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Chapter 23 : The Gift of the Woodleys
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The slowly dwindling pile of wood in the large fire place crackled pleasantly, mingling with the soft sounds of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata that filled the vast room. Thick snowflakes obscured the view of the white forest as they fell relentlessly in front of the tall windows, hypnotising me as I stared at them until they were out of sight.
Christmas dinner had left me full and slightly nauseous and the rich, earthy wine had made my limbs heavy and my mind sleepy. My eye lids were drooping and I had a hard time keeping them open during the annual procedure of handing out presents, which, unlike in most British homes, never took place on Christmas morning but in the late afternoon after a sumptuous dinner.
“Oh, it’s fantastic!” My cousin Cassandra cried out over a pair of diamond studded earrings she had just unwrapped; while they were, of course, classically elegant, they seemed unproportionally chunky in the dim lights of the Christmas tree and I supressed a chuckle as she fastened them to her tiny ears. It was the kind of present I had been used to since I was a child; exuberantly expensive and mindlessly extravagant.
“Elizabeth, you haven’t opened yours yet.”
I looked up from the half empty wine glass which I was cradling in my hands, staring at the small parcel, Grandfather was holding out to me. It looked similar to the boxes that had contained Cassandra’s earrings and Vala’s bracelet, which was no surprise; our Grandparents usually gave us similar gifts (hand-picked by Trixie, of course), mostly, I suspected, to avoid open favouritism for once.
“Oh, right. Thank you.” I put the wine glass aside and took the parcel from my grandfather’s hand, startled once more when I looked into his eyes and found my own. It was strange to see something so familiar on someone I felt I barely knew; my Grandfather had always been a taciturn man, who, in proper Woodley vein, never revealed much of himself. When I had been little, I had sometimes watched him brooding in the library, pouring over strange books without titles that had puzzled me back then. Looking back, he must have known that I had been there, hidden behind a potted plant and watching him, but he had never spoken of it.
“Well, open it,” my mother said softly, her voice melting with the classical music in the background. She was sharing the couch with my father, who was immersed in the latest issue of the Financial Prophet, seemingly unaware of everyone else around him.
I obliged her and tore the golden wrapping paper off the square parcel, not surprised to reveal a velvety jewellery box; it was slightly smaller as the ones my cousins had unwrapped just a few minutes ago and I couldn’t but notice the smug look on Cassandra’s face as she came to the same conclusion.
“Go on,” Grandfather urged in a most unusual manner that even got my father to look up from the article he had been reading, and I prised open the lid, revealing a tangled, fragile looking chain.
As I carefully lifted it out of its container, the thin golden necklace dangled in front of my face and I was pleasantly surprised to find no glittery pearls or diamonds dangling from it, but a small, tear-shaped stone of opaque white, embedded in a fine gold setting. It might have looked simple in comparison to the jewellery that glittered on my cousins, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was the most beautiful necklace I had ever seen.
“It’s an old family heirloom,” Grandfather said into the silence as he watched me examining the stone. “It has belonged to our family since the 14th century and has only been passed down to Woodley women.”
I looked up at him, slightly aghast. From the corner of my eye I could see Cassandra’s gloating face falling as she followed the softly swinging necklace in my hand; she had been pining for the family jewellery ever since she had been old enough to understand its value, yet no one had been presented with such a priceless piece until now.
“Are you – are you sure you want to give it to me?” I said awkwardly, ignoring my grandmothers disapproving frown that creased her forehead.
“Quite sure, yes.” Grandfather smiled, which baffled me completely. “Unless, of course, you don’t want to keep it.”
“I do!” I said quickly, looking once again at the milky white stone. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
“Here, let me help you,” my mother offered and she expertly unfastened the delicate clasp and slid the chain around my neck so that the stone rested perfectly in the hollow between my collarbones, just like it had always been made for me.
“It looks really nice on you,” Vala said with a sigh as she plopped down on the leather sofa next to me, her freshly refilled glass of wine held up high to keep its contents from spilling onto the expensive furniture.
I automatically touched the fragile necklace, fingering the small pendant, and couldn’t help but feeling weird for having been given something so valuable. “I really don’t know why I got it and not -“
But Vala quickly held up her hand, her diamond bracelet catching the dim light. “It’s fine, Seth. I’m not Cassy.” She laughed and we both sneaked a peek at Cassandra, who had been sulking ever since I had opened my Grandparents’ Christmas present. “Besides, there is way too little glitter and sparkle for my taste.” She reached out and examined the small tear-shaped stone with interest. “But it really suits you – it’s like they actually know you.”
I laughed, although I quite agreed with my cousin; it was almost uncanny that I was not only given something so priceless but also something I actually liked. “I really don’t know why they gave it to me, though.”
To my surprise, Vala rolled her dark brown eyes in response. “Oh, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You’re Grandfather’s favourite,” she said, quite seriously, and then – in reaction to the disbelieving look on my face – added, “Grandmother disapproves of you with every fibre of her being, or course; but Grandfather – well.”
I couldn’t help but frown at her; the mere thought of being anyone’s favourite in this family was ridiculous, really. Almost automatically, I glanced towards the roaring fireplace, where my grandfather was in deep conversation with my father, a quite serious look on his face.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t know?” Vala said quietly, smiling at my complete bewilderment. “He’s always boasting about how smart you are and all that nonsense. That’s why I used to hate you, really.”
“Oh wow, thank you Vala.” We both laughed, which attracted Cassandra’s sulky glare; she didn’t seem to like the fact that Vala was not sitting with her, abusing me. “He never said anything to me, though.”
“You know how we Woodleys are.” Vala shrugged her shoulders and gave me a wry smile. “We detest feelings. Everything we can’t control, we simply push away.”
I had meant to protest, but for the fraction of a second, the image of James surfaced in my mind and the words got stuck in my throat. So, instead of contradicting my cousin, I quickly took a large sip of red wine, drowning my thoughts in the drowsy cosiness of Christmas Day.
I hope you are doing OK – I know how you hate Christmas at your place, but it actually sounds like it wasn’t so bad after all. I do miss you. It sucks that you can’t wriggle out of that Ministry New Year’s thing (sounds like a bore!), but at least you get to wear an awesome dress. Tarquin writes to me every day – he really does try too hard but I kind of like it. Do you think it’s strange that I do? I mean, am I getting soft?
Anyways, have you heard anything from you-know-who? I know you don’t want to hear about it. Or talk about it, or think about it (btw, what the hell is wrong with you???), but that doesn’t change the fact that Jams bloody Potter KISSED you! Have you told anyone? Have you told Vala? I know she’s being kind of nice but I don’t trust her. At all. So be careful!
Anyways, let me know if there’s anything new (you know what I’m talking about!) and I’m so looking forward to seeing you next week!
P.S.: Mum says hello and good job on snogging James Potter (she has no clue who he is, of course, but she thinks (as I do) that some snogging is good for you.)
The doorbell rang loudly, echoing through the house, and I sighed, putting down the letter in my hands. The paper was pink, of course, and smelled faintly of Katie’s flowery perfume, which she had a habit of spritzing on everything that inhabited her room. My eyes lingered, quite involuntarily, on the words ‘snogging James Potter’, which sounded just wrong, somehow.
I had had time to reflect upon ‘the incident’, as I now liked to refer to the kiss in my head, and come to the conclusion that, in the end, it really didn’t mean anything. Except that Potter was an arrogant prat, of course; after, all, he had never even considered the possibility that I might not want to be kissed by him.
Frustrated with my own thoughts (which seemed to be circling back to James Potter a lot these days) I groaned and hoisted myself out of my comfortable bed. The holidays were nearly over and I still had an Arithmancy paper to finish for Professor Sinistra, which was very much unlike me.
Grabbing an assortment of books and sufficient paper and ink, I ventured downstairs and slipped into my Grandparents’ grand library, which had turned out to be a great place to study: The soft crackling of the fire place always had a soothing effect on me and, more importantly, it was also conveniently forsaken; none of my family, except for Grandfather, ever seemed to set foot in it.
Unfortunately, I was out of luck today.
I halted abruptly, almost dropping my writing supplies from shock as I stared at a brightly smiling Demeter Notte.
“Um, hi,” I replied rather oddly, not sure how else to react. The last time I had ‘talked’ to Demeter, she had asked me if I was ‘shagging’ Albus Potter and I wasn’t keen on repeating that conversation.
“I’m Demeter,” she said in a chipper voice, politely holding out her hand to me.
I narrowed my eyes at her for a moment, convinced that she was pulling my leg; it was sheer impossible that anybody would be that dim.
“I… know,” I said very slowly, as though talking to a slightly dense toddler, and when she still showed no sign of recognition, I added. “We’re in the same year at Hogwarts.”
Her forehead creased in a deep frown as she squinted at my face, apparently trying to make the connection, before finally shaking her head, looking confused.
“I’m Vala’s cousin? Seth?” I supplied, feeling a sudden urge to laugh as I remembered the nickname Katie had given her: ‘Dim-meter’. It did fit rather nicely.
“Oh, Vala!” She cried out in what I initially thought to be a bout of joy upon recognising the name, until I realised that Vala had actually walked into the library behind me.
“You didn’t tell me you had a cousin!” Demeter said happily, looking back and forth between the both of us as though she had never seen something so wondrous. Maybe she was looking for similarities, which she certainly wouldn’t find.
“Let’s just go upstairs,” Vala said in a bored voice without even so much as acknowledging that I was in the room with them. She seemed suddenly rigid; almost uncomfortable at merely standing next to me.
“Oh but we can study down here. With Beth,” Demeter suggested, still talking as though she did not have a care in the world.
“No.” Vala’s voice was so cold that it actually rivalled the thick snowflakes that were still falling relentlessly in front of the window behind her. “Let’s go upstairs.”
There was a moment of silence in which Demeter simply looked at my cousin before finally shrugging her shoulders.
“Fine.” And she gave me a last chipper wave before trudging out of the library, Vala following at her heels.
I simply stared after them, not sure what exactly had just happened. After spending the last couple of days with Vala, studying together and even talking about non-school related things, I had completely forgotten that, actually, we weren’t friends.
I couldn’t help but stare; it was simply too bright, too – well – not me. I had told my mother that I was perfectly fine with the one from last year, but she had simply laughed as though I had made a really funny joke, airily waving her hand.
“Nonsense, Elizabeth,” she had said, “last year was last year. There is no need to repeat it.”
I knew what she had meant, of course; last year, I had still looked like a ten year old boy. This year, however, I would actually look like a girl, not like a cross-dresser in a glitzy ball gown.
That’s why it was red; bright red with an alluring off-shoulder neckline and layers of sheer chiffon that, although falling all the way to the ground like transparent red waterfalls, would surely not suffice to conceal my legs.
“Have you seen Levine?”
The door had swung open violently and I jumped, quickly crossing my arms in front of my chest as Vala stormed into my room, the silver silk skirt of her dress swishing behind her on the polished wooden floor. She looked slightly mad with half of her dark brown hair in tiny ringlets and the other half pin straight as usual.
“How about knocking?” I growled as I searched the pile of clothes on the bed for a shirt to throw on over my knickers, which earned me a slow eye roll from my cousin.
“Oh please, don’t be such a prude,” she said as she pranced towards the vanity and bent down to examine her face. “I look like a fucking panda.”
“What are you doing here, Vala?” I sighed as I buttoned up the white shirt I had just found, watching my cousin rubbing at the massive black stains on her eyelids. We had barely talked to each other since the awkward encounter with Demeter Notte last week, mostly because I had kept my distance and followed Katie’s advice.
“I thought we could get ready together.” She shrugged, still trying to wipe off the excessive eye shadow that extended all the way to her eyebrows. “Honestly, I should have never trusted my grandmother’s stylist.”
I squinted at Vala’s reflection in my mirror, my arms still firmly knotted in front of my torso as I watched her smudge the make-up around her eyes. It was the tenth year our family took us to the Ministry of Magic’s annual New Year’s Eve ball, but I couldn’t ever remember Vala suggesting getting ready together; it was quite out of character.
“Are you drunk?”
“Unfortunately not,” she sighed, now pulling at strands of her multi-textured hair. “But I really hope that's going to change in the course of the evening"
Green flames were licking at the skirt of my floor-sweeping gown, only releasing the cloth as I stepped out of the tall fireplace and into the grand foyer of the Ministry of Magic. As usual, the towering hall was lavishly decorated with glittering garlands that floated lazily above the arriving guests’ heads, merely hinting at what was awaiting us in the actual ball room.
“Ah, there they are.” I heard my mother say to no one in particular and, with a dignified flick of her jewel-bedecked wrist, she beckoned over the small party that had just appeared in the fireplace across from ours. Who she had spotted, I did not know, for my attention had momentarily been drawn away from my family as I spotted a familiar black head in the crowd: Albus Potter was lingering awkwardly next to the pillared entrance to the ball room, looking rather white-faced but otherwise quite well. In fact, he looked better than before he had been poisoned, with his hair no longer slicked back but sticking up randomly again and his green eyes wide and alert.
“You look absolutely ravishing.”
I jumped at the voice that had spoken close to my left ear and spun around, only to come face to face with a grinning Asher Engelstein, who was standing uncomfortably close to me.
“Asher,” I replied lamely and took a step back, still processing this very unexpected turn of events. From the corner of my eye I could see his parents, chatting happily with mine as they cast regular glances at us, looking oddly pleased.
“What are you doing here?” It was a stupid question, of course, but I really couldn’t think of anything else to talk about; after the Quidditch Kick-Off in October, we had exchanged a few short letters until I had realised that we had absolutely nothing to say to each other and stopped writing altogether.
“I really like your dress,” he continued, unperturbed by my clumsy attempt at sounding casual. “Red suits you well.”
“Um, thanks,” I replied awkwardly, tugging a strand of wavy hair behind my ear while already perusing different strategies of how to get rid of him in my mind; I just somehow had to avoid sitting next to him and everything would be fine.
“Let’s find our table, shall we?” Grandfather said behind me and I made to move closer towards Vala, who gave me an amused look. Alas, my attempt at bringing some distance between Asher and me was shattered within an instance.
“Asher, why don’t you escort Elizabeth into the ball room?” Grandfather suggested quite casually and I had no other choice but to accept the arm Asher was offering to me.
“Don’t they look perfect together,” I heard my mother say to Asher’s parents as they trailed along behind us, apparently watching our every step.
The ball room was filled with elegantly dressed people already, swarming around the many white-clothed tables, exchanging pleasantries and compliments. No one actually paid much attention to the twigs of mistletoe that grew extravagantly across the high ceiling, rustling in an invisible breeze, or the bits of floating gold dust that infused the room, making the air glitter; no one, but two small children, who were jumping around at the edge of the still empty dance floor, trying to trap the flimsy particles in their hands.
I watched them for a moment, not really looking but still thinking of ways to escape Asher, when suddenly I realised with a jolt that, right next to them, sat none other than James Potter; and he was chatting very intimately with a pretty round-faced girl with long, golden locks.
“You’re so beautiful, everyone is looking at you,” Asher whispered next to me and I quickly tore my eyes off of James, feeling caught.
“Sure. Let’s find our seats,” I mumbled distractedly, pulling him towards the other side of the hall, hoping that the sheer size of the event would prevent me from running into James Potter tonight.
As the evening progressed, the dance floor began to fill as more and more couples joined the swaying crowd. Unfortunately, they were not enough to obscure my view of the table across the room, where James Potter was still having an animated conversation with the pretty blonde, who made such obvious moony eyes at him that her face was a display of adoration. What was even worse, however, was Ginny Potter, who sat across from her oldest son, observing him and the girl with radiant approval. Obviously she didn’t think this girl would trade her son’s secrets for a cover story in Witch Weekly.
I didn’t care what James was doing, of course, but it bothered me that he was doing it in my field of vision while, as far as I could tell, he hadn’t even noticed me.
“Will you dance with me?”
“What?” I looked up perplexed, only staring at Asher’s eager face for a moment before finally realising that the question had been directed at me. “Oh, um, no thank you. I don’t-.”
“Of course she will dance with you,” my mother, who had apparently been listening in at our conversation, said quickly, giving me a reproachful side-glance.
“I don’t bite, I promise,” Asher said in an annoyingly chipper voice and extended his hand towards me.
I took it reluctantly – mostly because I couldn’t stand the weird looks anymore that I had been getting from my family all evening already – and followed Asher onto the dance floor, where, most inconveniently, a very slow song had just started to play.
“Isn’t this great?” Asher said as he pulled me closer to him, swaying to the music as though he couldn’t imagine anything better than this. Over his shoulder, I could see our table, where everybody was watching us; it seemed as though they were all waiting for something to happen, but I didn’t know what exactly they were expecting. Surely everybody had realised by now that this weird attempt at pairing us off had failed miserably.
“Asher, what is all this about?” I asked, feeling a sudden bout of frustration at the situation; I was at an event I really didn’t want to be at, wearing a dress my mother had chosen for me, and dancing with a boy whose endless monologues on magical law frequently put me to sleep.
“What are you talking about?”
“Come on,” I said warily, putting a bit of distance between us to better see his face. “We have absolutely nothing in common; I mean, there is literally nothing we can talk about that bores neither of us to death and you know it. There is no chemistry. No excitement. We couldn’t be more different but still you act like – well – like this.”
“Well,” he said, suddenly sounding much less corny than he had just a few minutes ago, “it’s not really up to us, is it?”
I frowned at him, not sure he had gotten the point of what I had said to him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Elizabeth,” he sighed as though explaining to a raging toddler that it couldn’t have sweets before dinner. “You know how these things work in families like ours. My parents think this is a good match, so does your family. This has been decided years ago, really.”
I stopped dancing abruptly, completely ignoring the moving bodies that bumped into me as I stood like a statue, staring disbelievingly at Asher, who looked wary.
“You can’t be serious,” I said slowly, feeling as though something very hot was trickling down my back. “This is complete nonsense.”
“Is it?” He raised his eyebrows at me “Why do you think they force us together like this?”
“No.” I simply shook my head at Asher, taking a couple of clumsy steps backwards. “No, this is impossible.” But somehow, deep down, I knew that it really wasn’t. In truth I had always known. Arranging appropriate matches for their children was still a very common practice in many pure-blood families; and mine wasn’t an exception.
“Let’s be reasonable,” he said calmly, trying to come closer, but I had already turned on my heels and began to fight my way through the crowd. I had no idea where I was going until I had spotted my mother, chatting animatedly to one of her friends.
“You’re marrying me off?” I yelled as I approached her, a definite hint of hysteria in my shaky voice.
“Elizabeth, what –“
“You’re marrying me off to some guy I barely know like this is the 18th century?”
“What are you talking about?” My mother said soothingly, throwing an apologetic smile at her friend, who looked rather scandalized and grabbed her glass of Champaign before quickly moving away from us, probably not wanting to be involved in any kind of embarrassing display.
“Elizabeth, darling,” my mother sighed, sounding somewhat exhausted. “We’re not ‘marrying you off’. We only want the best for you and Asher comes from a great family-”
“I don’t even know him!” I protested in a fruitless attempt to make my mother understand how completely ridiculous this entire match-making spectacle was.
“But you’ll have time to get to know him. Years, really. I promise,” she said as though this would solve everything. “You don’t have to marry right away.”
“Oh goody!” I cried, sounding slightly mad, even to my own ears. “Well, then this is not atrocious at all, really.”
“I know this might seem strange to you at the moment, but it will make sense eventually.”
“What about what I want?” I could feel angry tears stinging behind my eyes as I stared at my mother, who had reached out in what might have been an attempt to hug me, but dropped her arms half-way. “Does that matter to you at all?”
“Of course it does,” she said softly, once again reaching out to touch my arms, but I had moved back before she could reach me and simply turned around, storming out of the ball room.
Heat was coursing through my body as I ran past blurry figures and into the darkness. My head was spinning and I was struggling to breathe as my dress seemed to tighten around my torso, constricting my lungs. I had no idea where exactly I was headed but I knew that I needed to feel cold, fresh air on my face or I would collapse.
I stopped at the first window I found, pulling frantically at the lever to open it, but nothing happened. It was apparently stuck and after a few futile attempts, I gave up and ran to the next one, tearing at the handle again, just to find it locked as well.
“Please! Just open, please!” I groaned as I rested my forehead against the surprisingly warm glass, half-heartedly banging my fists against the window.
“Woodley, what are you doing?”
I whirred around, staring wordlessly at James Potter for a moment; he looked handsome and careless as usual, but there was definitely a bit of concern visible on his face.
“I can’t breathe,” I told him, just as I felt a couple of tears roll down my cheek. It was mortifying to have James Potter find me in the middle of a panic attack, but there was absolutely no way I could pretend I was okay. Not when I had never been less okay in my life. “I can’t breathe and I can’t get these bloody windows to open.”
“They – they are not real windows,” he said, somewhat awkwardly, taking a tentative step towards me as though he was afraid that sudden movements would scare me away.
“Of course.” I nodded, only just remembering that the Ministry of Magic was, in fact, underground. “Of course they’re not.”
James only looked at me and I quickly wiped away the tears, feeling utterly exposed.
“Let’s go,” he suddenly said and I looked up in surprise.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged, looking around him as though he could see a thousand possibilities. “Just out of here.”
“Come one. Don’t think.”
“Easy for you to say,” I mumbled loudly enough for him to hear, but he only grinned in response and held out his hand. “Trust me, Woodley.”
I frowned at it for a moment, ignoring the urge to just grab it. “I thought we have already established that I don’t.”
And without really knowing what I was doing, I took his hand and he pulled me with him along the dark corridor.
Happy Christmas to all of you! I hope you enjoyed this chapter and I am really looking forward to hearing your thoughts and theories! Reviews will be my greatest gift this year J I hope you all have great holidays and a happy New Year!
Much love to all of you!
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