomy, it was too mathematical and theoretical and far away from her to mean all that much. She had enough to worry about. Fred had the kind of freckles you could play dot-to-dot with, she wanted to trace them with her fingertips. 

He lifted the arm that wasn’t around her to turn the page, then murmured, “Roxie’s at a friends house, Dad’s left soup on the stove. Are you staying for lunch?”

She stilled at his side. “Your family knows I’m here?” 

“Dad came to see where I was after I went AWOL for three hours.”

“Three hours?” Maria lifted her head groggily. Fred’s alarm clock did indeed read a-quarter-to-two. “Christ.” She rubbed a hand over her face. “What… What did your dad say?”

‘Not on the clock, Fred’… So I threw a cactus at him, hence…” He trailed off, gesturing to the metal plant pot by the door and spilt soil trailing down the frame from the impact sight, and then the cactus itself, sitting at its side.

She sat up, frowning. “I slept through all that?”

“Like the dead.” Fred nodded, marking his page with a scrap of parchment, “So, are you?”

Maria blinked. “Am I what?”

“Staying for lunch?”

“I— Er…”

Fred smirked at her spooked expression, “So you can spend half the day snuggling with a fellow, and it means nothing, but the second food is mentioned, it’s serious, is it? I’ll remember that in future."
 
She yanked his pillow out from under him and walloped him in the face with it.

Fred tossed it aside with a roll of his eyes. “I’m not asking you on a date, Santiago. I’m asking if you’re hungry.”

She ducked her head so her hair shielded her blushing cheeks from view. “Yes. Thank-you.”

“Save it for after you’ve eaten,” Fred bounced up off the mattress. “Dad’s cooking is edible at its best.” 

“No, Fred, I mean… thank-you, for everything you did today. I really needed it.”

“You know you can come to me with anything, right? You’re allowed to do that. Just because I flirt with you all the time doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to all the benefits of the Friends Package.”

“And the Friends Package includes free food and cuddles?”

“Absolutely,” Fred nodded. “And the occasional loan of clothing — are you cold?”

“A little.” Maria admitted.

Fred spun around and opened his closet door. He rifled through coat hangers for a few seconds before he dug out a navy crew neck with a broad emerald stripe across the chest and upper arms. He chucked it to her and she pulled it on, not expecting it to fit her so well, considering how broad and built Fred’s shoulders were from playing Beater for several years. It was a little on the long side, but the chest size was accurate, even if the sleeves drowned her skinny arms. It smelled like Fred: cinnamon and citrus and gunpowder. Maria wondered how long she could go without returning it.  

She froze as Fred put his hands on her neck, but he was only untucking her hair from the collar. He sighed, gazing at her, hands resting on the tops of her arms. “I’m never getting it back am I?”

“Never is a strong word…”

Fred groaned, hanging his head as he swept the door open onto the landing, “Only for you, Santiago. Only for you.”  


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