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Chapter 22 : Of Potters and Woodleys
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Pale, golden sunlight poured through the tall windows, dipping the otherwise bleak corridor into a warm glow. It had stopped to snow in the early morning hours and the grounds were wrapped into white blankets that glittered underneath the winter sun.
It was the first day of the holidays and the castle was teeming with students, lugging their heavy trunks down the stairs, their farewells echoing from the towering ceilings as they wished each other a merry Christmas. I, however, didn’t hear any of this; the hospital wing was completely quiet - almost eerily so - allowing none of the commotion that swept through the rest of the castle to penetrate this secluded spot.
For the past couple of hours, people had been arriving, conversing in low whispers as they hurried along the corridor and disappeared into the ward with worried expressions on their white faces. Mr Potter had looked like a ghost in the weak moonlight as he had followed Professors McGonagall and Longbottom along the corridor, his snow-caked traveling cloak sweeping the floor behind him.
I had retreated into a corner, leaning against the wall with Hagrid’s plaid blanket still wrapped around my shoulders and the too large wellies on my feet. I had simply lacked the strength to summon anything more practical or warmer; all I had been able to do was stare at the closed door of the ward, replaying last night’s event over and over again in my head.
It hadn’t looked good; his face had been grey and ashen, his body limp and lifeless as Hagrid had scooped him up into his arms. I had tried to feel his pulse but there had been no sign of a heartbeat and James’s face had lost its colour.
It had been the moment when two healers from St. Mungo’s had rushed past me and into the ward, however, that I had realised how serious the situation actually was.
I didn’t know what time it was, but it must have been hours that I had been waiting here, watching people go in but never come out. It wasn’t my place to ask questions; this was a family matter and I was merely an outsider who had been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Yet, I simply couldn’t leave.
The door to the ward swung open so suddenly that I jumped involuntarily; McGonagall had emerged, followed by Professor Longbottom and an old, bearded healer, who was consulting an ancient looking clipboard that floated in front of him. For a second, I considered clearing my throat in order to let them know that they were not alone, but at that moment, the healer began to speak.
“This is quite curious, I must say,” he said slowly, a rather grim expression on his wrinkly face. “Very curious, indeed.”
“It was a poison, you say?” McGonagall said sharply. I had never seen her this dishevelled before; she was wearing a plum morning robe over her nightgown and her usually perfectly tied, grey hair had come undone in some places, sticking up oddly from her head.
The healer studied her for a moment and I held my breath, feeling my heart beat loudly somewhere in my throat. “Well, it appears so, yes,” he said as a deep frown creased his forehead, “but it is nothing I recognise.”
“Well, moonlace is a very potent intoxicant. Taken in excess it might -”
“While that is perfectly true, Professor,” said the healer, raising his eyebrows at Professor Longbottom, “it couldn’t have been the moonlace. In fact, we cannot say anything until Professor Slughorn has had a look at the isolated poison from young Mr Potter’s blood.”
McGonagall let out a small sigh that completely contradicted her usually poised demeanour. “Will he be able to analyse its components, though? Can it be isolated, Magnus?”
The old healer smiled weakly at her, apparently remembering who he was talking to. “Minerva,” he said softly, “you know as well as I do that once they have been administered and mingled with blood, potions are rarely concentrated enough to be properly identified.”
The lines on McGonagall’s face seemed more pronounced than ever as she pressed her thin lips together and shook her head. She looked so desolate, so very unlike her, and I realised - maybe for the first time - just how close she actually was to the Potters.
When they began to walk away, it was in complete silence and I sank back against the cold window to resume my awkward wait. It was then that I noticed the door to the ward was slightly open, allowing for a glimpse of the hospital wing and a group of people
Only when James looked at me, I realised that I had been holding my breath.
“Hey,” he said quietly after he had slipped out of the ward and closed the door behind him. His hair was even messier than usual but it somehow looked less purposeful, less nonchalant.
“Hey,” I replied, tugging on Hagrid’s blanket in an attempt to wrap it a little tighter around my shoulders. I suddenly felt childish for staying in the hospital wing; I must have looked like a nosy intruder or, worse, an avid stalker who hoped for some inclusion. And then, there was the thick awkwardness of the kiss; the kiss that had happened just hours ago and that neither of us seemed to want to talk about.
I was glad of that, at least.
“You didn’t change,” James said, nodding at the large wellies that still covered my feet. His hands were in the pockets of his rumpled suit trousers; he was standing further away than he had to and I shivered as a cold draft breezed through the corridor, making the fires in the torches tremble.
“How’s Albus?” I spoke quickly, not sure if I was even entitled to ask such a question. James looked at me for a moment, his brow furrowed as he seemed to study my face.
“It’ll take a while, but the Healers say he’ll recover.”
I could feel something inside my chest loosen and, for the first time this night, I took a deep breath. “That’s good.”
“Yeah,” he said, somewhat coldly, albeit not taking his eyes off of me. “Well, I think I should get back inside…”
“Yes, sure! I’ll-” I pointed vaguely towards the other end of the corridor, feeling relieved that the kiss had not come up. I still wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it but, taken all things into account, kissing Hogwarts’ golden boy surely had been a bad idea.
People turned to look at me, but I barely noticed their stares as I climbed the winding staircase to Ravenclaw Tower, my wellies squeaking oddly with each step. My thoughts were still revolving around Albus and the poison that seemed to puzzle even the healers, when suddenly a soft, musical voice said:
“Would you rather never be able to answer a question or never be able to ask a question?”
I looked up perplexed, wholly surprised to find the brass eagle head that guarded Ravenclaw Tower staring at me. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, of course - I had been answering tricky philosophical questions and riddles to get into the common room for more than five years now - but, as I looked into the door knocker’s shiny bronze eyes, my mind was wiped blank.
“What?” I said thickly, feeling as though someone had given me a particularly hard whack on the head. The eagle, however, did not get the chance to repeat its question, for the door it was fastened to, swung open so suddenly I had to jump backwards to avoid taking a hit.
“Seth!” Katie cried out in relief as she flung her arms around my neck, squeezing so tightly I was struggling to breathe. “You’re okay! You look okay; are you okay?”
“Sure, I’m fine,” I mumbled into her unruly mop of hair, the sticky scent of Luscious Liquorice tingling in my nose.
I could see Sam standing behind Katie through the mass of auburn curls that danced in front of my face; he looked relieved and I realised for the first time that they must have been quite worried when they had realised I hadn’t returned to the dormitory last night.
“I’m okay, really,” I said quickly, tugging my matted hair behind my ears. Katie had loosened her grip on me and I was pleasantly surprised to find Tarquin standing somewhat awkwardly behind her, his hand on her shoulder.
“Where have you been?” She demanded, her bright blue eyes searching my face for possible giveaways. “And what on earth are you wearing?”
“I - um - I went for an early walk. That’s all,” I said as casually as possible, though I knew it was hardly a convincing story. The few people that were still milling around in the common room, looked way to interested in my appearance to even feign disinterest and I was certainly not keen on indulging them in a fresh batch of gossip which they could spread during the holidays.
“Are you sure, you’re okay?” Sam asked gravely, surveying my unconventional getup. He had the distinctive hue of someone who had had one too many the night before, but otherwise he looked fine.
At least not like Hector Chang had tried to hex him.
“Yes, don’t worry,” I assured him, before lowering my voice a little. “Where is Hector?”
Sam’s face flushed with colour and he gave me a miniscule smile. “He - um - his parents have picked him up early this morning. But we talked.” His smile grew into a grin. “I don’t know what you said to him, but he is really scared of you.”
“Good.” I smiled back and a knowing look passed between the two of us.
“Can someone please fill me in?” Katie said as casually as possible, though I knew she could hardly stand not knowing what exactly was going on.
Sam laughed, somewhat sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. “Let’s all go down to breakfast. I promise I’ll tell you everything.”
“Um, you go ahead!” I said quickly, seizing the opportunity. “I really need a shower.”
“Are you sure?” Katie gave me a wide-eyed look that implied the unspoken offer to stay with me if I needed her. I knew she would skip breakfast in an instant if I asked her to, but I shook my head. I would tell her everything eventually, of course, but for now, I needed time to process everything on my own.
“It’s fine. You go ahead.” I said in a much more cheerful voice than I actually felt like; the events of last night were wearing on me, as was the lack of sleep, and I was longing for some solitude; some time to think. “I’ll be right down with you.”
I stared at the icy window, not actually seeing what was going on beyond it. The hot shower had given me the brief illusion of strength, washing away the chill that had seeped through to my bones, but it had only lasted for a moment. As I had stepped out of the fogged up cubicle, the residue of last night’s adrenaline had left my body entirely and my muscles felt suddenly sore and stiff from the cold and the lack of sleep.
There was no time, however, to rest; my suitcase was packed and ready, looking rather dull as it sat on the floor next to Katie’s neon pink duffle bag. My portkey would leave in less than an hour to take me to my grandparents’ place for Christmas and there was no way I could miss it without having to bear the Woodleys’ displeasure for the remainder of the holidays.
“Oh my God, are you serious?” Katie screeched so loudly that Bernice and Ursula, who had been packing their things at the other end of the room, stopped their quiet chattering and glanced towards us curiously. I was sure they hadn’t heard any part of our whispered conversation, but I wasn’t keen on starting any new rumours and so I simply shook my head at Katie and began to busy myself with folding Hagrid’s blanket to a neat square.
She looked as though she was going to explode any second, yet she kept her lips sealed and simply watched me, her blue eyes wide with a mixture of shock and excitement. The news of Albus being poisoned had appropriately horrified her, of course, but her interest in his wellbeing had subsided immediately after I had told her about James.
“He kissed you?” Katie mouthed as Bernice and Ursula had gone into the bathroom to clean out their shelves. “That’s so romantic.”
“It wasn’t really,” I said quickly, thinking back of the fight we had had just before it had happened; if Potter thought he could play his stupid games with me, he was wrong. “And it wasn’t really a kiss. It was more like – like brushing lips.”
Katie gave me an annoying knowing look, which I blatantly ignored. I knew what she was thinking – what she wanted to think – but nothing had changed between James and me. He was still a prat and I was not his plaything for when he was bored.
“But James Potter kissed –“
I shushed Katie just as Bernice had walked back into the room again, Ursula trailing in her wake.
“Who did James Potter kiss?” She asked interestedly while carelessly dropping a couple of toiletries into her open trunk.
“No one,” I said quickly, feeling caught when she gave me a suspicious frown. “I mean, who knows, right?”
“Yeah!” Katie chimed in quickly, coming to my rescue. “After all, he’s got a different girl each week, hasn’t he?”
Bernice gave a short, snorting laugh before forcing her bulging trunk to close. “Well, he certainly isn’t kissing Fern Sterling anymore, that’s for sure.”
“He isn’t?” Katie asked wide-eyed, all air of pretence gone from her demeanour as she stared at our roommate as though she had never seen her before.
“I recon not,” Bernice snorted once again, exchanging a knowing look with Ursula, who sat rather timidly on her bed, her arms folded in her lap. “Since he broke up with her and all. But haven’t you heard?” She added when Katie’s mouth had dropped open in response. “Apparently it was quite ugly too.”
“How – how do you know?” Katie was completely aghast, but I couldn’t tell if it was because of the scandalous news or because she hadn’t heard them before now.
“I’m friendly with Sissy Twicross. She’s the reserve beater on the Gryffindor team and she told me the whole story. She reckons they must have had a fight or something; she stumbled upon them in the hallway on her way to the common room and heard James tell Fern that he didn’t want to see her again. She was positively wailing, of course, begging him to not break up with her. He wasn’t impressed, though; said she’d better go now.”
“When was this?” Katie demanded, not even bothering to feign indifference. “At Slughorn’s party?”
But Bernice shook her head, her deadpan expression almost resembling a knowing smile as she shut the locks on her trunk with a piercing click. “No, it was much earlier than the party. It was the night after the ice rink had opened.”
Katie whipped around, her eyes so wide they looked almost comical, but I simply shook my head, ignoring the meaningful look she gave me. I knew what was going on in her head, of course, but I was unwilling to indulge her; James breaking up with Fern had nothing to do with what had happened a couple of hours ago, however much Katie wanted it to.
“I have to return this,” I said after picking up Hagrid’s woolly plaid and the green wellies, careful not to mention who had lend them to me in front of Bernice and Ursula. “I’ll be right back.” And with that, I quickly left the dorm room, ignoring Katie’s shouts of protest.
I was standing knee-deep in glittering snow, staring at the clouds of grey smoke that billowed from the brick chimney on top of Professor Hagrid’s hut. The path I had cleared yesterday night had vanished completely underneath a thick, fresh coat of snow, erasing the remaining traces of last night’s events.
I couldn’t shake it off entirely - what I had overheard in the hospital wing this morning. Though it was absolutely none of my business, I simply couldn’t stop thinking about the poison that puzzled even McGonagall and the healers. There was definitely something off at Hogwarts; something sinister was going on and I felt as though I was on the verge of understanding, yet the solution was out of reach.
“Come in!” The booming voice of Professor Hagrid answered from within the hut after I had knocked on the wooden door and I pushed inside, stopping short only when I realised that I wasn’t the only visitor.
“Miss Woodley.” Harry Potter gave me a smile, although he looked much more exhausted, much older than yesterday evening. The woman next to him frowned slightly as she took in my appearance and I wished I hadn’t been wearing a pair of jeans that was torn at the knees. I had actually planned on irritating my family; not Ginny Potter.
“Yer must be freezin’. Have some tea, will yer,” Hagrid said warmly, indicating the large copper pot that stood in the middle of the table amongst gigantic mugs.
“No, um, thank you Professor,” I said quickly, holding out the blanket and the pair of rubber boots to him, all the while being aware of Mrs Potter’s eyes that rested on my face. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just wanted to return this to you.”
“Hagrid told us, you were with James and Al yesterday night?” Mrs Potter’s voice cut across Hagrid’s attempt to answer and I turned to meet her fierce glare, which hadn’t left me since I had entered the room. Mr Potter looked at his wife with a mixture of exasperation and foreboding but she didn’t seem to even take notice of him.
“Um, yes,” I finally said, deciding that there really was no point in lying, although her frown made me nervous. “I was.”
“Why?” The familiarity of that question caught me off guard and, for a moment, I saw a defiant James standing in front of me on the dark landing, clutching his nearly unconscious brother, wanting to know the exact same thing.
The problem was, that there really wasn’t an answer; not a good one, at least. And somehow I had the feeling that ‘I don’t know’ wasn’t going to cut it for Mrs Potter.
“She’s not going to sell the story to the papers, mum,” A deep voice suddenly said and I turned to see James standing behind me, his little sister Lily pushing in after him, her large green eyes resting on me curiously. Snow was clinging to their clothes and their cheeks were reddened from the crisp cold outside.
“She doesn’t need money,” James insisted when his mother’s frown had deepened, apparently not at all convinced of my decency. “Do you know who her family is?”
Although James didn’t look at me once, I could feel my cheeks blush. Until now, I hadn’t even realised that he was aware of my family background; it had simply never seemed important.
“I do,” Mrs Potter said coldly. “That’s what bothers me.”
It was like missing a step on the way up to Ravenclaw Tower; my heart plummeted to my stomach where it landed with a painful thud and I felt as though I had to catch my breath.
“Gin,” Mr Potter said reproachfully before turning to look at me. “You have to excuse my wife; it’s been a long night.”
“It’s-” I tried to say ‘fine’, though the word wouldn’t come out as I withstood Ginny Potter’s stubborn glare. “I have to go.”
As I turned and walked towards the door, I accidentally bumped into James’s shoulder on the way out and stopped; our eyes met for a brief moment - his warm brown ones staring into my grey ones – and for the fraction of a second, I thought he was going to say something. But his mouth opened and closed again without any sound coming out, and I pushed past him and out into the painfully bright morning.
“Where the hell have you been?” Vala asked half-annoyed, half-curiously as I hurried towards her, struggling to not trip as I pulled Archimedes’ cage and my heavy suitcase along the corridor.
“Saying goodbye to Katie and Sam,” I replied breathlessly as I lugged my belongings into Slughorn’s open office, which served as a kind of temporary travel station for those whose families had requested a portkey.
Vala simply rolled her eyes but refrained from commenting. Instead, she held out a heavily ornamented golden mirror. “You almost missed it.”
I sighed as I reached for the surprisingly heavy object, which had started to glow, holding tight to its other end. “If only I had.”
For the fraction of a second, I thought I could see my cousin smile, but her face blurred instantly as I felt the familiar tug behind my navel, and Slughorn’s office vanished in a blur of colours.
There was a sharp jolt of pain as my feet made contact with the ground again and I toppled over from the sudden impact, my knees crashing inelegantly onto my grandparents’ invaluable handmade ornamental carpet.
“Can I help you, Miss?”
“I’m fine,” I blurted out as I stood up, still a little shaky from the journey, giving the withered house elf a smile. She didn’t reciprocate it, however, and simply eyed me with a sort of disapproving expression on her bat-like face.
“The family is in the saloon, Miss Woodley and Miss Carrington,” she said quite dignified, before finally bowing out of the room.
“Does it seem bigger to you?” I asked Vala, who had already half-crossed the gigantic foyer, the clacking of her heels hammering on the marble floor. She stopped at my question, however, and turned around to follow my gaze, which was directed at the impressive Christmas tree that towered between the set of elaborate, sprawling stairs.
It was hung lavishly with glittering ornaments that had been passed down the family for centuries, and live ferries, who were nothing but glowing dots, floating lazily around the lush, green twigs.
“It feels bigger,” she replied oddly and I peeled my eyes off the tree to look at her. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but our relationship – if one could call it that – had somewhat improved; we still weren’t close, of course, but some of the ice that had always been part of our interactions seemed to have melted away.
The room I inhabited at my grandparents’ house was one of the smaller ones, but, unlike the rest of the estate with its elaborate frescos and golden panels, I liked the high-ceilinged bedroom with its sturdy oak bed and pale blue sheets. There wasn’t much of the flimsy flourish that could be found in the other rooms, but rather simple, functional pieces of furniture like a beautiful wooden desk that stood right in front of the tall window and a small dresser on top of which I had arranged all of the books I had taken with me.
I didn’t know who’s (if anyone’s) room it might have been in these hundreds of years of family history, but when I was younger I had imagined that it had once belonged to a reluctant lady, who had preferred venturing into the woods in search for an adventure rather than sitting in front of her vanity, combing her hair.
Snow was still building up on the window ledge outside, wrapping the sprawling garden and nearby forest into a thick, white mantle; I had been sitting at the desk, trying to read, but my thoughts were scattered, always returning to Hogwarts and Albus and - as much as I hated it – to James.
It wasn’t altogether surprising that his family would distrust me; the Woodleys were not exactly famous for their kind-heartedness. Nevertheless it had felt strange to be accused of ulterior motives and to see James simply staring at me like he had. It really shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did.
The sudden chiming of delicate bells tore me from my spiralling thoughts and I blinked rapidly, focusing on the thick snowflakes that fell lazily in front of my window. It was the call for dinner, which I followed only reluctantly; unfortunately, the only way I would have been allowed to miss it was to drop dead on the spot, which, upon entering the high-ceilinged dining room with its illustrious artwork and dainty antique furniture and noticing my grandmother’s disapproving frown at the sight of my oversized knitted jumper, did not seem like such a horrible alternative anymore.
“Say what you will, father,” aunt Martha said loudly, ignoring me completely as I sat down between Vala and my mother, “it is not right to meddle with laws that are as ancient as those concerning house elves. To have a common Muggle tell me what to do-“ She shook her head indignantly and quickly lifted her wine glass to her mouth, probably to keep herself from saying anything illegal.
“Our house elf Wollie up and left just before the holidays when Hermione Weasley’s new elf labour act took effect,” Vala whispered to me behind her glass, a kind of amused glint in her brown eyes. “My parents were livid, of course.”
“Well, according to Charles many ministry officials would like to see her run for the top job next year,” my mother said with an air of indifference that she always adopted when speaking to my aunt. Deeply-rooted conservatives, my family would never support a liberal candidate, but I had long realized that my mother and my aunt were not exactly friends and liked to bully each other whenever they got the chance.
Aunt Martha snorted dismissively, but she did not get the chance to elaborate on her objections to Hermione Weasley becoming Minister for Magic, since grandfather had put his glass down, his booming voice filling the sprawling room.
“Where is Charles, incidentally?”
“Oh he is still at work, of course.” My mother rolled her eyes, not bothering to conceal her annoyance. It had been like this ever since I could remember; my father rarely being at home and my mother waiting for him all day, mostly bored and upset. His absence at dinners had been so frequent that one might even call it a Woodley family tradition.
“Well, Ludwig never misses a family dinner, don’t you love?” Aunt Martha said loudly, looking at my mother rather than her husband, who had just shoved a large piece of bread into his mouth.
“Obviously,” my mother drawled, casting an appraising glance hat my uncle, whose protuberant stomach quite resembled Professor Slughorn’s. She shuddered quite pointedly before continuing to sip on her wine, ignoring my aunt’s death glares.
Christmas was going to be wonderful.
A/N: What can I say… I am sorry it took me so long to update. I hope you still enjoyed the chapter and I’ll be back with the next one much sooner this time J. As usual, reviews mean the world to me and I would love to hear from you guys!
Lots of love
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